Book reviews for January 2024

Written by Michelle Watson

January 30, 2024

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My book reviews for January 2024 lean heavily into children’s fiction—but don’t bail yet. I’ve also got an adult mystery and fantasy to share.

Even though I read a high percentage of kids’ books, they are the kind of books that adults will enjoy (truly).

Will any of these make your TBR? Leave a comment and let me know.

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

Here we go…

Tress of the Emerald Sea

By Brandon Sanderson

A cup-loving small-island girl is forced out of her comfort zone to rescue her true love in a fantasy world where pirates roam the spore seas

You’ll love it if you’re a fan of swashbuckling underdogs and strong narrative voice 

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Brandon Sanderson wrote this book for his wife, Emily, and he wrote it in secret, without telling a soul except her. He wanted to write something that would entertain and delight her. In his Postscript, he said he wanted to write something free from business constraints and fan expectations. His goal? A fairy-tale-adjacent story that appeals to adults. Something with a similar feel to The Princess Bride and Good Omens.

The result? Pure FUN. As I was reading, I could feel how much fun he was having. The book feels light and effortless, even though it ventures into grave danger and looks into the face of evil. Like Bride, it’s making fun of itself slightly. Like Bride, it doesn’t feel dark. In fact, it’s downright optimistic.

If modern writers can draw any conclusions from Sanderson’s experiment, it seems to me that writing free of business and fan pressures is a great place to start. Sometimes, when I’m reading a book, I can sense the social and political stress that the author was feeling—make sure you check these boxes…defnitely can’t say X, Y or Z…just go ahead and sanitize the book of any real meaning, but fill it with messages that have been approved by the culture at large. Kay?

Those books confuse me. But books like this ring clear as a bell. And I absolutely adored Hoid’s narrative voice, and, can I just say, Sanderson is a genius to include a world-hopping character like this in all his books. Talk about giving your fans something to discuss forever and ever amen.

Content warnings: There are the usual things you’d expect with a swashbuckling rescue story, such as death, fights, and such. But there is nothing overly graphic. Very few curses (if any) and no sex.

Hickory Dickory Dock

By Agatha Christie

When a collection of strange items is stolen from an international boarding house, Poirot takes an interest in solving the puzzle.

You’ll love it if you want a small-time mystery with a big-time cast of characters

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Hercule Poirot is my favorite fussy detective. And Hugh Fraser did a fantastic job of narrating the audiobook version of this novel. It was everything I wanted in a Christie book, and it was a quick win for me, but it just wasn’t my favorite Christie book.

We start with a boarding house filled with 20-somethings from all over the globe. An odd collection of things go missing. Some turn up again. Some are destroyed. Then, people are in danger… What starts off as a puzzle turns into more.

I like the stage: an international boarding house, which is basically like a college dorm full of students from different countries, different backgrounds, and different worldviews. I liked the varied cast of characters, although I can see how they might not sit right in today’s tiptoe political climate. I like Poirot because he’s old-fashioned, and so am I. That’s why I like Mma. Ramotswe, too. There’s a tension between modern ways and old ways, and there’s something inside me that loves to see the old ways win, but not from a pulpit.

The plot was good, but it wasn’t gripping. The characters were what made this book enjoyable for me. I would’ve liked a little MORE Poirot here, actually. His police colleague, Detective Sharp, (I may have the name wrong) got just as much page time, although he’s not as entertaining as my Belgian.

Content warnings: Nothing graphic, but people die and plot, as you’d expect. Some mention of opiate use and the mishandling of drugs. One character has a drinking problem.

20 Master Plots: And How to Build Them

By Ronald B. Tobias

Why do some stories just work???

You’ll love it if you’re a story nerd

Rating: 4 out of 5.

This was just plain fun to listen to on audio. I’m not a writer of novels, but I am a reader of them. I’m interested in why some stories work and others don’t. This book sets forth 20 plot skeletons that writers over the centuries have used as a basis for some of the most enduring stories of all time.

Why do they work?

Well, they have certain elements in common. Without those elements, the plot doesn’t ring true—or it just skids off the path and into muddlement, leaving the reader confused. All of the plots, too, touch certain foundational human impulses, desires, and questions.

Ben-Hur is a revenge plot
Beauty and the Beast is a transformation plot.
Othello is a wretched excess plot.

