Books I read in July 2020

August 1, 2020

In these monthly posts about books I’ve read, I generally try to keep to one paragraph for each book. But I decided that sometimes there is just more than fits in a paragraph.

It was difficult to figure out what to read for “a book on a subject you know nothing about.” I’ve read about a lot of different subjects over the decades, and I generally know something about the subjects that interest me. How would I find something I didn’t know enough about to go looking for a book about it, that would turn out to be interesting? I could find a biography of someone I had barely heard of, or read the history of some country I had barely heard of, but what was the likelihood I would find that interesting? I thought I might just come across something by chance, but by halfway through the year, I figured I’d better start looking for something.

Someone in a Goodreads discussion on this prompt for the PopSugar 2020 Reading Challenge suggested reading a microhistory and provided a link to a list. So I looked through the list for something that I knew little or nothing about but thought I would find interesting. What I came up with was Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World by Mark Kurlansky. Of course I knew something about cod – I’ve eaten it, and I knew it was a fish. But I realized that was pretty much the extent of my knowledge. I had no idea how big a cod was, how it was caught, any of the history or economics of the cod fishing business, or what was the difference between cod and scrod.

I learned a lot of fascinating information from this book, mostly about history, and how the fishing business affects – and is affected by – economics and politics, even leading to wars. Kurlansky portrays both the big picture, how people in many different countries were involved in the cod fishing business, and also tells the stories of individuals and how their lives have been changed by recent (when the book was written, in 1997) changes due to overfishing in the past decades. I learned about the connections of cod with Spain, where I studied and traveled as a college student, and about the codfish aristocracy of New England, where I grew up. Kurlansky includes a number of recipes from different time periods and cultures, and I thought I’d see if I could find one I wanted to try, but none really appealed to me (most of them use salt cod, and nearly all sound too complicated).

It took me a while to find a book set in a city that has hosted the Olympics. I thought probably one or another book I read would turn out to fit, but with each book, I checked the list of cities and it wasn’t there. (Aru Shah and the End of Time does start out and end in Atlanta, Georgia, but most of the action takes place in the Otherworld.) So I finally started looking through lists of books that fit, from a discussion group on Goodreads for people doing the PopSugar 2020 Reading Challenge.

When I found a series set in Barcelona, I decided that was what I wanted to read. I visited Barcelona twice when I was studying in Spain in the early 1980’s. La Sombra del Viento (The Shadow of the Wind) is set in decades before I was born (it starts in 1945, and includes accounts of people’s lives earlier in the twentieth century, including the Spanish Civil War), so it is a much different city than the one I visited, but I recognize two places mentioned, and of course much else about life in Spain.

It had been years since I had read a book in Spanish, but I thought it would be a great way to help evoke the setting in my mind. I was pleased to find that I could follow the story with no trouble, even when I didn’t understand every word. Reading reviews later, I found readers complaining that Carlos Ruiz Zafón uses too many adjectives, two much flowery language, that did not really add to the story. Well, that explains why not understanding it all did not detract from the story. And why there were so many words I wasn’t familiar with.

It starts out with a library and a book, but turns out to be much more about the author than about books. It took a while before I really got engrossed it in (near the end, actually, when the mysteries finally begin to be explained), but I liked it well enough to read more by Ruiz Zafón. The library did not have The Angel’s Game in Spanish, so I read it in English instead. It is a prequel of sorts to The Shadow of the Wind, and it turned out to fit for “a book set in the 1920’s.” Like The Shadow of the Wind, there is a lot of mystery involved. But unlike The Shadow of the Wind, where everything is finally explained (perhaps too neatly?) near the end of the book, in The Angel’s Game there is a good deal left unexplained at the end, which made it less satisfying to me.

I am continuing to reread Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising series, and this month I read Greenwitch and The Grey King, the third and fourth books in the series. When rereading most books I enjoyed as a child, I enjoy them partly because they are like familiar friends, partly because they are just plain good stories. Rereading this series, I find myself puzzled. Very little is familiar to me, almost nothing in these two books.

