9.10.2021

August Book Reviews



The Anthropocene Reviewed by John Green

I forgot how much I enjoy Green‘s voice, and this book was like a balm during a trying summer. I think it’s the first book I’ve read that was written during Covid and acknowledges our current reality, which helped give me perspective. I found his essays fascinating, funny, heartbreaking and hopeful. You would think that an essay on “researching strangers on the Internet” would be totally tongue-in-cheek, but it brought me to tears. All around really powerful and wonderful stuff - excellent on audio.


Grown Ups by Marian Keyes


A lovely family saga with all of the Irish colloquialisms (Grand! Right, so!), of which I am a sucker for. The characters are all deeply flawed, but not unlikeable, and the narrative took turns in some unexpected directions. I would say it was a tad too long (didn't need to be over 500 pages) and MAJOR trigger warning for disordered eating. But if you are looking for a lovable and dysfunctional family drama (with a side of European vacation) to immerse yourself in, it’s a good choice. 


People We Meet on Vacation by Emily Henry


Last book of the summer reading season for me, and it was a JOURNEY reading People We Meet on Vacation!
I used my Book of the Month birthday credit grab this buzzy book, and I have to admit, it stated off on the wrong foot for me. I kept thinking what kind of college age humans that are clearly attracted to each other stay “just friends“ for so long, and is this ripping off when Harry Met Sally!? Alas, the author was intentionally honoring the great Norah Ephron, and being “just friends” that meet during a drive home from college are where the similarities end.
Soon I became drawn into their inside jokes which felt so authentic, Henry has my kind of sense of humor. And I also felt that she treated the high school trauma that Poppy carries with such care and authenticity.
Usually I get frustrated with romance novels where the basis of tension is miscommunication or no communication at all. Yet when the threads of the story come together between Alex and Poppy, it actually makes perfect sense and I adored the ending. Deserving of the hype! Recommend!


The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson


I was in the mood for some fast paced and engrossing sci-fi, and I am glad I picked up this novel that published last summer. The story grabbed me right away, I was hooked on this authors concept of a multi-verse and excellent world building. Though when the plot went in the weeds with political/palace intrigue, my interest started wane. Overall, though, the ending was satisfying, and the themes were thought provoking.


Nobody Will Tell You This But Me by Bess Kalb


This memoir as ode to the author’s grandmother was so wonderful and moving. Everyone should be so lucky to have a grandmother like Bobby. I kept thinking I hope I get to have children to spoil and be a part of their lives the way Bobby was for Bess. Not that their relationship was perfect, and Kalb writes with such sincerity the realities of maternal relationships. I also quite enjoyed the way she outlined her family history, which could be the same story of so many immigrants that came to New York, told in such a loving, funny and bittersweet way. This was such a fabulous book - excellent on audio.



Only When it’s Us by Chloe Liese


Liese’s Bergman brothers romance novels are favorite series on Bookstagram, so I decided to dive in and see what all the fuss was about! The character development in the book is excellent, but the constant non-communication gets a little old for me as a romance trope. Although there are very specific reasons in the beginning of this book, then more emotional reasons why the characters hold their cards close to the vest as the book goes on - understandable, but still got a bit stale and repetitive. The non-romantic relationships (Willa and her mother/Ryder and his family) kept me engaged while the romantic leads kept repeating mistakes. When the HEA finally arrives, it gave me all the warm and fuzzies. I also thought that grief, disability, and mental health were written with such care.

8.11.2021

July Book Reviews


 Shoulder Season by Christina Clancy

(Many thanks to Netgalley and St. Martin's Press for the complimentary advance review copy!) Despite some good reviews from folks I trust, this novel of a small town girl taking a job as a bunny at the Playboy resort just didn’t work for me. I was going into it with a lot of high hopes, as I have actually stayed at the resort at the center of the story (now The Grand Geneva), and my mom worked for Playboy’s Chicago offices back in the 70s (first in data entry, then in purchasing, ahem!) and, yes, she met Hef on occasion. I was hoping to love it and recommend it to her. Alas.
It was just one of those books that felt as if someone were describing a story, rather than putting me into the story - a lot of tell, and no show. Even foreshadowing was announced, rather than implied with the writing, which is a peeve of mine: Little did she know! This is a pivotal moment! Make note! Then big swaths of time go by in the second half of the book in order to come to an ending that was a big slap in the face for the main character that just left me kinda sad.
I also found it weird that it was set in the 80s. There weren’t many markings of the time, except for a concert at Alpine Valley (which I have also frequented!), and I felt as if this was a missed opportunity. Maybe it is because I recently finished an excellent and immersive book set in the 80s where the author wrote multifaceted characters while supplying me with every scent, sound, taste and feel of the time and place. (Malibu Rising, obvi.)
Again, this one just did not work for me, but I believe that there’s an audience for every book! The fun tidbits and all of the idiosyncratic rules about working as a playboy bunny ALONE made this book worthwhile. So, definitely pick this up if that sounds entertaining and you want to read a book that does not demand too much of you as a reader this summer.

Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

Project Hail Mary was definitely the most fun reading experience I’ve had so far this year! Like most of the readers who loved it and convinced me to pick this up, I was VERY hesitant despite loving The Martian, because I did not like Artemis. I even ended up buying a copy because I didn’t put Hail Mary on hold at the library (convinced I wouldn’t read it) and when I finally caved, the list was just too long to wait! Now I’m so glad I have my own copy to put on the ol’ favorites shelf.
Because of my ignorance around this novel, I went in pretty blind and I definitely suggest this approach. I was surprised at several turns, especially a few whoppers near the end. There’s so much I’d love to tell y’all about why I adored this story, but I’d be giving a lot of plot away. Generally speaking, it has that sense of urgency (much late night reading) mixed with humor that worked so well in The Martian and, dare I say, even better in this novel. The heartwarming feels, too, are off the charts. Like The Martian, it’s an absolutely universally appealing book, not just geared towards sci-fi fans. Amaze! (IYKYK) Please read it and gush about it with me!

