Books read in 2020
My goal for this year is 40 books.
6. Uncommon Type: Some Stories by Tom Hanks. Review coming soon.
5. Crazy Brave by Joy Harjo. Review here.
4. Even If I Fall by Abigail Johnson. Brooke’s family was devastated when Brooke’s brother, Jason, did the unthinkable. Jason confessed and got a thirty-year sentence. Brooke can’t believe her brother could have done anything so horrible.
A year after the trial, Brooke sees Heath, who was also a victim of Jason’s crime. Heath can barely stand to look at her, since she’s a living reminder of Jason and what he did. But, slowly, Brooke and Heath become friends, because they are the only people who understand the pain each other is going through.
Brooke has put aside her dream of becoming a professional figure skater because of Jason. Her family needs her. She must stay home to support them. But she misses the ice, so she works at the local rink for the perk of free ice time, even though her jerk of a boss is trying to come up with an excuse to fire her. She’s bad for business. Customers are uncomfortable around her. Everyone knows what her brother did.
Everyone except the new girl in town, Maggie. Maggie has noticed how everyone treats Brooke like a pariah, but Brooke made up an excuse about a bad break-up and mean people who side with her ex. She needed a friend who didn’t know what Jason did, who wouldn’t judge her by what Jason did. But it’s just a matter of time until Maggie finds out the truth.
Meanwhile, no one can know that Brooke and Heath are seeing each other. Brooke’s parents have already forbidden her from having any contact with Heath’s family. But they need each other.
Abigail Johnson does a masterful job of making the reader experience Brooke’s emotions. We feel the visceral sensations of her tension and her anguish. As Brooke delves into what happened that fateful night, Johnson gives us one clue at a time. Although I had my suspicions about what must have happened, I was a little bit off, and the revelation was even more heart-wrenching than I expected.
Even If I Fall takes a difficult subject and explores it in a compassionate way. Even though it is written for Young Adults, it can be appreciated by older audiences as well.
3. Every Other Weekend by Abigail Johnson. Adam’s world is falling apart. It started two years ago when his brother Greg died, and it got even worse when his dad moved out. Now he and his brother Jeremy are required to spend every other weekend at his dad’s apartment. How could Dad leave when they all need him so much?
Jolene, whose dad owns the apartment next door, is in a similar situation, but she spends every other weekend with her absent father’s girlfriend. When Adam arrives on the scene, her weekends become much less bleak.
Adam and Jolene’s friendship grows out of their common misery, and they depend on each other. Then the girl of Adam’s dreams at school shows interest in him, and they become a couple, which makes things awkward with Jolene on visitation weekends.
Over time, things improve in Adam’s family, and it looks like his dad will move back home. Jolene protects her heart by becoming distant.
This is a very smart book, with smart characters. They care deeply about one another. The book is incredibly well-written, and I would have been happy for my kids to read it when they were teens.
Jolene is eventually taken advantage of by an older man. Johnson wrote the sequence with great sensitivity; though intense, it is not graphic or titillating. And when Adam and Jeremy beat the man up, I was a satisfied reader.
In the scenes leading up to the rape, Jolene is conscious that the man is untrustworthy, but she rationalizes away her uneasiness because she is so starved for affection. Of course, the fact that she is a neglected daughter is exactly why the man targets her. The book does young women a service by subtly encouraging them to trust their own intuitions.
2. Reading Romans Backwards: A Gospel in Search of Peace in the Midst of the Empire by Scot McKnight. I’ve studied the letter of St. Paul to the Romans several times before, but this Bible study increased my understanding greatly. The author says:
To read Romans well, all of Romans must be read in light of the context in Romans 14—15. . .we read it as pastoral, ecclesial theology for a specific church in a specific time. To be sure, Romans fares well in other contexts, but, until we profile those contexts and the message of Romans for those contexts, we don’t know what to make of it for other contexts.
The last time I studied Romans, it was with a bunch of Calvinists, and it was a very different experience. I am grateful for the insights I have gained from reading Reading Romans Backwards, and I recommend it to anyone who is serious about digging deep into this epistle.
- The Man Who Played with Fire: Stieg Larsson’s Lost Files and the Hunt for an Assassin by Jan Stocklassa. I’ve always felt sad that Stieg Larsson, the Swedish author of the Millenium series (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and others) died before they were published and never knew of their international success and the movies they spawned. I didn’t know that before he became a fiction author, he was an artist who created news infographics, and an unofficial investigative reporter. For most of his life, he devoted himself to fighting right-wing extremist movements, and he mapped out organizations and the individuals who were their members.In 1986, the prime minister of Sweden, Olof Palme, was gunned down on a Stockholm street. As of this writing, his killer has never been brought to justice. It was a puzzle that consumed Larsson, who believed that the apartheid South African government was involved.Jan Stocklassa, the author of The Man Who Played with Fire, was also interested in Palme’s assassination, and began researching it in 2008. In 2013, Stocklassa was offered access to a storage facility where vast numbers of documents and Larsson’s meticulous notes on his investigation were kept. One of the documents was a CIA handbook that detailed the procedure for an assassination. One step of the procedure was recruiting a patsy who would pull the trigger and who would have no connection with the people who were actually orchestrating the murder. This patsy could be a fanatic and/or a person with mental or emotional issues. And this sort of procedure is followed internationally in covert operations.Although Larsson had given copies of his documents and memoranda to the police, they neglected to follow up on his leads.Stocklassa, however, was intrigued with Larsson’s theories and decided to investigate them further. He interviewed most of the persons of interest who were still living. He suspected the murderer was a man he called Jakob, who refused to meet with him.He located a fearless Czech woman who went by the name of Lida and who was a Facebook friend of Jakob’s. He met her in person in Prague and persuaded her to find out what Jakob knew about the Palme assassination.Lida renewed her correspondence with Jakob through private messages on Facebook. She warmed him up with questions about his family and flirtatious suggestions that she might come to Sweden to visit him. He was Jewish, and she told him she was interested in Judaism and wanted to convert. Over time, she began asking questions about Olof Palme. What was Jakob’s opinion of him? Was he a hero? She asked Jakob about other people who were suspected of being involved in the assassination. Jakob knew them and was able to confirm connections between them. Lida asked questions, and Jakob answered, sometimes with details unknown to the investigation. She asked how an assassination operation might be carried out, and he gave a very thorough but confusing answer. It was as though he knew much, but also had been fed false information.Jakob confided to Lida that when he was 13, he planned to shoot Palme, and he wished he had done it then. When Lida asked if he killed Palme, he denied it. Lida said she didn’t believe him, didn’t trust him, and though she liked him, would not be visiting him in Sweden, and cut off communications for a time.Lida also managed to get hold of emails between Jakob and Bertil Wedin, another suspect in the assassination conspiracy. Wedin advised Jakob on avoiding surveillance and other issues that might be of value to a spy. They also discussed news coverage about the murder investigation.
I have told you only a little bit of Stocklassa’s investigation, because I don’t want to spoil anything for you. When the book was published in Sweden in 2018, Stocklassa provided the evidence he uncovered to the police to aid in their investigation.
Stocklassa also shares much personal information about Larsson, about growing up with his grandfather and grandmother, and about his relationship with Eva, his long-term girlfriend.
Much of this creative nonfiction book reads like a thriller. However, Stocklassa also notates all the extremist groups and who among them is suspected of having been involved in Palme’s death. Those sections are complex, and since I didn’t want to take notes, I didn’t grasp the distinctions between the groups or remember who is who. There are charts in the book that might be helpful, but I read the Kindle version, and on my screen the charts were too small to be legible.
I had never heard anything about Olof Palme’s assassination, nor did I even know who he was. I read this book solely because of the connection to Steig Larsson. I enjoyed the book immensely and recommend it, with the caveat that the exhaustive details make it a little boring in places.
Books read in 2019
38. Dream Work by Mary Oliver. Review here.
37. Anne of the Island by Lucy Maud Montgomery. This is Book 3 of the Anne of Green Gables series. Review coming soon.
36. Israel Experience: Walk the Story by Crystal Hubley. You’re probably not going to be able to read this book. Crystal is a friend of mine from the quilting ministry at my former church. In June, 2017, she went on a tour of the Holy Land. Not wanting to forget the significance of what she saw and learned there, she took copious notes and lots of photographs, then put everything together and self-published a short run, just for her family and friends. I am so blessed that I am one of the friends she chose to share it with. I had been planning to take a trip to Israel with my daughter this summer, until my husband and I developed some health issues that made leaving the country inadvisable for me. But I’m glad I was able to experience the Holy Land secondhand through Crystal’s words. It was as though I were walking beside her and hearing all her comments, very much in her own voice.
35. Farewell My Life by Cynthia Sally Haggard. If you like happy endings, this is not the book for you; it is an utter tragedy.
I confess I bought the book for its cover, dark with a lovely young woman playing violin.
The novel is set between the world wars, in the United States, Germany, and Italy. Teenager Grace is remarkably talented, focused on her musical career. When Nicholas (Nico) Russell, a man her widowed mother (Angelina) is interested in, meets Grace, he immediately falls in love with her. An accomplished pianist, he offers to accompany her, and his playing compliments and enhances hers. She is interested only in making beautiful music with him, at first. I was hoping for a love story between two wonderful musicians, but that’s not what I got.
It turns out that Mr. Russell is not who he pretends to be. He’s actually Angelina’s half-brother, and soon he SPOILER ALERT! murders Angelina, but a lengthy police investigation never proves the death was anything beyond a medical drug overdose.
Soon, Grace has three suitors, and the naïve girl has inadvertently promised herself to all three. Her friend Mabel’s brother Charles is perhaps the best suited for her, but Grace’s Great-Aunt Paulina prefers Count Carl von Lietzow. Paulina dismisses Charles and Nico.
The Count decorates his new mansion to please Grace and sets aside a room to be her practice room. She spends more and more time at his villa, and less time practicing violin. The Count introduces her to sex, and to the seedier side of Berlin night life.
On the eve of Grace’s wedding to the Count, Nico has an altercation with him and kidnaps Grace. He tells her if she will not marry him, he will kill himself. She feels obligated to prevent his suicide, and they marry. She is already carrying the Count’s child.
Nico is working as a diplomat, and they travel around the world from post to post. Grace’s musical career evaporates as she tends to their children. Nico’s career takes precedence, and he’s drawn into espionage. I’m not going to tell you how the story ends. Let’s just say it’s not pretty.
The book is 1½ inches thick, about 550 pages. I was afraid it would take forever to read, but it was well-written enough that I finished it fairly quickly. Nevertheless, I feel more could have been done with the spy sub-plot. As it was, it felt tacked on to the end.
Farewell My Life is not my cup of tea. Although many very talented young musicians never go on to have a successful career, I was disappointed that Grace did not persevere to live up to her promise. I also felt she was unbelievably naïve. And the night club scene in the middle of the book was disturbingly explicit. Despite these objections, there were many interesting twists in the story that held my attention.
34. Twisted Twenty-Six by Janet Evanovich. I love the Stephanie Plum series. I have all the numbered books. They are not fine literature, but they do make me laugh out loud.
Book 25 ended with Grandma Mazur eloping with her boyfriend.
Book 26 starts with the aftermath of her forty-five minute marriage. (The groom, Jimmy Rissoli, had a heart attack while playing the slot machines after the wedding.) And now his family (mind you, this is an Italian family from Trenton, NJ—cue the theme to Godfather) wants “the keys.”
Grandma has no idea what or where the keys are. Stephanie, a fugitive apprehension agent (aka bounty hunter) tries desperately to find out, in between hunting down her FTAs (translation: failed-to-appear, as in didn’t show up to their court appearances). Every day the keys remain missing, the stakes are higher, as attacks are made against Grandma, Stephanie, and Stephanie’s parents.
I said Twisted Twenty-Six isn’t fine literature, but there was one scene between Stephanie and her grandmother that particularly touched me. Stephanie updated her look by getting metallic blue hair extensions. Grandma said to her:
“You know what was the best part of the funeral and the wake? Your hair. It has sparkly blue streaks, and it’s filled with life . . . You’re like the sky at midnight, when the moon is shining and the wind is blowing.”
[Stephanie’s reaction:] I got totally choked up. It was such a beautiful thing for Grandma to say. And I wanted to be the moon and the wind, but I couldn’t see it. At this point in time I felt more like a cloudy day with the promise of rain.
How do I tell you what happens without giving away the ending? SPOILER ALERT!
Let’s just say that as of page 304, no one has found the keys yet.
The next book in the series, Fortune and Glory, is due out in Fall, 2020. Hmmm. No number in the title. That makes me nervous.
33. Breathe by Sara Fujimura. Review coming soon.
32. Alien Contact for an Enhanced Nutcracker by Edward Hoornaert. Review coming soon.
31. The Guardians by John Grisham. Review coming soon.
30. Gather Together in My Name by Maya Angelou. Review coming soon.
29. Grace for the Moment by Max Lucado. Years ago my husband gave me this daily devotional book, bound in leatherette with pages edged in gold, my name engraved in the cover. It sat on a bookshelf for almost two decades, because whenever January rolled around, I forgot I had it. A daily devotional must be started on January 1, or soon thereafter, if you are as obsessively compulsive as I. This year, I meant to read another devotional my husband had given me years ago, but this one found its way into my hand. It looks ancient because the leatherette spine has rotted. Not so deluxe after all.
Max Lucado is the beloved author of over a hundred Christian books for adults and for children. But I was disappointed in this one. Maybe because I read My Utmost for His Highest last year. Compared to that book, which Oswald Chambers’ wife put together from his talks and sermons after his death, Lucado’s Grace for the Moment (the original one; he’s written other volumes by that name since) seems rather lightweight.
Each of the 365 devotionals begin with a scripture verse, followed by an excerpt from one of fifteen of Lucado’s other books. My problem with it is that sometimes I can’t see a connection between the verse and the excerpt. It’s almost as if it putting it together was an assignment given to an unpaid intern. I don’t know if that’s true; it’s just my impression.
People who love Max Lucado are going to buy Grace for the Moment. But if you have a lot of his books, you probably have all of this material anyway—in context. There are lots of great devotional books out there, and Grace for the Moment isn’t one of them. If you want a challenging one, I’ll recommend My Utmost for His Highest by Oswald Chambers. (See my review below, #1 for this year.)
28. Quantum by Patricia Cornwell. I own and have read all of Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta books, and I have loved most of them. I knew from her tweets that she was planning something new. When this book came up as a First Reads selection from Amazon Prime, I grabbed it.
Quantum is the first book in the Captain Chase series.
There is an experimental animation feature on the Kindle edition. On my iPad, each chapter starts with a photo that moves for a few seconds, providing a dark mood. I see a countdown mechanism every few pages set at 00:00:00:00:0, but it didn’t work on my ancient Kindle, or on the Kindle app on my ancient iPad.
Quantum has a very short time span, maybe 18 hours in 340 pages.
There are flashbacks to an event three years earlier, when the antagonist, Calli Chase, made a mistake which has caused her to cut her finger. For some reason, there’s a lot of blood, and she’s in a panic. She needs General Dick Melville, a family friend and former astronaut (who in the present is the new commander of Space Force), to rescue her. Why is this cut such a big deal, why does she think it’s going to cost her her future? I’m not totally sure what the significance of the event really is.
Calli, a special agent at NASA and Langley, and Fran, her partner, are investigating a motion-sensor-activated alert in a tunnel under buildings 1110 and 1111 at NASA. A top secret quantum key distribution network is stored in those buildings. Calli is training Fran to take over her job, because she expects a different assignment any day now.
Someone stole an identification badge the day before, one that provides access to top-secret areas of the base. And unless Congress agrees on something before midnight, the government will be shut down. And a winter storm is coming.
All this at a time when the possibility of a cyberattack on the installation is high. In 10 hours, during an Extravehicular Activity (spacewalk), two astronauts will install a top secret quantum machine masquerading as a science experiment on the outside of the International Space Station. Also, a supply rocket is launching at the same time.
When she reaches the Fiber-Optic Distribution Box, she notices what looks like blood splatter. No one was supposed to have been here. She swabs the blood and leaves.
Next she drives to Protective Services HQ and she’s followed by two black SUVs which she thinks are Secret Service. When she arrives, the parking lot is empty, unusual even with the impending storm and possible government shutdown. When she enters the building, she discovers it is unlocked, and the TV in the lobby is set to the International Space Station closed circuit network.
Calli learns via phone from Fran that an outside contractor committed suicide, the same one whose ID badge had been reported stolen the day before.
General Dick Melville calls Calli and asks to see her. He also deliberately says something contrary to something he’d mentioned earlier that day, as if to test if she’ll correct him. He then asks how her twin sister Carme, a fighter-pilot, is, and Calli admits she doesn’t know—they’ve been out of touch for weeks. Melville hints that Carme is a person of interest in a murder, or maybe two.
Quantum is told in first person from Calli’s point of view. We are treated to Calli’s stream of consciousness, but each detail we’re given only raises more questions. Cornwell feeds us details one at a time, and never enough to give us the whole picture.
There is rising tension and a climax at the end, but no resolution. We’re not sure exactly what Carme has done (actually, maybe we are—a lot of technical jargon is used that I don’t really understand), or why. Calli can’t find her, but apparently others have seen Carme and mistaken her for Calli.
I’m not sure I’m going to like this series. The first book was interesting, but very technical, and I would prefer a neat tie-up at the end.
27.The Crafty Poet: A Portable Workshop by Diane Lockward. Review here.
26. Writing the Heart of Your Story by C. S. Lakin. This is a reread for me. I’ve been having a hard time with a rewrite of my WIP, and I thought rereading this book, one of my favorite writing books, would help. It did.
For a more complete review of this book, click here.
