Top Ten Tuesday: Underrated/Hidden Gem Books I've Read In The Past Year Or So

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by The Broke and The Bookish! This week, we're writing about books that we enjoyed reading in the past year-ish that never really got the mainstream love we we think they deserve. 

Life Itself: Roger Ebert was a portly movie critic who spent most of his life in the Midwest. But the reason his reviews became so popular is his real skill as a writer, and his application of that talent to the story of his own life yielded a really fantastic book. He wrote it as he was dying from cancer, and his reflections just tugged my heartstrings constantly. The early part of the book recounts a lot of family history and is on the boring side, but the rest of it is really wonderful.

The Last One: I've written about this one before, it was actually one of my best books of the year last year. This story of a woman in the wilderness on a Survivor-on-budget-steroids show that doesn't know that there's been a pandemic and is making her way through a devastated world is tense and thrilling and I could hardly put it down.

The Lords of Discipline: I'd heard of Conroy's Prince of Tides and The Great Santini before, but this was the one that went on Kindle sale first, so I picked it up. I wasn't expecting to love it, because military-themed stories don't tend to do it for me, but I was sucked in and completely loved it and can't wait to read everything else he's ever written.

I Am Livia: The Amazon publishing imprints haven't been great, honestly, but this book introduced me to a woman with a fascinating life: Livia Drusilla, wife of Octavian. I'm always down for a story about a badass woman, and even though there's a silly "instalove" component, this is a very solid historical fiction.

Enchanted Islands: This book about a lifelong friendship between two women (and how one of them found herself on a secret mission in the Galapagos when she was in her 40s) wasn't splashy, but was quietly powerful and very well-written.

Dead Wake: Most people think about Erik Larson's Devil In The White City when they think about his work, but I actually found Dead Wake better. I loved the shifting perspectives and found myself rooting for the ship to make it to the other side even though I knew going in that it sank.

Sex With The Queen: We all enjoy flipping through the occasional tabloid in the checkout line, right? This is basically a tabloid for European royalty over the ages and it's not super high quality literature but it's super fun to read.

The Big Rewind: One of my favorite reads of 2016, this is a fresh and fun murder mystery/romantic comedy/ode to the power of a good mixtape was a delight.

Mr. Splitfoot: I didn't rate this super highly when I first read it, but it's one of the books that I found myself unable to forget about, while things I thought more highly of initially faded. Really sticks with you.

The Creation of Anne Boleyn: Anne Boleyn has inspired novelists and playwrights and screenwriters for a long time, and Susan Bordo's look at what we actually know about her and the various myths that have surrounded her (and how they've changed over time) is incredibly interesting reading.

Book 59: The Barkeep

"All the lies ever told in a bar could be distilled into three: I'm not a drunk; I'm not trying to pick your pocket; I'm not looking for meaningless impersonal sex."

Dates read: June 5-6, 2016

Rating: 5/10

Anyone who knows me knows my life hasn't been, like, sunshine and rainbows perfect (though I do try to maintain a sunny and optimistic vibe). I've had some parts of my life that were not awesome, but I've never had what I'd consider to be actual real trauma: my parents are still alive and pretty healthy, my sister the same. I myself have only had the most minor of health problems. Same with my close friends. I'm lucky, and I'm grateful.

It's hard to know how I'd respond to real trauma, like what Justin Chase, the protagonist of William Lashner's The Barkeep, went through. He was a bright and ambitious law student bringing home his laundry to do when he pretty much literally stumbles over his mother's dead body. His revelation to investigators of his father's affair helps put his dad behind bars for the murder, after which Justin promptly has a nervous breakdown. He is briefly institutionalized, and in that time discovers The Tibetan Book of the Dead. He adopts a Zen lifestyle, keeping few possessions and maintaining no interpersonal relationships, and works as a bartender despite having graduated from a prestigious law school. But one day, a old alcoholic called Birdie walks into his bar and claims to have been the one to have committed the murder of Justin's mother...but not on Justin's father's behalf.

