Book reviews for October 2023

Written by Michelle Watson

November 10, 2023

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My book reviews for October 2023 include two frosty (as in wintery) women’s novels, a classic fantasy book, and a smattering of kids’ books that I read with my boys.

I hope you find something worthy of your TBR!

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

Let’s dive in!

Mrs. Mike

By Benedict and Nancy Freedman

A teenage girl marries a Canadian Mounty—awe, how cute—and then life gets REAL.

You’ll love it if you enjoyed the general vibe of When Calls the Heart, yet you want something with flesh on its bones

Rating: 5 out of 5.

This book reminds me of A Lantern in Her Hand by Bess Streeter Aldrich! This is one of those RARE books where the main character is a true wife and mom, and much of the action centers on her fulfilling these two important callings (in the face of great hardship).

Kathy is a 17-year-old city girl with breathing problems, so she decides to visit her uncle in Canada to hopefully relieve her symptoms. She grows stronger and hardier…and she falls in love with a handsome mounty. They quickly marry and move to where he’s stationed in the Canadian far north. This is a harsh, inhospitable land, and Kathy develops incredible strength of mind, body, and spirit.

They forge a life together in a wild, wintry land that seems determined to kill humans who dare to inhabit it. Kathy and Mike form relationships with the native tribes and other Canadians crazy enough to move there. The land and its people are a huge part of this book—so much of the action is instigated by the effects of nature (blizzards, fires, bugs, and wolves).

Warning. This book contains some VERY SAD things—way beyond what I expected. It’s not exactly a light, breezy romance. It’s about a married couple surviving pretty much every awful thing that life can throw at them, yet continuing on. So, in that way, it’s the most inspiring kind of book.

There’s also some foul language, but this is limited mostly to the gruff utterings of the trappers, traders, and mountain men.

Content warnings (with spoilers): This book contains child death as a plot point, and even though it’s treated with great tenderness, there’s also no sugarcoating, so please be kind to yourself.

No Two Persons

By Erica Bauermeister

Different people encounter the same book and have widely different reactions

You’ll love it if you love books about books

Rating: 3 out of 5.

I was expecting to like this a lot more than I did. This is a book for book lovers, no doubt. But there was something missing here, and I’m struggling to nail it down. It wasn’t a bad book by any means. I just didn’t connect with it as much as I’d hoped.

This is a book of short stories that are tied together with a common thread, (similar to Kitchens of the Great Midwest). In the first story, we meet young Alice, who writes her debut literary novel. The book is born after a painful event derails her life. Beauty from ashes. We like Alice and really hope her book gets published! (It does in the next short story.)

The subsequent stories all feature individuals who read Alice’s book (actually, some don’t read it) and the book impacts them in different ways. Each character connects to a different aspect of the story depending on where they’re at in life when they read it. A new mom sees it differently than the bookseller or the teenager or the actor. But, each person has a powerful emotional reaction/breakthrough due to the book.

I fancy myself a sensitive reader…which is why I feel strange, like I’m missing something. The writing was great—no complaints there. I think I was hoping for a little more from each character. There were some who were more endearing than others. They were all suffering in some way. They were all flawed. This should = round, relatable characters. But something was missing. It’s probably because the book’s moral soil is comprised of FAR different ingredients than mine. Or it could be that my expectations were too high.

The meta thing is that the book strives to capture this exact scenario—the whys and hows of the reader’s experience. How can one person love a book while another person detests it? Why do we connect with a certain character over another? Why can’t we say what we want to say about our experience reading a book? So, hey.

Content warnings: Some characters are in deep depression, have lost loved ones, are homeless, and in other states of hardship, but I can’t remember anything too gutting.

The Snow Child

By Eowyn Ivey

A childless couple build a snowgirl, and she…comes to life? Nobody knows.

