Vacation reading and July TBR check-in

In my book, vacations of any sort include reading. (Though this is not the case for everyone; recently, I was stunned to learn that a fellow librarian was traveling to Europe without a single book. I was actually struck speechless. What do you do with all that time on in airports and on the plane? Waiting in line for things? Before bed? Is this common, for people to travel without books?) At any rate, our summer vacation this year consisted almost entirely of sleeping, eating, walking, and reading.

Cover image of The Starboard SeaI knocked my TBR list down by one by finally reading The Starboard Sea by Amber Dermont, which I’ve had on my shelf in paperback for well over a year. It’s a boarding school book, and I’m a sucker for those (see: A Separate Peace, Looking for Alaska, Prep, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, The Tragedy Paper, The Secret Place). It reminded me a bit of Looking for Alaska and a bit of Ordinary People in the way the main character, Jason, experiences the loss of someone close to him (two someones, actually) and struggles with his grief alone. Like today’s “helicopter parents,” the 1980s parents of most of the students have high expectations for them, but they don’t hover – far from it. The kids are afraid of failure, but the parents use money and influence to bail them out when they make mistakes, protecting them from real consequences whenever possible but doing so from a distance. Jason’s problems can’t all be remedied with the second chances that money can buy, and he recognizes this.

I enjoyed The Starboard Sea, but it wasn’t my favorite of the books I read during vacation. Actually, I’m not sure I can pick a favorite. I read three excellent galleys that I was thrilled to have gotten my hands on: David Mitchell’s Slade House; Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s We Never Asked for Wings; and Paula McLain’s Circling the Sun. I also finished Seraphina by Rachel Hartman, and read a stack of picture books in a tiny local library. Reviews of all of these are or will be on LibraryThing soon, but here’s the short version:

Cover image of Slade HouseSlade House: Those who loved The Bone Clocks will devour this, as it takes place in the same Mitchell universe. It’s a much more compact book, length-wise, and, like Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, it has a somewhat looping pattern. The Bone Clocks is literary fiction with fantasy elements (the Anchorites and the Horologists, etc.), and Slade House is that too, but it also has a few hallmarks of the horror genre (e.g. The Haunting of Hill House), especially the ending. There are the usual allusions and references to characters from other Mitchell books: one of the characters works for Luisa Rey’s Spyglass magazine, though Luisa isn’t mentioned by name; Marinus from Bone Clocks and Thousand Autumns makes an appearance in the final section; and of course there’s the ubiquitous moon-grey cat. Slade House can certainly stand alone, but might be more enjoyable if you’ve already read some Mitchell.

Cover image of We Never Asked for WingsWe Never Asked for Wings: The Language of Flowers was not a once-off – Vanessa Diffenbaugh is a really good writer, and she takes characters uncommon to literary fiction and puts them at the center of her stories. Wings is about a struggling Mexican-American family in California. Letty’s parents, who effectively raised her two children (15-year-old Alex and six-year-old Luna), suddenly return to Mexico, leaving Letty to learn how to be a mother for the first time. Alex misses his grandparents, especially his grandfather, Enrique, a feather artist who taught him about birds and migration patterns. He goes searching for his father, bringing him back into Letty’s life for the first time in 16 years, and if that wasn’t enough, Alex also tries to get his girlfriend, Yesenia, out of a bad situation – but ends up getting her into a far worse one. Diffenbaugh writes with compassion and understanding, but her books aren’t “issue books” – they’re about her characters, who all seem utterly lifelike.

Cover image of Circling the SunCircling the Sun: This book spans Beryl’s childhood in Kenya through her early adult life, from about 1904 into the 1920s, with a prologue/epilogue set in 1936. Beryl is an adventurous woman, but even in Africa there are societal rules to follow (or break, and bear the consequences). She trains racehorses, marries and divorces and marries again, has affairs, and learns to fly a plane. I enjoyed Circling the Sun, and the quality of the storytelling is on par with that of The Paris Wife, but I felt there was a loss of momentum in the later parts of the book. Perhaps I simply read it too quickly, and I would have appreciated it more in smaller chunks. Still, it’s very good, and I haven’t read much fiction set in Kenya; the descriptions conveyed an excellent sense of the place and time.

