The Book Beat - March 27, 2023
“A library is a good place to go when you feel unhappy, for there, in a book, you may find encouragement and comfort. A library is a good place to go when you feel bewildered or undecided, for there, in a book, you may have your question answered. Books are good company, in sad times and happy times, for books are people - people who have managed to stay alive by hiding between the covers of a book." —E.B. White
Don't forget! April 23 - 29 is National Library Week! Check out ala.org for more info. And be sure to thank a librarian or library worker (or both!).
Hello, bookworms! It's been too long since I've blogged, so this is a little longer than usual. But it has absolutely been a month for me where books, reading, and art/creativity in general have been a balm for the challenges of real life.
I hope you're shedding the chill and heaviness of winter and enjoying the first signs of spring. Some of our flowers are already coming up, and it's making me smile.
I've read a nice mix of books in the last month and am at 30 for the year so far. The one pictured here is one I'm listening to now. It's a Groundhog-Day-ish story about a woman living the day her beloved husband dies over and over. It's not a comedy like the movie but it's definitely intriguing.
I'm also reading two books for my NetGalley reviews: Sea Change by Gina Chung (big Remarkably Bright Creature vibes) and Community Board by Tara Conklin. And my commute listen? Pineapple Street by Jenny Jackson, which I'm really enjoying!
What are YOU reading?
📺 Book-to-TV Review! 📺
🎶 Daisy Jones & the Six on Amazon Prime 🎶
I remember when I heard that Elvis's granddaughter, Reily Keough, would be playing Daisy in the Reese Witherspoon-produced TV series based on this book. I was cautiously optimistic about the odds of this show being as good as the book. I have to say...I was wrong. The TV series isn't as good as the book, it's better.
The casting is spectacular. Reily's amazing, while the actors who play Billy, Camilla, and the rest of the band are terrific too. I especially loved Camila Morrone as Camilla and Sebastian Chacon as Warren. And Sam Claflin as Billy and Reilly as Daisy make the show.
Things start off slow (but not boring) as we get The Six and Daisy's backstories. And once Billy and Daisy meet and the spark is lit, the narrative takes off and doesn't let up. Sam and Reilly have amazing chemistry—which, honestly, wouldn't work without the exceptional work from Morrone as Camilla who plays the "other" woman with nuanced skill. As a character, she's nice and decent but no doormat. It's one of the highlights of the book (and now series) for me. No stereotypical catfights between Daisy and Camilla. Their organic opposition is played with subtlety. Even when Camila sees Bill's connection to Daisy, she still tries to rise above and support her husband and Daisy. You want Daisy and Billy together, but you know Camilla is the better option for him—and someone who he clearly loves.
There are differences from the book, but honestly nothing that bothered me too much. I actually really enjoyed the slight narrative changes, especially the ones at the end. I also loved the expansion of Simone's role and the exploration of her life as a queer Black woman in the world of disco.
And, finally, the music. I've read reviews that said the lyrics lacked depth but honestly? I LOVE the music. I've had the album on repeat for weeks. Let Me Down Easy is addictive and Look at Us Now is the perfect song to use as the catalyst for the fictional band's big break. The scene on stage in Hawaii literally had me fist-bumping my screen.
If you loved the book, please check out the show. Reese Witherspoon, our Patron Saint of Books, has done her magic again. I will end by saying, let's keep this to one season, OK? No need to "Big Little Lies" it and go further than we really need to. That said, I'd love to see the fake-but-real band go on tour!
Two ⭐⭐⭐⭐ Nonfiction Book Reviews
We Were Once a Family
by Roxanna Asgarian
Oof. I knew this book would be upsetting going in, but I honestly didn't plan for the feelings of fury and frustration it also evoked.
You most likely remember the news story. Jennifer and Sarah Hart, two white moms, adopted 3 biracial and 3 Black children and, after years of reports of abuse, drugged themselves and their kids and drove their minivan off a cliff in CA, killing everyone. This comprehensive and compelling book explores this tragedy through the lens of the children's birth families and the many failings of the foster-care and adoption systems. Asgarian shows off her immense journalism talents with this riveting nonfiction read.
In this book, readers are introduced to the birth mothers of each trio of kids. We hear about the addiction and mental health issues that brought them to a TX court system that favored terminating parental rights (and denying fit relatives custody), while ignoring and excusing years of allegations of abuse by the Hart parents. We hear about the older sibling who wasn't adopted and his spiral into addiction & incarceration. We hear about a white TX judge who hired his cronies, while saying shockingly racist things to the parents of color who appeared before him in court. We hear about how the birth parents weren't told that their kids were dead. We go with Roxanna as she works with Jennifer's devastated-yet-empathetic father to give parts of the ashes of 5 of the kids (Devonte's remains were never found) to their birth parents.
