2015 Reading Challenge

This year I challenged myself to read 25 new books, and kept track of my progress through my Goodreads account. I am proud to say that as of last week, I successfully completed this challenge! Now I can spend my December re-reading some of my all-time favourites (I’m coming for you again, Gatsby!).

Today, I decided to re-visit all the books I read this past year, and challenged myself to write one-sentence reviews. If you’re looking for some new reads to wrap up your year, check these out! 

Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures, by Vincent Lam

Written by a Toronto-based doctor about being a medical student in Toronto: this book gives you more insight into the world of medical care than Grey’s Anatomy ever could.

Not That Kind of Girl, by Lena Dunham

While some excerpts were great, others weren’t, so I defiantly wouldn’t say that it defines a generation.

2001: A Space Odyssey, by Arthur C. Clarke

I don’t even know how to begin explaining my love for Clarke’s work, or 2001: he spins a masterful tale about life on Earth and beyond.

The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath

This book is full of female, twenty-something angst, and I love it; funny and sad, Plath will welcome you into her world and make you feel at home.

The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway makes me feel in a way that no other author can, and this book is no exception; I don’t even know how to describe it except by saying “it’s real.”

A Dance With Dragons, by George R. R. Martin

I still hate all the Starks.

2010: Odyssey Two, by Arthur C. Clarke

Dave Bowman comes back!

Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn

I really don’t understand the hype around this book — it was only alright.

A Long Way Down, by Nick Hornby

Another book full of angst, but also ripe with strange friendships that develop over a pact to not commit suicide.

2061: Odyssey Three, by Arthur C. Clarke

You never know what you’re going to find in space!

Into The Wild, by Jon Krakauer

One of the greatest pieces of non-fiction I’ve ever read, and a compelling story about one young man’s journey to find himself.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, by Tom Stoppard

If you want to know what the character’s in Shakespeare’s Hamlet do while off-stage, read this play, because it’s hilarious.

The War of the Worlds, by H. G. Wells

Martians that can’t cope with Earth’s atmosphere or various diseases, so despite their invasion, humans still come out as victors.

Annihilation, by Jeff Vandermeer

Area X is full of secrets that will drive you mad, potentially to the point of death.

Armada, by Ernest Cline

This book is full of totally awesome nerdy references, but the ending falls short.

Breakfast of Champions, by Kurt Vonnegut

Only Kurt Vonnegut writes like Kurt Vonnegut, and you don’t realize how true his satire is until it’s over.

Choke, by Chuck Palahniuk

This book made me pretty uncomfortable, but that’s what Chuck Palahniuk does, so I’d still call it a success.

Jurassic Park, by Michael Crichton

DINOSAURS!

The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., by Adelle Waldman

Hipster romances in Brooklyn.

The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern

This book tells the story of a wonderful world of magic, but tries too hard to make a sub-par romance spark.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, by Washington Irving

I’m still concerned about what actually happened to Ichabod Crane.

The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman

This story will melt your heart in a spooky way.

Bird Box, by Josh Malerman

The story is gripping, and will leave you turning pages and trying to figure out what is happening, but in the end, you’ll be let down.

A Study in Scarlett, by Arthur Conan Doyle

Sherlock and Watson meet for the first time and it’s hilarious.

Fans of the Impossible Life, by Kate Scelsa

Very similar to The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and would have probably been better if I was still 16.

“It came from City Lights…”

When people walk into my apartment one of the first things they see are my bookshelves, and one of the first things they say is, “Wow, you have a lot of books.” I guess they aren’t wrong.

Being a huge bookworm/literature nerd, I do buy a lot of books. I even have duplicates of some (they have different covers!). My bookshelves are literally full, and a lot of my books are piled on top of and in front of each other, or wherever they fit.

Everyone thinks my book collection is awesome, expect my Mum, who is constantly complaining about “all those damn books, taking up space.” Listen, Mum, they’re all piled up in my apartment, not your house, so stop it.

While my mum complains, the majority of my friends are often asking how I am able to afford all of these glorious, wonderful books; this question is usually quickly followed by, “So, can I borrow one?”

Well, my friends, the answer is simple: most of my books come from used book stores, thrift shops or garage sales. There’s no way I could ever afford to buy all my wonderful books brand-new from Chapters. As for borrowing books, that depends on whether or not you dog-ear pages, which is unforgivable.

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This past weekend I visited one of my favourite used bookstores: City Lights Bookshop, located in downtown London, Ontario.

I’ve been going to City Lights with my Dad for as long as I can remember. Whenever we venture into the realm of London, we make our way downtown to get lost between the stacks of this magical, wonderful little shop.

