I have had wonderful success in my reading life lately, and I’m so excited to be sharing reviews of this past month’s reads with you today. There are quite a few reviews here, so I’ve divided them into categories to make it easier to scan for titles that may interest you. Enjoy!
MIDDLE GRADE NOVELS
Happy Birthday Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, by Betty MacDonald: It takes a special book series to capture the interest of children across generations, and the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books definitely have that special something. I loved these books as a child and have been delighted by how quickly Charleston has taken to the series as well!
Written by Betty MacDonald’s daughter almost fifty years after the creator’s death, Happy Birthday Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle fits right in with the rest of the series, with stories featuring the quirky Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle who works her magic on the neighborhood children, providing cures for their various bad habits—from messiness to poor hygiene to extreme cautiousness. Going into each story, we know the children will be cured of what ails them, but seeing Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s creative (and often absurd) cures in action is humorous, heart-warming, and packed with insights for parents’ and kids’ real-life struggles.
The first chapter in this book (“The Just One More TV Show Cure”) was written by MacDonald herself, and it is undeniably the best story of the book, but the remaining chapters do manage to preserve MacDonald’s vintage charm and tongue-in-cheek humor. With their conversation-worthy subject matter, the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle stories make excellent read-alouds. Charleston and I enjoyed every story and liked talking about each cure—from how and why it worked, to what WE would do to solve each child’s bad habits.
My Rating: 4 Stars.
The Baby-Sitters Remember, by Ann M. Martin: As I mentioned in my review of Beverly Cleary’s Fifteen, a recent longing for the simplicity of bygone days, and a nostalgia for my own childhood, has led me to reread a few of the older books on my bookshelf lately. I was a big Babysitters-Club fan growing up, and this was my favorite of the whole series (and the only book from the series that’s maintained its spot on my bookshelf for decades, while the rest were donated long ago). This book wasn’t just my favorite BSC book: it was one of my ALL-TIME favorite books from my youth, one I reread several times and whose story and premise I think about often.
The book begins at a sleepover, when the sitters are bemoaning their boring summer essay prompt and come up with one of their own: what is your most vivid memory? In the remainder of this Super Special, each of the nine sitters (including Shannon and Logan, the rarely-referenced alternates!) offer little glimpses into their pasts with reflections on their most vivid memories. Given the prompt, it’s not surprising that these stories are significant ones: Jessi shares of the birth of her little brother; Dawn recalls the pain of her parents’ divorce; Stacy discusses an embarrassing moment that led to her diabetes diagnosis; a few of the sitters reflect on how they met one another, or how they learned to love babysitting. Each chapter features the narrator’s unique voice and perspective, and while the individual stories rarely overlap, together they form a comprehensive view of the BSC that would work well as a stand-alone (an intro to the series for a budding new fan, perhaps?) but also plays well with what I remember from other books in the series.
I’ve always felt some shame about my enthusiasm for such “fluffy” books as a young girl. However, in rereading this book as an adult, I was actually impressed with the quality of the writing, distinct characters, and serious themes that are approached matter-of-factly yet with sensitivity and nuance. Sure, there are some eye-roll-inducing narrator commentaries, and quite a few outfit descriptions and telephone references that seem ridiculous thirty years later, but this holds up much better than I would have assumed. I can see why this book was so alluring to me as a child who was too young to critique its literary merit and simply liked reading about girls I could both relate to and admire, going through some experiences I understood and others I was intrigued to learn more about.
This was such a comforting reread for me, but I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to a new, modern audience as well. As I was reading, I couldn’t help but wonder whether the reminiscent tone of the novel played a part in igniting in me an introspective spirit and penchant for reflection that persists to this day. I wonder how many other readers of this book have been impacted in the same way.
My Rating: 4.5 Stars (Rounded down to 4 stars on Goodreads).
The Unadoptables, by Hana Tooke: In the autumn of 1880, five orphans are left on the steps of Amsterdam’s Little Tulip Orphanage. Lotta, Egg, Fenna, Sem, and Milou are each delivered in what the orphanage’s cruel matron, Elinora Gassbeek, deems “outrageous circumstances,” and all five live up to her prediction of being unadoptable. Twelve years later, the children are mostly resigned to their lack of parentage and find comfort in their sibling-like bonds. But when a suspicious potential adoptive father threatens to tear them apart, the orphans escape across the canals of Amsterdam in an adventure marked by secret clues, an abandoned windmill, a mysterious puppet maker, and a handful of very sinister adults.
