Book Review: The Death of Mrs. Westaway

My summer reading list this year has included some seriously hard hitting books. I wanted to lighten things up, so this week I’m bringing you three great beach reads. So pack your bags with these selections, and get ready to be drawn in to the drama!


Author: Ruth Ware
Published: May 29, 2018
Genre: Mystery
FLW Rating: 3.5/5

If you have come here looking for a repeat of the action of The Woman in Cabin 10,  I need to let you know you have come to the wrong place. The Death of Mrs. Westaway is fundamentally different from the rest of Ware’s mysteries, in that the main character in this book goes looking for trouble. And not only that, but the tone of this book is different too. I didn’t feel the same kind of raw fear and suspense that I felt in her first two, but I found this to be a truly unique and almost “cozy” mystery.

The protagonist of this book, Hal is a tarot card reader in London, who runs in to financial trouble. With no known living relatives and no way to increase profitability of her business, she feels like she doesn’t have any way to get herself out of that hole. As the situation starts to look more and more bleak, Hal receives a letter letting her know that her grandmother (who she didn’t know was still alive) had passed away and she was named in the will. Seeing this as a potential solution to her financial woes, Hal decides to go to the reading of the will and accept what she is to be given. However, when she gets there she has to introduce herself to the family and while getting herself caught in a tangle of lies, she also discovers a lot about this family that they did not necessarily want to come out.

I really enjoyed seeing this side of Ware’s imagination and hearing a bit of a different story from her. While a little on the long side, this book kept me engaged, entertained, and busy postulating my hypothesis.

My biggest qualm for this book is really a need to readjust Ware’s genre in my head.

After reading her previous works, I put her squarely in the “thriller” category, but I would have to classify this one more as a cozy mystery than a suspense, which is what I have come to know Ware for. The plot was never fear inducing or exciting, but always quietly convoluted. I think the expectation of suspense led me to feel let down at anything else, including this moody mystery that developed in its place. That being said, I definitely think this would make a great book to read on the beach if you’re looking for a unique and interesting mystery.

Have you read this? Let me know what you thought!

 

Book Review: The Favorite Sister

My summer reading list this year has included some seriously hard hitting books. I wanted to lighten things up, so this week I’m bringing you three great beach reads. So pack your bags with these selections, and get ready to be drawn in to the drama!


Author: Jessica Knoll
Published: May 15, 2018
Genre: Mystery
FLW Rating: 4/5

Confession: I love the Bachelor franchise, including the spin-off show Unreal. So when my book club was deciding on a fun summer read and I heard the description for this one, I was ready to say yes – except for one thing: the opinions I’d seen on bookstagram for this book were atrocious. I’d like to set the record straight and use this as an example that you shouldn’t believe everything you read on the internet (but always believe my posts 😉 ). I totally understand why people didn’t like it in the beginning (we’ll get to that), but this book was so worth sticking it out and actually made for a great read and a great book club discussion!

The Favorite Sister is about a group of women who make up the cast of a TV show called Goaldiggers (get it, they go after goals as strong independent women who don’t need men in their lives). The book opens at present day where you find out that one of the women from the cast has died – and there is a mystery surrounding the circumstances of her death. The book then jumps back a few seasons and tells the story from the perspective of three of the women, who explain events in their perspective and slowly reveal the whole truth. This book is full of drama, twists, turns, and surprises — which makes is fun to read and fun to discuss!

I just want to say out of the gates that I understand why people didn’t like it. Most of the negative reviews I read stated that they strongly disliked it early on, and decided to stop reading it. I hear you, I’m definitely a proponent putting down a book if you’re not enjoying it, but in this case I would encourage you to continue. The drama at the outset of the book is stupid. It feels below the reader – like something you just don’t need in your life and a weird premise for a book. The women are treating each other poorly and overall the vibe just isn’t great. But YOU GUYS, this is all setting you up for the first twist. I think it’s risky for an author to start a book like this – putting the worst part first in such a long book can clearly rub people the wrong way.

From that point on, I truly enjoyed this book. I listened to it on audiobook and enjoyed the narration from each of the different perspectives. There were some great twists and turns and the plot kept me engaged until the very last second!

