Friday, October 30, 2015

Best of the Bunch: October 2015

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

Of the 13 books I read this month, I had three 5-star reads:

Positive: A Memoir by Paige Rawls

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People by Nadia Bolz-Weber

I highly, highly recommend all of these books, but for the best of the bunch I'm going to choose...

I chose Bolz-Weber's first book, Pastrix, as my favorite read of last November, and she has hit it out of the park again with her latest. Structured over the course of a liturgical year, beginning and ending at All Saints' Day, Bolz-Weber tells stories of finding God in other people, especially the people she disliked, tried to avoid, hurt, or otherwise would have liked to forget. My takeaway from this book is that I don't need to try harder to "be a good Christian/person" — I need to work harder to internalize grace, mercy, and love, and then God will be able to use me in the lives of others regardless of what I myself try to do. She challenges those who think they can find God and live faith without being in community with other people. Her raw honesty, complete with appropriately placed curse words, is like balm on the soul of a Christian who wants to follow Jesus' example but can't figure out how to apply typical Christian platitudes to real life. I'd recommend it for basically everybody.

(But seriously, you should also read Positive and Between the World and Me.)

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, October 26, 2015

Top Ten Suspenseful Novels

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

This week's theme is anything Halloween-related, and while I tend to steer away from anything scary (my recent recommendation of The Girl with All the Gifts notwithstanding) I do love mysteries, and there tend to be enough dead bodies in those books to satisfy the Halloween ambiance.

These aren't all strictly mysteries in the detective/crime-solving sense, but they do all have that kind of pattern of suspense/reveal to some extent. And there are quite a lot of dead bodies between them.

1. And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
I debated which of the many Christie books to recommend, but this one seemed most appropriate as it doesn't involve any of Christie's famous detectives; it's just a straight-up terror-filled murder mystery, as guests on an island are picked off one by one.

2. Angels & Demons by Dan Brown
Each successive Robert Langdon book seems to me to go down in quality, but this one, the original, is still excellent. As the top candidates for the next pope are killed one by one, Robert — and the reader — have to figure out who is a friend and who is the enemy.

3. The Complete Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Most of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries are so short that it's worth tackling the whole volume if you really want the experience. No list of classic mysteries would be complete without Conan Doyle's detective, and for good reason. Each story is a new adventure in deductive reasoning and crime solving.

4. Dangerous Girls by Abigail Haas
Told in out-of-sequence snippets meant to keep the reader guessing until the very end, this tribute to the Natalee Holloway and Amanda Knox cases is suspenseful and unnerving as we follow the case of a girl accused of killing her best friend while on vacation.

5. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
This is one of those that maybe can't be categorized as a classic mystery novel, but a pair of unreliable narrators and a trail of clues create mounting suspense and ultimately lead to a trip into the worst of human psychopathy.

6. The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins
As far as I can remember, there aren't any dead bodies in this one, but there is a mysterious theft, a series of clues, and a collection of intriguing and semi-unreliable narrators through whom the events of a single night are painstakingly pieced together.

7. Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
This one is not nearly as dark as the others, but it still contains lots of mystery and a series of clues. The fact that an unprofitable bookstore is the cover for a secret organization is only the beginning.

8. The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson
Here's a mystery with a dash of the supernatural. Someone is replicating Jack the Ripper's killings in London, but the security cameras show no one's there. So who's doing the killing, and why? (Also, when is the next book in the series coming out already?)

9. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
I read this a very long time ago, so about all I remember about it is 1) it's creepy, 2) there's a woman who died, possibly under mysterious circumstances, and 3) I enjoyed the book. Even if it's not quite a mystery, it definitely seems like an appropriate Halloween read.

10. The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith
The Cormoran Strike books are good old-fashioned detective stories, and I preferred this second one to the first. It has death, clues, and a final confrontation of the killer. (Also, why did no one tell me the third book was just released?)

What are your favorite mysteries, or other suspenseful books?

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Monday, October 19, 2015

Ten Wishes I'd Ask The Book Genie To Grant Me

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

This week's prompt says your wishes can be anything book-related. "YOU DREAM IT AND THE BOOKISH GENIE CAN DO IT." So here are some of my (mostly impossible) wishes!

