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!

From the publisher: NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY SHELF AWARENESS AND THE CHICAGO REVIEW OF BOOKS • COLSON WHITEHEAD’S FAVORITE BOOK OF 2016 (Esquire)

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.

January 2021–Part One

Thank you for joining me here!   (Reminder: the page numbers I list here reflect the number of Kindle pages, not paper pages.)  I hope you enjoy this series and I’d love to hear from you about what you are reading these days.

Book #1:

Funny in Farsi  by Firoozeh Dumas (Length: 210 pages).   I love memoirs and this one is a winner! The writing style is truly funny and engaging, and i enjoyed reading about a young Iranian woman growing up in California for much of her childhood. I loved her depictions of her family (especially her father with all of this money-saving quirks) as well as the stories of family vacations, going to school and meeting her French husband. This is very much worth a library check out. There is a sequel of sorts that I’m interested in reading next, and I’ll keep you posted here if I read that.

Book #2:

All the Money in the World by Laura Vanderkam (Length: 254 pages).  My husband and I each read The Millionaire Next Door before we got married over 18 (!) years ago, and the philosophies espoused in that book have absolutely informed how I think about money. However, new year, new budgets make me always interested in learning about different financial philosophies. I read that this book is a good one for book clubs as it elicits interesting discussions about how people feel about money, so I decided to check it out. As I was reading this, I found that I had already read this a few years ago, but I continued reading it and learned more the second time around, so the reread was worth it. This book isn’t dry at all, thanks to lots of real-life examples. This is not a how-to book, but is more helpful with regard to framing you think of and value money. It is absolutely worth a read (and would, in fact, be a fun book club choice!).

Book #3:

The Opposite of Love by Julie Buxbaum (Length: 386 pages).  I ADORE this book! I’ve read (and reviewed) this author’s young adult novel What to Say Next, so I was excited to read this one. The protagonist is a strong female lawyer. The writing is retrospective and prospective which makes for interesting reading. There are strong themes of workplace sexual harassment and family deaths (cancer), plus the plot is fast-moving with excellent character development. This is not your run-of-the mill chick lit as the plot (and the writing) are memorable. Worth purchasing as you’ll want to loan it to a friend immediately after finishing this one.

Book #4:

The Girl With the Louding Voice by Abi Dare (Length: 379 pages).  A book club friend recommended this one, and since I trust her taste, I immediately picked it up. This is a fantastic book! The beginning is a bit slow, and VERY stressful as it has to do with a young girl in Nigeria being married off to a much older man in her village. Adunni is an incredible protagonist, with a unique narrative voice (her English improves as the book progresses, so the writing changes to reflect her increasing grasp of the language). The writing is beautifully descriptive, and the dialogue is wonderfully evocative of this culture. The plot is fast-moving beginning in the middle of the novel. I also enjoyed learning so much about the Nigerian culture. I absolutely would recommend this novel!

December 2020–Part Three

Thank you for joining me here!   (Reminder: the page numbers I list here reflect the number of Kindle pages, not paper pages.)  I hope you enjoy this series and I’d love to hear from you about what you are reading these days.

Book #1:

The Light We Lost  by Jill Santopolo (Length: 332 pages).   This book was called THE romance book of 2017, and I’m finally getting around to it! 😉 I will say that I understand the hype . . . this novel is really well done in terms of my fiction trifecta. There is strong character development, the plot is interesting and the setting (or theme) of romance really works here. The narrative format is interesting in that the protagonist is writing a letter of sorts, reminding her boyfriend how they first met (in college) and takes him all the way through to the (somewhat) surprising ending. The plot twists were sufficient to keep me fully-engaged, and the writing is very well done in this fast, very enjoyable read. I would recommend checking this one out if you’re in the mood for a romance novel.

Book #2:

Make Change by Shaun King (Length: 275 pages).  I was given this book by one of my best friends who just told me to make sure I read it. It’s written by the de facto founder of the Black Lives Matter movement. The writing here is excellent, and I enjoy how the author gives very concrete steps on how to effect change on any social justice issue, on any level. He walks you through how to volunteer (it’s not just showing up somewhere) all the way through to how to build on a movement. He humanizes the BLM movement as well as sharing stories of his own (often horrifying) experiences growing up. This is a must read!

Book #3:

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood (Length: 400 pages).  This is the favorite novel of a good friend of mine (who happens to teach high school English to seniors) so I was excited to finally check it out. This is a post-apocalyptic novel, set in a worldwide pandemic, so it’s not for everyone. It is very well-written, as any Atwood novel always is, but the plot is VERY disturbing. The details of the extremely deadly plague (with accompanying gruesome deaths), with some child sexual abuse, are A LOT. But I will say that if you can stomach those details, the plot is excellent–very fast-moving with lots to try to understand. I enjoyed the various literary devices Atwood employs here to propel the narrative (and I get why English teachers enjoy this book), and I will always remember this book.

