Book Reviews

Fifty Words for Rain by Asha Lemmie

Fifty Words for Rain is at once achingly sad and poetically beautiful. I love a heart-wrenching plot and complex characters, and Asha Lemmie delivers in one sweep with her debut novel. Prepare to get lost in the range of emotions you’ll feel at every turn. Whether it’s friendship, siblinghood, parenthood, hope, or survival, there is a theme in Fifty Words for Rain that will speak to your heart.

Fifty Words for Rain tells the tale of a young girl named Nori who goes to live with her grandparents – only to be forced into the attic and punished for things beyond her control.

In a world where she is to be neither seen nor heard to save face for her highly esteemed family, Nori eventually finds an ally in her brother Akira.

Akira shows Nori new possibilities that Nori had previously been denied. As Nori learns more from her brother about the outside world, it becomes harder and harder to return to the isolation of the attic.

Throughout many ups and downs, Nori’s adoration for Akira blossoms into a love that transcends both of their circumstances and leads to daring and courageous acts.

After a lifetime of suffering, Nori feels like a shell of her former self. Although the siren call of death can be disguised as an endearing temptress, Nori must persevere to protect herself and her loved ones. When motherhood presents itself, Nori’s harsh reality becomes even more evident.

Throughout life we make many choices, some big and others small, but all can have lasting impacts on other people. Nori must eventually come to terms with her choices, especially when it comes to love. Will she have room in her heart for more than one person?

As a single mother, I think about this issue sometimes. One day if “true love” presents itself again, how will I balance it with the love of my child? Can’t the love of your sibling or your child or your parent also be true love, just in a different way? Love is multi-faceted.

Nori’s journey is deep and devoted. There were times when I was overcome with sadness or anger and literally had to put this book down to compose myself.

Asha Lemmie has proven herself an expert at eliciting emotion. The only thing you could regret is not reading this book!

Learn more about Asha Lemmie and Fifty Words for Rain at her website.

Book Reviews

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

CW/TW: depression, suicide, death

Nora Seed is trapped – in the Midnight Library.

Matt Haig’s latest novel The Midnight Library tells the story of a woman named Nora, who finds herself in the ultimate position between choice and fear of the unknown.

After a series of events leaves Nora feeling despondent, unwanted, and more alone than ever, she finds herself in the Midnight Library.

This library is like limbo, the place between your physical existence and your final resting place.

Its librarian is none other than Nora’s former school librarian, Mrs. Elm. Some of Nora’s most memorable childhood moments occurred with Mrs. Elm.

I purchased The Midnight Library at the Minneapolis-St Paul airport and absolutely devoured it. This phrase is old hat but it’s true: I could not put it down!

In the Library, each book represents a different life Nora could have led. There are infinite possibilities.

All you have to do is pick one and it pulls you into the story of What Might Have Been. And you can try out more than one.

The smallest decision have deep consequences. How would you feel if you found yourself in such a library? How do you even begin to choose or guess what life would make you the happiest?

Will Nora find happiness? Will she even make it out alive? Will she pick a new life to live?

No spoilers here!

Stylistically, this book is easy to read. The language is straightforward while remaining engaging and the chapters are short. I’ve found the older I get, shorter chapters are better for keeping my attention span – they seem to keep the flow going better.

The supporting characters have unique personalities and all serve the story well.

Very importantly, The Midnight Library is emotional. Nora’s feelings of aloneness and despair are very real. My desire for Nora’s situation to improve was compounded by the fact that I so badly wanted her to feel better.

I connect easily to books that are tinged – or in some cases, saturated – with sadness. If you’re like me, you may cry at least once while reading this story.

Don’t get me wrong. This book is more than sadness.

The Midnight Library represents hope and overcoming the dark places our minds can take us. Happiness doesn’t just magically appear because we think we did everything right or everything that we were supposed to. It is cultivated. It is crafted. It is built piece by piece from all the ways that we give ourselves grace and love and extend them to others.

