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I have an unusually large number of books for my January 2019 reviews, which I can only attribute to a little extra reading time over the holidays. I’m not sure this pace will continue, but I’m certainly not complaining about a strong start to 2019 reading! My reading was all fiction, but it was varied, and only one of the books really didn’t work for me.
I also have less literary fiction and more thrillers and lighter reads than I might normally have–which probably accounts for the fast pace of the reading. Holiday reading felt indulgent and I thoroughly enjoyed veering off my normal course.
January 2019 Book Reviews
I picked up Winter Street on a whim from the library, thinking maybe a Christmas-themed book would help get me into the holiday spirit. I also had never read Elin Hilderbrand, so it seemed like a good reason to give her a try. I expected a formulaic Hallmark story, but this was a bit more. It was still light, cozy reading, but this story of a family who owns a Nantucket inn (confession: I really want to spend Christmas there) delved into some weightier issues and relationships–with a slight comic edge (one of a characters ran off with the inn’s Santa Claus!). The family is dysfunctional–relationship issues abound, one character is facing jail–but overall likable and kind to one another. It’s the first in a four-book series and the first two have ended on cliffhangers, so of course I need to finish out the rest.
This follow up to Winter Street returns us to the Quinns for another Christmas on Nantucket. The family is facing both angst and causes for celebration, and this book overall feels a little darker than the first. The inn itself is just as charming as in the first book, and despite their dysfunction, most of the characters still feel worth rooting for. Cozy winter reading at its best.
When Cass returns home after disappearing three years ago with her sister, Emma, questions abound. What happened? Where had they been? And where was Emma? Cass gears up to tell the story and make sure that she is believed–but who is it that she is trying to convince? As forensic psychiatrist Abby Winter tries to unravel truth from fiction, she is drawn into the family’s web of deceit and narcissism.
Emma in the Night is a twisty psychological thriller full of family dysfunction that will keep you guessing. I listened to this one on audio and found the story compelling and the narrator was excellent. I do think, however, that this may have worked better in print form–there were times when it was difficult to discern whether Cass was reflecting internally or speaking to someone else, which made a difference in understanding the story she was telling.
When Eleanor woke up this morning, she decided that she will be better: a better mom, a better wife, and a better person. All it will take is a few little things. Her plans quickly go awry when her son fakes sick and she learns that her husband–for some reason–has taken vacation from work without telling her.
This book is a day-long comedy of errors, and–to be blunt–it’s just not very good. Certain thoughts and struggles of Eleanor’s at the beginning of the book will resonate any mildly frazzled mom, and she is funny and quirky at times. She soon, however, begins to feel like a bit of a frantic caricature. I read far enough that I decided to finish, but I found the ending strange and disconnected from the madcap journey of the rest of the book.
Helena has always been a little different from everyone else, but over the years, she’s learned to hide that she doesn’t always understand social niceties. She has a loving husband and daughters and a business, and life is going smoothly, until she hears that an inmate has killed two guards and escaped from the local prison.
The authorities believe they are on his tail, but she knows the truth. He has disappeared into the marsh, and he’s coming for her. The man is her father, and until she was a teenager, she didn’t know that he had kidnapped and held captive her mother. Faced with hunting down a man she all-at-once fears, loathes, and loves, Helena goes into the marsh.
The Marsh King’s Daughter is a slow-burn of a novel–a little slower than I would have liked, but still unsettling in all the ways a psychological thriller should be. There are thrilling moments that justify the genre designation, but the story is told largely through flashbacks to a childhood tinged with a new interpretation following Helena’s discovery of their captivity. It’s a unique twist on a psychological thriller, as the reader is forced to understand her love for her father while knowing him to be a monster.
At a dorm in a small college town, a freshman girl falls asleep and doesn’t wake up. Soon, other students also fall into deep sleeps and are hospitalized, kept alive by tubes. The remaining students are isolated, but others in the town succumb. Soon the town itself is under quarantine, its residents living in fear of falling asleep and volunteers risking themselves to keep people alive.
A mother is quarantined away from her daughter. Two college students squat in a house and wander town, searching for sleepers to get them to help. A couple tries to protect their newborn baby while living in the fog of new parenthood. Two young girls hide in their house after their survivalist father falls asleep, terrified that they’ll be taken from one another.
