Category: Fiction

Why I Didn’t Like Circe by Madeline Miller

May 22, 2018 Fiction 4

CirceFiction – Fantasy
Released April 10, 2018
394 Pages
Bottom Line: Skip it.
Affiliate Link: Amazon
Source: Book of the Month (Publisher: Lee Boudreaux Books)

This post contains affiliate links (plus: here’s your Amazon Smile-specific affiliate link), through which I make a small commission when you make a purchase (at no cost to you!).

Headline

Though I could tell it was well-done, I didn’t like Circe. I felt like I slogged through it and thought I needed to have better base knowledge or at least more interest in Greek mythology to appreciate it.

Plot Summary

When Circe, the under-rated daughter of the god Helios, begins interacting with mortals and discovers she has a power, her father banishes her to a deserted island as part of an agreement with Zeus.

Why I Read It

I decided to ignore my lack of interest in Greek mythology and read Circe anyway because of the multitude of rave reviews, including some from trusted recommendation sources (Gilmore Guide, Novel VisitsBook of the Month, author Ann Patchett).

Major Themes

Greek mythology, feminism, motherhood, adventure

What I Liked

  • Despite this book not being for me at all, I recognize that it was extremely well-done. I’m actually stressing out over my rating because of this. I didn’t like Circe at all, but I also feel like it doesn’t deserve a 1 star rating because I could see how well-done it was.
  • There were a few parts where I was riveted by the adventure and I couldn’t stop turning the pages (both parts had to do with The Straits).
  • Right when I finished Circe, I went away for a night with some girlfriends I grew up with. I arrived to find two of them reading and loving Circe. We then had a pretty in-depth discussion about the messages it conveys and I liked those messages. I also liked that it sparked this type of discussion at a girls’ weekend!

What I Didn’t Like

  • Circe reminded me of how I felt about A Gentleman in Moscow (my review). I could see it was well-done, but I felt like I was slogging my way through it. I couldn’t concentrate, the story was going in one ear and out the other, I felt like I was fighting with the language, it felt like a school assignment, and I felt like I was viewing the action from 50,000 feet in the air through a layer of clouds..I did not feel present in Circe’s world (except for those two periods in The Straits).
  • The language is formal and of the time of the Greek gods. I had no idea what she was talking about in some passages, like this one:

His voice rolled like a bard’s: Achilles, prince of Phthia, swiftest of all the Greeks, best of the Achaian warriors at Troy. Beautiful, brilliant, born from the dread nereid Thetis, graceful and deadly as the sea itself. The Trojans had fallen before him like grass before the scythe, and the mighty Prince Hector himself perished at his ash- spear’s end.

  • Particularly in the beginning, there are way too many characters and I couldn’t keep track of them. It felt like Miller included every minor god in Greek mythology in this book in some way, no matter how tangential. There was a glossary of characters at the back of the book, but I didn’t know it was there until I was finished…that should absolutely have been at the front of the book!
  • Circe is the kind of book that I’ve found it almost impossible to read these days. I fit reading into my life in small snippets throughout the day amid taking care of my young children. Often while I’m reading, my children are around me talking, interrupting, participating in sports practices, etc. And, I rarely have larger chunks of time to really focus on getting immersed in a book. So, I need books that I can easily get immersed in. A part of me felt like my brain just couldn’t handle Circe. But, I also think a great book shouldn’t feel like hard work…
  • I’d heard you don’t have to know much about or even be super interested in Greek mythology to love Circe. I totally disagree. I think you need somewhat of a foundation in Greek mythology to make heads or tails of this or the time and inclination to do some outside research as you go (i.e. looking up all these tangential gods and learning their stories).
  • You may ask why I finished Circe if I disliked it so much…the answer is I wanted to review it. There are very few contrarian reviews out there about this book and I thought the discussion needed an opposing viewpoint. That being said, this reading experience sure did remind me why I’m usually a big DNF’er of books that aren’t working for me.

A Defining Quote

I thought once that gods are the opposite of death, but I see now they are more dead than anything, for they are unchanging, and can hold nothing in their hands.

Good for People Who Like…

Greek mythology, intricate books, more formal writing

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Alternate Side by Anna Quindlen: When a Favorite Author Stumbles

March 22, 2018 Fiction 22

Alternate Side by Anna QuindlenFiction – Literary
Released March 20, 2018
304 Pages
Bottom Line: Skip it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Random House

Headline

I adore Anna Quindlen (both her fiction and nonfiction) and saw instances of her brilliant, trademark writing in Alternate Side, but the plot was a bit boring and I know she can do better.

