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I had high hopes for many of the books I had on my September 2018 reading list, but unfortunately many of them fell a little short of my expectations. A few that I finished in early October infused some life back into my reading, and I’m hoping the rest will continue this trend (check out my October 2018 reading list for the rest of my reading plans for this month). I want to end October on a high (fictional) note, because I’m preparing for Nonfiction November!
Here’s what I’ve been reading.
October 2018 Book Reviews
Friendship is one of my favorite themes in literature, and Wallace Stegner adds levels of complexity by examining the decades-long friendships and relationships of two couples. First meeting at the start of the men's academic careers in Wisconsin, Larry and Sally and Sid and Charity instantly fall into a foursome that lasts through decades of work, play, children, sickness, travel, conflict, and heartache. These are quiet lives, punctuated with successes and disappointments, driven by ambition, intellectual pursuits, and their closeness with one another.
They are a privileged circle, moving through times of war and Depression but largely untouched (and cushioned by the riches of one of the couples). And while these events do provide a backdrop for the times, as with most people it's the small moments and personal memories that loom large, especially as they reflect on them late in life.
Stegner's writing is impeccable, if a bit of a slow read--mostly because there were lines so poignant I backtracked to read them again. He is an author I plan to read more of, and this book is one I will likely read several times in years to come.More info →
Vox is another feminist dystopian novel in a sea of recent books with similar themes--all playing on both the political climate and the resurgence in popularity of The Handmaid's Tale. Vox, however, feels more plausible than most. Set in the present or a near-future America in which the far-right has taken control of government and the country is under heavy influence of religious zealots, women's rights are quickly and systematically stripped. First go the positions of power, then the right to work at all, then the right to make decisions (including, of course, reproductive) and pursue meaningful education, and finally, the right to speak and communicate. All women and girls are fitted with wrist counters that administer electric shocks if they speak over 100 words per day.
Dr. Jean McClellan is a neurolinguist who has been living under these restrictions for a year when she is called upon by the President to find a cure for the brain injury that took his brother's power of speech. She (and her daughter) are temporarily relieved of their trackers and she sees an opportunity to infiltrate the new regime and restore women's voices.
What makes this book so scarily prescient--more-so than many dystopias--is the familiarity of it all. These new restrictions on women are mere additions to the daily trappings of life--grocery shopping, work (for men) and bills, home maintenance, kids and school and homework. There hasn't been a environmental or technological disaster, just a political shift that feels just a step or two removed from where we are now--and therefore well within the realm of plausibility. Vox isn't subtle, and while it's a thrilling, fast-paced story (this was a rare half-day read for me) that also serves as a cautionary tale, it's main call is to use our voices to protect our rights--or risk losing both voice and rights altogether.More info →
Some friendships come and go, while others work their way inside of you and take hold. Tin Man is the story of one such friendship, begun between Ellis and Michael at 12 years old. Both sensitive and artistic, they avoid their fathers and are enchanted by Ellis's mother, who herself is enchanted by Van Gogh's Sunflowers. What starts as intense companionship evolves into more, until the two boys find themselves at a decision point.
But this is also a story about loss. Ellis is a 45-year-old auto worker, living alone and nursing his flashes of memory. Annie. Michael. The friendship that expanded to enfold the third member, and then closed again, never to allow in a fourth. The story slowly unfolds to reveal the cycles of bonding and breaking that defined their relationships, and how Ellis came to be alone.
Tin Man is a lovely examination of intense friendships, with two characters who feel especially well-drawn and sympathetic and a third who could have used a little more backstory. Nonetheless, part of the charm of this story is in its brevity (and I say this as someone who loves a good long book). The range of emotions, years, and stories conveyed in such a short book is impressive and it manages to have moments of hope and beauty alongside the sadness.More info →
Set in a small Carnegie library in a failing New Hampshire town, Summer Hours at the Robbers Library brings a trio of loners together in the one public space left for them to find one another. Kit, a quiet librarian in her early forties, wants only to be left alone to forget her past. When she is charged with overseeing 15-year-old Sunny's summer community service (for stealing a dictionary), she is drawn to the girl's magnetic curiosity about the world. The two muse about the identity of the professionally dressed man who starts showing up all day, every day. Soon Rusty, too is drawn into an unlikely circle of friendship, along with The Four--the retirees who spend mornings over coffee and the paper at the library.
