January 2016 Must-Reads

January 2016 is in the books, and so was I! I’m off to a great start on my Goodreads yearly reading goal of 80 books, I read an Advanced Reader Copy from my Netgalley shelf, and I’ve read the first of the 12 books I picked for the Modern Mrs. Darcy Reading Challenge. I’ve decided upon a format for my periodic reading updates. Unlike last year, when I shared once per season, I’ll be sharing once a month. Each month I’ll highlight the books I felt were must-reads with a full review. Because some of you asked, I’ll share the rest of the books I read for the month but didn’t particularly love with a short blurb. If there’s anything new and noteworthy coming out I think you’ll like, I’ll share them, as well as review my monthly Modern Mrs. Darcy Reading Challenge Pick. Enough with the boring details, though; on to the books!

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The best books I read in January in fiction, non-fiction, YA and children's literature.

January Must-Reads

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson

This is an example of why you shouldn’t pay much attention to book reviews. (Except, of course, this one!) I started this book knowing virtually nothing about it, other than from the brief blurb on Amazon. It was the January book club pick for my neighborhood book club. I started it and was immediately smitten. Allan Karlsson is about to celebrate his 100th birthday at the Old Folks’ Home in Malmköping, Sweden. You’d think he’d be thrilled, not only at the prospect of a birthday, but at having a party thrown in his honor – even the mayor would be there! Instead he’s fed up; too much of having Director Alice tell him what to do and not enough vodka. And so he climbs out his window and begins a journey that will eventually lead him through Sweden as a fugitive suspected of triple murder. Interspersed with the crazy, present-day adventure of the centenarian is the tale of Allan’s nearly unbelievable life as a simple man who happens to find himself at the center of some of the 20th century’s most pivotal historic events. Imagine Sweden’s version of Forest Gump, just a bit crankier and with a bit of a drinking problem.

About a 1/3 of the way into the book I started reading other reviews and found that a lot of people hate this book. After that I couldn’t help but noticing some of the complaints and picking apart the book myself. It’s true that I found the present day adventures more enjoyable to read than the sections devoted to Allan’s previous life. Some of the history lessons can get to be a bit tedious. Overall, however, I found the book entertaining and charming. It didn’t lend itself well to a book club discussion, but for a breezy, fun read (assuming you skim over the political/historical parts if they don’t entertain you), I’d recommend you give Mr. Karlsson a try.

Design Mom: How to Live with Kids: A Room-by-Room Guide by Gabrielle Blair

I’ve been a fan of Gabrielle Blair and her blog, Design Mom, for years. She was one of the first blogs I started reading. Some blogs fit a reader well for a certain season of life – a baby feeding blog, a crafting blog aimed at the preschool set – but year after year I find that the content on Design Mom still fits my life and interests like a glove. I’m usually leery of books or blogs about design. They often feel too out-of-reach for me or unrealistic. Not the case with this book! Borrowing from her popular blog series, Living with Kids, as well as her own experiences living with six kids, Blair goes room by room with short blurbs on how to make each room beautiful and functional. I feel like this book does a fantastic job of giving readers the foundation to make improvements in each room, while also giving you the inspiration and freedom to make a space your own. Beyond being helpful, it’s also a very pretty book inside and out – one that would look perfect in a well-designed family office or living room!

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

I know it’s only January, but can I go ahead and put this on my Best of 2016 list? Dystopian, set-in-the-future, computer-gaming books would not normally be a genre I’d naturally pick up, but this book came highly recommended by several readers whose judgement I trust. It was also recommended that I listen to the audio version, narrated by my childhood crush, Wil Wheaton.

Set in 2044, Wade Watts’ United States isn’t much like the one we live in today. Thanks to a catastrophic energy crisis, most of the population can barely afford to keep themselves fed and housed. Mass migrations to the cities have resulted in most citizens living in “Stacks:” trailer home after trailer home stacked haphazardly on top of one another. With no family to speak of, and little resources, the socially awkward and introverted teenager finds comfort in the virtual world of the OASIS. When the creator of the OASIS and object of Wade’s deep admiration, James Halliday, dies and leaves his vast fortune to the first person who can unlock the hidden digital puzzles within the virtual world, Wade becomes obsessed. And when he becomes the first player to stumble upon the first clue, the game is on. What follows is a fast-paced journey through a virtual future, mixed with drama, humor, suspense and SO many fantastic references to the 80s. Even if you think this book isn’t for you, I beg you to give it a chance. I highly recommend the audio version – Wheaton is absolute perfection as Wade.

