Tag: Historical Fiction

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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We Were the Lucky Ones: Q&A with Author Georgia Hunter

February 14, 2017 Historical Fiction 21

We Were the Lucky Ones, Georgia HunterHistorical Fiction
Released February 14, 2017
416 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Author (Publisher: Viking)

I’m thrilled to welcome debut novelist, researcher, and friend, Georgia Hunter, to the blog today! We Were the Lucky Ones has been getting fantastic advance buzz from Publisher’s Weekly, Audible, Penguin Random House, Harper’s Bazaar, and Glamour Magazine and I loved it as well!

This post contains affiliate links.

My Thoughts about We Were the Lucky Ones

World War II “annihilated over 90% of Poland’s Jews and […] all but about 300 of the 30,000 Jews from Radom,” Georgia Hunter’s ancestors’ home. Yet, her entire family survived. We Were the Lucky Ones is based on the story of how they did it.

The Kurc family’s experience during World War II, beginning in Poland and stretching to Siberia, Italy, and Brazil is nothing short of a harrowing odyssey, the outcome of which defies statistics, explanation, and imagination. Despite the many horrific details of their experience, this is a story of hope, inspiration, and true grit.

I’ve historically had a tendency to get bogged down in World War II books, but I never felt that way while reading We Were the Lucky Ones. Hunter did a masterful job at keeping the story moving along, making it feel like a “quick read” in a page-turning sense, even though it’s not a short or light book. Rather than the war itself, the story is more about what life was like during the war for a Polish Jewish family and Hunter’s caring attention to detail made the backdrop come alive. We Were the Lucky Ones would be a fantastic choice for anyone who enjoyed The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah.

PS – I always love Author’s Notes section in historical fiction…and this one is not to be missed!

Q&A with Georgia Hunter

We Were the Lucky Ones is based on your family’s real-life experience during WWII and you used their real names in the book. What made you decide to make the book fiction?

When I began writing We Were the Lucky Ones, I didn’t have a sense of what the finished product would look like – my goal was simply to convey the story in a way that did my family justice, and that felt less like a history lesson, and more like a novel: visceral and immersive. I wanted readers to understand, through the eyes of the Kurcs, what it meant to be Jewish and on the run during the Second World War.

I thought hard about penning the book as non-fiction, as each of my storylines is based on facts uncovered in oral histories or through outside research. (I did change a couple of names, but only for the sake of clarity.) I realized in early drafts, however, that I’d stuck so closely to what I’d been told in my interviews that my characters came across as a touch too perfect (most of my relatives were depicted to me – rightfully so – as heroes). The Kurcs were courageous, resilient, and ingenious, yes. But they were also human. They were falling in love (even making babies!), and they must have also been confused and angry and at times racked with fear.

And so, I decided in the end to write the book as fiction, in the present tense, allowing myself the creative license to dive deep into my characters’ psyches, imagining to the best of my ability what was running through the Kurcs’ hearts and minds. It’s my hope that in doing so, I was able to bring the story even closer to the truth.

Tell us a little bit about your research and writing. How long did you spend researching the Kurc family story and how long did you spend doing the actual writing?

I began researching my book nine years ago when I set off with a digital voice recorder and an empty notebook to interview a relative in Paris. From there I flew to Rio de Janeiro and across the States, meeting with cousins and friends – anyone with a story to share. My family’s narrative took shape, at first, in the form of a timeline, which I peppered with historical details and color-coded by relative to help keep track of who was where/when.

Where there were gaps in my timeline, I looked to outside resources – to archives, museums, ministries, and magistrates around the world, in hopes of tracking down relevant information.

I began actually writing my book in bits and pieces, and probably sooner than I should have! I’d come home from an interview so excited about a story I’d been told that I’d write it down and save it. By the time I put some serious thought into how the book should unfold, I had dozens of one-off scenes already crafted. Each would make it into the book eventually, but my most productive writing came when I sat down in 2011 to plot an outline and chapter summaries.

Your research involved extensive global travel. What was the most impactful destination you visited?

Great question! Of all of the places I visited in South America and in Europe, I’d have to say my trip to Radom, the city in central Poland where my grandfather was raised, was the most moving. 

