Monthly Archives: December 2011

Lara’s Top Picks of 2011

At this point, we’ve all read the New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2011 list. But if you’re anything like me, you’re still catching up on the bestsellers from the previous two to three years, after everyone’s told you a thousand times “YOU HAVE TO READ THIS.”

That being said, I’ve compiled my own “Best” list for 2011, which includes nothing published in 2011. It’s a list of the best books I’ve read this year, regardless of when they came out. I hope you enjoy!

10. Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. Meant to be Franzen’s comeback novel after his beloved bestseller The Corrections, Freedom didn’t get quite the same recognition. But I found this story of a troubled Midwestern woman and her relationships with her husband, children, and former lover a mess of a good time. Get it now.

9. Ice Bound by Jerri Neilsen. Based on a true story, Dr. Neilsen performed surgery on herself after she was diagnosed with breast cancer in the South Pole. The story is so absurd, it can’t be fiction. Her bravery is just as captivating as the story itself. Get it now.

8. Shanghai Girls by Lisa See. When two Chinese girls are sold to an American man in the 1930s, their lives can’t possibly get any worse. But it does. Reading about these two women and the ways they move on with their lives after all they’ve been through is mind-blowing. Get it now.

7. The Girl Who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson. It’s the second book in the Millenium series, but it’s also the best. It moves the quickest, as we rush to learn as much as we can about this mysterious, troubled computer hacker and the past she can’t seem to leave behind. Get it now.

6. Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult. It’s a story similar to Columbine. A high school student goes on a shooting spree that kills and injures dozens. But the way the truth unfolds through the trial thereafter is told in the only way Jodi Picoult can: brilliantly. Get it now.

5. Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen. When you hear romance and animal cruelty are the two components for a bestseller, you might wonder what planet you’re living on. But Gruen makes it work here as the fight to keep a beloved animal alive is shared by two circus member soul mates. Get it now.

4. The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown. In typical Dan Brown fashion, Robert Langdon goes on yet another mythological, artsy, and religious adventure in a thriving metropolis. But the formula works, as we watch Langdon discover the secrets of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. Get it now.

3. The Help by Kathryn Stockett. If you haven’t read this story about a white Southern girl and her mission to write a book about the black help in the 1960’s, you really are missing out. Two maids and one brave white aspiring author detail their personal journeys in this inspiring novel. Get it now.

2. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. In a post-apocalyptic world, teenagers are forced to fight each other in an Olympic-style survival game until only one remains alive. It’s dark and twisted, but it sure is fun. It’s also impossible to put down. Get it now.

1. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton. One of the classics of our time, Edith Wharton uses high society New York City in the 1870’s not only as a setting, but as a character in this romance novel. It not only leaves us wondering how much or how little things have changed since then, but also has us wishing we were alive in those times. Get it now.

And in case you were wondering, here’s a complete list of all the books I’ve read in 2011.

Freedom – Jonathan Franzen

Nineteen Minutes – Jodi Picoult

Eclipse – Stephanie Myers

Breaking Dawn – Stephanie Myers

L.A. Candy – Lauren Conrad

The Girl Who Played with Fire – Steig Larsson

Sweet Little Lies – Lauren Conrad

Sugar and Spice – Lauren Conrad

For One More Day – Mitch Albom

The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins

The Help – Kathryn Stockett

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Next – Steig Larsson

Catching Fire – Suzanne Collins

The Lost Symbol – Dan Brown

One Day – David Nicholls

Painted Ladies – Robert B. Parker

The Red Scorpion – Ed Newman

Mockingjay – Suzanne Collins

Ice Bound – Jerri Neilsen

The Audacity of Hope – Barack Obama

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close – Jonathan Safran Foer

Water for Elephants – Sara Gruen

Little Bee – Chris Cleave

The Prodigal Hour – Will Entrekin

Dear John – Nicholas Sparks

Boom! – Tom Brokaw (abridgement)

The Age of Innocence – Edith Wharton

Shanghai Girls – Lisa See

Lethal Circuit – Lars Guignard


What were your favorite reads this year.? I’m always looking for new books to add to my list! See ya’ in 2012!


