The Running Man (Book Review)

The Running Man (Book Review)

You’ll love it if
you’re craving a high-octane and decidedly adult version of The Hunger Games

This book review contains affiliate links. Here’s my disclosure policy.

The Running Man

By Richard Bachman (Stephen King)

Character
Plot & Pacing
Writing Craft
Moral Value

It’s the year 2025, and the bloodshot eyes of the U.S. are glued to screens…

If there is one book genre that I actively avoid, it’s horror. I’ve never read a Stephen King novel in my life. TOO SCARY.

But, when I stumbled across this thriller written under his pen name for Signet, I thought…okay, I can probably do it.

Stephen King is skilled and prolific. I wanted to read him, and this seemed like my best shot of not being scarred for life.

This book was published the year I was born, and it portrays the year 2025—next year, at the time of this review.

In King’s dystopia, the divide between the “haves” and “have nots” in the U.S. has grown into a chasm. Every home is required by law to contain (get this) a Free-Vee. (I have a similarly named app on my television.) Programming is dominated by reality TV—game shows in which people compete in all manner of deadly games in hopes of winning prize money. Contestants are largely comprised of the have-nots.

Our protagonist, Richard, is one such contestant, driven to apply for TV so that he can earn money to buy real medicine for his baby, who is sick with the flu.

Because he’s smart, Richard gets picked for the highest-rated show on TV, The Running Man. Here’s the game: Richard runs for his life, and Hunters try to kill him. He earns money for every hour he stays alive. Stay alive for 30 days, and you win. Nobody has lasted more than eight days.

Sound like the Hunger Games? Yep.

The ending is hauntingly reminiscent of something that ended up happening in real life nearly 20 years after this book rolled off the press.

It’s crazy how many of King’s presentiments have come to pass. The book’s government is irreparably corrupt, and the networks are out for nothing but profit. Today, don’t we feel the same way about Washington and Silicon Valley? People are doping themselves to avoid reality—with entertainment and pot, whatever you can afford. Sound familiar? Everything from the air to the food is polluted. Uncanny.

Content warnings: The entire book is a content warning. There’s foul/offensive language with no filters whatsoever. The book mentions every vice you can imagine, although there’s comparatively little that’s graphically portrayed on the page. There’s no horror, just thrills. Clean? No way. But King knows his Bible, and there are references sprinkled throughout, so there’s that.

3.9
A Thousand Pounds of Dynamite (Book Review)

A Thousand Pounds of Dynamite (Book Review)

You’ll love it if
you like your true crime without a side of blood and guts

This book review contains affiliate links. Here’s my disclosure policy.

A Thousand Pounds of Dynamite

By Adam Higginbotham

Information
Inspiration
Writing Craft
Moral Value

There’s a bomb in a casino. Now what?

I’m intrigued by Higginbotham’s new book on the Challenger disaster, so I thought I’d try one of his earlier and shorter true-crime books. This one describes how a dude made a bomb, put it into a casino, and attempted to extort money. Why did he do it? Did he succeed? Did the bomb, you know, go off?

This was a punchy, intriguing read. I listened to the audio narrated by the author, and it was great.

Because the crime happened back in 1980, before the Internet and cell phones and such, it was fascinating to learn how this dysfunctional man (a real piece of work) got the dynamite, rigged the bomb, placed it, and communicated with authorities…back in the Stone Age. 😂

But even MORE interesting are the family dysfunction and interpersonal dynamics at play here. Nobody does this kind of thing JUST for the money. Nor does a person do it alone, with no accomplices or stooges. The WHY behind the crime was most interesting for me.

I do not like grotesque true crime, where children are abused and people are graphically dismembered. This was a great read for someone like me who enjoys exploring the psyche and motives behind crime, but who can’t stomach graphic violence.

4.5
The Best Christmas Pageant Ever (Book Review)

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever (Book Review)

You’ll love it if
you’d like to read hands-down winner for best modern Christmas novel for kids

This book review contains affiliate links. Here’s my disclosure policy.

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever

By Barbara Robinson

Character
Plot & Pacing
Writing Craft
Moral Value

A gang of troublemakers want to be in the church Christmas program. Hilarity ensues.

