Tag: Dysfunctional Families

A Criminal in the Family: The Best Kind of People and Fear

October 12, 2017 Mini Book Reviews 10

What would you do if a family member is accused of a horrific crime? Both these books address this situation in very different ways. In one, the accused a beloved family man and pillar of the community, while the other accused is a gun-loving somewhat absentee father. Regardless, each family is left reeling and there is far more to the story than they imagined.

Best Kind of People by Zoe WhittallThe Best Kind of People by Zoe Whittall
Fiction (
Released September 19, 2017)
352 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.

Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Ballantine Books)

Plot Summary: When George Woodbury, a beloved teacher and pillar of the small community of Avalon Hills, is accused of sexual misconduct, his family tries to navigate their upturned world.

My Thoughts: The Best Kind of People is what I call an “aftermath book.” It’s not a page-turner about George Woodbury’s alleged crimes, but more an exploration of the repercussions on his wife and two children (one grown and one still in high school). It explores the conflicted feelings of the loved ones surrounding someone accused of a horrific crime, when you’re forced to reset your view of someone you love and respect, and the unique implications of this playing out in a small, upscale community. I enjoyed all these elements of the story.

However, a couple things bothered me. First, Sadie Woodbury (George’s high school aged daughter) constantly spouted facts and figures about sexual assault, which made the “issue” angle of the book feel heavy-handed. And, without spoiling anything, I wish the existing ending had occurred a little earlier in the book and we’d gotten to explore a bit of the aftermath following the big reveal. Following everything the Woodburys had to face with George, I wondered how they’d face that final turn of events. Despite these flaws, I do think The Best Kind of People would make a great book club selection…lots to discuss here.

Fear by Dirk KurbjuweitFear by Dirk Kurbjuweit
Fiction – Translation (
Released October 3, 2017)
272 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.

Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Harper)

Plot Summary: After a stalking campaign by Randolph Tiefenthaler’s downstairs neighbor, Randolph’s father lands in prison for shooting the neighbor.

My Thoughts: Fear is what I like to call a “why book.” It starts with the main event and the suspense lies in discovering the how and why. I love this type of story and Fear was no exception. It was marketed as a “gripping thriller,” but I’d say it’s more of a slow burn. The overall feel is very European (logical since this is a German translation). Think Herman Koch (more Dear Mr. M than The Dinner) and Based on a True Story, with the tension simmering and crackling beneath the surface rather than exploding in a more traditional, action-packed way. I could feel the tension of the Tiefenthaler family trying to hold it together in the face of this evil outside force and loved how Kurbjuweit explores the family’s reactions along the way.

Fear is a bit of an untraditional thriller, which tend to work better for me than the traditional kind. It’s chock full of keen observations about marriage, Randolph’s experience as the son of a gun-loving father, and Randolph’s childhood growing up in Cold War-era Berlin. That being said, this type of thriller is not for everyone and some readers might be hard-pressed to even call it a thriller. But as someone who generally has trouble with run-of-the-mill thrillers, Fear stood out for me.

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Backlist Beauties: The Best Backlist Books I’ve Read in 2017 So Far

October 10, 2017 Book Lists 20

Since my Fall reading has been so lackluster, I thought it would be a good time to share some of the best backlist books I’ve read in 2017 so far. When new releases aren’t working for you…dive into the backlist for some relief!

I always say I’m going to make more time for backlist titles and, every year, I don’t follow through. My goal is to read enough additional backlist titles by the end of the year to warrant another Backlist Beauties post!

This post contains affiliate links.

The Best Backlist Books I’ve Read in 2017 So Far

Books for Living by Will SchwalbeBooks for Living by Will Schwalbe
Nonfiction – Essays (Released December 27, 2016)
288 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased (Publisher: Knopf)

Plot Summary: The author of The End of Your Life Book Club‘s collection of essays featuring individual books and how they impacted his life.

