Time is flying by, leaving this blog in the dust! I apologize for not including book reviews for recent reads. Work has been good and overwhelming in the best ways, leaving me with little time or energy to read published books for fun. If I manage to read a published book, it’s on the weekend. And then I post a quick snippet of a review on Instagram instead of the blog. But I’m (finally) here today to give you a glimpse of my favorites from January through June!
I thoroughly enjoyed, devoured, and (for half of these) sobbed over these six books. Click to read the reviews (and see bonus books!)
The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd || Ana marries a kind man and lives in his family’s poor home. As their love deepens & the Romans’ brutality grows, she must say goodbye to him many times as he travels looking for work. Then he’s called away for ministry. Ana longs to have a voice as large as his, picks up her ink and papyrus, and tells her story: she is the wife of Jesus ben Joseph of Nazareth.
Now, I can hear your brain break. I was hesitant to pick up this book too—not because of the notion Jesus had a wife, but because I loathe preachy narratives. Let me reassure you it’s strictly historical fiction. There are no miracles, hidden meanings, or spiritual agendas. It’s simply the everyday life of a young couple surviving under oppression. And honestly? That was a relief. If anything it made Jesus more real for me. We see a gentle man who was radical simply for being different. We see him laugh, tease, and cry, pondering his purpose in life like anyone else. There’s no indication he knew himself to be the son of God—in fact, I found that to be a relief too. Regardless of one’s faith, the fact is Jesus was a man who walked this earth centuries ago. He’s simply another character in this book.
I adored Ana. She longs to record women’s stories since women are brutalized, forgotten, silenced, neglected. Her underlying anger called to me from the first page and I clicked with her journey. She’s funny, fierce, flawed, strong. This book made me ponder the books selected to become the Bible—how would Christianity and the shaping of Western culture be different if the Church shared [more] women’s voices? I enjoyed the historical context. A character reads The Odyssey. One was born in the year Cleopatra died. It was a great way for me to see the timeline outside of the Bible—for some reason I see the events of the Bible happening as if in a secondary world to the Roman Empire. We even explored Jerusalem and Alexandria (and the library!). Kidd was able to make all of this collide in such a grounding way.
What is fiction if not an opportunity to explore the what ifs? Remarkable, thought-provoking, profound read.
The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes || I was hooked from the start! Moyes pulled me in with her writing, her voice easy and familiar, engaging and relaxed. With the reader mostly in an English woman’s head, set in a place not far from my home, I immediately fell into the story and read the book in one day. The book follows the lives of five (six later) packhorse librarians in Kentucky. Two in particular—Annie, an English woman newly married to the town’s coal mine boss’s son, and Margery, a self-sufficient woman the town sees as odd—form a spectacular and unexpected friendship running the library and delivering books to the families in the hills. But when Annie leaves her husband and the death of a moonshiner is blamed on Margery, Annie’s father-in-law stops at nothing to bring these “immoral and corrupt women” down along with the beloved library.
This may be set in 1930s Kentucky, but I swear the conservative, misogynistic, and evangelistic attitudes are still here in 2020s Indiana. I frequently wanted to scream at the men, shout at the law, cry with the suffering—but most of all, I wanted to laugh and love and befriend these fierce, wonderful women and the people they cared for. A love of literacy, education, and the right to knowledge was a powerful thread throughout the book, a reminder for me why I’m in this profession.
Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell || O’Farrell had my heart in her grip. I was breathless; I was awash with awe; I choked back a sob. Stunning novel. Hamnet is partly about the death of the only son of a famous playwright who went on to write (arguably) his most thought-provoking and powerful play of a similar name. But mostly Hamnet is about Agnes, the playwright’s wife, and her life in Stratford falling in love with the glover’s son, the Latin tutor, and creating their family and serving the people with remedies and care, and the grief that follows when her son dies of the plague.
I was expecting high-brow, lofty, difficult-to-consume literary work, the kind that requires more brain power than usual in order to comprehend what just happened in a paragraph. While it is indeed beautifully written with gorgeous (yet simple) language, it was so engrossing I easily fell into the narrative. The structure is fantastic—Part I a dual timeline of Agnes’s life meeting the Latin tutor and raising a family interwoven with her son’s final hours; Part II the grief that follows his death and the impact it has on the family—which allowed for some amazing emotional, gut-punching releases: joy (birth), sorrow (death), and acceptance (the play).
