Signs of Life Day Ten

I’m currently working on class descriptions for next year, which means I’m knee-deep in book selections for middle schoolers. Such freedom! Such creativity! This is truly a joyful task and one of the best perks of the job.

In my effort to find a free copy of a certain book, I re-stumbled up Project Gutenberg, an online resource for free books. FREE BOOKS. They are primarily classics (Frankenstein, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Emma, War and Peace, The Jungle Book, The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet), but there is also a collection of educational books that range from music and language to history and science.

Granted, these are eBooks, so you’ll need a Kindle or an iPad or something that accommodates the book, but still. They are free. FREE. More than 53,000 free books.

If you’re especially interested in books with an audible companion, there’s also Lit2Go, another FREE source for great literature.

Bookworms, this is your official Welcome to the Weekend post. Enjoy!

Signs of Life is a blog series I’m writing for February 2017. It was born out of desire to replace the negativity and despair that’s been bogging down our friendships, families, and communities after a tumultuous election season. This series won’t solve the world’s problems, but I hope it will create a speck of light and positivity when and where it is needed. 

Top Ten Favorite Books of 2016

In 2015, I read 53 books, verifying to myself that I could, indeed, read 50 books in a year. For 2016, I gave myself a break and set a goal of 40. If all pans out by New Year’s Eve, I will have finished 46 books (45 on paper, one audio).

Of those, I chose ten favorites with ease. Numbering them 3-10 was even easier, but depending on the day, my top two choices could be swapped. It could go either way. That’s what happens when a book reaches Ken Follett and Khaled Hosseini levels. Those books have their very own shelves.

To be on my Top Ten, the book has to be all-consuming. Not only does the writing have to be fluid and paced, the plot has to be imaginative and addictive. The book has to take over my whole brain so that I’m thinking about it while I’m driving and running and I must ten minutes here and there to read. It has to hit me in the gut or keep me up at night or break my heart. I want to feel it.

The genre doesn’t matter. On this list are thrillers, post-apocalyptic stories, fantasy and contemporary narratives, well-known authors, not-so-well-known authors, and subject matters that range from fashion and terrorism and murder to historically and culturally specific events. Each book is linked to my original review. Enjoy, and Happy Reading in 2017!

10. From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant. Funny, quirky, and strangely troubling as it pertains to our national security. All Boy Hernandez wants to be is a fashion designed. How unfortunate to be mistaken for a terrorist! Be careful who you trust!

9. Station Eleven. This was the first book I read in 2016 and it was such a great choice! Though I’m not usually into post-apocalyptic fiction, I found Station Eleven to be endearing and unique in its focus on a traveling symphony in a post-apocalyptic reality. When there is no electricity, no means of transportation, and no way to communicate with one another, you must whittle humanity down to its very basic form and see what survives.

8. Long Man. Set over the course of three days in 1936, Annie Clyde Dodson refuses to surrender her property to the government and the TVA. It doesn’t matter that it will all be under water soon anyway. She won’t do it. But just when her resolve reaches fever pitch, her three-year-old daughter Gracie goes missing. With all her might, Annie Clyde must keep the government at bay and find her daughter alive. The pacing of this book is so steady, so even. It was hard to put down.

7. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Clay lands himself a job at a bookstore and immediately knows the place is super weird. The contents, the layout, the patrons. All weird. But he needs the job so he can’t be picky. It isn’t long before Clay is swept into a centuries-long adventure that feels like an Indiana Jones movie. This book gets extra points for its attention to detail in typography. Design nerds will love it.

6. You. Before this one, I’d never read a book written in second person, but now that I have, my standards are very high. We read You from the point of view of Joe, a sick, twisted, vulgar young man who is transfixed by Beck, a girl who is cute and oblivious to so much attention. Readers are in Joe’s mind so deep that it’s hard to crawl out. And actually, I didn’t really want to. (The sequel, Hidden Bodies, is on my must-read list.)

