book recommendations

Best Reads of 2018 (So Far)

This past weekend we experienced the most crazy, wonderful blessing – one of our good friends from college, whom we have not seen since our wedding eight years ago, showed up in Hong Kong with her husband and baby. They had already planned this trip before we announced our move, so when we realized we were going to be in the same place at the same time, we all kind of freaked out. I mean, mostly Mary Claire and I freaked out. But I think the boys were excited too. Just in a more tough, manly ways.

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We had an absolute blast with Mary Claire, Benjamin, and Banning and are secretly hoping they just drop everything and move here so that we can hang out all the time. While we were together, Mary Claire mentioned that she’d read several of the books I’ve recommended over the years, and she kind of called me out for not posting any book recommendations in such a long time. So…long introduction to say…for all of you who have had absolutely nothing to read these long months where I haven’t written about books, the dry spell is over. You’re welcome. 😉 Here’s the best of what I’ve read so far this year.

Note: I realized that most of my favorite books so far this year have been recent releases that deal with sad or difficult circumstances. To be fair, they all have some measure of hope to offset the sadness, but if you don’t like books where people deal with hard things, you might not like these.

The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne

33253215This book, man. It is not for the faint of heart. This book tells the life story of Cyril Avery from birth to death. Cyril Avery is born to an unwed mother in rural Ireland and adopted by an eccentric writer and her husband who really know nothing about children. As Cyril grows, we meet a cast of richly drawn characters who impact Cyril’s life, for better or worse. This book is largely focused on the horrible treatment of gay men in Ireland (and elsewhere) in the late 20th century. Because of that, some parts are very hard to read and some of it is very sad. There is also a significant amount of sexual content in the first half of the book (just fair warning if you don’t like reading that). However, the characters are amazingly vivid, unique, and quirky, and in the end, I can’t describe this book in any way other than beautiful, deeply moving, and unforgettable. The book ends on a sweet note which might strike some readers as too convenient, but I felt set up for it from early on and found it satisfying the that it ended in a place of peace.

The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah.

34912895Hannah showed up on everyone’s radar after The Nightingale in 2015. Her newest book takes place in Alaska in the 1970’s where Vietnam veteran Ernt Allbright takes his wife and his 13-year-old daughter Leni to live off the grid. The family think this will be their salvation, but in the long, dark winters, Ernt is haunted by the ghosts of the past and becomes increasingly paranoid and irrational. Leni realizes that she must fight for survival for herself and for her mother in the great Alaskan wild, There is something mesmerizing about the wild, rugged beauty of a mostly unsettled land. The story itself is very reminiscent of The Glass Castle although fictional, so there is definitely a trigger warning for domestic violence. The only thing I didn’t love about this book was the ending which felt a little abrupt and too neat compared to the rest of the book. However, if you are someone who needs it to end on a hopeful note, you will probably like this.

Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong.

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A short and sweet account of an adult child (Ruth) stepping in to care for her father as he slips into dementia.  I read it in almost one sitting and I loved it. In spite of being quite short, I felt like it delved into the issues inherent in being an adult child taking care of a parent as the parent loses agency. It also dealt with the complexities of dementia without being overly sappy, sad, or sentimental.

 

 

 

Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover.

35133922This memoir has exploded onto the scene and (deservingly) gained a lot of attention. Growing up in a fundamentalist, survivalist family (again somewhat a la The Glass Castle) , Tara Westover had no access to formal education. Taught that western medicine was evil, she learned to use herbs and natural remedies for everything from childbirth to severe burns. Violence and control were part of every day life, but they were all that Tara knew. At 17 she became determined to do things differently. Having never been to school, she taught herself enough to gain entrance to Brigham Young University where she learned for the first time not only math, science, and literature, but about the history of her own country and of world events (like the Holocaust) which she had never even heard of. Exposure to the world of learning sparked a hunger in her for all that she did not know and went on to study at Harvard and at Cambridge. As she gains knowledge and understanding about the world and her own upbringing, she is driven to try to forge a way back to her family, so many of whom are still living in a toxic environment.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones.

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Celestial and Roy are still newlyweds when the unthinkable happens. Roy is arrested and convicted of a crime he did not commit. He is sentenced to 12 years in prison. In the beginning, Celestial and Roy remain fiercely devoted to one another, but as the years go by, Celestial begins to move on with her life. When Roy’s conviction is overturned and he is released early, the (still married) couple must figure out what really makes a marriage and whether or not they can still have one.

 

 

 

Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved by Kate Bowler.

35133923Kate Bowler is a professor at Duke Divinity School who has devoted her professional career to studying the prosperity gospel. At 35, she has is just hitting her stride in her career and has finally become a mother after years of trying. Then she is diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer. As she navigates the grief and pain of illness and facing her own mortality, she finds herself drawn to the reassurances offered by the health and wealth doctrines of the prosperity gospel and comes to an understanding of why people cling to these beliefs even when they seem so obviously false. As someone who grew up in an environment I would call “prosperity gospel adjacent,” I was moved by this memoir of wrestling with the harsh reality of death within this specific context. Bowler’s writing is funny and witty and heart-wrenching all at once and this book will stay with me for a long time.

Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise by Ruth Reichl.

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Ruth Reichl is a renowned food writer and was a long-time critic for the New York Times. This memoir recounts her time as a food critic and her various experiences eating her way through New York City. The most entertaining parts are how she created actual characters with backstories and disguises in order to visit these restaurants without being recognized as the New York Times food critic and receiving special treatment. Parts of this are laugh-out-loud funny, and Reichl’s skills as a master storyteller are on show here. Such a fun read.

A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza.

36840397I don’t have the words. Part of what moved me so much about this book is that it was so emotionally resonant to my own family history, even though I grew up as a very conservative Christian rather than Muslim. I particularly enjoy/connect to stories that show how different family members experienced the same event in different ways. This book tells the story of an Indian-American Muslim family and their individual struggles with belonging. Parents, Leila and Rafiq have tried to instill their traditions and values in their children, but each of their three children has had to forge their own path. Leila and Rafiq have had to make difficult decisions about whether or not they can accept and embrace their children when their decisions don’t align with Leila and Rafiq’s hopes for them. The book opens at the wedding of Hadia, the family’s oldest child, who has chosen to marry for love rather than have an arranged marriage. The family are collectively holding their breath to see if the youngest sibling, Amar, will come to the wedding after being estranged from the family for three years. It’s a novel about the ways that families try (and often fail) to love each other well, and in that way, I think it is something we can all relate to. I think this book is a great choice for anyone who loved Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You.

Honorable Mentions go to: The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara, Heartless by Marissa Meyer, Tell Me More by Kelly Corrigan, I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell, and Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jessmyn Ward

You can always follow me on Goodreads for updates on what I am currently reading. Let me know if you have read or end up reading any of these!

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What I’m Into: January 2018

January always feels like a long month to me. Maybe it’s because we’re over the excitement of Christmas, but it’s still winter. Or maybe it’s because so many of us are trying so hard to make some changes and start fresh, and getting started on a new habit is always the hardest part. Regardless of why, I’m glad to be finished with January and moving towards spring, which comes early in the south. Here’s what January looked like for me.

What I’m Reading:

I read 9 books in January and got 2/3 of the way through two others, so I’m feeling good about hitting my reading goal of 125 in 2018, though I know it’s still early days. Follow me on Goodreads for updates.

 

The Spy by Paulo Coelho was actually my first Coelho book. It’s fairly short and tells the story of  Mata Hari, a woman who made her debut as a dancer in Paris in the early 1900’s and charmed her way into the upper eschelons of society where she was privy to secrets. She formed relationships with many powerful men and was eventually arrested in 1917 and accused of being a spy. This is a fictional account of the actual historical person.

Coincidentally, I also read The Alice Network this month which tells the story of two women, one of whom is also a spy during WWI and is part of a network of female spies. They actually reference Mata Hari in the book as another famous female spy. I’m very into drawing connections between things I read, watch, and experience in real life, so I really enjoyed it.  I liked this book quite a bit more than I expected to and found it to be a quick read even though it’s on the long side.

I read some fantastic nonfiction this month including, Born a Crime by Trevor Noah which uses his characteristic humor to share compelling stories of growing up as a biracial child (and therefore a child conceived illegally) under apartheid in South Africa. I listened to the audio version of One Day We’ll All be Dead and None of This Will Matter by Scaachi Koul which is a book of humorous and poignant essays about a lot of different topics dealing with race, gender, and identity. I think listening to it was the way to go because you really get to hear the author’s sense of humor. Plus the short parts at the ends of each chapter that are read by “her father” are hilarious. I also read Kelly Corrigan’s new book, Tell Me More. I really love Kelly Corrigan. Her writing reminds me of Cheryl Strayed in some ways and I thought this book was great. Anne Lamott’s Hallelujah Anyway has some great nuggets woven in, but overall I don’t think it was one of her best.

I read Sara Gruen’s newest book, At the Water’s Edge and didn’t think it was anything special. It was like Water for Elephants except substitute the circus for Scotland and and the elephant to searching for the Loch Ness Monster.

The Unseen World, however was really interesting. I’m still not entirely sure what I thought about it, but it was intriguing on several levels. It tells the story of Ada Sibelius who is raised unconventionally by her father who is a brilliant scientist who keeps Ada isolated from the experiences that most other children have growing up. When her father begins to experience the early stages of dementia, Ada is forced to join the rest of the world for the first time. Meanwhile she tries to uncover her father’s secrets before they are lost forever inside of his mind. I can’t decide if I feel like this book had one too many twists or not, but overall I really liked it.

I also read Young Jane Young by Gabrielle Zevin for my book club. It’s roughly based on the Monica Lewinsky scandal, but told entirely from the perspectives of females involved. It’s a multi-generational story of female voices that is meant to be an indictment of slut shame culture. I’m not sure if it succeeds in doing that, but it was a relatively fun and easy read.

