Saturday, December 31, 2011

My Top Ten Books of 2011

I read 62 books in 2011, a few more than in 2010. Not bad considering I work full-time, have a toddler and perform in musicals in my spare time.

Here are some stats (I love stats). The categories overlap so the numbers won't add up to 100.

25 (40%) were fantasy or science fiction
22 (35%) were young adult
7 (11%) were general fiction, novels
8 (13%) were chick lit
1 (2%) was a graphic novel
1 (2%) was a mystery/crime novel
4 (6%) were historical novels
3 (5%) were classics
5 (8%) were non-fiction
5 (8%) were world literature
2 (3%) were read in translation
1 (2%) was in Polish

7 (11%) were audiobooks

45 (73%) were written by women
17 (27%) were written by men

I read 39 new authors. New authors made up 63% of my reading. Only 15 books were by known-to-me authors.

Basically, this shows that I read mostly fantasy and young adult. I think that's because I'm usually too tired to tackle anything else. I read mostly female writers and mostly new-to-me authors. I would really like to challenge myself to read a wider array of books next year...

Anyway, here are my Top Ten Books Read in 2011:
(here are my favorite book lists for 201020092008)



The Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale
The story of Dashti and her maid Saren, first trapped in a tower and then trying to survive in a world they no longer recognise, was absolutely beautifully written and charming. I listened to this on audio and Chelsey Nixon's narration was magical and perfect.







The Rights of the Reader by Daniel Pennac
A French teacher talks about how he encourages young people to read, but giving them the freedom to read whatever they want and various other rights. I wonderful way to look at reading. I especially liked the parts on reading and young children. A great book for all book lovers.








Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt
A fairy tale about a family that discovers the secret to eternal life. But this gift brings more than happiness, it's not as perfect as it seems.









The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson
Another book I listened to on audio and another amazing narrator, Jenna Lamia, who really brought the book to life. The story is of teenager Jenna who is involved in an accident who wakes up after a year-long coma into a world she doesn't know or understand. What happened to her and who is she, really? Creepy and realistic, in the sense that it's not impossible for something like this to happen. Is this what our world is going to look like?





The Little Lady Agency by Hester Browne
Brilliant light reading about Melissa Rommey-Jones, probably the most naive and trusting woman left in London. She's not satisfied with her life, but everything changes when she has a business idea that lets her be someone else. But how different are the two personas, really? Great fun.





Winterborne by Augusta Blythe
I gushed about this book when I read it and I will gush about it again. It's the story of Loie and Mia, two best friends with a secret. Mia is due to inherit some kick-ass superpowers on her 17th birthday. But no matter how much she prepares, she can't possibly be ready for what's to come. This is fantasy set in a high school world, my favorite. But the best bit is that cliches like friends falling out over a guy or anything else are not included. These girls' friendship is super-strong and the are smart enough to know what's really important. Great stuff.



Angry Housewives Eating Bon Bons by Lorna Landvik
Another chick-lit book making it onto my top ten list, but it's another good one. It's a tale of female bonding that many of us would like to have in our lives. Female friends who have known each other through good times and bad, from impressionable youth to becoming grandmothers. Lovely book.







The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
A story about a poor Indian man who rises to entrepreneur status. He first moves to Delhi where he learns everything he needs to know about the upper class and what is required of him to become part of it. A vivid account of modern-day India that will make you feel humble and lucky.







Wicked by Gregory Maguire
The story of what happened in Oz before Dorothy got there, the story of the Glinda the good witch and Elphaba the wicked witch. I was expecting a fairy tale and got a wonderfully crafted world, full of politics and social unrest and everything that makes a world real. A stunner.







Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier
I can't believe that this book ended up on my list, I avoided it for so long because I didn't think I'd like it. It's a fictionalised account of how the painting in the title, by Dutch painter Vermeer, came to be. Great story, great characters, great writing. Historical fiction at its best.








I also have to at least mention the three series I enjoyed reading in 2011 - The Gallagher Girls series by Ally Carter, the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan and the True Blood series by Charlaine Harris. The only one I finished was the Percy Jackson so I have the rest of the others to entertain me in 2012.

Here's to a New Year filled with more great books!

Wrapping up 2011: Non-bookish goals

I started 2011 with a list of non-bookish goals I wanted to accomplish. I meant to be more mindful of my progress throughout the year, but in fact didn't look at my list even once, until just now. It was an eventful, lovely year but let's see how I did on those plans!

1. I was hoping that both my civil and spiritual wedding ceremonies would go smoothly. I still can't believe that I got married this year - twice! :-) Both were wonderful and beautiful and great, the best weddings I've ever been to. :-) I was a lucky girl because I found a perfect, magical person to perform our handfasting - my friend Larissa. It was perfect.

2. I turned 35 this year and I wanted to be conscious of that milestone. I think that I forgot about it for a while, but did start thinking about it more as it approached. I used the opportunity to re-evaluate where I am in life and decide where I want to be. The result is some exciting plans for the coming years!

3. I wanted to be more conscious of the beauty of the time I spend with my son, rather than complain about it. This one took a lot of effort, but I think I managed. Obviously I still lose my temper at times, I have zero patience, but I can honestly say that it's rare and that I am doing my best.

4. Goal number four was to get in shape. Ummm, nope, that didn't happen at all. Although I spent a large part of the year thinking about nutrition, not everything is turned into reality yet. And I still haven't made any room for exercise so this goal will remain on my list for 2012!

