Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels

From Goodreads:

The Gnostic Gospels is a landmark study of the long-buried roots of Christianity, a work of luminous scholarship and wide popular appeal. First published in 1979 to critical acclaim, winning the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award, The Gnostic Gospels has continued to grow in reputation and influence over the past two decades. It is now widely recognized as one of the most brilliant and accessible histories of early Christian spirituality published in our time.

Another book I'm reading included a fantastic quote from this book about women in the primitive church that really struck me so I hopped onto Overdrive and picked up the entire book. I'm so glad I did! I knew little to nothing about the gnostic gospels and even less about the gnostic branch of Christianity that didn't make it much past 200 AD. This is a great introductory type book if you're totally clueless- Pagels gives plenty of background and none of her analyses are too esoteric for the casual reader. 

I especially loved her discussion on the divine feminine, a subject of particular interest to me lately. She expounds a few different theories that were popular during early Christian times but have since been mostly quashed: a divine mother, a feminine holy spirit as the 3rd member of the Trinity, a dyadic god, and a few more pagan ideas that were adopted by some followers of gnosticism. All utterly fascinating. It was a LOT of new information- I kind of want to listen again!

Sunday, January 26, 2014

American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin

From Goodreads:

American Prometheus is the first full-scale biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer, "father of the atomic bomb," the brilliant, charismatic physicist who led the effort to capture the awesome fire of the sun for his country in time of war. Immediately after Hiroshima, he became the most famous scientist of his generation - one of the iconic figures of the twentieth century, the embodiment of modern man confronting the consequences of scientific progress.

I'm going to take a wild guess and say this is the longest non-fiction book I've ever read for fun. It is exhaustively detailed and impeccably researched. It clocks in at 725 pages in book form and TWENTY-SEVEN HOURS in audio form. Fortunately, due to double speed listening on the Overdrive app, I spent about half that working my way through.

I stopped in the middle of listening to this book in order to listen to Bomb, which ended up being kind of a funny coincidence of timing. They cover a lot of the same ground, though American Prometheus covers it much much MUCH more minutely while focusing exclusively on Oppenheimer rather than the Manhattan Project (and its people) as a whole. 

I also stopped toward the end to listen to Unbroken which was, again, a funny coincidence of timing. I've never been particularly interested in the WWII era but now I'm feeling like a bit of an expert.

Despite this book's exhaustive length I can honestly say I only felt bored briefly and infrequently. Bird and Sherwin move Oppenheimer's story along at a fairly fast clip and greatly humanize this god of science. They aptly illustrate his genius as well as the travesty that was his hearing in the 50s. This is a book I never would have looked twice at if not for the mention in Outliers but I'm really glad I picked it up.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand

From Goodreads:

On a May afternoon in 1943, an Army Air Forces bomber crashed into the Pacific Ocean and disappeared, leaving only a spray of debris and a slick of oil, gasoline, and blood.  Then, on the ocean surface, a face appeared.  It was that of a young lieutenant, the plane’s bombardier, who was struggling to a life raft and pulling himself aboard.  So began one of the most extraordinary odysseys of the Second World War.
In her long-awaited new book, Laura Hillenbrand writes with the same rich and vivid narrative voice she displayed in Seabiscuit.  Telling an unforgettable story of a man’s journey into extremity, Unbroken is a testament to the resilience of the human mind, body, and spirit.

I've been hearing about this book for ages from just about everyone. For some reason I've been putting it off (as I often do when it comes to things everyone else raves about) but since I'm really making an effort to work through my "to read" list, I finally put it on hold. My hold happened to become available during a month when I've been reading all kinds of books about the WWII era so I felt like I was in a better position to wrap my mind around the story.  

I've read some really amazing books so far this year but this is a contender for one of the best. It's amazing what people can (and have) survived and also what some human beings are willing to do to others. Also, if I thought I was terrified of sharks before...

Anyway, Louis's story is one of courage, survival and redemption but also so much heartbreak. I feel like books like Unbroken are so important for helping people understand the true cost of war. It's not just uniforms and glory. There's a real human toll and it can be very steep. Even after he survived his ordeal on the raft and then years of abuse in Japanese camps, he went on fighting the war in his mind for years, slumping into depression and alcoholism before he finally found redemption and a measure of peace through God and forgiveness. A lovely ending to a rather terrifying tale.  

Flunking Sainthood: A Year of Breaking the Sabbath, Forgetting to Pray, and Still Loving My Neighbor by Jana Riess

From Goodreads:

This wry memoir tackles twelve different spiritual practices in a quest to become more saintly, including fasting, fixed-hour prayer, the Jesus Prayer, gratitude, Sabbath-keeping, and generosity. Although Riess begins with great plans for success (“Really, how hard could that be?” she asks blithely at the start of her saint-making year), she finds to her growing humiliation that she is failing—not just at some of the practices, but at every single one. What emerges is a funny yet vulnerable story of the quest for spiritual perfection and the reality of spiritual failure, which turns out to be a valuable practice in and of itself. 

(I can't get the cover image to upload for some reason.)

