Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus – a Book Review

Let me first preface this review by saying this is at once the most infuriating and most wondrous book I’ve read in a very long time. At first glance, I didn’t think this book would be an articulate work of women’s fiction celebrating a brilliant and beleaguered scientist fighting her way through a world of utter shit bags. From the cover art, I prejudged it as being just another feel-good schmaltzy romance. Not that there’s anything wrong with that on certain occasions, but schmaltzy romances don’t usually make my blood boil and give me dreams of kicking misogynists in the balls repeatedly until they repent of their sins. There were times in this book I quite justifiably wanted to maim someone. Only really bad people, of course. I am the Dexter of women’s fiction.

It is the early 1960’s and chemist Elizabeth Zott becomes an unlikely television sensation with her breakthrough cooking show, Supper at Six. From a platform she never thought she’d hold and truly never wanted, she’s able to reach millions of women to show them a life they’ve never been allowed to pursue. As we learn more about Elizabeth’s past, it brings her present into such raw and stunning clarity, and it’s more than a little heartbreaking. It’s a true and touching tribute to the women who came before our present generation who refused to be disrespected and denied due credit for their accomplishments.

The greatest attribute of this book is character development. There was not one character who wasn’t properly crafted and presented. There are those who are imperfect but utterly lovable, and then there are those devoid of all manner of human decency. In other words, perfectly realistic! That isn’t sarcasm, btw. I actually mean that. I came to adore Elizabeth, her daughter, Mad, and their dog, 6:30. There were also characters who experienced intense growth through their interactions with Elizabeth. Some characters, one in particular, who absolutely infuriated me in the beginning of the novel I wound up liking by the end. One of the things I hate about our society of today is we seem incapable of offering people grace and compassion for prior bad ideas and actions. If we learn from our mistakes, why don’t we allow people to make mistakes and grow as humans? I mean, if they are still shit bags then I’ll see you at the weenie roast. I’ll bring wine.

I’ve read numerous reviews by other readers, and I can tell by the responses that people either love or hate this book. The biggest critique I’ve seen of the book is with Elizabeth’s personality. On the whole, Elizabeth does come across as cold and unemotional. Readers reject the idea that simply because she’s a scientist she would be devoid of emotion. Of course scientists have emotions. Just being analytical doesn’t mean you are incapable of feeling. This is fair, and I agree. However, I don’t agree that Elizabeth is unemotional only because of her love for and interest in science. She obviously feels emotions, and I think Garmus actually shows this quite well. She show’s Elizabeth’s suppression of these emotions because there is no other way to make it in a male-dominated field unless she is a total rock.

Even today I have known women like this when it’s far easier to be a woman in a male-dominated work culture. Who cares if a man would be described as a confident go-getter but a woman is labeled an emotionless bitch. Get it done, sister. A woman like Elizabeth Zott knows she will have to have an exterior twice as tough, a brain twice as smart, and the mental fortitude of all her colleagues combined in order to gain even half the respect of the dumbest imbecile on the team. If I had to choose between hiding in a bathroom stall weeping or kicking some ass, I think I know which I would pick. You do what you know and fight for the right to do it. If they don’t let you and tell you to get back to the kitchen, do a damn cooking show and teach some bored, unhappy housewives about chemistry while you’re at it. Was Elizabeth a rare find among 1950’s/60’s women? Yes. Was she an as-yet formed species that was never observed in the wild? Not even close. There were badass bitches long before Elizabeth Zott came around. Sadly, we don’t know many of their names or faces because their work was pilfered by lazy assholes who held the magic wands of instant and undeniable credibility. Why yes, this is absolutely astounding work. Just show us the penis to prove you were able to craft it independently and we’ll give you the credit you deserve.

I think you’re probably starting to imagine why this book made me so angry. Not irrationally angry… just angry. I still loved it. I loved the characters and the way the story unfolded. I loved the subtle nuances of the relationships that were forged among the characters. I don’t see myself ever using scientific principles to become good at rowing. No amount of science can fix this level of poor fitness. I would still die the first time I pick up a paddle, but yay for Elizabeth for figuring it out.

You really should read this book. Separate yourself from the men in your life. Put away all sharp objects, number 2 pencils, and any and all varieties of poisonous mushrooms. Then go read this book. You’ll both curse and thank me later.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Published April 5, 2022 by Random House Audio. First published March 31, 2022 by Doubleday Books. ISBN 9780593507537. Runtime 11 hrs, 55 mins. Narrated by Miranda Raison.