My husband and I explored Radom with a guide, a young man named Jakub whom I’d contacted through the city’s Culture Center. Jakub showed us the old Jewish cemetery, which I was shocked to learn was still being restored, as the tombstones had been repurposed by the Nazis for a military airport runway. We visited the apartment building where my family lived, and I got chills running my fingers along a rusted mezuzah still adhered to the cement arched entranceway (only one of two remaining mezuzahs in the entire city, Jakub said).

I left Radom understanding why my great-grandparents had felt at home raising a family there – the city was quaint, livable; I appreciated its understated, small-town vibe. But I couldn’t help but also feel the presence of the 30,000 Jews who had once inhabited the city (a community that was reduced to fewer than 300 by war’s end), who had enjoyed it for what it was before their worlds were shattered.

Reading some of the more gruesome details hit me more than usual knowing they actually happened to a friend’s family. What was it like to learn some of the more horrific things your family went through?

It was tough, as it meant trying to put myself in my relatives’ shoes, imagining what it must have been like to experience the things they did (talk about putting my own “problems” in perspective!). It was also hard because the stories I uncovered in my interviews (e.g., what it was like to lose a sister, or to run through the streets of Warsaw during an uprising, or to give birth to a child in the thick of a Siberian winter) were conveyed with stoicism, the gruesome details glossed over. Even in the first-hand Shoah interviews I had access to, I was amazed at the matter-of-fact manner in which the Kurcs relayed their wartime experiences. It took a great deal of research to capture these stories on paper in a way that felt accurate to what my relatives might have been thinking/feeling at the time.

What was the most mind-blowing thing you learned about your family during the course of your research?

One of the pieces of my family’s narrative that felt the fuzziest going into my research concerned my great-uncle Genek (my grandfather’s older brother). I knew through interviews with his children that Genek had been sent to Siberia, and had ended up fighting for the Allies in the Battle of Monte Casino…but that was it – I had no idea when or why he’d been sent to Siberia, when or why he’d been released, or how he eventually ended up in uniform on Italian soil.

Through the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, I discovered a nine-page, hand-written account of Genek’s, which answered all of these questions, and then some. I was also able, through the Ministry of Defense in the U.K., to track down Genek’s detailed military records, including Medals of Honor he’d never collected. It was a real joy to hand over these discoveries to Genek’s sons.

How has your family reacted to the book?

Thankfully, those who have read an early copy of the book have loved it! I can’t tell you how great that feels. Getting feedback from the family, hearing how much the book has taught them or moved them, has been the most uplifting and gratifying feeling in the world.

What’s the best book you read in 2016?

Hmm…it would have to be a toss up between Paula McLain’s Circling the Sun or Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things (which were released before 2016, but I read them last year and adored them both).

And, your top 3 all-time favorites? I know this is a ridiculously hard question to answer! 

Yes, nearly impossible to answer! I will say, however, that the three books I recommend the most to friends are:

City of Thieves by David Benioff (a WWII survival account based on stories passed down by Benioff’s grandfather – the book unfolds like a film and was an early inspiration for my own novel)

Wonder by R. J. Palacio (a Y/A novel about a young 5th grade boy with a facial deformity, struggling to fit in)

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott (insightful, funny, and provocative, for writers and non-writers alike)

What’s the best WWII book you’ve ever read (other than your own, of course)?

Another tough one! But if I had to pick, the one at the very top of my WWII list would be Julie Orringer’s historical novel, The Invisible Bridge. The book is nearly 800 pages long – and for that very reason it took me a while to pick it up – but when I did, I grew so consumed with the fates of Orringer’s characters, and so lost in her gorgeous prose, that I couldn’t put it down.

I see many similarities between Orringer’s protagonist, Andras (who is based on her grandfather), and Addy, my own grandfather, who were both young Jews living in Paris, separated from their families at the start of the Second World War. 

Finally…are you doing any writing now and do you have plans for a second book?

Most of my recent writing has been devoted to interviews and essays in preparation for the launch of We Were the Lucky Ones (Viking is keeping me busy!), so I haven’t had much time to think about book #2. That said I’ve got a running list of ideas that I’ll flush out when the time comes. I’m inspired (as you may have gathered) by stories based on truth, and I love an underdog protagonist – someone faced with terrible odds, whom you can really cheer for, and whose story offers a big-picture understanding of a place or time with which you might be unfamiliar. I just saw the film Lion and left the theater teary-eyed and thinking WOW – now that’s exactly the kind of story I want to write about next.

