reading round-up 2015, part I

One-fourth of 2015 has already blown by.

Apparently I had my nose in a book the entire time, which was a delightful way to spend one of the longer winters I can remember. (Since I obviously haven’t been writing much, I had to have been doing something, right?)

Here’s a quick round-up of what I read from January 1st through March 31st, complete with unbiased reviews. There’s lots of good stuff on this list; enjoy!

Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher. This epistolary (there’s your English lesson, folks) is a hilarious take on how educators get bogged down by department politics and life in the fishbowl of academia. While my life as a teacher was nothing compared to Professor Fitger’s, the story did ring true–one fall semester I wrote 27 letters of recommendation to 27 different colleges for just a handful students. This book is laugh-out-loud funny and a very fast read, and it’ll make you want to send a (heartfelt, well-penned) thank you note to anyone who’s ever publicly vouched for you. [Looking at you, Dr. Vance.]

The Rosie Effect by Graeme Simsion. This was a quick beach read over New Year’s. Don is still as neurotic as he was in the first book, and Rosie is still as charming. In The Rosie Effect, it’s far more obvious that Don suffers from Asperger’s (his tics and quirks aren’t veiled as just tics and quirks anymore), and because of this, Don morphs (amazingly) into a more likable character. A good, easy read.

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. I have never, ever enjoyed scary books. In college, I had to put my assigned copy of Dracula outside of my room each night because it gave me nightmares (true story). So I have no idea why I spent this gray and cold winter cooped up with so many murder mysteries. Maybe I’m finally growing up. The Girl on the Train is a study of nut cases…of voyeurs, of obsessives, of psychotic levels of jealousy. It’s not gory, just weird. And it’ll make you realize just how well you handled that one big break-up you endured early in life.

The Man Who Couldn’t Stop by David Adam. The subtitle to this one is “OCD and the True Story of a Life Lost in Thought.” While having a huge rubbernecker factor to it (reading Adam’s meticulous patterns of living and germophobic ways was startling), the book also was filled with very scientific information about how someone develops true OCD. Not a light read; the technical language definitely served as speed bumps between all the juicy, “he really does that?” spectacles, but I’m glad I read it.

Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead. I loved this book about the art of ballet, the micromanaged lives of ballerinas, and a sneaky Russian defection. The story begins in the mid-1970’s and jumps around in time, much like a dancer on a stage. There’s a sordid affair, a career deferred, a token marriage, and a moving revelation. A terrific read.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed. I was officially the last person in the free world to read this one. While it certainly had its gritty moments (drug use? promiscuity?), Strayed’s bold journey to recenter herself was definitely well written and enjoyable. But I’m sure you knew that already. Like 2 years ago, actually.

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill. Absolutely beautiful. I read this poetic, painful, heartbreakingly honest novel two times in two days. Seriously. I also dog-eared almost every other page for its incredibly mellifluous prose. This story of a marriage from beginning to end and back again will resonate with anyone who has been in love and had her (or his) heart broken.

My Sunshine Away by M.O. Walsh. This time capsule of a novel takes place during a hot Louisiana summer in the late 1980’s. The facets of a horrible crime are slowly revealed, almost as slowly as the novel’s characters grow up. I’d read several advance reviews praising this novel, so I once again went against my literature of horror ban and gave it a go. I’d say this book is not so much a thriller as it is a study in adolescent obsession and how we tweak memory. An interesting, thought-provoking read.

Find Me by Laura Van Den Berg. One of the strangest books I’ve ever read. This post-apocalyptic tale starts off strong, with the protagonist being held against her will in a hospital housing individuals who have mysteriously survived the great flu epidemic which wiped out the rest of the population. Then Part II of the story comes along, and, to be honest, I’m not quite sure what happens. It reads like the trip down the tunnel in Willy Wonka’s boat. Read the first half and then move along to something else.

Before I Go by Colleen Oakley. Written by a Georgia girl and set in Athens–which were the 2 main reasons why I picked this one up. The premise is there:  a young wife with a terminal illness decides she is going to pick out her soon-to-be widower’s next wife. Though there are points that are forced and worthy of an eye roll, there are also some poignant sections that will make you think about very uncomfortable situations you’d typically care to avoid. I predict you’ll see this bright yellow book on lots of beach chairs this summer.

Fives and Twenty-Fives by Michael Pitre. Go read this right now…like right this very minute. Few of us know enough about the war in Iraq. Even fewer understand what our soldiers face once they return home. This book is brilliant. Painful and raw and just brilliant.

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah. I’ll be honest; I have never read any of Ms. Hannah’s previous 2,398 books because I feared they would be too girly and/or far too saccharine and romance-y. But I’m a sucker for a WWII novel. This one did not disappoint. It’s multilayered and fast paced and has some seriously strong female characters, one of whom runs an underground railroad of sorts to get downed pilots out of occupied France and back to the U.S. or England.

The Kind Worth Killing by Peter Swanson. Another thriller chock full of psychopaths? Really? I read this whodunit in about 48 hours, and then passed it off to Russ, who actually read it, too. The novel jumps around among various narrators, most of whom are less than reliable and several of whom wind up dead. All sorts of twists and turns take place…both rapidly and rather creatively. This book is a great, fast, train wreck of a read.

The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Phillip Sendker. A bit of a modern-day fairy tale that definitely requires a willing suspension of disbelief, this saga of star-crossed lovers is poetic but feels forced and overly dramatic. Set predominantly in Burma, the novel waggles between modern day and the 1950’s and piques the reader’s interest out of the gate when a successful New York lawyer–with nothing more than a decade’s old address on a mysterious envelope–heads off to Burma in search of her father who apparently up and disappeared into thin air. What slowly unravels in the next 200 or so pages is an interesting–if highly romanticized–meditation on true love.

The Fifth Gospel by Ian Caldwell. A dense, complicated puzzle mystery about the Shroud of Turin. This one is deeply laced with Biblical history, so at times it feels like you’re reading an exegesis of the New Testament. The rest of the time you’ll think you’re knee deep in a Dan Brown page turner. Either way, I found this story of an Eastern Catholic priest and his Western Catholic brother (who is also a priest) utterly fascinating.

Around the World in 50 Years by Albert Podell. A few quick caveats about this non-fiction tale:  A) the author obviously has serious cash to be able to travel to every country in the world; and B) because of the aforementioned hefty bank account, the author also obviously doesn’t give a flying fig about offending anyone. He comes across as a total chauvinistic toad, a rich punk used to getting his way right this very minute or else he’ll pitch the mother of all adult temper tantrums; however, I loved this book because of the adventures Podell endures, particularly when traveling to the Nasty Nine (including Yemen and Somalia) and other ridiculously remote places on the map. He goes all in on the culture of a region, too, dining on everything under the sun and attending things like voodoo rituals and tribal funerals. If you enjoy tales about traveling, you’ll love this one. It is absolutely fascinating, even if you do want to cheer against Podell at times.

16 books in 3 months.

(Russ is thrilled that I’ll be cycling some of the stacks of books out of our room now.)

Happy reading!

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