Monday, July 22, 2013

Almost Forgot to Share... My Book Loot from ALA 2013

I had the opportunity once again this year to attend the American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference. This year, the conference was in Chicago, which is the headquarters of ALA. My sister tagged along and in between me attending sessions and getting some work done, we had a great girls' weekend.

First things first, here are the book freebies I managed to snag this year:

All the books
Close up

Close up

Close up

Oh yeah, and I saw Alice Walker:

And did all this fun stuff:

Cloud Gate (AKA The Bean)

Bit of the skyline over the Chicago River
Deep dish pizza from Giardano's

Friday, July 19, 2013

My Experience Reading an Unpublished Manuscript

UPDATE (10/2/13): Megan has now changed the title of her novel to Confessions of the St. Augustine Sisters and the blog I mention below is no longer active. Instead, keep up with this novel on Facebook.

Recently, I had the incredible experience of reading a writer friend's (as of yet) unpublished novel. She approached me to edit/review her manuscript (apparently I have a reputation) and give her some feedback.

I've fielded these types of requests before - though they are usually papers for school that friends/relatives ask me to look over - and to be honest I was nervous the book would not be good. What would I do then? How could I tell a friend that her novel was no good?

Silly me. I should not have worried.

The book is called City of Secrets. The author is Megan Stephens. It is a paranormal, family saga that takes place in my favorite city - St. Augustine, FL. The Waverly sisters run a bed and breakfast in downtown, historic St. Augustine as they deal with family complications, men, and their family's mysterious "gifts". The best part? It is the first in a trilogy of books centering around the Waverly family. For more information about City of Secrets and up and coming author Megan Stephens, visit the City of Secrets website/blog.

Anyone who has been reading my blog over the last couple of years knows that when a book is not good, I have no problem saying it. As such, I wouldn't falsely talk up a novel simply because it is written by a friend. I don't mean to tease you by telling you about a great novel that you can't read yet, but do support her blog and be on the lookout for when City of Secrets is available.

I was honored to read the unpublished manuscript of City of Secrets and to be a part of bringing this wonderful novel closer to publication.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Best Books I Read So Far in 2013

I love lists of books, so I thought I'd pop back onto Read Handed to share the five best books I've read so far this year. To be clear, these are books that I've read in 2013, not necessarily books that were published this year. Anything I've read is fair game. For a full list of all the books I've read so far this year, check out my Reading List.

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell
Set in Florida and revolving around a family in mourning, this novel has mystery, tragedy, beauty, adventure, and more. Some could be put-off by its ethereal qualities, but I liked it.

The Defining Decade by Meg Jay
The subtitle is "Why your twenties matter - and how to make the most of them now." A must-read for twenty-somethings. Don't wake up on your thirtieth birthday and wonder why you're not farther along on your goals. Do something about it now. Start by reading this book. 

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
Number one book I've read this year by far. Just amazing. If you haven't read it, do it now.

The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh
A story of love and acceptance, regret and alienation. It appeals to the desire to be loved inherent in us all. Beautifully written.

Straight Man by Richard Russo
A fun, witty, goofy book. All done without being crass. The main character is fundamentally likable and the descriptions of academic bureaucracy dead on. By far the best of the "campus novels" I've been reading.

Honorable Mentions:


Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
The only reason this title didn't make the top 5 is because I was already so familiar with the storyline that it felt more satisfying than enlivening to read the actual book.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Haunting and well-written, this novel tells the story of six college students whose quest for enlightenment has tragic and mysterious consequences.

What great books have you read so far this year?

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Bookish Things in Our New House

After posting a picture of my husband and me outside of our new home a couple of months ago, one reader asked me if I would post pictures of the inside, too. Now, I don't think the whole wide Internet needs a full tour, but I can share some of the more book-related aspects of our home.

First, when we moved, we needed a new place to store our DVDs. I found this beauty on Target's website. With some gift cards we had saved from Christmas, it was only about $20. I love it. The only problem is that it fits every one of our movies exactly, so if we get even one more DVD, I'm not sure what we will do!

Because we have more bedrooms than we need right now, I am (temporarily at least) able to have my own library! The biggest problem is that I don't have enough bookcases. The nice ones I want are over $100 each and I would want about six of them, so we are making do with what we have for now.

We don't have all of our books in the library. Some are still in boxes because of space issues. And some are on this bookcase:

This is a special bookcase that my mom had when she was growing up. She glued some of her old achievement certificates to the sides. When our dog Layla was a puppy, she decided to make her own mark on the bookcase during her wood-chewing phase. We keep meaning to sand and stain the bottom there, but haven't gotten to it yet. We keep this bookcase downstairs near the living room. I keep my "next up" books in it for more convenient access. (FYI I have three boxes of "to be read" books in my closet and as I pull a book from this bookcase, I shift the rest and add a new one from the storage boxes).

