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.

ryan gosling lol GIF

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!

5 Reasons to Drop What You’re Doing and Read Brooklyn, Now

In high school, I started a years-long love affair with classic literature. I’m not entirely certain what sparked my interest — most likely, the challenge such books posed — but it soon became my goal to read every title on my English teachers’ shelves. One of those teachers was lucky enough to have a class titled “Novels,” in which members selected works to read in groups and discuss during and after the reading process. Her shelves were lined with alluring titles and promising covers — RebeccaThe Red PonyThe Old Man and the SeaEast of EdenA Tale of Two Cities.

I devoured these works and sought out others. Anna Karenina and The Fountainhead remain the most daunting (length-wise) tomes I’ve ever tackled, and though I’m certain I didn’t pick up on all of the allusions and nuances within the pages, I can remember finding something to love in each of the works. Anna Karenina remains one of my favorite works of classic literature, and I have every intent of rereading it, now that I’ve got a few more years under my belt.

Now that I’m a teacher, I struggle to incorporate classics into my classroom. I’ve heard from numerous administrators that there’s “no point” in teaching these difficult works to students who barely even speak the same language anymore. They tell me that Shakespeare is frivolous, Dickens outdated, Steinbeck — “Who’s that again?”

But I find a degree of beauty, wit, and artistry in classic works that modern authors rarely come close to grazing with their tawdry tales of adultery (why is this the major plot concept in 95% of adult fiction?) and crime.

I recently read the modern classic A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, a semi-autobiographical novel penned by Betty Smith in 1943. Most of my acquaintances today — and in truth, many avid readers, too — would deem this novel boring, aimless, and plodding. Admittedly, very little “action” occurs in Brooklyn, but in this case, that doesn’t detract from the work at all. It is, simply put, a masterpiece.

Here’s why:

  1. Brooklyn spans some 520-odd pages and a handful of years in Francie Nolan’s life as the daughter of first-generation Irish and Austrian immigrants. Set in the early 1910s, the novel portrays a very realistic — and often heartbreaking — image of life for the impoverished immigrant families that comprised a majority of New York City. Such accounts, though fictionalized, are crucial in understanding the history and development of our country.
  2. As far as character studies go, Brooklyn is unrivaled. Truly, the book is entirely character-driven: Francie’s observations, choices, and reactions propel the story forward. But Smith doesn’t stop there; rather, readers are also treated to intimate portraits of Katie and Johnny (Francie’s parents) and Neeley, her younger brother. Each individual is exquisitely crafted to reflect a unique set of core beliefs, dreams, and fears which affect their relationships with one another. You will not find characters of this caliber in much of contemporary fiction.
  3. Francie’s naive interpretation of the world in her early years (and honestly, into her teen years) is a breath of fresh air. She has not been tainted by unsupervised access to internet porn or trashy adult cartoons that her parents allow her to watch because they’re too lazy to, you know, parent — the heroine of this book is remarkably trusting in her worldview and untarnished by modern obsessions with gore, sex, and violence. Few children of my own generation, and certainly even fewer in the generations to follow, have any concept of the true naiveté that accompanied childhood a century ago. Francie’s story is a sweet (and often amusing) deviation from our modern world.
  4. The prose — oh! the prose! — is simply divine. For example:

The one tree in Francie’s yard was neither a pine nor a hemlock. It had pointed leaves which grew along green switches which radiated from the bough and made a tree which looked like a lot of opened green umbrellas. Some people called it the Tree of Heaven. No matter where its seed fell, it made a tree which struggled to reach the sky. It grew in boarded-up lots and out of neglected rubbish heaps and it was the only tree that grew out of cement. It grew lushly, but only in the tenements districts. (p. 6)

and:

The spruce trees began coming into the neighborhood the week before Christmas. Their branches were corded to hold back the glory of their spreading and probably to make shipping easier. Vendors rented space on the curb before a store and stretched a rope from pole to pole and leaned the trees against it. All day they walked up and down this one-sided avenue of aromatic leaning trees, blowing on stiff ungloved fingers and looking with bleak hope at those people who paused. A few ordered a tree set aside for the day; others stopped to price, inspect and conjecture. But most came just to touch the boughs and surreptitiously pinch a fingerful of spruce needles together to release the fragrance. And the air was cold and still, and full of the pine smell and the smell of tangerines which appeared in the stores only at Christmas time and the mean street was truly wonderful for a little while.