25. Anne of Avonlea by L.M. Montgomery. The second book of the Anne of Green Gables series starts when Anne is sixteen, looking forward to taking over teaching duties at the local elementary school, and two years later as she looks forward to attending college.
Many characters from the first book appear in Anne of Avonlea. Anne is still best friends with Diana. She is also friends with Gilbert Blythe, whom she hated when she first met him at age ten, since he had the audacity to call her hair red.
The story is more a string of incidents than a progressive arc.
Mr. Harrison, a new neighbor, is angry that Anne’s cow has been stomping through his oat field. The next day, Anne sees a cow in his field again and retrieves it, selling it to a passing neighbor who had offered to buy it before. When she gets home, she discovers her cow in the milking pen. She’s sold Mr. Harrison’s cow by accident.
Marilla acquires 6-year-old twins when their mother, her third cousin’s widow, passes away. Anne vows to help her care for them. Dora is sweet; Davy is a handful.
Anne’s most intriguing pupil is new to Avonlea, an American boy named Paul Irving, whose mother has passed away and has come to live with his grandmother. Anne considers him a “kindred spirit,” because he is a serious child with a vivid imagination.
The use of language in this book is gorgeous and old-fashioned. Here is the opening of Chapter VI:
A September day on Prince Edward Island hills; a crisp wind blowing up over the sand dunes from the sea; a long red road, winding through fields and woods, now looping itself about a corner of thick set spruces, now threading a plantation of young maples with great feathery sheets of ferns beneath them, now dipping down into a hollow where a brook flashed out of the woods and into them again, now basking in open sunshine between ribbons of goldenrod and smoke-blue asters; air athrill with the pipings of myriads of crickets, those glad little pensioners of the summer hills; a plump brown pony ambling along the road; two girls behind him, full to the lips with the simple, priceless joy of youth and life.
Run-on notwithstanding, it vividly sets the scene, doesn’t it? Yet I doubt it would be permitted by any editor today, except maybe in a historical novel. Certainly not in YA.
Anne starts the Avonlea Village Improvement Society with the goal of making their town more attractive. Their first project, to be funded by donations, would be to re-shingle and paint the public hall. The AVIS picked a lovely shade of green to be the new color. Unfortunately, due to a miscommunication with the painter, he painted it a rather brilliant blue, much to Anne’s embarrassment.
Davy locks his sister in the neighbor’s tool shed and tells everyone he has no idea where she is. The town searches for her, and Anne finally finds her. Davy seems to think he’s done nothing wrong, just engineered an interesting occurrence. He is unaware it’s wrong to tell a whopper (his word for a lie). And though Anne makes a point of stressing to Davy how important honesty is, she confesses to Marilla that she loves the little boy dearly despite his naughtiness.
One day Anne goes to work at the school with a toothache. The pain shortens her temper and clouds her judgment. A boy passes a wrapped package to another, and Anne mistakes it for a piece of cake, which she makes the recipient place in the fire in the pot belly stove, over his objections. Unfortunately it’s a bundle of fireworks, which, of course, go off in her classroom. Then her most troublesome student puts a mouse in her desk, which prompts her to beat him with her pointer; she, who had told all her friends from teacher training that she would never ever use corporal punishment on a child, even though it was permitted. It turns out the student becomes much more cooperative after her outburst, even though Anne is ashamed of herself.
That summer, Anne’s friend Priscilla’s aunt, a famous author, comes to visit her. Priscilla promises to bring her over so Anne can meet her. Anne invites guests and plans a wonderful dinner for her and make the house sparkle and decorates it with fresh flowers, but Priscilla and her aunt fail to show up. To make matters worse, Davy breaks a platter Anne had borrowed for the occasion.
Toward the end of her second year of teaching, Marilla makes it possible for Anne to go to college at Redmond. Gilbert is also going to Redmond. Anne’s friend Diana asks Anne if she cares for Gilbert, and Anne says only as a friend.
I’ve left out much of what happens in the book. It really feels more like a transitional book, just filling in time between the first and the third. I’m not really spoiling anything by telling you that two engagements and a wedding happen.
I like the book, though it’s not great literature. I am a person who is drawn into series books when I fall in love with characters, and there is much to love in Anne of Avonlea.
24. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou. My goodness, what a childhood Maya Angelou had.
This memoir starts with Marguerite (Maya) and Bailey, ages three and four, traveling mostly alone from California to their grandmother’s house in Stamps, Arkansas after the divorce of their parents. The porter who was responsible for them debarked in Arizona. Somehow, the tags on their wrists got them to the right place.
Momma (their grandmother) ran a general store across the street from the cotton fields. The cotton pickers were her customers. Momma also raised chickens and hogs. As Maya grew, she helped out in the store and helped care for the animals. As a student, she and her brother memorized their times tables and poetry.
Momma raised Maya and Bailey to be smart, well-behaved, and devout. In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou vividly describes services at the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, and also a tent revival.
One Christmas their parents sent presents, after not being in any contact with them for three years. Maya and Bailey had both thought their parents must be dead. Surely, they couldn’t have been happily living their own lives without their children. What had Maya and Bailey done so wrong to be abandoned by their parents?
A year later, their father showed up in Stamps to take them, they thought, back with him to California. But once they were underway, he revealed he was taking them to their mother in St. Louis. Maya would rather have stayed in Stamps with her grandmother. But when she met her mother, she was overwhelmed by her beauty.
But Maya and Bailey were shocked at the low achievement level of their new classmates. They were raised to the next grade level because they were so much better at arithmetic and reading.
They stayed in St. Louis for one year. Then their mother’s boyfriend raped Maya. He was arrested, and there was a trial, and Maya had to testify, which was an ordeal because Mr. Freeman had promised to kill Bailey if she told.
Mr. Freeman was sentenced to a year and a day, but somehow his lawyer got him released. Before the day was over, Mr. Freeman was found dead. It seemed he had been kicked to death.
Maya was so distraught over her circumstances that she was mute. Her mother’s family punished her for not speaking, and finally sent her and Bailey back to Stamps.
After a year back home in Stamps, a refined Black lady named Mrs. Flowers took an interest in Marguerite. She gave her an assignment which included reading out loud and memorizing and reciting poems. She gave Maya back her voice.
Maya’s graduation from eighth grade started out as the happiest day of her life, but turned into a horrible disappointment through the patronizing words of a white official, who then left the ceremony because he had someplace else to be. Then the 12-year-old valedictorian rose to give his speech, which he executed to perfection, as though he hadn’t even heard the words of the previous speaker. But he had, and he spontaneously led the graduates in song, “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” sort of a Negro national anthem. It saved the day.
Soon after, Momma decided to send Maya and Bailey to live with their mother in in her boarding house in San Francisco. There Maya attended a white high school. Used to being the best in her class, she was merely bright there. She had a brilliant civics and current events teacher who taught them from the local newspapers and national magazines, which the students were expected to read on a daily basis.
During a summer spent with her father in southern California, he took Maya to Mexico and disappeared from a bar. When he reappeared, he was so wasted that Maya had to drive them home. Maya had never driven before, and when they arrived at a guard station 50 miles down the road, collided with another car. Her father recovered sufficiently to charm his way out of the situation.
A fight with her father’s girlfriend resulted in Maya suffering a stab wound. Her father left her in the care of friends. Maya was uncomfortable staying with people she didn’t know and fled, living with a bunch of other homeless kids in a junkyard. After a month, during which her self-sufficiency raised her self-confidence, she simply called her mother and asked her to pay for a plane ticket so she could come home.
At age 15, Maya had her heart set on getting a job as a conductorette on the street car, infatuated with the uniform and the money changer on the belt. Except that they didn’t hire Negros. Undaunted, she went to the street car office every day for three weeks until they finally allowed her to apply. She claimed on the application that she was 19 and answered the questions with half-truths and fiction, but somehow landed the job.
The volume ends with the birth of her son, the result of one encounter with a boy, one which she had sought.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is the first of several autobiographical books Angelou wrote. I hope to read the others as well.
23. 100 Bible Verses Everyone Should Know by Heart by Robert J. Morgan. My friend Linda worked her way through this book a few years ago and recommended it highly. When it came up on a BookBub promotion, I remembered, and ordered it.
The first few chapters of 100 Bible Verses Everyone Should Know By Heart are about why memorizing Scripture is a worthwhile endeavor and a good discipline, and how people have been blessed by internalizing passages of the Bible.
I made myself index cards of the verses. The first few verses were some that I already knew, so I started by reviewing the first six, and then added one or two verses each day or so. When I had over 26 cards, I found it time-consuming to run through them all everyday (each one I missed, I repeated five times to help me remember), so I limited myself to reviewing 20 a day and learning one more. The ones I got right I moved to the bottom of the stack; the ones I missed I laid on top so I would review them again the next day. Most days I was able to move eleven or twelve to the bottom of the stack.
The book is published by B & H Publishing Group which owns the Holman Christian Standard Bible translation, so that is the translation used for the verses. Unfortunately, I had already memorized some of the verses in other translations, such as the NIV and the old King James Version, and trying to relearn them in the HCSB felt cumbersome. They just didn’t roll off my tongue. I kept messing up, and I finally just rewrote the cards in the more familiar translation.
I think it took me a full year to work through the whole book, because there were times when I couldn’t remember anything, and I just worked on my 20 cards and didn’t add any new ones. That’s okay—it’s not a race.
The end of the book includes a summary of How to Memorize by William Evans, published in 1909 and long out of print. I wish I had read this appendix first. It was extremely helpful, and it included one suggestion I would have appreciated before I began, because I did not think of it myself: writing the reference on one side of the card, and the verse on the other side. It’s such an obvious idea, but I wrote both on the same side. As I flipped through my cards, I covered the verse portion with a blank card and didn’t reveal it to myself until I’d said the verse to the best of my ability. One of the advantages of having the reference on the reverse side is that you can practice the verses in two ways: looking at the reference and reciting the verse, and looking at the verse and reciting the reference. You’d think if you could recite the verse from the reference, you could remember the reference from the verse, but not everyone’s brain works that way. (Mine sure doesn’t.) I am in the process of recopying all my cards.
And I intend to continue to study my cards, and gradually add to them.
It is possible to find lists of the verses online, but I heartily recommend you buy the book, because the content Morgan includes helps you remember the context of the verse, and also provides motivation for learning it. I asked my friend Linda to type me a list of the verses way back when she was learning them, and then I didn’t study it. Sincerely, if you want to memorize scripture, buy 100 Bible Verses Everyone Should Know By Heart. And since you’ve read about my experience, you won’t make the same mistakes I did.
22. Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery. I’ve heard so many women say that the Anne of Green Gables books were their favorites growing up, but I’d never read them. When the series came through on BookBub, I grabbed it.
My first impression of Anne of Green Gables was that the writing is very old-fashioned. (It reminded me of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books.) First published in 1908, it seems quaint compared to contemporary middle grades and young adult stories.
Set on Prince Edward Island, Canada, it centers around a gawky orphan who is adopted by Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert, a middle-aged brother and sister who need a youngster to help them on their farm, Green Gables. They’d requested a boy, but their desire was miscommunicated, and a girl was sent instead. At first, Marilla intends to send Anne back; but Matthew lobbies to keep her, as he is captivated by her imaginative ramblings.
To Anne, Green Gables seems like a paradise. She loves all the trees and flowers and ponds she passes in the countryside, and the garden at her new home. But she immediately gets herself in trouble when she throws a tantrum in response to a rude comment made by the Cuthbert’s neighbor, Mrs. Lynde.
Marilla is determined that if Anne stays with them, she must be properly brought up. Marilla’s nature is practical; she teaches Anne household skills and discourages her flights of fancy.
Anne meets another girl in the neighborhood, Diana, and they immediately become best friends. And though Anne hasn’t had regular schooling, she becomes an excellent and enthusiastic student, despite the ineptitude of Mr. Phillips, the teacher. She is well-liked by all the other girls, but Gilbert, the most popular boy in the school, makes a crack about her red hair, winning Anne’s ardent contempt and rivalry.
Anne has one misadventure after another, such as accidentally getting Diana drunk, and incurring the wrath of Diana’s Great-Aunt Josephine by jumping onto the bed where the old woman was sleeping unbeknownst, and serving the new pastor and his wife a cake that had a wrong ingredient in it, and almost drowning in a sinking boat.
A new teacher, Ms. Stacy, comes to take Mr. Phillips’ place, and she offers an after-school class to her advanced students for extra study to prepare them for the entrance exam for teacher training. Anne is invited to participate.
This first book in the series takes Anne through ages 11 to 16. Through all of her hardships, Anne learns how to work hard toward her goals, and shy Matthew and stern Marilla learn to love her.
Anne of Green Gables is a delightful classic, and I look forward to reading the entire series.
21. Echo’s Sister by Paul Mosier. You’re going to need tissues for this one. El’s first day of seventh grade is extra special, because her parents have transferred her to Village Arts Academy, which they themselves attended, and El is excited to be there. The day goes amazingly well, until she leaves the school and finds her Dad waiting for her—not according to plan, since she was supposed to walk home by herself. Even though he takes her out for Indian fast food, she knows he’s just softening the blow of some kind of bad news.
El’s little sister, Echo, suddenly developed front teeth that stuck out. Her parents took her to an orthodontist, who sent them to an oral surgeon, who sent them to an otolaryngologist, who sent them to the emergency room, who admitted her for testing. It turned out Echo has rhabdomysarcoma, a tumor growing in her mouth, which is pushing her teeth forward. Echo is only six. She was supposed to start first grade.
This changes everything. Echo spends lots of time in the hospital. Everyone has to be careful not to spread germs to her, so they need to wash hands frequently and get flu shots. El’s worry about her sister makes her lose her enthusiasm for school. She ignores the texts from her best friend Maisy from her old school. She withdraws from potential new friends at her new school. And although Echo’s attitude is upbeat, El fears she won’t recover.
Mosier introduces us to a cast of remarkable characters. Mr. Dewfuss, the English teacher, who prefers to be called Mr. D; Miss Numero Uno, the art teacher with an air of drama; a street musician who plays piano on the subway platform (the book is set in New York City); Octavius, the cute boy in El’s class.
In addition to the hardship of having a child with cancer, her parents suffer other stresses as well. El’s mother, a fashion designer, loses her job because she can’t keep up with her assignments and take care of Echo. Her dad, an artist, has a part-time job as an after-school art instructor while going to grad school. Their insurance company is denying some of the charges for Echo’s care.
Her perceptive parents know that their family unit is suffering because of Echo’s diagnosis, and that they will all have to be vigilant to keep positive. Her father asks El to make a sign to remind them to take care of themselves, such as by eating right, sleeping right, exercising, and laughing. They come up with a family slogan: All for one—all four one.
As Echo goes through chemotherapy and El tries to cope with being the sister of someone with cancer, the family faces many trials, but their community rallies around them, offering support and raising money to help defray medical expenses. El’s mother sees a need and uses her design skills to make pretty dresses that can accommodate chemotherapy ports, and a new business is born that she can run from their home so she can be with Echo.
I am blessed in that I’ve never had to deal with a family member with cancer. This book feels very true to me, and there’s a reason for that. Mosier’s own daughter, Harmony, also had rhabdomysarcoma. Mosier wrote the book as a way to process his older daughter Eleri’s experience. And though the book ends on a hopeful note, with Echo on the road to recovery, the cancer took Harmony’s life.
Echo’s Sister is an excellent book for Middle Grades and older. It’s certainly good for families who are going through or have gone through cancer diagnoses, but it’s also a good tool for teaching empathy. We don’t always know want’s going on in other people’s lives; we need to treat people with kindness.
20. Unforeseen by Nick Piroq. Don’t read this book if you can’t stomach violence and multiple gruesome murders. That warning aside, I really loved this book.
Thomas Prescott is a former homicide detective and an FBI consultant who was part of a team that investigated a series of eight murders the previous year. The team thought the murderer was dead. Until the anniversary of the murders came around and more victims appeared—victims whose lives intersected with Prescott’s.
Piroq has a humorous, engaging style. I laughed out loud frequently, which is a relief when you’re reading about a serial murderer. For example, when Dr. Caitlin Dodds of the Bangor Police Department (and another member of the investigative team) is introduced, she is described thusly (from Prescott’s point of view): “Dr. Dodds unbuttoned her blazer and revealed she’d been concealing three deadly weapons. While all were thirty-eights and all were special, only one was a Smith & Wesson.” Prescott later tells us his sister’s pug, Baxter, was once beaten up by a rabbit. Prescott is trying to read a book about the murders, but in fits of annoyance throws his first copy into the bay and his second into a fire.
Prescott’s sister, Lacy, suffers from multiple sclerosis, and one of its complications, temporary blindness due to inflammation of the optic nerve, which lasts for most of the story, but doesn’t slow her down much, even from painting or treading water in the bay. Caitlin Dodds’ brother, Connor, is Lacy’s boyfriend, and was also part of the team.
There’s a lot of skipping back and forth in time, from the original set of murders to the present set of murders. We’re given the facts little by little. But nothing is as it seemed or seems. Lots of red herrings. I changed my theory several times during the reading, and I was always wrong. I never saw the ending coming. The evil characters are really evil, and the good guys are so charming, you’ll wish they were your friends—until you don’t.
Piroq wrote this book when he was 22. I will definitely read more of his work.
19. Library of Souls by Ransom Riggs. This is the third book in the Peculiar Children series, and the easiest so far for me to follow. I don’t know if Riggs’ writing has gotten that much better (not that the first two books aren’t wonderful), or if I’m just more accustomed to his world now. I can actually visualize the hollowgasts, with their multiple agile tongues.
