Books in Review Q4 2020

This quarter was filled with some really amazing reads that I hope some of you pick up so you can talk to me about them (even though I actually forget 90% of what I read after I finish the book). There’s some fluff in here, too, for good measure.

In order of finishing, not recommendation:

  • Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie*
  • It’s Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons You’re Single by Sara Eckel
  • This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett*
  • Elizabeth Cady Stanton: An American Life by Lori Ginzberg
  • The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz by Erik Larson*
  • The Power of Stillness: Mindful Living for Latter-day Saints by Hess, Skarda, Anderson, Mansfield
  • Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield*
  • Guns, Germs, and Steel: the Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond*
  • The False Prince by Jennifer A. Nielsen
  • The Rules of Civility by Amor Towles*
  • The Runaway King by Jennifer A. Nielsen
  • The Shadow Throne by Jennifer A. Nielsen
  • Nobody will tell you this but me: A true (as told to me) story by Bess Kalb
  • Imagine Wanting Only This by Kristen Radtke
  • A Woman of No Importance: the Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II by Sonia Purnell*
  • The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse by Charlie Mackesy
  • As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride by Cary Elwes and Joe Layden*
  • The Lost Wonderland Diaries by J. Scott Savage
  • When Stars are Scattered by Omar Mohamed and Victoria Jamieson
  • When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead
  • The Twenty-four Days Before Christmas by Madeleine L’Engle
  • The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ


A Book I Needed to Read and Other People Should Read

It’s Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons You’re Single

By: Sara Eckel

A friend gave this to me. Perhaps she did it was because I write a blog every year about why I’m single (although I can’t really be sure, can I?) Despite my overwhelming evidence to the contrary (ie. aforesaid blog), I DON’T BELIEVE THERE IS A PARTICULAR “REASON” I AM SINGLE. People have told me I’m too ambitious and too picky. They’ve said I need to love myself before I can love others. They’ve said I am the constant in things not working out. They’ve said I need to put myself out there more. BUT, I also need to be happy alone.

I’ve also told myself many of these things in the past but this book is a reminder that none of those really have anything to do any of it. (Come on, you know lots of people with issues who don’t love themselves who this and that and yeah, they’re married. And marriage isn’t a badge or reward for figuring things out either.) Single people–let’s stop believing these things and married people, let’s stop saying these things.

Anyway, from the book:

“We’re always in flux…from this perspective, the question ‘How can I live my life fully as a single person but also be open to a long-term partnership’ is absurd. Enjoying things as they are but also working toward change isn’t living a second-class life; it’s living a full life.”

“After all those years of tunneling through the mud, I finally hit that little wink of gold, my basic goodness…I am as good as anyone else. Whether I found a partner or not, basic goodness was there–had always been there.”

Another one and then I’ll review the other 21 books in less depth.

“I think the very act of being single provides enough hard-core strength training to put anyone’s psyche into fighting shape. You get over that guy, and then you get over the next one. You write to five people online and hear from zero. You tell that very nice management consultant, ‘I don’t think this is a match.’… You push through the resistance, maintain your poise through the indignities. And one day find you have a strength you never knew existed. When that happens, very often no one notices–maybe not even you. Some slight or heartbreak occurs….It’s the kind of thing that once crushed you, but tonight it just…doesn’t….I never found a way to make that feeling [of hoping for someone] go away, to douse that slow burn in my chest. Instead, I learned to simply let it be there, a passing shadow that came and went.”


Elizabeth Cady Stanton: An American Life

By: Lori Ginzberg

I have long admired Stanton and thought this biography was an amazing compilation of her life. The author takes the complexities and limitations of Stanton’s time, her opinions, and her personality and gives Stanton the praise she deserves for her work for women’s rights.

“‘This [women’s rights] sounds like a very radical proposition now,’ she predicted more than once, ‘but be sure that some day in the future Americans will ask how these things could ever have been done otherwise.’ For all her flaws and limitations, Stanton prodded an entire nation into envisioning women as full citizens, and with such success that it is indeed difficult to imagine that it was only recently any other way…It is perhaps in her intellectual momentum, her unwillingness to rest satisfied with the pace and nature of change, that we find the lesson and the legacy of Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s life.”

Now you know why my friend and I dressed up for Halloween as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. Those women changed the world.

