January Minireviews – Part 2

Sometimes I don’t feel like writing a full review for whatever reason, either because life is busy and I don’t have time, or because a book didn’t stir me enough.  Sometimes, it’s because a book was so good that I just don’t have anything to say beyond that I loved it!  Frequently, I’m just wayyy behind on reviews and am trying to catch up.  For whatever reason, these are books that only have a few paragraphs of thoughts from me.

Minireviews for books that I’ve read in the same month that I’m writing the reviews?! This is madness!!

The Secret Quest by Margaret Sutton – 3.5*

//published 1962//

This is my final Judy Bolton book for now.  I’ve really enjoyed revisiting this series, and now own almost all of them.  Maybe someday I’ll find the missing 10ish that I don’t yet own.  I really do love the way these stories build on each other and the characters get older with time.  Judy and her friends are just super likable, and even if some of their adventures are absurd, it’s all in good fun.

Sophia & Augusta by Norma Lee Clark – 4*

//published 1979//

This was a fun little Regency read – always nice to have one where the sisters actually love each other and want to help each other.  It went on just a smidge too long – there was a point where the happy endings could have been handed out, but Clark decided to add ONE MORE TWIST to keep it going for another 40 pages or so, and that was just a bit too much.  But still, overall good fun with likable characters and nothing too crazy.

How to Stop Time by Matt Haig – 3*

//published 2017//

I had a tough time with this one, probably because I was reading it at the same time that I was reading Stoner, which sort of made me focus more on the negative, depressing aspects of this story rather than the positive, happy ones.  Basically, the concept is that the main character, Tom, is someone who lives for centuries, rather than decades.  He was born in the 1600’s (I think… it’s been a while since I read this one, may have been late 1500’s lol), and now, in the present day, only looks as thought he is in his mid-40’s.  Quite a long while ago, Tom was approached by a group known as the Albatross Society, comprised of other individuals who live ridiculously long lives.  The goal of the Albatross Society is to collect and protect long-lived individuals, and to make sure that the general public don’t find out that the Albatrosses exist.

So yes, there’s this whole thing of Tom just trying to live a regular life, parts of Tom’s backstory being filled in, and a sense of unease concerning the leader of the Albatross Society.  I had trouble really getting into this book, especially since Tom’s (extremely long) life was mostly depressing.  Also, yes, he’s lived a long time, but he has been a “regular” kind of guy most of the time, so it seemed a bit eye-roll-y that he managed to be friends with lots of famous historical figures.  All in all, while the concept was interesting, I just couldn’t get into it.  I’m also almost completely positive that I either started this book or one very similar to it several years ago and didn’t finish, but can’t remember for sure (it seems like the main character of the other book was Ben??  Does this sound familiar to anyone??).  As for this one – not bad, but not particularly memorable.

The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery – 5*

//published 1926// I’ve never been to PEI, but Grandma went and brought me back this copy <3 //

Oh wow, this is one of my all-time favorites.  I’ve read and reread this book so many times, and love it more every time.  The story begins on Valancy’s 29th birthday.  She is unmarried and lives with her widowed mother and widowed cousin.  They are not destitute, but are definitely poor, and they are part of a large family “clan” – the kind that has innumerable traditions and rules and not-to-be-missed gatherings.  Valancy has always been rather meek and downtrodden, living in constant fear of offending her relatives.  But when she finds out that she only has a year to live, she realizes that she no longer has anything to fear and begins to live her life the way that she wants.  Which, in 1926 isn’t anything too terribly crazy, but since I ought to have been born in 1897 myself, this book is just at my pace.  Valancy is funny and delightful, and her journey of self-discovery and independence is wonderful.  Her love story resonates with me a great deal as well.  If you’ve never read this book, you definitely should.

And, if you’re interested in more of my gushing about it, I also reviewed it back in 2015.

