Review: Make Me a City

“The nearer I get to the end, the more shame I have and the less shame I feel. Every year we pile it up, don’t we, all of us excepting the angels? Maybe that’s why we don’t all go lunatic. And why some of us do.”

Make Me a City (Jonathan Carr, published March 2019 by Henry Holt) is an intriguing tome—marketed as a fictional and “alternate history” to the building of Chicago, the novel is told by a narrator who is, in fact, presenting an alternate history to his peers. Following many disparate threads of remarkably different individuals over the course of one century, the work is exhaustive and, more than once, I wondered how much was rooted in truth (I mean, obviously, I know it’s fiction, but still). Beginning in 1800 “Echicagou” on the estate of Jean Baptiste Point de Sable—unrecognized and sadly victimized founder of the city—and later touching on the vivid lives of John Stephen Wright, Antje Hunter, Gus Swanson, and many others; the novel progresses through time, idling from one strand of the story to the next, offering readers an exhaustive collection of character portraits to feast upon. Each individual is distinctly crafted, each featuring his or her own fears and desires and fervent ambitions, all of which contribute to the city’s creation.

I enjoyed the novel’s odd collection of hosts and found the chapters about Antje, Gus, and Ms. Chappell the most engaging. Historical nuggets can be mined from the pages of the work—though fictional, there are many references to real players in our country’s history, and episodes portraying cultural nuances vividly.

More than once, though, I wondered . . . what is the point? The plot is very loosely constructed, and over the course of 450 pages, readers’ minds are apt to wander without a clear purpose driving the work forward. I know, I know: the point is to give an alternate, fictionalized history of Chicago. But I can’t help but feel that Carr was misled by his editor at times, where narratives could have been trimmed or eliminated altogether.

By and large, the breadth of the work was overwhelming. I had to turn back several times to recall key details from previous scenes—I think there are about 12 perspectives through the novel, with 5-6 major players—and was sometimes frustrated by this. However, when a work is interesting, I’ll overlook this annoyance; and I suppose that the fact I finished the novel speaks for itself. Once the pieces began to come together, I couldn’t finish fast enough.

Overall: 3-ish(?) stars. Recommended for historical fiction buffs, mindful readers (this is not an easy/light read, folks!), and fans of generation-spanning sagas.

Thanks to Henry Holt Books for my review copy. All opinions are my own.

Review: The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle

How lost do you have to be to let the devil lead you home?

Stuart Turton’s debut novel, The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle has been making waaaaves in the reading community since it was published in September — and for good reason. I picked up the novel knowing very little about it, other than the allusions to its Agatha-like qualities and absolutely mind-bending plot.

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In fact, when I started reading, my eye caught on an author blurb at the front, and I laughed for a good long minute: “If Agatha Christie and Terry Pratchett had ever had LSD-fueled sex, then The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle would be their acid trip book baby” (Sarah Pinborough, author of Behind Her Eyes).

I rarely admit to it, but this is one book that lives up to its hype.

Set in what appears to be 1920s rural England, the novel opens in mass chaos: the narrator awakens to find himself without any memories of whom or where he is — and it only gets more twisty from there. Our host soon discovers he’s in the heart of a nearly unsolvable mystery: Evelyn Hardcastle, member of high society and daughter of the owners of the crumbling estate we find ourselves at, will be murdered at 11:00 p.m. It is the narrator’s job to solve her murder . . . but each morning, he’ll wake up in a new host’s body. And he’s only got eight days to figure things out.

Which may seem like a fair amount of time, until you take into consideration the duplicitous nature of pretty much everyone who’s been invited to the estate for the week. And the fact that the narrator is not a detective. And that some of his hosts wake up high as a kite, or paralyzingly hungover, or quickly succumb to various near-fatal injuries.

Our narrator struggles through a series of fumbling attempts to escape the estate, and when that doesn’t work, he begins to focus on saving Evelyn Hardcastle — a task, we’re reminded, that is futile. While the narrator works to cobble clues together, he discovers that his actions can have a bearing on how the day plays out, though the slate is wiped clean with each new host.

Set against a backdrop of a romantic and dark forested landscape, with a decrepit old mansion and expansive grounds as the site of the Hardcastle legacy, this murder mystery is a thrill to unravel. Chapters are categorized by the numbered days of which the narrator has been on the grounds, and sometimes these storylines jump backward. Meanwhile, Aiden encounters “himself” in other hosts throughout the day, which only compounds the amount of mind-buggery that is going on in Evelyn Hardcastle.

This book works in its ominous, classical mystery vibes and the complexity of clues dropped along the way. I promise — you’re not likely to “figure it out” before the book ends, and though this unsolvability is sometimes a ridiculous and unwanted surprise (I’m looking at you, Pinborough), that’s not the case in Evelyn Hardcastle. As I neared the close of the book, I was already anticipating a reread to further my grasp on the tale.

You know what else is great about this book? Turton doesn’t merely write a mystery, friends. He serves to readers a hearty meal of character development and existential soul-grappling conundrums. Though the murder is at the forefront of the reading experience, Turton manages to tuck within the pages the struggle to succeed pitted against the struggle to remain true to core values.

A few suggestions if you want to make the most out of this read:

  • Avoid the audiobook. It may have a great narrator (I wouldn’t know), but this storyline is so freaking complex I can’t imagine many would be able to keep things straight for very long. I spent some time flipping back and forth between chapters, and for that reason, I’d also recommend skipping the Kindle and grabbing a copy from the library, but that’s a personal preference thing.
  • Don’t look at too many reviews on Goodreads. The less you know going into this read, the better!
  • Do make use of the “guest list” at the front of the book. I flipped back to figure out who’s who several times.
  • Stick with it. Honestly, I was bewildered for the first quarter of the book, and I never really stopped feeling like I couldn’t quite grasp the whole thing — until the end. Even then, Turton leaves readers with a great deal to ponder.

Overall: 4/5 stars. If you like to think, and you’re looking for a Clue-meets-Agatha-meets-Inception vibe, this is your book!

December Wrap-Up

December was a fun, relaxed reading month for me — school let out for the semester, and I completely shirked all responsibilities (besides mothering and the occasional meal prep) in favor of reading feverishly. I wrapped up the month with a total of eleven reads — middle grades fiction, thrillers, fantasy, romance, historical fiction, rural noir, and an audiobook to boot.

While I enjoyed reading copious amounts of fiction, one drawback is that I didn’t post many reviews. (Oops.) For the sake of brevity, here’s a two-sentence review on each title I read in December! (Listed in no particular order.)

  1. Undiscovered Country by Lin Enger. Rural noir reimagining of Hamlet, filled with dark, brooding vibes as one teenage boy seeks to find — and bring to justice — his father’s murderer. An exploration of grief and loss as much as a portrayal of our devotion to family-shared histories. ⭐️⭐️⭐️💫
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  2. One Day in December by Josie Silver. A debut novel highly reminiscent of books-turned-films One Day and Something Borrowed. Classified as romance or a rather drawn-out love story, this novel wasn’t for me — I didn’t like the characters, and that was enough to turn me off the story completely. ⭐️⭐️img_7839-1
  3. Voyager (Outlander book 3) by Diana Gabaldon. This third installment in the Outlander series is much more fast-paced than the second novel, and brings with it a flood of emotions as Jamie and Claire are reunited (I’d say “spoiler” here, but I think we can all agree that a series with 10 novels obviously has to have the two reuniting at some point). Rife with that overdramatic penchant for danger and conflict I’ve come to know and love in Gabaldon’s tomes, Voyager satisfies (and infuriates, a time or two,) right up to the last page. ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
  4. The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden. This fantasy novel — first in its trilogy — features a Russian setting and all kinds of Russian folklore. It feels like a dark, more human fairytale than its Disney counterparts, and I loved the complex feelings and desires of the major characters — both good and bad. ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
  5. I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid. I really only need a few words to sum up this mind-bender: WTF, holy shit, WOW. Reid has proven himself a master of brevity and psychological horror, and I’m just going to keep twiddling my thumbs anxiously until he releases another work. ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
  6. The Train of Lost Things by Ammi-Joan Pacquette. Middle-grades fantasy work featuring a young boy determined to save his dying father by retrieving a lost jacket the two share a bond over. Characterization seemed a bit off and voices were hard to place age-wise, but the themes of grief and loss could be a great tool for young ones struggling to cope with their own grief. ⭐️⭐️💫
  7. The Winter Witch by Paula Brackston. A witchy tale set in Wales, featuring a young bride who hasn’t spoken since she was a child and her new husband who is determined to recover from the loss of his first wife. The setting is vivid and drew me in, but hot-and-cold main characters were irritating. ⭐️⭐️💫img_7967
  8. Freefall by Jessica Barry. This thriller, set to release in a few days, features a young 
    woman who survives the crash of her wealthy fiance’s private plane — and her subsequent attempts to remain “unfound” in the Rocky Mountains. While I was intrigued enough to continue reading and discover why the woman was afraid of being found, the truth seemed anticlimactic. ⭐️⭐️⭐️img_8262
  9. The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker. A work of fantasy based in 1890s New York City, this novel follows the magical beings Chava — a golem, or human made ofclay — and Ahmad — a desert being that is a “spark of fire” but has been trapped in the form of a man. This fairytale, with roots in Syrian folklore, is an utterly magical and beautiful story that I savored up to the last word. ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️img_7998
  10. The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street by Karina Yan Glaser. A sweet, entertaining read about 5 siblings — aged 4.5-12 — who are on a mission to change their landlord’s mind about renewing their lease. The book covers a range of worthy topics, from compassion and generosity to selflessness and the inevitability of change. ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
  11. The Ragged Edge of Night by Olivia Hawker. A compelling and different story about resistance during WWII, featuring a former friar who becomes a husband and father after responding to the personal ad of a widower in need of someone to provide. A bit dragging at times, but ultimately a beautiful story made even more sweet by its ties to reality: the main character is based on the author’s husband’s grandfather. ⭐️⭐️⭐️💫

Whew! December was a huge month for me, reading-wise, and while I enjoyed shirking reality for a while, I know that January will be far less lucrative in terms of numbers — and that’s okay. Overall, I greatly enjoyed many of the books I read last month, and though I didn’t conduct any in-depth analysis on any of the titles, I can see myself recommending several of these works to friends and family members in search of their next great read.

Have you read any of these works? If so, what did you think of them?

Happy reading, friends!

WWW Wednesday – January 2

It’s that time of the week again! I’ve been reading some pretty fantastic stuff lately and I can’t wait to share with you!

WWW Wednesdays

WWW Wednesday is hosted by Sam over at Taking on a World of Words — if you’re interested in participating simply answer the following questions:

  1. What are you currently reading?
  2. What did you recently finish reading?
  3. What do you think you’ll read next?

Here’s what I’m currently reading…

img_8390The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton. From the cover blurb: 

Evelyn Hardcastle will be murdered at 11:00 p.m. 
There are eight days, and eight witnesses for you to inhabit. 
We will only let you escape once you tell us the name of the killer. 
Understood? Then let’s begin…

Evelyn Hardcastle will die. Every day until Aiden Bishop can identify her killer and break the cycle. But every time the day begins again, Aiden wakes up in the body of a different guest. And some of his hosts are more helpful than others…

This mystery novel has a very gothic/romantic vibe to it, and I’m loving the dark atmosphere. There’s a whole lot of “wtf is happening here” going on at the moment, but I’m absolutely engrossed. Turton has me hooked!

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The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott. I started reading this one around Christmas time, and it’s kind of taken a backseat for the past week or so. We traveled to my mom and dad’s house for a belated Christmas celebration, and I think I only read five pages the whole time. 😅 Here’s what it’s about: A young Irish immigrant commits suicide one winter afternoon when he opens the gas taps in his tenement apartment. Later, this gas leakimg_8210 starts a fire, and his young wife and unborn child are taken under the wing of Sister St. Savior who is passing by on her way back to the convent. What follows is a tale that spans decades, centering on Sally, the man’s daughter, as she grows up in her Brooklyn community. Her sort of “collective” upbringing by the nuns and her mother is endearing, and the discussion of poverty and struggle makes for a meaningful read.

Ohio by Stephen Markley. This is my current Audible pick and one I think I’m going to love for its lit-fic elements and rural noir undercurrent. From the blurb:

On one fateful summer night in 2013, four former classmates converge on the rust belt town where they grew up, each of them with a mission, all of them haunted by regrets, secrets, lost loves. There’s Bill Ashcraft, an alcoholic, drug-abusing activist, whose fruitless ambitions have taken him from Cambodia to Zuccotti Park to New Orleans, and now back to “The Cane” with a mysterious package strapped to the underside of his truck; Stacey Moore, a doctoral candidate reluctantly confronting the mother of her former lover; Dan Eaton, a shy veteran of three tours in Iraq, home for a dinner date with the high school sweetheart he’s tried to forget; and the beautiful, fragile Tina Ross, whose rendezvous with the captain of the football team triggers the novel’s shocking climax.

It’s touted as a mystery, but I anticipate there’s going to be much more to this novel than the average fast-paced whodunit.

Here’s what I recently finished…

The Ragged Edge of Night by Olivia Hawker. This overlooked 2018 novel tells the story of Anton, a former friar whose position as a school teacher and within the Church is upended by Nazis at the onset of the T4 plan during WWII. Anton, at a loss without his cherished roles in life, answers a personal ad from a widow in Unterboihingen. Elizabeth is seeking a husband to help provide for herself and her three young children. She and Anton quickly agree to marry — strictly platonic, no romance here! — and the novels tells of their time together and the struggles they face, raising children in a tumultuous time. Anton becomes part of a resistance group, which serves as a source of conflict in the novel. I listened to this one on Audible and though it could’ve used some paring down here and there, I ultimately really enjoyed this story — AND it’s based on the author’s husband’s grandfather! So cool.

The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street by Karina Yan Glaser. I stumbled upon this charming read via bookstagram recommendations. It’s a middle-grades novel featuring a family of 7 in a brownstone in New York . . . a family that has just discovered their lease won’t be renewed next year — just ten days before Christmas. What ensues is the efforts of the Vanderbeeker children, ages 4.5-12, to convince their grumpy and enigmatic landlord to renew their lease. This was a perfect Christmas-y read, though it’d be great any other time of the year, too. I enjoyed the little doodles incorporated throughout the novel, as well as the messages of kindness, generosity, honesty, and community that Glaser tied into the work. This is a fantastic read for elementary kids, and adults will love it as well!

What I’m reading next…

There are a few books awaiting my attention this month. With the start of the new year, I’ve also created some reading goals for myself, especially to read one work of nonfiction per month. That said, here’s what I’m looking forward to in January:

What are you currently reading — or planning to read this month? Let me know in the comments section! Happy reading, friends.

Best of 2018: A Recommended Reading List

I read 84 books in 2018 — a few of them, rereads — and there were so many that I immensely enjoyed. Pachinko was my first read of the year, and it was a 5-star title. I started the Inspector Gamache series by Louise Penny and thoroughly delighted in the first three novels (I’m really dragging them out, here — don’t want the series to end!). Beartown stirred me, deep. But a handful of titles stand out — they’re exceptionally well-written, their plots moved me in meaningful ways, the characters were especially memorable . . . I know I’ll revisit these books again someday. And in the meantime, I’ll be thrusting them into the hands of any willing listener I can find.

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In no particular order, here’s the seven books that I read in 2018 and I hold most dear:

  1. Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt. I salivated over this novel in January — such a deeply moving and heartwarming and heartbreaking story — and you can read my full review here. It’s been 12 months, and I’m still thinking about June and her uncle Finn.
  2. The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker. Rumor has it a second book will be coming out in 2020, and I’m here for itThe Golem and the Jinni is a fascinating, engrossing fantasy story with roots in Syrian culture and folklore. Chava and Ahmad were some of the most well-drawn characters I read this year, and I couldn’t put this one down.
  3. Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. This series is controversial, but it’s largely popular for a good reason: Gabaldon can write a drama, friends. I came to this hefty tome in March with a couple of friends I met on bookstagram — Betsy (@booksgloriousbooks) and Taylor (@shihtzus.and.book.reviews) — and it was honestly probably my first foray into adult romance. I don’t typically enjoy the genre, but Clare and Jamie’s story was just so enthralling, and the books is so much more than a love story. I just finished the third book this month and while I’ve enjoyed all of the books in the series thus far, Outlander remains my favorite. And, if I’m being honest, this one’s always going to hold a special place in my heart because it’s the book that sparked a long-distance friendship of epic proportions.
  4. Foe by Iain Reid. This was my first Reid novel and y’all, it BLEW. MY. MIND. His books are short and quick reads, with brief chapters and compelling storylines. I tore through this one in less than 24 hours — it was THAT good. Foe is a mind-bending and provocative read that contemplates human relationships, and humanity itself. If you’re in the mood for something fast and bendy, this is it.
  5. Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller. I’ve gushed about this one so much on bookstagram, it almost feels excessive to talk about it more. Here’s my full review, and here’s a link to buy the book.
  6. An Unexplained Death by Mikita Brottman. This work of nonfiction was absolutely fascinating. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: An Unexplained Death is so much more than a work of true crime. Brottman touches on some deeply unsettling aspects of human nature, including our obsession with the macabre and our deepest needs to both tether ourselves to and isolate ourselves from the victims of crimes. This obsessive account of Brottman’s own unofficial investigation into the disappearance and death of Rey Rivera is a solid — and overlooked — gem of 2018.
  7. The Line That Held Us by David Joy. I’m pretty wishy-washy about picking a number one or “favorite” book, typically, but Joy’s gritty work of Appalachian noir is it. If you’re holding a gun to my head and telling me to choose, I choose you, The Line That Held Us. This novel is dark. It’s vividly drawn. It’s evocative and atmospheric and full of absolutely brilliant characters. Joy somehow manages to weave together this tragedy that is chock-full of emotion and desire and fear and the result is breathtaking. I cherished every word of this novel, then rushed out to buy his other works. You would be wise to do the same!

For a look at my reading year in review, head to this link. But before you go, tell me about your favorite reads of 2018! Did you read any of the titles that made my list? Leave me a comment and let me know what you thought of these works — or what books I need to add to my TBR for 2019!

Happy reading, friends, and Happy New Year!

Review: One Day in December

May I present to thee — An Unpopular Opinion About a Book Receiving Great Praise But To Which My Feelings Seem To Be Impervious?

One Day in December, by Josie Silver, is receiving all kinds of accolades on the bookstagram-osphere. It was selected as a Book of the Month pick (which, you know, has been more miss than hit this past year or so), and basically anybody who’s somebody has read the book, gushed about it, and scrambled to buy a giveaway copy.

The work is classic rom-com fodder: Girl meets — no, doesn’t meet; she makes eye contact with — boy at a crowded train station. Girl and boy fail to connect, but there was something there — she’s sure of it. Girl tells best friend about boy, and the two search for him. A year later: best friend introduces girl to her new boyfriend. He’s *the* boy. Train Station Boy. Girl unselfishly withholds this information, pines over boy from afar — or, really, actually quite close — and thus ensues a period of unfortunate missed-opportunities.

As a movie, this would’ve probably worked for me. I’d have been entertained, I might’ve shed a tear or two, and it may have become one of those love stories I watch when I need a reminder that romance lives on. And I won’t be surprised if it does become a movie.

Sadly, as a novel, the story didn’t work for me. Because the story reminded me so much of former books-turned-films One Day and Something Borrowed, the plot felt predictable and cliche. I knew what would ultimately happen before I even turned the page of the third chapter, and thus, there was little magic in this one, for me. And maybe that’s why I disliked the book so much — I was hoping for that magical Christmastime vibe, and One Day in December just didn’t have it, because predictability.

Perhaps even more off-putting than the predictability: the main characters. I know, I know — this is shaping up to be a weird review. Most of you have probably only seen gushing and heart-eyes emoji about the novel’s characters who are “refreshingly real.” Here’s my issue: Laurie starts off the novel in a foul mood (we’ve all had those, totally understand that). She’s on a crowded bus, irritated with the closeness of strangers, and her inner dialogue is horrendous. I think she actually hates the woman in front of her for having dandruff — and that, my friends, got me started on the wrong foot. It’s just . . . too spiteful for me, I think. Later, she comes across as a much kinder person, but at the back of my mind, I just kept thinking about her vitriol from page one and the lady with dandruff. I couldn’t shake the scene. (Isn’t it weird, what readers latch on to?) And then Jack: Jack is painted as this knight in shining armor, right from the start. He’s introduced as thoughtful, sweet, and charming. So later, when he starts making some choices and acting in a way that feels like a complete 180, that’s when it starts to get uncomfortable. He’s a jerk, point blank, and I didn’t find that a redeeming bit of “realism”. 

Perhaps most unsettling for me: the way the main characters continually trample the emotions of their “friends” to get what they want. Laurie and Jack do it to each other, to their significant others, and to their friends throughout the course of the book. All’s fair in love and war, it seems, quite literally.

Ultimately, I couldn’t get on board with this kind of sabotage, and though I was compelled enough to finish the novel, it left a bitter taste in my mouth. If you’re into romance and you’re more capable of suspending disbelief than I, this might be the read for you. But if you have a hard time justifying despicable behavior and self-serving attitudes, well, you might want to pass.

Overall: 2 stars.

WWW Wednesday – 12/12

It’s that time of the week again! I’ve been reading some pretty fantastic stuff lately and I can’t wait to share with you!

WWW Wednesdays

WWW Wednesday is hosted by Sam over at Taking on a World of Words — if you’re interested in participating simply answer the following questions:

  1. What are you currently reading?
  2. What did you recently finish reading?
  3. What do you think you’ll read next?

Here’s what I’m currently reading…

The Bear and The Nightingale by Katherine Arden. This fantasy/respun fairytale has been on my list since its gorgeous cover hit shelves a year ago. I didn’t grab a copy until it came out in paperback, though, and I wanted to save it for winter — AND WINTER IS HERE, Y’ALL! In just a few hours during my kid’s afternoon nap, I’ve managed to read about 40% of the book. It’s so. freaking. good. img_7759Vasilisa is born into a northern family in the depths of winter. Her mother dies with the effort of childbirth, and her family is left to manage without a woman — until her father travels to Moscow when Vasilisa is six, bringing home a cold new wife with him. The girl, always “different,” struggles against her stepmother’s unmoving piety. While a priest works to exorcise the community of demons, Vasilisa befriends these guardians and grows increasingly interested in the world they have to offer.
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The Train of Lost Things by Ammi-Joan Pacquette. This middle-grades read is a bit out of my ordinary wheelhouse, but I decided to jump in on a buddy read of the title, hosted by my buddy Kathleen (@book_beat) on Instagram! Marty’s most prized possession is a denim jacket his dad gave him for his birthday. Every time the two do something special together, they find a pin to attach to the jacket as a sort of commemoration. But the jacket goes missing one day — the same day Marty discovers his father is dying (soon) of cancer — and Marty sets off on a mission to recover the jacket from the Train of Lost Things, a mythical and magical train from his father’s stories. When Marty finds the train, though, he doesn’t expect to also find another kid looking for a lost possession — Dina — or that the train has gone of the rails and is stealing things. 

The Ragged Edge of Night by Olivia Hawker. A historical fiction novel set in WWII-era Germany, in which Anton — a middle-aged man stripped of his role as friar and teacher by Nazis — travels to a small village to respond to a wanted ad. His mission? To marry the young widow Elisabeth, mother to three small children. Anton isn’t looking for love; rather, he’s seeking to make amends for his failure of the schoolchildren who haunt his memory. But he’s surprised at how quickly the children capture his heart, and as the threads of resistance tug, Anton must make a choice between his new family and the secret rebellion. I’m listening to this one while I workout — so far, so good!

Here’s what I’ve recently finished…

Undiscovered Country by Lin Enger. Touted as a retelling of Hamlet, this literary thriller tells the story of 17-year-old Jesse’s strife to bring his father’s death to truth. On img_7632an evening hunting trip, Jesse discovers his father shot through the head, and though the police rule it a suicide, Jesse is certain his dad would never do such a thing. He sets out to discover the identity of the murderer and uncovers some disturbing truths — about his father, his mother, and himself — along the way. This was a well-drawn, engaging story that satisfied my longing for grit and darkness. 3.5 stars.

One Day in December by Josie Silver. I’ll spare you the synopsis, as this one’s all over the internet right now; ultimately, the book is touted as a rom-com/chick lit novel, and that’s a pretty accurate placement of the work. I keep trying romance in hopes that someday I’ll find one I like, but sadly, this wasn’t it for me. I didn’t really love either of the main characters, who often railroaded others in their efforts to fulfill their own desires; and I’ll spare you the spoilers, but some things Jack did were downright uncharacteristic of the initial development the author gave us. I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t love it, either. 2.5 stars.

Voyager by Diana Gabaldon. This was another strong installment in the Outlander series. While certain aspects of Jamie and Claire’s relationship continue to frustrate me (not gonna say it, but if you’ve read this book, YOU KNOW), I continue to enjoy the historical details and elements of adventure in these novels. And, in direct contradiction to the statement in the previous paragraph: I do like the romance between these two. *throws hands up in the air in a shrug*

Here’s what’s next…

I’ve got a looooooot of titles stacked up for December, including these reads:

  • The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
  • The Winter Witch by Paula Brackston
  • I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid

and a couple of ARCs that just came in from HarperBooks:

That’s all for this Wednesday! What’s on your plate this week? Tell me in the comments below!

Hey Publishers: Let’s Talk About Bodies

A few days ago, I had a conversation with a friend about The Kiss Quotient — basically, all the reasons I didn’t like the much-lauded novel (and the romance genre, in general). She gently suggested that even though I didn’t like the love-at-first-sight plot or the writing, it’s still a considered a “good” book because of its groundbreaking qualities — an autistic, Asian female lead. Though I disagree — I think that books should be well-written to be considered “good” — I don’t disagree with her overarching sentiment: that readers need heroines/heroes with whom they can identify. Readers want and need to read about people that look like them, characters who share the same ethnicity or culture or values or gender issues, etc.

And that brings me to the apex of this blog post: body diversity within literature.

It stands to reason that readers want to be swept up in novels about characters that represent them. So why aren’t there more novels that feature women with soft, squishy mom-bods? With stretch marks here and there? With — no, not a perfectly smooth, rounded bum, but — cheeks that have some dimples? And if those characters are out there, why are writers glossing over these goddesses with the blur-feature of authorial photoshop?

I can distinctly remember the struggles I had with body image as a teen. Most of those issues are still alive and well today — there’s constantly an undercurrent of spiteful self-talk running through my mind like a ticker-tape: You’re too fat. You’re too fat. You’re too fat. And I can also remember being an avid reader during those years, noticing — even then — that the characters in the books I read were all the same. They were pretty. They had thigh gaps. They had flat bellies. They didn’t look like me. I was subconsciously aware that with their size 2 jeans and slender ankles, these characters were unhappy with the way they looked — and what the hell kind of message is that supposed to send to a size 12 girl who is, in her teens, utterly preoccupied with looking right?

As an adult, the issue has come into focus with a much sharper lens. Having a child, having a c-section, having a hard time quashing a chocolate addiction — things have gotten increasingly plush around here. I’m hyper-aware of these changes, seemingly at every moment. And in nearly every novel I’ve read (or skimmed, or DNF’d) over the past several years, I’ve been unsurprised to find the same heroine body type over and over again: slender, lean and toned (though somehow she’s almost never athletic?), maybe a few well-placed curves, all topped off with a silky mane and contoured cheekbones. (Unless, of course, she’s an undiscovered beauty who, much like Mia Thermopolis in The Princess Diaries, is in dire need of some Urban Decay and a wardrobe overhaul but still has the makings of a perfect body.)

Right now, the romance genre is making big leaps to change its formulaic white-people-only decades-old trend — here’s a great article about it! — but readers of all genres are still missing something key: varied body types.

Part of this responsibility falls on the shoulders of writers. I get it — authors are tasked with producing what people want to read, and it’s probably safe to say that people mostly want to read about beautiful people/things. But I think writers also have a responsibility to their audience, to go beyond the superficiality of television and magazine beauty standards, to set the precedent for new norms. Norms in which a fluffy, c-section ravaged woman can have a chiseled husband who still finds her hot — and she doesn’t have to feel compelled to change to be proclaimed beautiful. Norms in which stretch marks can cover a woman’s thighs without depleting her sex appeal. Norms in which a female lead can be remarkably unremarkable but not described as “forgettable” or “plain” or “simple” — just described in terms of her actual physical features, so that, you know, readers stop deeming themselves “forgettable” or “plain” or “simple.”

A big piece is up to publishers, too, though. I don’t regularly pick up the types of novels that feature real-life people on the cover (mostly because that kind of cover art usually falls under the romance heading), but I have seen several of these covers floating around the Bookstagram community as of late. I can’t think of a single example in which a fiction book features cover art of a real woman who doesn’t look like she’s been airbrushed and dieted and exercised into a mortal Aphrodite.

Somehow, this seems to be a topic vastly unexamined in the book community. The same people who tip their hats to Aerie for their body positivity campaign — “I’m so refreshed to see models who look like me!” they say — don’t seem to notice (or care?) about the fact that the characters they read about in books are ideal, without flaws (unless they’re dubbed cute “quirks”), coated in some sort of protective layer of surface-level beauty.

I, too, like to escape to a fantasy world in which my thighs don’t chafe as I jog gloriously down the street with boobs that aren’t so big they bobble around like soccer balls but not so small they’re invisible; but sometimes, sometimes — it’s nice to read about a heroine who isn’t “fat comic relief*,” but thick around the middle with goals and problems and seductive powers like the rest of the leading ladies of the literary world.

*Don’t even get me STARTED on the fat-women-on-television problematic tropes

WWW Wednesday – 11/28

WWW Wednesdays

In an effort to bring a little more regularity to this blogger’s recently-hectic life, I’m

jumping on board the WWW Wednesday train. WWW Wednesday is hosted by Sam over

at Taking on a World of Words — if you’re interested in participating simply answer the following questions:

  1. What are you currently reading?
  2. What did you recently finish reading?
  3. What do you think you’ll read next?

November has been a good reading month for me so far — I feel like I’ve had quite a bit of variety in the genres I’ve picked up. First things first, though!

Here’s what I’m currently reading . . .

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The Ensemble by Aja Gabel. This is my book club’s selection for November and we’re due to discuss it in just a few days — eep! — so naturally, I just started it yesterday. I’ve been listening to the classical pieces listed at the beginning of each “part” of the book which adds to the reading experience, in my opinion. This novel was extremely hyped on Instagram in the spring when it was published, so I went into it with a little apprehension; but so far, I’m quite invested in the characters and the way their storylines so badly want to diverge. The Ensemble follows four musicians who belong to a string quartet and desperately seek fame and success — but at what cost? How much will they sacrifice to achieve their dreams?

Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty. This is my first audiobook (ever!) and I’ve started listening to it as a means of motivating myself to get on the elliptical during Henry’s afternoon naps. The premise is simple: nine individuals, seeking change or a rest or some sort of personal growth arrive at Tranquillim House for a ten-day retreat. The resort has a reputation for its inventive and intense methods, and the guests are eager to begin — if not a bit apprehensive. When the gong sounds and 5 days of silence (Noble Silence) begin, things begin to get . . . interesting. Thus far, I’m really enjoying the narrator, and I’ve been surprised by the number of times I’ve laughed out loud.

Voyager by Diana Gabaldon. This is the third book in the Outlander series and part of a buddy read I’m doing with bookstagram buddies @shihtzus.and.book.reviews and @booksgloriousbooks. We’ve been crawling through this one, a bit (started it October 1), but I’m finding the pacing much better than the previous book in the series, Dragonfly in Amber. While I’m not generally a fan of romance novels, Gabaldon’s Outlander series has me hooked, and I don’t think that’s likely to change anytime soon.

Here’s what I’ve recently finished . . .

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An Unexplained Death by Mikita Brottman. This nonfiction title was sent to me for review by Henry Holt Books. This work of true crime/investigative nonfiction is an unexpected gem: covering the disappearance of young, charismatic Rey Rivera, who was discovered dead and later proclaimed — unbelievably — to have committed suicide at the historic Belvedere Hotel in Baltimore. Sprinkled in among the exhaustive research regarding Rivera’s suspicious death, Brottman has included interesting asides about the history of the Belvedere Hotel and its many suicides over the decades. This work of nonfiction also includes more than a few spot-on observations about the human psyche, our fascination with morbidity, and tendencies toward blame within the pages.

Here’s what’s next . . .

I’ve already started compiling a list of wintry reads I hope to get to in December. Here’s a couple I’m especially looking forward to.

There’s also a strong possibility I’ll reread The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey because I loved that book so dang much last year. If you’re in the market for a magical, sweet, and emotional read — I can’t recommend it enough!

What’s on your December reading list? Give me some wintry ideas in the comments section, if you will; and as always, happy reading, friends!

7 Books to Read if You Love a Rural Vibe

I can remember thinking in high school, Why are so many books set in the city? I was born and raised in a rural area where cows outnumbered humans, and had such a difficult time fully relating to the idea of life on the crowded streets of the Big Apple or London; these were places I’d never been, and I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to have pizza delivered to the door (our closest option: Pizza Hut, 27 miles away) or to spend thirty minutes traversing a few city blocks (you could get from one side of town to the other in 3 minutes, if you hit the stoplights just right).

Obviously, I didn’t give up on these titles; part of the joy in reading is, for this little reader on the prairie, “traveling” to other times or places that differ significantly from my own life. That being said, there’s just something about rural literature that I adore — the homey feel I get when I read about an old dirt road leading to nowhere under a canopy of trees, the not-so-anonymous vibes of small-town crime, the intimate knowing between neighbors who’ve team-raised half the kids in the community.

In honor of this love affair with rural America, I give to thee: A List of Renee’s Favorite Rural Reads.

  1. The Line That Held Us by David Joy. Published by Putnam Books, August 2018. If you’re in the market for something gritty, something utterly compelling, something sofrigginmindblowinglyEXCELLENT that you can’t put it down, look no further. I picked this one for my August BOTM selection and just got around to reading it in September and I still haven’t stopped thinking about this glorious work of fiction. (Or recommending it to, like, everyone.)
  2. Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache Series. Published by Minotaur Books, 1990 – present. I’m only three books in (Still Life, A Fatal Grace, and The Cruelest Month), but these cozy mysteries do not disappoint. Nestled in the teeny town of Three Pines in Quebec, Canada, the book isn’t *technically* rural; however, the small-town vibes are terrifically reminiscent of the upbringing of anyone who’s been part of a community of a couple hundred. Everyone in Three Pines knows everyone else, all are quick to welcome — and assess — newcomers, and the small-town feel is utterly endearing.
  3. Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell. Published in 1933. This satirical work of fiction examines a family of sharecroppers in Georgia during the Great Depression. The narrative is centralized on a family of poor white farmers — the Lesters — who are struggling to survive in an era that no longer needs all hands on deck to cultivate, plant, and harvest cotton. The Lesters are ignorant, depraved, and some of the most darkly-comical characters I’ve ever read. Often repulsive and darkly hysterical*, this tragic portrait of 1930s America  depicts rural life in an unfathomable time.
  4. Descent by Tim Johnston. Published by Algonquin, 2015. Nestled in among the Rocky Mountains, Descent takes readers to the dark places that exist in the shadows between family members. The Courtland family heads off on a family vacation prior to the eldest daughter’s departure to college. What should be relaxing and rehabilitating ends in despair when the daughter disappears without a trace on an early morning run. This novel isn’t purely set in the countryside — there are some forays into the city as family members search for their missing daughter and sister; but much of the novel takes place within the wooded mountains or rural areas outside the city, at times both blissfully lonesome and achingly void.
  5. The High Divide by Lin Enger. Published by Algonquin, 2014. This western novel features the Pope family, living on the prairie of Minnesota in 1886 and newly abandoned by Ulysses, father and husband. Leaving without a word of explanation and hardly a farewell, Ulysses leaves his two sons and wife reeling: where could he have possibly gone? It doesn’t take long for the boys to set off after him, truly a wild goose chase in an era unprivileged with cell phones and social media. This work of historical fiction offers spectacular views of the prairieland and Midwest of more than a century ago and I am here for it.
  6. The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey. Published by Little, Brown, 2012. If you read my review of this spectacularly charming work of fairy-tale-esque fiction last winter, you’ll already know I was utterly captivated by Ivey’s lonesome Alaskan couple, childless and increasingly individual as the months pass by. When the pair builds a snow child on a whim during the first snowfall of the season, things take a turn for the better and the couple soon discovers an orphaned girl, roaming about the woods. Is she a manifestation of their snow child? Is she the product of homesteaders, long dead and gone? And more importantly — is she theirs to love forever? Surrounded by nothing by the breathtaking and brutally remote Alaskan wilderness, The Snow Child is a perfect read for those seeking a rural setting . . . and better still, it’s ideal for these chilly and snowy winter days.
  7. Plainsong by Kent Haruf. Published by Alfred A. Knopf, 1999. A simple, but evocative novel in which several ordinary characters — a father raising two sons alone, two solitary bachelors dwelling together, a pregnant teenager thrown out by her mother, and a compassionate schoolteacher — are strung together in an unembellished by heartwarming manner. Set in the plains east of Denver, the novel is a portrait of the simplicity and community that comes with life in rural America.

And here’s a peek at a few titles I haven’t read yet, but am highly anticipating due to their rural vibes!

  • A Key to Treehouse Living by Elliot Reed. Published by Tin House, 2018. An unconventionally wrought story about a young boy growing up near a river in the Midwest, sans parents. The book is told in glossary-style, a list of informative vignettes about various subjects the boy encounters in his lifetime. The book promises to be a coming-of-age tale, and you all know how I feel about those. 🙂
  • The Worst Hard Time (nonfiction) by Timothy Egan. Published by Mariner Books, 2006. This work of nonfiction is mostly focused on the area I now occupy: the vast — and unforgiving — southwest region of Kansas. A portrait of the dust storms and utter calamity that devastated the Midwest in the 1930s, The Worst Hard Time is “the story of those who stayed and survived — those who, now in their eighties and nineties, will soon carry their memories to the grave . . . “. I’m particularly interested in this title as my grandfather-in-law has often imparted memories of his own upbringing during the Dirty Thirties, an era which is unfathomable to most of us today.
  • Bull Mountain by Brian Panowich. Published by Putnam, 2015. Now this one — this book is what I’m all about, friends. Have you ever watched Lawless,  the movie about a moonshine-making family in the hills of Appalachia during the Prohibition era? I have. Seven times. I’ll probably watch it again tonight, now that it’s on my mind. Anyway — Bull Mountain seems to fall in line a bit with the rowdy gang of vigilantes in Lawless. The novel features a family history of down-home mobsters running moonshine, pot, and meth across state lines, with virtually no legal consequences. This is all well and good until one of the sons — Clayton — decides to become a law-man and separate himself from his family of criminals . . . until the federal government steps in and Clayton is forced to reconsider where his loyalties truly lie. I have high hopes for this one, my friends. HIGH.

Got any other great rural reading suggestions for me? Drop ’em below in the comments! I’m always on the lookout for books that bring life to the places tucked away in forgotten valleys or between mountain towns or left untouched among the prairie grasses of the Midwest. After all, home is where the heart is; and once you’ve loved the country, your home will never change.

*I read Tobacco Road in college in a course titled “Literature of the South.” My classmates were deeply disturbed that I (& my darkly humorous professor) found the book “funny” at times. I’d like to clarify that this isn’t a “OMGLOL” book, but rather, a book that one has to laugh at here and there in order not to weep at the sheer depravity of the characters featured. And honestly, it is funny sometimes. It’s satire.