List It or Skip It? My Recent Reads

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Here’s a quick rundown of some of the books I’ve read from spring to fall, and a recommendation on whether you should add them to your must-read list or not even bother. (Goodreads Reading Challenge progress: I’ve completed 49 of the 55 books I pledged to read this year!)

List It…

The Lying Game by Ruth Ware: Ware has quickly become one of my favorite thriller writers, and this latest slow-burn thriller didn’t let me down; my only complaint is that it had a similar premise to In a Dark, Dark Wood (old friends get together and something terrible happens) but wasn’t as well executed as that earlier novel.

Seven Days of Us by Francesca Hornak: What happens when a British family is placed under quarantine for the Christmas holiday? You’ll have to read this engaging, funny, lyrical novel to find out. Spoiler: It involves two unexpected guests and innumerable shocks and surprises, most of them not so full of cheer.

Do Not Become Alarmed by Maile Meloy: A parent’s nightmare comes to life: two couples’ kids go missing during a cruise-ship excursion and are subsequently kidnapped. Though some details feel overly dramatic and frankly unbelievable, the book is a page-turner that will keep readers hungry for more.

The Epiphany Machine by David Burr Gerrard: This literary novel combines storytelling with interviews and “news” articles, all centered around a tattoo machine that writes on a person’s arm the one thing about themselves they’re too scared to admit—or is it all one big hoax, a self-fulfilling prophecy? The suspense keeps us reading, but the downside is that we never find out for sure.

Skip It…

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan: Despite this book’s hype and the author’s clear grasp of the writing craft, I felt no connection to the characters: a rather lecherous aging wanna-be rockstar, plus all his high-school friends, and a kleptomaniac woman trying to figure out her life.

The Chemist by Stephanie Meyer: In her first novel for adults, the Twilight creator seems to have hit a new low; when the narrator isn’t droning on about guns and tactical plans, she’s mooning over a totally predictable crush. And somehow Meyer’s writing manages to be even more atrocious than ever, with cliches and bad metaphors galore.

A Talent for Murder by Andrew Wilson: Having just reread Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express in anticipation of the upcoming movie, I had high hopes for this fictionalized account of an unexplained period in Christie’s life when she went missing. Unfortunately, the book was hard to get through, with a stilted voice and dull scenes.

10 Literary Questions Tag

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I originally saw this post on Zeezee with Books, and since she’s so graciously tagged anyone interested in participating, I’ve decided to answer the ten questions as well. Without further ado, here we go!

1. What’s the most beautiful cover on your shelf?

I love so many of them, especially given that I picked up many of these books because I was first attracted to their cover. Right now the one that satisfies me most is Lost Lake by Sarah Addison Allen: the glow of the lanterns, the hint of darkness and mystery in the shadows and the stream. It helps that I really enjoyed the novel (I gave it five stars on Goodreads), though I generally like books by this author.

 

2. If you could bring any fictional character to life, who would it be?

Jo March from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. I always admired her no-nonsense attitude and her writerly dedication, and I’ve long thought we’d be best friends if I met her in the real world. We have similar goals, and strikingly similar moral values, and I’d be interested to meet the character that Alcott most modeled on herself.

3. If you could interview an author, whom would you choose?

Tim O’Brien. I did interview him once, several years ago, for amNewYork newspaper, and one of the things he said has always stuck with me: Read like a writer. Find the passages and characters that move you, and then think about why. I wish I’d had smarter questions for him at the time, and I’d love the chance to ask them now.

4. Which book would you not read again?

More than I’d care to admit. One recent one I really couldn’t stand was The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George. And in general I stay away from biographies (unless it’s about Hemingway, of course. In that case I’ve read at least three of them).

5. Can you name a confusing story?

IQ84 by Haruki Murakami. I admire his writing and generally enjoy his books, but this one took a lot of effort to keep track of the story and figure out what was happening.

6. Your favorite fictional couple?

Definitely Crystal and the character of Death in Tanya Huff’s Wizard of the Grove series. It’s so unique but also feels so natural, and I’ve always loved the idea of Death as a character with human emotions. Plus, this is one of my favorite books, and since childhood I’ve probably read it at least five times.

