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.

 

#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?

#55 The Wolf Road by Beth Lewis

32912923Wow. This book kept me up past midnight, furiously flipping page after page towards the bloody end and listening intently to the creaks and noises in my silent house with wide open eyes.

Beth Lewis’ The Wolf Road is intense and unflinching, terrifying and great. Looking for a well-written and suspenseful beach read? Well, here you go. (Maybe don’t read it in the forest in the dark by yourself.)

Like Nettie Lonesome, the heroine in Lila Bowen’s Wake of Vultures, Lewis’ Elka is a strong young female protagonist fighting for survival and connection in a cruel, dangerous world. After a huge storm, Elka is taken in by Trapper, a quiet hunter harboring a secret. When Elka discovers the truth about Trapper, she escapes into the wilderness to survive. But will she survive with Trapper nipping at her heels?

The setting is post-apocalyptic, but not overtly so. The remote Canadian wilderness Elka escapes into is alive with trees and wildlife, but crater lakes formed by Russian bombs leak chemicals into the Earth, and mentions of old wars and bombs that destroyed large swaths of North America are peppered throughout the book and inform the fierce survivalist nature of the characters.

 

 

#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.

#15 Norwegian by Night by Derek B. Miller

15814497How reliable is an unreliable narrator? This is the question I asked myself throughout the whole of this page-turner. The premise of Norwegian by Night is an interesting one: Probably senile, recently widowed, Jewish American man moves to Oslo, where he doesn’t know the language or the culture, to live with his granddaughter and her husband. Recently arrived, he witnesses a violent crime and rescues a young boy at the scene; they escape, evading the police, his granddaughter, and those looking for the boy. Do we trust this narrator, and to what end?

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. Read it.

#8 History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund

30183198This debut book of fiction by writer Emily Fridlund is a stunner.

It’s a classic coming-of-age story. High school student Linda doesn’t fit it. Like so many high school kids who feel like they’re the wrong age at the wrong time in the wrong place, she lives the life of an outsider. Her peers keep their distance at school, and she lives a long way from anything with her odd parents. When a family with a young boy, Paul, moves in across the lake, Linda starts to babysit, forging a relationship with the boy and his parents. From page one we know that something devastating has happened to Paul, a knowledge which drives this elegant, sad, austere story to the end.

I really love Fridlund’s writing, there were so many sentences and passages in History of Wolves that made me go “wow.” Some coming-of-age books feel like replicas of stories we’ve all read/heard before, but this one stands out. From the beginning, Fridlund constructs a narrative built on dramatic tension, with the reader constantly questioning “what the fuck happened to that kid?!” The snowy backwoods setting evokes isolation and loneliness, and the characters are unique, complex, totally flawed.

I can’t wait to read what Fridlund comes out with next.

#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.