April Reads – 2016 POPSUGAR Reading Challenge

I’m participating in the 2016 POPSUGAR reading challenge. The list includes 40 books, and my goal is to check off just one item per book. Here’s an overview of what I read in April that fit the list (purple check marks). You can also see what I’m reading right now via the Goodreads widget to the left. I’d love to hear your book recommendations—especially if they check something off this list.

April 2016 POPSUGAR Reading Challenge

April – 2016 Reading Challenge

  • A Book That’s Becoming a Movie This Year: Jennifer Niven’s All The Bright Places is actually slated to hit theaters in 2017, but I figured that was close enough! In the book, Violet and Finch meet atop the school bell tower where they’re both contemplating suicide. Violet is there because she misses her sister who was killed in a car accident, and Finch has an odd preoccupation with death. These two individuals who seemingly have nothing in common bond over a school project—and much more. Honestly, this book was a bit too depressing for me, but I found the characters interesting.
  • A Book Recommended By A Family Member: My sister-in-law is a big fan of Mary Campisi’s books and encouraged me to read her Paradise Found. The book centers around two people who shouldn’t like each other—the wealthy playboy who’s gone blind after an accident and the less flashy but still beautiful psychologist sent in to help him regain his life. I’m betting you can *see* where this one is going! While the book was a fun read, it was too predictable for me.
  • An Autobiography: Okay, so Mary Karr’s Lit is more memoir than autobiography, but I figured it was close enough for this challenge. Karr is the master of memoir these days, and this book focuses on her relationships with her parents, husband, and son as well as her alcoholism and her attempts to pull herself out of many dark psychological places. While I found Karr’s writing beautiful, the subject matter was too heavy for me this month.
  • A Book About a Culture You’re Unfamiliar With: I know the Amazons are a mythical culture (maybe?), but I’m still counting Ann Fortier’s The Lost Sisterhood in this category. I didn’t know much about the Amazons, other than their “warrior woman” status. I learned quite a bit about their interconnectedness with the Trojan War. While this book takes liberties with history, it’s a fast-paced read that connects ancient history (mythstory?) with contemporary philology.
  • A Book About a Road Trip: David Arnold’s Mosquitoland tells the story of a girl who does what so many other teens would like to do: She skips out on her dad and stepmother in Mississippi (a.k.a. Mosquitoland) and hops a bus. Her destination is Cleveland, her former home and where her mother is sick. Of course, along the way, she encounters an array of people who teach her about life—in lessons that aren’t very pretty or comforting. If you’re looking for a coming-of-age meets road-trip novel, this is a great pick!
  • A Book That Takes Place On an Island: Emily Bleeker’s Wreckage was my favorite book read this month. The irony is the only reason I read it was because I saw it took place on an island and I knew I had to fill this category with something. I lucked out with this one! This novel focuses on picking up the pieces—on trying to move on after a tragic, traumatic event. Lillian and Dave are two people who have nothing in common except for the fact they are stranded together on an island when the plane they’re traveling on goes down in the ocean. When they’re rescued, they are thrust into the media spotlight, but neither is eager to talk about the experience. The novel discusses what happened on the island, but it emphasizes the question we hear in all the Las Vegas commercials: Does what happens on the island stay on the island?

Honorable Mentions

(I couldn’t find places to fit this one in the Challenge list, but I thought it was worth including here anyway.)

  • I read another “blue cover book” this month, but I already used that category and couldn’t find another place to put Sarah Dessen’s Saint Anything. In the novel, Sydney feels invisible in her own family—always in the shadow of her older brother Peyton. When Peyton’s string of bad behavior lands him in prison, Sydney changes schools in an attempt to begin fresh. Although she can’t escape her family’s focus on her brother, she manages to find a group of friends who just might be what she needs to help her stand out on her own. This is the first of Dessen’s many books I’ve read. Although I know she’s widely popular, I didn’t feel as strong an emotional connection to these characters as I’ve felt in other YA books.

