Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

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Reading is my oldest and favorite hobby.  I literally can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t love to curl up with a good book.  Here are my reads for February, 2017

pomfret-towersPomfret Towers (Barsetshire #6), by Angela Thirkell – Continuing with my recent binge on comfort books, I had to include a visit to Angela Thirkell’s Barsetshire.  (I’d have liked to squeeze in Trollope’s version of the county, too, but no time.)  In this installment, Lord Pomfret – one of the region’s preeminent aristocrats – is giving a weekend party at Pomfret Towers, in honor of his wife’s temporary return to England (Lady Pomfret is usually in Italy for her health).  Among the invited guests are Guy Barton, son of a prominent and wealthy local architect, and Guy’s painfully shy sister Alice.  Alice is the focal point of the story, and her blossoming under the kind attentions of her hosts – even the gruff and proudly rude Lord Pomfret seems to adore her – is a delight to witness.  Also present are Mrs. Rivers, a popular and prolific – if tone-deaf and obnoxious – romance writer and her two children, self-centered artist Julian and freewheeling Phoebe; Guy and Alice’s friends Roddy and Sally Wicklow; and Mr. Foster, Lord Pomfret’s likely heir.  Lady Pomfret and Mrs. Rivers both attempt to “matchmake” for Mr. Foster, Alice fancies herself in love with Julian, Guy and Phoebe share a mutual attraction, and everyone eats lots of delicious food and has a delightful time.  Loved it.

mom-me-momMom & Me & Mom, by Maya Angelou – Having read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in high school, I somehow only recently discovered that Maya Angelou wrote a stack of other memoirs.  Mom & Me & Mom was one, and it was powerful and joyful.  Opening in Angelou’s early childhood, during which she was raised by her grandmother, Angelou discusses returning to her mother’s side at age 13 and spending her adolescence in San Francisco, living with a mother she barely knew.  Angelou’s relationship with her mother, whom she calls “Lady,” is – of course – the focal point of the book, and it’s beautiful to watch her love for, and trust in, Lady blossom and grow over time.  Lady, for her part, explains that she is a terrible mother to young children but a great one to young (and not-so-young) adults, and that does seem to be the case.  From a foundation of mistrust and resentment, a beautiful mother-daughter relationship blooms.

we-love-you-charlieWe Love You, Charlie Freeman, by Kaitlyn Greenidge – The Freeman family is proud and honored to have been selected as part of an experiment at the Toneybee Institute, a scientific foundation studying the communication of apes and other primates.  The Freemans will leave their home, move into the institute, and live in an apartment there with Charlie, a young chimp who was abandoned by his mother.  The purpose of the experiment is for the Freemans – who all speak sign language – to teach Charlie to sign, and to fold him into their family and overcome his feelings of abandonment, first by his mother and then by various institute staff as they turn over in the normal course of business.  Soon the stress of the experiment begins to overwhelm the family, who all deal with their emotions in various – mostly unhealthy – ways, and what was a close family starts to unravel.  Against this backdrop, teenaged daughter Charlotte – the main protagonist – discovers some unsettling facts about the early history of the Toneybee and its racist beginnings.  The novel, on the surface about the undoing of a family, is an interesting allegory about – as the jacket copy describes it – America’s failure to find a language in which to talk about race.  So, I liked this.  It was well-written and thoughtful.  I found it hard to connect to the plot, though, and couldn’t love it – that’s probably my own thing, since this book is getting raves from everyone else.  “Undoing of a family” stories aren’t really my jam, and that ultimately couldn’t overcome my interest in reading a story about the language of conversations about race – but it’s a book very worth reading, and I do recommend it.

you-cant-touch-my-hairYou Can’t Touch My Hair: And Other Things I Still Have to Explain, by Phoebe Robinson – Robinson is a stand-up comedienne, a podcast maven, an all-around hilarious lady, and a black woman.  In this memoir, she describes her experiences and encounters with race during her childhood and young adulthood – and she folds quite a lot of thought-provoking introspection and wisdom in with some truly hilarious material.  Whether describing the hours she spent sitting on the kitchen chair while her mother took pains over her with a hot comb so Robinson wouldn’t “go to school looking like Frederick Douglass,” or recounting awkward encounters with tone-deaf white people’s unconscious racism, Robinson is real, and thoughtful, and smart – as well as funny.  I’ve long been a fan of stand-up as a way to tell truths about our current society, where we need to go and how we need to get there – in a light-hearted but intelligent way, and Robinson seems like a comic that I’d really love.  You Can’t Touch My Hair was an uncomfortable read at times, but should be required reading as it takes on big issues and pulls no punches while doing so.

emily-of-new-moonEmily of New Moon (Emily #1), by Lucy Maud Montgomery – I won’t get too into detail here, as you’ve already read my thoughts about re-reading my childhood favorite book here.  Suffice it to say, I’d been long looking for an excuse to dive back into Emily Byrd Starr’s world of Blair Water, PEI, and I’m beyond grateful to Naomi for providing the perfect opportunity with her #ReadingEmily event.  The Emily books are, for the most part, darker than their better-known cousins, the Anne of Green Gables series, but I love them all the more for it.  Emily is a strong, confident character, touched by deep tragedy but never abandoning her love of wild beauty or her writing ambitions.  She begins the story bereft, losing her beloved Father, but gradually time heals her wounds and she grows into herself, nurtured by kind Aunt Laura, understanding Cousin Jimmy, and even strict Aunt Elizabeth at New Moon Farm.  #ReadingEmily is continuing in March with the next book in the trilogy, Emily Climbs, and I will certainly be continuing on as well – now that I’ve been back to Emily’s world for the first time in five years, I’m remembering how much I have always loved it there.

frederick-douglassNarrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, by Frederick Douglass – I’d been meaning to read this classic for awhile, and had been eyeing it as a perfect pick for Black History Month, when a certain tone-deaf and evidently uneducated world leader (#notmypresident) referenced Douglass in a manner that suggested he had no idea who Douglass actually was.  (Has been doing a very good job?  Getting recognized more and more?  Are you KIDDING ME?)  Since reading is apparently how I #resist, my first stop on the internet, after reading that embarrassment, was my library website to put Douglass’s memoir on hold.  It came in shortly thereafter, and I blazed through the slim but incredibly powerful volume.  As expected, it’s far from an easy read – the events it recounts are nothing short of horrifying.  Douglass’s powerful voice comes across in a ringing attack on the very system of slavery – I can only imagine how astonishing he must have been as a speaker.  If I was to create a list of books that I think should be required reading for all Americans, this would have to be on it.

