November Small Goals + What I’m Into

It's my monthly wrap up and my November small goals! | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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As always, I’m linking up with writes like a girl for my November small goals, and Leigh Kramer for my monthly what I’m into.

I’ve been busybusybusy doing the most boring things, so I apologize ahead of time for pretty much the lamest October goals ever. However, if you’re like me, even checking off these boring goals is a real energy booster!

  • Get an eye exam and an oil change. Check!
  • Get my piano tuned. Also check! (Bonus: I found out that my piano is worth a loooot more than I paid for it at the thrift store!)
  • Plan a Harry Potter-themed murder mystery party! Okay, this has been postponed until January. I’ve been incredibly busy, and our friends keep getting sick, so we’re going to reschedule in the new year.
  • Finally make it to the beach! Yep! Although we didn’t do much swimming, since we were in the midst of a rare cold snap. We got to watch surfers doing their thing (usually the waves aren’t big enough in the Gulf for this to happen) and have a picnic lunch.
  • Contact insurance companies, credit card companies, and transportation services. Check!

4.5/5 feels pretty good! I completed my overall goal, which was to do as many boring chores as possible in the hopes of freeing up some time to rest and relax and enjoy the holidays. With that in mind, here are my November small goals:

  • Dentist. *heavy sigh* It’s time for me to go back and get those problem teeth taken care of. This is the heaviest thing on my to-do list and the main thing keeping me from enjoying the holiday season, so I’m hoping to get it over with soon.
  • Shop sales for Christmas gifts. I have a lot of businesses that I love to support, and many of them have a lot of great Black Friday/Cyber Monday sales that I want to shop.
  • Related: Shop for Secret Santa gifts! This is one of my favorite things to do every year, and this year I’m signed up for three bookish or geeky swaps. I can’t wait to do some shopping for this!
  • Finish watching Sherlock. I watched the first episode in the latest season and it totally stressed me out, which is why I still haven’t finished watching it. Oops.
  • Study for an upcoming Praxis exam. (Details later!)

What I’m Into

Books I’m looking forward to reading: I have all three of the illustrated Harry Potter books, and I’m soooo slowly making my way through them. They are lovely! And I’m always surprised to remember how sweet the first few books in the series are.

TV shows I’ve watched: Basically nothing (other than the first episode of Sherlock season 4, see above). But I’ve been watching old favorite kids movies–everything from Muppet Treasure Island to Hotel Transylvania to How to Train Your Dragon. It has been pretty great.

Instagram account I’m loving: This ink pen art is so lovely!

My favorite Instagram:

As mentioned above, I’m loving the illustrated Harry Potter books!

If you’d like to follow me on Instagram (I post lots of book pictures and the occasional selfie), you can do so here.

If you want to see more of what I’m into every month, along with sneak peeks and my favorite posts from the blog, sign up for my email newsletter! It’ll show up in your inbox about once a month and bring you the latest blog news and the things I’m loving.

What are you all up to this month? Let me know in the comments!

Comics Roundup

I don't usually read comics, but this is what I came up with when I ransacked my roommate's collection. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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I’m not a big reader of comics, but my roommate has a huge collection, so one day I decided to explore a few of his comics. I’m offering these up as possible entryways into comics if you (like me) have no interest in the stereotypical superhero types. (All summaries via Goodreads.com)

Serenity, Vol. 1-4

If you enjoyed the show Firefly, I really do recommend these comics to you. They are able to bring back the characters of this beloved show, mostly in a way that feels true to who they were. Serenity also fills in some of the backstory for characters like Shepherd Book and River, which I appreciated. As far as I know, there are only these four volumes, but that’s better than nothing for Firefly fans!

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Love and Wonder

Set in a 1920’s New York where Prohibition outlaws the brewing of spells, the story follows Vincent Byrde, a hard-boiled PI who struggles with a magic curse. After a long career hunting magic bootleggers, Vincent has become obsessed with the frustrating case of Jimmy Wonder: a young, up-and-coming spellrunner who keeps slipping out of the hands of the law. Their dance takes a complicated turn when Kitty Lovelace — well-known to be Jimmy’s main girl — walks out on Wonder and into Vincent’s life.

The first thing you’ll notice about this comic is the beautiful art, so if art is your main interest, you should check out Love and Wonder. This is a noir story based on the Prohibition of magic, and it takes all the cliches of the 1920s and puts a magical spin on them. I’ll admit, the story wasn’t really for me (and there is some sexual content, so be aware!), but again–that art!

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Vol. 1

London, 1898. The Victorian Era draws to a close and the twentieth century approaches. It is a time of great change and an age of stagnation, a period of chaste order and ignoble chaos. It is an era in need of champions.

