Review: News of Our Loved Ones

Goodreads [condensed] blurb: Set in France and America, News of Our Loved Ones [by Abigail DeWitt] is a haunting and intimate examination of love and loss, beauty and the cost of survival, witnessed through two generations of one French family, whose lives are all touched by the tragic events surrounding the D-Day bombings in Normandy.

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News of Our Loved Ones is a difficult novel to review, friends. The prose is melodic and the story is ultimately one that should be on your radar if you’re invested in the genres of WW2 and historical fiction, like I am. It’s difficult to name major players, though, as the novel reads like a series of narratives — almost short stories? — cobbled together by threads of DNA with varying degrees of strength.

Each segment of the novel provides readers with a nugget of the Delasalle family history, starting with young Yvonne, in love with a stranger who cycles past her window daily; and later winds up with Polly, a niece of Yvonne’s who visits Paris decades later and is feverish with her desire to make sense of her mother’s behavior and her place in the world.

The experience of reading this compilation of narratives is a bit off-putting — I struggled consistently to place myself in the story, and by the time I was settled, the chapter had ended and a new thread was picking up, but not where the previous had left off. I really appreciated DeWitt’s intimate development of each of the characters; they were distinctive, complex, and rich with life. However, I wish there had been more to each of the characters’ stories, or that there had been fewer family members to keep up with, or perhaps just that I’d been told to read this book one segment per day, rather than in large chunks. At the end, the author thanks a number of literary publications that featured segments of the novel prior to its publication; and truthfully, I think that I would’ve enjoyed the stories even more if I’d gone into the reading with that in mind: these were a collection of narrative, some more tightly tethered together than others.

While I struggled to piece together the narratives in a way that made the characters’ connections clear, I did love the little glimpses we were given into each individual’s experiences during – and in the aftermath of – WW2. My favorite chapters/stories were “Mathilde,” “Someone Else,” and “The Visit.”

Overall: 4/5 stars. Read if you’re a fan of historical fiction and you enjoy family sagas, and if you don’t mind a bit of complexity when it comes to tying together narratives.

Thanks to Harper Books for sending me a review copy in exchange for my honest opinion! All thoughts in this post are my own and in no way influenced by the publisher.

Review: The Mermaid & Mrs. Hancock

“The stories are of men who, walking on the shore, hear sweet voices far away, see a soft white back turned to them, and — heedless of looming clouds and creaking winds — forget their children’s hands and the click of their wives’ needles, all for the sake of the half-seen face behind a tumble of gale-tossed greenish hair.”

The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock is a hefty tome — seriously, y’all, it’s a brick — but one worth of notice by admirers of literary fiction. I went into this novel expecting something light, whimsical, flirtatious, even; instead, I was thrilled to discover a tale of dark whimsy and an extraordinarily well-researched and -written portrait of 1780s English life. Here’s the scoop:

Mr. Hancock is a middle-aged, rather unexceptional individual who runs a moderately successful acquisitions enterprise in which he oversees the purchasing and sales of various commodities. His wife is deceased, alongside their infant child; and he has long been accustomed to a dreary existence that cycles from work to dinner to bed and back again. One day, though, his captain returns with news: the ship has been sold, pennies on the dollar, in exchange for something rare and nearly unbelievable: a mermaid.

Fascinated by the macabre and unusual, as human nature dictates, Mr. Hancock suspends his anger long enough to view the creature — and is convinced it should be shown to private audiences in order to make a few shillings. Begrudgingly, Mr. Hancock agrees to lease the grotesque mermaid — it’s long dead, and a rather dried-up and gruesome-looking bit of taxidermy, by all accounts — to a whorehouse.

Yeah, you read that right. A whorehouse.

Although Mr. Hancock has some qualms about loaning his oddity to a house of ill-repute, he cannot prepare himself for the wild twists of fate the establishment will cast his way.

