It has been a while since I’ve posted recent reads, so this list is going to be a long one! You’ll find some of the best books I’ve read in a while here — and some of the absolute worst. Check out what I’ve read lately and tell me what you think!
Be Frank with Me, Julia Claiborne Johnson (2/5 stars)
Be Frank with Me started out with promise — Alice is a likable young editor’s assistant from New York assigned to watch over a reclusive Harper Lee-esque author in Bel Air, who is working on her first novel since penning an instant bestseller decades earlier.
The novelist has a 10-year-old son named Frank, who is even more eccentric than his mom. He wears costumes each day that look like they came off the Paramount set in the 1940s. He uses big words. He gets overwhelmed easily. He has no friends. It’s Alice’s responsibility to take care of Frank while his mother types away in her office for the next several months. Hijinks and frothy mayhem ensue and Alice eventually learns to love Frank and to embrace his eccentricities.
I had read reviews promising that I would laugh out loud at Frank and his adorable antics. I didn’t. I found him and most of the other characters in the book to be formulaically quirky and not all that interesting. The book was hard for me to get through — Reading it felt like watching a cartoon as opposed to a movie with real actors — It played out in my head as staged scenes in a mediocre play — and while it was never quite bad enough to completely abandon, I ended the novel feeling disappointed and dissatisfied.
The Sisters Chase, by Sarah Healy (4/5 stars)
I thoroughly enjoyed the audio version of The Sisters Chase. Described as a ‘slow burn’ novel, I found the story entirely compelling, never boring, and full of food for thought.
Beautiful Mary Chase is only 18 when her mother dies in a car accident and she becomes the sole caretaker of her 4-year-old sister, Hannah. We follow the girls through the next ten years of their lives, as Mary is forced to use her looks, sex appeal, and cunning to eke out a living for herself and her sister. Mary is willing to do pretty much anything to make sure her sister is provided for, and we learn why as the book progresses through a series of surprising — and often heartbreaking — twists.
I really felt sympathy for Mary and liked her, which made me invested in what happened to the girls as the novel progressed. The book made me think about how errors in judgement can completely change the course of one’s life. The Sisters Chase is a sad tale but an engaging one, and I’m glad I took the time to listen to it.
Underfoot in Show Business, by Helene Hanff (4/5 stars)
I loved Helene Hanff’s 84, Charing Cross Road, so I was excited to discover this memoir by the same author. Hanff has written an immensely entertaining and insightful account of her years spent as a would-be playwright in New York in the 1940s. Times have obviously changed a great deal since then, so this book doesn’t have much practical application for writers — But if you think you might enjoy a delightful slice-of-life account of a young woman trying to make it in 1940s New York, you’re in for a real treat. Underfoot in Show Business is a fast, buoyant read with plenty of laughs. Recommended!
A Christmas Memory, by Truman Capote (5/5 stars)
This is a lovely little book of three holiday-themed short stories by Truman Capote — One is from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the other two were originally published in magazines. All three are autobiographical and feature Miss Sook, Capote’s beloved elderly aunt.
Miss Sook is something of an outcast, treated as ‘touched’ by relatives and townspeople, but full of surprising wisdom in the guise of charming innocence and simplicity. She is 6-year-old Truman’s best friend, along with her dog Queenie, and the stories highlight the trio’s adventures and unlikely camaraderie.
Although these stories are perfect to read during the Christmas season, this is a fantastic book for any time of year — I came to love Miss Sook and Capote’s memorialization of her. Many of us had a special adult in our lives who made us feel loved and listened to during our childhoods — These stories will make you recall those people fondly and remember how it felt to be loved by them. What a delight.
A Mother’s Reckoning, by Sue Klebold (4/5 stars)
I’m not sure what possessed me to listen to this audiobook as the holiday season began– It is profoundly sad and depressing and yet, as I began listening, I felt compelled to listen to Sue Klebold tell her story all the way to its conclusion.
If there’s any lesson to be learned from this book, it’s that all parents need to constantly be on their guard for even the smallest signs that their children are not okay. Sue insists over and over again that she had no idea her son was struggling, and I believe her– yet in retrospect, there were signs that Dylan needed help. Sue writes very honestly about her failings as Dylan’s mother, but her failings are very similar to those all mothers share. I feel horrible that she was put in such a difficult situation, one from which she’ll never really recover.
