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Behold the book reviews for June 2022. It’s a miracle that I got ANY reading done at all this month. The last 30 days were jam-packed with…summer fun? 😂 Vacation Bible Schools (more than one), family and friends visiting, long drives, potlucks galore, my son’s birthday, and even an ear infection. Phew.
I am not God by a long shot, but I can say that, in all its insanity, “It was good.”
Somehow, I read books. Don’t ask me how it happened. The books got read, and that’s all I really know.
Now, without further ado…
The Plot book review
By Jean Hanff Korelitz
Genre: Literary thriller
Format: Library hardcover
Mood: Cynical, edgy, worldly
You’ll love it if you prefer your thrillers on the low-burner, and you want them to mess with your head.
Oh-kay. This book has a fantastic premise, and it’s superbly crafted. A story well told, with layers upon layers of all the stuff that makes a book engaging and entertaining. But, I found this book deeply unsatisfying in the areas that really matter to me. So, I’m a tad conflicted.
Jake Bonner is a once-successful, now-failing author. He’s teaching at a third-rate MFA program, and his most obnoxious student, Evan Parker, tells Jake that he (Evan) has come up with a bestselling plot for the novel he’s working on. A plot that is sure to sell thousands of copies, get picked for Oprah’s book club, and be made into a movie. Jake is skeptical…until Evan tells him the plot. And Jake is stunned. The plot is indeed a surefire home run. (By this time, I was insanely curious—what’s the plot?!)
The MFA program ends, Jake and Evan go their separate ways, and every so often over the next several years, Jake thinks about that plot…did Evan ever publish his book? What happened to that knucklehead and his wonder-plot?
I’ll leave it there, but this novel sure does deliver when it comes to plot (very meta, I know). And, as you know, the word “plot” has several meanings. 1.) A storyline; 2.) A scheme; and 3.) a piece of ground for a grave. Dun, dun, dun! Layers and layers of quiet thrills. No car chases or bodies in the basement. Just a gradual build of suspense that bursts at the end.
This novel digs into the concept of “plot” but it’s mostly about the concept of “theft.” Is it possible to “steal” things that aren’t tangible? For example, can you steal someone’s chance? Someone’s dream? Someone’s hope? Are those thefts akin to stealing in the traditional sense, and should they be punished and by whom? Okay, I’ll stop there. I sure would hate to give it away.
The reason for my 3-star rating is wrapped tightly around the novel’s ending and resolution, so there’s really no way for me to write about it without spoilers. Suffice it to say, the book was a solid 4 stars until the last two chapters. Now, some people might LOVE the book’s ending. It certainly is discussable! But, I just found it rather deflating.
Another reason why I had a hard time with this book is that it’s not believable, haha. I’m very willing to suspend my disbelief, but if you aren’t, then you’ll probably feel frustrated.
Also, the book is written from a worldview so detached from my own that it’s difficult for me to “cooperate” with what the author is asking me to turn over in my mind. If you’re approaching this story as an atheist who embraces moral relativism, then, yeah, you may grapple with the stuff. But my views on right/wrong, truth/untruth made the morality here priddy clear-cut.
There was a lot (a lot) of virtue signaling that had nothing to do with anything. That was annoying.
But, overall, I’d definitely recommend this to the right reader. But, I can see it tanking big time with others.
Content warnings: It’s a thriller, so there are all the usual suspects: anxiety, murder, drug use, and domestic unrest. No open-door sex, though.
Sea of Tranquility book review
By Emily St. John Mandel
Genre: Literary sci-fi
Format: Library hardcover
Mood: Contemplative, deep
You’ll love it if you can’t resist a strong sense of theme in your books, and you like your sci-fi on the elegant side.
I pity the person who had to write the marketing copy for this book. HOW do you describe it? It’s a time-travel novel, yes. It portrays a somewhat dystopian future, yes. It’s science fiction, yes. But it’s not about time travel, dystopia, or science. For me, this book is about exile. Physical exile AND social exile. Exile as contrasted with belonging. And this was what made the book great for me. I’m a sucker for a strong theme, and this book was ALL about exile from every human angle.
I usually don’t like time travel novels, but this one was beautifully constructed (and blessedly logical). The first half of the plot mirrors the second half. Chapters 1 to 3 take place in different years, spanning from 1912 to 2203. In each chapter, we meet a character who is “banished” (exiled) from their comfort zone. Edwin is exiled to a different continent. Mirella is exiled from her formerly glittering social sphere. And Olive is exiled to another planet on a book tour that just won’t end. One character appears in all three stories, a mysterious figure named Gaspery-Jacques, who speaks with a foreign accent that nobody can quite place. In chapter 4, we meet Gaspery, and then he drives the narrative from there on out, and we see chapters 1, 2, and 3 from his perspective.
The one thing that I wasn’t crazy about is that this book treats male and female characters as fluid with one another, and I thought the human aspect would’ve rung truer if this weren’t so. When we redefine gender, we render it meaningless, and I know that it’s very fashionable to do this right now, but I do believe that it’s a flat-out denial of reality.
