Summer Book Review Roundup

So. I had a baby, summer happened, and I fell behind on book reviews. But not behind on reading! I'm actually far ahead of my reading goal for 2018 . . . which is ironic since I purposely planned to read less this year.  

The bad news is that I've been less than impressed with some of my book choices in recent months, mostly because I loosened my grip on my deep reading plans while I was in the newborn haze. Not every book I've read this summer deserves a full review. Instead, we're going with a star rating and a one-sentence review to keep things quick while I take us through every book I read from May through August. 


May

This month found me with a weeks-old baby, deep in the throes of sleep deprivation. My reading this month was driven by ebooks I'd purchased on sale for easy one-handed reading while nursing a baby, and much-awaited library books that finally came in. 

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

Deep reading category: Outstanding writing

Star rating: 5 stars

"Unrepentant aristocrat" Alexander Rostov is sentenced to a life of house arrest in 1922, and readers are given the delightful treat of following his life in the ever-changing Metropol hotel. I'm already breaking my one-sentence rule so I can tell you that this book is amazing and you won't regret reading it.

The Tech-Wise Family by Andy Crouch

Deep reading category: Teaches me something specific

Star rating: 4 stars

A short read that lays out practical (if somewhat aspirational) suggestions for parents looking to manage their family's technology use; I especially appreciated the Christian perspective.

The Coincidence of Coconut Cake by Amy E. Reichert

Deep reading category: None

Star rating: 1 star

Predictable and fluffy, this book didn't nearly live up to the hype and actually made me feel dumber than I was when I started it. 

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

Deep reading category: Outstanding writing

Star rating: 5 stars

Backman once again hits it out of the park with a well-written novel that had me laughing and crying—often on the same page—thanks to an endearing title character that reminds me of my husband.

June

June was marked by my return to work after maternity leave and a serious decrease in reading. As per usual, it took me a while to find my new work rhythm after adding another tiny person to the family. The two books I read this month took me week to get through, and I owe the fact that I read anything at all to library holds coming in.

Us Against You by Fredrik Backman

Deep reading category: Outstanding writing

Star rating: 4 stars

The second in a trilogy, Us Against You made an impressive follow-up to Beartown, though it isn't my favorite of Backman's work.

That Kind of Mother by Rumaan Alam

Deep reading category: Outstanding writing

Star rating: 4.5 stars

That Kind of Mother is a literary novel that's not too weighty, even though it tackles issues like racism; I was especially impressed by how well the male author captured the reality of early motherhood.

July

This month came with a trip to the cabin that resulted in tons of extra reading time. I enjoyed the new reading pace, but I let my choices skew too far toward nonfiction for summer.

Rumors of Water by L. L. Barkat

Deep reading category: Outstanding writing

Star rating: 5 stars

These essays on creativity and motherhood were given to me by my podcast cohost,  and she was absolutely right about how much I'd love them.

The Path Between Us by Suzanne Stabile

Deep reading category: Teaches me something specific

Star rating: 5 stars

I carried on in my personality framework obsession with this book, which applies the wisdom of the Enneagram to relationships, interactions, and communication with others. 

The Middle Place by Kelly Corrigan

Deep reading category: None

Star rating: 2 stars

I have respect for this memoir about a father and daughter battling cancer at the same time, but the writing and the author's personality weren't my cup of tea.

Off the Clock: Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done by Laura Vanderkam

Deep reading category: Teaches me something specific

Star rating: 5 stars

Time-tracking expert Laura Vanderkam is back with an excellent read on being mindful with your time, being present to your own life, and avoiding the trap of feeling busy even when you're not.

The Selection by Kiera Cass

Deep reading category: None

Star rating: 3 stars

The first in a dystopian YA series, this novel is like The Bachelor meets The Hunger Games—nothing groundbreaking, but a good summer read that has me interested enough to return to the sequel someday.

August

August started off with a plague upon our house (hand, foot, and mouth virus) that set me back on work and other projects all month long. I let my incoming library holds dictate my reading habits yet again, mostly because I didn't have time to be more intentional with my choices without letting my library books go overdue or unread.

One Beautiful Dream by Jennifer Fulwiler

Deep reading category: None

Star rating: 4 stars

I took issue with some of the writing and pacing, but overall I gleaned some timely lessons from this memoir by a Catholic blogger who balances her six kids with her writing and radio career.

