A Year in Books: 2019

"La Lettura" by Mose Bianchi, 1865
Or as I like to call it, "I Told You Not To Interrupt Me While I'm Reading"

Guys, I am squeaking in JUST under the wire with this post, as it's December 31st. But I made it! Woot! (I would like to thank the Academy, and also my supervisor who let us go home from work early today since it's New Year's Eve.)

In January I set a goal on Goodreads to read 50 books in 2019, and with the completion of The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie last night (five stars! get thee to thy library and get thyself a copy!), I squeaked in under THAT wire too. You can check out the full list of books I read here. I'll just devote a little bit of time in this post to highlighting the highlights. We will cover the Good, the Bad, and the Did-Not-Finish, also known as the Meh. ("The good, the bad, and the ugly" is too redundant. The bad and the ugly can fit in the same category, thank you very much.)

I will take this opportunity to note that if you have been following my reviews on Goodreads, a lot of this information may be a bit repetitive, since I am shamelessly copying and pasting from some of those reviews and just adding a few additional comments. You have been warned.

(Any link designated by an asterisk below is an Amazon Affiliate link, which means that if you make a purchase through Amazon after clicking on one of my links, I am eligible to receive a small commission. This incurs NO additional cost to you and you are under no obligation to purchase anything! However, it's required that I add this disclaimer in any post that includes Amazon Affiliate links. I only included affiliate links to items I can truthfully recommend purchasing - it seems unethical to provide links to purchase books I didn't enjoy and don't recommend, after all. The non-asterisk links go to Goodreads.) 

The GOOD

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The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie* was my last full read for this year, but it was a doozy. My sister recommended it to me a few months ago, then cunningly bought it for me for Christmas. I read it in three days and am now waiting with bated breath for the second book to appear on the hold shelf for me at my library. I had a hard time liking the main character Flavia at first, but by the halfway point I was rooting for her, heart and soul. The mystery was brilliantly put together, delicately laced with wit, and actually made me kinda wish I'd been a better student of chemistry in high school...

A Man Called Ove* was a recommendation from a dear friend, who then kindly lent me her copy. I plowed through it in just three or four days and even teared up reading it in line at the DMV. (Clearly I have no shame.)  It was phenomenally beautiful, tearjerking, and hilarious. The main character would have hated me, but I found myself loving him by the end. I'm amazed by how beautifully this novel translated from Swedish to English - the writing was so clear, humorous and well-structured with nothing seemingly lost in translation. I also enjoyed Britt-Marie Was Here, though not as much, but I'm eager to read all the Fredrik Backman books now! Fans of Jan Karon's Mitford books will enjoy this, in particular.

The Jane Austen Writers' Club: Inspiration and Advice From the World's Best-Loved Novelist* is nonfiction sprinkled with fiction - ostensibly an exercise in how to write like Jane Austen. Spoiler alert: I LOVED this book! Before finishing it, I read several reviews that didn't recommend it highly as a how-to for creative writers, since it was so focused on Jane Austen's style only. I mean... isn't that kind of the point? I read it not as a self-help manual but rather as a study of my favorite author's work and why her writing is so well done. It was fascinating and fun (especially all the little hilarious tidbits from her lesser-known Juvenilia) and I actually did pick up some hints and ideas (especially about characterization) for my own writing along the way. I'm eager to try the sample exercises! Rebecca Smith's voice was amusing and smooth-flowing, too, and I'm interested to read some of her fiction now.

These Is My Words: The Diary of Sarah Agnes Prine, 1881-1901* was SUCH a good book. I often find myself more drawn to side characters than to the main character, if I find the MC's voice less than compelling. But in this case, Sarah Prine drew me in right from the beginning. The side characters are also compelling (I have a special soft spot for Savannah!) but reading this story of hardship and stubbornness and bravery through Sarah's own (sometimes unreliable) narrative eyes made for a book that was hard to put down. I didn't always like every choice she made, but that was what made her real and human. I appreciated the fact that things just HAPPENED, too - there wasn't a ton of foreshadowing and in that way, it seemed more like real life and less like a novel. (I was a little disappointed to find that the real Sarah Prine didn't actually keep a diary and most of these events were not part of her actual life. Also, the Duchess of Warwick is not a real book). I would probably give it a 4.75/5 if partial stars were allowed, because some parts of the ending were not to my taste (keeping this spoiler free) but for the most part it truly deserves the full five.