7. Two favorite villains?

I love the Gavin/Dazen characters in Brent Weeks’s Lightbringer series because you’re never sure which one’s the villain and which one’s the hero. Does that count as two? Because I can’t think of another right now.

8. A character you would kill or remove from a book entirely?

Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby because I’ve always wanted Daisy and Jay to end up together. But I realize that would pretty much make the whole story a moot point, and anyway, Daisy would probably still end up choosing some other rich bloke over Gatsby, so what’s the point really?

9. If you could live in a fictional world, where would you choose?

Krynn, the robust world in Margaret Weis and Tracey Hickman’s Dragonlance series (but before the fifth age of mortals comes around). It’s the first fantasy universe I really immersed myself in, and I still like to go back there from time to time to say hello to old friends and learn from these two masters of the genre.

10. What are the biggest and smallest books on your shelf?

I’m sure I’m missing some, but Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf by Edward Albee must be one of the smallest. And as for longest, it’s probably the Hungarian-English dictionary I lugged back from Budapest with me.

BONUS QUESTIONS
(I’ve added these myself, and hope those I’ve tagged will answer them as well)

*Which book could you read a hundred times and not get tired of?

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie. I’m perpetually amazed at how well the whodunit is constructed.

*If you could only recommend one book from all your shelves to a friend, which would it be?

A Separate Peace by John Knowles. Throughout the years (starting in high school, when I found a way to use it as an example in nearly every AP English Lit & Language essay I wrote), it’s meant so many different things to me, and I’d hope someone else could find meaning in it too.

Who do you tag?

Anyone is welcome to participate in the tag, but I especially tag A Bibliophile’s Obsession, The Tattooed Book Geek, Critquing Chemist, and my friend Bill at Harmony Books & Film.

 

Book Review: THE END OF NIGHT

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download.jpegI saw The End of Night for the first time on our recent family trip. We had just hiked the Hermit’s Rest Trail on the Grand Canyon’s South Rim, then took a shuttle bus back to the parking area to get out of the rain. In the gift shop, I noticed the book’s cover—all indigo sky and swirled starlight—and wished we’d planned for another night at the canyon so we could experience its darkness; instead, a four-hour drive to Boulder City loomed ahead. Next to the book were signs about light pollution, a term I’d heard of but didn’t really know anything about. I took a picture of the book so I’d remember to buy it eventually, once I finished the (literally) hundreds of other books on my to-read list.

But this book niggled at me. Walking home from the train station, I’d look up at the sky and think, I see a star! Then realize it was just a plane. There’s surely light pollution here, I thought, along with all the regular pollution in New York City. I found myself researching the logistics of a 2018 trip to Sark, an island off the coast of Normandy that I knew had been designated the world’s first dark sky island (no cars, no trucks, lighting designed to minimize light pollution, which is technically defined as excessive artificial light that taints the darkness of the sky, trespasses where it doesn’t belong or isn’t needed, or causes glare and visual discomfort). Within two weeks of our return home, I ordered The End of Night.

In my opinion, the book successfully achieves the goal of nonfiction: with every chapter, I learned something new, and the author relays his information in a way that feels like a story, with a cast of characters (experts, scientists, the author as narrator) I cared to hear from and a setting that ranged from Las Vegas to the desert to, yes, even Sark. In each place, author Paul Bogard searches for a truly dark sky, or talks to someone who can shed light (ha, ha) on some big related questions: How much artificial light (think security lights, gas station lights, street lights) do we need? Is there really a correlation between light and safety? How are night-shift workers affected by artificial light? How does darkness protect species, the planet? And, maybe most important, how can we ever know darkness if we don’t experience it?

Bogard, an associate professor of English and a dark sky enthusiast, tackles these issues and more in his well-researched book. It often reads like poetry rather than nonfiction; even the fact-heavy portions kept me engaged and interested. Bogard’s writing moved me, both in its skillful wielding of language and the weightiness of its content. Plus, I also really enjoyed the book’s cleverness: I only realized partway through that the chapters are numbered backward from 9 to 1 to correspond with the Bartle scale of darkness (9 = brightest sky, like that over Vegas or NYC; 1 = darkest sky, which can be found in the U.S. in only two remaining locations).

