Sunday, February 28, 2016

Best of the Bunch: February 2016

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

This month was a pretty mixed bag, with a lot of books that were good but not great. I didn't have any 5-star reads. Two books earned 4.5 stars:

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

I enjoyed both books a lot, but I'd have to say that I think the better book is...

I remembered nothing from the first time I read this eight years ago, but it turned out to be quite good. It took me a while to settle in to the quirks of the fantasy world, but once I got oriented I was pretty immersed in the story. I appreciated the effort Le Guin went to in this novel to develop all the details of her world, from the politics and social norms to the geography and climate. I felt there was a good balance between expository detail and narrative action, where it was possible not only to visualize the story but also to feel what the main characters were feeling. The characters' dilemmas felt real, as they determined who to trust and what course of action to take. I'm glad I had the chance to reread this, and I would recommend it both to lovers of sci-fi and those who are willing to wade through the world-building to get to an action-packed and heartwrenching story.

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, February 22, 2016

Nine Books I Enjoyed Recently That Weren't My Usual Type

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

This week's topic is good books we've read in the past year that weren't our usual genre or were outside our comfort zone. This was a little challenging because I tend to read pretty broadly — classics, contemporary, YA, nonfiction, world literature, mystery, memoir — but there are still some areas I'm less inclined to read. Here are nine books that weren't my usual fare but which I enjoyed anyway.

1. Clockwork Angel by Cassandra Clare
I don't read a lot of fantasy because I tend to get annoyed quickly at illogical or incomplete world building. I was not a fan of City of Bones, but I liked this one better. I gave up on the next book in the series, though, because the audiobook narrator was different and I didn't like him.

2. Dancing with God by Karen Baker-Fletcher
This was a recommendation from a friend when I was trying to diversify my reading, and a lot of the theology stuff was over my head, so I was definitely not the target audience for this book. Still, I found the parts that I understood to be interesting and was glad I gave it a try.

3. for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf by Ntozake Shange
I don't tend to read a lot of poetry — I like some of it, but it's not something I seek out. This poetry-turned-performance was too dense for me at points, but most of it was clear and powerful. I wouldn't mind seeing this performed live.

4. Fortunately, the Milk by Neil Gaiman
Typically I wouldn't read a lot of books aimed at children, but last year when I was using bottle-feeding time to play audiobooks of children's books, I picked this one because it was available on OverDrive from our library. It turned out to be very enjoyable and funny, even for me as an adult.

5. The Girl with All the Gifts by M.R. Carey
I stay away from books classed as "horror" because I can't handle a lot of gore or disturbing things. This one was recommended so many times, though, that I gave it a shot, and it was worth it — even though I still had to skip over a couple parts.

6. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
This is the only sci-fi I read all year, and it was for book club. It took me a while to get on board with the oddities of the fictional world and the unique words used, but I ended up really enjoying the book.

7. The Miracle Worker by William Gibson
I read an unusually high (for me) number of plays this past year, some because I was auditioning for them and some because they were on my list of classics I was trying to finish. This was the latter. It's 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

8. Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
One of my goals in 2015 was to read some graphic novels, since I'd never read one before. This was probably my favorite of the handful I read. I found that the format made the story of Iranian history and revolution (against which background this memoir is set) easier to follow.

9. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
There seems to be a trend recently toward more dystopian literature, and it's not something I tend to enjoy unless it's very well done (see #1 re: world building). This, however, was very well done and deserved its accolades.

What good books have you read recently that weren't your usual fare?

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Monday, February 15, 2016

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.

A lot of good stuff this past month! Here are my thoughts on everything I've read in the past month.

Stolen: A Letter to My Captor by Lucy Christopher: I spent most of this book worrying about how Christopher was going to end it, but she nailed the ending, so now I can recommend the book. It's told by a girl who's kidnapped at the airport and taken to the middle of an Australian desert. The attention to detail and the descriptions of nature were fantastic.

Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley: This was a daunting undertaking — a same-sex, interracial romance set in the midst of school integration — but I thought Talley pulled it off well. The characters were complex and didn't always understand their own motivations for doing things. The white characters were not white saviors and the black characters were not silent martyrs. Definitely worth a read.

Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli: This was sweet, hilarious, and a pitch-perfect depiction of life in high school. Although I figured out the identity of Simon's anonymous e-mail penpal pretty early on, which took away some of the mystery driving the plot, I still enjoyed the read. I especially love Simon's family.

Hunger by Knut Hamsun: I had read books describing the physical effects of starvation before, but this book was much more about the psychological and social consequences of prolonged periods of hunger, which I found fascinating. The narrator can't get a steady job and only gets money for food when he writes an article that sells, but the hungrier he gets the harder it is to produce quality writing. Some parts of the book were super weird, but I liked it overall.

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry: It took me a very long time to finish this book, but I finally did after getting the audiobook. I enjoyed the story, though I don't know that I understand people's fanatical love for it. I do understand why the novel received a Pulitzer, as it paints a vivid picture of the "Wild West" and what it was actually like to be a rancher or cowboy during that time. If you want to be immersed in that time period, this is your book.

Dancing with God: The Trinity from a Womanist Perspective by Karen Baker-Fletcher: This was recommended by a friend who knew I was interested in womanist writings. Much of this book's theology was over my head, but I did like Baker-Fletcher's thoughts on evil and suffering. I just wish that her main point, about the Trinity, had been written as clearly. Mostly she was just explaining her disagreements with existing theologies that I wasn't familiar with.

Emotional Vampires: Dealing with People Who Drain You Dry by Albert J. Bernstein: The concept of this book is good — describing five common personality disorders, how they manifest in day-to-day life, and how to protect yourself from getting bullied, hoodwinked, or just constantly irritated. Unfortunately, the execution was overly simplistic and bizarrely theatrical, so it was hard to gain practical information in between rolling my eyes.

The Heidi Chronicles by Wendy Wasserstein: I read this play prior to auditioning for it. It was an interesting review of the 60s-80s in America, as seen through the experiences of the titular character as she tries to figure out what it means to be a woman. Based on seeing snippets performed at the audition, I think it's probably much better watched than read.

Woman at Point Zero by Nawal El-Saadawi: I wouldn't call this an enjoyable read, but it's a brief yet powerful one. It's based on a true story of a woman who was essentially taken advantage of from a young age, in a society where women had few opportunities and little recourse if their fathers or husbands wanted to beat them. Eventually she has to choose between her dignity and her life, and she chooses her dignity.

We Never Asked for Wings by Vanessa Diffenbaugh: This sweet story carries over many of the themes of Diffenbaugh's first book, The Language of Flowers, such as what it means to be a family and what it means to be a parent, but instead of foster care and Victorian love languages we have a backdrop of bartending, scientific research, and immigration. While it doesn't rise to the level of her first book, it's still definitely worth a read.

None of the Above by I.W. Gregorio: While I applaud the effort to write a YA novel with an intersex protagonist, the finished product was cringeworthy in so many ways, from the horribly clichéd writing to the anti-transgender sentiment throughout. I'd like to see more books featuring intersex characters, because this definitely should not be the gold standard.

The Moor's Account by Laila Lalami: This book has a super interesting premise that is well executed. Based on a true story, it's the tale of one of the Spanish expeditions to the New World, told from the perspective of a black Moroccan man who accompanied the explorers after selling himself into slavery to help his family survive. The idea is that the white men's accounts are sanitized to make themselves look good, but this narrator has no incentive not to tell it like it is.

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

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Monday, February 8, 2016

Top Ten Favorite Fictional Couples

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

It's a Valentine's Day freebie! I decided to pick out some of my favorite book couples. I realized when going through the list of my top-rated books that most of them don't involve a romantic relationship at all, which I had not expected. And for some of these on the list, the relationship is not the point of the book and may or may not be a major plot point. This could be because when the relationship is the main plot of the book, it tends to be driven by some sort of conflict that probably falls into my most disliked relationship tropes.

Anyway, here's what I came up with for some of my favorite fictional pairs. Be aware that this list contains spoilers for the following books: All-of-a-Kind Family, And the Mountains Echoed, Emma, The Fault in Our Stars, the Harry Potter series, The Language of Flowers, the Malloreon series, The Sea of Tranquility, The Time Traveler's Wife, and The Witch of Blackbird Pond.