What I’m Watching:

I finally starting watching The Crown after having it recommended to me over and over again. I’m halfway through Season 2 and I love it even though I pretty much hate Phillip. I am just one episode behind on This Is Us  and continue to think it is brilliant even though it always makes me cry. Jonathan and I have been watching The Good Place since it’s been back on. I am really impressed with the ways that show continues to be clever and creative and to take the story in new directions. I also binge-watched the first season of Riverdale which as scratched the itch I sometimes feel for Pretty Little Liars now that that’s over. The only problem is that I don’t have access to Season 2 yet so I have to wait for it to come to Netflix. Which I know is not a real problem, but still.

What I’m Writing:

I finally got back to my blog this month and posted a Favorite Books of 2017 post, my Year in Review post, my What I Plan to Read in 2018 post, and one of my favorite posts I’ve ever written, We Must Risk Delight: Or How to Combat the Devil One Tattoo at a Time.

What I’ve Been Doing:

My world is dominated by my many jobs (I run an international student program during the day, but also do a ton of after school tutoring and some freelance writing) Just after New Year’s, Jonathan left for 6 days to do some serious writing as he prepares to turn in his thesis. I have to admit, I didn’t mind having the house to myself for 6 days, though I was definitely glad to see him when he got back.

I got my new tattoo and we went to Charlotte to visit our dear friends and their (now 4 month old!) baby, Shepherd.  We also had a magical Snow Day off of school that week. It wasn’t magical because of the snow because we didn’t actually get any, even though places as close as an hour away got several inches. It was just magical because we got a surprise day off.

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The following weekend, I took a group of 16 international students up to Asheville for the weekend. Most of them had never been and we enjoyed the artsy downtown area before heading up to a lodge on a lake that we had rented out. We went with my boss, my work wife (Rachel), and another teacher. It was such a great time. I wish I could share pictures of the kids, but I don’t feel comfortable sharing too much about my school or my students online. Just trust me when I say they are adorable.

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The other thing that dominated this month (and our lives in general) was conversations about what we will do when Jonathan graduates in May. There are a million questions with no good answers and this has frankly been a very stressful period of time. It sort of feels like hurtling towards a giant crater of unknown. My favorite.

What I’ve Been Loving:

Barre classes. Seriously. I never would have thought I would get into barre, because those classes are HARD and make me feel like I’m dying, but I keep going back. I started trying out barre back in September because my friend Meredith was getting certified to teach and have been going fairly consistently ever since. I try to get there 2-3 times a week. Every time, I don’t know why I put myself through the torture, but I also come out of it feeling like I worked really hard. This hasn’t necessarily translated into any great physical change since barre will do a lot more toning than it will overall fat burning, but I feel stronger and more graceful. I also mix it up by doing zumba about once a week, which I am terrible at, but really enjoy.

My bullet journal. Yes, it takes time to make it look like this. Time that could probably be better spent elsewhere. BUT it keeps me organized, helps me with the 3,000 things I have to do every day for different jobs and clients and friends and family members, and gives me a way to remember how I’ve spent my time. I also like that I can change up the layout every week if I want depending on what I have going on.

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My boots. If you know me in real life, you probably know that I am shoe girl. Like hardcore. I just love shoes. I’m not even going to try to defend it. This month I’ve particularly loved my boot collection. I think I wore a pair of boots every single day of January. I firmly believe there is a boot to fit every outfit and every occasion. Which is how I justify every new pair of boots I buy. And then there are boots like these, which are so extra, they are their own occasion.  But tell me, how can you have these on your feet and not feel happy?

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My Letterfolk board. Jonathan surprised me with this as a birthday present. I admit, it can also be a bit of a time suck thinking of what to write and putting each of those little letters in place. But also…it’s fun! I usually post mine to Instagram. Like a cool kid.

If you want to read more posts like this, head over to Leigh Kramer’s blog and check out her link up. In the meantime, what have you loved this month? Anything recommendations for me?

 

What I’m Into: March 2016 Edition

I freaking love spring. Even though my car is positively yellow with pollen and the temperature fluctuates from 48 to 85 in one day, I love it. I love the colors, I love the sunshine, I love the warmth. I love the long, light-filled evenings. Basically, I’m a fan. Linking up with Leigh Kramer for this post.

What I’m Reading:

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande. This book blew me away. Surgeon Atul Gawande explores what it might look like if we accepted the inevitability of our own mortality, and if doctors specifically focused not just on prolonging life at all costs, but on helping people die well. One of the most compelling parts was considering how the seriously ill might choose to live their remaining days if they accepted the limits of their lives instead of living through invasive procedure after procedure on the slim hope of buying more time later. (This doesn’t mean assisted suicide). I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it and have awkwardly worked it into dinner conversations with people who probably have no interest in discussing their own mortality, but what better mark of a great book than that you feel compelled to talk about it even in inappropriate contexts?

Scary Close: Dropping the Act and Finding True Intimacy by Donald Miller. I enjoyed this book about Miller’s own struggle to recognize the masks he hides behind and to recognize unhealthy and codependent tendencies. He is brutally honest about his own insecurities and the things he has used to cover them. This was a quick read and it made me think about how I conduct my own relationships.

Happiness for Beginners by Katherine Center. Thirty-two year old Helen Carpenter seeks to rediscover herself after a bad divorce by signing up for a 3-week intensive wilderness survival course. She isn’t counting on her annoying little brother’s annoying best friend tagging along (cue the romantic tension). This is basically Wild as a fiction book. It had some charming moments and I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t anything that will stay with me long-term.