5. There’s a wonderful, tender undercurrent of perseverance and hope in Brooklyn. Amid the pathetic, drunken fathers and the failed dreams and the unglorious starvation, there is an unfailing thread of hope that pushes Francie — and readers — forward, ever seeking a future of possibility. This folklore-esque spirit of the American Dream, long-since tarnished, is bittersweet and evocative of a time when less wasn’t more but it wasn’t all that bad, either.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn isn’t a thriller. It’s not a fast-paced action novel, it’s not a tale of romance and guile, and it’s not a laugh-out-loud sort of book. But it is a brilliant retelling of an all-but-forgotten era in what was once the most dreamed-of country in the world; a coming-of-age story gilded with intentional prose and simple but striking imagery.

If I’m being quite honest with myself, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is also my favorite book. Period. And that’s a designation that hasn’t changed in ten or fifteen years, so.

Do yourself a favor: borrow, buy, or steal (from a friend) a copy today. Savor Francie’s story. Share it with someone else. Read it again. Roll the words around in your mind until 1912 Brooklyn comes to life with an eleven-year-old girl perched on the fire escape of her tenement home, reading a book while her empty stomach grumbles at the lack of food. Let the story move you from start to blessed finish.

Overall: 5 blindingly shiny stars.

Review: Outlander

A year or two ago, one of my favorite English professors of all time took a journey to Scotland to visit the set where the Outlander television series is filmed — she was fortunate enough to have a family member involved in the show, and as an avid fan, jumped all over the opportunity. Meanwhile, she’d only hounded me to read the damn books six or seven times previously, promising I wouldn’t be disappointed.

Well, Dr. Duffy, I’m two books in and I can assure you — you weren’t wrong.

It started innocently enough: I purchased the first book in the series, Outlander, and admired it as it sat on my shelf for a year or so. One day, I happened to post a #shelfie on my bookstagram account (yo! check me out –> @littlereaderontheprairie) and two strangers from the other side of the country said, “Hey, I’ve always wanted to read that book but it’s so huge, I’m intimidated!” And so began my second — and most successful — buddy-reading experience. (Read more about how to execute one of your own here.)

Outlander and its companion novels — there are 7 other titles published in the series, with the promise of another coming in 2019 — are penned by Diana Gabaldon, a scholar of various subjects. The novel is often touted as historical fiction, but it’s also apt to describe the book as romance and fantasy and science fiction and adventure. Um, hello — who wouldn’t love to read a 700+ page tome that encapsulates the best of what literature has to offer?!

I digress.

The first book introduces readers to Claire Randall, wife of Frank Randall and trained nurse living in post-WWII England. The two have been married for eight years — but only spent a fraction of that time together, thanks to the war that ripped a world apart. Once reunited after the fighting is over, the two head to Scotland (to the place they were married) to rekindle their romance (suggestive brow wiggle) on a much-delayed honeymoon. Things are going pretty swimmingly for the two until — surprise! — Claire is sucked through a time-warp and finds herself in 1743 Scotland, soon-to-be victim of all sorts of misadventure.

Full disclosure: This novel is smutty. It’s not philosophical literature, although Gabaldon does prove herself a noteworthy author, capable of deeply complex plot structures and compelling character arcs, all while maintaining a steady level of absolutely blush-inducing romance. I’m not one for the genre, personally — in fact, I think the last “romance” book I read was a middle grades novel by Lurlene McDaniel — so I was surprised to enjoy the romance portion of this novel so much. On a scale of Holy Bible to Fifty Shades of Grey, the Outlander series falls somewhere in the upper middle — as my buddy reading pal, Taylor, so aptly put it: “Ooooh, yeah girl, this book is spicy!” — without treading uncomfortably inappropriate.

