Books I read this week: July weeks 1 and 2

Almost caught up! These are the books I’ve read over the last couple of weeks.


Wink, Poppy, Midnight by April Genevieve Tucholke is a disconcerting book, because you’re never sure who is telling the truth and who isn’t. It’s the story of three teenagers, Wink, a girl who loves stories, Poppy, a domineering queen bee, and Midnight, a young man who loves Poppy but is beginning to realize that she may not be good for him. The three of them circle and feint around each other, and you know that something is going to happen as the tension builds, but not exactly what. It’s a great reading experience that catches you up in the story, such that you don’t notice a couple of holes until you’re thinking about it afterward, but I liked this one.


The Beautiful Cigar Girl by Daniel Stashower is about the investigation into the murder of Mary Rogers in 1841 and how Edgar Allen Poe became involved as he wrote the story “The Mystery of Marie Rogt.” Similar to The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, this book is chock full of historical details such that you come away knowing so much more than when you started. The mystery of who killed Mary is fascinating, as are the lengths that Poe went to. Poe doesn’t come off terribly well in this book, I didn’t care for him by the end, but that’s neither here nor there.


The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin is SO good. It’s the story of Truman Capote and the lovely, rich women he befriended in New York, and how he ultimately betrayed them by using their stories in his writing. Every character is so vividly portrayed, everyone’s motivation so clear, I want to read biographies about every one of them now. There’s so much in here about class and gender roles, but none of it bashes you over the head, it just gives you a clear picture of how life was and how far we’ve come. This is one of the best books I’ve read this year.


I Always Loved You by Robin Oliveira is about the relationship between Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas, and it is gorgeous. So much good stuff about art and painting and love and family and independence, and I loved it.

Sacre Bleu by Christopher Moore is one of my favorite books. I’m not even sure how many times I’ve read it before (I could check but I’m lazy), but I had to reread it again after I Always Loved You because of the themes of muse and art. It’s a story of the Impressionists, and how they really got their inspiration. It’s all about the color blue and Tolouse-Latrec is a main character and is utterly delightful. There’s quite a bit of swearing in it, and the humor is rather dark, but it’s one of those books that you just have to gasp when you realize what exactly the author has pulled off.


The Wicked Boy by Kate Summerscale is about a pair of pre-teen brothers in Victorian England who murdered their mother. It follows them from their childhood. through their capture and trial, to their adult lives, and it’s fascinating.

Books I read this week: All of June

Here’s what I read in June:


Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller is a deceptively simple book. Peggy’s father takes her from their home in London into the German mountains to live when the world ends. He’s prepared for this, and they are able to survive while everyone else in the world dies. Living alone is hard, but they do it, and then one day Peggy sees someone that is not her father, and their isolated existence begins to crumble around them. This book is disturbing, but really, really good.


Not If I See You First by Eric Lindstrom is a YA novel about a blind high school girl who loves to run. She has very strict rules for those around her, and is very sure of herself; until her father dies and her aunt, uncle, and cousins move into her house, her school is combined with another school, and her old boyfriend shows up again. Parker is a great character, as are the others in the book. They’re all very realistic teenagers, and though some of the situations are a little groan worthy as you wish that people would JUST TALK TO EACH OTHER, they’re also very realistic. I enjoyed this one.


In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri is fascinating. Lahiri has long been besotted with the Italian language, and in an attempt to become fluent, decided to only write in Italian. This book is a translation of essays that she wrote about the process of learning to write in another language (the translation done by someone else, not herself) and her Italian and the English translation are on facing pages of the book. It’s so interesting to read about someone who is so skilled at writing in English choosing to “hobble” herself by writing in a language she doesn’t know as well, and to see the choices that she makes as a result.


Loving My Actual Life by Alexandra Kuykendall is a lovely book about focusing on appreciating the things and people around you. It has some excellent insights and I really enjoyed it.

He said, “I stopped trying to impress people a long time ago. I realized when I’m trying to impress someone, I’m not loving them well.”


The Rainbow Comes and Goes by Anderson Cooper and Gloria Vanderbilt is SO fascinating. It’s the result of a year of letters written back and forth between the two, wherein Vanderbilt tells Cooper stories that he never knew about her childhood and early years (she’s his mom). They talk about life and death and love, and it made me want to write letters to my parents. I highly recommend this one.

There have been times when I wished I had a scar or a mark, a visible sign of the pain I still feel over Daddy’s death and Carter’s. It would be easier, in a way, if people knew without my having to say anything that I am not whole, that part of me died long ago.


Give Your Child the World by Jamie C. Martin is a book full of lists of books. That’s one of my favorite kinds of books. This one focuses on books set in different parts of the world, with an eye on helping kids learn empathy by “knowing” people all over the world. It’s broken into sections by continent, and then by age group, and includes fiction and non-fiction. I marked a ridiculous number of books as “must reads”.


Little Labors by Rivka Galchen is a gorgeous little book. Full of short segments about any number of things (including a love of Japan, Frankenstein, orange being a trendy color), all the pieces add up to a picture of motherhood that is raw and honest. The child in the book is never referred to as a child, but rather whatever animal the mother is reminded of- she begins as a puma  and becomes a chicken as she gets older; this is indicative of the book as a whole. It’s a little surreal, a little metaphorical, a ton real.

It’s true what they say, that a baby gives you a reason to live. But also, a baby is a reason that it is not permissible to die. There are days when this does not feel good.


