Tuesday, December 31, 2019

My Favorite Reads from 2019

Over this past year, I have read 76 books.  Wowsers.  That may be some kind of record for adult me.  Especially since one of those was War and Peace.

As always, I can't pick just ten favorite books from all those.  So here are my ten favorite new-to-me books from 2019, and also my ten favorite rereads.  I'm linking this up with Top Ten Tuesday from That Artsy Reader Girl.

I've decided it would be nice to have a place to gather these lists together, like I have my movie top tens all listed on one page, so I've created a new page here that collects my end-of-the-year top ten lists from 2014 to the present.

Every title here is linked to my review of that book, though some of the rereads, I've linked to older reviews of mine because I didn't re-review them this year.  All photos are mine from my bookstagram account.

Top Ten New-to-Me Reads of 2019

1. The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman -- The Jungle Book retold with ghosts and a vampire.  PG-13.

2. The Printed Letter Bookshop by Katherine Reay -- three women learn from and lean on each other. PG-13.

3. The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus by L. Frank Baum -- fairy tale about Santa Claus.  G.

4. Mycroft and Sherlock by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Anna Waterhouse -- two brothers solve a series of opium-related murders.  PG-13.

5. Five Poisoned Apples ed. by Anne Elisabeth Stengl -- five delicious retellings of Snow White.  PG-13.

6. Adventures of the Woman Homesteader by Suzanne K. George -- nonfiction collection of letters and the life story of Elinore Pruitt Stewart.  PG.

7. The Racketty-Packetty House by Frances Hodgson Burnett -- dolls in an old dollhouse find someone who values them.  G.

8. The King's Players by Charity Bishop -- King Henry VII and Sir Thomas Lovell search out spies.  PG-13.

9. Grateful American by Gary Sinise -- memoir about Sinise's career as an actor and patriot.  PG-13.

10. The Undertaker's Assistant by Amanda Skenandore --  a black woman embalmer takes a job in New Orleans and searches for clues to her past.

Top Ten Rereads of 2019

1. Hamlet by William Shakespeare -- something is rotten in the state of Denmark.  PG-13. 

2. The Blue Castle by L. M. Montgomery -- woman shakes off her oppressive family and finds her own life.  PG. 

3. The Lady in the Lake by Raymond Chandler -- Philip Marlowe investigates a drowning.  PG-13.

4. The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien -- something about a dark lord and the end of the world.  PG-13.

5. The Indian in the Cupboard by Lynne Reid Banks -- toys come alive in a magical cupboard.  PG.

6. Shane by Jack Schaefer -- stranger helps a family fight off a greedy neighbor.  PG.

7. Speak Easy, Speak Love by McKelle George -- retelling of Much Ado About Nothing set during Prohibition.  PG-13.

8. A Room with a View by E. M. Forster -- young woman learns to think and feel for herself. PG.

9. Letters of a Woman Homesteader by Elinore Pruitt Stewart -- nonfiction collection of folksy letters about life on the frontier.  PG.

10. A Flame in the Dark by Sarah Baughman -- young man seeks advice from Martin Luther to help navigate life and love. PG-13.

Here's to another great year of books to read and enjoy and love in 2020!

Monday, December 30, 2019

"The Undertaker's Assistant" by Amanda Skenandore

Historical Fiction BooksI grabbed this off the New Releases shelf at the library without knowing anything about it except what the jacket flap told me: set in Reconstruction-era New Orleans.  That's all I needed to know.

As you may know, I'm writing a retelling of Snow White that's set in the Old West, called One Bad Apple.  It's set in the early 1870s, and most of the characters are African-American.  One of them hails from New Orleans.  So I figured this novel would be a good chance to do a little research of sorts, pick up some flavors and knowledge and so on for my own book, which I'm currently revising.

I was totally right.  Also, this was an excellent book.  It's all about a young African-American woman named Effie who is an embalmer.  She was raised by a white doctor up north, after running away from her owners during the Civil War and being rescued by him while he was a surgeon in the Union Army.  But she's returned to New Orleans because she believes she was born near there, and she wants to find out if she still has any relatives.  Thanks to several traumatic events, she blocked out most of her memories of her childhood before finding the Yankee soldiers who rescued her, but she knows they found her near that city.

Over the course of the story, Effie does gradually remember much of her past.  She makes new friends.  She falls in love.  She gets a job working for a white undertaker, and she gets involved with people working to protect the rights of black people in Louisiana as a whole.  This was an engrossing read, and I finished it in just a few days.  However, due to the subject matter, it is not what I would call a "nice" book, so approach with caution if you are squeamish or easily offended.

If This was a Movie, I Would Rate It:  R.  There's a LOT about dead bodies and how to embalm them, there's a lot of violence both shown and mentioned, and there's some sexual content.

Saturday, December 28, 2019

"The Cross and the Lynching Tree" by James H. Cone

This is a heavy book.  Not physically, but emotionally and mentally.  I'll be honest with you -- it unsettled me.  For the better, actually.