The rocky start makes it a 4/5 for me, but I definitely want to encourage you to read this book! And BONUS it’s been picked up for a TV series. No word yet on when or where but the producer of Wild and Big Little Lies has purchased the rights!

Book Review: The Great Believers

Author: Rebecca Makkai
Published: June 19, 2018
Genre: LGBTQ Fiction
FLW Rating: 4/5
amazon link

The Great Believers has all the makings of an extremely compelling work of fiction – centered on the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, a missing person, a cult, a trip to Paris, love, betrayal– the list goes on. As soon as I read the description, I knew I needed to read it, and as far as the plot goes, it did not dissapoint! It was readable and interesting, andI looked forward to every spare moment when I could pick it up again. What it missed for me was the strong emotional connection to the characters, that connection that would leave me punched in the gut at the end of this book. With all the components listed above, I expected this book to be hard hitting, and while it was very entertaining and enjoyable, I didn’t feel as much raw emotion as I had been expecting.

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The Great Believers is told across two timeframes and two continents – one in 1980s Chicago, and the other in Paris 2015. The story opens in the 80s, at the memorial service for Fiona’s brother, Nico. He was the first in his circle of friends to pass away from AIDS and as can be expected, his death brings a lot of grief and also fear to his close friends. The story follows Yale, one of Nico’s close friends, as he continues with his job and his relationship through this tough time. When the story skips ahead to 2015, Fiona is flying to France to begin the search for her daughter, Claire, who she lost touch with when Claire joined a cult several years prior.

What I loved in this book was the unexpected art history plot line. Yale works for a university art gallery that is trying to gain prestige through donations of incredible pieces, and through that role, he gets himself in to a few compromising situations. I used to love the tv show White Collar, and this felt similar, although less criminal. But there were deals to be made, people to be deceived (or at least left in the dark) and this plotline really propelled the book along!

What didn’t totally work for me was the character development. Quite frankly, I never felt the emotional roller coaster with any of the characters, since I had a hard time feeling a strong connection to any of them. To me, the issue was that even after all I went through with these characters, I didn’t feel like I had gotten to know them. I had more gotten to know their fears and insecurities without really knowing them.

I would recommend this book to someone who has an interest in the AIDS crisis in Chicago, or just looking for an entertaining and compelling work of fiction! I don’t anticipate the characters will stay with me for a long time, but I enjoyed reading this book and will definitely read another book by Makkai in the future!

[Thank you to Viking Books for supplying me with a free copy of this book in exchange for a review. All opinions are my own.]

Should you read Beartown?

SPECIAL NOTE: Beartown and Us Against You made such a big impression on me that I’m dedicating a week to them. Check out the other posts here:


Clearly reading Us Against you has thrown this blog for a loop! I’ve been passionately writing about Beartown, Us Against You, and Fredrik Backman himself for the past week. Nonetheless, I’ve found myself struggling to recommend this book to people around me. I’m not sure if they would enjoy the writing style, or if they would enjoy the heartwrenching nature of the story. Maybe they don’t want to read about domestic violence and feel sad and vulnerable — but at the same time maybe they SHOULD.

So to answer my own question, the short answer is – YES. But it’s more complicated than that.

Ready for the long answer?

To address the writing style that I brought up earlier — Backman said that many of his editors told him “you’re not supposed to write exactly what people are thinking.” At first, I’ll admit that the style didn’t work for me, but as the book went on, it made every emotion resonate so much stronger. I was feeling feelings while reading them on the page and the combination was powerful. Recently, I’ve seen so many Instagram reviews saying “how did Backman write exactly what I was thinking?” The people seem to like it!

But more to the meat of the issue — is the content for everyone?

When I met Fredrik Backman, I asked him if he had a favorite book – kind of expecting him to say he couldn’t choose – but he said the Beartown series was the book he was most proud of because so many people told him not to write it.

His editors told him that his audience knew what he wrote — heartwarming stories about curmudgeons — and this this would be way too out there for them. They also told him there would hate mail from the group of people he was criticizing in this book. His response was that maybe his audience should be exposed to these truths.