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The Bear and the Nightingale (The Winternight Trilogy #1) by Katherine Arden – a Book Review

I stumbled upon this book on the shelf at the local library. The cover screamed “ATMOSPHERIC,” so it pulled me in. It is a blend of Russian folklore and medieval fantasy. It follows young Vasilisa (“Vasya”), the daughter of the local village leader. Vasya is an odd girl, wild and free and most at home in the forest or with the horses. She sees ancient creatures that no one else can see, the creatures of folklore that care for the home, the forests, the lakes, and the wildlife.

Her mother having died after Vasya’s birth, her father goes to Moscow and brings back a wife, a strange devout woman who takes an instant dislike to Vasya. This new stepmother also sees the creatures of folklore, but she views them as demons that should be cast out. Also arriving is an enigmatic priest whose feelings for Vasya are complicated. She both disgusts and entrances him, her unholy presence a threat to both the people of the town and his own fragile soul. The priest insists that only God can cleanse the village of the evils that have befallen it. You know the story. It’s all your fault. Repent, wring your hands, fall on your knees and give yourself over to God and everything will be ok. Only Vasya continues to bring offerings to the creatures that have protected and served the people for hundreds of years. As they grow weaker while people forget, they begin to fade. They become unsettled and angry, and darkness and difficulty befalls the people of her village. As the conflict bubbles to the surface, Vasya and the kindly forces of nature will find themselves battling evils of devastating power both within the town and from deep within the forest.

This story is wildly inventive and beautifully written. Vasya is the kind of heroine you can’t help but love. She’s wild, independent, fiercely honorable and protective. Above all, she’s smart and courageous, if only a bit reckless. It’s this recklessness that forces her to action when there is desperate need. She’s not gullible in the face of fear-mongering. It’s not just supernatural ability that causes her to see more than most. She’s able to think critically when others shut down, and she refuses to allow the weak minded to prey upon her fears. This story may be from a bygone day, but it will always be relevant. Forget the fairy tales of the damsels in distress who sleep through all the action.

There is something melancholy about this story in what it represents. I adore the old legends of ancient folklore, but they have faded from the minds and hearts of people. In so many cultures, they were forced out by powerful invaders who brought their own religions they mandated as the truth. Over time, the people didn’t realize they had taken up the weapon as their own and left behind the stories and fables of their ancestors. Thank goodness for the written word that exists in celebration of these historical gems. The presence of legend and magic can still be felt and I think they can still make a comeback. I hope so, because I’d be very willing to leave out tasty treats for the domovoi if they’d help me keep my house clean.

The only thing I had difficulty with this book is keeping track of all the Russian terminology. Even character names got complicated because they were referred to alternately by given names or nicknames/shortened or adapted versions/etc. While this is probably 100% culturally accurate, it can spark some confusion. And when you aren’t familiar with the folklore, the names of some creatures could sound quite similar and run together. Arden did include a helpful glossary of terms, which is extremely helpful. I feel like once I got my bearings things became a lot easier.

4 stars for this unique fairy tale.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Published January 10, 2017 by Del Rey. ISBN 9781101885932. Hardcover. 319 pages.

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The One and Only (hopefully) Lazy Overwhelmed Blogger Post

I decided I really needed to get myself much more caught up, so I’ve decided not to FULLY review some of my more recent reads from January through March of this year. One or two of them I will because I have so much to say about them, but the vast majority I’ll gloss over. I am doing very short reviews on goodreads, so if you want to know my overall thoughts and whether or not I’d recommend something, here’s a quick overview:

Glory Over Everything: Beyond The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I realized after cracking open this book it had been too long since I’d read The Kitchen House. However, it didn’t really seem to matter. There was mention of characters from the prior book, but for the most part it’s an independent story about the descendant of the characters to which we were previously introduced. The main character is Jamie, the light-skinned son of a slave woman and her master who has fled the plantation for the North after the tragic events that occurred in the prequel. He is now a powerful and wealthy man who is living as white and is heir to the successful business of his adoptive father. When a young boy who is very important to him goes missing, taken by slavers to the South to be sold, Jamie embarks on a journey back to the place from which he fled to save the boy. But the journey brings much danger, as Jamie is still wanted as a fugitive.

I really enjoyed this book. Sometimes Jamie really frustrated me, but I understood the fact that he had to grow and change over the course of the novel, becoming a better person. I think Grissom did an excellent job of exploring his story as well as the sometimes heartbreaking stories of other characters. Definitely a worthwhile read.