Here’s what I loved most: characters are deeply flawed and ripe with the most basic — and tumultuous — of human desires. A current of wanting-but-not-having sweeps the plot along until fate steps in; and then, we’re reminded of the sour plateauing sensation that comes with getting what we want most. Gowar fastidiously composes each individual in the novel to portray some of the most fundamental heartwishes of our species. Mr. Hancock longs for company, fulfillment, something greater than the rote existence he has been leading; Angelica Neal, lady of the night, wants nothing more than to be the mistress of her own ship — she’s desperate to control her own destiny and will stop at nothing to find a means to this end; Mrs. Frost seeks her own means of self-support and control.

Perhaps the most striking theme to me in the novel is the female quest for self-reliance and power: each woman featured fiercely desires to remove herself from under the thumb of whatever forces are keeping them in place. The novel may be a tale of dark whimsy, but it’s also a relentless portrait of feminism and the serach for control over fortunes and fates in a world dominated by males and monetary wealth.

Mermaid moves along at an indolent loll, and to be quite honest, not a great deal of action occurs. However! The beauty in this work is found in the artfully constructed characters and their unremarkable lives that serve as a backdrop against the constant current of power struggles. And in the end — the bitter, raw metaphor of possession and wealth as isolation and ultimately, not the bringer of joy — well, that was icing on the cake.

Overall: 4.5 stars. Read this one when you’re in the mood to appreciate some serious fiction with rich prose and a slow-moving but mysteriously mesmerizing unfolding of events.

Thanks a million to Harper Books, who sent me this book free in exchange for my honest review! All opinions are my own.

Review: The Dinner List

We’ve all been asked the hypothetical question at some point in our lives: If you could have dinner with any 5 people, dead or alive . . . who? and why?

My five changes frequently — sometimes Matthew McConaughey’s on the list, sometimes he’s replaced by John Krasinski (they seem so down-to-earth — how could I not?). My mama is always there, though I alternate between Jodi Picoult and J.K. Rowling on a pretty regular basis. (I’m trembling at the mere thought of being graced by their presence.) Stephen King — duh. Edgar Allan Poe — ditto.

And what would I do if, by some stroke of fortune, we all ended up actually sharing a meal and a few bottles of champ together? Um. Well.

In Rebecca Serle’s debut novel, The Dinner List, this is exactly the predicament Sabrina finds herself in when she arrives at her restaurant birthday-dinner date with her best friend: seated around the table alongside her best friend, Jessica, Sabrina sees her father, her ex-lover, her former philosophy professor, and — gulp! — Audrey-freaking-Hepburn. It’s an initially unfortunate-seeming mishmash of individuals: Audrey’s clearly out of place with the other mere mortals, and Sabrina needs some convincing that the situation is real. But once the cork is popped and appetizers ordered, the table finds itself thrown into the inevitable: serious conversation. Sabrina is forced to confront regrets, frustrations, anxieties, and losses from previous years; not the least of which is her failed relationship with Tobias, the man she’s long considered the love of her life.

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A great deal of this book worked for me: I enjoyed the premise, the storyline trotted along at a quick clip, characters were largely a fun and supportive mix that worked for the scenario. To be honest, I picked this book up thinking it would be a “fluff” read — a little bit of romance, some drama, basic chick-lit — but by the time I was done, I was quite surprised to have had so many feelings while I read. And introspective thoughts. For that, I applaud Serle — she managed to compose a narrative that is seemingly simple and predominantly light, but not without depth.

And while the timeline is all-too-familiar in today’s market — back and forth, past and present — I found it a successful formatting for The Dinner List, in which the “present” portions are noted with the time on the clock (hence creating a countdown vibe that enticed me to stay up until 1 in the morning on a work night) and the flashbacks provide a more adequate portrait of Sabrina and Tobias’s shared history.

In a sense, the novel includes a touch of romance — after all, it is Sabrina and Tobias’s love story — but don’t head into this one expecting anything steamy, sexy, or happy-go-lucky. The pair’s history is fraught with frustrating turns of fate and unfortunate circumstances. But the book is so much more than this love story, too — it’s a tale of redemption, forgiveness, and really, the concept of fate and how our every choice alters fate on a minute-by-minute basis.

