What I Read | FEBRUARY 2018

112077The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett

The friend who shares my love of The Queen’s Thief series suggested that if I like Rogues with a Heart of Gold™, I ought to give Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles a try.  Twenty pages in, I was overwhelmed by the Scottish history and lingo, but a deluge of rabid Lymond fans on Twitter encouraged me to keep going.  One hundred pages in, I was ready to call this (mostly unread) series the best in the world.  It is beautifully and cleverly written, both at the sentence level and in terms of the over-arching twisty plot.  Lymond himself is awful and complex and SO AMAZING, but the huge cast of supporting characters more than live up to his level.  I adored this book, and I can’t wait to read all the others in the series!

23197837The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton

Although this book has an interesting premise in creating a world in which a special few magically talented girls are revered for their ability to beautify humans that are born with grey skin and red eyes, I just couldn’t buy into the full picture this novel tries to paint.  Why is this ability so important that literally the whole country and political structure revolves around them? Why are Camellia and Amber friends, when throughout the book we only see them arguing or being annoyed with each other?  Big points for a creative concept, but that’s it.

Screen Shot 2018-02-24 at 11.38.01 AMAmerican Panda by Gloria Chao

Although distinctly Chinese-American, this book speaks to the universal transition of a college student learning to differentiate herself from her parents.  I loved watching Mei struggle to decide how she wants to live her life as she both appreciates and resents the omnipresence of her parents in every aspect of her existence.  I was also extremely interested in the Chinese-American culture presented here, and I can only imagine how funny and gratifying and meaningful this story must be to readers with immigrant parents.

leonardo-da-vinci-9781501139154_lgLeonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson

I loved Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, and I adore Renaissance art, so this book was an obvious go-to for me.  Isaacson once again tells the story of a man’s life with clarity, appreciation, and enough fanboying that the 500 pages flew by.  Da Vinci is famous for his artwork (specifically his Mona Lisa and Last Supper paintings), and I loved reading about how they came to be.  But even more, I enjoyed reading about da Vinci’s obsessive observational skills, and how they led him to discover more about anatomy and machinery than anyone else in his era (or for centuries after him).  He was a genius because his passion for life married art and science, a combination I hope we see more of today!

35099058Gunslinger Girl by Lyndsay Ely

A post-apocalyptic story that veers into classical Western tropes of brothels and gunfights, I really enjoyed this book until its last act.  I liked Pity and her conflicted feelings about both enjoying and fearing her new dangerous home.  I appreciated that the stakes were high, with characters actually dying almost from the word go.  But I never really believed the romance, and I thought the ending devolved into stereotype when it could have easily been more interesting.  This seems to be set up for a series, and I won’t be reading more, but this first glimpse into Ely’s world was pretty fun.

13414183Better Nate Than Ever by Tim Federle

The Illinois Caudill books are out, and this was the first I picked up.  It is a hilarious and endearing story of a sensational pre-teen sneaking off to NYC to audition for a Broadway musical.  I loved seeing the city through his eyes:  when he’s excited, all the chaos is beautiful, and when he’s disappointed, the same things are suddenly dreary or scary.  Nate is a BIG character, overwhelming the story and the characters within it with his personality.  It’s easy to see both why he is bullied in school AND why those exact same qualities are going to win him fast friends and success once conforming stops mattering so much.  This is a great book about family, friendship, and first steps toward self-awareness.

whatlight25f-1-webWhat Light by Jay Asher

This is a schmaltzy YA Christmas romance, and I was not into it.  The girl works on a Christmas tree farm one month every year, and she falls in love with the “bad boy,” whose badness is boring and is in actuality the most Do Gooder teenager on the planet.  I was super unimpressed by this one, but it’s a nice thoughtless feel good story if that’s what you need in the moment.

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What I Read | JANUARY 2018

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The Queen’s Thief Series (The Thief, The Queen of Attolia, The King of Attolia, A Conspiracy of Kings, Thick as Thieves) by Megan Whalen Turner

This is my go-to comfort series, and I reread them when two of my friends in Greece decided to read them as well.  We literally had parties where we talked about the books for hours and fell all over ourselves squealing about Eugenides’ perfection.  They are children’s adventure stories with a political backstory that becomes increasingly important throughout the series, and seriously.  Eugenides is the embodiment of my Ideal Fictional Hero and I cannot even hold it together any time he does anything.