Book #4:

The Switch by Beth O’Leary (Length: 333 pages).  Such a sweet, fun read, that is perfect for this time of year! This is a British novel with a fun plot . . . a grandmother and granddaughter switch flats (and lives) for two months. I love how elderly-friendly this novel is and it’s clear the author understands and adores elderly people, which makes this a joy to read. The plot is very fast-moving, there is excellent character development, the writing is very well-done. The vibe of this book is very A Man Called Ove to me, so if you enjoyed that book (if you haven’t read that one yet, you MUST!) you will very much enjoy this sweet novel.

December 2020–Part Two

Thank you for joining me here!   (Reminder: the page numbers I list here reflect the number of Kindle pages, not paper pages.)  I hope you enjoy this series and I’d love to hear from you about what you are reading these days.

Book #1:

Sea Glass by Anita Shreve (Length: 394 pages).   I really enjoyed this historical fiction book! It’s set in the Great Depression (just before and after the crash), and a house on a beach in New England is the home base of the plot here (Fortune’s Rocks). I didn’t realize until I started reading this, that this is the second book in a series. I had previously read The Pilot’s Wife years ago when it was Oprah’s Book Club pick,, and that book is the third in the series and features the same house in present day. The house is fixed up by a newly-married young couple, and then is the setting of meetings of union organizers protesting mill closings. The character development is excellent, and these characters are the primary focus of the book as there isn’t a ton of action. I really enjoyed how the author started to weave together seemingly disparate characters by the middle of the novel, and they all begin to interact. I would definitely recommend this book! However, if you’re a Kindle reader, I’d urge you to buy the entire series (it’s less than $4 for all 4 books!).

Book #2:

Talking as Fast as I Can by Lauren Graham (Length: 224 pages).  I am a HUGE fan of the TV show Parenthood, and a casual fan of the TV show Gilmore Girls (my teen daughters are massive fans of the latter), so I was excited to pick up this memoir. This is a fun read–Graham writes like she talks as Lorelai in Gilmore Girls, so I think her tone here makes this memoir different than most. Her writing is excellent, and I found her to be charming, self-deprecating and witty. I’m looking forward to reading her debut novel next (Someday, Someday, Maybe). I will say that I wish I had listened to this memoir on audiobook as Graham herself narrates it.

Book #3:

Troubles in Paradise by Elin Hilderbrand (Length: 355 pages).  Ugh. I did NOT enjoy the first two books in this series (and have reviewed each of them earlier this year), but there were enough loose ends in the series’ central mystery that I couldn’t help myself and had to find out what happened. I was actually pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this book, especially in comparison to the first two novels. The characters who annoyed me in the first two books redeemed themselves sufficiently, in my opinion, and the resolution of the mystery was satisfactory. As with her first two books, I still enjoyed the author’s references to other authors and books, as well as the island of St. John. The major hurricanes in the Virgin Islands formed the basis for the hurricane story arc here, which was a semi-interesting plot point. I STILL wouldn’t recommend this series as I don’t think it adequately reflects this author’s talents but at least my curiosity was resolved by my reading this last book. 😉

Book #4:

Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years A Slave, and Four Years in the White House by Elizabeth Keckley (Length: 170 pages).  This is an autobiographical account written by Mrs. Lincoln’s dressmaker, a former slave. This is extremely interesting, historically, especially regarding her early life as a slave and how she was able to “buy” her freedom, but as written is a bit dry in parts and in others, it’s entirely too gossipy (she and Mrs. Lincoln had a falling out at the end of their lives). The writing here is very formal and a bit stilted, but granted, that’s reflective of the style of writing back then. I’m very glad I took the time to read this book, and to educate myself further about this period of our country’s history, but ultimately I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this book for the reasons above. Jennifer Chiaverini’s Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker is probably a better read about this subject.

December 2020–Part One

Thank you for joining me here!   (Reminder: the page numbers I list here reflect the number of Kindle pages, not paper pages.)  I hope you enjoy this series and I’d love to hear from you about what you are reading these days.

