Thursday, April 19, 2018

Review: My Dear Hamilton

Like many of us, Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie adored a certain popular musical about the life of one of our nation's founders. But they found that they couldn't stop thinking about Hamilton's wife Eliza. She was the one who ensured that Alexander Hamilton was remembered and the two authors decided to find out who she was and make sure that she was remembered as well.

My Dear Hamilton strikes the perfect balance of being familiar to readers who know a little about Alexander Hamilton while giving added depth to Eliza. They bookend the story with President James Monroe appearing to an elderly Eliza, hoping that the two can reconcile. From this point, Eliza thinks back through her life and readers witness a young woman in war time, a mother trying to provide for everyone in her family, and a wife wounded by her husband's betrayal.

Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie have done a wonderful job in making Eliza a fully realized character, in spite of her leaving so few of her own letters and documents behind. I love that Eliza begins her story by telling readers "I was someone before I met Alexander Hamilton. Not someone famous or important or with a learned philosophical understanding of all that was at stake in our revolution. Not a warrior or a philosopher or statesman. But I was a patriot. I was no unformed skein of wool for Hamilton to weave together into any tapestry he wished. That's important for me to remember now, when every thread of my life has become tangled with everything he was...I was, long before he came into my life, a young woman struggling to understand her place in a changing world."

The book is a long one, but it's intriguing to see Eliza grow and change over several decades. It's clear from the note in the beginning to the last page of this story that Dray and Kamoie are rightly fascinated by this turbulent time in American history and the brave women and men who defined it. If you are a reader who loves historical fiction or a a person who weeps every time you hear them sing "Who tells your story? Eliza" in the Hamilton finale, you need to read this book.

My Dear Hamilton
A Novel of Eliza Schuyler Hamilton
By Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie
William Morrow Paperbacks April 2018
672 pages
Received from the publisher for TLC Book Tours

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Mini-Reviews: The Shadow of the Crescent Moon and The Living Infinite

Three brothers eat breakfast together in a small town in Pakistan. Instead of observing Eid together, they carefully decide which mosque each brother will attend. Then they leave to go about their days--Aman Erum takes a taxi to a meeting, Sikander goes to pick up his wife Mina before work at the hospital, and Hayat rides his  motorbike to an abandoned university to meet other young people who are dedicated to freeing their home. By the end of the morning, their carefully constructed existences will be changed forever.

The Shadow of the Crescent Moon is one of those books where very little happens. The book only covers three hours in the lives of one family, but each of them think back through their history so the reader comes to understand who these people are and the events that have made them this way. This story is framed through the eyes of the three brothers, but the characters who really shine are Samarra, a radical young woman with ties to both Aman and Hayat, and Mina, Sikander's wife who is grieving war and loss in a very peculiar way. Author Fatima Bhutto makes it seem like there are good people and bad people but, as pieces are slowly revealed, we learn that these are just people trying to save themselves and the ones they hold dear. By the end of the book, you may want to turn back to the beginning and read it all again to see which seemingly mundane moments were actually the ones to change everything.

The Shadow of the Crescent Moon
By Fatima Bhutto
Penguin Press March 2015
240 pages
From the library


In 1893, a Spanish princess stunned the rebellious citizens of Cuba before becoming a sensation at the Chicago World's Fair. The Infant Eulalia impressed people with her style, her confidence, and her willingness to speak the truth about the limitations of royalty. Accompanying her is Tomas Aragon, her secretary and the son of her wet nurse. What do they owe to each other? How will their adult lives intersect? Is it possible to move beyond the choices of their parents?

Every time that Chantel Acevedo changed perspective, I grieved for a few pages to lose the motherly insight of Amalia or the childhood memories of a princess. But she has created such unforgettable characters in a princess, a wet nurse, and her son that I would happily read hundreds more pages about any of them. Eulalia really was a Spanish princess who visited Cuba and the World's Fair in 1839. She did have a wet nurse from a poor village, but the life and character of Tomas are invented by the author. If, like me, you don't know much about this time period in Spain, The Living Infinite will give you an excellent primer on the late 1800s. But more than that, Chantel Acevedo has written a truly beautiful story about creating your own life, even under the shadow of bad choices or a royal title.

The Living Infinite
By Chantel Acevedo
Europa Editions September 2017
305 pages
From the library

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Review: Eternal Life

Rachel is a typical modern woman in many ways: her children sometimes drive her crazy, she dotes on her grandchildren, and she has some big decisions to make about the family business. But there is one thing that makes Rachel very unique--she can't die. Two thousand years ago, she made an incredible bargain to save the life of her son. He would live and become a crucial figure in Jewish history, but she would be unable to die. All these years later, she has lived many lives all over the world. She has fallen in love, she has had children and careers, and then she leaves them all behind before her descendants can see that she outlives them. Her granddaughter Hannah is a scientist with a grant to try to prevent death and Rachel worries that she will figure out the truth about her grandmother. Is it finally time for Rachel to die? Is it even possible?

The story itself is a really engaging one. We see Rachel in the present as she tries to make good decisions, realizing that the decisions that make her a good mother are not always the ones that will keep her safe and happy. Horn also takes us into Rachel's past at several different points, but we spend the most time at the beginning with the son whose life she saved. We also meet Elazar, the boy's father, who made a similar sacrifice and follows Rachel through time. They spend some lives together, taking solace in the face that one other person knows what it is like to be immortal. In others, Rachel runs as far away as possible from the man who knows too much about her and has hurt her too many times. It is the highest of compliments that I would have followed Rachel through all of her lives, because Horn gives her characters so much of the nuance and contradiction that makes them seem to come alive right on the page.

Dara Horn writes fascinating novels that grapple with complex questions of faith and morality. In Eternal Life, the question at hand is what it means for us to be human. Would immortality render us more human as we live through life after life of mistakes and joys or would the ability to have another chance make us something other than human? If there is no end, do the moments that make life meaningful become more precious or do they mean nothing at all?

