I don’t know what I’d do without books. They keep me company when I am lonely, they fill long quiet nights of insomnia, they bring me to locales all over the world, and introduce me to extraordinary people. For those of you who love books, too, here are the ones I read in January. With suspense, thrillers, mysteries, devotionals, historical fiction, classics, and contemporary fiction, there’s something here for every taste. Enjoy!
Good Enough: 40ish Devotionals for a Life of Imperfection
By Kate Bowler, Jessica Richie
“Blessed are you who realize there is simply not enough—time, money, resources. Blessed are you who are tired of pretending that raw effort is the secret to perfection. It’s not. And you know that now. Blessed are you who need a gentle reminder that even now, even today, God is here, and somehow, that is good enough,”—Kate Bowler and Jessica Richier, Good Enough.
In their illuminating book Good Enough, authors Kate Bowler and Jessica Richie present a series of insightful spiritual reflections designed to guide readers through the intricate maze of modern life. This volume, which has the honor of being a New York Times bestseller, shatters the persistent myth of relentless self-improvement, instead framing life as a condition to be endured and cherished, rather than an unending quest for perfection.
Bowler and Richie, known for their empathetic and intelligent perspectives in their popular podcast, “Everything Happens,” offer what can be best described as a spiritual companion to those of us who often feel overwhelmed by the pressure to live our best lives. Ultimately, in these pages we can rest in the encouragement to strive for what is possible today—while recognizing that though we are finite, the life in front of us can be beautiful.
Good Enough is a radiant beacon of hope, brimming with humor and kindness. Bowler and Richie present biblical concepts in such relatable ways. Each reflection instills a fresh vision of how truth, beauty, and meaning can be found amid the chaos of our daily lives, especially when those lives are disappointing and heartbreaking.
The book invites readers to explore topics such as purpose in life, prayer, and the pitfalls of perfectionism. It is an exceptionally powerful read, demanding time, and contemplation to absorb the wisdom it offers. The authors provide practical advice on navigating periods of sadness and disarray, often suggesting humor and absurdity as therapeutic tools.
What makes this book relatable is the everyday language used to articulate complex spiritual concepts. The authors’ use of illustrations and anecdotes to clarify these principles provides readers with real-world contexts and applications. It is a compassionate, intelligent, and wry series of 40 Christian daily devotions on learning to live with imperfection. I cried as I read it, but I also smiled and laughed out loud.
Written gently and with humor, Good Enough is permission for all of us who need to hear that there are some things we can fix—and some things we can’t. It’s a firm reminder that life, in all its messiness and complication, is indeed ‘good enough.’
This book is a testament to the human spirit’s resilience, a celebration of our shared imperfections, and an invitation to embrace life as it is, not as we imagine it should be. In short, Good Enough is more than good enough; it’s an essential read for those seeking a new perspective on dealing with life’s challenges. It’s hard to find a devotional that has such powerful life lessons and a sense of humor. A well-deserved 5 stars!
** Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for a review copy of this book. The opinions expressed are my own.
The Bullet That Missed
By Richard Osman
The Bullet that Missed, the third book in the Thursday Murder Club series, is deserving of its nomination for Best Mystery & Thriller in the 2022 Goodreads Choice Awards. Set in Coopers Chase, an English retirement community as lively as a frat house, four sharp-as-tacks septuagenarians—Elizabeth, Ibrahim, Ron, and Joyce—spend their golden years solving crimes that leave the local police scratching their heads.
In this installment, our geriatric sleuths delve into the decade-old disappearance of a TV journalist, Bethany Waites, who vanished while sniffing around a money-laundering scheme. It’s not long before our heroes find themselves tangled in a web of two murders separated by a decade. To thicken the plot, Elizabeth’s old KGB nemesis, Viktor, emerges as a suspect, and a Viking threatens to send Joyce to Valhalla unless Elizabeth eliminates Viktor. The race is on to catch the villain before the crime scene tape is rolled out again.
The narrative is punctuated by the poignant realities of aging, including the heartbreaking progression of a character’s dementia. Yet, the witty banter and high jinks of our senior detectives provide plenty of laughs, proving that age is just a number when it comes to solving mysteries. My advice: forego the audiobook for the print version—the narration didn’t do the story justice. And here’s a cherry on top: Spielberg has optioned the series! 5 stars.
** Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for a review copy of this book. The opinions expressed are my own.