I remember hearing about Flunking Sainthood when it came out a couple years ago. I kind of avoided it because the author is Mormon and...I dunno. I'm prejudiced against my own kind? As it turns out, though, Riess takes an almost non-denominational Christian approach to her year of attempting sainthood. She never mentions specifically that she's Mormon (although clues are there) but tries to embrace a wide variety of spiritual practices, teaching and writings. The end result is a comfortable hodge-podge of faiths that feels homey, familiar and inclusive. This is likely because she's a convert married to a non-member and has spent time in Benedictine monasteries after attending a religious seminary. If there's anyone who could write such a cross-denominational approach to faith, it's her.

I came away from Flunking Sainthood interested in trying religious practices outside my faith tradition. I'm all about finding different pathways to Christ and it sounds like she found some good ones. I'd also like to try being more grateful and less judgmental (especially since I often accuse people of being judgey. Oh the irony). Despite Riess's insistence that she "flunked" her project, I found the whole thing inspiring and uplifting.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Opal by Jennifer L. Armentrout

From Goodreads:

After everything, I’m no longer the same Katy. I’m different... And I’m not sure what that will mean in the end. When each step we take in discovering the truth puts us in the path of the secret organization responsible for torturing and testing hybrids, the more I realize there is no end to what I’m capable of. The death of someone close still lingers, help comes from the most unlikely source, and friends will become the deadliest of enemies, but we won’t turn back. Even if the outcome will shatter our worlds forever.

Ok this is still far FAR from highbrow literature. But! I really really enjoyed this one. The teenagey angst! The hilarious faux-swears! The twists that made me gasp "NO!" in my empty kitchen. I dunno, I was just really responding to this, the third book in the series. It helps that I'm 20 hours into a 27 hour nonfiction audio book so something fluffy and fun was perfect.

I totally thought this was the last in a trilogy but, judging by that ending, the adventure isn't over yet! Onward!

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Fire and Thorns Novellas by Rae Carson

While I was waiting for The Bitter Kingdom to become available I realized that Rae Carson wrote 3 novellas about secondary and tertiary characters from the series. It speaks volumes about her characterization that I found then every bit as good as her full length books with Elisa at the center. Mara's story (The Shattered Mountain) in particular was fantastic, but I really enjoyed all 3. It really helped to explain why these characters became the people they are by the time The Girl of Fire and Thorns happens. If you're mildly obsessed with these books (I aaaaam) then these novellas are well worth your time.

On Goodreads:
The Shadow Cats
The Shattered Mountain
The King's Guard

Monday, January 20, 2014

The Dark and Hollow Places by Carrie Ryan

From Goodreads:

There are many things that Annah would like to forget: the look on her sister's face when she and Elias left her behind in the Forest of Hands and Teeth, her first glimpse of the horde as they found their way to the Dark City, the sear of the barbed wire that would scar her for life. But most of all, Annah would like to forget the morning Elias left her for the Recruiters.

Annah's world stopped that day and she's been waiting for him to come home ever since. Without him, her life doesn't feel much different from that of the dead that roam the wasted city around her. Then she meets Catcher and everything feels alive again.

Except, Catcher has his own secrets -- dark, terrifying truths that link him to a past Annah's longed to forget, and to a future too deadly to consider. And now it's up to Annah -- can she continue to live in a world drenched in the blood of the living? Or is death the only escape from the Return's destruction?

About halfway through this book I thought, "WHY am I doing this to myself??" The spark of hope I felt during The Dead Tossed Waves when I thought maaaybe they'd be able to use Catcher's immunity to save people flickered out as Carrie Ryan just sort of ran roughshod all over the remainder of humanity. 

This is why I can't watch The Walking Dead and why I am Legend scarred me for life. I just can't handle how bleak zombie stuff tends to be. And this one was BLEAK. Sure, it ends on a very small note of hope but it's not what I was hoping for.

Also, something that keeps bothering me- why are they not BURNING the zombies? Like they knew there was this huge valley full of downed zombies that could all awake and overtake the ONE big city left in the entire world...and they chose not to just start dropping all kinds of burning things down there from the bridge above? That seems short-sighted. 

Anyway, I loved the characters but I'm still a little annoyed at myself that I finished the series. I feel kind of depressed now.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Love Does by Bob Goff

From Goodreads:

Bob Goff has become something of a legend, and his friends consider him the world's best-kept secret. Those same friends have long insisted he write a book. What follows are paradigm shifts, musings, and stories from one of the world's most delightfully engaging and winsome people. What fuels his impact? Love. But it's not the kind of love that stops at thoughts and feelings. Bob's love takes action. Bob believes "Love Does."

When "Love Does," life gets interesting. Each day turns into a hilarious, whimsical, meaningful chance that makes faith simple and real. Each chapter is a story that forms a book, a life. And this is one life you don't want to miss.

Light and fun, unique and profound, the lessons drawn from Bob's life and attitude just might inspire you to be secretly incredible, too.

I picked this up because RA recommended it. I found a few parts a little slow but, for the most part, I felt really inspired. Goff is a great storyteller with some really fascinating life experiences behind him. He ties these experiences to how we can better do the work of God by being more kind, more loving, more willing to DO stuff.

The timing of reading this book was really interesting as I'm going through a bit of a faith journey myself, trying to work harder at just doing good things in Jesus' name rather than focusing so much on the the "fluff" and performances of organized religion. Goff validated my approach and made me feel good about the path I'm taking.

