A very Dickens Christmas

I can’t believe I let December slip away with only one post! When I started this blog, I told myself I would make it more successful than any other past attempts. And by successful, I mean it wouldn’t end up in the virtual blog graveyard that surely exists somewhere out in cyberspace. So instead of making excuses, and there are a few good ones with as crazy as the holidays get, I’m going to see 2012 as a clean slate. It works out anyway, since all the reading challenges I was researching totally stunted my reading progress. Every time I wanted to start a book, I would tell myself it could count toward my 2012 goals if I waited. Maybe that’s silly, but it’s 2012 now and it’s full steam ahead and I guess regular updating should be a new year’s resolution.

There is something I want to share from 2011, though. I want to preface this by saying that I love Charles Dickens. I read A Tale of Two Cities in middle school and it was a wrap for me. Yet, as many of his novels as I’ve read, a few multiple times, I had never read A Christmas Carol. I know that’s practically sacrilegious for a Dickens fan to admit considering it’s one of his most popular works. You can’t even turn on the TV during the holidays without seeing some version the story. (I just saw the Jim Carrey CGI version for the first time this year and rather enjoyed it, but I have to admit that the Disney version with Scrooge McDuck is still my favorite.)

Anyway, I finally read A Christmas Carol this Christmas because, for the first time, I payed a visit to Dickens Christmas Village in the Philadelphia Macy’s and I wanted to read it first. Naturally, I loved the book and the Village was outstanding as well.

Dickens Village is a life-size walk through of A Christmas Carol. It’s like stepping back in time to Dickens’ 1940s Victorian London with narrow alleys and tiny shops lining cobblestone streets. In “It’s a Small World” fashion, each scene of the book is depicted by highly elaborate vignettes and animatronic characters. As you walk through each scene, you can read the corresponding parts of the story in beautiful calligraphy painted on wooden signs. The mere size of this walkthrough is incredible, but it’s the tiny artistic details that are truly breathtaking.

Here are some of the snaps I took:

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Book Review: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Book’s Description:
In the world of the near future, who will control women’s bodies?

Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to food markets whose signs are now pictures instead of words because women are no longer allowed to read. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are only valued if their ovaries are viable.

Offred can remember the days before, when she lived and made love with her husband Luke; when she played with and protected her daughter; when she had a job, money of her own and access to knowledge. But all of that is gone now….

My Description:
“I have another name, which nobody uses now because it’s forbidden. I tell myself it doesn’t matter, your name is like your telephone number, useful only to others; but what I tell myself is wrong, it does matter.” So explains Offred, the narrator of our story. We see this bleak future that Atwood has created and glimpses of the “time before” through her eyes–the eyes of a handmaid, a mere vessel for ovaries and babies she will not be allowed to raise even if she is lucky enough to conceive. Even her new name, Offred, is dehumanizing. It literally means “Of Fred.” No woman is her own in this new world. All she has is her bed and four bare walls in her Commander’s house. She hasn’t even seen herself in a mirror since the Republic took over and she was forced into training (read: brainwashing) to become a Handmaid. Mirrors have all been destroyed because so many woman killed themselves with mirror shards. So many wasted wombs…

The scary thing about this novel is that it’s not entirely science fiction or fantasy. Women are treated like objects all over the world. Even in the United States, in the not too distant past, women were treated as second class citizens. When we are given glimpses into Offred’s “time before,” it is our time. It’s the world we are living in now. One of the reasons the Republic was able to render women inconsequential seemingly overnight, is that everyone’s money was electronic. Offred attempted to use her debit card one morning and found that she couldn’t–later that day she learned that it had become illegal for women to own assets, land or have their own money. Of all things, this struck me as frightening because it’s entirely possible. All someone would have to do is flip a switch and “poof,” all our money could be gone or worthless. “Where are the riots?” you might ask. They get mowed down by the government. Peaceful protests don’t exist anymore. One bloody massacre is all it took for the country to lay down at the Republic’s feet.

But all is not lost. Where there is a will, there is a way. Where there is a spark, there is a fire. Offred stumbles upon the “May Day” movement, an underground group of people who oppose the Republic. We aren’t shown too much of what May Day does, other than unite non-believers to show them that they aren’t alone, but the end of the book leaves Offred at a crossroads where perhaps she will find out.

