Book Reviews, Bookworm Blogging

Evicted [review]

Evicted by Matthew Desmond
Published by Crown on March 1, 2016
my rating: ★★★★★
Goodreads avg:
4.48 (as of 2019-06-23)
Spoiler-free Review

Goodreads | IndieBound | Author’s Website

In this brilliant,heartbreaking book, Matthew Desmond takes us into the poorest neighborhoods of Milwaukee to tell the story of eight families on the edge. Arleen is a single mother trying to raise her two sons on the $20 a month she has left after paying for their rundown apartment. Scott is a gentle nurse consumed by a heroin addiction. Lamar, a man with no legs and a neighborhood full of boys to look after, tries to work his way out of debt. Vanetta participates in a botched stickup after her hours are cut. All are spending almost everything they have on rent, and all have fallen behind.

The fates of these families are in the hands of two landlords: Sherrena Tarver, a former schoolteacher turned inner-city entrepreneur, and Tobin Charney, who runs one of the worst trailer parks in Milwaukee. They loathe some of their tenants and are fond of others, but as Sherrena puts it, “Love don’t pay the bills.” She moves to evict Arleen and her boys a few days before Christmas.

Even in the most desolate areas of American cities, evictions used to be rare. But today, most poor renting families are spending more than half of their income on housing, and eviction has become ordinary, especially for single mothers. In vivid, intimate prose, Desmond provides a ground-level view of one of the most urgent issues facing America today. As we see families forced  into shelters, squalid apartments, or more dangerous neighborhoods, we bear witness to the human cost of America’s vast inequality—and to people’s determination and intelligence in the face of hardship.

Based on years of embedded fieldwork and painstakingly gathered data, this masterful book transforms our understanding of extreme poverty and economic exploitation while providing fresh ideas for solving a devastating, uniquely American problem. Its unforgettable scenes of hope and loss remind us of the centrality of home, without which nothing else is possible.


Y’all know that meme that’s like “Uh, hey guys? Just found out about [bad thing everyone has been aware of for quite some time]. Yikes!” Anyway, that’s how I feel about landlords after reading this book. A lot of the people in my leftist circles have been damning landlords for quite some time now and while I didn’t love the fact that they profit off of the ubiquitous need for shelter, I just didn’t quite get how they were worse than any other staple of capitalism. Now I know.

It was easy to go on about helping “the poor.” Helping a poor person with a name, a face, a history, and many needs, a person whose mistakes and lapses of judgment you have recorded — that was a more trying matter.

Evicted follows two landlords in Milwaukee — Sherrena, who owns many properties in the inner city, and Tobin, who owns a trailer park — as well as several of their tenants. It does so gracefully, interweaving life experiences with research and statistics in a way that makes sense and enhances one’s understanding of the topics at hand. Most notable is the cycle of eviction and how impossible it seems to climb out of. There are so many factors at play but Desmond is able to explain them all without losing the reader.

Part of the reason why this works is the narrative format; with concrete real-life examples it is much easier to become invested in wanting to know how the system functions. Marrying the bare facts with personal histories turns a series of numbers into an infuriating and heart-wrenching reading experience. And believe me, you will be infuriated. The entire time I was reading this book, I found myself discussing it with family and friends. Learning the details of the housing system, I was deeply disturbed. I realized more fully how privileged I’ve been to live the way I’ve lived.

When people have a place to live, they become better parents, workers, and citizens.

While it’s easy to place accountability the landlords, making six figures and taking tropical vacations while throwing tenants out onto the streets, the blame is spread more widely than that. Although don’t get me wrong, they do deserve to shoulder plenty of it. They will intentionally refuse to maintain properties of poorer residents, particularly those who owe money. If a resident who owes calls a building inspector, the landlord will often evict them for the trouble — technically illegal, but not if the landlord cites the missing rent as the reason for the eviction. They will charge tenants using housing vouchers well above market value. Technically, the tenant doesn’t pay extra out of pocket, but an estimated 588 additional families in Milwaukee could be housed using the surplus money the landlords are charging.

One particular practice I hadn’t been aware of was nuisance property ordinances, in which the police departments can penalize landlords for their tenants’ behavior — meaning that the more the police are called to a specific property, the more likely they are to fine the landlord. Of course, this practice can have dire consequences for domestic violence victims. Instead of being supported, a battered woman is evicted as a “nuisance.” This leads women to remain silent about their abuse even more often, which could in turn lead to their deaths. Additionally, nuisance property ordinances aren’t fairly enforced. In Milwaukee, citations were given to eligible properties in primarily black neighborhoods at over twice the rate they were given in primarily white neighborhoods. Through this, the police have a direct hand in forcing more black residents to be evicted than white residents.

But those solutions depend on how we answer a single question: do we believe that the right to a decent home is part of what it means to be an American?