Also by Dara Horn: A Guide for the Perplexed

Eternal Life
By Dara Horn
W.W. Norton Company January 2018
256 pages
From the library

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Review: Bury What We Cannot Take

San San and her brother Ah Liam return home from school one day, expecting a normal afternoon with a snack and time with their grandmother. Instead, they find that their grandmother has smashed a portrait of Chairman Mao with a hammer. Ah-Liam is conflicted, but ultimately decides to confess his grandmother's crime to the Communist Party. Soon the family has no choice but to try to flee the country to Hong Kong, lying that their father is ill. But the government will only grant three visas--one to mother Seok Koon, one to grandmother Bee Kim, and one for just one of the children. Seok's impossible choice will lead each of them to situations they never imagined.

Bury What We Cannot Take maintains a level of tension rarely seen in books other than thrillers. From the first pages when the children make their discovery, there is a very real possibility that someone will be imprisoned, killed, or lost to their family forever. This powerful book looks at the process of making difficult decisions and the repercussions that we never imagined. Everyone in this tale makes choices--Bee Kim made the choice to destroy the picture, Seok Koon decided which child to take to Hong Kong, Ah Zhai left his family to pursue another life in Hong Kong, and Ah Liam chose to put party ahead of his family. The only one who doesn't make a definitive choice is San San, but she is the one who must deal with the consequences.

Kirstin Chen is a writer who is careful and precise with her words. Beautiful writing and a tense and powerful story of the uncertainty of living in Communist China make Bury What We Cannot Take a book you don't want to miss.

Bury What We Cannot Take
By Kirstin Chen
Little A March 2018
275 pages
Read via Netgalley

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Review: 1001 Ways to Be Creative

We all know creativity is a good thing. We believe in arts education in our children's schools, listen to new music, and attend local theatre productions. Some of us spend too much time gazing via social media at the beautiful pie or cozy sweaters created by our friends. In spite of this, it's hard to know where to begin. If you don't consider yourself an artist or a musician or a chef (or even if you do), how do you include creativity in your daily life? Barbara Ann Kipfer has a solution for you with her book 1,001 Ways To Be Creative. 

This tiny book contains a very large list with two kinds of entries. There are suggestions on ways to start a creative life, like taking a pottery class, designing a roller coaster, or inventing a new cocktail. Some of the points are thoughts about what it means to live a creative life. Kipfer encourages readers to remember that there is no such thing as the "right" starting place, that you will need breaks and rest, and that your creativity will grow as you continue to work on it. There are also quotes from famous creative people throughout and pages of inspiration, where the author challenges her readers to ask "what if?" or go on a creativity field trip.

This is a charming book. I think the best place for it is close to your piano or sewing corner or on the kitchen counter, nestled in with your favorite cookbooks. I'm planning to leave it on my son's bookshelf for the next time he's tempted to tell me that he's bored. While I wouldn't recommend reading straight through, I can certainly see myself flipping through its pages when I need to try something new or find a bit of inspiration.

1,001 Ways to Be Creative
By Barbara Ann Kipfer
National Geographic March 2018
320 pages
Received from the publisher for TLC Book Tours

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Review: I Was Anastasia

In 1920, a woman is pulled out of a German canal. Her body is covered in scars and she won't say how she ended up in the water. When she finally breaks her silence, she claims to be the Russian princess Anastasia. The Russians insist that she and her entire family were executed by a firing squad, and many people believe that she is only looking for money and fame. She is dubbed Anna Anderson and a long investigation begins, as everyone tries to uncover the truth: is she the Princess Anastasia?

The story of Anastasia is one that has persisted in our consciousness for many years. There have been movies, books, and even a Broadway musical because we can't resist wondering if one of the Romanovs could have escaped their terrible fate. If you think there's nothing left to this story, think again. Ariel Lawhon throws you right into the action with Anna who confronts the reader, insisting that you have to come to your own conclusion after you hear her story. The action moves in two storylines, as we see Anna in the present navigate the believers who shower her with attention and the detractors who call her a liar. Years earlier, the Princess Anastasia tries to keep up her spirits under house arrest and increasingly dangerous circumstances.

I Was Anastasia is historical fiction at its best, which is exactly what readers have come to expect from Ariel Lawhon. If you know your history, you already know the answer to the question of Anna's identity. But as Anna points out, it almost doesn't matter. We want her to be Anastasia, because we want some hope to have come out of a dark, terrible story. We want Anna to be Anastasia because Ariel Lawhon makes both stories so compelling that we can't help wanting to believe.

I Was Anastasia
By Ariel Lawhon
Doubleday March 2018
240 pages
Read via Netgalley

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Review: Becoming Madeleine

A Wrinkle In Time is a beloved story for many children. It's a jumping off point for young readers to love books about daring girls, impossible worlds, and traveling through space and time. For me, it was a doorway to the writing of Madeleine L'Engle and I happily tore through the remaining books in the Time Quintet, traveled through the streets of New York with Katherine Forrester, and read her reflections on life and love in The Crosswicks Journals. L'Engle passed away in 2007 and her granddaughters Charlotte and Lena wanted to give her readers a glimpse into the life of their beloved grandmother. They spent years going through her childhood letters and journals to write Becoming Madeleine.

This book is a treasure trove for the L'Engle fan who wants to learn more about their favorite writer. Voiklis and Roy started with their grandmother's earliest memories and wrote about her difficult relationship with her parents and her troubles and triumphs at school. They included photographs, journal entries, and letters from Madeleine. It's fascinating to read words she wrote as a child and young woman and compare them to her voice as an adult writer of fiction and nonfiction.

But I wished there was more of a personal touch to this book. Voiklis and Roy stop the book when A Wrinkle in Time is accepted for publication, which means we don't get to witness L'Engle as a grandmother to the authors. I can certainly understand wanting to keep your memories for yourself, but it feels as if anyone could have compiled her early letters to write this book.


Becoming Madeleine is intended for young readers, so the writing style is clear and simple. While I would have loved a more personal book, this book is a crucial addition to your bookshelves if you love Madeleine L'Engle and want to know about her younger years.

Becoming Madeleine
A Biography of the Author of A Wrinkle In Time
By Her Granddaughters
By Charlotte Jones Voiklis and Lena Roy
Farrar Straus Giroux February 2018
176 pages
From my shelves

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Books on My Spring TBR

Here in New Jersey, it seems we will be dealing with snow for the rest of our lives. But I hear that it is actually the first week of spring so all the spring book releases are right around the corner!