In this amazingly imaginative tale, literary figures from throughout time and various bodies of work are brought together to face any and all threats to Britain. Allan Quatermain, Mina Murray, Captain Nemo, Dr. Henry Jekyll and Edward Hyde and Hawley Griffin ( the Invisible Man) form a remarkable legion of intellectual aptitude and physical prowess: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

This well-known comic is a little more closely related to the stereotypical action/adventure comics. But instead of superheroes, this comic stars book characters such as Dr. Jekyll, Captain Nemo, the Invisible Man, and Mycroft Holmes, who interact, argue, and get into trouble.

This is another comic that wasn’t exactly for me–at least, I don’t really have any interest in reading more of it. But it kept my interest while I was reading it, and I think it might be a good option if you’re looking to ease your way into comics.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Fried Green Tomatoes and Little Beach Street Bakery: A Comparison

A comparison of Fried Green Tomatoes and The Little Beach Street Bakery--they have more in common than you think. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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In today’s post, I’m going to do a little bit of a comparison, rather than separate reviews for these two books. As I was thinking about Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe and Little Beach Street Bakery, I realized that they actually have a lot in common–and that the reasons I loved one book are the shortcomings of the other. One is a modern-day classic; the other is a book that was hugely popular a couple of years ago.

Each of these books centers itself around two important aspects: location and food. Fried Green Tomatoes exists mainly at the Whistle Stop Cafe, the center of small town Alabama life for a tight-knit community. Little Beach Street Bakery is on a small island off the coast of England, where a recently divorced woman tries to put her life back together by baking.

First, here’s a quick summary of Fried Green Tomatoes, in case you’ve somehow missed out on reading it or seeing the movie:

It’s first the story of two women in the 1980s, of gray-headed Mrs. Threadgoode telling her life story to Evelyn, who is in the sad slump of middle age. The tale she tells is also of two women — of the irrepressibly daredevilish tomboy Idgie and her friend Ruth, who back in the thirties ran a little place in Whistle Stop, Alabama, a Southern kind of Cafe Wobegon offering good barbecue and good coffee and all kinds of love and laughter, even an occasional murder. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

Basically, this book explores life in the South during the 1930s and 1940s, as well as the life of a woman in the 1980s. This involves race relations, gender roles, midlife crises, and relationships with those who are different from you. But the book never becomes preachy (many of the main characters make questionable decisions), and each of the characters, from Idgie and Ruth to their friends and family to the elderly Mrs. Threadgoode and her unlikely friend Evelyn, is unique and flawed in a lovable way. I thought this book was lovely.

Meanwhile, here’s what happens in Little Beach Street Bakery:

Amid the ruins of her latest relationship, Polly Waterford moves far away to the sleepy seaside resort of Polbearne, where she lives in a small, lonely flat above an abandoned shop.

To distract her from her troubles, Polly throws herself into her favorite hobby: making bread. But her relaxing weekend diversion quickly develops into a passion. As she pours her emotions into kneading and pounding the dough, each loaf becomes better than the last. Soon, Polly is working her magic with nuts and seeds, olives and chorizo, and the local honey-courtesy of a handsome local beekeeper. Drawing on reserves of determination and creativity Polly never knew she had, she bakes and bakes . . . and discovers a bright new life where she least expected it. (Summary via Goodreads.com)

This book is much more centered around a romance rather than around the relationships of a cast of characters, and that basic premise already makes me less inclined to enjoy this book. I picked up this book because I had heard it described as a great summer read, light and enjoyable. But I didn’t quite feel that way about it.

While Fried Green Tomatoes centers around the Whistle Stop Cafe, its proprietors, and the many people–both locals and out of towners–who spend time there, Little Beach Street Bakery focuses more on the broken relationships in the isolated town of Polbearne. Polly has to fight with her landlady, who is desperate to cling to her monopoly on baked goods, as well as struggling with her attraction to a couple of the men she meets on the island.

While Polly eventually finds love and fulfillment in her new life, Little Beach Street Bakery never has the warmth and humor that I got from Fried Green Tomatoes. Its characters are more forgettable and less quirky–something I really missed. And although there is less talk about food in Fried Green Tomatoes than in Little Beach Street Bakery, that’s really my only complaint. Both books offer up their respective settings as important pieces of the story, but whereas the setting of Little Beach Street Bakery is cold and forbidding, just like its weather, Fried Green Tomatoes takes a cue from the warmth of a summer in the South and imbues the story with that feeling.

I’m not saying that Little Beach Street Bakery is a bad book. I enjoyed reading it, and I can see why it became so popular. But it can’t compare to the wonderful characters, setting, and quirky but heartwarming story of Fried Green Tomatoes.

