Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Top 5 Middle-grade & YA Books of 2017

I read quite a bit of children's literature this year. I'm not sure I'll read nearly as much of it next year. I wanted to catch up on reading some of the kids books everyone but me has read, and also to continue in some of my favorite series. Below are my top five choices for the year.

This is the fourth in the Clementine series. I have heartily enjoyed every book in the series. They're funny, charming, and put a good emphasis on being responsible and kind.

Frankly, I was blown away by Eleanor & Park. Far from its intended audience, and unlikely to actually put it into a teen's hands, I found this book so well written it almost hurt. It's a book that gets a little intense, and there's some language, but it really did blow me away.

After reading the first book in the Penderwicks series (called The Penderwicks), I wasn't sure that I'd continue with the series. I enjoyed it, but it felt too simple to me, too perfect and without enough depth. But at one point this fall I needed a new audiobook quick, so I picked up the second in the series, The Penderwicks on Gardam Street, and I liked it more than the first. Now I can't wait to go on to book three.

Waylon! Even More Awesome is the second in the Waylon series, which is a spin-off of the Clementine books (see above). I loved the first book, and I liked this one even more. It's more serious than the Clementine books, but it is another example of Sara Pennypacker at her best. She is so gifted at showing the small moments that are so big in children's lives.

Has anyone on the planet read Wonder and not liked it? Certainly not me. It's a must read for little and big alike.

Monday, December 18, 2017

What I'm reading this week (12/18/17)

Well, this will be the last "What I'm reading this week" post of 2017. I'll be on vacation from work until after the new year, and I plan to read, wrap presents, watch Christmas movies, make hot cocoa, and spend time with my family. I'll update you on what I read over break, share my 2018 reading goals, and publish a flurry of Best of 2017 posts when I return to my normal schedule. (I just can't post "best of" lists until I'm done reading for the year. I can never predict what will be great!)

I hope you all have the happiest of Christmases and enjoy the new year.

What I finished last week:

I'm a sucker for a cooking memoir, and I seem to read a lot of books about France, so I snapped up In a French Kitchen when it came out in paperback (the cover alone would have sold me--it might be my favorite cover of the year). But I'm also known to hoard cooking memoirs and not get to them. This one languished on my reading list for ages before I picked it up in my attempt to tame my TBR list before the new year. Maybe you are familiar with Susan Hermann Loomis and her previous work (On Rue Tatin is quite well known, though I haven't read it). Once I realized Loomis wasn't going to tell us what she was doing in France (I am sure she's an American, though she seems to have been in France for many years), why she went there, why she stayed, etc., and just settled in for a tour of French home-cooking--as well as French home kitchens, refrigerators, and pantries, I enjoyed the book. It's not my favorite memoir/cookbook, but it's smart and thoughtful. There were even a couple recipes that appealed to me. Doesn't "steak with melted onions" sound divine? Melted. I beg of you. If you like food and cooking, I think you'll like this one. Be cautioned, though, there isn't much "memoir" here. Perhaps you need to read her earlier books for that. My rating: 3 stars.

I've been in kind of a reading rut lately. I can't tell you how many books I've picked up and put down in the last few weeks. I've been trying to read some of the books that have been waiting awhile, but in all the memoirs, I've kind of forgotten about fiction. Fiction is what's breaking my reading block. I decided to try the first in the Maggie Hope series by Susan Elia MacNeal, Mr. Churchill's Secretary. I knew next to nothing going in other than it's a mystery series. I loved this book! It was a bit of a thriller (though not the Stephen King kind) as well as being a mystery. There was danger, intrigue, romance, and SPIES. Espionage, my friends! Maggie Hope, an American in London at the start of World War II, takes a job as one of Mr. Churchill's secretaries, a job that she thinks is beneath her abilities being educated in higher mathematics. She soon proves her mettle when she uncovers assassination plots involving the IRA. There is a bit of unnecessary swearing here, and I felt that the book could have ended earlier than it did, but still, I can't wait for the next book in the series. And I'm so glad to have found another series. My rating: 4.5 stars.

What I'm reading now:

Years ago I loved a book by Alice McDermott called Charming Billy, winner of the National Book Award in 1998. I'm realizing while reading The Ninth Hour that I might just need to read everything Alice McDermott writes. I'm loving this book, too.

I continue with these this week:

I really don't want Dear Fahrenheit 451 to end. It's wonderful (despite all the swearing).

And I'm enjoying If Bees Are Few. So many wonderful bee poems.

My Kindle-read-turned-audio book:

While I'm enjoying My Antonia, I'm having trouble getting myself to sit down with it. I finally decided to finish it on audio.

What I'll be reading the rest of the year:

I am so excited for every single one of these. They're all new releases that I've been saving up for an end of year reading blowout.

See you in the new year! Happy reading.

Monday, December 11, 2017

What I'm reading this week (12/11/17)

I have one more workweek before I'm on vacation for the rest of the year. I'm working double-time to get everything done before I head home. Add to that all the Christmas prep, I'm feeling that old holiday stress. But the thought of two weeks off to read and spend time with family makes up for it.

