Tuesday, December 22, 2015

A Month of Faves: Books on My Winter Reading List

A Month of Favorites

Today, we are discussing the books we hope to read during this long winter hibernation. Hop on over to Estella's Revenge, Traveling with T, or Girlxoxo to see what other bloggers have on their lists!


Twain's End imagines the ups and downs of the relationship between Mark Twain and his longtime secretary, Isabel Lyon.

Ten Thousand Skies Above You is the sequel to A Thousand Pieces of You, which I loved. Both books are about the adventures Marguerite has with the Firebird, an invention of her parents that allows the user to travel to other dimensions.

The Song of Hartgrove Hall has dual timelines, music, and WWII. I am all in!

      Twain's End   The Song of Hartgrove Hall


The Witches covers a terrifying and fascinating moment in history and Schiff is one of the best history writers.

The Giveness of Things is a collection of essays by Marilynne Robinson. Need we say more?

Excellent Daughters tells the stories of women in Arab countries who are seeking their own education, careers, and choices.

      The Witches: Salem, 1692    Excellent Daughters: The Secret Lives of Young Women Who Are Transforming the Arab World


The Snow Child is about a snow child that comes to life for a childless couple in Alaska. Perfect for winter, right?

We Have Always Lived in the Castle has been on my woefully neglected Classics Club list for a while. It's supposed to be spooky and great!

Cinnamon and Gunpowder is a retelling of Scherezade where the prince is a female pirate. Yes, please!

While Christmas shopping for other people, I happened to pick up The Golem and the Jinni for myself. I've been meaning to read it since it came out in 2013!

      The Snow Child  The Golem and the Jinni (The Golem and the Jinni, #1)

What is on your winter reading list? 

Sunday, December 20, 2015

It's Monday and I am a tired lady

This week. It's been crazy. Shopping and baking and cleaning, oh my. I am happy to report that come hell or high water or insane days, I will still be reading. 

I'm finding myself way behind reviews, so I'm trying to fit a bunch in before I go on a break around Christmas. This week, I reviewed Sweet Tooth, Harriet Wolf's Seventh Book of Wonders, We Never Asked For Wings, and Accidental Saints. I have some posts scheduled for the next few days, and then I plan to take a blog break until 2016.

In the past few days, I read the lovely Emily, Alone. Sometimes quieter books are slow and a little boring. This is definitely not the case here. I intended to read Sara Bareilles' memoir after that, but I messed up Netgalley again. When you download a book to Kindle, you get to keep it past its expiration date. This does not seem to be the case for books read as PDFs. I still plan to read the book, but I'm going to have to go get it from the library.

In the meantime, I sped through The Wrath and the Dawn in one glorious day. I love anything that references One Thousand And One Nights, so this was right up my alley. I snuck in The Mysterious Benedict Society just under the wire this weekend. Who knew you could get so much reading done in the kitchen, while waiting for something to finish on the stove or in the oven?

        Emily, Alone     The Wrath and the Dawn (The Wrath and the Dawn, #1)  The Mysterious Benedict Society (The Mysterious Benedict Society, #1)

Next up is Kitchens of the Great Midwest. After that, I plan to read the much-loved Fates and Furies before it has to go back to the library.

           Kitchens of the Great Midwest   

I'm off to make some rice pudding and Christmas cookies. What are you reading this week?

Friday, December 18, 2015

Review: Accidental Saints

Nadia Bolz-Weber may not be what you were expecting when you meet a pastor. She is heavily tattooed, curses like a proverbial sailor, and consistently finds herself unprepared for the situations she finds herself in. She hopes to find inspiration in a local legend only to discover the woman was a KKK supporter, she wonders how to deal with the shooting at Sandy Hook in a season of Christmas trees and joy to the world, and she dares to imagine that demons still reside among us in the guise of depression.