Radar Girls by Sara Ackerman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I toyed with the idea of giving this book my full attention with a detailed review but decided not to despite the fact that I thoroughly enjoyed this unique historical fiction work about a bunch of badass women. It’s an important piece of history surrounding a group of people many don’t know existed. It takes place on Hawaii during and after the events of Pearl Harbor in which the military set up a base for the protection of the island and the Country that would allow the United States to have warning of further attacks as well as to communicate with and direct American pilots during their dangerous missions. Many island women were trained in radar technology and staffed this unit. This book is their story, and it’s a lovely one. The novel is a fantastic tribute to the often overlooked heroes of WWII, and it’s also about the strength women find once they are finally told they are worth something.

The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I decided not to review this particular book on my blog. For one thing, I kind of went into my thoughts of the similarities between The Hunting Party and The Guest List in my review for the latter, and I said I prefer The Guest List. I found the characters more compelling and less annoying. For the love of God, don’t listen to this book on audio, because you’ll want to punch Miranda in the face. I found her sniveling snooty voice to be so vomit-inducing it was impossible to like her even a little bit. I don’t think I would have felt that way if I’d read it off the page, but maybe. Overall, it’s a good story and it’s well done. The conclusion is satisfying and a little bit surprising. I would recommend it (though, as I said, not the audio 🙂 )

The One Hundred Years of Lenni and Margot by Marianne Cronin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book seriously tugs at your heart strings. It’s a fabulous audio. I loved the narrators for both Lenni and Margot. Lenni is a teenager with a terminal illness who lives at a hospital. She knows she doesn’t have much time left and is grappling with the overwhelming feeling of loneliness and confusion over her predicament. Margot is an elderly woman who is also a resident at the hospital with not a whole lot of time left. Though an unlikely pair, when Lenni and Margot meet they discover something incredible. Between the two of them, their ages add up to a full 100 years. Together, they have lived a full life. In celebration of that life, they will do a series of paintings together consisting of 100 paintings, one that represents each year in their lives. As they complete these paintings, we get the stories that accompany them. It’s a beautiful concept to a completely captivating and heartwarming story of friendship and growth. The cast of characters is lovable and quirky. Buy a couple extra boxes of kleenex and give this book a try. It’s worth it.

The Measure by Nikki Erlick

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is another one I feel deserves it’s own fully thought out, detailed review but I’m opting not to. There’s so much packed into this book about love, life, loyalty, prejudice, and free will. It was much more political in nature than I thought it would be, doing a deep dive into the repercussions that public knowledge of a person’s lifespan can have on civil liberties and potential for violence and reckless behavior. Erlick did a fantastic job exploring the mental and emotional aspects of this concept in which some people find out they don’t have long to live and others find out they are immune from death for years to come. What I thought could be a simple heartfelt tearjerker wound up being a brilliant and fascinating exploration of human nature. All in all, this one was a pleasant surprise.

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The Guest List by Lucy Foley – a Book Review

Ok, so you know how in my last review I said that Foley wasn’t formulaic? I’m about to contradict myself here, because there are some pretty striking similarities between The Guest List and The Hunting Party, one of her earlier novels. Both books have a group of people traveling to an isolated island getaway, one off the coast of Ireland and one Scotland. Someone gets murdered. We don’t know who it is and we don’t know who did it. The guests are there on these secluded islands for different events, but they still wind up in pretty similar predicaments, and old festering resentments eventually rear their ugly heads. With that being said, I do feel Foley did a good enough job of distinguishing the two works through her character development. Additionally, this particular Agatha Christie-esque style is pretty common in the genre because it works.


A bride and groom, the wedding party, and a gaggle of wedding guests arrive at a beautiful historic mansion in a remote location off the Irish coast to celebrate a joyous event. It doesn’t take long, thanks to a bunch of middle aged frat boys and a pocketful of seething resentments, for things to go awry. When someone winds up dead, staff and guests alike are left to solve the bloody crime before the killer strikes again.


This was, by far, my favorite of the three Lucy Foley books. I loved the slow burn of the rising tension and the pace at which Foley uncovered the different layers of history that brought all these people to their present places in life. Ok, and here’s another place where I will contradict what I said in my last review. I said Foley’s characters were difficult to love and difficult to hate. In this case, I take it back. I had no trouble hating some of the guys in this book. They were pathetic, immature imbeciles with few (and that’s being generous) redeeming qualities. I’m not saying this is unrealistic. I would need an extra hand to count up all the has-been beer-bellied frat boys who spend their lives trying to relive their glory days as masters of the universe that I know personally. Foley nailed it. Rarely do I have an internal debate regarding which character I hope gets murdered, but here I am living the dream. I’m kidding. I would never wish death on all the immature man children of the world. Only in fiction.

The only exception to this was Johnno, the best man. While he IS a has-been frat boy, he was a complicated and slightly more sympathetic character where I was concerned. Though what made my feelings toward him more difficult to swallow is that this is the mental image I had of him in my head:

Eek, poor Johnno.

