My fiction reading this month was pretty mystery-heavy (nothing new there!), balanced out by some middle grade novels. As is often the case, my opinions of the books are kind of all over the map. Let’s get right to the reviews!
The Apple and the Arrow, by Mary and Conrad Buff: This children’s novella was a 1952 winner of the Newberry Honor Medal, but it was new to me prior to receiving it with our school curriculum for the year. I was also unfamiliar with the legend of William Tell, which this book retells from the viewpoint of his 12-year-old son Walter. The beautifully illustrated book is set in the year 1291 in the Alpine Mountains, where Walter lives with his family of goat herders and aspires to be an excellent marksman like his father. Walter’s father is arrested when he stands up to the Austrian tyrant Gessler, and the story of his harrowing escape paved the way for the Swiss revolt against the Austrians and the founding of Switzerland.
This book takes a complicated and frightening moment in history and brings it to a level that young readers can not only understand, but also relate to. Through lovely language and tangible characters, The Apple and the Arrow offers pertinent lessons on the courageous pursuit of freedom in opposition to tyranny. Our whole family appreciated the themes of independence, responsibility, and trust in God’s sovereignty, and Charleston was all about the archery.
My Rating: 4 Stars // Charleston’s Rating: 3.5 Stars // Book Format: Print
Pony, by R.J. Palacio: A western coming-of-age middle grade novel with an animal on the cover wouldn’t normally be a book I would be chomping at the bit to read (pun very much intended), but my love for R.J. Palacio (author of Wonder) had me eager to pick this up.
In the year 1860, 12-year-old Silas is the son of a kind, science-minded widower who is whisked away one night by three menacing horseman who are seeking his assistance in their counterfeiting ring. Silas is left alone except for the presence of Mittenwool, a ghost who has been Silas’s companion for as long as he can remember. When a pony appears at his door, Silas decides to embark on a daring journey in search of his father. With Pony and Mittenwool as his companions, Silas ventures through a haunted forest where he encounters unexpected friendship as well as evil the likes of which he never knew existed. Fortified by the love and guidance of spirits past—some unseen, others very much visible to Silas alone—Silas learns remarkable lessons of courage, resilience, loyalty, mercy, justice, and the unfathomable mysteries of the spiritual realm.
I’ve never read a book quite like this one. Aspects of the story (namely, a young orphan who has special access to mystical realms and whose life is shaped by the felt absence of his mother) reminded me quite a lot of Harry Potter, but this book also contains unique historical elements and an overarching “hero’s journey” theme. This mashup is intriguing and works surprisingly well. Where the book shines, though, is in the character of Silas who is brilliant, insightful, noble, and kind. I loved his narration—advanced for a boy of his age thanks to lonely years spent under the tutelage of literary classics. I warmed to him immediately and grew to love him even more as the story progressed. He is a delightful balance of mystical and science-minded, a dichotomy felt throughout the novel.
I’ve come to expect tears from R.J. Palacio’s books and this one is filled with tearful scenes. It is a heartrending book, but also a hopeful one that had me hugging it to my chest by the end. This is technically a middle grade novel, but it can be appreciated by children, teens, and adults alike. I look forward to reading it with Charleston in a couple of years. (Heads up for parents: in addition to some problematic theological/spiritual ideas, the book does have a subtle reference to homosexuality. I think it might have gone over Charleston’s head if we were reading together, but I’m still glad I read this alone before reading it with him. These issues aren’t enough to ruin the read-aloud potential, but are definitely worthy of a conversation.)
Don’t miss the Author’s Note in which Palacio explains the extensive research that went into this book. I was particularly intrigued by her personal interest in photography and how that hobby worked its way into the novel.
My Rating: 4.5 Stars (Rounded down to 4 Stars on Goodreads) // Book Format: eBook
The Land of Happy Days, by Dorothy Nell Whaley and Charles W. Knudsen: This sweet little book was published in 1938 and apparently was used as a textbook in Texas schools. I have no idea how the book landed on my own childhood bookshelf (my mom thinks she picked it up at our library’s used bookstore when I was young), but I loved the book as a child and was eager to share it with Charleston. The book tells the story of two siblings who embark on a journey into a magical land where a fairy instructs them on health-related issues such as nutrition, proper hygiene, safety, and etiquette. The book is a unique mix of fable, fantasy, social studies, and science, and not only does it offer helpful lessons for children (that Charleston enjoyed) but it provides a fascinating glimpse into life and education from nearly one hundred years ago.
