Monthly Archives: December 2015

Lara’s Top Picks of 2015

booksIt’s the most wonderful time of the year. For my blog. It’s that time where I post my personal “Best Of” list for 2015. And as I’ve done in years past, this is a list of the ten best books I personally read this year — NOT a list of books that were published this year. (For that, check out the New York Times.) Most of the books on my list are at least a few years old, and it just took me until now to get around to reading them. Anyway, keep reading for a pretty great list of books, and scroll to the bottom for the complete list of the 25 books I read this year.

10. Insurgent by Veronica Roth. A follow-up to the bestselling young adult Divergent series, Insurgent follows Tris and Four as they aim to take down the leader of a government gone wrong. While Divergent is mostly exposition and setup for the rest of the YA series, Insurgent is almost all action and continues to put Tris at the forefront of strong feminist characters. Buy it now.

9. Armada by Ernest Cline. A high schooler and video game junkie’s dreams and worst fears come true when he learns the video game he’s been playing is actually training for a real world alien battle he must help fight. The follow-up to Cline’s bestseller Ready Player One is not as innovative or good as Player, but it incorporates the pop culture references, adventure and heart that made his debut novel so special. Buy it now.

8. The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling. A small town in the UK is turned upside down with a dark chain of events when an untimely death leads to an opening on the town’s parish council. This was the first adult novel Rowling wrote after her Harry Potter series came ended, and while some felt it was too dark and twisty, I felt it was perfect. That darkness Rowling writes with is what made her later Potter novels so great and what makes the events of this one so unexpected.Buy it now.

7. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. The death of Theo’s mother leads him to a strange world: the underworld of art, as he carries around a mysterious piece of art throughout all the highs and lows of his hard, inconsistent life. The Goldfinch is LONG, yes, but it’s beautifully written and tells an intriguing story of an intriguing boy and life. It won a Pulitzer Prize for a reason.Buy it now.

6. A Letter to My Mom by Lisa Erspamer. A collection of essays and anecdotes about mothers come together in this cute book that will make you laugh, smile and cry hysterically. It was a book that made me think of my mom, thank my mom and know exactly what I’m giving her next Mother’s Day. Buy it now.

5. The Martian by Andy Weir. Man goes to Mars; man gets stuck on Mars; NASA spends years effecting bringing him home, while he figures out a way to survive on his own. It’s an amazing story, which seems totally plausible — if someone as smart and amazing as Mark Watney were to ever get stuck up there. This bestseller-turned-book is not only powerful and intense, it’s also funny, funny, funny and incredibly enjoyable. Buy it now.

4. The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. Alternating narrators connects the stories of the drunken, depressed woman who rides the train, her ex and the couple whose house she passes everyday on the train. Dubbed “the next Gone Girl,” The Girl on the Train is a suspenseful murder mystery and thriller that keeps you turning pages in a classic whodunit story with a modern twist. Buy it now.

3. Stories I Only Tell My Friends by Rob Lowe. Rob Lowe narrates the story of his rise to fame on this audiobook memoir with stories of celebrity and scandal, work and success. Stories is great because it offers exactly what one wants from a celebrity memoir — behind-the-scenes secrets and details of some of his greatest films and TV shows and details of his scandals of the 1980s. Buy it now.

2. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs. When Jacob goes to Wales to research more about this late grandfather, he learns that he and his grandpa share no only a special, sci-fi, fantastical connection, but also a whole other secret world. It’s a YA novel that feels more adult, and is filled with excitement, wonder, heart and bravery — the first in a series of Miss Peregrine books, the rest of which I can’t wait to read. Buy it now.

1.  Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream by H.G. Bissinger. A behind-the-scenes look at the real-life 1988 Permian Pantheers football team from Odessa, Texas, this is the book that started the FNL sensation. This nonfiction story is even more heart-wrenching and despairing than the story lines on the show, but it’s the detailed, beautifully written prose by Buzz Bissinger that makes this version exceptional. Buy it now.

The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt

I’m Glad I Did – Cynthia Weil

Amazon Burning – Victoria Griffith

Insurgent – Veronica Roth

The Girl on the Train – Paula Hawkins

At the Water’s Edge – Sara Gruen

Whip Smart: Lola Montez Starts a Revolution – Kit Brennan

Unorthodox – Deborah Feldman

The Casual Vacancy – J.K. Rowling

A Letter to My Mom – Lisa Erspamer

Then Again – Diane Keaton

The Storyteller – Jodi Picoult

Paper Towns – John Green

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children – Ransom Riggs

Dark Places – Gillian Flynn

Alexander Hamilton – Ron Chernow

Stories I Only Tell My Friends – Rob Lowe

Bond Girl – Erin Duffy

The Martian – Andy Weir

The Ocean at the End of the Lane – Neil Gaiman

Inconceivable! – Tegan Wren

Mockingjay – Suzanne Collins

Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream – H.G. Bissinger

Armada – Ernest Cline

Walking Distance – David Hlavsa

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Movie & Show vs. Book: Friday Night Lights

515mak2bfsol-_sy344_bo1204203200_It’s hard to believe that when speaking to several fans of the beloved NBC TV show “Friday Night Lights,” they didn’t know the show is based on a book published 25 years ago.