The Cozy Life by Pia Edberg is about the Danish concept of Hygge, which translates roughly into “cozy”. It’s an approach to life that makes homes welcoming and winters less cold and dismal. There are some lovely ideas about how to make little changes to become more “cozy”, and I really liked this book.

The joy in the simple things, such as making a home-cooked meal, cleaning the house, planting our own herbs, or inviting someone over for tea has been removed because we perceive them as difficult and time-consuming. We need to pause once in a while, embrace the calm, and find joy in the small details, even in the tasks that seem so mundane.


Something Beautiful by Courtney Roberts is about living consciously and deliberately. There wasn’t really anything terribly groundbreaking, but it was an enjoyable read.


Make Room For What You Love by Melissa Michaels is one of the best organization/clutter books I’ve read, and I’ve read a lot. Her central goal is honoring the space that you have in your house, and making good decisions when it comes to what comes in and stays in it.  She poses a question: “Will keeping this item or making this decision increase the clutter and chaos or move my space closer toward order and beauty?” that has been really helpful in approaching different areas in my own home. She also suggests that every space have a definition of what goes there- as specific as “this shelf is for up to 5 sweaters that currently fit me and have no holes in them” or “this is a drawer for jammies I would not be ashamed to be seen in should the fire department need to rescue me”. I highly recommend this one.

Honoring the space we have first is a different mind-set for decluttering than evaluating the worthiness of each object to determine what we can keep. It’s understandable that we will perceive each item we own as having some worth to us because perhaps we paid a lot of money for it, it has sentimental value, it’s appealing to us, or it may be useful or used again in some way in the future.


Every Exquisite Thing by Matthew Quick is a graceful book about a young woman who feels like an outcast, who is given an out of print, cult favorite book. She becomes enthralled by it, and writes a letter to the author, who meets with her and introduces her to a young man who is similarly obsessed with the book. They both decide to live by the book’s exhortation to quit the things that they don’t find meaningful, and that plays out in different ways for each of them. The parents are beautifully portrayed,  (rather than being neglectful or stupid) and the main characters are realistically flawed and struggling. The book definitely didn’t end the way I thought it was going to, and I really enjoyed it.

“Because lonely people often have great ideas but no support. People with support too often have bad ideas but power. And you don’t give up power. No one does, regardless of whether they have good ideas or not. No one gives up power without a long, bloody fight—one that usually involves foul play. Lonely people typically can’t stomach treachery, and that’s another problem. They tend to tell the truth and fight fair. So we need art and music and poetry for the lonely people to rally around.”


This Monstrous Thing by Mackenzi Lee is a gorgeous foray into the Frankenstein story. Set in a history where clockwork and mechanical body parts are used to help those injured in war, a young man uses his knowledge of such things to do something no one has ever done before- bring his brother back from the dead. And his friend, Mary Shelley, knows about it. And that’s really all you need to know. Just go read it already. You won’t regret it.

When I was a boy, I remember reading books and thinking the monsters weren’t afraid, but they are. They’re more frightened than anyone.

Books I read this week: All of May

Here’s what I read in May:

The First Book of Calamity Leek by Paula Lichtarowicz is a really bizarre, really disconcerting (in the best way) book. You start the book not having any idea where you are or what is happening, and only as you go further and further does the situation become anything close to clear. It’s told in first person, which is incredibly effective, as the narrator (the Calamity Leek in the title) leaves out information she takes for granted and explains things as she sees them, which means the reader has to piece together what is really happening, because things are definitely amiss. Very reminiscent of Margaret Atwood (again, in the very best way), this book will stick with you for a long time. I recommend knowing as little as possible going in.


Your Retreat by Erin Odom was part of a ebook package deal I got (along with the next few books on this list). It lays out an outline for a “retreat” day, one in which you sit down and do some long term and short term planning. It’s a pretty good outline, and I got some good ideas from it.


Plan It, Don’t Panic by Stephanie Langford is all about meal planning, and it breaks things down into nice steps.


My Kitchen, My Classroom by Jennifer Bly was not my favorite of the bunch, it was a bit vague.


The Confident Homeschooler by Pam Barnhill is really short (30 pages), but there’s some good stuff in here.


A Fierce and Subtle Poison by Samantha Mabry is really good.  Set in Puerto Rico, it centers around Lucas, who is spending the summer with his hotel developer dad. Lucas has a tendency to get in trouble, but his whiteness and his dad’s money tend to keep him from too much punishment. There’s an urban legend  in the area about a cursed green girl who lives locked away on the island, and Lucas starts getting messages from her on the same day that his girlfriend disappears. The mystery of the green girl and the disappearance of his girlfriend form the crux of the book, around which rotate questions of privilege, race, ethics, and a lot more. I really enjoyed it.

Books I read this week: All of April

I haven’t written about books for a long time. I haven’t written about anything for a long time. It is what it is. So I’m trying to catch up. Seeing as I haven’t posted since the end of March, and I’ve read 35 books since then, I’m going to post by month instead of one huge post. Here’s what I read in April.


Black Girl in Paris by Shay Youngblood is a lovely book about a young black woman from the US who goes to Paris in search of the same experience that previous black expatriates like Josephine Baker and James Baldwin had in the earlier years of the 20th century. What she finds is not so romanticized, not so straight forward, but still beautiful. The writing in this book is lyrical and evocative, and I love the look into living in a country that is not your own.