So those are the bookish aspects of our new home. Hope you enjoyed the tour!

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Nonfiction Mini Reviews


The Defining Decade by Meg Jay - In my mind, this book is a must-read for twenty-somethings. Meg Jay, a psychologist specializing in adult development, illuminates some of the important, life-changing elements of our twenties, using real-life patients as examples. Jay talks about how our twenties set the stage for the rest of our lives and are the time to actively plan for the lives we want rather than expecting that everything will just fall into place. Our twenties do matter, even though society has viewed this decade more and more as an extended adolescence rather than real adulthood.

Following Atticus by Tom Ryan - Who doesn't love books about dogs, especially when (spoiler alert) the dog does not die at the end? Ryan's story of his amazing schnauzer Atticus is heartwarming and inspiring. It'll make even cat-loving couch potatoes want to get a dog and go hiking.

How Learning Works by Susan A. Ambrose, et al. - Alright, so I know this book will not be for everyone, but as a soon-to-be EdD student, I loved it. Ambrose and the rest of the gang from the Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence at Carnegie Mellon University lay out seven teaching principles backed by research and show how they work and how to apply them in the classroom. Written for higher education, the principles can surely be applied to other levels of learning as well.

Mindset by Carol Dweck - In Mindset, Dweck, a psychologist specializing in achievement and success, explores her theory that people generally have either a fixed mindset or a growth mindset. Those in a fixed mindset are afraid to fail and as a result, often fail to try. They believe their achievements define them, i.e. When I got an A on this paper, everyone said I was smart. If I don't get an A on my next paper, people won't think I'm smart anymore. In contrast, those in a growth mindset are more interested in stretching and growing than in success/failure. Growth mindset people are more likely to take a risk because the growth inherent in the effort is more important than the outcome. Best of all, Dweck makes it clear that we can choose to be in one mindset or the other, training our brains to think in the growth mindset. Dweck shows how the mindsets work in various aspects of life - business, sports, education, romance, parenting, and more. Mindset is an interesting read - it would be a good pick for a book club or other discussion group because everyone is bound to have an opinion about Dweck's theory.


The Courage to Teach by Parker J. Palmer - I've heard everyone and their brother say that The Courage to Teach is a must-read for anyone in education, but I just couldn't get into it. I definitely found some gems, but Palmer's thoughts were not terribly well organized and he often repeated points. I didn't hate it, it just felt a lot longer than its 200-something pages. Maybe because classroom teaching is only one part of my job rather than the majority of it, I didn't relate well enough. I don't know. Educators should still read it, even if it's only so you can be a part of the conversation about it.

The Orchard by Theresa Weir - This memoir about young love and acceptance in the middle of a pesticide-filled apple orchard was pretty unique, but not entirely compelling. Weir is writing about her late husband and the early years of their marriage. The changes in Weir and her husband from the beginning of the memoir to the end are striking, but I wish Weir had spent more time on that evolution. She doesn't do a particularly good job of showing how and why they change. Perhaps much of it is still too painful for her (I hate criticizing memoirs because they are so personal to the authors). Read it if you are interested in apple orchards and the use of pesticides.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Fiction Mini Reviews


The Book Thief by Markus Zusak - One of THE BEST books I have ever read. Seriously. If you have not read this one, yet, do it! But, be sure to have lots of time and tissues because a) you will not want to put it down and b) if you are anything like me, you will bawl your eyes out. The book is historical fiction, told from the point of view of a rather sympathetic Death, and centering on Nazi Germany and the Holocaust.

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck - A classic that is short but poignant. I listened to this in the car as an audiobook. The writing is beautiful, the characters well-developed, and the storyline moving. What more could you want?

The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh - Such a beautiful novel about motherhood, love, and adoption. The emotions are so strong and I absolutely could not stop reading. I wanted to read it quickly to find out what would happen next, but I also wanted to read it slowly to savor the words. Probably means a reread is in my future!

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell - This novel has gotten a lot of mixed reviews, but I really enjoyed it. The writing and plot have an almost dream-like quality. Nothing seems quite real, but as a reader I felt terribly invested in it all. The Bigtree family is very unique, and yet as they deal with grief, loss, and teenage angst, they feel very relatable. I can understand why some readers wouldn't like Swamplandia! but as someone who loves Florida fiction, I give it a thumbs up.

Charlotte Street by Danny Wallace - What a fun book! This was my first time reading anything by Danny Wallace, but I really enjoyed the witty voice of his protagonist, Jason. The premise of the book is basically that Jason's life is a mess. He's going through some tough times with his career and his personal life simultaneously, trying to get over an ex-girlfriend while transitioning into a new career. In the middle of all this, Jason, in an uncharacteristic move, helps a lady on Charlotte Street get into a cab and is left with her disposable camera in his hands. This starts Jason and his friends on a semi-stalkerish adventure to find the girl and return her photos to her.

