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Here are my book reviews for April 2022. Wow, it was a fiction-heavy month for me—with two books beginning with “Once Upon…”
How about you? What have you been reading lately? Leave a comment with your most recent reads, or share a link to your review post.
Now, without further ado…
The Magic of Motherhood book review
By Ashlee Gadd
Christian devotional for moms
Mood: Funny, encouraging, relatable
You’ll love it if you’re feeling frazzled about motherhood and need a good laugh (and a good cry)
This is a cute little gift book that contains a selection of blog posts that originally appeared on Coffee + Crumbs. I’d never heard of the blog/website Coffee + Crumbs before I picked this up, but I liked the title and wanted to check it out.
Each chapter (which, as I said, was probably originally a blog post) is short and relatable and written by a cohort of mommy bloggers. You’ll read about various different mommy-related niche topics, such as giving birth, adopting, infertility, miscarriage, special needs diagnosis, anxiety, you name it, really.
The strength of this book is how it helps moms relate to other moms. We all have individual journeys that sometimes look VERY different. The more we know about what other moms are going through, the more supportive we can be—versus getting clannish with the moms who are just like us and casting sidelong glances at The Others.
Honestly, some chapters landed perfectly for me, and others flopped. Some were a little too mom-powery for me. There’s something about “moms are superheroes” that just doesn’t sit well. I’m like a cream puff compared to my great-grandmothers—the real heroes. Having said that, I do appreciate how this book encourages moms to give themselves credit for all they do—especially since we are so vulnerable and insecure about our mom qualities. But there’s a healthy limit to that, doncha think?
Elena Krause…? Can we be BFFs? I loved her articles most. She writes beautifully and had me nodding my head and getting all emotion-lumpy in my throat. Her article on infertility is one of THE best things I’ve ever read on the subject, and I know infertility.
Note: The hardcover has a nice physical quality to it. Lots of pretty pictures, pull quotes, and a ribbon bookmark, so it would make a nice gift for the right mom.
Content warnings: If you’re suffering from any kind of trauma associated with motherhood, there may be triggers here for you. Be gentle with yourself, mama. ❤️
Once Upon a Wardrobe book review
By Patti Callahan
Thematic elements: Sibling love, family dynamics, loss/grief, the role of stories in our lives
Mood: Uplifting, heartwarming
You’ll love it if you’re a fan of Narnia or just C. S. Lewis in general
Seventeen-year-old Megs loves her 8-year-old brother George. He has a heart condition that’s so advanced he won’t see his ninth birthday. Because he spends all day in bed, books are his escape. When he receives a copy of a newly published fantasy novel called The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, George falls in love with it, becoming obsessed in the way that children do when they’re completely enchanted by something. He begs Megs to pay a visit to C. S. Lewis, who works at Oxford, where she goes to college, so that she can ask him, “Where did Narnia come from?”
To please little Georgie, Megs plucks up the courage to ask Mr. Lewis the question. She thinks that he’s going to say something like, “Well, Aslan is based on a lion I saw at the zoo. And Cair Paravel is based on Dunluce Castle.” But, nope. Mr. Lewis responds by telling her stories from his life. This leaves the logical Megs (who is a math major) with more questions than when she started. She shares these stories with George, and they both grow and change, and it’s heartwarming.
It’s a sweet journey for Megs, who learns to loosen her grip on logic and embrace the reality that life is much more than what we could ever comprehend.
There were a few moments while reading where I thought, “Oh no. There’s going to be no real mention of God at all. NO!” That would’ve been very sad. However, by the end, I was satisfied. It wasn’t on the nose, but the book did point toward the fact that George loved Narnia because it reminded him of the place where his soul was formed and where his soul would return. Just as the lamppost in Narnia is the entry and exit point, so is the light of God the entry and exit point of our earthly lives.
Because Patti Callahan wrote Becoming Mrs. Lewis, I guess I felt like I trusted her to write this what-if and took it at face value. I thought she did a good job, not being a Lewis expert myself. She made him out to be a lot more jolly than I imagined him to be. Why did I have the impression that he was curmudgeonly? It was fun to recognize a lot of Lewis’s quotes sprinkled throughout.
Note: This is GREAT on audio! The narrator does all the British and Irish accents your heart could desire. Also, it’s set during the fall-winter seasons, with lots of snow and ice, and the climax occurs on Christmas, so it’s a great holiday pick.
Content warnings: If you’re going through the process of losing or grieving a loved one, this might hit too close to home.
Pat of Silver Bush book review
By L. M. Montgomery
Classic historical coming-of-age
Thematic elements: Growing up, dealing with change, friendship, romance
Mood: Lighthearted, emotional, innocent
You’ll love it if you adore Anne of Green Gables and Little Women and need something heartwarming and pure
First off, I just want to say that I do not like the name of the main character, Pat. And I don’t really like the name of her family farm, Silver Bush. The names in this book were not great for me. But the story was!
