Mini-reviews: Three short takes on my end-of-the-year reads (or listens)

It’s the morning of New Year’s Eve, I’ve finished three different books over the last day or so, and I’m not really in the mood to write detailed reviews. So, wrapping up my year of reading, here are my final three books of 2020:


Title: Us Against You (Beartown, #2)
Author: Fredrik Backman
Published: 2018
Length: 448 pages

Rating: 3 out of 5.

After everything that the citizens of Beartown have gone through, they are struck yet another blow when they hear that their beloved local hockey team will soon be disbanded. What makes it worse is the obvious satisfaction that all the former Beartown players, who now play for a rival team in Hed, take in that fact. Amidst the mounting tension between the two rivals, a surprising newcomer is handpicked to be Beartown’s new hockey coach.

Soon a new team starts to take shape around Amat, the fastest player you’ll ever see; Benji, the intense lone wolf; and Vidar, a born-to-be-bad troublemaker. But bringing this team together proves to be a challenge as old bonds are broken, new ones are formed, and the enmity with Hed grows more and more acute.

As the big match approaches, the not-so-innocent pranks and incidents between the communities pile up and their mutual contempt grows deeper. By the time the last game is finally played, a resident of Beartown will be dead, and the people of both towns will be forced to wonder if, after all they’ve been through, the game they love can ever return to something simple and innocent.

Saying I have a love/hate relationship with Fredrik Backman’s writing is a bit too strong. Maybe it’s a like/feel annoyed by relationship?

Us Against You is the sequel to Beartown, continuing the story of a small hockey-obsessed town, its politics, its personalities, and its ugly and beautiful sides. This book is really very dark and dismal for most of its length, with people suffering, fighting, and making each other miserable.

As with his other books, I found myself rolling my eyes at the abundance of declarative statements about the meaning of life. I’m glad that I read Us Against You, for the sake of seeing what happens next in these characters’ lives, but ended up speeding up to the audiobook to 1.5x when my exasperation made me want to just be done with it.


Title: The Little Book of Hygge
Author: Meik Wiking
Published: 2016
Length: 289 pages

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Denmark is often said to be the happiest country in the world. That’s down to one thing: hygge.

‘Hygge has been translated as everything from the art of creating intimacy to cosiness of the soul to taking pleasure from the presence of soothing things. My personal favourite is cocoa by candlelight…’

You know hygge when you feel it. It is when you are cuddled up on a sofa with a loved one, or sharing comfort food with your closest friends. It is those crisp blue mornings when the light through your window is just right.

Who better than Meik Wiking to be your guide to all things hygge? Meik is CEO of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen and has spent years studying the magic of Danish life. In this beautiful, inspiring book he will help you be more hygge: from picking the right lighting and planning a dinner party through to creating an emergency hygge kit and even how to dress.

This little hardcover (borrowed from the library) is a guide to hygge — taking the Danish concept and using it to make life more peaceful, cozy, and satisfying. It’s a sweet little book — no earth-shattering revelations here, but a gentle reinforcement of some basic principles: simple is better, be cozy, keep social gatherings small and intimate, enjoy making and sharing, spend less, focus on the here and now.

I’m not sure that I got much in the way of practical steps, but it’s a good reminder to cherish the small moments and make life more comfy and cozy in little ways. And, as the author points out, the more candles, the more hygge.


Title: I Want to Be Where the Normal People Are
Author: Rachel Bloom
Published: 2020
Length: 288 pages

Rating: 4 out of 5.

In the vein of Mindy Kaling, Ali Wong, and Amy Poehler, a collection of hilarious personal essays, poems and even amusement park maps on the subjects of insecurity, fame, anxiety, and much more from the charming and wickedly funny creator of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.

Rachel Bloom has felt abnormal and out of place her whole life. In this exploration of what she thinks makes her “different,” she’s come to realize that a lot of people also feel this way; even people who she otherwise thought were “normal.”

In a collection of laugh-out-loud funny essays, all told in the unique voice (sometimes singing voice) that made her a star; Rachel writes about everything from her love of Disney, OCD and depression, weirdness, and female friendships to the story of how she didn’t poop in the toilet until she was four years old; Rachel’s pieces are hilarious, smart, and infinitely relatable (except for the pooping thing).

Rachel Bloom is talented, funny, and hides absolutely nothing in this hilarious memoir about a girl who never felt “normal”. She shares poems and diary entries written by her 12-year-old self, tells about becoming a theater kid through a musical script, shares the ups and downs of her love and sex life, and manages to be really moving even while making me laugh out loud or cringe uncomfortably.

