fiction

Book review: State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

Next up on the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge: a medical thriller. This was something I read a lot of when I was in high school. Robin Cook was a huge favorite and I read almost everything my library had of his, but I don’t know that I’ve spent too much time in the genre since then. (I tend to do that, read a TON of a certain genre and then never come back again, haha. There are a few favorites that have stuck over the years, though!) Digging through the list, I came up with State of Wonder by Ann Patchett (HarperCollins Publishers, 2011). I read her Bel Canto years ago and was curious to see how I’d feel about her other work, so I clicked on the ‘borrow’ button on the Libby app and was reading an ebook from my library in minutes. (Seriously, the excitement of that will never get old!)

Dr. Anders Eckman is dead. The news has come in a terse letter from the research site deep in the jungles of Brazil where he’d been sent to check up on the work of the woman running the project there. Dr. Marina Singh has reluctantly agreed to make the journey down there, both on her company’s behalf and on Dr. Eckman’s widow’s behalf, to figure out what happened and what the mysterious Dr. Swenson is actually doing in terms of her research. Not exactly an adventurer, Marina is more interested in staying home and figuring out what’s going on between her and her boss, but two lost suitcases later, she finds herself in a world she could never have imagined.

Dr. Swenson, a former medical school instructor of Marina’s, is stern, austere, and entirely dedicated to her projects, to the exclusion of everything around her. The jungle is deeply unforgiving and demands much from anyone who attempts to settle there. Marina will have to dig deep in order to accomplish what she came for, but there are so many things she hadn’t expected…

I don’t know. I love Ann Patchett as a person- if you’re ever in Nashville, she co-owns the cutest little book store in Green Hills, Parnassus Books, and you shouldn’t miss it (although the traffic in that area is HORRIFIC, so be warned). She’s done a lot of great things for the city; Parnassus opened up after the city’s only other first-run bookstore was destroyed by a flood in 2010 (a small Barnes & Noble affiliated with Vanderbilt University has since opened up in the city, near the university itself). But there’s something about her writing style that just doesn’t reach out and grab me. I felt the same way after reading Bel Canto; it made me anxious throughout and the whole reading experience left me unsettled. I know a ton of people absolutely love her books, so this is just my I’m-a-nobody subjective opinion, but I don’t think that her books are necessarily for me.

Her characters always feel at once too close and still too distant, and like their emotions aren’t fully displayed, or that they’re limited to a very small, very flat range of emotions. They don’t feel fully human to me- does that make sense? They almost seem like caricatures. The Bovenders were as boisterous as Marina was flat, as Dr. Swenson was irritated. They’re all ruled by one personality trait, and I found that tiring to read.

Dr. Swenson was about one of my least favorite characters I’ve ever read. She was snappish, emotionless, irritated and impatient with everything Marina said, and every time she appeared on the page, I grew annoyed. To be honest, if it hadn’t been for the challenge (and the fact that this was an ebook, which have limited checkouts for the library), I wouldn’t have finished it, because I was so annoyed with everything about Dr. Swenson. She was so arrogant and unlikable that reading her was difficult. Even later in the book, when she’s more vulnerable, I felt little sympathy for her.

Marina was a little better, but still flat to me. There is a twist at the end that helps the story to finish better than I had expected, although it was still…eh, and there was something alluded to earlier in the book that had the potential to blow up, but the book ended too soon to really know if anything came from it.

And oof. I have a lovely friend who is from Brazil and who has a lot of great stories about her home country. I love hearing them. This book was a bit like an anti-tourism ad for Brazil. Venomous snakes that camouflage in terrifying ways. Anacondas in the water. Insects of every shape and size that dive bomb, bite you with razor-sharp teeth, suck your blood, and inject you with terrifying diseases. Cannibalistic native tribes. I’ll stay home, thanks… (And Dr. Swenson’s discovery, that there’s a tribe whose women can get pregnant into their eighties? THAT sounds like the worst nightmare EVER!!!! Pregnancy and I are not friends…)

I dunno. I always feel like there’s something wrong with *me*, that I’m missing something that so many other people obviously see, when I don’t fall in love with authors that are so very popular. Is this your experience when you can’t quite get what other people love so much? Have you read this and are baffled by how badly I miss the mark here? Do you love Ms. Patchett’s books and have a moment to explain them to me better? I’m open to any help you can offer!

Visit Ann Patchett’s website here.

fiction · YA

Book review: Looking for Alibrandi by Melina Marchetta

And back to work on my reading challenges from the comfort of my kindle! The 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge list is in the front of my reading binder, so I’m going down that list first. A lot of their prompts have to do with the 2020 Olympics, which have been postponed until at least next year (and rightfully so; I can’t even imagine having that many people crammed into an Olympic village, along with all the spectators gathering together. FAR too dangerous right now), and next on the list was to read a book set in a city that has hosted the Olympics. What I’m able to easily get my hands on factors as heavily into my choices as much as what interests me, and since my library had a ebook of Looking for Alibrandi by Melina Marchetta (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2006, originally published in 1992), which was set in Sydney, Australia, that went on my list (this also meant I was able to add a pin to my map of the world, which I update every time I read a book set in a different country. I have fourteen pins so far this year!). I started reading the book, a large portion which deals with the main character’s illegitimacy, and I was confused. Do people still care about that? Is that an Australian thing? After a few chapters, it dawned on me after reading a line about the ongoing AIDS epidemic and realizing there hadn’t been any references to things like the Internet or cell phones, and off I went to check the Goodreads page. Sure enough, the book was originally published in 1992, when being a single mother was still very much looked down on, especially in certain communities. That made more sense. I adjusted the setting of the story a bit in my mind and carried on.

