Biography, Historical Fiction, Nonfiction

The Indigo Girl, by Natasha Boyd

I was different. Different from other women. The crushing paralysis that came from being stuck between a past I couldn’t return to and a future I couldn’t have was heightened by the realization there was nothing to be done about it. I couldn’t change the fact I was a woman.

It is the mid 1700’s, closer to the American Revolution than the American Civil War. Sixteen-year-old Eliza Lucas has been set a daunting task. While seeking to advance his military commission in Antigua, her father wants her to take charge of the business dealings of their three plantations in South Carolina. This will involve supervising planting, harvesting, selling, bartering with buyers, managing multiple accounts, sparring with violent overseers, and dealing with slaves and their internal dynamics and hierarchy. Her mother, on the other hand, has only one goal for Eliza–find a husband.

Colonel Lucas has every reason to feel confident in his daughter, but no one can predict the amount of obstacles Eliza will encounter, some of which her father creates. An unmarried teenage girl who cannot vote or own land holds little sway in the business world. Only the most intelligent, respectful, progressive individuals will see past her age, gender and marital status. They are few and far between.

With rice being the main cash crop of the region, Eliza sets a new goal. Indigo. It is a revolutionary idea, one that requires ideal conditions and knowledge of the plants and how to transform them into marketable dye cakes. Success eludes her again and again. But never tell a smart, determined woman that something cannot be accomplished. That will only kindle the fire within her.

This is a true story, which makes it even more remarkable, and perfect for March–Women’s History Month. The real Eliza left behind writings which were, aptly, passed from mother to daughter for generations. Details lost to time are woven in elegantly by the author. The story is inspiring and the writing is marvelous. Very highly recommended and a terrific read for book clubs.

~I found miracles every day and I clung to them…~

9.5/10 Stars

Biography, History, Nonfiction, Series & Collections

Alan Turing, by Hourly Histories

After watching The Imitation Game again, I felt like it was time to learn more about Alan Turing, one of those essential people in history whose story was suppressed for decades after his death. In doing so I happened upon the Hourly Histories series.

These books, which focus mostly on war and film figures of the 1940s are truly excellent. In about 80 pages they describe much about the subject, getting to the heart of what made them who they were and the importance of their contributions. I’ve read a few others and was equally impressed.

Like many geniuses, Turing was a brilliant man with a tragic life, but as the father of the modern computer–upon which we all rely–his name needs to be known and recognized.

Hourly Histories books will interest a variety of readers of different ages. They would make great additions to a classroom or home library and digital versions are available to borrow if you have a Kindle Unlimited subscription.

8.5/10 Stars

Biography, Nonfiction

Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson

The story of an adopted son of a blue-collar family becoming founder and CEO of the most successful company in the world is nothing short of epic. But the journey getting there is just as intriguing. Knowing the cancer he’d been battling for years would eventually win, Steve Jobs took control in the only way he could, enlisting a hand-picked biographer to take charge of his story, in effect, getting ahead of those who would dissect his life after his passing.

No matter what kind of smartphone you use, you’re Team Apple whether you realize it or not. Those clicks, pinch zooms, and swipes that are second nature to all of us started with the iPhone and morphed into every smartphone brand available. The App store, the Cloud, digital music, digital animation–all of these and more were refined by Steve Jobs and his “A team.” Refined, but not necessarily invented. He gave us simplicity in our devices we didn’t even know we wanted until we owned one. The artistry he demanded in every detail of Apple’s technology and aspect of the company is both the root of his brilliance and the target of criticism. Yet, for those of us deeply embedded and loyal to Apple’s integrated ecosystem, it wouldn’t even be possible without that controlling grip upon which Jobs tirelessly insisted.