Seeing this play with my Brownies Troop was one of the formative events in my childhood. I still remember the girl who played Imogen swinging the baby Jesus doll around and Mrs. Robinson urging her to hold him like he was precious.

Reading this story was just as good as it’s ever been for me. It asks the question: What would happen if the neighborhood hooligans showed up at church and wanted to star in the Christmas pageant? What is a funny romp for kids is quite convicting for the parents who are reading it. At least it is for me.

My boys loved this book and laughed a lot. We read one chapter a day for a week, and it was a great experience.

Content warnings: The Herdman children smoke, steal, lie, and set things on fire, but it’s all melodrama, not real.

4.6
Mari in the Margins (Book Review)

Mari in the Margins (Book Review)

You’ll love it if
you’re charmed by the little-big dramas of childhood

This book review contains affiliate links. Here’s my disclosure policy.

Mari in the Margins

By Rebecca J. Gomez

Character
Plot & Pacing
Writing Craft
Moral Value

How can you stand out when you’re lost in a sea of siblings?

I adored this novel in verse. Mari reminds me a lot of myself—introverted, creative, wondering how she fits in. Mari is the middle child in a family of nine kids. Her busy family, chaotic home life, and her clingy little sister, whom Mari is always stuck babysitting, often push her to her limit, requiring her to hide in the closet or lock herself in the bathroom for some peace and quiet.

Mari feels like she’s a side note in her family, often forgotten while louder voices get the most attention. But she’s not defined by resentment—she loves her family and is devoted to them, even though she finds them exhausting. She’s just wondering how she fits in as an individual in her own right (beyond her perpetual role as babysitter to her younger siblings). What in this world is JUST Mari’s? Who is she?

This a sweet, understated story that explores universal emotions that all kids can relate to. Do my parents really love me? What am I good at? Is she still my friend? Why am I so upset? I love books that are content to portray the ordinary highs and lows of everyday life.

I love Mari’s mixed cultural experience, which adds richness to her life. I love how the book throws all kinds of poetry into the mix, as Mari’s teacher assigns certain forms, we see Mari’s attempts at haiku, limerick, acrostic, and free verse. This book would make a fantastic addition to a homeschool poetry unit, because, as Mari learns to master some of these forms, she remains supremely focused on expressing herself and pouring her heart into her writing. The tension between self-expression and artistic constraint is where the magic happens for her.

Also, the doodles are such a fun addition! The book is beautifully laid out visually.

Overall, I loved this! I’d recommend it to any middle-grader, and I loved it as an adult, too.

4.8
Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library (Book Review)

Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library (Book Review)

You’ll love it if
you’re craving a Willy Wonka-type adventure (but with less candy and more books)

This book review contains affiliate links. Here’s my disclosure policy.

Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library

By Chris Grabenstein

Character
Plot & Pacing
Writing Craft
Moral Value

A group of kids must escape a game-maker’s library in order to win the grand prize

This was our last read-aloud for the school year. I selected it because I hoped it would be a fun, exciting story to start the summer. My boys did enjoy it, but I was a tad underwhelmed.

I must say, though, that the ending made up for what I thought was a snoozy middle.

When I finished reading the last couple of chapters, my boys (7 and 8 years old) were literally jumping and rolling off the couch and around the carpet. All the tension and excitement they were feeling was manifesting in these funny physical gyrations, and it was hilarious to watch.

The story premise is great. An eccentric game-maker, Luigi Lemoncello, has built a state-of-the-art library in his childhood hometown, and he invites twelve 12-year-olds to a lock-in at the library. The next morning, they opt into an epic game to “escape” the library and win fame and fortune as Lemoncello spokes-kids.

The clues and puzzles were excellent. I felt like they were difficult enough to warrant the fanfare surrounding the game event. The only thing, though, was that SO much went over my boys’ heads. As the adult, I caught all the allusions and Easter eggs, and I wanted to explain them to my boys, but I refrained, haha.

