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My February 2019 book reviews–and the reading as a whole–are all over the place, both in types of books and in how successful they were for me. The books varied, ranging from nonfiction (more than I usually read in a single month), thrillers, historical fiction, and the second half of a lighter series.
Unfortunately, only a couple were must-read winners (though most were solid enough). I’m hopeful that more of the books on my February reading list will be excellent–I have several new 2019 books that I’m really looking forward to diving into.
February 2019 Book Reviews
Publish dates and sources are noted for new February releases that I received from the publisher for review. The others were from the library or my own shelf.
You’ve probably heard the raves already, and my view is no different: this book deserves all the accolades it’s been getting. I listened to Michelle Obama narrate the audio version of Becoming, and it is worth the hefty commitment (at 19+ hours–though you can comfortably speed up the pace a bit). Obama is an excellent writer who tells small but compelling stories of her youth on the south side of Chicago, her years elite universities and as a fledgling lawyer, and her life with Barack Obama–before, during, and immediately after the White House.
She is highly relatable–focused on her kids, muddling through the ups and downs of motherhood, and indulging in HGTV over political roundtables. Knowing her rarefied educational and professional background, I found her distaste for political life surprising and–again–relatable. Certain memories prompted tears, for different reasons: inauguration night, Newtown, and the 2016 election results, especially. The pressure they were under as the first black presidential family was enormous, and she conducted herself with a grace and dignity that I believe few can match.
This memoir by Eva Hagberg Fisher reflects on her lonely upbringing with a disconnected mother, several stepfathers, and years in boarding schools, and how it affected her difficulties connecting with others as an adult. When a mass in her brain ruptured at age 30, she was forced to allow others into her life. Of particular importance was a friendship with an older woman named Allison, who was battling cancer herself. Allison’s friendship taught Eva how to let others love her, without needing to pay them back with anything but acceptance and love. She further learned this when she began suffering from symptoms of something that no one could seem to diagnose.
I found this memoir a bit uneven; there were parts in the first half when the writing put me off and I considered putting it down. But Fisher found her groove when writing about her illnesses and I ultimately became invested in her story–particularly when she dealt with her invisible illness, which I find to be a fascinating and terrible thing that so many people contend with daily. Their suffering is often intangible–difficult to define, sometimes undiagnosable, and hard for people to relate to–which can leave them suffering in silence and wondering if it’s all in their head. Fisher covered a lot of ground here, and it’s understandable that she wanted to write about her friendships and brain mass, but her struggle with her invisible illness could have made for a satisfying memoir on its own.
This third book in the Winter Street series veered just a little darker than the first two, and I found it more interesting for the darker storylines (though it still maintained the “light reading” feel). Nantucket and the Winter Street Inn remain the charming centerpiece of the Quinn family dramatics, including the son missing in Afghanistan, drug addiction, release from prison, illness, and love triangles. For all their faults, the characters are likable and the family and inn are comfortable places to return for cozy winter reading.
The fourth and final book in the Winter Street series was never really meant to be (it was planned as a trilogy), but it was a pleasant enough return to the inn and the Quinn family. This one is a little sadder and veers on some unneeded tangents–I believe a new character may be a crossover from another Hilderbrand book, and I didn’t know or much care about him. Other characters, however, who had previously been slightly absurd managed to become more fully formed and sympathetic here. This was not unputdownable reading, for me, but I wanted to finish out the series and was happy to see the original characters through.
Korede would do anything for her sister, Ayoola–and she does, when Ayoola starts killing her boyfriends. After Ayoola’s panicked phone calls, Korede shows up, cleans up the mess, and ensures that they are not caught. As Korede realizes that her sister is veering into serial killer territory, Ayoola sets her sights on the doctor Korede is in love with herself. Under the weight of her own guilt and loyalty to her sister, Korede struggles with how to protect both the man and the sister she loves–but she may have to choose.
You wouldn’t think a serial killer novel would be so entertaining, but My Sister, the Serial Killer was darkly funny and slightly absurd, while maintaining the gravitas of what was happening in the story. Joshilyn Jackson is the only other author I can think of recently who has managed this delicate balance, but Braithwaite’s style is entirely her own. It was the perfect fiction audiobook–not too long, gripping story, excellent narrator, and only a few main characters to track.
