Category: Mini Book Reviews

Read One, Skip One: Goodbye, Vitamin and What We Lose

July 13, 2017 Mini Book Reviews 12

Today’s installment of Read One, Skip One is all about short debut novels told in a vignette style…which can be somewhat of a risky structure for a novel. On the one hand, it’s nice to be able to read in little snippets and, on the other, it can sometimes be hard to get engrossed in a vignette-style story. Today, we have one very successful vignette-style book…and one not so much (for me at least).

Goodbye Vitamin by Rachel KhongGoodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong
Fiction – Debut (
Released July 11, 2017)
208 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Henry Holt)

Plot Summary: Ruth returns to her parents’ home in the L.A. area to help care for her father, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s.

My Thoughts: Goodbye, Vitamin is the type of book that could get overlooked because it’s all about the intangibles, but don’t make the mistake of overlooking this one! Though this story is about a sad and serious topic, it has a lightness to it and is amusing at times. The story is told through Ruth’s journal entries that read like little vignettes, a format that worked for me in this case because I absolutely adored Ruth’s endearing, witty, real, and relatable voice. It was the overwhelming reason I enjoyed Goodbye, Vitamin so much.

What do I do all day? I don’t even know. I dig hair out of the bathroom drain with a chopstick. I listen to what sounds like a dog whimpering, and which turns out to be a squirrel talking to another squirrel. I watch a woman in scrubs walk by our living-room window, neatly eating a taco.

I read messages on Alzheimer’s caregiver forums – threads about Medicare, about the best brand of adult diaper, about what to do if your loved one accuses you of stealing his money. Consensus: Be calm, apologize.

On a different board, I read the messages about how to find your life’s passion. Consensus: try everything.

In addition to caring for her father (which she has a dry sense of humor about), she struggles with regular quarter-life crisis issues including a recent break-up and figuring out what she wants to do with her life. Ruth also learns more about her parents’ marriage and has a hard time processing her understanding of them as people beyond their roles as parents. Plus, there’s a spot-on segment about The Bachelor (Juan Pablo, specifically), which I greatly appreciated! Don’t miss this tiny, little gem!

What We Lose by Zinzi ClemmonsWhat We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons
Fiction – Debut (
Released July 11, 2017)
192 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Viking)

Plot Summary: Thandi, raised by her South African mother and American father in Philadelphia, struggles with the loss of her mother, her identity, and the ramifications of South African apartheid on her extended family who remains there.

My Thoughts: This debut coming of age novel has been getting lots of pre-publication buzz, but it didn’t come together for me. It reads like a memoir and I actually double-checked that it was, in fact, a novel after I started reading. Clemmons shared brilliant and brilliantly worded commentary on terminal illness, grief, race, the violence in post-apartheid South Africa, and the cultural differences between her and her South African cousins.

American blacks were my precarious homeland – because of my light skin and foreign roots, I was never fully accepted by any race. Plus my family had money, and all the black kids in my town came from the poorer areas. I was friends with the kids who lived on my block and were in my honors classes – white kids. I was a strange in-betweener.

Unfortunately, that brilliance was inconsistent. The novel is structured into vignettes that jump around in time and don’t always hang together. It felt jumpy and prevented me from becoming engrossed in the story for any sustained period of time. Though What We Lose didn’t work for me, I did see enough snippets of brilliance to make me want to keep my eye out for what Clemmons does next.

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Alcohol & Advil: White Fur and Do Not Become Alarmed

June 8, 2017 Mini Book Reviews 11

Alcohol and Advil Literary Style


Welcome back 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.

The Alcohol

White Fur by Jardine LibaireWhite Fur by Jardine Libaire
Fiction (
Released May 30, 2017)
384 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon 
Source: Publisher (Hogarth Books)

Plot Summary: Jamey Hyde (a wealthy Yale student from the Upper East Side) and Elise Perez (Hyde’s New Haven neighbor who grew up in Connecticut public housing) embark on a relationship, which Jamey’s family is determined to destroy.