It was both heartening and revelatory to me when Bolz-Weber suggests that the reason that church and life are so hard is because we need the practice of getting and giving grace. It breaks down our insistence on not needing other people and not needing forgiveness. We see each other in our most vulnerable, most devastating, most broken moments and then we choose to forgive and move forward, realizing that we need forgiveness just as much.

"The fact is, we are all, at once, bearers of the gospel and receivers of it. We meet the needs of others and have our needs met. And the strangeness of the good news if that, like those in Matthew 25 who sat before the throne and said Huh? When did we ever feed you, Lord?, we never know when we experience Jesus in all of this. All that we have is a promise, a promise that our needs are holy to God. A promise that Jesus is present in the meeting of needs and that his kingdom is here."

Our pastors are supposed to have it all together and know all the answers, right? But they don't. No one does, so the questions becomes whether we put them on a pedestal and wait for them to fall or allow them to be the nuanced people that they actually are. As someone whose father and husband are pastors, I have seen this on a very personal level. Bolz-Weber compassionately points out that our pastors are people too, with doubts and questions, struggles and triumphs.

Being in the church today, right now, can be beautiful. It can also be incredibly frustrating and sad. Reading Accidental Saints gave me hope for the future of people who want to do good and love Jesus and each other better.

"The gospel, this story of a God who came to us through Jesus and who loved without bounds and forgave without reservation and said that we have the power to do the same, cannot be destroyed by all the stupid mistakes you will read about in the chapters that follow. These mistakes, sins, and failings are mine, but perhaps they are also ours. And the redemption is ours, too."

Accidental Saints: Finding God In All The Wrong People
By Nadia Bolz-Weber
Convergent Books September 2015
211 pages
From the library

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Review: We Never Asked For Wings

Letty Espinosa has been hard at work, juggling three jobs at at time. But it might just be possible that she works so much so she doesn't have to be at home and be responsible for her children Alex and Luna. That has never been a problem, since her mother has been happy to care for her grandbabies. Now her parents are moving back home to Mexico and Letty is left in charge of her family for the first time. With no one to watch her children, Letty finds herself taking Luna along with her to work. At the end of the day, she scrounges through the cabinets hoping to make a little food last until the next paycheck. One day, she comes up with a scheme that just might get her son Alex out of his terrible school and give them all a chance at a better life. But everything must go exactly according to plan or they will be in more dire circumstances than ever before.

In The Language of Flowers, Ms. Diffenbaugh showed the difficulties of the foster care system as her protagonist aged out of foster care and rememberd her experiences in group homes and with foster families. Just like that story was about foster care without being preachy or overwhelmed by it, We Never Asked For Wings has some realistic and compassionate things to say about immigration and the state of education in our country. Letty's parents go back to Mexico after years of living in the United States. Alex falls in love for the first time, but they both have problems - Ysenia is bullied and she worries her mother will be deported and Alex is a brilliant kid who is not being challenged at all in his underserved school. I so appreciate a fiction writer who makes me consider issues without feeling like I've been emotionally manipulated or hit over the head with facts. This is a well-written story with compelling characters. These characters just happen to be dealing with poverty, immigration, and a lack of education.

Diffenbaugh has a unique ability to make me root for characters who drive me crazy. Letty is often a less-than-wonderful mother and there were many moments when I wanted to put the book aside in frustration. But then we see Letty make an effort or Diffenbaugh reveals a small detail about her that kept me reading to the very end. We Never Asked For Wings is a worthy and wonderful follow-up to The Language of Flowers. 

We Never Asked For Wings
By Vanessa Diffenbaugh
Ballantine Books August 2015
320 pages
Read via Netgalley 

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Mini-reviews: Sweet Tooth and Harriet Wolf's Seventh Book of Wonders

Serena Frome graduates from Cambridge and is recruited by MI5. It's 1972 and the intelligence agency hopes to manipulate British culture by giving a grant to writers who will write a certain way. Her first assignment is to get close to a young author named Thomas Haley. She is meant to offer him a fellowship. He agrees, and so begins Operation Sweet Tooth. Before long, Serena and Thomas become romantically involved and it's only a matter of time before Thomas discovers her ulterior motives or Serena's bosses find out she is involved with him.