Review:
I chose to read this book because it is on every dystopian must read list. Being relatively new to the genre (ushered in by The Hunger Games and Divergent), I had to start somewhere and I am so glad that I started here. I cannot express how much I enjoyed this book. I have many ways  of measuring whether or not a book is good to me. One indicator is how long a book sticks with me. Another is how much of the book I highlight because I love the way different things are written. The Handmaid’s Tale scored off the chart for both of these internal methods. This story stuck with me for days, even long after I was done reading it. I couldn’t shake the realism, imagery, injustice, horror or the sadness I felt for the characters and their circumstances. As far as highlighting, I felt I was back in college when I would highlight only the important parts only to realize I’d highlighted everything. Atwood is an amazing wordsmith, a truly prolific writer. Every word she writes has a purpose and they dance off the page. I can’t wait to read more by her.

Needless to say, I loved this book. The only thing that bothered me was the lack of a definitive ending. But even that may be a stroke of Atwood’s genius. We are left up in the air–hanging uncomfortably in suspense–just like Offred. She doesn’t know what’s going to happen to her and neither do we. She is confused and scared, but hopeful. And so are we.

Grade: A+

Fun Fact: If you’ve read this book, you may have been disappointed that we are never told Offred’s name from the “time before.” It’s so important to her, and she references her name so many times, but it’s never given to us. I know I was disappointed. But a quick Google search yielded this gem: “The women in training to be handmaids whisper names across their beds at night. The names are ‘Alma. Janine. Dolores. Moira. June,’ and all are later accounted for except June.” So we can deduce that her name was June. I don’t know why it makes me feel better to know that, but it does.

Final Thoughts: READ THIS BOOK!

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Filed under Book Review, Books, Dystopian, Reading

My first reading challenge: Dystopia 2012

Being new to the world of book blogging, I had no idea there were such things as reading challenges. Had I known, I think I would have been doing them all my life! In any case, I’ve discovered them now so I’ve been scouring the internet looking for ones that really speak to me.

The first one I’ll be joining for 2012 is the Dystopia Challenge hosted by Bookish Ardour.

Though fairly new to it, dystopia has quickly become one of my favorite genres. I devoured the Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins in two days, and those in turn led me to Divergent by Veronica Roth which I quickly read. I find it so interesting to read about the worst living conditions imaginable and how the characters overcome them. Since I already have it in mind to read more dystopian novels, this challenge makes a lot of sense for me.

I’ve chosen the Soldier challenge level with 30 books. I’m sure I will end up reading more than that, but I want to make sure to leave room for any other challenges I may participate in.

Really excited for this one!


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A reader’s Thanksgiving

A couple days ago, Writer’s Digest pointed out several writers who took to Twitter to to show their thanks for being writers. What a fantastic idea! Of course we’re thankful for our families, friends, pets, health, etc., but how often do we think to be thankful for the parts about ourselves that make us who we are? So in that spirit, here are a few reasons that I am thankful to be a reader.

  • In-house vacations. Reading Rainbow had it right. “I can go anywhere, just take a look, it’s in a book, it’s reading rainbow.” (Don’t pretend like you didn’t sing that instead of read it.) I know it’s cliche, but books really can take me anywhere–I’m able to completely zone out while reading to the point where everything around me seems to fall away and I am in the author’s world. Since I read a lot of fantasy, those worlds are usually pretty fantastical.
  • Inexpensive de-stressing. Bad day at work? My books take me somewhere so much better, and since I can’t focus on anything but reading the story, all those worries and stressors just melt away as the pages turn. You can keep your $100 spa treatments.
  • Increased vocabulary. Between my iPhone and Kindle, I have a dictionary on me at all times. It makes it so easy to look up words while I’m reading. I just finished reading The Handmaid’s Tale (review coming soon), and I probably had to look up 10 or so words. Now I’m that much better at Scrabble.

