Wednesday, July 1, 2020

An Open Book: June 2020 Reads

Another month has arrived, so it's time to look back on the books that took me through June! Make sure to head over to Carolyn Astfalk's An Open Book to discover even more book reviews. 

June's reading list included serial killers and children's novels, memoirs and sci-fi. There's pretty much something in here for everyone! Let's dive in. 

Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, by Kate Douglas Wiggin.
I have to start off by saying that I'm still shocked I never read this book growing up. My only explanation is that I owned the Shirley Temple movie adaptation (which is nothing like the book) and just watched that over and over. Anyways! This delightful classic story follows Rebecca Randall, a young girl whose mother is struggling to make ends meet. So, Rebecca is sent to live with her two spinster aunts in Riversboro--one kind and gentle, the other more harsh and critical--and get an education. Along the way, she meets all sorts of fun characters and has splendid adventures. Incidentally, this story is very similar to Anne of Green Gables in its concept, but this one was written first. I thought it was utterly delightful, but I couldn't stop comparing it to Anne and have to say that I do like Anne better. 

The Danish Way of Parenting: What the Happiest People in the World Know About Raising Confident, Capable Kids, by Jessica Joelle Alexander and Iben Sandahl
This was...okay. It discussed Danish parenting from the perspectives of both authors, but it didn't include much from the authors' personal lives and stories, so it was harder for me to get into than other parenting books I've read. It also kept talking about The Danish Way, as if the elements in the book are "the way" that all Danes do things-but there are probably some residents of Denmark who parenting a little differently, I'm guessing. I'm sure loads of people love this book, I've read other European-centric parenting books that I've liked much better. 

American Predator: The Hunt for the most meticulous serial killer of the 21st century, by Maureen Callahan.
This was a fast-paced dive into the mysteries surrounding serial killer Israel Keyes that read like a thriller. It was so creepy, but fascinating. One of the most terrifying aspects was how, as the author pointed out, any of us could have been one of Keyes' victims. He travelled all over the U.S., hiding "kill kits" in caches in several different states, and finding unlikely victims. It was also sobering to see just what a mess the investigation into this man was; to learn about the tensions between the different officers on the case, to learn about how bad the security was, and to learn about the awful things this man did. This was well-researched, riveting, and super interesting. Parts are a bit graphic, and it's very intense, but for people who are interested in learning about a relatively unknown serial killer, I recommend it! (just don't read it late at night)

My Family and Other Animals, by Gerald Durrell.
A while back, I couldn't get into the PBS Masterpiece show,  but decided to try this book out on a whim. It's about a widow and her 4 children who decide to escape the dreary weather of England for the island of Corfu, in Greece. This narrative of the Durrell family's adventures on the island is told through the eyes of one of the children, who is a bit obsessed with the study of the natural world. Parts of this book were a little bit crude, parts were utterly hilarious (the play-by-play of a failed mating attempt that a pair of tortoises had was so, so funny), and I loved the descriptions. Some parts of the story moved a little slow for me, but overall, I found this to be an enjoyable read. 

The Green Ember, by S. D. Smith.
In a setting somewhat reminiscent of Redwall, this story follows a brother-sister pair of rabbits (Heather and Pickett) who find their life turned upside-down when their area is attacked. They become refugees and are taken in by a host of rabbits who are working to preserve beauty and goodness in preparation for the day that good will triumph over the forces of evil. There are secrets to be uncovered as they discover how their unassuming existence is bound up in matters much more complicated and intense than they ever dreamed of. I didn't love the writing style of this book, and the incessant complaining of Pickett gets annoying, but overall I really enjoyed this! I think it could be a really great read-aloud with young kids who aren't quite old enough to read and enjoy the Redwall books--the story is simpler and easier to follow, and is exciting but not too intense for young kids. 

The Whole-Brain Child, by Daniel Siegel.
This approachable book discusses how to teach your children to use their "whole brain" as they act and react in day-to-day scenarios. In very simple terms, the author talks about generalizations about left brain/right brain, and top brain/bottom brain, and pairs this discussion with graphics and simple illustrations to look into ways that we can help children integrate all parts of their brain. Apparently some of this stuff is super controversial, and I did find parts of the book to be common-sense, other parts were repetitive, but there was some good stuff in here. While I thought some of the book was a bit too enthusiastic on the side of empathizing with your child instead of firmly saying "no," I did like the general concept of "connect with the right, redirect with the left" and have used that a couple times with my own kids. 

