Learning to Live with the Questions

Jan 28, 2020

When I was working on my review for Lovely War by Julie Berry last week, I took a look at Goodreads to see if I had anything else from 2019 that I hadn't reviewed. And I laughed a little when I noticed that there was only one book left on my Goodreads "to do" shelf... and it was also the only read I hadn't reviewed from 2018, too. The worst part is that I loved the book, so there was no reason for me to drag my feet on reviewing it. And so, today, I'm finally going to chat about My Oxford Year by Julia Whelan (a book I received from the publisher for review consideration).

From the second I saw this title and cover, I had to have it. I studied abroad in Oxford for six weeks one summer during college. It was an incredible experience, one that cemented England as the country I want to return to again and again. And, hello, Kelly and I have been twice in the past two years so I'm well on my way to accomplishing this goal. But let's get back to this book. The cover and title immediately appealed to me, but I was even more excited when I read the summary. It sounded like something I'd love even without the Oxford connection!

American Ella Durran has been working towards studying at Oxford for most of her adolescence and is now the recipient of a Rhodes Scholarship at age 24. She’s ready to enjoy one year in the city she’s dreamed about since she was thirteen! She knows she’ll work hard for school, of course, but expects plenty of time for pubs, punting down the river, making new friends, and maybe a no-strings-attached fling. Enter Jamie Davenport. He seems like a total prick on their first meeting, and then Ella walks into her English literature course to find out he's teaching it. Her first impression might have been wrong, and the future she mapped out for herself takes a turn she never expected. A lot can happen in one year, and life has a way of surprising you...

Based on the cover of this book, I imagined a light-hearted romantic comedy set in one of my favorite cities in the world. And while it ended up being very different than I expected, I still loved it so much! I read it for the first time in 2018, and then I decided to finish off #FebruaREREAD in 2019 with this on audio. This is one of those books that worked so perfectly for me as a reader! It tapped into my love for Oxford, brought back memories of my time there, and reminded me of another British book I love (but won’t name because #spoiler).

Although I would have loved a little more character development, I honestly didn’t mind that there's a pretty big shift in tone about halfway through. I can understand how that won’t be true for everyone else, but it added depth and emotion to the story for me. It took the book from something a little bit fluffy and fun into more thought-provoking territory. Based on reviews I've seen, it's definitely a polarizing aspect of the book – one that you'll probably either love or hate. But you can count me in the love column!

I loved the romance and the heroine’s own personal journey. But my favorite part, of course, was the setting. Can I go back now?! Whelan definitely captured everything I loved about this city and left me itching to hop on a plane to head across the pond. And speaking of Whelan, I don't want to forget to mention that this is her debut novel but you might be familiar with her work as an audiobook narrator. That was another reason I was so excited to pick up this book, and she didn't disappoint me! I loved reading the book for the first time, but it was even more fun to listen to her narrate the audio for my re-read. As expected, she did an excellent job.

This was one of my favorite reads of 2018, and it remained a favorite after re-reading it last year. If you're in the mood for a romantic story about embracing life in all its twists and turns, pick this one up!

So Quotable
“Our memories of places, much like people, are subject to our own adaptation process. Once the active living is done, and they pass into memory, we assume control of the narrative. We adapt it, sometimes without meaning to. This is, perhaps, the one advantage of death: when people die, they can live on in our memory as we choose, but places continue to exist, to change.”

Release Date: April 24, 2018 | Publisher: HarperCollins; William Morrow Paperbacks
Pages: 329 pages | Source & Format: Publisher / Bought; e-ARC / Paperback & Audiobook

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration. This did not affect my opinion of the book or my review.

20 in 2020

Jan 23, 2020

One of my goals for this year is to nurture my relationship with Nick and our sons. It's a pretty broad goal that won't end when 2020 does, but it's something that I wanted to specifically focus on this year as our family grows. I've seen firsthand the benefits of being intentional with my time, especially when it comes to family adventures and traditions. So, I've been asking myself, "What action steps can I take to give my best to my boys? How can I love them well?" I've come up with a variety of things so far, and it ranges from date nights to limiting time on my phone. But one of my favorite ideas was to create our family's "20 in 20" – a list of 20 things to do together in 2020. 

