February Minireviews – Part 3

We’re just going to pretend like it’s perfectly normal to review books three four months after I read them… (because yes, I wrote half this post in May and am only just now coming back to it!)

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.

The Substitute Guest by Grace Livingston Hill – 3.5*

//published 1936//

Are GLH’s books predictable and cheesy?  Yes.  Is that what I want sometimes?  Also yes.  This one was pretty normal GLH fare, but that’s not actually a bad thing in my mind – sometimes I just want something warm, relaxing, predictable, and happy.  It’s rare that GLH doesn’t deliver.

Gods of Jade & Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia – 3.5*

//published 2019//

This was one of those books that I wanted to like more than I did.  While the concept was quite good, somehow the book just lacked magic.  The third-person narrative – which I usually prefer – here felt distant and almost stilted.  There were times that there would be an somewhat lecture-y tone to the tale, filling the reader in on a piece of culture or fable, rather than letting those things be a natural part of the story’s flow.  This was also a book that definitely needed a map, as I had no real grasp on the distances they were traveling.  All in all, while it was a fine one-off read, it didn’t really make me interested in seeing what else Moreno-Garcia has written.

The Greatest Beer Run Ever by John Donohue & JT Malloy – 3.5*

//published 2020//

It’s always hard to review a book that’s memoir-ish, and this one is no exception. The author was in his late 20s during the Vietnam War. He had been a Marine straight out of high school but was considered “too old” to enlist for Vietnam, so he was working as a merchant marine. When the war protests started to turn on the soldiers themselves, the guys from Chick’s hangout-bar thought it would be amazing if someone could go visit all the active duty guys from their neighborhood, take them some local beer, & reassure them that what they were doing was appreciated & they were missed & loved. Chick’s job enabled him to hop on a boat headed to Vietnam with the idea that he would take 3 days shore leave when he got there & find some of the guys. What with one thing & another, his boat left without him, leaving him stranded in Vietnam in the days leading up to & the first couple of weeks of the Tet offensive!

Reading this book is basically like listening to your old uncle tell his stories from the war. It wasn’t a bad book at all, but it did tend to ramble off & sometimes go into back stories not directly related to the main plot & it wasn’t always easy to tell what was happening “now“ & what was an explanation from the past. (i.e. a few paragraphs telling a story to illustrate why Chick doesn’t like ship captains – it was hard to tell if it was THIS ship captain, or one from his past.) Chick is also very pro-unions, which I’m not against unions but I also got a little tired of every chapter having at least a few sentences explaining why unions are awesome & solve everyone’s problems.

For the most part it doesn’t get too political & there’s some great perspective here on how basically the soldiers were just doing their best to do what they were told. Most of them had been drafted, they weren’t passionate about being there, & they didn’t have the ability to see any kind of big picture concerning how the Vietnamese people really felt about the situation. In the end, Chick decides that the protestors weren’t wrong to protest the war, but still felt that harassing the young men being sent to fight wasn’t the right way to execute that protest.

This is a memoir so it’s inherently biased, but was overall an interesting read for a bit of a different look at the war – Chick is pro-soldier, but also a civilian. It was a pretty fast read & I appreciated that the author decided to keep the language pretty clean throughout.

The Electric Kingdom by David Arnold – 4*

//published 2021//

I’ve read a couple of Arnold’s books now and have enjoyed them all.  This one is his newest and I read it as part of my personal campaign to read new books by authors I like as they come out instead of just sticking them on the TBR and maybe getting to them in five years.  This one is set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland with a girl who has to take a cross-country journey to find a mythical portal that her father is convinced is real.  She meets up with several other travelers on her way.  This was a book that was eerie and engaging, and one that folded back on itself in a way that was somehow believable.  It had just a few too many unanswered questions for me in the end, but still completely sucked me in and kept me turning the pages.  Like Kids of Appetite, it had elements that it felt like I shouldn’t like, but somehow worked.

You Have a Match by Emma Lord – 3*

//published 2021//

After really enjoying Tweet Cute last year, I was interested to read Lord’s new book.  However, this one just fell short for me.  Mostly, there was just too much going on.  The main character, Abby, finds out that she has an older sister who was adopted.  She and Savvy start communicating without telling any of their parents and agree to meet at a summer camp.  There was a lot of potential here to explore the dynamics between the two sisters and how they related with the adults involved, but Lord’s writing gets sucked into typical YA drama, with way too many pages spent on Abby’s crush on her best friend, Leo.  This was definitely a story that would have been significantly better without the love story aspect.  I was looking for an adoption story with Parent Trap vibes and instead got boring YA-romance angst with bits of adoption drama thrown in.  It made the story feel rather choppy and disconnected.  All in all, it wasn’t a bad read, it just wasn’t for me.

April Minireviews – Part 1

Still catching up on a bajillion reviews!  Now that I’ve checked off February (ha!), it’s on to March!!

