Sunday, September 25, 2016

Reading Roundup: August 2016

The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson

I really liked Simonson's first book, although it had a contemporary setting rather than a historical one like this book. Like her last book, this one's great strengths are its characters and its setting. There are, however, a lot of characters in the book and some of them are more effectively realized than others. I also thought the book had a lot of hot-button issues crammed into it (war crimes, refugees, suffrage, homosexuality, class conflicts, etc) in a way that felt a little strained at times. However, despite those shortcomings, I had a great time reading it, and I still think about the characters and their little village more than a month after ending the book. I've seen at least one review recommending this book for fans of Downton Abbey, and I think that's a great comparison.

The Well of Ascension by Brandon Sanderson

I read most of this book while finishing the fourth book of Harry Potter with the kids, and I noticed a lot of interesting parallels--they're both kind of bloated and slow-paced, and they both involve a lot of discussion and debate about the best way to confront a particular enemy. That doesn't mean I didn't enjoy either of them, but there were parts of both that were a bit of a slog and could have been tightened up considerably. And maybe the angst could have been toned down a bit too.

Windfallen by Jojo Moyes

This book started slow and didn't get much better with time. I think it's one of Moyes' first books and it shows--there are too many characters and the plot is too convoluted, so some things really don't get resolved. 

The Crucible of Doubt by Terryl Givens and Fiona Givens

This was my book club read for the month, and while I can see how it would be really powerful for some people, it wasn't necessarily that significant for me. I think it's a great book for people who are struggling with Church culture and who would respond to something that leans more orthodox in its approach, but I already agreed with a lot of things said in it.

Truly, Madly, Guilty by Liane Moriarty

I have loved most of Moriarty's previous books and she's one of my favorite 'fluff' authors when I just want a fun book to escape into for a few hours. Some of her books have been better than others, and this one wasn't really one of my favorites. There were just too many characters and too much switching between points of view to really get invested in the story, and some of the characters were really difficult to sympathize with. I also found the amount of switching between past and present too much to really keep up with and felt like it disrupted the flow of the story.

Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner

This was my second time reading this book, and I was surprised to find that I enjoyed it even more the second time around. It's interesting reading this book about the dynamics of marriage and of friend relationships, and particularly married-couple-friendships now that I'm no longer married. Now that I'm outside that particular life situation it felt easier to see both the benefits and the problems as Stegner outlines them. And, well, Stegner is just an amazing writer and such a pleasure to read (For what it's worth, I may also have enjoyed this so much since it came after reading several mediocre books in a row).

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Reading Roundup: July 2016

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

I've heard about this book for several years, but the way it was described didn't really catch my attention. I had focused too much on the 'time travel' aspect and worried that it would feel contrived or gimmicky. Instead, the book pulled me in and I had a hard time letting go (I think I still have a book hangover a month later). The repetitious aspects of the story actually worked to deepen my connection with the characters--I was invested in their choices more and more, each time we reviewed them. One review that I read called this book something like a 'love letter' to early twentieth-century England, and it really is in many ways. It's not always a 'pleasant' book and doesn't shy away from grim details, but it is 'lovely' in the sense that it creates a world and characters that are deeply loved and love each other. It's one of my new favorite books and the one I'm going to be recommending to everyone I know.

Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson

I probably would have liked this book more if I had not picked it up so soon after finishing Life After Life. It's a completely different sort of book, and once I got into it I really enjoyed it. The beginning was a bit slow and it took a while to wrap my brain around the different elements of the world and its conflicts. By the time I got to the last hundred pages, I couldn't put it down. 

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

I loved Olive Kitteridge so much that now I wonder if I will always be disappointed by anything else Strout writes. This book had great character development, but not much in way of conflict. Everything seemed very muted and I kept waiting for things to pick up some steam, or to be clarified. Nothing every really was and the book just ended. I didn't hate it, but I certainly didn't love it either.

A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson

I mentioned that I had a bit of a 'hangover' after reading Life After Life and didn't enjoy either of the books I read afterwards. Thankfully Atkinson had written a follow-up (focusing on one of the characters from the other book and his life), so I could get back into the world of the Todd family. It was just as good as the first book, and good in different ways. Without giving anything away, there was a bit of a trick at the end (I think--it's ambiguous), but I'm willing to forgive that because I liked the book so much.

Like No Other by Una LaMarche

This was another book that could have felt gimmicky, but thankfully wasn't. The characters felt very real and so did the conflicts. I particularly liked the ending--without spoiling it, I felt like it was a great ending for the characters given their ages and their circumstances.