I felt like the writing and the characters were on the weaker side. Granted, this is a plot-driven adventure story, but I was expecting a bit more in the character department. That would’ve helped support the middle of the novel, which dragged for me.

There wasn’t much “there” there, even for our hero, Kyle. The most interesting character is Charles because he’s a worthy villain, who tries to weasel and fake his way to the top. It’s good to see him taken down a notch—my boys loved it—but he’s also something of a caricature.

If each character could’ve displayed more internal conflict, our interest would’ve skyrocketed. There’s one point at which Kyle is tempted to play video games instead of help his team look for clues, and after a quick pause, he resists the temptation. Had the characters had grown and changed to a greater degree, the book would’ve had more to offer.

Also, the grand prize (being a Lemoncello spokesperson) seemed a little strange. I would not wish fame on these poor kids!

3.3
Room One (Book Review)

Room One (Book Review)

You’ll love it if
you’re looking for a gentle kids’ mystery with a discussable ending

This book review contains affiliate links. Here’s my disclosure policy.

Room One

By Andrew Clements

Character
Plot & Pacing
Writing Craft
Moral Value

Who is hiding out in the ol’ farmhouse?

I love Andrew Clements, but this was not a favorite for me or my boys. The book came with our homeschool curriculum, and it sounded intriguing—”two mysteries in one,” says the cover. I think that skewed my expectations. I was anticipating something heavy on clues, puzzles, twists, and gasps.

But this book was very quiet and unassuming. The drama is small, just like the town of Plattsford, Nebraska, where the story is set. The main character, Ted, is a sixth-grader who stumbles upon a family squatting in an abandoned farmhouse, and he does what he can to help them.

The book has gold-standard values, I will give it that. But, everyone in the book seemed to be on his/her best behavior. It would’ve been interesting to have a mischief-maker or a bad guy in the mix to liven things up. There wasn’t enough conflict for me.

The climax of the story is a huge bust—and it’s supposed to be. This made for some interesting discussion. My boys and I were rooting for a magical ending where everyone cheers and the kids hug and the parents cry while the soundtrack swells to a crescendo. The book deliberately bursts your bubble. Asking “WHY?” is a good exercise for kids.

Overall, though, I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone who is looking for a page-turner to keep the interest of a reluctant reader. Good but not great.

3.3
What the Moon Said (Book Review)

What the Moon Said (Book Review)

You’ll love it if
you loved Sweet Home Alaska or any of the Little House books.

This book review contains affiliate links. Here’s my disclosure policy.

What the Moon Said

By Gayle Rosengren

Character
Plot & Pacing
Writing Craft
Moral Value

How will 10-year-old Esther survive now that her family must move from the city to a farm due to the Great Depression?

What a sweet, heartfelt book! I read it in just over a day, and it’s perfect for kids who love pioneer or homesteading books.
It’s the Great Depression, and we see one year in the life of 10-year-old Esther. All she wants is to earn her mother’s love. Her Russian immigrant mom is exacting and superstitious. She scolds easily, worries constantly, and hugs not at all. What can Esther do to make Ma love her?

When Esther’s dad loses his job in Chicago, the family moves to a Wisconsin farm to try country life. How will Esther adjust?

This story has two strong journeys: the outer journey: Will the family make it on the farm? And the inner journey: Will Esther at long last receive her mother’s love? This makes it a simple yet layered growing-up tale.

It is a sweet story, with lots of emotion. I got teary-eyed a few times. I appreciate how the book doesn’t villainize the city or the country. I also love how there is a faith element. The family prays and goes to church. Ma and Pa also carry a lot of superstitions from the Old Country, and it’s interesting to see how that’s handled.

The reading level is low, so younger kids should be able to tackle it. The plot touches on many universal “kid dilemmas” that anyone can relate to, and it also opens a window to a distinct time in history and how people lived back then.

I got this book recommendation from this list of page-turners.

Content warnings: Nothing graphic or overly scary. However, one character has a medical emergency that requires hospitalization. One character chokes on food.

4.6
The Luminous Life of Lucy Landry (Book Review)

The Luminous Life of Lucy Landry (Book Review)

You’ll love it if
you’re craving a short middle-grade book that feels like L. M. Montgomery

This book review contains affiliate links. Here’s my disclosure policy.