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Review: Room

Contributed By Samantha Holle

Recap:  Jack is five years old today.  To celebrate his birthday, he and Ma bake a cake, run on Track, watch TV, and get to sleep before Old Nick comes.  But Old Nick isn’t the jolly old man who knows when you are sleeping, and Track isn’t outside.  Track is the floor around Bed in their eleven by eleven prison room, and Old Nick is a kidnapper who has kept Ma in a shed in his yard for seven years.

Jack has become a beacon of hope for Ma, and on his fifth birthday she begins to tell him the truth about the world outside that he has never seen.  Driven by her desires to escape and prove to Jack that there’s a world outside of Room, Ma and Jack hatch a plan that will free them.  But will Jack be able to adapt to Outside, with all its people, cars, and wide open spaces?  And will Ma be able to return to living a normal life?

AnalysisRoom is told from the perspective of a five-year-old boy who has only ever seen the inside of four walls and who thinks everyone on television is made up.  Jack is an unlikely cheerful spirit in a repressive environment, and it’s a testament to his mother’s hope for freedom that he doesn’t sense her despair.  In the story, Jack becomes a symbol of her remaining optimism.  She raises her son to have manners, a wide vocabulary, and an active lifestyle despite their living conditions.  (Track, for example, is when they move all of their furniture onto the bed and practice running.)

Readers may question how a five year old can retell dialogue and use terms like “post-traumatic stress disorder”; author Emma Donoghue easily resolves this by explaining another game Ma and Jack play called “Parrot,” where they listen to the television, mute it, and have Jack recite what he has just heard.  It’s a lesson in vocabulary and memorization all in one that solves the dialogue problem.

In addition to a unique narrative structure, Jack unknowingly references literary works and authors that connect to their desperate lives.  Jack mentions poetry by Emily Dickinson — who is known for secluding herself, in stark contrast to Ma and Jack’s unchosen imprisonment,  calls himself Jack the Giant Killer and marvels at the story of Jack and the Beanstalk — the story of a boy who so badly wants to make his mother happy that he takes on a giant to gain material happiness — and even marvels at how life Outside keeps getting “curiouser and curiouser”, as Lewis Carroll’s Alice did when she took her tour of Wonderland.  It not only enriches the text and the characters, but it makes the voice of Jack all the more sweet because he is so naive about the terrifying situation in which he’s been raised.

MVP:  Ma. Though she becomes frustrated when Jack doesn’t believe her about Outside or when he insists on remaining in Room, she never loses her cool; she is never violent or mean to her child.  She is a heroine despite her flaws — Jack describes days where Ma is Gone; she lays in bed unresponsive for hours, sometimes days, at a time — but one cannot help but sympathize with her plight and her unavoidable depression.  There is a moment of panic for both Jack and the reader, but just like during her time in Room, Ma goes to great lengths to rebound and try to become whole again.

Get Room in paperback for $9, down from $15.

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Movie vs. Book: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

****Spoiler Alert: Because so many people are familiar with the bestselling novel, the Swedish movie version and the American movie version, I felt no obligation to refrain from spoilers. They are included. Consider yourself warned.

It’s a story that begins when a well-known journalist is asked to investigate a 40-year-old murder mystery. But readers of the Millenium series know The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is not just about journalist Mikael Blomkvist, but also his research assistant and computer-hacking friend/lover Lisbeth Salander.

Not only is this a murder mystery, but the beginning of one of the most adult relationships either character has ever had. They round each other out, thus helping to solve the murder of young Harriet Vanger, the niece of a wealthy Swedish entrepreneur.

The movie version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo follows the plot of the murder mystery in close detail. Blomkvist’s discoveries with the old photographs and Lisbeth’s research into the Biblical references in victim Harriet Vanger’s journals are played out in the movie. What’s changed here are some of the aspects of the characters’ personal lives.

For instance, in the novel, Blomkvist is much more of a playboy, sleeping with not only his co-worker, Erika Berger, and Lisbeth Salander, but also Cecilia Vanger, one of the many relatives of murder victim, Harriet. But the movie doesn’t acknowledge the sexual relationship between Cecilia Vanger and Blomkvist. The movie also leaves out the subplot about Lisbeth’s mother dying. The movie doesn’t feel lost without it — in fact, it’s very jam-packed — but it would have been nice to see that played out, if for no other purpose than to give viewers a glimpse into Lisbeth’s personal life.