Have you read The Midnight Library or any of Matt Haig’s other works? Drop a comment below!

A master of inciting emotion, if the rest of Matt Haig’s books are like this one, I can’t wait to read more. Learn more about Matt and his other works at his website.

If you or anyone you know is struggling or has concerns about their mental health, check out these resources listed on the National Institute of Mental Health website. Domestic violence resources can be found at the Hotline. An internet search of resources will also yield results specific to your local area.

Book Reviews

Viaticum by Patrick Morgan

“Paradise has a price.

It isn’t just a job, it’s his dream job. This is everything he’s worked for and everything he deserves. One job offer, and Ethan Birch’s life changes forever.

Given immense creative control, power, and perks, Ethan falls deeply under the company’s spell. His Beverly Hills office is a modern mecca, complete with every imaginable convenience and delight. Employees walk around barefoot on floors of summer grass while flowering cornucopias bloom from the ceiling; a utopian fantasyland the likes of which he’s never imagined.

But beneath this paradise, a dark conspiracy breathes. Ethan soon begins to realize that to have everything he’s ever wanted, he’ll have to sacrifice everything he’s ever loved.”

Cover photo of Patrick Morgan's novel Viaticum

Patrick Morgan’s latest novel Viaticum is a poignant tale of the consequences of maintaining a lavish lifestyle and choosing your own reality.

How do you define success? Is it accomplishing goals or building wealth? Somehow both?

Is there a threshold as you move up the chain where building wealth and status becomes the goal?

Is work success worth your home life falling apart?

What if it was going to fall apart anyway?

Viaticum is also an intriguing character study:

First is Ethan – a man who seems to have difficulty taking full responsibility for his actions, instead choosing to blame everyong and anyone else.

Second is Dr. Charon – one half of the husband and wife team that owns Olympus – who seems to revel in playing god to those around him, pushing them to the brink until he’s the last thing they can rely on.

From Ethan’s point of view at his new work place, Olympus: “Platinum-blue Los Angeles skies stretch out in every direction, and beneath them, a full nine stories down, I can gaze out over the urban sprawl of civilization in much the same way that God must look down upon us.”

There is tension between Ethan and his wife, Allie, and the more you learn about their history, you begin to see how certain actions have come to be.

Having read other reviews, I’m feeling alone in that I have little sympathy for Ethan’s predicaments. I don’t know if the author meant this to be ambiguous but I got the impression that Ethan was chosen by his new company precisely because things were going to implode for him anyway – if Olympus hadn’t been involved, how would his life have been different in the end?

Viaticum would be an interesting book club selection because there’s plenty to dissect.

Patrick Morgan excels at presenting the what-ifs.

What if you risked the consequences of doing whatever you wanted because the world was ending anyway? (Apparent Horizon)

What if your soul got lost in the ether and entered another person’s body while you were unconscious? (Realms)

And now, with his latest novel Viaticum, what if there’s a chance for you to have everything you wanted? What price would you pay to get it?

Patrick Morgan’s latest release Viaticum is available via e-book and in print and releases TOMORROW, 6 July 2021. Preorder your copy today from Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

Learn more about Patrick Morgan and his other works at his website.

Book Reviews

Half Sick of Shadows by Laura Sebastian

Can you repair a betrayal before it even happens? Should you even try?

Half Sick of Shadows is a reimagined, magical story of the Lady of Shalott, also known as Elaine of Astolat.

As a child, Elaine is plagued by visions which her mother – not wanting her to face the hardships of being an oracle in a world with distain for magic – forces Elaine to hide.

With destiny on her side, Elaine is befriended by Morgana. The pair sets out for Avalon and Elaine becomes the fifth member in the group that is Morgana, Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot.

As young love blossoms between Elaine and Lancelot as well as Arthur and Guinevere, Elaine must try to keep what she knows of the quintet’s futures to herself. What heartbreaks, tragedies, and misfortunes lie in wait for them?

Throughout the story it is emphasized that even the slightest decisions can change the future.

