It’s National Book Review Month!

Several years ago, SUNY Geneseo created National Book Review Month to “give readers an outlet to bring lesser known works to the forefront.”  This year, NaRMo falls in March, so if you’ve read a book recently (of any genre, including “including children’s books, drama, non-fiction fiction and poetry”), you can go to the NaRMo website and submit a review for publication there.  The only real rule is that the review must be between 100 and 1,000 words, though the website does have some great tips for crafting a review.

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Although I’m not a book blogger per se, I’ve been talking about books since the very beginning of this blog seven years ago.  To my mind, there are three main reasons I write reviews of books.

First, to help other readers.  This seems pretty obvious.  Reviews can help people decide whether they want to read a book or not, which is especially useful when they are going to be spending their hard-earned money on it by buying it.  I personally like to read the 2 star reviews of books on Amazon, because those tend to have more specific, useful critiques than the one- or five-star reviews.

Second, to help the authors.  Many independently published authors depend on reviews on blogs as well sites like Goodreads and Amazon to entice new readers.  When a book only has a dozen or so reviews, every one counts.  So every time I read something by an indie author (often one of my blogger friends), I make sure to review it somewhere to give them some free publicity.

Last, to help me.  Part of the reason I started this blog was to have a space for my thoughts on books and other media.  Reviews are sometimes a way for me to process what I read, as well as an outlet for me to share my thoughts.  Like an internet-wide book club or something.  I do try to avoid spoilers in my reviews, but sometimes I dive a little further into analysis than a proper review does.  I also like to do brief reviews when I don’t have too much to say about a book.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I’ve definitely learned a thing or two about reviewing books over seven years.  I can’t even claim that I’m good at it now, and I’m certainly still learning.  Here are a few things I’ve picked up since that first review.

  • Give a picture of the book cover.  Not only does it give your post some visual interest, but it also helps people remember the book better if they come across it again.  Of course I prefer to take a pic of my own copy if possible, but most of the time I just end up using an image of the cover art.
  • A short summary is helpful to give some context of the book.  I’ve been using snippets from Goodreads summaries recently (with attribution of course).
  • I like to review both books that I know many people have read (so I can have a discussion) and also some that I know will be new to readers (so I can convince them all to read it, and then have a discussion).  I also tend to stick to the sci-fi/fantasy genres here on the blog, though I do go outside that occasionally for a special book.
  • For trilogies or series, I will often write only one review for the whole thing (though I often focus on the first book, which helps avoid spoilers).  Since I’m not a book blogger with ARCs or anything, my reviews aren’t usually about current releases, and I’m not sure that anyone wants to read a review of just the third book of a trilogy from five years ago or something.  If you haven’t read the first two already, what’s the point?  And if you have read the first two, but not the third, by now, well, that seems weird, too.

Okay, I’ve babbled long enough.  Do you guys enjoy writing book reviews?  Will you participate in NaRMo this year?  I’m going to try to post a review for NaRMo next week, as I’ve read several books recently.  Have you guys enjoyed reading my reviews?  Even better, have you read any books because I recommended them??

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Black History Month: Hidden Figures

When the movie Hidden Figures came out in 2017, I made sure to go see it in theaters.  Not only did it sound interesting, I wanted Hollywood to know that a movie about black female scientists had a paying audience.

Like most people, I had no idea of the story of the “colored computers,” women whose work helped the U.S. get into space.  Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Goble Johnson, and Mary Jackson spent years doing mathematical calculations that were critical our efforts in World War II, the Korean War, and the space race against the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

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Mary, Katherine, and Dorothy as portrayed in the movie

If you want to dig a little deeper into their story, you can check out the book that the movie was based on.  Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly came out in 2016 and tells the story of the computers in greater detail.

The book follows several generations of computers, starting with Dorothy Vaughan who joined during the expansion of aeronautics research at NACA (the precursor of NASA) during WWII.  With so many men off at war, the need for mathematicians meant that many women, even black women, were hired into the workforce at Langley.  And even after the war, the need to maintain the superiority of our air forces during conflicts like the Korean War meant that other women like Mary Jackson and Katherine Johnson came to join Dorothy.  Eventually, the importance of the space race meant the creation of NASA and starting space research basically from scratch, bringing in even more talent such as Christine Mann Darden.

