April-June 2021 Books in Review

Just a little late in getting to this round. Like it’s almost the next quarter late. I almost decided to give up writing book reviews because it takes too long when you read too many. And no one really wants to read book reviews anyway; they’d rather just read the book. But here we go.

This quarter’s reads:

  • The Inquisitor’s Tale by Hatem Aly
  • Chirp by Kate Messner
  • Birdie by Eileen Spinelli
  • When you Trap a Tiger by Tae Keller
  • From the Desk of Zoe Washington by Janae Marks
  • All of Me by Chris Baron
  • What Stars are Made Of by Sarah Allen
  • Women’s Work by Megan Stack*
  • Fluent Forever: How to Learn Any Language Fast and Never Forget It by Gabriel Wyner*
  • A Wish in the Dark by Christina Soontornvat*
  • The Things We Cannot Say by Kelly Rimmer*
  • For Black Girls Like Me by Mariama J. Lockington
  • Worse than Weird by Jody J. Little
  • Emmy in the Key of Code by Aimee Lucido
  • The Silver Crown by Robert C. O’Brien
  • Rhythm of War by Brandon Sanderson*
  • Restoration: God’s Call to the 21st-Century World by Patrick Q. Mason
  • The Body: A Guide for Occupants by Bill Bryson*
  • The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett *
  • Portuguese Irregular Verbs by Alexander McCall Smith *
  • The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden*
  • Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again by Rachel Held Evans
  • Midnight Library by Matt Haig
  • Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman*
  • The Women of the New Testament by Camille Fronk Olson
  • The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri*
  • Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly*

*Audiobooks

Middle Grade

I got on a huge middle grade kick for a month and read a book about every other day (that’s the fun thing about middle grade is they’re so fast to read). I was thinking I might try my hand at writing a middle grade book so I wanted to see what the world was like out there. Turns out I don’t think it’s my arena at the moment. But if YOU want to, all you need to do to start is to have the main character move to a new city with his or her family. I got a leeeetle bit tired of that being the same for nearly every one of these books.

The Inquisitor’s Tale, or The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog

By: Hatem Aly

This Newbery Honor book is a tale from the middle ages. One child can see the future and is accompanied by a Spirit dog. Another child has unusual strength. And another can heal any wound. The book is told as an Inquisitor sets out to find why the king of France is pursuing these children–what have they done to incur his wrath? Various people intertwined in the story tell their version of these children who are seen as saints. This book is charming, funny, thought-provoking, adventurous, and illuminating (literally, because the illustrator provides illuminations throughout the book to give more of the Middle Ages feel).

Chirp

By Kate Messner

Mia and her family are moving from Boston to Vermont to be closer to Mia’s Gram. Gram runs a cricket farm–crickets intended for human consumption. But her business is doing poorly and something or someone seems to be sabotaging her efforts. Mia and her new friends develop a business plan as part of a camp and try to discover who might be hurting Gram’s work. Along with the main themes are also important discussions about speaking up when something or someone makes you feel uncomfortable.

When You Trap a Tiger

By Tae Keller

This Newbery award winning book shares the story of the importance of stories. Halmoni (grandma) is sick and needs her daughter’s help. Lily and Sam and their mom move to her city to be with and help her. Halmoni has told stories her entire life about a tiger and guarding stories in jars. Lily is tracked by the tiger and Lily knows she must trap it if she’s to help keep Halmoni from dying. A bit of fantasy woven into important themes of family, friendship, and not being afraid of your own story.

Birdie

By Eileen Spinelli

My niece and I were at the library when she saw this book and told me I had to read it. It’s so fun to have a niece recommending books to me! This book is written in verse, which means it’s a super fast read. I can’t say I particularly like reading in verse, but it’s OK. Birdie is the nickname of Roberta because she is fascinated by birds. Birdie and her mom go to live with Maymee after Birdie’s father dies in the line of duty. This is a discovery of friendships, of crushes, of love, of grief, and of healing.

