Monday, January 11, 2021

Favorite Movies Watched in 2020


Notice my title photo for my 2020 movie wrap-up features a television screen instead of a theater screen? Yeah, it was that kind of a year. We watched exactly one movie in a theater before everything shut down, so the rest of our movies were watched on the small screen, at home, and only a few were new releases.

Nonetheless, it was still a good year for movies at our house! 

We watched only 13 movies last year, down from 16 in 2019 and 22 in 2018, as the TV options continue to expand and improve with so many streaming options in addition to cable. Actually, I see from my notes that we watched 19 movies in 2020, but I only reviewed 13 of them. That's a shame because some of those not reviewed, like The Goldfinch and The Town were quite good. You can see the full list of 2020 movie reviews and genres below, with my favorites marked with *, but I only review movies that I like, so all of the movies listed below are worth watching. I didn't see any documentaries (second year in a row!) or musical drama (I did watch but didn't review Hamilton). It was tough to categorize many of the movies, as more and more, movies are blurring the genre lines: funny mysteries, dramas with plenty of humor, action/comedy/romance, etc.

You can see my full list of movie reviews, covering several years at the Movie Reviews tab.

And now, for my top picks (full reviews at the links):

Best Action/Suspense/Thriller

I See You

Unique and super-twisty

(it's a weird movie poster so don't judge it by that)


 

Best Drama

 The Rainmaker

Great courtroom drama with all-star cast based on Grisham novel


Best Comedy & Best Movie of the Year

 Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Warm, funny, action-packed adventure set in New Zealand



Best Sci Fi

The Vast of the Night

Teens in 50's-era town investigate strange noise


Best Family Movie

The Call of the Wild

Disney remake of classic adventure novel about a man and dog


 

All Movies Reviewed in 2020:
My favorites are marked with *, but I only review movies I enjoy, so all of these are worth a try: 


Action/Suspense/Thriller

* I See You

The Lovebirds

Rebecca 

* Serenity

* Transsiberian

* We Own the Night

 

Drama

* The Rainmaker

 

Comedy

* Enola Holmes

* Happiest Season

Holidate

* Hunt for the Wilderpeople

 

Sci Fi

* The Vast of the Night

 

Family & Animated 

The Call of the Wild


It's Monday 1/11! What Are You Reading?


Happy Monday! I started my day today with phone calls to find out where my supplement shipment, sent 12/22, is (lost in the USPS mess) and to our health insurance to find out why they rejected my annual OB/GYN check-up that they've covered for the past 33 years. I still need to call our dental insurance about rejecting our son's preventative visit ... after I called before the visit--twice--to confirm he was still covered. Fun times!

Last week was defined by highs and lows, as has been typical for me lately. I did manage to finish my look back at 2020 and my 2021 planning, with some new approaches in place that I am excited about. I always enjoy the start of a new year, with its fresh start feel. And our son came over Saturday to help us take down the tree and all the other Christmas decorations. It's nice that it's all done and everything is cleaned up, but it makes me kind of sad to put it all away. Our two wreaths are still up, indoors and out. As you can see, our tree was very dry and left a LOT of needles for my husband to clean up!

 

On the downside, the mysterious worsening of my chronic illness that began last March is still continuing, and I had four days last week when I was couchbound and too sick to do what I'd planned. I'm trying to have a good attitude about what I call Plan B Days, but sometimes (like yesterday), it gets to me and I indulge in a brief pity party before settling into a quiet day of caring for myself. I am continuing to try to get to the bottom of this downturn, but it's difficult.

On a brighter note, I made lots of progress here on the blog last week and am enjoying wrapping up 2020 and looking forward to 2021! I joined my 2021 reading challenges this weekend and will be writing my Best Of posts this week for books, TV shows, and movies. See links below for last week's posts.

