Tuesday, February 14, 2023

Did I Love These Popular Books?

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Way back in February 2022, I made a 5-star TBR predictions post. I picked a variety of popular books that I hadn’t read yet. They sounded like my kind of stories, so I thought I’d love them and give them all 5 stars.

During the adventure that was 2022 (and January 2023), I read the books. Did I give them 5 stars? Let’s find out.

💔  Did I Love These Popular Books?  💌


Adult Science Fiction

Ryland Grace is the sole survivor on a desperate, last-chance mission—and if he fails, humanity and the Earth itself will perish.

Except that right now, he doesn't know that. He can't even remember his own name, let alone the nature of his assignment or how to complete it.

All he knows is that he's been asleep for a very, very long time. And he's just been awakened to find himself millions of miles from home, with nothing but two corpses for company.

His crewmates dead, his memories fuzzily returning, he realizes that an impossible task now confronts him. Alone on this tiny ship that's been cobbled together by every government and space agency on the planet and hurled into the depths of space, it's up to him to conquer an extinction-level threat to our species.

And thanks to an unexpected ally, he just might have a chance.

My Review: I love this book. Five stars for Rocky the alien.

Read this novel if you like plot twists because there are a lot of them. It's actually an impossible book to review because there are so many twists. Everything I want to say is a spoiler. The characters handle every problem with humor and optimism. It's kind of inspirational. These people are very, very determined to live. Every time they start to feel hopeless, they refocus and try a different way of solving their problems. Nothing is easy in space!

My only complaint is that the author isn't great at coming up with unique characters. The characters in this book are pretty much identical to the characters in his previous books. That's a small complaint, though. Don't let it stop you from reading Project Hail Mary. It's really good!

My Star Rating: ★★★★★



Human rights activist Park, who fled North Korea with her mother in 2007 at age 13 and eventually made it to South Korea two years later after a harrowing ordeal, recognized that in order to be "completely free," she had to confront the truth of her past. It is an ugly, shameful story of being sold with her mother into slave marriages by Chinese brokers, and although she at first tried to hide the painful details when blending into South Korean society, she realized how her survival story could inspire others. Moreover, her sister had also escaped earlier and had vanished into China for years, prompting the author to go public with her story in the hope of finding her sister.

My Review: I didn't like it, which is a terrible thing to say because it's a memoir. I feel like I'm judging somebody's life. Maybe this is why I don't read more nonfiction.

Aside from the difficult subject matter, most of the book is fine. The writing isn't great, but I can forgive it because the author doesn't have the same education level as other writers.

I think the pacing is too fast. I kept wishing the author would slow down and give more details. I wondered how she learned Mandarin faster than the other kidnapped refugees, and why she was so valuable to human traffickers that they were willing to "go to war" for her, and why her mother allowed a 13-year-old to make so many important decisions for the family. I wanted more information!

Then, a paragraph at the end of the book slightly ruined everything for me. The author admits that her story has changed multiple times. She gave different accounts to different journalists. Instead of telling the truth, she told reporters what she thought they wanted to hear. She says, "I was reacting, improvising like a jazz musician playing the same melody a little differently each time, unaware that there might be people out there keeping score."

My brain went in two directions with this. First, I said, "She obviously lived through something traumatizing. Of course she's not going to spill her secrets to every reporter who asks a question." The second part of me went, "Nooo! North Korea is a vault wrapped in propaganda. Changing your story will muddy the waters and cast doubt on the stories of other refugees." The North Korean government is going to grab these inconsistencies and use them to discredit survivors and keep people trapped.

I don't know what to think about this book. I'm not mad that I read it, but I can't recommend it to other people. I lost trust in the author. How do I know I'm reading the real story right now? Does it even matter if I'm reading the real story?

My Star Rating: I couldn't rate it

Buy it on Amazon


Young Adult Contemporary Novel-In-Verse

Xiomara Batista feels unheard and unable to hide in her Harlem neighborhood. Ever since her body grew into curves, she has learned to let her fists and her fierceness do the talking.

But Xiomara has plenty she wants to say, and she pours all her frustration and passion onto the pages of a leather notebook, reciting the words to herself like prayers—especially after she catches feelings for a boy in her bio class named Aman, who her family can never know about. With Mami’s determination to force her daughter to obey the laws of the church, Xiomara understands that her thoughts are best kept to herself.

