Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Best of the Bunch: October 2018

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:

March: Book One by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell

It's OK Not to Share and Other Renegade Rules for Raising Competent and Compassionate Kids by Heather Shumaker

March: Book Two by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell

I really liked the book on navigating interactions between children, but it's geared more toward teachers and parents of multiple kids, so it wasn't an all-time favorite for right now. But the March books definitely were! (I'm still reading Book Three, the final book, or I would have just picked the whole series for my Best of the Bunch.)

Framed by Rep. John Lewis showing up for President Obama's inauguration, this tells the story of Lewis' childhood up through the successful integration of lunch counters at the start of the civil rights movement. I knew most of the pieces of the story — lunch counter sit-ins, arrests, the involvement of SNCC — but it was fascinating to be told the entire story as a complete narrative, including how they trained for the sit-ins, their trial runs, and that they were released after refusing to pay bail. The pacing of the story, the integration with the artwork, and the artwork itself were all excellent, thanks to the talents of illustrator Nate Powell. This book is written in a way that feels very accessible to young adults but is also captivating for adult readers. I'm glad I picked up all three volumes from the library so I could read the full story straight through!

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

Looking back:
One year ago I was reading: The Secret History and Birdsong
Five years ago I was reading: Behind the Beautiful Forevers and Roots
Ten years ago I was reading: Black Boy

Monday, October 29, 2018

Top Ten Hercule Poirot Murder Mysteries

I'm linking up with That Artsy Reader Girl for another Top Ten Tuesday.

It's a Halloween freebie! In past years I've done books to read to get in the Halloween spirit, suspenseful novels, characters I'd be for Halloween, and horror novels on my TBR list, so I was running out of ideas! However, this year I completed my goal of reading all the Hercule Poirot books and I've been wanting to share my top ten favorites, and I thought this might be a good time of year to share these murder mystery recommendations.

I included the five that I gave 5 or 4.5 stars, and then of all the ones I gave 4 stars to, I couldn't decide how to narrow it down, so I picked the five that had the highest rating on Goodreads. (Ironically, this means I included one 4-star one where I literally wrote in my review, "I wouldn't put this in the top 10 of Poirot novels, but it's still worth reading!")

One note: Agatha Christie wrote these books over a span of 55 years. The first Poirot novel came out in 1920, and Christie was very much a product of her times. A few, like Hickory Dickory Dock, include characters who are painfully stereotypical by race or nationality, and most of her books for the first few decades included at least one line that could be considered racist or anti-Semitic. It's not until the 60s and 70s that she moved instead to having her characters awkwardly criticize men's long hair and feminine fashion. So just... be prepared for that.

1. The ABC Murders
This one has a mix of the traditional — Poirot being clever, Hastings being confused — with a different structure and a different type of killer than usual. Rather than the typical closed-circle mystery (which guest at the mansion did it?) this is a serial killer who's targeting victims in order of the alphabet: Alice Ascher of Andover, Betty Barnard of Bexhill-on-Sea, etc. How far into the alphabet will he get before he's stopped?

2. Cards on the Table
Poirot is invited to a dinner party along with four individuals who, according to the host, have each gotten away with a murder in the past. When the host is murdered, Poirot's usual approach of figuring out who has the psychological profile to be a murderer is challenged by the idea that all the suspects may have already committed murder at least once! This one is super-twisty and one of my top three favorites.

3. The Clocks
This is another one that's not a closed-circle mystery, and it has an unusual and delightfully creepy premise. A stenographer is summoned to a house where no one's home but a murdered man no one can identify, and a bunch of clocks have been placed around the room all showing the same, wrong time. Where does one begin?

4. Curtain
The final mystery! Poirot's bumbling sidekick, Hastings, must figure out what happened after Poirot himself finally dies. In a nice bit of nostalgia, it takes place in the same house as the very first Poirot mystery.

5. Death on the Nile
This was one of the original books back in middle school that turned me into a Poirot fan. On rereading, I was glad to find it was just as enjoyable and twisty as I remembered. It has all the best parts of a Poirot mystery — the psychology, the unexpected twists, the side romances — and no Hastings!

6. Five Little Pigs
Poirot tackles a 16-year-old closed case that seems clear-cut: The person found guilty had motive and means and all the evidence pointed against her. And yet — is everything as it seemed? Even after all that time, Poirot can still get to the bottom of things.

