Friends, I did a very bold thing when it came to books this summer and fall. I only read what I felt like reading. That may seem like a no-brainer to you rebels out there, but for a girl who lives and dies by plowing through her To Be Read list in order and being a good book club participant, that’s crazy talk. I really wanted summer to feel different, and I think one of the greatest pleasures of summer is a relaxing of standards. It’s a gin and tonic on a Tuesday. Flip-flops and a sundress. Staying through one extra adult swim because your book is that good.
I know seasons are shifting and, like me, you may be ready for a different kind of read. But I didn’t want summer to get away from us without sharing my favorite books from the season. Whether you want to file them away for next summer or read them now with a mug of hot apple cider, that’s up to you. If I learned anything this summer, it’s that the rules of reading are always meant to be broken!
Since we’re being bold around here, I’m also going to list only the best of the best of what I read since the spring, otherwise we’ll be here until next summer. I hope to get back in the groove of posting book reviews more frequently, but I know better than to issue any promises or proclamations! In the meantime, you can always follow me on Goodreads and Instagram for more up-to-date information on the books I’m reading and loving.
Finally, one more bold thing … I redesigned Just Like The Number! Or rather, I found a snazzier look and paid someone to do it for me. But if you’re reading via email or a blog feed, I’d love for you to take a minute and see it. Now, on to the books.
Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.
The Girl With All the Gifts by M.R. Carey
There are only a few things the reader knows for sure in the opening chapters of The Girl With All the Gifts. Britain has suffered some kind of catastrophic disaster. Due to this Breakdown, there are only a few populations left: those left safe within the walls of military bases, junkers who roam the country as survivalists, and the hungries who need you as their next meal. Ten-year-old Melanie lives on the base, but she doesn’t know what, exactly, she is. She goes to school with other children like her, and loves her teacher, Miss Justineau. But she’s never been outside and spends her time in contact with other adults strapped to a wheelchair. Any time her straps are removed, it’s with guns pointing at her head. And that’s all the reader needs to know before getting completely sucked in.
I’m not sure I’ve ever read a book that produced such conflicting feelings in me. I needed to know what happened next; I was terrified to know what would happen next. On one page I found it to be graphic and frightening; on the next page I encountered something tender and moving. There are several blurbs recommending the book on the inside jacket. I recall scanning them before starting and doing the human head tilt: one reviewer called it “intense,” another called it, “charming.” How can a book be both? Answer: in the right hands, it absolutely can. Intense, charming, un-put-down-able, unforgettable. It’s definitely not for everyone, but if you can handle a little gore and terror in your literature? Pick this one up ASAP.
News of the World by Paulette Jiles
This slim little book feels like it’s from another time, and transported me into 1870s Texas instantly. Aging and widowed Captain Kidd is known throughout the South and the West as the man who reads the news. He travels from town to town, bringing along newspapers from around the country and the world. He curates the best, most interesting, and (in Texas) least controversial news of the world, and then reads it aloud to the townspeople for 10 cents admission. With a reputation for being trustworthy and dependable, Kidd is enlisted to deliver 10-year-old Johanna to relatives near San Antonio. Captured by Indians at 6, witness to the slaughter of her parents and sister, Johanna was taken in and raised by the Kiowa tribe. In those 4 years, she’s forgotten nearly everything about her whiteness and struggles against shedding her Native American ways. It’s a long journey to San Antonio for Johanna and the “Kep-dun,” as she calls him. Along the way they come to understand and trust each other in ways neither of them knew they desperately needed. I finished the book poolside after just 3 days, and bawled like a baby! Jiles does amazing things with words and characters in just 240 beautiful pages.
The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne
I received an Advanced Reader Copy in exchange for my honest review. Cyril Avery is not a real Avery, as his adoptive father likes to point out as often as possible. Born to an unmarried mother in rural Ireland in 1945, Cyril is brought to live with Charles and Maude Avery in Dublin. While they provide a comfortable home and good schooling for Cyril, every other aspect of his childhood is unconventional and Cyril is often left to his own devices. The novel checks in on Cyril every seven years, and introduces the reader to a host of memorable characters, including Cyril’s birth mother, his best friend, his ex-wife (left at the reception), and his partner Bastiaan. I found this plot device to be very interesting, and looked forward to meeting Cyril wherever he was in seven years’ time. Boyne’s novel contained so many elements that I look for in an engaging read: interesting but flawed characters, reflections on the human condition, and witty banter. I laughed out loud often, but also felt moved to tears at times. My only complaint is that the ending felt too neatly resolved. For a book that was so adept at portraying life’s messy emotions and disappointments, having such a tidy end seemed unrealistic and a bit forced. Even so, I will be recommending this book to many, especially readers who enjoyed Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, Chris Cleave’s Everyone Brave is Forgiven and Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn.