Nobody, Somebody, Anybody by Kelly McClorey

(Many thanks to Bibliolifestyle and Ecco Books for the complimentary advance review copy!) If I were to summarize this novel, it would seem pretty straightforward. It’s about a woman trying to turn her life around when she goes to shambles after the death of her mother. And yet…
There was something foreboding about Amy’s inner thoughts, about her feelings of unworthiness and self-loathing that seemed tied to some horrible actions on her part. I kept expecting a major reveal as to why she acted the way she did, sometimes rather alarmingly. Alas, even though the narrative is reminiscent of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, there was no real denouement and the ending was open to interpretation.
I did find Amy to be a fascinating character, the relationship she began to forge with her landlord was endearing, and it was a super fast read. But, contrary to the publisher’s description, I never once laughed out loud - or quietly. The overall tone felt sad and anxiety ridden, a tale of someone in desperate need of mental health care. I think it’s a read-alike for fans of Convenience Store Woman, and it would definitely an interesting book club selection.

The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw

This collection of short stories was INTENSE. I laughed, I cringed, I gasped, and I smiled big. I'm always so impressed with short stories that can pack so much emotion and story in fewer words. Not a single one wasted. Listening to the audiobook definitely added to the intimate feeling of each woman's story, like a girlfriend whispering some JUICY gossip in my ear. 

Finlay Donovan is Killing It by Elle Cosimano

Chalk this one up to 'Bookstagram made me do it' and it was cute, it was fine. This story of a divorced mother mistaken for a hitman in a Panera bread and hilarity ensues is just not my bag. If you are looking for something that doesn't require a lot of your attention, this makes for very easy listening on audiobook. For me, the far fetched and silly just didn't grab me. I needed something more and this didn't deliver much more than exercising my suspension of disbelief.

Golden Girl by Elin Hilderbrand

(Thank you to Little Brown for the the complimentary finished copy!) I went into this with trepidation. On one hand, it's a summer ritual for me to read her latest book. On the other, I have been disappointed with some of her choices as an author - practically bullying folks who give her book even a slightly negative (but not mean) review, and the thought process behind a few lines in this particular book. However, given that she has apologized and owned up to her mistakes rather than digging in (looking at you JK Rowling) I gave Golden Girl the benefit of the doubt. It was a usual Hilderbrand read: the pages flew by, the food and atmosphere of Nantucket sumptuous. Her concept of the main character experiencing the afterlife was fun, in a 'Good Place' kind of way, too. However this story was a little too creepily close to her real life. The main character Vivi is also a novelist, of beach reads, on Nantucket, not a native to the island, has three kids plus a Black friend of the family considered a fourth kid, is divorced...THE LIST GOES ON. The first quarter of the book I seriously was wondering if Elin had broken up with her boyfriend the way Vivi did, thinking hmmmm - he hasn't made much of an appearance on her Instagram... Just all around weird feeling! It also felt like a creative shortcut. But, if you are a fan of her novels, this will definitely scratch that yearly summer itch.

The Guncle by Steven Rowley

Yep, I am in agreement with all of the glowing reviews: The Guncle is very cute and sweet. It was a perfect summer read, full of brunch (and linner!), caftans, cocktails and Palm Springs atmosphere. The story had some heft and thoughtfulness about a tough topic. No - not about gay uncles, but grief. Each character was dealing with grief in different ways and it felt real, not saccharine. 

The Star Crossed Sisters of Tuscany by Lori Nelson Spielman

This novel really hit all the sweet spots for a perfect wanderlust summer read. Even though I've been to Italy (main tourist spots like Rome, Venice, Florence) I've never been to the coasts and I think the Amalfi coast will be the first vacation my husband and I will take when we are finally able to travel without kids again one day! It's a sweet story about unrequited love and becoming who you are meant to be, not what is expected of you. My only beef is that I have a hard time with characters that let people walk all over them, I get a lot of righteous anger on there behalf and Emilia made me want to scream on multiple occasions. There were one too many missed opportunities for her to stand her ground, and it got a little exasperating. But the adorable great aunt Poppy and her sweeping love story made up for my quibbles! 

7.07.2021

June Book Reviews

 


Fire Keepers Daughter by Angeline Boulley

Yep. The hype is warranted with Firekeeper’s Daughter. It grabbed me from the beginning and didn’t let go until the last page. Boulley has written exceptional YA, mixed with thriller and family drama, that sheds light on so many important issues, while being much needed representation for indigenous people in published literature.

One thought I kept coming back to after reading it, was how the history that has been whitewashed in our schooling I inevitably learn through novels or film. I finished this book just before the 215 murdered children’s bodies were found at the residential school in Canada. There are parts of Firekeeper’s Daughter that address these schools, and my thoughts also went to Anne with an E on Netflix, which my daughter and I devoured this year. The show took liberties with LM Montgomery’s source material and included a storyline about an indigenous girl taken from her family. It was excruciating for us to watch, yet so important to understand. I am glad that if kids aren’t being exposed to atrocities we need to learn from in school (yet), they will learn about them through books and other art forms.

I am so glad Higher Ground productions optioned this for Netflix, giving even more of an audience for this wonderful story. I definitely plan on putting in my kids hands, too.

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

The story of Newland Archer (who is just as pretentious as his name sounds), and his struggle with the status quo/keeping up appearances while falling for an independent woman he can’t have, and courting another who is his destined match, was slow going for about the first quarter of the book. There is a lot of superfluous detail that bogged me down. Though, much of this detail would be illustrative for readers during the era in which it was published in 1920. Down to the type of furniture, art, opera seats, or cross streets of homes gave so many clues about the characters. But to someone in 2021? Not so much. I’m reading a book now that references Instagram stories, and I wonder, just as with this novel, how will it be received decades from now?