Content warnings: Not much occurs onstage. Most of the bad stuff happens on the sidelines without any explicit attention.
Inferno book review
By Dante Alighieri
Genre: Classic poem
Format: Library audiobook
Mood: Hellish, intellectual
You’ll love it if you love myths and metaphors, and you want to read something unsettling.
Nothing says “summer reading” like a guided tour through the nine circles of hell, right?
I managed to get an English degree without having read any Dante Alighieri, and I felt the need to remedy this lapse. I wanted to experience The Divine Comedy, so I listened to the first part, Inferno, on audio, narrated by Heathcote Williams, who is superb! There’s even some moody monastic chanting that separates the cantos and adds to the eerie sensations.
In hell, each type of sinner receives a punishment that fits his crime. For example, in “outer hell” the non-committed people who never chose good or evil are fated to forever chase after a blank banner. Some of these punishments are easy to understand, but some are quite puzzling, and it would be an interesting study to look closely and ask “why?”
Also, the sinners are ordered from least sinful to most sinful. Why are certain sins less/more severe than others to Dante? He deems traitors the worst of all, even dividing them into subcategories of traitors, with the worst being those who betrayed their mentors.
I find it interesting that the lowest part of hell isn’t a seething lake of fire and brimstone but instead a stark landscape of ice guarded by giants. Lucifer is lodged in the very center of the earth, frozen to his waist in ice. He has three faces—an unholy trinity?—each of which chews on one of the three biggest traitors of all time up (Judas, Brutus, and Cassius). Because Lucifer doesn’t honor his servants. He feeds on them.
Even though this was not a pleasant story (by a long shot) the whole idea of eternal punishment is important and deserves consideration because, well, it’s a very real eventuality unless the saving blood of Jesus Christ comes to the rescue.
I will say that I wish I’d brushed up on my Greek mythology and Italian history before reading this, haha. There were classical references galore, many of which went over my head.
Content warnings: Some icky imagery that might be unsettling for sensitive souls.
Under Gemini book review
By Rosamunde Pilcher
Genre: Contemporary romance (but getting dated)
Format: Chirp audiobook
Mood: Elegant, poised
You’ll love it if well-written, sweet romances are your catnip.
I like Rosamunde Pilcher—her books are so delightfully British! But this particular book wasn’t on my radar until Chirp fed it to me in an email roundup of daily deals. I barely read the marketing teaser, so I went into the story essentially blind. (Looking back at the marketing teaser, it doesn’t really capture this book at all!)
The title has the word “Gemini” so it’s no secret this is about a set of twins. But the book doesn’t open with the twins. It opens with a Scottish country doctor attending a wealthy, elderly woman patient. Then, we’re treated to a series of phone calls. Then, we meet a fresh-faced 22-year-old woman named Flora who is finally leaving the nest and striking out on her own. It’s a SLOW open. Who is the protagonist? We’re not sure.
But then, the story sticks close to Flora, and we realize, ah!, this story is about HER. She visits a random restaurant, and she meets a remarkable stranger. THEN, at long last, it gets interesting. And it DOES get better from there on out. Flora gets mixed up in a series of events that land her in a fake relationship (a fun romance trope).
Honestly, if you ARE thinking of reading this book, here’s what you need to know:
- It’s an adorable, clean romance that ends happily.
- It doesn’t follow a modern plot structure. It’s more meandering, and it doesn’t toe the line of the romance genre, hitting all the conventional beats.
- It’s not believable, so you’ve got to suspend your disbelief to enjoy it. Basically, just go with it.
- It’s got a small, cozy scope. Most of the story takes place in a Scottish village and involves a half-dozen central characters.
If you want a book that isn’t rigorous to read and that ALSO isn’t a cavity-causing cupcake, then this’ll fit great!
Content warnings: Not much. There is one questionable slap across the face.
The Scent of Water book review
By Elizabeth Goudge
Genre: Literary fiction
Mood: Luxurious, thoughtful
You’ll love it if you want to read Christian fiction that’s crafted like literary fiction
This book is NOT what I expected at all! Honestly, I thought this was going to be a period romance. It certainly was romantic, but not at all in the traditional sense. So, DON’T think of it as a romance. Instead, think of it as literary Christian fiction.
If you struggle with Christian fiction because it’s too cheesy or on the nose, then you may really love this because it’s so elegantly written. It’s a spiritual journey that grapples with the notion of self-sacrifice and how it leads to renewal. In fact, the title “the scent of water” is invoked at strategic points when characters who are run down and worn out are seeking some type of soulful refreshing. The scent of water is when we, as humans, get a whiff of living water—our souls detect that God is near. This was superbly rendered throughout.