I'm linking up at the That Artsy Reader Girl for Top Ten Tuesday to discuss all of the books we can't wait to read this spring.

1) A few years ago, a debut novel about the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus was a huge hit. We've all been anxiously awaiting another book from Madeline Miller and her book Circe will finally be here in April!

2) Zombies are rising up from the battlefields of the Civil War. Are you ready for any awesome biracial warrior girl to save the day in Dread Nation by Justina Ireland? I am so ready.

3) New Meg Wolitzer! New Meg Wolitzer! The Female Persuasion is out in April.

 

4) Jonathan Miles is an author who rarely seems to be discussed in literary circles. His newest novel, Anatomy of a Miracle is about a paraplegic who can suddenly walk--is this a miracle or something else?

5) Ramona Ausubel's debut novel No One Is Here Except All of Us completely ruined me. Then she followed it up with an incredible short story collection and a novel that made me care about rich people (I never care about rich people problems!). Now she has a new short story collection called Awayland and I'm ready for her to take all of my money!

6) Full disclosure: I'm reading the ARC of Only Human (Themis Files #3) right now and it's really good. If you haven't read any of the books in this series about giant robots and aliens by Sylvain Nuevel yet, get started now so you can read the last one when it comes out in May.

 


7) And Now We Have Everything by Meaghan O'Connell is the author's look at becoming a mother very early in her life before she really felt like an adult.

8) I found Ruth Hogan's novel The Keeper of Lost Things lovely and charming, so I'm excited to read her next book The Particular Wisdom of Sally Red Shoes.

9) Tom Rachman writes fantastic books (The Imperfectionists, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers) and I will follow him anywhere. In his latest book, The Italian Teacher, it's Rome in the 1950s and the triumphs and passions of artists and their families.

10) It's a great year for new books from authors I love. Jason Mott's The Crossing tells the story of twins who have to survive a world falling apart around them.


What books are you looking forward to reading this spring?

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Review: Promise

On Palm Sunday in 1936, a tornado touched down in the town of Tupelo, Mississippi. Hundreds are killed, homes and businesses are destroyed, and the town that people have lived in for their entire lives is gone forever. Dovey is outside, wondering when her granddaughter Dreama and great-grandson Promise would return. She is thrown through the air and lands wounded and dazed with no idea if her family is still alive. Across town, 16-year-old Jo McNabb comes to with a piece of glass embedded in her forehead. Her mother is injured, her baby brother is missing, and her father is nowhere to be found. The two families have a bitter and difficult history, but their actions on that devastating day will cross lines and build new relationships.

Minrose Gwin based her novel on a real event. Her grandmother lived through this tornado. It would be impossible for Gwin to show the range of injury and grief inflicted that struck the town, so she focuses on two women who are opposites in every way. One is a poor, black grandmother and the other is a a rich white girl. Dovey is all too familiar with the ways people can inflict pain on each other, while naive Jo is just starting to learn. But both of them are determined to survive, to do what needs to be done, and to fight for their families.

This story deals with some very dark things--rape, racism, natural disasters, and poverty, to name a few. But everything cleans up a bit too neatly--justice will be served to abusive boys and absent parents and closure will be found for our heroines, even among the ruins of their homes. While the photos included within this book show the devastation of this tornado, Promise leaves no doubt that Jo and Dovey will be able to rise from the wreckage and maybe even have a happy ending one day.

Promise
By Minroe Gwin
William Morrow February 2018
400 pages
Received from the publisher for TLC Book Tours

Friday, March 9, 2018

Spunky Historical Heroines: A Murder in Time, A Spy in the House, and The Widows of Malabar Hill

If you are a reader, you probably enjoy reading historical fiction. We can't seem to resist visiting an Elizabethan castle or imagining ourselves as the brave woman who evacuates her neighbors during a bombing in World War II era London. But reading this kind of book can be frustrating because being a woman in the past was an incredibly different experience than the one we are having in 2018. It's not quite as exciting to read about a woman who dutifully follows the direction of her parents, marries young, and has several children. We like our heroines to have some spunk and pluck, to defy expectations, and take control of their own lives.

But how far is too far in historical fiction? Do we ignore the very real consequences that women faced for defying their fathers or husbands? Do authors purposefully ignore the restrictions that women had on their everyday lives? How much leeway do we give our female protagonists when they act in ways they never could in reality?

In A Murder in Time, FBI Agent Kendra Donovan is suddenly transported back to 1815. She quickly realizes that there is a murderer at work, but has a difficult time explaining how she knows that since forensic investigation isn't used yet. Kendra appears out of nowhere and is accepted in a wealthy household as a lady's maid. She's used to being in charge, so she should get into a fair amount of trouble both as a woman and as someone who is supposed to defer to her wealthier employees. I understand that it rather breaks the narrative if she gets fired from her job for being rude or gets sent to an asylum for knowing things she shouldn't, but it does seem somewhat ridiculous for the men of the house to unanimously decide it is charming for this crazy woman to act the way she does.

        A Murder in Time (Kendra Donovan, #1)     The Widows of Malabar Hill (Perveen Mistry, #1)

Similarly, in the first book of The Agency Series by Y.S. Lee, Mary Quinn goes undercover as a lady companion in London in the 1950s. While she is a woman of the Victorian era, she also happens to be a spy collecting evidence about the family she works for and their comapny. She is rude to her employees, she sneaks out when she should be working, and she often acts like a fairly modern woman without thinking about the consequences. Mary does have two safety nets with James, who is also investigating the company, and the knowledge that the all-female agency can pull her out if things get too complicated (after all, they saved her from the gallows once). But she still ignores many of the conventions of her day and we readers don't worry too much about it because she doesn't seem to believe there is any real danger.

