Book Review: Autumn

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


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I’m going to keep this review short and sweet – which is what this book was to me. Autumn can be described in so many ways — artistic, poetic, beautiful, and funny to name a few — but to me the dominating tone was sweet. The humor was sweet, the Daniel’s daydreams were sweet, and Elisabeth’s memories were sweet.

Autumn is the story of Elisabeth and Daniel – two friends, two generations apart. The story is told as Daniel lies in a hospital bed near the end of his life, and Elisabeth is there to be with him. Through glimpses in to different stages of their pasts and presents, Autumn shows us that age doesn’t matter in friendship. 

I hope that a review this short doesn’t give the impression that this books lacks substance, but I just felt like this book emoted more a feeling than story. So rather than piece together or pick apart the narrative, I just want to say that this book will warm your soul like a giant cup of hot apple cider, and make you smile like an apple cider donut. Soak this book up as you soak up the season, before it’s time to pick up Winter!

September Reading Recap

September was… busy! Although, for all the right reasons – I traveled to the East Coast for my grandmothers 99th birthday and to meet my newest (and only) nephew! Then continued on to Portugal for my very first solo international trip. It went really well, and as you can see below, I got a lot of quality time with my kindle and a glass of wine 🙂 When in Portugal, right!?

I read six books which is a ton for me considering none of them were audiobooks! Some great, some not as great, but overall a pretty good reading month — here’s what I read:

A Place For Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza
Rating: 5/5
Genre: Literary Fiction
Tone: Slow, Thoughtful, Tragic
Structure: Non-linear but with a relatively chronological timeline, before turning to a first person reaction
Read if you like: Beautiful writing, Family Sagas, Pachinko, An American Marriage

The Queen of Hearts by Kimmery Martin
Rating: 4/5
Genre: General Fiction
Tone: Bingeworthy, Dramatic, Youthful
Structure: Two points of view in two timelines
Read if you like: Greys Anatomy, Gossip Girl, The It Girl

The Witch Elm by Tana French
Rating: 4/5
Genre: Mystery
Tone: Dark, Gothic
Structure: Chronological first person from a single point of view
Read if you like: Tana French, Robert Galbraith, The Death of Mrs. Westaway

A Girl’s Guide to Missiles by Karen Piper
Rating: 3/5
Genre: Memoir
Tone: Quirky, Sarcastic, Long
Structure: First person chronological, although the voice changes as Piper grows up
Read if you like: Priestdaddy, Educated, Memoirs in general

Autumn by Ali Smith
Rating: 3/5
Genre: Literary Fiction
Tone: Contemplative, Hopeful, Sweet
Structure: Many stories blended together, no quotations around dialogue
Read if you like: Man Booker Prize Winners, Prose, Slow reads with a little humor

My Year of Rest and Relaxation
Rating: 3.5/5
Genre: Fiction
Tone: Repetitive, Sarcastic, Quirky, Repetitive (get it?)
Structure: First person with a linear timeline during periods of being awake over the year
Read if you like: Millenials – otherwise this book is totally unique.

Book Review: The Witch Elm

Author: Tana French
Genre: Mystery
Pub Date: October 9, 2018
FLW Rating: 4/5

How do you review the QUEEN? Tana French has been my favorite author for my whole adult reading life, so I feel a little wrong writing anything but a glowing review. This is also a tricky one to review since I’ve been so in love with French’s Dublin Murder Series, and this was her first standalone novel. This book was totally different than her others (mainly that you didn’t follow the lives of ANY detectives!) but I totally enjoyed it in its own right — I’m just also ready to read another Dublin Murder Series book next. 🙂

The Witch Elm is a dark and moody mystery that demonstrates the fact that you never know you can trust — including yourself, your long-term partner, or your closest family members. At the opening of the novel, Toby experienced a break-in and assault, leaving him helpless and with some potential permanent brain damage. While Toby is recovering by spending time with his dying uncle, a dead body is recovered at the house, and everyone in the family becomes a suspect. Written as less of a “Clue” who-done-it puzzle, and more of an internal psychological monologue, the reader follows along while Toby struggles to determine what he knows and what he’s tricked himself in to believing.

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Dinner alone in Portugal wasn’t so bad as I worked through a dramatic scene with this view and this delicious Sangria! (I actually didn’t want to leave so had a couple glasses of this wine and this was the only night of my trip I felt tipsy! Oops!)

