What I Read in January

Jan 31, 2018

So, like I said in my previous post, my plan this year is to write monthly recap posts of the books I've finished rather than long, single reviews. I have to admit though, it's rather embarrassing to have it be so blatantly obvious that I only read three books this month. I can do better than that, but here they are nonetheless.

1. Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger
This was our first book club pick for 2018 (I mentioned in my last post that my book club votes between three books for each month, so in case you're wondering, the other recommendations for January were When Crickets Cry by Charles Martin and Winter Garden by Kristin Hannah).

I listened to this on our recent road trip to Arizona, and it was nice to be able to devote a chunk of time to it because I couldn't stop listening. The story is told by Frank Drum, and it's his recounting of what happened during the summer of 1961 forty years before when he was thirteen years old. He begins by saying that the summer brought with it many deaths (there was some debate at book club about how many he said and which ones counted in that tally), but one of the deaths is particularly personal and tragic, and the rest of the novel is crafted a bit like a mystery, trying to put the events leading up to it in chronological order and identify possible suspects.

But it's also just about Frankie himself because that summer changed him and made him grow up in a hurry. I mentioned at book club that my favorite relationship in the book was the one between Frankie and his younger brother, Jake. One of my friends said, "Oh, so you like mean older brothers?" And it's true that Frankie does and says a lot of stupid things to Jake, but I guess it felt realistic to me, and underneath it all, I could see that their friendship and love for one another ran deep.

I will caution that the content on this one is a bit dark (it involves a murder), and there is some language as well as immorality (although not explicit). But overall, I found the story to be redemptive, and it made for an easy and thought-provoking discussion at book club.

2. Brighty of the Grand Canyon by Marguerite Henry
It gives me a strange kind of rush to find the perfect book for a trip or holiday or even just a time of life. So you can imagine how happy I was when my sister-in-law, upon hearing that we would be making a stop at the Grand Canyon on our way to see friends in Phoenix, said that we should read Brighty of the Grand Canyon before we went.

It couldn't have been more perfect. I had never been to the Grand Canyon, but as we read, I felt like I could see the warm colors of the canyon and sense the rocky trail beneath my feet and feel the cold wind whipping around the rim. And then, we were there, and it was exactly as I pictured it--so much so that I half expected to see a little gray burro making his way up the canyon wall (and then, by lucky chance, we actually did see a mule caravan crest the top of the rim and parade past us, which was pretty amazing). It was absolutely magical for me, and I think it was for my kids as well.

But even if we hadn't been able to go from the pages in a book to real life natural wonder, we would have still enjoyed this story immensely. It begins with a murder, which made me nervous (I was reading it to my kids, after all!), but it was not graphic, and it was very fulfilling to see the murderer get his due at the end.

Most impressive to me was the way Marguerite Henry cast Brighty as the main character and kept the story interesting while still maintaining Brighty's authenticity as a donkey (in other words, not giving him a lot of human characteristics to help keep up the pace). Everyone, even three-year-old Clark, fell in love with Brighty, and we were all sad for the book to come to an end.

3. Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan
I decided to listen to this one, rather than read it, because the audio version had garnered such high praise from listeners and critics alike (including an Odyssey Honor, which is given to outstanding audio productions).

The story is multi-layered, beginning with Otto Messenger, who accidentally stumbles into three sisters who are trapped in this world because of a curse. They claim that his harmonica is the key to freeing them to return home. The story (and the harmonica) then travel to Friedrich in Germany in 1933, Mike in Pennsylvania in 1935, and Ivy in California in 1942. Each time, it brings light and hope when things feel desperately dismal and scary. And eventually, it ends up in just the right place, at just the right time, and, click, a door is opened.

For the most part, this is a historical fiction novel, but it has just one teeny tiny magical element, and that made me feel a little off balance but in the most delightful way. Friedrich, Mike, and Ivy are talented and courageous and unique. I found myself feeling sad as each story ended only to be excited as I became immersed in the new story. And then the ending tied everything together in a really beautiful way.

Oh, and the audio was definitely the way to go on this one: different narrators for each story and lots of music throughout, which, for a book all about the magic of one harmonica, seemed absolutely perfect.

