The second half of December was NUTS trying to get my family ready for the Holiday. I am a planner at heart, but somehow was still totally shocked after we got through Thanksgiving and realized, “Holy Crap! We only have three weeks until Christmas break?!”
Anyway, here we are almost to the middle of February, and somehow I am still playing catch-up. I have been compiling book lists and cooking up a storm…reading some too….but have not actually reviewed anything in awhile. (Except on Instagram! Follow me there to see more book reviews and recipes!).
So, here is my attempt to reconcile that. I am also working on a couple full reviews (with book-inspired recipes) that are coming soon!
Happy reading (and eating)!
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The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson (2019, Sourcebooks Landmark)
Synopsis: “The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek is a powerful message about how the written word affects people–a story of hope and heartbreak, raw courage and strength splintered with poverty and oppression, and one woman’s chances beyond the darkly hollows. Inspired by the true and historical blue-skinned people of Kentucky and the brave and dedicated Kentucky Pack Horse library service, The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek showcases a bold and unique tale of the Packhorse Librarians in literary novels — a story of fierce strength and one woman’s belief that books can carry us anywhere — even back home.“
My Thoughts: Recently, I ran into a friend (who has been following my blog and book reviews) in the grocery store and she was so excited to ask me about this book (which I had not read, yet). Later that afternoon, she thoughtfully dropped a copy by at my house thinking I would enjoy it. She was right! I adored the story and the feeling of being up in the Kentucky mountains, crossing treacherous terrain atop an ornery mule. Even more, I loved the main character of Cussy Mary (the “book woman”) who held a passion for books and for bringing the written word to people who needed it so desperately. All of that while also facing many trials in her own life, having an affliction causing her skin to be tinted blue and being very misunderstood. Still, she goes out into the world to try to make it a better place…through delivering books.
Glass Houses: Chief Inspector Gamache #13 by Louise Penny (2017, Minotaur)
Synopsis: “When a mysterious figure appears in Three Pines one cold November day, Armand Gamache and the rest of the villagers are at first curious. Then wary. Through rain and sleet, the figure stands unmoving, staring ahead. From the moment its shadow falls over the village, Gamache, now Chief Superintendent of the Sûreté du Québec, suspects the creature has deep roots and a dark purpose. Yet he does nothing. What can he do? Only watch and wait. And hope his mounting fears are not realized.“
My Thoughts: I will admit that I am tiring of this series, so to all the Louise Penny true believers, please avert your eyes! I listened on audio, and I almost walked away from it several times because I found the story line kind of ridiculous and the pacing way too slow. Still, I love the atmosphere and the setting so much that I was really happy to spend more time in Three Pines, even if the story did not resonate with me. So, I trudged through to the end. I am not sure I am willing to continue with this series, but if I do, it will be audio all the way. (Note: If you ARE considering reading this series, books one through five really are amazingly good.)
Hark! The Herald Angels Scream: An Anthology (2018, Anchor Books)
Synopsis: “That there is darkness at the heart of the Yuletide season should not surprise. Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is filled with scenes that are unsettling. Marley untying the bandage that holds his jaws together. The hideous children–Want and Ignorance–beneath the robe of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. The heavy ledgers Marley drags by his chains. In the finest versions of this story, the best parts are the terrifying parts.”
My Thoughts: So, I am not one for your “typical Holiday read.” I even compiled this list of “off the beaten path” holiday reads. I also feel the same about the “typical summer book” and prefer thrillers in the summer. (Yep, have a list for those too.) But, I digress. Back to Christmas books. (I hope you are still with me!?) I was looking for something with a holiday feel this past Christmas that was not too cliched or sappy. This one fit that bill perfectly. A collection of horror short stories all with Christmas or holiday connections, it was perfect to read in snippets between shopping and errands. I specifically loved the stories “The Hangman’s Bride” by Sarah Pinborough and “The Second Floor of the Christmas Hotel” by Joe R. Lansdale.
No Exit by Taylor Adams (2017, Joffe)
Synopsis: “On her way to Utah to see her dying mother, college student Darby Thorne gets caught in a fierce blizzard in the mountains of Colorado. With the roads impassable, she’s forced to wait out the storm at a remote highway rest stop. Inside are some vending machines, a coffee maker, and four complete strangers. Desperate to find a signal to call home, Darby goes back out into the storm . . . and makes a horrifying discovery. In the back of the van parked next to her car, a little girl is locked in an animal crate. Who is the child? Why has she been taken? And how can Darby save her?”
My Thoughts: I had seen mixed reviews about this one, but I listed it as an off the beaten path holiday read (it’s really more holiday-adjacent, taking place on Dec 24-25) AND on my summer thrillers reading list, so I felt it needed to be fully vetted. I absolutely loved it. Was it maybe a little crazy and unbelievable? Yes. But it was such a wild ride full of twists and turns that I just could not tear my eyes away. I loved the battle of wits and the strong main character that just wants to do the right thing. It was the perfect off-the-beaten-path, holiday-adjacent book, in my humble opinion.