And, of course, we have our books to comfort us always! Here's what we've all been reading this past week:

I finished The River by Peter Heller, a Booktopia author I like (I enjoyed Celine) and a book that my husband and many friends had enjoyed. It's the story of two young men, college students and best friends, who have taken time off to paddle the lakes and rivers of Canada on a float trip leading to Hudson Bay. They are in a remote and isolated area, paddling and camping, and have rarely seen any other people on their trip. One day, after hiking to the top of a hill, they see a huge forest fire in the near distance and soon they can smell the smoke and char in the air as it advances. They need to make the rest of their trip as fast as possible in order to outrun the fire, but they soon encounter other obstacles. In the fog one night, they hear a man and woman arguing on shore, and the next day, they encounter the man, alone. What happened to his wife? This is a gripping, super-suspenseful novel with the young men battling both natural and man-made horrors as they race against time. It was excellent and compelling.

Next, in that New Year frame of mind, I chose a nonfiction self-help book, Make Time: How to Focus on What Matters Every Day by Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky. I heard about this book (a 2018 release) from my friend, Chris Wolak, on one of my favorite book podcasts, Book Cougars, that she hosts with Emily Fine. I felt like I needed some new inspiration this year, as last year a lot of important things just didn't get done in my life. These two former Google employees share what they've learned about focusing on priorities to get the most important things done, which is just what I need right now! I am already using one of their tips: to set a focus or Highlight for each day. You may do lots of things in a day, but this concept means setting a priority for one thing that will be your primary focus for that day (mine today was making those phone calls I would normally procrastinate on). It's written in a fun, casual style, and I'm enjoying it so far ... and getting inspired. Thanks, Chris!

If I were to read a book about getting things done before bedtime, I would never get any sleep, so at night, I have been making my way through a book of short stories, Not the End of the World by Kate Atkinson (which I see is on sale for just $1.99 on Kindle right now). I started this collection in April last year! As you can see, dipping in and out of a collection just doesn't work well for me. Instead, this week I have been reading one short story each night, and I am enjoying them more this way. I'm also noticing subtle links between some of the stories now that I am reading them together. All of the stories are set in the real world but often with a slight fantastical twist, though some are entirely real-world. Sometimes, the twist comes unexpectedly at the end and sometimes, you know all along something bizarre is going on, like in the story Evil Doppelganger. Atkinson is a wonderful storyteller (her novel Life After Life is one of my all-time favorites), and she has a great sense of humor, so I'm enjoying her imaginative short stories.

On audio, I started the new year with a middle-grade novel I have been wanting to read, A Home for Goddesses and Dogs by Leslie Connor. I loved her novel Waiting for Normal so much that I almost drove off the road laughing and sobbing and reaching for the box of Kleenex while listening to it! In this novel, thirteen-year-old Lydia has just lost her mother to a heart condition. She moves to Connecticut to live with her mother's sister, her Aunt Brat, and her wife, Eileen. The two women also have a dog and soon add another. There is a lot for Lydia to adjust to: a new home in a new, rural town in a new state, new school, new friends, and of course, the loss of her mother with whom she was very close. As always, Connor writes beautifully about loss and love and ordinary life. I'm enjoying it very much so far.

My husband, Ken, is still reading one of his many bookish Christmas gifts, Body Broker by Daniel M. Ford, book one in the Jack Dixon series.When I called my local indie bookstore to order books for my family for Christmas, the bookseller who answered the phone happened to be the one who runs their Mystery Lovers' Book Club. She and I always enjoy trading book recommendations, and I had a typically fun conversation with her. She told me the book club had just read this one and based on what my husband likes, she thought he'd enjoy it. This is the great thing about indie bookstores! In this series, Jack Dixon is a high school dropout, ex-cop, and ex-cook who lives in a houseboat and works as a PI. In this first book, he investigates the disappearance of a teen from a local elite boarding school. My husband was surprised to find that much of the action takes place right here in northern Delaware where we live, so he's enjoying all the local references as well as the fast-paced plot.


Last I heard, our son, 26, was still reading Age of Swords, book two of The Legends of the First Empire series by Michael J. Sullivan, one of his favorite series. We gave him this one for his birthday this summer. He loves this author, and is enjoying this series very much. He also loves The Riyyria Chronicles series by that same author. A fellow book blogger, Beth Fish Reads, told me about these series and this author originally, so thanks to her. He says he hasn't made much progress because he's been busy with his girlfriend. He got a nice stack of new fantasy novels for Christmas, so those should keep him busy for a while.