My Thoughts: The premise of this book sounds completely cheesy and I’m normally not a fan of love stories in my reading, but I loved this one! It’s raw, gritty, edgy, and uncomfortable…while also managing to be a study of class in America. And, it features the most gorgeous writing I’ve seen in months! The settings of 1980’s New Haven and New York City certainly account for some of the grittiness, but Libaire’s writing and storytelling takes care of the rest. And, Libaire’s spot-on and perfectly worded social commentary about the wealthy provides a nice change of pace from Jamey and Elise’s dark and intense relationship.

Binkie, the one and only. He can hear her rings clacking on the plastic phone, and he chuckles, envisioning with amusement the bejeweled and suntanned manicured grip his grandmother thinks she has on his balls. And she does.

I don’t normally describe love stories as suspenseful, but this one kicks off with a Prologue that had me dying to know how Jamey and Elise would get from Point A to Point Z. My only complaint is that the actual Point Z didn’t work for me…it didn’t fit well with the rest of the story. Nevertheless, White Fur is one gorgeously written, highly literary, and totally unique (so unique that I can’t think of a single book to compare it to) love story…and is one of my favorite books so far this year!

The Advil

Do Not Become Alarmed by Maile MeloyDo Not Become Alarmed by Maile Meloy
Fiction (
Released June 6, 2017)
352 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Riverhead)

Plot Summary: While on a holiday cruise through Central America, cousins Liv and Nora’s children (along with two friends) disappear during a shore excursion.

My Thoughts: Following the gorgeous writing of White Fur, I was looking for a purely plot-based book and I found it in Do Not Become Alarmed. Though the plot requires the reader to suspend belief a few times, I flew through this novel.

The bulk of the action takes place in an unnamed Central American country that’s supposed to be “the Switzerland of Central America” and very safe for tourists…based on clues in the novel, it sounds like a fictional Costa Rica. The story is told from the perspectives of the different sets of parents (who have their own dynamics and are experiencing cracks in their relationships with each other as a result of the children’s disappearances) and the missing children. It’s a “shit hits the fan on an International vacation” story in the vein of Siracusa (my review) and would be a perfect vacation read…as long as you’re not traveling with young children through Central America! And, it’s going on my 2017 Summer Reading Guide.

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Read One, Skip One: Trophy Son and Woman No. 17

May 30, 2017 Mini Book Reviews 10

Trophy Son by Douglas BruntTrophy Son by Douglas Brunt
Fiction – Sports (
Released May 30, 2017)
288 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (St. Martin’s Press)

Plot Summary: Thanks to his father’s rigorous and stifling coaching, tennis prodigy Anton Stratis has never known much outside of his sport…until he decides to take control of his life.

My Thoughts: Though this novel is set inside the grueling world of elite tennis and the professional tennis circuit, it’s really a unique spin on a coming of age story, an indictment of the world of overbearing sports parents (check out this article Brunt wrote for Time on the topic!), and a story about a fraught relationship between father and son. It’s about the psychological and emotional side of professional tennis and the experience of a young and ill-equipped man trying to figure out who he is in the midst of the bubble. Brunt nailed the feelings of a young athlete with an overbearing sports parent and the panicked feeling that goes along with losing your mental edge.

He shouldn’t have been here, but I knew why a guy like that stayed. Not the money. Not even the game. It was the lifestyle. And that’s the irony.  The sick truth of it, for any top player, for any child prodigy gone pro, for me and my relationship with tennis. We hung on to this thing that crippled our humanity because now that our humanity was crippled, this thing was all that we believed could make us happy anymore.

Brunt’s writing is superb…not in the overly literary sense, but in the entertaining, snarky, and “yes, that’s exactly how it is” sense. And, he writes about tennis like a true, longtime fan rather than like a writer who researched tennis for his book. I was rooting for Anton to come out of it all without completely dying inside and I even got a little teary at the end! With the elite sports setting of You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott (my review) and the father/son dynamic of The Great Santini by Pat Conroy (my review), Trophy Son is a book you can fly through and is going on my Best of the Brain Candy list. 

