What I’ve Been Reading Lately & My Latest Virtual Book Events (May 2020)

Now that month #3 of staying at home has passed and summertime with its more relaxed schedules is here, I think I’ve finally fallen into a more regular reading rhythm. Two of my favorite times of the day now are when I can sit outside and read during lunchtime and in the early evening.

I continued to attend virtual book events this past month. I thoroughly enjoyed the LA Times’ Book Club conversation with Emily St. John Mandel on May 19. More significantly, I got to “travel” to Norway last month for the Norwegian Festival of Literature in Lillehammer which took place May 29-31. In particular, I enjoyed the panel discussion on Maja Lunde’s success around the world and her lecture as winner of this year’s Bjørnson Prize.

Through my reading this month, I’ve traveled the world in time and place. I’ve experienced 1918 Philadelphia during the Spanish flu pandemic, an Indian immigrant community in London, a small Danish coastal town, and Norway in 2017/France in 2041. Here are my latest reads and listens. What have you been reading lately?


As Bright as Heaven by Susan Meissner

I loved this book. It provided a look at life in Philadelphia during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. It’s about a mother and father and their three young daughters who moved to Philadelphia to take advantage of the opportunity for the father to work with his uncle and eventually take over the uncle’s mortuary. Not too long after their arrival, the pandemic hits. In alternating perspectives of the mother and three daughters, readers follow this family through the pandemic – and World War I which is happening in the background – and beyond. It was fascinating to see the similarities and differences to our own current experience. It’s not an easy time for them, but it’s not all misery either. I highly recommend it.

Reading Challenges:


Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal
(Audiobook narrated by Meera Syal)

In many ways, this book was what I expected, but in a couple of significant ways, it was not. And it was the combination of the expected and the unexpected that made me enjoy the book even more. I knew it was going to be an East-meets-West kind of book. Nikki, the Westernized daughter of Punjabi immigrants in London (and a law school drop-out who doesn’t really know what to do with her life), decides to take on teaching a writing class to traditional Punjabi widows at a Sikh community center. It turns out to be not your typical writing class in any sense. The women, many of whom are illiterate, begin sharing erotic stories which are transcribed by a fellow student. This “writing class” takes on a life of its own, and over time, Nikki becomes aware of secrets and mysteries within the Punjabi community. It’s a glimpse into an immigrant experience and culture and religion that I know little about. The characters are fun, the writing engaging, and the story fulfilling. In addition, there was such unexpected depth and substance to this novel which made it a wonderful reading experience.

Reading Challenges:


The Murder of Halland by Pia Juul
(Translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken)

I knew this wasn’t going to be a typical Nordic noir or murder mystery book, but I’m not sure what it ended up being for me. It begins with a murder and there is mystery surrounding the murder, but that’s not the main point of the book. It’s about the murder victim’s common law wife and how she deals with his death. She does not seem to mourn her husband as you’d expect nor does she seem interested in helping the police solve the crime. It’s more about her place in her community and her relationship with family members. She mourns her daughter’s decade-long absence from her life more than her partner’s death. She discovers secrets in her husband’s life. There’s no clear resolution to the murder mystery, but lots to wonder about. It’s certainly an interesting character study.

Reading Challenges:


The End of the Ocean by Maja Lunde (The Climate Quartet #2)
(Translated from the Norwegian by Diane Oatley)

Book #2 in Maja Lunde’s Climate Quartet tackles the climate concern of water and the threat of worldwide drought. The story jumps back and forth between two storylines which eventually intersect: 70-year old Signe in 2017 in Norway and David and his young daughter Lou in 2041 in France. Signe is a climate activist who lives on her sailboat (named Blue, hence the Norwegian title Blå). A visit back to her childhood village deep in a Norwegian fjord sets in motion an ocean journey to find the man who used to be the love of her life. David and Lou had to flee from their home in southern France due to drought and fire and are struggling to survive in a refugee camp. Besides it being a book about humans’ connection and reliance on water, it is also about human relationships, in particular father-daughter relationships. I’m always intrigued by unique structures like the one in this book, and the human element added to my enjoyment of it. I really enjoyed the book, but I did prefer the first one, The History of Bees, with its focus on our relationship with bees in the past, present, and future (read more here). I’m looking forward to book #3, Przewalski’s Horse. The Norwegian edition, published September 2019, is already on my shelf.

Reading Challenges:


What have you been reading lately?

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Reading Lately (March 2020) & #ScandiReadingChallenge Update

With a prolonged self-quarantine headed my way, I thought I would have lots of extra time to read. It hasn’t quite worked out that way yet. Maybe once we settle into this new normal, I’ll find more time to just read. In the meantime, here are my latest reads and listens. What have you been reading lately?


The Mother-in-Law by Sally Hepworth
(Audiobook narrated by Barrie Kreinik)

This was a wonderfully entertaining audiobook that I always returned to eagerly. It’s a murder mystery in which the mother-in-law is found dead under suspicious circumstances and no one in the family is safe from scrutiny. It’s told from the perspectives of the daughter-in-law and the mother-in-law, and it jumps back and forth in time so you get insights into all the family members’ histories and you see different perspectives on the same situations. They are a very complicated family and there are many unrealized misunderstandings. It was an extremely compelling story and had me engaged until the very end. I’ll be listening to/reading more by Sally Hepworth!