 

Blog posts from last week:

December Book Reviews - mini reviews of the 7 books I read last month--all very good!

My Summary of Books Read in December - see what I read and how I did on my challenges

2020 Reading Challenges Wrap-Up - check out my final summary on 2020 challenges

2021 Reading Challenges - All signed up! See which  challenges I chose for this year

What Are You Reading Monday is hosted by Kathryn at Book Date, so head over and check out her blog and join the Monday fun! You can also participate in a kid/teen/YA version hosted by Unleashing Readers.

You can follow me on Twitter at @SueBookByBook or on Facebook on my blog's page.   

What are you and your family reading this week?



Saturday, January 09, 2021

2021 Reading Challenges

It's that time of year again! I always enjoy participating in reading challenges. For 2021, I've mostly decided to again sign up for the same challenges I did in 2020 because they really fit my reading goals: to read from my own shelves, to squeeze some nonfiction into my mostly-fiction reading life, to track where my books take me, to read a few classics, and to have fun! But I couldn't resist just adding one more to the list.

My 2021 Reading Challenges:

Mount TBR Reading Challenge 2021 hosted by My Reader's Block

I am once again setting my goal at Mt. Ararat, at 48 books from my TBR shelves (which I just barely missed last year with 44). Note that the challenge allows e-books and audios to count, but my main goal is to get through some of the physical books I own (my TBR bookcase now has double rows), so I only count physical books. This challenge has monthly review link-ups.


2021 Monthly Motif Reading Challenge hosted by Girlxoxo.

I enjoy this challenge every year! I only missed one monthly motif last year, so I will try to hit them all in 2021! This also has monthly review link-ups.

JANUARY-  Once Upon A Time. Read a book from the Fantasy, Fairytale, Mythology, or Folklore Sub Genres.

FEBRUARY- Laughter and Love. Read a relationship story, romance, comedy, or feel good contemporary.

MARCH- Countries and Cultures. Read a book set in a country, or about a culture, that’s different than your own and that you’d like to learn more about.

APRIL- Books on the Menu. Read a book that features food, restaurants, cafes, cooking, or baking, on the cover or in the story. 

MAY- Magnificent Middle Grade. Read a Middle Grade book – a book that is marketed toward ages 8-14.

 JUNE- The Great Outdoors. Read a book featuring a garden, nature, country, or harvest setting or plot.

JULY- Short But Fabulous. Read a novella, comic, graphic novel, manga, or short book of poetry. 

AUGUST- Bag of Tricks. Read a book featuring any kind of magic, illusion, super powers, or enchantments.

SEPTEMBER- Back to School. Read a book with a school setting, featuring a student or educator OR read a book to educate yourself on a topic you’re interested in learning more about.

OCTOBER- Lurking in the Shadows. Read a book that has a gray, black, and/or white cover OR a book that shows a shadow on the cover. 

NOVEMBER- In the Library with the Candlestick. Read a mystery- cozy, detective, spies, true crime, whodunnit, or the like.

DECEMBER- That’s History. Read a historical fiction book or a book about a true historical event.

 


Back to the Classics Challenge 2021 hosted by Books and Chocolate.

Another challenge I return to each year. I usually set my goal at 6 classics (in 6 categories), and that works well for me - I did it last year! Here are the categories for 2021:


1. A 19th century classic: any book first published from 1800 to 1899

2. A 20th century classic: any book first published from 1900 to 1971. All books must have been published at least 50 years ago; the only exceptions are books which were written by 1971 and posthumously published.

3. A classic by a woman author.

4. A classic in translation, meaning any book first published in a language that is not your primary language. You may read it in translation or in its original language, if you prefer. 

5. A classic by BIPOC author; that is, a non-white author.

6. A classic by a new-to-you author, i.e., an author whose work you have never read.

7. New-to-you classic by a favorite author -- a new book by an author whose works you have already read. 

8. A classic about an animal, or with an animal in the title. The animal can be real or metaphorical. (i.e., To Kill a Mockingbird).

