Books, books, books: The amazing, the sad, and the downright weird

I started out SO STRONG with my reading challenge of 40 books this year, but am now lagging behind by four. I’m not okay with this. My Goodreads profile has 4 years of flawless challenge completion. I’ll read children’s books if I have to, goddammit.

I’ve started lagging on account of working about 60 hours a week, plus dating a really awesome guy, plus generally just having the most fun summer OF ALL TIME. My weekends are chocked full until after Labour Day, and I couldn’t be more thrilled about all the camping, hiking, and indulging I’ve been doing.

There’s been some really excellent books, though.

the girl with the dragon tattoo
the language of flowers

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

Quick summary

Forty years ago, Harriet Vanger disappeared off the secluded island owned and inhabited by the powerful Vanger family. There was no corpse, no witnesses, no evidence. But her uncle, Henrik, is convinced that she was murdered by someone from her own deeply dysfunctional family. Disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist is hired to investigate, but he quickly finds himself in over his head. He hires a competent assistant: the gifted and conscience-free computer specialist Lisbeth Salander, and the two unravel a dark and appalling family history. But the Vangers are a secretive clan, and Blomkvist and Salander are about to find out just how far they are prepared to go to protect themselves.

Three-line review

Despite the girth of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, I managed to read it pretty quick. It’s a riveting and disturbing read, and Lisbeth is an oddly compelling character. I didn’t feel inspired to continue the series, though. And that’s ok, even with my FOMO.

☆☆☆☆ / ☆☆☆☆☆

The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

Quick summaryThree-line review

My mother found The Language of Flowers incredibly boring; I loved the beautifully descriptive writing of flowers and plants and vineyards and farming. It was hard to relate to the main character, because she’s infuriating. But a feel-good kinda tale, overall.

☆☆☆☆ / ☆☆☆☆☆

salvage the bones by jesmyn ward
in order to live yeonmi park

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

Quick summary

A hurricane is building over the Gulf of Mexico, threatening the coastal town of Bois Sauvage, Mississippi, and Esch’s father is growing concerned. A hard drinker, largely absent, he doesn’t show concern for much else. Esch and her three brothers are stocking food, but there isn’t much to save. Lately, Esch can’t keep down what food she gets; she’s fourteen and pregnant. Her brother Skeetah is sneaking scraps for his prized pitbull’s new litter, dying one by one in the dirt. While brothers Randall and Junior try to stake their claim in a family long on child’s play and short on parenting. As the twelve days that comprise the novel’s framework yield to the final day and Hurricane Katrina, the unforgettable family at the novel’s heart–motherless children sacrificing for each other as they can, protecting and nurturing where love is scarce–pulls itself up to struggle for another day. A wrenching look at the lonesome, brutal, and restrictive realities of rural poverty, Salvage the Bone is muscled with poetry, revelatory, and real.

Three-line review

I didn’t know what to think of Salvage the Bones initially. It was hard going, and really challenging to read–the descriptions were often super graphic (a dog giving birth to puppies, for example, and the dog fighting is horrific). But near the end, I couldn’t put it down. This book will stay with me for a long time.

☆☆☆☆ / ☆☆☆☆☆

In Order to Live by Yeonmi Park

Quick summary

Yeonmi Park has told the harrowing story of her escape from North Korea as a child many times, but never before has she revealed the most intimate and devastating details of the repressive society she was raised in and the enormous price she paid to escape.

Park’s family was loving and close-knit, but life in North Korea was brutal, practically medieval. Park would regularly go without food and was made to believe that, Kim Jong Il, the country’s dictator, could read her mind. After her father was imprisoned and tortured by the regime for trading on the black-market, a risk he took in order to provide for his wife and two young daughters, Yeonmi and her family were branded as criminals and forced to the cruel margins of North Korean society. With thirteen-year-old Park suffering from a botched appendectomy and weighing a mere sixty pounds, she and her mother were smuggled across the border into China.

Three-line review

I read this book in one day while visiting my folks on Easter holidays. It’s a real page-turning horror story, with a fascinating look inside North Korea. Park is an incredible person, and although this book isn’t a literary feat by any means, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

☆☆☆☆ / ☆☆☆☆☆

birdsong by sebastian faulks
birdbox by josh malerman

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks

Quick summary

A novel of overwhelming emotional power, Birdsong is a story of love, death, sex and survival. Stephen Wraysford, a young Englishman, arrives in Amiens in northern France in 1910 to stay with the Azaire family, and falls in love with unhappily married Isabelle. But, with the world on the brink of war, the relationship falters, and Stephen volunteers to fight on the Western Front. His love for Isabelle forever engraved on his heart, he experiences the unprecedented horrors of that conflict — from which neither he nor any reader of this book can emerge unchanged.

Three-line review

I liked about 50% of this book. It was tedious as hell sometimes, but the character development was lovely (I seem to talk about this a lot lately?) and I’m a sucker for a good war romance. Things really took a surprising turn in the latter half of the book, and it is most certainly beautifully written.

☆☆☆ / ☆☆☆☆☆

Bird Box by Josh Malerman

Quick summary

Something is out there . . .