Cone looks at parallels between the cross that Jesus died on and the trees that so many African-Americans died hanging from, particularly between 1880-1940, when lynchings were commonplace.  He points out that really, Jesus's crucifixion was a lynching -- mob rule having a man tortured and executed without a proper sentence.  And that faith in God to bring good out of evil, to save them even if they died a horrible death, was what sustained many black people during those terrifying years.

Parts of this book were very hard to read.  I skimmed some of his descriptions of torture that black people suffered at the hands of their enemies.  Maybe that was cowardly of me, but my imagination is so strong, yet sensitive, that even the ones I did read fully were hurtful to read.  One of them, I wish I'd skimmed, because it was so atrocious, so truly inhumane, I don't want to believe it's true, that human beings to do such a thing.  But I know they can -- history shows us over and over that sin can cause people to hit nauseating levels of depravity.

I came away with a new understanding of injustices and wrongs done by Americans to Americans.  By human beings to human beings.  We don't talk about this reign of terror much anymore, and Cone points out that by forgetting and ignoring and burying our nation's memory of what happened during slavery, Reconstruction, and pre-Civil Rights America, we dishonor the victims of those hate crimes.  I think we also risk setting ourselves up to repeat our past sins.

Anyway, this was a tough, sobering read, but I'm glad I made time for it in my end-of-the-year schedule.  It's given me a lot to contemplate.

If This was a Movie, I Would Rate It: a very hard R.  Lots of torture, murder, rape, and other atrocities discussed.

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Reading Plans for 2020

Time to gather up my plans for next year's reading and share them with you.  Because I can.  Mwahahah.

So, I didn't do a "My Year with..." personal challenge in 2019 because I just couldn't settle on one.  But I have figured out one for 2020!  It will be My Year with C. S. Lewis.  I'll kick that off by participating in Olivia's read-along of Till We Have Faces over at Meanwhile, in Rivendell... which you can learn about here.  

Besides it, I aim to read some books about Lewis, and maybe reread Narnia, but also maybe read some of his books that are sitting on my to-be-read shelves.  Especially since Cowboy gave me a boxed set of a bunch of Lewis books for Christmas.

Which brings me to the rest of my reading plans for 2020.  Y'all, I have too many unread books.  How many?  This many:

That picture's a little misleading.  The books piled on the floor are ones I've already read, but don't have homes for.  The books ON all those shelves are ones I haven't read, plus about 60 more that are in the basement on our nonfiction shelves.  Grand total of unread books I own and want to read (so, not counting research resources) is 537.  EGAD.  That's crazy talk.  Ouch.

I've been trying to get a handle on these for a couple years now, by doing the Mount TBR Challenges and so on, but it hasn't helped much.  So this year, I'm participating in #theunreadhselfproject2020 challenge from The Unread Shelf.  My goal is to clear off one whole shelf in my bedroom so I can put those books piled on the floor onto an actual shelf instead.  I'll be tracking my progress on Instagram and probably talking about it here too.  

This project comes with specific month-to-month challenges, which will be an interesting twist on the "read books you already own" sort of thing I've done previously.

I've dedicated a couple of pages in my bullet journal to keeping track of what I read, especially as regards this project.

So.  Those are my reading plans for next year.  Do you have reading plans?  If so, what are they?

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

"The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus" by L. Frank Baum

This book is entirely enchanting.  I loved it so, so much!  It's charming and sweet and cheerful and lovely.  I can't believe I'd never even heard of it until about a month ago!  Especially because it was written by L. Frank Baum, the guy who wrote The Wizard of Oz.

In this story, an abandoned infant is rescued and raised by magical folk living in the forest when the world was very young.  He's named Neclaus, but called Claus for short, and grows up happy and carefree and kind.  

When he goes out into the world of humans as an adult, he befriends all the children he meets, and ends up inventing toys.  Not just new toys, but the whole idea of toys and playthings.  He makes toys for more and more children, gets help from his magical friends to deliver them, and gradually becomes the jolly Santa Claus that we know and love today.

I loved all the little illustrations by Mary Cowles Clark in my MacMillan Collector's Library edition, which I believe are copied from the first edition published back in 1902.  

(Mine from Instagram)

If This was a Movie, I Would Rate It: G.  Good and wholesome and suitable for all ages.

This is my third book read and reviewed for the Literary Christmas Reading Link-Up and my 39th for my second go-round with the Classics Club.

Friday, December 13, 2019

"Murder on the Moor" by Julianna Deering

I've done it!  I've finished all six Drew Farthering Mysteries by Julianna Deering!  I read them all out of order, but now I've read them all.  Huzzah!  I look forward to rereading them one day in the proper order.

I liked this one tons, especially because it kept giving little nods to The Hound of the Baskervilles, one of my favorite books ever.  It even had a massive dog living out on the moor, but not a spectral hound or anything.  And Drew and Nick took aliases from that book sometimes, which was especially amusing.