Although at times I felt Sue was trying too hard to convince readers that Dylan really wasn’t a bad kid at his core, that’s understandable– she’s his mom– and she did succeed in making me see Dylan Klebold as a human being and a brother and son who was loved very much by his family. Sue spends a great deal of time ‘humanizing’ Dylan and explaining how she can still love him despite his horrific crimes, but she does so without excusing or minimizing his actions at Columbine High School. Through her writing, I was able to understand where she’s coming from and sympathize with her.
I highly recommend the audio version of A Mother’s Reckoning as opposed to reading it because hearing Sue Klebold tell her own story really made me feel like I was sitting with her and hearing her out. It’s a difficult and incredibly sad book, but one every mother needs to read.
A Redbird Christmas, by Fannie Flagg (3/5 stars)
This is a sweet little tale of a Chicago man who, after being told he only has a few months left to live, decides to spend his final days in the tiny Southern town of Lost River. He encounters all kinds of zany but lovable characters there, including a pet redbird named Jack.
I really enjoyed this Christmas tale as an audiobook because it’s read by Fannie Flagg herself, and she’s a wonderful narrator. You’ll feel as if one of Lost River’s residents is telling you the story herself. If I had read the book instead of listening to it, I don’t think I would have liked it half as much.
I recommend this audiobook at Christmas time for those of you who love small town Southern stories with a Hallmark-style appeal.
The Leavers, by Lisa Ko (3/5 stars)
The Leavers is a tough one to review. I liked it because it gave me the opportunity to consider the perspective of illegal immigrants who come to the United States in search of a life that’s just not possible in their own country, as well as that of children adopted from other countries who grow up in the United States in an alien culture among people who look nothing like them. I also liked the book’s exploration of the complexities, strengths, and weaknesses of the bond between a mother and her child, no matter the culture. I thought The Leavers was well-written and compelling. But I didn’t love it, and in retrospect I think it was because I didn’t really like some of the actions and motivations of the main character or his mother.
Deming’s eternal dithering drove me crazy and his callous treatment of people who genuinely cared about him was irritating. His mother’s feelings toward her son at times seemed questionable, and as a mother myself, I couldn’t relate. At the same time, I wanted to give both Deming and his mother the benefit of the doubt because of their difficult life circumstances, and I often wondered how different their lives would have been if they hadn’t had to overcome so many cultural, financial, and emotional obstacles. When I think about it, I’m always looking in books like this one for common threads that bind us all together as humans despite our differences — Those threads allow me to ‘get behind’ the characters and relate to their feelings, even when their experiences are radically different from my own. I didn’t find many of those common threads in this book.
I recommend The Leavers for those who enjoy reading about the perspectives and experiences of people from other cultures and backgrounds.
Young Jane Young, by Gabrielle Zevin (3/5 stars)
While this was no The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry (which I loved and recommend to everyone), Young Jane Young was an enjoyable, entertaining, and thought-provoking read about the long-reaching impact a Monica Lewinsky-esque political scandal has on the life of a college intern after she’s grown up and attempted to move on with her life. Despite the potentially heavy subject matter, Zevin keeps things fairly light and approachable and although the book’s all’s-well-that-ends-well finish seemed a little pat and unconvincing, overall I have no complaints! Young Jane Young is an easy and satisfying read.
Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline (5/5 stars)
Ready Player One is an excellent, fast-paced YA novel about a teenaged boy named Wade Watts in who finds himself leading the pack in a worldwide virtual game with a prize stake of billions of dollars. But even though the game is online, many of his opponents want to eliminate him in real life.
You’ll quickly become engrossed in the mysteries of the game and in all Wade Watts has to do to survive. As an added treat, although the novel takes place in 2045, the game Watts is playing was designed by a man with an ’80s obsession — Gen Xers in particular will enjoy all the references to the games and pop culture trends of our childhoods.
I wouldn’t put Ready Player One on the same level as Dark Matter, but I did find it light and enjoyable. I especially liked it because it’s one I can recommend to just about anyone, from my husband to my kids to my girlfriends. And I definitely can’t wait to see the movie!
Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card (4/5 stars)
Ender’s Game makes an excellent companion book to Ready Player One. I listened to the full-cast audio version, which I enjoyed, but I think I actually would have preferred reading this one.
Written back in 1985 about a young boy who (unknowingly) has been bred and trained to help defend the world from alien invaders, it’s the kind of book that will make kids think about much larger concepts of love, loyalty, friendship, race relations, and courage. It would make for a great classroom or family read — There’s much to discuss!
Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders
I’m not afraid to say it — I did not like this book at all. I listened to the audiobook version with its 166 narrators and found it to be excruciating for a number of reasons.