A Thomas Jefferson Education by Oliver DeMille is really interesting. I like expanding my education theory base, and this approach has a lot that is positive and useful. There’s also quite a bit that I’m not ready to jump on board with, but the underlying core of “everyone is responsible for what they get out of their education” is one that has really helped my perspective lately.


Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science and the World by Rachel Swaby is one of my favorite books of the year. Filled with short (a couple pages) biographies of women in different fields of science, it is so incredibly inspiring. I highly, highly recommend it.


Crash Course: Essays from where Writing and Life Collide by Robin Black is a really powerful book about writing. It’s the kind that kicks you in the butt because it reminds you that you have a story to tell, and that the only way it’s going to get told is if you tell it. She doesn’t pretend that it’s not work, or that it’s easy, but makes it clear how worth it the work is. There are also lovely insights into life with a child with special needs, and how parenting and writing can intersect.


It’s Just My Nature by Carol Tuttle is a personality/energy typing book. I’ve read others of her books, so there wasn’t really anything new in this one. Her views are interesting, and she does have some insights that have helped me view and deal with people differently.


We Love You, Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greenidge is incredibly good and incredibly thought provoking. An all-hearing family who are all fluent in sign language is recruited to live at an institute and incorporate a chimpanzee into their family, with the goal of teaching him sign language and trying to discover how much he can really communicate. The family comes in with their own issues, the institute has its own issues, race gets complicated, and everything implodes. I really, really liked this one.


Art Journal Freedom by Dina Wakley is a great introduction to different techniques and approaches to art journalling.


Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye is another of my favorite books of the year. It’s a loose retelling of Jane Eyre, except that where Jane Eyre was strong willed and meek, Jane Steele is strong willed and kills people. It’s delightfully wrong in the same way that the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies movie is- the violence is so out of place in the milleu that we know so well that it becomes right, and my goodness is this right. The writing is top knotch, it’s funny and poignant and just really, really good. I highly, highly recommend it.

Summer challenge sticks

This summer I decided to bypass the complaining about not having anything to do by coming up with summer challenges. We have challenges that we choose from each day to do together, and then another set that are for when the girls are individually bored and need something to do on their own. I wrote all of them on Popsicle sticks and color coded the tops of the sticks with washi tape to indicate what category of challenge it is. (Mon-Friday we pick from a different category.) Then each category got it’s own little plastic box that is conveniently separated into two segments so that we can keep the already done sticks away from the still-to-do sticks. It’s worked pretty well so far; the girls are excited every day to find out what’s on our stick for the day, and it gives some focus to the day.

Here’s the list. There are more movies and games than we will actually use, and obviously those are geared to the games and movies that we have (as are the trips), but you could easily make an inventory of what you have or want your kids to experience.

COOKING CHALLENGES:

  1. Make pizza
  2. Make pancakes
  3. Make chocolate covered strawberries
  4. Make a cake
  5. Make snow cones
  6. Make tortillas
  7. Bake a pie
  8. Make donuts
  9. Make pudding
  10. Make rice krispy treats
  11. Make cupcakes
  12. Make popsicles

CRAFTING CHALLENGES:

  1. Create shell creatures (collage items and googly eyes on to shells)
  2. Make art with pastels
  3. Paint with watercolors
  4. Paint like Pollock
  5. Scratch Magic Fashion
  6. Draw a background for your sister to stamp
  7. Create rock monsters
  8. Make a multi media picture
  9. Make a basket from newspaper
  10. Use the collage box
  11. Make friendship bracelets
  12. Sew an animal
  13. Make a mosaic
  14. Paint a thing (a paper mache animal from the craft section at Target)
  15. Make things with Playdoh
  16. Color with the rubbing plates

TRIP CHALLENGES:

  1. Go to Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth
  2. Go to Obstacle Warrior Kids
  3. Go to Sea Life Grapevine Aquarium
  4. Go to Kimbell Art Museum
  5. Go to Forth Worth Science Museum
  6. Go to Amon Carter Museum
  7. Go to Kidmania
  8. Go the the Aboretum
  9. Go to the Perot Museum
  10. Go to NickelRama
  11. Go to Dallas Zoo
  12. Go to Dallas Museum of Art
  13. Go to Heard Museum

ACTIVITY CHALLENGES:

  1. Nerf Gun battle
  2. Go swimming
  3. Play in the hose
  4. Water gun battle
  5. Go roller skating
  6. Go to the splash pad

INDIVIDUAL CHALLENGES:

  1. Do LinkIt puzzles
  2. Do a jigsaw puzzle
  3. Play with the pattern blocks
  4. Do Eureka puzzles
  5. Make pictures with tangrams
  6. Do QBitz puzzles
  7. Play with Gravity Maze

MOVIE CHALLENGES (a mix of movies they’ve seen and some they haven’t yet):

  1. Boxtrolls
  2. Winnie the Pooh
  3. Prince of Egypt
  4. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
  5. Matilda
  6. Nanny McFee
  7. Cats
  8. Wizard of Oz
  9. Jungle Book
  10. Ernest and Celestine
  11. Hotel Transylvania
  12. Shaun the Sheep
  13. Into the Woods
  14. Tink and the Neverbeast
  15. Cinderella
  16. Emperor’s New Groove
  17. Mary Poppins
  18. Snow White
  19. Sound of Music
  20. Tarzan
  21. Cats Don’t Dance
  22. Pippi Longstocking
  23. Muppet Movie (They get to choose which one)
  24. Little Mermaid
  25. The Pirates
  26. Beauty and the Beast
  27. Brave
  28. Monster in Paris
  29. Hello Dolly
  30. I need to come up with another one because it bugs me that there’s not an even 30.

