Tag: Gorgeous Writing

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

October 19, 2017 Southern Fiction 6

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

Headline

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

Plot Summary

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

Why I Read It

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

Major Themes

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

What I Liked

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

What I Didn’t Like

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

A Defining Quote

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

Good for People Who Like…

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

Other Books You May Like

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

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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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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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Based on a True Story by Delphine de Vigan: Spoiler Discussion

May 11, 2017 Discussions 17

This post is full of spoilers, so STOP READING AFTER THE FIRST SECTION if you don’t want to know the ending (or other details).

Based on a True Story by Delphine de Vigan SpoilerFiction – Thriller
Released May 9, 2017
384 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon 
Source: Publisher (Bloomsbury USA)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This post contains affiliate links.

I’ve been somewhat burned out of psychological thrillers lately, especially those that are billed as “the next Gone Girl and/or The Girl on the Train.” I generally find that the big twist is either entirely predictable or completely outlandish…and neither one of those situations leaves me feeling satisfied. Completely outlandish is what killed the last thriller I tried (Behind Her Eyes). I wrote a spoiler discussion with all the gory details.

So, I recently tried going international for a satisfying thriller and it worked!

Based on a True Story (a smash hit in France already) is the memoir-style story of a writer’s toxic female friendship. It begins with a titillating Prologue and continues with a creepy, Single White Female vibe that left me dying to know how things would play out. It’s incredibly emotionally tense and de Vigan’s gorgeous writing helps accomplish this.

The first half of the book lays the psychological groundwork for the more action-packed second half. Why is L interested in Delphine? What could L possibly have done to make Delphine stop writing and essentially ruin her life?

The entire time I was reading, I understood that Based on a True Story was completely messing with my head. Much of the allure comes from the “is this story true or isn’t it?” vibe that permeates the entire story, so that’s what we’ll pick apart here.

I haven’t come close to figuring out where I stand on all these questions…and that’s one of the beauties of this story! You’ll keep turning it over in your mind for awhile and it’s a book that will spark debates, making it a great choice for book club.

STOP HERE IF YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW SPOILERS!

Is Based on a True Story REALLY based on a true story?

I went into Based on a True Story thinking the book was, in fact, based on a true story. Aside from the obvious (the title), the publisher leads its blurb with this:

[…] a chilling work of fiction–but based on a true story–about a friendship gone terrifyingly toxic and the nature of reality.

And closes with this:

This sophisticated psychological thriller skillfully blurs the line between fact and fiction, reality and artifice. Delphine de Vigan has crafted a terrifying, insidious, meta-fictional thriller; a haunting vision of seduction and betrayal; a book which in its hungering for truth implicates the reader, too–even as it holds us in its thrall.

But, as I was reading, I started to completely question this assumption. A huge theme in the story is the idea that fictional entertainment (books, movies, TV shows) that are “based on a true story” (or marketed as such) are much more compelling for the audience than pure fiction. It’s the type of book L is trying to force Delphine to write next.

And I challenge all of us – you, me, anyone – to disentangle true from false. And in any case, it could be a literary project to write a whole book that presents itself as a true story, a book inspired by so-called real events, but in which everything, or nearly everything, is invented.

Based on a True Story is filled with these types of quotes! Are they a clue that we readers have been conned and that this is not, in fact, a true story? Is this entire book a huge indictment of the lemming-like nature of readers in general?

Based on a True Story could be pure fiction and that title could just refer to this prevailing theme in the book. But, would the publisher go so far as to mislead the public in its marketing blurb?

I’ve tried all kinds of Google searches and found very few actual news articles indicating whether this story is true or any English language in-depth interviews with de Vigan. She’s also not on Twitter. The only thing I’ve seen is a translation of a French language interview with de Vigan in Paris Match Magazine in a blog post by Susie at Novel Visits where she quoted as answering “in one form or another” when asked if there was an L. in her life.

Did Delphine imagine L?

It’s clear towards the end of the book that even Delphine herself questions whether L actually existed. When she figures out she’s been had (in a delightfully The Usual Suspects kind of way!), she tries to find tangible evidence of L’s existence in her life and she cannot find a shred.

