On our road trip to the beach this summer, we had the chance to visit two independent bookstores: Parnassus Books in Nashville, TN and Sun Dog Books in Seaside, FL. When we lived in Nashville I used to spend hours in the old Davis-Kidd bookstore. It was my happy place, and once I became a mother I loved taking Elena there as well. Sadly, Indianapolis doesn’t have an independent bookstore in the vein of Parnassus or Sun Dog. I’d love to see one open up and thrive in my community.
I may not have been blogging much over the summer, but there was one thing I was definitely doing: reading! This summer I made dedicated reading time a part of our daily routine most days. It’s not always easy or fun modeling good behavior and habits as a parent, but modeling the importance of reading? That I can do. I mean, it’s for the kids!
Because I’m covering three months worth of books in this post, I’m going to save the detailed reviews for the best of the best. I’ll list honorable mention reads and the books I just couldn’t finish. If you’d like to see my thoughts on those, connect with me on Goodreads. I’ll post reviews there. On to the good stuff!
Disclosure: this post contains affiliate links.
Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum
Jessie is floundering. In less than two years her life has been turned upside down: her mother died and her father eloped with a widow he met online. And now, in an effort towards new beginnings, her father moves them from Chicago to LA to live with their new family. It’s all going wrong and Jessie can’t fit in to save her life. Then she gets an email from someone calling themselves Somebody/Nobody (SN). SN seems kind and helpful, offering to be Jessie’s guide to her new school and everyone in it. But should she trust SN? Does SN really have her best interests at heart, or is this just another cruel trick played by classmates? Things get complicated as Jessie begins to have feelings for SN, just as she’s getting a small foothold on her new life.
This is exactly the kind of YA I love: smartly written, but not too serious; funny, but not silly. I’m also finding I have a new appreciation for books set in LA now that I’ve been there. I took this book to the beach with me and it was perfect for reading in short bursts in between sunning and swimming.
The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney
The Plumb siblings (Leo, Bea, Jack and Melody) have spent years dreaming, planning and getting themselves into financial trouble with only one thought in mind … it will all be fine after “The Nest.” The Nest is a trust set aside by their father long ago, meant to be nothing more than a modest midlife supplement, available to the children when the youngest turned 40. But thanks to some shrewd investing, The Nest is worth more than any of them could have imagined. At least it was, until Leo’s accident. With Leo facing an expensive divorce, a stint in rehab, and an injured young girl that needs shush money, the once glorious Nest is in danger of being depleted. You won’t believe this is Sweeney’s first novel. It’s juicy, filled with family drama, greed and lust. You’ll be sucked in immediately, pulling for some characters and shaking your head in exasperation at others. We just discussed this at book club this month and it was a lively and interesting conversation about siblings, relationships and money.
Before the Fall by Noah Hawley
This was the first book I received in my Book of the Month subscription and I couldn’t wait to dive in (bad pun for a book that revolves around a plane crash into the ocean). I’m not typically a book-buyer, and I live by my To Be Read list, so it’s not often that I read a new much-hyped book at the same time or before most people have read it. That needs to change, because man-oh-man, is it fun to read a book as captivating as this one and then push it onto every reader you come across!
Scott Burroughs is a struggling painter and recovering alcoholic living a quiet life in Martha’s Vineyard when Sarah offers him a ride to the city on her husband’s private jet. Joining them on a Sunday evening flight are Sarah’s husband, head of a cable news network, her two children, Ben, an investment banker on the verge of indictment for fraud and his wife, the family security guard, the stewardess and two pilots. When the plane crashes into the ocean without warning 16 minutes later, only two survive: Scott and Sarah’s 4-year-old son. Mirroring today’s vicious news cycle, Scott goes from being the hero to a suspect in a matter of days. What (or who) was behind the crash? Are Scott’s motives for building a relationship with the boy influenced by money? Hawley tells a fascinating and gripping story, keeping the reader on their toes and turning pages. This is definitely one of my top reads of the year – just don’t read it on a plane!
168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think by Laura Vanderkam
168 hours: that’s how many hours we get in one week. How, exactly, do we spend those 168 hours? Most of us would say working, and many of us often wish for more time so that we could pursue interests outside of work and the other drudgeries of daily life. Vanderkam insists that we don’t need more time – that big pockets of time are available to use every day and we just don’t recognize them as opportunities. Vanderkam suggests keeping a weekly time log for at least one week, and then walks the reader through work, home and family life to discover what you want more of and how to make it happen.