By the halfway point I began to see Wharton’s subversiveness in regards to Archer, and what a rather ridiculous character he is, while the women seem to be cunning and calling the shots - all while the men remain oblivious. Her narrative choices made me think more about perspective and who’s telling the story. I so wish that she wrote another version from one of the women’s point of view.

Overall, I am glad I read it and the ending was quite memorable. I am so grateful to StephanieReads for providing such interesting material to chew on while reading - from articles about Wharton’s life (which is definitely imbued in her work) to pictures of homes during that period. (The summer homes of rich Gilded Age New Yorker’s are something else!) Everyone should subscribe to her newsletter to reference whenever you might decide to pick up a classic from her list of buddy reads!

Yolk by Mary H.K. Choi

“It’s easier to watch myself be sad than actually feel sad.” 

Oof. If you are into books that wreck you just a little bit, but leave you hopeful, Yolk is IT.

It took me a few dozen pages to get my footing in the narrative. Things felt abrupt and unexplained at first, being thrust into Jayne’s gritty reality as a cash poor art student in New York. But I quickly became invested in her life, and the reconnection with her sister June. Choi’s writing is phenomenal, from the searing quote above, to oddly perfect lines that made me chortle: “The bottoms of the produce drawers looked like the contents of a sharks stomach during an autopsy.”

I’m so glad I had recently finished Crying in H Mart - Michelle Zauner’s memoir perfectly compliments this novel of two girls growing up as Korean Americans and all of the family dynamics at play.

I would also classify this as ‘new adult’ rather than the YA it’s shelved under at my library. I know the YA classification can steer some readers away, and I would absolutely not want that to happen with Yolk - I highly recommend this multifaceted and poignant novel.

Think Again by Adam Grant

As the title implies, Think Again is a thought-provoking book about changing minds, and most importantly, changing our own mind. Though a lot of what I took away from Grant’s work seems like common sense, it’s hard to put into practice because of all the self-imposed road blocks he describes. But his words give incentives to continually work on rethinking, adapting, and changing.

One nugget that stood out to me was that we don’t use the same computers or technology today that we did 20 years ago, so why should our opinions stay the same for that long, too? Our goals and perspective should adapt as we change and grow.

I think that this book would be most valuable to someone who manages others and wants to excel in business, but the data conveyed can be useful to all readers. As a stay at home mom, the information about keeping our children’s minds open to possibilities and change was eye opening and impactful - yes! We should definitely stop asking kids what they want to be when they grow up! It’s limiting! I am learning that the data does not support straight A students become more successful adults, and that it shouldn’t be a focus - successful individuals are empirically those that question the status quo, adjust well to change and think outside the box.
“Ultimately, education is more than the information we accumulate in our heads. It’s the habits we develop as we keep revising our drafts and the skills we build to keep learning.”

The Happy Ever After Playlist by Abby Jiminez

What a perfect escapist romantic read! I’ve had Abby Jimenez on my TBR for awhile now, and even though The Happy Ever After Playlist is the second book in a series, it sounded like the most fun and well-reviewed, so I just dove in! And I’m so glad I did. Seeing as how happy ever afters are guaranteed in romance novels, I don’t think the spoiled me for reading The Friend Zone: which I immediately put on hold at the library.

This one starts off a little far-fetched, with the meet cute involving a lost dog jumping into the love interest’s car. But, the sweet and flirtatious banter that ensures between the two characters was adorable and I genuinely liked them both. So when things started to get intense with the inevitable ‘boy loses girl’ roadblocks, I was super stressed out! These people went through some THINGS.

I also found it admirable how Jimenez addresses grief in a thoughtful way, based on the similar experiences of her good friend. Excellent binge-able summer fare that I highly recommend!

What Kind of Woman by Kate Baer

Stunning. It has been ages since I read a book of poetry. And such a slim volume that can be read in an hour sometimes feels like cheating when it comes to counting a books read. But the thoughts and feelings that Baer evokes are as moving as any novel.

Her hypnotic words evoke such visceral emotions about love and the realities of life as a wife and mother. That an oft used phrase like “When will you be home?” can be crafted into something so lyrical. Reading ‘What Kind of Man’ literally made me tear up with love and gratitude for my husband, and ‘Like a Wife’ made me fist pump and laugh aloud. Just so good.
My experience reading this reminded me of Heating and Cooling by Beth Ann Fennelly. While not poetry (it’s a collection of ‘mini-memoirs) it’s slim, similar themes, packs a punch, and is written by a poet. I highly recommend both!

She Come by it Natural by Sarah Smarsh

I remember a while back explaining to my kids who Dolly Parton is - beyond a famous country music singer. I read an article to them about her charitable giving and philanthropic efforts in literacy and putting books in the hands of children all over the world. She is responsible for donating over 130 MILLION books for children. I teared up talking about her, and I teared up a few times listening to She Come by it Natural.

I wouldn’t say that this was a very in-depth biography of Parton, but a really well done journalistic look at how she has affected and represented women from her small town Tennessee roots, to women worldwide. Learning more about her business choices, how she faced a lot of intimidation, and followed her gut to great success was fascinating stuff.

It’s inspiring and infuriating and equal measure how far we have come and how far we have to go in treating everyone with the dignity and respect we deserve. Dolly deserves it in spades, and it is very cool to see this happening for her in her lifetime.

The Most Fun We Ever Had by Clarie Lombardo

"And it was weird, she thought, feeling adult and aware, how a thing so terrible as losing someone could yield goodness in the ones who were left.“

The synopsis of this book was uniquely appealing to me: multigenerational family drama, spanning decades, set in Chicagoland! I am glad I finally read it, as I enjoyed becoming completely immersed in the Sorensen clan.

