Category Archives: Books

Children’s Novels That Teach Culture & History

While generally I have a weak spot for sci-fi reading, I’ve also noticed  I enjoy books that help you understand a specific culture or history. I think that’s one of the greatest joys of reading—better understanding part of life. Young adult and teen novels seem to be the best at this, since they’re usually more focused.

These sorts of stories may be a weak route to diversity, but they at least offer some. I’d also counter that understanding differing perspectives is the whole point of more diversity in our books, so that’s a big win.

So what are some good reads in that genre? I’m probably just getting started and missing the obvious ones, but since I do read a lot I realized I have quite a few to suggest. Continue reading Children’s Novels That Teach Culture & History

Where’s the Diversity in Literature?

Illustration by Christopher MyersI read a lot. And in all that reading it’s apparent that diversity is lacking. I like to tell myself that’s because of my own tastes or my own white privilege.

But it’s not just me.

It’s a problem that pervades the publishing industry. Earlier this month I tweeted a story about how 93% of the characters in children’s literature are white. The New York Times has run a pair of opinion pieces on the issue, Where Are All the People of Color in Children’s Books by Walter Dean Myers and The Apartheid of Children’s Literature by Christopher Myers, that gives some context and reality to the dry stats:

“In 1969, when I first entered the world of writing children’s literature,” writes Walter Dean Myers, “the field was nearly empty. Children of color were not represented, nor were children from the lower economic classes. Today, when about 40 percent of public school students nationwide are black and Latino, the disparity of representation is even more egregious. In the middle of the night I ask myself if anyone really cares.”

Continue reading Where’s the Diversity in Literature?

Lessons From a Reader: Don’t Remind Me It’s a Book

I’ve read multiple books lately where a character compares their life to a movie or book.

“I felt like a character in a book…”

No, you are a character in a book!

Every time I just want to shout: But you are a character in a book!

How ridiculous for an author to have their characters compare their life to other stories, breaking down the imaginary world and flat out reminding me that I’m reading fiction? Being specific and comparing your drama to Hamlet or your overbearing parent to 1984 is one thing, but the generic, “felt like the twisting plot of an action movie” is just bad.

One book I was reading did it multiple times, using it as an excuse to explain plot lines.

Another book literally said, “as if I were a character in a sci-fi.” She was a character in a sci-fi!

Ug. I cringe every time as a reader.

But as a writer, I’ve done it myself. I was working on editing one of my novels recently (a task I always seem to take up again and never seem to finish) and came across several instances where I did it. Cringe. Marked for editing.

I can see how it might be a natural reaction. We’re so inundated with stories that it’s only normal to compare our lives to them. But it just kills the illusion and world building that happens in fiction. It’s lazy. Find another way to say it.

Top 5 Nonfiction Books From 2013

I’ve already shared my top fiction books from 2013 and my entire reading list for 2013. Here’s my top nonfiction books from 2013:

  1. When We Were on Fire: A Memoir of Consuming Faith, Tangled Love, and Starting Over by Addie Zierman
    From the author of the blog How to Talk Evangelical, Addie shares a poignant story of growing up in the Christian bubble and sliding from enthusiastic Jesus Freak missionary into alcohol-fueled depression. It’s an engaging and honest confessional on faith that’s much needed today. It also strongly resonated with me because so much of her story is growing up in the teenage evangelical culture of the 1990s, which is where I was. She even relates going to an Insyderz concert, and I can’t count how many of those I’ve been to (ska! ska! ska!).
  2. Help Thanks Wow: The Three Essential Prayers by Anne Lamott
    This trippy Jesus follower breaks down prayer in a way that only she could. Short, sweet and a nice kick in the pants. It’s been really nice to read stuff from Lamott that’s not just a bunch of essays complaining about George W. Bush.
  3. Tell Me a Story: Finding God (and Ourselves) Through Narrative by Scott McClellan
    Looking at life as story and finding the inspiration, encouragement and motivation to be worthy storytellers. A great little book that condenses a lot of disjointed thoughts about story that have been floating around in the past few years. I reviewed it for Church Marketing Sucks and it certainly resonates with that crowd, but it’s just been a good, encouraging book.
  4. Freedom’s Daughters: The Unsung Heroines of the Civil Rights Movement from 1830-1970 by Lynne Olson
    An eye-opening, transcendent account of the civil rights movement, punctuated with the power of women. I was impressed with the transparent account that didn’t shy away from the movement’s failings. It’s stronger when we don’t whitewash everything to be perfect and squeaky clean. This book did take a while to get through because it was such an all encompassing overview, but it also inspired me to do a lot more reading on the civil rights movement and introduced me to several new heroes.
  5. Our Last Option: How a New Approach to Civility Can Save the Public Square by Andrew Marin
    It took me a few chapters to get used to the academic approach—I almost gave up—but I’m glad I stuck it out. This book is so needed today. Andrew Marin proposes (and lives out) a way to get beyond the all-or-nothing form of discourse that dominates religion and politics. It’s a lot to wrap your head around and I’d need to do some serious study to learn how to implement it, but as progressives and conservatives clash over everything, from health care to gay marriage, we need a new way forward. Or maybe an old way. But we need something that can work in today’s polarized climate. Actually making it happen is another matter, but I think Andrew is one of the rare voices that is interested in progress without the polarization.