The Widows of Malabar Hill, a recent first book in a mystery series, seemed a bit more realistic to me. Perveen Mistry is our protagonist and she is the first female lawyer in India in 1921. Author Sujata Massey was inspired by the real-life women who practiced law around that time period. Perveen is able to solve the mystery, but this case is perhaps specially tailored to her; as a woman, she is able to gain access to the titular widows who are observing a strict period of mourning where they cannot speak to men. But we also see the ways it is difficult for her to navigate the world--she may be a lawyer, but she deals with mostly office work and research while her father argues in court. Perveen is also in situations where she has to decide if it is appropriate for her to go somewhere alone, which would never stop her fellow lawyers from talking to a client or finding answers to their cases.

So where is the line? Can our heroines act courageously with some actual consequences? Who are your favorite spunky historical heroines?

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Review: Attend--Forty Soul Stretches Toward God

There are so many devotional books that you can pick off a bookstore shelf. They tend to highlight a specific passage of Scripture and then give you some questions or a page of reflection on the text. But many of them are heavy and require a lot of thought and a lot of time. For those of us who have busy jobs or a loud house full of playing kids, it can be difficult to find time or energy to tackle those kinds of devotions. Laura Davis Werezak proposes an alternative: what if we could connect with God by doing something as simple as opening a window or sending a note to a friend? In Attend, she takes us through forty "soul stretches" to help the busy and the distracted find unexpected ways to encounter God.

Werezak frames her book around Isaiah 30:15 and the concepts of returning. rest, quietness, and trust. She talks about a time in her twenties when she found it hard to connect with God. She prayed, she read the Bible, and she went to church, but she felt like nothing was working. So she focused on the idea of attending, or stretching towards God, and noticing the little things about life and the relationship with the one who created it all.

Attend provides the reader with ideas that are seemingly simple, but there are great rewards from doing each one. Each devotion is a few short pages and it would be a perfect pick for the season of Lent, since it has 40 entries. Werezak writes with gentleness, recognizing that you may be tired and burnt out, and that life can just be downright difficult. She includes stories from her own life and reflections from scientists and theologians to encourage you to keep going, to keep reading, and to keep stretching towards God.

Attend
Forty Soul Stretches Toward God
By Laura Davis Werezak
Faithwords February 2017
223 pages
Read via Netgalley

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Nonfiction Mini-Reviews: A Baker's Year and Becoming Brilliant

Tara Jensen is a baking star on Instagram, where she shows her day-to-day life as the owner of Smoke Signals Bakery in Vermont. A Baker's Year is her first book and it is a hybrid of sorts; we get some basics about baking, some recipes from bread to pies, personal insights, and a look at what life is like at the peak of summer and on the coldest winter days at one of the most beloved bakeries in the Northeast.

I had trouble sticking with A Baker's Year for several reasons. The first has nothing to do with the book itself, but it's difficult to follow a story when portions seem to be missing from an advanced copy or pictures are on random pages without any context. But more than that, I didn't feel like this hybrid approach worked well. The book is very short, so we miss context for a lot of things. Jensen talks about her personal life, but only in the briefest of snippets--it's hard to feel grief over the end of her relationship when we've only read a few pages about them being together. The way she writes about baking is not very accessible for most of us who will never have a wood-fired oven and somehow she manages to run a very popular bakery without ever revealing what it is like to work there every day and interact with other people. Maybe this book works best for fans of Jensen who already know a bit about her and her bakery.

A Baker's Year
Twelve Months of Baking and Living the Simple Life at the Smoke Signals Bakery
By Tara Jensen
St. Martin's Griffin February 2018
208 pages
Read via Netgalley

Have you talked to an elementary school student about their classes lately? I do it every day and it seems like the joy of learning has been left behind, perhaps with three hours of math each day. Roberta Michnick Golinkoff and Kathy Hirsch-Pasek are education researchers and they know what the problem is--our schools are exclusively teaching content without teaching our children how to work together or discern which information is actually important. Becoming Brilliant demonstrates to parents and teachers that our education system is not working and proposes ways that we can help our kids succeed today and in their future careers.

I appreciated a lot of what Golinkoff and Hirsch-Pasek had to say in this book. I certainly agree that things like critical thinking, creativity, and communication are crucial for our children in school and in their adult lives as people with careers. The authors do a great job of giving specific examples of ways that parents can focus on each skill set, but I wish they had taken a little less time to get there. It doesn't take much to convince parents that their children need to know how to collaborate; greater emphasis on how to build these traits at home and convince school systems to incorporate them would have been great.

Becoming Brilliant
What Science Tells Us About Raising Successful Children
By Roberta Michnick Golinkoff and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek
APA Life Tools May 2016
344 pages
Read via Netgalley

Friday, March 2, 2018

Best Books of 2017

I know, I know. It's already the beginning of March. But I'm never going to be one of those people who publishes their "Best Of the Year" lists when there are still three weeks to go in a year. I get a lot of good reading in between Christmas and New Year's, so I'm not going to risk leaving off a great book just because I read it at the end.

As for the gap between the beginning of the year and now? Well...life happens, my friends. So let's settle in and talk about the best books we read last year!

Books Read in 2017: 134
Books Reviewed: 78
First Book of the Year: This Is Where You Belong by Melody Warnick
Last Book of the Year: Before The Fall by Noah Hawley
Pages Read: 38, 922
Fiction/nonfiction: 101/33
Number of audiobooks: 7
Female authors/male authors: 104/30
Favorite Non-review Posts: Reading and UnderstandingGetting Into An Audiobook, Phryne Fisher on the Page and on the Screen, Thoughts on All Grown Up and Single Protagonists, Graduating to Chapter Books

Favorite Fiction Books

I had read a lot of rave reviews of Amor Towles and his novels Rules of Civility and A Gentlemen in Moscow. I picked up his earlier novel on a whim, and found myself immediately pulled into Katey's world. If you've been around for a while, you know I love F. Scott Fitzgerald's books and this took me right back to the glamour and pain of the Jazz Age. This is not a thriller, but it's hard to put down and Towles makes it all seem effortless.







 There are books that do well because they are published at a fortuitous time and Mohsin Hamid's story of two young refugees looking for safety may be that. But I think Exit West would have succeeded even if the issue of refugee resettlement wasn't so current; Hamid writes beautifully and thoughtfully and I found his characters on my mind long after I had finished reading the book.