All that barely scratches the surface of what Desmond has to share. This really is quite an engrossing read, and really educational. I’d like to put some work into researching tenancy laws and practices in my area, both to know my own rights and to lobby for necessary change. My only complaint is that Desmond doesn’t leave us much in the way of solutions, but I suppose that could fill an entire second book. He also notes that solutions will likely vary region to region and city to city, so the local context counts for a lot. Overall, I really cannot recommend this book enough. It is quite eye-opening and quite important and I’m so, so glad that I read it.


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Book Reviews, Bookworm Blogging

When You Find My Body [review]

When You Find My Body by D. Dauphinee
Published by Down East Books on June 1, 2019
my rating: ★★★
Goodreads avg: 
4.05 (as of 2019-06-16)
disclaimer: I received an advanced copy of this book from NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for review consideration. All of the opinions presented below are my own.

Spoiler-free Review

Goodreads | IndieBound | Author’s Website


When Geraldine “Gerry” Largay (AT trail name, Inchworm) first went missing on the Appalachian Trail in remote western Maine in 2013, the people of Maine were wrought with concern. When she was not found, the family, the wardens, and the Navy personnel who searched for her were devastated. The Maine Warden Service continued to follow leads for more than a year. They never completely gave up the search. Two years after her disappearance, her bones and scattered possessions were found by chance by two surveyors. She was on the U.S. Navy’s SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape) School land, about 2,100 feet from the Appalachian Trail.

This book tells the story of events preceding Geraldine Largay’s vanishing in July 2013, while hiking the Appalachian Trail in Maine, what caused her to go astray, and the massive search and rescue operation that followed. Her disappearance sparked the largest lost-person search in Maine history, which culminated in her being presumed dead. She was never again seen alive. The author was one of the hundreds of volunteers who searched for her. Gerry’s story is one of heartbreak, most assuredly, but is also one of perseverance, determination, and faith. For her family and the searchers, especially the Maine Warden Service, it is also a story of grave sorrow.Marrying the joys and hardship of life in the outdoors, as well as exploring the search & rescue community, When You Find My Body examines dying with grace and dignity. There are lessons in the story, both large and small. Lessons that may well save lives in the future.


When You Find My Body is a nonfiction account of the last months of Gerry Largay’s life. Gerry went missing on the Appalachian Trail in 2013, her remains found approximately two years later. The book spans from the time Gerry spent preparing to hike the trail through the aftermath of her final campsite being found. Dauphinee interviews some of Gerry’s trail friends as well as wardens who were involved in her search. He examines every aspect of her hike in the interest of providing as many answers as possible to readers.

While it’s obvious that Dauphinee is a good writer, he is not without his faults. Most notably, I found myself distracted by his unnecessarily gendered writing. He talked about “farm boys” who were “able to experience the exotic and beautiful unshaved, makeupless women”; how he has “seen men in kilts, which is always okay, but [has] also seen men in skirts”; and in one sentence is able to discuss how some people lose skin and toenails, but describes women as dealing with “feminine issues” instead of using the dreaded word “menstruation.” While clearly not intended to be harmful, I still found myself rolling my eyes and frustrated by it all nonetheless.

While the novel is relatively short, I’d argue it could have been cut down more. There is a lot of repetition, mostly when it comes to discussing Gerry’s life and her impact on those she knew. While I understand the point Dauphinee was trying to make, that she was a beloved woman who would be deeply missed by many, he hammered it in incessantly. There is also an abundance of information about how the AT originated and while some of it made sense to include, I also just didn’t find myself very interested in most of it.

Finally, I just had to wonder whether Gerry’s family gave her blessing for this book to be written. I felt uncomfortable reading this and not knowing whether anyone, her husband George in particular, had given the okay for what were potentially the hardest days of their lives to be laid out on display like this. Portions of Gerry’s diary (already made public) were shared, as well as email newsletters she had written for friends and family. It made me squirm to think there was a possibility that I was privy to something I shouldn’t be reading. I wish Dauphinee had been upfront about this.

Criticisms aside, it’s a good book. I enjoyed reading it, as much as someone can enjoy reading about a tragedy like this. It was clear Dauphinee did his research and reached out to as many different people as possible, and his writing really pulls you in. I’ll probably be recommending this to nonfiction lovers and hiker buffs.


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The Vanishing Season [review]

The Vanishing Season (The Collector #4) by Dot Hutchison
Published by Thomas & Mercer on May 21, 2019
my rating: ★★
Goodreads avg: 
4.27 (as of 2019-05-28)
disclaimer: I received an advanced copy of this book from NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for review consideration. All of the opinions presented below are my own.

Spoiler-free Review

Goodreads | IndieBound | Author’s Website


A recent abduction becomes an unexpected link to a decades-long spree of unspeakable crimes.

Eight-year-old Brooklyn Mercer has gone missing. And as accustomed as FBI agents Eliza Sterling and Brandon Eddison are to such harrowing cases, this one has struck a nerve. It marks the anniversary of the disappearance of Eddison’s own little sister. Disturbing, too, is the girl’s resemblance to Eliza – so uncanny they could be mother and daughter. 

