what I read in January

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Fiction

Making Money, by Terry Pratchett. Former conman turned respectable pillar of the community Moist von Lipwig tries to run a bank. This is an old favorite of mine, and I never get tired reading about the exploits of Moist von Lipwig. (Related titles: Going Postal and Raising Steam by the same author.)

Dear Committee Members, by Julie Schumacher. This is an epistolary novel, in which the story is told through the countless letters of recommendation a professor is asked to write one year. If you work in academia, you’ll probably find it funny. It lagged a little in the middle, but the end more than made up for it and re-humanized the characters involved, which was sorely needed.

The Lure of the Moonflower, by Lauren Willig. My dad got me started on these female-centered historical spy novels/romances, set in Napoleon France, India under colonial rule, and Georgian England. There are twelve of them, and I’ve read them all. He dropped out halfway through the series (as much as I love them, the quality is a little uneven), but gave me this one for Christmas so I could finish the series. They’re fun, reasonably historically accurate, and this one made a nice wrap up of more than ten years of Pink Carnation history.

Gatefather, by Orson Scott Card. This is the third and last installment in Card’s Mithermages series. Danny North, an incredibly powerful Gatemage, has battled the Gate Thief, and won, but now faces another great danger. (It’s very epic, if you couldn’t tell.) I really enjoyed the worldbuilding in this series, I enjoyed the (semi-subtle) Mormon overtones visible in Card’s writing, I enjoyed (if also rolled my eyes) at the way the author weaves together theology and mythology. But for a book that had such an epic premise, the ending felt kind of flat for me. Not bad, just flat. Still worth reading if you like fantasy, though.

The Bands of Mourning, by Brandon Sanderson. Bands of Mourning is set in the same universe as Sanderson’s Mistborn series, just hundreds of years later (I think. A good chunk of time, in any case). It follows The Alloy of Law and Shadows of Self, and continues the story very neatly.

I’m being very circumspect about plot so I don’t spoil anything, but I’ll say this: Sanderson writes female characters pretty well, but falls into the same traps a lot of writers do (Warbreakers, as much as I liked it, inspired much ranting in that regard). It was nice to see Steris come into her own in this book, even if the same old ‘woman doesn’t know her value/worth until male tells her (and preferably marries her)’ trope came out to play.

Divergent, by Veronica Roth. Divergent has been made into a movie, and it’s a very well-known young adult book that I had resisted reading until now. Shame on me, because my snobbish rejection wasn’t actually warranted–it’s a pretty good book. In the Divergent world, people are separated into ‘factions’ that value different things: Abnegation values selflessness, Candor values honesty, Dauntless values courage, Erudite values learning and libraries, and Amity values peacefulness. The catch is that you grow up in one faction, and then you choose whether to stay, or to join another one, at sixteen. The story revolves around one girl, Beatrice Prior, and her surprising choice.

Also, as an aside, I would probably be an Erudite. I’m too non-confrontational to be Candor, too un-athletic to be Dauntless, too selfish to be Abnegation (although I’m also a people pleaser so who knows?), and too sarcastic and prone to doom-thinking to be Amity. (In the Harry Potter world, I’m a Ravenclaw. I’m pretty sure I like following the rules too much to be Gryffindor. Although Hermione made it, so again, who knows?)

Cozy Mysteries

Gluten for Punishment, by Nancy J Parra. You know the gluten-free thing has jumped the shark when there’s a cozy mystery about it. (I was relieved to read that the protagonist hadn’t read Wheat Belly but actually had celiac.) Fun and fast read.

On Borrowed Time, by Jenn McKinlay. Another installment of the Briar Creek crime-fighting librarian!

Suspendered Sentence, by Laura Bradford. I swear, until right this second, I read the title as Suspended Sentence, and I’m afraid I’m going to have to downgrade my ranking for this book because this pun is terrible.