Woman No 17 by Edan LepuckiWoman No. 17 by Edan Lepucki
Fiction (
Released May 9, 2017)
320 Pages
Bottom Line: Skip it.
Affiliate Link: Amazon
Source: Publisher (Hogarth)

Plot Summary: When recently separated Lady Daniels hires S (a young artist) as a live-in nanny for her toddler son so she can write her memoir, S becomes more involved in events affecting Lady’s family (including her teenaged son) than she ever imagined.

My Thoughts: Woman No. 17 was not at all what I expected. It was described in the publisher’s blurb as “sinister, sexy noir about art, motherhood, and the intensity of female friendships, set in the posh hills above Los Angeles.” Unfortunately, I didn’t get the “sinister, sexy noir” vibe and the art piece struck me as ridiculous (though, I’m admittedly not an art person).

It’s hard for me to really pin down what this story is about…there are multiple storylines, which felt muddled to me. Is it about Lady navigating her newly separated status? Her friendship with S? Her relationship with her children, particularly her teenage son? S’s oddball art project? S’s relationship with her parents? I have no idea! The most compelling story for me was Lady’s relationship with her teenage son, Seth, and I think I would have been happier had the book focused just on that. Or, at least been described in the blurb as a story about a mother and her son rather than a story about “female friendship.” Seth himself is a multi-faceted, engaging character that (possibly inadvertently) carried the book in my view. Sadly, it wasn’t enough for an overall win.

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Read One, Skip One: The Fall of Lisa Bellow and The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley

April 6, 2017 Mini Book Reviews 17

Fall of Lisa Bellow, Susan PeraboThe Fall of Lisa Bellow by Susan Perabo
Fiction – Debut (
Released March 14, 2017)
352 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link:
Source: Publisher (Simon & Schuster)

Plot Summary: After Meredith Oliver witnesses the abduction of a her classmate (but not necessarily friend), Lisa Bellow, she and her entire family struggle to process the impact of being the one left behind.

My Thoughts: I adored Susan Perabo’s short story collection, Why They Run the Way They Do (my review), so was thrilled to hear her first full length novel was coming out this year. While I still prefer Why They Run the Way They Do, The Fall of Lisa Bellow is a psychologically suspenseful novel that gets to the nasty little heart of things (thank you, Catherine!), a type of story I’m always game for. This story is not about what happened to Lisa Bellow, but about the survivors and survivor’s guilt. It’s about the often ungenerous, but brutally honest thoughts, of those who escaped the worst. And, it’s about the minefield of life as a middle school girl. Perabo’s biting portrayal of middle school made me alternately chuckle and cringe…just like actual middle school.

Lisa looked at her. There was the look. This was why everyone hated her. This was why middle school girls had stomachaches when they woke up in the morning. This was why girls were afraid to read the next text, or turn the corner into the cafeteria. This was why Jules could think, why they all could think, all the girls who were not her friends, why they could all secretly think: Good riddance.

My major gripe lies with the publisher’s blurb, which calls The Fall of Lisa Bellow “gripping” and “suspenseful,” leading readers to expect a page turner. The suspense here is the emotional type rather than “what happens next” type, and readers going in expecting the latter will likely be disappointed. I’d call it more of a coming of age novel with a crime in the background than a page turning mystery.

Twelve Lives of Samuel HawleyThe Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti
Fiction (
Released March 28, 2017)
400 Pages
Bottom Line: Skip it.
Affiliate Link: Amazon
Source: Publisher (The Dial Press)

Plot Summary: Following a life of crime, Samuel Hawley and his daughter (Loo) move back to Loo’s mother’s hometown of Olympus, Massachusetts, where Loo begins to unravel her father’s past and how her mother died.

My Thoughts: This novel has gotten a ton of pre-publication hype and two fellow bloggers whose tastes I usually agree with loved it (Novel Visits, It’s Tara Leigh). It was also marketed as a coming of age novel / thriller, which sounded right up my alley. Unfortunately, The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley was just okay for me and I’m having trouble understanding all the hype.