So that’s our plan. We’re also doing some educational stuff, which we’re calling Science Camp, which I’ll write about in another post.  The girls are reading a lot, and there’s never a dearth of paper with drawings all over them.  We have a new trampoline, and Tiny is taking swimming lessons; just how summer should be.

Kids books we’re loving lately

In honor of International Children’s Book Day (which is today), here are some of the recent favorite kids books in our house.

The Creature Department by Robert Paul Weston is so awesome. Two kids discover that the success of the Google type business in their town is due to the existence of a department within it run by monsters, and that department is in danger. It’s up to the two kids to become friends and save the monsters! It’s a great story that also features boys and girls being friends, working with science, and has a little “love yourself for who you are” thrown in with an interesting twist.

Tuesdays at the Castle by Jessica Day George is the first in a four part series about a magical castle that changes its rooms around every Tuesday. Celie is the youngest of the royal family that lives in it, and when her parents are attacked and presumed dead, she and her brother and sister have to defend the castle and the country against those who would try to take it away. Strong, smart, compassionate female characters work and fight alongside strong, smart, compassionate male characters, and individual’s talents are celebrated.

Ms Rapscott’s Girls by Elise Primavera is just fantastic. Ms Rapscott runs a boarding school for daughters of extremely busy parents (so busy that the daughters arrive in cardboard boxes in the mail) where she teaches the girls practical life skills as well as lessons like “how to find yourself” and “how to get lost on purpose”. The characters are diverse and flawed and each grows in a realistic way. There’s lots of humor and the takeaway lessons don’t clobber you over the head.

Masterpiece by Elise Broach is a lovely story about a little boy who befriends a very talented beetle. When the beetle draws a miniature picture for the boy for his birthday, everyone thinks that the boy drew it himself, and he gets pulled into a tangle of lies and tricks as a museum curator asks him to help foil an art thief. There’s a lot of action and low key tension in this one, as well as real information about the artist Albrecht Durer and museums.

A Dragon’s Guide to the Care and Feeding of Humans by Laurence Yep and Joanne Ryder is a cute story about a dragon whose pet human dies, only to leave her house and her “house guest” to her niece, who believes that the dragon is now *her* pet. The little girl gets a hold of a magic sketchbook, and when her drawings come to life and begin to run amok in San Francisco, dragon and girl have to go gather them all up again. Told from the perspective of the dragon, it’s a nice twist, and the story is sweet and imagination provoking. There’s an undercurrent about grief which is quite effective, and it’s a fun story over all.

Villain School: Hero in Disguise by Stephanie S. Sanders is the longest book that Tiny’s ever read by herself (240 pages), and she loved it. She says, ” It’s about a school for villains. The main characters are good guys but they go to a villain school. In part of it they have to use a blueprint to figure out how to get past booby traps so that they can get to the girls’ dormitories. They want to go there to cheer up one of their friends whose best friend had to go to another school. Going there would cheer him up because you have to do a lot of girlie things to get there and it’s really funny. There aren’t very many scary parts in it, and there’s a part with a crystal ball where you tell it to do stuff and it does it. I think you should read this book.”

Pilfer Academy by Lauren Magaziner is the most recent book that Z read, and she loved it. She says, “It’s about a kid who gets kidnapped and taken to a thief school. He doesn’t really like it at the beginning but then he likes it and then he doesn’t. It’s complicated. The school itself was actually stolen from a Duke in France, and the boy and his friend have to return it to him. It’s very funny and not scary at all. There’s ice cream in it called Triple Diple Ultra Deluxe Melty Creamy Creamer Rainbow Swizzle Milk Munch Ice Cream. I would recommend this book.”

Playing Juliet by Joanne Stewart Wetzel was another big hit with Z. She says, “Playing Juliet is about a twelve year old who is in theater and wants to play Juliet. There’s lots of jumping out the window and sneaking places you’re not supposed to be at night. It’s highly enjoyable but not too long. It made me want to be in theater. I would recommend this book.”  For the record, the sneaking out is dealt with responsibly and the girl does get caught and in trouble for it.

Bake Sale by Sara Varon is a graphic novel “about Cupcake, who is literally a cupcake, who has a bakery and is in a band, but then he’s too busy in his bakery to have time for the band, so they hire a potato. I really liked this book. It’s in color and I liked the art,” Z says.

Mr Pants: Trick or Feet by Scott Mccormick and RH Lazzell is “about three kitties and their mommy who is a human. They want to go to the zombie walk but all of the costumes are sold out. Then they try to get to the zombie walk but they miss their plane because it’s snowing so they decide to trick or treat in the airport but Mr Pants only gets bread and soda cans while the others get candy. I like the art and it’s very funny,” Z says.

Hilo: The Boy Who Crashed to Earth  by Judd Winick is a favorite in our house. Z says, “it’s a book about a little boy who falls from the sky and he thinks everything is outstanding. He stays with another little boy and he enrolls in his school by putting a raccoon in the office and signing himself in. He’s trying to stop a bad guy and it’s really funny.”

Books I read this week: March week 4

These are the books I read last week. Most of them were library books, which doesn’t help me toward my goal of reading more of the hundreds of books I have on the Haunted Kindle, but it does help me toward the goal of not buying new books and my goal to Read Wide.