The Luminous Life of Lucy Landry

By Anna Rose Johnson

Character
Plot & Pacing
Writing Craft
Moral Value

An awkward orphan girl is adopted by a big family who lives on a tiny lighthouse island

What a delightful story. Like Anna Rose Johnson’s debut, this book has that classic, vintage feel. What’s more, Lucy Landry is Anne Shirley reincarnated. She’s dreamy and inattentive, but it’s obvious that her behavior is a coping mechanism, and so, even though she makes us cringe, we FEEL for her.

This is one of those stories where the young protagonist is plopped into a completely new life. Think Sara Crewe, Mary Lennox, and, of course, Anne. Lucy Landry has lived primarily alone with an elderly caretaker. When she’s adopted by a couple with six children who live on a tiny lighthouse island, she’s utterly unprepared for the chaos and conflict. I’m glad that the author didn’t shy away from this conflict. It was HARD for Lucy to fit in, and this constant tension made the story interesting.

I loved the mystery of the long-lost necklace that’s woven through the story. While this is a subplot and not the point of the book, it adds a layer of interest to liven up the main plot, which is Lucy’s transformation. Plus, finding the lost necklace gives Lucy a goal and deepens her connection to her past.

This book is short and easy to read. It’ll appeal to kids (and adults) who want a quick win.

Also, Lucy deals with some debilitating fear. Since so many kids struggle with fears, this is another touchpoint that will appeal to anxious kids without triggering them (I think).

And a huge WOO-HOO to the depiction of a homeschooling family. This is rare! (But spilling stuff all over our school supplies is, sadly, not. Haha.)

Thank you to NetGalley and Holiday House for a digital ARC of this novel.

Content warnings: Lucy is afraid of sailing on the water. The book shows her getting anxious about the prospect of (and the reality of) getting on a boat. She and one other character freeze up in panic, but it’s not depicted as a detailed panic attack. Mentioning this just in case it’s relevant for your youngster.

4.5
The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (Book Review)

The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (Book Review)

You’ll love it if
you’re intrigued by an angsty, chaotic version of To Kill a Mockingbird

This book review contains affiliate links. Here’s my disclosure policy.

The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter

By Carson McCullers

Character
Plot & Pacing
Writing Craft
Moral Value

The allure of a gorgeous title…

This book has been on my radar for a while simply due to the title. That title. I didn’t realize the phrase comes from a poem by William Sharp (Fiona MacLeod): “Deep in the heart of Summer, sweet is life to me still, But my heart is a lonely hunter that hunts on a lonely hill.” That’s something right there.

This book is something, too. But, in many ways, it’s a mess. This is one of those beautifully written, literary books that gives you a lot to think about, that stirs your emotions—but that also feels like a bucket of odds and ends that the author shakes, and it’s noisy and interesting, but we’re not sure exactly what it all means.

The book is not what I’d call entertaining. Not in the same way that To Kill a Mockingbird is entertaining, apart from everything else it brings to the table.

I’m perplexed by the paradox of this book. On the one hand, there are strong themes that you don’t have to be an English major to sniff out. But there’s a striking lack of coherence. Again, like a bucket filled with objects that clearly symbolize certain things, but they’re just crashing around in the bucket, and what does it mean at the end of the day?

As the title suggests, this book explores the theme of loneliness. John Singer is a deaf mute living in an ordinary mill town in Georgia. He’s the hub of the story. He attracts the other four main characters to him. These people pay separate but regular visits to Singer because they like to talk with him—or TO him. They believe he understands them. They’re lonely and desperate to offload their thoughts, feelings, dreams, and convictions on another human being and be understood. But, we know, through the narrator, that Singer doesn’t actually understand them. They just think he does. And they rely on him to listen. They imagine him to be who they want him to be.

Each of the four supporting characters represents different parts of American society. Mick represents the poor whites (she’s also young and coming of age). Dr. Copeland represents the “Negro race” as he puts it. Biff represents the establishment—capitalist, white working man. Blount represents the communist malcontent. The book is described as a parable because each of these characters is representative of larger ideas and societal problems.