My Thoughts: Each chapter of this introspective collection focuses on one book and how it impacted and contributed to Schwalbe’s life. He covers classics (Stuart Little), nonfiction (The Importance Of Living), serious books (A Little Life), and lighter fare (The Girl on the Train). I certainly hadn’t read all the books he discusses, but I related to many of his points about life. And, I’m now in the process of reading a couple books Schwalbe talked about in Books for Living (What I Talk about When I Talk about Running by Haruki Murakami, Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison, Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh, and Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott). This book would be a fantastic gift for serious readers or someone who is reflecting a bit on life. 

Reading is a respite from the relentlessness of technology, but it’s not only that. It’s how I reset and recharge. It’s how I escape, but it’s also how I engage. And reading should spur further engagement.

Dark Matter by Blake CrouchDark Matter by Blake Crouch
Fiction – Thriller / Sci-Fi (Released July 26, 2016)
354 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Library (Publisher: Crown)

Plot Summary: After college physics professor Jason Dessen is abducted at gunpoint one night, he awakens in another world.

My Thoughts: Despite the hype, I avoided this book for quite awhile because I’m decidedly NOT into sci-fi. But, Dark Matter is sci-fi like The Martian (my review) is sci-fi (i.e. it has broad appeal). There’s definitely some science in it, but the story is deeply human and is more about life choices than the science. The story begins with a “WTF is going on here” vibe reminiscent of The Beautiful Bureaucrat (my review). I had no idea what was going on for awhile, but could not stop reading. Dark Matter is a page-turner in the purest sense…with an action-level on par with an episode of 24

No one tells you it’s all about to change, to be taken away. There’s no proximity alert, no indication that you’re standing on the precipice. And maybe that’s what makes tragedy so tragic. Not just what happens, but how it happens: a sucker punch that comes at you out of nowhere, when you’re least expecting it. No time to flinch or brace.

Imagine Me Gone by Adam HaslettImagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett
Fiction (Released May 3, 2016)
368 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased (Little, Brown)

Plot Summary: A multi-generational family saga of the impact of depression and mental illness on a family.

My Thoughts: Incredibly sad, but poignant, this 2016 National Book Award Long-Lister is beautifully written and captures the frustration, resentment, and crushing sense of responsibility and worry that come with having a family member who suffers from mental illness. While extended sections from Michael’s perspective are hard to read and nonsensical at times with long tangents on esoteric music, they serve a distinct purpose (allowing the reader inside mind of someone suffering from depression). And, the second half flows beautifully toward the inevitable, yet still drama-filled conclusion.

There is no getting better. There is love I cannot bear, which has kept me from drifting entirely loose. There are the medicines I can take that flood my mind without discrimination, slowing the monster, moving the struggle underwater, where I then must live in the murk. But there is no killing the beast. Since I was a young man, it has hunted me. And it will hunt me until I am dead. The older I become, the closer it gets.

Lots of Candles Plenty of Cake by Anna QuindlenLots of Candles, Plenty of Cake by Anna Quindlen
Nonfiction – Memoir (Released April 24, 2012)
182 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased (Random House)

Plot Summary: A combination memoir/essay collection covering marriage, girlfriends, motherhood, faith, loss, work, and much more!

My Thoughts: Listening to Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake was like seeing a therapist and falls into the same category as Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things. Quindlen just has such a grounded, practical outlook on life that really puts things in perspective for me. Highly recommend for anyone craving a “life wisdom” type read!

Being a parent is not transactional. We do not get what we give. It is the ultimate pay-it-forward: We are good parents, not so they will be loving enough to stay with us, but so they will be strong enough to leave us.

Mothering Sunday by Graham SwiftMothering Sunday by Graham Swift
Historical Fiction (Released April 26, 2016)
177 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Library (Knopf)

Plot Summary: While the staff of British estates has time off for Mothering Sunday of 1924 (a Protestant and Catholic religious holiday that was somewhat of a precursor to our current secular Mother’s Day), Jane (a maid) and Paul (an heir to the neighboring estate) meet to continue their illicit affair.