Coot Club by Arthur Ransome – 5* – finished March 5

//published 1934//

So it may not come as a surprise to learn that I am still in love with these books!  I’m reading this series very slowly, savoring each one.  I’ve also been purchasing them as I go in the Jonathan Cape editions, which come with amazing end maps that I love.  This story was about a gang of children on a sailing expedition.  I usually think of sailboats (when I think of them, which, if I’m honest, is rarely) in association with large, open bodies of water, but in this story the characters are sailing on a river!  There was loads of adventures and excitement, the most adorable characters, and just so many happy things.  I loved every single page, as always.

Wild Horse Running by Sam Savitt – 4* – finished March 5

//published 1973//

This is another children’s books, and a fairly short read with loads of gorgeous illustrations by the author, who is one of my favorites.  This is a story about a wild horse, and like the countryside the horse roams, the story is a bit sparse.  Although it was choppy at times, Savitt still pulls together a tale that tugs at your heartstrings.  Published at a time – tragically not very long ago! – when it was still legal to pursue wild horses by car and plane, run them to exhaustion, and then ship them off to make dog food, it’s obvious that part of the reason Savitt is writing is to shine a light on this horrific practice, but his writing never feels polemic.  If you like horse stories, than you’ll enjoy this one.  If you don’t, this one probably isn’t for you, as there isn’t a great deal of human interest aspect.

Mystery in the Pirate Oak by Helen Fuller Orton – 3* – finished March 6

//published 1949//

As you may be able to tell, I was on a run of children’s books at the beginning of the month, looking for some light, fast reads.  (Although Coot Club was particularly fast – it was 352 pages and still not long enough for me!)  This is an old Scholastic Book Club book that I picked up at a booksale back in 1997!  Considering it’s barely 100 pages long, you think I would have bothered to read it sometime in the last 20+ years, but here we are.  This was overall a pretty average, if someone haphazard story, but what really blew my mind was the historical context – published in 1949, yet the characters’ grandma went west in a covered wagon.  It just never ceases to amaze me how actually close we are to that kind of history.

Watership Down by Richard Adams – 4.5* – finished March 6

//published 1972//

It had been years since I last read this classic, so I was rather excited that one of my group members chose it as her book to mail for #LMPBC (Litsy Markup Postal Book Club – four people in a group – each person picks a book to read and annotate – every month everyone mails whichever book they have to the next person until you get your own back).  Not only did I get the pleasure of reading it, I got to read notes and thoughts from the other members as well, which was super fun!

Anyway, if you enjoy animal stories, you have to read this one.  An epic adventure of a small group of wild rabbits who leave their home warren in search of someplace new.  Like truly great animal tales, the rabbits don’t behave unnaturally, other than their ability to converse with one another. (And who is to say they can’t do that in real life anyway?)  Adams even uses words that are part of the rabbits’ language that are “not translatable” into English, which somehow adds to the authenticity.  While this is an animal story, there is a lot of depth to the characters and world-building, and some thought-provoking lessons as well.

Fallen Into the Pit by Ellis Peters – 3.5* – finished March 8

//published 1951//

Ellis Peters wrote the Cadfael mysteries, which are some of my favorite books of all time.  Fallen Into the Pit is one of her much earlier books, and is a “modern” mystery (set just after WWII, which is when it was published) rather than a historical mystery like Cadfael.  While this was a perfectly enjoyable book, I didn’t love it, or particularly bond with any of the characters.  It was an interesting concept – a look at the way that WWII German POWs were being assimilated into Britain by sending them out to live in small villages.  I think part of the reason that I struggled with this book is because the German is definitely one of the bad guys, and was SUCH a jerk, so in a way it felt like the lesson of the book was that Yes, you SHOULD be paranoid about Germans living among us because they SUCK.  So the whole thing felt vaguely racist against Germans, if that makes sense.  Still, a decent if not stellar mystery, and with a likable enough protagonist that I reserved the next two books in the series from the library.  Of course, they are still there because the libraries have been shut down what feels like years, but someday!

The Last Waltz by Dorothy Mack – 3.5* – finished March 10

//published 1986//

Another paperback out of the box of random Regency romances, this one was set in Brussels rather than England, which was a fun switch.  With Napoleon closing in, the setting was more interesting than the actual story, which was incredibly bland.  Truly nothing unpredictable happened in this book, to the point that I can only vaguely remember it a month later!

In Bitter Chill by Sarah Ward – 3.5* – finished March 12

//published 2015//

This is the first in a series revolving around a group of (modern) detectives in Derbyshire.  While this was a decent read, it was a bit garbled since one of the characters was doing her own research about the killer at the same time as the police, and it was easy to get confused about which people knew what – something that always frustrates me a little.  There were also SO MANY illegitimate babies.  SO MANY.  Basically every time there was a plot twist, it was because someone had had an unexpected pregnancy, and that got old after a while, especially with the not-so-subtle “if only they could have gotten an abortion at the time all their problems would have been solved!” message.  That’s right, because killing your baby solves all your issues and definitely doesn’t create any others. *eye roll*  Anyway, it was a fine mystery, but nothing about it inspired me to pick up the next book in the series.