Issacson’s biography, written after dozens of interviews with Jobs, his family, and colleagues, is as unvarnished as it gets. Intimidating, moody, exhausted and exhausting, changeable, eccentric, we see all sides of Jobs. From his adoption, to garage inventions with Steve Wozniak, to the building and rebuilding of Apple, to his family and friend relationships, to his health challenges and everything in between, we ride alongside this man whose quest for excellence and vision has permeated into nearly everything that involves personal technology. The legacy he left behind, as well as trusted lieutenants like current Apple CEO Tim Cook and former VP of Design Jony Ive show that all of the blood, sweat and tears–lots of tears–was worth it.

9.5/10 stars

Biography, Faith and Religion, Nonfiction

In the Hands of the Lord: The Life of Dallin H. Oaks, by Richard E. Turley, Jr.

It is late June 2015. My husband and I are visiting Temple Square in Salt Lake City, Utah. It’s his first time there. We’re surrounded by pretty flowers, curious visitors, the indescribably beautiful temple and other impressive buildings.

As we face the street, we see a lean, spry, older man hop the curb and sprint right by us. It was Dallin H. Oaks. “It’s Elder Oaks!” I exclaimed. Of course, he was long gone by then.

Rewind to August 12, 1932 when Dallin H. Oaks was born. His mother, Stella, named him Dallin in honor of the sculptor, Cyrus Dallin, for whom she was the artist’s model for the statue, The Pioneer Mother. The “H” stands for Harris, the last name of his 2nd great-grandfather Emer Harris, brother to Martin Harris. Martin was one of the Three Witnesses of The Book of Mormon, but even better known for losing the 116 page manuscript when the Prophet Joseph Smith was beginning his translation of the plates that became that book. Dallin H. Oaks gave a wonderful talk in 1999 (I highly recommend it, click the link) called The Witness: Martin Harris, in which he focuses on the sacrifices Harris made during the early days of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. A great reminder that a moment of weakness should not define us.

After a harrowing birth that made his physician father, Lloyd Oaks, and others present wonder if he would even survive, Dallin entered a remarkable life of hard work, service, and accomplishments. Widowed in 1939 when Lloyd died of tuberculosis, Stella Oaks was left to raise her children alone. She overcame much, but eventually finished her schooling and became involved in local education and civic leadership. She was a terrific example of resiliency and service. Being raised by a single mother gave Dallin a great respect for women and he has constantly worked for fairness and recognition of women’s achievements throughout his life.

Author Richard Turley, former Assistant Church Historian and long-time friend of President Oaks, does a marvelous job outlining the life of this amazing man. We learn about his early family life while advancing his admirable legal career. I was delighted to learn about his years as president of my alma mater, Brigham Young University–about a decade before I attended–and the effects of his tenure there, making much-needed changes that are still in place today.

Of course, Latter-day Saints know Dallin H. Oaks (now “President Oaks”) best as the Senior Apostle of the Quorum of the Twelve and next in line to be President of the Church. We see him speak twice a year (either in person or televised) at General Conference. For most of us, seeing him only in that setting has created an image of his overall personality in our minds. We hear his booming voice and think of adjectives like stern, instructive, even a bit intimidating. The best part of this biography was learning about the man behind the scenes. His family adores him and say he’s actually a pretty funny man. I loved reading about his first few years as an Apostle. His mentors, not surprisingly, were Neal A. Maxwell (a personal favorite) and Bruce R. McConkie. It is a life-long calling he had to grow into and takes very seriously. There were bumps along the way, but he works very hard, always reminding himself that, ultimately, he answers to the highest authority.

Towards the end of the book, aside from reading about his second marriage in 2000 to Kristen McMain Oaks after the death of beloved wife June in 1998, I loved reading responses to letters from church members. Like everything else he does, President Oaks answers with love, no matter the subject.

President Oaks is truly someone who leads by example. I am inspired by his work ethic, wisdom, devotion to family, and constant striving for personal improvement. He is a humble man who loves the Lord. I feel honored that this book gave me the opportunity to know him better.