Beartown by Fredrik Backman
There isn’t a lot going for the small community of Beartown. It’s a place people leave, not seek out. But Beartown does have hockey, and their junior hockey team is preparing to compete in the national semifinals. A win would mean a new rink, new talent, and new life for the downtrodden community. The junior hockey team is the talk of the town, and the boys on the team have each other’s backs. But when an incident occurs at a party between the team’s star and the daughter of the rink’s general manager, loyalties and reputations are tested. It’s a departure from Backman’s typical charming, feel-good novels, but it’s a well-done and timely reflection on sports, athletes and rape culture. It’s just been announced that Backman plans to continue the story of Beartown in a series, with the second book due out in June. I’m so glad to hear this, as there are characters from this novel that I’m not quite ready to let go.
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
“Remember what I said the other day? About the prairie fire? About sometimes you need to scorch everything to the ground and start over? Just remember that. Sometimes you need to start over from the scratch.”
Mia Warren, artist, vagabond and single mother, didn’t realize the impact these words would have on young Izzy Richardson. Mia and her teenage daughter, Pearl, arrive in picture-perfect Shaker Heights, renting a home from the Richardsons, with a promise that this time, they’ll settle for good. Mia will make her art, Pearl will finally live life as a normal teenager, and the orderly world of the Cleveland suburb will heal old wounds. As Pearl gets absorbed into the Richardson clan and their teenage children, she gets a glimpse into a life that is so different from the one she’s had, one that she didn’t realize she wanted. A heated custody battle between white friends of the Richardsons and a Chinese coworker of Mia’s divides not only the town, but Mia and the Richardsons. Questions bubble to the service about what makes a good mother, how race and privilege intersect, and who deserves second chances. The result is a tense, fast-paced dramatic novel that I couldn’t put down. During the last 50 pages of the book I literally felt my heart pounding as I flipped each page, wondering when it would all go up in flames. I enjoyed Ng’s debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, but many readers I know were put off by it. Let me just say, if that was you, I implore you to give this novel a chance. It’s one of the best I’ve read in years.
Theft by Finding by David Sedaris
I received an Advanced Reader Copy in exchange for my honest review. Bedtime is safe again. For several nights in a row, Mike would be almost asleep when I would bust out laughing while reading an entry from one of David Sedaris’ diary entries. Let’s just say he was not amused. I’ve been a David Sedaris fan for nearly 20 years and had been looking forward to this book. If you’ve read and enjoyed previous Sedaris books, or you’ve had the chance to hear Sedaris read from his diaries before, you’ll enjoy Theft by Finding. You’ll recognize elements of other stories in the diary entries, but it doesn’t feel repetitive to me. Instead I found it interesting to learn the beginnings and back stories of Sedaris stories I’ve previously loved. The reader will also get insight into some of the harder and humorousless parts of Sedaris’ life.
You can’t fault the author for the early diary entries dragging a bit. It’s not as if he knew in 1977 that one day these would be shared with the world. The format takes a few years (in book form!) to get used to, and I made a note that the book finds its groove and takes off around 1984. If you’ve never read Sedaris before, don’t start here. However if you are fan, Theft by Finding: Diaries is a must-read. I loved this observation:
“In order to record your life, you sort of need to live it. Not at your desk, but beyond it. Out in the world where it’s so beautiful and complex and painful that sometimes you just need to sit down and write about it.”
I’m so glad that Sedaris lives out his thoughtful, quirky, observant life and writes the details down for us.
Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen
My pick for a juicy memoir in the MMD Reading Challenge. Bruce Springsteen’s memoir is a lot like his music to the uninitiated: you think you know exactly what (or in this case, who) it is. It’s Jersey boy, guitars, working class, I-love-America kind of stuff. And it is, but once you get below the surface it’s so much more. On a scale of one to The Boss of All Fans, I’d put myself solidly at a 6. I really like the person behind the music, I know a good portion of his songs (but couldn’t name every album or song), seeing him live was a bucket list item come true. I thought I knew the kind of memoir Springsteen would write, but true to form I was wrong: it’s everything I thought would be in there and much, much more. Springsteen talks openly about his unusual childhood, his alcoholic and mentally ill father, and his own struggles with depression. By recounting his travels across the United States and the world, the reader gets an interesting perspective on life and fandom. And Springsteen’s reflections on music, songwriting, and what it means to work at something you really love is inspiring no matter what passion or career choice you’ve chosen to follow. His writing on the page feels every bit as honest and thoughtful as his songs. I listened to the book on audio, narrated by The Boss himself, and it was delightful.
