April Reading Wrap-Up

Books read in April: 7 // Total books read in 2018 so far (as of the end of April): 35

Favorite books read in April:  You Think It, I’ll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld and Difficult Women by Roxane Gay.

Enigma Variations by André Aciman (⭐⭐⭐⭐)
Remember how much I loved Call Me By Your Name? It was so beautiful and evocative and full of longing, I was excited to pick up and read André Aciman’s 2017 novel Enigma Variations. Like Elgar’s orchestral work of the same name, Aciman’s novel explores variations on a theme. It’s a novel broken up into 5 vignettes (as opposed to Elgar’s 17) that center on the love life of Paul and his forays into lust, infidelity, emotional longing, and all matters of the heart. Aciman writes desire so well, and he manages to capture the palpable ache of yearning with gorgeous prose.

Difficult Women by Roxane Gay (⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐)
Difficult Women broke my heart. The women in these stories are not “difficult,” they are survivors. Of abuse. Of heartbreak. Of horrible men. Of the crap that life throws at them every single day. I loved this collection for the honesty and raw emotion found in each story, and am continually awed by Gay’s willingness and nerve to put her characters in difficult and necessary places. Bravo. trigger warning: kidnap, rape

Tangerine by Christine Mangan (⭐⭐⭐)
I picked up Christine Mangan’s debut novel, Tangerine, prior to my recent trip to Morocco. The book takes place in 1950’s Tangier, where a recently married couple is unexpectedly visited by the wife’s former college roommate. As roommates at Bennington College, Alice and Lucy formed a quick bond and parted ways after a mysterious accident. Now in Morocco, they begin to unravel the story of their past with alarming consequences. The book has flavors of a hard-boiled mystery with an obsessive female friendship at its core and a fairly predictable plot.

Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi (⭐⭐⭐⭐.5)
At 500+ pages, Tomi Adeyemi’s epic debut, the YA fantasy Children of Blood and Bone (#1 in the Legacy of Orïsha trilogy) is an entertaining and surprisingly fast read, with strong character development and world-building. Though the story is told from three different perspectives, the book centers on Zélie Adebola, a strong warrior/heroine who embarks on a journey of self-discovery with a mission to return magic to the people and land of Orïsha. So many fantasy books revolve around white boys, magicians/wizards who find their way to wizard school, are tested, and overcome adversity with magic.
I love that this fantasy features a cast of all-black characters and that the messaging throughout, about remembering those who came before, about finding the strength to fight, and about fighting a system of oppression and confronting police brutality, is so very relevant in our world today.

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness (⭐⭐)
Magic? Witches? Vampires? Yep. I was expecting to be swept up and carried away by Deborah Harkness’s A Discovery of Witches. Unfortunately, I found the plot interminable and characters and dialogue tedious.

You Think It, I’ll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld (⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐)
Curtis Sittenfeld is a masterful writer of dialogue, character, and pacing, and these short stories are some of the best I’ve read. An excellent collection.

I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh (⭐⭐⭐)
Clare Mackintosh’s breakout debut, I Let You Go, was recommended to me by a bookseller friend as a fast-paced thriller with a twist. While the book is skillfully plotted so you know that twist is coming, it doesn’t disappoint. A fun, quick read.

February Reading Wrap-Up

Books read in February: 9 // Total books read in 2018 so far: 20

Favorite book read in February: André Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name


The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck (⭐️⭐️)

Jessica Shattuck’s The Women in the Castle is a historical novel set in post-WWII Germany. A group of women, widows of resistance fighters, grapple with the aftermath of war, struggle to come to terms with their troubled country, and piece together their lives. I usually love historical fiction, but this book just plods along, the characters read like unsympathetic caricatures, and the plot never fully grabbed me.

Binti by Nnedi Okorafor (⭐️⭐️⭐️)

Binti, a young Himba woman who is the first of her people to be accepted to the best university in the galaxy, flees her homeland and boards a spaceship that will take her on an eye-opening and life-changing journey. The first novella in Nnedi Okorafor’s sci-fi trilogy, Binti is a quick, engaging read that tackles ideas of race, identity, black power, and “otherness” in a fantastical, outer space setting.

What Happened by Hillary Rodham Clinton (⭐️⭐️⭐️)
Hillary Clinton’s memoir What Happened was my book club’s pick for the month and supplied interesting fodder for conversation, though we agreed that the writing was, at best, very mediocre, and parts read like a shout-out/hand slap to the various folks who’ve helped/hindered Clinton along the way. While t
he rehashing of the lead-up to the 2016 presidential debacle was more emotionally grueling than fascinating, the most engaging bits were the descriptions of the Clinton’s interior lives, their family gatherings, dinners with friends, their favorite television shows, their private chats. Being invited into these quiet, personal spaces, moments that speak to the importance of family, community, and survival, grants the reader some kind of social catharsis against the tumultuous, razor-sharp political situation we inhabit today.

