Thursday, July 30, 2015

Best of the Bunch: July 2015

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

It's been a while since I had a month with multiple 5-star books! I think that's mostly because my reading was slow the past few months, but maybe my standards are getting higher too...

Of the 13 books I read this month, two earned a 5-star review from me:

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konisburg

I enjoyed both for different reasons. I'm going to say that the best of the bunch was...

The other 5-star book was a reread and a childhood favorite for me, but this was something totally new and fun. I had seen mixed reviews about it so I was surprised that I completely loved it. It's basically a bunch of my favorite things all packed into one book: mystery, data visualization, computer programming, code breaking, and — oh yeah — books! It's mostly a fun, action-packed read, but it also raises some interesting questions about the role technology plays in our lives. I tend to agree with its message — that we should use the tools we have available to us (including the vast possibilities of modern technology), but we shouldn't assume that technology is the best or only way to solve all problems. I read the book on Kindle but I'm told the hardcover glows in the dark — a sly nod to how digital isn't always better.

What is the best book you read this month? Let me know in comments, or write your own post and link up below!

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Monday, July 20, 2015

Ten Books That Celebrate Diverse Characters

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

Given that I spent the entirety of last year trying to diversify my reading, it's a little hard to know how to choose just ten books for this category. That project specifically focused on racial and national diversity, though, so I'm going to see if I can come up with books that represent a variety of different types of minority (or otherwise underrepresented) characters.

1. All-Of-A-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor
This is a very sweet book about a family of five girls and the various everyday adventures they have. They also happen to be Jewish, and we hear about how their religion and its traditions are interwoven into the fabric of their lives. It seems oddly rare to find a book with Jewish characters that's not set during World War II.

2. Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo
Many of the people that main character Opal meets in her new town are those that others look at suspiciously, such as the woman with a history of alcoholism whom the neighborhood kids call a "witch," and the intellectually challenged pet shop manager who has a criminal record. When Opal takes the time to look beyond the stereotypes, she learns valuable life lessons and builds strong friendships.

3. Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan
What's great about the world that Levithan creates in this book is that the plot isn't driven by the fact of the main character's sexual orientation — that's a non-issue at the high school where nobody bats an eye that the homecoming queen and the star quarterback are the same person (Infinite Darlene, formerly known as Daryl). This way, we can see that even gay boys who aren't struggling with social acceptance can still find themselves caught up in good old-fashioned relationship drama.

4. The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling
Rowling may have gone a little overboard piling in every dark, brutal thing that was too raw for Harry Potter, but this book still provides a valuable opportunity to get inside the skin of those whose stories aren't often told, such as those whose opportunities are curbed by both poverty and stereotype, and those who self-harm to chase away their internal pain. Brace yourself for the darkness before diving into this one.

5. Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko
I had to read this twice for school, and I can't say I loved it either time, but I do remember the lessons it was used to teach. When the main character returns from a World War II POW camp to his Laguna Pueblo reservation, he has to figure out how he fits into the present-day culture. Should he try to assimilate into mainstream White culture or retreat into the past by clinging solely to Native tradition? Will the pressure to find a balance between the two drive him to want to numb himself entirely with alcohol and violence like his friends have done? This book is a good reminder that a single narrative cannot capture the experience of an entire group.

6. I Never Promised You a Rose Garden by Joanne Greenberg
Based on the author's own struggles with schizophrenia, this is the story of a sixteen-year-old's experience in a mental hospital and how she is slowly brought back to "normal" over the course of three years. Although I don't think her experience mirrors the experience of most psychiatric patients today, the opportunity to live inside this character's mind was a valuable way for me to gain empathy toward those dealing with mental illness.

7. A Mango-Shaped Space by Wendy Moss
I think I knew a little bit about synesthesia before reading this book, but it remains the only book I've ever read with a character who has this condition. I recently found out that a coworker of mine has synesthesia, and he said he'd never known anyone else with it, so I pointed him to this book. This is one of my favorite books — but make sure you have some Kleenex handy.

8. Me Before You by Jojo Moyes
Not only does this book focus on a quadriplegic character, it overturns convention by making him a love interest rather than a prop to teach the other characters life lessons. On top of that, it provides insights into why someone might consider euthanasia, even against the wishes of everyone who loves them. I didn't fall in love with this book the way many people have, but it's definitely still worth a read.

9. Someone Knows My Name by Lawrence Hill
After reading Roots (and various other books set during the period of chattel slavery in America), I thought I had heard all the different ways people coped with being slaves during that time period, but this was something else entirely. I had a vague idea (maybe from The Pox Party) that Britain promised slaves freedom if they helped the redcoats during the American Revolution, but I didn't actually know how that played out. Aminata, the main character of this book, not only serves the British but helps record the names of all the men and women who also did so and earned passage to Nova Scotia. Then another opportunity is offered, to settle in the new colony of Sierra Leone, even though it means the risk of being recaptured and resold into slavery. This was a fascinating and educational read.

