Friday, June 11, 2021

The 29 Books in Reading for Sanity's Summer Reading Stack

It's that time of year -- summer break -- when the kids are home 24/7 and the yardwork never ends...also known as most of the last year and half.   This summer we are crossing our fingers for in-person school in the fall and taking a much needed break to spend (even more) time with our families and read our hearts out. 

We'll see you back here on September 1st OR you can follow along with our more informal reading adventures on our Facebook page.   We won't leave you empty handed though.  Without further ado, here are at least some of the titles we hope to read this summer: 

(in no particular order and linked to Goodreads)  


The Shadow and Bone Trilogy - Leigh Bardugo



The God of Small Things - Arundhati Roy

The Kitchen Front - Jennifer Ryan

Matrimony, Inc: From Personal Ads to Swiping Right, A Story of America Looking for Love - Francesca Beauman

Sky Beyond the Storm - Sabaa Tahir

Ibid: A Novel - Mark Dunn



The Stationery Shop - Marjan Kamali

Circe - Madeline Miller

Blood Magic: The Anthropology of Menstruation - edited by Thomas Buckley & Alma Gottlieb

Lockwood & Co.: The Hollow Boy - Jonathan Stroud

A Sitting in St. James - Rita Williams-Garcia


The Secret Token: Myth, Obsession, and the Search for the Lost Colony of Roanoke - Andrew Lawler

Ninth House - Leigh Bardugo


The Last Dive: A Father and Son's Fatal Descent into the Ocean's Depths - Bernie Chowdhury


The Nickel Boys - Coulson Whitehead


The Shapeshifter - Tony Hillerman


Go Set a Watchman - Harper Lee


The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse - Louise Erdrich 


The Bone Garden - Heather Kassner


We hope we've given you enough to jump start 

your summer reading!  See you in September!  

Happy Reading!

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Dad: The Man, the Myth, the Legend - Mifflin Lowe (Illustrated by Dani Torrent)

Hey!  Father's Day is coming up (June 20, if you're reading this in 2021) and I just wanted to pop in  for a brief review that you might find relevant. 

Summary:  He's the most interesting man in the world.  He changes diapers just because he likes it.  He's counted to infinity -- twice!  He's stronger than Sasquatch, smarter than Einstein, and he cooks a mean spaghetti with M&M's for all your bad days.

He's a myth.  He's a legend.  He's...Dad!

Dad: The Man, the Myth, the Legend is an epic -- and totally unexaggerated -- tale for dads everywhere!  heroic, hilarious, and heartwarming, it's the sweet saga of Dad: protector, provider, and child's best friend.  

And it's all true.  Right, Dad?

(Summary from book flap - Image from amazon.com - This book was given to me for free in exchange for an honest review)

My Review:   Do your littles idolize their father?  If so, they have a lot in common with the young narrator of Dad: The Myth, the Man, the Legend who can't help but sing his father's praises, even if some of his claims are a little far-fetched.  Can Dad really fly?  Is he really more powerful than Thor?!  In his son's eyes, Dad is every bit the hero as he conquers the challenges of fatherhood.  

I don't have little boys, so I can only imagine the day-to-day father-son dynamic, but I thought this book was pretty stinkin' cute as it conveyed both the hero-worship of a son and the many valuable roles a father fills.  The story and illustrations are entertaining for young and old, though more astute readers will pick up on nuances of humor that are certainly placed for parental appreciation.  The book ends on a high note with tender final message and a place for your child to make a list of all the things that make their own Dad so amazing.  Overall, I believe that Dad: The Man, the Myth, the Legend would make a fun Father's Day gift that both Dad and little one can enjoy.  

My Rating:  3.75 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  Should be fine as long as there's a Dad in your life that you adore.



Wednesday, June 9, 2021

The Hero Code: Lessons Learned from Lives Well Lived - Admiral William H. McRaven (U.S. Navy Retired)

Summary: In 1977, Bill McRaven graduated from the University of Texas at Austin and joined the Navy SEALs.  Over the course of the next 37 years he traveled the world.  During that time, he saw the worst of humanity: war and destruction, disease and poverty.  The world was full of problems, seemingly intractable, unsolvable, impossible problems.  But also, in those 37 years he saw the very best of mankind.  Men and women who sought peace, who rebuilt nations, who cured disease and lifted the poor from property.  Men and women whose compassion was so deep that it made the cruelty and indifference of others pale in comparison; men and women who were from all walks of life; from every socioeconomic background, from every race, every creed, every gender and orientation.