5. I wanted to get my finances in order. I definitely curbed my spending through most of the year, save our trip to Wales in August, where I went absolutely shopping crazy. Boy, was  it fun! But something must have changed because we were able to spend more money on Shane's school and on house stuff, so I guess progress was made for sure!

6. I wanted to travel more... I don't think this happened and I don't think it will any time soon. Traveling with a small child is no picnic!

7. I wanted to cook more and I definitely accomplished this one. We stopped buying processed foods and we cook a lot more from scratch. It's great!

8. I wanted to chill out... I think I did, in as much as someone with my character can... :-) I will never be a calm, zen person, but I think I achieved a kind of inner peace this year.

Not bad, especially since I wasn't consciously working towards any of these! I'm definitely pleased with myself. :-)

2011 Challenges

Housekeeping post...

Here is a list of my 2011 challenges:

2011 Challenge
Alex and Joanna book exchange - done
Chicklit Challenge - done
Eastern European Reading Challenge
Global Reading Challenge
Graphic Novels Challenge
Historical Fiction Reading Challenge
Ireland Reading Challenge
One, Two, Theme! - done
Sci Fi Challenge
Seconds Challenge
Southern Reading Challenge
Steampunk Challenge
TBR Challenge
What's in a Name 4 - done

Friday, December 30, 2011

2011 Challenge Wrap-Up

In 2011, I signed up for 15 challenges. Of these 15, I completed the following:

1) My 'book exchange' challenge with Alex from The Sleepless Reader. My original post is here. I read:

A Room with a View by E.M. Forster
Invisible Monsters by Chuck Palahniuk
The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett
Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt
Gigi by Colette

I actually liked all of them a lot, in one way or another, so this challenge was a total success!

2) The 2011 Challenge hosted by Bart's Bookshelf. You can see a list of all 20 books I read here. I had to cheat slightly and use children's books I read to my son as my re-reads, but hey, they're books too! My favorites have to be:

Winterborne and Ravenstoke, both by Augusta Blythe
The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister
Angry Housewives Eating Bon-Bons by Lorna Landvik
Wicked by Gregory Maguire

Thanks for hosting this fun challenge Bart!




3) The Chick Lit Challenge hosted by Twiga from Journey through the TBR pile. You can see my intro post, including the list of the 8 books I read, here. I loved all of them, except for The Class by Eric Segal, which I didn't finish, and The Reading Group by Elizabeth Noble, which I found only OK. Thanks for hosting Twiga!







4) The What's in a Name? 4 Challenge hosted by Beth Fish Reads. I just love this challenge, with its quirky categories! You can see what I read here. My favorites were:

The Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale
Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier
The Little Lady Agency by Hester Browne

Thanks for hosting Beth, I will certainly join you for the 5th edition!




5) And last but not least, the challenge that Alex and I set up though didn't do a great job at hosting, the One, Two, Theme! challenge. This challenge was meant to encourage us to read about specific topics, which I really want to do, but didn't devote much attention to. In the end I only read one book on my New York theme, Brooklyn by Colm Toibin. And I read several books on food and nutrition:


The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister
Nurturing Superwoman by Carolyn Moody
The Kind Diet by Alicia Silverstone

This wasn't really what I was aiming for, as you can see from my intro post. I hope that Alex wants to continue this challenge into next year and I hope that I can give it more of my attention. There are so many topics that I want to know more about!

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Even more mini-reviews!

I really want to write something about all the books I read this year and I still have several left, so here are more mini-reviews, even though one or two of them are so good that they do actually deserve a full post. But oh well. I haven't been very well this holiday, I got pneumonia just before Christmas and it's not going away and I'm really low on energy, so that's my excuse. I'm trying a third kind of antibiotic tonight so fingers crossed!

Invisible Monsters by Chuck Palahniuk
This was probably the farthest I've ever been outside of my comfort zone and I'm grateful to Alex for making me read it for our challenge. Palahniuk's book is soooo very weird. It's about a fashion model who has everything but loses it in a freak accident, loses everything including half her face. Overnight, she goes from being beautiful to being so horrible that no one can look at her. She is saved by Queen Supreme Brandy Alexander, almost (but not quite) a woman, who is a whiz at inventing new personas and lives complete with back stories. The plot has so many twists and none of them predictable. The writing is alive. The descriptions are so honest and vivid that many make you cringe. But some are so funny that I was actually laughing out loud on my tram, that hasn't happened in a while. Invisible Monsters is never going to be my favorite book but I honestly feel enriched having read it.


Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier
I have had this book on my shelf for ages, but never felt like picking it up. I told myself that I'd gone off historical novels and that art stuff really wasn't my thing. Thanks to the What's in a Name 4 challenge hosted by Beth Fish Reads, I finally read it and absolutely loved it. It high up on my list of favorites for the year. The story is a fictionalised account of how a painting by Dutch painter Johann Vermeer of a plain girl with extravagant pearl earrings came to be. It tells of Griet, a girl from a poor family, who goes to work as a maid in Vermeer's house. The writing is incredibly engrossing, it was hard to put down. The characters are so real and I love the fact that it's all based on truth, although not much is known about Vermeer's life. A fascinating look at how an artist creates too. I saw an interview with Tracy Chevallier in Bookmarks magazine and she said that she does a lot of hands-on research for her books. So for this one she took a painting class to understand the process. I guess that's one of the things that made her book so real and so engaging.