The Art of the English Murder, by Lucy Worsley.
This was a fascinating exploration into the English's focus on murder--and its place in fiction--from the early 19th century down to the mid-20th century and the Golden Age of detective stories (Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, etc.). This book also touches on the growing American interest in the "hard-boiled detective" and the thriller, and points to the roots of the thriller in the sensation novels of 1860s England. This was really interesting, and written in a lighthearted, approachable style. The author has a definite bias and conclusions she comes to which some people may disagree with, but I found this an enjoyable book to read and think it's a great introduction to learning about this part of history! 

The Little Trilogy, by Henryk Sienkiewicz.
Three interconnected novellas, this story focuses on the tense friendship between Selim and Henryk, two young men living in Poland. The prose is beautiful, and I found the focus on a male friendship fascinating to read about. I was particularly engrossed in "Hania," the second story, which dives into their pursuit of the same girl. I enjoyed this, though I have to confess that I was much more engrossed when I read Sienkiewicz's other work, Quo Vadis a while back. 

House of Dreams: The Life of L.M. Montgomery, by Liz Rosenberg.
A very approachable, delightful biography of L.M. Montgomery written for children, this book reads a lot more like a children's novel than a dry historical text. I was incredibly intrigued to see so many elements of the Anne books sprinkled throughout Maud Montgomery's life (the china dogs!) and I loved reading this and learning more about Maud. It was extremely sad to read about Maud's mental health challenges, and while this book is marketed towards children, some children would not be able to handle reading about Maud's mental decline, difficult marriage, or her "year of Passion" (a secret, year-long fling that she had with a man). I really liked this book, and it gives me so much more appreciation for the way that Maud, through all of the darkness she lived, sought to bring such endearing characters and uplifting stories into the world. 

Ghost Boy, by Martin Pistorius.
After a random sickness as a teenager, Pistorius became mute and wheelchair-bound. For years, he was stuck in care centers, abused, and ignored by many. One day, he "woke up" and became aware of the world around him--but he couldn't communicate his awareness to anyone...until a few people decided to find a way for him to communicate. I had head a little bit about AAC before, and learning about its impact on Martin's life was incredible. Not only was he able to communicate to others, but he eventually held down jobs, owned a dog, dated, moved to a new country, and got married. His story is so powerful and inspiring, and I really appreciate how he bluntly talks about the reality of many people treating disabled individuals as "lesser people." There are some scenes where he explicitly details the sexual, mental, and verbal abuse that he was put through, so I wouldn't hand this out to teens, but I highly recommend this book for adults.

Memory Man, by David Baldacci.
This is a riveting novel that follows Amos Decker, a former police officer and detective who--due to a traumatic injury--cannot forget anything. This is an especially unfortunate trait to have considering that one night, when he returned home from his shift as an officer, he discovered that his wife and daughter were murdered-and he can't forget that. The story picks up several months after this tragic murder, and we meet Amos as a broken man who is living out of a hotel (after spending time homeless) and working as a private investigator to bring in some cash flow. A mass shooting at a local high school, and a string of suspicious murders, bring him into action as he helps the police uncover the truth. The only part of the story that I felt a little iffy on was the fact that Amos manages to hide his hyperthymesia from everyone but his wife. That felt a little unbelievable to me, because when he became a police officer, wouldn't that fact have been revealed to his superiors? It's just a minor issue I had, but it still felt odd to me. Otherwise, I really enjoyed this book, and I am looking forward to reading more in the series!

Skyward, by Brandon Sanderson.
Spensa is the daughter of a coward. At least, that's what everyone tells her. People talk about how her father zoomed away in his fighter plane at the Battle of Alta, abandoning his friends and fellow pilots. But, Spensa believes that he's not a coward. He's her inspiration, and she too wants to be a pilot and join the fight against the Krell, the mysterious alien race that is attacking Spensa's world. Since she is the "daughter of a coward," Spensa has no real hopes of becoming a pilot, and she spends her days as a rat-catcher...until everything changes. In classic Sanderson style, this is a well-written, fast-paced story with fabulous characters. I really appreciate how strong Spensa is, even with all of her flaws. Her fellow pilots-in-training are fun to read about, and this is just a fun story. I'm excited to read more in the series!

