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My first book reviews of 2020 include only ONE new book, but many other slightly older books that are also worth reading.
I made an effort in December to read a couple of books from my own shelf, as well as some nonfiction books that I’ve been wanting to fit in–and it was worth the effort!
I love reading advanced reader copies, but it was also freeing to peruse my shelf and pull down a couple that I’ve been wanting to read for a long time. I’m looking forward to doing this throughout the year as the second part of my reading challenge.
While I don’t generally find the holidays super relaxing, this year they ended up being a good time to sink into some books. I was recovering from some dental surgery–nothing major, but the healing is definitely taking some time–so I was basically forced to rest more than I otherwise would.
Of course, rest=reading (okay, and Netflix, especially the first few days!).
Anyway, here’s what I’ve been reading. (And, for the first time, I’m experimenting with star ratings. I’m not sure yet if I’ll continue to use them. Thoughts?)
January 2020 Book Reviews (Print)
When Emira–a black woman in her mid-twenties–is accused of kidnapping her young babysitting charge one night at the grocery store, her affluent white employer, Alix, tries too hard to make it up to her. Emira just wants the whole thing to go away while she figures out her life, but a man at the store caught it all on video.
Emira runs into him again and the two start a relationship–but his interest in her may not be what it seems. Alix nurses an unhealthy fascination with Emira and her active social life, while Emira’s friends struggle with how to help her find her footing.
This is a solid debut that tries to be a lot of things: quarter-life crisis novel, social commentary on race and privilege, and a subtle takedown of microaggressions. It mostly succeeds and I found this to be a solid debut, despite the many unlikeable characters.
I should preface this by saying that I LOVE the classic desert island survival trope. I will read or watch any story about people stranded on a desert island.
So I was already predisposed toward this story, but it still managed to surprise me. The plot itself is not unique–plane goes down, two survivors land on an island, initial hatred turns to love. But Huckelbridge’s literary style, vivid characters, and the way that he intertwined art, music, and reflections on love, loss, and home elevated this book beyond my expectations. I loved it from start to finish.
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Holocaust survivor Leo Gursky spends his lonely days in New York devising small ways to be seen and reflecting on his lost love. Fourteen-year old Alma Singer is plotting to ease her mother’s loneliness, and she thinks the book her mother is translating may hold the key. Through alternating narratives, the story of how the two intersect slowly unfolds.
I have mixed feelings about this book. Leo ended up being a character I loved (though I was indifferent to most of the others) and one particular twist was brilliantly executed. Krauss’s writing style, however, did not particularly resonate and I often felt frustrated by how long it took to reorient to the narrator, setting, and time period with each new chapter. If you enjoy literary books about books, this might be one to try.
I also finally finished a book I’ve been wanting to read for several years and had planned for Nonfiction November–just in time for the film. I love that the movie is bringing even more attention to Just Mercy and the work of Bryan Stevenson.
Underland journeys into some of the earth’s deepest, most unimaginable spaces. Macfarlane travels around the world to spaces including natural caves, mines, urban caverns, research labs, and nuclear storage facilities, as well as to forests and glaciers, exploring their roles both in the beginning of human time and their imagined roles many millennia in the future. He manages to evoke both claustrophobia and a dizzying sense of the vastness of time and space all at once, as he asks the question: “Are we being good ancestors to the people of the future?”
Macfarlane’s prose can veer toward overdone, but in most cases it’s justified: the places he visits are truly awe-inducing, and contemplating their roles in the past, present, and future of the world is mind blowing. So this book did require some patience on my part, but as I settled in with it–because it is not a fast read–each chapter was more fascinating than the last.
Just Mercy is Bryan Stevenson’s memoir about his early years as a young lawyer when he founded the Equal Justice Initiative, which defends death row inmates, the poor, and others trapped by an unjust criminal justice system, including children. Stevenson recounts numerous cases in which he is stonewalled by a system stacked against his clients, bound by red tape, and filled with corruption.
I was enthralled by Stevenson’s story–his relentless dedication in such frustrating, impossible circumstances, as well as the cases and often horrifying lives that some of his clients were sentenced to, even when they were children or almost certainly innocent.
January 2020 Audiobook Reviews
I loved Jane Harper’s 2019 novel The Lost Man, so I knew I wanted to try out some of her previous books that others had also raved about. In a small town in Australia, Aaron Falk has returned for the funeral of his best friend, Luke, and Luke’s wife and son. It appears that it was a murder-suicide, but Aaron has a hard time believing that’s true. As he investigates, secrets both past and present come to light.
This was a gripping mystery, and Harper uses the Australian landscape and culture of the farms and small towns to full advantage. My only complaint was a little trouble keeping the various characters straight on audio, but the narrator was excellent if you’re able to listen carefully.
Fifteen-year-old Ana’s mother sees one path for their family to get to America from the Dominican Republic in 1965: Ana’s marriage to Juan Ruiz. With little English and few skills, Ana is isolated at the mercy of Juan, who is unfaithful and sometimes cruel. When he returns to the Dominican Republic for several months, she begins to dream of a new kind of life for herself, with Juan’s brother Cesar. But she must make a decision when her family’s dreams of joining her become reality.
I appreciated Ana’s story and felt her isolation and desperation. Audio was maybe not the right format for this one–it felt overlong and the story was too internal for my listening taste. I did love the interview with author Angie Cruz at the end, who described how her own mother’s story and New York’s Dominican community inspired her to write this book.
What are you reading and loving this month?