What I Read: January 2018

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January 2018 Book Reviews

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See – I’ve read and loved all of Lisa See’s novels except for her last, China Dolls, which just didn’t grab me. (I think I put it down halfway through.) So I was a little worried that Tea Girl, her new release, might disappoint. I needn’t have worried, though – The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane is the best of See: eye-opening about Chinese culture, fresh, original, vivid, stunning.

In it, we’re introduced to the ethnic minority Akha people and their rituals of life as well as harvesting tea. Some of these rituals, which we’re introduced to quickly, seem shocking for taking place in the 1980s and 90s. I was honestly not sure I was going to make it through the book after the heart-wrenching events of the first two chapters, but I was urged by some fellow readers to keep going, and I am very glad I did.

Li-Yan feels herself slipping away from her culture as she witnesses this tragic event and then does something unpermissable to her family. Choosing a different path, we follow both Li-Yan through her life, tracing her path through that of the tea of her country gaining fame.

I know this seems vague, but I would always say not to read even the back of the book blurbs when it comes to plot; I almost always think they give away what should be surprises. Suffice to say, Li-Yan’s break from her people and finding her way back is intriguing and beautiful.

Harvest of Gold by Tessa Afshar – Yes, this was on my Read-the-Shelves challenge for 2017 for those of you keeping track. So I didn’t quite make it. (I still have three other books from that I haven’t read. Head palm.) It’s short and light and there’s no reason I shouldn’t have read it before now, but oh well.

This is the follow-up to Afshar’s Harvest of Rubies, about the (fictional) scribe Sarah, in biblical times during the exile in Persia, who is given in marriage to a court aristocrat. (Tiny review at #63 here.) In this one, we see a lot more of Sarah’s cousin, the cupbearer Nehemiah. We follow Nehemiah, Sarah, and her husband Darius as they trek to Jerusalem to uncover a plot and rebuild the walls of the temple.

I adore how Afshar makes the biblical events come alive. She has a real talent for writing vivid characters who are realistic. Sarah and Darius and even Nehemiah are far, far from perfect, but they work it out between themselves and God as the novel progresses. Afshar continues to be one of my very favorite Christian fiction writers out there.

The Bitter Side of Sweet by Tara Sullivan – I like the roam the YA section of our local library and grab what looks good; this book came from one such trip. It’s a unique story about brothers in the Ivory Coast, made slaves to the cacao fields there. When a girl is brought to the plantation for the first time, life as they know it is shaken up, and older brother Amadou finds that being complacent with his life is no longer an option.

It’s a sad, hard story to read, but one that brings light to slavery in the chocolate industry. Sullivan obviously feels passionate about this cause and urges her reader to feel the same. My daughter is actually studying chocolate in school, so I was able to share a little bit about this book with her and why people would want to choose fair trade chocolate.

Short by Holly Goldberg Sloan – I heard about this middle grade novel on What Should I Read Next? and thought it might be something my daughter (9) would want to read since she’s obsessed with musicals right now. But since she’s also not into reading very long books on her own, after reading it I returned it to the library. Maybe she’ll be willing to tackle it in a year or so.

In this one, Julia is forced to try out for a local production of The Wizard of Oz alongside her brother, who is the obviously talented actor and singer. All Julia is is tiny, which seems to bring her right to the role of a Munchkin. As the summer progresses, Julia seems to find herself anew through the world of theater.

I did like the book, although it seemed to be missing a little bit of Julia’s relationships with kids her age. We understand her two best friends are out of town, but she has no relationships with other peers for the whole summer, instead befriending an adult actor and her elderly neighbor. These relationships are interesting, but it doesn’t seem to show us the whole picture of Julia. The latter part of the novel lagged a little for me, too.

How to Hug a Porcupine: Negotiating the Prickly Points of the Tween Years by Julie A. Ross – This book is highly recommended by Meg of the Sorta Awesome podcast. While it is aimed toward middle schoolers, most will say the “tween” years start at 9. And in our home, my oldest child turned 9 in October. We’re already seeing some of that tween behavior and trying to cope with the fact that she’s not a little girl anymore.