Peppered with poignant and familiar scenes of life, Lombardo’s writing is sharp with characters that leap off the page. To that end, I’m not sure I would recommend this novel to folks who have a hard time with really flawed/unlikable characters. I usually don’t have a problem with it, especially when the writer can illustrate why they are flawed. But it took a long time to come to the realizations about why some of the characters were kind of awful in this book. This story requires some patience and probably could have been edited down from it’s 600+ pages.

If you like a slow burn, character driven, and intricate family saga, I highly recommend this novel. Also recommend if you loved Ask Again, Yes or A Place for Us - they’re very similar in scope and tone.




6.04.2021

May Book Reviews

 


The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd

I recently saw a tweet that referenced book lovers feeling like they have failed when an unread hardcover on their shelf comes out in paperback - hilarious because it’s TRUE. The paperback release of The Book of Longings spurred me to read my Book of the Month from last May.
Even though I have loved every book I have read by Sue Monk Kidd, I was hesitant to grab this one because of the religious material - a story about Jesus’ wife, which he could very well have had, and the author’s note definitely gives evidence it was highly likely. Let’s just say I have a lot of side eye for religion and I am an agnostic. But, it might be better going into it that way than as someone who has deeply held beliefs.
It reads beautifully as the historical fiction it is, and gave me similar vibes to reading Circe, which I loved. Ana is just as indelible and her story is a beautiful tribute to strong women invisibly shaping history, working against the patriarchy - an unexpected surprise for a book about the beginnings of Christianity.
“All shall be well… I don’t mean that life won’t bring your tragedy. I only mean that you will be well in spite of it. There’s a place in you that is inviolate. You’ll find your way there when you need to. And you’ll know then what I speak of.”

Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Many thanks to Random House for the advance digital copy of Malibu Rising. The latest from Taylor Jenkins Reid is THE summer novel to read.
How does TJR do it? With every one of her books I just fall so easily into the story and when I look up, hundreds of pages have flown by. This novel harkens back to her older books, with romantic and family drama taking center stage, and no narrative devices employed like Evelyn or Daisy. A great multiple POV of characters that quickly wormed their way into my heart. I felt so much anger and sadness, hope and happiness, on their behalf. There is a lot to unpack about the repercussions that echo from our family dynamics, and there are several passages about motherhood that were so clearly written from the author’s heart.
The crazy 80s vibe was a trip, and I felt such a strong sense of time and place: miniskirts, aquanet, coconut suntan lotion, Heather Lockear, surfer culture, fried clam sammies and sand stuck everywhere. I just loved it. I also love how she wove Mick Riva into her last three books. The 60s with Evelyn Hugo, 70s with Daisy Jones and 80s with the Rivas - are the 90s next?! Whatever the time frame or place, California or not, I am here for it and will snatch it up ASAP.
“June knew that her children had found a previously undiscovered part of themselves that day. She knew that childhood is made up of days magnificent and mundane. And this had been a magnificent day for all of them.”

We Keep the Dead Close by Becky Cooper

OK y’all, I think I am going to call it: I do not like true crime books about murder. Not that I I am squeamish or have the heebie-jeebies about it - I mean, The Silence of the Lambs is one of my favorite books of all time!
For me, these books seem to either drag on with red herrings, too much detail, or the author’s personal story. And in some cases I can see why that is a draw, and why many people enjoyed I’ll be Gone in the Dark. But... I didn’t like that one either.
We Keep the Dead Close was only interesting to me when the author expounded upon the idiosyncrasies of Harvard (women had different diplomas until 1999!) and the rampant misogyny. I could read a book that focused on those type of things, fascinating stuff I can’t understand with a quick Google search. It’s also morally conflicting, consuming someone’s death as entertainment.
So, yeah, the thing about murder investigations is that you can easily Google how things went down, but you can’t tell me a whole story about the inner workings of Harvard, or THERANOS, or a guy faking an orchestra from a quick internet search. (The last two referring to two of the crime-y types of books I actually enjoyed: Bad Blood and Sounds Like Titanic.)

House of Salt and Sorrows by Erin Craig

House of Salt and Sorrows was this month’s pick for my #evergreenreaders book group, and I had mixed feelings about this gothic YA fantasy, inspired by Grimm’s 12 Dancing Princesses.
What worked for me: the world building and spooky prose. Craig creates a lush and sinister atmosphere that was transportive. I am also a sucker for a slowly building sense of foreboding, and was definitely creeped out by many of the scenes that bordered on horror.
What didn’t work for me: the reveal of the villain and their machinations was intriguing, but it comes so late in the text that everything felt rushed and confusing as I turned the final pages. It became hard to suspend my disbelief and the explanation seemed highly convoluted, unearthing more questions than answers. It would be interesting to go back and re-read knowing the ending, but I don’t think I am that invested.

Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner

Recently I was striking out with audiobooks... Well, that is certainly no longer the case! I’d compare the experience of listening to Zauner as a mashup of Kelly Corrigan and Ruth Reichl. YEP - total GOATs. I received Crying in H Mart as part of my first editions subscription from Third Place Books - but since I cannot resist memoirs read by the author on audiobook, I also got a copy from libro.fm. This is the first time that I’ve had both mediums of a book and it was perfectly serendipitous.
Listening to Michelle tell her story was so real and raw, I teared up multiple times. I think most women can relate to the complexities of the mother daughter relationship, which is usually fraught at one time or another, and I empathized so much throughout the evolution of their relationship.
I also learned so many new things about traditions and food! It is a feast for the senses, and listening to Michelle talk about food was transcendent. If I was only taking in the print version, I might have glazed over the many, new to me, words involving her Korean heritage. I am so glad to have the print copy to look back at and see on paper. The way that food is so intertwined with family, traditions, memory and love is powerfully illustrated in her prose.

“There was no one in the world that was ever as critical or could make me feel as hideous as my mother, but there was no one, not even Peter, who ever made me feel as beautiful.”

I cannot recommend this book enough, especially the audiobook. And thank you so much to Third Place for putting this on my shelves with my other favorite books.