Mystery Roundup, October 2017

Today I'm reviewing all the latest mystery books I've read. It's a wide variety for different ages and settings. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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I’m a big fan of mysteries of all kinds, and in today’s post I’m reviewing a wide variety of mystery novels. There are standalones and series; MG, YA, and adult books; and settings from Australia to London to Singapore. There’s something for everyone here! (Summaries via Goodreads.com)

Aunty Lee’s Delights

After losing her husband, Rosie Lee could easily have become one of Singapore’s “tai tai,” an idle rich lady devoted to mah-jongg and luxury shopping. Instead she threw herself into building a culinary empire from her restaurant, Aunty Lee’s Delights, where spicy Singaporean home cooking is graciously served to locals and tourists alike. But when a body is found in one of Singapore’s beautiful tourist havens, and when one of her wealthy guests fails to show at a dinner party, Aunty Lee knows that the two are likely connected.

The murder and disappearance throws together Aunty Lee’s henpecked stepson Mark, his social-climbing wife Selina, a gay couple whose love is still illegal in Singapore, and an elderly Australian tourist couple whose visit-billed at first as a pleasure cruise-may mask a deeper purpose. Investigating the murder is rookie Police Commissioner Raja, who quickly discovers that the savvy and well-connected Aunty Lee can track down clues even better than local law enforcement.

I really enjoyed this mystery. A blog reader told me about this series when I asked for suggestions for diverse mysteries, and this book really fit what I was looking for. The Singapore setting is wonderful, and so is Aunty Lee. I know practically nothing about Singapore, so reading about their food, their culture, and their daily lives (with the addition of murder, of course) was fascinating. I can’t wait to read the next book in the series!

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Murder Most Austen

A dedicated Anglophile and Janeite, Elizabeth Parker is hoping the trip to the annual Jane Austen Festival in Bath will distract her from her lack of a job and her uncertain future with her boyfriend, Peter.

On the plane ride to England, she and Aunt Winnie meet Professor Richard Baines, a self-proclaimed expert on all things Austen. His outlandish claims that within each Austen novel there is a sordid secondary story is second only to his odious theory on the true cause of Austen’s death. When Baines is found stabbed to death in his Mr. Darcy costume during the costume ball, it appears that Baines’s theories have finally pushed one Austen fan too far. But Aunt Winnie’s friend becomes the prime suspect, so Aunt Winnie enlists Elizabeth to find the professor’s real killer. With an ex-wife, a scheming daughter-in-law, and a trophy wife, not to mention a festival’s worth of die-hard Austen fans, there are no shortage of suspects.

I picked up Murder Most Austen on a whim (and because it cost fifty cents!). I was expecting something forgettable and bland, a mystery that covers well-trodden ground. What I found was surprisingly fresh and fun. There is enough Jane Austen here for fans to enjoy, but the novel never becomes stale by relying too heavily on Austen’s well-known stories and characters. This book isn’t as saccharine as many cozy mysteries are, but it’s certainly not scary or gory. If you’re looking for a light but interesting mystery with a bit of Jane Austen flair, this book might be for you!

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Poison is Not Polite

Schoolgirl detectives Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong are at Daisy’s home, Fallingford, for the holidays. Daisy’s glamorous mother is throwing a tea party for Daisy’s birthday, and the whole family is invited, from eccentric Aunt Saskia to dashing Uncle Felix. But it soon becomes clear that this party isn’t about Daisy after all—and she is furious. But Daisy’s anger falls to the wayside when one of their guests falls seriously and mysteriously ill—and everything points to poison. It’s up to Daisy and Hazel to find out what’s really going on.

With wild storms preventing everyone from leaving, or the police from arriving, Fallingford suddenly feels like a very dangerous place to be. Not a single person present is what they seem—and everyone has a secret or two. And when someone very close to Daisy begins to act suspiciously, the Detective Society does everything they can to reveal the truth…no matter the consequences.

It has been a long time since I read the first book in this middle grade series, but this is a good follow up. Poison is Not Polite takes the form of a classic English country house mystery (think Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles), but it feels fresh and new because of the main characters–two young girls who are spending their school holiday at the house. Daisy and Hazel, along with their two school friends, take it on themselves to solve the murder of the unpleasant man who was invited to the house. But the deeper they dig, the closer they get to digging up some family secrets that Daisy may not want to know, after all.

For a MG mystery, this book doesn’t shy away from the unpleasantness of murder (or of the secrets that families sometimes try to hide, or of the casual racism that Hazel experiences). Still, it remains mostly lighthearted. I’m looking forward to seeing what mystery this Detective Society solves next.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

The Husband’s Secret

Imagine that your husband wrote you a letter, to be opened after his death. Imagine, too, that the letter contains his deepest, darkest secret—something with the potential to destroy not just the life you built together, but the lives of others as well. Imagine, then, that you stumble across that letter while your husband is still very much alive. . . .

Cecilia Fitzpatrick has achieved it all—she’s an incredibly successful businesswoman, a pillar of her small community, and a devoted wife and mother. Her life is as orderly and spotless as her home. But that letter is about to change everything, and not just for her: Rachel and Tess barely know Cecilia—or each other—but they too are about to feel the earth-shattering repercussions of her husband’s secret.

