Category: Mini Book Reviews

4 More Books Perfect for Summer: Calypso, The Banker’s Wife, The Book of Essie, The Favorite Sister

July 19, 2018 Mini Book Reviews 16

More Books Perfect for Summer Reading

 

I posted my 2018 Summer Reading Guide back in May and I told you I’d be adding more books to that list throughout the summer because I tend to find more books perfect for summer as the summer goes on! This is the last crop of books I’ll be adding…and they’re some good ones! After today, The Book of Essie will take over the top slot in the “Something Fun” category from Woman Last Seen in Her Thirties!

Coincidentally (or maybe not so coincidentally since I do love the behind-the-scenes of reality TV), two books on this list are set on reality TV shows and do a great job of portraying what goes on behind the scenes of those types of shows. And, two of these are Book of the Month picks!

4 More Books Perfect for Summer

CalypsoCalypso by David Sedaris
Nonfiction – Memoir/Essays (Released May 29, 2018)
288 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Book of the Month (Publisher: Little, Brown)

Plot Summary: Sedaris’ latest essay collection focusing on middle age.

My Thoughts: David Sedaris is generally known for his dark humor and his ability to make readers sob and laugh hysterically on the same page. Personally, I didn’t cry or laugh hysterically while reading Calypso, but I did chuckle and get sad and appreciate the crap out of his dark humor. I love how Sedaris says things that most people probably think, but are too scared to say out loud. He’s not worried about offending anyone and talks frankly about his own family. In this collection, Sedaris talks a lot about his sister’s downward spiral and eventual suicide and his father’s aging process and how seeing him age impacts his complicated relationship with him. But, it’s not all serious. He also talks about the outrageous and hilarious…like wanting to feed a tumor he had removed to a special turtle at his beach house. I read one essay a night before bed and was always tempted to keep going for one more essay. And, though I read this one in print, Sedaris is fabulous on audio!

My father has done this all his life. You’ll be talking to him and he’ll walk away – not angry but just sort of finished with you. I was probably six years old the first time I noticed this. You’d think I’d have found it hurtful, but instead I looked at his retreating back, thinking, We can get away with that? Yippee!

Banker's Wife The Banker’s Wife by Cristina Alger
Fiction – Thriller (Released July 3, 2018)
352 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (G.P. Putnam)

Plot Summary: When a private plane carrying a Swiss banker and his wealthy client goes off the radar, his wife is left to piece together the shady dealings Swiss United Bank was involved in.

My Thoughts: I needed a fast, easy read after a heavier book and The Banker’s Wife hit the spot! Despite it’s unfortunately domestic sounding title (really…can publishers try for at least one thriller without “Wife” or “Girl” in the title?!!), it’s more of a conspiracy / financial thriller. It’s purely plot driven (so much so that I forgot to highlight passages to share in this post!) and will keep you turning the pages. There are characters who resemble real life people enough to make you wonder, which I always love to see in my reading (see if you can spot Donald Trump, the Fanjul Family, and the late crime/society journalist Dominick Dunne)! If you’re a sucker for a good conspiracy theory involving powerful people, The Banker’s Wife should be right up your alley!

Book of EssieThe Book of Essie by Meghan MacLean Weir
Fiction – Brain Candy (Released June 12, 2018)
336 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Book of the Month (Publisher: Knopf)

Plot Summary: When the youngest daughter (Essie) of a evangelical reality TV family becomes pregnant and realizes her mother is working with their show’s producers to come up with the best way to spin it for the show, she decides to take matters into her own hands.

My Thoughts: The Book of Essie is the type of brain candy I love…a story about weighty topics that reads quickly and easily. The first line will grab you immediately and I was dying to find out how all this was going to turn out. Essie has had enough of the tight leash her family has her on and the glaring media spotlight, so she hatches a plan that involves a male classmate (Roarke) and a reporter with past ties to a religious cult (Liberty). Essie is sneakily subversive and I loved her…she’s someone you can root for. A lot of bad stuff went on with this family, but the story is ultimately hopeful. And though I did have to suspend disbelief at some of Roarke’s decisions, I just went with the story and it was a 100% satisfying vacation read. Bonus: you get an interesting behind-the-scenes look at reality TV and image management in the media spotlight.

First Line:

On the day I turn seventeen, there is a meeting to decide whether I should have the baby or if sneaking me to a clinic for an abortion is worth the PR risk. I am not invited, which is just as well, since my being there might imply that I have some choice in the matter and I know that I have none.

Favorite SisterThe Favorite Sister by Jessica Knoll
Fiction – Brain Candy (Released May 15, 2018)
384 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased (Publisher: Simon & Schuster)

Plot Summary: A shocking death occurs during the filming of a Real Housewives-esque reality TV show.

My Thoughts: I DNF’d Knoll’s first novel, Luckiest Girl Alive, but decided to give The Favorite Sister a chance once I heard it was about reality TV. I’m glad I did because it was just the type of brain candy I love: smart, a bit different, and containing an ending that’s surprising, yet makes sense with the story looking back on it. I’ve always been intrigued by how the sausage gets made in reality TV and The Favorite Sister doesn’t disappoint in that department. In addition to the reality TV scoop, you also get a big dose of passive-aggressive sister dynamics, feminism, and motherhood (although she does occasionally get a bit heavy-handed with all the issues). If you read Reality Steve’s blog, liked Bachelor Nation by Amy Kaufman (my review), or love the TV show Unreal, The Favorite Sister is for you! Warning: if dislikable characters ruin books for you, steer clear of this one!

We don’t need to draw knives and weapons. The most effective way to destroy someone on the show is to disengage, to deprive her of the drama, of the meaningful connections, of the great and powerful storyline. In our world, your sharpest weapon is a polite smile.

What are your best reads of this summer so far?

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July 2018 Books to Read (and Skip)

July 12, 2018 Mini Book Reviews 15

July 2018 Books to Read

 

Well…July was a bit of a letdown after my excellent June reading. I only really enjoyed two books (but, I’ll be adding both to my 2018 Summer Reading List!) and suffered through two others that didn’t work out…then, there are the DNF’s. 

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Read These

Charlotte Walsh Likes to WinCharlotte Walsh Likes to Win by Jo Piazza
Fiction – Brain Candy (Release Date: July 24, 2018)
320 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Simon & Schuster)

Plot Summary: When Charlotte Walsh leaves her high powered job as COO of a Silicon Valley tech darling to run for Senate in her home state of Pennsylvania, she’s forced to confront the impact on her marriage, her sanity, and her past.

My Thoughts: I’ve been loving books about substantial topics that read easy this summer and I can now add Charlotte Walsh Likes to Win to that list! Though it reads easy enough for the beach, it’s full of astute commentary on women in politics, women in business, managing your image in public life, marriage, motherhood, and gender roles. It makes you feel how truly soul-sucking campaigning and politics can be. But, it also has snappy dialogue, a badass sister-in-law (Kara), and a Friday Night Lights name-check (the easiest way to my heart). Charlotte is a complex character and your sympathy level for her will probably flip-flop throughout the story. The ending will drive some people bonkers and made me say “WTF,” but the more I thought about it, the more it fits with the overall message of the book. An excellent choice for fans of The Hopefuls by Jennifer Close, for book clubs, and for your beach/pool bag!

“You’re thinking, ‘Why does it matter?’ Why does your husband matter?” Josh read her mind. “Your husband matters. Your marriage matters. As a woman, you bear the burden of having to appear to be charismatic, smart, well-groomed, nice, but not too nice. If you’re married, you need to look happily married. If you have kids, you should be the mother of the year.”

