Mini Reviews of Recent Reads – January 2021

Book reviews of new 2020 and 2021 releases, including The House in the Cerulean Sea, The Midnight Library, The Best of Me, The Wife Upstairs, Shuggie Bain, and Better Luck Next Time.

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Book reviews of new 2020 and 2021 releases, including The Best of Me by David Sedaris, Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart, The Wife Upstairs by Rachel Hawkins, The Midnight Library by Matt Haig, The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune, and Better Luck Next Time by Kate Hilton.

Well, we made it to 2021. And what to say about 2021? After all of our high hopes for a better year, we’re still holding on for dear life.

I’m not sure how you’ve been handling things, but I’m doing my best to find a little comfort in between my bouts of doomscrolling (I can’t help it).

Books, of course, are my respite, and while I had hoped my More Joy, Less Stress Reading Challenge would just be a nice, light diversion in my reading life, it seems like it will be a much-needed respite.

(Want to join in, or make your own custom reading challenge? Head over and grab the free bundle).

Reading Challenge printable bundle

The first category I’m reading in January is cozy books, and so far, I’m loving my evenings curled up with The Shell Seekers.

There are lots more ideas for good cozy books here: 13 Cozy Books to Curl Up With.

Here’s what I’ve been reading over the holidays:

Print Books

The Best of Me by David Sedaris

The Best of Me

Author: David Sedaris
Source: Library
Publish Date: November 3, 2020

This new collection of David Sedaris’ essays and stories will be familiar to any fan, and I enjoyed revisiting them. His fiction stories are always too absurdist for my taste–you can safely skip those if you feel the same.

For those who love the stories of his life and family, though, this is is a nice journey through the years. The essays, including one new one, get more poignant toward the end, as Sedaris reflects on their lives and the family members who have passed away. I do always enjoy Sedaris more on audio–his delivery makes the stories even funnier–and if you can, I recommend listening to this instead of reading. 4 stars

Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart

Shuggie Bain

Author: Douglas Stuart
Source: Library
Publish Date: February 11, 2020

Stuart’s Booker Prize-winning debut novel is a gut-punch of a book. Young Shuggie adores his mother, Agnes, and her beauty and glamour captivate those who meet her. But her alcoholism shapes the lives of Shuggie and his older siblings. Shuggie’s philandering father eventually abandons them to a derelict public housing scheme outside of Glasgow, where the kids–and Shuggie most of all–try to manage their mother and her binges.

Filled with relentless, gritty poverty, brutality, and addiction, Shuggie Bain is a difficult read. There is hope and love here, but I think many readers found more of those elements than I did. Stuart is a talent, and the rawness of this reminded me of A Little Life. Recommended if a heavy read is right for you, but there are plenty of trigger warnings to be aware of. 4 stars

The Wife Upstairs by Rachel Hawkins

The Wife Upstairs

Author: Rachel Hawkins
Source: Publisher (St. Martin’s Press) via Netgally
Publish Date: January 5, 2021

Jane is a dogwalker in a rich Alabama neighborhood, jealous of the wealth and class of her clients. When Eddie Rochester employs her to walk his new puppy, she sees a way in–and Eddie himself is captivating. The two quickly fall in love, and Jane makes it her mission to play the part of wealthy wife, while keeping her secrets buried. But the specter of Eddie’s late wife looms large, and Jane soon realizes that she’s not the only one keeping secrets.

While the character names and descriptions of this novel recall both Jane Eyre and Rebecca, it didn’t follow either too closely. This is a fast-paced thriller and is entertaining enough, but I found it also to be filled with holes and unresolved questions about the motivations of so many characters. Many readers loved it, so give it a try if you love domestic thrillers–but skip it if you hate loose ends. 2.5 stars


The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

The Midnight Libary

Author: Matt Haig
Source: Library
Publish Date: September 29, 2020

Nora Seed is ready to end her life–she sees nothing good ahead and only looks back with regret on the paths not taken. But before that decision can be made final, Nora finds herself in a library–one unlike any other.

In this library, Nora can open any book and explore those untaken paths. What would her life have been if she had been a champion swimmer? A rockstar? If she’d married her ex? As she explores the possibilities, she must decide: will she choose one of these alternate lives, go back to her own life, or end it altogether?

I loved this highly imaginative exploration of the “what ifs” we all occasionally contemplate, and the questions raised by this deep-dive into them. 5 stars

The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune

The House in the Cerulean Sea

Author: TJ Klune
Source: Library
Publish Date: March 17, 2020

Linus Baker is a caseworker for the Department in Charge of Magical Youth, and Extremely Upper Management has just tasked him with visiting an orphanage on a remote island–filled with children who have terrifying abilities. Charged with determining whether the children are being properly cared for (by the charismatic Arthur Parnassus) and whether they might bring about the end of the world, Linus is scared. But he has a job to do, and he will do it well–even in the face of the Antichrist.

This magical book took me a while to get into–it is pretty over-the-top and out of my wheelhouse–but eventually the charm took hold. It has a wonderful message of acceptance and creating family, and it was also quite funny. Pick it up when you’re in the mood for something really different that’s sure to make you smile. 4 stars

Better Luck Next Time

Better Luck Next Time

Author: Kate Hilton
Source: Publisher (Harper Audio) via Netgalley
Publish Date: November 24, 2020

The Hennessy family is having quite a dramatic year. Divorces, career changes, new romances, dramatic teenagers, and resentments pepper one year in the life of this extended family of siblings and cousins. It doesn’t help that the mother of one set of siblings is a feminist icon, and that the whole family is at the center of a massive women’s march.

It’s all a bit of a mess, but it’s actually an enjoyable one. If you can sort out the many characters and go along for their one-year ride, this family drama is an entertaining listen. It doesn’t have the depth of many of the family stories told over decades that I enjoy, but it’s billed as a comedy and is a good lighter choice. 3.5 stars

Books to Read in January 2021