While many modern housewives appear to have gone gaga for the series based on its steamy bedroom scenes (in truth, that’s only a portion of the book, y’all) and the curly-haired lad that plays Jamie on the Starz adaptation of the series, I actually enjoyed the first two books primarily for a couple of other reasons:

  • the writing is fluid, well-paced, and imaginative; and
  • characters, conflict, and setting are utterly engrossing.

Outlander isn’t chock-full of one-dimensional stock characters, and that’s like a breath of fresh air. Gabaldon writes with finesse, so it’s quite easy to envision yourself in the company of several rarely-bathed Scottish Highlanders passing ’round the flask.

That being said, I do want to point out a few gripes.

  • Gabaldon’s heroine leaves a bit to be desired, frequently. Claire is perpetually in some sort of life-and-death situation — she’s very much a damsel in distress, though wittier and more feisty — and disappointingly, Gabaldon writes Jamie to the rescue every. single. time. I hope to see more from Claire’s character as the series progresses, because honestly, I can only be so invested in weak female characters for so long.
  • Rape happens. A lotThis is one of the series’ most hotly-debated features, and a topic that I go back and forth on. In the first book alone, there are several instances in which Claire is nearly raped — and in which other main characters are molested. Some argue that Gabaldon should not use this as a plot device, and in truth, I can’t help but agree that she overdoes the topic, relying on these encounters to propel the plot where other devices might have sufficed. On the other hand, I think it would be erroneous to pretend that rape wasn’t something that happened frequently in the 1700s; and as my pals and I buddy read the first book, we discussed some especially debated scenes and came to the conclusion that it would be wrong to assess this book with solely a 21st Century-perspective. I’ve seen gripes from readers who complain that such-and-such circumstances glorify sexual and domestic abuse, and honestly, I couldn’t disagree more. (But that’s a discussion for another day . . . ) The point is, readers should be prepared for a sprinkling of graphic scenes throughout the series.
  • Certain circumstances in the novel — primarily, Claire’s relationship with Frank — lack in development, leaving readers in moral dilemmas that never quite come around fullyLook, guys, I don’t want to give too much away; but Claire’s relationship with Frank is absolutely bewildering. I had a hard time wrapping my head around their marriage and the subsequent challenges they faced.

Ultimately, there were a few things in the first book that I found lacking, but I was so wrapped up in Claire’s story, it’s taken me a few months to write this review without simply gushing. And that, in and of itself, should tell you just how fantastic Outlander really is. I’ve since read the second book, Dragonfly in Amber, and though it moves more slowly, I found myself greatly appreciative of Gabaldon’s efforts to create a complex and winding narrative, with the loose ends neatly gathered by the last page. In fact, I couldn’t wait to start the third book, but my buddies suggested we hold off for a bit, and I’m begrudgingly complying. 😉

Overall: 4.5 stars.

Bottom line: If you’re interested in a compelling, engrossing adventure series with great character and plot development and not too bothered by the doings of fictional characters, this is a great series to dive into. If you’re deep into analysis and have a proclivity for picking apart anything that might seem to be less-than-feminist in spirit, steer clear.

 

Review: The Perfect Mother

Before I became a mother, I had a lot of preconceived notions about the “proper” way to do many mothering things — how to handle sleeping, whether to breastfeed or offer formula, what kind of behavior was acceptable from women who were mothers. To an extent, many of my core values remain unchanged; but my understanding of variations in mothering has deepened exponentially.

For example, there’s not a chance in hell I’m going to bring a baby into my bed to sleep between my husband and me — I’d be up all night, fearful of rolling over the wee babe or smothering him with blankets — but I know that parenting is often merely about survival (yours + theirs) and if that demands bedsharing from some families, so be it.

And while I won’t pretend to never pass judgement on other parents (c’mon, I’m human), I do refrain from publicly shaming parents on social media, because #NotMyBusiness. Unfortunately, not everyone adheres to this standard, and it’s almost always the mothers who take the fall for “bad parenting.”

In Aimee Molloy’s highly-anticipated debut work titled The Perfect Mother, readers are in for a tense ride when a mom-buddies group gets together for a night out on the town that culminates in the disappearance of one mother’s newborn and an investigation that becomes increasingly public as the mother — and then the group of mothers — are put on trial by the court of public opinion. Winnie, Colette, Francie, and Nell are part of the May Mothers — a group of first-time moms whose babies arrived in the same month and by accident or grand design, happened to become friends in the process. The four (and some other, less important mom-characters) met at a park in NYC a handful of times leading up to the birth of their children and continued to do so after their births.

