Book reviews for September 2023

Written by Michelle Watson

September 27, 2023

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My book reviews for September include a mix of classic novels, children’s books, and one super-short nonfiction book for busy moms.

I hope you find something worthy of your TBR!

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

Onward to the reviews!

Northanger Abbey

By Jane Austen

Our unlikely heroine has her first brush with society, duplicity, and romance

You’ll love it if you want to witness Austen at her most tongue-in-cheek

Rating: 5 out of 5.

After too many pages of bad contemporary fiction lately, Jane was just what I needed. Northanger isn’t my favorite Austen novel, but it’s short, and I haven’t read it in many moons, so I was due for a reread. (Actually, I listened on audio.)

This book is FUNNY. It doesn’t sparkle quite like P&P, S&S, or Emma, but it’s a great example of Austen’s tongue-in-cheek wit, which is almost as biting as Mansfield, but decidedly more lighthearted.

I have no idea how Austen felt at this point in her career, but it’s almost like she’s making fun of herself for writing a romance novel. By repeatedly poking fun at the over-the-top gothic romances that were popular at the time, it’s like she’s going out of her way to say, “Hey, my book isn’t like those others. It’s not cheap trash that rots the brains of young women. This book is completely different, and you should give it a chance because there’s virtue to be found here.”

Austen is the narrator, right? The narrator inserts herself again and again, reminding us that this is a story told from the imagination of an authoress. She constantly draws comparisons between her story and the bosom-clutching, heart-stopping books written by Mrs. Radcliffe, et al. She also includes that famous aside in defense of the novel, a newfangled genre that hadn’t been around for long when Austen took up her pen.

One of my favorite grad school classes was on the 18th-century novel. Those firsty-first novels were something else. Tristram Shandy, Roxana, and, of course, Tom Jones…it’s no wonder they got a bad rap. It’s neat to see Austen express uneasy feelings about joining their ranks.

Content warnings: None.

Side note: I do recommend the 2007 movie starring Felicity Jones. The adaptation is light, funny, and faithful to the heart of the book.

The Secret Adversary

By Agatha Christie

Two poor young people in postwar Britain decide to dabble in some private detective work to earn their bread. What could possibly go wrong?

You’ll love it if you like Agatha Christie, but you’re not a huge fan of Marple or Poirot. Tommy and Tuppence are totally different!

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I love Hercule Poirot, and I can certainly appreciate Miss Marple. But Tommy and Tuppence are completely different! Mostly, I think they’re great.

First of all, they’re young, and they work as a team. Poirot and Marple are so distinct. They each have a flavor all their own, and their quirks and mottos and methods stay consistent throughout all their books, and this predictability is what makes us love them. They are caricatures in a sense. Tommy and Tuppence are a little more true to life. Tommy is a sensitive introvert who looks before he leaps, and Tuppence is a plucky extrovert who plunges headlong into adventure. But they aren’t quite as theatrical as Poirot or Marple.

Poirot is a supremely confident professional with a long, distinguished career. Marple is an amateur, but she’s so perceptive and (often) manipulative that we don’t put anything past her. Since both are solo acts, we have no anxiety about them coming out on top in every story—you can’t kill off your star, after all. But T&T are a pair, and they share the spotlight, so the book has a totally different feel. They’re amateurs, but they’re also young and inexperienced, so we get the feeling that they’re muddling through, and will one actually die??

The plot here is quite different from the usual Poirot and Marple novels because it covers a wider scope, and the adversary that they’re battling is a man of mythical proportions who perpetrates crimes on a global level. It’s a far cry from the intimate crimes that take place on a much smaller scale (in hotels, mansions, cruise ships, and the like).

Overall, this was an enjoyable, quick audio-listen for me. It was a tad dated, but I enjoyed the large cast of characters and the many twists and turns.

Content warnings: There is some PG-rated peril. Guns fire. Punches are thrown. But nothing gruesome or twisted.

Counted With the Stars

By Connilyn Cossette

A young Egyptian girl’s life is turned upside down when God brings plagues upon her homeland

You’ll love it if Christian historical romance is your happy place

Rating: 4 out of 5.

This is some solid Christian historical fiction right here. Plus romance. This genre is close to my heart because I cut my teeth on Francine Rivers back in the day, so reading books like this is nostalgic for me. This story is about a young Egyptian woman named Kiya living in the times of Moses. As you can imagine, her life is turned upside down when the plagues hit.

Often, Christian fiction is a little too on the nose for my taste, but I definitely have room in my reading life for it, especially if it’s historical fiction. I enjoy experiencing stories from scripture told in this way, but I also keep a grain of salt in my pocket, too, because some books are better researched and written than others, naturally. I felt like this one did a great job of presenting facts and beliefs from both Israel and Egypt, making Kiya seem more believable as she questions why the gods of Egypt aren’t protecting them.

Overall, this book is just as good as any of Francine Rivers’ historical romances. The plot zooms along, and the characters are flawed and loveable (not too good to be believed). The story arc is ambitious, but it isn’t entirely plot-driven. Kiya’s character journey is front and center the whole time.

The romance really picks up in the second half of the book. It’s got two-to-three jalapeno peppers worth of spice, which is quite a lot for this genre, but it’s all chaste as can be. Cheesy? Of course! But very sweet—sweet enough for me to feel comfortable recommending this to a teenager.