About Georgia Hunter

Georgia Hunter, We Were the Lucky OnesFor as long as I can remember, I’ve loved to write. I penned my first “novel” when I was four years old, and titled it Charlie Walks the Beast after my father’s recently published sci-fi novel, Softly Walks the Beast. When I was eleven, I pitched an article—an Opinion piece on how I’d spend my last day if the world were about to come to an end—to the local newspaper. Since that debut in the Attleboro Sun Chronicle, my personal essays and photos have been featured in places like the New York Times “Why We Travel,” in travelgirl magazine, and on Equitrekking.com. I’ve also taken on the role of freelance copywriter in the world of adventure travel, crafting marketing materials for outfitters such as Austin Adventures and The Explorer’s Passage.

In 2000, a family reunion opened my eyes to the astounding war stories of my grandfather and his family. Eight years later, armed with a digital voice recorder and a moleskin notebook, I set off to unearth and record my family’s story. I spent nearly a decade traversing the globe, interviewing family and digging up records from every possible source I could think of, eventually piecing together the bones of what would become my novel, We Were the Lucky Ones.

I kept a blog as my research unfolded, which you are welcome to peruse. I’ve also created a list of ancestry search tips, should you consider embarking on a journey to uncover your own roots.

Learn more about Hunter on her Author Website, FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

Purchase We Were the Lucky Ones from Amazon (affiliate link)!

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

October 11, 2016 Mini Book Reviews 18

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles: On Appreciating, Yet Not Loving a Book

September 27, 2016 Historical Fiction 48

A Gentleman in MoscowFiction
Released September 6, 2016
448 Pages
Bottom Line: Skip it…unless you have big chunks of quiet time.
Affiliate Link: Amazon
Source: Purchased (published by Viking)

Headline

Though I appreciated A Gentleman in Moscow on an intellectual level, the formal writing style kept me from being able to connect with it emotionally.

Plot Summary

In 1920’s Moscow, Count Alexander Rostov is sentenced by the Bolsheviks to “house arrest” in the illustrious Metropol Hotel, where he essentially holds court and observes his country’s evolution.

Why I Read It

I loved Towles’ previous novel, Rules of Civility, and some of my trusted blogger friends gave his latest 5 stars.

Major Themes

Communism, Russia, making the most out of the life you have

What I Liked

  • The Count is an utterly delightful character. Though he’s been a gentleman of leisure his entire life, he adjusts cleverly to living in a tiny attic room (albeit in a grand hotel) and losing all freedom outside of the hotel walls. It’s almost like he’s an adult Eloise in the way he becomes more and more a fixture of the hotel.
  • The Metropol Hotel becomes a microcosm of everything that’s going on in Russia…and the Count is able to get a sense of the sweeping political changes through small changes inside the hotel. For example, an elaborate ticket system appears in the hotel’s restaurant, where each order has to be recorded in numerous places with numerous people, illuminating the crushing bureaucracy of Communism.
  • The Count’s observations on life and history made me smile and chuckle throughout.

In Russia, whatever the endeavor, if the setting is glorious and the tenor grandiose, it will have its adherents. In fact, over the years, as the locations for duels became more picturesque and the pistols more finely manufactured, the best-bred men proved willing to defend their honor over lesser and lesser offenses. So while dueling may have begun as a response to high crimes—to treachery, treason, and adultery—by 1900 it had tiptoed down the stairs of reason, until they were being fought over the tilt of a hat, the duration of a glance, or the placement of a comma.

  • This story is a masterpiece of cleverly woven details. You’ll see a split second reference to something you read about in more detail 100 pages earlier. And, the ending is like a carefully orchestrated symphony…intricate and surprising, yet every detail making sense.
  • I loved the subversive tone that poked fun of the Bolsheviks and, later, Stalin’s communism.

