September Book Reviews

Introducing our little bookworm in training, Baby E! Born in mid-September, he is our blessing and joy! He has already helped my reading life while in utero, by giving me time to read when he'd wake me up with his kicks and indigestion (gee, thanks!). And now I have even more time to read because he has been keeping me up ALL NIGHT LONG with nursing and rocking him to sleep. We are partying like (bookish) rockstars with him getting (breast)milk drunk and me listening to audiobooks or balancing physical books on the boppy pillow. And since his days and nights are switched right now, he is wide awake in the wee hours, so I have been reading some of his books to him, which is the sweetest thing to see him fixing his gaze on the pages. Oh, Baby E, the literary adventures that are on the horizon for you are limitless!

The Same Stuff As Stars by Katherine Paterson 
I bought this book for under a dollar last year and it was part of my Unread Bookshelf Project (to read books I own). I've enjoyed other Paterson books (Bridge to Terabithia, Jacob Have I Loved, and The Great Gilly Hopkins). I deeply respect that Paterson tackles tough issues and complex characters in her middle-grade novels. She does not shy away from the reality that a lot of middle-graders experience at school and home, including the foster care system, death, incarceration, sibling rivalry, and marital problems. This novel is focused on Angel, an eleven-year old girl who has a father in jail and a mom who has repeatedly neglected her, leaving Angel to fend for herself and to care for her seven-year old brother. When they are dropped off at Angel's curmudgeonly great grandmother's home in a rural town in the middle of nowhere, it seemed liked everything in Angel's world was falling apart. But then she meets a mysterious man who teaches her about the stars in the sky, giving her eyes to see far beyond her own problems. She also befriends the town librarian, who opens a world to her through books about astronomy, further deepening her newfound interest. Chaos ensues in the family drama and Angel grows in the process in a believable and beautifully scripted prose.

Rating: PG (two cuss words)
(This book is part of my Unread Bookshelf Project, where I am challenging myself to read 36 books I already own in 2019)

The Crossover by Kwame Alexander (audiobook) 
Anne Bogel of What Should I Read Next podcast has mentioned this middle-grade spoken word/slam poetry novel several times so it has been on my To-Be-Read list for at least a year. I enjoyed listening to the audiobook and the poetic structure of the book did not seem awkward or clunky at all.  It flowed well as it told the story of twelve-year old Josh Bell in a well-crafted, creative, and brilliantly fresh style. Josh's life revolves around basketball, which is no surprise since he and his twin brother  Jordan are the star players on their team and their dad was a professional basketball player in Europe back in his day. The smooth verses tell the story of a boy who is growing up and watching his best friend/twin brother  drift farther away from him when he starts dating a girl. Meanwhile, his mom, who also happens to be the principal of his school, is anxiously changing their meals because she wants to decrease her husband's chance of following into the footsteps of generations of cardiac illness, and Josh's dad has odd symptoms that he keeps dismissing. This book was so unique in its delivery as well as in the wide variety of emotions Josh experiences throughout the book, from the highest of highs on the basketball court, to the lowest of lows in devastating events. This would be a great pick for middle-grade boys who think they don't like reading, especially if they like sports!

Rating: G
Reminded me of: Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson (also spoken word novel that is very well done)

Claude & Camille: A Novel of Monet by Stephanie Cowell 
I found this for $1 at a book sale last year and bought it solely because I love Monet's artwork and the book cover is beautiful. I wasn't sure if I'd like the dramatized version of Claude and his beloved Camille since I tend to avoid fictionalized accounts of real people. But it was a captivating read overall. I especially liked learning about Claude's early years as a struggling artist as well as his abiding friendships with other Impressionists including Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro, Edouard Manet, and Frederic Bazille.  Monet was really not appreciated for his unconventional painting style until very late in his life when he was painting his famous water lilies, so this whole book was a bit depressing from that standpoint because you know the ending (worldwide fame) yet are stuck in the early stage of his career when he hardly has two pennies (or francs?) to rub together. His love story with Camille is passionate and enduring, though they go through a rollercoaster of circumstances due to his laser focus on his artwork (often leaving her lonely), their shifting moods, their crippling financial situation, and the threat of others stealing their loyalty from one another. The author notes that she tried to keep a lot of details factual but definitely added literary freedom in creating some drama to spice things up. If you love Monet and want to read about what his love story could have been like, then this may be a book for you.

