You’re here for reviews? I’ve got reviews! And lots of words, so I’ll skip the winded preamble and get right to ’em!
// NONFICTION //
All My Friends Have Issues: Building Remarkable Relationships with Imperfect People (Like Me), by Amanda Anderson: This strangely titled book is not one I would have picked up on my own were it not the subject of my women’s group at church. We did the video study that corresponds with (but does not exactly follow) the book, and I decided to dig into the subject further by listening to the full book. In it, Bible teacher and recovering codependent Amanda Anderson explores a subject that is difficult for many of us women: friendship. Anderson understands that relationships are messy because people are messy, but she shows us how to move beyond our mess to walk in healthy, life-giving friendship with other women.
The template Anderson provides for friendship is an encouraging one, filled with helpful suggestions for navigating authentic friendship that is built on mutual respect and encouragement rather than cattiness, comparison, or selfishness. Anderson uses her own relatable stories and examples from Scripture to show how we can seek and offer accountability and encouragement, know what to say and how and when to say it, and be our full selves in relationships while allowing friends to do the same. This is not a book about how to make or find friends, but it is a great guide for being and attracting the type of friends we want to have. It provided me with several eye-opening moments regarding the ways I have shown up in friendship and how I can grow. It was great to read and study these ideas along a group of likeminded women.
My Rating: 4 Stars // Book Format: Audiobook
Discrimination and Disparities, by Thomas Sowell: We are a society desiring of easy explanations and even easier solutions. Unfortunately this overeagerness in rushing to conclusions often leads us to draw inaccurate assumptions, causing us to attribute problems to the most obvious sources when those “obvious” answers simply don’t give the full picture. Thomas Sowell’s vast body of work offers a more comprehensive view of popular narratives and faulty assumptions on a variety of issues (most commonly education, economics, and race). And in this book he challenges the commonly held notion that all differences of outcome are the result of malicious discrimination.
In the straightforward, analytical approach characteristic of his work, Sowell explores various studies and historical examples to offer a more complete picture of disparities in America. He shows how there are more factors are at play than discrimination and exploitation, and he emphasizes the dearth of instances of demonstrable discrimination that can be attributed to maliciousness. By the end of the book Sowell has left no doubt that many (perhaps even most) disparities in our country are NOT the byproduct of blatant racism.
Sowell’s writing is clear and concise, managing to convey complex ideas in an extremely accessible and non-confrontational format. It is refreshing to see his refusal to play political games (name calling, gaslighting, harmful rhetoric, etc.), even where he is exploring polarizing issues. This is such a helpful book for understanding much of what is happening in America today, and the congenial tone and comprehensive body of research makes it a book whose message is difficult to dispute.
The specifics in this book are important, but my greatest takeaway was a total mindset shift: I was reminded that the simplest explanations (or those offered by mainstream media or politicians) are not always the right ones, and that studies and data can be heavily skewed and shouldn’t be taken at face value. Much of the content here is disheartening as it exposes the deceptions surrounding many mainstream views and the harm that these narratives have caused. But I appreciated Sowell’s willingness to challenge ideas, even when his pushback may not be welcome by many; for those of us open to hearing something different, this is a hugely helpful and eye-opening read.
My Rating: 4.25 Stars // Book Format: Audiobook
// FICTION //
The Measure, by Nikki Erlick: Life is humming along as usual when one day, it all changes—because on this spring day, every single human over the age of 22 receives a mysterious box containing a solitary string. And these strings are not ordinary, as the world quickly comes to realize: each string is a different length, indicative of how long the recipient has to live. With the arrival of the boxes, the world immediately fractures into groups: short-stringers rival long-stringers, and all stand apart from those who refrain from opening their boxes, not wanting or needing to know their fate. Through five individuals’ stories, we explore the implications of this new knowledge: for families and potential partners, for the military and medical professionals, for politicians, and for friendships, and beyond.
Talk about an incredible premise! I recently identified my love for speculative fiction and is so often the case with this type of book, I enjoyed the thought experiment component more than the stories themselves. I didn’t find any of the characters particularly memorable or endearing (minus a very sweet penpal relationship between strangers), but I did love thinking through the ideas presented in each scenario. This book manages to explore relevant topics of fate, prejudice, political manipulation, and the value/sanctity of life without delving into actual prickly issues like vaccines, political parties, or any other real-life current events. It was a relief to think about issues as huge as identifying one’s purpose or playing with fate, without having to navigate uncomfortable realities.
