Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Announcing the 2016 Best of Extravaganza!

This is my very favorite time of the year to be a blogger!  I love giving recommendations and writing reviews all year long, but my heart just has this special love for list-making - and what better kind of lists to make than book-related lists!  Before the week of Christmas, I'll be posting Best of Lists for various genres three or four days a week.  I've got a lot of books to recommend (and a few to pan) and I'm hoping to get them posted in time that you can use them as a shopping guide if you're looking for gift recommendations.  I'll be starting my list posts on December 2 and going until I run out of genres!  I'd love for you to add any recommendations you've got to the comments section of each list!

If you've got something or someone specific in mind, shoot me an email or post in the comments - I'd love to give a personalized recommendation just for you!

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Mini-Reviews: Forgiven by Terri Roberts and Searching for Sunday by Rachel Held Evans

From Goodreads:
On October 2, 2006, a gunman entered an Amish one-room schoolhouse, shooting ten girls, killing five, then finally taking his own life. This is his mother's story. Not only did she lose her precious son through suicide, but she also lost her understanding of him as an honorable man. It was a trauma that none should ever have to face.

But the biggest headlines came when her Amish neighbors did the unimaginable, reaching out to the family of the shooter with comfort and forgiveness. Today Terri lives in harmony with the Amish and has built lasting relationships beyond what anyone could have thought possible. From the grace that the Amish showed Terri's family from day one, to the visits and ongoing care Terri has given to the victims and their families, no one could have foreseen the love and friendship that have been forged from the fires of tragedy.
I knew this would be a sad story, but I didn't expect to bawl my eyes out through the entire thing.  It's so sad, but also so beautiful.  I feel like Roberts' story is just unparalleled.  I remember when this happened, but somehow I missed the coverage of the Amish response to the shooting, so I was unprepared for how supernaturally kind and forgiving they were to the Roberts family.  It's a beautiful portrait of grace and how God can empower us to go so far beyond what our human hearts feel capable of.  I highly recommend this one and will be buying several copies to give as gifts this Christmas.

Like millions of her millennial peers, Rachel Held Evans didn't want to go to church anymore. The hypocrisy, the politics, the gargantuan building budgets, the scandals--church culture seemed so far removed from Jesus. Yet, despite her cynicism and misgivings, something kept drawing her back to Church. And so she set out on a journey to understand Church and to find her place in it.

Centered around seven sacraments, Evans' quest takes readers through a liturgical year with stories about baptism, communion, confirmation, confession, marriage, vocation, and death that are funny, heartbreaking, and sharply honest.

A memoir about making do and taking risks, about the messiness of community and the power of grace, Searching for Sunday is about overcoming cynicism to find hope and, somewhere in between, Church.
Another one that will rip your heart right out - I also cried through the entirety of this book.  I follow Evans' blog and love her ideas and writing style, so I grabbed this one as soon as I had the chance.  I could so strongly identify with her choice to both leave church and return to church, as it's something I've also gone through in the last five years or so.  She has such beautiful and honest stories about the pain and beauty of being a part of the Church and what that means.  It's another that I'll be buying my own copy of as well as passing around to everyone I know.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Mini-Reviews: Smoke Gets In Your Eyes and Doing Life

