Current Picks: Book Reviews

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (1959)

hauntingA short, spooky novel that will have you sleeping with the lights on, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House brings together four strangers to investigate reported paranormal activity at an unoccupied dwelling. The house itself is curiously constructed with a labyrinth of rooms and towers that seem to creep around corners all on their own. Ghostly events occur shortly after the guests arrive and each visitor has their own individual experience even when in the presence of the others. Hill House is alive. It breathes and sighs. It is as much a character of the book as the strangers it traps inside.

This classic was first published in 1959, adapted to the big screen in 1963 and again in 1999, and most recently released as a Netflix series in 2018. Read it before you binge watch—it’s a great story to curl up with on a cold winter night!
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Becoming Mrs. Lewis by Patti Callahan Henry (2018)

becomingThis is a great book for anyone who enjoys a good love story—and for anyone who is fascinated by C. S. Lewis. Becoming Mrs. Lewis: The Improbable Love Story of Joy Davidman and C. S. Lewis is full of the real-life details and writings of C. S. Lewis and his wife and published author Joy Davidman. The book introduces two strangers, both independently seeking and growing in faith and in curiosity, who become pen pals, then cherished friends, and then fall deeply in love.

Patti Callahan Henry has clearly done her research on the characters and put a lot of thought into this book in order to weave their documented words – their poetry, essays, and speeches – together to illustrate their relationship. The author also demonstrates the idea that behind many great figures, there is often another overlooked figure who has helped to shape and grow the other so that they can have the kind of impact that Lewis did.

Betty Ford by Lisa McCubbin (2018)

bettyFormer First Lady Betty Ford thought her husband Gerald Ford was going to retire after his time in the U. S. House of Representatives, but instead he moved to a higher office, taking over the Vice Presidency when Spiro Agnew was forced to resign. He became president when Richard Nixon resigned, setting her husband up as one of the most powerful men in the world without even running for office. His demanding job made him a largely absent husband, forcing Betty to raise her four children almost as a single mother.

While her husband was in the White House, Ford was diagnosed with breast cancer. At the time, it was like receiving a death sentence. She also suffered from an addiction to prescription drugs and alcohol. In 1978, her family staged an intervention. Ford was open with the American public about her health issues and would go on to co-found the Betty Ford Center. Her outspokenness about her personal experiences put the focus on women’s health issues, alcoholism, and addiction, prompting many to seek treatment themselves.

You don’t need to be a fan of President Ford or Betty Ford’s politics to enjoy Betty Ford: First Lady, Women’s Advocate, Survivor, Trailblazer by Lisa McCubbin. This is an inspirational and sympathetic portrait of a woman dealing with many issues while living in the political arena.

Series Spotlight: Adventures of Sophie Mouse by Poppy Green

friend2Sophie Mouse, her family and friends live in Pine Needles Grove. Her mom owns a bakery, her dad is an architect, Mrs. Owl is her teacher – families gather for parties, children play together, everyone knows each other. In each book, along with her friends Hattie Frog and Owen Snake, Sophie has an adventure and a problem to solve. She gets lost in the forest, has to figure out what to do about a ruined dessert, and tries to find her lost scarf. With good thinking and the help of others, Sophie always figures out what to do.

The series should interest children who are ready for more complex, longer stories that relate to their lives. Fans of the Adventures of Sophie Mouse series are going to know exactly what books in the series they have read, what book they want to read, and probably will read many books in the series until they move on…to another series.

Do talk with readers about Sophie’s adventures. Sometimes things happen in Pine Needles Grove that probably a child living in the real world should not do – such as going into the home of a stranger to get help.

A New Friend is the first book in the series by Poppy Green. Each series title has 117 pages, 10 chapters, and black/white illustrations on most pages. Lexile varies between 430 and 600.
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All We Have Left by Wendy Mills (2016)

all_weThe September 11 terrorist attacks are one of those significant moments in history where you remember where you were and what you were doing when it happened. This novel is told from two teen girls' perspectives, fifteen years apart: Alia in 2001 and Jesse in 2016. Alia, a Muslim, going to the North Tower to see her father when the plane hit, and Jesse, whose older brother somehow ended up at the Twin Towers that day and lost his life, significantly altering her family in the process.

