14 Agatha Christie books, ranked

I. Love. Agatha.

I am not a slasher, psychological thriller, criminal minds mystery lover. I unashamedly love cozy mysteries, and Agatha Christie is one of my favorite mystery authors.

One of my lifelong goals is to read every single Agatha Christie book ever written, but I have a feeling this will be a lifelong pursuit (she wrote 70+ books!). Last year, I knocked several more Christies off my list, and I’ve finally read enough to begin a ranking list of my favorites.

I know some readers feel Christie mysteries are either a hit or miss, and while I’ve definitely read some misses, for the most part I find Christie’s books to be consistently enjoyable. Hopefully this list will help you select your next cozy read from the Queen of Mystery:

1. And Then There Were None

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Ten men and women are mysteriously summoned to an island where they are forced to reconcile with their sins—as an unknown killer begins to pick them off one by one.

Utter. Brilliance. This is probably Agatha Christie’s most well-known work, and for good reason. It’s twisty, chilling, and just plain clever.  This was also the first Agatha Christie book I ever read. As The Lord of the Rings is a must-read for any fantasy lover, And Then There Were None is required reading for mystery lovers.

Bonus: The 2015 mini-series is incredibly well done. Gave me chills and I even knew what was coming!

 

2. Death on the Nile – Hercule Poirot

51zsVKc2zeL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_A beautiful young woman’s mysterious death shatters a peaceful cruise on the Nile, but Hercule Poirot is determined to find the killer who’s still onboard.

This is one of my favorite Hercule Poirot mysteries. The setting is exotic, the mystery is smart, and the reveal is extremely satisfying! I didn’t see the ending coming, and for me, that’s the mark of a great mystery. What I love most is that this book is that it’s transporting—meaning that I felt like I was floating down the Nile with Hercule Poirot. The atmosphere is fantastic!

Bonus: Rumor has it that Death on the Nile will be the sequel to the recent Murder on the Orient Express movie!

 

3. The Murder at the Vicarage – Miss Marple

516wvvl6WLL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I’ve talked about Murder at the Vicarage here and here, so I think it’s safe to say that I LOVED THIS BOOK. Before I gave Miss Marple a try, I was convinced there could be nothing interesting about a little old lady solving crimes (judgmental, I know!). But I’ll fully admit it: I was wrong!

This mystery was not what I was expecting—Miss Marple is not the main player in the story (like in many Poirot books), but her expertise in “human nature” is ultimately what saves the day.

 

 

 

4. Murder on the Orient Express – Hercule Poirot

u341fevwh7ngw7nlvxickikw2pmyaglw8rbmsyhbriag5ouet9tcq9f2xjffxkzsjelhh1dotzfe59az8eyzmcztb0of4sfmxkiawsw1oyzkgsradzgmvyczu.pngPoirot must draw from all his resources to find the killer of a most-loathed man from among thirteen passengers on the Orient Express.

This book had one of the most surprising endings of any mystery book I’ve ever read. I definitely recommend reading the book if you’ve only seen the movie. While I loved Kenneth Branagh’s recent film adaptation, the book’s resolution is much more satisfying. This is one of Christie’s most famous novels, and for good reason.

 

 

 

5. The Mystery of the Blue Train – Hercule Poirot

The-Mystery-of-the-Blue-TrainThe Mystery of the Blue Train spans across Europe as Poirot investigates the death of a beautiful young woman on a train to the Mediterranean … and the jewel that lead to her demise.

This one starts out a bit unconventionally—cursed jewels, gangs, gypsies—but soon settles into a familiar Poirot storyline.  I never suspected the killer, and like Death on the Nile, you’re pulled into a world of intrigue, passion, and European decadence. It’s one of my favorite Christie audiobooks too!

 

 

 

6. The Moving Finger – Miss Marple

5141B9s+zWL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_The village of Lymstock seems perfectly peaceful, until a series of vicious anonymous letters sends everyone into an uproar … leading one villager to commit suicide.

Sadly, this book doesn’t feature much of Miss Marple—she sort of swoops in at the end and solves the mystery—but the narrator is (mostly) likable and the plot is deliciously twisty. The only thing I didn’t really like was the relationship between Jerry (the narrator) and Megan Hunter. Throughout the story she’s portrayed as a 20-year-old who acts more like a 10-year-old in dress and behavior, which makes Jerry’s attraction to her seem kind of creepy. But overall, I loved how the characters evolved throughout the story, and how the murderer (as usual) was the person I least expected! Megan’s heroism helps save the day, and I found this Christie a thoroughly satisfying read.

 

7. A Murder is Announced – Miss Marple

51nmzJynQYL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_The whole village is aflutter when a murder announcement is placed in the local paper—and local residents can’t resist coming to watch!

At first, I thought I wasn’t going to be able to finish this one. The first few chapters introducing all the characters were just boring. Then, the “murder attempt” was so ridiculous I was almost embarrassed for the characters! “How can this book be on so many top lists?!” I wondered. But once you get past the “setting the stage” portion of the book, it gets really good.

This one also features plenty of Miss Marple, and I never saw the ending coming! Highly recommend.

 

8. The Regatta Mystery (and Other Stories)

x500I usually avoid short stories like the plague. I don’t know why … something about the shortness of short stories always seems to leave me wanting more. I actually only picked this book up because I wanted to read something short to hit my 2017 reading goals.

So, imagine my surprise when I thoroughly enjoyed this collection! Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, and Parker Pyne all make appearances. Far from being disappointing, these quick, punchy stories get right to the mystery and resolution quickly. I enjoyed listening in short spurts as I did chores around the house. It was great to not feel pressured to listen for long periods of time while still having the satisfaction of listening to a complete story.