My one gripe: Audrey. I know, I know — she’s an icon. She deserved to have a seat at that table, and on several occasions, I felt that seat was well-filled. HOWEVER, for the most part, it seemed Serle became a bit heavy-handed with Audrey’s portions; instead of being another player at the table with a bit of starshine, she became a history lesson for readers and that became a bit tedious. More often than not, it seemed Serle needed to justify her inclusion of Audrey with reasons for Sabrina’s (aka Serle’s?) obsession with the actress, and it wound up feeling like a biography-within-a-novel . . . which took me right out of the story on more than one circumstance.

That being said, the novel is a largely compelling read with an intriguing and witty storyline. I’d recommend it to just about anyone — but I’ll warn you to be wary of the f-word: The Dinner List goes above and beyond fun. It’s downright decadent.

Overall: 4/5 stars.

Thank you to Flatiron Books for sharing a review copy of this title with me! All opinions are my own and were in no way impacted by the publisher.

Review: Sweet Little Lies

One of August’s Book of the Month picks is a novel that I had the good fortune to receive an early copy of from my friends over at Harper — Sweet Little Lies by English author Caz Frear. If you’re on the fence about what to pick, take it from me: your credit won’t be wasted on this debut procedural.

Sweet Little Lies is one of those books that just vibes noir in every single way. A detective in London is part of a task force met with the grisly murder of an unidentified but seemingly upper-class woman whose body is dumped in the street — and they know that’s not where she was killed. Detective Cat Kinsella is eager to prove she has the stomach for the job after a previous case ended with mandatory time off and visits to the unit shrink. In an effort to prove herself useful, DI Kinsella is suddenly drawn into a much darker rabbit hole than anyone could have expected. Suddenly, her bleak upbringing is brought to the forefront and Cat is forced to hide some unsavory truths from members of both her work and personal lives. (Although, as far as that goes, she’s been withholding on both fronts for years.)

Although the book isn’t void of cliches — the main character becomes an investigator due to some past trauma and a need to right these wrongs from her childhood — characters are tightly drawn and the added element of family drama ups the juice-factor. Cat feels like the kind of person I’d be drawn to in real life: she’s down-to-earth, just the right blend of friendly and sarcastic, and her relationship with her boss — Parnell — is a perfect complement to Cat’s own disastrous personal relationships. She’s also the kind of character readers will empathize with — I think it must have something to do with her utterly normal vibes? — which makes the book that much more enjoyable.

Pacing is just right, motive is logical, and the twist(s): timed perfectly. Though I knew that such-and-such wasn’t likely to occur, I was definitely not expecting the outcome of Sweet Little Lies — and I wasn’t irked to find some “WTF-that-ending” surprise waiting for me from the depths of left field.

Frear manages to write a compelling novel that binds together my favorite mystery elements — dark, dark, dark! — without succumbing to trendy pressure to “blow readers away” with some ridiculous twist (or seven). A perfectly cracking debut novel, Sweet Little Lies read like the start of a lengthy and lucrative career to me.

Overall: 4 stars. Sweet Little Lies is chock full of assumptions, secrets, and childhood memories gone awry. If you’re into Law & Order: SVU and fancy yourself the next Liv Benson, give this debut a peek.

Side note: If you’re interested in reading Sweet Little Lies and want to give Book of the Month a shot, you can sign up using this link — we’ll both get a free book! And who doesn’t love that?!

Review: Suicide Club

Imagine a world in which people have achieved near-immortality: It’s possible to live for four-hundred years. Skin is replaced with a tougher, more luminous counterpart that renders pimples a thing of the past and leaves people literally glowing. Organs are seamlessly replaced as needed, stress is discouraged by government mandates, and the science of healthful eating has been unlocked and dispersed for all.

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Such is the world of debut author Rachel Heng’s Suicide Club, a novel in which members are fixated on both life and death — as if it’s possible to focus on one without the other. Lea Kirino is a member of the elite “lifer” society: she enjoys the benefits of a well-paying career, such as a separate living facility with its own bathroom and views of the city; she lives a virtually stress-free existence; she’s engaged to one of the nation’s wealthiest and most well-established bachelors; and she’s got a nearly-flawless life record, with few tarnishes such as dangerous risk-taking behavior, burger-imbibing, and no limb replacements to date. That is, until she steps into oncoming traffic on her 100th birthday.

