A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

This book, y’all.

First, I should tell you about some of my concerns as I went into reading this book: I was afraid that I would become nauseaous from the drug use in this book, that the time invested in reading this book wouldn’t pay off (it’s 814 pages) and that it would be too sad. The drug use was not graphic in this book, though other topics were VERY graphic. This book is worth the time investment; I spent thirteen days reading it and NOT ONCE did I get restless to read another book. THAT NEVER HAPPENS WHEN I READ LONG BOOKS! This book is heartbreakingly sad, but it’s still well worth the read.

Rather than giving you a synopsis, I’ll tell you my takeaway from this book: childhood trauma and disability can do a lot to a person. It can impact the way they relate to others, the way they see themselves, the way they maintain relationships of all types. This exploration affected me personally. Many of my friends that I eventually lost survived childhood trauma. This novel helped me appreciate some of the ways that they treated me/how they handled our friendship. This novel also reminded me of many of the patients/clients I’ve worked with over the years, especially in mental health settings. It reminded me of the atrocities they had survived or the horrible acts they committed when in a psychotic state. When working with these clients, I was struck by how inspiring it is that people forge on despite everything that happened to them and that when they can’t forge on any longer, you can understand why.

“…when he thought, really thought of Jude and what his life had been: a sadness, he might have called it, but it wasn’t a pitying sadness; it was a larger sadness, one that seemed to encompass all the poor striving people, the billions he didn’t know, all living their lives, a sadness that mingled with wonder and awe at how humans everywhere tried to live, even when their days were so difficult, even when their circumstances so wretched. Life is so sad, he would think in those moments. It’s so sad, and yet we all do it. We all cling to it; we all search for something to give us solace.”

When the Lights Go Out by Mary Kubica

⭐⭐⭐⭐

Thank you to Netgalley, Harlequin and Mary Kubica for the e-reader copy of this book in exchange for a review.

First of all, I have read and enjoyed several of Mary Kubica’s novels. As a native Chicagoan, I love that they are often set in Chicago and I love her particular style of suspense. This one, too, did not disappoint.

This novel follows Jessie and Eden, through a few different periods of time: Jessie in present-day, as she is caring for her terminally ill mother (Eden) and in the case of Eden, through various periods of time, one in which she struggles with infertility and another in which she cares for Jessie. In the present day, Jessie struggles with insomnia and has difficulty discerning what is real and was isn’t. She finds out that she doesn’t have a birth certificate and that the only Jessie Sloane on record is dead. Who is Jessie? Why doesn’t she have any record of who she is?

This is a thriller/suspenseful book, but in the end I found it moreso about family, grief, the struggle to motherhood and mother-daughter bonds. Some will find the ending predictable but I found it redeemable because there was so much heart present in the last few pages that made it satisfying.

Available September 4th, 2018

Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras

⭐⭐⭐⭐

Thank you to Netgalley, Doubleday Books and Ingrid Rojas Contreras for the free e-book copy in exchange for a review.

Y’all. This is the year of stellar debut novels: What We Were Promised, Whiskey & Ribbons and now Fruit of the Drunken Tree.

I had been seeing a lot of buzz around bookstagram about this book and rest assured, it does live up to the hype.

This novel follows two perspectives: Chula, a young girl who comes from an affluent family and Petrona, a young teenager who is from a guerrilla-occupied slum of the same city. The novel takes place in Pablo Escobar-era Columbia.

Petrona becomes the Santiago’s (Chula’s family) housekeeper and Chula becomes fascinated by Petrona, wondering why she acts the way she does.

Without giving anything away, this is a great account of innocence in the face of difficult circumstances and a turbulent political climate. In some ways it reminded me of Room by Emma Donoghue in that Chula’s perspective is innocent while observing evil circumstances.

This is both a coming of age story and historical fiction. The author states at the end of the book that this novel is semi-autobiographical. I found myself researching many of the events and even the general era frequently, as I was previously unaware of the specific issues present in Columbia at this time.

I recommend this book to people who enjoy coming of age stories, historical fiction with a good helping of political turmoil and just if you’re looking to learn a bit more about an era you may be unfamiliar with.

Girls Night Out by Liz Fenton and Lisa Steinke

⭐⭐⭐

Thank you to Liz Fenton and Lisa Steinke and Netgalley for the free e-reader copy in exchange for a review. This didn’t influence my opinion in any way.

This novel follows Ashley, Natalie and Lauren on a girl’s trip to Mexico in attempt to reconcile some issues between them. Of course, things go awry and the reconciliation doesnt go quite as well as expected.

Disclaimer: this is not really my genre; suspense/thriller: those of you who gravitate towards these books will likely enjoy it more than me. I found this book ok. I enjoyed the gorgeous setting, the complicated friendships and it did keep me turning the pages. I didn’t love the use of Mayan culture in attempt to liberate white women. That aspect felt awkward for me. This is probably a personal preference for me, but I didn’t love the juicy gossipy bits as well. I will say that the suspense leading to the reveal was well constructed with small chapters cutting back in forth in time. The final reveal was a bit predictable. Recommend if you like the genre.

What We Were Promised by Lucy Tan

🌟🌟🌟🌟☄ (4.5 stars)

Thank you to Little, Brown and Company and Lucy Tan for gifting me a copy in exchange for a review. This did not affect my opinion in any way.