This isn’t a typical time management book, and while the focus is clearly on readers who work full or part-time, I found it to be illuminating and helpful. I kept a time log for a week and it gave me incredible insight into how I spend my 168 hours (more on that in a future post for sure). Two things stuck with me, and can be transformative for those ready to make changes in how they spend their time. One: we spend more time than we think doing things that take up precious time and don’t bring us much joy or relaxation (such as mindless Internet surfing, scrolling through our phones, or watching TV). Two: if you don’t know what you want more of in life – whether it’s career, personal, or in your relationships – you can’t focus your valuable time toward making it happen. Vanderkam encourages readers to log and review their time, reflect on your dreams and goals (both very big and very small), and shows you how you can find time you already have to make them a reality. Note: some readers in reviews I read got hung up on the fact that Vanderkam suggests outsourcing life’s drudge work, such as laundry and cooking, complaining that only dual-income families making big money can do so. That may be true, but it’s only one suggestion of how to free up more time. I’m cooking my own meals and doing laundry for my family, and I’m still able to glean a tremendous amount of useful ideas from Vanderkam’s book.
The Martian by Andy Weir
When Mark Watney wakes up after the accident that nearly killed him he notices two things: he’s not dead, and he’s stranded on Mars. Alone. A sudden sandstorm wreaks havoc on Watney and his fellow Hermes crew members. In their rush to escape, he’s injured. The signals coming from Mark’s spacesuit indicate he’s dead, leaving his heartbroken crew mates no choice but to evacuate and save themselves. What follows is a fantastic story of survival, ingenuity, and sacrifice. Watney refuses to give up and die, and those back on Earth refuse to accept his return as an impossibility. I don’t typically enjoy science fiction, and early descriptions of the book painted it as very detailed and extremely accurate when it came to descriptions of space travel and life on Mars. I decided to move past my worries that it would be boring or over my head and chose it for “A book that intimidates you” for the Modern Mrs. Darcy Reading Challenge. I’m so glad I did. I thoroughly enjoyed the audio version. Did some parts get overly descriptive and deep into science and math? Yes, and I let them go right over my head. It didn’t interfere with my understanding of the story one bit. Read the book first, but don’t miss the movie. It was fantastic as well.
The One in a Million Boy by Monica Wood
It’s heartbreaking to fall in love with a character you already know is going to die. That’s what happens with “the boy” in this quirky novel. Is it strange to call a story about an 11-year-old boy that dies quirky? Probably. But Wood manages to make a story that could be so easily overshadowed by death and sadness into story about hope, tenacity, acceptance and forgiveness.
When the boy is assigned to help 104-year-old Ona Vitkus as part of a scouting project, he embarks on a journey to do so much more than fill her bird feeders and sweep her walk. Obsessed with Guinness world records of all sorts, he inspires Ona to try for her own world records in the “Oldest” categories, starting with Oldest Licensed Driver. Ona makes the boy feel welcome and comfortable in his own odd skin, while the boy brings Ona companionship and joy that she hasn’t felt in years. His sudden death leaves a hole in her life and many others, including his estranged parents, Belle and Quinn. Belle asks only one thing of Quinn: finish your son’s scout requirement and spend the next seven Saturdays helping Ona around the house. Through Ona and the spirit of the boy, Quinn tries to work through the sadness and regret of being an absent father to a boy he never knew or understood.
Knowing the boy is going to die is indeed heartbreaking. Still, Wood gives the reader reasons to feel hope and joy through his presence and the other broken but lovable characters. I know cranky elderly characters with a hidden soft side seem to be a literary theme lately, and I can see how a reader might be done with the idea. But please don’t pass over this one just for that reason! Fans of A Man Called Ove or The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time should especially give The One in a Million Boy a read.
Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley
Lily the dachshund is more than Ted Flask’s pet. She’s not just man’s best friend, she’s his best friend. On Thursdays they talk about cute boys. On Fridays they play Monopoly, and on Sundays they eat pizza. They’ve been together for 12 years, and Lily has seen Ted through highs and lows. He is particularly low, unhappily single after a six-year relationship ends and going through the motions in dating and therapy, when he notices a visitor. Lily has an octopus. On her head. Author Steven Rowley tells a tale for dog-lovers and regular humans (I make no promises for cat lovers) alike about the unique love humans share with their dogs. Based on his relationship with his own Lily, who developed a brain tumor that eventually took her life, Lily and the Octopus is a treat to read. You wouldn’t expect a book about a melancholy owner facing the death of his dog to be funny, but it is – Rowley has a way with words that invokes laughs without resorting to snark. But prepare yourself – you will be touched deeply and there will be eye rain.
Still Life by Louise Penny
My love for Anne Bogel’s book recommendations runs strong. I know she loves this murder mystery series a lot, but when guests on her podcast, What Should I Read Next, consistently brought it up as one of the 3 books they love, I knew it was time to pay attention. My initial stubborness at reading this book came from the fact that I don’t actively seek out murder mysteries and I especially don’t seek out an entire series of them. I have a hard enough time getting through my TBR list without adding a 12-part series to it! Well, if the pickings for the books I read in the fall and winter look pretty slim, you’ll have Louise Penny to blame. I’m hooked. The series revolves around Armand Gamache, Chief Inspector with the Surêté du Québec. He’s the very best at his job, and in the first book he’s sent to the rural town of Three Pines. The quiet little town’s beloved resident Jane Neal has been found killed by a hunter’s arrow. Unfortunate accident or sinister plot? Only Gamache can find out. I’m on my third book in the series and I crave them like you would crave a warm fire and a hot mug of cocoa on a cold evening. I’m a big fan of books that are able to transport you to a place you’ve never been before and make you want to live there. I mean, other than someone from Three Pines getting whacked in every novel, the place seems quite lovely! As your faithful reviewer of books, I will make an effort to read more than just the rest of this series through the end of the year. Just know it will be very, very difficult to pick up anything else!
Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy
Teen crushes, Dolly Parton, small town Texas, and an over-the-top beauty pageant … what more could you ask for in a delicious YA book? I stole this one from Elena’s book shelf and devoured it faster than one of the red candy suckers hunky Bo leaves for Willowdean in her locker. Willowdean is used to not fitting in and she’s fine with it. Being the overweight daughter of the town’s former Miss Teen Blue Bonnet winner is Willowdean’s claim to fame, and she’s happy to not draw any more attention to herself than that fun fact already does. The pageant is her mom’s thing, who’s gone from crown-winner to crown-giver as the head of the pageant. Willowdean is comfortable in her own skin and in being the sidekick to her cute best friend, until the attention of Bo and a rift with her BFF leave her unsure about everything. She can think of only one way to get her confidence (and maybe her best friend) back: entering the Miss Teen Blue Bonnet Pageant. Willowdean and the charming characters of Clover City, Texas won me over in the first few chapters. This book deserves a tiara of its own!
Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool
I want to give Vanderpool all the gold stars for writing a book that manages to grapple with tough subjects (autism, PTSD, grief, and adolescence) beautifully through relatable and endearing characters. Jack Baker is adrift in his new boarding school in Maine. A grieving Midwest boy struggling to fit in, he finds a friend in the most unlikely of boys, Early Auden. They set out together on the Appalachian Trail together for very different reasons, learning valuable lessons about friendship, trust and the deepest kind of love. I read this aloud to Eli and we were both hooked. He loved the plot line of two boys on a quest, while I swooned over some of the best writing and dialogue I’ve found in a middle grade book.
Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave
Every time I pick up a book that takes place during World War II I wonder if it’s possible to add anything new to the story. Hasn’t everything already been written? And then I get swept away in a book like Everyone Brave is Forgiven. I learn something new and give thanks yet again to have never experienced war in my own front yard. Cleave’s novel is set in London in the early years of the war. While Alistair volunteers to serve his country, his friends Tom, Mary and Hilda are left behind. As Alistair battles near-starvation and the loss of a limb while under siege in Malta, the others endure the daily bombings in London.
It took me about 75 pages to get into the book, but once I did I couldn’t put it down. Beyond the subject of the war, Cleave’s characters grapple with love, loyalty, class and race. It is heartbreaking at times, and (trigger warning) a few passages are painfully descriptive in regards to war injuries and death. But it is also beautifully written, and I found myself re-reading passages for their beauty and writing down lines to remember always. (“But what good is it to teach a child to count, if you don’t show him he counts for something?” asks Mary of Tom in regards to her fondness for an African American student.) It is also witty and funny, and I found myself laughing out loud at the banter between the characters. Everyone Brave is Forgiven reminded me of everything I loved about All the Light We Cannot See – a gripping story, endearing characters and top notch prose – with the added fun of amusing dialogue between young friends. It was definitely one of my favorite reads this year.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
I read this at the tail end of the summer, but I highly recommend you add this to your October TBR list. Gaiman’s story of a middle-aged man returning to his childhood home only to unleash a flood of long-forgotten memories is delightfully dark, magical and creepy. On the next dark and stormy night, grab a blanket and a cup of tea and lose yourself in the story of a young boy and the trio of otherworldly Hempstock women that saved him from a frightening fate. The audio version, read by the author, is fantastic as well. This is the first adult novel by Gaiman that I’ve read, but I can’t miss the opportunity to rave about his middle grade novel, Fortunately, the Milk. Eli and I loved it.
The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper by Phaedra Patrick: another in the realm of the grumpy old man genre. Good but not nearly as charming as the others I mentioned above.
The Other Wes Moore by Wes Moore: Elena read this for school and I read this for book club. Lots to ponder in this one about race, class, and our inner cities.
Life Moves Pretty Fast by Hadley Freeman: delightful, but only if you’re as obsessed with the 80s as I am.
Food52 A New Way to Dinner by Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs: if great meals and meal prepping for the week are your thing, you’ll love this gorgeous cookbook. I wish I owned all the Food52 cookbooks!
Didn’t Like and/or Couldn’t Finish
My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout:
Sleep Revolution by Arianna Huffington
Us by David Nicholls
Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel
What are you reading and loving lately? Please share!