Educated*, the bestselling memoir by Tara Westover... wow.I don't think I can review it in a way that would do it justice - all that comes to mind are disjointed sentences. Simple statements such as:

  • Tara Westover's prose is beautiful.
  • So much of this book hurt to read and yet I couldn't stop reading it.
  • I saw so much reality in what I read; my own reality in a few areas (the thirst to know, though I enjoyed a much more thorough childhood education, and the doubting of your own ideas and convictions if they do not match up with what you have been taught) and the reality I've observed in other people's lives (family abuse, sadly). I cannot imagine how hard it must have been for her to write all this. I hope she's found a sense of freedom and justice in getting it all down. I know I felt exhilarated when I reached the end; I hope she did, too.
  • Reading is such a beautiful gift.
  • I hope no one ever tries to make a movie out of this book because they would probably wreck it.
  • Also, if you are reading this review and wondering if the book lives up to the hype, my advice to you would be to just read it. It doesn't matter if it lives up to the hype or not. I don't think you will regret reading it.
  • Words are so powerful. People are so strong. The end. 


The Truth According to Us* caught my eye because the author is Annie Barrows, whose work I enjoyed in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.* She was a good writer when she co-authored the famous "Guernsey" but it's clear she's honed her craft SO MUCH since then. This is how you write a novel for adults through the eyes of a child (well, mostly) and make it seem real. My own adolescence was nothing like Willa's and my hometown bears little resemblance to Macedonia, WV, but I felt an ache of nostalgia reading about what it was like to be 12 through her mind and the way she saw the world. Jottie, too, was a character who I think will be stuck inside my head for a very long time. I want to read about the rest of her life (the epilogue is tantalizingly unsatisfactory!) The ending seemed a tad rushed and abrupt (no spoilers) but still, it was a fantastic book and held my attention all the way through, even when the story went nowhere near where I thought it would go.

Extra points for throwing in a disparaging reference to Elsie Dinsmore. :)

Women of the Word* by Jen Wilkin, my new favorite Christian author! What a challenge this book was - thoughtful, careful, and honest. Jen Wilkin does not shy away from the hard truths: one of which being that we desperately need Biblical literacy in our walk with God. She outlines a clear direction for study that is neat and to the point while not being formulaic, emphasizing the importance of comprehension and intelligent understanding above all. Amid so many "women's Bible study" books that can seem trite or dumbed-down, Wilkin's direct approach to loving God with all your mind us like a breath of fresh air, challenging and equipping readers to drink of the living water.

None Like Him*, also by Jen Wilkin, also garnered five stars. It is about the attributes of God, how we are different from God, and how we cannot expect to be like God in our humanity, and how that is okay. I am HERE FOR THIS. We need more theologically strong, Biblically sound, humanly relatable (okay, not a word...) books by women on church bookshelves. This needs to be one of them. Wilkin is easy to read without being trite, insightful without being lofty, educating and teaching without being overly "preachy" (I use this word loosely).

(My only quibble, not the fault of the author, is with the overtly feminine flowery cover. It's buying into the "pink Scripture" mentality that the book decries! Is it time for a new edition? I think so.)

Home Work*, the much-anticipated sequel to Julie Andrews' first memoir Home, does indeed deserve to be in this category because of how good the good parts were, if that makes sense. I wanted so badly to love this as much as Andrews' first book (which I adore, not just for her stellar sense of storytelling, but for the fun tidbits about her career too), but I think that too-high expectation over-hyped this book for me. The first 1/3rd or so is fantastic, but though the rest of it certainly held my attention, the narrative seemed to drag. Not sure if this was due to my own personal interest in her earlier work (I confess to having only seen Mary Poppins, The Sound of Music, and Thoroughly Modern Millie...) or if perhaps the book was written chronologically and the first chapters came closer on the heels of her first bestselling memoir? I hate to think that her writing spark may have dimmed with age, but perhaps that's the explanation- her daughter did co-author this, after all. Still, a recommended read for anyone with an interest in the queen of musicals!


The BAD

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Reader, I Married Him was a huge let-down. I admit I picked it up because I had enjoyed Jane Austen Made Me Do It (a similar collection of short stories, though all inspired by Jane Austen's work rather than Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte) and I really wanted to like this as much as I did JAMMDI. But when you only actually like one story out of an entire collection, it's hard to give a positive review. Maybe the premise of using the famous line from Jane Eyre was too broad a jumping-off point, but I just hated most of these stories - depressing, pointless, trying too hard to be deep/nihilistic... ugh. "The Self-Seeding Sycamore" was the only one I enjoyed! A disappointment that honestly felt like a waste of time.

They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers of the Civil War by DeAnne Blanton and Lauren M. Cook is one that, unfortunately, I actually own - picked it up at a thrift store, I think. The research was shoddy (I recognized a few myths on my own, and picked up some negative reviews here and there from well-respected historical groups as well), the narrative dragged, and the book COULD have been so much better than it was if it had only focused on hard cold fact backed up by multiple sources, and zeroed in on just a few women instead of trying to cover (and imply the existence of) hundreds upon hundreds.