What I Didn’t Like

  • Despite everything I just said, I wasn’t as enamored with A Gentleman in Moscow as I expected to be…and as others are (Gilmore Guide to Books, The Book Wheel). While I appreciate its beauty, it failed to connect with me on some emotional level. I had trouble concentrating and kept zoning in and out (admittedly, this could be because of the back-to-school chaos that was going on while I was reading it). I just couldn’t ever fully immerse myself in this story, which kept me from being able to love it.
  • This is the type of book that you should curl up with in peace and that doesn’t fit well into my life right now. Particularly not in the first few weeks of September with young children!
  • The writing is exquisite, but very formal. This makes sense as the Count is a formal character, but I prefer a more casual style. This, in a nutshell, is the overwhelming reason I had trouble with this book.
  • The story often veered off on tangents that pulled me out of the story and the Count does an inordinate amount of pontificating (about wine, prime numbers, American movies, etc), which is sometimes fascinating (see the above quote about duels), but often boring.
  • Finally, I felt like I was reading it forever…which is not usually a good sign.

A Defining Quote

Nina had not contented herself with the views from the upper decks. She had gone below. Behind. Around. About. In the time that Nina had been in the hotel, the walls had not grown inward, they had grown outward, expanding in scope and intricacy. In her first weeks, the building had grown to encompass the life of two city blocks. In her first months, it had grown to encompass half of Moscow. If she lived in the hotel long enough, it would encompass all of Russia.

Good for People Who Like…

Historical fiction, social commentary, delightful characters, Russia, Communism, gorgeous writing

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Read One, Skip One: Why They Run the Way They Do and Flight of Dreams

February 18, 2016 Mini Book Reviews 22

Why They Run the Way They Do, Susan PeraboWhy They Run the Way They Do by Susan Perabo
Fiction – Short Stories (Released February 16, 2016)
208 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Simon & Schuster) via NetGalley

Plot Summary: A collection of short stories featuring the darker undertones of daily life.

My Thoughts: Short stories have historically been a tough sell for me, but I’m trying to be more open to them after loving Nickolas Butler’s Beneath the Bonfire last year. I’m so glad I gave Why They Run the Way They Do a shot (or, more accurately, that Tara at Running N Reading convinced me to give it a shot) because it’s now only the second short story collection I’ve truly enjoyed from start to finish. On the surface, these stories are about mundane daily life…a harmless middle school prank, a child’s toy, spending time with your mother after some bad news…but, they have a darkness simmering just underneath. This combination makes them incredibly relatable, yet still eye-opening and unique. 

There wasn’t a true dud in the bunch (a rarity for me with short stories!), but like with all short story collections, I did have my favorites. The Payoff perfectly encapsulates schoolgirl innocence gone wrong, Michael the Armadillo was whimsical yet sad, and Indulgence is just gorgeous and gut-punching. Why They Run the Way They Do would be a fantastic starter collection for anyone new to short stories or who usually finds it hard to connect with them and it’s going on my Great Books Under 300 Pages List.

Flight of Dreams, Ariel LawhonFlight of Dreams by Ariel Lawhon
Historical Fiction (Release Date: February 23, 2016)
336 Pages
Bottom Line: Skip it.
Affiliate Link: Amazon
Source: Publisher (Doubleday) via NetGalley

Plot Summary: A fictional story of what could have occurred during (and caused the crash of) the real-life flight of the Hindenburg, a German airship, in 1937.

My Thoughts: Having loved Lawhon’s 2014 debut novel (The Wife, The Maid, and The Mistress), I had high expectations for Flight of Dreams. Sadly, I was disappointed with this novel, mainly because I didn’t find the real-life story it’s based on particularly interesting. The story is told from five perspectives (both passengers and crew from the Hindenberg) over the course of the four day flight and is an extrapolation of what could possibly have happened to cause the real-life crash based on the facts available to Lawhon. I appreciate the literary skill it takes to weave these bits of fact into the complete narrative she did, so my hats off to Lawhon for that.

In the Author’s Note at the end of the book, Lawhon mentions that, according to much of the primary source material, the trip was uneventful until the crash…and that’s exactly how I felt about the first three quarters of the book. I was a bit bored, even with the fictional drama among the passengers and crew. It just wasn’t that dramatic. And, there was a heavy dose of romance that turned me off. However, Lawhon masterfully conveyed the frenetic atmosphere of the explosion itself in the final quarter of the book and I quickly turned the pages through that section.