Something terrifying that must not be seen. One glimpse and a person is driven to deadly violence. No one knows what it is or where it came from.

Five years after it began, a handful of scattered survivors remain, including Malorie and her two young children. Living in an abandoned house near the river, she has dreamed of fleeing to a place where they might be safe. Now, that the boy and girl are four, it is time to go. But the journey ahead will be terrifying: twenty miles downriver in a rowboat—blindfolded—with nothing to rely on but her wits and the children’s trained ears. One wrong choice and they will die. And something is following them. But is it man, animal, or monster?

Engulfed in darkness, surrounded by sounds both familiar and frightening, Malorie embarks on a harrowing odyssey—a trip that takes her into an unseen world and back into the past, to the companions who once saved her. Under the guidance of the stalwart Tom, a motley group of strangers banded together against the unseen terror, creating order from the chaos. But when supplies ran low, they were forced to venture outside—and confront the ultimate question: in a world gone mad, who can really be trusted?

Three-line review

If this premise sounds weird, it’s because it is. This book was so delightfully bizarre and insanely creepy, I stayed awake all night reading it. I couldn’t stop. If you’re into suspenseful dystopian weirdness, this is the book for you. It’s not normally my style, but it’s easily one of my favourite reads from this year so far.

☆☆☆☆ / ☆☆☆☆☆

travel deeper by ryan spiegel
life after life by kate atkinson

Travel Deeper: A Globetrotter’s Guide to Starting a Business Abroad by Ryan Spiegel

Quick summary

Ryan Spiegel’s dream was always to open a business abroad. From the moment he started traveling, he saw possibility everywhere and spent years constructing the ideal business in his head.

In 2011, Spiegel made that dream a reality when he co-founded a hostel in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua, a quaint, beautiful surf town on the Pacific coast. Together with his partner, he grew an empty house into a profitable business from the ground-up, eventually expanding the hostel to include a bar, restaurant, surf company and event business.

In this book, he’ll tell you how he did it. He’ll recount the poor judgements and mistakes he made in the process and the lessons he learned the hard way. He’ll share his triumphs and trials and show you how you can open a business abroad too. If you’re an aspiring founder seeking a new scene, if you’re feeling stuck in your office job, or if you’re just ready to have a laugh at the vomit-soaked, truck-sinking adventures of opening a business abroad then this book is for you.

Three-line review

Dude travels, buys hostel, learns a lot of life lessons, sells hostel, the end. There was nothing revolutionary about this book, but it’s a good source of travel inspiration. And a good starter if you’re really thinking about setting up a business abroad.

☆☆☆ / ☆☆☆☆☆

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Quick summary

What if you had the chance to live your life again and again, until you finally got it right?
During a snowstorm in England in 1910, a baby is born and dies before she can take her first breath.
During a snowstorm in England in 1910, the same baby is born and lives to tell the tale.
What if there were second chances? And third chances? In fact an infinite number of chances to live your life? Would you eventually be able to save the world from its own inevitable destiny? And would you even want to?

Life After Life follows Ursula Todd as she lives through the turbulent events of the last century again and again. With wit and compassion, she finds warmth even in life’s bleakest moments, and shows an extraordinary ability to evoke the past.

Three-line review

I have not been able to shake this book’s spell. Just thinking about it now makes me emotional, and it amazes me how Atkinson wove such a complicated timeline. The characters in this story are insanely, wonderfully rich and complex. Finding “warmth” in life’s bleakest moments” is an understatement. A brilliant read.

☆☆☆☆☆ / ☆☆☆☆☆

don't tell the newfoundlanders by greg malone
life after life by kate atkinson

Don’t Tell the Newfoundlanders: The True Story of Newfoundland’s Confederation with Canada by Greg Malone

Quick summary

The true story, drawn from official documents and hours of personal interviews, of how Newfoundland and Labrador joined Confederation and became Canada’s tenth province in 1949. A rich cast of characters–hailing from Britain, America, Canada and Newfoundland–battle it out for the prize of the resource-rich, financially solvent, militarily strategic island. The twists and turns are as dramatic as any spy novel and extremely surprising, since the “official” version of Newfoundland history has held for over fifty years almost without question. Don’t Tell the Newfoundlanders will change all that.

Three-line review

I didn’t read this as closely as perhaps I should have, because it’s heavy, heavy stuff. But it’s a remarkable read about Newfoundland’s move into confederation. I’m not one for conspiracy theories but this is well researched and well written–I’ve very much rethought Newfoundland history after reading this book.

☆☆☆ / ☆☆☆☆☆

House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III

Quick summary

A former colonel in the Iranian Air Force yearns to restore his family’s dignity. A recovering alcoholic and addict down on her luck struggles to hold on to the one thing she has left. And her lover, a married cop, is driven to extremes to win her love.

In this masterpiece of American realism and Shakespearean consequence, Andre Dubus III’s unforgettable characters—people with ordinary flaws, looking for a small piece of ground to stand on—careen toward inevitable conflict, their tragedy painting a shockingly true picture of the country we live in today.

