book review reading life

2019 Book Binge

I didn’t want to endeavor to curate a Top Ten or a Best of the year post. That leaves too many great books out. So, this isn’t that. I do believe there is value in sharing the books that I especially enjoyed this year. As of today I read 318 books in 2019. That number will probably go up by two or three before the actual end of the year.

There are so many great books that it’s impossible to read all of them, and then ranking them is a way too subjective for me. What I can tell you is what we remember reading and enjoying off the top of our heads. (The “we” varies as to which kid read each book with me) It was extremely hard to narrow down the list once I began scrolling through my images, and began remembering more books that I loved. Really, checking my GoodReads account is your best bet. I gave out quite a few 5 star reviews this year.

Before we get to it, I want to say Thank you. 2019 has been a year of phenomenal growth for me both as a writer and as a book reviewer, and I’m so excited about all the new projects I have coming up in 2020!

Going forward, I’ll link to Amazon for the Kindle version of any book I review and link to IndieBound in case you are shopping for a physical copy. I’m attempting, in my own small way, to provide an alternative for your book purchasing needs. I’d like to start linking to WorldCat as well, but did not have time to add those links to this very long post.

In January of 2019, I had maybe fifty subscribers, and that number has grown to over 7,000 readers. On days when I feel discouraged about society, I remember that many people are still reading, and that makes me smile.

I’ll be taking the last two weeks of the year off to do some blog maintenance. A ton of my old reviews didn’t transfer correctly, and I want to get that remedied. I’ll be back in January with a slew of new release reviews!

Grab a cup of whatever you need to sustain yourself, and buckle in for the longest blog post of the year. Let’s start with the little kid set:

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Mary Edward Walker, born in 1832, who knew what she wanted in life. Her independence went far beyond clothing as she graduated from medical school in 1855 and then went on to volunteer in the army during the Civil War.
However, it all started with pants. Mary didn’t want to wear dresses all the time. As you can imagine, people in her community were shocked. So shocked that they arrested her! Kids need to read that societal norms are always in flux, and if they don’t like something, they can affect change in the world.
I loved everything about this book: the artwork, story, and message are all top-notch.

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 Don’t search Pinterest for Advent activities. This book is the way to go. You get 24 1/2 stories, all leading up to Christmas and a slew of activities to keep you busy every day. This is the kind of book that makes me wish we had little people in our house again. So much fun that I’m saving it for future grandchildren.

Middle-Grade books seemed to be the book we read the most this year. Proving I really am twelve years old on the inside.

This Was Our Pact by Ryan Andrews:

This book is a graphic novel that is utterly enchanting. You’ve watched all of Stranger Things, then maybe you did a family re-watch of Goonies. What’s next?
I read most of this book while I was sick with a fever and feel like it was like reading a Hayao Miyazaki film. It’s so full of bite-sized wisdom like:

“No one is going to force you to, but if you don’t jump in, you’ll always think back on this moment and wish that you had.”

All together, suitable for all ages, spooky without being scary. Tons to talk about while reading. It checks all my boxes for the perfect read-aloud. Plus, lots of pictures for younger kids!

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The History of the World In Fifty Dogs by Mackenzie Lee

I knew I’d love these essays. I’m a big fan of dogs and history, so I was enthusiastic about this book from the get-go. Then I got to this line:

“Good bois were all over Egypt- it’s Unde-NILE-able.”

I enjoy the right mix of internet punning with my history. Don’t be fooled by the cartoon appearance; this book is for middle graders up through teens. It turns out you can mix cute art, funny banter, and history in a book that YA readers can use as part of their studies. Shop your local indie bookstore

Scary Stories For Young Foxes by Christian McKay Heidicker

Some kids crave scary well before Stephen King is appropriate. The title says scary, and it means it. This collection of short stories is a wildlife documentary amount of scary. If you’ve ever watched PBS and yelled for the baby animal to “Watch Out!” You’ll love this.