Though this wasn’t a success for me, I suspect I could be in the minority and I do highly recommend trying The Wife, The Maid, and The Mistress if you haven’t already!

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Alcohol & Advil: My Name is Lucy Barton and The Swans of Fifth Avenue

January 21, 2016 Mini Book Reviews 45

Alcohol and Advil Literary Style


Welcome to the second installment of my new feature, 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 books that I either absolutely loved or books that punched me in the gut in an emotionally depleting way (and sometimes both!). 

The Alcohol

My Name is Lucy Barton, Elizabeth StroutMy Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
Fiction (Released January 5, 2016)
208 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Random House) via NetGalley

Plot Summary: During a long hospital stay, Lucy Barton has a heartfelt conversation with her mother spanning topics from her difficult childhood to gossip from her hometown to her marriage and motherhood.

My Thoughts: My Name is Lucy Barton was an unexpected winner for me…in the way I felt about it and what it was actually about. I expected a story focusing on Lucy’s relationship with her mother, and it certainly covers this territory, but it felt much more about Lucy’s own life: her childhood, what it was like to grow up poor and never quite fit in, and her adult life.

This is one of those books that has all the intangibles. I’m finding a love for otherwise quiet books whose suspense lies in revealing background information about characters in tiny drips and drabs…and My Name is Lucy Barton joined Did You Ever Have A Family in doing just that. The premise didn’t grab me upon first glance, but the gorgeous writing and life lessons, particularly about marriage and motherhood, touched an emotional chord (no actual crying…but, I did tear up a few times).

Lonely was the first flavor I had tasted in my life, and it was always there, hidden inside the crevices of my mouth, reminding me.

My Name is Lucy Barton‘s gorgeously written hard truths give this quiet book power in a compact package…and it’s going on my Great Books Under 300 Pages List.

The Advil

Swans of Fifth Avenue, Melanie BenjaminThe Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin
Historical Fiction (Release Date: January 26, 2016)
368 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Pre-Order from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Delacorte Press) via NetGalley

Plot Summary: A novel (wink, wink) based on the friendship between author Truman Capote and his New York City socialite “swans” (i.e. Babe Paley, Slim Keith, Marella Agnelli, Gloria Guinness, etc) and his eventual betrayal of them via the short story, “La Cote Basque, 1965”.

My Thoughts: The Swans of Fifth Avenue is one of those deliciously scandalous guilty pleasures…wealthy people behaving badly at its best…with the added bonuses of the right amount of depth and writing that strikes the perfect tone. While this book is technically fiction, the major events and timelines are real with dialogue, emotions, and details imagined by the author. 

Benjamin’s dialogue is snappy and her social commentary is devastatingly biting. The whole time I was reading, I could just picture Truman curled up at these women’s feet like a slinky cat, getting in their good graces before finally pouncing with claws out.

But, Babe, idealized and idolized, perpetually on the “Best Dressed” lists, always mentioned in columns that began, “The most beautiful women in New York,” was not desired by her own husband. Oh, yes – coveted, perhaps. Prized. Displayed, like one of his Picassos. “Mr. and Mrs. William S. Paley,” dazzling together at charity events, balls, highly sought-after at dinner parties. But Babe was not desired.

Beyond the salacious gossip, Benjamin explores friendship, marriage, loneliness, women’s identity, and what lies beneath the mask. What was it like to be so heavily focused on your outward appearance and image (umm..exhausting?!)? How do these glamorous and celebrated women deal with the fact that their husbands view them as nothing more than “glamorous concierges”? How did these women, who rarely spoke the truth,  even to each other, end up divulging so many deep, dark secrets to Truman? And, did Truman intend to betray them from the beginning? The Swans of Fifth Avenue is perfect for fans of Dominick Dunne or Vanity Fair magazine, is going on my Biogossip list.

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Read One, Skip One: Sweetland and Along the Infinite Sea

December 17, 2015 Mini Book Reviews 28

After having a bit of an unexpected hangover from Sweetland and having trouble settling into my next book, I thought a recovery book was in order. I was sure Along the Infinite Sea would hit the spot and was planning my next installment of my Alcohol & Advil feature. Alas, Alcohol & Advil will have to wait…

Sweetland, Michael CrummeySweetland by Michael Crummey
Fiction (Released January 19, 2015)
336 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased

Plot Summary: As the tiny island town of Sweetland deteriorates, the Canadian government offers the remaining residents a monetary package to “resettle” elsewhere, but Moses Sweetland doesn’t want to leave his home.