Now back to the actual book instead of my strange brain. Plot wise, I found the conclusion to be quite satisfying, though there were certain plot points that brought us to that conclusion that I found to be a bit too convenient. I know sometimes this is necessary to reach the desired conclusion, so I’ll forgive her for this. In a way, it’s thanks to these conveniences that the end caught me off guard. I had guessed some details, but certainly not all, which was a pleasant surprise.

With such a large cast of characters, Foley did an excellent job compartmentalizing and not causing me to get confused or overwhelmed. I also loved the highly atmospheric Irish setting. I listened to this one and greatly enjoyed the full cast narration by Jot Davies, Chloe Massey, Olivia Dowd, Aoife McMahon, Sarah Ovens and Rich Keeble. Fun fact: I love the name Aoife (pronounced Ee-Fuh). It is the name of a principal character in the book, and I just found out this very moment it is the name of one of the narrators as well. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess she provided the voice for Aoife, the lone Irish woman in the book.

In short, I would recommend any of these three Foley books to other readers, but if I was forced to only choose one, it would be The Guest List. It’s the one that is, all around, the most well developed and the most satisfying for a lover of the genre.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

First published February 20, 2020 by William Morrow. Audio version published June 2, 2020 by HarperAudio. ISBN 9780062985057. Audiobook. Runtime 10 hrs 22 mins.

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The Paris Apartment by Lucy Foley – a Book Review

I recently embarked on an impromptu Lucy Foley mini-marathon, consuming three of her books in a row over the course of a couple of weeks. I guess I was just in the mood for something engaging and exciting but not super complex. This will be the first three of the reviews, and it is the first one I completed. I won’t spend a whole lot of time on these reviews while I’m attempting to catch up, so don’t expect any of the reviews to be extremely detailed.


Jess, an extremely down on her luck woman who finds herself needing to flee after getting herself into a spot of trouble, heads to Paris to stay with her half brother. When Jess arrives, she finds that Ben lives in a lavish apartment that seems a little outside the economic grasp of a struggling journalist. Also, he was expecting her arrival, so when Jess arrives and Ben is nowhere to be seen, she begins to get suspicious. Her suspicions grow with each tenant she encounters, each with varying degrees of friendliness but all with an interest in her that makes her uneasy. As Ben’s absence becomes more and more unsettling, Jess begins to uncover clues that point to a hidden truth Ben had stumbled upon that someone else wished to stay buried, even if it meant silencing Ben to make sure the story never surfaced.


Having read three of her books now, I do admire the fact that Lucy Foley comes up with fresh ideas. I don’t find her thrillers to be formulaic, which is a bit of a pet peeve of mine in the thriller genre. There are similarities, but not enough to make me feel like she takes the same plot and changes names and a few details and calls it a day. There’s maybe SOME of this in the next two books I’ll review, but it’s not the case with this one. More on that later.

Her characters are well developed, being fairly complex with compelling backstories that unfold as the story progresses. I like that her characters are both difficult to love and difficult to hate, a quality that should be present if a character is properly developed in a book such as this. The Paris Apartment is well paced, really picking up toward the middle and end and bursting toward a dramatic conclusion. Thankfully, I also didn’t feel like this one had too much predictability. There wasn’t much that was utterly shocking, so I didn’t have to pick my jaw up off the floor, but there were a few scattered surprises that kept things interesting.

Overall, I would say this one is a pretty standard but enjoyable thriller and would make for a great winter fireside read.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Published February 22, 2022 by William Morrow. ISBN 9780063003057. Hardcover. 360 pages.

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The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton – a Book Review

I can’t believe it took me so long to read this book. It’s going on a decade old now! Let me tell you, this book has the perfect title. The entire book is strange and beautiful in the best way. First I want to start by saying that I find books like this kind of difficult to review. My thoughts aren’t nearly so clear-cut. They are a jumble, and it goes way beyond character/plot/writing. That is to the book’s credit, but it’s much more difficult for me to put into words because it’s all about how cohesive this work truly is. How do you describe all the various layers that make things fall into place so perfectly?

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender is a multi-generational family saga following the women of the Roux family. Romantic love has never served the Roux women well, so when Ava is born her mother and grandmother desire to keep the young girl sheltered from the evils of the world. Ava is a beautiful winged creature, one which they are sure the outside world will not understand. Every single character in this book has a very high importance, and they are each rich and compelling in their own unique way. If I did a deep dive into the complexity of each this would become a dissertation, and I doubt you all want that.