The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz

By Erik Larson*

Audiobook reader: Great

This is an insanely detailed book outlining the first year or so of Winston Churchill’s service as prime minister–some of the darkest days in London’s history as the city was repeatedly bombed, killing around 45,000 people. This explores this timeframe from the perspective of Churchill’s work as well as how this impacted his family life and those right around him. Fascinating listen.

A Woman of No Importance: the Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II

By: Sonia Purnell*

Audiobook reader: Fantastic

Brilliantly researched. Definitely recommended. Virginia Hall, a seemingly conspicuous woman with a prosthetic leg who was an American posing as a British woman posing as a French woman, established and led vast spy networks throughout France during World War II. She was at one time sought for as the most dangerous of all Allied spies. She was a hero and her tenacity and courage are inspiring. Even as the circumstances she passed through and the horrors inflicted on those she worked with who were caught were terrifying, she did not give up. I am in awe of those who are willing to give so much for what is right and wish I had that kind of courage.

Guns, Germs, and Steel: the Fates of Human Societies

By: Jared Diamond*

Audiobook reader: Great

Wow. This book is worth a read and challenges a lot of the world’s assumptions about how and why different groups rise to power and dominance over others. I’m really terrible at synopses sometimes, but Wikipedia is good at them so try this one. I’ll just tell you it’s worth reading.

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie*

Someone somewhere who’s something successful (can’t remember who) had this book on one of their “must read” books. It is a very dense and pretty thorough look at the life of Catherine the Great, who doesn’t actually seem like that great of a person even if she was great because of her power (it’s OK if you disagree). However, she was pretty dang brilliant to come from a little-known German line and then become an extraordinarily powerful figure. And the intrigue that led to her power is pretty interesting. I just realized I used the word “power” a lot, which sums up the book.


This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett*

I have only read one Patchett novel and I didn’t love it, but I heard that her memoir was beautiful. And it is. I do love reading the life of writers because so much truth is exposed in how writers view the world and how we interpret it (I say “we” but no pretentions to be in the same camp as other real writers, just in the same camp of people who love it). Patchett includes the story of getting a dog and how the dog was part of her support in writing. I was just a few months into dog ownership when I read this and very uncertain of it all, but I understand this more now, too.

“People seem able to love their dogs with an unabashed acceptance that they rarely demonstrate with family or friends. The dogs do not disappoint them, or if they do, the owners manage to forget about it quickly. I want to learn to love people like this, the way I love my dog, with pride and enthusiasm and a complete amnesia for faults. In short, to love others the way my dog loves me.”

As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride

By: Cary Elwes and Joe Layden*

Audiobook readers: Um, amazing. Basically the whole cast comes in to share their memories.

Confession: I do not actually love the movie The Princess Bride. I think the writing is quite brilliant and the fan following is awesome. There are lines that I quote from this move more than I’d like to admit. But I don’t really love the movie and I can’t quite explain why (I do know I don’t really like Buttercup. I’m sorry.) However, I LOVED listening to this book about the making of it. From two non-sword fighters filming the greatest sword fight in the world, to Andre the Giant’s amazing heart and kindness, to ad-libbing hilarious sections of the movie, to one of the actors not even ever understanding the allure and wit of the film, this book is awesome. And it is one you should try listening to as many of the actors actually read their comments in the book. Recommended.

Nobody will tell you this but me: A true (as told to me) story

By: Bess Kalb

This is a sort-of memoir. It is a recollection and recording of the beautiful and hilarious relationship that Bess Kalb had with her sassy grandmother, Bobby. Bobby is a firecracker. She is hard on most people, but she loves her granddaughter fiercely. Kalb ties the family stories of several generations together to introduce Bobby and bring her from Kalb’s heart to our hearts as well. A short, interesting read. Recommended.


Once Upon a River

By Diane Setterfield*

Audiobook reader: brilliant

In a small town on the river, a story is told of a man who either saves people from the river or takes them away when their time on earth is up. When a man and a child appear mostly drowned on the riverbank, the legend is supposed to be real. The town is changed by the mystery, the intrigue, the ghostly figures, and the love that a child brings.

I can’t quite explain why but I just really loved this book and I found myself crying at how beautifully the language described certain moments and feelings. It is also quite intense in some places, but I enjoyed this book and would recommend it.

When You Reach Me

By: Rebecca Stead

Miranda and Sal are best friends until one day they are not. Miranda receives mysterious notes telling her of signs to watch for in the future. And her mother is trying to prepare for a game show. All these happenings come together in this Newbery winning book. It is a quick read and I quite liked the messages even as I felt frustrated by the characters because they were kind of real, which meant they were confusing, haha. The main character loves the book “A Wrinkle in Time” and references pieces of it quite often, so I’d recommend a refresh on L’Engle before reading this for optimal enjoyment.