Born a Crime by Trevor Noah
In 1970s South Africa, Trevor Noah is a crime for simply being. Born to a black mother and white father during the time of Apartheid, his existence means he could be taken from his mother at any time and she could be fined and jailed. But Trevor’s mother refuses to let Apartheid rule the way she lives and mothers. You may know Noah from The Daily Show, but you need not be a fan to appreciate the story he has to tell. With humor and heartbreak he take the reader on a journey of a childhood in South Africa during a time of great tumult and injustice. Eye-opening and immensely entertaining, Noah’s story and his thoughts on racism will stay with me.
At Home in the World by Tsh Oxenreider
I was apprehensive about reading Tsh’s book that chronicles her family’s 9-month adventure around the world. Tsh is one of the first bloggers I followed, and I’ve always enjoyed her reflections. But as a wanna-be world traveler with different life circumstances and a limited budget, I worried that the book would make me feel envious and frustrated. Spoiler alert: I loved it so much that I bought my own copy. Instead of feeling jealous, I felt transported to wonderful places while simultaneously feeling thankful for my home and my people. I felt inspired to travel more and comforted by Tsh’s honest reflections on the ups and downs of traveling with kids. I don’t know how she manages to make the reader feel both an intense wanderlust and complete contentment for where you are in this moment. She captured the essence of how I feel about travel in one simple passage:
“I know, in my soul, that a love for travel is a gift and not a hindrance. It feels like a burden when the bucket list is bigger than the bank account, but a thirst for more of the world is not something to apologize for. Denying its presence feels like denying something good in me, something God put there.”
Reading People by Anne Bogel
I received an Advanced Reader Copy as part of the launch team. My favorite kinds of non-fiction books are the ones that read like fiction and open my mind to a new way of seeing things. Anne Bogel’s book, Reading People: How Seeing the World through the Lens of Personality Changes Everything, is just that kind of book. And after reading it, it’s one of my favorites. I’m new to the world of personality frameworks, but fascinated by any kind of information that helps me know myself better. Reading People is a real asset to anyone who wants to go more deeply into personality typing, but isn’t sure where to start and how to proceed. Bogel covers 8 different frameworks, including a few I was familiar with (Love Languages, Myers-Briggs, Enneagram) and some that were completely new to me (Keirsey’s Temperaments, Clifton Strengthsfinder). Bogel’s unique voice guides the reader through the frameworks as if you were just friends discussing them over coffee. I would especially encourage anyone who is skeptical of personality frameworks to pick up this book. Not only does Bogel provide evidence for how useful these frameworks can be in our work and personal lives, she shows the reader that seeing ourselves more clearly has the opposite of effect of limiting what we can accomplish. She says, “I’ve found that understanding my personality helps me step out of the box I’m trapped in. When I understand myself, I can get out of my own way.” Finally, in the realm of things that don’t necessarily matter but make a big difference: the book is beautiful. Leave it out on the coffee table, encourage others to pick it up themselves, and see how your relationships can change for the better by diving deeper into what makes us tick.
Bored & Brilliant by Manoush Zomorodi
I received an Advanced Reader Copy in exchange for my honest review. Have you ever felt that tinge of guilt when you pick up your phone for a mindless scroll, knowing there are better things you can be doing with your time? Have you ever said, “Just one more game and then I’ll go to bed.” Do you ever worry that you’re setting a bad example for your kids when it comes to smartphone usage, saying one thing and yet doing another? Do you feel like you have 15 apps to make your life more productive, but you can’t focus long enough to use any of them or remember what, exactly, needs the most attention in the first place? Manoush Zomorodi, host of WNYC’s podcast Note to Self (for those “trying to preserve their humanity in the digital age”), felt all of these things and more. She was concerned that her dependence on tech to fill in the space made by boredom was affecting her creativity and ability to concentrate, and so she proposed a challenge to her podcast listeners. The “Bored and Brilliant Challenge” was a one-week experiment in reassessing phone use, partially unplugging, confronting boredom, and exploring our creative side. The challenge touched a nerve, with thousands of participants chiming in on their experiences.
