Holiday Reading List: Top 5 Books of 2016

If you’re looking for a good book to read this winter/holiday break, I’ve rounded up my favorite books that I read this year. I always like doing these year in review posts for myself as well, to look back at some of my favorite books of the year and what I would read again, gift to other people, and recommend to my lovely readers! So here it is, my top 5 books (of about 35) that I read in 2016:

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Amazing fantasy by Neil Gaiman: ‘The Ocean at the End of the Lane’

Ho boy. This book was surely the perfect one to read to pull me out of a reading rut. This is my third Neil Gaiman novel, and the first that truly chilled me to the bone. It’s much more serious and much less whimsical than his other stories I’ve read, but no less magicalThe Ocean at the End of the Lane sparks some interesting questions about memory, childhood, and how adulthood morphs all of us. I would recommend this book to people of all ages.

the ocean at the end of the laneThe Ocean at the End of the Lane begins on a somber note: a middle-aged, divorced man returns to his Sussex home to attend a funeral, and in between the service and the luncheon, he finds himself driving to a spot he doesn’t realize until he gets there: an old farmhouse he used to know when he was a very small boy.

He sits by a pond at the edge of the land, and as he does, he remembers repressed memories from when he was seven years old, when an 11-year-old girl named Lettie Hempstock, whose family owned the farm, saved him from a dark, supernatural evil. His memories are triggered by the fact that Lettie called the small pond an “ocean.”

Through the eyes of the narrator, we get to know him as a shy, sensitive seven-year-old who uses books and stories to escape from everyday life. But the whole of the narrative is dominated by the (nameless) main character’s experience dealing with an evil being, who calls herself Ursula Monkton. He first comes into contact with the being when he wakes up choking on a coin, and learns from his enigmatic new friend Lettie Hempstock that a supernatural, devious force is trying to “give people what they want” and is doing it in a way that’ll harm humans.

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Reads & Recs // On the dreaded book rut

Do you ever have periods of time when you just can’t seem to sit still book-wise? When nothing you want to read actually seems appealing to you, and other things, like watching masses of Food Network, are infinitely preferable? Yeah, that’s what I’m going through now. I love reading more than I love most things (except maybe food) but there are these two competing aspects of my personality: one that loves to do nothing but sit at home and read, and the other that hates to be stuck in the same four walls day after day, and would much rather get all dressed up and do something fancy and/or adventurous.

Since around August, it’s been hard for me to sit still with a book. I’ve been restless, busy with a social life, and recently, overwhelmed with Christmas obligations (not complaining), traveling, and work stuff that’s been stressful. I began reading Edward Rutherfurd’s London in December, and only made it to page 400 in three weeks. Pathetic, Lisa. 😉

So in an effort to get myself back on track, here are the books I’ll virtually inhale during the month of January, and wish me heaps of luck! Because despite what it seems like here, I am a notoriously slow reader.

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Author Spotlight: Neil Gaiman

I’ve been reading a lot of literature by Neil Gaiman lately, and have discovered his flair for creating whimsical, inventive fantasy that sucks you in. I read Stardust a few years ago and Neverwhere just a few weeks ago. Next on my list are American Gods and The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

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In the past year or so I’ve been reading authors rather than individual books. It’s something I never really did before because I don’t like to be told what to do, mom. I always chose books based on the cover the description and plot, not because of a well-known author, or even because I’d read the author before. But recently I’ve tried to read an author’s entire works and I’ve found that I like the experience. I usually can’t read one author for too long though. I like to pick a different genre/time period to keep things interesting.

Anyway, this rambling post is meant to highlight one of my favorite authors, Neil Gaiman. Gaiman has a flair for creating hyper-real worlds that combine dark fantasy elements and a dry sense of humor. Collected here are a couple of my favorite Neil Gaiman quotes, about new beginnings and lost love. May these quotes bring a smile to your face as they did to mine.

About new year/new beginnings: 

“May your coming year be filled with magic and dreams and good madness. I hope you read some fine books and kiss someone who thinks you’re wonderful, and don’t forget to make some art — write or draw or build or sing or live as only you can. And I hope, somewhere in the next year, you surprise yourself.

I hope you will have a wonderful year, that you’ll dream dangerously and outrageously, that you’ll make something that didn’t exist before you made it, that you will be loved and that you will be liked, and that you will have people to love and to like in return. And, most importantly (because I think there should be more kindness and more wisdom in the world right now), that you will, when you need to be, be wise, and that you will always be kind.”

About lost love: 

“There are a hundred things she has tried to chase away the things she won’t remember and that she can’t even let herself think about because that’s when the birds scream and the worms crawl and somewhere in her mind it’s always raining a slow and endless drizzle.

You will hear that she has left the country, that there was a gift she wanted you to have, but it is lost before it reaches you. Late one night the telephone will sign, and a voice that might be hers will say something that you cannot interpret before the connection crackles and is broken.

Several years later, from a taxi, you will see someone in a doorway who looks like her, but she will be gone by the time you persuade the driver to stop. You will never see her again.

Whenever it rains you will think of her. ”

Have a Happy Saturday, all. Thanks for reading.