If the teeming piles of used books don’t excite you, then their hilarious, retro decorations will. The walls are adorned with weird posters, literary quotes, action figures, comics and more. The decor is also always related to whatever section you’re in.

When you’re browsing Canadian literature, for example, you’ll see Canadian flags everywhere. The sci-fi section, on the other hand, is covered in Star Wars prints. There used to be a cardboard cut out of Captain Kirk, but he wasn’t there this time.

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Every time I venture into City Lights, I leave with at least five new books. While five books would likely cost you $100+ at Chapters, at a used bookstore, you’ll likely only need $25-50, depending on the quality of the books.

The staff at City Lights are also super friendly, and more than willing to answer any questions, provide recommendations, or help you find your way through their piles of books. The shelves in this place can be intimidating, especially since they look like they will topple over at any given minute. However, the hoards of books only add to its cozy atmosphere.

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The layout of the store might seem a bit confusing — some of the aisles bend and turn where you least expect them too — but this shouldn’t sway you from browsing! Just think of it as an epic adventure which will probably end with you finding more treasure than you thought you would.

If you ever find yourself in downtown London, I highly recommend stoping by City Lights Bookshop. You can find it nestled in the corner of Richmond and King Streets. In the meantime, enjoy all the awesome photos of their stacks of books!

Halloween Reads, Part III

Halloween is tomorrow (!!!!!!), so let’s celebrate by reading/sharing/talking about some more scary books.

The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman

Nobody Owens lives in a graveyard.

When he was a toddler, both of his parents and older sister were murdered by a mysterious man. Bod (as he likes to be called) escapes this attacker and wanders down the street towards the graveyard that is adjacent to his home. The local ghosts bring him in, and his guardian, Silas, promises to be there for him until he is a young man. 

Bod is not allowed to leave the graveyard; the mysterious man who killed his family, who Bod later learns has dark hair and is named Jack, might still be out there. All of the ghosts in the graveyard help raise him, and teach him everything they know: from dream-walking to fading, and how to read and write.

Over time, however, Bod becomes more curious about the world outside the graveyard, which results in him leaving, and coming face to face with the Order called the Jack of All Trades. This then allows him to learn the true fate of his real family, and face those that have been looking for him since birth.

The Graveyard Book spins a supernatural tale, and will make you laugh while also giving you a slight bout of the creeps. The most mysterious part of the book, though, is Bod’s guardian, Silas.

Silas is very secretive, and never reveals much about his life to Bod. What we do know is that he often sleeps during the day, is unable to see his reflection, and, during the Danse Macabre, he explains to Bod that he is neither living nor dead. Based on these facts, I’m pretty sure that he’s actually a vampire.

Even though The Graveyard Book is technically a children’s novel, I’d still recommend it to anyone looking for a lighter, spookier read. Plus, it’s Neil Gaiman, so you know it’s going to be good. The book also has extra awesomeness because it’s illustrated by Dave McKean. 

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Bird Box, Josh Malerman

Imagine living in a world where you can’t open your eyes. If you do, you might see it. You’re not sure what “it” is, but seeing it will drive you insane to the point of committing brutal violence and inevitable death. In order to survive you must stay indoors, with all windows boarded and covered up.

This is the world that Josh Malerman has created in his debut novel, Bird Box.

Weird, unexplained events started in Russia, and eventually begin happening elsewhere. Reports say that people see creatures, and then, within minutes, end up dead. No one knows what these creatures look like, or why they cause humans to go insane.

Malorie and her two young children have finally left their home to look for other survivors, but will they make it there while blindfolded?

The story focuses on their journey, and includes several flashbacks explaining how the world sunk into violent chaos over the past four years. No detail of the mysterious creatures are given, so your imagination runs wild with possibilities of what they might look like.

Read this book if you want to experience a psychological rollercoaster. You never know what’s going to happen when you turn the next page.

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Halloween Reads, Part II

Growing up, one of my favourite Halloween movies was Disney’s The Adventures of Ichabod And Mr. Toad (1948). I don’t really remember what Mr. Toad was about, but I do remember being terrified of the Headless Horseman. Although, my fear of a ghost with a jack-o-lantern for a head didn’t stop me from watching the cartoon multiple times a year. For anyone who hasn’t seen this cinematic adventure, you can watch the full version on YouTube.

I’ve never watched any modern adaptations of Washington Irving’s short story, so my only encounter with the Headless Horseman was through Disney. That is, until this year, when I decided to finally sit down and read this ghostly tale.