Two quotes that I wrote down early on (before I forgot about writing stuff down and just focused on reading)-

[Talking about his friend Randy] "He was committed to me and he believed in me. I wasn't a project; I was his friend. I wondered if maybe all Christians operated this way. I didn't think so, because most of them I had met up until that time were kind of wimpy and seemed to have more opinions about what or who they were against than who they were for."

"To me, Jesus sounded like an ordinary guy who was utterly amazing. He helped people. He figured out what they really needed and tried to point them toward that. He healed people who were hurting. He spent time with the kinds of people most of us spend our lives avoiding. It didn't seem to matter to Jesus who these people were because He was all about engagement." 

I just saw that RA recommended reading a section a day rather than reading all 31 sections straight. Now that I've finished the book I really wish I had taken that approach. It allows a little more space for pondering and implementation.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

The Dead-Tossed Waves by Carrie Ryan

From Goodreads:

Gabry lives a quiet life. As safe a life as is possible in a town trapped between a forest and the ocean, in a world teeming with the dead, who constantly hunger for those still living. She’s content on her side of the Barrier, happy to let her friends dream of the Dark City up the coast while she watches from the top of her lighthouse. But there are threats the Barrier cannot hold back. Threats like the secrets Gabry’s mother thought she left behind when she escaped from the Sisterhood and the Forest of Hands and Teeth. Like the cult of religious zealots who worship the dead. Like the stranger from the forest who seems to know Gabry. And suddenly, everything is changing. One reckless moment, and half of Gabry’s generation is dead, the other half imprisoned. Now Gabry only knows one thing: she must face the forest of her mother’s past in order to save herself and the one she loves.

It's been a good long while since I read The Forest of Hands and Teeth so I struggled a bit getting back into the story. It IS a sequel but you could read it independently of the first book. I half wonder if the first book was meant to stand alone but then did so well that she decided to continue the story. However, I remember The Forest of Hands and Teeth being beautiful, almost hauntingly written. The sequel lacks some of the poetry I found in the first. 

However, The Dead Tossed Waves offers something that was seriously lacking in the first book: hope. I closed the first book feeling so dark. Everyone died except Mary, who would then have to find her way in a different town surrounded by different walls, still never escaping the Unconsecrated. The end. Things go a bit differently in the sequel. There are still devastating deaths and dark realities but that tiny spark of hope makes such a big difference in the overall feel of the book. What it lacked in poetry it made up for with faith that eventually there might be happy endings in a terribly bleak world. 

It still gave me nightmares but I think I enjoyed it a bit more than the first.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Naked by David Sedaris

From Goodreads:

Welcome to the hilarious, strange, elegiac, outrageous world of David Sedaris. In Naked, Sedaris turns the mania for memoir on its ear, mining the exceedingly rich terrain of his life, his family, and his unique worldview-a sensibility at once take-no-prisoners sharp and deeply charitable. A tart-tongued mother does dead-on imitations of her young son's nervous tics, to the great amusement of his teachers; a stint of Kerouackian wandering is undertaken (of course!) with a quadriplegic companion; a family gathers for a wedding in the face of imminent death. Through it all is Sedaris's unmistakable voice, without doubt one of the freshest in American writing.

I always enjoy David Sedaris's writing. This one is a little darker than his normal fare, dealing with his compulsive tendencies as a child and his mother's lung cancer (at one point I was like, "I'm not sure this is supposed to be funny?") but his trademark wit is still there. I listened to the audio book version, which he always narrates his books himself. It helps a lot to have him reading his own writing, especially when dealing with the darker humor. He injects lightness into the writing that I'm not sure I would have picked up on if I was reading it on the page. 

Not my favorite of his but still worth the time. 

Bomb: The Race to Build- and Steal- the World's Most Dangerous Weapon

From Goodreads:

In December of 1938, a chemist in a German laboratory made a shocking discovery: When placed next to radioactive material, a Uranium atom split in two. That simple discovery launched a scientific race that spanned 3 continents. In Great Britain and the United States, Soviet spies worked their way into the scientific community; in Norway, a commando force slipped behind enemy lines to attack German heavy-water manufacturing; and deep in the desert, one brilliant group of scientists was hidden away at a remote site at Los Alamos. This is the story of the plotting, the risk-taking, the deceit, and genius that created the world's most formidable weapon. This is the story of the atomic bomb.

The timing of this book becoming available was kind of funny since I'm also in the middle of American Prometheus, a biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer. 

This book is so fantastically well researched and written. It makes the subject matter a bit more palatable but I still found myself fairly emotional when Sheinkin got to the bombing of Hiroshima. It's a horrifying period in our national history and the epilogue, which discusses the consequences of using today's significantly more powerful atomic weapons, was quite sobering. 

That being said, it's one of the best nonfiction books I've read in a long time.

The Bitter Kingdom by Rae Carson

From Goodreads:

The epic conclusion to Rae Carson's Fire and Thorns trilogy. The seventeen-year-old sorcerer-queen will travel into the unknown realm of the enemy to win back her true love, save her country, and uncover the final secrets of her destiny.

Elisa is a fugitive in her own country. Her enemies have stolen the man she loves in order to lure her to the gate of darkness. As she and her daring companions take one last quest into unknown enemy territory to save Hector, Elisa will face hardships she's never imagined. And she will discover secrets about herself and her world that could change the course of history. She must rise up as champion-a champion to those who have hated her most.

