Thursday, February 29, 2024

February Reads

 February reading/listening was mostly mediocre with a couple of standouts.

1) You Could Make This Place Beautiful by Maggie Smith. A gorgeous memoir by the amazing poet. The title comes from the last line of her most well known poem, "Good Bones."

Anyway, this is her memoir of her unexpected, crushing divorce—the before, during, and after—told in snapshots in her lyrical voice. I loved it.
2) What Happened to Ruthie Ramirez? by Claire Jimenez. (audio) Thirteen-year-old Ruthie disappeared without a trace after school one day, and a decade later, her sisters think they see her on a reality TV show. I loved listening to this story of this family’s loss and trauma, told through multiple voices of the Ramirez women: mother Dolores and her three daughters: Jessica, Nina, and Ruthie. This book is raw, sometimes funny, and both heartwarming and heartbreaking. Author Jiménez reads the audio version of this, and she was incredible.
Our Missing Hearts by Celeste Ng was a re-read for me. This time I listened to it, and it was just as good the second time around. If you haven't read it, well, please do! It's a dystopian novel but it sure gets uncomfortably close to reality sometimes.
The Last Green Valley by Mark Sullivan and Westering Women by Sandra Dallas were both good historical fiction. Sullivan tells the amazing true story of a Ukrainian family in World War II who escaped the Soviets. Westering Women traces a group of 40 single women who ventured on the Overland Trail from Chicago to California in the 1850s in search of husbands amongst the gold miners. (*domestic abuse and SA warnings*)
Everything else was a solid 3 out of 5 stars, which is my "pretty good but not really memorable" rating, except for Pineapple Street, which I wasted about 10 hours of my life listening to, and yet I kept listening because I truly believed that *something* would happen. In the end, the entire book was actually just an excruciating look into the lives of the extremely wealthy and privileged.


Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Pineapple Street

Pineapple StreetPineapple Street by Jenny Jackson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

One of the most inane books I’ve ever encountered. I kept waiting for something to happen, wondering if anything was ever going to happen or if the entire book is just an excruciating look into the lives of the extremely wealthy and privileged. I listened to the entire book… and wow. It actually was just an excruciating look into the lives of the extremely wealthy and privileged. It’s an entire novel with zero plot. It’s not even a character-driven novel, as the characters were boring, whiny, and completely unrelatable unless, perhaps, you belong to the world’s wealthiest 1%.

I have this two stars rather than one because Jackson is a good writer. She has great dialogue and description… but this whole pointless novel felt like a chance for her to relate every witty conversation and anecdote she’s ever heard at the country club. If you move in her circles, you might get a kick out the stories, but for the rest of us peasants, it's just silliness.

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Tuesday, February 13, 2024

What Happened to Ruthy Ramirez?

What Happened to Ruthy RamirezWhat Happened to Ruthy Ramirez by Claire Jiménez
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Fantastic debut novel (audio version)—I did not want to do anything except listen to the story of this family’s loss and trauma, told through multiple voices of the Ramirez women: mother Dolores and her three daughters: Jessica, Nina, and Ruthy. Thirteen-year-old Ruthy disappeared without a trace after school one day, and a decade later, her sisters think they see her on a reality TV show. The chapters alternate between the women as they filter through their memories of Ruthy, the losses the family suffered, and their individual stories. This book is raw, sometimes funny, and both heartwarming and heartbreaking. Author Jiménez reads the audio version of this, and she was incredible.

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Saturday, February 10, 2024

The Dead Romantics

The Dead RomanticsThe Dead Romantics by Ashley Poston
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Unapologetically sweet and sappy love story. I didn’t know this was a romance novel when I started (duh—the title might have alerted me), but I don’t regret reading it. I needed something corny, charming, and predictable in a good way.

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Friday, February 9, 2024

When No One Is Watching

When No One Is WatchingWhen No One Is Watching by Alyssa Cole
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This thriller has definite Get Out vibes. Sydney Green’s Brooklyn neighborhood is “revitalizing” at an alarming rate—and Black neighbors are disappearing one by one, their homes’ new "owners" all white. Something’s going on, and Sydney’s determined to figure it out—with her only ally, a new white neighbor, Theo. Can she trust him or his part of the problem? As is common with thrillers, the ending was rushed and the last dramatic scene a little too dramatic, but overall I I enjoyed the audio version of this novel. Definitely thought provoking.

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Monday, February 5, 2024

Westering Women

Westering WomenWestering Women by Sandra Dallas
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’ve been a fan of Sandra Dallas for years. Her historical fiction novels are fairly light, with good character development and facts smoothly woven in with the stories. In this one, a group of 40 single women venture Overland Trail from Chicago to California in the 1850s in search of husbands — and/or new lives— amongst the gold miners. Sounds weird, I know, but I enjoyed this glimpse into a unique westward journey. *domestic abuse and SA warnings* The reader was great on this audio version.