Unfortunately, I purchased this book in the Kindle version, and the vintage photographs that illustrate the book (and inspired the plot) show up so small that I really can’t see all the detail in them as I could in the hardcover editions of the previous two books.
Even though I’m more comfortable in the series than I was, it’s hard to explain the dynamics of the story in a short review, so I’ll just give you a brief overview: Jacob Portman has discovered that he has the power to control the hollowgasts, invisible monsters who like to consume people. That has made him the de facto leader of the children who are trying to rescue their teacher and her ymbryne colleagues. His affection for Emma grows to the degree that he’s torn over returning to his “real” world when their quest is over, or remaining in the peculiar world.
You definitely need to read the books of this series in order, because they build on each other. There is also a fourth book, which I am planning to read eventually as well.
18. Written by Hand: Techniques & Tips to Make Your Everyday Handwriting More Beautiful by Erica Tighe. Review here.
17. Romeo’s Rules by James Scott Bell. I had previously read Bell’s book Write Your Novel From the Middle, but I’d never read any of his fiction before.
Mike Romeo is a former cage fighter out for a jog when he hears an explosion and ascertains that its location is a nearby church with a day care center. He runs over to see if he can be of help and finds Natalia, an injured mother who doesn’t know where her two children are. He runs inside the church to look for them, but instead finds the body of an adult male.
When police arrive, Mike will not give them his name. He tells them about the body inside the church and tells them he wasn’t killed by the explosion. He figures out that Natalia is in a custody battle for her kids and theorizes that they were kidnapped. And he commits himself to finding them.
Natalia’s ex-husband, billionaire Mark David Mayne, is powerful and with unlimited resources and used to getting his own way. Mike suspects Mayne is behind the explosion, the murder, and the missing children. He enlists the help of his friend, Ira, a wheelchair-bound rabbi (and former Mossad agent) with whom he is staying temporarily.
Not to give away too much, let’s just say that during the course of his investigation, Mike suffers a great deal of pain. He also gives as good as he gets. If you can’t stomach violence, this is not the story for you, because Mike kills a lot of people, mostly because they were trying to kill him first.
However, there is also much good stuff in this book. For example, while trying to get from Phoenix to Los Angeles, Mike is helped out by a man who drives him part way and then buys him a bus ticket. He tells Mike a great story about a time he was flat broke and luck intervened.
The novel has many twists and turns, and I did not anticipate the ending. Romeo’s Rules is the first of a series, and I am looking forward to reading the next installment.
16. Number the Stars by Lois Lowry. Number the Stars deals with an ugly truth that no child should have to know—but it’s imperative that they all know, and, indeed, never forget.
Lowry’s book is set in Denmark during the time of the Resistance, when ordinary people, at great risk to their own lives, hid Jews from the occupying Nazis and helped them escape to unoccupied Sweden. It reads like a thriller. I was totally caught up in it, even though it’s a Middle Grades book.
Annemarie Johansen’s best friend is Ellen Rosen. Ellen’s family lives in the apartment upstairs from the Johansen’s. German soldiers are stationed seemingly on every corner, harassing the citizens. Then they start closing stores run by Jews. And suddenly Mr. and Mrs. Rosen have to go away and Ellen comes to stay with the Johansens.
In the middle of the night, soldiers pound on the door, demanding to know where the Rosens are, and search the house. Annemarie quickly tears off the star of David that hangs around Ellen’s neck. Ellen identifies herself as Lise Johansen, Annemarie’s sister. After much tension and many questions, the soldiers finally leave.
It is decided that Mrs. Johansen will take the girls to her brother’s house. Papa calls him, and the phone conversation makes no sense at all to Annemarie, until she realizes he’s talking in code.
Mama and the girls travel by train, and of course, along the way, soldiers board and search the train, questioning the passengers about where they’re going and why. Annemarie is afraid her younger sister, Kirsti, will reveal their secret, but she doesn’t.
Annemarie is eager to see her Uncle Henrik, a fisherman. She has no idea that he is using his boat for a secret mission.
Lowry is a master storyteller. Suspense is woven into every page of Number the Stars, but it is never too dark for young readers. The emphasis is on helping. This is a five-star book.
15. Poem in Your Pocket: 200 Poems to Read and Carry compiled by Elaine Bleakney. Review here.
14. Flight by Alyssa Rose Ivy. This is book one of the YA series, The Crescent Chronicles. I got it as a free Kindle book through Book Bub. By the time I started reading it, I’d forgotten what the teaser said about it. (That’s one of the disadvantages of ebooks. You can’t flip them over and read the back cover.)
New York City natives Allie Davis and her best friend Jess are spending the summer after high school graduation in New Orleans, working at Allie’s father’s hotel before starting college. Allie’s just broken up with her boyfriend and is determined to stay unattached. Jess is appreciative of every boy she sees.
When they arrive at the hotel, a young man in the lobby stares at Allie. She ignores him, but she meets him again later that evening, and it is clear Levi wants to get to know her.
A couple of hotel employees suggest that Allie and Jess steer clear of Levi and his friends. “There’s just something off about them.”
Two weeks later Levi and his friend Jared invite Allie and Jess out for an evening of jazz. They stay out really late and decide to spend the night at Levi and Jared’s apartment. Allie slept on the couch, but Jess slept in Jared’s room.
And a few days later, Jess, remorseful for losing her virginity with Jared, decides to return home to New York, leaving Allie to her own devices in New Orleans. (Her dad travels a lot and was hardly ever at the hotel.)
By this time I was thoroughly bored and wondering if it was worth the time to finish the book. And then it got weird.
It turns out Levi and his friends are Pterons, shape shifters with wings. She finds out when, on a date, they go to the roof of a building and fly away, Allie in Levi’s arms.
Apparently, in Levi’s world, vampires and werewolves exist. The Pterons are mostly altruistic. And Levi is their crown prince.
I never saw that plot twist coming, even though there were hints sprinkled throughout the first third of the book.
And that’s all I’m going to say about the plot. No spoilers.
People who love the Twilight movies will probably love this book. (I’m not going to say that people who love the Twilight books would love it; in my opinion, the Stephanie Meyers books are much better written.) The way the characters shifted reminded me of those movies.
I was left with some unresolved questions after finishing the book. Levi and his friends spend a lot of time at the hotel. Most buildings in New Orleans don’t have basements, because the city is below sea level. But the hotel elevator has a basement button. For most people, the button doesn’t work, but when Levi gets in the elevator, it travels to the lower level. Allie notices that there is a spot in the elevator control panel that accommodates a key card, so she asks her father if she can have one to access the basement. He authorizes one for her, and she goes exploring, finding the basement dark, opulent, and containing birds. She also meets the manager of the hotel down there, who admits that she is also a Pteron. She tells Allie the basement is used for “meetings.”
So, how much does Allie’s father know about the Pterons? Is he also a Pteron? And Jess’ extremely adverse reaction to Jared—did she discover that he’s a Pteron? We never find out.
I did have fun reading this book and visiting this world through Allie’s eyes, but I have absolutely no desire to read the other books in the series.
13. In the Unlikely Event by Judy Blume. From December 16, 1951, through February 10, 1952, three planes crashed in Elizabeth, New Jersey, just a few miles from Newark Airport. It deeply impacted the town, who lost citizens both in the planes and on the ground.
At the time, Judy Blume was an eighth grader growing up in Elizabeth. I was born the following November in a New Jersey town about an hour away. That tenuous connection between us persuaded me to borrow this book from the Little Free Library in my neighborhood.
In the Unlikely Event was published in 2015, Blume’s 29th book. Though she’s written books for all ages, she is beloved for her Young Readers, Middle Grades, and Young Adult titles. This book, based on the crashes and how it affected several extended families, is considered an adult novel, but it reads like YA.
The main character, Miri Ammerman, is a fifteen year old girl. During the course of the story, she learns shocking facts about her father, falls in love and loses her first boyfriend, observes the mental illness of her best friend, gains a new family, and moves to Las Vegas. It is a story of trauma, betrayal, and redemption.
Blume’s style feels familiar and comfortingly old-fashioned in some ways, edgy in others. The story is satisfyingly nostalgic and well-told.
12. Almost Everything: Notes on Hope by Anne Lamott. Review here.
11. Days Made of Glass by Laura Drake. I love the articles Drake contributes to Writers in the Storm about the craft of writing, so I knew I wanted to read one of her novels.
Harlie Cooper has taken care of her younger sister, Angel, for as long as she can remember, even before their mother passed away. When their mother’s last boyfriend, Mack, their guardian, dies in a mysterious fire, they run away rather than be placed in separate foster homes.
Harlie tries to keep them sheltered and fed by caring for cattle on a ranch, but it’s a challenge. She’s offered an opportunity to be trained as a bullfighter (no, not the matador kind; what uninitiated people like me might call rodeo clowns, the ones who keep bull riders safe), which would be her dream job, but she declines because it would mean traveling, and she couldn’t do that and be available for her sister.
But after Angel tries to kill herself and is placed in an institution, Harlie reconsiders. Working on the rodeo circuit would pay enough to get Angel the help she so desperately needs.
Drake skillfully shows how Harlie craves the adrenaline rush that her new career provides, and also the physical skill it demands. As a female in a male-dominated profession, she works hard to be accepted by her peers, yet holds back, unwilling to show any vulnerability. Her failure to be forthcoming about her sister’s condition causes her to lose her job.
The story is multi-layered and well-researched. I know nothing about the rodeo scene, but the descriptions in Days Made of Glass feel real to me.
One unanswered question in the story haunts me. The sheriff investigating the fire that claimed Mack’s life comments that no piece of glass in the whole house—mirrors, windows—was intact. The fire is ruled an accident, probably caused by Mack’s cigarette, but was it? Later, when Angel attempts suicide, it’s with a shard of glass after breaking all the windows and mirrors in their apartment. Was Angel responsible for Mack’s death?
As good as the story is, Drake chose to self-publish this book, even though she’s gone the traditional publishing house route with her other books. Days Made of Glass would have benefitted from professional editing and proofreading. There are a few typos in the book, and the indenting is wonky here and there. But worse, the back cover copy has a typo, and one sentence is awkwardly punctuated. If I had picked up this book in a bookstore, I would have put it back down again because of the back cover.
10. Animals I Have Killed by Lauren K Carlson. Review here.
9. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. Starr Carter is a smart 16-year-old Black girl who lives in a ghetto but goes to a prestigious prep school in an upper-class white neighborhood. She behaves differently depending on whom she’s with.
Her father was involved with a gang when he was younger, but managed to extricate himself when he took a rap for the gang leader. He feels a responsibility to the old neighborhood, and so he insists on living there, being of service by running a grocery store and doing what he can to hire local kids and train them to have a successful work ethic. He wants his own children to have a good education, and that’s why he sends them to the prep school.
Starr is in a car driven by her friend Khalil when he’s stopped for having a broken taillight. Starr has been trained how to behave if she’s ever stopped by the police. The rules are: comply with the officer’s directives; keep your hands visible at all times; no sudden movements; speak only when spoken to. Apparently no one has ever taught Khalil the same rules. He’s argumentative, demanding answers. He’s slow to produce his license and registration. He moves suddenly. The policeman shoots him dead, then holds his weapon on Starr until his backup comes.
The ensuing weeks have a nightmare quality about them for Starr. This is the second time one of her friends has been killed while in her company. (The other time was a drive-by shooting.) She doesn’t want anyone to know she’s the witness in the case, because it could be dangerous for her to testify. Her uncle is a police officer, and she has respect for the police, but the cop who shot Khalil is claiming he acted in self-defense, and when no weapon is found in Khalil’s possession or car, he says Khalil was a suspected drug dealer.
I really don’t want to give away what happens in case you haven’t yet read the book. I’ll just tell you that the story is multi-layered, with difficult family issues, and yet you understand that these are people with principles who want to do the right things. Thomas does a great job of weaving a spellbinding plot.
I’m not sure if her aim was to give white people an idea of what it is like to be a Black person in America today, but The Hate U Give has opened my white female senior citizen eyes. When people started saying, “Black lives matter,” white people, me included, said, “All lives matter,” to which Black people replied, “You don’t get it.” Thanks to this brilliantly written book, I am beginning to understand.
8. City of Lies by Victoria Thompson. I met Victoria Thompson when I was a young mother and she was a La Leche League leader. Then she invited me to a Bible study for young mothers that she was leading. She was the first person I ever met that had actually written a book.
Her first 20 published books were historical romances; most had the word “Texas” in the title. I read and enjoyed maybe the first 15, and then I outgrew romances. Then she started writing historical mysteries. Murder on Trinity Place, the 22nd offering in the Gaslight Mysteries series, was released April 30, 2019. She has earned a loyal following.
I confess I haven’t read any of her Gaslight books yet. But a few months ago I happened to see City of Lies on Book Bub and I grabbed it. It is book 1 in her new series, the Counterfeit Lady Novels, which follows the exploits of con woman Elizabeth Miles.
When a scheme that Elizabeth and her brother Jake are trying to pull off turns sour, Elizabeth runs for her life—right into the middle of a group of suffragists on the White House lawn who are about to be arrested. She joins the protest because right now, jail would be the safest place for her.
Though she really doesn’t care whether women get the vote or not, she pretends she’s passionate about the movement, and joins their hunger strike when they are moved to a notorious work camp. Always someone who in any circumstance does what serves herself best, she begins to care about these principled women who risk all to raise the station of women. But she can’t let on who she really is. (She gave the police a false name to throw off the men who are looking for her.)
When they are released from prison, Elizabeth agrees to go home with a frail young woman named Anna, and promptly flirts with Anna’s brother David, and eventually suggests they become engaged to be married, to which he agrees (even though Elizabeth intends to run away to New York long before any wedding). Since it would be inappropriate to live in the same house as her betrothed, she is invited instead to room with Mrs. Bates, another of the protesters.
Mrs. Bates son, Gideon, is a lawyer, and he had helped with the effort to get the women released. Although a friend of David’s, he can’t imagine what Elizabeth sees in him. In fact, if she were free, he might woo her himself. . .
. . . and even though Elizabeth is attracted to Gideon, she knows a con woman like herself has no future with someone as honest as him.
That’s the short story, leaving out many twists and turns and surprises.
The writing is masterful. The characters are compelling. The pages turn themselves. Thompson’s Gaslight books have been nominated for the Edgar and Agatha awards; City of Lies was nominated for the Sue Grafton Memorial Award.
7. One Thousand Gifts Devotional: Reflections on Finding Everyday Grace by Anne Voskamp. A couple years ago, I read Voskamp’s book A Thousand Gifts (see book #32 under 2017), about her journey of gratitude. That book spawned this book of 60 daily devotions.
Voskamp’s writing is again beautiful, as beautiful as the other book and her blog. Each devotion starts with a scripture passage, then tells a story where the punchline is gratitude and how it changes your perspective, and ends with a prayer.
In the 51st devotion, for example, Voskamp tells about a time when she limped around the house doing chores with a badly sprained and swollen ankle, feeling very sorry for herself. Then she read an email request for prayer from a friend, a mother of five young children, who is fighting stage three breast cancer. She asks that God would help her tolerate the chemo that gives her nausea and exhaustion and mouth sores. And she’s thankful that chemo exists and is giving her one more day to parent her kids and care for her house. Immediately Voskamp’s own outlook changes to thankfulness for her own life and her own challenges as she prays for her friend.
At least one devotional recycles a story from the earlier book. (Maybe they all do; I can’t remember; I read a borrowed copy or I’d go check.)
Voskamp goes into enough detail about her gratitude journey than you can benefit from reading the devotional book without reading the other book. I read it while eating my lunch for a few weeks, and it kept me uplifted for the rest of the day.
6. 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing by Gary Provost. Review here.
5. Prairie Moths (Memories of a Farmer’s Daughter) by Judy Dykstra-Brown. I have followed artist, photographer, and writer Dykstra-Brown’s blog for several years. Her poetry is delightful, and I can’t get enough of it. That’s why I bought this book, seven short chapters (or full-length-to-long free verse poems) about growing up in a farm town in South Dakota.
Let me get my disappointments out the way first. The paperback version is 8½ by 11 inches, not the most convenient size. Some of the photographs that illustrate the book (the vintage ones of people) did not reproduce well; they’re blurry and detract from the overall effect of the book. And Prairie Moths is short—only 57 pages.
That said, the writing is brilliant. She mentions the stories that her father and his friends told, about Indians and wolves and bears that no longer lived nearby. And she dreamed dreams. When her father bought some land that included trees and a shack, she lobbied for the structure to be turned into their summer home, which never happened. When the itinerant harvesters came to town every July, all the mothers warned their daughters to stay away from those boys, but the lure of exotic travelers from another state drew the teenagers to a town 40 miles away where they could meet and dance with them. All Dykstra-Brown’s memories come to life in vivid word pictures.
I happen to know from reading her blog that she’s written hundreds of poems. It is my sincere hope that she will gather together a new collection and publish them.
4. Blue Willow by Doris Gates. For as long as ten-year-old Janey Larkin could remember, her family never stayed in one place for very long. Her father had lost his ranch when severe drought caused the land to deteriorate into the Dust Bowl. Now he was a migrant worker, always on the move, looking for work.
The family has one prized possession: a Blue Willow plate, an heirloom that had been passed down from Janey’s great-great-grandmother to Janey’s mother, her Dad’s first wife, who had died when Janey was small.
Janey longed to belong somewhere, and when they moved into a shack across the street from the Romeros’ house, she hoped they’d never have to move again.
The family persevered through various hardships, and through a series of events Dad came to the attention of Mr. Anderson, the owner of most of the land that surrounded them, who offered Dad a permanent position, so the Larkins could eventually move into their dream house.