Backman illustrated the point by saying “Look at me. I’m white, I’m a male, and I’m a pretty big dude. I look like I could play hockey. I look like the group of people I’m criticizing and that’s the only reason I could publish this book. I could have published this book under a female pseudonym and I would have received death threats.” It was so moving to realize how right he was. (And to be clear, he has received hate mail, but no death threats to date)

Aside from the commentary on sports culture and rape, there is an underlying plotline about a gay man and how his community deals with his coming out. Backman talked about this plot line with so much love and during the signing, the man in front of me, who was gay, told Backman that he hadn’t read these books yet, but hearing him talk about them was so important to him. You could feel the sincerity in his words and the impact it had on Backman himself to hear this feedback. It was a really special moment and while my heterosexuality is never something that is attacked, I am also glad this book exists.

I think the perfect way to summarize all these feelings is actually an instagram caption that I read on my friend Molly’s page. She sums it up so well and I whole heartedly agree.

“It leaves me wondering if the obligation to write and read stories that bring (necessary) attention to the epidemic of hate and violence against anyone who doesn’t fit into the mold of the white patriarchy will ever go away. And it makes me sad that the answer to that feels, right now, like a resounding ‘no.'” – @readmollyread

So please PLEASE please read this book ❤

Book Review: Us Against You

SPECIAL NOTE: Beartown and Us Against You made such a big impression on me that I’m dedicating a week to them. Check out the other posts here:


Author: Fredrik Backman
Published: June 5, 2018
Genre: Fiction
FLW Rating: 5/5

Sequels are hard – I imagine hard to write, sometimes hard to read, and honestly, as I sit here writing this, hard to judge. Us Against You is a phenomenal sequel and overall a phenomenal book – although, YES you do need to read Beartown first.

Going in to it, I wondered how the story would be set up – would it have the same pattern of an arch as Beartown? What will be the drama this time? I think the answer to that comes from the fact that while Beartown was a great standalone novel, it never should have been a standalone novel because the consequences of what happened in that book need to be allowed to play out in the public eye– so that we can see, hear, feel, experience, understand, and learn from what happened. Us Against You didn’t need its own drama or its own arch because the drama of Beartown wasn’t over. And for continuing that so strongly, Us Against You in a perfect sequel.

WARNING: IF YOU HAVEN’T READ BEARTOWN THE FOLLOWING MAY BE A SPOILER! NOT 100% BUT SOME. READ THIS FIRST

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Us Against You is, as I mentioned, the sequel to Beartown – a book about a hockeytown in Sweden, in which the only thing going for it is its hockey team. Through that mentality, a group of hockey players is elevated above the rest of society, which creates unhealthy dynamics for young men – most about seventeen years old. When this unhealthy sports culture creates a conflict in the town, each member of the community is left to deal with how we got here and where we go. Some will leave town, some will hate those who leave town, and other will find comfort in new places. Backman writes with so much feeling and creates not only an extraordinary book, but an extraordinary sequel.

While reading this book, I was admittedly less enrapt by the plot than I was when I was reading Beartown itself, but I  think that’s because a) the shock had worn off and b) because it was hard to read about the characters I had grown to love go though such hardship.

One of the things I particularly liked about this book, was that Kevin, one of the negative characters from Beartown, wasn’t a focus in this part of the story. After what he did in the last book, he wasn’t a character I wanted to see again. I loved the focus on Benji – who kind of became the star of this show, and Vidar.

In general, what I love about Backman and his writing is that where there are glimpses of sadness, there are glimpses of hope too. He balances tragedy with humor, and gut wrenching pain with optimism, and I think that is why he can teach you such a lesson while also leaving you wanting more at the end of the day.

I highly recommend this book, because I highly highly recommend Beartown and Beartown would not be complete without this sequel. You may have heard that Beartown will be a trilogy – but for now it’s just two books. I have heard from friends who have met him in person in other cities (he didn’t talk about this when I met him in San Diego), that he’s not ready to start on the third book quite yet because these two took a lot out of him. UNDERSTANDABLE! I just read ’em and I have the most serious book hangover of the year. So, enjoy these two as we all wait patiently and full of hope for the third book in the trilogy!