Carry On by Rainbow Rowell. This is a YA fantasy book. I think it would have had more significance for me if I’d read Fangirl, but I haven’t. It’s a stand-alone story about a boy magician named Simon Snow. While there is the Harry Potter-esque set-up of a magical school and a boy who is destined to be the most powerful mage of all time, we pick up the story in Simon’s 8th and final year of school. There are passing references to fights with dragons and previous encounters with the insidious humdrum, but the reader is dropped into the middle of an ongoing story which makes the setting feel less stale. Each chapter is a first-person narrative from a different character’s perspective. I felt like Rowell was giving an intentional nod to all the conventions of YA magical school fantasy, then proceeding to turn those conventions on their heads. There is a mysterious headmaster, the Mage, but there are also gay vampires.  One fun element is that the system of magic spells is tied to common figures of speech, nursery rhymes, and even the lyrics to Bohemian Rhapsody, so phrases like, “Easy come, easy go,” have magical power.

Someday, Someday, Maybe by Lauren Graham (of Gilmore Girls and Parenthood fame). When 26-year-old Franny Banks moved to New York to become an actress, she set a deadline for herself. At the end of three years she would either be successful or give up and move on. Now that deadline is looming and Franny is frantically trying to navigate what she is and isn’t willing to do in pursuit of her dream. No great literature here, but it wasn’t poorly written and was a nice light read with a funny and charming protagonist.

Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt. I recently started a book club and this was our first pick. I LOVED this book and discussing it with others during book club made my appreciation of it even richer. It’s 1987, and 14-year-old June Elbus has just lost her uncle Finn, the person she loved most in the world, to AIDS. At Finn’s funeral, June sees a mysterious stranger who she later learns is Toby, her uncle’s secret lover. Unwilling and unable to completely let Finn go, June forges a secret friendship with Toby, the only person in the world who might just miss Finn more than she does. Through her friendship with Toby, June learns more about her own family, about compassion, and about what real love looks like.

I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman by Nora Ephron. This is a quick read that will make lots of women laugh (and maybe men too). While I’m not at the same life stage as Ephron was while writing this, I still enjoyed her humorous take on some of the more ridiculous aspects of what society expects of women.

Currently reading: Still Life by Louise Penny, The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah, Bringing up Bebe by Pamela Druckerman , and Night Driving by Addie Zierman. Follow me on Goodreads for more of what I’m reading.

What I’m Watching

I finally made it to the end of Revenge which I’ve been watching on Netflix on and off for more than a year. The finale was somewhat satisfying. I also watched all of the Full House reboot, Fuller House. I think this is largely for people who are nostalgic about the original show as many details as well as entire plot lines are updated versions of well known Full House episodes.It’s corny, but as someone who grew up on Full House, I still kind of loved it.

This month we enjoyed a weekend getaway to a cabin outside of Asheville. While we were there we watched The Intern and Burnt (which I always refer to as “Bradley Cooper, Chef”). I liked both of these movies a lot. We also made it to see Zootopia which was cute.

What I’m Listening To

I don’t miss an episode of Anne Bogel’s What Should I Read Next? podcast and find it great fun to listen to while I’m running – something I have been making a big effort to do more of. I’ve also gotten into a band called I am They who I first heard in my friend’s car. I think they’re from Nashville and I think their music is perfect for easy listening. Very peaceful.

What I’m Eating

I have been making a very serious effort to eat better, which for me means limiting starches and sugars and eating lots and lots of veggies and fruits and fish and some lean meats. This means I have no enticing pictures to share with you. Except. I did make this lemonade cake for Easter. Which is one of my all-time favorites.

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Follow me on Pinterest for more recipes!

What I’m Writing

As you probably know, I’ve been pretty MIA from blogging this month. It was an unintentional hiatus, but I’m glad that I took some time off. I was feeling a little burnt out and if you keep reading, you’ll see why. I did do some writing to apply for a summer writing fellowship I’ve heard great things about, but unfortunately I wasn’t accepted.

The two pieces I published on the blog this month were this one about my relationship with “Mr. Jones,” a homeless man who I give reading lessons to and this one about managing my anxiety. I also continued to submit one post each week to Modernize, but they are behind on their publishing schedule and don’t have anything new up yet.

What I’ve Been Up To:

March was actually kind of nuts. In the best way. The first weekend I drove up to the Charlotte area to visit my adorably preggo friend, Asharae. The next day I went to Spartanburg to visit one of my oldest and dearest friends who has a new boyfriend I felt the need to meet and pass judgment on.

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The following week, Jonathan’s parents and sister came to visit for a few days during Spring Break. I was not on spring break and had to work during the day, but it was still great to see them. We’ve been back in America for 7 months and we’ve seen Jonathan’s family four different times, which is amazing when we’d only seen them twice in the previous two years. My good friend (and college roommate) Taylor also came up from Charleston to visit for an afternoon.