Yearbook by Seth Rogen

Oh my GAWD, this book was such a hilarious ride and I didn’t want it to end!!
I’m definitely a fan of Seth Rogan's films and his Twitter account. So, when I heard about his new book, and that so many people read their own parts in the audiobook (from his family members to Billy Idol), I snatched it up from libro.fm ASAP.
Obviously, his delivery is fantastic and I was laughing to the point of tears at least a dozen times. But, I also loved the poignancy that breaks through the hilarity of his childhood stories, and the love he has for his friends and family radiates through his words. He’s just a really lovely human, unabashedly himself.
Personal favorite bits that I can’t wait to rehash with my husband after he reads it: Seth’s dad’s sock organization, the Mohel, meeting George Lucas, Kanye, Steve Wozniak, Barack Obama’s press conference, and his flawless hot take on Twitter / anti Semitism.
This is totally going on the all time favorite audiobooks list. I hope he writes more volumes!

5.06.2021

April Book Reviews

 

Why We Swim by Bonnie Tsui

As a constantly injured runner, I have been incorporating swimming into my routine more often. Going back to the sport I adored in my youth, now in my old-ish age feels like symmetry Bonnie Tsui would appreciate.

This book is filled with fascinating facts about how immersion in water affects the body and seemingly superhuman feats of strength explained by science, if that is your thing. It is also filled with thoughtful insights about meditation and mindfulness, if that is your thing. And it is chock full of lovely lyrical prose, if that is your thing.

My only critique would be that for type-A folks like myself that crave organization, the structure felt a little haphazard, making it hard for me to remember everything that I read. But, overall, this was a fascinating read that I absolutely recommend to everyone - especially my fellow swimmers. It is also excellent on audio!

Code Name Helene by Ariel Lawhon

Who am I, reading another World War II novel!? Alas, I’ve heard so many great things about this book, and you know it’s got to be good when the library hold queue still has almost 50 people waiting when the book has been out for over a year. No renewals for me, so it moved to the top of the pile!

This is the first novel I have read by Ariel Lawhon it was excellent. Code Name Helene is a fictional account of Nancy Wake, a member of Britain’s Special Operations Executive leading resistance fighters in France. It is one of those novels that sends you straight to google every few chapters, which I love.

Bringing a plucky heroine to life without seeming trite is a difficult needle to thread, and Lawhon really nails it. Helene is portrayed in absolute technicolor: fallible, relatable, endearing, funny, and I could understand all of her motivations. I loved the way the two very close timelines, of her meeting her husband before the war and of her time with the resistance just a few years later, come together. Little details that seem small become significant, and significant scenes gain clarity with small details. I just love a full circle moment, and Helene is rife with them.

The sections of the book detailing Nancy’s time during the war were quite dense in the beginning and I felt like I was being delivered facts and names through a fire hose. For some, that might not be as appealing as the timeline of her romantic drama before the war. But I was riveted by both and look forward to reading more of Lawhon's work!

Meet Me in Another Life by Catriona Silvey

Many thanks to NetGalley and William Morrow for the advance copy - this was an amazing ride, and so hard to describe without giving away the mind blowing ending. My best attempt is say that it is like the masterpiece Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, but heavier on plot that includes an EXPLANATION of why these two characters can remember past lives.

The pacing of the story is like a boulder gathering speed as it careens down a hill. At first I was sucked in by each chapter, putting the same people together in different dynamics: coworkers, lovers, student/teacher, parent/child. As they begin to realize the nature of their existence, the tension mounts as they try to find a reason, to find meaning. And when the reason is revealed, it’s like falling off of cliff into an ending that took my breath away a few times over.

I absolutely love this kind of novel that straddles several genres and explores existential themes in an accessible, but not cloying, way. Also, I have an absolute favorite book series to recommend if you read and enjoyed this novel, but only once you’ve finished so as not to spoil the ending! So, so good! 

Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko

“Why does everyone hate change so much?“ I demanded.

“Because things could get worse.“

“Maybe. But do you know what I think?” My chest throbbed. “I think deep down, we’re afraid that things could get better. Afraid to find out that all the evil —all the suffering we ignore— could have been prevented. If only we had cared enough to try.”

Raybearer was so unique, lush, immersive and just really smart sci-fi/fantasy world building. The mythology and magic Ifueko creates is beyond clever and the characters leap from the page right into your heart. Not since The Hunger Games have I been awed by such a creative plot with a story of found family and a fierce, yet vulnerable, female lead.

Halfway through the book I put the sequel on hold at the library, and couldn’t believe there weren’t already hundreds ahead of me in the queue. Get on it, y’all! This feels destined to be a YA fantasy classic.

Parachutes by Kelly Yang

This was a solid YA story on a subject that I knew very little about: parachutes, aka - teenagers dropped off to live in private homes and study in the United States while their wealthy parents remain in Asia. I was filled with righteous anger reading this book, not only for the micro aggressions suffered by the Asian community, but young girls within the community and writ large. Definitely read if you want to get fired up about smashing the patriarchy. Be forewarned that every character suffers some sort of sexual abuse, and the author's note is a must read. Would be a good accompaniment to reading the current articles about Philip Roth and his biographers...

Libertie by Kaitlyn Greenidge

I guess all the books I read in April can’t be five star reads. Libertie is described as a coming of age story, and I suppose the main character comes of age, but the story doesn’t include any hallmarks of a Bildungsroman.

Libertie does not seem to have any grand self realizations, and goes through life vicariously, never finding her own calling. Inexplicably, the pace of the novel was very slow, while her life choices moved at warp speed. Each time another set of characters she encounters was introduced, I thought perhaps this is where things will dig deeper and I’ll get more character development as she finds her people. But, nope, the narrative moved quickly on, and yet another half dozen characters I’ll forget were introduced.

All of these interactions gave an interesting look at life during that time, for sure, but no real depth. I felt like someone watching a roller coaster ride at a theme park, but never able to actually get on board.