51IpIExqbQL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Pegasus by Robin McKinley

This is an unfortunately cut-off first book in a series that I assume is leading to a human/pegasus romance that I…was super into??  McKinley’s ability to create lush fantastical and creative worlds is very evident here, and I’m really disappointed that there seems to be little possibility of a sequel, just as the political aspect of things were heating up!  I wanna know if humans and pegasi can coexist when led by representatives of their species that can speak telepathically!

6a016760e4a142970b01676103f988970bThe Moon-Spinners by Mary Stewart

This was one of my favorite childhood movies, so I was curious how the novel that inspired the Disney movie held up.  While mostly similar in plot, Stewart’s novel feels more grownup, to the point that I believed a devastating plot twist that fortunately turned even twistier.  A perfect book for those of you who like murder mysteries set on Greek isles!

516RKT4NIAL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_The Divine Dance by Richard Rohr

The final conclusion that Rohr reaches “Everything is holy” feels incredibly satisfying and encouraging after a deep dive into the relationship of the Trinity (both amongst themselves and with humans) and how that informs all of life.

2337457The Art of Crossing Cultures by Craig Storti

I read this as I was flying back from Greece, and it was incredibly validating to see my cultural experiences laid out on the page before me.  It helped me to see what I did well and what I did poorly while trying to adapt to a foreign culture, and I HIGHLY recommend it to anyone considering living in a country not their own.

a328d7c9caf2857e082fe981af6df5b8Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

I read this because *ahem* it was a significant plot point in the amazing television show Black Sails, and I’m glad I did.  It’s a bit like the book of Proverbs, and there were quite a few bits of wisdom that I really took to heart, including this one:  “But to get back up when you fail, to celebrate behaving like a human – however imperfectly – and fully embrace the pursuit that you’ve embarked on.”

31207017Love Hate & Other Filters by Samira Ahmed

Half teenage romance, half social commentary, I didn’t like this book as much as I should have.  Everything felt a little too perfect, and I couldn’t help wanting a bit more grittiness in a novel about hate acts and terrorist attacks.  But it’s a fun quick read, and well worth a day’s read.

 

What I Read | NOVEMBER 2017

Wow, is it hard to go from working at a library to living in a foreign country.  From overabundance to scarcity!  Since my time is ending in Greece, I’ve decided to actual tackle the shelf of To Be Read books that I kept passing over.  This is actually pretty satisfying, though the going is slower.

Novel_the_blind_assassin_coverThe Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

This book was immediately intriguing, flashing between an old woman remembering her past and an at-first ambiguous meeting of lovers discussing science fiction plots.  It’s a dense novel, delving into generational family relationships, complications, and regrets.  Because it’s Atwood, the story consistently reveals the underbelly of what it means to be a woman during the early 1900s.  The middle dragged a little for me, but the beginning and end were totally engrossing.

71epnYVGumLThe King Must Die by Mary Renault

A historical novel focused on the life of mythical Theseus, I was ALL about this book.  It covers only the first half of his life (I accidentally read the second book so long ago I was writing full reviews).  Theseus travels to Athens and then Crete, where he lives in the Palace of Knossos (I WENT THERE) and survives by becoming a champion bull-leaper.  Renault is a master at creating believable history out of mythology, and I am continually impressed by how she allows events to unfold in such a way that they can be read as natural events or godly interventions.  Very fun read for Greek mythology nerds!

51zEfKBgrdLAbraham by Bruce Feiler

A Jewish man goes to the Middle East to talk to leaders of the three great monotheistic faiths – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – about the man that unites them all:  Abraham.  This is an excellent book for people who like history, culture, and/or theology, delving into sacred texts, oral traditions, and how people have twisted stories to suit their purposes throughout time.

220px-The-lost-city-zThe Lost City of Z by David Grann

A modern day journalist ventures into the Amazon in search of a mythical city and the man who disappeared while seeking it.  It’s more of a biography than a travel memoir, but Colonel Fawcett is a fascinating man.  I loved reading about the early 1900s and all the explorers trying to survive the Amazon rainforest.  Although a lot of it is horrific, and is portrayed as such, Fawcett himself is a man before his time, insisting upon pacifism when interacting with indigenous tribes.  So many people kept returning to the Amazon despite enormous difficulties, and this book does a wonderful job of conveying the enticing mystery that the forest creates simply by existing.