Give Me Your HandGive Me Your Hand by Megan Abbott
Fiction – Thriller (Release Date: July 17, 2018)
352 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Little, Brown)

Plot Summary: When Diane and Kit become lab partners in high school, Diane shares an explosive secret. And, when the two women meet again as star lab scientists, the secret comes back to haunt them both. 

My Thoughts: Megan Abbott is one of my go-to authors for intense summer reads…generally about demented high school girls (The Fever and You Will Know Me are my favorites). She’s kept her streak alive with Give Me Your Hand…her most grown-up novel yet. This story is set in the world of science and Abbott’s writing makes the lab, the competition for limited positions on important studies, and the researchers’ dedication seem like the pressure cauldron of an Olympic Trials (similar to how Michael Ruhlman wrote about the Culinary Institute of America in The Making of a Chef). The players are intriguing: the enigmatic legend who seems almost non-human (Dr. Severin), the star researcher who is possibly unstable (Diane), the flirty and slightly reckless researcher (Alex), and the obedient worker bee (Kit). I guessed some of the twists, but not nearly all of them, and each twist revealed deeper layers to one of the characters. Ultimately, this is a story of two women locked in competition…and how a secret that gets told can tear apart both the secret-teller and the person she tells. Grab this one if you like dark and twisty with some substance…and I’ll be adding it to my 2018 Summer Reading Guide!

I wanted to know her secrets, but I didn’t want them to be this. And now I was in there, in that heart of hers, the coldest, darkest place I’d ever been.

Skip These

Baby TeethBaby Teeth by Zoje Stage
Fiction (Release Date: July 17, 2018)
320 Pages
Affiliate Link: Amazon
Source: Publisher (St. Martin’s Press)

Plot Summary: When four year old, non-verbal Hanna begins to escalate her terrible behavior towards her mother, the whole family must decide how to handle their only child.

My Thoughts: This book left me kind of speechless. It’s horrifying, but also weirdly intriguing. I kind of hated it, but also needed an explanation for what was going on (which was why I finished it). Hanna is hands-down the most diabolical child I’ve ever read about and I felt bad for her parents. But, they have their own faults. Hanna’s father is in denial about Hanna’s behavior and coddles her. Before Hanna’s behavior got really bad, her mother made her feel unwanted. Hanna is jealous of the affection her father gives her mother and sort of pits them against each other. If you need likable characters in your reading, you won’t find them here. The overall family dynamics and premise of the book could have been really fascinating, but Stage took the plot way over the top (won’t say more to avoid spoilers!). If she’d left out one particular element and cut back on another, I think I could’ve liked it. The ending did bring things down to earth, but I wish the culmination of the story had happened earlier (maybe 60-70% of the way through?) so we could explore the aftermath and how it impacted the family. I wanted more psychology and less shock value. If you’re on the fence about having kids, Baby Teeth might just push you into the “hard no” camp.

It was unacceptable; Mommy was failing her tests to prove her motherly love. And the more she failed, the more opportunities Hanna tried to provide for her to redeem herself. Though she wasn’t always sure of the rules to their war games. And when she scrunched up her brain, she couldn’t quite remember who had started it.

Fruit of the Drunken TreeFruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras
Fiction – Literary (Release Date: July 31, 2018)
304 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Doubleday Books)

Plot Summary: Amid the violence of Pablo Escobar-era Bogota, Colombia, a wealthy young girl (Chula) and her maid (Petrona) become friends while growing up side by side, but end up with very different stories.

My Thoughts: Fruit of the Drunken Tree is a debut novel inspired by the author’s life. That, the juxtaposition of Chula’s privileged perspective and Petrona’s perspective of poverty, and Pablo Escobar (I’ve always had a weird fascination!) were what attracted me to this book. And, all the pieces for a home run were there, but it was missing the intangibles for me. I loved seeing the drug wars through the eyes of a child and I identified with Chula’s combination fear / fascination with Pablo Escobar and the violence that accompanied him (on a far less personal level, I remember feeling similarly about the Russians as a child during the Cold War). And, the story had explosive plot elements that should have kept me frantically turning the pages. But, something about the way the story was told made all of it feel very distant and kept me from getting invested in these characters. Overall, I wavered over whether to recommend it, but decided against since I found myself frequently zoning out, checking Instagram, and sampling other books while reading it. 

I knew there was no gate surrounding the invasiones where Petrona lived, no iron locks on the doors, no iron bars on the windows. When I asked Petrona how she and her family stayed safe, she laughed. Then because I was embarrassed she shrugged her shoulders. She thought for a moment then said, “There’s nothing to lose.” Five syllables.

The DNF’s

What We Were PromisedWhat We Were Promised by Lucy Tan (Released July 10, 2018)
DNF at 18%

I was just kind of bored. Nothing was happening and I didn’t care about the characters.

 

 

 

The IncendiariesThe Incendiaries by R.O. Kwan (July 31, 2018)
DNF at 10%.

This debut novel about a girl who gets wrapped up in a cult and the boy who is obsessed with her has gotten tons of pre-release hype (and Annie Jones and Tyler Goodson both rated it 4 stars), but it just seemed weird to me. I kept spacing out and the writing was really distant.

 

 

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June 2018 Books to Read (and Skip)

June 14, 2018 Mini Book Reviews 14

June 2018 Books to Read

 

I’ve gotta say, my June books were excellent overall! Two of these books will definitely be on my Best Books of 2018 (So Far) list (coming soon). And, I managed to DNF the ones that weren’t working rather than force my way through them.

In addition to the June 2018 Books to Read in this post, I reviewed Social Creature by Tara Isabella Burton last week. It’s certainly not for everyone, but is a “Read It” for a certain type of reader (i.e. the one who loves dark and demented).

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Read These

Visible EmpireVisible Empire by Hannah Pittard
Historical Fiction (Released June 5, 2018)
288 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Plot Summary: Following the 1962 plane crash at Orly Airport that killed over 100 Atlanta art patrons (a massive chunk of the city’s social elite), Atlanta citizens connected to the crash must figure out who to recover amid the Civil Rights Movement.

My Thoughts: I know many people have mixed feelings about fiction based on real life events, but I’m a fan! In Visible Empire, the Orly plane crash is the big event that ties lots of disparate people and perspectives together (and the opening chapters recounting the crash are riveting). The overall book is more a portrait of Atlanta in the 1960’s from all these different perspectives (the Mayor’s wife, family of the crash victims, an African American teenager that has a chance encounter with a member of Atlanta’s elite, and an ambitious young woman) than about the plane crash itself. Pittard gives us a somewhat gossipy take on the crash’s impact on Atlanta’s elite and those who come in contact with them…and her social commentary is excellent. I felt like this would be the book that Dominick Dunne (former Vanity Fair columnist and author of “fictional” novels about real life crimes involving the wealthy) could have written about the crash…and it reminded me of a less epic A Man in Full (by Tom Wolfe). But, I did miss the Afterward that normally accompanies these types of books that lays out where the author stayed true to real life and where she took liberties for the sake of the story.

Don’t you understand, Lulu? The world – not just the governor, not just the president – the world is watching. Right now, I am being watched. You and I and our dear, dear city are being watched. Do you understand? They want to know if we’ll ever stand up again. They want to know if this is the beginning of a spiral into the ground, or if we’ve got fight and life in us yet.

We Are GatheredWe Are Gathered by Jamie Weisman
Fiction – Literary (Released June 5, 2018)
288 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Plot Summary: The story of an inter-faith wedding (between Jewish Elizabeth and Christian Hank), told from the perspectives of various wedding guests (mother of the bride, grandfather of the groom, childhood best friend of the bride, etc).