The Hero Code is Admiral McRaven's ringing tribute to the real, everyday heroes he's met over the years, from battlefields to hospitals to college campuses, who are doing their part to save the world. ...[It] is not a cypher, a puzzle, or a secret message.  It is a code of conduct: lessons in virtues that can become the foundation of our character as we build a life worthy of honor and respect. 

(Summary from book flap - Image from amazon.com)

My Review:  Courage.  Humility.  Sacrifice.  Integrity.  Compassion.  Perseverance.  Duty.  Hope.  Humor. Forgiveness.  These are the qualities that inspire The Hero Code, a collection of ten life lessons learned by retired U.S. Navy Admiral William H. McRaven.  In each chapter, McRaven discusses the importance of each specific quality, sharing an inspiring quote from a well-known historical figure,  stories gleaned during his distinguished career, and accounts of others who exemplify that particular quality of heroism in their day to day lives.  At the end of each section, McRaven introduces a portion of what he calls 'The Hero Code' -- a code of conduct that helps cultivate the qualities of a hero.

I fell in (platonic) love with Admiral McRaven while reading his first book, Make Your Bed, which details ten life-changing principles he learned as a Navy SEALSoon after, I picked up his second book, Sea Stories, because McRaven has had his hand in a lot of important special operations (and who doesn't like a bang-up war story, am I right?).  I loved both books and was thrilled to read The Hero Code when it released.  I read it in spurts, intentionally spaced out over a few days just so I could make the experience last a little longer.  

While The Hero Code doesn't carry the same 'war-story' intensity as some of McRaven's other books, it is filled with inspiration and moral insight.  McRaven is obviously very spiritual and brings some of his Christian faith to the table, but in a way that acknowledges other belief systems and doesn't feel heavy handed.  There are still plenty of good stories, and McRaven excels at telling them, but more often than not, he chooses to center those stories around other people rather than himself, focusing on heroes, past and present, sung and unsung, both in and out of the military, and honoring the heroic qualities they possess.  Two of my favorite stories involved a young female airman who stood her ground in the face of intimidation and a young black Marine who sacrificed his life for his fellow soldiers in a time when his own life was less valued by others than it should have been.  These stories and countless others were incredibly moving and went a long way to restoring my faith in humanity.   

If we listen to the news, it can feel as if our world is lacking the ten qualities that make up The Hero Code.  However, if there is one thing I have learned from each of McRaven's books, it's that he always manages to see the bright side of things, and most especially people.  The Hero Code is an uplifting, encouraging reminder that heroes are everywhere, in every walk of life, willing to step up in courage, to sacrifice for others, persevere through challenges, do their duty, embrace hope, show humility, and act with integrity, compassion, humor, and forgiveness.  I read my favorite chapter of this book to my family after dinner and we all agreed (even the young ones) that it is pretty amazing.  I had teared up when I first read it to myself and had zero ability to keep it together while reading it aloud.  I'm such a cry baby!  Long story short, I highly recommend this book.  McRaven has reached 'elite' status in my eyes, and, at this point, if he writes a menu I am going to read it. 

My Rating: 4.5 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  I think there was one or two minor swear words (a la da**). 

Monday, June 7, 2021

The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted (And Other Small Acts of Liberation) - Elizabeth Berg

Summary:  Every now and then, right in the middle of an ordinary day, a woman kicks up her heels and commits a small act of liberation.  What would you do if you could shed the "shoulds" and do, say --and eat--whatever you really desired?  Go AWOL from Weight Watchers and spend an entire day eating every single thing you want?  Start a dating service for people over fifty to reclaim the razzle-dazzle in your life -- or your marriage?  Seek comfort in the face of aging, look for love in the midst of loss, find friendship in the most surprising of places?  In these beautiful, funny stories, Elizabeth Berg takes us into the heart of the lives of women who do all these things and more -- confronting their true feelings, desires, and joys along the way.  (Summary from book - Image from pinterest.com)

My Review: The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted (And Other Small Acts of Liberation) is a collection of fourteen short stories by best-selling author Elizabeth Berg.  I have read countless Berg novels, but for some crazy reason, our archives only hold one review.  If you are interested in reading more of her work, you can head over to my review of Home Safe, where I list the titles I've read and all the reasons I love her novels.  