First off, parents in particular should know that this book goes into intricate detail about the death of Abraham Lincoln’s son, Willie. We learn about it from the perspectives of witnesses, servants, doctors, embalmers, friends, detractors, historians, and more. No stone is left unturned when it comes to the whys and hows of this little boy’s death and as a parent, it was incredibly disturbing. The details help us understand how devastated Lincoln and his wife must have been when it happened, but they also had my stomach in knots throughout the novel.
Much of the novel is devoted to actual accounts of this time in Lincoln’s life from the people who were around him at the time — These accounts were what kept me listening, because they were very interesting. However, I just read that Saunders invented some of these accounts and if that’s the case, I’m annoyed! I feel duped and I’m left wondering which portions were real and which were made up. Ugh.
Finally, I found the whole graveyard scenario to be ridiculous. I felt like Saunders was trying too hard to do something completely different in order to shake up the literary world, but for me the whole thing seemed forced and, frankly, silly. Because the novel was based on an actual child’s death and parents’ grief, the graveyard scenes also felt weirdly inappropriate. Yes, Lincoln and his family have been dead for ages, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that they’d be very upset if they’d read this fictionalized account of their dead son’s afterlife adventures, some of which were pretty gruesome.
I know there are a lot of Saunders fans out there (he’s my husband’s favorite author), but Lincoln in the Bardo confirms I’m not one of them.
The Dry, by Jane Harper (4/5 stars)
As far as thrillers go, The Dry is a winner. Written about a Melbourne police officer who returns to his tiny hometown to try and figure out what really happened after a childhood friend’s apparent suicide, I was hooked from the first chapter — A tightly crafted plot coupled with better-than-average writing made it a true page turner for me. I also enjoyed its setting in rural Australia, where ‘culling rabbits’ (i.e., shooting them with a shotgun) is a regular farm activity and keeping an eye out for deadly insects is part of one’s daily existence. Harper also does a great job of making the reader feel emotionally invested in her characters who, much like in real life, have far more to them than their exteriors would suggest.
The Knockoff, by Lucy Sykes and Jo Piazza (3/5 stars)
If you were a fan of The Devil Wears Prada, you will definitely love The Knockoff, a fluffy, fun novel about a fashion magazine editor struggling to stay on top as a young upstart relentlessly attempts to unseat her. You’ll dive into the high stakes world of New York fashion and emerging technology and have a chance to really consider how Millennials are changing our world as we know it — for better and for worse.
I highly recommend the audiobook version of this novel — Katherine Kellgren perfectly captured the voices of both editor Imogen and her arch nemesis, Eve. Her narration really added to the story.
Why am I giving it just three stars? I think this book had one major problem — Imogen, the Anna Wintouresque magazine editor– is portrayed as something of a dinosaur among her younger staffers. She can’t understand e-mail or Twitter or Instagram and she really struggles initially to accept and adapt to changing technology. My issue with all this is that she’s only 42. I’m also 42 and I have never seen any educated woman my age share Imogen’s tech struggles. We were in college when the Internet and instant messaging became a thing and we’ve embraced mainstream tech as it has evolved with open arms. The women I know, whether they’re moms or high-powered executives, are generally eager to learn about and try every next big thing that comes along, from tablets to FitBits to Amazon Echos. If Imogen had been in her mid to late 50s, I could absolutely understand her aversion to tech — As a 42-year-old, it just seemed really weird and I was left wondering how she’d managed to become an editor-in-chief of a fashion magazine in the first place.
Other than that, this book is a light and enjoyable read, particularly if you’re a fan of the fashion industry.
The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey (5/5 stars)
I can’t imagine a more perfect book to read in winter — The Snow Child will definitely be one of my favorite books of the year.
I consider this book to be a fairy tale for grown-ups, with elements of both fantasy and brutal realism as a couple struggles to come to terms with childlessness in a harsh 1920s-era Alaska wilderness. When a little girl appears as though carved from the snow, we’re left wondering if she’s a snow child given life from the couple’s most heartfelt desires — or if there’s a rational explanation for her appearance. Either way, the novel is beautifully written and it appealed to me on several levels — as a mother, as a lover of historical fiction, and as someone who has always wanted to visit Alaska and experience its stark beauty for myself.
The Snow Child will leave you with a lump in your throat and a burning desire to book a plane ticket to Alaska, pronto. Highly recommended.