The book centers around a friend of Drew's from his schoolboy days who's recently married a beautiful woman and moved out to his family's ancestral home by the moor.  It's got a few shades of Rebecca here and there too, but nothing super tragic or awful like what happens in that book.  And there's a handsome, ascerbic Welshman around too, so there are hints of Wuthering Heights too.

Anyway!  The vicar at the little town nearby gets murdered.  Who would want to hurt him, and why?  Also, there are mysterious fires out on the moor, sheep get killed in weird ways, and there are altogether too many odd things going on for anyone to ignore.  Drew and Madeline arrive to help the local police untangle the mysteries, staying with Drew's friend and his new bride, and tensions on all sides keep the amateur detectives plenty busy!

Particularly Good Bits:

Drew shrugged.  "There are always strange happenings on moors, aren't there?  Half the books written in England wouldn't exist if it weren't for that" (p. 87).

If This was a Movie, I Would Rate It:  PG-13 for violence, danger, and polite implications that someone's wife might be having an extra-marital affair.

This is my 15th book read and reviewed for the Mount TBR 2019 reading challenge.  Don't think I'll make my goal of 24, but oh well.

Monday, December 9, 2019

"Blessed are the Cheese Makers" by Tricia Goyer and Cara Putman

This was the perfect book to read on Saturday when I was spending all day on the couch, laid up with a cold and resting my voice because I was supposed to sing in a couple of choir numbers at an Advent service that evening.  I just snuggled up with a blanket, this book, a box of tissues, and mug after mug of tea.  It was great, except for blowing my nose all the time.  Wretched cold.

Anyway.  This book was fun.  It's part of a series called Sugarcreek Amish Mysteries put out by Guideposts, and I've not read any of them before, but I think I'll check the library to see if they have others.  I liked the main character in this one, Cheryl, and would like to read others about her.  

Cheryl runs a gift shop called the Swiss Miss in a small Ohio town with lots of Amish people.  Cheryl is not Amish, but she's got lots of Amish friends, and she's very interested in an Amish man named Levi.  I've never gotten into the whole Amish sector of Christian Fiction, but I liked this book, maybe because the main character was non-Amish like me, so I could see their customs through her eyes.

At the start of the story, someone sets fire to a cheese factory.  I love cheese.  Living in Wisconsin for four years was heavenly -- we had a cheese factory near us that we visited every few months.  Oh my, it was delightful.  So I was very invested in finding out who would want to destroy a cheese factory!  What sort of an awful person would do that?  The mystery unfolds slowly, intermingled with Cheryl's busyness running the gift shop at Christmas time, her mother interfering in her non-existent love life, and Cheryl's attempts to help those affected by the fire.  And her attempts to help the police solve the mystery, some of which are actually helpful. 

Cheryl's Christian faith is woven throughout the book in a believable, non-preachy way, which I appreciated.  This was a solidly enjoyable Christmas mystery.

If This was a Movie, I Would Rate It:  PG for mild, clean romance.

This was my second book read for the Literary Christmas reading link-up this year, and my 14th for the Mount TBR 2019 challenge.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

"She Came to Slay: The Life and Times of Harriet Tubman" by Erica Armstrong Dunbar

After seeing the movie Harriet (2019) in the theater last month, I decided I needed to know more about Harriet Tubman.  I re-read Freedom Train right away, then wanted a more adult nonfiction account of her life, so I found a couple different ones at the library and put holds on them.  This is the first one that came in.

This was a really fast, engaging read.  I actually wanted it to slow down a few times, and I'm glad I've got another biography of her from the library to try as well (if I can only snatch the time before it's due).  This is definitely a step up from the junior-nonfiction bio Freedom Train, but kind of aimed at teens/young adults, I think.  It has a lot of infographics and illustrations by Monica Ahanonu, which are neat, but make it feel... not quite serious, if that makes sense.

Still, I did learn a lot from this book, both about Harriet Tubman and the world she inhabited.  If you're looking for one book to learn about her life, this is a good one to pick, I think.

If This was a Movie, I Would Rate It: PG-16 for mentions of sexual activity and violence.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

"Mycroft and Sherlock: The Empty Birdcage" by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Anna Waterhouse

Um, so I've read the third book now too.  This is so unlike me.  I've read all the books (so far) in this series in like two months.  Usually, I can stretch a good series for YEARS!  Or, if there are only three books, at least for six months.  But... the library had this on the shelf, so I got it.

I still like Mycroft and Sherlock best of the three, but I did like this one better than Mycroft Holmes.

Sherlock Holmes decides he's done with school because he'd rather track down a serial killer.  He leaves his university and, with a little aid from his brother, sets off on his first manhunt.

Meanwhile, Mycroft is trying to find the missing fiance of the girl Mycroft fell in love with in a previous book.  The two cases are tangentially related, but not tied together in an all-too-neat knot by the end, and I appreciated that.  

I'm really hoping this series continues, because I'm enjoying it so much!  

If This was a Movie, I Would Rate It:  PG-13 for murder, suicide, violence, kidnapping, and so on.  Once again, no cussing or smut.  Remarkably clean for a  modern murder mystery!