My Thoughts: The publisher says We Are Gathered is a debut novel, but I think it reads more like a series of closely interconnected short stories (similar to Elizabeth Strout’s Anything is Possible). Each chapter is told from the perspective of a different wedding guest, but much of the book is the each guest’s backstory with a smaller portion focused on the wedding itself. Before reading it, I thought We Were Gathered would be a light, fun read and a potential candidate for my 2018 Summer Reading Guide. It was immediately clear I’d judged wrong because many of the characters’ backstories are dark and sad and the overall tone is subdued. These people have demons and some are dealing with big challenges. There’s the childhood friend of the bride with a birthmark that covers half her face, the grandfather of the groom who can’t move or speak but whose mind is works just fine, yet no one knows it…and more. Despite it being different than expected, I liked We Were Gathered‘s unique perspectives and the astute life observations. But, the ending focused on two of the characters I was least interested in and was somewhat odd compared to the rest of the book. I’d recommend We Were Gathered if you like quieter books with life observations from interesting perspectives…and don’t mind depressing.

I was twenty-one years old; she was seventeen. We were children. I know that now, but that’s how old people were when they got married. Elizabeth is twenty-eight. She would have been considered an old maid. No one told us that marriage would be hard. There were no therapists or counselors. You got married, maybe for love, for lust, for comfort, because it was time and you didn’t want to die alone. You had children. You didn’t think about what you wanted.

Us Against YouUs Against You by Fredrick Backman
Fiction – Literary (Released June 5, 2018)
448 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Atria Books)

Plot Summary: Amid the wreckage of the previous winter, Beartown residents face their beloved ice hockey team being disbanded and a volatile rivalry with nearby Hed Hockey.

My Thoughts: Let me start by saying that Us Against You is the sequel to last year’s Beartown (one of my favorites of 2017) and I highly recommend you read Beartown before reading Us Against You. The minute I picked up Us Against You, I breathed a sigh of relief to be back among these people in this town. Like in Beartown, Backman masterfully plunks the reader right into the center of things and makes him/her feel deeply for these characters and the town. But this time around, Beartown has lost its innocence. The story is even darker, more sinister, and more focused on the adults and the politics of sports (a very real thing). The town is reeling amid the wreckage of what happened in Beartown (the book) and trying to find its way forward. Like in Beartown, the story is about far more than hockey…friendship, rivalry, marriage, parenting, power, sexuality, and violence. Backman captures general human nature and its basest elements beautifully. While I didn’t love Us Against You quite as much as Beartown, I was still completely engrossed in the emotion of sports, which Backman captures better than anything save Friday Night Lights (and if you’re missing FNL, these are the books for you!).

Side Note: I thought this series was supposed to be a trilogy and Us Against You did feel like a “bridge book” right up until the end. But, the ending made me question whether a third book is on the way. I couldn’t find anything online confirming the third book. Does anyone have any answers?

Have you ever seen a town fall? Ours did. We’ll end up saying that violence came to Beartown this summer, but that will be a lie, the violence was already here. Because sometimes hating each other is so easy that it seems incomprehensible that we ever do anything else.

Great BelieversThe Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai
Fiction – Literary (Release Date: June 19, 2018)
432 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Viking)

Plot Summary: A group of gay friends and their female friend (Fiona) navigate the AIDS crisis and deal with the death of one of their own in 1980’s Chicago…and decades later, Fiona sets out to Paris to find her estranged daughter and encounters the past in the process.

My Thoughts: The Great Believers is one of those “issue” book that makes the issue an organic part of the characters’ lives…and these are the types of “issue” books that work for me. It’s ultimately a gorgeous story about friendship in the face of disaster and is the kind of book you can just sink into. It’s got a little bit of The Heart’s Invisible Furies (sexuality, the AIDS crisis, characters you can root for wholeheartedly) and a little bit of A Little Life (a group of male friends facing terrible circumstances, but without the overwhelming violence), but retains its own uniqueness. These characters worked their way into my heart, even as it was breaking for them. Makkai’s writing wasn’t the kind that had me highlighting right and left…it was more the kind that just pulled me right into the story. And, the dual timelines come together in a surprising and satisfying way. This book has heart…and it’s seriously literary, but will still keep you turning the pages because you just have to find out what’s going to happen to these characters.

And was friendship that different in the end from love? You took the possibility of sex out of it, and it was all about the moment anyway. Being here, right now, in someone’s life. Making room for someone in yours.

Skip These

Florida by Lauren GroffFlorida by Lauren Groff (Released June 5, 2018)
DNF at 17%

Short stories are always hit and miss for me, so I hesitantly picked up this collection (mostly because I liked Fates & Furies). I wasn’t a fan of the first story, did like the second, but the third totally lost me. From the bit I read, this collection seemed like a very dark, depressing take on life in Florida.

 

 

A Place for UsA Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza (June 12, 2018)
DNF at 29%.

I had high hopes for this novel because of its rave reviews and I liked it alright, but I just kept waiting for something to happen. I read the 3 star Goodreads reviews and the main complaint was the novel didn’t have much of a plot. So, I figured things weren’t going to pick up. For a novel like this to work for me, the writing has to sparkle and I thought this writing was just average.

 

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The Best Backlist Books I’ve Read in 2018 So Far

May 29, 2018 Mini Book Reviews 23

Best Backlist Books I've Read in 2018 So Far

 

The best backlist books I’ve read in 2018 so far are all over the map from a genre perspective. But, good for me for genre diversity!

I never read as many backlist books as I’d like, but I do try to fit some in at the beginning and end of every year. And, putting them on hold at the library holds me accountable because I feel pressure to make the time when the books come in!

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!).

The Best Backlist Books I’ve Read in 2018 So Far

Glitter and GlueGlitter and Glue by Kelly Corrigan
Nonfiction – Memoir (Released February 4, 2014)
224 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased (Publisher: Ballantine Books)

Plot Summary: Corrigan’s stint as a nanny to an Australian family who had lost their mother helps her reflect on what it means to be a mother and her relationship with her own mother.

My Thoughts: I absolutely adored Corrigan’s latest memoir, Tell Me More, so I was excited to delve into her backlist. While Glitter and Glue didn’t blow me away quite as much as Tell Me More, I still relished sinking back into Corrigan’s signature brand of heartfelt, relatable, and sometimes irreverent observations about life and motherhood. Corrigan hadn’t given much thought to what it’s like to mother someone or quite appreciated her mother until she stepped into the role of surrogate caring for two children who had lost their own. I know I couldn’t begin to relate to what it’s like to be a mother until I was one myself…which gave me a whole new appreciation for my own mother…a situation I’m guessing is pretty common. If you like women’s life observations-type writing (think Anna Quindlen, Cheryl Strayed), Kelly Corrigan should be next on your list! Read by the author, this one is great on audio!

[…] I probably should have figured this out sooner, but what child can see the woman inside her Mom, what with all that mother-ness blocking out everything else?

Heating and CoolingHeating and Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs by Beth Ann Fennelly
Memoir (Released October 10, 2017)
112 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased (Publisher: W.W. Norton)

Plot Summary: In a series of tiny chapters (some only a single paragraph), Fennelly shares anecdotes from her life.