-Lisa

Book Lust: Lisa's Must Reads

I have been reading like a fiend so far this year but I still feel like I’m slacking, and also that there are too many books I want to read and only so many eyes I have in my face (only two). I’ve been dying to read these books. If you’ve read them and can offer insight, critical or otherwise, or if you have a fifty dollar bill you’d like to donate so I can buy these, let me know in the comments (I really should renew my library membership).

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1. Ender’s Game: my sister is teaching this book to her eighth graders and raving about it nonstop, and I’ll admit I’m curious about all the hype and controversy surrounding the film version. I’m never one to not read a novel/see a movie because of the personal beliefs of the artist. I believe art exists separate from its creator. Also, Ender’s Game is an undisputed classic and I’d like to experience it for myself.

2. His Dark Materials: this novel(s) is another example of being able to separate the artist’s own beliefs from the narrative and story. This trilogy is a classic fantasy piece of literature, and also happens to be a popular film. I’m noticing a pattern in my literary choices.

3. PAULO COELHO: i.e., everything he’s written. I’ve previously read By The River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept and I loved it. I’m a third of the way through The Alchemist right now and highlighting every other line. Coelho has the ability to infuse a sense of magic into an otherwise mundane story. Santiago the shepherd and his journey to achieve his life’s purpose have me bewitched. I’m planning to read The Valkyries next.

4. 1Q84: I feel like I’ll need at least three weeks to read this tome, and I’d like to spend the necessary time with it. Hopefully I don’t put it off for too long. Maybe it’s a good plane read for my trip to and from Alaska next week. Being stuck on a plane is a great way to get some books read.

5. American Gods: I’m slowly moving my way through Gaiman’s oeuvre and loving every minute of it. Read what I thought of Stardust and Neverwhere while you’re here!

6. A Winter’s Tale: those sappy, beautifully-shot commercials for the film have made me want to read the novel. This desire may also be a symptom of the lovey-dovey Valentine’s Day feeling in the air, but I’ll take it nonetheless! I’ve heard great things about the novel, so hopefully I get my hands on a copy of this soon. (Also a movie!)

7. The Lowland: I love to read immigrant literature, especially if it’s by one of my favorite authors, Jhumpa Lahiri. I received the hardcover for Christmas and can’t wait to sink my teeth into it!

There’s nothing I love to do more during the winter season than bury myself in blankets and read, most often with some sort of spiked hot beverage 😉

The World of "Neverwhere"

My second novel by Neil Gaiman far surpassed Stardust in my estimation, even though I loved that novel very much. It’s a testament to the writing prowess and fantastical imagination of Neil Gaiman that such a novel as Neverwhere could so totally eclipse a previous favorite of mine. Neverwhere is one-of-a-kind.

neverwhere reviewThe narrative begins with Richard Mayhew moving to London as a young professional. He is from a small British town, naive and kind-hearted. After a few years he builds a life for himself in London, with a career, a controlling fiancée, and the pressure to build himself a conventional future. One evening, while on his way to an important dinner with his fiancée and her illustrious boss, Richard sees a young girl injured and bleeding on the street. Against his girlfriend’s protests, he takes the injured girl to his home and cares for her, protects her when two thugs come looking, and returns her back to a world called London Below: an entire city beneath London where magic exists and time looks very different. The girl is Door, the Lady Door whose noble family has recently been murdered. Richard finds himself entangled in Door’s quest for justice, and lost in the fantastic and absurd world of London Below.

The title suggests a mishmash of time and space, expressed throughout the novel by the culture and infrastructure (if you can call it that) of London Below. As one of the characters put it, “There are little pockets of old time in London, where things and places stay the same, like bubbles in amber. There’s a lot of time in London, and it has to go somewhere–it doesn’t all get used up at once.” (228) Thus, there are Regency roads, old senile Earls, tunnels that were built in World War II, foggy, toxic air, remnants of The Great Stink, and all bits and pieces of London’s three-thousand-year history represented through both setting and character. It’s beautiful yet touched heavily with the absurd, like the Floating Market in a modern-day Harrod’s, with someone singing the words of “Greensleeves” to the tune of “Yakkety-Yak.” It’s London as if Gaiman had been allowed to build the city himself.

In building his incredible world, Gaiman offers readers no explanations, a mark of an excellently crafted novel. Who are rat-speakers? Who built the labyrinth beneath London if it was indeed there three thousand years ago, before the village was settled? What manner of magical human exactly is Door? There are no answers, but who would want them? London Below defies explanation, allowing it to be whatever the reader imagines. I’ve said before how Gaiman excels at creating adult fairy tales; in Neverwhere, he has created a whimsical yet frightening world that readers are allowed to both explore and make their own. It’s an ode to London, to all its denizens in all periods of time. Those who “fall through the cracks” are privy to another London; to me, it’s an interpretation of what happens above, and what has happened above, and to what will happen. To other readers, it may mean something entirely different. This is the power of stories.

