Thursday, January 18, 2024

Review: The Jane Austen Society by Natalie Jenner


Goodreads Overview:

Just after the Second World War, in the small English village of Chawton, an unusual but like-minded group of people band together to attempt something remarkable.

One hundred and fifty years ago, Chawton was the final home of Jane Austen, one of England's finest novelists. Now it's home to a few distant relatives and their diminishing estate. With the last bit of Austen's legacy threatened, a group of disparate individuals come together to preserve both Jane Austen's home and her legacy. These people—a laborer, a young widow, the local doctor, and a movie star, among others—could not be more different and yet they are united in their love for the works and words of Austen. As each of them endures their own quiet struggle with loss and trauma, some from the recent war, others from more distant tragedies, they rally together to create the Jane Austen Society.


I selected this book because it was a 2020 Goodreads choice nominee for best historical fiction and best debut novel, but primarily because I needed a book that started with J for last year's A-Z reading challenge. I read a couple of Jane Austen's books when I was in high school, but I can't say that I am a huge fan. Not because I didn't enjoy her books, I just haven't read any recently and don't remember much of the content. 

The story takes place in a small town in England where Austen lived and wrote her famous novels. A few locals plus an American actress, who is a huge Jane Austen fan, decide to establish a society and museum to help preserve her home and legacy. I really enjoyed seeing how they bonded over their shared love of Austen's novels. This diverse group of characters were able to help each other through some challenging times. This never would have happened if they hadn't stumbled across each other due to their shared love of Jane Austen. It really shows the importance of connecting with others in some way versus trying to deal with life's struggles on your own. Each was coping ineffectively with their struggles but was able to come out on top thanks to the help of these new friendships. 

There were a number of quotes and references to her works, which I couldn't fully appreciate since it has been so long since I have read her novels. That, however, did not diminish my appreciation of this story. If anything, it encouraged me to read some of her books in the future. I'm sure Jane Austen fans will love this story, but you certainly do not have to be a fan to appreciate the message. There are references to the famous author's life and works, but it is more about survival and overcoming adversity.

Thursday, January 4, 2024

Review: Elsewhere by Gabrielle Zevin


Goodreads Overview:

Welcome to Elsewhere. It is warm, with a breeze, and the beaches are marvelous. It's quiet and peaceful. You can't get sick or any older. Curious to see new paintings by Picasso? Swing by one of Elsewhere's museums. Need to talk to someone about your problems? Stop by Marilyn Monroe's psychiatric practice.

Elsewhere is where fifteen-year-old Liz Hall ends up, after she has died. It is a place so like Earth, yet completely different. Here Liz will age backward from the day of her death until she becomes a baby again and returns to Earth. But Liz wants to turn sixteen, not fourteen again. She wants to get her driver's license. She wants to graduate from high school and go to college. And now that she's dead, Liz is being forced to live a life she doesn't want with a grandmother she has only just met. And it is not going well. How can Liz let go of the only life she has ever known and embrace a new one? Is it possible that a life lived in reverse is no different from a life lived forward?


I bought this book back in 2012 when Gabrielle Zevin came to my library to speak. I really enjoyed listening to her talk about this book, but I didn't actually read it until after I read her more recent book Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow. I think what took me so long is the fact that it is about death. I thought it would be like one of those Nicholas Sparks tearjerker books, but it absolutely was not. 

I found the book to be very original, creative, and inspiring. Liz is the victim of a hit and run and ends up in Elsewhere, which is a sort of heaven, but operates like a regular city. People have jobs, but not necessarily the job they had on earth. Someone who was a surgeon on Earth could be a fisherman in Elsewhere. It is more about what you want to do vs. what you have to do to make ends meet. The other major difference is that people age backwards while in Elsewhere until they reach zero and return to Earth to start a new life again. 

Elizabeth goes to live with her grandmother, who she never met, but has aged back to 34 and is now younger than her mother. She has a difficult time adjusting to her new situation and acts out. She spends a considerable amount of time at the "observation deck" which is like those viewing stations you can use at various attractions. If you put a coin in the machine, you get a limited amount of time using the binoculars. In this case, the binoculars give you a view of life on Earth. She can see what her friends and family are doing now that she is gone and how they are coping. She even tries to make contact with them, which is strictly forbidden. 