My husband likes to tease me about the sheer volume of books I read that are set around WWII. But The Alice Network really stuck with me, in part because it showed just how little time passed between the two World Wars. People had scarcely put their lives back together from the first when the second sent their countries and lives into chaos again. I loved the way that Kate Quinn juxtaposes a naïve, rich girl with a hardened, bitter spy while giving the both of them such depth and humanity. (honorable mention to We Were the Lucky Ones






Oh boy. I'm happy I finished this book in the safety of my own home, where no one saw me weep through the last few chapters. The Names They Gave Us is about a teen girl who is having a crisis of faith and ends up working at a summer camp. I loved the way that Emery Lord wrote teens so well and portrayed the heartbreak and hope of figuring out what you believe and who you can count on in times of crisis.






The Mothers was on so many lists of great books of 2017, and it was entirely deserved. Nadia is trying to find peace after her mother's death, and the idea of motherhood looms large in this story through Nadia's own choices and through the Greek chorus of church mothers and grandmothers who have their own chapters to ruminate on the things they know that the younger generations do not. I'm excited to see what comes next from this debut author.







Do Not Say We Have Nothing is the kind of book where you have to settle in for the ride--things are revealed to you bit by bit and when everything comes together, it is stunning. Told in multiple narratives, this is the story of a young girl grappling with her father's death while she learns about his past during China's Cultural Revolution.







I'm going to take this opportunity to share my love for both The Bear and the Nightingale and its sequel The Girl in the Tower (hey, I read them both in 2017!). The Winternight books follow Vasya, a young girl living in the countryside. She soon learns that there are both benevolent and malevolent spirits as far away as Moscow and as close as her kitchen hearth, and she has the ability to fight against or alongside them. These books are perfect for winter--if you haven't picked them up yet, do it before spring arrives!






Favorite Nonfiction Books

This book is about the realities of living among the people you want to serve. D.L. Mayfield was ready to be a missionary, until she realized the inherent flaws of a traditional missions assignment. Instead, she started working with refugees who had resettled in her city and Assimilate or Go Home details the things she learns about others and herself as she becomes a part of this community. This book has the potential to completely change the way you think about other people and yourself.





Kory Stamper is hilarious, people. If you are a person who loves words and have always wondered what it would be like to work at a dictionary, this book is for you.  Reading Word by Word will remind you of the joys and troubles of the English language and make you laugh so uproariously that people sitting next to you might be slightly concerned. 







This is a book that is very difficult to describe. At its core, it is Hope Jahren's memoir about being a female scientist and the difficulties she has faced. But more than that, it's about being a person who is observing their own life, who knows how amazing it is that trees can grow so tall and why they do and marvels at the development of a friendship and the unexpected joys of motherhood. I highly recommend listening to this one as an audiobook. My husband thought Jahren's reading was a bit soporific, but I found her voice soothing (at least when I wasn't crying into the dishes I was washing). 




Now it's your turn!  Did you read any of these books? What were your favorite books in 2017?

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Wednesdays with David: Fish In A Tree

Fish In A Tree
By Lynda Mullaly Hunt
Puffin Books March 2017
320 pages
From the library 


The Story: Ally gets in trouble a lot. Sometimes it's accidental, like the time she gives a very inappropriate card to her teacher going on maternity leave. Other times, it's on purpose as she tries to hide the fact that she can't read well. Ally has resigned herself to another year of doing poorly in school and not having friends. But then her class gets a new teacher. Mr. Daniels sees her aptitude for drawing and math and knows how to help her with her dyslexia. Most of all, he knows that she isn't stupid and brings the class together in ways they never imagined.

Mama opines: David and I are embarking on a mother/son book club. One month, he gives me a book to read and the next month, I give him one. Fish In A Tree was a book he chose for me. This book is a rather well-known story, where a fantastic teacher is able to help each of his students excel. I can understand the readers who are incredulous that this girl has made it to sixth grade without anyone realizing that she has dyslexia. But I also think this kind of book is wonderful for kids and their parents to read. Don't we all wish for this kind of teacher for our children? We all hope that our children will go to a place where they have good friends and a teacher who is truly invested in helping them to find the best ways to learn and grow.

Thoughts from David: Fish in a Tree is a great book. It's about a character named Ally, who can't read very well. The words just kind of float around. She gets a new teacher and meets new friends. But it's really deep too. I mean, ever read Percy Jackson? They share some similarities.

Personally, I think that kids in the fourth and fifth grade will feel especially for this book. I think middle schoolers will also like it too. The reason is, have you ever felt like there is something you couldn't do? Well, Ally expresses that in a sketchbook called 'The Journal of Impossible Things'. I find that a good way to get feelings like it is impossible out of your system. Another reason is that Fish in a Tree  has a ton of heart. In summary, I LOVE Fish in a Tree and think that you should read it too.

And for old times sake, a joke: How do you make an octopus laugh? With ten tickles!!

Monday, February 26, 2018

Review: The Atomic City Girls

June Walker is 18 years old and looking for an adventure. She gets a job in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, working on a massive machine. But she can't tell anyone about her work because the city of Oak Ridge and the projects happening there are top secret. When June falls for Sam Cantor, a grumpy scientist working on a top-secret project, secrets are revealed and June and her friends must decide if they are willing to continue working towards such a terrible goal.

In The Atomic City Girls, we get a glimpse of day-to-day life for the women and men of Oak Ridge. We follow June and her roommate Cici, as well as Sam and Joe, an African-American construction worker. So many of the workers were cogs in the machine and did their jobs with no understanding of their ultimate goal--building the weapon that would end World War II. In spite of  not knowing, they are under strict orders to not reveal a single thing about their work or the town where they live; because of this, Oak Ridge becomes its own enclosed world.

Atomic City is a fascinating time and place, but the characters in this story are really flat. June is our primary protagonist, but it's difficult to put a finger on anything that makes her stand out as a character. Cici is a woman whose only goal is finding a rich husband by any means necessary and Sam is constantly cranky and mean seemingly without reason. Joe had the most interesting storyline for me, and it was heartbreaking to read that African-American workers were not allowed to bring their families with them like white workers were and discover the lack of basic amenities while their counterparts had their own dances, movie theaters, and bowling alleys.

