Monday, May 15, 2017

What I've Been Reading Lately (Quick Lit)

Modern Mrs. Darcy isn't hosting Quick Lit this month, but I wanted to share a quick look at what I've read in the past month anyway. For longer reviews, you can always find me on Goodreads.

The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli: This was one of my favorite books I've read recently. It made me look back on my high school self with fondness, in the same way Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda did. (It contains minor spoilers from that book, so start with Simon!) Very sweet, very relatable, and a nice example of a realistically diverse cast of characters.

The Bees by Laline Paull: I had mixed feelings on this one. I liked the look into life in a beehive and the way it was translated into religious terms, but there was an odd blend of realism and fantasy, and the plot jumped around a lot.

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas: This book manages to be a fantastic dive into the issues driving the Black Lives Matter movement while also just being a great book, with relatable characters, funny lines, suspense, drama, and a surprisingly satisfying ending. I also love that Thomas didn't try to pander to white audiences with the book; ultimately, she didn't need to.

Murder in the Mews by Agatha Christie: I liked this more than the previous collection of short Poirot stories. I figured out the first two of the four cases, and then the third was a more typical murder mystery (which I can never figure out) and the last was a strange one where nothing is as it seems.

The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead: I was not in a good headspace to tackle this book's complexity and dense prose. It tries to do a lot in a small space, and ultimately the resolution is anticlimactic and disappointing. This is probably a great book if you "get" it, but I never got there.

Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones: This was cute and enjoyable. There were a couple of points that didn't quite click for me, but overall I found it a very sweet story with memorable characters, and the audiobook narrator was excellent.

Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie: This one held up on rereading for me, even though it's one of the few where I remembered the solution partway through. This was one of my first Agatha Christie books (if not the first) so it holds a special place in my heart regardless, but I was glad to find it was just as enjoyable and twisty as I remembered.

Kindred by Octavia E. Butler: At first, I found the writing to be overly simplistic and stilted and the dialogue unrealistic, but I pressed on and eventually got majorly sucked into the story. Butler did a fantastic job making 19th century chattel slavery come alive for the modern reader. I ended up really liking this book and I see now why it's been so consistently popular and highly rated.

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco: A lot of reviews have described this as boring or dry with too many tangents on philosophy and religion, but I really enjoyed it. I don't know if it's because of the excellent audiobook narration or the fact that I'm Catholic and found the elements of Church history interesting, but I thought the book was engaging most of the time.

Appointment with Death by Agatha Christie: This wasn't bad, but it wasn't one of the better ones. The pacing is odd, and there's a weird instalove side plot. I did like the eventual solution, but really the best part was the infuriating depiction of the tyrannical matriarch who's held absolute power over her children for so long that even as adults they can't cross her.

What have you been reading this month?

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Monday, May 1, 2017

Top Ten Favorite Book Covers

I'm linking up with The Broke and the Bookish for another Top Ten Tuesday.

This week is all about book covers! Here are ten of my favorites.

1. An Abundance of Katherines by John Green
There was a contest to redesign the cover after The Fault in Our Stars came out, but I like this original cover better. It appropriately captures the mathematical nerdiness of the main character and his attempt to define love and relationships in a single formula.

2. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz
This cover is just beautiful, plus I think it appropriately captures the grand nature of the title, while grounding it in reality with Ari's red truck.

3. Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo
This is a book about a Mumbai slum, and the cover doesn't shy away from that fact, but neither does it reduce it to a kind of a tragedy porn. The individuals depicted in the book continually have hope that they can create a better life for themselves, even just by a tiny bit, and that hope is also reflected here.

4. Citizen by Claudia Rankine
The image on the cover is actually of a work of art from 1993 by artist David Hammons, who mounted a hoodie on the wall like a hunting trophy. This was almost two decades before the shooting of Trayvon Martin, showing in a single image how little progress we've made as a country, a theme woven throughout Rankine's book.

5. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
This is the only book on the list I haven't yet read, but I find myself drawn to the cover every time I see it. I think it's because it conveys action so clearly where most book covers are of still images.

6. I Had Brain Surgery, What's Your Excuse? by Suzy Becker
This is one of the books I picked up on a whim because the cover caught my eye. Since the author is a humorist and cartoonist, it also accurately captures the tone of the book.