My Thoughts: This memoir is told in a totally unique format…actually a number of different formats (short essays, single paragraphs or sentences, a poem, etc) collected into one volume. It’s clever and witty and random, but delightfully random. It’s a 100% “real life” book. She touches on marriage, parenthood, her writing career, her Catholic upbringing (Catholics beware – she sort of skewers Catholicism), and everyday life. It’s the perfect choice for a time when you’re distracted or don’t have much reading time…and would make a perfect “bathroom book” (i.e. the book that sits on the back of the toilet to be picked up by whoever sits down).

There will come a day—let it be many years from now—when our kids realize no married couple ever needed to retreat at high noon behind their locked bedroom door to discuss taxes.

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican DaughterI Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sanchez
Fiction – Young Adult (Released October 17, 2017)
352 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Library (Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers)

Plot Summary: In the wake of her sister’s tragic death, Julia Reyes (the daughter of Mexican immigrants) strains against the expectations of her traditional parents and tries to find out more about her sister’s life.

My Thoughts: This story of a cultural and generational clash, dealing with grief, and living in the shadow of a deceased sibling reminded me a bit of Everything I Never Told You (my review). Julia is a bit of a feminist with ambitions to leave her Chicago suburb to pursue her writing dreams, while her parents think she should stay home, learning to keep house like “good Mexicans daughters” (e.g. her sister). Julia narrates the book in a salty, questioning style, but her constant negativity started to grate on me after awhile. The story is bleak at times, but is ultimately hopeful (even though the ending is a bit too neat and tidy, though that’s probably appropriate for YA). Though not perfect, this coming-of-age story about the universal theme of young girls navigating their paths with parents who are vastly different than they are could be a transformative read for young girls.

In some ways, I think that part of what I’m trying to accomplish—whether Amá really understands it or not—is to live for her, Apá, and Olga. It’s not that I’m living life for them, exactly, but I have so many choices they’ve never had, and I feel like I can do so much with what I’ve been given. What a waste their journey would be if I just settled for a dull, mediocre life. Maybe one day they’ll realize that.

Red Notice Red Notice by Bill Browder
Nonfiction – Business (Released February 3, 2015)
380 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Library (Publisher: Simon & Schuster)

Plot Summary: The true story Browder’s experience as one of the first foreign investors in Russia after the fall of Communism and widespread privatization.

My Thoughts: You might think the premise of Red Notice sounds boring. Let me assure you…it’s not. It’s a financial thriller (if there is such a thing) that reads like fiction and kept me quickly turning the pages…while giving a fascinating picture of Russian culture in the Post-Communism era. During the course of his investing, Browder made a ton of money, partnered with billionaire Edmond Safra, angered some oligarchs via his anti-corruption battles, showed some serious guts, and ended up in a knockdown, drag-out battle with Putin and the Russian regime. Think a cross between Michael Lewis, Dominick Dunne, and the TV show Billions. Bonus: rumor has it he wrote this book in an effort to stay alive, to become well-known enough that the Russians couldn’t easily take him out.

This whole exercise was teaching me that Russian business culture is closer to that of a prison yard than anything else. In prison, all you have is your reputation. Your position is hard-earned and it is not relinquished easily. When someone is crossing the yard coming for you, you cannot stand idly by. You have to kill him before he kills you. If you don’t, and if you manage to survive the attack, you’ll be deemed weak and before you know it, you will have lost your respect and become someone’s bitch. This is the calculus that every oligarch and every Russian politician goes through every day.

Virgin SuicidesThe Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides
Fiction – Debut (Released April 1, 1993)
249 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased (Publisher: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux)

Plot Summary: In a Detroit suburb, the five enigmatic Lisbon sisters commit suicide over the course of a year and the neighborhood boys who were obsessed with them try to understand why.

My Thoughts: I recently read Annie Spence’s Dear Fahrenheit 451 and she raved so much about The Virgin Suicides that I immediately felt like a freak of nature for not having read it yet! I definitely didn’t end up as evangelical about it as Annie, but I did really like it. It’s a gorgeously written, nostalgic, wistful, coming-of-age story told from the collective voice of the neighborhood boys who were obsessed with the mysterious and unreachable Lisbon sisters. This is a book where you know what happens in the first sentence, so there isn’t a ton of “action” (other than lots of awkward, teenage stalking), yet Eugenides still managed to create incredible, simmering tension that had me almost as obsessed with the Lisbon sisters as the neighborhood boys were. PS – the first and last lines are among the best first and last lines I’ve ever read.

It didn’t matter in the end how old they had been, or that they were girls, but only that we had loved them, and that they hadn’t heard us calling, still do not hear us, up here in the tree-house, with our thinning hair and soft bellies, calling them out of those rooms where they went to be alone for all time, alone in suicide, which is deeper than death, and where we will never find the pieces to put them back together.

What great backlist books have you read this year?

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April and May 2018 Books to Read (and Skip)

May 15, 2018 Mini Book Reviews 16

April and May 2018 Books to Read

 

My reading was all over the place in April (because I was reading way ahead for my 2018 Summer Reading Guide), so you’re getting a double dose of books this month!

In addition to my April and May 2018 Books to Read, stay tuned for my full review of another April book, Circe by Madeline Miller (coming a week from today).

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April and May 2018 Books to Read

Alternative Remedies for LossAlternative Remedies for Loss by Joanna Cantor
Fiction – Brain Candy (Released May 8, 2018)
320 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Bloomsbury USA)

Plot Summary: When Olivia’s Dad brings his new girlfriend on a family trip to India only months after her Mom’s death from cancer, Olivia has to figure out how to navigate her grief and get her life back on track.

My Thoughts: I bet you wouldn’t expect a novel about grief to be a light, easy read, but Joanna Cantor’s debut novel is both! I flew through it in just a few days at the beach…and it was an excellent beach read despite the focus on grief. During the Prologue, I was wavering about whether or not to continue reading, then something completely unexpected and interesting happened that caused me to keep going…and I’m so glad I did. This element isn’t a huge focus of the plot, but it was the pivotal moment that got me engrossed in the book. Beyond Olivia’s grief, Alternative Remedies for Loss is a story about a family trying to figure out their new normal after the loss of their mother and a daughter trying to get to know who her mother was as a person, beyond her role as mother and wife.

When you knew what you wanted, everything became simpler, more streamlined.

book of the month may 2018How to Walk Away by Katherine Center
Fiction – Brain Candy (Released May 15, 2018)
320 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (St. Martin’s Press)

Plot Summary: After Margaret is in a tragic accident the night she gets engaged, she must figure out how to move forward and who she is post-accident.

My Thoughts: I’ve been on a streak lately with books about very serious topics that are handled in a light-hearted way…and that read like brain candy. Add How to Walk Away to that list (Alternative Remedies for Loss, Woman Last Seen in Her Thirties). How to Walk Away reminded me of a less ugly-cry spin on Me Before You. There’s a number of likable characters that I was rooting hard for, some romance, some humor, family drama, and a hopeful, inspirational tone. Admittedly, this is not the kind of book I normally enjoy (I usually like them extra dark and twisted), but all the unicorns and rainbows worked for me here. The ending is utterly ridiculous, but I would have been furious had it ended any other way (a sign of a true rom-com?). However, I could’ve done without the Epilogue. I have no idea why all these things I normally hate in books worked for me here, but they did and I no longer have to sheepishly admit I have nothing when people ask me for a “feel-good” book recommendation.

Needing to find reasons to live had forced me to build a life worth living. I would never say the accident was a good thing. I would never, ever claim that everything happens for a reason. Like all tragedies, it was senseless.

But I knew one thing for sure: The greater our capacity for sorrow becomes, the greater our capacity for joy.