I'm in the middle of like 4 other books right now but when I got the notification that my hold for The Bitter Kingdom had become available I pushed the others to the side and got cracking.

Yet again Rae Carson weaves a fantastic adventure tale. Each time I read one of her books I think to myself, "Now THIS is writing! And plot! And structure!" So much YA stuff is fluffy to the extreme. This is not. Girl power abounds though at one point she admits that sometimes she DOES need saving and she allows someone to come to her rescue. I think that's a powerful message to the YA crowd...you should do your own saving as much as possible but sometimes it's ok to admit defeat and accept help.

I've loved this trilogy so much I'm a little sad it's over. BUT! The end was perfect. Elisa finally comes to the conclusion that her power has always come from within. That she is beautiful to herself and that is all that matters. The guy does get the girl in the end (yay!) but it's her own realizations about herself and her ability to lead 3 nations that makes the ending so satisfying.

Also, I know I make this sound like a crazy feminist series but it's not. That's just the stuff I pick up on after reading novels like Twilight and the Lux series. It's just nice to have a book I know I can recommend to my young women without worried their takeaway will be that they need to find a boyfriend.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

A Year of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans

From Goodreads:

Strong-willed and independent, Rachel Held Evans couldn't sew a button on a blouse before she embarked on a radical life experiment--a year of biblical womanhood. Intrigued by the traditionalist resurgence that led many of her friends to abandon their careers to assume traditional gender roles in the home, Evans decides to try it for herself, vowing to take all of the Bible's instructions for women as literally as possible for a year.

Someone mentioned on Facebook that the Kindle edition of this book was $2.99. I was in the middle of waiting for any one of my many holds to become available so I went and snapped it up.

Rachel (we're on a first name basis) alternates between silly and serious with ease. She talks about doing penance on her rooftop with a bit of a smirk then a few pages later talks seriously about the darker tales of women in the bible and now we must not forget them. She strikes a fine balance between reverence for the Bible and all that it represents for millions of people while also poking fun at some of it's outdated culturally based proclamations. This project could have gone very wrong (too religious, not religious enough) but she handled it so well. 

I particularly loved the story of her visit to Bolivia. I just finished Half the Sky myself so I knew exactly what she was feeling as she talked about wanting to DO something for our sisters around the world who are hurting, oppressed, and struggling. 

It also made me realize how crappy my knowledge of the Bible is. She referenced women and stories I am only vaguely familiar with, if at all. I should really make an effort this year to read the Bible, especially now that Rachel has given the stories such an interesting perspective!

Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Running Dream by Wendelin Van Draanen

From Goodreads:

Jessica thinks her life is over when she loses a leg in a car accident. She's not comforted by the news that she'll be able to walk with the help of a prosthetic leg. Who cares about walking when you live to run?

As she struggles to cope with crutches and a first cyborg-like prosthetic, Jessica feels oddly both in the spotlight and invisible. People who don't know what to say, act like she's not there. Which she could handle better if she weren't now keenly aware that she'd done the same thing herself to a girl with CP named Rosa. A girl who is going to tutor her through all the math she's missed. A girl who sees right into the heart of her.

With the support of family, friends, a coach, and her track teammates, Jessica may actually be able to run again. But that's not enough for her now. She doesn't just want to cross finish lines herself—she wants to take Rosa with her.

I read Wendelin Van Draanen's Flipped last year at the recommendation of one of my young women. It was cute, fluffy and fairly quick so when Janssen recommended The Running Dream I added it to my list as well. It's another quick, snappy kind of read but it's not nearly as fluffy. This one deals with some hard things. One of Jessica's teammates dies in the accident that takes her leg. Jessica is angry and depressed at first and adjusting to life without a leg isn't easy. She pulls herself together though and quickly learns to walk and then run again. There were times when I thought that her character arc from angry amputee to inspirational story was a little too easy but then I remembered that this is a YA book and I just rolled with it. I cried more times than I care to admit. One I'd absolutely recommend.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Crown of Embers by Rae Carson

From Goodreads:

In the sequel to the acclaimed The Girl of Fire and Thorns, a seventeen-year-old princess turned war queen faces sorcery, adventure, untold power, and romance as she fulfills her epic destiny.

Elisa is the hero of her country. She led her people to victory against a terrifying enemy, and now she is their queen. But she is only seventeen years old. Her rivals may have simply retreated, choosing stealth over battle. And no one within her court trusts her-except Hector, the commander of the royal guard, and her companions. As the country begins to crumble beneath her and her enemies emerge from the shadows, Elisa will take another journey. With a one-eyed warrior, a loyal friend, an enemy defector, and the man she is falling in love with, Elisa crosses the ocean in search of the perilous, uncharted, and mythical source of the Godstone's power. That is not all she finds. A breathtaking, romantic, and dangerous second volume in the Fire and Thorns trilogy.

So often the second book in a trilogy is the weakest link, a filler book that barely advances the story. Crown of Embers escaped that fate and, if possible, I enjoyed it even more than I did The Girl of Fire and Thorns. Elisa continues to grow, to find her own power, to take charge of her own life in the midst of her crumbling kingdom. 