Blue Willow was a Newberry Honor Book, but in my opinion, the ending is rather contrived: Janey accidentally lets Mr. Anderson know that his overseer had been charging them rent, against his wishes, and pocketing it. Mr. Anderson fires the overseer and hires Dad to replace him.
Many families lost everything and struggled to survive during the Dust Bowl; the ones who recovered probably didn’t have their problems solved because of chance comments made by a child and a nice man who made everything right for them. Still, the story is worthwhile because of its depiction of harsh history and poverty and hard work and how families of diverse backgrounds help each other.
This book is another relic of my children’s childhood; the brittle pages fell out as I turned them.
3. Scene and Structure by Jack Bickham. Review here.
2. The Memory Box by Eva Lesko Natiello. Caroline is a happy wife and mother of two daughters who is writing a book in between driving her girls to all their activities and helping out at school. On a lark, she Googles her maiden name and discovers that the life she’s been living is all a lie.
That life quickly falls apart as she tries to figure out why she didn’t know that her sister JD was dead, or that JD left behind a daughter with a name similar to one of Caroline’s, or that Caroline testified against an unqualified abortionist who botched her procedure and necessitated a hysterectomy.
She searches for things that will validate what she believes, or will reveal the truth. While looking for her daughters’ baby books, she finds a hidden box stuffed with odd things such as obituary notices for other young mothers who had died around the same time as JD who also were survived by two-year-old daughters.
As she frantically seeks answers, she begins forgetting more immediate responsibilities, like picking up her daughters from school and setting up for the fundraiser at church. She worries that she’s having a mental breakdown. Her stress causes extreme fatigue and she can’t wake up to take care of her girls. She discovers she used to see a psychiatrist, and goes to him for help.
Little by little, the doctor helps her remember what happened in her past, and how she created a new life for herself.
But also, we gradually realize that Caroline is a sociopath.
This is one of the most disturbing books I’ve ever read. On the one hand, I grew to hate the protagonist, because she’s so evil. On the other hand, it was excellently written (except maybe one section where Caroline was falling apart that seemed almost slapstick) and I couldn’t stop reading. If you like psychological thrillers and you don’t need a happy ending, then maybe this book is for you.
- My Utmost for His Highest by Oswald Chambers. Oswald Chambers (1874-1917) was a Scottish minister who traveled to England, Ireland, the United States, and Japan to spread the Good News of the Gospel. He also served as principal of the Bible Training College in London, and as a chaplain to British troops in Egypt during World War I. He was the husband of Gertrude (Biddy) Hobbs Chambers, a former court stenographer.
Though he wrote nine books during his lifetime, he didn’t exactly pen My Utmost for His Highest. He knew his Bible so completely that he often gave sermons and lectures off-the-cuff. His wife Biddy would sit in the pews and write down his words in shorthand. Ten years after his death, she published My Utmost for His Highest, a collection of 366 meditations made up of the highlights of the many words she had recorded.
In 1995 Discovery House released an updated edition of the daily devotional, edited by James Reimann. At the same time, a group of contemporary Christian artists recorded an album of new songs inspired by the devotional. I entered a drawing at a local Christian book store for a copy of the book, the CD, and tickets to a live concert featuring the artists on the album, and was amazed when I won! I took my daughter with me to the concert and played the CD over and over again. Those songs are among my all-time favorites. The book I put on my bookshelf until I got around to reading it.
I’m sorry to say it wasn’t until 2018 that I took My Utmost for His Highest down and worked my way through it. This is not a simple book. Chambers was a theological genius, much more spiritually advanced in his 43 years than I in my seniority. I reread many passages in this book, and I do not understand all of it. However, it was well worth my time to read it, and I will reread it again every few years, and hopefully grow in my understanding.
Three of the devotionals touched me profoundly and warranted folding over the corners, the offerings for May 22, October 13, and November 2. If you have a chance, read those, and see if they don’t spur you on to read more.
I’d like to share one passage from each month, sentences I underlined because they were meaningful to me:
- When we are born again, if we are spiritual at all, we have visions of what Jesus wants us to be. It is important that I learn not to be “disobedient to the heavenly vision”—not to doubt that it can be attained (January 24).
- If our devotion is to the cause of humanity, we will be quickly defeated and broken-hearted, since we will often be confronted with a great deal of ingratitude from other people. But if we are motivated by our love of God, no amount of ingratitude will hinder us from serving one another (February 23).
- A person who is a beautiful saint can be a hindrance in leading people to the Lord by presenting only what Christ has done for him, instead of presenting Jesus Christ Himself (March 25).
- . . . once our concentration is on God, all the limits of our life are free and under the control and mastery of God alone. There is no longer any responsibility on you for the work. The only responsibility you have is to stay in living constant touch with God, and to see that you allow nothing to hinder your cooperation with Him (April 23).
- The moment we recognize our complete weakness and our dependence upon Him will be the very moment that the Spirit of God will exhibit His power (May 5).
- If you will give God the right to yourself, He will make a holy experiment out of you—and his experiments always succeed. The one true mark of a saint of God is the inner creativity that flows from being totally surrendered to Jesus Christ. In the life of a saint there is this amazing Well, which is a continual Source of original life. The Spirit of God is a Well of water springing up perpetually fresh. A saint realizes that it is God who engineers his circumstances; consequently there are no complaints, only unrestrained surrender to Jesus (June 13).
- God gives us a vision, and then He takes us down to the valley to batter us into the shape of that vision (July 6).
- As Christians we are not here for our own purpose at all—we are here for the purpose of God, and the two are not the same (August 4).
- Satan does not tempt us just to make us do wrong things—he tempts us to make us lose what God has put into us through regeneration, namely, the possibility of being of value to God. He does not come to us on the premise of tempting us to sin, but on the premise of shifting our point of view, and only the Spirit of God can detect this as a temptation of the devil (September 18).
- We are not made for the mountains, for sunrises, or for the other beautiful attractions in life—those are simply intended to be moments of inspiration. We are made for the valley and the ordinary things of life, and that is where we have to prove our stamina and strength (October 1).
- My personal life may be crowded with small, petty happenings, altogether insignificant. But if I obey Jesus Christ in the seemingly random circumstances of life, they become pinholes through which I see the face of God (November 2).
- As we go forth into the coming year, let it not be in the haste of impetuous, forgetful delight, or with the quickness of impulsive thoughtlessness. But let us go out with the patient power of knowing that the God of Israel will go before us (December 31).
Books read in 2018 (Once again, I’m trying for 48. That’s only four a month. I really should be able to do that.)
37. If I Fix You by Abigail Johnson. Jill is a sixteen-year-old who knows how to fix cars. She can change oil and tires, do a brake job and body work, and she loves resurrecting old classic cars, a passion she shares with her mechanic father.
But when her life collapses, she has no idea how to fix it. She witnesses something that costs her both her mother and Sean, the boy she loves. Her best friend, Claire, tries to smooth things over between them by enlisting them to get up early every morning during summer vacation and run with her. Jill only agrees to support her diabetic friend’s fitness efforts; she can’t even bear to look at Sean.
On hot, lonely summer nights, Jill goes out on her roof to watch the stars. One night she sees a brutal scene happening in the house next door. In an effort to stop it, she tries to throw a can of pop against the house—and instead breaks a window. That’s when she meets Daniel, her new 21-year-old neighbor who has a much worse problem with his mother than Jill has with hers. Daniel is so broken Jill wishes she could fix him, too.
Jill is very inexperienced in dating, yet she has incredible maturity in dealing with Sean and Daniel. She has a strong understanding of what’s right and wrong. Too bad her mother doesn’t have the same ethical standards.
Jill’s mother abandoned the family, and then gets in touch with them again many months later, wanting to take Jill from her father. Then her mother tells her something that must be a lie—but could it be true?
The book takes many twists and turns and things keep getting worse for Jill and for Daniel. Surprisingly, Jill seems to escape major consequences from some of the messes she gets into: backing into Daniel’s mother’s car; indirectly causing a fistfight between Sean and Daniel; ruining the engine of a car she and her dad were fixing up (a present for her); it just seems that she gets off easy without having to deal with insurance companies or giving explanations to her father.
Nevertheless, the writing is well-done; Jill, Sean, Daniel, and Dad are extremely likeable, though they all have serious issues that keep them from being too nice; the two main mothers are decidedly unlikable, though Daniel’s mother has reasons for being the way she is. If I Fix You is definitely worth reading and hard to put down.
36. In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson by Bette Bao Lord. This book, first published in 1984, was an ALA Notable Children’s Book. It’s another relic of my kids’ childhoods that’s brittle and falling apart, but I wanted to read it before I toss it in the recycle bin.
A little girl in China called Bandit (or, more formally, Sixth Cousin) is told that she and her mother will join her father in the United States. He had been traveling there for a year, and made the decision to settle in Brooklyn, New York.
But first things first. Bandit must be given a true name. Her Grandfather asks if she has a preference. She wants an American name, and suggests Uncle Sam, which Grandfather rejects. Her second choice is Shirley Temple. Shirley Temple Wong.
The book follows Shirley and her family through their first year (1947) in the United States, and the very difficult transitions they must make. Shirley is determined to be a real American girl, and tries very hard in school. Sometimes she is ignored, and once she is beaten so badly she comes home with two black eyes. She refuses to tell her parents and the principal who punched her; as a result, the guilty party becomes one of her best friends and most enthusiastic advocate.
Shirley gets caught up in Brooklyn Dodgers fever. Jackie Robinson, who broke the color barrier in baseball, is having an amazing rookie year, and the entire fifth grade is enamored of him.
The author herself was also a young immigrant to the United States, and accurately portrays for young readers the fears and emotions Shirley navigates in her incomprehensible new home, at times poignant and funny.
35. Once We Were Strangers: What Friendship with a Syrian Refugee Taught Me about Loving my Neighbor by Shawn Smucker. I was delighted to win a copy of the audiobook in an online drawing.
However, I am easily distracted. I don’t do so good with audiobooks. I drift off and think my own thoughts and then I realized I’ve missed fifteen minutes of content. If I’m reading a regular book, it’s still open to the page I was on.
Anyhow, I listened to the book in three or four sessions while drawing. I missed some of the book, but I got the gist.
Smucker was introduced to a Syrian refugee family and planned to write a book about their journey. In the process, many of his misconceptions (and mine) were shattered, and he developed a true affection for Mohammad and his family.
The violence the family endured in their own country was terribly devastating. Innocent people murdered, homes bombed and destroyed. Yet Smucker found Mohammad to be a kind and positive individual, tender with his wife and sons, philosophical about the hardships he encountered.
Listening to Smucker’s experiences with the family lessened my own unease about the flood of refugees entering our country. It is right for us to welcome them in and offer them safety. The biggest difference between them and me is that they had the misfortune of living through great danger and loss; other than that, they are more like me than different, despite our differing religious beliefs.
Smucker himself is the reader on the audiobook. Unfortunately, the raspiness of his voice made me wish I could brew him a cup of tea with honey and lemon. . .
34. Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan. My copy of this book is a relic from my children’s childhoods and is falling apart. I couldn’t toss it into the recycling bin without reading it. It won a Newberry Medal, and deserves it.
The book has simple vocabulary and could be read by a bright second grader or an average third grader. However, it is not a lightweight book; it deals with grief and longing and it’s full of emotion.
Anna’s mother died the day after she gave birth to Caleb. Her little brother loves hearing about the mother he never knew, the mother whose last words were “Isn’t he beautiful, Anna?” The mother who sang.
Their papa puts an ad in the newspaper for a wife. Sarah, a woman from Maine, responds. She describes herself as plain and tall. They correspond until Sarah agrees to visit for one month. (I don’t think the book ever says where the family’s home is; it just mentions the prairie. I pictured Minnesota.)
Anna and Caleb immediately fall in love with the kind, practical, helpful Sarah. They want so badly for Sarah to like them, too, and stay. The book ends with the planning of the wedding.
33. Hollow City by Ransom Riggs. This is the second novel in the Peculiar Children series. I read the first book long enough ago that I forgot how it ended. Hollow City opens with Jacob and the peculiar children fleeing for their lives. Miss Peregrine, their headmistress, has lost the ability to change from her bird form back into a human; they must find someone who can cure her or they’ll lose her altogether. But it seems that all the ymbrynes (bird/headmistresses) in the world have been killed or kidnapped; and wights and hollowgasts are determined that all the peculiars will be captured and eliminated. There’s some time travel involved in their adventures, taking them to London during World War II.
Riggs has expanded his collection of creepy vintage photographs, and he weaves his story to be illustrated by them. The subjects of the photos become characters, though some only momentarily; the events pictured are included in the plot; yet none of it feels contrived or forced, though fantastic.
Hollow City is brilliantly creative. It’s a great book for middle grades and young adults (and also oldsters like me), dealing as it does with children who are different and how they are treated by “normals.” Riggs has a strong, compelling voice. There are two more books in the series, and book three is waiting for me on my Kindle.
32. Coraline by Neil Gaiman. This creepy book is a nightmare brought to life. Before giving it to a child, read it to make sure the child can handle it.
In the introduction, Gaiman explains why he wrote this scary story: “I’d wanted to write a story for my daughters that told them something I wished I’d known when I was a boy: that being brave doesn’t mean you aren’t scared. Being brave means you are scared, really scared, badly scared, and you do the right thing anyway.”
Not only does Coraline need to get out of a deadly situation with precious little assistance from grownups, but she has to navigate a world unlike ours, discern evil intentions, locate the souls of the children who came before her, and figure out what has happened to her parents and how to save them, and prevent “the other mother” from ever hurting anyone else.
The edition I bought has creepy illustrations by Chris Riddell, one of my favorite artists.
Coraline is a good book, but I’d refrain from giving it to tender readers.
31. A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 by W. Phillip Keller. This is the best book of Biblical exposition I’ve ever read. Though it was first published in 1970, I first heard about it in the 1990s, bought it a few months ago, and read it now because my Bible study group is studying Psalms. I learned so much about sheep and the art of shepherding. King David spent his youth caring for his father’s flocks, and Keller spent eight years raising sheep. Keller brings to life the images in the Psalm as he draws similarities between people and sheep. Sheep depend on their shepherd; God’s people depend on the Good Shepherd.
I enjoyed this book so much that I’ve ordered three more books by Keller.
30. Poems to Live Your Life By chosen and illustrated by Chris Riddell. When I ordered this book, I thought all the poems were written by Chris Riddell. Oops. I missed the “chosen and illustrated by” notation. Only one of the poems is by Riddell. The others are old friends or new to me, by poets as diverse as Shakespeare, Robert Frost, Leonard Cohen, and Neil Gaiman.
Though published by Macmillan Children’s Books, I wouldn’t buy this book for anyone under seventeen years old. These are not children’s poems. However, they would be well appreciated by any adult. The book is sumptuously illustrated–a beautiful gift book.
29. Art Matters by Neil Gaiman. There are two reasons why you would buy this book: you’re a big Neil Gaiman fan, or you’re a huge Chris Riddell fan (Riddell illustrated the book).
I follow both Gaiman and Riddell on Twitter, Gaiman because he’s an interesting person and says interesting things about writing, and Riddell because he’s such a brilliant artist and sometimes posts videos of his pencil drawing. I got caught up in the release tweets for this book and bought it because I’m passionate about art.
The book is a collection of four essays Gaiman wrote between 2011 and 2015, beautifully illustrated by Riddell. Riddell and Gaiman frequently collaborate; they have a very successful working relationship.
The first three essays were merely okay; they didn’t tell me anything new. I was disappointed and feared that this quick book, readable in one short sitting, was not worth my time.
However, the final essay redeemed the book for me. I won’t reveal everything I liked, because I don’t want to spoil the book for anyone else; but here are three highlights:
- “Something that worked for me was imagining that where I wanted to be. . . was a mountain. A distant mountain. My goal. . . And when I truly was not sure what to do, I could stop, and think about whether it was taking me towards or away from the mountain.”
- “My first book—a piece of journalism I had done for the money, and which had already bought me an electric typewriter from the advance—should have been a best seller. . . I decided that I would do my best in future not to write books just for the money. . . If I did work I was proud of, and I didn’t get the money, at least I’d have the work.”
- “The old rules are crumbling and nobody knows what the new rules are. So make up your own rules.”
Art Matters is worth visiting your local library for.
28. Look Alive Twenty-Five by Janet Evanovich. The Stephanie Plum series is my guilty pleasure. I will always buy the next installment. At least once during each story, I laugh out loud. 25 was no exception (when the TV crew comes to the deli).
This book will not win a Pulitzer, but it’s already on the New York Times best-seller list.
Stephanie is a bond enforcement agent for Vincent Plum Bail Bonds. When Ernie Sitz failed to appear for his trial for racketeering, one of his businesses, Red River Deli, which he used as collateral for his bond, was ultimately awarded to Vinnie’s Bail Bonds. And in addition to her regular duties, Stephanie is now managing the deli.
The main problem with her new assignment is that the deli’s last three managers disappeared under mysterious circumstances, each leaving behind a single shoe.
All the stories have a recurring cast of characters. I was disappointed that this one almost completely left out Stephanie’s parents and Grandma Mazur, though it ends with SPOILER ALERT! Grandma on a plane running off with her new boyfriend. (Oh, yay! Grandma’s gonna figure big in number 26!)
If you read the first 24 books and liked them, yes, you need to read this one, too. If you haven’t read any of the series, I don’t think you would enjoy this book so much. The series has a cumulative relevance.
27. The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis. I read this book because a friend drove half an hour to my house to lend it to me. She categorized it as fantasy, and thought I would love it.
The Great Divorce isn’t really a fantasy; it’s closer to allegory, but that’s not quite right either. It’s an odd book.