I read this for book club (because of course we read it), and honestly, I think everyone else disliked this book more than I did. I hated the book at first–there’s a lot of cheating, family drama, and of course secrets–and most of the characters are very unlikable. But once I got into the story, I couldn’t put it down! Sure, there are some cheesy moments, and if you need a likable character in order to really enjoy a book, this one probably isn’t for you. Still, I can see how The Husband’s Secret became so popular. This would be a good beach read, I think.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Agency series

Rescued from the gallows in 1850s London, young orphan (and thief) Mary Quinn is surprised to be offered a singular education, instruction in fine manners — and an unusual vocation. Miss Scrimshaw’s Academy for Girls is a cover for an all-female investigative unit called The Agency, and at seventeen, Mary is about to put her training to the test. Assuming the guise of a lady’s companion, she must infiltrate a rich merchant’s home in hopes of tracing his missing cargo ships. But the household is full of dangerous deceptions, and there is no one to trust — or is there? Packed with action and suspense, banter and romance, and evoking the gritty backstreets of Victorian London, this breezy mystery debuts a daring young detective who lives by her wits while uncovering secrets — including those of her own past.

I read the first book in the Agency series a long time ago, and I remember really enjoying it. But when I re-read the first book, followed by the rest of the series, I felt kind of… meh about it. I forgot how sexist the love interest, James, is and how the writing isn’t very sharp. (To be honest, that’s not the kind of thing that usually bothers me, but there were several instances where I thought, this book could have used another round of edits.)

While I like the idea of this series–a young woman in Victorian London finds freedom in being an undercover spy, despite the restraints on women during that time period–it doesn’t work well for me as it plays out. If you’re going to give me a fictional spy agency which allows women to have more freedom, why don’t you give me at least a couple of characters who also believe in rights for women? This is particularly annoying with James. I think the author is trying to present him as a Darcy-esque character, but while Darcy eventually comes to admire Elizabeth’s quick mind and wit, James continually tries to keep Mary from doing her job in the most patronizing ways possible. I found it very irritating.

I did think that the last book was the best in this series. Mary and James have a much better relationship, and she is able to do more mystery solving than in any of the previous books. In my mind, these books are almost equally balanced between the poor writing and sexist characters and the fun of the mysteries, particularly the last one. I don’t think I’ll be reading this series again.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Newbery Reviews: 1941

Mini reviews of the 1941 Newbery books. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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It has been a while since I did a post reviewing the Newbery books I read as a kid. So today I’m reviewing the 1941 Newbery books that I’ve already read. (Back to more recent reads next week!) [All summaries via Goodreads.com]

Medal Winner: Call it Courage

Maftu was afraid of the sea. It had taken his mother when he was a baby, and it seemed to him that the sea gods sought vengeance at having been cheated of Mafatu. So, though he was the son of the Great Chief of Hikueru, a race of Polynesians who worshipped courage, and he was named Stout Heart, he feared and avoided tha sea, till everyone branded him a coward. When he could no longer bear their taunts and jibes, he determined to conquer that fear or be conquered– so he went off in his canoe, alone except for his little dog and pet albatross. A storm gave him his first challenge. Then days on a desert island found him resourceful beyond his own expectation. This is the story of how his courage grew and how he finally returned home. This is a legend. It happened many years ago, but even today the people of Hikueru sing this story and tell it over their evening fires.

This is one of two books that Armstrong Sperry won a Newbery prize for (this one the medal, the other an honor award). Both books are focused on sailing and exploration, topics which don’t generally interest me. I thought this was pretty good when I read it as a child, but I feel no need to go back and read it again.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Blue Willow

To Janey Larkin, the blue willow plate was the most beautiful thing in her life, a symbol of the home she could only dimly remember. Now that her father was an itinerant worker, Janey didn’t have a home she could call her own or any real friends, as her family had to keep moving, following the crops from farm to farm. Someday, Janey promised the willow plate, with its picture of a real house, her family would once again be able to set down roots in a community.

Blue Willow is an important fictional account of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, and has been called The Grapes of Wrath for children.

This is one of those books that I’d like to read again someday. I remember enjoying this book, the rustic feeling that pervaded it. Blue Willow is the kind of book that made me like historical fiction so much. Through Janey’s life, we get a glimpse at life during the Great Depression, but it never actually becomes depressing (at least, as far as I remember).

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

The Long Winter

The town of De Smet is hit with terrible, howling blizzards and Laura and her family must ration their food and coal. When the supply train doesn’t arrive, Almanzo Wilder and his brother realize something must be done. They begin an impossible journey in search of provisions, before it’s too late.

In case you weren’t aware, this book is another installation of the Little House on the Prairie series.  I remember liking this book pretty well, just as I did with most of the Little House books, but this one was never my favorite in the series.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Top Ten Food-Related Books

This top ten post is all about food! I'm linking up with the Broke & Bookish to share my favorite food-related books. | NewberyandBeyond.com
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This post is part of the Top Ten Tuesday meme by The Broke and the Bookish.

