10.03.2019

Books I Read in September

After the Flood by Kassandra Montag
I really liked this one! Full review here.

Burnoutby Emily and Amelia Nagoski
I started this audiobook during a time of great stress this summer, and it was a soothing balm of a book. There wasn't any earth shatteringly new information inside - much of the research about stress I have read articles about in various web articles over the years. But, it was nice to have it all pulled together and looked at as a whole.

The Truth About Forever by Sarah Dessen
Another quintessential YA novel from the queen of YA novels! I gobbled this one up just as quickly as the others I've read by Dessen, and I adored the characters in this novel the most. Macy's story also hit home because my father died in a similar fashion, abruptly and while jogging. Though I was much younger (almost half of Macy’s age) so my story was much different, but I think the dynamic between her and her mother really made the book for me - so real and raw. The romance was obvious from the first 15 or so pages, but it's always fun to see how she will fill in the blanks to get to that happy ending.

My Friend Anna by Rachel DeLoache Williams
Holy cow! This was such an engrossing audiobook told by the woman who was conned by the ‘fake heiress’ of New York. Like listening to a friend spill the tea, I was constantly thinking, OMG what next!? And Williams delivers the whirlwind tale with a lot of reflection and heart. And Netflix has the rights to Anna's story, so this will be the scandal that keeps on giving...

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
Patchett is amazing and rarely disappoints - full review here.

Heidi by Johanna Spyri
I’ve had my Puffin in Bloom box set for about three years, and I finally got around to rereading Heidi. I read this aloud with my nine-year-old daughter, and it was such a treat! Heidi is very reminiscent of Anne Shirley, one of our all time favorite characters (and another book in this set). I highly recommend Heidi for a read aloud, as it’s tightly written, humorous, and each chapter is nearly a self-contained story, which makes it easy to pick up where we left off.

The Unbreakables by Lisa Barr
This story of a middle aged woman who's life falls apart grabbed me from the first couple of pages with it's juicy and right-out-of-a-soap-opera drama. Sophie's inner monologue got somewhat repetitive for me, and I found her daughter to be slightly irritating. But the page turning dramatics do not cease until the very end and it was a fast, frothy, fun, sexy, female empowering romp of a book.

Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson
I loved Brown Girl Dreaming and jumped at the opportunity for an early audiobook copy of Red at the Bone, through Libro.fm. So many reviews of the former book gave glowing reviews of the audio, and given it's lyrical prose, I could see why. However, I didn't find Red at the Bone nearly as engaging, and I'm wondering if I just process fiction and prose better on the page. Despite her usual lovely turns of phrase, this felt languid and scattered, never fully grabbing my interest. 

9.24.2019

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett (ARC Review)

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
Publisher: Harper Books (September 24, 2019)
Description from the publisher: 
“'Do you think it’s possible to ever see the past as it actually was?’ I asked my sister. We were sitting in her car, parked in front of the Dutch House in the broad daylight of early summer.”
At the end of the Second World War, Cyril Conroy combines luck and a single canny investment to begin an enormous real estate empire, propelling his family from poverty to enormous wealth. His first order of business is to buy the Dutch House, a lavish estate in the suburbs outside of Philadelphia. Meant as a surprise for his wife, the house sets in motion the undoing of everyone he loves.
The story is told by Cyril’s son Danny, as he and his older sister, the brilliantly acerbic and self-assured Maeve, are exiled from the house where they grew up by their stepmother. The two wealthy siblings are thrown back into the poverty their parents had escaped from and find that all they have to count on is one another. It is this unshakeable bond between them that both saves their lives and thwarts their futures.
Set over the course of five decades, The Dutch House is a dark fairy tale about two smart people who cannot overcome their past. Despite every outward sign of success, Danny and Maeve are only truly comfortable when they’re together. Throughout their lives they return to the well-worn story of what they’ve lost with humor and rage. But when at last they’re forced to confront the people who left them behind, the relationship between an indulged brother and his ever-protective sister is finally tested.