This book has all the complexity and intrigue of The One without the icky factor (this is more literary fiction than thriller). It is not an entirely happy novel, but it has many feel-good moments and is, if nothing else, deeply thought provoking with all the makings of an ideal book club selection.
My Rating: 4 Stars // Book Format: Audiobook
Flying Solo, by Lisa Holmes: Continuing with my (accidental) recent trend of reading books about women on the cusp of turning forty. . . Laurie Sassalyn (who is approaching her fortieth birthday) has recently canceled her wedding and is feeling good about her decision to remain single. Laurie loves her independence and her home in Seattle, and she is happy in her job as a nature journalist. But she is also happy to take some time off of work to return to her hometown in Maine, where she has agreed to handle the estate of her great-aunt, Dot.
Dot had been a beloved role model who thrived in her ninety-three years of singleness, adventuring and doing life on her own (eccentric) terms, and Laurie is determined to give Dot’s home and belongings a proper, thoughtful curating and send-off. In her searching and sorting, Laurie comes across a mysterious wooden duck buried in the bottom of an old chest. Laurie has never seen the duck, but is certain it must have a story and she sets out to discover the figurine’s origins and significance. Helped along by her lifelong bestie June and the sexy town librarian (who happens to be Laurie’s first romance and is also recently single), Laurie embarks on a surprisingly exciting journey to uncover the duck’s secrets.
This is a story about a wooden duck, but really it’s a story of identity: who we are, how we exist in the world, and what it means to be part of a family, a partnership, and a community. Laurie wrestles with her need for independence that doesn’t play nicely with her craving for intimacy; she wonders what real happiness and fulfillment may look like for her, and whether or not that has to mirror everyone else’s path to happiness.
I have learned that for me to enjoy a romance it has to offer something a little beyond a formulaic road to Happily Ever After, and this book met that standard. I enjoyed the love story at the book’s center, even though I’m not sure how I feel about the statements it makes about relationships: Dot’s and Laurie’s singleness is presented as a choice worthy of celebration, and while I agree that not everyone should get married, I do think that there is so much value that comes from relationship—happiness, yes, but also refinement and character building; these are disregarded by Laurie and those around her, who view happiness as the solitary purpose of a committed relationship. (I realize that nearly all art—and really all of our society as a whole—subscribes to this belief, but I haven’t seen it put forth so blatantly in other books and felt the perspective was especially noteworthy here.) I wish this were more a celebration of genuine love than of selfishness. That said, I was intrigued by (if not drawn to) this different type of protagonist living an altogether different type of romance.
Linda Holmes has a unique writing style and wonderful knack for sharing details and backstory in unexpected ways, and the prose of this novel was a true highlight. I also loved librarian male love interest, the fun duck metaphors, and the duck-mystery story line which kind of felt cheesy but was also very realistic and weirdly relatable: I think we have all spent time with a loved one’s items and wondered what stories those could tell, and it was fun to see that play out here.
Although this book had plenty to commend itself to me, it took me a while to get through: I enjoyed it while reading, but wasn’t necessarily drawn to pick it up (and finished several other books between starting and finishing this). I don’t generally mind slower-paced books so I am unsure why I struggled to get through this one. I am glad I read it, and will likely read whatever Linda Holmes writes in the future (I really loved her debut novel), but it’s not a book I am racing to recommend to others.
Heads up for a couple of steamy scenes that are easily skimmed. This is not a closed-door romance but intimate moments are mostly handled with discretion. I also appreciated the fact that Laurie is referred to as being in a larger body, but that this was not a focal point of the story: she is a size 18, which is casually referenced but is not an issue for Laurie, her love interests, or any of the other characters. I would love to see more books featuring this type of body inclusivity, as well as more books about “seasoned” protagonists that are not yet fully established and still have many wonderful decades ahead of them (showing us all that life does not, in fact, come to a screeching halt at age 40).
