Year-end Reading Roundup: reading for fun and disproportionate amounts of middle grade

At the beginning of 2021, my biggest hope for my reading year was to start enjoying the act of reading again. I’d gotten into a habit of reading to finish books, rather than just reading to read. My focus was on the numbers – how many books, how many pages, how many can I check off this or that list. While it’s in my nature to get caught up in the numbers, I kept this goal in the front of my mind all year and tried my best to correct my course when I got off track. And a weird thing happened – I read just as many books when “how many books” wasn’t the goal. I just got a lot more enjoyment out of the process. Turns out, when you’re having a great time reading, you just do it. Naturally. Without self-imposed goals and deadlines.

Normally this is where I’d share the reading habits that have worked for me lately, but I haven’t really had reading habits lately. I might get up early and read, use my Kindle while nursing at night, turn on an audiobook while cooking, or get a paragraph in between my kids’ fights. I do all these things sometimes, but none of them with any consistency. Some weeks I read a lot, and some I don’t manage much at all. Usually, I’ll find at least a few minutes every day. I read when I can and that’s about that.

So, without further ado, favorite books of the season (plus a review of all my favorites from 2021).

That brings me to favorite books!

Hero of Two Worlds by Mike Duncan. I’m a huge fan of the Revolutions podcast, so I’ve been waiting for this one for years. Like a proper podcast fan, I had to listen to Duncan read the book himself. This is biography at it’s best. Duncan perfectly combines meticulous research with excellent storytelling, which never feels like just a collection of facts in chronological order (my general experience of biographies). What was most fascinating was the woman behind the Marquis, Adrienne – certainly one of the many incredible unsung women of history, and I’m grateful for Duncan’s determination to tell her story as well as her husband’s.

A Place to Hang the Moon by Kate Albus. I adored this middle grade historical fiction about three siblings trying to find a home. William, Edmund, and Anna are evacuated to the countryside during the Blitz, but unlike the other children, they don’t have a home to return to when it’s over. They’re hoping to find a family to take them in not just for wartime, but forever. I was so charmed by the characters and Albus’ gentle prose that barely anyone got out of getting this book from me for Christmas.

The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo. Sometimes I finish a book and think, “How can this be that good?” Kate DiCamillo never fails to be original and stunning. I started out reading this aloud, but found it was not age appropriate (torture and other things unsuitable for the youngest readers) – but by the time I decided it wasn’t for Bub, I was hooked and had to finish for myself. This is so much more than a story about a mouse – it is a story about the good, the true, and the beautiful.

Solutions and Other Problems by Allie Brosh. Allie Brosh’s unique brand of relatable weirdness makes me feel like she is an utterly original, singular human being while at the same time being all of us. This lived up to and exceeded my expectations set by Hyperbole and a Half.

Surprised by Joy by C.S. Lewis. This memoir of childhood and young adulthood by C.S. Lewis demands to be read from page one. It is obvious right away why Lewis’ fiction is so beloved by children – he remembers what it’s like to be a child like few adults do. I enjoyed listening to the audio, which was included with my Audible membership (along with almost all of Lewis’ most beloved nonfiction).

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles.  This book is so different from A Gentleman in Moscow, but Towles’ distinct style shines in both. The prose, the characters, the setting (Towles does sense of place like no one else), the plot twists. Everything was just perfect. I’m DYING to read this again knowing everything I know now. 

The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street by Karina Yan Glaser. When five siblings face losing their beloved brownstone apartment in Harlem, they set out on a mission to convince their landlord to let them stay. This is everything a middle grade book should be. Lovable characters, fun and heartfelt story, excellent writing. I loved how this book took place in four days, and divided the chapters up by days. A great book for adults and children alike, and (for future reference) a feel-good holiday read (that could be read any time of year, IMHO).

Here are the rest of my favorite books of 2021. You can find my descriptions in my past Reading Roundups here and here.

I’d love to hear all about your favorite books of 2021! Happy New Reading Year!

Reading Roundup: Spring & Summer 2021

When I started writing this, it was a midyear reading roundup, to be posted promptly on July 1. So this is a third quarter reading roundup instead. Because I’m a few days late on July 1.

My reading and writing (and life) struggles all began with Daylight Savings. Yep, it’s almost October and I’m still stuck on Daylight Savings. Usually, I get up about a half hour before my kids and read before starting my day, but these days I’m always sleeping in. My kids had an equally hard time adjusting, so bedtime is a battle that can run pretty late. That leaves me too tired for reading most evenings.

Despite the struggles, I find at least a little time for reading most days. I still read in the mornings, which adds up even if it’s less time than before. I squeeze a page or two in when my kids are playing nicely, and when insomnia strikes, I read on my Kindle in the dark. I become a mood reader when stressed so I pick up whatever strikes my fancy, start twelve books, and finish none.

