Book Reviews–June 2019 Part One

Welcome!  I have large stacks of books TBR (To Be Read) on my nightstand, plus electronic stacks of books lined up in my Kindle, as well as books on hold at the library.  As I read these books, I love to share my thoughts and opinions of what I’ve read here in this space, because I enjoy sharing my passion for books with others.  I do have an eclectic taste in books, and will choose books based on my mood, or what’s going on in my life that week.  Finally, the page numbers I list here reflect the number of Kindle pages, not paper pages.  Thank you!)  I hope you enjoy this series.

Book #1: 

The Last RomanticsThe Last Romantics by Tara Conklin (Length: 368 pages).  This is an excellent read!  The writing is top-notch, the characters are well-developed and I wanted to keep reading.  This novel is told from the perspective of the youngest sibling of 4 (Fiona), and is primarily about the familial/sibling bonds of this group.  While it’s broad in scope and of time, the pace is quick enough to hold a reader’s interest (which I was very pleased about).  Book clubs would enjoy this book as there are opportunities to discuss your own bonds with your siblings.  (Note:  climate-change deniers, whoever you are, may want to skip this book because there is a somewhat intense and VERY realistic peek into our planet’s near future in the flash-forward scenes.)

From the publisher:

When the renowned poet Fiona Skinner is asked about the inspiration behind her iconic work, The Love Poem, she tells her audience a story about her family and a betrayal that reverberates through time.

It begins in a big yellow house with a funeral, an iron poker, and a brief variation forever known as the Pause: a free and feral summer in a middle-class Connecticut town. Caught between the predictable life they once led and an uncertain future that stretches before them, the Skinner siblings—fierce Renee, sensitive Caroline, golden boy Joe and watchful Fiona—emerge from the Pause staunchly loyal and deeply connected.  Two decades later, the siblings find themselves once again confronted with a family crisis that tests the strength of these bonds and forces them to question the life choices they’ve made and ask what, exactly, they will do for love.

A sweeping yet intimate epic about one American family, The Last Romantics is an unforgettable exploration of the ties that bind us together, the responsibilities we embrace and the duties we resent, and how we can lose—and sometimes rescue—the ones we love. A novel that pierces the heart and lingers in the mind, it is also a beautiful meditation on the power of stories—how they navigate us through difficult times, help us understand the past, and point the way toward our future.

Book #2: 

Packing for MarsPacking for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach (Length: 335 pages).   I’m not sure where I heard about this non-fiction pick, but I’m SO glad I read this book.  I’ve read the author’s “Stiff” and “Gulp” previously, so I knew I’d find this exhaustive account of the preparation that must occur before spacewalks and our eventual travel to Mars to be worth my time.  This book, as with her previous books, showcases the author’s wit.  (For example, the line, “‘They didn’t want the hot water cooking the skin flakes'”, he said, speaking four words together that have no business being so.”)  The author does get bogged down into the minutiae (as is her style) . . . for example, what is it like to go without washing for two weeks in space, what it’s like going to the bathroom, etc but the minutiae IS so very interesting, in my opinion.  I will say, this book is difficult to read in one go, but by chapter it’s fine.  Definitely do NOT skip the footnotes!  (If you’re reading this on a Kindle, just click on the asterisks within the text itself).  These often contain the most interesting (and funny) factoids!

From the publisher:

“America’s funniest science writer” (Washington Post) explores the irresistibly strange universe of life without gravity in this New York Times bestseller.

The best-selling author of Stiff and Bonk explores the irresistibly strange universe of space travel and life without gravity. From the Space Shuttle training toilet to a crash test of NASA’s new space capsule, Mary Roach takes us on the surreally entertaining trip into the science of life in space and space on Earth.

Book #3: 

Fierce KingdomFierce Kingdom by Gin Phillips (Length: 278 pages).  Whoa.  This book is INTENSE.  If you’re looking for a lightning-fast, thrill-ride of a read that you’ll finish in one sitting, this is it.   This novel is very well-paced, and the author is all about moving the plot (about some gunmen in a zoo at closing time) forward, but what characters there are, you absolutely understand them and their motivations along the way.  The main narrator, Joan, is a mom at the zoo with her young son.  She’s heroic at times, and shockingly not at others.  She’s very believable and makes you think about what you’d do in that same situation.  There is a secondary character of a retired third-grade teacher (who’s seen at least a dozen of her former students on the news in some capacity after they reach adulthood), and having been a substitute teacher for third-grade, I absolutely related to her character.  The novel’s ending is very sudden, and you can read what you want into it.  Love those types of endings–definitely worth a read.  This would be a fantastic book to read on a long airplane flight or car ride as the time will fly by!

From the publisher:

One of the New York Times Book Review’s Best Crime Novels of 2017

“Warning: you’ll finish this in one sitting.” —TheSkimm

“Expertly made thriller . . . clever and irresistible.” —The New York Times

An electrifying novel about the primal and unyielding bond between a mother and her son, and the lengths she’ll go to protect him.

The zoo is nearly empty as Joan and her four-year-old son soak up the last few moments of playtime. They are happy, and the day has been close to perfect. But what Joan sees as she hustles her son toward the exit gate minutes before closing time sends her sprinting back into the zoo, her child in her arms. And for the next three hours—the entire scope of the novel—she keeps on running.

Joan’s intimate knowledge of her son and of the zoo itself—the hidden pathways and under-renovation exhibits, the best spots on the carousel and overstocked snack machines—is all that keeps them a step ahead of danger.