As with any young girl her age, Ava desires independence and freedom. She wants to fly but has always been told she can’t. This is heavily symbolic of how parents transfer their own pain to their children in the form of control, reducing the amount of experience the children are allowed so as to save them the pain they themselves experienced younger in life. Give them wings but then tell them they can’t fly. In trying to protect them, the parents unwittingly strip their children of the knowledge and the courage to protect themselves. Pain helps us learn how to get up. Ava could never learn how to fly if she’s never allowed to fall. In any other book, that could be an extremely heavy-handed metaphor, but it isn’t for this one. Walton wields it expertly, weaving it into the story through her finely tuned use of magical realism.

Books like this remind me of art from the impressionist movement. Like those paintings, the brush strokes blend together, understated lyrical language that’s totally void of pretension. There’s an atmospheric, hazy quality but the image when seen from a distance is perfectly clear. It’s only after you’ve viewed it in its entirety that you truly understand what the creator is trying to convey. You think about it for days and marvel at how just one body of work could contain so much meaning and depth.

I’m not sure if that makes any sense whatsoever, but it’s what came to mind after reflecting on this book. I think this impressionistic quality is also why I felt like the story took place much earlier than it actually did. It spans from the 1920’s to the 1950’s, but it has such a classic romantic era literature feel, which I love. There’s so much heartbreak, which makes this an incredibly difficult read in certain places. As a matter of fact, the book takes a shockingly violent turn near the end, which some readers may find too traumatic, especially considering it is such a blindside.

Lastly, I want to address the ending. No, I won’t spoil it, but I will mention that this is one of those endings that is up to interpretation. Frankly, I like books like that. However, I know some readers hate it. It’s a fabulous discussion point for book clubs. This book sparked the kind of interesting and thoughtful discussion we hadn’t experienced in Read Between the Wines for a while. We stayed on topic almost the whole time! Usually things kind of go off the rails, especially after the wine or margaritas hit.

In short, this book is a thing of beauty and a crowning achievement for Leslye Walton. What’s more impressive is this was her debut novel. What a way to begin a literary career! I loved it and will retain this story within my brain for years to come.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Published March 27, 2014 by Candlewick Press. ISBN 9780763665661. Hardcover. 301 pages.

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Relax, It’s Just God: How and Why to Talk to Your Kids About Religion When You’re Not Religious by Wendy Thomas Russell – a Book Review

For a lot of parents, myself included, this is a very tricky subject. I admit, I’ve struggled with the notion of God and religion since having children. I live in a deeply red state. Christianity is used as a weapon to speak out against tolerance, it’s used in support of bigotry and oppression, and it’s used as a way to stop our children from learning vital information they need to become critical thinkers. Adults think the terrorists who stormed the capitol are heroes, women should shut up and take a seat, and books should be burned in the church parking lot. Most people believe children should be taught the world is 6,000 years old and Noah had a big-ass farm on a boat (Seriously, where did they find the bamboo to feed the pandas?) If anything, I believe these mixed messages are damaging to our children. So how do you approach religion with your kids when you don’t buy into the dogma?

Many people of my generation can give you some horror story of growing up “in the church.” I was lucky enough that I felt I was more exposed to it without being fully inundated on a daily basis. I was allowed the freedom to make my own choices. Many people are told allowing their children to make their own choices is detrimental to their spiritual well-being and eventual fate. In response, they force their kids to believe and ensure they have no access to outside ideas simply because they are so afraid their children will burn in the fires of hell, enduring unspeakable torment for the rest of eternity. Can we admit this is an over-dramatic move from a God who is a bit of a diva? This is not healthy in any way. People like me do not believe fear must be a driving force of becoming a good person. Additionally, if I wind up being wrong, a truly wonderful and kind God would not send a good person to hell for not taking a bath in his holy water while letting a serial killer go to heaven simply for “accepting Jesus” before he’s executed. That just simply doesn’t make sense, and I think I’d rather go to the bad place with the people who give that kind of God the side-eye.

But here is the simple truth. In an area such as mine, deeply held religious beliefs are still the norm and no matter how much I try to shelter my children from harmful ideas, they will confront them on a daily basis. Today is election day. We will go out and vote for school board members, and half of the candidates believe children shouldn’t have access to books they deem “inappropriate, subversive or immoral.” The boogeyman is in the bathroom, and the satanists are coming for our kids. For those of us who attempt to teach our children to be independent critical thinkers, there will be a lot of hell to pay. When other children are born into an environment in which “the truth” is vehemently articulated as coming straight from a dusty old book full of so many contradictions and, frankly, pretty hateful and bloody stuff, what kind of person will those kids become (besides Trump supporters)?