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Hidden Figures was Shetterly’s first book, and that shows a bit in the way parts get bogged down in the overwhelming amount of detail.  (It took me a while to read this one.)  According to the Kindle version, the Notes and Bibliography take up 20% of the book.

But at the same time, that detail allows a full picture of what life was like during these times, particularly for these women and their families.  As someone who was born in the 80s, this book provides valuable context for not only the civil rights movement and major historical events, but also scenes of daily life during these times.

The movie is an excellent adaptation, streamlining all the detail into a smooth narrative.  Of course, that means it is not always perfectly factual; the timeline of these women’s careers is greatly compressed, for example.  There is also a Young Readers version of the book that I understand is more readable as it is for children.

As a scientist, there were a couple of notes from the book that I found interesting.  First, most of these women were originally teachers, one of the most stable, respected professions for smart black women at the time.  Yet these were women that could (and in some cases, did) have received advanced degrees in mathematics and engineering.  Imagine today if the same people who are NASA scientists were instead high school teachers!

Second, the structure of scientific research that Shetterly describes at NASA is very similar to science today.  She describes teams led by engineers (who today would be called Principal Investigators or PIs) with support staff such as the computers (today’s laboratory technicians, including myself).  The engineers would draft research reports or memos that would be picked apart by a committee before being finalized; this is much like the peer review process today governing how scientists publish papers in journals after being critiqued by external reviewers.

As a lab tech, I appreciated that this book focused on how the contributions of the computers to NASA’s research were just as important as those of the engineers.  However, the fact remains that many of the computers should have been engineers to begin with, being just as intelligent and capable as their supervisors, and many fought their whole careers to advance and be accepted as such.

It has been wonderful to see these women get the recognition they deserve.  Katherine Johnson now has two NASA facilities named after her, and she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015.  Not only are the “hidden figures” an important part of black history and an important part of U.S. history, they also helped to pave the way for women like me in science.  Even if I never knew it until recently.

Check out my review of the Hidden Figures movie here.

The Last Book of 2018 and the First of 2019

I’ve been a little bit behind on my book reviews, seeing as how this is my first of the year even though February’s almost over.  But I have been doing some good reading, so here are two great books I want to share with you.

The Shadow of the Wind

by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

The international literary sensation, about a boy’s quest through the secrets and shadows of postwar Barcelona for a mysterious author whose book has proved as dangerous to own as it is impossible to forget. –Goodreads

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This was the last book I read in 2018 and it was a great way to cap off the year.  This is a book for anyone who loves books. The Shadow of the Wind is the first in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books series; it concluded last year with The Labyrinth of the Spirits.

Part of the draw for me was the setting.  It takes place in post-civil war Barcelona, Spain under the Franco dictatorship.  These were very dark and brutal times, and in my experience many people in Spain don’t really want to talk about this era.  But it is a great setting for this mystery/thriller, which also has a bit of romance that keeps it hopeful. The story shows how thin the line can be between fiction and reality.

After reading it, I even got the Spanish edition of the book so I can now read it in the original.  I really want to hear the authentic voice of the slightly-manic Fermin, even though I think I will have to look up a lot of his vocabulary.

Operating Instructions

by Anne Lamott

The most honest, wildly enjoyable book written about motherhood is surely Anne Lamott’s account of her son Sam’s first year. –Goodreads

12540I began reading this soon after my son turned one; I thought it this memoir would be a good way to reflect on my son’s first year, and I hadn’t been ready to revisit that time in my life until recently.  It is really a perfect encapsulation of the first year of motherhood, and the writing is just great. It made me alternately cry and laugh out loud, and I mean both literally. I highlighted several passages in my Kindle, which I rarely do.  Lamott had some struggles that I didn’t, and likewise I had some that she didn’t, but her story still really rang true for me.

Lamott’s voice in this really reminded me of Carrie Fisher’s in her memoirs like Shockaholic and Wishful Drinking.  Both recovering addicts, they reflect openly on their mental health and veer into dark humor. And while Lamott is liberal like Fisher (she harangues the comparatively mild George Bush in a way that now seems ironic), she also is staunchly Christian as well.  This is a potent combination for me since I am also both liberal and Christian, but it may be a turn-off for those who are not.