In Greenwitch, I didn’t feel all that drawn into the story. I didn’t feel what the characters felt and there was little to make me eager to see how things worked out. I found myself wondering, did I enjoy this series as a child, or do I just remember the fact of having read it? Did I enjoy it more then, because as a child I identified more with the characters than I do now as an adult? Or did I just uncritically enjoy reading just about anything (having no real friends and few interests other than reading)?

I enjoyed The Grey King somewhat more. Here Will is finally having to figure out what to do on his own, without Merriman around to guide him. He still seems to often end up just somehow knowing what to do, based on information put into his mind from the Book of Gramarye, but at least there is more of a sense of quest and discovery. His relationship with Bran Davies also adds to the story. And it’s a bonus that I can understand some of the Welsh phrases used in the book, having been studying it on Duolingo for the past few years.

Finally, as I finished the series with Silver on the Tree, I concluded that I had never in fact finished reading the series when I was younger. There is simply nothing I recognize in the last two books of the series, and when I checked the publication dates, I realized that I was in high school by the time I could have read them, and by then I picked books only from the adult section of the local library, never the children’s section. I’ve no idea what I would have thought of it back then, but now I found the book, like the rest of the series, moderately interesting but with too much of a feel of everything having been scripted to work out according to the prophecies. At the moment help was needed, it always came, whether by Will or Bran suddenly just knowing what to do or to say, or an adult showing up to take care of things.

Back to the PopSugar 2020 Reading Challenge, for an anthology I picked The Starlit Wood, edited by Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe. It is a volume of “cross-genre fairy tale retellings,” which appealed to me as I have found retellings of fairy tales very interesting. Usually I have read full-length retellings, however (such as The Coachman Rat by David Henry Wilson and Briar Rose by Jane Yolen), and short stories don’t appeal to me as much, perhaps because there is less scope for development of complex characters and settings. On the whole I didn’t care a great deal for this book, and one story I simply disliked. But there were a few that I did enjoy enough to look for full-length books by those authors.

One of these was The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss. It’s amazing how differently readers react to different books. Sometimes there are books I have found so-so that other readers rave about. This book I found so enjoyable that I finished it in a little over two days. But others called it boring, cluttered (too many characters), or flat (characters had no depth). There are some books that have so many characters I can’t keep track of them, but this wasn’t one. (Well, a few times I might have gotten two of them briefly mixed up, but not much.) I didn’t find the comments (of the characters reviewing their own story, as written by one of them) interspersed in the narrative at all bothersome. They helped introduce the characters, tease the reader with an idea of events yet to happen, and add humor. And of course I liked the idea that Goss could bring together characters from a variety of other books, including Sherlock Holmes and Watson, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Frankenstein, and Dr. Moreau. I haven’t read all of those but know the general idea of their stories.

As I have continued to reread some of C.S. Lewis’s books, this month I read The Four Loves, where he discusses affection, friendship, erotic love, and the love of God. I found some aspects of his thinking very helpful, others less so. When I first read this, as a college student, it was about four decades since it had been written. Now another four decades have passed, and I had to keep reminding myself that in England in the 1940’s, his cultural assumptions (particularly about men and women) were probably very mainstream, but they are rather jarring today.

Another book with statements I found somewhat jarring was Mystical Paths, fifth in Susan Howatch’s Starbridge series that I have been rereading. The narrator is Nick Darrow (son of Jonathan Darrow, who is the central character in the second book), and he keeps translating the “code-language” of traditional Christian discourse into psychological explanations. For instance, Nick tells a friend, “You’ve got to live an authentic existence by being true to your real self! That’s the point about Christ – he was uniquely integrated, he wasn’t at the mercy of a false ego, he was wholly at one with God’s design for him, and that’s why we have to ‘follow Jesus’ – ‘following Jesus’ is code-language signalling that because he’s the finest example there’s ever been of what it means to be fully human, we have to tread in his footsteps if we want to reach our maximum potential.”