Despite the relatively minor plot changes, the movie not only does justice to the book, but enhances it. The only problem I ever had with the novel is that keeping track of the Vanger family — and all the characters, really — grew to be exhausting. But seeing it onscreen and being able to put faces to names helped.

A few other highlights of the movie are the performances, the music, and the graphic scenes. Rooney Mara kills it as Lisbeth Salander, in the way she speaks, works, and even carries herself; and Daniel Craig as Blomkvist is a perfect fit — believable, smart, and sexy, just as I imagined Blomkvist to be. The strange and ominous music, written by Trent Reznor (The Social Network), helps to keep viewers on the edge of their seats. The soundtrack is as uncomfortable and piercing as some of the scenes are.

David Fincher does not shy from the graphic style of the book, clearly portraying the scenes of Lisbeth’s sexual abuse and rape, her violence against her abuser, and the torture of Blomkvist at the end. I admit, I had to close my eyes for much of these scenes, and the rape had me so upset, I cried. As a woman, reading that scene was extremely difficult. But to see it played out onscreen was excruciating.

All in all, the power of the novel comes through on camera, and whether you loved the book or couldn’t quite get through it, the movie is definitely worth seeing — especially before awards season starts.

Get The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo for just $9.


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Get Mad Men: The Illustrated World for $9

If you’re a fan of the TV show Mad Men and are going through withdrawal, here’s the perfect thing to get you through until the new episodes begin: Mad Men: The Illustrated World. It’s a TV tie-in, a book component to go along with the fabulous 1960’s ad world of Don Draper. Included are kitschy styling tips, recipes for the perfect cocktail, and chapters on the home and office. It’s the only official tie-in to the show, and brings the life of Don, his co-workers, women, and children to the page in a funny, bright way.

Get Mad Men: The Illustrated World for just $9.

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Listening to Your E-Reader

There are books. There are e-books. And there are audiobooks. But now, there are e-books with music.

Earlier this fall, a New York start-up called Booktrack began publishing e-books with music to enhance the e-book reading experience. According to this article by The New York Times, they decided to change the landscape of e-book reading by adding soundtracks to accompany them. Stories with a more “cinematic scope” were better-suited, and so far, those are the only ones that have gotten the musical treatment.

Though authors have experimented with musical books in the past — the article cites James Patterson, who has included CD’s to go along with his books — they haven’t been very successful. But Booktrack promises to give readers more control with the musical e-books, as Julie Bosman explains.

But Booktrack’s founders say that their product is an improvement on the old book soundtracks, partly because it plays at the pace of the individual reader and can be paused or adjusted with a touch of the screen.

Reading the Booktrack edition of “The Power of Six” on an iPad is much like reading the standard e-book edition, with the addition of a small indicator scrolling down the page, line by line. (The user sets the reading speed.)

The prices of e-books with music are a bit higher. After all, they have more to offer. Or do they? What do you guys think?


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Get Steve Jobs Biography in Hardcover for $17, Down from $35

It’s one of — if not THE — bestselling book of the year. Steve Jobs changed the world of technology, and as much as we know about him, there’s very little we know about his personal life and the way he thought. Now’s your chance to find out with this inside look. Get Steve Jobs in hardcover for just $17 — down from $35. Grab it while the offer lasts.

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Review: Shanghai Girls

Recap: In Shanghai — “The Paris of China” — in the 1930’s, Pearl and May Chin are privileged, beautiful, rich girls, raised in a life of glamour, parties, and all things wonderful. But when their father informs them that he’s broke and has made a deal to marry them off to make up for his losses, their world changes entirely. Add to that the beginning of World War II and the Japanese bombing of Shanghai, and you’ve got the makings of a deeply impactful story.

Shanghai Girls follows Pearl and May as they marry the men their father has selected — Sam and Vern. It follows them as they journey overseas to America — and get stuck on Angel Island for months before they’re allowed into the country. And it follows them as they begin to build a life based on the American dream — a dream they never knew they had before.

Analysis: Shanghai Girls is divided into three parts: Fate, Fortune, and Destiny. Typically, dividing a book into portions doesn’t have much of an effect on me or the way I read it. But in the case of Shanghai Girls, it works. The way Pearl’s and May’s lives unfold is drastic. They face so many ups and downs that the parts helps to separate them and keep track of everything.