Last Christmas in Paris: A Novel of World War I by Hazel Gaynor, Heather Webb (2017, William Morrow)
Synopsis: “August 1914. England is at war. As Evie Elliott watches her brother, Will, and his best friend, Thomas Harding, depart for the front, she believes—as everyone does—that it will be over by Christmas, when the trio plan to celebrate the holiday among the romantic cafes of Paris. But as history tells us, it all happened so differently…“
My Thoughts: Ok, did I say above that I don’t really like your “typical” holiday read. Well, this book is probably an exception as it is pretty much your quintessential Holiday book. And here’s the wild and crazy thing: I still loved it. Set during WWI, this epistolary novel completely drew me in. I was charmed by the old world feel and the war-time struggles that seem so foreign to me in my current life. I normally do not really care for romance too much but considering this one was mostly a historical fiction, I felt that the romance element was not all-encompassing. Overall, it felt like a lovely transport back to a different time and place that made my Anglophile heart happy. And I didn’t even mind the romance parts one bit.
And Then We Grew Up: On Creativity, Potential and the Imperfect Art of Adulthood by Rachel Friedman (January 2020, Penguin)
Synopsis: “A journey through the many ways to live an artistic life–from the flashy and famous to the quiet and steady–full of unexpected insights about creativity and contentment, from the author of The Good Girl’s Guide to Getting Lost.”
My Thoughts: I thoroughly enjoyed this intellectually compelling book which tackles the subject of living a fulfilling and successful artistic life. I found Friedman’s insights to be thought-provoking, interesting and also delivered with some wit. I almost NEVER mark in my books but with this one, I found myself underlining and highlighting a ton. A must-read for creative types struggling with how to combine art with real life.
The Hunger by Alma Katsu (2018, G.P. Putnam’s Sons)
Synopsis: “Tamsen Donner must be a witch. That is the only way to explain the series of misfortunes that have plagued the wagon train known as the Donner Party. Depleted rations, bitter quarrels, and the mysterious death of a little boy have driven the pioneers to the brink of madness. They cannot escape the feeling that someone–or something–is stalking them.“
My Thoughts: Along with American Predator (see below), I credit this one for bringing me out of a particularly difficult reading slump. I had bought it as a part of a Kindle deal awhile back, so it was waiting on my Kindle app as I dumped book after book in early January. This one is such a different horror take on a really sad and well-known tragedy from history. Of course, Katsu took some liberties with the story, but I loved the unlikely hero and the style of jumping back and forth in time to tell each character’s back story (and in some cases, his or her sordid past). The horror element had a thread of believability so that I found myself wondering, “could this have really been how it happened?” All of that and also tied up in a very well-written little package. I can’t want to read more from Katsu. (She has a new book, The Deep, coming out later this year.)
The Institute by Stephen King (2019, Scribner)
Synopsis: “In the middle of the night, in a house on a quiet street in suburban Minneapolis, intruders silently murder Luke Ellis’s parents and load him into a black SUV. The operation takes less than two minutes. Luke will wake up at The Institute, in a room that looks just like his own, except there’s no window. And outside his door are other doors, behind which are other kids with special talents—telekinesis and telepathy—who got to this place the same way Luke did: Kalisha, Nick, George, Iris, and ten-year-old Avery Dixon. They are all in Front Half. Others, Luke learns, graduated to Back Half, “like the roach motel,” Kalisha says. “You check in, but you don’t check out.”
My Thoughts: This year I have read a ton of King books, and it really has been fun. This one was no exception, although I did feel it had a very different tone and writing style from his other books (in a good way). Being more of a psychological thriller and less of his typical horror, two words come to mind in association with The Institute: LONG (it’s almost 600 pages) and GOOD. I had to be persistent and re-check it from the library twice in order to get through it, but I was so glad I did. King has a particular talent for being able to create a suspenseful page-turner even when the bad guy is out in the open from the beginning. Somehow, he creates such an interesting story that you don’t need to know WHO did it but you are dying to know HOW and WHY it was done. This one included this tactic, and I continue to be in awe of King as a storyteller.
American Predator: The Hunt for the Most Meticulous Serial Killer of the 21st Century by Maureen Callahan (2019, Viking)
Synopsis: “Go deep into the investigation behind one of the most frightening and enigmatic serial killers in modern American history, and into the ranks of a singular American police force: the Alaska PD. Most of us have never heard of Israel Keyes. But he is one of the most ambitious, meticulous serial killers of modern time. The FBI considered his behavior unprecedented. Described by a prosecutor as “a force of pure evil”, he was a predator who struck all over the United States.”
My Thoughts: After January 1st hit, so did the reading slump. Somehow, every single book I picked up just did not cut it. Until this one. I listened on audio and it starts innocently enough with an abduction. Then, as the police and FBI close in on the suspect and bring him into custody, a whole new book emerges. One that tells of a truly evil and sadistic murderer who also has the smarts to get away with numerous crimes. I had no idea and I almost wish I had not even opened this can of worms because now I am truly freaked out by what my fellow humans could be capable of. Still, this one is really a must-read for true crime fans. Just be sure you are ready when you do.
Note: Missing from this list is Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland which I read in the last few days of 2019. I named it to my best of 2019 list, and have a full review (with book-inspired recipe) coming soon! Until then, you can see my thoughts on this book on Instagram.