Wednesday, December 30, 2015

End of 2015 Book Survey

Once again, I'm filling out an end-of-the-year book survey made by Jamie at The Perpetual Page-Turner! The link leads you to her own list for this year.

Number Of Books You Read: 31
Number of Re-Reads: 2 
Genre You Read The Most From: Classics and contemporary (which is CRAZY because even though I enjoy contemporary I never seem to read much of it)

1. Best book you read In 2015?
Click here to see my list.

2. Book you were excited about & thought you were going to love more but didn’t?
Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor and Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

There are probably some diehard fans that hate me right now because these books get A LOT of love. But I just wasn't crazy about either of them. As I said in my review of Daughter of Smoke and Bone, I just felt there were too many Underworld similarities for it to feel original, and I didn't even review Outlander because I knew that I wasn't about to say anything that hasn't already been said before by the few who disliked it.

3. Most surprising (in a good way or bad way) book you read?
Gruesome Playground Injuries by Rajiv Joseph - I had to read this play for an acting class (don't ask) and I guess I just wasn't expecting it to be as fantastic as it was.

Fairest by Marissa Meyer - I didn't expect this to be so good since it's a prequel about the Lunar Chronicles villain, but holy crap. That whole family is crazy.

4. Book you “pushed” the most people to read (and they did)?
Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork - well, no one has actually read it yet, but I bought it for my best friend for Christmas last year and this year I got a professor to put it higher up on her TBR (she can use it for a class).

5. Best series you started in 2015? Best sequel of 2015? Best series ender of 2015?
Best series started: Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas
Best sequel: I'm going to cheat and use the prequel Fairest by Marissa Meyer
Best series ender: Redeemed by P.C. Cast and Kristin Cast

6. Favorite new author you discovered in 2015?
Virginia Woolf, hands down. (Obviously she's not new to the world, but she's new to me.)

7. Best book from a genre you don’t typically read/was out of your comfort zone?
Gruesome Playground Injuries by Rajiv Joseph. I don't usually read plays, but this was really good.

8. Most action-packed/thrilling/unputdownable book of the year?
Either Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas or Redeemed by P.C. Cast and Kristin Cast. Also, I read Fairest by Marissa Meyer in a day - talk about some insane characters with major issues.

9. Book you read In 2015 that you are most likely to re-read next year?
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. It was perfect, and I could relate to it in ways I've never been able to relate to a book before.

10. Favorite cover of a book you read in 2015?
Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas - a gorgeous piece of art depicting a badass character! 

11. Most memorable character of 2015?
Antoinetta - Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
Celaena - Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas
Lily and Mrs. Ramsay - To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

12. Most beautifully written book read in 2015?
Aurora Leigh by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Looking For Alaska by John Green
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

13. Most thought-provoking/life-changing book of 2015?
Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee certainly sparked some discussions.

14. Book you can’t believe you waited UNTIL 2015 to finally read?
Looking for Alaska by John Green and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

15. Favorite passage/quote from a book you read In 2015?
"Thomas Edison's last words were 'it's very beautiful over there.' I don't know where there is, but I believe it's somewhere, and I hope it's beautiful." - John Green, Looking for Alaska

"It would be hung in the attics...It would be destroyed. But what did that matter?" - Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse (to provide some context, "it" is a painting)

"I have had my vision." - Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse

16.Shortest & longest book you read in 2015?
Shortest - Gruesome Playground Injuries by Rajiv Joseph
Longest - Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

17. Book that shocked you the most
(Because of a plot twist, character death, left you hanging with your mouth wide open, etc.)
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne - THE ENDING
Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee - OH MY GOSH ATTICUS WHY?

18. OTP OF THE YEAR (you will go down with this ship!)
(OTP = one true pairing if you aren’t familiar)
Mr. Weston and Agnes - Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte (the Bronte sisters do romance better than anyone!)
Doug and Kayleen - Gruesome Playground Injuries by Rajiv Joseph

19. Favorite non-romantic relationship of the year:
Jim and Huck - The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

20. Favorite book you read in 2015 from an author you’ve read previously:
Looking for Alaska by John Green

21. Best book you read in 2015 that you read based SOLELY on a recommendation from somebody else/peer pressure:
The only book I read based solely on a recommendation this year was The Awakening by Kate Chopin. One of my favorite teachers said it was one of her favorites and I've loved her previous recommendations, but I was a bit lukewarm on this one. Definitely an important book from an important author though.