What was the best book you read this month?

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March Reads – 2016 POPSUGAR Reading Challenge

I’m participating in the POPSUGAR reading challenge. The list includes 40 books, and my goal is to check off just one item per book. Here’s an overview of what I read in March that fit the list (blue check marks) and a couple of honorable mentions. You can also see what I’m reading right now via the Goodreads widget to the left. I’d love to hear your book recommendations—especially if they check something off this list. I’m always interested in adding to my To-Be-Read pile!

Reading Challenge

March – 2016 Reading Challenge

  • A National Book Award Winner: Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me is written as a letter to his son. There’s a Toni Morrison quote on the cover of this book that calls it “required reading,” and for good reason. Coates addresses race in America, from its early roots to contemporary issues right out of the newspaper, and how this construction of “race” impacts black bodies. This book makes us confront our world in a new light—a powerful read.
  • A YA Bestseller: Nicola Yoon’s quick read Everything, Everything is about a girl with a rare condition that makes her allergic to EVERYTHING. She is the quintessential “bubble girl” who isn’t allowed to leave the house and rarely gets visitors. Her world includes her mother, her nurse, her online school, and her books—that is, until a new family with a teen son moves in next door. This book is a sweet coming of age tale with a nice twist in the end.
  • A Book Translated to English: Nancy at Practically Wise recommended I read Yoko Ogawa’s book The Housekeeper and the Professor, and I found it to be a lovely story about the nature of relationships. The housekeeper (who is never named) is hired to care for an aging but brilliant math professor (also unnamed) who has a peculiar problem. After surviving a car accident, the professor’s short-term memory is devastated; his memory “resets” after 80 minutes. Although this book is a translation and involves so much math my brain hurt at times, I found it to be profound and memorable (ironic, right?).
  • A Book with a Blue Cover: Okay, so this one is a bit of a stretch since the cover of Elizabeth Strout’s novel My Name is Lucy Barton is only partially blue. I actually didn’t like this book nearly as much as I thought I would. The book focuses on a woman who is recovering from a complication arising during a simple surgical procedure. While she convalesces, her mother arrives, and as the pair talk, a complicated family history unravels. I found this book too short—too underdeveloped. In the end, I didn’t care enough for any of the characters to enjoy the book.
  • A Book from the Library: If you’ve read my Challenge posts previously, I’ve mentioned that I’ve been reading books from the Michigan Notable Book list. This month, one of the books from that list that I borrowed from my local library was Adam Schuitema’s Haymaker. The book focuses on a part of my home state of Michigan that I love, the Lake Superior Shoreline in the Upper Peninsula. Schuitema depicts an isolated town where a Libertarian group decides to set up a national headquarters, moving their people and ideology into the town. Conflict arises as the outsiders and insiders negotiate to whom the town belongs. This is a great book to read during this election season—and for some great imagery of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
  • A Book That’s Guaranteed to Bring You Joy: I suppose Ruth Reichl’s book Delicious! won’t bring joy to everyone, but it’s a food book—and thinking about food definitely brings me joy! Reichl depicts the story of Billie Breslin, a young woman who gets a job at a food magazine called Delicious! mostly as a result of her impeccable palate and ability to communicate with the proprietors of New York’s food businesses. After the magazine suddenly closes, Billie is the only employee to stay on. In the big, empty building, she discovers a secret that ties the food world to the events of World War II—and she has to work through her own secrets in the process. Let me just say, this book is worth the read for the food descriptions alone. The story is interesting, but it’s the food imagery that makes it a joyful read.