I loved Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and reading this book makes me want to go watch the series all over again (or at least watch some of the best musical moments). I Want to Be Where the Normal People Are is a must for fans!

(Okay, sure, why not share a random favorite CXG musical number? Well, if you insist…)


And that’s it! Onward to more great reading in 2021!

Book Review: Anxious People by Fredrik Backman

Title: Anxious People
Author: Fredrik Backman
Publisher: Atria
Publication date: September 8, 2020
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Rating: 3 out of 5.

This is a poignant comedy about a crime that never took place, a would-be bank robber who disappears into thin air, and eight extremely anxious strangers who find they have more in common than they ever imagined.

Viewing an apartment normally doesn’t turn into a life-or-death situation, but this particular open house becomes just that when a failed bank robber bursts in and takes everyone in the apartment hostage. As the pressure mounts, the eight strangers slowly begin opening up to one another and reveal long-hidden truths.

As police surround the premises and television channels broadcast the hostage situation live, the tension mounts and even deeper secrets are slowly revealed. Before long, the robber must decide which is the more terrifying prospect: going out to face the police, or staying in the apartment with this group of impossible people.

In Anxious People, an ill-prepared and not very talented bank robber inadvertently seeks shelter in an apartment that’s open for viewing, turning a failed robbery into a hostage situation. For the people at the apartment viewing, being held hostage (by a robber none view as particularly dangerous) is the least of their worries.

The eight people present at the apartment all have stories to share, which we learn over the course of the book. How and why they all end up at this apartment on New Year’s Eve is complicated, and as they open up to one another, we see common threads of worry over relationships, living up to expectations, family drama, success, and finding meaning in life.

The narrative jumps around in time, taking us back 10 years to a suicide that occurred on a bridge visible from the apartment balcony, through the events of the day of the viewing, plus the police interviews that take place after the hostages are released.

We also get to know two police officers in this small Swedish town, Jim and Jack, father and son, whose professional interactions are more than a little influenced by their sometimes difficult personal relationship and their shared losses and fears. The deeper they delve into the witness statements, the more the bank robber’s motivations and actions become clear, but that doesn’t answer the fundamental question of what happened once the hostages were released.

Naturally, Jim did his best to act like he definitely had experience, seeing as dads like teaching their sons things, because the moment we can no longer do that is when they stop being our responsibility and we become theirs.

This was a quick, captivating read, and yet the level of whimsy in the storytelling is set very, very high. Your tolerance for this kind of quirky, whimsical storytelling will determine whether you’ll enjoy this book. For me, it was mixed. I’ve loved some of Fredrik Backman’s books in the past, yet there’s at least one (My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry) where I couldn’t get past the first few chapters because of the whimsy factor. It was just too much.

He presses his thumbs hard against his eyebrows, as if he hopes they’re two buttons, and if he keeps them pressed at the same time for ten seconds he’ll be able to restore life to its factory settings.

Here, the quirky storytelling leads to some very funny observations and comments, yet it’s all a bit much as a whole. The writing veers toward the precious at times, which tried my patience. A lot. I often enjoy quirky writing, but the sheer volume of it throughout Anxious People made it tough for me to enjoy.

Overall, I really liked the strange bunch of characters who find unexpected common ground through this one weird experience, an experience that teaches them all about how lives becomes mingled and how random occurrences can lead to profound change.

The truth? The truth about all this? The truth is that this was a story about many different things, but most of all about idiots. Because we’re doing the best we can, we really are. We’re trying to be grown-up and love each other and understand how the hell you’re supposed ot insert USB-leads. We’re looking for something to cling onto, something to fight for, something to look forward to. We’re doing all we can to teach out children how to swim. We have all of this in common, yet most of us remain strangers, we never know what we do to each other, how your life is affected by mine.

This wasn’t my favorite Backman book (I’d have to go with A Man Called Ove or Beartown), but I do look forward to continue reading his books, and have at least two from his backlist that I still need to read.

Anxious People is recommended for readers who enjoy character studies and quirkiness, with a smattering of deeper life lessons threaded throughout.

Top Ten Tuesday: Most Anticipated Releases for the Second Half of 2020

Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl, featuring a different top 10 theme each week. This week’s topic is Most Anticipated Releases of the Second Half of 2020.