The Chilbury Ladies' Choir had a fun premise, and at the outset it seemed like it could be my type of book, but it kind of felt like there was no plot? Also, the device of having everything told through letters and diaries got stretched realllllllllllly thin. There's an art to epistolary/journalistic novels, and this just felt like several first-person viewpoints presented alternately with a date slapped at the top. (And I just could not buy Kitty being 13. I'm all for precocious adolescent characters but her narrative voice was the same as 40-something Mrs. Tilling. Ummmmmm.)

Additionally, I am all for stories of human triumph over difficult circumstances (see Educated!), but good grief, real people are not spouting off philosophical truisms immediately after a tragedy. The Message of the Novel (caps needed) was way too heavy handed. It is, in fact, possible for characters to be TOO self-aware. They felt like literary examples in an English class at times, not humans. I gave this book three stars for effort, but sometimes I feel like perhaps I am too generous. (That sounds like something Lady Catherine would say, which means I should not have said it.)



The DID-NOT-FINISH
(MEH)


(I hesitated over whether to include these as it seems unnecessarily negative to blather on about books I couldn't bring myself to like. But there is a possibility that someone who did like these will encourage me to finish them and tell me why I should care about them, which is always a positive thing! And if not, perhaps I'm just forewarning you to skip these, if your tastes are like mine.)
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The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend - I wanted to like this one, but it just felt contrived and as if the author were trying too hard to fit into some kind of quirky literary genre. To be honest, the quirkiness of the title and cover were what drew me in in the first place! But I just couldn't bring myself to finish it, and other titles were calling my name. (It is possible that my disconnect with this book came from the fact that it was not originally written in English - but I loved Ove, which was translated from Swedish, so I doubt my apathy can be blamed on a language barrier.)

The Seafront Tea Room had a charming premise, but read like a cheap inspirational romance from Bethany House (without the inspiration or random Bible verses). No. Thank. You. I think I made it about four chapters in. Bleh.

How to Buy a Love of Reading had an intriguing premise (this seems to be a theme) - filthy rich parents try to commission the perfect book to get their spoiled rich daughter to actually enjoy reading - but, to be brief, the characters were insufferable. I can't stay invested in a story if I hate everyone in it and there seems to be no real point to anything!

And, to end on a high note, two more GOODS...


One Thousand Gifts* by Ann Voskamp

This was one of the very first books I finished in 2019 - so early that I hadn't even begun my Goodreads challenge yet! Four out of five stars - I only withhold the fifth star because Voskamp's prose can be a little hard to slog through at times. I am not a poetry-reader, and perhaps that is why. Some of her similes, run-on (or fragmented) sentences, and overkill description can be a turn-off. I know they were for me when I flipped through some of her blog posts a few years ago. But then I happened upon this little book at my library, figured "well, what's the harm" and took it home. I was hooked. The premise of the book is simple: give thanks for one thousand blessings and keep a list of them. We often say we are thankful, but how often do we put our thanks into tangible words to a tangible Giver? This book lovingly answered the questions that rise in my mind sometimes about giving thanks in the hard things; the sad things; the seemingly unfair things, and reminded me anew how to recognize that these are, in the fullness of God's plan, good things.
"I, too, had read it often, the oft-quoted verse, 'And give thanks for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.' (Ephesians 5:20) But in this counting gifts, to one thousand, more, I discover that life leaves me deeply thankful for very few things in my life. A lifetime of sermons on 'thanks in all things' and the shelves sagging with books on these things and I testify: life-changing gratitude does not fasten to a life unless nailed through with one very specific nail at a time."

Aaaaaaaaand, also, The Greatest Gift* by Ann Voskamp.

This, bookendishly, was one of the very last books I finished in 2019 - on December 25th, in point of fact, as it is a collection of daily devotions for Advent. Whether or not you observe Advent (the Christian church calendar's marking of the days leading up to Christmas, an anticipation of the celebration of the Incarnation - can I fit one more "ation" in here? One wonders...), I highly recommend this book. Practical, poetic, pensive, full of promises. (Can I think of another word that starts with "p"? Perhaps. But that might be profligate or too plethoral.) This was a great devotional read for the Advent season, and beautifully unfolded the Biblical promises leading up to the Messiah. Voskamp's purple prose (P's again...) is well suited to this thoughtful season of praise and worship. One might even call it practically perfect.

(I couldn't help myself.)

Coming up next... an exciting announcement for 2020 that doesn't actually have anything to do with books, and my to-read list for 2020 (which DOES have to do with books). To hold myself accountable, you know.

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