The Ensemble by Aja Gabel

Deep reading category: Outstanding writing

Star rating: 4 stars

The pacing was slow at times, but it's impossible to overstate how gorgeous the writing is in this incredibly well-crafted novel about the members of a string quartet.

I'd Rather Be Reading by Anne Bogel

Deep reading category: None

Star rating: 4 stars

This collection of essays spoke right to my book-loving heart, from confessing literary sins (purposely keeping library books past their due date because you just HAVE to finish them, anyone?) to the magic of the right book finding you at the right time. I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

Soul Keeping by John Ortberg

Deep reading category: Teaches me something specific

Star rating: 3 stars

The content of this Christian book was pretty good on a topic that's not discussed often enough, but it was a classic case of the wrong book at the wrong time (as evidenced by the three months it took me to read it).


I'm dissatisfied with my reading life lately—I haven't quite been reading what I want to. My goal is to read only four- and five-star books. Idealistic? Maybe. I didn't fall too far short of that this summer, but the handful of not-great books were SO not-great that I feel like they dragged down my overall perception of my summer reading choices.

As I head into fall, I want to be more intentional with the books I pick up so I can make the most of my reading time. Maybe I'll even take a library hiatus so I can work through the backlog of books I own and haven't read yet.

In the meantime, stop by the comments and tell me the best book you've read this summer!

Speaking Books into Life

I used to read out loud to my mom. I was ten, or maybe twelve. The Harry Potter books had become an obsession for me. Was Snape good or bad? Could Dumbledore keep everyone safe now that Voldemort had returned? Would Harry beat Malfoy in the next Quidditch match? These were the questions that consumed my brain, and I had no one to discuss them with.

My mom isn't much of a reader. Despite my badgering, I could never get her on board with reading thousands of pages of books meant for children. So when she was trapped in the car with me, usually on our way to my grandma's house for coffee each Sunday morning, I'd read them to her. 

She liked them. Loved them, actually. Soon every Target run was a chance to squeeze in a few more pages. I started doing voices and speaking in a British accent. (My utter lack of theater skills mean this was every bit as embarrassing as it sounds.) 

I introduced my mom to the magic of Harry one 10-minute car ride at a time. I had successfully shared a story that mattered to me with someone else, and I was ecstatic. 


I can't remember how many books we got through before I stopped reading to her. Did we quit after the massive tome that was Goblet of Fire? Did the ritual end once I got my first boyfriend and started riding everywhere in the passenger seat of his Chevy Cavalier instead of with my parents? Deathly Hallows came out when I was 17, and I'm sure I wasn't still reading out loud by then. 

Did my mom finish the books on her own, waiting until I had raced through each new release in less than a day so she could borrow my copy? Or did she just watch the movies once I stopped reading out loud? 

The details I can't remember are startling. I'm not even 30. This wasn't that long ago. But up until a few years ago, I'd forgotten that we used to read Harry together at all. 

Then my oldest daughter, Hadley, was born. Everyone tells you that reading to babies is good for them, but babies don't have much of an opinion about which books you pick. I took full advantage of this.

We were a few chapters into Sorcerer's Stone when I started having deja vu. Had I done this before? By the end of the first book, I remembered my car readings with my mom. By book two, my non-reader husband was listening in. I was once again sharing the story with someone who would otherwise never have known its magic.


Hadley is nearly four now, and old enough to be freaked out by things like an evil giant snake living in school walls. We made it through Goblet of Fire and her first 18 months of life before I decided it was time to shelve Harry for the time being. 

Now there are the Dr. Seuss books to hold her attention with their neverending rhymes, and Go Dog, Go with that horribly rude yellow dog who never likes the poor poodle's hat. Hadley has opinions about her books now, and the ones she most wants to hear are often the most tedious to read. 

It's hard to bond over phonics and early-reader books. I want to share a story with my kids. But stories, real stories, seem to be in a short supply for the under-five crowd. So I do what I've always done, ever since I was a 12-year-old tearing through Gone with the Wind and tackling my first Kingsolver: I read up to them.

The trick is to find books with pictures and a good story. Not too long—attention spans are still short. Hidden messages and strong values are always a plus, as are gorgeous illustrations. These books will likely have tearable pages and dust jackets, and the two-year-old will gradually destroy them. But that's okay; the story is just as good with some tattered edges. 

These books have been hard to come by. Bloom is one, What Do You Do with an Idea? another. And now there's a new addition to our bedtime rotation, another worthwhile story to fit in between sessions of Cat in the Hat.