Plot Summary

When a violent incident happens on Nora and Charlie Nolan’s wealthy Upper West Side block, Nora begins to see cracks in her marriage, friendships, and throughout the neighborhood.

Why I Read It

Anna Quindlen is one of my go-to authors. I’ve adored most of what I’ve read by her (Every Last OneOne True ThingMiller’s Valley and Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake) and think she just “gets” women. 

Major Themes

Marriage, New York City life, class, friendship

What I Liked

  • Alternate Side is a true New York City book. The setting stood out far more to me than any of the characters…and Quindlen brilliantly captures its quirks (and there are many).

The dirty little secret of the city was that while it was being constantly created, glittering glass and steel towers rising everywhere where once there had been parking lots, gas stations, and four-story tenements, it was simultaneously falling apart. The streets were filled with excavations and repair crews, the older buildings sheathed in scaffolding cages.

  • It’s an easy, relatively uncomplicated read (which I sometimes need and suspect you do too!).
  • The title is brilliant and will truly resonate with anyone who has lived in NYC. NYC has something called “alternate side parking” (a law that dictates which side of the street cars can park on specific days to improve traffic flow and make room for street sweepers, etc), which causes residents who park on the street to go temporarily insane every time they have to move their cars. It brings out everyone’s true colors and is sort of a microcosm of New York City B.S.
  • While the writing didn’t bowl me over like it did in Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake and Every Last One, it is quintessential Quindlen and there were numerous passages that reminded me why I love her writing…especially when she talks about women’s experiences.
     

The slightly aberrational spouse was a status symbol, too. The husband who cooked. The wife who played golf. The husband who took his children to school. The wife who ran her own business. Of course, it was chancier with the women than with the men. You couldn’t push it too far. The marathoner wife who made partner – perhaps. The wife who could benchpress her own weight and made the cover of Fortune – too emasculating. The men, on the other hand, got unlimited mileage out of performing so-called women’s tasks as long as they also had substantial disposable income and significant business cards.

What I Didn’t Like

  • Alternate Side is about a lot of things, but is also kind of about nothing. Is it about an Upper West Side neighborhood, but a somewhat boring one? Is it about a New York marriage, but a somewhat boring one? Is it about an incident in the neighborhood, which wasn’t as earth-shattering as promised? I couldn’t figure it out. An American Marriage and The Mothers were both about a lot of things, but they all gelled together into a coherent story that worked. Unfortunately, I’m not sure Alternate Side had much of a plot and what plot was there felt muddled. 
  • Some people prefer Quindlen’s nonfiction to her fiction, but I know from Every Last One and One True Thing that she can write novels where the plot and the writing shine. That didn’t happen here.
  • I think this book would have worked better as a nonfiction essay collection about life in New York City for, as Quindlen says, “New Yorkers of a certain sort”, where the “life in New York part” is intentionally the star.

A Defining Quote

There was a shadow government on the block, a shadow government that knew where all the bodies were buried, a system of mutual dependence, one group needing services, the other employment. Nora was never certain where the balance of power fell.

Good for People Who Like…

Quiet stories, social commentary, New York City books.

Try These Books Instead…

Anna Quindlen at her best:
Every Last One (Fiction, my review)

Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake (Memoir, my review)

Two books that tackle a lot of issues, but aren’t overwhelmingly about any one of them:
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones (my review)

The Mothers by Brit Bennett (my review)

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An American Marriage by Tayari Jones: My Favorite Novel of 2018 So Far

February 8, 2018 Southern Fiction 22

An American Marriage by Tayari JonesFiction
Released February 6, 2018
320 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Algonquin Books)

Headline

An American Marriage is an intimately written novel that tackles a number of weighty current issues in an organic way…and is my favorite novel of 2018 so far!

Plot Summary

When Roy goes to prison for a crime he didn’t commit only a year and a half into their new marriage, Celestial must figure out how to cope with his absence and shape her life in the face of this massive upheaval.

Why I Read It

This year, I’m trying to select books that come highly recommended by people whose recommendations I trust and that have already read the book (rather than are just excited to read it). An American Marriage came with a 5 star review from Nicole Bonia of The Readerly Report Podcast. Since then, it’s been chosen as an Oprah Book Club pick and a Book of the Month February selection.