22. Newest fictional crush from a book you read in 2015?
I'm not sure if I have one, but I though Doug from Gruesome Playground Injuries was a sweetheart albeit reckless.

23. Best 2015 debut you read?
As usual, I didn't get to a debut.

24. Best worldbuilding/most vivid setting you read this year?
Nothing's jumping out at me too much (because I haven't read as much sci-fi and fantasy this year) but I could visualize the castle in Throne of Glass really well.

25. Book that put a smile on your face/was the most FUN to read?
Redeemed by P.C. Cast and Kristin Cast.

26. Book that made you cry or nearly cry in 2015?
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne (THAT FREAKING ENDING OH MY GOSH) and Looking for Alaska by John Green

27. Hidden gem of the year?
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
Gruesome Playground Injuries by Rajiv Joseph

28. Book that crushed your soul?
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne

29. Most unique book you read in 2015?
The Rover by Aphra Behn. This play is really... Well, I don't even know. I've certainly never read anything quite like it. It was written in the 1600s and highlights how women were looked upon in that time, and it's rather alarming. But it's also unique because women generally weren't writing in this time period; Aphra Behn was the first woman to write professionally. In A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf says “All women together ought to let flowers fall upon the tomb of Aphra Behn, for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds.”

Also, Aurora Leigh by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. She took the epic form and made a relatable story with her interesting style. Mrs. Browning also gets props.

30. Book that made you the most mad (doesn’t necessarily mean you didn’t like it)?
Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor, because there were just too many Underworld: Rise of the Lycans similarities.

Book Blogging

1. New favorite book blog you discovered in 2015?
I'm having trouble with finding book blogs. There are so many out there but I've always been selective about who I follow. (Not the greatest karma, I know.)

2. Favorite review that you wrote in 2015?
I don't really have a favorite review... but, I suppose I was most excited about writing my review of the album Visions by Grimes.

3. Best discussion/non-review post you had on your blog?
Let's face it, they weren't that memorable.

4. Best event that you participated in (author signings, festivals, virtual events, memes, etc.)?
The only meme I participate in is Top Ten Tuesday.

5. Best moment of bookish/blogging life in 2015?
I honestly don't know if there was a single moment. It was a solid year all-around.

6. Most popular post this year on your blog (whether it be by comments or views)?
My review of Endless Forms Most Beautiful by Nightwish.

7. Post you wished got a little more love?
For the second half of this year, I think it would be more appropriate to say I wish the blog in general got a little more love. (Pageviews took a nosedive.)

8. Best bookish discover (book related sites, book stores, etc.)?

Hmm... I don't think I have one this year. Although I will say that I was finally able to find three books I wanted for the buy two, get one free deal they have at Barnes and Nobel.

9. Did you complete any reading challenges or goals that you had set for yourself at the beginning of this year?
I always want to read at least 24 books each year, so I surpassed that.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Top 30 Singles of 2015 Countdown: Part 2

Click here for Part 1 if you missed it.

"All of the Stars" - Jackie Evancho
Some may remember Jackie Evancho's brother Jacob, who she performed a duet with on an occasion or two. Well, this year Jacob debuted as Juliet, and Jackie showed her support for her sister (and transgender individuals in general) through a heart-warming cover of Ed Sheeran's "All of the Stars." The song and video are bound to give the warm-fuzzy effect. It seems like everything this girl does makes me even more proud to be a fan.

"Black Sun" - Death Cab for Cutie
I generally have not paid too much attention to Death Cab for Cutie. While I can say that I think many of their songs are 'nice,' "Black Sun" is the only one that has truly stood out to me so far. The repetitive guitar part is so soothing and the lyrics are quite exceptional: "How could something so fair be so cruel / When this black sun revolved around you." However, I must admit I'm a bit impartial to this one as I found it at a time where I could really relate to it. I suppose I could enjoy their other songs more if I found them at the perfect moment, but I really think "Black Sun" is special somehow.

"Jenny" - Nothing More
One of the few songs I've discovered through the radio this year. Nothing More wasn't able to capture my attention with their other singles, but "Jenny" stood out even beyond the tough lyrical topics. Musically, this heavier track may be one of the best things to happen to mainstream rock radio in a while with its damn near perfect chorus and middle eight. While the entire song stands out, the chorus is an especially good combination of catchy and moving: "Maybe you should just fall / And leave the world and lose it all..."