You’ll love it if you’re a sucker for fairy tale retellings that are set in the real world

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Infertility is close to my heart because…I’ve been there. So, this fairy tale retelling about a middle-aged couple building a snow child that comes to life has a built-in draw for me. When you want a child and can’t have one, you grasp at any glimmer of hope that presents itself, even if you question your own sanity. Mabel and Jack are developed with such honesty and compassion. I loved them as dual protagonists.

This book is beautifully put together. It magnificently displays the natural beauties of Alaska—it’s no wonder the author lives there. She also writes with the unfussy straightforwardness of a journalist. Yet, each character has his/her own voice, and I just loved the boisterous Esther and George. All said, it was a great mix of character-centric flavor contrasted with an understated narrative tone. The plot did not drag for me at all.

The drawback to this book is that I’m not quite sure exactly what I’m taking away from it in terms of meaning. There are themes of happiness vs. depression—what makes us happy and can we make ourselves happy? Also fate vs. choice—are Mabel and Jack FATED to lose Faina because that’s how the fairy tale goes, or can they rewrite the story? Sometimes when there are magical elements involved, I’m not sure what I’m supposed to make of those. In this book, magic and reality are intertwined with such force that we’re not supposed to be able to tell the real from the unreal, and that feels strange to me.

One thing that I will take away is this: If God does not grant you children, and you want children, there are ample opportunities to love children and young people in other families, and being a mentor and guide (one that does not usurp the parents but instead complements the parents) is a role that shouldn’t be downplayed but instead highly valued. The relationships that Jack and Mabel have with Faina and Garrett are precious and lovely and the best part of the book.

Content warnings: Infertility plays a main role in Mabel’s backstory, but it’s not the point of the book. Since it’s the woods, animals are killed for food (sometimes graphically). There’s sex outside of marriage.

Elantris

By Brandon Sanderson

Underdogs must buck the power system in this fantasy citadel in order to preserve freedom and life

You’ll love it if you’re curious to read the book that launched Sanderson’s career

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I admit, I was SO glad to hit the “I’m finished” button on this book. It was NOT bad. It was FAR from bad. It just wasn’t the right book at the right time for me. I needed something quicker and lighter, and this was long and complex. (Plus, I had to take about 12 days off from listening right smack in the middle of the book.) I’m giving it four stars here because that’s what the book deserves, especially as a debut (I mean, wow), but my reading experience was three stars flat.

I listened to this book on audio, so I have no clue how to spell any of the characters’ names, which makes writing a review tricky. I will say that our dual protagonists, Reyoden and Serene, are likable and easy to root for, and the rest of the cast is good. In the beginning and middle of the book, I questioned whether all these ancillary characters were necessary (there are SO many swirling around to and fro) but now that I’ve finished, I’m satisfied that they all (sort of) had their place.

This book deals heavily in themes of government and religion. Even though Sanderson invents fake governments and fake religions, the book makes a strong case for capitalism and against holy crusades. The romantic subplot could’ve had more page-time, IMO, but it’s also nice that it wasn’t too overdone.

One thing I will say for Brandon Sanderson, he knows how to deliver a third act. He will kill anyone, no matter how essential they are to the story. He will force characters to do the unthinkable. I will say that a lot of this is shock and awe, but it’s not out of place in modern high fantasy. It’s not exactly my happy place. I like stories with a smaller more internal scope. But Sanderson sure can have fun.

Content warnings: There are some gruesome (but not too horrid) killings and battle scenes, as well as some icky religious rites. The romance is clean as can be.

Write Your Novel From the Middle

By James Scott Bell

From the middle? A close look at the magical midpoint moment in any story

You’ll love it if you want a closer look at story structure

Rating: 4 out of 5.

No, I’m not writing a novel. But I love short little books like this because it gives me a peek at how modern authors might be crafting their stories. And I find that highly interesting! Nerd.

Bell analyzed dozens of his favorite books and movies, going straight to the exact middle, and poking around to see what he found. Interestingly, he realized that near the middle of every story is a quiet moment where the protagonist looks in his or her proverbial “mirror” and asks, “Who am I, and where am I going?” It’s the reflective pause between the character’s pre-story psychology (where they start) and their final transformation (where they end).