The Butterfly and the Violin, by Kristy Cambron (3/5 stars)
The Butterfly and the Violin is a faith-based historical romance with crisscrossing storylines that moves between World War II and the present day. We learn first about an art dealer named Sera — She’s obsessively searching for the original painting of a young woman with a shaved head who is holding a violin and bears a tattoo brand from Auschwitz on her arm. The story of the painting’s subject unfolds as Sera gets closer and closer to finding it — and Sera confronts her own demons (and, *music swell*, meets a wealthy and devastatingly handsome young man who also happens to be searching for the painting) in the process.
It’s strange to call a book about the Holocaust ‘light reading,’ but this book was definitely that. The main characters were all ridiculously attractive and their romances had a definite Hallmark quality to them. I found the modern-day characters to be a bit stilted and unbelievable — They spoke and acted far more like 1950s-era film stars than today’s Millennials — and I felt that the faith element was often needlessly injected into the novel simply because it was being marketed for that genre. It rarely added to the story and sometimes actually detracted from it.
Deep thoughts aside, though, I actually enjoyed reading this book. Kristy Cambron is a talented writer and if I didn’t over-analyze the plot line and believability too much, I could just let myself get lost in the story. Bottom line– If you’re looking for a compelling novel about the Holocaust (like The Nightingale and All the Light We Cannot See), this is definitely NOT one of them. If you like historical romance and the World War II time period and you don’t mind a healthy dose of Jesus thrown into the mix, I think you’ll like The Butterfly and the Violin just fine.
Down the Rabbit Hole, by Holly Madison (1/5 stars)
I have to admit, The Girls Next Door was a total guilty pleasure series for me when it came out back in 2005. My kids were tiny back then and it was a perfect, mind-numbing escape from the realities of baby wrangling and diaper changing. And like many other viewers, I actually sort of liked Hugh’s ‘number one girlfriend,’ Holly Madison. She seemed classy, well-spoken, and goal oriented.
So while I was recovering from a one-two punch of flu and an injured wrist last week, I downloaded the audiobook version of Down the Rabbit Hole. I thought it would be fun to get the scoop on what was REALLY going on behind the scenes of the TV show. I got the scoop, all right. And now I want to bathe my ears in hand sanitizer.
While The Girls Next Door made life at the mansion seem fluffy and frothy and even sort of wholesome in a weird way, the book makes it clear that Hugh Hefner’s many girlfriends who came through the mansion were anything but. There were mentions of meth and cocaine use, secret boyfriends, weird sex rituals, bizarre rules, and constant, unrelenting cattiness between the girls. While most women wouldn’t have survived that kind of environment for more a month, Holly lived in the house for years and basically clawed her way to the top of the heap. It made me see her in a totally different light and realize that her TV persona was a total facade.
Far worse, though, was the way Holly managed to disparage nearly everyone she wrote about. With former boyfriends Hugh Hefner and Criss Angel, she portrayed herself as a helpless victim who fell prey to their manipulations. As for the woman (save an elderly office secretary at the mansion), Holly had something negative to say about ALL of them, even her so-called friends. They were jealous. Or copycats. Or dumb. Or scheming. In every scenario, Holly was the voice of reason, the emerging superstar loaded with beauty and talent and intellect, and pretty much everyone else was in one way or another trying to bring her down. This made Holly seem incredibly unlikeable — If I knew her and read this book, I’d be afraid to talk to her again!
In short, this book is completely awful — However, it definitely has a ‘so bad it’s good’ quality. You’ll learn some really juicy gossip and marvel at the sad lives of California wanna-be celebrities who are willing to do just about anything to make a name for themselves. I’m not sure Holly Madison did herself any favors writing this tell-all, but as much as I hate to say it, I was entertained.
The Wife Between Us, by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen (2/5 stars)
I really, really wanted to like this book — It’s gotten some great reviews and I was sure it was going to be a riveting psychological thriller. Unfortunately, it was a major chore to get through and I finished it feeling like the two authors had made a diagram of their characters on a page, drawn arrows between them in every possible direction, created a ‘totally unexpected plot twist!’ for each arrow, and then linked the whole thing together with uninspired writing.
What resulted was a disjointed and sometimes laughably unbelievable tale of a marriage gone awry and the affair that ended it. Except that things are not as they seem. Let me repeat that for the people in the back. THINGS ARE NOT AS THEY SEEM. Do I need to spell it out for those of you who are slow on the uptake? T-H-I-N-G-S A-R-E N-O-T A-S T-H-E-Y S-E-E-M. That pretty much describes this entire book in a nutshell.
What have you read lately?
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