Book Review: The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi

Title: The Collapsing Empire (The Interdependency, #1)
Author: John Scalzi
Publisher: Tor
Publication date: March 21, 2017
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

⭐⭐⭐⭐

The first novel of a new space-opera sequence set in an all-new universe by the Hugo Award-winning, New York Times-bestselling author of Redshirts and Old Man’s War.

Our universe is ruled by physics and faster than light travel is not possible — until the discovery of The Flow, an extra-dimensional field we can access at certain points in space-time that transport us to other worlds, around other stars.

Humanity flows away from Earth, into space, and in time forgets our home world and creates a new empire, the Interdependency, whose ethos requires that no one human outpost can survive without the others. It’s a hedge against interstellar war — and a system of control for the rulers of the empire.

The Flow is eternal — but it is not static. Just as a river changes course, The Flow changes as well, cutting off worlds from the rest of humanity. When it’s discovered that The Flow is moving, possibly cutting off all human worlds from faster than light travel forever, three individuals — a scientist, a starship captain and the Empress of the Interdependency — are in a race against time to discover what, if anything, can be salvaged from an interstellar empire on the brink of collapse.

It’s been a while since I’ve read John Scalzi — about a year and a half, in fact, since I finished his Old Man’s War series. And I gotta say, it’s great to be back!

The Collapsing Empire is the first book in the Interdependency trilogy, which concludes with the upcoming The Last Emperox, to be published in April 2020.

In this trilogy, humanity has left Earth behind and has settled in a vast collection of systems known as the Interdependency, which functions as an empire ruled by hereditary royalty (the Emperox), with a leadership council made up of representatives of the ruling houses (the nobility), the church, and the parliament. The Emperox is the supreme leader and is also the head of the church. Whew. Kind of complicated.

The planets of the Interdependency are far-flung and without (non-existent) faster than light travel, would be completely isolated from one another. But there’s the Flow, a space-time current that, well, flows between the different system and allows for interplanetary commerce and travel. It’s been assumed that the Flow is stable, but a new, secret study shows that it’s collapsing… and once it collapses, the worlds it connects will once again be isolated. And given how interwoven economically the worlds of the Interdependency are, isolation will likely mean the eventual extinction of the human race, as none of these worlds are capable of self-sustenance.

That’s a lot to take in, right? I actually started this book as an audiobook, as I usually love Scalzi audiobooks thanks to (a) the humor and (b) the awesome narration by Wil Wheaton. With The Collapsing Empire, though, I had to switch to print before I even made it through the prologue. There was simply too much detail to take in, and for me at least, absorbing it all merely by listening just wasn’t going to work.

Thankfully, once I switched to print, I definitely got into the flow (ha!) of the story. It’s not terribly long, but the author absolutely packs it full of people, governmental systems, intricate family relationships, backstory on trade and rebellions, and much, much more.

But beyond how much world-building there is to adjust to, there’s the fun of the characters and their craziness. Scalzi books are always funny, and his characters here are not comic, but so clever and snarky that they made me giggle anyway. There ‘s a lot of scheming and manipulation and threats and bribery and intimidation, and it’s all great fun. Not to mention the fact that the story itself is pretty compelling — I’m going to want to get my hands on the next book, The Consuming Fire, just as soon as I can.

While I really enjoyed this book, I think it was perhaps just a little too packed for my taste. I had to stop and reread paragraphs all the time, just to make sure I was absorbing all the points about the government and the planets and the laws and the houses… like I said, it’s a lot.

Do I recommend this book? Definitely! But just be aware that while it’s mostly light-hearted, it’s not actually a light read. Be prepared to put in a bit of effort, and it’ll be fine.

Book Review: The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Reid Jenkins [a spoiler-free review!]

Title: The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo
Author: Taylor Jenkins Reid
Publisher: Washington Square Press
Publication date: June 13, 2017
Length: 389 pages
Genre: Contemporary/historical fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Aging and reclusive Hollywood movie icon Evelyn Hugo is finally ready to tell the truth about her glamorous and scandalous life. But when she chooses unknown magazine reporter Monique Grant for the job, no one is more astounded than Monique herself. Why her? Why now? Monique is not exactly on top of the world. Her husband has left her, and her professional life is going nowhere. Regardless of why Evelyn has selected her to write her biography, Monique is determined to use this opportunity to jumpstart her career.