I’ll give this warning: the stories included are dark and sometimes disturbing. I read parts to my teen, and he agreed that at 9 or 10, he would have had nightmares. I’d be completely fine calling this YA, but in my opinion, it is not suited for kids under the age of twelve. Your mileage may vary. Pre-read it if you have any doubts, by page thirty-three, six foxes have died. Also, note that it vilifies Beatrix Potter in a way that has a ring of truth to it. Shop your local indie bookstore

Maybe He Just Likes You by Barbara Dee

I struggled to explain the “#me too” movement to my eighth grader, and this book was just what I needed to open up the conversation. If all middle-grade authors handled the complicated business of growing up with the skill that Barbara Dee does, we’d all be better off. It’s not an “another book about bullying” as the issues of consent, and sexual harassment are much bigger and more complicated than that. I wish I could gift it to every junior high student I know.

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Dear Sweet Pea by Julie Murphy

Patricia “Sweet Pea” DiMarco is having a bit of a rough year. Her parents are getting divorced, and she’s got friend drama in middle school, and on top of all that, she starts answering letters written to her neighbor’s advice column. (without permission)


  • I’m a sucker for a cute cat, and her cat Cheese and all his antics made me smile.
  • I Love how hard her parents try to make things okay for her when they just can’t fix the way things have to be now.
  • She giggled at her parents’ attempt to keep things “normal” by living in twin houses on the same street. Weird, yet endearing.
  • Oscar- the best of best friends

This is a quick, easy read for the middle school reader in your world. As always, Julie models lots of body positivity, and her characters have authentic reactions to their circumstances, which is still excellent for this age of readers to see and hopefully emulate. Shop your local indie bookstore

Greystone Secrets: The Strangers by Margaret Peterson Haddix

Chess, Emma, and Finn Greystone are siblings living a normal life when one day they see a strange news story on TV that tells of three siblings with their exact same names that get kidnapped in Arizona. Very soon after that, their Mom announces that she is going away on business and doesn’t know when she’ll be returning.
Why would these kids have the same names as them? That is only the beginning of the puzzles, riddles, and underlying weirdness that the kids encounter as they try to piece together the truth in their circumstances.  Shop your local indie bookstore

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American Royals by Katherine McGee

Such an exciting concept. What if George Washington became our King instead of our President? Think about the US having a wholly British type Royal Family. The book alternates POV between four characters:

HRH Princess Beatrice, who is next in the line to be the very first Queen of America. Her Father just changed over to a firstborn Royal Heir as opposed to the firstborn Male heir of tradition.

 HRH Princess Samantha, Beatrice’s younger sister, who is the spare heir and then, of course, is both more angsty and adventurous.

Daphne Deighton, commoner, the Prince Jeff’s ex-girlfriend who always seems to be plotting something, and I wonder why we have her POV and not Jeff’s?

And Nina Gonzalez, Samantha’s best friend who grew up in and out of the Royal household.

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Crier’s War by Nina Varela

 I can honestly say that this book, although for sure a fantasy, is also a well-done (gay!) romance. The Sci-Fi elements are like the cherry on top for me.

What else did I love? Political Intrigue and the fact that in this world, you are either mortal or made.

It all began when human Queen Thea – who cannot bear children – commissions her people to build her a child. One who can replicate every aspect of human life. In this world, individuals are Made with Four Pillars: Reason, Calculation, Organics, and Intellect.

