Monday, April 03, 2017

March Retrospective

1) A Note Yet Unsung by Tamera Alexander

I have read all of Alexander's books about Nashville, truthfully just because Middle Tennessee has been home to my family for hundreds of years, since before the time in which the books were set. And since I don't live there any longer, I like to try to hold on to the connection any way I can. My parents moved from Nashville this month and I feel like I want to grab hold of my heritage more than ever. These books don't really need to be set in Nashville though- they just have a couple of landmarks and historical figures thrown into a story that could've taken place anywhere in the South. And they're cheesy. Alexander is a flowery writer and has some favorite turns of phrase that are a bit cringeworthy. Her characters are always somehow heroically progressive, men and women well ahead of their time. Then again, I have an idea that probably a lot of people were of a different mind than the people of their time then just as many are today. Still, I think this is the last in the Belmont Mansion series and I'm glad for it to be over. It took me a while, a few days really, to get through the first chapter- just to gear up for reading a sort of Hallmark movie-like period piece. But once I did gear up, it was a quick and pleasant read. So while there are lots of reasons not to like these books, I still find myself enjoying them and coming back for more.

2) The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon

This book is about two teens, Daniel and Natasha, who meet one day in New York City and are forever changed by the events of that one day. And it depressed me the way Oprah depresses me. I wrote a couple of paragraphs about why and I deleted them. Then I wrote more and deleted that. I think it can best be summed up as a book written from a tragic moral perspective- one that is not glaringly problematic at first glance, but one that offers peace and understanding without really understanding the true Source of peace. I guess I should be glad to think that even people who don't seek Christ can find a way to live their lives with purpose, to forgive, to love, to grow, etc. I just can't imagine being able to do any of that apart from hope in Christ. I can't imagine that there really are these healthy, mature people out there making their way through life any more than I can imagine that people's houses really look like they do in magazines. Maybe I am just exposing my own brokeness (and messiness), but I don't buy it. I call bullshit.

3) The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill

All of the characters in this book seemed creepy to me. And this is another book that felt very religious, very "spiritual" - I mean, it is chock-a-block full of magic and witches and allusions to Scripture- but not based on truth. It was more of this idea that I keep encountering- that we're all connected and all part of God somehow. I feel like I can't really even write that because it seems so obviously wrong and surely no one is saying that. But Daniel did say that in The Sun is Also a Star. And at the end of this book, the Beast, the Bog, the Poem, and the world are said to all be the same thing- and the Witch will become one of those things. Do you see what I mean? Not exactly, I'm sure, if you haven't read the book. But anyway, I am just weary of wading through all of this "spirituality."

4) Middlemarch by George Eliot

What a treat! After two books that really brought me down, it only took about fifty pages or so for me to really enjoy Middlemarch. For a book that is over eight hundred pages, fifty pages is nothing! And the only reason it took as long as it did was because the beginning of the book was a lot of introduction to characters and situations and that just took a little bit of concentration on my part to get to know everyone. Love! Love! Love! Will be reading more Eliot soon!

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

February Retrospective

1) Ember Falls by S.D. Smith

I read The Green Ember aloud to the kids this summer and they loved it. I got Elspeth the next in the series for Christmas and as soon as she finished reading it,  she couldn't wait for me to read it. I wish we had read it aloud together because these are fun to share. One of the endorsements on the back says that this book does for The Green Ember what The Empire Strikes Back did for Star Wars. I thought that was a great way to put it! I can't wait for the one that acts like Return of the Jedi!

2) If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo

This is a book about a transgender teen living in the Deep South. Fortunately, the author is a transgender Southerner and treated the South fairly- as a Southerner outside of the South, I get frustrated with the South being villainized. I chose this book because it was another on Amazon's list of the top young adult books from 2016. The author's point of view, and therefore the book's point of view, is that people deserve happiness. This is not my point of view, not my worldview so to speak, and that was helpful to identify as a fundamental difference between the way I think the world should work and the way our culture thinks the world should work. I wish we could remember this in our conversations with people who believe differently than us- we are not on the same wavelength and so no wonder things get mixed up and people get hurt.

3) After You by Julie Buxbaum

I chose this book because I had liked Buxbaum's YA book Tell Me Three Things. I liked this book for the most part. It is about a woman named Ellie whose best friend dies and leaves an eight-year-old daughter named Sophie behind. Ellie is Sophie's godmother and moves to London from Boston to be with Sophie but leaves her husband behind in Boston. As time passes, some things become easier and some things become harder.