My firstborn will turn four soon, and kindergarten doesn't feel so far away anymore. I want to make this time at home with him truly count! When he was born, I wrote about the things I learned that year – which included the fact that a baby changes everything. With our second baby soon to make his arrival, I know that this baby, too, will change everything. Time both stands still and passes in a blur with a newborn. There's a reason people say, "The days are long, but the years are short." There will be many ordinary days this year – full of chores, not enough sleep, and too much screen time. But I want to make things special, too. That's where this list comes in!

Rather than hope we'll fill our days with fun, I want to plan for it. Instead of continuing to scroll Pinterest for things to do as a family, I've been trying to pay attention to the things our family talks about wanting to do. I've seen how my husband and firstborn value quality time, so I know that this list absolutely aligns with my desire to nurture those relationships. I'm obsessed with Em for Marvelous' The Years of Making Magic project and am creating a similar long-term list for our family. But I don't wait to wait to get started, and this list feels like the perfect way to get the ball rolling. So, here are 20 things our family plans to do in 2020:

1. GO: strawberry or apple picking.
2. TRY: bowling.
3. READ: this Bible and this book about prayer.

4. PLAY: board games once a month.
5. EAT: a picnic in our backyard.
6. EXPLORE: the hiking trails near our house.
7. MAKE: a bird house.

8. RIDE: on the Blue Ridge Scenic Railway.
9. SEND: mail to our three great-grandmothers.
10. COOK: for someone else.
11. SEE: marine life at the Georgia Aquarium.
12. CREATE: a new family tradition.

13. DO: a nature scavenger hunt.
14. GIVE BACK: by volunteering at our church's community celebration.
15. GROW: our family savings by 20%.
16. TRAVEL: somewhere we've never been.
17. ENJOY: camping in the backyard.
18. VISIT: Noah's Ark Animal Sanctuary.
19. WATCH: a movie at the drive-in theater.
20. BE: thankful. Start a family gratitude jar.

Thanks to Childhood 101 for the format inspiration!

My criteria when making the list: 1) mostly free things with a few expenses that I know will be worth it, 2) that can be completed relatively easily with a newborn in tow, and 3) were specific but still gave us room to be flexible. For example, "Cook for someone else" could mean having extended family members over for dinner or making something for a sick neighbor. I'd love to go on a summer vacation, but this might be a "day trip closer to home" kind of year. I didn't want the list to feel like a burden or become too hard to fulfill. Y'all, I'm so excited about what Nick and I landed on! I'm already thinking about how fun it will be to write My Year In: Adventures {2020}.

Do you have a list of things you'd like to do this year?

All's Fair in Love and War

Jan 21, 2020

It's been a while since I've written a long, individual review! And honestly, it's been a long time since I've loved a book so much that I simultaneously wanted to push everyone to read it and keep it all to myself. Berry's All the Truth That's In Me is one of my all-time favorite books, one that I've read and re-read in multiple formats over the years. But somehow, I didn't know about her March 2019 release, Lovely War, until after it came out. 

I read Lovely War in April of last year, fell deeply in love with it... but couldn't bring myself to review it. Why? Because I didn't even know where to begin! In Jane Austen's Emma, Mr. Knightley tells the heroine, “If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more.” I've always loved that quote, and it perfectly encapsulates how I feel about this particular book. I've shared my 21 favorite books of 2019, and this one is at the very top of that list.

Lovely War primarily focuses on two couples during World War I. Hazel is a talented pianist who meets James, a solider dreaming of becoming an architect, at a party in London. Their feelings develop quickly but have a surprising depth. Then, James is sent off to war... Aubrey is a Harlem ragtime musician headed for the trenches as a member of the 15th New York Infantry, an all-African-American regiment. While there, Aubrey meets Colette – a Belgian refugee serving in the YMCA relief hut in France. What does the future hold for these star-crossed lovers?

That's for Aphrodite to tell you. Yes, I mean that Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. Thirty years after these four characters meet, in the midst of a new world war, she is caught in an affair. Her husband, Hephaestus, discovers her with Ares in a Manhattan hotel room and decides she will be put on trial. In her defense, she decides to tell the stories of these four lovers. She has a little help from Apollo, Hades, and even Ares himself. As you can imagine, there is music and death and war and brokenness – but there is love and beauty, too. How will their stories end? Well, you'll have to read to find out...