The more of this book that I read, the more I wanted to read, and the more I wanted to know how I could help protect the night sky—an important endeavor that not enough people are aware of. I’d really encourage you to check out this book if you’re looking for a good, meaningful read; I promise it will change the way you look at the world around you.

I’ll leave you with one of the many passages I starred while reading The End of Night:

“In the mythology of countless cultures, the hero is called one a journey that must include an experience of a dark time or dark place. For the Greek hero Perseus that meant venturing to kill the Gorgon, Medusa, but many different stories have the same message about the value of experience darkness. Are we to imagine that these heroes—heroes we were to model ourselves after—felt no fear? I bet Perseus was scared, and that the same was true of other real heroes in other cultures. Because if he wasn’t, why would I believe his story? Why would I follow his lead? What would I learn about real life, my life, this life now—a lift that has plenty of fear? With all our lights we push away our fear, and by pushing away our fear, we are a little less alive.”

One-Sentence Reviews: My February & March Reads

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This morning I started my first book of spring: The Lola Quartet by Emily St. John Mandel. It’s my 17th book so far this year, as I steadily make progress toward reading 55 works of fiction and nonfiction—and maybe I’ll even try to throw in some poetry or graphic novels to keep things diverse. In January I posted mini reviews of my first five books of the year, and now seemed like a good time to reflect on the rest of my winter reading while gearing up for warmer weather and hopefully many days sitting on my porch with a good story in hand.

Worth It…

The Comet Seekers by Helen Sedgwick: I love that this glittering, stylized novel doesn’t shy away from tough and sometimes taboo topics, all while successfully unraveling the gordian knot linking its two suffering protagonists.

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden: When old beliefs are denounced in favor of a new religion, only a young gifted girl can see the terror coming to her town; this spellbinding tale of magic, folklore, and history is a new kind of fairytale that can easily hold its own among the classics.

In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware: This thrilling mystery about a bachelorette party gone wrong is so compelling that I finished it in only one day, unable to rest until I had found out just what it was the narrator couldn’t remember about the murder that had taken place.

Don’t Bother…

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith:  This novel—which traces the history of a painting and its painter, and its forged counterpart and its painter—has too many subplots and could have been told in half the number of words.

The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George: The only good thing about this thinly plotted novel is its original premise: a floating bookshop that doles out books like medicine (too bad the book quickly leaves that idea behind and heads instead into cliche and oft-charted waters).

The Sparrow Sisters by Ellen Herrick: I had high hopes for this book, billed as similar to the writings of Sarah Addison Allen (one of my favorite authors!) and Alice Hoffman, but its unrefined characters and muddled plot fail to generate even a shred of magic.

Starting A New Reading List

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Since January 2011, I’ve been writing notes on every book I read in one Word document. It’s gotten so long that it takes minutes to load when I open the file and even longer to scroll down to the end. This year I’m going to start a new list. My review format will include, as usual, the new vocabulary words I’ve learned, any particular quotes that really struck me, and an overall opinion and verdict on the book. But this time I’m also going to try to do a little literary analysis, and put to use some of those English Lit skills before they fade away. As a farewell to my old list and all the books I’ve read since 2011, I’m going to share six of my favorites—the best book I read each year. Only time will tell whether my 2017 reads (my goal is 55 books, 10 more than last year) will top them or not.

2011
Light Boxes by Shane Jones
Key Vocabulary Word: None
Review: This book has easily become a favorite. Filled with vivid imagery, both whimsical and macabre, the novel uses simple language to create stunning visuals that, despite their unbelievable nature, had me hooked and believing. Each little section could be its own prose poem, with enough substance to contemplate for hours, or days; each has a nugget of stark truth that can’t be denied: loss or love or protecting those we care about. I wish I could write like this.
Excerpt: “Note Found in February’s Pocket by the Girl Who Smells Like Honey and Smoke: I wanted to write you a story about magic. I wanted rabbits appearing from hats. I wanted balloons lifting you into the sky. It turned out to be nothing but sadness, war, heartbreak. You never saw it, but there’s a garden inside me.”