The two stories eventually intertwine, and if you are like me, All We Have Left will have you on the edge of your seat as piece by piece you learn how Alia's and Jesse's experiences are connected. All We Have Left by Wendy Mills is a nominee for the 2019 Lincoln Award (PDF), the Illinois teen readers' choice award.
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Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again by Rachel Held Evans (2018)

inspired“Let it be known that Natalie loves this book. Read it. Pass it on. May it find its way back to her again.” This is the note that I wrote in this book. I had already borrowed the book from the library, then checked out and listened to the audiobook twice, before deciding that I needed to buy a copy to share with my family. This book, part tales and part essay, weaves together ancient storytelling and traditions with modern theology and current politics.

Rachel Held Evans thoughtfully addresses some of the most difficult contradictions (such as how can a good God allow such terrible things?) and problematic issues (such as slavery, genocide, and gender inequality) in the Bible. She creates common ground and challenges all readers regardless of religion affiliation or political allegiances. Inspired is an incredibly entertaining and engaging book.

Gmorning, Gnight!: Little Pep Talks for Me & You by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jonny Sun (2018)

gmorninggnightThis delightful gem is the perfect way to kick off a new year. Gmorning, Gnight is comprised of brief motivational reminders that Lin-Manuel Miranda shared on Twitter at the beginning and end of the day. Paired with illustrations by Jonny Sun, this short book can be read cover to cover, or flipped through at leisure. Find the uplifting words that you need to improve your outlook that day.

The longest part of the book is the introduction, which you can read courtesy of Vulture. Below, I’ve shared one of the most memorable affirmations:
Gmorning.
YOU ARE SO LOVED AND WE LIKE HAVING YOU AROUND.
*ties one end of this sentence to your heart, the other end to everyone who loves you, even the ones you haven’t heard from for a while*
*checks knots*
THERE. STAY PUT, YOU. 
Gnight.
YOU ARE SO LOVED AND WE LIKE HAVING YOU AROUND.
*ties one end of this sentence to your heart, the other end to everyone who loves you in this life, even if clouds obscure your view*
*checks knots*
THERE. STAY PUT, YOU.
TUG IF YOU NEED ANYTHING.

The Judge Hunter by Christopher Buckley (2018)

judgeThis read is a fun tour of the British and Dutch colonies of North America in the mid-17th century. The principal character, Balty, although young and inexperienced, is charged with finding the two judges who signed the death warrant for King Charles I of England. Balty links up with Huncks, an experienced agent of the Crown, who guides Balty through the new world territories populated by Puritans, Quakers, Native Americans, and finally the Dutch.

Meanwhile, back in England, Balty’s cousin, Samuel Pepys, fears a war with the Dutch might be imminent and Balty might be in great danger. Almost miraculously, Balty survives and New Amsterdam gets a new name.

Check out The Judge Hunter by Christopher Buckley today.

Not Our Kind by Kitty Zeldis (2018)

not_our_kindIn 1947, an accident between two cabs brings Eleanor Moskowitz into the world of Patricia Bellamy and her family. Eleanor, who is Jewish, has just left a position at a prestigious school in Manhattan. Patricia offers her a job teaching her daughter, Margaux, who had polio, thus has trouble walking, and is very reluctant to go back to school—hence the tutor.

Margaux takes an immediate shine to Eleanor, but in the upper class New York society, Eleanor is encouraged to keep her religion a secret. Things get even more complicated when Eleanor falls for Patricia's older brother, Tom, and Patricia's husband, Wynn, becomes increasingly angry about Eleanor's presence. Told through the eyes of Eleanor and Patricia, Not Our Kind explores the two women's very different lives in a time of change. Check out this debut from Kitty Zeldis.

The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton (2018)

bellesCamellia is a Belle. Belles are the most important people in the kingdom, other than the royal family, because they control beauty. In the world of Orléans, everyone is born a "gris": gray skin, red eyes, straw colored hair. Only the Belles can grant a person a new look, using their magic to change appearance, manner, and control age.