9. A children's classic. 

10. A humorous or satirical classic.

11. A travel or adventure classic (fiction or non-fiction). It can be a travelogue or a classic in which the main character travels or has an adventure. 

12. A classic play. Plays will only count in this category.

 


2021 AtoZ Reading Challenge hosted by Bookstacks and Golden Moms

This is a new challenge for me, but it's described as a laid-back challenge, so that sounds right up my alley! You just track the books you read, trying to cover all letters of the alphabet (first letter of the title, not counting articles). There are also monthly mini challenges, which convinced me to to add this one.

A –
B –
C –
D –
E –
F –
G –
H –
I –
J –
K –
L –
M –
N –
O –
P –
Q –
R –
S –
T –
U –
V –
W –
X –
Y –
Z –

Mini Challenges:

JANUARY – A book you purchased in 2020 but didn’t read
FEBRUARY – A book with non-romantic love (siblings, parent-child, friendships)
MARCH – A book written by a person of a different race than you
APRIL – A book with an Autistic main character (April is Autism Awareness)
MAY – A book about a nurse (Nat. Nurses Week 2021 is May 6-12)
JUNE – A co-written book (2 authors)
JULY – A Christmas book (Christmas in July!)
AUGUST – A book by an Indie author (self-published or independent)
SEPTEMBER – A memoir/biography
OCTOBER – A book written by a new-to-you author
NOVEMBER – A book outside your normal genre
DECEMBER – A backlist title (published BEFORE Jan 1, 2021)

 


I was looking for a pure fun reading challenge last year and saw this one at Helen's Book Blog, and it sounded like just what I was looking for! There are no sign-ups or link-ups, just a printable checklist of a wide range of 50 different categories and lots of ways to connect via social media. So, I'm in!

Rather than retyping all 50 categories here, I will just list the ones I check off each month.

 


2021 Nonfiction Reader Challenge hosted by Book'd Out.

I always sign up for a nonfiction challenge, and I enjoyed this one last year! I read 15 nonfiction books in 2020, so I will sign up for the Nonfiction Know-It-all category and shoot for reading at least 12.

As an extra challenge, there are different categories:

1. Biography

2. Travel

3. Self-help

4. Essay Collection

5. Disease

6. Oceanography

7. Hobbies

8. Indigenous Cultures

9. Food

10. Wartime Experiences 

11. Inventions

12. Published in 2021



Diversity Reading Challenge 2021 hosted by Celebrity Readers.

This is also a familiar challenge for me that I enjoyed last year. Since I read 38 diverse books last year, I will shoot for 40 this year! 

 

This challenge includes optional monthly themes. Last year, I hit the monthly themes 6 months (out of 12), so I will sign up for Da Bomb Level for the Mini Challenges (reading on-top 5-8 months):

JANUARY – diverse folktales/culture/mythology; or diverse retelling; or non-western setting
FEBRUARYpoc: Black/African American
MARCH#ownvoices; or gender: female authors in male-dominated genres/non-fiction
APRIL – poc: Middle Eastern/South Asian
MAYpoc: East Asian/Southeast Asian/Pacific Islander
JUNELGBT+ pride summer: sexuality and gender identity
JULY – LGBT+ pride summer: sexuality and gender identity
AUGUSTmental health/addiction
SEPTEMBERpoc: hispanic/latinx
OCTOBERphysical/sensory/cognitive/intellectual/developmental disabilities
NOVEMBERpoc: Native American
DECEMBERreligious minorities

 


Travel the World in Books Reading Challenge hosted by Mom's Small Victories 

I signed up for this one back in 2014, so this is a continuation (it's a perpetual challenge) - I can't wait to see what places I visit in books in 2021! In 2020, my books took me to 33 places outside the U.S., covering 18 different countries.



2021 Literary Escapes Challenge hosted by Escape with Dollycas Into a Good Book.

I love tracking where I read domestically, as well. In 2020, I read books set in 24 different states. I'm looking forward to reading in even more states this year!