It’s Nell’s idea, to start with: a night out on the town. The mothers are frazzled with the fears and nerves and sleeplessness that constitutes early motherhood, their social lives have been reduced to the marginal park visits with one another, and their careers have taken a backseat to diaper changes and growth charts. Winnie seems particularly discontent, and the mothers have just discovered she’s doing it all alone (an unfathomable task, to be certain). So Nell makes arrangements for a sitter, wheedles Winnie into joining the girls for a few drinks and some dancing, and everyone’s life goes to hell in a handbasket within a matter of hours.

When Winnie arrives at her expansive Brooklyn home to discover her son missing, she’s heartbroken — though it seems, at times, not quite as much as she should be. (Like there’s a standard expectation for mourning mothers, right?) Colette, Francie, and Nell take an immediate interest in the outcome of Baby Midas’s disappearance and soon find themselves engaging in suspicious behaviors and inserting themselves into conversations and situations they should really remain distant from.

The novel moves fairly rapidly forward from the events leading up to and following the baby’s disappearance: I devoured this 300-page thriller in less than two days. There was a lot to appreciate in this debut work, though a few components left me dissatisfied.

Here’s what worked: Molloy’s real treat for readers lies in her mostly spot-on portrayal of the rigors of motherhood: the unforgiving pressure to breastfeed rather than formula-feed; the struggle to maintain a sense of personal identity, separate from one’s new identity as Milk Cow and Primary Caregiver; the unfairness of a constantly-judging (& publicly posting) society. At times she got a bit preachy (there’s a section on maternity leave in the US vs other countries at the start of the novel that, though absolutely accurate and on point, feels hyper-clichéd and drawn out — most of her readers are likely to be women and have heard the facts and felt the fury themselves; ultimately, it felt like a tirade for the author’s sake, rather than the reader’s) but the majority of Molloy’s commentary on what it means to be a modern mother was on point. Molloy also has this very strong mob-mentality vibe going throughout the novel (re: judging public) but it’s a bit different from other books in which the reader is part of the collective we — in The Perfect Mother, the reader is part of a smaller collective we, the mothers group, which is less focused on burning a witch at the stake and more focused on the horrors done to one of their own. The mothers in this group have only known each other for a few months, and most of their friendships are far from deep and meaningful; but Molly effectively captures the immediately-tethering relationship among new mothers who are so ready to welcome others into their wobbly (& sometimes capsizing) boats of uncertainty.

Here’s what didn’t: The narratives are messily pieced together, leaving the reader confused about which character is the narrator at any given time. It’s like Molloy wanted to deviate from the now-traditional method of starting each chapter with a different character as the heading/narrator, but didn’t quite succeed in creating seamless transitions. There are lots of red herrings in this book, most of which worked for me; but a couple that I felt could have been trimmed. And mostly, Francie: oh, Francie. Her character was a hot-mess express and almost always unbelievable. Molloy isn’t wrong in that postpartum mothers have been known, on occasion, to effectively “lose their minds”; however, I don’t feel that Francie’s character had an adequate resolution, nor were her issues fully addressed. At several junctures, characters indicated they were “worried for her,” but never were definitive steps taken to correct these problems; instead, Francie was simply absorbed into the sweeping conclusion of the book and her borderline-psychosis was just accepted for what it was. Didn’t work for me.

Overall: 3 stars. This was a *pretty good* domestic thriller and one that many mothers — first time or otherwise — will certainly appreciate, though organization was wobbly at times.

_______

I received an advanced copy of The Perfect Mother from Harper Books in exchange for an honest review. All thoughts above belong to me, myself, & I. Thanks to the publisher for the free review copy!

Review: Barracoon

I recently had the opportunity to become a Bookstagram/blogging partner with Harper Books (yippee!) and jumped at the chance to receive hard copies of to-be-released titles for review. One of the first titles I snagged: Barracoon, written nearly a century ago by the literary goddess Zora Neale Hurston.