While reading both books I find myself thinking, "This author is so good." The characters and conflicts are complex, with no obvious or easy out. There are sacrifices and betrayals and people who think what they are doing is for the best but is really not helping at all. This is the kind of fiction that sucks you in, beats you up and spits you out wanting more. 

I'm #5 on the list for book 3. BRING IT ON.

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

From Goodreads:

The most successful may not be the smartest or hardest working. Shift rather to where they are from. What is their culture, family, generation, and the idiosyncratic experiences of their upbringing? Where and when were they born? From Asian maths students to the British Beatles, stereotypes can be addressed through different eyes.

I'm very much a fiction fan and it's rare that I find a nonfiction book riveting but I couldn't put Outliers down. I ended up telling Aaron about it almost every chance I got because it was so darn fascinating and I was sure he would think so too. It was interesting to find applications to people I know as well. I know more than one person who, by all accounts, SHOULD be doing ridiculously well. They've got the education and work ethic and everything else that should add up to serious success story but, due to factors outside their control, they can't seem to catch a break. Whereas there are others in my life who are incredibly successful due to a lot of the factors that Gladwell talks about. So so interesting.

Friday, January 10, 2014

End of Days: The Assassination of John F. Kennedy by James Swanson

From Goodreads:

In End of Days, James L. Swanson, the New York Times bestselling author of Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer, brings to life the minute-by-minute details of the JFK assassination—from the Kennedys' arrival in Texas through the shooting in Dealey Plaza and the shocking aftermath that continues to reverberate in our national consciousness fifty years later.

The assassination of John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, has been the subject of enduring debate, speculation, and numerous conspiracy theories, but Swanson's absorbing and complete account follows the event hour-by-hour, from the moment Lee Harvey Oswald conceived of the crime three days before its execution, to his own murder two days later at a Dallas Police precinct at the hands of Jack Ruby, a two-bit nightclub owner.

Based on sweeping research never before collected so powerfully in a single volume, and illustrated with photographs, End of Days distills Kennedy's assassination into a pulse-pounding thriller that is sure to become the definitive popular account of this historic crime for years to come.

I have been a fan of James Swanson since seeing him speak a few years ago at the National Book Festival in Washington DC. I devoured his book about the assassination of Lincoln and was really stoked to read this one about JFK, a story I don't know all that much about.

However, I found most of this book rather disappointing. It was overly long, needlessly dramatic for the first half (the story itself has plenty of drama on its own without practically adding an implied "dun dun DUN!" after every paragraph). Things got much better about halfway through, though. His coverage of the actual shooting and immediate aftermath was heartrending (I bawled as he described Jackie's refusal to let go of her husband's body). His writing of the scene where Lyndon Johnson took the oath of the president aboard Air Force One was poignant and befitting the solemn occasion. 

The thing I came away with at the end was that Jackie is the real hero of this story. Her strength and poise through an extremely difficult time was incredibly inspiring. 

This book definitely had its difficulties (he devoted an entire page to "what ifs." Really?) but it redeemed itself in the end and I'm glad I persevered.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Son of Neptune by Rick Riordan

From Goodreads:

Percy is confused. When he awoke from his long sleep, he didn't know much more than his name. His brain fuzz is lingering, even after the wolf Lupa told him he is a demigod and trained him to fight with the pen/sword in his pocket. Somehow Percy manages to make it to a camp for half-bloods, despite the fact that he has to keep killing monsters along the way. But the camp doesn't ring any bells with him. The only thing he can recall from his past is another name: Annabeth

Hazel is supposed to be dead. When she lived before, she didn't do a very good job of it. Sure, she was an obedient daughter, even when her mother was possessed by greed. But that was the problem — when the Voice took over her mother and commanded Hazel to use her "gift" for an evil purpose, Hazel couldn't say no. Now because of her mistake, the future of the world is at risk. Hazel wished she could ride away from it all on the stallion that appears in her dreams.

Frank is a klutz. His grandmother says he is descended from heroes and can be anything he wants to be, but he doesn't see it. He doesn't even know who his father is. He keeps hoping Apollo will claim him, because the only thing he is good at is archery — although not good enough to win camp war games. His bulky physique makes him feel like an ox, especially infront of Hazel, his closest friend at camp. He trusts her completely — enough to share the secret he holds close to his heart.

Beginning at the "other" camp for half-bloods and extending as far as the land beyond the gods, this breathtaking second installment of the Heroes of Olympus series introduces new demigods, revives fearsome monsters, and features other remarkable creatures, all destined to play a part in the Prophesy of Seven.

We found Percy! Something about having Percy at the center of the story brings out Riordan's sense of humor because I found myself cackling quite frequently, much more than I did in the previous book. Such a great mix of humor, history, action and adventure. The new characters that have been introduced in this series are all fantastic. They have a lot on the line and they're often the underdogs but they always come through, willing to sacrifice in order to defeat evil.

Also, I mentioned this in my last post, but the narrator is SO fantastic. He does great voices and he's so gleeful about everything that you can't help getting swept along.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Onyx (Lux #2) by Jennifer L. Armentrout

From Goodreads:

Being connected to Daemon Black sucks…

Thanks to his alien mojo, Daemon’s determined to prove what he feels for me is more than a product of our bizarro connection. So I’ve sworn him off, even though he’s running more hot than cold these days. But we’ve got bigger problems.

