fiction · science fiction

Book Review: Replay by Ken Grimwood

Last year, via an email conversation, Nick Clausen, author of They Come At Night, suggested that I read Replay by Ken Grimwood (William Morrow Paperbacks, 1998), after learning that I liked books about time travel. (I’m not much into sci-fi stuff- no space-opera-type novels for me, thanks- but falling back in time? NEAT!). I immediately slapped that book on my TBR after noting happily that my library owned a copy of it…and then it sat there. Because sometimes TBRs are where books go to die. Not usually mine- I work hard on keeping mine to a manageable number during non-pandemic times when the libraries are open- but sometimes you just don’t get to things in a timely manner. But Sunday morning was when I downloaded a library ebook of Replay to my kindle…and Sunday evening was when I finished it.

Yeah. It’s that good.

Jeff Winston, 43, is dying. His chest is exploding with pain- obviously something with his heart- and everything fades to black. Except when he wakes up- wakes up???- he’s 18 again and in college. A young body, a young life, everything in front of him. He can live his life over, make different and better choices, do things right this time. Except he dies again, at 43, and wakes up- again!- to find himself still in college.

Caught in an endless loop of repeating his life, Jeff takes multiple paths and explores options he never had the first time around, living lives funded by the invested money he earns by placing bets on remembered outcomes for various sports matches. It’s a long, lonely existence, always questioning why and never receiving any answers, when he finally, finally meets another replayer…but the answers don’t come easily there, either. But maybe it’s not about finding answers…maybe it’s about what you learn from living through it. And there have been so many experiences for Jeff to live through…

Man. This is a novel. Ken Grimwood’s writing flows like water, and he’s never, ever overly descriptive, spending only the exact time needed in each scene and using precisely the right amount of words to describe what he needs to in order to place the reader directly in the scene alongside Jeff Winston, and not a single word more. Far from feeling bare, this makes for a fast-paced page turner. I have no idea how anyone could possible linger for days with this book; I HAD to keep tearing through it in order to know what happened next. What would Jeff’s next replay look like? Who would he be? Who would he find? What did it all mean???

Pace isn’t something I normally notice in books, but Replay hits the mark in that category. As Jeff experiences many periods of the ages 18 to 43 in this book, Mr. Grimwood had to be brief, but he does so in the most informative way, capturing emotion and zeitgeist without ever leaving the reader feeling as though they’ve missed out. Would I have liked to know Jeff’s exact day-to-day details? Of course, but that’s only because this kind of stuff fascinates me. Each replay is written to perfection- it’s Groundhog Day over a longer period of time, and it’s delicious.

I was a little nervous going into this, to be honest. I don’t read a lot of novels by men, solely because I’m not interested in reading the kind of violence or Holden Caulfield-style navel-gazing that pops up in so many of them (to say nothing of the “She breasted boobily down the hall” style writing that seems to pop up far too often among male writers). I was hooked within the first few pages, though, and I couldn’t get enough.

There are a lot of deeper themes here- loneliness, isolation, self-examination (the good kind!), dealing with loss, but the book can absolutely be read as a guy’s adventures repeating his life, and either way is good. If you’ve read any of Ken Grimwood’s other books, I’d love to hear about them and if you enjoyed them. Replay was amazing. Major thanks to Nick Clausen for the recommendation; this made for an amazing Sunday!

Ken Grimwood passed away in 2003. You can read his wikipedia page here.

fiction · romance

Book Review: 40-Love (There’s Something About Marysburg #2) by Olivia Dade

When Olivia Dade is handing out copies of her new book on Twitter, you accept immediately, AMIRITE???

For real. I was lucky enough to be on Twitter at night a week or two ago when she was offering up copies of 40-Love (Hussies and Harpies Press, 2020), and I clicked that link SO hard. I’ve never read her before but I’ve enjoyed her on Twitter, and hey, free book (and free publicity for her! Win-win). I filled out the form and the book was in my email inbox that morning. Ah, life as a book blogger!

(I mean, the cat probably barfed on the floor that same morning, and I’m SURE my daughter fought me tooth and nail over doing her schoolwork, but let’s just pretend for a moment that the book blogging life is nothing but glitz and glamor, okay?)

Tess Dunn is smack in the middle of a relaxing beach vacation when the wardrobe malfunction of the century threatens to erase her years of hard work (seriously. ‘Public indecency’ is not a good charge to have on your police record when you’re gunning for that job as principal). By chance, the only nearby adult- uh, mostly an adult?- is the resort’s tennis instructor, Lucas Karlsson. The two don’t exactly get off on the right foot, but after Olivia’s best friend and vacation buddy signs her up for some of Lucas’s lessons, sparks are flying alongside those tennis balls on the court.

