Sunday, May 6, 2018

Made Like Martha by Katie M. Reid

Rating: 5/5 stars
Genre: Christian nonfiction

"I didn't choose to be a doer; I was designed to be one. This temperament--this nature--is here to stay. It's not to be erased but rather to be celebrated and used for God's glory."

"May our 'what if' worry be changed to 'even if' worship as we remember who is with us. Even if our what-if happens, the good news does not change. Jesus is enough."

"While God sometimes asks us to do hard things, those things are never wasted and serve a purpose far greater than we can imagine . . . no matter what happens, we are delighted in, are held by, and belong to a good Father."

Made Like Martha was a perfect read for my weary Martha soul. I'm already planning on buying a copy for myself that I can take notes in and recommending it to my family once it's published!

I loved how the author approached this topic. Books for the do-all Christian woman are not new, but Katie gave interesting and fresh insight. She shared her own struggles with perfectionism and Type-A thinking and offered biblical wisdom to help form a healthier perspective. She also included a Modern Martha section with insight from other writers/authors, practical ways to put the chapter topics into action, and space to reflect on your own heart and motives.

Most of all, I loved that the author was encouraging and pointed out God's love for Martha in the biblical story. Jesus did not condemn her, and He does not condemn us. He made us unique, with unique strengths and weaknesses. It was refreshing to hear from another driven woman like myself and hear her speak on her own Martha personality. Being a doer is not the problem, but the motives and attitudes that accompany the tackle-everything personality can be a problem. It's great to realize you're not alone in your approach to life, and even better, that you can use your God-given personality for His glory!

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and I can't wait to order my own hard copy in July!

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Rating: 3/5 stars
Genre: Sci-fi/Futuristic/Dystopian
Features: 80s cultural references, pop/nerd culture, gaming, virtual reality, friendship

"You don't live in the real world . . . From what you've told me, I don't think you ever have. You're like me. You live inside this illusion."

"[The OASIS] had become a self-imposed prison for humanity . . . A pleasant place for the world to hide from its problems while human civilization slowly collapses, primarily due to neglect."

Ready Player One can be summed up as 80s nostalgia meets Tron and The Matrix. I was so eager to read this book after hearing glowing reviews, and then I was further motivated by seeing the movie trailer (book before movie is my mantra!). Overall, I give it a 3 to 3.5 star rating.

Here's what I liked:

Unfortunately, fate did not smile on me and allow me to grow up in the 80s. I did, however, grow up on 80s music and pop culture thanks to my parents, and though I'm no Parzival when it comes to 80s culture knowledge, I do love me some Duran Duran and Dirty Dancing. I may have caught only half of the 80s cultural references in the book, but my little nerd heart smiled at every one of them and longed for that decade I wasn't old enough to experience. The idea of a society infatuated with 80s nostalgia was super fun--definitely a strength in the novel. 

I also loved the post-apocalyptic vibes. There's not one major catastrophe that causes the overall decaying state in Cline's fictional 2044, but more of a series of plausible events: energy crises, wars, poverty, etc. It was all fairly believable. And then you add in the OASIS, a virtual reality that allows for the ultimate escapism experience. With the technology we have today, none of this seems far-fetched, and I'm simultaneously fascinated and disturbed by this.   

I enjoyed thinking about the possibilities of a virtual reality like OASIS. The OASIS is truly a computer geek's paradise: if you can imagine it, you can make it so. As a nerd--albeit a literary/artistic nerd, not a math/science nerd--this was exciting to envision. You want to have a DeLorean for a spaceship? You got it. You want to live in a castle with a dragon guarding the drawbridge? It's yours with a few programming tweaks.

I also loved dwelling on the deeper themes in the book: What is identity? What makes you, you? In a society that's super "connected" thanks to social media, people can strike up friendships and relationships without having an in-person conversation. Does that allow for a deeper, cerebral connection, without distractions of the physical? Do appearances matter? Also, the idea of taking responsibility for the state of the world was sprinkled throughout. Humanity can't run and hide in a computer game; it has to work to repair the destruction to make Earth a place worth living in for generations to come.