Cozy Minimalist Home by Myquillyn Smith – 4*

//published 2018//

A couple of years ago I read and absolutely loved The Nesting Place by this author.  While I had picked up that book hoping for some advice on home decorating, what I found was a book about contentment and accepting the fact that life isn’t perfect.  It’s a fantastic book that I still pick up and flip through from time to time just for a bit of encouragement.

So, I was intrigued to pick up Smith’s next book, especially since her style in The Nesting Place did not seem remotely minimal.  In this book, Smith looks at the concept of minimalism and talks about how it is possible to be more minimalist without your home becoming sterile and barren.  While I didn’t find this book as engaging as The Nesting Place, it still had a lot of useful information.  Smith is more practical in this book, actually going step by step through decorating and furnishing a room.  She doesn’t backtrack on her concepts from her first book, but does build on them and look at how sometimes decorating means leaving empty spaces so that there is room to actually live in your home.

There are a LOT of snarky reviews of this book on Goodreads, and I honestly don’t understand them, and was a bit shocked at how harsh some of them were.  Like… it’s published by Zondervan so the odds are extremely high that the author is going to mention God at some point (and it’s not like Smith spends the whole book preaching the Gospel or anything, it’s more of a side thing, that part of her inspiration for creativity is because of God’s creativity).  Yes, her style is similar to Joanna Gaines, but it’s just a popular style right now, and I don’t think that makes her a “Joanna Gaines wanna-be without the real style.”  My favorite was the person complaining about how Smith spent too much time talking about her personal experiences – um, hello?  That’s actually the point of the book!  Anyway, all that to say, this book may not be for you, and that’s okay.  But if you are looking for a simple base of where to start with how to decorate your home, this book offers some basics in a warm, friendly, approachable way.

Beartown // by Fredrik Backman

//published 2016//

One of Litsy’s many reading challenges is #AuthoraMonth.  In December, anyone who wanted to participate voted on which authors to include for the year, and the top twelve candidates were each assigned a month of 2020.  I haven’t even heard of half the authors that were chosen, so I’m going to try to read a book or two for each author every month.  Backman is January’s author, and he’s one of those writers whose books I have seen around and have thought I should read, but just never have.  I decided to read  Beartown and A Man Called Ove, which seem to be his two most popular works, plus I remembered that Stephanie really loved Beartown a lot. I enjoyed both books (I just finished Ove last night), even if Beartown did somewhat emotionally destroy me!

I’m really behind the bandwagon on Beartown, so most of you have probably already read it.  But in case you haven’t, it’s a story that takes place in Sweden (and was originally written/published there) in a very, very small town that is slowly disappearing.  One of the few things left in this town is its hockey team, which, this year in particular, is brilliant.  The team is two games away from winning the national championships.  If they do, it can mean so many good things for the town and for specific players and their families.  The tough part is that this is the junior team – all of this pressure is on the shoulders of a handful of teenagers.

Trying to describe and summarize this book is almost impossible, because it’s about so many different things.  Hockey yes, but I wouldn’t describe it as a sports book.  I know basically nothing about hockey, yet I’m still thinking about this incredibly poignant book weeks after finishing it.  It’s really a book about human nature, and the people who live in this small town, and hockey is just the catalyst for everything.

I’m not sure that city people will “get” this book to its fullest.  Unless you’ve lived in and experienced a small town that is dying, house by house, year by year, I don’t think you can be hit with the full impact of what Beartown is facing.  It sounds melodramatic to say that winning the championship could “save the town” – but it’s true.  And it’s that kind of pressure that makes Beartown so gripping.  There is a lot more at stake here than just some kids getting to feel good about winning a game, and Backman does an amazing job building up those other stakes.

There is a LOT of stuff going on in this book.  There are soooo many stories and characters and situations woven throughout this book, and it’s all done brilliantly.  There is a cast of five million characters yet I never had any trouble keeping them straight.  Backman’s skill is in making each and every one of those characters someone that you can, even if it’s only for a brief moment, empathize with.  No matter how much of a jerk they are, no matter what they do or say, he always manages to give you at least one second of time where you can see what this person is thinking and why they are thinking it and even though you know they are so, so wrong, you can’t help but think I get it.  And that’s what makes this book so powerful.