What I Read | SUMMER 2017

Favorite Books of the Summer

inexplicable

The Inexplicable Logic of My Life by Benjamin Alire Saenz

Saenz is one of my all time favorite authors, so I was not surprised when I fell in love with his new book.  It’s about growing and discovering who you are and coming to terms with your dark side by accepting others.  I really admired that Saenz side-stepped the romance detours that I anticipated and instead wrote a book entirely about family.

golem

The Golem and The Jinni by Helene Wecker

A historical fantasy novel that explore the culture of early 1900s New York immigrants through the experiences of a Jewish golem and Syrian jinni.  It’s incredibly well written, and our central characters reveal the beautiful balance between caution and passion, and how they need each other.

gentleman

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee

This is a VERY fun story with excellent dialogue and rich teenagers traveling around historical Europe with pirates! highwaymen! alchemy!  In the midst of the madcap adventure fun, the book seriously deals with the historical consequences of sexuality, race, and illness.

inquisitor

The Inquisitor’s Tale by Adam Gidwitz

Longtime fan of Gidwitz’s irreverent yet earnest tone (he wrote the excellent A Tale Dark and Grimm series), this book took his talent to a new level.  In a Canterbury Tales-esque setup, he creates a medieval children’s story that is ultimately a treatise on the theology of suffering.  Incredible.

symptoms

Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin

Written from the perspective of a genderfluid teenager, this book seriously challenged my habit of categorizing humans, refusing to give any indication of Riley’s biological sex throughout.  Genderfluidity is something I know little about, and I was so grateful to step into the journey of Riley’s bullying, safe spaces, and self-acceptance.

too fat

Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud by Anne Helen Peterson

An excellent celebrity culture journalist, Peterson dives into the stories of numerous “unruly women” in society today, from Serena Williams to Nicki Minaj to Hillary Clinton. It’s very well researched and ultimately empowering, encouraging readers to be unruly themselves in pursuit of societal change.

no baggage

No Baggage by Clara Bensen

This book is exactly my kind of pretentious – two well-off people meet on OK Cupid and a month later, they’re traveling Europe without a schedule.  It’s a relationship + travel + mental illness memoir, which are pretty much three of my favorite things.

Other Summer Books

  • Caraval by Stephanie Garber (6/10)
  • Dark Lord of Derkholm by Diana Wynne Jones (6/10)
  • The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin (5/10)
  • Small Victories by Anne Lamott (8/10)
  • The Ship Beyond Time by Heidi Heilig (6/10)
  • Have His Carcase by Dorothy Sayers (8/10)
  • A Court of Wings and Ruin by Sarah J. Maas (7/10)
  • The Trials of Apollo: The Dark Prophecy by Rick Riordan (7/10)
  • Hallelujah Anyway by Anne Lamott (8/10)
  • Thick as Thieves by Megan Whalen Turner (8/10)
  • The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli (8/10)
  • Standard Deviation by Katherine Heiny (7/10)
  • And We’re Off by Dana Schwartz (7/10)
  • 13 Little Blue Envelopes by Maureen Johnson (7/10)
  • Dragon Age: The Stolen Throne by David Gaider (5/10)
  • The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo (8/10)
  • Wintersong by S. Jae-Jones (7/10)
  • The Paper Magician by Charlie N. Holmberg (7/10)
  • The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley (7/10)
  • Chemistry by Weike Wang (6/10)
  • SkyBreaker by Kenneth Oppel (9/10)
  • Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler (4/10)
  • The Islands of Chaldea by Diana Wynne Jones (7/10)
  • The Book of Joy by the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu (8/10)
  • The Road Back to You by Ian Morgan Cron and Suzanne Stabile (7/10)
  • The Republic of Pirates by Colin Woodard (9/10)
  • Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman (8/10)
  • When We Were on Fire by Addie Zierman (8/10)

 

What I Read | APRIL 2017

28092902Notes from a Big Country by Bill Bryson

Bryson, known mainly for his European travelogues, here documents his return to the USA through a series of newspaper essays.  Having tasted life in Europe, his musings about his home country are mostly exasperated.  Occasionally, usually at the prodding of his British wife, he remembers something lovely about the United States, which just goes to show that it’s easiest to love greener grass elsewhere than to love what we were given.

NorseMythology_Hardback_1473940163Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

The first creation stories were not especially amazing, and I almost lost hope for this book!  But once we dive into character-driven narratives, there is a distinct Gaiman-sparkle that elevated the book and helped the story feel more cohesive.  I’m becoming more and more interested in Norse mythology, especially because the gods seem especially unfair, and unrepentantly so.