Cover image of SeraphinaSeraphina: I was interested in this from the moment I heard about it, yet it didn’t make it to the top of my list until recently. I am so glad I read it; it’s a unique YA fantasy novel (with a new sequel, Shadow Scale) set in a world where dragons can take human form. Thanks to a peace treaty brokered 40 years ago, dragons and humans have been co-existing (somewhat uneasily), but tensions are on the rise. Seraphina, the new assistant music mistress at the palace, is caught in the middle of the conflict by the nature of her identity. The audiobook is excellent, though as usual I had to check the print for spellings of the invented vocabulary.

That’s some of my summer reading – what’s yours?


Top Ten Books I’ve Read So Far in 2015

I always enjoy threegoodrats’ “Top Ten Tuesday” posts, inspired by The Broke and the Bookish, and this week I thought I’d chime in as well (even though it isn’t Tuesday), because the topic is “top ten books I’ve read so far in 2015” and that sounded like a fun list to make.

Listed in the order that I read them, with links to reviews/quotes in LibraryThing:

Cover image of Greenglass House1. Greenglass House by Kate Milford: Friends and strangers alike will attest I have not shut up about this book since reading it in January. It is absolutely overflowing with “appeal factors” such as: adoption, a snowbound closed-house mystery (a la Agatha Christie) in a smugglers’ inn, a role-playing game, stories within stories, an entire fictional place complete with its own history and lore, plenty of hot chocolate, Christmas, and a ghost. And it’s got a beautiful cover.

2. Alanna (Song of the Lioness quartet) by Tamora Pierce: I definitely should have read this in middle school or at least high school, but I’m glad I didn’t let it slip by completely. A fantastic set of fantasy novels with that “strong female protagonist” that everyone loves (plus horses, plus a magical crystal that prevents pregnancy). I inhaled all four of these in the space of a week.

Cover of NPH Choose Your Own Autobiography3. Neil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Autobiography: This is one of the best audiobooks I’ve ever listened to (but get the print version too so you can see the pictures). Entertaining and funny but not at the expense of depth. A must for all NPH fans, and the “choose your own adventure” format worked better than it had any right to.

4. Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug: I’ve been meaning to read this for ages – it could/should have been on my 2015-TBR list – and it was well worth it. Anyone who uses computers, let alone anyone who makes software or hardware, ought to read this book (and also Don Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things).

Cover of A Visitor for Bear5. Bear & Mouse series by Bonny Becker: Starting with A Visitor for Bear (spoiler: it’s Mouse!), I adored these picture books, which have just the right amount of beauty, charm, and humor. A Birthday for Bear, A Bedtime for Bear, and A Library Book for Bear are all worthwhile follow-ups to the first in this series.

6. Dead Wake by Erik Larson: For someone who has read an awful lot about the Titanic, this was my first book about the Lusitania, and it was fascinating. I’d been a little disappointed by Larson’s last, In the Garden of Beasts, but Dead Wake was gripping from start to finish. Larson provides several points of view: captain, crew, and passengers on the ship; the U-boat crew; President Wilson; and the secret, pre-Bletchley “Room 40” in England.

Cover image of Trigger Warning7. Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman: Another fantastic audiobook, read by the author himself. There’s not a dud in this collection of strange stories, myths, and even poems, but there are a few standouts; my favorites were the Doctor Who story “Nothing O’Clock,” “Black Dog” (featuring Shadow from American Gods), and “And Weep, Like Alexander.”

8. Bringing Up Bebe by Pamela Druckerman: Like many much-hyped books, I avoided this for a while, but when I read it I discovered it was much more practical and less frothy than I had expected. A useful insight into another way of doing things (plus a recipe for yogurt cake).

Cover image of Graceling9. Graceling, Fire, and Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore: I just wrote a whole separate blog post about how much I loved these three books. I already want to re-read (re-listen-to) Graceling. If you liked the Song of the Lioness quartet or the His Dark Materials trilogy, you need to read these.

10. Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon: I started this back in 2013, but didn’t finish until I bought the e-book; in this case, not carrying around a thousand-page tome really did help. If everyone in the world read just the introduction to this book (48 pages or so), the world would be a better place. Solomon is a talented writer who did an immense amount of research, speaking with experts and families, and Far from the Tree provides an astonishing level of insight into various kinds of difference or “horizontal identities.”

I will resist the temptation to continue the list with honorable mentions. What have your favorite books been so far this year?