The Monster of Florence by Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi

I've seen this book reviewed in two different ways--either as a thriller/horror book about a terrible serial killer, or as a literary true-crime book like In Cold Blood. Sadly, it didn't seem to fulfill either expectation very well. It does talk about a serial killer in Florence, but the storytelling gets bogged down in details and loses momentum. The story is long, and confusing, and involves a number of different people, and to tell it without embellishing is better journalism. However, it makes for a muddled book that is difficult to read because it lacks coherence and real tension. 

Three Wishes by Liane Moriarty

I've read most of Moriarty's books now and I know what to expect from them--family conflict and social commentary, mixed with some humor and absurdity as well. They're always a fun escape read that gets me laughing and thinking as well. This is Moriarty's first book, and it definitely feels unpolished compared to some of her later books that I've read. That being said, it was still a fun read and I laughed quite a lot while reading it.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Reading Roundup: June 2016

Sistering by Jennifer Quist

The humor in this book is fairly dark, but if you're ready for it, you'll have a great time reading it. The characters are all memorable, and each of the five sisters had a unique voice; the switching viewpoints felt natural instead of gimicky, like it does in too many other books I've read. The plot also kept me guessing (and cringing a little), and the ending was perfect. This is another unique and wonderful book by Quist and I look forward to reading more from her in the future.

Smarter, Faster, Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg

I loved Duhigg's book on habits and learned a lot of great things from it, so I was looking forward to this book. It had some useful information, but some parts of it felt a little too simplistic and redundant. A month after reading it, I don't remember much of it. 

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

It's been a number of years since I re-read this book and I had forgotten how snarky it is. The romance in it is great, and I think Willoughby is one of the best villains in all of Austen, but Austen's barbed comments about society really make this book fun.

Intuition by Allegra Goodman

This book had an interesting premise and conflict, but the characters were not developed enough for me to really distinguish them from each other or to care about them. They all seemed to have the same voice, and the motivations of the character who drives the action weren't always clear. It was an interesting read, but I felt like it kind of petered out at the end.

Secrets of a Charmed Life by Susan Meissner

The main character in this book was impulsive and made some dumb decisions, but she is a young teenager so it makes sense. Thankfully she does grow up, and as she did, I started to like her a lot more and I enjoyed the book. It had some twists I wasn't expecting and a satisfying ending.

What Was Mine by Helen Klein Ross

The description of this book made it sound like a thriller, but it really wasn't. In fact, there wasn't much emotion in the story at all and it felt somewhat flat to me. The author writes each chapter from the viewpoint of a different character, depending on which is the most convenient way to move the story forward. However, the different characters did not have distinctive voices, and their first-person narration sounded too much like responding to an interview ("this happened and this happened", etc) to make the book particularly interesting. The premise of this book was intriguing, but the execution was poor.

In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick

This was our book club pick for the month, otherwise I'm not sure if I would have read it. I've never read Moby Dick and have not felt much desire to read it--and this book didn't do a lot to convince me otherwise. It was a pretty compelling story and I learned a lot about the early history of whaling. It was, however, pretty gruesome in a lot of the details.

As Close to Us as Breathing by Elizabeth Poliner

This book is character driven, not plot driven, and it took me a while to get into it. It's somewhat meandering and moves back and forth in time quite a bit, but that just made it feel like I was really spending time getting to know the whole family. It was an enjoyable read and I'm still thinking about it a month later.


The Young Victoria

 I was still recovering from my trip to London and wanting to watch and read all things British, and thought this movie would fit the bill. It has gorgeous scenery and costumes, and the lead actors had real chemistry. The plot was a little muddled and I had to look a few things up on Wikipedia to remind myself of who was who and what was going on, but in the end this was a pleasant way to spend an evening.
Love & Friendship

This movie was hilarious, and I need to watch it again now that I've figured out who everyone is and how they fit together.  I've often said I read Austen for the social commentary and not so much for the romance and this movie really shows off Austen's wit. Everyone in it is just plain ridiculous.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Reading Roundup: May 2016

Exit, Pursued by a Bear by E. K. Johnston

This book is not particularly groundbreaking in its plot, but I really liked the characters and the fact that it realistically portrayed how difficult the healing process can be. I also appreciate books that demonstrate the importance of strong support networks in the lives of teens--sometimes teen books make it seem like kids just exist in isolation, but good books like this recognize the complex relationships they have with family, friends, and their communities. This would be a great book for older teens.

Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead

I kept waiting for the characters in this book to mature or grow in some way, and they really never did. I also think likeability is overrated, but some sort of sympathy for the characters needs to be created by the author, and I never quite felt that from this book. Even as I got to the end, I still didn't care much for the main character and did not feel very invested in the ending. 

In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri

This is one of the best books I've ever read about the struggles of learning a new language and the difficulties of translation. It made me want to start studying Italian again, or perhaps start learning a new language. She had so many wonderful descriptions of what it feels like to be limited in communication, as well as what it is like to find new forms of expression through new words. I don't know if other people will like this book as much as I did, since I'm a language geek and I already have studied Italian, but I thought it was excellent.

A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding by Jackie Copleton

Although some of the plot twists in this book were fairly conventional and I guessed them early on, it was still a great read and really drew me in. I thought the author did a particularly good job of describing the city and culture of Nagasaki during the early 20th century.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

I've read nothing but rave reviews of this book and I agree completely with them. I always enjoy memoirs and have been drawn to books about medicine for years, so it was a good fit. At this point in my life when I have several friends and family members dealing with cancer, it's hard to read a book like this at a distance. It really made me think about what it means to be mortal and how our perceptions of our self and our priorities can change as our life circumstances are altered. It's not, however, sentimental or trite in any way; it's a thoughtful book that I know I will keep contemplating for some time.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

It was fun to read this book while in London visiting many of the places mentioned in the book. It's a dense book and the writing style took some getting used to, but after pushing myself a bit, I really enjoyed it. Some historical fiction feels too much like contemporary characters dropped into a particular setting, but this book retains some of the foreignness of the past. This is not a book to quickly devour in an afternoon--it takes some time to read and think about everything that is going on.

Descent by Tim Johnston

This book seemed to be a little confused about whether it was a straight thriller or a more contemplative look at the effects of tragedy on a family. The beginning and the end were fast-paced, but the middle was a meandering look at the people left behind when someone disappears. It was a nice little 'vacation read', but I don't know if I'll remember much about it in a few months. 

A Traveller's History of England by Christopher Daniell

This was a great book to read before my trip. It was a little dry, but it moved through time rather quickly so that made it easier to read. I still am a bit confused about who reigned when, and would like to read some more in-depth coverage of certain periods of history, but this was a great start. 


The Big Short

I watched this on the plane over to London and I think I was a bit too distracted to follow the story well. It was interesting, but I think I need to watch it again sometime. 

Man Up

Another airplane show--I really enjoyed this little comedy (even while cringing at certain parts), mostly because the story and the actors were very real and relateable. It was a lot of fun.
About a Boy

I know I've seen this movie before, but I could barely remember it so I decided to watch it again. It's another great movie about very real people--the acting is a particular highlight.

Sunday, May 01, 2016

Reading Roundup: April 2016

Eleanor and the Iron King by Julie Daines

This book surprised me because I expected it to be more cheesy than it was. It's a bit of a mishmash of a romance and supernatural thriller, but the medieval setting makes that work somehow. The main character got on my nerves sometimes because she really took a long time to stop being dumb and start trusting the right people, but the supporting characters were all great and I also loved the setting.

The Answer to the Riddle is Me: A Memoir of Amnesia by David Stuart MacLean

This was our book club choice for this month and I think that most of us would give it about three stars out of five. Some parts of it were very interesting and engaging, especially the first half of the book and the interludes about the science of malaria and anti-malarial medication. The second half of the book began to feel repetitive and loses momentum--in a memoir it can be hard to fully shape the story and give it the right amount of tension, and this book fell a little flat in the end.

The World Before Us by Aislinn Hunter

This book has a lot of different threads, and some come together in the end and some don't. I liked it more than some of the reviews of it that I've read on Amazon--I think some of those who were disappointed expected a more straightforward mystery story, and this is not it. It's a little more literary and not everything is wrapped up or explained. I enjoyed that aspect of it as well as the interesting choice to have some sections of the book narrated by a collective group of people. 

The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner

There are so many things I loved about this book, I'm not even sure where to start. The three main characters had the potential to just be stereotypes, but they were all well-developed and sympathetic. The book tackles a number of heavy themes in an even-handed way, and the presence of religion was particularly handled well. I also really liked the relationships between the characters and their parents because they were complicated and nuanced, just like most parent-teen relationships. Too many teen books I've read either have the parents completely clueless in the background, or the source of all problems. This book has a little of both, and one character has some major epiphanies through conversations with their parents. This was one of the better YA books I've read in a while and I would definitely recommend it (probably best for older teens based on the subject matter--the content is fairly free from swear words and sex).
Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult

Picoult is really good at writing compelling plots with lots of crazy twists, and not so good at developing realistic characters or dialogue. This book kept me reading and I was surprised by many of the revelations of the plot (especially a big one that I did not see coming); I also like the information about elephants that was interspersed throughout the book. I probably won't remember much of this book in a few months, but it was a fun and quick read.

Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger

As I was reading this book, I kept being reminded of the book Peace Like a River by Leif Enger; they both feature young adult protagonists in the upper Midwest during the 1960s. This is a very different book as far as plot and writing style go, but the mood was similar and so was the focus on the landscape and people. The descriptions of the town of New Berlin and all its different inhabitants were some of my favorite parts of this book, as well as the relationships between Frank and the different members of his family. There was a mystery to be solved at the heart of the book, and although I was happy to have everything figured out, I was also a little sad when things were are all resolved and the book ended because I know I will miss the people and the places described in it.

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

I wasn't very impressed with the first book I read by Kidd, so I was reluctant to read this book (it's our book club selection for May). This book covers a long time period and the plot feels a bit too drawn out because of that. None of the characters change very much either--the "good" ones are always good and the "bad" ones are always bad--they do a lot of things, but there isn't much change in their feelings or motivations. I didn't dislike the book and enjoyed reading it, but I didn't feel particularly moved by it in any way.

The Dressmaker's War by Mary Chamberlain

It's been a while since I last read a book I hated so much (I probably particularly hated this one because I read it after reading several amazing books in a row, so it was a big let-down). The main character is extremely arrogant and immature, and never changes throughout the entire book. Despite the fact that a number of things happen to her, she remains a self-absorbed victim who can't ever see a bigger picture or understand the motives of other people. The plot went in crazy directions and there were several unbelievable coincidences, and the last third of the book took things in a really unexpected direction that was not foreshadowed at all. I kept reading this book just to see if it would get better, but it never did.



Although I'm glad I read the book first, I still totally loved this movie. The book is much richer and the characterization of the protagonist is a little different, but the movie does a beautiful job adapting the story. The main actors were both excellent in their roles and so was the rest of the supporting cast. The only thing that could have made it better would have been including some more of the little details from the book, but there's not always a good way to do that in an adaptation. I know that not everyone would like the book because Toibin's writing style is somewhat unique, but I think most people I know would love this movie.

The Notebook

I've never seen this movie before, but I've seen references to it for years so I decided to watch it. I didn't have high expectations, so thankfully it did not disappoint me. I did not find it as romantic as many people seem to think it was--the female protagonist was a little too shrill for me to root for, and Ryan Gosling's character was surprisingly subdued given the depth of feeling he was supposed to possess. I probably won't watch it again, but at least I didn't hate it and now I know what everyone is talking about. 

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Death doesn't discriminate between the sinners and the saints

I've been a bit obsessed with Hamilton for the past month and I think I have most of the lyrics memorized. Don't be surprised if you see more posts with lyrics for titles--maybe someday I'll even write about my feelings and why I love the show so much.

Mr. Fob's mom died three weeks ago. When people ask if it was expected or not, I'm never quite sure what to say. Everyone thought she'd be around much longer, since her mother just died five years ago and was in her nineties, and her grandmother lived to be a hundred. With that kind of longevity in the family, seventy-three feels kind of young. But, she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer last summer and the fact that she made it nearly a year after diagnosis is quite remarkable, especially without undergoing any treatment. She had also been fairly stable until about a month or so before she died, and then the decline was swift. I feel a little bad because I haven't been very involved during the last year--I've been busy and Mr. Fob is married to someone else now. No one in his family has ever made me feel excluded in any way, but I'm also not really in the thick of things anymore. To be honest, I'm not sure I ever have been, and that's all right. He has five older sisters and I was the first sister-in-law, and that's a hard adjustment for everyone to make. Plus I tended to defer interactions with his family to Mr. Fob, since they're his family and not mine. I'm just glad Mr. Fob has a good relationship with his siblings and that they are all close to each other. 

As far as mother-in-laws go, she really was a great one. I first met her the day before our wedding--she and Mr. Fob came to meet me at work when I was finishing my shift. She had brought me an orchid lei fresh from Hawaii and gave me a big hug. I don't ever remember her criticizing me or saying anything unkind to me or my children; she was always generous and loving with us. The first seven years of our marriage she was still living in Hawaii and so I did not get to know her very well because we only saw each other on occasional visits. Every time we came to see her, though, she was always a wonderful hostess and happy to have us and our kids in her home. She moved to Utah in 2008 and we ended up spending several weeks living with her while moving from Washington to California. I still feel a little bad because that visit didn't go very smoothly. Little Dude was only two and having a very difficult time; I was having a hard time with the move and Mr. Fob's new part-time job and living in someone else's house. She also wasn't used to having small children around all the time and was adjusting to living in a new area, so we stepped on each other's toes a lot. That whole summer is one part of my life I'd like to go back and do over. 