Committed by Elizabeth Gilbert
This one was a disappointment. I ended up loving Gilbert's first book Eat, Pray, Love though it took me forever to read it and despite not liking the whole 'pray' section. The beauty of the last 'love' section made up for everything else. But Committed dragged and dragged for me and I almost gave up on it almost a hundred times, it feels like. I enjoyed the bits on the history of marriage and found especially interesting that the Church was against marriage at first, until it realised that it can't really do anything about people wanting to pair up. Other tidbits of social history were also interesting. But for some reason I couldn't get myself to care enough about the author's relationship with her soon-to-be-husband... those parts felt like filler to me, like something that had to be there to bring all the historical trivia together. I still think Gilbert is amazing, this particular book just wasn't for me.


Ravenstoke by Augusta Blythe
Ah, fabulous. I wondered what this book would bring, I'm always wary of sequels to books I really love, but it completely lived up to my expectations. The first book in the Universe Unbound series, Winterborne, was the only book I've ever reviewed after receiving an email from the author. Augusta seemed like such a great woman when she contacted me and I liked the sound of her book so I agreed to read it. I absolutely loved the story of Loie and Mia and the special powers that appear on their 17th birthday. This sequel took the story forward in both the human and the supernatural threads. Loie and Mia are dealing with the aftermath of their discoveries in Winterborne and adjusting to their new lives. But everything is not what it seems in this new world and they have a difficult journey ahead. Great characters, great plot, highly recommended for fans of young adult fantasy.


Maggie Again by John D. Husband
Another book that I've been wanting to read for ages. Joe got it for me for Christmas - he had the brilliant idea of looking at the very beginning of my Amazon wishlist and found loads of books I'd added and then forgot about because there were too many. Maggie Again is about a girl called Maggie from rural Indiana who grows up to lead an adult life very unlike the one she wanted. Through the adventurous spirit of three of her childhood friends, at 74 she gets the chance to go back in time and be 16 again. This is a novel about life, friendship, love and making the most of youth. It's heartwarming and pleasant, though it didn't rock my world.




Matched by Ally Condie
This one was right up my alley, young adult dystopia. It's about Cassia, a girl who lives in a very controlled future society, where everyone has their role and most choices are made for you by the Society. This includes the person you're going to marry - but there is a problem with Cassia's match, she sees two boys on her screen. She knows which one she should be with in the eyes of the Society, but which one is really right for her? As Cassia starts to question the world around her, she gets closer and closer to being able to recognise and follow her own heart.  The world is similar to the one in Lois Lowry's The Giver, but whereas I found The Giver too short, I wanted more, I thought that Matched could have done with a bit of editing. I know that Cassia can't make up her mind between Xander and Ky and I get it, but there were bits where there was really to much of the back and forth in her head. But I loved the world Ally Condie created and I'll definitely be getting the next book in the series!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Presents!

I love December, it's present month for me, with my birthday as well as Christmas. This year was particularly rich in both books and other goodies, for which I am very, very grateful. The photo above is of all my lovely December gifts - not including the amazing package Beverly sent me as part of the Book Blogger Holiday Swap.



You probably can't see the details on my photo, so here is a list.

Sun, Moon and Earth by Robin Heath
Things a Mother Should Know by Heather James - my birthday present from my two-year-old son... :-)
The Art of Coarse Acting by Michael Green
84 Charring Cross Road by Helene Hanff
The Warsaw Anagrams by Richard Zimler
A Week in December by Sebastian Faulks
Maggie Again by John D. Husband
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

I also got a subscription to Bookmarks magazine and one to Good Food magazine. And jewellery. And loads of series on dvd. And other assorted goodies. What more could a girl ask for?

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Happy Holidays!

I hope everyone is having as good a Christmas as we are.

We had a lovely Christmas Eve last night, this is what a place setting looked like:


My Mom sure knows how to decorate a table! The food was mostly fish and was excellent, as always.

Santa came, but Shane was terrified of him so he left his presents and quickly left again. :-)


There were loads of presents, some of which were books - I'll blog about that next week, I think.

Oh yeah, Shane and I relaxed a lot:



Best wishes to you all!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Last mini reviews of 2011?

I think they may just be! :-)

The Fox Inheritance by Mary E. Pearson
I listened to this on audio and although I enjoyed Matthew Brown's narration, I didn't enjoy this sequel as much as I did Jenna Lamia's in the first book. But I think that probably had to do with the story itself than with anything else. This wasn't the worst sequel I've ever read, but it wasn't the best either. I though a lot of it read like a story that was forced, like the author just wanted to have a sequel, not a story that existed because the characters wouldn't stay silent. A tad too drawn out and too predictable. Don't miss the first book, The Adoration of Jenna Fox though, that one was fabulous.


Can Any Mother Help Me? by Jenna Bailey
I loved this when I started it but ended up not finishing. The premise is great, it tells the true story of a group of women who were living during World War II and started a correspondance  club to support each other through marriage, raising children and the daily realities of war. They would create a magazine of sorts, where each of them would write an article on something and then mail the whole thing to the next person. Now that I think of the book again I don't know why I didn't finish, I just got stuck somewhere in the middle. Maybe I was looking for something more upbeat at the time. I can't even imagine the world that these women lived in, I am glad I live in times when community support is available for all sorts of things. 




Percy Jackson and the Last Olympian by Rick Riordan
The last book in this fun series about Percy Jackson, son of Poseidon. In this final story, Kronos launched an attach on New York and Percy and his friends have to save the day. I enjoyed this adventure and liked the way loose ends were tied up. The casualties made sense and so were acceptable. Great end of a great series! Has anyone read Riordan's Egyptian series?

Monday, December 19, 2011

A Room with a View by E.M. Forster

Another book that I had to read for my challenge with Alex, where she gave me five books to read in 2011. I left this one late because I always have trouble starting a classic. I always expect it to be boring and hard to understand and boring. Did I mention boring?