With Eddison’s unsettled past rising again with rage and pain, Eliza is determined to solve this case at any cost. But the closer she looks, the more reluctant she is to divulge to her increasingly shaken partner what she finds. Brooklyn isn’t the only girl of her exact description to go missing. She’s just the latest in a frightening pattern going back decades in cities throughout the entire country. 

In a race against time, Eliza’s determined to bring Brooklyn home and somehow find the link to the cold case that has haunted Eddison – and the entire Crimes Against Children team – since its inception.


First and foremost, I need to give my thanks to Rachel who has been with me for every step of this journey (I also reread her review of The Summer Children and realized it said everything I was trying to say below, but better). By which I mean she has put up with my endless livetexting of this godforsaken novel and my incredulity whilst reading it. Which comes across as rude, but I’m not sure I would have made it through without someone to vent to.

While writing negative reviews can be freeing in a way, I’ve been dreading writing this one. I absolutely adored Dot Hutchison’s first novel in this series. The Butterfly Garden was everything I wanted in a thriller, and I was absolutely blown away by it. I could not put it down! Shortly thereafter I read The Roses of May and while my review was glowing, my star rating slowly dropped the more thought I gave to it. The Summer Children peaked in quality a bit more, but the depth of focus given to the agents’ relationships, which many had critiqued in The Roses of May, finally began to irk me. The Vanishing Season takes it to a whole other level.

The problem with these books is that they force you to completely suspend your disbelief regarding professionalism and appropriate workplace behavior. There’s a time and a place for cutesy stuff like this, but FBI agents actively working a case ain’t it. It’s to the point where I hesitate to call this a thriller, or a mystery. While the last two books at least had some sense of danger and urgency, The Vanishing Season is honestly nothing but fanservice. The tonal shift is enough to give you whiplash.

I’m not saying that books need to mirror reality perfectly and most thrillers do require you to suspend your disbelief a bit, but it would take some serious mental gymnastics to think that a law enforcement team could actually function like this without crashing and burning, or at least getting a serious talking-to from an internal affairs department. I lost track of all the things I could not believe were happening. Agent cuddle parties. They all live next to each other! Always joking about the boy being outnumbered by LOL GIRLS (realistic but annoying). Her boss kisses her on the CHEEK? Literally everyone talks about the MC looking like an 8-year-old girl constantly and I’m seriously done with women being infantilized.

Aside from that, the excess of unnecessary detail was… overwhelming. I wish I had highlighted examples as I came across them because there were so many. In instances where a sentence or two would have conveyed a process just fine, a full page is used instead. There was so much infodumping that I just didn’t understand, and it came across as the epitome of telling instead of showing.

It sucks because between all the stuff I didn’t like, there was so much promise. The crime of the week could have been so much more interesting had it been expanded on, but it became more of a background to everyone’s personal problems. There was a really interesting exploration of realizing one had been abused that would have hit so much harder if it hadn’t been crammed together with a dozen other things. I feel like this book just tried to do everything at once and ended up shooting itself in the foot because of it. It’s a bummer because we all know Dot Hutchison is an incredible writer; The Butterfly Garden was kind of a masterpiece imo. The rest of the series was just an entirely different kind of writing.

So, unfortunately this really wasn’t for me and I can’t say I recommend it in its current state — I can only hope that some additional edits were made between the ARC and the finished copy. I guess if you’re obsessed with the characters and want to see them spend all their time goofing around or having Serious Emotional Moments together, this is the book for you. If you’re looking for an actual thriller/mystery, keep looking.


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The Silence of the Girls [review]

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker
Published by Doubleday Books on September 4, 2018
my rating: ★★.5
Goodreads avg:
3.88 (as of 2019-05-22)
Spoiler-free Review

Goodreads | IndieBound | Author’s Website

The ancient city of Troy has withstood a decade under siege of the powerful Greek army, which continues to wage bloody war over a stolen woman—Helen. In the Greek camp, another woman—Briseis—watches and waits for the war’s outcome. She was queen of one of Troy’s neighboring kingdoms, until Achilles, Greece’s greatest warrior, sacked her city and murdered her husband and brothers. Briseis becomes Achilles’s concubine, a prize of battle, and must adjust quickly in order to survive a radically different life, as one of the many conquered women who serve the Greek army. 

When Agamemnon, the brutal political leader of the Greek forces, demands Briseis for himself, she finds herself caught between the two most powerful of the Greeks. Achilles refuses to fight in protest, and the Greeks begin to lose ground to their Trojan opponents. Keenly observant and coolly unflinching about the daily horrors of war, Briseis finds herself in an unprecedented position, able to observe the two men driving the Greek army in what will become their final confrontation, deciding the fate not only of Briseis’s people but also of the ancient world at large.