Crier (automade) and Ayla (human) make a great couple. The dual point of view is so intriguing; the reader gets a little piece of the puzzle from one perspective or the other a little bit at a time leading up to a cliffhanger ending. Shop your local indie bookstore

Thirteen Doorways: Wolves Behind Them All by Laura Ruby

This book is haunting. And not because one of the main characters is a ghost- because the prose, story, the voices that it evokes are like a misty cloud surrounding the reader from start to finish. As soon as I turned the final page, I wanted to start over again because I flat out sped read the last half needing to know how it would all unfold. Now I’d like to reread it knowing the answers and just let the words envelop me. Every woman knows about the wolves hiding behind the doorway. They’re all different, and we all know we’ll face them. This story isn’t a hit you over the head feminism book, and I didn’t even understand the title until I was more than halfway through reading. Shop your local indie bookstore

Light at the Bottom of the World By London Shah

Teenager Leyla McQueen, a British/Afghan Muslim submersible racer, is a delight. She’s optimistic and is the kind of character that you want to succeed. The year is 2099, and all of surviving humanity is living underwater after an asteroid hits Earth. You’ll get plenty of British scenery (from the Old World), even though things have changed in the new reality of life on Earth. The descriptions of this modern society were captivating. So much is new, while people act out in the same ways that they do now.
Without giving away spoilers or too much plot, it’s hard to say more. I feel that with some stories, it’s best not to know too much before you read it yourself.
If you need to label it, I’m honestly not sure if it’s more dystopian, science fiction, or political conspiracy? In any case, once you start reading, it’s a hard book to put down.

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What can I say? I have a diverse reading taste.

I scrolled through all the books that I recorded reading, and between the two, I came up with these four titles for anyone over the age of sixteen.

Deep State: A Thriller by Chris Hauty

Hayley Chill is an ex-Army boxing champion who is serving as a White House intern. She discovers the body of her boss, Peter Hall, the President’s Chief of Staff, and a single clue, which suggests he did not die of natural causes. Soon enough, Hayley is on the trail to solving the case herself. She isn’t sure who, if anyone she can trust, and as a reader, I wondered just how far up this conspiracy would go. After creating this nifty graphic, I realized that the finished book isn’t ready until January 7, 2020. Well, I read it this year and, if you have a gift card you can get it very soon after the Holidays. So, I’m leaving it here. Shop your local indie bookstore

The Body: A Guide For Occupants by Bill Bryson

I could hold my own now if I needed to critique a television medical drama from the knowledge I gained in reading this ginormous 400-page tome of humanness. It’s a partial history of science and part straight-up anatomy.

It’s the owner’s manual that no one has thought to hand out. Only this isn’t some hard to understand volume; it’s in plain English. I didn’t take Anatomy at school and the only text I’ve encountered while homeschooling was nowhere near as readable as this is.

If you are a science geek, you’ll devour this. If you are a Bryson fan, he’ll drag you into being interested, and if you wanted to use this as a high school science text, I’d support you. I’m probably going to make it required reading at our house. Shop your local indie bookstore

Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston

I had no idea that I would love this story so much. It is hilarious, and swoon-worthy all at once. Anyone who is even remotely interested in politics will find themselves invested in the story and entertained by the little mentions of past political players. The story follows Alex, the son of the first female President and his journey after a particular political scandal with Henry, Prince of Wales. The plot is diverse and dynamic and brings into perspective the struggles currently faced. McQuiston’s novel is current, representative, funny, and a must-read for rom-com lovers! Shop your local indie bookstore

The Alter Ego Effect by Todd Herman

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I read a handful of what you’d call self-improvement books each year. This one stood out for me as it gave me some advice, that as a writer, was easy for me to implement. You’ve heard the phrase “fake it til you make it” That’s kind of what this is, on a simplified scale. Only with Herman’s method you adopt an alter ego in whatever area of your life needs it (maybe all of them?), and he lays out the steps that you can use to achieve your goals by not standing in your way.
The steps in the book include: building a back story, finding a totem and a field of play. Once you’ve decided on your alter ego, you can then activate them and start just “being” better at whatever you choose. It is intriguing as a concept. Think of all the actors that are painfully shy in their own life, but can act in front of thousands of people. The book gives you lots of examples of people who have used this method, and it is impressive. Best of all, it costs nothing to try. If you’ve heard that you are getting in your way, this may be helpful for you to read.