Russell’s book fills a major void in the minds of parents like myself who worry about these very things. The answer, which would surprise many secular parents, is not to shelter our children from religious ideologies but to expose them to them in a way that is all encompassing and compassionate. Every child should know that people believe a great many different things, and faith can often be a driving force. Education is always the answer, in my experience, and this includes religious literacy. The more we know the more we are able to wield our intellects in a way that can shelter us and our children from damaging ideas and hurtful words. Should my children grow up and want to explore an ideology different from mine, that will be ok. That will be their choice. They should always be encouraged to ask questions, for that will open the door for them to develop their own ability to ask and contemplate and answer their own questions when they are adults. They will have the mental and emotional fortitude to do so, but they will do so in a way that’s respectful and tolerant of all peoples of all faiths, including those who have no faith in a supernatural entity or entities.

Russell’s book is practical, concise, and immensely helpful. She offers recommendations for children’s books that can help with various subjects, including other religions and very deep and difficult subjects such as death and grief. She illustrates her points with real life examples and even includes a world religions cheat sheet at the end that parents can use to increase their own understanding of the basic facets of the major world religions. I think this would be a fabulous book to own so you can revisit it when you’re feeling on shaky ground or when jackass Billy tells your kid that they are going to hell because they don’t believe Jesus took his dinosaur to the groomers for a nail trim. Yes, I jest, but I do feel it’s incredibly important to teach our children to be respectful of another’s ideals, even if that child does not return that respect. They should have compassion in that instance, because it means that child was not taught respect. Instead, they were taught to hate and distrust those who don’t share their worldview, which is dangerous in the long run. Responding with more hate will merely exacerbate the problem and lead us toward a more divisive future.

In short, this is a fabulous resource for parents who want to raise kind, intelligent, compassionate kids who aren’t afraid to be who they are and don’t have confusion about the world in which they live.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Published March 31, 2015 by Brown Paper Press. ISBN 9781941932001. Paperback. 196 pages.

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Death and Other Happy Endings by Melanie Cantor – a Book Review

Forgive me. This will probably be one of my reviews where I get a little snarky. I hate that I do that, but at least I’m self aware. First of all, I love the title. That’s actually why I picked this book up on a whim. The cover is very simple but intriguing. Disappointingly so, I found out the title was later changed to the much more Hallmark-esque title of Life and Other Happy Endings. (WHYYYYYY????) Switching Death to Life takes out all the intrigue.

The synopsis is one that’s been told before, but there are some twists on the cliche. Jennifer Cole is told that she’s dying of a blood disorder and only has three months to live. As she begins to re-evaluate her life, she decides to write letters to the people with whom she has unfinished business. These people consist of her spoiled, narcissistic sister, her jerk-wad narcissist of an ex-husband, and an ex-boyfriend. You guessed it: also a narcissist. I’ll give Cantor some extra credit for a realistic portrayal of humanity.

I didn’t dislike the character of Jennifer, but I find myself feeling very tepid toward her. Yes, she has some good moments, but overall she just frustrated me with her nonsensical decisions. And yes, I realize that anyone who has been told they have three months to live is bound to make some nonsensical decisions, but I got the impression that Jennifer has a lifetime achievement award in poor decision making. We do get to see her growth in this arena, so that’s to the book’s credit. Add to that the fact that the book takes some pretty predictable turns, there wasn’t much to keep my interest. On the whole, however, I do appreciate that the book is well-written and does well with the introspective nature of the character. I thought the range of her emotions through her ordeal was quite authentic which did help me empathize with her to a greater degree.

Now, on to the strangest decision in the whole book. Let’s talk about THAT sex scene, shall we?? WARNING: MAJOR SPOILER COMING, SO SKIP THE NEXT PARAGRAPH IF YOU MUST!

Even if I’m dying, I don’t see myself having sex with a stranger under a tree at 6 am in a public park. Then again, maybe it’s all prude central up in here, so who am I to judge? I think I would have been more ok with this knowing it was JUST a spur of the moment decision by a dying desperate woman. After all, when faced with imminent mortality, all we truly want to do is feel something deeply, be spontaneous, be wild for the first time perhaps. Ok, I can roll with this. But in an odd but saccharine turn, she winds up WITH the guy she met in the park. I had to ask myself, would I want to spend forever with a man who would ALSO spontaneously have sex with strangers in public parks at 6 am???? He was not dying. He was just willing to screw anything and everything without questioning who/what/when/where/why. That’s a pretty big red flag, right?? Maybe he felt sorry for her and wanted to show this dying woman a good time, but that might even be worse. Pity sex? Ugh!! Using her because she’s vulnerable and willing and, hey, a man has needs, right? Ick. Were this an episode of “How I Met Your Mother,” it could only air on Cinemax after 11. Due to the way his character is introduced and then dropped for the whole rest of the book, he has almost zero character development. We aren’t able to develop any attachment to him. He’s purely inconsequential until we are later told he’s not. It’s been a while since I’ve read this, and I can’t even remember HIS NAME!! I feel like it’s not ok that the dude who winds up being the leading man is someone I can’t remember beyond my fleeting curiosity regarding the unpleasantness of dewy morning grass on his bare buttcheeks. We don’t even have time to figure out if he’s a narcissist or not, and Jennifer has a type so I’m betting he is.*