19841984, by George Orwell – Another one I added to my library holds after seeing it in the news, dystopian novel 1984 started trending – actually selling out on Amazon – thanks to Kellyanne Conway and Sean Spicer and their “alternative facts,” which seemed right out of the regime of Big Brother.  Orwell’s classic focuses on Winston Smith, a 39-year-old bureaucrat in the superstate of Oceana.  Winston works at the Ministry of Truth, which is concerned with “rectifying” publications so that they reflect the desired standpoints of the ruling elite – whatever those happen to be at the moment – and in the process, obliterating history and memory.  Big Brother, the unseen leader of the regime, is always watching through mandatory “telescreens,” which are everywhere.  Love, sensuality, memory, and any questioning of authority are prohibited acts of “thoughtcrime.”  I read Orwell’s other well-known dystopia, Animal Farm, in high school, but had never made it to 1984, so I jumped on the bandwagon with everyone else and read it this month.  It was distressing, upsetting, engaging and frighteningly relevant to today’s political climate.

Seven books in February is darn decent, I think, especially when you consider the grueling work schedule with which I’ve been contending all month.  I’m pleased that four of those books were written by African-American authors – a good showing for Black History Month, which I always like to observe in my reading!  The other reading highlight of the month was having an excuse to dust off Emily of New Moon for Naomi’s #ReadingEmily event.  The event is continuing in March and April, so expect to see Emily Climbs on here next month – along with lots more library goodness, because my willpower in the face of library holds continues as poor as ever.

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Reading Round-Up Header

Reading is my oldest and favorite hobby.  I literally can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t love to curl up with a good book.  Here are my reads for January, 2017

simplifySimplify: Seven Basic Principles to Help Anyone Declutter Their Home and Life, by Joshua Becker – Has there ever been a more New Years-y book to start off a year?  This was hanging out half-finished on my kindle, so I polished it off on the first day of the year.  Inspiring, for sure, as Steve and I begin a year-long quest to purge and declutter.  But a little short on specific tips and pointers.



the-wangs-vs-the-worldThe Wangs vs. The World, by Jade Chang – This debut novel, about a Chinese-American businessman who loses his fortune in the Great Recession, and how his family handles the loss, was one of the big buzz novels of 2016.  I enjoyed it, although not as much as I expected.  It took me awhile to warm up to the characters, and while I finished the novel liking the kids, I didn’t really feel connected to any of the characters.  I also spent a lot of my time scratching my head and trying to understand how Charles Wang could have lost all of his millions and all of his holdings in one stroke of a pen.  Didn’t he have financial advisors?  Wasn’t he diversified?  I get the point that he took a big risk and it didn’t pan out, but the plot just rang sort of false to me.


mr-churchills-secretaryMr. Churchill’s Secretary (Maggie Hope #1), by Susan Elia MacNeal – I had been meaning to dive into the Maggie Hope mysteries and now, with a brand new installment just hitting the shelves, seemed like as good a time as ever to pick up the series.  In the first installment, Maggie – a British citizen raised in America – has just taken a job as the newest typist at 10 Downing Street.  A mathematical genius, Maggie has applied to be a private secretary but is frustrated to find that she is barred from the more intellectually rigorous work on account of being female.  She’ll have plenty of material to which she can devote her considerable brainpower – between solving the mystery of what happened to the murdered typist she replaced, delving into long-buried questions about her family, decoding a threat against the Prime Minister, and debating whether England should get more involved in the brewing conflict with Nazi Germany, Maggie is busy indeed.  I loved this introduction to a new-to-me sleuth and can’t wait to continue on with the series.

underground-railroadThe Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead – Another big 2016 buzz book, The Underground Railroad lived up to all the hype.  When Oprah gets involved and speeds up the release date of a book, you know it’s going to be big – and it was.  The Underground Railroad is the story of Cora, a slave from Georgia who escapes with a fellow slave, Caesar, and runs for the north with the help of the Underground Railroad.  The bit that’s new?  In Whitehead’s imagination, the Underground Railroad is an actual railroad running underground.  Cora and Caesar descend onto a subterranean platform and make for freedom in a train car.  As Cora travels from state to state, her journey is fraught with all kinds of terrors.  Whitehead doesn’t mince words about the horror of slavery, and it’s not an easy read.  But it’s a stunning, sweeping work of genius that everyone should read.


in-the-country-we-loveIn the Country We Love: My Family Divided, by Diane Guerrero – Diane Guerrero was only fourteen years old, a freshman in high school, when she came home from school to find her house empty and her undocumented immigrant parents seized for deportation.  In the weeks, months and years that followed, Diane drifted from one friend’s house to another.  No social worker, no immigration official, bothered to check on Diane or make any provision for her – a minor and a U.S. citizen – after she was left completely alone in the United States.  Through sheer force of will, she finished high school, worked her way through college and became an actress, all the while hiding from all but her closest friends the truth about her parents and her past.  I have not seen Diane act – she’s one of the stars of Orange is the New Black, but I don’t watch the show – but I am now a fan and can’t wait to see what she does next.  I hope that, at some point, she will be able to reunite her family.

today-will-be-differentToday Will Be Different, by Maria Semple – I’ve been looking forward to a new book from Maria Semple since 2013, when her last book – one of my all-time favorites, Where’d You Go, Bernadette – was published.  Sadly, I found Today Will Be Different to be a disappointment, and not up to my expectations after reading and loving Bernadette so many times.  Eleanor Flood, a graphic artist and mom living in Seattle, decides that today will be different.  She will live her best life, be a loving wife and mom, and generally have her ish together.  Of course, it all goes haywire almost immediately.  Eleanor was as neurotic as Bernadette (and her past was more harrowing, so she had more reason for being neurotic) but somehow, she lacked Bernadette’s charm.  I did enjoy the one shoutout to Bernadette and Galer Street School – but beyond that, sadly, I was underwhelmed.