In this book, Ross outlines a lot of stories from parenting groups she’s held and uses the stories to offer the reader guides to parenting tweens. Scripts, tactics, and reassurance all show up here. I found most of Ross’s work to be extremely helpful as I look at raising tweens for the next million years. (OK, no, but really, like 12 years.) I did think the section about the Internet was pretty outdated; what are the chances our kids are not going to put pictures of themselves online? I’m thinking VERY slim. But all in all, I think it was a worthwhile read and one I will probably go back to.

The Road Back to You by Ian Morgan Cron and Suzanne Stabile – While the Enneagram seems to be having its heyday right now, I’ve been hearing about it for several years (again, on Sorta Awesome!). The Road Back to You is an excellent primer about the nine types of the Enneagram; the authors are knowledgeable, relatable, and funny. I listened to this on audio through Hoopla, and it is read by Ian Cron (from whose point of view the book comes anyway). He was a great narrator, and I couldn’t stop listening! I think the Enneagram is really hard to figure out by online tests, unlike Myers-Briggs. Reading about all the types and especially the list of things each type might say was much more helpful than taking any quiz for me. I love that the goal of the Enneagram is really spiritual growth and self-improvement, and I highly recommend this book as a good place to start if you’re interested in it at all.

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That’s it for January! I’ve already finished three books in February that I’ll be eager to share with you. You can always follow me on GoodReads if you want, too. What have you been reading?

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What I Read: November and December 2017

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I’ve fallen a little behind here in blogging land, haven’t I? We had a wild holiday season (as is usually the case when you have many small children), and my grandma died on New Year’s Eve, so I packed up and went to Ohio for her funeral.

This week we’ve just been trying to get back in the swing of school and regular activities – just in time for the kids to be off for Martin Luther King Jr. day on Monday. Someday things might seem normal, right?

Here are the books I finished in November and December.

November

Little Girls Can Be Mean by Michelle Anthony and Reyna Lindert – There were some interesting tips and topics in this book, but nothing earth-shattering for me. I definitely need to be Observing my 9-year-old daughter a little more, and I’m really trying to ask her about her friends and their relationship without automatically giving advice.

The Almost Sisters by Joshilyn Jackson – I kind of loved-but-hated Someone Else’s Love Story by Jackson when I read it in July this year. But there was nothing for me to hate in The Almost Sisters, and it will definitely be in my top 10 reads of 2017. (Which I am going to do. I swear. Even though it’s already January 11.)

Leia is the graphic novel artist heroine of this tale, and in the first few pages finds she’s been left a souvenir of a one-night stand at a comic-book convention: she’s pregnant with Batman’s baby. Before she can even tell her family, life implodes, and she heads to south Alabama with her niece in tow to help her ailing grandmother.

Just when you think you know what’s going on, something else falls out of the sky. Do yourself a favor – never read the book blurbs. Just plunge in and enjoy the ride, especially on this great novel. It addresses family, issues of race and the South, and just felt especially relevant right now. But not without Jackson’s signature fun style and humor. She reminds me a little of a racier Jenny B. Jones.

As of today (1/11/18), this book is still on sale for $1.99 for Kindle. Such a great deal and well worth it!

The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown – I love and am always inspired by Brown’s work in vulnerability and shame. Given my attitude the last week, I probably need to pick this up and read it again. One by one, Brown outlines the characteristics of a Wholehearted life that she’s found through much research and study. It was a quicker read for me than Daring Greatly (review here), but that might be because I was dashing to finish it for a book club.

Renegades by Marissa Meyer – I initially rated this five stars, but I’ve backed down to a four, mostly because it’s not as memorable to be as I would like a 5-star book to be. I love Marissa Meyer, and her writing gets me every time. This was fast-paced and fun, a world she built where Superheroes are the government and Nova is part of a villain league. Haunted by her past, Nova will do anything to get revenge … including infiltrating the enemy. This is the first in a two-book series, and I desperately want to know what happens! But I guess I’ll have to wait another year.