Here's what I didn't like:

I didn't love the writing style. Although I appreciated all the nerd culture and technological details, there were parts that got a little too detailed for my liking. It kind of disrupted the pacing, and made me want to race through those sections. Again, if I was a computer programming nerd and not a word nerd, this may have been a non-issue for me. 

I missed the human (avatar) interaction. It's there--Parzival/Wade does hang out with other people and talk to them, but it's few and far between the detailed, solo missions he's tackling on his own. I really missed the dialogue that helps move a story along. 

Overall, it was a really interesting read, and it got me excited about seeing the movie. Would definitely recommend to 80s culture connoisseurs and self-professed nerds/geeks.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Educated by Tara Westover

[I received an ARC of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.] 
Rating: 4/5 stars
Genre: Memoir, autobiography
Features: Overcoming abuse, importance of education, Mormonism, survivalists, family dysfunction, bipolar

"Vindication has no power over guilt. No amount of anger or rage directed at others can subdue it, because guilt is never about them. Guilt is the fear of one's own wretchedness."

"I had come to believe that the ability to evaluate many ideas, many histories, many points of view, was at the heart of what it meant to self-create."

I've recently been on a nonfiction kick, and have especially enjoyed memoirs like Glass Castle. Although not as artistically expressed as Glass Castle, the content of Educated was still mesmerizing. Seeing how other people grew up has become one of my recent fascinations, and Westover's childhood was anything but normal. Born into a Mormon survivalist family, the author grows up with a taught distrust of the government and modern medicine. Her mother is an unlicensed midwife and her father a doomsday "prepper." Tara does not receive a formal education until she first enters a classroom at age seventeen, and when she does, she is shocked at what her parents failed to tell her about the world and its history.

I enjoyed this book because the author overcomes so many setbacks to eventually earn a PhD: a crazy family, physical abuse, brainwashing, a lack of education, and her own personal demons. The journey is not easy, but she slowly learns to evaluate things for herself, including religion and the beliefs she was taught as a child. This book is for anyone who believes in the pursuit of knowledge and freedom of thought, no matter your upbringing or setbacks.

This memoir was chock-full of fantastic quotes about self-worth, finding your voice, and seeking truth. Here are a few other quotes that really resonated with me:

"The most powerful determination of who you are is inside you . . . this is Pygmalion . . . She was just a cockney in a nice dress. Until she believed in herself. Then it didn't matter what dress she wore."

"You are not fool's gold, shining under a particular light. Whomever you become, whatever you make yourself into, that is who you always were. It was always in you . . . You are gold."

"My life was narrated for me by others. Their voices were forceful, emphatic, absolute. It had never occurred to me that my voice might be as strong as theirs."

"I would never again allow myself to be made a foot soldier in a conflict I didn't understand."

Sunday, January 21, 2018

As Bright as Heaven by Susan Meissner

[I received an ARC of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.] 

Rating: 4/5 stars
Genre: Historical Fiction
Features: Human tragedy, dealing with death and loss, family, love, mankind's resilience

ARCs can be very hit and miss, but this one was definitely a hit! The story follows the women in the Bright family and rotates between the perspectives of the three daughters and the mother. It reminds me of Poisonwood Bible for that reason. The oldest Bright child is mature and intelligent, the middle daughter is strong-willed and determined, and the youngest is more artistic and rebellious. (It also pleasantly brought to mind Little Women, and the sisters Meg, Jo, and Amy.)