Despite being relatively unfamiliar with Greek mythology, this book sparked my desire for more. How lucky was I to have Circe by Madeline Miller waiting in the wings? I read that two weeks later and loved it, too. (Now give me more!) When I read the summary for Lovely War, I wasn't sure if Berry could pull it off. Combining historical fiction with Greek mythology seemed risky. But oh man, the end result proved that it's a creative twist like that that makes a book truly epic! I could not stop raving about it after I finished and ended up re-reading it via audio, too. It was my last read of the year – the perfect way to close 2019 and enter the new decade on a reading high.

It was the kind of historical fiction book where I learned so much – about ragtime music, the treatment of African Americans during World War I, life in the trenches and the resulting PTSD, and what it might be like to serve with the YMCA on the front. You can see Berry's research in all aspects of the novel, and I adored the Author's Note at the end where she expands on some of the things mentioned in the book. And, as with Circe, it made me want to pull out Mythology by Edith Hamilton and read all the myths associated with the gods and goddesses I just met.

So, you've got the research aspect. But what else did I love? ONLY EVERYTHING. These characters absolutely stole my heart. I was so emotionally invested in what was happening to them, and it took all of my self-control to keep from racing through the book to find out if they were all okay in the end. Because honestly, this book accomplished that rare feat of being impossible to put down but also being something I wanted to slowly savor. Berry's writing was just so gorgeous and such a pleasure to read that I didn't want to miss one carefully chosen turn of phrase.

Although categorized as Young Adult, I certainly felt that it had crossover appeal. Everything about it is so artfully crafted and beautifully written – something that I want to push on every reader I meet. Because even though it won't be the right fit for every reader, I wish that I could make everyone love it as much as I do. I wish that I could give everyone who pick it up that magical, delighted feeling I had as I turned each page and realized that I was reading a book that I'd never forget. You know how sometimes people will ask, "What's a book you wish you could go back and read for the first time?" Even in the middle of this one, I was aching at the thought of it being over. 

The story itself felt so cruel and heartbreaking while still being so romantic and hopeful. I was tearing up, swooning, laughing, raging, and experiencing every possible emotion while reading. Do I really need to keep raving? Have I said enough to convince you to read it? It was a rare reading experience, one that I didn't even expect. And since I re-read it at the end of the year, I can attest to the fact that it's even better the second time around. The audiobook was fantastic – a full cast that brought the characters to life in the best way and gave me even more to love about it. In case it isn't obvious: I highly, highly recommend Lovely War in any format!

So Quotable
“I am so often moved by souls whose first concern is not for their own lost years, but for the grief their passing will cause to those they love. It's more common than you might think. The most ordinary mortal bodies are housed by spectacular souls.”

Release Date: March 5, 2019 | Publisher: Penguin; Viking Books for Young Readers
Pages: 480 pages | Source & Format: Bought; Hardcover

January 2020 Goals

Jan 17, 2020

It's finally time for me to share my goals for January! When I wrote about my vision for 2020 last week, I mentioned that I'll be sharing monthly goals here on the blog. Since the six yearly goals I set are somewhat vague, I plan to break them down into smaller action items. These monthly check-ins will typically post early in the month and will both recap my progress on the previous month's goals and outline new goals for the month ahead. This post is going up a little later than I'd intended, but oh well! As a refresher, here are my big-picture goals:

1. Revitalize my faith through daily time with God.
2. Nurture my relationship with Nick and our sons.
3. Grow in my knowledge and stewardship of our finances.
4. Invest time in the hobbies that bring me joy.
5. Create purposeful monthly, weekly, and daily routines.
6. Record and preserve our family memories.

On My Calendar:
– So many doctor's appointments as I enter my last month of pregnancy
– A Celine Dion concert with my mom and sister (this past weekend – so fun!)
– Last weekend getaway as a family of three

Currently Obsessing Over:
– This sausage potato soup was delicious and so filling. And it was even better as leftovers the next day!
– The recently announced Audible Challenge: finish any three titles by March 3 and get a $20 Amazon credit. I'm already planning how I'll spend the credit and celebrating finally listening to three audios I've owned for years.
– I received AirPods + this case for Christmas, and I can't stop raving about them. I feel so basic just saying that...
– Getting everything done before the baby arrives. With the holidays finally over, it hit me that February is right around the corner. This pregnancy has flown by, and I've definitely got some things left on my to do list.

Yearly Goals:
(These should stay the same all year, so I'll just do month-to-month progress reports!)
– Read through the Bible in one year.
– Read a devotional every morning.
– Track my spending in the Goodbudget app.
– Blog 2x per week.