Summoned to Evelyn’s luxurious apartment, Monique listens in fascination as the actress tells her story. From making her way to Los Angeles in the 1950s to her decision to leave show business in the ’80s, and, of course, the seven husbands along the way, Evelyn unspools a tale of ruthless ambition, unexpected friendship, and a great forbidden love. Monique begins to feel a very real connection to the legendary star, but as Evelyn’s story near its conclusion, it becomes clear that her life intersects with Monique’s own in tragic and irreversible ways. The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is a mesmerizing journey through the splendor of old Hollywood into the harsh realities of the present day as two women struggle with what it means–and what it costs–to face the truth. 

My first 5-star read of 2020! The only question is, why did it take me until now to read this excellent book?

I’ve been a fan of author Taylor Jenkins Reid for several years now. I first read her book Maybe in Another Life when it was released in 2015, then went back and read everything else she’s written. I loved, loved, loved last year’s Daisy Jones and the Six. But for whatever reason, despite having a copy on my shelf since 2017, I just didn’t get around to Evelyn Hugo. Now I finally see what all the buzz was about — and let me tell you, it’s all completely justified!

By now, most people have probably read this amazing book — but here’s the thing: I went into The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo remarkably unspoiled. I’d read the blurb, and knew it was about a former Hollywood icon who’d been married seven times. And that’s it.

(And thinking about it, perhaps that’s why I didn’t feel especially compelled to pick up the book, despite all the glowing reviews. Hollywood stars and scandals isn’t usually a topic that draws me.)

Now, having read the book, I know just how much more there is to Evelyn’s story. And I am so appreciative of the fact that I read it with no expectations and no advance knowledge of the true depths waiting to be discovered.

So, for the sake of anyone who hasn’t had the pleasure of reading The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo yet, I’m not going to give anything away!

Taylor Jenkins Reid introduces us to star Evelyn Hugo at age 79, as she’s finally ready to share her true story to a relatively unknown writer. Why does she choose Monique? Why tell her story now, after so many years outside of the spotlight? All will be revealed by the end!

Evelyn is a marvelous character, a girl who came from nothing and reached the pinnacle of Hollywood stardom. The public came to know her through her movies and awards, but she became equally (if not more) famous for her series of marriages and their scandals.

But each marriage is a key to understanding the puzzle that is Evelyn. Each reveals yet another chapter of her history and her control of her own narrative and destiny.

As I said, I simply refuse to give anything away, because I love the fact that all of Evelyn’s secrets ended up surprising me as I read the book. But here’s what I can share:

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is filled with:

  • Complex, fascinating characters
  • Powerful emotional connections
  • Deep, abiding friendship
  • True, passionate love
  • A reverence for families of all sorts
  • Unflinchingly honest reflections on sacrifice, power, manipulation, scandal, and fame

… and so much more.

I just loved this book, plain and simple. I think it would make a fantastic book group choice, as there’s so much to mull over and think about. I’m pushing this book on a few key bookish friends so I can talk about it with them!

As if I were in any doubt, this book absolutely confirms the talent of Taylor Jenkins Reid. I can’t wait to see what she writes next! Whatever it is, I’ll be first in line to read it.

Interested in this author? Check out my reviews of:

Forever, Interrupted (2013)
After I Do (2014)
Maybe In Another Life (2015)
One True Loves (2016)
Daisy Jones & The Six (2019)


Book Review: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

In the early 1900s, teenaged Sunja, the adored daughter of a crippled fisherman, falls for a wealthy stranger at the seashore near her home in Korea. He promises her the world, but when she discovers she is pregnant–and that her lover is married–she refuses to be bought. Instead, she accepts an offer of marriage from a gentle, sickly minister passing through on his way to Japan. But her decision to abandon her home, and to reject her son’s powerful father, sets off a dramatic saga that will echo down through the generations.