Heart Berries by Terese Mailhot (⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️)
Heart Berries is a beautifully written memoir by Native American writer Terese Mailhot. In it Mailhot puts big, messy emotions on paper, exposing her life – missteps and triumphs, bouts in a mental hospital, jealousy and rage – and her huge heart. She writes with a fearless pen about identity, colonial whiteness, and the trauma that persists in the body after the generations of violence against her people. A strong, powerful book.


The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton (⭐️⭐️)

The Miniaturist, a historical novel set in 1886 Amsterdam, follows the young bride Nella Oortman as she moves into the house of her newly-wed husband. He is often absent and his strong-willed, cruel sister rules the roost. The first half of the book was well-plotted and the story of Nella’s maneuvering within her new, strange world was an interesting one; the second half of the book fell flat and the plot moved off into predictable yet ridiculous territory.


The Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory (⭐️⭐️⭐️)
I decided to take Oakland-based Jasmine Guillory’s breakout romance The Wedding Date on vacation to Mexico and am happy I did. It’s the perfect beach read. After meeting in a stuck elevator, Drew Nicols asks stranger Alexa Monroe to be his guest to a wedding, his ex’s. She agrees, and their biracial romance blossoms. It’s a playful, easy book with a huge dose of food porn thrown in to whet the appetite.

Call Me By Your Name by André Aciman (⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️)
My favorite book so far this year has been André Aciman’s 2007 coming-of-age novel, Call Me By Your Name. Set in Italy during a summer in the 1980’s, the novel centers around the charged romance between 17-year-old Elio and the 24-year old American scholar/student, Oliver, staying at Elio’s parents’ villa. It’s a gorgeously evocative glimpse at the endless possibility of youth, the disarming intensity of first love, and the blind need of infatuation. I wept through the last 40 pages, and upon finishing I went back and read those last pages again, heart aching and feeling all the feels.


The Idiot by Elif Batuman (⭐️⭐️⭐️)

Where Call Me By Your Name is electric with passion and longing, Elif Batuman’s ambitious coming-of-age novel, The Idiot, is emotionally bereft. The heroine of the book is Selin, a bookishly smart young Harvard student who stumbles as much through her academic life as she does through her emotional one. Batuman satirizes academia and shines a light on what it meant to be on the cusp of adulthood in 1995 when email was new and missing a phone call on accident was still a thing. Satire is not my favorite genre and I kept expecting to be wowed by this book, to find some gem in the narrative that pulled it all together, to feel something deeper for the bland main character, but it, and she, ultimately left me cold and indifferent.


Defectors by Joseph Kanon (⭐️
)
Stilted dialogue. Uninteresting characters making baffling decisions. Slow plot.
Hard pass.

#2 Snowblind by Ragnar Jonasson

SnowblindI love a well-written, fast-paced mystery and am always on the lookout for new page-turners in that genre.

On the prowl for a great new thriller, I picked up Snowblind, a police procedural set in a remote town in Iceland. It garnered praise from other crime writers, Ann Cleeves called it “seductive,” and Peter James said Jonasson writes with “a chilling, poetic beauty” and that the book is “a must-read.” While the description of the book made it sound thrilling, I found it rather boring.

It’s the first in Jonasson’s Dark Iceland series featuring rookie policeman Ari Thór Arason; the plot was slow, the dialogue between characters stilted and mechanical (I chalk this up to the translation), and Arason’s emotional life and decisions bordered on baffling. A solid meh.

 

Give Books: A Holiday Gift Guide

Give Books Brief Book Reviews Instagram Post

There were books I loved this year, books that were amazing and/or difficult reads, that didn’t make it onto this gift guide list because either the subject matter isn’t for everyone or those titles are on so many gift guide lists already (looking at you, Lincoln in the Bardo and Sing, Unburied, Sing). So I’ll be compiling my top books of the year in another post.

Happy gifting!

FOR YOUR MOM

1.) FOR MOM: Dani Shapiro’s Hourglass, $22.95
Hourglass is a stunner, a deftly braided memoir peppered with old journal entries, and rich with memories, observations, and realizations. In it Shapiro excavates the girl she was, examines the woman – mother and wife and writer – she is now, and speculates about the woman she is constantly becoming as her life inches closer, ever closer, towards death. Shapiro has packed so much into this slim book, the fast abandon of youth, the intense love and weight of years of marriage, the anxiety and joys of parenthood, and the sweet sting of memory, of aging.

2.) FOR DAD: Derek B. Miller’s Norwegian by Night, $14.95
While Norwegian by Night is, at its core, a book of suspense, it also provides a fascinating look at Jewish identity, the frailty of memory, language and the ability to communicate without words, war and the effects of violence on the brain, parenting, aging, and death. It’s great.

3.) FOR YOUR BEST FRIEND: Hannah Tinti’s The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, $27
This is a fantastic read full of adventure, suspense, and heart. I just loved it, as did my book club, and most all my friends who’ve read it.