I’m taking today’s Top Ten Tuesday theme in several different directions. Some of these books are actual cookbooks. Others are novels that feature food, or even books with foodie covers. A couple are even books about food that I haven’t actually read yet but reeeeeally want to. I hope you’ll share with me your favorite cookbooks or your TTT lists in the comments!

(P.S. Several of these books are ARCs which I have already reviewed, but as always, all opinions are my own. These books made the list not because I received a free copy of them, but because I truly enjoyed them.)

  • The Coincidence of Coconut Cake [ARC]. I didn’t actually enjoy this book that much (please click through if you want to read one of my more rambling, off-topic reviews), but the cover is amazing.
  • Redwall. This suggestion comes straight from my husband. He has fond memories of reading this series as a child and drooling over the feast descriptions.
  • The Pho Cookbook [ARC]. Andrea Nguyen is my go-to source for all things Vietnamese food-related, so I was super excited to read this ARC when it came out earlier this year. (And, of course, to ask my husband and resident chef to make me some pho!)
  • Hope Was Here. This book, a childhood favorite and one of the few books I’ve re-read more than once, is set in a diner where Hope is a waitress. She sprinkles her viewpoints on being a waitress and loving food throughout the book, and every major event centers around the diner and the people Hope meets there.
  • A Scone to Die For [ARC]. You guys know I love this cozy mystery series about a tearoom in Oxford (I’m even on the author’s review team!), and the first in the series is packed with food references and even a recipe.
  • Around the World in 80 Purees [ARC]. I loved this book. It offers so many good ideas for helping even your little ones enjoy different flavors. As an adventurous eater myself, I’ll try anything to help my future kids start to love food and avoid becoming picky eaters!
  • Pretty Good Number One [review copy]. This is the book that made me want to explore Japan and basically eat everything. The book isn’t all about food (but it kind of was for me!).
  • The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook. I’m eagerly awaiting the second cookbook from my favorite food blogger!
  • The Little Library Cookbook. I haven’t read this cookbook yet, but I love this food blogger also. She takes inspiration from books (both childhood favorites and adult fiction) to create her recipes.
  • The Cardamom Trail. This is another cookbook I haven’t read yet, but as a big fan of the Great British Baking Show, I really want to! I loved Chetna’s unique flavors on the show, and I’d love to try them for myself.

Classics Roundup, October 2017

Mini reviews of the classics I've been reading lately. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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As you might remember, one of my reading goals this year is to read some of the classics I’ve missed out on along the way. Some of these I’m genuinely excited to read; others are just ones I feel like I should read. Unfortunately, most of the books in this roundup fall into the latter category. (Summaries via Goodreads.com)

Candide

Brought up in the household of a powerful Baron, Candide is an open-minded young man, whose tutor, Pangloss, has instilled in him the belief that ‘all is for the best’. But when his love for the Baron’s rosy-cheeked daughter is discovered, Candide is cast out to make his own way in the world.

And so he and his various companions begin a breathless tour of Europe, South America and Asia, as an outrageous series of disasters befall them – earthquakes, syphilis, a brush with the Inquisition, murder – sorely testing the young hero’s optimism.

I didn’t enjoy this novella. I understand it’s a satire on optimism vs. pessimism, but I just don’t like satire. Sorry, Candide fans. On the bright side, Candide is very short, so at least I didn’t give up a lot of time to finish it.

Rating: Meh

Bartleby the Scrivener

Academics hail it as the beginning of modernism, but to readers around the world—even those daunted by Moby-Dick—Bartleby the Scrivener is simply one of the most absorbing and moving novellas ever. Set in the mid-19th century on New York City’s Wall Street, it was also, perhaps, Herman Melville’s most prescient story: what if a young man caught up in the rat race of commerce finally just said, “I would prefer not to”?

This Melville novella is certainly more interesting than Moby Dick, a book I attempted and DNF’ed about halfway through. The main character says, “I would prefer not to” about everything in his life, and *spoiler* eventually dies in poverty because he has given up on life. It’s interesting to think about, but this is not a book that you’ll feel invested in.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Lady Susan

Beautiful, flirtatious, and recently widowed, Lady Susan Vernon seeks an advantageous second marriage for herself, while attempting to push her daughter into a dismal match. A magnificently crafted novel of Regency manners and mores that will delight Austen enthusiasts with its wit and elegant expression.