Alabama

Alaska

Arizona

Arkansas

California

Colorado

Connecticut

Delaware

District of Columbia

Florida

Georgia

Hawaii

Idaho

Illinois

Indiana

Iowa

Kansas

Kentucky

Louisiana

Maine

Maryland

Massachusetts

Michigan

Minnesota

Mississippi

Missouri

Montana

Nebraska

Nevada

New Hampshire

New Jersey

New Mexico

New York

North Carolina

North Dakota

Ohio

Oklahoma

Oregon

Pennsylvania

Rhode Island

South Carolina

South Dakota

Tennessee

Texas

Utah

Vermont

Virginia

Washington

West Virginia

Wisconsin

Wyoming

 

 

 

Bookish Bingo hosted by Chapter Break - not really a challenge per se, but a fun game that I play most months! Stop by to print out this month's Bingo card and play along!

 


Big Book Summer Challenge hosted by Book By Book (me!)

My own annual challenge that I host each summer, beginning Memorial Day weekend (end of May) and running until Labor Day (first Monday of September). Hope you'll join me for the laid-back fun this summer!

 

Friday, January 08, 2021

2020 Reading Challenges Wrap-Up


I participated in some great reading challenges last year, had a lot of fun, and read some outstanding books! You can see my final stats, including lists of the books I read for each challenge on the 2020 Challenges page.

Here is a summary of each reading challenge I signed up for in 2020 and how I did:

Mount TBR Reading Challenge 2020 hosted by My Reader's Block

My goal was Mt. Ararat, at 48 books from my TBR shelves. I almost made it! I read a total of 44 books from my own shelves last year (one less than in 2019). Forty-four sounds like a lot, yet somehow our TBR bookcase still has double rows! I will definitely join a TBR challenge again this year.

 

2020 Monthly Motif Reading Challenge hosted by Girlxoxo.

This is another challenge that I join every year, just for fun! There is a monthly theme, and you try to read a book that fits into the theme. I met that goal 11 out of 12 months last year, only missing August, Creature Features, because I spent most of that month reading David Copperfield by Charles Dickens! You can see all of the monthly themes and the books I read for them on my 2020 Challenge Page

 

Back to the Classics hosted by Books and Chocolate.

This is another reading challenge I join every year, to encourage myself to read some classics and not just the latest, shiny new books! Every year, I set my goal at six classics, and I usually come up short, but I did it in 2020!! I read six classics in six different categories (you can see the categories on the Challenge Page). The classics I read in 2020 were:

  1. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
  2. The Call of the Wild by Jack London
  3. Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut (a longtime goal of mine to read Vonnegut)
  4. The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. DuBois
  5. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
  6. David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
 

2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge hosted by POPSUGAR.

This is a quirky reading challenge, with a list of 50 different categories, ranging from A Book with a Pun in the Title to A Book by an Author with Flora or Fauna in Their Name (just got in Michael J. Fox at the end of the year!) to A Book with an Upside-Down Image on the Cover (that's one I missed). In all, I checked off 39 categories, leaving only 11. Check out the full list of fun categories I hit on the Challenge Page.

 

2020 Nonfiction Reader Challenge hosted by Book'd Out.

I usually sign up for a nonfiction challenge each year, but this was a different one for me, and I enjoyed it. It included categories of different kinds of nonfiction books. My goal was to read 12 nonfiction books, and I read 15 in all! I hit 8 of the 12 categories, plus some category repeats, like History and Memoir. See all of my nonfiction reads and the categories on the Challenge Page. 

 

2020 Diversity Reading Challenge hosted by Celebrity Readers.

My goal was to read 40 diverse books in 2020. I almost managed that, with 38 in total, but that was one more than in 2019! There were optional monthly categories that I  hit six of the twelve months. See my full list of diverse books and the categories on the Challenge Page.