So I went on, “That’s the thing you don’t know – that you can’t know until life has genuinely beaten the crap out of you: I am better for it all. I am better for being broken.”

Girl Who Smiled BeadsThe Girl Who Smiled Beads by Clemantine Wamariya
Nonfiction – Memoir (Released April 24, 2018)
288 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Book of the Month (Publisher: Crown)

Plot Summary: Clemantine was six years old when she and her older sister (Claire) were separated from their family during the Rwandan genocide and spent the next six years as refugees before being granted asylum in the U.S., and in Clemantine’s case, going on to get a degree from Yale.

My Thoughts: The Girl Who Smiled Beads was one of my April Book of the Month selections and it came with rave reviews. The story is told in alternating timelines (Clemantine and Claire’s time as refugees and their later childhood / early adulthood in the U.S.) and the refugee portion is as heart-wrenching as you’d expect. What they went through is appalling. However, the U.S. portion was incredibly intriguing to me as Clemantine struggled with her conflicted feelings about her identity and the help she received in the U.S. (she was taken in by a white, suburban family and supported through high school before heading on to Yale). She understandably has different views about many everyday things (e.g., camping, marriage, etc) that were shaped by her experience. The writing is simple and hard-hitting, which is my kind of writing and fit this story well, but the alternating timelines pulled me out of the story a bit. I’d admittedly not learned much about the various refugee crises around the world and this book started to change that.

It’s strange, how you go from being a person who is away from home to a person with no home at all. The place that is supposed to want you has pushed you out. No other place takes you in. You are unwanted, by everyone. You are a refugee.

You Think It, I'll Say ItYou Think It, I’ll Say It: Stories by Curtis Sittenfeld
Fiction – Short Stories (Released April 24, 2018)
256 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Random House)

Plot Summary: Novelist Curtis Sittenfeld’s (author of Prep, American Wife, and Eligible) first short story collection.

My Thoughts: Short stories are not my thing. I’ve only really loved two short story collections in my entire life (Beneath the Bonfire and Why They Run the Way They Do). I can now make that three because I adored this collection…it’s unquestionably 5 stars for me! The three collections I’ve loved all have one thing in common: the stories have something idiosyncratic in them, but are otherwise about mundane life. The stories in You Think It, I’ll Say It are mostly about otherwise normal relationships that have a hidden element of unconventionality or an awkward incident. They’re normal situations that end up taking unexpected turns…they’re relatable, yet surprising. I was completely invested in the characters in every story, which is a rarity for me with short stories. If you’ve been hesitant to try short stories, You Think It, I’ll Say It is a perfect first collection!

Oh, our private habits, our private selves – how strange we all are, how full of feelings and essentially alone.

April and May 2018 Books to Skip

I was very quick to DNF books over the past few months because I was trying to get through as many candidates for my Summer Reading Guide as possible. So, all my April and May skips are DNFs…

Campaign WidowsCampaign Widows by Aimee Agresti (May 22, 2018)
DNF at 6%

Honestly, I tried this so long ago and quit so early that I have zero memory of anything I did read or why I DNF’d it. Sorry!

 

 

Love and RuinLove and Ruin by Paula McLain (May 1, 2018)
DNF at 27%

I loved McLain’s The Paris Wife and Circling the Sun, but felt like I was slogging through Love and Ruin. Maybe it was because she went back to Hemingway a second time? I was reading it at the beach and that’s not the place you want to try to slog through a book!

 


That Kind of MotherThat Kind of Mother
 by Rumaan Alam (May 8, 2018)
DNF at 48%

I thought I’d love this novel about a woman who adopts the child of her nanny after she dies during childbirth because two of my top recommendation sources (Annie Jones from From the Front Porch podcast and Tyler Goodson, Manager at Avid Bookshop in Athens, GA) rated it 5 stars. Unfortunately, something felt off. I had trouble connecting with Rebecca (the main character), the observations about motherhood were kind of all over the map (maybe because it’s written by a man??), and I just couldn’t get fully immersed in it.

 

High SeasonThe High Season by Judy Blendell (May 1, 2018)
DNF at 20%

This novel was heavy on high society and museum board politics, which I found annoying and boring. Kind of like the mommy politics in Big Little Lies (my review) drove me crazy.

 

 

Italian PartyThe Italian Party by Christina Lynch (April 10, 2018)
DNF at 6%.
Ditto Campaign Widows.

 

 

 

What are the best April or May 2018 book you’ve read so far?

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Two Books Everyone Else Rated 5 Stars: Educated by Tara Westover and The Gunners by Rebecca Kauffman

May 10, 2018 Mini Book Reviews 15

There’s a good chance you’ve heard of both of these books because many people have rated them 5 stars. And, I really liked one and liked the other decently well. But, neither was a 5 star read for me. I liked Educated a lot and can’t point to any specific flaws in it, but it just didn’t have the extra oomph to push it from 4 to 5 stars. However, I did have some specific issues with The Gunners, which kept it at 3.5 stars for me.

Educated by Tara WestoverEducated by Tara Westover
Nonfiction – Memoir (Released February 20, 2018)
352 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Library (Publisher: Random House)

Plot Summary: Westover tells her story of growing up in a survivalist Mormon family who didn’t believe in public education and her journey to break the mold by getting her PhD at Cambridge University.

My Thoughts: Imagine if you had to choose between getting an education (both the traditional kind and an education about life in general) and having a relationship with your family. That’s what happened to Tara Westover. Tara’s father insisted the whole family live “off the grid”…with no interaction with the government or modern medicine. Her journey to follow her passion for knowledge (both academic knowledge and common sense) and her battle with her family to be able to pursue an education is both heart-breaking and inspirational. I could feel Tara’s emotional tug-of-war over her own beliefs and the blood ties of her family…it was heart-wrenching. There are many parts that are hard to read…and that I’d have found totally unbelievable had this been fiction. If you liked The Glass Castle, Hillbilly Elegy (my review), and/or Under the Banner of Heaven (my reviewEducated should be next on your list!

Again I thought about the family. There was a puzzle in it, something unresolved. What is a person to do, I asked, when their obligations to their family conflict with other obligations—to friends, to society, to themselves?

The Gunners by Rebecca KauffmanThe Gunners by Rebecca Kauffman
Fiction – Literary (Released March 20, 2018)
261 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Library (Publisher: Counterpoint Press)

Plot Summary: A coed group of childhood friends (called “The Gunners”) gathers for the one of the members’ (Sally’s) funeral and tries to unravel what went wrong with their friendship group ages ago and what caused Sally to end her life.

My Thoughts: Many of my very best recommendation sources 5 star-loved The Gunners, so I was sure it would be 5 stars for me as well. Well…I liked it, but I did have some issues with it and I never considered rating it 5 stars (it’s getting 3.5 stars). I loved the story’s premise of a coed group of childhood friends coming back together in adulthood and secrets being revealed…it reminded me of Shotgun Lovesongs (my review), but Shotgun Lovesongs executed it better. The story meanders a bit in the beginning, but the story moves once the revelations begin. But, so many secrets are revealed that it felt like a game of whack-a-mole. And, I loved the characters, but the way they interacted in adulthood felt off…like the author was trying too hard. The adults tickle each other, Indian-wrestle, and tell scary stories (just like when they were kids), but all I kept thinking was “this is NOT how my childhood friends and I interact as adults…this just seems weird.” This coupled with the over-the-top whack-a-mole revealing of secrets made the story feel a bit contrived overall. For a different opinion, check out reviews at Novel Visits and Running N Reading.

