Category Archives: My Favorite Books

2016 Reading Challenge: My 5 Star Reviews, Part 2

The best books I read in 2016…take two! 

Orphan Justice: How to Care for Orphans Beyond Adopting by Johnny Carr and Laura Faidley

Orphan Justice is a blunt look at the intellectual and emotional problem of orphans and the way society handles, or rather doesn’t handle, them. While promoting adoption, this book also focuses on solutions that help orphans beyond adopting. It addresses many issues facing society from child trafficking and HIV/AIDS to racism and poverty. A very convicting, challenging read. 

Georgette Heyer by Jennifer Kloester

Georgette Heyer is one of my favorite authors and I really enjoyed reading about her life. This book has its problems, perhaps more than others on this list, but it was such a treat to read about an author I deeply adore, even after learning about her flaws. And Heyer definitely had her flaws. From her inability to manage her finances to her weird marriage to her extreme shyness, Heyer was a strange, snobbish woman who yet remains extremely recognizable. She really is “to be found in [her] work.” A definite must-read for all Heyer-lovers. 

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley 

Despite its bizarre premise, Frankenstein was a really good read. Though the details in the writing occasionally got on my nerves (this was the age of Romanticism), the overall plot was captivating and tumultuous. It is Gothic horror. The Gothic portion gives it historical importance; the horror gives it a timeless interest. The book is a great combination of literary merit with themes about morality, responsibility, etc. and is full of genuinely good storytelling. It is an English major’s book but also Bookworm’s book too. Win, win.

The Mysterious Affair At Styles by Agatha Christie 

Christie’s first mystery, The Mysterious Affair At Styles also introduces her starring detective, Hercule Poirot. Emily Inglethorp rules Styles, but when she is suddenly found dead, her new neighbor Poirot is called in to find out why! This book was marvelous. There were a host of interesting characters and a most naive but endearing narrator. I enjoyed the story thoroughly and was kept guessing the whole time.

Destiny of a Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard 

This is a biography about the assassination of President James A. Garfield. I knew very little about Garfield going into the book and was pleasantly surprised by how readable and informative it turned out to be. I have a greater understanding of him as a president and era he lived in. I especially appreciated reading this one during an election year.  It reminded me that as dreary and depressing as this political season has been, America has weathered worse. As a country, we’ve dealt with corruption, assassinations, and Civil War. We survive and move on. Well worth reading! 

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

Shorter than I expected, but exceptionally good regardless. It wasn’t over the top but still dark and interesting. I was most fascinated by Dr. Jekyll’s initial reaction to Hyde. Unlike Dr. Frankenstein, who gets all pale and wussy because he created something ugly, Dr. Jekyll initially celebrates his alter-ego. He puts aside Hyde because of society’s condemnation, but it isn’t until he sees his friend’s abhorrence that he really understands what he did. Really fascinating. 

Operation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied Victory by Ben Macintyre 

In 1943, the Allied forces wanted the Axis to think they were attacking Sardinia rather than their actual target, Sicily. To convince them, British intelligence concocted a crazy scheme involving a dead body, forged papers, fake German spies, and the Spanish government. In this bizarre but true account, Macintyre masterfully recounts the story of the men who influenced and enacted the deception. I highly, highly recommend this one. 

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2016 Reading Challenge – The Moving Ones

Last year, I had a post designated for the the most “mind blowing reads” of 2015. I was planning on doing that again this year. However, what stands out most from this year isn’t the non-fiction that made me think, but the books (fiction and non-fiction) that made me feel. Each of these books left a lasting impression on my mind. All the 5 star reads I will share over the next few days arguably have a claim on this list (they did make 5 stars), but these were the ones that came immediately to mind. Without further ado, I present you:

Emotionally Moving and Character Shaping 5 Star Reads from 2016:

A Separate Peace by John Knowles 

This American classic is a dark, coming of age story set during early WW2. It is the story of Gene, a brooding introvert, and his friend, Phineas, the outgoing and favorite boy at school. This book is full of emotions: hatred, love, friendship, and jealousy. It was poignant, melancholy, and left me slightly breathless by the end. I’m glad I didn’t read this one in school because I would not have enjoyed it nearly as much as I did on my own. Also, while they are often compared, I immensely preferred this one to Catcher in the Rye.