7. Lord Edgware Dies
What I enjoy most about Christie's mysteries is that I can usually put together many of the clues, but I still can't ever fit the final pieces in to solve it. This is one where I had an idea of where it was going, but the biggest piece of the puzzle never even occurred to me. When she can accomplish that without straining credulity, it's an enjoyable read.

8. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
This one is a classic, and for good reason! There's not much I can say without spoilers, but it definitely takes a different approach than most of her books.

9. The Mysterious Affair at Styles
I kind of thought Christie might have needed to warm up to some of her better plot twists, but this very first Poirot mystery packs a punch and kept me guessing until the end. Hastings is at his most irritating and ignorant here, but it's still a solid introduction to Poirot and his crime-solving skills.

10. Peril at End House
This includes one of my very favorite twists of the Poirot mysteries. I was convinced I'd figured out the mystery, and then it turned out that what I'd figured out was just a tiny piece of the puzzle — Christie fooled me again, though as usual the clues were all there. Things go off the rails a bit at the end, but I still really liked it.

Have you read any of the Hercule Poirot mysteries? Do you have a favorite?

Looking back:
One year ago I was reading: The Secret History and Birdsong
Five years ago I was reading: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Roots
Ten years ago I was reading: Black Boy

Monday, October 22, 2018

Top Ten Favorite Literary Villains

I'm linking up with That Artsy Reader Girl for another Top Ten Tuesday.

For this spooky month of October, we're talking about our favorite villains from the books we've read! I picked some who aren't just stereotypical monsters, like Dracula, but who are written with the kind of care and complexity that makes them that much creepier.

1. Amy Dunne (Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn)
It's hard to imagine a character who's more coldly calculating and chillingly brilliant than the woman at the center of this thriller.

2. Dolores Umbridge (the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling)
I think Umbridge is the favorite villain of the series for many because unlike Voldemort, who's clearly evil, Umbridge is on the side of the "good guys" and is given power in the name of protecting Hogwarts students, which she exploits to its full extent. This makes her deeds more insidious because she can argue that everything is done in the name of safety and education.

3. Henry Winter (The Secret History by Donna Tartt)
I hope it isn't too spoiler-y to include him on this list! What's great about his character is that you start out on his side, seeing his point of view, until suddenly you realize that following his train of thought to its logical conclusion means that no one is safe anymore.

4. Iago (Othello by William Shakespeare)
Sometimes the worst person is not necessarily the one who harms another, but the one who sets the whole thing in motion with subtle insinuations and sly suggestions. Agatha Christie explored this at greater length (but less complexity) in Curtain, but Shakespeare did it here first.

5. Ledroptha Curtain (The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart)
There are a lot of clever aspects to Mr. Curtain being the evil twin brother of Mr. Benedict, but he's also just a great villain himself. His machine sends subliminal messages that cause everyone to feel like there's some imminent unknown danger, so they live in perpetual fear without being able to pin down why this time is any more dangerous than the past — sound familiar?

6. Miss Trunchbull (Matilda by Roald Dahl)
Miss Trunchbull is a great character because she exemplifies every kid's experience of that one teacher or administrative who's just completely unfair and mean but whose job is somehow protected — except turned up to an absurd extreme, where she's literally locking kids in a closet full of broken glass and no one (but Matilda) can stop her.

7. Mrs. Danvers (Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier)
Danvers is super creepy because she's outwardly welcoming to the second Mrs. de Winter, but then you come to find out she is actually obsessed with the dead Rebecca and is trying to manipulate Rebecca's husband's second wife into meeting her ruin.

8. Old Nick (Room by Emma Donoghue)
Sometimes the scariest villains are those based on real-life criminals, like the people who have actually kidnapped and imprisoned others for years. Seeing Old Nick through the eyes of a 5-year-old makes him into a one-dimensional, almost mythical character, but it means we don't risk humanizing someone who commits such a heinous crime.

9. Piper Greenmantle (the Raven Cycle series by Maggie Stiefvater)
You think that Piper's husband is the true villain of this series, but then it turns out that he's no match for his vain, self-centered, seemingly lazy wife who steps in to take over destroying the world when it's clear that he's not going to be able to pull it off. She's an awful person and yet an amazingly funny character.

10. Rosalind Devlin (In the Woods by Tana French)
I do not want to spoil anything, but I will just say that she knows how to manipulate not only other people but the entire crime investigation system to her advantage.

Who are your favorite literary villains?

Looking back:
One year ago I was reading: The Secret History and Midwives
Five years ago I was reading: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Roots
Ten years ago I was reading: Black Boy

Monday, October 15, 2018

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.