In the Bored and Brilliant book, Zomorodi leads the reader through the 7-step Challenge. Each chapter addresses a technology issue, discusses the up and downsides, and gives the reader an assignment, such as deleting the one app you think you can’t live without, keeping your phone out of sight while in transit, and going a day without taking a photo. It’s not an anti-technology book, but instead it provides a way for us to take some small steps away from technology and reassess how and where it belongs in our life. I haven’t taken my own Bored and Brilliant Challenge yet, but I fully intend to (and hope to convince the teen to do it with me). With its mix of personal stories, interesting research, and easily implementable ideas, Bored and Brilliant is an excellent resource for anyone who struggles with our increasing dependence on smartphones in this digital age.
Young Adult/Middle Grade
Dreamland Burning by Jennifer Latham
Like Ruth Sepatys’ Salt to the Sea, file this YA novel under the category “Historical Events I Knew Nothing About Before Reading.” I’m sure there are plenty of adult historical fiction books that fit here as well, but I love that there are some great YA authors tackling these subjects and doing it very well. Dreamland Burning tells the story of the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot from the perspective of two 17-year-olds. Will Tillman is living it as the son of a white business owner and Osage Indian mother. His skin color may grant him opportunities black Tulsans could never dream of, but he’s well aware that his mixed heritage requires him to prove himself in ways that make his stomach turn. Rowan Chase lives in present day Tulsa, but she’s just as aware that being mixed or wealthy doesn’t grant her a reprieve from her blackness. Rowan feels uncomfortable in both worlds. When a remodeling project turns up a skeleton in Rowan’s backyard, it sets off a journey for her to learn more about the history of her home, her town and her people. Flashing between Rowan and Will, past and present, Dreamland Burning will keep you tense and turning pages. (Note: Although classified as YA, I would recommend this for ages 14 and up due to mature themes and some graphic content.)
Ramona Blue by Julie Murphy
Julie Murphy is a YA treasure. Her previous book, Dumplin’, made my best reads list last year, and she’s back with another lovable set of characters. Ramona Blue’s sleepy Mississippi beach town comes to life every summer as the tourists make it their temporary home. The summer before her senior year of high school, Ramona breaks a cardinal resident rule: don’t fall in love with a tourist. But she does, and she can’t stop thinking of Grace and how they might somehow end up together. Pining for Grace helps keep Ramona’s mind away from the things she’d rather not think about: her absent mother, the cramped trailer they live in, how her sister will have the means and space to raise the baby she’s pregnant with, being stuck in this town forever. As Grace disappoints Ramona from afar, her childhood friend Freddy returns to live in Eulogy. His presence, while comforting, also stirs in Ramon feelings she thought belong to someone else. Ramona Blue is a wonderfully honest and complicated look at teens trying to figure out who they are and how they fit into the world.
Goodbye Days by Jeff Zentner
Carver Briggs isn’t really thinking when he sends his 3 best friends, Mars, Eli and Blake, a simple text. “Where are you guys? Text me back.” But after it’s sent and his friends are killed instantly in a car accident, it’s all he can think about. Is he really to blame for their deaths? Facing his senior year without his crew, Carver must go through his days with the guilt and the possibility he may go to jail for his actions looming over him. When Blake’s grandmother asks Carver to join her on a “Goodbye Day,” sharing memories of Blake, doing his favorite things, and bidding him farewell, Carver isn’t sure if it will be helpful. He’s even more unsure when Mars and Eli’s parents, who are no where near as empathetic as Blake’s grandmother, ask for him to accompany them on their own Goodbye Days. Zentner’s novel is heartbreaking to read, especially as a parent. It’s also laugh out loud funny at times, and I especially enjoyed the Nashville setting.
Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
Confession: I’ve never read Anne of Green Gables. A pretty edition of the book caught my eye in a Cincinnati bookstore last spring and I bought it on a whim. Even if I never read it, it would look good on my book shelf! Eli and I were ready to start a new book one evening, and I suggested Anne. He was less than enthusiastic (“Looks like a girl book to me, Mom”), but I talked him into giving it a few chapters first. Turns out Anne is our kindred spirit as well! We adore her and we’re currently reading the second book in the series. Two very important lessons here: 1) Don’t assume you’re too old to pick up a children’s classic. 2) Don’t assume that Anne (or any other female protagonist for that matter) is only appealing to girls. You’ll be missing out on some fantastic storytelling (and hilarious scrapes)!
What have you been reading and loving lately?