From Goodreads:
Most people want to avoid thinking about death, but Caitlin Doughty—a twenty-something with a degree in medieval history and a flair for the macabre—took a job at a crematory, turning morbid curiosity into her life’s work. Thrown into a profession of gallows humor and vivid characters (both living and very dead), Caitlin learned to navigate the secretive culture of those who care for the deceased. 
Smoke Gets in Your Eyes tells an unusual coming-of-age story full of bizarre encounters and unforgettable scenes. Caring for dead bodies of every color, shape, and affliction, Caitlin soon becomes an intrepid explorer in the world of the dead. She describes how she swept ashes from the machines (and sometimes onto her clothes) and reveals the strange history of cremation and undertaking, marveling at bizarre and wonderful funeral practices from different cultures.
Like every honest human being, the thought of death both terrifies and fascinates me.  I'm currently particularly interested in how weird Western culture is about death denial and the lengths we go to avoid facing death - our own or of our loved ones.  Although this book is largely focused around the author's experiences as a crematory worker, she also introduces other ways of dealing with the bodies of the deceased, including natural burial, which I found particularly interesting.  I highly recommend this from both a literary and informational point of view - it's a pleasure to read, fascinating, and the author is a talented writer who does a great job of connecting her experiences with larger picture views about death and dying.
 From Goodreads:
What does it mean to face a life prison sentence? What have "lifers" learned about life—from having taken a life? Photographer Howard Zehr has interviewed and made portraits of men and women in Pennsylvania prisons who are serving life sentences without possibility of parole. Readers see the prisoners as people, de-mystified. 
Just like I'm both fascinated and terrified by death, the thought of imprisonment completely captures me in a truly scary way.  These are all short interviews, a page or two in length, accompanied by photos of men and women who have been sentenced to life in prison.  Through the interviews, the author/photographer addresses the complicated issues of life without the possibility of parole as a sentence from the point of view of those who have committed the crimes.  It's an issue I've considered a lot lately, and I was fascinated to hear how the men and women who are facing that sentence talk about it.

I feel like, as in every other case, there are such good arguments for each position.  I was moved by many of the men and women who wanted to redeem themselves and make something of their lives.  I also noticed how frequently they used language that placed the blame on outside sources - they would refer to "the incident" or "what happened" rather than taking responsibility for their own actions.  The images are, of course, somewhat dated, but the book itself, and the issue of the sentence itself are still current and valuable for readers today.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The Choose Your Own Adventure Club (Adventure 6: Villains You Love to Hate)

Almost all of us fell in love with Erin Bow's villain Linay when we read Plain Kate for last year's FYA Book Club.  He's so perfectly conflicted and sympathetic but also a horrible person.  He was the inspiration for the Choose Your Own Adventure category "Villains you love to hate" and I think we came up with some great options.

Courtney and I both chose The Library At Mount Char.  I'm not sure that you could really consider any of the characters in the book anything other than villains, but they're also all, to some degree or another, sympathetic at some point.  Read my review (linked above) for more details.

Stephanie read The Fixer by Jennifer Lynn Barnes, about a girl who becomes a "fixer" for high school students, like her older sister and guardian is a "fixer" for politicians.  Stephanie compared it to a combination of Scandal and Veronica Mars, which sounds pretty intriguing.  She loved it and highly recommend it.

Since we didn't read a huge variety of books this time, I thought I'd include Goodreads links to a few others I've read in the recent past with lovably horrible villains:

Next week I'll finally get caught up on these by posting our October choices for Classics.  What would you add to our list of books with villains you love to hate?

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

YA Minis: The Weight of Feathers, Belzhar, and The Scorpion Rules

From Goodreads:
For twenty years, the Palomas and the Corbeaus have been rivals and enemies, locked in an escalating feud for over a generation. Both families make their living as traveling performers in competing shows—the Palomas swimming in mermaid exhibitions, the Corbeaus, former tightrope walkers, performing in the tallest trees they can find. 

Lace Paloma may be new to her family’s show, but she knows as well as anyone that the Corbeaus are pure magia negra, black magic from the devil himself. Simply touching one could mean death, and she's been taught from birth to keep away. But when disaster strikes the small town where both families are performing, it’s a Corbeau boy, Cluck, who saves Lace’s life. And his touch immerses her in the world of the Corbeaus, where falling for him could turn his own family against him, and one misstep can be just as dangerous on the ground as it is in the trees. 
A delightful Romeo and Juliet retelling featuring circus performers and magical realism.  There's really nothing here to dislike - it's light and fun and has just the right amount of magic.  It's not The Night Circus, let's go ahead and get that out of the way.  It's not an amazing piece of blow-your-mind writing, but it's adorable and sweet and romantic and was exactly what I needed after a string of dark realism and crime reads.  It had everything I enjoy most about the occasional dip into the YA romance pond - romance that isn't set in a high school, enough magic to make me forget that the characters are the same age as my younger students, and a plot that moves along quickly.

