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My book reviews for August 2022 include a mix of adult and children’s titles, per usual. I read two heavy-hitting bestsellers this month, plus several more obscure and backlist titles.
One cool thing about this month’s reading: no major DNFs! 🎉
Now, on to the reviews.
Project Hail Mary
By Andy Weir
Genre: Science Fiction
Format: Audible audiobook
Mood: Funny, heartwarming, exciting
You’ll love it if you DON’T usually enjoy sci-fi (truly!)
He’s done it again. Andy Weir has written a SUPER fun science fiction novel featuring (pretty much) one central character. That’s hard. But my attention and investment in this story didn’t waver. This was not only a high-stakes survival story (like The Martian) but it also probes into deeper issues of life and humanity—I was hoping it would do this, and it did.
I listened to the audiobook, which was really, REALLY good. The narrator was excellent, and there were even little “beep-boop” sound effects. It was not hard to follow at all, even though it was very long and riddled with flashbacks.
This book is fantastic for number-geeks who love stories that manage to incorporate back-of-napkin math and lots of references to the periodic table. But it wasn’t off-putting (or confusing) for someone like me who is NOT by any stretch inclined toward STEM.
Above all, the main character is great. Ryland Grace is not your typical intrepid astronaut. Without giving too much away, he’s got a character arc that I just didn’t expect. And Weir constructed the character arc in such a way that it was totally believable and not contrived at all.
I also love that Ryland and I use the same swear words like “gosh golly” and “crud.” But seriously. It was nice to read a cuss-free bestseller.
Content warnings: If you cannot ABIDE any talk of climate change or evolution, you should know that this book deals with both, but it doesn’t feel like messaging. I was fine with how they were portrayed.
Naturally, this book was written with a secular worldview, so no real mention of a higher power or divine creator. But the book does deal honestly with humanity (especially human frailty), which I appreciated.
The main character doesn’t cuss, but other characters do.
There is (mostly comical) mention of sex, but nothing happens on stage.
The Lincoln Highway
By Amor Towles
Genre: Literary historical fiction
Mood: Adventurous, bold, conflicted
You’ll love it if you can’t resist coming-of-age stories wrapped in a road trip
First, you need to know that I nabbed a gorgeous hardback copy of this in my neighborhood’s Little Free Library—what a find! Honestly, I don’t know if I would’ve read it if I didn’t have it in my hot little hands. And boy am I glad that I did!
This was a clear 5-star read for me. I was totally enchanted by this story—more specifically the characters and the writing. If you loved This Tender Land, then The Lincoln Highway is very similar. It’s set in the “innocent” days of post-WW2 America. It stars four kids, ranging in age from 18 to 8, who take off on an adventure on the open road. It’s a cross between The Odyssey and The Wizard of Oz and a half-dozen Shakespeare plays.
I loved the alternating POVs, although I wasn’t sure why some were in first person and others weren’t. We’re supposed to identify most with Emmett and Duchess, who foil each other brilliantly. Then, Billy and Wooly are obvious foils, too, although their narrations are in third person. I also loved how the side characters got cameo chapters all to themselves.
Also, what’s the deal with the dashes? They’re subbed for the opening quotation marks in dialogue. Can someone explain this? (The only quotation marks in the entire book appear around Dennis’s name, which I think is hilarious because they’re air quotes—as if “Dennis” is a name that represents a whole class of men like him.)
I love Emmett and Billy, who represent everything that’s good about youth. They are sincere and genuine and what you see is what you get. Then throw Wooly and Duchess into the mix, and, gosh, those two! They are both so deeply tragic, yet they provide much of the book’s comic relief. Duchess is exquisitely rendered. He’s…would you call it sociopathic? He’s at once likable and persuasive. But he’s also dangerous, not because he’s aggressive or mean, but because he’s so single-minded and incredibly adept at twisting reason and logic to fit his purposes.
The ending. Yeesh. I wish it were different, and, honestly, I’m not 100-percent sure it aligns with the rest of the book…you can make a case that it doesn’t, but there’s an equally good case to be made that it does. Very discussable ending that your book club members can sink their teeth into.