 

9. The A.B.C. Murders – Hercule Poirot

71EqbWRE9MLThe A.B.C. Murders is arguably a fan favorite—and it is extremely clever, twisty, and has a wonderfully creepy serial killer who seems to be murdering his way through the alphabet.

Most of the build up was a little slow for me. The payoff at the end was excellent, but unfortunately this one gets low marks from me because I can’t stand Poirot’s friend Captain Arthur Hastings. I know he’s a foil to Poirot’s genius, but still. *Begin rant* Besides the fact that he’s one of the most idiotic characters ever written, his internal monologue is painful. Painful. You’d think he would stop questioning Poirot’s abilities … how many investigations has he helped Poirot with at this point?! But no, he always thinks he knows better than Poirot and always ends up being amazed that Poirot figured out the crime without any help from him. Shocker! *Rant Over*

You’ll have to decide for yourself what you think about Hastings, but The A.B.C. Murders is definitely still worth the read.

 

10. Ordeal by Innocence

ORDEAL BY INNOCENCEAPBAn interesting premise—a man awakes from amnesia only to realize he could have provided an alibi for a man convicted in a murder trial. His guilt leads him to confess to the family, and he is surprised to discover they are displeased. Jacko, the black sheep of the family, was the one person they all hoped was guilty.

This one gets lower marks for a few reasons. First, I essentially figured out the mystery before the reveal, one of the main characters was just plain annoying (and yet for some reason everyone seemed to be in love with her), and lastly, it purports some ideas about mothering and adoption that I’m still not sure about. One of the main sources of conflict in the story is that the matriarch of the family (the one murdered), cannot see people as they really are, and thus is overbearing in the extreme. This causes resentment, anger, and frustration for all the adopted Argyle children. I am not adopted, so I cannot speak to what it’s like to be part of an adopted family, but it seems like at times the book is implying that adopted children can never truly love or trust a family they’ve been adopted into.

 

11. Endless Night

16366Every Night & every Morn 
Some to Misery are Born 
Every Morn and every Night 
Some are Born to sweet delight 
Some are Born to sweet delight 
Some are Born to Endless Night 
– from Auguries of Innocence, by William Blake

This is probably one of the creepier Agatha Christie novels I’ve ever read, and perhaps that’s why I wasn’t a huge fan. The mixture of psychological suspense, obsession with architecture, disturbing passion, and that crazy twist at the end … it’s definitely not what you expect from a typical Christie. And that’s ok. It just wasn’t exactly my cup of Earl Grey tea. For much of the book, I didn’t know where the story was going, and I certainly disliked Michael Rodgers as the narrator. Add to that the creepy poem (quoted above) that is sung by one of the main characters at different points throughout the book, and you have a recipe for an eerie thriller.

Endless Night is considered one of Christie’s best, and in fact, is one of her own favorite works. It’s worth the read, but don’t expect it to be Agatha Christie business as usual!

 

12. The Mysterious Affair at Styles – Hercule Poirot

The-Mysterious-Affair-at-StylesWho killed the wealthy heiress? Was it her new husband? Her stepsons? Her housekeeper or her nurse? And how did they get into her locked chambers?

This is another Captain Hastings + Poirot mystery. As stated above, I don’t like Poirot books that feature Hastings. He’s like a more ditsy version of Dr. Watson. Which makes me wonder if Christie was trying to play off the Sherlock Holmes/Watson dynamic in these books? I suppose the Watson of the original Sherlock Holmes books was dazzled by Sherlock in a way that could be annoying, but that’s another discussion.

Back to this book. Besides my dislike for Hastings, I just didn’t think this was a very interesting mystery. Keeping track of the characters was more difficult than usual, and I suspected the resolution before it happened. Basically, a disappointing Poirot book all around. I recommend skipping this one.

 

13. Hallowe’en Party – Hercule Poirot

16307An annoying teenager is drowned in a tub of apples during a Halloween party … not long after she was heard bragging that she witnessed a murder. Was she crying wolf again? Or was she finally telling the truth?

I read this book for Halloween because I love reading holiday-themed books. But goodness … this was disappointing. I had to keep forcing myself to finish and I was very close to having the whole thing figured out two-thirds of the way in. The whole plot felt odd and disjointed. I left with the feeling that this book was just an excuse to have a book that centered around Halloween—which is really a shame. I don’t recommend this one!

 

 

14. The Seven Dials Mystery – Superintendent Battle

9780062074164-us-300A group of young adults decide to play a prank on their friend who is known for oversleeping—they place eight alarm clocks in his room, only to discover he is dead the next morning. Soon, the survivors are involved with a secret society and international spy ring before discovering the truth of their friend’s murder.

The worst Christie I’ve read to date. The characters were incredibly one-dimensional, pompous, and ridiculous. I barely recognized Christie’s voice—the story is too light and the characters too petty. It was also annoying how every single character said, “Oh!” before they began a line of dialogue. Superintendent Battle barely played a role in the story at all (even less than Miss Marple), which seems like a waste.

The twist at the end redeemed it a little, but this book was the closest I’ve come to DNF-ing a Christie book. I just couldn’t take the plot (or a character named “Bundle”) seriously. I love this review on Goodreads about the book and recommend you read it if you’re still unsure.

Old book, new review: The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

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Title: The Pillars of the Earth
Author: Ken Follett
My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Historical Fiction
Is it worth reading? Yes. For more conservative readers, there will definitely be some sections to skip over (sex, rape, violence etc.). However, despite these flaws, Follett’s world is so captivating and the drama of the cathedral’s construction is so captivating, that if you love being sucked into a new world, you’ll find much to enjoy.