Sure, Lucas is younger than Tess by about thirteen years, but he knows what- more like WHO- he wants- at least in that aspect of his life. Career-wise, he’s been biding his time at the resort since injuries forced him off the professional circuit. But Tess has helped him to clarify a few things in her short time on the island. Though, as we know, vacation isn’t real life, and the two of them will have some heavy decisions to make if they’re going to make this work.

Such a cute, fun story. I opened my copy on my kindle, read the first line- “Jesus, this stupid bikini was killing her”- burst out laughing, and knew this was my pick for the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge prompt for a book with a great first line. (Ladies, we’ve all owned some version of that swimsuit, haven’t we? UGH). Tess is a strong heroine who knows what she wants and doesn’t really hesitate to go for it. She’s confident in her abilities and her body, and she’s got a fun, funny personality.

Lucas is a thoughtful hero caught in a holding pattern, wearing the outward appearance of a bro that masks his sweet charm. He’s deeper than he looks, and probably deeper than most young men his age, possibly due to his experiences with so many injuries and so much pain throughout his tennis career. The loss of that career has caused him to doubt himself and his abilities, but he never wavers in his affection for Tess and takes every chance to express it.

What I adored most of all, though, was the setting. I don’t know if it’s the fact that we’ve all been stuck at home, or that the weather has still been a little cool here, especially when I was reading this (but now, not so much!), but a steamy, palm-tree filled island off the Florida coast? Talk about a dream vacation right now- although, to be fair, anywhere that’s not one of the rooms in my house or the residential areas within several miles of my house on my walking route sounds like a dream vacation. But really, Olivia Dade created a perfect resort with amazing weather, awesome amenities, delicious-sounding restaurants, and gorgeous beaches (including a nude beach!) that had me mentally digging my toes into the sand and relaxing in the warm waves. Ahhhhhhhhh.

The tennis stuff, I didn’t love, but that’s merely a personal thing. I’m not huge on sports in books (although hockey’s a minor exception), and I’ve never really had any interest in tennis at all, so I wasn’t personally drawn to that. It’s absolutely not overdone, though; Ms. Dade covers it just enough so that the non-sportsing reading will be able to understand, if not relate to, Lucas and his background. This is still an enjoyable read even if you can’t tell the difference between a tennis ball and a bowling ball.

If you’re looking for a fun summer romance and just want to take a mental beach vacation, 40-Love is a great choice. Don’t forget the sunscreen, and, uh, maybe secure that bikini top a little more, just to be sure, okay?

Thanks to Olivia Dade for a copy of this book!

Visit Olivia Dade’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction

Book review: American Royals by Katharine McGee

This is the best part of reading challenges right here, finding new-to-me authors and new books that I love, especially ones that I might not have looked twice at if I hadn’t been prompted to pick them up. The only reason I even knew of American Royals by Katharine McGee (Random House Books for Young Readers, 2019) was because it appeared as a suggestion for the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge‘s prompt of a fiction or nonfiction book about a world leader. While I’ve enjoyed a few books about characters learning they’re actually royalty, I don’t know that I would have picked this up based on the title or the cover, but upon reading the synopsis, I was definitely intrigued.

Imagine that instead of becoming President, George Washington instead chose to serve as America’s first king. And instead of the American populace electing a (potentially new) leader every four years, the throne passed from father to son, until the law changed in order for the throne to allow women to reign as queen.

The Washingtons, America’s royal family, are the fascination of the country, especially since daughter Beatrice is set to succeed her father, the first future queen after a long line of kings. She’s prepared her entire life for ascending the throne, but despite her privilege, her lack of options in life are beginning to feel restrictive. Her younger sister Sam, known for being the wild child to Beatrice’s more uptight personality, has spent her childhood doing all the things Beatrice can’t; far from feeling free, she chafes at being the spare (being, of course, four minutes older than her twin brother Jeff).

When Beatrice’s parents reveal that she needs to pick out a husband, a series of events are set in motion that will pit sister against sister, reveal tragic secrets, and lead both sisters to fall deeply in love. But for royalty, the crown must come first above all other things, and difficult choices will need to be made by all.

I. LOVED. THIS. BOOK.

Ms. McGee tells the story of young adult royals in a multiple third person narrative that will have you turning the pages so quickly you develop a nasty case of tendinitis in your right hand and wrist (okay, maybe I can’t fully blame her for this, ow, but it didn’t help! Still worth it, though). Her characters are all so very well-rounded that they practically leap off the page and seem like real people you could actually Google. Over and over again, I wondered if maybe having a monarchy would have been the right choice; if it had led the country to a family like the Washingtons, it just might have been.

Beatrice is cool and regal on the surface; on the inside, she’s torn between her duty and responsibility to her country and her growing love for her guard, Connor. Sam is jealous of her older sister, but never so much as now, when Beatrice seems to be getting everything Sam always wanted. Nina, Sam’s best friend, is in love with Jeff, but can she ever fit in to palace life? And Daphne, Jeff’s scheming socialite ex, is always skulking on the edges, desperate to claw her way back into Jeff’s life and into a position as his future princess.