This book didn’t make it into the infographic, basically because I’m too lazy to re-do it. This year and next are winding up to be pretty contentious for Americans as the Presidential Election approaches. There are things that we can all come together and enjoy. One of these is this book. No matter what your political leanings are, I feel like this version of Joe Biden encompasses bi partisan politics perfectly. You are guaranteed at least four deep belly laughs. And I’m not just saying that because of the Chicago setting or the fact that I got to read the alternative ending!

I bought myself a ton of books for Christmas, and even though I own this as an Audio book I’m getting this book in hardcover also.

In closing, I want to give a shout out to The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. It has a publication date in 2011, and I somehow missed it all this time. For once, I’m linking you to the Audible version. It’s read by the remarkable Jim Dale and that makes it all the more magical. This book is my go to, number one recommendation this Holiday Season. I know that the author has a new book out (The Starless Sea) and I’m saving it for 2020, just so I can savor it. If it’s anything at all like The Night Circus, you are in for a treat.

The Night Circus arrives without warning (as it did into my reading life!) and it is the definition of enchanting. It has the kind of plot that just keeps growing and gaining complexity to the point where as the reader there is no telling where the plot is headed, but you cannot wait to find out.

book review fiction

Book Review: Such a Fun Age

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This fantastic debut novel blew me away. If, as an adult reader, you wished for a book akin to something like what Jason Reynolds or Angie Thomas writes for teens- this is it.

This is the book you suggest for your book club in 2020 or hand to your neighbor. It’s smart, funny, and entirely relatable. You’ll see yourself in at least one of the characters. Somehow this hard-hitting look at race relations lands gently on the reader.

Race, privilege, long-held grudges, and some seriously deranged main characters appear throughout this gripping story. But, it’s all believable, which is critical to me as a reader.
Emira is a twenty-five-year-old college graduate who, for one reason or another, hasn’t quite figured out her career plans and so she works a couple of jobs to get by. One night she babysits Briar, wealthy and white Alix’s daughter, and then gets confronted by a security guard at a supermarket, accusing her of kidnapping the white child. That sets the stage for the rest of this novel, which twists around in ways I never expected. Alix and her husband are horrified and repeatedly awkwardly apologize to Emira, only making things worse. Throw in the guy who witnessed and videoed the exchange at the store, and although Emira wants to forget it, none of the white people involved will let her.

You get to know all the characters so well and can see how they, in their minds, justify some awful behavior towards each other. Except for 2-year-old Briar, who is a treasure!

My thanks to the publisher for the advance review copy.

Hardcover, 320 pages Expected publication: December 31st, 2019 by G.P. Putnam’s Sons

book review nonfiction

Book Review: Disney’s Land

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Disney’s Land tells the complete story of Disneyland from concept to the present day. This novel is one of the best histories of Disneyland that I’ve read (and there are quite a few out there.) The tone of the book is so friendly and readable that you feel as if you are listening to a friend tell the story.

One fact I hadn’t heard before reading this was that Walt was pretty bored making cartoon movies and wanted a new challenge. I also diagnosed Walt with ADHD just by reading his behavior descriptions. 🙂

There were so many challenges to create what was the first theme park anywhere, and to do it so well out of the gate was amazing. Not everything went as planned, and reading about the ins and outs of the details was fascinating.

I’m tempted to purchase the audio version of this book. The chapter containing the transcript of the live broadcast of Opening Day would be fun to hear. It sounds like Ronald Reagan wasn’t very happy that his role narrating the parade did not include a script.

Overall this book will appeal to not only Disney fanatics but to anyone interested in building a creative business from the ground up. There is a lot to learn from the process of creating Disney’s first Land.

book review YA fiction

ARC Review: When We Were Vikings

This is precisely the kind of book that we read and discuss at our YA Bookish Society Round Table. Teen Round table offers kids the chance to hang out with like-minded readers and have grown up style delving and debate.

 “there are people around the poker table of life whose hands aren’t perfect and they see what they have and fold right away. They don’t even bother playing.”