My Rating: 3.75 Stars // Book Format: Print
All Your Perfects, by Colleen Hoover: Then. . . Quinn and Graham had a perfect story: an improbably redemptive (yet adorable) meeting; a whirlwind passionate romance; a marriage with enough love to endure life’s greatest tragedies. But Now. . . their perfect love has weathered some heavy storms, possibly too many. Though still deeply in love, their marriage outlook is dire. Shattered dreams, broken promises, and resentments that are too painful to acknowledge have driven a wedge between the once-happy couple, causing them to question whether they should or even can stay together? What is love, really, and is love alone enough to keep a marriage afloat?
It seems EVERYONE is obsessed with Colleen Hoover right now. I was resistant to giving her books a shot (too much hype can scare me off), but a group of friends wanted to read this together and I agreed. Within a few chapters I knew that this was not a book for me (and would have abandoned it if I were not committed to reading it alongside others). Open-door romance is a deal breaker for me, and this is the steamiest book I have ever read. The nonstop sex scenes (and discussion of sex when it wasn’t taking place) were a turnoff, as was the swearing (so many f-bombs!). But the biggest hurdle is that this book deals with infertility, which is a painful subject for me, even years after my own happy ending. All Your Perfects plunged me back into the deep pain of infertility—the longing for a child, the 28-day-cycle of turmoil, the trauma such longing brings into a marriage, and the havoc it wrecks on relational intimacy with one’s spouse and others. Even years after walking that road, I was not ready to revisit it at such a visceral level and I definitely wouldn’t recommend this to anyone currently experiencing infertility unless they are desiring to press deeply into that pain.
That said, I can see why Colleen Hoover has acquired such a cult following. Her writing evokes ALL THE FEELS (to the point of feeling emotionally manipulative, except that the situation is just so relatable—with reflections that could have been ripped from nearly any married woman’s journals); anyone looking for a good cry book will absolutely find that here. And for fans of romance, this is an undeniably moving one. I found myself falling for Quinn and Graham and rooting for them; sexy times aside, they have a lovely relationship with pitch-perfect chemistry and genuine love for one another that goes so much deeper than physical attraction or selfish desire. I have not read many love stories focusing on the relationship between a married couple and I like that this story elevates the beauty of marriage without denying how difficult it can be and how much it requires of both partners, even partners who are deeply committed to one another. I appreciated the opportunity to see a couple who fights for their marriage instead of giving up when it gets hard, and who pursues a life together even when they may have found greater happiness apart.
A struggle I commonly have with romance novels is that the relationships tend to be a little too tidy, and there are elements of that here: though the challenges are realistic and hard, the characters (Graham especially) are definitely too good to be true, setting readers up for disappointment in our own relationships with real-life (flawed) humans. Graham and Quinn’s romance is an aspirational one, to be sure, and for those able to recognize the impracticality of these characters’ romantic gestures, they provide an admirable couple role model. For those unable to distinguish fact from fiction, though, their love story could be laying the ground for some very unrealistic relational expectations.
Though I related to so much in this book and felt so much as I read (more than I wanted to, honestly), I doubt I will be reading more from CoHo any time soon. Even though her brand of catnip isn’t what I’m looking for in my reading, I am glad to finally understand what it is about her books that has so many of my fellow readers smitten.
My Rating: 2.5 Stars (Rounded down to 2 stars on Goodreads) // Book Format: Kindle
Sea of Tranquility, by Emily St. John Mandel: In 1912, Edwin St. Andrew enters a Canadian wilderness where he hears the echoes of a violin’s lullaby sounding out in an airship terminal. The following century, a composer documents a strange occurrence in the same forest. And then, in the year 2203, famous author Olive Llewelyn is visiting from her home on the second moon colony, touring all over Earth to talk about her bestselling pandemic novel. At the center of Llewelyn’s novel lies a passage in which a violin echoes across the corridor of an airship terminal and through the trees of an uninhabited forest.
Even further into the future, Gaspery Jacques Roberts is a time-traveling detective hired by the Time Institute on the Far Colonies to investigate a centuries-old anomaly. As Gaspery hops across centuries and through life stories, he begins to uncover more than just an obscurity within the time/space continuum, but something that causes him to question the nature of reality itself.
