Book Reviews for May 2023

Written by Michelle Watson

May 24, 2023

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Here are my book reviews for May 2023!

This month, I…

  • DNFed a mega-bestseller
  • Devoured a romcom that wasn’t smutty but wasn’t clean
  • Finished reading all of Amor Towles’s novels
  • Read a new-to-me Shakespeare play

As always, I read to my kids, and you’ll see those books, too!

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

Hello Beautiful (DNF 30%)

By Ann Napolitano

Four sisters enter adulthood in the ’80s

You’ll love it if you enjoy a family saga.

I SHOULD’VE loved this book. It’s about Italian-Americans in the ’80s…that’s pretty much my biography. But, I was feeling so very meh that I stopped at the 30 percent mark.

I listened on audio, and the narrator’s voice is even and measured—almost monotonous. I like narrators who use more emotion. I’m wondering if the narrator’s rendition of this story is sucking the heart-drama out of it.

Also, there wasn’t much that anchored the story in the ’80s. Where are the cassette tapes and puffer jackets? Also, there wasn’t much to indicate that the Padavanos are Italian-American. Where’s the gnocchi and the old grandmas wearing all-black with gray hair tied back into a bun? They don’t even talk with hand gestures, which is a stereotype rooted in TRUTH.

It would’ve been awesome to see my childhood reflected in this novel, but it was vanilla enough that it could’ve been set anytime between 1940 and 1980 with characters from any Euro-ethnic background.

Nora Goes Off Script

By Annabel Monaghan

A romance screenwriter finds her own life veering into Hallmark territory, so, naturally, she’s suspicious.

You’ll love it if you’re craving a light romance with a mama main character.

This is a solid 3-star book as far as escapist romances go. But I wanted to add one more star due to the following:

1. The protagonist is an actual mom who cares for her kids. So often in these books, the main character is a mom, but it’s like her responsibility for them is never portrayed—they magically take care of themselves and stay out of the way. Here, we see Nora take them to school, cook dinner, chauffeur them to activities, and help them with their stuff. This relationship is idealized for sure. But it was neat to see a main character who is a mom and who actually inhabits the world of motherhood.

2. The writing was good. It was just fun to read. Easy, light, fast-paced, but also emotional. I enjoyed how the book made fun of Hallmark romances, yet also embraced its own identity as one.

3. In these romances there’s always “the thing that separates the lovers.” This thing is usually very corny and contrived. This book handled that plot point with originality, and I appreciated that.

Fun tangent: I have a theory about this kind of escapist romance. If you’re generally happy with your life, these books hit you as fun and cheerful—that’s how I feel. I’m not unhappy in my marriage and this type of book doesn’t make me discontent. I well know that nothing like this will happen in real life, nor would I want it to happen to me. But if you’re unhappy, these books can make you even more so with their picture-perfect outcomes and leave you feeling somehow cheated out of something that should’ve or could’ve been yours. What do you think?

Content warnings: The characters have quite a bit of sex, but the act itself isn’t portrayed start to finish, as often happens in romcoms.

Twelfth Night

By William Shakespeare

Viola dresses as a boy and then falls in love with her employer. What could go wrong?

You’ll love it if you can’t resist a classic case of Shakespearian mistaken identity. This play epitomizes it.

Confession. This is my FIRST time reading Twelfth Night! I took a semester-long Shakespeare class in college, and this just wasn’t on the syllabus, and I never happened to pick it up. But I can see why this is one of Shakespeare’s most light and fun comedies.

It’s got the same lightness and humor of Dream, but none of the magic. It’s set firmly in the real world, and all of the antics occur due to practical joking or classic Shakespearean misunderstandings (they really are the best).

This is such an amazing commentary on love and disguise! And it’s got a great wise fool.

I listened to the Naxos audio version, and I also read summaries from several sources with the intention of comparing them to see how they measured up.

  1. Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare. This was the most thorough and extensive, and it did the best job of preserving much of Shakespeare’s language and elevated tone and diction. It’s more formal, offers some commentary, and is best suited to a read-aloud for young kids, as there are no pictures in my version, and the paragraphs are very long and intimidating.
  2. A Stage Full of Shakespeare Stories: 12 Tales from the Bard Retold for Children by Angela McAllister. This was the shortest retelling, and I liked the colorful illustrations on every page and the Cast of Characters reference page (Antonio, Cesario, Orsino, Malvolio, Olivia…their names contain all the same letters, so confusing!!!) This one also preserved several of the most famous quotes, but I felt like the retelling itself was a tad dry because the plot was reordered for simplicity.
  3. The Usborne Complete Shakespeare: Stories from All the Plays. I actually enjoyed this easy, fluid retelling, which is great for very young kids. I liked that the presentation of the plot aligned closely with the play. There is only one illustration spread per play, so not as much to look at here for younger kids.

Content warnings: Some of ye olde Shakespearean sexual innuendo, but not much.

Rules of Civility

By Amor Towles

Kathrine Kontent tries to make it in 1930s NYC without completely losing her soul.

You’ll love it if you love a story that has both a glitzy, metropolitan vibe and a razor-sharp set of teeth.

