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!

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.