It’s possible Delphine could have imagined L in the throes of a deep depression. But, I think the (pretty dang awesome, I might add!) ending pretty much negates this possibility.

If L didn’t exist, who submitted the “novel” in Delphine’s name to her publisher? Delphine could have written it while she was depressed, but would she really have no zero memory of it whatsoever? I guess it’s possible if you also believe she invented L entirely.

But, I’m not sure I buy that Delphine imagined L. while deeply depressed.

I see three possible interpretations of Based on a True Story.

Based on a True Story ends with The End*, the calling card L uses for her ghostwriting. This leads me to the following three interpretations of the book:

  1. Based on a True Story really is closely based on something that actually happened to de Vigan…and Based on a True Story is the actual book the very real L submitted to Delphine’s publisher under Delphine’s name. But, then, can the publisher release this book under de Vigan’s name in good conscience while knowing she didn’t actually write it?
  2. Like #1, Based on a True Story is based on some version of something that actually happened to Delphine, but Delphine really did write the book about her experience. But if this is true, then why did Delphine sign off with L’s calling card? To trick the reader? As a cheeky nod to L? This piece has me stumped.
  3. Based on a True Story is completely fiction (written by de Vigan) and the title refers to the theme I discussed above. Ending the book with L’s calling card is just a cheeky nod to her and the story. Maybe even inserted at the last minute by the publisher. But, again, why would be publisher then state it’s “based on a true story” in the marketing blurb?

I think all this ambiguity is intentional and meant to make the book more compelling…which it absolutely did for me.

As to which theory I personally subscribe to…I think it’s #2…mainly because of the quote Susie at Novel Visits found in the French language Paris Match MagazineBut, I admit I’m still questioning myself. There are holes in all three theories.

How do you feel about all the ambiguity? And, about never finding out who L really was or why she wanted to insinuate herself in Delphine’s life?

About knowing for sure if the book is based on a true story?

Part of me loves the fact that I finished the book weeks ago and am still trying to parce this all out. But, another, lazier, part of me wants the key to the castle…right now!

I’m definitely the type of reader who doesn’t mind an open or ambiguous ending…as long as it isn’t super abrupt and makes sense with the story. In this case, I think the ambiguity was intentional and well-crafted, so it doesn’t make me want to throw the book across the room.

Knowing who L really was or why she wanted to insinuate herself into Delphine’s life?

Initially, I was annoyed that this was never answered. But, now that some time has gone by, I’m much more focused on whether the story is true or not. L’s motive almost seems beside the point.

Let’s discuss! What did you think of Based on a True Story? How do you feel about all the ambiguity?

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

April 13, 2017 Fiction 27

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

Headline

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

Plot Summary

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

Why I Read It

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

Major Themes

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

What I Loved

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

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

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

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

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

What I Didn’t Like

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

A Defining Quote

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

Good for People Who Like…

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

Other Books You May Like

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

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

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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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Backlist Beauties: (Most of) the Best Backlist Books I Read Last Year

January 19, 2017 Book Lists 18

One of my 2016 goals was to read more backlist books since I had great success with the few I read in 2015 (50% were 4.5 or 5 star reads). As I approached 2016’s halfway mark, I realized this was the one goal where I was utterly failing to make inroads! So, to keep me honest, I decided to briefly highlight a few backlist books in an occasional “Backlist Beauties” feature.

Here’s the 2016 crop (with one missing, which was so good it’s getting it’s own mini review) and, hopefully, I’ll read enough excellent backlisters throughout 2017 to warrant more than one post!

(Most of) the Best Backlist Books I Read Last Year

Our Souls at Night, Kent HarufOur Souls at Night by Kent Haruf
Fiction (Released May 26, 2015)
179 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased (Publisher: Knopf) 

Our Souls at Night is a sweet, calm, and uncomplicated novel about two older people (Louis and Addie) who stopped caring what everyone else thought and did what they needed to do to be happy. It’s sort of like they read The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck, which I happened to be listening to while reading this book. This novel reminded me a bit of My Name is Lucy Barton, as much of the story and background on the characters is revealed through conversations between Louis and Addie.

