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What're You Reading?

July 26, 2020

Lest you think I'm wasting away in front of the television, I wanted to let you know that I am also voraciously reading in 2020. I picked a good year to learn how to borrow ebooks from my local library. I could never afford this many Amazon books. 

 

I'm pretty particular about what I read. I like a good story. Definitely must have good, strong writing. I tend to not read any authors who have more than one shelf in the book store. One of the books I read this year, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, had a great quote that felt a lot like Lloyd Dobbler's life philosophy - and a lot like my own book opinion statement: 

 

“How about I tell you what I don’t like? I do not like postmodernism, postapocalyptic settings, postmortem narrators, or magic realism. I rarely respond to supposedly clever formal devices, multiple fonts, pictures where they shouldn’t be—basically, gimmicks of any kind. I find literary fiction about the Holocaust or any other major world tragedy to be distasteful—nonfiction only, please. I do not like genre mash-ups à la the literary detective novel or the literary fantasy. Literary should be literary, and genre should be genre, and crossbreeding rarely results in anything satisfying. I do not like children’s books, especially ones with orphans, and I prefer not to clutter my shelves with young adult. I do not like anything over four hundred pages or under one hundred fifty pages. I am repulsed by ghostwritten novels by reality television stars, celebrity picture books, sports memoirs, movie tie-in editions, novelty items, and—I imagine this goes without saying—vampires. I rarely stock debuts, chick lit, poetry, or translations. I would prefer not to stock series, but the demands of my pocketbook require me to."

 

Okay, here's my 2020 list so far, with my full reviews of my 5-Star reads. 

 

The Heir Affair (Heather Cocks & Jessica Morgan)

After a scandalous secret turns their fairy-tale wedding into a nightmare, Rebecca "Bex" Porter and her husband Prince Nicholas are in self-imposed exile. The public is angry. The Queen is even angrier. And the press is salivating.

My Review: 

Even though I claim to not read chick-lit, I picked up the Fug Girls' The Royal We when I was flying because I had read their blog for years and liked their writing style. It was charming and I loved it. So I was very excited when they announced they were writing a sequel. And all I can say is, the Girls outdid themselves. This book was SO GOOD! SO FUN! I LOVED IT! 

 

Salvage the Bones (Jesmyn Ward) 

A hurricane is building over the Gulf of Mexico, threatening the coastal town of Bois Sauvage, Mississippi, and Esch's father is growing concerned. A hard drinker, largely absent, he doesn't show concern for much else. Esch and her three brothers are stocking food, but there isn't much to save. Lately, Esch can't keep down what food she gets; she's fourteen and pregnant.

My Review: 

First of all, I probably would've read Jesmyn Ward sooner if one a y'all had told me we literally grew up 8 miles from one another.

So, there was a lot about this book that really disturbed me - from the abject poverty, to the complete lack of a nutritional diet (or even substantial food), to the dog fighting, to the teen boy's friends having sex with his 12-year-old sister. My initial instinct was to say that I grew up in Mississippi and I was aware of these things even though I hadn't witnessed them personally. And then I started thinking about it...and I realized that indeed, I had witnessed all of these things.
I assume her objective is to disturb. Well done, Jesmyn. Make us uncomfortable. Make us think. And feel.
And boy, does she make us feel. Her writing is completely gorgeous and extracts all kinds of emotions from the reader. The chapter with the Katrina flooding made me so anxious and I never even lived through a Cat 5. If you have storm PTSD this may not be the book for you.
I personally had to skip over the pages that described the actual dog fight. No thank you. Can not do.

 

Sing, Unburied, Sing (Jesmyn Ward)

Jojo and his toddler sister, Kayla, live with their grandparents, Mam and Pop, and the occasional presence of their drug-addicted mother, Leonie, on a farm on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. Leonie is simultaneously tormented and comforted by visions of her dead brother, which only come to her when she’s high; Mam is dying of cancer; and quiet, steady Pop tries to run the household and teach Jojo how to be a man.

My Review: 

This it the second of Ward's books that I've read. I finished it in one day.
The story had a magical realism element that Salvage the Bones didn't. It also spoke more directly to systemic racism.
The Mississippi prison system began as a convict lease system after the Civil War - lessees paid fees to the state and in return were responsible for feeding, clothing and housing prisoners that worked for them as laborers. In other words, it was just a continuation of slavery. So guess what happened? Entrapment and a high rate of convictions for minor offenses for black males, that's what.
Yeah. It started way back then. In the book, Jojo's grandfather spent several years in Parchman working hard labor in the fields. His brother had gotten into a fight with some white sailors. They later found the brother at Pop's house and both of them were sent to Parchman for several years.
The truth in lynchings is that people will hurt another human in every way they can think of - in every way possible - out of hate and the feeling that they are powerless in life. So they take it out on someone that society has deemed more powerless than themselves. I wish I understood where that hate comes from. You kidnapped them, brought them here, bought and sold them like animals...if anyone should be filled with unimaginable hate, it should be the Black community.
(PS - Hwy 49 from the coast to the delta is not a "two-lane back road" but we'll give her poetic license for dramatic effect.)