I loved that this was in Agnes’s perspective. I love that we’re never told her husband’s name. I love that she’s called Agnes and not Anne. I love that Hamnet and Hamlet are interchangeable names. I loved recalling my visit to Stratford and London and seeing it through their eyes in 1590/1600s. And I even weirdly appreciated seeing the treatment for a plague then remains the same today—I felt…so much more connected to these people. I loved Agnes’s connection to nature and healing and health. I loved the scene at The Globe. I loved seeing the big and small ways women impacted the lives of their community. I loved that the focus was not on the famous man, but the other people whom history has not given a voice.
Thank you, Maggie O’Farrell, for giving them a voice. I’ll look upon “Hamlet” with new eyes.
Happily Ever Afters by Elise Bryant || Teen!Laura would’ve shoved this book in everyone’s hands and said “THIIIIIIIIIIIS!” Like, this book is Sarah Dessen (The Truth About Forever) and Jenny Han (To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before) and Stephanie Perkins (Anna and the French Kiss) levels of greatness in my head. What a great exploration of love and friendship and all the complicated dynamics that come with it! Tessa loves her family deeply but they don’t always see eye-to-eye. She relies on her best friend Caroline to help her with her writing but she also needs to learn to be relied upon too. Plus, she’s totally crushing on neighbor Sam who isn’t the picture perfect Hollywood dream boat like Nico, but Nico is so clearly the leading man…right?
I loved the nuance and growth of Tessa’s character, and especially enjoyed the way romance novels, fanfiction, and the anxiety of writing for personal pleasure vs the intention of sharing with others were explored. Sometimes life isn’t like the novels—and sometimes it’s better that way. (Also YES to cinnamon roll Sam, I crushed so hard so fast on him. What a great guy.)
The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner || 1791: A female apothecary secretly concocts and sells poisons to liberate women from the men who’ve wronged them. Today: An aspiring historian finds a bottle in the Thames that leads her on a wild hunt for the truth about the apothecary killer.
This book has been on my radar since its deal announcement—feminist, women supporting women, dark, feels witchy but it’s purely historical—and I’m SO thrilled to report I loved every second of it. A real heart-pounding page-turner of a book. Told in three perspectives (Nella, the apothecary; Eliza, a servant and assistant; Caroline, a budding historian), this narrative is nonstop thrill across a handful of days in the past and present. Will Nella be discovered? Is Eliza cursed? Will Caroline solve the mystery? How in the world will they all get out of their predicaments intact and safe?
The writing was engaging and I was completely transported to London today and in 1791. I only wish I could stumble across cool things like Caroline did! If you enjoy historical fiction, parallel narratives, fast pacing, short timelines, fierce feminists, rage revenge, and witchy vibes (even though there isn’t an ounce of magic in this book), pick up this book.
The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah || I sobbed my way through the final third of this book. The Nightingale follows two sisters throughout WWII in France and everything they endured. One (Isabelle) spins her desire to be loved and her deep determination to defy the Nazis into Resistance work, step by step; another (Vianne) is frightened and just wants to be as small as possible to keep herself and her daughter safe from attention. From Paris to small towns across France, from Spain to America, barn cellars to mountains, churches to camps, saving airmen and saving children, motherhood and friendship, sacrifice and hard decisions—this novel covers all of it. It is complex, harrowing, and difficult, and yet at its core it is about the deep love for life and humanity.
I was in awe throughout the book. I could feel Isabelle’s anger, Vianne’s tension, and my own fear for both women with every page. What would be their fates? What would happen next? How would they make it through? What would I do in their shoes?
Phenomenal. What an achievement.
Some honorable mentions! There were more four-star reads (A Gathering of Shadows by VE Schwab, Life’s Too Short by Abby Jimenez, The Last Bookshop in London by Madeline Martin), but I wanted to highlight these two in particular.
A Pho Love Story by Loan Le || Though longer than I’d like for a YA contemporary, I did enjoy the reading experience. Each of their dates, their questioning of their future (Bao wondering what he’s even good at doing before he can figure out a major for college; Linh’s artistry and coming clean to her family that engineering is not her passion), the family dynamics on both sides, the mystery of “but why is there a feud?”, and all the food (so mouth-watering) kept the pages turning! I’d highly recommend!
The Brilliant Life of Eudora Honeysett by Annie Lyons || This book featured one of my favorite character tropes (a soul who says they’re content but they’re actually lonely). I enjoyed the nuance, character development, and relationships. I can relate to Eudora—her inner logic and desire for peace warring with social necessities. The scenes in which she didn’t want to walk outside to the swim club because she just didn’t want to deal with the exhaustion of people is very me (LOL). But the discussion on what makes life worth living, what it means to live a full life, and what it means to be happy was engaging and uplifting. I loved that.