Anyway, it’s a cozy mystery set in Amish country in Pennsylvania. I find these books fascinating bits of Americana, because they require the people in question (the Amish) to become two-dimensional characters upon which fully modernized and technologically connected people can project a longing for simplicity and grace. Although Bradford is better than most, and her Amish actually experience and express negative emotions, like anger and jealousy. (Not to mention a murder, since it’s a cozy mystery, after all.)

Non-fiction

The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption, by Kathryn Joyce. Joyce (author of the book Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement) takes on international adoption in this book, asking questions about good intentions gone awry, the potential and reality of human/child trafficking, and how to move forward and do good. It’s branded as an exposé, and although I’m skeptical of exposés, I picked it up and read it anyway. If you keep in mind that it’s not meant to be a fair-handed treatment of adoption, but rather an exploration of what happens when too many people feel the means justifies the ends, you’ll end up learning a lot.

When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present, by Gail Collins. The book opens with an anecdote of how a woman wasn’t allowed to pay her boss’ traffic fine because she was wearing pants. (Her husband had to go pay it so they could just go home, and was warned to keep her in line by the judge.) Collins takes us through years of change, chronicling how in just one generation, expectations of what women could or could not, should or should not do drastically changed. Collins weaves in historical research, oral histories, and popular culture in an interesting and eloquent way. It’s rather balanced (you can tell the author is mostly a fan of the changes, since she never would have got to her position as the New York Times’ first female editor of the Editorial Page without them, but she also writes about the unintended consequences along the way), and when the author criticizes the parties involved, she does so in an affirming way. I would have loved a chapter on the Internet and the way female participation online has changed public life, but I guess you can’t cover everything.

You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) by Felicia Day. This is a memoir that chronicles Day’s upbringing (weird), university career (disciplined), acting career (quirky), and various interests (nerdy). I listened to the audiobook, which I would highly recommend, as it’s read by Day herself. I loved the peeks into Day’s weird and wonderful life. I’m not a gamer (all I play is Mario Kart and Yoshi), but I’ve watched The Guild and Dr Horrible (not to mention some Supernatural) and I know enough about the culture to be intrigued. Recommended for all the nerds out there who feel like they don’t belong.

book list May 2015

Screenshot 2015-06-11 10.22.05Now that June is almost over, let me get to May.

1. The Bishop’s Wife, by Mette Ivie Harrison. Linda lives in Utah County, is married to the bishop (lay leader) of her local Mormon congregation, and through him becomes privy to a disturbing situation in the ward that might even include a murder. Goodreads describes it as a “both a fascinating look at the lives of modern Mormons as well as a grim and cunningly twisted mystery.” It was an enjoyable read, though more psychological thriller than true mystery, I think. I’m planning to read the second installment when it comes out, but I do think you need major familiarity with Mormonism in order to get the most out of the book. In some ways, though, it’s just nice to read something that’s based on a true crime story, involves Mormons, yet doesn’t rely on 19th century tropes. You’d be surprised at how rare that is.

2. The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II, by Denise Kiernan. This book deals with the women who worked at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a ‘secret city’ associated with the Manhatten Project. None of these women knew what they were working on, only that it was vital to the war effort, and Kiernan describes both the camaraderie that developed in this put-up town and the secrets that enveloped every worker there. Kiernan describes them as heroes, and perhaps in deference to her subjects’ feelings, doesn’t spend much time on the complicated legacy of the Manhatten Project. But all in all it’s not a bad book, even if the first half is much stronger than the second.

3. Bertie’s Guide to Life and Mothers, by Alexander McCall Smith. Another delightful installment in McCall Smith’s serial 44 Scotland Street series–and this time, Bertie gets some freedom from his overbearing, helicopter, tiger mom.

4. Mr. Churchill’s Secretary,
5. Princess Elizabeth’s Spy, and
6. His Majesty’s Hope, by Susan Elia MacNeal. This is the Maggie Hope series, featuring a brilliant British-American mathematician that is enlisted to spy for the British during WWII. I don’t think they’re quite up to par with the Bess Crawford or Maisie Dobbs series (both dealing more with WWI) but if you like historical cozy mysteries with a literary bent, they’re worth picking up.