The story flips between the present, Elaine’s memories, and Elaine’s visions of what is to come. I did not find it confusing to follow and felt like the visions helped keep the story moving because I wanted to know what would come to pass.

Beyond that, Half Sick of Shadows is a story of friendship, family ties, loyalty and honor, and finding the balance between commitments and independence.

Laura Sebastian began this story as a teenager, and I’m glad she didn’t give up on it. I was not as familiar with Elaine as I was the other characters – perhaps they are easier to romanticize – so I was prompted to do some Googling and read more about her. I won’t spoil anything for you!

I received this book early because it was my June Book of the Month selection (post not sponsored). Half Sick of Shadows is set for release in summer 2021. Learn more about Laura Sebastian and her other projects – including the Ash Princess Series – at her website.

Happy reading!

Book Reviews

The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner

Have you read The Lost Apothecary? If not, add it to your tbr!

In present-day London, Caroline goes mudlarking and finds an old apothecary bottle that leads her on an exciting journey of personal and historical discovery.

At the end of the 18th century, apothecary Nella finds an unexpected friend in young Eliza.

When a poisoning goes wrong, Nella must work quickly to spare her shop from the authorities.

When Caroline looks into the history of the bottle and ties it to an abandoned shop, she unravels a story that had been lost to time.

I liked the character development, the easy switches in the setting between modern day and the past, and the story’s ability to draw me in.

Readers who are fans of detail will love the descriptions that Penner utilizes – you become engrossed in the settings and imagine yourself alongside the characters.

The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner is a story that spoke to me in a deep way. In addition to the emphasis on empowerment and being true to yourself – even after years of thinking you want one thing – it’s okay to realize you want something more and to go after it.

Learn more about Sarah Penner at her website.

(Learn more about mudlarking from this NPR article).

Book Reviews

Here for It by R. Eric Thomas

Here for It was meant to be my next treadmill read – that is, the book I read while walking on my treadmill.

Eventually, I became too engrossed in the book and gave up on the treadmill part.

I know R. Eric Thomas would understand 🙂

This book is FUNNY! I laughed out loud multiple times.

Sprinkled in were deep moments that got me thinking about my own life and how we influence others’ experiences.

Life is messy and this author does not hide the messy parts of his story.

At some point, we all want to hide pieces of ourselves, or at least mask them with humor, self-deprecation, or even avoidance.

R. Eric Thomas reminds us to live our truths and be ourselves – even as we are trying to figure out who that is.

Explore more about R. Eric Thomas and his other works at his website.

Kid's Books, Special Guests

Teacher Appreciation Week feat. Special Guest Danielle Diamond Nepstad

Happy Teacher Appreciation Week!

As the week comes to a close, think back to your own teachers. Who inspired you to be who you are today? Many of us have at least one teacher that we remember fondly and know they deserve some credit for how we turned out.

There are a few teachers from my k-12, undergrad, and now graduate program that I can say with full confidence have helped me to be the best version of myself. What better way to thank them than by paying it forward?

Today’s Q+A features Danielle Diamond Nepstad. I have known Danielle since elementary school and have loved seeing her live her passions – first as a musician and now also as an educator.

Read on to learn what you can find on Ms. Danielle’s bookshelf and why she decided to join the field of education!

Q. How did reading help shape who you are today?
As a child, I was fortunate to have two loving, bookworm-parents! They instilled their love for reading within my older sister and me from the very start. Nightly bedtime stories, weekly trips to the public library, and Reading Rainbow all came together to foster my love for literature. Some of my earliest memories are of reading to my stuffed animals and invisible students!

Q. What were your favorite books when you were a kid?
It’s so hard to narrow down my favorite books as a kid, but I do remember especially loving books by Robert Munsch; The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein; Louis Sachar’s Wayside School series, as well as Holes; and Stellaluna by Janell Cannon. In elementary school, I loved reading Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White, as well as a book on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement (I can’t remember its title, but I hope to stumble upon it someday!). 

