January Reads

The One-in-a-Million Boy, by Monica Wood. This is a charming book, but I think for me it suffered from overhype. I mean I liked it (more than a little, less than a lot), but I didn’t looooooove it the way I thought I would based on multiple recommendations. The story is about a friendship between a quirky 11-year-old boy and a 104-year-old woman he does chores for; it has plenty of twists beyond that (not like suspenseful twists, but pieces that make the story more interesting than just that). I kind of felt like, “Yeah, ok, I get it” halfway through, and while I’m not sorry I finished it, there was nothing particularly driving me toward the end.

Moonglow, by Michael Chabon. One thing about me as a reader is that I retain all the feeling of a book and so few of the details. What I can say about this book is that I really enjoyed reading it beginning to end. The thing is, though, I read a plot summary to refresh my memory about this book, and I found it almost unrecognizable. Is that really the book I read? Ha. I do now want to pick up more books by Chabon (especially The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, which is the one book that both Jason and I owned a copy of when we married and combined our book collections and which neither of us has actually read). Chabon can write, and I was taken with his characters (it’s a fictionalized memoir, and from an interview, it seems that there is very little actual memoir and almost entirely fiction), even if I can’t so much remember the plot. 

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson. This book was creepy and fascinating as you quickly realize the narrator is not quite right. Someone has poisoned the family (it only takes a few pages to figure out who), and two sisters and their elderly uncle live in the aftermath. It’s not so much a whodunit mystery unfolding as it is an exploration of mental illness.

Pax, by Sara Pennypacker, illustrated by Jon Klaassen. I picked this book up to read with Simon, and he hasn’t quite finished yet. The story is about a boy, Peter, and his fox, Pax, separated by war and making their way back to each other. The chapters alternate between the boy’s perspective and the fox’s; both are equally engaging. There are some situations in each story that seem unbelievable, but all is forgiven because it’s such a compelling (if predictable) story altogether. The illustrations are simply beautiful.

Circling the Sun, by Paula McClain (narrated by Katharine McEwan). I have such mixed feelings about this book, which is set in colonial Kenya and is the story of Beryl Markham, who was abandoned by her mother as a child and who as an adult ran with the crowd featured in Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa. I listened to this as an audio book, and the narrator was particularly good. My mixed feelings are because at times I was frankly bored, but then other times I was completely caught up in the story and characters. Markham has written a memoir that in the opinion of some is better than Out of Africa. I may pick up that memoir someday, but I fear I’ll have a weird sense of believing McClain’s portrayal so entirely that I may not believe Markham herself.

The Beautiful Mystery and How the Light Gets In, by Louise Penny. These were actually two of my favorites in a series that I have adored so far (and I’ve not really been much of a series reader since Janette Oke in my middle school years; and just to clarify, these are nothing like those, but I do have a nostalgic fondness for Oke). The Beautiful Mystery (#8) is set in a secluded monastery; one of the monks is found murdered, and the culprit can only be one of their own. As for the mystery itself, this was probably my favorite of the series. The surrounding stories (the continued arch of the main characters) was not my favorite in this one, but after reading the next book in the series as well, I can appreciate why the characters acted as they did. Then How the Light Gets In (#9) is my favorite of the series so far. So many of the storylines came together and in fact resolved in such a way that this could easily have been the last book in the series and I would have sighed a contented sigh (don’t get me wrong, I’m glad there are three more and another coming out this fall). I don’t remember much about the particular plot of this one (remember that thing I said about the feeling of a book), but it hit all the right notes I have come to expect from Penny.

Everything You Ever Wanted, by Jillian Lauren. This is a memoir that I almost tossed in the great Goodreads purge of 2016. A friend, though, left a review that said she has asked her friends and family to read it for a glimpse of her own life with foster care and adoption. It was indeed an enjoyable (if that’s possible) read about a hard topic–the author has insightful things to say about her experiences with infertility and adoption of a child who had experienced early trauma.

Another Brooklyn, by Jacqueline Woodson (narrated by Robin Miles). I read this book in one sitting in December, and because it was our book club pick for January, I listened to the audio version to refresh my memory (I was on hold for both the hard copy and the audio, and the audio was available first). I have to say I enjoyed reading the physical book more than listening. The narrator was better than okay but somehow not my very favorite. I did pick up so much more from listening than I did reading the first time, and I’m not sure if that was format or familiarity–probably a bit of both. A plot description doesn’t do this novel justice. I read one review that said, “This gorgeous novel is a poem. It is a love letter to black girlhood.” This is one that has stayed with me since my first reading and continues to play at the corners of my mind.

Swing Time, by Zadie Smith. I loved the first third or so of this book so much. And I liked the rest of it a whole lot too. It’s a novel that alternates times and storylines, and I think when it came down to it, I just found one of the storylines more interesting than the other (not always the same one). I happened to catch a snippet of the author being interviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air (I didn’t even know it was her at first, but I guessed by the conversation that it might be, then let out a little squeal when Terry Gross confirmed with “in case you’re just joining us…”). That interview made a fan of me, and now I’m a little starry-eyed; in fact, if I talked to you in person in the last couple of weeks, it’s likely that I mentioned the interview–so many ideas that I wanted to talk about. I even made Jason listen to the podcast. I read White Teeth in grad school and remember zero about it, but this book made me want to read more from Smith.

Two-Part Invention, by Madeline L’Engle. This is the fourth in L’Engle’s Crosswalk Journals series of memoirs, and it is the story of her courtship and forty-year marriage to Hugh Franklin. It is so lovely, and full of goodness. Reading this one felt like sitting down to coffee with a treasured mentor and friend. Spoiler warning (but it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise): When Hugh died of cancer in the penultimate chapter, I cried so hard Jason came from the other room to check on me. I may never recover.

This month I also abandoned two audio books–Lab  Girl, by Hope Jahren, and Columbine, by Dave Cullen–both because of the narration. I plan to pick them up in hard copy sometime because I really would like to finish them both.