She discovers that she has the unique ability to communicate with dogs, so she gets a job working to place dogs who arrive in Elsewhere with new owners. Her friend Owen has a dog named Jen, but he doesn't speak canine, so she helps him out with the dog. She also adopts a dog named Sadie her first day on the job. Some of the conversations with the dogs are laugh out loud funny.

Once she settles into life in Elsewhere, she tells her Grandma Betty "Happiness is a choice. There is no difference in quality between a life lived forward and a live lived backward." That is what I took away from this book as the overall message. You can choose to hold a grudge or fixate on the negative aspects of your life, or you can look at all of the positives and make the most of each and every day that you have. 

I have only read the two books mentioned by Garielle Zevin and would highly recommend both of them. The topics may not sound like something you are interested in, but they are not at all what they seem. They are more about life, friendship, and making your way in an imperfect world. There are great messages and take aways in both of these books.

Wednesday, January 3, 2024

Review: Yes No Maybe So by Becky Albertalli & Aisha Saeed

Goodreads Overview:

Jamie Goldberg is cool with volunteering for his local state senate candidate—as long as he’s behind the scenes. When it comes to speaking to strangers (or, let’s face it, speaking at all to almost anyone), Jamie’s a choke artist. There’s no way he’d ever knock on doors to ask people for their votes…until he meets Maya.

Maya Rehman’s having the worst Ramadan ever. Her best friend is too busy to hang out, her summer trip is canceled, and now her parents are separating. Why her mother thinks the solution to her problems is political canvassing—with some awkward dude she hardly knows—is beyond her.

Going door to door isn’t exactly glamorous, but maybe it’s not the worst thing in the world. After all, the polls are getting closer—and so are Maya and Jamie. Mastering local activism is one thing. Navigating the cross-cultural romance of the century is another thing entirely.


Jamie Goldberg and Maya Rehman were friends when they were very small. Their parents had them in the same play group, but they drifted apart once they were older. Jamie is very smart and passionate about politics, but he is happy remaining behind the scenes. He has had a series of unfortunate events over the years that have affected his confidence and ambition to become a politician himself someday. 

Maya is struggling now that her best friend is leaving for college and her parents have decided to separate. Her mom talks her into helping out with the campaign, but she doesn't really want to be there. Jamie and Maya begin canvasing, but are merely going through the motions to meet their daily quota. When they discover a bill that is being proposed to prevent the wearing of head/face coverings, that clearly is intended to discriminate against Muslims, they decide to take action. 

They become a media sensation thanks to the help of Jamie's grandma's Instagram account. His grandmother is helping with the social media for the campaign and posts some content with Jamie and Maya that goes viral. Everyone assumes they are a couple, but Maya insists she can't date due to her religious and parents' beliefs. They become close friends over the course of the campaign and begin to consider the option of dating when something happens that could jeopardize even their friendship.

This was a very thought provoking and entertaining book. It explores the effects of religious discrimination, and the impact political activism can have towards achieving equality. Jamie and Maya begin the story thinking they are nothing more than two lowly constituents who aren't even old enough to vote, but the impact they have on the campaign and their community is enormous. I would highly recommend this book to high school teachers looking for "choice reading" to recommend to their students.  

Saturday, December 30, 2023

Review: The Excalibur Curse by Kiersten White


Goodreads Overview:

The gripping conclusion to the acclaimed Arthurian fantasy trilogy from New York Times bestselling author Kiersten White finds Guinevere questioning everything—friends and enemies, good and evil, and, most of all, herself.

While journeying north toward the Dark Queen, Guinevere falls into the hands of her enemies. Behind her are Lancelot, trapped on the other side of the magical barrier they created to protect Camelot, and Arthur, who has been led away from his kingdom, chasing after false promises. But the greatest danger isn’t what lies ahead of Guinevere—it’s what’s been buried inside her.

Vowing to unravel the truth of her past with or without Merlin’s help, Guinevere joins forces with the sorceress Morgana and her son, Mordred—and faces the confusing, forbidden feelings she still harbors for him. When Guinevere makes an agonizing discovery about who she is and how she came to be, she finds herself with an impossible choice: fix a terrible crime, or help prevent war.