Reading Challenges:


Clearing Out by Helene Uri
(Translated from the Norwegian by Barbara Sjoholm, 2019)

This was a unique book, a mix of fiction and autobiography, about families and their stories. The author discovers her grandfather was a Sámi fisherman (indigenous people in the north of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia) and intertwines that experience with a fictional story of a character who goes to northern Norway to study Sámi language extinction. There are many parallels between the author and the fictional character. Not only are they both linguists, but they both also experience the loss of an older parent. At first it was a little difficult to distinguish between the author’s story and the character’s story, but soon the transitions became seamless and I considered it a clever technique. I was intrigued by the reflections on Sámi identities and their history in Norway. It’s not something I’ve come across often in Norwegian literature. (If interested, take a look at this article by the book’s translator which includes a discussion about the Sámi elements as well as an interview with the author.)

(Thank you to NetGalley and the University of Minnesota Press for providing me a copy of this book!)

Reading Challenges:


In the Midst of Winter: A Novel by Isabel Allende
(Translated from the Spanish by Nick Castor and Amanda Hopkinson)
(Audiobook narrated by Dennis Boutsikaris, Jasmine Cephas Jones, and Alma Cuervo)

All I knew about this book going into it was that it took place in Brooklyn during a big snowstorm. I did not know I’d be getting a whirlwind historical tour of Latin America. Most of the action takes place over just a few days when three people are brought together by a car accident. However, during their days together, we jump back in time to Guatemala in the 1990s, Chile in the 1950s, and Brazil in the 1990s to learn about their pasts. The illegal immigrant’s story of coming from Guatemala to the US through Mexico and across the Rio Grande was the one I enjoyed the most. Having recently read American Dirt, I appreciated the additional perspective on that experience. Overall, it was a fine story and the language was lovely, but it was not as engaging as I would have preferred.

Reading Challenges:


Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha

The racial tensions and violence of the Los Angeles Riots of 1992 form the basis for this novel. A contemporary story set in 2019, it follows two families who have a shared history with that racially tense time. Shawn Matthews, an African American man whose sister was shot and killed in 1991, leads a quiet life far away from his troublesome youth days in South Central LA. At the same time, Grace Park, a Korean American woman who lives a sheltered life home with her parents, can’t understand why her sister won’t talk to their mother. It’s a very engaging and compelling read which provided much material to discuss at our virtual book club meeting. I highly recommend it.

Reading Challenges:


What have you been reading lately?

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Reading Lately (February 2020) & #ScandiReadingChallenge Update

February was a productive, varied, and very enjoyable month of reading for me. First of all, I finally completed my 2019 Scandinavian Reading Challenge at the beginning of the month. I have compiled all my reads at What I Read for the 2019 #ScandiReadingChallenge. Secondly, I continued strong with my reading intentions for 2020. And considering what’s going on this month, it looks like March will be a good reading month, too.

Here are my latest reads. What have you been reading lately?


North Wild Kitchen: Home Cooking from the Heart of Norway
by Nevada Berg

I was already a fan of the author’s blog North Wild Kitchen so when she published a cookbook I knew I would buy it. The author is from Utah, and in the introduction, she explains how she ended up buying a mountain farm “deep in the belly of Norway” and began exploring the country’s cuisine. I enjoy how the cookbook is organized thematically by source reflecting Norwegian food culture: foraging, fishing, farming (“Seteren”), harvesting, hunting, storing (“Stabburet”), camping, and baking. It includes both traditional Norwegian meals as well as Norwegian-inspired recipes. I was happy to see many favorite foods, such as “boller” (sweet buns with cardamom), “grovbrød” (multigrain bread) and “bløtkake” (layered cream cake with fresh berries), as well as some new-to-me dishes like “plukkfisk” (fish and mashed potatoes with roasted carrots, sauteed leeks, and bacon) which seemed reasonable to attempt at home. The commentary on Norwegian food culture is insightful, the recipes manageable (I appreciate the tips on substitutions for some of the more “exotic” ingredients like moose and grouse), and the photos are delightful. It’s a beautiful addition to any kitchen, but especially to one with a cook with Norwegian roots.

Reading Challenges:


American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins
(Audiobook narrated by Yareli Arizmendi)

This was high on my TBR list after I first heard about it in the fall of 2019, but then on the day of its release with all the surrounding controversy, I became uncertain as to whether I actually wanted to read it. However, before I had a chance to think much more about it, my audiobook hold became available so I decided to give it a try. At least I’d know specifically what the controversy related to. I did really enjoy it. I found it engaging and eye-opening. It’s the story of a mother and her young son on a journey to survive. They have to flee Acapulco after her journalist husband and many family members are killed by the cartel. They make their way north along with other migrants who are from different places and on the journey for various reasons. I was familiar with the general picture of migrants from Central America making their way north and the troubles at the border. I knew of El Bestia, the Mexican freight trains that carry migrants northward, and the dangers involved. However, the book gave me a closer and more personal look at what that journey is like – the good, the bad, and the ugly – and I appreciated that. I always make an effort to read diverse authors and now I have added even more books by Latinx authors to my TBR, books exploring a variety of Latinx experiences.

Reading Challenges:


Dødevaskeren (The Dead Washer) by Sara Omar
(Translated from the Danish to the Norwegian by Hilde Rød-Larsen)

This is an amazing and heartbreaking novel dealing with the oppression of Muslim women, in particular in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. The author was born and raised in Kurdistan, but she had to flee as a young teenager in the late 1990s due to war. She eventually made her way to Denmark. I was very eager to read this book when I first learned about it from the Scandinavian bookstagram community. When it was published in Denmark in 2017, it was hailed as “the year’s most important book.” The author had to have police protection due to the backlash from the anti-Islam content.