To get a feel for what this book is like, think The Boxcar Children meets Dickensian fairy tale; and like The Boxcar Children, this is an absolute delight. The five unadoptable children are resourceful, compassionate, courageous, and endearingly quirky, and their heartwarming story is one of resilience, loyalty, and just enough silliness to keep it interesting. While young audiences will enjoy the outlandish names and fantastic misadventures, it was the Amsterdam setting, unique mishmash of personalities, and charming lessons on family, belonging, and fierce hope that I loved most in this book. Though parts of the story are drawn out longer than they needed to be, the ending is unexpected yet absolutely perfect. This would make a great read-aloud, with many potential conversation starters and opportunities for deep dives into history, Dutch culture, and the world of fairytales.
My Rating: 4 Stars.
Every Heart a Doorway, by Seanan McGuire: We’ve read the stories: children are always slipping through cupboards, into mirrors, and down passageways into hidden magical worlds. But they can’t stay there forever, and reentry into the real world can be difficult. Enter Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children, a refuge for children who long for the security and belonging of their fantasy worlds and need some help adjusting to their ordinary lives.
As a child, Nancy found a doorway to the land of the dead. Now she’s back and in Miss West’s care, surrounded by children with equally bizarre backstories and their own unique struggles. When one of the school’s pupils is murdered, Nancy and her peers must overcome their differences to identify the culprit before he or she strikes again.
I was fascinated by this novella’s unique premise: as a lover of fairytales and someone who occasionally dips my toes into the fantasy genre, the blending of magic and reality was right up my alley. I was surprised by how thought-provoking and oddly plausible I found the premise to be: the idea of children escaping and returning from magical worlds is almost too good not to be true. (It would explain SO MUCH about the creative mind!) Sadly, the story itself didn’t work well for me. The shorter novella length provided too little exposure to characters and ideas I wanted to explore further, and the murder mystery element felt like an afterthought, wrapping up far too quickly. While I enjoyed the lyrical writing style, the grotesque details and unnecessary sexual aspects to the story were hard for me to stomach.
That said, I liked the setup enough to give the series another chance (but I WON’T be reading via audio; the narration of this book was extremely dry and slow, even sped up to double speed).
My Rating: 2.5 Stars (Rounded up to 3 Stars on Goodreads).
The Cousins, by Karen M. McManus: Milly, Aubrey, and Jonah Story are three teenage cousins who have spent their lives as strangers. That changes when they suddenly find themselves reunited at their grandmother’s island resort. They are there at the unexpected invitation of their wealthy and reclusive grandmother, who disinherited their parents years before and had never shown any interest in getting to know her grandchildren. . . until now.
The Story cousins were reluctant to accept her cryptic invitation, and only did so at the insistence of their parents, who hope their children might be a gateway back into their mother’s good graces. But Milly, Aubrey, and Jonah soon discover that a happy family reunion is not in the cards. As they spend more time on the island, they uncover layer upon layer of secrets as they attempt to discover what destroyed their family so many years ago.
This is a very YA novel, replete with plenty of drama and angst, but it’s also a highly entertaining read. Though fairly convoluted, I enjoyed the twisty plot mashup of past and present mysteries. As someone who only has a few very distant cousins myself, I was intrigued by the premise of cousins meeting for the first time, and I really liked seeing these characters mature over the course of the novel. Challenging themes of greed, infidelity, addiction, teen pregnancy, and family strife are handled well and add to the novel’s depth without distracting from the plot.
My Rating: 4 Stars.
Pride, by Ibi Zoboi: In this timely and creative Pride and Prejudice retelling, our heroine is Zuri Benito, an Afro-Latina teenager living with her parents and four sisters in a Brooklyn neighborhood that is slowly being transformed by gentrification. When the wealthy Darcy family moves in across the street, Zuri is instinctively repulsed by the arrogant son, Darius. But as Zuri moves forward with her plans for college and relationship with a more “suitable” boy from the neighborhood, she continually crosses paths with Darius, who might not be as entitled or as condescending as she had assumed.
I was amazed at how well this classic story worked in its alternate setting. To me, the best examples of retellings can stand alone (without knowledge of the original), and that is certainly true here, though familiarity with the original P&P definitely enhanced my appreciation for this book. The story follows pretty closely with the original, leaving space for the Brooklyn setting and Afro-Latina culture to shine. The convergence of familiar story with unfamiliar (to me) setting paved the way for some helpful and relevant insights into the topics of race, class, and gentrification. I would never have made the connection between Jane Austin’s social commentary and the contemporary conversations we are having about these issues, and I found it oddly comforting to see how Austin’s societal problems so clearly mirrored modern issues that feel (but are not) unprecedented.