Did you read anything good this month? Tell me!

2018 Reading Goals

Jan 26, 2018

Over the last several months, I've been collecting and rejecting and deciding between and whittling down my list of reading goals for 2018. But I think I'm finally there. And I'm excited. This is going to be a good reading year.

But first, just a couple of goal/blog-related notes. I did make a numbers goal this year, but mostly just because I like to watch the tracker tick up on Goodreads. I went with 52 books because it was a good middle-of-the-road number. It's not so intense that I'll feel like I can't do anything else except read, but it also won't let me be lazy.

The other thing I wanted to mention is that I'm changing the way I do book reviews this year. I'm planning to do monthly recap posts, similar to Suzanne's, rather than full reviews. When I started this blog, it was because I had so much to say after finishing a book, and I needed a place to get it all out. But lately, writing reviews has felt more like something I have to do rather than something I get to do. And for something that's a hobby, that seems silly. So I'm going to keep my thoughts short and only write longer posts when I feel compelled to do so--like in the old days.

And now, let's get to those aforementioned goals:

1. Read the 2018 Newbery winner
I made this same goal last year (but with the 2017 winner, of course). I loved the suspense element of it--making the goal and not even knowing for several weeks which book I was going to be reading. This year, the ALA awards will be announced on February 12th. I was not good about reading new releases last year, and so I don't think there's any chance I've already read the winner (unless it's a picture book, like it was in 2016, in which case I'll read one of the honors).

2. Read A Rambler Steals Home and Zinnia and the Bees
This probably seems like a somewhat randomly specific goal, and I guess it is, but I have my reasons. Two of my Instagram acquaintances (Carter Higgins and Danielle Davis) had middle grade books come out last year (hint: those two, up there). All last year, I wanted to read them, but I didn't make the time, so I'm prioritizing them this year. (Plus, Zinnia and the Bees is about knitting and yarn bombing, so I pretty much already love it.)

3. Read something by Virginia Woolf
I've never read anything by her, and, I'll admit, this seems like a terrible oversight on my part. I know everyone reads A Room of One's Own, but recently, I heard a guest on What Should I Read Next talk about To the Lighthouse, and it piqued my interest. Then, a few weeks later, on another podcast, the guest mentioned writing her dissertation about knitting in literature (yes, really), and she mentioned that most of her dissertation focused on To the Lighthouse, so I'm guessing knitting must play a little role in the story, and, of course, that intrigues me, too.

4. Read three older (pre-1970) young adult novels
I'm still on the hunt for clean, endearing, well-written YA novels, but this year I've decided to narrow my focus a bit. I remember a lot of the YA novels I loved as a teenager were written well before my birth, but instead of not being able to relate to them, I loved them all the more for their old-fashioned charm. For this goal, I may revisit some of those favorites (ones like Fifteen by Beverly Cleary, Pick a New Dream by Lenora Mattingly Weber, or Betsy Was a Junior by Maud Hart Lovelace) or I may try some new-to-me titles. You all had so many YA recommendations last year, so I'm hoping you can think of some good ones that were written before 1970 to recommend to me this year!

5. Read the three books I recommended for book club this year
In my book club, we focus on a different genre each month (January is Adult Fiction, February is Love/Relationships, March is Memoir, etc.). A few weeks before the new year, the months get divided up between the members. Then we all meet together, and each person brings three possible titles for her month. She shares a brief summary of each one, and then we vote for which one we want to read as a group. This year, I signed up for September, which is non-fiction. The three titles I recommended were Dead Wake: the Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson, Walkable City by Jeff Speck, and The Four Tendencies by Gretchen Rubin. The Four Tendencies won the book club vote, so that's what we'll be reading, but I'm dying to read the other two as well, so I'm going to do it.

6. Read a classic I own
I mentioned this goal in the most recent episode of The Book Blab. I've been collecting the Penguin clothbound hardcovers because they're just so gorgeous, and I love the way they look on my shelf. However, I'm a firm believer that the books in my home should be ones I have read and, for the most part, loved (and a pretty edition is a great reason to love a book). Right now, I have three books in this collection that I've never read: Villette, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and Wuthering Heights (all Bronte sisters classics). I want to read at least one of them this year (or maybe all three, but I'm trying to be realistic). At this point, I'm leaning towards Wuthering Heights even though I probably won't like it, but it's so well known that I'd at least like to have my own opinion of it when other readers are talking about it.