Most of my end-of-year posts will go up in late December or in January. Something just had to give.

Last week I finished:

I'd had my eye on A Thousand Hills to Heaven since it came out in 2013. And having such a hard time lately settling on a book, I chose this off the TBR shelf. Unfortunately, this is another of those books that misrepresents itself with its subtitle. "Love, Hope, and a Restaurant in Rwanda" to me indicated it would be the story of a couple who open a restaurant in Rwanda. This is really more the story of relief aid workers Josh Ruxin and his wife Alissa who have spent time exacting change in the world's most destitute places. Ruxin is tasked with opening health care centers in Rwanda's worst area, and toward the end of the book, his wife opens a restaurant called Heaven there (while having and raising three children). But the book is really about the need for aid and relief work in Africa. It's not really about a restaurant. Do not get me wrong, the work these two and their team have done is wonderful, needed, and sacrificial; they do it with an open heart with an eye toward self-sufficiency and dignity rather than dependence on an unsustainable model. It's just that I was there for the restaurant, not the UN-y chat about the need for more money and workers and better practices. And if I were to read a book about foreign relief workers, I'd choose one that was Christian-based. Starving bodies is not necessarily the root of the devastation, in my opinion. Other than feeling blindsided, I enjoyed the book. It wasn't really very preachy. It was a positive portrayal, a very hopeful book. I did wonder though, if Rwanda's current state was being whitewashed. Surely it's not so perfect as it would seem by Ruxin's descriptions. What did strike me though, and will stay with me long after finishing the book, is how the Rwandans healed as a nation after the 1994 genocide. It's nearly impossible for Americans to understand the set of events that led one group (Hutus) to turn on the other (Tutsis) which no one could tell apart (Hutus were given addresses of Tutsis to kill based on government records) and kill one million of their own. I think the American mind, which cannot fathom such a thing, just wants to "let Africa take care of Africa" when they think about this. If Ruxin's description is correct, the country did an unbelievable job healing the pain of the genocide and forgiving the atrocities done to them by their neighbors. It's really quite remarkable. If you're interested in present-day Africa and relief work going on there, I recommend this book. My rating: 3 stars.

And quite by chance, another book about Africa. The Kalahari Typing School for Men is the fourth in Alexander McCall Smith's No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series. In this book, Mma Makutsi decides to open a typing school for men to earn extra money, and she ends up falling in love with one of her students. Mma Ramotswe is working on a case that would allow a man to right past wrongs. And Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni learns to be a more involved foster father when his foster son starts acting up. It's as good as the others, and I can't wait to listen to the rest. Luckily, I won't run out of them any time soon! My rating: 4 stars.

Last week I began:

Next up for my "main" book is In a French Kitchen, which I would read for the cover alone.

I also began Dear Fahrenheit 451, which, in spite of the swearing throughout, is a wonderful read. It's a set of letters the librarian/author, Annie Spence, writes to books she loves, loathes, or is weeding from the library. A great one for book nerds.

This week I continue with:

My Antonia is one of those books that I never want to pick up, but when I do, I love reading. It's a somber book, much like the prairie in the homesteading days, I imagine, but I like its easy writing.

I'm making slow progress with If Bees Are Few, but not because I don't like it. So far, I don't think I've run across a poem I know.

My next audiobook:

Dana Perino recommended the Maggie Hope mystery series, one that I'd been interested in but never started. I'll listen to the first book, Mr. Churchill's Secretary, and see what I think.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

December 2017 reading list

And welcome to December. My goodness, the last reading list of 2017. This still feels fluid to me. I might be adding and deleting and moving things around throughout the month, especially since I'll be on vacation the last half of the month. For now, I've settled on the following 15 titles, at least half of which were published this year. The rest of the list cleans up a bit of my TBR.

Nonfiction & Memoirs






Monday, December 4, 2017

What I'm reading this week (12/4/17)

Last week I finished:

I have complicated feelings about Circling the Sun. I abandoned listening to it only to pick it up again a week later and finish it. I do tend to have trouble letting plots hang without closure, but this was a little different, too. It had the added element of being a novelization of a person's life. Horse trainer and aviator Beryl Markham led a private life, and in her own masterful memoir West with the Night, she did not delve into her personal life. So to base a book on a life so many know by a fabulous memoir (one of the absolute finest memoirs in all of literature in my opinion), without a hint as to where the real ended and the fiction began was disorienting. I fight against a book like that. The fact is, what was added to the fictional account that was not in the memoir was Markham's two marriages, numerous lovers, and baby born with birth defects. I don't know where author Paula McLain came onto these salacious bits of biography, but the whole business left me feeling queasy. There's a fair amount of imagining Markham's sexual life here, and I just couldn't have been less interested. If you have a higher tolerance for fictionalized biography than I do (and that doesn't take much), if you don't need to know where fact ends and fiction begins, and if you don't mind a lot of adultery and sex, this is a beautifully written novel. Still, I'd suggest reading the memoir first. My rating: 3.5 stars.