Major Themes

Marriage (obviously), race, class, incarceration, love, friendship, family, grief, fidelity, recovery

What I Liked

  • You see how many major themes An American Marriage tackles? You’d think the story would feel cluttered with all that, but it doesn’t. It’s about so many things, but not overwhelmingly about any one of them (kind of like The Mothers). And, Jones handles them in a completely organic way that doesn’t make the book feel overwhelmingly like “an issue book.”
  • I loved the writing. It’s not “gorgeous” in the traditional sense, rather it’s casual, intimate, and has personality. I felt like I was hanging out in the backyard with each character (the story is told through multiple perspectives) as he/she told me his/her side of a crazy story.

    I hate using that word, career. It always feels like the word bitch is hiding out between the letters.

  • Roy and Celestial’s story digs deeper into race to the class divisions within the African American community. Roy comes from poverty and is driven to improve his station in the world, while Celestial comes from an upper class family. The ripple effects of these different mentalities has a large impact on their marriage.
  • The last quarter of the book is absolutely riveting. You want action? You’ll get it here.
  • With all the issues addressed in An American Marriage, it’s not surprising that it would make a great book club selection. There’s a ton to discuss here including a big “what would you do in their shoes?” question.

What I Didn’t Like

  • When I heard Nicole talk about this book on The Readerly Report Podcast, she advised to go in blind and I’m so glad I did. The publisher’s blurb gives away far too many plot details and I’d advise you to avoid it if you’re interested in reading this one! Sadly, I feel like I’ve had to list this item under “What I Didn’t Like” for far too many books over the past couple years…
  • I’m not a fan of Epilogues in general and this one didn’t drive me crazy, but it didn’t add much to the story.

A Defining Quote

We were properly married for a year and a half, and we were happy for that time, at least I was. Maybe we didn’t do happy like other people, but we’re not your garden-variety bourgeois Atlanta Negroes where the husband goes to bed with his laptop under his pillow and the wife dreams about her blue-box jewelry. I was young, hungry, and on the come-up. Celestial was an artist, intense and gorgeous. We were like Love Jones, but grown. What can I say? I always had a weakness for shooting-star women.

Good for People Who Like…

Southern fiction, marriage, hard-hitting writing, books about “issues” that don’t feel like “issue books”

Other Books You May Like

Another book that tackles weighty issues, but isn’t overwhelmingly about any one of them:
The Mothers by Brit Bennett (my review)

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Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward: On Appreciating, Yet Not Loving A Book (Part 2)

October 19, 2017 Southern Fiction 17

Sing Unburied Sing by Jesmyn WardFiction
Released September 5, 2017
285 Pages
Bottom Line: Skip it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Scribner)

Headline

Though I can see why the critics love Sing, Unburied, Sing, I didn’t particularly enjoy reading it and had trouble connecting with the story.

Plot Summary

Set in Mississippi, the story of JoJo and Kayla, two mixed race children who grow up in their black grandparents’ house (with the sporadic presence of their drug addict mother, Leonie), and the road trip to pick up their white father (Michael) from prison.

Why I Read It

Though I didn’t finish Ward’s previous National Book Award winner, Salvage the Bones, I wanted to give her latest a try since it, too, was a Finalist for the National Book Award.

Major Themes

Childhood Trauma, Abuse, Drugs, Race, Poverty, Family

What I Liked

  • The writing is unquestionably the star of this book. Its first line and chapter (and really the whole book) are raw and vivid and I was highlighting like crazy throughout. It’s the kind of writing that’s sparse, hard-hitting, and can really gut you at times, which usually works well for me.
  • JoJo and Kayla are heart-breaking characters and I wanted to wrap them up and take them home with me. They go through an incredible amount of trauma caused by the adults.
  • And, Pop (Jojo and Kayla’s grandfather) does his best trying to parent them in their parents’ absence. He’s the wise character trying to shape JoJo into a good man and I adored him.
  • The story has a mystical quality similar to Sara Taylor’s The Shore (my review). Ward’s writing about the land, the weather, the animals and their connection to the human spirit sets the atmosphere and there is also a bit of herbal medicine going on. I liked all these elements, but the mysticism went a bit too far for me in other ways (see below).