I tend not to read a lot of nonfiction, mostly because it slows me down, but these were some of the year’s real gems.

If you want to do more reading, be sure to check out 137 Books in One Year: How to Fall in Love With Reading Again.

Top Fiction Books From 2013

I read 146 books in 2013. When you read that many books you end up with a lot of favorites.

If you want to read more, be sure to check out 137 Books in One Year: How to Fall in Love With Reading Again.

Last year I offered a straight top 15 list, but this year I’m going to break it out a bit. I read a lot more fiction than nonfiction and I really love fiction. It’s hard to compare the two, so it seems unfair to put them in the same list. I’ll share my nonfiction favs later. We’ll also give a few honorable mentions…

Top 10 Fiction of 2013:

  1. The Martian by Andy Weir
    An astronaut is abandoned on Mars and has to find a way to survive for years until rescue can come. It feels like the forever how-toing and survivalist stuff should get old, but it’s captivating. Impossible to put down and just incredibly engaging. I can’t stop recommending this one. Plus it was self published and got picked up for major release (which is why it’s not available until February).
  2. The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
    A time travel story that replaces all the pesky science fiction with romance. That makes it much more approachable than you’d expect and incredibly fun. It’s a love story where the time-traveling husband first meets his wife when they’re both in their 20s. But she actually met first him when she was 6 and he was in his 40s. Confused? Don’t worry, it’s awesome.
  3. Wool by Hugh Howey
    I kept hearing people talk about the self-published phenomena of Wool and I finally grabbed an omnibus edition from the library (I hate cliffhangers). Howey also grabbed headlines by scoring mainstream publication while maintaining his digital rights, which is pretty great. Howey weaves an incredible world that’s engaging and fascinating, while also being hard to put down. I  plowed through this book wanting to see more of the world and know what happens next. Great characters, great world, great fun. (And for the record, the sequels hold their own. A rare case when the trilogy didn’t kill the story.)
  4. Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
    I basically fell in love with Rainbow Rowell as one of my new favorite authors this year. I read all three of her books and saw her at a reading (delightful!). It’s tempting to put all three of her books in my list and if I did a top 15 I probably would. Attachments is pretty great with its late 1990s email monitoring setup. Eleanor & Park is probably her most popular and while it’s great, it’s probably my least favorite (but still in my top 15). But Fangirl gets the top spot for exploring the life of a freshman college student having a difficult transition (I can relate), exploring writing and also diving into fan fiction with a fun sendup of the Harry Potter world. I didn’t want it to end.
  5. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski
    This was kind of an unexpected favorite. It’s much more of a literary novel (and an Oprah pick!) and it took a little getting used to the literary style, but once the book got going I really got into it. It’s the story of a mute boy and his family that trains dogs, and, well, ultimately it’s a retelling of Hamlet. I’m kind of slow on the uptake with that kind of stuff though. I just enjoyed the story for what it was. For me the story really hit its stride when the boy was on the run with his dogs.
  6. Kindred by Octavia Butler
    Another surprise favorite, I listened to Kindred while running. I’ve read Octavia Butler before and found her to be a little intense. Kind of severe I guess, which felt odd in the more fantasy works I’ve read. This one is entirely realistic, except for the fact that Dana is inexplicably drawn from the 1970s to slave-holding 1800s Maryland. Another time travel novel with no time machine! I love that concept. It’s a perfect scenario for Butler’s intense style, and it was riveting.
  7. Old Man’s War by John Scalzi
    John Scalzi became one of my favorite writers this year. His reimagining of Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers is just great. It kicks off an entire series and it’s full of mind-bending surprises, sci-fi insight and just plain grunts doing their thing. Good stuff. Perhaps the only reason Scalzi didn’t make the top five is because his stuff has an unassuming quality that doesn’t draw attention to itself. It’s just a good read.
  8. The Passage by Justin Cronin
    This pre- and post-apocalypse vampire story is incredible in its breadth and depth. It’s long and takes some getting used to, which is probably why it’s not higher on the list, but the worlds it takes you to are fantastic. The narrative jumps around, sometimes entire generations, but you keep getting various glimpses of the tragedy unfolding. You see a post-apocalyptic hidey-hole and then generations later a compound that’s found a way to survive. My biggest complaint is that it turns into a trilogy and starts to get bizarre. I thought The Twelve was kind of a letdown and I’m less eager for the third installment.
  9. Feed by Mira Grant
    I remember being amazed at the pace and imagination of this zombie tale. It’s the story of two adventure-addicted bloggers in a world where humanity has learned to live with their zombie infestation. The bloggers land on a press tour with a presidential candidate when a mysterious plot threatens them all. It moves at a breakneck pace and Mira Grant is not afraid to kill off main characters, which makes it a thrill ride. The only reason it’s not higher on the list is because it spawns two disappointing sequels that really kill the mood. (Notice a theme? Trilogies are really killing good stories. I know it’s tempting, but leave well enough alone!)
  10. Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A.S. King
    This one feels like an odd choice for the top 10 list. It’s the story of a troubled teenage girl and the ex-boyfriend who died with his share of secrets. She’s trying to sort out his death and the secrets while maintaining some semblance of life. I loved the snapshots of her after school job delivering pizzas. I’m a sucker for those vignettes of real life. But it’s just a funny, quirky, poignant book that I really enjoyed. No time travel, no zombies, no space flight—just good characters and a page-turning story.