Rising Strong by Brene Brown

In Daring Greatly (one of my favorite non-fiction reads of 2015), Brene Brown invites us “to embrace vulnerability and imperfection, to live wholeheartedly, and to courageously engage in our lives.” In her follow-up book, Rising Strong, Brown looks deeper at vulnerability: what happens when we’re brave and vulnerable – and we inevitably fall down? I find Brown’s writing both delightful to read and supremely insightful. I took so many notes, and there are ideas and passages that will resonate with me for a lifetime. At the same time, what Brown has to say isn’t always easy to take in. She looks deeply into what triggers shame, anger, fear, embarrassment, doubt and vulnerability, and shows us how easy it can be (in the short term), to stuff those feelings back down and cloak them in an entirely different story we tell ourselves. Best of all, Brown gives us to the tools we can use to break out of that cycle by recognizing our story, rumbling with our feelings and changing the way we live, love, work and parent. Buy your own copy and break out your highlighters!

I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson

I finished this book a few days ago, and I’m still trying to come to terms with it (in the best way possible). If you had asked me at different points in the book what I thought, I would have given you three different answers. In the first third of the book I was slightly confused and more than a little worried. Both the format and the writing style took some getting used to. Told from the perspective of twins Noah and Jude, the story alternates both in narrators and timing. Noah tells the before, when the twins are 13 and everything they know about life and each other seems to be changing. Jude narrates the period 3 years later, after their world is torn apart. Nelson has the uncanny ability to write straight from a teen’s brain. It was confusing at first, but once I dialed into it, I loved it. This is my pick for book club in March; I was feeling anxious that I’d made a terrible choice! In the middle of the book, after getting used to the writing style and getting deeper into the story, I was hooked. And the last third of the book? I couldn’t stop. It’s been a long time since I was so absorbed in a story that I knew I couldn’t sleep until I’d finished the book, but that’s exactly what happened with I’ll Give You the Sun. I literally gasped out loud at one point, and was sorely disappointed that, at 1 in the morning I didn’t have anyone to talk about the book with! I sobbed at the end, as Noah and Jude make each half of their story whole in a desperate, last-ditch attempt to remake their world. I can’t wait to talk about this book with other readers!

Honorable Mention:

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

First published in 1961, this is one of those children’s classics that continually show up on “Books Every Child Should Read” lists. It’s an interesting book, and I can see how it would be one of those works of literature that stays with a child as they grow up. Not having a previous history with the book I can only look at it as an adult … and it’s weird. I don’t have a problem with weird – some of my favorite children’s books are very strange (The Mysterious Benedict Society, pretty much anything by Roald Dahl, Pippi Longstocking). The Phantom Tollbooth was strange in a darker way. It’s also a tricky book to read aloud. Many of the chapters are built around characters with names and personalities that revolve around word play. Clever, for sure, but hard to deliver as a narrator and not a reader. Add to that some very dated vocabulary and you have a tricky read. Surprisingly, though, Eli seemed to really enjoy it, and always wanted to read more. While I didn’t particularly love it, I’d still recommend it for older middle grade readers who can read it on their own.

The Fringe Hours: Making Time for You by Jessica Turner

This was my January pick for the MMD Reading Challenge in the category of “A book you’ve been meaning to read.” The Fringe Hours has been on my To Be Read list since it was published. From the publisher: “Perfect for any woman who is doing everything for everyone—except herself.” (Raises hand.) I’ve gotten better in the last year, but I know there’s room for improvement. I was hoping Turner’s book would help me manage my time better and lose the last remnants of guilt that linger when I schedule time just for me. However, her focus is less on time management and more on providing a pep talk about why you should make time for yourself. The basic idea is that we all have these little fringe hours in our day that we can choose to spend doing things that feed our soul instead of frittering away. I feel as if I’m beyond that and was looking for more concrete examples of managing my day. While it didn’t necessarily teach me anything new, I can see how Turner’s ideas and examples could be just what an overwhelmed and guilt-ridden mom might need to inspire her to make herself a priority.