Something worse than the Arum has come to town…

The Department of Defense are here. If they ever find out what Daemon can do and that we're linked, I’m a goner. So is he. And there's this new boy in school who’s got a secret of his own. He knows what’s happened to me and he can help, but to do so, I have to lie to Daemon and stay away from him. Like that's possible. Against all common sense, I'm falling for Daemon. Hard.

But then everything changes…

I’ve seen someone who shouldn’t be alive. And I have to tell Daemon, even though I know he’s never going to stop searching until he gets the truth. What happened to his brother? Who betrayed him? And what does the DOD want from them—from me?

No one is who they seem. And not everyone will survive the lies…

This is the second book in the Lux series, after Obsidian, which I read last week. It still wouldn't stand a snowball's chance in hell of passing the Bechdel test BUT I found the government conspiracy angle markedly more interesting and enjoyed this book more than the first. It helps that it pulled a Twilight move by making the girl LESS of a helpless wimp via power transference. I'll take what I can get. Also, I will admit that I love that Katy is a book blogger. Bless her heart.

I think that I will like the 3rd book even more. I suspect they'll be breaking into government buildings trying to bust people out next and that sounds like something I can get behind. I'm sticking with it.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill by Jessica Stern

From Goodreads:

For four years, Jessica Stern interviewed extremist members of three religions around the world: Christians, Jews, and Muslims. Traveling extensively to refugee camps in Lebanon, to religious schools in Pakistan, to prisons in Amman, Asqelon, and Pensacola she discovered that the Islamic jihadi in the mountains of Pakistan and the Christian fundamentalist bomber in Oklahoma have much in common.

Based on her vast research, Stern lucidly explains how terrorist organizations are formed by opportunistic leaders using religion as both motivation and justification to recruit the disenfranchised. She depicts how moral fervor is transformed into sophisticated organizations that strive for money, power, and attention.
Jessica Stern's extensive interaction with the faces behind the terror provide unprecedented insight into acts of inexplicable horror, and enable her to suggest how terrorism can most effectively be countered.

A crucial book on terrorism, Terror in the Name of God is a brilliant and thought-provoking work.

This audiobook was an impulse download when it showed up as a result for a completely unrelated library search. I desperately needed a new audiobook to get me through dinner prep and a quick peek at Goodreads showed that it was probably worth a listen.

This book was a perfect follow-up to Half the Sky, which I finished a few days ago. One of the things that really stood out to me was that parents in poor Middle Eastern and south Asian countries don't have state sponsored free schooling available to their children. In fact, social services of any kind are pretty much nonexistent. Militant groups often educate children and provide room and board for free. They may even provide health care as well, something that they would not otherwise have access to.

One of the terrorists Stern interviewed also bemoaned the American policy of interventionism and I actually found myself nodding in agreement. My brother wrote a paper about the USA's history of interventionism last year for a college class and it was deeply unflattering. Between his paper, Half the Sky and this book I really think the US would be better served by building schools and improving healthcare in the developing world rather than meddling in international affairs. You catch more flies with honey than vinegar, you know?

Anyway, this is a rather quick (only took a few hours listening on double speed) and super illuminating read.

The Lost Hero by Rick Riordan

From Goodreads:

Jason has a problem.
He doesn't remember anything before waking up on a school bus holding hands with a girl. Apparently he has a girlfriend named Piper. His best friend is a kid named Leo, and they're all students in the Wilderness School, a boarding school for "bad kids", as Leo puts it. What he did to end up here, Jason has no idea—except that everything seems very wrong.

Piper has a secret.
Her father, a famous actor, has been missing for three days, and her vivid nightmares reveal that he's in terrible danger. Now her boyfriend doesn't recognize her, and when a freak storm and strange creatures attack during a school field trip, she, Jason, and Leo are whisked away to someplace called Camp Half-Blood. What is going on?

Leo has a way with tools.
His new cabin at Camp Half-Blood is filled with them. Seriously, the place beats Wilderness School hands down, with its weapons training, monsters, and fine-looking girls. What's troubling is the curse everyone keeps talking about, and that a camper's gone missing. Weirdest of all, his bunkmates insist they are all—including Leo—related to a god.

Oh how I love Rick Riordan and his fantastic adventure filled books! Erica recommended The Lost Hero to me as a good audiobook option and she was, as usual, giving me a good suggestion. The narrator can make or break a book and this one was fantastic. Which is funny because I feel like the first time I ever felt really attached to a narrator was the guy who narrated the Percy Jackson books (another Riordan series). So whoever is in charge of picking Riordan narrators is doing an excellent job and deserves a good pat on the head.

The formula here is familiar- demigods unaware of their origins finding out who their divine parents are and getting introduce to Camp Half Blood. It's a continuation of the Percy Jackson universe (except Percy has gone missing! Gasp!) and a fine addition at that. I always start by thinking, "I can't WAIT for my boys to be old enough to read these!" and then I forget about my boys and continue onward because I'M enjoying the story so thoroughly. I do have a minor complaint with The Lost Hero- I got kind of confused about their quest. They were all over the place geographically often with only a wisp of a plan and I kind of felt like maybe Riordan didn't know the end when he started and sort of stumbled upon it halfway through and just made it work. The book feels a bit more cobbled than its predecessors. It doesn't make it significantly less enjoyable though, and I've already put a hold on book 2.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Tell the Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

From Goodreads:

1987. There’s only one person who has ever truly understood fourteen-year-old June Elbus, and that’s her uncle, the renowned painter Finn Weiss. Shy at school and distant from her older sister, June can only be herself in Finn’s company; he is her godfather, confidant, and best friend. So when he dies, far too young, of a mysterious illness her mother can barely speak about, June’s world is turned upside down. But Finn’s death brings a surprise acquaintance into June’s life—someone who will help her to heal, and to question what she thinks she knows about Finn, her family, and even her own heart.

