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!

Midyear Reading Roundup

When July comes around, I like to reflect on my reading year so far, and share some of my favorites. Overall, this year has turned out to be a good year for numbers–but not my best year for quality, with half my ratings being 3 stars or less. (Pro-tip: I’ll never know if you just skip ahead to the book list.)

Audiobooks buoyed my numbers while my print reading suffered a steep drop-off in February. My rut was punctuated with some disciplined reading of a book here and there, but I have not been that quarantined reader who is taking on War and Peace. Library closures hit my reading life pretty hard. I’ve come to rely heavily on the library to quickly acquire THAT book and get to it while I’m excited. It’s been hard to go back to shopping on my shelves. Marie Kondo says there’s a moment to read a book, and that moment is when you first encounter it. Readers often question Kondo on books (not me! ..but that’s another topic for another day), but she has such a point here and I’ve tried to pay attention to it in my reading life. As much as I can, I read books right away when I get them, and request or buy them right away when I hear about them. I do read and love books that have been sitting on my shelves, but I have a difficult time choosing one and I almost always read them slower.

I’ve been working my way out of the slump with some discipline (and luck). Here’s what’s been working for me lately in my reading life.

1. Short audiobooks (at 1.25 speed, baby!). I love audio as a way to consume massive classics, like Middlemarch and The Three Musketeers. Usually 12 hours is my minimum, but this year short has been my go-to. I listened to 14 audiobooks January through June and most were about 8 hours. With audio sped up I go through them very quickly, listening while on walks with the kids, cooking dinner, folding laundry, driving in the car, and the like. I’m knocking some long-time TBRs off the list, and regularly get the encouragement of actually finishing a book.

2. Re-reading. My memory is too good to do this very often – I don’t just remember the plot, but also the literal words on each page. It feels like I just finished it, even if over a year has passed. But I’m starting to find I’ve forgotten almost everything about some old favorites and I’ve enjoyed going back to them. I’ve done some of my re-reading by audio or read-aloud, which brings the books to life in a totally different way.

3. Snowball method reading. Think Dave Ramsey for books. You may be familiar with Ramsey’s snowball method for debt, where you start with focusing on your smallest debt and work your way up to the biggest. Small victories along the way help you stay motivated. I applied this to my absurd in-progress stack – tallied up the pages remaining in each and started with the lowest page count. I haven’t gotten to zero yet and I keep acquiring new book debt, but I turn to this strategy whenever I’m unsure what to read next and it has kept me reading when I might otherwise stall out in indecision.

4. Reading aloud. My husband and I have taken to reading together at bedtime and it’s awesome. My husband is a fantastic reader and since I’m an insomniac, being read to in bed really helps me wind down and sleep. 

5. Ebooks. Confession: before this year I had never finished an ebook. I even had a Kindle for a while and never finished a book on it. Lately, reading on my phone seemed like a good way to fit in more books and cut down on time-wasters like social media. It’s enabled me to take advantage of little moments where a paper book isn’t practical, like when I’m nursing a baby and have only one hand free. I’ve finished two books borrowed through Libby, and am working on my third.

Okay, now for the good stuff. Here are the books I’ve been loving this year.

1. A Place for Us by Fatima Fahreen Mirza. This is definitely my favorite book of the year so far, and one of my favorite books I’ve ever read. It is the story of an Indian Muslim family in America, particularly revolving around the rebellious son, Amar. The characters are real, the writing is lyrical, and the story is a beautiful combo of hopeful and devastating. I never cry over books, but this one got me in the end.

2. The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux. I can’t believe I wasted so much time assuming this book would be boring. This book has everything – mystery, ghosts, murder, kidnapping, graveyards, extortion, love triangles, opera singers, mysterious foreigners – you get the idea. It gets right to the action and doesn’t waste time. I had so much fun listening to the full cast recording on LibriVox.

3. The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan. This books tells the story of four Chinese mothers and their American daughters. The cultural and language divides that exist between the characters beautifully highlight the barriers that always exist between mothers and daughters that make their understanding of each other imperfect.

4. The Sherlock Holmes series by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in audio. I’ve been listening through the Sherlock canon on LibriVox, read by David Clarke. This is something I’d have a hard time reading in print, but I just eat it up in audio. This format is perfect for these stories. Sherlock is a character for the ages, and Doyle’s storytelling is excellent.

5. Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata. Thirty-something Keiko is happy living alone and working the convenience store job she’s had for over a decade, but decides to make some changes when she gets sick of the pity, worry, and disapproval from her friends and family. This book is bizarre and insightful and charming in an Eleanor Oliphant sort of way, and can be read in one or two sittings.