Pat Gardiner lives with her family on Prince Edward Island, and their farm is called Silver Bush. Pat is in LOVE with Silver Bush because it’s her home, where she’s loved and where she belongs. She doesn’t want anything about her home or her life to change. And, of course, everything does!
When the story opens, Pat is a child of about 8 years old. By the time the book ends, she’s a mature teen. So, this is technically a coming-of-age novel, but it has the innocent, G-rated vibe of a children’s book. Very similar to Anne of Green Gables. This story is brimful of humorous childhood antics and family/social drama, just like Anne. It also isn’t afraid to venture into the sensitive areas of loss and grief—even the common losses that we feel when our world changes (naturally, as it should).
Like Anne, Pat is dreamy and fiercely loyal to her family and friends. Like Italian-level loyal. Like “you are dead to me if you insult my family.” I know A LOT of people like this, so I was like, “I get you, Pat.”
Pat herself says that she has no great talent except the talent of loving the people and places that God has given her to love, and she has no greater ambition in life than to stay at Silver Bush forever and take care of the house and anyone who lives in it. And, my oh my, isn’t that something? We moderns scoff and say, “That’s no way to spend your life, Pat.” We say it with our own shriveled hearts and closed fists. I am modern, and I am trying to learn a thing or two from Pat.
Judy Plum has got to be one of the best characters that Montgomery created. She’s the family housekeeper (and nurse, cook, etc.) Montgomery gives her a Scottish brogue, so reading her speeches can be slow going due to the heavy dialect-spelling, but it sure does give her tons of flavor. Spicy flavor. Oh, oh! And after ye be readin’ about good ol’ Judy, ye’ll niver be th’ same agin.
This book is an ODE to nature. Montgomery writes flawlessly about the natural world. It makes you want to kiss some buttercups and weave a crown of daisies for your head. Just beautiful.
Content warnings: This book depicts the loss of loved ones, as well as an absent mother.
Once Upon a River book review
By Diane Setterfield
Literary historical fiction
Thematic elements: Loss/grief, the miraculous and inexplicable, the role stories play in our lives
Mood: Mysterious, emotional, weighty
You’ll love it if you want a meaty, complex story populated by a deep cast of fantastic characters
Where did this book come from?! And why am I just finding it now? This novel hits on all my literary loves. Disclaimer: I listened to the audiobook narrated by Juliet Stevenson, who is flat-out amazing. I’m 100 percent sure that I liked this book better because of her performance. Having said that…
The setup: There’s a tavern situated on the banks of the Thames in, oh, the late 1800s? One night, a half-drowned man stumbles into the pub with a dead 4-year-old girl in his arms. The girl inexplicably comes back to life. It’s not long before three different parties claim her as their own. Who is this girl, and to whom does she belong?
This book is part mystery, part family drama, part fairy tale.
Mostly, it’s about stories and how we use them. We use stories (true and false, factual and fictional) in many ways. We use them to entertain and connect. We use them to deceive and manipulate. We punish ourselves because of them and reward ourselves, too.
What makes a good story? What makes a true story? What’s the difference between reality and a story? This book brings these questions to the table and offers answers in the form of—yep—stories.
The river is, obviously, a metaphor for “narrative,” propelling the action forward, sometimes serenely, sometimes wildly, and always outside human control. The river is where all the book’s critical action takes place. It’s both a giver and destroyer of life, and it’s ever-changing and mysterious.
Honestly, put this book in classrooms. Give it to book clubs. It deserves rereading.
Content warnings: This book deals with the loss of a child and the impact it can have on a family. There are mentions of rape and murder, but nothing explicit. There is one light love scene that is (in my opinion) tastefully done.
Hamnet book review
By Maggie O’Farrell
Literary historical fiction
Thematic elements: Falling in love, loss/grief, plague, family dynamics, atonement
Mood: Emotional, heavy, character-driven
You’ll love it if you prefer your fiction slow, passionate, complex, and gorgeously written
Here’s what we know: William Shakespeare and his wife had two daughters and a boy. The boy, Hamnet, died at age 11. Not long after, Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, which, obviously, became one of the most famous plays in history. How did Hamnet die, and is there a connection between his death and his father’s deathless verse? O’Farrell took those few facts and embellished a lush tale of love and loss.
Call me crazy, but I expected this book to be about Shakespeare and Hamnet…their relationship, the loss, and the aftermath. It was NOT exactly about this. Crazy, right?
The protagonist of this book is not William or Hamnet…it’s Agnes (we know her as Anne), Shakespeare’s wife and Hamnet’s mother. We see how she came to Stratford, fell in love with “the Latin tutor,” and became his wife and mother to his children. What kind of a woman could’ve captured Shakespeare’s heart?