Friday Night Lights tells the true story of the 1988 Permian Panthers high school football team in Odessa, Texas. Penned by Buzz Bissinger, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who decides to spend a year in Texas to understand the beauty and darkness that lay beneath the Friday night lights, the book became a huge bestseller and later spawned a movie of the same name and the TV show. That book had such stunning success for good reason.

First of all, Bissinger has a beautiful way of writing; his description, attention to detail and tone bring the reader to the football fields and locker rooms with him. His prose is moving and powerful, yet understated. Seriously, it’s rare that I pay that much attention to an author’s writing, but Bissinger made me take notice.

What’s amazing is the depth with which he details not only the games played each Friday night, but also the backstories of the six players on whom he decides to focus the book and the history of the city of Odessa itself — one of financial crisis, racism, socioeconomic gaps and crime. In this way, the book includes many things the movie and TV show never get the opportunity to touch. In this day and age when the gap between the rich and poor and between black, white and Hispanic seem to be widening, those details would have been a revelation to see onscreen.

But then again, the movie is now 12 years old and the show 10 years old. Unlike the television series, the movie follows the book exactly, specifically following that 1988 season of the Permian Panthers including Boobie Miles’s injury-sparked downfall and Chris Comer’s rise to the occasion. The TV show takes the premise and many elements from the book and dramatizes it into its own separate — and still mesmerizing — story.

However, Boobie’s story is far more devastating in real life and in the book than in the movie. Where, as the book details, Boobie heart-wrenchingly hurts his knee in a meaningless pre-season scrimmage, the movie has it happen in the first big game of the season, which is a) more dramatic but also b) less ironically shocking and sad. And where, as the book details, Boobie quits the team and is forgotten about, never to speak with most of his former teammates again, the movie finds him standing on the sidelines during the state championship game, cheering for his boys. I get it; the movie producers wanted the movie to have a happy ending. But part of what makes Friday Night Lights (the book) so good is its depressingly real demonstration that things don’t always work out the way you want them to, even if you are a star athlete in high school; sadly, dreams don’t always come true.

It’s safe to say that if you liked the movie or TV show, you will like the book and maybe even appreciate the onscreen adaptations more, knowing the real story. (I also highly recommend reading the 25th anniversary edition, which came out earlier this year. It details a 2015 update on each of the six players Bissinger details in the original edition.)

Get Friday Night Lights, 25th Anniversary Edition in paperback for $10.33.

Or on your Kindle for $9.56.

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Review: Armada

armada_novel_coverRecap: Zack Lightman is about to graduate from high school, but his ambitions of going to college are slim; he’s more focused on video games. His mother understands. She and Zack’s father were video game junkies themselves when they were his age. But Zack’s father, who had a seemingly insane theory about world and government officials secretly training children for war through video games, died when Zack was just a baby.

Zack’s dreams and worst nightmares come true all at once when the video game he’s been playing for years, Armada, becomes his reality. He has been recruited to join the real Earth Defense Alliance (EDA) and use what he’s learned through the video game to fight in actual combat against an alien invasion the EDA is likely to lose.

As one of the best Armada video game players in the world, Lightman has a respectable title and has been sent to the moon to fight alongside the game’s other top players. But what was already an overwhelming battle becomes even more overwhelming when a secret from Zack’s past comes to haunt his present.

Analysis: Like in his debut novel, best-selling author Ernest Cline (Ready Player Oneincorporates 80’s pop culture references from sci-fi movies and games into a novel about video games. The difference here is that while Ready Player One is multi-layered and consists of both the teen boy and his avatar as two separate characters, Armada makes that teen boy and “avatar” one and the same. And while Armada doesn’t achieve the near-perfection of Cline’s first novel, it’s certainly still enjoyable.

The foreshadowing is overstated, so much of the story reads predictably. The pop culture references are a little overused, but one could argue it’s that aspect of Cline’s writing that made Ready Player One so enjoyable, so of course he used the technique again. And while the concept of being brought into a the life of a video game isn’t wholly original, the adventure along the way is fun, nonetheless. It’s the kind of story fanboys dream of — battling aliens! video games! hot girls who are suddenly attracted to nerdy guys!

In the simplest terms, one could argue that Armada is “a bit much.” But I would argue isn’t any sci-fi novel with adventure and heart exactly that?

MVP: Zack. He’s a bit of a lost soul, but that’s to be expected from a boy who grew up without a father. The intelligence and bravery he displays despite everything make him someone his father could be proud of.

Buy Armada in hardcover for $16.50.

Or get it on your Kindle for $12.99.

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You Can Help Write New Taylor Swift Book

do-no-reuse-taylor-swift-the-beat-bb36-sarah-barlow-billboard-6501It’s hard to believe it’s been 10 years since Taylor Swift’s debut album was released. (Actually, I remember well the first time I heard it — played by my college roommate on repeat in our freshman year dorm — it just seems completely implausible that THAT was 10 years ago.) To commemorate that time — for Taylor, not me — Simon & Schuster is planning to publish a book about the pop superstar, according to Entertainment Weekly Oddly, it’s the first major book to be released about her.