I had high hopes for this book about two English teenagers on a gap year in Thailand who have gone missing, but I found The Suspect just mediocre. Less thriller and more just an untangling of what happened, I felt bogged down in the details of the life and competition of journalists to “get the story.” I was also confused throughout about why English police could investigate a crime in Thailand (this was cleared up late in the book). I think I like thrillers and mysteries where I don’t figure everything out before the end (without resorting to outlandish gimmicks), and this just didn’t keep me guessing.
I started listening to this audiobook on a whim, thinking it might be similar to other nonfiction books I’ve enjoyed by Kelly Corrigan or Anna Quindlen. It was a pleasant-enough listen, peppered with a few general insights that resonated with me (self acceptance, joy in ordinary moments, being fully present).I can’t deny her hard-won peace with herself, her past, food, her body, and her place in the world, but for the most part I don’t think I was the right audience for Roth’s work. I might recommend this for people who have similar struggles with past abuses and body image, but it was probably one that I could have DNFed without regret.
I was intrigued by the premise and setting of this historical fiction novel, set in 1612 England at the time of the Pendle Witch Trials, in which ten people (eight women and two men) were executed for witchcraft. The story follows a young noblewoman, Fleetwood Shuttleworth, who is pregnant for the fourth time, after three previous devastating losses. She now fears for both her own and the child’s life and enlists the help of a young midwife named Alice Grey, who has associations with some families who have been accused of witchcraft. Soon Alice herself is caught up in the accusations, and Fleetwood must save Alice to save herself.
I was not familiar with the Pendle Witch Trials before reading this book, and a dive down a Wikipedia wormhole assures me that the major events and people in this book were all real–including Fleetwood Shuttleworth and Alice Grey. Grey’s story is not well-documented, and this is where Hall imagined her friendship with Fleetwood and the events surrounding her arrest and trial.
I have to admit that this deft imagining of events around Alice Grey inserted into the larger factual narrative improves my view of this book–it was quite skillfully done. I also appreciated the various ways that women’s powerlessness were portrayed–and how these accusations played into keeping them subservient.
However, The Familiars was a slow read for me, and the overall story of the witchcraft accusations was hard to follow when most of the main accused and accusers were not characters in the book–they were just names, and there were a lot of them. A few odd turns of phrase were distracting (some felt too modern, others felt dropped in because they were fitting to the period), giving the writing an uneven feel. An interesting read for the history, but I wished for a closer look at more of the women affected.
As the Russians advanced on Hungary during World War II, Olga Wagner and Tibor Zoltai and their families flee the country. Tibor is pressed into service for the Germans and eventually taken prisoner by the Americans. He nearly starves. Olga and her family make their way to Austria and pursue options for emigrating. It’s there that Olga and Tibor’s lives intersect. The two families eventually go to Canada under the country’s friendly system of indentured servitude for refugees.
After years on the move, Olga and Tibor finally marry and settle in the United States, building their family and successful lives in academia and immigration aid. This was a fascinating look at how World War II affected the people of Hungary (a perspective I was unfamiliar with) and one couple’s struggle to survive. The author (Olga and Tibor’s daughter) was a colleague of my dad, and I attended the University of Minnesota (where Tibor spent most of his career) and once lived close to where the Zoltais settled in the Twin Cities, so this felt close to home.
Much of The Last Romantics hinges on the moments that define four siblings in childhood. Together, Renee, Caroline, Joe, and Fiona have the Pause. Following their father’s early death, their mother’s years-long retreat defined their relationships, cementing a lifelong closeness, sense of responsibility, and knowing of one another. But it’s the unknown traumas and struggles that sends each on their own paths into adulthood, paths that the others don’t understand–though they feel their connections should make understanding a given. Told over decades, The Last Romantics is a beautifully rendered portrait of complicated familial relationships, examining the nature of love, commitment, and the strength of those bonds even as what we know changes. Read my full review.
What have you been reading this month?