From Goodreads:
If life were fair, Jam Gallahue would still be  at home in New Jersey with her sweet British  boyfriend, Reeve Maxfield. She’d be watching  old comedy sketches with him. She’d be kissing  him in the library stacks.

She certainly wouldn’t be at The Wooden Barn, a therapeutic boarding school in rural Vermont, living with a weird roommate, and signed up for an exclusive, mysterious class called Special Topics in English.

But life isn’t fair, and Reeve Maxfield is dead.

Until a journal-writing assignment leads Jam to Belzhar, where the untainted past is restored, and Jam can feel Reeve’s arms around her once again. But there are hidden truths on Jam’s path to reclaim her loss.
Oh dear.  This one was not a favorite.  The best thing I had to say about it is that it reads quickly.  I finished it in two sittings in less than a day and I wasn't bored.  I was annoyed though.  It's set at a boarding school for teens who have experienced trauma and yet there is almost no adult supervision.  Also, our main character is only able to overcome her trauma through romance, which is what led to her trauma in the first place.  Not the best portrayal of teens with issues, as finding someone to kiss doesn't generally cure mental illness.  The romance itself is less than satisfying - we're never really given a reason to help us understand why they would like each other, other than possession of the requisite boy/girl parts.  I don't think it's worth reading, but I will say that others in my book club felt differently, so it could just be me.

 From Goodreads:
The world is at peace, said the Utterances. And really, if the odd princess has a hard day, is that too much to ask?

Greta is a duchess and crown princess—and a hostage to peace. This is how the game is played: if you want to rule, you must give one of your children as a hostage. Go to war and your hostage dies.

Greta will be free if she can survive until her eighteenth birthday. Until then she lives in the Precepture school with the daughters and sons of the world’s leaders. Like them, she is taught to obey the machines that control their lives. Like them, she is prepared to die with dignity, if she must. But everything changes when a new hostage arrives. Elián is a boy who refuses to play by the rules, a boy who defies everything Greta has ever been taught. And he opens Greta’s eyes to the brutality of the system they live under—and to her own power.

As Greta and Elián watch their nations tip closer to war, Greta becomes a target in a new kind of game. A game that will end up killing them both—unless she can find a way to break all the rules.
Erin Bow.  I love her so much.  I haven't read a YA dystopia in ages, which may have been what allowed me to enjoy this one so much, but I think Bow's skill as a writer played a large role as well.  I think she did some really unique things with her characters, including what could have been a love triangle, but wound up being an honest depiction of how people would actually react in this kind of life and death situation.  I thought there was going to be a "Team Elian" situation for a bit, but the way she handles it is pretty great.  I also loved the villain, which is an area where Bow seems especially great at character development.  It was, for me, a refreshing take on a tired genre and I recommend giving it a try.

Thanks to NetGalley and my work library for providing me with copies of these titles.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Mini-Reviews on a Theme (Rape Culture): Missoula and Asking for It

From Goodreads:
In Missoula, Krakauer chronicles the searing experiences of several women in Missoula — the nights when they were raped; their fear and self-doubt in the aftermath; the way they were treated by the police, prosecutors, defense attorneys; the public vilification and private anguish; their bravery in pushing forward and what it cost them...
Krakauer’s dispassionate, carefully documented account of what these women endured cuts through the abstract ideological debate about campus rape. College-age women are not raped because they are promiscuous, or drunk, or send mixed signals, or feel guilty about casual sex, or seek attention. They are the victims of a terrible crime and deserving of compassion from society and fairness from a justice system that is clearly broken. 
Jon Krakauer is an automatic read for me, regardless of what he publishes.  That said, I was thrilled when his latest book took on a topic that's also of interest to me in general.  I work in a college setting and the issue of college rape is undeniable in our culture.  Krakauer examines a particular city and specific college, but he also brings to light the issue of why women don't report sexual assault on a nationwide scale as well.

For the most part, I think this book is a complete success.  Krakauer is obviously a skilled journalist and has done mountains of research into his subject.  I trust his reporting completely.  He manages to illuminate every aspect of the issue, from the way campus security works with police, to the police procedures for sexual assault investigation, to the trials themselves.  My one complaint is that I felt like the last quarter or so of the book was a bit repetitive.  In my opinion, it could have done with some editing and been a bit shorter, but my overall impression is that this is a book that needs to be read and is as readable as a novel, but obviously well-researched.

