Last month was a great reading month for me! I read some great books in a number of genres and listened to my favorite audiobook yet. Here’s the rundown…
Kitchens of the Great Midwest
by J. Ryan Stradal
If you enjoy audiobooks, don’t miss this one! It’s easily the best I’ve listened to so far.
Minnesotan Eva Thorvald is a brilliant chef whose creations are so divine that people wait years and pay thousands of dollars just to taste them. Kitchens of the Great Midwest tells the story of her life through the foods that shaped and inspired her and the people who were behind their introduction. The book captures the spirit, self-deprecation, and inquisitive friendliness of Midwesterners as well as the tremendous impact food plays in all of our lives and our memories. The narrators of the audiobook perfectly capture the book’s quirky characters and nail the Midwestern accent, which really heightens the listening experience.
This book is a total delight. I can’t wait to read more from this author.
Much like Eleanor Oliphant, this book was completely fine.
It didn’t change my life. It didn’t make me cry. It was an enjoyable read, but not all that memorable. It was just… fine. Completely fine.
If I’m a bit disappointed now, it’s only because I think I’ve had my fill of reading about quirky-but-lovable curmudgeons. It’s definitely a formula for a bestseller, and too many writers are using it. The formula is so predictable, too: Curmudgeon thinks he/she is fine on his/her own. A great tragedy in curmudgeon’s past is revealed. Curmudgeon makes unlikely friends willing to look past his/her curmudgeonliness. Curmudgeon realizes FRIENDS ARE EVERYTHING. Curmudgeon lives happily ever after.
Which is fine, if you like that sort of thing. Completely fine.
Just like Eleanor.
Honestly, I don’t know that I’ve ever felt so uncomfortable about a book. One reviewer wrote that reading it was a little like gawking at a traffic accident — You know you shouldn’t, but it’s hard to look away. That’s a great way to describe how I’m feeling right now about Gather the Daughters.
The book is about a group of colonists living on an island, completely segregated from the rest of the world which, according to the colony’s leaders, now consists of nothing more than a burning “Wasteland’ with few survivors. Told from the perspective of the pre-teen daughters of the community, we learn in bits and pieces about the horrific practices of the island’s men and the control they exert on the women and girls of the island. Rules come from a Bible-like tome known as ‘The Book,’ and allow fathers and husbands near-absolute power over their wives and daughters, including abuse, forced marriage at puberty, and incest, all of which thoroughly creeped me out. After one of the girls dies mysteriously, the others begin to question the colony’s laws and practices, and that’s when all hell breaks loose. We root for them as they rebel, and yet we can’t see how this could possibly end well.
With echoes of Lord of the Flies and The Handmaid’s Tale, Gather the Daughters is definitely a compelling read — Despite the extremely disturbing subject matter, I NEEDED to know how it all turned out at the end. The book also really made me think about our own belief systems and the many ways our own culture has determined over the years that certain Biblical practices really aren’t acceptable at all in modern times. At the same time, I can’t shake the icky feeling the book gave me. It’s not a feeling I like.
One important note — I listened to the audiobook version of Gather the Daughters and I emphatically DO NOT recommend it. The narrator’s voice is supremely irritating. If you’re going to read this book, read it.
I really enjoyed the audiobook version of The Forgetting Time, a paranormal thriller that will keep you guessing and make you think.
Janie is a single mom with a 4-year-old whose quirks baffle both her and the various psychiatrists she’s taken him to see. Why is Noah so terrified of water? How does he know the proper names for lizards and details about the Harry Potter novels and how to score a baseball game? Why does he tell his teachers about visiting his lake house over the summer when they don’t have a lake house and have never been to one? And why does he keep asking Janie for his mother, night after night? Could it be that Noah is remembering details from a past life?
At her wit’s end, Janie takes Noah to see Dr. Jerome Anderson, a psychologist who has devoted his career to documenting cases of reincarnation. What Janie doesn’t know is that Dr. Anderson has recently been diagnosed with dementia and is quickly losing control of his memories and his speech. The two work together to find out who Noah is channeling, embarking on a journey that will surprise you and keep you guessing right up to the book’s conclusion.
I don’t believe in reincarnation, but I enjoyed this book nonetheless, both because it’s a fast-paced, well-written mystery and because this view of the afterlife is a really interesting topic to think about. Forced to confront the idea of reincarnation, the book’s characters must wrestle with their own beliefs and take stock of their lives and how they choose to spend them. Providing both thrills and food for thought, The Forgetting Time is a ultimately a very engaging read.
This is a quaint and quirky tale from the author of Pippi Longstockingthat’s a great read for 8-12 year-old girls, a wonderful bedtime story book for younger children, and a fun one for adult fans of classic children’s literature, too!
Ronia is the only child born to a robber chief and his gang who all live in a rocky fortress within a forest filled with magical creatures. She meets the only son of a rival robber while playing in the woods and the two become fast (and secret) friends. When things get heated between the two robber gangs, Ronia and her friend must choose between each other and their families. The story evolves into a sort of coming-of-age fairy tale, as Ronia comes to terms with the nature of her father’s work and struggles to decide where her loyalties lie. She learns for the first time that doing what’s right is sometimes far from easy, and it’s also sometimes the opposite of what the people you love are doing.