"Endless Forms Most Beautiful" - Nightwish
Nightwish's first album with Floor Jansen was a creative success. It's heavier and more cinematic than their past few albums, and the high-energy title single "Endless Forms Most Beautiful" provides an intriguing glimpse. While the fun guitar line is prominent throughout the song and Floor Jansen does a lovely job handling both the soft and louder moments, what really stands out is the middle eight. The band and the orchestra are basically battling, and as they combine with a soaring choir they reach an unforgettable climax.

"Queen of Peace" - Florence + the Machine
Florence + the Machine knocked me flat with the album How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful. It was big, kinda blue, and definitely beautiful - "Queen of Peace" is one of my favorites from that batch of songs. Only Florence + the Machine would be able to combine alternative with a prominent orchestra this well. It has been stuck in my head many a time in 2015 and I cannot complain. I love it.

"Doing the Right Thing" - Daughter
Daughter makes some of the best indie music that ever was, and they released "Doing the Right Thing" to promote their upcoming album Not to Disappear. Much like anything else they've written, "Doing the Right Thing" is incredibly soothing and incredibly sad-sounding. The guitar parts are gorgeous and subtle, and only Elena Tonra's voice could properly complement them. It's about dementia, so I'm sure many who have seen loved ones go through this will relate.

"It’s a Fire" - Amy Lee
This piano ballad is my favorite of Amy Lee's covers. Both instrumentally and vocally, it's much more accessible to my tastes compared to the Portishead original. I can see why Amy would have liked this song so much with those gorgeous, empowering lyrics, and I think her version is going to move her fans the same way the original moved her: "'Cause this life is a farce / I can't breathe through this mask, like a fool / So breathe on, sister, breathe on." But let's be honest - this woman's' voice could even make the "Happy Birthday" song sound beautiful.

"Good for You" - Selena Gomez ft. A$AP Rocky
I've liked quite a few of Selena Gomez's singles over the year, but "Good for You" might be my favorite. I could have lived without A$AP Rocky being featured on the middle eight, but I ultimately can't complain too much. Gomez doesn't try too hard vocally, she just lets herself flow over the sexy, subdued instrumental... I ultimately just feel sassy whenever I hear this. I haven't listened to her new album yet, but this song has my expectations set much higher than they would have been otherwise.

"What Kind of Man" - Florence + the Machine
Oh, sweet Jesus, THIS SONG. THIS ANTHEM. Florence + the Machine slayed me with "What Kind of Man." Florence Welch's attitude is fierce - she's pissed, and I was pissed with her... It an experience, okay? She put a ton of soul into this track and I felt it in my soul. "What Kind of Man" is a bit more rock-oriented than the norm for Florence + the Machine and I totally appreciate that. The overall sound just works.

"REALiTi" - Grimes
The story of "REALiTi" is a prime example that Grimes loves her fans. The electronic mastermind released this song and video in the first half of the year, telling fans that she'd never officially release it because she didn't like it much... Well, everybody loved it (although it took me a little while to really appreciate it) and we all cried hard enough that she 'fixed' this demo version and put a shiny new one (which is produced fabulously) on her album Art Angels. (She's such a sweetheart!) I still love this demo though. It's relaxing, retro, and dreamy (even more so compared to the new Art Angels version).

"Blue Pool" - Vanessa Carlton
Just before the release of Liberman, Carlton teased fans with the Blue Pool EP from which this single was extracted (although it's also on Liberman). I have enjoyed a pretty decent chunk of this woman's discography throughout the years, but "Blue Pool" is probably my favorite now. It's so pretty. The instrumentation is light but leaves a substantial impression (much like Carlton's voice), and the piano outro is just golden. I command everyone to listen to it right now - this girl deserves way more fans than she has.

"Flesh without Blood" - Grimes
Art Angels lead single "Flesh without Blood" wasn't what most fans were expecting. Grimes' electronic music is usually really dark and bizarre, but "Flesh without Blood" is an optimistic, guitar-driven anthem. Even as someone who loves the darkness of most of her music, I adore "Flesh without Blood." It had the power to make me feel better during times I felt like shit with its carefree atmosphere and liberating lyrics, like "I don't see the light I saw in you before / And oh, I don't...I don't care anymore," "If you don't need me, just let me go," etc. Plus, her production skills have improved loads! But I will love Grimes forever, no matter the production style.