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“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” was first published in 1820 as part of Irving’s collection, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. When The Sketch Book was first released, it was published under Irving’s pseudonym, Geoffrey Crayon, which he used throughout most of his literary career. Irving wrote much of this collection when he was travelling throughout England. During his time abroad he dabbled in other forms of literature and storytelling, including German folklore, which undoubtably contributed to the creation of his later stories, including “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”

The small town of Sleepy Hollow is immediately set as a superstitious locale. The townspeople often share stories of ghosts, demons and witchcraft, and many genuinely believe that they witness spectral events at night.

Ichabod Crane, schoolmaster of Sleepy Hollow, spends his spare time reading The History of New England Witchcraft, by Cotton Mather, who was a key figure in the Salem Witch Trials. Irving was writing just over 100 years after the Salem Witch Trials, so it’s not surprising that his small, albeit fictional, Puritan town is still reeling over the possibility of witches and demons. Ichabod, who is described as being highly superstitious, sings psalms to himself at night while walking home in the hopes of warding off whatever evilness might be attempting to ail him.

But what happens to poor Ichabod? As many know, he encounters the Headless Horseman on his way home from a party, where he was trying to woo the town sweetheart, Katrina Van Tassel. While at this function, Brom Bones, a well-known prankster from town, shares stories about Sleepy Hollow’s most popular ghost: the Headless Horseman. Many believe that this ghost is a soldier from the American Revolution who is looking for his lost head.

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The tales woven by Brom Bones are so intricate and detailed that they undoubtably frighten Ichabod. He begins to worry about whether or not this frightful spectral is in fact real, and if he will encounter it on his way home later that evening. 

Of course he will.

But the ending of the story doesn’t simply tell of Ichabod’s ghostly disappearance. Or does it? The reader is left with two endings to ponder: does the Headless Horseman whisk Ichabod away, or was Ichabod able to escape and start a new life elsewhere? The only evidence left is his hat and a smashed pumpkin.

In roughly 25 pages, Irving takes you on an eerie adventure, complete with ghosts and demons. His descriptions are so vivid that you’re able to place yourself in Sleepy Hollow amongst the characters, and easily envision their fears. With such detailed descriptions, the reader is able to decide for themselves if the Headless Horseman is in fact real, or a legend. The answer, of course, depends on how convinced you are of Irving’s writing.

You should read this short story if you’re looking for a spooky read that will take under an hour to get through.

Halloween Reads, Part I

October is my favourite month. It ushers in fall weather, bulky sweaters, pumpkins, colourful and crunchy leaves, and most important of all, Halloween.

Growing up, Halloween was just as (if not more) important than Christmas. Our house would be decorated inside and out, and my mum would make my brothers and I whatever costumes we could dream of. One year, while every other girl was dressed up as beautiful Disney princesses, I opted to go as Dead Snow White. One year, one of my brothers went as a box of Fruit Loops — he actually wore a cardboard box that was so huge he couldn’t walk up stairs to get to people’s front doors. And of course, who could forget my youngest brother’s favourite costume: a handmade Godzilla suit.

Even now as a twenty-something, Halloween is the best. Costumes, decorations and spooky stories have always filled my Octobers, so I naturally feel the need to share some of my favourites.

The Halloween Tree, Ray Bradbury

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Bradbury’s novels and short stories are filled with elements of fantasy, sci-fi and horror, which make them natural go-to reads for the Halloween season. The Halloween Tree, however, is written as a children’s story, so it’s not likely to scare your pants off. It focuses on the story of eight young boys, lead by Tom Skelton, who set out to go trick-or-treating. When they notice one member of their group, Pipkin, has gone missing they set out on an eerie adventure to find him.

Pipkin’s disappearance was noticed when the group arrived at a seemingly haunted house owned by the mysterious Carapace Clavicle Moundshroud. He offers to help them find Pipkin, and takes them back in time to discover the ancient customs and traditions of Halloween, and trace its history through the ages. The boys quickly learn that October 31 is not just a night to get free candy; rather, it is a celebration of life and death, and the transcendence of the living and spiritual worlds.

There is a Halloween Tree, which stands on Moundshroud’s property, and it is filled with pumpkins rather than leaves. Its intricate branches represent the diverse history of Halloween traditions and links them all together. While the holiday holds different meanings to different groups, it is still rooted in the same ideas.

Bradbury’s story is beautifully written; it is thrilling, detailed and eerie. The Halloween Tree takes you on an adventure through dark corners and dusty halls. It is a prime example of Bradbury’s literary genius, and tosses you into his world of dark fantasy. The book is also illustrated, and the images match the eerie descriptions of each scene. 

You should read this book if you love Halloween.

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Water on Mars: A Literary Perspective

Anyone who went on the internet today probably noticed a lot of articles about Mars. Earlier this morning, NASA made their biggest announcement since the New Horizons probe passed by Pluto in July: researchers have discovered that present day Mars has liquid water.