Knock Knock by Suzanne McNear - Fantastic. The narrative is a bit stream of consciousness, although it is a third person narrator, not first person. The book follows March Rivers through her life, from childhood to old age, concentrating a lot on her emotional responses to events. So much of what March feels is relatable. The writing style is unique and provocative. As lyrical as poetry. Again, part of the point of the book (in my opinion) was to focus on March's emotions, so this style works well. The immediacy is clear and strong. I know not everyone will enjoy this novel, but fans of literary fiction will.

Falling Together by Marisa de los Santos - Lots of little plot holes and things that are not quite believable in this novel, but all in all a pleasant, quick read that includes travel, love, and mystery. The characters are often cliche and predictable, but the sweet story of young friendship maturing into love is what makes me glad to have read the book.

Trail from St. Augustine by Lee Gramling - I seriously have a weakness for westerns. I don't read them that often, but I really enjoy them when I do. They have adventure, romance, and tough-on-the-outside-but-sensitive-on-the-inside men that know how to survive and live off the land. Plus, there's always a good dose of morality and a sense of doing what's right. I like that. This book has all of that, plus a Florida setting, which I am all about. (This type of book is more specifically called a "cracker western" because it has the traits of a western, but takes place in Florida with "cracker" characters).

A Land Remembered by Patrick D. Smith - Another example of a cracker western, but longer and less formulaic. A Land Remembered is considered a pretty seminal work among Florida literature, but honestly, I like Gramling's little cracker western better. Part of my problem with A Land Remembered is how it shows the devolution of a Florida cracker family through the generations. The patriarch, Tobias, is honest and hardworking. He readily helps his fellow man and ignores racial stereotypes. His son and grandson, however, are not quite so morally upright. Tobias's son, Zech, decides that it's okay to have a white wife and a Native American mistress because the two worlds are so different. Not only does Zech not see this to be problematic, I got the idea that the author thinks it was okay, too. Zech's son, Sol, is even worse - greedy and power hungry. I know that showing this devolution is intentional, but it does not sit right with me. I really enjoy the picture of early 1900s Florida life depicted in this book, but I'm certain it is not entirely accurate. A lot of romanticizing going on for sure, which bothers me more in A Land Remembered than in Trail from St. Augustine because the former is supposed to be a more serious novel. Read it if you enjoy Florida literature.


Pirate Latitudes by Michael Crichton - Apparently an unpolished manuscript found after Crichton's death. It shows. My husband and I listened to this novel as an audiobook and loved it at first, but then it kept going and going and going. As soon as the group of "privateers" get out of one impossible scrape, they are into another, each more ridiculous than the last. I read somewhere that Crichton had this more in mind for a movie than a book, and I can see that working better. Pass unless you are a really big Crichton fan and want to read his entire canon.

The Guilty Plea by Robert Rotenberg - Standard mystery/courtroom drama type fare. It takes place in Canada, which is interesting because of some of the different laws there than in the U.S. It's the sequel to Old City Hall, but you don't need to have read the first to enjoy the second. Unless you are a huge fan of this genre, it is not a must-read.

The Summer Garden by Paullina Simons - I'm not quite done with this book yet, but it is not particularly my cup of tea. The Summer Garden is the third book in a trilogy, so if you've read the other two (The Bronze Horseman and Tatiana and Alexander) you'll definitely want to read this one. I did not read the first two, but if I had, I probably would still feel the same about this book. Actually, I probably would have never gotten to this book because I would have stopped reading after the first in the trilogy. It's not a terrible book, but it's very long (like 700 pages), with about half of it so far made up of love scenes. If that's what you like to read, go for it, but it's not for me. Not only does the plot line drag, but I also don't especially care for the characters, especially the main male lead Alexander. I'm really not sure why so many women think that burly, moody, "have my way with you" type men are so attractive, but it does not appeal to me. We'll see how I feel about this book when I'm done with it, but as of right now, I'd say pass.

Friday, April 19, 2013

The Summer of Campus Novels

Three things have inspired my decision to concentrate on reading good campus novels this summer.

First, I am heading back to school in the fall to get an EdD in Educational Leadership (Higher Education track) and am super excited to be back in a classroom.

Second, I love campus novels.

Third, I found this great list of "10 Great Contemporary Campus Novels", of which I have only read two (The Art of Fielding and Possession)

Based on the list to which I linked above (and the "classic" campus novels they mention), I have put together my own list of ten campus novels I plan to read in the upcoming months (you know, while I can still read for pleasure before academic reading takes over my life). I've requested seven of these from my public library and will wait on the other two.

Any other great campus novel recommendations for me? Let me know in the comments!