"Black Lake" - Björk
Björk has always been able to convey emotion better than almost everybody. (It's the most noticeable thing Amy Lee seems to have learned from her.) It's almost difficult to listen to "Black Lake" because it's one of the most emotionally-drenched tracks she's ever made - it's the most honest cry of brokenness I've ever heard, but it's so beautiful. The prominent string line makes it reminiscent of some sort of excellent film score. Some of the intense/loud notes that the orchestra just holds without changing magnifies empty moments, and the lyrics are pure poetry: "I am a glowing shiny rocket / Returning home / As I enter the atmosphere / I burn off layer by layer." This woman deserves a golden monument.

"Digital World" - Amaranthe
Amaranthe has a lot of good songs, but "Digital World" may be the best of them all. The blend of synths and heavy guitars is at its best, and all the vocalists fit in so perfectly. But that chorus: "You don't ever have to cry 'cause the future is sold / You can never die and you never grow old / And everything surrounding you is digital." I don't care what anyone says about the ear-catching nature of Top 40 hits - those artists would kill to come up with a vocal line like this.

"Perfect Life" - Steven Wilson
An unexpected pick, but I knew right when I first heard it that it would belong on the #1 spot on this countdown, and my love for it hasn't wavered one bit. I didn't even know who Steven Wilson was until I read a positive review of Hand. Cannot. Erase. on The Metal Pigeon. "Perfect Life" is the only one I like, and it's one of the most beautiful pieces of art I've ever found. Although repetitive in nature, it's a song that builds, and each new element tugs at my heart harder and harder. The first half of the song is narrated, and Wilson sings "we have got the perfect life" over and over again in the second half. I'm rarely this moved by a piece... The whole atmosphere mimics real life so well.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Top 30 Singles of 2015 Countdown: Part 1

Now that 2015's coming to an end, it's time to talk about the best singles I've encountered this year. It seems that everyone can agree that 2015 was an epic year for music, from metal fans to pop fans and everyone in between. Hence, my list is a lot bigger than usual. I had to split the countdown in half. But, as per usual, I listen to a pretty interesting variety of music so don't be surprised if it seems like this list was compiled by about five different people (it wasn't), and I'm sure most will find a song of interest on this list (sorry, country fans). 

"On My Mind" - Ellie Goulding
When it comes to Ellie Goulding's music, I either really love it or really hate it. I wasn't a fan of the overplayed "Love Me Like You Do," but I can't resist "On My Mind." Goulding's semi-raspy voice is a great fit for the guitar-meets-electronics instrumental. It's choppy in a way that's flowy and it stands out among the typical Top 40 material because of that.

"Trini Dem Girls" - Nicki Minaj ft. LunchMoney Lewis
LET ME EXPLAIN HOW CONFUSED I AM. I have never liked Nicki Minaj's material. Ever. Then one day my BFF had me listen to "Trini Dem Girls" and alas, 2015 became the year I liked a Nicki song. I can't blame myself - this instrumental is a banger perfect for any and all club settings... But lyrically? I have no idea what's going on. That's hardly the point though: It's a fun, catchy-as-hell song that I can dance to. Funny how music we least expect to leave an impression can end up on a list of favorites in the end.

"Failure" - Breaking Benjamin
2015 also marked the long-awaited return of Breaking Benjamin with four all-new members. While their album Dark Before Dawn didn't impress me much overall and they admittedly don't have a ton of variety in their music, their songs are usually full of emotion and easy to appreciate. "Failure" stuck out to me for some reason. It reminds me a bit of Phobia, my favorite of their albums. But even though it's not too different from anything they've done, the fact of the matter is that this song is too likable to turn away from: Ben's voice is pure gorgeousness as usual, the chord progression is great, and the lyrics describe a special kind of exhaustion and frustration: "Tired of feeling lost / Tired of letting go...Tired of wasted breath / Tired of nothing left."

"Baby Did a Bad, Bad Thing" - Amy Lee
Evanescence frontwoman Amy Lee has been doing some solo work scoring indie films during the past couple years, but this year she created a YouTube channel and uploaded kickass covers. Personally I have never heard the Chris Isaak tune "Baby Did a Bad, Bad Thing" before this cover (and I was a little too annoyed with it to listen to that original the entire way through) but Amy made it awesome. It's the most upbeat of all her covers as it's a great combination of electronic and rock elements. This cover proves once again that I love Amy's musicianship - with or without Evanescence behind her.