Richly told and profoundly moving, Pachinko is a story of love, sacrifice, ambition, and loyalty. From bustling street markets to the halls of Japan’s finest universities to the pachinko parlors of the criminal underworld, Lee’s complex and passionate characters–strong, stubborn women, devoted sisters and sons, fathers shaken by moral crisis–survive and thrive against the indifferent arc of history.

Pachinko is a multi-generational family saga which starts with Sunja, the teen-aged daughter of two poor but loving parents who instill in Sunja a love of family and the value of hard work and sacrifice for the sake of those you love. Over the course of this 500-page novel, we follow Sunja from Korea to Japan, and then follow her descendants through two more generations, as her children and her grandchildren struggle to find their place living in Japan but never able to shed their otherness as Koreans.

The early sections of the book focus on Sunja herself, as she finds herself pregnant by an older man who offers to set her up with a comfortable life as his Korean wife, despite never being able to marry her since he’s already married in Japan. When Sunja rejects his offer, she faces a life of shame until a kind but ill minister decides to devote himself to her and provide a life for Sunja and the baby in Osaka.

Life in Japan is hard, as the Koreans live in a squalid ghetto-like neighborhood and struggle to survive. As the second World War progresses, the family faces greater and greater dangers, and yet Sunja’s family grows through her two sons as well as the extended family she finds in her brother- and sister-in-law.

Over the years, Sunja’s children grow into young men, and each faces his own set of obstacles and challenges. While post-war Japan offers greater opportunities in some ways, the Korean immigrants and their Japanese-born children are continually treated as inferior, looked upon as dirty and undesirable and criminal. The discrimination, portrayed in this book through the 1980s, is unrelenting and very disturbing.

The plot covers about 50 years, and during these decades the focus shifts away from Sunja and toward the younger generation and their friends, relationships, and their own struggles. While my attention was mostly held throughout, by the last third of the book I started to feel that the story was becoming a little too dispersed. Not only were there chapters about Sunja’s children and grandchildren, but there was also a chapter focused on the wife of Sunja’s son’s best friend and other on the girlfriend of one of her sons. As more and more characters are introduced and given backstories, the main characters tend to slip into the background. Why should Sunja’s story become less interesting as she ages? She’s little more than a supporting character by the final sections of the book, although the final chapters wrap up her story very well and bring the various plot points back together.

Still, there’s plenty to enjoy and discuss in Pachinko. I knew little about Korean history or the status of Koreans living in Japan prior to reading this book, so it was quite eye-opening for me. The intricate relationships and tensions between the characters are informed by the social status of the Koreans and how they view themselves and their roles in Japan, sometimes in really destructive ways.

Pachinko is an ambitious novel that covers a woman’s life from girlhood to old age, showing her loves and commitments and determination, as well as the legacy she leaves for her children. With memorable characters and heart-breaking events, Pachinko would make a great book group choice, as there’s plenty of food for thought and discussion.

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The details:

Title: Pachinko
Author: Min Jin Lee
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Publication date: February 7, 2017
Length: 502 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Purchased

Audiobook Review: When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon


Dimple Shah has it all figured out. With graduation behind her, she’s more than ready for a break from her family, from Mamma’s inexplicable obsession with her finding the “Ideal Indian Husband.” Ugh. Dimple knows they must respect her principles on some level, though. If they truly believed she needed a husband right now, they wouldn’t have paid for her to attend a summer program for aspiring web developers…right?

Rishi Patel is a hopeless romantic. So when his parents tell him that his future wife will be attending the same summer program as him—wherein he’ll have to woo her—he’s totally on board. Because as silly as it sounds to most people in his life, Rishi wants to be arranged, believes in the power of tradition, stability, and being a part of something much bigger than himself.

The Shahs and Patels didn’t mean to start turning the wheels on this “suggested arrangement” so early in their children’s lives, but when they noticed them both gravitate toward the same summer program, they figured, Why not?

Dimple and Rishi may think they have each other figured out. But when opposites clash, love works hard to prove itself in the most unexpected ways.