January Goals:
– Make our family's "20 in 2020" list.
– Plan (and go on!) our last trip as a family of three.
– Finish my pre-baby checklist!
– Brainstorm possible routines that I'd like to implement.
– Schedule a monthly planning session.
– Cull, download, organize, and backup 2019 photos.
– Complete the Third Trimester section in the baby's Promptly Journal.
– Complete Toddler Years 1-3 in my firstborn's Promptly Journal.
– Finalize my 2020 reading challenges.
– The Contentment Challenge, which is three months of no shopping.

Do you have any routines that make your life easier?
I'd love to hear about them!

The Picky Pledge 2020

Jan 15, 2020

Today, Alexa from Alexa Loves Books and I are talking all things Picky Pledge! We're taking a minute to look back at some stats from 2019, reflecting on what we accomplished the past year, and sharing our plan for 2020. The Picky Pledge was born out of lots of chats about our reading choices and book buying habits. We wanted to be more intentional and decided to hold each other accountable. Here's how it got started.

When we originally started The Picky Pledge, Alexa and I would share a long post with charts and graphics and stats. We'd use them to identify what we needed to change in the year to come, which was so helpful. But over time, it started to make more sense to simplify! Today, we're focusing on the same stats we shared last year.

Alexa and I always laugh at how some things change over time, but we still basically have to same "problem areas" as the day we created this project. I buy too many books, and Alexa could always pare down on review books. However, we have seen positive changes through the years. We're both more aware now, so we're more intentional. The only stat we are sharing ties in to entire focus of Picky Pledge: the source of what we read in 2019.

In 2019, I read 210 books. Here's where they came from:

BOUGHT/GIFTED (2019) • 46 Books • 22%

BORROWED • 34 Books • 16%

OWNED (PRE-2019) • 38 Books • 18%

REREAD • 64 Books • 31%

REVIEW • 28 Books • 13%

This was a really interesting reading year in comparison to 2018! I read more review books (up from 8%), borrowed less (down from 23%), and read a little more from my TBR (up from 15%). Looking back to 2017, it's been interesting to see how reading what books bought/gifted in that respective year has trended down over time (47% in 2017, 34% in 2018, and 22% in 2019). I'm pretty sure this is lower because I'm not buying as much. That's a HUGE win! 

The most interesting change this year is how much I re-read (up from 20%). It wasn't shocking since I did a few challenges this year focused on re-reading, which I'll talk about more on Friday. I'm always in the mood to re-read, but it's nice to make it a priority every few years. There are so many books coming out in 2020 that I'm excited to read, so I'm expecting to re-read a little less. It's nice to see this fluctuate based on what season of life I'm in.

The way Alexa and I set Picky Pledge goals has changed since we first started this project. Since 2018, we've set out to complete The Picky Pledge Reading Challenge. We have 12 categories, enough for one book per month, to help us read more from our TBR. The categories are all tied to reasons that we bought the books on our TBR, which makes is easy to find something that fits for each one. It's simplified but still accomplishes our purpose.

Ten of these books were on my TBR prior to 2019. Two were re-reads, but they still counted for our project because they'd been on my Audible TBR for a while. Here are the categories and what I read for each one:

FOR THE COVER: Foolish Hearts by Emma Mills

BASED ON A RECOMMENDATION: We Were the Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter

FOR THE HOOK: Love á la Mode by Stephanie Kate Strohm

ON SALE: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

NEXT IN SERIES: China Rich Girlfriend by Kevin Kwavn

IN A DIFFERENT FORMAT: Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery (Audio)

BECAUSE OF THE AUTHOR: Bridge of Clay by Markus Zusak

GIFTED: The Clockmaker's Daughter by Kate Morton

PRE-ORDERED, HAVEN'T READ YET: Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen (Audio)

BOUGHT 3+ YEARS AGO: Jane of Lantern Hill by L.M. Montgomery

BECAUSE OF THE HYPE: The Cruel Prince by Holly Black

BECAUSE OF THE TOPIC: House of Dreams by Liz Rosenberg

Now, let's talk about 2020. We're continuing The Picky Pledge Reading Challenge! We kept all the categories the same this year, so it's the same graphic, too. Is that simplifying or simply laziness? Haha! We'll share a recap just like this one next January, but I'll track my progress throughout the year. If you're interested, feel free to join in and complete the challenge, too! We don't do any official check-ins or link-ups, so there's no big commitment. 

Here's to being intentional in 2020!
What are your reading goals for the year?
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