Mosquitoland by David Arnold – 3.5* – finished March 15

//published 2015//

Quite a while ago I read another of Arnold’s books, Kids of Appetitewhich I genuinely loved.  I’ve been meaning to read Mosquitoland ever since, so I decided to choose it for one of my #LMPBC picks this round.  While I did like it, it just didn’t have the magic of Kids of Appetite.  In this story, teenager Mim has been forced to move with her dad and stepmom from northern Ohio to Mississippi, leaving her mother behind.  Lately, even letters and phone calls from her mom have stopped coming in, and when Mim overhears part of a conversation between her dad and stepmom, implying that Mim’s mom is sick, she steals some cash from her stepmom, jumps on a Greyhound bus, and starts heading north.  The book is journey, with plenty of adventures throughout.

My two main issues with this book – the first was just that most of it was way over-the-top.  I never really believed that any of these things happened to Mim.  There were way too many coincidences and genuinely ridiculously crazy characters.  While some of the episodes were entertaining, most of them just had me rolling my eyes in disbelief.  The book is very episodic in nature, which added to the overall choppy feel.

My second big issue is just that Mim’s dad didn’t tell her what was really going on with her mom.  Mim is 16, not 6, and there wasn’t really any reason that she shouldn’t have been told the truth immediately.  Literally all of Mim’s problems could have been avoided if her dad had had ONE honest conversation with her – and there was literally no reason for him not to, which I found frustrating.

All in all, Mosquitoland was interesting as a one-time read, and I am definitely curious to get it back in a few months and see what notes my fellow #LMPBC readers have left, as it does have a lot of potential discussion points, but it wasn’t a book that I really bonded with.  I do love the cover, though!

Kids of Appetite // by David Arnold

//published 2016//

I first read about this book over at Heart Full of Books, although rereading Bee’s review makes me wonder what exactly inspired me to add it to the TBR?  Because while it doesn’t sound like a book I would necessarily dislike, it doesn’t really sound like one that I would immediately pick up!  But I’m really glad I did, as I quite enjoyed this story.  Not only was it engaging and funny, it had a solid story, character growth, and an ending that made me fill up with happy tears.

The story starts with present tense, first person – Vic narrating.  He’s in a police interrogation room with an officer who is asking him questions about a murder.  Because we have Vic’s perspective, we know that he is stalling for some reason, but we don’t know why.

This morning’s memory is fresh, Baz’s voice ingrained in my brain.  Diversion tactics, Vic.  They will need time.  And we must give it to them.

Vic’s diversion tactic is to begin telling the story of where he’s been in the last eight days – ever since his mom reported him missing.  And he tells it in his own way.

The story is told in alternating narration between Vic and Mad, a girl he meets along the way of the story.  There are a few other kids caught up in the story (Baz, his brother Zuz, and Coco), and despite the fact that I should have been rolling my eyes at this gang of ridiculousness, I loved them all and was completely invested in their story from the very beginning.

Pacing in this book was spot-on.  It’s the kind of mixed up timeline that makes you want to immediately start the book over and reread it once you get to the end and have all the pieces.  We have the past being told by Vic and Mad, with each chapter opening at the police station in the present (Mad is being questioned in another room).

While I don’t want to give too much of this story away, a big part of it is about Vic coming to grips with his dad’s death.  Vic loved his dad and they had a great relationship.  His dad died of cancer a couple of years before this story, and now Vic’s mom is thinking about getting remarried.  Vic ends up running away and having this sort of coming-to-terms journey that could have been cheesy and cliched, but instead is done so well.  

One of the things that I really liked about this book is that Baz is a Christian.  It’s not this huge part of the story, or something that Baz goes on and on about.  Instead, it’s just an organic part of his character that influences some of his actions because it’s a part of who he is.  It doesn’t make him better or worse than any of the other characters – it’s just a layer of his essence, and I really appreciated the way that he was portrayed.

It was the same with Vic’s physical condition.  He has a condition with which he was born, but the whole thing was handled so tastefully.  Like it was a huge part of who Vic is and how he has become this person – but it wasn’t his defining characteristic.  It’s just another one of the layers.

There are a few reasons that this book can’t quite achieve a full 5-star rating for me.  There was a decent amount of swearing in this book.  And like I get that “that’s the way kids talk these days” or whatever, except I don’t really feel like it has to be the way kids talk these days, and I personally prefer to not have to read the word “fucking” a few times in every chapter.

The other thing is the murder itself – kinda unexpectedly graphic and intense.  Not a long, drawn-out thing but – just a bit of a surprise.  I wasn’t ready for it.

Finally, I was just a smidge confused by Vic’s mom.  Vic is taking this journey, following instructions that his dad had left for Vic’s mom.  It was never really clear if Vic’s mom had already done this?  Or had just… not?  I felt like her character was a little fuzzy, although I really did appreciate the scene where Vic and his mom were reunited.  Their conversation felt genuinely healing, like they were on the right track together going forward, and I loved that.

All in all, a solid 4 stars for Kids of Appetite.  There was a lot to enjoy in this book.  I loved the characters, the story, and the pacing, and if the swearing – and brief gruesome scene – don’t bother you, I definitely recommend it.  To me, this is what a coming-of-age novel should actually look like.