Tuesday, December 31, 2019

My Favorite Reads of 2019

Guess what—I actually met my Goodreads goal for the year! I've always had trouble hitting this in the past, but I realized that was mostly because I (stubbornly and for no reason) refused to count rereads towards my goal. This year I ditched that weird, made-up rule and exceeded my goal by eight!

I read a lot of great books this year, so I had a hard time narrowing this list down to a somewhat reasonable number. (I just love books, guys!) I managed to cut it down to ten, so here they are, in no particular order.




Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple
Leading up to a family trip to Antartica, Bernadette Fox seemingly vanishes into thin air, and her teenaged daughter pieces together a puzzle of emails, invoices, memos, and more in order to find her. That's all I'm going to say! Read the book! (In re the movie adaptation: It isn't bad and stays pretty true to the book overall, but there are a few cuts and changes that really take away from the excitement and mystery of the original story. I also think that the characters are missing a lot of their personality and depth, and they're really what makes the book so fun in the first place. Just read the book!)

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
In this short novel, a man returns to his childhood home and finds himself drawn to the farm at the end of the road where memories of events from forty years before start flooding back. Writing stories that are at once achingly lovely and incredibly creepy is a difficult feat, but Neil Gaiman does it perfectly every time.

American On Purpose: The Improbable Adventures of an Unlikely Patriot by Craig Ferguson
Aside from forever being my favorite late-night host, Craig Ferguson is a genuinely great writer. We read his novel Between the Bridge and the River for book club a couple of years ago and it was so clever and interesting, and his first memoir was no different. He talks about his family, his struggles with addiction and sobriety, his career, and more in a very honest, vulnerable, and (of course) hilarious way.

Ramona Blue by Julie Murphy
Ramona is funny, strong, and sure of herself—but when her childhood friend Freddie moves back to town, she begins to question some things. She's always known she likes girls, but maybe she likes guys too? Or maybe it's just Freddie? It's a story about sexuality and love, but also largely about family, loyalty, and obligations. Julie Murphy has a knack for writing characters that are so real, so hopeful and big-hearted that you can't help but root for them.

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
Clay Jannon lands the night shift at Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore after losing his San Francisco tech job to the recession. The customers are strange and only “check out” large books from the top shelves that contain nothing but grids of numbers. With the help of a few tech-y friends, Clay uncovers the secrets of the bookstore (and it’s not what you think). If I had to choose one word to describe this book, it would be "charming." It’s a fun story, and will make you thankful for books of all kinds.

I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O'Farrell
Maggie O’Farrell writes of her seventeen near-death experiences and how they've shaped her life, which will, naturally, have you thinking of your own near misses. “There is nothing unique or special in a near-death experience,” she writes. “They’re not rare; everyone, I would venture, has had them, at one time or another, perhaps without even realising.” The book is beautifully written, and will make you feel especially grateful for the old brag of your heart.

A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi
Shirin is a sixteen-year-old Muslim girl who’s just trying to get through high school the year after 9/11. She's constantly subject to degrading comments and sometimes abuse because of her race, religion, and the hijab she wears every day—and she’s sick of it. She's constantly on guard, always expecting (and often receiving) the worst of people, but that slowly starts to change when she meets a boy named Ocean. This book tore me up and stuck with me for weeks after I read it.

Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston
You have probably seen this on dozens of best-of-the-year lists and it's for a good reason. Actually, it's for about a thousand good reasons. The First Son (of the first female president of the United States who's also from Texas! #dreams) and the Prince of England hate each other and then fall in love (a.k.a. everybody's favorite romantic trope). It's pure joy. I literally laughed out loud more times than I can count and was crying happy, hopeful tears by the end.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee*
Coming in at around 500 pages, Pachinko was definitely the longest book that I read this year, but it never felt like it. It starts in early 1900's Korea, where a girl named Sunja has fallen for a wealthy stranger and soon becomes pregnant, and follows her and her family throughout the years. The more I read, the more I loved this book, and I was so sad to finish it. (The last few pages literally made me weep. I had spend fifteen minutes explaining enough of the plot to my boyfriend so he could understand why I was crying so much.)