1. I wish I could read the Harry Potter series again for the first time.
Right? Isn't this the reason people wish there was an eighth book or some such thing, so they can relive that magical world again with new surprises? But really I think what they want is to have the experience again of reading the series for the first time. I hope that someday reading these books with my son / other future children and seeing their reactions will be almost as good.

2. I wish every book I ever wanted to read was available on OverDrive in both Kindle and MP3 audiobook formats.
I get 90% of my books from OverDrive through our local library, meaning I am very spoiled, but I want more! I'm so used to the ease of Kindle reading and audiobook listening that I get annoyed when I have to hold open a hard copy book (especially a big one) or bring it around with me (rather than always having it on my phone). Both formats would be necessary, though, because sometimes a book is too difficult to follow on audio or there's a bad narrator, and sometimes it's too dry in print without character voices.

3. I wish I could read faster.
I already read pretty fast compared to most people... and I do get through 100+ books a year... but how many more could I read if I could read just a little bit faster? I've had to put a lock-down on my to-read list to keep it from being more than I could read in the next five years. But there are so many good books out there!

4. I wish I could know ahead of time if I was going to rate a book a 1 or 2.
I don't want to know all my ratings in advance because that would ruin the joy of deciding how to rate something, and I wouldn't want to avoid 3-star books that I may have liked and learned something from even if they weren't great. But if I could just avoid the really awful books — not even sign up for those book club meetings, for example — then I would have more time for the good ones (see #3).

5. I wish I knew how I would have rated and reviewed books I read a long time ago.
There are a lot of books I read in school and during my summers about which I remember basically nothing. Part of the reason I write reviews is to jog my own memory about what I liked and disliked about a particular book. I'm a very reluctant re-reader, and I would especially hate to waste time rereading a book I didn't like the first time around (see #4).

6. I wish I could get back my lost reviews from weRead.
Ugh. This one pains me. I was a slow adopter of Goodreads because I was already on weRead, which integrated with Facebook and put a little shelf on my profile that showed everyone what I was reading, at least until Facebook made one of its large-scale updates and took away that feature. But by that time I had so many reviews on weRead and had invested so much time adding all of my past books that I stubbornly stuck to it. Then the login stopped working. I waited for them to fix it... and waited... and then the entire site shut down. I contacted the company who had bought it and they told me all my data was gone. Several years' worth of ratings and reviews, never to be recovered. It still makes me mad when I think about it.

7. I wish that the Eddingses had written a good last series instead of a terrible one.
David Eddings was my favorite author for a long time, thanks to penning possibly the only high fantasy series I ever liked, The Belgariad and The Malloreon. His other series, The Elenium and the Tamuli, were also good, as was his standalone, The Redemption of Althalus. His wife was credited as a coauthor on several of his works, which may be how he managed to write such fantastic female characters. Then, before David died, they wrote the Dreamers series, and it was truly awful. And now I have to tell people, "Yes, read David Eddings... but read this series, not that series."

8. I wish I could meet Barbara Kingsolver.
This one could still happen! A lot of my favorite authors are deceased, but she is not. I'd love to meet her not just because she writes some amazing fiction, but also because her Animal, Vegetable, Miracle was the reason I stopped eating meat. She's a cool person as well as a great writer, and if I had to pick any author to meet (given that I've already met John Green several times), I think I would want to meet her.

9. I wish I had my own small, soundproof room to read in.
There are a lot of things I love about living in a college residence hall, and also about having a child, but neither lends itself well to having peace and quiet for reading. Even if I manage to arrange a little time for myself out of the apartment to read, there's nowhere in our building I can go where there aren't going to be people talking, running through the halls, laughing, playing games, etc. I just want a little space where I can go for uninterrupted reading time!

10. I wish that there were a theme park based on The Phantom Tollbooth.
This is one of my all-time favorite children's books, and I think it would be so fun to have a theme park where everything is based around wordplay. The book has a cast of colorful characters and a variety of locations (like the Castle in the Air and the Valley of Sound), plus a variety of ways the characters travel through the different lands that could lend themselves to kids' rides. Basically I'm a big nerd and want to go to a place that celebrates imagination and language the way this book does.