10. Wonder by R.J. Palacio
Although there are people in the world with severe facial deformities, they rarely show up in novels, and when they do, they're typically characterized as freaks or villains (think Phantom of the Opera). Not so in this book, where the character in question is a 10-year-old boy who just want to be treated like a normal kid. And we get more than just his perspective — we find out what it's like to be the sister, classmate, or friend of someone like Auggie.

What are some other great books that feature diverse characters?

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Wednesday, July 15, 2015

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.

My reading frequency is back to normal! Until the next big project or life change sweeps me up, I hope to keep reading a dozen or so books a month. Here's what I've read in the past month:

The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo: I understand now why this was a terrible movie — the book is more about the experience of storytelling than having a straightforward and engaging plot. It wasn't a bad listen, but it was still your standard fairy tale with a predictable plot and flat characters.

Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder: The most interesting part of this book for me was how much detail went into the descriptions of how they made a life for themselves on the prairie (building a log cabin, digging a well, etc.). The characters, however, were simplistically drawn — disappointing since they were based on real people — and this made the stories feel rather repetitive after a while.

The Miracle Worker by William Gibson: This was a powerful play about Annie Sullivan's dedication to helping Helen Keller learn to break out of her silence by teaching her a way to communicate.

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente: I was disappointed that this modern fairy tale tried to do and be too many things as it pulled bits and pieces from many well-known children's stories.

Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner: I really enjoyed this portrait of a couple in the late 1800s who spends much of their life together in mining camps in the western United States. I like the outer narrative frame, of their grandson who is writing their story, a lot less, but overall it was a good read.

The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace: Empowering Organizations by Encouraging People by Gary Chapman and Paul White: I probably could have drawn my own parallels from The Five Love Languages to the workplace, but I appreciated the many specific examples in this book. It was clearly a stretch to make it book-length, though.

The Sea of Tranquility by Katja Millay: This suspenseful, heart-wrenching, always surprising novel deserves all the accolades that it has received.

Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?: Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World by Brian D. McLaren: I love McLaren's ideas but ultimately felt that he failed to get them across in a coherent and applicable way. I would have liked more examples of how to live out his ideas that didn't boil down to "join this new denomination."

The Crossover by Kwame Alexander: This is a middle grade book that manages to capture many of the things a student that age might be going through — jealousy, loneliness, sibling rivalry, arguing parents — wrapped up in a story about basketball delivered in the style of slam poetry. I'm not the intended audience, but I would hand it in an instant to someone who is.

Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren: I liked this way more as a kid than I did as an adult. There's too much absurdity and mocking of other cultures for my current taste.

City of Bones by Cassandra Clare: This was an enjoyable enough story, but the writing and editing was a little too sloppy for my taste. If you like a good fantasy/action novel and don't want to think too hard about it, you'd probably like it.

Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu: This is the first of the different religious texts I'm trying to read this year. It was interesting to see where it's similar to and different from other religious ideas, particularly in Christianity and Buddhism. If you've never read another religious text, this is an easy one to start with, because it's super short.

Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta: This book was a mixed bag for me. I liked the concept, and I loved the ending, but the writing style was too choppy for my taste and I felt like I missed a lot during some of the quick back-and-forth dialogue. I can see why people like it so much, but the middle was a slog for me.

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan: This book was basically a conglomeration of my favorite things: books, data, mysteries... It's not very deep but was a super fun read.

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

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Monday, July 13, 2015

Last Ten Books That Came Into My Possession

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

The prompt for this week indicates that we can include books that came into our possession in any manner of ways ("bought, library, review copies"), but I'm not going to count digital copies of books. If I did that, this list would be nearly identical to the "recently read" list I'll be sharing tomorrow. So instead, these are the physical copies of books that most recently came into my possession, either temporarily or permanently.

1. The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace: Empowering Organizations by Encouraging People by Gary Chapman and Paul White
This book was given to me by our department director as assigned reading before our upcoming office retreat. After the retreat I will probably pass this one on.

2. Dear Mister Rogers: Does It Ever Rain In Your Neighborhood? by Fred Rogers
This is a book that has been on my to-read list for several years now but I couldn't get my hands on a copy so I had it on my PaperBackSwap Wish List. A copy just became available and I got it in the mail.

3. Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder
This was one of two books left on my classics list that I hadn't gotten around to reading yet, probably because they weren't available electronically. I got them from our campus library.

4. The Miracle Worker by William Gibson
This was the other book from the classics list that I got in hard copy from the library, and the last one I read to finish up the list of 88 books I'd been working on for 15 years.

5. Baby-Led Weaning: the essential guide to introducing solid foods and helping your baby to grow up a happy and confident eater by Gill Ripley and Tracey Murkett
When I heard about baby-led weaning I couldn't figure out where to start with all the information out there, and someone finally pointed me to the original book, which I immediately put on hold at the local library.

6. What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe
This one had a long hold list at the library and I finally got my copy in mid-May. I can't remember if it wasn't available digitally yet because it's so new or if I knew I would want a hard copy because of all the diagrams, but that's how I requested it.

7. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
I ordered this one through PaperBackSwap because my husband, who rarely reads, mentioned that he thought he might be interested in reading it after a friend recommended it, so I immediately requested a copy. Unlike most books, Mike devoured this one in two days.

8. The Year of the Dog by Grace Lin
I got this through PaperBackSwap as part of my project to stock Gregory's bookshelf with quality kids' books (of all levels). I had read it during my 2014 quest to diversify my reading and thought it was a solid contribution to the collection that I wanted to have on hand.

9. Finding Your Own North Star: Claiming The Life You Were Meant To Live by Martha N. Beck
I read this on Kindle, but I couldn't devote the mental energy to all the exercises at the time, so I ordered a hard copy with plans (as yet unfulfilled) to return to it at a future date.

10. Matilda by Roald Dahl
In addition to picking some recent diverse reads for Gregory's bookshelf, I ordered a bunch of my childhood favorites, including a lot of Roald Dahl. And this one, as I've mentioned, is one of my favorites.

What physical books have come into your home recently?

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Monday, July 6, 2015

Top Ten Hyped Books I've Never Read

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

What's this? I actually found time to do a Top Ten Tuesday again? Yes, believe it or not, I'm finally done KMing our belongings, I've finished all the major projects leftover from that process, I'm no longer working two jobs, and we're back from vacation. It's like I have a life again! My reading has picked back up and now my blogging can too.

This week's topic — top ten hyped books I've never read — is similar to a recent conversation at Modern Mrs. Darcy about books everyone but you has read. (Obviously, the "everyone" is an exaggeration, as indicated by the number of repeat titles in comments.) That conversation was focused more on so-called classic books, many of which I want to get around to reading eventually. For this I want to mention some books that have been popular in recent years but which I haven't read and am not particularly anxious to read. Feel free to try to convince me otherwise :)

1. 11/22/63 by Stephen King
I've never read anything by King because as an HSP I stay far, far away from anything classified as horror, but I've heard this book is something different, more like fantastical historical fiction, and a lot of people I know have really liked it. However, I have a weird aversion to most time-traveling plots, and especially time-traveling plots that involve interfering with past events, so I don't see myself ever picking this one up.

2. 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami
I considered picking this up after it got rave reviews, but I was so scarred from reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle that I couldn't bring myself to try it. I also read an interview with Murakami where he admitted that he included symbols and clues in his novels and didn't have any idea what they actually meant, which I can't stand — I hated Wicked and Son of a Witch because they were full of all sorts of mysterious threads that the author didn't even attempt to tie up.

3. Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James
Nothing about this book appealed to me anyway, and then I read Jenny Trout's hilarious and depressing teardown of the whole series and it made me sad that these books not only exist but are so popular. From what I could gather from the copious excerpts, the writing is atrocious and the plot celebrates a frighteningly abusive relationship while stigmatizing and misrepresenting BDSM. So... no thank you.

4. A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin
I do hope to read this whole series eventually, but I'm not going to start until Martin is done writing it. Before I invest that much time in a book series I want to know that the entire series is worthwhile and it's not going to end on a stupid note like The Dreamers, and the author's not going to die before finishing it, like with The Wheel of Time. Once it's all done, someone tell me if it's still worth starting it.

5. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
It's unusual for a book or series to be as popular as this one was without my picking it up, but I actually didn't know many people who read it, and those who did read (and knew me) said it would probably be too graphic for me. OK with me — I skipped it.

6. Inferno by Dan Brown
I loved Angels & Demons. The Da Vinci Code was OK. The Lost Symbol was formulaic and the reveal made no sense. By the time Inferno came around, I was no longer on the Robert Langdon fan train. Somehow this book was still a bestseller, but I never heard any reviews that made me want to pick it up.

7. Insurgent/Allegiant by Veronica Roth
I read Divergent, and years ago I would not have started a series without the intention to read the whole thing, but I did not love the first book enough to continue with the series. The reviews I heard of the sequels didn't change my mind about reading them.

8. Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg
I do want to read this book eventually, if only to have more cultural fluency about the contents of a book that so many people have read and like to talk about. From what I know about it, I don't think my own approach to work or level of ambition matches Sandberg's, but I'm still interested to read what she has to say, particularly as I'm now a "working mother."

9. Twilight by Stephenie Meyer
I have considered reading this just because it is so mind-blowingly popular, but there's really nothing about it that sounds appealing to me. I'm not a big fan of fantasy, I can't stay poor writing or editing, and the take-home message, from what I hear, is questionable at best and dangerous at worst. So I've continued to take a pass on this series.

10. Wild by Cheryl Strayed
I may or may not eventually read this one. I know it's super super popular, but the handful of people I trust who have read it have said that they were way too annoyed with the author to get much out of the book. It sounds like a painful reading experience, honestly, so I'm not too keen to dive in.

What super-popular books have you never read? Do you plan to?

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