The story alternates between Loo and Samuel navigating life in Olympus (the “coming of age” portion of the story) and chapters explaining each one of Samuel’s twelve bullet scars (the “thriller” portion of the story), with the two threads converging towards the end. I enjoyed the coming of age aspect (Loo/Samuel sections) of this structure, but after multiple “thriller” chapters (i.e. the bullet sections), I started to get bored with all the violence. With an exception or two, these chapters seemed senseless and the stories began to run together in my head. By the 75% mark, I began skimming just to find out how things would end.

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Read Both: Every Last One and Always Happy Hour

January 26, 2017 Mini Book Reviews 17

Every Last One, Anna QuindlenEvery Last One by Anna Quindlen
Fiction (Released August 13, 2010)
299 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Library (Publisher: Random House)

Plot Summary: The story of the Latham family – a normal, but not perfect family with teenage children – and the ripple effects of small decisions.

My Thoughts: Catherine at Gilmore Guide recently got me started on Anna Quindlen by recommending Miller’s Valley and then Every Last One…and I cannot thank her enough. Quindlen just gets it…she gets motherhood, marriage, adult female friendship, life with teenagers, and grief (and I’m sure I’ll discover more as I read more of her work)…and that shines through in the “yes, that’s exactly how it is” writing that permeates Every Last One.

A loose end—that’s what we women call it, when we are overwhelmed by the care of small children, the weight of small tasks, a life in which we fall into bed at the end of the day exhausted from being all things to all people.

This is the rare book that combines a booming plot with depth, emotion, and sparkling writing. A central plot point drives the story, but the action really isn’t what this book is about. Quindlen kicks things off with an honest portrayal of a family that isn’t too perfect and isn’t too dysfunctional…they are decidedly average and relatable (I know, a departure from the dysfunctional families I normally love to read about). Mary Beth, the mother, is someone I could see myself being friends with and their three children are characters I recognized clearly from my youth. But then, something unimaginable happens and the book becomes about how regular people deal with inconceivable events. An overarching theme of the constant politeness that society expects…the sometimes cavernous disparity between what society expects people to say vs. what people truthfully feel or want to say…pervades the second half of the story.

Every Last One was not the light read that I expected…it was much better than that and enabled me to finish my 2016 reading (I read this in late December) with a 5 star book.

Always Happy Hour, Mary MillerAlways Happy Hour by Mary Miller
Fiction – Short Stories (Released January 10, 2017)
256 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased (Publisher: Liveright)

Plot Summary: A collection of short stories from the perspective of women in bad situations making bad decisions.

My Thoughts: Always Happy Hour is going to be a tough sell because 1) short stories generally are and 2) my descriptions of the book aren’t the kind that generally make hoards of readers run to the bookstore…but, this collection is very, very good if you like dark stories (read between the lines: it isn’t for everyone). Elements of this collection reminded me of two beloved TV shows: Seinfeld because the stories aren’t really about anything, yet they’re about everything (sort of snapshots of life rather than plot-heavy)…and The Office because of the deadpan tone.

This is not my life, or it is not the life I’m supposed to be living, and so I can pretend that it is. I don’t consider the actuality of my situation, which is that every day I live this life it becomes more and more mine, the real one, and the one I’m supposed to be living falls further away; eventually it will be gone forever.

Most of the women in these stories have a defeatist quality about them; life has sort of left them behind. There is a sense of inertia hanging over everything and they can’t seem to take control of their lives. I wanted to shake them many times…but, we’ve all had defeatist moments in our own lives and those moments are the reader’s lifeline to relating to certain aspects of these characters’ lives, if not the overall wholes. There is a sameness to many of the stories and so they ran together in my head a bit, but reading a story a day or so helped, and my two favorites (Little Bear and First Class) came towards the end of the collection. Pick this collection up if you’re a fan of dark, dry humor and gorgeous writing.

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Read One, Skip One: The Sleepwalker and The Futures

January 12, 2017 Mini Book Reviews 23

The Sleepwalker, Chris BohjalianThe Sleepwalker by Chris Bohjalian
Fiction – Thriller (Released January 10, 2017)
304 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Doubleday)

Plot Summary: When Annalee Ahlberg, a notorious sleepwalker, disappears from her home in the middle of the night, her husband and two daughters try to piece together what happened.

