Five-Star Shine

“Sometimes, you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read the book.”  John Green

Post sunrise, I did not wake to the sound of birds warbling their morning song. There were no nature strains from the Amazon rainforest streaming softly from my phone, no faint sound of waves swashing ashore.  Nope, I woke to an altogether different tone. A far better sound roused me from insufficient sleep than Mother Nature’s best—it was coming from my ten-year-old son. I was equally shocked and gratified. Jonah was soulfully singing “Ooh baby I love your way every day.” It made me (and Peter Frampton I’m sure) come alive! I was filled with this weird evangelical zeal, with the same ardor I feel when I discover a champion of a book that must be shared.

I think there’s an art to finding the best books. Admittedly, I undertake looking for my next read much like I approached naming a baby: it involves scouring cyberspace and shelves. Real research. Sometimes it requires talking to experts, other trusted readers. Of course, Rachel could adopt a local personal injury attorney’s motto: One call That’s All.  I can always count on her for a hidden winner. Are we taking this book search thing too far?  Probably. But scads of friends ask us to weigh in on what to read next—here’s what my current research tells me to place squarely on deck:

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I don’t know Susan Rivers, but I do know that being a 2017 finalist for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize is impressive. Her debut also garnered 4.5 stars from amazon. Combine that with praise like “I gobbled this book up in one luscious sitting,” “Oh! What a wonderful book! I could not put it down,” and “I was entranced from page one,” and I suspect you’ve got a keeper. (By the way…luscious?)

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This novel caught my eye because of the five-star shine. Fives aren’t easy to come by. This review was glowing.  And Michael Ondaatje is the best-selling author of The English Patient.  Besides, the promise of “mesmerizing from the first sentence, rife with poignant insights and satisfying subplots, this novel about secrets and loss may be Ondaatje’s best work yet” is auspicious, don’t you think?  

Posted by Tracy

Mini-Review Monday

“What doesn’t kill you makes you smaller.”  —Mario (as in one of the brothers)

Sorry Nietzsche, I think Mario may have said it best. I’m pretty sure Rae and I are shrinking under life’s weighty workload—if we’re being accurate, and we’re always accurate, we aren’t getting stronger. Case in point, our last post was on March 19th. Not that we need to remind you of our deficiencies, or is it inefficiencies?  You choose.  

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Fortunately, it’s mini-review Monday.  (Feels fitting for the whole smaller thing.) I’m prepared, late hour and all, to gush about Nombeko Mayeki.  She’s a completely unforgettable, precocious, savvy heroine.  At five, Nombeko cleans latrines only to be orphaned at ten—life looks like it may well be in the crapper for the young South African tiddler.  But she’s a fearless girl who is far smarter, albeit humble, than everyone she meets. Her adventures are as improbable as they are entertaining. 

I recommend letting Peter Kenny introduce you to Nombeko and her hilarious tale.  He’s easily one of the best audible narrators I’ve enjoyed since I pitched my tent squarely in Rachel’s camp. For the amateur critics who gave this book two thumbs down, I’m downright dumbfounded.  (I’m confident Kenny will change your mind.)  To the reviewer who said, “In The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden, Jonas Jonasson unfurls a wide, whimsical net that readers will relish being caught up in,” I say Amen. 

Posted by Tracy

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Clearly, I'm a sucker for a Swede—and cantankerous old men. While Allan Karlsson doesn't quite rise to Ove-level love, he's a solid second. As plans are being made for this curmudgeonly centurion's birthday celebration, he decides he's had enough of never having enough vodka, and absconds out the window in his slippers—with nothing but pluck and resourcefulness. We quickly learn he has plenty of both, thanks to his involvement in many important events throughout history. Think Forest Gump, sans innocence. 

Jonasson's tale is outrageously funny and at times simply outrageous. You'll need to pack your sense of humor as well as a healthy suspension of disbelief for this raucous ride, but I'll wager you'll be glad you did. Word has it Will Ferrell is set to produce and star in the film adaptation. Sign me up.

Posted by Rachel

Welcome to the Glitterati Tara Westover

Kramer: You’re becoming one of the glitterati. 
George: What’s that?
Kramer: People who glitter
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You’re probably aware by now that we are BIG Seinfeld fans. Yes, I know there are legions of disciples—believers that Seinfeld is the best sitcom to ever bless our screens. But I’d like to think that Rachel and I occupy the Peter and John slots, or at the very least, James and Matthew. Just remember readers, “it’s not a lie if you believe it.” And I believe it. All these years later, I’m still learning about “the anti-dentite” I adore. I had no idea Jerry was raised by orphans. In his own words, he jokes that he was “like a raccoon to [his] parents. You know it’s around, but you don’t know where it is. They had no interest in any of [his] activities: school, grades, social life, health, safety or education. Zero.” If there were such a thing as a parent lottery, Jerry’s folks would obviously in no way win, but they’d exceed Tara Westover’s parents, without question.  