Guinevere is determined to set things right, whatever the cost. To defeat a rising evil. To remake a kingdom. To undo the mistakes of the past...even if it means destroying herself.

Guinevere has been a changeling, a witch, a queen—but what does it mean to be just a girl?


I started reading this series because I received the first book in an Owlcrate book box. I enjoyed the first book, The Guinevere Deception, and gave it 4-stars. The second book did not advance the plot much, but I was still interested enough after the shocking ending to continue the series. This book was a bit of a letdown for me, so I gave it a generous 3-stars. It did not contain a level of action, adventure, or even a love story that held my attention or propelled the story forward. The focus was primarily on Guinevere trying to figure out who she was before she arrived in Camelot. I kept reading with the hope that there would be some epic conclusion, but I ultimately finished it to check the box that I completed the series. 

The issue could have been that I do not know much about Arthurian legend and didn't fully appreciate the retelling, but this book was not my cup of tea. There was so much potential with a female Lancelot, Guinevere's magic, King Arthur and Mordred competing for Guinevere's affection, and finding Merlin to turn this into a captivating story. As it is, I can't really recommend this series. It was a major time commitment to reach a conclusion that was average at best.

Friday, December 29, 2023

Review: Playing for Pizza by John Grisham


Goodreads Overview:

Rick Dockery was the third-string quarterback for the Cleveland Browns. In the AFC Championship game against Denver, to the surprise and dismay of virtually everyone, Rick actually got into the game. With a 17-point lead and just minutes to go, Rick provided what was arguably the worst single performance in the history of the NFL. Overnight, he became a national laughingstock and, of course, was immediately cut by the Browns and shunned by all other teams.

But all Rick knows is football, and he insists that his agent, Arnie, find a team that needs him. Against enormous odds Arnie finally locates just such a team and informs Rick that, miraculously, he can in fact now be a starting quarterback–for the mighty Panthers of Parma, Italy.

Yes, Italians do play American football, to one degree or another, and the Parma Panthers desperately want a former NFL player–any former NFL player–at their helm. So Rick reluctantly agrees to play for the Panthers–at least until a better offer comes along–and heads off to Italy. He knows nothing about Parma, has never been to Europe, and doesn’t speak or understand a word of Italian. To say that Italy holds a few surprises for Rick Dockery would be something of an understatement.


I am a fan of Grisham's legal thrillers and have slowly but surely been catching up on his books. I read every one of his books when they were first released starting with A Time to Kill through The Runaway Jury. After my college graduation, I didn't have much time for reading and now I am playing catch up. 

Playing for Pizza is very different from Grisham's other books. It is not a legal thriller, but a story about an NFL quarterback who isn't quite ready to choose an alternate career path. His NFL career is essentially over after he single handedly threw the game away and landed himself in the hospital with his third concussion. Nobody will hire him, so his agent suggests he play in Italy for a while to let things die down in America. He is offered a free place to stay, the use of a car, and $20,000 a year to become the starting quarterback for the Parma Panthers. The team consists of players who work day jobs to pay the bills, but have a passion and love for the game. They want nothing more than to win their equivalent to the super bowl and believe Rick Dockery is just the player to help them achieve their goal. 

I listened to the audio version of the book and found it to be entertaining, but not up to the standard of his other books. I usually rate Grisham's books in the 4–5-star range, but this was a 3-star book for me. I enjoyed the story, but there wasn't anything exceptional about it. I wasn't sitting on the edge of my seat waiting to see what would happen next like I am with most of his books. I am happy that I read it, but I will choose a legal thriller for my next Grisham book.

Thursday, December 28, 2023

Review: An Unwanted Guest by Shari Lapena


Goodreads Overview:

We can't choose the strangers we meet.

As the guests arrive at beautiful, remote Mitchell's Inn, they're all looking forward to a relaxing weekend deep in the forest, miles from anywhere. They watch their fellow guests with interest, from a polite distance.

Usually we can avoid the people who make us nervous, make us afraid.

With a violent storm raging, the group finds itself completely cut off from the outside world. Nobody can get in - or out. And then the first body is found . . . and the horrifying truth comes to light. There's a killer among them - and nowhere to run.

Until we find ourselves in a situation we can't escape. Trapped.