The next week I hosted the first meeting of the Badass Book Club where we discussed Tell the Wolves I’m Home. It was such a great evening and we had a great discussion. That weekend Jonathan and I went on a short getaway to Asheville, NC. We stayed in a cabin a little north of Asheville -actually it was the exact same cabin we stayed in on another getaway four years ago when we were living in Raleigh. It was such a sweet time and a great opportunity to relax and just hang out together. The view was beautiful and there was an awesome hot tub.

It was especially nice to get away because the following week I had to teach a two-day business writing workshop at a local company. This was my first experience doing anything like this and I was incredibly nervous and unsure about my materials, content, and presentation, but it went well and they have already asked me to come back and do the workshop again for a different group of employees.

That week was the week of Easter and part of my church’s Easter tradition is to celebrate the Seder (Passover) meal on Maundy Thursday. We do this in small groups in each other’s homes. I went to my friends Ben and Leslie’s house and celebrated with their family and another family from our church. We went through the traditional meal with all of the symbolism. Since there were six kids there, it was a little chaotic, but also a lot of fun.

On Easter Sunday we went to church and then shared a delicious Easter lunch with our friends Buffy and Ian and their kids (and Ian’s mom). Our dear friends Brandon and Christy happened to be passing through town that afternoon and Buffy and Ian kindly invited them to join us for lunch. We had a great afternoon eating yummy foods and enjoying each others’ company. Also, my mom sent me these Jasmine pajamas in the mail for Easter!

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This last week of March was supposed to be a bit slower-paced, but I found out on Monday that I would need to prepare and teach a demo class at the school I tutor at. This was part of the interview process for a 5th grade teaching position I am applying to for next school year. I spent most of this week in an adrenaline frenzy. I gave the lesson yesterday morning and it seemed to go well, though I don’t have my hopes up about the position since there are other candidates with better experience and qualifications. But, you never know until you try!

If you’ve stuck with me to the end, thank you so much for reading! I hope you are enjoying spring as much as I am and I would love to hear about what you’ve been into and up to this month!

Friday Book Chats: “Middle Child” Books (Easily Overlooked)

I’ve been thinking lately about how very hard it must be to be a novelist. Not only is there so much work that goes into writing, and then the pressure of trying to get published and then hoping people buy it and then hoping it gets good reviews, etc. And even if you manage to achieve all of that, the buzz around a particular book only lasts for so long and then you have to do it all over again.

For today’s book chat I wanted to write about some really good books that you may not have heard of, or at least may not have heard about in a while. These aren’t exactly obscure books, but they are what I’d call “Middle Child” books.They are too old to still be hyped up and popular but they aren’t old enough to be classics and most have authors that are  better-known for other works. While none of these books are all-time favorites, they are all books that I rate highly and would recommend.

DeerskinDeerskin by Robin McKinley (1993). McKinley was one of my favorite authors growing up. She was writing young adult fantasy before that genre really existed. While I read and loved every one of her books (highly, highly recommend The Hero and the Crown), I remember being awestruck by this one, perhaps in part because it was one of my first forays out of true children’s books and into something weightier. Princess Lissla Lissar is on the cusp of womanhood, a beauty only equal to her dead mother, but she is forced to flee her kingdom when that likeness sparks her father’s lust and madness. She flees with her loyal dog, Ash, eventually finding a job working in the kennels for another king where the prince becomes captivated by the kennel maid and tells her stories until one day he tells her the story of Lissla Lissar.

Lake of DreamsThe Lake of Dreams by Kim Edwards (2011). Edwards is best known for The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, but The Lake of Dreams is worth a read. This beautifully atmospheric book tells the story of Lucy Jarrett who has returned home to a small town in upstate New York after years of living abroad. When Lucy finds a collection of objects inside a window seat, she realizes she has stumbled onto some family secrets. Lucy begins a quest for answers about the objects she’s found and about the unresolved death of her father a decade earlier.

People of the BookPeople of the Book by Geraldine Brooks (2008). Brooks is a Pulitzer-prize winning author (for March in 2006, also a great book) whose books are heavily rooted in real historical events. Inspired by a true story, this book traces the story of a rare illuminated manuscript and the people who loved it and preserved it through centuries of war and exile. When the Sarajevo Haggadah is rescued from Bosnia, Hanna Heath, a rare-book expert, is given a once-in-a-lifetime  chance to study it. This book takes Hanna and the reader on a journey that is both historically fascinating and emotionally evocative. I’ve read reviews of this book from people who didn’t connect with it at all, but I thought it was fascinating.

American WifeAmerican Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld (2008). Sittenfeld is probably best known for her debut novel, Prep, which I didn’t love. I was intrigued by this novel because it’s a complete work of fiction whose main character, Alice Blackwell, is heavily modeled after Laura Bush. One of the most interesting elements of this book to me was the exploration of a character who doesn’t hold all of the same political or social views as her husband and is put in position where she has to decide what it looks like to support someone she doesn’t always agree with.