My Thoughts: Chris Bohjalian’s most recent books are giving him quite a reputation for coming up with mysteries…with more. They have the who-done-it/why-done-it elements of your run-of-the-mill mystery, but he layers on something deeper. In 2016’s The Guest Room, it was sex-trafficking, and in The Sleepwalker, it’s parasomnia. I found the parasomnia angle fascinating…it’s much more than the book’s title suggests. It’s a real thing (thank you, Google) and can cause shame for the sufferer, so Bohjalian’s exploration of an extreme example of parasomnia’s potential disastrous consequences had real-life appeal for me beyond this particular story. And, I liked the psychological exploration of the impact of parasomnia on a marriage and a family.

They both felt shame, but different reasons: he because of what people saw and she because of what she could not control.

All this being said, I would have liked to see the book go in a slightly different direction. I can’t share too many details without ruining the ending, but I would’ve liked the story to explore the legal implications of parasomnia a bit more. Still, The Sleepwalker is a book you can fly through (which I need sometimes) and is going on my Page Turners list.

The Futures, Anna PitoniakThe Futures by Anna Pitoniak
Fiction – Debut (Release Date: January 17, 2017)
320 Pages
Bottom Line: Skip it.
Affiliate Link: Amazon
Source: Publisher (Lee Boudreaux Books)

Plot Summary: When college sweethearts Evan and Julia move to New York City after graduating from Yale, they face a tougher road than they imagined finding their place in the post-college world.

My Thoughts: I quite honestly don’t have a lot to say about The Futures. It’s the story of a quarter life crisis…something I certainly went through and could identify with. The “coming of age in your twenties in the big city” storyline always seems to suck me in, yet has proved disappointing the past few rounds (also Why We Came to the City).

Julia and Evan’s college and immediate post-college experience resembled my own to a certain extent (minus the Ivy League tag). Despite or (possibly because of?) this relatability, the plot was predictable and not particularly memorable. I was disappointed with the lack of “yes, that’s exactly how it is” writing, which could have upped the memorability factor for me. On the plus side, it was a nice, easy Brain Candy book that I never had to force myself to pick up.  

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Mini Reviews: Generation Chef by Karen Stabiner and Before the Wind by Jim Lynch

December 8, 2016 Mini Book Reviews 15

Can a mini review include not one, not two, but three quotes, thus making it look more like a full length review?! Yes, I’m going with it. There’s no other choice when the writing is as glorious as Jim Lynch’s in Before the Wind.

Generation Chef, Karen StabinerGeneration Chef by Karen Stabiner
Nonfiction – Cooking / Food (Released September 13, 2016)
288 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Avery Books)

Plot Summary: Journalist Karen Stabiner follows young chef Jonah Miller as he opens his first New York City restaurant, the East Village Spanish spot, Huertas.

My Thoughts: Generation Chef‘s look into a new restaurant’s first year of life is equal parts food and business book. I particularly loved getting a behind the scenes look at the ups and downs of an entrepreneurial restaurant venture. Running a new restaurant clearly takes courage and a steady hand and I was frighteningly nervous for Miller and his team as they approached each new milestone (applying for a liquor license, awaiting a New York Times review, etc). I realized how much I respect people who run small businesses and I’m fairly certain I couldn’t pull it off without an emotional breakdown.

Specific to the restaurant business, Generation Chef highlighted how hard a new restaurant has to work to get noticed amidst the NYC clutter. Stabiner provides illuminating color about the frenzied restaurant environment of the early 2000’s and the impact of social media. She also compares Miller and Huertas’ story with that of other famous chefs including David Chang, Stephanie Izard, April Bloomfield, and Gavin Kaysen. Generation Chef reminded me of Stephanie Danler’s Sweetbitter, minus all the drugs and sexual angst, and is a great choice for people interested in the business side of opening a new restaurant. Plus, it made an appearance on my 2016 Books That Make Perfect Holiday Gifts List!

