Read-a-Thon Fall 2015 Closing Survey

Wow, okay! Mia here again. It’s five or six hours after the Read-a-Thon ended and I have a little bit of a reading hangover. (Time for some hair of the dog, maybe?) I petered out near the end, as is traditional, but overall this fall’s reading felt pretty solid! Let’s do the closing survey.

Which hour was most daunting for you?

It’s all kind of a blur, honestly, but around 9:00pm here we were getting close to the end of reading our New Kids on the Block novel out loud and I was definitely struggling, voice-wise and otherwise.

Could you list a few high-interest books that you think could keep a Reader engaged for next year?

I think Zilpha Keatley Snyder is always a good choice–her books move along with great pacing and her characters all feel extremely human. She writes with such humor and compassion.

Do you have any suggestions for how to improve the Read-a-thon next year?

Nothing really comes to mind at the moment. I know how to improve my own experience, but this part was 100% on me. See, I didn’t participate in any mini-challenges this year because I wanted to make up for the lost reading time I accrued when I took a four-hour break for another activity early on, and I think in retrospect I would’ve enjoyed doing at least one or two. I got a fair amount of reading done but didn’t let myself enjoy the social media aspects of the event!

What do you think worked really well in this year’s Read-a-thon?

Things seemed to go pretty smoothly. Again, I didn’t engage with the Read-a-thon itself as much this time as in the past, but I’m sure everyone did a great job. They always work so hard.

How many books did you read?

Six? Six. Most of them were very short.

What were the names of the books you read?

In order of reading: The Headless Cupid, by Zilpha Keatley Snyder; The Gecko and the Three Grave Robbers, a short comic by Cheez Hayama; New Kids on the Block: The Novels: Backstage Surprise, by Seth McEvoy and Laure Smith; Suicide Forest, a short horror comic by Dave Baker and Nicole Goux; Carrie, by Stephen King; and Goosebumps #9: Welcome to Camp Nightmare, by R.L. Stine.

Which book did you enjoy most?

“Enjoy” is a complicated word. I think I straight-up enjoyed The Headless Cupid the most, for the reasons listed above about how ZKS is a wonderful treasure–I’m sad she’s moved on from this world but I’m glad she left such a legacy of books behind. Jessica and I certainly bonded over NKOTB: TN: BS, which we read aloud to each other in its entirety. Please note that at 133 pages, reading the whole book aloud still took approximately three hours. (Then again, we had to keep stopping to laugh or dispute some highly unlikely plot points.)

Which did you enjoy least?

I didn’t get as much of a laugh out of the Goosebumps book as I thought I would! I mean, it was weird and goofy, but it was hard to top that NKOTB book. I mean, DANNY WOOD JUMPED ONTO A MOVING ROLLER COASTER AND CLIMBED ALONG THE OUTSIDE AS IF THIS WERE A TRAIN CAPER. I can’t.

If you were a Cheerleader, do you have any advice for next year’s Cheerleaders?

Not applicable, but we got some good cheering from Jessica’s brother! I think letting Cheerleaders strategically target people who wanted/needed cheering was a good idea–was that a thing before?

How likely are you to participate in the Read-a-thon again? What role would you be likely to take next time?

Oh, you know I’m there. I think Jessica and I would like to host the Mad Libs mini-challenge until Earth’s orbit decays and the sun burns out.

Jessica’s turn, if she’s so inclined!

Which hour was most daunting for you? I think I’ll agree with Mia about the hour near the end of the NKotB book. There were still really hilarious moments, but it just took a long time and, in particular, some of the scenes were Too Long. I also really struggled around Hours 21-22, pretty close to when I went to bed. Just plain ol’ tiredness!
Could you list a few high-interest books that you think could keep a Reader engaged for next year? I always say that graphic novels are great! I especially recommend Astro City for people who like superhero comics AND people who don’t.
Do you have any suggestions for how to improve the Read-a-thon next year? As always, I do think there would be value in shifting the starting times.
What do you think worked really well in this year’s Read-a-thon? Everything seemed to run pretty smoothly!
How many books did you read? I finished four and read parts of 4 others.
What were the names of the books you read? I finished: New Kids on the Block: Backstage Surprise, Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Lost Adventures, Ms Marvel Volume 3: Crushed, Astro City. I did not finish: Shutter, The Invention of Murder, What Matters in Jane Austen, Frankenstein.
Which book did you enjoy most? Hmmm, that’s a good question. As Mia said, we bonded, with MUCH laughter and incredulity, over the NKotB book. I reread Astro City, which has long been one of my favorite comics and that was like returning to an old friend. Shutter was fun and action-y.
Which did you enjoy least? I honestly liked everything, but only got maybe 10% of the way into Frankenstein and haven’t quite gotten into the story yet.
If you were a Cheerleader, do you have any advice for next year’s Cheerleaders? N/A
How likely are you to participate in the Read-a-thon again? What role would you be likely to take next time? Like Mia said, I’m in. As a reader and mad libs host!