I told you I don’t want to live like that anymore – for other people, what they think, what they believe. I don’t think it’s the way to live. It isn’t for me anyway.

Book of Unknown Americans, Cristina HenriquezThe Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez
Fiction (Released June 3, 2014)
286 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased (Publisher: Knopf) 

This powerful book about the life of immigrants living in the U.S. is initially quiet, but I couldn’t put it down towards the end. It forces the reader to see life in America through a different set of eyes. There’s lots to chew on here and it would make a fantastic book club selection.

When I walk down the street, I don’t want people to look at me and see a criminal or someone that they can spit on or beat up. I want them to see a guy who has just as much right to be here as they do, or a guy who works hard, or a guy who loves his family, or a guy who’s just trying to do the right things.

 

This is the story of a happy marriage, Ann PatchettThis is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett
Nonfiction – Essays (Released December 11, 2011)
308 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased (Publisher: Harper) 

Pat Conroy is one of the rare authors whose fiction and nonfiction I’ve truly enjoyed. Now that he’s gone, Ann Patchett might be taking his place (thanks to his recommendation in A Lowcountry Heart). She covers the gamut of topics in this essay collection: marriage (obviously), divorce, writing, book tours, opera (the only low point for me), friendship, how to be productive, and the story behind the opening of Parnassus Books. She lives an interesting, yet fairly normal life and I like her outlook on things.

What I like about the job of being a novelist, and at the same time what I find so exhausting about it, is that it’s the closest thing to being God you’re ever going to get. All of the decisions are yours. You decide when the sun comes up. You decide who gets to fall in love and who gets hit by a car. You have to make all the trees and all the leaves and then sew the leaves onto the trees. You make the entire world.

Tiny Beautiful Things, Cheryl StrayedTiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed
Nonfiction (Released July 10, 2012)
308 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased (Publisher: Vintage/Random House Audio) 

In this compilation of columns from her time as the Dear Sugar advice columnist for The Rumpus, Strayed blends empathy, truth, bluntness, and humor to form a perfect blend of “yes, that’s exactly how it is” observations about life and useful, non-judgmental advice about how to live it. I’m not an advice column type of person or an audiobook lover, but the audio version of this book (narrated by the author) earned 5 stars from me.

Trust yourself. It’s Sugar’s golden rule. Trusting yourself means living out what you already know to be true.

You Are An Ironman, Jacques SteinbergYou Are An Ironman by Jacques Steinberg
Nonfiction – Sports (Released September 15, 2011)
304 Pages
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Gift (Publisher: Viking) 

The intertwined stories of six amateur triathletes’ attempts to complete Ironman Arizona 2009 (2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, 26.2 mile run), a race that can last as long as 17 hours. A friend gave me this book after learning I was competing in a Sprint Triathlon and I figured I’d peek at a few pages, but probably not read the whole thing. Boy, was I wrong! I teared up within the first 50 pages and was thoroughly inspired by the stories of these regular people attempting an extraordinary feat. 

The road to an Ironman truly begins with someone deciding to place one hand in front of the other in a pool, or one foot before the other on a fast-walk that might progress into a jog or a run.

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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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On the Frustrations of Articulating Why I Love An Author’s Writing Style

November 17, 2016 Bookish Posts 18

Articulating Why I Love an author's writing style


I’ve found myself in a conundrum involving some of the best books I’ve read recently. Generally, the overriding factor that makes me love a book is the writing style truly speaking to me. But, what does that even mean?! It’s one of the hardest things to clearly articulate in a book review. So, I end up with less than convincing reviews of some of my favorite books.

I’ve found myself just typing “gorgeous writing!” over and over or, if I’m feeling motivated, trying to use a different word combination that also means “gorgeous writing.” I’ve jammed reviews with quotes from the book…or written reviews almost entirely in quotes. What I haven’t done is intelligibly explain exactly what about an author’s writing style makes it appeal to me. It’s almost easier for me to articulate why I don’t like a particular writing style than why I do. So, I’m going to attempt to articulate what type of writing appeals to me here.