I hope you’ll stick around this week for my other posts – I have so much I want to share with you from this experience!

Book Review: A Walk in the Woods

Author: Bill Bryson
Published: 1997
Genre: Travel Memoir
FLW Rating: 3/5

First things first: I’m currently participating in the Unread Shelf Project 2018, hosted by Whitney at @theunreadshelf. This post reflects on the June Challenge, but you can look back at all the posts here


The June Challenge for the Unread Shelf Project was to read a book about TRAVEL. I’m not usually a travel memoir person, but I do want to stick with this challenge and I did have one travel-y book on my unread shelf, so I  decided to read A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson.

A Walk in the Woods is about Bryson’s experience on the Appalatian Trail. He sets off without much knowledge of the trail or of backpacking, but decides to give it a go. What follows is the comical story of his mishaps and misadventures, but also a well written history of the trail. Like his other books, this book is packed with classic Bryson wit and humor which makes for an entertaining journey!

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Two things went wrong for me in this book (both of which are unrelated to the book)…  The first is that the day I started listening to it (I used my Scribd app for this), I met someone who had hiked the trail. I told him I was listening to the book and he spoiled two major components for me. I didn’t think a book like this could be spoiled, but trust me it can.

The second is that it was deleted from the Scribd app while I was listening to it. No bueno. You may be thinking, “but this is the unread shelf project, so you own the book – no big deal!” But I ended up not finishing this book because of it. I just never felt like sitting down to finish it because switching mediums felt discouraing to me.

REVIEW TIME:

My favorite part about this book were the historical components. I noticed particularly during this book that any passage that was strictly factual, I LOVED. Bryson has an amazing way of telling a story, or creating a story out of facts. That section about the National Forest Service – amazing! Hearing about the town in Pennsylvania that’s had a fire burning under it for several decades now – fascinating! But hearing about the daily life of him walking on the Trail and finding food to eat – not for me. It just lacked originality or excitement, particularly compared to the more historical/political/scientific parts.

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Just a photo of my boyfriend enjoying the outdoors – taken by me, also enjoying the outdoors

Despite these laments, I have loved some Bryson books in the past, so I wanted to share those here. My absolute favorite is At Home – he tells the history of each room in the house dating back from when most people lived in single room halls. Even the development of a hallway was monumental! And book people will enjoy that there’s a chapter on libraries and he tells the story of Thomas Jefferson and Monticello. So good!

Others I’ve enjoyed are In a Sunburned Country, A Short History of Nearly Everything, and my boyfriend’s favorite (which I have not read) One Summer: America 1927.

Have you read this — or anything else by Bill Bryson? Let me know what you thought!

 

Book Review: Ghosted

Author: Rosie Walsh
Published: July 24, 2018
Publisher: Viking Books
Genre: Mystery
FLW Rating: 4.5/5

“WHAAAAT” – me at the first of oh so many twists in this book. Have you ever been so shocked you literally have to read outloud for a few lines to make sure you’re reading it right? That was me when reading Ghosted, a debut novel by Rosie Walsh coming out next month.

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Ghosted is a mystery told primarily from the perspective of Sarah, an almost-40 year old, who lives in LA but is home in England for her annual trip back. Sarah spends the month on June in England every year, and this year she meets a man named Eddie, who sweeps her off her feet as they fall in love over the course of six days. When he never calls her back, her friends tell her to move on, but she knows she can’t. And so begins her search for answers.

I must admit – when I read the title I was skeptical, and as I started to read the book, I remained skeptical. Is this just a stupid novel about a guy who won’t call and a girl who needs to get over it? Or a murder mystery taking advantage of the new millenial phrase “ghosted” as a catchy title to a book? I prepared myself to be unimpressed. But as the book went on, I found it harder and harder to put the book down. It was so thoroughly enjoyable to read and satisfyingly unpredictable that I turned the pages quickly and finished it in just about 24 hours.