Astrid Lindgren keeps things entertaining with imaginative elements like predatory harpies, biting dwarves, and Ronia’s surprisingly lovable father — a robber king who is both tough and highly, unabashedly emotional. Ronia is a wonderful character for girls to read about and admire — She’s athletic, resourceful, and brave, and she cares deeply for those she loves. As I was reading the book, I thought it would make a great Studio Ghibli-style animated movie — I was pleasantly surprised when I looked the book up online and learned that it has been made into a Studio Ghibli series that’s available on Amazon! We will definitely be watching.
Fans of the Little House on the Prairie television series will enjoy this behind-the-scenes look at ‘Prairie’ life written by Alison Arngrim, as well as the sordid details of growing up as a child actor in Hollywood in the ’70s and ’80s. I’d heard this book was better than average as far as child star memoirs go and that’s an accurate assessment — Although I haven’t read all of the memoirs from the Little House cast (and damn, there are a lot of them), I’d imagine this one is probably the best and most revealing of the bunch.
That said, it’s a pretty average read overall. I loved the Little Houseseries growing up and I love it now, mostly for its hokey Hallmark-style approach. I do not think it was the epic, life-changing television drama that it seems to be in Arngrim’s own mind. Like so many TV and film actors, Arngrim is a little too much at the center of her own universe and it shows. She writes as if Nellie Oleson — and the actress behind her– was the glue that held the cast and the entire storyline of the show together. To hear her tell it, without Nellie, the show would never have survived. That rankles a bit, since while Nellie definitely was a key element in some particularly hilarious episodes, it was certainly the Ingalls family that held that show together, not Nellie Oleson!
Arngrim also spends quite a lot of time lauding her own volunteer efforts, which, again, is a little irritating. Other than that, though, if you liked the Little House, it’s safe to say you’ll also find this book interesting.
Sarah’s Quilt is not nearly as good as its predecessor, These is My Words, but it’s still worth reading if you were a fan of Nancy E. Turner’s first book.
Sarah’s Quilt picks up on Sarah’s life at a difficult time — She is now 42, her children are grown, and she’s trying to outlast a severe drought that has wreaked havoc on her land and cattle for the last three years. The book covers a year of Sarah’s life as she struggles to make it through many various trials and tribulations — so many that you might struggle to suspend your disbelief — but the indomitable spirit that won so many hearts in These is My Words ultimately shines through in Sarah’s Quilt, along with the wisdom that comes from hard work and a life well lived.
I enjoyed Sarah’s Quilt because I felt so invested in the characters from These is My Words and I deeply appreciate Nancy E. Turner’s decision to continue their story in three sequels. If you loved These is My Words, you won’t regret reading Sarah’s Quilt. Women in their 40s will find this volume particularly relevant as Sarah very authentically comes to terms with middle age and all the good and bad things that come with it.
As an added bonus, at the end of this book, Nancy E. Turner spends a few pages discussing how she became a writer and offers writing advice to others. She went to college at the age of 40 with the intent of becoming a high school English teacher and wrote the first chapter of These is My Words as a short story for a Creative Fiction class she randomly ended up taking for a course credit! I found this mid-life success story to be incredibly inspiring and her advice to others was great.
Fans of The Nightingale will love this tale of three very different women – a Manhattan socialite, a Polish concentration camp survivor, and a Nazi doctor — whose lives intersect during World War II. I found the novel compelling and hard to put down, and I loved reading about the real-life women the three characters were based on in the author’s note at the end of the book. Highly recommended.
I really loved At Home in the World, but I’d caution that this book is not for everyone.
Tsh Oxenreider and her husband decided to spend nine months traveling around the world with their three small children. This is Tsh’s account of their experiences. As a family travel writer myself, I found this book incredibly inspiring — It motivated me to broaden our travel horizons as a family even more than we already have and gave me some good, if slightly vague, leads on countries both to explore and to avoid. If you’re a parent who loves to travel and you’d like some motivation to keep going despite the costs and the scheduling challenges associated with family travel, then I think you’ll love this book as much as I did.
If you’re not a parent, on the other hand, I could see how you might become frustrated with At Home in the World as a travel narrative. The book is very much about Tsh and her family’s journey, much of which couldn’t realistically be replicated by other travelers due to Tsh’s life experience and global connections. Tsh writes far more about her personal epiphanies as a mother traveling the world and looking for her place within it than about where to go and what to do when you get there. Know this going into the book and you will not be disappointed by it.
I absolutely loved the audiobook version of Fierce Kingdom. Coming in at around 7 hours, it was a perfect length and kept me on the edge of my seat, always wanting to hear more. It even inspired me to renew my lapsed zoo membership!
I think one of the reasons I enjoyed this book so much was because for me, the story was very relatable. The premise is simple — A mom is visiting the zoo with her 4-year-old son when gunmen invade. The entire novel follows her efforts to survive their rampage. Much like Joan, the mom in Fierce Kingdom, I’ve visited our local zoo many times with my kids and know it like the back of my hand, and I actually pictured it in my mind as I listened to the book — The fictional zoo matched the real one surprisingly well. With admirable attention to detail, Gin Phillips did an excellent job making the setting and events believable and conveying the fierce love a mother has for her child, as well as the lengths she’ll go to to save him. I could identify with so many of Joan’s thoughts and emotions and really felt like I was there with her as she was experiencing them. I also appreciated the fact that Phillips never got too graphic or disturbing with the details of what was happening. She could have gone all Walking Dead gory like so many are doing these days and she didn’t, and I was glad she tastefully walked that line.
I’m giving Fierce Kingdom four stars because I’ve listened to quite a few thrillers over the last couple of months and while all have been good, this — along with Behind Closed Doors by B.A. Paris — has been my favorite. Well, done, Gin!