 

Travel the World in Books Reading Challenge hosted by Mom's Small Victories 

This is a continuing (rather than annual) challenge that I signed up for back in 2014. I love to travel to new and interesting places through my reading! In 2020, I read 33 books books set outside the United States, covering 18 different countries (lots of books set in UK and Ireland last year). This surpasses 2019, when I read 23 books set in 18 different countries. You can see my full list of 33 books and where they were set on the Challenge Page. I can't wait to see where my reading takes me in 2021!

 

2020 Literary Escapes Challenge hosted by Escape with Dollycas Into a Good Book.

I love tracking where I read domestically, as well. In 2020, I traveled to 24 states in my books! That's a few less than in 2019 (28). So many books are set in New York!

 

Big Book Summer Challenge hosted by Book By Book (me!)

My own annual challenge to read books of 400 or more pages attracted a record number of participants last summer (I think we were all looking for distraction and a bit of fun!). I read 10 Big Books (including both print and audio) from end of May to beginning of September, same as in 2019. I hope you'll join the Big Book Summer fun in 2021 (you only need to read one Big Book all summer to participate).

  1. Faithful Place by Tana French
  2. A Beginning at the End by Mike Chen
  3. Truly Madly Guilty by Liane Moriarty  
  4. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
  5. The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins
  6. Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King
  7. Doomsday Book by Connie Willis 
  8. American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins
  9. David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
  10. A Girl Like That by Tanaz Bhathena

 

Readers Imbibing Peril RIP XV Challenge

This seasonal challenge is all about reading darker books in the fall! I love to read with the seasons, and I read a total of 16 suspenseful, creepy, dark, gripping books in September and October (vs. 18 in 2019).

  1. The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson
  2. Feed by M.T. Anderson
  3. The Dry by Jane Harper  
  4. The Door by Andy Marino
  5. Sycamore by Bryn Chancellor  
  6. The Lock Artist by Steve Hamilton
  7. The Witch Elm by Tana French
  8. All Your Twisted Secrets by Diana Urban
  9. The Sense of Death by Matty Dalrymple
  10. August Snow by Stephen Mack Jones
  11. Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam
  12. Trespassers by Breena Bard
  13. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
  14. One Year at Ellsmere by Faith Erin Hicks 
  15. Follow Me by K.R. Alexander 
  16. Back to Blackbrick by Sarah Moore Fitzgerald

 

Did you join any reading challenges in 2020? Which one(s) did you enjoy the most?

 

Wednesday, January 06, 2021

Books Read in December

Happy Holiday Month

I enjoyed some outstanding reading in December. Here are the books that I finished last month:

  • Educated by Tara Westover (ID) - adult nonfiction memoir
  • Plainsong by Kent Haruf (CO) - adult fiction 





(Any of the links above will take you to a post with short mini-reviews of all of my December books.) 

I read seven books in all, six of them in print and just one on audio (it was a long one!). Six of the books were adult, with just one middle-grade graphic novel. And all but one of my books was fiction, with one memoir added to the mix. My favorite book read in December was Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano, which was outstanding--moving, powerful, warm, and hopeful--but every one of the books I read in December was excellent in its own way.

Progress in 2020 Reading Challenges:
You can see all of the reading challenges I am participating in and full lists of the books read for each at the challenges link above. I have some fun ones going this year!


Mount TBR Reading Challenge 2020 - I read four more books from my own shelves last month. So why are our shelves still so full?
2020 Monthly Motif Reading Challenge - December was Sugar Spice & Everything Nice, so I chose Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano, which is definitely not a light read, but it is hopeful, uplifting, and a "hug it to your chest" book.
Back to the Classics 2020 - No classics in December.
PopSugar Reading Challenge - this is a unique one. Most of my categories are filled now, so I wasn't able to check off any of the few remaining ones.
2020 Nonfiction Reader's Challenge - Just one of my books in December was nonfiction,
Educated by Tara Westover.
2020 Diversity Reading Challenge - Just two of my books in December were diverse, but one of them fit into the monthly category of religious minorites, Educated by Tara Westover.
Travel the World in Books Reading Challenge - I traveled to France for the first time in the year, and back to the UK.
2020 Literary Escapes Challenge - I added four new states, Utah, Colorado, Idaho, and New Jersey, which is tough to do at this time of year.
2020 Big Book Summer Challenge - Ended in September, with a grand total of ten for me this year.