It’s neat to look at these skeleton plots and see how different authors and writers apply them, whether unknowingly or purposefully. For example, I was watching the 1982 version of Annie with my boys, and I realized that it’s an ascension plot. More than anything else, it’s about Annie (a magnetic central character around whom everything revolves) and her rise from a poor, unloved orphan to the cherished daughter of a billionaire.

I don’t pretend like this book is the ultimate and last word on plots. It’s just interesting information to add to my foundation as a literature nerd. Since this was written back in the ’90s, it comes from a strong Western, Judeo-Christian worldview, and, therefore, it makes a lot of sense when you stand it up next to the Western canon (naturally). There are other storytelling traditions outside of this worldview, but those aren’t mentioned.

Content warnings: None

The Puppets of Spellhorst

By Kate DiCamillo

A collection of puppets go on a gentle adventure

You’ll love it if you enjoyed the Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane

Rating: 5 out of 5.

By now, I know what to expect from Kate DiCamillo when it comes to a book like this. The Puppets of Spelhorst felt a lot like the Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane. It’s about a collection of puppets, and things happen to them, and they are changed. Very similar to Edward Tulane, who is a toy that things happen to, and he is changed.

It’s got big-time Velveteen Rabbit vibes, let’s just say that.

This book is charming, and like DiCamillo’s other books, the scope is intimate, but the themes are big. Although the puppets are inanimate, they have an inner life in which they think and communicate with one another (but they can’t move around or speak aloud like in Toy Story).

The big theme revolves around stories and their power. What is a puppet made for if not to tell a story? But the puppets don’t know who they are or what their story is.

All of the puppets start out by defining themselves in terms of what they have (a crown, sharp teeth, real feathers, etc.). But each puppet has a desire for something more (to have a real experience of some kind), and this desire is achieved in a small way by the end of the book. Of course, this led me to ask myself to what degree are we all puppetlike creatures who exist to play a part in a much larger story that we can’t control?

This book uses repetition like the Mercy Watson / Deckawoo Drive books do, and I can see why this might distract or exasperate some readers, but, for me, it slows me down and makes it crystal clear what the author wants me to pay attention to.

I read this book to myself in about an hour. I’m wondering if my boys will enjoy it, too, or if it’ll fly over their heads and leave them wondering what it was all about.

Content warnings: None

Jane of Lantern Hill

By L. M. Montgomery

A stifled young girl finds freedom and purpose on P.E.I.

You’ll love it if you’ve got a soft spot for wholesome growing-up stories (and wicked adults who get their comeuppance)

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I love children’s stories where the little protagonist starts out as an underdog (like Mary Lennox or Anne Shirley) and then has a chance to blossom into who they truly want to be. Jane is just like that.

Jane lives in Toronto under the thumb of her impossible-to-please grandmother. She also lives with her mother, who is a total pushover and won’t stand up to her mother. Grandmother makes life miserable, and Jane is afraid, friendless, and talentless. Who is Jane’s dad and where is he? That’s a mystery, until one day, a letter arrives. From him. Requesting that Jane spend the summer with him on (you guessed it) P.E.I.

Like so many Montgomery books, this one is an ode to the wonders of nature and a free-range childhood. Many passages linger on dewdrops and whitecaps and fenceposts. Montgomery is never too busy to slow down and look at nature.

Jane expects to hate the island and her father, but she instantly falls in love with both. Instead of being told to act like a little lady, Jane gets to decide for herself who she’ll be and what she’ll do. She decides to work, work, work. She delights in all the housework that most modern women can’t stand. Laundry, cooking, gardening. Haha! She finds purpose in caring for her father, her pets, and her plants. Instead of living to please her grandmother, she finds joy in living to serve her family and friends. What a difference!

But will her father and mother ever reconcile? What drove them apart? These are big questions for little Jane, but she must face them.

This isn’t my favorite Montogmery novel, but it’s a charming one. It’s beautiful to see a picture of what a healthy childhood could look like in an idyllic, intimate community.

Content warnings: Jane’s parents are separated. Good to know if you’re reading it with kids.

Book Uncle and Me

By Uma Krishnaswami

Can one little girl save her neighborhood lending library?

You’ll love it if you’ve got a bookwormy kid who needs an easy read

Rating: 3 out of 5.