Briseis is just one among thousands of women living behind the scenes in this war—the slaves and prostitutes, the nurses, the women who lay out the dead—all of them erased by history. With breathtaking historical detail and luminous prose, Pat Barker brings the teeming world of the Greek camp to vivid life. She offers nuanced, complex portraits of characters and stories familiar from mythology, which, seen from Briseis’s perspective, are rife with newfound revelations. Barker’s latest builds on her decades-long study of war and its impact on individual lives—and it is nothing short of magnificent.


I didn’t feel like anything that might have a name.

I had quite high hopes for The Silence of the Girls, which unfortunately just weren’t met. The best way to describe my reading experience is resounding apathy. Feeling apathetic whilst reading about a woman taken into slavery during war seems wrong, but here we are. I’d attribute this to a few things: the fact that I hadn’t read The Iliad before, the standoffish way I felt the story was narrated, and the fact that the POVs were not limited to Briseis, or even only to women.

I mentioned my lukewarm reading experience to Rachel, who noted that she wasn’t sure how much this book would hold for someone who wasn’t very familiar with The Iliad. While I knew bits and pieces of the story, my knowledge was really limited to its portrayal in The Song of Achilles as well as whatever I had picked up through osmosis throughout my life. As such, this was less of a retelling for me and more, well, a telling. On its own, I’m not sure the story stands as well as it would if I had more of a background with its greater context.

So we spent the nights curled up like spiders at the centre of our webs. Only we weren’t the spiders; we were the flies.

Briseis herself is quite terse throughout her narration. While she slips into emotional points, I found myself feeling untouched for most of the book. I’m certain others may disagree with me here, and I definitely think that this is quite a subjective opinion on my part. And I understand how this can be demonstrative of what she’s gone through — trauma can make or break us, and it’s clear that the Trojan women must put up walls in order to make it through the war without breaking entirely. I just wish I could’ve seen this in a way that didn’t make me feel distant from her as well.

Lastly, I was really drawn to this story as giving a voice to women traditionally silenced. So much of the focus of history is on the heroism of men and very little is on the women who they have been supported by, or who they trod on. And yet more than once the point of view is handed to Achilles, the very man who is actively oppressing Briseis. Whatever reason this may have been for, I didn’t feel that it enhanced the story for me. Quite the opposite, the first time it happened I felt jerked out of whatever immersion I was experiencing and had to reread a bit to ensure it was really happening. Each time thereafter it felt out of place and I couldn’t help but wonder what it would have been like had the book kept its focus on Briseis, or at least stuck to the perspectives of the women.

Now he can see what he’s been trying to do: to bargain with grief. Behind all this frenetic activity there’s been the hope that if he keeps his promises there’ll be no more pain. But he’s beginning to understand that grief doesn’t strike bargains.

Criticisms aside, I can see why others enjoyed this. I can certainly see why it was included on the Women’s Prize shortlist. I wish that my experience with it had been better, but alas. While it wasn’t quite my cup of tea, I do recommend trying it out if it seems to interest you. Particularly if you have more of a history with Greek mythology than I do! Hopefully my next pick off the Women’s Prize list treats me a bit better.


More Women’s Prize 2019 Longlist reviews:
The Pisces
Ghost Wall
Ordinary People
Circe
Lost Children Archive
Praise Song for the Butterflies
An American Marriage
My Sister, the Serial Killer
Normal People
Freshwater
The Silence of the Girls

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Red, White & Royal Blue [review]

Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston
Published by St. Martin’s Griffin on May 14, 2019
my rating: ★★★★★
Goodreads avg: 
4.50 (as of 2019-05-14)
disclaimer: I received an advanced copy of this book from NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for review consideration. All of the opinions presented below are my own. All quotes have been taken from the advanced copy and are subject to change upon publication.

Spoiler-free Review

Goodreads | IndieBound | Author’s Website

A big-hearted romantic comedy in which the First Son falls in love with the Prince of Wales after an incident of international proportions forces them to pretend to be best friends…

First Son Alex Claremont-Diaz is the closest thing to a prince this side of the Atlantic. With his intrepid sister and the Veep’s genius granddaughter, they’re the White House Trio, a beautiful millennial marketing strategy for his mother, President Ellen Claremont. International socialite duties do have downsides—namely, when photos of a confrontation with his longtime nemesis Prince Henry at a royal wedding leak to the tabloids and threaten American/British relations.

The plan for damage control: staging a fake friendship between the First Son and the Prince. Alex is busy enough handling his mother’s bloodthirsty opponents and his own political ambitions without an uptight royal slowing him down. But beneath Henry’s Prince Charming veneer, there’s a soft-hearted eccentric with a dry sense of humor and more than one ghost haunting him.

As President Claremont kicks off her reelection bid, Alex finds himself hurtling into a secret relationship with Henry that could derail the campaign and upend two nations. And Henry throws everything into question for Alex, an impulsive, charming guy who thought he knew everything: What is worth the sacrifice? How do you do all the good you can do? And, most importantly, how will history remember you?