New & Noteworthy:

Liar by Rob Roberge (available February 9)

I received an Advanced Reader Copy courtesy of Netgalley. The publisher bills this as “an intense memoir about mental illness, memory and storytelling,” and they weren’t kidding about intense. Roberge’s writing about the many injuries and near-misses he sustained during his years of heavy drug and alcohol abuse are both vivid and difficult … and very intense. Frequent concussions and years of hard living have left Roberge with memory issues similar to the ones suffered by boxers and professional football players. His fear of losing his memories propel him to  record his stories in this memoir – and Roberge has many stories to tell. He’s lived through the murders of more than one friend, cycled through addiction and recovery, struggled with mental illness and attempts at suicide. He also has victories to share: success as a musician and writer, and a happy marriage.

I struggled with this book in a few ways, and found it compelling in others. Roberge’s writing is vivid and moving. You will feel things when you read this book, and many things will make you feel uncomfortable. Written in the second person, it took me a few chapters to acclimate myself to that narrative, but once I did I found it interesting. I also struggled with Roberge’s choice to go back and forth in time, repeatedly and without any pattern. While I appreciate that this writing style may serve to mimic the erratic workings of his brain, it was difficult to follow and connect events as a reader. My ultimate struggle with the book has nothing to do with the author or the quality of the writing, but with the topic. Anne Bogel addressed the subject of books a reader will categorically not read. She writes of these books, “These are books that sound very, very interesting. The one pulling in rave reviews, the ones recommended by friends with great taste.” But they don’t get a place on your own particular reading list due to the nature of the subject. After reading Liar and comparing it to similar memoirs and fiction, I realize that the subject of addiction is more than likely one I will categorically not read in the future. They don’t sit well with me, and therefore cloud my judgement. I don’t disagree that Roberge is a talented writer and that Liar is an important work. But if you categorically have a difficult time with the subject of addiction, this may not be the right book for you.

Spark Joy: An Illustrated Master Class on the Art of Organizing and Tidying Up by Marie Kondo

Kondo’s companion to the book no one could stop talking about last year (and one of my picks for favorite non-fiction of 2015) debuted January. I just picked up a copy from my library and am about 1/3 of the way through. I’ll report back next month!

The Rest:

The Rosie Effect by Graeme Simsion

The Rosie Project was one of my favorite fiction books of 2015, so I was really looking forward to checking back in with Rosie and Don and reading more of their story. The Rosie Effect follows Rosie and Don as they settle into marriage, a new city, and (unexpectedly) a pregnancy. I’ve never read a sequel where the characters I loved in previous books so quickly become characters I don’t enjoy. This follow-up story just didn’t have the zip and charm of the first. If you haven’t read the first book, by all means add it to your list. I wouldn’t rush to read the next chapter in Don and Rosie’s life, however.

The Hoboken Chicken Emergency by Daniel Pinkwater

Eli and I finished up Pinkwater’s book about Henrietta, Arthur Bobowicz’s escaped 266 lb pet chicken. Henrietta eludes Arthur and terrifies the town of Hoboken. The book is almost as old as me (1977), but I’d never read it. Eli thought it was very good: it’s tremendously silly, and he belly-laughed through multiple scenes. As a read-aloud, we struck out yet again; it wasn’t super fun or entertaining for the grownup. I would most definitely recommend it for middle-grade readers between the ages of 8 and 10. For future reference, it ties in well with Thanksgiving if you want to save it for a holiday read.

What did you read and love in January? Looking for more great book ideas? Be sure to follow my book-inspired Pinterest boards Good Reads for Grownups and Good Reads for Kids.

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Comments

  1. So glad you kept with “I’ll Give You the Sun.” I adored the ambitious writing and intertwined stories told from different viewpoints and time frames. I gasped, too, when reading and then upon hearing it’s being made into a movie (how oh how will they capture it on screen?!). Nelson’s first book “The Sky Is Everywhere” is solid, too, and worth a read. Her next book involves cooking so I can’t wait! Thanks for your detailed write up, Angie. My “to read” list is growing.

    • I was so worried at first! But I kept thinking, “But Jenn liked it, so it must be good!” Of course you were right. I can’t quite picture it as a movie, but perhaps in the right hands …

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