6. The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. This is my second read through this book, and my husband read it to me this time around. I enjoyed it so much more than when I read on my own – it’s like it’s meant to be read aloud. Tolkien is just delightful, and brilliant.

7. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. This is what I call “bibliophile lit”, or fiction where the plot revolves around books and readers in a way that is probably not realistic but is delightful for book lovers to imagine. It’s also a something-for-everyone book that felt part literary fiction, part YA, part mystery/suspense, part historical fiction.

8. Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple. This was one of my ebook reads, and I really just tried it because I was curious and it was immediately available on Libby. I expected to find a mildly amusing, annoyingly quirky 3-star read, but I just loved this. It was funny and clever and different than anything I’ve read before. It had some really fun twists and left me really rooting for the characters.

If you’re interested in what else I’ve been reading this year, check out my 2020 Reading Challenge on Goodreads. I’d love to hear how your reading year is going, what you’re reading, and your thoughts if you’ve read any of the favorites from my list!

Frugal Reading: Free Audiobooks!

A long while back, I kicked off my Frugal Reading Series with some tips on becoming a frugal reader. And then I moved, got pregnant (and very sick), had a baby, and moved again. Now that I’m back, I’m excited to continue this series combining two of my favorite things – reading and frugality!

For so long I had serious Audible envy. No matter what new member promotions, Black Friday deals, or other money-saving contrivances I came upon, the simple fact remained that Audible costs money. That’s not to say the cost isn’t justified for the product; it just isn’t practical for my budget. I’d sometimes troll the library for books on CD and listen in the car, but audiobooks were largely inaccessible to me.

Then I discovered LibriVox and it is possibly the best thing to potentially ever happen to anyone, anywhere in the history of the universe.

lilsebastian

If you know me, you’ve probably heard a manic, gushing recommendation for LibriVox, not unlike Leslie Knope gushing about Lil’ Sebastian. Hey, it earns the praise. LibriVox is an awesome organization dedicated to “mak[ing] all books in the public domain available, for free, in audio format…” Volunteer readers from all over the world contribute to this massive library of free audiobooks. FREE AUDIOBOOKS.

I was quite skeptical at first. I mean, free audiobooks? Volunteer readers? Sounds a bit sketchy, no matter how noble the mission. I expected to find a small selection of mediocre to somewhat okay-ish audiobooks.

Image result for ben wyatt lil sebastian

I soon repented of my skepticism. There are so many fantastic readers volunteering for LibriVox, including many professionals who generously bring their talents to this free platform (I can vouch for Elizabeth Klett and Mark F. Smith!). But many of the amateur readers are amazing as well; Margaret Espaillat and Becky Miller got me through George Eliot’s monstrous works, Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda each about 32 hours of wonderful audio I could not stop listening to. There are even dramatic readings, with a full cast bringing a book to life like a radio drama. My favorite of these was the hilarious Lady Susan by Jane Austen (a laugh-out-loud gem, and much more enjoyable than the recent movie based on it, Love and Friendship.).

The selection is also incredible. There are so many excellent audiobooks on LibriVox that I’ve stopped thinking about Audible altogether. The catch is, the books on LibriVox are all in the public domain, so it does not include works published after 1924 (but you can purchase more recent works through the app). However, there are so many freaking amazing books written before 1924, and audio is a great format if you’ve struggled to get into classics.

Logistics first: There is a free app for Android and iOS – they have some ads, but honestly I don’t remember ever noticing them much. I opted for the $1.99 version, just because I wanted to support an awesome organization. You can also listen and download books on their website, LibriVox.org.

How to find great books on LibriVox

All gushing aside, there are a lot of not very good books, and I struggled to find the good ones when I was new to LibriVox. Even now, I often decide on a book only to find there isn’t a good recording. There is no vetting for volunteers, so anyone can read – no matter how monotonous their voice or how much background noise their microphones pick up. And many books have different readers for different chapters, which is just not my cup of tea. Here is how I consistently find great books on LibriVox. (You can skip to the end for my book recommendations!)

1. Read Reviews

LibriVox is kind of like AirBNB: there is no shortage of excellent options, but if you ignore the the reviews, you’re going to have a bad time.

I generally only consider recordings with an average rating of at least four stars. Reviewers usually comment on the narrator, especially if they are particularly excellent or particularly terrible. I recently listened to Oliver Twist when I’d had no intention of doing so, because the reviews were crazy about the reader, Tadhg. It did not disappoint.