Well, surprisingly, A Room with a View wasn't boring at all. Except in the middle, when I had to put it aside for a few days and read something else. Nothing happened in the middle, it was infuriating! But the first part set in Italy was funny and the last part after George appears again was fabulously refreshing, so I have to say that I really liked it overall. Social comedy at its finest, really.

Lucy was particularly funny, I thought. The way she didn't know how to even think without guidance from someone considered somehow better was written perfectly. I enjoyed her character, including how she grew and developed and somehow managed to become her own person, in spite of it all.

And George! And his father! I loved how unconventional they were, how refreshing in the stifling world of the stereotyped English. I had to read his monologue where he admits he loves Lucy several times, it was so honest and beautiful!

I actually marked down several passages I enjoyed, but only the page numbers and I left the book at home (I'm in Poland for Christmas), so can't share them with you.

Ah yes, my edition finished with a sort of epilogue which the author called A View without a Room. In it he wrote about what happened to all the characters in the following years and I must admit that I didn't want to know. This was a story that for me would have been better left as 'and they lived happily ever after' - I didn't want world wars and such things to enter into it.

But overall, reading this was a great experience, so thank you Alex for encouraging me to read more classics!

Does anyone have any thoughts on E.M. Forster's other works?


Sunday, December 18, 2011

Wicked by Gregory Maguire

This book sat on my shelf for years and it wasn't until I saw Wicked the musical in London that I had the motivation to read it. And even then, I loved the musical so much that I was afraid that the book wouldn't be as good. I had a hard time getting the musical out of my head at the beginning - they're very different - but once I managed that I was quickly drawn into the land of Oz and Wicked became a definite part of this year's favorites list.

Wicked tells what happened in Oz before Dorothy got there - the story of Glinda, who becomes known as the good witch and Elphaba, who becomes known as the wicked witch of the west. See, Elphaba wasn't born wicked and what she ended up as explores the concepts of good and evil. Was she wicked? Or was she misunderstood? Can her actions be explained and justified?

I was pleasantly surprised at the depth of the world that Maguire created. The politics of and differences between the many regions of Oz were all so real and so believable - fueled by the same emotions that politics in our world are led by.

The characters were all so well-defined and, again, so real. I could feel what Elpie felt at her college, I could understand that she wanted to do something about the injustice.

It was so much more than a fairy tale and I didn't expect it to be.

I loved it and want to re-read it and also read everything else Maguire has written. I love being transported into a different world like that.

Definitely high on my favorites list for 2011.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Thank you, thank you, book-blogging Santa!



My gift from my secret Santa for the Book Blogger Holiday Swap arrived! My Santa is no longer secret, it's Beverly from Book Lady's Book Notes, a blog I didn't know before but I definitely like.

Thank you so much Beverly, it was joy to open the package, which contained these treasures:


A hand painted mug, a box of hot chocolate with marshmallows, a lovely christmas card and three books off my wishlist: Matched by Ally Condie, Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George and The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente.

Beverly, the books are fabulous, your mug is gorgeous and I'm sure that hot chocolate won't go to waste either! Thank you so much for your generosity and your holiday spirit!

To everyone out there - Happy Holidays, hope they are merry and bright!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

More mini-reviews - India, dystopia and turn-of-the-century Paris

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
I actually wanted to do a separate post about this book, but I read it back in August and left it so late and I've forgotten all the things I wanted to say. What stayed with me most, I think, is the feeling that I'm very lucky to be living where I'm living. I read this book - with its descriptions of the harsh realities of life in the slums and life as hired help for the rich - while on holiday in a lovely cottage in Wales, so I guess thoughts of gratitude were inevitable. The White Tiger is the story of Balram, a man born into a poor Indian family, but who isn't prepared to accept his fate, but instead dreams of escape. He eventually creates his own truth about what that means and about what successful people are prepared to do to get and keep success - and acts accordingly. A fantastic book, incredibly well-written, tackling interesting issues and exposing parts of the human soul that most of us don't like to think about... What are you prepared to do to get the life you want? The White Tiger won the Man Booker Prize in 2008.


Holes by Louis Sachar
This is what I read in one day when I was sick at home and trying to read A Discovery of Witches. I'm so glad I put that book down and picked up Holes instead, what a difference! Stanley Yelnats is accused of stealing a pair of shoes and is sent to Camp Green Lake as punishment. But Camp Green Lake is nothing like what it sounds - there is a warden who makes the boys dig holes all day, every day. No choice and no way out. Why? What's behind the digging? What's the truth about Stanley's family? Great book - it won the Newbery Medal in 1999 and the National Book Award in 1998, with good reason.


Gigi and The Cat by Colette
This is actually two books, which I didn't realise until I bought it! Gigi is on my 2011 list from Alex a.k.a. The Sleepless Reader - I didn't know the story and I enjoyed the turn-of-the-century Paris story of a young girl who everyone was trying to mould into a woman. I love how she thinks and I love how she turns out in the end. Charming. Strangely, since I'm a total musical fan, I've never seen the movie, but now I'll have to. I've never even heard of the second novella, The Cat, before, but I liked it even more than I liked Gigi! It's about a young couple where the man is more interested in his cat than in his young bride. And the young bride is jealous! I loved the slightly creepy feel to it, especially as the man became more and more like the cat.... Very Kafka-esque. Thanks Alex, for enriching my life with these classics!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Eat. Live. Be. - Aromatic Tomato Sauce


The idea of weekly posts is great because it's just too easy to ignore your goals... especially in December, when parties and cocktails and lunches abound. No that I've been following any of my rules or thinking about health really. Today, for example, I had a Christmas lunch at work, one that lasted three hours, and tonight one of my best friends is coming over with thai take-away. Yesterday was my 35th birthday and I'm still celebrating! :-)

Of course, since any changes you make to your lifestyle have to be sustainable, you can't get too upset when you're not super-healthy during periods like this. So I'm not getting upset, but I am trying to make good choices where I can.