7. Made to Stick by Chip Heath and Dan Heath
This book was introduced to me by one of my fellow TAs in graduate school, who hadn't read it but just loved that "they put real duct tape on the cover!" Which, no, they didn't actually, but it makes me laugh every time I think about it. It is pretty cool how they printed a textured cover!

8. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
The fact that the hardcover version of this book glows in the dark is a sly nod to the book's message that digital isn't always better. Of course, I didn't learn this until later, since I read it on Kindle (ha!).

9. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
Even though the cover hints at one of the book's big reveals, I would guess that many readers — like me — still manage to miss the clue.

10. The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
Even though many of Didion's covers follow the same design, this one includes a secret message telling you who the book is about: her husband, John. (Do you see it?)

What are your favorite book covers?

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Saturday, April 29, 2017

Best of the Bunch: April 2017

Today I'm sharing the best book I read in April.

Of the 11 books I read this month, I had three 5-star books:

The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie

In another month I don't think anything would have beaten out The Hate U Give, but my very favorite this month was...

Reading this book reminded me why I loved Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda so much. Albertalli has a gift for capturing what it's like to be in high school, and not in a way that makes me cringe with painful memories, but in a way that causes me to look back with fondness on my younger self. We get a happy love story, just like in Simon, but the larger story is really about Molly and her sister and how we deal with change in our closest relationships. I love that this book takes place in the same universe as Simon and that we get to see some of the characters from that book. (Be aware of spoilers if you haven't read that one first!) There's a diverse cast of characters but it never feels like an "issue book" even when the characters have to deal with homophobia or racism or fat-shaming. It's just very sweet, and I can't wait for Albertalli's next one.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Top Ten Things That Will Make Me Instantly NOT Want To Read A Book

I'm linking up with The Broke and the Bookish for another Top Ten Tuesday.

This week's topic is the opposite of last week. This time it's the things that will make me say, "Next!" when reading through book descriptions.

1. Alternate history
This kind of goes with #8 and #10 below, but it's just so hard to do thorough and convincing world-building when you're rewriting history because of the myriad ways events affect one another. I prefer either learning about how things actually happened or immersing myself into a new world built from the ground up with all its own rules.

2. Deception
It makes me feel on edge when an entire plot revolves around someone's real identity not being uncovered or some big secret not being uncovered. (But only if I as the reader know they're deceiving other people. I love unexpected plot twists when someone else has been hiding something!) Is there ever a time when the deception doesn't eventually unravel? It's just like watching a ticking time bomb.

3. Horror genre
I just don't do well with blood and gore or anything that's going to scar me psychologically.

4. Low ratings by people I trust
If the people I follow on Goodreads say it's crap, I'm not going to waste my time.

5. Magical realism
Maybe it's because I'm a world-building snob, but everything with magical realism seems to lack any sort of internal consistency or explanation, and so it just ends up being like, "Here's a normal story except [waggling fingers] oooh, maaaaagic." And I'm like, but why? How? What's the point?

6. Recipes
I am definitely not the kind of person who reads cookbooks for fun. I am not into the "food memoir" genre that women my age seem to be all about. If a book has recipes, I will skip over the recipes, if I read it at all.

7. Romance genre
The little I've read in this genre has not interested me, and I can't justify wasting my reading time on more.

8. Sci-fi/fantasy
I will read sci-fi and fantasy, but only if it's a classic and/or comes highly recommended. The vast majority of it just does not sound interesting to me.

9. Superheroes
Nope, not my thing. The closest thing I've read is Watchmen, and the superhero aspect was my least favorite part — couldn't keep all the names and identities straight.

10. Voluntary time travel
For whatever reason, I didn't mind the involuntary time travel in The Time Traveler's Wife, which is one of my favorite books — maybe because the main character couldn't actually change any events. I get really uncomfortable when a character intentionally goes back in time to try to change things. (You can imagine how I felt about Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.)

What are your book turnoffs?

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Monday, April 17, 2017

Top Ten Things That Will Make Me Instantly Want To Read A Book

I'm linking up with The Broke and the Bookish for another Top Ten Tuesday.

This week's topic is what will unquestionably make me want to pick up a book. I wrote recently about what's on my to-read list and why, so there will be some overlap, but this will drill down more into why, for example, a book seems "interesting" or "fun" to me.

1. Everyone seems to be talking about it
I don't feel like I'm a big sufferer of FOMO, except when it comes to books. If I keep seeing a title pop up and people keep asking me, "Have you read this?" then I immediately feel like I need to pick it up.

