Nov 29, 2018

November Book Reviews

The Call of the Wild by Jack London (audiobook narrated by Jeff Daniels) 
A domesticated (or dogmesticated?) St. Bernard-Scotch Shepard mix named Buck is stolen from his comfortable Northern California home and shipped to the rugged and freezing climates of Yukon, Canada and trained to be a sled dog during the Klondike Gold Rush of the 1890s. His owners include the vicious "man in the red sweater" who beats Buck into submission en route to Seattle, two French-Canadian men who buy and train Buck in the Klondike to be a  sled dog, a Scottish man who delivers mail,  three oblivious and naive Americans who are ridiculous in their attempts to cross the Klondike and put the sled dogs at perilous risk because of their pride and sheer stupidity, and lastly, a kind-hearted man named Thornton who nurses Buck back to health after he is beaten nearly to death. Buck is strong-willed, clever, and determined to be a leader of the pack. He increasingly is hearing "the call of the wild" and knows that after these adventures in the Klondike, he'll never be the same dog again. I enjoyed this coming-of-age story from a dog's perspective, which was a surprisingly fun experience since I cannot remember ever reading a book from the perspective of a non-human. My heart broke during the traumatic scenes of him getting beaten by overseers and owners as well as the dog fights he participated in (and sometimes instigated). It also made me sad that the hunger for gold in those men led to the torture and death of so many dogs who were unprepared for the rigors of the frigid Klondike region. But there were some parts that were inspiring as Buck beats unsurmountable odds, grows in cleverness and strengths, and finally experiences being loved rather than used as a commodity. Jeff Daniels did a superb job a the narrator.

Rating: PG (for the aforementioned scenes)
Reminded me of: The movie Balto

Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster (audiobook) 
When I read that author Katherine Reay was inspired by this story when writing her novel, Dear Mr. Knightley, I knew I'd want to read it eventually. The premise of the books are remarkably similar in many aspects but they each shine in their own way as well. Judy Abbot is a hilarious, witty, and lively teen living in an orphanage who is offered a full-ride college scholarship under the condition that she writes letters to her anonymous benefactor, whom she affectionately (?!) nicknames Daddy-Long-Legs. The novel is completely epistolary, made of Judy's letters to the generous man who provided her a way out of the orphanage and into the world of education, privilege, and even friendship with peers. I was surprised at the comedic tone of the book since Dear Mr. Knightley has a more serious tone. Also, I didn't realize it was written in 1912, so I originally thought it would have older, more difficult language but it was extremely readable, almost as if it could have been written by a contemporary author today. I wasn't surprised by the ending since I assumed it would be similar to the ending of Dear Mr. Knightley, but felt like it was a bit rushed and would have liked a few more letters to finish off such a delightful read.

Rating: G
Reminded me ofDear Mr. Knightley, obviously. She also reminded me of Anne of Green Gables, except more snarky and sarcastic than the imaginative, lovable Anne.

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith ★★
Seventeen-year old  Cassandra and her family live in a ramshackle English castle in the  Suffolk countryside  in the 1930s on the brinks of poverty when two handsome brothers appear on the scene and all of their lives take surprising (and sometimes entertaining) twists and turns. The novel is written as journal entries of Cassandra, who is aspiring to hone her writing skills through chronicling the everyday happenings off the castle. This started off endearing and quirky but then seemed to drag on and on for me. By two-thirds in, I stopped really caring about what would happen, which is good because it didn't get too much better and turned out to be love triangles (or love squares?) that were just awkward and hard to believe. The only part that remained endearing by the last page were the descriptions of the castle and rolling hills of the countryside. Most of the characters were more ridiculous than quirky, and a few were just plain annoying.

Rating: PG (a few references to martial affairs)
Reminded me of: The starting reminded me of the aspiring kid author Francie in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, writing about her family living in poverty. The latter half reminded my of the dysfunctional love stories of Brideshead Revisited

Dear Mrs. Bird by A.J. Pearce (audiobook) 
It is 1940 in London and young Emmy's lifelong dream is to be a Lady War Correspondent. When she responds to a vague advertisement through the London Evening Chronicle, she is so excited at the prospective dream job that she accepts the position without hearing what her job would include. It turns out rather than courageous journalism in combat zones she has agreed to filtering the acceptable vs unacceptable letters that arrive for the austere, grumpy Henrietta Bird, of the long-standing "Dear Mrs. Bird" advice column. She is told to throw out anything "unpleasant", which includes heartbroken girls in dire straits, but Emmy feels for these girls and starts to secretly write to them with advice, putting her job on the line. I thought this was really well done. Lots of humor from Emmy's poor decisions at work balanced with some sobering, heart-breaking scenes of nightly raids and bombings that devastated London during WWII. And I admired the fact that the most important relationship in the book is not between love interests but between two best friends who's friendship is tested through devastating consequences.