Before the Wind, Jim LynchBefore the Wind by Jim Lynch
Fiction (Released April 19, 2016)
306 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased (Publisher: Knopf)

Plot Summary: Josh Johannssen and his somewhat estranged family, a sailing dynasty, reunite in an attempt to win the Pacific Northwest’s prestigious Swiftsure race.

My Thoughts: Behind the Wind is 100% up my alley and I have no idea why I’d never heard of it until Catherine at Gilmore Guide shoved it into my hands recently. It plops the dysfunctional family element of Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth into a sailing environment with brilliant results.

For years, sailing bound us. We were racers, builders and cruisers. It was our family business, our sport, our drug of choice. Yet eventually, sailing blew us apart, too.

Within the first five pages, Lynch delves into the psyche of sailors and boaters in general and his writing about sailing is filled with “yes, that’s exactly how it is” moments. 

Sailboats attract the loons and geniuses among us, the romantics whose boats represent some outlaw image of themselves. We fall for these things, but what we’re slow to grasp is that it’s not the boats but rather those inexplicable moments on the water when time slows.

His sense of humor sparkles when making fun of sailing (i.e. a hilarious rant about the ridiculous sailing lingo) and when describing his family’s quirks (of which there are many), but a genuine love for both shines through it all.

Nobody forgets meeting my father. Loud, tall and meaty, he invades your space and claims the right-of-way. There is nothing moderate about him. A leader and a lout, a gentleman and an ass, he never concedes a weakness, admits a sickness or says he loves anybody. Yet the flip side is that when you please him, your body temperature climbs a degree or two.

As with many books I love, the suspense lies in what ends up happening to these characters. The questions of what made Josh’s sailing prodigy sister (Ruby) abandon the sport, what shady antics are most of the family members up to now, and what incident figuratively blew up the family decades ago drove the novel’s suspense. Lynch does go on sailing tangents fairly often, but I found them interesting because he adopts the tone of the rare tour guide that uses dry humor to make something you’re not that interested in come alive. Before the Wind is an underrated gem that you should read immediately if you’re a fan of dysfunctional family stories…and, I can’t wait to read more of Lynch’s work.

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Alcohol & Advil: The Mothers and Hungry Heart

October 25, 2016 Mini Book Reviews 17

Alcohol and Advil Literary Style
Welcome back 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.

The Alcohol

The Mothers, Brit BennettThe Mothers by Brit Bennett
Fiction (Released October 11, 2016)
288 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased (Publisher: Riverhead Books)

Plot Summary: While seventeen year-old Nadia Turner is mourning the shocking loss of her mother, she starts a relationship with Luke Sheppard, her pastor’s son, resulting in an unwanted pregnancy.

My Thoughts: The Mothers was one of the most hyped books and the big debut novel of this Fall (author Brit Bennet is only 25 years old and was named to the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35). And, it completely lived up to the hype! The first page is one of the best first pages I’ve ever read and I highlighted three passages before moving on to Page 2. I could immediately tell that Bennett’s writing was my kind of writing (which I will try to clearly articulate in an upcoming post) and the tone and style reminded me a bit of Ann Patchett’s in Commonwealth.

Grief was not a line, carrying you infinitely further from loss. You never knew when you would be sling-shot backward into its grip.

What I loved most about the actual story is that it takes on a number of serious topics, but none of them dominate the book. It’s about a young girl trying to make sense of her mother’s death and being left with a father who has withdrawn into his own grief. It’s about a teenager’s relationship to her church…and the feelings that come along with doing things the church likely wouldn’t approve of. It’s about the ongoing repercussions of those actions. It’s about friendship. It’s about race (the story takes place in a black community in California). It’s about the aftermath of trauma. Bennett handles all this in a subtle way…it’s there, a part of Nadia’s life, impacting her feelings and decisions, but life goes on. For me, this rang true to how life really happens. The Mothers will no doubt make my Best Books of 2016 List and would also make a fantastic book club selection.