Rating: PG-13 (a lot of sensual scenes, French cuss word is repeated a lot)
(This book is part of my Unread Bookshelf Project, where I am challenging myself to read 36 books I already own in 2019)

Surprised by Motherhood: Everything I Never Expected About Being a Mom by Lisa-Jo Baker 
Lisa-Jo had some childhood scars (including the heartbreaking death of her mom when Lisa-Jo was eighteen) that led to her declaring to her husband in their dating stage that she would never want to have kids. Fast-forward a decade later and she has three. This memoir looks at how she got from Point A to Point B. Her lyrical writing reminds me of Ann Voskamp and flows beautifully both on print and on the audiobook (I used both to read the book). She is honest about her struggles being a mom, including both hilarious stories as well as gut-wrenchingly vulnerable ones. This is not a "how to" manual in the least; it is a woman's somewhat reluctant but ultimately satisfying journey through the first years of motherhood. She highlights lessons God taught her along the way, the importance of having other women rooting you on, and becoming okay with the not-so-perfect moments of motherhood that can be truly sanctifying though excruciatingly difficult in the process. She is witty, funny, thought-provoking, and honest. I enjoyed it, especially since a lot of her stories revolved around childbirth and her babies being itty-bitty, which is the season I am in right now.

Rating: G
(This book is part of my Unread Bookshelf Project, where I am challenging myself to read 36 books I already own in 2019)

Waiting for Tom Hanks by Kerry Winfrey (audiobook) 
Rom-com obsessed girl is waiting for her Tom Hanks; her ideal man that will sweep her off her feet just like in her favorite chick flicks. She gets hired on set of new rom-com and butts heads with the handsome leading actor she thinks is a jerk. But maybe first impressions are deceiving? I heard this was a fun contemporary novel that read like a rom-com, which I would definitely agree with. But I typically am not a fan of most rom-coms, and this was no exception. I didn’t find the protagonist very likable; she was a bit annoying. The love story was predictable and pretty unrealistic, but so are most rom-coms, so am I being too harsh? The one redeeming quality is the references to the classic rom-coms like You’ve Got Mail and Sleepless in Seattle (hence the Tom Hanks reference in the title). 

Rating: PG-13 (lots of crude language and sexual references and cuss words)

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell (audiobook and physical copy)
I absolutely adore the BBC adaptation of this classic by Gaskell, who I would put right up there with Austen, Brontë sisters, and Dickens. It has a teensy bit of a P&P feel to it: a headstrong, slightly prideful young woman named Margaret Hale moves from an idyllic countryside village to the rough-and-tumble industrialized town of Milton where she meets the dashing but slightly brooding Mr. Thornton, who owns one of the major mills in the city. They butt heads on every topic and she finds him aggravating, but when life circumstances take a deep, sorrowful plunge, they are drawn together. This is true romance; not the cheesy rom-com fling but a slow, believable, and beautifully scripted love story. The  setting and context  includes the social extremes of factory workers and their employers as disgruntled men fight for better work conditions, the religious references to Margaret’s father leaving the Church and how shocking that was in that time period, and vast difference between life in England’s north (industrialized) and south (pastoral) regions. It tackles these topics without being heavy-handed but instead, adding depth to the story that I enjoyed. It read very easily for being written in 1854 and had a great pace with a moving plot combined with excellent character development.

Rating: G
(This book is part of my Unread Bookshelf Project, where I am challenging myself to read 36 books I already own in 2019)

A Thousand Days in Tuscany: A Bittersweet Adventure by Marlena de Blasi 
An American chef and her Venetian husband leave the comfort of a stable job in Venice to rent out a home in a quaint village in Tuscany that used to be a stable. They befriend a sage-like elderly man named Barlazzo, who can sometimes be cantankerous, but it’s worth it because of the rich knowledge he possesses if the region’s history. Together with him, they embark on adventures, most of them culinary, and live the simple, rural life of Tuscany, immersing themselves it all its delights. This memoir is slow-moving at times as she reflects on such topics as love, career path changes, and the magic of a shared meal, but also picks up the pace, such as  when they’re exploring nearby woodlands to hunt for mushrooms. Her writing is eloquent and fresh without being too flowery. I greatly enjoy travel memoirs and this is one I’m glad I picked up!

I recommend if you like: A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle
(This book is part of my Unread Bookshelf Project, where I am challenging myself to read 36 books I already own in 2019)
Rating: PG

The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog: And Other Stories from A Child Psychiatrist's Notebook by Bruce D. Perry (audiobook)
An absolutely fascinating book written by a pediatric psychiatrist who has worked with children who have experienced heartbreaking trauma, abuse, and neglect. His insight on what children need to thrive emotionally, socially, mentally, and physically was intriguing and surprisingly simple: kids need our time and love at every stage of life. This can not be substituted by TV or material goods but through guardians who are devoted to showing the child they are wanted, safe, treasured, and encouraged to learn and grow.  He highlights many past patients who were denied these universal rights, many of whom were affected in infancy, and the devastating results. He also mentions the specific treatment used for them. This is a great book for anyone who works with children, especially high risk populations.

