The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd
This historical fiction novel follows the lives of Sarah Grimke, the daughter of a prominent judge in Charleston, SC, and Handful, a slave girl. Each chapter is written from alternating perspective of Sarah and Handful. The novel is largely factual regarding the work of the Grimke sisters, who were infamous abolitionist and women's rights advocates in the mid-1800's. I think the book was well-written, but I would have enjoyed it significantly more if Handful's character was further developed. The novel would been that much better if Kidd had elaborated on Handful's relationships, conversations, and daily life. I didn't empathize with any characters and I felt like the last hundred pages were very slow to read.
Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline
This historical fiction novel weaves the story of Molly, a 17 year old delinquent in foster care, and Vivian, a 91 year old widow living in her mansion off the coast of Maine. Molly undertakes the task of cleaning out Vivian's attic as part of required community service hours. While cleaning out the attic, she learns about Vivian's horrific childhood as an orphan. The novel was told in a rather interesting way, with chapters jumping back and forth from past (mostly 1929-30's) and present. The flashbacks were told in first person point of view, though the present was third person. This made it difficult to get into, and I probably would have abandoned it had it not been our Book Club pick. Once I understood the format, I couldn't put it down! I learned about a hidden part of American history and was captivated with the unpredictable revelations throughout the book. It's one of my new favorites.
The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh
This novel centers around Victoria, an 18 year old who is emancipated from the foster-care system and becomes homeless, until her floral talents are discovered by a nearby florist. The book was a very quick read. I was intrigued by the way the story unfolded with chapters alternating from Victoria's childhood and present. I especially enjoyed the first third of the book. Unfortunately, mid-way through, Victoria abandoned so many people with little consequence that her character became very unlikable. I would have enjoyed the novel more if the author described other characters' anger and frustration rather with Victoria rather than undeserving forgiveness and no explanation.
As an aside, the references to the Victorian language of flowers and flower dictionary was intriguing and made me think of flowers in a new way.
All The Light We Cannot See by Anothony Doerr
This WWII novel alternates perspectives from a blind French girl and German orphan boy. In addition to alternating characters, it also jumps back and forth between time periods. This is not a love story. In fact, the two main characters don't meet until three-fourths of the way through the book. There were many fascinating elements of the book such as the significance of the radio and the indoctrination of the Hitler Youth, This is not a book you can stay awake all night reading. It's extremely detail oriented and slow paced. I'm glad I read it and I definitely enjoyed discussing it, but I would not have finished it if it weren't our book club pick. If you can make it through the first 375 pages, the final 150 are worth it.
Necessary Lies by Diane Chamberlain
This novel weaves together the stories of Jane Forrester, a new social worker, with Ivy Hart, a 15 year old girl who lives in a very poor tenant house. It is set in 1960 in rural North Carolina, and is based on historical aspects of the Eugenics Sterilization Program. The author manages to challenge views on race, poverty, traditional roles in marriage, mental illness, and rape. Nearly every conflict in the book falls under a gray area, where it is difficult to decide who is morally right. I thoroughly enjoyed this book!
The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion
This novel is narrated by Don Tillman, a genetics professor who is on a quest to find a wife. The Wife Project is interrupted by Rosie, a woman who meets none of his criteria, but is on her own quest to find the identity of her biological father. Rosie and Don seem like unsuitable matches for one another, though they have incredibly entertaining and unique experiences together. This is one of the first novels I've read in a long time that tells a straight story (no jumping back and forth between different character's points of view or different time periods). Don reminds me so much of Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory. It was a fun read that I could not put down.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce
This is the story of Harold Fry, a very ordinary Englishman, who spontaneously decides to walk over 500 miles across England. This decision is made after a result of receiving a letter from an old friend who is terminally ill and in Hospice care. Throughout the novel, the reader meets various characters along Harold's walk, and also learns more about Harold's past, particularly his dysfunctional relationships with his son and wife. This book was a very slow read and lacked any real spark that made me want to continue reading. Not my favorite book, but an okay read.
The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
This mystery/thriller is narrated through various characters' perspectives. The main character is Rachel, a divorced alcoholic who becomes fixated on watching people in their homes from the windows of the train. She struggles to remember an important period of time that may help solve the mystery of someone's disappearance. Hawkins told the story so well; she had me convinced nearly every character was guilty of the crime at some point during the novel. This was the first book I've ever read on the kindle. Once I was about 60% finished, I literally could not stop reading!