History of LoveThe History of Love by Nicole Krauss (2006). Krauss’ more recent book, Great House, is also well worth reading, but this was the first book of hers I read and I’m attached to it. Until recently she was married to writer Jonathan Safran Foer (Everything is Illuminated, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close) and I can see some similarities in their work. Leo Gursky is a tired old Polish immigrant who lives a quiet, lonely life, but once upon a time he was young and in love and he wrote a book. 14-year-old Alma was named after a character in that book and she is determined to find her namesake, even though it’s been 60 years since the book was written.

Yiddish Policeman's UnionThe Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon (2007). Chabon is the author of one of my all-time favorite books, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (which won the Pulitzer in 2000). The thing I love about Chabon is that he strongly believes that a book can be both literary and entertaining. He often experiments with classic genre fiction, and this book is a prime example. The Yiddish Policeman’s Union is a police detective story mixed with a dose of 1940’s noir. A small community of Jewish refugees have made their home in Sitka, Alaska where they were offered temporary asylum after WWII, but now their little world is about to change as their district reverts to Alaskan control. For homicide detective Meyer Landsman, this is just one more part of his life that is falling apart. When Landsman begins to investigate the murder of his neighbor, he receives instructions to drop the case from his supervisor – who is also his estranged wife. Landsman pursues the case anyway with startling results.

Do you have any books you wish more people knew about? Or books you love that don’t seem to get enough credit? Please share in the comments. I’m always looking for new suggestions!

Friday Book Chats: Summer Reading List

Summer always feels like the perfect time for fun, quick reads. Even people who aren’t normally big readers seem more inclined to pick up a book while lounging by the pool or on the beach. Below are my recommendations for some great summer reads. I’m not including some of this summer’s hot books (like Harper Lee’s highly anticipated Go Set a Watchman) because I only wanted to share books that I’ve actually read and could confidently recommend.

These aren’t all chick-lit or completely mindless, escapist books (though some are), but they are all books I found to be fairly quick, enjoyable reads that remind me of summer for one reason or another. I’ve written about some of these in past posts, but some are new. I broke them into categories to make it easier to find something you might like.

I read all kinds of books in lots of different genres and some books I recommend do have some language, sexual content, or violence in them, so if you’re concerned about anything in particular, just leave me a comment and I’ll be happy to give you more details.

Contemporary:

Liane Moriarty books – Moriarty is just a great storyteller and her plots are fresh and unique and interesting. I’ve read all of her books except one and really enjoyed all of them. While a lot of her main characters are female, I think men would enjoy some of them, too. I’d start with What Alice Forgot or Big Little Lies.

Jennifer Weiner books – I’ve enjoyed most of her books. They aren’t totally chick lit as the plot and characters are more developed and complex than your typical romance, but they are definitely more focused on women and women’s issues and are very quick reads. I’d start with In Her Shoes or Good in Bed.

Maine by J. Courtney Sullivan. The cover of this book is a bit misleading. It looks like a nice beach read. It is a fairly quick read, but it’s more a domestic drama than a feel-good summer fling book. It tells the story of four women from three generations of the dysfunctional Kelleher family centered around their month spent in close quarters at the family summer home in Maine.

The Help by Kathryn Stockett. This book really is worth the hype. If you haven’t read it yet, this summer would be a great time!

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter. I love this book for summer because it takes place in so many exotic locations. This book follows artists of different types – a writer, an actress, a film producer, and a musician, from post-war Italy to modern-day Hollywood and weaves each of their stories together in a unique way.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple.  15-year-old Bee is preparing to leave for boarding school, but first she and her family will take a long-anticipated trip to Antarctica. That is, until her mother, Bernadette, disappears. Bee pieces together all the information she can find to figure out what happened to her mother.

Classics:

Gatsby

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I love this book even though it’s sad. Every time I readTo_Kill_a_Mockingbird it I’m transported to this beautiful, magical summer that’s as intoxicating as it is tragic.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Since I can’t recommend Lee’s new book, the least I can do is insist that you read this classic if you haven’t before. It’s relatively short and an easy read, but so so good.

Young Adult:

The Grisha Trilogy, by Leigh Bardugo. I read this entire trilogy this month and I think it’s fantastic. Very fast read, engaging, interesting world/plot/characters, etc. It’s definitely “fantasy lite” so don’t read it with the expectation that you’re heading into an epic saga, but I couldn’t put them down.

John Green books. The Fault in Our Stars, Looking for Alaska, Paper Towns, and An Abundance of Katherines. Green is the master of YA literature for the simple reason that he captures so perfectly what it is to be an adolescent, to ask big questions about life, and to expect more than trite answers. Not always happy books, but always moving.

Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series  by Ann Brashares. These aren’t new books, but if you like YA fiction and you missed them the first time around, I think they are worth the read. Of course, the premise is kind of ridiculous, but the individual stories of the girls go far beyond summer romances or petty fights. There are five books in the series, with the last one, Sisterhood Everlastingcrossing over into adult fiction as it picks up the girls’ lives 10 years later as they are about to turn 30.

Mystery:

What the Dead Know by Laura Lippman. Lippman has a large mystery series involving her character detective Tess Monaghan, but this one is a stand-alone novel. The Bethany sisters disappeared from a shopping mall 30 years ago. Now a woman has turned up claiming to be Heather Bethany, but nothing she tells the police seems to check out.