 

>>SPOILER FREE REVIEW<<

This September, Ken Follett will be releasing a new book — the first since he completed the Century Trilogy (which I’m currently reading). Out in September, A Column of Fire is the third book in his Kingsbridge series.

I decided to revisit book one in the series, The Pillars of the Earth, in a new review of the 1989 epic.

First, this book is no joke. At a whopping 1,000+ pages, it’s no quick read. This is not a Harry Potter-1,000 pages that vanish all too quickly. It’s a sizable commitment. But that shouldn’t scare you away, and here’s why:

 

The weird and ugly

Let’s get the negatives out of the way first.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. But there’s definitely some disturbing content. If you’re particularly sensitive to these topics, you might want to skip on Pillars.

Graphic sex and rape: There is a lot of sex throughout, and most scenes are pretty descriptive. I found it easy to skip over them (no major plot points lost), but the amount of detail felt unnecessary. I didn’t pick up a romance novel. Be warned: One rape scene is particularly disturbing and graphic.

Plot devices: As another reviewer pointed out, sometimes the plot felt a bit methodical: Things are going well, HUGE PROBLEM, solution is discovered at the last second, repeat. It’s no surprise that Follett started out writing thrillers.

I eventually came to expect that if things were going well, it was only a matter of time until things got crappy again. Nothing is sacred. No one is invincible. Even though I knew exactly what Follett was doing, I couldn’t. Stop. Reading.

Corruption and violence: Medieval England is about what you would expect — violent, cruel, every man for himself. There are accusations of witchcraft, misogyny in its worst forms, and evil, oppressive leaders. The injustice was so despicable at some points that it took my breath away.

Despite the ugliness depicted throughout Pillars, the stories rang true. Even today, evil exists and abounds. Nothing irks me more than a story that untruthfully depicts human nature.

Now, some of the characters were almost a little too evil, and much of the sex was highly dramatized. But overall, Follett does a good job of presenting flawed, believable characters who develop throughout the story.

 

The beautiful and good

Religion and the Church: For Christian readers, one important thing to keep in mind is that Follett does not believe in God. This is part of what drew me to the book in the first place. It’s totally fascinating to me that someone who doesn’t practice Christianity would write a book about the construction of a cathedral.

Yet somehow Follett creates multi-layered, three-dimensional characters who struggle with their beliefs and wrestle with discerning how God would have them live — something Christians experience daily.

For the most part, Follett was respectful of the church (even though he doesn’t subscribe to faith himself) and Prior Philip is still one of my favorite Christian characters.

World building: This is Follett’s true triumph. The world that he weaves is beautifully intricate and surprisingly real. The layered, rich world-building alone made it worth skipping over all the negative parts.

I’m amazed at how Follett has the ability to capture life in a different time and place, so that you really start to believe you’re immersed in medieval England. I was completely sucked into a different time and place.

Every time I read a Follett, I learn something new about history and people. I know everyone doesn’t love learning (so tragic), but when you read Follett, it doesn’t feel like learning. That’s the beauty of it.

I do wish the book had included a diagram of a cathedral. I’m not familiar with cathedral architecture and terms, and I ended up searching cathedrals online so I could visualize the descriptions of the construction.

 

Why I’m not interested in World Without End

This brings me to why I haven’t read the sequel, World Without End, and why I probably won’t be reading A Column of Fire.

It’s important to note that World Without End was written 20 years after Pillars. Several friends who have read both books (and many Goodreads reviews) point out that much of Follett’s political and personal philosophy seems to have shifted in the years since Pillars was published.

Whereas in Pillars we had Prior Philip — a believer in God, but also a strong, courageous, and flawed character — World Without End seems to be exclusively populated with religious figures who are evil and corrupt.

As a person of faith, I just can’t bring myself to read it. I’m not trying to be naive — I know that throughout history (and today) many religious institutions have been controlled by the corrupt. (Spotlight is one of my favorite movies!)

But why devote the time to reading a 1,000-page book that will likely just make me frustrated?

Life’s just too short and there are too many other good books to read.

 

Have you read The Pillars of the Earth? What did you think? Have you read the sequel?

Accidental Hiatus: That time I moved across the country

Hello, fellow readers. It’s been a while.

Two months ago, I totally didn’t mean to go on hiatus from blogging (and reading for that matter). But then, I totally didn’t mean to move across the country either, and that happened, so here we are.

A big life change has been on the horizon for a while. My husband and I have been waiting, hoping, praying, and longing for the “what’s next” in our life for a long time, but it came much faster than we were expecting.

accidental hiatus

In the form of moving from Virginia to Colorado.

In six weeks.

It’s been a whirlwind, to say the least. A stressful, exciting, strange whirlwind.

The mountains have been calling to us for a long time, and we (well, mostly me), finally found the courage to answer.

But I’m excited to be back to writing! I’m mostly (ish) settled in to my new place, my new routine, and my new life. We’re loving it out west so far (minus the whole not having any friends thing), and I’m ready to discover some new book stores, new libraries, and review some more books!

Thanks for sticking with me. Let’s get reading!

Old book, new review: Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller

Copy of Copy of YOU ARE SIMPLY THE

Title: Blue Like Jazz
Author: Donald Miller
My rating: 3 / 5
Genre: Nonfiction, Memoir
Is it worth reading? Yes. I didn’t find the writing style sophisticated or completely enjoyable, but the perspective and ideas presented make this one worth the read. Expect to be challenged and prepare to ask yourself questions about your own version of faith.

 

You get a strange mix of feelings when you arrive late to the party — over ten years late, to be exact — on a book like Blue Like Jazz.

On the whole, I’m glad I finally got around to reading this one.

When Blue Like Jazz first came out, I was barely a teenager. Miller was writing to a generation just a little bit ahead of mine, who were tired with a fading 1950’s cultural Christianity and eager to reconcile their beliefs with a postmodern world.