From the Desk of Zoe Washington

By Janae Marks

On Zoe’s 12th birthday, she gets a mysterious letter from her father who has been in prison since before she was born. In prison because he was convicted of murder. But as Zoe communicates with him, she discovers all may not be as it seems. She sets on a journey of social justice to put things right for her father. This book is an important read to help children (and everyone) to begin to understand some of the problems of systemic racism and confront them.

What Stars are Made Of

By: Sarah Allen

Libby is an intelligent 12-year-old who loves talking, but doesn’t always say things the way she wants to or know that what she’s saying is the right thing. She was born with Turner Syndrome, which complicates life for her–especially her ability to make friends. But, she is fascinated by the scientist Cecilia Payne who discovered what stars are made of and sets out on a project to make her story known. As she finds a friend and learns from her sister’s mentoring, she has a discovery of learning to listen, being there for others, and accepting challenging experiences.

All of Me

By Chris Baron

Ari is a “fat kid.” He is constantly made fun of and bullied because of his size. And he is also Jewish, which he is ridiculed for as well. When Ari’s family moves from the east coast to the west, Ari makes new friends who are accepting of who he is. But a scary incident means Ari needs to go on a diet. This journey of friendship, self-acceptance, and seeking for emotional and physical health is an important read. It is another book written in verse, so it’s also super fast to read.

A Wish in the Dark

By Christina Soontornvat

Pong and Somkit are two boys who were born in a women’s jail, where they are condemned to stay until they were of age to pay for their mother’s crimes. The Governor put these policies in place–and many other restrictions after he saved the city by bringing order after the Great Fire. Pong escapes the jail and begins the life of a fugitive. The jailkeeper’s daughter becomes his pursuer. This is a fantasy world that is inspired by Thailand. For much of the book, I felt it was reminiscent of Les Miserables with the fugitive and the pursuer and the drastic need to try and inflict justice and the belief that a criminal can never change. I liked most of the book but at the end the author tried to wrap up way too much way too fast and it just felt too much. It deserved some more time.

For Black Girls Like Me

By: Mariama J. Lockington

Keda is a black girl who was adopted by a white family. This middle grade book is an exploration of adoption, mixed race families, and experiences with racism. Makeda’s yearning to discover her identity is powerful. My only critique is that I really wanted to explore those challenges more but the book also addresses a parent’s severe mental health disorder, crisis, and suicidal experiences. It was a heavy book with very important topics but I would have liked to see some of these issues separated out instead of all in the same book, especially for this age group.

Worse Than Weird

By: Jody J. Little

Mac has weird parents. Or at least they’re weird to her. She wants to code, but she doesn’t want her weird parents to know about it. As she and her friends enter a food cart scavenger hunt, she discovers a little more than just the clues–a better understanding of empathy for others’ life circumstances.

Emmy in the Key of Code

By: Aimee Lucido

This book is delightfully written. It’s sort of written in verse, but also sort of written in code. Emmy is new in her city (queue the typical story for all of these middle-grade books). So while the typical new girl in a new place making new friends, trying new things story, the half-written-in-code book just felt like a fun way to read her experience.

Quote/Code from the book:

String whatEmmySaysFromUnderTheStairs = “Do you ever feel like no matter what you do you just don’t belong anywhere?”.

String pause = “

“;

String whatAbigailSaysBack = “Doesn’t everybody?”;

The Silver Crown

By: Robert C. O’Brien

I was influenced into reading this book (ie. an influencer I follow said it was her favorite book growing up). This is a very dark middle grade book. People are murdered right at the beginning and Ellen, the protagonist, is being hunted by a kidnapper. Come to find out, the bad guys are practicing mind control on children. So it’s a wild book and I don’t think I would recommend it but I’m always intrigued to learn of what others love.

Religious

Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again

By: Rachel Held Evans

I have been intrigued by Rachel Held Evans’ experiences and philosophies for several years. I tried reading one of her works before but couldn’t quite get into it. This one was different, though. She tells of her own personal experiences and how they help her understand and interpret the Bible. I really enjoyed this work because it helped me think differently of some things I’ve been bothered by in the Bible before, too.

Some quotes that made me think:

“The apostles remembered what many modern Christians tend to forget–that what makes the gospel offensive isn’t who it keeps out but who it lets in.”