Every now and then a book comes along that really surprises you with its generosity, sense of humor, and playful approach. You can never really predict where you'll find one, and that's why they're wonderful gifts. The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap is one of those gifts. I bought the book about a year and a half ago, and it had recently been relegated to the "Quarantine" box in the basement where I keep books that are likely on their way out of the house but I'm not quite ready to give up on getting to. After the Amy Tan book experience bottomed out (more on that below), I was facing readcation with no book. Nothing sounded good, so I decided to dig through the Q box and, boy am I glad I did. This is the story of Wendy Welch and her Scottish husband Jack opening a used bookstore in Big Stone Gap, Virginia (not to be confused with Adriana Trigiani's books about Big Stone Gap--same place, different author). This is an insular town in Appalachian coal country. It takes locals a long time to warm up to a stranger, and no one expected these overeducated strangers to stay long anyway. But over time, they learned to build a business and to become a community. This is a Hallmark movie waiting to happen, but it was wonderful. Welch is a fun person; it comes through in her writing. She's witty and quirky, and the whole reading experience was just lovely. If you're a bibliophile or you're looking for a pick-me-up book, get a copy of this one. You won't be disappointed. My rating: 5 stars.

I downloaded a copy of Laurie Colwin's Home Cooking for my Kindle awhile ago, and I found it a nice book to pick up and put down (the best kind for Kindle, in my opinion). Colwin was a popular writer in the 1980s, and her work enjoyed a resurgence in the 1990s following her untimely passing. I remember going to Waldenbooks (remember Waldenbooks?) in the 1990s to pick up a copy of her Happy All the Time and A Big Storm Knocked it Over, neither of which I liked a whole lot. Along the way I learned that she also wrote books about cooking, and it took me this long to try one. Never too late, I guess. The book is set up with short chapters on certain foods (Chocolate, Salt, Potato Salad, Red Peppers, How to Fry Chicken, etc.) She gets a little opinionated for a home cook, but somehow that's easier for me to take than an opinionated fancy cook (I'm looking at you, Ina Garten). The book was published in 1988, and I expected to find it quite dated, after all, think of how much cooking and eating has changed in thirty years, but it was surprisingly timely--partly owing to the fact that she was from the East Coast where so many food trends start. I enjoyed this book. It wasn't earthshattering, but it was comfy, and that's what the title promised. My rating: 3 stars.

Back in college I was a creative writing major. Poetry was my genre, and I wrote and published it by the fistful. I had the honor (I even knew it was at the time) of taking my poetry workshop with Max Garland, and his poetry and influence stayed with me. It's not merely that Max was my professor that made me appreciate his work (I had plenty of professors whose work I did not particularly love), but it's that Max's poems truly spoke to me. My style and subject matter have always been similar to his, and his work has always blown me away with its humble, nostalgic, and witty lines. This is his third collection, and it is as wonderful as his first two, Postal Confessions (he was a postal worker prior to teaching) and Hunger Wide as Heaven. This collection is like going home again, even though "home" in this case is right where I am. He became the Wisconsin poet laureate a few years ago, and I'm so proud that our city has his talent. We're richer for it. If you're looking for some approachable poetry with depth and lightness, pick up a copy of anything by him. You can also Google individual poems. My rating: 5 stars.

Last week I (temporarily?) abandoned:

I was so looking forward to Amy Tan's new book, but I had a tough time with the first couple of chapters, and I wanted something I really wanted to sit down with for hours at a time. So, I abandoned this one. But I don't think it will be forever. I just can't let an Amy Tan nonfiction book go unread. I think I'll try to get my hands on an audio copy so I can still "read" the book, but it won't feel so arduous.

What I'm reading this week:

This is another book from my Quarantine box. I love the cover, and I have a thing for birds, though I know very little about individual species. You know I love books about ridiculous feats, and in this one, Neil Hayward races to find the most birds in one year (in birding circles, a "Big Year"). Sounds fun, doesn't it?

Last week I started:

After finishing Home Cooking, which was supposed to be my December Kindle read, I was hankering for "literature" when I remembered I had a copy of My Antonia downloaded. So far, this has fit the bill.

And I'm finally getting around to If Bees Are Few, an anthology of bee poems. Since one of my aspirations in life has always been to edit a collection of bee poems, I have mixed feelings about someone beating me to it.

My next audiobook:

Next up on the audio front, book four of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, The Kalahari Typing School for Men. I'm so excited.

Friday, December 1, 2017

November 2017 wrap-up

November was a good reading month. I cleaned up a number of titles from my TBR, things I've been wanting to read for ages. I also treated myself to a few new books. I finished 14 books this month and abandoned two (which I think I'll finish in December). I had a three-day "readcation" this month, and loaded up on Cyber Monday Kindle deals, so I closed the month with a lot of 2018 book dreaming.

Here's what I finished in November. Full reviews are linked to the one-word reviews below.

4 stars

4 stars

4 stars

3 stars

2 stars
3 stars
4.5 stars
5 stars

3.5 stars

4 stars

4 stars

5 stars

3 stars

5 stars