 

Honorable Mentions

(I couldn’t find places to fit these in the Challenge list, but I thought they were worth including here anyway)

  • After seeing the cover of Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Small Backs of Children on a post at A Reading Writer, I had to check it out. The story begins with the photo of a girl at the moment when her home and family disappear in an explosion. That photo wins critical attention, but it also gets the attention of a writer who is going through personal challenges. When the writer ends up in the hospital, her family and friends in the artist community decide that finding the girl in the photo will help the writer recover. This brief summary does very little to capture the scope of this short (just 224 pages) book. Yuknavitch challenges ideas about war, art, death, sex, and love in a book that left my head spinning. I’m honestly not sure I enjoyed this book, but its originality will stick with me for a very long time.
  • A 2016 Michigan Notable Book winner, Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House was also a National Book Award finalist in 2015. Set in Detroit, The Turner House tells the story of the Turner family, all 13 kids and their parents, as they debate what to do with the family home—a possibly haunted house with an upside-down mortgage, stolen garage, and a lot of history. While I didn’t find this book to have enough of a clear plot for me to sink my teeth into, it was a good portrayal of the challenges facing many families with roots in Detroit.

What have you been reading this month? Anything you’d recommend that would help me check off some more items on the list?

 

Review: Delicious!

Delicious!

Anyone hungry for milkweed pods?

I love a good food book, and Reichl’s novel Delicious! delivers on that score. Reichl is mostly known for being a food critic, so that shouldn’t be surprising. Her book opens with the most evocative descriptions of spices, from nutmeg to cardamom, as the protagonist develops her signature recipe for gingerbread. Later, the protagonist walks the streets of NYC, tasting her way from one shop to the next, from the chocolatier to the butcher to the cheese monger. I was drooling! These sensual descriptions are the strength of the book.

In Delicious! Reichl heaps mystery upon mystery about a young woman who goes to work for a food magazine (but who claims not to cook despite her amazing palate) and a secret cache of letters from World War II written to American Food forefather James Beard (this is where those milkweed pods come in). While the book is interesting, it becomes a bit overbaked for my liking. The middle of the book lagged, and I found myself wanting to speed through some pages of letters.

Overall, Reichl’s book is one to read if you like a good food book–but be prepared to come away hungry! Anyone else out there enjoy food books? I’m far from a professional chef, but I love to read about food people. Any books/authors you’d recommend?

February Reads – 2016 POPSUGAR Reading Challenge

I’m participating in the POPSUGAR reading challenge. The list includes 40 books, and my goal is to check off just one item per book. Here’s  an overview of what I read in February that fit the list (green check marks). You can also see what I’m reading right now via the Goodreads widget to the left—if you have any ideas on what item a particular book could check off the list, let me know in the comments. I need all the help I can get!

February – 2016 Reading Challenge

  • A Book with a Protagonist Who Has Your Occupation: Strange Love by Lisa Lenzo is a book I picked up because it’s a 2015 Michigan Notable Book. The nine collected stories in the book focus on Annie Zito (a bus driver/writer–it’s the writer part that earned the check mark) and her daughter Marley as the two navigate the complicated world of dating. These stories would appeal to anyone who’s struggled to find his/her soulmate, and I loved reading stories set in West Michigan.
  • A Self-Improvement Book: Structuring Your Novel by K. M. Weiland is one of several writing craft books I’m working my through right now. Weiland teaches the basic concepts of novel structure without getting bogged down in technical jargon. This is a useful book for new writers and experienced ones as well.
  • A New York Times Bestseller: Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff was one of the big “IT” books of 2015–and deservedly so. The language is lush, and Groff’s portrayal of a complicated marriage leaves readers wondering how much they know about their own significant other.
  • A Book Recommended by Someone You Just Met: The Good Girl by Mary Kubica was discussed in the forums of the Women’s Fiction Writer’s Association, a group I’ve just recently joined. I’d heard this book compared to Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, two books I didn’t like, so I wasn’t sure I’d like it. However, I found Kubica’s story of a kidnapped woman suspenseful and a gripping read–better than the other two because I could empathize with the main character.

What have you been reading this month? Anything you’d recommend that would help me check off some more items on the list? 

