Book Reviews: January ’20

While I have not been blogging super consistently in the month of January, I have been reading nearly every single day. When it’s cold and dreary I tend to want to spend more time inside feeling cozy (preferably under a blanket with a cup of tea or hot cocoa) and reading is a perfect, low stress activity I can do inside that makes me happy and makes winter fly by.

I finished 39 books in 2019 and am hoping to finish 45 in 2020. I’m off to a strong start with January under my belt. Here’s what I’ve been reading this month.

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The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (pen name for J.K. Rowling). (Mystery/Fiction, 2013). I guess I have never considered myself one to be into mysteries, but the few mysteries and thrillers I’ve read in the past year I have been WHOLLY absorbed in and it’s making me think that I actually am into this genre after all. Speaking of which, I inhaled this book in about 48 hours. My husband and I were out of town for the weekend and after he fell asleep I stayed up for hours reading this by the flashlight on my phone. So yeah, it’s a good and captivating read. The book is the first in the Cormoran Strike series of mysteries by Robert Galbraith (pen name for J.K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame). Cormoran Strike is a struggling private investigator who ends up landing a cold case of a famed supermodel who died suspiciously. The media and police have defined the death as a suicide, but the supermodel’s brother is convinced that it was a murder and pays Cormoran generously to reopen the case. You’ll get sucked into the storyline, the characters and you WON’T see the ending coming. I’d like to read the other follow up Cormoran Strike mysteries after reading this one in a matter of two days. I didn’t realize at the time that I started this book that it was written by J.K. Rowling and it has been a while since I read Harry Potter, but I didn’t notice an obvious language pattern or writing style that would have seemed familiar to me.

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A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson. (Non-Fiction/Science, 2004). This was our book club read for January and holy cow was it a 544 page slog. I’ve read a few other books by Bill Bryson that are refreshingly comical and while they do often incorporate history or geography, I guess I naively assumed that this book would carry a bit more comedy. Instead it is a THOROUGH deep dive into the history of science and what we know of the world we inhabit. While Bryson does a good job of breaking down complex scientific concepts and offers insights into the lesser known figures of scientific history, it is at its core, like a Cliffs Notes on every science class I wasn’t paying attention to. I listened to this book as an audiobook and that actually made it a bit easier to get through, but the audiobook was still 18 hours long. While I enjoy Bryson’s humor, I think I’ll stick to his shorter books from here on out.

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The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes. (Historical Fiction, 2019) I really enjoyed this book and it came highly rated as a late 2019 release. Set in rural Kentucky during the Great Depression, the story follows the Pack Horse Library Initiative, a Works Progress Administration era program to deliver books to rural populations and encourage literacy. I had never heard of this program, but my parents actually moved to rural Kentucky this past year and this book really paints a lovely portrait of a rural way of life nearly 100 years ago and has made me eager to visit Kentucky in the summer months. While honoring history and the cultural issues and norms of this region at this time frame, the story builds complicated relationships between the Pack Horse Librarians – an African American woman (and only one with professional library skills), an English-American immigrant, some “too tough” Mountain women who hold their own and connect strongly with the customers they serve, and a young woman with a limp from polio that finds her confidence on horseback and finding purpose in her work. The story line is jammed with local drama, marriages gone wrong, unplanned pregnancies, environmental concerns and unethical labor practices in the mining industry and racism and sexism. And yet, above all of these, the library is beloved by the low income rural population they serve and positively changes their lives and brings a community together.

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The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers by Maxwell King. (Biography/Non-Fiction, 2018). I was borderline obsessed with Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood as a child, in fact, my mom always recalls that I would tell her that I wanted to watch “Rog”, as though I knew him personally enough to refer to him without his title or even his full name. My favorite episode of all time was the one where they see crayons being manufactured at a Crayola factory on the picture picture segment. Despite the show being a large part of my childhood, I knew very little about the man behind the show and the puppets. This biography highlights the full life of Fred Rogers, a man born into wealth, who had a challenging childhood with few friends, who proved to be a brilliant artist and who cared deeply about serving a role as an adult in childrens’ lives who listens and engages with them fully. His legacy in the realm of childhood television and the difference his family has and continues to make in the Greater Pittsburgh (PA) area is truly remarkable. Written by a professional in the philanthropic world in Pittsburgh, the book brings Fred Rogers’ international figure back ‘home’ to the scale of his hometown, and to the neighborhood on which he loosely based his television neighborhood. This book taught me a great deal and it made me cry. It was a lovely way to look back to my own childhood through the lens of a man I never met, but felt like I knew closely.

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The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better Life by Anu Partanen. (Non-Fiction, 2016). This has been a bit of a trend I’m on lately, but I’ve read a few other books about Scandinavia in the last year (including The Finnish Way, which I link to in this post). I have just realized personally in the last few years that I feel very anxious and stressed about certain aspects of living in the United States and I have a natural curiosity about how other countries approach some of the worries and concerns I have. This book offers the perspective of a native Fin who emigrates to the United States and later becomes a U.S. Citizen. She shares her personal experiences, as well as those of her friends in Finland and the U.S. on their parenting philosophies, health and wellbeing and work life balance. She also heavily researches and shares data on areas like healthcare policy, the insurance industry, innovation and entrepreneurship, taxation, K-12 and higher education and the idea of American exceptionalism. While a bit on the long side and very policy heavy, I did find this book to be a very good read.

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The Alice Network by Kate Quinn. (Historical Fiction, 2017). I’ve really been enjoying reads from Reese Witherspoon’s Book Club lately, including Daisy Jones and the Six (highlighted here), Where the Crawdads Sing (highlighted here), and Something in the Water (read before I started blogging). I’m going to keep an eye on her book club picks in the future because thus far, everyone I’ve read I’ve really enjoyed. The Alice Network weaves together two story lines: one of a WWI female spy from Britain stationed in occupied France, and one of a 20-something American woman looking for a lost lifelong friend in France after WWII. The two women’s paths cross in England and leads to a whirlwind trip through France and these two women finding strength, peace and a renewed will to right the wrongs of two wars decades after the fact.

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Bachelor Nation: Inside the World of America’s Favorite Guilty Pleasure by Amy Kaufman. (Non-Fiction, 2018). I only got into The Bachelor in 2018 (during Arie Luyendyk’s season) but it’s been a train wreck I can’t look away from ever since. I watch the show religiously, listen to the recap podcasts, and never miss the hilarious Vulture recaps of the show. I *know* it’s highly edited and I *know* that statistically these relationships are not going to work out the majority of the time, but it is like an interesting lab experiment watching to what lengths young women will go to become Instagram famous and how fully these people can convince themselves (with some social isolation and sleep deprivation) that they are meant to spend the rest of their lives with someone they’ve known for longer than a full working week at the office. It’s a completely bonkers premise and it’s really good television and I’m here for it. Amy Kaufman, author of this book, is also here for it and dives deep into what it takes to get on the show, the stunts production pulls to generate the best television and the aspects of the TV show that you would think *MOST SANE PEOPLE* would never consider doing. This book is juicy and while she highlights herself perhaps a bit too much in the beginning, really reels you in.

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