march-3March: Book Three, by Representative John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell – I’ve been eagerly anticipating the third and final volume of Rep. John Lewis’ graphic memoir, after the first two volumes blew me away when I read them last February.  It was a long wait for the release date, and even longer until my name cycled to the top of the library holds queue, but the conclusion of March was worth the wait.  In it, Rep. Lewis describes his work registering voters, organizing on behalf of the Voting Rights Act, and finally leading the march from Selma to Montgomery in support of voting rights.  It’s a stunning and powerful finale to the graphic memoir, but of course, it doesn’t depict the end of Rep. Lewis’ astonishing career.  I happened to be reading March: Book 3 both during Rep. Lewis’ testimony against the Sessions nomination, and on Martin Luther King Day, and while that was serendipity, it felt very right.  Can’t recommend the series highly enough – especially these days.

becoming-nicoleBecoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family, by Amy Ellis Nutt – Nicole Amber Maines is in many ways a typical teenaged girl.  She grew up loving Barbie and The Little Mermaid, aspiring to be an actress, and sharing a special connection with her twin brother Jonas.  But in a major respect, Nicole is very special – she was not born Nicole Amber Maines.  She was born Wyatt Benjamin Maines.  Nicole always knew that she was really a girl, and her mom, Kelly, knew as well – as did Jonas.  Becoming Nicole is the stunning, powerful story of how Nicole became who she is, her legal fight against a school district that failed to protect her from bullying, and her dad Wayne’s journey to full acceptance and celebration of Nicole’s identity.  It was a beautiful family story, interspersed with well-researched and fascinating scientific information about gender identity and the brain.  We are still learning about the gender spectrum and the full range of gender identities, and I think Becoming Nicole does an incredible amount to further the discussion and add to our knowledge of the subject.  I laughed, cried, and hugged the book when I was done.

fate-of-the-tearlingThe Fate of the Tearling (The Queen of the Tearling #3), by Erika Johanssen – In this conclusion to the Queen of the Tearling fantasy trilogy, Kelsea Raleigh Glynn has been captured by the Red Queen and dragged to Demense, the capital of Mortmesne.  Kelsea has left her kingdom in the hands of the Mace, her head guard, and he is sparing no effort to get her back.  Meanwhile, rebellion is brewing in Mortmesne, led by a mysterious rabble-rouser named Levieux, and a dark evil stalks the border between Mortmesne and the Tearling.  The imprisoned Kelsea strikes up an uneasy alliance with the Red Queen of Mortmesne and continues to fall into trances in which she sees visions of the Tearling’s past – which, if she can understand them, might give her the key to saving her kingdom once and for all and creating a lasting peace in William Tear’s Better World.  So, the third book in the trilogy, like its predecessors, was fine.  It’s an interesting and engaging story and it’s well-written.  For some reason, though, I just can’t see what all the fuss is about with any of the Tearling books.  They’re good, and they’ve certainly got a following, but I wasn’t feeling it.  During the really exciting, climactic parts, I just read placidly on, where with other books I’d be rushing through page after page in a frenzy to find out what happens.  With the Tearling books, they were pleasant enough diversions, but I couldn’t bring myself to care overmuch – that, coupled with the fact that the ending was flat-out weird, meant that these were sort of a miss for me.  But they do have legions of fans, so I’m probably wrong and totally missing out.

notwithstandingNotwithstanding: Stories From an English Village, by Louis de Bernieres – I can’t remember how I became aware of this short story collection, but I put it on hold at the library and then took forever to get to it.  The Guardian described it as akin to “being wrapped in a tartan blanket and handed a nice mug of cocoa,” and I found that was true some of the time and not true other times.  There was certainly whimsy overload, and I really enjoyed some of the stories – but others were much less cosy than I was led to expect they would be.  Some of the stories were downright upsetting – for instance, if you decide to pick this up and you’re either soft-hearted or weak-stomached – or both, as I am – learn from my mistake and skip the story entitled The Rabbit.  Trust me on that one.  In any event, it was a well-written book and parts of it were really quite enjoyable, but it wasn’t quite what I was looking for at that particular moment.  I was wanting something really and truly cosy, not cosy on the surface with an undercurrent of tragedy.  That’s not the fault of this really very good book.  It just was bad timing.

the-little-white-horseThe Little White Horse, by Elizabeth Goudge – Now here is something really and truly cosy.  I ordered an absolutely gorgeous edition of The Little White Horse from The Folio Society and could hardly wait to read it when it arrived from England.  The book itself, first of all, is a dream to read.  The full-color illustrations were breathtaking and the cover (that’s my edition to the left there) is pure magic.  The story itself was an absolute delight.  It is the tale of Maria Merryweather, a thirteen-year-old girl on the cusp of womanhood who finds herself orphaned and sent to live with her father’s second cousin, Sir Benjamin Merryweather, at the family estate of Moonacre Manor.  At first blush everything about Moonacre seems like a pleasant dream – each discovery more beautiful than the next, everyone perfectly kind, the food delicious and the activity delightful.  But Maria soon discovers that Moonacre and its surrounding environs are troubled by a bad decision made generations ago, and it is up to her to fix the mistakes of her forebears and make things right again.  This she sets out to do with determination, and you never have any doubt that she will succeed, nor any real fear for her safety from the wicked Men From the Dark Woods.  The only recurring complaint that I read in Goodreads reviews was that the book (which was written in the 1940s and sought to approximate Victorian literature) was too heavy on the descriptions.  Every single one of Maria’s outfits or meals, the outfits worn or meals enjoyed by side characters, every bit of architecture, room décor or natural beauty is painstakingly described over multiple paragraphs or pages.  I can see how that could be tiresome – but it was just what I loved most about the book.  I say, bring it on.  Tell me everything about Maria’s midnight blue riding habit.  Spare no detail.  Take all the time and words in the world and don’t forget to describe any crystal beads not immediately visible to the eye.  I’m with J.K. Rowling – I adored this book.  Can’t believe I’d never read Elizabeth Goudge before, and can’t wait to read more of her books.