9.5/10 Stars

Biography, Black History, Entertainment, History, Nonfiction

Mobituaries, by Mo Rocca

You might recognize Mo Rocca and wonder where you’ve seen him before. It could be on The Daily Show or CBS News Sunday Morning. Maybe you’ve heard his unique voice on NPR. He’s a very smart, Harvard-educated, somewhat caricature-ish person, a description I think he would embrace. Funnily enough, I first saw him as the dimwitted newscaster, Ted Willoughby, on The Good Wife.

So imagine my surprise when I was browsing podcasts, looking for something that didn’t have an “E” for explicit language attached to it, and found that Mo (short for Maurice Alberto) hosted a show called Mobituaries. I listened to the episodes on Lawrence Welk, Audrey Hepburn, Marlena Dietrich, the Bunker Brothers (the original Siamese twins,) and a few others that escape me at the moment. They were clean, they were entertaining, and they were really interesting. When I found out he had a book that delved even deeper into these “great lives worth reliving,” I did what I rarely do…I actually bought the book.

Mo has vast interests, but his favorites are pop culture and US presidents. He also likes people who were the first to do something (Jackie Robinson and Rosa Parks were preceded by others, who knew?) and famous siblings (Billy Carter, we hardly knew thee…) There are those famous people who died the same day, one always eclipsing the other (Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett both died on June 25, 2009. You can guess who took “center stage.”) There are also those people for whom the term “disambiguation” was created. (I’ll give you a second to look it up.) I’m talking about Audrey Hepburn vs Katherine Hepburn, Joan of Arc vs Joan Van Ark (do people really get those two mixed up?) and the whole Andrew Johnson/Andrew Jackson/Stonewall Jackson confusion. Honestly, distinguishing the difference between any of those people is not something that has ever kept me up at night, but it’s still fun.

There are places in the book that, admittedly, I skimmed. Some chapters are identical to their podcast counterparts. Some just didn’t interest me. The more I read, the more I realized that this would make the ideal “bathroom book.” That’s the book you put on the back of the commode where you and your guests can read whatever chapter they prefer when they need a little extra time to do their business.

If I had to choose between the Mobituaries podcast and the book, I would probably choose the podcast for two reasons. 1. It’s more succinct. The book gets a bit wordy. 2. Just to hear Mo’s voice. There is no comparison. Still, it’s a fun read, probably a good gift for certain history buffs, and a great literary addition to your bathroom.

8.5/10 stars

Here is a fun interview Mo does with Trevor Noah talking about Mobituaries, the book:

Biography, Black History, History, Nonfiction, Young Adult

The Life of Frederick Douglass, by David F. Walker

For the second time in two weeks I am completely bowled over by a book I discovered accidentally. I have so many thoughts right now…

With so much racial unrest happening I feel that one of the things we need to do is get at the core–its history and its reasons. Obviously, there is no one alive right now who can tell us what it was like to be a slave in the United States during the 1800’s, but when you read Frederick Douglass’s own words, you get pretty close.

I learned so much about this important historical figure who I thought I already knew. When I read about Harriet Tubman and the early suffragettes, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Frederick Douglass is always mentioned. But until now, I did not know his personal history.

In this powerful book you learn about his entire life, from birth to death: his boyhood, his mother, his escape, his wife and children, and, of course, his determined quest to help abolish slavery.

Although it was not the custom at the time, Frederick Douglass purposefully looked into the camera when his picture was taken. He felt it showed his humanity and resolve.

This particular screen shot is one of many quotes by Douglass that made me realize the amount of guilt he often felt. Throughout his life he dealt with much internal conflict, always wondering if he was doing enough to help the slaves and always putting pressure on himself to be an example of dignity. He felt great responsibility to show others that a (former) slave is a person with intelligence and emotion, not just a piece of property to be bought, sold, and abused.