Are Women Human? Astute and Witty Essays on the Role of Women in Society by Dorothy L. Sayers

A 75 page booklet consisting of two essays: “Are Women Human?” and “The Human-Not-Quite-Human.” Sayers did not write or speak much about feminism but in this work she lays out her opinion about the role of women in society. Sayers’s main point is that men and women have more in common than not and that each should do what they were designed to do. If a woman enjoys and is good at business, she should be a businesswoman because that is what she was made to do. However, if a woman desires to be a traditional housewife, she should do that because that is what she was meant to do. The same standards apply to men and women equally. While these are hardly groundbreaking concepts, Sayers’s brevity and snark offer an exceptional and thought provoking look at what it means to be human in today’s society. 

All The King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren

661 pages, but worth every word. At first glance,this Depression-era novel is the story of Willie Stark, an initially idealistic politician who amasses power and uses ruthless methods to get what he wants. However, this is equally the story of the men and women around Willie, especially his right hand man and the narrator of the book, Jack Burden. I’ve already written about how much I love Jack; the truth is, I enjoyed all the characters in this book. They are multilayered and even characters with only one or two scenes have color and depth. Rarely, though, do characters only have one scene. They always seem to come around as the story weaves a tighter and tighter plot towards the final, emotional conclusion. The writing style is beautiful and poetic and the plot is thought provoking and full of character change. Definitely my favorite book from 2016. 

Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton 

Chesterton is utterly brilliant and reading him is like thinking on a different level. This is a book on theology and orthodoxy and Christianity; it is a convulsion of ideas and pictures about stories, worldview, and the role of joy in the Christian’s life. I didn’t always agree with Chesterton but I was challenged to think more deeply about why. He writes in a clear fashion that makes abstract concepts understandable, yet deals with subjects so profound I could read this book ten times and still gain something new. Here is one popular quote to illustrate – “The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.”

All Quiet on the Western Front by  Erich Maria Remarque

They were Germany’s Iron Youth, but as WW1 drags on 19-year-old Paul Bäumer and his friends become more and more disillusioned and embittered by war. What will become of men trained only to kill? I found this book so beautiful. Difficult. Thought provoking. Introspective. Painful but real. The narrative isn’t “exciting” necessarily and the whole story seems to drift from moment to moment, but in doing so it reflects the characters and their outlook. Their lives have been stopped and now drift with the war. I love the mercy and realism, the camaraderie and sorrow. The war created one good thing – their friendship – and then destroyed it with all the senseless death. So poignant. My second favorite read from this year.


Reading Metrics 2016

I was hoping to eek out one or two more books before the end of the year but a quick glance at my schedule tells me this is unlikely. It has been a good year; I read more books than last year. My final total: 168 new books in 2016. (Only 3 re-reads, though. 😦 ) It was a total of 41,409 pages (less than average but the book quality was overall better.) 

My average rating was 3.5 stars and a great chunk of the books came from my to-read list (hurray!) For several weeks, I actually had that list under 950. (Then the Summit Oxford 2017 Reading List was published. Sigh.) However, it is still under 1,000 which I consider quite the accomplishment. 

Last year I met the gang at the Algonquin Round Table…this year I discovered the literary circle of the Detection Club and in particular became enamored with Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, and G.K. Chesterton. (I’ve always loved these authors but I didn’t know much about their personal lives.) 

My favorite book this year: All The King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren. 

The most disappointing book: Girl Online by Zoe Sugg. 

My favorite author from this year: Anne Brontë.

The most unexpectedly-good book: Written in Red by Anne Bishop. (Disclaimer: dark book, not for everyone. I found the sequel inappropriate and did not finish) 

The best series I read this year: The Lynburn Legacy by Sarah Rees Brennan (at any rate, it was the only series I started and decided to finished) 

The best guilty-pleasure book: Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? by Mindy Kaling. 