5. Tell the Wolves I’m Home. Having just read this one, it is still fresh and tender in my mind. It is 1987 and June Elbus has just lost her uncle to AIDS, a confusing and troubling disease that the 14-year-old doesn’t understand. Finn was a renowned artist and also June’s godfather and closest confidant. While her family just wants to move on with their lives, June is unable to, especially after Toby, Finn’s partner, who is also dying, extends an invite to grieve together. The two develop a secret, sympathetic friendship that teaches June about life and love in more ways than she imagined.

4. The Winter People. This one had me on the edge. Unable to read it at night, I hurried to The Winter People first thing in the morning and read it over the stove top while cooking dinner. When it got dark outside, I put it down. Set in West Hall, Vermont, over two time periods, it focuses on the murder of Sara Shea (1908) and Alice (Present Day), who lives in Sara’s old house and has gone missing. Sara’s old diary has been unearthed, and there are things that happen in the woods behind the house. And then there’s that closet that’s been boarded up, and the strange passageways inside the house that only a few people know about. There are a dozen little mysteries that form one big crazy equation, and Ruthie, Alice’s daughter, sets out to solve them all. IT IS SCARY GOOD.

3. The Snow Child. Having just finished this one a couple of days ago, I’ve pinpointed a new reason why it moved me so. Beyond its magnificent style and elegance, more than its magical setting, The Snow Child tugged on a part of my heart that has long since healed. Infertility is a wretched beast, and the loss one feels when she’s told she cannot bear children is unlike anything else I’ve experienced. When Jack and Mabel, painfully childless, build a girl out of snow, it’s done in fun, with imagination, with a nod to what might’ve been in another lifetime had things worked differently. And yet, when a girl appears in the Alaskan wilderness, the couple doesn’t know what to do with her. Call out to her? Bring her inside? Is she even real? The Snow Child is beautiful in so many ways. If you’re going to read it, make sure you read it in wintertime.

2. The Devil of Nanking. Grey is a 23-year-old Brit who’s traveled to Tokyo to find a survivor of the 1937 Nanking Massacre. She’s spent a decade trying to prove something she believes to be true, and this survivor supposedly has footage of some kind that confirms it. This story is nail-biting and brutal. Like The Winter People, I read it at every free moment. The author is vivid in her details, even the most horrific ones. I’ve never read another thriller like it. It is perfect.

1. The Secret History. Donna Tartt is good writer. A damn good writer. The Goldfinch proved it, but The Secret History solidified it. Though it’s nearly 600 pages, you don’t even notice it because the pacing is lightning fast. You don’t have time to sit around and wish the book would end already. Richard Papen is our narrator who tells the story of how he and his college classmates killed Edmund, nicknamed “Bunny.” Richard is troubled by what they did and by how they managed it after the fact. We’re all a little mad, but some, I believe, are more mad than others.

New York Times By the Book tag

The New York Times “By the Book” questionnaire is a recurring column in the paper answered by well-known creatives – actors, writers, artists, etc. It’s also a common tag on blogs written and hosted by book lovers.

Basically, it’s a fun way for book lovers to talk about books.

1. What book is on your nightstand now? A History of God by Karen Armstrong, 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories, Dixieland Delight by Clay Travis, Quiet by Susan Cain, The Book of Common Prayer

2. What was the last truly great book that you read? The Secret History by Donna Tartt

3. If you could meet any writer – dead or alive – who would it be? And what would you want to know? I would love to have a meal with Ken Follett so I could pick his brain about the writing process. This would be risky because people you admire could always turn out to be jerks. Fingers crossed he’d be delightful.

4. What books might we be surprised to find on your shelves? Stupid Black Men by Larry Elder. It was given to me and I haven’t read it yet, but the title is jarring and lends itself to all sorts of assumptions. Larry Elder is an African-American Libertarian who shares many of the same ideas about government as I do. One day I’ll read the book, perhaps sooner than later, but the title alone might give a person pause and wonder what sort of person I am. (However, if you know me personally, then you know what kind of person I am.)