All the Crooked Saints by Maggie Stiefvater – Stiefvater is another author I love, and I was so excited to read this new book from her. When I tried to read it in hardcover, though, it felt off to me. I lost interest and returned it to the library without getting past page 75. But a friend in a book group suggested it on audio, and I was delighted to find it available on Hoopla, which is my favorite app for audiobooks. (My library subscribes to it, so it’s free!) The book takes place among a Mexican family living in Colorado, so the narrator’s Spanish accent and pronunciation of the names and places was helpful for me. (I didn’t have to think so hard every time I came across the name Joaquin.) And although the story has a lot of set up, once it’s there it really gains interest. I didn’t adore it like I did The Raven Boys (review here), but it was a good listen if you’re looking for an audiobook.

December

The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman – Here’s the thing about this book. It’s very well-written, and the setting (Australia post World War I) was very interesting. But I would not recommend it to anyone unless they especially enjoy having their heart wrenched and dragged through the dirt. I don’t sob at many books, but I certainly did – more than once – at this one. And I felt like the book was written explicitly to destroy the reader’s emotions. (Kinda like This Is Us?)

All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren – I’d been working on this Pulitzer Prize-winner since late October, and finally finished near the beginning of December. I found it to be very intriguing, quite different from any other classics I’ve read. I know nothing about Huey Long, the governor of Louisiana the political figure in this book is modeled after; heck, I know basically nothing about politics.

They study this book in AP English at the school where we live, so I expect to have many interesting conversations about it with the students and faculty!

Ginny Moon by Benjamin Ludwig – Ludwig’s debut novel could be called The Curious Case of Why Ginny Wants to Get Back to Her Birth Mother. Ginny is an autistic 13-year-old, living with her third set of “Forever Parents” but obsessed with getting back to her birth mother, even five years after she was removed from her. Her concern for her Baby Doll, left behind, baffles all of the adults around her. I felt like Ludwig did an excellent job helping us delve into the mind of Ginny and how she functioned. For me, a major Highly Sensitive Peron, I got very nervous about the book, though. There is high potential for super-sad disaster, and after reading The Light Between Oceans I was a little scared to keep reading. It made me nervous right up to the end, but I won’t forget Ginny soon. I listened to this on audio, and the narrator did an excellent job with it, too.

A Redbird Christmas by Fannie Flagg – Often at Christmas, I just want to read something light and Christmasy, and this definitely fit the bill. It’s kind of cheesy and predictable and absolutely lovely. Really a fun read and just what I needed after All the King’s Men.

I spent the rest of December re-reading Winter Solstice by Rosamunde Pilcher, and loved it all over again! (Review here.)

That’s more books than I thought I read! The two audiobooks certainly helped. What did you read over Christmas?

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What I Read: April/May 2017

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Hi, bookish friends. Life has been nutso. We are moving this coming weekend to another space on campus (a house!), the kids are home for the summer, and, well, I have a 7-month-old baby who is crawling, pulling up, and being a baby. I wanted to stop in and share some quick reviews for what I read the last two months, though!

Sleeping on Jupiter by Anuradha Roy – I have to admit, I read this initially because I thought it was the same author as The God of Small Things. Nope, that is Arundhati Roy. You can call me Stupid American.

It’s one I came across on Overdrive, looked interesting, and when I checked I saw it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Sleeping on Jupiter is the intertwined stories of three older women and a young documentary filmmaker. Their paths cross as they ride the train to Jarmuli in India, an ocean town with a famous temple. The three friends have come on a long-anticipated vacation; the young woman, Nomi, has come back to make a movie and research her own past.

It was a heavy read. I appreciated the excellent writing, but I felt like it tackled a lot of hard-hitting topics all at once and just left me deeply sad.