4.06.2021

March Book Reviews


Good Company by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney

I was thrilled to be invited on this blog tour for Good Company, the new novel by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney out today! This family drama about two struggling couples was engrossing, heartwarming, and thoughtful.
From the beginning, I loved the ‘inside baseball’ aspect of show business. Lots of frothy, dishy and scathing takes on life in Hollywood and then on Broadway. The unraveling of long buried secrets keeps the narrative propulsive, but I think the character development is where the author really shines. Sweeney perfectly encapsulates, with precise minutiae of everyday life, what it is like to be a young and in love, a young mother and a seasoned one, a best friend, even a teenager on the precipice of flying the nest. (Hey look! I managed to incorporate the title of her previous book, also excellent, The Nest!)
If you enjoy family drama, told from multiple POVs, flawed character study and not necessarily a neat and tidy ending, I HIGHLY recommend this accessible and engaging novel.

The Stationery Shop Marjan Kamali

The Stationery Shop was a Bookstagram influenced pick and, though I can see it’s broad appeal, I wasn’t wowed by this novel. It’s a quiet and sweet love story of two teenagers torn apart during the 1953 coup in Iran, and how it affects the young girl’s life as she eventually moves to the United States and crosses paths with her lost love decades later.
What I enjoyed: learning details of Iran’s political history, Persian traditions and FOOOOOD.
What didn’t work for me: insta-love, big reveals that were obvious, threads that could have been expounded upon that were not, a whole lot of breadth and not a lot of depth.
If you are a fan of a comfortably predictable love stories and being transported to a different part of the world to learn a bit about a culture that might be unfamiliar to you, I’d give this one a shot!

Milk Fed by Melissa Broder

I went into Milk Fed without knowing much about the story, just that it might center around the main character’s eating disorder. And, certainly that was prevalent throughout the book: Rachel’s relationship with food, and how it changes based on her surrender to happiness and untethering from her overbearing mother. But the narrative centers mostly around her sexual desires and how one relationship helps her change into her truest self.
I was not bothered by the overtly erotic nature of the text, just a little... WOAH, what? It was honestly much easier to identify with Rachel as someone falling in total LUST as opposed to someone so rigidly controlled by food. Sadly, I feel like one of the few women in society who dodged that bullet and didn’t have a fraught relationship with food for most of my life. Fair warning, it may be VERY triggering for those who have struggled with eating disorders, and um... not your cup of tea if you skip open door sex content in books!
Overall this was a surprisingly sweet and empowering story of self actualization and overcoming one’s demons. And it was a hypnotic listening experience, read by the author on audiobook.

Made For Love by Alissa Nutting

Made for Love was my Evergreenreaders book club pick for March and it was all my fault we read this WILD novel (or ‘thanks to me’ depending on one’s point of view). Although, I did give three selections to choose from - yet it seems no one could resist the cover and what indeed sounded like a wild ride. And I’m glad I read it! I think the rest of the club is too, whether we enjoyed the reading experience or not. It is rife with inside jokes for us now and laugh out loud material to dissect, which is one of the reasons I put it on the list!
This story of a woman running away from her psychopath husband who has implanted her brain with a chip to monitor her thoughts, while she hides out with her father and his sex dolls, (also there is a subplot of a man who is turned on by dolphins) is full of dark and satirical comedy. I haven’t guffawed out loud at a book in a long time. (If you have read this book, all of the stuff with Dolphin Savior had me cry laughing.) The plot also had me turning pages wondering what crazy sh*t was going to happen next, and the ending goes full pedal to the metal. But there is also a lot to unpack about how we interact with trauma, groupthink, technology and media.
I know I will think about the themes in this book for a long time and NEVER forget it! In the book the main character recalls a time when she went to an art museum with her mother and says:

“what’s it called when you’re looking at something, I mean staring at something, like how we are doing, but not at something pretty? That’s the whole reason to stare usually, right? Because something is beautiful. What about when something isn’t nice to look at but you’re still looking at it and thinking and stuff?”

The mother goes on to say that is REALITY, and I’d venture to say that also includes art - the provocative variety of which category this novel certainly falls under. It will undoubtedly be one of the most interesting television adaptations in recent memory, out next month on HBO Max. If anyone else has read this book, I would love love love to hear your thoughts on it! And if you plan to watch the show.

Infinite Country by Patricia Engel

It is absolutely no surprise that this book has been chosen for so many book clubs and subscriptions, including my first installment of the Third Place Books signed first editions club!
Infinite Country is one of those slim volumes that packs a lot in a little. From the very first sentence “it was her idea to tie up the nun” I was riveted by Talia’s story. After escaping from said nun, it was impossible not to be completely invested in her fate as well as the fate of her family, fractured between Columbia and the United States. Novels with multiple narrators always appeal, and Engel masterfully switches between them - as well as timelines, to build the narrative.
What is so important about reading Own Voices work is that we get a better picture of the realities for the people being represented. This story felt so very real, extraordinary but also ordinary in that it actually represents the lived experience of so many immigrants. It does not need to be flashy or full of action in order to be utterly compelling. A must read and beautiful book about home and family, heartbreak and hope.

The Electric Kingdom by David Arnold

It’s been a loooong time since I read a YA dystopian novel, but the buzz around The Electric Kingdom was irresistible and I feel like I’m in a headspace now where I can handle a post apocalyptic tale.
The beginning chapters are cryptic, purposely so, and once I was introduced to the main characters journey, as they wind their way together in this vivid landscape, I was hooked. I never give a synopsis in my reviews, but even the usual amount of plot I supply would be spoiler-y for this book. It’s best to go in without expectations, even if some of the mystery might be easy to figure, the ‘how and why’ is original and cunning.
As with most dystopian fiction, there is a lot to chew on regarding our shared humanity. Arnold did this in a such a moving and poignant way, not at all saccharine as some YA can tend to be, and not excessively didactic as some dystopian tends to be. If, like me, you enjoyed The Fifth Wave, The Passage or Blake Crouch’s novels - DEFINITELY pick this one up!