This was a highly entertaining murder mystery along the lines of Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None. The story takes place at a family run Inn located in a very remote part of the Catskill Mountains. A father and son operate the Inn, which sounds like a very elegant and relaxing place for a weekend getaway, until a storm cuts off all power and the guests become stranded. 

I found it difficult to fathom that a place like this did not have a generator or a snowmobile in case of emergencies, but they did not. Everyone was making the best of things and expected the power to be restored in a reasonable amount of time, but it was not. They did not have cell service and the land lines were out, so they were completely isolated until plows could make it up the mountain.

One of the guests is found dead in the morning from an apparent accident, but one of the other guests isn't so sure. He insists on leaving the body where it is until help arrives. When a second person is found dead, everyone starts to panic. They begin pointing fingers at each other and actions become even more irrational. They establish a buddy system, not only for their own safety, but to provide an alibi in case someone else turns up dead.

The body count continued to increase, and I still had no idea who the killer was or what the motivation could be. In retrospect, I can think of clues for all of the murders except the first and last. What kicked off this entire chain of events wasn't something the reader could have known until everything was spelled out at the end, which I didn't care for. I believe a good murder mystery should provide all of the clues during the story to allow the reader to solve the crime on their own, if they are astute enough to pick up on all of the small details.

Overall, it was an entertaining story with an interesting group of characters. If you enjoy Ruth Ware's murder mysteries and are looking for something with a similar vibe, this is a good option. 

Friday, December 22, 2023

Review: The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson


Goodreads Overview:

On a cool June evening in 2009, after performing a concert at London's Royal Academy of Music, twenty-year-old American flautist Edwin Rist boarded a train for a suburban outpost of the British Museum of Natural History. Home to one of the largest ornithological collections in the world, the Tring museum was full of rare bird specimens whose gorgeous feathers were worth staggering amounts of money to the men who shared Edwin's obsession: the Victorian art of salmon fly-tying. Once inside the museum, the champion fly-tier grabbed hundreds of bird skins--some collected 150 years earlier by a contemporary of Darwin's, Alfred Russel Wallace, who'd risked everything to gather them--and escaped into the darkness.

Two years later, Kirk Wallace Johnson was waist high in a river in northern New Mexico when his fly-fishing guide told him about the heist. He was soon consumed by the strange case of the feather thief. What would possess a person to steal dead birds? Had Edwin paid the price for his crime? What became of the missing skins? In his search for answers, Johnson was catapulted into a years-long, worldwide investigation. The gripping story of a bizarre and shocking crime, and one man's relentless pursuit of justice, The Feather Thief is also a fascinating exploration of obsession, and man's destructive instinct to harvest the beauty of nature.


This was the July selection for the Books on Tap book club hosted by my library at a local brewery. This book was a 2018 Goodreads Choice Award nominee for Best Nonfiction, and I can see why. I knew nothing about this robbery that took place at a British Museum. Hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of rare bird skins were taken without the museum staff immediately noticing. I am not a fly fisherman, so I don't fully appreciate the appeal of using extremely rare and expensive feathers to catch fish. I'm sure in most cases the people making and selling these flies are just putting them on a shelf to display and are not actually using them, but was fascinating to learn about this art and the black-market sale of bird feathers.

We learn the history of how all of the birds were originally collected and cataloged at the museum and why it was deemed to be such an important collection. The heist takes place, and the reader learns about what happened during the investigation and trial. The author, Kirk Wallace Johnson, is determined to find the remaining birds that were not returned to the museum or clearly destroyed by making flies. He completes his own investigation and eventually lands an interview with the thief himself. I have no idea why Edwin Rist would agree to an interview. He clearly had nothing to gain at that point, but he did, and the reader can get a better understanding of his personality.

It is incomprehensible to me that someone as smart and talented as Edwin could have committed such a crime. He was so consumed with the fly-tying world that he would do anything to acquire the feathers needed to make some of the most famous flies. In addition, he wanted money for a new flute. His family did not have the money to buy it for him and he deemed it necessary if he was going to compete with the finest musicians in the world at the Royal Academy of Music. The fact that he basically walked off scot-free is even more astonishing. 

I am not much of a non-fiction reader, but I really enjoyed this story. It was very entertaining and educational without coming off like a history book. Even someone with no prior knowledge of the heist or fly-tying will enjoy this book.