Certain Jesus Christ was uniquely integrated and wholly at one with God’s design for him, but is that “the point about Christ”? I kept reminding myself that just because Nick thinks in terms of Jesus as the greatest healer who ever lived and someone who was uniquely integrated, that doesn’t mean Nick didn’t believe he was the Son of God. Nick does make regular use of the Orthodox prayer (he calls it a mantra) “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” though his use of the prayer is to help him “tune in” to God when simply “flipping the switch” in his head does not work and he has to use words.

Each book of the series explores a different tradition within the Church of England, while following a character who has gone “off the rails” spiritually and needs someone to help him come to repentance and reconciliation with God and then with other people. The plot is largely about Nick trying to find out how his friend Christian died, but it’s really about Nick struggling with his identity and trying to untangle his very complicated relationship with his father. Nick is a very annoying character sometimes, but as with the rest of the series, I enjoy the writing (Howatch is a good storyteller) and seeing how people with such different views of Christianity learn to make it real in their lives.

Books I read in June 2020

July 1, 2020

I didn’t spend my whole vacation reading – we did get to Sight & Sound in Branson, MO to see Noah, and we visited Ripley’s Believe It or Not! museum – but I did read a lot. Fortunately the local library reopened shortly before we left for Branson, so I was able to get a variety of books to take with me. And I am now able to start checking off some more categories in the PopSugar 2020 Reading Challenge.

Twenty-one Truths about Love by Matthew Dicks wasn’t on my list of books when I went to the library, but when I saw that it would work for “a book that has a book on the cover,” I took a closer look and decided it would be worth checking out. It’s an unusual novel in that it is composed entirely of lists. You might wonder how well an author can convey characterization or plot by means of lists, but Dicks manages quite well. (Of course, the mere fact that a character spends so much time making lists tells you something about him.) It’s a quick, easy read, and while the main character (the list-maker) seems annoying at times, over time you do get to care about him and his efforts to make things work out for his family.

Death of an Adept by Katherine Kurtz and Deborah Turner Harris didn’t check off any new categories in the reading challenge, but like the other books in the series it was published in the 20th century, and like all but one in the series it has at least a four-star rating on Goodreads. And it finished off the series. It made a good end to the series, I thought, though I still think I enjoyed the first book the best.

I was going to read Scandalous Risks anyway, continuing the Starbridge series by Susan Howatch (now that I’ve finished the Adept series), but as it happens I decided that it was a good fit for a book with a great first line: “I never meant to return to the scene of my great disaster.” It’s perhaps my least favorite of the series, in large part because nearly the entire book is taken up with the disaster. It makes for interesting reading, but what I like so much about the other books in the series is that they explore not only the ways in which people act in self-destructive ways but how they repent and by the grace of God begin to turn their lives around, bit by bit. Another thing I like about the series is that it doesn’t make it seem as though turning back to God brings about a quick or easy resolution to personal problems and relationships, and in fact this book shows how easily someone can return to self-destructive habits, as the main character from the previous book is the focus of the disaster in this novel. Read the rest of this entry »

Books I read in May 2020

May 31, 2020

Since I can’t continue the Adept series by Katherine Kurtz and Deborah Turner Harris until the books I have ordered come in, I decided to reread a series I read over twenty years ago. I don’t remember how I came to read the first book in the Starbridge series by Susan Howatch, but once I had read Glittering Images, I was hooked. Many readers would think that that the beliefs and practices of clergy in the Church of England wouldn’t make a very interesting novel (except perhaps when they get involved in scandals of some kind). But Howatch shows that a book that seriously explores what it means to live as a Christian can be a page-turner. Of course, the characters do make some serious errors, morally and psychologically, but then they reach a place where they turn to a spiritual advisor for help, and find the grace of forgiveness and the power to begin to live differently. Unlike some “Christian fiction” I have read, there is not a sense that Howatch has written the books as extended tracts, to bring readers to Christ, but rather to let readers explore with her what it means to live out the realities of the Christian faith. Glittering Images is not my favorite book in the series, but I read it at a time when I was struggling with issues of faith, motherhood, and the prospect of being a pastor’s wife (my husband was in seminary at the time), and its exploration of issues related to marriage, serving God, and living as one’s true self rather than an image created to impress people, made a big impression on me.