Sweet Tooth is not particularly long, but it moves slowly. For a book about spies, there is very little action. Instead, the book is an exercise in literary contemplation. Serena and other characters ponder the point of writing and how it can both inspire and damage. In order to enjoy this story (and I'm not sure all readers will), you have to be willing to re-examine what you think about the role of story and the importance of honesty from your author and characters. Reading Sweet Tooth occasionally feels like listening to a really smug professor as he points out all of the connections you missed and glories in being much smarter than you. There is no doubt that McEwan is an incredibly talented writer. But in this book, I wish it felt more like he was giving you a friendly, conspiratorial wink instead of showing off his brain and his writing.

Sweet Tooth
By Ian McEwan
Anchor July 2013
400 pages
From my shelves

Harriet Wolf was a widely renowned writer. Her stories told the story of the enduring romance between an unforgettable couple. But her own life didn't always have a happy ending. Her relationship with her daughter Eleanor was full of turmoil and she spent much of her granddaughters' lives bedridden. When Eleanor ends up in the hospital, her granddaughter Tilton wonders if it is finally time to reveal Harriet's last secret. Maybe bringing the truth to light will bring her sister Ruth home again and perhaps it can even bring peace to their fractured family.

The story moves in multiple narratives and timelines, as we follow Ruth and Tilton in the present while learning about the histories of their mother and grandmother. It reminded me of The Thirteenth Tale, which is one of my all-time favorite novels. I also felt a definitive Alice Hoffman vibe in places. But I wanted to like this book more than I did. I kept waiting to really connect with the characters and their story, but it never happened for me.

Harriet Wolf's Seventh Book of Wonders
By Julianna Baggott
Little, Brown, and Company August 2015
352 pages
From the library

Sunday, December 13, 2015

It's Monday and Christmas is coming soon!

Hey friends! It's t-minus 12 days until Christmas and this week has been about trying to get ready. I got the Christmas cards sent out and we finished most of our shopping. Phew! Now we just have to do all the wrapping, keep rehearsing for the Christmas Eve worship service, and plan Christmas dinner for 20 people or so...

This week I read Things Unsaid, which is about adult children trying to help their elderly parents while also juggling their own careers and families. Anthony Marra's The Tsar of Love and Techno was also in my reading pile this week. In case you were worried, I am here to tell you that Marra's linked short stories are just as beautiful and heartbreaking as his novel A Constellation of Vital Phenomena.

             Things Unsaid    The Tsar of Love and Techno

I'm about halfway through Stewart O'Nan's Emily, Alone. Next up is Sounds Like Me by Sara Bareilles, who is one of my favorite singer/songwriters.

              Emily, Alone   Sounds Like Me: My Life (So Far) in Song

What are you reading this week?

Thursday, December 10, 2015

A Month of Faves: Five New to Me Authors

I'm linking up with Tanya at Girl xoxo, Andi at Estella's Revenge, and T at Traveling with T to participate in A Month of Faves. Today, we are talking about the authors we read and loved for the first time in 2015. Here are my picks!
Nadiz Bolz-Weber
Book I read: Accidental Saints
Looking forward to reading: Pastrix

Karen Russell
Book I read: Vampires in the Lemon Grove
Looking forward to reading: Swamplandia!

Jami Attenberg
Book I read: Saint Mazie
Looking forward to reading: The Middlesteins

        Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People  Vampires in the Lemon Grove: And Other Stories  Saint Mazie

Nadia Hashimi
Book I read: When The Moon Is Low
Looking forward to reading: The Pearl That Broke Its Shell

Lucy Knisley
Book I read: Relish
Looking forward to reading: An Age of License

What wonderful authors did you read for the first time this year?