This week we're supposed to be sharing inspiration we get online. Most of mine comes from BBC Good Food. The site is easy to use and has recipes for pretty much all occasions. The one I want to share with you today is this one for Lamb Kofte Tagine. I made this amazing tomato sauce to go with store bought lamb meatballs, but I would also make it with chicken or with bean burgers of some kind. It's aromatic and oh so tasty. Not to mention healthy. :-)

Anyway, off I go to enjoy my Thai take-away and catch up with my friend. If you want healthy inspiration, visit the Eat. Live. Be. Facebook page and see what's inspiring others.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

2011 Virtual Advent Tour: The Joy of Giving


I love presents. Who doesn't, right? But I seriously LOVE them. I love thinking about them and choosing them and listing them and buying them and wrapping them and putting them under the tree. I love watching family and friends open presents I chose for them. And of course I love getting presents myself.

We've always been a tad present-crazy in my family. None of this one-present-per-person thing for us! Kids especially benefit from this craziness, but since young kids are only recent in our family, my brother and I were the ones who were showered with gifts. Now there's Shane and present-buying focuses on him, which is so much fun.

As for traditions to do with Christmas presents... In Poland, we celebrate on Christmas Eve. We sit down to dinner at 5 or 6, as soon as it's dark. We are allowed  to open presents as soon as we spot the first star in the sky. I can remember my brother and I standing with our noses glued to the window, watching out for that first star. We've lived in some pretty polluted countries though, so sometimes this tradition had to be abandoned.

Now we don't really watch out for that star anymore, we open gifts after the first course. And then again on Christmas morning. (and we already have a first Christmas at the beginning of December, for family reasons, so this isn't even the first holiday event!).

My favorite part is still watching others open gifts I chose for them. Such a joy to see their smiling faces. :-)

Now, head on over to the other bloggers who are part of the 2011 Virtual Advent Tour today:

Happy Holidays to all of you, may they be peaceful and joyful for you and your loved ones!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Eat. Live. Be.

Eat. Live. Be. is an initiative started by Cate and Sarah to help them focus on their health goals and to help them create healthy habits. The initiative took place on their blogs and had lots of other participants too. So many women aren't where they want to be health-wise!

This time around they are also joined by Joanne and Patsy, two bloggers that I am looking forward to getting to know.

I've been keeping an eye on the Eat. Live. Be. Facebook page and saw that they're re-booting this week. Which is perfect for me, because the issue of health has been on my mind all year and - although I've accomplished a lot in terms of being conscious of what's going on between me and food, me and excercise and me and healthy habits - now it's time for action.

Eat. Live. Be posts will be published on Wednesdays and will focus on inspiration and motivation. Today is Thursday so I am already late, but I wanted to see everyone else's posts first, to be honest.

It makes sense that a first post like this one should contain a list of goals, so here are mine:
  • eat only what I feel like having, when I feel like having it
  • include protein in each meal
  • drink more water
  • drink less wine (!)
  • sleep more
  • excercise when I can, but don't obsess if I can't
I originally had 'lose 10 kilos' as my first goal but in the end I decided that should be the result of all these other habits I'm hoping to form. Losing weight has been mo goal for so long that it sounds ridiculous to me now.

This week's inspiration is supposed to come from a magazine and I wasn't sure what to talk about until I remembered the wonderful Christmas gift I received from my husband's daughter - a year's subscription to BBC Good Food magazine, which I love. The magazine has loads of wonderful ideas and I always think that if I cooked more of our food from there or similar sources, my whole family would end up healthier. So I'm sure that the magazine will be my inspiration all year long. If you don't get the magazine, visit the website, where inspiration is hard to miss!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Mini-reviews...the only way to catch up!

It's mini-review time again!

Making History by Stephen Fry
Ever wondered what the world would be like if Hitler and World War II hadn't happened? Stephen Fry explores this question in this great book, which shows us that things can always be worse and reminds so to be careful what we wish for. It left me thankful for the freedoms that I have in this world. And what a great idea for a book, a fascinating question. Be warned though, this is nothing like the comic side of Stephen Fry that you may already know and appreciate!





Dating Big Bird by Laura Zigman
A light, quick read about Ellen, a single woman who desperately wants a child - so desperately that "Big Bird is looking like a better candidate for fatherhood every day: he's tall, affectionate, and steadily employed" (from back cover). Those who were ever desparate for children will be able to relate and those who have children will certainly laugh at some kid-related bits. But if you're not really into this topic then you probably won't enjoy this as much as I did.





Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants: The Second Summer by Ann BrasharesAnother installment of the young adult series about four best friends. Not much to say, really, it's fun. I like how the four girls are different and how they end up in completely different places and situations that let them grow. I'll definitely be reading the next one. Oh, and I like the movies too, though Alexis Bledel will always be Rory to me!






The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag by Alan BradleyThis actually deserves a post of its own, but I've been sitting on it too long and now can't remember the details of what I loved about the book. Except for Flavia the 11-year-old solver of murders herself of course, I love her for everything she is. My only gripe with the book is how horrible her sisters are to her, I can't imagine living in a family like that!