I can never resist a library or bookstore setting, but unfortunately this one felt very uneven. The first chapters started off with the fast-paced, racy story of Kit meeting her husband in college. This initial tone was surprising, and it's the only place it's seen in the book--which made it hard to connect the Kit of these chapters with the Kit of the rest of the book. The later chapters were quiet and almost entirely character-driven; interspersed with flashbacks from the main three--especially Kit--that showed their path to the "Robbers Library." I did enjoy watching the unlikely friendships unfold, and I loved some of the characters--especially The Four as a group. But even they were hard to track individually because two of them had the same name (why??). I eventually gave up trying to keep them straight, and this confusion prevented me from being as emotionally invested in later events as I otherwise might have been.More info →
It's hard for me ding a book about such a grim true story of the Holocaust. And the life of Lale Sokolov, a Jewish prisoner at Auschwitz-Birkenau who is pressed into service as the tattooist who brands identification numbers on his fellow prisoners, is as horrifying and affecting as any other. His is a story of love, courage, and--above all--survival. That focus on survival is interesting, as Sokolov uses his cunning throughout those years to keep both himself and others alive.
However, while the backstory is interesting, it's the book itself that fails the story. Marketed as a fiction book because of the liberties taken with some conversations and names, The Tattooist of Auschwitz probably could have passed as narrative nonfiction. But even under that heading, I found the writing rote and uninspired--merely a chronicle of events, rather than the telling of a story. For me, the storytelling just doesn't live up to other excellent narrative nonfiction, such as Unbroken, or even "autobiographical fiction," such as What Is the What.
More info →
Tana French writes character-driven mysteries set in Dublin, and I love her smart, thoughtful writing style. This first book in the Dublin Murder Squad series had me hooked with its layers of mysteries. The first: the disappearance of two children from a wood. The only witness is a boy, frozen in terror against a tree with blood in his shoes and no memory of what happened. The second: twenty years later, the murder of a young girl near that same wood. Detective Rob Ryan was that boy with blood in his shoes, and now he returns to the wood to investigate this new murder and determine if the two crimes are connected.
The suspense, relationships, and slow reveals of memories and clues were almost perfect in this book--until about the last 25%, when all of them started to unravel. The investment I had built up in the characters and their backstories felt left by the wayside and I was left frustrated by unresolved storylines. While disappointing, I do wish I had read this before The Likeness (which I liked much more) for further backstory on Detective Cassie Maddox (Ryan's partner). I will continue to read Tana French, but I'll also continue to hope that she revisits Ryan and gives him a better resolution.More info →
After years of homeschooling, August Pullman is going to a mainstream school for the first time. He was born with a facial difference that required several surgeries per year since his birth, and while he is now quite healthy, his face always stands out in a crowd. In the 5th grade, when cliques are forming and image is becoming increasingly important, these differences are not treated kindly. August finds himself the object of ridicule and fear, even as he strives to make friends and treat others with kindness. Soon his class is divided between those who accept August and those who don't--and the numbers aren't in his favor.
This middle grade book does an excellent job of putting the reader in August's shoes and showing what it's like to be the person who is always stared at, or avoided, or whispered about. And it's not just kids who do these things--it's adults as well. This is a sweet book that I recommend for any kid and their parents. I plan to read this with my daughter when she is in third or fourth grade.More info →
I tried to have patience with this dystopian vision of a future America, about a girl, Fan, who leaves the walled community where she lives and works to find the boy she loves, who has disappeared. But one-third into the book, I still didn't have a clear picture of the causes of the global decline (seems to be vaguely climate- and environment-related) or of the motivations of most of the characters--and I stopped caring enough to continue on the journey with the weirdly omniscient narrator who also seems to be a neighbor of Fan's. I didn't finish this one.More info →
What have you been reading? If you’ve read any of these books, I’d love to know what you thought!