7. Children of the Jacaranda Tree, by Sahar Delijani. This was a book club read, and it provoked an interesting discussion. It deals with the Iranian Revolution, as seen through a variety of children-turned-adults that are left to deal with the aftermath. It’s a poignant book, but also very scattered. Definitely one to read with attention, and if your copy includes a family tree, bookmark it for easy access.

8. The Paper Magician, by Charlie N. Holmberg. Ceony is a magician’s apprentice, who is learning her trade (paper magic, or folding, which is much cooler than it sounds), but also forced to battle supreme evil. The books (there are three of them so far) are set in a parallel world that’s meant to mimic early 20th century England, I think. Though Holmberg creates quite a satisfying magical universe, ultimately, these books veered too much towards romance for me to be able to recommend them whole-heartedly. But I did read all three of them, so take that for what it’s worth.

9. Lizzy and Jane, by Katherine Reay. This isn’t a Pride and Prejudice parody/homage, at least not a straight-up one. Lizzy is a head chef in her own restaurant, yet struggling to find her purpose. Jane is a marketing specialist and battling cancer. The two haven’t really been true sisters since their mother died, and when Lizzy comes to visit, tensions flare up all over again. I quibbled with the elaborate foreshadowing in the book, since that meant I knew exactly how the story would play out, but I loved Reay’s food descriptions and enjoyed the book anyway. Perfect plane reading.

10. Sidney Chambers and the Problem of Evil, by James Runcie. I’ve talked about these books before: this one deals with serial killers, art theft, and baby kidnapping.

11. A Song for Issy Bradley, by Carys Bray. This is another Mormon novel, set in England, and dealing with a perfect Mormon family that isn’t quite as perfect after all. Well written, well executed, with a sensitivity that helped carry a sad plot without being overwhelming or too weepy. Recommended.

April’s book list

April was a slow month for me, with a total of seven books.

April1. Flesh and Blood, by Patricia Cornwell. Cornwell’s Scarpetta mysteries have been very conspiracy-prone of late, so I was glad to see this one return to the realm of “normal” thriller-mystery. An unsettling end means that I’m wanting the next one to come out soon. Recommended for Patricia Cornwell fans!

2. Princess Academy: The Forgotten Sisters, by Shannon Hale. Smart, insightful, and subtly feminist in all the right ways. If I have daughters (or if anyone around me has daughters), you can bet I’m giving them all the Shannon Hale young adult books I can find.

3. Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death

and

4. Sidney Chambers and the Perils of the Night, by James Runcie. This is a new-to-me series, and I’m liking the cleverness of the series. Canon Chambers is a very likeable character, Runcie’s portrayal of small-town life in the shadow of Cambridge add a wonderful sense of scenery, and most of the mysteries fit well in this imagined environment. (The second book gets involved with some international espionage, so take that for what it’s worth.)

5. The Square Root of Murder, by Ada Madison. Delightful cozy mystery series, this time math-themed, instead of knitting/book/quilting/whatever themed.

6. The Raven Boys, by Maggie Stiefvater. I’ve been seeing her books touted for years, but only picked one up after I read this online and thought I should read more of her writing. See my comments about Shannon Hale, above.

7. A River in the Sky, by Elizabeth Peters. I don’t know if I just missed this one because my library’s Overdrive system didn’t have it, or it was written to fit back between prior novels, but I saw it at the library and picked it up. I’m a fan of Elizabeth Peter’s Egypt mysteries, and though this one is set in Palestine, it fits nicely and was a fun, quick read.

Tell me, what should I make sure to include on May’s list of books?

The Passion of the Plumeria and The Ashford Affair

You know I love the Pink Carnation romance spy series. I saw the newest Pink Carnation (The Passion of the Purple Plumeria) at a bookstore in Santa Cruz, California, and bought it to read on our camping trip. And I have to say, it’s a good thing I love Lauren Willig’s books so much, or I might have regretted the purchase. (It also helps that my dad so very generously funds my book habit when we travel.)