My Thoughts: Sweetland is an incredibly moving book that slowly crept under my skin before going in an unexpected and intriguing direction. It begins as a portrait of a tiny (and quirky) town before moving into a world where reality is hazy. Some reviews noted that Sweetland‘s Canadian Island dialect takes some getting used to, but it didn’t bother me at all. In fact, I found much of the writing downright gorgeous:

He looked up at the hills surrounding the cove, sunlight making them ring with meltwater. He’d always loved that sound, waited for it each spring. Hearing it made him certain of the place he came from. He’d always felt it was more than enough to wake up here, to look out on these hills. As if he’d long ago been measured and made to the island’s specifications.

Moses Sweetland is a lovable curmudgeon (a character type that gets me every time…see A.J. Fikry!) and the book has a Grumpy Old Men vibe as Moses and his equally eccentric neighbors rib each other day after day. I loved the way Crummey gradually revealed surprising background information about the town’s history and each of its residents…in a way that reminded me a bit of Did You Ever Have A Family. I’m thrilled to have finally been introduced to this Canadian author (thanks, Shannon and Naomi!) and been able to slide Sweetland into my Best Books of 2015 list at the last minute.

Along the Infinite Sea, Beatriz WilliamsAlong the Infinite Sea by Beatriz Williams
Historical Fiction (Released November 3, 2015)
461 Pages
Bottom Line: Skip it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Putnam) via NetGalley

Plot Summary: In 1966, pregnant and alone Pepper Schuyler sells the Mercedes Roadster she found in a shed at her sister’s Cape Cod house to the mysterious Annabelle Dommerich, who has quite the story of her own.

My Thoughts: It literally pains me to write this review because Beatriz Williams is one of my go-to authors for light, but entertaining page turners about family drama and wealthy people behaving badly. Along the Infinite Sea is the third book in the Schuyler sister series, focusing on Pepper, and unfortunately, my least favorite of the three.

The story is told in duel perspectives and timelines: one focusing on Pepper in 1966 and one focusing on Annabelle’s experience of falling in love during the lead-up to World War II in the 1930’s. Williams has surprised me with family drama twists and turns in all her previous books, but the plot twists in Along the Infinite Sea just weren’t that eye-opening. And, while Williams usually includes some romance in her books, it felt a bit heavy-handed and drawn out here.

For anyone interested in trying Beatriz Williams (and I think you should if you like family drama page turners!),  I recommend starting with A Hundred Summers, one of my fall-time favorite beach reads.

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Must Read Before EOY Minis: Where All Light Tends to Go and The Nightingale

December 3, 2015 Mini Book Reviews 9

This is the time of year when I try to get to all the 2015 releases that I missed out on earlier in the year, but that I got excited about after reading other bloggers’ reviews. Here are my thoughts on two of them…

Where All Light Tends to Go, David JoyWhere All Light Tends to Go by David Joy
Fiction (Released March 3, 2015)
274 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased

Plot Summary: Jacob McNeely, son of his small North Carolina mountain town’s biggest outlaw, struggles to separate himself from the life of crime he was born into and to fight for the girl he loves (Maggie).

My Thoughts: I’ve read some great “Grit Lit” this year (Bull Mountain, The Shore, The Animals), so I knew I had to make time for David Joy’s debut novel. It’s a story about fathers and sons, loyalty, love, and trying to claw your way out of your given circumstances. The writing made me truly feel the poverty and hopelessness of the mountainous North Carolina setting and it reminded me of a more reflective version of Bull Mountain. Jacob is an anti-hero who it was easy to root for; though he’s a bad kid on the surface, he is a victim of circumstance who is, deep down, trying to do the right thing.

I also loved the Riggins & Lyla (from “Friday Night Lights”) vibe that Jacob and Maggie had going on – the notorious troublemaker with a good heart falling in love with the golden girl who will most certainly go on to better things. My only complaint was that I guessed the ending, which caused me to love the book less than I thought I would. Nevertheless, it’s going on my Books for Guys, Page Turners, and Great Books Under 300 Pages lists.