The book starts off with the Bright family losing their youngest, an infant baby boy, and moving to Philadelphia for the father to join the family business as undertaker. The family all lives in the house attached the the funeral home, providing a unique perspective into the horrors and harrowing tragedy of the Spanish flu. I'll be honest; I knew embarrassingly little about the Spanish flu before reading this novel. I had no idea how devastating it was. And I think that's what makes this book so beautiful: in a near-apocalyptic world of a fatal illness, people still choose what's good even when it's hard. The mother, for instance, chooses to go feed the sick even if it means catching the flu. She is strong for others--her family and even strangers--even when she's weak. And she's fiercely protective of her daughters: "I do not fear Death for myself, but I will not allow its cold fingers to touch my girls. Not even in a slow caress. They are mine, I whisper."

The tragedy makes the characters re-evaluate their priorities and their humanity, and those who survive the flu have to learn to live after such great loss. How do you rebuild and move forward after so much sorrow? The tragedy shapes each character, and I enjoyed watching them grow through the experience and struggle with difficult choices, and seeing how their stories develop and intertwine: "We only see a little bit of our stories at a time, and the hard parts remind us too harshly that we're fragile and flawed. But . . . your story isn't all hard parts. Some of it is incredibly beautiful."

The perseverance of the human spirit when faced with darkness is truly amazing: "We adjust to [change]. Somehow we figure out a way. We straighten what we can or learn how to like something a little crooked. That's how it is . . . we keep moving, keep breathing, keep opening our eyes every morning, even when the only thing we know for sure is that we've alive."

Overall, this book was stellar: excellent characters, fascinating plot, a sweet romance, and great writing style. I will be looking to read more books by the author.

This book had a number of memorable, beautiful quotes. Here were some of my other favorites:

"This flu is like a black shroud that has been flung across everything that breathes under the canopy of heaven."

 "Our humanity is what made what happened to us so terrible. Without it, nothing matters. Nothing is awful. But nothing is amazing either."

Saturday, December 30, 2017

2017 Recap: A Year in Books

 2017 was a crazy year: lots of change, lots of events, and lots of books. I had originally set my reading goal for 50, but because of the aforementioned craziness, that was not going to happen. I am proud to say that despite it all, I still read 41 books (which is a few more than last year)!! *insert applause here* Here's a list of what I read, what I rated them, and a micro review. I've starred my top books of the year.

1. The Sun is Also a Star - 4/5 stars - A diverse YA page-turner but still a cliche romance.

2. Siege and Storm (Book 2 of Grisha Trilogy) - 4/5 stars - Excellent world building, a superbly crafted villain, and fascinating characters and plot; a refreshingly original fantasy!

3. Ruin and Rising (Book 3 of Grisha Trilogy) - 4/5 stars - Same summation as Book 2, but a little disappointed with the ending.

4. Land of Hidden Fires - 3/5 stars - Historical fiction ARC; unique WWII perspective of German-occupied Norway and strong descriptions, but room for improvement.

5. Milk and Honey - 4/5 stars - Although classified as poetry, read more like prose or memoir; some noteworthy quotes but not superb.

6. Memoirs of a Geisha - 4/5 stars - A fascinating look at geisha and Japanese culture; a very interesting read!

7. A Court of Thorns and Roses - 3/5 stars - An intriguing take on fairies, but too much like a romance novel for my taste; didn't measure up to the hype.

8. *Caraval - 4/5 stars - A real page-turner, carnival-like fantasy with excellent descriptions and interesting characters! Looking forward to the author's next book in the series in 2018.

9. Out of the Silent Planet - 4/5 stars - A classic fantasy read with interesting ideas; a little far-out for my taste and didn't love the audiobook narrator.

10. *Station Eleven - 4/5 stars - Dark and poetic, a super interesting look at a post-apocalyptic world wiped out by a flu virus. Really enjoyed this one!

11. *Mere Christianity - 5/5 stars - C. S. Lewis provides a fresh and fascinating look at major points of the Christian faith.

12. The Freedom of Self Forgetfulness - 4/5 stars - Timothy Keller gives excellent biblical insight (as always) on the title's subject.