I continued immediately with the next book in the series, Glamorous Powers. I could probably have chosen any book from the series for “a book featuring one of the seven deadly sins,” but I thought this book fit that prompt particularly well with its focus on the sin of pride. Even not having read it in over twenty years and remembering very little of the plot, I remembered that much. It turned out to move more slowly than I remembered, and I had remembered less of the overall story than in Glittering Images. But like all the books in the series, it is a fascinating examination of different traditions within the Christian church, and of the ways people mess up their lives by sins that have more to do with attitudes and relationships than the more obvious sins, and then, encountering God’s grace, get back on the right track.

A very different novel, with a different kind of enjoyment, was Doing Time by Jodi Taylor. I picked this as a book with a pun in the title, as “doing time” here has nothing to do with serving a prison sentence (though Luke may feel that his stint as a Time Police recruit is a kind of imprisonment), but rather with time travel. I had wondered how anything to do with the Time Police could be fun, considering how the Time Police are portrayed in Taylor’s Chronicles of St Mary’s, of which this new series (starting with Doing Time) is a spin-off. But Taylor manages to pull it off. It’s quite different from the St Mary’s books, but also fun in its own way. (I can’t help wondering how long Taylor worked at getting in the line, “Luke, I am your father” – though maybe it just came to her without planning.)

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Books I read in April 2020

May 2, 2020

Being home most of the time due to the shutdown of most of the country due to COVID-19 has definitely given me more time to read. The library being closed has made it more of a challenge to find books I really want to read, but my interests vary widely, and there are a lot of books in our house, including the box my sister recently sent me.

My son offered me his copy of Dwight D. Eisenhower by Tom Wicker, explaining that he only had it because (back when he was in high school) one of his high school teachers was cleaning up at the end of the year and was going to discard it, so my son took it rather than see it go in the trash. I don’t throw out books in good condition – I give them to Goodwill, which is where this will probably end up (once Goodwill opens for business again). But first I decided I might as well read it, since I needed “a fiction or non-fiction book about a world leader.” I did not know much about Eisenhower, as he was too recent to be covered in history classes when I was growing up, but too long ago for people still to be talking about him. I had heard bits and pieces of 1950’s history as it pertained to McCarthyism and to the civil rights movement, but I had little idea what role if any Eisenhower had played in those issues. Wicker depicts a president popular for his role in winning WWII, but reluctant to take a stand that might be unpopular, though he did uphold the law once the Supreme Court had determined that school desegregation was necessary, despite his personal sentiments.

I had not heard of either Kenken or Parnell Hall, but after reading all about Eisenhower I was ready for a cozy mystery, and one that dealt with puzzles sounded good. Besides, I had been having trouble finding “a book published the month of your birthday,” and The Kenken Killings (from the box of books from my sister) turned out to have been published in January 2011. (I actually spent some time trying to find a book published in January the year I was born, but there don’t seem to be a lot of books published in January, and for many of the books from several decades ago, I was not able to find a specific date, only a year.) I was not overly impressed by this book, but I did enjoy doing the crossword puzzles (on scrap paper – I don’t write in books even if they belong to me). The main character is not particularly likable as a person, but once I decided she was intended to be interesting and perhaps amusing rather than likable, I didn’t mind.