Mostly though, I’m thankful to be a reader because my life is so much better with characters like Harry Potter, Frodo Baggins, Peeta Mellark, Lyra Belacqua and Mr. Darcy in it. Reality is so much more enjoyable when I can escape to Hogwarts, Middle Earth or Jane Austen’s England on any given day. Not everyone likes words. For so many, reading is a chore. I’m thankful that for me, reading is an escape. I can’t imagine my life without it.

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Tim Burton to direct “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children?”

A couple days ago, I gave my review of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. Though I had my qualms with the depth and pace of the story, the writing was so wonderfully descriptive that I was able to see each scene unfold in my mind as clear as day. I can say without a doubt that this book would make an excellent film and I thought so many times while reading.

Evidently, Hollywood agrees–and honestly, I knew it wouldn’t be long. These characters practically beg for the big screen. And who knows, maybe actually seeing them will give them the depth I felt they were lacking in the book. Perhaps, too, the big screen will infuse the story with the “creepy” factor I felt it was missing. And if the rumors are true, creepy is exactly what we’ll get.

According to this article from Deadline, “Tim Burton is in early talks to come aboard Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children, the Ransom Riggs novel that 20th Century Fox and Chernin Entertainment acquired last spring. Burton is in talks to develop the book as a potential directing project, and he would be involved in setting a writer to adapt the tale.”

Being responsible for movies like Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Corpse Bride, Tim Burton has to be the undisputed king of the strange and erie. I have no doubt he would deliver a truly haunting experience so I hope the book to screen journey pans out that way.

How entertaining would it be to SEE these children interact with an invisible boy? To SEE them tether their friend to the floor because she has a tendency to float away? I would be most excited to see the scene in which Enoch, a boy who has the power to transfer life from one being to another, wake up a corpse for a little post-mortem interrogation.

To see these scenes through Tim Burton’s eyes will make them that much better… and creepy.

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Gifts for the Kindle-lover in your life

With the holidays quickly approaching, we’ll soon be inundated with every kind of gift giving list imaginable. Here are the top 5 gifts for the techie in your life… for the fashionista in your life… for the musician in your life. If you looked hard enough, you could probably find the top 5 “oh shit, I forgot about you until the last minute” gifts. And of course, my two favorites, the top gifts for the reader and the writer in your life.

So I thought, why not jump on the bandwagon. Here’s a list of things, in no particular order, that I wouldn’t mind finding in my stocking. Maybe you’ll even find an idea or two for the Kindle-lover in your life.

Kindle case by ReAuthored
You’re going to see Kindle cases on every “Gifts for Readers” list this year, but you won’t see any like this. ReAuthored, a gem of a company I stumbled across on Etsy, was built on a simple idea and a love for books. “The original idea was that we would give discarded books a new life by re-purposing them into Kindle cases, thus allowing the book to live on.” All the cases are made from discarded hardback books that would otherwise be shredded. Each cover is fashioned to showcase a beautiful left hand page and designed to keep the aesthetic appeal of the hardback book while providing the security and function of a standard case. Each book is handcrafted to fit a Kindle, iPad, Nook, Xoom or any eReader of your choice.

Kindle sleeves that reflect my personality
Fine, I admit it. I’m an Etsy junkie. But can you blame a girl? Where else can you find so many handmade, one-of-a-kind items? A quick search for “Kindle Sleeves” yields over 5,000 beautiful and affordable results. With so many options, there is bound to be something for everyone. As for me… could this Owl from OhMyCake be any cuter?

Kindle skins
For as many covers there are available, there are just as many skins that can showcase your personality on your favorite reading device. I found this vibrant beauty in Nitza’s SkinKits shop. Skins are an easy way to turn your Kindle (or any device) into a work of art. Most skins are made of premium vinyl and are precision cut for a perfect fit. Skins are easy to apply and remove and many now come with an anti-UV coating to protect them from fading. Finding good skins is easy–it’s narrowing down your favorites and trying to choose one that’s hard!

Of course, if the reader in your life doesn’t own an eReader yet, you could always consider the Kindle itself. I can’t say enough about mine and how it has affected my reading experience… though I did manage to sum my favorite things up in this tidy little list. Consider that they are as affordable as ever (the original Kindle is only $79) and as innovative as ever (the Kindle Fire offers reading, music, apps, web, movies, games and more.) Or, if your Bookworm has it all, there’s always the Kindle giftcard. With such affordable content, that’s the gift that keeps on reading for a long time.