I did wonder a bit how Sam would feel about this book, so it was very interesting to also read Lamott’s companion book Some Assembly Required about the birth of Sam’s son.  Sam says about Operating Instructions, “To this day, that book is the greatest gift anyone has given me; I have a very special relationship with it.”

Another cool note is that this book introduces a story about her father encouraging her brother to do a biology report by taking it “bird by bird.”  This quote shapes her later book on writing of the same name, which I also really recommend.

2018 Reading Review

In some ways, 2018 was a great year for reading.  But it had its downsides, too.  I was once again able to read approximately 100 books this year (not counting re-reads).  But being a parent has really changed how and what I’m reading, which is disappointing to me.  Here are some notes from my reading this year and my goals for next year.

The Great American Read

PBS’s Great American Read was the highlight of my reading year.  I had great fun reading four of the books on the Top 100 list, bringing my total read to 36, and voting for my favorites in the contest.  To Kill a Mockingbird was the big winner, but many of my favorites rounded out the top five.  You can read more about it here.

Author Discovery: VE Schwab

When I was getting back to reading earlier this year, I picked up the A Darker Shade of Magic trilogy by VE Schwab and fell in love.  You can read my longer review here.  I then went on to read Vicious, which I may love even more!  I’m still working my way through the rest of her repertoire, so expect to see more about her other novels next year.

Audiobooks

I tried listening to some audiobooks for the first time this year and had a mixed reaction.  I listened to two romance novels and VE Schwab’s Venegeful (sequel to Vicious).  I did enjoy listening to them on my commute, but I actually like listening to music just as well.  Mostly, I felt very impatient with them.  I was listening to them on 1.5 speed, and it still took hours longer to listen to them than it would have to read them.  I also didn’t really like the voice performance aspect, because when I read of course I never do different voices for characters in my head, so that was a bit weird to me to hear that.  What do you guys think?  Should I keep trying?  Do you have suggestions for books that are really good as audiobooks?

Blogging Book Reviews

One of my goals at the end of last year was to review more of what I am reading here, and I’m happy that I did review a lot of my genre reads here on the blog.

Now for the downsides…

Although I read about 100 books, about 80 of these were Regency romances, and I would say only about half of those were worthwhile reading.  So I hit the mark for quantity but not quality.  Hence I want to change a few things in my reading next year.

  1. Read from more genres.  Although I did read a good mix of sci-fi and fantasy, as well as evenly from adult and YA, I barely read any manga or comics and no nonfiction at all this year.   I also want to read more short stories and historical fiction.
  2. Finish Heyer’s romances.  I’m not giving up Regency romance entirely! I mentioned last year that I began reading through the works of Georgette Heyer, and I was able to read several more this year.  I have yet to be really disappointed by a single one of her stories.  I want to finish reading her oeuvre of historical romances (I only have about five left) and maybe try some of her mysteries.
  3. Read books I already own.  I have shelves and shelves of books and people keep giving me more.  Yet I’m constantly requesting books at the library, and then I have to finish them first because there’s a deadline!  Which leads me to…
  4. Finish the books I started.  I started 11 books this year that I was unable to finish before they had to go back to the library.  Eleven!!  I would check out too many books on my Kindle, then not get to one until it was almost due, then be unable to finish it.  I couldn’t renew because they all have long wait lists.  It was a vicious cycle I want to break next year.  Because my reading time is more limited now, I need to be a little more focused in my reading and maybe not check out every single ebook that looks vaguely interesting.  I’ve also discovered that I can “suspend” holds, so instead of a library book just showing up on my Kindle when it comes available, it won’t come until I’m ready for it.

What books did you enjoy most in 2018?  Do you have reading goals for 2019?

Christmas Songs Book Tag

I absolutely adore Christmas music (though I only listen from Thanksgiving to New Years haha), so I was excited to come across this tag on Madame Writer’s blog.  It was originally by The Artsy Reader Girl.

1. “All I Want for Christmas Is You”: Favorite bookish couple.