Now this (no surprise) I loved! If you’ve seen and enjoyed the recent movie based on this book, I’m happy to report that the book is very similar to the movie. This is Jane Austen’s lovely writing in a small package. Highly recommended if you like Jane Austen or epistolary novels in general.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Their Eyes Were Watching God

When Janie, at sixteen, is caught kissing shiftless Johnny Taylor, her grandmother swiftly marries her off to an old man with sixty acres. Janie endures two stifling marriages before meeting the man of her dreams, who offers not diamonds, but a packet of flowering seeds …

I read this book as a teenager, and the only thing I remembered from it was greatly disliking the written dialect (something I still generally dislike). So I decided I should read it again as an adult. I definitely got more out of it this time–Janie’s inner journey, through the three husbands she had, to becoming her own woman who doesn’t allow others to stifle her is the real focus of the book–but it’s still not one of my favorites. (As a side note, I’m very glad I finished reading this book after Hurricane Irma hit. A devastating hurricane produces the climax of this book, and it was crazy reading about the destruction of all the small Florida towns that are near where we live!)

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Othello

In Othello, Shakespeare creates a powerful drama of a marriage that begins with fascination (between the exotic Moor Othello and the Venetian lady Desdemona), with elopement, and with intense mutual devotion and that ends precipitately with jealous rage and violent deaths.

Ugh. (Sorry, Shakespeare fans.) I don’t like tragedies much, and as someone who hasn’t really studied Shakespeare, I found a lot of this hard to understand. I’d much rather watch a Shakespeare play than read one, as I always seem to get a lot more out of it when I have more context. I’m glad I read Othello, but I’m also glad I’m done reading it.

Rating: Meh

Nonfiction that Will Make You Think

Quick reviews of the latest nonfiction I've read that will make you think. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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I read a weird hodgepodge of nonfiction, usually including memoirs, history, and personal development. Today’s nonfiction revolves around the theme of books that will make you think, whether about religion, feminism, or adoption. (All summaries via Goodreads.com)

Evolving in Monkey Town

Rachel recounts growing up in a culture obsessed with apologetics, struggling as her own faith unraveled one unexpected question at a time.

In order for her faith to survive, Rachel realizes, it must adapt to change and evolve. Using as an illustration her own spiritual journey from certainty to doubt to faith, Evans challenges you to disentangle your faith from false fundamentals and to trust in a God who is big enough to handle your tough questions.

As I mentioned in my review of Searching for Sunday, I find reading Rachel Held Evans’s writing kind of surreal. This book is especially so, as she talks specifically about her time at Bryan College, my alma mater, taking worldview classes and talking about the same issues that we still discussed during my time at Bryan. Additionally, I continue to find that Rachel’s journey in her faith mirrors mine in certain aspects, even if I don’t always come to the same conclusions she does. Her thoughts on Christianity, faith, apologetics, and having all the answers were really helpful to me, and I think they would be to anyone who has struggled with the hard questions of the Christian faith and had their questions ignored or pushed away.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Dear Ijeawele

A few years ago, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie received a letter from a dear friend from childhood, asking her how to raise her baby girl as a feminist. Dear Ijeawele is Adichie’s letter of response.

Here are fifteen invaluable suggestions–compelling, direct, wryly funny, and perceptive–for how to empower a daughter to become a strong, independent woman. From encouraging her to choose a helicopter, and not only a doll, as a toy if she so desires; having open conversations with her about clothes, makeup, and sexuality; debunking the myth that women are somehow biologically arranged to be in the kitchen making dinner, and that men can “allow” women to have full careers, Dear Ijeawele goes right to the heart of sexual politics in the twenty-first century. It will start a new and urgently needed conversation about what it really means to be a woman today.

Adichie‘s latest book (if you can call it that–it reads like a long essay) features suggestions on raising a child as a feminist. I liked the suggestions and agreed with most of them, but I was already familiar with and planning to use most of them. If you’re looking for a quick primer on raising children as feminists, this might be the book for you. But if you’re already well versed on feminism and stocked up with theories on raising children, you might be able to skip this one.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

The Open-Hearted Way to Open Adoption

Prior to 1990, fewer than 5% of domestic infant adoptions were open. In 2011, 90% or more of adoption agencies are recommending open adoption. Yet these agencies do not often or adequately prepare either adopting parents or birth parents for the road ahead of them! The adult parties in open adoptions are left floundering. There are many resources on why to do open adoption, but what about how? Open adoption isn’t just something parents do when they exchange photos, send emails, share a visit. It’s a lifestyle that may intrude at times, be difficult or inconvenient at other times. Tensions can arise even in the best of situations. But knowing how to handle these situations and how to continue to make arrangements work for the children involved is paramount.

The Open-Hearted Way offers a powerful look at how we can use open adoption for raising a whole child. As someone who looks forward to adopting at some point in the future, I’m always looking for more information, more ideas, better ways of making adoption work. This book filled that need for me. Lori and Crystal, an adoptive mother and a birth mother in an open adoption, share their two sides of the adoption story and give helpful tips on how to make open adoption work for both sets of parents, and most importantly for the child.

If you’ve been interested in adoption and felt too afraid to look at open adoption, please read this book! It will answer your concerns and questions with warm, practical, clear-eyed but optimistic advice.