What I Didn’t Like

  • The feeling I had while reading Sing, Unburied, Sing was similar to how I felt while reading A Gentleman in Moscow (Part 1 of this post topic) and, to a certain extent, Exit West. These books are critical darlings and I could objectively see the elements that have the critics falling all over themselves. But, something in each book didn’t quite connect with me and I kept zoning out while reading. I’m glad I read them, but was never dying to pick them up along the way. And, while I can tick off a number of positive attributes about each one, I can’t say I loved reading them or would widely recommend them to others.
  • A large element of the story involves a ghost named Richie and that entire storyline didn’t work for me. I didn’t see the purpose in him having such a big role in JoJo and Kayla’s story and, even if I accept that role as it was, I don’t understand why he had to be a ghost. His story could have been told another, less perplexing way.
  • This is absolutely not the book for you if you’re looking trying to read for entertainment or to escape…it’s an emotionally tough read.

A Defining Quote

All’s quiet in the house, and for a stupid second I wonder why Leonie and Michael ain’t arguing about him hitting Kayla. And then I remember. They don’t care.

Good for People Who Like…

Grit Lit, emotional gut-wrenchers, gorgeous writing, serious literary fiction, critical darlings

Other Books You May Like

Another emotionally tough book that mystically roots you in its setting:
The Shore by Sara Taylor (my review)

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Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng Has Broader Appeal Than Everything I Never Told You

September 14, 2017 Fiction 25

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste NgFiction
Released September 12, 2017
384 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Complimentary from Publisher (Penguin Press)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This post contains affiliate links and I will be compensated if you make a purchase via my links.

Headline

Little Fires Everywhere is an engrossing story about a family and a community that you can sink right into…and may have even broader appeal than Everything I Never Told You.

Plot Summary

When nomadic artist Mia Warren and her daughter (Pearl) rent an apartment from Elena Richardson in Shaker Heights, Elena’s entire family becomes enmeshed in the Warrens’ lives, resulting in uncovered secrets, unanticipated consequences, and a raging debate about what it means to be a mother.

Why I Read It

Ng’s debut, Everything I Never Told You, was a smash hit with me and others (it was Amazon’s Best Book of 2014), so Little Fires Everywhere might be the 2017 book I’ve been anticipating the most!

Major Themes

Family Life, Secrets / Betrayal, Motherhood, Teen Angst, Art, Suburbia

What I Liked

  • Little Fires Everywhere‘s premise didn’t jump out at me initially. It’s not entirely clear what this book is about. Yet…the way Ng told this story had me engrossed immediately. It’s the kind of story where you sink right into the community and the characters’ lives. I’m a bit hard-pressed to pick out specific things I loved about it…yet, I loved the book as a whole. Little Fires Everywhere is greater than the sum of its parts.
  • The set-up for this story reminded me a bit of the tv show The O.C. – an outsider sort of infiltrates a wealthy family and supposedly idyllic community with far-reaching consequences (Pearl Warren = Ryan Atwood).
  • It starts out as a story of a family and a community…and then takes an interesting turn. Ng presented a Jodi Picoult-esque situation (i.e. one with valid arguments for both sides and where there is no clear right answer) and forced me to think about what I’d do in a similar situation
  • Ng painted a vivid picture of the Shaker Heights community while making you feel that it was the only place this story could play out the way it did:

    In fact, the city’s motto was – literally, as Lexie would have said – “Most communities just happen; the best are planned”: the underlying philosophy being that everything could – and should – be planned out, and that by doing so you could avoid the unseemly, the unpleasant, and the disastrous.

  • Little Fires Everywhere is more action-packed than Everything I Never Told You and, I believe, has the potential for even broader appeal.
  • And, the debate-starting issues it deals with make it a great book club selection!

What I Didn’t Like

  • I had to suspend belief and just roll with some of the plot points…the coincidences were a little too big. But, while I recognized this as I was reading, it didn’t bother me or influence my opinion of the book as a whole.

A Defining Quote

Sometimes you need to scorch everything to the ground, and start over. After the burning the soil is richer, and new things can grow. People are like that, too. They start over. They find a way.

Good for People Who Like…

Dysfunctional families, Secrets/Betrayal, Motherhood, Engrossing Plot & Characters, Suburban Life

Other Books You May Like

More stories about families facing unconventional situations:
Every Last One by Anna Quindlen (my review)

Miller’s Valley by Anna Quindlen

Another story about what it means to be a mother:
The Mothers by Brit Bennett (my review)

And, of course, Celeste Ng’s debut novel:
Everything I Never Told You (my review)

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Am I the Only One Who Didn’t Love Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine?

July 20, 2017 Fiction 36

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail HoneymanFiction – Debut
Released May 9, 2017
336 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it…if you like heart-warming stories with tidy endings. Otherwise, Skip it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased (published by Pamela Dorman Books)

Headline

I liked Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine alright, but I’m not on the bandwagon with the level of hype it’s getting.