Content warnings: There are many people of questionable moral character, including some drunken actors, a preacher of ill repute and a handful of prostitutes. Several dude brawls and acts of violence happen onstage. The book discusses involuntary manslaughter and several cases of abandonment. Suicide happens.
The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry
By Gabrielle Zevin
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Format: Audiobook from the library
Mood: Sweet, life-affirming, adorable
You’ll love it if you want a charming book written with book lovers in mind
Do you love books about book lovers who own bookshops? Well, this is the quintessential book-about-books. It was a quick, satisfying listen on audiobook. It made me smile. It made me laugh. It didn’t make me cry, even though it tried to.
This backlist title from 2014 is getting a screen adaptation that’s due in theaters next month in October. The trailer looks cute and gives you a flavor for the plot.
So, I love books just as much as the next person, and like most book lovers, I dream of opening up my own bookshop where I can host book clubs and author events and kiddie storytimes. Oh the bliss! But, this book does venture into the territory of literature-worship, even comparing the bookstore to a kind of church, a place where we go to connect and make meaning from life. As much as I love books, I don’t worship them, and I don’t recommend it. This reminds me of a college professor I once had (survey of pre-1900 American lit). One day in class, he declared with great emotion in his voice, “Books are my religion!” I felt for him.
Just FYI about the audiobook. The narrator is just okay—playing up the “literary” voice a little too much for me. I’m wondering if this might be better in print.
Content warnings: This book does a great job of touching on quite a lot of issues—QUITE a lot—without exactly trying too hard to “tackle” each one and wrestle it to the ground, ya know? There’s loss of a spouse, miscarriage, adultery, depression, adoption…yow! But it didn’t feel like a sob-slog. It was light, cheerful, sweet, and life-affirming.
I think the reason WHY the tough topics didn’t feel like heavyweights is because the good was praised and the bad was condemned, just as it should be (for the most part).
Never Let Me Go
By Kazuo Ishiguro
Genre: Literary dystopian fiction
Format: Audiobook from the library
Mood: Mysterious, reflective
You’ll love it if you’re in the mood for something that’ll make you raise your eyebrows and really think
I could not stop listening to this book on audio. It kept calling me back in ways that few books have in the past. I was totally engrossed. I think this was because the book, which isn’t all that complicated and written with strict straightforwardness, unfolds like a mystery. And “puzzling it out” was what kept me listening.
After reading the first few pages, I was simultaneously struck by the familiar and the unfamiliar. Kathy H., the narrator, is obviously some kind of a nurse caring for patients. But the language and the circumstances of her work are weird—she’s called a “carer” and she travels long distances to help “donors,” yet she never mentions “charity” or “nonprofit” or anything like that. She was brought up in a type of boarding school, yet she never mentions her parents, nor does she ever use the word “orphan.” What’s going on?
This book isn’t a mystery, but it unfolds like one, each piece fitting together, one by one, until you get the entire (chilling) picture.
I get how this book, which is set in an alternate post-WW2 reality, raises big questions about the rapid adoption of technology—there will be consequences if we don’t pause to count the cost. It’s about everyday people who are willing to create and then exploit an underclass. It’s about how once we become accustomed to a luxury, we quickly come to consider it a right, something we’re entitled to and can’t live without.
There was another tension pervading this book…the tension between being able to completely relate to the characters and see them as complete human beings, yet also feeling like their pain, their emotions, their outcomes are held at arm’s length, as if they don’t really matter. The story draws you close to the characters, but the narrative voice (Kathy’s POV) is often impersonal and mechanical, keeping you at arm’s length. Of course, we’re invited to ask, “Are they really human?” (And of course they are.)
Have you seen the 2010 movie adaptation with Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan, and Andrew Garfield?
Content warnings: There is quite a lot of sex in this book, as in, the characters have a lot of it with lots of partners. Sex, for our characters, is a bilogical act done for pleasure, not an act of love.
By Edith Wharton
Genre: Literary fiction
Format: Audiobook from Chirp
Mood: Angsty and introspective
You’ll love it if you enjoy reading the lesser known works of famous authors
What an odd little novella! Edith Wharton is known for depicting the fraught social scene in cosmopolitan cities like NYC and London in her best-known books The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth. But this novel is set in an unimportant rural town (like Ethan Frome, I guess). True to form, though, Wharton zooms in on romance, and her portrayal shows naked reality—and it ain’t pretty.