2. Compare Versions

Don’t default to version one. Many of the most popular classics have two, three, or more versions by different readers. The reviews will tell a lot, but if there is no stand-out I like to sample a minute or so of each to pick my favorite reader. Usually you can tell in the first ten seconds if you’ll get along with a reader or not, and it’s worth the extra effort when you’re going to be spending 10-20 hours with them.

3. Be Wary of “LibriVox Volunteers” (but not too wary)

“LibriVox Volunteers” listed as the reader means that there are multiple readers for that books. I avoid these (for the most part). Multiple readers make it much harder for me to stay interested. It is such a wonderful experience to travel through a whole book with one amazing reader.

The exception to this rule is full-cast recordings. These are generally indicated as “(dramatic reading)” in the title – but not always, so read the book description and reviews for clues. I nearly passed up fabulous book The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, but saw a review clarifying that it is a full-cast recording. The book has multiple first-person narrators, each with their own reader – so it didn’t quite qualify as a dramatic reading, but also didn’t just randomly switch between readers. Thank you again, reviews! (The chapter summaries can also give you a hint, as they will list the reader for each chapter.)

4. Follow the Reader

If you love a reader, look them up to see what else they’ve recorded. Most have multiple books available, and some have recorded a veritable library of their own. I fell in love with Elizabeth Klett’s reading of The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton. She has recorded tons of excellent women’s literature like Jane Austen, the Brontes, Elizabeth Gaskell, and more Edith Wharton. I’d be occupied for years just with the excellent novels she’s recorded.

5. Be Ready to Bail

Sometimes you just won’t connect with a reading for whatever reason. I always go into chapter one ready to cut and run if I don’t like it. This may sound fickle, but most of my choices are 15-30 hours long. And even one hour is a long time to listen to obnoxious background noise, a dull voice, or a flat-out boring book.

Bonus Tip: Make a Favorites List

I always forget whatever book I was so excited to listen to next. Inevitably, I remember it when about halfway through my contingent, and finish that one only to discover that the book I was so excited about is not available or has a two and half star rating and a pile of scathing reviews. Always a disappointment. But I recently discovered you can create lists, so I’ve been looking up books as I think of them and adding them to a list if I find a version that meets my criteria. Now I have a short, curated list of books to choose from, and no longer wonder with furrowed brow what book I’ve forgotten.

Books I Love

Here are my recommendations if you’re wondering where to start:

I’ll have a follow-up post soon with children’s book recommendations for LibriVox!

Living My Dream

My dream for quite a long time now has been to be a stay-at-home mom. I am living that dream! I had my first child last December, and officially quit working in May. My husband and I also have massive student debt.

For a lot of reasons I won’t get into here, we decided not to wait until the debt was paid to have children. It was an excellent choice. No amount of money or financial freedom could convince me otherwise. (And, for the record, raising children is way less expensive than we are led to believe. More on that in a future post).

I had planned to work for at least a while longer, but during maternity leave two things happened. First, my husband got a new job, with better pay and potential for increasing that income over time. It was also cut his commute from fifty minutes in the car to about eight minutes on foot. Second, I realized I could not go back to work full time. I had spent two months home with Little Guy, and they were the best two months of my life. I knew this was where I was supposed to be.

We will never regret this choice.  I am happier than I have ever been. I feel I have found my true calling and passion. I am also much healthier! I lost ten pounds beyond my pre-pregnancy weight, without really doing anything other than not working at a desk all day and eating way less fast food. Beyond that, I wasn’t giving up as much as it seems, when you factor in the cost of childcare, convenience spending, commuting, and inevitable lifestyle inflation. And our family has greater flexibility to better my husband’s career and maximize his income.

I am actually oddly grateful for the lower income–I am convinced it has changed our financial life for the better. When I quit my job, we had to seriously evaluate our finances, make a budget, and cut our spending drastically. This sounds miserable, but actually it was very freeing. Had I kept working, our two-income family would have coasted comfortably along, without ever really facing the reality of debt. Though we would have been making enough to pay our debts down faster than our current plan (nine years or fewer, BTW), the truth is we probably would not have. We also would have just made standard payments, rather than choosing a strategic approach, which will save on interest.

Our family’s plans are not exactly traditional, and our path to the debt-free life isn’t going to be traditional either. Making this dream of mine a priority caused us to finally make our debt a priority as well–so, despite the loss of income, we are actually on a better debt payment track than before. We don’t have to choose between following our dreams and crushing our debt. We choose both. This blog is about dreams and debt and how we do life with both.