5. How do you organize your personal library? My collection is currently organized chromatically. I find that a color-coded shelving system is aesthetically pleasing. Plus, it’s not hard to find a book this way since my memory of cover design is pretty good. The Circle is red, Astonish Me is yellow, The Art of Fielding is blue, and so on.

Color coded bookshelves

6. What book have you always meant to read and haven’t gotten around to yet? Anything you feel embarrassed never to have read? I haven’t gotten around to reading The Cider House Rules yet, even though it’s been on my To Read list for ages. I’m not embarrassed about it, but I’ve seen the movie, and this might be the reason I haven’t picked it up yet. (The Cider House Rules is pale yellow, by the way. Almost beige.) I am completely embarrassed to admit that I read the entire Twilight series. My only excuse is that I was depressed at the time so maybe I didn’t know what I was doing. 2009 was a rough year.

7. Disappointing, overrated, just not good: what book did you feel you were supposed to like but didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing? Easy answer – The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling. I expected to love it, but alas, I didn’t love it. I didn’t finish it, didn’t care that I didn’t finish it, and subsequently traded it in at a local used bookstore. I recently put down A History of God, which I started reading during Lent, but it is dense and not the kind of book I can digest in a series of days or weeks. I’ll eventually finish it, but not right now.

8. What kinds of stories are you drawn to? Any you stay clear of? The books I’m drawn to depend on my mood. Sometimes I want a story with strong character development (May We Be Forgiven, The Light Between Oceans, She’s Come Undone) while other times I want something that’s plot-driven and keeps me on the edge of my seat (Night Film, You, anything by Tana French). Sometimes I want to time travel and settle in for a long piece of historical fiction. The only things I stay clear of fall under the umbrella of science fiction and fantasy. When I had to read Dune for graduate school, I nearly died of boredom.

9. If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be? One Second After by William Forstchen

10. What do you plan to read next? Once I finish Special Topics in Calamity Physics, I’ll finally tackle The Girl on the Train. 

I tag YOU, Annette. 

Top Five Books of 2015

I completed the 50 Books Challenge by late November, a feat that both surprised and pleased me. I went on to read a few more and will likely round off the year at 54 if I finish Station Eleven by New Years Eve.

Of the 50+ books I read in 2015, I chose five as favorites, along with an honorable mention. To meet the criteria of “favorite,” the book had to 1) keep me interested 100 percent of the time, and 2) be one that I’d recommend to anyone and everyone. Note that these aren’t books that were written in 2015. Some are several years old.

I’ve placed them in order, so I’ll start with number five. (Each title is linked to my original review.)

PatronSaintofLiarsNo. 5: The Patron Saint of Liars by Ann Patchett. This was my introductory book to Ann Patchett’s writing, and since reading this one I’ve acquired two more from resale shops. She is a beautiful storyteller and in this novel weaves together three points of view regarding an unwanted pregnancy, an escape to a nunnery, and a slew of lies used to comfort oneself. It is a revealing story about the things we do to make ourselves feel better.

No. 4: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler. This one had me at the start because I simply could not conceive of doing away with one child to appease another. Of course the plot isn’t that simple. Not far into the story we learn that Fern wasn’t a normal child, and the family in which Fern was placed wasn’t a normal household. This book is so well thought out that the author practically spoon feeds readers proportionate bites of information at the proper time. It is a must-read for animal lovers.

No. 3The Circle by Dave Eggers. This book is the cautionary tale of our time. It is the 1984 of our generation. Though every character is an archetype and the equation of the plot is semi-predictable, it is a wild ride down a road that could very well be our future. Read with caution and let’s go off the grid together.

The GoldfinchNo. 2: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. Not everyone would agree that this book was a home run. A few folks I know tried to read it and couldn’t get through, but that was not the case for me at all. I came to care for Theo, the main character so dearly that I couldn’t bear for the story to end. In my mind, he exists still. The story is so much more than the journey of a painting. It’s about how we long to make sense of things we don’t understand.