7. Read three books from Honey for a Child's Heart
After I read Honey for a Child's Heart a couple of years ago, I got my own copy because I wanted to use it for a reference. And how many times since then have I flipped through it for ideas for reading material for my kids? Maybe once. But I still believe that it's a great resource, so this year, I'm going to consult it and choose three books to read from it--either as readalouds to my kids or as books I'll read along with them.

8. Read Simplicity Parenting or No-Drama Discipline
These are two parenting books I've been wanting to read, and I think it's good for me to read at least one parenting book every year. If any of you have read either of these and have an opinion to share, please do so. Or if you know of a different parenting book I should read instead, tell me. I could be persuaded to alter this goal.

9. Read a book by Clara Parkes
I don't expect most people who read this blog to know who Clara Parkes is. She writes knitting books. But she's rather unique in her writing because, unlike most books about knitting, her books are not full of patterns but are rather in-depth views of different aspects of the craft: things like wool or yarn or what knitting looks like all over the world. But the books I'm probably most interested in are the ones filled with her personal thoughts on knitting and the impact knitting has had on her life. This will be one of my fun goals, one where I combine two of my favorite things: reading and knitting.

10. Read snippets from my favorite books on at least one Sunday each month
I'm pretty picky with the books I choose to own, and so most of the books on my shelves are ones I truly love and want to reread. However, sometimes it can feel like a big time commitment to reread an entire book when there are so many books I haven't read yet. But no one is forcing me to reread the whole book. I can just pick one up and start anywhere and stop anywhere and skip around. That's the beauty of reading something I've already read. And so this year, I'm going to do just that: fiction, nonfiction, old, new, I'm going to pick up the books I love and spend some non-structured time in them. And I think I'm going to love it.

This might just be my favorite list of goals yet. I can't wait to get started (and since January is almost over, I can't afford to wait any longer). Which goals should I tackle first?

Reading Goals: The End

Jan 16, 2018

I usually try to get this post up during the last week of the year, but at that time, I was busy making a 2018 calendar, writing up some memories for my family's blog, and just generally having a fun, relaxing week. Oh, and also finishing up a book for one of my goals. As usual, I was cutting it close, but I made it. Take a look (titles are linked to full reviews):

1. Read two books about childbirth 
Ian was born in April, so I made sure to prioritize this goal early in the year. I read Baby Catcher by Peggy Vincent (January 2017) and The Gift of Giving Life (April 2017). Both were fantastic and skyrocketed to the top of my list of must-recommend childbirth books (what? you don't have such a list?). I loved the way they helped me prepare in different, but essential, ways.

2. Read three books with Maxwell and three books with Aaron
Bradley joined in with this goal, so it wasn't a strict three with Aaron and a strict three with Maxwell, but I thoroughly enjoyed reading some of the same books as my kids. Here's a list of what we read (these were not readalouds):
3. Read Rose in Bloom by Louisa May Alcott and The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery
I finally finished Rose in Bloom (October 2017) after listening to it for literally half of the year. There's no reason it should have taken me so many months (it's not a long book). I just couldn't get into it at all. The Blue Castle (September 2017) was the exact opposite. Sweet, funny, and entertaining, I enjoyed every page of it and would read it again in a heartbeat.

4. Read a book about slow, conscientious living
I read The Year of Living Danishly (November 2017). My feelings were very polarized with this one: the parts I liked, I really liked; and the parts I didn't like, I really didn't like. But ultimately, I would say reading it achieved my objective, which was to learn more about slow, conscientious living, but more importantly, find ways to personally put these things into practice. 

5. Start a new mystery series and read another mystery by Agatha Christie
My plan was to read both mysteries in October, but I ended up only reading one--The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (October 2017)--at that time. That left me scrambling for a mystery to read at the end of December. I finally settled on Death at Wentwater Court (December 2017), and it was surprisingly appropriate for the season (the murder allegedly happens on a frozen lake). I made this goal purely for fun, and that's exactly what it ended up being.