What I enjoyed the most was the twist – I won’t say too much more but it was a twist that stopped me in my tracks. I reread a few sentences out loud. I stopped to reconsider all the pages I had already read and what this would mean for them. And then I continued ahead anxiously needing to know more. I’m not sure if the formatting will be the same in the finished copy, but in the review copy “the twist” came at the first line when you turned a page. My eyes tend to wander around the page if I’m expecting a big revelation and the location of the twist on the page was so perfect for dramatic effect. A+ to whoever’s role that was!

As far as mysteries go, this one is standalone to me. It doesn’t follow the trajectory of all the Gone Girl, Girl on a Train, Emma in the Night style books that have been so popular recently. If I had to compare it, I’d put it closer to a Liane Moiarty style mystery, but I truly think it’s in its own category.

I definitely recommend this book if you’re looking for a fun summer mystery so feel free to preorder it for its release next month!

Book Review: Spying on Whales

Author: Nick Pyenson
Published: June 26, 2018
Genre: Nonfiction – Science
FLW Rating: 5/5

[Thanks to Viking Books for the free review copy!]

This book was truly everything I wanted it to be. Since it’s so up my alley, I set my expectations high and was so nervous to be let down. I’m here to tell you this book is immensely readable with equal amounts of technical knowledge and layman terms, something I always worry about with a sciencey-nonfiction.

Spying on Whales is a book about the past, present, and future of whales, but also about what it’s like to be a paleontologist studying whale fossils. Pysenson does a great job building the intrigue of whales, even for someone like me who is already a serious whale lover. He reminds the reader of how little we know about whales and how elusive whales really are. As the largest animal on earth that never stays in one place and never goes on land, they are incredibly difficult to study and scientists are still actively discovering new things about them.

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Besides learning about whales, I loved the tone of this book in relation to science, being a scientist, and the future of the planet.

Pyenson demostrates through his own actions and his writing how much there is to learn in the world of science. This is a personal comment of mine, but growing up I never wanted to go in to science because through the way things were presented to me in school, it felt like the whole world was already figured out. (I went in to engineering so that I could put science in to action, so I didn’t stray too far, but I’ve always felt like I was duped in school!) I love how the writing style of this book encourages curiosity in the reader. I feel like that’s how science should be viewed at all ages!

In terms of being a scientist, Pyenson references funding a couple times and I totally understand that that is a huge part of being a scientist, but he never dwells on the struggles of the lack of funding. (If you’re interested in that check out Lab Girl by Hope Jahren) I loved that he stuck to his research topics and didn’t dwell too much on personal hardship, especially since the book wasn’t pictched as a memoir.

And finally, I loved that Pyenson’s view on global warming wasn’t super apocolyptic. I really thought that that was where the “future” section would go, considering whales live in our warming oceans. I enjoyed how Pyenson acknowledged climate change while also not making the book about that.

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Overall, I learned so much from this book and had my already great interest in whales renewed! I’ll also note that this book is only about 230 pages, so easily readable in a few long sittings (I read the first section while on an airplane and it was great airplane reading!). An overly long nonfiction can quickly turn something fascinating to something that will never end – so I appreciated the concise nature of this book!

5 Stars to Pyenson and this great book – walk, don’t run to get it when it comes out next Tuesday — and then take yourself on a whale watching tour! 🙂

Book Review: The Resurrection of Joan Ashby

Author: Cherise Wolas
Published: August 29, 2017
Genre: Literary Fiction
FLW Rating: 3.5/5

I have been hearing praise about this book non-stop for the last year – yes since before it was released. One of my favorite book bloggers sang its praises and made me extremely curious, but with a length of over 500 pages I wasn’t willing to commit.

After all the build up, I’m a little bummed to say that in regards to my feelings on the book, I’m conflicted.  It 100% met the hype with its thoughtfulness, diverse plotline, and prose, but there the structure and formatting felt jumpy and forced me to feel distracted and disinterested.

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The Resurrection of Joan Ashby tells the story of, you guessed it, Joan Ashby, or Ashby as she prefers to be called. By the time Ashby is 21, she has already had two best sellers and is known around the world for her short story collections. She has plans to write indefinitely and not be distracted by love, marriage, or children, until exactly that happens. But this isn’t a story of someone who falls in to the sociatel norm of loving that path – this is the story of a someone struggling with their loss of identity — hence the preference to be called Ashby.