At Finn’s funeral, June notices a strange man lingering just beyond the crowd. A few days later, she receives a package in the mail. Inside is a beautiful teapot she recognizes from Finn’s apartment, and a note from Toby, the stranger, asking for an opportunity to meet. As the two begin to spend time together, June realizes she’s not the only one who misses Finn, and if she can bring herself to trust this unexpected friend, he just might be the one she needs the most.

Oy. RA has mentioned Tell the Wolves I'm Home several times in blog posts and on Twitter so I knew I was in for something deep and difficult but wonderful, but I wasn't really prepared. There were some parallels in this book that made it deeply personal to me. I, too, have a gay uncle that I adore. He mercifully made it through the past 4 decades without contracting HIV or AIDS but he has lost friends to it and it's a subject I always associate with him because I think he's one of the few people I've ever even had an open conversation with about AIDS.

I also just happened to be reading this book while the Supreme Court put a pause on same-sex marriage in Utah. Knowing my wonderful uncle and then reading about Finn and Toby...I got really angry. I've called the state of Utah an asshole more times than I care to admit today. But seriously, if more people knew my uncle and people like Toby and Finn then we wouldn't be having this whole awful debate. There would be a lot more love and a lot less ignorance.

Politics aside, it's so hard to write about something that's this well done. It was such a wonderful coming-of-age story about love and loss and sisters and friends and family and gah, it's just so beautiful and also I feel like I've been punched in the face. So you should probably read it.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Half the Sky by Nicholas D. Kristof & Sherul Wudunn

From Goodreads:

From two of our most fiercely moral voices, a passionate call to arms against our era’s most pervasive human rights violation: the oppression of women and girls in the developing world.

With Pulitzer Prize winners Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn as our guides, we undertake an odyssey through Africa and Asia to meet the extraordinary women struggling there, among them a Cambodian teenager sold into sex slavery and an Ethiopian woman who suffered devastating injuries in childbirth. Drawing on the breadth of their combined reporting experience, Kristof and WuDunn depict our world with anger, sadness, clarity, and, ultimately, hope.


I asked Erica if she had read this one and she said she replied that she had finished it a few months ago. And then, "I was about to quit my job and go work abroad after reading that." And even though I was only 1/3 of the way through at that point I was like ME TOO. I had just finished telling Aaron that I need to go to back to college and then medical school so I could become a doctor and then move to Sub Saharan Africa in order to serve the poor women there.

So let's just say this book touches a nerve.

As I read snippets to Aaron he said, "WHY are you reading this book? It's awful!" The book itself isn't awful, but the realities it lays at your door are. The truth of the matter is that while I comfortably lay reading under the electric blanket of my clean, modern house with two healthy children there are women all over the world who CAN'T read, who are dying in child birth, being forced into marriages at absurdly young ages, being sold into the sex trade, being burned by their family as a punishment for something they may or may not have done, and worse. There are women suffering from lack of health care while I celebrate the 6th birthday of a son who survived only because I was being monitored twice a week after one of my many routine prenatal check-ups showed there was a problem.

The book frequently paints a very bleak picture but then, mercifully, talks about the people who are doing something about these horrific circumstances. And THAT'S why Erica and I suddenly felt called to move abroad. There are amazing people doing amazing things for the world's neediest and most under served populations. And those people make me feel like I'm not doing enough with my life. I'm probably going to have to add "Build a school in the developing world" to my bucket list.

The last chapter includes four things you can do to make a difference and you better believe as soon as I got my emotions under control I immediately jumped on my computer and did all of them.


Dad is Fat by Jim Gaffigan

From Goodreads:

In Dad is Fat, stand-up comedian Jim Gaffigan, who’s best known for his legendary riffs on Hot Pockets, bacon, manatees, and McDonald's, expresses all the joys and horrors of life with five young children—everything from cousins ("celebrities for little kids") to toddlers’ communication skills (“they always sound like they have traveled by horseback for hours to deliver important news”), to the eating habits of four year olds (“there is no difference between a four year old eating a taco and throwing a taco on the floor”). Reminiscent of Bill Cosby’s Fatherhood, Dad is Fat is sharply observed, explosively funny, and a cry for help from a man who has realized he and his wife are outnumbered in their own home.

Aaron and I saw Jim Gaffigan a few months ago with some friends and my face hurt so bad afterward from smiling and laughing that hard for so long.

I didn't find myself laughing quite so much while reading Dad is Fat but, more frequently, made a "true that!" face while nodding my head. The humor is definitely still there but it felt more like sharp, clever observation than the stand-up comedy I'm used to from him. He also had a lot of surprisingly sweet moments in talking about how much he loves his children and how amazing he thinks his wife, Jeannie, is. Absolutely worth listening to (especially because he reads the audiobook himself)!