Rating: Re-read Worthy

Newbery Roundup, October 2017

The latest roundup of Newbery books I've read, both new and old. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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Not only have I been working through the classic Newbery books lately, but I’ve also found a few more recent Newbery books in the archives that I read months (or years) ago and never reviewed (oops!). So in today’s Newbery roundup, you’ll find mini reviews of books from recent years and also some of the oldest honor books. (All summaries via Goodreads.com)

Brown Girl Dreaming

Jacqueline Woodson, one of today’s finest writers, tells the moving story of her childhood in mesmerizing verse.

Raised in South Carolina and New York, Woodson always felt halfway home in each place. In vivid poems, she shares what it was like to grow up as an African American in the 1960s and 1970s, living with the remnants of Jim Crow and her growing awareness of the Civil Rights movement. Touching and powerful, each poem is both accessible and emotionally charged, each line a glimpse into a child’s soul as she searches for her place in the world. Woodson’s eloquent poetry also reflects the joy of finding her voice through writing stories, despite the fact that she struggled with reading as a child. Her love of stories inspired her and stayed with her, creating the first sparks of the gifted writer she was to become.

I love Jacqueline Woodson’s writing style, and this book, which shares Woodson’s own childhood in free verse form, is no exception. It’s a lovely, quick read that will stay with you even if you don’t generally like poetry.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

A Daughter of the Seine

This is a fictionalized biography of the French Revolutionary patriot and writer Jeanne Manon Roland de la Platiere (1754-1793), who became known simply by Madame Roland. She was the daughter of a Paris engraver who encouraged his daughter’s interest in music, painting, and literature. As a young girl, she told to her grand-mother: “I’ll call myself daughter of the Seine,” and as an adult she often said that the river was part of her soul. As a young woman she became interested in the radical ideas of Jean Jacques Rousseau and the movement for equality. She shared these enthusiasms with her husband, whom she married in 1780. After the outbreak of the Revolution, she formed a salon of followers, who late became known as the Girondists. Under the constitutional monarchy, her husband became minister of the interior, a post he held after the monarchy was overthrown. Madame Roland both directed her husband’s career and influenced the important politicians of the period.

As with most of the historical fiction from this era of Newbery books, it’s hard to believe that kids would ever have enjoyed reading A Daughter of the Seine. This book is not as dry as others I’ve read, but it’s still pretty forgettable (and surprisingly long). I did learn some new things about this interesting historical figure, and I appreciated that the focus of this book is a woman, but I still wouldn’t really recommend it for modern-day readers.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Three Times Lucky

Rising sixth grader Miss Moses LoBeau lives in the small town of Tupelo Landing, NC, where everyone’s business is fair game and no secret is sacred. She washed ashore in a hurricane eleven years ago, and she’s been making waves ever since. Although Mo hopes someday to find her “upstream mother,” she’s found a home with the Colonel–a café owner with a forgotten past of his own–and Miss Lana, the fabulous café hostess. She will protect those she loves with every bit of her strong will and tough attitude. So when a lawman comes to town asking about a murder, Mo and her best friend, Dale Earnhardt Johnson III, set out to uncover the truth in hopes of saving the only family Mo has ever known.

Full of wisdom, humor, and grit, this timeless yarn will melt the heart of even the sternest Yankee.

This book is wonderful! If you like small-town, Southern characters in the style of Lucky Strikes or even A Year Down Yonder, you’ll enjoy this book. There is a sequel which I still haven’t read, but I definitely plan to.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

The Dark Star of Itza

The story of a Mayan princess who lived at the time the ancient city of Chichen Itza fell under Toltec rule.

Why is this book so obsessed with adult themes (war, jealous love, and human sacrifices among them)? It’s a bit jarring in a children’s book. Despite that, I did like the character of Nicte, a princess and the daughter of the high priest in the ancient Mayan civilization. Like A Daughter of the Seine, this is one of the less offensive and dry historical fiction books from this period in Newbery history.

Rating: Good but Forgettable

Heart of a Samurai

In 1841, a Japanese fishing vessel sinks. Its crew is forced to swim to a small, unknown island, where they are rescued by a passing American ship. Japan’s borders remain closed to all Western nations, so the crew sets off to America, learning English on the way.

Manjiro, a fourteen-year-old boy, is curious and eager to learn everything he can about this new culture. Eventually the captain adopts Manjiro and takes him to his home in New England. The boy lives for some time in New England, and then heads to San Francisco to pan for gold. After many years, he makes it back to Japan, only to be imprisoned as an outsider. With his hard-won knowledge of the West, Manjiro is in a unique position to persuade the shogun to ease open the boundaries around Japan; he may even achieve his unlikely dream of becoming a samurai.

This is an interesting fictionalized account of Manjiro, a Japanese boy who helped unite the US and Japan, ending Japan’s 250 years of isolation. Although I was slightly familiar with the story of Manjiro before reading this book, I still found myself feeling like these events couldn’t possibly have occurred–but they did! The author does a great job of fleshing out the actual historical events (including some of Manjiro’s own words from his letters and writings) with the thoughts and feelings a young man might have had. This book is a well-written, fascinating account of historical events that I actually would recommend for modern-day readers, whether children or adults.

