Book Reviews for September 2022

Written by Michelle Watson

October 14, 2022

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It’s that curious time of year when the trees manage to straddle two seasons. Half the oak leaves are bright green, convinced that it’s still June. The other half are bright red, waving the fiery flags of fall. It’s as if nature freezes itself for a few days, giving us a chance to see the change happening right before our very eyes.

As we move through the year, our habits and routines shift…tiny incremental nudges to accommodate colder temps and less daylight. I don’t know about you, but my reading life changes too. It wraps itself in fleece and gets more thoughtful, grows ponderous, taking sentences in slow, silent sips (a welcome change from the thirsty summer gulps, clinking with ice).

So, with that slower pace comes fewer book reviews for September 2022.

Let’s get right to it.

Remarkably Bright Creatures

By Shelby Van Pelt

Genre: Contemporary fiction

Format: Hardcover from the library

Mood: Intimate and cozy, but not cutesy

You’ll love it if you enjoyed A Man Called Ove

This book was a DELIGHT. The last “Read With Jenna” book that I tried was terrible, so the little purple logo on the cover left me feeling leery. But this book was great (as far as modern novels go).

The main characters are:

  1. An old lady (a no-nonsense Marilla Cuthbert-type)
  2. An old octopus (the Albert Einstein of octopuses)
  3. A self-absorbed millennial (who fits every millennial stereotype you’ve ever heard of)

I love odd combos like this, but it’s tough to pull them off. It’s one thing to throw oddballs together, but it’s another to make it work as a cohesive story. This one worked.

Tova, the old lady, has lost every living relative she has. She spends her days doing crossword puzzles and her nights cleaning the aquarium in her tiny seaside town. One day, she realizes that Marcellus, the giant Pacific octopus (himself a lonely creature) isn’t in his tank…thus begins their strange connection. Don’t worry—Marcellus IS a character, but he isn’t anthropomorphic (he doesn’t talk to humans or do magic or anything cheesy).

Then, there’s Cameron, the pitiful 30-something who blames others for his failures and shortcomings. I love how the author wasn’t afraid to use Cameron to expose the ugly truths about our generation. We need to GROW UP.

Cameron’s life is going nowhere, and Tova’s life is entering its final stage. They are both at a crossroads, and—interestingly—their paths intersect. And at that intersection is…the octopus. I know, it sounds weird and it is.

I enjoyed the characters a lot. They were loveable with all their flaws. Van Pelt has a masterful grasp of voice. Each character has a distinct voice. Tova is reserved and collected—even austere. Cameron is a hot mess (foul language an’ all, FYI) who overshares and overthinks. The octopus is cool and frigidly logical.

Overall, this was a total pleasure to read—a lot more than I usually expect from contemporary novels (especially celeb book club picks). And it’s a debut! The next time Shelby Van Pelt writes something, I’ll take notice.

Content warnings (with spoilers): Prior to the book’s opening, Tova’s son dies in a boating accident, and her husband dies of cancer, and her brother dies in a retirement home. Cameron’s mother is a drug addict who abandoned him when he was 8 years old (or was it 9?). One of the characters remembers an incident where she convinces a suicidal person not to jump off a pier.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

By J. R. R. Tolkien

Genre: Epic fantasy

Format: Audible audiobook

Mood: Mysterious, steeped in lore, questing

You’ll love it if you wanna get swept away by an otherworldly tale

I listened to this on audio, and Andy Serkis is THE narrator to rule them all. He doesn’t just read this book—he performs his heart out. It’s magnificent. I’m convinced that I loved this book more due to his vocal talents. He does voices for all the characters—mimicking the actors from the films so closely that it sounds like a full-cast recording—but he also conveys the tone and mood of each passage, be it suspenseful, joyful, somber, or humorous. So, if you get a little lost in the language, you don’t lose the emotional thread. Like the bards of olde, Andy Serkis’s voice invites you to lean in.

My one critique: He’s not a great singer, and there are quite a lot of songs. Haha!

Overall, this story (apart from the narration) completely knocked me off my feet. The level of imagination that Tolkien brings to the table…it’s off the charts. I entered the novel like an alternate reality…like Middle Earth and all its inhabitants, lands, and lore wasn’t something Tolkien created but rather something that had truly existed before recorded time.

Reading books like this—it reminds me of what it’s like to read a work of art that predates MFA-style literary fiction and commercial fiction. It doesn’t closely adhere to formulas to deliver an expected genre experience. It’s not pandering to a social or political agenda. It’s not trying to push boundaries or shock anyone. It exists purely to enlarge the life of the reader, allowing each of us the freedom to experience it in our own way. It’s a beautiful, age-old thing that makes me stop and give thanks.

Content warnings: Some scary scenes, but (surprisingly) nothing crazy-gross or graphic.

Reading Picture Books With Children: How to Shake Up Storytime and Get Kids Talking about What They See

By Megan Dowd Lambert

Genre: Nonfiction

Format: Paperback from the library

Mood: Friendly, professional, instructional

You’ll love it if you want to amp-up your read-alouds

My local librarian recommended this one to me off the homeschool shelf.