Caste by Isabel Wilkerson

Just like every other person who has read this book, I encourage all to read it. What made Caste so impactful for me was Wilkerson’s very organized journalistic structure - it definitely soothed my type A brain.
She gives a clear definition of Caste, how it undergirds our society, how it affects us all in the most harmful ways, and what the future may hold. All of this is laid out with compelling and clear comparison to caste systems throughout the world/history, easy to grasp metaphor, and her (infuriating) personal stories. Many books I’ve read on racism focus mainly on impactful personal stories, but Wilkerson really lays down the irrefutable case for structural racism in our society. This is one that my kids will be reading, FOR SURE.
Also, the audiobook is excellent and Robin Miles’ voice is soothing and personable at any speed.

A Trick of the Light by Louise Penny

Ah, it’s always such a comfort being back in Three Pines and checking in on beloved characters! A Trick of the Light brought all the usual excellence I expect when reading Louise Penny‘s novels: great atmosphere, character study, humor and wit, as well as intricate and thoughtful themes. Additionally, this book introduced a lot of drama that will continue throughout the books between the main characters Chief Inspector Gamache and Inspector Beauvoir. I have been consuming Penny’s series at a nice and slow pace, this is book seven and I read Still Life almost four years ago, in order to enjoy them for as long as possible. But now I am kind of anxious to see how some of these underlying plot threads will unravel! If you haven’t delved into these novels yet, I am yet another Penny Pusher encouraging everyone to do so. They are magical.

3.04.2021

February Book Reviews

The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles

“Books and ideas are like blood; they need to circulate, and they keep us alive.”

It is not often that I pick up a World War II historical fiction novel, but the early buzz around this book, and the fact that it’s centered on a library made me pull the trigger on requesting. I’m glad I did, but there were elements I felt lacking and I wanted more from the story.

The narrative is set up in a dual timeline, one obviously during the war when the main character Odile is a young librarian at the American library in Paris, and the other in the 1980s when Odile is a widow living in Montana. The author creates that sense of urgency to learn how she ended up so far from home, but I felt as if the journey to that understanding was packed with unnecessary character building and seemed to sag in the middle. Once I learned how fate brought her to the United States, the book is almost over and that’s when I wanted to know MORE. There is a lot to unpack about friendship in both timelines, and was what made the book so compelling. Things JUST GOT INTERESTING with the young Lily in the 80s and potentially her friend Margaret from the war years when the book abruptly comes to an end.

I definitely recommend this novel for fans of historical fiction, and it was fascinating to read the prologue about the characters from the book that were actual historical figures. I honestly wouldn’t mind a small sequel perhaps, so that I could find out what became of Lily, Margaret and Odile!

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

“The truth is, there is no better place to live than in the shadow of a beautiful, furious mountain.”

Wow wow wow. I listened to In the Dream House on audio, and I felt in a little over my head at first. Machado reads with a singular cadence that took a few passages to get used to, but then her voice became utterly hypnotic. And her cerebral prose is dense at the outset, but settles into the very unsettling and menacing account of the abusive relationship with her ex-girlfriend.

The entire time I listened, I kept thinking about how hard this must have been for her, on so many levels, to examine. Her grief, vulnerability, and trauma is so sharp in this memoir with the visceral writing and (actually successful!) use of the second person.

Lots of TW regarding mental abuse, to be sure, but I highly recommend this indelible book.

The Lost Queen by Signe Pike

I first put The Lost Queen on my TBR when I saw it blurbed as ‘The Mists of Avalon for a new generation.’ SOLD! Mists was one of my favorite reads as a young adult, and I was looking for something magical, epic and immersive that wasn’t high fantasy.

There’s absolutely a similarity between the books: both follow the life of a strong female lead, are filled with ancient Celtic magic and the complex politics of tribal kings, religion and power. I have seen Outlander and Game of Thrones mentioned as similar reads, but I think The Lost Queen isn’t as romance focused as the former, and much more character driven than the latter. Pillars of the Earth would be a good comparison with similar themes and story elements.

The plot might have lingered a little too much on the men in the story than I would have liked, as their power struggles dragged for me. I wanted more about Languoreth’s mother, and her mentor Ariane. But on the whole I thoroughly enjoyed this reading experience and look forward to picking up the next in the trilogy soon. I was also in complete awe of the detail and research that Pike put into the novel - absolutely fascinating stuff. As someone of Scots/Irish heritage who dreams of visiting that part of the world one day, this made my wanderlust grow exponentially.

The Fixed Stars by Molly Wizenberg

“The constellations we see are temporary creations, our effort to draw order and meaning from a mostly unknowable universe, to tell ourselves stories, to guide our way home across oceans.”

I read Molly Wizenberg’s ‘A Homemade Life’ many years ago, so I only have vague recollections of her love of family, food, and falling in love with her husband. So going into The Fixed Stars, the account of her evolving sexuality and dissolution of her marriage, was disorienting. Then again, I think that was sort of the point - those stars aren’t really fixed and can shift into a different pattern, depending on your perspective.

While lyrical, especially when espousing on the cosmos metaphor, this read like a friend sitting down over a bottle of wine and telling her equally ordinary and extraordinary tale of marriage woe. I felt so genuinely happy for her in having the courage to make a life of her choosing. I appreciated her honesty about her privilege, and that she doesn’t have all the answers. None of us do in this world and we should accept the story that people tell about themselves, not one we write for them.

Real Men Knit by Kwana Jackson

I read this feel-good comfort read along with my Instagram book club and wasn't really wowed by the story. Things started out promising, as it reminded me a little bit of Insecure, one of my favorite tv shows. Kerry is trying to get her life started and works for a nonprofit serving children in the community - there's even an eye rolling 'woke' white coworker. Alas, there were a LOT of side characters and no one got a real deep dive, even the main romantic interests. It was cute, but a little to cliché for my liking.