the-making-of-a-marchionessThe Making of a Marchioness, by Frances Hodgson Burnett – FHB wrote one of my childhood favorite books, The Secret Garden.  I must have read that, and A Little Princess, dozens of times.  Yet despite that, I find myself amongst the legions of Mary Lennox and Sara Crewe fans scratching their heads and expressing amazement that (1) FHB wrote books for adults, too, and (2) we didn’t know about them until just recently.  Thanks to Persephone reprints, I got to discover and enjoy this wonderful book (and there’s another FHB reprint, which I also own, to which I still look forward to reading).  The Making of a Marchioness is a two-part tale of a decidedly unromantic, undramatic hero and heroine, and the romantic and dramatic things that happen to them.  Emily Fox-Seton is a “gently bred” Englishwoman.  A poor relation of a grand family who ignores her, she earns her living by running errands and doing odd jobs for rich women including one Lady Maria Bayne.  When Lady Maria asks Emily to help out at a house party, she rejoices at the thought of escaping her drab life for a period of time in the country.  Present at the party is the Marquis of Walderhurst, an eligible widower to which all the young society beauties have set their prettily adorned caps.  Walderhurst is in his mid-50s, so not doddering, but not young either, and he has the decided idea that if he must take a wife, he would like one who will not be too much work or bother – so definitely not a society beauty.  I’m sure you can guess what happens – Walderhurst discovers Emily and proposes to her, unromantically, over a bucket of fish.  (Saw that one coming.)  The courtship, culminating in engagement, comprises the first part of the book, and the second part discusses Emily’s adjustment to life as the new Marchioness of Walderhurst, the deepening of her feeling for her husband from gratitude to love (and his for her, likewise, from admiration to love) and, because this is a Victorian novel, a plot against Emily’s life by the distant relation who was Lord Walderhurst’s heir presumptive until the splendidly healthy Emily came on the scene.  It was a fun and delightful read, and I stayed up way too late turning pages.

So, at the beginning of the month I thought it might be nice to slow down the pace of my reading, and really enjoy my books instead of tearing through them.  Then I went and read 12 books in January, so I guess that’s off.  I started the month off reading more diverse books – The Underground Railroad, In the Country We Love, and Becoming Nicole – and they were universally good reading experiences.  Knowing what was coming, I almost felt as if I needed to stock up on diverse voices.  But after the Inauguration and the hellish couple of weeks that followed, I just want to read comfort books at the moment.  Enter Elizabeth Goudge and Frances Hodgson Burnett.  I’ll go back to my political reading at some point soon, but for now, I am feeling drawn to cozy, calming reads in which you know everything is going to be fine in the end – so expect to see more of those over the coming months.

What did you read in January?

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Reading Round-Up Header

Reading is my oldest and favorite hobby.  I literally can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t love to curl up with a good book.  Here are my reads for December, 2016

saga-6Saga, Volume 6, by Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona StaplesThe most recent trade paperback installment of Saga found our heroes, Marko and Alana, reunited with each other but separated from their daughter Hazel and her grandmother, who are imprisoned on Landfall.  The story alternates between their efforts to get her back with her own experiences in the prison.  The end is both sad and hopeful – par for the course with Saga.  I’m still really enjoying this comic series and looking forward to seeing what happens next.

another-brooklynAnother Brooklyn, by Jacqueline Woodson – Woodson’s newest book is her first for adults in awhile.  In it, she explores the relationship between August, the narrator, and her three friends over the course of their youth in 1970s Brooklyn.  It’s a hardscrabble coming-of-age story, beautifully written – as always with Woodson – and ultimately hopeful.  I still loved Woodson’s memoir in verse, Brown Girl Dreaming, the best – but Another Brooklyn is a wonderful addition to her bibliography.

a-countess-below-stairsA Countess Below Stairs, by Eva Ibbotson – After a few intense reads in a row, I was really looking for something fluffy, and A Countess Below Stairs (also published with the alternate title The Secret Countess) fit the bill perfectly.  It was light, frothy, and utterly predictable in a completely delightful way.  Anna is Russian aristocracy who has been displaced, along with her mother, brother and faithful English governess, by the Bolsehvik revolution.  Seeking to earn her way, she takes a temporary job as a housemaid in an English great house and – of course! – falls in love with the young Earl.  There are a few problems standing in their way: Anna is impoverished and so, pretty much, is the Earl; plus, he’s engaged to an heiress (who is astoundingly beautiful and heinously awful).  But Anna is basically a Disney princess – really, I think little birds help her on with her housemaid’s uniform every morning – so you know everything is going to work out just fine.  I guessed how it would all turn out before I was a quarter done with the book, and I still loved every second.

fables-7Fables, Volume 7: Arabian Nights (And Days), by Bill Willingham – In the seventh trade volume of Fables, the Eastern version of the Fables arrive from their own version of the Homelands, bringing with them a djinn and a lot of trouble.  Flycatcher creates an international incident, Boy Blue is still imprisoned, Prince Charming is hating life as Fabletown’s new mayor, and the Beast is settling into his role as sheriff.  It’s a fun addition to the series, and Frau Totenkinder continues to be totes awesome.

bloodlineBloodline, by Claudia Gray – This newly released addition to the Star Wars canon focuses on Princess Leia’s political career as a Senator in the New Republic.  The Senate is fracturing at the seams, divided between Populists (who want the individual planets to have ample freedom) and Centrists (agitating for a stronger central government).  Leia is the most well-known Populist, but she has to join forces with a Centrist Senator to investigate an upstart crime cartel in a distant system.  As Leia and her new ally cautiously explore the hornet’s nest outside the New Republic, it soon becomes clear that the crime cartel is connected to something more sinister – the rise of the First Order.  This was a great addition to the canon and I loved reading about Leia in her element as a politician.  Of course, I’m saddened by the cover now that we have lost the great Carrie Fisher – but reading Bloodline (which I did earlier in the month, before her heart attack) seems like a good way to celebrate her life and her most famous role.