2. Getting a recommendation from someone I trust
I pretty much feel obligated to read all personal recommendations, but I really want to read a book when someone who knows me and my reading style well says that they think I'll enjoy a particular book.

3. It involves books, reading, or wordplay
I loved The Phantom Tollbooth and Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore. A book that celebrates books and language is one that I want to be reading!

4. It's a lesson in something I probably should know about but don't
This is how a lot of books end up on my to-read list. I read a book description and say, "Hmm, I don't really know a lot about X..." and then The Story of Christianity or The New Jim Crow or The Gulag Archipelago ends up on my to-read list.

5. It's about sexual or gender minorities
For a long time I've felt most at home in the LGBTQ community (inasmuch as a straight cis chick can ever be part of that community), so I'm always excited to read books where queer and trans characters are foregrounded, especially if the books come recommended.

6. It's by an author I love
I've shared my always-want-to-read authors before, but that list keeps growing (like, I had a hold on The Upside of Unrequited from the moment I heard about it, and OMG it was just as good as Simon).

7. It's social science research
People are so interesting! I love well-presented research, but especially when it's about human behavior. That's why I put a hold on American Hookup as soon as I heard about it, and why I loved Being Mortal and The Righteous Mind and many others.

8. It's a step-by-step life manual
I don't read a ton of self-help books, but I love books that provide a clear process for making change in your life, whether it's The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up or The Happiness Project or I Will Teach You to Be Rich. I do well with checklists!

9. Realizing I should have read it by now
This is why there are dozens of classic books on my to-read list. This is different than book FOMO, which is about books that are currently popular, and more about books that keep getting referenced by other books. Like, I don't think I can pick up another Christian book until I get my hands on Crime and Punishment.

10. Seeing multiple people raving about a book
While #1 is more about mere exposure (I see the same title listed on tons of blog posts and articles), this is when I see multiple people I follow on Goodreads — who I know have tastes similar to mine — all giving a book 5 stars and writing about it in all caps. You can bet that book is going on my list!

Based on this list, what should I add to my to-read list?

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Saturday, April 15, 2017

What I've Been Reading Lately (Quick Lit)

Today I'm linking up with Modern Mrs. Darcy's Quick Lit to bring you some short and sweet reviews of what I've read in the past month. For longer reviews, you can always find me on Goodreads.

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky: Dostoyevsky has woven a story with enough unpredictability and mystery to keep the reader going, but with characters who are unfortunately flimsy stand-ins for ideas within a morality play. I found the philosophical treatises a slog to get through but liked the drama and action that made up most of the book. I'm glad I read it, but it's definitely not high up on my list of enjoyable books.

Cards on the Table by Agatha Christie: By the time Christie wrote this Poirot book, she clearly had developed a reputation for her specific brand of mystery, as she mocks herself through the characters and their discussions. So this time, she decided to make things a little more unpredictable and twisty. This is probably one of my favorites so far of the Poirot novels. If Christie's books are getting too predictable, this is a good one to shake things up.

American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus by Lisa Wade: This is an excellent overview of "hookup culture" on college campuses. Where Wade could have taken a "kids these days" approach, sounding an alarm for parents about the dangerous behavior of their children, she instead focused on making room for the voices of actual college students about the good, bad, and ugly of hookup culture (and there's a lot of ugly). She provided historical and sociological context for the stories and synthesized them into topic areas, but overall I felt she did a great job of keeping the students' personal experiences front and center — which also made for a better and more interesting read.

Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets by Sudhir Venkatesh: I enjoyed this book just as much the second time around (if you can "enjoy" a book about poverty, corruption, and drug-selling gangs). Venkatesh's experiences challenge traditional media and political narratives about inner-city poverty, both liberal and conservative. The stories and the relationships are more complex than any set of statistics could ever capture.

If on a winter's night a traveler by Italo Calvino: I started out this book thinking I was going to love it — a book about reading! — but I had a hard time getting through it. The plot of the external frame gets incredibly confusing, and I got frustrated by the format of reading the beginnings of lots of different books. This is the kind of book I can see other people liking, but it wasn't a favorite for me.

Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur: Kaur is a talented poet, and I could appreciate her writing while finding it personally hard to connect to. Her experiences of "hurting" and "loving" as a woman are very focused on sex; the second half of the book was more general and thus more relatable for me. I can see why other people love this collection, and I wouldn't be averse to reading more of her work.