Dark Places by Gillian Flynn
This mystery is dark indeed, filled with gruesome murders and Satanic sacrifices. The very first page reveals the crime where a mother and children are murdered, allegedly by Ben, the oldest son in the family. There is only one survivor, youngest daughter, Libby. The novel alternates between present tense from Libby's first person point of view, to flashbacks from the mother and son of the day of the murder. This is the kind of book that makes you feel eerie and unsettled while you read it, though you had to keep reading out of pure curiosity. Like Gone Girl, it had a very complicated plot with unlikely twists.
Wool Omnibus by Hugh Howey
I typically love dystopian novels. The Giver and Hunger Games are two of my favorite series. This one was hard to get into and I wouldn't have finished it if it weren't a book club pick. The novel is made up of five indepenently published novellas. The setting is a postapocalyptic world where the survivors of some unknown disaster live in a 100+ story silo. They cannot go outside because the atmosphere is inhospitable. The novellas end abruptly and different characters are introduced. There's never a satisfying closure, though I assume that's the point. I was mildly interested to see how the series ended, but would not read the following books. This was not my favorite read.
Still Alice by Lisa Genova
This was a gut-wrenching novel that read more like a memoir about the demise of a 50 year old Harvard professor diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's. I cried multiple times while reading this book.
After You by JoJo Moyes
This is the sequel to Me Before You, my favorite read from 2014. It provided a very satisfying take on what Louisa Clark's life is like after her time with Will. While the end was neat and tidy, there were plenty of unpredictable characters and relationship revelations that made the book a very quick, enjoyable read.
The Whole 30 by Melissa and Dallas Hartwig
I was eager going into the Whole 30 experience, but I didn't even finish it. The book claims to "reset your health" and "transform your relationship with food" by eliminating all sugar, grains, dairy, and alcohol.The novel was much easier to read than Wheat Belly. The authors provide plenty of analogies and break down the science so it doesn't feel like an academic read. They also help you consider your psychological relationship with food. Though I didn't have a positive Whole 30 experience, I seem to be in the minority.
Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll
This mystery/thriller is told through alternating flashbacks and present tense about Ani FaNelli's life. Most of the suspense takes place during her teen years at Bradley High School. I in no way expected the climax of the book. However, the main character was so one-dimensional and pretentious that I did not care what happened to her. I have never disliked a main character so much and I do not recommend the book.
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
Having watched the movie several years ago, I had a vague recollection of major plot points in the book before reading. There were some very intense scenes in the novel and I was intrigued and heartbroken at many of the scenes in Afghanistan. Each character was captivating and complex. I especially appreciated the evolving relationship between Amir and his father. This was not a light read, but one of the more memorable novels I've read.
The Husband's Secret by Liane Moriarty
This was another book club pick. I thoroughly enjoyed the intertwining characters and story lines. I wrote more detailed commentary here.
Wheat Belly by William Davis
After basic research on different ways of eating, the Wheat Belly approach peaked our interest enough for Jesse to purchase the book (used, of course). It was so densely informative it was challenging to read for extended periods of time. Davis explains the history of wheat production and how its genetic modifications are the cause of many health problems among people. He provides detailed information on ways to avoid the cycle of blood sugar spikes and crashes by avoiding most all grains.
Wheat Belly 30 Minute (Or Less!) Cookbook by William Davis
After following the Wheat Belly way of eating, we requested this book from the library. The first several chapters of the book are essentially a condensed version of Wheat Belly. I followed over a dozen recipes from the book that were very tasty, including salmon croquettes, tuna-tomato melts, pizza crust, stuffed peppers, ricotta cheesecake, zucchini noodles, and pumpkin-pecan pancakes.
The Violets of March by Sarah Jio
This was recommended by my sister because of the overlapping plots and characters. It is the story of Emily, a once successful writer and wife, who decides to spend the summer at her aunt's house on Bainbridge Island after her divorce. Emily becomes engrossed in a diary that she discovers in her nightstand. The novel goes back and forth between the present and past, slowly revealing the connection of the two story lines. It was a quick read with enough character development to keep you engaged.
The Bungalow by Sarah Jio
After enjoying The Violets of March, I picked up another Jio book at the library. This novel was an even shorter and easier read. I could not put the book down. However, the end was sickeningly predictable and many of the characters lacked depth. It felt almost as if I was reading a CliffNotes version of the original book. I expected more writing about Anne's changing friendship with Kitty, Mary's involvement in the war, and Anne's relationships with Gerard and Westry.
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
This was another book club pick. I love young adult fiction and this was no exception. I read this in less than a day. Green did such a fantastic job articulating the love between Hazel and Augustus. The two character's actions were so genuine. I felt a roller coaster of emotions while reading this book and found Hazel to be surprisingly relatable, even though I have no experience with cancer.