angels-and-demonsAngels and Demons (Robert Langdon #1), by Dan Brown – I’d been meaning to read more of Dan Brown’s books; the only one I had read so far was The Da Vinci Code (everyone has read that one, right?).  Angels and Demons was about as ridiculous as you would expect it to be, and I had way too much fun reading it.  It took me right back to a Thanksgiving many moons ago, when my extended family got into a knock-down, drag-out fight about which Dan Brown book was more likely to be true: Angels and Demons or The Da Vinci Code.  That is a thing that actually happened.

just-one-damned-thingJust One Damned Thing After Another (The Chronicles of St. Mary’s #1), by Jodi Taylor – I read this on my friend Katie’s recommendation.  Time travel books are one of my weaknesses and I really can’t say no to time-traveling historians.  (Exhibit A: Doomsday Book.)  Madeleine “Max” Maxwell and her colleagues at St. Mary’s, an institute for the study of history from… errrr… very close up, rocket through various ages, paying visits to the dinosaurs, a World War I field hospital, and several chronological stops in between, and sowing pandemonium everywhen they go.  Such fun, and I can’t wait to continue on with the series.

fox-at-the-mangerThe Fox at the Manger, by P.L. Travers – Due to my excessive library stack (why does that always happen to me?) I wasn’t able to do much Christmas reading this month.  But I did manage to squeeze in this very slim volume by P.L. Travers, the author of the Mary Poppins books, and it was delightful.  A harried mother, taking her son and his two friends to a Christmas service at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, is surprised when one of the children asks her if there were any wild animals present for the birth of Jesus.  Mummy is prepared with a delightful tale of a fox who stops by the manger with a special gift for the newborn baby and a lesson for the domesticated animals who believe themselves to be the only beasts with a right to celebrate the Savior’s birth.  Delightful.

barkskinsBarkskins, by Annie Proulx – I had been waiting and waiting and waiting, more and more impatiently, for my copy of Barkskins to arrive on the library holds shelf.  Annie Proulx’s new release (and magnum opus!) follows the descendants of two indentured servants who arrive in French Canada in the 1600s.  Rene Sel remains with his master, marries (against his will) a local Native Canadian woman, and lives a hardscrabble life until it is somewhat gruesomely cut short.  Charles Duquet runs away, makes his fortune trading furs, and ultimately establishes a logging business that lasts for many generations.  The Sels and the Duquets – later Dukes – mix and mingle throughout history, utterly unconscious of the fact that the founders of both of their lines once shared a wooded cabin (very briefly).  So, I was lukewarm on Barkskins after waiting so long.  The writing was wonderful and the scope of the story was impressive – but at over 700 pages, the book was too long.  It was clear that, by about 100 pages from the end, even Proulx herself was exhausted by these people.  A good pick for anyone with lots of time on their hands or an avid interest in lumberjacks – but I have neither of those things and I couldn’t help thinking how many other books I could be reading instead.

princesses-behaving-badlyPrincesses Behaving Badly: Real Stories from History – Without the Fairy Tale Endings, by Linda Rodriguez McRobbie – This short and highly entertaining volume has been on my to-read list for ages, and I really enjoyed it.  From Alfhild, the princess who (temporarily) took up piracy, to Margaret, the princess who caused a bank robbery, McRobbie explores the darker side of royalty, away from the Disney fantasy lands.  Princesses posing nude, making romantic conquests, murdering family members, giving political advice, usurping their husbands and sons to rule in their own right, leading military coups and going insane – hopefully not all at once – what’s not to love?

That wraps up my December in reading – and my 2016 in reading!  It was a good month and a good year (in books, that is).  Some fun nonfiction, some silly fiction, and a few gentle reads for when I just couldn’t deal with reality anymore – sounds like a recipe for a delightful few weeks of reading.  I’m finishing the year, I think at 101 books – pretty darn good.  Ahead for January, I’ve got more exciting new releases out from the library, and then I may finally get to turn my attention to some of the classic literature I’ve been missing recently.

What was the best thing you read in December?

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diverse kidlit

In 2016, I set a goal to read more diversely both to myself and aloud to my kids.  As this year has unfolded, celebrating our differences has become more important than ever.  2016 has brought unspeakable tragedies born out of hate and ignorance – and the best way I know to fight those evils is to read books celebrating love and diversity.  This month’s diverse kidlit choice is Nathan Blows Out the Hanukkah Candles, by Tami Lehman-Wilzig.


Jacob loves Hanukkah.  He loves the stories and the rituals, and he loves sharing delicious food – especially jelly doughnuts! – with his family as they celebrate the Festival of Lights.  There’s just one problem.


Jacob’s brother, Nathan, is the problem.  Nathan keeps repeating himself, which drives Jacob crazy.


Nathan is autistic – and while Jacob tries hard to be understanding, it can be tough living with Nathan at times.  Still, Jacob is determined not to let Nathan ruin his Hanukkah.  He helps his mom set up their family Menorah, imagining himself into the old Hebrew tales and sending up a Hanukkah wish that Nathan will stop repeating himself.  Then one day…


A new family arrives next door, and they have a son – Steven – who is just Jacob’s age.  Steven and Jacob hit it off right away and spend hours “shooting hoops” together.  But when Jacob’s mom decides to invite Steven and his family over to help them celebrate Hanukkah, Jacob worries.  Is Nathan going to embarrass him?



As Steven’s family watches, Nathan does the unthinkable – he blows out the Menorah as if it’s a birthday cake!  Jacob basically wants to sink through the floor.


Things get worse when Jacob goes out to play with Steven the following day.  Steven laughs and cruelly mocks Nathan’s disability.  Jacob is furious – he might find it frustrating to communicate with Nathan, but he loves his brother and feels protective.


As Hanukkah continues, Steven’s teasing gets meaner and meaner.  Finally, on the final day of the holiday, Jacob has had enough.  He knocks on Steven’s door and demands that Steven stop making fun of Nathan.


It looks like the boys’ friendship is over – until Jacob and Nathan’s mom has an idea.  She invites Steven and his family over to light the candles on the final night of Hanukkah.  They light the Menorah…


And then there’s a surprise!  Eight jelly doughnuts, with birthday candles in each one.  Mom announces that it’s “time for us to celebrate Hanukkah Nathan’s way.”


