Thursday, February 13, 2014

15 Best Books of 2013: Reading Review

In 2013 I read 57 books and a total of 16,920 pages.  Not quite as much as 2012, but I don't feel bad about it.  I think 57 books is still pretty cool in one year, and it's more than any other year besides 2012.  Plus I raised a couple of beautiful kids, worked about 1200 hours, built a couple of Tron costumes, wrote 50,720 words in November, and made no small number of pies.  I'm declaring 2013 the "Year of New Experiences."  It feels like I tried a lot of new things like sewing, soldering, marathon writing, and also playing the ukelele for the first and possibly only time ever.

I don't think I mentioned it on this blog, but I participated in NaNoWriMo in November, which is a 30-day effort to write 50,000 words of a novel.  It's an ambitious undertaking, but I did it!  I'm happy that I did and I plan to do more in the future.

Books read in 2013:

Pages read in 2013:

But this post is supposed to be about books!  So here are my favorites from 2013 (specifically, books that I read in 2013, not necessarily published in 2013).

15 Favorites From 2013

15. Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson
It kind of goes without saying that Brandon Sanderson will be on my list.  Steelheart is brilliantly imagined, turning the notion of superheroes on its head and imagining what a world would be like if people who got super powers turned evil.  Featuring a likable main character who just can't make a good metaphor to save his life, and a team of normal people who are trying to take the "Epics" down, the ending of this book just might blow your mind.

14. Mr. Churchill's Secretary by Susan Elia Macneal
This goes on the list because it's a mystery that I really liked, and I don't like mysteries!  Set in WWII London, Maggie Hope takes a job as a secretary for Winston Churchill.  But as she tries to navigate her new position, a conspiracy is closing in on London.  There are now three books in the series that I have read, and the story keeps getting better.

13. The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman
I mentioned this book last year on my blog.  It's sort of achingly beautiful, good for fans of literary fiction.  I don't think I'd rank this in my top 5 anymore, but it definitely deserves recognition.

12. Longbourn by Jo Baker
This book is getting a lot of buzz right now.  It takes place in the Longbourn household during the events of Pride and Prejudice, but is from the point of view of the staff.  It's sort of a downstairs version of Pride and Prejudice, and has a lot going for it.  It's sort of irresistible to see bits and pieces of P&P, and also the description of life for the lower classes in that era is fascinating.  It definitely pulls back the curtain from our idealized notions of idyllic English countrysides and society.  This book doesn't quite hit it out of the park for P&P lovers, but is a substantial contribution to Austen spinoff literature.

11.  Cinnamon and Gunpowder by Eli Brown
I keep telling people about this book and I get blank stares, and I don't get it!  This book was awesome, full of swashbuckling adventure, romance, and adventure.  Here is the synopsis I wrote for my library's staff blog:
Owen Wedgwood, famed chef, has been kidnapped and is being held aboard the Flying Rose, captive of the notorious captain Mad Hannah Mabbot. Mabbot informs him that he will cook a sumptuous meal for her each Sunday or he will be killed, a dismaying challenge considering the pirate ship's meager, weevil-infested stores. Dreaming up ways to escape, Wedgwood works wonders in the kitchen while the ship hunts for the notorious Brass Fox and flees from a deadly privateer. Wedgwood comes to rely on the gruff crew he once feared and begins to see something softer behind Mabbot's swagger and threatening power.
I loved this book. It's a swashbuckling adventure that doesn't gloss over the grim reality of life on a pirate ship. Told from Wedgwood's perspective, the story is sprinkled with delectable descriptions and metaphors drawn from his culinary experience; food is the dialect by which he speaks. The plot is fast-paced and action packed, and you come to love some and fear other characters through the course of their adventures. The real star is Wedgwood himself, a likable and talented fellow whose expertise and lifetime of experience still hasn't quite prepared him for all that he is about to face. 

10. The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion
Elevator Pitch: Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory falls in love.  (Okay, it's not really Sheldon Cooper, but Don Tillman is his doppelganger).

9. Requiem by Lauren Oliver
This is the final book in the Delirium series, and I have to say, it's how I wish the Hunger Games series would have ended.  If you were dissatisfied with Mockingjay, reading this series might be therapeutic for you.  It's also one of the rare series where I thought the second book was better than the first.  There is a bit of fan anger at some plot threads left untied at the end of the third book, but I think that doing so would have left a too-perfect bow on the end of everything.  Many things in life don't have resolution.  The author gave an interview where she said this:
Part of what adults have to live with is ambiguity. It's not like you make a choice and find happiness hiding behind one of three doors looking like Kim Kardashian. You have to choose what you want every day. There is no one point at which you get your happy ending.
That may sound like nothing good comes of the ending, but Oliver weaves redemption into her final chapters that, in my opinion, will leave many readers more satisfied than they were at the end of Mockingjay.