Barracoon is an anomaly: as a biographical work about Kossola “Cudjo” Lewis, one of the last living “imports” of the Clotilda, which brought more than one hundred slaves to the United States in 1860, the work documents the life of an African person who was sold into slavery by his own countrymen and endured years of servitude in America before becoming a freed man once again. As the editors of this work note, Hurston’s sketch of Cudjo’s life is a rarity among slave narratives of men and women who were born into slavery in the U.S. Few works exist that detail the experiences of an individual who was stripped of his homeland prior to being stripped of his most fundamental human rights.

Written in vernacular and broken into a handful of sections that start with Cudjo’s experiences in “Afficky” and end with his lonely existence as a freed man in Plateau (“African Town”), Alabama, Barracoon isn’t a terribly lengthy narrative but it’s both utterly despairing and surprisingly uplifting in its conveyance. I was surprised by how little the narrative focused on Cudjo’s six and a half years in slavery; rather, much of the work dealt with the circumstances surrounding his capture, his commute to America, and the nature of his life after his emancipation. One of the most striking components of the story is his relentless longing to return to his homeland — I grieved for the man who had been removed from all that he knew and was never able to return again.

A few particular quotes resonated with me; I found myself returning to passages I’d highlighted and contemplating on Cudjo’s repeated vocalizations of his frustration at having been hauled away to a foreign land, made to do the bidding of another man while living at subhuman levels, and then freed — unable to build a home in the unfamiliar land, unable to return to the home he loved, a stranger with his feet in one world and his heart in another.

Upon his arrival in America, and departure from the ship once the masters had divvied up their bounty:

“We very sorry to be parted from on ‘nother. We cry for home. We took away from our people. We seventy days cross de water from de Affica soil, and now dey part us from one ‘nother. Derefore we cry. We cain help but cry.”

The following passages particularly capture the conundrum of non-natives in a foreign land and the urgent requisite to shed customs in order to be re-cast as members of their new society:

“When we at de plantation on Sunday we so glad we ain’ gotee no work to do. So we dance lak in de Afficky soil. De American colored folks, you unnerstand me, dey say we savage and den dey laugh at us and doan come say nothin’ to us. But Free George, you unnerstand me, he a colored man doan belong to nobody. . . . Free George, he come to us and tell us not to dance on Sunday. Den he tell us whut Sunday is. We doan know whut it is before. Nobody in Afficky soil doan tell us ’bout no Sunday. Den we doan dance no mo’ on de Sunday.”

And on the subject of names:

“In de Afficky we gotee one name, but in dis place dey tell us we needee two names. One for de son, you unnerstand me, and den one for de father. Derefo’ I put de name of my father O-lo-loo-ay to my name. But it too long for de people to call it. It too crooked lak Kossula. So dey call me Cudjo Lewis.

“So you unnerstand me, we give our chillun two names. one name because we not furgit our home; den another name for de Americky soil so it won’t be too crooked to call.”

I won’t assume to know or understand the immigrant experience (and absolutely recognize that Cudjo, by no means, falls into what one might consider a “typical” immigrant mold), but I am struck by the sheer loneliness and longing that emerges in narratives of displaced peoples. Cudjo’s desire to be back among his native people and in the land that he was raised in is achingly present in Barracoon, only offset by the small joys he takes in the community built by Africans in southern Alabama in the late 1800s.

A couple of gripes: I wish that the endnotes had been made footnotes, as I didn’t like flipping to the back of the book multiple times each chapter. I also wish that there had been . . . more? . . . to Cudjo’s narrative; as it was, the bulk of the text is devoted to an extensive introduction that deals with claims of plagiarism and literary criticism while the tail end is a thorough appendix with stories, footnotes, and resources. (Obviously, I recognize that this isn’t something that can be changed, as the author has long been deceased.) I also feel that the work would have benefited from the inclusion of some photos, maps, or other illustrations.

Overall: 4/5 stars. This work is an essential piece of literature in the realm of slave narratives and absolutely has a vital place in the classrooms of both high schools and collegiate institutions.

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!

