3 New Releases You Won’t Want to Miss

June is upon us, and with it, a wealth of delightful new book releases. I’ve had my eye on several upcoming titles — chiefly, Us Against You by Fredrik Backman, the sequel to Beartown — but I’ve also been fortunate enough to receive advance copies of a handful of distinctly different books that I rather enjoyed and want to share with everyone!

The Ones We Choose by Julie Clark. Fiction, 368 pages. This novel was released May 8 by Gallery Books. It’s part family drama, part science lesson — and believe me when I tell you, as a very unscientific-minded individual, the science component of this book completely made the story. Paige Robson, main character and geneticist extraordinaire, is a single mother to an increasingly inquisitive 8-year-old boy named Miles. She’s always been honest with Miles: he was conceived via sperm donor. She’s also done a fantastic job of raising her son collectively with her mother and her sister’s family. However, Paige didn’t account for the boy’s desperate need to know who his biological father is — and his fury at her, for having deprived him this standard piece of the family pie. All Paige knows for certain is that her own father was a deeply disappointing figure in her own life, and she wants so much more for Miles.

When Miles makes a friend at his new school, Paige is thrilled — twofold, when she realizes his mom is fun for her to hang around, too. And while the families become closer, Paige begins to let her guard down one day at a time . . . until a few cataclysmic events coincide to turn her life upside down.

I love, love, loved the fascinating science mini-lessons sprinkled between chapters in this family drama, and that’s saying something coming from a self-proclaimed science-hater. (I hated the subject in school. It was boring. This book totally changed that outlook.) Ultimately, this is a book about relationships and how we define ourselves based on our relationships with our families — especially our parents. Overall: A solid 4/5 stars.

***

Goodbye, Sweet Girl by Kelly Sundberg. Memoir, 254 pages. This prosodic personal work was released June 5 from Harper Books. I was wowed by Sundberg’s depth of voice and her unflinching portrait of her reality: that of an abused wife who doesn’t know that she needs to (and later, how to) leave her angry, damaging husband.

I’ve never been in a physically abusive relationship (or verbally abusive, for that matter). Like most other people who’ve never been abused, I’ve often mused about how a woman (or man) can stay in an abusive relationship. How can they stay tethered to someone who hits them? Screams at them? Belittles them? How can they be with someone who doesn’t respect them?

I still don’t fully comprehend such scenarios, but Sundberg’s memoir is such an honest processing of the kind of decisions that go into such relationships, I do feel like I came to an understanding of sorts about the kind of thinking — and emotional evolving — that makes it so difficult for people to leave abusive relationships.

The chronology of this book is very disjointed; an aspect that works really well in general, but can be confusing from time to time. In some ways, it reads like a conversation; as though you’re sitting in a cafe with Kelly Sundberg and she’s recounting her life experiences, jumping from one memory to the next without any care as to which event happened first or next or last — only that they happened. Ultimately, I really, really appreciated the strength of Sundberg’s voice in this work and the absolutely unapologetic story she tells. 4/5 stars.

***

The Word is Murder by Anthony Horowitz. Fiction – detective story, 387 pages. Released (in the US) June 5 by Harper Books. This was my first Horowitz novel, and based on the Goodreads reviews, it isn’t his best. But I can’t tell you that, remember? — because I haven’t read any of his other works. About halfway through, I realized that Horowitz was writing himself as the main character (would’ve definitely realized this earlier if I’d been paying closer attention to the fact that the MC’s name is “Anthony” and/or if I was familiar with his bio) — which made for a bit of a trippy fiction read. Allow me to explain:

The Word is Murder is a detective novel that follows a writer — Anthony — and his retired-but-still-kinda-working detective friend, Hawthorne. The relationship is supposedly evocative of Holmes & Watson, but — gulp — I’ve never read any Sherlock Holmes, sooo . . . I can’t attest to the effectiveness of this recreation. Anthony’s done some writing work with Hawthorne in the past (he consults with Hawthorne when writing scenes that involve police work), but one day Hawthorne comes to Anthony with a fresh idea: he wants Anthony to write a book about him. For half of the profits.

As the two begrudgingly work alongside one another to unravel the secrets of a recent string of murders/attempted murders, Anthony narrates events with no dearth of snark — and that’s part of what makes this read so entertaining. I can’t say I loved either Anthony or Hawthorne’s characters (they were both a bit . . . prick-ish? . . . for my taste), but I did quite enjoy the murder mystery at the heart of the work. The writing was solid, if a bit self-proud at times, and I certainly intend to pick up Horowitz’s other highly-praised novel, The Magpie Murders. Overall: 3.5-4 stars.