Ms. McGee has created deep, complex emotions behind these royal characters, but she writes them in a way that feels natural and never forced. It’s an amazing, fictional deep dive into about the most entertaining ‘what if???’ scenario I’ve ever read. It ends on a serious note, and I am HERE for the sequel, Majesty, which is due out in September 2020. I’ve already added it to my TBR, and for someone that’s not much into series, that alone should tell you how much I enjoyed this book. Racing the through palace halls, sitting down for a chat in the study, digging through the vault of Crown Jewels, waltzing at a ball, the settings for every chapter are fabulous and Ms. McGee puts you right there in the DC palace that you’ll wish were real from the first page.

While American Royals is classified as YA, I feel that it reads the same as adult fiction. The characters who narrate it are all in their very late teens or early twenties, but the style reads as easily as any adult contemporary fiction. If you’re not usually interested in young adult novels, don’t let that stop you here; this is a compelling story that deals with heavy emotional themes and makes for an enjoyable read for any age.

If you’ve read this, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Was this a scenario you’d considered before? What led you to pick this book up? Are you interested in the sequel? If you’re American, do you think we’d be better off if Washington had made the decision to be king?

Visit Katharine McGee’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction

Book review: Get a Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert

On rare occasions, books from my TBR match up with books from my reading challenges, and then we celebrate!!! The 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge prompt of a book with at least a four-star rating on Goodreads wasn’t hard to fill, but I used this category as an excuse to read Get a Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert (Avon, 2019). I adore Ms. Hibbert on Twitter, so I added this book to my list before it came out- meaning, this was a TBR book I actually got to before it had lingered on the list until it was old enough to drive! (Speaking of which, I need to go in and clean up my list again. Haven’t done that in a year or so, so it’s definitely time, just to make sure I still really want to read everything that’s on it.)

Chloe Brown needs a life. Ever since her diagnosis of fibromyalgia years ago, Chloe’s let her life dwindle down to work, her sisters and family, managing her pain, and little else. First on the list, move to her own place: check, and unfortunately, it’s one with a majorly hot super, one Red Morgan, whom Chloe was not prepared for and for whom she can’t control her attraction. But maybe, just maybe, he can help her complete at least some of the tasks on her list…

Red Morgan was expecting Chloe Brown to be more of a snob, but he’s actually starting to enjoy her surprisingly witty personality right along with her gorgeous face. He’s out here working as a super to get his life back in order after his last relationship tanked badly and left him scrambling for a sense of self. Red and Chloe are two very different people from different sides of the tracks, but they’ve got enough in common to make a go of it, and enough sparks to start a five-alarm fire. If only they can get past themselves and the ghosts of their pasts…

I had a hard time getting into this one, something I fully blame on the state of my brain at the time I was reading this, because the book itself is a delight. Red is just a little bit bad boy (tattoos, motorcycle, comes from a lower class than Chloe, something that is occasionally a point of contention between them but never as much as it was between Red and his last girlfriend), but he’s also got heart and a killer talent as an artist. He’s a study in contradictions and the unexpected, and he’s also just so GOOD. He notices even Chloe’s tiniest grimaces of pain and reacts accordingly (uh, JEALOUS HERE. SUPER, SUPER JEALOUS); he cooks for her, helps her when she needs it (and lets her manage if she can or wants to), he takes care of her. Talia Hibbert has really created a fabulous hero in Red Morgan.

Chloe Brown has retreated from the world, something I could definitely identify with. My back (which is my catch-all term for where my pain is; it starts about mid-spine and goes down, affects my entire pelvis but mainly on the right side, and goes down both legs to my feet but again, mainly on the right) can go from perfectly fine to rendering me almost entirely unable to walk in a matter of hours, which makes it difficult to plan for things- who wants to schedule something you might have to cancel? How can you make long-term career plans if you’re not sure your body will cooperate? The pain is bad enough some days that I have a difficult time focusing; I liken it to trying to watch something on the TV when you also have the radio blasting at full volume. In that aspect, Chloe and her life were familiar to me. When she realizes there’s a problem, that her life has gotten so small as to be ridiculous, she takes charge and creates a list of all the things she would like to do in order to throw herself back into living, something I admire deeply. I had a similar plan this past year to engage with the world more (which is probably why this whole pandemic started! Sorry ’bout that…)- I’ll get back to all of that one day…

It’s a nice change to see chronic pain represented in a romance, although I constantly wondered throughout this book how it would have played if the characters were American instead of British. Insurance would have been a huge stressor for Chloe (and the stress may have exacerbated her condition); she would have worried about how to pay for all her medical appointments and prescriptions and may have worried about her increasing medical debt; it’s possible that Red may have factored in his ability to support her and pay for her medical care into his decision to begin or continue a relationship with her (in the US, people on disability, which often includes being on Medicaid, lose their disability and medical care if they get married, which forces many of them to remain unmarried against their desires). In a country where medical care for a chronic problem means money, money, money, this story may have looked different, and it made me sad to consider this while reading what was, in the right setting, a love story and not a tale of financial stress. Amazing how easily something meant to be fun takes on different dimensions when you change the setting.