As a young reader I was oblivious to the dated stereotypes, moralizing, and oversimplified health instruction (not to mention problematic ideas related to body image, appropriate behavior, and morality); I simply loved the colorful illustrations and fun journey into a magical world. Now reading this as an adult I have a more complex understanding of all that is presented in the book, but also an appreciation for the simpler time and ideas embedded within its pages. While I’m thankful for many pedagogical strides made in the last century (and can’t help but laugh at some of the inaccurate health ideology), part of me longs for the simplicity and innocence of this type of book. I enjoyed reading and discussing this with Charleston, and am tickled at the fact that this 83-year-old copy of a Texas textbook is back in its home state, being used as part of our homeschool curriculum.
My Rating: 4 Stars // Charleston’s Rating: 5 Stars // Book Format: Print
56 Days, by Catherine Ryan Howard: 56 Days ago, Ciara and Oliver met in a Dublin supermarket, and an immediate connection formed. Days later, their town and the rest of the world was struck by COVID-19, and their workaround for remaining together without breaking quarantine rules is for Ciara to move in with Oliver. The timing is convenient for both, offering the chance at a covert trial relationship without the prying of friends or family and without having to share too many past secrets too soon.
Fast forward to today. A decomposing body has been found in Oliver’s apartment. Obviously something went wrong between the couple, but with their identities and their relationship a secret to the rest of the world—including their neighbors—detectives are at a loss as to what has happened.
This book is a wild ride! We hop back and forth in time and between narrators as we witness the quarantine from both Ciara’s and Oliver’s perspectives and slowly piece together who these individuals are and what has happened. The outcome is not at all what I expected and left me breathless. Both Ciara and Oliver are flawed but likable protagonists and watching their relationship implode (or does it?) was not easy. While I wished for a different ending, I was blown away by Howard’s masterful storytelling, strong character development, evocative setting, and creative plot twists.
This is the first novel I’ve read that is directly set within COVID times, and Howard captures those early days of quarantine so well. (I appreciated the Author’s Note in which she shares how parts of the story were autobiographical and how her own lockdown experience birthed the idea for the story.) Though the setting is in Ireland, so much of Oliver’s and Ciara’s experience was exactly what I experienced in Texas, from the fear and the unknowns, to the shock at how quickly things are changing and the disorientation around what to think and how to act, and even trying to come to grips with who we ourselves are and how we will respond in the midst of unprecedented crisis. The setting serves the story well while also providing a time capsule of that period almost all of us experienced.
My only regret with this book is that I wish I had waited a few years to read it, as those early COVID days aren’t quite far enough away for me to be comfortable reading about them in this way. I mention this here because I didn’t realize how affected I would be by these descriptions, and wouldn’t want other readers to be caught off guard. If reading about strict quarantine is in any way triggering for you, this book might not be a good fit.
Apart from the less than desirable timing, I sailed through this book. I love that it was suspenseful but not spooky or gory, and was impressed with Howard’s effective use of the unreliable narrator trope that left me feeling surprised but not tricked. The themes are subtle but poignant: issues of identity, loyalty, guilt and absolution, and prickly ethical challenges. This is a book that both entertains and sparks contemplation—it isn’t quite a literary thriller, but it’s definitely smart. I can’t wait to read more from this new-to-me author.
My Rating: 4.5 Stars (Rounded down to 4 stars on Goodreads) // Book Format: Audiobook
When Christmas Comes, by Andrew Klavan: The idyllic image of the charming military town of Sweet Haven is shattered one December when the town’s beloved school librarian, Jennifer Dean, is brutally murdered. All evidence points to her boyfriend, a former vet named Travis who has even confessed to the crime. But Travis’s attorney is not convinced he is guilty and invites a friend and English professor named Cameron Winter to investigate. The thoughtful, introspective, and deeply intuitive Winter has a knack for observing patterns and instinctive problem solving and he, too, is suspicious of Travis’s guilt.
In delving into the crime, Winter reaches into his own broken past as a neglected child of ambivalent socialites. As a child, Winter’s solitary source of comfort lay in the family of his nanny—particularly her beautiful niece, who was Winter’s first love and who ultimately broke his heart. Ghosts (some real, some imagined, though the line between those blurs) haunt Winter’s work and perspective and color his stories, both past and present—especially at Christmas time.
I’ve been following Andrew Klavan’s political commentary for a while but this was the first of his books that I’ve read, and holy moly, was I impressed! This man can spin a story! The writing is some of the most evocative I’ve encountered; the remarkably vivid prose made for a delightful yuletide treat, flooding my mind’s eye with all things winter and cozy Christmas, even as the story itself is far from cozy. We have ghost stories and spy scenarios, a mysterious protagonist and haunting mysteries of past and present. I was immediately drawn into the primary crime but even more so into the unknowns that surround Cameron Winter, who is a phenomenally well drawn character that I am longing to see more of in future books, (I can only hope this book becomes a series because I NEED more of Cameron Winter’s story!)