51nBwU944QL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_We Should Hang Out Sometime by Josh Sundquist

A true memoir of one guy’s journey of Not Dating, and how this could have happened.  It’s funny, and there is meaningful growth, which is good because I spent most of the book yelling “you’re self-sabotaging!” at him until he heard me and said so himself towards the end.  The premise is even more fun because he frames each story through the lens of a scientific hypothesis to be proved or disproved.  It was fun to see that he was mostly wrong, and had to learn that we see what we want and/or fear, not what is really there.

28588459Still Life with Tornado by A.S. King

King is one of my all time favorite authors because she walks a fascinating “is this mental illness OR magic OR reality” line that she refuses to clarify.  This book in particular dealt with a subject I haven’t really seen represented before.  King confidently asserts that abuse, big or small, endured or witnessed, is traumatizing and deserves to be acknowledged, addressed, and healed.  Through the lens of a teenager girl meeting other-aged versions of herself.  Fun!

25528801Exit, Pursued by a Bear by E.K. Johnston

This book is a little more PSA-y, telling the “ideal” rape scenario in which the victim knows it’s not her fault and is believed and supported by everyone.  It’s not very realistic, but it’s very encouraging to see a future to work toward.  Secondarily, I was very impressed that Johnston made me question my cheerleader-stereotypes, and by the end I really admired the sport.

51vR3C-ZWpL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz

I don’t usually like books written in the form of diary entries, but Schlitz pulled the form off wonderfully.  The break between entries, and how the time in between is explained either in a rush or with embarrassment, really added to the narrative.  It’s set in the early 1900s, and the journey from country (which felt vaguely Little House on the Prairie) to city (which felt modern…ish) highlighted just how drastically technology changed people’s lives during that time period.  It was a fun read!

27230789Honestly Ben by Bill Konigberg

This is a sequel to Openly Straight, now told from Ben’s perspective.  And thank goodness, because Ben is so good!  He’s so lovely!  He’s thoughtful and deliberate, and we all need a Ben in our lives.  There was also so much good gender and sexuality talk going on in this book, with a gender fluid character who is almost immediately embraced by their all-male high school (if only!) and a main character who is something like demisexual…but not really?  I hope there’s a third book from Hannah’s perspective.

41d41DLmZwL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Chasing Francis by Ian Morgan Cron

I LOVE St. Francis, so reading a fictional book about a Protestant pastor who goes to Assisi and also falls in love with the saint was right up my alley.  I mean, it’s history/travel/theology all in one!  It was actually a little heavy-handed for a novel in the way that it presented a model for how the Church could be remade, but I found it quite inspirational.  Definitely a book for the postmodern mystic/skeptic.

25665016The Memory of Light by Francisco X. Stork

A seriously uplifting book about four teenagers struggling with mental disorders (rage, depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia) inside a mental health hospital.  I loved how they helped each other in their brokenness WITH their brokenness.  Stork’s amazing ability to write about depression and suicide attempts is apparently based on his personal experience, but his ability to write female teenagers believably is all skill.

 

 

 

 

 

What I Read | November 2016

Eight books this month, ranging from YA fantasy adventures to historical scandals in early Hollywood.  Oh, and I finally read The Little Prince, which was a LONG time coming.


anotherbrooklyn-hc-cAnother Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson

Woodson’s prose reads like poetry, which helps make her story more palatable.  I mean, it’s GOOD, but it is a devastating look at growing up female, black, and poor.  There is an thread of hope throughout, though, which left me feeling like the book was short and beautiful.  The main thing I took from Woodson’s novel is that I need to be more intentional about including diverse authors in my reading list.

26109391Highly Illogical Behavior by John Corey Whaley

The setup of this book made me assume that it would deal with its central issues of agoraphobia and panic disorders with casual flippancy, but I was so mistaken!  Everything was handled respectfully (and entertainingly, since it is, after all, a novel).  I really liked that the story revealed how messed up everyone was, whether they were diagnosable or not.  Well, except for Clark.  Just like our two main characters, I also fell in love with him.

the-little-princeThe Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupery

This story has existed in the periphery of my experience for years and years, but I was never interested enough to sit down and read it.  Until this month, when I bought a cute little hardback copy on Santorini and immediately read the whole thing.  It is so sweet, so sad, and so poignant.  I love the emphasis on childish creativity and love, and how valuable it is to cling to those things even as we become adults.  I especially loved the story of the fox and how we are responsible for the things (and people) we tame.