I'm still curious about the work and the people of Oak Ridge, but I would recommend other historical fiction and nonfiction books to fill that spot in your reading list.

The Atomic City Girls
By Janet Beard
William Morrow Paperbacks February 2018
384 pages
Received from the publisher for TLC Book Tours

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Review: The Grave's A Fine and Private Place

Flavia is taking a short trip down the river with her sisters Ophelia and Daphne and their faithful servant/devoted friend Dogger. But this is Flavia de Luce, and they have hardly started down the river when they discover a dead body. After they fish the body out and have a terse encounter with local law enforcement, Flavia quickly realizes that they are in the same town where several people were poisoned. Are the deaths connected? Of course they are, dear reader, and we are off on another delightful adventure with Flavia and the family.

The first five books in this series are formulaic (in a good way). Flavia finds a mystery in her tiny English town and then she solves it, with the help of various family members and neighbors. In more recent books, Alan Bradley has introduced some truly world-shaking events into the de Luce family. I have never written a long series like this, but I have to imagine that Mr. Bradley knows exactly where he is taking our beloved Flavia.

This is where some of my frustration comes into play though--each book seems to change the family, but we don't really get a chance to see what it looks like before the next crisis occurs. Books seven and eight seemed to hint that the books would go in an entirely new direction and finally give us some answers about the lives and work of Flavia's parents and aunt. But we still haven't received any of those answers and this book felt to me a bit like the middle book in a trilogy--we needed some more information before we could get back to the real action.

The mystery itself in The Grave's A Fine and Private Place is a good one and it's interesting to see the lives of people who don't live in Bishop's Lacey. I also loved seeing Flavia grow up a bit; she even takes a young boy under her wing as a sort of mentor. Most of all, I'm excited to see what happens to Flavia and the family in book ten (which will purportedly be the last one). This story ends with the suggestion of a big change, so I hope we actually get to see what that looks like in book ten and see how all of these threads will come together for Flavia.

The Grave's A Fine and Private Place
Flavia de Luce #9
By Alan Bradley
Bantam January 2018
384 pages
Read via Netgalley

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Review: The Music Shop

On a run-down street in England, there is a music shop. The owner Frank stubbornly continues to stock the shop with his beloved records, even as his reps tell him that time is almost over. Frank has a gift for knowing exactly what music people need. His shop is a beacon to his customers and the other people who live and work on the street--Frank's assistant Kit, a tattoo artist, a former priest, the baker, and a pair of brother undertakers. One day, a beautiful woman faints outside and the two strike up a friendship as Ilse asks Frank to teach her about music. Their tentative lessons will help them both open up their hearts to other people and to music again.

The Music Shop is a love story on multiple levels. From the first time they meet, readers wonder if Frank and Ilse will be able to overcome their worries and love each other. But it is also a story of love for music, for a certain place and time, and for your community. Parts of the story are told in flashback, as Frank remembers his mother introducing him to the music of Bach and Beethoven and discovering Aretha Franklin and The Sex Pistols. Readers are also treated to a beautiful look at what it means to be a part of a neighborhood where you commiserate with your neighbors at the local bar, help them out in times of crisis, and fight gentrification alongside them.

Rachel Joyce clearly excels at writing about the lives of everyday people--no one in this story is going to become a millionaire or discover they are a member of the royal family. But we get to see the joys and tragedies of their lives and remember with the characters that a good friend and a good song can go a long way in carrying us through. This is a sweet book and there's never really any doubt that everyone will end up with a happy(ish) ending, but it's a delight to read while humming along the entire time.


The Music Shop
By Rachel Joyce
Random House January 2018
256 pages
Read via Netgalley

Other books by Rachel Joyce: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessey, Perfect

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Review: When God Made Light

When bedtime comes around, parents often find themselves with a dilemma: either your child will pick out a book you can't stand or you pick a story that they aren't thrilled to hear. But once in a while, you find a book that is beloved by everyone. When God Made Light is one of them.

This book is a sweet look at two sisters spending the day together and reveling in all of the ways God gives us light--the way the light of dawn spreads across the floor, the warmth of the sun helping flowers to grow, and the delight of a firefly held close. Most of all, it celebrates the light that each child brings to the world around them.



The illustrations are whimsical and beautiful and I find myself noticing new details each time we read it. If you are looking for the next book for bedtime reading or a gift for the little one in your life, When God Made Light is the perfect choice.

Thoughts from the 4-year-old: I like it because it has light and it has puppy dogs. It has pools and camping. It has sleeping and it has lots of fun!


Thursday, February 8, 2018

Gardening Mini-Reviews

Lisa Steele is known as an expert in all things chicken-related. She has written several books, appeared on tv shows and in magazines, and maintains a website where she teaches about the ins and outs of taking care of chickens. She is also a gardener and in Gardening with Chickens, she writes about all the ways that chickens can help your garden and your garden can help your chicks.

So, you may gather that I'm thinking about getting some chickens. I haven't actually taken the leap of calling my local government offices and finding out if we are zoned for such things, but I am dreaming dreams of warmer mornings when the kids and I can go out and collect some eggs from the backyard. If you find yourself in a similar position, Lisa Steele's book is a great place to start. She may be an expert, but she writes clearly for the reader who might be new to chickens (or gardening). If we do end up adding some chickens to our home, I know that they can keep my garden healthy by turning the soil and that our garden scraps can keep the chickens healthy by giving them a varied diet. And it doesn't hurt that this book has a beautiful layout, with plenty of pictures of Steele's farm.

Gardening with Chickens: Plans and Plants for You and Your Hens
By Lisa Steele
Voyageur Press November 2016
176 pages
Read via Netgalley



Are you thinking about taking up gardening? Perhaps you already grow food or flowers, but are thinking about the possible effects of pesticides and chemicals on your garden. This book is going to take you from first thought to enjoying beautiful flowers and vegetables, all while reminding gardeners of the importance of gardening organically during every step of the process.