The Golden Dress by L. L. Barkat checks all the boxes for me.

There's whimsy and magic, a beautiful dress any girl would adore brought to life with illustrations so gorgeous, I can't even put words to them. There's a truth-telling raven I'll 100% be using as a gateway into Poe someday. There's a dedication to all those who love fairy tales, which had me sold before I even got past the title page. There's an impressive use of vocabulary, which I appreciate in kids' books because it encourages research and curiosity. (I had to look up the word lissome, myself.)

And most of all, there's a mother and her daughter. A mother's heart laid bare in the seams of a dress, a daughter's slow understanding. This isn't a book that teaches manners or how to use the potty or a million other important little lessons we beat into our children's heads day and night.

The Golden Dress accomplishes something far more difficult: it's a story that shines truth.

I have read to my mother. Now I read to my daughters and, when he's older, my son. With every word I'm speaking stories into life, hoping that with enough rereads, the most important of our bedtime stories will stick in a beloved childhood memory somewhere. 

And if they don't stick, if they fade and wear away like mine almost did, maybe those words I read over and over again will have stacked up, layer upon layer, into the sturdy foundation that makes a child into a lover of stories.

 I received a free copy of The Golden Dress from the publisher in exchange for my honest review. 

April Book Report

April had all the things: Last-minute client work! Another round of colds for the kids! A historic blizzard! A new baby! 

Those last two things happened in the same weekend. Baby Conlin arrived happy and healthy a week early on Friday the 13th, just as the blizzard was turning from freezing rain into snow. I was also a spring snowstorm baby, so it's basically a family tradition now! Conlin and his big sisters are all doing well, and I'm adjusting better to baby #3 than I have during any other postpartum season. 

That's probably why my reading didn't dip too much, even with a new baby on the scene. Which book did I love, which books were meh, and which book didn't I finish? Right this way to the April book report! 

This post contains affiliate links.

The Road Back to You by Ian Morgan Cron and Suzanne Stabile

 

Deep reading category: Makes me think; teaches me something specific

Star rating: 5 stars

I'm a huge personality framework nerd (you can get all the details on that in this Chasing Creative episode about personality and creativity). The typing system I'm getting the most out of these days is hands down the Enneagram. Because the Enneagram has been around for thousands of years and is steeped in spiritual tradition, it's an incredible tool for not only becoming more self-aware but for actually doing something about the way we see the world and interact with other people.

Unfortunately, that rich history also means the Enneagram is complicated. That's where The Road Back to You comes in. It's not the first Enneagram book I've loved, but it is the best starting point I've found for anyone who wants to dip their toe into the Enneagram without getting totally overwhelmed. The authors do an excellent job at connecting each type with anecdotes about actual people so you can see each type in action. Another highlight is the lists at the beginning and end of each chapter to help you identify your type and begin moving toward a healthier version of yourself.

Bottom line: It's a must-read for personality geeks or those interested in self-improvement or spiritual transformation. You can also listen to the authors' podcast to get a feel for the Enneagram before diving into the book.

The Turner House by Angela Flournoy

Deep reading category: Makes me think; has outstanding writing

Star rating: 3 stars

The house on Yarrow Street has seen the Turner's thirteen children raised and grown. But after fifty years as the Turners' residence, the house is now worth far less than its mortgage thanks to the declining Detroit housing market. With the family matriarch in failing health and each of the Turner children facing problems of their own, the family has to make a hard decision about the future of the home, even as it brings up painful memories of the past.

This is one of those literary fiction books that doesn't feel too high-brow. It's easily readable and incredibly well written; I especially appreciated the realistic dialogue and complex family dynamics. The description may focus on the house's upside-down mortgage, but that's just the framework for the real point of the story: the way various characters have carried their pasts with them into the future, and the impact of racial disparity on the entire city of Detroit. 

Bottom line: Despite such good qualities, The Turner House was a slow read that I never felt like I HAD to finish. I struggled to power through it, especially with my mind distracted by little things like my impending labor.

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

Deep reading category: Outstanding writing

Star rating: N/A, did not finish

The summer of 1969 begins as boring as any other---until the four Gold children hear a rumor that a psychic has come to town. Even better, she can tell anyone the date of their death. Curiosity gets the best of the siblings, and they each spend the remainder of their lives holding her predictions in their minds as they try to spend their days well.