6. Read Home Comforts by Cheryl Mendelssohn throughout the year Read a book about cleaning
I began this goal with enthusiasm (and even wrote what I thought was going to be the first in a series of posts about it, but ended up being the only one). I became discouraged when, after reading for many pages and several hours, my only takeaway was that I needed to have a three-course dinner with real china and cloth napkins every night (totally not realistic for our family at this time). It was not an easy decision to give up on this goal (I hate admitting defeat), but I think it ended up being the right decision, especially since the book I replaced it with was How to Manage Your Home Without Losing Your Mind (November 2017), and it was a million times more applicable. (Although I will say that Home Comforts inspired one positive change, which was that we implemented a family Saturday cleaning schedule back in February, and it stuck for the entire year.)

7. Read a parenting book
A few years ago, I read Boys Adrift by Leonard Sax. I ended up loving it so much that I read it twice within the same year. Dr. Sax's candid look at the problems faced by today's boys made so much sense to me and gave me hope as I try to raise my own sons. (At the time, I only had three sons. Now, with five, it's even more relevant, so I need to reread it.) His latest book, The Collapse of Parenting, came out in 2015 and was immediately on my to-read list. But after a year went by and I hadn't yet read it, I knew I needed to make it a priority. I read it over the course of several months and found  the same blunt assessment I've come to expect from Dr. Sax with some really practical tools for how to combat some of our current problems. One of my big takeaways was that I need to have fun with my kids and enjoy spending time with them, and I'm really working to make that a big part of 2018.

8. Read two Young Adult novels
I tried, guys, I really did. I ended up reading six books that could be considered young adult (which I'm defining as 14+).

Out of all of those, the only one I'd actively recommend is The Blue Castle. They were all clean though (although I was a little nervous about The Unlikely Romance of Kate Bjorkman--there's a little bit of language in that one), and I was grateful for that. 

I'm still trying to figure out how I'm going to approach this goal for 2018 because I'm still on the lookout for high quality, worthwhile, redeeming YA reads.

9. Read the 2017 Newbery winner
The 2017 winner was The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill. I listened to it in May and enjoyed every word of it.

10. Read Glimpses into the Life and Heart of Marjorie Pay Hinckley
I started this book in January and finished it in December, which was exactly how I wanted it to happen. I loved having Marjorie Pay Hinckley be my guide and mentor through all of 2017.

And that's a wrap on my 2017 reading goals. Stay tuned for my 2018 goals.

The Book Blab Episode 16: On Reading Classics Plus Two of Our Favorite Books from 2017

Jan 9, 2018

I still haven't finalized my reading goals for 2018 (but don't worry, they're coming), but I plan to include at least one goal that involves reading a classic. It's not that I don't like reading classics, but sometimes I need a little push to get myself to choose to read one over something that would take a little less brain power.

If you're also hoping to up your reading game this year and read more classics, then this episode of The Book Blab is just for you. We tackle all sorts of issues, like what makes classics intimidating and how to get past that and just read them. Luckily, Suzanne knows a lot more about classic literature than I do (and is extremely well read), so I think you'll enjoy this conversation.

And, as always, please chime in with your thoughts and opinions, as well as any future topics you'd like for us to discuss, in the comments below.

1:35 - Today's topic: the whats, whys, and hows of reading a classic
3:12 - What is a classic?
5:15 - How long does it take for something to become a classic?
7:55 - What are some of the sub-genres of classic literature?
10:10 - Suzanne's favorite classic genres
13:10 - A few ideas for making classics more accessible

  • 13:35 - Discuss it with a friend/group
  • 14:18 - Read outside material
  • 16:00 - Watch adaptations
  • 18:00 - Audiobooks
21:12 - Many classics are surprisingly readable
23:15 - A few possible reading goals involving classics
28:00 - Some of our favorite classics
31:15 - Two of our favorite reads from 2017
  • 32:05 - Suzanne's recommendation
  • 33:40 - Amy's recommendation
37:00 - Conclusion

Tell us about your experiences with reading classics, and please share some of your favorites!