As with any new novel from a beloved author, I go into it with a great amount of excitement and about as much anxiety! What if I'm disappointed? My expectations were even higher than normal for this book, as Patchett's latest is getting so much positive buzz. I can say I found that the buzz was well founded and the more I sit with my thoughts on The Dutch House, the more I feel as if it miiiiight have overtaken State of Wonder as my favorite of her work.
Early in the novel, the story churns with righteous anger on behalf of the protagonists: Danny and Maeve. Creating utterly compelling, authentic characters with rich inner lives is one reason I love Patchett's books so much. Right from the beginning, I feel as if I have a unique understanding of these people based on their actions and idiosyncrasies that are just odd enough to seem completely real. 
"The madder Maeve got, the more thoughtful she became. In this way she reminded me of our father--every word she spoke was individually wrapped."
Man, I loved that passage! Individually wrapped! Perfection. The choices Danny and Maeve make as their lives spin outward from the tragedies of their childhood seem outrageous and understandable all at once.
"There are a few times in life when you leap up and the past that you'd been standing on falls away behind you, and the future you mean to land on is not yet in place, and for a moment you're suspended, knowing nothing and no one, not even yourself." 
The underlying tension of their inevitable march towards the final conflict in the book propelled me forward in the pages at a rapid-fire pace. I don't rehash plot in my reviews, so I won't spoil any bit of it for potential readers. But I will say that even when I knew what was coming, Patchett still delivers the inevitable with utter gut-punches - another trademark I love. 
Beyond the plot, there is so much lovely and atmospheric writing and symbolism to unpack about the architecture of a dwelling and how it mirrors the architecture of our lives, as well as what the Dutch House, frozen in time, represents to each character. There's also a trove of material to examine about love and loss, how the past shapes our present and future, how our perceptions shape our memory, and ultimately what it means to forgive.
Many thanks to the folks at Harper Books for a complimentary advance copy, I will cherish it!

9.10.2019

After the Flood by Kassandra Montag (ARC Review)


After the Flood by Kassandra Montag
Publisher: William Morrow (September 3, 2019)
Description from the publisher:
A little more than a century from now, our world has been utterly transformed. After years of slowly overtaking the continent, rising floodwaters have obliterated America’s great coastal cities and then its heartland, leaving nothing but an archipelago of mountaintop colonies surrounded by a deep expanse of open water.
Stubbornly independent Myra and her precocious seven-year-old daughter, Pearl, fish from their small boat, the Bird, visiting dry land only to trade for supplies and information in the few remaining outposts of civilization. For seven years, Myra has grieved the loss of her oldest daughter, Row, who was stolen by her father after a monstrous deluge overtook their home in Nebraska. Then, in a violent confrontation with a stranger, Myra suddenly discovers that Row was last seen in a far-off encampment near the Artic Circle. Throwing aside her usual caution, Myra and Pearl embark on a perilous voyage into the icy northern seas, hoping against hope that Row will still be there.
On their journey, Myra and Pearl join forces with a larger ship and Myra finds herself bonding with her fellow seekers who hope to build a safe haven together in this dangerous new world. But secrets, lust, and betrayals threaten their dream, and after their fortunes take a shocking—and bloody—turn, Myra can no longer ignore the question of whether saving Row is worth endangering Pearl and her fellow travelers.

Holy moly, was this story compelling! I haven't read a post apocalyptic novel in a long time as I have found that since becoming a mother, it's harder for me to enjoy dystopian books. This could perhaps have to do with the fact that I read The Road by Cormac McCarthy when my firstborn was just a few months old and I WILL NEVER FORGET THAT EXPERIENCE - not in a good way. Despite the fact that After the Flood stares my worst fears of motherhood straight in the eye, Montag's novel has a much more action packed, empowering and, ultimately, hopeful feel than the bleakness and horror that is The Road. 
Certainly, there are some harrowing moments as Myra navigates this world of violence, child slaves, pirates, gangs and the concept of breeding ships (shudder). But I felt as if these details illustrated the desperate circumstances of this new world, while also propelling the plot forward. It's impossible to imagine putting myself in her shoes and think of what I might do to survive, to protect my children. And yet Montag's beautiful writing (unsurprisingly, she is an award winning poet) resonates so strongly that I absolutely felt connected to Myra and understood her motivations. I dogeared so. many. pages. Here are a few choice quotes.

