Archive for December 2021

Top 5 Favorite Reads of 2021

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Before I begin celebrating my 10th year of blogging, I'm taking a moment to reflect on some of the great reads that I enjoyed in 2021. In total, I read 53 books this year. While I'm proud of reaching my book a week goal, I'm even more excited that I was able to achieve my goal of reading works from more diverse authors. In total, I read 25 books by women, 13 by BIPOC authors, and 9 by LGBTQ+ authors. In seeking out works by a more diverse group of authors, I was introduced to a wider array of stories and perspectives. I've never been one to rank favorites, but here are 5 of my favorite reads of the year listed in the order that I read them. 

The Burning Girls by C.J. Tudor

My favorite book by Tudor to date, The Burning Girls sees the author explore religion, parenthood, trauma, and grief, all packaged in the guise of a supernatural thriller. In the book, a pastor and her daughter escape a tragedy in the big city by moving to a small farming community. As the pair attempt to settle in and leave their past behind them, the haunted past of their new home begins to emerge. Whether you're looking for a thoughtful meditation on religion, a harrowing story of a mother and daughter learning to live and love each other, or a "can't put down" thriller that keeps you reading into all hours of the night, you'll find what you're looking for in this book. 

Read the full review

Rhapsody by Mitchell James Kaplan

I've played and studied music for most of my life, so I found Rhapsody to be the perfect combination of historical fact and imaginative fiction. The book tells the story of real-life musicians Kay Swift and George Gershwin as the pair form a complex relationship as both musical muses and lovers. Kaplan's rich descriptions of the music and the characters who created it paves the way for an emotional connection to a story that until now has only lived in the history books. 

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Once There Were Wolves by Charlotte McConaghy

The most subtle and serene read of the year, Once There Were Wolves tells the story of a biologist as she introduces a pack of wolves into the Scottish Highlands. The vastness of the landscapes and sheer scope of monitoring a pack of wolves is juxtaposed with the more internalized conflicts that the characters face. McConaghy writes with a quiet sureness that gives even the simplest moments a sense of gravity and enchantment. Months later, I still find myself reflecting on this work. 

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A Promised Land by Barack Obama

Barack Obama has always had a way with words, and the first volume of his presidential memoirs is no exception. A Promised Land sees the former president thoughtfully reflect upon the run-up to and the duration of his first term in office. Whatever your opinions of his politics, I think that there is great value in reading a memoir like this one. The eloquence and candidness with which Obama presents his story made this my favorite work of non-fiction this year. 

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The Butterfly Garden by Dot Hutchison

I missed reading this book when it was released in 2016, but I won't soon forget it after reading it this year! The Butterfly Garden evades nearly every attempt to describe or classify it. The novel is part thriller, part horror, part psychological suspense, yet even those genres fail to fully capture the essence of what this story is. The story focuses on a group of women held captive by a sadistic man known only as "The Gardener".  Even in the most inhuman of situations, the connection of humanity shines through on every page of this book. I was haunted, mesmerized, disturbed, and moved. 

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Have you read any of these books? What was your favorite read of the year? As always, thank you for your support. I can't wait to kick off the 10th anniversary of A Book A Week and share in a new year of reading with each of you!

The Sacrament by Olaf Olafsson

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 "Why is it always our mistakes that linger in our memory?"

How many books have you read this year? I'm wrapping up my ninth year of reading a book each week, and am reflecting on how many incredible titles I've had the pleasure of reading over the years. Blogging and reviewing books has introduced me to a wider variety of genres and authors, making me a much more well-rounded reader. This year, I finished my goal of reading 52 books a bit early. Somehow I managed to read more than a book a week, ending with a holiday-themed read that did little to capture the magic of the season.  Not wanting to end the reading year on a negative note, I decided to pick up Olaf Olafsson's The Sacrament for one final read of the year. 