This new release has gotten a lot of buzz and good reviews, so I was excited to see if it lived up to expectations. Unfortunately, it did not. After the opening scene, the book follows each sibling individually until the date of his or her death. I only made it through the first two before giving up. The writing was well done, but I didn't particularly like any of the characters or the choices they were making. There was also some sexually explicit content I didn't think needed to be there. (As Modern Mrs. Darcy would say, the book needed an 8-line edit.) 

Bottom line: Despite the theme of self-fulfilling prophecies, which always intrigues me, I'm voting hard pass on this one.

Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum

Deep reading category: N/A, pure fluff

Star rating: 3 stars

Jessie's life isn't exactly stellar after her mom dies, but when her dad drags her across the country to live in Los Angeles after he elopes with a near-stranger less than two years later . . . well, let's just say she's less than excited for junior year at her new prep school. Just when Jessie is sure she'll never fit in, she gets an anonymous email from Somebody/Nobody offering to be her spirit guide to Wood Valley High. It isn't long before she's falling for her anonymous friend. But is SN really who she thinks he is? 

I give myself a few exceptions to my deep reading aspirations, and the months after having a baby are one of them. This YA novel was unadulterated fluff, perfect for nursing a baby in the middle of the night. There was a lot to love about Tell Me Three Things. It could easily have been a five-star book if it weren't for a few downsides: 

  1. Jessie constantly makes negative comments about her appearance, including everything from her weight to her acne. Normal portrayal of teenage insecurity is okay with me, but a never-ending stream of unflattering self-talk that doesn't end until a guy tells her she's beautiful? Not cool.
  2. The whole premise of this book was the mystery of SN's real identity (which was pretty predictable from the start). I wasn't exactly on pins and needles waiting to find out who SN was, so it was disappointing when the book ended almost immediately after the two meet in person. I would've liked the meeting to be a little earlier so readers actually got to see their relationship develop beyond the screen.

Bottom line: Not bad as far as fluff goes, but it's nowhere near some of my favorite YA reads.

What are your favorite fluff books?

Let me know in the comments! I'll need a few more to get me through these hazy postpartum days. And of course, summer is the best time for fluff. :)

Catch up on what else I've been reading this year in my past book reports.

March Book Report

March brought with it another round of colds for the whole family and way too many sleep deprived nights. The only upside was afternoons spent reading because it's the only thing I could muster up enough energy for! 

This month was heavier on nonfiction, both because of library holds coming in and because I know my time for concentrated reading is running short. I'm secretly looking forward to the excuse to read fluffier books once the new baby is here, but it's been good to knock a few more deep reads off my list first.

I'm focusing this year on reading with more intention and focus rather than gravitating toward what everyone else is reading. As always, you can check out my criteria for "deep reads" in this post, and you can catch up on past 2018 book reports here.

This post contains affiliate links.

Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work by Chip and Dan Heath

 

Deep reading category: Teaches me something specific

Star rating: Four stars

Decision-making has always been tricky for me. I'm very close to straddling the line between Judging and Perceiving on the MBTI (P wins out, but only barely). That means I like decisions made relatively quickly, and I hate the stress of drawing out a decision . . . but I also like to explore all my options to make sure I'm making the best decision, which takes time. Combine that with my strong Feeling type that bases decisions off emotions more than logic, and I'm basically a mess.

Decisive is the perfect resource for changing all that. The Heath brothers dig deep into the statistics and psychology of decision making for everyone from big-shot CEOs considering a corporate buyout to your average twenty-something wondering if she should break up with her boyfriend. They provide straightforward steps anyone can take to evaluate their decision and make the best choice possible.

My only problem (and the reason I docked a star) is that there are SO many steps to evaluate a decision from all angles. It's impractical that anyone would remember all of them, much less have time to apply them to every major decision they face. I wish this book had shared more practical tips for day-to-day decision making, those little things that aren't groundbreaking but that can add up to a big impact over time.

Bottom line: Worth a read for anyone interested in the topic. I guarantee you'll learn something, whether you make decisions logically or intuitively.

Dinner: A Love Story by Jenny Rosenstrach

 

Deep reading category: Teaches me something specific

Star rating: Five stars

I picked this one up at Half-Price Books after my podcast cohost Abbie gave it a rave review, and I'm so glad I did. Food narratives hold a special place in my heart, but their structure can vary quite a bit. Some lean more heavily toward being a traditional cookbook, while others are basically essays with a recipe tossed in every now and then for good measure. Rosenstrach strikes the perfect balance in Dinner: A Love Story, with a nearly 50/50 split between recipes and the stories of how they came to be.