Plot Summary

Quirky and broken Eleanor Oliphant is living a solitary life when she strikes up a friendship with Raymond, the IT guy at her office, which opens her eyes to a different way of living.

Why I Read It

This book has been getting tons of buzz and two book bloggers whose taste I generally agree with recently loved it (Susie at Novel Visits and Tara at Running N Reading).

Major Themes

Childhood Trauma, Abuse, Family Secrets, Friendship, Redemption

What I Liked

  • I loved Eleanor…and I suspect she is why this book is getting such high praise from some. She’s quirky, solitary, and doesn’t fit in well with the world, but she makes no bones about who she is and is completely endearing. And, with her tragic childhood, I was rooting for her to figure out how to actually participate in the world rather than just skim the surface of life.
  • I was super curious about Eleanor’s past. How did she get her scars? How did she end up in foster care? What happened with her mother? What was the big incident that blew up her life? These questions kept me reading, but I wish the book had delved deeper into them.
  • Eleanor went on some spectacular rants about things that irked her about everyday life. They were salty and funny and I completely agreed with most of them. Here’s one:

    On wedding gifts/registries:
    Of all the compulsory financial contributions, that is the one that irks me most. Two people wander around John Lewis picking out lovely items for themselves, and then they make other people pay for them. It’s bare-faced effrontery. They choose things like plates, bowls and cutlery—I mean, what are they doing at the moment: shoveling food from packets into their mouths with their bare hands? I simply fail to see how the act of legally formalizing a human relationship necessitates friends, family and coworkers upgrading the contents of their kitchen for them.

What I Didn’t Like

  • While I can see appeal of this book for some people (it’s a heart-warming, feel-good story), it didn’t live up to the hype for me. I liked it fine, but I expected to like it much more based on the reviews and the hype. That being said, I am still recommending it for a certain type of reader (those that like heart-warming stories that are neatly tied up) because I know there are lots of this type of reader out there…it’s just not me.
  • I was so curious about Eleanor’s childhood and her relationship with her mother. Those issues were one of the main hooks that kept me reading. But, I felt like the story focused more on Eleanor’s friendship with Raymond and learning how to interact with the world again. I wish Honeyman had gone darker and delved deeper into Eleanor’s childhood and the nitty, gritty of what went down. I kept thinking it would happen, but it never really did.
  • While the story is certainly heart-warming, it felt a little cliche to me…in a bit of a rom-com way.
  • The ending was too neat and tidy. And, there was one particular element that is often used in novels that absolutely drives me crazy every time I see it. It feels like a cop out. I don’t want to spoil anything, so I won’t say anymore.

A Defining Quote

My life, I realized, had gone wrong. Very, very wrong. I wasn’t supposed to live like this. No one was supposed to live like this. The problem was that I simply didn’t know how to make it right. Mummy’s way was wrong, I knew that. But no one had ever shown me the right way to live a life, and although I’d tried my best over the years, I simply didn’t know how to make things better. I could not solve the puzzle of me.

Good for People Who Like…

Dysfunctional childhoods, heart-warming stories, neat and tidy endings, quirky characters

Other Books You May Like

Another heart-warming story about people facing an unconventional situation:
This Is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel (my review)

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If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio: The Dark Campus Novel I’ve Been Craving

April 27, 2017 Fiction 19

If We Were Villains, ML RioFiction – Debut
Released April 11, 2017
352 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased (published by G.P. Putnam)

Headline

If We Were Villains is the dark campus novel I’ve been craving ever since loving Christopher J. Yates’s Black Chalk three years ago…and is one of my favorite books of 2017 so far.

Plot Summary

After spending ten years in prison, Oliver Marks is ready to tell the story of the tragedy that happened to his seven best friends and fellow Shakespeare theatre students during their fourth year at Dellecher, an intense Conservatory for the arts. 

Why I Read It

Susie at Novel Visits recommended this book and compared it to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History (which I loved). Plus, I’m a complete sucker for campus novels, especially dark ones.