On this point, I think Miller was incredibly successful. He writes about the real struggles a Christian has with living in our present age while juggling the American cultural baggage many grew up with.

In so many ways, Blue Like Jazz is permission to lean in to doubts and questions and permission to push back against “the way it’s always been.” In that sense, even ten years later, Blue Like Jazz a breath of fresh air.

All that being said, I waffled back and forth about whether this was a 3-star or 4-star book for me. Here’s why:

NOT A FAN: WRITING STYLE

While Donald Miller had some truly insightful and convicting points, the writing style totally bogged me down. In fact, that’s my main beef with the book and the reason I only gave it three stars.

And to make matters worse, many of Miller’s memories and experiences just weren’t that interesting to me. So not only did I not like the way it was written, I found the content largely boring.

Maybe this is a sign of the times. Maybe our culture is addicted to larger-than-life, over-the-top amazing life experiences to justify reading a memoir about them (ahem, celebrity memoirs).

But I don’t think that’s what’s happening here. I think it’s more just personal taste.

I also found his conversational, we’re-just-getting-coffee style of writing was a bit annoying at times. I appreciated his humility throughout the book, but at other times I just wanted him to stop being wishy-washy and make an argument without so many qualifiers.

The editor in me wanted to tighten up sentences, cut down on the unfocused musings and filler text, and totally scrap the pop culture references.

When I read a book, I don’t want to feel like I’m reading a blog post or rambling thoughts. But I know many people who absolutely love Miller’s writing and find his style incredibly approachable. That’s great — just not for me.

I can applaud Miller for talking openly and authentically about his struggles of reconciling Christian faith with secular culture. But I couldn’t decide if his “shock you out of your comfort zone for the purpose of making you think” strategy was totally effective or not.

On the whole, I was disappointed that the writing was (in my opinion) so unfocused for a book that had such great insights.

HIPSTER MOMENTS … BEFORE THEY WERE COOL

Reading Blue Like Jazz 14 years after publication was like suddenly discovering the roots of Christian hipsterism. Before it was mainstream, of course.

Case in point: “I read through the Koran before it was even popular.” (Blue Like Jazz, 87)

THE REALLY GOOD STUFF

Don’t let my critique fool you — there is some great stuff in Blue Like Jazz. Like really great.

This is my favorite quote from the book:

“When I am talking to somebody there are always two conversations going on. The first is on the surface; it is about politics or music or whatever it is our mouths are saying. The other is beneath beneath the surface, on the level of the heart, and my heart is either communicating that I like the person I am talking to or I don’t. God wants both conversations to be true. That is, we are supposed to speak truth in love. If both conversations are not true, God is not involved in the exchange, we are on our own, and on our own, we will lead people astray.” (Blue Like Jazz, 222)

This shook me.

I used to think my problem in high school was that I couldn’t stop judging people. But these few sentences made me realize that while I was focused on speaking the truth, I wasn’t communicating love at all. Deep down I didn’t like many people I interacted with (much less love them) because I was too focused on how they weren’t living up to my own made-up definition of what “living for Christ” looked like.

What a wake-up call.

Another great point Miller makes is that all the terrible things in the world — evil, suffering, racism, violence — come back to the problem of our own hearts.

Miller asks, if we’re not willing to fix the problems within us, how can we even begin to fight for justice in the world?

FINAL THOUGHTS

Part of me finds it hard to recommend Blue Like Jazz because I just didn’t enjoy reading it that much.

But at the same time, I learned some really powerful things about myself and my own expression of Christianity precisely because I went along for the ride and saw this thing through. Especially if you’re not sure about this whole Christianity thing, Blue Like Jazz is a great place to start.

Overall, I’m not disappointed I read it, and I’d probably even recommend it (with a grain of salt).

But I’m glad I highlighted all the good parts so I don’t have to read it again.

What did you think about Blue Like Jazz? Love it or hate it?

Quote source:
Miller, Donald. Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality (p. 87). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.

Have you noticed? WWII books all seem to have blue covers

I recently looked over my list of books that I read in 2016 (as book lovers do) and discovered that, unintentionally, I read several WWII-era books last year.

I also happened to notice one overarching detail: Each book strongly featured the color blue in its cover artwork.

Coincidence? Maybe.

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Or the smart marketing people at publishing houses have discovered we are attracted to blue or associate WWII fiction with blue.

Who can say for sure? In the wise words of the Tootsie Pop owl, “The World May Never Know.”

But for all you fellow conspiracy theorists out there, the evidence is uncanny:

1. The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

The Nightingale Kristin Hannah WWII Blue Book Cover

The most compelling part of The Nightingale, in my opinion, was the perspective — women left behind during war. How they cope, how they fought back, what their lives might have been like. It was fascinating.

However, it did take me a while to get into The Nightingale (the first several chapters seemed to just be Isabel and Vianne bickering constantly), and a few times it seemed to stray into modern chick-lit style writing.

I also found that the same arguments and scenarios kept happening over and over. Cliche phrases and stock filler text were used throughout. I think the book could have been much shorter — and more powerful — if Hannah had cut some of the fat that didn’t contribute to the story.

But overall, The Nightingale was a satisfying, fresh read. I definitely recommend it!

One note on the audiobook version: it’s lengthy. I might have skimmed through a few parts (and enjoyed the book a bit more) if I’d been reading rather than listening.

 

2. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

All the light we cannot see anthony doerr blue cover wwii booksAll the Light We Cannot See brims with beautiful imagery and symbolism … the town of Saint-Malo, the streets of Paris, and the Museum of Natural History pulse with life as we learn about each place through Marie-Laure’s senses.