In the Quick by Kate Hope Day

I want to preface this review by saying that I found In the Quick to be a unique and absorbing character driven novel. It should get a lot of traction with people looking for something other than what the blurb describes... The way the book is marketed might unfortunately result in some unnecessarily negative reviews.

The description claims a fiery love affair within the first sentence, which I think is terribly misleading. This novel felt like a quiet, introspective story where June’s relationships help showcase her coming of age, but do not take center stage. The romantic relationship, which is a stretch to call it as such, is barely a tenth of the book.

Readers picking this up thinking they are getting action packed sci-fi, might also cast it in an unfair light. To be sure, there are a number of well-timed scenes throughout that are very tense and rife with action.

But the beauty and the drama in this story is getting inside the mind a brilliant and flawed character. It reminded me of less fleshed out version of The Unseen World by Liz Moore, which I also recommend.


2.09.2021

January Book Reviews

 



A Court of Frost and Starlight by Sarah J. Maas

I’m glad it worked out that I read this in the week between Christmas and New Year's, because A Court of Frost and Starlight was basically a ACOWAR holiday book. I definitely ain’t mad about it! It was fun to finally spend some time in Velaris, see the characters take a respite for once, and get even more backstory. Maas clearly had fun setting up the next book/books and has me definitely wanting to continue reading!

This new graphic novel series was such a delight to read. A young girl joins with a rare and heartwarming creature (a Galdurian) to find her missing grandfather, and it echoes some of my favorite children’s stories like The City of Ember and Labyrinth. Probert also addresses anxiety - how it can overwhelm kids at times, and also empower them. It ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, and my daughter is chomping at the bit for the next installment.
If you have fans of Amulet by Kazu Kibuishi in your household, or fantasy graphic novels, you should definitely pick up this book.

Tomorrow Will be Different is an absolute must read. Her story about coming out as trans, working in politics, meeting and then dealing with the loss of her husband is a roller coaster of emotions. But I felt relentless optimism and faith in humanity undergirding the entire book.
It’s also so informative, and made me so much more aware of the perspective from a trans person’s point of view - from assumptions made about their sexuality, about the right people seem to have in asking about their bodies, about their given names, or the myriad tasks of daily life that are made difficult as trans in order to avoid confrontation.
Most importantly, we should all be loved for who we are, not who we could have been. Trans people are no different.
I’m excited to see McBride’s intelligence, charm, and optimism carry her far - since the publication of this book, she’s already become the first transgender state senator.
Oh, and some guy named Joe Biden wrote the foreword and it made me like him that much more. 

Writers and Lovers by Lily King
“I squat there and think about how you get trained early on as a woman to perceive how others are perceiving you, at the great expense of what you yourself are feeling about them. Sometimes you mix the two up and a terrible tangle that’s hard to unravel.”
Gahhhh. I loved this book! I hesitated for so long to read it, thinking it just didn’t sound like something I would enjoy, even though the hardcover of Euphoria sits on my all time favorite books shelf. I started to think perhaps I loved that novel because I seem to gravitate towards crazy books about a stranger in a strange land, like The Poisonwood Bible and State of Wonder (also on the revered hardcover shelf). But then I realized I adore Patchett and Kingsolver even when they aren’t taking me to the depths of the jungle, and I HAD to pick up Writers and Lovers by Lily King.
Like the aforementioned authors, her writing is so lovely and accessible, shocking me at times, and just made me feel some type of way.
It’s a slice of life and a beautiful coming-of-age story arc, wherein I wanted to hug the protagonist and the whole book when I was done. It can be bleak at times, especially when examining the grief over her mother’s death, yet it’s an immensely satisfying and, dare I say, happy ending? I think we could all use one of those.

Greenwood by Michael Christie
“All the rings of inner heartwood are essentially dead, just lignin-reinforced cellulose built up year after year, stacked layer upon layer, through droughts and storms, disease and stresses, everything that the tree has lived through preserved and recorded within its own body. Every tree is held up by its own history, the very bones of its ancestors.”
Greenwood was such a moving and thoughtful novel (and reminded me of another great book: This Tender Land, set after the great depression, a protagonist jumping the railways). Christie’s story ties to the future in a clever narrative structure, set up like a cross-section of the rings of a tree. It begins in 2038, hops to 2008, 1974, 1934, 1908 and then forward through those same years back to 2038.
The bulk of the story is told in the year 1934 with a cat and mouse chase between protagonist Everett Greenwood who saves a baby abandoned in the woods, and the wealthy RJ Holt who fathered the baby out of wedlock, sends a lackey to retrieve the baby and keep things under wraps.
While compelling and suspenseful, with books that span great swaths of time, I tend to get invested in some characters and wish more time was spent with them. At times the cat and mouse chase seemed to drag, but when the plot did come back around to characters from the later years, I was moved to tears. It’s a beautiful and heart wrenching reflection on the environment, what makes a life, and a family. Bonus points for a gorgeously rendered depiction of the PNW.

Seance Tea Party by Reimena Lee
Another fantastic middle grade graphic novel! Seance Tea Party is a poignant coming of age story about that in between time when kids still just want to be kids and play, while many of their peers are exploring more mature pursuits.
Lora is such an easy protagonist to empathize with, as I was definitely a kid who was not interested in growing up fast, and my daughter seems similar at almost 11: still running around on playgrounds, still acting silly, still loves animals and fuzzy things. But it is bittersweet, because we know what is inevitable. We both give this one two big thumbs up.
The book does such a wonderful job illustrating Lora’s very gradual shift in viewpoint on what it means to grow up. Her friend Alexa the ghost is a melancholy, but beautiful message about the privilege of aging. Highly, highly recommend for tween readers and fans ofRaina Telgemeier's books or The Babysitters Club!