4) The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

I had never actually read this book before. Amabel loaned me her copy and actually teared up telling me what a good book it was when she brought it to me. I knew it was her favorite but I actually chose it because Ellie reads it to Sophie in After You to help her process her grief. It is a delightful book. There is a reason it is such popular children's classic. But reading it as an adult raises questions about the worldview presented that a child wouldn't likely ask. Once again, I found myself disagreeing with the perspective presented. Even if one replaces "God" for "Magic," it still doesn't work with the idea that it doesn't matter what you call "The Big Good Thing." If belief in Jesus' death and resurrection and a life committed to following him is necessary, then it certainly does matter. I am guessing that Amabel likely brought her own understanding into the book when she read it as a child, but Amabel's understanding of the Gospel is not represented in this book at all- which is totally fine, many many good books have no representation of the Gospel-- it's just that this book is extremely religious in nature and the religion represented is not Christianity.

5) The Sea Keeper's Daughters by Lisa Wingate

I was a little discouraged after reading so much that was not in line with my worldview, so I went to The Christy Awards website to find a good Christian fiction book. I chose the 2016 winner for contemporary fiction. But sadly, as is often the case with Christian music, the standard for excellence seemed to be a little off. From the beginning, it was clear the book was over written. There were way too many descriptions, way too many lists of things- the book just needed a good editor. I believe it was Faulkner who first said "kill your darlings." And Stephen King humorously added "...even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler's heart , kill your darlings." I can only guess that neither Wingate nor her editor got the memo. Whew! Then there are the hackneyed plot devices. There are old letters that have been hidden for years. There are villainous property developers who care nothing for people or history. There is a lot of sudden bursts of emotion that induce running away and crying. And the use of dreams as messages is also a serious problem for me. I wasted a whole lot of time reading this so I don't really want to waste even more writing about it. It was really really bad. We'll leave it at that.

6) Falling Together by Marisa de los Santos

This is another gem by de los Santos and I think I am officially a fan. This was my favorite of hers yet. What a treat to in the last two days of a month of generally disappointing reading to find such a genuinely warm and hopeful story that actually has a moral compass. De Los Santos generally seems to have a measure of morality that is so refreshing in today's cultural climate. Today's cultural climate. Gag. On both the phrase but also the thing it represents. Our culture is bumming me out big time lately. But Marisa de los Santos makes me smile. Highly recommended.

Thursday, February 02, 2017

January Retrospective

I have a New Year's book list in my drafts, but I just kept editing it- adding to it, checking titles off the list- all last month. And I never finished last year's list anyway. So maybe I'll try just keeping my to be read long list to myself and only making posts about the books I have finished reading. I only finished four titles this month. I spent the first week or so continuing my slog through the 800 page Robert E. Lee book I had on last year's list. That'll slow you down for sure. And I still didn't finish it so I know it'll slow me down again.

1) The Innkeeper of Ivy Hill by Julie Klassen

As always, I loved Miss Julie's newest title. (I feel like I'm taking a liberty here to call her Miss Julie, but simply referring to her as "Klassen" seems so formal and cold. I feel like I have such genuine affection for her that she deserves a warmer designation.) There was a bit less romance in this one, which I thought was well done and less predictable. The absence of an explicitly romantic storyline was also a relief to me this time as I was able to recommend this title to my sister who loves Miss Julie as well but who has recently found herself in a hard situation not unlike the main character's and has been in no mood for romance. 

Jane Bell has had her world rocked and now she must decide how to move forward. A difficult road is placed before her, and she must decide whether to accept the difficulty with the potential to reward herself and others in her life or to leave and start over. As she chooses her path, Jane begins to grow and change, to form new relationships and see other relationships grow and change. I found myself going through every feeling with her and was excited to see her story unfold. 