Books and links mentioned during the show:

Episode 3 of The Book Blab: Reading Goals
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling (Amy's review)
A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett
What Should I Read Next podcast, Episode 112 with Laura Vanderkam
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (Suzanne's review)
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (Suzanne's review // Amy's review)
East of Eden by John Steinbeck (Amy's review)
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (Suzanne's review
Rules of Civility by Amor Towles (Suzanne's review // Amy's review)
Duck! Rabbit! by Amy Krouse Rosenthal
Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal by Amy Krouse Rosenthal (Suzanne's review // Amy's review)

A Whole Batch of Mini-Reviews

Jan 5, 2018

Desperate times call for desperate measures. Here we are, well into January already, and I still haven't reviewed seven of the books I read in 2017. So I'm lumping them all together in one big post and just sharing a few brief thoughts rather than long rambling opinions.

1. Abel's Island by William Steig
Max received this book for the summer reading program and agreed to let me read it, too. 

Amanda and Abel are mice--but very sophisticated and refined mice. One day, they decide to go on a picnic in the woods. It is during the first year of their marriage, and they are still beautifully in love. Their sunny picnic takes a tragic turn when a fierce storm comes up and they're forced to find shelter. Amanda's scarf gets whipped away by the wind, and Abel, being the noble husband he is, rushes to save it and is consequently blown away by the gale. The rest of the book is a detailed account of how Abel, born and bread a city mouse, learns to survive in the wilderness and fight his way back to his beloved Amanda.

This story had a dry wit and lofty condescension I absolutely adored. I would have been happy if it had been twice as long just so I could indulge in the writing a bit more. A couple of favorite examples:
"The state of his clothes disturbed him. Damp and lumpy, they no longer had style."
"Abel allowed the compliment to stand. Looking at his own opus, he saw no reason to pretend modesty."
We haven't read all of William Steig's books, but all of the ones we've read have been winners.

2. Death at Wentwater Court by Carola Dunn
When I mentioned that I wanted to try a new mystery series as part of my 2017 reading goals, Beth recommended the Daisy Dalrymple series, and I immediately put it on my list. But then a Lord Peter Whimsy mystery went on a great Kindle sale, and Anne Bogel had said you could read that series in any order, so I was just planning on reading that one for my new mystery series.

But then (this is all getting very dramatic), it was mid-December, and I thought I better get started on that mystery. I opened it up and realized (for the first time) that it was 500 pages. And I realized there was no way that was going to happen before the end of the year. So I went back to Daisy Dalrymple, which clocked in at a blessed 250 pages and the audio was available for immediate download on Overdrive, so I went for it.

And I liked it. It was pretty much exactly what I like from a mystery: not too graphic, with likeable characters and the murderer being not too obvious but also not too not obvious (if you know what I mean). In this one, it also helped that the person killed was pretty horrid and despicable, which made you not feel too bad about him being dead.

My one complaint (and this is a sad one) is that I didn't love Daisy Dalrymple. I kind of felt like she was always in the way and maybe begging (whining?) a little too much about helping with the case. I mean, she was the main character and all, so she had to get in on the action somehow, but she grated on me just a bit, but not enough to make me stay away from the rest of this series.

3. The Collapse of Parenting: How We Hurt Our Kids When We Treat Them Like Grown-Ups by Leonard Sax
You want to hear one of my pet peeves? When moms say, "My daughter is my BFF!" I know they mean it in the very best way, as in, "I love my daughter so much, I would rather be with her than any other friend!" That's great, and I believe the relationship can eventually get to that point. But I really think when your daughter is eight is not the best time to be her best friend. (Or maybe I just have a giant chip on my shoulder because I don't have a daughter to be best friends with.)

But I think Dr. Sax would back me up on this one. I could write an entire blog post about this book, no problem. It's a frank, candid discussion about what is causing the culture of disrespect (as well as a host of other problems) in today's teens and young adults, and one of the causes is that parents are trying to be their kids' peers instead of their parents, and so their kids are looking for advice from their actual peers instead of their parents. And that's a big problem because, believe it or not, teenagers actually don't know everything.

