Book reviews for November 2023

Written by Michelle Watson

December 2, 2023

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My book reviews for November 2023 include some great YA fiction and some tiny books that pack a punch.

Will any of these make your TBR? Leave a comment and let me know.

Here’s where you can find me on Goodreads. Connect with me there, so that I can see what you’re reading, too.

Now, let’s get to the reviews…

The Arrow and the Crown

By Emma C. Fox

A beast roams the woods of a fairy tale land, and one young girl is destined to cross paths with him

You’ll love it if you’re craving fairy tale vibes with a splash of romance

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I can’t resist a fairy tale, and this was an enjoyable, quick read that ISN’T a retelling. I’d recommend this for mid-schoolers and young adults, as it’s a tad more mature with a teenage protagonist.

The most enjoyable part of reading this book, for me, was going into it completely blind. At first, I thought it might be a Beauty and the Beast retelling, and although it draws on some imagery and themes from that story, it isn’t. The plot moved along, and the characters are all good. It’s set in a standalone Euro-fairy-tale-esque world with magic. Good magic and bad magic are at major odds.

The story starts out very small in scope, and it expands nicely as the plot moves along to encompass the entire kingdom. What could’ve been a very slow-moving trilogy is, instead, a brisk standalone novel, and I LIKED that. So often, it seems, in the YA world (especially fantasy, my goodness) everything must be a series…there’s money to be made, people. But this story is so much better as a solo.

Another interesting thing: The emotional impact far outshines the writing craft. I’m very willing to overlook so-so execution if the story makes me FEEL something, and this one did. Also, the moral value is 5/5 stars. I wouldn’t hesitate recommending this to any adolescent. There’s romance, but it’s done in the best of taste.

Content warnings (with spoilers): None

Hello Stranger

By Katherine Center

A portrait artist comes down with “face blindness” and then falls in love with a guy who she can’t see so well

You’ll love it if you want a cute, clean-ish romance that won’t make you think too hard.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

This is a solid 3-star worldly romance that you can read in one day if you’re down with a rowdy sore throat. Hypothetically speaking, of course.

This book is cute and sweet and fun, and it deals with a rare medical condition that I’d never heard of before: facial blindness. It’s a condition where people can see individual pieces of a person’s face—an eye, a nose, teeth, lips—but they can’t put those pieces together into a cohesive face. It’s like everyone’s face is a Picasso, and you can’t recognize people who you’d normally know at a glance.

What happens when a portrait artist can no longer see faces? She falls in love, of course! Ha. As you can imagine, a lot of the action in this romance revolves around mistaken identity. It’s unbelievable, but it’s entertaining.

The thing that really stuck out to me most was Katherine Center’s Author’s Note at the end of the book. She describes how she was a student reading lots of serious literature when she was gifted her first historical romance novel. She devoured it, and it was a turning point for her. She realized that reading could be fun. It wasn’t just a scholarly pursuit. It could be entertainment. Then, she goes on to defend entertainment books, romances in particular. She says that they have an upward arc of hope. We KNOW the two leads are going to end up together, but instead of criticizing romances as predictable, we can just enjoy the overarching sense of anticipation that “it’s all going to be okay” and “life will get better.” Although I don’t agree with everything she said, there’s a lot to like.

Side note: The action takes place in spring, so it could be a seasonal read.

Content warnings: Romance is steamy but not open-door. One character has a panic attack. One character has a seizure and brain surgery.

Small Things Like These

By Claire Keegan

An Irish coal merchant in the ’80s stumbles upon something disturbing during a Christmastime delivery

You’ll love it if you need a quick win, but you want to think and feel things, too

Rating: 5 out of 5.

A Christmas novella that you can read in one or two sittings? Yes. Literary? Yes. Emotional? Yes. I’m so glad that a friend recommended this to me.