"Children think we make them, but we don't. They exist somewhere else, before us, before time. They come into the world and make us. They make us by breaking us first."

"I knew it was sometimes easier to love ghosts than the people who were around you. Ghosts could be perfect, frozen beyond time, beyond reality, the crystal form they'd never been before, good moments to surface in my memory."

"'I keep thinking grief feels like climbing a staircase while looking down,' she said. 'You won't forget where you've been, but you've got to keep rising. It all gets farther away, but it's all still there. And you've only got one way to go and you don't really want to go on rising, but you've got to. And that tightness in your chest doesn't go away, but you somehow go on breathing that thinner, higher air. It's like you grow a third lung. Like you've somehow gotten bigger when you thought you were only broken.'"

I was rooting for Myra and those aboard her ship so fiercely that I couldn't turn the pages fast enough to learn their fate, and my heart was in my throat for the last fifty pages that were filled with battles, sacrifices, and surprises I didn't see coming. This was a highly satisfying read on all fronts: fast paced and compelling plot, complex and ever changing character dynamics, beautiful writing, and themes on love and hope that will stick with me for a long time. It will definitely go on my list of favorites for the year.
Many, many thanks to William Morrow for the gifted copy!


9.04.2019

Books I Read in August

Relish: My Life in the Kitchen by Lucy Knisley
This was my first Knisley graphic novel, but will definitely not be my last! This was such a heartwarming, funny, sweet and drool-worthy account of her coming of age through art and food. I especially loved reading about her time in the Chicago foodie scene, obviously.

The Idea of You by Robinne Lee
I didn't realize going into this novel that it is straight up Harry Styles fan fiction. I mean, I find him to be pretty darn attractive, don't get me wrong - but, I thought that this was just okay. It was a fun concept of an older woman dating a man nearly half her age, who happens to be the lead singer of her daughter's favorite boy band. There were a lot of cultural themes to analyze. One of the main ones is how we probably wouldn't bat an eye if the gender roles were reversed. But it felt repetitive, leaned heavily on steamy scenes and just sort of fizzled out at the end.

The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal
This was a solid and creepy thriller. Full review here.

Summer of '69 by Elin Hilderbrand
There have been pretty mixed reviews on Elin's latest summer novel. I can see how some of the Levin sisters (who's POV we get with each chapter) might be harder to connect with, but I still thoroughly enjoyed her first take on historical fiction. Indeed, from the vantage point of the year 2019, the mindset and choices that some of these women make exactly 50 years in the past seem hard to grasp. But I flew through this story just like all of her other books, and Jessie's account of the summer, as a newly minted 13 year old and all of the big feelings that come with the territory, captured my heart - as did Elin's acknowledgments that included the story of her and her twin brother's birth in the summer of 1969.

The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri
This was a novel that touched upon the global immigrant crisis, but I had mixed feelings about it - full review here

The Flatshare by Beth O'Leary
What a surprise this novel was! I went into it thinking I was in for a light romance with a cute concept: two people who share a flat with opposite working hours and never cross paths, except for the clues and post it's they leave in their wake. O'Leary deftly wove in some heavier themes about toxic relationships and how they affect victims and their families, giving this a little more heft. The tone is still upbeat and it is still a very sweet romance - highly recommend.


Books I Read in July

Sounds Like Titanic by Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman
I listened to this on audio and it was FANTASTIC. At first the lilting Appalachian voice the narrator utilizes took me a little getting used to, but it is used to great effect. This story of a young violinist who finds herself part of a professional ensemble that ends up being a sham (Milli-Violini!), exceeded all my expectations. I thought I was getting into an expose on a well known composer and her descent into this scam, and it ends up being just the backdrop to this woman's absolutely fascinating and inspiring wit and worldliness. From her upbringing in rural West Virginia, to college at Columbia, to her study abroad in Egypt during 9/11 and crisscrossing the country with her ensemble, she uses all of her experiences to make so many profound observations about life and culture. Definitely a favorite book of the year!

