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.

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!