Monday, July 4, 2022

Books Read in June

 



June was a spectacular reading month. All of these books were good, but Invisible Child, The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois, and Wholehearted Faith were books I absolutely lived in. They were troubling, enlightening, left me trembling sometimes, and always made me think and offered new perspectives. The other three were just good reads.

Invisible Child: Poverty, Survival, and Hope in an American City by Andrea Elliot. Journalist and author Elliot followed Dasani and her family for 8 years, from the time Dasani was 11 years old until she became the first person in her entire family to graduate from high school. Dasani is the oldest of 8 children in a close-knit but poverty-stricken family. From her earliest years, her parents told the kids to always stay together; unfortunately, the broken system doesn’t work that way. Throughout the eight years, they go from shelter to shelter and into and out of foster care, while parents Chanel and Supreme, who battle drug addiction and despair, fight to maintain/regain custody. Dasani is accepted into a boarding school for low-income kids, and she then faces being torn between two worlds. This is such a heartbreaking story. Much like Evicted, it’s a story of inequality, poverty, and racism in America. Highly recommended.
The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers. This is an astonishing novel in its breadth and depth. It's a story across multiple generations of a family that includes enslaved people, free Blacks, white enslavers, all part of Ailey Pearl Garfield's ancestral line. Woven throughout are snippets from W.E.B du Bois's reflections on Black American live in the South, including several from "The Lives of Black Folk." This is not an easy read. It unflinchingly explores class, race, sexual assault, addiction, ancestry, and education in a very big way, and I was mesmerized at every moment. I can hardly believe this is Jeffers' debut novel. Highly recommended.
Wholehearted Faith by Rachel Held Evans and Jeff Chu. I love Rachel Held Evans and every single word she ever wrote. We've been reading through and discussing this is a book club for several months, and at the end, we all wept, knowing that these were her last words before she died tragically in 2019. I finished this book feeling hopeful, seen, and reassured. Here's a great review at the Washington Post.
The Midnight Library by Matt Haig. I'm late coming to this one; it seems to have been on everyone's list last year. I love this kind of story—a bit “It’s a Wonderful Life” and a bit “The Road Not Taken.” The question is one we all ask ourselves at some point: what if I’d made a different decision, even a small one? How would my life had changed? Great for book club discussion.
Mary Jane by Jessica Blau. I love a good coming-of-age story, and I could really relate to the 14-year-old girl in this one. It’s 1975, and Mary Jane’s summer job is as a nanny to a little girl whose parents are much different than her own conservative, country-club ones. Joining them for the summer are a famous rock star, who is being treated for addiction, and his wife, a movie star. Needless to say, it’s an eye-opening summer for Mary Jane. I loved Mary Jane’s discovery that she is a whole person separate from her parents, that there is magic and freedom in finding out how other people see her.
The Younger Wife by Sally Hepworth. A fun, fast read. Hepworth is great for when you need something in-between hefty books.

I love months like this when every book is fantastic! Those first three, though... phew! Those will definitely be on my Top 10 list for 2022.

Saturday, June 4, 2022

Books Read in May



 

Rock Paper Scissors by Alice Feeney. 


This was a fun psychological thriller. Lots of secrets and some fun plot twists with plenty of eye-rolling moments. Not a masterpiece but a good in-between read.

 


The Woman They Could Not Silence by Kate Moore. 


Subtitled "One Woman, Her Incredible Fight for Freedom, and the Men Who Tried to Make Her Disappear," this is the nonfiction story of a mother of six in the mid-1800s whose husband, a Presbyterian minister, decided she had way too many opinions. And so, because he could, he committed her to the asylum. After all, she had the audacity to challenge his religious and political beliefs; thus, she was clearly insane. The author uses the letters and journals of Elizabeth Packard in telling her incredible story of fighting not only for her freedom, but for justice for women incarcerated by their husbands across the U.S. This was an amazing story, both frustrating and inspiring, and the short afterword reminds us that “difficult” women continue to be silenced.  Highly recommended!

 

 

 

The Reading List by Sara Nisha Adams. 


This will definitely be a contender for my favorite book of the year. A series of people in a community find a list: “In case you need this” with a series of book titles. The titles draw them to the library, where they all interact at some point, and as they read, they find healing and connection. I laughed, I cried, I wanted to curate my own reading list and stuff it in mailboxes, slide it into library books, and pin in on bulletin boards. 

