Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Best of the Bunch: December 2015

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

I finished a whopping three books in December, which is a new low for me. I'm currently plowing through two long books (Middlemarch and the Qur'an) that I should finish in early January. Only one of this month's three books earned a high rating (4.5 stars), so by default it's my best of the bunch for December.

In The Unthinkable, Ripley manages to strike a necessary balance between frightening and empowering in this book on human behavior during disasters. Using examples from interviews with actual disaster survivors, Ripley illustrates the mostly unhelpful stages that people tend to go through during a disaster, when quick action is often of the utmost importance. She explains which parts of our current preparedness practices are helpful, and which are not, with the most damning indictments leveled at the leaders and experts who place all their faith in technology and authorities and don't trust the average person well enough to train and equip them. This is an excellent overview of how people behave during crises, and what those in charge should be doing differently as a result, and it's definitely worth a read.

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, December 21, 2015

Top Ten Fiction & Top Ten Nonfiction I Read in 2015

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

This was last week's topic, but last week I linked up with Quick Lit and I didn't want to miss the chance to share my best of the year. Last year I split these into two separate posts, but meh, you guys can handle 20 book recommendations at once, right?

Each section is listed alphabetically by title, because narrowing it down to 10 each is hard enough without having to rank them!

Favorite Fiction Reads

1. Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
I already loved Liane Moriarty after What Alice Forgot, but this cemented her as a favorite for me. This book, set in a small coastal town, reminded me of one of those murder mysteries where everyone's dirty laundry comes out in the course of the investigation, except in this case we learn everyone's secrets upfront while the actual murder is kept secret. Where Moriarty shines most is in letting the readers into the all-too-familiar thoughts in her characters' heads: the defensiveness, the guilt, the doubt, the rationalizing. It's painful and honest and voyeuristic and just so well done.

2. Dangerous Girls by Abigail Haas
I recommend this to everyone who says they loved Gone Girl because it's equally fast-paced and with facts shrouded in mystery to the reader. The plot is modeled after the Natalee Holloway and the Amanda Knox cases — students on spring break in Aruba, one dies and her best friend is accused of her murder. But the book jumps back and forth in time, so what really happened will only be revealed at the very end...

3. Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine
I had avoided this book because I thought it would be uncomfortable to read about Ella being forced to do things against her will, but nobody told me what an AWESOME feminist book this is! Levine seems to start from the premise that the only reason Cinderella would have agreed to be a servant to her stepfamily is if she was under a curse that required her to do anything she was ordered to. And even then, Ella finds ways of rebelling against the things she's ordered to do, doing literally what people say but not necessarily what they meant. It was a fantastic read — highly recommended.

4. Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
It's a rare treat to find a book that is both rich with opportunities for deeper analysis and discussion, and an enjoyable and engaging read. I loved the societal critique about how we treat people with unusually low or high intelligence, the contrast of emotional vs. intellectual development, and the question of whether it's always better to know what you're missing. This one is a classic for a reason.

5. The Girl with All the Gifts by M.R. Carey
I never read "horror" books, but I'm so glad this one was recommended to me. Yes, there are zombies and gore, but it's not primarily intended to be scary or shocking. The characters are diverse in their backgrounds and how they respond to the situations they're thrown into, which makes for an often-surprising, always-intriguing plot. You won't see the ending coming.

6. Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
I'd 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, of course, books. It's mostly a fun, action-packed read, but it also raises some interesting questions about the role technology plays in our lives, both good and bad.

7. The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart
This book doesn't take itself too seriously, so I didn't either, and I very much enjoyed it. 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 other two books in the series weren't as good (when are sequels ever?), but they were still enjoyable.

8. The Sea of Tranquility by Katja Millay
There's a reason that almost four years after publication, this still has a Goodreads rating as ridiculously high as the Harry Potter books. It's incredible. Every time I thought the story was going down the path of a well-worn trope, it surprised me. Millay has a gift for slowly peeling back the curtain on truth for the reader in the same way the main character does, as she learns to trust others with pieces of her story. This book earned its way to being one of my favorites of all time.

9. Still Alice by Lisa Genova
This is a masterfully crafted book told from the perspective of a woman with early-onset Alzheimer's. Each chapter is one month over the course of about two years, so we can see the rapid progression of her disease. It was beautiful and heartbreaking and incredibly well researched and written.

10. The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare
This was a reread of a favorite from childhood that stood up to my adult scrutiny. Set in Puritan New England, it's a sweet story about overcoming prejudices and finding what truly makes you happy.

Favorite Nonfiction Reads

1. Accidental Saints by Nadia Bolz-Weber
One of my favorites from last year was Nadia Bolz-Weber's first book, Pastrix, and she's already turned out a brand-new inspiring, challenging, funny book about God and people that made me cry on at least three occasions. 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.

2. Baby Meets World by Nicholas Day
This is an excellent, readable exploration into the history and science of child rearing that stays away from prescriptions (do this, not that) and is heavy on the reassurance. This book will not tell you how to raise your child, but it will reassure you that there are very few "wrong" ways to care for a baby — much of it depends on what you and your particular culture emphasize as important. As a new parent, I found this book useful, funny, and comforting.

3. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Coates' open letter to his son is as powerful and blunt as James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time but written for the current generation. Coates addresses racial identity, police prejudice, and the ways in which his son's experience in today's world is both hopefully different and painfully similar to his own experience growing up black and male. Although I don't necessarily agree with everything Coates has to say (e.g., on faith/religion), I am glad that this book has gotten the attention it has, and hope that enough people will approach it with an open mind.