This book reminds me of when I read Anton Chekhov’s “At Christmas Time” last year. I read it and was like…that’s depressing. Why would he write a story like this? What in the world is going on? And I did not stop thinking about it for a few days. And guess what? The story began to coalesce and make sense to me. I realized that, even though the story was strange, it had spoken something to me.

This book is similar. I kept thinking about it, and the more I thought about it, the more it felt meaningful.

We get a slice of life for a middle-aged coal deliveryman named Bill who lives in Ireland in the ’80s. He and his wife have five girls. It’s a stressful time of year, but it’s also full of family traditions and small joys. Bill reminisces about his upbringing, and we see who he is below the surface. One day, while delivering coal, he stumbles upon something that he can’t unsee. And that brings him to a crisis of conscience.

This story offers no pretty bow on top. There are lots of loose ends, but that makes it all the more interesting and discussable. This is a great book club pick for December if people don’t have a lot of reading time but still want to have a great discussion.

Content warnings: Ill-treatment of young people, but nothing overly graphic.

Foster

By Claire Keegan

A young girl finds love and acceptance in the home of relatives

You’ll love it if you want Anne of Green Gables for grownups

Rating: 4 out of 5.

A heartfelt novella/short story that you can devour in one sitting. I enjoyed this, but I liked Small Things Like These better.

This sweet story opens with a young girl unexpectedly getting dropped off at her relatives’ home for the summer. In that home, she finds love and care that she never had with her parents. Yet, the whole time, there’s a sad undertone and ripples of possible danger.

This story shows that family is something that can transcend blood. A child who is a burden in one household might be a blessing in another. I think it’s interesting that, if I’m remembering correctly, we never get her name. It’s like she’s up for grabs.

I love the tension between what is socially right (the girl belongs to her biological parents) versus what is heart-right (the girl belongs to the people who love her most). In a way, this reminds me of the family of God. We belong in this heart-family regardless of our bloodline, and we’re supposed to find acceptance and comfort there.

Content warnings: Child loss figures into the plot, but we don’t see anything graphic.

About the Sleeping Beauty

By P. L. Travers

A deep dive into the Sleeping Beauty myth

You’ll love it if you want to see this timeless fairy tale from every angle and every culture

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I came across this obscure little book by the author of Mary Poppins when I was volunteering at the public library and perusing the discards. Here, Travers presents her own retelling of the myth of Sleeping Beauty, followed by a short essay on fairy tales in general and this one in particular. The last half of the book is a collection of various “sleeper” stories from around the world.

“The shock they [fairy tales] give us when we first hear them is not one of surprise but of recognition. Things long unknowingly known have suddenly been remembered.”

“Fairy tales never explain. But we should not let ourselves be fooled by their apparent simplicity. It is their role to say much in little. And not to explain is to set up in the hearer or the reader an inner friction in which one question inevitably leads to another and the answers that come are never conclusions. They never exhaust the meaning.”

Content warnings: None

The Emotional Craft of Fiction

By Donald Maass

Why do some books make us cry, gasp, and melt…and others don’t?

You’ll love it if you’re an author or you’re just nerdy about story craft (me!)

Rating: 5 out of 5.

I don’t typically read a ton of writing craft books, but they’re becoming catnip for me. I love the idea of seeing a story from the novelist’s side of the page. This book zooms in on how authors can give their readers not just great plots and quirky characters but an all-important emotional experience.

Donald Maass says, I think rightly, that when we turn to a fictional story, we’re craving, above all, an emotional experience. We want to feel something transcendent. We don’t want the author to slather us in sentimental garbage. We don’t want the author to manipulate our emotions to serve an agenda. We want the author to write in a spirit of humanity and honesty, and we want to connect to that in an emotional way.

As someone who reads a lot, I’d like to pay closer attention to my emotional response to a story. Sometimes books that aren’t all that well written or creative can make me feel something deeply, whereas beautifully crafted and imaginative novels can leave me feeling nothing at all. It’ll be interesting to keep tabs on this in my reading life and see if any patterns emerge.