Like I said, though, she was never really unkind or unloving to me, even after we got divorced. She never had much money and wasn't always in good health, but tried to give whatever gifts she could. We went to visit her in Hawaii in 2007 right after I had graduated with my master's degree. She wanted to host a special meal for us, but was using food stamps at the time. She saved up and bought some steaks to cook a fancy dinner for me, and fretted for a long time about the fact that people might see her buying steak and judge her for it. I thought it was really sweet--and the steak was delicious. For Christmas this past year she gave me a big bundle of holiday-themed paper goods. It was an excellent gift and made our Christmas breakfast festive and easy to clean up! Those are the kinds of little stories about her that I know I can share with the kids some day. She didn't live a big life or a fancy life in any way, but she did live a good life and I learned many lessons from her. I'm sad the kids won't get to know her more than they have and that we won't have more time with her here on earth.  

I'm not sure how to end this post--I have a lot of mixed feelings and it's been a hard month for this and many other reasons. The funeral was lovely and a great way to say goodbye to someone so special. It still feels a little unreal to me and might not for a while--and that's OK.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Reading Roundup: March 2016

Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll

This book was a bit of a mess and I probably should not have finished reading it; the ending seemed to promise some kind of shocking twist, and yet I re-read it a few times before realizing that the author's idea of a 'surprise' and mine were quite different. Also, the first half seems to be making fun of a particular lifestyle that I know nothing about, and the author didn't do much to convince me as a reader that I should. If you are going to poke fun at something, you can't assume that your audience will always care about it in the same way you do. Also, all the characters in the book were annoying stereotypes and the plot had some major holes. Sometimes I can forgive that if the book is still fun, but this one certainly wasn't.

A Jane Austen Education by William Deresiewicz

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, although this shouldn't be a surprise since I already shared Deresiewicz's opinion that Austen is a brilliant novelist and that her books should not be dismissed because they are about domestic subjects (and they aren't romance novels!). It's been a while since I have read some of the works he discusses and I appreciated his insights into each one and the things he learned from it. I also thought the book did an excellent job weaving together the memoir parts and the literary criticism parts--it really made me think about some of the books I've read and how they've shaped my life. 

The Silent Sister by Diane Chamberlain

Some parts of this book were fairly predictable and I guessed them early on, but there were a few major parts of the story that did surprise me. It was a fun, quick read for a lazy Sunday afternoon.

Thirteen Ways of Looking by Colum McCann

I enjoyed the title novella the most, but the other three short stories in this book were not bad either (I particularly liked the one about the nun). All of them are linked by themes of piling up details--noticing and remember little things that construct a narrative. Although none of the stories was 'happy' in any way, reading the book was a pleasure simply because the artistry of McCann's prose is amazing.

Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee

This was our book club pick for the month and was a book I had on my list to read eventually. I read a lot of historical fiction as a teen and I think I would have loved this if I had picked it up to read. The main character is smart and feisty, the supporting characters were also wonderful, and the plot was well-thought out with good pacing of the action and believable conflict. I particularly liked that it represents the diversity of people who settled the west in a natural way without resorting to tokenism or stereotypes.

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

I don't even know how to describe this book other than to say that it was really, really good. I had plenty of moments where I thought that the author was completely unlike most people I have ever met, but those were always balanced by her ability to write about herself in a way that helped me understand her and her life. Her writing is beautiful and this book is filled with fascinating insights about all kinds of things, like grief and birds of prey. I've seen this on many recent lists of book recommendations, and I will certainly add it to my list of books to recommend to people.

Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

I've had this book on my list since I read another book by Toibin last year. I was tempted to see the movie first, but decided not to, and I'm glad I read the book first. It's a quiet book, and while it covers some fairly significant themes and major challenges in the life of the protagonist, the mood is always subdued. This makes it sound unexciting, but really what it means is that it's refreshing to read a book that feels realistic about life and the time it takes to understand oneself and others.

Miss Burton Unmasks a Prince by Jennifer Moore

This year I decided to only read and vote on the Whitney finalists in the romance category since I had already read three of them. This book was fun, but not particularly memorable. It didn't have much depth to it at all and I did not think the central conflict was very compelling or the characters very interesting.