What Tana French does well (understatement of the century), in all books, is writing group dynamics. My favorite book of hers is The Likeness, in which one of the detectives actually goes undercover to investigate a murder by living with a group of the victims friends. (A few people I know have their issues with this one, because it’s pretty unrealistic, but I think it’s a perfect demonstration of how masterfully French writes group dynamics.) In The Witch Elm, the “group” explored was primarily Toby and his two cousins, who he grew up with. Suspicion was cast in all directions, and my favorite part of the book was trying to identify the motives of each character.

What I struggled with was the use of monologues throughout the books. In some cases, like Emma in the Night, I kind of love a big monologue reveal, but after a while in this book, I started to feel like it was just one big series of monologues. Additionally, it felt like the direction of these monologues changed suddenly — all of a sudden Toby would have an idea and begin a full reveal on his current theory, then something would come up and he would begin another. An unintended consequence was that it made the book feel like a TV series. I actually had a moment when I thought to myself “I can’t wait to get home, so I can keep watching my show!” and then remembered that it was a book. Ha! That’s never happened to me before.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book – the mystery and the drama I had been hoping for was present, and ultimately I got lost in the story and couldn’t wait to pick up the book to keep reading every time I had the chance. I read this book while traveling solo and since every time I opened it I felt submerged in their world, it was the perfect book to keep me company!

This book comes out October 9th! Thanks to Viking Books and Netgalley for my advanced copy!

Book Review: A Girl’s Guide to Missiles

Author: Karen Piper
Genre: Memoir
Pub Date: August 14, 2018
FLW Rating: 3/5

A Girl’s Guide to Missiles was the fresh, witty, laugh out loud memoir I was searching for – until it wasn’t. And at first I was blown away with how much I was learning and how much I was enjoying this fresh new voice! But as the end got closer, the wit and humor seemed to have disappeared and I found myself feeling impatient for the ending.

A Girls Guide to Missiles is a memoir of Karen Piper’s life, from her childhood in China Lake — one of America’s secret military deserts — where her parents were working on the design of missiles during the Cold/Vietnam Wars. As Karen grows up and and tries to understand the world on her own terms, shes forced to answer many questions about where she was raised and how.

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The beginning of this book was my favorite – I was laughing out loud and underlining passages consistently. Karen’s understanding of how life/religion/politics worked as a child had me cracking up because really, she was so logical in an illogical world.

I also enjoyed learning about a period of history that isn’t yet well documented in either memoirs or fiction — the 1970s. To be honest with you, I know a lot more about the first half of the 20th century than the second. It always drove me nuts in history class when we would end the year right before we got to learn about the Vietnam War and I haven’t quite filled my reading life to make up for that! (Note to self: read more books set in the 1970/80s.) It was interesting to hear about Vietnam, and the American missile program, and even Nixon and Watergate.

Where the book lost me was after the second failed romantic relationship, when she wasn’t going anywhere fast, and the tone had shifted from comedic and witty to just kind of depressing. I was disappointed that a memoir that started so strong, didn’t maintain that momentum throughout, but I guess it’s the truth of what happened, and it needed to be written.

Overall, I think this is a fun memoir (especially the beginning) that’s pretty eye opening to what it was like on a military base in the 1970s — not a side of life we frequently see! If you’re at all interested in that or looking for a new perspective in a memoir, this book is certainly worth checking out!

Have you read this? What did you think?

Book Review: The Queen of Hearts

Author: Kimmery Martin
Genre: General Fiction
Pub Date: February 2018
FLW Rating: 4/5

I read a blog post – or maybe just an Instagram caption – recently where the author was sharing her frustration of people rating memoirs as 1 or 2 stars because they were too “self-centered/ self-absordbed.” Her point was that we, as reviewers, need to rate books based both on the category in which they exist and the goal/intent of the author in writing the book. I have my reservations about that as a blanket statement, but essentially, I think the logic applies well to this book, The Queen of Hearts. As Martin wrote in her Author’s Note, her goal for this book was to write something entertaining, involving her two loves of medicine and writing (she’s actually a full time ER doctor in her non-author life!). I feel like she took the words right out of my mouth, but of course I have to elaborate. To me, The Queen of Hearts was well written, complex, and entertaining — While there was nothing that blew me away in terms of writing or plot, I’ll happily reflect on it and recommend it to my friends who may be looking for an very solid page turner.

The Queen of Hearts is a story told in two parts – one being when the main characters, Zadie and Emma, were in their first intern year of Med School, and one later on when both women are successful physicians. During their school years, one of their classmates dies unexpectedly, and while Emma knows the full story, Zadie does not. That secret is constantly brooding beneath their friendship, and as Emma enters a turbulent stage of her career, the story being uncovered would mean her losing it all – her job, her best friend, and so much more.