Writing that appeals to me…

  • Is, as Pat Conroy’s friend Tim Belk put it: “spare, unadorned, unflashy, but hard-hitting and severe.” (from A Lowcountry Heart)

From The Mothers by Brit Bennett:

How could she be proud of lapping her mother, when she had been the one to slow her down in the first place?

From Darling Days by iO Tillett Wright:

Later, she would say that there was never a gun in the house. She would swear to this, like a Mafia wife, blinded by passion or loyalty. Either way it wasn’t completely true. There was a gun under her pillow. Whether or not he pulled it out before they shot him, nobody knows.

  • Makes me feel – either straight-up emotion or a strong sense of place

From Did You Ever Have A Family by Bill Clegg (emotion):

She heard her name called out—timidly, unsure—but she did not stop or turn around to respond. She was, she sensed sharply as she reached the far side of the parking lot, an untouchable. Not from scorn or fear, but from the obscenity of the loss. It was inconsolable, and the daunting completeness of it—everyone, gone—silenced even those most used to calamity.

From The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy (sense of place):

These are the quicksilver moments of my childhood […]. Irresistible and emblematic […]. There is a river, the town, my grandfather steering a boat through the channel, my sister fixed in that suspended rapture that she would later translate into her strongest poems, the metallic perfume of harvested oysters, the belling voices of children on the shore. When the white porpoise comes there is all this and transfiguration too.

  • Clearly communicates that the author is an astute observer of life (i.e. “yes, that’s exactly how it is” writing)
    Maggie Shipstead (author of Seating Arrangements) used the phrase “yes, that’s exactly how it is” to describe Adelle Waldman’s portrayal of NYC dating in The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. It’s the first thing that comes to mind when I find writing that just perfectly captures the essence of something…in a way I may not have heard before.

From Shotgun Lovesongs by Nicholas Butler:

On old male friendships:
“[…] that familiarity, that ability to run together, to move together without ever talking. That kind of stillness.”

From The Wife by Meg Wolitzer:

Everyone knows how women soldier on, how women dream up blueprints, recipes, ideas for a better world, and then sometimes lose them on the way to the crib in the middle of the night, on the way to the Stop & Shop, or the bath. They lose them on the way to greasing the path on which their husband and children will ride serenely through life.

  • Delivers spot-on social commentary

From The Dinner by Herman Koch:

He never used to have such a powerful handshake, but in the last few years he had realized that “the people of this country” had to be met with a firm grip – that they would never vote for a fishy handshake.

  • “Gets to the nasty heart of things” – Catherine at Gilmore Guide to Books used this phrase to describe the writing in Herman Koch’s Dear Mr. M. Koch is unafraid to say the things that most people wouldn’t dare say in polite company.

From Dear Mr. M by Herman Koch

Women have more time to read than men. Once their vacuuming is done they open a book – your book – and start to read. And that evening in bed they’re still reading. When their husband rolls onto his side and places a hand on their stomach, close to the navel or just below the breasts, they push that hand away. “Leave me alone, okay, I just want to finish this chapter,” they say, then read on. Sometimes women have a headache, sometimes they’re having their period, sometimes they’re reading a book.

Writing Characteristics that Don’t Appeal to Me

  • Flowery language / just too over the top

From The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy (though I adore Conroy, he can sometimes go too far):

When there were no roses to be thrown, she brought forward the disturbed angels of nightmare who sang the canticles of knives and the blue vulnerable veins in her pale wrists.

  • Overly formal language 

From A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles 

The sky was the very blue that the cupolas of St. Basil’s had been painted for. Their pinks, greens, and golds shimmered as if it were the sole purpose of a religion to cheer its Divinity.

Other Books I’ve Loved Because of the Writing Style…

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett
My Sunshine Away by M.O. Walsh
Only Love Can Break Your Heart by Ed Tarkington
Sweetbitter
by Stephanie Danler

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer
The Throwback Special by Chris Bachelder

What characteristics are important in writing styles you love? Who are some of the authors whose writing styles really speak to you?

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