“Sally taught me something about people that I never wanted to know.” Alice said, “What was that?” “That people can disappear,” Lynn said. “Right before your eyes. That you’ll never understand it and there won’t be a thing you can do about it.”

Have you read either of these popular books? What did you think?

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Alcohol & Advil: The Female Persuasion and Look Alive Out There: Essays

April 10, 2018 Mini Book Reviews 9

Alcohol and Advil Literary Style
Welcome to Alcohol & Advil, where I pair a book likely to cause a “reading hangover” (i.e. the alcohol) with a recovery book (i.e. the Advil)! For me, the “alcohol” is usually a book that I either absolutely loved or one that punched me in the gut in an emotionally depleting way…and, in this case, it’s the former.

I’ve got a couple quintessential New York City books for you today. And, Look Alive Out There was the perfect recovery book for The Female Persuasion because the style was so different. Big, character-driven novel vs. short, snappy essay collection. Of course, I went into a slump after finishing this pair…

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The Alcohol

Female PersuasionThe Female Persuasionby Meg Wolitzer
Fiction – Literary (Released April 3, 2018)
464 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Riverhead Books)

Plot Summary: Greer is a shy college student still in love with her high school boyfriend when she meets Faith Frank, an icon of the women’s movement, who changes the trajectory of Greer’s life.

My Thoughts: Meg Wolitzer is one of my very favorite authors, so I’m not entirely surprised that The Female Persuasion is my second 5 star book of the year! I’d be shocked if you don’t see this one pop up on tons of Best Books of 2018 lists come December. In a letter to the reader at the beginning of the book, Riverhead’s Editor-in-Chief (Sarah McGrath) says The Female Persuasion is a novel about “female power, ambition, leadership, and mentorship […].” And it is, but those issues are secondary to what is ultimately a story in which the characters are the stars: Greer, her boyfriend (Cory), her best friend (Zee), and Faith Frank. We follow these people through their evolution into adulthood (in the cases of Greer, Zee, and Cory) and a second act (in Faith’s case). I was completely enmeshed in these people’s lives and the issues this book addresses fit organically around the characters’ stories without overwhelming them (like An American Marriage and The Mothers). The sparkling writing you expect from Wolitzer is there…

So Faith Frank hired me, originally, based on nothing. She took me in and she taught me things, and more than that she gave me permission. I think that’s what the people who change our lives always do. They give us permission to be the person we secretly really long to be but maybe don’t feel we’re allowed to be.

And, though this is a character-driven novel, there are definitely a few surprises in the story that felt like cherries on top of an already delicious sundae. After finishing the book, I realized it was 464 pages and was shocked by how long it was. I read it in a few days and I was always itching to get back to it when I had to leave it for some real life. If you loved The Interestings (and maybe also if you didn’t, per Annie Jones of From the Front Porch podcast), I think you’ll like The Female Persuasion, but you’ll certainly if you love character-driven stories with great writing. And, it’s ripe for great book club discussion!

The Advil

Look Alive Out ThereLook Alive Out There: Essays by Sloane Crosley
Nonfiction – Essays (Released April 3, 2018)
256 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Farrar, Straus, Giroux)

Plot Summary: A collection of essays about Crosley’s mostly New York City life, with her “trademark hilarity, wit, and charm.”

My Thoughts: I generally have trouble with essay collections billed as humorous. Humor is hard. I often feel like the author is trying too hard with the jokes. But, Crosley’s humor is more subtle…the kind that has me chuckling rather than LOLing (a promise of so many of these types of essay collections), which is much more up my alley. Look Alive Out There is a perfect example of what I like in my Brain Candy…light and fun, but also smart and sharp. Crosley captures the ridiculousness and weirdness and occasional hilariousness of living in New York City and doesn’t hold back with the social commentary.

Part of what’s interesting about living in New York is how much business you can choose to have with people who are absolutely none of your business. There’s something incongruous about how careful we are to set up boundaries, how ardent we are about maintaining them, and how quick we are to take a wrecking ball to them when it suits us. We train one another to disengage at the daily level, to greet with silent nods, to ignore music coming through the walls or tearful phone calls on the street. Yet when we want to feel we’re doing the right thing, we come swooping in with eye contact and directions.

As with all essay collections, I had my favorites. The opening story, Wheels Up is quintessential New York and Relative Stranger, about her porn star cousin, is ridiculous in the greatest way. Up the Down Volcano, about her experience trying to climb a mountain in Ecuador totally unprepared, was too long and the weakest essay for me. And, yes, she does write about that cameo on Gossip Girl…wittily using her insider status in book publishing (she started as a Simon & Schuster publicist) to take apart the authenticity of her guest star scene (which was a book party).

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March 2018 Books to Read (and Skip)

March 15, 2018 Mini Book Reviews 39

March 2018 Books to Read

 

My March reading has so far been pretty similar to February! I’ve liked most of what I’ve read, but there isn’t a runaway standout. I did get let down by two trusted authors, which always makes me a special kind of sad, but overall a solid month!

In addition to my March 2018 Books to Read, stay tuned for my full review of Alternate Side by Anna Quindlen (coming a week from today).

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Bachelor NationBachelor Nation by Amy Kaufman
Nonfiction (Released March 6, 2018)
320 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Publisher: Dutton Books)

Plot Summary: Kaufman, a L.A. Times reporter who covered The Bachelor franchise until ABC shut down her access because they weren’t pleased with what she was writing about the show, exposes the inner workings of The Bachelor franchise.

My Thoughts: I’m an unapologetic fan of The Bachelor and am fascinated by all the behind-the-scenes drama. So, I’m almost the perfect reader for this book (my downfall is that I already know a lot of this stuff from reading Reality Steve). Kaufman investigates The Bachelor‘s cultural place in America, how producers get contestants to give them good TV, how and why contestants think they fall in love over such a short period of time, what happens to the couples after the show ends…and, a history of dating shows (which should have been edited out). This best part of the book are the excepts from contestant Sharleen Joynt‘s journal she kept during filming…she clinically picks apart the psychology of the show while she’s in the middle of it. She’s brilliant and her take is articulate and well thought-out. Kaufman doesn’t really dish on contestant-specific gossip (who’s hooking up with whom, etc), but raises the overall curtain to reveal Oz. Beware if you want to preserve the fairytale because you’ll for sure be watching the show differently after reading it.

Everything is just so designed for romance, I can see how if you were single, didn’t necessarily know what you were looking for, couldn’t tell a deep connection from a superficial one, and were somewhat naive, hopelessly naive and not very cautious, you could fall in love. The focus is so on it all the time. You’re constantly prompted to talk about him, what you two share, how it makes you feel, how seeing him with the other girls makes you feel. There is no escape. – from Sharleen Joynt‘s journal

Laura and EmmaLaura & Emma by Kate Greathead
Fiction – Literary (Released March 13, 2018)
352 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Publisher: Simon & Schuster)

Plot Summary: Laura, the somewhat quirky daughter of a blue-blood Upper East Side family, becomes pregnant after a one-night stand and wrestles with how to raise her daughter.

My Thoughts: The key to loving Laura & Emma is loving Laura’s voice and the writing style (which I did)…because there isn’t a ton of action to propel the story. It’s been compared to the TV show Gilmore Girls and I’d say that’s true with the story’s premise (single mother from a wealthy family trying to raise her daughter differently than how she grew up, but not totally disconnecting), but not at all in character or style. Laura is offbeat, but likable and funny in an awkward way (she reminded me of a less damaged version of Eleanor Oliphant). She’s uncomfortable with her family’s wealth, but her guilt doesn’t stop her from taking advantage of the benefits that come with it. The story is told in vignettes both momentous and mundane, which might turn some people off, but these hung together quite well to form a cohesive story (e.g. similar to Goodbye, Vitamin). However, the ending is perplexing to say the least. I’m still not sure what happened and it will probably annoy readers who don’t like things left open-ended. P.S. – there’s an entertaining, kooky grandmother…always a plus in my reading!