From every angle, this story is heartbreaking. How systemic racism and socio-economic inequality affected the birth families. How even reporting on the Hart murder-suicide crafted a narrative that rationalized their actions as those of two "overwhelmed" mothers. But, most importantly, how 6 young lives were the casualties of systems and laws that put punishment over help and bureaucracy over humanity. Markis, Hannah, Devonte, Jeremiah, Abigail, and Ciera are the true victims in all of this.
If you like reading books that shine the light on the humans behind headlines, this is a must-read.
Madame Restell by Jennifer Wright
This fiercely feminist biography shines the light on a notorious woman of history—Ann Trow, aka Madame Restell, the 5th Ave. abortionist and doctor. An immigrant and self-made millionaire who learned how to make abortive & birth control pills & perform surgical abortions, Restell lived a life of affluence & infamy in NYC in the mid-to-late 1800s. Unrepentant about her services & the rights of women to control their bodies, she toed the line between providing a service that many (women & men for their women) avowed her of & fighting against the people & organizations that tried to stop her. The most prominent was Anthony Comstock, an anti-vice activist, who turned his strict Christian beliefs into a lifelong crusade. Restell went to jail numerous times but it was Comstock's subterfuge that led her there for the final time. She ended up committing suicide...or did she? Yes, the rumor persists today that Restell faked her death.
This book is entertaining and enlightening—not just the info about Restell (who flaunted her fame & money), but also how similar the fight against abortion was then to now, particularly the misogyny that permeates the debate. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Or, as Wright puts it: "In America the pendulum is always swinging between enlightenment and puritanism, and never rests entirely to one side."
If you want to learn more about this fascinating woman and the history of abortion, absolutely read this book. Wright's style is bold and smart and shows her adept at writing "pop history."
Four ⭐⭐⭐⭐ Fiction Reviews
Hello Beautiful by Ann Napolito
The buzz about the book is big—and with good reason. Ann Napolitano once again (lovingly) rips out readers' hearts with this emotional, hopeful family saga inspired by Little Women.
Julia Padavano is one of four sisters in a close-knit family in Chicago. At college she meets William Waters, the emotionally damaged son of parents who, devastated by the death of William's sister when he was a baby, were incapable of forming an attachment to their son. This emotional abandonment has made it easier for William to be embraced by Julia and her loving family.
Julia is the determined sister who has her whole life (and boyfriend William's) planned out; Sylvie is the quiet reader who puts herself second to her sisters; Cecelia is the brash artist who has a strong bond with her twin, Emeline, the natural mother of the quartet. All four are close and welcome William with open arms. But emotional damage from the past rears its head and fractures in the connections start to develop.
Napolitano is an expert at highlighting the specificities and complexities of life to draw you in to her characters' lives and loves. This one absolutely affected me with the emotional moments, and I really loved the idea of a family welcoming someone whose own family was severely lacking in emotional support.
For Dear Edward fans, this is another profound, emotional story you'll love. And quick note about the audio version. Maura Tierney narrates this one, and I loved listening to her! She played one of my favorite TV characters ever (Abby Lockhart, ER), so I was thrilled to hear her voice again.
Weyward by Emilia Hart
This mesmerizing novel explores how three women—from the same family over five centuries—learn to use magical powers to fight back against the patriarchal worlds they inhabit. In 17th-century England, Altha is on trial for witchcraft after she's found at the home of her long-ago friend when her husband dies. Violet, Altha's granddaughter, lives in her father's estate in the English village of Crows Beck. A lover of insects and nature, she's kept under careful watch by her father, who worries she'll exhibit the same strange behaviors as her mother. And, in modern day, a pregnant woman named Kate is on the run, after leaving her abusive husband. She finds refuge in her great aunt Violent's cottage in Crows Beck.
Each of these women's stories are powerful, with themes of trauma and abuse fueling their growth into their abilities and their self-confidence. Unlike other "witch" stories, this one is more literary-fiction-ish, which I really liked. Hart's descriptions of animals and nature are especially vivid and add to the moody, magical feel of the book.
I did my usual read/listen mix with this one and the three narrators who speak the women's stories are especially engaging.
If you like magical stories about witchy women finding their powers (and using them to smash the patriarchy), this is a good one!
I Have Some Questions for You by Rebecca Makkai
I'll be honest. I'm not normally a huge thriller fan, but this smart, fast-paced novel kept me entertained throughout.
Bodie Kane is a professor and podcaster who is invited to go back to her high-school boarding school to teach a class. While there, she starts seeing an old murder case in a new light. In the spring of Bodie's senior year, popular theater star Thalia Keith was murdered—and Omar, the Black athletic director was accused and convicted of the crime. In present day, one of Bodie's boarding school students starts reexamining the case and questions emerge. Did the wrong person get convicted? And, if so, who did kill Thalia?