Rating: G
Reminded me of: I haven't read too many WWII books based in London, so other than the obvious answer of WWII historical fiction, it really was in a category of its own.

The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey by Rinker Buck (audiobook) ★★
Growing up in Oregon, I remember the Oregon Trail seeping into every subject in grade school. We learned the history, wrote journal entries as if we were a child on a wagon traveling to Oregon, and even got to use our library time to play the Oregon Trail computer game on the vintage Macs tucked in between rows of bookshelves. When I saw this book on a blog, I knew I'd have to check it out for nostalgia sake as well as a newfound interest in what propelled people to embark on the rigorous journey after reading These Is My Words a few years back. This book is part memoir and part history lesson. The memoir follows the author and his brother on a cross-country adventure on whatever remains of the original Oregon trail still exists, traveling as close to the authentic fashion as possible. Their team of mules and covered wagon and sheer determination are their only companions as they set out on the 2,000 mile trek, which lasts four months. En route, they encounter all sorts of hiccups, many of which are pretty entertaining. Rinker looks back at the motives and experiences of the original 400,000 travelers of the Oregon Trail, including Christian missionaries setting out to evangelize to the Native Americans of the Pacific NW and Mormons desiring land and freedom from the judgement they experienced for their beliefs. This had a lot of interesting facts and I enjoyed it overall, but there was also a lot of parts that dragged slower than a busted wagon wheel, such as the long-winded explanation of how mules began to be used for pulling wagons.

Rated: PG-13 (lots of F-bombs from both Rinker and his brother)
Reminded me of: The pioneering life  is reminiscent of Love Comes Softly movies and These Is My Words Nancy E. Turner. The travelogue is reminiscent of Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods

Whiskey in a Teacup: What Growing Up in the South Taught Me About Life, Love, & Baking Biscuits by Reese Witherspoon (audiobook) 
Although I have lived in Texas for three years now, I still consider myself a newbie to the Southern culture and traditions. I adore the Southern hospitality, Lone star emblem on everything, and endearing twang of various southern accents. So when I heard that Reese Witherspoon wrote a book on her favorite traditions she grew up with, I knew I'd have to read it. It is part primer on southern living (with recipes, lists of the best country soundtrack, tutorials on using hot-rollers, and the proper way to set a table) and part memoir of the traditions that Reece's mother and grandmother instilled in her, which she held onto even as an actress in La La Land (the city, not the movie). It is an ode to everything cozy and endearing about the South, but particularly the Southern women. Graceful beauty on the outside and fiery strength on the inside, these southern belles capture the title's reference, whiskey in a teacup. I thought Reece did a great job writing and her narration on the audiobook was superb.

Rating: G
Reminded me of: hmm, can't think of anything

The Power of a Praying Woman by Stormie Omartian 
I have heard wonderful things about this book and since I have been wanting to grow more intentional in praying for Greg more often and more specifically, thought it would be a helpful tool. After one chapter on the power and purpose of prayer and the next chapter on praying for his wife (me) and why prayer is a superior substitute to nagging, the proceeding twenty-nine chapters, many of which are only a quick two pages, each focus on one area to pray for your husband and is capped off with a prayer and Scripture references. I spread this book out over a month, daily praying for Greg in areas such as his work, his (our) finances, his affection, his mind, his fears, his purpose, his choices, his health, his protection, his talk, his faith, his future, and his repentance. I thought it was helpful overall and can see myself returning to certain chapters in the future. It could just be me, but there was almost a prideful vibe I was picking up from the author, though. Almost as if she was saying in each chapter, "my husband struggled with ____, then I started praying for him, and voila! he improved and I still haven't told him it was me praying for him for ___" (it's in a book, so yes, you have, Stormie). Again, it could totally be me and my cynicism because I am sure she is a wonderful woman and wife, but that was the only thing that slightly irked me every once in a while.