Mick stands out as, by far, the most sympathetic and sweet, followed closely by Biff, who is thoughtful, fair, and observant. I love when Mick describes her “inside room.” It’s the inner space where she can dream and be creative. She dreams of learning music and composing songs, and she even tries her hand at writing some songs. But she doesn’t share this dream with anyone. It’s her own “inside” secret that she cherishes. The second-to-last chapter when she describes how, after a long day’s work at the mercantile, she cannot manage to get into the inside room anymore—that’s heartbreaking.

Portia’s good-faith attempts to make peace with her father are exquisitely written. Blount and Copeland’s rage-fest where they’re agreeing but disagreeing—it was perfectly rendered. There’s so much here, but it felt very meandering, like you’re not sure exactly where the story is.

I did not love this book. It was a slog. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot that will stay with me.

3.9
The Breeder Cycle (Book Series Review)

The Breeder Cycle (Book Series Review)

You’ll love it if
you wish you could reread The Hunger Games for the first time

This book review contains affiliate links. Here’s my disclosure policy.

The Breeder Cycle (Breeder, Criminal, Clone)

By K. B. Hoyle

Character
Plot & Pacing
Writing Craft
Moral Value

Here’s a YA dystopia that isn’t bleak

Wow. I inhaled this trilogy, and I’m very picky when it comes to my teen dystopias. This series has a lot in common with The Hunger Games, but it’s much less depressing. In fact, it is incredibly life-affirming. But it’s most definitely for teens—no younger.

So, we’ve got a strong female lead, who lives in a futuristic society that’s tried to rid the world of inequality by making people the same—as “same” as they can get them. All aspects of life are controlled by the powers that be. Our young, female protagonist works as a Breeder. Her job is to birth babies for the new world. You already recognize a slew of elements from other popular YA books, right?

Well, something happens to our main character, Pria. She begins to feel discontented with her “perfect” life. She begins to ask questions—gasp! This puts her in danger, and she must face the truth about her society and the role she plays within it.

The strength of this series is the plot and pacing. It’s tight and effortless to read. There is a satisfying character-driven B plot.

Honestly, if you’ve got a thing for YA dystopia, this series is a really great choice!

4
The Road (Book Review)

The Road (Book Review)

You’ll love it if
you’ve got the nerve for an intimate and lyrical dystopia

This book review contains affiliate links. Here’s my disclosure policy.

The Road

By Cormac McCarthy

Character
Plot & Pacing
Writing Craft
Moral Value

Where do you go when the world ends?

The most astonishing thing about this reading experience is that I consumed this novel almost entirely at night, in the dark, right before bed. For someone who scares easily, I’m mighty proud of myself.

A man and his boy (never named) are trying to survive after a cataclysmic civilization-ending event (never explained), and they spend the novel dodging bad guys (cannibals) and figuring out how to not starve or sicken to death.

This book asks the question: Can we still be good even when everything around us is bad? Having just finished reading a lot of fairy tales, this question is not unfamiliar. Fairy tales ask this question over and over. Under what circumstances, under what pressure, do we compromise our integrity, stretch the bounds of morality, allow anger to rage, and succumb to despair?

The boy repeatedly asks his father, “We’re still the good guys, right?” Since they’re barely clinging to the bottom rung of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (basic survival) and there’s nothing higher to live for or aspire to…it’s important to the boy that they’re “good guys.” This is all the boy can hope for in life beyond simply existing. Which begs the question: Are people born with an innate sense of right and wrong? I believe so.

The Road is a journey with no destination. There’s no safe harbor for the characters to aim for. Every time they stumble upon a good place, they can’t stay long. Someone might find them. There’s always this sense of impending tragedy. Every time the man left the boy somewhere, I had to quickly skim ahead just to make sure he was okay.

The book also asks “What’s the point of continuing to live?” These characters live in a world that’s bad beyond anything that I’ve ever experienced. Why not just give up and find a peaceful place to starve or freeze to death? I’m glad that this book takes a life-affirming approach, for all its bleakness.

4.8