Those are my bookish wishes! What are yours?

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Thursday, October 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.

This was a good month for reading! Audiobooks, children's books, and graphic novels meant I got through more books than usual. There were a couple duds but some really excellent ones as well. Here are all the books I've read in the past month.

Betsy-Tacy by Maud Hart Lovelace: A sweet children's book that would probably be most loved by children around Betsy and Tacy's age (five years old) for its simple stories about playing pretend and going on picnics. It does touch briefly on some more serious topics, but it's overall a lighthearted read about the friendship of two girls.

Blankets by Craig Thompson: The illustrations of this graphic novel/memoir were beautiful and cinematic, but I had trouble connecting to the main character (the author as a child and teen). He captured individual moments well, but the coherence of the story fell apart near the end.

The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare: I was glad to find I still enjoyed this childhood favorite. Set in Puritan New England, it's a sweet story about overcoming prejudices and finding what truly makes you happy.

Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi: This fascinating memoir is told through illustrations, making the story of Iranian history and revolution easier to follow. This isn't an area of history I knew much about it, so I learned a lot and was quite entertained through Satrapi's story.

Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink: This book draws inevitable comparisons to Little House on the Prairie because of its setting, but I liked it better than that book. Certainly there are still old-fashioned, questionable parts about Indians and gender roles, but with those caveats I enjoyed this collection of stories about Caddie's family and Caddie's own coming of age.

Stuart Little by E.B. White: This is a pretty weird book that I failed to connect with. Unlike other E.B. White books I've read, this didn't have much of a narrative arc. Basically White created this odd world that he didn't bother explaining much, and then played around with some things that might happen in said world, and then that was the end. I was disappointed.

The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds: A Drama in Two Acts by Paul Zindel: Unlike (apparently) most people, I didn't find this play terribly inspiring, just vaguely depressing. I get the symbolism and everything, but it's still essentially a bare-bones display of an abusive home, where only one character seems to have any hope of getting out alive. In the end, to me, that's just depressing — beautiful symbolism or not.

Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return by Marjane Satrapi: This sequel to the original was less about Iran and the war than about Satrapi's personal struggles with identity and depression, which made the story drag a bit at times when she wasn't doing anything but getting high or watching TV. I still found it entertaining and educational, but I think Satrapi struggled more with the pacing in this one.

The Maze Runner by James Dashner: This book's premise is so interesting that I wanted to like it more, but the terribly weak writing kept getting in the way every time I picked it up.

Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe: Although as a novel this isn't great — the characters are pretty one-dimensional and the writing is overly dramatic and emotional — I can see and appreciate how Stowe nailed her audience and why this book was so influential, and that was enjoyable to experience and understand.

The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom: It's been a while since a book affected me this much, but this was a true laughing-out-loud and crying book. I kept wanting to see the ten Boom family's faith as excessive and preachy, but I couldn't — it wasn't. It was authentic and moving. Regardless of your beliefs, this is an inspiring book about the difference that true love for others can make.

The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart: I enjoyed this children's book immensely. The riddles, the ridiculous plays on words, the celebration of the different ways that genius manifests itself, and the good old-fashioned save-the-world plot made this a great read.

The Pushcart War by Jean Merrill: This is a cute children's book about a fictional war between the pushcarts and the trucks in New York City, written as if it were an account of an actual historical event. The characters are all a little bit ridiculous and the events all a little bit absurd, which makes it a fun read.

The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey by Trenton Lee Stewart: Sequels can be tricky, but I found this a solid contribution to the series. It didn't have quite the spark of the original, but Stewart managed to create a brand-new premise that involved the same characters and showcased the main characters' unique gifts.

The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success: A Practical Guide to the Fulfillment of Your Dreams by Deepak Chopra: I liked a lot about this, despite the often sweeping generalizations about life. I would have liked more specific examples, but there's still plenty to chew over in the ideas.

Positive: A Memoir by Paige Rawl: This book deserves its accolades — it's heartbreaking, inspiring, honest, and told in an engaging and clear manner. Rawl talks about growing up being HIV+ from birth, how she found out, and how she was bullied once it was revealed at school. A very powerful book I would recommend, especially for teenagers or anyone who works in education. (Just avoid the audiobook, narrated by the inexperienced author.)

The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom by Jonathan Haidt: Haidt draws on ancient (usually religious) texts and shows how modern-day research confirms or rejects common maxims like "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger" and "happiness comes from within." I'd recommend this for a new way of reframing how you think about your life and what makes it worthwhile.

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

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Monday, October 12, 2015

Ten Author Duos Who Should Write a Book Together

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

This week's topic asks us to imagine which pairs of authors we'd love to see write a book together. I thought this was going to be challenging until I realized I could include some of my favorite nonfiction authors, and then it didn't take me too long. I chose to use only authors currently living so that it's theoretically possible these coauthored books could someday exist.

1. Martha N. Beck & Laura Vanderkam
Vanderkam's 168 Hours is all about reframing and reallotting your time so you spend it on what's most important to you. Beck's Finding Your Own North Star helps you identify and dismantle obstacles to pursuing your dreams and push past the difficult parts of a life change. Together they could write the ultimate self-help, identify-and-follow-your-passion book.

2. Nadia Bolz-Weber & Rachel Held Evans
These two spiritual writers and speakers just jointly created and hosted the first-ever "Why Christian?" conference (read Held Evans' recap here) so they already work well together. They both have powerful messages about authentic faith and women's empowerment, and their different styles (profanity-laced, heartfelt, brutal honesty and gentle, Southern, searing truth) would balance each other out well. (See: Pastrix by Nadia Bolz-Weber and Searching for Sunday by Rachel Held Evans)

3. Allie Brosh & Jenny Lawson
This seemed obvious as soon as I thought of it. Both have struggles with mental health and both are side-splittingly funny. Brosh has already drawn on (no pun intended) a wide variety of stories in her own life for her comics; she could illustrate some of Lawson's bizarre and hilarious adventures. (See: Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh and Let's Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson)

4. Vanessa Diffenbaugh & Liane Moriarty
I did include some fiction authors! I love both of these authors' works immensely, and they both tend to focus on female characters dealing with some heavy, true-to-life issues. With their expertise and research skills combined, they could create even more authentic, nuanced characters and stories. (See: The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh and Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty)

5. Jeffrey Eugenides & Barbara Kingsolver
These authors have both written sprawling family dramas that have larger messages about relationships and society, such as Eugenides' Middlesex and Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible. They each have quite a collection of bestselling novels to their name and are getting into their 60s; working on a collaborative novel would be a new and fresh challenge for each.

6. Tina Fey & Amy Poehler
Ever since Tina Fey's Bossypants it seems like celebrity memoirs have been trying to mimic her blend of humor, memoir, and advice, and Amy Poehler's Yes Please is the only one I've seen that comes close. Obviously the two already work well together and like each other, and they've written (comedy sketches) together. Both memoirs touched on their time at Saturday Night Live, but together I'm sure they could fill a whole book with stories about their experiences there.

7. Neil Gaiman & J.K. Rowling
These two authors could be called the king and queen of modern fantasy, and Gaiman already has experience with collaborative writing (see the excellent Good Omens, which he co-wrote with Terry Pratchett). Both have veered away from traditional high fantasy to create their own intricate fantasy worlds that live within the "real" world, whether at Hogwarts or in a land of American Gods. I can't even imagine what kind of world they'd come up together.

8. Malcolm Gladwell & Mary Roach
These two journalists both have readable styles as well as similarly named books (Blink and Bonk, anyone?), though Roach tends to focus on a specific topic (death, sex, the supernatural) while Gladwell chooses an unifying theme and shares a wide range of stories about it. I'd be interested to learn something from their combined research prowess and theory brainstorming.

9. Jonathan Haidt & Brian Wansink
Both authors are professors who have done some fascinating and creative research, Haidt on morality (The Righteous Mind) and Wansink on eating (Mindless Eating). I also recently realized that Wansink is a coauthor on the best survey design book I've read, Asking Questions. I'm sure any kind of joint project these two did would be intriguing, and a coauthored book would break down their ideas into easy-to-follow concepts.