Renee’s Summer Reads: The Big List

It’s not quite June, and I’m already certain this one’s going to be a hellacious summer. We’ve had several consecutive days of 90+ degree temps and Friday is forecasted to hit 104 — for the love — so I’m writing off spring altogether. Nice effort, sister. Better luck next year. (But really. Please. Next year.) I’ll be real honest with you all: I’m probably going to avoid the outdoors as much as possible, until this heat wave decides to back off a bit.

I’m heading back to teaching in the fall (half-time, to tell the truth, but still) and I’m already scrabbling to read as much as is humanly possible before August 20th rolls around. In honor of the literature feeding-frenzy that is, truthfully, already under way, here’s a list of books I’m looking forward to reading this summer! (Also: it’s highly likely I won’t finish this pile. Also also: it’s also very probable I will add some other titles as the weeks pass. I’m a fickle girl, I know.)

  1. Something Wonderful by Todd S. Purdum. Nonfiction. Henry Holt Books sent me a FINISHED HARDCOVER COPY of this bad boy and let me tell ya — I am stoked to pick it up after I finish my current read. Per the dust jacket blurb: A relevatory portrait of the creative partnership that transformed musical theater and provided the soundtrack to the American Century. Yep, you guessed it: this is a biographical portrait of Rodgers and Hammerstein, the musical gods who essentially provided the soundtrack for my childhood. I can’t wait to read and share with my sister, who’s an actress; but I might be most invested in the memories I’m sure this book will bring to the surface, regarding lazy summer days spent in my late grandmother’s living room watching The King & I and Oklahoma! and my all-time favorite, The Sound of Music.
  2. Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool. Fiction. My mom’s been hounding me to read this work — by none other than a Wichita, Kansas author! — for no fewer than five years. She finally pressed a copy of it into my hands last time I was home, and here we are! It’s set in fictional small-town Kansas and follows Abilene Tucker, a young girl whose father sent her away for the summer so that he could work a demanding job. Abilene feels abandoned, so she hops off the train in Manifest, Kansas in search of clues about her father’s past. I’m such a sucker for coming-of-age novels (for real — probably my favorite genre) and I know this one won’t disappoint.
  3. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. Fiction. I’m embarrassed to admit I’ve made it to 28 — and through a BA in English — without having read this American classic. It’s touted as a “poignant and deeply understanding story of childhood and family relationships,” and centers on a young woman’s coming-of-age experience (what’d I tell you about those stories?!) in the poverty of early-20th Century Brooklyn.
  4. The Small Backs of Children by Lidia Yuknavitch. Fiction. From the back cover: “In a war-torn village in Eastern Europe, an American photographer captures a heart-stopping image: a young girl flying toward the lens, fleeing a fiery explosion that has engulfed her home and family. The image, instantly iconic, garners acclaim and prizes — and, in the United States, becomes a subject of obsession for one writer, the photographer’s best friend, who has suffered a devastating tragedy of her own. In a bid to save the writer from a spiraling depression, her filmmaker husband enlists a group of friends . . . to rescue the unknown girl and bring her to the United States.” This book comes with so much praise — I’m confident it’s going to be a great pick.
  5. Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge by Erica Armstrong Dunbar. Nonfiction. I was alerted to this recent release via a Facebook post by Simon & Schuster, regarding works about fierce women. This promising work follows the escape of Ona Judge, Martha Washington’s chief attendant, and her attempt to escape the ownership of her white masters (who were dodging the law at every twist and turn in every attempt to recapture their “property”). I really, really love a good work of historical nonfiction — especially when it’s related to a subject I know little (or nothing) about.
  6. Suicide Club by Rachel Heng. Fiction. This work by debut author Rachel Heng was kindly gifted to me by Henry Holt Books and releases in July. It’s a futuristic work, set in NYC — where people live hundreds of years and are obsessed with achieving immortality. The main character, Lea, is one such person — until an unexpected twist of fate draws her into the inner circle of “Suicide Club,” a group that seeks to live outside society’s norms (aka, the pursuit of eternal life) and achieve death on their own terms. What more do you need to know, guys? I’m fascinated.
  7. Not Her Daughter by Rea Frey. Fiction. I won this August 2018 release in a Goodreads giveaway. The story focuses on two women and a child: an unfit, unhappy mother; a successful, lonely woman who commits a crime to rescue a child that reminds her of herself; and a little girl, whose world is filled with silence and solitude.
  8. A Hope More Powerful than the Sea by Melissa Fleming. Nonfiction. In truth, I was looking for Decca Aitkinhead’s All at Sea when this work caught my eye at Barnes & Noble. Its cover features vivid blue painted waves and the blurb describes this novel as an account of “Doaa, a Syrian girl whose life was upended in 2011 by the onset of her country’s brutal civil war. . . . Adrift in a frigid sea, no land in sight, just debris from the ship’s wreckage and floating corpses all around, nineteen-year-old Doaa Al Zamel stays afloat on a small inflatable ring and clutches two little girls — barely toddlers — to her body.” This immigrant narrative looks to be utterly compelling and heartwrenching.
  9. Whistle in the Dark by Emma Healey. Fiction. Henry Holt Books sent me this July release to review, and I’m really glad for that, because it sounds absolutely fabulous. The story starts with a couple who is traumatized but relieved to have their fifteen-year-old daughter returned to them after she went missing for several days. However, she’s gone mute and the court of public opinion is swirling with theories. In an effort to save her family, the girl’s mother, Jen, sets off on a journey to discover the truth of the events that led to her daughter’s disappearance — and the darkness that she may have encountered while she was gone. I haven’t read Healey’s first book — Elizabeth is Missing — but it’s a critically-acclaimed work and award winner, and that’s usually a strong indication for author potential.