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Book Review: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

Book’s Description:
A mysterious island. An abandoned orphanage. A strange collection of photographs. It all waits to be discovered in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, an unforgettable novel that mixes fiction and photography in a thrilling reading experience. As our story opens, a horrific family tragedy sets Jacob journeying to a remote island off the coast of Wales, where he discovers the crumbling ruins of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. As Jacob explores its abandoned bedrooms and hallways, it becomes clear that Miss Peregrine’s children were more than just peculiar. They may have been quarantined on a deserted island for good reason. And somehow–impossible though it seems–they may still be alive.

My Description: 
“Find the bird. In the loop. On the other side of the old man’s grave. September third, 1940,” are the last words that Jacob’s grandfather, Abe, utters to him as he dies in his arms.

It’s Abe’s death and these seemingly nonsensical instructions that set 16-year-old Jacob’s journey in motion. Partly to not dismiss his grandfather’s last words as senile banter and partly to allay the nightmares that have haunted him since his death, Jacob travels to the island where his grandfather grew up with hopes of shedding light on his mysterious life.

An orphan of the Holocaust, Abe spent his childhood under the tutelage of Miss Peregrine at her home for Peculiar Children. Jacob grew up hearing Abe’s fantastical stories about the monsters who chased him and the children who lived there–a girl who could levitate (cover), a boy who was invisible, a girl with 2 mouths, etc. We are led to believe that Abe imagined this magical world and told his stories as children’s fairytales as a defense mechanism against the very real horrors that he faced in his life. Upon arrival to the mysterious island, however, Jacob discovers that the children and the monsters are actually very real.

Review:
I chose this book because everything about it, from the cover to the synopsis, promises a strange, haunting and creepy read. In actuality, there isn’t much that is creepy about it at all. Though peculiar, the children aren’t dangerous. And they aren’t quarantined so much as in hiding for their own safety.

The buzz on this book, of course, is the collection of vintage and downright bizarre photographs peppered throughout the pages. While I applaud the originality, I have to wonder how much more story there could have been if the photos hadn’t been such a central focus.

Oftentimes, character development is cut short, almost as if to say, I don’t have to flesh out this character anymore because I’m going to show you a picture of them instead. On the other hand, a few scenes feel unnecessary or misplaced–were they created for the sole purpose of showcasing a favorite photo rather than advancing the story?

Another issue I take with this story is that it gets from point A to point B very quickly. Riggs spends so much time describing this new world that Jacob has found, that by the time we’re finally presented with a problem in the last quarter of the book, we have to rush through the solution. Jacob gets his “Aha!” moment, but we don’t get ours because we’re not privy to his past experiences. Everything is handed to us in the form of  exposition for sake of time. A and B happened because of C. We need to do D to fix it. E is the plan. There we did it. The end.

Don’t get me wrong. I think the writing was excellent. The words flow beautifully and are wonderfully descriptive. Reviewing this book posed a unique challenge because it wasn’t what I expected it to be, and how do I draw the line between reviewing the story that I wanted to read versus the story that the author wanted to tell?

Overall, I liked this book. It sometimes reads as though the story was created to connect the photos rather than the photos were supplied to enhance the story, but I can overlook that because it has a strong concept. The story has good bones and imaginative, colorful characters. The ending was a bit abrupt, but it did leave the story open for a sequel. Perhaps we’ll get more of a backstory and deeper character development in the next installment. I’m definitely curious to see where this story goes.

Grade: B-

If you liked this book, you’ll probably also like: 

  • His Dark Materials by Phillip Pullman. The dark experiments that created the “monsters” in Peculiar remind me very much of the daemon separation experiments that take place in The Golden Compass. Riggs also briefly touches on time travel and strongly hints that it will be a central focus in the next installment. His mode of time travel is reminiscent of Pullman’s multiverse concept.
  • I Am Number Four by Pittacus Lore. John Smith is hunted tirelessly by monsters (in his case aliens) for being one of the last of his kind–just like Jacob. It will be interesting to see if Jacob turns into a survival expert now that he has discovered his “power.”

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