Josephine Alibrandi has lived her entire seventeen years with her illegitimacy hanging over her head everywhere she goes- at her fancy private Catholic school, where she’s a scholarship student and the other students constantly remind her she’s a bastard and not *really* Australian; among her large extended Italian family, especially her grandmother, who never let her mother forget her sins; among the wider Australian community, who looks down on her for both not having a father and for her ethnic background. But things are changing in her final year of high school. Josie’s met her father for the first time in her life. She’s dating a boy who challenges her as well as infuriates her. And her strained relationship with her judgmental grandmother is about to be pushed to its breaking point.

Josie’s quick to fly off the handle, but she has a lot to learn about life, about her family, about the secrets of the past and how we all carry them, and about how to handle life’s major ups and downs. Her grandmother isn’t quite who Josie always thought she was, her father might not be the demon she expected, and Josie…well, she’s still figuring out who she really is, and that’s exactly as it should be.

So. I didn’t quite love this, and part of it may be that it’s so…I don’t want to say old or dated, neither seem right, but it very much fits in with the style of how I remember YA being when I grew up (and I’m, uh…not quite old, but I’m getting there!). The story skips over major events, main characters tend to do a lot of shouting and throw tantrums (I get that teenagers do that, I have one myself, but older YA books lean towards their characters lacking a certain maturity, whereas YA today is far, far better about that and is way more teen-centric). Josie tends to go from zero to freak out at the drop of a hat in a way that didn’t feel natural to me. Though her relationship with her father vastly improves over time, something about it seemed off to me as well. I understood that she would harbor a lot of resentment toward his missing out on all the rest of her life, but she was forward with him in a way that didn’t feel authentic either. I also didn’t care for her relationship with Jacob. He pressured her far too much for sex, they fought more than they got along, and he occasionally dropped ethnic slurs at her, which should have been an immediate dealbreaker. I don’t know. A lot of this missed the mark for me personally.

There were parts that I enjoyed, however. I had no idea that Australians interned Italian-born citizens, especially men (and citizens of other nationalities, including Japanese, Italian, and even British), during the second World War. Josie’s family still harbors a lot of trauma due to this, and she discovers a major family secret that stems from this time period, which helps her to eventually better understand why her grandmother is the way she is. I know that Australia has problems with racism toward the Aboriginal communities, but I hadn’t realized that this extended to other ethnic groups as well. Apparently in the 1990’s, Italians weren’t well-liked in at least certain parts of Australia, and Josie suffered through fairly constant slurs toward her and her community. I’ve never understood that. Dislike someone for how they act or how they treat other people, but for where they’re born or their ethnic background? Something over which they have no control? That’s senseless. (And I’m not singling Australia out here; the United States has no room to talk on this matter.)

Content warnings: there are a few mentions of rape and one near-assault, and there’s a suicide near the end of the book, by a character who displays obvious (to the reader, especially to the modern-day reader) red flags through the entire story, so if these are sensitive topics for you, this may be one to avoid.

Looking for Alibrandi was an interesting story that didn’t fully capture me, although I’m always happy to learn new things and get a new perspective on the world. I’ve heard excellent things about Ms. Marchetta’s On the Jellicoe Road, however, so that’s still in my plans to read in the future.

Visit Melina Marchetta’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

Monthly roundup

Monthly roundup: April 2020

So March started and then went on and on and on and on, until we were all sure that we were experiencing some sort of bizarre time wizardry and the month actually had 243877234983289 days. And then April started and ended pretty much immediately, leaving us all blinking in deep confusion and wondering what happened. Jeremy Bearimy, anyone???

It’s been another month of weirdness, and we’ve got at least one more to go (and with good reason, because we’re in no shape ready to reopen anything). It’s frustrating and sad difficult to have life be so different, but it’s so, so necessary. The stories I hear from my healthcare worker friends are devastating. Stay home and stay safe, friends.

It’s been an interesting month for reading as well. I’m still only able to read mostly at night, so my reading has slowed so, so much. THAT’S definitely frustrating. I’m doing my best, though, and that’s all I can do right now.

Let’s get this recap started!

Books I Read in April 2020

  1. The Other Americans by Laila Lalami

2. The Governess Game by Tessa Dare

3. My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

4. Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

5. The Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis (no review; read out loud to my daughter. A re-read for me)

6. Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea by Guy Delisle

7. Not If I See You First by Eric Lindstrom

9. Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

9. Wiving: A Memoir of Loving, then Leaving the Patriarchy by Caitlin Myer (review to come closer to release date)

10. Concealed by Esther Amini

11. Love Starts Here (A Morgan’s Grove Novel #1) by Traci Borum

12. Harrow Lake by Kat Ellis (review to come)

Ehhh, not a great month in terms of numbers, but again, cutting myself all the slack here. I’m also homeschooling and dealing with my now 6 year-old’s big emotions regarding the loss of school, the ability to see her friends/play with other kids/go anywhere other than walks around the neighborhood, cooking, cleaning, helping my son learn to cook, gardening, reading for my class…life is busier than ever around here! We’re all doing the best we can.

Reading Challenge Updates

Not too bad here this month! The stack of books I had checked out from the library were all off of my lists, so I was able to tackle quite a few of the prompts on the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge, and I even added one to the Modern Mrs. Darcy 2020 Reading Challenge, and two to the Book Riot 2020 Read Harder Challenge. Now that I’m through with my library books, though, I’ll have to see what my library offers via ebook that fits into my challenge prompts. I’m up to the challenge!