When Dimple Met Rishi is a sweet, fun young adult romance, focusing on two teens, fresh out of high school, dealing with the expectations of their Indian families while also trying to find their own way in life.

Dimple is passionate about her future as a coder, and despite her mother’s focus on finding a husband for her headstrong daughter, Dimple swears that she’s going to be laser-focused on her education and career. Rishi is devoted to his parents and is determined to make them happy, by becoming an MIT-educated engineer and settling down with a nice Indian wife.

Dimple and Rishi meet at Insomnia-con, a six-week coding competition held on the campus of San Francisco State University. Students work in pairs to develop their own  unique app, and the winning team gets a chance to work with a successful web developer, Jenny Lindt — Dimple’s idol, who is everything she aspires to be.

Things are rocky right from the start for Dimple and Rishi. He greets her as his “future wife”, and Dimple throws her iced coffee on him. Yeesh, not good. It turns out that their parents have conspired to bring them together, and while Rishi is totally on board for this, Dimple isn’t. Not only is she not on board, she’s also completely unaware — her parents didn’t share their plans with her. Dimple is furious, even more so when she learns that Rishi and she have been assigned to be partners, so she’ll be spending oodles of time with him over the next six weeks.

Once past her initial anger, Dimple starts to appreciate Rishi. He’s not a hardcore coder like she is — in fact, he doesn’t care all that much about Insomnia-con, whereas she’s been living for this opportunity. Still, realizing how important it is to Dimple, Rishi throws himself into it as well. As the summer progresses and their tech ideas take wing, a friendship blooms between Dimple and Rishi… and from friendship, attraction and romance start to bloom as well.

The characters are really engaging and likable. Even though they have very different outlooks on life, it’s clear to see that they’re both passionate in their own ways. Rishi, it turns out, is following his parentally approved path to MIT, but in his secret heart of hearts, his true calling is to become a comic book artist. Through Dimple’s eyes, we learn just how talented he is, and it’s hard to understand how he could shut off that piece of himself in order to please his parents.

The two main characters’ Indian heritage adds so much to this story, as we see the weight of family traditions and expectations, but also see the cultural aspects in everyday aspects of their lives such as clothing, food, music, and more. When Rishi and Dimple are required to compete in the Insomnia-con talent show, they choose to perform a Bollywood-inspired dance, from this video:

I felt that the inner struggles both Dimple and Rishi face were portrayed really convincingly. Dimple is completely thrown off guard by her feelings for Rishi, and desperately wants to avoid allowing romance to derail her from her career aspirations into a life more suited to her mother’s preferences. And Rishi is so afraid of letting his parents down that he refuses to even consider taking the opportunities that come his way in the art world.

On the negative side, the pacing is a bit… off. It felt as though the first three weeks of the summer took up most of the story, and then suddenly we jump to the final days of the competition. That means a lot of time is spent on the early days, and then, somewhat bizarrely, on the talent show. I didn’t quite get why a talent show was at all relevant in a coding program, except for the fact that the winners get prize money to put toward their project development. Still, there’s way too much time spent on Dimple and Rishi rehearsing their dance number, and as adorable as they are together, it didn’t quite mesh with the rest of the story.

Some of the emotional crises in the relationship felt rather hollow and immature. They each goad each other and mistrust each other in some pretty petty ways… although to be fair, they’re young, and I suppose the depiction of a turbulent first love is probably pretty realistic.

My other issue with the story is that Dimple is so focused on winning the competition that there’s not much consideration given for any of the other students involved, other than a group of “Aber-zombies” who rely on nepotism rather than talent to get ahead. Granted, Rishi came to Insomnia-con to meet Dimple, but it bugged me that they’re always referring to their project as Dimple’s, and the focus is on whether Dimple wins, not them as a team.

A note on the narration:

The dual narrators, Sneha Mathan and Vikas Adam, take turns narrating sections told from each of the characters’ perspectives. We bounce back and forth between “Rishi” and “Dimple” sections, and the narrators are great at capturing their voices, inner thoughts, and emotions — love, frustration, anger, disappointment, laughter, and more. Plus, they’re able to convey other characters, like their parents or other Insomnia-con participants, in a way that makes the story feel energetic and full of life.