This was BY FAR less enjoyable for me than A Gentleman in Moscow and The Lincoln Highway, both of which I loved. Here’s why:

1. It felt disjointed. In the spirit of Hemmingway and Fitzgerald, Amor Towles doesn’t elaborate overmuch in this, his debut novel. But, for me, I felt a tad jerked around by the narrative. I needed more grease in the plot wheels. One second, Katey is here with this person. Now she’s there with this other person. It does achieve a certain “snapshot” effect that mimics the breakneck pace of NYC where the story is set. His other two novels felt much more smooth and connected.

2. I wasn’t too sure who Katey was. She’s got a lot of amazing qualities, but I had a hard time relating to her for some reason that I can’t quite nail down.

Even though this was a 3-star reading experience for me, I’m still a little bit in love with Amor Towles. He writes beautifully. The scene where Katey and Val are driving in the car and they’re listening to Autumn in New York…it’s a heart-smacker. Wally Walcott…I wanted to marry him. Eve…I wanted to smack her. Anne…what a piece of work. These gut-level reactions are not something that just any ol’ hey-ho author can conjure.

This novel will push all the love buttons for anyone who adores NYC and who loves historical fiction that casts the city in that early 20th-century glitz. The novel does a great job of contrasting glittering high-society New York with the working-class neighborhoods—the honesty with which it’s done is one of the book’s great strengths.

Content warnings: General worldliness, but nothing too graphic. The characters consume vast amounts of alcohol—it’s in every scene!—so that could be triggering. There is one scene where a woman kisses another woman and it is very strange. The kiss is not romantically portrayed, but it is not rejected as something perverse.

The Beatryce Prophecy

By Kate DiCamillo

A prophecy is about to be fulfilled by a young girl, so, naturally, off with her head!

You’ll love it if you want to sink your teeth into symbols and theme

Kate DiCamillo’s stories are always emotional and always elegant. This book was stamped everywhere with her hallmarks:

1.) Distinct characters with salient quirks,

2.) Symbols,

3.) Repetition (she repeats important things again and again, usually bringing out various nuances of the statements being repeated), and

4.) Tight plot (everything is there for a reason).

You need to know this is NOT a historical novel about the middle ages. It’s got a medieval backdrop, but it takes place in a world that exists outside of time (maybe)? This was NOT my favorite DiCamillo novel. I felt like it was a tad TOO symbolic and message-laden. But it’s a step above your average middle-grade for sure.

Content warnings (with spoilers): Some people close to Beatryce are killed, and this is depicted in flashback, but not graphically. Death/loss of parents. Just in case you have sensitive kids.

Little Robot

By Ben Hatke

A neglected preschool girl stumbles upon a robot in the woods, and they bond

You’ll love it if you’re looking for a nearly wordless, entry-level graphic novel for the under-8-year-old in your life

My boys and I spent about 30 minutes one day “reading” through this book. When I say “reading,” I mean following the graphic-novel-style illustrations and reading the couple dozen words that actually appeared in this mostly wordless book.

It’s the cute story of a little girl (neglected, maybe? we’re never told) who looks like she could be a toddler with her chubby limbs and short stature. Yet, she wanders into the woods and finds a robot that accidentally fell off a delivery truck, and they make friends. She’s also a technology genius, as she uses tools and fixes machines. How old is she?

I actually love that this book leaves so much to the imagination. It’s about courage and loyalty and friendship. But, I wasn’t 100 percent sure what those concepts are supposed to mean, given that the girl is human and the robot, well, isn’t! This is called out several times in the book (“We aren’t the same…”). Yet, I wasn’t certain what the author was trying to say—the purposeful ambiguity again.

Content warnings: None

The Iron Giant

By Ted Hughes

An iron giant shows up somewhere in rural America, and that’s not even the weird part of this book

You’ll love it if you’re curious about the story that inspired the classic ’90s film

I’m probably not the first mom to allow her kids to watch the ’90s animated film with major misgivings. It’s a wonderful movie—just quite a few instances of needless swearing. The message is good, just muddled, as there’s nothing real to anchor it (par for the Hollywood course).

But this BOOK. What a weird little book. It’s not like the movie at all. We read it in one sitting—five short chapters.

Honestly, I just don’t know what to make of this book. I’m really at a loss. Just when you think it’s taken a turn for the weird, it gets weirder!!!

Content warnings: Threat of peril.

The Last Archer

By S. D. Smith

Jo Shanks must prove his worth as the best archer in Halfwind

You’ll love it if you just can’t get enough of these rabbity adventures

This is another novella in the Green Ember universe that brings one of the side characters to center stage. This time, it’s Jo Shanks, who eventually becomes one of the Fowlers alongside Pickett. Here, we get a little of his backstory and how he came to be an archer…and what he did that day on Cloud Mountain after Heather saved his life.

Content warnings: Battles and peril.

Adding to your TBR?

Check out this handy digital TBR spreadsheet that you can pull up on your phone whenever you’re at the bookstore or library.

Want to see ALL the book reviews?

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

More along these lines…

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