Nightingale, Kristin HannahThe Nightingale by Kristin Hannah
Historical Fiction (Released February 3, 2015)
449 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased

Plot Summary: The story of two French sisters, timid Vianne and reckless Isabelle, and their different experiences during World War II’s Nazi occupation of France.

My Thoughts: This book has been getting tons of hype all year long…and for some reason I kept not picking it up. The premise reminded me of All the Light We Cannot See…and I didn’t get past the sample of that one.

While I did enjoy The Nightingale, it wasn’t quite as out of this world as I’d been hearing. I loved the overarching question of “what are civilians caught up in the Nazi occupation willing to do to survive?” and the badass ladies that carry this story. While I was emotionally invested in the story, I didn’t find it to be particularly unique or surprising. And, though the writing was readable and engaging, it didn’t sparkle enough to separate it from the pack of other novels I’ve enjoyed this year. This being said, it is a solid historical fiction novel worth reading…it just didn’t break the “best of the best” barrier for me.

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How I got Burned by Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire

October 29, 2015 Historical Fiction 39

City on Fire, Garth Risk HallbergHistorical Fiction
Released October 13, 2015
944 Pages
Bottom Line: Skip it.
Affiliate Link: Amazon
Source: Purchased

Headline

I truly believe there is a great book hiding in City on Fire‘s 944 pages, but it was unfortunately lost amidst pretentious language, an overreaching plot, and an ending that made me want to throw my Kindle across the room.

Plot Summary

A New Year’s Eve shooting in Central Park brings together a wealthy banking family (the Hamilton-Sweeneys), a gay teacher from rural Georgia, a reporter suffering from writer’s block, two Long Island teenagers, and some misfits from the downtown “punk” scene amidst the decay of 1970’s New York City.

Why I Read It

Because I was curious about the debut novel that received a $2 million advance! And, because it’s been marketed as reminiscent of Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, which is one of my all-time favorite books.

Major Themes

Class, drugs, the punk scene, New York City, urban decay, family dynamics

What I Liked

  • Much of the writing is brilliant. Hallberg picks just the right words to describe something in a way that made me think “yes, that’s exactly how it is.”

Success in America was like Method acting. You were given a single, defined problem to work through, and if you were good enough in your role, you managed to convince yourself of its – the problem’s – significance. Meanwhile, actors who hadn’t made the cut scurried around backstage, tugging at ropes, making sure that when you turned to address the moon, it would be there.

  • The characters are representative of different walks of life (the punk scene, the wealthy corporate world, the media, and a couple regular Joes) and the story is told from these various perspectives, amplifying the tension between the classes in a way that’s reminiscent of The Bonfire of the Vanities.
  • I was intrigued by the Hamilton-Sweeney family storyline, which was rife with upper-crust snobbery, family dysfunction, and sketchy business dealings, and how it would intersect with the Central Park shooting that occurs across the street from their massive apartment, during their annual New Year’s Eve party. This story, alone, could have made a fantastic book that truly is “the next The Bonfire of the Vanities.”
  • For the first 75% of the book, I was all set to rate it 4 stars on Goodreads. Though the story was a bit slow, I enjoyed the (mostly) brilliant writing, was invested in the central plot, and reveled in learning about the characters’ backgrounds. After the halfway point, some of the extraneous plot fell away and the focus settled on the story I was truly interested in.

What I Didn’t Like

  • Though much of the writing was brilliant, Hallberg got pretentious at times…to the detriment of the writing’s flow. I had to use my Kindle dictionary far more than normal and, some teenager prepping for his/her SATs could probably just use this book to study for the verbal section! I don’t mind big vocabulary words, but some of Hallberg’s choices seemed out of place and unnecessary. “Husbanded his cash”…seriously?!

For having so far husbanded his cash pretty well, Mercer rewarded himself with one of the eponymous beverages.