2012
Garden of Eden by Ernest Hemingway
Key Vocabulary Word: cahier (French: a notebook, journal, book; sheets of paper or leaves of a book placed together, as for binding)
Review: I’ve avoided Hemingway for as long as I can remember but finally gave him a chance with this book. I absolutely loved it. The writing really captivated me. The plain declarative sentences conveyed much more emotion and information than I’d imagined at first, each detail painstakingly selected to help build and shape the scene. Though minimalistic, the prose was hardly simple, but rather brimmed with feeling and meaning.
Excerpt: “There is nothing you can do except try to write it the way it was. So you must write each day better than you possibly can and use the sorrow that you have now to make you know how early the sorrow came. And you must always remember the things you believed because if you know them they will be there in the writing and you won’t betray them. The writing is the only progress you make.”

2013
The Peach Keeper by Sarah Addison Allen
Key Vocabulary Word: None
Review: I enjoyed this book’s easy rhythm and colloquial writing, as well as the twists that drew me deeper into the story. All of the characters rang true, and I liked the inclusion of their histories. Most of all, I liked the magical, mystical element that the author wove into the story. It ended a little too happy for everyone for my usual taste, but I found unexpected comfort in that.
Excerpt: “If anyone had been paying attention to the signs, they would have realized that air turns white when things are about to change, that paper cuts mean there’s more to what’s written on the page than meets the eye, and that birds are always out to protect you from things you don’t see.”

2014
Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism, and Michael Rockefeller’s Tragic Quest for Primitive Art by Carl Hoffman
Key Vocabulary Word: suppurate (to produce or discharge pus, as a wound)
Review: I’d never have imagined a favorite book would be a nonfiction one, but here we are. Hoffman struck a perfect balance between giving us the history of New Guinea, delving into Michael Rockefeller’s harrowing story, and telling his own personal anecdote of discovery. His settings and descriptions came close to poetry, and the landscape really felt alive. Even when he settled into explanation, the writing remained intriguing, the reader alert.
Excerpt: “The peaks trap the heavy, moisture-laden tropical clouds, and every rivulet feeds another and another, and they grow larger and intertwine and curve as the land flattens, and it flattens quickly, suddenly, and for a hundred miles to the sea this land is without a hill, a rock, or even a pebble.”

2015
The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
Key Vocabulary Word: eldritch (weird, eerie, uncanny)
Review: This literary fantasy skillfully weaves history, folklore, culture, and philosophy into a tapestry of magic and mystery. I loved the characters, the way disparate elements of the plot ended up connecting, and an ending that the reader could mull over long after putting down the novel.
Excerpt: “He’d lived so long in anticipation of his own death that to contemplate his future was like standing at the edge of a cliff, staring into a vertiginous rush of open sky.”

2016
Marrow Island by Alexis M. Smith
Key Vocabulary Word: allopathy (treatment of disease through conventional means)
Review: This novel blew me away: lyrical, tight passages of description; intelligent dialogue; and a great sense of restraint, knowing just how many clues to give the reader and, more importantly, when to hold back. The story took on a surreal quality, and yet felt completely believable, the reader lost in an illusion so complete that only truth remained.
Excerpt: “So much of our thinking is involved with things we’ve already done and things we have yet to do. It’s almost impossible not to be thinking about some future moment or some past mistake or tragedy.”

One-Sentence Book Reviews

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When I last shared some mini book reviews with you, I was in the throes of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians trilogy. Though I really enjoyed the first book, my love of the series dwindled with each subsequent installment. But I have read some really fascinating works since then, and if you’re only going to read one of the books I’m recommending below, let it be Marrow Island by Alexis M. Smith.

The novel blew me away with its lyricism and tight descriptions, its sense of restraint, giving you just enough clues to vaguely piece together the action but still retain the pleasurable tingle of a mystery waiting to be solved. In fact, I still find myself thinking back to this book, its intricately woven themes, its heart-wrenching prose. Here’s an excerpt that I really loved:

“Up the road were other abandoned parcels, barely visible driveways leading to vacant foundations, as if someone had plucked the houses right out of the ground, leaving cavities in the shape of living spaces. I could feel the house that wasn’t there, rising out of the gaping concrete mouth. The alders shivered in the breeze, a sound so familiar that I shivered, too.”