Sister Johanna Marie has been sent by the Catholic Church to Iceland to investigate claims of abuse against two school-aged boys. The young nun is fluent in Icelandic, but beyond speaking the language she has no real background in investigating matters as serious as this one. As Sister Johanna Marie begins her inquiry into the serious claims of abuse, she quickly feels as if she is in over her head. You may ask why the church would send someone so ill-equipped to handle this situation. Indeed, even the nun has her own doubts about the process. It almost seems as if the church has sent her there precisely because she is unable to fully investigate the alleged crimes that have occurred. Perhaps there is truth to that assertion. Perhaps some sins are better left buried. 

Twenty years later, the same nun is sent to the same place to speak to the same young man she spoke to before. Both parties have aged into their wisdom, and the boy turned man has decided to alter his original testimony. Sister Johanna Marie begrudgingly accepts the assignment to relive that time. You see, the sister has a secret of her own, one that goes completely against the teaching of the church that she's devoted her life to. As she embarks on the journey of coming to terms with the sins of her institution, she must also come to terms with the sins that she's committed. She is about to discover that forgiveness is not something judicially divided. Some sins are simply more unacceptable than others. 

The Sacrament is a remarkable work of fiction that balances a gripping literary mystery with quiet contemplations on religion and sin. Olaf Olafsson writes with assured minimalism that perfectly captures the essence of both the sprawling Icelandic landscape and the introspective character beats. The internal turmoil of the characters is as captivating as the larger claims of abuse within the church. These conflicts play out in tandem as Olafsson switches between past and present, driving his story toward a spellbinding conclusion. I couldn't help but fall into the trance of this book's words, the pages ever turning as I followed the lives of both the nun investigating the crimes and the alleged victims. The Sacrament will haunt me long after I've finished my review. It was the perfect way to wrap up a fantastic year of reading. 

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2021, 53)

Hiddensee by Gregory Maguire

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I vividly remember the first time my mom took me to see The Nutcracker. We dressed in our Sunday best and made our way to downtown San Antonio. I remember walking the streets of the city, weaving amidst the riverwalk as we made our way into the elegant theater. Once the show began, I was transported by Tchaikovsky's music, mesmerized by the sheer fantasy unfolding upon the stage. That year, I opened the gift of my very own nutcracker, a single emblem that would begin a collection that grew throughout my childhood. My brother and I would play with the toy soldiers, reenacting the story as it was told in the ballet. Years later I would find myself in the serendipitous position as a music teacher for the Houston Ballet Academy, a role that gave me the opportunity to work with students who performed in the very work that had enchanted me as a child. It is safe to say that the endearing story of The Nutcracker has been an ever-present part of my holiday traditions. 

In Hiddensee: A Tale of the Once and Future Nutcracker, author Gregory Maguire attempts to capture the origins of the endearing classic. There's probably no author better suited in tackling such a monumental story. Maguire has delved into the worlds of Alice in Wonderland, Snow White, Cinderella, and most famously The Wizard of Oz. If you've heard of the hit musical Wicked, then you are at least tangentially aware of his work. This novel imagines the origins of the mysterious Drosselmeier, the eye-patched godfather of Klara, the girl transported to the land of the sugar plum fairies. As we first encounter the famed toymaker, he is but an orphaned boy, living in the woods with an elderly couple. He learns the art of storytelling from the old woman who tells fanciful tales of fantastic worlds. The old man is more practical, teaching the boy the value of hard work and living off of the land. A tragedy at the start of this tale sets into motion a coming-of-age journey twinged with ever-growing magic, one that sees the boy grow into the famed man of the classic Christmas narrative. 

For a novel based in the same world as the spectacular Nutcracker, Hiddensee is a surprisingly subdued affair. Sure, there are glimmers of the same magic and wonder that permeate the classic story, but Maguire's take on the tale is much more firmly planted in reality. Much of the drama and action that takes up the pages of the book is built around a young man growing up without the benefit of someone guiding him through adolescence. His coming to terms with religion, art, and love would be perfectly fine if they were combined with the dazzling mystical elements of the original story. Absent these moments, the story reads as much more ordinary than it should. This combined with Maguire's penchant for classically formal language makes the short novel drag on endlessly. By the time the timeline of this origin story intersects with the tale we've come to know, it is simply too little too late. Simply put, Hiddensee is a valiant effort at an origin story that never truly lives up to the magic of the story it attempts to precede. 