I loved experiencing the world through Marie-Laure’s blindness. The imagery alone makes this book a worthwhile read.

When I was reading All the Light We Cannot See, I felt like I was in the story. It was like I was living life right beside Marie-Laure. On the other hand, when I read The Nightingale, I felt like someone was telling me a story.

But I struggled with Werner’s later chapters. I thought his early life was interesting, but by the time he began traveling across Europe, I found myself struggling to continue.

Overall, All the Light We Cannot See started off strong, but I eventually got lost in the middle. The ending was (mostly) satisfying, but it just didn’t quite live up to the hype for me. Maybe I should have listened to this one on audiobook.

 

3. Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave

Everyone brave is forgiven chris cleave blue cover wwii book

I won’t talk about every detail I went over in my full review of Everyone Brave is Forgiven. But here it is in a nutshell: Skip this one.

There are soooooooo many better WWII novels out there. I was seduced by the lovely cover artwork and the dust jacket filled with promises of racial themes and love triangles … but alas, I was sorely disappointed.

WWII is such a tragic, formative, and fascinating time in history. That’s why I was so surprised to find Everyone Brave is Forgiven lacked any of the drama, suspend, or emotion that usually surrounds art set during this time.

Thankfully, Everyone Brave is Forgiven is a fast read, despite its hefty 418 page count.

Overall, I was disappointed at how flat the characters were, how lifeless London felt, and how the most intense, emotional moments left me feeling numb and apathetic. At one point, when the war seemed most dire and a key character was practically dying, I was bored.  I just didn’t care.

4. The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman

light-between-oceans

Ok, so this book is technically not set during WWII.

But I’m still going to include it in the list because helps prove my point. Is that technically cheating? Maybe a little. But this is something I can live with.

I won’t rehash my entire review of this book (you can read it here if you want), but needless to say it probably has the strongest plot tension of any of the other books listed here.

The story picks up after WWI, when Tom is still trying to recover from the horrors of war. He soon finds a new life with Isabel … a life that helps him begin to forget.

And then they make terrible, life-altering choice.

The Light Between Oceans made me stressed, angry, and emotional all at once. And it’s a fast read. The story has a strong hook and keeps you on the edge of your seat until the end — and the payoff is surprisingly satisfying.

 

<< BONUS ROUND >>

1. Number the Stars by Lois Lowry

47281I’m including Number the Stars in the bonus section because it’s not part of any current book trend if it was published in 1989.

But it’s blue!

Number the Stars was one of my first introductions to World War II when I was assigned to read it for a class project.

Before reading this book, I thought that history was boring because it was mostly about remembering facts, dates, and numbers. But Number the Stars showed me that history is the story of real people with real stories, doing real things that have the power to change the world.

Since then, whenever I learn about a new period in history (in school and out of school), I like to read literature that was written during that time period or about that time period.

There is so much to be learned about human nature when read from the perspective of someone experiencing history in the moment. Number the Stars is a children’s book, but it’s definitely worth the read!

 

2. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows

The guernsey literary and potato peel pie society

It’s got a little bit of blue on the cover … sort of. Ok, ok, I know this one completely messes up my “blue cover” motif.

But no WW II book list would be complete without my all-time favorite WWII (or rather, post-WWII) novel, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

In a word, this book is delightful.

Written in letters, it tells the story of Juliet Ashton as she searches for the subject of her next book and healing from the war. What she discovers is a quirky, lovable village on the English channel island of Guernsey with a unique story of their experiences during the war.

It perfectly balances love, humor, hope, and the pain of war without being heavy-handed or flippant. I highly, highly recommend it for your next historical fiction read!

Whether it’s a new book trend or not, blue is definitely having a moment with WWII fiction.

What’s your favorite WWII novel?

More important question: Does it have blue on the cover?

 

Snooze Alert: Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave

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Title: Everyone Brave is Forgiven
Author: Chris Cleave
My rating: 1 / 5
Genre: Historical Fiction
Is it worth reading? No. I found it to be long, flat, and confusing at times. Characters are underdeveloped, the plot tries to accomplish too much, and dialogue is tiresome. There are  so many great WWII novels out there … this is not one of them.

>>SPOILER FREE REVIEW<<

Where to begin.

If Everyone Brave is Forgiven hadn’t been the selection for the book club I’m in, I would have DNFed it pretty early on.

In a nutshell, Everyone Brave is Forgiven was one of the most disappointing books I’ve read in a while. All the elements of a great story were there: Little-known history of WWII, racial tensions, love triangle … but somehow it just falls flat. Chris Cleave is a bestselling author and many people have enjoyed this book.

Perhaps it’s just my personal tastes, but this particular book just didn’t work for me.

This is the only Chris Cleave book I’ve read, so I might just not like the way he writes. I’ve thought about reading Little Bee several times, but I don’t think I can do it if it’s similar in style to this one.

Characters & Setting

WWII is one of the most tragic, formative, and fascinating times in history. That’s why I was surprised to find Everyone Brave is Forgiven was so snooze-worthy. It lacked any of the drama that usually surrounds this era of history.

The characters were one-dimensional and the most emotional parts of the story left me nodding off to sleep.

The transitions and descriptions throughout the book were often very strange. At times I didn’t know what was real and what was a dream, what the characters were thinking or doing, or who characters even were (For example, one book club member didn’t know how Hilda was related to Mary until partway through the book). Once or twice I asked myself, Do I have to be British to understand this??

We never get inside character’s heads, understand their motivations, or see how they deal with grief, heartache, or joy.

Another strange thing: Almost all of the dialogue in this book was just witty banter. Characters rarely talked directly about the true, terrible things that were happening. Everything was a sarcastic joke. Maybe Cleave was trying to make the point that the war was too horrible for words, and could only be spoken about in jokes … but it came across as trite and shallow.