The rest of my reading time is credited to my Mother’s Day gift – a triple stroller! Thanks to this monstrosity (“The Big Caboose”), I’m getting in more audiobook time than I’ve had since Pantsy was born. I got an Audible trial to listen to a book club choice and ended up loving it (though I hated that particular book). I’ve always been too cheap for Audible, but I’d be loath to give it up now. One of my favorites below was included, and the wealth of such “free-ish” books and the chance to listen without waiting on Libby holds won me over.

The Big Caboose! Reading time in disguise.

Now for the good stuff.

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell. A friend recommended this book and it’s my favorite read on this list. Right at home with some of my favorites, Pride and Prejudice and Middlemarch, North and South is a slow-burn love story centered around well-developed characters you’ll love to root for. Margaret is strong and thoughtful, and not at all your standard Victorian heroine. When her family must move from a quiet, rural southern town to an industrial northern town, she encounters self-made factory owner Mr. Thornton. The north/south culture clash sows plenty of discord, but mutual respect leads them to reluctantly learn from their differences (and fall in love and stuff). I loved the audio by Juliet Stevenson, which is included with an Audible subscription.

Becoming Mrs. Lewis by Patti Callahan. This biographical fiction tells the fascinating story of Joy Davidman, the woman who married C.S. Lewis late in life. I knew nothing about her going into this, other than that A Grief Observed was about her. She is a fascinating woman, and a talented writer (the chapters begin with excerpts form Davidman’s lovely poetry). This is a compelling story about two incredible people coming together, and Callahan’s obviously meticulous research shows on every page.

The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis. Inspired by the above, I picked up this classic which I originally read at 18. It holds up so well. It’s easy to discount C.S. Lewis when it’s been a while. His books seem almost too simple, but when you read, they are so insightful, perceptive, and uniquely Lewis. Simplicity is not a shortcoming, but the key to Lewis’ lasting appeal and value.

Reading People by Anne Bogel. This set me off on a huge personality kick. Bogel shares concise, practical summaries of several different personality frameworks and what they mean in everyday life. I was blown away by the chapter on cognitive functions, which unlocked a whole new understanding of myself as an INTP (like why taking a test today might mistype me as F or J). Fellow INTP Personality Junkie is a great resource for learning more on cognitive functions.

The Railway Children by Edith Nesbit. I was surprised to find this children’s book from 1906 so fresh and delightful. This is a story of three wealthy children who lose their fortune and end up in a small town, where they love to hang out at the railway station. Shenanigans, adventures, and charming friendships ensue. This reads a lot like Frances Hodgson Burnett, but somehow both more cheerful and less saccharine. A great read-aloud that can be enjoyed by both adults and children (I’d say five and up). I loved the free LibriVox recording by Karen Savage.

Parenting Without Power Struggles by Susan Stiffleman. This book came recommended by my favorite parenting resource, Janet Lansbury. After hearing the author on Janet’s Unruffled podcast, I ordered this book. It’s about helping parents avoid power struggles so they can be the leaders their kids need and respond calmly to difficulties without threats, bribes, punishments, and blowups. I use what I learned from this book every day.

The Call of the Wild + Free by Ainsley Arment. I’m starting homeschool this year and this book was a fabulous introduction. I learned so much, and walked away feeling more confident about my choice. I appreciated the wealth of resources and practical advice. Most of all, I loved the positive and encouraging attitude of the author, who shows in this book that homeschooling is exciting and valuable in itself, not a place to hid from some big bad wolf.

A Very Tardy Winter Reading Roundup

The first few months of 2021 were the best reading season I’ve had in a long time. My biggest goal for the year was to enjoy the reading experience and stop worrying about how many books or pages I’ve racked up. That has made such a difference in my reading life, and on top of that I’ve found some incredible books. The reading habit that has been working for me this season? Simply reading whatever the heck I feel like reading at any given time. That has meant I have 7+ books in progress most of the time, and my willingness to pick up what strikes my fancy has lead to some unusual choices for me, which my list below reflects. You’ll find significantly more non-fiction than I usually imbibe as well as some children’s books that I’d happily recommend to kids and adults alike.

My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell. This is my new go-to recommendation for anyone who asks (and many who don’t). It is pure delight from cover to cover – so funny, insightful, and fresh that I was shocked to learn it was first published in 1956. It follows the author’s adventures as an animal-loving child in Corfu, Greece where he lived with his eccentric British family. (If you’ve read any Lawrence Durrell, you’ll be intrigued to see him as a bratty twenty-something mouthing off to his mother) I’ve since enjoyed the follow-ups Birds, Beasts, and Relatives and The Garden of the Gods. (Looks like this one is free to read on Kindle with Amazon Prime!)

