Saturday, May 30, 2020

Best of the Bunch: May 2020

Best of the Bunch header

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

Of the 5 books I read this month, I didn't have any 5-star reads, but I did have one 4.5-star read, so that's my best of the bunch!

The Secret Keeper with BOTB sticker

I was hoping The Secret Keeper would get me out of my reading slump, and it delivered! At first I wasn't sure about the jumps back and forth in time and between POVs, but Morton manages to weave a mystery and provide frequent reveals/twists while you think you already know what happened, which is masterful. It managed to be both happy and sad, and just when I thought we were wrapping up the denouement there was a completely unexpected plot twist that I didn't even know I wanted but which made everything that much better. I'm glad to have finally read my first Kate Morton, and I look forward to reading some of her other works!

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 Trespasser
Five years ago I was reading: Gilead, The Tale of Desperaux, and What If?
Ten years ago I was reading: The Book of Three
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Monday, May 25, 2020

Opening Lines of Ten Favorite Books

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

This week we're talking about opening lines. My bookshelf, as I've mentioned, is culled to just a collection of favorite books, so I didn't have many to reference, but I tried to pull some good opening lines!

1. "John Moses couldn't have chosen a worse day, or a worse way to die, if he'd planned it for a lifetime." - The Homecoming of Samuel Lake by Jenny Wingfield

2. "I was a wonderful parent before I had children." - How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish

3. "There's a photo on my wall of a woman I've never met, its left corner torn and patched together with tape." - The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

4. "For eight years I dreamed of fire." - The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

5. "I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974." - Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

6. "'Shit,' I thought to myself, 'I'm going to be late to New Testament class.'" - Pastrix by Nadia Bolz-Weber

7. "I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice — not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother's death, but because is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany." - A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving

8. "Dying really isn't so bad after you've done it once." - The Sea of Tranquility by Katja Millay

9. "In March of 2011, a person I didn't know, and would never meet, tried to have me arrested for what she viewed as criminally irresponsible parenting." - Small Animals by Kim Brooks

10. "Those who know me now will be surprised to learn that I was a great talker as a child." - We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

Do any of these first lines make you interested?

Looking back:
One year ago I was reading: 84, Charing Cross Road and The Trespasser
Five years ago I was reading: Gilead, Summer of My German Soldier, and What If?
Ten years ago I was reading: Tuck Everlasting

Monday, May 18, 2020

Ten Reasons I Love Becky Albertalli

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

This week we're giving reasons why we love a particular book, author, or genre. Anyone who's been around here long enough knows that I am a complete fangirl for Becky Albertalli, so it only seemed right that I give you ten reasons why.

1. Non-clichéd romances
It is hard to find a YA romance that doesn't make me roll my eyes, but Albertalli's romances don't involve love at first sight or crooked smiles. They involve real teenagers trying to figure out who they are and how they feel about other people, and it makes the happy ever after that much sweeter.

2. Underrepresented protagonists
Albertalli's main characters are Jewish, Muslim, bisexual, gay, fat, and anxious. They reflect the diversity of real teenagers, and not in a way where the whole book revolves around their identity as A Lesson — it's just part of who they are.

3. Three-dimensional side characters
The protagonists' friends, families, and love interests feel like real people, and they too reflect the diversity of the real world in a way that feels authentic and not tokenized. (Also, if a character is white, Albertalli says they're white; it's never left as the "default.")

4. A real world that's just real enough
Albertalli's characters aren't there to teach a lesson about racism or homophobia, but they also don't live in a fantasy world where those things don't exist. Her books include realistic depictions of microaggressions that hopefully give privileged teen readers some insights and empathy, but those incidents never derail or weigh down the plot (because people with diverse identities deserve to see themselves represented without always having to wade through 300 pages of the world's worst reactions to their identities).

5. Great side plots
Even though Albertalli writes romances, her books also show teens dealing with challenging relationships with their friends, siblings, or parents, and it's just as satisfying to watch those relationships strengthen as it is to watch new romances develop.