The Supernatural Enhancements by Edgar Cantero looked right up my alley- creepy gothic house, ghosts, potential family curse- it really looked like a fairly standard haunted house story, which I was totally up for. It ended up fracturing off into a totally unexpected conspiracy theory/treasure hunt/secret society thing that was even better than I could have anticipated, though I did end up wanting more of the stuff that came at the end. There was all of this build up and then once the revelation was made, I realized that I wished the whole book was about the stuff that was revealed, rather than the build up. But it’s a fun book, and I really enjoyed it.

Wildflower by Drew Barrymore is kind of half way between a memoir and a series of essays. I was expecting more of a memoir, so I was a bit thrown, (and honestly, a little disappointed because I find Barrymore’s childhood/ teen years fascinating and wanted to know more about them, but it’s her choice what she shares and I’m just being nosy) but you do end up with a fairly coherent picture of her life by the time you finish. She comes across as a very conscientious person who is trying her hardest to be and become who she wants to be. Considering that she was basically raised by wolves, she’s done extremely well for herself. My one critique of the book is that she writes like she talks, which works for some people, but doesn’t always work here. She can pull off some disjointed sentences when she talks, and you know what she means, but written down, those same sentences come across clunky or ding-batty. But for the most part it’s a really enjoyable book.

Say You’re One of Them by Uwen Akpan is a book I wouldn’t necessarily have picked up if I wasn’t trying to Read Wide this year. I tend to stay away from books that I know are going to be sad or painful, and this one is about children living in various perilous situations in different countries in Africa, so sad and painful are pretty much guaranteed. But I went ahead and took it from the library, and I’m so glad I did. It was incredibly sad, and quite painful to read, but so eye opening. There are short stories set in Nairobi, Rwanda, Nigeria, Benin, and Ethiopia, and Akpan (himself Nigerian-born) traveled to each of the countries to learn about the cultures, the people, and their struggles. Each country comes alive in its own unique way, and poverty, teenage prostitution, child slavery, and violent religious conflict come alive as well in a way that leaves you changed and unable to claim ignorance. Akpan’s goal in writing the book (he says in an included interview) was to “see a book about how children are faring in these endless conflicts in Africa. The world is not looking. I think fiction allows us to sit for a while with people we would rather not meet. ” This is why I’m trying to read wide this year, and because of this book my heart has been cracked open and it makes me want to get involved with groups like the new I Was A Stranger initiative and the International Rescue Committee. The stories are hard, but the writing is beautiful and I highly, highly recommend this book.

Margarettown by Gabrielle Zevin was a nice step down from the emotion stirred up by Say You’re One of Them. It’s the story of a man who falls in love with a woman named Maggie (Margaret) Towne, who due to a magic spell, splits off from herself at different ages, so that there is a 7 year old May, teenage angsty Mia, middle aged Marge, Old Margaret, etc. They all live together in a place called Margarettown, and if he’s going love Maggie, he has to love them all. It’s part fable, part psychological study, and it’s lovely and sweet and sad.

Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas by Maya Angelou is the third volume in her autobiography, and my goodness, Miss Maya Angelou had an incredible life! I had no idea! In this volume she tours Europe and Africa in the cast of Porgy and Bess, advances in her career as a singer and dancer, takes the name Maya Angelou, and reunites with her beloved son. This was interesting to read right after Margarettown because Maya Angelou is the epitome of changing names- she’s Maguerite, Rita, Maya, and more, and that’s just in this book. This was an exceptional read.

Books I read this week: February week 4-March week 3

I’ve been reading a lot and not writing a lot, so I’m a bit behind. This month’s worth of books are kind of all over the place, but they were all really good reads.

The Philosopher Kings by Jo Walton is the sequel to her excellent The Just City. It continues the story of Athena’s grand experiment to create Plato’s Republic with people pulled from throughout time, as the Just City has splintered into separate groups. Each group wants to create their own version of the Republic, and things go fairly well until people are killed in raids over art. Apollo incarnate and his children go out to investigate, and so many ideas about responsibility, fate, agency, art, grief, and so much more are explored in this book. The story is great, the ending is the best kind of out of nowhere (I’m thrilled that there will be a third book), and the ideas are thought provoking.

“Then why did you betray me?” she asked, her gray eyes hard as flint. “With Sokrates? Or by saying you were an angel?” he asked. “That there are multiple possible occasions does seem indicative of problems,” Zeus said.

The Zig Zag Girl by Elly Griffiths sent me down a glorious rabbit hole. Apparently there was really a special forces team during WW2 and their job was to create illusions using camouflage and stage design to trick the Nazis. This book is a murder mystery wherein two members of a similar team (one now a police officer, one a stage magician) investigate a murder with uncanny similarities to a trick in the magician’s show. It’s a clever mystery, a great set up, with excellent characters.

Death in the Clouds by Agatha Christie is one I really thought I’d read before, but once I got into it I didn’t remember most of it. (I think that just means that I read it so long ago that it faded from my mind.) It’s a great set up for a closed room mystery- a woman is murdered mid flight on a plane. It could have been a blow dart found in a seat back, it could have been a wasp, and Hercule Poirot will figure it out.

One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories by B.J. Novak is really, really good. I got it from the library, but I might actually have to buy it. The stories are clever and inventive, and Novak has a distinct, wry voice that I appreciate. I don’t have a lot of detail to give, because the book is back at the library now, but I do recommend it.