Cool.

Content warnings: None

In Grandma’s Attic

By Arleta Richardson

Episodic tales of Grandma’s childhood on the farm

You’ll love it if you enjoyed Little House on the Prairie

Rating: 5 out of 5.

This was a completely delightful read-aloud for me and my boys! This is a book of episodic stories told by a grandmother to her granddaughter. There’s no overarching plot that ties the stories together—there ARE themes that reoccur, but no throughline—so it feels like a collection of short stories or sketches. We read one chapter per day, and it was perfect.

Each story has a moral, of course. Apparently, Grandma Mabel was quite a thoughtless young thing back in the day. There are scrapes, misunderstandings, and dangers. She has to learn to be more responsible and dependable.

It’s a very sweet book. The frame of the grandmother telling the story to her granddaughter conveys this deep sense of safety. Like this: “Bad things happened to Grandma, and she survived. In fact, now, she can laugh about so much of it. I think I’ll be okay, too.”

Content warnings: None

The Great and Terrible Quest

By Margaret Lovett

A young boy has a chance encounter with a wounded knight who has lost his memory. Then, adventure!

You’ll love it if you’ve got a boy who is crazy about the middle ages and quests

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I read this obscure oldie from the ’60s in one sitting on an airplane flight. This is medieval middle-grade fiction that reminds me of Robin McKinley’s fairy tale retellings or Gary D. Schmidt’s novel Straw Into Gold. It’s high on chivalry and will appeal to young boys (no romance and hardly any girls).

Trad is a young boy who lives with his grandfather in a country cottage. Sounds nice except his grandfather is an abusive scoundrel who perpetrates dastardly deeds on behalf of the corrupt lords of the land. One day, Trad encounters an injured knight who is on a quest—except a blow to the head caused him to lose his memory, and he can’t remember what he was questing after. Trad agrees to help him, and it’s all high adventure from that point on.

I wouldn’t recommend this for the youngest of readers. Probably 9 or 10 and up because you’ll see the bad guys engage in betrayal, thievery, violence, and abuse, but not on a graphic or grand scale.

Content warning:

Calvin Coconut: Trouble Magnet

By Graham Salisbury

A normal kid getting into trouble all day, every day (but in Hawaii)

You’ll love it if you’ve got a kid who likes mischief-making main characters

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Calvin Coconut lives in Hawaii with his mom and little sister, and he’s your typical 10-year-old trouble magnet. This book is written in Calvin’s slangy first-person voice. It’s got the same feel as a Wimpy Kid book. There are friends, bullies, teachers, and parents, very much reflecting a kid’s life. This book was cute, and I wouldn’t mind my boys reading it on their own, but it’s not worthy of a read-aloud. The writing leaves much to be desired, and the story wasn’t overly well-crafted or inspiring.

It’s set in Hawaii, and I was pleased to see a lot of local color—sometimes books set in fun locations don’t actually have a strong sense of place and could be set anywhere for all the details they offer.

Every middle-grade book needs a theme, right? This one is “responsibility.” Calvin ups his game in this department, so that’s good.

One thing that this book has going for it is the dichotomy of bad and good male role models. Calvin’s dad left his family behind to be a famous singer in California, so he’s your typical MIA dad. But the mom has a boyfriend who is a nice guy, and Calvin’s fourth-grade teacher is an ex-army guy who is a very decent dude.

Content warnings: Calvin gets into several fights and tells half-truths. None of this is necessarily condoned.

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

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3 Comments

  1. Beth Gross

    Mrs. Mike is a lifetime favorite for me! Harsh realities yet hopeful and full of heart.

    Reply
    • Michelle Watson

      Yes! I almost had to “turn my heart off” at some points to avoid feeling it fully. But Kathy’s transformation is so awesome. She goes from delicate town girl to unflinching wilderness wife.

      Reply
  2. ikaria lean belly juice

    Your posts always provide me with a new perspective and encourage me to look at things differently Thank you for broadening my horizons

    Reply

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