Miss Buncle's Book, by D.E. Stevenson.
An utterly delightful novel, set in a 1930s quaint English village, I have no idea where this has been all my life. Barbara Buncle is a dowdy, frumpy, somewhat unnoticed spinster living in a small village. She falls upon financial hardships, and figures that she needs money-so she decides to write a book. Under the name "John Smith," she sends the book off to a publisher, and it soon becomes a bestseller. The only problem? Miss Buncle can only write about "what she knows," and it turns out that her novel is all about the people of her village. Chaos ensues as the snobbish members of the village (who pretty much run everything) organize a "witch hunt" of sorts to try and figure out who "John Smith" is, so that they can horsewhip him for writing this book. There was nothing terribly deep here, but it was a charming, funny story. I laughed several times, and I am so excited that there are more books in the series-hopefully they are all as good as this one! 

Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World, by Henri Nouwen.
Pithy and powerful, this small book discusses what life as a Beloved of God looks like. Fr. Nouwen prefaces it by describing a Jewish friend, Fred. He talks about their friendship, and mentions that Fred asked for a book that would describe to him and his Secular friends what "life of the Beloved" would look like. This book, written to Fred and his friends, sets out to do that. With simplicity and clarity, Nouwen walks considers four particular aspects of "life of the Beloved:" to be taken, blessed, broken, and given. For each aspect, he both discusses it, reflects on Scripture, and gives practical applications for our lives. His discussions on embracing our brokenness and on seeing our death as a gift particularly resonated with me. His writing style reminds me quite a bit of Fr. Paul Farren, and there is just so much in this little book for deeper reflection. It's the type of book that I could see working really well as part of a teenage small group as well as for adults of all ages. 

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot.
This is an interesting exploration into the life of Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman whose cells were taken--without her knowledge--when she was admitted to John Hopkins for cancer treatment in the 1950s. That cell line has become "immortal" as HeLa widely grows, multiplies, and is used throughout the world for research. The book jumps back and forth across history, giving a rich portrait of Henrietta, as well as chronicling the journey the author took in researching and writing this book. Through learning about Henrietta's own life, and reading about the author's experiences working the the Lacks family, a fascinating, tragic story emerges. I had never known much about this woman's life or death, but this seems like an incredibly important part of our history. The racial and economic injustices alone are well worth reading about and discussing, but the afterword of this book--which dives into the ethics of tissue research--also deserves discussion. 

The Last Mile, by David Baldacci.
The second installment of Amos Decker's adventures, this story mainly moves through the South, covering topics like white supremacy, love, and parenthood. Right after being recruited to a special task force, Decker happens to hear a story on the radio about a man (Melvin Mars) who had been on Death Row for 20 years for the murder of his parents. Right before Mars was supposed to be executed, a different man--in a different state--claims that he killed Mars' parents. Decker and his cohorts jump into the case as they try to uncover the truth of who exactly killed Mr. and Mrs. Mars--and why. This story was very enjoyable to read, though I did think part of the mystery was a little predictable and I also didn't think that Melvin Mars' character was realistic (he seemed to bounce back into off of Death Row fairly smoothly, which I didn't find entirely believable). Baldacci does a great job writing these intriguing mysteries with fabulous characters, and I am liking them a lot so far! 

Thanks so much for joining me in a literary conversation this month! As always, I would love to hear any recommendations that you might have. My library stack is tall (very, very tall at the moment) and my TBR list is long, but I always love finding new literary treasures :) 


  1. I really appreciate your reading lists and reviews! As a counselor and someone who has worked in the early childhood field, I am a huge fan of Dan Siegel. I'm so happy that the library near me is open now so that I can check out some of the books I've been meaning to.

    1. I'm so glad you like these! That's neat that you've read Siegel's work. I really liked how practical and approachable his book was, since I remember very little from an Intro to Psychology class I took in college :P That's awesome that you have your library back! I hope you enjoy it!

  2. Thanks for linking up! Lots of good books here! I've had The GreenEmber on hold at the library, having read about it elsewhere recently. I'm looking forward to reading it aloud to the kids.

    1. I had to wait a long time to get the Green Ember, because the hold list was so long-I guess everyone is wanting to read it right now! I hope you're able to get it soon so you can read it with your kids, I think you will all enjoy it.

  3. We've been so busy getting ready to list our house for sale that I haven't read much lately. Your lists always inspire me to check out a diverse array of books!

    1. I'm glad you enjoy these lists! I hope that you are able to find some time to relax and that the house selling process goes smoothly! I imagine it's challenging to do that with young kids, and I hope you're able to get the help you need to get things ready to list it.