This is a story about Gert and Zelda, brother and sister orphaned at a young age, shifted to a not so great Uncle Richard, and how they navigate the world.
Twenty-one year old Zelda has fetal alcohol syndrome and lives her life by what she feels are the rules of the Vikings. Zelda is on an epic quest to be a modern-day Viking warrior. Her journey includes building a “tribe,” and experiencing new adventures (a new job at a library).
Gert has his own issues with drugs and alcohol addiction. Although he tries to do the right thing, it takes Gert and Zelda together to get out from under some trouble with a drug dealer.
Most of the reviews I’ve read paint Gert as being Zelda’s caretaker when I see it more as they are both damaged by their upbringing and are equals. I loved that in Zelda’s mind, she is a warrior and that she brings those ideals to her modern life. She is the quirky heroine I’ve wanted to read about for a long time.
PSA: I wouldn’t hand this one off to anyone under the age of fifteen, as the story contains a lot of graphic language and adult situations.

Expected publication: January 28th 2020 by Scout Press

book review MG fiction

Book Review: The Story That Cannot Be Told

If you’ve got a kid that loves folk and fairy tales, this is a story for them. If they like historical fiction, this is also for them. The alternating chapters between the story of Ileana in Romania circa 1989, and the stories that Ileana adapts as Romanian folktales to disguise their exact origins are amazing.
Living under Ceausescu was so dangerous for people who rebelled that Ileana has to leave Bucharest and go and live with her grandparents in a rural village. This is quite the change for a kid who grew up living city life under a communist regime. She is used to food shortages, secrecy, and living under the threat of torture. In the country, her grandparents are far enough away that she has a taste of a sort of “normal” childhood for a little while. During this time in the village, she comes into her own with both her storytelling and her political ideals. The novel reminded me of “The War That Saved My Life.” This is a time period (1980’s and 1990’s) that doesn’t have much for Middle-Grade kids.
Anyone studying Eastern Europe with kids could use this as a Read Aloud for many ages. You may have to explain to younger kids when the story transitions back and forth from fairy tale to the present, but the story contains typical wartime violence.
In the end, the story was so captivating that I thought maybe the fairy tale was real.

If this is the kind of book that your kid adores, imagine the joy of your child going to the mailbox each month for a shiny new book of their very own, and then meeting with kids their age to talk about the latest, greatest middle-grade titles. Consider a Bookish Society Membership!

book review MG fiction

Book Review: The Strangers (Greystone Secrets, #1)

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Are you looking for a Middle-Grade mystery series? I wasn’t really- until I found this one. Now, I’m hooked and reading an advanced copy of the sequel. If you’ve read any of the many novels by this author, you’ll be expecting a twisty, turny plot, and you will not be disappointed here.
Chess, Emma, and Finn Greystone are siblings living a normal life when one day they see a strange news story on TV that tells of three siblings with their exact same names that get kidnapped in Arizona. Very soon after that, their Mom announces that she is going away on business and doesn’t know when she’ll be returning.
Why would these kids have the same names as them? That is only the beginning of the puzzles, riddles, and underlying weirdness that the kids encounter as they try to piece together the truth in their circumstances. This middle-grade novel has more than a little in common with the Stranger Things series, and we were so ready for it. My fourteen-year-old son and I took turns reading it aloud, so don’t be afraid to age this one up into the YA range, although younger kids with a good attention span will enjoy it too.

Publication date April 7, 2019

Sequel- The Deceivers scheduled for publication April 7, 2020

book review nonfiction

Book Review: The Day It Finally Happens

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So, I strolled into my library intent of dropping off and then picking up my holds. Just minding my own business. When my eye strayed up to the Nonfiction Quick Pick Shelf. I pride myself on keeping current with new release books, especially in this subject matter: Tin Foil Hat subjects. If there is something that could happen, I’ve probably already mulled it over at 2 am. And so, this lovely tome made it into my tote bag without a second thought. (I’m sneaking in this review in between a towering stack of Cybils Nominees)

Mike Pearl works for Vice magazine writing a column titled: How Scared Should I Be? Anything that could happen falls under his purview. In this book, he gathered all the likely and unlikely scenarios that are the usual subjects of clickbait. You’d be surprised how many incredible things actually could happen and, conversely, how many I thought would be a given, and the odds are low for them. Jurassic Park could happen! That supervolcano out west? Not likely. Now, I would have guessed the exact opposite.