Tears of Amber
by Sofía Segovia, Simon Bruni (Translator)
“The most shocking fact about war is that its victims and its instruments are individual human beings, and that these individual beings are condemned by the monstrous conventions of politics to murder or be murdered in quarrels not their own.”—Aldous Huxley.
Sofía Segovia, the bestselling author of The Murmur of Bees, has written another extraordinary historical novel, this time set in Eastern Europe during WWII. Tears of Amber is inspired by actual events—not only by official texts but also by the accounts of two children and their families who traveled enormous distances to survive one of the biggest exoduses in human history.
The Nazi Party pushes eastward, reaching the Hahlbrock and Schipper families in East Prussia. With war looming dangerously close, Ilse’s school days soon turn to lessons of survival. In the harshness of winter, her family and their young Polish laborer Janusz join the largest exodus in human history as they flee the Soviet Army.
Janusz’s enchanting folktales keep Ilse’s mind off the cold, the hunger, and the horrors unfolding around them. He tells her of a besieged kingdom in the Baltic Sea from which spill the amber tears of a heartbroken queen.
Not far away, trying and failing to flee from a vengeful army, Arno and his mother hide in the ruins of a Königsberg (now Kaliningrad, Russia) mansion, hoping that once the war ends, they can reunite their scattered family. But their stay in the walled city proves untenable when they are soon dodging bombs and scavenging in the rubble. Soon they’ll become pawns caught between the Germans and the Soviets.
This is the first historical novel I’ve read set in Prussia, and I found the landscape, the history, and the people fascinating. Tears of Amber was also different from other WWII novels because of its take on how the Nazis brainwashed the German people into unmitigated hatred.
One of the key historical events is the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, a tragedy few people have heard of. In January 1945, it was clear the fall of the Third Reich was inevitable. German citizens living in East Prussia converged on a Baltic port city to board the Wilhelm Gustloff, a German luxury ocean liner once enjoyed by Nazi officials. Just after 9 p.m. On January 30th, Soviet submarine S-13 fired three torpedoes and delivered a death blow to the ship. The death toll eclipsed that of the Titanic and Lusitania combined; some estimates are as high as 9,000.
Much of Tears of Amber was disturbing—war is truly hell—but the book was superbly written and features a large cast of unforgettable characters. In fact, the author first learned of the plight of the East Prussians from her friends Ilse and Anton, who resettled in her hometown of Monterey, Mexico. That’s what I call authentic. 5 stars.
** Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for a review copy of this book. The opinions expressed are my own.
by Terri Blackstock
In Aftermath, author Terri Blackstock expertly weaves together the storylines of two disparate characters. The book begins with a bombing at a political rally in Atlanta that kills twenty people. Three best friends attend the rally to hear their favorite band play, but only one makes it out alive: Taylor Reid.
A short time later, police pull over Army veteran Dustin Webb, who is a security expert. When they search his trunk, they find four boxes of explosives stolen ten days earlier from an ammunition plant where Dustin had installed a security system.
When officials arrest him on alleged terrorism charges, he calls his childhood best friend, attorney Jamie Powell, to represent him. As Jamie investigates his case and the people in his life, she realizes someone is setting him up, but proving it might destroy Dustin and devastate her lucrative career.
Most people believe Dustin is guilty, including Taylor Reid, who struggles with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and becomes fixated on obtaining justice for her two lost friends. She stalks Dustin, believing him to be responsible for their deaths.
I can see why Aftermath won the 2022 Christy Award for Mystery/Suspense/Thriller. Terri Blackstock wrote an emotionally riveting, fast-paced novel with a subtle faith message. It is propulsive from start to finish with well-drawn, complex characters. 4 stars.
By James Clavell
“Leave the problems of God to God and karma to karma. Today you’re here and nothing you can do will change that. Today you’re alive and here and honored, and blessed with good fortune. Look at this sunset, it’s beautiful, neh? This sunset exists. Tomorrow does not exist. There is only now. Please look. It is so beautiful and it will never happen ever again, never, not this sunset, never in all infinity.”—James Clavell, Shōgun.
Shōgun by James Clavell is a sweeping historical saga of feudal Japan. A bold English adventurer; an invincible Japanese warlord; a beautiful woman torn between two ways of life, all brought together in an extraordinary saga of a time and a place burning with conflict, passion, ambition, lust, and the struggle for power.
