January Book Reviews
This year, I am hoping to get through at least 36 of the 100 unread books on my bookshelf. I am trying to avoid buying anymore books until I read a good portion of what I have. I started the year with a pretty good momentum: seven of the eight books I read where books I already owned (the first book on the list is the one I do not own). A few of these will remain on my bookshelves since I liked them enough to want to hold onto them, but three (Julie of the Wolves, Snow Falling on Cedars, and The Red Pony) are going into my pile to sell at Half Price Books (any money that I earn from selling books goes to buying more books, so it is a circle of readerly life). Without further ado, here my January reads:
We Were the Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter (audiobook) ★★★★★
Inspired by one Jewish family's incredible true experiences during WWII in Poland. Siblings get separated, unsure if they'll ever see each other, or if they are even alive. I have read many WWII novels but never one set in Poland. The story is heartbreaking and hard to read at times, but with a title like that, you know there has to be some glimmer of hope at some point. I also enjoyed learning more about the Jewish culture and how they tried to maintain their faith throughout the evil and devastation surrounding them. The author's note at the end of the story is fascinating, as she explains who she found out about her relative's story that inspired this novel.
Rating: PG (alludes to the atrocities of concentration camps but no gruesome scenes; some cuss words, a few sex scenes but not graphic)
Reminded me of: My favorite WWII novel, All the Light We Cannot See.
The Red Pony by John Steinbeck (audiobook) ★★★☆☆
A novella about a boy who gets a horse, and then the horse gets really sick and the boy supposedly learns through the experience. I love Steinbeck, but I just wasn't interested in this one. There were some random scenes that left me with a question mark (the old man that came from the mountains) and the whole story seemed a bit disjointed, as if integral chapters were missing.
Reminded me of: The plot of a boy with a beloved pet is somewhat akin to Where the Red Fern Grows, which I enjoyed a lot more.
Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome (physical book and audiobook) ★★★★☆
A comedic classic that has never been out of print since it was published in 1889, this little book is hilarious. Three hypochondriac men and a dog set on a two-week boat trip down the Thames River of London, exploring small town, and getting themselves in heaps of mistakes along the way. The slapstick humor reminds me of the Three Stooges and Kramer from Seinfeld, while the anecdotes and dialogue is worthy of stand-up comedy. I was surprised how easy it was to follow the story and how funny it was being such an old book. The only gripe I had was with the audiobook. It switched between my physical copy and the audiobook and eventually realized (after having trouble finding my place when I'd switch between the two), that the audiobook is abridged and missed some of the parts, so I went back and read what I missed.
Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool (audiobook)★★★★☆
Abilene Tucker is a 12-year-old girl accustomed to the vagabond life, moving from town to town for her dad's odd jobs during the Great Depression. But when he gets a job working a railroad, she is sent to spend the summer with old acquaintances in the small town of Manifest, Kansas. She soon finds herself searching for answers when she finds a mysterious box with old momentos and meets a fortune teller who tells her the story of two young friends living in Manifest and the secrets and mysteries that surround them. This is a great middle grade novel that has a unique plot with plenty of mystery and action to keep it going at a quick enough pace to keep both young and older readers engaged. I enjoyed learning more about the WWI through this novel. And I am a sucker for small town stories, so I liked the scenes where the community came together. Vanderpool did a superb job with Abilene's character development, making her relatable to readers. Overall, a great story.
Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson ★★★★☆
This suspenseful, well-crafted novel starts with trial in 1954 on the fictitious island of San Piedro, in the Puget Sound near Seattle. A fisherman has just died and a Japanese-American man named Kubuo is on trial for murder. The ensuing chapters look back over a decade and a half to uncover past wounds of main characters, Kubuo, his wife Hatsue, and Ishmael, a local newspaper journalist. Memories of cheated land ownership agreements, a forbidden high school romance, Japanese-Americans of the island being sent to internment camps in California, and WWII war stories are interwoven between various members of the community, bringing a depth to the story that had me rooting for some characters and fuming mad at others. I found it brilliant that Guterson used the wintery atmosphere of a snowstorm during the court trial to give this sad story an almost haunting quality, cold and melancholy. I was soaked up in the story and enjoyed the historical aspect, but at times it seemed some parts were slow and dragged on, especially during a few climactic parts. Lastly, one of the main reasons I picked up this book is because it is set in the Puget Sound, which is nostalgic for me since I lived in Seattle for a few years. I had been wanting to visit Bainbridge Island for years, which just so happens to be what the fictitious San Piedro Island is based on, so now I want to visit even more.