Jackson Brodie mysteries by Kate Atkinson. I genuinely think Atkinson is one of the best writers of our time and I love what she brings to the mystery genre. Her Jackson Brodie mysteries interweave the personal life of Jackson Brodie, an ex-cop turned Private Investigator, with mysteries that range from the mundane to the criminal to the bizarre. Start with Case Histories.

Veronica Mars: The Thousand Dollar Tan Line by Rob Thomas and Jennifer Graham. OK, I lied about having read all of these. I haven’t read this yet, BUT I have watched all of Veronica Mars including the movie. As far as I understand it, this book picks up right where the movie ends and is as good as it is in television/movies. Sounds like the perfect summer read to me!

Fantasy:

Gentlemen Bastards

The Gentleman Bastards Series by Scott Lynch. Besides the books I always write about (*cough* Way of Kings *cough cough* Name of the Wind) this series is an especially fun summer read. Think Pirates of the Caribbean meets Oceans Eleven and you will get some idea of these books which involve a clever band of thieves and con-artists seeking to have it all. The first book in the series is The Lies of Locke Lamora.

Historical Fiction:

GuernseyThe Guernsey Literary and Potato Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. This is a heartwarming epistolary novel about writer Juliet Ashton who is looking for a subject for her next book when she receives a letter from a total stranger living on Geurnsey island. This book is a record of their correspondence as Juliet learns about the resilient people of Guernsey living in he aftermath of German occupation during WWII.

19398490-1

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. This book just (deservedly) received the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. This is a WWII novel and while it is very literary, it’s also quite easy to read. It’s really a beautiful book if you are looking for something a little more substantial, but easy to get into.  In alternating chapters the book tells the story of a blind French girl whose father is the Keeper of the Locks for the Museum of Natural History in Paris and a German orphan boy whose talent with engineering gets him recruited into an elite military academy and then sent into the field tracking the Resistance during WWII.

Humor/Memoir/Spiritual Memoir:

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? by Mindy Kaling. I just want to be Mindy Kaling’s best friend. If you are a fan of The Mindy Project, you will love this book.

Bossypants by Tina Fey. As with above, if you love Tina Fey from SNL or 30 Rock or Mean Girls, then you will enjoy this book. I’ve heard that it’s even better as an audio book because Fey reads it herself.

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading by Nina Sankovitch. I just read this last month and forgot to write about it. I think this is the perfect book to get you in the mood for a summer of reading. After the death of her sister, Sankovitch throws herself headlong into her life, cramming it full to the brim with activities only to find herself exhausted a few years later. Unable to continue at her current pace she decided to slow down. She reads one book a day for an entire year and writes about the healing and growth that come from stories.

An Altar in the World by Barbara Brown Taylor. This is my favorite BBT book and it strikes me as summery because of how much it focuses on the holiness of our ordinary days, especially emphasizing nature and being physically present in the world. Summer always feels like the season I spend most “in” my body in a way – more time spent outside and more time in tune with things like sweat and the power of the sun and the sweet relief of a cool breeze.

Maybe next week I’ll post about what’s on my personal summer reading list (though it’s partially all those books I mentioned that I own and haven’t read yet).

What’s on YOUR summer reading list? (Or, you know, winter, for my friends in the Southern Hemisphere!)

Friday Book Chats: My Favorite Contemporary Literary Fiction

As part of my Book Chat I’ve decided to share some of my all-time favorite books in different genres.  Contemporary literary fiction is sort of a mouthful as far as a genre goes so let me clarify – these are adult fiction books that have been written in the past 20 years or so and that are highly literary in style. These are the types of books that win major literature prizes and awards, but are still deeply engaging. Many of these books are a bit slower-paced, written with careful attention to the language, the character development, the tone, and the greater themes rather than being primarily plot-driven. These are the kinds of books that might take a bit longer to get into, but will stay with you forever.

Disclaimer: my book recommendations may contain language, sexual content, or (non-gratuitous) violence. I don’t discount books based on those things if I think they serve a purpose or don’t detract from the overall impact of the book. If you have specific questions about the content of a particular book, I’d be happy to answer them!

As always, there is a list of current Kindle sales on books I recommend at the end of this post.

Peace like a River Peace Like a River by Leif Enger. This book is narrated by 11-year-old Reuben Land who is traveling with his father Jeremiah and his sister Swede through the Dakota Badlands in search of his fugitive brother, Davy, wanted for killing two men who were terrorizing his family. The true hero of this story is the father, Jeremiah, an Atticus-Finch-like character who is known for a faith so devout he’s been rumored to produce miracles. This is a book about family and faith, about unseen spirituality and maybe even magic that hides itself in ordinary places. And, of course, it is about love. This book is stunning.

 

Kavalier and Clay The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon. This book very deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize in 2001. This book has everything – Houdini-style escape artists, comic book superheros, and the American dream. (Side Note: Every time I say something “has everything” I can’t help hearing it in the voice of Stefon from SNL. “This place has everything – sheep, freckles, potato people, a room full of heprichauns…”) In all seriousness, I think one of the things that makes Michael Chabon such a fantastic writer is his ability to take things you may not be interested in, maybe even something you’ve never given any thought to, and make it compelling. This is the story of Joe Kavalier, a young Jewish artist who escapes from Nazi occupied Prague and ends up in New York City with his cousin, Sammy Clay, who convinces him to help create a comic book series with a hero to rival Superman. It’s an unconventional, yet quintessential story of the American dream.