This novel is not only a thriller that keeps you on the edge of your seat, but it also touches on weighty subjects like racism, sexual assault, and the allure and problematic nature of true crime when it comes to women as victims. Why do so many women love true-crime stories, when many (many) women are the victims of violence by men? Makkai doesn't shy away from exploring this subject--and the execution is engaging, enlightening, and thought-provoking. I really enjoyed this one and recommend it for thriller fans and those who don't usually gravitate toward the genre.
The Adventures of Amina Al-Sirafi by Shannon Chakraborty
Let's put it this way, there's no chance I'm not going to read a book about a middle-aged female pirate who's coerced into heading back out on the high seas. Add to that some fun supernatural elements, a love-hate relationship, interesting commentary on faith and fallibility, and a huge, tentacled creature lurking in the ocean and you get one fun, quirky swashbuckling adventure.
Once a famed pirate who sailed through the Indian Ocean during the Crusades, Amina al-Sirafi now lives a quiet life with her mother and daughter away from the danger and drama. Yet when a wealthy woman comes and beckons/threatens Amina to find her wayward granddaughter, our heroine tracks down her old motley crew, liberates her beloved ship, and heads out on the rescue mission.
Chakraborty's mastery of fantasy fiction is on display here. The world building is terrific—the rescue mission balloons into a fight to save the world and the various characters, settings, and theatric scenes all gel together wonderfully. Amina is a joy. Fierce yet tender, devout yet sinful, wise yet snarky, she's the perfect character to build this story around. I loved how she showed off her prowess as a pirate, while also admitting to realities (a bad knee, the fear of not returning to her daughter, etc.) that held her back.
The supporting characters are great, especially Amina's not-quite-human estranged husband. Their banter has a love-hate spark that pops off the page. As the narrative goes from one scene to another, you can't help but get immersed in the trials of this vibrant leading lady and her crew. My one quibble was the page count—as good as the story is, I'm not sure it needed to be 450 pages, particularly since this is the start of a trilogy.
That said, I really loved this book! It has action, supernatural shenanigans, fun feminist elements, sword fights, and an engrossing story that will absolutely compel me to buy and read the next two books. If you're a fantasy fan who loves a strong, sassy female lead, you'll enjoy this book!
More Reviews on GoodReads!
Victory City by Salman Rushdie - ⭐⭐⭐.5
🔖 Book Ends 🔖
A book vending machine? Yes, our dreams have become a reality. Read this article to learn why it's where it is.
RIP to Ian Falconer, the writer and illustrator who wowed kids the world over with the fun adventures of Olivia.
A book thief who stole over 1,000 manuscripts will not go to jail.
Beloved author and activist Toni Morrison is now on a forever stamp.
"The damned mob of scribbling women" strike back! Since 2020, women have been publishing more books than men—and it's helping to increase sales!
Well this is incredibly disappointing.
I'm a huge fan of the Women's Prize for Fiction picks. The longlist for 2023 is out—and it's good!
Adjoa Andoh, Lady Danbury from Bridgerton fame (and one of my favorite audiobook narrators) is one of the judges for the 2023 Booker Prize. The longlist will be announced in July!
Fun Bookish Stuff to Come!
I have some cool bookish stuff planned for April, which I will absolutely be sharing with you.
This coming Tuesday, I'm heading to the fabulous Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville to a reading/signing by that even more fabulous Philly girl Lisa Scottoline! Check out my bookstagram (@readingwhilemommying) for pics. I'll also share some in my next blog post.
Also, I'm finally getting to The Morgan Library in NYC. I cannot wait!
I'm also volunteering at my local library's used book sale. I write and design their biannual The Friends of the Chester County Library newsletter. Here's the latest issue!
Cover of the Week:
Pineapple Street by Jenny Jackson
This bright, fun cover goes along wonderfully with topic of the book: The delicious drama of a trio of sisters born into money in Brooklyn, NY. The jacket design is by Elizabeth Yaffe and the art is by Andy Dixon. Gorg! I love the vivid colors used to depict a room in affluent house where the residents are obviously well-off. But, as is usually the case, the pretty, expensive things may look beautiful, but that doesn't mean there aren't cracks lurking beheath the sheen.
The publisher's description is below!
Darley, the eldest daughter in the well-connected old money Stockton family, followed her heart, trading her job and her inheritance for motherhood but giving up far too much in the process; Sasha, a middle-class New England girl, has married into the Brooklyn Heights family, and finds herself cast as the arriviste outsider; and Georgiana, the baby of the family, has fallen in love with someone she can’t have, and must decide what kind of person she wants to be.
Rife with the indulgent pleasures of life among New York’s one-percenters, Pineapple Street is a smart, escapist novel that sparkles with wit. Full of recognizable, loveable—if fallible—characters, it’s about the peculiar unknowability of someone else’s family, the miles between the haves and have-nots, and the insanity of first love—all wrapped in a story that is a sheer delight.