"SCREAM" - Grimes ft. Aristophanes
(Is this technically a promo single? Well, it's obviously on the list anyway so I don't care.) This track may be little but it's a monster. It's mind-blowing. It's scary. Plus, it's difficult to tell what's going on for a multitude of reasons: Aristophanes isn't rapping in English, the translations are rather explicit, Aristophanes makes scary noises, and the only part that Grimes has in this song is the screaming. It's... kind of wonderful. The instrumental sounds like it could have been used in one of the Underworld films, and the guitars thicken a great deal by the time the second chorus hits.

"Stonemilker" - Björk 
When you have a musical career as long and as innovative as Björk's, I imagine it would be kind of scary - what if future releases can never top the classics? Well, the Icelandic legend apprantly doens't have to worry about something like that because released some of the best work of her entire career this year. "Stonemilker" is a string-led piece that has the power to instantly soothe. Even once the percussion comes in, it's light and echoey. It may in fact be one of the prettiest songs she's made - even those who cannot get past her unique voice can at acknowledge the instrumental beauty. Björk certainly knows how to create a whole atmosphere with her songs, and it's usually one I want to come back to. 

"Uma Thurman" - Fall Out Boy
Leave it to Fall Out Boy to make one of the most fun-sounding singles of the year. I wasn't crazy about "Uma Thurman" when I first heard it (much like "American Beauty/American Psycho," which I became crazy about long after I compiled last year's singles list) but it eventually grew on me. It's easy to dance and be crazy to... And it puts some kind of odd curse on me once in a while and I can't stop singing it. It makes me want to dance like Uma Thurman and I can't get it out of my head.

"Sparks" -  Hilary Duff
Early 2000-era Disney fans, 2015 was a Code Red Emergency: Hilary Duff made new music! Just in time to get us ready for her presidential election! I wasn't initially impressed with her single "Sparks" but then it just hit me like a ton of bricks in the second half of the year. But, I mean, it's  Hilary Duff, so it was only a matter of time before it grew on me. The melody of the chorus kind of reminds me of Rihanna's "Only Girl in the World," but I like this better. Everything from those whistles to the fun vocal line is purely infectious.

"Operator" - Vanessa Carlton
Vanessa Carlton finally released some new material this year. While I haven't listened to the entirety of Liberman yet, the singles are making me fall in love with her all over again. "Operator" is the perfect mixture of a soothing piano line and a hint of adventure that only Carlton can deliver. It's a piano-led song about running away - who doesn't love one of those? Indie fans will devour it - in a way, she was indie before indie even existed.

"True" - Amaranthe
Amaranthe is known for fusing electronic elements with metal, thus creating a catalog of high-energy tracks shared by their three unique vocalists. However, their latest single, "True," is a bit different. While it's still heavy and band-oriented, is one of the most melodic of their songs. A light piano line cascades atop the rest of the instruments throughout the track and only clean vocals are featured. It's ultimately quite pretty, and it has a nice message: "And if my dreams set everything on fire / Then I would still belong to you."

"I Want You to Know" - Zedd ft. Selena Gomez
Sometimes even the most potentially-energizing pop/electronic tracks can get boring since they follow similar patterns, but as long as there's an interesting chord progression I tend to be on board. Furthermore, I'm happy with most things Selena Gomez is a part of, and I most definitely approve of this Zedd track she's featured on. The two apparently make a good pair. This catchy, melodic electronic track boosts my energy level every time I hear it. It's one of those songs perfect for both clubbing and late night driving.

"High by the Beach" - Lana Del Rey
Lana Del Rey's unique fusion of indie, R&B, and electronic elements is epitomized in the Honeymoon lead single "High by the Beach." The electronics are subtle and Lana's voice is soothing as ever. The chorus can become one of the most annoying things in existence when stuck in your head, but that's just because it's catchy as all get out. Between the lead and backing vocals, I can't tell which is more entrancing.

"Giant Peach" - Wolf Alice
Wolf Alice was a lovely surprise in 2015. This new grungy/alt band from Britain impressed me immediately with their single "Moaning Lisa Smile," and eventually I stumbled into "Giant Peach" and loved it about as much. While not every song on their album My Love is Cool throws back to grunge, "Giant Peach" certainly does a little bit and seems to also mix it with a little classic rock with its too-cool riffs. The vocals are a great combination of soft and sassy. Altogether, it's just so damn enjoyable for the ears!