So when she is invited to join her school’s slam poetry club, she doesn’t know how she could ever attend without her mami finding out, much less speak her words out loud. But still, she can’t stop thinking about performing her poems.

Because in the face of a world that may not want to hear her, Xiomara refuses to be silent.

My Review: It made my Best Books Of 2022 listWhy didn't novels like this exist when I was a teenager? Where were all the stories about chubby girls when I needed them? I spent the entire book highlighting lines that are relatable.

This is a novel-in-verse, which means it's very quick to read. There's no extra fluff. The author strips the story down to its raw bones, which makes it powerful and straightforward. Xiomara is a Black Latina who lives in New York City. The reader gets to see bits of her culture and the diversity of the city. Xiomara just feels so real! She experiences realistic crushes, argues with her friends, is supported by her teachers, questions her religion, and constantly struggles with her self-esteem. I think a lot of teenagers will be able to relate to her.

I want to fling this book through the door of every high school. The kids need it.

My Star Rating: ★★★★★

Buy it on Amazon


Adult Literary Fiction

Thirteen-year-old Anna, an orphan, lives inside the formidable walls of Constantinople in a house of women who make their living embroidering the robes of priests. Restless, insatiably curious, Anna learns to read, and in this ancient city, famous for its libraries, she finds a book, the story of Aethon, who longs to be turned into a bird so that he can fly to a utopian paradise in the sky. This she reads to her ailing sister as the walls of the only place she has known are bombarded in the great siege of Constantinople. Outside the walls is Omeir, a village boy, miles from home, conscripted with his beloved oxen into the invading army. His path and Anna’s will cross.

Five hundred years later, in a library in Idaho, octogenarian Zeno, who learned Greek as a prisoner of war, rehearses five children in a play adaptation of Aethon’s story, preserved against all odds through centuries. Tucked among the library shelves is a bomb, planted by a troubled, idealistic teenager, Seymour. This is another siege. And in a not-so-distant future, on the interstellar ship Argos, Konstance is alone in a vault, copying on scraps of sacking the story of Aethon, told to her by her father. She has never set foot on our planet.

My Review: The author's other book, All The Light We Cannot Seeis one of my all-time-favorite novels. I even taught a college class on it, and I didn't end up hating the book by the end of the class! (Usually, if I teach a book, I never want to look at it again.) I was very interested to see what else the author could do.

Cloud Cuckoo Land is a bizarre book. I loved it, but I'm not sure how to talk about it. I just want everybody to read it!

It's a story about stories. It's a love letter to books and libraries. It shows how stories are passed down through generations and give us the courage to keep moving when we're under siege.

At the center of the novel is an ancient myth called "Cloud Cuckoo Land." Other stories branch off from that myth like spokes. In 1453 Constantinople, a farmer and a seamstress are trapped on opposite sides of the city wall during a war. In 2020 Idaho, an elderly librarian is directing a play when a teenager on a deadly mission walks into his library. Sometime in the future, a young girl is alone on a spaceship and searching for a new home for humanity.

I know that sounds confusing, but the stories actually work together beautifully because the author is great at juggling multiple points-of-view. I was equally invested in each story. It's amazing how real the characters feel. Their kindness and willingness to take risks really shines through.

This book is confusing at first because there are a lot of characters, but I'm glad I stuck with it. Once I got invested in the characters, I couldn't put the book down. I love the way the stories converge at the end. It took a lot of skill to write this novel. I suspect it'll be one of my favorites of 2023.

My Star Rating: ★★★★★

Buy it on Amazon


Young Adult Historical Fiction

Madrid, 1957. Under the fascist dictatorship of General Francisco Franco, Spain is hiding a dark secret. Meanwhile, tourists and foreign businessmen flood into Spain under the welcoming promise of sunshine and wine. Among them is eighteen-year-old Daniel Matheson, the son of an oil tycoon, who arrives in Madrid with his parents hoping to connect with the country of his mother's birth through the lens of his camera. Photography—and fate—introduce him to Ana, whose family's interweaving obstacles reveal the lingering grasp of the Spanish Civil War—as well as chilling definitions of fortune and fear. Daniel's photographs leave him with uncomfortable questions amidst shadows of danger. He is backed into a corner of difficult decisions to protect those he loves. Lives and hearts collide, revealing an incredibly dark side to the sunny Spanish city.