If you love something, let it go. If you don’t love something, definitely let it go. Basically, just drop everything, who cares.

The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home by Catherynne M. Valente is a gorgeous ending to her Fairyland series. All of the rulers, past and present, of Fairyland have been brought back to life due to a mistaken spell, and September has to race them all to keep her claim as the Queen of Fairyland. But she doesn’t necessarily want to be the queen, and she doesn’t want to leave. Valente has created such a glorious world, with such beautiful, living characters. Her sentences are little gems, and this book goes exactly where it needs to go.

“You go paddle about in your supersecret lair of secretness and we’ll just lie out in the sun and discuss Agatha Christie and eat coconuts- ALL THE COCONUTS.”

For that is all a story is, my dears: a knife that cuts the world into pieces small enough to eat.

Growing Up Brave: Expert Strategies for Helping Your Child Overcome Fear, Stress, and Anxiety by Donna B. Pincus has some really excellent information about how kids experience anxiety and fear, and what strategies have been developed to teach them to deal with those emotions. Pulling from cognitive behavioral therapy, the tools in this book would be helpful for any parent of any child, whether they suffer from aggravated anxiety or not. The suggestions she gives are clear and easily implemented, and she imparts a very straight forward vision of what is “normal” and when to reach out to professionals for help. I really highly recommend this one.

Euphoria by Lily King was fascinating. Based loosely on the experiences of Margaret Mead (another rabbit hole I’ll be falling down soon), it’s the story of three anthropologists in the 1930s in New Guinea. Two are married and have just left their study of  a cannibalistic tribe, the other is suicidal and in over his head. When they come together it becomes clear that all three of them have different views on what it means to experience, study, and understand other cultures and even each other. The characters in this book live and breathe, the cultures that King creates are full of depth and complexity, and she raises really important questions about how we interact with the world. This would be a great book club book.

When only one person is the expert on a particular people, do we learn more about the people or the anthropologist when we read the analysis? As usual, I found myself more interested in that intersection than anything else.

Unnatural Causes by P.D. James is another book that I know that I’ve read (because I know that I’ve read all of James’ mysteries), but I didn’t remember it at all. Not even a little bit. That’s glorious, because then it’s like a new P.D. James book! And it makes me wonder if I remember the others, or if I’ve got a new bunch of books to read. (And don’t go worrying that I’m losing my memory- I would have read them at least 15, if not 20 years ago. I think it’s acceptable to have lost the details.) The murder victim in this one is an aggravating little writer who sets everyone in the village’s teeth on edge, and who floats to shore in a little boat with his hands chopped off. The twists are fantastic, James is a brilliant plotter who sets up clues like glorious little dominoes. And her sentences- my goodness. The woman had beautiful, beautiful sentences.

The corpse without hands lay in the bottom of a small sailing dinghy drifting just within sight of the Suffolk coast.

I wanted another mystery to follow up Unnatural Causes, so I chose Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling), which I got for my birthday. It wasn’t quite what I was looking for, and I have mixed feelings about it. The first two books in this series were such lovely little mysteries, little puzzles you could hold in your hand and sort through. And the characters and story of Cormoran and Robin were moving forward in a nice little way. They fit nicely into the formula (as it were) of the kind of mystery series that I love. But Rowling is all about character, and I can see that it would be impossible for her to have characters involved in a series of murders that had no effect on them, because Rowling’s characters exist in the real world, not in the murder mystery bubble. They’re not Jessica Fletcher, solving murder after murder and moving on, blissfully unaffected. So this book is all about the real life repercussions of murder and abuse, and it’s a pretty nasty piece of work. No one in it (save Cormoran and Robin) is a good person, and there’s so much darkness. Someone from Cormoran’s past sends Robin a woman’s leg in the mail, and as they investigate the murder and obvious threat, Rowling lays out Cormoran’s past as well as the past and present of the three suspects. Interspersed throughout are the thoughts of the killer, which gives the book more of a suspense/thriller feel than a mystery, because there’s really no way to solve the murder before the book leads you to the end.

It’s very well written, but you have to go into it knowing what you’re getting into. There’s lots of abuse and cruelty, and lots of language. It reminded me in a way of the 5th Harry Potter book- unpleasant, but necessary to set things up for what was to come, and I’m really hoping that now that this one is out of the way, we can get back to murder mysteries.

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson was another birthday present. I’ve been wanting to read it since Furiously Happy was one of my top books of last year. It’s not quite as brilliantly hilarious as Furiously Happy- this is her first book, and you can see how Lawson has developed as a writer- but it is full of absurd real life stories. Lawson had a very unusual childhood, and while some of it is legitimately laugh out loud funny, some of it is sad and uncomfortable. But she’s not afraid to tell her stories, as crazy as they are, and I appreciate that.

I can ignore that piles of clothes on the guest room bed because I know they’re all straight from the dryer and just waiting to be folded. Victor, on the other hand, will glare at he growing pile and huff loudly over and over until I finally break down ans ask him why he sounds like he’s deflating. We look into the same guest bedroom and see two entirely different things. Victor sees a dangerous volcano erupting with clothes that I must be intentionally refusing to hang up because I’m lazy and am purposefully trying to make him have a nervous breakdown. I see it as a personal achievement… a physical manifestation of all the laundry I’ve done over the last few months. It’s like a strange trophy made of clothes that I’ve forgotten I even owned. Victor says it’s like a crazy person lives in our house and is sculpting Mount Vesuvius out of the sweaters that need to be in storage. This is when I remind him exactly why doors were invented, and I close the guest bedroom door. “See?” I say. “Problem solved.”  “You can’t fix a problem by just not using rooms in the house,” he argues, and I point out how ridiculous he’s being, as I use that room all the damn time. I use it as a giant drawer for clothes that need to be hung up.

Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller was an interesting book to read directly after Let’s Pretend This Never Happened. The settings are completely different- rural Texas versus revolution torn Rhodesia- but both are the stories are young girls trying to find their way amidst a bit of chaos and uncertainty, and possible mental illness of parents. Fuller grew up on farms and plantations in Rhodesia, which became Zimbabwe, and her story is fascinating because they personify colonialism and third culture children and institutionalized racism and so many other concepts. Her parents were British, and moved to the British colony of Rhodesia in the 70s, and they fully believe that whites are superior to blacks, and that whites should be in charge, and that they have every right to be there. They refer to the native people who are fighting for independence from Britain as terrorists, and talk casually about the idea of drinking from the same cup as a black person as appalling, and they’re so very sure that they are right. As the revolution is successful and their farm is taken by the government, you feel badly for them, and badly for Fuller, who in her mind IS African- it’s the only life she can remember- but they’re still on the wrong side. It’s just really really interesting. Fuller’s childhood is so very different from what I’m used to, and this book is a fascinating look into a time period and a place that I’m not very familiar with. I highly recommend this one.

No One is Here Except All of Us by Ramona Ausubel is a sneaky kind of Holocaust novel. There are no Nazis, no concentration camps (explicitly in the story- they do exist in the world of the book), just a little tiny Jewish village up in the mountains that decides to pretend that nothing outside of their borders exists when the war begins. There’s an element of magical realism to the book, but it only serves to highlight the very real tragedies that the people of the village inflict upon each other. I don’t know that I have words to describe or explain this book, I just finished it this morning and I’m still trying to process it. But it’s got some wonderful ideas about how we claim and use people, how we interact with God, what we do in the name of parenthood and love. I have the feeling this one is going to stick with me for a long time.

My mother beckoned all three of us. She held us against her chest, my father crying and my brother and I stunned cold. She whispered into out hair, “You are reasons to live. You are enough to survive for.” I grew older and heavier then, my mother’s love bigger than my own small body could hold. Her love would hang on to my ankles and wrists on every journey I would ever have to take, even if she was the one who sent me on it.

“You are thinking of it wrong,” she comforted. “Everything stays true. You are yourself, no matter how much you have to change.” Until a long time later, until I was a mother myself, until I lost everything, until it found me back, I didn’t believe the stranger’s words. Everything stays true. Now I know that. Now, it’s all I know. And knowing it saves my life again every time I wake up.

Books I read this week: February week 3

I started a number of books this week that I ended up abandoning, but here’s what I finished this week.


Gather Together in My Name by Maya Angelou is breathtaking. I read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in high school and loved it (I should read it again), but I’d never read further into her autobiographies, and now I need to hit the library and binge on the rest of them. Her life is FASCINATING. She was so naive, but so headstrong, and so brave, and she made some colossal mistakes in judgement, but she’s so honest about them. You can definitely see in this book how she learned her two axioms that Oprah lives by- “When you know better, do better”, and “When someone shows you who they really are, believe them”. In this section of her life Maya’s son is kidnapped, she stumbles into owning a whorehouse, and becomes a prostitute herself, for a short while. And she learns and grows and becomes more of herself. It’s really so so good.


Pride and Prejudice  by Jane Austen. This is the first time I’ve read this book, after a lifetime of holding out against it. I actually live blogged my reading experience on Facebook, which was highly amusing to myself (and hopefully to others). There’s a reason why this book is a classic, it’s brilliantly written and bitingly insightful. I’m probably in the minority that prefers the biting insight to the romance at the core of it- I’m actually not a huge fan of Elizabeth Bennet (or really, hardly anyone in the book), and I don’t really think Austen was either. I am honestly a bit puzzled by the obsessions this book has spawned, with so many people writing sequels and things. But, to each their own, I suppose. I did really enjoy it.


Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer is a really interesting book. It’s about a 15 year old named Jamaica (Jam) who has been sent to a special school for teenagers with psychological issues. She is dealing (or not dealing) with debilitating depression stemming from grief at the death of her boyfriend. They had 41 days together, and all she wants to do is relive them. She gets selected to be one of 5 students in a Special Topics in English class, and finds herself studying the works of Sylvia Plath with 4 other students struggling to deal with great trauma. Each student is also given a journal, and they soon discover that when they write in the journal, they find themselves in a netherspace where their trauma never occurred. Jam gets to be with Reeve again, her friend Sierra’s brother was never abducted, Casey was never in the accident that paralyzed her. And then, of course, they have to figure out what to do with that, because being in the netherworld doesn’t change anything- they can’t progress there or go anywhere that they didn’t in their original time line. It’s a really interesting look at grief and healing, and Wolitzer does a good job of capturing the vulnerability of kids that age. That feeling of knowing  and being responsible for so much, and yet knowing so very very little at all. There are a  couple of  revelations at the end that I’m still working over; I don’t know that I think they were effective, but I don’t know that I think they weren’t. Anyway, there’s lots in here about the power of words and literature and finding your voice, and it’s worth a read.