I put this on my TBR when I saw it on Reads Rainbow’s Enemies to Lovers rec list (PS pls follow their blog, Charlotte and Anna share some wonderful stuff and are always beefing up my to-read list!). I was #BLESSED with a review copy from Netgalley and have spent the last week and a half getting my heart destroyed by this book.

Straight people, he thinks, probably don’t spend this much time convincing themselves they’re straight.

RW&RB is a skillful combination of both the “enemies to lovers” and “fake relationship” tropes, although the fake relationship is a fake friendship rather than fake dating. The main character, Alex, is a bisexual biracial angel who falls in love with the (extremely gay) Prince Henry of Wales after plenty of angst and a lot of drama. I will admit it’s a little instalove-y, if that’s something that bothers you. Luckily it’s not something I mind and I found their relationship so, so precious!

[…] Henry, who knows him. Henry who’s seen him in glasses and tolerates him at his most annoying and still kissed him like he wanted him, singularly, not the idea of him.

The side characters are equally wonderful and McQuiston does an incredible job of fleshing them out. The two we see the most are Alex’s older sister June and his best-friend-sort-of-ex Nora who is openly queer, although I don’t think she uses any particular label on-page. There are several other queer side characters, including a trans woman and a pansexual character. I love that this book kind of demonstrates how we gays tend to stick together, since I’d say a good 95% of my friends have identified as lgbtqia.

He rolls onto his side and listens, trails the back of his hand across the pillow next to him and imagines Henry lying opposite in his own bed, two parentheses enclosing 3,700 miles.

Besides containing a truly unbelievably cute romance, this book explores discovering your sexuality, politics, and mental health. Alex and Henry have very different feelings about their lives in the public eye, and the expectations set upon them as the children of leaders conflict with what they’d prefer to do with themselves. Henry also deals with depression, which is touched on but isn’t the focus of the story.

“Ugh! Men!” she groans. “No emotional vocabulary. I can’t believe our ancestors survived centuries of wars and plagues and genocide just to wind up with your sorry ass.”

Overall, I just loved this book more than I can even convey. I cried several times reading it and am positive I’ll return to it in the future. It’s fluffy, it’s steamy, it’s political, and it is quite honestly PERFECT. Casey McQuiston is heading straight to my insta-read author list.


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Freshwater [review]

Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi
Published by Grove Press on February 13, 2018
my rating: ★★★★★
Goodreads avg:
4.00 (as of 2019-05-09)
Spoiler-free Review

Goodreads | IndieBound | Author’s Website

An extraordinary debut novel, Freshwater explores the surreal experience of having a fractured self. It centers around a young Nigerian woman, Ada, who develops separate selves within her as a result of being born “with one foot on the other side.” Unsettling, heartwrenching, dark, and powerful, Freshwater is a sharp evocation of a rare way of experiencing the world, one that illuminates how we all construct our identities.

Ada begins her life in the south of Nigeria as a troubled baby and a source of deep concern to her family. Her parents, Saul and Saachi, successfully prayed her into existence, but as she grows into a volatile and splintered child, it becomes clear that something went terribly awry. When Ada comes of age and moves to America for college, the group of selves within her grows in power and agency. A traumatic assault leads to a crystallization of her alternate selves: Asụghara and Saint Vincent. As Ada fades into the background of her own mind and these selves–now protective, now hedonistic–move into control, Ada’s life spirals in a dark and dangerous direction.

Narrated by the various selves within Ada and based in the author’s realities, Freshwater dazzles with ferocious energy and serpentine grace, heralding the arrival of a fierce new literary voice.


I finished this after the Women’s Prize shortlist is released and all I can say is: it’s a damn travesty that this book didn’t make the cut. It was initially interesting to see that it was longlisted — Akwaeke Emezi is nonbinary, which the judges were not aware of until after they had decided upon the list. Emezi gave their okay for the book’s inclusion regardless and fans were glad to see it gain further recognition. But for the judges to leave off this masterpiece in favor of the combination they did… I won’t get into it, but it sure doesn’t make any sense.

The first madness was that we were born, that they stuffed a god into a bag of skin.

I actually received a Netgalley ARC of this in January 2018, which I far too quickly DNFed in a “I’m not sure I Get this, maybe later” scenario. Maybe for the best, since I don’t know that I would have fully appreciated this novel without the growth my literary tastes have experienced over the last year. While I’m still not sure I was able to fully appreciate it — there were doubtless many things I missed — this is one of the most impactful books I have ever read and I’m sure I’ll never forget it.

The boy made Ada a gibbering thing in a corner — this is the truth, but he would never get her again. I had arrived, flesh from flesh, true blood from true blood. I was the wildness under the skin, the skin into a weapon, the weapon over the flesh. I was here. No one would ever touch her again.

Freshwater is an exploration of many things, but at the forefront lie trauma, gender identity, and spirituality. It’s hard to explore the plot too deeply without spoilers, but I’ll say that this is one of the best portrayals of trauma that I’ve ever read. The entire book requires endless trigger warnings and it’s quite an intense experience, but I found it so rewarding. If you’re in the space where you can pick this up, I cannot recommend it enough.