My Review: I've read almost all of Ruta Sepetys's books and enjoyed every one of them. If I had to rank them, this one would be my least favorite, but it's still a good book!

I like that the author shows two sides of Spain. The country relies on tourist dollars, so the government is very concerned with creating a beautiful tourist playground. It's less concerned with the wellbeing of its own citizens. They're living in poverty and doing unethical things to survive.

I vaguely remember learning about the Spanish Civil War in my high school European history class, but I think I learned more from this book than I did in school. That's another thing I love about Ruta Sepetys. She takes little-known bits of history and makes them real. You'll fall in love with these characters. Even though they've had difficult lives, they're still hopeful about their futures.

This book has a steep learning curve. There are a lot of characters, and the author throws you right into the action. I struggled to keep up. I spent about half the book going, Wait, who's that? How are they related? What are they doing? Why am I supposed to care about this person? It took me a long time to feel comfortable with the setting and characters. That's my only criticism. I'll happily pick up whatever Ruta Sepetys writes next.

My Star Rating: ★★★

Buy it on Amazon



At the age of thirty-eight, Stephen Kuusisto—who has managed his whole life without one—gets his first guide dog, a beautiful yellow Labrador named Corky. Theirs is a partnership of movement, mutual self-interest, and wanderlust.

My Review: In the 1990s, the author lost his job as a poetry professor at a university and decided that he needed to get a guide dog and expand his world. He'd been blind since birth, but his parents saw his disability as shameful, so he learned to navigate without a dog or a white cane. It was extremely dangerous and left him confined to the towns he'd memorized.

The author completely transforms his life over the course of this memoir. For him, it was empowering to admit that he needed help and to educate himself about his disability. It takes an astounding amount of energy to pretend you're not blind. I enjoyed seeing how much joy and freedom he got from his dog. Even though this memoir touches on difficult topics (such as growing up blind with alcoholic parents), it's never depressing. It left me smiling.

I like the subject of this book, but the writing style is not my thing. I read the first 10 pages and said, "I'm pretty sure this dude graduated from Iowa Writers Workshop." Then he confirmed that he did! It's very easy for me to recognize their brand of insufferably pretentious weirdness. Sometimes the writing style is weird for the sake of weird. Also, the author quotes from a ton of other sources, so half the book is written by other people. It got on my nerves.

Even though I didn't like the writing, I want to find more stories like this one. I want nonfiction books about animals that are not textbooks and not sappy. I think Stephen Kuusisto found the balance between informational and readable. I appreciate that.

My Star Rating: ★★★

Buy it on Amazon


Middle Grade Fantasy

Sophie has the great misfortune of being the eldest of three daughters, destined to fail miserably should she ever leave home to seek her fate. But when she unwittingly attracts the ire of the Witch of the Waste, Sophie finds herself under a horrid spell that transforms her into an old lady. Her only chance at breaking it lies in the ever-moving castle in the hills: the Wizard Howl's castle. To untangle the enchantment, Sophie must handle the heartless Howl, strike a bargain with a fire demon, and meet the Witch of the Waste head-on. Along the way, she discovers that there's far more to Howl—and herself—than first meets the eye.

My Review: This is a cute and positive middle grade story. Sophie is my hero. I want to be her when I grow up. When a witch puts a curse on her, she finds a wizard who can help and worms her way into his castle. She faces every problem with calm confidence and a sense of humor.

Howl, the wizard, is a memorable character too. He's childish and self-centered, but not in a way that got on my nerves. He's more funny than annoying, and he keeps the plot moving with his antics. There are a lot of twists in this book. I loved watching Sophie and Howl's friendship slowly grow over the course of the novel.

Even though I like the plot twists, I think there are too many of them. Sometimes they came out of nowhere and left me confused. I still enjoyed the book. It's a magical romp.

My Star Rating: ★★★★


Buy it on Amazon


Middle Grade Contemporary Fiction

When Jack meets his new foster brother, he already knows three things about him:

Joseph almost killed a teacher.

He was incarcerated at a place called Stone Mountain.

He has a daughter. Her name is Jupiter. And he has never seen her.

What Jack doesn’t know, at first, is how desperate Joseph is to find his baby girl.

Or how urgently he, Jack, will want to help.

But the past can’t be shaken off. Even as new bonds form, old wounds reopen. The search for Jupiter demands more from Jack than he can imagine.