What’s at the top of your summer TBR pile? Drop a comment below and let me know! 🙂 Happy reading, bookworms.

Review: Number One Chinese Restaurant

June will be upon us soon, friends, but before you make your TBR pile for the month, take a quick look at Number One Chinese Restaurant by debut author Lillian Li. This title is slated for release June 19 and I am so excited about it! 

From the publisher:

The Beijing Duck House in Rockville, Maryland, is not only a go-to solution for hunger pangs and a beloved setting for celebrations; it is its own world, inhabited by waiters and kitchen staff who have been fighting, loving, and aging within its walls for decades. When disaster strikes, this working family’s controlled chaos is set loose, forcing each of them to confront the conflicts that fast-paced restaurant life has kept at bay.

Owner Jimmy Han hopes to leave his late father’s homespun establishment for a fancier one. Jimmy’s older brother, Johnny, and Johnny’s daughter, Annie, ache to return to a time before a father’s absence and a teenager’s silence pushed them apart. Nan and Ah-Jack, longtime Duck House employees, are tempted to turn their thirty-year-friendship into something else, even as Nan’s son, Pat, struggles to stay out of trouble. And when Pat and Annie, caught in a mix of youthful lust and boredom, find themselves in a dangerous game that implicates them in the Duck House tragedy, their families must decide how much they are willing to sacrifice to help their children.

For a debut, this novel was remarkably tightly-woven and, in my humble opinion, well-edited. When it comes to reviewing books, there’s a lot I can forgive about plot — but I can’t stand reading a badly composed narrative. Prose is practically everything to me (really, I’ll completely overlook a boring plot if the writing is melodic) . . . and Li’s work does not disappoint (not in terms of plot, or prose!).

Though comedic at times (Ah-Jack is a charmer, people), the novel has an underlying melancholic vibe as readers unwrap the gift that is Li’s work. Characters are vibrant, in an ironically simple way. I felt like Nan and Pat and Jimmy were all utterly possible human beings, and as such, empathized with their frustrations, shortcomings, and tiny triumphs. I wanted to slap Pat for Nan (y’all, I’m praying my kid somehow eludes the attitude portion of teenage years), I was repulsed by Uncle Pang’s sneaky demeanor, and I wanted to hold Annie soothingly (despite her frequent moments of unlikeable-ness). The characters in this novel weren’t remarkable or amped up or, truth be told, super memorable in the long run; but that’s exactly what made the novel work for me. Everyone was so simply usual, I believed their reactions and was sucked into the storyline.

Perhaps the greatest gem of Number One Chinese Restaurant: Li’s skillful infusion of the concepts of community as family and our inherent human desire to be someone else to meet another’s needs.

I worked in the restaurant industry for five or so years and I can attest to the sense of community (& therefore belonging, or ostracism) that occurs within a restaurant. Relationships are fiercely loyal — until someone fucks up beyond repair — and often, time spent together at work spills over into time outside the restaurant until suddenly, the people you see at work are the people you see at home and the line is so blurred between the two, you aren’t sure who you are without your job (read: your work family). As you read, watch for this development in the Duck House characters as the story unfolds.