No. 1: Night Film by Marisha Pessl. This shouldn’t surprise you one bit. If I know you in real life, then I’ve tried to push this book in your hands. It’s not literary like The Goldfinch and it’s not endearing like We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. It’s not rooted in reality like The Circle and it’s not heartstring-tugging like The Patron Saint of Liars. It’s just pure reading fun. It sucks you in and won’t let you go until the very last word on the very last page. It’s CRAZY and bizarre and a touch scary.

Night FilmNight Film wins because it put me in a trance for four days and that’s the kind of magic I want out of a book. I read it at every free moment and hardly fed my children because I couldn’t put it down. That’s the sort of power I’d like to have in storytelling, and since I don’t have that power, I’ll give a hardy handshake to the writers that do.

The honorable mention goes to Tana French, writer of two books I read this year and fully enjoyed: In the Woods and Faithful Place. They are part of an ongoing crime series set in Dublin and I plan to continue reading onward.

What are YOUR favorite books from 2015?

“I cannot live without books.”

This morning, on my way from the bedroom to the kitchen, the tornado of books in the living room gave me pause. Judy Moody, Big Nate, The Strange Case of Origami Yoda… they were everywhere. My perfectionism surged and I started stacking books by size on the coffee table. Jackson, who was waiting patiently in the kitchen for his Strawberry Mini Wheats, got concerned.

“What are you doing?”

“The living room is a mess,” I told him. “There are too many books in here.”

I cannot live without books,” he said calmly.

My heart beamed.

“I know. Me neither. But we can at least stack them neatly.”

Continue reading ““I cannot live without books.””


We’ve been going to a new church for a little more than a month now, and by new I mean new in several ways. It’s the first church we’ve attended on a regular basis since moving back to east Tennessee last spring and it’s a denomination with which neither Chuck nor I have experience. Because it’s all new, we’re attending an Inquirer’s Class for a few weeks before we make the decision to join. In fact, I even had coffee with the pastor last week at a local coffee house because I had questions, and I felt it was better to just get it all out there instead of floating along confused. To date, I think it was one of the most honest conversations about religion and faith that I’d ever had with a pastor or church leader. It was really refreshing. In the Inquirer’s Class yesterday morning, after a detailed lecture about the history of the Christian church and how denominations came to be, Chuck leaned over to me and whispered, “I’ve been in church all my life and have never had it explained like that before.” I agreed.

The boys have been longing to go to church again, which is not only pleasing to hear but it’s also been a catalyst for getting us back on our feet on Sunday mornings. We spent a good year away from church, for a number of reasons, but mainly because we’d been living this crazy separated life between Texas and Tennessee, and frankly we were exhausted. We spent as many mornings in our pajamas as we could.

In other news, school is moving along nicely. Jackson is excelling (again) in reading, spelling and math. He’s attentive during science, though some concepts don’t yet register. Jeremy is thoroughly enjoying astronomy and government, but his struggles with reading make every subject a challenge. I’m continually looking into new programs and other curriculum that may help, because it certainly isn’t for a lack of interest. Jeremy is eager to read all the popular bestsellers, but with so many stumbling blocks on one page, he is easily frustrated. If anyone has advice, I’m open to suggestions.

Lastly, I’ve chosen to run one more half marathon this year, but this time it’s a local race, which means no traveling or out-of-town expenses. I’ve been trying to run a different state or two each year, but running nearby race is the smarter choice this fall.

Next year, I’m thinking coastal. All of those Runner’s World ads for Virginia Beach and Charleston are too tempting to ignore.

Charlotte’s Web

Be still my heart, Jackson is reading Charlotte’s Web. That’s right, the five year old is reading a chapter book. I am over the moon about it. Routinely I pray, “Dear God, please make them readers.” I will not rest until they sufficiently bury their noses in books.

In this photo, Jack is reading aloud to us the second chapter of Charlotte’s Web while Jeremy paints one of the many rocks we picked up on our field trip to the Little River.

I could just stare at this photo for hours.

Incidentally, Jeremy found a rock that is shaped like Tennessee, so I painted it as such.