Here’s what my reading challenges look like right now.

(No change to the second page, so I won’t add that.)

Although I didn’t get that much reading done this month, it almost all went to a challenge, so I’m happy with that!

State of the Goodreads TBR

So, when all of this is over, I’m basically just going to pack my stuff up and move in to the library. It’s the only way I’m going to tackle this TBR, folks.

Last month found me holding steady at 109 books, but thanks to some really great-looking books and a few really inconsiderate ‘awesome things to read when you’re stuck at home!!!1!!!!1’ lists, my Goodreads TBR has ballooned up to a hefty 124 books! (Remember once upon a time when it was down to 78? *weeps gently*) S’alright, though, it just means that someday in the future, I’ll be reading some seriously amazing things. 🙂

Books I Acquired in April 2020

None, with the exception of some Magic Tree House books we picked up from one of the Little Free Libraries during our neighborhood walks. 🙂 My daughter and I will start this series soon; right now, we’re working our way through some old copies of Patricia Reilly Giff’s Polk Street School Kids series, which are fun but occasionally dated, and the kids can be really mean to/about each other. They spark a lot of good conversation about proper behavior and how to treat our friends and neighbors, though!

Bookish Things I Did in April 2020

Uh…I read? At home?

That’s about it.

Current Podcast Love

So, I finished all the back episodes of Unorthodox! I’m trying to keep current on the latest episodes during my solo walks around the neighborhood; the neighbors get to see me laughing like a maniac and nodding along to the wisdom and wit of the hosts. I’ll definitely be keeping up with this show’s new Thursday episodes.

I’m not currently latched on to anything new in particular. Life has been so exhausting lately that instead of listening to a new podcast for ten to fifteen minutes before falling asleep, I begin listening and am out within a minute or two, and even when I wake up during the night, I’m back out within a minute. I’ve got friends who aren’t sleeping well at all, but I’ve been sleeping like the dead, it’s SO weird for me. We’ll see what I’m able to come up with next month, podcast-wise, if anything.

Stephanie’s Read Harder Challenge

Currently on hold.

Real Life Stuff

Not entirely how I pictured my daughter’s 6th birthday, but we celebrated anyway! She was thrilled with her new pajamas, new unicorn shirt, and kids’ Kindle Fire (on which she is playing as I type this; that’s about the only way I can get any kind of work done! Although not always, as she narrates every. last. thing. she does on there…) She had a moment during the day where she wasn’t okay and cried on me for about two hours, poor kiddo, but I’m doing my best to keep things as normal as possible and fun for her, including starting a nature journal. She’s super into that and is really enjoying drawing pictures of the things she sees on our walks (aided by the PlantNet app, which helps us identify the wildflowers that have been popping up in neighborhood yards).

I had a rough day on what was supposed to be my son’s final choir concert. That really stank. Right now, he’s planning on going into choral music instruction in college, with the hopes of becoming a choir director, so if that works out, there will be more of his concerts to attend in the future. But what a bummer of a way to end high school. His school is planning on a virtual graduation, followed by a potential ceremony if it’s safe in July. We’ll go pick up (trunk pick up!) his cap and gown the first week of May. Speaking of which…

My son hadn’t had a haircut since NOVEMBER. He has wildly curly hair and has been in that teenage phase of wanting to see what happens when he lets his hair go. As I told him it would, his hair never got long, it just continued to get bushier and grow OUT and not down. He finally gave up on the last Saturday of April and said, “I’ve had enough. You can cut it.” I had no clippers, only scissors, but guys, he looks SO MUCH BETTER! You can actually see his handsome face again. No pictures, I’m respecting his privacy, but he just looks so nice right now. 🙂

My (Re)Introduction to Judaism class continues via Zoom! We only have three sessions left, which makes me so sad, this class is such a meaningful spot in my week. And along those lines… Right before Yom HaShoah, while searching for some schoolbooks in our basement, I found my husband’s copy of The Holocaust Chronicle by John K. Roth et al. It’s an enormous book, the subject is difficult, and my reading time has been reduced to smithereens, but I’m going to be tackling this little by little as part of my learning, because it’s so, so necessary.

The baby owls from the owl cam that I’ve been obsessing over all hatched, and they are RIDICULOUS, OMG. Who knew baby owls were this cute??? I can hardly stand their little floofy feathers and their goofy little faces. Check them out, and keep checking back if Mama is in the box covering them up. She leaves for longer periods of time now and it’s adorable to watch them bob and stumble around the nesting box on their own. I’m going to miss them so much when they’re big enough to fly off on their own!

The calendar is empty again for May, with the exception of a doctor check-up for my daughter. They still want the kids to come in for those, so she and I will be wearing the cloth masks my friend Meghan made for our family (THANK YOU, MEGHAN!!!!!) to attend that, and scrubbing our hands half to death afterwards. Otherwise, we’ll be here at home, learning, reading, walking the neighborhood, gardening, and generally hanging out. As people in lockdown do, in order to keep their friends, family, and neighbors safe and healthy. 🙂

Stay well, friends. Stay safe, stay healthy, take care of yourself and others. Be the kind of person you want others to be to you. Spread love and kindness, put yourself in others’ shoes, be mindful of how your actions affect those around you. It was kindness and love that got Bill Murray out of his Groundhog Day, and it’s the only way we’ll get through ours. Sending you all love from our lockdown hidey-hole!