My Review: I'm slightly obsessed with Gary D. Schmid's writing style. It's sparse and straightforward, which brilliantly captures the bleak landscape of Maine in winter and the no-nonsense attitude of the people who live there.

This is the story of two foster brothers who develop a bond, even though they're extremely different. It's also the story of parents who love their children and are willing to do anything for them. It's great to see a book that shows loving foster parents who see the good in troubled kids and want to help them succeed. The parents calmly handle whatever problem pops up. I wish I could be that chill.

The story also shows how adults sometimes steamroll the decisions of children. The book focuses on a 14-year-old who becomes a father. The adults ban him from seeing his girlfriend, and they put his baby up for adoption without consulting him or allowing him to meet his daughter. His wishes are constantly ignored. It raises questions about when young people should be allowed to make adult choices. Are adults doing more harm than good by dismissing the feelings of kids?

My only complaint about the book is that it strays into melodrama a few times. I don't want to give away spoilers, but there's a lot of tragedy in this story. I don't feel like all of it was necessary.

I really liked this one. I definitely want to read more of the author's work.

My Star Rating: ★★★★

Buy it on Amazon


Sociology / Philosophy Nonfiction

A stevedore on the San Francisco docks in the 1940s, Eric Hoffer wrote philosophical treatises in his spare time while living in the railroad yards. The True Believer—the first and most famous of his books—was made into a bestseller when President Eisenhower cited it during one of the earliest television press conferences. Completely relevant and essential for understanding the world today, The True Believer is a visionary, highly provocative look into the mind of the fanatic and a penetrating study of how an individual becomes one.

My Review: This is a hard book to review because it's dry af to read and probably only relevant to people like me who are tempted to start their own cult. Or, maybe it's relevant if you want to avoid my cult. I don't know.

The True Believer is a philosophy book from the 1940s. It talks about how mass movements start and what keeps them going. The author mostly focuses on Nazis in Germany and Communists in Russia because those were the largest mass movements of his time, but he also discusses religious conversion and how governments get overthrown.

The author has some interesting observations about how mass movements are all the same at their core. They all make vague promises about the future and attract frustrated people who want to change their lives. The movement gives people a sense of community and an enemy to blame for their problems. The frustrated people tend to bounce around to different movements because they can't find anything that cures their frustration.

My biggest issue with the book is right in the title. It's called "Thoughts" on mass movements. I really wish the author had backed up his thoughts with more evidence. I feel like he dismissed or ignored anything that didn't fit into his thesis. I wanted him to stop talking about Nazi and Communists and focus on movements that rocked the boat in less dramatic ways. I don't think this book is nuanced enough.

I don't know what to think about this one. I spent the whole thing wavering between bored, intrigued, and skeptical. It did give me a lot to ponder, though. I understand why this is a philosophy classic. I recommend it if you're interested in mass movements.

My Star Rating: ★★★

Buy it on Amazon


Young Adult Science Fiction

It’s been three years since Rowan and Citra disappeared; since Scythe Goddard came into power; since the Thunderhead closed itself off to everyone but Grayson Tolliver.

In this pulse-pounding conclusion to New York Times bestselling author Neal Shusterman’s Arc of a Scythe trilogy, constitutions are tested and old friends are brought back from the dead.


My Review: A 5-star chunkster! My wrists are still sore from trying to hold this monster. It's massive. It's also the third book in the Arc Of A Scythe series, so I'm not sure how to talk about it without spoiling the first two books.

The best part of this series is how Neal Shusterman thinks of everything. The books take place in a world where people have conquered death. How would immortality change art, technology, politics, religion, and even daily life? A series like this could easily become preachy, but Shusterman doesn't do that. He acknowledges that philosophical questions can have multiple correct answers and allows his characters to make mistakes and change their minds.

This novel didn't have quite as many plot twists as the previous ones, but I guess that's logical because the series has to wrap up eventually. We can't keep throwing new problems into the mix. The ending still had enough twists to keep me happy.

Arc Of A Scythe is one of my all-time-favorite series. If you love science fiction, you should give it a try.

My Star Rating: ★★★★★

Buy it on Amazon

Have you read any of these books? What did you think of them?

I think my experiment went well. I only disliked one of the books, and I gave four of them 5 stars.


  1. Wow! Overall it looks like a winning bunch for you, and kudos for being able to know what books will work for you, especially since these are all so different!