The book is about a girl named Frmesk born in Kurdistan in 1986 (just like the author; I wonder how much of the novel is autobiographical). She is unwanted by her father because she’s a girl. She is sent to live with her mother’s parents because the mother is afraid for the baby’s life if she stays at home. Her grandparents are very kind, loving, open-minded “parents” to Frmesk in a world where the Koran rules and women’s rights and freedoms are non-existent. The story moves between Frmesk’s life as a young child in her grandparents’ household and Frmesk’s life in Denmark 30 years later when she’s alone in a hospital bed for unidentified procedures. Real events, such as the 1988 Halabja chemical attack, are included in the story. It was an extremely engrossing and engaging story despite the difficult subject material. I certainly hope it’s translated to English so it can engage many more readers. Sara Omar’s second book, Skyggedanseren (The Shadow Dancer), a follow-up to the first, was published in Denmark in November 2019 and I’m very eager to read it when it’s released in Norwegian in May 2020.

Reading Challenges:


Beyond All Reasonable Doubt by Malin Persson Giolito
(Translated from the Swedish by Rachel Willson-Broyles)

This was my second Malin Persson Giolito book. I really enjoyed Quicksand, her English language debut. There are many similarities between the two books. They are both legal thrillers in which the subject matter is heavy and discussion-worthy, and the narrative structure is one in which the story jumps back and forth in time. Quicksand was about a school shooting; this book explores a possibly wrongful murder conviction (of a man who happens to be hated by society for an unrelated alleged child molestation). This story alternates between contemporary times, when the criminal defense lawyer is looking through the case again, and 1997/1998, when the 15-year-old girl was killed and a 35-year-old man convicted and sentenced to life in prison. I felt the book lacked in certain areas, like character development of Sophia Weber, the lawyer, and advancement of the plot. I learned later that this book is actually the second book in a series featuring this lawyer (the first does not have an English translation) so that could explain the missing background information needed to understand some of the lawyer’s actions. Plot-wise, the lawyer didn’t agree to take the case until practically half way through the book which was frustrating. The book provided thought-provoking material, but unfortunately, I did not feel satisfied at the end.

Reading Challenges:


The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides
(Audiobook narrated by Jack Hawkins and Louise Brealey)

I’m confused by this book. I loved it while I was listening and couldn’t wait to return to it. It was extremely engaging and kept me wondering. But then when the pieces started falling into place, I became confused. I thought I had a handle on the timelines – the events leading up to the killing that took place years earlier and the therapist’s current life situation – but then it didn’t make sense to me. When I had finished, I felt like I needed to go back and reread to see where I had missed something. Did I listen too fast? I would have loved to discuss this with someone who had read it at the same time as me. Thinking back about it now I realize I’ve already started forgetting little details so it’s hard to attempt to clear up my confusion.

Reading Challenges:


What have you been reading lately?

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What I’ve Been Reading Lately (January 2020) & Reading Challenges Wrap-Up

2019 didn’t quite end as I would have liked in regards to completing the reading challenges I had undertaken. I did complete the Modern Mrs. Darcy Reading Challenge (see what I read here) as well as the Reading Women Challenge (except for one prompt, a play, which won’t be completed, see what I read here). Sadly, it was my Scandinavian Reading Challenge that lingered unfinished! I bit off too much last year, but I am in the process of completing it now as I also embark on my 2020 reading intentions. (I intend to finish my Scandinavian Reading Challenge this month and look forward to sharing my complete list of Scandinavian reads soon!)

In the meantime, here are my latest reads. What have you been reading lately?


One Day in December by Josie Silver

The main character Laurie experiences love at first sight through the bus window and spends the next year trying to track down the guy only to find him again as the new boyfriend of her best friend. I enjoyed the beginning and loved how it all eventually ended about ten years later, but I felt it was too long and winding in between. Maybe it was because it took me too long to read the book. When I found myself with longer chunks of time to read, I definitely enjoyed it more.

 

Reading Challenges:


A Modern Family by Helga Flatland

(Translated from the Norwegian by Rosie Hedger)

This was a complex character study of how adult children deal with the late-in-life divorce of their parents. The story begins with the whole family – grandparents, parents, and kids – on a trip from Oslo to Rome to celebrate the grandfather’s 70th birthday. What happens instead on the night of the celebratory dinner is that news of the grandparents’ impending divorce comes out. The three adult siblings – one married with kids, another struggling with fertility issues with her boyfriend, and the third a free-thinker when it comes to love and marriage – struggle very differently in coming to terms with this new reality when they’re back in Oslo. The story alternates between the perspectives of the three siblings with some overlap of events. It’s a deep and thought-provoking look at family relationships, perceived responsibilities, family history, and parenting.

Reading Challenges:


The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow

(Audiobook narrated by January LaVoy)

This came highly recommend by a colleague at work and it was on Modern Mrs. Darcy’s list of favorite audiobooks of 2019 as well as her book club pick for February. It didn’t disappoint; it was a wonderful journey. It’s an historical fantasy book combining many interesting elements: a coming-of-age story, a book within a book, adventure, love, and friendship. It’s creatively done and the language is beautiful. It was a nice change of pace from books I generally read.