Content warnings: None. If you’re recommending this to a young reader, please note there is PG-rated romance stuff, such as kissing. Kiya references having had consensual sex with her fiance, but nothing is depicted. One female references being “attacked” by a male, but no details are given. Adultery is also referenced, but not condoned.

How to Use a Planner Without Wasting Time: A Busy Mom’s Guide

By Mystie Winckler

This book delivers exactly what the title promises—when’s the last time that happened for you?

You’ll love it if you have a talent for buying planners, setting them up, and then quickly abandoning them

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Again, Mystie Winkler gets straight to the heart of the matter and explains things simply and quickly. She says that the planner itself doesn’t matter as much as getting into the habit of using it and iterating so that we can get to the version that works best for us in the season of life we’re in.

This book is SO worth it if you’re a planner-aholic like me. I love planners, but I tend to abandon them after a while because they’re just not helping me like I thought they would. Mystie says, “Yeah, that’s your problem. You can’t expect the planner to change you. It’s a lifeless object. You need a strategy that works, and then you need to work at it every day…that’ll make you more productive and organized.” BUT—Mystie don’t lie—she CLEARLY states that this process doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a journey and a process, but it shouldn’t be an all-consuming one.

Mystie sets forth the six necessary types of planner pages that we need to organize our big picture, our week, and our day. She adds meals and projects and running lists to the mix. She also explains what a weekly review is and lays out the steps to do one.

Honestly, this book was SO motivating. I’d recommend it in a heartbeat for anyone who wants a long-term plan and not just a quick fix.

Content warnings: None. (Unless you’re trying to avoid feeling convicted.)

Here’s a Penny

By Carolyn Haywood

A year in the life of a 6-year-old adopted boy in the 40s

You’ll love it if you want to read a gentle book with an adopted protagonist

Rating: 3 out of 5.

This is a perfectly sweet-as-pie children’s novel from the ’40s. It has that postwar vintage feel to it, which some people find completely charming while others find it a tad syrupy. For me, this book leaned toward the syrupy side of things, but it did have its redeeming qualities.

We’re trying out Sonlight’s History-Bible-Literature program this year, and this is one of the read-alouds in the pack. I will say that my boys thought it was entertaining and funny. It wasn’t as fulfilling a book for me, as the adult in the room. Thankfully, it was short!

This book is about a boy named Penny, and he’s adopted. So, if you’re looking for a kids’ book that has an adopted protagonist (that’s set after 1890, haha) then you might give this a try. The action is very gentle and small in scope, revolving around Penny’s personal dramas, which include getting a cat, dressing up for Halloween, selling newspapers, and ruining his overalls. This childlike vibe does have its charm.

I will say that this modern cover is terrible. Penny looks like he has a 5-o’clock shadow, and in the book, he’s only 6 years old.

Content warnings: None. I will say, though, that Chapter 1 presents a very sweet (and maybe sensitive?) message for adopted kids. Penny’s friend, wanting to wound him a little bit, says that he’s not “really, truly” his parents’ son. His mother quickly shuts that down in love.

Sled Dog School

By Terry Lynn Johnson

Matt is going to fail math unless he can earn extra credit by starting a small business

You’ll love it if your kids love dogs, math, or both

Rating: 3 out of 5.

This book was part of our homeschool literature curriculum. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t my favorite—same for my two boys.

Matt Misco isn’t your average kid. His parents don’t believe in electricity or indoor plumbing in the 21st century. Instead of playing video games and watching TV, he whittles wood and runs sled dogs. Matt’s schoolmates think he’s weird, but that’s not his big problem. Matt’s big problem is that he’s failing math class and he MUST get a good grade on his entrepreneurship project or his teacher will doom him to the remedial class (dun, dun, DUNNNN).

This is a cute, inspiring story that helps kids see that their value as people does NOT hinge on their accomplishments or skills. It also incorporates basic business concepts and the accompanying math. It makes me want to have my boys set up a random lemonade stand (or Rice Krispies Treat stand? Haha) just so they can see the ideas in action.

The story has a lot of value, but the writing and overall craft was lacking for me (snob).

Content warnings: None

Riding the Pony Express

By Clyde Robert Bulla

Dick Park moves from NYC to the prairie, where his dad rides for the Pony Express

You’ll love it if you need an easy read for a kid who craves high action

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Why don’t more people know about Clyde Robert Bulla? His books are excellent beginning readers for second and third grade. They’re also perfect for older kids who are just learning to read or who are learning English as a second language. Here’s why:

The writing is easy and simple, but the stories are exciting and full of drama. The prose is easy to read, and his books are incredibly short, so this really cancels out the intimidation factor. But the stories are MUCH more mature than Dr. Seuss or Mo Willems, so older kids can read them without feeling self-conscious.

There are always complex characters who contain a mix of good and evil. In this book, Mr. Kelly is the complex character. He’s a hard, stingy man at times, and he makes some poor choices, but we also see him be loving and kind as well.

In a Bulla book, the protagonist is usually a young person who is struggling to understand life and his/her place in it. This makes the stories relatable to an 8+ audience. His books aren’t about birds trying to find their mothers or mice making friends at school.

PLUS, many of his best books are works of historical fiction. You can add them into nearly any history curriculum you’re doing for homeschool, and they’ll make history come alive for your student.

The more of Bulla’s books that I read, the more I like them.

Content warnings: None.

Leave me a comment with what you’re reading right now!

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