Get a Life, Chloe Brown is a sweet love story between two people who, on the surface, don’t seem to fit, but who work together quite well once they get over themselves. The second book in the series, Take a Hint, Dani Brown, comes out on June 23, 2020!

Visit Talia Hibbert’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · historical fiction

Book review: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

You ever start reading a book, then get distracted and put it down and don’t pick it up for another…oh, nine years or so? That was Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See (Random House, 2006) for me. I can’t remember if a friend gave me her copy or if I got it from the library, but I got to the parts about the process of foot binding and needed some time. I put the book down, got distracted by another book, and never returned, but I always wanted to. And with the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge having a prompt for a book set in a country beginning with ‘C’, my return trip to historical China through Lisa See’s eyes was booked.

Set in nineteenth-century China, seven year-old Lily is deemed special enough to be matched with a laotong, a lifelong best friend, after her foot binding. The connection between Lily and Snow Flower is immediate and lasting, though Snow Flower’s more refined behavior and education are obvious next to Lily’s poor country learning. But together, the girls forge not only a deeply emotional relationship, but a mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge: Lily absorbs Snow Flower’s more elegant training, while Snow Flower learns the rougher chores of Lily’s daily life: water-hauling, cooking, cleaning. Lily’s unsure how this is in any way equal- when on earth will the more privileged Snow Flower need to know any of this?- but nevertheless, she basks in her friend’s love, the only person who seems to feel that way about her in a world where girls are viewed as ‘useless branches’ and even wives are looked on as little more than servants and a means to an end in the singular goal of everyone’s life- creating male heirs.

As the girls grow, get married, and leave their parents’ houses for the homes of husbands they don’t even know, Lily learns the hard truth about Snow Flower, what her life has been like all along, and the shame of what her life is like now. What Lily does with this information will affect both of their futures, and the futures and status of their families, a tale of deep love, betrayal, pain, and the true power of friendship.

Lisa See’s writing flows so beautifully that while Snow Flower and the Secret Fan makes for an easy read, there are so many nuanced layers in this novel that it will leave the thoughtful reader with much to consider. The society that Lily and Snow Flower grew up in was so restrictive for women, binding their feet so that an adult woman’s foot was only three or four inches in length, crippling her and forcing her to remain indoors- mostly confined to one single room- for the vast majority of her life. Any kind of interest in the world at large was frowned upon, and women, illiterate in men’s writing, communicated in nu shu, secret women’s writing (dismissed by men as lesser; besides, what could women possibly have to think and thus write about?).

Lily and Snow Flower’s friendship is complex, and Snow Flower is a deeply enigmatic character, something Lily never quite holds a focus on and finds reasons to dismiss until it’s too late to ignore. One of the questions in the reader’s guide at the end of the book asks if Lily is the hero or the villain in the story, and I think she’s neither, she’s just human. We see things through the lenses of our own experiences, we dismiss information and ideals that don’t fit in with what we expect from the world, we react emotionally when deeper consideration is needed. Could Lily have done better, tried harder? Possibly, but maybe not, and even though her mistakes had harsh consequences, I can’t find it in myself to demonize her for her behavior. She did the best with what she had at the time. Not every choice we make, even when it’s the best we can do, works out in the end.

This is a devastating novel of not only the strengths and difficulties of friendship, but of the weight everyone carried in nineteenth-century China. While its focus is on women in particular, the men’s lot- responsibility for the crops, for the family’s standing in society, for earning enough money to feed the multiple generations residing in their home and never showing emotions of any kind- wasn’t much better, something that is made obvious, though not necessarily in an outright manner, in the book. War and rebellion, disease and death, starvation, Lisa See flawlessly incorporates the tragedies of the wider world into the constricted women’s sphere occupied by Lily and Snow Flower, in a devastating emotional punch that will have you reaching for the phone to call your best friend in order to bolster your own connection.

The chapters that deal with the process of foot binding are difficult to read- I won’t sugar coat that; it’s what made me need to put the book down the first time I attempted to read it. Be warned if you get squeamish easily. I had an easier time this time around, probably because I knew what to expect.

Have you read this? I’d love to hear your thoughts. This is one of those books that’s layered like an onion and I have the feeling it’s going to be on my mind for a long, long time.

Visit Lisa See’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

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.

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 S├ínchez 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.

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.