Poisonwood Bible The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. Gah. I don’t even know where to start. This book has five alternating narrators, the wife and four daughters of intense Baptist missionary Nathan Price. In 1959 Price takes his family to the Belgian Congo where he tries to force both Christianity and Western culture on a land and a people who are unwilling or unable to assimilate. This book is fascinating, disturbing, compelling, and unforgettable. As a side note, every other book of Kingsolver’s that I’ve read has also been great. I’d start with The Bean Trees.

 

19398490-1All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. This was a best book of the year for many in 2014. In alternating chapters the book tells the story of a blind French girl whose father is the Keeper of the Locks for the Museum of Natural History in Paris and a German orphan boy whose talent with engineering gets him recruited into an elite military academy and then sent into the field tracking the Resistance during WWII. It is a gorgeous and haunting book.

 

 

 Extremely Loud and InExtremely loudcredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer. This book is (partially) narrated by Oskar Schell, an exceptionally intelligent, eccentric, and precocious nine-year-old who has recently lost in father in the 9/11 attacks on New York City. Oskar finds a key among his father’s possessions and becomes fixated on finding the lock this key fits into. His quest takes him all over New York City and into the lives of hundreds of people also reeling in the aftermath of the attacks. Some people felt this book was emotionally manipulative or that the use of the child narrator was gimmicky in some way, but I’ve read this multiple times and it will always be a favorite of mine. I think it is deeply moving, profound, and also entertaining.

Bridge of Sighs Bridge of Sighs by Richard Russo. Russo won the Pulitzer Prize for his book, Empire Falls, in 2002 and Empire Falls is also a spectacular book, but I have a slight preference for this one. Russo is known for his small town settings and average-Joe characters who resonate with readers so deeply because they remind us that even the simplest and smallest lives are complex and rich with meaning. Bridge of Sighs tells the story of Louis Charles “Lucy” Lynch, a 60 year old man who has lived contentedly in Thomaston, New York his entire life building a successful chain of convenience stores, now writing his memoirs. Lucy, who has barely been outside of his hometown, is preparing to take a trip to Italy to see his childhood best friend, now a renowned painter. The juxtaposition of these two men – the one who never left and the one who couldn’t stay –and the story of their strange, undefinable friendship is mesmerizing.

Honorable Mentions go to: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht, The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert, Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, and Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

What are your favorite contemporary literary fiction books?

Kindle Books On Sale

*As of February 27th. I use the US Amazon site. Prices may vary on other sites.

New on sale this week:

To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee ($3.99)

Leaving Church, Barbara Brown Taylor ($3.99)

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot ($1.99) I read this book a few years ago and found it very interesting – it’s the story of a poor black tobacco farmer whose cells were taken without her knowledge and became instrumental in hundreds of medical innovations from the polio vaccine to gene mapping.

 Mistborn– The Final Empire, Brandon Sanderson  ($4.99) This is the first book in Sanderson’s Mistborn fantasy trilogy.

Still on sale from last week:

Found: A Story of Questions, Grace, and Everyday Prayer, Micha Boyett ($3.03) One of my best books of 2014 and one of my favorite spiritual memoirs.

Girl Meets GodLauren Winner ($1.99) I actually haven’t read this one yet, but I did buy it. I read Winner’s more recent book Still (see below) just this month and am now curious to read this book, her first, which tells the story of her conversion from Orthodox Judaism to Christianity.

Looking for AlaskaJohn Green ($2.80) This is the author who wrote The Fault in Our Stars. I’m just finishing this book now and have enjoyed it. It’s a coming of age story that, like Green’s other books, deals with the usual sex, booze, and rebellion parts of adolescence, but also grief, loss and the greater meaning of life.

Paper TownsJohn Green ($3.99) I haven’t read this one, but wanted to include it for John Green fans who might like to pick it up.

Me Before YouJoJo Moyes ($2.99) Ambitionless twenty-six year old Louise loses her job and takes a temporary position as a caretaker for a 35 year old quadripalegic who challenges her to live life on a grander scale. This is a quick read, but not a particularly light one.  Be warned that you’ll need Kleenex.

The Secret Life of Bees, Sue Monk Kidd ($3.99). There’s a reason this book is so popular. It’s great.

The Fault in Our Stars, John Green ($2.99) So good, but read with tissues.

Eleanor and Park, Rainbow Rowell ($4.99) Just finished this a few days ago. One of my new favorite young adult novels. So sweet.

Big Little Lies, Liane Moriarty ($3.99) Wrote about this here. Really love all of her books.

Three Wishes, Liane Moriarty ($2.99)

Name of the Wind, Patrick Rothfuss ($4.99) I’ve already talked about this like 7 times, but if you need a refresher, read the blurb on this post.

The Wise Man’s Fear, Patrick Rothfuss ($5.99) See above.

The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern ($4.99) I adore this book.

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