Honorable Mentions
Every year there are some books that don’t make my top books list but are still worth a mention. Here are a few honorable mentions:

  • Best Post-Apocalyptic Story: The Dog Stars by Peter Heller
    I read a lot of post-apocalyptic sci-fi. It’s fair to say I’ve read all the major books. It’s hard to find a new one and I usually find myself reading zombie or vampire variants that aren’t quite the standard post-apocalyptic story. But this one was a surprise standard. It has a very weird voice that takes some getting used to, but once you do it’s the story of a pilot and his dog living with a totally prepared military guy and wanting to get out and explore. The simple details are wonderful. The only thing that kept it from being a top pick is the barebones style that took a lot of getting used to.
  • Worst Post-Apocalyptic Story: Patriots: A Novel of Survival in the Coming Collapse by James Wesley, Rawles
    Wow. This book is so bad and so great at the same time. The writing and storytelling is atrocious. The survivalist insights are amazing. The author is a real deal prepper and knows his stuff. But the story is straight up propaganda (I wouldn’t even say it’s thinly veiled). So it’s painful to read, but strangely captivating. The story does become addicting and I had to know what happened, but then he’d throw in some ridiculous political comment and I was laughing at it.
  • So Close But Not There: Reamde / Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson
    Anytime you’re reading a book that’s more than 600 pages you’re making a serious commitment and the author needs to hold up their end of the bargain. Stephen King is one of the rare authors who can do this well. Neal Stephenson is almost there. Reamde was pretty good. Maybe top 15. An incredibly suspenseful story that just unfolded in bizarre complications. I enjoyed it. But there were definitely moments where I wondered about the pacing. Did it really need to be this long? Could we have shaved off a few hundred pages? That’s a problem. Then there’s Cryptonomicon. It had this great World War II mystery being played out in the past and uncovered in the present. Really engaging (except when he spent pages and pages explaining weird math concepts). But then the ending came too abruptly and with some weird leaps. You don’t spend a thousand pages on a book and then rush the ending. I dropped it a full star on Goodreads based on the abruptness of the ending alone. Even worse? It’s supposedly the first in a series. I like Stephenson’s writing, but the length makes me wary.
  • Too Good Not to Mention: Attachments by Rainbow Rowell
    I already mentioned this one above when I put Fanmail in the top five, but Attachments needs some more love. Let’s be honest: It’s a top 10 book. The only reason I didn’t put it there is because I don’t like to give one author multiple spots. Arbitrary and stupid? Maybe. This is just a feel good love story. You’re rooting for the geek as he struggles to make sense of his life, gets himself in some trouble and wonders if he can ever get out.