"Soap" - Melanie Martinez
Melanie Martinez's dark pop music and her odd correlations to childhood are intriguing. My closest friends fells in love with her music just as her debut album, Cry Baby, was released, and the whole Internet seemed to be falling in love with her as well. She takes huge risks with her music, and this is so evident in "Soap." The drop consists of bubbles popping. Bubbles, people - this is genius! The whole song has a great atmosphere - light enough not to be depressing, but dark and interesting enough to be attention-grabbing.

"American Oxygen" - Rihanna
Rihanna's made some pretty awesome singles throughout the her career despite a bit of a semi-recent dry spell. However, the keyboard-led "American Oxygen" is probably the best of them all. This song paints a picture of the American Dream and the tough reality of actually achieving it: "We sweat for a nickel and a dime, turn it into an empire." The fact that someone who's from a foreign country is performing this song makes even more special, contrary to what some conservatives might say.

Top Ten Tuesday: Top Ten Books I Wouldn't Mind Santa Leaving Under My Tree This Year

Time for a another Top Ten Tuesday, which is hosted at The Broke and the Bookish. Today, book bloggers were asked to reveal the Santa list. We're usually given this topic around this time of year; I've participated in it before, and there are actually a couple books on it this year that were also on it in previous years. (My book-buying priorities get a little weird sometimes.)

Top Ten Books I Wouldn't Mind Santa Leaving Under My Tree This Year

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
Zodiac by Romina Russell
House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielwski

Crown of Midnight by Sarah J. Maas
Alien Secrets by Annette Curtis Klause
The Collected Poems by Sylvia Plath
A Thousand Pieces of You by Claudia Gray

Library of Souls by Ransom Riggs
The Diminishing House by Nicky Beer
Nevermore by Kelly Creagh

Let me know what books you hope to receive for Christmas this year and have a fantastic holiday!

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Best Books I Read: 2015 (Also Top Ten Tuesday)

Every year since I began blogging I make a big post about the best books I read. Since then, I've added a ton of end-of-year lists, and I wanted to try and spread them out a bit. I saw that today's Top Ten Tuesday (a lovely meme hosted at The Broke and the Bookish) would be our best books list, so I decided that today would be the day - a little earlier than usual. I'm going to make this list only include what I've read from the start of the year through December 14, and anything I read from today until the end will just go on next year's list.

The books selected are the only ones I gave 5/5 on Goodreads. This list is a bit weirder than in previous years - I didn't read nearly as much YA as I usually do. (I still love YA - I simply read a different kind of variety this year... Primarily because of the university workload as an English Education major.) I found some new favorites in places I least expected this year!

Looking for Alaska 
by John Green

Well, I finally read it, and I must say, John Green knows how to write a damn good book. Looking for Alaska, which follows a teenager nicknamed Pudge who goes to boarding school for a more exciting life, was beautiful in just about every way. Green's writing style is immaculate: Not only are this man's sentences linguistically pretty, but he also does an exceptional job of describing emotions and making readers feel them. I cried - but that's hardly a surprise. The themes are easy to connect with as this book heavily deals with guilt and forgiveness, and the characters are so wonderful and flawed - it would be hard not to love Looking for Alaska. On a personal level I feel as though I picked a really good time to read this one.

To the Lighthouse 
by Virginia Woolf

To the Lighthouse is the first Virginia Woolf novel I've read, and it surely won't be the last. It resonated with me quite deeply - I still think about it all the time. I've wanted to reread it since I put it down, and that doesn't happen often. I could really find myself in the painter Lily Briscoe and her relationships with a number of other characters; I could make connections between the Ramsay dynamic and my own family's way of functioning. Woolf uses her complicated stream-of-consciousness writing style to unravel psychological states and to show time's slow progress, giving us a perfect, clear picture of several characters over the span of two days (separated by ten years). She is clearly showing readers rather than telling them. All aspects considered, To the Lighthouse instantly became one of my favorite books this year.

A Room of One's Own 
by Virginia Woolf

See, I told you To the Lighthouse wouldn't be my last Woolf novel (although A Room of One's Own is a big essay... you get the idea). Woolf addresses the needs of women (and really, of all writers) in order to write something and write it well: Financial security, education, and space to herself. Naturally, it is a feminist essay, but from a literary nerd's standpoint this was especially interesting to read because Woolf uses classic authors as examples, namely William Shakespeare, Charlotte Bronte, Emily Bronte, and Jane Austen. The connections she makes and the theories she comes up with are equally fascinating and powerful.