Thanks for the great read-a-thon, guys! We love it. We love you. <3

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Read-a-Thon Fall 2015 Introductory Meme

Yes, friends, it’s that time again: that time when Nisaba Be Praised clutters up your feed reader with a marathon of blog posts about reading and reading-related activities. I know–I, Mia, am excited too. I’ll go first for the intro meme.

1) What fine part of the world are you reading from today?

As is traditional, I’m reading from Jessica’s house in the East Bay. It just might rain here today, which is very thrilling for we dehydrated Californians.

2) Which book in your stack are you most looking forward to?

Please admire said stack. It is very beautiful.

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I might be most jazzed about New Kids on the Block: Backstage Surprise, if only because I’ve already read part of it, and it is exactly as good as you would expect. I think we’re going to have a wild time reading it out loud to one another.

3) Which snack are you most looking forward to?

Oh man, we stocked up on so many good snacks yesterday! Sweet potato tortilla chips and bean dip, those South-African-spiced chips that TJ’s has, crackers and cranberry goat cheese. Jessica also has a subscription box of snacks from around the world, and this month’s was from the Netherlands; in particular, there are these little wafer cookies that, instead of being strawberry or vanilla or whatever, are gouda-flavored. They sound really weird but I LOVE THEM. Come to me, gouda wafers.

4) Tell us a little something about yourself!

I am Mia; my feet are cold; and I have never, ever heard a NKOTB song.

5) If you participated in the last read-a-thon, what’s one thing you’ll do different today? If this is your first read-a-thon, what are you most looking forward to?

One difference between this year and previous readathons is that I’ll be taking a break in a couple hours to go have brunch and do a clothing swap with some other friends. Events just kind of snowballed this weekend so I’m doing my best to have my cake and eat it too. Or, in this case, my quiche.

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1) What fine part of the world are you reading from today?  My house in the grand ol’ area of the Bay.
2) Which book in your stack are you most looking forward to? Hmm, I think I have a pretty great stack up there, but I might most be looking forward to Frankenstein, which is living on my Kindle.
3) Which snack are you most looking forward to? Cranberry goat cheese and crackers! I always look forward to that coming back to Trader Joe’s.
4) Tell us a little something about yourself! I am a big soccer fan (go Quakes!) and went to a game yesterday!
5) If you participated in the last read-a-thon, what’s one thing you’ll do different today? If this is your first read-a-thon, what are you most looking forward to? I’m not planning on doing much differently, but I do have more comics in my stack than usual and I think that’s a good thing!

Bellweather Rhapsody, by Kate Racculia

Bellweather Rhapsody

by Kate Racculia

“A high school music festival goes awry when a young prodigy disappears from the most infamous room in the Bellweather Hotel, in a whip-smart novel sparkling with dark and giddy humor.

Fifteen years ago, a murder-suicide in room 712 rocked the grand old Bellweather Hotel and the young bridesmaid who witnessed it, Minnie Graves. Now hundreds of high school musicians, including quiet bassoonist Rabbit Hatmaker and his brassy diva twin, Alice, have gathered in its cavernous, crumbling halls for the annual Statewide festival; Minnie has returned to face her demons; and a colossal snowstorm is threatening to trap them all in the hotel. Then Alice’s roommate goes missing–from room 712. The search for her entwines an eccentric cast of characters: conductors and caretakers, failures and stars, teenagers on the verge and adults trapped in memories. For everyone has come to the Bellweather with a secret, and everyone is haunted.

Bellweather Rhapsody is a genre-bending page-turner, full of knowing nods to pop culture classics from The Shining to Agatha Christie to Glee. But its pleasures are beautifully deepened by Kate Racculia’s skill with her characters, her melancholy, affecting writing about music, and her fearlessness about the loss and darkness that underline the truest humor. This is a wholly winning new novel from a writer to watch.” (via Indiebound, minor edits for readability)

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Good Things: One of the things I liked best about Bellweather Rhapsody was how it covers a lot of literary ground without ever feeling spread too thin. It’s a murder mystery, it’s a study of grief and pain, it’s a coming-of-age story. It travels through the ensemble cast and makes them all important and worth caring about; the Hatmaker twins and Minnie were my favorites, no doubt, but I never resented spending time with Fisher or Natalie or Hastings, which usually happens when I’m reading a novel with so many characters involved. There’s a lot of drama and theatrically big emotions, many tense sequences, and plenty of personal secrets to go around, and I was in just the right mood to fall into it all happily and ride the drama waves with everyone in the story.