The family gathers around the doughnuts and blows the candles out together – a perfect way to bring the boys back together and close out a memorable Hanukkah.  Bravo, Mom!

I bought Nathan Blows Out the Hanukkah Candles on a whim after seeing it on a table at Peanut’s and Nugget’s old preschool’s annual book fair.  I’d been wanting to add some Hanukkah books to the kids’ library, and – well – I couldn’t resist the title, for obvious reasons.  But I was delighted to open the book and discover that in addition to introducing my kids to a holiday from a faith tradition outside their own – something I am always trying to do – it was also a wonderful, kind celebration of a sweet boy with a disability.

We read and clap along as Jacob learns a lesson about showing kindness and understanding to his autistic brother, and as he stands up to a bully in Nathan’s defense.  The message – that it’s okay to be wired a bit differently, that families and traditions can adapt, and that showing love can bring a bully around – is just lovely.  As I’ve navigated the bookstores with an eye out for diverse books for my kids, one of the biggest challenges has been finding books about kids with disabilities; Nathan Blows Out the Hanukkah Candles was a delightful exception to that rule.  (And friends, if you have any other suggestions for books celebrating kids with disabilities – I’d love to have them!)  If you’re looking for a good Hanukkah book to add to your holiday library, or if you’re wanting to showcase diverse books about disabled kids, or both – do check out Nathan Blows Out the Hanukkah Candles.  Fair warning, though – it’s going to make you hungry for jelly doughnuts.

What diverse books are you reading this month?

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Reading Round-Up Header

Reading is my oldest and favorite hobby.  I literally can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t love to curl up with a good book.  Here are my reads for November, 2016

my-brilliant-friendMy Brilliant Friend (The Neapolitan Novels #1), by Elena Ferrante – My second attempt at catching Ferrante Fever was much more successful!  I’d tried to read My Brilliant Friend awhile back and gave it up after about 50 pages.  This time, I pushed through to that magic 100-page mark and found, just as I’d hoped, that the story hooked me.  Elena and Lila are two friends growing up in a tough Naples neighborhood in the 1950s and 60s.  My Brilliant Friend follows them through childhood and adolescence, as Lila changes from the scrappy ugly duckling into the beautiful, desired swan, and Lena struggles to hold onto her own identity outside of the friendship.  I loved this and can’t wait to whittle down my library pile so I can get to the next in the series.

the-fire-this-timeThe Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race, ed. Jesmyn Ward – I’d heard great things about this book of essays, collected from some of the most brilliant writers of color working today, and it was every bit as astonishing as I’d been told.  The Fire This Time is a hard look at the experience of being black in today’s America, and it can be fairly uncomfortable to read as a white reader.  But I am firmly of the opinion that we all need to be made uncomfortable periodically, and that The Fire This Time is a necessary, bold, brilliant book that should be on every American’s reading list, no matter the color of their skin – but especially those out there who need to be reminded of the personhood of others.  Which, sadly, seems to be a lot of people these days.

crowned-and-dangerousCrowned and Dangerous (Her Royal Spyness #10), by Rhys Bowen – As I often do after finishing a particularly hard or wrenching read, I reached for a cozy mystery as a palate cleanser.  This time, it was Crowned and Dangerous, the most recent installment in the adventures of Lady Georgianna Rannoch.  When we last left Georgie, she was speeding toward Gretna Green with her true love, Darcy O’Mara.  Sadly, this volume finds Georgie and Darcy foiled in their attempts to elope when Darcy spots a newspaper article reporting that his father has been arrested for murdering the rich American to whom the ancestral O’Mara home – Kilhenny Castle – has been sold.  Darcy immediately rushes off to Ireland to see what can be done for Lord Kilhenny, and Georgie follows soon after.  I love Georgie and Darcy as a crime-solving duo, and this was a fun ride.  Can’t wait to see what Georgie gets up to next!  (Can she move back into Kensington Palace, please?)

before-we-visit-the-goddess-9781476792002_hrBefore We Visit the Goddess, by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni – I’d read another of Divakaruni’s lovely, lyrical novels – The Palace of Illusions – a few years ago and was delighted to learn of this new release.  Before We Visit the Goddess tracks the relationships of three generations of mothers and daughters – Sabatri, elderly and ailing back in India; Bela, recently divorced and lonely in America; and Tara, Bela’s lost and dysfunctional daughter.  It was a slim but lovely novel, bittersweet throughout.

22698568The Invasion of the Tearling (The Queen of the Tearling #2), by Erika Johansen – When we left the Tearling, the Mort army was at its gates, provoked into war by Queen Kelsea’s rash decision to undo a treaty signed by her mother, Queen Elyssa, which required the Tear to provide slaves to neighboring Mortmesne on a monthly basis.  Now the invasion has begun and as Queen Kelsea struggles to manage her court and evacuate her people from the Morts’ path, she begins to have visions of a time before the Crossing, and a woman named Lily.  Lily’s story is missing from Kelsea’s history books, but it is clear there is some connection between them, and this connection may hold the key to Kelsea’s ability to save the Tearling from destruction.  I really enjoyed The Invasion of the Tearling – after liking, but not loving, the first in the trilogy, I found this second installment riveting.  The Lily segments were particularly enthralling, bringing the dystopic elements of the story to the forefront as they did (and scaring me senseless after the election).  Now I am itching to read the conclusion of the trilogy (and have only Googled “The Fate of the Tearling release date” approximately seventeen million times).

the-fishermenThe Fishermen, by Chigozie Obioma – Four young brothers, taking advantage of their father’s extended absence for work, steal away from school to fish on the banks of a nearby river.  One day, the brothers encounter the local madman, who makes a prophecy that convinces the eldest of the brothers that he’s destined to be murdered by one of his other brothers.  The Fishermen takes the story of Cain and Abel and transplants it into Nigeria of recent times.  It’s a gory, blood-spattered story that only gets gorier and more blood-spattered as the pages turn.  I read it with my eyes popping out of my head and couldn’t look away, although it was not my usual reading material and definitely not for everyone.  (If you have a weak stomach, as I do, be forewarned.)  The Fishermen was very hyped around the time of its publication, and while it wasn’t really my cup of tea, I appreciated the outstanding writing and can definitely understand the accolades it received.