The most exciting part is that it's the beginning of a series! πŸ‘

2) The Geek's Guide to Unrequited Love by Sarvenaz Tash 

I chose this book from Amazon's list of the best young adult books of 2016. I am trying to read more YA because I have a friend whose daughter has a YA book coming out this summer! This book was adorable. There was reference to several John Hughes films in the book and Hughes' influence on Tash was certainly not lost. However, the characters here were entirely her own, but as with any good Hughes film, we find them quirky and endearing and cheer for them all the way. Set at New York City Comic Con, of all places, Tash's novel tells the story of Graham and his attempt to share his changing feelings with his best friend Roxy. Super cute, super clean. πŸ‘

3) The Opposite of Love by Julie Buxbaum 

I first encountered Buxbaum in December when I read her young adult novel called Tell Me Three Things which was another of Amazon's top young adult selections for 2016. I really enjoyed Tell Me Three Things, but I didn't want my teenaged daughter to read it because of the discussions about sex. I know plenty of people would think I am a prude because of that, but so be it. This book was not a young adult book and so there were was a lot more of that kind of thing in it. And really, even just for 39 year old me, just yuck. That's a hugely intimate thing and I don't understand why it's splashed out there in books and on television like it's not. If we could just skip the explicit references in this book- only the reader really can't because there's no way to know when they'll suddenly appear- I could recommend it to people. And I think I could to some people anyway. But the yuck aside, I liked Emily. I liked her journey. I couldn't much relate to her, an attorney who lives in New York City who breaks up with the love of her life because she is afraid he is going to propose (is there anything about this that is remotely familiar to my life? No, in no way whatsoever.) but I felt like Buxbaum helped me understand her and to like her. And I think that's kind of an amazing feat for a writer. I know writers do that all the time so it's easy to take for granted, but plenty of writers also don't do that all the time. Anyway, recommended with reservations (because of the cringe factor) πŸ‘

4) Belong to Me by Marisa de los Santos 

Oh wow. I loved this book. A couple of years ago, Modern Mrs. Darcy recommended another of de los Santos' books, a title called Love Walked In, which I read and enjoyed, but somehow I missed that there was a sequel. (Incidentally, did I just do her last name right? Is the whole part her last name? It feels weird that it isn't capitalized.) This is the sequel and it is even better than the first one (and can stand alone without the one before it). It was so good. Maybe it just met me where I am- there is a lot about grief and trying to reconcile the sense that it is lesser grief than other things happening to other people at the same time, but grief nonetheless. And it has such beautiful, powerful, wonderful women friendships! Some of the friendships were unlikely, but also made sense because of other shared things that couldn't be helped. It was such a great catalyst for thinking about friendships and how they happen- such a rare thing these days, friends who care and walk through everything alongside one another.  I think I will read this one again sometime. It was so rich and lovely. It also had a host of well drawn characters and several engaging storylines, both of which were interwoven with the other characters and storylines in a seamless way. This is one I'll be recommending often. πŸ‘

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Year End Round Up

I just barely hit the 52 mark for books I read in 2016.  And now I will list them and rate them. In many ways, this is an unfair rating system because I may recommend something to someone that I didn't like, and I can certainly recognize that some of these are very well written even if I didn't enjoy them, but because I am tired of always trying to be objective and wasting time on stuff I don't like to read, this is going to be my personal enjoyment rating, aptly done with a thumbs up or thumbs down emoji, to show the whimsical nature of the rating process. I am not interested in a serious comment based system for now because that is how books like The Scarlet Letter and Moby Dick keep making lists- they are inarguably well done, but hold no enjoyment factor. This is purely whether I liked it or not. The thinking face means I do remember the book, but I had mixed feelings (which is a better rating, in my opinion, than just flat our not remembering the book much at all).

1) A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith πŸ‘Ž

2) Adam Bede by George Eliot πŸ‘

3) Ethan Frome by Edith WhartonπŸ‘Ž

4) Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell πŸ‘Ž

5) Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen πŸ‘

6) Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen πŸ‘

7) Mansfield Park by Jane Austen πŸ‘

8) Emma by Jane Austen πŸ‘

9) Persuasion by Jane Austen πŸ‘

10) Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen πŸ‘

11) Jane Austen by Peter Leithart πŸ‘Ž

12) Jane Austen's First Love by Syrie James -- I honestly don't remember anything about this book at all.

13) Stonewall by John Dwyer πŸ‘Ž

14) Life in Motion by Misty Copeland πŸ‘Ž

15) Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole πŸ‘Ž

16) Uncle Fred in Springtime by P.G. Wodehouse πŸ‘

17) Cocktail Time by P.G. Wodehouse πŸ‘

18) Service with a Smile by P.G. Wodehouse πŸ‘

19) After You by Jojo Moyes - I don't remember if I liked this one or not.