Our protagonist is Mary, an independent, intelligent 50-something woman in mid-century England. Honestly, I wasn’t expecting a retiree as my main character, but Mary is fantastic. She inherits her aunt’s country estate, and she decides to move there, and we see how she integrates herself into the tight-knit community of Appleshaw. By just being herself, she brings renewal to the people around her, which include:
- A blind war veteran and his wife who thinks of herself as a martyr
- A corrupt squire and his talkative (but goodhearted) wife
- An adopted orphan girl who is on the verge of growing up and making bad choices
- A deeply introverted bodger (a person who makes legs for furniture)
- A spiritually detached clergyman and his sister who suffers from agoraphobia and anxiety
Each life is in need of refreshing. Even Mary herself is an atheist who believes she’s seen too much and studied too much to put her faith in something as vaporous as God. Well, Mary has her own journey to take, even as she helps her new friends with theirs.
You need to know that, on the surface, this book is boring—even though it’s exquisitely written. There isn’t a lot of action, and the plot doesn’t turn in the way you’d expect at all. You need to let go of all preconceived notions and be prepared to wrestle with the book to gain access to its meaning.
Content warnings: There is adultery in various forms, but nothing gross is depicted (or praised).
A Caribbean Mystery book review
By Agatha Christie
Genre: Cozy mystery
Format: Chirp audiobook
Mood: Ironic, cheerfully suspenseful
You’ll love it if you’re craving a classic mystery that delivers the expected experience.
I confess, I’m a little in love with Hercule Poirot (as written, not as rendered in the modern films). So, when I read Christie, I like to read Poirot. This book, however, stars the matronly Miss. Marple, who I’ve encountered only once before in The Murder at the Vicarage. She may pretend to be a twittering old bird, but her wits are as sharp as her knitting needles.
In this installment, Miss. Marple is on vacation in the West Indies (the Caribbean) and she’s enjoying the sand and sun until…you guessed it…murder! Well, someone dies, and Miss. Marple can’t help but suspect foul play. She spends most of the book chatting up various guests at the resort and trying to piece together clues.
Because this book happens at a resort, Christie employs the classic idea: Are the people we meet on vacation actually who they say they are? We only know what they reveal to us (kinda like social media). This is a neat little angle to explore in this murder mystery.
How does Marple compare to Poirot? Just like Poirot, looks are deceiving. Miss. Marple looks like a nice granny, and so, people often underestimate her, and she knows this, so she often plays up the “oh, I’m a doddering old lady” angle in order to weasel info out of people. This is kind of hilarious. Unlike Poirot, Marple is a true amateur, and she doesn’t have an overly high opinion of herself or practice a meticulous toilette like Poirot, haha. She’s the “everywoman” detective, and that’s her appeal.
Content warnings: Murders happen offstage. Substance abuse, adultery, and other vices are discussed but we never see any of it happen in front of us.
Paddington Helps Out book review
By Michael Bond
Genre: Children’s classic fiction
Mood: Silly and playful
You’ll love it if you’re in the mood for a clueless bear with good intentions (an excellent next step when your kids are done with Pooh).
Another adorable installment of Paddington Bear. This book is set in the summertime, so it was seasonally appropriate for a fun read-aloud with my 5- and 6-year-old boys. This time, Paddington goes to an auction, tries his hand at DIY, goes to see a movie, and dines out at the fanciest restaurant in town. Of course, nothing goes as planned, but it all turns out okay in the end.
Honestly, that might be why the Paddington books are so appealing. Nothing goes as planned, but it all turns out okay in the end. Also, Paddington is so wonderfully clueless about everyday things, and aren’t we all at times? I think there’s something deep within me that resonates with this—I want my plans to work out, and I want to be a know-it-all, but nope. Like Paddington, I have good intentions, and I’m curious, and I want to please people. And those qualities kinda balance out the times when I’m a nuisance.
Here’s the BEST advice that I can give to someone who wants to read these books: Don’t expect a connected plot. Just expect little, everyday adventures. Enjoy them for what they are, and maybe (if you’re an over-analyzer like me) ask, “Why do I like these silly stories?”
Content warnings: Paddington gives many of his signature “hard stares.” So prepare yourself. 😉
What an interesting little book! This is an ultra-short children’s classic that I never read growing up.
My nephew read it in his English class a few years ago, and I would’ve loved to hear what their discussions were like. We live in an area that’s mostly white and Apache. Can kids who come from radically different cultures make a real connection or have a true friendship? This book doesn’t give a straightup fuzzy yes, but it doesn’t give a no either. It gives a hearty “it’s complicated,” which I think is closer to the truth.
Just to be clear, I think that kids who come from radically different cultures CAN make real connections and enjoy true friendship a lot easier than we may think. Left to themselves, this happens. I think it gets harder for them when society (and even well-meaning grownups) come on the scene and mess with their minds.
Matt and Attean come of age over the course of a summer, and matters of respect and acceptance and prejudice come into play. It’s a great book for middle schoolers who are emerging into the wide world of independent thought.
Is this book racist? Whelp, you can call pretty much any book racist nowadays if you want to. Honestly, I don’t think it’s racist. I think that both the white boy and the Native American boy are evenhandedly praised and critiqued by the author. Nice job, Lizzie!
Content warnings: Some (mildly) scary scenes, one with bees and another with a bear. An unscrupulous adult steals from Matt. No romance (sometimes parents want to know ahead about that).
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