Adding to Li’s ability to create absolutely believable characters: the subtle manner in which we learn that each character has crafted some sort of facade, some exterior personality, with which to appease his or her colleagues/family/love interests — and how inherently human that perversion of ourselves is. I was touched by characters’ realizations that they had even tricked themselves into believing (if only for a brief time) that they were this other person, only to realize when the fog had lifted — it was all for someone else’s benefit . . . and in most cases, that personality distortion has not benefitted either parties significantly. Perhaps, Li seems to observe, these personal tweaks we make actually serve to damage us far more greatly than they do to benefit others. After all — everything comes out in the wash, right?

Overall: A solid 4/5 stars. Read this debut if you enjoy family/community dramas.

Incoming! December Book Mail

At the beginning of the year, I made a promise that book addicts around the world will find familiar: I vowed to not buy any books until I’d read the ones already waiting on my shelves.

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The fact of the matter is, I’m fairly certain I acquired at least twenty more books this year. At least. And by “least,” I mean “the highest amount I’m willing to publish on a blog that my husband sometimes reads.”

At any rate, November was especially good to me; I received an ARC from MacMillan; won two books in an Instagram giveaway; and was made aware of the existence of BookOutlet thanks to some beloved Bookstagram buddies, just in time for Black Friday. If you haven’t had the joy of perusing this site yet, give it a look and let your little bookish heart soar at the overwhelming volume of new editions priced at wallet-friendly prices. Like, less-than-five-dollars friendly. Yeah. I know. Take a moment to let that soak in.

This month when my hoard arrived in the mail, I actually shrieked. I was so excited my hands started to quiver a bit with anticipation. I’ve never been foolish enough to try any drugs stronger than NyQuil and Tylenol PM, but I’m willing to bet my thrill rivaled that of a coke addict about to score his next hit. (Too far?)

Without further ado, take a look at these 11 finds I added to my shelf this month, courtesy of my Black Friday BookOutlet spree (for a mere forty-one dollars and twelve cents!):

img_9129 A Good Country, published in 2017, is a fiction novel touted as “truly brave” and “an important novel for this moment in our history.” (Percival Everett) A bit from the novel’s synopsis: Laguna Beach, California, 2011. Reza Courdee, a sixteen-year-old straight-A student and chemistry whiz, takes his first hit of pot. In as long as it takes to inhale and exhale, he is transformed from the high-achieving son of Iranian immigrants into a happy-go-lucky stoner. He loses his virginity, takes up surfing, and sneaks away to all-night raves. For the first time, Reza — now Rez — feels like an American teen. Life is smooth; even lying to his strict parents comes easily. . . . We are left with . . . a lingering question that applies to all modern souls: Do we decide how to live, or is our life decided for us?

img_9128From the author of The Miniaturist (which I have yet to read, but have had my eye on for some time) comes The Muse, published in 2016. This work of fiction follows two women in different countries and time periods: Odelle Bastien, living in London in 1967; and Olive Schloss, dwelling in Spain in 1936. Odelle is an immigrant working at an art gallery when she discovers a high-interest painting by an artist who died under mysterious circumstances. Decades earlier, Olive moves with her parents to the southern coast of Spain where she grows close to a housekeeper and a painter. The two women are united across the decades by a tie that even they are unaware of.

img_9127This purchase was strictly made on cover appeal. The artwork is absolutely spellbinding, so I’m trusting the work will be, too. From the inside cover: Every year, the people of the Protectorate leave a baby as an offering to the witch who lives in the forest. They hope this sacrifice will keep her from terrorizing their town. But the witch in the Forest, Xan, is kind. She shares her home with a wise Swamp Monster and Perfectly Tiny Dragon. Xan rescues the children and delivers them to welcoming families on the other side of the forest, nourishing the babies with starlight on the journey. One year, Xan accidentally feeds a baby moonlight instead of starlight, filling the ordinary child with extraordinary magic. . . . Sounds perfectly fantastic, doesn’t it? I’m so excited to jump into this modern-day fairy tale!

img_9126Published in 1998, Antelope Woman is one of many titles by renowned author Louise Erdrich. Although I didn’t love her most recent novel (Future Home of the Living God), I’m willing to give Erdrich another try, as I’ve heard great things about her Native-infused literature. From the back cover, When Klaus Shawano abducts Sweetheart Calico, the seductive Indian woman who has stolen his heart, and takes her far from her native Montana plains to his own Minneapolis home, he cannot begin to imagine the eventual ramifications his brazen act will entail. Shawano’s mysterious Antelope Woman has utterly mesmerized him — and soon proves to be a bewitching agent of chaos whose effect on others is disturbing, and irresistible, as she alters the shape of things around her and the shape of things to come. 