Percy Jackson and the Battle of the Labyrinth by Rick RiordanThe fourth in this series about Percy, son of Poseidon. It brought more adventure, mayhem and monsters - and also some teenage boy feelings, though not explored in any depth. But this isn't supposed to be a deep book, just a fun one that gets kids into mythology. A great aspiration, in my opinion.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Weekend Cooking: Christmas cookies


Today is our first Christmas celebration. We always have a first Christmas at the beginning of December, when my husband's daughter spends a few days with us. We make Christmas dinner, decorate the tree and exchange gifts. It's a wonderful way of starting the holiday season!

The dinner will be started later on today, but in the meantime I thought I would introduce my toddler to the joys of baking cookies. I wanted a simple recipe we could put together quickly and settled on Rachel Allen's basic cookie recipe from her book Bake. By the way, it's a wonderful book full of both sweet and savory baked goodies that are easy to make.

The cookie recipe is simple - cream together 225g of butter with 110g sugar, then stir in 275g flour. You can add whatever flavorings you want - we added cinnamon and vanilla and stirred in some chocolate chips too. I have some lavender which I'll add to the next batch, once these disappear.

My son loved arranging the balls of dough on the baking sheet! :-)

This post is part of this week's Weekend Cooking feature over at Beth Fish Reads.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Wish me Dead by Helen Grant

The first book I read by Helen Grant was The Vanishing of Katharina Linden and I loved it. I was so glad I did, because I'd never heard of it before buying it. I only got it because it was featured at my local bookstore as Helen Grant is a local author. Since I live in Belgium and don't read in French or Flemish, I was pretty excited about the whole local author thing. 

Now, having read Wish Me Dead, I can safely put Helen Grant on my favorite authors list. The combination of young adult lit, mystery, creepiness and folklore is right up my alley. And the Bad M√ľnstereifel setting is wonderful.

Wish Me Dead is the story of Steffi and her friends, who come across a local myth about a witch and decide to see if there is any truth in it. Strange things start happening and people start dying - is it possible that just wishing something to happen is making it come true?

Chilling and entertaining, a great read. If you haven't discovered this author yet, you're missing out!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett

This is a very difficult one to review, because it is very definitely quality reading, but it took me about six months to finish and although I enjoyed it at times, I can't say that I enjoyed it ALL the time.

It's because of Alex that I read The Game of Kings in the first place. It's one of her favorites (see her fabulous lists here and here to see why and to discover other great books) and she wanted me to read it as part of our challenge for 2011 - we recommended five books to each other, ones that we loved and wanted the other person to get to experience as well.

Alex did warn me that perhaps this was not the time to start reading a book like The Game of Kings. I have a very busy life and don't get much sleep because of baby S. She said that it wasn't a book that you could read a page of here and there. But that's really the only kind of reading I get to do and I was curious so I tried it.

The Game of Kings is part one of the Lymond Chronicles. It takes place in 1547 Scotland, a country plagued by English invasion but still free. The story is about Lymond himself - his relationship with his brother, his women, how he deals with the accusation of treason. It is a complex tale and I admit that I regularly got lost among the characters - I used the Kindle of feature of being able to search for a character  by name to see where they appeared before.

But in the end, despite getting lost in the characters, the plot lines and the language as well, since Dorothy Dunnett includes bits in Latin, in Spanish, in French, despite all this, I must say I liked it.

I liked Lymond's passion and his honor. I liked the historical setting and what I learned about Scottish-English-French relations of the 16 century. I thought I would give up on this story, but I found myself coming back to it over and over, wanting more.

I do want to read the next book of Lymond's adventures, but I'm not sure I have the courage to read it right away. But I feel like if I don't read it then I'll be missing out on something, so, yes, I want to know what happens to Lymond in France, while he's in the court of Henri II.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

This is the story of a year in the life of Charlie, high school freshman. Charlie is shy, observant, intelligent, sensitive and genuinely nice, if naive. He believes the best of other people. He is befriended by two seniors, Samantha and Patrick, and with them starts participating in high school life, parties and such.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower has loads of fantastic reviews and I've been wanting to read it for years. Luckily, I was only ever so slightly disappointed. I loved the beautiful writing and how it brought the relationships to life. I loved how the relationships developed. I loved how Charlie was slowly brought out of his shell and how he joined the real world, made friends, had experiences. He lived through some painful moments, but also through ones of awesome happiness. I especially liked his feeling of being infinite - I still remember that feeling from when I was younger, when I thought anything was possible and that the world was mine. 'Infinite' is exactly the right word for it and the fact that the author got this right is amazing in itself.

I said I was ever so slightly disappointed because there was one thing that bothered me and I wanted this book to be perfect for me. In the high school world I know, Samantha and Patrick (and their friends) would never have been nice to someone like Charlie. So their friendship seemed forced to me, I didn't quite believe it, I kept expecting them to turn around and do something nasty. This probably has to do with me being jaded rather than the book itself, but that's what I was thinking while I was reading it.

I just looked on Amazon to see Chbosky's other books but there aren't any - can that be right?

Thursday, November 3, 2011

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

I am very sad to say that A Discovery of Witches is going on my did-no-finish list for this year. I so so so wanted to love this book, in fact I never really considered that I wouldn't love it. The vampires, the demons, the witches, the academic setting, everything screamed 'this book is for you!'. But alas.