It probably says a lot about me that I found the above summary insanely appealing.  Lately, I have realized that I have spent much of my life adhering to a rather extensive list of behavioral expectations I have set for myself -- shoulds, if you will.  The summary resonated so strongly with me that I fully expected the stories to as well.  Long story short -- some of them did (3).  Most of them didn't (11).  They are incredibly well written, but only a few made me feel the way that I am used to feeling when I read Berg's writing.  I could sit here and dissect every story, but I'd rather just talk about the ones that hit home.  So, here we go...

Double Diet follows Marsha and Tom, married empty-nesters who are finally starting to acknowledge the pitfalls of aging.  Initially, Marsha is trying to diet on her own with very little success.  She asks for Tom's help to keep her on track and he does a fairly abysmal job.  When they decide to diet together , Tom excels at his own diet and Marsha still struggles. I won't go into a lot of personal detail, but there was a lot about this story that rang true in my own life.  It isn't necessarily the parts that you would think, but, boy oh boy, did I feel it.

Truth or Dare is about a group of three relatively new friends, Joyce, Trudy, and Laura, who are all 50-something, divorced, and live alone, but meet together for weekly dinners where they have found both solace and camaraderie.  When the subject of old boyfriends comes up in conversation, they challenge each other to reconnect with a past flame, just to see how they are doing, and then report back at the next weekly dinner.  Each woman has their own story to tell when they return, and I felt like I was sitting at the table with them, laughing riotously and enjoying their adventures.  I am neither 50-something nor divorced, but I have good friends like these, and though we are currently hundreds and even thousands of miles apart in some cases, I long to sit around the table with them and have those similar moments.    

Sin City was my favorite story in the entire book (though it was neck-and-neck with Truth or Dare).  It's about a woman named Rita, a 61-year old widow from Minnesota who decides to spend some of the money she's been saving her whole life and fly to Las Vegas for a few days.  At the airport she meets a man with whom she shares a surprising connection, even if everything she tells him about herself is a complete fabrication.  There is more to the story than a slightly duplicitous meet-cute and it holds surprising insight about love, parenting, and breaking the pattern of self-denial that women all too often embrace.  Oh, and there's a cute ending, to boot.

At 41-years-old, I am just beginning to relate to the perils of aging (be they aging bodies, aging children, or aging relationships).  I don't like cramming books or people into pigeon holes, but I am not sure if these stories will appeal to the average 20-40-year-old quite as much as they will with the 40+ age group.  Of course, I don't know that they were really meant to either.  According to the summary, each story in the book allegedly shares a common thread -- a moment when an ordinary woman in an ordinary day "kicks up her heels and commits a small act of liberation.  Although I love the concept, I couldn't always identify those moments in each story.  However, they did generate a plethora of emotions.  Even though I didn't connect with all the stories in the book, it would be fascinating to sit around a table (Truth or Dare style) and discuss what other women of different ages and situations gleaned from each story.  In that way, I do think that it would make for an interesting book club selection.    

My Rating: 3 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader: A few handfuls of profanity (of all varieties) and some sexual subject matter (more vague recollections rather than in-progress events).

Friday, June 4, 2021

Freeform Friday: Dear Evan Hansen (The Novel) - Val Emmich with Steven Levenson, Benj Pasek & Justin Paul

Summary: Dear Evan Hansen, Today is going to be an amazing day, and here's why...

When a letter that was never meant to be seen draws high school senior Evan Hansen into a family's grief over the loss of their son, Evan is given the chance of a lifetime: to belong.  He just has to pretend that the notoriously troubled Connor Murphy was his secret best friend.  

Suddenly, Evan isn't invisible anymore -- even to the girl of his dreams.  And Connor Murphy's parents have taken him in like he's their own, desperate to know more about their enigmatic son from his "closest friend."  As Evan gets pulled deeper into the family's swirl of anger, regret, and confusion, he knows that what he's doing can't be right, but if he's helping people, how wrong can it be?

No longer incapacitated by anxiety or hiding form the disappointment in his mother's eyes, this new Evan has a purpose.  And confidence.  Every day is amazing.  Until everything is in danger of unraveling and he comes face-to-face with his greatest obstacle: himself.

A simple lie leads to complicated truths in this bighearted story of grief, authenticity, and the struggle to belong in an age of instant connectivity and profound isolation.  (Summary from book flap - Image from popsugar.com)

My Review:  The Dear Evan Hansen musical has been on my 'Current Faves' playlist for several years.*  I have never seen the show live, but I love the music and its inclusive message, so when I saw that a book-version was out I was darn near giddy.  Whatever version you choose to experience -- show, soundtrack, book, or the upcoming film adaptation -- Dear Evan Hansen touches on a variety of issues that might be triggering for certain people (see see sensitive reader section below this review).  The story will likely elicit a lot of deep feelings and not all of those feelings will be pleasant. If you are not in a safe place to explore those feelings, I suggest waiting until you are emotionally ready.  If you feel up to it, carry on...