 

What would be on my reading list? What would be on yours? Great fodder for a book club discussion!







Friday, May 6, 2022

Books Read in March and April

 March Reads



Beach Read by Emily Henry: I think this might be classified as a romance novel and I don’t even care! I loved it. It was so sappy and sweet and sad and happy, and it was exactly what I needed. ON top of that, I have to say the writing was excellent. The characters will wonderfully rich, and the dialogue was amazing. I’m not sure why I don’t read this genre ALL THE TIME because it just made me happy and hopeful.


The Family Next Door by Sally Hepworth: Loved this family drama about a neighborhood where everything looks perfect but most certainly is not. Each family has its secrets and suspicions, and things intensify when Isabelle, a single woman, moves into this neighborhood of families. 


This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger: This is a familiar story in the mode of The Odyssey and Huck Finn: a boy and his friends, all outcasts, journey down the river in a canoe. It’s the Great Depression, and they are all orphans on the run from an abusive orphanage for Native American children. (I did find it problematic that the hero of the story has to be one of only two white children in the orphanage, but anyway.) The first half of the novel was engaging and well told; however, the second half leaned more and more toward too many coincidences, narrow escapes, and, well, too much going on. I think the author was trying to fit everything in and wrap everything up perfectly, and it just got out of hand. So, it was a pretty good read but nowhere near the caliber of Krueger’s Ordinary Grace, which was one of my favorites.


The Last Thing He Told Me by Laura Dave. Hannah doesn’t even know Owen is missing yet when she gets a note scribbled on notebook paper that says simply “Protect her.” The obvious “her” is Bailey, Owen’s 16-year-old daughter. When a US Marshal and then the FBI show up looking for Owen, Hannah and Bailey realize they have to find out for themselves why Owen has disappeared. The novel swings back and forth from “before” times to the present, as Hannah and Bailey uncover Owen’s real past and figure out how they can best survive the future. This mystery was fast paced with plot twists revealed at just the right moments. I definitely recommend it.


Black Girls Must Die Exhausted by Jayne Allen. Tabitha, a TV journalist in her early 30s,  discovers that her biological clock is about to run out. If she wants babies, she’d better figure out how to have them fast. She’s suddenly overwhelmed with her future. She’s a Black woman who is up for a major promotion, in a white male-centered business; she’s trying to navigate fertility options as a single woman; she has strong, supportive friends who are also dealing with major life issues; she’s in a confusing relationship with Marc; and she’s trying to figure out who she is and where she comes from.  A lot happened in this book, but also sometimes, there was just a lot of repetition. The dialogue was fantastic, but sometimes there was just too much of it. Like, it didn’t move the plot forward; it was just regular dialogue like “Do you like cream in your coffee?” I liked the characters OK.  I’d read the next one in this series just to see how things turn out, but I’m not dying to read it.


Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. I was totally not expecting to enjoy this, especially when I read something that compared it to both Willy Wonka and The Matrix. Willy Wonka I adore; The Matrix I do not. But this was a book club book, and I always read our book club books!  I was shocked how much I loved this from the very first page. I mean, I was somehow immediately sucked in, and I wanted to read it every spare moment I had. The story takes place in 2044, mostly in OASIS, a virtual utopia. There’s a contest that’s been going on for 5 years. The creator of OASIS made a quest out of his inheritance. The gamer who finds the treasure wins his billions of dollars. I know basically nothing about gaming, and I think people who are true gamers hate this book. But I loved the author’s explanations, the quest itself, the revealing of the characters toward the end, and the 80s pop culture references. It was a fun twist on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and I would probably like The Matrix if I could have understood it as well as I did this.



APRIL READS





Beautiful World, Where Are You?  by Sally Rooney. Why do people love this so much? I found it extraordinarily tedious. All the characters were annoying. Simon was the only one I liked, but even he was annoying. Except for one, they were all exceedingly self-focused, whiney, pretentious, and bratty. The one who wasn’t completely self-centered and whiney (Simon) was almost likable, but he he suffered from too much inaction. I wanted to tell all of them to stop thinking about themselves so much and go out and actually DO something. Very unpleasant people. (And speaking of pretentious, I found Rooney’s stylistic choice to not use quotation marks in her dialogue terribly pretentious.) I couldn’t wait to finish this novel, but I was invested enough that I did finish it. II think mostly I kept thinking that surely it must get better! As one reviewer said, “when i was diagnosed with covid i thought that being isolated to my bedroom for two weeks was the most boring thing in the world - Sally Rooney has now proven me wrong.” I think that sums it up.