1. Charlie and Miss Allen (All-of-a-Kind Family)
This was a sweet plot twist I didn't see coming. The kind librarian who befriends the children just happens to turn out to be the long-lost fiancée of their family friend Charlie. He spends all his free time searching for her, but only finds her when the girls throw a party and invite both of them.

2. Suleiman and Nabi (And the Mountains Echoed)
These two are not your typical pair by any means, but I love seeing how they make life work together. Suleiman gets to live with (and be taken care of by) the man he loves, and Nabi gets everything he's looking for in a lifelong relationship — companionship, loyalty, affection — while having his sexual needs met elsewhere. From their interactions you could hardly tell them from any other long-married couple.

3. Emma and Mr. Knightley (Emma)
They were friends first, and even though Mr. Knightley falls in love with Emma before she realizes she's in love with him, he quietly bides his time and doesn't try to pressure her when she says she never wants to be married. In that way the seeds of their relationship remind me a lot of my husband and me.

4. Hazel and Gus (The Fault in Our Stars)
How could they not make the list? They're hilarious, they get excited over things together, and they make quiet sacrifices for one another. I have a feeling they're going to be on a lot of other people's lists.

5. Harry and Ginny (Harry Potter)
My husband says he prefers Ron and Hermione, but the buildup to their relationship was too full of drama and immaturity for me. Harry and Ginny's relationship was much more straightforward and mature, and once Ginny grew out of her idol-worship phase they seemed to interact as equals. As adults I can see Ron and Hermione having more of a stereotypical sitcom marriage, while Harry and Ginny are simply happy together.

6. Victoria and Grant (The Language of Flowers)
They have enough of a shared past that Victoria doesn't have to explain herself to him the way she does to everyone else. She's had a rough life and still needs a lot of time and space to heal, and he gives her that without presuming to be able to "save" her himself.

7. Silk and Velvet (The Malloreon series)
We meet Silk in the original Belgariad series, but it's not until the subsequent series that we learn there's one woman who's a match for him. Velvet (her code name) is a fellow spy and one of the few who can hold her own in banter with Silk. It's been a long time since I read these books, but I remember loving their relationship.

8. Nastya and Josh (The Sea of Tranquility)
Josh's home becomes a safe haven for Nastya, and they fall into a domestic routine well before anything romantic or sexual happens between them. As with Victoria and Grant, Josh doesn't try to "fix" Nastya once she realizes she needs help and healing; he lets her go so she can seek the help she needs, and doesn't expect that she'll necessarily come back to him.

9. Clare and Henry (The Time Traveler's Wife)
Their relationship is certainly unusual; she's known him all her life, but he doesn't meet her until they're adults. What I love about their relationship is how practically they deal with the oddities of Henry's time-traveling condition, like when he already knows what their future home looks like but lets her go on house-hunting herself, knowing the one she loves will inevitably be it.

10. Kit and Nat (The Witch of Blackbird Pond)
I clearly have a thing for slow-burn romances. Nat and Kit both befriend the same elderly Quaker woman exiled from the Puritan community, and when Kit finds herself in the cross-hairs of suspicion, Nat is the one safe person she can turn to. Eventually she realizes that she can't think of a happier life than sailing the seas with him, just as he turns up with a new ship cheekily named "The Witch" after her.

Who are your favorite fictional couples?

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Monday, February 1, 2016

Top Ten Historical Settings I Love

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

Today's topic is an interesting one, about which historical (or futuristic) book settings we love. I would imagine for some people, this means that there are certain historical periods and places for which they seek out books with that setting. For me, I looked at some of the books I've enjoyed and figured out which settings I've found to be particularly intriguing. I'd welcome reading additional books with these historical settings if they were done well.

1. Biblical times
Let's start way, way back with Biblical retellings. Sometimes these are terribly done (I'm looking at you, Lamb), but I loved the creative retelling of the story of Dinah in The Red Tent, and the more by-the-Book but vibrant and immersive stories in Unshaken and Unafraid. Because the Bible is itself already a collection of stories, but overly familiar ones that often provide scant detail, I like seeing how author reimagine the sights, sounds, and smells of every piece of the story.