Can’t Let You Go by Jenny B. Jones – My love for Jenny B. Jones is well-documented here, and I am surprised I waited as long as I did to read this extra book in the Katie Parker series, given how much I LOVED the original trilogy. I did enjoy delving back into Katie’s world and seeing her as a grown woman; I just felt like this one was less believable, more romance and less personal growth. Jenny is still funny, her characters vivid, but something in it didn’t quite work for me.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders – The buzz about this book was so interesting I felt like I had to try and read it! What I found was that it is more of a screenplay instead of a novel: a cast of lively ghosts narrate the action going on in the graveyard (bardo is a Tibetan word for the space in between death and afterlife). We go back and forth between action in the graveyard and what happened before, leading up to and through Willie (Lincoln’s son) dying and the mourning. Those parts are told in series of quotes from different sources. (I heard someone say some of these were made up. I am not sure. The New York Times calls them “facts and semi-facts.”)

On one hand, I really like to read something that is different. And this sure is. The pages of quotes that all deal with the same event from different eyes are so interesting, pointing out that you can pretty much make history whatever you want depending on what sources you find. The action in the graveyard is so creative. The ghosts take forms of their stories – some are big or small, performing certain motions, or joined together. And nearly two months later, I can picture all of what happened very vividly in my head, which is not my norm for reading.

On the other hand, though, I felt like it was inventive just to be different. It seemed more screenplay than actual novel. And I thought Saunders included some crass stuff just for shock value. So do I recommend it? It totally depends on the person. I think those who have studied history would be especially interested in this.

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly – I picked this book up at a consignment sale and decided to read it before I passed it on to my kids. It’s a middle grade novel, and I think a little beyond what my daughter would enjoy at the moment (she’s 8 1/2 and doesn’t love books that are difficult for her). I loved the story of Calpurnia, who is 11 in the year 1899. She loves science and begins studying the land and species around her plantation home with her grandfather. It’s a great story of a girl who doesn’t feel like she fits into the right mold; Callie Vee doesn’t want to learn cooking, piano, or cleaning – she wants to dig in the mud. A great view into the turn of the twentieth century.

For the Love by Jen Hatmaker – I think Jen Hatmaker’s mix of truth-telling with flat-out funny is a breath of fresh air in “religious” writing. I love her heart, and I enjoyed listening to this on audio. (Except the recipes. It’s impossible to enjoy recipes read aloud.)

My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry by Frederick Backman – I’m not sure I have the right words for this book. I love Backman as a writer; here, he nails a precocious 7-year-old instead of an elderly humbug. But the element in this story of relating fairy tales Elsa’s grandma used to tell her with the real people she lives around lost me a little bit. I kind of wish the entire fairy tale had been told at the beginning and then Backman had dealt with the rest of the novel. It felt a little disjointed to me. I still don’t think I completely got where he was going there, although that might be a cultural/language issue.

Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout – This is the third book Anne Bogel recommended to me when I was on her podcast, What Should I Read Next? It didn’t come out until April, though, and I managed to get it from the library in late May. I’ve been bogged down in Middlemarch for most of May, but I took a break to read AIP, and I am so glad I did! It’s a collection of stories taking place in Lucy Barton‘s small Midwestern hometown. Lucy is mentioned in many of the stories but only appears for one. Strout spins such beautiful tales, and these stories utterly captured me. I give it 4.5 stars, only because I didn’t feel like this will be an all-time favorite or be life-changing, but I did race through it in two sittings. It is great writing, and an excellent read.

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What have you been reading lately? Anything you would recommend?

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What I Read: March 2017

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Why hello there, little blog. It’s been awhile. Having a baby, a preschooler, and two elementary-school kids seems to be a lot of work and a lot of time in the car. For now, I’ll do what I can when I can! And I do enjoy putting together my book reviews here.

Here are the books I finished in March.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead – I felt like this novel of slavery earned all of its accolades. In vivid imagery of heartbreaking scenes, Whitehead leads you through the escape from slavery of Cora, a young woman whose mother was famed for having successfully run away without a trace when Cora herself was a child. While there aren’t really any likable characters in this bunch, I still feel like you feel the hearts of the characters and start to understand them. While Whitehead inserts imaginative elements into his story (the Underground Railroad is an actual railroad here), it brings light to the cruelest elements of slavery in a very realistic fashion. I gave it 5 stars.