Looking for Alaska by John Green
Another quick read, though plenty to ponder. I wasn't sure if I was supposed to love or hate the character of Alaska. Green has a true talent for conveying teenagers' thoughts and feelings. I enjoyed the philosophical questions that arose during the religion class, as well as the significance of Pudge memorizing people's last words. The novel has so many good talking points. However, I was surprised to encounter so many sexual scenes in the young adult book.
Crazy Little Thing by Tracy Brogan
An easy beach read, this book was a shallow version of The Violets of March (minus the diary). I found the main character, Saide, to be incredibly whiny and immature. Amidst a painful divorce, she snatched her children up and moved to the beach to live with her quirky aunt. Most of the characters seemed stereotypical: the flamboyantly gay cousin, the sexy neighbor, the self-pitying divorcee, and so on. Regardless, I was still invested enough to continue reading and ended up really enjoying the final third of the book.
The Art of Falling by Kathryn Craft
This book was very slow for me. I had a hard time getting into it, likely due to the fact that I could not relate to the main character, Penny. Penny was a professional dancer who survived a 14 story fall. Most of the novel is spent trying to solve whether Penny attempted suicide or not. There were many themes of body image and self-acceptance. Frankly, the only reason I continued reading was to follow the character Angela, Penny's hospital roommate who has Cystic Fibrosis. Angela's story made the novel worth reading.
The Summer We Read Gatsby by Danielle Ganek
There are two kinds of books: one that makes me stay up reading in the wee hours; the other that puts me to sleep after a few pages. This book was the latter. It was a story of two half-sisters who inherit their aunt's summer home in the Hamptons. I kept complaining about how shallow the characters were and Jesse kept asking me why I was still reading it. I continued because it was a bit of a palette cleanser in between another dense book I was reading. Despite complaining through the first half of the book, I enjoyed the love story with the main character and was quite surprised at how the book concluded in regards to the house. Not sure I would recommend it to anyone, though.
Sarah's Key by Tatiana DeRosnay
This was an intriguing historical fiction novel centered around the French involvement during the Holocaust. Two different stories (10 year old Sarah and American journalist Julia) are revealed through alternating chapters during the first half of the book, until the stories collide. The second half of the book is narrated only by Julia. I enjoyed the chapters about Sarah, the young Jewish girl, far more than Julia's story. The conclusion of the novel was satisfying.
What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty
I selected this novel because it is written by the same author as The Husband's Secret, which I greatly enjoyed. The premise of the book is 39 year-old Alice falls at the gym and suffers a concussion. When she regains consciousness, she thinks she is her 29 year-old, newly married, pregnant self. Throughout the book Alice must backtrack and figure out why her marriage and family relationships have suffered. At nearly 500 pages, I felt like many scenes in the book could have been left out. I was a bit disappointed with the cookie-cutter, picture-perfect ending, but it did make me think a lot about how time and circumstances change family dynamics.
Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
This was on a friend's list of "books I could not put down". We tend to enjoy the same books, so I was excited when this request was in from the library. Unfortunately, I put this book down many, many times.What began to read as an historical fiction novel quickly evolved into science fiction. (Disclaimer: fantasy is my least favorite genre.) The redeeming qualities of the novel were the authentic, vintage photographs embedded throughout. However, I'm not sure if the author wrote the story or found the pictures first, because nothing seemed to fit together cohesively. I typically like books that aren't predictable, but this was so all over the place. I did enjoy the surprise ending when the identity of the "wight" was revealed. That was about it.
Me Before You by JoJo Moyes
This is hands down, my favorite book of the year. I read it on my own in June, then selected it as our book club pick when I hosted in November. I reread every word and loved it just as much. Full commentary can be read here.
Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan
I'm going on a John Green binge so I'll be reviewing a few more of his books (in addition to Fault in Our Stars and Looking for Alaska). The chapters alternate between two different characters' point of view, both of which are named Will Grayson. The characters end up connecting through a chance encounter halfway through the book, and remain connected thanks to the most interesting character of the novel, Tiny Cooper. The novel read like an episode of Glee, with cheesy a musical, flamboyantly gay character, and typical high school drama. The only difference was the excessive use of foul language. I happen to love Glee and don't mind foul language, so I enjoyed this quick read. However, it is likely to be a very forgettable book.