After Englishman John Blackthorne is lost at sea, he awakens in a Nippon, a place few Europeans have seen. The land is controlled by the Lord Toranaga, a powerful vassal, and Blackthorne must negotiate not only the unfamiliar customs and language of the people but also his own definitions of morality and truth. Blackthorne saves Toranaga’s life three times and is elevated to samurai status., which angers many. Meanwhile, his highborn Japanese love teaches him “inner harmony” as he grows ever more Eastern.
Clavell’s epic novel is fascinating, well researched, and educational, but also lacking. I found the book tedious and didn’t always like the writing. I was confused about when the characters were thinking vs. talking. There was too much thinking, not enough narrative. The scope was too vast. There were so many characters and settings that I had to take a breather from reading it. I sprang for a study guide to help make sense of things.
The novel is a massive 1,152 pages long, and is filled with violence, political intrigue, war, tragic love, sex, torture, and ritual suicide. Some of the graphic depictions, including the acceptance of men having sex with young boys, were objectionable.
Despite these flaws, the book offers a glimpse into Japan during feudal times and the honor, courage, and cleanliness of the people. In contrast, the Europeans are depicted as unhappy, uncivilized barbarians.
Overall, I would recommend Shōgun to readers who enjoy historical fiction and will invest the time to read a very lengthy book. It’s captivating and offers a unique perspective on an interesting period in history. I may read the next book in the series, Tai-Pan, which is only 734 pages, but will stop there. Shōgun is not only one of the best-selling novels of all time, it was adapted into a highly rated television miniseries. 3.5 stars rounded up to 4.
By Emma Donoghue
“What, then, consoles us in this human society full of calamities, but the unfeigned faith and mutual love of true and good friends?”—Augustine, City of God, AD 426.
Emma Donoghue’s (Room) latest novel is set in seventh-century Ireland in Cluain Mhic Nóis, a monastery in County Offaly on the River Shannon. A scholar and priest named Artt has a dream telling him to leave the sinful world behind and found an isolated monastery. With two monks, young Trian and elderly Cormac, he sets out on a pilgrimage in a small boat with only faith to guide them. Drifting out into the Atlantic, the three men find a steep, craggy island now known as Skellig Michael and claim it for God.
Artt tasks Cormac with building a great cross and Trian with copying the Bible. Other than the thousands of birds that inhabit the rock, though, it has little to offer in the way of resources—no groundwater and little vegetation. Artt forbids the others from trading with nearby settlements, so as summer turns into fall, their supplies dwindle. In the end, the two followers fear they have sworn fealty to a lunatic.
With Haven, Donoghue has penned an atmospheric, character-driven novel about the dangers of legalism and the curses of power. Her research was impeccable, from the religious life of a monk to survival on a piece of rock in the middle of the ocean. I could imagine living with absolutely no creature comforts and the emotions that brought.
The arduous process of codex especially fascinated me making. Fashioning vellum from animal skins, rubbing it with pumice to reduce to the sheen, making bronze needles, quills, and ink has given me a new appreciation for early Bibles I have seen on display in museums.
Sadly, this psychological, contemplative novel was beautifully written, but with little action, it was dull. It was also quite sad. 3.5 stars.
Incidentally, Sceilg Mhichíl is an official UNESCO Heritage Site and ruins of the monastery still stand. You can read more about it here. HERE.
What the Fireflies Knew
by Kai Harris
“The house is silent and smells like a mix between the old people that kiss my cheeks at church, and the tiny storage unit where all our stuff lives now.”—Kai Harris, What the Fireflies Knew.
After her father dies of an overdose and the debts incurred from his addiction cause the loss of the family home in Detroit, almost-eleven-year-old Kenyatta Bernice (KB) and her teenage sister, Nia, are dropped off by their overwhelmed mother to live with their estranged grandfather in Lansing. The kids don’t know where she’s gone or if she’ll ever come get them. Over that sweltering summer, KB’s entire world is upended. Even her sister, always her best friend, suddenly wants nothing to do with her. KB spends most of her time reading and occasionally playing the White boy and girl across the street when their racist mom isn’t home.
Author Kai Harris does a beautiful job capturing the space between KB’s Black childhood and adolescence in her own authentic voice. As I read this short novel, I could picture the young narrator telling her story, not comprehending what is happening to her. Her dialect, however, became cumbersome, and I had trouble connecting with the characters. What The Fireflies Knew contains some wonderful life lessons about growing up, coping with change, and the treasure that is family, but I couldn’t get past the writing style. The book is most appropriate for young adult readers. 3.5 stars.