January Reads – 2016 POPSUGAR Reading Challenge

Each year, the creative people over at POPSUGAR publish a reading challenge. I printed the challenge and sort of haphazardly checked things off of it last year. I also printed the 2016 list, but it got shuffled into a pile of other papers on my desk. As I was reading the blog over at A Reading Writer, I saw that challenge again.

Inspired, I’ve decided I’m going to attempt a monthly reading challenge check-in here on my blog. The list includes 40 books, so my goal is to check off just one item per book. Here’s the challenge and an overview of what I read in January that fit the list. You can also see what I’m reading right now via the Goodreads widget to the left—if you have any ideas on what item a particular book could check off the list, let me know if the comments. I need all the help I can get!

January – 2016 Reading Challenge

  • A book set in your home state: Freshwater Boys by Adam Schuitema is a collection of eleven short stories set in west Michigan. The protagonists are all male, which got a bit monotonous for me, but I loved reading about places I know and love.
  • A book set in Europe: Juliet by Ann Fortier is a book I read for my book group. Our mission was to read a book about a place we want to travel, and this book is all about the city of Sienna, Italy. Sienna is definitely on my dream travel list.
  • A book that is published in 2016: Leaving Blythe River by Catherine Ryan Hyde is a book I received in a giveaway from the Facebook group Reader’s Coffeehouse. The book will be published in June 2016, so I got a sneak peek. The book is a great story of a teen boy who learns important lessons about himself and human relationships as he attempts to find his father who is lost in the Blythe River Range.

I didn’t get off to a great reading start in January. I started several books, but these were the only three I started AND finished in January. Here’s to a more productive February!

What was the best book you read in January?

Review: Leaving Blythe River

Leaving Blythe River Catherine Ryan HydeWhen an author of Catherine Ryan Hyde’s stature is giving away free books, how is a bookaholic like me to refuse? I won an advanced reader copy of Hyde’s book Leaving Blythe River (releasing June 4, 2016, from Lake Union Publishing) through the Facebook group Reader’s Coffeehouse.

With 30 published titles to her name, Hyde excels at creating compelling characters. Leaving Blythe River focuses on 17-year-old Ethan, a teenager whose small stature and nervous disposition has made him not just the butt of his friends’ jokes but his athletic parents’, too. Ethan’s world shifts when he discovers his father is not the hero he thought he was. Hyde heaps even more tension on Ethan as his parents divorce and his maternal grandparents need care, calling his mother away. Before he knows what happened, he finds himself in a small cabin with his father in the foothills of the Blythe River Range. When Ethan’s father disappears on a run through the mountains and the local rangers abandon their search, Ethan must rely on three surly neighbors to help him try to find the man he hates.

Leaving Blythe River gives readers plenty of action with grizzly encounters, flooded river crossings, and precarious trail riding. The standouts in this book, though, are really the characters. Ethan’s neighbors teach him not only how to survive in the harsh mountainous terrain but how to navigate life. Sam, owner of Friendly Sam’s Pack Service, goes out of his way to help a kid he doesn’t know, expecting nothing in return. Jone is a 70ish widower who scares even the grizzly bears but has a soft spot for Ethan. The foursome is rounded out by Marcus, a 30-something guy who came to the mountains to escape but found little of what he was hoping for there. Each of these side characters brings a certain flavor to the book, without which, the story would be just a plain broth.

Hyde’s book is a fast read with plenty of moments as deep as the Blythe River after a rain storm.

Review: Freshwater Boys

Freshwater Boys Adam Schuitema

I love the opportunity to read books by Michigan authors. To that end, Adam Schuitema‘s book Freshwater Boys delivers. The settings of this collection of short stories are local west Michigan towns, and the characters remind me of the men, women, and children I meet every time I leave my front door. The first story, “New Era,” opens with his characters having breakfast at the Trailside Restaurant in New Era, a place I’ve gone for breakfast many times. As I read “Deer Run,” I found myself thinking about the last time I drove along East Beltline in Grand Rapids. To say that Schuitema has a keen sense of place is an understatement.