How was your April???

fiction · romance

Book review: Love Starts Here (A Morgan’s Grove Novel #1) by Traci Borum

Cozy comfort reads. So many of us are looking for those right now, and I’m no different. I enjoy a good romance novel (of any heat level, to be honest); there’s just something about a couple falling in love, the yearning, the anticipation, the sparks, that speaks to me and tugs at my heart. So when Traci Borum contacted me and offered a copy of her new novel, Love Starts Here (A Morgan’s Grove Novel #1) (Red Adept Publishing, 2020), I was intrigued by her description of the novel as having a “Hallmarky” feel. I’ve only seen a handful of Hallmark movies (no cable here), but I know plenty of people enjoy their movies and find them comforting, so I was in.

Jill McCallister, author of a popular four-book mystery series, is stuck. Writer’s block has struck hard after she finished her series, and she has no idea what to write next. Desperate for inspiration, she accepts an assigned article on genealogy from a friend’s struggling magazine, only to discover her very own ancestor founded a small Texas town called Morgan’s Grove. Figuring a change of pace could only help, Jill packs up, leaves her small Denver life behind, and heads off in search of creativity and answers about her family in the Lonestar state.

What she’s not expecting is to be pulled so deeply in by the town. Morgan’s Grove and its residents are immediately welcoming, presenting her with the friendly, charming hometown Jill’s never had. Lucille, the woman at whose house she’s staying, quickly becomes a trusted friend and surrogate grandmother, and Rick, Lucille’s handsome, quiet, somewhat distant grandson, slowly moves from mysterious to sympathetic, and then more. After having spent her childhood on the run, Jill’s finally found a home…and maybe even a home for her heart.

Ms. Borum wasn’t exaggerating in her description; Love Stars Here is all the Hallmark without the cheese. The story is set during the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, which qualifies this as a Christmas novel for those of you who look for those kinds of things (but it worked out just fine at the end of April, thankyouverymuch!). There’s cool weather, gingerbread cookies and a homegrown baking business (and even a yummy-looking recipe at the end of the book!), decorations, Bing Crosby crooning Christmas carols, a million mugs of cocoa…if you’re looking for cozy, you’ll absolutely find it here. The romance is a sweet, slow burn and is absolutely appropriate for the youngest of romance lovers.

(And if you like Corgis? There are Corgis in the book. As someone who has been absolutely dying over a friend’s pictures of her new Corgi puppy lately, this made me ridiculously happy.)

Jill McCallister is a delight of a heroine, and her realistic struggles with writer’s block and her difficult relationship with her almost entirely absent mother lends her an air of empathy from the start. Her giving nature with Lucille and faith that her writing mojo will return, even when it feels as though her Muse has abandoned her for good, makes her a joy to read. Rick remains enigmatic through much of the story, but the fact that their romance didn’t move from zero to one hundred immediately made that work for me.

Ms. Borum has nailed small town charm in a big way with Morgan’s Grove. The town has all the appeal of any tucked-away New England seaside village or midwestern crossroads, but without the reality of what we know small-town life can be (no gossip, no true town busybody, no dark secrets). It’s the quaint hometown of our dreams, sweet without veering into saccharine, crisp holiday weather without the glop of five day-old slush, spooky, wind-whipped storms with only minimal property damage, friendly neighbors who are always willing to pitch in and who have your back without talking behind it. If you’re looking for a cozy book-vacation destination, traveling with Jill McCallister to Morgan’s Grove, Texas needs to be on your literary map.

One of the best things about this book was that it wasn’t a high-stakes, edge-of-your-seat novel. Sometimes we as readers want that, and other times, a slow, gentle read that presents each story component wrapped in a soft, hand-knit blanket and accompanied by a steaming mug of our favorite warm beverage is more in order. Love Starts Here fits easily into that latter category and was a sweet, enjoyable read during a time when the outside world’s roar needed to be tamped down by something that felt more familiar, more palatable. Escaping into Morgan’s Grove was the literary break I needed.

Thanks to Traci Borum for sending me a copy of Love Starts Here to read and review!

Visit Traci Borum’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

Book review: Concealed by Esther Amini

This week in my (Re)Introduction to Judaism class was our week to study Jewish history from Creation to the Enlightenment. Thousands of years of history in just an hour and a half, not an easy feat, and as the rabbi teaching the class said, “Jewish history is a bit of a misnomer. We have Jewish histories, plural.” And in a stunning bit of serendipity, this lesson showed up in my own life when I was offered a chance to read and review Concealed by Esther Amini (Greenpoint Press, 2020). After reading the premise of this new memoir, I leapt at the chance, because this sounded perfect for me, and it was. From the very first paragraph, I was hooked.

Esther Amini was born in New York, but her parents and older brothers came from a world away in Iran, Mashhadi Jews who spent their lives passing as Muslim in order to stay safe and alive, living as Jadid al-Islam, a kind of Persian converso. Outwardly, they presented as Muslim, their status as Jews a public secret; when tensions rose and the community stopped looking the other way, violence- stonings, robberies, assault, and murder, all sanctioned by the government- erupted. It was with this trauma that Esther’s parents lived, affecting their marriage, their outlook on life, and how their raised their children.

“Can we ever really know our parents?” Ms. Amini asks, before admitting the weight and sheer gravitas of this task. In this memoir, she recounts the struggles of her youth and young adulthood with parents whose volatile marriage and difficulty adapting to the cultural norms of their new home touched every part of her life. As she matures, she comes to understand her father’s fierce overprotectiveness and silence, her mother’s drive for independence and single-minded desire to stand out, while still acknowledging their faults and gathering the determination to stop the pattern of chaos with her own children.