Three-line review

It seems like I’ve been reading a lot of books lately with mind-bogglingly infuriating characters. This was no exception, although it’s probably my second favourite book on this list. Every major character is vile, and yet, I couldn’t put it down. Beautiful and haunting.

☆☆☆☆☆ / ☆☆☆☆☆

backpacking 101 by heather balogh rochfort
lost in shangri-la

Backpacking 101: Choose the Right Gear, Plan Your Ultimate Trip, Cook Hearty and Energizing Trail Meals, Be Prepared for Emergencies, Conquer Your Backpacking Adventures by Heather Balogh Rochfort

Quick summary

In Backpacking 101, outdoor expert Heather Balogh Rochfort goes step-by-step through the preparation process of hiking—from selecting the right gear to choosing the perfect destination. She also provides useful information for out on the trail, including how to:

-Properly read a topographic map
-Set up an environmentally friendly campsite
-Safely interact with wildlife
-Handle being lost in the woods

With Backpacking 101 in your bag, you can be prepared for whatever comes your way during your trek—no matter what skill level you are. It’s the perfect resource for anyone ready for an outdoor adventure!

Three-line review

Funny enough, I met this author’s husband while camping out in Jordan a few years ago. This is a really useful guide if you’re super brand new to backpacking, and truthfully, kinda reads like a shopping list. I did learn quite a bit. Especially in the poop section. “Smear thinly over a rock” will haunt me forever.

☆☆☆☆ / ☆☆☆☆☆

Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II by Mitchell Zuckoff

Quick summary

Award-winning former Boston Globe reporter Mitchell Zuckoff unleashes the exhilarating, untold story of an extraordinary World War II rescue mission, where a plane crash in the South Pacific plunged a trio of U.S.military personnel into a land that time forgot. Fans of Hampton Sides’ Ghost Soldiers, Marcus Luttrell’s Lone Survivor, and David Grann’s The Lost City of Z will be captivated by Zuckoff’s masterfully recounted, all-true story of danger, daring, determination, and discovery in jungle-clad New Guinea during the final days of WWII.

Three-line review

I had never heard of the Shangri-La rescue story before, but it’s a damned good one. Other than that whole colonization thing, ya know. But this is a fast and suspenseful read, and if anthropology is fascinating to you, you’ll love this one. I love the first encounter stories.

☆☆☆☆ / ☆☆☆☆☆

FINITO! I’m impressed I managed to cram in so many genres — historical, historical fiction, non-fiction. Life After Life was definitely my favourite read of his bunch, closely followed by House of Sand and Fog.

And now a request for you! Since I’m behind, I’d love your suggestions on fast-paced, amazing reads that’ll keep me up all night turning pages.

And I don’t mean the Shopaholic series. Hit me with your best stuff!

  • August 22 2017
    Taylor Champagne

    Theres a few on here that look like good reads! What reading challenge do you do? I have been thinking of starting one to mix up the genres I tend to gravitate towards.

    For recommendations I have only one I can think of off the top of my head:
    Walking the Amazon -Ed Stafford (2011) I got this as a gift after coming home from Ecuador (and spending time in the Amazon) and while there were a few parts that were slow it was a really interesting read and I was surprised by how much I liked it! If you have any desire to travel to that part of South America I recommend it!

    Other than that I haven’t read many memorable books lately but here are a few that are on my list!

    The Girl on the Train – Paula Hawkins (2015)

    Homegoing – Yaa Gyasi (2016)

    Hillbilly Elegy – J.D. Vance (2016)

    Best of luck completing your challenge

    • August 24 2017
      Candice

      I just do the Goodreads reading challenge, and set a number of books to read per year! I started doing this years ago because I realized I wasn’t making enough time for reading. And thanks so much for those recommendations! I think I have “Homegoing” already on my insanely long list, so I’ll dig that one out first.

  • August 22 2017
    LC

    The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo really does work so well as a standalone book (although I really enjoyed the fourth book that was written by another writer after Larsson’s death). In Order to Live has been sitting on my shelf for the last seven months but I’ve been happily drowning in library books – you should see my pile, it makes me alternatively weep and wet my pants in excitement.

    I think my two favourites of recent times have been “Standard Deviation” by Katherine Heiny and Tasha Eurich’s “Insight”. Also all of Sarah J. Maas’s books – best fantasy I’ve read in a long time.

    • August 24 2017
      Candice

      Hahaha both of my nightstands are PILED with books! It’s glorious and frustrating. Lol.

      I am definitely adding those to my list. And yes, read “In Order to Live”!

  • September 04 2017
    Caroline

    This is probably already on your list, but I highly recommend A God In Ruins, which is the “companion piece” to Life After Life. Like you, I absolutely LOVED Life After Life, actually re-read it only about 6 months later because I was still thinking about it. A God in Ruins is not AS good, but still has the beautiful writing, literary references, and character development. Well worth a read as a follow-up (and I appreciated that it wasn’t an explicit sequel, I don’t think that would have worked).

    • September 19 2017
      Candice

      A few people have recommended that one to me! I’m definitely reading it soon. I still can’t stop thinking about Life After Life!

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