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Books I read in March 2020

April 1, 2020

I had thought I’d get more reading done, having to work from home during the COVID-19 epidemic, and having all my usual evening activities canceled, but so far it hasn’t worked out that way. I’ll have plenty more chances in the next month, though, as I see the stay-at-home order is going to be extended. My usual source of books, the public library, is unavailable (I can still download audiobooks, but while those are great for commuting, I prefer reading printed books at home), so it looks like I’ll be reading some of those books I’ve accumulated over the years but haven’t gotten around to reading. Most of that is non-fiction, so I may be re-reading some books I haven’t read in years, or reading some of my husband’s large collection of sci-fi/fantasy.

This may make it harder to find books that fit categories in the PopSugar 2020 Reading Challenge. I’m sure I don’t have any that were published in 2020, and while I have two published in 2019, I doubt they won any awards (they’re both time travel fiction by Jodi Taylor). I don’t think I have any about book clubs, and I very much doubt I have any about or involving social media. But my son did just give me a book about Dwight Eisenhower (a book he had saved from being tossed in the trash when a high school history teacher was getting rid of stuff), so that will count as a book about a world leader. That’s next month’s reading, though, and this post is supposed to be about what I read in March.

I checked A Fearsome Doubt by Charles Todd out from the library thinking it might work for a book set in the 1920’s, since I know it takes place shortly after WWII. But it turns out this book, like the five previous in the series, is set in 1919, as is the next one. And the next twelve after that are set in 1920, which I suppose counts as 1920’s but just barely. This book would work for a book with a three-word title, as well as one with at least a four-star rating on Goodreads (4.04), although I already have other books for both those categories. Like the book I read last year in this series (one of those set in 1920), it is more interesting for its treatment of an ex-soldier with PTSD (called “shell-shock” back then) than for the mystery itself, but it was good enough I’ll probably read more … once the library is open again.

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Books I read in February 2020

March 1, 2020

It’s not only easy to find books that fit the PopSugar Reading Challenge because it’s early in the year and I haven’t filled in many categories yet; it’s just plain easy to find books that fit this year’s categories. I decided to keep track of books that fit the different categories even after I have already read one, and so far I’ve been able to find a category for every single book I’ve chosen to read, whether I picked it with a category in mind or not. Partly that is because there are categories like “a book published in the 20th century” and “a book with at least a four-star rating on Goodreads.” Most of the books I own, and I would guess a large proportion of books at the library, were published in the 20th century, and I often make book selections at least partly based on ratings on Goodreads.

I had initially thought I would reread one of the Brother Cadfael books by Ellis Peters for a book from a series with more than 20 books. I probably still will. But when I found the latest (#24) in Nancy Atherton’s Aunt Dimity books, Aunt Dimity and the Heart of Gold, I grabbed it off the library shelf. The books and the main characters have changed over the course of the series, which is probably a good thing, as one doesn’t want to read essentially the same thing 24 times. But it means that, while I still enjoy every book in the series, I don’t enjoy the more recent ones in the same way I enjoyed the early books. But I do enjoy them, and I will keep reading them.

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Books I read in January 2020

February 1, 2020

I think I have been reading about as much as usual, but it’s hard to tell from my list of books finished in January. Mostly, though, that’s because I finished all the books I was reading last month, and didn’t start this month, as I usually do, with a few books I have nearly finished. But things are back to normal now – I’m in the middle of eight books, going into February.

Some people would find it confusing, but for the most part I have no trouble keeping them straight. (I did have to decide against starting one book I was planning on reading next, because it is set in WWII and I’m already reading another set in WWII.) I listen to one audiobook in the car, and another on the exercise bike. During lunch at work I read a book from the college library. At home I usually have a non-fiction book I’m reading, and a fiction book for when I want lighter reading. Though some fiction is anything but light, not difficult intellectually but emotionally, or I just can’t “get into” the story so it’s hard to push my way through. So then I pull out another book, that I know is light reading, when I really want to just relax. Then there is also the book I’m reading for book club, which meets the first Monday of the month (except next week, when we postponed it a week due to Iowa caucuses), so I read the book the last week or two before the meeting so as to have it fresh in my memory. (And book club books are often the ones that are harder to get into, because they’re books I didn’t choose for myself.)