A memoir of religion, immigration, family history, the challenge of reaching an adult understanding of one’s parents, and healing from the scars of the past, Concealed tells a story of a life lived with grace, perseverance, forgiveness, and the drive to shed the turmoil of one’s past.

I’d known there were Jewish communities in Iran, but Concealed was my introduction to what those communities look like. Extremely insular out of necessity, the community suffered greatly and lived in constant fear for their lives. It was after Esther’s brother David, then three, was burned on the ear with a red-hot fire poker by his teacher (who also screamed a terrible antisemitic pejorative at him) that Esther’s mother insisted that they needed to leave.

What fascinated me, however, was how much of the surrounding Persian culture and the lifestyle her parents had needed to adopt in order to survive, yet which they still carried with them to their new country. Early marriage for girls, as young as nine and to men twenty to fifty years older, was the norm in Iran (for the Mashhadi Jews, the reasoning behind this early marriage stemmed from the fact that minority girls and women ran a higher risk of being raped, which would then affect their chances of being married at all; thus, the earlier the marriage, the safer they would be, the reasoning went). While marriage at nine was, thankfully, out of the question, Esther’s parents made it clear that marriage, the earlier the better, was the only goal they had for her. Doing nothing to disavow her parents of the notion that graduation from high school was mandatory in America, Esther put all her effort into her studies, determined to make something more of herself than the anemic vision of her future presented to her by her parents. The book illustrates an almost stunning parallel: her parents sneaking and hiding their Jewishness in Iran, and Esther’s furtive studying, hiding books under the covers and reading with a flashlight, sneaking schoolbooks from her parents. The type of survival differed, but both types of concealment were necessary for each person to persist.

Her brothers were encouraged to study and work hard, however, a sexist stereotype that unfortunately transcends culture. “Stop thinking. No man will marry you,” her father told her. “Books are evil, they poison girls’ minds.” Her mother, herself illiterate, mocked Esther’s constant studying and desire to attend college. Her brothers, however, formed a team to educate and protect her, teaching her about periods, taking her bra shopping, serving as the knowledgeable, tuned-in substitute parents she desperately needed. “Es, create a mind you want to live with,” her brother David told her. And through hard work, trial and error, and the help of a good therapist, she does.

Her parents are mysteries, human contradictions whom Esther defies as a young adult, then endeavors to understand as she ages and then has children herself. Her father, harsh and reticent with a fierce protective streak, remains an enigma until she sees him through the eyes of a parent. Her mother, never missing a chance to create a spectacle, denied so much in her own life yet content to deny so much in her daughter’s, felt the world owed her, something Esther doesn’t come to terms with until late in her mother’s life. Maybe we can’t ever truly know who our parents our, but Esther Amini never stops trying, never gives up piecing together the puzzle of where she came from and how it affected her. Readers will triumph alongside her as she reaches hard-won conclusions and answers about the family she was born into.

Concealed is an intriguing memoir of not just one woman, but of a family, of a community, of the past and how it follows us all, and the effort it takes to grow and flourish beyond the places predetermined for us. Esther Amini is an absolute bastion of strength and determination, and her meticulous insight glows on every page of this book. If you enjoy memoirs, you won’t want to miss this original take on the genre spotlighting a community and a type of voice not often heard from.

Special thanks to Alessandra Scarpaci of Wunderkind PR and Greenpoint Press for sending me a review copy of Concealed.

Visit Esther Amini’s website here.

Follow her on Facebook here.

Follow her on Instagram here.

fiction

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine- Gail Honeyman

Suggested as a book for the PopSugar 2020 Reading Challenge prompt of a character in their 20’s (although I’m pretty sure she’s only briefly in her 20’s, as she mentions that she recently turned 30, but whatever, I’m counting it anyway…), Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman (Pamela Dorman Books, 2017) has been a book I’ve wanted to read for ages. It never appeared at the right time for me, though; whenever I’d see it, I would be so far behind in my reading that taking it home seemed foolish, but I was lucky enough to grab it on my last trip to the library, making this my very last library read until they reopen. I have plenty to read here, and the library is still open for ebooks, but still…it feels sad.

Eleanor Oliphant’s life barely qualifies as an existence. She goes to work, she comes home, she eats, she sleeps, she talks to her mother on the phone. And that’s it. No friends, no visitors to her apartment other than the social worker who comes every six months to check up on her. Other people’s behavior frequently baffles her, she can’t relate to her coworkers, and she doesn’t seem to understand that they’re mocking her whenever they speak to her. But the wheels of change are set in motion when Eleanor and Raymond, a coworker, help to save an elderly man who’s collapsed in the street, and, unrelated, Eleanor meets the man of her dreams.

Along with striking up something resembling a friendship with Raymond, Eleanor begins a regime of self-improvement designed to make herself acceptable to the musician she’s developed a crush on. Hair, skin, nails, better clothes, all of this is tackled methodically as she learns the twists and turns of friendship with and through Raymond, and the people she meets because of him. And when life goes wrong and things get difficult, Eleanor comes to understand what friendship truly is and can mean, and what it means to reach out to another human being.

This is a lovely book that’s occasionally hard to read. Eleanor doesn’t seem to understand that her coworkers are often making fun of her when they bother to talk to her at all, and those scenes are painful for any reader with compassion and a sense of decency. Her social awkwardness and extremely literal way of thinking cause her to speak bluntly, offend people without being unaware of it, and often act inappropriately in social situations. There’s never a mention of Eleanor having a diagnosis of any sorts, so whether her behavior is from a condition such as autism or due to trauma and emotional starvation as a child remains unknown. It’s tragic, but despite her inability to respond properly in so many situations, Eleanor is a strong, deep character. The fact that she’s survived this long and gotten this far in life, despite all that she’s suffered (obvious content warnings here: there are mentions of child abuse, sexual assault and rape, several mentions of death, physical and emotional abuse, and bullying behavior from adults), is remarkable, and Ms. Honeyman has created a character that readers will be desperate to see succeed.