 From Goodreads:
Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s arrest. Congressman Todd Akin’s “legitimate” gaffe. The alleged rape crew of Steubenville, Ohio. Sexual violence has been so prominent in recent years that the feminist term “rape culture” has finally entered the mainstream. But what, exactly, is it? And how do we change it? 

In Asking for It, Kate Harding answers those questions in the same blunt, bullshit-free voice that’s made her a powerhouse feminist blogger. Combining in-depth research with practical knowledge, Asking for Itmakes the case that twenty-first century America—where it’s estimated that out of every 100 rapes only 5 result in felony convictions—supports rapists more effectively than victims. Harding offers ideas and suggestions for addressing how we as a culture can take rape much more seriously without compromising the rights of the accused.
I expected to be blown away by Missoula, but this one really surprised me.  I didn't plan on reading the two at the same time, but it wound up working out that way.  If you're interested in figuring out exactly what rape culture is and how it affects women both on and off campuses, I might even suggest this one over Missoula.  Rather than focusing on a detailed account of a few specific cases, Asking for It covers the entire issue using stories from many different women across many situations.  It also addresses the issues women face on campus, but goes deeper into other places where women must face rape culture, particularly in media depictions and on the internet.  I sped through this one and plan to add it to my permanent collection because it's one that I think I would refer back to frequently.

Both of these books are certainly worth reading, particularly if you have any interaction with young women on either high school or college campuses.  Beyond that, I think both cover topics that are important to women of all ages and will be of interest to anyone who cares about the issues women face living in a rape culture.  I highly recommend both.

Thanks to my work library and to Netgalley for providing me with copies of these.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The Choose Your Own Adventure Book Club (Adventure Five: Things in the Water)

I got way, way, way off course with posting these over the summer.  The CYOA Book Club still met and we still discussed lots of fun books, but I forgot to post about them.  So, I'll be posting one a week between now and December to try to get back on track.  Pretty images will be back in December, until then you'll have to make do with my grabs from Goodreads, because I've got SO MUCH BLOGGING to catch up on, I don't have time to make pictures.

Adventure Five's theme was, honestly, my favorite so far.  We read about things in the water - anything from beach vacations to sea monsters (obviously).  Sea monsters are my true love and any time I want a good genre read, particularly one with lots of gore and/or ridiculous plot elements, I turn to sea monsters.  So, obviously, that's where I went with this one.  I chose:

This one, featuring a Loch Ness monster in the US, gets a big, fat do not read.  It's really awful.  So awful that even as much as I love some cheesey horror I couldn't get on board with any part of it.  It's just terrible.  It's bad 90's YA.  Maybe the worst 90's YA.  Avoid.

So sad to have to write that this is another do not read.  It's about flesh-eating manta rays that evolve the capability for flight.  So they're flying sea monsters.  It sounds right up my alley, but unfortunately it was not enough horror and way too much attempt at poor character building through terrible dialogue.  Everyone tells each other EVERYTHING they ever think in stilted language.  There's way too much dialogue and not enough people being eaten.

And a third, which was actually completely enjoyable.  This one is about enormous squid who develop a taste for human flesh.  Lots of drama, lots of horror, traditional characters you'd expect from the genre - basically exactly what I wanted.  I listened to this one on audio and thought the narrator did a fine job.

I was the only one who chose the sea monster route in this set of books.  Courtney went with:
Mermaid style romance with an, ahem, adult-appropriate twist.  This is a series of interconnected stories about love and loss and comes pretty highly recommended, with the caveat that it is for grownup eyes only.

And Stephanie read:
This is about a college student who is one of only five survivors of a crash landing in the Great Lakes.  She's a competitive swimmer and is left with only a teammate and three young boys as they try to survive in the wilderness.  Stephanie gives it four stars and recommends it although the "reveal" ending was a bit anticlimactic for her.  

What books would you recommend on the theme of "things in the water"?