 

The Hate U Give (Angie Thomas)

Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter moves between two worlds: the poor neighborhood where she lives and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. The uneasy balance between these worlds is shattered when Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil at the hands of a police officer. Khalil was unarmed.

My Review: 

This book was written in 2017, but I could not have picked a better time to read it. It was such a powerful read, and it was eye-opening to follow the story of police killing of a young, unarmed black man from the perspective of the young black woman who witnessed it. The grief, anger, fear, regrets, powerlessness...author Angie Thomas* deserves every success for putting it all on the page for us.
* Another author I probably would have read earlier had I realized she is also a Mississippi girl. I was probably halfway through the book, thinking it was maybe set in Chicago? When I googled it and learned it is actually a fictionalized version of a Jackson, Mississippi, neighborhood (Thomas's hometown)

 

Kindred (Octavia Buter)

Dana, a modern black woman, is celebrating her twenty-sixth birthday with her new husband when she is snatched abruptly from her home in California and transported to the antebellum South. Rufus, the white son of a plantation owner, is drowning, and Dana has been summoned to save him. Dana is drawn back repeatedly through time to the slave quarters, and each time the stay grows longer, more arduous, and more dangerous until it is uncertain whether or not Dana's life will end, long before it has a chance to begin.

My Review: 

On the way to work one Saturday, I listened to This American Life. In the wake of worldwide protests against police violence and racism, the show re-ran a 2017 episode based on Afrofuturism. It included a reference to this 1979 book, a popular Afrofuturist story of a woman who finds herself traveling back and forth between her contemporary life in the present, and the world of her ancestors in the antebellum south, where she's treated like a slave. I downloaded it when I got home.
I'm not sure what I hoped I could learn from this book. I just know that I am trying to listen to black voices more. In the story, Dana is transported back to the early 1800s when white man finds himself in danger. And although she repeatedly saves his life, he often treats her rather viciously - or allows her to be treated as his property.
I kept wanting someone to stand up and say, "You brought her here! She doesn't belong here! She comes from a time when slavery is abolished and black people are free! Quit calling her back or at least treat her right!"
But no one ever did.
The boy she repeatedly saved, Rufus, called her back over and over because he "loved" her. More precisely, he needed her and wanted her there with him. To be fair, his parents were awful and he was a product of his time. Forcing women - especially black women - to stay with him and succumb to his will was normal for him. Even a free black woman from the future.
It all felt remarkably unfair and selfish.
The book was written in 1979 and yet we still struggle as a nation with mistreatment of African Americans. We remain at the mercy of men in power who believe that the lives of women and African Americans are not worthy of the same rights, opportunities and freedoms as the citizens who look like them.

 

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry (Gabrielle Zevin)

A. J. Fikry's life is not at all what he expected it to be. His wife has died; his bookstore is experiencing the worst sales in its history; and now his prized possession, a rare collection of Poe poems, has been stolen. Slowly but surely, he is isolating himself from all the people of Alice Island. Even the books in his store have stopped holding pleasure for him. These days, he can only see them as a sign of a world that is changing too rapidly.And then a mysterious package appears at the bookstore.

My Review: 

Well this was just lovely. I perhaps have a new favorite genre: quirky older men who own bookshops.

 

The Flatshare (Beth O'Leary)

Their friends think they're crazy, but it's the perfect solution: Leon occupies the one-bed flat while Tiffy's at work in the day, and she has the run of the place the rest of the time.

My Review: 

I liked this book and these characters very much. I'm changing my rule from "almost never read chick-lit" to "only read only the top echelon chick-lit." I wasn't sure I was going to like Tiffy at the beginning. She seemed a little flighty and impractical. Like she was completely oblivious to how the world works. No, you don't get to live in your boyfriend's apartment rent-free for months after he breaks up with you. No, you don't move into someone else's fully furnished flat and redecorate it with all your own stuff. But the characters became well-developed - and likable! (well, except that one) - and she turned out to be a determined, strong young woman. 

 

Red, White & Royal Blue (Casey McQuiston)

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.

My Review: 

After all the glowing reviews, I expected to like this book. I DID NOT expect to fall in love with it like I did.
Red, White & Royal Blue has been compared to The Royal We - indeed, Casey McQuiston credits the book for inspiring her - so that is why I signed on for this. It DID NOT disappoint.
A charming story with really strong writing, just like Royal We, so I get the comparisons. But here's the thing. This book brought me to tears several times. And I do not cry at books and movies. Except for Steel Magnolias. That was "HOW WILL THAT BAY-BEE EVAH KNOW WHAT SHE WENT THROUGH FOR HIM???" That's different. I don't cry at emotional love stories. But this one got me. That is a true testament to Casey's writing.
Part of the reason this book resonates like it does is because Casey so adroitly wove in the current events of the time. Apparently, she was writing it leading up to the 2016 presidential election, assuming we would have our first woman president. (I'm SUPER-GLAD she went through with it, though she must've been even more despondent than the rest of us.) The beating Henry the Spare took from the Queen for loving Alex is similar to what Harry the Spare must've taken from QEII for loving a divorced, bi-racial American actress. Or so the tabloids say.
Every bio I've read on Casey says that she grew up in South Louisiana but never mentions the town. Someone help me find that out.