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As I look back on this book the first thing that comes to mind is the plot line involving the shocking death of the classmate, but I need to highlight that as I was reading it, it was really the professional scandal that C is going through that hit me the hardest. With so many strong plotlines, being able to balance each and make them independently strong, is to me the sign of a well-structured book, and a testament to Martin’s writing, appealing to the humanity in us all.

Additionally, I liked that despite the sometimes-heavier subject matter, this book primarily stayed light and moved quickly. I credit this tone to the inclusion of the medical writing. The surgery, hospital, and emergency rooms scenes advanced the plot and added suspense, but also needed to be kept relatively short to avoid us non-medical personal becoming disinterested. Because of this, the medical scenes set the pace of the novel and kept the other sections moving at that pace too. The combination of the strong intersecting plot points along with the medical scenes made The Queen of Hearts unique from other books I’ve read recently, and truly a joy to read.

Overall, it gets a solid four stars from me – I was thoroughly entertained and appreciated both the complex plot and authentic medical knowledge contributions!

Have you read this one? What did you think?

Book Review: A Place For Us

Author: Fatima Farheen Mirza
Published: June 12, 2018
Genre: Literary Fiction
FLW Rating: 4.5/5

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

You may be thinking – another five star (or almost five star) review of A Place For Us, really? If you are, I feel you – the hype was strong for this book and I found that anticipating “hype” in a slow burn really brought the vibe down. So I want to say that this book was good, particularly for the beautiful writing and unique structure, but I would advise you to be conscious of the slowness of this book.

A Place For Us is the story of an Indian-American family. Like any family they love each other but have their moments. This family in particular, though, has the added stressers of a strict Muslim lifestyle. Being a Muslim affects a lot of their life – the clothes they wear, the choice to abstain from alcohol, the romantic relationships they can enter in to, and, importantly, the way their classmates view them. As these factors come in to play over the course of the children’s upbringing, conflict repeatedly arises between Amar and his father and the book unfolds as they confront these issues. 

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At the center of this story is a generational shift from parents to children. While the parents grew up in a primarily Muslim community, and appear to have escaped a childhood full of prejudice and discrimination, the children are growing up farther removed from the church and in a society where they constantly have to think about not just being discriminated against, but also the risk of violence against them solely for their religion. This fundamental shift, while having some to deal with religious beliefs, comes across as a human story of struggle. While I harped strongly on faith in the summary above, I want to stress that, while I do not strongly associate with any religion, I still felt that I was able to relate strongly to the religious components of the story line in this book.

To illustrate this generational shift, two key issues are at play in this book: domestic violence and the use of drugs/alcohol/opioids. In this book Amar, the youngest child and only son struggled with substance abuse, and separately, his father, struggled with psychically abusive tendencies. I’ve read a few books recently (notably The Great Alone and Ohio) that tackle these issues together, meaning that one person has issues with both substance abuse and physical abuse — typically one causing the other. I loved how this book tackled them separately, so that one wasn’t an excuse for the other.

What truly made this book stand out for me was the structure. The first few sections, while non-linear in timeline, follow a relatively straightforward, third person storyline trajectory. However the fourth flips the story on its head and features Amar’s father directly addressing the first three sections and his feelings towards Amar. It was so hard to read and be confronted with the eternal and unconditional love of a father, despite viewing him as the villain for three-fourths of the story.

The phrase “stunning debut” is, in my opinion, way overused — but it truly applies in this situation. To write with such meaning and to create such a unique structure of a book is truly inspirational, and I commend Mirza for writing with such originality. I highly recommend this to anyone who wants to feel some feelings — and sympathize with those who we may have faulted in the past.

Have you read this one? What did you think?

Book Review: Modern Lovers

Author: Emma Straub
Published: May 31, 2016
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
FLW Rating: 3/5

I read a review of this book recently that said something along the lines of ‘Emma Straub’s books always appear to bright and happy, but when you read them you realize that they are anything but’. After reading this book, I couldn’t agree more. I bought Modern Lovers mostly because I loved the bookstore, Books Are Magic, in New York City, which was founded by Emma Straub, but also because I love bright colors and love stories. The content of this book didn’t match the cover, and while that’s not necessarily a bad thing, I think the biggest warning sign I want to share with you is that this book is more about falling out of love than falling in love and that can be dark, sad, and messy.

