Book reviews for August 2023

Written by Michelle Watson

September 6, 2023

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August is a “cuspy” time for reading. We’re moving from summer to fall, and I tend to start reading with our homeschool year in mind.

That’s why my book reviews for August 2023 contain a lot of (stellar) middle-grade books, a few homeschooling books, and only a couple of adult novels (which were stinkers).

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

Now, let’s get to the reviews…

Fourth Wing

By Rebecca Yarros

A dragon fantasy for adults (no kids allowed!)

You’ll love it if you’ve been waiting for an R-rated mashup of Harry Potter, Divergent, and The Hunger Games.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

I’m always interested when a book with little-to-no marketing behind it goes viral with organic hype. What’s so great about this book that it sets TikTok on fire?

The answer: It’s easy to read and rated R. Here’s my take on reading explicit books.

This particular dragon fantasy is a mashup of Harry Potter, Divergent, and The Hunger Games. If you like any of these series and wish they were written more for an adult audience, then you’ll love Fourth Wing.

Here’s how FW stacks up against the other three:

Harry Potter: Magical worldbuilding with a setting that feels both threatening and fun. It also takes place in a school where our protagonist makes friends (and enemies). Like the HP books, there’s tension between groups—in this case, those in power vs. the defeated rebels. The children of the rebels are looked down upon, just as half-bloods are by some wizards in HP.

Divergent: They share the school/training element, and in both books, the training is brutal and violent. Also, both Violet and Tris are physically weaker than their peers, so underdogs. Also, our protagonist has a super-hunky, super-dangerous teacher/commander with a murky past.

The Hunger Games: In both books, a young woman is thrown into a dangerous situation against her will and must fight her way out to survive. She rises to power and prominence on a national level. Also, the two books both have a love triangle.

So, even though this book isn’t, shall we say, original, it does fulfill market demand for an adult version of these popular teen series. I can definitely see a studio scooping up the rights and making a killing.

Major downsides for me: This book is as open door as it’s possible to get in the sex department, with cheese on top. There’s also a ton of language, including a handful of F-bombs per page, which just isn’t my thing. The writing is average with lots of repetition, but it’s not crazy-distracting.

The book’s strength is in its plotting and pacing. It didn’t drag for a second, which is impressive given its length. Yarros manages to deliver one exciting episode after another but also maintains a strong through-line for the plot straight up till the last line. That’s impressive in a book this long.

Content warnings: Literally everything.

The Unseen World

By Liz Moore

A young computer genius is given a puzzle to solve by her eccentric father

You’ll love it if you like nontraditional family stories with a tinge of mystery and math (and set in the ’80s)

Rating: 3 out of 5.

I was caught up in this sciency historical fiction novel until the 3/4 mark when I flat-out lost momentum. I’m not sure why. The whole thing took a nosedive after that, and the ending was not my cup of tea.

The first part of this book is strong and interesting. I loved the protagonist, Ada. She captured my attention immediately. I also loved the mysterious premise: Her father, a mathematician and codebreaker by trade, hid personal secrets inside one of his computer programs, and he tasked Ada with cracking the code in order to retrieve this information. The book also touches on some of the early issues regarding AI, which has now become a complete reality with the debut of ChatGPT, et al. All of this intrigued me, and I wanted to know more.

Young Ada is innocent and insecure and brilliant. I loved watching her grow up and face challenges. I felt a kinship with her because I grew up innocent and insecure (not brilliant, haha). I also loved Listen and her boys. I felt like their dynamic was honest and real. Ada’s time with the Listens was my favorite aspect of the novel.

I did not love David, Ada’s father, even though the author intended me to. I couldn’t connect with him very much, and I realize now that I was reading the book largely for Ada’s sake, not his. Although Ada and Listen love David, and he becomes rather larger-than-life as the book goes on, I wasn’t crazy about him. I think I felt like he was too much of an institutional intellectual for my taste. Too removed from his daughter. I was hoping that he’d grow into greater humanity as the book progressed, but I always felt like he stayed at arm’s length from me. This could’ve been intentional on the author’s part because (turns out) David is haunted by many fears, causing him to conceal much of himself.

The ending felt a little bleak, even though it’s supposed to be sunny in a sense. There are big questions regarding AI and its possible ramifications. When does humanity end and programming begin? Can humans bond with computer programs (and, eerily, vice versa)?

Even though this book didn’t provide much ROI for me, I will say that one thing stood out bright and bold: This story shows how hollow life is without God and a firm understanding of divine-created life. It’s like stepping from solid ground into quicksand. Technological advances are cool. But I don’t want to embrace them without counting the cost.