I immediately disliked the protagonist, Charity, who is a spoiled and ignorant teenager. Her very name, though, is brilliantly chosen because Charity is an orphan. When she was a baby, an influential couple in the town adopted her, so we see right away that Charity has been given lots of “charity” (i.e. help, aid, advancement) but not much “charity” (i.e. unconditional love). So, Charity lives with the stigma of low birth (you’re a charity case!), but she’s raised in a privileged home and given all she needs and wants. Charity is a word that strikes everyone differently, and Charity the girl can’t quite figure out her identity. She can’t quite place herself in the world.
The book takes place over the course of one summer when Charity has her first brush with romance. She’s attracted to a young architect who is in town for a temporary project. Sparks fly, and it summer lovin’.
But, her adopted father who is now a widower (and, not to mention, a senior citizen) has also made it known that he wants to marry Charity. She rebuffs him in a humiliating way. He then ruthlessly humiliates her when he gets the chance. The young architect is a big beautiful ball of feckless fluff. All the characters are great and horrible. You really detest them, but you also kind of respect them in certain ways.
I can imagine that this book raised all the eyebrows sky high when it was first published because it deals so explicitly with sex and its consequences. It feels tame compared to our modern ways, but it’s a great depiction of how one thing leads to another, and people try to do the right thing and end up in a place they never thought they’d be.
This story was very interesting and gorgeously written, but it left me feeling a little queasy (probably because it was so honest). You definitely want to read it when you’re craving something complex and substantial.
This is NOT a cute love story.
Content warnings with SPOILERS: Charity’s elderly guardian enters her room at night asking for intimacy. Charity engages in a sexual affair with the young architect, which results in pregnancy. Charity seeks medical help from a doctor who suggests abortion.
A Charlotte Mason Education
By Catherine Levison
Format: Paperback from the library
You’ll love it if you want to homeschool using Charlotte Mason principles
This book does what it says it’ll do: Tell you how to teach every school subject the Charlotte Mason way. It’s extremely short (and very old-fashioned) but it’ll help you get your bearings if you want to adopt some (or all) of Mason’s methods.
If you’re looking for a lot of specific strategies and creative activities that you can implement, then you’ll be disappointed. This is the BASICS. It gives you the flavor. That is all. But it absolutely won’t waste your time.
There are good booklists here, yet they’re all about 20 years out of date.
Content warnings: None
The Bronze Bow
By Elizabeth George Speare
Genre: Historical fiction
Mood: Angsty, confused, seeking
You’ll love it if you want to read beautiful Christian fiction that isn’t remotely cheesy
This is a gorgeous, beautifully written story, and I deeply cared about the characters from page one.
The story is about Daniel, a hot-blooded young Jew in Bible times who hates Rome with a passion. His mission in life is to overthrow Roman rule in Judea—to play some part in the cause. He’s loyal to a Zealot leader named Rosh, who he believes is THE ONE who will set them free. But then, Daniel hears the teachings of a poor carpenter named Jesus, and he wonders if maybe HE is the one…? But Jesus preaches a different kind of freedom, and what’s Daniel to do with his rage?
This story is rich in character development and sensory detail. It’s simply beautiful to read. The plotting and pacing are a bit…not quite what I expected, and I’m still kind of mulling that over. I wish the ending was a little longer (weird, right?) but the quick wrap-up didn’t quite match the slower pace of the rest of the book.
It’s odd that a book with an 18-year-old protagonist won the Newberry. I wouldn’t call this a children’s book. I wouldn’t call it a middle-grade novel so much, either. But I wouldn’t necessarily put it on the YA shelf alongside the vampire romances. It’s tough to categorize, but I’d say that it would appeal to anyone around age 15 or older. Maybe? I’m 39 and I loved it.
Content warnings with SPOILERS: Daniel’s sister has what, in Bible times, they called “a devil,” but this is not portrayed in a dark, demonic way. She’s agoraphobic and suffering from PTSD. Speaking of which, Daniel is mourning his father, who was crucified by the Romans. This is depicted in flashback but not in gory detail.