The Crossover by Kwame Alexander. This was such a surprise. I added this to my TBR after hearing about it on an episode of What Should I Read Next? podcast. By the time my hold came through on Libby, I had lost interest, but I had somewhere to drive and nothing else to listen to, so I turned it on. A novel in verse about twelve-year-old Josh Bell, his relationships with twin brother JB and their father, and their shared love of basketball. What I thought would be a Disney Channel original movie -esque sports story turned out to be a unique and stunning look at brotherhood, fathers and sons, and grief. This Newbury Medal winner is one of the finest coming-of-age stories I’ve read.

The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart. I could not put down this middle grade adventure that reminded me so much of the early Harry Potter books. It had the same combination of quality writing, lovable characters, and absorbing plot that made me want to read and read. Reynie Muldoon is an orphan seeking a better life when a mysterious ad in the paper leads him to join a secret society of brilliant children assembled by the eccentric Mr. Benedict. Reynie and new friends Sticky, Kate, and Constance Contraire are sent on an undercover mission where they’ll rely on their unique talents and each other to, you know, save the world. I fell in love with these characters instantly, and enjoyed the fun and unexpected twists throughout the book. Can’t wait to read the rest of the series.

The Library Book by Susan Orlean. This is fairly well known as a selection for Reese’s Book Club. It was on the lucky day shelf on Libby, so I picked up the audio and it was just wonderful. This book combines the fascinating story of the 1986 library fire in L.A. with a history of libraries and a peek into the lives of librarians. The audio, read by the author, felt a lot like listening to a great, in-depth NPR story.

84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff. This book is all charm and atmosphere. A collection of letters from a plucky American author and a British bookseller starting in 1949 and continuing for 20 years. Book lovers will relate to Helene’s bookish dilemmas, history lovers will love the window into post-war London, Anglophiles will love all the Britishness. You can read this in one afternoon, or savor it a bit at a time.

The Read Aloud Family by Sarah MacKenzie. I got so much out of this book by Sarah MacKenzie of the Read Aloud Revival podcast. It covers the why and the how of reading aloud with children of all ages. It is chock full of ideas for incorporating books into your family culture, encouraging a love of reading, talking about books with your kids, and finding new books to enjoy with your family. MacKenzie will not only inspire you to read aloud more, but also blow up your TBR with tons of amazing book recommendations. I’d recommend this to any parent, teacher, nanny, grandparent – anyone who spends time with kids. (This is currently very cheap on Kindle!)

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. I’ve read this several times, but this was my first time in audio. Listening really brought out Austen’s humor. I love this free Librivox recording from my favorite reader, Elizabeth Klett. There are few books as perfectly crafted as Pride and Prejudice and it is a delight every time.

Simply Clean by Becky Rapinchuk. A friend recommended this book for learning better housekeeping skills. It was such a help in the midst of spring cleaning. Rapinchuk (of Clean Mama) offers a manageable, comprehensive plan for getting your house in order and maintaining it in just a few minutes a day – simple challenges and checklists make her plan unintimidating and easy to stick with. I got my house cleaner than it’s ever been and I’ve been able to maintain it, just as she promises, in just ten minutes a day. She inspired me to switch from a daunting weekly laundry day to a small daily load and, wow, that has been life-changing.

Year-End Reading Roundup

The end of the year is always a time I like to reflect on my year of reading, what really worked for me, and what books I loved. While the first half of the year my reading life suffered due to early pregnancy and lock-downs, about midsummer I found myself reading again – happily, naturally, and more than I ever have before…even after welcoming my third child (and first daughter!) to our family. I’ve loved books for a long time, but this year I realized they have become my sanity, and self-care has come to mean making time to read.

I already recapped January to June reading in my Midyear Reading Roundup. Here is a snapshot of my reading life July to December – the habits that have kept me reading lately, and the books I loved most.

Early Morning Reading. After Pantsy was born, I started getting up earlier in the morning for some quiet time before the kids woke up. I try to read first thing in the morning for at least fifteen minutes before I do anything else – before breakfast, or talking to my husband, or checking my phone. When I do this, I have better, calmer days. I’m a better mom when I read.

Cleaning House. Pantsy’s birth also made me obsessed with having a clean house (which I promise is new to me). With three kids under four, keeping things clean is a way to maintain control of something and impose a little order in the chaos. What does this have to do with reading? First, more cleaning time is more audiobook time! Second, having a clean house means when I sit down with a book, my calm environment helps me focus. With fewer distractions, I can immerse myself more fully in a book for longer periods of time.