Lot by Bryan Washington**
I usually have a hard time getting through short story collections (even when I really enjoy the writing), but I flew through Lot. The stories are all connected, not by characters, but by the city of Houston and its diverse neighborhoods, and every single one is beautifully written with lines like, "wore his skin like a sunburnt peach" and "she smiled like mandolins ringing" that just make you want to cry. (And in case you don't believe me, President Obama also listed this as one of his favorite books of 2019.)

Honorable mentions: The Vanishing Stair by Maureen Johnson, Call Me Evie by J.P. Pomare, Buffering: Unshared Tales of a Life Fully Loaded by Hannah Hart, Sissy: A Coming-of-Gender Story by Jacob Tobia

For the first time in a few years, I'm increasing my reading goal to 45 books in 2020. It will be tough, but I want to push myself to read more and (hopefully) clear out a good chunk of my backlist. I'm also going to make more of a conscious effort to read more diverse books this year. While my 2019 reading was full of LGBTQ and women authors, about three-fourths of the books I read were written by white authors. I want to do better in 2020.

-Maggie

* Not pictured because I checked it out from the library.
** Not pictured because I lent it to KaCee.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Lately

A lot has happened since my last catch-up post over a year ago, so I think another might be in order. Mainly, there are three big things that happened that I want to talk about. Let’s break it down.

ONE
I got a new job! Or, technically, a promotion at my current company. As of June, I now work in the Employee Development department of my credit union as a Learning & Development Trainer. I’m part of the team that trains all incoming employees of the credit union, as well as internal trainings for branch employees.

Over the course of three months, I applied for the position twice, shadowed the department once, interviewed a total of six times—and was denied twice. But then a trainer moved to another department and I was asked to take their place! Third time’s the charm, as they say. It’s a position that I’ve wanted to be in since I started with the credit union five (five!) years ago, and I’ve really enjoyed the last few months of new challenges and growth. (Also, you should open up an account with your local credit union! Talk to me about why credit unions are better than banks, if you don’t know.)


TWO
We moved! In July, we said goodbye to our wonderful rent house in South Austin, which was bittersweet. I loved that house and was sad to leave it, and sad not to be Melany’s roommate anymore. We lived together for nearly five years, and I miss getting to talk to her every day.

But! It was also exciting for both of us. Dylan and I moved into our own apartment in a neighborhood we really love, and Melany and her boyfriend moved in together not too far from us. It was already fun living with Dylan before, but getting to create a space that’s wholly ours and develop routines and traditions together has been so lovely.


THREE
KaCee and Kyle moved back from Portland! And they got married! And both got jobs at my credit union! They made the trek back to Texas in October (and moved into an apartment literally down the street from mine and Dylan’s), and their wedding was at the beginning of November. Melany, KaCee, and I also got best friend tattoos (which we’re showing off in the photo below) because we’re cute as hell.

Photo by Maggie Grace Photography

There’s been so much more that’s happened over the last year, which I maybe will post about (but also maybe probably not, given my track record). I love going through my social media, pictures, and my journal at the end of the year and making a big list of everything that’s happened, so let’s see if I can actually get that list in a somewhat digestible format in the next week.

In the meantime, Merry Christmas Eve! I hope you’re wearing a ridiculous sweater and eating your weight in sugar cookies right now.

-Maggie

Friday, November 29, 2019

My Favorite Reads... of 2018

Listen, I know it's the end of November. I know that I should be preparing my favorite books of 2019 post, not posting my favorite books of 2018. I know.

This post was mostly finished at the beginning of January, but I never completely finished it and then it was February. February Maggie thought, Well, it's too late now. Nobody cares what I read in 2018 now!

But November Maggie doesn't give a shit. I'm still thinking about some of these books, and I'm definitely still recommending them to people. I read some great books last year—some that became new favorites—and I'm going to share them. Who cares that it's November? Time is a social construct anyway!



Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson
Stevie Bell is a true crime-loving, aspiring detective determined to solve a decades-old murder and kidnapping at the famous Ellingham Academy—but when a fellow student dies under suspicious circumstances, she finds herself drawn into another mystery. I've been a fan of Maureen Johnson for years, and I think that the Truly Devious series might be her best yet. The final book in the trilogy, The Hand on the Wall, comes out in January, and I can't wait!