Stay With Me by Paul Griffin
I picked this novel up in the young adult section of the library, mistakenly thinking it was the popular book (now movie) If I Stay. It's definitely not the same book, but a pretty interesting read about two fifteen year olds who fall in love. CeCe is an above average student who follows the rules. Mack is a high school dropout with a criminal record. Both teens live with alcoholic single parents. The author does a poor job of developing the characters before they suddenly fall madly in love with another. Sex is overly emphasized for such a young relationship and certain scenes read more like soft erotica. The final third of the book is where the characters really develop and CeCe and Mack's love is revealed through flashbacks. Much of the story is told through Mack's talents as a dog trainer and his compassion for abused pit bulls. The ending provides a realistic, satisfying closure. If you can make it through the first two-thirds of the book, the rest is worth it.
Paper Towns by John Green
I think this might be my favorite John Green book. Quentin and Margo have grown up as next door neighbors their whole lives. While they were childhood friends, they are not in the same social circles in high school. Margo, the adventurous one, drags Quentin, the predictable one, into a crazy night of pranks, then mysteriously leaves the following day. The rest of the novel is devoted to Quentin and his friends finding Margo through a series of vague clues. This novel had the least amount of foul language and sexual content of Green's other novels, and would probably be the most relatable for teenagers. While the characters of Quentin and Margo strongly resemble the main characters in Looking for Alaska, they were so easy to love. I look forward to seeing the movie when it comes out next year.
Wonder by R. J. Palacio
I had used excerpts of this book to my fifth graders, but it was the first time reading the entire novel. The story is about August, a ten year old boy who was born with severe facial abnormalities. He was home schooled up until fifth grade, which is when the story begins. August's first year of public school is narrated through the perspectives of multiple main characters. The friendships and family relationships are very genuine and deep. The theme of the novel is to "always try to be a little kinder than is necessary".
An Abundance of Katherines by John Green
I think I've finally read all the John Green books. I enjoy Green's humor and quirky writing. This was the most PG of his books and the most mundane (no cancer, fatal car accident, possible suicide, etc). An odd quirk was the constant use of footnotes and third person narration (as opposed to Green's usual first person). The story is about a child-prodigy who has dated, and been dumped by, 19 girls named Katherine. After graduating high school, he and his best friend leave Chicago to go on a road trip. They end up randomly spending the summer in a small town in Tennessee, where they make major realizations about themselves. I liked this book, but think I just need a break from young adult fiction.
The Digital Photography Book by Scott Kelby
I checked this book out from the library in hopes that I could gain a better understanding on my DSLR camera and how to take better pictures. The book is marketed to be for beginners, but I would disagree that it's more for intermediate photographers who already own the expensive camera gear. (There was even a chapter on photographing weddings. What beginner would be a wedding photographer?) Most of the information was over my head and there wasn't any technical information or explanation provided about why you should use an aperture of f/4 vs f/2.8 or what those even mean. I enjoyed Kelby's humor and the quick and dirty version with tips, I just wish I had the equipment and understood how to apply those tips.
Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
This is Moriarty's newest book. I've read a few of her other books (The Husband's Secret and What Alice Forgot). It was a bit longer at nearly 500 pages. When I first picked up the book I thought it was surely longer than necessary, but every page was absolutely vital to develop each character. The story follows three women who are all kindergarten moms at the same school. The novel is humorous and quick to read, though it also has an element of suspense and mystery throughout as the reader tries to solve a murder. Each chapter ends with an excerpt from interviews with other school parents and the the detective. The three main characters' lives are interwoven in a fascinating way and the novel ends with quite a twist.
(As an aside: This was the first book that helped me understand why a woman might stay in a domestic violence relationship. At one point it was compared to a see-saw, where the man had the power, until he hit his wife and was overcome by guilt, then she had all the power, until it happened again. Their relationship was the most interesting and complex.)
If I Stay by Gayle Forman
I selected this because it is an extremely popular young adult novel that recently became a movie. I love YA literature and I always like to read the book before the movie. I would have liked this novel if it hadn't been given so much praise. Unfortunately, the hype made me expect more than it delivered. I didn't realize the entire novel was told through flashbacks. The real time of the entire novel was only a few days, though the story was told through random flashbacks. The characters were underdeveloped. I didn't care for the title and emphasis on if Mia will "stay" after a near fatal collision. The idea that critically ill patients can simply decide if they want to live or die is oversimplified and unrealistic.
Half a Chance by Cynthia Lord
I selected this children's novel because I enjoyed the novel Rules, written by the same author. Lucy, the daughter of a famous photographer, anonymously enters a photography contest that her father is judging in hopes to receive unbiased criticism. Lucy's family moves into a house on a lake. She befriends Nate, her next door neighbor the summer. The two of them spend their summer completing a photo scavenger hunt. This was a very quick read with enough substance (Alzheimer's, friendship, wildlife) that it would make a great book to use in the classroom.