All Her Little Secrets
By Wanda M. Morris
“Every lie you tell, every secret you keep, is a fragile little thing that must be protected and accounted for…”—Wanda M. Morris, All Her Little Secrets
Ellice Littlejohn has been hoarding a cache of secrets from her friends and coworkers. Not only did she grow up poor and Black in rural Georgia, she had with an alcoholic mother and a sexually abusive stepfather and her kid brother is an ex-con. She’ll do anything to stay out of the spotlight.
Now she has it all: an Ivy League law degree, a well-paying job as a corporate attorney in midtown Atlanta, great friends, and a long-term affair with a rich executive—her White boss, Michael Sayles—who is married.
But everything changes one cold January morning when Ellice goes to meet Michael and finds him dead with a gunshot to his head. Ellice just walks away; afraid her secrets will get out. What appears to be a suicide is later determined to be murder, and having been hastily promoted as his replacement, she becomes a prime suspect.
When she uncovers shady dealings inside the company, Ellice is trapped in an untenable ethical and moral dilemma. Her past and present lives collide as she races to protect her brother and stop a sinister conspiracy.
I wanted to root for Ellice, a Black woman in a company dominated by White men, but her affair with a married man caused me to dislike her right off the bat.
In the beginning of the book, the author portrays Ellice as a strong, confident woman, but as the storyline progresses, this “ntelligent” attorney does some cringeworthy, stupid things. Her mistakes in judgement grew frustrating.
I also found the dialogue to be lacking. The banter between Ellice and her friend Grace was silly and didn’t suit the serious circumstances. The same applies to the conversations she had with her brother, Sam.
There were some definite positives, though. Thematically, the plot is a spot-on social commentary about racial and sexual discrimination and loathsome corporate politics. Wanda Morris wrote All Her Little Secrets in first person, which created tension. She injected little cliffhangers at the conclusion of most chapters that encouraged me to read on. I enjoyed young Ellice’s narrative the most. The sexual abuse she experiences was emotionally gripping and effective.
All Her Little Secrets was a Goodreads Choice Awards nominee for Best Debut Novel (2021) and Best Mystery & Thriller (2021), so other readers felt differently about it. This book missed the mark for me, but I’ll give the author another try. 3 stars.
Jacqueline in Paris
By Ann Mah
Ann Mah’s novel is an evocative portrayal of Jacqueline Bouvier’s transformative year abroad in postwar Paris. As a junior at Vassar College, Bouvier spent the year 1949/1950 studying at the University of Grenoble and the Sorbonne in Paris.
The journey begins with Bouvier boarding an ocean liner, embarking on an experience that will change her life. As the only Vassar student, she finds herself with a group of lively Smith students with whom she will later study. This voyage marks the start of Jackie’s immersion into an exhilarating world brimming with champagne, châteaux, theater, art, jazz clubs, and quaint cafés.
She lives with a host family, headed by Comtesse de Renty, a survivor of the Ravensbrück concentration camp because of her involvement with the French Resistance. Her eldest daughter may be a spy.
Despite the expectations of her own mother, who wants her to marry soon and well, Bouvier embarks on a passionate affair with the aspiring novelist, John Marquand. As her relationship with Marquand deepens, his claims of affiliating with Communists for research unsettle her, especially when she learns his “research” is for the CIA. Jacqueline views his behavior as a betrayal of their friends, yet it sharpens her political acumen, preparing her for her future life with JFK.
The narrative presents itself as a memoir, a stylistic choice I found somewhat perturbing. I questioned the legitimacy of conjuring feelings and private thoughts of real-life figures. Did Jackie genuinely appreciate the appeal of communism, or was the author taking creative license? The exchange students were required to always speak French, and I was skeptical of Jackie’s fluency.
I didn’t care for the forward flashes of her future life, but the narrative remains engrossing, concentrating on her pivotal year abroad. The diligent research and rich historical detail, coupled with the powerful sense of place, almost transported me to Bouvier’s Paris. 3 stars.
The Night Ship
by Jess Kidd
“As is the way with souls confined, tempers fray and flare, ill-spoken words fester, coincidences become intrigues. Minds seethe with resentment and revenge like the worms in the water barrels. As the ship spoils, so does the air between the people.”― Jess Kidd, The Night Ship.