There is a situation in this story where it’s one person’s word against another, and sides are taken, and people are full of rage, and it’s all done quite well.  The reader already knows the truth about the situation, and so the reader knows who to believe, and the reader is led to view those who don’t believe that person as wrong.  Yet I found myself thinking a lot about this, because at the end of the day it was just one person’s story against another, and I wonder how this story would have read if Backman hadn’t told the readers the truth of what happened until the end – how would I have viewed everyone then.  Situations like this are complicated and delicate and confusing and almost impossible to find the truth in, and I almost wonder how it would have read if the reader never did know what really happened.

Anyway. This wasn’t exactly a happy story.  There were so many times that reading this book made me feel both angry and depressed.  Yet at the same time, Backman’s writing somehow manages to keep his story from drifting into the “hopeless” territory.  I loved everyone, even the people who weren’t very lovable.  I don’t usually read books and think “This should be a reading club book!” but I thought that about this one.  There is a lot to unpack and discuss and contemplate, yet at its heart it is still an excellent story – it doesn’t read like a book that was written so that people would have things to discuss at book club.

In the end, 4* for Beartown, a book that I didn’t really love, yet can’t stop thinking about.

 

Stoner // by John Williams

//published 1965//

As I have mentioned here before, I’m currently part of a Litsy traveling book club called LMPBC (Litsy Mark-up Postal Book Club).  It’s divided into groups of four – each member chooses a book to read/annotate, and then once a month everyone in the group mails their book to the next person on the list.  You read that book, marking it up as you go, and then mail it to the next person, until you get your own book back.

All that to say, I probably wouldn’t have read  Stoner on my own, but since it was an LMPBC pick, I stuck it out.  I don’t regret reading it, but it’s definitely a downer of a book, and those of you who visit here regularly will know that I’m more of a happy-book kind of girl.

The title for Stoner is from the last name of the book’s main character – William Stoner, born in 1891 to a poor farmer and his wife in Missouri.  The book follows Stoner’s life from his birth, through his education and career at the University of Missouri, all the way to his death in 1956.  It’s a very linear narrative, for the most part following Stoner’s life year by year, touching on events important and small, gradually building a picture of a regular, everyday man.

Because Stoner isn’t someone who is important, or who accomplishes something great, or who learns a major lesson and changes his life.  He’s just a poor farmer’s son who becomes an English professor.  Williams tells us from the very beginning that

He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses.  …  Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particularly esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers.

This was a masterful book.  Despite the fact that I didn’t really enjoy it, and wasn’t even sure if I liked the main character, I wanted to keep reading.  Nothing huge happens to Stoner, yet I couldn’t stop wondering what was going to happen next.  I found myself filled with rage at small injustices, wanting to shake Stoner for not standing up for himself, and feeling completely heartsick about his marriage.  Despite not having any great events, it was not a neutral book.  Honestly, I was exhausted when I finished it – completely wrung out from all the feelings.

I’m not sure what else to say about it.  There were times that I wanted to shake Stoner for being so passive about what was happening with his life and family.  He marries a rather dreadful woman – one who appears to have some serious mental health problems – and does everything he can to make her happy, yet at the end of his life, blames himself for their miserable marriage.  He has an affair with the great love of his life, yet lets her walk away in order to avoid scandal and complications.  (Not that I agree with him having an affair in the first place, but even in this “rebellion” he’s still incredibly passive about everything.)  At the end of the book, Stoner really made me look at my own life and wonder where I just let things slip by because it’s easier than fighting for what’s best.

Not a happy book.  Not even a book I can exactly recommend.  Yet a deeply thoughtful, beautifully written, intense book that will stick with me for a long, long time.