Evan Hansen is a bit of a loveable mess -- socially awkward, lonely, nervous, and occasionally kind of hilarious, though he doesn't realize it.  Evan's feels alone, abandoned by his father who left when he was young, only to start a new family in another state. His mother worries about him incessantly, but doesn't have much time to spare between work shifts and class.  Evan longs to make friends at school, to connect with others and belong, but is paralyzed by anxiety, and terrified of rejection and ridicule.  Tasked by his therapist to write encouraging letters to himself, Evan tries to find a positive outlook on life and puts pen to paper.  Then one of his letters falls into the wrong hands.  

Connor Murphy is generally angry and unapproachable. He feels like no one understands him and no one every will.  Like Evan, there is more to Connor than what other people see and significantly more to his story than the soundtrack reveals. When Connor shoves Evan in the school cafeteria and later steals a letter meant for his therapists eyes only, Evan is certain his life is ruined.  Days later, Connor is found dead. In his pocket, a personal letter addressed to Evan. What begins as a sad misunderstanding, morphs into a well-intentioned lie that eventually spirals out of Evan's control.  It's hard to say whether the book's biggest twist (there are two, really) will surprise the reader.  While the soundtrack doesn't state what happens specifically, I could infer what was coming in the book based on my knowledge of the music.  Those unfamiliar with the soundtrack, might not.   

Evan's character is kind, insightful, and self-deprecating while Connor's is quite a bit darker and a lot more full of rage. While Evan is the primary narrator, Connor shows up every once in a while to observe and give his post-humous perspective on things.  Both boys have a lot more in common than either of them realize.   There are a variety of supporting characters that bring depth and emotion to the story: Heidi (Evan's mother), Larry & Cynthia Murphy (Connor's parents), and Zoey (Connor's little sister) as well as Jared, the pervy family friend, and Alana, the school "Hermione."  Those that take center stage feel incredibly human -- vulnerable, flawed, and deeply relatable -- and the author(s) did a wonderful job of conveying each characters' emotions through Evan and Connor's eyes.  As a mother, I especially identified with Heidi and Cynthia -- two moms who only want the best for their children, but are unsure how to help them.  

The predominant message of Dear Evan Hansen is both simple and profound with the potential to provide solace, save lives, and increase empathy and understanding.  It isn't just the icing on the cake; it's the whole dang thing.   

Everyone matters.  Everyone.

No one deserves to live a life alone in the shadows.  We are all dealing with something that makes us feel isolated from the world at large (especially right now, amidst a global pandemic). It could be depression, anxiety, guilt, loss, stress, loneliness, betrayal, abandonment, anger, or any one of a thousand other emotions.  We have all been lost and longed to be found; invisible and hoping (or afraid) to be seen.  We are not alone. 

It's hard to say how I would have felt about Dear Evan Hansen had I never listened to the soundtrack. It was hard for me to separate the two in my head. I appreciate that it tackles certain issues in a way that will help reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness.  I absolutely adore the message and appreciate the insight the book offered, but the written content is often explicit and certainly not appropriate for all ages. Those who take issue with the more controversial content, might be better served by sticking to the soundtrack, where the message remains the same and is a bit more focused.  

BONUS CONTENT: Here are some of my favorite DEH lyrics.  Just because.  Credit to theodysseyonline.com

*aside from track #4, which is a little crude

My Rating: 3.75 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader: This book contains themes about divorce, suicide, depression, anxiety,  abandonment, and (briefly) references school shootings. It also has a fair amount of profanity and some crude dialogue.  Two male characters are briefly romantically involved with inferred intimacy, non-graphic.   

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Illuminae (The Illuminae Files_01) - Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff

Summary:  This morning, Kady thought breaking up with Ezra was the hardest thing she'd have to do today.  This afternoon, her planet was invaded.

The year is 2575, and two rival meg-corporations - XXXXXXX and XXXXXX - are at war over a planet that's little more than an ice-covered speck at the edge of the universe.  Too bad nobody thought to warn the people living on it.  With enemy fire raining down on them, exes Kady and Ezra - who are barely even talking to each other -- are forced to fight their way onto the evacuating fleet, with an enemy warship in hot pursuit.