Not a Happy Family by Shari Lapena. A fast-paced but predictable thriller.


When Ghosts Come Home by Wiley Cash.  Really liked this story about a small town coastal sheriff, a mysterious plane crash, a dead man, and the sheriff's daughter. Wiley Cash is one of my favorite contemporary Southern authors; his writing is lyrical and lovely to read. Highly recommended; it's sad but also hopeful.


The People You Meet on Vacation by Emily Henry: Very cute. It’s just a happy book with snappy dialogue and lots of funny, sweet moments. Definitely another vacation read by the author of Beach Read!


The Mother-in-Law by Sally Hepworth. Another engaging mystery by Hepworth. I really like her writing and her explorations. Interesting and well developed characters.

Friday, March 4, 2022

Books Read in February



A Town called Solace by Mary Lawson: Absolutely wonderful novel! I devoured this in a day. I want to live in this town of Solace, where everyone watches out for each other, where healing takes place.  A lovely, uplifting book but with so much realism. Pain of loss, joy of redemption — this one is beautifully told. Highlight recommended.  


The Good Sister by Sally Hepworth. I adored this story of twin sisters, told from each of their perspectives in alternating chapters. Their childhood, told in bits and pieces through Rose’s journal, was traumatic, and a single event haunts them both.  Rose seems to feel the weight of responsibility for Fern, who has a sensory processing disorder and lives a perfectly satisfying life as a librarian. Meanwhile, Rose’s life is falling apart —she desperately wants a baby but has fertility issues, and also she and her husband are separated. Fern gets a great idea: she’ll get pregnant and give the baby to Rose. And the story takes off from there. Highly recommended.


The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell. Oh man, was this psychological thriller ever good! I just wanted to sit on the couch and read it all day. Libby inherits a mansion on her 25th birthday, bequeathed to her by her deceased biological parents. Thousands of miles away, Lucy’s phone reminds her that it’s “the baby’s birthday.” Chapter by chapter, Libby uncovers the story behind the mansion and the people who lived there.


Dragonfly by Leila Meacham: I overloaded on WWII fiction a few years ago (some of it badly written) and haven’t read much since, but this was a book club pick and so I had to. No regrets! This was a totally engaging, well-written story of five civilian Americans, all in their early 20s, who were recruited as spies and sent to German-occupied Paris. I loved each of their stories, and their characters were beautifully crafted. I had a hard time putting this one down.



In My Dreams I Hold a Knife by Ashley Winstead. Another thriller, and a mesmerizing one at that, but in the end of gave it 3 out of 5 stars because too much happened. This is the story of a group of college friends who return for their 10-year reunion. Jessica vows to wow them all — and this part really bugged me. She was well liked in her group yet she was determined that she’d show them all how successful she’s become. That just didn’t fit with the rest of it. Anyway, one of their group was murdered during their senior year, and the murderer was never found. So, of course, the reunion serves as a device for hearing all their stories and revealing the murderer. There were just so many holes in this, but also too much going on. Some good scenes, some bad scenes. Meh.


The Perfect Marriage by Jeneva Rose: Gah. This thriller started well but it just got ridiculous. The dialogue was terrible, the plot predictable, and the characters wooden and annoying. Skip it. 

Sunday, September 12, 2021

Books Read in August

 


Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane

The story: The Gleesons and the Stanhopes are neighbors in the suburbs; both fathers are NYC cops. But the Gleesons have a full and boisterous house, while the Stanhope's home is quiet and full of tension. Something is wrong with Anne Stanhope. Everyone sees it, but her son Peter bears the bulk of his mother's strange behavior. Brian Stanhope, Peter's father, just ignores it. Peter and Kate Gleeson, the girl next door, are best friends from babyhood. As they grow into teenagers, Anne Stanhope focuses her hatred on Kate and ultimately Kate's family. An event forces the Stanhopes to move, and Kate and Peter mourn the loss of their friendship and blossoming love for years... until they meet again.

My reaction: This book was completely different than I expected, and my expectations were based entirely on the cover and the title. I thought it was going to be a fluffy beach read. SO NOT. Both the title and the cover do not match the content at all. This was an emotionally heavy book, brilliantly and beautiful written. It's full of compassion, tragedy, loss, celebration, redemption, and joy. The characters feel like people I know, so richly drawn, with love and tenderness, flaws and all. This felt like a sweeping family epic, extremely satisfying and bittersweet. Highly recommended.