By Roald Dahl
Genre: Children’s fantasy
Mood: Silly-scary, fantastical
You’ll love it if you like a jovial friendship set against the backdrop of bloodthirsty man-eaters
This was one of my childhood faves, and my boys have been asking for ALL the Roald Dahl books this summer. So, we plowed ahead with The BFG—a total delight to read aloud! They were giggling over all the fizzwizzy, glumptious words.
I must give Roald Dahl some serious credit for writing stories about horrifying things (like giants snatching children out of their beds and eating them alive) and making it…fun. He channels the dark side of the Brothers Grimm and then manages to add sugar and rainbows.
We finished this book super-quick and then we watched the movie, which I’d never seen. I didn’t realize that the screenwriter for the movie was the same woman who wrote the screenplay for ET, and both films are Speilberg-directed. The movie had the heartwarming feel of ET. You’ve got this giant old man who, in many ways, is very childlike. And you’ve got this very young girl who, in many ways, is quite mature. And their bond is precious. There were some scenes that made my mommy heart melt.
The book, however, doesn’t focus as much on the warm fuzzies. This time around, I got the impression that the book was written mostly for laughs.
Content warnings: There are some nasty, mean giants who grab kids out of their beds at night and gobble them up.
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
By C. S. Lewis
Genre: Middle-grade fantasy
Mood: Dreamlike, adventurous
You’ll love it if you have a beating heart in your chest
Yep, we started the school year with our very first foray into Narnia as a family. My boys loved it and were taken with the idea of a “doorway to a secret world.” They’re a little young to really appreciate the story, but it was great to see them enjoy it at face value, as a fantasy and not a Christian allegory.
My only disappointment with our read-aloud experience is that I couldn’t get my voice deep and rich enough to do a really good Aslan. I made him sound too gravely.
Content warnings: The White Witch famously kills Aslan on the Stone Table, and there is a whole chapter dedicated to this terrible act, so take care with sensitive kids. I think the murder is especially dramatic in the movie version, so heads up. Can you believe that the Disney film adaptation is coming on 20 years old?!
The Golden Goblet
By Eloise Jarvis McGraw
Genre: Middle-grade historical fiction
You’ll love it if you want to escape to ancient Egypt for a true David-vs.-Goliath story
I remember reading this when I was a kid—what a blast from the past! Although I didn’t remember much of the plot, I remembered the cover art, ha! Ranofer is an orphan who dreams of becoming a goldsmith in old Egypt. Ranofer lives with his half-brother, Gebu, who is a violent, mean-mouthed, tight-fisted terror. And, as it turns out, he’s also a thief. Ranofer spends most of the book simply trying to get out from under Gebu’s thumb.
Ranofer is a true victim, yet he refuses to act like one, which I really liked. He’s determined to change his life for the better, even though he falls into fits of inertia and even depression (of a sort). And that’s what makes him so relatable. He’s not a bright, chipper, slick-talking Tom Sawyer-type kid. He’s a child who once knew love, who had plenty to eat, and who had prospects for his future—and he’s now starved of all three. He finds two unlikely friends who keep him from despair.
I was impressed by how much suspense and anxiety I felt for Ranofer’s wellbeing, even though not much happens to him for 3/4 of the book. The last, oh, three chapters are a wonderful, speedy rollercoaster ride, and they leave you feeling a sense of great satisfaction (after having watched so much suffering and, frankly, dilly-dallying for most of the book).
This book has a lot of atmosphere, really evoking a strong sense of the historical time period and place (Thebes, the City of the Dead). You learn a lot about what it was like to be an artisan’s apprentice in these times. Hopefully, it’ll inspire kids with lots of gratitude for their amazing parents who love them so. 😉
I was surprised by how rich the language is. Lots of rigorous vocab for kids.
Content warnings: Gebu physically and verbally abuses Ranofer. Naturally, there’s a lot of superstitious talk about Egyptian gods and goddesses, the spirits of the dead, and evil ghost spirits called khefts (which scare the pants off Ranofer).
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