This book reminded me a bit of a textbook. Author Mark Highland is taking a deep dive into gardening, which means you are going to know more about layers of dirt and organic fertilizers than you ever imagined. This is decidedly a book for the committed gardener who is ready to take some notes, as opposed to the person who wants to skim something light and simple. But there is a lot to break up the text too--there are plenty of pictures of beautiful gardens in full bloom, rows of vegetables in the middle of the process, quirky illustrations, and helpful charts.


Practical Organic Gardening: The No-Nonsense Guide to Growing Naturally
By Mark Highland
Cool Springs Press December 2017
240 pages
Read via Netgalley

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Review: Young Jane Young

Aviva Grossman is ready to go out and conquer the world--she's young, smart, and pretty, and has recently been hired as an intern for a handsome, popular Congressman. When she and her boss begin an affair, she can't resist writing about it online (anonymously, of course). But it doesn't stay hidden for long. While the congressman is able to save his re-election campaign and his marriage, Aviva is vilified and despised. She decides her only option is to start a new life, so Jane moves to remote Maine and becomes a wedding planner. She lives a quiet life with her daughter Ruby, until she considers running for mayor. Can the secrets of Jane's past stay hidden or is it time for the truth to come out?

Like many readers, I adored Gabrielle Zevin's sweet and quirky The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry. So I was excited to read her newest novel. But I must confess that I picked this book up and put it down a few times before finally sticking with it because Young Jane Young is very different in tone and plot from A.J. Fikry. 

Zevin uses several different perspectives to tell this story, including Aviva's mother, Jane's precocious daughter Ruby, and even the wife of the congressman. Each character is fascinating and uniquely written. I especially loved the relationship between Jane and Ruby, although Ruby's narrative, which is told through emails with an international pen pal, is sometimes a bit much.

This book strikes a great balance. It's obviously about some current and difficult issues, like the way women are treated in the media and the way that men can seemingly escape scandal without consequence, while women are blacklisted in their fields. But it's not a heavy book; there is a lot of humor to be found on these pages and you can almost see it play out in your head like a zany comedy on a movie screen. Young Jane Young is a fun and often delightful read that will also leave you thinking about the cost of being a woman in public who makes mistakes and the double standard for men and women in our modern culture.


Young Jane Young
By Gabrielle Zevin
Algonquin Books August 2017
320 pages
Read via Netgalley

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Mini-Reviews: Stay With Me and Manhattan Beach

Yejide and Akin are prepared to have a happy marriage and keep their families and their traditions at arm's length while pursuing a modern Nigerian life. But after years after marriage, Yejide still is not pregnant. They have been to specialists, tried drinking teas to boost fertility, and Yejide is even considering visiting the healer who lives up on a mountain. The decision is made for her when their family shows up with a second wife for Akin. The repercussions of that choice will drive the couple to the brink and force them to decide how hard they will fight for their marriage.

Stay With Me reminded me of Fates and Furies in certain ways. Both tell the story of a marriage from alternating points of view. You may think you know what is going on until you get the other spouse's side of the story and suddenly, your whole perception of the relationship and the people in it will change. Both Yejide and Akin do some outrageous things in their attempts to save their marriage and themselves. It's both incredibly specific to Nigerian culture, and familiar to anyone who discovers that marriage and having a family isn't quite what you expected.

Stay With Me
By Ayobami Adebayo
Knopf Publishing Group August 2017
260 pages
From the library



Anna Kerrigan works at the Brooklyn Naval Yard as the only female diver. She spends her days defying the expectations of her boss and repairing the massive ships that have been damaged in the war. When she meets the notorious Dexter Styles one night, she remembers going to his home many years ago with her father. Anna sets out to discover how the men knew each other and if Styles might be responsible for her father's disappearance.

I may be the only reader who picked up this book without reading Egan's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Visit from the Goon Squad first. I can't resist a well-told historical fiction novel and this is certainly one. Ms. Egan writes place like few other authors, and you will feel like you are dancing in a WWII-era club or walking through the Naval Yard on your way to work. My only qualm with Manhattan Beach is the change in perspective towards the end of the story. It didn't really add anything for me and I found myself wanting to be back with Anna. I would have read her entire life story, so I'm excited to go back and read Egan's earlier books.

Manhattan Beach
By Jennifer Egan
Scribner October 2017
438 pages
From the library

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Forgotten History Mini-Reviews: Dogs at the Perimeter and Dreamland Burning

I'm placing these two mini-reviews together because both books center around lesser-known moments in history. I certainly never learned about The Tulsa Race Riots in history class and I knew of the Cambodian genocide, but had never read a novel about it. I find that the best historical fiction inspires you to go and research further and Dogs at the Perimeter and Dreamland Burning certainly do that.



Janie doesn't know what to do with herself. Her friend and mentor Hiroji has disappeared, she can't face her husband or young son, and she is haunted by her past. Both Janie and Hiroji are consumed by thoughts of their brothers---Janie knows that her brother died long ago in Cambodia, but Hiroji can't help but hope that his brother is somewhere in the world after working at a refugee camp. This novel is an intense and devastating look at the visible and invisible scars of war.

Dogs at the Perimeter is a book where little happens in the present. Instead, the characters live in a world of memories and fight to keep living because the horrors of their past refuse to leave them alone. Those memories are written sparsely because we need no embellishment to understand how agonizing it is to not know where a family member is or to helplessly watch someone starve. Madeleine Thein is one of those writers who seems to stay mostly under the radar, which is a shame. Her books are beautifully written examinations of grief and loss, both individually and for the people of entire nations who have lived through unimaginable circumstances.

Dogs at the Perimter
By Madeleine Thein
W.W. Norton October 2013
259 pages
From the library


Rowan Chase had only lazy summer day before she was supposed to start her internship. But discovering a dead body on the family property will send her searching for answers about what happened to the victim and how he ended up buried in her backyard. A hundred years before, Will Tillman is trying to find his way in a city where racial tensions are rising. Will tentatively befriends a black boy and his sister, but he also is pursued by a local Klansman who wants him to join. Little does he know that Tulsa is about to literally be set on fire and everyone in town, black and white, will be in danger.