Thus begins, despite Justin's attempts to maintain a Zen cool, his investigation into what really happened to his mother. The plot moves quickly and it's a good thing, because some of the elements don't really stand up to any degree of real scrutiny: why is pretty much everyone but Justin an alcoholic? What exactly is his brother's role in the whole situation? Why is the prosecutor's point of view included at all? And the romantic subplot, in which Justin and his father's former mistress grow closer, is just too squicky to sit right.

It's a pity that the mistress, Annie, is stuck in such a gross plotline, because she's by far the most interesting character in the book. An accountant by day and (of course) alcoholic by night, she's fallen into a pattern of relationships with married men which has already lead to some awkward confrontations but she can't seem to break out of it even though she mostly wants to. I wish she'd been the main character rather than Justin, because just thinking about a dude who's gone all Zen bro at 29 is...yuck. I can picture that guy, and he pretty much sucks. It's definitely presented as his response to cope with incredible trauma, so I tried to not let it bother me as a reader too much, but still, yuck.

I can get a little stuck in my reading comfort zone (lyrically written character-driven dramas), so it was nice to get into a fast-moving mystery-thriller a little bit and switch it up. If you do like this kind of story already, though, I don't think this is going to do much for you because it's not an especially well-constructed example of the genre. It's decent and mildly entertaining if you're looking for something you won't have to or want to think too hard about.

Tell me, blog friends...I'm not the only one who enjoys a beer or three but isn't a lush, right?

One year ago, I was reading: Approval Junkie

Top Ten Tuesday: 2016 Releases I Meant To Read But Didn't Get To

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by The Broke and The Bookish! This week's topic: books we meant to read last year but didn't. As much I read, I always wish I managed to read more...there are so many wonderful books out there, I want to get to all of them! But, alas, there's never enough time. So here are ten books I just didn't get to in 2016, but I will! I've tried to chose some that I haven't written about already for some variety.

Swing Time: I actually still have never read Zadie Smith, but I've heard such incredible things. This is just one of hers that's on my shelf! 

Truevine: This is the non-fiction story of two little African-American boys during the Jim Crow era who were taken from their parents to be exhibited as entertainment all around the world. Their mother spent nearly three decades trying to get them back. I've heard this is heartbreaking but really good. 

IQ: Crime/mystery stories don't tend to make my TBR often, but I like to push outside my comfort zone every once in a while and this novel about a super-smart detective solving crimes in LA sounds like a great way to do so. 

You Can't Touch My Hair: I've gotten more into experiencing these kind of comedian-essay kind of books as audiobooks, but I do have an ARC of this (I am not as great as I wish I was about getting these read timely) and it's supposed to be super funny.

The Summer That Melted Everything: This book is about the devil visiting small-town Ohio in the form of a 13 year-old boy and has gotten great reviews...this sounds like an excellent beach read for this summer!

Three Dark Crowns: Young Adult is another genre I'm less inclined to read a bunch of, but I've seen a lot of bloggers who do read a lot of YA post good things about it, and a story about three sisters fighting to the death until one of them is left standing to be crowned queen sounds like over-the-top fun.

Homegoing: One of the first major releases of the year, I'm super bummed I still haven't gotten around to this one, about a pair of sisters born in Ghana whose lives take different directions, and can't wait to read it. 

The Hopefuls: I'm always down for a book about working in and around politics, so this novel about a couple who move to DC and get swept up in the young-politico social web is going to be a treat when I actually find time to get to it!

You Will Know Me: I know I've posted about this one before, but it remains one of the books I'm most interested in reading that was released last year, so here it is again.

The Underground Railroad: Oprah's Book Club hasn't lost its power to be a hype machine, but word is that the praise for this is deserved and I'm desperate to find it a spot coming up on my list!

Book 58: Spinster

"It's true that the per capita divorce rate has dropped from its all-time peak in 1981 of about 5.3 divorces per 1,000 people- but even so, today nearly half of all marriages end in divorce. It's amazing, really, how deftly we hold in our collective consciousness this disconnect between what we want marriage to be and how so many marriages actually turn out. Freedom is unbearable. We opt again and again for the sugarcoated confinement of matrimony, a promise that life will work out just the way we want it- without that promise, false as it may be, the institution's many encumbrances might be impossible to bear."