My Thoughts: Mothering Sunday is a technically a romance, but is so unconventional that I hesitate to call it a romance at all (maybe also because I’m not a romance fan). It’s a quiet, gorgeously written story about the evolution of a woman (Jane) from the Mothering Sunday tryst with her illicit lover to late in her life. The story is unique, yet not weird and I could say the same about Swift’s writing style. Mothering Sunday reminded me a bit of Brian Morton’s Florence Gordon (my review) and would be an excellent choice for fans of Downton Abbey.

It was called “relaxation,” she thought, a word that did not commonly enter a maid’s vocabulary. She had many words, by now, that did not enter a maid’s vocabulary. Even the word “vocabulary.” She gathered them up like one of those nest-building birds outside. And was she even a maid any more, stretched here on his bed? And was he even a “master”? It was the magic, the perfect politics of nakedness. More than relaxation: peace.

One True Thing by Anna QuindlenOne True Thing by Anna Quindlen
Fiction (August 30, 1994)
315 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased (Random House)

Plot Summary: Ellen Gulden returns home from her prestigious job as a New York City journalist to care for her mother as she’s dying of cancer…only to be accused her mercy killing.

My Thoughts: I’m a bit late to the Anna Quindlen party, but she’s fast becoming a go-to author for me whenever I’m craving some “life lessons/perspective” in my reading. She just gets life…especially marriage, motherhood, and women’s work/life balance. One True Thing explores the relationship between Ellen (an ambitious career woman) and her mother (a Stepford-style stay-at-home mother) and their efforts to understand each other as people before it’s too late. This novel is heartfelt, sad, moving, and thought-provoking and reminded me a bit of My Name is Lucy Barton (a novel about a mother and daughter getting to know each other during a hospital stay) and Home is Burning (a memoir about children serving as caregivers for their parents). 

But in the end what was important was not that we had so misunderstood one another, but that we had so misunderstood her, this woman who had made us who we were while we barely noticed it.

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

September 14, 2017 Fiction 24

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Headline

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

Plot Summary

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

Why I Read It

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

Major Themes

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

What I Liked

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

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

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

What I Didn’t Like

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

A Defining Quote

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

Good for People Who Like…

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

Other Books You May Like

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

Miller’s Valley by Anna Quindlen

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

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

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Emma in the Night by Wendy Walker: The Best Psychological Thriller I’ve Read Since Gone Girl

August 10, 2017 Mysteries/Thrillers 20

Emma in the night by Wendy WalkerFiction – Mystery / Thriller
Released August 8, 2017
320 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (St. Martin’s Press)

Headline

Emma in the Night‘s ending has the rare perfect balance between being surprising, yet still fitting with the story and it’s the first 5 star thriller I’ve read since Gone Girl.

Plot Summary

Three years after teenage sisters Emma and Cass disappeared from their home, Cass returns home without Emma and forensic psychiatrist Dr. Abby Winters returns to help Cass find Emma.

Why I Read It

This was a lucky read. I’d read Walker’s debut thriller (All is Not Forgotten), but wasn’t a huge fan. St. Martin’s Press sent me an e-galley of Emma in the Night (thank you!) and I almost wasn’t motivated to pick it up. Then, Michelle at That’s What She Read said she read it in a day while floating in a pool…so, I decided to give it a try.

Major Themes

Childhood Trauma, Abuse, Family Secrets, Sisters, Narcissist Personality Disorder

What I Liked

  • I could not put this book down! And, I liked it so much better than All is Not Forgotten! If I had the kind of life where I could devote a whole day to reading, I could’ve read this book in one day. It’s the first 5 star thriller I’ve read since Gone Girl. If you’re looking for an immersive, edge-of-your-seat page turner for your last vacation of the summer, Emma in the Night is your book!
  • It’s a bit of a cross between a psychological thriller and a dysfunctional family novel. Both paths are extremely well-developed.
  • I was fascinated by the focus on Narcissistic Personality Disorder and the psychology of how this affects a family. I love how Walker went deep with the psychology angle throughout the whole book and explored how this disorder can be passed down through generations.
  • This novel is full of ambiguity. I spent most of my time reading wondering who was telling the truth, who was the real manipulator, and how and why everything played out like it did. I literally changed my mind on these questions dozens of times throughout the story.
  • Finally…a thriller with an ending that is surprising, yet absolutely makes sense with the story!! This is the number one characteristic I look for in thrillers and the number one thing that often goes wrong (hence why I’ve been turned off by thrillers lately). Kudos, Wendy Walker, for getting this exactly right!