Untamed by Glennon Doyle

The story: This is Doyle's memoir of how she chose happiness over obligation -- how she made the choices (divorcing her husband) that would ultimately allow her to have true love with Abby Wambach.  It's also a series of lectures on various topics, from parenting to marriage to technology to racism and religion. There's a lot here.

My reaction: I loved a lot of what Glennon had to say. While she doesn't have earth-shattering insights, she does express some things quite well. For example, "Brave is not asking the crowd was is brave. Brave is deciding for oneself." And "Now when I sense danger, I believe the cold and leave. When I sense joy, I believe the warm and stay." Not new, but nicely said. However, so much of this book seemed pretentious, sometimes self-righteous, and often way too idealistic. She seems to have everything figured out, especially parenting. I just kinda want to give her a pat on the back and say, "Just wait, honey." Yes, I know that is condescending, but parenting is hard, and she makes it sound like she knows exactly what makes each of her kids tick. As the late and much beloved Nanci Griffith sang, "No one ever really knows the heart of anyone else." I think what I disliked most about this book is the long monologues when she appears to be remembering directing conversations from years past, when she gave advice to people. As a fellow creative nonfiction writer, I understand that we have to construct some dialogue; however, this went on and on for pages as if she actually really said all this. It felt inauthentic at times. I skipped over a lot, but I did enjoy this for the most part. Doyle is strong and brave, and I think she is enjoying a degree of selfishness now that she will relinquish in years to come. 


St. Christopher on Pluto by Nancy McKinley

The story: MK and Colleen are two women who went to Catholic school together as kids and then reconnect in their 40s. Colleen is brash and bossy, while MK just does whatever Colleen wants. The book is a collection of related stories, some with characters distantly related to MK or Colleen, some in the past and some in the present. Each story can stand on its own, but the place is the same: a dying industrial town in Pennsylvania.

My reaction: There was a lot about this collection I loved. I loved the melancholy and memory intertwined with hope. I loved the way the author immersed us in the sad, dying town — one that surely we all recognize, whether we've driven through it or watched this happen to our own small hometowns. A few of the stories just absolutely stunned me in their beauty and compassion. What I did not love about the book is that the stories were strangely and confusingly connected. I wanted them to lead into each other more gracefully or perhaps be told chronologically. Ii couldn't see the purpose to them being so out of order. I found some of the characters hard to remember from story to story, yet it seemed essential that I remember their background information. If I had been reading an actual hard copy book, I would have paged back to find a character's first reference; however, I find that too arduous to do on a Kindle. Device problems, sure, but that's my reality. I also did not really get a grasp on MK, the narrator of many of the stories. I wanted to know her story more. What happened in the years between age 12 and midlife? There seemed to be another few stories that needed to be told: her daughter, her marriage. I just wanted more. But I did enjoy this modern-day Winesburg, Ohio. Definitely worth a read.



In Five Years by Rebecca Serle

The story: Everything is happening exactly as Dannie has planned. She's with the perfect man, she gets the promotion she's worked for her whole life, and the perfect man proposes in exactly the right way. And the she has a dream that seems way too real; the details are perfectly clear. It's five years in the future, and the man she's with is not her fiancé. She puts the dream out of her mind and continues on with her perfect life. She's too busy to plan a wedding, though. And then one day, five years later, she meets the man who was in her dream; he's her best friend's new boyfriend. And nothing turns out like she thought it would.

My reaction: I loved this book. I thought it was going to be a lighthearted, fluffy read, but it was not. I usually balk at this kind of premise-- the "I saw my future in a dream" sequence  -- but this worked for me. I'm not saying it was a technique that had to be used to tell the story, and if I think about it too much, it seems contrived and hokey. Maybe I should say: the story worked in spite of Dannie's vision/dream. Anyway, this is a sweet and sad book, and I loved it. 


Books Read in June

 Passing by Nella Larsen

The story: While on vacation in Chicago, Irene runs into Clare, a friend from childhood. It takes a while for Irene, a light-skinned Black woman, to realize this is Clare, because Clare is passing as a white woman. Irene is extremely uncomfortable with Clare's secret -- especially when she meets Clare's racist husband. He thinks Irene is white, too. Clare's been happy the past couple of decades, but reconnecting with Irene stirs up a yearning in her to be part of the Black community. When Clare starts coming to Harlem and inserting herself in Irene's life, things get very rocky all around.