The Twenty-four Days Before Christmas

By: Madeleine L’Engle

Speaking of L’Engle, my grandma loaned me this little book to read for Christmas. It’s very short and follows an experience of the Austin family, of whom L’Engle apparently wrote several books that I now need to read. This was short and sweet and Christmasy-comforting.

The Lost Wonderland Diaries

By: J. Scott Savage

Some background: The King’s English is a local bookstore that has recently done several events to try and keep their store alive during the pandemic. TKE recently hosted a fundraiser day with many Utah authors chiming in throughout the day for workshops or chats on a Zoom call. I joined in for a bit and got to hear from and about this author. I felt a desire to support our local authors better by understanding their works more.

Another author mentioned this particular work of Savage’s. He said something to the effect of not really liking Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland but really enjoying The Lost Wonderland Diaries, from which the premise is derived. That intrigued me because I have never liked Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland either (sorry if that hurts any of you). This book is about two kids who happen upon four diaries that were lost by the author (Lewis Carroll aka Charles Dodgson) that transport them to Wonderland. They must solve riddles to get back and these riddles give insight into Dodgson’s life, which made me appreciate his work a lot more. I actually enjoyed this book and felt the messages were poignant. It’s worth a try.

The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse

By: Charlie Mackesy

This book has been talked about so many times as being inspirational and life-changing. A friend gave it to me recently so I took it for a spin. Very quick read. It’s a nice piece and individual sections of it have some nice little quotable phrases. But I guess with all the hype, I was expecting something a bit more from it. It feels a little slight to me, but I can understand the allure of its directional philosophy.

The Rules of Civility

By: Amor Towles*

Audiobook reader: Good

On New Year’s Eve in 1937, Katey Kontent and her friend share a drink with Tinker Grey and thus begin a story that swirls their lives together in ways I found I couldn’t quite understand. The book takes place in NYC and while intriguing, I also found the book to be quite melancholy. In the end, my takeaway was some deep thinking into the strange ways in which chance encounters can permanently affect our lives and send them into such different directions.

The False Prince; The Runaway King; and The Shadow Throne

By: Jennifer A. Nielsen

These three books are known as The Ascendance Trilogy and are more for a younger fantasy fiction audience. This was another local author I “met” through the TKE one-day fundraiser conference. I did not like the first 1/3 of The False Prince as I found the main character to be quite annoying. But because it’s a quick, easy read, I kept going and then I had to know how it ended so I had to read the other books in the trilogy. Quick, light reads about a young boy who is purchased from an orphanage to train up and put him forth as the long-lost son of a king, thus hoping to claim the throne.

Graphic Novel

Imagine Wanting Only This

By: Kristen Radtke

I don’t know that I’ve actually read other graphic novels before, but this one was recommended by one of the TKE conference authors. Basically a one-night read (unless you really do more than just scan the images, I suppose). This is a sad, sad book about a young woman who loses her uncle and searches the world for comfort and meaning. I don’t know that I liked it. But interesting.

When Stars are Scattered by Omar Mohamed and Victoria Jamieson

This was a great and short read. Omar is a Somalian refugee who lives in a refugee camp in Kenya. He cares for his younger brother and longs for the day that he will somehow find their mother again. Meanwhile, he is invited to attend school and encouraging friends help him excel. This is actually more of a memoir and provided beautiful and heart-wrenching insight into the everyday life of a refugee. While the illustrations seem to suggest this is for a younger audience, I thought it was an important read for older audiences and would recommend it.


The Power of Stillness: Mindful Living for Latter-day Saints by Hess, Skarda, Anderson, Mansfield

Mindfulness is a big thing these days. This book addresses how being still and seeking peace and solace help provide comfort. I agreed with so many sentiments in this book about how finding stillness and practicing mindfulness help us find the joy that is present in our religious beliefs and practices. The principles in this book encouraged me to seek for more meaningful prayer and seek for not just quiet, but stillness, and I am grateful for that nudge.

The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ

The study for this year’s Sunday School for Latter-day Saints was The Book of Mormon. I read it this year in Portuguese, as I do every few reads to keep up on my language. This is a beautiful book in both languages and I often learn different things by the translation word choices. I am grateful for the principles I learn in this book that help me be a better person and seek Christ.

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