8. and 7. Etiquette & Espionage/Curtsies & Conspiracies by Gail Carriger
This is a fun YA steampunk series that mostly shines for the likable, clever main character, Sophronia.  Sophronia is sent to a "finishing" school for young ladies where she will learn dance, dress, and etiquette, as well as deceipt, diversion, and espionage.  A fun concept and an entertaining if simple YA series.

6. Scarlet by Marissa Meyer
Another rare instance of a second book in a series outshining the first.  This is the second book in Marissa Meyer's science-fiction series retelling classic fairy tales.  The first book was Cinder, the cyborg Cinderella of her time who is caught up in a conspiracy relevant to the entire kingdom.  Book two follows Scarlet, whose grandmother has gone missing and the only person who seems willing to help her is an enigmatic street fighter named Wolf.  The relationship between these two was absolutely mesmerizing for me, and I honestly didn't know how to peg Wolf for most of the book.  Their story also interweaves with Cinder's continuing story from book 1, and we are introduced to a few new characters who I loved.

5. The Disaster Diaries by Sam Sheridan
This was a really interesting nonfiction book by writer and MMA fighter Sam Sheridan.  Sam takes one question: "How would I survive the apocalypse?" and trains for various life-threatening scenarios.  Need to outrun the aliens?  Better take a course on stunt car driving.  Need to hijack a car first?  Better train on hot-wiring with an ex-con from south central LA.  Running low on ammunition?  Better train in knife fighting.  One of your crew has been injured?  Better brush up on emergency medicine.

This was fascinating, and was woven together with a hypothetical narrative of things that could happen in an end-of-the-world situation.  Fun reading.

4. The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey
If you needed any inspiration for putting all of those apocalyptic skills to good use, you will find it in this book.  This is a great read for fans of Divergent, The Hunger Games, basically anything exciting.  Here's a quick summary:
Cassie Sullivan is trying to survive after crippling attacks have wiped out the majority of humanity, and she's not sure if she can trust anyone still left alive. Great tension and a quick moving plot keep you turning pages, but the vulnerability and humanity of the characters really make this novel hit home. 

3. Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker by Jennifer Chiaverini
This book is an easy one to recommend to anyone in your Relief Society!  And by that I mean it's 1. squeaky clean, 2. historically significant, and 3. inspiring for women.  This is about Elizabeth Keckley,  a black woman who was born a slave but bought her freedom and built a successful business as a dressmaker, with her crowning achievement being her time working for Mrs. Lincoln and also acting as her confidant during all of the drama and heartbreak of her years in the white house.  Keckley was present during intimate moments of triumph and grief for both Mrs. and Mr. Lincoln.  Later in her life, she wrote a book describing her time working there, which led to an estrangement of her friendship with Mrs. Lincoln.  I need some friends to read this so we can discuss whether it was right for Keckley to write such a book, and if Mrs. Lincoln's reaction was called for.  This was a really good book, interesting, thought-provoking, and enjoyable.

2. Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick
A haunting true life dystopia describing the situation in North Korea from the perspectives of six people who lived most of their lives there.  Pieced together from many interviews, this is a glimpse into a world that I can hardly believe exists on our planet today.  I read this almost a year ago and I am still haunted by it.  But rather than leaving you feeling bereaved, Demick renders these peoples' lives in not a tragic light but one that is meaningful, vibrant, showing you their passion and purpose.  A full 5 stars for this one.

1. Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
This is a love story that will make you remember your first love and all of the little moments from it that you may have forgotten, all wrapped up in a surprisingly engrossing story.  This is set in 1986, and brings to life the agony of having to wait whole weekends before you could see or talk to that person again (kids today and their cell phones... grumble grumble).  The real magic of this story was how it made me feel.  The first time they talk on the phone my heart was pounding, and the first time they touched I couldn't breathe.  I also listened to the audiobook, and the performance of the two people reading for Eleanor and Park was stellar.  Seriously, it's won awards.  All in all, this is my #1 favorite from 2013.  I've read one other book by this author and I'm excited to see more from her in the future.

So how was your 2013?  What would you classify it as "The Year Of..."?
Do you have any favorite books from 2013?

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Early Literacy

Jane has always had books around.  Before she was born Michael and I went to the store and picked up a few of our favorite baby books to prepare for her arrival.  It was a fun activity that I still think about.  It was the beginning of her childhood library that has since grown by leaps and bounds thanks to helpful donations from family members and the inevitable gifts from holidays.  Now Jane has a plethora of books.  She's "lousy" with books.  Books are coming out her ears.  Her room looks like a book explosion!  And I'm okay with that.

It seems like only in the last few months Jane has really started picking up on the fact that Mommy works in a library, aka a place with lots of books.  Sometimes she asks if she can come to work with me, which is adorable, and she never seems undeterred by the fact that I have never taken her before (at least, not when I was on the clock).  When I tell her no, she is disappointed, of course.  Usually the only way I can help her feel better is to ask her if she would like me to bring home some books.  She always says yes!