WATER. ON. MARS! This could yield so many more discoveries! We already knew that Mars once held an ancient ocean and has polar ice caps, but running, liquid water is so much different. It contains the building blocks of life!

Hold up: isn’t this blog supposed to be about books? Yes. But as many of my friends know, I love outer space almost as much as I love books. Plus, there are many novels that take place on the red planet.

In fact, earlier this evening I saw multiple comments about how much easier it would have been for Mark Watney (from Any Weir’s The Martin) to grow potatoes on Mars with all this newfound water. If you haven’t read The Martin yet, you really should, especially before seeing Matt Damon on the big screen.

My immediate literary connection, however, was Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. This series of short stories was published as a collection back in 1950 before humans had even visited the moon. Before being published as a collection, Bradbury had his stories published throughout the 1940s in various magazines.

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The overall plot of The Martian Chronicles is something that many people have envisioned in the past few years: the colonization of Mars.

The first set of short stories see the first humans flying off to Mars in 1999 to begin settlements because Earth is slowly deteriorating. The first expedition of humans are met by an indigenous Martian and killed. While the second expedition of humans are travelling towards Mars, the Martians are able to pick up on their thoughts because they are telepathic.

The Martians telepathic powers cause such intense hallucinations for some that they are placed in an asylum. When the second expedition of humans arrive, they are believed to be yet another group of mentally ill Martians, and they too are placed in the asylum and eventually killed. The third expedition also results in failure.

Despite losing all contact with previous expeditions, the naturally curious humans on Earth continue to send more shuttles towards Mars. They are desperately trying to find a new location for human life to thrive, as an nuclear war is approaching.

By the fourth expedition, humans are successful. They discover that the majority of Martians have been killed by contracting the chickenpox from previous expeditions. This scene has often been juxtaposed with European explorers killing indigenous populations throughout the Americas with smallpox.

The rest of the stories are about humans colonizing and terraforming the planet in order to make it their new home. There are a number of stories depicting the last remaining Martians, the discovery of Martian ruins, and the extremely fast colonization of Mars.

When The Martian Chronicles was first published, Bradbury had already made a name for himself among science-fiction crowds. However, this collection of short stories brought him criticism, because it was seen as an unrealistic vision.

I can only imagine what Bradbury would have said today when NASA made their announcement about the discovery of liquid water on the red planet. This discovery brings humans one step closer to finding a second, habitable home; a vision that Bradbury put on paper over 60 years ago. 

Summer Bookcapades

Everyone loves reading in the summer — you can read in the park, read on a patio or read on the beach. What’s not to love? I read a lot of books this past summer, but two of them really stood out from the rest. Both of these books have been adapted to the big screen, but I promise you, the books are better. 

The War of the Worlds, H. G. Wells

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The aliens that invade Earth in The War of the Worlds were Martians, or so the unnamed narrator says. They come down in their spaceships at night and land near Woking, Surrey. Humans are of course naturally curious, and start hanging around the landing sites to see what’s happening.

Little do they know these are not friendly aliens. The Martians stay within their cylinders, which transform into functional, combat-ready tripods (complete with heat rays), because their bodies can’t cope with Earth’s atmosphere. Then, they begin to kill humans, cause endless chaos and drain all hope from humanity. The countryside also gets covered in red weed, which is a plant from Mars that was, perhaps accidentally, brought to Earth.

The novel takes place over the span of a few days, where the unnamed narrator is fleeing from the Martians. He witnesses brutal attacks on fellow humans, failed retaliation attempts from the military and narrowly escapes death himself.

If you’re into science fiction or classic literature, or want to prepare for an alien invasion, you should read this book.

Jurassic Park, Michael Crichton

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Hold on to your butts, because this book is one million times better than the movie! Plus, there’s more dinosaurs. I’ve seen the movie more times than I can count, but only got around to reading the book this summer (and yes, the book did come out first).

The plot is generally the same (old, rich white guy creates a dinosaur theme park) but the book is just SO. MUCH. BETTER! It has more backstory, more dinosaur facts and more action. Yes, you read that correctly: the book is more exciting than the movie. It has quite a few violent scenes that didn’t make it into the movie, likely because it would have ruined the family-friendly vibe that many blockbusters strive for. Spoiler: some of the dinosaurs make it off the island!

Crichton’s novel also contains more scientific explanations, and plays up the philosophical questions of “should we be bringing back prehistoric creatures and cloning them?” The book definitely makes you think, which may seem daunting, but remember: dinosaurs.

If you’re into science fiction or popular fiction from the early 1990s, or dinosaurs, you should read this book.