 

Such a Fun Age (Kiley Reid)

Alix Chamberlain is a woman who gets what she wants and has made a living, with her confidence-driven brand, showing other women how to do the same. So she is shocked when her babysitter, Emira Tucker, is confronted while watching the Chamberlains' toddler one night, walking the aisles of their local high-end supermarket. The store's security guard, seeing a young black woman out late with a white child, accuses Emira of kidnapping two-year-old Briar. A small crowd gathers, a bystander films everything, and Emira is furious and humiliated. Alix resolves to make things right.

My Review: 

This book had a lot of twists for a story that isn't a mystery/thriller. You don't usually get that in a straight fiction novel like this. Excellently done!
 

Fates and Furies (Lauren Groff)

At age twenty-two, Lotto and Mathilde are tall, glamorous, madly in love, and destined for greatness. A decade later, their marriage is still the envy of their friends, but with an electric thrill we understand that things are even more complicated and remarkable than they have seemed.

My Review: 

I decided to re-read this during the Coronavirus Outbreak 2020 because I remembered that I really liked it, but couldn't remember much else about it.I had forgotten that they had a dog named God. Who was a girl.I had not forgotten how beautiful the writing is. I usually don't read books that brag beautiful prose. I prefer regular writing. But this somehow managed to be really beautiful writing without being flowery.I still don't really understand that final chapter in the Fates section.
 

Oligarchy (Scarlett Thomas)

It’s already the second week of term when Natasha, the daughter of a Russian oligarch, arrives at a vast English country house for her first day of boarding school. She soon discovers that the headmaster gives special treatment to the skinniest girls, and Natasha finds herself thrown into the school’s unfamiliar, moneyed world of fierce pecking orders, eating disorders, and Instagram angst. When her friend Bianca mysteriously vanishes, the world of the school gets ever darker and stranger.

My Review: 

My biggest complaint about books is that so, so many of them are formulaic. Chick lit? Formulaic. Page-turners? Formulaic. Sad love stories where one or more of them die at the end? Formulaic. And it's why I patently refuse to read authors who have more than one shelf at the bookstore. Now, that's not to say that it's all bad. If it's decently written, I have learned to abide the lack of originality.
Occasionally a book comes along that defies the odds, either with a unique story line or a unique telling of one. There are a number of things about this book that I found unique, including the "Miss Jean Brodie for the digital age" comparison, the way that the story is told and the odd twist that makes it more than just a coming-of-age story.I highly recommend this book if you're looking for something out of the ordinary - a story that's both a good story and written well.

 

4-Star Books: 

Patsy (Nicole Dennis-Benn)

American Spy (Lauren Wilkinson)

Queenie (Candice Carty-Williams)

The Jetsetters (Amanda Eyre Ward)

When you don't read mysteries or romance, I guess what you're left with are stories about dysfunctional families. 

Ask Again, Yes (Mary Beth Keane)

Me Before You (Jojo Moyes)

The Keeper of Lost Things (Ruth Hogan)

City of Girls (Elizabeth Gilbert)

 

3-Star Books: 

In Five Years (Rebecca Serle)

American Royals (Katharine McGee)

Searing for Sylvie Lee (Jean Kwok)

The Helpline (Katherine Collette)

She's like Sheldon but at least Sheldon was written funny. This girl's not even witty.

Eat, Drink and Be from Mississippi (Nanci Kincaid)

Midnight at the Blackbird Cafe (Heather Webber)

One Day in December (Josie Silver)

A Paris Apartment (Michelle Gable)

An intriguing story based off a real event. I would've given it four stars but some of the dialogue was a little repetitive.

The Story of Arthur Truluv (Elizabeth Berg)

My Year of Rest and Relaxation (Ottessa Moshfegh)

Were we rooting for the Rest & Relaxation girl to get better? Because she was a horrible person. I was kinda hoping she flew out the window tbh.

The Post Mistress (Sarah Blake)

The Room-Mating Season (Rona Jaffe)

The Playground (Jane Shemilt)

 

2-Stars: 

All This Could Be Yours (Jami Attendberg)

The Floating Feldmans (Elyssa Friedland)

Bringing Down the Duke (Evie Dunmore)

I think I accidentally read a romance novel?

 

DNF: 

To Be Honest (MAggie Ann Martin)

How Could She (Laruen Mechling)

I wasn't hating this book, but then I came across the line that said, "Shall we pretend we didn't here that?" and I was all HERE THAT? Well now I don't want to read this book anymore. 

 

 

 

 

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