Besides, for all the big feelings and big moments, there are little nuggets of truth about people that can pop up on you when you aren’t expecting them: Minnie’s coping mechanisms, and Alice’s true self under all her flashiness, and Rabbit’s surprising moments of confidence. Those pieces are going to stick with me past everything else, I think, and bring me back to read it and feel understood in the future.

Also, the bit about the middle section of “Jupiter” from The Planets is absolutely real and true and maybe the best thing I’ve ever read about it:

He knows that “Jupiter” is divided into three sections–the first and third are quick and cheerful, allegro giocoso, the essence of jollity (which Fisher finds hard to believe is actually a word). The middle is not silly. The middle is not syncopated. After some leftover tootling in the winds, the middle begins with strings moving together as one sonorous beast, slowly, majestically. The theme is restated, picking up winds and brass and percussion. It soars higher and higher until all the orchestra is reaching the same climactic phrase, released from gravity for only a moment, and gently falling back to earth.

It is a hymn, a prayer.

It’s the sound of several dozen souls singing the same song, and Fisher isn’t leading them. Fisher is one of them, his skinny arms swooping of their own accord. The middle doesn’t end so much as pause thoughtfully; more ridiculous merry bullshit is coming, but this feeling, this true joy, is always there. [loc 3360-3368]

Bad Things: I can’t call anything in this book bad–there were a few things that tugged at the edge of my attention, but nothing that ever dragged it away entirely. The theatricality of the characters’ inner lives works best with the younger players, I think; it makes sense that Alice and Rabbit would be full of big feelings, but equally big feelings coming from Natalie and Fisher, who are supposed to be the adults in this scenario, do feel a little inappropriate. Of course, that’s not to say that this wasn’t intentional. After all, they both experienced some messy things in their childhoods that affected their core beliefs about themselves, and emotional immaturity is hardly restricted to the young. Still, I felt a little bad when Viola Fabian, the clearest villain of the story, told Natalie to get over herself and I caught myself thinking, yeah, seriously.

Speaking of Viola: there are obviously sociopaths in real life, but Viola felt a little flat to me, especially among the wonderfully-realized other characters. A little mustache-twirly, if you will. At times her actions felt more like a plot device to bring the other characters together, rather than the believable decisions of a real (if screwed-up) character in her own right.

Overall: I know some folks use the word “romp” to backhandedly compliment media, but I am not one of those people. This book is rompy and a little silly and a little serious, and I loved it. I’m already looking forward to reading it again in a year or two.

Full Disclosure: The author is an internet friend of mine. Nevertheless, I paid for my copy of the book with my own money (albeit on sale), and I told her in advance that I’d be objective in my review.

Hour 14 Mini-Challenge: Color Cover

Hey, readers and reader groupies! (Are there Read-a-thon groupies? Probably not.) Mia here. Are we really over halfway through already? Jessica and Brian and I missed the first few hours, but even so–woof! How are y’all doing? I won a door prize too! Excuse my victory dance.

I decided to take a quick break from reading to do Wishful Endings‘ color-cover mini-challenge; I was inspired by a very good and very HOT PINK book that I finished right before the Read-a-thon, Alice + Freda Forever by Alexis Coe. (I highly recommend it!) However, since my own library isn’t at my disposal, I decided to make it an internet search instead of IRL. Here’s what I ended up with:

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Okay, so they’re not all the same shade of pink, but close enough for horseshoes. Truthfully, I’ve only read the first two, but I’ve heard good things about Hot Pink, and Polina looks like a lovely, expressive comic of the type that the French are so good at.

So! There you go. Four pink covers. Go read Alice + Freda Forever. End transmission.

The Secret Daughter of the Tsar Giveaway Winner!

It’s that time, folks–time to announce the winner of the giveaway for a signed copy of Jennifer Laam’s The Secret Daughter of the Tsar. Can’t you just feel the excitement coursing through the air? Or maybe that’s Febreze.

ANYWAY, drumroll please!

Close enough.

And the winner is:

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Alex! Congratulations, Alex! We’ll be in touch for your address so that The Secret Daughter of the Tsar can find its way to you.

Thanks to everybody who entered–even if you didn’t win, I recommend checking it out if you’re even the slightest bit interested in mystery, history, or…*checks rhyming dictionary* blistery?