Watching Eleanor’s growth over the course of the book was exactly the kind of hopeful I needed at this point. We’re doing okay here, managing everything okay, but it’s still not easy, and reading along as Eleanor tried new things and threw herself into new experiences felt satisfying (even though she was doing them for the wrong reasons. I didn’t enjoy that part, and kept hoping that she would reach that point where she was doing things for herself, but it was fun to see how she experienced things such as a professional hair cut and a trip to the nail salon for the first time), especially since all of our lives are on hold at the moment. Reading about someone who was brave enough to actually start living, after a lifetime of…not…felt…like a relief. It’s no substitute for life itself, but when it’s what you can have at the moment, it’s enough.

What a strong debut novel. I don’t know what Ms. Honeyman has next up her sleeve, but my goodness, what a way to burst onto the fiction scene!

Follow Gail Honeyman on Twitter.

fiction · YA

Not If I See You First- Eric Lindstrom

My favorite part of reading is getting to live in another person’s head for a while, to experience life from their perspective and see how it differs from my own. It’s fun to meet characters who are just like me, but I prefer it when they’re different from me in some major way and I can see the world anew. That’s definitely something I found in Not If I See You First by Eric Lindstrom (Poppy, 2015), which I found as a suggestion for the PopSugar 2020 Reading Challenge prompt for a book with a character with a vision impairment or enhancement (a nod to 20/20 vision, something I definitely do NOT have).

Sixteen year-old Parker Grant’s life probably isn’t what she pictured it would be when she was little. Blinded completely at the age of seven in a car accident that killed her mother, her aunt, uncle, and cousins have now moved into her house after her father’s death via accidental overdose. She’s strong, though. Hasn’t cried yet, and she won’t. Her friend group helps to support her, and running- by herself, in the very early morning!- keeps her sane.

To throw more complications in the mix, her ex-boyfriend Scott, who is an ex for a MAJOR reason, is back in her life, though she’s doing a good job at replacing him with Jason, the nice guy from the shoe store who sold her her latest pair of running shoes. Parker can try all she wants, but she can’t outrun her past or the drama of her present for too long…

I have a lot of mixed feelings about this book. Parker is…blunt, and that’s putting it kindly. Her personality comes off as brash and inconsiderate, and while I kept reminding myself that this was a teenager who had only recently lost her last surviving parent, it seemed as though this had been part of her personality her entire life and wasn’t a new quirk caused by grieving and trauma. I don’t mind a character with a sharp, snarky personality (such as Julia in I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter; I felt Erika Sánchez created in Julia a character whose struggles with depression and anxiety played out well in her sharp mouth and shortness with other characters), but Parker’s constant irritability and lack of tact as her sole personality trait grew tiresome to read. While I would expect a teenager who has experienced so much loss in her life to be belligerent and sharp-tongued, we’re rarely given a chance to see any other side of Parker, even in her own thoughts. A little more vulnerability would have gone a long way for me.

That said, I did feel that Parker’s blindness was covered well, and it almost became a character itself but without being a Major Issue. Her blindness just IS, it’s not something to overcome or struggle with, and that was something I definitely appreciated. Her independence (and occasional struggle for it) is strongly featured and was a pleasure to read. A friend once related a conversation she had with a parent of a blind child, and the parent had said the general rule she lived by was that if she expected something of a seeing child that age, she would expect it of a blind child as well. Thus, if she expected her seeing six year-old to scrape off her dinner plate in the trash and rinse it off in the sink, she would expect the same of her blind six year-old. I kept this in mind as I read and was pleased to see that play out, both in all the things Parker can do, the things she *does* require help with, and the nervousness with which her aunt handles her. Her aunt, who probably never expected to be raising her blind niece, doesn’t seem to have done any research or consulted with any experts on how to be her niece’s advocate and ally, and is a character who will get your hackles up in Parker’s defense. Her same-age cousin, however, doesn’t pull any punches, and it’s almost a relief at how normal (though full of tension!) her interactions with Parker are. Her regular friendgroup, however, is perfection.

The two love interests had me scratching my head a bit. Scott, Parker’s ex, doesn’t seem to have much of a personality beyond his affection for Parker and his desire to help her. Remembering that their major connection occurred when the two of them were in eighth grade puzzled me a bit- I know, I’m an adult reading YA, but even when I was younger, I had the wherewithal to realize that relationships that happen when you’re 13 aren’t exactly the pinnacle of what lifelong romance should be, and so Scott’s dedication as a 13 year-old boyfriend and the way he’s maintained these feelings all these years seemed…a little farfetched. Jason, the shoe store employee, starts out strong, and then fizzles out pretty hard. I wasn’t terribly impressed by either of them, to be honest.

So while I liked this book, or at least parts of it, I didn’t love it as a whole, though I did love the chance to inhabit the world of a blind YA character. One of my favorite books as a child was The Seeing Summer by Jeannette Eyerly, about two girls, one of whom is blind, become friends and then manage to escape a dangerous kidnapping. It’s a middle grade novel, first published in 1981, but my reread ten or so years ago revealed that it had held up decently over time. Other books I’ve read that have featured blind characters or focused on blindness itself include Blindsided by Priscilla Cummings (YA fiction), Planet of the Blind by Stephen Kuusisto (nonfiction), and For the Benefit of Those Who See: Dispatches from the World of the Blind by Rosemary Mahoney (nonfiction). If you’ve got any recommendations here, especially by blind authors, I’d love to hear them! (I know that author Kody Keplinger is legally blind; she’s a fabulous author and a great person in general!)