6. Happy high school memories
I admire an author who can make me feel like I'm back in high school again, but let's be honest, sometimes I don't want to dwell on the awkwardness of being a teenager or the memories of fighting with friends or feeling rejected by crushes. Albertalli also lets me re-experience the good parts, like when her characters pile into a booth at Waffle House after a football game or work together to pull off a school musical.

7. Relevant references
From my admittedly limited vantage point as an adult, it seems like Albertalli — also an adult — has managed to not only give me flashbacks to my own high school experience, but also reflect the experiences of high schoolers today, like dealing with the mean comments on an Instagram post. (It makes me glad that texting and social media weren't a thing when I was that age.)

8. Amazing humor
I laugh out loud so much when reading Albertalli's books. On at least one occasion I have been laid out on the floor crying I was laughing so hard. That is hard to achieve!

9. Lovable families
Too many YA books have parents who are largely absent, or else their terribleness plays a central role in the plot. In Albertalli's world, parents aren't perfect, but they try their best and love their kids dearly.

10. Collaborations
I'll be honest that so far I've liked Albertalli's collaborations less than her standalone books, but I still appreciate that she does the hard work of collaborating with other authors. Even though I think she does a pretty good job of writing diverse characters as a straight white woman, it's also nice when there is an #ownvoices perspective informing the characters who are gay/Latinx/Muslim.

Have you read anything by Becky Albertalli? What did you think?

Looking back:
One year ago I was reading: There's Something About Sweetie and Silent Spring
Five years ago I was reading: Gilead, George's Marvelous Medicine, and What If?
Ten years ago I was reading: The Children's Book

Friday, May 15, 2020

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 long time since I had a reading month with this few books, but it's not too surprising — The Autobiography of Malcolm X was a long read, and I'm slowly working my way through the audiobook of Team of Rivals right now, which is over 40 hours. I'm taking some time off work in early June so I should definitely get more reading in then!

The Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie: This was another satisfying cozy mystery from Agatha Christie. Plenty of red herrings that are all eventually explained, a surprising reveal of the culprit (I was sure I knew this time, but I was wrong as usual), and another delightful plot twist at the end.

We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver: I thought this was going to be more of a thriller, but instead it's a disturbingly relatable book about parenthood and marriage with an extra malicious twist. Like, lots of people have described their toddlers humorously as assholes, but what if you suspected your toddler was actually fully aware of their actions and was intentionally being an asshole to make your life hell, just for kicks? How would you ever prove that to anyone, especially a husband who's already decided you have a penchant for overreacting? If only the book wasn't chock-full of slurs and casual racism, it would be a favorite.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X: It was fascinating to hear this story of Malcolm X's life in his own words. In particular, his early life kept me flipping the pages as he detailed his time as a hustler in New York City. It's clear that the image I had been given previously of Malcolm X — as the "violent" civil rights leader — was simplistic at best. I'm glad to have had this fuller picture of his life and his opinions and grateful to Alex Haley for making this book happen (despite many initial setbacks) before Malcolm X's untimely death at 39.

Ain't I a Woman by bell hooks: hooks minces no words when explaining both the racist history of feminism and the (in her mind unjustified) reasons that black women have avoided the modern-day (1970s) feminism movement. It's a short book, just over 200 pages, but it covers a lot of ground while still staying carefully focused around the specific topic outlined in the subtitle. She does have a tendency to overgeneralize at times, but given that the first draft was written when she was 19, I was highly impressed and look forward to reading more of her work.

Looking back:
One year ago I was reading: The Silver Chair
Five years ago I was reading: Gilead
Ten years ago I was reading: The Children's Book

Monday, May 11, 2020

The Last Ten Books I Abandoned

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

Not a lot has changed since I shared ten books I'd abandoned as of 2015. It's rare for me to DNF a book, and so there are only a couple of new ones that have been added to this list in the five years since then.

1. Auntie Mame 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.

2. 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.

3. The Death and Life of the Great American School System by Diane Ravitch
I picked this up to try to learn more about K-12 education before getting hired at TNTP. In the introduction, Ravitch conflates TNTP's Teaching Fellows program in New Orleans with Teach for America and says they both have some kind of secret agenda. I put this one down real fast.