More Women’s Prize 2019 Longlist reviews:
The Pisces
Ghost Wall
Ordinary People
Circe
Lost Children Archive
Praise Song for the Butterflies
An American Marriage
My Sister, the Serial Killer
Normal People
Freshwater
The Silence of the Girls

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Normal People [review]

Normal People by Sally Rooney
Published by Hogarth on April 16, 2019 (originally 2018)
my rating: ★★★★★
Goodreads avg:
4.08 (as of 2019-05-09)
Spoiler-free Review

Goodreads | IndieBound | Author’s Website

At school Connell and Marianne pretend not to know each other. He’s popular and well-adjusted, star of the school soccer team while she is lonely, proud, and intensely private. But when Connell comes to pick his mother up from her housekeeping job at Marianne’s house, a strange and indelible connection grows between the two teenagers—one they are determined to conceal.

A year later, they’re both studying at Trinity College in Dublin. Marianne has found her feet in a new social world while Connell hangs at the sidelines, shy and uncertain. Throughout their years in college, Marianne and Connell circle one another, straying toward other people and possibilities but always magnetically, irresistibly drawn back together. Then, as she veers into self-destruction and he begins to search for meaning elsewhere, each must confront how far they are willing to go to save the other.

Sally Rooney brings her brilliant psychological acuity and perfectly spare prose to a story that explores the subtleties of class, the electricity of first love, and the complex entanglements of family and friendship.


While I knew from the start that this book would be different than anything I had experienced before, I had no idea how much I would love it. Normal People tells the story of Connell and Marianne, two very different people who somehow just keep meeting. It begins while they’re in secondary school and spans the course of their university careers. At its heart, this is the story of two people whose lives cannot untangle.

Even in memory she will find this moment unbearably intense, and she’s aware of this now, while it’s happening.

While their relationship is often not quite healthy, I really rooted for them to be together. Sally Rooney writes in such a way that you can understand them both even while condemning their actions. Oftentimes their conflicts are the result of miscommunications that could have easily been avoided by pressing one another further rather than making assumptions. Deep down, they both care quite deeply about each other and none of the hurt is intentional.

Is the world such an evil place, that love should be indistinguishable from the basest and most abusive forms of violence?

I found myself repeatedly caught up in the depth of emotion I felt while reading this. Sometimes I would have to put it down for a moment, breathless, as I contemplated the characters and their situations and the parallels I was able to draw to my own life. I nearly wept at the closing page, but at the same time felt buoyed by its message. I’d say I thought my reaction to this was just me, but everyone else in my Women’s Prize group also gave the book 5 stars.

Life offers up these moments of joy, despite everything.

Sally Rooney is really something else. I was worried my expectations for her were a bit too high, but she still managed more than I could have even hoped for. I have a copy of Conversations With Friends sitting on my shelf at work that I cannot wait to dig into. If you were thinking about picking up Normal People, I cannot recommend it highly enough.


More Women’s Prize 2019 Longlist reviews:
The Pisces
Ghost Wall
Ordinary People
Circe
Lost Children Archive
Praise Song for the Butterflies
An American Marriage
My Sister, the Serial Killer
Normal People
Freshwater
The Silence of the Girls

Twitter | Goodreads | Instagram | Facebook

Book Reviews, Bookworm Blogging

The Invited [review]

The Invited by Jennifer McMahon
To be published by Doubleday on April 30, 2019
my rating: ★★★.5
Goodreads avg: 
3.93 (as of 2019-03-04)
disclaimer: I received an advanced copy of this book from NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for review consideration. All of the opinions presented below are my own. All quotes have been taken from the advanced copy and are subject to change upon publication.

Spoiler-free Review

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A chilling ghost story with a twist: the New York Times best-selling author of THE WINTER PEOPLE, returns to the woods of Vermont to tell the story of a husband and wife who don’t simply move into a haunted house, they start building one from scratch, without knowing it, until it’s too late…

In a quest for a simpler life, Helen and Nate abandon the comforts of suburbia and teaching jobs to take up residence on forty-four acres of rural land where they will begin the ultimate, aspirational do-it-yourself project: building the house of their dreams. When they discover that this charming property has a dark and violent past, Helen, a former history teacher, becomes consumed by the legend of Hattie Breckenridge, a woman who lived and died there a century ago. As Helen starts carefully sourcing decorative building materials for her home – wooden beams, mantles, historic bricks — she starts to unearth, and literally conjure, the tragic lives of Hattie’s descendants, three generations of “Breckenridge women,” each of whom died amidst suspicion, and who seem to still be seeking something precious and elusive in the present day. 


Jennifer McMahon’s The Winter People became one of my favorites when I read it last year so of course Rachel let me know the second she saw it on Netgalley and I requested it immediately. McMahon’s books combine my love of horror with my love of all things Vermont (and New England) and I’ve been meaning to pick up more of her books for quite some time now. Rachel actually lent me a copy of The Night Sister, which I’ve got sitting in my physical TBR pile. Unfortunately, while I enjoyed The Invited, it just wasn’t as strong a book as I had hoped for.