The first part of the book is difficult to get through. It’s graphic, depressing, and — no, heartwrenching. Because the young girls face so much hardship, I found I needed to know what happened. I longed to learn how they got out of their mess, if they got out. Shanghai Girls deals with many social issues of the time — war, Communism, illegal immigration, and civil rights. Reading it makes clear how much harder things were for the Chinese than most other U.S. immigrants.

The tale of Pearl and May is gripping. But it’s also a story of love — love between two sisters who only have each left in a crazy world. Pearl and May are the only truly stagnant parts of each other’s lives, and reading about their deep understanding and respect for each other is as captivating as the story itself.

MVP: Pearl’s husband, Sam. Each character in this novel has some kind of overwhelming flaw. But not Sam. Though he initially appears as the “evil” husband who Pearl is forced to marry, he becomes the perfect husband. And despite  his tragedy, he still remains the character that stands out as the kindest, most loving, and down to earth person in the book.

Get Shanghai Girls now for only $10.


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Get Hunger Games Boxed Set Trilogy for $31, Down From $54

With The Hunger Games coming to theaters in just a few months, it’s about time you either read or reread the trilogy: The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay. Yes, it’s a teen series, but it’s the one everyone is talking about — and with good reason. And if you’re on the hunt for a last-minute gift, there’s a good chance this one will go over well with kids, teens, and adults.

Get The Hunger Games boxed set for just $31, down from $54.

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So Many Books, So Little Time

Writing a successful novel certainly requires talent. But it also requires a particular skill set, inspiration, and practice. I’m always intrigued by what goes into writing a book. And now it seems I have learned part of the answer. When writing books, authors like to reread their own favorites.

According to this essay in The New York Times, authors are constantly rereading books. Not only does it inspire them to write better, but it also influences their writing — the way they construct dialogue or describe a setting. Stephen King admits he’s reread his five favorite books at least half a dozen times each.

Other authors admitted to rereading only a certain authors’ novels over and over again — like Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen, or Shakespeare. Writing is a craft, and it seems as though rereading other books is one of the most favorable ways to develop their own style.

No, this isn’t a newsy blog post. Nor is it a review. But I found it interesting, particularly because it’s very rare that I reread anything.

The only book I truly recall rereading was a Michelle Kwan autobiography that came out around 1997. I was so amazed by her beauty and grace that I wanted to be able to recall every detail about her life. I think I read that book about 7 times. Other than that, I’ve read some of the classics a couple times over, but it’s generally not something I do. As Stephen King says “So many books, so little time.” Why reread when you can read something new?

But there are books I’d love to reread — Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons, Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. I don’t have any secret hopes or dreams of becoming a great novelist, but maybe it’s time I dig into my bookshelf and pick up one of my old favorites again. And maybe you should too. You never know what you’ll uncover a second time around.


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Book Sales Soar During Holiday Season

This holiday season, there were two factors that had bookstore owners concerned: the popularity of e-books and a poor economy. Most expected abysmal sales of print books.

But according to this article by the New York Times, they were wrong. Book sales are up this year from last year. In most cases, stores have seen a 10-30% rise in sales, and that includes independent bookstores and Barnes and Noble.

The closing of Borders likely had something to do with it. Or as I like to think, maybe people are better appreciating physical books now that e-books are taking over. But while November and December sales are up, bookstore owners are concerned about what the dull post-holiday season will bring, as this one explains in the article.

Sales are up 15 percent from last year at Next Chapter Bookshop in Mequon, Wis., the store’s owner, Lanora Hurley, said, speculating that she may have been helped by the closing of a Borders store about seven miles away.

“We’re just going gangbusters and having a great time,” Ms. Hurley said, adding cautiously that she was concerned that it would not last. “I have to say, I’m worried about January. Everybody’s going to open their electronic device for Christmas.”

Hurley has a point. As much as people purchase books this year, they’re also purchasing e-readers. But I think this is all working toward a better future for the book industry. It certainly proves that the industry is alive and well. And apparently entering a new age.

It seems that this year’s holiday bestsellers aren’t fiction books. Nonfiction is leading the way with the Steve Jobs biography, memoirs by the likes of Diane Keaton and Gabrielle Giffords, and political books.

Of course, this is a somewhat natural holiday shopping spike. But could it also mean the Renaissance of the book?

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