Wrapping it all up:

When Dimple Met Rishi is truly a lot of fun to listen to, although the pacing issues with the story occasionally made the audiobook feel like it was dragging. Overall, though, I really enjoyed it. Dimple and Rishi are great characters with good hearts, and the storyline as a whole is engaging and hopeful, and sends some good messaging about being true to oneself and following your dream. I’ll definitely want to check out more by this author.

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The details:

Title: When Dimple Met Rishi
Author: Sandhya Menon
Narrated by: Sneha Mathan, Vikas Adam
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Publication date: May 30, 2017
Length (print): 380 pages
Length (audiobook): 10 hours, 45 minutes
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Library

Take A Peek Book Review: Roomies by Christina Lauren

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Marriages of convenience are so…inconvenient.

For months Holland Bakker has invented excuses to descend into the subway station near her apartment, drawn to the captivating music performed by her street musician crush. Lacking the nerve to actually talk to the gorgeous stranger, fate steps in one night in the form of a drunken attacker. Calvin Mcloughlin rescues her, but quickly disappears when the police start asking questions.

Using the only resource she has to pay the brilliant musician back, Holland gets Calvin an audition with her uncle, Broadway’s hottest musical director. When the tryout goes better than even Holland could have imagined, Calvin is set for a great entry into Broadway—until his reason for disappearing earlier becomes clear: he’s in the country illegally, his student visa having expired years ago.

Seeing that her uncle needs Calvin as much as Calvin needs him, a wild idea takes hold of her. Impulsively, she marries the Irishman, her infatuation a secret only to him. As their relationship evolves and Calvin becomes the darling of Broadway—in the middle of the theatrics and the acting-not-acting—will Holland and Calvin to realize that they both stopped pretending a long time ago?

My Thoughts:

Yet another sweet, wish-fulfillment romantic story by the amazing writing duo Christina Lauren! There’s not much of a shred of realism in the plot, but it’s oh so fun to just kick back and go with the flow.

We have Holland, mid-twenties, with an MFA that she’s not using, living a comfortable New York life (thanks to her amazing, generous uncles) — who decides that marrying her crush is the best way to help him get legal residence in the US so he can pursue his musical career. Of course, Calvin is both incredibly gorgeous and unbelievably talented, as well as being sweet, smart, and a considerate and passionate lover. Of course, Calvin shoots to instant stardom. And of course, their fake marriage turns into a real marriage, although not without the requisite trust and communication issues that plague any good contemporary romance.

It’s all good fun, and the happy ending is never in doubt. It’s an entertaining, sexy romp, and even though we know that these two crazy lovebirds will end up together, the excitement is in seeing how they get there. The book is quick and light, and despite the moments of emotional turmoil and illogical behavior, the characters are always likable (and have enough of a sense of humor to get past some super awkward situations.)

This is my 4th Christina Lauren book, and I have yet to encounter a dud! Not exactly deep reading, but great for when you need something cheery.

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The details:

Title: Roomies
Author: Christina Lauren
Publisher: Gallery Books
Publication date: December 5, 2017
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Library

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Take A Peek Book Review: Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

 

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Everyone in Shaker Heights was talking about it that summer: how Isabelle, the last of the Richardson children, had finally gone around the bend and burned the house down.

In Shaker Heights, a placid, progressive suburb of Cleveland, everything is meticulously planned – from the layout of the winding roads, to the colours of the houses, to the successful lives its residents will go on to lead. And no one embodies this spirit more than Elena Richardson, whose guiding principle is playing by the rules.

Enter Mia Warren – an enigmatic artist and single mother – who arrives in this idyllic bubble with her teenage daughter Pearl, and rents a house from the Richardsons. Soon Mia and Pearl become more than just tenants: all four Richardson children are drawn to the alluring mother-daughter pair. But Mia carries with her a mysterious past, and a disregard for the rules that threatens to upend this carefully ordered community.