Best of 2017: The Shortlist

A month ago, I published a “longlist” of sorts featuring my favorite reads of the year. (You can see that list with short descriptions for each title here.) I read a few more books after that, though, and wanted to narrow it down to highlight the very best titles I read last year, and here she be! Without further ado, my top 7 reads from 2017 (in no particular order, because let’s be honest — I can’t choose just one favorite):

  1. Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. This one is full of family drama, perfection-seekers, secrets, and jealousy: the perfect recipe for disaster. You’ll stay up all night to find out what happens in this startlingly realistic work of fiction.
  2. The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey. Probably my favorite magical read since the Harry Potter series, this novel is beautiful in its simplicity and wintry mystery. It’s based on the Russian fairytale of Snegurochka and set in 1920s Alaska — so basically, it’s a very cozy, romantic read for adults who love a little magic in their lives.
  3. Salt Houses by Hala Alyan. Without a doubt, the most beautifully composed story I read in 2017. Spanning multiple generations of a Middle Eastern family through several marriages, deaths, and wars, Salt Houses is one of those reads that didn’t get nearly enough hype for the quality of writing it contains.
  4. Celine by Peter Heller. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Celine is a badass granny detective and I want to be her when I’m 65. She’s probably my favorite character of the year — okay, definitely — and that fact combined with the tight plot in this thrilling mystery make it a book I want to add to my shelves and read over and over.
  5. Descent by Tim Johnston. This title was my favorite thriller of the year, and believe me — I read a lot of those. The novel isn’t just gripping and fast-paced; its characters are fleshed out and the prose is absolutely gorgeous, which is something quite unexpected for the genre. (Because let’s be honest — most thrillers are all about the shock factor and not so much about solid lyrical writing skills.)
  6. Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann. The only nonfiction title on this list (but not the only NF I read last year!), this book was an absolute thrill (and horror) to behold. I was taken aback by the very tumultuous history of the Osage tribe’s rise to wealth in Oklahoma during the oil boom and repeatedly repulsed by the actions taken by white Americans to suppress the native people over and over again. I can’t recommend this gem enough.
  7. A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman. Okay, I know I already said Celine was my favorite character of the year, but it’s really quite possible Ove is a tie. Or at the very least, a close second. He’s persnickety, he’s obnoxious, he’s blunt, and he’s hands-down the most endearing old man ever written. This book made me laugh out loud, gasp in surprise, and cry at least twice. It’s quick, it’s sweet, and it’s one of the books I’m most likely to recommend to anyone and everyone. If you haven’t read it, what are you waiting for?!

Overall, I’m really pleased with the quality of novels I read in 2017 and am looking forward to tackling a large quantity of unread books that have been accumulating on my shelves for the past several years. So far this year, I’ve read Tell the Wolves I’m Home (I started it in 2017, but only got halfway through before the new year started, so I’m counting it as a 2018 read) and Pachinko, both of which have set the bar high for the other titles on my TBR shelf for the year.

What were some of your favorite reads in 2017?

Review: Pachinko

My first read of 2018 — at least, the first book I started and finished this year — is a stunner, y’all, and it left me feeling absolutely drained. But in a good way, y’know? I tried explaining my feelings to my husband while I neared the end of the book and he was not having it at all.

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#BookwormLife looks a little different now that I’ve got a toy-monger on my hands…

Pachinko had been sitting on my shelf for 11 months. ELEVEN. I chose it as my February 2017 book in my BOTM box, and then I kind of just neglected the poor thing for basically — gulp — an entire year. But, in the spirit of Bookstagram’s #theunreadshelfproject, I made this hefty tome my first read of the year and it did not disappoint. In fact, I’m a little worried about the rest of 2018, because Min Jin Lee set the bar preeeeeetty damn high. (Sorry in advance, Other Books, which I shall spend the year comparing to this one…)