Zoboi’s wordsmithing is remarkable—reflective of the culture without detracting from the heart of the story—and the audiobook read by spoken word poet Elizabeth Acevedo is fantastic.
My Rating: 4.5 Stars (Rounded down to 4 stars on Goodreads).
Anxious People, by Fredrik Backman: An apartment open house becomes a potential crime scene—and a collection of unsuspecting house hunters suddenly find themselves in a life-or-death situation—when a failed bank robber bursts into a high-rise apartment and takes the viewers hostage. Among the victims are a bickering young couple on the cusp of becoming first-time-mothers; an octogenarian who can’t bear the idea of a future without her beloved husband; an embittered banker weighed down by a decade of anxiety and remorse; a recently retired couple whose fixer-upper hobby is holding their marriage together; a frazzled real estate agent; and a mysterious man whose unconventional attire is not at all suited to the occasion. Each of these individuals (as well as the bank robber holding them hostage and the father/son detectives attempting to free them) carry unspeakable anxieties and insecurities, and the unexpected trajectory of this almost-but-not-quite crime scene provides the community and context to sort through their issues, grapple with their hurts and hangups, and find solace amidst unlikely companions.
Fredrik Backman is right at the top of my list of favorite authors, so it’s no small thing for me to say that this is Backman at his absolute best! The novel’s premise sounds serious, and the book definitely has its heavier poignant moments, but it is also absurdly funny, and though the story is at times outlandish, the characters and backstories are intensely familiar and relatable. Anxious People strikes the perfect balance between character study and plot-driven, with insightful commentary throughout, and it touches on all manner of themes ranging from early parenthood to the loss of a spouse, the lingering effects of trauma, the various stages of marriage, and the dynamic between parents and their adult children. I was delighted by the various plot twists, but even more by the warm empathy that radiates from every page. Like all of my favorite books, this one is redemptive and hopeful and at once personal and universal.
I wholeheartedly agree with this line from the Washington Post’s review: “Backman again captures the messy essence of being human…It’s clever and affecting, as likely to make you laugh out loud as it is to make you cry.” This is the best novel I have read in a VERY long time; it is immediately being added to my All Time Favorites list, and I would give it TEN stars if I could!
My Rating: 5+ Stars!
And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer, by Fredrik Backman: Reading Anxious People reminded me of how much I love Fredrik Backman’s writing and, not wanting the Backman love fest to end (and in need of a decent cry), I picked up this gut-wrenching novella for a reread. I was so relieved that this small yet impactful little book lived up to my memory of it.
And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer is a love story between an elderly man and his grandson, who is walking him through the late stages of dementia. Each day the man’s world and mind grow a little smaller as he slips further away from reality and into the welcoming arms of the beloved bride who left this world ahead of him. Through the man’s vivid imagination, we get a glimpse at a life marked by regret, intense love, and redemptive second chances.
Backman has given us a breathtaking and tender portrait of the complicated dynamic between father and son, the bonds that can form across generations, faith amidst uncertainty, loyalty through the hardest of circumstances, and marital love that transcends the bounds of belief, personality, and life itself. I’m not quite sure how Backman manages to pull all of this off in under 100 pages, but he succeeds with great flourish (and little fanfare). This novella is touching, funny, and insightful, offering a helpful framework for understand the experience of dementia and, more broadly, of human nature.
My Rating: 5 Stars.
The Midnight Library, by Matt Haig: Thirty-something Nora Seed is depressed, unfulfilled, and plagued by a lifetime of regrets and missed opportunities. On the night when Nora decides to give up on living, she awakens in a library lined with endless shelves. Each of the library’s books holds a life Nora could have lived if her choices had been different: an Olympic swimmer, a rock star, a scientist, a wife, a mom. . . . Any one of these lives is available to Nora, but in her quest for the happiest and most fulfilling version of herself, Nora begins to understand that regrets and dreams are slippery things—unpredictable, and never as straightforward as they seem. Before deciding on what she wants her life to look like, she must first understand the essence of a genuinely worthwhile life.
I knew little about this book prior to reading it and assumed it was a book-themed mystery. I was wrong on both counts BUT the book does contain two of my other favorite book features: parallel universes and heavy philosophizing, neither of which I can get too much of in my fiction and which are both done quite well here (though, admittedly, the premise and the takeaways are a tad transparent).