Freshwater Boys is a collection of eleven stories, each a close study of a moment in the lives of a different male character. Readers see young boys posturing for one another, adult men navigating relationships while maintaining a sense of self, and old men pulled by the tides of tradition.

Interestingly, although I love the role the lakes and dunes and forests of Michigan play in the book, my favorite story had little to do with Michigan. It’s a story that could have easily been set in just about any locale. “Curbside” begins with a couple returning from a vacation out west. The story begins with the main character thinking about the missed opportunities of the trip, the way expectations don’t quite line up with how things play out. Schuitema includes one of my favorite descriptions from the book when he writes, “We ruined it the first afternoon there with a huge, wildfire kind of argument that started small and accidental and consumed the rest of the day.” Anyone with a significant other can relate. After far too long in the car—far too long together—the couple pulls up to their home to find one of those roadside memorials with a cross, flowers, photos, and balloons at the curb. A neighbor informs them of an accident that occurred in front of their home while they were away. There’s something about the juxtaposition of small annoyances with this major loss that made this story poignant.

While I didn’t find myself always pulled into the stories in Freshwater Boys, I loved the opportunity to read about an area I know and love.

An Almost Great Michigan Read: Station Eleven

Station Eleven

I read Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven as part of the Great Michigan Read program sponsored by the Michigan Humanities Council. The idea of the program is to get the entire state, from young adults to senior citizens, reading one book. Their mission is to make “literature more accessible and appealing while also encouraging residents to learn more about our state and individual identities.” St. John Mandel’s book has been lauded as one of the best books of 2014 by a long list of the people in the know, and she has definitely earned that praise.

I remember the first time I read a quick synopsis of Station Eleven. Three things jumped out at me: Michigan, post-apocalyptic, and traveling Shakespeare troupe and orchestra. I couldn’t imagine how those things would work in the same book, so I put it on my “must-read” list. Surprisingly, St. John Mandel manages to deftly combine these three concepts—and a multitude more—in her novel.

The book begins in Toronto in the present as Arthur Leander, an aging actor, dies on the stage during a production of King Lear. It is Arthur who ultimately connects all of the other people in the book, although that’s easy to lose sight of as the narrative zooms off in various directions. Readers are quickly carried off into a post-apocalyptic world where a flu virus has killed somewhere around 99% of the world’s population. Those who have survived, including a traveling Shakespeare troupe who lives by the motto “Survival is insufficient,” must try to put the pieces of civilization back together.

While I loved St. John Mandel’s book, I’m not sure it quite reaches the status of a “Michigan” book—or even a Midwest one, for that matter. Yes, the book is set in Michigan. The Shakespeare troupe and orchestra as well as the other characters in the novel travel along the Michigan shoreline. The book mentions cities like “New” Petoskey and Mackinaw City, and there’s even a discussion of the collapse of the Mackinac Bridge. However, those seem like convenient places pulled from a map rather than integral to the plot. The novel could have been set just about anywhere without hurting the narrative. Okay, so I’m being picky (especially since the Great Michigan Read program doesn’t require a book be set in Michigan), but I wish she’d made me feel like I was in a post-apocalyptic Michigan right along with the characters. Maybe now that she’s spent several weeks wandering the state for Great Michigan Read events, St. John Mandel’s next book really will be a “Michigan” one.

Previous GrGreat Michigan Readeat Michigan Read Titles:

2013-2014: Annie’s Ghosts: A Journey into a Family Secret by Steve Luxenberg

2011-2012: Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder During the Jazz Age by Kevin Boyle

2009-2010: Stealing Buddha’s Dinner: A Memoir by Bich Minh Nguyen

2007-2008: The Nick Adams Stories: Ernest Hemingway