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Queer Person

Relates the experiences of an outcast deaf-mute Indian boy as he grows to adulthood and eventually becomes a great leader.

Here we go again… I find it very questionable that this white man (who, granted, seems to have spent a fair amount of time working with Native American tribes) has taken it upon himself to write about being a deaf Native American. In addition, the story (young deaf boy struggles to find his place in his tribe, finds out he has royal blood, magically becomes able to hear, wins the heart of the princess) is trite. I can’t really recommend this one.

Rating: Meh

The Great Fire

The Great Fire of 1871 was one of most colossal disasters in American history. Overnight, the flourshing city of Chicago was transformed into a smoldering wasteland. The damage was so profound that few people believed the city could ever rise again.

By weaving personal accounts of actual survivors together with the carefully researched history of Chicago and the disaster, Jim Murphy constructs a riveting narrative that recreates the event with drama and immediacy. And finally, he reveals how, even in a time of deepest dispair, the human spirit triumphed, as the people of Chicago found the courage and strength to build their city once again.

I love this kind of historical book, filled with photos and first-hand accounts. Murphy offers a historical view of the great fire in Chicago, including its causes, the destruction it caused, and the fallout. He also takes it upon himself to remind readers that the blame which fell on the poor, the immigrants, and the women who lived in the city was a product of its time and not an accurate reflection of what happened. This is fascinating reading, whether you’re a kid or an adult. (And if you like this book, you might also enjoy Jim Murphy’s other Newbery book, An American Plague.)

Rating: Pretty Darn Good

Small Goals + What I’m Into, October 2017

I'm sharing my small goals and what I'm into for October 2017. | Book reviews by NewberyandBeyond.com
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As always, I’m linking up with writes like a girl for my October 2017 small goals, and Leigh Kramer for my monthly what I’m into.

It feels like only a few days ago that I wrote my small goals for September, and now we’re already into October! The couple of weeks of chaos surrounding Hurricane Irma definitely threw off my schedule, but I’m grateful that it wasn’t nearly as awful for SWFL as predicted, and I’m focusing on praying for and supporting Puerto Rico, who are much worse off than we are here.

  • Go for a walk every day after work. Haha, nope. Sadly, I didn’t even get close on this goal.
  • Finish a couple of book series I’ve started but have yet to finish. Yes! You can read about the book series I finally finished reading here.
  • Listen to In the Heights. Yep, and I’ve started listening to Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 as well.
  • Spend time connecting with friends and family. This is the goal that the hurricane interrupted the most. I was in contact with a few friends and family, but only surrounding hurricane plans, and after that things were too crazy and communication too limited for me to even think about doing this. Maybe next month.
  • Scrapbook. Yes, mostly. I found out that I don’t have any photo mounting stickers, so I didn’t actually stick anything down. But I did trash all the photos and mementos I didn’t want and organize everything by event, so all I have to do when I get the stickers is stick things on a page.

So 3/5 during a ridiculously chaotic month? I feel pretty good about that! Now that we’re in October, this is my last month of relative freedom before my schedule gets booked up with holiday-related parties, travel, and rehearsals, so I’m hoping to get a lot of boring household stuff done.

  • Get an eye exam and an oil change. Yeah, these don’t seem related, but they’re actually located close enough to each other that I can drop off my car and get my eye exam done while I’m waiting.
  • Get my piano tuned. During the events of the hurricane, we found out that my neighbor is a piano tuner! I’m hoping to have him over to tune my beloved thrift store piano.
  • Plan a Harry Potter-themed murder mystery party! TBD if this will fall around Halloween or if I’ll have to postpone it until November…
  • Finally make it to the beach! I keep trying this without success. Maybe this will be the month!
  • Contact insurance companies, credit card companies, and transportation services. I want to get all this annoying paperwork and phone calls off my list before the craziness of the holidays starts.

What I’m Into

Books I’m looking forward to reading: I have a stack of Newbery books waiting to be read.

TV shows I’ve watched: Have I mentioned my obsession with Father Brown? It has been keeping me sane lately.

Instagram account I’m loving: This hair stylist does crazy amazing colorful hairstyles that I love.

My favorite Instagram:

I didn’t post a single picture on Instagram in September (oops), so here’s a cute photo of my husband and our guinea pig Zoe from August.

Guinea pig snuggles 🙂

A post shared by Monica Fastenau (@monica.fastenau) on

If you’d like to follow me on Instagram (I post lots of book pictures and the occasional selfie), you can do so here.

If you want to see more of what I’m into every month, along with sneak peeks and my favorite posts from the blog, sign up for my email newsletter! It’ll show up in your inbox once a month and bring you the latest blog news and the things I’m loving.

What are you all up to this month? Let me know in the comments!

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