I’m so excited for all of these! Since I just did a summer TBR post a couple of weeks ago that included a bunch of new releases for June through August, today I’m focusing on books coming out in fall to early winter. And the scary thing is, most of these are being released in September. How will I possibly have the time to read them all?

  1. A Killing Frost (October Daye, #14) by Seanan McGuire (release date 9/1/2020)
  2. Anxious People by Fredrik Backman (release date 9/8/2020)
  3. The Ghost Tree by Christina Henry (release date 9/8/2020)
  4. The Trials of Koli (The Book of Koli, #2) by M. R. Carey (release date 9/15/2020)
  5. Piranesi by Susanna Clarke (release date 9/15/2020)
  6. Well Played (Well Met, #2) by Jen DeLuca (release date 9/22/2020)
  7. A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik (release date 9/29/2020)
  8. The Hollow Places by T. Kingfisher (release date 10/6/2020)
  9. Over the Woodward Wall by A. Deborah Baker (release date 10/6/2020)
  10. The Once & Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow (release date 10/13/2020)

Are you planning to read any of these? What new releases are you especially excited about for the 2nd half of 2019? Please share your links!





Audiobook Review: Beartown by Fredrik Backman

Title: Beartown
Author: Fredrik Backman
Narrator: Marin Ireland
Publisher: Atria Books
Publication date: April 25, 2017
Print length: 418 pages
Audio length: 13 hours, 11 minutes
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased

Rating: 4 out of 5.

People say Beartown is finished. A tiny community nestled deep in the forest, it is slowly losing ground to the ever-encroaching trees. But down by the lake stands an old ice rink, built generations ago by the working men who founded town. And that rink is the reason people in Beartown believe tomorrow will be better than today. Their junior hockey team is about to compete in the national championships, and they actually have a shot at winning. All the hopes and dreams of the town now rest on the shoulders of a handful of teenage boys.

A victory would send star player Kevin onto a brilliant professional future in the NHL. It would mean everything to Amat, a scrawny fifteen-year-old treated like an outcast everywhere but on the ice. And it would justify the choice that Peter, the team’s general manager, and his wife, Kira, made to return to his hometown and raise their children in this beautiful but isolated place.

Being responsible for the hopes of an entire town is a heavy burden, and the semifinal match is the catalyst for a violent act that leaves a young girl traumatized and a town in turmoil. Hers is a story no one wants to believe since the truth would mean the end of the dream. Accusations are made, and like ripples on a pond, they travel through all of Beartown, leaving no resident unaffected.

I have to admit, my knowledge about the plot of Beartown before reading the book was limited to basically one word: Hockey. I knew it was set in a small town, and that the town’s focus was hockey. Period. I guess I never read a synopsis, and because the book came out a few years ago and I’d heard how much people enjoyed it, I didn’t read the synopsis before starting the audiobook either.

So let’s just be clear up front. I did really enjoy this book. And at the same time, this is one of the rare occasions when I wish I’d known more ahead of time.

I’m not usually in favor of content warnings, and maybe if I’d read a synopsis ahead of time, the content wouldn’t have taken me by surprise quite so much — but I do feel like this book should have had a much more explicit content warning.

So, here’s my content warning: The “violent act” referred to in the synopsis is rape. And I did not at all realize that I was reading a book that would focus so much on rape and its aftermath. I was expecting petty grievances and sports fanatics and small-town politics, perhaps. So the content took me completely off guard. I don’t have personal trauma associated with sexual assault, but I can easily imagine how upsetting it would be for someone who’s survived such violence to be confronted by it unexpectedly in a book.

But let’s get back to the book itself. Because in many ways, Beartown is excellent!

Beartown is a small town in the forest (in Sweden) that’s seen better days… a long time ago. The town has a factory that’s going downhill, and it has an ice rink. The town is fanatical about hockey, and this year, it looks like the juniors team (15 to 17-year-old boys) has a shot at the national final. And if they win? The club’s sponsors have starry-eyed visions of a championship bringing a national hockey academy to Beartown, revitalizing the local economy and once again making the town a real place on the map.

It’s only a game. Everyone who plays it gets told that from time to time. A lot of people try to tell themselves that it’s true. But it’s complete nonsense. No one in this town would have been the same if that game hadn’t existed.

Through the novel, we get to know a huge cast of characters. There are the boys on the team, including superstar Kevin, who’s expected by everyone to turn pro. There’s Kevin’s best friend Benji, a stoner who also throws himself into every moment of the game in defense of his teammates. There’s Amat, son of the rink’s immigrant cleaning woman, finally given a shot to belong and to prove himself.