I have to confess I didn't know anything about the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. An entire section of town was burnt down, thousands of African American homes and businesses were destroyed, and hundreds of people were murdered. Jennifer Latham does a wonderful job of showing two kids on the verge of being adults who are seeing things clearly for maybe the first time: Will is white and has rarely considered what it would mean to be a person of color and Rowan is biracial but protected by her wealth until she starts working at a local clinic and sees the ways poverty and racism can destroy lives. This is a rare instance where both timelines are compelling and readers will love following Will and Rowan all the way to the end.

Dreamland Burning
By Jennifer Latham
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers February 2017
365 pages
From the library

Monday, January 15, 2018

It's Monday and it's Martin Luther King Jr. Day

Hey friends! How is 2018 treating you so far?

As I'm sure you know, today is Martin Luther King, Jr. day here in the US so my ten-year-old is home today with the four-year-old and me. I remember my historian father would make us read about the event or person in question when we had a day like this off from school. Picture a good amount of lugging around the World Encyclopedia books to look up some presidents.

My kids both know who MLK was and we have several books in our house about his life and work. I think today we are going to focus on doing some things for others and finally put everything together the books and blankets for the charity we picked this Christmas (Books and a Blanket) and maybe see if we can write some letters/make pictures for someone who might need a little cheer. What do you do with your kids to commemorate MLK Day?

It's been a while since I've done a post for "It's Monday." I've read five books so far this year. I started with finally reading Little Fires Everywhere, dreamed about someday owning a few chickens with Gardening with Chickens, finally read The Blazing World after it has been languishing on my shelves for a few years, and sped through Dreamland Burning and The Music Shop

        

I'm currently working my way through Practical Organic Gardening (can you tell I'm dreaming of spring?) and I'm excited to start The Resurrection of Joan Ashby, which I just picked up from the library.

What are you reading this week?


Thursday, January 11, 2018

Review: Hiding in the Bathroom

Morra Aarons-Mele is a successful woman by any standard. She founded a consulting agency that works on presidential campaigns, but she is also an introvert who had frequent panic attacks and hid from her colleagues at networking events. In Hiding in the Bathroom, she shows readers the proof that successful people don't have to be bombastic and spend every minute focused on their career to the detriment of everything else. Aarons-Mele gives advice to the rest of us: the people with anxiety who want to be CEOs, the introverts who want to run a company but hate networking, and the parent who wants to find success in their field and still spend time with their kids.

This is a book for people who work in certain fields; there are some jobs where you just don't have a lot of wiggle room. But if you are in the kind of profession where you control some aspects of your job, this is a great book. This book has chapters about dealing with FOMO (fear of missing out, for those like me who don't know the lingo), leaning in less to find the things that are priorities and the things you can let go, and finding the right job to fit your hermit ways. I also appreciated that she covered things like negotiating and sales--if you're an introvert like me, those things can quickly send you into a panic. But if they are a part of your job, you need to know how to deal with them without crying under your desk every time.

I'm pretty new to reading books about strengthening your career like this one, but a point I've seen a few times is that we are doing damage to ourselves and our workplaces when we only think about work-life balance as a downside to parenting. People also need balance to do things like have hobbies, care for their parents, or even just spend a few quiet hours at home without worrying the boss will call you at midnight. "I'm going to say it again: control over pace, place, and space is NOT a mommy issue! Everyone has their own work+life fit, and if you're an introvert, yours may not include sitting in an open-plan office fifty hours a week. If you love your career and you want to stay in it, don't let lack of flexibility or a poor work+life fit chase you out! Remember what workplace expert Cali Yost says: most mangers feel shocked when employees quit over a work+life conflict. They don't want you to leave. So next time you're chafing against silly face-time rules, think like a boss and take what you need."

This is a realistic book; the author admits realizes that this advice is not for every person or every career and that some newer employees have to prove their commitment before they can shift what their boss expects. But she also believes that people work best under different circumstances; if we as bosses and employees want the best work possible, shouldn't allow the flexibility for all people to excel?

Hiding in the Bathroom
An Introvert's Roadmap to Getting Out There
(When You'd Rather Stay Home)
By Morra Aarons-Mele
Dey Street Books September 2017
304 pages
From the library

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I Meant to Read in 2017

There are sadly, only so many hours in the day. Most of us build extensive lists of books we mean to read, but we just don't get to them all. Here are some of the books published in 2017 that I meant to read, but didn't get to...at least not yet! There's always 2018, right?

1. A Word for Love by Emily Robbins is a story of an exchange student who finds herself drawn into the lives of her host family instead of focusing on the ancient text she came to study.

2. Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology by Adam Alter is nonfiction about our addiction to our phones and computers (and maybe our video games, but don't tell my 10-year-old).

3.  The Hearts of Men by Nickolas Butler -- Butler succeeded in making me care for a musician, a farmer, a rich boy, and an injured football player in Shotgun Lovesongs. Can he make me interested in Boy Scouts in this book?

4. Hallelujah Anyway by Anne Lamott -- It's a new book by Anne Lamott. Need we say more?

5. When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon was one of the hottest books of 2017. I need to get to this book about two Indian teens who meet at a computer camp and discover their parents intend for them to get married.

                 A Word for Love     Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy

6. The Confusion of Languages by Siobhan Fallon is a novel about two women who are married to soldiers and live in Jordan. The description promises beautiful writing and plenty of secrets!

7. Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust is apparently a re-imagining of Snow White and I think this just might fill the hole in my literary heart for fairy tales retellings.

8. Every Word Is A Bird We Teach To Sing by Daniel Tammet is a collection of essays about language; clearly it's meant for me.

9. That Inevitable Victorian Thing by EK Johnston -- I loved Johnston's book about Ahsoka and her Thousand Nights books. I'm excited to read this one about an alternative future version of the British empire and its heir to the throne.

10. The Dark Dark by Samantha Hunt -- Hunt's Mr. Splitfoot was one of my favorite books of 2016, so I need to read her new collection of short stories as soon as possible.

             Every Word Is a Bird We Teach to Sing: Encounters with the Mysteries and Meanings of Language     That Inevitable Victorian Thing


Which books from your 2017 list are still waiting patiently to be read?