As she sat across the table from this Republican lobbyist lunatic, she thought of what her mother had said of marriage: Anything, anything, anything would be better than this. That’s how others viewed her current situation as a single mother, she realized. How else to explain their rationale in matching her with such maniacs? They saw her and Emma as incomplete, stray people, a free-floating fragment; the goal was to make them whole and anyone, anyone, anyone would be better than no one.

Tangerine by Christine ManganTangerine by Christine Mangan
Fiction – Literary (Released March 20, 2018)
320 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Publisher: Ecco Books)

Plot Summary: Alice Shipley can’t figure out whether to be relieved or unsettled when her college roommate (Lucy Mason), who she hasn’t spoken to in over a year after a deeply disturbing incident, shows up on her doorstep in Tangier, Morocco, where she’s living with her new husband (John).

My Thoughts: Told in dual perspectives, Mangan’s debut novel is the story of a fraught, obsessive friendship and all the wreckage it leaves behind. Tangerine is a very specific type of book that I generally adore (and I did in this case!), but that probably isn’t for everyone. It’s kind of a page turner, but not in the traditional sense. It’s taut with emotional and psychological tension, but doesn’t have much action until the second half. Mangan generates all this tension through her writing style, which reminded me of Tender (my review), Sunburn (my review), and Based on a True Story (Spoiler Discussion). For virtually the entire book, I questioned who to trust, which kept me turning the pages, and the Moroccan setting makes the story even more enigmatic. P.S. – Don’t be fooled by this cover. It reminds me of Paula McClain’s Circling the Sun, which is straight-up historical fiction, but Tangerine does not read like historical fiction at all despite the 1950’s time period. 

Tangier and Lucy were the same, I thought. Both unsolvable riddles that refused to leave me in peace. And I had tired of it – of the not knowing, of always feeling as though I were on the outside of things, just on the periphery.

Skip These

Flight Attendant by Chris BohjalianThe Flight Attendant by Chris Bohjalian
Fiction – Mystery / Thriller (Released March 13, 2018)
368 Pages
Affiliate Link: Amazon
Source: Publisher (Publisher: Doubleday)

Plot Summary: When Cassie, an alcoholic flight attendant, finds her hook-up (Alex Sokolov) from the night before dead in a Dubai hotel, she questions whether she killed him during a blackout and, if not, wonders who did.

My Thoughts: Chris Bohjalian has been a reliable standby for me in the thriller department for the past few years (The Guest RoomThe Sleepwalker), but I think he stumbled with The Flight Attendant. I was initially interested in finding out what happened to Alex and what would happen to Cassie. How would she handle being questioned about Alex’s murder (given she makes terrible decisions most of the time)? Would she be charged with murdering him? But, as Alex’s story is gradually revealed, I became incredibly confused. Why he might have been killed is convoluted, yet it felt like white noise to me. That side of the story isn’t developed well at all…to the point that I didn’t really care. However, Bohjalian did a great job bringing the life of a flight attendant alive, which I enjoyed. Bohjalian has written a book a year for the past few years, which is a lot. I feel like he might’ve churned this one out too quickly…at the expense of quality.

She hoped her small joke would make him smile, but the truth of it made her cringe. It wasn’t merely the acknowledgment of her drinking; it was the reality that she was poisonous; she always risked diminishing the people she loved or might someday love. Too often she forced them to make the same bad choices she did or forced them from her life. Best case, she forced them to care for her.

Girls Burn BrighterGirls Burn Brighter by Shobha Rao (March 6, 2018)
DNF at 13%

This novel about female friendship set in India got a decent amount of publisher hype. I had trouble getting into the characters initially and my mind kept wandering. I felt like I was viewing the story from an airplane window at 50,000 feet instead of feeling immersed in it. Since then, I’ve heard it’s an incredibly brutal story, which I just don’t have in me right now.

What’s the best book you’ve read so far this month?

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February 2018 Books to Read (and Skip)

February 15, 2018 Mini Book Reviews 34

February 2018 Books to Read


This is technically supposed to be a “Read it, Skip it” post, but my February reading was so good that I didn’t actually finish any books I’d recommend you skip! However, I did include a couple February books I DNF’d to account for the skip it portion.

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Read These

And, don’t forget my favorite novel of 2018 so far, An American Marriage, which I already reviewed!

All the Castles Burned by Michael NyeAll the Castles Burned by Michael Nye
Fiction – Debut (Released February 13, 2018)
384 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Publisher: Turner)

Plot Summary: Owen Webb, a scholarship student at the prestigious Rockcastle School (a private day school for boys) embarks on an obsessive, dangerous friendship with Carson Bly, the son of a wealthy and absent father.

My Thoughts: All the Castles Burned was such a pleasant surprise for me (because it had not come recommended by someone who had already read the book…i.e. it was a risk that paid off!). It’s a classic coming of age story with some dysfunctional family drama, some “outsider enters the realm of the wealthy” dynamics, a foreboding friendship, a father/son angle, a touch of romance, and basketball. You can feel the tension simmering and you know things will explode at some point. It’s just a matter of when and how. The writing is stellar, especially for a debut, and I highlighted often. While basketball does play a significant role in the story and there is occasional overkill on the details of the game, basketball’s role in the story is similar to baseball’s in The Art of Fielding. I’d recommend this one for fans of Shadow of the Lions (my review) and Unraveling Oliver.

It’s like a part of being a fully formed human didn’t exist in him. […] Or if it was like carving a Halloween pumpkin, cutting and scraping out the inside, only to take a knife and cut a smiling face into the surface and place a lone candle inside to shine that deceptive, grinning light.

Sunburn by Laura LippmanSunburn by Laura Lippman
Mystery / Thriller (Release Date: February 20, 2018)
384 Pages
Affiliate Link: Pre-Order from Amazon
Source: Publisher (William Morrow)

Plot Summary: When Polly and Adam meet at a bar in tiny Belleville, Delaware in the 1990’s each is merely passing through. As they become more enamored with each other, they discover both are keeping secrets.

My Thoughts: For new readers, I’ve had a dicey track record with thrillers lately, but Sunburn is a thriller that I actually liked a lot! But, I was more confident than usual because it was recommended by Annie Jones from From the Front Porch podcast (one of my Go-To Recommendation Sources) and Megan Abbott, one of my few trusted thriller authors. Sunburn is an unconventional love story where essentially everyone is messing with everyone else. There’s not a single character who is 100% likable or trustworthy (take note if dislikable characters tend to bother you!). The first half focuses on peeling back the layers of the characters (i.e. it’s not super fast-paced) and had me wondering who exactly was pulling the strings. Then, the action picks up in the second half. I’m still mulling over whether I buy the ending in the context of these characters, but all in all Sunburn kept me quickly turning the pages even while sick with the flu!

The goal is never the man. Never. Men are the stones she jumps to, one after another, toward the goal.

I'll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamaraI’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara
Nonfiction – True Crime (Release Date: February 27, 2018)
352 Pages
Affiliate Link: Pre-Order from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Harper)

Plot Summary: McNamara, previously a true crime writer and blogger at TrueCrimeDiary.com, investigated the unsolved crimes of a 1970’s-80’s serial rapist (approximately 45 rapes per the FBI’s Wanted poster) and murderer (approximately 12 murders per the FBI’s Wanted poster) that she dubbed the Golden State Killer (also known as the EAR for East Area Rapist).