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2021, 52)

When Christmas Comes By Andrew Klavan

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"In heaven, the great God will judge me, but here on earth I must leave it to you."

This time of the year, I'm craving any and everything that puts me in the holiday spirit. Christmas was a much more subdued affair last year due to the ongoing pandemic, but this year (thanks in large part to vaccinations) I'm making up for the lost time. The house is fully decorated, I've made Christmas cookies, cocktails, and I've finished with all of my holiday shopping. As I settle into the season and try to embrace the spirit of this time as much as possible, I've been drawn to reading books that do the same. Enter Andrew Klavan's novella When Christmas Comes, a holiday-themed mystery that seemed like just the book to bring the festivities into my reading. 

The setup is simple enough. A local teacher has been murdered and her boyfriend has confessed to the crime. The only problem is that no one wants to believe that he is the culprit. You see, he is a decorated soldier who the entire town has embraced as a hero, a symbol of the best things to come out of the city. Moreso, the couple seemed to have had the perfect relationship. Something simply isn't adding up. The town's authorities seem hesitant to investigate the crime, especially when all the evidence points to someone they revere. It is up to Cameron Winter, an English professor of all things, to step in and ensure that justice is served. As he takes on the unenviable task of investigating a war hero, he must also face the demons of his past. 

Some of the best Christmas stories have seeped in the things that haunt us. From Krampus to Dicken's ghosts, connecting with the spirit of the holiday often requires us to face the things that we fear. Klavan draws on this literary tradition by haunting his own characters. Each person we encounter in the short work is grappling with the implications of their pasts while working to embrace a brighter future. The mystery at the center of the narrative helps to drive the plot through each of the character beats, never letting the pace slow. The writing is at times a bit saccharine, a characteristic that I'd normally scoff at. Here, amongst the idyllic setting and Christmas theme, it gets a pass. When Christmas Comes concludes with an emotional swell that delivers on each of the moments that precede it while promising more for the characters even beyond the final page. 

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2021, 51)


Alex Cross's Trial by James Patterson

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I've long been a fan of James Patterson's Alex Cross series. Each year, my mom gives me the latest novel as a Christmas gift. With the exception of this year's release, I've read each of the 29 novels in the series, or so I thought. I was recently perusing a used book store when I came across an Alex Cross novel that I didn't recall reading. A quick double-check against my reviews on Goodreads confirmed my suspicions. Somewhere over the years, I had missed reading Alex Cross's Trial. This 15th book in the series is a bit of an anomaly in that it is the only novel to be co-authored and to not expressly feature the titular detective. Nevertheless, I was determined to read this book and thus be able to say that I have read every Alex Cross novel. 

Instead of focusing on Alex Cross, this novel imagines the history of his family, taking readers back to the southern states at the beginning of the 20th century. Lawyer Ben Corbett fights against injustice and racism every day. As a white man representing black clients, he works diligently to combat the wrongful convictions of his fellow man. Despite his best efforts, the system is usually stacked against him. When he gets a call from none other than the President of the United States, Ben is eager to answer the call to serve his county. What he isn't prepared for is a return to his hometown of Eudora, Mississippi, a place rife with the KKK, lynchings, corrupt politics, and his father. 

When he arrives home, Ben is greeted by Abraham Cross, the great uncle of the legendary Alex Cross. The elder Cross has lived in the small town for his entire life. He's no stranger to the evil that lurks beneath the surface of his hometown's idyllic facade. In fact, he has been on the receiving end of that evil for the entirety of his life. For his part, Ben is shocked to learn of the racism that seems to permeate every inch of the town he grew up in. The same people he went to school with or saw at church are the very people involved in heinous lynchings. Ben's presence in the town is unwelcome, to say the least. When he finds himself at the center of the very crimes he was sent to investigate, Ben must face his friends and family in the ultimate battle of his career. 