A Month of Faves

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Readathon Mini-Reviews: Ms. Marvel and Submerged

Kamala Kahn is living a normal kind of teen life - she navigates her friendships, tries to get all of her schoolwork done, and bristles under the stern rules of her parents. One night, she sneaks out to a party and has an encounter with a strange mist. Suddenly, she is super strong, super stretchy, and can heal herself when injured. Kamala embarks on some amazing adventures, meets a longtime hero, and tries to make it home before curfew.

I was really glad to meet Kamala and I'm thrilled that kids (and adults) have a superhero to admire who is both female and Muslim. Wilson checks a lot of reader's boxes with a heroine who is both plucky and unsure of herself, a lot of references to and visits from other Marvel characters, and plenty of adventures to keep the reader and Kamala on their toes. I enjoyed reading this, but I don't feel the immediate need to run out and get the next one. The balance between superhero action and insight into Kamala and her friends and family just didn't work for me as well as I had hoped. 

Ms. Marvel, Volume 1, No Normal
By G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona
Marvel October 2014
120 pages
From the library

Bailey vowed she would never return to her hometown of Yancey, Alaska. But when a beloved relative passes away, she has to go back for the funeral. The stay becomes even longer when evidence suggests that the plane crash was not accidental. Cole was one of the divers who dove to recover the wreck. He is surprised when Bailey returns to town. She broke his heart when she left town and never looked back. Can the two solve the mystery and repair the broken relationship between them?

This is one of those mysteries with romance that makes for a good read in a day or during one weekend. But a few weeks later, I'm having trouble remembering exactly what happened. I know that my reading preferences are not the same as everyone else. If you like clean romantic suspense with interesting locations and a dash of history thrown in, this might be the book for you! Submerged is the first book in a series of related books that follow Bailey, Cole, and their family members and friends in Alaska.

By Dani Pettrey
Bethany House Publishers May 2012
313 pages
From my shelves

Monday, December 7, 2015

It's Monday and we have had a birthday!

A certain little boy who lives around here turned eight on Friday. We celebrated by having some friends sleep over on Friday, and then celebrating with the family on Saturday (Pokemon-style).

Sunday was all about taking it easy and recuperating before the start of another week. There was a lot of reading for everyone, a little time with the ipad, and then the kids got out the markers and worked on making their own books for a while. 

You want to know about books, you say? Alrighty then. Accidental Saints was wonderful. I get all the Nadia Bolz-Weber love now. I suspect that book, as well as her previous book Pastrix, will be finding a home on my shelves soon. Also, I finally finished reading Bonhoeffer! It's a great biography and I think Metaxas does a really good job of presenting a man who was determined to do good and a nation torn between several bad choices.

            Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy    Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People     

This week, I'm back to fiction. I plan to tackle Things Unsaid and the new Anthony Marra story collection The Tsar of Love and Techno

             Things Unsaid   The Tsar of Love and Techno

What are you reading this week?

Thursday, December 3, 2015

November Wrap-Up/What I'm Into

What is going on with November? I feel like it's just an awkward few weeks between October and Advent. There is not much to report from this month. D had lots of days off from school. We celebrated Thanksgiving with a multi-faith community service the Sunday before, and then we had dinner at my parent's church with the family and other families from their congregation.

Now it's onward to a certain little boy's birthday and all of the excitement of Christmas! 

Watching the Thanksgiving Day Parade

What I Read/Reviewed:  I only reviewed five books this month. Yikes. I think I'm reading at about the same pace, but the time (or desire) to sit down and write those reviews is just not happening.

Thanks to Nonfiction November, I read three nonfiction titles and two novels. Two books were for review, one was from the library, and two were from my own bookshelves.

            Tables in the Wilderness: A Memoir of God Found, Lost, and Found Again    Dumplin'  Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen

                                        The Crescent Spy    Out of Sorts   Dumplin'
                                     Tables in the Wilderness   Between You And Me 

Favorite posts from this month:The little girl and I tried our hands at being music reviewers when we wrote about Laurie Berkner's new album for kids. I had a lot of fun with Nonfiction November, talking about fiction/nonfiction book pairings and my experiences with nonfiction so far this year.