Book #1:

Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman by Jon Krakauer (Length: 482 pages).   I’m a huge Krakauer fan, so I was excited to finally dive into this book. I wasn’t disappointed–this is classic Krakauer, where he alternates educating the reader on the history (and geopolitics in this case) behind an event, as well as diving into the people who are part of the events in question. I am absolutely fascinated by Pat Tillman’s story, and I truly enjoyed learning about him as a person. He was so complex, well-read and with a remarkable sense of duty and loyalty. I finished this book very angry with Bush, Rumsfeld, et al for perpetuating the false war against Iraq, as well as creating the conditions that made Tillman’s case ripe for a cover-up of horrifying proportions (a cover-up of the fratricide that killed Tillman as well as the basis for the war itself). This is a must-read, and is still relevant to our times today.

Book #2:

The Body in the Library by Agatha Christie (Length: 224 pages).  I have read a few Agatha Christie books and was in the mood for a new one. I don’t believe I’ve read any starring Miss Marple, and this mystery apparently is the second book in that series. This is a fast, fun read with a solid mystery at its center (but aren’t all Agatha mysteries perfect?). The multitude of law enforcement type characters was a bit confusing but once the story progressed I realized I could ignore their differences and focus on the mystery. I enjoyed being surprised by the solution to the mystery, and I found the character development to be perfect (not too much, not too little) and the settings of the novel (a dance hall and a mansion) to hold my interest. Would recommend!

Book #3:

The Institute by Stephen King (Length: 577 pages).  This King novel came highly recommended to me, and they were absolutely correct that I would love this book. This is a typically lengthy King read, but I honestly don’t think a word was wasted here. The plot of the book centers around a government experiment on children with telekinetic and telepathic powers. I could NOT put the book down and finished it in one day. The book is totally appropriate for teens ages 13 and up, so long as they are okay with the subject matter (experimentation on children). I found the character development to be really well-done here, the plot is sufficiently fast-moving and the ending wrapped all of the loose ends up to my satisfaction. I ADORE this book, and will be recommending it to everyone I know.

Book #4:

Welcome to the United States of Anxiety by Jen Lancaster (Length: 270 pages).  As a big fan of this author’s previous books (which include Such a Pretty Fat and Bitter is the New Black), I was confident I’d enjoy this most recent non-fiction book. Lancaster has constructed the book around the five stages of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, but through the lens of our country’s rapidly increasing levels of anxiety, of the individual. The chapters are on specific causes (think–social media, politics, environment, diet, etc) and they are all spot-on. And this was written PRE-pandemic. Her humor (mostly sarcastic) results in a book that is anything but anxiety-provoking, and it’s worth a read if you’re in the mood for something easy and fun.

November 2020–Part Three

Thank you for joining me here!   (Reminder: the page numbers I list here reflect the number of Kindle pages, not paper pages.)  I hope you enjoy this series and I’d love to hear from you about what you are reading these days.

Book #1:

Beginner’s Luck by Kate Clayborn (Length: 246 pages).   In need of something light, I picked up this romance-type novel, which happens to be the first book in a three book series called Chance of a Lifetime. Since this one was recommended by Anne Bogel, I knew it would be good, and she was absolutely correct. This series is about each of a group of three friends who share a large lottery win. The writing is excellent (although the Kindle version has a few annoying typos), the characters are all well-rounded and intelligent, and their actions actually make sense. The female protagonist in this book, Kit, is a metallurgist at a university and her love interest is a headhunter who also works in a salvage yard catering to historic homes, which she also happens to own. Her renovation of her “new” home is an interesting side plot. I really, really enjoyed this book and feel confident that you will too!

Book #2:

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (Length: 466 pages).  I ADORE this book! I’ve been wanting to read this for several years, mainly due to so many positive reviews, and I finally picked up this (longer than average) novel. It was absolutely worth the wait, and I enjoyed it even more than The Rules of Civility (reviewed earlier this month). There is one primary setting, a luxury hotel in Moscow, where the protagonist, Count Rostov, is serving a life sentence of house arrest, courtesy of the Bolsheviks. The story starts when the Count is in his early 30s and stretches over the next 30 years. I love his personality (he’s a consummate gentleman, thus the title) and his gentle sense of humor. His interactions with two different young girls as well as the staff of the hotel during the time span of the novel are what make this novel sing. The ending is fantastic as well. This novel will make it on the top ten list of 2020 for me for sure!

Book #3:

Dream Work by Mary Oliver (Length: 98 pages).  In my reading goals for 2020, I listed reading more poetry, and here I am. I was aware of this poet as she’s won a Pulitzer Prize, and this collection does not disappoint. Her poetry is very deep . . . this collection of 45 poems includes poems about the Holocaust, child abuse and poverty in India. Many are based in nature, which I love. Each poem is beautifully constructed, of course, but they are all accessible to readers like me, who aren’t well-versed (ha!) in the ins and outs of poetry. I’d definitely recommend checking out this poet if you’re also looking to expand your reading choices.