The Passion of the Purple Plumeria In this installment, we meet up with Captain Reid and Miss Gwen, who are thrown together when two girls go missing. One of them is Reid’s daughter, the other the sister of the Pink Carnation. Since Miss Gwen is the Pink Carnation’s chaperone, she injects herself into the search. A lot of intrigue and romance later, will the girls be found?

The book contains everything you need for a good spy romance, but it was hard not to keep shaking my head at the thin plot and less-than-stellar writing. In fact, the only thing I really appreciated about the book was that for once, the characters weren’t young and pretty and oh so innocent. It was kind of refreshing to see romance happen to the over-forties.

But I do hope that this isn’t the last Pink Carnation book, as it would break my heart to have the last one be so forgettable.

9781250014498-1 But then I picked up The Ashford Affair at the library here, and my faith in historical romances–and Lauren Willig–was restored. The basic plot is: lawyer girl gives up everything to further her career, then finds out a family secret that turns her life upside down. Half the book describes Clementine’s life, the other half is devoted to retelling the secret in real time. It’s pretty well done, leading the reader from New York to Africa, with just enough clichés to keep it light and easy, and just enough plot twists to keep it interesting.

So, in summary? Go read The Ashford Affair if  you’re so inclined, and leave The Purple Plumeria to the diehard fans like me.

Aside

2012 in books, part seven

We are now entering into the Provo phase of my 2012 reading list. Between the public library and the university library, I had so many books to choose from that I couldn’t read fast enough.

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66. Insatiable by Meg Cabot
I reviewed that one here. Spoiler alert: not for me. Really not for me.

67. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by JK Rowling.
I found out the other day that the students in my seminar this past semester had never read Harry Potter. Granted, the class size is only ten people, but still, zero readers! Amazing.

68. Saving CeeCee Honeycutt by Beth Hoffman
CeeCee lives with her psychotic mom, who is increasingly losing touch with reality. Not an easy life. After an embarrassing final episode and then her mother’s death, CeeCee’s great aunt comes to take her away to Savannah to live with her. There, she meets a battalion of eccentric women that help her work though her past (and these are eccentric women. Lovable, lovely women, but eccentric all right).

I really liked this book. It’s cheesy at parts, but never too, and it’s disturbingly real at points too. It’s a great book for summer because it’s light and easy at times, but never too fluffy.

69. The Cat Who Smelled a Rat and 76. The Cat Who Went Up a Creek by Lilian Jackson Braun
In high school, I read as many of these The Cat Who… books as I could get my hands on. I picked these up out of nostalgia and it was perfect for my lunch breaks.

70, 81, 82. Yearbook, The Reunion, and The First Day by Allie Condie
You might know Allie Condie from her Matched series, but these books are first. They’re fun reads about the realities of teenage life, written from a distinctive LDS perspective. The writing isn’t quite as good as her later books, and you have to not mind the naiveté enmeshed in the narratives, but I enjoyed them nonetheless.

71. Baptists at Our Barbecue by Robert Farrell Smith
Guy moves from Utah to small little town that’s pretty evenly split between Mormons and Baptists. Cue a lot of confusing hilarity (and a pretty girl, of course). (I had an LDS theme going on here. That’s what happens when you try to go native for six weeks.) Fun read, fun movie, if a little cliché.

72. The Garden Intrigue by Lauren Willig
I really like these historical novels–awkward heroes and heroines, a spy or two thrown in for good measure, flashbacks and flashforwards to the grad student-supposedly-researching-these-people’s complicated life. Even the fact that a lot of the troubles here could be avoided if people communicated properly can’t dull the fun of these books.