What I'm watching:
The husband and I finished watching Parks and Rec and most of our regular shows are on winter hiatus. We watched Jessica Jones along with everyone else. It was great, but I probably need a comedy chaser after that one!

I don't know what we will end up watching over the tv wasteland of December and January. Perhaps a rewatch of The West Wing or Fringe?


What I've been listening to:
Have you heard the concept album of Sara Bareilles' Waitress? It's wonderful. I hope I will be able to see the show when it comes to Broadway next year.


What I've been cooking and baking:

Oat and Wheat Sandwich Bread (Smitten Kitchen): I've been baking my own bread for the past few months. I like knowing exactly what is in our bread, and my kids eat cream cheese sandwiches like they are going out of style. I recently switched to this recipe and the consensus is that it is a keeper!

                           oat and wheat sandwich bread, ready to bake 

 Steak, Spinach, and Mushrooms Crepes (Half Baked Harvest)
So perhaps you and your husband happen to have a weekday off on the same day and, when your toddler sleeps, you make yourself a fancy lunch. This would be that lunch. And yes, it is just as delicious as it looks.

                                              Steak, Spinach and Mushroom Crepes with Balsamic Glaze | halfbakedharvest.com

Chicken and Pineapple Quesadillas (Budget Bytes): I know, I know. You have made quesadillas a million times. But I have to tell you guys that you have been missing out - your quesadillas need pineapple. Get to it.

                                        Chicken & Pineapple Quesadillas

What we love this month:
1) I've mentioned before that the little girl and I have an hour-long commute twice a week. Snacks are a must-have! We are especially fond of applesauce pouches from GoGo Squeez or Charlie and Alice and Nature's Valley Soft Baked Oatmeal bars. A toddler who is no longer hungry is a toddler who is much happier!

2)The other thing that has made the long drives a little easier is the Winnie The Pooh audiobook. The stories themselves are ones I have read to the kids many times, but the narration on this edition is wonderful. You can't get much better than Judi Dench and Stephen Fry as narrators and each character is voiced by a different actor.

Grab button for What I'm Into

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Review: The Secret Chord

He is one of the most beloved men in the Bible. He is the boy who slew the giant, the king who danced before God, and the man who grieved for his sins and the loss of his son. David, the King of Israel, was both revered by his people and reviled by the people whose kingdoms he conquered. When David asks the prophet Natan to compile a history of his life, he discovers hidden chapters as well as triumphs and tragedies he could never have anticipated. David is desperate to be known not just as a name, not just as king, but as a whole man who had successes and failures.

Natan and David share a special bond. David spared Natan after he took revenge on his family and instead took him in as a part of his entourage. He soon discovers that Natan hears directly from God, who has quite a few things to say to David about his life and the future of his kingdom. Natan knows David as few other people do, but he is still surprised by the brutal choices he makes to hold his kingdom and his reign together. He is a bold leader, but he can also be terribly selfish and the power and glory of being a king goes to his head all too often.

In one important scene, David dances before the holy Ark of the temple. That joy is not often to be found in the pages of The Secret Chord. As witnesses to David's life, we are too late to witness the moment of triumph when he is crowned king and we do not see the joy of meeting his children or the happy private moments with any of the women he loved. This is a dark book, full of battles, deception, and pain felt by David, Natan, and pretty much every other character to appear in this story. The continuous feeling of darkness can make it a difficult book to read in some sections and without the levity and joy, it can be hard for the reader to believe they should care for this hardened and stone-faced king.

Geraldine Brooks is a very gifted historical fiction writer and she is unafraid to tackle any topic, era, or person. At this point, her books have been about the plague, Louisa May Alcott's famous March family, and the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College. While this is not my favorite of her novels, I admire her love for history and her ability to take moments and people out of the archives and bring them to fascinating and nuanced life.

The Secret Chord
By Geraldine Brooks
Viking October 2015
302 pages
Read via Netgalley