Major Themes

Friendship, Shakespeare, Secrets / Betrayal

What I Loved

  • If We Were Villains is a dark, sinister, Gothic campus novel jam-packed with emotional tension. The dynamics between Oliver and his group of friends are incredibly complicated and constantly shifting, resulting in nail-biting suspense. After the 20% mark, I could not put this book down!
  • The story kicks off with a Prologue that made me think A) I’m dying to know what happened to this group of friends ten years ago and B) I’m pretty sure it’s going to be really messed up.
  • Though I have mixed feelings about all the Shakespeare in this book (see “What I Didn’t Like” below), I do think the general theme contributed to much of the book’s Gothic feel and made what could be interpreted as mundane friendship dynamics feel much more sinister. I just knew that one of these people was going to become believably capable of doing something monstrous.
  • What ended up happening with the Dellecher fourth years was surprising (particularly how it went down), but absolutely made sense within the context of the story. I could see how each player ended up in the role (obligatory acting pun!) they did.

What I Didn’t Like

  • References to and excerpts from Shakespeare’s plays are incorporated throughout this book. The students pepper their own conversations with Shakespeare one-liners, discuss the plays in class, and refer to themes from the plays in their daily lives. I admit I’m not a fan of Shakespeare and find his language kind of unintelligible, so this initially annoyed me. Just before the 20% mark, I actually considered putting the book down. However, I’m so relieved I kept going. I realized that you don’t have to pay close attention to the Shakespeare excerpts or really understand them to get invested in the story. So, don’t let a wariness of Shakespeare deter you from reading this!

A Defining Quote

Actors are by nature volatile – alchemic creatures composed of incendiary elements, emotion and ego and envy. Heat them up, stir them together, and sometimes you get gold. Sometimes disaster.

Good for People Who Like…

Campus Novels, Friendship, Shakespeare, Secrets / Betrayal, Dark Stories

Other Books You May Like

More dark, sinister campus novels:
Black Chalk by Christopher J. Yates
The Secret History by Donna Tartt

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The Wanderers by Meg Howrey: The Most Unique Book I’ve Read This Year

April 13, 2017 Fiction 27

The Wanderers, Meg HowreyFiction
Released March 14, 2017
384 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased (published by G.P. Putnam)

Headline

The Wanderers will appeal to fans of Andy Weir’s The Martian (my review), but manages to be its own thing entirely in a more psychological, less page-turnery way…and is the most unique book I’ve read all year.

Plot Summary

Prime Space (a private space exploration company) puts Helen, Sergei, and Yoshi (the meticulously selected crew for Prime’s first manned mission to Mars) through an incredibly life-like, seventeen months-long simulation (called Eidolon) of the mission.

Why I Read It

I really liked The Martian and Station Eleven (two books The Wanderers has been compared to) and heard good reports from Rebecca Schinsky on Book Riot’s All the Books podcast and from Michelle at That’s What She Read.

Major Themes

Space travel, psychological implications of long separations from family, how people behave when they’re being monitored 24/7, extreme stress

What I Loved

  • The Wanderers is first and foremost a story about getting the astronauts psychologically ready for a Mission to Mars, which takes years. They must get used to isolation from the world, living in cramped quarters for long periods of time with their 3-person crew, the physical affects of the mission, and the extreme pressure to perform perfectly or risk death.
  • Early on, you get glimpses of the tiny ways each astronaut is hiding personality deficiencies that, if really explored, could possibly compromise their spots on the crew. And, part of the suspense of the story is wondering if and/or how these will eventually blow up.
  • I loved getting the perspectives of each astronaut’s family and the impact of the astronauts’ stature and long absences on the families left behind. Each family deals with this in a different way…from a daughter who finds it difficult to live in her successful mother’s shadow to a son who starts acting out to a wife who questions whether she misses her husband at all.

If her mother goes to Mars, then that will be the only story of Mireille’s life. It will wipe out everything. Mireille wants to stay with that thought a little, but promises herself she will return to it later, when she has more time to savor how awful it is.

  • I’ve realized lately that I love snarky humor, especially when it’s somewhat unexpected. Let me stress that The Wanderers is not a funny book. But, there is very subtle humor and I especially appreciated what I’ll call the “corporate snark” (i.e. making fun of the “drink the Koolaid” vibe of Prime Space).

Nobody is allowed to say the words crash or explosion within a ten-kilometer radius of Prime Space. Suggested alternatives are: RUSE (Rapid Unplanned Separation Event) and learning experience.

  • I’d be remiss not to address the comparison to The Martian. What The Wanderers is and what it isn’t. It’s less scientific, there is far less on-the-edge-of-your-seat action (after all, this crew is in a simulator…they’re not actually risking death), it’s far more psychological, and you will recognize terms and some of the science from The Martian (“sol”, anyone?). It also as some weird Mary Roach-style scientific anecdotes about space (i.e. they recycle poop into the lining of the spacecraft as a barrier against cosmic radiation).
  • I’m not particularly interested in space or Mars, but Howrey made it fascinating for me by focusing on the psychology (how to pick the team, personality traits that are valuable, how those traits translate into good or bad things in the real world, and how people behave when monitored 24/7).  She truly made me appreciate the wonder of being in space even though this crew never left the ground.