Now, without further ado, the reviews:

Worth It…

Marrow Island by Alexis M. Smith: In this novel, written with remarkable precision and passion, a young woman visits an old friend on an island commune—but she soon realizes that nothing is as it appears, not even her own mind, her shadow-struck heart.

The Way of Wanderlust by Don George: This writer’s very intimate anecdotes offer great insight into travel, writing, and our own capacity for goodness and human connection.

Ways to Disappear by Idra Novey: At turns whimsical and wry, poet Novey reveals bit by bit the strange and compelling tale of a Brazilian author who climbs into a tree and disappears, and the translator who leaves behind a solid life in Pittsburgh to search for her.

The Table Comes First by Adam Gopnik: If you can look past his copious allusions and penchant for philosophical rambling, you’ll discover interesting stories and good questions about the past, present, and future of the food scene.

Don’t Bother…

Christmas Caramel Murder by Joanne Fluke: I liked the “cozy mystery” concept of this novel, but everything else fell flat: a weak and illogical plot, characters that were no more than caricatures, an insubstantial setting, and a serious dependence on telling the reader things that were quite obvious already.

Mr. Lemoncello’s Library Olympics by Chris Grabenstein: I read the first volume of this series when teaching fourth grade last year and enjoyed it; however, the second book felt forced, and much of the intrigue of the earlier novel had been extinguished.

Run the World by Becky Wade: Professional runner Wade recounts her travels in order to learn about running cultures in other countries, but unfortunately the entire book just sounded like an extended high school essay.

 

One-Sentence Book Reviews

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So far I’ve read 20 books in 2016. That’s almost halfway to my goal of 50 reads this year. I’m making good progress, and I’ve found some real gems; some of the titles I’ve delved into recently were just so good that I lingered over them, not wanting them to end. Now I’m on book 21: The Magician King by Lev Grossman. It’s the second installment in his popular trilogy, which is also currently a show on SyFy. I haven’t yet decided whether I prefer the books or the TV series. In the meantime, here are some short reviews to help you decide what to pick up next: Continue reading

Winter Reading: One-Sentence Book Reviews

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This weekend more than two feet of snow settled atop New York City’s streets and resulted in a travel ban and transit shutdown on Saturday that effectively trapped me at home. Despite all that, I had a great weekend: snow shoveling led to a snowball fight and a snow angel, followed by hot chocolate laden with marshmallows and whipped cream; Todd and I finally had time to relax and catch up on season six of Royal Pains; and I baked a walnut-topped blueberry loaf.

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Book Review: The Lightkeepers

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9781619026001_p0_v2_s192x300.jpg I stumbled across The Lightkeepers by Abby Geni on a recommended reading list, where reviewers had described it as a locked-room mystery a la Agatha Christie. You have to understand: I loved And Then There Were None so much that a few friends and I tried making an amateur film version of the book. So I couldn’t resist ordering this new title and reading it as soon as it arrived—and I have to say that I’m so glad I did.

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Book Review: The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

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The Yellow Birds sets its tone right from the start—a gritty description of the landscape in Al Tafar, Iraq; raw dialogue purposefully at odds with an elevated, poetic prose; soldier John Bartle’s funamental questions about his role, the war, and how to survive, both in battle and also after the war has ended. In the first pages, Powers reveals the protagonist’s primary conflict: He makes it home alive and celebrated, but his friend Murph died overseas, despite Bartle’s promise to Murph’s mother that he would protect her son. Continue reading

Turning the Page: One-Sentence Book Reviews and My Fall Reading List

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I use any little change as an opportunity to form new goals for self-improvement—and with autumn’s official launch, one of my aims is to read more this season. Another is to write more book-related posts for this blog. So, on that note, here are one-sentence reviews of some recent treasures (and at least one bust), as well as my reading list (so far) for fall. Continue reading

Book Review: Behind the Beautiful Forevers

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In January, I read six books. That sounds impressive, but The Strange Library falls more into the short-story category and Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library was a children’s book. I skimmed a few parts of The Leftovers and Restoration where they started to drag, and The Fate of Mercy Alban, a murder-horror-romance guilty pleasure, required barely more effort than it took to turn the pages. But one nonfiction book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Slum, will have a place in my thoughts and in my heart for a long time.
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Book Review: MaddAddam

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I often myself so obsessed with an author that I hungrily read every work that author has written, looking for similarities and differences. I read Ernest Hemingway’s books in the order he wrote them. With others, like Ted Conover and Tim O’Brien, I started in the middle and branched out. Others I’m still working on: Haruki Murakami, Sarah Addison Allen, and Margaret Atwood, to name a few.