The longest book: Winter by Marissa Meyer. (832 pages)

Shortest book: The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico. (48 pages)

Best Fairy Tale: Valiant by Sarah McGuire 

 

 


The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope

Elizabeth Marie Pope published two novels: The Sherwood Ring and The Perilous Gard. I adored both books in high school and read them repeatedly. I wrote a review of The Sherwood Ring way back in 2013 (not a very good review, somehow Holmes became homes, but a heartfelt one.) Since then, however, I have not had much to do with Elizabeth Marie Pope and her novels. Something recently reminded me of The Perilous Gard and I decided to get it from the library and give it another re-read. I expected a charming stroll through a former favorite. Instead, I made it halfway through and discovered I was…bored. 

More than bored, I was dismayed to discover I wasn’t even enjoying the story. The writing felt long and unnecessarily cluttered with semicolons and run-on sentences. Even though I had read the book many times before, I couldn’t remember what happened next. How had this story left so little an impression on me? I still loved the stark, black and white illustrations but I couldn’t find the magic that once drew me back over and over again. Until I hit the climax. 

The Perilous Gard is set in the final years of the reign of Queen Mary Tudor. Lady Katherine Sutton, lady-in-waiting to the Princess Elizabeth, is banished to the Perilous Gard, a castle in the middle of nowhere. While there, she discovers a dark secret about the disappearance of a little girl and the existence of Fairy Folk. In order to save the young lord of the manor, she must rescue him and the surrounding area from an ancient evil.

Once the book hit about halfway, things started picking up. I didn’t notice the writing as much and I found myself simply swept into the story, curious about what would come next. The world of the fairies feeds the imagination and Kate’s adventures in their land more than makes up for the slow first half. For the second half alone, I would call this a good, even a great, book. 

However, it was the last chapter that won me over. It was like…reading a memory, but not in the sense that I suddenly remembered what came next. That was still dim to me. However, as I read that final chapter, I remembered reading the words before, over and over. It wasn’t just the book I loved; it was this last chapter and the final hurdles Kate and Christopher overcome to live happily ever after. As a high schooler, this was my ideal romance. Now, to be honest, the lines seem a little corny, but I remember how much I loved them. I almost memorized them because I read them so often, just that same final chapter, over and over. 

For that sense of memory, I feel very indebted to this book. Is it good? I think so, but I am hardly an unbiased audience. I love Kate and I love Christopher and I see how my love of them led me to love Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer and the romances they wrote when I was a little older. This was a good re-read. In fact, I might just read that last chapter again tonight, for old times sake. 


Attending my first book signing

“So have you read it?” asked Maggie Stiefvater with a smile, signing my sister’s newly purchased copy of The Raven Boys

Anna: “I’ve never read anything you wrote.” 

Maggie: “…” 

Yesterday, I dragged Anna with me to attend Maggie Stiefvater’s (author of The Raven Cycle) book signing in Oconomowoc. I had never been to a book signing before and really, how often does an author I recognize/enjoy/read make it to Wisconsin? Anna had never heard of her but kindly joined me. I will make a fan of her yet. 

Maggie spoke for almost an hour, a one woman dialogue about an “average day” for her. Some things she said were funny. Others were…weird. I found her most engaging and interesting when she spoke off the cuff, answering questions from the audience. She is a very fun speaker and I was particularly amused by her description of herself in high school. She said she was a teen who wore all black and explained why with answers like, “I’m mourning the death of modern society.” 

Statements like that make it easy to see The Raven Cycle in Maggie. I was drawn to The Raven Boys initially because of its wonderful blend of the paranormal, in-depth characters, and originality. Maggie seems to be all of this. Everything she talked about -from her Goth phase to her obsession with cars to her trip to Wales – carries the fingerprints of her story. She really puts her all into her stories, or at least this series. 

Even though many of the attendees were like Anna or me, casual fans and dragged-along companions, there were several Major Fans there. The woman in front of me in line had read The Raven King 3 times already (keep in mind, that book came out April 26th of this year…aka, only 15 days earlier.) The girl behind me was juggling every book Maggie had ever written, hoping to get them all signed for various friends who couldn’t make it. People gushed. They laughed. They glowed at the chance to hear their favorite author. 