Camellia wants to become the Favorite Belle—to work in the palace and work for the royal family. But is that life really what it seems? When dark mysteries arise, like crying girls in the middle of the night and former Belles being veiled, Camellia must decide to find her own truth in beauty.

I've listened to The Belles on audio twice. Rosie Jones, the narrator, does a wonderful job with voices and accents. She makes the city of Orléans come to life, and her take on Princess Sophia's voice still sends shivers up my spine.

I love Dhonielle Clayton's descriptions of the world of Orléans – the post balloons and petit cakes and teletropes – the world building is fantastic.

The last few pages of this book will keep readers on the edge of their seat. And when they read the last line, they'll be clamoring for the sequel The Everlasting Rose, out March 5, 2019. [Beware! There are spoilers on the linked page for The Belles.]

In the meantime, you can join me as I start my third re-listen.

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (2011)

senseI was looking for a short, yet thought-provoking audiobook to act as a sort of palette cleanse between two light-hearted, popular works of fiction, so I opted for The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. It turned out to be the perfect choice.

In less than five hours, we journey through the life of the narrator, Tony, and the story of two relationships from his youth, one a friend and one a lover. Now in his sixties, Tony is confronted with the truth of those relationships and forced to reevaluate his past behavior and his own carefully curated story of self. The audiobook narration (by Richard Morant) was terrific—the voice you hear becomes Tony, which really brings the story to life. This character-driven book examines the importance of memory in shaping self and questions what we remember as truth. I recommend it for fans of Kazuo Ishiguro and Marilynne Robinson.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng (2017)

firesLittle Fires Everywhere begins with a blazing fire in the Richardson family home. Everyone suspects their troubled youngest daughter, Izzy, is responsible for starting the fire. The reader is taken back in time to before the fire to understand the events that have led up to this moment. The Richardson family lives in the affluent town of Shaker Heights, Ohio, and rent their smaller, second home out to artist Mia and her daughter, Pearl. The two families—and the town—are torn apart when a mother returns to take back her abandoned baby from its new adoptive family, beginning a divisive legal custody battle.

Told through multiple viewpoints, this angsty novel looks at the complex relationships of families and community members, and the influential roles people can play in each other’s lives. Vivid, complex characters and multi-layered story lines make this a great choice for book clubs. Celeste Ng’s sophomore novel follows her well-received debut Everything I Never Told You.

 
 
 
 

Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover (2018)

educatedTara Westover’s Educated is the fascinating true story of a young woman raised in a survivalist family in the southern mountains of Idaho. Throughout her childhood, Tara’s father uses end-of-days fear, isolation, and the threat of eternal damnation to maintain control over his family. Every decision the family makes is informed by their father’s religious doctrine, so formal education is out of the question. Tara’s interest in the outside world combined with a desire to escape a life of working in the family’s scrapyard leads her to challenge her father’s ideas and, eventually, the lifestyle her family leads.

This compelling book is at times both heartbreaking and horrifying, but Westover’s matter-of-fact style of storytelling makes the reader feel right at home in this extreme, unfamiliar world.

 
 
 
 

Zugzwang by Ronan Bennett

ZugzwangZugzwang by Ronan Bennett (2007)
In German, zugzwang is a term used in chess to describe a position in which a player is reduced to a state of utter helplessness. The action is set in pre-Revolutionary Russia: St. Petersburg, 1914. Dr. Otto Spethmann is a psychiatrist who is drawn into a murderous intrigue and an intriguing romance. It’s a deadly game, but good read.

Making Money by Terry Pratchett

Making MoneyMaking Money by Terry Pratchett (2007)
As one of the Discworld series, the book follows the continuing adventures of Moist von Lipwig, “reformed” con man, as he takes over Ankh-Morpork’s banking industry. With his usual flair for sadistic characters and dry humor, Pratchett has produced another book that makes you laugh out loud!

Also check out the author's website for a Discworld travel guide, characters and themes by title, and miniseries information.