Q. Your job title is 1st Year Reading Interventionist. Could you explain what that is and what motivated you to pursue this career?
I always knew I wanted to be a teacher at some point in life, so in May 2020, I received my Elementary/Middle School teaching license in the state of Wisconsin. With that, I am able to teach all content areas between Grades 1-8. When it came to applying for jobs last year, I knew I wanted to work in my hometown district as a way of giving back to the community that helped raise me. The district didn’t have any classroom positions open, but they were hiring for reading interventionists. I jumped at the opportunity, and luckily, was given a position! It has been a fun experience (despite the crazy pandemic year), and I’ve learned so much.

Before obtaining my teaching license, I was a Special Education paraprofessional in both elementary and high school settings. I truly love working with students of all ages! Someday, I’d like to earn my secondary licensure, but I pursued elementary/middle school because I was able to complete the program faster (and get to work faster)! Ultimately, I would love to teach middle school or high school English Language Arts. Still, there’s something special about working in an elementary school. They are so darn cute and full of curiosity. I love their enthusiasm.

My position is mostly working with students who have reading goals within their IEPs [Individualized Education Plans], so it’s almost like I’m part Reading Specialist, part Special Education teacher. I work with students on their phonological and phonemic awareness skills, as well as strategies to help them strengthen their fluency and comprehension. Most of my caseload consists of students in Grades 4-6. I pull some students for small group sessions, but other times, I am pushing into classrooms to support during their literacy blocks. Never a dull moment, that’s for sure!

“I want my book shelves to be representative of our global society, and I want to make sure all students can see themselves in the books available to them.”

Q. What kinds of books can we find on Ms. Danielle’s bookshelf? Are students allowed to check them out and bring them home to read?
My classroom library is full of texts from authors and illustrators of all ethnicities, races, religions, and gender identities. I want my book shelves to be representative of our global society, and I want to make sure all students can see themselves in the books available to them. I have everything from picture books, middle grade chapter books, and YA novels, even though I currently work in a K-6 building.

I have a weekly video series I share with the district called “First Chapter Fridays” in which I read a picture book and the first chapters of a novel in hopes of exciting students to read. If a book interests them, they can contact me to borrow it. I’ve had a lot of teachers reach out and use my library, too! I haven’t figured out a reliable system for checking out books to students, especially with COVID protocols. But hopefully next year, I’ll have a better system going!

Q. With your passion for creating art, have you ever written a children’s story or another kind of book? If not, do you have any aspirations to do so?
I have always wanted to write a children’s book! It is definitely a life goal. Ever since I was a child, I’ve been naturally drawn to the art of children’s literature. (If you ever get to take a course in that subject matter, do it!) With my experiences in music, creative writing, and education, I think I have all the ingredients to begin the process. Taking the leap is the scariest part, but I have a lot of ideas just waiting to be put on paper. I better go re-read Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. I highly recommend it for anyone, no matter what your goals may be!

Q. What are some of your favorite educational resources?
I really love PBS, Learning for Justice, Newsela, Flocabulary, ReadWorks, BrainPop, and Khan Academy. For the past several years, I have followed the gigantic teaching community on Instagram, and I learn a lot through other educators around the country (and world!). Some of my favorite educators to follow are @toocoolformiddleschool, @thetownieteacher, @littlebookbigideas, @msemilyalt, @elementaryedventure, and @itsmoniquesworld. Many of these educators offer their resources for free or at a small price on the website Teachers Pay Teachers.

Q. What are you currently reading?
I’m currently reading Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid, as well as The Skin We’re In: A Year of Black Resistance and Power by Desmond Cole.

Q. Are there any mottos you live by?
I try to read Paulo Coehlo’s The Alchemist once a year. There are so many incredible passages from the book, and I suppose I consider them mottos. Two of my favorites are: 

  • “You will never be able to escape from your heart. So it’s better to listen to what it has to say.”  
  • “When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”

***

As Teach Appreciation Week comes to end, remember you can thank a teacher (current or former) all year round!