The best part? These are the chronicles of a foodie and a mother, someone who's survived the unglamorous reality of trying to make a halfway decent dinner with a screaming baby on her hip and lived to see the other side. Her recipes are nothing if not family friendly. The vast majority are actually simple to cook, and my kids have willingly eaten all of the five or so recipes I've tried so far.

Bottom line: If you want to re-spark the joy of cooking and are living with tiny humans, this one is a must read.

Finish by Jon Acuff

 

Deep reading category: Teaches me something specific

Star rating: Four-and-a-half stars

This book has been on my library hold list since it first came on my radar a few months ago, but I wish I'd shelled out and bought it instead. Acuff is already famous for titles like Start, which gives readers the kick in the pants to get going on a project, but Finish is what many of us creatives really need. How often do you jump into a new idea before seeing the last one through? (This is me raising my hand over here.)

Acuff breaks down all the sneaky ways perfectionism stops us from finishing the projects that really matter and how we can push through to the end anyway. I've never thought I had a problem with perfectionism, but Finish was a real eye-opener to all the ways perfectionism can disguise itself behind fear, "responsible" decisions, and other excuses. This book was a quick (and hilarious!) read that's perfect for dipping into whenever you have a moment.

Bottom line: Highly recommended for anyone, creative or otherwise, who has trouble completing goals or projects. (For more on this topic, check out the Chasing Creative episode on getting unstuck at the beginning, middle, and end of a project.)

The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert

 

Deep reading category: Outstanding writing

Star rating: Three-and-a-half stars

The Hazel Wood is an un-put-downable YA novel that takes readers into fairytales dark enough to rival the original Grimm brothers themselves. I'm a sucker for both YA and any sort of fairytale spinoff, so this new release was a no-brainer for me. Plus that cover earns all the heart eyes! 

I was utterly taken in by the first half of the book, where we follow Alice Crewe, granddaughter of mysterious fairytale author Althea Prosperpine. Alice and her mother have never set down roots, always trying to escape the bad luck that seems to be chasing them. But things are taken to a whole new level when the mother-daughter duo receives word that the grandmother Alice has never known has died---and when creepy characters from Althea's stories start showing up in the real world.

The first half of the book reads like the best type of urban fantasy, but the second half takes readers into territory I wasn't crazy about. Let's just say there were some character choices that had my head spinning (nothing makes me crazier than character action that doesn't align with their previous behavior). Albert's writing style also devolved into purple metaphors that don't actually describe anything, probably in an effort to make the setting seem more atmospheric. This tactic didn't work for me in Caraval, and it didn't work for me here. 

Bottom line: This is a perfectly creepy Halloween read for fans of dark fairytales, but I feel like a lot of the book's potential was lost. The author is currently working on a sequel, but the jury's still out on whether I'll be continuing the series.

When Meal Planning Saves You

This post was originally written a year ago, back when I was super optimistic about how long it would take to launch this blog. The post just seemed like it was meant for spring, so I held onto it until now---once again, the week before Easter. Nearly a full year later, the meals in this book still never fail to perk up my meal planning and remind me why we prioritize gathering around the table. 

This post contains affiliate links.

I hate meal planning.

Oh, I love the idea of plotting each meal nicely in it's calendar square, guiding me away from last-minute takeout and the frustration of an empty pantry. I even love it in practice: meal planning undoubtedly saves us hundreds of dollars on groceries each year, not to mention the untold frustrations of dragging two small children to Target for that block of cheese I forgot (again).

What I hate is the activity of meal planning.

There is never an hour (or even ten minutes) in which I think, "I'd like to devote this portion of my life to figuring out what my family will eat for the next seven days." Never is there a convenient time for digging through the pantry, rearranging pasta boxes and canned goods to see if we're running low on olive oil. 

And after all that, having the prophetic-like vision to combine the existing pantry goods with not-yet-purchased ingredients and make them into nourishing, well-rounded meals? Meals that fit effortlessly with the weather, our social plans, and whatever other events make their way onto our calendar? Forget about it.

Meal planning is a chore on par with scrubbing the bathroom.

Until one Sunday night, it wasn't. 

We had all been crabby and tired this particular Sunday. The toddler had meltdowns all day long. The baby kept bursting into screaming fits for no apparent reason. I accidentally fell asleep on the floor for five minutes when I took a break from folding laundry.

