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.

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

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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Friday, April 7, 2017

What's on My To-Read List (and How Did It Get There)?

It's been a long time since I did a non-linkup post! Originally I envisioned doing more of these kinds of posts, but apparently I need the structure. Ah well.

The last time I shared some data on my personal reading was back in 2014, when I shared information on how my preferred book formats have changed over time and how I fit reading into an average week (a topic I definitely need to revisit now that I'm a parent!). This time around, I decided to take a look at my to-read list, which you may remember that I capped at the beginning of 2016 after creating a new "might want to read" list, which feels a lot less obligatory. What's left on the original list and why is it there?

I grouped the books into rough categories of why I put them on my list in the first place. (Some could definitely be in more than one category, but I picked the primary reason I put them on my list.) Here are the books I'm planning to read, and why I plan to read them.

Classics I Should Read: 55
I wrote a whole post previously on why I read classic books, and there are many that I'd still like to read. Some of these made it onto my goals for the year, like The Sun Also Rises, Stranger in a Strange Land, and Bleak House. Some are less obvious, like Silent Spring and We Need to Talk About Kevin. They're books that I see over and over again on lists of "100 books to read before you die" and "books to be well read." When I feel like there's a gap in my base of classic books, it goes on my list.

Diversifying My Reading: 42
A bunch of books ended up on my list during my 2014 project to diversify my reading, and I didn't get around to all of them. I'm still interested in reading books like In Search of April Raintree, The Mis-Education of the Negro, and Girl in Translation.

Books that Sound Interesting: 35
I'm a sucker for good nonfiction, so a lot of books are on my list because I think I'll learn something interesting from them. Books like The Discoverers, How the Irish Became White, Team of Rivals, and The New Jim Crow all fall into this category.

Books I Keep Seeing Recommended: 33
These are books that I see repeatedly not because they're classics but because they're popular. Books in this category include YA books that show up on a lot of Top Ten Tuesday posts, like The Raven Boys and Throne of Glass; books that Modern Mrs. Darcy and her readers recommend a lot, like Bel Canto and Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day; and contemporary books that I've just seen show up in articles and book reviews a lot, like Cutting for Stone and The Light Between Oceans.

Highly Rated Books: 20
One of my 2016 reading resolutions was to read some books I'd never heard of that were highly rated by a lot of people on Goodreads. I didn't end up getting through very many in 2016, so I still have books like The Way of Kings, The Winds of War, and Imperium on my to-read list.

Books that Sound Enjoyable to Read: 16
These are books that I put on my list not to learn things or brush up on classics or expand my reading horizons, but simply because they sounded like I'd enjoy reading them. These include mysteries like Gaudy Night and A Kiss Before Dying, children's books like Howl's Moving Castle and The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles, and humor books like Girt and Notes from a Small Island.

Books that Sound Helpful to Read: 12
These books could be broadly considered "self-help," but they range from books about parenting (It's OK Not to Share and Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child) and relationships (Getting the Love You Want) to books about faith (Amazing Grace and For the Life of the World) and psychology (Feeling Good and 10% Happier).

Books from the BBC's Big Read List: 12
Every so often a list goes around claiming that "the BBC thinks you've only read 6 of these books!" This list is loosely based on an actual list that the BBC compiled based on their 2003 Big Read survey in the UK. I added a number of these books to my to-read list after I uncovered the original list, as a kind of combination of diversifying my reading, reading classics, and reading well-loved books I wasn't familiar with. These include The Magus, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, and Katherine.

Personal Recommendations: 5
One of my 2015 reading goals was to read through the books that had been personally recommended to me over the years, and I got through most of them, but there are a handful left, including The Blue Castle, Maurice, and Bitter in the Mouth. (A lot of books people recommend to me are already on my to-read list for other reasons, or there would be a lot more in this category!)

Holy Texts: 3
Another 2015 reading goal was to read holy texts from other religions. I read The Qur'an, The Book of Mormon, Tao Te Ching, and The Bhagavad-Gita, but I'm still interested to read The Rig Veda, The Upanishads, and The Tibetan Book of the Dead.

So there you go! It's interesting to see how much of my to-read list is based on specific reading goals I've had the past few years. Maybe next time I set a goal I should be more circumscribed in how many books I try to tackle for that goal!