In summary, I found this one a little disappointing. It’s an interesting idea that opens up some amazing possibilities for character development. The execution was just a little lacking for me.

*I’m so sorry this paragraph wound up being so long.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Published June 6, 2019 by Pamela Dorman Books. ISBN 9780525562115. Hardcover. 352 pages.

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The Exiles by Christina Baker Kline – a Book Review

I have counted up the number of books I’ve read but not reviewed, and I’m too embarrassed to tell you what that number is. Rest assured, it’s bad. Obviously, I’ve been reading a lot but not much more. Sure, reading a lot is a very positive step, and I’ve read some great works by some fabulous authors. This is one example. I’m a sucker for historical fiction, but I have to admit that sometimes certain subjects get a little old and I get a hankering to take a break and find a subject or time period that I really don’t know much about. Christina Baker Kline excels at this. She strikes me as an avid researcher who loves to delve into the little-known gems of world history and then shares the knowledge she’s gleaned with her audience in a way that’s both educational and compelling.


The Exiles follows the lives of three women from very different backgrounds who find themselves suffering a similar fate. Evangeline, a governess to a wealthy family in London, is cast aside after being seduced by her employer’s son and falling pregnant. As the family desires to dispose of her quickly and quietly, they conveniently accuse her of a crime she didn’t commit. With no one to speak for her to clear her name, she is jailed and then sentenced to life in exile at “Van Diemen’s Land,” a penal colony in Australia that is in need of women to balance against the droves of male prisoners who have been sent to their own exiles. Essentially, these women are relegated to the status of breeding livestock. Go forth and multiply, indeed. Aboard the ship, Evangeline meets Hazel, a girl accustomed to the unpredictable life of poverty and cruelty that befalls a woman of her station. Though Hazel is barely more than a child, she has endured so much in life that she has a hardened and weathered exterior that Evangeline lacks. Occupying the land that awaits their arrival is Mathinna, the orphaned daughter of an Aboriginal Chief that has been taken from her people and thrust into white society in the home of the governor.


As with almost all historical fiction involving women, this is a difficult read. I willingly confess that I was completely ignorant as to the plight of female prisoners sent to Australia in the nineteenth century. Women guilty of the smallest of crimes, and often those guilty of nothing at all but being born poor or for trusting the wrong man, were forced from the only homes they’d ever known into a harsh and unforgiving world full of some extremely dangerous men. What did not surprise me was the story of Mathinna. In fact, Mathinna is the only character from Kline’s book who is based on the life of a real woman. This fact makes her story all the more heartbreaking. It’s quite disgusting how the Governor’s wife parades Mathinna around like Paris Hilton with her handbag dogs to prove that “the savages may be tamed.” Children like Mathinna were given education but were still told they were a lesser race, no more than show ponies learning cute tricks. And like the cute fluffy Easter bunnies bought as gifts, they soon lost their appeal and were left in the cold. Let me tell you, no creature on this Earth, human or otherwise, deserves that kind of fate. Ok, maybe Hitler. Take his ass to the South pole and drop him off. Anyone else? Nope.

Kline’s book is full of compelling characters, and you really find yourself drawing closer to them, fully invested in their stories. She does throw some curve balls along the way, one in particular that left me a little speechless, but once I sat and thought about it, it made sense. You can’t have a story like this without throwing in some awful, heinous stuff we don’t want to admit truly happened. It would be disingenuous and disrespectful to the women who truly lived lives such as these to gloss over the authentic depth of their pain. We need to feel it to make sure it’s never repeated.

Overall, I think this is a very important and compelling work of historical fiction. It’s well-researched and finely crafted. Thematically, it’s not an easy read, but I maintain that historical fiction, if done correctly, presents some difficult topics. It forces us to come to terms with our past demons while simultaneously celebrating the people who battled those demons and eventually brought the world forward into a more enlightened time.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Published August 25, 2020 by Custom House. ISBN 9780062356345. Hardcover. 370 pages.