I highly, highly recommend this graphic novel to adults and young people. (Probably a mature 10 years old and older.) Although it chronicles an era of the past, its themes are still relevant. Mostly, that while many agree that change needs to happen, they differ on how to achieve that change. Until that question is resolved, how can things be different?

10/10 Stars

This book is available on, or perhaps your local digital library, which is where I found it. Just look at these amazing drawings by David F. Walker:

Biography, Faith, Faith and Religion, Nonfiction, Religion

Life’s Lessons Learned, by Dallin H. Oaks

If you’re familiar with Dallin H. Oaks, you know he is nothing if not certain when he speaks. As the senior apostle in the Quorum of the Twelve in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, some might even describe him as intimidating. I have felt that too, until about a year ago when I heard him being interviewed, alongside his wife, on a podcast. Hearing him speak freely, as opposed to giving a speech, humanized him to me. It was then I had new respect for the man.

Life’s Lessons Learned, published in 2011, is a book with a simple format. President Oaks (he is called “president” because of his current Church calling in the First Presidency) shares different events from his life and the outcomes of those events. The oldest of three children raised by a single mother after his father died of tuberculosis when he was 11, Dallin H. Oaks is the definition of self-made. Trained as an attorney, his legal resume is very impressive. However, the majority of his adulthood has been devoted to Church service, and it will be that way for the rest of his life.

The book is divided up into three chronological sections, each with brief experiences and the lessons learned from them. The sum of its parts being that anything we go through, good or bad, has something to teach us. The more self-aware person will take that information and apply it. Sometimes the lessons come from observing others as well.

There are many wonderful things to glean from the book, but I think my favorite was the one on “labeling.” Here is an excerpt:

“We should be careful not to label or define ourselves (or others) by some temporary quality. The only single quality that should characterize us is that each of us is a son or daughter of God. That fact transcends all other characteristics….

“When we choose to define or label ourselves (or others) by some characteristic that is temporary or trivial in eternal terms, we de-emphasize what is most important about us (or them) and overemphasize what is relatively unimportant. This label can lead us down the wrong path and hinder our eternal progress.”

I could not help but think about recent events and run this section through that particular filter. Lately it feels like excessive labeling (and generalizing) is leading to society’s downfall.

That is only one of many examples, all taken from his own life. President Oaks will be the first to tell you he is not perfect, something he freely admits. But he also shares ways he and all of us can improve, both from a spiritual perspective and from Life’s lessons.

His writing is clear and well-organized–the kind of intuitive organization I appreciate. I recommend this book and look forward to reading more.

9/10 Stars

Biography, Faith, Nonfiction

Insights from a Prophet’s Life: Russell M. Nelson, by Sheri Dew

Insights_from_a_Prophet_s_Life_-_Russell_M._Nelson_580xWhen you have an incredible subject like Russell M. Nelson and a gifted writer like Sheri Dew, you have the recipe for success. This was, hands down, one of the best biographies I’ve ever read (heard as an audiobook.)

As someone who has loved biographies since I was a child, my standards are fairly high, and Insights From a Prophet’s Life not only met those standards, but exceeded them. What a fascinating man!

I was prepared to be impressed, but I was left amazed. Yes, he is a brilliant and well-respected heart surgeon; yes, he is a devoted husband and father; yes, he is a faithful servant in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but there are many, many stories between these milestones. And, despite his gifts, hard-work, and humility, he has not escaped tragedy. The chapter on his first wife’s passing is heartbreaking. The chapter on his courtship with his second wife is optimistic.

Russell M. Nelson and his first wife, Dantzel

Dr. Russell M. Nelson, heart surgeon

All of his experiences, including adapting to the changing world as a surgeon and spiritual leader are inspiring. Everything he does is with an enormous amount of faith and discipline.

By the end I was entertained, motivated, impressed, delighted, and honored to learn more about our dear President Nelson.