A man wanders around a dark and mostly deserted town. The town is in perpetual twilight. After several hours, he notices a group of people at a bus stop and gets in line with them. The bus takes them on a long trip to the top of a cliff and lets them out in a grassy field. Each of the travelers is met by someone who they once knew well. The companions try to persuade the travelers to go deeper into the countryside, to walk to the mountains, but most of the travelers want to head back to the bus.
It turns out the bus had taken them to heaven. The place they were before, the deserted town, was hell, and most of the people said they preferred it there.
All of the travelers were dysfunctional in some way. They had to be the center of attention, or they had to be right, or they had to draw others into a drama. They could not let go of a particular behavior; this prevented them from wanting heaven.
The man mentioned earlier is the narrator of the book. He is still alive; he is an observer.
C.S. Lewis was a brilliant Christian writer. Most people know him as the author of the Chronicles of Narnia. Lewis wrote this book in response to William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.
In my opinion, the book is didactic and slow. God doesn’t allow busloads of people from hell to come to heaven to see if they will like it enough to stay; the premise is silly. I know the point is that we need to love God above all, to be willing to give up those parts of our lives that hinder us from gaining perfect joy and peace; I just think the point could have been made more engagingly.
I don’t fully understand The Great Divorce. I struggled to read it, even though it’s only 125 pages long. Unless you are a die-hard Lewis fan and are compelled to read everything he’s ever written, I don’t know why you would want to read this book.
26. The Reckoning by John Grisham. On page 12, Pete Banning, a war hero, who’d been presumed dead but had come home after being severely tortured and imprisoned for three years, walks into his pastor’s office and shoots him dead. We suspect we know why, but we don’t really learn the truth until page 413 when we’re told about his wife’s lie.
I love John Grisham’s writing and I’ve read all his books except the Theodore Boone series. I did not like his last book (see #26 under 2017—funny they were both the 26th books I read in those years), and I like this book only slightly more. As Grisham tells us Banning’s whole life story, including his horrifying experiences in the Philippines during World War II, we’re troubled that a man with such a high level of integrity could do such a thing. We’re concerned about his wife, who had a breakdown not long after he returned and is committed to an institution. Slogging through four hundred pages without an answer to our nagging questions is decidedly unpleasant.
When I finished the book, I asked myself if Grisham could have told the story differently. I don’t think so.
Nevertheless, it was unsatisfying. I have three stacks of books on the floor of my study that I’ve been dying to read. I wish I’d read them first.
If you like John Grisham’s good books, skip this one. It doesn’t measure up to the others.
25. Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly. Next to The Holy Bible, Hidden Figures is the most important book I’ve ever read.
As a white woman born in the 1950s, who’d lived through the tumultuous 1960s, I thought I knew all about the civil rights movement.
It turns out I knew very little. I thank Margot Lee Shetterly for educating me.
For example, I didn’t know that long before I was born, thousands of African Americans graduated from traditionally Black colleges. They were every bit as highly educated as white college graduates, but had trouble finding employment in their fields. Many entered the teaching profession, working in Black schools, offering hope to the next generation.
Kaz Czarnecki, a supervisor at Langley Research Center, recognized that Mary Jackson, a “computer” with a degree in math and science, had innate abilities in engineering. He recommended she take some core courses which were offered at night school in the local high school—a whites-only school. She had to apply for a special dispensation just to enter the building.
Nothing, however, could have prepared her for the shock that awaited her when she walked through the long-closed door.
Hamilton High School was a dilapidated, musty old building.
A stunned Mary Jackson wondered: was this what she and the rest of the black children in the city had been denied all these years? This rundown, antiquated place? She had just assumed that if whites had worked so hard to deny her admission to the school, it must have been a wonderland. But this? Why not combine the resources to build a beautiful school for both black and white students?
When integrated schools became mandatory, many Southerners resisted feverishly, even saying, “I’d rather my children grow up ignorant than share a classroom with a Negro.” And that’s exactly what happened in places.
In Prince Edward County, [Virginia,] . . . segregationists would not be moved: they defunded the entire county school system . . . rather than integrate . . . Prince Edward’s schools would remain closed from 1959 through 1964, five long and bitter years. Many of the affected children, known as “The Lost Generation,” never made up the missing grades of education. Virginia, a state with one of the highest concentrations of scientific talent in the world, led the nation in denying education to its youth.
In the midst of this era, a large number of Black women labored for the United States government beside the engineers advancing first aeronautical research and then the space program. The computers’ job was to work out the math. They collected data and determined tolerances and trajectories and launch windows. Shetterly acknowledges them for their accuracy, their work ethic, and their enormous contribution to technology.
The book is very well-written. It reads like a novel, though it is history and scrupulously annotated. I am humbled to learn about the Langley Research Center computers, and I believe Hidden Figures should be required reading for everyone in the United States, especially white people like me.
24. Devotions by Mary Oliver. Review here.
23. An Author’s Prayer Book by Avery Authõr. This very short devotional book maps an author’s journey. As she opens up her heart to God, venting her feeling and frustrations, she grows in her spiritual walk, in her writing, and in her gratitude. I would not say this is a great book or an important book, but it is a sweet little book that will remind writers of their true priorities. People who do not love or at least seek God will have no use for this book.
22. The Day the Angels Fell by Shawn Smucker. I enjoy reading Smucker’s blog, especially the posts about driving for Über.
The Day the Angels Fell is sort of a supernatural thriller. The narrator is an old man, Samuel, about to attend the funeral of an old friend. For most of the book he recalls incidents that happened the summer he was twelve years old. You’d think a story about preteens would be middle-grade fiction, but I don’t think an upper-elementary student would get this book. I’m not even sure I do.
During a baseball practice, a violent thunderstorm hits. All the kids run to their parents’ waiting cars, but Samuel’s mother isn’t there yet. The coach tells him to run for shelter, so he ducks into the back door of the local antique store, where he accidentally overhears an odd conversation between a man and three women dressed as gypsies. One of the woman scribbles on the table, cash is exchanged, and the adults leave the room, the man expressing dissatisfaction. Samuel sneaks into the room and looks at the table. The only thing he can make out (the rest has been scratched out) is the phrase Find the Tree of Life.
When he’s able to leave the building, his friend Abra calls to him and leads him to his mom’s car.
On the way home, Samuel sees a stray cat and pleads with his mother to stop the car so he can retrieve it. He names it Icarus. After dinner he sits on the porch steps with Icarus, and bad weather rolls in again. The thunder and lightning cause Icarus to startle and dash up a tree. Samuel gets a ladder from the shed, sets it against the tree, and climbs up. He still can’t reach the cat, so he climbs into the tree.
His mother calls him to come down. She sends Samuel into the house and climbs the tree herself while Samuel watches from the window. As she climbs higher and stretches her hand out toward Icarus, a lightning bolt hits the tree and kills her.
In the aftermath of the mother’s death, strange things happen in the town. Three large aggressive dogs roam. Vultures circle overhead. A monster lurks in the shadows. A reclusive neighbor whom they’ve never met, Mr. Jinn, attends her funeral, as does a man named Mr. Tennin, who approaches Sam’s father and asks for a position as a farm hand on their farm. Mr. Jinn enlists Samuel’s help to find the Tree of Life, and as it turns out, Mr. Tennin is looking for it, too. Samuel agrees to look for it, because he believes the Tree can make his mother return to life.
Together he and Abra face many obstacles. They locate the tree and protect it, but don’t know who to trust. Their lives are in danger from the factions competing to gain possession of the tree for different objectives.
The story is somewhat allegorical. A statement Mr. Tennin makes to Samuel seems to be the central message: Death is a gift.
I think Smucker’s message for readers, particularly for Christians, and especially for Christian youth, is that death is not something to fear. Oh, yes, it brings sorrow for those left behind, who will grieve for the lost mother, relative, friend. But for the deceased believer, death is the doorway to eternal life with God. Smucker doesn’t come out and say this plainly, but the character of Mr. Tennin says, “…death is not a destination. It’s a passing, a transition into eternity, the rest of time. When you leave this place, everything you have known will seem like only a dream or the memory of a dream. Dying is the shedding of one cloak and the taking up of another. Death is a gift.” This concept resonates with Christians.
Some Scripture appears in the book, references to the Tree of Life, but it is not an overtly religious book. Samuel and Abra are compelling characters. The Day the Angels Fell contains lots of creepy stuff, and suspense, and fast pacing. It’s definitely worth reading.
21. The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan. Review here.
20. Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi. I bought this debut fantasy novel because I’d heard nothing but praise for it. The hype is all true. This book is unlike anything I’ve ever read.
Drawing from West African myth, Adeyemi created the kingdom of Orïsha (which on the endpaper map looks a lot like the continent of Africa). Its citizens fall into two groups: the diviners, distinguishable by their white hair, who could perform magic; and the kosidán, who can’t. Eleven years before the beginning of the story, magic disappeared from Orïsha, the same night as the Raid, a genocide of the diviners orchestrated by ruthless King Saran, who believed magic was destroying Orïsha and was determined to wipe it out.
The story follows a girl named Zélie, a diviner who constantly gets herself into trouble, and her brother Tzain, who usually has to get her out of trouble. It turns out that the only way magic can return to Orïsha is if Zélia will perform a sacred ritual in a temple on an island that only exists one day every one hundred years. To make matters worse, King Saran has come into possession of a scroll which is a critical part of the ritual, which his daughter Amari steals. The king’s son, Inan, is tasked with finding the scroll and taking it back to his father. Children of Blood and Bone is the story of Zélia’s and Inan’s conflicting quests.
One aspect of the book’s excellence is its relentless pacing. I’m currently studying Scene and Structure by Jack M. Bickman. In it, Bickman asserts that every scene must end with a crisis. I’d been fighting that idea, believing that it doesn’t apply to my own work-in-progress. But in Children of Blood and Bone, every scene does end in a crisis. I have to reread it and analyze how Adeyemi does that.
I was disappointed with the ending, though, because instead of coming to a resolution, the final scene ends with another crisis. There will be a sequel, and also a movie.
If you’re tired of the same old fiction, you’re ready for Children of Blood and Bone. It’s fresh, and new, and compelling.
19. Apple Cider Vinegar For Health: 100 Amazing and Unexpected Uses for Apple Cider Vinegar by Britt Brandon. If the author of this book is correct, apple cider vinegar (affectionately referred to as ACV), is good for whatever ails you.
Brandon recommends raw, organic, unfiltered apple cider vinegar, which contains vitamins, minerals, pectin, bacteria, and enzymes which are essential for good health. The book contains recipes for tonics and topical remedies in which the vinegar is always diluted and sometimes mixed with other ingredients as well, such as honey, coconut oil, or cayenne pepper.
Some of the conditions for which ACV is recommended are sluggish metabolism, flatulence, indigestion and heartburn, morning sickness, irritable bowel syndrome, stuffy nose, sore throat, high cholesterol, muscle stiffness, joint pain, foot fungus, headaches, yellow teeth, earaches, diaper rash, nail fungus, burns, acne, and thinning hair.
ACV is thought to be so beneficial in promoting health and strengthening the immune system that a daily dose is a worthwhile and inexpensive dietary supplement. A typical dose is one tablespoon in 8-16 ounces of water.
Apple cider vinegar should never be used undiluted. It is a mild acid, and could actually compromise one’s tooth enamel if taken straight.
I’ve used apple cider vinegar off and on since my early adulthood with no ill effects, but I usually just forget to keep it up. Reading this book makes me want to stick with it this time. Diluted vinegar tastes like brine, so if you love pickle juice, you’ll love ACV.
The book is a quick read at 128 pages.
18. Canon EOS Rebel T5/1200D for Dummies by Julia Adair King and Robert Correll. Review here.
17. Sent by Margaret Peterson Haddix. This is book 2 of The Missing series. I read book 1, Found, because of its trailer. (Scroll down to see my review and the trailer, number 17 under 2016.)
I’m not wild about this one, and I probably won’t continue the series. My main problem is I don’t understand all the logistics problems in time travel, especially the taboo about changing history. (You know the time machine episode of Big Bang Theory? Even though I’ve seen it twenty times, I still get cross-eyed when Sheldon explains why you can’t use the time machine to go back in time so you don’t acquire the time machine…)
Chip and Alex, two boys among the missing, were really Edward V of England and his brother Richard, who disappeared as pre-teens in 1483. JB, who is a time-fixer-agent, wants to send all the missing back to their correct times. When he sends Chip and Alex back, Jonah and Katherine grab on to them and get sent back with them. They want Chip and Alex to be allowed to stay in the current time, and they make a deal with JB that if they can “fix” time, they all get to return to the current time.
I can’t figure out the ethics of this hypothetical situation. Since these kids were all “kidnapped” from their times, is it right to return them? Or are they better off staying put where they are?
I got bogged down trying to understand the tracers, the near-transparent former selves of the time-travelers.
For me, the story just got too complicated, with too many implications that I couldn’t follow. I’m not smart enough to enjoy this book.
16. Meet Me in the Mountains by Candy Marie Bridges. I’ve written about the writers’ retreats I’ve attended at the fabulous Breath of Life Retreat House. The last time I was there, the proprietor gave me a copy of her memoir.
Candy Cotton grew up in California in a home with an alcoholic father. She longed for his love and affection, but she never knew from one moment to the next how he would respond to her or her brother or mother. When her parents’ marriage broke up, she blamed herself.
As she grew, so did her faith. Raised Roman Catholic, she took her confirmation classes seriously, and strove to live a life pleasing to God.
After high school, she took a job in a Mexican restaurant while studying advertising art at the local college. A young man, Mike Roe, passed her a note through the drive-thru window asking her for a date. She accepted, and they eventually got engaged. A year later, they married and moved to Arizona. They had three children, Sarah, Kayci, and Preston.
One day while playing basketball, Mike fell taking a jump shot and shredded his Achilles tendon. He required surgery to mend the damage. Two-and-a-half weeks later, he developed a cough which worsened over the next few days until he could barely breathe. When Candy took him to the emergency room, after a battery of tests doctors discovered blood clots in his lungs and admitted him. Mike would receive treatment that would isolate and dissolve the clots. Unfortunately, his condition worsened, and he died within twenty-four hours.
When she returned home, while her mother was contacting family and friends about Mike’s death, Candy received a call from the hospital asking if she could come back the next day to meet with the doctor and staff. At that meeting, she learned that Mike was inadvertently given the wrong dosage of medication. His death was caused by an error. In addition to the grief of losing her husband so suddenly, learning his case had been mishandled was a devastating blow. She hired a lawyer and began the process of negotiating a settlement.
In those first few days after Mike’s death, the words retreat house entered Candy’s mind. She was sure God said those words to her, but she wasn’t sure why. She prayed about it, and when her settlement came through, she told her lawyer that part of it would be earmarked for building a retreat house in Mike’s honor. It would be named Breath of Life, because the last words Mike spoke to her were “I can’t breathe.”
She bought a property in the mountains of Pine, AZ, and renovated it into a destination for religious retreats and also for quilters, scrapbookers, and writers.
Five years after Mike passed away, Candy met Jim Bridges. They fell in love, married, and ran Breath of Life together. Now they are ready to retire from the retreat house, and the property is for sale. If you ever wanted to run a retreat house or a bed and breakfast, now’s your chance if you act quickly! The retreat house’s Zillow listing is linked to the Breath of Life website along with 84 gorgeous photos of the buildings and grounds.
Meet Me in the Mountains was very interesting to me because of knowing Candy from the three writers’ retreats I attended at Breath of Life. Before she moved to the mountains, she lived in a town near mine, and she attended a church near my house. She is also a professional artist and calligrapher, which I admire about her. All these connections made her memoir compelling to me. I loved getting to know her better through her book.
15. The Women in the Walls by Amy Lukavics. I didn’t know YA horror was a thing.
I’m trying to remember the first horror book I ever read. I think it was Stephen King’s Carrie, which came out in 1974, the year I married, graduated from college, and turned 21.
The Women in the Walls is about seventeen-year-old Lucy Acosta, who lives an enviable life on her family’s luxurious estate. Her mother died when she was very young, but her Aunt Penelope moved in to help take care of her, bringing along cousin Margaret, almost her same age.
Margaret and Lucy are each other’s best friends. They went to school for a while but didn’t like it or their classmates, so they stayed home and were taught by tutors.
Actually, their lives are incredibly isolated. The only people they ever see are their tutors, their cook, Lucy’s father, Margaret’s mother, and the country club.
The country club consists of four wealthy couples. There is no clubhouse; there is no golf course. The club seems to exist only to come to dinner parties at the Acosta estate. It is critically important to Lucy’s father that the country club be impressed whenever they visit. Aunt Penelope is the perfect hostess. Lucy and Margaret’s job is to look beautiful and prosperous. They are under a great deal of pressure to conform to an ideal of perfection. Lucy has taken to cutting herself when the stress is too great.
The story opens with Lucy discovering the body of their cook, Walter. He has hung himself, which seems incongruous; the night before he’d offered to make Lucy and Margaret eggs benedict in the morning.
Five days later, Lucy spots Aunt Penelope leaving the house, walking toward the forest.
She never returns.
The country club comes over every day to help Lucy’s father search for her in the woods. Oddly, there seems to be no police presence, no one except the country club looking for Penelope.
In the aftermath of her mother’s disappearance, Margaret is understandably distraught. Her personality changes and Lucy tries to be understanding, but Margaret insists she can hear her mother talking to her from the inside the walls of their house. Margaret wants to go into the woods; her mother told her her future is there.
Lucy follows Margaret into the woods, and they come to a hidden burial ground, with a large sarcophagus surrounded by headstones. Margaret takes this as a sign that her future is imminent death, and she breaks down.
Lucy knows Margaret needs professional help, but she can’t get her father to agree.