20) The Bronte Plot by Katherine Reay πŸ‘Ž

21) Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J.K. Rowling - πŸ€”

22) Smith of Wootten Major by J.R.R. Tolkien πŸ‘Ž

23) Miss Julia Speaks Her Mind by Ann B. Ross πŸ‘Ž

24) Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro πŸ‘Ž

25) The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough - πŸ€”

26) Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe πŸ‘

27) Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry π ˆπŸ‘

28) The Nesting Place by Miquillyn Smith πŸ€”

29) The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins πŸ‘

30) The Matchmaker by Elin Hildebrand πŸ‘Ž

31) Truly, Madly, Guilty by Liane Moriarty πŸ‘

32) A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman πŸ€”

33) Belgravia by Julian Fellowes πŸ‘Ž

34) Why Not Me by Mindy Kaling πŸ€”

35) Dad is Fat by Jim Gaffigan πŸ–’πŸ‘

36) Born Standing Up by Steve Martin πŸ‘Ž

37) This is a Book by Demetri Martin πŸ‘

38) In Such Good Company by Carol Burnett πŸ‘Ž

39) Flora and Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo πŸ‘Ž

40) The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate πŸ€”

41) The Green Ember by S.D. Smith πŸ‘

42) The Black Star of Kingston by S.D. Smith πŸ–“πŸ‘

43) Outlaws of Time: The Legend of Sam Miracle by N.D. Wilson πŸ€”

44) A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle πŸ–’πŸ‘Ž

45) Winter Street by Elin Hildebrand πŸ‘Ž

46) Winter Stroll by Elin Hildebrand πŸ‘Ž

47) Winter Storms by Elin Hildebrand  πŸ–’πŸ‘Ž

48) The Twelve Days of Christmas by Debbie Macomber πŸ‘Ž

49) On Christmas Eve by Ann Martin πŸ‘Ž

Here are four more - #50-53- that put me just over one book per week for the year. I have read much more in years past, but I picked some really hard titles this year -- a few that I will have to finish now in the next year!

50) A Portrait of Emily Price by Katherine Reay - I may be done with Katherine Reay. I really loved Dear Mr. Knightley, her first novel, but none of her subsequent offerings have been nearly as good. One thing that even Dear Mr. Knightley had in common with her others is a female lead that I could in no way relate to. I wonder if this is another Elin Hildebrand situation- sounds promising, people I know may love, but just a little too different for me to make a connection- ooh, I also feel this way about Emily Giffin.

51) Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum - I heard about this one because it was on the top rated Young Adult list for Amazon for the year. I decided I wanted to try a little more YA coming up because a good friend of mine has a daughter who will be releasing her first YA novel next summer! I really enjoyed this book but I wasn't sure if the "secret identity" of one of the characters was really supposed to be secret- because it was pretty obvious to me. So did the author way underestimate her audience's intelligence? Or, because it was written in first person, was it just that the other character didn't know and of course the reader knew? Or, I suppose a third option is that the intended audience is a young adult audience and I am not a young adult so perhaps I have a higher intelligence than the intended audience? It's hard to remember what I did and didn't grasp as a teenager- maybe I wouldn't have gotten it back then. I would kind of like to have someone else I know read this book to tell me what they think! It's the kind of book I would think a lot of people would really enjoy- recommended for sure!

52) Everyone is Beautiful by Katherine Center - In some ways, this is neither here nor there, but people have got to quit putting cupcakes on the front cover of books that have nothing to do with cupcakes. This is really weird to me. I don't understand why it keeps happening. I liked this book. It was hard for me to read because I felt the tension and went on the emotional journey with the characters to some extent. For me, if the ending works, it is all worthwhile, so this really could've gone either way- I could've either thrown it across the room or let out the breath I was holding for the last fifty pages or so and felt okay about it. In the end, I felt okay about it. But it was definitely a journey.

53) The Sugar Queen by Sarah Addison Allen- This book is definitely one that falls into the magical realism category. It wasn't quite as strong for me as Tell Me Three Things or Everyone is Beautiful- by which I mean that I wasn't as drawn into the story and feeling the characters were real people-- I was always aware that I was reading a story and never quite as able to visualize the people and places. I will say that that is not uncommon for me- I just noticed it a lot more coming right after Everyone is Beautiful where I was so drawn in. And maybe because there was so much "magic," it was harder to be drawn in. Still, all of the people in this book, without exception, behaved unlike any people I've ever known. That doesn't mean they weren't likable or the story wasn't interesting, it just means the reader really has to suspend the "yeah right" voice in her brain- so anyone's enjoyment of this book is probably going to depend on how loud that voice is inside her head.

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