Well, maybe not that last one, but the first two, definitely.

The Secret Daughter of the Tsar, by Jennifer Laam (Plus Giveaway)

The Secret Daughter of the Tsar

by Jennifer Laam

“A compelling alternate history of the Romanov family in which a secret fifth daughter—smuggled out of Russia before the revolution—continues the royal lineage to dramatic consequences.

In her riveting debut novel, The Secret Daughter of the Tsar, Jennifer Laam seamlessly braids together the stories of three women: Veronica, Lena, and Charlotte. Veronica is an aspiring historian living in present-day Los Angeles when she meets a mysterious man who may be heir to the Russian throne. As she sets about investigating the legitimacy of his claim through a winding path of romance and deception, the ghosts of her own past begin to haunt her. Lena, a servant in the imperial Russian court of 1902, is approached by the desperate Empress Alexandra.  After conceiving four daughters, the Empress is determined to sire a son and believes Lena can help her. Once elevated to the Romanov’s treacherous inner circle, Lena finds herself under the watchful eye of the meddling Dowager Empress Marie. Charlotte, a former ballerina living in World War II occupied Paris, receives a surprise visit from a German officer. Determined to protect her son from the Nazis, Charlotte escapes the city, but not before learning that the officer’s interest in her stems from his longstanding obsession with the fate of the Russian monarchy. Then as Veronica’s passion intensifies, and her search for the true heir to the throne takes a dangerous turn, the reader learns just how these three vastly different women are connected. The Secret Daughter of the Tsar is thrilling from its first intense moments until its final, unexpected conclusion.” (via Goodreads)

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The Secret Daughter of the Tsar isn’t my typical reading fare–it’s not fantasy, sci-fi, or YA, which I’ll admit have made up most of my library lately. But then, I’m also hard-pressed to figure out exactly which category it falls into. Parts are historical, parts are contemporary; there’s some mystery and some thriller in there too, and also some romance. Plus, it’s technically an alternate-history novel, so you could also call it speculative fiction. I can’t help but be interested in books that fall between the borders of genre, so this one tickled my brain a while after I finished it.

There are three main timelines following three characters: Veronica, Charlotte, and Lena. Their stories are clearly delineated, although it’s not until the end that their threads become obviously interwoven. I found Veronica’s and Lena’s stories most compelling. Veronica is a wonderful contemporary protagonist; she’s smart but full of self-doubt, but she also doesn’t hesitate to communicate her wants in a relationship or ask for space if she needs it. Despite her doubts, she’s got strength, and it’s wonderful to read about an interesting, nuanced Chicana heroine! There are also some funny moments that–hand to heart–made me cackle aloud:

Except she had no clue how to signal what she wanted. A hand on his knee? A sly wink? She wanted to feel sexy and wild. If only she had something sexy and wild to say. “Where’s your bathroom?” she asked.

Lena’s story is also engaging. She’s a genuine, brave woman, and I enjoyed her relationships with the empress and her mother-in-law, as well as her chemistry with Paul, the Black American guard at the palace. There’s so much warmth and well-meaning in her friendship with Alexandra that I didn’t want anything bad to happen to either of them (poor hopes for a Romanov storyline, I kn0w).

I found the beginning of the book slightly uneven, but in the thick of things, the pacing is good, and the plot skips along. The stories switch back and forth at tense moments that made me want to keep reading long past the end of my lunch break (and the beginning of my bedtime–I ended up having to set it aside because it was too exciting for pre-sleep reading! Got my adrenaline all pumping and stuff.)

While I enjoyed Charlotte’s storyline too, anything involving Nazis makes me kind of anxious, so I was basically reading with my eyes half-covered. I didn’t quite get as strong a sense of the danger that Veronica experiences later in her storyline; the drama was there, but the threat didn’t feel as immediate or as possible as it did for Charlotte. Veronica’s villains are a little exaggerated, although I got notes of nuance that kept them from being complete Snidely Whiplashes. I also didn’t feel Veronica’s chemistry with Michael as strongly as I did Lena’s chemistry with Paul, but I appreciated Michael for the role he played, and I did feel things come together a little more at the end. (Which is not to say that their smooching scenes weren’t well-written. Get it, Veronica!)

I’ve seen that some other reviewers had a different experience than I did, but I absolutely did not see the ending coming until it was practically on top of me. I’ll keep this review spoiler-free, but suffice to say that I was surprised–not in a bad way, but just in an oh, DUH sort of way that actually made me happy that I didn’t figure things out earlier.