4.) FOR YOUR SPOUSE: Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Autumn, $27
In Autumn, the first in The Seasons quartet, Knausgaard, already a father of three, writes to his unborn daughter about the mundanity of our world, about the place she’ll soon be entering into and some of what she’ll encounter. As only Knausgaard can do, he describes for his daughter: Apples, War, Infants, Autumn Leaves, Lice, Vomit, Pain, Flaubert, the Labia (holy shit, read it), Forgiveness, and more. In each description, there is knowledge to be imparted and a personal connection being made, to others and to the world. And at the core of it all, fleshed out and laid bare, a deep and gorgeous truth.

Gift Guide 5-8(1)

5.) FOR YOUR MOTHER-IN-LAW: Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere, $27
Little Fires Everywhere is a beautifully rendered novel about family, identity, art, friendship, and the fire-spark of love. Throughout, I was struck by Ng’s excellent ability to get inside her characters’ heads. All different, each character feels true and distinct, emotionally complex without being contrived. Ng’s characters grapple with issues of belonging and betrayal, with what makes a “good” or “bad” or “worthy” parent. We witness the desperate acts of parents attempting to hold onto their children, and family dynamics pulled taut by fear, expectations, and deep affection, and the evidence that sometimes family isn’t the one we’re born into but the one we choose.

6.) FOR YOUNG KIDS: Carson Ellis’ Du Iz Tak?, $16.99
A favorite picture book in my house, Du Iz Tak? is a beautifully illustrated story about the seasons, nature, and the cycle of life from the incredibly talented Carson Ellis, illustrator of the Wildwood Chronicles.

7.) FOR THE COOK: David Tanis’ Market Cooking, $40
Fresh, seasonal produce takes center stage in David Tanis’ gorgeous new cookbook. My sister-in-law, who knows I love to buy vegetables seasonally at our local farmers’ markets, gave me this cookbook for my birthday in November, and there are so many recipes I can’t wait to try, including: Yellow Beet Salad with Mustard Seeds, Celery Salad with Pistachios, Sake-Steamed Kabocha with Miso, Roasted Coconut Carrots, Tomato Chutney, and Fennel al Forno, to name just a few.

8.) FOR THE BOOK LOVER: Guinevere de la Mare’s I’d Rather Be Reading, $12.95
This little volume fits into a stocking and is perfect for lovers of book stacks, libraries and indie bookstores, reading nooks, and that amazing new book smell. Compiled by Silent Book Club founder (and personal friend) Guinevere de la Mare, I’d Rather be Reading is an ode to books and the reading life.

#78 Girl in Snow by Danya Kukafka

32920254Young author (she’s 24) Danya Kukafka’s Girl in Snow is getting a good dose of buzz as a compelling who-done-it thriller. It’s a promising debut with some graceful writing, though the plot is unsurprising and the characters are formulaic.

The narrative follows three different characters in the aftermath of a high school girl’s murder in a small Colorado town. Each of these narrators, the high school girl who despised the murdered girl, the teenage (probably on the spectrum) neighbor boy who was obsessed with her and is now a key suspect in the investigation, and a police officer investigating the murder, offers the reader a different perspective on the dead girl and the town. Because all of the characters are familiar stereotypes, the Girl in Snow murderer is an easy guess and most suspense readers will figure out the twist by the middle of the book.

Looking past the predictability of the characters and the plot, there is a brightness to Kukafka’s writing; parts glimmer with a real understanding of human nature. I’ll be interested to read what Kukafka writes next.

#75 Final Girls by Riley Sager

32796253I love a good thriller. And I had high hopes for Riley Sager’s Final Girls, which has received starred reviews from Library Journal, Kirkus, and Booklist, and was praised by Stephen King as the “first great thriller of 2017.”

Like most books in the suspense/thriller genre, there’s a twist. I guessed the reveal within the first 20 pages, so when I finally got to the end it felt eye-rollingly predictable. The slasher action takes center stage over character development and the characters felt flat and stereotypical, their pain laughable and gratuitous. I wasn’t sad when the book ended.

Also, isn’t it interesting that more and more male authors are taking gender-ambiguous pseudonyms in an attempt to sell suspense books to women?

#21 Slow Horses by Mick Herron

7929891 Slow Horses is the first book in a series by Mick Herron about MI5 agents who have been relegated, by bad choices they’ve made, the enemies they keep, or circumstances beyond their control, to the backwater of Slough House, an office for fallen/disgraced agents.

The characters are a motley crew, the plot a bit far-fetched, and the pace a little slow at the beginning, for my taste, for a mystery.

I didn’t love this book, but am intrigued enough by the characters and the snappy writing that I might read book two. I discovered this series via librarian Nancy Pearl over on NPR, who notes that the books get better as the series progresses.

#5 Ill Will by Dan Chaon

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After reading and loving Chaon’s Await Your Reply a few years ago, I was excited to pick up an ARC of Ill Will at my fave local bookstore (where I used to be a bookseller).

Sadly, I didn’t like this book. I found the characters unredeemingly grotesque, and because I disliked the characters so much, I couldn’t invest any emotional energy in actually caring about the plot or the outcome. Blah.