This compelling little novel veers beyond the category of speculative fiction that I’ve been enjoying and into full-blown science-fiction territory; that’s not generally a genre I enjoy, and this novel was solidly outside my comfort zone, but I was fascinated. The story is at once futuristic and timeless, and the string of obscure stories and characters managed to be unfamiliar yet eerily recognizable. Each storyline adds to the whole of the novel’s brilliance, but the character of Olive Llewellyn was most interesting: she is the author of a pandemic novel who finds herself experiencing an actual pandemic—much like Mandel herself who is best known for a pandemic novel of her own. Her musings on being a writer uncomfortable with the limelight are quietly profound.
Mandel’s writing style is lovey, lyrical, and sparse, somehow capturing centuries of story and meaning within a book barely longer than a novella. I would have liked to see each of the stories expanded upon, yet the book’s brevity adds to its freshness. I was drawn to its big questions of fate and human significance, even as the time travel elements made my brain hurt. I’m glad I read this in print, I can’t imagine attempting to follow along with the time hopping on audio.
My Rating: 4 Stars // Book Format: Print
// MIDDLE GRADE //
New Kid, by Jerry Craft: Seventh Grader Jordan Banks is a talented cartoonist who would love nothing more than to attend art school this fall. Instead, his parents have enrolled him in a prestigious private school where he is one of the few kids of color. On his first day at Riverdale Academy, Jordan quickly realizes that he has little in common with his wealthy (mostly white) classmates whose family names adorn the school buildings, and who have spent years getting to know each other and the unwritten rules of life at Riverdale. Jordan slowly gets to know the school and his classmates, and new friendships are formed. But as this new kid learns to navigate this unfamiliar terrain, he finds himself living a dual life and feeling uncomfortable wherever he goes. Is it possible for Jordan to remain himself at his new school? And who, exactly, IS Jordan Banks apart from the world he has always known?
I picked up this graphic novel with the intention of previewing it before sharing it with Charleston. I quickly determined that we will need to a wait a few years to introduce this one (I’d recommend it for readers in late elementary or middle school): there is no inappropriate content, but the themes are challenging and not something Charleston is ready to explore. Because of the nuanced nature of these themes, I would recommend that even older kids read this alongside an adult as the book will likely prompt many questions and spark important but challenging conversations.
That said, as an adult reader I REALLY enjoyed this. It’s rare for me to love both the content and the artistic styling of a graphic novel, but both appealed to me in this book that is well drawn, evenly paced, and creatively told while conveying a very realistic story. I appreciated the multidimensionality of the characters who shatter stereotypes yet are entirely believable, and I thought that Craft did a great job of using a variety of stories to showcase a range of black life, showing that one’s color is only a part one’s identity. I liked getting to know each character (even the unlikable ones) but found Jordan to be especially wonderful— he is creative, curious, insightful, and kind, exactly what I love to see in a protagonist.
Throughout the graphic novel, Craft makes it clear (both implicitly and also more transparently in aside-comics addressing the ins and outs of middle grade fiction) that this isn’t a book about race, but rather a book about an ordinary boy who happens to be black and therefore faces a unique set of challenges in attending a mostly-white school. I appreciated the subtle incorporation of these issues in ways that felt entirely natural while also making clear points about racism, prejudice, class, and cultural identity. It was refreshing to see this in a book that wasn’t entirely agenda-driven.
I was definitely challenged by some of the content, such as the discussions of micro aggressions, patronization, and adults who are trying too hard or not hard enough to refrain from using racist language. “Inappropriate behavior” (such as calling all black students by the wrong names or assuming all black kids want to read gritty stories or become NBA stars) is called out in ways that didn’t always feel fair. These are not the focal point of the story, however, and it was interesting to see Jordan and his peers react differently to these slights in ways that are sometimes helpful and sometimes harmful, and often times simply are—no right or wrong about it. This level of nuance might be hard for young readers to understand, but it made for a pleasant change of pace from similar books that overtly spell out their messages. Craft leaves it up to his readers to form opinions on how to respond to racial tension, and with issues as murky as these are, I think I liked this vagueness.
My favorite aspects of the book are the humor (that is quirky and clever and pokes fun at all manner of societal expectations and norms) and the warm relationships between Jordan and his friends and family members. The relational dynamics are a little sticky but are grounded in kindness and love.