 

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Published in 2015, this title comes with three full, front-and-back pages of praise. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say this one might be a hit. The Small Backs of Children is the story of a photographer who captured a striking image of a young girl in a village stricken by war, and an attempt by a community of artists to locate the child featured in the world-famous photograph and rescue her, bringing her safely to the United States. As you can imagine, conflict abounds in this national bestseller.

 

img_9124 Alright, I’ll admit it again: I was drawn to this one by its magical cover and the absolutely curious title, The Smell of Other People’s Houses. You got me, Hitchcock; bravo. This work of fiction, published in 2016, is set in Alaska and features four individuals: Ruth, Dora, Alyce, and Hank. From the publisher: “Growing up in Alaska in the 1970s isn’t like growing up anywhere else: Don’t think life is going to be easy. Know your place. And never talk about yourself. Four vivid voices tell intertwining stories of hardship, tragedy, wild luck, and salvation.” I’m all about those tragedy-and-salvation novels, friends, and I can’t wait to crack the spine on this short but promising read.

img_9123Okay, I might be most excited about this discovery — Carrying Albert Home, by Homer Hickam. Hickam is the author of Rocket Boys, a beautiful and hopeful memoir that was made into the 1999 movie drama October Sky, both of which I absolutely freaking love. For those familiar with Hickam’s memoir, this “somewhat true story” will feature some familiar characters: Elsie and Homer Hickam, Sr. This novel promises historical nuggets, family legends, humor, and sorrow as Hickam weaves together the tale of his parents’ courtship and an alligator named Albert.

 

img_9122Published in 2016, Everyone Brave is Forgiven comes to readers from Chris Cleave, author of Little Bee. Dubbed “both searing and timeless” by the Seattle Times, this novel takes place in London in 1939 — in the heart of World War II. Set in London during the years of 1939-1942, when citizens had slim hope of survival, much less victory, Everyone Brave is Forgiven features little-known history and a perfect wartime love story inspired by the real-life love letters between Chris Cleave’s grandparents. Um, a love story set during the 40s based on actual love letters? Count me in, folks.

img_9121Foer stole my heart with Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close; which is why I jumped at the $2 opportunity to purchase this 2002 novel with the following synopsis: With only a yellowing photograph in hand, a young man — also named Jonathan Safran Foer — sets out to find the woman who may or may not have saved his grandfather from the Nazis. Accompanied by an old man haunted by memories of the war; an amorous dog named Sammy Davis, Junior, Junior; and the unforgettable Alex, a young Ukranian translator who speaks in a sublimely butchered English, Jonathan is led on a quixotic journey over a devastated landscape and into an unexpected past. I feel all the feels coming on.

img_9120I’m a sucker for covers with photographs of fog. If I ever write a novel, I am going to try my damnedest to ensure the cover features fog. Is there anything more alluring or enticing? This 2015 debut novel by firefighter Brian Panowich (okay, maybe that’s smoke on the cover, instead of fog?) promises plenty of drama and conflict: Clayton Burroughs comes from a long line of outlaws. For generations, the Burroughs clan has made their home on Bull Mountain in North Georgia, running shine, pot, and meth over six state lines, virtually untouched by the rule of law. To distance himself from his family’s criminal empire, Clayton took the job of sheriff in a neighboring community to keep what peace he can. But when a federal agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms shows up at Clayton’s office with a plan to shut down the mountain, his hidden agenda will pit brother against brother, test loyalties, and could lead Clayton down a path to self-distruction. This synopsis — coupled with Esquire‘s blurb “Prose as punch as rapid-aged whiskey” — was enough to draw me in. And at $3.72, I couldn’t click “add to cart” fast enough.

img_9119 Last but not least, this 2014 science fiction/post-apocalyptic release has been all over the Bookstagram/Litsy communities lately and I couldn’t resist adding the title to my cart. The book won the 2015 Toronto Book Awards and was a finalist for the National Book Award, Pen/Faulkner Award, and the Sunburst Award. Twist my arm, why don’tcha? From the cover: One snowy night Arthur Leander, a famous Hollywood actor, dies onstage during a production of King Lear. Hours later, the world as we know it begins to dissolve. Moving back and forth in time — from Arthur’s early days as a film start to twenty years int he future, he a theatre troupe known as the Traveling Symphony roams the wasteland of what remains — this suspenseful, elegiac, spellbinding novel charts the strange twists of fate that connect five people: Arthur, the man who tried to save him, Arthur’s first wife, his oldest friend, and a young actress with the Traveling Symphony caught int he crosshairs of a dangerous self-proclaimed prophet.

I’m absolutely stoked to read each of these works in 2018, among dozens of other titles, undoubtedly. What’s a book you’re eager to read in 2018? Tell me in the comments below!