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Sunday, February 4, 2024

The Leftover Woman

The Leftover WomanThe Leftover Woman by Jean Kwok
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I loved Girl in Translation so much — I’ve had high hopes for Kwok’s most recent novel. This one was just OK. It just seemed so far-fetched at times. Too many coincidences, too many things happened, and too many side stories that didn’t contribute to the overall narrative. The story follows two women from different worlds: Jasmine and Rebecca. Jasmine came to the U.S. to find her daughter, who was, unbeknownst to her, forcibly adopted under China’s one-child policy. I would loved to have read more on Jasmine's experience. (How did she find where her daughter was? Did I miss that somewhere?) Rebecca, the adoptive mother, has a golden life for the most part, although she struggles to balance career, marriage, and motherhood. The chapters alternate between the two women’s stories, which, of course, ultimately intersect in a dramatic way. I had a lot of questions upon finishing the novel, a lot of whys and hows and huhs. Jasmine and Rebecca were well-developed characters, and I appreciate Kwok's exploration of their roles as Fiona's very different mothers.

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Wednesday, January 17, 2024

Looking for Jane by Heather Marshall

Looking for JaneLooking for Jane by Heather Marshall
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This novel had a promising start: I was caught up in the stories of three women across fifty years and their struggles with unexpected, unwanted, or desired pregnancies. Marshall did a good job examining various perspectives a hot-button issue and diving into some pretty horrifying history of homes for unwed mothers, but honestly the novel was about 50% longer than it needed to be. It just went on and on and on, weighed down with completely unnecessary descriptions (I do not care about the clutter in so-and-so’s apartment or what a character ate for breakfast) that added nothing to the story’s movement. The plot line was predictable and then the "shocker" was quite a far-fetched scenario.

Also, I listened to this as an audiobook and did not enjoy the reader, so this may have greatly influenced my review of the novel. Toward the last quarter, I almost packed it in just because of the cringy reader and her emotional inflections. Perhaps it would be better if I’d read a print copy.

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Monday, January 15, 2024

North Woods by Daniel Mason

North WoodsNorth Woods by Daniel Mason
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I closed this book with a great sigh of satisfaction and gratefulness, and also a good dose of melancholy. Reading Mason's North Woods and Richard Powers' The Overstory within a few months of each other, plus living by the Smokies and witnessing the ravaging effects of the hemlock woolly adelgid—well, one can't help but feel a great sense of loss while being awestruck by the natural world.

This is an epic tale that covers centuries of lives in one house in the woods of Massachusetts. From lovers escaping a Puritan colony to twin sister spinsters to a naturalist searching for the scene of a painting, Mason draws these lives in exquisite detail, immersing the reader in each character's story. The characters are all connected in some small way and of course in a big way: through the woods, land, living creatures, the house. Home. And a few ghosts here and there. Sure, some stories were more compelling than others; a few I didn't even enjoy much. But the variety of lives, the quirkiness of the chapters, and the gorgeousness of Mason's writing kept me enchanted.

Woven throughout: an apple orchard. I am fully aware that I, part of a family of apple growers/breeders, might love this book so much because of the apple orchard. Toward the end of the book is a quote that I swear comes directly from my father:
He had come to the land back when it was mostly woods, purchased a lot to raise an apple orchard, cultivated a variety he called the Wonder, probably never heard of it, most exquisite thing the world had even tasted. Made Braeburns taste like sheep dung in comparison, and don't get him started on the Red Delicious —My Red Arse would be a better name.

My father is legendary for approaching shoppers in supermarkets who are ogling the Red Delicious and pointing them toward more palatable varieties.

I listened to the first half of North Woods and read the second half. While I thoroughly enjoyed the audio version, I plan to go back and read the first half. There are gorgeous illustrations and important chapter divisions that were lost while listening. This is a dense book—one that requires concentration and time, but it is well worth it.

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Wednesday, January 10, 2024

Serena by Ron Rash


SerenaSerena by Ron Rash
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a haunting book of destruction, violence, and power. Sounds horrible, I know; but I think anyone who lives in/loves East Tennessee or Western NC and loves the Smokies will find this riveting. Fans of a gorgeous rendition of Macbeth will, too. And, well, if you just love a well-crafted story, here you go.

The story centers on George and Serena Pemberton, lord and lady of a lumber empire in the late 1920s. Their only goal is to get rich by cutting down trees (so painful to read!), and no one can stand in their way. They are violently opposed to this harebrained idea of turning the mountains into a national park (who wants to look at trees and waterfalls, they ask?), and they are nearly completely united in being coldblooded and heartless. But the one obstacle they don’t agree upon is George’s illegitimate son, Jacob. The novel is told mostly through the lens of the Pembertons, but Jacob and his mother, Rachel, get several chapters. I often despise books that have utterly contemptible protagonists, but in this case, Rash made me love to hate Serena (AKA Lady Macbeth).

Woven throughout the book are cameos of Horace Kephart, who fought to create the GSMNP; a Greek chorus of timber men; an oracle; and the creation of our beloved Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This isn’t a book that brings any sort of joy, except for the joy of an exquisitely written story. And also… knowing that the Pembertons lost, as I look at the Smokies from my front window right now.

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