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While all of the books I’m reviewing this September weren’t ultimately winners, they were all enjoyable or thought-provoking enough that I count the whole as a successful reading month.
A couple of them nicely rounded out the summer reading season, while others felt just right for ushering in fall. One is a likely candidate for my overall best of 2018 list, another is a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography that I’ve been wanting to read all year, and another has been on my mind since I finished it–despite my ultimate conclusion that it took a wrong turn.
If you’ve read any of these, I’d love to hear your thoughts!
September 2018 Book Reviews
The Summer Wives is just what summer reading should be: intriguing, escapist, and smart. The story takes place on Winthrop Island, a summer haven for wealthy families. Miranda Schuyler finds herself immersed in the oppressive, secretive world of the rich when her mother marries Hugh Fisher, one of the island's wealthy inhabitants. She forms a fast friendship with her reckless new stepsister, Isobel, who has a complicated relationship with Joseph Vargas, the son of the lighthouse keeper.
Miranda's romance with Joseph culminates in an explosive event that sends him to prison and keeps her from the island for two decades. Upon returning, she finds that old resentments and secrets remain intact and she must dive into them to save Joseph. Both the setting and the rich-family intrigue are draws here, but one of the most interesting aspects is the barely present rich man on whom everything hinges--not just a feature of life among the elite, but perhaps one felt more deeply.More info →
I was a huge fan of everything Little House when I was a kid. I read the books over and over, and I watched the television series. This past year, I've been diving back into that world. I've been reading the books aloud with my daughter, but I've also been taking a more nuanced look at the world presented by Laura Ingalls Wilder. First, I read (and loved) Caroline: Little House, Revisited (Ma's fictional perspective on the Little House on the Prairie story), and then I dove into the true story with this detailed biography.
There are parts of Prairie Fires that read like a history textbook; the book is long, and it can get quite dry. It presents the broader historical context in which the Ingalls and Wilder families lived, and that included things like farm loans, railroads, crop pricing, and politics.
At the same time, when the book circles back to the families, it makes clear how these things affected their lives and decisions. As a reader of the books, it was gratifying to learn that many of the events actually happened--but also interesting as an adult to learn of the ommissions, both of events and of character flaws. Most illuminating was the incessant devastation that occurred through their lives: fires, grasshoppers, storms, illness--and ongoing poverty that resulted. While these things were present in the books, the reality of them is a contrast to the idyllic lives we remember.
The later years of Wilder's life were also fascinating--especially her relationship with her volatile daughter, Rose. Their partnership brought the books we love to life, but they would have been quite different without both Laura's measured approach and Rose's editing talent and flair for the dramatic (inserted sparingly, thanks to her mother's reserve). Rose herself is an interesting character, and there were moments when the author seemed to question her sanity. Laura's husband, Almanzo, unfortunately, is not a strong presence. The author drew heavily from the letters and writing of the women, and he was not a writer.
While I enjoyed this biography, because of the length and level of detail, I would only recommend this to other avid fans of the Little House books.
More info →
For Kya, the marsh is everything: her home, her family, her safety. Abandoned at a young age, she survives alone, aided only by a poor black couple and a boy who teaches her to read and gives her hope for the future. Over the years, she becomes a local legend--the eccentric "Marsh Girl" who refuses to attend school and avoids most people. Lonely, uneducated, and left behind, she finds respite in her emotional and scientific connection with the wilds of the marsh. But her ties to the marsh, her fear of abandonment, and her inability to connect with people are her undoing. Long-held suspicions find their target when a former high school sports hero is found dead and Kya is named as the prime suspect.
While the marsh setting was not appealing to me at first, Owens (who is a nature writer) brought it to life through Kya's eyes. She made me care deeply about both Kya--a resourceful survivor who also feels endlessly vulnerable--and the marsh as her sacred refuge. This character-driven survival story checked a number of boxes for me and will likely be one of the best books of 2018.
Like this book? Check out 13 Books Like Where the Crawdads SingMore info →
When Leni's father, a traumatized Vietnam veteran, uproots her and her mother Cora to claim land left to them in Alaska, she expects yet another difficult adjustment to school but hopes for a new beginning with her family. What she finds instead is a landscape that enchants even while it endangers, a community that both confounds and comes together, and an unexpected camaraderie with her only classmate. The long, dark winter, however, proves to be her father's undoing. Cora and Leni live on edge, attempting to build a life while avoiding the blows from his next drunken outburst.
Hannah brings Alaska to life and manages to evoke feelings of vast expansiveness, possibility, and oppressive isolation. About three-quarters of this book had me captivated; the characters were well-drawn and realistic, and the landscape provided endless mysteries and surprises. The last quarter, however, felt rushed and several events rang less true than the rest of the story. I can't dismiss this one entirely but I do wish it had ended stronger.More info →
I chose this as a lighter read at a time when I was struggling to get through anything heavier, and it fit the bill. First Frost is the sequel to Garden Spells, which I haven't read, but I had no trouble starting with this one. The women in the Waverly family are all uniquely gifted with light touches of magic--gifts that affect moods, appearances, and spaces. Even the Waverly house and apple tree seem to be enchanted and have minds of their own. Each year as the first frost approaches, the women grow unsettled--never more so than this year, when a stranger arrives and disrupts their understanding of their family and themselves.
I have mixed feelings about magical realism, but this was done with a light enough touch that I could suspend disbelief and go along for the ride. While this didn't captivate me, the characters were pleasant and the storylines low-stakes enough for my reading mood. I won't rush for another book from Allen, but I would be willing to pick one up when I need a light brain break.More info →
Wavy has never felt safe, wanted, or loved. From a young age, she took responsibility for her younger brother, Donal, caring for him from babyhood while her parents and the adults around her wrecked themselves with the products of their large-scale meth lab. When a chance encounter brings Kellen--one of her father's drug runners--into her life, she finally finds someone who cares for her. Kellen becomes a friend and father-figure, but his and Wavy's relationship gradually veers toward romance as she becomes a teenager. A tragedy brings them under public scrutiny and they must deal with the fall-out from the relationship that kept them both alive but is unacceptable to the rest of the world.
There were many things I loved about this book, and I've been struggling with the direction it went and the things it asks the reader to accept--namely, that Wavy was effectively an adult no matter her age. Wavy was robbed of her childhood, then granted aspects of it back, and then again pushed into adulthood at too young an age. The various "ugly" situations--and the wonderful ones--are realistic and worth exploring in literature. For me, the "ugly" went a step too far and I wasn't able to root for the characters (as was clearly the author's intent) and what they thought they wanted.More info →
- August 2018 Mini Reviews – The Great Believers, Big Magic, Us Against You, Swing Time, P.S. I Still Love You, and The Stranger in the Woods
- The 10 Best Books of 2018 (So Far)
- September 2017 Mini Reviews – I Let You Go, The Red Tent, What Now, Mischling, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, Gods in Alabama, Rebecca, and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
What have you been reading lately? If you’ve read any of these books, what did you think?