Mini Reviews of Recent Reads – December 2019

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We’ve reached the last new reviews of 2019! There are a lot of books to cover this time–some new, some old, some winners, and some not.

I guess some months are just like that, especially when the volume of books is high. Not everything can be great.

Luckily, a few here did stand out as really fantastic–definitely check them out and get them on your TBR now.

I also love this time of year in book blogging because everyone is putting together their “best of” lists. It’s so much fun to see what worked for other readers, and which books I definitely need to squeeze in that I might have missed.

Be sure to come back next week on Tuesday, December 17, when Rachel at Never Enough Novels and I are hosting a linkup of Best Books of the Decade posts.

Book bloggers, get your posts ready. If you’re not a book blogger, we want to hear from you, too! Come back and add your favorites in the comments. More details are here.

If you want a reminder so you can come back and join in the fun, sign up below–I’ll send out a message with a link to the post on the 17th.

December 2019 Book Reviews

Print Books

The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11

The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11

Everyone has a story about where they were on 9/11. The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11 compiles those stories, from the people who were there. And "there" was so many places: on the ground, in the buildings, in the planes, in the airports, on the phone, and watching from afar.

This oral history takes us to those places, through the poignant, moment-by-moment reflections of people around the country. You'll hear from firefighters, employees in the World Trade Center and Pentagon, people on the street, reporters and staff aboard Air Force One, and many more. Graff has pulled together these snippets in a truly riveting way; each time I emerged from reading this book I had to reorient myself back in the present (today's news vs. the news from 9/11 was particularly jarring). The confusion of the day is particularly well-captured, from the initial thoughts about the horrible "accident" at the towers, to disbelief that it was happening, to the government's ill-preparedness for such a horrific event, pre-9/11 was truly a different time.

The content is difficult, but this is a must-read for absolutely everyone. I read it in print, but I've heard the audio is also fantastic.

More info →
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The Family Upstairs: A Novel

The Family Upstairs: A Novel

At 25 years old, Libby opens a letter to find out the identity of her birth parents--and that she has inherited their abandoned mansion in London. Twenty-five years ago, police were called to the house to find only a baby alive in a crib--and three dead bodies in the kitchen. The four other children were gone. Libby finds herself entangled in the families that lived in the house--and their secrets. Through flashbacks between past and present, as well as from multiple character perspectives, we learn happened in the house and how the events of the past are still unfolding in the present.

Lisa Jewell has become one of my favorite mystery and thriller writers. She writes smart, solid stories with fully developed characters and without gimmicky twists, and I'm pleased to say that The Family Upstairs follows this pattern. She adds just the right touch of creepiness for a reader like me who is a little sensitive to scary stories. Most intriguing here are the manipulative, dark characters, and the flashbacks told by various characters will keep you guessing about what is true and what is not.

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The Nickel Boys: A Novel

The Nickel Boys: A Novel

In the Jim Crow South, a simple mistake sends a black boy to a reform school where boys are brutalized and sometimes disappear. Tasked only with surviving, Elwood holds onto his ideals, shaped by the inspiring words of Dr. Martin Luther King. His friend Turner, however, is just as certain in his cynicism and their conflicting views bring them to a crossroad, leading to a choice that has repercussions for years to come.

Based on the real-life Dozier School in Florida, which only shut down in 2011 and where many unmarked graves have since been discovered, The Nickel Boys is a devastating read about the brutality wrought by both the individuals in power and the corrupt system that allowed them to remain there. Heartbreaking, disturbing (though not overly graphic if you're a sensitive reader), and highly recommended.

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The Giver of Stars: A Novel

The Giver of Stars: A Novel

In a small Appalachian town in Kentucky, five women have committed to join the Horseback Librarians of Kentucky, an initiative spearheaded by Eleanor Roosevelt to bring books to isolated families. One of these women, Alice, has struggled to find her footing in the insular town after moving from England to marry her her coal-baron husband, Bennett.  Through the library, Alice finds friendship with the women, independence in mountains, and camaraderie with the families who love the stories they bring each week.

But a little education can be threatening to those in power, and the women soon find themselves the target of several campaigns to bring them down. The Giver of Stars brought together so many elements I love--books, before-their-time feminists, and quirky characters--and I enjoyed both the story and the history that I knew nothing about.

I would be remiss to not mention the controversy around this book and plagiarism concerns raised by Kim Michele Richardson, author of The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek. Beyond bringing it to your attention, I can't comment on it further since I haven't read the other book, but it's obviously very disappointing if it the allegations are true. I will be watching the story with interest.

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If Only I Could Tell You: A Novel

If Only I Could Tell You: A Novel

Jess and Lily haven't spoken since they were children. One defining event made Jess determined to cut Lily out forever, and she stuck to it for decades, refusing to even allow her daughter to meet her cousin. Their mother Audrey has tried desperately to repair the family, but her terminal cancer makes her daughters' reconciliation imperative.