Just as El Deafo gave me deeper understanding of the deaf community, New Kid offered a window into the life of a black student, the upperclass private school life, and what it is like to be a middle schooler in the 2020s. Parents and teachers have a lot to learn from this book, and kids will find a lot to relate to.
My Rating: 4.25 Stars // Book Format: Print
Mystery on Magnolia Circle, by Kate Klise: In this middle-grade twist on Rear Window, Ivy (so-named because her parents met in a phlebotomy class!) is a 10-year-old amateur sleuth whose summer plans are derailed when she falls down some stairs on the first day of vacation, badly breaking her leg and leaving her homebound for the next several weeks. Ivy is joined in her misery by her best friend Teddy, who is grieving the sudden loss of his beloved dog. But the friends’ awful summer takes a surprising turn towards adventure when Ivy witnesses a potential burglary taking place at the apartment complex across the street. Ivy and Teddy chase the trail of clues to determine the culprit. And of course, no summer adventure would be complete with out some surprise revelations, new happy discoveries and a few more unfortunate heartbreaks, and the formation of some new friendships.
I adored this book! I enjoyed the mystery element, but liked the friendship and family stories even more. Ivy is a charming narrator with an upbeat personality, insatiable curiosity, and an eagerness to teach, to help, and to learn. I always appreciate kids’ books that feature strong child protagonists while also incorporating healthy, thoughtful adults into the story.
There are some wonderful themes of compassion, overcoming prejudice, and learning to make the best of a challenging situation. I admired Ivy’s mom, who doesn’t let her daughter wallow in pity, but encourages her to make the most of a bummer summer situation; it was refreshing to see this reframing and the elevation of optimism and grit when so many contemporary books emphasize victimhood. There are some difficult topics here as well, like homelessness, addiction, and grief, but these are all presented in a child-appropriate manner. This was published just last year, and there are some modern elements (such as cellphones and other technology) that orient it to the present day, but the story and overall messaging are cozily nostalgic.
Charleston and I read this together, and the “What I Learned” segments at the end of each chapter gave us much to chuckle over and discuss. We would both highly recommend this to other parents, teachers, and kids.
My Rating: 5 Stars // Charleston’s Rating: 4.5 Stars // Book Format: Print
Abe Lincoln at Last! (Magic Tree House: Merlin Missions Book 19), by Mary Pope Osborn: Charleston’s been wanting me to read every one of the books he finishes. I’m not ready to commit to that (he’s averaging a chapter book a day!), but agreed to occasionally read some he deems favorites, and this one made that list. Annie and Jack are on another mission: this time they travel to Washington D.C. in 1861, where they are tasked with finding President Lincoln and offering him hope in his quest to unify the nation. The siblings are offered some help from a couple of unexpected friends, as well as a surprise time hop that neither of them saw coming.
I read this on the heels of Moonlight on the Magic Flute and the stories are strikingly similar, leading me to enjoy this less than I might have if I’d spaced the books out. I still had fun with this mission and learned a bit about Lincoln’s youth and his life while in the White House in the 1860s. There are some great lessons about hope, hard work, and kindness, and there is even an impromptu gramma lesson thrown in! I truly appreciate how much Charleston learns from this series he has been inhaling.
My Rating: 4 Stars // Book Format: Print // Charleston’s Rating: 4.5 Stars
Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White: I have some wonderful childhood memories with this classic, so it was an easy pick for our first “official” read-aloud of second grade. The tale of an innocent young pig who is rescued from becoming bacon through the efforts of a brilliant and kind-hearted spider is about as sweet as they come, and unlike some old favorites that don’t hold up to a reread, I have to say that I loved the endearing friendship story even more as an adult. The prose is vivid and intimate, the vocabulary is varied, and the characters are shockingly relatable for a collection of barnyard animals. The novel provided so many great discussions for Charleston and me about growing up, sacrifice, and life on a farm. I’m so happy Charleston loved this every bit as much as I did (even though he was initially mad at me for reading such a sad book that prompted lots of tears).
My Book Rating: 5 Stars // Charleston’s Rating: 5 Stars // Book Format: Print
What have you read this month? Have you read any of these titles? What did you think?