Dates read: June 1-5, 2016

Rating: 6/10

This is probably strange to hear from a newlywed, but sometimes I find myself missing my single life. Not the dating part, that part sucked. I love my husband and he's just the best and I'm the luckiest that we found each other. But the part where I had total control over my own life. Where I did pretty much only what I wanted to do, whenever I wanted to, and slept on the whole bed all by myself whenever I wanted to go to sleep, and could stay up reading until 2 AM without worrying about keeping the person next to me awake. Where I put something down in my apartment and found it exactly where I left it. Where no one else used the last of the toilet paper and forgot to replace the roll. I don't want to go back to it all the time, most of the time, or even frequently. But every once in a while, I miss the complete autonomy of single life.

I'm not alone: my married/coupled up friends cop to the exact same feelings sometimes, no matter how happy their relationships. And it's just that kind of longing for a life lived accountable ultimately to only herself that drove the writing of Kate Bolick's Spinster. Once a neutral term for an unmarried woman, it's come to have pejorative connotations, implying a woman alone past her prime, probably with cats. It's always cats, those old witchy familiars, that seem to accompany jibes about older single women.

Bolick's book takes us through her life as the daughter of an accomplished and driven woman who got started chasing her dreams late because (like many women of her generation) she got married and had children pretty young. As Bolick serial-monogamies her way through her high school, college, and early adulthood, she finds herself drawn to fellow female writers (like Edna St. Vincent Millay and Edith Wharton, who she deems her influencers) who dared to live the way Bolick herself was increasingly intrigued by: alone. She ends her seemingly marriage-bound long term relationship and spends her 30s trying to figure out what she wants out of life. She experiences various employment scenarios within her field as a writer, finds herself in different living situations, and she dates around, exploring how her influencers lived and how their lives relate to her own situations.

First things first: Bolick is an engaging and talented writer. If she weren't, I wouldn't have enjoyed this book even as much as I did. Which wasn't especially much, to be honest, because this kind of personal memoir is just not the kind of thing I enjoy. Going in, I thought it would be personally focused but also take a broader sociological look at the increasingly large number of unmarried women and how that phenomenon is changing our culture at large. But I suppose I'll have to get my hands on a copy of All The Single Ladies for that, because Spinster touches only extremely briefly on anything outside of her life and the lives of her inspirations. Like with many of these kinds of books, I found myself wondering when I finished it why I'm supposed to care, exactly, about the apartments Bolick lives in or her love life or her professional struggles. Her writing was enjoyable enough to keep my attention, but at the end I found myself wondering what was the actual point of anything I'd just read. I realize the irony of this coming from a woman who starts almost every review with a personal tidbit or anecdote. I do actually read several personal blogs, and I think I would have enjoyed reading something like this over a period of time in a format like that, broken down into smaller posts and spaced out a little. But taken all together it's hard not to see it as self-indulgent navel-gazing, no matter how well-written it is. If personal memoirs are a kind of writing you enjoy, this would be a solid pickup for you. If not, though, I didn't think it was good enough to transcend its genre.

Tell me, blog friends...are you coupled or single? Do you ever envy people in the other position?

One year ago, I was reading: Thirst

**I received a free copy of this book from the publisher, Random House Crown, through Blogging for Books in exchange for a fair and honest review**

Top Ten Tuesday: 2017 Debuts I'm Excited For

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by The Broke and The BookishThis week's topic is debut novels that I'm especially looking forward to. This was a hard one for me, since I do a lot of backlist reading and don't tend to be very immersed in discussions about what's coming up, much less the subset of those that are debuts. But there's only one crossover with my first-half-out-2016 list from a few weeks ago, and the rest are definitely books I want to get my paws on!

The Futures: Anna Pitoniak's debut is about a young couple who move to New York to start their lives...only to be caught up in the middle of the recession. I have a feeling there are going to be a lot of books coming out about being young during the recession and I am going to eat them up because that's my life.

The Leavers: This is kind of cheating because was on my list of 2017 novels I'm looking forward to a few weeks ago, too, but hey, it's a debut I'm looking forward to. 