Told through flashbacks, the secrets that tore the family apart are slowly revealed--too slowly. There are times the slow reveal can work, but it was mostly frustrating here. I found the whole story a little relentless--relentless anger, tragedy, and secrets. It's unfortunate, because the frustration overshadowed an emotionally complex story that I ultimately felt ambivalent about. I appreciated the emotional resonance and found it touching, but many of the stylistic choices just didn't work for me.

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The Girl Who Reads on the Métro: A Novel

The Girl Who Reads on the Métro: A Novel

The Girl Who Reads On the Metro follows Juliette, a Parisian who dreams about the people she sees reading on the train during her commute. One day she encounters a bizarre bookseller who hires her to care for his daughter while also working as a sort of book matchmaker.

I thought this would be a little sweet and quirky, and there were elements of that, but it also felt rambling and darker than expected. I wanted more charm than it delivered. This was a quick read, but overall I just didn't connect to the story or characters--I only finished it because it was so short.

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Audiobooks

Dark Matter: A Novel

Dark Matter: A Novel

Jason Dessen, a middling professor of physics at a small Chicago college, is abducted and knocked out one evening as he tries to get home. He wakes in a world where he is a genius who has achieved the unthinkable--and one where his life looks entirely different from the one he's built with his wife and son. Desperate to return, Dessen embarks on a wild journey through infinite alternate realities, trying to figure out how to land in just the right one.

I'm not a big reader of science fiction, so I've been hesitant to pick this up, despite all the raves. I finally decided to listen to it and it worked well in audio format--even with some of the mind-bending science explanations that flew by. The narration is excellent and the relentless pace and action kept me hooked. I'd like to read more from genres outside of my comfort zone and this was a great choice.

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Lab Girl

Lab Girl

Author:
Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
Tag: Audiobooks

Lab Girl would be an excellent addition to my fiction/nonfiction list of books about trees. Hope Jahren is a scientist who studies trees, plants, seeds, and soil. This book is a reflection on her journey from childhood days playing under father's laboratory tables to leading her own labs and research.

I passed by this book many times before trying it and I am enthralled by Jahren's writing, her keen and poetic observations of the natural world, and her grave, sometimes deadpan and sometimes dramatic narration of the audiobook. Love of science is at the core of Jahren's story, but human relationships also take center stage, particularly when it comes to Jahren's eccentric colleague Bill. They share a devotion to the work and to each other that defines both of their professional lives. Their adventures in science (and the pursuit of science, in the form of funding, equipment, and even livable wages) are delightful and unexpected.

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I’m Not Dying with You Tonight

I’m Not Dying with You Tonight

At a regular Friday-night high school football game, violence suddenly erupts and ripples throughout the city. Lena--popular, confident, and black--takes refuge behind the concession stand, where Campbell--shy, new in town, and white--has been working. The unlikely pair team up to find safe spaces to hide as they attempt to make their way out of the violence and home to safety. Their reliance on one another forces them to face each other's perspective head on.

Told through alternating narration (written by two different authors), this was excellent as an audiobook with its fast pace and intense scenes. I grabbed this from my library when it was available as a Big Library Read. While I didn't find it quite as impactful as The Hate U Give or Dear Martin, fans of both those books might appreciate this one--and it was blurbed by authors Angie Thomas and Nic Stone.

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Books to read in December 2019, including The Only Plane in the Sky, The Nickel Boys, The Giver of Stars, The Family Upstairs, and Lab Girl.

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4 Comments

  1. Oh, I hadn’t hurt about the plagiarism allegations. Someone actually commented on my blog that if I loved Giver of Stars I should read The Women of Troublesome Creek. Now I’m even more curious.

    1. It’s definitely disappointing if it’s true. I’ve actually seen many people who’ve read both they say like the Troublesome Creek book more. I’m not sure yet if I’ll get to it–maybe I’ll try to get it on audio. It is an interesting little corner of history.

  2. Oh gosh- BEST BOOKS OF THE DECADE! I’ll definitely be joining. I already posted my stack on Instagram but those were more or less my favorite books that were at hand… I definitely want to take a closer look.

    And we have such similar tastes! The Nickel Boys and the Only Plane in the Sky were definitely some of my favorites this year.

  3. I really liked The Giver of Stars, though I preferred The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek more (I think I just related to that character more; the actual plots are both riveting). As for the controversy, I feel like the novels are different enough (obviously they have the similarities of Pack Horse Librarian protagonists) that I would not have picked up on the small, possibly (hopefully?) coincidental similarities in details such as a dangerous man in the woods following the women (it happens early in both novels so that is not a spoiler but one of the points used to accuse Moyes).

    My November reads are linked in my name if interested.

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