What I Didn’t Like

Not one thing.

A Defining Quote

And so they were fierce competitors in their secret club, for each other’s love, for the love of everyone around them. And all I could do was watch from a distance, one short enough that I could see the escalation. Two nation-states in a constant battle for power and control. It was unsustainable. And so it continued, this war between my mother and my sister, until the night we were gone.

Good for People Who Like…

Psychological thrillers, dysfunctional family novels, secrets / betrayal, unputdownable books

Other Books You May Like

The only other psychological thriller that left me the highest level of satisfied:
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (my review)

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Five New Books You Can Read in a Weekend

March 21, 2017 Book Lists 38

New Books You Can Read in a Weekend


I’ve been on a short books kick recently and get really excited when I find tiny books that still pack a serious punch. The books on this list are all relatively new releases and are under 300 pages…short enough for you to read in a relatively plan-free weekend.

Five New Books You Can Read in a Weekend

A Separation, Katie MitamuraA Separation by Katie Kitamura
Fiction (Released February 7, 2017)
240 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased (Publisher: Riverhead) 

A Separation has catastrophically been described as a “whodunit” (by Elle Magazine) and “the literary Gone Girl of 2017″ (by The Millions). It is NOT either of those things. It is, however, a gorgeously dark rumination on a troubled marriage. It’s most definitely a “style” book (i.e. don’t look for a fast-moving plot), but I immediately adored the narrator’s voice and tone. Kitamura, through the wife’s perspective, creates emotional tension that propels the story (much like Tender, one of my 2016 favorites). This book is not for everyone. But, try the first few pages…if the writing connects with you, then you should probably keep reading! 

What would be irrational would be to remain in this state of indecision, neither in nor out of the marriage, neither with nor free of this man. The sooner I was able to deliver myself from this situation the better, I could not remain beholden to two separate and antagonistic sets of expectation […]

All Grown Up, Jami AttenbergAll Grown Up by Jami Attenberg
Fiction (Released March 7, 2017)
208 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) 

All Grown Up is a raw, compact story of a young woman (Andrea) trying to find her way in the world, but it’s taking longer than society says it should. Attenberg uses little snapshots of Andrea’s life to share her struggles with being single in New York City (a situation I could relate to from years ago) and provide “yes, that’s exactly how it is” commentary on how society treats single ladies in their thirties. Andrea’s floundering is frustrating, but also relatable and endearing. What really made All Grown Up for me was the unexpectedly funny writing. It’s snarky and filled with the type of dry, morbid humor that’s not for everyone, but is for me. All Grown Up tackles the quarter-life crisis theme in a brutally honest rather than grating way (I’m looking at you, The Futures) and is one of my favorite books of 2017 so far!

People architect new lives all the time. I know this because I never see them again once they find these new lives. They have children or they move to new cities or even just to new neighborhoods or you hate their spouse or their spouse hates you or they start working the night shift or they start training for a marathon or they stop going to bars or they start going to therapy or they realize they don’t like you anymore or they die. It happens constantly. It’s just me. I haven’t built anything new. I’m the one getting left behind.

The Roanoke Girls, Amy EngelThe Roanoke Girls by Amy Engel
Fiction (Released March 7, 2017)
276 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Crown) 

The Roanoke Girls features quite possibly the most dysfunctional (although, supremely F’d up is probably more accurate) family I’ve ever encountered in fiction. It’s the kind of book that I was slightly embarrassed to be reading, but was completely unable to put down. The extent to which Engel pushed the premise of this book is preposterous (think The Flowers in the Attic on steroids mixed with a bit of Sweet Home Alabama) and the characters’ decision-making is frustrating, but I was impressed with the writing and was even able to tolerate a bit of a love story (which is rare for me). It’s a fast, if not demented and twisted, read and would make a great vacation accessory.