Content warnings (with spoilers): This book comes from a worldly perspective, no doubt. David is revealed to be gay and persecuted away from his government job during the McCarthy era. There is a scene where Ada gets her first kiss thrust upon her, but there are no sex scenes.

The Unhurried Homeschooler: A Simple, Mercifully Short Book on Homeschooling

By Durenda Wilson

An experienced homeschool mom talks the rest of us off the cliff of doubt and comparison

You’ll love it if you’re a mom/teacher who needs a lil shot in the arm and a pat on the back

Rating: 5 out of 5.

What struck me about this book (besides that it, in fact, IS mercifully short) is its simplicity. There are no step-by-step directions that will lead you to homeschool success. Instead, Durenda Wilson provides a sketch, an outline, that we can adapt to our family and change as our family changes.

She basically says this: Teach them how to read, write, and do arithmetic (when they’re ready). Give them chores, and make God the center of your home by bringing Him into every part of your life. Beyond that, let the kids take ownership of their own learning, and get help when they’re interested in something you know nothing about. And that’s it. That’s the sketchy outline that she suggests we tailor to our kids.

Durenda Wilson encourages us not to rush things by overschooling our kids too young before they’re ready. She encourages us to make school revolve around the home, not the other way around. She encourages us to do what’s best for our unique family and not force a curriculum or educational philosophy when it’s not fitting or working.

This is a great reminder of all the learning that happens outside academics and the huge opportunity we have to equip our kids for real life. We can give them the freedom to figure out what they’re interested in (because they aren’t burned out on tons of schoolwork).

She ends with the wonderful story of the boy with the loaves and fishes—God takes our not-enough offering and makes it more than enough. That’s a promise we homeschool moms clutch with all our hearts.

Content warnings: None, except a possible trigger: Durenda does mention how one of her children had serious health complications at birth.

The Four-Hour School Day: How You and Your Kids Can Thrive in the Homeschool Life

By Durenda Wilson

Not sure if homeschooling is for you? This book explains why it might be just the ticket

You’ll love it if you’re on the fence about homeschooling and want to hear the “pro” side from a mom who’s been there, done that.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

This is a super-inspiring homeschool book. Full of motivation and spiritual realignment. Wonderful to re-read at the start of a new school year. BUT there’s one thing I find odd: There is NO mention of a 4-hour school day anywhere in the book. Haha!

The title implies that this may be some sort of how-to guide for completing school in four hours or less. But it’s not that at all. It’s an inspirational book that helps you wrap your mind around homeschooling and how you can make it work for your family. And, why you don’t need to rush, stress, or compare your methods to anyone else’s—or institutional best practices.

The older my kids get, the more I’m starting to embrace interest-led learning. Now that my boys are well on their way to grasping the basics of reading, (hand)writing, spelling, and math, I’m starting to look ahead and think about what our homeschool might look like in a year or two when I’m no longer teaching them to read, form their letters, spell, and do basic arithmatic. What will be the driving force behind what we learn and how we learn it?

It seems to me that helping my boys learn how to teach themselves things that they’re very interested in is one of the best gifts that I can give them. As I teach them to become independent learners, books like this become more relevant for me.

Content warnings: None.

Beneath a Swirling Sky (The Restorationists, #1)

By Carolyn Leiloglou

Young artists magically travel through famous paintings in order to stop villains from twisting art into propaganda

You’ll love it if Fablehaven was a family favorite, but you want something with a totally different flavor.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

This brand-new middle-grade fantasy was a total pleasure to read! This is a real gem for homeschool families who want a fun book that ties in art history, Bible, and even geography.

Our young protagonist, Vincent, is spending a week at his elderly uncle’s house, along with his adopted sister, Lili, while his parents go on vacation. Soon, Vincent realizes that his parents have been keeping a big secret from him. (Sounds a little like Fablehaven, huh?) Their family has the ability to travel through paintings—this is revealed VERY early on in the book.

Speaking of which, the pacing of this book was just great. It’s a pet peeve of mine when the author takes too long to get the story moving, especially when the cover art and marketing copy spoil some of the early action. No need to draw out the reveal when we all know what’s coming. The swift pacing held true throughout the book, with quite a few twists and turns that I wasn’t expecting.

There’s a great faith element in this book. It’s overt, not hidden in the least. But it’s also handled with care.