It was a long day, one in which we all clearly needed to hit the reset button.

The last thing I wanted to do was meal plan, but I knew I had to. It was the week before Easter. Not only did I have to round up a week's worth of dinners (including one vegetarian for Good Friday), I had to make sure I had all the ingredients on hand for the dishes we would bring to our family's Easter celebration.

Meal planning usually leads me to Pinterest, but the holiday had me reaching for printed recipes. I dug to the back of the cupboard, past the cutting board and splatter screens and muffin tins, for the cheese slicer. This is where we keep the paperclipped scraps of copy paper and post-its with my grandma's scrawling handwriting detailing the makings of our traditional family Easter Pizza. (This is the only recipe for which we use the cheese slicer, so leaving the recipe there makes sense in my head.) 

I grabbed my latest Taste of Home magazine from the basket on the fireplace hearth, hopeful that it would tell me how to make green bean casserole. Next came the mother of all cookbooks: Better Homes and Gardens. Its red-checkered cover has graced my kitchen since the day I got married, when my other grandma presented it as a wedding gift. 

And then on a whim, I picked up Eat This Poem by Nicole Gulotta and added it to the top of my pile. With my whiteboard calendar on my right and my stack of recipes on my left, I prepared to tackle the drudgery of meal planning.

But the drudgery never came. 

As I read through my grandma's handwritten recipe notes, I realized that I was sitting in complete silence for the first time in days. It was a moment that begged to be noticed, so of course, I read a poem.

I knew I would love Eat This Poem because I love the idea of marrying poetry with food. The book is a blend of life's best things: well-loved recipes and mini essays and curated poems to pair with them. (And if that appeals to you, check out the blog of the same name. It's a delight.)

Author Nicole Gulotta is a kindred spirit when it comes to poetry and writing and appreciation of good food. But I don't always share her idea of what good food looks like. She eats a largely vegetarian diet, and ours is decidedly meat based. She loves a good balsamic vinaigrette on a salad; I love Hidden Valley Ranch.

Still, we agree on the important parts: The best food is whole food, made from scratch, shared with those you love. Family recipes are sacred. Eating seasonally makes your food taste better.

I flipped through the book, devouring poetry and short essays along with recipes (many of which I know I'll never make). Soon an hour had passed , yet nary a meal had been planned. And then, Italian Beef Stew. 

This was the recipe I'd been waiting to find, the one that would fill us up on a chilly, rainy Monday. 

I added the ingredients to my list. I pulled meat to thaw from the basement freezer. I added a flag to the book.

This was meal planning as it was meant to be, savored as slowly as the meal itself. I had found connection through the line-by-line instructions of a family recipe, paired with carefully chosen poems.

Perhaps this meal planning was a failure. After all, I spent nearly two hours planning one meal. But I think it was a gift and a blessing, one I will be sure to seek out again. 

January Book Report

January is done and gone already, and with it the five (!!) books I've already managed to read this year. I wrote earlier about my goal to read deeply in 2018. This is partially to make sure my reading life is aligned with my values overall and partially to make sure my reading doesn't eclipse other creative projects I'd like to tackle. 

I'm not sure if I'll keep up with these book reports every month all year, especially if I start reading fewer books each month, but this seemed like a good way to check in on how I'm doing with my goal of reading deeper.

Here's what I read in January and how each book fit my criteria for reading deeply. Check back to my original post about deep reading to learn more about the criteria I use when choosing "deep" books! This list contains affiliate links.

The Sentient Machine by Amir Husain

Deep reading category: Makes me think

Star rating: N/A. This one was so complex for me that I decided not to give it a star rating.

I'm a little bit of a conspiracy theorist at heart. One of my secret hangups is the fear that artificial intelligence (AI) technology is developing so rapidly, and oftentimes with so little care for the consequences, that it's going to get away from us one of these days. So when I heard about a book dedicated to exploring the future of AI and why we shouldn't fear it but should look for the benefits, I knew I had to read it. 

The Sentient Machine definitely made me think, but I disagreed with the author at nearly every turn. We just look at the world from such opposite viewpoints, it would have been almost impossible to get on the same page with the moral issues surrounding AI. Husain rushed headfirst into the benefits of AI based on ethical and moral assumptions that I, and I'm guessing many other Christians, don't agree with. He also referred to all the major religions as "myths" and, at one point, collective lies we tell ourselves as humans. So that's problem number one. 