Not everyone has to be a teacher in order to share their knowledge and experience. There are countless ways to provide wisdom to others: volunteering, mentoring, coaching, etc. There are probably times you’ve taught someone a thing or two and didn’t even realize it!

Thanks so much to Danielle for being today’s special guest! I know she will have a great influence on all who are blessed to learn with her.

You can follow Danielle’s journey on Instagram: @learningonthebiglake

Happy learning, friends!

All photos are the property of Danielle Diamond Nepstad and are used with her permission.

Book Reviews, Kid's Books

The Last Tree Town by Beth Turley

In The Last Tree Town, Cassi Chord is coming to terms with growing up – identity, culture, heritage, sisterhood, friendships, family dynamics, and mental health are all important elements of Beth Turley’s latest work.

It’s been forty-seven days since our last night of s’mores and scary stories. The number forty-seven has too many sharp edges.”

I really enjoyed The Last Tree Town. It’s classified as a middle school-aged book and I wish I had read a book like this when I was 12.

Turley’s story pieces together many of the things I hadn’t been able to say then and oftentimes struggle to say now.

Because of that, laughter and tears were also common as I read.

I stare at the threes until they look like eights and hearts and fish. I forget if the sum of a bunch of negatives is eventually positive or if it just stays negative forever.”

I really enjoyed Beth Turley’s writing style!

The mix of memories, present day narrative, and diary entries made for short, efficient chapters.

Quirky little details brought the characters to life. For example, Cassi loves numbers.

In the story, Cassi relates issues she encounters to math theories. I love that Cassi excels at math and that the Math Olympics group in the story has three girls in it and not just one “token” female mathlete.

I cannot speak to Cassi’s experiences growing up as Puerto Rican and Caucasian. I can, however, relate to the other things a 12 year old girl experiences – crushes, older sister dynamics, shifting friend groups, complete awareness of the self without actually knowing who that self is.

Depression is a key element of the story. Its effect on the Chord family and their friends is palpable and all too real. It’s inspiring and comforting to read about this health issue in The Last Tree Town because it gives me hope that there will be a positive impact around the stigma.

If you or anyone you know is struggling or has concerns about their mental health, check out these resources listed on the National Institute of Mental Health website. An internet search of resources will also yield results specific to your local area.

Learn more about Beth Turley and her works on her author website.

Book Reviews

The Sanatorium by Sarah Pearse

Things The Sanatorium has: murder, mystery, history, anticipation, and an unforgettable ending.

I finished this book on a cold, grey, drizzly night. Definitely spent the next hour or two feeling like there was someone watching me. Thanks a lot, Sarah! *accusatory but secretly thrilled stare in her direction*

One of the reasons I like this book is that Sarah Pearse did such a good job of making anyone seem like a suspect that I had to get to the end to find out who did it.

I even suspected the main character a few times!

And while along the way I had plenty of speculations, Pearse provides a few surprises to keep us on our toes.

And that ending! I can’t give too much away but let’s just say, it made me want to go back and immediately re-read the whole book to look for clues!

On a personal note, finishing a book lately has been a mental struggle for me. We are all exhausted with many things and I was so happy when I finished this. Starting to feel back in my groove!

Have you read The Sanatorium? Let me know in the comments what you thought or if it’s on your tbr!

Learn more about Sarah Pearse at her website.

Happy reading, friends!

Wellness, Writing

The World’s Most Low-Key Writing Club: “What Would I Change About Myself”

This post comes from prompt 1 in a writing group I am in with a friend called the World’s Most Low-Key Writing Club. It’s a 10-minute writing exercise. I didn’t do any editing so it’s very raw but very real.

Content warning: stress eating, body image

I’m sharing this prompt in particular because I think a lot of us need to know we are not alone in our negative thoughts about our bodies – if you don’t have any, tell me your secret! Confidence and self-love are something that are a constant struggle in my life and I want to share with others that it’s okay to feel the way you feel.