Mike ranks each event with the questions:

Likely in this century?

Plausibility Rating


Worth Changing Habits?

He then backs up his one line findings with plenty of evidence and interviews with experts. You know I loved it. Buy it for the conspiracy theorist on your shopping list.

Publication Date: September 17, 2019

book review Cybils Nominee YA fiction

Book Review: We Hunt the Flame

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“Maybe the tiny lions were merely ornaments, a display of pride for the victory over a man who defied men, only to be slain by women.”
― Hafsah Faizal, We Hunt the Flame

Ah, where to begin? This novel is on the nominee list for the YA Speculative Fiction Cybils Awards, and that is how I found it. Who will love this book? Teens who have an affinity for beautiful language, mixed with an adventure story reminiscent of Mulan, but in an Arabian Nights setting. I just got lost in the word choices. I keep a copybook full of phrases that I want to remember from books, and I filled an entire page with quotes from this story.
We Hunt the Flame follows Zafira, a hunter. Zafira is inexplicably the only hunter in the forest, and no one knows that she is a woman. Eventually, Zafira sets out on her most crucial hunt yet; to discover an ancient artifact that will restore the magic to her kingdom as it was once before. The assassin Nasir ( ominously named-the Prince of Death) is ordered to assassinate everyone who gets in the way of his father, who is the leader of Arawiya. When Nasir is told by his father to kill the hunter and retrieve the same artifact, the two characters intersect, and things get tricky in this imaginative ancient kingdom.
So much of this book reads like a long-form poem. That plus the atmosphere, and girl power made me love it.

book review nonfiction

Book Review: How to Stop Losing Your Sh*t with Your Kids

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Where was this book when I had four kids under the age of ten? Practical and not preachy, this is the kind of book you can read in spurts with no problem. It’s also not so long that you’ll never begin in at all. But do read it from start to finish in order.
Real-life never stops being stressful; the only thing you can do is to work on your responses to stressful events. I liked the realistic approach that as people, parents are going to react as people do continually and that we’re all a work in progress. This is an easy-to-follow, step-by-step guide to making changes that will help you be a better parent — and yet, it’s also not one-size-fits-all.
It’s never too late to think about a new approach, and I loved that these ideas will help make you a better person overall, and it isn’t a- This is the “right” way to parent guide.

book review fiction

Book Review: Deep State

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Hayley Chill is the female action hero I didn’t know I needed. What a fast read. I mean the political intrigue kept me up way past my bedtime and then just when things were wrapping up at the end there is another big unforeseen twist. So fun to read a female lead character that knows her mind and doesn’t let anything or anyone slow her down.

Hayley Chill is an ex-Army boxing champion who is serving as a White House intern. She discovers the body of her boss, Peter Hall, the president’s Chief of Staff, and a single clue, which suggests he did not die of natural causes. Soon enough, Hayley is on the trail to solving the case herself. She isn’t sure who, if anyone she can trust, and as a reader, I wondered just how far up this conspiracy would go.

As a character, you can’t help liking Hayley. She’s come a long way from her West Virginia upbringing, and dealing with unraveling a conspiracy run by a “shadow government” wouldn’t be easy for anyone.

If you enjoy any of the spy-intrigue books, like the Jack Ryan series or watched Scandal or House of Cards, this book will be an excellent match for you. It looks like there is a sequel in the works, so feel free to get attached to Hayley.

Expected publication: January 7th, 2020 by Atria/Emily Bestler Books