This was one of the read-alouds that came with our homeschool curriculum. It was very quick, and my boys liked it, but it’s not going down as a family favorite.

The most interesting part of this story is the setting in India. A lot of our recent read-alouds have been set in the U.S. or in fantasyland, so this was a nice change, and it gave us a chance to discuss how things are different in other countries than they are here.

The main character is a young girl, Yasmin, who loves to read. She gets a new book every day from Book Uncle, a retired teacher who has a lending library on the street corner outside her apartment complex. When he’s forced to close up shop, Yasmin rallies the neighborhood to make Book Uncle a campaign issue in the mayoral election.

Thankfully, this didn’t get TOO political, and I think that the message here is “If it matters to you, then make it known” versus “Protest anything you don’t like.” With this being a presidential election year, it was a good way to get words like “election,” “campaign” and “vote” into the vocabulary of my very young children. There were friendship and family issues in the book that helped balance out the focus on politics. And, in the end, readers are warned against putting their trust in political figures, which is something I agree with.

The book is written in Yasmin’s childish voice, and it’s very sweet and appealing for the younger set. It wasn’t too long and didn’t try to be “too much.” Overall, a good book, but not a standout.

Content warnings: None.

Twenty and Ten

By Claire Huchet Bishop

Can a group of 20 French kids protect a group of 10 Jewish kids during WW2?

You’ll love it if you can’t resist a tight, tense WW2 story. 

Rating: 5 out of 5.

My two boys were RIVETED to this story. Granted, it starts slow, but by the end, they were hanging on every last word. This book contains five short chapters. You could read the whole thing in an hour or two, and it’d be well worth your time.

The story is simple. Twenty French children have been sent away to live in the safety of a convent during World War II. One day, the nun in charge introduces them to 10 new children, Jews. She tells them that the Nazis want to hurt these children, and they must all keep them safe and hidden. She makes each of the 20 French kids solemnly promise not to betray the 10 Jewish kids—no matter what.

All goes well until the Nazis pay a surprise visit when the nun is away on an errand. What will the children do when faced with this pressure and without any adult protection?

The story is told in the POV of one of the French girls, and this works so well because we’re better able to relate to her dilemma—things get tricky when the Nazis show up, and the kids have to think on their feet.

The book crescendos at the climax, where you’re not sure how things are going to play out, and then everything comes full circle, and you’re glad you read that first chapter, which started off slow, because it makes the ending all the more satisfying.

Content warnings: It’s made clear that the Jewish kids will be in danger if they are caught.

The Book of Three

By Lloyd Alexander

An unskilled young boy is forced into a quest where he must face menacing, magical foes

You’ll love it if you want to read a kid-friendly quest-story that feels like Lord of the Rings

Rating: 4 out of 5.

My 7- and 8-year-old boys REALLY enjoyed this. This is the first book in a fantasy series in the tradition of LOTR (the parallels are unmistakable). So, it would be a fun series for kids who aren’t quite ready for Lord of the Rings yet—or, on the other side of the coin, kids who have read LOTR (bless them) and want something that feels similar.

This book is a rescue/quest. Taran, our preteen hero, has just one job: keep the magical pig in her pen. But, when an evil warrior and his minions ride into the vicinity, the pig runs for her life, and Taran runs after her.

The story starts quickly and there’s swift pacing throughout. By chapter two, we see Taran plunge into the forbidden woods after the pig. From there, he meets many friends and foes. He’s tested and transformed. It’s got everything you want in a medieval adventure.

The reason why I gave it four instead of five stars is because the climax was a bit soft, and the ending abrupt. This is the first book in a series, so, hey, there’s more! But as a book in its own right, the ending was a bit wah-wah.

Content warnings: There are the normal swordfights and battles that you’d expect in a book like this. The description of the Horned King (pictured on the cover) may be a little much for sensitive kids. There is one quick mention of the bad guys making human sacrifices (gross). And one of the female foes has a particularly wicked interaction with our main characters…but it’s easily self-censored if you’ve got littler kids listening.

Check out ALL my book reviews

Here’s the master list of every book I’ve reviewed since starting The Book Devotions.

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2 Comments

  1. Linda Stoll

    All new to me! I love the feast you’ve offered here, Michelle. Keep ’em cominig ….

    Reply

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