In a world where life — and the strife for immortality — is sanctimonious, Lea’s actions (I’ll let you read about her reasons) are cause for immediate observation by government-ordered officials, at work and in public and possibly even within the walls of her own home. It’s illegal to take a life, or to show anything less than zeal for living, and Lea’s little “accident” has put her hopes for the Third Wave (read: the Immortality generation) at odds.

Lea soon becomes acquainted with the “Suicide Club,” a group of high-society Lifers who by all outward appearances, seem to be living with adequate demonstrations of joy. However, it becomes clear these privileged individuals seek more than mere immortality, and Lea is forced to broaden her perspective on what it means to truly be life-loving.

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I was utterly mesmerized by the world-building Heng accomplishes in her debut novel — honestly, I haven’t been quite so sucked into a fiction-verse like this in many, many years. It sounds cheesy, but I was honestly reminded of my middle- and high-school years when I read a great deal of fantasy and sci-fi, and I found myself quickly steeped in the world that I was reading about.

The book struck me as an interesting portrayal of societal grooming. Characters are taught that living as long as possible is the most worthwhile achievement a person can make. They’re obsessed with prolonging their lives, so much so that relationships — and anything else that is considered cortisol-producing — are minimized and abbreviated. In some ways, the observations in the book felt a bit like a sardonic glance at society’s current fads: characters get their nutrition from a drink, not unlike the juicing and Advocare fanatics who swear by the supreme nutrition of liquefied meals. Characters are zealous about their appearance, fretting over any visible wrinkles or laugh lines, and it is a mark of the truly elite that they are able to receive “treatments” that eliminate signs of aging. Again, I was reminded of our cultural fear of aging, and especially the efforts undertaken to retain youthful features (here’s looking at you, Kardashian troupe).

So, is it possible to enjoy such a novel — one in which characters are ultimately superficial and human relationships are dictated by social class and the placability of such pairings? In a word: YES. I found so much to love in the flawed characters and ideologies of Heng’s futuristic world. This book moved me in deep ways, forcing me to reflect on the darker realities of death as an endpoint — or a destination — of living.

While some bigger questions went unanswered — chiefly, who/what determines the “number” people are assigned at birth? Is it random? Why? — I wasn’t significantly distracted by these flaws in the plot. If you’re a highly cynical reader, though, you may find more to criticize in that respect.

Overall: 4/5 stars. A thoroughly enjoyable read about living and dying; one that I see myself recommending often!

Read Next: For Lovers of History

At least once a week, I get a text from a friend saying something along the lines of Hey, what’s up? I need a book list — stat! These requests come in from new mamas needing to unwind, busy teachers looking for an escape from reality, out-of-practice readers looking to rekindle their bookish flame but not sure where to start.

I absolutely relish these calls to action, certain that I can find something among the titles on my shelves to capture their interest. And here’s the thing: I can never choose just one title to share with them. It’s almost a burden, loving books so much . . . 😉

One of my favorite genres to recommend from: historical fiction & nonfiction. To be quite honest, I didn’t retain much from my high school/college history classes and I’m quite certain that 85% of what I know about past events comes from my obsessive reading of historical nonfiction and fiction. (Also a major reason I advocate so highly for frequent reading, as a teacher.)

To the point, though — here’s a list of some of my favorite historical reads, in both the fiction and nonfiction categories.