When the Richardsons’ friends attempt to adopt a Chinese-American baby, a custody battle erupts that dramatically divides the town and puts Mia and Mrs. Richardson on opposing sides. Suspicious of Mia and her motives, Mrs. Richardson becomes determined to uncover the secrets in Mia’s past. But her obsession will come at unexpected and devastating costs to her own family – and Mia’s.

Little Fires Everywhere explores the weight of long-held secrets and the ferocious pull of motherhood-and the danger of believing that planning and following the rules can avert disaster, or heartbreak.

My Thoughts:

I read Little Fires Everywhere all in one sitting (on a flight from east coast to west), and that may not have been the best approach. I tore through the book to see how it would all work out, but didn’t give myself much breathing or digesting room. That said, Little Fires Everywhere is an absorbing read. I wouldn’t describe it as action-packed by any means — it’s really a character study, looking at families and neighborhoods and the strange and unintended dynamics that can overtake people and change their lives.

The story is a little too scattered for me to fully embrace. I would have liked to understand the characters better, especially the members of the Richardson family, but some of them are presented as sketches rather than fully formed people. This felt particularly true with Izzy — we only see her sporadically throughout the book, and I never felt that I truly had a sense of her as a person. Mr. Richardson is basically absent from the story, which maybe is indicative of his traditional father role — his realm is outside in the world, rather than in the domestic life of the family. Even Trip and Moody, the two Richardson sons, felt vague to me. I would have needed to know these characters in a more meaningful way to fully embrace the story and care about them.

On the other hand, I did really enjoy the parts of the story more focused on Mia Warren. Her backstory was the most interesting part of the plot. However, the adoption/custody battle seemed an odd choice as the event that divided the neighborhood and the families.

All in all, I did enjoy Little Fires Everywhere, especially the depiction of suburban life in the 90s — but the scattered feeling of the story and the lack of deeper character development keep me from calling this a five-star read.

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The details:

Title: Little Fires Everywhere
Author: Celeste Ng
Publisher: Penguin Press
Publication date: September 12, 2017
Length: 338 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased

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Take A Peek Book Review: Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

 

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Yejide and Akin have been married since they met and fell in love at university. Though many expected Akin to take several wives, he and Yejide have always agreed: polygamy is not for them. But four years into their marriage–after consulting fertility doctors and healers, trying strange teas and unlikely cures–Yejide is still not pregnant. She assumes she still has time–until her family arrives on her doorstep with a young woman they introduce as Akin’s second wife. Furious, shocked, and livid with jealousy, Yejide knows the only way to save her marriage is to get pregnant, which, finally, she does, but at a cost far greater than she could have dared to imagine. An electrifying novel of enormous emotional power, Stay With Me asks how much we can sacrifice for the sake of family.

My Thoughts:

Stay With Me is a powerful look at the tragedies that befall a young Nigerian woman for whom the pressure to provide children becomes the dominating force in her life. Yejide’s mother was one of her father’s many wives, and polygamy is still prevalent in her culture. Although she and her husband married for love and agreed to have a monogamous relationship, the absolute focus on reproduction and providing an heir eventually causes her husband to accept a second wife, which begins a downward spiral for Yejide.

The books is so much more than simply Yejide’s struggle to have children. It’s about marriage and family, the cost of lies, and the role of women in a society that places men’s needs first. Stay With Me provides a glimpse into a culture that’s probably unknown to most Western readers, and weaves folklore into the narrative in clever and meaningful ways. The violence and upheavals of Nigeria’s political climate provide a backdrop to the story of family and loyalty. Stay With Me is a quick read, but provides a lot of food for thought.

Yet another great book club pick! I can’t wait to discuss it with my group.

Read more about Stay With Me:

New York Times review
NPR
The Guardian review
Chicago Tribune review

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The details:

Title: Stay With Me
Author: Ayobami Adebayo
Publisher: Knopf Publishing Goup
Publication date: August 22, 2017
Length: 260 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Library

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Take A Peek Book Review: Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

 

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

No one’s ever told Eleanor that life should be better than fine.