I’m not making light of the unlikely prodigy’s life, I promise. Few things are more inspiring to me than an indomitable spirit such as Westover’s. Trust me, I was cheering her on as she rose above her debilitating childhood, as she challenged her survivalist parent’s strangling beliefs. I was embarrassed at times that her parents share the same religion I do—not because of my religion but because of the way they interpreted and twisted it. I, myself, teach at BYU and wondered how I would respond to a student who innocently asks, “What is the holocaust?” I adore her for asking. Surely I would never imagine that student of mine had no formal schooling. None. Zero. Not one day in school prior to college. Hats off to you Tara Westover…for beating the staggering odds, for educating yourself. And while you occasionally seem to judge the people who helped you ascend the academic ladder, I still have big respect for your obvious moxie and your incomparable resolve. Move over Jeannette Walls, there’s a new hero in town! 

Posted by Tracy

Carry Up Hearts

“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.” 
Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre

I feel ya Charlotte.  I refuse to be trapped. And my will is not much different than a menopausal woman’s waistline: it seems to be expanding, not shrinking in the least. That’s a gain I’m good with. (I’m pretty sure I just heard an enthusiastic amen all the way from Thornfield Hall.) In honor of International Women’s Day, let us recognize strong women both past and present, and celebrate their greatness. As I read the final few pages of Wonder for a second time to my boys tonight, I raised my voice high when Mr. Tushman quoted Henry Ward Beecher: “Greatness lies not in being strong, but in the right using of strength…He is the greatest whose strength carries up the most hearts by the attraction of his own.”

Here are a couple of recommendations for readers who want to relish in women whose strength carries up hearts by the attraction of her own.  

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The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden by Jonas Jonasson

This is the book I’m currently reading. So far, sooo good. I’m barely into Jonasson’s clever pages, but I’m already enamored with Nombeko Mayeki. If Amazon’s description of this 14-year-old prodigy doesn’t scream greatness, I don’t know what would: “Poor and orphaned, she quickly learns that the world expects her to die young. But Nombeko has grander plans. Little does this cunning and fearless girl know that soon she will steal a fortune in diamonds, outwit a mad scientist kidnapper, travel across the world, fall in with a pair of diabolical assassins, and ultimately save a king--and possibly the world.” My kinda girl. 

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The Paperbag Princess by Robert Munsch

Right on Mr. Munsch, right on! Chances are your daughters have grown up with Disney Princesses in need of rescuing from Disney Princes. I LOVE this modern classic! It ditches the princess stereotype and underscores self-respect. Honestly, I want my girls to take cues from a plucky princess who recognizes she deserves the very best. And won’t settle for less. This empowering fairy tale has been endorsed by the National Organization for Women and should rest on a shelf in every home as far as I’m concerned. (Go for the 25th Anniversary Hardbound Edition—you won’t be sorry you did.) The New York Times called this one of “the best children’s books ever written.” I couldn’t agree more. 

Posted by Tracy

Mini-Review Monday

“My temptation is to tackle everything at once, or nothing at all.” ―Kevin DeYoung

Have you been stalking me, Kevin? Because you just nailed the story of my life. Hence the current (constant) state of my not-so-walk-in closet. Which is also why, on days like this, I'd normally wave my white flag, crawl into bed, pull the covers over my head, and forget all about that review I promised myself I'd write. If I can't bring the whole kit and caboodle, why bring it at all? But new year, new me. I'm okay to bring the kit, and who knows, you probably don't have time for the caboodle either. So here's two super quick mini reviews of the books I finished last week. Who knows, maybe it'll become a thing around here. Mini-Review Monday. I kinda like the sound of it...

Echo came to me by way of a friend's hardy recommendation. It did not disappoint. If you're a listener (and why on earth wouldn't you be by now—even Tracy's converted, folks!), this is one of those books that was written to be listened to. Grab your kiddos, or just yourself, and settle in for “a grand narrative that examines the power of music to inspire beauty in a world overrun with fear and intolerance; it's worth every moment of readers' time."

Am I alone in not loving The Great Alone? To be fair, I came at it with some pretty high, as in The Nightingale high, expectations and I picked it up right after savoring every word of An American Marriage. Not many books could withstand that double whammy and this one definitely did not. It felt a bit trite and predictable—almost like it was written to be a movie (which someone obviously agreed as the film rights have already been sold.) If you're looking for a book about life in the harsh Alaskan wilderness, do yourself a favor and read The Snow Child instead.

Posted by Rachel

This is Why I Read

"Our marriage was a sapling graft that didn't have time to take."
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Tray's last post has me hankerin for a Stranger Things re-watch (and a real whodunnit). But first, I cannot let one more day go by without sharing the book love for An American Marriage. Somehow I missed all the hype leading up to its release—it made almost every list of Most Anticipated Reads of 2018. Let's not dwell on what that says about my book blogging game as of late.