What I Didn’t Like

  • The Wanderers has been knocked in reviews for moving at a glacial pace and lacking action. It’s true, there isn’t a ton of action and certainly nothing like the pace of The Martian. But, I disagree that nothing happens. These astronauts and their families go on a psychological journey, coming out different people than they were going in. There are definitely some slow points and times where the story veers off onto philosophical tangents, but they didn’t dampen my love for this book.

A Defining Quote

There are many things that can go wrong in the first minutes of leaving Earth and most of them come with a decision-making window of less than five seconds. If you are an astronaut it means that you are someone who can assess and react quickly. If you are a great astronaut it means that while your mental and physical reactions operate at top speed, your emotional reactions are stately and glacial. The combination that works best is someone who only needs four seconds to get to: This is what we need to do, and four months to get to: Gee, I’m a little bit uncomfortable.

Good for People Who Like…

Space, Mars, stories about mothers and daughters, stories about fathers and sons, unconventional families, gorgeous writing, unexpected humor, snarky humor, style books.

Other Books You May Like

Another novel about humans on Mars:
The Martian by Andy Weir

A nonfiction book about the scientific oddities of space:
Packing for Mars by Mary Roach

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Dead Letters by Caite Dolan-Leach: The Book I’ll Be Recommending to Absolutely Everyone

March 7, 2017 Fiction 24

Dead Letters, Caite Dolan-LeachFiction – Debut
Released February 21, 2017
353 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased (published by Random House)

Headline

This debut novel has absolutely everything and is one I’ll be recommending to just about everyone I know for a long time.

Plot Summary

When Ava Antipova gets word that her wild twin sister (Zelda) is dead, she leaves her Paris graduate program to return to her family’s vineyard in upstate New York…only to find circumstances surrounding her sister’s death that are a bit off and a message from Zelda.

Why I Read It

I never would have picked up this book on my own (I’m not a fan of the title or the cover and the premise of the story is not particularly appealing)…but Catherine at Gilmore Guide (whose reading taste I trust implicitly) said I absolutely must read it.

Major Themes

Dysfunctional families, alcoholism, degenerative illness, twins

What I Loved

  • It’s rare that I find a book I can comfortably categorize as “literary” AND “brain candy.” These are my favorite kinds of books to discover and are the ones I feel like I can recommend to anyone at any time. Dead Letters is the first book I’ve read in awhile that fits this description.
  • I knew within the first two paragraphs that I would love this book. Ava’s voice spoke to me immediately and I would later discover the crackling dialogue and snarky, occasionally morbid humor that’s right up my alley.

He has rented a flashy convertible, of course. My dad likes to travel in style, regardless of finances, seemliness, tact. He tends to think of any economic restriction as a dead-letter issue, a rule that does not apply to him.

  • It’s a mystery and a dysfunctional family novel (two of my favorite things) all wrapped up into one ball of alcohol-soaked perfection. There is a crime, but it’s not the center of the story. Rather, it’s a device that helps unravel the twisted dynamics of Zelda and Ava’s relationship (and their relationship with their parents), which is what this book is truly about. And I can add it to my list of winning novels that have a “crime that is not the center of the story” (My Sunshine Away, Every Last One, and Only Love Can Break Your Heart).
  • Dead Letters has almost all of my favorite fiction elements: a perfectly paced plot, a dysfunctional family, a mystery, great writing, snarky humor, and depth. I don’t think I’ve come across a novel as jam packed with elements that are so firmly in my wheelhouse in quite a while.
  • It’s a book that is fun, yet dark and morbid at the same time. There is a delightfully demented scavenger hunt that strings the reader right along for the ride, yet death and loss permeates the entire story.
  • There’s a sly Friday Night Lights reference!
  • This is a book that you just need to pick up and read. Don’t bother learning a ton about the plot beforehand…going in blind adds to the fun.

What I Didn’t Like

  • I HATE the cover and am not a huge fan of the title. Both make Dead Letters look like it will be type of book that’s compared to Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train, then inevitably doesn’t live up to either. Though Dead Letters does have some similarities, it’s it’s own kind of wonderful.
  • I also think the publisher’s blurb gives away far too much information about the plot.