  1. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. Fiction. This multigenerational tome centers on the often-grueling circumstances of Sunja’s family: poor Koreans living in the shadow of Japanese racism post-WWII. Actually, the novel starts much earlier, at the start of the 1900s, with Sunja’s father’s birth; so readers gain a very insightful look at the relationship between Koreans and Japanese as well as both cultures. The writing is stark and though lengthy, the novel demands to be read diligently and without pause (when possible). Read more about it here.
  2. Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand. Nonfiction. Quite possibly my favorite work of nonfiction, ever, Seabiscuit is an endearing and emotional tale of one of the nation’s most formidable racehorses — and an absolutely thrilling comeback story. The story opens in the early 1900s and follows the lives of Seabiscuit’s owner, jockey, and trainer before introducing the legend himself. In the tumultuous and dramatic times of the Great Depression and World War II, Seabiscuit became an American hero and a symbol of the working class. Hillenbrand’s novel offers a fascinating portrait of this era, as well as a heartwarming and rousing emotional read. (Bonus: the film adaptation is also fantastic.)
  3. The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd. Fiction. A searing tale of two young girls bound together by slavery — one, slave; the other, master — well into their adult years, The Invention of Wings is more than an engrossing narrative. It’s an uncomfortable, disturbing account of a piece of American history based on the very real lives of the Grimke sisters — born into a prominent Southern family of slaveowners, the pair were decidedly abolitionist in an unprecedented way for women of the time.
  4. October Sky by Homer Hickam. Nonfiction – Memoir. I originally discovered this gem in high school, some time after having watched the film adaptation. Originally titled Rocket Boys, this piece of NF is at once charming, laugh-inducing, gut-wrenching, and hopeful. Nestled in coal mining country in West Virginia, October Sky is the true story of Homer Hickam’s quest to be more than a miner and break free of the predetermined path set forth for boys in his town. Inspired by Sputnik‘s race across the sky, Hickam dreams of building his own rockets to send to the stars. His dad’s not happy about it, his mom can’t offer much in the way of open support, and he and his friends are the laughingstock of the drab community; but Hickam persists in his pursuit of outer space and the resulting narrative is an absolutely magnificent tale of perseverance and the heartbreaking nature of dreams.
  5. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Fiction. This World War II-era novel is a bestseller for a reason: the gripping coming-of-age tale is absolutely stunning in its own haunted way. With an omniscient narrator (Death himself), the novel kicks off in Nazi-occupied Germany at the end of the 1930s. Liesel Meminger, given to strangers by her mother who cannot care for her any longer, comes to live on Himmel Street with the Hubermanns — a jovial man and his crabby wife who come to love Liesel like a daughter. I’m a huge fan of coming-of-age stories and the beautiful narration in this novel — coupled with the dramatic backdrop of a menacing time period — makes this an unputdownable read.
  6. ‘Tis by Frank McCourt. Nonfiction – Memoir. I didn’t know how much I loved memoirs until I read this gut-busting (and often tearjerking) tale of an Irish immigrant’s arrival in the “promised land” that America has been to so many over the decades. Frank McCourt arrived in America in 1949, fulfilling a dream of his and at once leaving behind the dismal poverty that had marked his life in Ireland (only to find more troubles in the land he’d so long dreamed of making his new home). I was fascinated by the tidbits of history and laughed out loud at the naive observations of the young Catholic boy in the big city of New York.
  7. The Reader by Bernhard Schlink. Fiction. Set in post-WWII Germany, this brief novel (200 pages in my rather small edition) is utterly captivating. “When young Michael berg falls ill on his way home from school, he is rescued by Hanna, a woman twice his age. In time she becomes his lover, enthralling him with her passion, but puzzling him with her odd silences. Then she disappears. Michael next sees Hanna when she is on trial for a heinous crime, refusing to defend herself. As he watches, he begins to realize that Hanna may be guarding a secret she considers more shameful than murder.”
  8. The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. Nonfiction. This thrilling account of America’s first serial killer, H. H. Holmes, is closely woven into the history of the planning, design, and spectacle of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. As a work of narrative nonfiction, I found this novel relatively easy to read and only dry in a few places. The telling alternates a bit between Holmes’ arrival in Chicago (and his subsequent planning stages) and the World’s Fair architects and planning committees, offering readers more than just a glimpse at a serial killer’s timeline. I was fascinated to read about the birth of several modern-day amenities such as shredded wheat, sliced bread, and Juicy Fruit gum.

What are some of your favorite historical reads, both fiction and nonfiction? Tell me in the comments section below!