Saturday, February 1, 2020

January 2020 in Books

Hi all, here with my monthly reading recap.  Overall a really good month of books with a nice mix of fiction and non-fiction, history and biography.  Favorites this month were This Tender Land and The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell, closely followed by The Shadow King.  Here are all the details:

The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls - Anissa Gray - fiction - four stars - The story of a family rocked by a scandal.  Althea and Proctor are arrested for embezzlement/fraud, and their family is rocked to the core.  How did they get there?  What about their past affected their choices.  And what about their two daughters?  With whom should they live.  Althea's sisters struggle with the charges and the verdict and have to themselves deal with their pasts as well as their presents.  It was a really good story with complex characters and I enjoyed it.  I will say that I was pretty annoyed in general by Althea, she was my least favorite character.  Definitely worth the read though.

Wallis in Love: The Untold Life of the Duchess of Windsor, the Woman Who Changed the Monarchy- Andrew Morton - biography - two stars - Ugh, this one was such a drag.  I kept thinking it would get better.  I've always been kind of fascinating by the story of Edward abdicating, and I thought it would be a great read and a true life love story.  Basically these Wallis and Edward were two totally unlikeable and irredeemable individuals.  There was nothing to like about Wallis, and it's ironic that by the end of her life she didn't even care for or really like Edward.  And he was so weak and ineffective.  I was struck by an opinion at the beginning of the book that Wallis Simpson should in some ways be honored in Trafalgar Square because by causing Edward, an outspoken Nazi sympathizer, to abdicate, she actually saved the country and the free world.  Don't bother with this one.

The Confession Club (Mason, #3) - Elizabeth Berg - fiction - four stars - This is the third in Berg's series that started with The Story of Arthur Truluv.  It's about a group of ladies who meet each week to confess to one another.  The confessions range from silly to serious.  During the course of the story, Iris Winters and Maddy Harris (characters from previous books) are invited to join, and the group helps them work through the relationship issues they are dealing with.  It's another cute and sweet story.  Not as good as the previous two books, but still very enjoyable.

Grateful American: A Journey from Self to Service - Gary Sinise - autobiography - five stars - I've always admired Gary Sinise, he's a great advocate for the military, and so when I saw this book at the library, I was excited to hear more about him and his life.  It details his younger wilder years and how acting really saved him from the path he was going down and gave him focus and purpose.  It also talks about how/why the military and veterans are so important to him.  It was really inspiring to me to see how he has used his celebrity and connections to make a difference for our military as well as for communities around the world.  His question of "Can I do more?" is a challenge for us all.

This Tender Land - William Kent Krueger - historical fiction - five stars - Krueger's book Ordinary Grace was my very favorite book a couple years ago, so I was really excited to see that he came out with another standalone book.  He's written a ton, but most are part of a detective series, and I'm always wary of committing myself to a huge series, plus while I like a good detective novel from time to time, I like them in moderation.  Anyway, this was another fantastic book.  It's a bit of a play on Tom Sawyer/Huckleberry Finn story.  Four orphans run away from the home in which they lived - a school where Native American children were forcibly removed to to learn.  They travel down the Mississippi in a canoe, trying to find an aunt.  They are on a true odyssey in which each of them grows into their own person and where they confront their pasts.  Such a good book.

A Double Life - Flynn Berry - fiction - three stars - This one was a disappointment.  It's loosely based on the life of Lord Luxon, a British aristocrat who was believed to have killed his children's nanny and attempted to kill his wife.  He escaped from England and disappeared.  Over time there were many sightings of him, but he was never found.  In this story, the main character is the man's daughter, Claire.  Following her father's disappearance, her mother moved her and her brother away, they changed their names, forsook the family money, and live ordinary lives.  However, the whereabouts of her father are always a mystery.  When there is once again a sighting, it raises all the old feelings, and Claire decides she needs to know once and for all what became of her father.  She is eventually able to find him and confront him.  I just never connected with Claire, who was frustratingly weak and annoying, and I thought the end was just not believable, almost like the author just didn't know how to end the book.  I would pass on this one.

The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell - Robert Dugoni - fiction - five stars - This was another great one.  It's about Sam Hill, born with ocular albinism, a condition where you have red eyes.  This of course leads to social ostracism/bullying as he grows up, but he is blessed with amazing parents who support him and advocate for him and grow him into a kind and generous human being.  He is also blessed to have two really wonderful friends who help him through those growing up years.  The story is balanced between past and present when a bully from Sam's past shows up.  I thought the first part of the book (the longer part) was the best, just what Sam had to overcome and the faith and support that his parents provided was inspiring.  The present day/second part of the book was not as strong, especially the very end, it seemed a little rushed and some of the loose ends were wrapped up in a too pat way it felt like, but still so worth the read.

When Life Gives You Pears: The Healing Power of Family, Faith, and Funny People - Jeannie Gaffigan - memoir - five stars - Jeannie is the wife of comedian Jim Gaffigan.  Jeannie is also Jim's collaborative partner, she directed his show, and also writes much of his material.  They have five kids, and several years ago, after ignoring many of the signs because she was busy with business of living and raising kids, and working, she went to the doctor and after an MRI was told that she had a tumor the size and shape of a pear in her head.  The book tells about her diagnosis, surgery, and recovery.  Despite the difficulty, there was lots of humor and just down to earth-ness in her writing which I really enjoyed.  And, of course, it's a good news story which was great to read.  I have a very good friend who is dealing with cancer right now and it was encouraging to read a book with a good outcome.

Recursion - Blake Crouch - fiction - five stars - I don't read a lot of science fiction, in fact the last science fiction book I read might have been Crouch's Dark Matter which was also excellent.  This book tells the story of a brilliant scientist, Helena, who invents and time traveling machine/chair.  Unfortunately, there are people who want to use the chair for their own purposes.  The chair is one storyline, the other is about the emergence of people with False Memory Syndrome (FMS) where people all of sudden have a full set of memories from a previous life.  Barry, a New York City cop who starts to investigate FMS.  These two storylines eventually collide and become one.  I was hooked by this and read it in a day.  My only criticism is that it kind of got into this loop at the end which reminded me a lot of Dark Matter.  But, if I hadn't read that book I wouldn't have that criticism.  Highly recommend.

The Shadow King - Maaza Mengiste - historical fiction - five stars - Another must read.  It's the story of the Ethiopian resistance fighters who fought against Italy when they invaded in the run up to WWII.  So well done, with great character development.  Characters that were very flawed, but still likable.  This is part of history that I really had no knowledge of, and it made me curious and want to know more about the conflict.  Any book that makes me do internet searches to learn more is a good book.  Really loved this one.

I'm currently reading The Escape Artists, an account of POW British pilots in Germany during WWI who escaped from their camps, and I have All the Lives We Ever Lived on tap next.  Would love to know what you have been reading and if there's anything I need to add to my list.

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