A masterful thrill ride and an exploration of motherhood itself—from its tender moments of grace to its savage power—Fierce Kingdom asks where the boundary is between our animal instinct to survive and our human duty to protect one another. For whom should a mother risk her life?

Book #4: 

Chasing FirefliesChasing Fireflies by Charles Martin (Length: 351 pages). I LOVE me some Charles Martin.  This is yet another great novel of his.  He does touch upon (briefly) some tough subjects such as child abuse (both physical and sexual) as well as HIV, but he’s never too graphic and it’s never gratuitous.  The narrator is a younger male (30 years old) who is a journalist.  He’s adopted and lives with an older couple he calls Uncle Willie and Aunt Lorna, and we learn about Uncle Willie’s very storied past.  As always, Martin does a fantastic job of painting a sense of place, in this case, the marshes of Georgia, with his always-beautiful writing style and a fantastically-paced plot.  You HAVE to keep reading to find out how it ends.  There’s a mystery within the plot, per usual, but Martin definitely doesn’t spoon feed it to you.  I LOVE this book!  

From the publisher:

On a stifling summer day, an old Chevy Impala ignored the warning signals and was annihilated by the oncoming train. What no one realized until much later was that the driver had paused just before entering the tracks and kicked a small boy out of the car. A small boy with broken glasses who is clutching a notebook with all his might . . . but who never speaks.

Chase Walker was one of the lucky ones. He was in foster care as a child, but he finally ended up with a family who loved him and cared for him. Now, as a journalist for the local paper, he’s moved on and put the past behind him.

But when he’s assigned the story of this young boy, painful, haunting questions about his own childhood begin to rise to the surface.

And as Chase Walker discovers, learning the truth about who you are can be as elusive—and as magical—as chasing fireflies on a summer night.

Book #5: 

Good Morning MidnightGood Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton (Length: 274 pages).   This book is based on SUCH an interesting premise, even for a dystopian novel.  The main characters (in alternating chapters) are:  An elderly scientist who stays put after an evacuation of a research station near the North Pole, and a female member of a crew of 6 en route back to Earth from a study/exploration of Jupiter.  The female crew member, Sully, is estranged from her daughter, much like August, the research scientist on Earth.  The author creates a fantastic sense of place in both locales–and since I really enjoy reading about space AND the Arctic, this novel is really my jam.  While this is more about “the journey” and the meaning of life than the arc of the plot, it’s definitely worth a read.  Just a warning that the last two chapters are definitely a bit of a surprise (that I suspected but really didn’t see coming).  I’m okay with the (rather abrupt) ending but some readers may not be.   I absolutely will read whatever else this author publishes!


Augustine, a brilliant, aging astronomer, is consumed by the stars. For years he has lived in remote outposts, studying the sky for evidence of how the universe began. At his latest posting, in a research center in the Arctic, news of a catastrophic event arrives. The scientists are forced to evacuate, but Augustine stubbornly refuses to abandon his work. Shortly after the others have gone, Augustine discovers a mysterious child, Iris, and realizes that the airwaves have gone silent. They are alone.

At the same time, Mission Specialist Sullivan is aboard the Aether on its return flight from Jupiter. The astronauts are the first human beings to delve this deep into space, and Sully has made peace with the sacrifices required of her: a daughter left behind, a marriage ended. So far the journey has been a success. But when Mission Control falls inexplicably silent, Sully and her crewmates are forced to wonder if they will ever get home.

As Augustine and Sully each face an uncertain future against forbidding yet beautiful landscapes, their stories gradually intertwine in a profound and unexpected conclusion. In crystalline prose, Good Morning, Midnight poses the most important questions: What endures at the end of the world? How do we make sense of our lives? Lily Brooks-Dalton’s captivating debut is a meditation on the power of love and the bravery of the human heart.

Book #6: 

Becoming OdyssaBecoming Odyssa: Adventures on the Appalachian Trail by Jennifer Pharr Davis (Length: 322 pages).  Fun fact:  I’m OBSESSED with the Appalachian Trail, and have read more than half a dozen books about this trail, and thru-hikers in particular.  This particular memoir is now in my top 3 primarily because the author’s writing is very good, and descriptive, and for a 22 year-old woman (at the time she hiked the trail), she isn’t whiny, but instead is very positive and empathetic to others.  She definitely encounters some difficult people and dangerous situation and endures physical trials, but she handles all of them with admirable strengthe and grace.  Her writing (and viewpoint) is a bit too religious for my taste in part, but not enough to put me off reading (and recommending) this book.  

From the publisher:

After graduating from college, Jennifer isn’t sure what she wants to do with her life. She is drawn to the Appalachian Trail, a 2175-mile footpath that stretches from Georgia to Maine. Though her friends and family think she’s crazy, she sets out alone to hike the trail, hoping it will give her time to think about what she wants to do next. The next four months are the most physically and emotionally challenging of her life. She quickly discovers that thru-hiking is harder than she had imagined: coping with blisters and aching shoulders from the 30-pound pack she carries; sleeping on the hard wooden floors of trail shelters; hiking through endless torrents of rain and even a blizzard. With every step she takes, Jennifer transitions from an over-confident college graduate to a student of the trail, braving situations she never imagined before her thru-hike. The trail is full of unexpected kindness, generosity, and humor. And when tragedy strikes, she learns that she can depend on other people to help her in times of need.

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