13. City of Saints and Thieves - 4/5 stars - A unique and diverse YA thriller set in Kenya with teen gangs and a murder mystery.

14. Passenger - 4/5 stars - Music, pirates, diversity, time travel, and romance--what's not to love?

15. The Weight of Glory - 4/5 stars - Another C. S. Lewis gem.

16. The Night Circus - 3/5 stars - Really unique circus fantasy, but a confusing plot and didn't quite measure up to the hype.

17. The Nightingale - 3/5 stars - German-occupied France during WWII. Interesting but too much tragedy for the sake of emotional manipulation; didn't feel authentic.

18. Selected Poems of E. E. Cummings - 4/5 stars - Very enjoyable with unique imagery and word choice.

19. The Pearl - 4/5 stars - A little novella by the amazing John Steinbeck preaching the dangers of materialism.

20. The Bad Beginning (Book 1, Series of Unfortunate Events) - 3/5 stars - I enjoyed the movie version with Jim Carrey, but overall found this book dark and weird.

21. The Red Pony - 4/5 stars - Another novella by Steinbeck; loved his writing style but didn't really get the overall theme of the story.

22. *Peter Pan - 5/5 stars - An adorable children's story and a superbly narrated audiobook.

23. *The Stranger in the Woods - 4/5 stars - Nonfiction true story of a man who successfully avoids human interaction for nearly 30 years. Utterly fascinating.

24. Sense and Sensibility - 3/5 stars - I've come to the conclusion that Jane Austen is not my cup of tea. 4/6 Austen books read now! (Emma and Mansfield Park left to go...)

25. *In the Heart of the Sea - 4/5 stars - The very fascinating true story of Moby Dick and how the crew survived/didn't survive after their ship was attacked by an angry, vengeful whale.

26. Love and Other Consolation Prizes - 4/5 stars - Historical fiction ARC about a Chinese orphan boy in Washington state; an interesting read with interesting characters.

27. *Gone With the Wind - 5/5 stars - No explanation needed for this books; a long read, but the characters made is worth every page! Probably my favorite book of the year.

28. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets - 4/5 stars - Slowly made my way through over half of the Harry Potter books this year; enjoyable!

29. *The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley - 4/5 stars - A father with a criminal past will do anything to right his wrongs and provide a new life for his daughter; a really fun thriller!

30. Finding Peace - 4/5 stars - Charles Stanley gives biblical insight on the title's subject. Not amazing, but still some good truths.

31. *The Meaning of Marriage - 5/5 stars - Timothy Keller blew me away with his biblical and intellectual insight into marriage. Loved this book! Perfect for married and unmarried people alike.

32. A Darker Shade of Magic - 3/5 stars - Points for infusing a fantasy read with creativity, but didn't measure up to what I was hoping or the hype.

33. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban - 4/5 stars - Another fun Rowling read!

34. The Sun and Her Flowers - 3/5 stars - Second poetry book by same author as Milk and Honey. Not as good and not impressed; a few noteworthy quotes though.

35. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire - 4/5 stars - More Harry Potter fun.

36. Present over Perfect - 4/5 stars - A really refreshing Christian book that reads like a memoir. Very enjoyable.

37. *The Reason for God - 5/5 stars - Timothy Keller wows me again!

38. Orthodoxy - 4/5 stars - An interesting Christian read with fascinating ideas, but a little hard to follow.

39. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix - 4/5 stars - More Harry Potter...

40. The Glass Castle - 5/5 stars - An AMAZING memoir about the author's childhood and the trials and hardships she faced. So. Good.

41. You and Me Forever - 4/5 stars - A Francis Chan book on marriage; really good, but didn't agree with everything. Not as good as Keller.

So what's in store for 2018? Well, this is going to sound weird, but I'm planning to set my reading goal lower this year so I have more time for other, healthy habits and hobbies like writing, working out, and spending more time in the Bible. Reading is wonderful, but I need to make time for other priorities as well.