73. Troubling a Star and 74. A House Like a Lotus by Madeleine L’Engle
The first one is from the Austin family series (number 7 to be exact), in which Vicky gets the one-in-a-lifetime opportunity to go to Antarctica. The second one features Poly O’Keefe in Greece. The plots are different, but they are both about troubling things happening and people aren’t always being as they seem. I really like L’Engle for the thoughtful way she writes about everyday and not-so-everyday occurrences. She doesn’t shy away from that reality: her characters live in a complicated world. That said, Lotus is my least-favorite L’Engle book so far.

Fifty Shades of (insert own pun here)

I did it. I read the whole Fifty Shades trilogy. And I have to say, I thought the books were kind of disturbing. Not because of the BDSM going on—to each his own, as long as it’s consensual and I don’t have to do it. What disturbed me was that Christian threw up all the red flags when it comes to abusive behavior. He was jealous, controlling, wanting a premature commitment, you name it, he did it. And every time Ana stood up for herself, she later felt guilty about it and resolved to “try harder” to not set off his triggers. That really annoyed me after a while. Leaving an abusive relationship is hard enough without books like these (I’m looking at you, Twilight!) muddying the waters.

But I don’t know what was worse, the borderline abusive behavior or the fact that every time Ana and Christian had sex, it was mind-blowing. Every time, even though they did it four or five times a day, about seven days a week. There are only so many mind-blowing orgasms I can read about before it gets boring. In fact, I skipped reading the sex scenes after the first book. The only reason I kept reading was because I’d read somewhere that Ana leaves Christian in the third book and I wanted to see her come to her senses. Unfortunately, (spoiler alert) it didn’t happen. And even though Christian turned into a nice enough character at the end, I still didn’t trust him.

No, I did not buy the box set. I read them on my Kindle.

I do, however, commend his taste in music. The Thomas Tallis CD he uses on Ana? I have that, and I play it often. But not in a Red Room of Pain. I am not in the market for one of those.

my recent Meg Cabot spree

I have this habit of reading one book by an author I like and then going on to (re)read that author’s entire oeuvre. That’s how I end up with five Patricia Cornwell thrillers in a row on my reading list (or Agatha Christie mysteries, or Fannie Flagg novels, or…). And Meg Cabot (or, more accurately, her books) is no stranger to that habit of mine. This post is all the evidence you’ll need.

The good:

It usually starts with a Heather Wells mystery. Although Heather’s life is nothing like mine (she’s a former teen pop sensation living in New York, working as an assistent dorm director in which murders just keep happening), she’s spunky and funny and awkward enough to read true. Plus, an added bonus, I like my parents a lot more when I compare mine to hers: mine have never been in jail and/or run off to Argentina with all the money I made as a teen pop sensation.

After I burn through the “Death Dorm” novels, I usually move on to the Boy series, featuring adorable, semi-awkward female protagnoists and cute, semi-nerdy male ones.

Boy meets girl, girl likes boy, boy and/or girl gets into trouble but true love prevails in the end. (You know it’s true love because the people involved end up getting married or living together really quick. There’s no need to get to know each other if it’s true love, right?) My dating life has never even remotely resembled the ones in these books but I love them anyway.

These books I’ve read at least four times each. The others in this post, not so much. I include them just to be complete (and show you the extent of my obsession).

The bad:

I’m not generally a fan of vampire fiction. So it might just be my bias here. But I barely got through the first book and then only my deep if somewhat shameful love for Meg Cabot got me to finish Overbite.

Actually, I don’t object to the supernatural. I just object to the gendered perspective these books present, and the writing style, and the plot, and what it says about love…okay, just about everything. But, I will say this: I suffered through all three Twilight books, and these are much better. Take that as you will. (Please don’t hate me if you liked Twilight. To each her own.)

The ugly:

all book covers from the Goodreads website

I think this just might be the worst book I’ve ever read. The only reason I didn’t give into my impulse to throw it across the room multiple times was that I was reading it on a plane and other people don’t like it when you throw books, at them or otherwise. The plot is ridiculous and all hardships could have been avoided with a little common sense.

There you have it, my take on Meg Cabot’s novels. You’re welcome.