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I have a lot of favorite book couples, including Lizzy and Darcy from Pride and Prejudice and Eowyn and Faramir from LOTR.  But this said “bookish,” which makes me think nerdy, so I’m going to go with Anne and Gilbert from Anne of Green Gables.  Among other things, their relationship is built on academic rivalry.  This image is from the marvelous 1980s Canadian TV adaptation starring Megan Follows and Jonathan Crombie.  One of my favorite scenes is where Gilbert gives Anne a standing ovation after she recites “The Highwayman.”  He’s always so proud of Anne’s intelligence and her hard work.

2. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”: Name a book where a character is away from home (school, vacation, etc.).

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Jane, Unlimited is a unique speculative fiction story that relies on a classic premise: an orphan travels to a strange mansion.  Very gothic!  Jane is visiting Tu Reviens, the large and intriguing island home of her friend Kiran, where everything from art theft to alternate dimensions may be happening.  The premise is reminiscent of Jane Eyre as well as Rebecca, but spins off into an interesting type of choose-your-own-adventure story.

 

3. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”: Name your favorite “little” book (children’s book, short story, novella, etc.).

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Ella Enchanted, a classic middle grade Cinderella tale, is one of the books that inspired my love of fairy tale retellings.  It is on the bookshelf next to my bed, along with 101 Great American Poems, which I think was a gift from my mother about fifteen years ago when I was in high school.  I have read both countless times, and they are great for when I want a quick, satisfying read before bed.

4. “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”: What book(s) do you hope Santa brings you this year?

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I have a lot of books on my wishlist, and my family always gets me lots of books for Christmas.  One I’m really looking forward to is Daemon Voices, a collection of essays by the author of His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman.

5. “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”: Which book turned your nose red (made you cry)?

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I scared my husband when I was reading The Book Thief because he looked over to see me silently sobbing with huge tears rolling down my face.  “What’s wrong?!” he said.  Oh nothing, just this book broke my heart into pieces.  What a beautiful, powerful book.  Narrated by Death, it’s the story of a young girl in Nazi Germany who steals books.

6. “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year”: Your favorite book/kind of book to read during the holidays.

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In my Seasonal Reads blog series, I mentioned that I frequently read The Dark is Rising during December.  It’s full of both warm and cozy Christmas cheer as well as ominous Yuletide magic.  I love the whole series, but this one in particular is my favorite.  I also love Christmas cozy mysteries and Regency romances.

7. “We Three Kings”: Your favorite trilogy.

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I’m going classic for this one: Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, which I first read in high school, right when the movies were coming out.  It’s still one of my favorite series.  Trilogies are very standard nowadays, especially for YA fantasy, and I think that can be traced back in part to LOTR.

8. “Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow”: A character you would love to be snowed in with.

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David Suchet as Poirot

If I were snowed in, I would want Hercule Poirot of Agatha Christie’s mystery series to be one of the party.  Because inevitably there would be a murder, and then we could rely on Poirot to solve it!  I’m imagining something like the premise to Christie’s play The Mousetrap, which places a bunch of guests trapped in a manor inn together.  But luckily Poirot would be there to solve the crime before any further murders take place.  Plus Poirot is just a genial guy.

9. “Last Christmas”: A book that seriously let you down.

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Sometimes I hear about YA books that are getting a lot of hype and figure I should check them out.  Spoiler alert: they don’t always live up to the hype.  That’s how I felt about Snow like Ashes and An Ember in the Ashes (maybe I should just avoid books about ashes?).  The first books in the series were fine, but nothing spectacular, and the follow-ups got less interesting so that I didn’t continue on with either series.

10. “White Christmas”: An upcoming release you’re dreaming about.

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Well, I don’t believe that The Winds of Winter will be released next year, and Peace Talks also doesn’t have a release date as far as I know, but there are a bunch of YA fantasy book by favorite authors coming out next, including King of Scars by Leigh Bardugo.  I’m also looking forward to The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders (sci-fi) and A Brightness Long Ago by Guy Gavriel Kay (historical fantasy).

 

Do you guys have favorite Christmas song?  I love all the old carols, especially obscure ones or ones in foreign languages.  And my favorite Christmas album is John Denver and the Muppets: A Christmas Together.