O’Farrell paints Agnes as a fairylike creature. Someone who is one with nature and who concocts herbal remedies and dispenses them to neighbors in need. She’s also got an otherworldly “sight” that allows her to know things without having been told. She marries Shakespeare not because he’s anything grand at that point in his life; it’s because she squeezes the muscle between his thumb and forefinger and senses that there is more inside this man than anyone she’s ever met. Agnes is the one we truly come to know over the course of the book…William, not so much.
Interestingly, O’Farrell puts a lot of distance between us and William Shakespeare. She portrays him to us in his most ordinary light…showcasing his weak emotional moments, not his grand accomplishments on the stage. She never even allows his first or last name to cross the page.
The POV moved seamlessly in and out of everyone’s heads—I think everyone got their moment—but everything revolves around Agnes. She’s the real story. Which leads me to ask, “Why?”
Why call the book Hamnet when it should be called Agnes? Well…why call a play Hamlet when this character is stalled in inertia nearly the whole time? Hmm…
Is this book trying to say something about the dead, about resurrecting ghosts, holding onto regret, trying to atone…all of which echo throughout Shakespeare’s masterpiece?
These are the elements that make this book so highly discussable!
Content warnings: There’s one scene that depicts a sexual act. Death by bubonic plague is depicted in detail. There are acts of domestic violence but nothing too harrowing.
Shadow and Bone book review
By Leigh Bardugo
Thematic elements: Love triangle, magical world on the brink of disaster, girl discovers powers she didn’t know she had
Mood: Bubblegum dark, mysterious, thrilling
You’ll love it if you’re craving a fast-paced, frictionless fantasy
Do you wish you could reread The Hunger Games for the first time and experience it all over again? Well, this book is basically The Hunger Games in different clothes. The fate of a nation hinges upon an untrained, untested teenage girl. Her childhood best friend is a total hunk. She’s plucked from her normal world and thrust into a dangerous new world with life-or-death stakes. There is a love triangle. Seriously, you guys. I’m not making this up.
I also don’t want you to think that I’m looking down on this type of fiction from my Ivory Tower. Honestly, after chewing on some fairly meaty literary fiction this month, this was actually a welcome change of pace. Young adult fiction is effortless to read, and it’s escapism at its best. I think I read the bulk of this book in three sittings, which is astonishingly fast for me.
Content warnings: This is typical YA fantasy fare. If you read The Hunger Games, then you can handle this easily. There are some steamy PG-13 romance scenes.
Eagle Feather book review
By Clyde Robert Bulla
Children’s historical fiction
Thematic elements: Responsibility, freedom, honesty
I was especially intrigued by this novel because it’s about a Navajo boy living in, gosh, I’d say the ’20s or ’30s, way out in a middle-a-nowhere desert area. It sounded SO much like where my husband grew up on the border of AZ and NM in the Navajo Nation. I was hoping it would have some geographical references and name-dropping, but it didn’t. However, it could’ve easily been set in that area where we still visit frequently.
Eagle Feather is an 11-year-old boy who lives with his parents and two younger siblings. His job is to tend the sheep and goats and, thereby, help provide a modest living for the family. His life is small, but he’s content. Then, things begin to change for Eagle Feather, and he’s confronted with some tough choices, and he must have courage…you get the idea.
Overall, this was another quick win in the kids’ department. My boys are at the perfect age for Clyde Robert Bulla novels, which are bare-bones, fast-paced stories that small kids can easily focus on. The main character is usually confronted with an impossible choice, something that requires a lot of guts, and it’s fun for me to ask my kids, “What would you do in that situation?” There are also always characters who aren’t what they seem, and it’s been neat to ask, “Do you think So-n-So is good or evil?” Because the story is so simple, it’s possible to have these discussions with my 5- and 6-year-olds.
Content warnings: Some maltreatment of a child
Poppy book review
Children’s animal adventure
Thematic elements: freedom, justice, bravery
Mood: Quasi-dark and scary alternated with comic relief
I admit. I’m not a fan of animal protagonists. I will tolerate them, but they aren’t my favorite. My boys, on the other hand, do like animal stories. At their insistence, we sped through this short novel in about a week.
(Side note: As a kid, I read and reread a battered copy of The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle and held it close to my dear little heart, but for some reason, I never read anything else by Avi. So, after like 25 years, this is my second Avi book, haha.)
This book is slightly on the scary side. It opens with our villain, Mr. Oxac the terrifying and tyrannical owl who exerts control over all the animals in Dimwood Forest who are smaller than him. Basically, he’s a big bully. Our heroine, Poppy, is your average, everyday deer mouse, and she has no intention of being heroic. But she has heroism thrust upon her when she’s forced to stand up to Mr. Ocax and defy his reign of terror.
See what I mean? This isn’t exactly what I’d call a jolly tale. Don’t get me wrong, though. This book was cute, but I wouldn’t rave about it. I mostly enjoyed doing the read-aloud voice for Ereth. He was hilarious!
This is book two in the series, but it can definitely stand alone.
Content warnings: The owl does successfully eat one of the characters early on in the book, so heads up for sensitive kids.
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