Visit Eric Lindstrom’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

graphic novel · memoir

Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea- Guy Delisle

Another one down for Book Riot’s 2020 Read Harder Challenge! I’m pleased that I’ve been able to continue progress on my reading challenges, even in captivity. *grin* The prompt here was to read a graphic memoir, which is actually a genre I love, so pretty much everything on the list of suggestions looked good to me. But I’m always trying to keep my TBR at a manageable level (*nervous laughter* let’s not discuss that right now…), so I went through my want-to-read list on Goodreads and found Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea by Guy Delisle (Drawn & Quarterly, 2003). I’d read and enjoyed Burma Chronicles by the same author (before mailing it off to a friend!), and I was fascinated to learn that he’d spent time in North Korea and had written another book about his experiences. Onto the list it went!

I had no idea before reading this that North Korea has an animation industry. At one point, it was apparently pretty bustling, although it seems to have slowed down a bit since then. But animator and graphic novelist Guy Delisle, who has a sense of adventure that I seem to be lacking, was invited to work there and jumped at the offer. Upon arrival, he confronts a bizarre country where everyone spouts the party line, shortages of everything are commonplace, pictures of the leaders plaster nearly every surface, and he’s rarely left alone.

North Korea really is the upside-down, even by 2020 bizarro-world standards, even in the capital city of Pyongyang which is meant to be shown off to foreigners. Mr. Delisle’s stripped-down illustration style lends well to the bleakness of the regime and the stark realities of life in a country where an admission of doubt of the President’s nearly supernatural status can get a resident killed, or thrown into a reeducation camp for life. Even the restaurants seem to fall well short of basic health and cleanliness standards, and the museums and ‘tourist’ destination he’s taken to are nothing more than state-created propaganda tools designed to further the myth of North Korean greatness and world domination. The entire experience is bizarre and creepy and leaves the reader with a both a sense of relief to know that Mr. Delisle survived his time in country and a deep feeling of sadness that what he showcased in this graphic memoir is the best it gets there.

I don’t know that this is the best Delisle book to start with. I got a better sense of who he is as a person in Burma Chronicles and I don’t think I would have necessarily been inspired to read more from him if this is where I started. Part of that is because of the stark nature of the subject, I think; a sojourn in such an oppressive regime doesn’t necessarily lend for warm and fuzzy feelings about much of anything. I’d start with another one of his books first. Nor do I think this is a great place to start if you’re looking to learn anything about North Korea. Pyongyang is their show city, and although it comes off as a run-down communist-era Soviet nightmare, it’s still far beyond anything else the country has to offer in terms of, say, their citizens not dying in the streets of starvation and lack of medical care. If you’re looking to learn more about the hideous wasteland that North Korea truly is, start with some personal memoirs of escapees, such as In Order to Live by Yeonmi Park or The Girl With Seven Names by Hyeonseo Lee, or for a more journalistic account that covers both the history and the horrors of the country, I highly recommend Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick.

What Guy Delisle does offer here, though, is a fascinating perspective on a foreigner’s view of North Korea’s capital city. In the memoirs I’ve read, escapees have talked about the absolute splendor and privilege of a visit to Pyongyang, and to them, this city absolutely was the pinnacle of creation, leagues above and beyond what their daily lives offered. But to an outsider, it’s run-down, lacking in basics such as electricity and teeming with North Koreans doing forced ‘volunteer’ work. It’s absolutely worth your time if North Korea is a subject that fascinates you; it s a perspective that my reading has been lacking and I’m glad to have been able to ‘see’ Pyongyang from a non-North Korean’s viewpoint.

I’m in more than a bit in awe at Guy Delisle’s sense of adventure. Had I received the offer to work in or travel to North Korea, accepting wouldn’t even occur to me as a possibility. There’s no way I would ever feel comfortable traveling there, not as long as the country is in the state it is, with its leadership the way it is (*glances around, laughs nervously*). Its own citizens aren’t safe; I wouldn’t labor under the delusion that I’d be safe, either. But I’m grateful that Mr. Delisle has written and illustrated his experiences in this book. His story does beg the question of how his story would have differed had it been a woman traveling there for work, but it’s fascinating to see North Korea through an outsider’s eyes.

Visit Guy Delisle’s website here. (En français!)

Follow him on Twitter here.

fiction · mystery

Murder on the Orient Express- Agatha Christie

Okay, gang. Gather close for another round of Book Blogger Confessions.

This? This was my first Agatha Christie novel.

I get it. She’s super popular and people love her books like they love their children. I’ve heard librarians talk about how Christie’s books circulate as much or more than any other modern popular author and how they have to replace her books frequently due to constant use. Mysteries are some of the most popular items at almost every library, my own included (I asked at our last book club). And I almost never check them out.

It’s not like I’m opposed to the genre. I don’t mind watching movies with mysteries in them. I’m just BAD at them. And not just bad, like BAD. Really bad. I almost never guess the identity of the killer (and when I do, I’m practically doing a touchdown dance, it’s that rare for me to figure it out). There are too many characters, everyone seems suspicious, and I really overthink things and make them way more complicated than they have to be. I don’t love having to be *that* on guard while I read- don’t get me wrong, I love using my brain when I read, it’s why I enjoy nonfiction so very much- but mysteries? They’re like those logic puzzles…that I’m also bad at.