Vincent loves art, and his parents always told him he was good at it. But, Vincent’s peers don’t agree that he’s all that talented, and Vincent decides to give up on the hobby he loves. I think that most kids can relate to this. Our parents encourage us and love us and tell us that we’re important and talented…but contact with the outside world makes us doubt all that they say. (It’s often easier to believe the bad stuff.) This story is about embracing your talents and using them for a good purpose—not to shine the spotlight on yourself.

I also like how the author touches on the whole idea of agenda-driven art vs. truth-driven art. This is a neat way for kids to interact with this concept.

Content warnings: None

I Am Kavi

By Thushanthi Ponweera

An endearing novel in verse set in 1990s Sri Lanka

You’ll love it if you enjoyed Inside Out & Back Again, but you want a change from the immigrant storyline.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

I don’t think I’ve ever read a middle-grade book set in the late ’90s. What nostalgia for me! Spice Girls, Titanic, Dawson’s Creek, banana clips! The author’s note explained how she used her own experience growing up in Sri Lanka to inform Kavi’s story, which is told in free verse. That makes this a very quick read.

This is a bridge-building book. Even though Kavi grows up in a poor rural community in a country that’s in the throes of a civil war, she experiences all of the same teen issues that seem to be universal among the human race. Above all, she’s struggling to know her place. She’s very relatable, and even the bad stuff she does seems completely within reach of what a normal teen would do under pressure.

The book opens with Kavi getting the chance of a lifetime—to leave her poor community for the bustling city of Columbo, where she’ll attend one of the best high schools in the country on scholarship (for free)! But, she must leave her mother behind—this relationship is beautifully complicated.

When she arrives, she immediately feels the pressure to fit in—not with the other scholarship students who are at the bottom of the social hierarchy. With the cool kids. She’s willing to do just about anything to be accepted. She’s straddling two worlds, which is the quintessential theme for all teen books, since teens have one foot in childhood and the other in adulthood, and they’re not sure to which world they belong.

Overall, this was a beautiful, emotional book that rang true for me. Looking forward to the author’s next release!

Content warnings: Death of a parent happens before the story begins.

Brother’s Keeper

By Julie Lee

A North Korean family living under communist rule in the ’50s must decide whether to stay or flee to the South

You’ll love it if you liked A Long Walk to Water and you’re in the mood for a book to rip your heart out.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Wow, what a fantastic middle-grade book about a family escaping communism. North and South Korea went to war around 1950, and the author based this book on her mother’s first-hand experience fleeing from north to south. All I can say is thank God for the families who were able to make it to safety and freedom.

Sora, our protagonist, is 13, so this book is definitely more appropriate for the upper end of middle-grade, and I think it’s a beautiful choice for teen readers, too. Even though Sora is faced with an incredible task—escape to the south without getting killed—the author does an expert job of helping us understand her inner struggles that are going on simultaneously. She struggles with with the expectations of her overbearing mother, and she yearns for more independence to make her own life choices. Beneath that, she struggles deeply with her self-worth.

This book depicts some very sad images of death and suffering. It reminded me of A Long Walk to Water, so be careful with sensitive kids. Overall, though, this book is a tribute to freedom that was heartwarming and inspiring for me to read.

Content warnings (with spoilers): This book isn’t for very young or sensitive kids. It’s not gory or sensational, but it does depict death and extreme privation. One of Sora’s family members dies, so please take care.

Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s Magic

By Betty MacDonald

An eccentric widow uses magic to cure the neighborhood’s children of their bad habits

You’ll love it if you need a funny read-aloud for your 6-to-9-year-old kids.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

I enjoyed the first Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle book, but the subsequent two that I’ve read have been a little less imaginative than the first one. This was our first read-aloud of the school year, and my boys enjoyed it…go figure! (I think they like the “old lady” voice I do for Mrs. P-W.”)

In this installment, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle again helps the parents in the neighborhood “cure” the bad habits of their offspring. But instead of using strategies (like she does in the first book) she uses magic cures, such as tonics, powders, and pills—and, in one special case, a pig! Their supernatural effects cause the children to suffer because of their bad habits, and because they want the suffering to stop, the kids decide to shape up.

This is funny, and I think my boys “got it.” Bad habits = bad outcomes. But, the habits resolved a little too quickly and easily. The kids weren’t experiencing the natural consequences of their actions. They were experiencing extremely exaggerated consequences that would never, ever occur in real life.

So, not my favorite, but definitely quirky and silly and full of rich vocabulary for sure.

Content warnings: None

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