This is a highly literary mystery, which I loved. I also appreciated the lack of profanity and gentle descriptions of the sensual and violent moments. My one caveat for this book is Klavan’s portrayal of women, which tends toward objectification. Overall, though, this really is a brilliant book with strong themes of passion, integrity, and loyalty. The length, too, is perfect; slightly longer than a novella but nowhere near the length of some of the too-long sagas coming out these days. If you’re looking for a somewhat feel-good mystery to cozy up with this Christmas season, I hope you’ll choose this book.
My Rating: 5 Stars // Book Format: eBook
A Town Called Solace, by Mary Lawson: In the fall of 1972, sixteen-year-old Rose goes missing from her home in the small Canadian town of Solace, and her devoted younger sister, Clara, copes by keeping constant vigil at the living room window and pouring her attention into the care of Moses, the cat belonging to her elderly neighbor. Mrs. Orchard is also missing from Clara’s life, having left for a stay at the hospital and never returned. Clara grows alarmed when a mysterious man moves into Mrs. Orchard’s house and begins boxing up the old woman’s things. The new arrival is Liam, a thirty-something divorcé who struggles to fit in with his new neighbors. Meanwhile, Mrs. Orchard is at the end of her life, living in past memories that have her reflecting on a decades-old mystery that altered her life.
This is a quiet novel, told from the distinct perspectives of Liam, Clara, and Mrs. Orchard—three lonely individuals grappling with grief, rejection, and an intense need to make sense of personal pain. Through their experiences and observations we are given a meditation on love, connection, found family, and redemption, woven beautifully into a mysterious and melancholic (though at times also humorous) story.
I have not read any of Mary Lawson’s previous books and love her style here: her writing reminds me quite a bit of Elizabeth Strout, with its sparse prose, endearing characters, poignant insights, and structure (which reads more like a series of interconnected short stories rather than a traditional novel). The introspective tone and steady pacing made this a perfect fallish read.
My Rating: 4 Stars // Book Format: eBook
Friends Like These, by Kimberly McCreight: Ten years ago, five college friends experienced a tragedy that forever bound them together. Their relationships have endured out of loyalty to each other, yes, but also out of a need to protect one another from the lies, the culpability, and the shame that they’ve continued to carry with them. Now, a decade later, the friends are gathered at a vacation home in the Catskills under the guise of a bachelor party that, unbeknownst to one of them, is actually an intervention. But events go spectacularly awry and before the weekend is over, one of them is missing and another is dead. The detective assigned to the case is baffled as to what has gone wrong, who is telling the truth (if anyone!) and how the weekend’s events may or may not connect to her own sister’s gruesome murder twenty years earlier.
This was my third Kimberly McCreight novel this year and I’ve liked each one a little less. The setup here is intriguing, but other than a strong premise, the book has very few redeeming factors. There are many narrators and timelines that simply confuse rather than furthering the story in any way. The ending is interesting, but not at all something that a reader would be able to figure out, and I missed the chance to at least try to play along with the mystery. (For me, a strong mystery keeps me guessing but doesn’t leave me entirely blind.)
The characters are all horrible and I was increasingly frustrated with their deceptions and poor decisions. I also missed the thoughtful themes in this book that feature prominently in McCreight’s previous novels. This book is almost all plot, and in fact has too much plot for its own good. I might have really enjoyed this if the story hadn’t gotten so convoluted, but ultimately I ended this book disappointed and confused.
My Rating: 2.5 Stars (Rounded down to 2 Stars on Goodreads) // Book Format: eBook
Cold Case Christmas, by Jessica R. Patch: It’s been nearly twenty years since the disappearance of Nora Livingston’s mother and Nora’s own subsequent departure from her small hometown in the Smokey Mountains. Nora is home for Christmas when her mother’s body is found, and now Nora is determined to discover the truth of what happened long ago. Assisting Nora is Deputy Sheriff Rush Buchanan, Nora’s former boyfriend who still holds a flame for Nora and will do anything to protect her from whomever seems set upon bringing an end to her sleuthing. As they race to solve the mystery before a possible killer strikes again, Nora and Rush find themselves falling for each other once again, while also learning lessons about love, forgiveness, and transformative grace.
I stumbled upon this mystery while searching for free Christmas-themed books on Kindle. I did enjoy the Christmassy vibe and small town setting, and I was pretty smitten with our very dreamy hero; while I’m not generally a fan of romance, I actually found this one sweet and appreciated that it was a chaste love story; I also loved the parallels to the Gospel, and the ways that Biblical references and theological lessons wove seamlessly into the narrative. However, I was unimpressed with the complicated mystery, unlikeable heroine, awkward timeline, and flat side characters. Ultimately, I think I loved the idea of this book (Christmas + Love Story + Mystery + Christian) more than the book itself. I’m not sure I would read more from this author.
My Rating: 3 Stars // Book Format: eBook
In case you missed it, don’t forget to check out part one of this month’s Quick Lit with my reviews of recent nonfiction titles.