Husain gave thorough breakdowns of what sentient AI could look like in different industries, but he never stopped to consider the ethical problem of basically creating a race of sentient robot slaves. Though Husain's arguments were interesting, they didn't have enough of a foundation to convince me of anything. 

Bottom line: Recommended for people who are already interested in AI or the future of technology. Pass for everyone else. 

A Simplified Life by Emily Ley

 

Deep reading category: Teaches something specific

Star rating: Two stars

I generally like Emily Ley's work, but this one left me disappointed. The goal of the book was to walk readers through different areas of their lives---marriage, parenting, wardrobe, spiritual life, etc.---and help them simplify each category so they could focus on intentional living.

Unfortunately, the whole thing was too shallow to be of much use to anyone. I've read blog posts that go deeper than some of these chapters! My (potentially too harsh?) opinion is that this was just another that was only written because a publisher saw potential in the author's platform. There was nothing new here, and it ended up being the opposite of deep reading.

Bottom line: Recommended for anyone who's literally never read a minimalism or simplicity blog or has never heard of Marie Kondo. Everyone else can probably skip this one.

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

Deep reading category: Outstanding writing

Star rating: Five stars

I'm a sucker for fiction based on fairy tales or folklore, and this one didn't disappoint. The Bear and the Nightingale is set deep in the heart of the forest in medieval Russia. Vasya is a strange, wild girl who doesn't accept that her only options in life are to marry or join a convent. She and her siblings have grown up listening to fairy tales about the creatures who lurk in the forest, especially those about Morozko the frost demon, but Vasya has never feared the wilderness. When the household gains a strict new stepmother and a priest from Moscow after Vasya's father remarries, something begins going awry with the forest spirits. It's up to Vasya to find out why if her village is to survive the harshest winter they've ever known.

This is one of those books with a plot that's tricky to explain, but the writing is gorgeous. Take it from me, it's better than it sounds. This is the perfect book with atmosphere, and the rich history of Russia make it reminiscent of historical fiction along with its obvious fantasy bent.

Bottom line: I'm tempted to say everyone should read this, but it's an especially good choice for anyone who loved The Night Circus or who's interested in Russia and folklore.

Perennial Seller by Ryan Holiday

Deep reading category: Teaches something specific; could help me write a novel

Star rating: Four stars

Perennial Seller is the ultimate meeting place between books about making art and books about selling that art. Holiday dives deep into what makes certain works timeless. Why do people return to Jane Austen's novels as beloved favorites hundreds of years later? What makes one book or song or painting stick while others are forgotten? The conclusions Holidays reaches are fascinating and something I'll be keeping in mind with my own creative projects.

I was afraid this book would tend too heavily toward business and marketing, but that wasn't the case. Holiday spent the first third of the book focusing on the creative process. I especially appreciated his stance that mediocre work will never become timeless. It's worth it to focus on the art and create something great. I also liked his view that creating and selling art is a cyclical process: some seasons will be devoted to creating, and some will be spent marketing. It's when we try to mix the two that we get into trouble. As someone who's trying to go deeper with my focus on creative projects this year, that was such a relief to read!

Bottom line: Recommended for anyone who ever wants to create something that lasts, or even create something that sells. I think it's a great starting point for creatives who are skittish about the marketing world, but if you're currently burned out on business-y books, you might want to save this one for later.

The Rose and the Dagger by Renee Ahdieh

Deep reading category: None

Star rating: Three stars

I cheated a bit on my deep reading goals with this one. The Rose and the Dagger is the sequel to The Wrath and The Dawn, which I finished in December. I didn't want to leave the duology unfinished for the whole year (even though I was pretty sure I wouldn't like the second book as much as the first), so I gave myself an exception. 

The series is a retelling of the Thousand and One Nights, with Shahrzad volunteering to become the next wife of the murderous king, Khalid, after her best friend is killed at his hand. It's hard to talk about the sequel without giving anything away from the first book, so I'll just say that it's a decent enough YA read. Once again, I was drawn in by the "retelling of a classic" spin, but the writing style really bothered me. I actually ended up skimming through much of The Rose and the Dagger just to catch the main plot points because the writing and POV switches were getting to be too much. 

Bottom line: It's a good middle-of-the-road choice for YA lovers, but nothing groundbreaking. (Though the series has a cult following, so I might be in the minority here.)

What have you been reading lately?

Reading Deeply in 2018

Traditional goal-setting isn't serving me well these days. That includes my reading goals.