Reading Challenges:


What have you been reading lately?

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Reading Lately (October 2019)

Lately, I’ve been very focused on working towards completing my reading challenges for the year, and this past month I made great progress. My latest reads brought me to many different places: East Prussia during World War II, to Sri Lanka during their civil war, to a remote part of northern Norway, and to the Philippines. It was a nice and varied month of reading. What have you been reading lately?


Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

Historical fiction is a favorite genre of mine, especially when lesser known events or people of history are explored. I really enjoyed Sepetys’ Between Shades of Gray earlier this year (see Reading Lately, February 2019), and when I heard Sepetys was coming out with another historical fiction book this fall, I decided to make Sepetys the author whose books I would read three of this year for the MMD Reading Challenge. Salt to the Sea takes places during World War II and explores the events leading up to and including the sinking of the German ship Wilhelm Gustloff in the Baltic Sea which was used to evacuate refugees escaping the advancing Russian soldiers. The story alternates between the perspectives of three individuals making their way to the ship (a Lithuanian young woman, a Polish girl, and a young German man) and a German enlisted man stationed there. It’s a story of hardship, heartbreak, courage, and most importantly, found family. I loved the book. Interesting sidenote, the Lithuanian girl is a crossover character from Shades of Gray.

Reading Challenges:


Island of a Thousand Mirrors by Nayomi Munaweera

This is a beautiful but heartbreaking story of the civil war in Sri Lanka (which officially began in 1983 and ended in 2009) from the perspectives of two women, one from the majority Sinhalese ethnic group and the other from the minority Tamil group. I chose to read this book for the Reading Women Challenge because of my college friend Ayub who is from Sri Lanka (and also I’d seen a fabulous exhibit of Sri Lankan art at the Los Angeles County Museum at Art this past summer). I’m ashamed that I didn’t know more about what was going on there since my college years were right in the middle of the civil war period. The author paints a vivid picture of life and its challenges on the island. Readers experience village life along the coast as well as city life in Colombo, the capital. The story even takes readers to Los Angeles as one of the families seeks refuge there. Even though it’s a fiction book, I feel I have a much greater understanding of the conflict in Sri Lanka.

Reading Challenges:


The Looking-Glass Sisters by Gøhril Gabrielsen

(Translated from the Norwegian by John Irons)

Despite not liking any of the characters, not even finding anything remotely redeeming about any of them, I was drawn into this novella about two middle aged sisters and their toxic relationship. At the age of 24 upon the death of their parents, the older sister is thrust into the role of caregiver for her younger physically disabled sister, aged 19. They live alone in an isolated area far up north in Norway for many years until an outsider arrives and upsets their status quo. At the start of the novella, the younger sister has been banished to the attic and is thinking back a year explaining how she ended up there. The story is entirely from her perspective and over time the reader begins to question her reliability. It’s a story of loneliness and yearning for love and attention. It’s dark and unlike anything I’ve ever read and very discussion-worthy.

Reading Challenges:


Falling Together by Marisa de los Santos

Last year I read Marisa de los Santos’ I’ll Be Your Blue Sky and loved it (Reading Lately, August 2018), so I thought I’d read Falling Together as a book in the backlist of a favorite author for the MMD Reading Challenge. It was exactly what I needed after the darker and heavier books I’d recently read. This was about friendships that last despite distance and time. Pen, Will, and Cat became inseparable during college but then parted ways four years after graduation. Their 10-year reunion provides an opportunity for them to reunite. De los Santos’ writing is beautiful. I got lost in her vivid descriptions of characters, place, and time, though I could see how some readers might think it too sentimental or sappy at times. I was not bothered by that. I really enjoyed the unexpected trip to the Philippines. This was a book I couldn’t wait to return to either via audiobook or ebook depending on the situation for me.

Reading Challenges:


What have you been reading lately?

 

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Reading Lately (August 2019): All About #WITMonth  

In August, my primary reading focus was reading women in translation for Women in Translation Month (WITMonth). Founded Meytal Radzinski on her blog Biblibio in 2014, WITMonth is a monthlong initiative to promote women writers from around the world who write in languages other than English. Since I tend to read many Scandinavian female authors throughout the year, I generally focused on writers from other countries and continents this month. As I shared last month, I had a big stack of potential books to read. I read many, but my efforts will continue in September and beyond.

A fun project I contributed to was Meytal’s compilation of the 100 best women in translation (#100BestWIT). She asked for nominations from readers around the world. Nominations were due August 26 and the next day she published the results. I was pleased to see that 5 of the 10 books I nominated made it onto the final list. Among those were these three Norwegian ones: Love by Hanne Ørstavik (translated by Martin Aitken), Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset (translated by Tiina Nunnally), and The History of Bees: A Novel by Maja Lunde (translated by Diane Oatley).

How’s your reading life been lately? Did you read any women in translation in August?


Kristin Lavransdatter II: The Wife by Sigrid Undset

(Translated from the Norwegian by Tiina Nunnally)

Last summer I read the first book in the Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy and was so surprised by how much I enjoyed it. I was curious to see how Kristin’s marriage to her lover Erlend would go. Just like the first book, this one provides a thorough depiction of daily life in medieval Norway. I was a little confused by the political history of the time and had some trouble remembering and distinguishing characters, but I chose not to let those issues affect my enjoyment of the book. Kristin’s life as a protective mother to seven sons, a faithful wife to a husband with questionable political intentions, and a very pious person eager to save her soul were very engaging. I definitely enjoyed the first book more, but I’m very eager to see how her life plays out in the last book.