Meanwhile, a new cook, Miranda, has been hired, and she has her daughter, Vanessa, helping her with preparations for their big annual holiday party for the country club. Though Lucy and Margaret initially snub Vanessa, who is about their age, Lucy ultimately befriends her.
Margaret becomes more and more despondent and strange, until she finally flings herself out of the attic window to her death, impaled on the wrought iron fence below.
Now Lucy is the one hearing a voice coming from the wall—Margaret’s. Margaret tells her she’s in unbearable pain and asks her to find a way to release her from the wall.
At this point, I’m going to refrain from any further plot revelations. I’ll just say, I didn’t foresee the end.
The book contains intense violence and supernatural evil that I wouldn’t want my teenage daughter exposed to. That said, it is well-written, with a likable protagonist, and had my attention from the first page to the last.
14. Jim Henson: The Biography by Brian Jay Jones. Review HERE.
13. Fat Girl on a Plane by Kelly de Vos. Seventeen-year-old Cookie Vonn is fashion savvy and knows how to construct garments so they fit well. Her life’s goal is to design beautiful clothes that people of any size can look good in.
She is also a very angry girl. With good reason. Her grandmother raised her because her estranged parents were too wrapped up in their own lives to be responsible for hers. She’s roundish and tired of being shamed for her dimensions. And a new fellow intern at the So Scottsdale blog steals the affection of her best (boy) friend and unfairly goes out of her way to ruin Cookie’s life. Though her grandmother urges her to “take the high road,” Cookie’s rage gets the better of her, and she overreacts badly.
Fat Girl on a Plane captivated me with its skillfully written characters and complex plot. I loved the glimpses of the inner workings of the fashion industry as Cookie follows her dream. Much of the book is set in the greater Phoenix metropolitan area where I live, and the local references are a delight. (Another big chunk is set in New York City, another place I love.)
But I have a concern.
The young protagonist makes a conscious decision to pursue a sexual relationship with a much older designer. Even though Cookie is 19 at this point, the age difference and the power disparity still amount to exploitation. I fear that de Vos may have made the relationship appear romantic to YA readers, even though later it collapses when the depth of the deceit and victimization are revealed.
In 1999 Joyce Maynard sold at auction the love letters J.D. Salinger had written her during their affair (when she was 18 and he was 53) for $156,000. Her decision to sell them despite the promise of silence she’d made Salinger 25 years earlier was made easier by taking a good look at her own 19-year-old daughter and recognizing how truly vulnerable she was (as Maynard herself had been) to exploitation at that age. Interestingly, in the publicity surrounding the auction, Maynard was accused of exploiting Salinger.
Our culture continues to promote the idea that whatever happens between two consenting parties is okay, even beneficial. Unfortunately, it’s not necessarily true.
12. A Season to Dance by Patricia Beal. Ana is a ballerina. She once had big dreams, but she realizes she is merely good in a profession where to excel requires brilliance. She comes to terms with her limitations and is able to set realistic goals. However, when she reaches one of them—a solo with a world-famous leading man—a jealous colleague plots a life-changing revenge.
Things I liked about this book:
- I love the ballet connection. I love the depictions of the practice, the choreography, the music.
- One of Ana’s love interests, Claus, is German, and much of the story is set in Europe. I love the descriptions of Wiesbaden and Prague.
- Her other love interest, Peter, is a landscaper. I loved reading about the flowers, bushes and trees that Peter and Ana planted.
Things I disliked about the book:
- I think Ana acted too impulsively. I can’t believe she flipped from Peter to Claus without more of a fight. When Peter tried to intercept her on the way to the airport, she should have heard him out. I think any reasonable person would have. Obviously, he now knew the truth—that he’d been manipulated by Lorie—and wanted to get back together.
- A major subplot is Ana’s spiritual journey. It is so hard to tell about a person relinquishing herself to God without a didactic conversation explaining the whole process and reasons why. As a Christian, I agree with everything Jacqueline told Ana, but I wish the encounter could have been less overt. People who have experienced conversion already know what it’s about. People who haven’t will zone out or put down the book. I’m struggling with this myself in my own work-in-progress.
- The story is told out of sequence. I think Chapter 2 would be a better starting point, or maybe the whole story could have been told chronologically.
- The end of the story, with Claus coming to take over at Peter’s behest, seems contrived to me.
Is A Season to Dance worth reading? Yes, if you like romance and ballet.
11. Write Your Novel From the Middle by James Scott Bell. Review here.
10. Where the Past Begins: A Writer’s Memoir by Amy Tan. Review here.
9. The Tower Princess by Shonna Slayton. North Morlaix and South Morlaix were once a single kingdom, but the rivalry between two knights broke it into two halves. Some of their citizens secretly wished that the two halves could be reunited under one ruler.
The wall that separated the two kingdoms also divided the original castle. The people of the North could hear the infant Southern Prince cry; the people of the South could hear the newborn Northern Princess’ cries. Both kings took measures to ensure their children would never meet, for legend decreed that if they fell in love and married, that would mean the end of their separate thrones. However, no one knew that the Woodling King had made a magical opening in the wall that only the Prince of South Morlaix and the Princess of North Morlaix would be able to navigate.
This is the premise of The Tower Princess, a “lost” fairy tale. Shonna Slayton has written retellings of Cinderella and of The Sleeping Beauty, but this is her first original fairy tale, full of intrigue and magic and romance and warring knights.
8. Lust for Life by Irving Stone. Review here.
7. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. SPOILER ALERT: IF YOU HAVEN’T READ THE BOOK, DON’T READ THIS REVIEW. GET THE BOOK. I PROMISE IT’S GOOD.
I don’t know why I waited so long to read The Fault in Our Stars. It’s fabulous.
Maybe I didn’t want to read about kids dying of cancer—too heartbreaking.
But the beauty of the relationships, in the risking to love and to befriend—those moments are too good to pass up.
The story is told in the first person from Hazel’s point of view.
In short, Hazel Lancaster is depressed, so her parents and doctor agree she needs to attend a weekly teen cancer support group. Hazel resists going until she meets Augustus Waters, a boy new to the group who finds Hazel so beautiful he can’t take his eyes off her.
Hazel is obsessed with a book she rereads compulsively, An Imperial Affliction.
Hazel’s one issue with An Imperial Affliction is that it ends in the middle of a sentence. The main character, Anna, is dying of cancer, so the book stops abruptly when Anna dies or is too sick to continue her story. Hazel wants to know what happened to the other characters in the story. Did Anna’s mother marry the Dutch Tulip Man? What happened to Anna’s hamster? Hazel wrote a dozen letters to Peter Van Houten, the author, through his publisher, but Van Houten never replied.
Hazel made Augustus read An Imperial Affliction, and was delighted that Augustus had the same questions about it that she had.
Hazel looks online for Gus’ former girlfriend, Caroline, who died a year ago from brain cancer. She now understands why Gus could not take his eyes off her when they first met—she looks just like Caroline, not well-Caroline, but cancer-Caroline. She realizes that if she and Gus were in love and she were to die first, he would suffer greatly. She thinks of herself as a grenade.
As Hazel and Augustus support each other through their illnesses and disappointments, they remind each other, “The world is not a wish-granting machine.”
Interestingly, much of the book is about Hazel’s desire to know what happened beyond the ending of An Imperial Affliction. Augustus decides to spend his Make-a-Wish Foundation wish taking Hazel to the Netherlands to meet Peter Van Houten and getting her questions answered. (Hazel spent her own wish on a trip to Disneyland when she was 13.)
The trip to see Van Houten is a disaster. All arrangements were made through his assistant, Lidewij, who wants Van Houten to see how his work affects his readers. But Van Houten is a severe alcoholic, and he is beyond rude to Hazel and refuses to answer her questions.
Soon after they return home, Augustus confesses that his cancer has recurred and metastasized.
And not long after, he dies.
Hazel discovers the reason for Van Houten’s extreme rudeness to her, and receives a last message from Augustus in a roundabout way.
How did John Green get inside a girl’s head? He writes Hazel so vividly. (In dialogue, he ends some of Hazel’s declarative sentences with a question mark so the reader can hear her teenage upward inflection.)
This book deserves all the buzz it got.
6. Notes to Self by G.P. Wilcox, Ph.D. My friend Gary has lived an interesting and varied life. He served as a Marine in Vietnam. For 25 years, he worked in the aerospace industry as a mechanical engineer. His final career was as a counterterrorism specialist. He also earned a doctorate in business administration.
During the last few decades, whenever he read something he didn’t want to forget, or whenever he had a personal epiphany, he summarized it in an email to himself, with the subject header: Note to Self.
A few years ago, he decided to compile the most important of these notes into a book for his family and friends. You will not find this book on Amazon. Gary self-published it at his own expense with a limited run of only 50 copies. My husband and I were honored to be among the recipients of Gary’s book.
Here is one of the items Gary included:
193. Friendship is one of the most valuable treasures on earth. Like a precious gem when light shines through, it projects all its colors onto the background of our lives. Truly, it is friendship that makes us rich. To share with a friend is to double the joy, while sharing sadness halves the pain. When we’re with a friend, the sun shines warmer, the birds sing more beautifuly, the ocean is wider, and the mountains are higher. ~Marjolein Bastin
The most amazing thing about this book is that now that I’ve read it, I feel like I know Gary at a much deeper level. I know what he values in life.
5. End of the Road by Karen Michelle Nutt. I first read snippets of this book on Weekend Writing Warriors when it was a work-in-progress. It’s a paranormal/mystery/romance.
Cecilia Gunner’s rock star father, Lars, died 23 years ago. Suddenly, he appears to her in the family home when she finds his old journal under a floorboard. He’s hazy about the details of his death, and he thinks it wasn’t an accident.
Cecilia tries to find out what happened by visiting an address in his journal, where he had an appointment shortly before his death. It turns out to a medium’s house, but the medium now lives in a facility for Alzheimer’s patients. The medium’s son, Kaleb, who can also see the dead, takes Cecilia to see his mother, who gives her a warning to stay away from water.
Together, Kaleb and Cecilia investigate Lars’ death, talking to the police officer who was present when Lars’ car was pulled out of the bay. Though the death was ruled an accident, suicide was suspected. Lars had disappeared from a Christmas party where he was drunk and told his wife he wanted a divorce.
The story is well-written and had me guessing all the way to the end. Definitely a good read.
One distraction from the writing was multiple typographical errors. Not misspelling, per se, but wrong words, often homonym issues, that wouldn’t be caught by spellcheck. I wish the book had been proofread before release. I would have given it four stars, but because of the sloppiness, it only deserves three.
4. Kinsey and Me: Stories by Sue Grafton. Grafton’s recent passing knocked me for a loop. I love her Kinsey Millhone series, and I own every single one. I’d read her last one, Y is for Yesterday, and I was eagerly waiting for Z is for Zero, scheduled for Fall 2019. Learning that there would be no Z installment, I mourned never getting to read another Grafton book.
Then I remembered Kinsey and Me. I bought it years ago but never got around to reading it.
Kinsey and Me is a collection of twenty-two short stories. The first nine are Kinsey Millhone mysteries; the last thirteen are semi-autographical.
The Kinsey stories impressed me with Grafton’s intelligence. I never caught the solution before Kinsey revealed it.
The final stories were written in the ten years after Grafton’s mother’s death. Both Grafton’s parents were alcoholics, but her mother’s drinking affected her most profoundly. The stories follow the journey of Kit, a woman whose mother spends most of her time drinking, smoking, and lying on the couch. The mother contracts esophageal cancer and ultimately commits suicide. Kit records the progress of her mother’s downward spiral, her attempts to help, change, and care for her mother, and her feelings (abandonment, resentment, and finally acceptance and forgiveness).
Grafton says in her preface, “I wish life could be edited as deftly as prose. It would be nice to go back and write a better story, correcting weaknesses and follies in the light of what I now know.”
I now know you a little better, too. Miss you, Sue. Rest in peace.
3. Seize the Donut by Rachel Barnard. This is the sequel to Donuts in an Empty Field, which I reviewed in 2016. Seize the Donut follows the first book’s main characters after they graduate from high school.
Vanessa goes to nearby New College and lives in the dorm. She makes two new friends, Hazel and Zelda, and tries some new things, like interpretive dance, but she still hasn’t resolved her grief of losing her father, and it manifests as an eating disorder.
Wild child Nichole has a fight with her mother and moves out without a plan, confident she can make her own way in the world. She predictably moves from disaster to disaster.
Vanessa and Nichole used to be best friends, but they alienate themselves from each other. When Vanessa meets Jax, who seems interested in her, she does whatever she can to keep him, including ditching Hazel and Zelda.
Mutual friends keep telling Nichole that Vanessa needs her, but every time Nichole reaches out, she gets shot down, until Vanessa hits bottom.
This book is just okay. I really liked the first one, and I expected the second one to be at least as good, but it disappointed me.
2. Origin by Dan Brown. I like Dan Brown’s thrillers because of their excellent pacing and the art references, but I dislike his antagonism toward Christians, particularly those who (like me) believe the Biblical story of creation.
That said, I couldn’t stop reading Origin. I will try very hard not to spoil it for you.
Wealthy entrepreneur and computer geek Edmond Kirsch touts a scientific breakthrough he has made, one which answers two questions: Where did humanity come from? and Where is it going? But just as he is about to make his live-streamed public announcement, he is shot dead.
Only Robert Langdon and the beautiful Ambra Vidal, new fiancé of Prince Julian of Spain, have any idea how to launch the presentation that will reveal Kirsch’s discovery, provided they can find the favorite poem that contains the 46-character line Kirsch used as his password. However, someone is trying to suppress this announcement and has already killed three people. Langdon and Vidal are in mortal danger.
Langdon and Vidal are assisted in their search by Winston, an artificial intelligence that Kirsch created. Together, the three try to find the password, which involves solving multiple puzzles and defeating almost insurmountable obstacles. Who ordered the hit on Kirsch? And what did Kirsch discover that made him a target?
Who can they trust?
In the last pages of the book, when Kirsch’s announcement is finally broadcast, it doesn’t seem as hopeless as portrayed, but then Brown adds a twist that will have readers longing for the days before calculators…
- An Old-Fashioned Christmas Romance Collection. This book contains nine Christian historical romance novellas by nine different authors: Peggy Darty, Rosey Dow, Rebecca Germany, JoAnn A Grote, Sally Laity, Loree Lough, Gail Gaymer Martin, DiAnn Mills, and Colleen L Reece. I received it as a gift Christmas 2016, and started reading it just before Christmas 2017, making it my first book finished in 2018. I’d braced myself for the possibility of the stories being hokey, and was delighted to find that they are well-written, with compelling characters who overcome daunting obstacles to find the love of their lives.
Books read in 2017 (the goal is 48; let’s see if I can make it this year…)
32. One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are by Ann Voskamp.
Voskamp hasn’t always trusted God. When she was four, her younger sister was hit by a truck and died. For a long time, her family struggled with the concept of a good God.
A few years ago, a friend challenged Voskamp to make a list of one thousand gifts she was thankful for. As she added to her list and thanked God for each item (morning shadows across the old floors, cry of blue jay from high in the spruce, wind flying cold wild in hair), Voskamp noticed an interesting effect—she felt connected to God, and overwhelmed with joy.
She discovered the Greek word used in the Bible that’s translated “he gave thanks” is eucharisteo, containing the roots for words meaning “grace” and “joy.” While making thanksgiving a daily, hourly, even moment-by-moment practice in her life, she found herself more aware of grace being extended to her, and of a lightness of spirit she’d never experienced before.
Voskamp’s writing style is unique—poetic and exuberant, with run-on sentences which delight rather than annoy. Some examples of her voice: “The Wounded Warrior [Christ] is achingly tender with the broken ones and He has all the patient time to gently lead those who seek and He keeps leading me back to eucharisteo.” And
Hadn’t I personally experienced it before too, that vantage point that gave a sense of smallness before grandeur? At the lip of the Grand Canyon, peering into the carved earth, the vastness of the hewn and many-hued chasm. A late June night peering into the expanse of heavens nailed up with the named and known stars. A moon field. I hardly dare brush the limitlessness with my vaporous humanity.
In One Thousand Gifts, Voskamp shares personal stories about her family. Some are horrifying; some are beautiful. But mostly, the book tells how, when she learned to thank God for everything, she saw proof that God is good and that she is greatly loved by Him (as we are).
I know what she says is true because I have experienced it myself. Not that every moment of the believer’s life is easy, but when you are in communion with God, you know where to turn in the midst of trouble.
31. Troublemaker: Surviving Hollywood and Scientology by Leah Remini. I am obsessed with Remini’s Scientology and the Aftermath series on A&E. I have watched each episode multiple times, and I am heartbroken for all the well-meaning people whose lives have been ruined by this cult.
Troublemaker is Remini’s autobiography, which starts with a confession of all the bad things she’s ever done in her life, pre-empting any leverage the Church of Scientology could use against her in retaliation. The book tells the story of her life in Scientology—the good and the bad—and why she chose to flee.
Remini’s childhood was spent in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. Her mother, Vicki, divorced Leah’s father and remarried. Vicki began spending many hours away from home in Manhattan. When Leah and her older sister, Nicole, asked about her absence, she explained she spent that time in “church” and invited them to come along. The only church Leah knew was her paternal grandmother’s Catholic church. Her mother’s church was something different.
Ron Hubbard, the science fiction author, designed Scientology to be a scientific process that helps one overcome limitations and realize one’s full potential, enlightenment, and spirituality. The aim of Scientology is “a civilization without insanity, without criminals and without war, where the able can prosper and honest beings can have rights, and where Man is free to rise to greater heights.” Remini wanted to be part of all those good intentions.