The Advil

Hungry Heart, Jennifer WeinerHungry Heart by Jennifer Weiner
Nonfiction – Memoir (Released October 11, 2016)
432 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Atria Books) via NetGalley

Plot Summary: Bestselling author Jennifer Weiner’s memoir-style essay collection about her childhood, writing, her struggle with her weight, marriage, and motherhood…and the Bachelor/ette.

My Thoughts: You probably know Jennifer Weiner from her bestselling novels Good in Bed and In Her Shoes or her hilarious and pointed live-tweeting of the Bachelor/ette shows. But, her memoir reminded me that there is far more to this lady than enlivening my Twitter feed on Monday nights. Hungry Heart is an incredibly relatable memoir about a girl gradually growing comfortable in her own skin. After reading about her childhood (which includes a horrific father and adjusting to her mother starting to date women at age 54), I came to respect her determination, work ethic, and ability to recover from her father’s abandonment. She worked her tail off to become the writer she is and was never swept up in the glamour of the “writer’s life.” This memoir also confirmed my belief that she is an author who should host a podcast and I can see her dispensing Dear Sugar-style advice to women as successfully as Cheryl Strayed. Though the book was overly long and a bit repetitive towards the end, it was the perfect mix of light-hearted humor and real-life struggle to help me adequately recover from The Mothers!

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Two Winning Novels about Dysfunctional Families: Commonwealth and All the Ugly and Wonderful Things

October 18, 2016 Mini Book Reviews 22

Dysfunctional families are one of my favorite topics to read about in fiction…and I was lucky enough to come across two winners this Fall.

Commonwealth, Ann PatchettCommonwealth by Ann Patchett
Fiction (Released September 13, 2016)
336 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased (Publisher: Harper)

Plot Summary: An ill fated christening party is the catalyst that ruins the Keating and Cousins marriages…and creates a blended family trying to navigate their new world.

My Thoughts: Commonwealth is a simply and perfectly told story of a cobbled together family…and is one of my favorite books of 2016 so far! Every member of the blended Keating/Cousins family behaves dreadfully, but I was somewhat sympathetic towards all of them. The four Cousins children and two Keating girls are impressively creative in their antics, but I rooted for them because their parents are so completely uninterested in and overwhelmed by them. And, it wasn’t their fault that their parents selfishly created this impossible situation. But, I also sympathized with the parents because their children’s united hatred of them resulted in an incredible amount of tormenting.

The Cousins children and the Keating children smiled up with beatific forgiveness. They had done everything they had ever wanted to do, they had had the most wonderful day, and no one even knew they were gone.

There is nothing grand about this story, no bells and whistles in the plot or the writing. But Ann Patchett can really tell a story…one that is beautiful and satisfying and reflects the mess of real life without resorting to tricks. She releases information about her characters in drips and drabs (similar to Did You Ever Have A Family) and describes scenes of mundane life that perfectly illustrate her characters:

When their father took the girls to the alley behind the grocery store at six o’clock in the morning with their racquets and fresh cans of tennis balls, Caroline would have as many as twenty-seven consecutive hits without missing. Thwack, thwack, thwack, into the blank wall that was the back of the A&P, her long arms intuitively graceful in their swing. Franny’s personal best was three consecutive hits, and that had only happened once. But the real difference between Caroline and Franny was that Caroline cared. She cared about the law and tennis and her grades in classes she didn’t even like. She cared what their father said about their mother, what he said about everything. Franny just wanted to go back to the car and read Agatha Christie.

Commonwealth is a book that I enjoyed every minute of reading. I couldn’t wait for my next opportunity to read and I didn’t want it to end.

All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, Bryn GreenwoodAll the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood
Fiction (Released August 9, 2016)
352 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased (Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books)

Plot Summary: After Wavy, the daughter of a meth dealer father and addict mother, witnesses Kellen’s (one of Wavy’s father’s “employees”) motorcycle accident, he takes her under his wing, leading to an unlikely relationship.