44 Scotland Street by Alexander McCall Smith – You might have heard Anne Bogel recommend this to me on my episode of What Should I Read Next?, which aired in mid-March. (It was so exciting!!) This book was published as newspaper columns, so the chapters are very short and fun. I enjoyed several of the vibrant characters, but wasn’t enchanted with the main character, Pat. There are quite a few books in the series now, though, and I’d like to see where the author goes with his motley crew.

(I read Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe soon after I recorded the podcast with Anne. And I ADORED it. There’s so much more to it than the movie, as much as I love that film. Again, 5 stars.)

The School for Good and Evil by Soman Chainani – I listened to this on audio via Hoopla. The fantasy novel drops Sophie and Agatha into a place that only existed in their myths: the School for Good and Evil, where students are taught to take part in a fairy tale in the future. It’s a quirky book, maybe dragged a little, but it would make an excellent movie. (And I did see the film rights were purchased, but I don’t think that necessarily means anything.) The author tried to tackle a lot: creating a new world, the dichotomy of good and evil, friendship, beauty … Some parts worked well and some parts lost me. But I did get caught up in the story and will likely read the sequels.

Desperate: Hope for the Mom Who Needs to Breathe by Sarah Mae and Sally Clarkson – This seemed like a good book to tackle while I was sitting and nursing the last couple months. It was interesting. I do really appreciate Sally Clarkson’s words and wisdom, although sometimes it seems like “pray and try harder” is the message given here. (Not that I am discounting prayer. At all.) As a depressed mama who feels desperate way too often, this just didn’t hit home for me.

Four Winds by Lisa T. Bergren – The follow-up to Three Wishes finds Zara, a modern woman from California, still stuck in 1840 Alta California, still a part of Mexico. She’s happy to be with Javier and his family … but quickly the tides turn and Zara is kidnapped by pirates and fighting just to stay alive in a land where she can’t wear pants. Even though the setting is different, the story felt very reminiscent of Cascade, the second book in Bergren’s original River of Time series. I couldn’t seem to get as attached to this set of characters.

A Taste of Heaven by Penny Watson – I came across this novella on Amazon; it was suggested as something I might like because of another book I read. I saw Watson is self-published and well-reviewed, and I thought for $3 I’d give her a try. She is a really, really excellent writer and I loved the main part of the story: a widow’s daughters force her to enter a cooking competition show. I can’t resist some good food fiction (or memoir). I didn’t realize, though, that this is a full-on romance novel with “romance” scenes that were way too much for me. I ended up skimming and skipping quite a few pages. So I read the whole thing, minus those pages, and I mostly enjoyed it. But I will probably shy away from the author’s other books, because, for multiple reasons, I don’t read explicit romance novels. (LOTS of salty language here, too, although that is much less likely to turn me off a book.)

Circle of Quiet by Madeleine L’Engle – This is one of the few books I started reading and immediately wished I had bought it instead of borrowed from the library. We don’t own a ton of books due to space constraints (and lack of rereading), but I NEED to own this memoir from L’Engle. I’ve actually never read anything by her, not even A Wrinkle in Time, but this little book is a memoir about writing, mothering, work, faith, small-town living, and more. I am 100% going to buy it and the rest of the series so I can highlight them up and return to them again and again.

Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer Niven – I wasn’t sure I was brave enough to read another Niven novel after All the Bright Places totally tortured me. (My review here.) Thankfully, this novel is less soul-crushing but just as well-written. It tells the story of Libby, once known as the Fattest Teen in America, and Jack, who has a face-recognition disease. Despite these characterizing quirks, Niven gives them interesting personalities outside their issues. This was a fun, fast read with several issues to think on.

I have found, though, that reading YA gets me dwelling on my own high-school experience. Which was mostly not that great, although it definitely had good points. I just had so little confidence it’s difficult for me to look back on those times, and some events still haunt me (and it has been over 20 years since I started high school – holy moly). I’m wondering if it’s wise for me to keep reading YA. I don’t know. Does it seem to affect you?

So that was my March reading. Happy to have finished so many great books! How about you?

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