And if the dust cover description hadn’t mentioned that Alistair and Mary fell in love when they first met, I wouldn’t have picked up on that fact at all.

This is one of my ultimate book pet peeves: I can’t stand it when a dust jacket description is a bait and switch. The description for this book made it sound like the book was going to go one direction, but it went a completely different one. I don’t know why, but that always leaves me feeling deceived and shortchanged.

Story & Plot

I so wish Everyone Brave is Forgiven had focused exclusively on the relationship between Mary and black students during the war. Not only would it have been timely, it would have been valuable to read a black perspective during WWII. The dust jacket made it seem like that was where the book was going, but it was just a sidebar storyline.

In fact, there wasn’t any clear, dominant storyline throughout the entire book … it’s like it tried to cover too much ground without really making any clear point. We have Mary and Tom’s story, the school story, the war in general, Alastair’s experiences, Alastair and Hilda’s story, Mary and Hilda’s friendship, and then Mary and Alastair’s romance. None were particularly successful.

I walked away from this book not sure what, exactly, I was supposed to learn or get out of reading it.

But perhaps one of the most unbelievable aspects of the book is Mary’s behavior.

She galavants around London doing whatever her heart desires … like spending the night and sleeping with her boyfriend (did people really do this so willy-nilly before birth control?) or frequenting “seedy” clubs. If her family is really as affluent and concerned with image as the book makes them sound, I have a hard time believing that during the 1940s she could have slept at her boyfriend’s house or hung around the club without strong consequences to her parents’ political image.

Even the TV show Call the Midwife (which is set in the 1950s) clearly shows that sex outside of marriage was, in general, publicly frowned upon.

Final Thoughts

The most positive thing I can say about Everyone Brave is Forgiven is that it reads really quickly. Small mercies.

Overall, I wouldn’t recommend this book. If the scope of the story had been pared down, and the characters and setting had been more developed, this could have been something special. But it just fell flat for me.

There was no drama. There was no anticipation. There was no conflict, climax, or resolution. And then the ending: No resolution. No hope. It ended on such a discordant note.

I think the most painful part or reading Everyone Brave is Forgiven was this: At the most dramatic, important, and tragic moments, I felt nothing. I felt numb. I just didn’t care.

As a reader, that’s the greatest tragedy of all.

Why you need to read The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

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Title: The Underground Railroad
Author: Colson Whitehead
My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Historical Fiction
Audiobook note: Bahni Turpin does a fantastic job narrating. I thoroughly enjoyed listening to her mastery of different accents and character voices. As you’ll see below, I think listening on audiobook really helped me finish this story.
Is it worth reading? Yes, yes, yes. The Underground Railroad is not a “comfortable” read by any means, but it’s an important one. Perhaps now, more than ever, we need to listen to voices speaking out about racial tensions in our country. It may be written about the past, but The Underground Railroad is more timely than ever.

 

>>SPOILER FREE REVIEW<<

It’s taken me some time to chew over what to say in a review of The Underground Railroad. Namely, how do you review a book about horrors that were not committed toward your ancestors? Horrors that your ancestors, in fact, might have committed?

Approaching this book, I wanted to assume a posture of listening and learning, attempting (though brokenly) to grow in my understanding.

In that regard, The Underground Railroad did not disappoint.

As I listened to the audiobook, all I could think was: “This is what reading is all about. This is so important for me to hear.”

The atrocities committed against slaves and blacks in America are easy to forget when we relegate their stories to textbooks and history classes. For me, The Underground Railroad was a powerful reminder of the importance (and power) of narrative in helping us understand not only history, but the experiences of another human being.

And this is what I love about books. I will never understand what it’s like to be a black slave in pre-Civil War America. Or even to be a black person in modern America. But I can begin to listen, learn, and grow through hearing their stories.

Another powerful message from The Underground Railroad is that it’s incredibly easy to celebrate all the good aspects of our country while completely forgetting the horror, evil, and despicable actions of Americans who killed, plundered, and destroyed the lives of Native Americans and blacks.

We cannot forget that much (if not most) of our country was built on the backs of slaves and the oppressed. We cannot sanitize history to ease our consciences. Erasing the horror only makes us blind to the world we’ve created — the world we live in today.

Choosing to intentionally avoid stories like The Underground Railroad is choosing to live asleep.

It’s choosing to willfully ignore — or even worse, willfully deny — the realities of our country’s origins, and the roots of so many racial tensions today. You cannot torture, murder, and dehumanize an entire people group for over two hundred years and then expect all the remnants of that torture to be gone within a few generations.

I know all of these things have been said before, by people much smarter, wiser, and more attuned to the nuances of racial tension than I am. But this is why I think The Underground Railroad is an incredibly important read.

One thing is abundantly clear to me after reading this story: I have not read nearly enough African American literature. Shame on me.

My only minor critique: From a purely personal standpoint, The Underground Railroad was not the most engaging book I’ve ever picked up. If I hadn’t been listening to it on audiobook, I think it would have been easy to put it down and not pick it back up. I think the reason isn’t the content, which was powerful, thought provoking, and highly relevant.

I think the problem for me was more in the style. I wish some of the portions had been in first person, or had delved deeper into the character’s psyche. The characters felt a bit flat at times, and the setting wasn’t fleshed out enough that I could visualize everything Cora and the other characters were experiencing.

The most interesting plot device of the story — the underground railroad as an actual railroad — doesn’t feel fully developed. I was left wanting something a little … more.

Whitehead’s writing felt a bit … clinical, for lack of a better word. The story was powerful. The plot was interesting. But the way it was written just wasn’t my favorite.