4. Finding Your Own North Star by Martha N. Beck
This book both helps you identify your life's passion and the mental obstacles holding you back from reaching it, and takes you through the stages of the predictable "change cycle" that will be triggered by your moving toward your life goal. I appreciated the multitude of real-life examples from Beck's own clients and the specific exercises Beck walks the reader through. I could have done without the constant stream of bad jokes, and I wish she'd updated it in the last decade to account for the effects of new technology, but it's still a solid starting point for building a joyful, purposeful life.

5. The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom
It's rare that a book affects me this much, but this was a true laughing-out-loud and crying book. The title of this book refers not, as I originally thought, to the secret room where the ten Booms hid people from the Nazis and their ilk, but to a Bible verse that describes the way the family members trusted in God to keep them safe through everything they endured. I was struck that, despite the constant mentions of Jesus and bringing others to faith, ten Boom manages never to preach at the reader. She tells her stories, complete with her own thoughts and feelings at the time, and lets them speak for themselves. And they do, powerfully.

6. Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh
As a fan of the Hyperbole and a Half blog, I had already read all of her posts, and she made good choices about which ones to include (the one about moving with dogs is my favorite). I laughed out loud throughout most of the book, even the stuff I'd read before on the blog. I didn't like her choices about which ones to end with, but overall it was very enjoyable and I'd recommend it.

7. Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg
I had heard a lot of criticism of this book before I actually read it, so I was surprised to find most if not all of the criticism was unfounded. This isn't a book for everyone, but to me that's OK. I would recommend this to both men and women who work in white-collar jobs or aspire to do so. I think Sandberg does a stellar job balancing encouragement for women to lead with support for individual women's choices, and she highlights obstacles to women's success at both a macro and a micro level admirably. There are gender-related issues in the workplace that aren't going to be solved overnight, but this book suggests some ways to take steps in the right direction.

8. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondō
This book was always going to be a highlight from this year after I became a full-fledged "Konvert" and went through Kondō's entire step-by-step process for getting one's home in order. I recently spent probably 20 minutes explaining to my brother-in-law, in detail, everything that is great about her method. If you're willing to commit to her process (and not just make fun of her habit of anthropomorphizing everything), you'll be amazed at the difference it makes.

9. Positive 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.)

10. Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
This was an amazing, masterfully written biography of Louis Zamperini, one-time Olympic runner who fought in WWII and spent more than a month adrift in an inflatable life raft only to encounter utter brutality as an unlisted Japanese POW. Be aware that there are graphic descriptions of violence and illness, but they are necessary to the story. If you're willing to have your emotions rattled in every direction for the sake of a good story, pick up this book.

What were your favorite reads of the year?

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Tuesday, December 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.

It's been a fairly light month for reading. I've already exceeded my Goodreads goal of 125 books (last year I read 120), though, and I've been busy with holiday-related activities as well as illness, injury, and a teething baby, so that's OK with me! I'm hoping to get some more reading in during my time off work this month.

Sula by Toni Morrison: This is one of those books that I can see is well written from a literary perspective, but which I did not personally connect with or enjoy reading. I had a hard time understanding the characters' motivations and feelings around many of the events.

Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg: I had heard a lot of criticism of this book before I actually read it, so I was surprised to find most if not all of the criticism was unfounded. I think Sandberg does a stellar job balancing encouragement for women to lead with support for individual women's choices, and she highlights obstacles to women's success at both a macro and a micro level admirably.

Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do? by Michael J. Sandel: This book started out strong, with interesting thought experiments meant to challenge what our decisions about what's "right" are actually based on. However, it was too obviously based on a college course, with long, dry passages educating the reader about different political philosophers' beliefs. I learned a lot, but the book would have benefited from heavier editing.

Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith: This was a solid addition to the series, keeping me guessing until the reveal. This one was as gruesome as the last, but somehow bizarre enough that it wasn't too scarring for me. I'm looking forward to the next one already.

Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino: It took me a while to warm up to this one, but I ended up enjoying it. Through the absurd, sad, bizarre, and funny cities conjured up by the narrator, the reader is challenged to define what a city is — whether buildings or people, legacy and history or day-to-day reality.

Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup: This served primarily to verify that the fictional depictions of slavery I've read in other books are fairly accurate. Northup uses a surprisingly objective tone to describe his experiences, and he talks more about minute details of places and objects than about his own feelings or those of the people around him. From a historical perspective, I appreciate what this book was intended to do, but as a story it wasn't particularly compelling.

On heroes, lizards and passion by Zoila Ellis: It's a little bit generous to call all of these short stories, as stories generally contain some sort of narrative arc, with a climax or reveal. Taken together, though, the stories are a collection of snapshots that form a picture of the varied lives of ordinary Belizean people. The writing was a bit weak, and the editing was atrocious, but it was an interesting read overall.

Black & White by Malorie Blackman: I loved the premise of this book — a world in which blacks (Crosses) have the power and whites (naughts) were freed from slavery just 50 years earlier. However, the author chose possibly the least subtle approach to exploring the everyday effects of racism — modeling her world almost exactly on 1960s America — and the plot was like a bad soap opera. If it gets young adults thinking about issues of race and history, great, but I couldn't get into it.

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

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