Body Counts by Sean Strub
Equal parts memoir and textbook, Strub shares his story leading up to and throughout the AIDS epidemic in the U.S. and includes a myriad of historical details beyond his personal experiences. It's all woven together beautifully and told with such passion and love—but pulls no punches. I learned so much and can't recommend this book enough.

The Year of No Mistakes by Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz
This collection of poetry follows Aptowicz's move from New York to Austin and the dissolving of a decade-long relationship—so, yeah, it will make you feel a lot of emotions. Her writing is beautiful, funny, and intensely relatable. I can't wait to dive headfirst into the next collection.

Call Me By Your Name by André Aciman
You've already heard all about this one (and have probably seen the movie too), so you know. I don't think I loved this book as much as many did, but I did love it. The writing is beautiful and so passionate, and you could really feel every bit of it. (Side note: BookPeople has signed copies of the sequel, Find Me—and they ship everywhere!)

Dumplin' by Julie Murphy
I've wanted to read Julie Murphy for ages, and I'm so glad I started with Dumplin'. The story is so fun, often heartbreaking, and full of real and lovable characters. I loved Willowdean's spunk and confidence, as well as her flaws. (I'm sure you've heard by now, but there's also a Netflix movie including the love of my life, Jennifer Aniston, and new music from Dolly Parton. Truly, we are not worthy.)

You Don't Have to Like Me by Alida Nugent
This a great collection of essays for the person who still thinks "feminist" is a bad word, for someone still learning what it really means, and for those who proudly claim it. Hilarious, genuine, and intensely relatable.

Final Girls by Riley Sager
While in college, Quincy was the only one of her friends to walk away from a horror-movie level massacre—that she has no memory of—and unwillingly joined two other women in a group known to the press as the Final Girls. Ten years later and things are good, until one of the Final Girls is found dead and the other shows up on Quincy's doorstep. AND THEN SHIT GETS CRAZY. I have recommended this book more than any other in the last year. It's so much fun and you'll never see the ending coming.

The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother by James McBride
I didn't know much about James McBride until I worked his event at BookPeople a couple of years ago, but after hearing him speak and talking with him afterwards, I knew I had to add him to my list. I started with his first book, a memoir and tribute to his mother that spent over two years on the New York Times bestseller list, and it was so, so lovely.

I posted my review of this back in December, so go read that and then go buy the book. (Also, you can preorder the sequel now!)

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas*
I was on the library's waiting list for this book for three months, which should tell you how great it is, if you didn't already know. If you haven't read it yet, you really, really need to. It's even better than they say.

-Maggie

* Not pictured because I checked it out from the library.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

New Orleans

Dylan and I went to New Orleans at the beginning of November for a little vacation and early (one year!) anniversary present to ourselves. I've been to New Orleans once before this, but it was only for a long weekend and I didn't get to do any of the things I really wanted to, so I was especially excited to head back. It's such a cool, lively city, and I think everyone should visit at least once.

There is so much to see and do (and eat and drink) in New Orleans that it's easy to get overwhelmed, so we focused on exploring just a few neighborhoods rather than trying to see the whole city. I figured breaking down my favorite spots by neighborhood would be the best way to share.


FRENCH QUARTER

→ One of the first things on my list for New Orleans was a ghost tour, and Lord Chaz's Ghost and Vampire Tour did not disappoint. Unfortunately, Lord Chaz himself was sick, but Master Thomas stepped in and did an awesome job. (If you've never been on a ghost tour, don't worry—they're not scary! It's basically like a walking lesson in local history and lore. I promise you'll have a good time.)

→ If you feel yourself slowing down after a long day of walking (and probably drinking), stop in at Molly's at the Market and get their frozen Irish coffee for a quick pick-me-up. Pay the extra $1.50 for the large. You'll regret it if you don't.

Faulkner House Books, the former home of (you guessed it) William Faulkner, is a charming little bookstore tucked away down Pirate's Alley. Duck in there for a quiet escape from the bustle of the Quarter.

→ Anything covered in powdered sugar deserves your attention, so you have to stop in at Cafe Du Monde. Service moves fast here, so don't feel discouraged by a long line or full tables. You can get an order of beignets and two cafe au laits for less than ten dollars, and it's totally worth it.


BYWATER & MARGINY

→ We ate Sunday brunch at Elizabeth's Restaurant and even though the wait was half an hour longer than we were originally told I would totally do it all over again. Dylan ordered the duck waffle, I had the eggs florentine (with shrimp instead of oysters), and we split an order of the fried boudin balls. It was all to die for.