Rating: G
Reminded me of: Fervent by Priscilla Shirer

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens 
Kya is a shy, lonely girl living in the secluded marsh on the outskirts of a small town called Barkley Cove on the North Carolina coast. Abandoned by family since she was only six years old and avoided by most of the well-to-do townspeople who saw her as swamp trash, she grew up isolated in her little shack, only visiting town when necessary. As she grew, two boys from town became intrigued with her. Years later in 1969, one of them is dead and she becomes a murder suspect. This is the first novel of author and wildlife scientist Delia Owens, who has previously written highly acclaimed books on wildlife in Africa. I mention this because only an author of astute observation and intimate acquaintance with the mundane as well as remarkable details of nature can write superbly crafted descriptions of marsh life so engrossing and atmospheric. Who would have thought a marsh, which I always thought equal to a murky swamp, could hold natural treasures that someone like Kya could deeply connect with and appreciate amidst her solitary life. The way Kya loved the marsh and the poems she recited about nature, brought a lyrical, ethereal, and utterly beautiful component to this book. It mingles the many intricacies of both human nature and the natural world in symbolism without being wax poetic or too flowery. Then there was a slow, coming-of-age story (which I am always drawn towards) of Kya, the Marsh Girl with a somewhat melancholy tone that made it heart-breaking to read at times. The loneliness and confusion of being abandoned by family and the dashed hope of being loved as a young adult led to the consequential hardening of a heart and not wanting to let anyone in because of vowing to never be hurt again. She was relatable and believable as a character, but definitely not one to be pitied. She had grit, resilience, and great strength, taking care of herself since the age she should have been playing games and learning her A,B,Cs in kindergarten. Then, as an absorbing component to the book that made it even more hard to put down, was the engrossing murder mystery that had me guessing in all directions. This novel fit the bill -- and far surpassed -- all the things I love in a good book to the point that  I would call it a masterpiece; definitely one of my favorite books of the year.

Rating: PG-13 (a few cuss words and a few sex scenes, not overly descriptive)
Reminded me of: The atmospheric descriptions of nature and slow-moving but absorbing plot reminded me of The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey.

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles (audiobook) ★★
I enjoyed Towles' A Gentleman in Moscow, and heard raving reviews about this novel, so I gave it a try. I really enjoyed about three-quarters of it and then I lost interest and didn't enjoy the end. Katey Kontent is a witty, fun-loving, adventurous New Yorker looking for a good time with her roommate Eve when they meet the dashing Tinker Grey on New Years Eve of 1937. Their lives soon take a much more glamorous turn in the new year as he wines and dines them around the elite corners of the City That Never Sleeps. Tragedies as well as triumphs ensue, some of which are entertaining while others were a little too risqué for me. I enjoyed the Jazz scene, references to fancy NYC hot spots as well as the iconic Central Park, and the myriad of book references from bibliophile Katey (including Agatha Christie's Poirot mysteries, Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, Hemingway, and Virginia Woolf). But several of the characters became a bit too promiscuous, which I suppose was realistic to that time and era, but was just a bit too much and as the character development slowly unraveled for Katey, Tinker, and Eve,  I realized I was not rooting for any of them anymore.

Rating: PG-13 (lots of language and everyone sleeping with everyone)
Reminded me of: The Great Gatsby and Brideshead Revisited 

Kid Lit

Love Does for Kids by Bob Goff and Lindsey Goff Viducich 
I adored Bob Goff's Love Does and his recently published Everybody, Always. He has a great way of being engaging and entertaining with his large-than-life personality and real stories while also being inspiring and thought-provoking in the way he compels readers to put show love through action. In this kid-friendly version of Love Does, Bob and his daughter Lindsey bring many of his life lessons on loving as Jesus loved to a younger audience. Many of the original stories from Love Does are included with language tweaked slightly for younger readers but still capturing the same message. There are also new stories that are specifically  geared towards kids as well. The adorable illustrations that accompany each of the forty-six short essays help tell each story for kids who are more visually inclined. Both parents and children can enjoy the extraordinary life of Bob Goff, who uses his wealth in a multitude of adventurous ways to point others to Jesus love and to help them see how deeply and truly they are loved.

Age of audience: I would suggest later grade-school and middle-school kids
Disclaimer: Thanks to BookLook Bloggers for this book. I exchanged an honest review for a free copy of the book

Who Sang the First Song? by Ellie Holcomb
Ok, this book is absolutely adorable and gorgeous!!! Singer-songwriter Elle Holcomb's first book is a sweet book asking the title question, who sang the first song? Was it the wind, the stars, the sun, the waves of an ocean or the whales down below? Maybe it was the lion's first roar  (Aslan??) or a flower's blooming hum? Each page includes a lyrical sentence asking this question and is accompanied by absolutely beautiful and creative illustrations of nature. including whimsical tea-drinking raccoons, violin-playing mice, the reflections of a stampede of elephants, cherry-blossoms in their pinkish-white glory, and an underwater view of ocean creatures. It points to the One who created them all as He spoke (or sung?) the world into creation. A sweet book with a wonderful message of the Creature and his beautiful creation, perfect for bedtime reading

Age of audience: the short sentence structure makes it appropriate for squirmy toddlers but the beautiful illustrations and theme would make it great for school age kids as well.
Disclaimer: Thanks to Lifeway for this book. For an honest review of the book, I received a free copy.

I would love to hear what you read in November!

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Elle Alice