January Minireviews

Sometimes I don’t feel like writing a full review for whatever reason, either because life is busy and I don’t have time, or because a book didn’t stir me enough.  Sometimes, it’s because a book was so good that I just don’t have anything to say beyond that I loved it!  Frequently, I’m just wayyy behind on reviews and am trying to catch up.  For whatever reason, these are books that only have a few paragraphs of thoughts from me.

Almost done with December reviews!  :-D

The Martian by Andy Weir – 4*

//published 2011//

This one has been on my radar for a while, but I’m not usually into “space” books, so I wasn’t sure if I would really like this one.  Set in what appears to be the not-too-distant future, Mark is part of a NASA crew set to land on Mars and spend some time living there, studying the planet.  When an emergency forces the rest of the team to bail, thinking Mark is dead, he becomes the only man on Mars.  Determined to survive and to make it home, the book is a combination of Mark’s journal entries and third-person narration as to what is happening on earth as well.

Like I said, I didn’t particularly have high expectations for this one, and even assumed that it would be a DNF, especially since there were multiple F-bombs on the first page.  However, Mark’s wry sense of humor hooked me almost right away (and the swearing calmed down a lot, too).  I know a lot of reviews actually complain about how Mark is always making humorous remarks, but as someone who survives life by finding something to laugh about, I was here for it.  I did find his almost impossibly bad luck to be a little wearing after a while – every time he would start to get some momentum, something else tragic would happen and we’re back to square one.  I have no idea if any of the sciencey aspects check out, and I frankly skipped a lot of paragraphs that were numbers/explanations, because that ain’t me, but for pure storytelling fun, this one was an unexpected win.

Winter Holiday by Arthur Ransome – 5*

//published 1933// More importantly – got these gorgeous Jonathan Cape editions from England!! I’m soooo excited!!! //

This is the fourth Swallows & Amazons book, and like the other three, was an absolute delight.  The children are back at the lake where their adventures started, during that awkward period of time after Christmas but before school starts again.  Another pair of children are introduced, so it was fun to see the original group from a slightly outside perspective.  The whole adventure was just so much fun, and really made me want a houseboat.  I can’t recommend these books highly enough.

Northern Lights by Nora Roberts – 4*

//published 2004//

First off, who names a child Ignatius?!

This was a typical Nora Roberts story – likable characters, engaging plot, too many sexy times.  Nate was a police officer in a big city (can’t remember which one) when his partner was killed, leaving Nate feeling guilty and depressed.  He accepts a position as sheriff in a very small town in Alaska, assuming that the most excitement he’ll face there is the occasional aggressive moose.  However, when a body is discovered in a mountain cave, a disappearance from years ago turns out to be a murder – and Nate believes the murderer is still living in town.

The mystery in this one was extremely well paced, with multiple potential murderers around.  As always, Roberts gives us an incredibly likable protagonist, and plenty of engaging secondary characters as well.  The setting of Alaska – remote, wild, beautiful, dangerous – is drawn very well.  I can’t imagine living somewhere with only a few hours of daylight in the winter!  I loved watching Nate begin to take interest in life again, although, ironically, I felt like the romance was the weaker part of this story overall, as not a lot of connection is built between the two of them before it’s suddenly FOREVER LOVE.  But since I liked both characters, I rolled with it.

Roberts books are always rated Mature, but if you don’t mind skipping a few sexy scenes, there is a lot of good story to go around.

The Man in the Brown Suit by Agatha Christie – 5*

//published 1924//

On Litsy there is an informal group reading one Christie book per month in published order, and December’s book was this one (we have some discussion questions at the end of the month, which is great fun).  I’ve read all Christie’s books before, but this is a lovely way to revisit them yet again, because they really never get old to me.  The Man in the Brown Suit is honestly one of my very favorites.  It’s absolutely ridiculous, with spies and jewel thieves and tall, dark, mysterious men, but the whole thing is such a rollicking and humorous adventure that I just lap it all up.  I’ve read this one many, many times, but it’s lost none of its charm for me, and I’m still just a little bit in love with Sir Eustace.