Content warnings: None

A Wizard of Earthsea

By Ursula K. Le Guin

A poor kid learns he has magic powers, goes to magic school, and defeats a shadowy evil

You’ll love it if you want to read Harry Potter again, but with zero merriment or cheese

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Wow, this is a well-written book. It’s about a boy who learns that he has magical powers, and he must defeat a shadowy evil that’s hunting him. Sound familiar? There are a lot of Harry Potter parallels, although this was written about 30 years prior.

This book’s hero is an underdog in that he’s a poor country boy with no apparent greatness in him. But when he learns that he’s magical, then he begins to seek power and prestige. His hubris leads him to unleash a faceless, nameless evil that wants only one thing: to destroy him.

This feels very much like the first book in a series, like this is the setup required for the wizard-boy, Ged, to go on to bigger and more exciting adventures later on.

I’ll be honest—I was not completely riveted. I felt like the audio version was a little flat, so maybe that had something to do with it. But the writing was so good that I wanted to keep going.

Content warnings: None

Ember Rising

By S. D. Smith

Heather and Picket both have the worst week imaginable—until the last few chapters

You’ll love it if your family is enthralled with this rabbity adventure

Rating: 3 out of 5.

I’m not 100 percent sure why this third installment in the Green Ember series didn’t land for me and my boys. I think it’s just too long. All of the novels have been too long, and I think this one in particular is longer than it needs to be.

I care about the characters and their plight. I enjoyed the twists and turns of the plot. But the book just needs editing, and I say this as someone with absolutely no creative writing expertise, so take it with a grain of salt. I feel like a tighter execution would’ve had us turning pages. Instead, it took us an astounding four weeks to finish this one, which is longer than usual.

Also, this book is on the darker side because nearly all of it is set in enemy territory. We see the slave city of Akolan and the communist dictatorship of First Warren. Perhaps that’s why it feels a tad bleak.

So, not my fave. But I’m sure we’ll get around to reading the fourth and last book. I will say that I love S. D. Smith and Story Warren and everything he’s doing. Plus, he’s hilarious. He’s on my side, and I’m on his.

Content warnings: Battles and carnage.

Adventures With Waffles

By Maria Parr

Trille and his best friend Lena get into all kinds of kid-trouble by the cozy Norwegian seaside

You’ll love it if you want to have a good, healthy cry at the end of what you thought was a safe book

Rating: 5 out of 5.

This is a re-read for me. I read it aloud to my boys as part of our homeschool curriculum, and they loved it.

Trille is a sensitive 9-year-old, and Lena is his brash, tomboy best friend. They are polar opposites, and it’s cute. Their episodic adventures are funny and outlandish, yet there’s depth there, too. Trille needs to hear Lena say the words “You are my best friend” because he’s not sure she cares about him as much as he cares about her. This tension is the throughline of the book, and it’s very nicely done.

I love how the cast is multigenerational. Grandpa and Auntie Granny are a big part of the story. It was beautiful to see children connect with their elders in such a heartfelt way.

Then, there’s the irresistible, cozy setting on a secluded cove. The children’s freedom to roam and their connection with nature and animals is something that most kids these days will never experience outside of a book.

Content warnings: Lena doesn’t have a dad. Will your kids have questions about why? Might want to have some answers ready. One of the elderly people in the book dies. A few potty jokes, but they’re few and far between.

Leave me a comment with what you’re reading right now!

And if you’re adding to your TBR, check out this handy digital TBR spreadsheet that you can pull up on your phone whenever you’re at the bookstore or library.

Check out ALL my book reviews

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2 Comments

  1. Lynn

    You had a great reading month! I have not read anything by Claire Keegan but both those that you read sound good.

    Reply
    • Michelle Watson

      I think you’ll like her. I love short, literary books for this time of year when time is scarce but emotions feel big.

      Reply

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