10/10 Stars

Bonus Link: Author/Deseret Book CEO, Sheri Dew, discusses writing about Russell M. Nelson in the ALL IN podcast. Click HERE.


Biography, Nonfiction

The Stranger in the Woods, by Michael Finkel


Once upon a time there was a young man from Massachusetts named Christopher Knight who walked into the Maine woods and away from society…for 27 years. He didn’t tell his family, he had no friends, and he abandoned his car.

This is the beginning of the strange but true story of the North Pond Hermit, a man who shunned society but was still dependent on it. While living in a tree-covered clearing deep in the forest, Knight subsisted on food and supplies from twice-monthly raids of nearby cabins. His burglaries numbered into the hundreds.

Besides food he also stole clothing, bedding, a TV, watches, batteries, propane, and reading material–lots and lots of reading material. Meanwhile, the nearby residents didn’t know what to think. Some felt sorry for him, some wanted to help him, but many were enraged.

Knight’s nighttime escapades culminated into one final burglary of a summer camp kitchen, where he was finally apprehended and came to the attention of the author, Michael Finkel, who was determined to write Knight’s story.

The writing style is entertaining and economical, much like Knight himself (whose legal issues continue to this day.) Like the local residents, I was conflicted about Christopher Knight. Living off the grid is one thing, but breaking the law and violating peoples’ property and sense of security is something else. One thing that’s undeniable, however, it’s a fascinating story.

9/10 Stars

Biography, History, Nonfiction

The Tattooist of Auschwitz, by Heather Morris


Stories of love, discipline, generosity, and resourcefulness that were born out of the Holocaust never fail to amaze me. But because of the atrocities of the time, I usually prefer to learn about them in a documentary. It’s much easier for me to devote an hour or two to this cruel period than several hours reading about it. Knowing this about myself, I began The Tattooist of Auschwitz with caution. Seeing the word “survival” on the cover also helped me. Whatever darkness endured by the main character it would ultimately be about…survival.

Armed with this knowledge and drawn in by Heather Morriss’s high-quality writing style, I began the story of Lale, a Jewish Slovakian man in his twenties who went to Auschwitz when concentration camps were still in their infancy. Quickly promoted from the assistant to the main tattooist responsible for carving thousands of permanent numbers into inmates’ arms, he was given access to more areas of the camp, afforded extra rations which he usually shared, and even came face to face with the “doctor of death” himself, Josef Mengele.

Through Lale’s eyes we are given a glimpse into the abominable creativity the Nazis used for dehumanizing those who crossed their paths. Any wrong move–or no move at all–brought death. The alternate side is how the craftiest and luckiest (often a factor) inmates survived from day to day, submissive on the outside, powerfully resolute on the inside.

This book reads very smoothly as we live through Lale’s three years at the hands of such doom. Every day could be his last. But, like other inspiring stories from this time, he triumphs again and again, helps many others, constantly dodges death, and even finds love.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz is a phenomenal book that deserves its many accolades. It is only graphic in its honest portrayal of events but never more than necessary. I appreciated that. There are also a few f-bombs, but I allow rare leniency on this because of the setting’s intensity.

Highly, highly recommended for mature teens and older. This would make a terrific book club selection or just for individual reading. It is uplifting in ways you would never expect but most importantly–it will change you.

A worthy 10/10 Stars


Biography, Memoir, Nonfiction

Watch Me, by Anjelica Huston


It was through an odd series of steps that I happened upon Anjelica Huston’s memoir, Watch Me. As a chronic “looker upper”–someone who is constantly looking up words, people, historic events–and even more intrigued when they are intertwined, I ended up checking out the audio book through our local online library.

Part of the third generation of a Hollywood dynasty, Huston has lived an extraordinary life. But the elegant, statuesque woman on the book’s cover was not always that way. Once upon a time she was a quiet, self-conscious teenager who had a lonely childhood and shrank in the shadow of her famous father. I saw proof of this while watching her first interview on YouTube. The composure that has become synonymous with Anjelica Huston was nowhere to be seen.