When Leah was 13, her mother decided to take both daughters to Clearwater, Florida, and join the Sea Org, made up of devout Scientologists who serve the church. Vicki was now pregnant; her husband would join them after he took care of closing down their apartment. Leah and Nicole signed billion-year contracts to work on behalf of the church and settled into training that involved never-ending classes and hard physical labor. The girls were immediately separated from their mother, taken to live in a dorm. In Scientology, children are regarded as adults who have not yet achieved their full growth; they are treated as adults and given adult responsibilities.
Though labeled a troublemaker for questioning rules and policies, Leah committed herself to Scientology. She dutifully worked to progress in her faith.
I won’t take time here to go into detail about the workings of Scientology, but Remini observed much that she questioned. When she raised her concerns with the leadership, they pointed her to L. Ron Hubbard’s policies and insisted that the problems were hers, and administered church discipline. Finally, she realized that for thirty years she’d based her life on lies, and left Scientology.
There is one question that I wish Remini had answered, and that is, what does she believe about God? So many times when people come out of a cult, they feel so betrayed by their spiritual striving that they have no desire to seek the true God. It is my sincerest prayer that Remini will encounter Him. His way is in stark contrast to Scientology.
In my opinion, this is a very worthwhile book. People should be informed about the damage inflicted by Scientology.
30. Good Poems compiled by Garrison Keillor. Review here.
29. Hardcore Twenty-Four by Janet Evanovich. Janet Evanovich is my guilty pleasure. This mystery is not great literature. However, it’s a great escape. The characters are as familiar and comfortable as an old pair of shoes. And it’s set in Trenton–a stone’s throw from our last residence in Hamilton Square, NJ–so the street names and some locations are familiar to me.
Trenton is having a zombie epidemic. And clients at the local funeral homes keep losing their heads, which are later found with the brains removed. Stephanie Plum, apprehension specialist (bounty hunter), is pivotal in solving this mystery, along with ex-prostitute Lula, Stephanie’s cop boyfriend Morelli, Ranger the security guy, and the mysterious Diesel. Grandma Mazur and her internet boyfriend supplying comic relief.
You won’t solve the world’s problems by reading this book, but you’ll enjoy a few belly laughs.
28. Growing Gills: How to Find Creative Focus When You’re Drowning in Your Daily Life by Jessica Abel. Review here.
27. Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen. Review here.
26. The Rooster Bar by John Grisham. I love Grisham, but this is not one of his best books. Often his protagonists do bad things for good reasons, but this time they do bad things for selfish reasons.
Four students face their last semester of law school with the burden of hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loans and no job prospects once they get out. One of them commits suicide, but not before he reveals to his friends some information he learned through obsessive investigation–the owner of their and seven other law schools also owns the companies that service their loans–and a bank that has been investigated for illegal practices.
So the remaining three do the only reasonable thing they can do–they drop out of school only months before graduation, and illegally set up their own law practice under aliases. They hustle DUI offenders at the courthouse, offering to represent them for $1000 a pop. Nobody, including the judges at this point, notices that they are unlicensed.
When they decide to branch out to a medical malpractice case, they make a serious error, one that prevents their client from collecting a settlement. So again, they do a very reasonable thing–they disappear.
I don’t want to spoil this book for you if you intend to read it. There’s much more to it, including a sad story of a deportation, and the ex-student fake lawyers get off scot-free with a fortune they’ve embezzled. Even though the entity they defraud is evil, what they did was at the expense of a lot of people with legitimate claims. To me, this is a most unsatisfying ending.
I would say skip this one, and read some of Grisham’s others instead.
25. Tanabata Wish by Sara Fujimura. Skyler Doucet’s mother and Japanese immigrant step-father ruin her summer-before-senior-year by forcing her to spend it in Japan. She will be babysitting her young siblings while her mom serves as an exchange professor at Nagoya University; in the evenings she’ll attend Japanese language school.
Skyler undergoes culture shock halfway around the world, learning new behavioral expectations as well as a new language. But her reticence turns into delight when she meets Japanese-America David in her language class.
Fujimura, whose husband is of Japanese heritage, accompanies her family to Japan every summer, and weaves in Japanese culture, both traditional and popular, throughout the story. She authentically tells the story of an American teen caught between two cultures. I was captivated by the world she described. Excellent book.
24. The Serpent King by Jeffrey Zentner. Three high school friends who don’t quite fit in support each other and dream of a better life. This book brought me to tears.
23. The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan. This is a story about abandonment, about being caught between two worlds, and about making your way in the world.
Violet Minturn grew up in a courtesan house in Shanghai in the early 20th century, the daughter of the American madam. She observed how her mother, Lulu, engaged her clients, the wealthiest Chinese and American men in the city, in conversation about their businesses and their power. As far as she can tell, her mother loves her business more than she loves Violet.
When her mother abandons her, she makes her living the only way she knows how–as a courtesan. For a time, she falls in love and leaves that life behind, but her joy is short-lived when her lover dies, and his legal wife claims Violet’s children as her own.
Tan weaves a vivid, epic tale about Violet’s life, and toward the end she reveals what really happened to Lulu.
My greatest concern is that young women will read this book and perceive Lulu and Violet’s lives as a courtesan romantic. The story details the inner workings of high-class prostitution and makes it seem glamorous. I don’t think that’s Tan’s intention; between the lines, I see conviction that the sex industry is exploitation. Nevertheless, there it is. The writing is fabulous. I recommend the book with that one caveat.
22. Y is for Yesterday by Sue Grafton. I love Sue Grafton’s writing. I’ve read her entire Kinsey Millhone series, starting with A is for Alibi. The final volume (Z is for Zero) is due out in Fall, 2019–so far away.
The story takes place in 1989, but the mystery is connected with events that happened ten years earlier when several students from Climping Academy got drunk and filmed themselves raping a classmate. In the weeks that followed, a cheating scandal came to light, and ultimately, a girl was murdered. Two of the boys involved went to prison, but one disappeared.
When Fritz, the boy who pulled the trigger, is released after serving his sentence, his family receives a copy of the rumored videotape and a demand for $25,000, or another copy will be given to the District Attorney, guaranteeing that Fritz, one of the rapists, will go back to prison. Kinsey Millhone, private investigator, is hired to find the extortionist.
All along, the reader knows who the extortionists are. Flashbacks to 1979 help the reader learn what’s true and false about what happened, while Kinsey struggles to narrow down all the possible suspects. Meanwhile, a psychotic killer-at-large from a previous book is stalking Kinsey and his own ex-wives, complicating Kinsey’s life and her attempts to bring him to justice.
When Fritz manages to steal the payoff money from his parents, the extortionists set up a meeting, and then realize their in-person encounter will result in their prosecution. Duh. They abandon the project.
But someone else shows up at the appointed time and place to meet Fritz–and Fritz disappears.
There are so many red herrings in this plot, so many people who could want revenge against Fritz, that I changed my conjecture all the way through the book. When the guilty party was revealed, I couldn’t believe it. After I finished the book, I combed back through it for a good hour to find the clues that led Kinsey to the perpetrator. Yes, they were all there.
The story contains one glaring anachronism. Home VHS camcorders weren’t available until 1983. Even with that drawback, though, I thoroughly enjoyed Y is for Yesterday.
21. Uninvited: Living Loved When You Feel Less Than, Left Out, and Lonely by Lysa TerKeurst. The author has endured a great deal of rejection during her life, and through it, she’s become closer to God. In this book she shares how God’s opinion of you is different from everyone else’s: God accepts you and loves you, even when you’re unlovable.
As I began this book, I thought it had no relevance to me. I haven’t experienced a lot of rejection lately. I thought I’d gotten over depending on other’s judgments of me for my self-worth.
Then I realized some of my biggest disappointments in the last ten years, especially in my professional life, were types of rejection. And, yes, the pain of being passed over or harshly evaluated was eradicated by new, better pursuits; God freed me up for the opportunities He wanted to give me. God loves me and has a plan for bigger and better accomplishments for me. TerKeust puts it this way: “Each hole left from rejection must become an opportunity to create more and more space for grace in my heart.”
Yes. Grace. God’s favor, undeserved by me.
If you struggle with depression and feelings of worthlessness and betrayal, you need this book. It contains healing, God’s healing.
20. Song and Sword by P.T. Wyant. The author has posted excerpts of this book on Snippet Sunday, and when I noticed the unicorns, I knew I must have this 99-cent Kindle ebook.
A fantasy populated by elves, orcs, drow, and unicorns, it contains a message appropriate for readers of all ages: judge individuals on their own merits, not according to race or nationality.
Pashevel, the wandering crown prince of the elves, encounters Dakkas, the wandering crown prince of the drow, and resist the long tradition of considering each other mortal enemies. Instead, they discover that the elves and drow were once one people, and they begin their goal of reuniting their kingdoms. Of course, each has his lady love, and they, too, must overcome prejudice. And to make things worse, each prince’s brother is current conducting a reign of terror in his respective kingdom.
As compelling as the story of Song and Sword is, sometimes the banter between the characters gets a little tiring.
19. Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems by Billy Collins. Review here.
18. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. As much as I love dystopian societies, I just didn’t care about this one. I wanted more details about who these people were who took over, and why. Apparently, wars and chemical pollution and radiation caused rampant sickness and death and plummeting birth rates, and it was necessary for an extreme religious sect to seize control–like Puritan control freaks.
We experience this troubled world through the eyes of Offred (not the name she was born with; that’s been taken from her, along with her husband and daughter and her way of life), who has been assigned the task of conceiving a child for Fred and his long-past-childbearing-age wife. What she discovers is that while it’s dangerous not to abide by the rules of her society, many indulge in forbidden behaviors, and encourage her to do the same.
The story ends abruptly, and we do not know whether Offred survives or dies.
17. The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. I found this title listed among so many people’s favorite books that I had to buy it.
I love medieval and Renaissance art and architecture, and I especially love cathedrals. This book, set in the mid-1100s mostly in England, follows the lives of a prior, a master builder and his step-son, a ruthless earl and his son, an ambitious bishop, and some remarkably strong and courageous women. But at the heart of the story is politics, and the building of a cathedral.
The best parts for me were looking through the eyes of the builder and (later) his son, catching the vision of what the cathedral could be, figuring out innovations to enable the church to be larger, brighter, more beautiful.
At 973 pages, this is not a light read. But I did enjoy being immersed in this world, where villains can destroy with impunity and good people work hard for an elusive better future which, if it comes, can be wrested away in a moment. The romantic parts are very vivid, and I could have done without a particularly brutal rape scene.
16. Camino Island by John Grisham. Unlike most of his books, this is not a legal thriller in the sense that none of the main characters are lawyers. Yet there is a crime, and the story tells how the authorities figure it all out.
Five original hand-written manuscripts by F. Scott Fitzgerald are stolen from Princeton University, and the investigative company tasked with recovering them approaches a novelist to infiltrate the circle of the rare books dealer suspected of having them. In the course of the story, we come to love the novelist, the book dealer, and his colorful friends, while the desperate thief who’s already murdered an accomplice prepares to retake possession of the priceless documents. Really nice people getting hurt is a definite possibility.
There are lots of twists and turns in the plot, and it had me guessing all the way to the end. Definitely worth reading.
15. Crank It Out! The Surefire Way to Become a Super-Productive Writer by C.S. Lakin. Review here.
14. Intended for Harm by C.S. Lakin. Intended for Harm is a modern retelling of the story of Joseph in the Old Testament, one of my favorite stories in the Bible. As always in the retelling of a story, details are changed. This is a complex, generational story.
In the Bible, Isaac had twin sons, Jacob and Esau. He favored Esau, and his wife, Rebekah, loved Jacob.
In Intended for Harm, Isaac Abrams also had twin sons, Jake and Ethan. Ethan, his father’s favorite, stayed home to help run the family business. Jake left Colorado for UCLA after saving all his earnings for five years.
The Biblical Jacob fell in love with a beautiful young woman named Rachel. He agreed to work for her father for seven years in exchange for her hand in marriage. But the morning after his wedding, he discovered the woman behind the veil was Leah, Rachel’s older (and plainer) sister. When confronted, her father promises Rachel, too, for another seven years’ work.
In Intended for Harm, Jake meets a young woman named Leah as soon as he gets off the bus in Los Angeles. Leah is a poet, a musician, a free spirit, and a manic depressive. Jake falls in love with her, and they soon marry.
The Biblical Jacob had twelve sons and one daughter; with his wife Leah: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, and Dinah; with Bilhah, Rachel’s maidservant: Dan and Naphtali; with Zilpah, Leah’s maidservant: Gad and Asher; and with his wife Rachel: Joseph and Benjamin. Rachel died giving birth to Benjamin. The twelve sons became the twelve tribes of Israel.
In Intended for Harm, Jake and Leah have four children in rapid succession: Reuben, Simon, Levi, and Dinah. Then Leah runs off with her band to go on tour, and she never returns but sends Jake divorce papers.
Jake struggles to raise the kids on his own; the kids are damaged by their mother’s abandonment. Then Jake meets Rachel, who steps in to help him with the children. He needs her desperately, and they fall in love and get married. Soon, Rachel has a son, Joey, the apple of her eye. It’s a difficult birth, and she’s warned a second pregnancy would likely kill her, but she becomes pregnant again and dies before giving birth to Ben.
In both stories, Joseph (Joey) tells his brothers he has dreams about his brothers bowing to him. In both stories, the brothers hate him.
In Intended for Harm, Joseph also seems to have a miraculous gift of healing, which he recognizes is not his own power, but God working through him. As a small child, he heals a crushed butterfly, and later his father, but when his mother collapses toward the end of her pregnancy, he is unable to help her, and he suffers from sorrow, failure, and guilt. When Ben is diagnosed with a serious kidney ailment, he knows his life’s purpose is to save his brother’s life.
Not to spoil the whole book for you, I’ll just say there are more parallels between the Bible story and Lakin’s book, but the final climaxes are quite different. Lakin weaves faith into some of the characters, while others have no use for God at all. The title of her book comes right out of the Biblical story.
I found the story interesting, but the characters’ musings got repetitive after a while. I’d give it 3 stars out of five.
13. Old Broads Waxing Poetic compiled by Julie Kemp Pick and Susan Flett Swiderski. Review here.
12. Inferno by Dan Brown. I love all of Dan Brown’s books (though not the theology in The Da Vinci Code). I especially love Renaissance art, and the Robert Langdon series is full of it. I love Florence, a city at the top of my bucket list, and the setting for most of Inferno. The heart-pounding pace, the misdirection, and the looming catastrophe all make for an exciting thriller. I didn’t see the movie, but I generally like books better.
11. Fortunately, the Milk by Neil Gaiman. I’m embarrassed to admit this is the first book by Gaiman I’ve ever read. A father makes up a story to explain why it took him so long to come home from buying a quart of milk. It makes me hope someday I’m blessed with grandchildren to whom I can read this story.
10. Writing the Heart of Your Story: The Secret of Crafting an Unforgettable Novel by C.S. Lakin. I read a lot of writing books. This is the best book I’ve ever read about writing the novel. Review here.
9. Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell. Review here.
8. The Story of With: A Better Way to Live, Love, and Create by Allen Arnold. Review here.
7. Family Game Night by Mary E Lambert. Full disclosure: Mary Lambert is an acquaintance of mine. I met her last year at a writer’s retreat. She is one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. When her debut novel came out, I eagerly bought and read it.
Family Game Night way surpassed my expectations.
The story is about a family in crisis. Told in first person by Annabelle, the middle child of three, the book deals with the mother’s mental illness that manifests itself in hoarding, and how the family deals with it—not well. Denial and shame prevent any real progress from being made, until the point when it appears the family will dissolve.
Lambert perfectly captures the 12-year-old Annabelle’s voice. Her character comes alive on the page. Especially touching is the relationship between Annabelle and her younger sister, Leslie. Annabelle is tuned in to all of Leslie’s good qualities—her kindness, her ability to say the perfect words to dispel familial tension, and her quick intelligence. She also notices when Leslie’s anxieties push her toward the breaking point.
Although the topic is serious, Lambert manages to weave humor into the story. But she also captures some horrific moments, such as when Drew, the boy Annabelle likes, comes to her open front door just in time to witness her throw a screaming tantrum at her mom. (We’ve all been there/done that, or something close to it.)
Though Family Game Night is a middle grades book, it is so well-written that any adult who remembers being a pre-teen will enjoy it thoroughly.
6. The Hashimoto’s 4-Week Plan: A Holistic Guide to Treating Hypothyroidism by Karen Frazier. I may have Hashimoto’s disease. My doctor’s not concerned, but I am.
Frazier claims that nutritional intervention can halt Hashimoto’s, an autoimmune disease that targets the thyroid gland. She recommends starting out with a four-week cleanse, eliminating all foods that could trigger an auto-immune response. You know the usual suspects: wheat, dairy, basically anything that doesn’t fall into a paleo diet.
I can give up wheat. I can’t imagine giving up cheese and yogurt, too. I suppose I could cut way back if it meant improving my well-being.
But I would find it difficult to implement Frazier’s meal plan for one big reason–my husband’s diet consists completely of “outlawed” foods; he would not be willing to eat the foods on the plan. Which would mean two sets of dinners, every day.
I can’t say how helpful the plan really is, since I haven’t tried it. However, I’ll at least prepare a couple of the recipes Frazier provides. Some sound really delicious.
5. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel by Deborah Moggach. This novel makes me want to retire in India.
4. poemcrazy: freeing your life with words by Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge. Review here.
3. Alien Contact for Idiots by Edward Hoornaert. After reading Newborn (see #1 below), I knew I wanted to read the previous books in the series. Alien Contact for Idiots is book one. It tells the story of Ell Harmon, a scientist chosen to be among the first to make contact with aliens on Kwadra, an island that splashed down next to Vancouver Island in our world but was originally located on a parallel earth in a future dimension.