  2. Great idea for a post today.

    I bought Fountains of Silence and gave it away after reading just a couple of pages. A bit of disappointment because I'm pretty much a fan of the author.

    And Poet X! Why haven't I read this book yet? Good grief.

    If you want other true animal story recommendations that aren't sappy, take a look at my post today.

  3. Looks like a few disappointments but also several that lived up to your predictions! That's awesome!

  4. I’m glad you also loved Project Hail Mary. Fingers crossed that the film version is just as good.

    I really should read The Poet X sometime. :)

    My post: https://lydiaschoch.com/top-ten-tuesday-books-i-liked-about-asexual-characters/

  5. I enjoyed The Fountains of Silence. Here is my post-https://paigesofnovels.com/2023/02/14/top-ten-tuesday-favorite-couples-love-freebie/.

  6. This was fun. I loved seeing if you did or didn't like the books. Happy Valentine's Day!

  7. Great that so many of these lived up to your expectations!! Project Hail Mary, Poet X and the Arc of a Scythe series are all on my TBR, so I'm happy to see you loved them.

  8. I couldn't get into The Fountains of Silence, I DNF'ed it at I think 150 odd pages in which was a shame because I've really enjoyed Ruta Sepetys' other books but I guess that one just wasn't for me. I've read the first book in the Arc of a Scythe series, but I still need to read the second one, hopefully at some point soon!
    My TTT: https://jjbookblog.wordpress.com/2023/02/14/top-ten-tuesday-407/

  9. I loved Project Hail Mary - I can't wait to see what the author does next!

    Check out my TTT

  10. I love these lists you are putting together. It's interesting to see how all these "hits" hit with you. I did love Acevedo's book. She is a great writer

  11. This is a fun post. I haven't read any of these books, but I've heard of them as they are very popular.

  12. I read and loved The Poet X (and felt the same way you did about it ... would have been great to read these when I was a teenager!!).. I need to read Cloud Cuckoo Land and anything by Shusterman soon..
    Here is my Valentine-y TTT

  13. Fun post! I surprised myself by loving PROJECT HAIL MARY. I don't read much sci-fi and I DNF'd THE MARTIAN after one chapter, so I really didn't think I'd like it, but I did (aside from all the long passages about math and science). Rocky for the win! I need to start IN ORDER TO LIVE soon since my book club will be discussing it next week. I didn't read your review of it so as not to taint my own experience, but it's too bad you didn't like it more. I'm interested to see what the members of my book club think of it.

    Happy TTT (on a Wednesday)!

  14. Yeah I've been a bit on the fence about Cloud Cuckoo Land -- I'm glad to hear you say it's worth it. Quite a chunkster and various characters. But what will he write next? hmm

  15. I have read a number of those books and agree with your assessment (hurray for Rocky and Project Hail Mary!), but I think I liked Fountains of Silence a bit more than you did.

  16. What a terrific idea for a post. And a great way to approach popular books. I slogged through The Martian and it never really grabbed me, but I loved the movie (a rare flip flop occurrence). So I was a little hesitant about Hail Mary BUT, holy moly, I liked that book! Still lots of science, but somehow so much more entertaining - and Rocky! Cuckoo is on my TBR -still not sure it will be for me, but it's worth a maybe. I added Poet X (not sure I missed that one) and I keep meaning to read that Schusterman trilogy - I have the first book on my bookshelves. Maybe this year. :) All in all, a great list and a successful experiment!
    Terrie @ Bookshelf Journeys

  17. A couple of those books are on my TBR list and I need to get to them, eventually. Have a great weekend. - Katie

  18. Well I'm glad you loved some of these and liked quite a few more! Idk what Iowa Writers Workshop is, but that is wild that you knew! The only book here I've read is Howl's, and I agree, not 5 stars for me, but fun and cute!

  19. I have only read the first one, and loved it a lot too.
    I love scifi, but even though I don't read much UA, sounds like I should really try The Toll!

  20. Looks like you're a pretty good judge of what books are going to work well for you. Project Hail Mary and the Arc of a Scythe series were great reads for me as well.

  21. Of you list, I'd love to try Project Hail Mary and Howl's Moving Castle.

  22. Just because they're popular doesn't mean you have to love them! I liked the Doerr a lot, but not 5/5 stars worth.