All of this made me really think about what it means to be an author. I can’t imagine it. I can’t imagine how Maggie creates such intense, wonderful characters, so much a part of herself, and then releases them into the world. That takes guts. But it also amazes me how much people respond to those characters. She really has an amazing gift in her ability to touch people with her stories. What a blessing and a burden. 

Anyway, I’m looking forward to reading my signed copy of The Raven King! Ahhh! It was a fun event and I’m grateful I got to go and that Anna joined me. 


New Books

It is hard not to write about politics tonight. I’m tired and frustrated and disappointed with how things have turned out.
However, I also realize I’m tired and frustrated and disappointed. I’m not seeing the world clearly tonight. It is easy to despair when you are overtired. There is enough despair on Facebook to last a lifetime. So tonight I am going to write about something happy.

My new books arrived in the mail. I recently discovered Christian Book Distributors; it has been a wonderful and horrible discovery. They have some really excellent deals but it ruins my budget. Yet how can I say no when I see such good books under $12? 

Today I got: Mind of the Maker by Dorothy Sayers, Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton, and the one I have been drooling over for months, 7 Women and the Secret of Their Greatness by Eric Metaxas. I also got an ESV Study Bible for $30. Fantastic deal. 

I’m excited to read these books. I’ve been counting the hours till they arrived. These are the books I’ve wanted forever. I have read deeply of C.S. Lewis over the past few months and now I look forward to enjoying his contemporaries. I can’t wait to read all of them, but I am also hesitant. It is like something too good to be true that all 4 of them are in front of me. 

The books surrounding me remind me that some things don’t change. Hope never changes; dreams stay true. I find joy in my books, in these authors, in the opportunity to learn more. I’m grateful they arrived today. I needed this little reminder of joy. 


A Re-rereview of The Blue Sword

Today I finished re-reading The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley…again. Not only have I read this particular book countless times, I have reviewed on this blog before. However, once again I find myself disagreeing with an earlier opinion. I loved the story in high school, found it disappointing in college, and now love it again. I love because in it I see the younger me, but also because I see the current me too. I see the themes, ideas, and characters that fed me. It is like the Inkheart quote:

“Isn’t it odd how much fatter a book gets when you’ve read it several times?…As if something were left between the pages every time you read it. Feelings, thoughts, sounds, smells…and then, when you look at the book again many years later, you find yourself there, too, a slightly younger self, slightly different, as if the book had preserved you like a pressed flower…both strange and familiar.”

The Blue Sword is an old friend. We had a bit of a separation, but now we are good again. In fact, better. Looking at the story now, I realize what an impact it had on me. It wasn’t that I wanted to visit Damar, like I would Narnia. It was rather that I wanted to be Hari, in a way I never felt about Susan or Lucy. I emotionally connected with her. I understood her boredom and I wanted to escape it like she did. I wanted to go on a quest. I wanted to discover secret guardians and magical abilities. I wanted to be a brilliant horsewoman and swordsman and save the day. I loved Hari for her confusion and frustration and emotions. I loved her for her courage. I wanted to face the world with the same determination as Hari; I too wanted to be part of something greater.

In 2011, I raved about the book but claimed it was only a 4 star. In 2013, I semi-criticized my own contentment and basically declared myself too grown up for the story. Now, I find myself a little older and (I hope) a little wiser and I relate more to C.S. Lewis’s words to his goddaughter, “Some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.” For me in 2016, this is beyond a 5 star read. This is a cherished memory.

I am always drawn to authors who claim Robin McKinley as a favorite author. It is like we share a secret understanding about fantasy and what makes it good. This book is at a level with my other favorite fantasy novels, like Plain Kate, The Silver Bowl Series (the first two, at any rate), The Queen’s Thief Series and The Chronicles of Prydain. However, it tops them because it comes with a special connection from growing up. I treasure The Blue Sword because of that, and I hope I won’t lose thta knowledge again.