Reading Short. I have stuck with mostly short books all year. Finishing books with great frequency kept up my momentum and gave me a sense of accomplishment. I usually read several long books in a year, but this year I only exceeded 600 pages (my benchmark for “long”) once, and that was an audiobook. I’m hoping to take in more long books next year, but in 2020, didn’t we all need as many wins as we could get?

Varying Formats. These days I usually have one e-book, one audiobook, and one or two print books going at once. Different formats fit into different places in my life, so using them all at once gives me more reading time. As mentioned in my Midyear Reading Roundup, I’m new to e-books, and since then I stole my husband’s Kindle. It’s perfect for reading in the dark and reading one-handed – which are useful features when nursing a newborn! (Big thanks to Modern Mrs. Darcy daily e-book deals.)

Goodwill. Much as I love my new Kindle (“my” “new” Kindle), I’m still doing most of my reading the old-fashioned way, and my new favorite source is my local Goodwill. I would honestly rather go there than to an actual bookstore. Goodwills are usually a crap shoot for books, but at this one, I always walk out with at least two books in great condition that I’m so excited about. And they cost $1.49 each. When I decide to treat myself these days, it means a Goodwill trip with a $10 budget.

Every one of these came from my Goodwill.

Libby. I’m not entirely sure how I went through 31 years of life without Libby, an awesome app by which you can borrow audibooks and e-books free through your local library. I’ve always adored LibriVox (and still do) because audiobooks are expensive, but I got a bit burned out on classics and Libby has made it possible to listen to contemporary books without the price tag.

Okay, now for the books! I read all over the genre map this year, and have quite an odd variety in my favorite picks.

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett. Did this as a buddy read with my BBFF (Book BFF slash regular BFF) and we both adored it. It’s about a hostage crisis and opera and it is everything that is beautiful about being a human being.

Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery. How great is this book? I read this for the second time, with the great LibriVox recording by Karen Savage. Anne is a character that should be annoying and unrealistic, but Maud brings her to life so perfectly that I believe her character every second, and I love her.

Don’t Overthink It by Anne Bogel. I wanted to get this for everyone for Christmas, but thought getting self-help books for people would probably seem rude. This is the best book I’ve ever read on stress management and I can’t recommend it enough if you struggle with any stress, not just overthinking. I particularly benefited from her chapter on decision fatigue.

Being Mortal by Atul Gawande. I don’t believe there are many books everyone should read, but this is one. This book is full of both practical information and philosophical reflection on the subject of aging and dying. In the hands of any other writer, this would be morbid, but Gawande leaves you feeling like you’ve had a comforting conversation with a trusted friend. At less than 300 pages, it is well worth anyone’s time.

Greenglass House by Kate Milford. I found this middle-grade mystery novel while searching Modern Mrs. Darcy for Christmas reads. I liked the cover and the e-book was on sale, so I bought it on a whim. I just loved it – the charming illustrations at the start of each chapter, the wintery atmosphere, the RPG references. Milo lives in an old house his parents run as an inn, and when an odd assortment of guests turn up right before Christmas, Milo makes a new friend and goes on a quest to learn what his mysterious guests are hiding.

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. I happened to pick up this World War II veteran’s story right before Veteran’s Day, and it really drove home the meaning of the day. I plan to pick up another veteran’s story next year. This is a truly incredible story of an airman’s survival following a plane crash in the Pacific. There was more than one moment where my jaw literally dropped in disbelief.

The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I put off reading this final Sherlock Holmes collection because it was published a decade after the previous work, and ominously described as “darker” than other collections and not all narrated by Watson. Posh! I was expecting a bunch of grisly murders written in the third person, but found these were in the same spirit as other Sherlock stories, and they were even better. Most were narrated by Watson, but two were amusingly narrated by Sherlock himself. The e-book is only 99 cents!

The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch. This book wins the Miss Congeniality award for the most likable characters of the year. Locke and his band of thieves known as the Gentleman Bastards are utterly charming and whatever they were up to, I was there for it. That alliterative title is not just to be cute: Locke literally lies his way through an insane, chaotic, bloody mess of a plot. I don’t often read adventure or fantasy, and I’m so glad I took a chance on this. The audiobook narrator is excellent, and you can easily speed up to 1.4 or 1.5, so don’t fear the length.

The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis. I have scandalous gaps when it comes to children’s literature since I wasn’t really a reader until adulthood. This year, I resolved to finally read the whole Chronicles of Narnia series, and I adored this volume. From the theology perspective, this is second only to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan. This one will seem a little out of place for those who know my usual taste, but I loved it. It’s like a juicy romance novel had a baby with a Jane Austen novel. It is funny, romantic, and full of drama, yet infused with wit and satire – breezy to read, but still intelligent. The best thing about this book, though, is that my one-year-old staggered over to me with it one day saying, very excitedly, “Penguin!”

Penguin!