Modern Lovers is the story of three very different couples – one heterosexual couple in the midst of a midlife crisis instigated by some ghosts of the past, one homosexual couple who has hit a bump in the road, and one teenage couple trying to figure out life and where they fit. These stories feel real and full of despair, as each character waivers between hopeful and hopeless with so much of their life left to live.

The book is extremely character driven and at first I was truly surprised by this. I expected more action, partially due to the bright and exciting cover, and at first was a bit bored with the story.  I think the key to enjoying this book is to try to put yourselves in the shoes of each character and see how much they are hurting. The writing in this book was well done, to the point that while I identified with noone, I could empathize with everyone.

If we’re being honest here, I don’t think the book was meant for me right now. I’m going through a stage of life full of hope and love and excitement for the future – I’m in a new city, with a new job, living with a boyfriend who I hope to marry soon(ish). A love story about falling out of love isn’t really the kind of book I’m here for right now. I guess my critique is that the cover should reflect the content of the book more than it did, but also if a book isn’t right for you right now, there’s really nothing you (or the author) can do, so I can’t knock it too much on that account.

Overall, this book was good. Not great, but also very much not bad. I enjoyed it and I felt for the characters, but man, a book full of hopeless situations isn’t quite what I wanted at the end of summer!

Have you read this book? What did you think?

 

Book Review: Ohio

Author: Stephen Markley
Published: August 21, 2018
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
FLW Rating: 2/5

I was so drawn to this book as a mash up of murder and social commentary — but I’m here to tell you it was neither. What I got out of this book was a very long and very wordy diatribe on modern America. To make it worse the pacing was uneven and the loose ends that made the plot intriguing never came together. Let me explain.

Ohio is the story of one night in the small town of New Canaan, Ohio, when four former classmates have returned home and somewhat accidentally run in to eachother. Told from the perspective of four distinct voices, each protagonist revists their past, while building up to the night of reunion, to form the full story of life today in America’s midwest.

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This story covered it all — 9/11, terrorism, the opioid crisis, domestic violence, gay rights, and honestly probably even more than this. Basically – this book tried to do it all (hence the length of almost 500 pages). My issue is that it didn’t do any of them well. Most topics were both skimmed over and brutalized. The story didn’t dig in to any topic in particular, but instead just created a sort of chaos of negativity. In the end I didn’t finish the book with a heightened sense of awareness on any given topic and that truly disappointed me.

In a book like this, I like to trace the story through the perspectives and guess as to how they will all come together. Near the end of the prologue, Markley established that there was an accident on the far end of town where, as it foreshadowed, all four story lines would unite. The first three stories got there, but the fourth never did. I wasn’t sure if I had missed it, but I discussed the book with a few other reviewers and they agreed, the plot never looped back to the accident at the end — which left me extremely confused and unsatisfied as the reader. In rereading the book description, it appears that the connection between each story was meant to be Rick, a classmate who died in Iraq, but even that didn’t feel like a common thread, more a random coincidence.

The pacing of the book followed a similar pattern — three first stories were slow, but led you to believe that they were headed towards a common climax. On the contrary, the fourth book was INSANE, fast paced, and went in a different direction. I’ll admit that in other books I’ve read recently, I’ve forgiven a slow start for an action packed and rewarding finish, but since the pieces didn’t come together in this case the action packed finish never paid off and was just a greater reminder of the uneven pacing in this book.

My advice to you (since we all interpret books differently so I wouldn’t say don’t read it), is to really prepare yourself. This book is dark, heavy, intricate, and complicated with a ton of sex, violence, politics, and drugs. It may be for you, but it is not for everybody.

Book Review: Sweet Little Lies

Author: Caz Frear
Published: August 14, 2018
Genre: Mystery
FLW Rating: 3.5/5
Goodreads Link

This book is one of those books that both bingeworthy and slow – when you know you need to get to the end of the story, but also feel like there’s no direction. Sweet Little Lies is my favorite kind of police procedural, in which the murder that’s being investigated has so much more to do with the detectives than the victim. And sometimes, say late summer when life is stressful, it’s exactly what you need.

Sweet Little Lies is a murder mystery/police procedural in which a woman is found dead, but the person she’s identified to be only existed for a short time. The mystery starts there – who was this woman? and why did she recreate herself? And as this story is unraveled, and connections start to be uncovered, a dark truth emerges.

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I personally have always been a fan of this type of story, so I’ve read my fair share. Trust me when I say that Sweet Little Lies is totally original! The story it uncovers is truly unique and complex, which makes devouring this book very entertaining. And that’s all I’ll say! I want you to enjoy for yourself!