Meet Eleanor Oliphant: She struggles with appropriate social skills and tends to say exactly what she’s thinking. Nothing is missing in her carefully timetabled life of avoiding social interactions, where weekends are punctuated by frozen pizza, vodka, and phone chats with Mummy.

But everything changes when Eleanor meets Raymond, the bumbling and deeply unhygienic IT guy from her office. When she and Raymond together save Sammy, an elderly gentleman who has fallen on the sidewalk, the three become the kinds of friends who rescue one another from the lives of isolation they have each been living. And it is Raymond’s big heart that will ultimately help Eleanor find the way to repair her own profoundly damaged one.

Soon to be a major motion picture produced by Reese Witherspoon, Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine is the smart, warm, and uplifting story of an out-of-the-ordinary heroine whose deadpan weirdness and unconscious wit make for an irresistible journey as she realizes. . .

The only way to survive is to open your heart.

My Thoughts:

I had very wrong expectations when I started this book. Based on the synopsis, I was expecting something quirky, potentially funny, maybe reminiscent of The Rosie Project or something similar. I was shocked to discover just how misleading the synopsis is.

Yes, Eleanor has extreme social awkwardness. She lives a desperately lonely life and expects nothing else. But she’s not merely awkward or an odd duck waiting for her chance to shine — she’s the survivor of terrible childhood trauma that informs every moment of her life and keeps her trapped in her contact-free, isolated life.

Don’t get me wrong — Eleanor Oliphant is a terrific book. It’s deeply moving and horribly sad. Eleanor herself is a memorable lead character, lovable despite her coldness and judgmental nature. We understand early on that there’s something terrible lurking beneath the icy, unfeeling exterior. As we get to know Eleanor better, it’s easier to understand what has made her the way she is, and to cheer her on as she takes the necessary small steps toward recovery.

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine is a lovely, powerful book. Once again, I’m grateful to my book group for picking such a great book to discuss. I’ve had this book on my TBR list for a while now, but having a set date on the calendar is what finally made me pick it up… and once I started, I just couldn’t put it down until I finished it.

A final note: I bought my copy via Book Depository. The UK version has a very different cover, which I believe gives a truer sense of the book:

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The details:

Title: Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine
Author: Gail Honeyman
Publisher: Pamela Dorman Books
Publication date: May 9, 2017
Length: 327 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased

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Take A Peek Book Review: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

 

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

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.

Soon afterward, his death is a national headline. Some are calling him a thug, maybe even a drug dealer and a gangbanger. Protesters are taking to the streets in Khalil’s name. Some cops and the local drug lord try to intimidate Starr and her family. What everyone wants to know is: what really went down that night? And the only person alive who can answer that is Starr.

But what Starr does or does not say could upend her community. It could also endanger her life.

My Thoughts:

I don’t think there’s anything I can say about The Hate U Give that hasn’t already been said. Released early in 2017, The Hate U Give has generated a tremendous amount of buzz, has been nominated for and won numerous literary awards, and won the 2017 Goodreads Choice Awards for Young Adult Fiction and Debut Author. Now that I’ve finally read the book, I can add my voice to the raves and say with certainty that all the praise is absolutely deserved.

The Hate U Give is a raw, unfiltered look inside a life and a world that people of privilege never see. It’s an eye-opening, upsetting, deeply human look at the costs of violence, prejudice, and brutality.  Main character Starr leads us through her double life, letting us see the conflicts she faces on a daily basis as she tries to navigate her neighborhood and her school. The entire book is engaging and impossible to put down. Where it really excels is by showing us, through the power of fiction, what the lives behind the headlines look like, and how the victim of violence is too often labeled a thug or a criminal when what truly matters is the person’s life being unjustly ended.

I’m so glad that I finally read The Hate U Give, and will be pushing it on my family and friends. Everyone should read this book.

I’m really looking forward to the movie version as well.

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The details:

Title: The Hate U Give
Author: Angie Thomas
Publisher: Balzer + Bray
Publication date: February 28, 2017
Length: 453 pages
Genre: Young adult fiction
Source: Library

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Book Review: Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate

 

Two families, generations apart, are forever changed by a heartbreaking injustice in this poignant novel, inspired by a true story, for readers of Orphan Train and The Nightingale.