I now have 515 books on my "might want to read" list, but it's only these 235 from my original to-read list that I'm determined to finish, which I'm guessing will take me about five years. This year I'm mostly focusing on the Classics category, as I hate coming across references in other books that assume I've read a classic book and/or spoil something in it. I also want to tackle more of the Books I Keep Seeing Recommended so I'll have more to discuss with other readers. (It's so frustrating when multiple people ask, "Have you read X?" and I have to keep saying, "No, it's on my list!") Outside of that, the rest are for my own interest, enjoyment, or learning, so I can read them in tandem with other books that I'm interested in from my ever-growing "might want to read" list.

I'd be interested to hear where your to-read list comes from. Have I inspired you to sort your own books into categories? If so, please share your own findings in comments!

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Monday, April 3, 2017

My Top Nine Fandoms

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

This week's topic isn't strictly book related — it's about fandoms we're part of. For me, I'd say the line between "This is a thing I like" and "I identify with this fandom" is whether I'd be willing to spend my own money on something that references or represents the fandom (e.g., a T-shirt, a decal, a boxset). So for example, while I enjoy watching the show Sherlock, I am not at all part of the insanely huge fandom that has sprung up around it.

Here are some fandoms I am part of (or was):

1. Belgariad/Malloreon
I think I've mentioned before that my friends and I were such big fans of this series in middle school that we assigned everyone in our group a different character and one Halloween all dressed up as our respective characters. It's been years since I've read the books (I need to embark on a reread!) but I've successfully gotten a number of other people to read them, including my normally non-reading husband. Also, these books forever ruined me on most fantasy because of how high they set my standards.

2. Doctor Who
My husband and I started watching this series (from the 2005 reboot) after we moved out here in 2012, and we haven't looked back. Two years in a row now we've gone to see the Christmas special in theaters, which I highly recommend if you've never done it before. For our son's first Halloween we dressed him as the TARDIS and went as the Doctor and River Song.

3. Harry Potter
I have no shame in being on this bandwagon. I didn't read most of the books until college (I'd read the first two when they came out and didn't fall in love enough to seek out any more), and it was surprisingly my husband who got me to pick them up again. I've reread them multiple times now, and I proudly wear the Ravenclaw shirt I got for Christmas. My special reading area has our hardcover set on a shelf above my reading chair.

4. Homestar Runner
I was a big Homestar Runner fan in high school — I owned multiple shirts and at least one Strong Bad CD, and I think I might have had decals on my car window but I can't remember for sure. My friend and I were in a web design class second semester of our senior year, and our semester project was a Homestar Runner-themed website that we had a lot of fun building.

5. KonMari
Yep, I'm one of the weirdos who followed the process in The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up to a T and fell in love with it (also known as becoming a "Konvert"). I just recently had to pare down the number of related Facebook groups I'm part of. (Irony?) I've recommended this book to so many people, and I got the sequel (Spark Joy) as soon as it was published last year.

6. Lie to Me (R.I.P.)
It's pretty rare that I watch TV, and it's ever rarer that I become obsessed with a specific TV show, but this was one of the few. I knew it was doomed from the beginning, because Fox kept changing the time of the week it was on, randomly skipping weeks and even showing two episodes out of order. By the time it got to the third and final season, they'd abandoned the cleverness that defined the first season and just made it super-violent and repetitive. Nonetheless, I watched it until the end and spent way too much time on the TWoP forums for the show speculating about whether the two main characters were ever going to get together.

7. Nerdfighteria
This is probably the fandom for which I am most committed and which I most consider a big part of my identity. I started watching the vlogbrothers videos in the summer of 2007, which at the time was considered "jumping on the bandwagon" since the "real" Nerdfighters had been watching before Hank was featured on the front page of YouTube. That seems hilarious now that they've been going for 10+ years and generated a whole new bandwagon with The Fault in Our Stars. The fandom tends to attract middle school and high school students as new fans, which can make me feel old within the fandom sometimes but also can be a fun way for us (my husband and I) to bond with new freshmen in our residence hall.

8. Pemberley Digital
Few web series can match the perfection that was The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, though I also really enjoyed Emma Approved. I own the boxset of LBD and I keep wanting to host a LBD marathon in our hall, but I'm afraid no one would show up to watch the whole 7 1/2 hours with me. Someday it will happen! Unfortunately it doesn't seem like Pemberley Digital is planning to do any more projects, but who knows — maybe the right story will come along.

9. Settlers of Catan
In our board game-loving family, this is the game we come back to most consistently. I know I'm not as hardcore a fan as some (I've never played any of the variations other than the expansion pack), but when I thought about fandom-related merchandise I thought of the Catan onesie a friend got for our son when he was born and the Catan-like serving dishes with associated cookbook we got our friends as a housewarming gift. I love how every game is different but the basics are pretty simple once you understand them.

Which fandoms do you identify with?

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