As I reflect on this story, it strikes me how much I connected with Ashby and care about the life that I was able to enter in to, if only for a short time. I am someone who wants children one day, but this story highlighted how “normal” that is, and how that normalization would be hard for someone who does not. And that’s why I think this book is so important. It does what it can to legitimize Ashby’s emotions in a world that doesn’t understand.

Is motherhood inescapably entwined in female life, a story every woman ends up telling, whether or not she sought or desired that bond; her nourishment, her caretaking, her love, needed by someone standing before her, hands held out, heart demanding succor, commanding her not to look away, but to dig deep, give of herself unstintingly, offer up everything she can?

So with such a strong connection to the plot and the characters, I felt frustrated to feel disinterested for most of the middle section of the book. The bottom line for me is that the writing format did not flow the way it needs to in such a long book. The book is primarily written as a typical novel, but it begins with a magazine or newspaper article about Ashby and her successes, then intermittantly throughout the book her work is inserted in to the novel, and in the middle of the book there is a long sections in the format of “recordings”. While it was interesting to have a book-within-a-book, it took my brain a long time to transition in and out of these sections. This may be a personal preference, but particularly when the book is long, I find it important to get in the groove of the author’s writing and be able to read easily. 530 pages of struggling in and out of unexpected formatting and a variety of stories was tiring.

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If you remove the exerpts from Ashby’s writings and the some of the other oddly formatted sections, I think the book could get down to a very hard hitting 350 pages. I would read this book and recommend it to everyone I know. At 530, it’s too long, too jumpy, and although I kind of hate to admit it, still pretty good by the time it’s all said and done.

Have you read this book? Let me know in the comments.

Book Review: Educated

Author: Tara Westover
Published: February 20, 2018
Genre: Memoir
FLW Rating: 3.5/5

Educated was one of those books that came on to my radar suddenly, and then never really went away. When I first heard about the general premise – a self taught girl who later graduated from Harvard with a PhD, I made the thoughtless assumption that said girl was probably from an underdeveloped country. It was when I found out that she grew up in Idaho, that my interest was piqued. Really? Idaho? IN the United States? I don’t usually think myself very ignorant to what can happen in the US, but still this book surprised me. While Tara’s story is interesting, I found myself constantly wanting to pull lessons and explanations from her story, and that’s where it fell short for me.

Educated tells the story of Tara Westover, a young girl brought up in a survivalist family in Idaho. While her family members are practicing mormons, she makes it clear on Page 1 that this is not a story about mormonism, but a story of the small sect of Fundamentalist/ Survivalists Mormonism that her father believes in. Her father distrsuts  the government, the public education system, and the medicial institution (to name a few..) and believes that it would be a tragedy to partake in anything sponsored by any of the above. He subjects his family to these theories, so that, as a kid growing up in that environment, you wouldn’t know much better. What results are a series of accidents, close encounters with the outside world, and eventually, self discovery and rebellion.

As with any memoir, the most interesting parts come through the mishaps and adventures, of which there were many. Some seemed too shocking to be believable, which I suppose is a testament to the circumstances of Tara’s upbringing. The other highlight of course, are the successes. With each step that Tara took away from her parents’ home, I found myself happily rooting for her.

The final piece of the memoir puzzle, to me, is a conclusion– Lessons learned, reflection, etc. After finishing Educated, I began Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer without realizing the similiarities — UtBoH discusses (at least in the first few chapters), a sect of fundamentalist mormons in Arizona and the lives they live. Even just starting this book shed so much light on Educated and also showed me how much of the story had been missing. My takeaway is that Educated is not a stand alone story, and Tara’s family is not as individual a case as the book had led me to believe. There is a lot to be learned, but Educated is not a standalone nonfiction. Instead it offers a peek inside, and is most effective when coupled with other knowledge.

Overall, I’m happy for Tara that she was able to find her own way in life, and ultimately this was a story of great triumph over a restricted childhood (to say the least). I didn’t feel like I learned a lot from it, and for that I don’t think I would recommend it to a friend.

Have you read this book? What did you think?