Also, I’ve read this one before – here’s my review from 2016 with a smidge more information on the book!

The Storm Keeper’s Island by Catherine Doyle – 3.5*

//published 2018//

I’m sorry if I keep mentioning Litsy, but a lot of my reading activities are somewhat centered there now.  It’s just such a fun, warm community of readers!  Another Litten arranged a group she calls #NewYearWhoDis, where each participant lists out 3-10 of their top books of 2019.  The girl organizing the thing then took the time to sift through everyone’s lists and pair them together with like-minded readers.  The matches traded lists, agreeing to try at least one book from the other person’s list in January.  All that to say, I hadn’t heard of The Storm Keeper’s Island before I saw it on my match’s list.  It’s a middle grade fantasy read and was overall good fun, although there were some minor continuity problems (my favorite is where they’re outside in the middle of a horrific, rainy, windy storm yet somehow manage to light some candles with zero trouble…).  The main problem is that even though this book had a decent ending, there are a lot of lead-ins for the sequel, which my library doesn’t have!  So if any of you have some extra books in this series just lying about, I’d love to borrow them.  :-D

10 Blind Dates // by Ashley Elston

//published 2019//

On the cusp of Christmas break, Sophie’s parents have decided to drive a couple hours away to stay with Sophie’s older sister, who is very pregnant and experiencing some complications.  Sophie convinces her parents to go without her, promising to go stay with her grandparents in the next town.  Of course, what Sophie is  really excited about is getting to spend some time with her boyfriend, Griffin.  But when Sophie shows up at a party, excited to tell Griffin that she’ll have plenty of time to hang out with him over the next couple of weeks, she overhears him talking with a friend about how  he’s excited about having a few weeks away from Sophie – as a sort of test to see if he wants to actually break up with her.  Sophie is hurt and upset – she breaks up with Griffin and takes off for her grandparents’ house.  There, her boisterous extended family steps up to the plate, and before Sophie can stop it, her grandma has come with a brilliant plan – they’ll all take turns setting Sophie up on blind dates over Christmas break.  Cue a white board, sign up sheets, and one get-out-of-a-date-free card – Sophie’s family is determined that she’ll have a fun and romantic couple of weeks.

Okay, I have to say – I genuinely loved this book.  Honestly, this is what I was hoping for when I read Match Made in Manhattan (which, if you missed it, I ended up DNFing and ranting about in my December Rearview).  Of course, this was YA edition, but it was the kind of YA that is still just so fun and happy that I found it overall enjoyable and entertaining.

The main reason is Sophie’s family.  They’re fantastic.  I come from a big family myself (although not as much extended family as Sophie, sadly), and know how rapidly things spiral out of control when another family member gets an idea of how you should run your life.  But for the most part, everything happening to Sophie is because her family genuinely loves her and wants her to be happy, and that’s what makes this story work.

Throughout the story, Sophie is reconnecting with her family. Even though they don’t live super far apart, it’s still enough that she’s in a different school district from her cousins, and they’ve grown apart over the years.  I loved how both Sophie and her cousins realized that they could have handled their relationship better in the past, and how they all grew from it.

Sophie’s relationship with her sister is also a delight.  The sister (whose name I can’t remember and neglected to write down) is having complications with her pregnancy, but it’s obvious that she and Sophie are close.  I loved their text conversations and Sophie’s love and concern for her sister.  Mild spoiler here, but nothing bad happens to Sophie’s sister or the baby, which I also loved.  For a minute, I was scared that the author was going to do something tragic just to provide some angst, but that didn’t happen and I was so glad.

This was a solid 4* for me.  The main reason this book doesn’t rank higher was that on one of the dates they end up at a porn flick – it first off didn’t seem like something that could actually happen (a drive-in theater that only plays porn??  I just… no, I just can’t buy it, especially since I don’t particularly remember them having their ID checked when they got there…) and secondly just felt completely unnecessary and contrived to give the story some “edge.”  However, that was really the only date that felt creepy – for the most part they were good fun.  There were a few other eye-rolling moments of “look how I can make my book edgy if I try,” but not too bad overall.