Lumberjanes by Noelle Stevenson
This graphic novel was in my daughters library haul and I remembered hearing good things, so I gave it a read and thoroughly enjoyed it - as did my son and husband. At first I was a little confused, as it starts off as guidebook that gets cut off mid sentence and delves into the illustrated panels. Then I realized that each chapter begins with a little bit of what would be the Lumberjanes guidebook (very similar to any scouts guide) and goes into a hilarious corresponding story. I got a major Gravity Falls vibe from the stories, which is a good thing - fantastical and earthy, all in one.  I also love that there are a few LGBTQ lead characters but that their stories are not driven by their sexual orientation, it’s just one part of their who they are. Bravo!

Gravity Is the Thing by Jaclyn Moriarty
Didn't love this one - full review here.

Caraval by Stephanie Garber
I was looking for something light and fun to read, but not necessarily beach-y since we were NOT having beachy weather at the time. Caraval fit the bill PERFECTLY. Even though it gets quite a bit cheesy in parts, I really enjoyed this fun, adventurous, atmospheric fantasy novel. FYI, it is definitely not in The Night Circus wheelhouse, as described by some. It felt reminiscent of reading The Selection series by Kiera Cass - not similar stories, but that addictive brain candy feeling - I will probably read the next two!

Endling The Last by Katherine Applegate
This was my read aloud with my daughter this month and it was more in HER wheelhouse than mine! She loves stories about animals, dragons, fantasy, etc. and that's not where my interests lie - even when I was a kid. Alas, this was a cute concept of a world ruled by several mythical creatures and due to some dastardly evil plans, our heroine (a dog like creature called a Dairne) believes herself to be the last of her kind. She makes all sorts of friends and has many exciting adventures trying to find her place in the world and perhaps more of her kind. My daughter enjoyed it thoroughly, despite the fact that I thought it a little heavy on confusing political intrigue for kids and we've begun reading the sequel. 

Save Me the Plums by Ruth Reichl
Friends have been recommending Ruth Reichl's work for years, and now I am finally realizing how wonderful her writing is! Yes her descriptions of food were fantastic, but this one about her time at Gourmet magazine was particularly fascinating and juicy, learning about the publishing world. 

Things You Save in a Fire by Katherine Center
I really enjoyed this one! Full review here.

Coming Home by Rosamunde Pilcher
Pilcher's books are so reliably wonderful and heartwarming. I was a little dubious about starting a 900+ page book over the summer - it doesn't scream fast and breezy. But her writing and storytelling just flows so effortlessly and I breezed through this quintessential and epic coming of age story that spans the time before, during and after WWII. Judith Dunbar will go down as one of my all time favorite characters - a must read.

8.27.2019

The Beekeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri (ARC Review)

The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri
Publisher: Ballantine Books (August 27, 2019)
Description from the publisher: 
Nuri is a beekeeper and Afra, his wife, is an artist. Mornings, Nuri rises early to hear the call to prayer before driving to his hives in the countryside. On weekends, Afra sells her colorful landscape paintings at the open-air market. They live a simple life, rich in family and friends, in the hills of the beautiful Syrian city of Aleppo—until the unthinkable happens. When all they love is destroyed by war, Nuri knows they have no choice except to leave their home. But escaping Syria will be no easy task: Afra has lost her sight, leaving Nuri to navigate her grief as well as a perilous journey through Turkey and Greece toward an uncertain future in Britain.
Nuri is sustained only by the knowledge that waiting for them is his cousin Mustafa, who has started an apiary in Yorkshire and is teaching fellow refugees beekeeping. As Nuri and Afra travel through a broken world, they must confront not only the pain of their own unspeakable loss but dangers that would overwhelm even the bravest souls. Above all, they must make the difficult journey back to each other, a path once so familiar yet rendered foreign by the heartache of displacement.