My Thoughts: I was all over the place with my feelings about All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, but I ended up in an emotionally invested and somewhat surprising (to me) place. I immediately loved the voice of Amy, Wavy’s cousin, and the storyline of Wavy’s integration into her extended family’s normal way of life the first of many times she stayed with them. Then, I became thoroughly creeped out by the story’s direction once Wavy returns to her parents at the ranch (her home and the site of her father’s meth cooking business). My discomfort with a specific theme of the story began to make me actually dislike the entire book. I kept saying to myself “please tell me this isn’t going there.”

But, by the halfway point, Greenwood completely brought me around again. She sold me on her creepy storyline (to the tune of 4 stars instead of the 2.5/3 stars I was considering)! I’ve read many books that started off well only to fall off a cliff later on, but it’s rare that I find one that does the opposite (Fates and Furies is the last one I can think of). Greenwood wrote in a way that demanded my sympathy for and understanding of these characters, despite my initial misgivings. Plus, the story’s action picked up considerably in the second half. Because All the Ugly and Wonderful Things addresses a controversial topic likely to spark strong feelings one way or another, it would make an excellent book club selection.

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Read One, Skip One: Hillbilly Elegy and Cruel Beautiful World

October 11, 2016 Mini Book Reviews 18

Hillbilly Elegy, J. D. VanceHillbilly Elegy by J.D.Vance
Nonfiction – Memoir (Released June 28, 2016)
272 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Library (Publisher: Harper)

Plot Summary: Vance’s hybrid memoir of his childhood growing up poor in an Ohio town (Middletown) / social analysis of the plight of poor Appalachians.

My Thoughts: Before reading Hillbilly Elegy, I’d heard it compared to Jeanette Walls’ The Glass Castle (which I loved) and I agree that the memoir portion does bear some resemblance. But, Vance takes Hillbilly Elegy to the next level (5 star level for me!) by seamlessly blending in social analysis of why the poor, white working class is failing to achieve upward mobility. This blend of life story and social analysis is tough to execute well (I’m looking at you, The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts) and Vance made it work. Vance’s social analysis is brave and articulates hard-to-swallow truths, even about his own family, which make this book almost a plea to his fellow hillbillies to take some responsibility for their lives. 

But this book is about something else: what goes on in the lives of real people when the industrial economy goes south. It’s about reacting to bad circumstances in the worst way possible. It’s about a culture that increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.

Through a combination of hard work, a supportive grandmother, a clear vision, a driving ambition to “get out”, and a bit of luck, Vance served in the military, then graduated from Ohio State and Yale Law School (a rarity for folks from his town). His success enables him to portray the difficulties (i.e. countless unwritten social rules) working class people that do make it face as they try to assimilate into the white collar world. Hillbilly Elegy is the perfect combination of entertaining story (including Mamaw, a fantastic trash-talking grandma with a heart of gold who Vance credits with saving his life) and commentary on a specific segment of the population that has become more visible in this election…making it a great discussion starter for book clubs.

Cruel Beautiful World, Caroline LeavittCruel Beautiful World by Caroline Leavitt
Historical Fiction (Released October 4, 2016)
352 Pages
Bottom Line: Skip it.
Affiliate Link: Amazon
Source: Publisher (Algonquin Books) via NetGalley

Plot Summary: When sixteen year-old Lucy runs away with an older man in the early 1970’s, the family she left behind tries to piece together what happened while her new life doesn’t turn out quite how she imagined.

My Thoughts: Amid September’s back to school chaos (see my review of A Gentleman in Moscow), I craved reading that didn’t require too much concentration and Cruel Beautiful World fits that bill. Upon reading this first line, I thought Cruel Beautiful World would hit the spot perfectly:

Lucy runs away with her high school teacher, William, on a Friday, the last day of school, a June morning shiny with heat.

Though I wasn’t highlighting much (i.e. the writing wasn’t making a huge impression), the first half of the book was decently entertaining, if not particularly memorable. However, the ending included a couple eyeroll-inducing surprises and one that I saw coming a mile away, turning my mild enjoyment into annoyance. And, Lucy’s so-called obsession with news of the Manson murders felt forced and unnecessary…like Leavitt just needed some vehicle to highlight that the book is set in the early 1970’s because the time period didn’t shine through the story otherwise.

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