So that’s my struggle. On the one hand, you have this incredibly moving story that shines a bright light on the attitudes, atrocities, and belief systems of the slavery-era South.

But on the other hand, you have story that stalled, dragged on, and lost my interest at times.

At the end of the day, not every important story is going to have the readability that suits our absolute particular preferences, and that’s ok.

Should you still read it? Absolutely. But maybe check out the audiobook.

5 reasons I’ll stop listening to an audiobook

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I love audiobooks—or “books on tape” as we ’90s kids are still prone to call them.

There’s nothing better then finding a great story you can listen to over and over again (Lord of the Rings narrated by Rob Inglis, anyone?). They’re also a great way to make a dent in your reading goals.

But sometimes finding a great audiobook can feel like a Goldilocks pursuit.

They can’t be too this or too that. They need to be just right.

I’ll be the first to admit—I’m a little picky when it comes to choosing audiobooks.

My top audiobook pet peeves are things that distract me from focusing in on the story. Just like bumpy sentences and dry dialogue in print, certain narrator quirks often distract me to the point that I have to press “stop” and move on.

Here are a few things that make me DNF an audiobook:

Long pauses between words or sentences

I ran into this problem when I tried to listen to Janet Evanovich’s One for the Money. Between every sentence, I could literally hear the narrator take a breath.

No surprise—the book moved along at the speed of mud and I hit stop before I’d even gotten to chapter two.

The opposite is also true.

This may be my Alabama roots showing, but if a narrator is talking so fast I have to tilt my head toward the speaker to keep up, I’m out.

The narrator sounds like Siri

This should be a given, but pretty regularly I come across audiobooks where is seems like the narrator is actually trying to sound a robot-like as possible. What?!

Give me some Jim Dale narrating Harry Potter any day of the week over that.

Audiobook magic happens when the narrator starts to fade away and the story is front and center. It takes an enormous amount of talent for a narrator to give each character their own distinct voice and personality. I love it when narrators craft an immersive world with their voice.

The voice doesn’t match the book’s vibe

There’s something really disjointed about listening to an audiobook narrated by a voice that so clearly does not match the vibe of the book.

Sometimes I can get used to it (like in The Circle), but other times it just doesn’t work. One of weirdest book/narrator mashups I’ve heard was Francine River’s Bridge To Haven. This is a story about a young, impressionable actress in 1950’s Hollywood … narrated in an elderly, mature-sounding voice. I don’t think the narrator is actually old, but the style just didn’t work for me.

The accent is all wrong

Ok, I know this is really a minor pet peeve.

But come on, if I’m going to listen to a British novel, I want to hear a rich British voice dripping with tea and scones and crumpets telling me the story. Not an American.

When the volume ranges from yelling to a whisper … the entire book

This is probably my number one pet peeve.

I listen to audiobooks most frequently in the car, and there’s nothing more obnoxious than constantly having to adjust the volume because one minute the narrator’s practically yelling, and the next they’re whispering.

I ran into this problem with The Light Between Oceans. I loved the narrators voice, but every time I pulled into a parking lot I felt like people were staring at me because I had a loud Australian voice blasting from my car stereo.

BONUS: The editing is bizarre

So this just happened to me recently while I was listening to Scary Close by Donald Miller. Instead of normal pauses between sentences or chapters, every space seems to have been edited out.

This is how it would go: … you knowChapter5When you think about …

I’m wondering if they edited it down to fit within a certain time frame? Either way, I had to stop and borrow the book from a friend because the reading was so fast, my brain didn’t have time to stop and absorb what was just said. Super frustrating!

 

We all have our pet peeves, but the good new is, most audiobooks are great.

What are some of your audiobook pet peeves? Who are your favorite narrators?

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett | Review

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Title: Commonwealth
Author: Ann Patchett
My rating: 5 / 5
Genre: General Fiction
Audiobook note: I highly recommend the audiobook! Hope Davis has this fascinating voice—equal parts smokey, crackly, and hilariously sarcastic—that makes listening to Commonwealth pure pleasure. Each character has a unique vocal fingerprint. I remember thinking while listening, “I could never have brought these characters to life in my head as well as she does.”
Is it worth reading? If you enjoy stories about family dynamics and the power of love that can transcend generations, then Commonwealth is your kind of book. Patchett is a master storyteller who knows how to write a sentence so smooth, you’ll want to stop random strangers and say, “Just listen to this!” While Patchett is perhaps best known for Bel Canto, I actually liked Commonwealth better. Don’t tell anyone.

 

>>SPOILER FREE REVIEW<<

This is my first Ann Patchett novel. I’ve seen her books around for years in libraries and bookstores, but it’s only been in the past few years that I’ve started picking up “adult” novels and moving away from Young Adult.

I also have to confess—the main reason I gave it a shot was because of the cover. The book description didn’t appeal to me. But the dust jacket had this glorious texture and something about the cover design made me stop every time I walked into a bookstore.

(Yes, I’m one of those people who pick up books, stroke the cover, flip through the pages, and then repeat before finally giving in.)

And I’m so glad I did. Commonwealth didn’t disappoint.

Here are some things I loved:

Chronological leaps

Commonwealth spans over five decades, and many chapters end on a cliffhanger … and  the next chapter picks up in the past or future, and you’re left dangling. I could tell from scanning Goodreads reviews that this was a major drawback for some readers. It was infuriating. But I loved it.

The story was bit of a puzzle. You only got a small piece each chapter, but by the end I can assure you (most) everything fits together.

Patchett’s writing style

Before reading Commonwealth, I didn’t know it was possible for a novel to sound like music. Each sentence flows perfectly into the next—a delight for readers and listeners.