Overall: It’s a tightly-written, interesting story with great female characters and relationships, and I’d absolutely read a sequel. There’s so much more to hear about Veronica!

Full Disclosure: The author is a friend and former coworker of mine. Nevertheless, I paid for my copy of the book with my own money, and I told her in advance that I’d be objective in my review.

Now, here’s the GIVEAWAY part: leave a comment (with a valid email address attached–US entrants only, please!) by 11:59 pm on Monday, November 25th, and you’ll be entered to win a signed copy of The Secret Daughter of the Tsar. The winner will be randomly selected and announced on November 26th. Good luck!

The Lies of Locke Lamora, by Scott Lynch

The Lies of Locke Lamora

by Scott Lynch

“The Thorn of Camorr is said to be an unbeatable swordsman, a master thief, a ghost that walks through walls. Half the city believes him to be a legendary champion of the poor. The other half believe him to be a foolish myth. Nobody has it quite right.
Slightly built, unlucky in love, and barely competent with a sword, Locke Lamora is, much to his annoyance, the fabled Thorn. He certainly didn’t invite the rumors that swirl around his exploits, which are actually confidence games of the most intricate sort. And while Locke does indeed steal from the rich (who else, pray tell, would be worth stealing from?), the poor never see a penny of it. All of Locke’s gains are strictly for himself and his tight-knit band of thieves, the Gentlemen Bastards.

Locke and company are con artists in an age where con artistry, as we understand it, is a new and unknown style of crime. The less attention anyone pays to them, the better! But a deadly mystery has begun to haunt the ancient city of Camorr, and a clandestine war is threatening to tear the city’s underworld, the only home the Gentlemen Bastards have ever known, to bloody shreds. Caught up in a murderous game, Locke and his friends will find both their loyalty and their ingenuity tested to the breaking point as they struggle to stay alive…” (via Goodreads)

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Good Things: Who doesn’t love a con story? Generally speaking, audiences love the dramatic irony of being in on the con, seeing how the marks get taken in, getting the behind-the-scenes action. And, of course, there’s often an added twist or extra tension that comes from a part of the con being withheld from the audience as well as the marks, and The Lies of Locke Lamora is no exception. Honestly, though, it’s not just the con story that makes this book amazing, although it’s definitely a part. I’ve read a lot of fantasy novels in my day, and the world-building in this book is honestly up there in the top ten–Camorr is Venice-flavored but has history all its own, and information about the city and the world around it is doled out with such a careful hand that there’s nary an egregious infodump to be found. Likewise, the plotting and pacing of the story is so engaging that I couldn’t read it before bedtime because a) it was too compelling and I’d be up until 2am, and b) the events were too exciting and my adrenaline would get all fired up. (I’m a delicate flower, I know.)

The characters, too, are wonderfully built and well-rounded, and as the story flashes back and forth between present-day and Locke’s youth, their motivations and personalities are revealed in an excellent show-don’t-tell kind of way. I really enjoyed the main characters’ relationships with each other–Locke, Jean, Calo, Galdo, Bug–and their fondness for each other was obvious.

Bad Things: My main complaint with The Lies of Locke Lamora is the female characters. First off, there should be more of them! I know they’re the Gentlemen Bastards, but come on. There are a few main-ish characters who are also women, but their stories aren’t as rich or complex as those of the male main characters, and we spend way less time with them. I’ve been told that this is rectified in the series’ second book, Red Seas Under Red Skiesbut here it’s a bit of a disappointment. To put a finer point on it, one character gets refrigeratored in what was the biggest letdown for me–I kept hoping that it was a trick or that something more interesting would come about, but nope, it’s a pretty straightforward refrigeration.

While I said above that the pacing and plotting are well-done, there is a point near the climax of the book that does get a bit “let-me-explain-to-you-how-this-all-went-down,” and it’s possible that it really only stood out to me because the rest of the story had so little infodumping going on. The resolution was a little rushed but still quite satisfying.

For trigger notes, it’s worth mentioning that this is a fairly violent novel. There’s a lot of death, torture, and pain inflicted, although most of it didn’t feel overdone to me, but that’s a very personal thing that you’d have to measure for yourself.

Overall: Basically, this book is compelling as shit and I was never once bored with what it chose to let me in on. To use an old cliche, it’s an edge-of-your-seater, and I’m glad that Saladin Ahmed recommended it on Twitter. I’ll most definitely be reading the rest of the series, with my fingers crossed that the women get better, and if Scott Lynch is as devious with his plotting with the sequels as he was with The Lies of Locke Lamora, they’ll be a hell of a read.