Rating: PG-13. I docked this book a star rating because of the multiple sex scenes that were pretty explicit as well as copious cuss words in chapter 16 (which was set in the trenches during WWII, so it was kinda understandable but there was still some really disturbing content), and there is a chapter where the coroner evaluates the dead man's body and it is pretty gruesome in detail (but maybe would not be an issue for fans of shows like CSI).
Reminded me of: The focus on the prejudice against Japanese-Americans and the internment camps reminded me of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet.
Reflections on the Psalms by C.S. Lewis ★★★★☆
In this lesser known work by the esteemed C.S. Lewis, he examines different subjects in the Psalms, including difficult themes like judgement, cursings, and death as well as the Psalms that praise God and not-so-hidden second meanings in the Psalms pointing to Christ. He looks at the context surrounding these Psalms, including both the immediate Jewish culture as well as the surrounding Pagan cultures, often comparing them to the New Testament views on these subjects as well. His astute observations are extremely interesting, but I must admit, as with previous Lewis works (like Mere Christianity), some of it just went over my head. It was still a great opportunity to take a closer look at some Psalms from a different perspective. I especially liked the chapter titled A Word on Praising:
“I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation... It is frustrating to have discovered a new author and not to be able to tell anyone how good he is; to come suddenly, at the turn of the road, upon some mountain valley of unexpected grandeur and then to have to keep silent because the people with you care for it no more than for a tin can in the ditch; to hear a good joke and find no one to share it with. . . . The Scotch catechism says that man’s chief end is ‘to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.’ But we shall then know that these are the same thing. Fully to enjoy is to glorify. In commanding us to glorify Him, God is inviting us to enjoy Him.”
Mom & Me & Mom by Maya Angelou ★★★★☆ (audiobook)
I admire and highly respect Maya Angelou and have really enjoyed three of her memoirs, this being my third (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Letter to My Daughter are amazing). She endured adversity, trauma, and a plethora of struggles in childhood, yet grew up to be a successful, kind-hearted, passionate woman. Her writing always has so much heart and hearing her tell her story on audiobook (which is how I experienced all three of her books) brings an even deeper enjoyment because her voice is perfection. Growing up with her paternal grandmother in Arkansas with only a handful of visits from her mysterious mom, she took a cross-country trip to California to live with her mother in her pre-teen years. A larger-than-life personality, her mother sometimes had questionable methods for raising her children but her love for Maya and her brother were clearly evident in the vivid memories Maya shares. Some hard-to-believe stories makes this memoir at parts hilarious, other times heartbreaking, and other times frustrating. Maya also looks back at her young adulthood as a single mom trying to support and love her son the best way possible.
My recommendation: If you have never read any Maya books, start with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and then move to this one for a more complete life story
Rating: PG (a quick, not-too-detailed sex scene) as well as reference to rape.
Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George (audiobook) ★★★☆☆
Miyax/Julie (Eskimo vs "white" name) is a thirteen-year old who leaves her Eskimo village after something terrible happens, hoping to reach her pen-pal in San Francisco when she loses her way in the vast, frigid Alaskan wilderness. Nearly starving, she attempts to befriend a wolf pack in order to survive. This coming-of-age story about identity and family is was a good read overall. The author must have had some experience in the Alaskan wilderness and with wolves because the details were just so keen and well-crafted. I was rooting for Miyax/Julie as she grew in courage and struggled to survive. There was nothing wrong with the story, but I just wasn't completely captivated by it, though. I think it may be because I enjoy stories with dialogue and interpersonal relationships and since she was primarily on her own (though, she did have her wolves).
It reminded me of: The frigid temps reminded me of The Call of the Wild and the survival story reminds me of Island of the Blue Dolphin.
You're My Little Sweet Pea (illustrated by Kit Chase)
An adorable board book perfect for bedtime with infants and toddlers, each page has a sweetly illustrated picture of a mama or daddy animal with their little baby with a one-sentence rhyme of what they adore about them. Button nose, squishy cheeks, hair that swirls, tiny toes, heart-melting giggles, and dimpled chin of baby bunnies, giraffes, tigers, foxes, kittens, lambs, and bears make this such an endearing little book.
Disclaimer: I received this book for free from BookLook in exchange for an honest review, which I have provided here.