Reading Challenges:


Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi

(Translated from the Arabic by Marilyn Booth)

This book came on my radar about a year ago and I bought it right away, but then it lingered on my bookshelf. However, when the author (first female Omani novelist to be translated into English) won the International Booker Prize this spring, it jumped to the top of my TBR pile for WITMonth. It’s a uniquely structured novel that follows three sisters who live in a village outside the capital city of Muscat. One sister marries after realizing she’ll never have the one she truly desires. Another sister marries out of obligation. And the third sister refuses to marry and instead waits for her beloved to return from Canada. The chapters jump between the first person perspective of the first sister’s husband and the third person perspective of various family and community members. It was hard to keep track of characters (grateful for the family tree at the beginning!) and time, but I was fascinated by the lives of these women in contemporary Oman, so different from what I’m used to or been exposed to in reading before. And I learned a bit about the history of the region which was interesting as well.

Reading Challenges:


Human Acts: A Novel by Han Kang

(Translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith)

Last year for WITMonth I read Han Kang’s The Vegetarian and liked it so I thought I’d try another of her novels this year, especially since on May 25, 2019, Han Kang was the latest author to submit a manuscript to the Future Library in Norway for publication in 2114 (view handover ceremony in the woods of Oslo here). This novel was about a horrific historical event I had never heard of before, the violent 1980 student uprising in Gwangju, South Korea. The story is told through chapters that are interconnected short stories. In the first chapter, which takes place in 1980, readers are introduced to several characters who then reappear in the next chapters over a period of 30 years. Interestingly, the chapters are either in first or second person with one chapter in third person. Be aware, Han Kang does not shy away from the gruesome details of this violent time, but at the same time, she shares examples of kindness and compassion too. I liked this one even more than The Vegetarian.

Reading Challenges:


Strange Weather in Tokyo: A Novel by Hiromi Kawakami

(Translated from the Japanese by Allison Markin Powell)

I read Hiromi Kawakami’s The Nakano Thrift Shop last year for WITMonth and really liked it, so this summer I wanted to read this one, and I was able to convince my book club to join me as well. Unfortunately, I did not enjoy it as much. It’s about Tsukiko, a woman in her thirties, and a former high school teacher (whom she calls Sensei because she can’t remember his name) who happen to meet again by chance. Over time they fall in love, but it’s an odd relationship based on unplanned meetings at a bar to drink beer and hot saké. Both characters are quirky and their conversations are limited and formal. I did really enjoy the insight into Japanese culture and foods. Even though I didn’t enjoy this book as much as The Nakano Thrift Shop, I am still glad I read it, and our book club had a good reason to meet at a Japanese restaurant and enjoy our own hot saké.

Reading Challenges:


What have you been reading lately?

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Reading Lately (July 2019): Reading Challenges Progress & #WITMonth Plans  

July was a good reading month! I checked off new prompts for both my Scandinavian reading and Reading Women challenges. Also, I had my first 5-star read of the year (I’m stingy with my stars!) and got a head start on Women in Translation Month (#WITMonth) which happens in August.

I always look forward to participating in Women in Translation Month, a monthlong initiative to promote women writers from around the world who write in languages other than English. Since I read many Scandinavian female authors throughout the year, I focus on writers from other countries and continents this month. On my TBR pile for the month are authors from Oman, Thailand, Japan, South Korea, Iran, Kurdistan, Italy, and France. We’ll see how many I manage to read. My effort will most likely continue into September and beyond with this particular stack.

My TBR Pile for #WITMonth 2019

What have you been reading lately? Are you participating in #WITMonth?


The Madonna of Notre Dame by Alexis Ragougneau

(Translated from the French by Katherine Gregor)

I always like to read a book set where I’m visiting, and this book popped up on my Instagram feed just as we were planning our summer trip which included Paris. It seemed like the perfect pick with its setting of Notre Dame Cathedral considering we wouldn’t be able to enter due to the fire that ravaged it in the spring. The book didn’t disappoint. It was a murder mystery that not only took me into dark corners of the cathedral, but also to greater Paris. I got to know a whole slew of French characters – some more flattering than others – and be a part of a French community as it tried to make sense of this murder. It’s not your typical police procedural as it’s a priest who takes particular interest in the case and is crucial in solving the crime. It also doesn’t show a glamorous or touristy Paris but instead a city that struggles with good and evil just like other cities.

Reading Challenges: 


The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

This book had long been on my radar and we finally read it for book club this summer. I knew it was a myth retelling, but I thought it was going to be a contemporary retelling and not actually take me back to the real people, places, and events of Greek mythology. It was a welcomed surprise once I understood that I didn’t need to remember anything from my school days of learning about it and I could just read and enjoy. It’s a love story – another surprise to me – between the great warrior Achilles and his companion Patroclus and then a war story as the Trojan War occurs. The book was so different from what I expected or from anything I had read recently; it was a fun escape. I enjoyed getting this other perspective on these well-known mythological people and events, and I look forward to reading Circe as well sometime soon.