What do I plan to read? I'd like to read more nonfiction, since I read some amazing ones this year and really enjoyed them. I'd love to read more books by Timothy Keller specifically. I've also been slacking on reading classics, partially because they hurt my overall book reading total for the year (yet another reason to reduce my book goal). This year, I want to go for quality of books, not just quantity. Classics usually take longer, and I don't want to dismiss them because I'm trying to read "x" number of books.

So there you have it: 2017 in books.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab

Rating: 3.5/5 stars
Genre: Fantasy
Features: Inter-dimensional travel, magic, strong female characters

 "Death comes for everyone . . . I'm not afraid of dying. But I am afraid of dying here . . . I'd rather die on an adventure than live standing still."

"I'm not going to die," she said. "Not till I've seen . . . everything."

What do you get when you mix equal parts magic, inter-dimensional travel, strong female characters, and criminal activity, with a hint of romance? A Darker Shade of Magic, of course! I was drawn to this book because 1) it's been super popular among the Instagram reader community, and 2) there is not one, but four Londons (mega points for creativity, Schwab).

What did I like about this book? Well, the whole premise was highly original. Kell, the main character, can travel between 4 Londons—White London, Red London, Black London, and Grey London. Each London has a different relationship with magic, whether they embrace it, worship it, kill for it, or don't believe in it (not in that order). But Kell and one other character are the only ones able to travel between the Londons, which means they are messengers and ambassadors for the leaders (which leads to some interesting problems).

I also liked that the book wasn't all about romance—there was very little. Lila and Kell worked as a team. The book also dealt with brotherly relationships and caring for family, even if they are not your blood relatives. It also tackled the age-old question of "what do you do if you come into a lot of power, but it's an evil power," which naturally includes character motive investigation, willpower, and self discovery.

However, as with many hyped books, this one fell a little short of my expectations (hence, 3.5 stars). What went wrong? Let me share:

1) Dialogue – I didn't feel like it flowed naturally and was a tad cliche.

2) The Strong/Independent Female Main Character Trope – Lila Bard is a cool character, but I'm just a little tired of the whole tough girl characters who don't need a man or anyone else and don't embrace their uniquely feminine strengths. Why does a girl have to act like a man to get attention in the literary community? Why can't she be feminine and strong? *steps off soapbox*

3) Character/plot originality – Although the premise was unique, much of it felt like other YA lit fantasy that I had read before and that was better executed (e.g., Leigh Bardugo's Six of Crows and the Grisha trilogy).

4) World building – I wanted more details. I can never have too much solid world building, and I think it's essential for fantasy to connect with the reader.

Overall, a fun read, but not quite a 4-star rating.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley

Rating: 4/5 stars
Genre: Thriller/General Fiction
Features: Crime, family, strong father/daughter relationships

"Their hearts were all cycling through the same madness—the discovery, the bliss, the loss, the despair—like planets taking turns in orbit around the sun. Each containing their own unique gravity. Their own force of attractions. Drawing near and holding fast to whatever entered their own atmosphere . . .  they would find love and lose love and recover from love and love again."

This was a thoroughly enjoyable book, containing all the essentials for a strong 4 star rating: lyrical writing, well-developed characters, and an engaging plot. The book's plot structure was unique too. The story jumps back and forth between the present with Samuel Hawley and his teen daughter, Loo, to the past with explanations of how Samuel—previously engaged in criminal activity—received his twelve bullet wounds.

What fascinated me about this book was getting into the head of someone who had broken the law and his fight for a relatively normal life and his family. What's it like to run from the law, to always be looking over your shoulder? This book gave me a taste of that. But this book is much more. It explores what happens when a criminal finds love, through a woman who walks into his life one day and their child, Loo. How far will one man go to protect those he loves and to secure a safe, happy life for them?

Overall, it was a really fun and beautiful read, showing the power of love and family despite hardships and past demons trying to squelch it.