“…perhaps a better question than, ‘Do I believe in miracles?’ is ‘Am I acting like I do?’ Am I including the people who are typically excluded? Am I feeding the hungry and caring for the sick? Am I holding the hands of the homeless and offering help to addicts? Am I working to break down religious and political barriers that marginalize ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities and people with disabilities? Am I behaving as though life is more than a meaningless, chaotic mess, that there is some order in the storm?”

“There are parts of the Bible that inspire, parts that perplex, and parts that leave you with an open wound. I’m still wrestling, and like Jacob, I will wrestle until I am blessed. God hasn’t let go of me yet.”

All Things New: Rethinking Sin, Salvation, and Everything in Between

By Fiona and Teryl Givens

From a better understanding of the first Christians to new definitions of grace, apostasy, restoration, and everything in between, the authors lead you on a journey of rediscovering Latter-day Saint theology from the perspective of Christian origins, Latter-day Saint origins, and our current understanding. Some of our harmful views of the past lead us to see God as a vengeful God who wants to incur His wrath. But further exploration reveals God’s nature more fully–one who is anxious to heal and to have us return. I really enjoyed this view of theology.

Restoration: God’s Call to the 21st-Century World

By: Patrick Q. Mason

We talk about the ongoing Restoration a lot in Latter-day Saint theology. What does it actually mean and what do we really believe in our present day? A short, thought-provoking read.

A quote:

“We don’t have to be afraid of the world…secularism is here to stay as one of the principal conditions of the modern world. This should not fill us with dread….secularism…is not the enemy. It is the very air we breathe, and the foundation for modern democracy, science, and human rights. The Restoration needs to be informed to be relevant. It cannot speak to a world that it doesn’t fully understand and appreciate…. Our engagement with the world will be transformative only once we learn to love it.”

The Women of the New Testament

By: Camille Fronk Olsen

I used this book as part of my personal study this year and loved it. Camille (I met her once so I can call her by her first name, right?) does an amazing job of compiling research into what life would have been like for women of New Testament times and sharing what we know of their lives through the scriptures as well as through other writings. Definitely recommend this book for study.

Educational

Fluent Forever: How to Learn Any Language Fast and Never Forget it

By: Gabriel Wyner

Audiobook: Interesting to hear the nuances in some of the language learnings, but this book would likely be much better read so that you can actually practice the things the author says to practice 🙂

The most interesting parts of this book addressed the fascinating ways that we develop and learn our own and other languages. I am fascinated by language learning and enjoy studies that show what helps us develop language. The book is mostly focused, though, on practical strategies to learn another language. If you actually did all the things the author said, I bet it works. I mostly just listened and decided I want to learn all the languages in the world and then did nothing about it.

Non-Fiction

The Body: A Guide for Occupants

By: Bill Bryson

Audiobook: Good

Do you want a short treatise on everything about how the body works and functions? This is your book. I loved learning some of the fascinating things about how our bodily systems actually work, communicate, heal, protect, and learn. Worth a listen. Even though you’ll forget it all 3 days after you finish the book (or maybe that’s just my memory).

Memoir

Women’s Work: A Reckoning of Work and Home

By: Megan Stack

Some would maybe classify this as an educational book, but it was written as more of a memoir. The author looks at the conundrum of the work of women in paid employment, work in the home, and motherhood. She explores this from the perspective of her experience as a young mother in Beijing who couldn’t keep on top of everything and sought help in the form of cheap local labor. Her experience explores the life of some of the women she hired. What I felt most from this book is that everything is just really complicated.

Novel

The Girl in the Tower

By: Katherine Arden

Audiobook: Lovely

This is the second book in the Winternight Trilogy and I really loved the first and was shocked when I found it was a series. Yay! This book continues the Russian fairy tale of the Bear and the Nightingale. It is darker than your average fairy tale but I really enjoy the writing and the intrigue.