I'm a big fan of strong female characters, both in books and on TV. Think Buffy, Veronica Mars, Frankie Landau-Banks, Rory Gilmore, Anne Shirley. Women who know what they want and who will go after it no matter what. I am not a fan of Bella-like characters who lose all sense of self because of a gorgeous guy. Unfortunately, it turned out that Diana Bishop, the main character in A Discovery of Witches, is a Bella-type character. She starts out strong and purpose-full, she's writing a thesis, she has research to do, she moves to Oxford and leaves what's left of her family behind. She knows what she's doing and doesn't let anything in Oxford distract her from her purpose, her research. Until she meets vampire Matthew Clairmont and all of it goes out the window.

Diana had devoted her entire adult life to making sure that the magic that runs in her family doesn't influence her life at all. She didn't want to have anything to do with anything supernatural -  yet once she met Matthew, she seemed to forget all this and didn't see anything strange about being friends - and maybe more - with a vampire. I hated that. I can't decide whether this behaviour was more annoying and disturbing in Bella because she's a teen and is a role model for real teenage or girls, or whether it's worse in Diana because she's in her thirties and really should know better by now.

And did I mention that Diana didn't think about Matthew being a vampire at all? Like, at all? She'd have dinner with him, serve him loads of raw meat and then wonder (yes, out loud) what she herself would taste like. And although Matthew got angry and told her never to tempt him, I didn't see any fear at all from her side. No beating herself up for being so stupid, nothing. Like a woman who starts dating someone violent and believes that this time it's different and he would never do anything like that to her. Now there's a great female character to read about.

The Diana character wasn't the only thing that bugged me though. The story didn't really unfold as it should have. All of a sudden all these demons started appearing everywhere and then nothing really happened forever, except for Diana and Matthew going to yoga a few times. Honestly, the endless trips to the library with no action became tiresome and boring.

I was still reading at this point and I wanted to continue and find that it all gets better. But when I got to the part where we got some information about Matthew's past and the vampires were all calling each other Father and Son, I couldn't stomach any more. I don't think you can use those words, insinuate such close bonds, without providing a hell of a back story. A vamp siring another vamp didn't automatically mean closest family, an I'd-do-anything-for-you kind of relationship, at least not to me.

So, the book goes on my DNF list. I know a lot of you really liked it, so I geuss it's one of those books, you either love it or hate it.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Happy Samhain, All Hallow's Eve and R.I.P. Challenge wrap-up

Happy Celtic New Year! :-)

Samhain is a Celtic festival that marks the end of summer and the beginning of the long cold season. It's all about the final harvest, preparing for winter and also about the dead. It was thought that the line between the worlds was especially blurry at Samhain and that magical things could happen.

I like thinking of Samhain as the start of a New Year and in the past we have marked this holiday in various ways. My favorite I think was a ritual of letting go of our baggage so that we could more forward. This involved writing what we wanted to get rid of on pieces of paper and throwing them into our fireplace. A bonfire would have been better but hey.

Halloween is the modern, secularised version of this old festival and I love the modern traditions too. Pumpkins and candy and scary things. And lovely little children going from door to door. What's not to love?

I already had some trick-or-treaters knock on my door on Saturday. I'm not sure they counted as lovely littel children, they were boys of about 12 or 13, they were not dressed up and they carried plastic chopping bags. They were going on holiday apparently and had to collect their candy a few days early. Lucky for them, I had just bought mini chocolate bars that morning. I forgot to decorate the house with all the spooky stuff I bought though. Ah well, you can't do it all, eh?



I can't say that I've been in the mood for much spooky reading this year. I think it has something to do with the fact that it's been around 20 degrees here lately, which really doesn't correspond to the atmosphere in which I wish to read my spooky books, i.e. in cold and rain and wind. While cozy inside obviously.





I did read some things that qualified for the R.I.P. VI challenge that Carl hosts each year:

The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag by Alan Bradley
Soulless by Gail Carriger
Definitely Dead by Charlaine Harris
A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

I'm not doing so well with reviews, but they'll come soon. In a nutshell: I loved The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag by Alan Bradley because I love, love, love Flavia de Luce; I'm enjoying the Sookie Stackhouse series; I didn't finish either Soulless or A Discovery of Witches, which is a surprise to me.

I love the R.I.P.  challenge but I didn't really give it much attention this year and now I regret it. I should have taken the time to curl up on the couch with a Wilkie Collins or some ghost stories. I'll have to remember that for next year.

Anyway, Happy Halloween everyone!

Saturday, October 29, 2011

One Day by David Nicholls

I don't know what to do about this review now. I read most of One Day in a state of love and admiration and the feeling that finally, at last, there is a book that understands my generation. I always looked for such a book but could never find one where the atmosphere was spot on. I found what I was looking for in One Day, not because of the story itself but because of the way the characters thought and acted and felt. I could see myself in this story like I've never been able to see myself in any other piece of writing.

First of all, they were lost for a really long time and I think that's one of the things that there is so much of. Because we don't have the obligations - legal or societal - to settle down at 20 we are allowed this period of discovering ourselves, of wandering, of not knowing where we're heading. It's easy to wake up around 30 years old and realize that this isn't where you want to be at all.

Then there's the way they're always just playing at stuff. Dexter is obviously always playing, at being cool and famous and young. But Emma is too, never quite belonging, never quite believing that she's up to the task.

