January releases started off with a bang! The first four I read were all 4 stars or above. Things fell off a bit after that, but even so, that’s a good month of reading.
Favorite Book(s) of January 2020
Plot Summary: When Lydia’s (an Acapulco bookstore owner) journalist husband writes an expose about Lydia’s friend, Javier (who also happens to be the head of the Los Jardineros drug cartel), their lives explode.
My Thoughts: American Dirt is probably the most hyped book of 2020 and, thankfully, the hype is real! Stephen King said “I defy anyone to read the first seven pages of this book and not finish it” and I agree…the beginning of the book will knock your socks off. After the explosive opening, it’s predominantly a ” harrowing journey” story, which don’t usually appeal to me, but this one is heart-stopping. Cummins humanizes the faceless mass of immigrants you see on the news and the reasons they’re flocking to the U.S. in droves. She gives them backstories. She also shines a light on the frightening state of affairs in Mexico and how the drug cartels are taking over the country, even tourist hotspots like Acapulco. This is a literary novel that’s also a page turner and an “important” book that just feels like a dang good story, which is the kind of “important” book I want to read. PS – do not skip the “Author’s Note” about Cummins’ personal inspiration for writing this story. 5 stars and it would make an excellent book club pick!
Acapulco has always had a heart for extravagance, so when at last she made her fall from grace, she did so with all the spectacular pageantry the world had come to expect of her. The cartels painted the town red.
Plot Summary: Two MFA students plot revenge against their star professor when she destroys (I’m leaving the meaning of “destroys” intentionally vague) one of their dear friends.
My Thoughts: This novel took me completely by surprise! I knew nothing about the author going into it, but I picked it up because I love campus novels and Susie at Novel Visits liked it. The writing is out of this world…Zancan’s commentary on the social hierarchy of the MFA students is perfection and her introductions of each new player in the story make you feel like you know the depths of their psyches from just a few paragraphs. The story is told via a collective narrator (“the class” minus Hannah, Leslie, and Jimmy, the 3 main players in this story), which gives it a gossipy feel that I loved and allows for intriguing speculation about the characters’ motives. There is a sense of foreboding throughout the whole book…Zancan makes you feel the stakes in even the most mundane interactions and you just know that something is going to explode. Zancan’s is the kind of writing (and this is the kind of book) you want to savor and need to take your time with to fully internalize (I had to stop occasionally and re-read some sentences to make sure I got them), but it’s so worth it! It reminded me of The Other’s Gold (my review) in this way and the simmering dynamics between the MFA classmates reminded me of The Ensemble by Aja Gabel (my review). 5 stars and I suspect this will be Zancan’s breakout novel!
“You fight for the things that you love. You do what you can while you can instead of just letting the clock run out while you shake your head at what’s happening.”
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Plot Summary: When African-American Emira Tucker gets stopped by a grocery store security guard for “kidnapping” while babysitting, her relationship with her boss (successful blogger Alix Chamberlain) changes.
My Thoughts: This debut novel got tons of pre-publication buzz including some raves from readers I trust (including Annie Jones, Liberty Hardy, and Cristina Arreola). I’d heard it was a 5 star book about race, privilege, and class, so I was expecting it to blow me out of the water. But, expectations complicate things and I think they impacted my feelings about this book. I really enjoyed it, but it was “only” 4 stars for me (that “only” wouldn’t be there had expectations not been so high) and it read more like brain candy than a profound book about race and class. BUT, I love readable books about serious topics, so this isn’t a bad thing for me. I loved the super awkward, but hilarious holiday meal that kicks off the fast-moving second half and I loved Emira. But, Alix and Emira’s boyfriend, Kelley (the book’s central white characters), were just insane people and I felt like Emira was a pawn in their twisted game. When the book ended, I was left with a feeling of “I need to sit with this to figure out what I’m supposed to take from it.” And, I’m still not sure that I’ve figured it out beyond the fact that Alix and Kelley displayed some cringe-worthy behavior that definitely made me (as a fairly privileged white woman) uncomfortable (maybe this is what I’m supposed to take from it?). And, when I read back over my highlights to write this review, it sunk in that Reid does make excellent observations about race and class, but in the moment, they got lost a bit in the craziness of story. Regardless, I enjoyed reading Such a Fun Age and it would make an excellent book club pick…and I’d love to talk to some other people who have read it! P.S. – pair it with this podcast episode.