Reading goals used to be one of the easiest challenges for me to take on. Pick a number, add it to my Goodreads challenge for the year, and get started working through that ever-growing TBR pile. Setting a reading goal used to be a great thing: it got me out of my post-college English major slump and reminded me of all the amazing books out there that aren't on a professor's assigned reading list.

But two recent conversations on the Chasing Creative podcast have me rethinking that strategy for 2018. In the first, Abbie and I talked in-depth about our reading lives and how they can help and harm our creativity. In the second, we dug into our (very blurry) 2018 creative goals and what we need to do to accomplish them.

Recording these podcast episodes made me realize that my current reading habits aren't doing me any favors. I've read between 30 and 50 books each year since 2014. During that time, I've also had two kids, grown a business, and am now trying to expand my creative writing into something that's more than just a fleeting idea I wish I had time for. 

Kindle reader on knitted blanket

It's time to admit that I need to cut back on certain things if I want to make room for others. That includes even good things I love, like reading.

So this year, I'm focusing less on the number of books I finish and more on reading deeply. I've noticed an uncomfortable habit of grabbing short or "fluffy" books that I might not have read otherwise just to try to catch up on my reading challenge. That's not a good use of my time, and it's not helping me round out my life in other areas. 

Here are the types of "deep reading" I'll be focusing on this year. (This list contains affiliate links.)

Books that make me think

According to the Modern Mrs. Darcy reading personality quiz, I'm an Explorer. One of my main reading motivations is to explore worlds, points of view, and experiences that are outside of my own bubble. Books that pull me outside of my life, not necessarily in an escapist way but in a way that makes me reexamine the way I see the world, allow my reading life to feed the rest of me in a healthy way.

The kicker is that I might not always like these books. I'll disagree with an author's point in nonfiction or the theme or character choices in fiction. That's okay, though! I go into books like this with the expectation that I'll broaden my horizons, so I'm not too disappointed if they don't make my Favorites list.

Books I read in 2017 that made me think: 

Real Artists Don't Starve by Jeff Goins (an example of a book I gave only two stars on Goodreads)

The Confusion of Languages by Siobhan Fallon

The Sun Is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon

Books with outstanding writing

Another reading quiz, this one from O magazine, tells me that I'm an Aesthete, someone who values strong writing above all else. This is 100% true. I'll forgive minor character flaws, plot problems, and pacing issues if the writing is stellar. On the other hand, I've rated bestsellers as one star because I didn't care about the gripping plot; I was too distracted by writing that reminded me of 5th-grade English class.

This category tends to land me in literary fiction, but I'd like to branch out and find books in other genres (and even nonfiction!) that make an impact with the quality of writing.

Books I read in 2017 that have stellar writing:

Beartown by Fredrik Backman

Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage by Dani Shapiro

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

Books that teach me something specific

I have an embarrassing attachment to both the self-help and business/marketing genres. The problem is that these books are often too vague to actually make an impact on my life. I'll pick one up just because it's a buzzy new release without stopping to think about how it will actually help me right now. 

This year, I'll focus on books that meet at least two of these three criteria:

1. Will this book help me solve a specific business problem that I'm facing right now?

2. Will this book help me solve a specific personal problem that I'm facing right now?

3. Will this book deepen my knowledge of a topic I'm genuinely interested in right now?

My hope is that by limiting self-help books to specifics rather than picking up whatever's new and bestselling, I'll be able to actually put that knowledge to good use in my life.

Books I read in 2017 that taught me something specific:

The Dorito Effect by Mark Schatzker

Deep Work by Cal Newport

Daring Greatly by Brene Brown

Books that will help me write a novel

I had to take a deep breath before putting this on the list. It seems like a bad time to start writing a novel, with a third baby on the way in spring, but I've got an idea that won't leave me alone and I'm taking a big step later this month to see where it leads. 

Reading books while writing a book can be tricky. You need to absorb good writing and inspiration by "osmosis" from other writers, but you also don't want your unique ideas and voice to get lost because you're emulating what you're reading. I'm not totally sure what this category will look like for 2018, but I think the fiction will include classics from the '20s (Fitzgerald, Wharton, etc.), and the nonfiction will be a stack of books on writing that have been languishing on my TBR list for too long.

What are your reading goals for 2018? Are you changing your habits this year?

P.S. Are we friends on Goodreads yet? Come find me there! I set my challenge goal for 35 books this year, which feels doable but won't allow me to slack and stop reading entirely.