The lessons Nora discovers about happiness, love, regret, and the power of simple kindnesses and pleasures are important and memorable, and the messages of purpose and hope are inspiring and thought-provoking. I enjoyed reading about Nora’s fascinating lives (and pondering my own road-not-taken life scenarios), despite the fact that Nora herself is a difficult character to root for.
While the unoriginal prose kept this from being a five-star book for me, it’s a title with broad appeal that I would feel confident in recommending to fantasy lovers, deep thinkers, romantics, adventure readers, and just about everyone in between. This would make a fantastic TV series.
My Rating: 4.5 Stars (Rounded down to 4 Stars on Goodreads).
Sacred Rest: Recover Your Life, Renew Your Energy, Restore Your Sanity, by Saundra Dalton-Smith: Rest. It seems pretty straightforward: sleep more, do less . . . the equation appears so simple (if not necessarily easy), so why do most of us feel so depleted, even when we think we are doing the best we can to achieve rest? In this eye-opening book, Dr. Saundra Dalton-Smith (an internal medicine doctor) explains that REST is about more than streamlined schedules or getting the requisite eight hours of sleep.
Based on extensive medical research, Biblical study, and years of lived experience, Dr. Dalton-Smith has identified seven core areas where we need rest: physical, mental, emotional, creative, social, spiritual, and sensory. The first half of the book contains detailed chapters dedicated to each type of rest, outlining the research behind each specific brand of rest, as well as indicators of who may be at risk for this rest deficiency and practical steps for achieving more rest in these areas. In Part Two of the book, Dr. Dalton-Smith shares several gifts of rest, from the obvious (the gifts of boundaries, permission, and cessation) to the less expected (reflection, art, communication, and even productivity).
I have heard Dr. Dalton-Smith on several podcasts over the last couple of years, but it took a personal “rest crisis” to finally click purchase on this book. And WOW, did I need to read this! Dr. Dalton-Smith helped me get a better picture of the type of rest deprivation I am experiencing and gave me great tools for beginning to embrace rest (particularly in the areas of emotional and mental rest, which is where I was most taxed). She helped me to understand the value of rest and to see it as a gift rather than yet another health goal to grudgingly pursue.
I appreciated that this wasn’t just a book about sleep. (In fact, there is only a sentence or two dedicated to the topic of sleep, as Dr. Dalton-Smith is clear that adequate sleep is only one very small piece of the Rest puzzle). Nor is this a rehashing of the messages we’ve all heard about slowing our pace of life or cutting down on screen time. Those messages are present, but Dr. Dalton-Smith goes far beyond the what to the why and the how of these practices, and her recipes for rest are enticing AND attainable.
The messages in this book are personal to the author: Dr. Dalton-Smith has spent the past decade overcoming burnout and addiction to productivity, striving, and success, and her stories are marked by candor and relatability. She also includes stories from her patients and these, too, are told with empathy and understanding rather than judgment.
I was surprised that this book penned by a medical doctor was so beautifully written, filled with lovely imagery and poignant, perfectly-worded ideas and phrases. The book is also wonderfully jam-packed with scripture, and I loved the insights Dr. Dalton-Smith brings on the ways that rest shows up in the Bible. Her connections between rest and our faith lives were the wake-up call I needed to begin taking rest seriously as I begin to see rest (in its various forms) as genuine spiritual practices that have the potential to produced much-desired fruit in my walk with the Lord. This is a book for everyone, not just woman, but I would especially love to get this book into the hands of every mom I know!
My Rating: 5 Stars!
The Power of a Woman’s Words: How the Words You Speak Shape the Lives of Others, by Sharon Jaynes: Words are powerful, yet too often we are careless with how we use them, wielding them as weapons (knowingly or unknowingly) while neglecting to maximize their potential for good. In The Power of a Woman’s Words, Sharon Jaynes guides women in exchanging our careless words for intentional ones, illustrating how we can use words of positivity and love to build up our children, our spouses, other women, and even strangers. Through stories of women whose words have had profound impact, along with practical tools for taming our tongue, plus detailed lists of SPECIFIC words and phrases those around us long to hear, Jaynes inspires and empowers women to maximize our words for eternal Kingdom purposes.
This is not a new message, but it is an important one that taps into an area where I personally can use a lot of work. The chapters on using positive words towards our husbands and children were particularly convicting for me, as was the chapters on gossip and grumbling. I appreciated the specific ideas for how and why to begin speaking more kindly to my own family members, and I loved the strategies for reigning in unhelpful words. I also really liked the idea of the THINK filter we should apply to our thoughts before turning them into words (are these words True, Helpful, Inspiring, Necessary, and Kind?).