I read a lot of new releases this past month! That's unusual for me, but there were so many that I wanted to read this time around.

The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman: Like the first book, this is a good story, suspenseful and action-packed, with plot twists and character deaths. Unfortunately it's much more difficult to keep track of all the characters, the different worlds, and who's where when. I liked it overall, but it's quite dark and I wouldn't give it to kids younger than middle school.

Kindred by Octavia E. Butler: This was a reread, which I liked a lot better on audio than in print. This time around I noticed more of the ways the author used Dana and Kevin's relationship to parallel how white people can never really understand what it's like to be the target of racism.

House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski: This book was... interesting. Unlike many, I didn't find it that scary, probably because I was too baffled by the characters' actions to relate to them. I'm impressed by the amount of work Danielewski put into this book, but in the end I found it too much work to read with not enough payoff to make it worth it.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon: This book is written in six parts, and each one has its own plot arc; I found it challenging to stay motivated through the whole 650+ pages, even though the characters are well written. I also found that the bloated vocabulary, predictable plot, and now-obscure 1940s pop culture references made it hard to get through.

Lethal White by Robert Galbraith: I genuinely enjoyed this fourth book in the Cormoran Strike series, everything from the engaging mystery itself to the subplots around mental health, sexual harassment, manipulative exes, and community activism, plus the slowest of slow-burn romances, which I am enjoying despite myself.

An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green: I was very impressed by how well this turned out! It's fast-paced and engaging, but also grapples with questions of fame and power in a way I can't remember seeing in another book. Recommended for fans of YouTube stars or Ready Player One; just be ready for an ending that sets up the sequel.

The Secret Place by Tana French: This was very different from the previous Dublin Murder Squad mysteries. The resolution of the crime itself was more satisfying than usual, but everything else — from the half-hearted attempt to contrast the high schoolers' tight-knit friendship with the detective's lack of friends, to the incorporation of actual supernatural elements that were ultimately irrelevant — I did not like.

The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman: I don't know what happened with this last book, but it was very disappointing. The characters stopped having a strong purpose for what they were doing and the plot seemed randomly thrown together and then interspersed with lectures about why secular humanism is better than religion. The sentence-level writing is still great, but it didn't hang together as a book.

What If It's Us by Becky Albertalli and Adam Silvera: This was the delightful YA gay romance I expected, although Silvera's realism definitely tempered what would usually be an Albertalli happily-ever-after. It was a bit too predictable and I wanted to shake Arthur for his inability to shut up, but I still liked it overall.

All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung: This ended up having less than I expected to do with the downsides of transracial adoption (through there are definitely elements highlighting how it can be done poorly) and more to do with the benefits of open adoption in general. Chung's own experience becoming a parent prompted her to seek out her biological family as an adult, and this informed her sense of identity and reshaped how she thought about her adoption.

Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok: This was a painfully real look at the experience of some immigrants who are exploited without the capability or resources to advocate for themselves. Kimberly's rescue from this life via education is a bit simplistic but not entirely far-fetched, though the book's double-twist ending seemed unnecessary and left me scratching my head over what the moral was supposed to be.

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

Looking back:
One year ago I was reading: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and Midwives
Five years ago I was reading: The Big Sleep and Roots
Ten years ago I was reading: The Sound and the Fury

Monday, October 8, 2018

Top Ten Longest Books I've Ever Read

I'm linking up with That Artsy Reader Girl for another Top Ten Tuesday.

In contrast to the shortest books we've read, this week we're talking about the longest! Exact length can be tricky — page counts vary by edition, word counts vary depending on which translation you're talking about — but these are the ten that seem to be the longest of the books I've completed. (I'm not counting The Lord of the Rings, frequently featured on "longest books" lists, because I read it as three separate books.)

1. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
As with many long books, I listened to this on audio. It was interesting but unfortunately there were a lot of long philosophical passages that were a slog to get through (even listening).

2. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
I'm kind of amazed that I found the time to read this in middle school, now that I see how long it is. No wonder I broke my teacher's rule that the plot summary should be less than a page of our book report and wrote 2 1/2 pages of plot summary. (I wrote 5 pages of analysis to make up for it.)

3. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
I liked this more than I expected, but there were definitely some parts that were just too long, and the book got repetitive in the second half. Longer isn't always better — sometimes you need a good editor to cut it down!

4. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
This one, amazingly, I read in one or two sittings during some very long summer days. I kind of wonder now if I accidentally read an abridged version. (It was at a library in another state, and it was before I started using Goodreads, so I can't check.) It seemed pretty long, though!

5. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
I read this on Kindle as part of a buddy read with two friends. I had to check it out from the library several times before I finished it. One friend still hasn't finished it a year later — it's not only long but can be challenging to read for long stretches!

6. Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
This one I started on Kindle but I couldn't get into it until I invested in the audio version, which was worth it. There are so much layers to this story of a single cattle drive from Texas to Montana that it's no surprise McMurtry took over 900 pages to tell it.

7. The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
This was one of the first books I read on Kindle, and I honestly didn't realize how long it was until I saw it in print. I didn't particularly like it, so seeing how long it was just made it feel like it had been even more of a waste of my time.

8. The Stand by Stephen King
This is another one that I turned to audio for. As I said in my review, I'm glad the audiobook is the uncut version, because if you're going to write such detailed world-building and character development, you might as well go all the way.

9. A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth
This one I actually read in paperback (~1470 pages), which took checking it out of the library a couple times in order to finish it. I really enjoyed it, but man was it heavy and awkward. You can keep your book smell; I would've killed for a Kindle version of this beast.

10. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
It took me about six months to get through all 60 hours of audio for this. I had tried once before on Kindle and couldn't get past the first few chapters. On audio I was able to get immersed in the story and understand how the "war" and "peace" sections alternate and eventually blend into one another.

What are the longest books you've read?

Looking back:
One year ago I was reading: All Things Bright and Beautiful, Bleak House, and Midwives
Five years ago I was reading: Room, The Cuckoo's Calling, and Getting Past No
Ten years ago I was reading: The Sound and the Fury

Monday, October 1, 2018

Top Ten Authors I'd Love to Meet

I'm linking up with That Artsy Reader Girl for another Top Ten Tuesday.

This week's topic is about authors we'd love to meet. There was a similar topic in 2017 when I posted about some authors I'd met and some I'd like to meet. Sadly, I still haven't met any of the four I listed back then (I tried to get tickets for Barbara Kingsolver's book tour but they were sold out!). Here they are again, and six others.

1. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
I haven't actually loved most of Adichie's fiction that I've read, but I've greatly appreciated her excellent nonfiction writing. From the popularity of her TED Talk, you know she's a great public speaker, and it would be awesome to hear her speak in person and get to meet her.

2. Becky Albertalli
I adore everything Albertalli writes, and from what I've seen of her social media presence she seems really fun and down to earth. It would be great to meet her and tell her that even someone like me in my 30s appreciates how she captures the high school experience so well.

3. Anne Bogel
I'm so excited because I am going to get to meet Anne next week! I've known her on the blogosphere since well before she was a published author, and I'm looking forward to meeting her face to face on her book tour.

4. Nadia Bolz-Weber
OK, I only have myself to blame for the fact that I haven't actually met Nadia Bolz-Weber yet. I went to a conference where she was a speaker, and she was there for the entire conference, including being in the same room as me for several hours for a pre-conference retreat. But I was so overwhelmed by her that I couldn't think of a single thing to say to her, so I never went up to introduce myself, which was just dumb. Sigh. She's amazing.

5. Vanessa Diffenbaugh
Diffenbaugh wrote my favorite book ever, The Language of Flowers. Her last book was published in 2015, so fingers crossed she's working on something new and will go on tour near me!

6. Barbara Kingsolver
Still kicking myself for missing the window to get tickets to see her on her latest book tour! She's only 63, so she's got a couple more books in her still, right?? Maybe next time!

7. Marie Kondo
People love to hate on The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, but I found it extremely useful. It would be cool (if very unlikely) to meet her in person!

8. Liane Moriarty
She's going to stop a few hours away from me on her book tour for her latest release. Now I have to decide 1) if I want to take a day off work to go and 2) if I'm going to pay to get a ticket for the signing line...

9. J.K. Rowling
I think she's probably on most people's lists, though in reality I'm sure if I ever got in the same room with her I would be too nervous to talk to her. (I mean, look at how I acted with Nadia Bolz-Weber, who's not nearly as famous.) I think it's enough of a pipe dream even to think about hearing her speak in person!

10. Gretchen Rubin
People seem to love to pile on Rubin for her exacting personality, but I've personally found her books very helpful, and it would be cool to tell her that in person.

Who would you like to meet?

Looking back:
One year ago I was reading: All Things Bright and Beautiful and After the Funeral
Five years ago I was reading: The Righteous Mind and Room
Ten years ago I was reading: The Sound and the Fury