  • Especially in the first half, Hallberg spent an inordinate amount of time focusing on the downtown “punk scene”. Charlie and Sam, two otherwise normal Long Island teens, start hanging out in a shady squat with other punk derelicts doing drugs and listening to music. I frequently tuned out during these endless cycles of music, drugs, and indecipherable psycho-babble about the “movement” and I think they could have been drastically shortened while still setting the scene and connecting to the central plot.
  • Oh, the ending (insert exasperated sigh and eye roll). It dragged on for close to 300 pages and still failed to satisfyingly wrap things up. It felt like Hallberg got so engrossed in all the psycho-babble that he forgot to finish telling the story. I don’t mind open-ended conclusions that make you think of all the possibilities, but this just felt lazy! I remember an old Top Ten Tuesday topic called “Books That You Wanted to Throw Across the Room” and City on Fire‘s ending would have put it firmly atop that list for me.

A Defining Quote

According to the Arbitron ratings he’d last checked in ’73, Zig’s audience had lately more than doubled. Every morning, thens of thousands of masochistic tri-staters were tuning in to hear him rant about the shooting of the unnamed minor in Central Park. Or this other thing, some insider trading case. Or their symbolic link to entropy, to decay.

How do you feel about extremely long books? Do you hold them to a higher standard because of the time you’re devoting to them?

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Mini Book Reviews: West of Sunset, The Unimaginable, This Town

January 14, 2015 Mini Book Reviews 9

One of my goals for 2015 to is make much better use of the “mini review” for books I don’t have as much to say about. Not having much to say about a certain book is not the same as not liking it, so I’ll continue with my “Read it” and “Skip it” recommendations in the Minis. On to the first installment…

West of Sunset by Stewart O’NanWest of Sunset, Stewart O'Nan
Historical Fiction (Released January 13, 2015)
304 Pages
Bottom Line: Skip it.

Affiliate Link: Amazon
Source: eGalley provided by the publisher via NetGalley

Plot Summary: A novel based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s time in Hollywood writing for movie studios and working on The Last Tycoon during the final years of his life.

My Thoughts: I was attracted to this novel because, ever since I read Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, I’ve been somewhat fascinated by her and her relationship with Scott. At first, I thought this book was quiet and a bit melancholy, but enjoyable enough. But, I eventually got bored. I enjoyed O’Nan’s writing…I think it’s just that this time period in Fitzgerald’s life is probably the least interesting. He is a famous writer in disgrace and comes across as kind of pathetic. I also think the one I’m fascinated with is Zelda and she was in an institution for most of this book. Sadly, Scott is a much more drab character without Zelda (in her prime) on his arm.

Unimaginable, Dina SilverThe Unimaginable by Dina Silver
Fiction (Released December 1, 2014)
268 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it…if you’re looking for a quick page turner.

Affiliate Link: Amazon
Source: Purchased

Plot Summary: Based on the combination of two true stories, Jessica moves from small-town Indiana to Phuket, Thailand, where she meets a dashing sailor and volunteers to crew on his boat (“Imagine”) on a sail across the Indian Ocean.

My Thoughts: The first half of this book focuses on Jessica’s time teaching at a school in Phuket and her blossoming attraction to Grant Flynn (the shy, but dashing sailor). I thought the writing and the burgeoning romance with Grant were a bit cheesy during this portion. BUT, I finished the entire second half of the book in one night. Once Grant, Jessica, and Quinn (Grant’s friend and the third crew member) set sail across a treacherous part of the Indian Ocean, the book becomes deadly serious and the action more than compensates for the lackluster writing. And, the fact that this is based on a true story makes the second half even more compelling.

This Town, Mark Leibovich, politicsThis Town by Mark Leibovich
Nonfiction – Politics (Released July 16, 2013)
401 Pages
Bottom Line: Skip it…unless you’re a D.C. insider.

Affiliate Link: Amazon
Source: Purchased

Plot Summary: The national correspondent for The New York Times Magazine’s humorous take on the shallow cesspool that is the intersection of politics, media, and lobbying in Washington D.C.

My Thoughts: This Town kicked off with a bang in its opening scene…a hilarious skewering of how major D.C. personalities used Tim Russert’s funeral as personal branding / networking opportunities. However, it quickly took a turn for the worse as Leibovich focused on more and more obscure D.C. political characters. Bob Barnett? Kurt Bardella? Never heard of them? Neither had I. And, it just went on and on and on…and when I finished it…there was an Epilogue…and then an Afterword (was he playing a joke on us?!). Leibovich’s cutting, sarcastic writing (he is great at this) kept me from putting it down, but this is a book for real DC insiders (i.e. not me!).