1629: nine-year-old Mayken leaves the Netherlands with her nursemaid to join the merchant father she’s never met across the globe in the Dutch East Indies on the Batavia, one of the greatest ships of the Dutch Golden Age. Curious and mischievous, Mayken begins a secret, second life as the cabin boy Obbe, befriending a soldier, a sailor, a kitchen boy, and the ship’s barber-surgeon while trying to hunt down the eel-like monster Bullebak purported to live belowdecks.
1989: A lonely boy named Gil, also nine, is sent to live with his cantankerous grandfather on Beacon Island off the coast of Western Australia among the seasonal fishing community where his late mother once lived. This is where the Batavia sank, and an archeological excavation of the wreck is now underway. The project intrigues Gil, as does the rumor that a ghost haunts the island.
The Night Ship is based on a true story that I found far more interesting than the novel. I went down a long bunny trail on this one:
On the morning of June 4, 1629, the Dutch East India flagship Batavia wrecked on Morning Reef off Beacon Island with 341 people aboard. Approximately 100 people died in the immediate aftermath. The following morning 180 people—among them 30 women and children—were ferried two kilometers to the island.
After an extensive search for fresh water, Commander Francisco Pelsaert sailed with his senior officers to Batavia (modern-day Jakarta) to find help. Pelsaert left his deputy, Jeronimus Cornelisz in charge, who, unbeknownst to Pelsaert, had been plotting a mutiny prior to the wreck.
Cornelisz became a brutal dictator. He rationed food and confiscated all weapons. Any rafts made by survivors also had to be relinquished. He divided the population into smaller groups and spread them among the nearby islands, many under the pretense of searching for fresh water and abandoned to death. He then orchestrated a massacre that, over several weeks, resulted in the murder of approximately 125 of the remaining survivors, including women, children, and infants. The marauders cut people’s throats at night and took others out to drown on makeshift rafts. They kept some women as sex slaves.
It took three months for Pelsaert to return from Batavia with the rescue party. He took the worst of the mutineers to Seal Island and punished them—executioners cut off their right hands before hanging each man. Cornelisz lost both hands before his hanging on October 2, 1629.
After it was all over and they had executed all mutineers, only 116 Batavia survivors remained.
Although the intricately plotted parallel narratives worked, and the book had plenty of drama, this was a tough read for me. There was some witty writing in the 1989 timeline, but the pacing was slow, and the chapters were too short, making the writing seem disjointed. Mayken and Gil were motherless, which was already sad. Add an epidemic of dysentery, primitive medical care, rape, and murder, and you have a melancholy, disturbing novel. The Night Ship has a fascinating premise based on a historical event, but I never connected with the characters and found the plot too grim. 3 stars.
If you’d like to read more about this historical shipwreck, follow this LINK
by Nikki Erlick
“The great American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, ‘It is not the length of life, but the depth of life.’ You don’t need a long lifetime to make an impact on this world. You just need the will to do so.”―Nikki Erlick, The Measure.
If you could discover the time of your death, would you?
This is the question at the heart of Nikki Erlick’s debut novel, The Measure, and it left me conflicted. I was swept up in the lives of the eight ordinary people who were faced with this tough choice, and I couldn’t help but wonder what I would do in their shoes.
It seems like any other day. People around the globe wake up, go outside, and find a small wooden box with an identical inscription waiting for them. Inside is a string showing the exact number of years they will live. Everyone must decide whether to learn their fate. Nobody knows where the boxes came from or who sent them, but the world grapples with the ramifications of the information the boxes contain.
The book is well written. Erlick has a talent for weaving together multiple narratives in a way that is seamless and understandable. The audio narration by Julia Whelan was the cherry on top. But be warned; it might leave you with a sense of unease.
Even though I was swept up in the story, I was also frustrated. Perhaps it’s because the premise of the book hits too close to home after the Covid pandemic. While I appreciated the author’s attempt to explore the political and social implications of the scenario, I couldn’t help but notice the book had a liberal bias.
As a person of faith, I found some portrayals in the book insulting. And although I understand Erlick was trying to create a diverse cast of characters, that there were three gay couples felt heavy-handed.
The Measure was my book club’s January pick. The book is thought-provoking, engaging, and reflective, and we had a rousing discussion. Some of us wanted to find out what was in our box, but most of us did not. I wouldn’t, but it would be awfully tempting. The impact of that knowledge could be devastating.
The verdict? The average rating of members of my book club was 3-stars. We had a 2.5 and a couple 3.5s. I gave it 3 stars. I’m not sorry I read it because the discussion was great, but you’ll have to make your own choice.