I didn’t love the writing style of this book, which relies more on the stories of a community of women without the personal touch of the author’s own experiences, but still found this to be a helpful and worthwhile read.
My Rating: 4 Stars.
Greenlights, by Matthew McConaughey: “I’ve been in this life for fifty years, been trying to work out its riddle for forty-two, and been keeping diaries of clues to that riddle for the last thirty-five. Notes about successes and failures, joys and sorrows, things that made me marvel, and things that made me laugh out loud.” So begins Matthew McConaughey’s collection of stories, lessons, recalled prayers, and all manner of insights on how to deal with life’s challenges by catching successes (“green lights”) and even harnessing hindsight and perspective to turn former “red lights” to green. With candor (sometimes TOO MUCH candor!), optimism, and a humorous blend of self-awareness and ego, McConaughey reflects on his chaotic childhood, his unexpected rise to fame, acting methods, partying (SO much partying), parenthood, and finding his lifelong love.
I listened to the audio, and McConaughey is unsurprisingly a delightful narrator. He oozes charisma, making the unsavory aspects of his story more palatable, though I struggled with the massive amounts of swearing and could have done with fewer wet dreams. The stories themselves are at once outlandish yet believable, and wildly entertaining, and I was impressed with the takeaways gleaned from each one. The writing is heavily clichéd, but McConaughey’s contagious inspiration gives these once-tired aphorisms new life. I was impressed with the actor’s wisdom, steady confidence, and genuine devotion to his family and his ideals. A great read/listen for fans of the actor, or anyone who loves a wild story or a thought-provoking bumper sticker.
My Rating: 4 Stars.
Share Your Stuff. I’ll Go First.: 10 Questions to Take Your Friendships to the Next Level, by Laura Tremaine: I was first introduced to Laura Tremaine as one of the hosts of the Sorta Awesome podcast. Laura has since moved on to other endeavors, and her personal podcast, 10 Things to Tell You, is one of my favorite weekly listens. This book follows that show’s general premise of encouraging others to “share our stuff,” with Laura taking the lead.
Each of the book’s ten chapters begins with an intriguing reflective question, such as “What are you afraid of?,” “Who was there?,” or “What broke you?” Laura elaborates on what these prompts mean and why it may be important to answer them. She then offers several related stories from her own life as a small-town Oklahoma girl who made a new life for herself in LA and is now a literal Hollywood Housewife to a successful movie producer. Each chapter ends with some guided reflection intended for journaling or discussion with a trusted group of friends. And, fitting with the 10 Things to Tell You title of Laura’s podcast, the book also contains ten fun (sometimes funny, sometimes helpful) Top 10 Lists, such as “10 Ways to Journal” and “10 Books that Shaped Me.”
I LOVE the premise of this book. As a journaler and someone who is already very introspective, I was impressed with Laura’s ability to get me to think even deeper about some of life’s biggest questions and issues. Laura is great at winnowing big concepts into understandable and relatable takeaways, and at drawing conclusions and meaning from seemingly insignificant moments and memories; I completely relate to her way of looking at the world, making her an effective guide in my own reflection.
Laura’s personal stories were my least favorite part of this book, which surprised me. For those who don’t already follow Laura’s writing and podcasts, I can imagine these stories would be uninteresting or even confusing. Because I HAVE followed Laura’s journey and feel like I know her, I thought I would be more interested in hearing the detailed stories from her life, but I grew frustrated with how the stories bounced around the timeline of Laura’s life, leaving many gaps unfilled.
Laura is very precious about her own journey and at times takes herself and her experiences a tad too seriously, resulting in a pretentiousness I found uncomfortable. (I’ll be the first to admit this might be because I see to much of my own tendencies in this—Laura and I have VERY similar personalities, even if our lives have followed nearly opposite trajectories.) Still, there is no denying Laura’s expert storytelling and ability to paint a vivid picture that takes you into her life before stepping back to get a broader view and understanding. (This understanding was further enhanced through the series of “secret podcasts” I had the opportunity to listen to as a preorder bonus. In these, Laura interviewed family members and friends who make appearances in the memoir, and I found these really elevated my appreciation for the book.)
This is meant to be read alongside friends, and though I didn’t do that, it would make a fantastic buddy read.
My Rating: 4 Stars.
Have you read any of these books? I’d love to hear your thoughts!