What people don’t understand, they destroy.

As with The Winter People, McMahon sets up alternating perspectives. We have Helen, an outsider who is building a house with her husband Nate on supposedly haunted property. We also have Ollie, a girl in her early teens who is searching for a treasure that may or may not exist. I sympathized with Helen and while I found Ollie a bit irritating at first, I quickly warmed up to her as well. I also adored Ollie’s aunt, Riley, with her dyed hair and many tattoos and love of local lore. At one point I briefly hoped that Helen would leave her husband for Riley, but alas, that was wishful thinking.

Sometimes Olive got so caught up in her own grief that she forgot other people were grieving, too.

The plot itself is somewhat interesting: Ollie searches for the treasure and for traces of her mother who had left while Helen searches for more information about the spirit that may haunt her new home. McMahon puts her own unique twist on the classic ghost story, incorporating new elements and giving us just the right amount of red herrings. A lot of my nitpicks came less from issues with the story itself and more from inconsistencies in the writing and the difficulty I had getting invested until about a third in. Hopefully some of this gets pulled together better in the final copy.

“Sometimes a vivid imagination is a curse,” her mama used to tell her.

Overall The Invited was interesting and enjoyable, but it unfortunately lacked the oomph that would have given it a higher rating and put it on my favorites list. Still, Jennifer McMahon manages to explore the storied history of New England and its comparison to modern-day life. I definitely recommend this to anyone who has read and liked any of her other books, as well as to those who like the exploration of relationships between women in horror.


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Book Reviews, Bookworm Blogging

My Sister, the Serial Killer [review]

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
Published by Doubleday Books on November 20, 2018
my rating: ★★★★
Goodreads avg:
3.82 (as of 2019-04-26)
Spoiler-free Review

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My Sister, the Serial Killer is a blackly comic novel about how blood is thicker – and more difficult to get out of the carpet – than water…

When Korede’s dinner is interrupted one night by a distress call from her sister, Ayoola, she knows what’s expected of her: bleach, rubber gloves, nerves of steel and a strong stomach. This’ll be the third boyfriend Ayoola’s dispatched in, quote, self-defence and the third mess that her lethal little sibling has left Korede to clear away. She should probably go to the police for the good of the menfolk of Nigeria, but she loves her sister and, as they say, family always comes first. Until, that is, Ayoola starts dating the doctor where Korede works as a nurse. Korede’s long been in love with him, and isn’t prepared to see him wind up with a knife in his back: but to save one would mean sacrificing the other…


I would argue this is probably the most “accessible” Women’s Prize book I’ve read so far due to its readability. This was so easy to breeze through, in part because the pages in my copy were quite small, in part because of its length, and in part because it’s such a page-turner. The narrator of this little novel is Korede, a young woman whose sister Ayoola is a serial killer. Korede is the responsible older sister and works as a nurse. Ayoola is the spoiled younger sibling who spends her time at home designing clothing or out being courted by men.

While Ayoola’s purported innocence is explored somewhat, the focus of this book lies far more in the characters’ various relationships as well as the malleability of our own morality. As we discover during the story’s beginning, Korede has helped Ayoola cover up her crimes and deals with immense guilt for playing a part in the deaths of potentially innocent men. At the same time, she feels an intense responsibility to protect her sister, particularly due to their shared history which is slowly revealed as the story unravels.

I really loved Korede, and felt like she was an incredibly sympathetic character. She has grown up with a gorgeous younger sister who turns heads everywhere she goes, while she herself is not nearly as aesthetically gifted. She is responsible and works hard and seems to suffer for it, as she is not appreciated by her coworkers nor her own family. I became extremely invested in her story and found myself becoming frustrated and sad alongside her. Of course, Korede comes to a fork in the metaphorical road where she must decide how to proceed with her sister. Can she allow Ayoola to continue on as she has been, or will she finally find a way to intervene? There seems to be no easy answer and I was on the edge of my seat waiting to see what would happen.

Overall, I found this to be quite an enjoyable read. I wouldn’t summarize it as a traditional thriller or mystery, although that’s what I’ve seen it shelved most often as. As I said above, it is more an exploration of interpersonal relationships and how these impact our morals. I’ll definitely be recommending this one around, though, as I think it will interest a wide variety of readers. It’s probably close to the top of my favorites list for Women’s Prize books so far.


More Women’s Prize 2019 Longlist reviews:
The Pisces
Ghost Wall
Ordinary People
Circe
Lost Children Archive
Praise Song for the Butterflies
An American Marriage
My Sister, the Serial Killer
Normal People
Freshwater
The Silence of the Girls

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Book Reviews, Bookworm Blogging

Lost Children Archive [review]

Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli
Published by Knopf Publishing Group on February 12, 2019
my rating: ★★★★
Goodreads avg:
3.96 (as of 2019-04-16)
Spoiler-free Review

Goodreads | IndieBound | Author’s Website

From the two-time NBCC Finalist, a fiercely imaginative novel about a family’s summer road trip across America–a journey that, with breathtaking imagery, spare lyricism, and profound humanity, probes the nature of justice and equality in America today.