Reading Challenges:


Hotel Silence by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir

(Translated from the Icelandic by Brian FitzGibbon)

I got a head start on Women in Translation Month (#WITMonth) happening in August. Since this book was winner of both the Icelandic Literary Prize (2016) and Nordic Council Literature Prize (2018), I figured Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir was a good Icelandic female author to add to my repertoire of Nordic literature. It was a quiet and enjoyable story about an almost 50-year old man who feels his life has lost meaning after a recent divorce during which he also learned that his daughter is actually not his own. He travels to an unnamed war-torn country by the sea with the intent to end his life, but instead he begins to find new purpose. What was supposed to be only a few days visit with no return turns into a weeks-long stay. It’s a moving and heartwarming story of unlikely friendships as he gets to know people who have suffered much more than him and second chances both for him and the people he helps. (Thanks to NetGalley and Grove Atlantic for providing me with a free copy of this book!)

Reading Challenges:


The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo

My first 5-star read of the year! This book captivated me from the beginning. It’s a mystery that takes place in the British colony of Malaya (Malaysia) in the 1930s. The book alternates between the story of a Chinese houseboy on the hunt for his former master’s severed finger (which he needs to find within 49 days of the master’s death so his soul can rest) and a Malaysian girl who comes across a severed finger and sets out to find out where it came from. Slowly but surely the storylines merge. I was equally engrossed in both characters and their quests. I was fascinated by the setting and cultures depicted and especially enjoyed how Malaysian and Chinese folklore and superstition were intertwined throughout. I listened to the audiobook narrated by the author herself which was fantastic.

Reading Challenges:


How’s your reading life been lately?

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Reading Lately (June 2019): Reading Challenges Update

I haven’t been good about sharing what books I’ve been reading lately – first due to busy end-of-school-year business and then vacation travel – so this post covers the last three months. It was a slow reading period to begin with, but then with summer upon me, my pace picked up!

Now that we’re midway through the year, I’m also taking stock of where I am with my reading challenges. This year I’m participating in three reading challenges: my own Scandinavian Reading Challenge, the Reading Women Challenge, and Modern Mrs. Darcy’s Reading Challenge. Reading challenges force me to research new-to-me genres and authors and read books I wouldn’t otherwise, a process I greatly enjoy.

I have completed half the prompts for each of the challenges so I’m on track. However, I need to stay focused, otherwise I’ll be scrambling at the end. I’ll continue to try to find as much overlap as possible between the challenges and read books I already own. My top priority will be to complete my own Scandinavian Reading Challenge. For a look at what I’ve read for each of the challenges so far, visit the following links:

August is Women in Translation Month so I’m thinking about that as well. I have books by female authors from South Korea, Japan, Oman, and Thailand on my radar and look forward to reading some of those.

How’s your reading life been lately?


The English Wife by Lauren Willig

This was a book club pick that didn’t quite satisfy me. The setting during the Gilded Age in New York City was new to me (in fiction) and I always enjoy getting a glimpse into history through fiction, but I wasn’t particularly interested in this time period. Luckily, the structure of the storytelling intrigued me. There was the storyline with the discovery of the murdered husband and the missing wife and the ensuing quest to solve that mystery. And in alternating chapters, readers followed the husband and wife a few years earlier when they first met in London. Seeing the two timelines approach each other and trying to figure out the mystery of the missing wife and murdered husband kept me reading.

Reading Challenges: 


The Bird Tribunal by Agnes Ravatn

(Translated from the Norwegian by Rosie Hedger)

I was drawn to this book the minute I saw the cover picturing the desolate fjord with the lone rowboat and only a pop of red for color, and the title’s reference to birds intrigued me as well. Both aspects – setting and birds – turned out to play major roles in this psychological suspense story. Allis abruptly leaves her life in the city and takes on a job as a housekeeper and gardener at the isolated home of Bagge, a man awaiting the return of his wife. Bagge is a quiet, mysterious man. They develop an uneasy, tense relationship that eventually comes to a boiling point. I was drawn in from start to finish; it didn’t disappoint.

Reading Challenges: 


The Legacy: A Thriller by Yrsa Sigurdardóttir

(Translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb)

Iceland has always intrigued me, so I’ve been eager to add an Icelandic author to my repertoire. There wasn’t much specifically Icelandic about this novel other than the names of the characters which are very unique (a pronunciation guide is included), but it certainly was a good example of Nordic Noir. The main characters, child psychologist Freyja and police detective Huldar, have to work together to solve the grisly murder of a mother whose 7-year-old daughter is the only witness to the crime. More murders follow, equally grisly, though never bloody. I really liked the child psychologist Freyja and I was impressed with the author’s creativity with the murders, the characters’ stories, and how it all came together at the end. This is the first in the Children’s House series, and #2 is on my TBR list.

Reading Challenges:


Next Year in Havana by Chanel Cleeton

I really enjoyed this book. Cuba is a country whose history and culture I knew only minimally and superficially, but this book helped fix that. The story jumps between Marisol’s 2017 trip to Cuba to scatter her grandmother’s ashes and her grandmother’s early life in Havana as a high society “sugar princess” before the family fled the country in early 1959 when Fidel Castro took power. It was a fascinating tale of political unrest, teenage love and rebellion, and family secrets. I did find some overly contrived parallels between Marisol’s and her grandmother’s lives, but the dive into Cuban history and culture through these two strong female characters was worth it.