So lately I have been picking up two or three books and bringing them home after work.  If Jane is still awake, we sit on the couch and read all of the books immediately after I walk in the door.  She enjoys hearing the stories once or twice, and then she's okay with me taking them back.  She's gotten used to the fact that they have to go back to the library now.  New books are exciting to her, and she will always, always say yes to a book.

Obviously, Jane has a love of reading.  And I have to say, I love that she has a love of reading.

Michael and I have read so many books to her.  A few years ago I came across a study that said children - even babies - who are read to daily, even if it's just one book, are much more likely to become readers later on and subsequently do better in school and lots of other things.  So we read to Jane everyday.  Reading is part of the bedtime routine, even though usually we have already read a few books by then.  We are also starting to read to Colin everyday and I see him go to the bookshelf now to pull down a book, sit with his little legs sticking out, lay the book in his lap and flip through the pages.  It's adorable, and I'm proud that he is learning the logistics of how to move through the pages of a book and that each page has something different and interesting.

Today I came across a cute article called "10 Tips for Reading With Baby."  All of the suggestions are good, especially the last one, "Start as early as you want."  Seriously.  There is no "too early" when it comes to reading to children.  The tone of your voice and the rhythm of the words are soothing and even at birth you are starting to build pathways in their brain with everything you do (studies show that newborns are capable of learning even immediately after birth!).  Not to mention all of the quality time and snuggles. :) 

So, how you do like to read to your kids?  Before bed?  Do you read to them all at once or just one at a time?  Do your kids have any favorite books?


Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Tron Costumes Part 4: Identity Discs

Part 1: Concept
Part 2: Garment Construction
Part 3: Electronics

So all of the credit for the amazing discs goes to our Dad, who made them completely from scratch and did an incredible job.

Initially, we had looked into buying discs, but the only things we could find online were flimsy foam things that didn't light up and were only painted on one side anyway.  Our Dad is a very talented wood turner and it struck me that the discs were something he might be able to help us with.

What followed was a LOT of emails that went back and forth as we all discussed how these things should be designed and how to make them functional.  Really, Dad is the one who should narrate this process, which I would be happy to add to this post, Dad, if you want to write anything.  But for the time being I have lots of pictures that Dad sent us during the process!

It looks like he's making the groove for the LED lights to go here
See?  There they are

It seems like to took forever for the LED lights to come

He colored epoxy with blue paint pearls and poured it
into the groove and wrapped it all with duct (duck?) tape

Here are the interior grooves with epoxy poured in.

Making the inside bevel

And the outside bevel
Look at those beautiful angles
Adding the beautiful detailing

The back of the discs are removable, and you can see inside he has 8 AA batteries lined up providing power to the LED lights.  You can see the switch below.

Here are some different views and lightings as Dad was playing around with his amazing creations.  You can see that even outdoors you can still see that they're lit up.

Here's the back of the disc after being painted black
One concern was how long would these last being lit up?  Dad did some trials to see how long they could stay on and still offer a glow.  I think he gave up around 32 hours when they were still going strong (is that right, Dad?).  Anyway, ridiculously long.  Adam and I haven't even changed the batteries yet and we wore these around all day and night.

At this point in the disc process we started trying to figure out a good way to get these on our backs.  Many more emails went back and forth, and we decided that we wanted an actual piece to mount these on.  Dad came up with a really beautiful design, and the part that I really like is how ingeniously simple they go together.  Dad used rare earth magnets - four on the back of the disc, and four in the "back rack."  Rare earth magnets work really well until you slide them away from each other, then they come apart really easily.  We didn't want gravity to do the sliding for us, so the back rack holds the disc in place and prevents gravity from making the disc slide down.  Then we just twist the disc a little on the rack and -poof- off it comes.  Fabulous.

Dad created this pocket in the back of the back rack where I put the 8 AA batteries that lit up our whole costumes.  I had the entire costumes - jackets and pants/skirt wired into this battery pack.  I kind of like that the identity disc sort of powers us.  

Here's how the disc and back rack fit together
Dad glued velcro onto the back of the back racks, and then I glued and stitched (mostly around the edges) the matching velcro onto the back of our costumes.

Here's how they looked on the costumes:

Sorry the disc is sideways, Dad.
And here's us at the convention:

These discs got a LOT of attention at the convention, everyone wanted to look at them and hold them, and most people assumed we had bought them.  You should have seen the looks I got from people when I told them our Dad had made them from epoxy and wood.  They are pretty amazing, and the whole time I was working on the costumes I was motivated to try to make the costumes live up to how great the discs were!  I think they turned out pretty awesome.

Thanks, Dad!!  You're the best.

P.S. I might do one more post where I talk about some of the smaller details and about the cool stuff the costumes can do, and about how the day went when we actually wore the costumes.