Watch Me is the second of two memoirs, and it picks up just when Anjelica’s life starts getting interesting. Still, it took years for her to carve her own way in the notoriously cutthroat arena of show business. Her last name opened doors, but it didn’t always keep them open, and it created huge expectations that, as a young actress, she couldn’t always fulfill.

As someone who had a fairly “normal” childhood, it was a bit daunting to hear the amount of famous people Huston has known. She has met and known people from the Golden Age of Hollywood to the modern day. Her 17 year relationship with Jack Nicholson is discussed at length, as are other significant personal connections that defined her as a woman and an actress.

By the end, though, I felt she was a friend who had just shared some of her greatest triumphs and saddest losses. She has a delicate femininity despite her strong appearance and she loves adjectives. Her voice trembles with emotion as she reads about her parents’ deaths and her husband’s final illness. You almost feel you’re reliving those moments with her. It’s clear she has no regrets, realizes the blessings and curses that accompany fame, and still holds on to the memory of loved ones with wistful nostalgia .

8.5/10 Stars


Biography, Children, History, Nonfiction, Young Adult

Terrible Typhoid Mary, by Susan Campbell Bartoletti

bartoletti-terrible-typhoid-maryWhen I was an elementary school student in Southern California and discovering for myself which books I enjoyed, I often gravitated towards biographies. Some of my favorites were biographies on Helen Keller, Annie Sullivan, Harry Houdini, and Harriet Tubman. I still remember the covers of each of those books, all of which were worn with use. (In fact, the Helen Keller biography still sits in the bookcase next to me, as do many other childhood favorites.)

I mention this because I know that Terrible Typhoid Mary, by Susan Campbell Bartoletti, would’ve been added to the group. It’s exactly the kind of biography I would’ve read again and again. Not only is it a fascinating true story, but it’s also extremely thorough, and written so well that everyone involved is brought to life. The reader is immersed in colorful descriptions and an interesting cast of characters, who just happen to be real people. (Dr. S. Josephine Baker, one of the first female doctors in the United States, is also prominently featured.) We can just imagine the increasing rage building on Mary Mallon‘s face when Health Department employee, George Soper, finally tracked her down and tried to explain that she was a carrier of Typhoid and was making others ill. We can also imagine the scene where she chased him–and others after him–out of her kitchen with knives and a few choice words.

Mary Mallon’s story is captivating for many reasons and the author covers them all. As the first “healthy carrier” discovered (but not the last,) many important human rights issues are brought to the surface. Did the government have the right to arrest and quarantine Mary when, technically, she had not broken any laws? Did it have the right to insist that Mary give samples of her blood and bodily waste? Were Mary’s stubbornness and violent temper the reasons she was singled out and forced into decades of isolation? Could her situation have been avoided?

The historical period of this real-life drama created other dilemmas. There were hoards of new immigrants flooding into New York City at the time. Sanitation was becoming more of a challenge as population increased. Indoor plumbing, daily baths, and sewers were not yet the norm. The idea that microscopic germs cause disease was also extremely new. (Vaccinations were even newer.) Germ theory was a difficult concept to explain and a source of skepticism among the masses.  And Mary Mallon, a proud, hard-working Irish immigrant who worked her way up the domestic ladder to become a cook for elite families, refused to hear that she wasn’t clean and that she had infected the households who ate her meals. But where do her rights begin and end? Doesn’t the Health Department have a responsibility to stop the spread of disease and prevent an epidemic?

Adults, young adults, and elementary school children will enjoy Terrible Typhoid Mary. It’s the perfect marriage of writer and subject. Teachers and home-school parents will also appreciate the author’s comprehensive bibliography, a terrific example of citing primary and secondary sources that could even be used in a separate lesson. As a biography for school-age readers, this one is as good as it gets.

A well-deserved 10/10 Stars