This novel delves into timely and important subjects with great heart. Lefteri spent several years working in Greece as a UNICEF volunteer, helping refugees from Syria and Afghanistan. Her empathy and passion for their cause is more than evident in her writing, which essentially felt like an amalgamous character study of those she most certainly encountered in her work. Perhaps that's where I felt a little disconnected from this book, as it was hard for me to feel an urgency to pick it up without a good deal of narrative drive. The book begins where Nuri and Aftra end up, so there isn't a question if they will make it to their ultimate destination. There is also a sort of plot twist that is not at all a surprise, and I'm not sure if it was meant to be, or if it was to illustrate the state of Nuri's PTSD. The illustrative imagery and symbolism of the bees, flight, and our dream life versus reality was lovely, as was the push and pull of husband and wife finding their way back to each other after immense loss.
"I realize I have forgotten to love her. Here is her body, here are the lines on her face, here is the feel of her skin, here is the wound across her cheek that leads into her, like a road, all the way to her heart. These are the roads we take."
In the end I would say that stories of refugees are something we could use more of, not less, and I respect Lefteri for putting this work into the world. Increasing awareness, creating empathy for those that happen to be born into a different life, or a life that could just as easily become ours is so vital these days. I honestly think it would have been a more impactful read had it been written by someone of Syrian descent or had been a nonfiction account. Since I've already started looking for some recommendations, I think that this book had an impact on me, regardless. So far the recs I've seen are: The Newcomers by Helen Thorpe, We Crossed a Bridge and it Trembled by Wendy Pearlman, and The Map of Salt and Stars by Zeyn Joukhadar.
Thank you so much to the folks at Penguin Random House/Ballantine for a complimentary advance copy!


8.20.2019

The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal (ARC Review)

The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal
Publisher: Atria Books (August 13, 2019)
Description from the publisher:
In 1850s London, the Great Exhibition is being erected in Hyde Park and, among the crowd watching the dazzling spectacle, two people meet by happenstance. For Iris, an arrestingly attractive aspiring artist, it is a brief and forgettable moment but for Silas, a curiosity collector enchanted by all things strange and beautiful, the meeting marks a new beginning.
When Iris is asked to model for Pre-Raphaelite artist Louis Frost, she agrees on the condition that he will also teach her to paint. Suddenly, her world begins to expand beyond her wildest dreams—but she has no idea that evil is waiting in the shadows. Silas has only thought of one thing since that chance meeting, and his obsession is darkening by the day.

Gothic novels are not usually my jam, but the buzz around The Doll Factory had me intrigued. I'm glad I gave it a chance, as I breezed through this oh so creepy and thrilling story.
Macneal's highly atmospheric Victorian era London leaps from the page, no question. But what I most appreciated about this novel was the richly layered characters, some becoming more empathetic and others becoming more and more sinister as the plot thickens. Silas is a villain that I won't soon forget, and felt reminiscent in many ways of Joe from Caroline Kepnes' You. But, unlike the aforementioned You, the object of obsession in The Doll Factory is given a complex personality. I felt a great deal of empathy for Iris, and the intricacies of her relationship with her sister, with Louis and with the requisite street urchin with a heart of gold, Albie - who also has a much more robust inner life than a typical Victorian scamp.
There is also a clear theme on feminism and the plight of an unmarried young woman that felt like a fresh take on historical fiction from this time period.
“she has been careful not to encourage men, but not to slight them either, always a little fearful of them. She is seen as an object to be gazed at or touched at leisure … something for which she should be grateful. She should appreciate the attentions of men more, but she should resist them too, subtly, in a way both to encourage and discourage, so as not to lead to doubts of her purity and goodness but not to make the men feel snubbed.”
This novel has a little something for everyone: multi dimensional characters, rich atmosphere, historical fiction, mystery, thrills, suspense, with a little horror thrown in (taxidermy description is not for the faint of heart). My only reservation would be for a reader that wants to be invested in romance. Yes there is a love story, but I did not feel invested in it, and I thought Iris could do better. 
Many thanks to Atria books for the complimentary review copy!