Much like some of her album covers and Instagram account, the book about Swift will be a sort of scrapbook paying homage to the singer. The book is set to include fan art, concert photos and articles published about the singer over the years as well as the press release for her first album.

But here’s the cool part: Simon & Schuster is asking that fans contribute by suggesting their favorite published pieces about Swift and coming up with a title and cover for the book. The publishing company is also looking for someone to serve as the “honorary author” and face of the book. Article suggestions can be made by emailing tips@swiftfanbook.com and photos can be sent it by emailing images@swiftfanbook.com, but if you’re interested in authoring the book, designing the cover or creating the title, you can enter various contests. Here are the details, from EW:

Title contest: The book’s title will be determined by a contest. Fans are invited to submit the title they think the book should have, along with a brief essay of 250 words or less in support of their title, with the winning title to be chosen by Simon & Schuster. The fan who wins will receive a $2,500 payment and credit in the published book. This contest will run from Dec. 13, 2015, through Jan. 13, 2016, and entries may be made at www.SwiftFanBook.com.

Honorary authorship contest: Although the book is a group effort, Simon & Schuster is looking for one super-Swiftie to serve as its honorary author and the face of the book to the public. That fan, whose name will appear on the cover and help select content for the book and promote it, will also be chosen via a contest. Fans who think they have the passion, knowledge, creativity, and charisma for the role can make their case in a video of three minutes or less to be uploaded at www.SwiftFanBook.com. The winner will be chosen by Simon & Schuster and receive a $10,000 payment. At the time of publication, the author will be flown to New York for a press tour, a book signing in Manhattan, potential appearances on major media outlets, and more. This contest will run from Dec. 13, 2015, through Jan. 13, 2016.

Cover contest: Once the book’s title and author have been determined and announced, fans with a flair for graphic design can create the cover they think the book should have. The winning cover design may be used on the published book, with the designer to receive credit on the book jacket and a $5,000 payment. This contest will run from Feb. 1, 2016, through March 1, 2016, and submissions should be uploaded at www.SwiftFanBook.com.

The book’s planned release is October 24, 2016 — brilliant, considering it’s just in time for next holiday season, and I imagine a lot of young teenage girls will want a copies for Christmas and Chanukkah.

Though Swift has officially endorsed this project, it seems to be something she would absolutely support since there’s nothing she loves more than interacting with fans through social media and always thanks her fans for the cute ways in which they acknowledge her. Not to mention it’s the easiest — and probably cheapest — way to put together a book that is sure to make a lot of money. You can join the conversation about it online using the hashtag #SwiftFanBook

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Review: The Ocean At the End of the Lane

ocean_at_the_end_of_the_lane_us_coverRecap: A man has returned to his hometown for a funeral, but somehow something pulls him away from the funeral to an old neighbor’s home. He finds himself there, chatting with the familiar women who live there, but Lettie, the little girl he once knew who used to live there is no longer there. He can’t remember where she is or what ever happened to her. But as he sits by the pond behind her home, it all comes back to him.

The story turns into a long flashback to the man’s childhood. He recalls several captivating nights that are hard to believe he could ever forget. It starts with the memory of a man who killed himself in his father’s car parked at the end of his street. The man had gambled away all his friend’s money. This opens the world of the supernatural to the world of the natural, and suddenly strange things happen to the boy: a coin lodges in his throat; a worm is stuck in his foot; and his family hires a new babysitter. The babysitter turns out to be a personification of all the bad and of the supernatural infiltrating its way into the boy’s life. Her name is Ursula, and the boy is horrified.

He escapes as often as he can to his neighbors’ house, where Lettie lives. Lettie, her mother and grandmother have magical powers that allow them to manage the supernatural making its way into their world. But as his world falls apart thanks to Ursula, the boy isn’t so sure he, his family or Lettie and her family will ever be safe.

Analysis: The magic and fantasy of this novel threw me off initially. At first, I thought the author was writing in metaphors, but somewhere along the way, I realized everything was meant to be taken literally. Fantastical stories like this aren’t typically my favorite, but this one was intriguing. I didn’t know where it was going and I was interested enough to keep reading and find out. The ending turned out to be much sadder than I expected for not only the main character, but also for his magical friend Lettie.

I appreciated the end — however sad it may have been — for its acknowledgement of things coming full circle and the notion that childhood events have a lasting impact on one’s adult life. The book’s final moments are fairly open-ended, but because of the mystery of the story and the inherent enchantment that that mystery brings, it works. Ocean left me feeling wistful for answers and childhood — wistful in a good way.

MVP: Lettie. She’s a young girl with an old soul. Without giving anything away, we later find out why. But she is strong, and just the kind of person to give the story’s main character all the confidence he can muster.

Get The Ocean at the End of the Lane in paperback for $8.51.

Or on your Kindle for $9.99.

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