If you’re looking for something lighthearted and fun (and a smidge Christmasy), 10 Blind Dates fits the bill. I’ll definitely be looking for more of Elston’s books in the future.

Little Face // Sophie Hannah

//published 2007//

Sophie Hannah is definitely one of those authors that I see around the blogosphere a lot.  She writes mysteries, and it seems like everyone has read and enjoyed her books.  I’ve had her on my list for quite some time, and started with  Little Face, the first in a series that features the same pair of law enforcement characters.  However, this just wasn’t a book for me.  While I gave it a 3* rating overall for being a decent mystery (except for the parts where it wasn’t), there were just too many things that left me feeling confused, and too many moments of cruelty and bizarre abuse for me to really categorize this as an enjoyable read.  I didn’t really care for the two detectives at the center of the mystery, either, finding both of them quite annoying, so I don’t really see myself pursuing this series any further, although if someone out there really loves these books and thinks they get better, I’m open to having my mind changed!!

The basic premise is quite creepy – two weeks ago, Alice had a baby.  Today, she’s leaving the baby for the first time.  Alice goes out for a bit of a break while her husband, Charlie, watches the baby.  Just a couple of hours go by before Alice’s return, but when she comes home she’s convinced that the baby in her home isn’t actually her baby – someone has kidnapped Alice’s baby and left an unknown infant instead.

Pacing in this book is excellent.  I never knew whether Alice was reliable or not.  The whole situation just seems so bizarre, yet what does Alice have to gain by making up this kind of story?  As things began to unwind, I still wasn’t sure how it was going to play out.  Like I said, not a bad mystery – my issues were more with characters/actions than they were with plot/pacing.  So, spoiler complaints below the cut, and 3* for Little Face.

Continue reading

Mariana // by Susanna Kearsley

//published 2012//

So as I’ve mentioned, I’ve joined two different traveling book clubs via Litsy, wherein members each choose a book of their own that they read and make notes in, then every month everyone sends the book they have in their possession to the next person, until you get your own book back.  Everyone along the way adds to the notes and highlighting, so when your book returns to you, it’s full of the thoughts of the others who read it.

Sometimes this means that I end up reading book I wouldn’t otherwise have picked up – hence Mariana by Susanna Kearsley, a romance that uses a plot device that I generally avoid at all costs.

Mariana centers on Julia, an illustrator of children’s books (how fun would that be?!).  When she falls in love with a house in the countryside, she is able to move there since her location is pretty flexible.  It’s not just any house – it’s a house Julia saw as a child and loved then, a house with which she feels a strange, intense connection.  The village near the house is very small, and Julia is soon drawn into the community.  However, she soon begins experiencing strange dreams/moments/visions about another woman who lived in this very same house back in the 17th century, and it seems that Julia’s life is entwined with this life from the past.

Normally I avoid any stories that hint at time traveling or a person in the present being a person from the past, or any of those types of weird semi-supernatural plot devices, but Mariana was such a delightfully written story that I thoroughly embraced everything.  Julia herself is warm and likable.  I absolutely adored her relationship with her brother, and loved that she and brother are close with their parents, too.  Her brother is a minister, and it was lovely to have a religious person who wasn’t portrayed as a hypocritical, power-grubbing creep (although we did get one of those from the past timeline).  While I still didn’t enjoy the whole supernatural connection between Julia and Mariana, it was overall handled deftly in a way that, while I couldn’t exactly believe it, I could at least accept and roll with it.

In the end, 4*.  The ending felt quite rushed, and while I liked the way the romance concluded, it seemed a little hard on the superfluous dude – it would have been nice to have some more conclusions drawn there, and more time with Julia and her hero.  Still, a book that I enjoyed, and one that has led me to put a few of Kearsley’s other titles on the TBR.