the-audacity-of-hopeThe Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream, by Barack Obama – President Obama’s musings on the American dream and public policy had been on my to-read list for awhile, and I finally grabbed it from the library in mid-November.  I was craving some words of sanity after a completely insane election, and the President’s thoughtful, reasoned discussions of all aspects of American life, and the policies that govern them, were just what I needed to read.  It was fascinating to consider this book from the perspective that I now have, after eight years of the Obama Administration, knowing what he was able to achieve (same sex marriage! eliminating bin Laden!) in light of all the opposition with which he had to contend.  (And his words on the failure of the Republican legislators to make the compromises necessary to govern seemed clairvoyant.)  The Audacity of Hope gave me plenty to consider – and now I can’t wait for the presidential memoir that I’m sure is in the offing.

americanahAmericanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi AdichieAmericanah is the story of two lovers.  Obinze is Ifemelu’s first love, and he hers, but time has passed.  Ifemelu has been living in America, studying for advanced degrees and writing a popular blog called Raceteenth, examining race relations in America from the perspective of an outsider.  Obinze spent time in London but is now home in Nigeria and has made his fortune, married and welcomed a daughter.  When Ifemelu decides to return to Nigeria, she must confront changes in the country itself, and mirroring changes in her relationship with Obinze. So, this was a beautifully written and completely engrossing book. Adichie’s musings on race, class, immigration, politics and more are fascinating and well-formulated. My only complaint was that the book was a bit too long – in my opinion, the plot – while excellent – wasn’t quite hefty enough to carry almost 500 pages of text. Still, I loved every moment of the reading, and can’t recommend it highly enough.

I can’t believe we’re into December already! Seriously, where has the time gone?  November was a great reading month with some wonderful challenges to my perspectives from Jesmyn Ward and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, interspersed with good escapist reading (visits to the Tearling and with Lady Georgie!). The escapism was particularly welcome in light of how crummy reality was in November. And now, on to December. It’s looking like a busy month, what with the holidays, but I’ll make time for reading as I always do. I have ten books left to reach my goal of 100 for the year, so I will be feverishly turning pages until New Year’s Eve if that’s what it takes!

What was the best thing you read in November?

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diverse kidlit

In 2016, I set a goal to read more diversely both to myself and aloud to my kids.  As this year has unfolded, celebrating our differences has become more important than ever.  2016 has brought unspeakable tragedies born out of hate and ignorance – and the best way I know to fight those evils is to read books celebrating love and diversity.  This month’s diverse kidlit choice is Thanking the Moon, by Grace Lin.


Thanking the Moon is a sweet, simple depiction of a Chinese-American family celebrating the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival.  The Moon Festival is traditionally a harvest festival that is celebrated in accordance with the lunar calendar – this year it fell on September 15th.  Even though the festival date for 2016 is long past, Thanking the Moon seemed like a great pick for a month in which Americans celebrated our own harvest festival – Thanksgiving.  As we talked about what we were grateful for in our own lives, I made sure to share with Peanut that there are other traditions that celebrate harvest festivals and holidays focusing on gratitude.


In Thanking the Moon, a family prepares to celebrate with a moonlight picnic.


They begin by unpacking their picnic hampers – stuffed with mooncakes and pomelo, among other treats – and setting up an honor table.


They also unpack festive decorations – including luminous lanterns.


And a young girl prepares tea for the family.  Grace Lin is both the author and illustrator of this book, and I absolutely adore the loving lines of her illustrations.  The sky is alive with swirls, the gold glimmers on the young girl’s blouse, and the tea looks good enough to drink right from the page.


The family sends the moon their message of thanks and their hopes for the year ahead – much like we, last week, reflected on the good things in our lives and our hopes for the future.


The final illustration in the book pans out to show the hillside full of families celebrating with picnic hampers, honor tables, mooncakes and tea of their own.


Even the endpapers of the book are exuberant, depicting a list of items for use in celebrating the Moon Festival.  (I spy Asian pears – my favorite fruit!)  Lin also helpfully includes a couple of pages of explanation of the Moon Festival holidays, for parents who don’t celebrate but wish to introduce their children to the holiday.

We have so enjoyed reading Thanking the Moon in this season of gratitude!  It’s been a delight to point out the lovely illustrations and spend time discovering – together – a holiday about which neither Peanut nor I knew much before picking up the book.  Lin is a phenomenally talented artist, and her charming illustrations make a perfect complement to the simple prose – no more is needed.  After reading Thanking the Moon I did some online research and discovered that the little family depicted in the book also stars in other Grace Lin books about Chinese and Asian holidays.  We’re definitely going to be checking those out!

What diverse books did you enjoy in November?

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Reading Round-Up Header

Reading is my oldest and favorite hobby.  I literally can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t love to curl up with a good book.  Here are my reads for October, 2016

why-not-meWhy Not Me?, by Mindy Kaling – My mom told me that she is starting a tradition of giving me a comedienne’s memoir or book every Christmas.  In 2014, I got Yes Please!, by Amy Poehler, and this past year it was Mindy Kaling’s second book, Why Not Me?  In Why Not Me?, Mindy continues to mine her life for material – coming up with essays on her brief stint as a sorority girl, a day-in-the-life describing just how insanely busy she actually is, a list of things to bring to her house for a dinner party, and more.  (The best: a series of emails between alternate existence Mindy, a hard-partying Latin teacher at a posh NYC private school, and her disapproving colleagues.)  I laughed through the whole book and loved every minute.

georgeGeorge, by Alex Gino – This is a charming and sweet middle-grade story about the experience of being a transgendered pre-teen.  George knows deep in her heart that she is really Melissa.  And thanks to an accepting best friend and school principal, she concocts a plan to let her community see who she really is.  I read George in one sitting and loved it (although I agree with my friend A.M.B. that the title really should be Melissa) and I think it’s going to be a tremendously important book to trans kids just beginning to grapple with their gender identity.  I’m so glad this book is in the world.