Memphis, 1939. Twelve-year-old Rill Foss and her four younger siblings live a magical life aboard their family’s Mississippi River shantyboat. But when their father must rush their mother to the hospital one stormy night, Rill is left in charge—until strangers arrive in force. Wrenched from all that is familiar and thrown into a Tennessee Children’s Home Society orphanage, the Foss children are assured that they will soon be returned to their parents—but they quickly realize that the truth is much darker. At the mercy of the facility’s cruel director, Rill fights to keep her sisters and brother together—in a world of danger and uncertainty.

Aiken, South Carolina, present day. Born into wealth and privilege, Avery Stafford seems to have it all: a successful career as a federal prosecutor, a handsome fiancé, and a lavish wedding on the horizon. But when Avery returns home to help her father weather a health crisis, a chance encounter leaves her with uncomfortable questions—and compels her to take a journey through her family’s long-hidden history, on a path that will ultimately lead either to devastation or redemption.

Based on one of America’s most notorious real-life scandals—in which Georgia Tann, director of a Memphis-based adoption organization, kidnapped and sold poor children to wealthy families all over the country—Wingate’s riveting, wrenching, and ultimately uplifting tale reminds us how, even though the paths we take can lead to many places, the heart never forgets where we belong.

The story of Before We Were Yours is all the more shocking and heart-breaking when you realize that while the main characters are fictional, the tragedy depicted is all too real.

In this powerful work of historical fiction, we follow the story of 12-year-old Rill, a girl growing up poor but happy on a riverboat with her parents and four younger siblings. But when the children become separated from their parents due to complications of labor and an emergency trip to the hospital, their lives become dark and dangerous. Stolen away by the notorious Georgia Tann, the children are taken to a children’s home, where they’re starved, neglected, and abused before ultimately being adopted out, one by one, to wealthy families who are willing to pay.

In alternating chapters, we follow a modern-day story, as Avery Stafford comes home to South Carolina to support her ill father, a politician from a powerful family. Avery stumbles upon a woman in a nursing home, May Crandall, who seems to have some sort of connection to Avery’s family. What starts as a curiosity for Avery turns into a quest to unravel the mystery of May’s strange tie to Avery’s grandmother, now suffering early stages of dementia. As Avery digs deeper, she begins to see that her family’s hidden past may have intersected with the schemes of Georgia Tann, and Avery must decide if it’s wiser to uncover the truth or let the past stay in the past.

While Avery’s search for answers is interesting, it’s the story of Rill and her sisters and brother that’s truly stunning. The children grow up free and open to adventure, never minding that they’re looked down upon as “river rats”. On board their boat and with their parents, they live in a kingdom of their own. Reading about how this family is torn apart is shocking — it’s amazing how much cruelty was inflicted upon these young children, especially as the story drives home the fact that this happened to thousands of chlidren over a period of more than 20 years.

The mystery of how Avery’s grandmother is connect to May is not revealed until close to the end of the book, and while there are hints along the way, the answer isn’t entirely obvious. Meanwhile, while we see how Rill grew up and changed from the river girl to a woman with a family of her own and a new life, the journey she makes isn’t easy and is no fairy tale. Not all the loose ends are tied up, which is fitting, given that in the historical records of the Georgia Tann scandal, many families never did find their missing children, and many hundreds are believed to have died under the “care” of this awful, twisted adoption industry.

Before We Were Yours is a compelling read, although I was less engaged during the contemporary chapters, particularly when the focus shifted from Avery’s search into family history to dwell more upon Avery’s romantic life and her career choices. Other than that, I found it a quick, fascinating, and terribly sad read.

This was a book group pick, and I’m so glad it was! As with all of my book group’s books, I can’t wait to hear from my bookish friends and to exchange reactions, ideas, and questions.

If you’ve read Before We Were Yours, I’d love to hear your thoughts too!

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The details:

Title: Before We Were Yours
Author: Lisa Wingate
Publisher: Ballantine
Publication date: June 6, 2017
Length: 342 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Library

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