“It completely fetishizes black people in a terrible way,” Tamra went on. “It makes it seem like we’re all the same, as if we can’t contain multitudes of personalities and traits and differences. And people like that think that it says something good about them, that they’re so brave and unique that they would even dare to date black women. Like they’re some kind of martyr.”
Plot Summary: The story of two Philadelphia sisters; Kacey, an opioid addict living mostly on the streets, and Mickey, a cop whose beat is Kacey’s hang-out area.
My Thoughts: Let me start by saying this book is being marketed as “the next Girl on the Train” and was blurbed by Paula Hawkins. Forget about that right now…Long Bright River is not like The Girl on the Train (it’s much better!). It’s feels like a literary police procedural with some character-driven family drama thrown in and I’d say it’s much more mystery than thriller. I’ve been loving these kinds of books lately (i.e. Miracle Creek, A Nearly Normal Family)! It’s long, but I flew through it. There are multiple suspenseful hooks to keep you going. Where is Kacey (she disappears early in the book)? Who is killing women in Mickey’s district? What are Kacey and Mickey’s family secrets? Long Bright River takes a hard, but compassionate look at opioid addiction culture and would make a great fiction / nonfiction pairing with Dopesick by Beth Macy (my review). An excellent 4.5 star start to 2020 releases!
In a moment of clarity, once, Kacey told me that time spent in addiction feels looped. Each morning brings with it the possibility of change, each evening the shame of failure. The only task becomes the seeking of the fix. Every dose is a parabola, low-high-low, and every day a series of these waves; and then the days themselves become chartable, according to how much time, in sum, the user spends in comfort or in pain; and then the months.
Plot Summary: After a 12 year-old boy (Edward) survives a commercial plane crash (which killed his parents and older brother), he must figure out how to live his life in the care of his aunt and uncle.
My Thoughts: Dear Edward was a December Book of the Month pick and I think I’m in the minority in thinking it was just okay. The story is told in alternating timelines…one during the flight focusing on a number of different passengers and one after the crash focusing on Edward and his recovery. I preferred the post-crash timeline and wish that had been the entirety of the book…maybe delving deeper into Lacey and John’s (Edward’s Aunt and Uncle) marriage. Though the different passengers’ stories did tie into Edward’s post-crash experience eventually, I still didn’t think they needed as much real estate as they got. I also thought some plot points were ridiculous and unrealistic (think reincarnation and some outrageous requests asked of Edward) and the whole book was overly neat and tidy (and maybe a little Hallmark-y?). That being said, there was some excellent life wisdom towards the end of the book and I was intrigued by the media attention Edward received and his aunt’s and uncle’s reaction to it.
“What happened is baked into your bones, Edward. It lives under your skin. It’s not going away. It’s part of you and will be part of you every moment until you die. What you’ve been working on, since the first time I met you, is learning to live with that.”
Plot Summary: Wiener’s memoir of her time working for two different start-ups in Silicon Valley…very much a cautionary tale.
My Thoughts: Wiener has the unique perspective of joining the tech industry (first at a data analytics start-up, followed by an open-source software company) from publishing (an old-school culture that couldn’t be more different from tech), so I enjoyed her quasi-outsider’s perspective on the cult-like, all-encompassing, over-the-top, child’s playground culture of Silicon Valley. She railed on what you’d expect (i.e. the male and youth dominated culture, the wild overspending) and she thoughtfully shared her moral struggle with what the data analytics company was doing (if you’re worried about “big data” tracking you online…you should be). Unfortunately, the second half of the book got boring and repetitive…it felt like a long diatribe of Wiener working out her conflicted feelings about Silicon Valley and tech in general. It felt like what should have been an essay was stretched into a full length book and the writing style was over-the-top at times. Though I enjoyed the first half, I kept wanting to be done with it in the second half.
My single coworkers were all on multiple dating apps, and encouraged me to follow suit. But I found myself newly cautious, leery of giving away too much intimate data. God Mode had made me paranoid. It wasn’t the act of data collection itself, to which I was already resigned. What gave me pause was the people who might see it on the other end—people like me. I never knew with whom I was sharing my information.
What’s the best book you’ve read so far this month?
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