The Dreamers is less dystopian fiction and more rumination on the true nature and power of dreams, as well as the freedoms we sacrifice in the name of fear and safety. Read my full review.
After surviving a private plane crash in the Colorado Rockies that kills the pilot, Allison Carpenter must also survive the wilderness as she makes her way through the mountains. But the wilderness isn’t the only threat Allison faces. Her story slowly unfolds to reveal what she is running from–and to.
Meanwhile, Allison’s mother Maggie learns that Allison was likely killed in the crash. Estranged for two years, she begins to delve into Allison’s life, trying to understand why she was on that plane and who her daughter had become. Maggie’s findings and Allison’s reflections converge to reveal explosive secrets that endanger them both–and many others.
Freefall is a solid thriller that effectively uses alternating narratives to reveal the story, while elements of wilderness survival, family tension, moneyed influence, and corporate corruption provide a dizzying array of backdrops that keep the reader guessing. Read my full review.
Hedy Lamarr was a famous beauty and screen actress in the golden age of Hollywood, but few knew about her passion for science and invention–and what drove her to innovate. Ending a promising stage career in Vienna to marry a munitions dealers and protect her family as anti-Semitism and fascism closed in on Austria, Lamarr found herself imprisoned–and privy to insider conversations of the Third Reich. Upon her escape to Hollywood, she becomes a star but is plagued by a sense of duty to use her knowledge. And so begins a quest to assist the Allies with an invention that could change the course of the war–if they’ll listen to a woman.
The Only Woman in the Room is a riveting fictional account of woman previously only known for her beauty and acting. Benedict makes real the life of a charismatic woman who refuses to be one dimensional and whose innovations contributed to the technologies we now use every day. Read my full review.
Tommy Orange’s breakthrough novel is a gut-punching examination of the complex history and inherited pain and trauma of Native Americans, as lived by Urban Indians in Oakland, California. As the Big Oakland Powwow approaches, twelve different characters each have their own reasons for attending. Some want to honor and connect to their culture, others seek family connections, and still others are looking for a leg up in a world that only pushes them down. The sad irony of the choices and motivations of some of the characters is poignant, and none escapes the plague of addiction and abuse that permeates their varied tribes.
At times, the many characters in There There were difficult to track, but I found that hardly mattered as the connections and histories were revealed. Orange provides no platitudes or excuses here; the view is stark and the indictments are harsh and sweeping. Not feel-good reading, but eye-opening and highly recommended.
Leia Birch Briggs is a successful comic book artist who is working on the origin story of her most famous characters when her life turns upside down: she is pregnant. And the father is a man who was dressed as Batman at a comic book convention. In the midst of this, her stepsister Rachel’s marriage is falling apart and her beloved grandmother, Birchie, is revealed to have dementia. Leia quickly travels to Birchie’s small Alabama town, with Rachel’s teenage daughter in two, to assess the situation and move Birchie out. She finds Birchie and her lifelong friend Wattie harboring more than just the secret of Birchie’s illness, forcing Leia to reconsider what she knows about family, race, loyalty, and commitment.
Joshilyn Jackson has a way of weaving together serious issues with situations that always feel a little preposterous and funny, without losing the overall gravity of them. Her turns of phrase add levity to the most grim scenes, and after listening to The Almost Sisters on audio, I plan to listen to the other books she narrates as well.
Lisa Jewell’s Then She Was Gone is one of the better thrillers I’ve read recently, so I knew I wanted to try out her new offering, Watching You. Jewell’s mastery of the thriller shines here as she steps backward from the scene of a murder in a small English town, bringing together a cast of characters all focused on one charismatic man: the headmaster of a local school, Tom Fitzwilliam.
A young newlywed develops an unhealthy infatuation with Tom, while a teen girl in the neighborhood is convinced he’s not all he seems–and her mentally ill mother agrees. Tom’s son, in the meantime, grapples with his own mixed feelings about his father while he watches and records the goings-on in the neighborhood.
The loose ties between the characters tighten as past meets present and Jewell manages to surprise without resorting to twists that feel gimmicky. I’m not a devoted reader of thrillers, but I’ll continue to pick up her books knowing I’m in for a twisty and satisfying read.
Have you read any of these? What have been your favorite recent reads?