The first I heard of this gem was when a longtime friend managed to finagle me an invite to its launch party that was being held in her home. Funny thing is, I almost didn't go. It was a cold night by Vegas standards and my sweats, a cozy fire, and The Crown were all calling my name. Not to mention the fact that the only two people I'd know there would be my friend and her husband—whose hosting duties would mean I'd be forced to be social. The horror. With no legitimate excuse to skip it, the only way out was a lie...and to quote Eleven, "Friends don't lie." 

So I went. Not only was it not horrible, it was one of the best evenings I've spent in a long while. Tayari Jones regaled us with stories from her past, her writing process, and how this book is already changing her life. The more she spoke and read passages aloud, the more sure I became hers isn't the only life that will be changed. With this gift of book she shines a heartbreakingly beautiful light on mass incarceration, race, marriage, and social class in America—one that is desperately needed. 

This is one of those books that reminds me all over again why I love reading. For a time I am a mother who instead of worrying over my boy's grades and which college he'll go to, desperately hopes he just makes it through high school without going to jail; a man who despite playing by all the right rules, has everything snatched away in an instant; and the woman who loves him but maybe not quite enough. I'm there with Ghetto Yoda, listening to him dispense life lessons from a prison cell, and I'm standing there watching Big Roy sum up what real love looks like with some dirt and a shovel. This is why I read.

After Tayari finished speaking, we met and instantly bonded over BLTs, Boden, outlet shopping secrets, and our mutual love for staying in. What I didn't tell her is that this was one night I thanked my lucky stars I had gone out.

Posted by Rachel

Hitchcock Approved

“Why are you keeping this curiosity door locked?”—Dustin

Mr. Clarke, I’m happy to report that I am opening any curiosity door that I find, especially when it comes to searching up good books.  I’m taking cues from Dustin. And why wouldn’t I?  He does, in fact, speak a lot of truths.  

Over the weekend, I researched best books of 2018.  It’s only February, I know. But I was looking for something different and something new—something I could recommend to all of you readers who continue to outpace me.  Keeping the curiosity door unlocked paid off! 

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I selected the book that Stephen King called “unputdownable.”  I trust the King of Horror when it comes to psychological thrillers. It didn’t hurt that Rachel’s girl Louise Penny described The Woman in the Window as “absolutely gripping.” When I downloaded the nearly 14-hour audible, I didn’t imagine I’d finish it in less than an extremely busy week.  (Of course, my left eye won’t stop twitching from the tired, but I suppose that’s neither here nor there.) Dr. Anna Fox, an agoraphobe, spies on her Harlem neighbors. She’s housebound with nothing but time, classic black-and-white films, and plenty of merlot on her hands. When Anna thinks she witnesses a crime, her otherwise dull life takes a turn toward gripping and dramatic.  A.J. Finn will keep you guessing throughout his debut novel that certainly seems to be living up to the hype.  I recommend listening to this hot-off-the-press bestseller—Ann Marie Lee’s performance is captivating in itself. That’s right, you won’t be able to resist this pearl. 

p.s. Be warned: F-bombs were dropped into the pages of this book. 

Posted by Tracy

Books: A Love Story

“I think books are like people, in the sense that they'll turn up in your life when you most need them.” ―Emma Thompson
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A dear friend, who's weathered the unthinkable over the past few months, now finds herself weathering even more as her sister, and closest confidante, fights for her life in an ICU. So my friend does what she does best: she soldiers on. After a day of sitting bedside with nothing but worry and the whir of life-saving machines for company, she decided a book was in order. Enter Flavia de Luce. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie had been languishing on her bookshelf for years—perhaps waiting, as my imaginary BFF Emma would say, for when she needed it most. My friend, who's as practical as I am romantic, would argue she grabbed it on her way out the door simply because it was small and easy to fit in her bag. Potato, patahto.

After giving the book a quick once-over, her brother-in-law declared Flavia wasn't really his cup of tea and settled in with a newspaper instead. Undeterred, my friend sat down next to her sweet unresponsive sis and started reading aloud. A few chapters in, said brother-in-law suddenly stopped her with a "Wait, back up...did you just say Flavia found a dead body in her garden?" To which she replied, "What was that about tea?" He moved in closer and begged her to continue. He was hooked. After another hour or so, the nurse, who'd been in and out all morning, and otherwise sitting at her desk just outside the room, came in and shyly asked for some clarification on what Inspector Hewitt had just said to Dogger. Clearly, the first meeting of their ICU book club was underway.

Buoyed by signs of improvement and signals that her sister takes comfort in the sound of her voice, she reads on. Because books, like humor, make the unbearable bearable.

Posted by Rachel