My favorite aspect of this novel was the imagery included of London Below, people and places included (in this instance, characters may be perceived as spectacle as well as people!). Cleverly, cheekily, Gaiman takes Underground stops and interprets them literally: thus Blackfriars is populated with Black Friars; Earl’s Court is a tube compartment containing the entire court of an earl; Knightsbridge becomes Night’s Bridge, a bridge consumed with the danger of all-consuming darkness. At one point Richard even wonders if there is a circus at Oxford Circus. And then Gaiman takes historical minutiae like the closing of the British Museum station in 1933 and features it in the story. This is truly an ode to the history and culture of the great metropolis (in truth, and in the words of a born New Yorker, the second-best metropolis in the world 😉 ).

At one point in the novel Richard Mayhew visits a period of London history with Door, and it’s a London before there was ever a London:

Richard walked up some steps, and found himself at the top of a small grassy hill. It was dawn, and he could just make out details of the countryside around him: almost leafless oak, and ash, and beech trees, readily identifiable by the shapes of their trunks. A wide, clean river meandered gently through the green countryside…He knew then, without knowing how, but with total certainty, that he was still in London, but London as it had been perhaps three thousand years ago, or more, before ever the first stone of the first human habitation was laid upon a stone. (346-47)

He was, indeed, on the “awesome and terrible island of Westminster.” These settings, the fantastical ones like the Labyrinth and the ones steeped in real history like the foggy, pea-soupy air of London before the Clean Air Act, assert themselves as characters in the story, like the characters figure also as imagery. London exists Below in all times, all forms, forever. For Richard Mayhew, coming to London Above was a right of passage, but learning to navigate in London Below becomes the defining point of his entire life. He learns who he really is, finds courage and strength of mind, and ultimately finds it too appealing to forget, danger and uncertainty included. I found myself wishing desperately for a sequel.

This novel is truly astonishing in its Britishness. The narrative is set in third-person close focusing on Richard, but Gaiman’s narrator manages to manipulate his voice into the story. The humor is incredibly dry yet absurd, resulting in a playfulness that is characteristic not only of Gaiman’s novels, but of the atmosphere of London Below. It’s a place where anything can happen, and everything must be believed at first sight. Richard Mayhew stops asking questions at one point because the astonishing sights are unexplainable. It’s Alice in Wonderland meets Jim Henson’s world of Labyrinth. Without the muppets. Although that would be kind of awesome. 

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From my time in London: no circus here.

References

Gaiman, N. Neverwhere. (1996) New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Stardust, A Modern Fairy Tale

What I love about Neil Gaiman is his sense of humor and the ridiculous. I found that when I read Stardust and again now that I’m reading Neverwhere. Gaiman’s narrator becomes a character in the story and asserts himself in hilarious ways, reminding you that somewhere, there is a puppetmaster pulling the strings of the story. Strangely, this does not remove readers from connection with the story; rather, it feels like you’re being led through the world of the novel like Virgil guided Dante in The Divine Comedy. You’re standing right next to the author. It’s an interesting effect.

Stardust reviewIn Stardust, Gaiman weaves a world of utter romance, whimsy, and beauty. It reminded me why I used to love fantasy stories and fairy tales: I adore magic. In Stardust, these elements are utilized with sophistication but I love that the author’s voice is slightly irreverent, as if he’s poking fun at tropes by standing them on their heads. Meet Tristran Thorn, a dreamy young man of half-fairy parentage who finds himself crossing a magical Wall into the world of Faerie in order to retrieve a fallen star for his crush, the mean-girl Victoria.

Tristran expects a lump of rock. What he gets is a limping ice-blonde woman with a volatile temper and a tendency to shimmer. Also attending this British magical party are seven brothers fighting for the crown of Stormhold, a few witches who like to predict the future using animals’ entrails, and an interesting persona named Ditchwater Sal. There’s a fair measure of danger and a “hero’s journey,” but again, these conventions are twisted and turned, making for a more interesting read.

What I loved about this book, apart from the witty and sarcastic voice, was the fact that this is a fairy tale for adults. The writing is simple but it sparkles in its simplicity. It’s funny and light-hearted, yet epic and sweeping in scope, leaving you with that satisfied end-of-a-fairy-tale feeling without the conventional ending. Honestly, it kind of warms your heart in the best way.

She says nothing at all, but simply stares upward into the dark sky and watches, with sad eyes, the slow dance of the infinite stars. (250)

References

Gaiman, N. (1999) Stardust. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

My Christmas Lit & Fashion Haul

As you can probably expect, I got plenty of clothes, shoes, jewelry, and books for Christmas. Not too shabby:

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I love the print on this skater skirt, and the slight steampunk vibe of the statement necklace.

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Gilmore Girls on DVD, and some great books I’ve been salivating for: The Lowland, The Valkyries, The Alchemist, Neverwhere, Bellman & Black, and The Moonstone. January will be a month filled with great reads, so stay tuned!

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shoes from ModCloth and Jeffrey Campbell! Evangelina mesh booties, Flair-y Tale Boots, and Haute on Your Heels Booties

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And the coat from Modcloth I was waxing poetic about just a few short weeks ago…

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Haul ^ I’m ready for a long, cold winter filled with reading by the fire, plenty of scarves and boots, and some great hot chocolate!