I’ve been back in this house for less than an hour, and already I feel like I’m losing my mind, the Roanoke reality slithering into place. Where a tornado is a bit of wind or a missing woman is simply out having fun.

The Rules Do Not Apply, Ariel LevyThe Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy
Nonfiction – Memoir (Released March 14, 2017)
224 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Random House) 

I immediately fell for the writing in this searing memoir of self-examination by a current New Yorker staff writer (also a native of my current town). Levy takes a brutally raw and honest look at her life including love, massive loss, and bad decisions. Her style is rambling – covering topics from crafting her career as a professional writer to gardening to covering the Caster Semenya story (the South African runner who was gender-tested at the 2009 Berlin World Championships) to her views on marriage in general and gay marriage specifically (she’s a lesbian) to infidelity to Mike Huckabee to late-in-life pregnancy – but it flows seamlessly. It’s a risky thing to market a book as “for readers of Cheryl Strayed” and, while I’m not putting Levy on equal footing with the giant, the comparison is not unfounded.

People have been telling me since I was a little girl that I was too fervent, too forceful, too much. I thought I had harnessed the power of my own strength and greed and love in a life that could contain it. But it has exploded.

Woman Next Door, Yewande OmotosoThe Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso
Fiction (Released February 7, 2017)
288 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased (Publisher: Picador) 

The Woman Next Door was a fantastic surprise for me…and it’s likely to end up on my Underrated Gems of 2017 list. It’s like Grumpy Old Men crossed with Desperate Housewives set in South Africa and involving race. The story kicks off with snarky humor before taking a more contemplative turn. Two next door neighbors (Marion and Hortensia) can’t stand each other and are constantly plotting how to figuratively take the other one down, yet The Woman Next Door ends up being a story about friendship and regret and a lesson in how you never really know what’s going on in someone else’s life. Plus, the writing shines!

It wasn’t like Marion to give away such easy points but, while she was being generous, it was Hortensia’s aim to collect. Their rivalry was infamous enough for the other committee women to hang back and watch the show. It was known that the two women shared hedge and hatred and they pruned both with a vim that belied their ages.

What great books have you read in a weekend?

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

March 7, 2017 Fiction 24

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

Headline

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

Plot Summary

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

Why I Read It

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

Major Themes

Dysfunctional families, alcoholism, degenerative illness, twins

What I Loved

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

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

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

What I Didn’t Like

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

A Defining Quote

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

Good for People Who Like…

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

Other Books You May Like

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

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Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller: Slowly Revealing the Truth of a Marriage

February 9, 2017 Fiction 23

Swimming Lessons, Claire FullerFiction
Released February 7, 2017
356 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Tin House Books)

Headline

Though Swimming Lessons didn’t immediately grab me, its steady revelations about the Coleman marriage and increasing complexity eventually pulled me in.

Plot Summary

Swimming Lessons tells the story of the volatile marriage between famous author Gil Coleman and Ingrid…through letters Ingrid hid in Gil’s books prior to her disappearance and their daughters’ returns home to care for their ailing father.

Why I Read It

Claire Fuller’s debut novel, Our Endless Numbered Days, was one of my Best Debuts of 2015.