4. Etiquette for an Apocalypse by Anne Mendel
I rarely abandoned book club books, but this one was so awful I gave up halfway through. The writing was terrible. If you're going to self-publish, you at least have to find yourself a really good editor who will stop you from putting commas after conjunctions and will tell you when you're being unintentionally racist. The premise of this book actually has a lot of potential, but I kept getting lost as the plot veered wildly in different directions and expected the readers to keep up.

5. 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.

6. Letters from a Martyred Christian by H.L. Hussmann
I made the mistake of seeing this book's high rating and requesting it on PaperBackSwap before checking how many ratings it had — only a couple dozen. I also made the mistake of thinking that this was a collection of actual letters from a martyred Christian before they died, only realizing after I got it that it was a work of fiction of a historical figure writing letters to Earth after he died. I was not surprised to learn that the author runs the publishing company that published this.

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. 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.

10. 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.

What are the most recent books you chose not to finish, and why?

Looking back:
One year ago I was reading: Sadie and Harry Potter à l'école des sorciers
Five years ago I was reading: Gilead and Finding Your Own North Star
Ten years ago I was reading: The Children's Book

Monday, May 4, 2020

Ten Activities I'd Have at My Bookish Party

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

This week we're imagining what would be involved in hosting a bookish party. I'm pretty sure this topic was conceived before in-person parties became a no-go activity, but thankfully several of these options could be adapted for virtual gatherings!

1. 20 Questions - Literary Characters
Each guest would get a Post-It on their back with the name of a well-known character from a book. They would have to ask other guests yes-or-no questions to try to figure out who they are. This could be adapted to a more traditional 20 Questions format where each person is given or comes up with a character and everyone else must ask yes-or-no questions to figure out who they are.

2. Book Discussion
My favorite bookish activity is discussing books with other people who've read them, which is why I've been in 2-4 book clubs at once. In my ideal world, I'd pick a book that everyone would read before coming to the party so we'd be able to discuss it!

3. Book Swap
This would be a chance for guests to bring up to three books that they want to part with, and take the same number of books from the pile of books shared by other guests. (I would have to make a rule that you'd have to take back any unclaimed books by the end of the night since I don't want to be responsible for them!)

4. Bring Your Own Book
This is a game that I hope to play at a future virtual game night, using the free prompts you can receive from signing up for their mailing list. Everyone has a book on hand and receives a prompt, like "a line from a horoscope," and everyone has to try to find something passable from their book. In the in-person game, you rotate books every few rounds.

5. Collaborative Storytelling
We typically play a game (that has many names) in which players alternate writing sentences and drawing them, only seeing what came immediately before. This is similar, except everyone writes the first sentence of a story and passes it to the next person, who writes the following sentence and then folds the paper so the next player can only see their contribution and not the original, and so on, until you have an entire story!

6. Ex Libris / The Paperback Game
This apparently goes by several names, but you can get the gist from either of the above links. Given the title, author, and back-cover description, everyone invents a first sentence for the book, which is mixed in with the real first sentence and all read aloud. You get points for fooling other people and for guessing the correct one!

7. Sorted Books
Also known as "spine poetry," this requires a large library of books to choose from, so it might even work better with everyone mining their own shelves at home than trying to share the same collection. Arrange the books so that the spines create a poem or tell a story. You could do it just for fun or have a vote on the best one.

8. Title Tweaks
This kind of game goes around Twitter every so often and makes an easy parlor game without any needed supplies. Pick a word and ask everyone to come up with a real book title and either insert the word or replace one of the existing words to make a new, hilarious title.

9. Trivia
Whether you use a formal structure like the Book Lover's Trivial Pursuit or just come up with your own trivia questions, this would be a chance for guests to show off their knowledge about all things literary.

10. Vacation Reads
If all else fails, here's a classic parlor game that could be adapted for a bookish party. The first person says, "I'm going on vacation and I'm bringing..." and names a book title starting with A. The next person must repeat exactly what they said and add a book title starting with B as well, and so on.

What activities would be at your party?

Looking back:
One year ago I was reading: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and Harry Potter à l'école des sorciers
Five years ago I was reading: Angle of Repose, How to Train Your Dragon, and Finding Your Own North Star
Ten years ago I was reading: The Children's Book