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Synopsis: The novel opens in 1910 in Korea, in a small village where a man and his wife run a boarding house. In a few short pages, readers are given a short rundown of a couple generations and introduced to Yangjin, the widower who runs the boarding house in the 1920s, and her daughter, Sunja — a simple but sturdy girl who works diligently and efficiently alongside her mother. Sunja is 16 when she first meets Koh Hansu, a wealthy broker at the local market where Sunja does her shopping. Although Hansu is much older than Sunja, she is drawn to the clean, wealthy, kindly-seeming man when he rescues her from an undesirable situation. The two become friends, seemingly innocently, until one day Sunja becomes something else to Hansu: his lover. The two revel in one another’s company until Sunja discovers she is pregnant — and that Hansu is married with three children of his own. Crushed, Sunja dismisses Hansu from her life and marries another man before moving to Japan. As years pass like the falling of sand through an hourglass, Sunja never forgets the handsome man she had first fallen in love with; but she also remains a dedicated wife and mother to her children. Through many trying decades and oftentimes seemingly insurmountable adversity, Sunja persists in a quest for more than just survival; rather, for the fullness and richness of a life well-lived.

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Pachinko is an extraordinary family saga in the vein of Amy Tan’s many works, but set against a backdrop of WWII-era Japan and the postwar culture that continued to discriminate against those of Korean descent. I’ve read minimal works set in Japan (or even told from an Asian culture’s perspective) during the World War II years (and the years following), so I was fascinated by the narrative that Lee offered readers. I was especially surprised to discover the rampant and open racism and hostility that the Japanese displayed toward Koreans, which extended so far as to require Koreans to register for permission to stay in the country when they turned 14 and every 3 years following — even if they’d been born in Japan to begin with.

The novel is so much more than an examination of race or prejudice, though; Pachinko is a love song to women and, in particular, mothers. More than one matron’s dedication to her children is featured in this novel, which explores what it means to truly be a mother — and what it means to be family. I found so much to savor in the flowering of Sunja as she became a mother and defied cultural norms and traditional expectations. It was truly a treat to follow her lifetime throughout the course of the novel and I found myself crying sympathetically at many moments in the book.

The Good: Pachinko is a deeply moving, vivid family saga that provides insight to a different culture than is commonly found in contemporary literature. The characters are all developed so thoroughly that readers won’t be able to help becoming attached — and invested in their outcomes. The length of the novel, though perhaps a deterrent to some, ends up being a huge “pro” for the story, allowing multiple character storylines to play out and the plot to reach a satisfying and not-ridiculous or -rushed outcome.

The Bad: It’s not such a bad thing, per se, but the novel isn’t one that can be read absentmindedly. Pachinko is a demanding work that requires both time and devout attention. I do wish that Haruki’s storyline would have been drawn to some sort of conclusion, but I recognize that he wasn’t a major character and the cliff Lee leaves us at is a concession I’m willing to make.

The Verdict: 5 stars. This is a stellar, impressive work for those who are fans of Amy Tan and Khaled Hosseini or Salt Houses by Hala Alyan. Although the novel is a bit lengthy, every glorious page matters.

Review: Tell the Wolves I’m Home

You know that feeling you get when something is just so beautiful and sad and overwhelmingly unfair? That feeling of childlike fury that is tears welling up and threatening to spill over the rims of your eyes, and a lump that won’t budge from your throat? That feeling of being profoundly displaced from your firm sense of justice in the universe, leaving you utterly disgusted by and mournful for humans?

That’s what reading Tell the Wolves I’m Home will do to you.

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TTWIH is the coming-of-age story of June Elbus, an awkward and peculiar teenager living outside New York City in the 1980s. June has two accountant parents (and it’s tax season, so she’s basically an orphan); a sometimes-wicked older sister, Greta; and Finn, her quirky artist uncle who just so happens to love the Renaissance and classical music as much as June. When Finn dies of AIDS, June is crushed, left alone to sort through her feelings and the gauntlet that is teenage years. Her curiosity is soon piqued, though, by the lanky blonde man that showed up at the funeral, who Greta claims “murdered Finn.” When a mysterious note arrives — along with one of Finn’s most prized belongings — June throws caution to the wind and meets with the note’s author, Toby. In an unbelievable twist of fate, June comes to know the man her beloved Finn loved and in turn, begins to know herself.