The thing  I loved about this book though was that Dr. Sax didn't just focus on the problems but also gave three concrete solutions, which I'll share here. What do parents need to do to raise confident, kind, and respectful adults?
  1. Teach humility
  2. Enjoy spending time together (which might sound like it runs counter to the "your child is not your best friend" rant, but I promise it doesn't)
  3. Help them find the meaning of life
That's it. It's more of a big picture parenting book than "tips for dealing with tantrums," but I found it really enlightening and empowering.

Oh this book. I'm embarrassed to even tell you that I read it. But someone had mentioned it on Instagram as a favorite holiday read, and I basically hadn't read any seasonal books in all of December (except to my kids), and it was a young adult novel (which I'd been trying to read more of this year for research's sake), and it was available for immediate download on my kindle, so . . . I picked it up.

And then thirty pages in, I almost put it down because it was just so stupid and I couldn't handle it. (I mean, her best friend is the stereotypical gorgeous, popular girl who gets all the boys and is so rude and expects her to just be a little sidekick until they happen to be interested in the same boy at which point she turns completely nasty. Ugh. So unoriginal and stifling.)

But I ended up finishing it because it was short and took place during Christmastime, which was fun. The one thing that redeemed it for me was that I didn't hate the writing. Kate Bjorkman has decided to write a novel about her Christmas romance, and this book is the rough draft with revisions and funny side notes and very stream of conscious writing. I actually thought it was pretty clever, so I'll give it a few points for creativity while admitting that the actual plot was rather shallow and silly.

5. The Forgotten Carols by Michael McLean
Some families do an annual reading of A Christmas Carol or The Gift of the Magi. In my family, my dad always read The Forgotten Carols to us--a sweet story about an old man who shares his memories of Christmases past through a collection of forgotten Christmas carols.

I have such fond memories of listening to my dad read to us while traveling in the car, always pausing to listen to the appropriate songs as they came up in the story. 

Since moving away from home, I hadn't read the story again, but this year, I finally decided to introduce the tradition to my kids.

I'm not sure if we'll read it every Christmas (my guess is, probably not because I have so many books I want to read to them), but it brought back great memories for me. I found myself reading sentences with the same inflections and emphases as my dad, and it kind of felt like things had come full circle.

6. Sisters by Raina Telgemeier
I thought I was going to need one more quick read in order to meet my numbers goal for the year. As it was, I ended up being fine, but I was grateful for the excuse to read this book.

Picking up soon after her first memoir, Smile, left off, Raina shares her experience of a summer road trip with her family. It's filled with sibling rivalries, the hurt of not fitting in, and a little glimpse of her parents' marital problems.

Raina's books are a brilliant combination of text, illustrations, and perfect layouts. Truly, she's a master at this. One of my favorite spreads is when Raina is falling through space in a dream, wishing all of her family's problems would go away. She says, "Maybe if I wish hard enough, this will all be a dream . . . A dream where someone is going to put their arms around me and tell me . . . " [and then it flashes back to reality in a simple rectangle where they're all in a family hug] "'It's going to be okay.'"

My kids need no pushing or encouraging when it comes to graphic novels. If they see one, they pick it up and read it. So I wasn't reading this book for more than ten minutes before Aaron was trying to steal it from me. Luckily, it's totally appropriate, and I even felt comfortable letting Bradley (age 6) read it, which he promptly did.

7. Glimpses into the Life of Heart of Marjorie Pay Hinckley by Virginia H. Pearce
I spent the entire year reading this book, which was my intention. My focus for the year was to channel my inner Marjorie Pay Hinckley. I wanted to figure out how she got to be who she was and how I could be more like her.

This book was like a drink of cool water. I would dip into it for a couple pages and come away feeling invigorated and inspired. She truly was a remarkable woman who touched the lives of thousands.

I still want to be like her, but reading this book made me realize I'm not her, and I never will be. We have different strengths and weaknesses, and our personalities are unique. That's okay. It was an interesting realization to me--that as much as I might want to be someone else, I am and always will be me. Marjorie Hinckley is a kind of mentor or hero for me. I want to take what I learned about her and apply it to who I am to make me who I want to be.

I think she would approve.

Which books did you finish off 2017 with?
Proudly designed by Mlekoshi playground