My reaction: I listened to this book on Spotify, and it was absolutely amazing. It was first published in 1929 and is just as relevant today as it was nearly 100 years ago. The characters are rich and complex, Larsen's prose is lovely, and the subject itself is fascinating to me. I was curious to see if a movie had ever been made based on the novel, and behold! This was actually a 2021 Sundance Film, and Netflix recently purchased it! This is a short novel and well worth the read. Highly recommended.


We Begin at the End by Chris Whitaker

The story: Thirteen-year-old Duchess is a self-proclaimed outlaw and the fierce protector of her little brother, Robin. She cleans up after her mother, Star, and makes sure Star doesn't overdose or choke on her own vomit. Star's life has not been easy. Her little sister died in a terrible accident when she was a child, and Star's high school boyfriend, Vincent, has been in prison for her murder since he was a teenager. Star is barely holding things together; Walk, the sheriff and Vincent's best friend, tries to keep both her and the kids alive. 

My reaction: I loved the book. It's devastating and hopeful. The characters are so well drawn that I could read this as if I were watching a movie, and I would love to see a sequel to this with a grown-up Duchess. Highly recommended.


The Sanatorium by Sarah Pearse

The story: High up in the Swiss Alps, a luxury hotel opens its doors to its first guests. The hotel was once a sanatorium, and it's filled with relics of the past — intentionally decorated with medical paraphernalia, treatment devices, and more. Elin and her boyfriend are among the hotel's first guests; her brother, Isaac, and his fianceé, both part of the staff, are throwing an engagement party. Elin is a detective, recently put on leave after an accident which left her with PTSD. Oh, and Elin and Isaac lost their brother when they were small children, and Elin thinks Isaac killed him. Oh, and there is a huge snowstorm, and bodies start showing up. And no one can get out because snow. And more bodies and more snow...

My reaction: What just happened? What? This book had tremendous potential. I was so ready to get swept up in a hotel worthy of The Shining. But nope. This book was its own blizzard, swirling and blurry and buried in confusion. Too much happened, the characters were flat, the plot was riddled with holes, and the ending was utterly deflating. 


The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalilia Harris 

The story: Nella is an editorial assistant in her mid-20s in a prestigious publishing company, and she is the only Black employee at her particular level. She is initially thrilled when another Black assistant is hired. Hazel is friendly and so likable... until she is too likable. She immediately charms all the higher-ups, and Nella feels threatened and undervalued. All the changes she'd been trying to make, all the workplace diversity she's encouraged -- Hazel comes in and seems to instantly sway the editors, all while seeming to bow to them. Who IS Hazel? 

My reaction: This book is marketed as The Devil Wears Prada mixed with Get Out. OK. I can see that somewhat. I really appreciated look at what it might be like to be the only Black woman in a totally white office. The descriptions of micro-aggressions and code-switching were fantastic. I liked Nella a lot, but I also got super irritated with her. I wanted her to stand up to Hazel. I wanted her to stand up for herself more, to call Hazel out, to tell people what was going on. I wanted Kendra to save her. I didn't always understand everything that was going on with OBGs and the resistance. The could have been my own fault as a distracted reader, or it could have been the author's failure to provide clarity. I didn't love this book but I am glad I read it.




Saturday, June 12, 2021

Books Read in May



The Book of Lost Names by Kristen Harmel

The story: Eva Traube and her mother escaped from Paris in 1942 to a small village in France. They have two goals as Polish Jews: to survive and to find Eva's father, who was taken by Nazis. But Eva is unwillingly, at first, pulled into the Resistance because of her excellent forgery skills. She spend the next several years hiding in plain sight, forging thousands of documents for Jewish people fleeing for their lives. She's especially disturbed by the children, who have to take on new names. How will they remember who they really are when the war is over? She and another forger, Remy, come up with a code and record their names in a book. Sixty years later, this book resurfaces and Eva, now an elderly librarian living in NYC, heads back to Paris to claim it. As she does so, she remembers her years as a resistance worker and her love for Remy.   

My reaction: The story itself was intriguing and inspiring, but the writing was stiff and the dialogue was so atrocious I could barely read this at times. I mean, bad. And the characterization: dreadful. Eva's mother was ridiculous. No mother goes from being a daughter's best friend to being a harpy who finds her daughter despicable, even in the midst of war. In fact, in such a traumatic time, one would expect the mother to be even kinder and stronger. The way Harmel chose to portray that whole relationship made no sense. And again — that terribly stilted dialogue just made me want to rip pages. This should have been a fantastic story, but the characters felt flat, rushed, and annoying.      

