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?


  1. December had some great books for you. I haven't heard of the graphic novel you read, but it sounds really good.

    1. It was! I always try to focus on acclaimed books I haven't gotten to yet in Dec & Jan, and that sure applied to Dec - these were all great!