But Agatha Christie was already on my list this year, as she was an author I’d never read before and I wanted to know what I was missing out on. And it just so happened that the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge included a prompt for a book from a series with more than 20 books. I’m not a big series reader as it is, so I was a little nervous about this, but it just so happened that Agatha Christie fit this prompt with her Hercule Poirot books, and thus Murder on the Orient Express (HarperCollins, 1934) went on my list.

Detective Hercule Poirot is traveling on the Orient Express train when it runs into a snowdrift overnight and is stopped…and so is the heart of one of its passengers, dead after being stabbed multiple times. One by one, Poirot meticulously questions the motley crew aboard, searching for the pipe smoker, the owner of a scarlet dressing gown, and someone with the initial of H. Twists and turns abound, with each interview revealing new pieces of the puzzle to only Poirot, until at last, he’s able to click the final piece in place, revealing the dastardly plot and the name of the killer. All aboard for one serious thrill ride!

First off, and if you’ve read this, you won’t take this the wrong way- the ending is the best part. YES. I absolutely loved how Poirot ended this, though I won’t say more in case there are people other than me who are new to this book. Just a brilliant solution to what could have been messy. True justice right there.

I enjoyed Agatha Christie’s plain writing style. She never veers into much description, which made me happy. I’ve disliked long descriptive passages since I was a kid, when I would sometimes just skip over the flowery description altogether. Her writing is quite to the point, much like Poirot’s questioning, and that makes for a delightful read without much fuss.

I don’t know that this made me love mysteries any more than I did before, however. There are still a lot of characters to sort through, I still overthought every last bit of information Poirot wrangled out of each passenger, and much like the two men who were aiding his questioning, I remained baffled by the identity of the killer to the very end. I’ll never be a world-renowned detective (or a world-renowned…mystery reader…); that fact is very, very obvious by my obliviousness. I mean, at one point, I was like “How did all these people, connected with that, end up on this train???” I never once considered… At times, I’m far too jaded with the world, and at others, I give people way too much benefit of the doubt.

If you’re hiring, never hire me for a job figuring stuff like this out. I’d be terrible at it.

And then there was this passage in the book, which I will file under “Things Published Before World War II That Immediately Did Not Age Well”:

Uh…yikes.

Anyway, this was a fun book and I’m glad I’m better acquainted with Agatha Christie’s style. One more author and one more reading challenge book ticked off my list!

Visit Agatha Christie’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction

My Sister, the Serial Killer- Oyinkan Braithwaite

And back to the PopSugar 2020 Reading Challenge! One of their prompts is for a book you meant to read in 2019, and…really, that could apply to a lot of books, but the one that really stuck out in my mind was My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite (Doubleday Books, 2018). This book made the rounds of the blogs last year and I always wanted to read it, but the only time I came across it in the library, I was already so backed up with books that I knew I’d never get to it if I took it home at that time. So on the shelf it stayed, until my final pre-COVID-19-shutdown trip to the library, where I grabbed it and stashed it in my stack (I still have three books left to read…and like an entire library of books on my own shelves, shhhhhh).

A phone call from Korede’s beautiful younger sister Ayoola more than likely means trouble, and three times now that has proven to be true. Three bodies that Korede has helped move, three clean-ups that she’s now participated in, three dead boyfriends is the number that officially makes her sister a serial killer. But what’s a big sister to do? Protecting her little sister has always been her job…even now, when she doesn’t understand why her sister keeps killing the men she dates.

Korede takes solace in her job as a nurse, unburdening herself to a comatose patient and attempting to begin a romance with her handsome doctor co-worker Tade. Just when it seems like things are beginning to take root, Ayoola shows up at Korede’s work and it only takes one glance from Tade before his gaze is permanently fixed on Ayoola. Korede is not only bitterly hurt, but concerned for Tade’s safety. When her comatose patient awakens with full knowledge of the assistance Korede has given her sister and Tade reveals his plan to propose to Ayoola, things look dire, but there’s more than one inevitable conclusion to this dark story.

My Sister, the Serial Killer was definitely worth the wait. I loved everything about it- the setting (I have a map of the world with little magnetic ‘pins’ hanging on my wall, and I place a pin in the countries where a book I read is set. I was thrilled to be able to place one in Nigeria for this book, which brings me up to 13 different countries so far this year, not counting the US); Korede’s stoic support of her sister, even through her disapproval; Ayoola’s arrogance and narcissism- what a frustrating character!; Tade’s complete buffoonery when it comes to Ayoola; the comatose patient’s reawakening; the very premise itself! Not only is there a female serial killer, she’s young and arrogant enough to assume her sister will always be there to cover up her crimes for her. This is one fascinatingly dark story!

I had some inkling of how the story would end when I spotted the original Nigerian title in the copyright info (you can see it on Goodreads; I won’t post it here in case any of my readers are about to read this book!), and it did ultimately play out in the way I suspected it would, but it was still absolutely worth every second of the read. It’s dark, but not heavy, and it made for a surprisingly fun read, if you can call a book about a serially murdering sister fun. It would make for a fun summer beach read, if you’re lucky enough to be able to read on the beach and not, say, worry your child is going to drown the second she steps off the towel. *laughs nervously*

Have you read and enjoyed this? I’ve heard a few people say it was too dark for them; for me, it was just dark enough, the kind that made me kind of laugh at how terrible Korede’s situation was, like, “GIRL! NO! Don’t help her, just run and change your entire identity!” I’d love to hear your thoughts on this book!

Visit Oyinkan Braithwaite’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.