Then there are the boys’ families — some supportive, some demanding perfection while ignoring their children, some doing what they can, some doing nothing at all.

We also get to know the hockey club’s General Manager and his family; the coach of the A-team and the rising star coach of the juniors; the local pub owner, the school teacher, and so many more.

It’s only a game. It only resolves tiny, insignificant things. Such as who gets validation. Who gets listened to. It allocates power and draws boundaries and turns some people into stars and others into spectators. That’s all.

Author Fredrik Backman masterfully weaves together all of these people to paint a portrait of a community, with all its flaws and spots of ugliness as well as points of light and kindness. The small-town politics is real and cutthroat when it comes to hockey, and the toxic masculinity simply oozes off the page in various locker room and bar room scenes.

As I said, I expected a hockey story, but Beartown is so much more than that. The attack on the young girl is depicted with sensitivity, but doesn’t shy away from showing us the violence involved and the terror the girl feels.

From there, the focus becomes how the girl’s reporting of the rape triggers a huge and ugly reaction from the town, most of whom see her as a liar, a pathetic girl who got drunk, hooked up with a boy, and then got mad when he rejected her. It’s disturbing to see how far the town goes in portraying her as at fault, and how much abuse and intimidation is thrown at her, at her family, and at the few people who speak up for her.

I listened to the audiobook, and narrator Marin Ireland does a fantastic job with the dialogue and with portraying the different characters, giving them distinct sounds and personalities through her voice.

Maybe because I listened to the book, I became very aware of the author’s use of repetition as a device to drive home certain points. And perhaps in print, I wouldn’t have found it quite so annoying. Throughout the book, there are moments where we get lines of “Bang. Bang. Bang.” representing the sound of hockey pucks. Too much, after a while.

Likewise, I wasn’t crazy about the author’s habit of starting and ending chapters with declarative statements or big questions:

Why does anyone care about hockey?

A long marriage is complicated.

It’s Saturday, and everything is going to happen today.

Pride in a team can come from a variety of causes.

When you love hockey it feels like having your heart scalded.

I’m afraid I’ve focused too much on the negative, which doesn’t truly convey my feelings about this book. I do think Beartown is terrific storytelling. I was completely wrapped up in the plot and the characters — as proven by my tendency to make my walks longer and longer each day so I’d have more time to listen to the audiobook.

Some of these characters made me want to cry. I could really feel the accumulated hurts of so many of them, all the ways in which lifetime experiences add up to more than anyone could anticipate, all the ways in which spoken and unspoken words, actions allowed and forbidden, come back around with unintended and unanticipated consequences.

I was very invested in my favorite characters’ well-being, and wanted desperately to know that they’d be okay. When characters make choices that put them at risk as they stand up to do what’s right, I wanted to cheer, and at the same time, to yell at them to run far away and never turn back.

I guess that’s the sign of a great book — that despite any quibbles with the writing, the power of the characters makes you care so very, very much.

The sequel to Beartown, Us Against You, was released in 2018. And while Beartown felt complete and had a definitive ending, now that I know there’s more, I definitely have to get a copy.!

A novella two-fer: Heartwarming holiday tale and nuns in space

It’s time for another two-fer post — a quick wrap-up of two recent reads. In this case, I borrowed two novellas from the library this week, and while they’re quite different, I definitely enjoyed them both.


The Deal of a Lifetime by Fredrik Backman: Definitely not as Christmas-y as you might think from looking at the cover. This is a sweet (veering close to the edge of overly sentimental) tale of a man having to assess what makes a life valuable, and what it means to trade a life for a life. The prose is clear and simply stated, and there are illustrations throughout that emphasize the loveliness of the small moments that make a life. This is a quick read, and the little hardcover I borrowed from the library would make a really nice gift for fans of the author.

Length: 65 pages
Published: 2017

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Sisters of the Vast Black by Lina Rather: This science fiction novella is set on board a living ship, the space-voyaging convent Our Lady of Impossible Constellations. The nuns on the ship travel to the outer reaches of the four systems, ministering to the sick and performing rites and rituals, largely independent of government and church politics. I was fascinated by the concept of the ship as a living creature — this novella would be worth reading just for the descriptions of the ship’s biology! The lives of the sisters hold more secrets than is immediately apparent, and their interactions with one isolated colony planet thrust them into the middle of an interstellar power play that is likely to result in devastation.