This passage really rang true for me: Emma is on her way to an interview in a publishing house and she's accompanied by an aquiantance from college who got her this interview:

"They ride the next twenty storeys in silence. Beside her Stephanie Shaw stands smart, petite in a crisp white shirt - no, not a shirt, a blouse - tight black pencil skirt, a neat little bob, years away from the sullen Goth who sat next to her in tutorials all that time ago, and Emma is surprised to find herself intimidated by her old acquaintance; her professional demeanour, her no-nonsense manner. Stephanie Shaw has probably sacked people. She probably says things like 'photocopy this for me!' If Emma did the same at school they'd laugh in her face. In the lift, hands clasped in front of her, Emma has a sudden urge to giggle. It's like they're playing at a game called 'Offices'." (pp 237-238)

Oh, how many times I've felt this way! All those board meetings with a bunch of men in suits and now all these other meetings with public servants, so more men in suits. And women too actually, and all of them, irrespective of gender, seem to take themselves way too seriously. All those years ago, when I was young and ambitious, I would be asked to do things like meet with the company president and I'd think, 'but it's only me, why would you want to listen to me'. But I looked like I should know.

I guess the book made me think about how my outlook changed over the years. When I was younger; I would dress the corporate part but didn't believe that I belonged in that world, that I knew anything. I felt like I was faking it. Now, I dress and I act like me - no more suits, no more corporate behaviour - I'm the same person at work and at home and so much happier. Not everyone likes this, but I feel that I'm true to myself wherever I am and that's important to me.

I loved the way One Day was structured, I loved the writing, I loved the characters. I loved it all the way up until the ending and then I stopped. I hated the ending. (***SPOILER ALERT - HIGHLIGHT THE FOLLOWING LINES TO READ MY THOUGHTS ON THE ENDING***) I don't see why things had to be that way, I don't see how it made the story any better. In fact, I think it would have been better if Emma and Dex either ended up with each other period or if they ended up with other people and never got to find out if they would have worked or not. To me, that would have been more realistic and would have left the story as about two regular lives. I think the dying was too much. (***END OF SPOILER***)

So in the end, it's not one of my favorite books but I certainly loved reading it. Oh, and I think it'll make a great movie, can't wait to see it!

What did you think? If you haven't read One Day yet, did the ending ever totally ruin a book for you?

Monday, October 24, 2011

My week of reading

I actually had a week of reading as I was off sick. In fact, I'm still off sick until Thursday and hope to get even more reading in. :-)

Being sick is no fun of course and it was even worse than usual because Shane had the stomach flu at the beginning of the week and Joe had the stomach flu at the end of the week. I'm sticking to the good old regular flu so far, thankfully.

What did I do? I watched a lot of crap TV, which is what you're supposed to do in these situations, right?

And I read. Reviews will come later on, but I'll already say that I admit defeat when it comes to A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness. I kept thinking of other things I needed to do while I was reading it and eventually I just switched books. I read Holes by Louis Sachar and One Day by David Nicholls instead. A much nicer experience.

Now I'm on Wicked by Gregory Maguire. I've been dying to read it since I saw the musical in London at the beginning of October. Have you read it? What did you think?

Thursday, October 20, 2011

More mini-reviews - Japan, female bonding and steampunk

Angry Housewives Eating Bon Bons by Lorna Landvik
This book was utterly predictable, but maybe that's what made it such a comfort to read. I loved this story of female bonding, the friendship between five women who live in the same neighborhood, their trials and experiences that take them from young age to old. To have a night off from family and home once in a while, the ladies form a book club that one of the husbands calls Angry Housewives Eating Bon Bons. But their friendship isn't limited to these meetings, they are there for each other through everything - and I mean that, since the author includes pretty much everything that could happen to people in the story lines. :-) Very enjoyable book that made me feel warm inside.

The Street of a Thousand Blossoms by Gail Tsukiyama
This is the only book that I managed to read in Polish this year, how appalling. My Mom gave it to me, otherwise I probably would never had picked it up. This is a story of Japan during and after World War II and is incredibly interesting from all kinds of perspectives. First of all, obviously from the historical perspective. My reading on World War II is limited to the European point of view, maybe sometimes the American. I enjoyed learning about this period of time in Japan (just like I enjoyed reading about the war in Hong Kong in The Piano Teacher by Janice Y.K. Lee), I knew close to nothing about it. Aside from wartime reality, the book has so much interesting detail on Japanese culture, including on sumo wrestling and on traditional Japanese 'Noh' theatre and the art of making the masks the actors wear on stage. I found these truly fascinating. The story read like a soap opera, every tragedy that could befall the characters did so at some point, just like in Angry Housewives Eating Bon Bons, but I enjoyed the book anyway.


Only the Good Spy Young by Ally Carter
The fourth installment in the Gallagher Girls series was just as much fun. Things are getting darker and darker for Cameron as she tries to cope with spy school, boys and trying to hide from the evil terrorist organization that is after her. And her favorite teacher might be involved too, how can she trust anyone? Great series for when you're in the mood for something light but original.


Mini Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella
The latest book in the life of Becky Brandon, nee Bloomwood. Becky's daughter Minnie is now two and quite a handful with a will of her own and a taste for the expensive. Becky's having some trouble controlling her and also finding time to plan Luke's birthday party (on a budget!) and trying not to indulge in shopping (she's on a budget!). the usual hilarity results. I know that some people are annoyed by Becky, but I love her voice, maybe because I can relate to her shopping mania. :-) This was a perfect summer book!


Soulless by Gail Carriger
This is my second DNF (did not finish) of the year, I just couldn't get into it. I had such high hopes for this story about an Italian lady without a soul, vampires and werewolves living in Victorian London. But halfway into the book I didn't care what happened to any of the characters and I couldn't force myself to read it any more. Maybe because I don't like the Victorian setting in general? This was my first book in the steampunk genre, I'm now undecided about whether to try another or accept that the genre is not for me...