Einstein Never Used Flash Cards: How Our Children Really Learn—and Why They Need to Play More and Memorize Less by Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Roberta Michnick Golinkoff with Diane Eyer: The premise of this book is that children learn best when they learn through play — they retain a love of learning, learn things in context, and are able to apply their learning across multiple situations in a way we just don't see with adult-structured, rote learning. If you can get past the outdated references and corny jokes, it's worth a read.

You by Caroline Kepnes: This book is pretty disturbing — it's written from the perspective of a stalker — and I found some of the plot points confusing, but it manages to be unpredictable and action-packed, so if that's your jam you might enjoy it. Just be aware that there's a lot of sexual content.

Dumb Witness by Agatha Christie: This is classic Christie: an old lady dying under suspicious circumstances, an array of possible suspects, and a sleight of hand that ensures you won't beat Poirot to solving the crime. I enjoyed the read.

The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas: This was a nice change of pace from some of the classics I've read recently, as it's pretty much just straight-up action from beginning to end — no tangential side stories, no philosophical digressions. There was mystery, suspense, court drama, secrets, murder, and love affairs. The humor reminded me a bit of Shakespeare. Don't take it too seriously and it's a lot of fun.

What have you been reading this month? Share over at Modern Mrs. Darcy!

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Monday, April 10, 2017

Top Ten Most Unique Books I've Read

I'm linking up with The Broke and the Bookish for another Top Ten Tuesday.

This week's topic title probably made some grammar purists cringe, but I know exactly what the prompt means. Every book has something in common with other books, but some books are so unlike anything you've ever read that they stand out. These are some of the "unique" books I've read.

1. Citizen by Claudia Rankine
This book is hard to describe — it's kind of memoir, but it deals with a collection of different people's experiences all told in second person. There's poetic, abstract language in a lot of it, but I wouldn't call it poetry. It also includes scripts for a number of "Situation" videos that Rankine made with another artist, which use quotes from news reports to create a feeling of a situation while not involving a straightforward retelling of events. Even if you don't understand half the (very short) book, as I didn't, it's still worth a read, especially for non-black Americans to try to put themselves in the shoes of experiencing the kinds of daily microaggressions this book recounts.

2. Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner
This book manages to be utterly compelling while also being utterly mundane. It's the story of the friendship of two married couples over their lifetime. There's no drama, no scandals — they're just ordinary lives made up of everyday trials and celebrations. I'd never read a book like this before that had so little plot and yet that I loved so much.

3. Every Day by David Levithan
I know there are other books out there that deal with people being "possessed," but I'd never read or heard of a book where the main character is the one — the average American teenager — who wakes up in a different person's body every day. It's much more a YA book than a horror book, and yet even thinking about the book now makes me shiver, though more out of sadness for the main character than anything? I don't know, the premise is just unlike anything I've ever read.

4. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
There have been plenty of copycat books and series since this one came out, but when I read this book I could not get it out of my head because it was such a new, fascinating, horrific world that Collins had created.

5. If on a winter's night a traveler by Italo Calvino
I had mixed feelings about this book, but it was definitely different than any other book I'd read. Every other chapter is about the main character, "you," reading a book and then unsuccessfully trying to find and read the rest of the book, but every "version" of the book is actually the start of a completely different book. It's like a combination mystery / adventure book / collection of short stories.

6. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
I've read science fiction books before, and I've read nostalgic memoirs of boarding school and friendship, but this is the only case where I've read one masquerading as the other.

7. Pastrix by Nadia Bolz-Weber
It's not often that a Christian book opens with the word "shit." In fact, that doesn't ever happen, except in this insanely beautiful, honest, hilarious, heartfelt book about loving Jesus in a world full of people who suck, and having to try to love them too.

8. A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn
This book was an epic undertaking — the entire history of the United States as told through primary sources from everyday people of each era. Every other history I've read has focused on the individuals who had a large impact on history, not on capturing the experiences of the common American — that's typically left to the historical novels, which have the freedom to blend fact and fiction.

9. What If? by Randall Munroe
Physics, cartoons, and bizarre hypothetical questions — not your typical combination.

10. Writing My Wrongs by Shaka Senghor
I'd read books that dealt with the prison-industrial complex, bias, and wrongful convictions, and I'd read books about people held captive for other reasons, but I hadn't before read a memoir by a person who served a prison sentence for a crime he fully admits to committing. It was surprisingly informative, and I'm glad it exists.

What are the most unique books you've read?

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