More detailed explanation and thoughts are on the Oak + River Books podcast!

*Note: if you are struggling with body image or eating, please consult a professional. This post in no way intends to treat or diagnose – it is solely my personal experience and thoughts.*

Prompt #1: If I could change one thing about myself…

This has two meanings to me. The first – that I thought of first – is “what is the physical thing you would change about yourself?” For me, that’s easy. I would literally just change the way my body looks. It would always be proportionate, even when I’m in a plus-size status. Outside of the body positivity movement – and even sometimes in it – there is a right way and a wrong way to be plus size. If you are pear shaped or hourglass shaped (echo all of the female comedians questioning why we have to be like fruits), then you are in the clear. Your body is “desirable”. But an apple shaped woman? Oh no. You have fat in all the wrong places. Your body’s way of distributing it makes you disgusting – instead of just curvy or thick. I don’t know what it’s like in the men’s scene. There is still work to be done there, too. I just hate feeling like my “mom bod” is less worthy than a “dad bod”. It makes me wonder how much time I’m spending looking at other people’s bodies – wondering why and how they look the way they do, wondering what their parents look like, wondering what they eat or if they fast. I am obsessed with other people’s bodies not because I’m a stalker but because I’m vain. I didn’t know I was vain. I just thought I hated the way I looked and everyone else hated the way they looked and that’s just how life was. Time moves on and post-Navy I think will be a healthier head space for me. It’s not that I’m okay with anyone being unhealthy, I’m just not okay with feeling like I am a horrible human because I’m not beautiful.


The second thought I had regarding this is what personality trait would I change about myself. It’s no secret I get obsessive… let’s say passionate. My heart is huge and heavy and love comes pouring out of it – but it’s often misguided. I have a tattoo on my ribcage that says “let love not wander”. I don’t know the real inspiration for it. I was just thinking about cool tattoos to get one day and this phrase popped in my head and I said, “That’s the one.” And I went that day to get it. My love wanders because it grows. It wanders because it tries to enter homes where it’s not welcome. It wanders because it’s searching for another love just like it. My love is loud and forceful. I need someone who loves just as forcefully but in a quiet way. A sturdy presence. A solidity. Someone who doesn’t run when things get tough. Or when I get emotional. Someone who will let me be mad and then we’ll talk about it and we’ll move and no one will hold grudges. Someone who will argue with me about leaving socks on the floor, or what color to paint the walls, or what to make for dinner tonight. I don’t even want to really argue, I just want to bicker a little bit. I don’t want someone who is passive and chill about every little thing. I have a fire in me and if I feel like I’m stomping over someone else all the time with it, I will make both of us miserable. So I want to let my love be free. I want it to roam and seek out corners and crevices and shadows. But I don’t want it to go banging down doors it doesn’t belong at. Crossing thresholds destined for someone else. I want to accept that sometimes life just doesn’t work the way we want it to, or the way we imagined it would. Sometimes I want the fact that I have loved at all to be enough. But this is not sustaining. My love will flourish when it is loved in return. When it no longer has to wander alone.

Most of all, I would change the way I love myself. Because most of the time, I don’t. I know my good traits – funny, smart, witty, caring. But I feel like if I don’t tell people my bad traits, they’ll think I’m hiding them. So often I have the urge to be like “I shouldn’t be eating this because I need to lose weight” or “I know I’m annoying but…” Why can’t I just love myself enough to be confident? Why can’t I love my own heart enough to trust that it will be okay? The best thing God has in store for me is not what I’m currently experiencing. Am I really so arrogant to think that THIS is the best God can do? THE BEST? He knows my heart and he knows my love and while I absolutely disagree that people need to love themselves in order to be loved by others, I think I do need to love myself more. I have heard that often enough I finally am on the cusp of believing I am unworthy of others’ love because I do not love myself. But I need to love myself as fiercely as I try to love other things. Fiercely and unabashedly.