     The author missed an opportunity here to really focus in on the children themselves and the idea of being erased, as an individual and as a nation. My advice: you might read this to get a further picture of the Resistance, but go into this knowing it has serious problems.



The Awakening by Kate Chopin (audio version)

The story: Edna Pontellier is a young wife and mother in the late 1800s who begins to awaken to her real self in her late 20s. She'd just floated through life until this point, but one summer she begins to really feel things, to see the world and her limited place in it. As she becomes increasingly aware of her own wants and needs, so also sees that her own views on womanhood are unorthodox and unacceptable in polite society. She is trapped in her upper middle-class life, utterly alone and despondent as she realizes that the rest of her life will be the same year after year. 

My reaction: It's probably been 30 years since I last read this novella, considered one of the earliest feminist works. Man, this is one of those novels that should be read each decade in one's life, as it has an utterly different effect on me now than it did in my early 20s. I have so much more understanding of the historical struggle of women now. I think when I read this in my 20s, I was strong and independent and didn't really fully grasp just how utterly stuck women were (and, of course, many women still are today). I loved this audio version, read by Hilary Swank on Spotify. (Classic Audiobooks on Spotify are fantastic, by the way!) Highly recommended.


Me and White Supremacy by Layla F. Saad

Subtitled "Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor," this book is a step-by-step guide to examining the reader's own relationship with racism through historical and cultural contexts. Each short chapter focuses on a specific topic, such as white privilege, color blindness, racist stereotypes, and optical allyship, and prompts the reader to consider how each has shown up in their lives. Each chapter includes definitions, explanations, anecdotes, and examples, as well as a list of reflection questions, such as "What emotional outbursts have you had during racial interactions? Or how have you shut down, walked away, deleted everything and pretended nothing happened and hoped no one would notice?" and "How do you and have you stayed silent when it comes to race and racism?"

My reaction: Randy and I actually took an entire year to work through this 28-day book. We picked it up last year at the recommendation of a friend, and we read it only during longish car trips (almost always on our way to a hike). On a few occasions, one or more of our young adult (20s) children were with us as we read and discussed, which was awesome. Each chapter was incredibly thought-provoking and informative, and the reflection questions were intense. We had a year's worth of fantastic and often uncomfortable discussions. I can't imagine going through this book in just a month. Spreading this out over a year gave us time to really absorb and chew on the text, helping us become even more aware of subtle racism and our own part in it. I highly recommend this book for anyone who is open to doing the hard work of examining their own white supremacy and their relationship with racism and working toward doing better. 


American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

The story: Lydia and her family live in Acapulco. She owns a bookstore, her husband is a journalist, and together they have a son, Luca, who is eight. She has a close-knit extended family, until one afternoon when a local drug cartel comes in and kills them all except Lydia and Luca. Lydia knows that in order to save her son, they have to leave Mexico and the far-reaching fingers of Javier, the cartel's leader. The book chronicles Lydia and Luca's journey to the United States as they join other migrants from Central and South America.

My reaction: I have to say I could not put this novel down, utterly drawn into Lydia's journey and experiences. That said, I am aware that this book comes with a lot of controversy. Cummins is not a migrant (nor is she Mexican American); this is not her experience. Critics maintain that these stories should be told by authentic voices (#ownvoices), that Chicana and Mexicana writers should be getting their works published widely. Instead, they continue to be passed over and marginalized in and by the publishing and reading world. Mexica readers note that Cummins gets so much wrong in this novel. I respect and appreciate those critiques. Because I do not know the Spanish language, I was not aware of the many mistakes in her usage. I can only imagine how painful and offensive this was to Spanish speakers. She also makes, as I understand it, terrible cultural blunders and perpetuates stereotypes. (Those are just a few of the problems.) As a result of reading reviews of this novel, I have garnered a reading list of books to read by Latinx writers. Some of the books I've added are on this list of 17 Great Books to Read Instead of American Dirt and 8 Books by Latin American Authors to Read Instead of American Dirt.