My Thoughts: The best true crime books put themselves on another tier by telling the story in a compelling, engrossing way and avoiding getting bogged down in overly dry details. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark does just that. It’s up there with The Stranger Beside Me (but not quite approaching In Cold Blood) in the true crime genre for me. The story is just as much about McNamara and her investigation as it is about the Golden State Killer, who came to dominate her life before she died unexpectedly while writing this book. Many sections are pieced together from her notes and interview recordings, but it doesn’t destroy the flow of the book at all. In fact, it adds more poignancy to the story. The story of the Golden State Killer is chilling and I found I couldn’t read this book at night…but isn’t that what you want out of true crime?

He attacked in different jurisdictions across California that didn’t always share information or communicate well with each other. By the time DNA testing revealed that crimes previously thought to be unrelated were the work of one man, more than a decade had passed since his last known murder, and his capture wasn’t a priority. He flew under the radar, at large and unidentified.

Skip These

I didn’t finish a single February book I didn’t like (that’s the goal, so yay!), so I’m going to share my DNF’s (aka did not finish) and a few thoughts about each one here.

Great Alone, Glass Forest


The Great Alone
 by Kristin Hannah (February 6, 2018)

I know I’m probably in the minority on this one, but I DNF’d it at 37%. I enjoyed the Alaska setting, but I got kind of bored. And, I was incredibly frustrated with Cora’s decision-making…I couldn’t stomach reading any more of it.

The Glass Forest by Cynthia Swanson (February 6, 2018)
At the 14% mark, this dysfunctional family novel was fine (but no more than that). But, I just kept thinking about other books I was excited to read. I’ll pick it up again if any of my Go-To Recommendation Sources say it’s awesome.

What have been your favorite February 2018 books?

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January Read It, Skip It: Grist Mill Road, Tell Me More, The Immortalists, Anatomy of a Scandal

January 18, 2018 Mini Book Reviews 23

Grist Mill Road, Tell Me More, The Immortalists, Anatomy of a Scandal


You may be familiar with my Read It, Skip It posts where I normally cover two books. I’m trying something different this month by rounding up all my January releases into one big Read It, Skip It post. What could give you a clearer picture of the January releases than that?!

Plus, if you’re thinking about tracking your reading this year, check out my “Rock Your Reading” Tracker! It automatically compiles all your reading stats into pretty Summary Charts and enables you choose better books by helping you track your recommendation sources.

This post contains affiliate links (plus: here’s your Amazon Smile-specific affiliate link).

Read These

Grist Mill Road by Christopher J YatesGrist Mill Road by Christopher J. Yates
Fiction (Released January 9, 2018)
352 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Publisher: Picador)

Plot Summary: Two and a half decades after Patrick, Hannah, and Matthew were involved in a childhood crime in their hometown of Roseborn, NY, they meet again in New York City and have to grapple with what happened years ago.

My Thoughts: Yates’ debut novel, Black Chalk, was one of my favorite books of 2014 and I had high expectations for his sophomore effort. Though Grist Mill Road wasn’t perfect and I didn’t love it as much as Black Chalk, I couldn’t put it down. It’s the kind of book I could’ve read in one sitting if I had the time. It’s part coming of age story (reminiscent of My Sunshine Away) and part psychological thriller, while managing to remain literary (well…until the overly thriller-y ending). The opening Prologue reveals the big “what” of the story and will take your breath away, but the intensity doesn’t let up as you start to learn the “how” and “why.” I do wish Matthew’s backstory had been introduced earlier in the book and that certain storylines hadn’t been told in letter format. Nevertheless, Grist Mill Road is a solid choice if you like dark, twisty, literary thrillers about extremely complicated friendships (a la If We Were Villains).

That there must have been a thousand and one different ways I could have saved her that day. But what did I do? I did nothing.

Tell Me More by Kelly CorriganTell Me More by Kelly Corrigan
Nonfiction – Memoir (Released January 9, 2018)
256 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Random House)

Plot Summary: Corrigan’s memoir is organized around the “12 hardest things she’s learning to say,” including “No,” “I don’t know,” and “I Was Wrong.”

My Thoughts: I absolutely adored (it’s my favorite 2018 release I’ve read so far!) this memoir that spoke to me in a “yes, that’s exactly how it is” way. She kicks things off with an essay that will touch the conflicted hearts of overtaxed moms everywhere and moves on to cover many big life issues (marriage, motherhood, illness, religion, friendship, grief, and loss) in a relatable and irreverently funny way. And, the second to last essay might even make you cry. Corrigan is a welcome addition to my “women who get women” club (current members include Anna Quindlen, Ann Patchett, and Cheryl Strayed) and I’d highly recommend Tell Me More to anyone who loved Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake or This is the Story of a Happy Marriage.

What Will didn’t point out, because he wanted me to arrive there on my own, was that his brand of acceptance wasn’t grim compromise or gritted-teeth tolerance. He was not suggesting that we roll over, but rather that we keep rolling, onward.

Skip These

The Immortalists by Chloe BenjaminThe Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin
Fiction (Released January 9, 2018)
352 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Putnam)

Plot Summary: When a psychic in 1969 NYC tells the four Gold children the dates of their respective deaths, the information drives their choices for the rest of their lives.

My Thoughts: I’m definitely in the minority in not loving this debut novel. It’s getting lots of attention from the bookish media and love from some bloggers I normally agree with (Ann Marie at Lit Wit Wine Dine and Renee at It’s Book Talk). The beginning felt like The Rules of Magic: 1960’s/70’s NYC, a bit of magic, and young siblings trying to slide things by their parents. From that point on, the story is told in sections, one focusing on each of the four Gold children’s lives. These were hit and miss…I was engrossed in some parts (Simon’s and parts of Daniel’s) and kept tuning out during others (Klara’s and Varya’s). I didn’t care much about the sibling in the final section because he/she had been virtually absent for much of the book. That being said, the writing was great, so I would consider reading whatever Chloe Benjamin does next.

For so long, he hated the woman, too. How, he wondered, could she give such a terrible fortune to a child? But now he thinks of her differently, like a second mother or a god, she who showed him the door and said: Go.

Anatomy of a Scandal by Sarah VaughanAnatomy of a Scandal by Sarah Vaughan
Fiction (Release Date January 23, 2018)
400 Pages
Affiliate Link: Pre-Order from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Atria Books)

Plot Summary: When charismatic politician James is accused of a serious crime, his wife (Sophie) is forced to confront who he might be under his smooth veneer while the prosecutor (Kate) wrestles with her own past.

My Thoughts: Anatomy of a Scandal is a timely book (privilege, abuse of power, scandal, ego) and got a fair amount of pre-publication hype. While I expected the story to be fascinating, the telling of it fell flat. It reads easily, but is predictable and lacks subtlety and nuance in the serious issues it addresses. Every character is a cliche. By the second half, I was skimming just to see what would happen (nothing particularly interesting did).

She feels like laughing. James will be fine because he is the right type, he has done nothing illegal, and he has the prime minister’s patronage. She glances past him to the bookshelves on which Hilary Mantel’s pair of Cromwell novels sit: stories of an era in which a mercurial king’s favour was everything. More than four centuries have passed, and yet, in Tom’s party, there is still a flavor of life at court.

What are some of your favorite January 2018 releases?

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