The Beekeeper of Aleppo

By: Christy Lefteri

Audiobook: beautiful

This was an insightful and moving novel that explores the life of Syrian refugees through the eyes (and loss of sight) of a beekeeper Nuri and his wife, Afra, an artist. Their beautiful life is destroyed by war and they are thrown into a situation where their lives are in danger. As they flee their home and all that mattered to them, they work through grief, depression, and loss as they try to envision a new life…if they can make it to their destination. I know I already said it was moving, but I’ll say it again. Worth a read.

The Things We Cannot Say

By Kelly Rimmer

This novel jumps back and forth between World War II Alina and present day Alice. Alice is working through the challenges she has with her nonverbal child and with taking care of her grandmother (Alina) who had a stroke and cannot speak. Alice works to discover the mystery of her grandmother’s past in Poland and her escape to the United States. An interesting story but not a must-read.

The Vanishing Half

By: Brit Bennett

Audiobook: pretty good

This is the story of twin sisters who ran away from their black neighborhood at sixteen. One tries (and succeeds) at passing for a white woman. The other continues her life as what she’s known as a black girl. This is an interesting exploration of building and understanding a racial identity while crossing the story line through to a new generation.

Midnight Library

By: Matt Haig

So many people recommended this book and it took forever to get it on hold from the library so I suspected it would be very good. The concept is interesting–there are an infinity of lives that we could have lived had we made small choices and big choices just a little differently along the way. The protagonist gets an opportunity to take a dive into those lives and see how life could have been for her–the good, the bad, and the ugly. I feel the overall message of the book is to live life with no regrets or to just make changes now to change the future. But when the protagonist is a mid-30s single gal who’s wondering why relationships never work out and is sad about not having any children…well, I guess I just didn’t like the book like some others did. I don’t want any alternate lives–I love my own life. But it doesn’t mean you don’t wonder about the could-have-beens and that just messes with you.

Portuguese Irregular Verbs

By: Alexander McCall Smith

Audiobook: no

I didn’t like this book. Hahahaha! It had Portuguese in the title and I like other books by the author and it was available as an audiobook when I needed a new one. But I found it to be horribly uninteresting. It is about an absent-minded professor who is very self-centered and blunders around making all sorts of mistakes and assumptions. I don’t know why I even kept listening to it–maybe I just hoped at some point there would be a plot or a point but no. There was not. If someone liked this book, please help me see why to redeem it a little!

Neverwhere

By: Neil Gaiman

Audiobook: Check out the BBC dramatized version–you won’t regret it

Mostly I just loved this book being read by a full cast of characters. The protagonist–Richard Mayhew–happens upon a woman (Door) who has been hurt. In his efforts to help her, he is cast into an alternate existence where he must find the Angel to lead him back home. In Neil Gaiman style, the book is fantastically weird and quirky and I guess I just like weird and quirky. Worth it.

Lilac Girls

By: Martha Hall Kelly

Another World War II novel. I don’t know why we are all so struck with novels of this era. I almost gave up on this book because it was kind of annoying. But then I realized that although it was a novel, it was drawn from real experiences. The book parallels the life of a real ritzy rich woman in New York (Caroline Ferriday), the lives of women who were known as the “Rabbits” in concentration camps in Poland, and the doctor who operated on them. The “rabbits” were basically experiments for the Nazis and had atrocious things done to them. Ferriday found a way to get them to the United States for medical help after the war and to provide longer-term support for many of them. One of the problems is that the doctor in the novel, who is basically just evil, was written to almost be a likeable character–like you kept wondering if she was going to do something to surprise you and redeem herself. I am fascinated by the history I learned from this book but did not like the book or its approach to the story.

Fantasy

Rhythm of War

By: Brandon Sanderson

Audiobook: pretty much the only way I can get through Sanderson books these days 🙂 I mean that in a good way. They’re just VERY long so I need them to be read to me on double speed.

This is the 4th in the Stormlight Archive series. I won’t give away any spoilers. I didn’t re-read the first three books before reading this one so I was confused about the first 20% of the book as to who was who and what was going on. But I caught on and pieced things together once I read a Wikipedia summary haha. I think Sanderson’s worlds are interesting and enjoy moving along in this series, but really I just don’t want to start into a series again that I have to wait a few years for the next book, haha!

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