Go Set a Watchman 
by Harper Lee

Yep, I consider Go Set a Watchman one of the best books I read this year. I enjoyed this pre-To Kill a Mockingbird manuscript thoroughly for what it was - and what's really unique about reading this is you can take it as seriously or as not seriously as you want - there are details about To Kill a Mockingbird that are inconsistent with what became the actual novel. I accept the argument that Harper Lee likely changed her mind about what she wanted Atticus Finch to be, but regardless, the fallen idol concept of this book really moved me, and there's something about Lee's writing that makes me plow through pages at high speeds.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn 
by Mark Twain

I first read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in 2013 for a high school class and I really enjoyed it. I gave it a four out of five on Goodreads. I reread it for a college class this year and somehow my appreciation for this novel really expanded. I don't think I fully realized how much I loved Huck's story and how it's really everyone's story to some extent until this reread. Plus, Twain can be quite funny, thus making this book even more enjoyable to read. It has a good comibination of feels. I imagine I'll reread it a third time someday.

Wide Sargasso Sea 
by Jean Rhys

Wide Sargasso Sea is essentially wonderful Jane Eyre fanfiction, as Jean Rhys writes about Bertha (Antoinetta) Mason's troubling childhood and her eventual marriage to Mr. Rochester. This book is written beautifully. I read it for a university class, so I learned about why Rhys slightly shifted the time it was written and how Rochester's typical British culture clashed with Antoinetta's unique one (as a British girl raised in the Carribbean). Rhys' cultural and historical considerations offer an interesting perspective on the characters Jane Eyre fans have already been so fascinated by. Many who read this prequel seem to hate Rochester afterward, but I did not - for a variety of reasons that I won't get into. I ultimately feel the same way as I always have: He's flawed, but I feel sorry for him. I think he truly tried to do the best he could in his situation. Altogether, I think this is a very valid prequel.

The Handmaid's Tale 
by Margaret Atwood

I kind of dreaded reading The Handmaid's Tale because I expected it to be kind of scary and morbid. It definitely was, and that's why it's good. Imagine a futuristic society that restrict's women's freedom in every sense - that's what's in this book. Some of the ideas this society argues for may seem so ridiculous, but people make them even now. Offred's story is told from her present standpoing along with flashbacks, and Atwood strategically reveals information to keep readers asking questions. It's definitely thought-provoking - a nightmarish scenario that can go on society's list of futures to avoid encountering.

by P.C. Cast and Kristin Cast

Once again, I use my best books list to honor the series everyone loves to hate. Redeemed is the final installment of the Cast girls' House of Night series and I thought it was an incredibly fun and satisfying read. The characters are silly and the magic is awesome, as per usual. There are also some twists in Redeemed that I definitely was not expecting. Perhaps the biggest theme of this series is forgiveness (an element I have always appreciated), and of course this came full circle in Redeemed. I really enjoyed this conclusion.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas 
by John Boyne

I was nervous about this one. I heard the author was pretty ruthless with readers' hearts in the end, and the Internet was right. A book about Nazi Germany from a child's perspective is bound to dampen eyes and help gain perspective - the Holocaust is even more confusing and stupid when examined from the eyes of a child. The simplistic writing tackled a scary world ever so innocently from beginning to end as Boyne traced the friendship of Bruno, the son of a lead Nazi officer, and Schmuel, a Jewish boy at "Out-With." This book shows that sometimes a whole other world is just over the fence, if we care to look.

Gruesome Playground Injuries
by Rajiv Joseph

I somehow stumbled into an acting class at my university this semester, and Rajiv Joseph's play Gruesome Playground Injuries was required reading (and performing). I don't read a ton of plays and when I do they're usually older literature, and I guess I just didn't expect to love this one as much as I did. It's a peculiar story - two people cross paths time and time again throughout their lives as they hurt themselves and each other. Between intentional self-harm and merely reckless behavior, these characters go through a lot together. Quite a few themes and emotions are represented; it's so easy to get something out of this short read. I loved it.

Feel free to share your list with me. I hope you had a fabulous year in books! More fun lists are coming - I have a two-part countdown of the year's best musical singles, a book survey, and a new kind of music list scheduled.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Amy Lee's New Covers

While Evanescence hasn't been releasing new material lately, lead vocalist Amy Lee has been involved in plenty of projects. She's been scoring indie films (War Story, Hammerstep's Indigo Grey) and has penned the theme song for Voice from the Stone (which has yet to be released). But recently, she began a YouTube channel and started covering songs from an interesting variety of artists - I immediately loved this idea and wanted to share what she's done so far! And what's perhaps even more interesting? I'm not a fan of any of the originals she's transformed, but I really like her new versions.