Nothing turns me off of a book quicker than bumpy, unreadable sentences. If the plot is compelling enough, sometimes I will stick in it just to find out what happens (see my The Light Between Oceans review), but for the most part, sentence flow is a sticking point.

The fallout of broken promises

So these families are pretty screwed up.

Bert Cousins kisses another man’s wife at her daughter’s christening party for crying out loud. Their children spend the rest of their lives trying to reconcile the brokenness that seems to be the core of their existence. Their ex-spouses must find a way to move on.

Commonwealth is a story of the search for something whole and true.

It’s a harrowing reminder that our relentless search for meaning and purpose can lead us down paths we never intended to take … ultimately hurting those we love the most.

I love that Patchett doesn’t glorify Bert and Beverly’s unfaithfulness. She simply tells a story and lets the reader decide how to feel about it.

Love’s power to heal

Commonwealth could have been a really depressing story.

Instead, it’s strangely hopeful.

Despite the heartbreaking loss, sorrow, betrayal, and disappointment the Cousins/Keating families experience, Commonwealth ends with forgiveness, hope, and a deep love that transcends each person’s faults.

This is the truth Commonwealth offers us:

We are all broken. We hurt each other in selfish and cruel ways. But love has the power to transcend the ugliness in this world.

Our brokenness can be mended.

The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman | Review

Copy of The circle review

Title: The Light Between Oceans
Author: M.L. Stedman
My rating: 3.5 / 5
Audiobook note: I initially tried listening to The Light Between Oceans on audiobook, but I had to constantly adjust the volume because the narrator fluctuated between a whisper and yell. Annoying.
Is it worth reading? If want a beach read or a quick love story with a little bit of edge, this is your jam. It’s not a happy ending, but it’s got more meat and moral backbone than your average romance.

 

>>SPOILER FREE REVIEW<<

It’s been weeks, and I’m still not sure how I feel.

Until I got to Part III, I had already decided that I was going to give this book only 3 stars.

what I DIDN’T like:

I really had to force myself through the first few chapters. But I had to know how it ended.

Maybe it was just the author’s style, but I didn’t think the short and staccato sentences really worked. It felt unnecessarily choppy. I had also finished Commonwealth by Ann Patchett, where every word and sentence was almost lyrical in its flow. Reading TLBO felt like driving along a bumpy road.

Another style note: each chapter is divided into multiple “vignettes” that gave you a small peek into the action. I rarely say it, but this book just wasn’t long enough. The snapshots just weren’t enough to immerse you into the world or character’s heads.

The book description essentially gave away the plot of Parts I and II. For almost half of the book, I was waiting to get to the parts of the story that I didn’t already know.

I didn’t like how most of the book was Tom’s perspective. I really, really wanted to understand Isabel. I wanted to get inside her skin and understand what it felt like to be on the edge of grief and sanity … I wanted to connect somehow, but I couldn’t.

It’s shame that this book missed such an incredible opportunity to explore the depths of postpartum depression and mental illness.

For me, The Light Between Oceans‘ biggest flaw was a lack of character development.  At the end of the day, as much as I long for this to be a character-driven novel, it’s a plot-driven novel. The plot is so good. But the characters suffered as a result.

I never fully understood Tom or Isabel’s motivations or hearts. And I really wanted to. I wanted to experience every emotion and heartbreak. I wanted to not hate Isabel and be frustrated with Tom. I wanted to feel for them. At the end, I sort of did. But I wanted more.

And yet.

In the last few chapters, TLBO suddenly redeemed itself from 3-star status.

what I DID like:

First and foremost, if you are a lover of the rules (like me), this book instantly becomes dually stressful and fascinating. The main characters (good people, we’ve learned) make a terrible, awful, (and in my opinion) wrong choice. A choice that is so fraught with illogic and heartbreak and desperation that you have to know how it ends.

And this is where the book is redeemed. You can point your finger at sloppy writing and poor characterization, but this is powerful story. This is tragedy in all its beauty and messiness and heartache. The plot kept me coming back for more. And more. And more.

Could our beloved characters be redeemed? Could there be any meaning in the fallout?

Stedman does a fabulous job of not casting judgement on her characters. It’s up to us, the readers, to decide whether Tom and Isabel’s crime was evil or natural. 

And, for all it’s flaws in character development, I loved the world of Janus Island and Australia. Stedman’s settings are beautiful and vivid.

As I hungrily read the last chapter on the floor of my bathroom at midnight, and I was surprised to find tears running down my face. Most books don’t make me cry. But this one did. This frustrating, stressful book of unfulfilled potential made me feel much more than I ever expected.

my internal dilemma:

The Light Between Oceans has some lovely symbolism about light, opposing forces, and reconciliation. The lighthouse is caught between the meeting place of two oceans. Our two main characters are diametrically opposite in personality and temperament. They are faced with choice that will define them for better or for worse … they come face to face with life and death.

There is something true beneath the surface here.

 

I guess my struggle is that The Light Between Oceans was an entertaining page turner that also had some qualities of good literature. And this messes up the categories I normally place books within. Normally I’ll say something was a page turner, but wasn’t very deep, or it wasn’t the easiest read, but was filled with depth and meaning.

The Light Between Oceans didn’t really accomplish either completely. But it did make an impact on me, and I can’t discount that.

This book shows of the importance of story. You can have beautiful language and stunning technique, but if your story stinks, it’s not going to resonate with anybody.

Ultimately, I think the greatest stories are ones that allow us to experience tragedy in such a way that we are pointed back to God somehow: we must be able to recognize our purpose in life beyond the people and circumstances we face.

It’s healthy in our privileged American life to vicariously experience sorrow and tragedy from time to time. Sometimes, we need to be reminded how to feel again.