A Defining Quote

Maybe because we were twins, we sought a way to differentiate, to oh so rigorously sketch out our borders. You needed to say, to speak the ways you were different. I’m Ava, I’m the ambitious one; that’s Zelda, she’s the messy one. As though you could determine your own story, secure the ending you wanted through obsessive narration.

Good for People Who Like…

Stories about sisters (particularly twins), stories about mothers and daughters, dysfunctional families, accessible writing, unexpectedly funny, snarky humor.

Other Books You May Like

Another deeply dysfunctional family novel that involves a family member returning home:
The Roanoke Girls by Amy Engel

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This Is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel Made Me Feel All the Emotions

February 23, 2017 Fiction 20

This Is How It Always Is, Laurie FrankelFiction
Released January 24, 2017
336 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased (published by Flatiron Books)

Headline

This Is How It Always Is is an accessible story about a weighty topic that had me feeling a whole range of emotions…it’s the kind of book many people will enjoy, yet will also provide excellent discussion for book clubs.

Plot Summary

When Claude, the youngest son of a family of five boys, starts to realize he wants to be a girl, the family must learn how to best support Claude and adjust to the situation.

Why I Read It

Susan Perabo, author of the fantastic short story collection Why They Run the Way They Do (my review), tweeted this about This Is How It Always Is:

Major Themes

Gender Dysphoria, Family, Bullying

What I Loved

  • One of the most important things a book needs to do to really draw me in is to make me feel…something. It doesn’t have to be positive all the time, but I have to become emotionally involved with the story and characters in some way. This Is How It Always Is had me feeling a full range of emotions. It’s heart-warming, but also heart-breaking. It’s unexpectedly funny, sad, inspirational, and made me angry at times.
  • While this story obviously centers around Claude and his struggle with gender dysphoria, it’s also very much a story about an unconventional and complicated family. Frankel explores the family dynamics, the impacts of Claude’s struggle on each sibling and both parents, and the more run-of-the-mill struggles of a family (work/life balance, teen angst, sibling disagreements, etc) and how Claude fits into that.
  • While gender dysphoria is a weighty issue and many people have not personally experienced, the Walsh-Adams family as a whole is incredibly relatable. Rosie (the mother) is someone I could imagine being friends with and the family’s reactions to and decision-making involving Claude felt decidedly normal to me.
  • In addition to handling the “big” issues and decisions relating to Claude’s gender dysphoria, Frankel poignantly works through the small moments that become minefields when you’re dealing with someone like Claude (i.e. meeting your new neighbors, the first sleepover).
  • The writing isn’t what I’d call “gorgeous,” but I loved the voice and tone. I felt like I was hearing my relatable friend talk about family life while phrasing things in the most amusing way possible. 

But Roo followed by Ben followed by Rigel and Orion had put a stop to that plan too, children being the enemies of plans and also the enemies of anything new besides themselves.

  • Plus, there’s a bad@ss grandmother, a character type that generally adds a little something extra to a story for me!

What I Didn’t Like

  • I’m generally not a fan of stories within stories and one (a fairy tale, in this case) figures prominently into This Is How It Always Is. It makes sense within the larger context and Frankel executed it well, but I personally found it distracting and unnecessary. It felt a little too cutes-y to me.
  • I’m getting really nit-picky, but some of the things Claude was doing at age five (i.e. designing and constructing a complicated Halloween costume by himself) seemed like a developmental stretch to me, even though his character is quite precocious. I have a six year old son and he could no more design and construct his own Halloween costume than fly to the moon; however, he could name 25 obscure animals you’ve never heard of. So, maybe this criticism isn’t entirely fair.

A Defining Quote

You never know. You only guess. This is how it always is. You have to make these huge decisions on behalf of your kid, this tiny human whose fate and future is entirely in your hands, who trusts you to know what’s good and right and then to be able to make that happen. You never have enough information. You don’t get to see the future. And if you screw up, if with your incomplete, contradictory information you make the wrong call, well, nothing less than your child’s entire future and happiness is at stake. It’s impossible. It’s heartbreaking. It’s maddening. But there’s no alternative.

Good for People Who Like…

Family, unconventional families, secrets / betrayal, marriage, motherhood, emotional gut-wrenchers, debate starters, accessible writing

Other Books You May Like

A memoir dealing with gender dysphoria:
Darling Days by iO Tillett-Wright

Another book centered around a large family with hoards of children:
Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

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