Major Themes

Marriage, family dysfunction, the writer’s life, motherhood, maintaining your identity through motherhood

What I Liked

  • The publisher’s blurb makes Swimming Lessons sound like it will be a mystery, but it’s actually an exploration of a troubled marriage. The “mystery” part of the story is somewhat ancillary and, once I wrapped my head around that, I enjoyed the book much more.
  • Swimming Lessons tackles a topic that is taboo even today and was even more frowned upon in the 70’s when Gil and Ingrid’s story began: not wanting and/or loving motherhood with every cell of your being and the conflicting feelings that come along with that.
  • I truly sunk into the second half of this book. As more layers of the Coleman’s marriage were peeled back, the story’s complexity grew, intriguing me more and more.
  • While not particularly surprising, the ending made sense and fit with the characters in the story, a type of ending that is becoming more and more appealing to me. And, it struck a perfect balance between tidying things up and leaving some questions unresolved / open to interpretation.
  • The potential discussion topics of marriage and motherhood and various interpretations of the ending make Swimming Lessons a compelling choice for book clubs.

What I Didn’t Like

  • Swimming Lessons did not immediately grab me. It’s a book that slowly peels back the layers of a marriage and it took lots of those layers being revealed for me to really get invested in the story.
  • Some of the revelations (yes, they are more revelations than twists) were not surprising, but their inevitability fit with the story.
  • One element of this story has been told before and I kind of rolled my eyes that this particular trope was popping up yet again.
  • I didn’t love Swimming Lessons quite as much as Our Endless Numbered Days…the writing sparkled a tad less and the plot was a touch more predictable.

A Defining Quote

I tried to tell you that I didn’t want it, wasn’t ready, might never be ready, but you put your finger on my lips and said, “Marry me’, and all those plans of creating my own category and giving you up after the summer disappeared like a wisp of sea mist under the relentless energy of your sun.

Good for People Who Like…

Dysfunctional families, marriage, dislikable characters, motherhood, secrets / betrayal, fathers and daughters, character-driven stories, gradual revelations of characters’ backgrounds

Other Books You May Like

Other books that untangle the truth behind a marriage:
Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff (review)

The Wife by Meg Wolitzer (review)

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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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Nonfiction November 2016: Be the Expert…Dysfunctional Childhood Memoirs

November 22, 2016 Book Lists 25

Nonfiction November 2016
This week’s Nonfiction November (hosted by Katie at Doing Dewey, Lory at Emerald City Book Review, Rachel at Hibernator’s Library, Julz at Julz Reads, and me) topic is Be The Expert/Ask the Expert/Become the Expert:

Three ways to join in this week! You can either share 3 or more books on a single topic that you have read and can recommend (be the expert), you can put the call out for good nonfiction on a specific topic that you have been dying to read (ask the expert), or you can create your own list of books on a topic that you’d like to read (become the expert).

Hop on over to Julz Reads to link up your posts!

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know I love books about dysfunctional families. And, lucky for me, there’s a plethora of those in the world of fiction. But, turns out heartbreaking childhoods, for better or for worse, lend themselves to fantastic memoirs as well. Here are some of my favorites…

Dysfunctional Childhood Memoirs

Dysfunctional Childhood Memoirs

A Wolf at the Table by Augusten Burroughs
An abusive and emotionally distant father.

All Over But the Shoutin’ by Rick Bragg
Extreme poverty in the deep South, an alcoholic and volatile father, and a mother trying to hold her family together through it all.

Darling Days by iO Tillett Wright
Wright’s tough upbringing on New York City’s Lower East Side in the late 80’s/early 90’s…including poverty, her parents’s addictions, and her struggle with gender identity and sexuality.

Fiction Ruined My Family by Jeanne Darst
An alcoholic mother and a father forever trying to publish the “Great American Novel” at the expense of providing for his children…and Darst’s struggle not to repeat her parents’s mistakes in adulthood.

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance
Growing up poor in Appalachia with an erratic mother plus social analysis of the Appalachian poor’s struggle to achieve upward mobility.

Hungry Heart by Jennifer Weiner
Overcoming body image issues and managing life with an erratic father.

Still Points North by Leigh Newman
Navigating Newman’s parents’s divorce and disparate lifestyles.

The Death of Santini by Pat Conroy
Reflections on rebuilding a relationship with literature’s most famous abusive father.

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
A vibrant, yet destructively alcoholic father and an eccentric mother averse to domestic stability.

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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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