The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles

The story: This is the story, based on true events and with some characters' real names/jobs, of the American Library in Paris during World War II. The main character is Odile, a young librarian, and the cast of characters that she encounters are many (too many): coworkers, subscribers, soldiers, and more. Odile is immature (or maybe just flat), selfish, and impulsive; but the story itself, of how the library stayed open and also delivered books to soldiers and Jewish patrons, is interesting. Interwoven with the historical story is a modern-day(ish) story that takes place in Montana in the 1980s. In this story, young Lily forms a special friendship with Odile, the French recluse living next door. 

My reaction: The true story of the American Library in Paris is fascinating, and I kept reading this book because I wanted to hear Odile's story. But...the writing was just not good, honestly. The plot was interesting and kept me reading, but it was a struggle. The writing was trite, jumpy, heavy in the wrong places and then light in the wrong places. Shallow. The dual stories —one historical, one present day — format just does not work for me in general. Like most people, I almost always love the historical portion but am bored/annoyed with the modern day story. This technique feels contrived and unnecessary. The dialogue was stiff and completely unbelievable, and the story itself was... jumpy. Scenes jumped around, characters were undeveloped, emotions were flat and did nothing to stir my soul. The whole feeling was being rushed and trying to get in as much as possible. Characters jumped from place to place, and I often had to look back to see if I'd missed something. This felt almost the opposite of the writer's mantra to "show, don't tell." Way too much telling, and the showing part —the dialogue and action —was unsatisfying. I found myself cringing, saying, "Huh?" and rolling my eyes way too much. So... I give this a 2.5/5 rating for the historical significance and because I guess I cared enough about Odile that I wanted to know why she ended up in Montana with a husband named... wait for it... Buck. Because what rancher wouldn't be named Buck?



The Push by Ashley Audrain

The story: Blythe and Fox are blissfully happy, and Fox is ready to start a family. Blythe's childhood was rough—she was neglected, abused, and abandoned— and she's convinced she'll be a terrible mother. When their daughter is born. Blythe just cannot connect with her. She feels none of the warm fuzzies that motherhood is supposed to bring, and she's convinced there is something off about their daughter. She scream when Blythe holds her and she bites kids at daycare, but she's an angel for Fox. And then Sam is born, and Blythe falls madly in love with her son, understanding, finally, the magic of motherhood. But Violet decides she doesn't like Sam, and Blythe's world explodes. 

My reaction: I loved this book. It's a psychological thriller at one level, but it's also an exploration of motherhood, parenting, and marriage. Can a kid really be a bad seed? Is there a "bad mom" gene? How can you trust your instincts if everyone tells you you're wrong? This was definitely not a feel-good read; in fact, it was disturbing, disquieting, and sad. But it was so well written and positively gripping in the way the story is revealed. Blythe was such a vulnerable, richly drawn character; readers can't help but root for her, even as we question her. Warning: this novel deals with difficult topics of abuse and death of a child, so be ready for some heavy emotions. If you can handle that, then I highly recommend this! I couldn't put this one down.




Good Neighbors by Sarah Langan

The story: Maple Street is the perfect place to live, if you're the right kind of person. The Wildes are not the right kind of people, and the perfect people of Maple Street let them know it. Arlo is a former addict and rock star, Gertie shows way too much cleavage, and nine-year-old Larry is just weird. Julia, age 12, fits in for a while, until Shelly, daughter of the queen bee Rhea, turns on her. Right about that time, a sinkhole forms in the neighborhood, and everyone starts to go crazy. Accusations fly, and then someone gets sucked into the sinkhole. Who is to blame? Rhea points her finger at the Wildes, and a witch hunt ensues. In the midst of the witch hunt, secrets come to light and Rhea falls apart. 

My reaction: I have a love/hate relationship with this particular theme: the hierarchy of suburbia, the idea of moving up the social ladder by means of moving into a "good" neighborhood.  I find it fascinating but also so disturbing and so sad. Obviously, this was a main exploration in this novel. What do the Wildes have to do to be accepted into the Maple Street crowd? Why does one person get all the power? How can you fight against a system that's already made up its mind? This is a dark, complex, and disturbing book. I finished it with no clear sense of a recommendation. Did I like it? Not really... and yes. The writing was excellent, and the story itself was completely engaging. But it's so unnerving, so depressing. Why are people so terrible? So easily swayed, so weak, so thoughtless and desperate? This is an excellent illustration of mob mentality, group think, gossip, and social mobility, but it's just so dark, and, well, as murky as that sinkhole. Reminds me a bit of The Stepford Wives, with a dose of Stephen King and Shirley Jackson. If that's your thing, read it!


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