Books I read this week: February week 1 and 2

Lots of good books over the last two weeks, and I’ve succeeded in not buying any new books for another two weeks. Go me! Go the library! Go the Haunted Kindle!


The Just City by Jo Walton has an intriguing premise- Athena decides to create the city that Plato wrote about in The Republic, set up and run by adults from throughout time who have prayed (even in a moment of whimsy) to Athena with a desire to live there, and peopled by 10 year old enslaved children taken from throughout time. The children are bought from their enslavers and brought to the city to grow up and learn and live (and not be slaves, though at least a couple of them don’t see the distinction). The city is run on the principles Plato laid out, and what he always intended as a thought experiment becomes a real experiment. Add into the mix a child who is Apollo in human form, the arrival of Socrates, and possibly sentient robots, and things get very interesting. The story is told from a few different perspectives, and it’s very thought provoking. There’s not ever really a feeling of urgency or conflict, even when there is conflict, which results in a bit of an emotional remove. But I really liked it, and I’m excited to discover that there is a sequel.


I made a list of the Agatha Christie books that I haven’t read, and have been working my way through them. Cat Among the Pigeons  might be the first of her books that has ever disappointed me. It’s the story of murders that occur at a prestigious girls school, and it just doesn’t have the same flow or sense of character as her other books. One of the major plot points is telegraphed really loudly really early, and other clues are completely missing- overall the book read as though someone was trying really hard to write like Agatha Christie and didn’t quite make it.


At Bertram’s Hotel  by Agatha Christie was definitely a step up from Cat Among the Pigeons, but not quite top drawer Christie. Strange things are afoot at Bertram’s Hotel; a man goes missing, a man is murdered, a girl is threatened. Miss Marple is there to observe and ultimately figure out what’s going on. There’s a decently sized conspiracy going on, which isn’t my favorite thing in Christie books, I prefer her closed room/one house mysteries. But the clues are all in this one, and the characters are interesting.


Sad Cypress by Agatha Christie is the best of the three I read in this binge; it’s based completely in relationships and motivation. Elinore loves Roderick, and they both stand to benefit from their aunt’s death, especially since they are going to be married. (Elinore is the aunt’s sister’s daughter, Roderick is the aunt’s husband’s nephew, so there’s no biological relation between the two.) Mary is their childhood friend and the aunt’s caregiver. When the aunt dies, Roderick sees Mary for the first time in a long while, and falls in love. Then Mary dies of morphine poisoning, and it is discovered that the aunt died of the same. Elinore is the only one with the means and opportunity to have done it, and acts guilty, yet Hercule Poirot does not believe that she is the culprit.  This book is such a marked difference from Cat Among the Pigeons, and I’d actually put it really high in my rankings of Christie’s books. The characters are complex but distinct, and their actions are consistent and reasonable. The solution is tricky but there’s no cheating- all the clues are there.


The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide is a lovely little book. It’s the story of a couple who befriend a cat. The cat belongs to someone else, but comes to visit them on a regular basis, and the book is about how the humans are changed by interacting with the cat. It’s very Japanese; not much happens but so much happens. It would be a gentle introduction to Japanese fiction.


Still Alice by Lisa Genova is really a stunning book. It’s about Alice, a brilliant psycho-linguistics professor who develops early onset Alzheimer’s. As she begins to lose her memory she hides her condition from her family and colleagues, until she (and they) have to come to terms with the reality of her situation. I thought the book was going to be overpoweringly sad, but it really wasn’t. Alice is a strong person, and as she begins to lose the things that she thinks define her, she realizes what truly does make her who she is. It’s a very thought provoking book that brings up questions of end of life decisions (and when those can and should be made), and of identity and the meaning of a worthwhile life. I think it would make a great book club read; there’s tons to discuss. It’s also very possible that it will give you hypochondria about any little memory slips, but that’s to be expected, I guess.

     
The Price You Pay Is Red  and The Long And Silent Ever After  by Carlie St. George are the second and third novellas in the Spindle City Mystery Trilogy.  I hope that St. George continues writing in this world, because it’s a gorgeous world that she’s created. The Price You Pay is Red is loosely based on the story of Snow White, while The Long and Silent Ever After is based on Sleeping Beauty and The Frog Prince. The stories are excellent; twisty and dark. The characters continue to develop nicely, and in interesting ways.


Greenglass House by Kate Milford is a pretty great middle grade book. Milo lives in a hotel at the top of a mountain with his parents. He’s looking forward to Christmas vacation alone with them (since the hotel usually doesn’t have guests during the winter), but guest after guest arrive, all with an interest in the hotel, its past as a haven for smugglers, and its former owners. When something is stolen from Milo’s room, he teams up with Meddy, the only other kid in the hotel, to investigate. Meddy plays role playing games, and brings an element of her game playing into their interactions, which allow Milo to break out of his shell as well as analyze his feelings about being adopted as he “becomes” someone else. There’s a pretty decent mystery at the center of the book, and a twist toward the end that literally made me catch my breath because I didn’t see it coming at all. Milo is a great character- sensitive and bothered by change, but courageous and loving. The sub story about adoption is well done; Milo’s family is loving and portrayed very positively, and their conversations about his feelings and thoughts about his identity and adoption are sensitively done.  Some of the RPG sections are a bit overwritten, but overall it’s a highly enjoyable book.