RIP XV -  Finished, with a total of 16 books read this fall.

And finally, Bookish Bingo hosted by Chapter Break - not really a challenge per se, but a fun game that I play each month! Stop by to print out this month's Bingo card and play along. In November, I filled 18 spaces on my bingo card:

 


Spaces Filled:

Educated - goals, new skills, red on cover

Plainsong - shelf love, not a new release, not set in current times, marriage, set in winter, presents

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue - prophecy, audio book

Displacement - not in a series, free book

Dear Edward - flying/flight, library book, book club read

Finders Keepers - read a physical book, in a series

The Midnight Library - magic, sci fi

Free Space


What was your favorite book read in December?

Tuesday, January 05, 2021

December Book Reviews


As I explained in my Monday post this week, I decided to write a single blog post with brief reviews for all of the books I read in December. This will help me catch up so I'm not starting my new year in February! I read some excellent books in December, so here we go:

Educated by Tara Westover was the December choice for one of my book groups, and I alternated between print and audio formats. The author describes her unusual (and often horrifying) childhood growing up isolated in the mountains of Idaho with her survivalist father. She and her six siblings did not attend school, were not homeschooled, and were made to work in their father's scrap business, which was extremely dangerous. They also did not receive any medical care, except from their mother's herbs, even when horrible accidents occurred while scrapping. At seventeen, Tara left to attend college, which was a shocking experience for her. She'd never written an essay, had taught herself algebra and trig, and had never heard of the Holocaust, but she persevered and attended Brigham Young, Harvard, and Cambridge where she eventually earned a PhD. This was a fascinating, engrossing story that was excellent in both forms--perfect for #NonfictionNovember--but it was also a very difficult book to read at times, as Tara and her siblings suffered mental, emotional, and physical abuse from multiple sources. We had plenty to discuss in our book group. Ultimately, though, it is a story of healing and growth, about how education (and therapy) can overcome the effects of abuse and mental illness.

National Book Award finalist Plainsong by Kent Haruf languished on my TBR bookcase for far too long! Last year, I read Haruf's Our Souls at Night (his last novel but the first I read from him) and loved it, so I was eager to read this first novel of his loosely-connected series (four books) that takes place in the small, rural town of Holt, Colorado. Haruf has a unique way of telling a story, with short chapters, straightforward prose, and a mild placidity that matches his characters' simple, honest lives. Tom Guthrie teaches high school history and is raising two young boys on his own, as his wife, who seems seriously depressed, grows more distant both mentally and physically. Raymond and Harold McPheron are isolated, older, bachelor farmers who have always lived together, since they were boys and their parents died. Victoria, a teen girl in Tom's school, is kicked out of her house by her alcoholic mother when she becomes pregnant, so she is taken in by Maggie Jones, another teacher. These are mostly kind people, doing their best against challenges, living intertwined lives in this small town. The novel was completely immersive and very satisfying, and I want to read the rest of the series.

In between the reading cracks of December, I fit in a teen/YA graphic novel, Displacement by Kiku Hughes. This semi-biographical story (based on her grandmother's experiences) focuses on a teen girl named Kiku who is vacationing with her mother in San Francisco, including some stops related to their own family history, when she suddenly finds herself whisked away to another time. Kiku is in 1940's San Francisco, just as Japanese-Americans are being rounded up and sent to internment camps. Surprisingly, she spots her own grandmother among the other teen girls, and the group is sent to two camps, eventually ending up in Utah for years. Stuck in time, Kiku gets a living history lesson as she is forced to make the best of things, getting to know other people, living in primitive conditions, and even attending rudimentary school at the camp. Besides learning about the horrors of history, Kiku also sees how community formed in this strange place and the big and small ways that people resisted racism and maintained dignity. It's a powerful story of history-come-to-life, and I was glad to go along on the journey with Kiku.