I really enjoyed the plot of Sisters of the Vast Black. I think I would have liked it even more as a full-length novel. Events seem somewhat rushed in this shorter form, and likewise, I would have preferred a little more time to get to know the characters as individuals. Still, despite these minor quibbles, I heartily recommend this sci-fi adventure. Nuns in space!! Really, what more do you need to know?

Length: 176
Published: 2019

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Two quick 4-star reads for the end-of-the-year rush! Check ’em out.

Shelf Control #144: Beartown by Fredrik Backman

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!


Title: Beartown
Author: Fredrik Backman
Published: 2017
Length: 432 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

People say Beartown is finished. A tiny community nestled deep in the forest, it is slowly losing ground to the ever encroaching trees. But down by the lake stands an old ice rink, built generations ago by the working men who founded this town. And in that ice rink is the reason people in Beartown believe tomorrow will be better than today. Their junior ice hockey team is about to compete in the national semi-finals, and they actually have a shot at winning. All the hopes and dreams of this place now rest on the shoulders of a handful of teenage boys.

Being responsible for the hopes of an entire town is a heavy burden, and the semi-final match is the catalyst for a violent act that will leave a young girl traumatized and a town in turmoil. Accusations are made and, like ripples on a pond, they travel through all of Beartown, leaving no resident unaffected.

Beartown explores the hopes that bring a small community together, the secrets that tear it apart, and the courage it takes for an individual to go against the grain. In this story of a small forest town, Fredrik Backman has found the entire world.

How and when I got it:

I found a used copy at the big library sale last year.

Why I want to read it:

Well, like everyone else, I loved A Man Called Ove. I haven’t read anything else by Fredrik Backman, and I’ve been wanting to — and I’ve heard nothing but great things about Beartown. Plus, with a sequel released this year, I’m falling behind! Have you read Beartown? If so, what did you think? And what other Backman books do you recommend?


Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!














Take A Peek Book Review: A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.



(via Goodreads)

A grumpy yet loveable man finds his solitary world turned on its head when a boisterous young family moves in next door.

Meet Ove. He’s a curmudgeon, the kind of man who points at people he dislikes as if they were burglars caught outside his bedroom window. He has staunch principles, strict routines, and a short fuse. People call him the bitter neighbor from hell, but must Ove be bitter just because he doesn’t walk around with a smile plastered to his face all the time?

Behind the cranky exterior there is a story and a sadness. So when one November morning a chatty young couple with two chatty young daughters move in next door and accidentally flatten Ove’s mailbox, it is the lead-in to a comical and heartwarming tale of unkempt cats, unexpected friendship, and the ancient art of backing up a U-Haul. All of which will change one cranky old man and a local residents’ association to their very foundations.


My Thoughts:

I really enjoyed A Man Called Ove, especially as I moved further into the story. At the outset, it felt almost too familiar — yet another grumpy old man who finds a new lease on life thanks to the interference of quirky neighbors; a man who finds it harder and harder to maintain his isolation and bitterness, despite his best efforts. 

And yes, there is that, but there are greater depths as well, as we learn more about Ove’s earlier life and what’s actually going on in his head and his heart. With each layer of the past revealed, we get a deeper insight into the secret joys and sorrows of Ove’s life, and come to understand why he’s ended up where he is when we first meet him.

Again, the cast of supporting characters seems a bit familiar — the old friend, the overly friendly and overweight young man next door, the extremely persistent pregnant woman with a hapless husband… and the bedraggled, homeless cat who ends up being the key to breaking through Ove’s outer shell. Still, despite feeling like I’ve read variations of this story before, by the end I was hopelessly caught up in the emotional impact of the story and very much invested in Ove and his ragtag gang of neighbors and partners in crime, so to speak.

I had one small quibble — it was a little disconcerting to reconcile Ove’s age (59) with the description of him as being old and curmudgeonly. If we weren’t explicitly told his age, I would have put him at least another 20 years older.

That said, A Man Called Ove is a delightful read. I got through about 2/3 via audiobook before switching to print, simply because I was traveling and didn’t have a way to listen. The audiobook was quite fun (and taught me how to pronounce Ove’s name — it’s OO-va.) Either way, I have no problem recommending this book to anyone who enjoys quirky, unpredictable characters — but be warned: You must be okay with having your heart melted too.

I definitely want to read more by this author!


The details:

Title: A Man Called Ove
Author: Fredrik Backman (translated from the Swedish by Henning Koch)
Publisher: Atria
Publication date: 2012
Length: 337 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased