February TBR

Well, folks, the month is already a quarter of the way through and I’m just now getting around to sharing my TBR stack — I’m sure everyone who knows me is surprised! 😉 Before I share the to-read pile with you, though, I wanted to reflect a bit on my January reads.

At the start of the month, I hoped to read 5.5 books (Tell the Wolves I’m Home was about half finished at the start of the new year). I actually read 7.5 (okay, let’s call it 8) and though it wasn’t as stellar a reading month as December was, I was pretty pleased with most of my picks. Here’s a quick overview in no particular order, with links to more detailed reviews for some:

  1. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee: 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟 (Okay, I lied — this one is first because it was definitely best.)
  2. And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie: 🌟🌟🌟🌟 (guys, why is this my first Christie? What have I been doing with my life? Ugh. Seriously, though — which of hers should I read next?)
  3. Siracusa by Delia Ephron: 🌟🌟🌟.5
  4. Looking for Alaska by John Green: 🌟🌟🌟
  5. The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin: 🌟🌟🌟.5
  6. Paris for One by Jojo Moyes: 🌟🌟
  7. Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt: 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟 (A very, very close second to Pachinko and probably the best coming-of-age novel I’ve ever read.)
  8. The Stowaway by Laurie Gwen Shapiro: 🌟🌟🌟

Like I said — not a stellar month, but it was pretty darn good! To be clear, I generally really like about 90% of what I read, so 3-star reviews are books I’d consider “good” but not “great”.

Anyway . . . February reading goals. This month is short, and I’m traveling to my parents’ place for a long weekend (translation: I won’t get a damn thing read for 4 days), so I’m not being overly ambitious. That being said, I have already read two of the books in this stack, so maybe I’ll surprise myself?

  1. Birds of Wonder by Cynthia Robinson. I won this title in an Instagram giveaway in exchange for a review. I finished the book in two days and will post my thoughts on it soon. Stay tuned!
  2. Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty. This one has been sitting on my shelf for YEARS and I finally picked it up this week. I’m all but done with it, and sad to see it come to an end. Guys, this is one of the best gossipy dramas I’ve ever read. Why did I wait so long to read this book? WHY?!
  3. Dark Matter by Blake Crouch. I haven’t read too far into the synopsis, but this one has been all over Litsy for a while and I figured I’d better give it a go.
  4. The Room on Rue Amelie by Kristen Harmel. Another giveaway win, this book is slated to release in March.
  5. The Secret History by Donna Tartt. I bought this in 2015, when I first joined Book of the Month Club. Good gravy, my shelves have gotten out of control.
  6. Still Life by Louise Penny. This one I’m blaming on the Bookstagram community — it’s the first in a mystery series set in a fictional town called “Three Pines” and that’s about all I know, other than the fact that everyone and their mother seems to love it.

What are you reading this month? Tell me about it — or if you’ve read any of these titles, let me know what you thought!

January Reading Roundup

January: A month of renewal, self-improvement, and firmer resolve. I’m speaking about reading habits, of course. 😉

At the end of last year, pregnancy hormones took over and I was quite literally too tired to even read most days after school. (A tragedy, I know.) At the end of December, I realized that September, October, and November had skated by without so much as the completion of one book per month; and friends, that just isn’t right.

Now that the second trimester is well underway, my feverish need to sleep 70% of the day subsided somewhat and I was able to tackle several new reads in January! As a teacher, free time for reading isn’t exactly a luxury; I’m pretty content with my little stack ‘o five! I’ve officially averaged one book per week this year . . . and I’ll drink (grape juice) to that any day.

The Roundup, in particular order (most enjoyed -> most meh):

  1. Descent by Tim Johnston. Genre: Mystery/thriller. I picked up this eerie-looking novel at the local Hastings store as the store heaved its last, sobering, death-rattling breaths. At 70% off, I couldn’t have landed a better deal (unless the book had been given to me, of course). Johnston’s novel opens with an 18-year-old girl and her brother heading out for a run/bike ride in the mountains of Colorado as their parents drowse through the early morning hours of their family vacation. When an accident occurs on the mountain, Caitlin is taken and her family is left to their own devices in the grueling disconnect that comes with her absence. A once-seemingly typical family unit (though not without their flaws) disintegrates at the seams in the months that follow Caitlin’s disappearance. Although the novel was difficult for me to engage with initially, I came to appreciate Johnston’s unique storytelling ability and intentional use of language. The writing became a treat (once Mr. Johnston and I had acquainted ourselves better), and I became entangled in the greatly unexpected complexity and depth of this contemporary thriller. Where so many others have fallen short, Descent holds its own with motifs of distrust, forgiveness, personal anchoring, strife, and familial relationships. At 100 pages, you’ll be invested; at 200 pages, absorbed; and at 250 pages, feverishly racing to uncover the treasure that is Descent. Rating: 4.5/5 — Verdict: You will not regret this one. Unless, of course, you don’t read it.
  2. A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman. Genre: Fiction/humor. I’ve heard so many wonderful things about Backman’s writing, it became inevitable that at some point in time, I would pick up one of his works. A Man Called Ove is a charming and quick read about Ove (Ooo-vuh, I’ve been told), an elderly-isn man living in a Swedish suburb. Persnickety, irritable, and stereotypically grumpy-old-man-ish, Ove lives alone in a house that once also held his beloved wife, Sonja. Without her, Ove spreads misery wherever he goes. (Truth be told, even with her, he seems to have been a bit sour.) When a new family moves in next door (and breaks about a dozen rules as they go), Ove has no choice but to interact with these imbeciles who can’t back up a trailer, can’t use their own bathrooms, and can’t use a ladder properly. Humph! I won’t share any further plot details at this point, as doing so would give away the premise of the novel; however, I can assure you that this book will make you chuckle, smirk, sob, and laugh out loud a time or two. Ove’s prickly-but-loveable persona are easy to latch onto in this book about friendship, loyalty, death, and living in the wake of death. Rating: 4/5 — Verdict: Cute, sweet, and heartfelt; this book has all the components of a perfect weekend read.
  3. The Wonder by Emma Donoghue. Genre: Historical fiction. I reviewed this one earlier this month, so I’ll just offer a few brief thoughts here. The Wonder felt like a complex read to me. Not because the language was difficult, or the plot all that challenging; but because the issues of morality, faithfulness, skepticism, and duty created such strong foundation for this novel. Although I didn’t find this book an equal to Donoghue’s Room in terms of interest and “wow-factor,” I really appreciated her intense portrait of unfailing piety contrasted with ceaseless skepticism. Rating: 3.5/5 (I’m adding a half star, FYI) — Verdict: An intriguing and not even remotely preachy novel about sticking to your guns in the face of great pressure? Yeah. Count me in.
  4. The Paris Architect by Charles Belfoure. Genre: Historical fiction. I’ve also already reviewed this book thoroughly here, so I’ll save you some time and spare you the long synopsis. Writing is a bit clunky throughout the novel, and characters are fairly predictable; but the story offers a unique twist on a widely written-about topic: the persecution of Jews during World War II. While the novel lacks complexity, Belfoure makes up for this shortcoming with an interesting storyline and characters worth rooting for. Rating: 3/5 — Verdict: Worth a read, but not a book that will land on your top 10 list (or even your top 50, if I were to venture a guess).
  5. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. Genre: Dystopian/science fiction. A slow-moving tale about a group of English boarding students who are seemingly living the dream at Havisham, an immense property tucked away in a secret corner of the country. Readers discover the nature (and purpose) of main character Kath’s life as she reflects on her upbringing at Havisham and her relationships with her peers and teachers. The novel is maddeningly cryptic throughout. Ishiguro’s slow reveal of the mysterious truths that Kath spends her life trying to uncover is purposeful — and enormously frustrating. Overall, I enjoyed the questions this book forces one to consider; namely, what makes us human? And just how great and terrible can our losses be when we wait for the safest opportunities to act? Rating: 2.5/5 — Verdict: Sadly, a “meh” book for me.

The great thing about reading books? You can always find a reader that has uncovered an entirely different layer of meaning and value in a work you consider beloved or unworthy. Read any of these titles and have some insight to share? Comment below!

As always, happy reading, friends — and happy February!

Review: The Paris Architect

Note: This post was originally posted on my school blog, which is just a sample site that I post on infrequently as I guide my students through their own blogging processes. These words are mine. Promise. 🙂

As an avid reader of WWII fiction, I was excited to discover The Paris Architect by author Charles Belfoure. The concept was appealing immediately: a Parisian architect, Lucien, is out of work in Nazi-occupied France and desperate for some cash. When he is approached by a fellow Frenchman with a daunting request: Will Lucien design a hiding place for a Jew within the confines of an already-constructed building?

Lucien’s self-serving nature is appealed to when his French contractor, Manet, also approaches Lucien with several jobs building armaments facilities and warehouses throughout Paris for the Nazi regime. Although Lucien is conflicted about working for the enemy (and is certainly fearful of being “found out” by the Gestapo for aiding Jews), he agrees to both jobs — the hiding place and the warehouse — on the basis of survival. He has one condition, though: Only one hiding place for Manet. No others.

As the novel progresses, Lucien’s morals are called into question on a number of occasions as he grapples with what it means to be human in a city and era dictated by monsters. Tensions rise as lives are put at risk and the Nazi regime’s chokehold grip tightens around the people of Paris.

The Good: This story was compelling and fresh. While the moral dilemmas of Nazi collaboration and fugitive hiding have certainly been broached by writers of WW2 fiction, Belfoure put an intriguing spin on the topic with his use of an architect as the main character. Indeed, in the epilogue of the book, the author notes that he actually borrowed the concept of priest holes from the 16th Century when Queen Elizabeth I reigned over England and persecuted those of the Catholic persuasion. This marriage of historic events created an engaging plot.

The Not-So-Good: Writing felt sluggish and forced in several places, especially during character dialogue. I marveled at this for a bit, given the fact that this book had garnered so much hype from reading circles that I am privy to; but upon reading the author’s bio, I discovered the writer is a historian with extensive knowledge in architecture. While his background contributed to the intriguing premise of the novel, the writing felt clunky throughout.

The Verdict: 3/5 stars. Worth a read (the story is both quick and interesting), but not necessarily a text that will stick with you forever.

A.S.A. Harrison – The Silent Wife (Spoilers)

Since reading Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl nearly a year ago, I, like many others, have been desperately searching for an equally thrilling read. I’ve Googled lists of recommended reads and scanned Pinterest post after Pinterest post, seeking the holy grail of psychological thriller/mystery literature; and friends, I’ve only found disappointment.

A.S.A. Harrison’s novel The Silent Wife, published in June 2013, seems to have gained popularity following the publication of Flynn’s Gone Girl as readers like myself search for what I have dubbed “GG 2.0”. Harrison’s novel fits neatly into the subgenre of writing titled “Domestic Noir” that has grown in popularity as housewives everywhere (apparently?) began fantasizing about killing their husbands. (Note: When I read that last sentence, I feel wholeheartedly ashamed to admit I find the genre absolutely delightful. Disclaimer: I have no reveries of slaughtering my husband.)

Harrison’s tale is that of a suburban psychiatrist housewife, whose cheating husband, we are told at the beginning of the tale, will die before the book is over. Readers are also made privy to a somewhat anti-climactic detail, within the first two pages of the story: the wife — our title wife, that is — will become a killer.

Yes. Page two of the book. Harrison drops that bomb on page two of her novel; and the pages that follow are only read, it later seems, in a furious dash to determine whether or not the story will have an actual climax. Spoiler: That was it.

Jodi, the star of the novel, is a spoiled, anal-retentive housewife of the “Irritatingly On-Top-Of-It-All and Despicably Trim to Boot” variety. She runs a clinic from the comfort of her lavish condo, seemingly on a whim, a few hours daily. Her exchanges with Todd, her spouse, are mundane and forced; which, I will admit, is one portion of the novel I found believable. The couple has never been formally married, which later plays a key role in Jodi’s fate; and Todd has engaged in numerous and regular affairs with other women. His most recent tryst — with the twenty-something daughter of his childhood best friend — has resulted in pregnancy and disillusioned love.

Readers are informed that Todd feels remorse for his promiscuity; however, Harrison crafts Todd with undertones of a perfectly stupid, lumbering, sex-monger. His character is so unbelievably superficial and idiotic that by the end of the book, I found myself rooting for his death so that both he and I would be put out of our misery.

Perhaps the most bothersome feature of the read is the narrator. The novel is written from the third-person omniscient perspective, allowing the reader to access the emotions and thoughts of both of our major characters. Thus, the reader encounters phrases like, “At forty-five, Jodi still sees herself as a young woman,” and “Having shown Miss Piggy out, she proceeds to the lower level of the condominium, where she lifts weights and cycles 10K.” Had the story had a brilliant climax, had the characters been more — believable? relatable? ingenious? — Harrison could have gotten away with the play-by-play, simple-present tense perspective. Unfortunately, the story lacks the thrill readers seek, and the verb tense becomes an annoyance — quickly.

On top of this sundae of disappointments is the lack of truly thought-provoking themes/central questions. In failing to create believable characters with depth, Harrison fails to create any scenarios or questions that invoke “What if?” contemplation. Sure, one could argue that the tale itself — a straying husband, a pregnant lover, a wife nearing psychotic break — poses dozens of valid questions. Unfortunately, Harrison’s lackluster narrative never captured my attention on those points. Rather, I spent my time scoffing at the characters’ reactions and cringing at the narrator’s irksome voice.

The book has enough appeal to pick up for an afternoon at Starbucks, where your attention can no doubt be supplemented via the sport of people watching; but if you’re looking for another Flynn, keep steppin’.