Rating: PG (situations with different types of abuse)

Freckles by Gene Stratton-Porter (audiobook)
A sweet coming-of-age story reminiscent of Anne of Green Gables, except with an older boy orphan named Freckles. He is employed as a protector of trees in the lush Limberlost forest and soon finds himself tested in many ways, proving his excellent and loyal character. He befriends a beautiful girl and they adventure through the forest together, immersing themselves in learning about the mysteries of the natural world as well as the human heart. It's harder for me to get lost in a book written from a male's perspective, so that could explain why I didn't absolutely love it, but I still enjoyed the story overall.  To be honest, I only read this novel because I want to eventually read the second book in the series, A Girl of the Limberlost, and wasn't sure if I'd need to know what happens in this first novel. I remember watching a movie adaptation of that novel when I was young but cannot remember very many details, so I am looking forward to reading it soon.

Rating: G

The Secret to Hummingbird Cake by Celeste Fletcher McHale (audiobook)
Three Louisiana thirty-year old women have been friends since childhood. The story starts with one of them in the middle of a moral indiscretion and convinced her marriage is crumbling. Soon, another of the friends is battling life-altering circumstances that rock each of the women to the core. This story is a testament to the power of friendship, forgiveness, and finger-licking deliciousness of hummingbird cake. I love how strong their friendship is, that they could be honest and blunt with each other when they were doing something unwise as well as their dedication to one another for several decades. And the Southern references were fun! 

Rating: PG (a few cuss words and references to sex. No steamy scenes).

Secrets of the Baby Whisperer: How to Calm, Connect, and Communicate With Your Baby by Tracy Hogg (abridged audiobook) 
Tracy's gentle voice and techniques are soothing for both baby and parents. She is affirming, encouraging, and appreciates the individuality of every baby and family unit in her suggestions and training, rather than guilt-tripping the reader to follow some kind of rigid plan or technique. She hovers somewhere in a healthy balanced middle ground between child-centered parenting and rigid schedule-based parenting, similar to Babywise (which is why these two methods sometimes go hand-in-hand in some households). In this abridged version, she highlights some of her most commonly used methods for calming babies and listening to their needs. She is really big on listening to your baby rather than assuming you know what she or wants as well as treating them with respect by explaining what you are doing to them so they are not surprised or scared. I don't know how much Baby E comprehends if I am explaining that I am changing his diaper (or doing some other task he cries through) but it is still a good reminder to be speaking to him since I would want things explained to me if I was new to this world and had no clue whatsoever what was happening to me. I especially liked her S.L.O.W acronym for deciphering a baby's cry (Stop to observe what's going on, Listen to the type of cry, Observe body language and context of what was happening prior to fussiness, and put it all together to figure out What's Up). Her E.A.S.Y. acronym (Eat, Activity, Sleep, You) is eerily similar to the Babywise Eat-Wake-Sleep pattern, but I did appreciate that she also focuses on parents taking care of their own needs (Babywise also does a great job of mentioning this in the first chapter). When discussing each part of EASY, she mentions topics like breast vs formula and how both can be healthy choices, choosing activities for baby that are not overstimulating for their growing brain, helping a baby self-soothe to sleep rather than using props, and bathing baby. This was not a groundbreaking book but it still had great ideas to add onto things we learned from our favorite baby book, Babywise. I was particularly challenged by her quote to "start as you mean to go on", which is to say for us that if we start off with lots of sleep props that can inhibit self-soothing, it can make things harder down the road, so starting Baby E's first days with the goal of learning to self-soothe will help in the long run. Easier said than done, but great advice nonetheless. 

Rating: G

In This Mountain by Jan Karon (audiobook) 
Jan Karon’s Mitford series are my comfort books I love to return to when I’m wanting an author I can trust to deliver a great story with encouraging and thought-provoking dialogue, clean humor, and no unsavory or cringeworthy material. Father Tim is several years into retirement but is still nearly as busy as when he was the Episcopalian priest of Lord’s Chapel, especially now that he and his wife Cynthia are gearing up to travel to an Appalachian small town for a year-long ministry opportunity . But when his health takes a deep dive with heartbreaking consequences, everything halts to a stop. As in prior Mitford novels, there a myriad of other subplots occurring, involving Father Tim’s adoptive son, Dooley, as well as other residents of the idyllic mountain town of Mitford. Most of the novels are told solely from Father Tim’s perspective but this one jumped around between Father Tim and different minor characters. I did not find this disruptive or confusing to the flow. I really enjoyed this novel and particularly appreciated the portrayal of a character with depression and how it affects every aspect of a life as well as the power of gratitude as one tool against it. Jan Karon is never one to shy away from hard topics but she approaches them in a way that includes hope for redemption, which is one of the things I love most about this series.

Rating: G