The Beast Is an Animal: Peternelle van Arsdale's YA novel is a kind of fairy tale take (not yet another re-telling of Beauty and the Beast, though) and seems like the kind of thing I'd enjoy on a genre I'm not especially inclined towards.

Heather, The Totality: Like a lot of people, I totally loved Matthew Weiner's series, Mad Men. He's making his literary debut and the way he told stories on the show has me totally excited to read him in print.

The Hate U Give: There's been a ton of hype around Angie Thomas's book focused on the Black Lives Matter isn't even out yet and the movie right have already been sold! I'm pumped to read it.

The Bear and the Nightingale: I remember reading the occasional Baba Yaga story as a kid and really loving them, so Katherine Arden's novel based on Russian folklore definitely has me intrigued.

All Our Wrong Todays: Elan Mastai's book posits a modern day world that's everything that a mid-century American would have hoped for, flying cars and all. So when someone from that world finds themselves in ours, it seems like some kind of nightmare. This sounds fascinating!

American War: In a country that feels ever-more sharply divided, a civil war doesn't seem completely beyond the realm of possibility, and it is just this possibility that Omar El Akkad explores. This focuses on a little girl being used as an instrument of war, which will get me right in the feels.

Chemistry: Stories about post-college discontentment tend to resonate with me, especially grad school oriented ones, so Weike Wang's novel about a woman who suddenly realizes that her schoalrly pursuits might not be what she really wants is right up my alley.

Everything Belongs To Us: Modern day literature set in Asia and written by Asians is a big hole in my reading patterns, and this novel by Yoojin Grace Wuertz, about students in South Korea in the late 1970s, a time of social upheaval, seems like it will be fascinating.

A Month In The Life: December 2016

Today is the last day of the year! 2016 has been a crazy year: I started out the year in January with a trip back to Michigan for my best friend's baby shower (she had the baby in March and he's the cutest!), I got married, went to Chicago on our honeymoon, I made my first (hopefully not last!) trip to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, and read, well, a lot (101 books at final count)! This month in particular hasn't been especially hectic, but here's what I've been up to:

In books: I spent most of this month doing my annual holiday re-read of a book in the A Song of Ice and Fire series...this year, I re-read A Storm of Swords. Maybe by the time I catch up, The Winds of Winter will finally be out, eh? Anyways, it slowed my pace a little as I went back through it while I was reading my new books, too!
  • Freakonomics: How much you buy into a lot of these statistical quirks depends on how much you buy into the idea of behavioral economics as a whole. It's all about the hidden incentives that act upon our decision-making, and while the theories are interesting (his linking of abortion access to crime rates was something I found myself nodding along to), I regarded much of it with skepticism. 
  • Seating Arrangements: The writing quality was wonderful, and I enjoyed it overall, but I wished this story of New England rich people behaving badly over a wedding weekend had focused less on the father character. I found him mostly irritating and wished the story would get back to virtually anyone else when it centered on him (which was, sadly, most of the time). 
  • The Wonder (ARC): This was our book club read for the month, and while I had high hopes for it, I didn't end up liking it much at all. I found that it had pacing issues that significantly undermined characterization and plot development, by my standards anyways. I know other people liked it, but it wasn't for me.
  • The Red Queen: I wasn't super hot on the first entry in Philippa Gregory's series on the Wars of the Roses, The White Queen, because I found Elizabeth Woodville's characterization completely boring. But this book, focusing on Margaret Beaufort, did a much better job creating an interesting-if-not-really-likeable character, and I enjoyed it much more.
  • The Moonlight Palace: This book is pretty light and fluffy, about a young royal descendent living in a decrepit palace in Singapore in the 1920s. It was short and while it wasn't good, per se, it was pleasant enough.
  • The Guineveres (ARC): So many books get compared to one of my all-time favorites: Jeffrey Eugenides' The Virgin Suicides. This time, though, I thought the praise was legitimate. A delicate yet powerful story about four young women, all improbably named Guinevere, who end up in a convent in their teens for wildly different reasons is sensitive and well-told. An auspicious debut.  