Saturday, January 4, 2014

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater

From Goodreads:

It happens at the start of every November: the Scorpio Races. Riders attempt to keep hold of their water horses long enough to make it to the finish line. Some riders live. Others die.

At age nineteen, Sean Kendrick is the returning champion. He is a young man of few words, and if he has any fears, he keeps them buried deep, where no one else can see them.

Puck Connolly is different. She never meant to ride in the Scorpio Races. But fate hasn’t given her much of a chance. So she enters the competition — the first girl ever to do so. She is in no way prepared for what is going to happen.

I listened to the audiobook version over two days while cleaning and cooking and that sort of nonsense. It made the brainless housework infinitely more enjoyable. I loved the narrators (lovely accents) and didn't get hung up on the mythology like I know some readers did.

The one thing I kept getting hung up on, though, was Puck's reasoning for entering the race in the first place. Her brother says he's going to leave the island so, to buy MINIMAL EXTRA TIME, she enters a deadly horse race. Yeah, I'm not buying it. The rest of the time she had a much better head on her shoulders and I don't see her making such an illogical decision. When losing the house came into play it made much more sense but it still bothered me.

Unbelievable character decision aside, I thought this book was well written with excellent characters and a fun bit of magical realism.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson

From GoodReads:

Once a century, one person is chosen for greatness.
Elisa is the chosen one.

But she is also the younger of two princesses, the one who has never done anything remarkable. She can't see how she ever will.

Now, on her sixteenth birthday, she has become the secret wife of a handsome and worldly king—a king whose country is in turmoil. A king who needs the chosen one, not a failure of a princess.

And he's not the only one who seeks her. Savage enemies seething with dark magic are hunting her. A daring, determined revolutionary thinks she could be his people's savior. And he looks at her in a way that no man has ever looked at her before. Soon it is not just her life, but her very heart that is at stake.

Elisa could be everything to those who need her most. If the prophecy is fulfilled. If she finds the power deep within herself. If she doesn’t die young.

Most of the chosen do.

I read this directly on the heels of Obsidian which made it difficult not to compare the two. Both are YA novels with female protagonists and some elements of the supernatural. However, while Obsidian was much like a shallow play pool, The Girl of Fire and Thorns is more like a great lake complete with character growth, strong female characters and depth of plot.

Elisa, the heroine, goes from a soft, naive princess to a queenly, confident leader of her country. And she does it by saving herself and others time and again, not by relying on the arm of a flawless love interest to save her. There ARE love interests, of course (3 of them!) but they are imperfect, human and more of a side note to Elisa's story rather than the focus of it. I realized halfway through that I didn't particularly care who she does or doesn't end up with. I'm just on Team Elisa and that's what matters.

Also, I appreciated that this book didn't end on a cliffhanger. Series authors so often feel the need to leave readers hanging on the edge of their seats by their fingernails but this one wrapped up nicely so that you could easily read just the one and feel happy with the story. If, however, you fell in love with the characters and the world that Rae Carson created, you may continue onward.

I'm third in line at the library for Book 2. READ FASTER PEOPLE.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Obsidian by Jennifer L. Armentrout (Lux #1)

From GoodReads:

Starting over sucks.

When we moved to West Virginia right before my senior year, I'd pretty much resigned myself to thick accents, dodgy internet access, and a whole lot of boring.... until I spotted my hot neighbor, with his looming height and eerie green eyes. Things were looking up.

And then he opened his mouth.

Daemon is infuriating. Arrogant. Stab-worthy. We do not get along. At all. But when a stranger attacks me and Daemon literally freezes time with a wave of his hand, well, something...unexpected happens.

The hot alien living next door marks me.

You heard me. Alien. Turns out Daemon and his sister have a galaxy of enemies wanting to steal their abilities, and Daemon's touch has me lit up like the Vegas Strip. The only way I'm getting out of this alive is by sticking close to Daemon until my alien mojo fades.

If I don't kill him first, that is.

My sister has mentioned this one to me several times but we both ended up confused because I thought she was talking about the LUXE series and had never heard of the LUX series. They are quite different, as it turns out.

As far as YA novels go this one fits right in. Superhuman super-hot boy in love with a normal oh-gee-what-does-he-see-in-me girl. Despite the fact that I've read some version of this book approximately 18 million times already that didn't stop me from devouring it in one day. This is a sad commentary on the triteness of my brain, I'm sure.

The story is fine, the alien element is new, the protagonist mercifully has a brain of her own despite the fact that she is in CONSTANT need of saving.

Here's my big beef: the author wrote in a fantastic extraterrestrial female friend for the protagonist but then made her weak and borderline useless while her brother is almost godlike in his strength and abilities. I would have LOVED this book to be about two girl friends working together to overcome their individual weaknesses and prejudices to fight evil. The romance could have been a delicious little footnote (because I do need SOME romance). Instead we have yet another YA novel teaching girls that they are nothing (possibly even RAPED AND DEAD) without a guy to love and protect them. My inner feminist is shaking her head in sad disappointment. This book would not pass the Bechdel test even though the author laid a kind of groundwork that should have gotten it there. 

Feminist annoyance aside, I will probably finish out the series. Because of my trite, sappy, unfeministy brain. Curse you, Brain.