Which brings me to MaddAddam, the last installment in Atwood’s postapocalyptic trilogy of the same name. I’ve long considered the first book of the series, Oryx and Crake, as one of my top five favorite books of all time. It tosses the reader into a confusing world of genetic manipulation and dystopian horror, yet still manages to tell the poignant, heartbreaking tale of one of the last humans left on earth.

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Book Review: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

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I don’t often read mystery novels because I can’t seem to find one as surprising and truly mystifying as Agatha Christie’s classic And Then There Were None. But I had a hankering for a good murder mystery a few weeks ago, and then I stumbled across Alan Bradley’s The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. Although it didn’t quite live up to my favorite mystery novel of all time, I did really enjoy the intrigue, suspense, and quirky characters that this book offered.
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Book Review: In Sunlight and In Shadow

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From Ernest Hemingway to Tim O’Brien, I find myself often drawn to war stories, especially those in which war rests at the periphery. In Mark Helprin’s nearly 700-page novel, In Sunlight and In Shadow, Harry Copeland has returned from World War II to his Manhattan home, where he assumes responsibility for his deceased father’s leather goods business. But the business is going under and the situation only worsens after he sweeps actress Catherine Hale off her feet and away from her wealthy and powerful fiance. Harry, who only wants peace but can’t resist the urge to stand up for what’s right, decides to take on the mafia boss extorting Copeland Leather.

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Countdown to Disney: A Review of “Disney Legend” Marty Sklar’s Memoir

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In preparation for my trip to Disney World, I’ve been trying to inundate myself with as much insight as I can into the Disney Company, the Disney parks, and Walt Disney himself. Although I haven’t really gotten a start on the huge list of movies that I want to watch, I did get a chance to read a new 368-page memoir, Dream It! Do It!: My Half-Century Creating Disney’s Magic Kingdom, by Marty Sklar.

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Book Review: The Story of a Soul

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We’ve all had moments where we feel so stressed or anxious that we aren’t sure how we’re going to make it through. During one of those times recently, I lay in bed and closed my eyes and imagined my grandmother (who died in 1995) standing before me. Many in my family have associated my grandmother with roses, so I said to her, “Grandma, just let me know everything is going to be okay. Show me a rose.” I eventually drifted off to sleep.

The next day, I decided to go to confession before mass since I hadn’t in some time. As I talked with the priest, he suggested to me that I read The Story of a Soul: The Autobiography of the Little Flower, written by St. Therese of Lisieux. When I looked up St. Therese on Google, I realized that she went by a number of names: St. Therese the Little Flower, St. Therese of the Child Jesus, and St. Therese of Roses. According to the Society of the Little Flower:

As she was dying in the convent infirmary, Therese could look out and see the rose bushes blossoming. She loved roses. She had thrown rose petals as a Child before the Blessed Sacrament. … Roses are Therese’s signature. It is her way of whispering to those who need a sign that she has heard, and God is responding.

Whether that’s a coincidence or a sign that my Grandma is up there in Heaven and heard me, I’ll leave up to you to judge. On the priest’s suggestion, I purchased St. Therese’s book, and ultimately was glad that I did.

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My Experience at the First-Ever BookCon

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This past weekend I attended BookCon, a new series of panels and exhibits accompanying the renowned Book Expo America (BEA) at the Javits Center in Manhattan. Whereas BEA invited only publishing professionals to browse its stalls, BookCon welcomed everyone, which meant that it was way more crowded than I had originally anticipated. But all of the free autographed books that I came home with definitely made up for the long lines and more than covered the $30 ticket price.

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