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Beartown, the Series by Fredrik Backman – a Book(s) Review

Of all the literary voices currently on the scene, Backman’s may not be the loudest, but his is certainly one of the most powerful. He has this way of writing something that is extremely heavy but, typically, he does it in a way that is enjoyable and not at all an arduous experience. Packed full of of hilarity and lightness, his books inspire so many good feelings it makes the difficult life and death stuff easier to process. Beartown is one of the few exceptions to this. Each installment (Beartown, Us Against You, and The Winners) is really quite heavy, both thematically and in overall tone. While I sort of missed that feel-good aspect of Backman’s work that endears me to him so much, I still found this series to be utterly masterful. I’ll try to cover some of the highlights, but Backman does so much right I’m not sure I could ever express everything. It’s something you have to experience yourself. It’s the cumulative reading experience, and it’s a feeling that doesn’t happen often upon finishing a book.

First of all is the setting. Beartown is this tiny town forgotten by most but comprising entire world for some. It’s desolate and freezing, and its citizens live for one thing: hockey. Beyond that, people hunt and drink and have terrible opinions. The thing is, to the reader, Beartown is so vivid. Honestly, it takes all three books to really develop this full and all-encompassing picture of Beartown. By the end, you see it as both the broken and beautiful place it is, and you understand why it will forever have such an intense pull on those that escape their bleak existences. It will always still be home, and no one will ever understand it as deeply as someone who has stood on the freezing ground and felt the life force that pulses beneath the soil. Beartown is as present in the mind of the reader as any other character. There’s this overall feeling of uneasiness. What makes the reader even more uneasy is the way Backman manages to dangle so many frozen carrots along the way, warning of terrible things to come. Sometimes you even know what is going to happen, but you don’t quite know how or why. It’s a dark, cloud-filled sky of literary foreboding. Even when you see it coming, you don’t really see it coming. You still aren’t prepared for the gut punch. Backman’s method is highly effective. I tore through this series at a speed I haven’t achieved in a really long time. It’s about hockey. I couldn’t give a flying puck about hockey, but somehow Backman pulled me in anyway.

Hockey, however, is merely a device in this book. It’s a symbol of that thread through society that takes hold, permeates the masses, and spreads toxicity at a terrifying pace. This toxic culture elevates some and stomps on others without reservation or remorse. Seething beneath the surface is a bubbling poison just waiting for the right moment to spill over. Backman uses one word, at first representative of the sound a puck makes against a hard surface, but with the cadence reminiscent of the ticking timer of a bomb: Bang, bang, bang. This starts off inconsequential, merely a word in place of a sound. By the end, it has become something so sinister it makes your skin crawl to see or hear it uttered.

Sometimes I read books and I think, “ok, they are trying to pack way too many themes into one book.” They become cluttered and confusing because the author is attempting to do something daring and profound but it falls short. Backman, on the other hand, effortlessly weaves in a complete picture of societal ills. Encompassed within it are all the multiple layers for a full understanding of exactly how everything is connected. We not only see the dominoes fall, but we see precisely how they were set up in such a way to bring the whole thing down. There’s no good or evil. There are contextual experiences and histories that lay the foundation for a character’s actions, whether they be good, evil or somewhere in between. The complexity to Backman’s characters doesn’t feel forced. It feels like life. And with people who seem so real, their pain and their confusion only has a deeper effect on the reader. This series is an exploration of human emotion, strength, frailty, and the enduring power of love. But it’s also about the horrible power love has to bring us to our knees, to destroy us. In some cases, loss of love strengthens like armor. In those where loss has the opposite effect, it makes victims of some and villains of others.

While it’s ultimately hopeful, this series did manage to leave a raw, open space in the pit of my stomach. The final book in this series is called The Winners. The irony of that title is not lost on me. There really are no winners, and if there are it is never without a price. As a world society, we have come so far. But we still have so far to go. How much will we allow to happen before we really be the change that’s needed? Most days I fear the answer to that question. One thing I know for sure, we’d get there a hell of a lot faster if more people had the emotional intelligence of Fredrik Backman.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Beartown. Written by Fredrik Backman, translated by Neil Smith. Published April 25, 2017by Atria Books. ISBN 1501160761. 418 pages.

Us Against You. Written by Fredrik Backman, translated by Neil Smith. Published June 5, 2018 by Atria Books. ISBN 1501160796. 448 pages.

The Winners. Written by Fredrik Backman, translated by Neil Smith. Published September 27, 2022 (first published October 6, 2021) by Atria Books. ISBN 1982112794. 673 pages.

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