HOWEVER, to pull off a book as complex as this, based on a mystery — which is to say the reader is scouring each word for clues — the details need to be clear. I have some questions — and I’m going to pose them here as questions, so if you’ve read this book and can answer them, please do, and if you’re considering reading this book maybe read for these details extra closely so you don’t end up confused like me!

GEOGRAPHY

Can someone explain to me geographically where the body was found vs. where her dad’s pub is located vs. where she grew up?

The geography of this book was very important to the story and, maybe I should have googled more of the locations, but sometimes when I’m so deep in a story, I don’t want to be taken out of it to use the internet. My issue was that I couldn’t fully picture where they were as they were bouncing around the United Kingdom. Her dad seemed to always be a 10 minute walk from one location, a 90 drive from another, and a flight from a third. I was always confused about the distances covered, which was a large part of the story.  The misunderstanding  is definitely due to my lack of knowledge of the region, but that shouldn’t play that big a role in understanding the story.

Conflict of Interest

Why was Cat “kept at arms length” but still allowed to work on the case a little bit? It seems like it should be an all or nothing deal.

It’s no secret, by this point in my review at least, that Cat Kinsella – the detective/ protagonist of our story –  was involved (by association) with the mystery she’s trying to solve. I would have expected that this would be uncovered by her coworkers and she would be removed from the case, but noone seems to acknowledge that fact. At the same time, Cat admits to being kept at arms length, possibly due to some psych issue she has. I was a) a little upset that the former psych issue was never really discussed, and b) so confused about her being kept at arms length but also not really stopped from doing any digging.

Overall, I loved reading an entertaining police procedural – they are just such comfort reads for me – and I really liked the direction Frear took this one in, allowing it to feel truly unique, but I was too distracted by the disconnect of certain details to fully appreciate this book to its potential. 3.5 Stars for me!

Book Review: What Happened

Author: Hillary Clinton
Published: September 12, 2018
Genre: Memoir (Political)
FLW Rating: 4/5

As I’ve mentioned on here before, I don’t usually read books about recent history. If we’re being honest, I bought What Happened mostly as a coffee table book – something to display on my shelf for eternity as a sign of who I voted for in 2016. I kind of intended to read it, but after a few months I resigned to my fate of not reading it. But then I started The Unread Shelf Project and made it a goal to finish all books purchased before 1/1/2018 this year – so here we are.

I ended up listening to this book on audio, and I have to admit, I teared up in the first chapter. I almost stopped listening because it still felt too soon, but I powered through and the rest of the book was matter of fact – which to me is the strength of this book. It’s a non emotional explanation of intents and mistakes of the 2016 Presidential Election. No antics, no tears, no need to respond to attacks. I found it really helpful for me to have it all laid out in a civilized manner, so I can finally put the election behind me and focus on the future.

What Happened is the story of the 2016 Presidential Election, from the perspective of Hillary Clinton. It feels like an attempt from Hillary to be open with her supporters and let us know the background of many scandals that didn’t get proper coverage, focus, or explanation during the campaign. She discusses what she’s doing now, what it’s like to be a female in politics, Russia and why it matters, and those damn emails. It’s a must read for anyone looking for closure from the craziness of 2016!

While there no denying that this is an “agenda pushing campaign book”, I found that it had a lot more than that to offer. I enjoyed learning more about Clinton’s research in to females in politics and her perspectives on being a working mom. I also really enjoyed learning more about the email scandal because the reporting on that was all over the place during the campaign. And while I had been warned that the book was all about Comey, I found his role in the book to be considerable but not to the point of annoyance. There were times when I agreed with Hilary, but also times that I disagreed, and I would encourage everyone to read or listen to this book with a grain of salt.

I listened to this book on audio – which I thought was a great way to do it. The obvious perk is that the book is read by Hillary Clinton herself. You can hear where she gets exasperated or excited or any various emotion you may miss in print. It felt very personal to hear her expressing her confusion over why people didn’t find her to be an open book when she was as open as she possibly could be. The other perk is that in a long book about politics, there are times when you may want to zone out – audio was perfect for this 😊. The downside is that this book is very uniquely structured in hardcopy. There are sub chapters and sub sections separated by a boldly formatted quotes. When these are read in audio, it can seem confusing since they don’t explicitly tell you the chapter is changing, but once you get used to it, it starts to make sense.

Overall, I’m glad I read this book. It was great for me for reflecting on the election and moving past it – the last section of the book focuses on where do we go know. The answer: always forward.