There you go. The best fiction of 2013. Now I’m ready to get back to my 2014 reading (currently Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl is making a good case for the 2014 top 10).

If you want to read more, again, check out my booklet 137 Books in One Year: How to Fall in Love With Reading Again.

2013 Reading List

So after reading 137 books in 2012 and writing a book about it, I felt a fair amount of self-imposed pressure to keep it up in 2013. I didn’t want it to be a fluke. Clearly it wasn’t a fluke, just an insatiable love for reading.

I dove in to so many great worlds through books in the past year. The number doesn’t really matter, just that joy of reading.

Of course we like numbers. This year I hit 146.

That sounds crazy. And intimidating. If you want to read more, don’t focus on my crazy numbers. Just find some books you love and start reading. I’ve got plenty of tips for you.

I’ll be putting together a top five (or 10 or 15) list of my favorite books of the year, like I did last year, but I’ll need some time to whittle that list down (Update: Here’s my top 10 fiction of 2013). Though it will probably include The Time Traveler’s Wife, The Martian and something by Rainbow Rowell.

I had a few trends this year, including getting into some great new authors (John Scalzi, Hugh Howey, Rainbow Rowell, Neal Stephenson and Mira Grant), tackling a few classics (I’m not big on classics) including Call of the Wild, The Autobiography of Frederick Douglass, Chinua Achebe and Anne Frank (yeah, somehow I’d never read her diary), and getting into the history of the civil rights movement (which included discovering a new hero in Pauli Murray). And like always, I read a lot of post-apocalyptic sci-fi.

You can also check out my previous reading lists: 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004, 2003, 2002 and 2001.

So let’s get to it. Here’s my reading list for 2013:

Continue reading 2013 Reading List

Church Communication Heroes

Church Communication Heroes Volume 1Last month I put together another yet another ebook, this one exploring heroes. Church Communication Heroes Volume 1 launched on All Saints’ Day last week. It’s another ebook from Church Marketing Sucks, our second one this year.

I’m especially excited about this one because it finds inspiration in the historical figures who have gone before us. They may not have used Facebook hundreds of years ago, but they still had to communicate. I think churches can learn a lot from history and too often we’re disconnected from it.

Church communicators may not think we have any history, but we do.

The book explores the stories of 15 saints of communication, including familiar names such as  Martin Luther King Jr. and Vincent van Gogh and less obvious names such as Pauli Murray and Pandita Ramabai. We also had a ton of great writers and an incredible cover design.

It’s also fun because it’s volume one. The plan is to roll out more hero stories in the future.

Learn more about the ebook and pick up your own copy >>

The Joy of Author Readings

Last week I went to two separate author readings: Addie Zierman read from her beautiful spiritual memoir, When We Were On Fire, on Tuesday evening at Northwestern University; and Rainbow Rowell read a short bit from her 1980s teen love story, Eleanor & Park, on Wednesday at the Harriet Island Pavilion.

I love hearing from authors. It’s great to hear an author’s work in their own voice. I still remember hearing Wendell Berry read from Jayber Crow during college and just being blown away. That was a book  I had to read.

Author readings are also great events because they’re free. It’s not like you can get that deal with your favorite band. I’m not big on autographs and needing to meet authors, but that can be fun as well. And if you’re looking to meet women, apparently author events are the place to go. Maybe I’m just reading the wrong books, but the gender balance was way off. That makes sense for a teen love story, but I felt a bit like the old skeezy guy (sticking around for an autograph would not have helped that issue either). Continue reading The Joy of Author Readings