TBR challenge and other reading

Cover image of GracelingIt’s the end of May (or it was when I started writing this post; now it’s early June), time for a TBR check-in: I’m still on track to read twelve of my TBR books by the end of the year, though progress has been slower lately. Graceling by Kristin Cashore was on my list, and I loved it so much I went straight on to Fire and now Bitterblue. I don’t feel bad about this at all; rather I’m delighted to have found such a strong YA trilogy (using that word loosely) that I hadn’t read yet. (See my reviews and quotes from Graceling and Fire on LibraryThing.)

I’ve also received a few galleys that captured my attention: Ann Packer’s The Children’s Crusade, Lisa Lutz’s How to Start a Fire, Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins (companion to Life After Life), Annie Barrows’ The Truth According to Us (just finished), and Paula McLain’s Circling the Sun (up next).

I’ve had The Te of Piglet on my bedside table since January, and I think I’m giving up on it. Partly the bedside table location is to blame, but the author’s writing style – with constant interruptions from Pooh and Piglet – is not endearing, and I don’t entirely agree with his philosophy. Though there are good bits here and there, I’m not enjoying it enough to continue.

What will be my next selection from my TBR pile? Between Shades of Gray if I’m feeling like YA historical fiction, The Starboard Sea if I want a boarding school book, or The Waterproof Bible if I need Andrew Kaufman’s (All My Friends Are Superheroes) wacky blend of humor, magical realism, and emotion.

Are you participating in a reading challenge this year? How are you doing? Have you discovered any gems?

TBR shelf check-in

It’s two months in to the 2015 TBR (To Be Read) challenge, and of the fourteen TBR books on my list (twelve books plus two alternates), I’ve read five:

  • God’s Hotel by Victoria Sweet: More of a memoir than I realized – not a bad thing – but centered around the idea of “slow medicine.” The author makes a good case for allowing doctors enough time with their patients; a correct diagnosis can save a lot of money in the long run, which insurance companies would be smart to recognize.
  • Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain: Also a memoir, one that takes the reader behind the scenes in restaurant kitchens. Bourdain is a writer with a great voice, and he’s got some tips readers would be wise to heed as well, in terms of dining out.
  • The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach: This novel came highly recommended by at least two friends, and while it didn’t send me out into the streets to press copies into strangers’ hands, I did enjoy it. It was more of an ensemble cast than I first thought it would be, and each character is equally well-rounded, from baseball star Henry, to workhorse coach/player Mike, to lovestruck college president Guert Affenlight, to his daughter Pella who has fled a bad starter marriage.
  • Invisibility by Andrea Cremer and David Levithan: I adore David Levithan and a friend sent me a galley of Invisibility before it was published; by all rights I should have read it right then, but I didn’t. Like Levithan’s Every Day, Invisibility has a unique premise: Stephen is invisible, due to a curse from his grandfather. No one, including his parents, has ever been able to see him – until Elizabeth moves in to his apartment building. The two of them fall in love, and together – along with Elizabeth’s brother Laurie – try to break the curse. Chapters alternate between Stephen’s and Elizabeth’s perspectives.
  • Wild Girls by Mary Stewart Atwell: A friend at the publisher sent me a copy of this just before it came out, but I didn’t get around to it till I chose it for my book club for January. In a small Appalachian town, teenage narrator Kate dreams of getting out, and fears turning into one of the “wild girls” who go on dangerous rampages. Though the author made the connection between the powerlessness of girls and their rage, I felt that she could have delved more deeply into this issue. However, it was still an enjoyable read, with a great sense of place.

Aside from my official TBR list, I’ve also finally read a few books that have been on my unofficial TBR list for a long time, including Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think, a galley of My Sunshine Away that I got at BEA last May, Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History by Florence Williams, The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily Danforth (recommended to me by at least two colleagues), Howards End (which has been sitting on my shelf for years), and This Wheel’s On Fire by Levon Helm. All of these were good, though the standouts were the nonfiction titles, specifically Breasts and Don’t Make Me Think. (The joke there just writes itself.)

Are you participating in a TBR challenge, officially or unofficially? Which books have made you say “Why didn’t I read this sooner?!” and which ones weren’t quite worth the time?



The Official TBR Challenge


I have officially entered the Official 2015 TBR Pile Challenge. I’ve tagged twelve of the titles on my TBR shelf (plus two books I don’t own but have been meaning to read, The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach and Graceling by Kristin Cashore) with “2015-TBR” in LibraryThing. Thanks to Linda at Three Good Rats for the nudge to join the official challenge.


I hope to read even more books from my TBR shelf this year, but this challenge is a good start. I do like checking things off a list…not that books should ever be reduced to mere list items.