Dear Edward by Lisa Napolitano is a novel that has appeared on many Best Books of 2020 lists, which I wholeheartedly agree with! My neighborhood book group discussed it in December (via Zoom, of course). Twelve-year-old Edward Adler is on a plane from New York to California with his parents and his older brother, Jordan. The family is moving to California and leaving NYC behind for the first time in the boys' lives. Then the plane crashes in Colorado, killing all of its crew and passengers, except one: Edward. After recovering enough from multiple, serious injuries to leave the hospital, Edward moves in with his aunt and uncle in New Jersey, but he is a very long way from healed, physically or emotionally. Chapters alternate between what happened on the flight, allowing the reader to get to know many of the characters who died, and Edward's very long and difficult journey to a new normal after the accident. It is a powerful, moving, and riveting story of love, hope, and healing. Not everyone in book group loved it as much as I did (average rating was 7 out of 10), but we had a great discussion. Based on my recommendation, my mother just finished reading it and was texting me enthusiastically about it all day yesterday. She agreed it was the best book she'd read in ages and one of her all-time top reads!

Finders Keepers by Stephen King is the second book in the Mr. Mercedes trilogy. I read Mr. Mercedes this summer and enjoyed it, and my husband and I enjoyed season 1 of the TV show. He's been waiting for me to read book 2 so we can watch season 2! In this one, characters from the first book--Bill Hodges, Holly Gibney, and Jerome Robinson--have now set up a business called Finders Keepers, kind of an unofficial private investigator business. But this novel has a literary theme, as it begins in 1979 with the murder of a famous reclusive author. The murderer, Morris, and his friends take the author's money but also his treasure trove of notebooks filled with writing. He published three novels that were highly acclaimed and are still taught in school English programs, but then he withdrew from the world. So these newly discovered writings are extremely valuable, though mostly, Morris just wants to know what happened to the lead character. Before he can read the notebooks, though, he is locked up for another crime, and the money and notebooks remain hidden for 35 years, until they are found by a teen boy. As with all of King's novels, it was super suspenseful and compelling and kept me up much too late each night reading!

On audio, I listened to just one book in December, but it was a good one! The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab is a new release I couldn't wait to read/listen to! I've read one other book by the author, City of Ghosts by Victoria Schwab, a middle-grade novel that I loved. Plus this new adult novel is being compared to The Time Traveler's Wife and Life After Life, two of my all-time favorite Top 10 books! In 1714, a young woman about to be forced into marriage makes a deal with a dark spirit to live forever in a life where no one ever controls her. The catch is that no one ever remembers her, either; she is immediately forgotten by anyone she meets, from her own parents to shopkeepers to men she falls in love with. The action jumps back and forth between her early years after the dark deal, and the present day in 2014, where she has lived for over 300 years but can never leave an impression on the world or even a single person, until she meets one man who remembers her. As with all novels that play with time (my favorite kind), this book was very thought-provoking. What would you do in Addie's situation? The ending presents her with a gut-wrenching decision. This intriguing novel with a unique plot was completely engrossing.

I received The Midnight Library by Matt Haig as a Christmas gift, along with several other time-twisting novels--my family knows me well! In this novel, a 35-year-old woman named Nora decides her life is a wreck, she's useless to everyone, and she wants to die. But instead, she finds herself in a strange kind of library with infinite books and shelves, managed by her favorite school librarian. Here, the librarian explains, Nora can select a book and see what her life would have been like if she had made different choices. Since Nora has plenty of regrets, she begins requesting books and living different lives, based on the choices she has always wished she'd made differently or wondered about, trying out lives as a rock star, glaciologist, pub owner, mother, and more. This is what I like about novels that play with time, this endlessly thought-provoking stream of "what if's." Despite its depressing beginning, this is ultimately a story about learning what's important in life and that people care about you. I enjoyed accompanying Nora on that path of growth and inspiration.

December was an outstanding reading month for me, and I highly recommend all of these books. And now I can move ahead with wrapping up 2020 and looking forward to 2021!

Have you read any of these books? Did you enjoy them as much as I did?