Crescent Park stretches along the riverfront for over a mile with a nice walking trail, cool industrial spaces, and swings to sit on and watch the boats pass by.  (There's an entrance to the park right across the street from Elizabeth's, which is perfect because you'll need a place to walk off that delicious southern food.)

→ Our first night we ate at St. Roch Market, a beautiful and super cool food hall that hosts twelve local food and drink vendors, and walked St. Claude Avenue, stopping in neighborhood bars along the way. (After a couple of drinks, you might feel brave enough to belt out a song at Kajun's Pub's nightly karaoke. I may or may not have sung "Breakaway" with the help of three Maker's and Cokes.)

→ We originally decided to go to Sólo Espresso because it was a short walk from our AirBnb, but we enjoyed it so much we went two mornings in a row. Get there early so you can grab a biscuit and their fig earl grey jam to enjoy with your vanilla latte.




MAGAZINE STREET

→ There are so many great shops along the six-mile stretch of Magazine Street, but my favorite was probably Zèle NOLA, an indoor market with art, clothes, jewelry, and more all crafted by local makers.

Sucré is an amazing sweet shop with macarons, gelato, chocolates, and other delicious desserts that are almost too beautiful to eat. They have several locations around the city, but we went to the one on Magazine Street (twice) and I think about their raspberry and cookies and cream gelato every day.

→ We stopped in Hey! Cafe to take a break from all the walking (and shopping), and I'm so glad we did because I had literally the best vanilla latte of my life. It was so good that I pretty much immediately got back up to buy a bag of their Hello Espresso roast (which you can also buy online) and a mug (just because).

Octavia Books is a cool little bookshop tucked away off the far east end of the street. I always make a point to buy something from (at least) one local indie bookstore wherever I travel, so I finally picked up a copy of Truly Devious (so good!) and a purple fountain pen when we stopped here.


ELSEWHERE

→ I love visiting museums when I travel, and the New Orleans Museum of Art is the perfect size with a diverse collection and a sculpture garden. It's located in City Park, which is perfect for reflecting after a couple of hours wandering the museum.

→ For our anniversary dinner, we dressed up and went to Cochon in the Central Business District. Most of the plates are meant to be shared, so we ordered quite a few and all of it was delicious. My favorites were the fried alligator with chili garlic mayonnaise and all the cocktails I drank. (Cochon Butcher, the butcher shop and sandwich counter next door, was also recommended to us by several friends, but we sadly weren't able to make it back. You should probably go though.)

-Maggie

Saturday, December 1, 2018

An Absolutely Remarkable Thing


A big perk of working at BookPeople is having access to a room full of ARCs—but it's not something I'm very good about taking advantage of usually. I either forget to check or I'll grab one and never get around to reading it before the book is actually published (which really defeats the purpose). It also doesn't help that I typically only work at BookPeople once a week, so the ARCs I'm interested in have usually already been taken.

But when it came to An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green, I was determined to get my hands on a copy and read it before its release date. I enlisted my dear friend Christina to watch out for ARCs since she works full-time at BookPeople, and she found one for me by the end of July! (Get you a Christina in your life.) I read it in a week and it was so fun. Below is the tiny synopsis and review I wrote for BookPeople's monthly newsletter and holiday catalog.*

It's 2:45 A.M. in Manhattan, and April May has found (what she believes to be) a giant robot sculpture standing in front of a Chipotle. She and her friend Andy make a silly video with the sculpture (dubbed "Carl") and upload it to YouTube, unaware that other Carls have appeared overnight in dozens of cities around the world and their lives were about to change forever.

In An Absolutely Remarkable Thing, author Hank Green takes a look at the idea of fame in the age of viral videos, YouTube stars, and social media influencers—but more than that, it is a declaration of his belief in humanity. In such a turbulent time, when it can be so easy to only see the bad in the world and in each other, Green reminds us that humanity is overwhelmingly good. April May's story will make you proud to be a human.

-Maggie

* Speaking of the holidays, BookPeople is teaming up with thirteen local nonprofits and hosting give-back days throughout December. It's a great way to support your local independent bookstore and these amazing organizations this season!

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