I cherished every page of this magnificent work and thoroughly enjoyed the unfolding of June’s character. My heart ached for June as she tried so fervently to put others back together — even when she needed the putting-together most. She’s the kind of character you’ll find yourself wanting to wrap in a warm embrace . . . and maybe, secretly, you’ll find yourself hoping to encounter someone like her someday, because June is just that utterly endearing.

The Good: This novel is nothing short of brilliant, a praise I do not bestow lightly. The prose is evocative and intentional, characters are vibrant, and the plot flows with the turbulence of true-to-life emotion and the whimsy of fate. Every component of this narrative was tediously crafted to ensure an intricate, purposeful read. I greatly appreciated the attention to detail Brunt offers readers in this work and enjoyed her effortless prose.

The Bad: The book ended. That was bad. Awful, really. I wanted it to go on forever . . .

The Verdict: 5 gleaming, extra-polished, supernova stars.

Review: The Snow Child

“‘There,’ he said. He stepped back. Sculpted in the white snow were perfect, lovely eyes, a nose, and small, white lips. She even thought she could see cheekbones and a little chin. . . . As they stood together, the snow fell heavier and faster, making it difficult to see more than a few feet. ‘She needs some hair,’ he said. ‘Oh, I’ve thought of something, too.’ Jack went toward the barn, Mabel to the cabin. ‘Here they are,’ she called from across the yard when she came back out. ‘Mittens and a scarf for the little girl.’ He returned with a bundle of yellow grass from near the barn. He stuck individual strands into the snow, creating wild, yellow hair, and she wrapped the scarf around its neck and placed the mittens on the ends of the birch branches. . . .”

Nestled in among the many wonderful books I had lined up for this month was a title that seemed ideal for Christmastime and those blustery winter days: The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey. (Side note: I’m obsessed with the author’s name. It’s so lyrical and marvelous! Good job, parents.) It’s been years since we’ve had a white Christmas in Kansas — truly, I can’t remember the last — and I was craving the magic of snow one way or another. This novel did not disappoint.

Mabel and Jack are newcomers to the Alaskan frontier in the 1920s. Middle-aged and devastated by their inability to have a child, they decide to move from all they know “Back East” and start anew without the burden of neighbors, family, and friends whose lives are rich with children. Alaska seems the perfect place to isolate themselves, and it is; at least, until Mabel realizes that her winters will be one long darkness after another for days on end, and her summers filled with an unceasing sunshine that seems to mock her quiet unhappiness. Although the couple is no stranger to struggle, Jack quickly finds his farming skills are no match for the unforgiving Alaskan wilderness and the couple is faced with a bleak predicament: they must clear the land and produce a bountiful crop in the coming summer, or tuck tail and head home. As winter looms closer and money runs out, Jack and Mabel realize fears they hadn’t even considered possible before.

While the two face increasingly dire circumstances, their relationship (unsurprisingly) grows more and more strained. But with the first snow of winter, the magic of fresh beginnings also descends, leading Mabel and Jack to build a snow child that somehow seems to hold all the hopes and tenderness they’ve reserved for their own child throughout the many years. In the morning, the snow child is gone — but a mysterious little girl and her fox roam the woods nearby, and Mabel is inclined to entertain some very fantastic possibilities.

Based on the Russian fairytale “Snegurochka,” The Snow Child is a luminous story of hope, magic, and the unfailing nature of parental love. I adored the characters developed by Ivey, particularly Faina, whose being remained pure and otherworldly throughout the story’s unraveling.

The Good Great: The storyline is tight, with no gaping plot holes or aimless ramblings. Characters are attentively crafted and unique — no overlap in this novel! A prevailing sense of wonder hovers throughout the novel. There’s truly no other way to put it: this book was magical. Not in a fantasy/Harry Potter sort of way; rather, in the subtly wonderful way of children’s dreams about woodland fairies and Santa’s elves.

The Bad: No complaints on my end. At times, I felt like the build up was becoming tedious — I wanted to know, dammit — but by the end of the novel, I was convinced the entire thing was flawless.

The Verdict: 5 stars! The Snow Child is officially one of my new favorites of all time, and I wholly intend to reread this beauty in winters to come. I can’t recommend this sweet, endearing tale enough.