When I read a picture book to my kids, I usually open to the first page and start reading. I confess I don’t always take a close look at the cover or endpapers or even the physical size of the book or the orientation. For many picture books, these things don’t matter too much. But, for many others, they DO matter, and taking a closer look can be FUN.

This book walks you through how to read a WHOLE picture book with your kids—words, pictures, endpapers, typography, gutters, etc. You don’t tell the kids what you think. You ask them what they notice. This is a great strategy for many reasons—not the least of which is that kids say the funniest things.

If you typically stop and ask your kids questions about the story itself (Why did Bear do that? or What do you think’ll happen next?) then this approach will seem very natural to you—the only difference is that you’ll ADD questions about the book’s art and its physical design. You’re considering the book as a whole. That’s why Lambert calls it the Whole-Book Approach to reading. It’s neat.

Content warnings: None

Our Only May Amelia

By Jennifer L. Holm

Genre: Middle-grade historical fiction

Format: Paperback

Mood: Jovial and heartbreaking at turns (lots of highs and lows)

You’ll love it if you’ve got a soft spot for spunky girl protagonists

Look at the cover of this book. What do you see? I see an adorable tomboy sitting on a rock in the woods by a river. So, I think to myself, “This’ll be a sweet historical novel that I may want to read with my kids someday.” And it was most definitely that…but it was also heart-rending! This book has some SAD episodes that could be a little much for some sensitive kids.

Overall, I loved this book. It’s written from May’s POV, and she’s as sassy and smart as you could ever wish. She lives with her mother, father, and seven brothers in Washington on the Nasel River (modern spelling is Naselle) at the turn of the century (1800s to 1900s). May Amelia is the only girl in their Finnish community, which is dominated by farmers, fishermen, and loggers. She’s not a proper young lady, but she’ll most definitely survive the zombie apocalypse with all her highly practical skill set (boating, fishing, escaping bears, cooking for a crowd, etc.).

This is a great book for girls around 8 to 12-ish (and there’s not much in the way of romance, so that’s nice). But it does have a lot of boyish appeal too, because May Amelia has many rough-n-tumble brothers, and they figure into the action A LOT.

Okay, so the sad stuff. There are deaths and losses and deep griefs. This probably hit me harder as a mom—kids may not feel it as keenly—but it was much heavier than I expected. May Amelia’s voice stays sharp and upbeat through it all, which makes it feel lighter and not so cutting.

Content warnings (with spoilers): There are some scenes of peril where May and her brothers nearly die, but they all end well. May does lose a family member, and it’s very, VERY sad. May’s grandmother is straight-up mean to her, serving up lots of verbal abuse. This book touches on issues of racism (Chinook, Chinese, and Finnish people) and gender (good old-fashioned boy stuff vs. girl stuff) but not in a super-contrived “messaging” way that makes you gag.

One last thing. May’s aunt lives in a fancy house in town. How does she live so lavishly when she has no job and no husband? She has a “gentleman friend.” This raised my eyebrows. Moms of young girls might want to be prepared for awkward questions.

The Islander

By Cynthia Rylant

Genre: Middle-grade magical realism

Format: Hardcover

Mood: Mysterious, quiet

You’ll love it if you like Kate DiCamillo

This children’s book was the perfect read-aloud for our family’s beach vacation! My little boys loved the mysterious aspects of the mermaid’s comb…the message in the bottle…the oyster with the curious object inside. Most of it went over their heads, but this is a beautiful, unassuming little story that speaks to the lonely heart.

No man is an island. But Daniel, our protagonist, feels like one. He lives alone on a literal island with his grandfather. No friends. No neighbors. It’s a solitary life. Then, one day, Daniel meets the mermaid, and nothing is ever the same again.

This book isn’t a cheesy fantasy. It reminds me of Kate DiCamillo’s emotional books (The Magician’s Elephant and Edward Tulane). It’s understated and elegant. Very simple on the surface, but lots of depth.

Content warnings (with spoilers): Daniel’s parents perished in a plane crash before the story opens. His grandfather also passes away during the course of the book.

Freckle Juice

By Judy Blume

Genre: Children’s fiction

Format: Hardcover from the library

Mood: Silly!

You’ll love it if you want to make your first-grader laugh

I read this with my second-grader and kindergartener for homeschool language arts. It’s cute. We read it over the course of a week, but you could read it in about 30 minutes flat if you wanted to.

Andrew Marcus wants freckles. But how do you get them? His clever classmate, Sharon, says that she can sell him a recipe for freckle juice that’ll do the trick. You can see where this is heading…straight to Tummyache Town and Shame City.

It’s a silly story, but it teaches kids to be content with how they look, to not envy their neighbor, and that if something sounds too good to be true, then it probably is.

Content warnings: Lots of zany, childish antics that are mostly harmless. You might want to be careful if you have a kid with a strong inclination to imitate. Haha.

Book journal pages you can color

Love books AND colored pencils? Then these printable book journal pages are for YOU. I designed them to be cheerful and nostalgic. Pop your email into the box below, and I’ll send you the FREE printables.

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