9780142180679_ScandalsofCl-CVF.inddScandals of Classic Hollywood by Anne Helen Petersen

It is a testament to Petersen’s writing capabilities that I have almost no knowledge of classic Hollywood or the actors and actresses that dominated tabloids in the 1910s – 1950s, but I still really enjoyed this book!  That because the book is not about the people specifically; it’s a fascinating look at culture, fame, and changing societal mores.  It asks why one person’s scandal was forgiven while a similar scandal ruined someone else’s career.  I could easily imagine modern equivalents to these situations, and I found myself wishing she would write a follow-up book!

annihilation_by_jeff_vandermeerAnnihilation by Jeff Vandermeer

I bought this at the recommendation of a bookshop worker, and wow was it weird.  It was genuinely creepy because everything was OFF in this indescribable way.  I was so unnerved by it that I could only read it during the daylight hours, but I had to keep reading because it’s story was so compelling.  I had decided to buy it because I was intrigued by its cast of characters including only women, and this remained its high point for me.

unknownThe Hundred-Foot Journey by Richard C. Morais

I wanted this book to be about the merging of two cultures (Indian and French) and how food brings people together.  It was not about that.  It was about how an Indian prodigy chef managed to rise to fame despite his humble background.  Which, now that I phrase it that way, is a compelling story.  Unfortunately, it was not the story I expected, so I found myself increasingly uninterested.

51t5lwxhdhlMagnus Chase: The Hammer of Thor by Rick Riordan

I am continuously amazed at how Riordan manages to take the same formula and finds ways to make it fresh.  I am especially amazed that the way he chose to make the Magnus Chase series fresh is by ramping up his level of representation.  This book is phenomenal, boasting a five person main cast that includes a practicing Muslim woman, a formerly homeless teenage boy whose talents skew feminine, a black dwarf devoted to fashion, a deaf elf, and a transgender/genderfluid person.  I LOVE that Riordan decided to take the fantasy trope of shape-shifting and use that to explicitly talk about gender fluidity.  That is total genius.  Oh, and the plot is super fun, I love how Loki is both very evil and very victimized, I love the giants and their illusions, I love the epic wedding showdown.  More, please!

the_thread_webThe Thread by Victoria Hislop

This novel tells the history of Thessaloniki specifically, and Greece generally, through the story of one family.  It helped me SO much to piece together all the holidays I’ve seen celebrated and names I’ve heard dropped while living in Athens for a year.  Finally everything was put together in a cohesive narrative, and I understand more than ever the pride and pessimism that makes up the stereotypical Greek mindset.  A lot has happened in this country in the last century, and I enjoyed reading its history within a novel.  Great sneaking education!

The Bull from the Sea by Mary Renault

51k61IaGEZL._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_Reading Greek mythology in Greece is such a cool experience.  The Bull from the Sea opens with Theseus returning to Attica from Crete without changing his sails from black to white, the result of which is his father, King Aigeus, leaping to his death from the cliff in Sounio.  I just went to Sounio!  It’s a real place!  With a real history!

That history bit is what makes Renault’s book so fascinating.  She does a remarkable job of interpreting myth as fact.  The supernatural elements of mythology are present in her stories, but with explanations that are easily interpreted as superstitions.  The people in this book believe in the gods and goddesses and fate, but is it real?  Or is that larger-than-normal boar simply exaggerated into mythic proportions?  And is that man the son of a god or simply extremely talented?  It’s such a fun balance, and perhaps ironically, it makes the myths seem more alive.  By setting them in a historical context and allowing for skepticism, Renault lets her readers see just how plausible the ancient stories are.

Theseus is a fascinating character.  He’s almost annoying perfect at everything…until his charmed life falls apart.  I should have expected the book to border on depressing, because all the Greek myths are fairly depressing.  They are lessons couched in stories, after all, and Theseus shows us that one can never escape one’s fate.  He knows, from the moment he sees Hippolyta (awesome Amazon warrior queen/king) that she will be his doom.  But knowing his fate, he embraces the good while it lasts, and does what he can to accept the fallout when it happens.  And wow, is the fallout depressing.  Murder and sacrifice and incest, oh my!  The Greek stories are never boring.

The one thing I found annoying was the way the narrative treated women.  To some extent, this is simply Renault being true to her source material.  And of course, Hippolyta is a force to be reckoned with.  But all the other women are stereotypes.  And Theseus himself is occasionally a hard man to idolize – he’s perfect, we’re supposed to believe, but he treats women as playthings or distractions.  They’re always around to serve HIS needs.  Basically, it’s super sexist, both because it was written in the 1960s and based on stories thousands of years old.  BUT.  Even though it’s problematic, this book is worth the read!

Mary Renault is a genius at breathing new life into old myths, and I’m definitely going to check out some of her other books!  I suggest you do the same.   Continue reading