Reading Challenges:


The Pumpkin War by Cathleen Young

This is a middle grade novel written by a good friend, and I’m thrilled to say it was truly a delight to read. On the surface, it’s about 12-year-old Billie (part Irish, part Native American Ojibwe) who used to be best friends with Sam but now spends her summer days ignoring him and focused on growing the biggest pumpkin possible. She wants nothing more than to beat him in the upcoming giant pumpkin race after he sabotaged her win last fall. Dig a little deeper and it’s about so much more – friendship and family, forgiveness and reconciliation. I love that Billie has a mixed background that is celebrated and interests that include beekeeping, fishing, and tending llamas. The setting of Madeline Island in Wisconsin on Lake Superior is charming. On top of all this, the writing is beautiful. I highly recommend this book to any middle grade readers in your life.

Reading Challenges:


Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

This was a very good young adult fantasy novel, and it was especially fun to read it along with my 15-year-old son. Fantasy novels are not my thing, but this one takes place in Orïsha, a mythical and magical world based on African geography, mythology, and culture, and I think that’s why I liked it. It gave me some insights into a culture that I’m not too familiar with. It’s about Zélie, a young, poor girl who’s a member of the Magi, a group with magical powers until The Raid when the king eradicated magic from Orïsha and in the process killed all the adult Magi, including Zélie’s mother. Zélie has now discovered a way to bring magic back. The story is from her perspective as well as that of Amari, the princess who ran away from the palace in opposition to her father, and Inan, the prince in charge of finding Amari again and stopping the return of magic. Also playing a big role is Tzain, Zélie’s protective older brother. I was amazed by the worldbuilding. It was so unique and thorough yet relatable. I was also intrigued by the struggles of the society members – discrimination, racism, violence – and the parallels with our own society.

Reading Challenges:


When Katie Met Cassidy by Camille Perri

Romance is a genre I’ve tended to avoid, but I was persuaded by Camille Perri to give it a try after I heard her on a panel at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books this spring. This was a quick and enjoyable story of a straight woman and a gay woman falling in love, a sub-genre of romance that is even more outside my genre comfort zone. Katie is a successful young lawyer who seems to have everything in order until she’s dumped by her fiancé. She meets Cassidy at a work meeting and is instantly intrigued by her appearance and personality. They coincidentally meet again later that evening, and Katie reluctantly agrees to a drink. They develop a friendship which leads to a love relationship. It’s a sweet story of two women each trying to figure out her place and role in their relationship.

Reading Challenges:


To Keep the Sun Alive by Rabeah Ghaffari

This was another book I read because of a panel I attended at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books this spring. I loved how it gave me insight into another time and place I’m not very familiar with, Iran on the eve of the Iranian Revolution. Matriarch Bibi and her husband, a retired judge, own a large orchard in a small town and are the bond that keeps their extended family together during this time of uncertainty. They are a family with conflicting personalities, beliefs, and hopes. An older uncle is a cleric with radical religious views while a young nephew has dreams of a new Iran and marrying his childhood girlfriend. Meanwhile another family member is attracted to a Western lifestyle. I appreciated getting to know the many people in this community – family, friends, servants, and townspeople – and getting a glimpse of their daily lives before it all heartbreakingly came apart.

Reading Challenges:


What have you been reading lately?

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Reading Lately (March 2019): A Common Thread of Nature

March was a much more normal reading month for me (3 books versus the 6 books last month): a book for each of my book clubs and an audiobook for when I needed a something in my ear. Coincidentally, they all had a common thread, nature, which was perfect since spring is making its appearance in full force these days. Two books involved scientists studying the natural world, and in the third, the protagonist escaped the everyday world by hiding out in nature (literally, in a rye field as a child and in the cemetery as an adult).

Have you read any of these?


Unsheltered: A Novel by Barbara Kingsolver

In this dual narrative novel, the story alternates between two families who live in the same dilapidated house in Vineland, New Jersey, in two different time periods, the 1870s and 2016. Modern-day Willa begins to investigate the house with hopes of finding historical significance in an effort to secure funds to make much-needed repairs. Through her research and the other storyline, we get to know science teacher Thatcher and his neighbor, biologist Mary Treat (actually a real 19th century biologist). It was interesting to learn a bit about the life and times of folk during the years when Charles Darwin’s theories were first being spread as well as seeing the Trump era as a backdrop to a narrative. I enjoyed the book, especially once I got into the second half. It wasn’t a super compelling read, but a thoughtful one with interesting parallels between the two storylines and commentary on society.

Reading Challenges:


Mirror, Shoulder, Signal: A Novel by Dorthe Nors

(Translated from the Danish by Misha Hoekstra)

Sonja, an awkward 40-something translator of violent crime fiction, is still trying to acclimate herself to life in Copenhagen after a childhood in a small, rural town. She struggles with positional vertigo, an estranged relationship with her sister, and late-in-life driving lessons. The book has received many mentions, among them 2017 Man Booker International Shortlist, 2019 Dublin Literature Award Longlist, and 2018 New York Times Notable Book, but unfortunately, I was not a total fan of this one. For those looking for an off-beat character study, this would be a great pick. I was too distracted by the writing style (unrelated clauses in the same sentence) and language (unnecessary vulgarity at times) to fully appreciate the story. It did provide good fodder for our Scandinavian Book Club discussion, though, which is always a plus!