While it would be easy to imagine someone who looks like a goth-rocker to only listen to music that's dark or theatrical, fans know that Amy has an interesting taste in music. I always think that my tastes are really eclectic, but then I remember what she listens to. She may be in a rock band, but she's got a soft spot for electronic and trip-hop, so it was no surprise that the first cover she released was a Portishead song.

This first cover is actually my favorite. It's the closest to anything Amy's done before - a piano-led ballad that features some nice cello parts. It's such a fitting song for Amy to sing considering how the lyrics comfort and motivate (that's what Evanescence songs do for most fans): "'Cause this life is a farce / I can't breathe through this mask like a fool / So breathe on, sister, breathe on." By the time she whispers "sister" at the end my heart drops.

The next song she covered is one everyone seems to love even though I've always kind of hated it: "With or Without You" by U2. Even though I adore Jackie Evancho and Scala and Kolacny Brothers, I wasn't a fan of either of their covers either, but Amy's is the one that finally struck a chord with me. This one is more electronic - fans of both "Lockdown" and the epic backing vocals in "Lose Control" will appreciate how haunting it is. Somehow her rendition depicts struggle more than all the others.

The last cover Amy has shared with us is of Led Zeppelin's "Going to California." Recently Evanescence reunited to perform in three U.S. cities as well as Ozzfest in Japan and they played this cover at all the shows. Even though Amy's mellow tracks usually have piano or electronic roots, this cover only features acoustic guitars - what a nice surprise! While it's not exactly my favorite, it's very peaceful. La critica le gusta!

We don't have any more covers as of yet, but I hope they keep coming. Amy Lee is a highly creative individual - no matter what musical project she's signed herself up for, I'll be watching and I'll be supporting.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Hate List | by: Jennifer Brown

Valerie must go back to school, and she's dreading it. At the end of last school year, her boyfriend Nick killed himself and other students. Survivors deal with painful injuries both inside and out. All of the victims were on the "hate list" which he wrote with Valerie beforehand. Now that everyone knows that Valerie contributed to the list, people blame her, but she had no idea what Nick's true intentions were. He was the one person she thought understood her, but in the end he flipped her world upside down and left. Between all of that and problems at home, Valerie has a lot on her plate, and she doesn't know how to establish a sense of normalcy. 

Obviously Hate List has a lot going for it. That premise is intense, and honestly, when I read about the general gist I immediately thought that it would be too much. Too dramatic... Or maybe just trying to hard to be too dramatic. I was required to read this for a class, and I wouldn't have picked it up otherwise.

While it didn't exactly resonate with me, Hate List wasn't nearly as melodramatic as I expected. I was intrigued and emotionally invested in a moderate way, and I can say that I generally liked it. John Green talked about how we romanticize the dead's previous struggles in The Fault in Our Stars, and Jennifer Brown talks about how we romantice the living's grieving processes. Grief is ugly. And some ugly souls are unaltered even after tragedy. Nothing can completely suck the ugliness out of us, whether we want to admit it or not. Valerie realizes this when she goes back to school: Not much changed since the shooting. But some people did.

Brown seems to form her characters to be real people with a mix of good and bad qualities rather than being walking epitomes, and while that's always ideal, I think it's especially crucial for such a 'real' story. She also does an exceptional job of describing emotions. While no one I have ever known has shot anybody, I have been disappointed. I have missed people and felt disappointed in the at the same time, like Valerie feels about Nick - even though this book has a really extreme premise it has relatable moments. I got a few tears in my eyes off and on.

I guess there's nothing really bad about Hate List, but... I don't know. I guess I just wish the plot was stronger. The most intense moments were usually the flahsbacks, and what happens in the present is interesting, but I just feel like there could have been more... together? The execution of the overall story wasn't bad, the writing wasn't bad, the charactes were honest, there were some emotional, relatable moments... Even though I can say I enjoyed it there's something that keeps me from saying I REALLY liked it, and I'm not 100% sure what it is. Maybe despite everything it's just not my type of book?

Hate List has a lot of positive points, I'll give it that. But I just didn't love it even though I struggle to put my finger on why.