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Books I read in December

January 1, 2020

According to, I read 148 books in 2019. Fifty of these were for the PopSugar Reading Challenge (not counting where I read more than one for a category), twelve were for the local library book club, and a few were for a Bible study group. Thirty-three were audiobooks that I listened to either while riding the exercise bike or during my daily commute.

Some of these were novellas rather than full-length books, but it adds up to a lot of pages read! I used a spreadsheet this year for tracking the number of both books and pages I read for the PopSugar Reading Challenge; for 2020 I decided to track number of books and pages for all books I read.

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Books I read in November

December 7, 2019

In November I finished what I had planned on being the last book to complete the 2019 PopSugar Reading Challenge. But then I found a downloadable audiobook edition of one of the books I had initially planned to read but at the time could only find as an ebook (I read magazine and newspaper articles online, but with rare exceptions, I don’t do ebooks), so now I’m listening to that.

The book I did finish was to meet the category of a book you see someone reading on TV or in a movie. Since I don’t watch TV and rarely watch movies (two this year, I think), it would be pretty difficult to find a book for this category based on my own TV or movie watching. But there are lists of these things online, and I found out that a character in The Dark Knight Rises is seen reading A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. I generally try to be precise in finding books to meet these categories (which is one reason I’m listening to the audiobook I just mentioned, because I wasn’t sure the other book I had read really fit the category), but since it’s a reading challenge, I did not see a reason to watch the movie just so the book would fit the category better. My husband would no doubt have enjoyed watching it with me, but from the reviews I did not think I would like it much.

I did enjoy A Tale of Two Cities, however. I had read it for 9th grade English, and remembered having liked it, and had thought a number of times over the years of rereading it. So I decided it was finally time. What surprised me was how very little I recognized from having read it back then. I remembered Sydney Carton, and the famous last lines of the novel, as well as how he ended up where was at the end. I remembered Madame Defarge and her knitting. Other than the historical setting, that was it. Usually when rereading a book I at least recognize characters and events once I read about them again, but except for Lucie Manette and her father, nothing seemed familiar. That, of course, made it more interesting, in a way, as though I were reading it for the first time, even though I knew how it ended. Some parts at the beginning went pretty slowly, but I knew I had liked the book before and I knew it had a good ending, so it was not hard to keep going. As a side note, I suspect that this novel was where I first learned John 11:25-26, which became my favorite Bible verses after I came to faith in Christ the following summer.

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Books I read in October

November 3, 2019

This is the first month this year I haven’t completed any books for the PopSugar 2019 Reading Challenge, but I’m on my last book, and listening to an mp3 LibriVox recording during the twelve minutes on my exercise bike weekday mornings, which means it takes quite a while to finish a book. Of course, having finished the rest of the books in the challenge, I have more time to read other books.

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman is a book I’d been planning on reading for over a year. It’s long, however, and when I browsed through it on the college bookshelf, it didn’t look like a light read. I finally decided to read it when I was working on a speech for Toastmasters on making choices. I’m not sure how much it helped with the speech (the purpose of which was to include humor), but it was fascinating reading, and not at all dull or heavy. Other readers might disagree, of course, but I found it very enjoyable – in part because I really enjoy learning new things, and learning how our minds work is one of those meta-topics that relates to absolutely everything else.

Also while working on the speech, I came across references to The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less by Barry Schwartz, and since that ended up being the specific topic of my speech (that choosing from among fewer options can make us happier), I was pleased to find the book in the library, and read through it in two or three days. I had read several articles, including one by Barry Schwartz, discussing that topic, so the ideas were not new but it fleshed them out more, and helped me decide how to structure my speech.

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