Reading Challenges:


Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

(Audiobook Narrated by the Author)

I got so much more than I bargained for with this book. I thought I was just going to read a memoir about a female scientist with Norwegian roots who at one point spent some time working in Norway. What I got instead was a book about a scientist with Norwegian roots she actually related to as well as a deep book about nature and friendship. It was a personal, and at times emotional, look at the trials and tribulations of the scientific research and life of a female scientist. It touched upon professional struggles as well as the mental illness she endured and her uncertainty about motherhood. I chose to listen to the audio version narrated by the author herself. I was a bit turned off at first due to slow narration and there being more science than I expected, but then I turned up the speed to 1.5x and settled in. It became much better very quickly. It was especially satisfying to listen to the book as I walked and ran in my neighborhood when spring was coming in full force. It certainly made me look at my surroundings in a new and deeper way.

Reading Challenges:


What have you been reading lately?

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Reading Lately (February 2019): Lots of Variety!

Once again I’m joining Modern Mrs. Darcy‘s mid-month Quick Lit, where we share short and sweet book reviews of what we’ve been reading lately.

It’s been an unusual reading month for me with very varied reading for a wide variety of reasons which resulted in more books completed than usual! One book was for my Scandinavian Book Club, a couple were read-alongs with my 6th grade son, one was for an author talk, and a couple just because I felt like it. Some books fulfilled prompts for reading challenges, others didn’t. It was a fun month of reading! What have you been reading lately?


The War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

This was the second of three books for a schoolwide reading program that I read along with my 6th grade son. It’s a historical fiction book set in England during World War II. Ten-year-old Ada and her younger brother Jamie have a miserable homelife in London until they escape by joining other kids headed to the countryside as the threat of German bombings begin. Ada and Jamie are assigned to curmudgeonly Susan, and so begins a heartwarming relationship between Susan and the kids, but not without some bumps along the way. I’d been meaning to read this for a long time, and now I’m eager to read the sequel, The War I Finally Won.

Reading Challenges:


Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

Here’s another book that’s been on my TBR list for a while (since reading Salvage the Bones). I was planning to read it sometime this year thanks to the Reading Women Challenge, but when I saw that Jesmyn Ward was coming to town to speak, it jumped to the top of the list. This book drops you in on 13-year-old Jojo, son of a White father and Black mother, who lives in rural coastal Mississippi with his Black grandparents along with his toddler sister and mostly absent mother. He and his sister are joining their mother and her friend on a roadtrip to get their dad who is being released from prison. The story takes place over about 4 days. During this time, the complicated and heartbreaking history of the family is revealed through memories shared and visits by ghosts from the past. It is beautifully written. And hearing Jesmyn Ward speak about her writing experience was icing on the cake.

Reading Challenges:


One of Us Is Lying by Karen M. McManus

I didn’t intend for this book to be for me, but rather for my 9th grade son. However, I’m the one who ended up reading it. It’s a young adult novel described as Pretty Little Liars meets The Breakfast Club. I don’t know Pretty Little Liars, but I was a fan of The Breakfast Club and was intrigued. It’s about five high schoolers who end up in detention together. One dies while they’re all there, and the other four are then suspects and a murder investigation ensues. These teens are your typical stereotypes of high school kids – the jock, the princess, the brain, the outcast, and the bad boy – but with some modern-day diversity. And all your stereotypical high school behaviors are there. Despite that, it was an addictive, fun, and fast read.


Ms. Bixby’s Last Day by John David Anderson

This was the final of three books I read along with my 6th grade son for a schoolwide reading program. It’s the story of three boys who plan and execute a very special goodbye for a favorite teacher who can’t complete the school year due to a cancer diagnosis. We see the day unfold through their eyes; each chapter is from a different boy’s perspective. I really enjoyed the slow reveal of finding out why Ms. Bixby was so special to each of them. Being a former teacher, I always love finding a “teacher-making-a-difference-and-being-appreciated-for-it” story and this was a sweet one. A great big thank you to my sister who gave it to me for a birthday – and an apology for waiting so long to read it!


Quicksand by Malin Persson Giolito

(Translated from the Swedish by Rachel Willson-Broyles)

The author takes us into the mind of 18-year-old Maja who’s on trial for her involvement in a school shooting in a wealthy suburb of Stockholm, Sweden, that left her boyfriend and best friend dead, along with others. We alternate between her time in the jail cell and in the courtroom along with flashbacks to her life leading up to the shooting. The book started a little slow, but as I got further into it, it was a page-turner that had me very eager to find out how it all could have come to this. Many timely issues to consider: school shootings, mental health, immigration, gun violence, wealth, class, parenting… We had a great discussion at my Scandi Book Club meeting. I highly recommend it! (This book has been adapted into a TV series coming to Netflix April 5.)

Reading Challenges:


Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

I’m fascinated by lesser known World War II stories, and this is a young adult book that delves into such a topic, the Soviet annexation of Lithuania in 1940 and the subsequent deportation of thousands of Lithuanians to Siberia. In particular it’s about Lena, a 15-year-old Lithuanian girl, who is rounded up along with her mother, younger brother, and many others and transported via cattle car to a labor camp in Siberia. It is a brutal and harsh time. The occasional kindness and sympathy from others make it more bearable. Lena is an artist and a strong and bold girl determined to record atrocities and survive and be reunited with her father who was arrested and imprisoned elsewhere. The mother is an admirable woman as well. It was an eye-opening book which I’m glad to have read and highly recommend. (A movie based on the book, titled Ashes in the Snow, came out January 2019 and can be found at hoopla.)

Reading Challenges:


What have you been reading lately?

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