In life:
  • Went rock climbing for the first time: The indoor kind, of course. One of my work friends and I have been trying to get together to do lunch and activities every so often, and after I took her to a pole class, she took me rock climbing! I've never done it before and wasn't quite sure what to expect. It was HARD! But I liked it and think I want to try it again.
  • Holiday parties: 'Tis the season, after all. Drew's work had their holiday party, and then of course we had our holiday parties with my in-laws. Lots of togetherness and happy feelings and wine (and missing my own side of the family on the other side of the country).

One Thing:
  • After having been a longtime audiobook resister (I just don't think it's reading, for better or worse), I found my niche: nonfiction! So this month I've been really getting into Overdrive through my local library system, and have listened to some really interesting stuff, like the official biography of the Queen Mother and a chronicle of Basque history. 
Gratuitous Pug Picture:

Book 57: The Winged Histories

"I don't think writing is sorcery, something forbidden. I think it's more like a comb, it separates your hair more easily than you could with your fingers. It's like riding a horse to go somewhere instead of walking. You go to the same place, but you can carry more. I think writing is a horse. Or it might be a knife. An axe."

Dates read: May 29-June 1, 2016

Rating: 8/10

I am nothing if I am not a creature of habit, and one of those habits is that I refuse to jump into a series from anywhere but the beginning. Books, TV, movies...I don't care if everyone says the first one is bad, boring, or even just not necessary to understand what follows, I read/watch it. Which makes Netflix dangerous for many TV shows to watch right from the beginning! Usually that just means I get choice paralysis and decide to read instead.

Why this particular quirk of mine matters at all is that Sofia Samatar's The Winged Histories is technically a sequel, though more in a "take place in the same world as" and less "follows directly the characters from", as I understand. I wanted to read A Stranger In Olondria, but my local library system didn't have a copy and so I figured that from what I'd read about the book, I'd probably be okay this once not following my own rule and just picking it up. Which I'm kicking myself for now, because I think I would have gotten more out of The Winged Histories if I'd had some background in that world going in.

Which isn't to say that I didn't get anything, or even much, out of The Winged Histories without that background. On the contrary, I found the book beautifully written, and once I got myself grounded in its world, incredibly compelling. It follows four women: the warrior Tavis, Tialon, the daughter of a priest, Seren, a singer and Tavis's lover, and Tavis's sister Siski, a noblewoman, as the Olodrian empire is engulfed in war and rebellion, both internal and external. They're besieged by a neighboring civilization, one of their conquered territories is trying to break away, and a new religion is fighting for dominance with the traditional one...with rumors of people transforming into vampiric monsters growing in the countryside.

I don't usually read war stories, which tend to be men's stories. Endless descriptions of battles and tactical maneuvers make me lose interest quickly (they slowed down my reading of War and Peace significantly when I tackled that one in the summer of 2015). But this one was different: besides Tavis's necessarily martial perspective, the rest of the story dug into how the battles resonate far beyond the fields on which they are fought. The lives of each of these women is thrown into turmoil by the unsettled situation of their world: Tavis flees to the army to escape being used as a political pawn in marriage, Tialon suffers at the hands of her religious fanatic father, who ushers in the new religion and converts the emperor, Seren is a member of the people on whose behalf the civil portion of the war is being fought but who suffer for their "victory" as much or more than anyone, and Siski drowns her sorrow at being parted from the sweetheart of her youth in a hard partying lifestyle. These are technically spoilers, but if I hadn't read a similar summary as I was getting started I would have gotten completely lost in who meant what to whom and what was going on.

It does take a while to get into it and adjust to the setting and situations of the story. Until then, fortunately, the writing sustains interest. The writing is just gorgeous...lush, poetic, and emotionally evocative. There's very little "this happened, and then that happened" going on here, each of the four segments is written in loose clusters of interconnected plot points, full of flashbacks and questions raised that don't get answered until a later part of the story. By the end I could barely put it down. The book is a rich reward for a patient reader.

Tell me. blog you like war stories?

One year ago, I was reading: Hood

**I received a free copy of this book from the publisher, Small Beer Press, through Edelweiss in exchange for a fair and honest review**