stella-by-starlightStella by Starlight, by Sharon M. Draper – Stella is a young African-American girl living in the Jim Crow South, who sneaks out one night and sees something she was never meant to see: a KKK practice rally across the lake near her house.  What Stella sees will shake her community to its core.  I thought this was an incredibly powerful and well-written YA novel taking on some very difficult subjects.  Of course, because the intended audience is children, it shies away from the most frightening.  Although bad things happen (spoiler alert!) no one dies and the ending is hopeful, if not completely happy.  But it’s a beautiful book and a worthy addition to a diverse young adult library.

feathersFeathers, by Jacqueline Woodson – I read Woodson’s memoir in verse, Brown Girl Dreaming, last summer and was astounded by her beautiful writing.  Feathers wasn’t quite in that class, but it was still excellent.  Telling the story of a few weeks in the life of Frannie, a young African-American girl, and her friends Samantha and the Jesus Boy, Feathers takes on issues of faith, friendship, bullying and more.  Frannie deals with issues at home – her beloved older brother is deaf and Frannie feels his disability deeply; her father, a truck driver, is rarely home, and her mother is pregnant again after several miscarriages.  There’s no real resolution to most of the story lines; the book is really just a snapshot in the life of these characters.  But the writing is lovely and lyrical, and I can’t wait to read more from Woodson.

we-should-all-be-feministsWe Should All Be Feminists, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – I’ve had Adichie’s much-lauded essay (adapted from a TED talk) on my to-read list for ages now, and I’m embarrassed to say that the only thing holding me back from reading it was the fact that none of the library systems to which I have belonged seem to have it in their collections.  (Is that embarrassing for me, or for the library?)  Finally I wised up and downloaded it to my kindle, and I read it in less than an hour – it’s only about 45 pages, after all.  Adichie combines memoir with feminist philosophy and it’s absolutely wonderful.  We should all be feminists, indeed, and we should all read We Should All Be Feminists.

the-obelisk-gateThe Obelisk Gate (The Broken Earth #2), by N.K. Jemisin – In my quest to read more books by diverse authors this year, N.K. Jemisin stands out as a new favorite.  I read the first in her Broken Earth trilogy – The Fifth Season – back in February and loved it, so I reserved the second as soon as it came out.  As I mentioned in one of my weekly reading posts, there are a couple of story lines – well, really, they are elements to the main character’s back story – that upset me (as a mom, and particularly as a mom to a boy – I’ll leave it at that).  But the world-building is great and Jemisin’s writing pulls you into the story in a very satisfying way. As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I’m getting a little burnt out on the sci-fi genre (and will probably read less of it in 2017).  But I’m glad not to have missed The Obelisk Gate.

thrice-the-brinded-catThrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d (Flavia de Luce #8), by Alan Bradley – How I love a good cozy mystery!  I think that the Flavia de Luce series is my favorite currently-in-progress mystery series.  I just love Flavia’s voice, and all the supporting characters.  (I wish Flavia had a better relationship with Daffy, though.  I could see them making a great crime-solving and trouble-causing duo.)  In this installment, Flavia has returned to Buckshaw from a short stint at Miss Bodycote’s Female Academy in Toronto – and she arrives to find that her father is in the hospital, and no one will let her see him.  Flavia is despondent, until the discovery of a corpse cheers her up.  She dives into the mystery surrounding the death and identity of an elderly woodcarver.  Meanwhile, it’s clear that Flavia is starting to grow up – there are a few references to her getting older, and it’s poignant.  The book ends sadly, but I won’t tell you how.  Even with the slightly darker storyline, I’m loving Flavia’s journey and eagerly awaiting the next book.

love-winsLove Wins: The Lovers and Lawyers Who Fought the Landmark Case for Marriage Equality, by Debbie Cenziper and Jim Obergefell – I remember the day the Obergefell v. Hodges case was decided.  Like many, I was waiting anxiously for the decision, and I cried tears of joy as I read Justice Kennedy’s opinion striking down same sex marriage bans across the country.  “Love wins!” became the slogan of the triumphant gay community and their allies, and Love Wins is the title of this wonderful, wonderful book celebrating the case.  It begins with Jim Obergefell and his dying husband, John Arthur (have tissues ready) and the story wends its way through law offices, living rooms and courtrooms until they finally reach the hallowed halls of SCOTUS.  You don’t have to be a lawyer to follow the book, though, and I encourage everyone to read it.  Just expect to cry, because you will – at the descriptions of John’s difficult childhood, as the story of his diagnosis and death is told, at the depiction of Jim sitting alone in the courtroom, at the ultimate triumph, and at so many more points.  This book is fantastic and I hope it’s taught in law schools all over the country.

to-the-bright-edgeTo the Bright Edge of the World, by Eowyn Ivey – I was sort of putting this off, because it’s a tome with small print and densely packed pages.  But I loved Ivey’s first (much shorter) novel, The Snow Child, and her sophomore publication has already gotten raves, so I picked it up.  Golly, what a gorgeous book.  It tells the story of Colonel Allen Forrester, leading the first exploratory expedition into the newly acquired Alaskan Territory, and his young wife Sophie, left back at the Vancouver, Washington barracks.  The story is told primarily through Allen’s and Sophie’s personal journals, but interspersed with other journals, articles and correspondence and sprinkled liberally with pictures.

October was a good reading month!  I got through some great books, particularly toward the end of the month – Love Wins and To The Bright Edge of the World were the highlights for sure.  I’m particularly proud that I managed to tick off nine books in a very busy month – packed with family activities on the weekends, and jammed up at work during the weeks.  It’s all good busy, and I’ve been able to squeeze in reading, so I can’t complain.  As for what’s next, I’m midway through My Brilliant Friend, so stay tuned to find out if I catch Ferrante Fever!  And after that, I have a massive stack of library books and more on hold to pick up, so November is looking like a busy month.  I’ll be checking in, of course, with my weekly reading recap posts and it’s looking like another massive round-up for you at the end of the month.  Check back!

What was the best thing you read in October?

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