I hesitate to call Alex Cross's Trial a true installment in the series. It is meant to be Alex Cross writing of his family history as passed onto him from his grandmother, but I never bought the connection. As the only installment in the series to be co-authored, the story itself and even the writing style seem completely different from the rest of the books that surround it. The addition of "Alex Cross"  appears as more of a marketing gimmick than a way to flesh out the character's story. As a book within the Alex Cross series, then, this one just doesn't work. 

That being said, don't let that deter you from reading it. At its heart, the story concocted by Patterson and his co-author Richard DiLallo is one that is both cut from the history books and oddly timely. The double standard between white and black citizens is at the forefront of this novel. As the climactic trial played out, I couldn't help but think about the Rittenhouse trial that recently occurred. The present-day history and fiction of the novel mirrored each other, showing the injustice that continues to transpire to this day. I'm always reminded in works like this of both how far we have come and alternatively how little progress seems to have been gained. There are ultimately far better novels that more eloquently illustrate the points that Patterson and DiLallo set out to make, but Alex Cross's Trial is still worth a read, especially for fans of the famed author. 

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2021, 50)


Ramsay in 10 by Gordon Ramsay

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Between work, running errands, and all the extraneous activities that come with the holidays, it can be nearly impossible to find the time to cook at home. Over the last couple of weeks, I've fallen victim to ordering out more than I'd like to admit. Convenience has become more important than cooking something healthy. Worse, eating out for meals is much more expensive than cooking at home. Here's where celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay comes in to save the day. His publisher recently sent me a copy of his newest cookbook Ramsay in 10, a collection of recipes that promises delicious and healthy meals with a cook time of around ten minutes. Is that too good to be true? The only way to know for sure was to try out one of the recipes for myself. 

In the introduction to the book, Ramsay concedes that recipes promising a meal in 30 minutes typically take an average home cook around 40-50 minutes altogether. He was inspired to try to beat that time. With his years of experience as a professional chef, Ramsay was able to cook most of the recipes in this collection within the timeframe allotted. That being said, he states that most home cooks will probably achieve the same meals in about 15-20 minutes. That's still not a bad trade-off! As the world shut down due to the COVID-19 outbreak, Chef Ramsay began challenging himself to produce a take on classic recipes as quickly as possible. He documented this undertaking on his YouTube channel and began to inspire viewers across the world to cook. 

Browsing through the recipes, I was instantly drawn to the coconut chicken with sweet peanut dipping sauce. Even better, I already had most of the ingredients in my kitchen. Because Ramsay developed the recipes from lockdown, many of the ingredients are staples. I even had some coconut palm sugar in my panty, though most of the uncommon ingredients listed provide several options for substitutions. Armed with everything I needed (minus the tamarind paste that is listed as an optional add-in), I began to prep and cook the meal. 

I was a bit skeptical of the promised cook time, but Ramsay really delivered a recipe that was quick to put together, easy enough to cook, and most importantly delicious. With the complete prep time, cook time, and plenty of pauses to capture photos of my progress for Instagram, it took me about 20 minutes to completely cook the meal. Perusing through the rest of the book, I already have my eye on several others to test out in the near future. My only gripe with the concept of Ramsay in 10 is that it doesn't really offer a complete meal. Yes, the entre is simple and tasty, but it isn't really enough food to make a full meal out of. I supplemented the coconut chicken with some steamed rice and sesame green beans. This gave me plenty to eat for my dinner and to have lunch out of the next day. All in all, Ramsay in 10 offers a variety of recipes that will appeal to cooks of all experience levels. Even better, each recipe is quick and accessible, allowing for healthy meals to be prepared at home in a short amount of time. 

For more information visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads

(2021, 49)

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