It’s a delightful story, full of twists and turns. Hoornaert writes sci-fi romance, and be forewarned, at least one of the scenes is extra-spicy.
2. Mercy Inn: A Christmas Novella by Lee Warren. Three diverse travelers, all of them struggling with personal issues, get caught in a late December blizzard, and take refuge in a collection of cabins—an inn that doesn’t appear on any lodging maps of the area. Soon, a power outage forces them to move into the lodge, where the managers live, even though they’d all rather be alone in their misery. The rest of the novella tells how they reached out to one another and helped each other out of the emotional rut they were in. It’s a great concept.
I was a little disappointed with the writing, though, for lacking sparkle. And at least one part was a little far-fetched: when the country singer, about to make a comeback, offers the young disabled woman, who’s studying to be a dental hygienist, a job as her personal manager (because of her social media savvy) at a six-figure salary. Really?
I also wish Warren hadn’t revealed the true identity of the innkeepers (angels) to the reader so early on. Better to drop a hint at the conclusion.
Nevertheless, Mercy Inn is worth a read as a Christmas diversion.
Newborn by Edward Hoornaert. I was introduced to this sci-fi romance by Ed’s excerpts of it through Weekend Writing Warriors. Over the course of a few months of 8- to 10-sentence snippets, I became totally intrigued with Jo Beaverpaw, the heroine.Jo is born fully grown in the woods, knowing that she has a mission: to assassinate Squitt, the leader of a rebellion in Kwadra (an island nation that splashed down next to Vancouver Island in our world, but was originally located on a parallel earth in a future dimension). She knows just enough to complete her mission, and then end her life. But things do not go according to plan.
The most interesting parts of this character are how she accumulates knowledge, and how she yearns to be a normal human being–but is that even possible? There’s so much she, and we readers, don’t understand.
In the beginning, the other characters (and I) were very suspicious of Jo and her intentions. Although committed to her Destiny, as time passes she becomes attracted to Darby, Scritt’s bodyguard, and longs to be a person with a future. She considers what is good and what is evil, and how to discern the difference between the two.
Hoornaert’s writing is suspenseful and fast moving. Both Jo’s life and Darby’s are in just as much danger as Scritt’s, and Jo’s reprogramed to ensure the success of her mission.
The book is a fast read, and very satisfying. Although a stand-alone, it is Book 3 of the Alien Contact for Idiots series, which I am now going to have to read in its entirety.
Rereading the same book produces new insights because the reader is a different person. Indeed, a good book is very much like a mirror: The glass is the same year after year, but the reflection in it changes over time.–Christopher B. Nelson, president of St. John’s College
Books read in 2016 (the goal was 48; sigh):
39. How to Write Funny: Add Humor to Every Kind of Writing edited by John B Kachuba. Review here.
38. C Is for Christmas: The History, Personalities, and Meaning of Christ’s Birth by David W. and Warren W. Wiersbe. I have a tradition of reading at least one Christmas book during December. I bought this in Kindle format a few years ago, and chose it as my seasonal reading this year.
The Wiersbe father-and-son team examined every incarnation-related scripture in the Bible, Old and New Testaments, and indexed them in C is for Christmas. The topics are arranged alphabetically, covering concepts such as Advent, Bethlehem, Epiphany, Glory, Immanuel, Joy, Messiah, Peace, Shepherds, Tidings, Word, and Zechariah. This makes it easy to look up the significance of any nativity-related word. The explanations are so thorough, however, that the same information is often given under several headings, making for redundancy if you read the book cover to cover.
The best way to use this book is as an advent devotional, picking and choosing your articles each day. C is for Christmas is a great resource for family devotions or for children’s bedtime stories during December, because the clear, concise language is readily understood by children.
37. The Martian by Andy Weir. This is the book that the Matt Damon movie was based on. It was a fabulous movie. Of course, the book is even better than the movie.
The Martian was recommended to me by a fellow writer, because I was having a problem writing my work-in-progress, in which my main character spends lots of time alone in the woods, with no one to interact with. Astronaut Mark Watney, the protagonist of The Martian, was unintentionally abandoned on Mars when he was presumed dead during a severe dust storm that forced his team to abort their mission. He spends nearly two years as the only living being on a dead planet.
The theme of The Martian is perseverance. Watney never gives up, even though the odds of rescue are slim. He carefully calculates strategies that will prolong his life and enable him to escape. Even when setbacks occur, he spends little energy on negativity. Instead, he searches for solutions.
I think The Martian should be required reading in high schools. Of course, then students will demand excellent science programs as well…
36. Chaos by Patricia Cornwell. I’m a huge fan of Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta series. This installment takes place mostly in the space of 24 hours and in a very small geographic area. Roughly 200 of the 385 pages are set at the crime scene. Much of the narrative is procedural, which is par for the series. Fortunately, it is frequently punctuated with Kay interacting with other investigators or recalling other incidents that may or not be related to the death she’s investigating, a young bicyclist who Kay spoke with twice that same day.
The plot is complex, with many twists and turns. The characters we love are all here: Benton, Marino, Lucy, Janet, and even Dorothy, Kay’s self-centered sister, who makes a surprise visit. A previous villain resurfaces.
The novel kept me guessing until the very end. In fact, Chapter 45 (of 47) is the most stress-provoking thing I’ve read in a long time. (Don’t spoil it for yourself by reading it first.)
35. The Whistler by John Grisham. I love Grisham’s complexly layered legal thrillers. The Whistler doesn’t disappoint. Two investigators for the Florida Board on Judicial Conduct receive a tip about a judge who apparently has been taking bribes from a casino operation for virtually her entire distinguished career. As they research the claim and interview contacts, they gradually uncover a deadly crime ring, putting themselves and the whistleblower in danger. Compelling page-turner.
34. My Rhyme-Time Bible for Little Ones by Donna Clark Goodrich. I’m counting this as a book read, even though it’s a children’s book. Review here.
33. Turbo Twenty-Three by Janet Evanovich. I will always buy the latest Stephanie Plum novel. They are one (actually, 23, so far) of my guilty pleasures. They are not great examples of writing, but I love the characters, and feel like I know them personally. Also, our previous address was in Hamilton Square, NJ, around the corner from Stephanie’s hometown of Trenton.
This installment of the life of bounty hunter Stephanie includes under-cover work at an ice cream factory, a serial murderer clown, and Stephanie’s grandmother dyeing her hair red and dating a tattooed biker bartender. Evanovich is always good for a laugh and a quick read.
32. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. My third or fourth reread of this book. Review here.
31. High Fidelity by Nick Hornby. I never saw the movie that came out in 2000 or read the book it was based on, written in 1995. But a lot of people called it one of their favorite books, so it was on my TBR list for a couple of decades, and I finally read it.
Why? The main character, Rob, is pathetic. He owns a marginally solvent record store, and has two employees. He blames everybody else for his lack of success, including his ex-girlfriends and his co-workers. But his problem is he’s an unmotivated whiner. He’s the sort of person I take pains to avoid.
It’s unbelievable to me when his last girlfriend comes back. What is it she sees in him? And she works so hard on his behalf. He doesn’t begin to grow until Chapter 34, the next-to-last chapter of the book. It’s too little, too late.
Virtually the entire book is three 30-something guys arguing about which obscure band is better than the other. Pointless and boring. Or incredibly dated for me to be just getting around to it
30. Clapton: The Autobiography by Eric Clapton. Review here.
29. Beautiful Hero: How We Survived the Khmer Rouge by Jennifer H. Lau. Review here.
28. The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler. Review here.
27. The Audacity to be a Writer: 50 Inspiring Articles on Writing that Could Change Your Life by Bryan Hutchinson, et al. Review here.
26. Blind Spot by Laura Ellen. Two years ago I attended a day-long writer’s workshop where Ms. Ellen was a presenter. She held a drawing for some of her books, and I won my choice. I decided on this one because she talked about writing it in her presentation, and it sounded interesting. I even got her to autograph it. When I got home, I slipped it into a bookshelf and promptly forgot about it.
Fast forward to August, 2016. Why is everything in my To Be Read skyscraper non-fiction? I desperately searched my bookshelves for fiction I haven’t read yet. I could always reread one of my old favorites, but I really wanted a new escape. When I found Blind Spot, I had no recollection of buying it or how I even came to possess it. Seeing the signature on the title page, though, brought it all back.
High school student Roz (short for Roswell) would rather no one knew about her macular degeneration, a condition that was slowly blinding her. As a result, she often couldn’t recognize people or see the expressions on their faces, confusing her and causing her to misread situations. When Tricia, one of her classmates, disappears (and her body is found six months later), Roz realizes she’s one of the last persons who saw her alive. Why can’t she remember the details of that night?
This is a difficult book to read because of its bleak subject matter: drugs, exploitation, mental illness, date rape. Was Tricia murdered? By whom? People are not what they seem. Who can Roz trust?
As unpleasant as the subject is, I was captivated by the story and by the skill of the writer. Ellen knows how to twist a plot.
I am an old lady who loves to read young adult novels. However, because of the mature subject matter, I don’t recommend passing it on to your teenager without previewing it. Parents need to judge whether their kids are ready for something like this.
25. The Book Thief by Markus Muzak. I’ve owned this book for a long time, and started reading it once before, but didn’t get too far. I do not like the narrator: Death. I find his comments extremely distracting from the story. I loved the characters, but I do not like the way they address each other with insults. It slowed down my appreciation of Rosa, who turned out to be a very compassionate person, but disguised it well behind her gruff exterior. The Book Thief is the third book I’ve read this year that deals with the Holocaust (see #19 and #6 below).
24. The 15-Minute Writer: How to Write Your Book in Only 15 Minutes a Day by Jennifer Blanchard. Review here.
23. You Are a Writer (So Start Acting Like One) by Jeff Goins. I first read this book two years ago, after I resigned from my teaching job and returned to the writing world. In this short book Goins encourages people who want to be writers to start, and offers beginning writers strategies to keep at it. It’s a worthwhile reread when you need an extra boost.
22. Outlining Your Novel Workbook: Step-by-Step Exercises for Planning Your Best Book by K.M. Weiland. Review here.
20. Totally Tangled by Sandy Steen Bartholomew and 21. Zentangle® untangled: Inspiration and Prompts for Meditative Drawing by Kass Hall. Reviews here.
19. Night by Elie Wiesel. This is the second book I’ve read this year written by a Holocaust survivor. (See #6 below.) Wiesel, a social activist and a professor at Boston University as well as the author of more than forty books, passed away on July 2, 2016. Ashamed that I’d never read any of his work, I bought Night.
Is it possible to like a book about genocide if you’re also horrified by it? This is a beautifully written book about suffering and giving up hope and not giving up hope. I believe much of the credit for the book’s appeal goes to his wife, Marion, who translated the 2009 edition that I read.
18. The 4 Hour Workweek, Expanded And Updated: Expanded And Updated, With Over 100 New Pages Of Cutting Edge Content by Timothy Ferriss. Review here.
17. Found by Margaret Peterson Haddix. I bought this book because of this terrific trailer:
Spoiler alert: If you don’t want any more of the plot revealed, scroll down to book #16.
All the clues were there, but I didn’t catch on that this is a YA time-travel book. I thought it was a YA mystery. I probably wouldn’t have read it if I’d realized it was sci-fi. And that would have been a shame because it’s a great read.
As Jonah and Chip try to make sense of the letters they receive, they discover they have something else in common–something that the FBI knows more about than they do. They don’t know who they can trust as they realize they are in danger.
Found is the first book in Haddix’s The Missing series. I don’t think I’ll buy all the books (there are seven more), but I’m probably going to have to make a trip to the library…
16. Donuts in an Empty Field by Rachel Barnard. I was introduced to this book by an excerpt posted in the Weekend Writing Warriors challenge. I was so intrigued by the bucket list Vanessa found in her father’s study (five years after his death) that I had to buy the book. I read a lot of Young Adult novels, because I’m writing one. (Or, I’m writing a YA novel, because that’s what I like to read.) This is a good one.
I’ve never experienced a traumatic experience, but the flashback “memories” that torment Vanessa seem to me to be accurate depictions of PTSD. Vanessa’s dad rescued a little boy from a burning restaurant and died of smoke inhalation. Certain situations trigger Vanessa’s attacks, and even though she’s in therapy, she’s not making headway through her grief.
Her best friend, Nichole, tries to help her by encouraging Vanessa to try new things. This strategy partially backfires as Vanessa engages in risky behavior. To make things worse, Ben, the boy she blames for her father’s death, tries to intrude into their social circle. Bearing disfiguring scars from his burns, Ben should elicit sympathy, but instead, he’s shunned.
Barnard successfully portrays the secret lives of teenagers. She deals with uncomfortable topics, such as the shame young people feel about things out of their control, like Nichole’s mother’s hoarding. One aspect that bothers me is that Vanessa’s heart never softens toward Ben until it’s too late. Yet, in real life, everything doesn’t resolve neatly.
Donuts in an Empty Field was recently released as Book 1 of a series. I am looking forward to finding out what happens to Vanessa in the future.
15. One Year There: One Soldier’s Year in South Korea During 1968 by Robert Holewinski. Review here.
14. Acne, Asthma, and Other Signs You Might Be Half Dragon by Rena Rocford. I don’t want to know how some people in Rocford’s world are born part-dragon, part-unicorn, part-gryphon, or part-troll. Poor Allyson–her heritage has been kept secret from her, but when someone finally clues her in, she discovers her school is full of Kin, who recognize her for what she is. And they are all in peril.
This YA book has it all–action, humor, fantasy. A delight to read.
13. After Me by Joyce Scarbrough. Review here.
12. The Girl in my Dreams by Logan Byrne. I read an excerpt of this young adult novel on Kindle Scout and recommended it. When it was chosen for publication, I received a free copy.
The first half of the book describes the romance of two high school students (and next-door neighbors). I have to say Theodore treats Annabelle the way I wanted my high school boyfriend to treat me, and I fell in love with him a little. Just when their relationship seems to be just too good to be true, Belle is killed in a car accident along with three other students.
Then the story passes into fantasy because Theodore continues to see Belle–in his dreams every night.
This is a good story, but not a great story. There is one elephant in the room that is never addressed: who the driver is who caused the accident. The excuse is that the police did not release the name because the driver is a minor; but realistically, the people in the community would know; the kids in the school would know. I even thought I knew, and I was waiting for the shoe to drop, but it didn’t, which left me very unsatisfied.
The story went from beginning to end, with no substantial subplots, so it felt too simple, too shallow. However, Byrne is a promising author, and I hope to read more from him.
11. Little Miss Lovesick by Kitty Bucholtz. Sydney, a Michigan real estate agent, is trying to move on after a painful breakup. Though she’s not looking for romance, she keeps bumping into it, and falling into one disaster after another. Sweet romance with likable protagonists and a truly hatable ex-boyfriend, Little Miss Lovesick is perfect beach reading.
10. Jumpstart Your Creativity: 10 Jolts to Get Creative and Stay Creative by Steven Rowell and Shawn Doyle. I bought this book based on the title, not realizing it is about accessing your creativity in the workplace. Nonetheless, many of the ideas in this book have applications to the artistic process (plus, many artists have paycheck jobs to help pay the bills; it couldn’t hurt to use these ideas at work). Review coming June 21, 2016.
9. Caskets from Costco by Kelly Wilson. When Wilson’s beloved father-in-law passed away, her emotions hit rock bottom. No stranger to depression, her grief was more than she could bear. In this memoir, she explores how counseling helped her come to terms with a painful past, including childhood sexual abuse, two premature births, and a near-death experience. Despite the tragedy she endured, Wilson tells her story with humor, engaging me and holding my interest from first page to last.
8. Good Poems for Hard Times collected by Garrison Keillor. My favorite collection of poems, I reread this every year or so. Review here.
7. Dreamlander by K.M. Weiland. Chris is a Gifted, destined to travel between two parallel universes. Reluctant to accept his fate, he unwittingly damages both worlds. Can he make things right again? And what will it cost him? Great writing–Weiland creates engaging characters and worlds.
6. Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. This book often appears on lists of Most Influential Books. Frankl was a Holocaust survivor. His description of the suffering he witnessed is heartbreaking. However, he discovered that people could face devastating circumstances with dignity if they could find one thing to hold on to: purpose.
5. The Far End of Happy by Kathryn Craft. Compelling. Based on actual events, a suicide/standoff situation. Intense. Well-written, rings true. The responses of the women who cared for him.
4. Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. Review here.
3. The Only Pirate at the Party by Lindsey Stirling. Review here.
2. Gateway to Dreams: 3 Simple Steps to Dream Interpretation by Teresa Ward. I am a little disappointed by this book. I bought it because seven of the 11 reviews it had on Amazon gave it 5 stars.
This is not a 5 star book. I’d give it a 3, because it did give me some insight with a novel I’m working on. But it was not very well-written.
The book really doesn’t get started until Chapter 5. The first four chapters could have been condensed into a more cohesive, less rambling introduction.
Also, the second half of the book shamelessly promotes the author’s Dreamscapes® Dream Dictionary app. I had the feeling she mentioned it a hundred times, so I went back through the whole book and counted. It was only eleven times, but it felt like a hundred. Three times would have been plenty to get her message across.
She used some of her examples more than once, too! The organization of her material could have been more precise! The manuscript could have used a couple more go-throughs before publication! Also, the author overuses exclamation points!
- X by Sue Grafton. I love Sue Grafton! I’ve been reading her Kinsey Millhone mysteries since A is for Alibi. Her characters feel like family. The Xs in the story are of passing significance–the first letter in a character’s last name, a mark on a storage box of documents, the crisscrossing of a trellis. Kinsey solves an art ransom and a serial murder case.