A mother and father set out with their kids from New York to Arizona. In their used Volvo–and with their ten-year-old son trying out his new Polaroid camera–the family is heading for the Apacheria: the region the Apaches once called home, and where the ghosts of Geronimo and Cochise might still linger. The father, a sound documentarist, hopes to gather an “inventory of echoes” from this historic, mythic place. The mother, a radio journalist, becomes consumed by the news she hears on the car radio, about the thousands of children trying to reach America but getting stranded at the southern border, held in detention centers, or being sent back to their homelands, to an unknown fate.

But as the family drives farther west–through Virginia to Tennessee, across Oklahoma and Texas–we sense they are on the brink of a crisis of their own. A fissure is growing between the parents, one the children can feel beneath their feet. They are led, inexorably, to a grand, unforgettable adventure–both in the harsh desert landscape and within the chambers of their own imaginations.

Told through the voices of the mother and her son, as well as through a stunning tapestry of collected texts and images–including prior stories of migration and displacement–Lost Children Archive is a story of how we document our experiences, and how we remember the things that matter to us the most. Blending the personal and the political with astonishing empathy, it is a powerful, wholly original work of fiction: exquisite, provocative, and deeply moving. 


I can easily see a lot of people hating this book. In fact, I can see myself hating this book. It’s dense and it’s work to get through. This is yet another one I would almost definitely not have finished if I wasn’t reading it for the Women’s Prize. The writing style isn’t my thing and it’s immediate from the start that layout of the book itself is atypical, for lack of a better word. It’s a “family story” and a “road trip book,” both of which I also tend to stay away from. There are plenty of reasons why I shouldn’t have enjoyed this book, but somehow I did.

The thing about living with someone is that even though you see them every day and can predict all their gestures in a conversation, even when you can read intentions behind their actions and calculate their responses to circumstances fairly accurately, even when you are sure there’s not a single crease in them left unexplored, even then, one day the other can suddenly become a stranger.

There are so many layers to this, and I know I didn’t fully understand all of it. The main character and her husband are sound archivists, which right away makes for a bit of an intriguing tone. It explains the unusual formatting and lets our narrator examine things in a light we may not be accustomed to. It also helps to incorporate the underlying theme of the novel: illegal immigration in the United States.

No one thinks of those children as consequences of a historical war that goes back decades. Everyone keeps asking: which war, where? Why are they here? Why did they come to the United States? What will we do with them? No one is asking: why did they flee their homes?

The narrator and her husband meet while working on a project to record all of the languages being spoken in New York City. The narrator herself was born in Mexico and becomes obsessed with the children crossing the border, hoping to join their family on the other side. Once the language project is complete, she decides to make her next project about giving voices to these lost children. Meanwhile, her husband’s next project is on the other side of history: he has become deeply obsessed with the history of the Apache tribes of Native Americans.

[…] reading others’ words, inhabiting their minds for a while, has always been an entry point to my own thoughts.

I found myself becoming deeply emotionally connected to the narrator throughout the first half of the book, until the focus shifts to the son. From there, I became more enthralled with the plot itself. I found the switch interesting; I went from somber introspection to a more dreamlike reading experience. I enjoyed both parts of the book and felt like they really balanced each other out.

Hard to explain why two complete strangers may suddenly decide to share an unbeautified portrait of their lives. But perhaps also easy to explain, because two people alone in a bar at two in the morning are probably there to try to figure out the exact narrative they need to tell themselves before they go back to wherever they’ll sleep that night.

There are so many deep themes to this that I wish I could discuss in detail, but just can’t grasp strongly enough to wrangle into a coherent analysis. I really wish I had read this in a lit class in college, I know I would have gotten so much more out of it. Regardless, I’ll probably be reading whatever pieces I can find on this, so if you happen to see something interesting please send it my way!

Once he even recorded our voices talking in the backseat of the car, and then played them for Ma when they thought we were both sleeping and not listening. And it was strange to listen to our own voices around us, like we were there but also not there. I felt like we’d disappeared, thought, what if we are not actually sitting back here but only being remembered by them?

All in all, while this was a challenging reading experience for me, I really felt it was worth it. Luiselli succeeded in making me think deeply while consuming her work, and I hope to return to it in the future — perhaps with a better context to place it in. I recommend picking this up if you’re looking for some slower moving literary fiction to make your brain work.


More Women’s Prize 2019 Longlist reviews:
The Pisces
Ghost Wall
Ordinary People
Circe
Lost Children Archive
Praise Song for the Butterflies
An American Marriage
My Sister, the Serial Killer
Normal People
Freshwater
The Silence of the Girls

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