10. A.J. Jacobs & Ramit Sethi
Sethi loves telling other people what to do (as in I Will Teach You to Be Rich) and Jacobs loves trying out other people's ideas of what one should do (as in The Year of Living Biblically). Jacobs would be Sethi's ideal case study, as he would be sure to follow everything to the letter and would show exactly just how well (or not) Sethi's advice worked.

Which authors would you like to see write a book together?

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Monday, October 5, 2015

Ten Books I've Abandoned

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

It is rare for me not to finish a book, though I've gotten better in recent years at letting myself abandon ones I'm slogging through. All told, there are only fourteen books on my "abandoned" shelf on Goodreads. Some of these are books I simply never got around to finishing before I moved onto other ones, but the ones below are those that I definitively chose not to continue reading.

1. 90 Minutes in Heaven: A Truth Story of Death and Life by Don Piper
Piper's supposed vision of heaven cleaved so closely to traditional imagery (with concessions like saying the Pearly Gates were "pearl-esque" rather than being made of pearls) that I couldn't take him seriously. It seemed that the majority of the book was actually about his recovery from the accident where he supposedly died (though at no point was he officially declared dead), and I didn't care to wade through it.

2. Auntie Mame: An Irreverent Escapade by Patrick Dennis
This book is supposedly hilarious, but after I got maybe a quarter of the way in without finding a single thing funny, I gave it up.

3. Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt by Anne Rice
I was genuinely excited to read this book, to have flesh put on the bones of the Gospel stories, but something about the writing was so bad I couldn't get very far. I found Unafraid by Francine Rivers to be a much, much better option.

4. The Coldest Winter Ever by Sister Souljah
I learned about this book, believe it or not, because it's apparently listed often as a favorite by black women on dating sites, and then I saw it has incredibly high ratings on Goodreads. I really, really tried, but the narrator's voice was so whiny and irritating, and skimming the reviews it sounded like that wasn't going to change for the majority of the book, so I finally put it down.

5. Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults & Swallow Citizens Whole by Benjamin R. Barber
Mike got me this book because it seemed to fall into the category of nonfiction books I love, but unfortunately the writing was awful. It was like the author would write out a sentence and then use a thesaurus to replace every other word with something longer, regardless of whether it obscured the meaning.

6. The Issa Valley by Czesław Miłosz
I only got halfway through this book club read, and that was more than anyone else in my book club save the woman who originally recommended it. It's basically just a description of this boy's childhood, and I found it super boring.

7. Mo' Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove by Ahmir Questlove Thompson
This turned out to be not so much about "the world" as about music. If you are really into hip-hop and rap or just a hardcore music junkie, then this book is probably right up your alley, but for someone like me, I was lost amid the persistent name-dropping of artists and albums that Questlove clearly assumes you'll recognize. The messy editing and constant format changes gave me no incentive to stick it out.

8. The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, And The Greatest Treasure Hunt In History by Robert M. Edsel
How the book was described to me: Allied soldiers race across Europe to try to hide and save artwork from Nazis who want to steal it. How it actually turned out: Nazis steal a bunch of artwork, plus destroy a whole bunch more, and both sides destroy lots of historical monuments, and then Allied soldiers are sent out several years later to survey the damage and tried to recover the paintings and sculptures that haven't been damaged or destroyed. When I abandoned this halfway through, they still hadn't really recovered much of anything.

9. Successful Adoption: A Guide for Christian Families by Natalie Nichols Gillespie
I put this one down almost immediately after I picked it up. From what I remember, it was way too much evangelical Christianese for my taste, and it made a lot of (incorrect) assumptions right off the bat about why the reader wanted to adopt and who they wanted to adopt. No thank you.

10. To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis
For some weird reason, plots involving voluntary time travel tend to make me really uncomfortable, as do plots involving extended deception. Once it was clear this book was going to contain a lot of both, I decided to let it go.

What are some books you chose not to finish, and why?

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