2. Medieval Europe
When I was in middle school, I won the Young Authors contest for 7th grade at my school with an obsessively researched story about a girl who travels back in time to the Middle Ages. I found it such an interesting time period, with the juxtaposition of the "society" we think about (e.g., knights and ladies) and the rough living conditions that even the most well-off folks had compared to today's standards. Despite how dated it is, I enjoyed the classic story of Ivanhoe and its weaving of history and mythology from that time period.

3. Puritan New England
It's no surprise that stories like The Crucible and The Witch of Blackbird Pond have sought to draw parallels between this time period and the present day. Whether it's the witch hunts or simply the societal banishment for "wrong" beliefs, we see echoes of the mistakes of that time in every era since. When certain presidential candidates talk about making America a Christian nation again, I think about the rigidity of the religiously ruled society that caused finger pointing and harassment to those who were different (even a different kind of Christian) in Puritan New England.

4. The French Revolution
Similar to the witch hunts of New England, the French revolution was an utter mess of suspicion and attempts to "cleanse" society. I remember being surprised in freshman-year English that I didn't hate the "boring" classic A Tale of Two Cities, which was in part because the setting itself provided such uncertainty and intrigue. And before that, I loved The Scarlet Pimpernel, which challenged the idea that everyone sent to the guillotine deserved it.

5. Mid-1800s Pioneer America
Although I was pretty meh about Little House on the Prairie, I did enjoy the similar story Caddie Woodlawn. Having read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, I'm always looking to see how these kinds of books address white settlement and interactions with American Indians during this period. We can't change history, but we don't have to whitewash it either.

6. Late 19th century / early 20th century American Southwest
This past weekend I finished Lonesome Dove, which is considered the quintessential "Western" novel. It follows a group of cowboys as they travel where fewer and fewer white settlers have been before them. The protagonist of These Is My Words is also striving to make a life on the frontier, in the Arizona territory, and the amazing Half-Broke Horses is based on the life of a woman born in the Southwest at the turn of the century. Now that our country is so densely populated, it's hard to imagine this time when you could ride a horse for miles and miles and not see another human being.

7. Depression-era America
Many of us in my generation had grandparents who grew up during the Depression, so it's intriguing to learn what that time felt like (for those who weren't still running horse ranches in the Southwest). You can either go fully bleak and desperate with a powerful book like The Grapes of Wrath, you can ride the rails with those eking out a living in Water for Elephants, or you can experience life in a Minnesota farming community in Orphan Train. There were so many facets to live in that period that no one narrative can capture everyone's experience.

8. WWII Europe
Whether it's the war itself, the many ways that civilians were affected or involved, or the horrific consequences of xenophobia that have lessons for the world today, this is a time period that seems to have been mined for stories at every angle. Yet then you get something new, like female pilots and spies in Code Name Verity or a blind French girl aiding the Resistance in All the Light We Cannot See. There are of course many real-life stories about the horror of concentration camps, like Night or The Hiding Place. You can even see joy and healing in the ashes of the war in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. The historical lessons from this time period about the strength of the human spirit and the dangers of radical prejudice lend themselves easily to great books.

9. Partition-era India
Most of my historical settings are in America and Europe because that's where my reading has tended to be concentrated, but pushing myself outside that comfort zone has introduced me to some other fascinating historical periods around the world. I learned a lot about Partition from Midnight's Children, and I could see how the Hindu/Muslim divide played out in the following years in A Suitable Boy, and even the reverberating consequences of prejudice and suspicion years later, during the Emergency, in A Fine Balance. This idea that people of different religions are so different that they can't even coexist peacefully in a single country certainly lends itself to exploration through fiction.

10. 19th century China
Finally, to continue even farther east, I am fairly ignorant about the course of China's history (though I learned a lot about early communism in Dreams of Joy), but I loved the book Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. It depicts, in detail, the fascinating/horrific practice of foot binding, as well as the way that social class and gender constricted the main characters' life paths. I also had known nothing about the Taiping Rebellion, which was apparently one of the deadliest civil wars in history. This historical setting was so new to me and yet so similar in many ways to those I am familiar with, and I would be interested to read something else set during this time.

Which historical settings do you find most interesting to read about?

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