But the warship is the least of their problems.   A deadly XXXXX has broken out and is mutating, with terrifying results.  The fleet's AI, which should be protecting them, may actually be their enemy; and nobody in charge will say what the XXXX is going on.  As Kady hacks into a tangled web of data to find the truth, it's clear only one person can help her bring it all to light: the ex-boyfriend she swore she'd never speak to again.

BRIEFING NOTE: Told through a fascinating dossier of hacked documents -- including emails, schematics, military files, IMs, medical reports, interviews, and more -- Illuminae is the first book in a heart stopping, high-octane trilogy about lives interrupted, the price of truth, and the courage of everyday heroes.  

(Summary from book flap - Image from amazon.com)

My Review:  Kady Grant and her ex Ezra Mason are survivors, fleeing after the bombing of an illegal mining operation on their home planet.  Three ships managed to escape in the chaos, badly damaged and with far more civilian cargo than their life support systems are designed to carry.  Now, they are being hunted by a rival corporation, something is terribly wrong with the AI system designed to protect them, and a mysterious sickness has begun to plague one of the ships.  If they hope to survive, Kady and Ezra must set aside their differences and work together to uncover what others are so desperate to keep hidden.  If only they weren't on separate ships.

I can't honestly say that until now I have never read a book quite like Illuminae.  Instead of the standard narrative, the stories of Kady, Ezra, and others, are told after the fact through a variety of documents -- emails, IMs, classified files, transfer requests, after action reports, therapy transcripts, memos, surveillance footage summaries, journal entries, computer generated artwork, AI command code, and more -- all compiled by the mysterious Illuminae Group.  Initially, the format was a little confusing but, once my brain adapted to the new style, I looked forward too seeing what medium would be used to tell the story. The author also included tpyos, censored commentaryredacted (redacted) and handwritten text to keep things real, as well as the occasional blood spatter or disturbed scribbling to heighten the suspense.  I was thrilled by the entire concept, which felt unique and ridiculously creative, and impressed by the massive amount of work that must have gone into telling the story outside the standard form.  

Illuminae was primarily plot driven, but it was still possible to glean information about the primary characters from the different documents, with many of those documents contain the POVs of other, more secondary characters as well.  Kady and Ezra read like many angsty, teen characters -- she is driven and defiant, while he is laid back and heartbroken -- but there are several other characters in this book that go beyond the standard -- specifically a rogue artificial intelligence (AIDAN) and the mysterious Illuminae Group (IG).  When AIDAN is damaged in battle, it veers off the rails and takes some unusual steps to save the fleet.  As time goes by, AIDAN takes on a larger role in the story, morphing into a character of sorts with slightly poetic and wildly psychopathic tendencies.   The Illuminae Group is the story's first narrator, occasionally leaving comments or notes clipped to files that remind you of their presence, but for the most part you forget they exist except at key points in the book.  However, the IG also factors into the story in ways you might not expect.  

A surprising (but delightful) element of the story was the occasional word clouds and lines of text that formed images and conveyed action as it was happening in the story.  For example, the ship-to-ship communication between pilots during a particularly intense battle in space was represented with text that followed the path of their ships, before an explosion sent the words straight out from a central location, like a star-burst.   The artistic element was utterly unexpected and felt like a kind of concrete poetry, that swirled around the page, occasionally requiring the reader to rotate the book to read all the text.  Another example is when an AI breakdown is illustrated with text that recreates Edvard Munch's The Scream.   I don't know if the end result was art in story form or story in art form, but I loved it.  

Fans of the movie Serenity and the TV Shows FireflyDark Matter, and The Walking Dead will notice that Illuminae has a similar vibe. I would love to see it made into a movie, though they might have to cut a few things to get it to a PG-13 rating.  Towards the end, the story is fairly intense, occasionally creepy and althought I wasn't terribly attached to the characters beyond the obvious desire to see them make it out of their predicament, the action and suspense made it hard to put down.  There are more books in the series (Gemina and Obsidio), but the story ends with enough closure that I feel like I could walk away now or continue down the rabbit hole.  If I take the leap, I'll let you know.

My Rating:  4 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  Violence, sexual innuendo (some is of the 'locker room' variety while other is more violent), and profanity.  Most of the swearing is redacted in the form of a big black block over most of the letters.  However, it's not like you don't know exactly which word they are using when they say ----ing, so you totally hear it all in your head.  If you count all of the redacted words, there is a ton of swearing in this book.  If you don't then what is left is still a fair amount of profanity in the form of religious exclamations (OMG-d and the like).

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