Let’s be real. When I saw the cover of this book on the Modern Mrs. Darcy Summer Reading Guide I NEEDED to learn more. Don’t worry: this beautiful content lives up to its cover.

Synopsis: The Zhen family return to China after spending twenty years chasing the American dream. Wei, Lina and their daughter Karen become part of an affluent community of many ex-pats. One day, Lina realizes a sentimental keepsake has gone missing. This creates a culture of mistrust amongst the housekeeping staff within the community. Wei is caught up in his busy worklife while Lina attempts to acclimate to the newly bestowed role of being a ‘taitai’–a housewife who doesn’t do housework. There are problems in the household, which their housekeeper Sunny has picked up on. Things begin to come to a head when Qiang, Wei’s brother reappears in Shanghai after decades of disappearing.

Lucy Tan does a great job of making the reader feel that you are in the particular character’s room whenever describing the circumstances of the chapter without having overwrought prose. The book is told in differing perspectives and in different periods of time. There is a quiet subtlety to her prose that takes care to explain the nuances of occupying the space of a housekeeper vs. a ‘taitai’. This novel addresses class, family secrets, difficulty of marriage vs. love, ex-pat life and missed opportunities. A very strong debut novel and I highly recommend it if you enjoy these themes. It reminded me a bit of Behold the Dreamers and Everything I Never Told You.

Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li

🌟🌟🌟☄

Thank you to Henry Holt Books and Lillian Li for gifting me this book in exchange for a review. This did not affect my opinion in any way.

This debut novel focuses on the multigenerational relationships between many of the staff/owners and associated family that work for The Beijing Duck House restaurant in Maryland.

This novel follows the various characters in their own perspectives while confronting family issues, new love/old love and everything in between before and after the Duck House tragedy. I loved the complex romantic relationships, the way varipus family members reacted to sorrow/tragedy and even criminal behavior. Lilluan Li develops multi-dimensional characters within a meager 288 pages.

Recommended if you love books about family dramas, restaurant life, secrets and complex friendships/relationships.

Girls Burn Brighter by Shobha Rao

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I was avoiding this book for quite some time because I knew how difficult some of themes would be. This was a mistake, though. It’s true that you have to prepare yourself for difficult themes, but I found it much more hopeful than previously anticipated.

This novel follows Poornima and Savitha, two teenage girls at the start of the book in their struggles in being unwanted daughters of poor families and their budding friendship amidst trying times in the village of Indravilli, India. Without spoiling too much, the girls are separated from each other, seemingly forever. They each survive atrocious acts committed against them and strive to become reunited with each other.

I’m not doing to lie, there are many parts of this book that are brutal, heartbreaking and infuriating. Amongst that, there is great resilence, hope and beauty. The fierceness of friendship. There is lovely prose.

I recommend this book to anyone who wants to explore a novel that addresses the rampant misogyny present in this culture but also the resilence of friendship and beautiful (but not overly descriptive) prose.

Poornima wanted to get up, pull Savitha up from her plate, and embrace her. No one– not ever– had thought to make something for her. Her mother, of course, but she was dead. And the weight of her mother’s hand, holding the comb in her hair, was all she had left of her. At times, many times, she gripped that memory, that weight, as if it alone could guide her through dark and savage forest paths, and eventually, she hoped, into a clearing, but it wasn’t true. It couldn’t. All that memory could do was give small solace.”

Her gaze was even, and indifferent, as she stood at the back door looking out. And it was when Poornima saw this gaze, this indifference, that she understood: the girl had lost her sense of light. It was all the same to her, to all the girls, really: light and dark, morning and night. But it wasn’t an outside light they’d lost a sense of, Poornima realized. It was an interior one. And so that was the aspect of girlhood they’d lost: a sense of their own light.”

Maybe in Another Life by Taylor Jenkins Reid

⭐⭐⭐

I went into reading this book fully anticipating a light, fun romantic read. While I did get that, I also got something very different from what I asked for.

This novel follows Hannah, an aimless 20 something year old woman who is finally returning back home to Los Angeles after living in multiple cities and dealing with the aftermath of a disastrous affair. Her best friend Gabby takes her out to a bar and Hannah bumps into her high school ex-boyfriend.

The story diverges here between a storyline in which she goes home with Ethan and the one in which she goes home with Gabby (kind of like the movie Sliding Doors).

This is where I found my issues with the book. Slight SPOILER ALERT: in one storyline, Hannah ends up injured and has to stay in a hospital for quite some time. Let me describe the method in which her nurse transfers her to a wheelchair:

He puts his arms underneath my legs. He tells me to put my arms around his neck, to hold on to him tightly. He leans over me, putting his arm around my back… I land back on my bed with a thud.”

I’m surprised the nurse shows up later in the story, because in real life this nurse would be laying in his bed, recovering from a work related injury for performing a vastly unsafe transfer!

The physical therapist isn’t much better: “He puts my feet on the floor. Tbat part I’ve gotten good at. Then he puts the walker in front of me. He pulls me up onto him, resting my arms and chest on his shoulders. He is bearing my weight”. I’m not even sure how this would work. Typically, patients hold onto you for a pivot transfer if there is no assistive device used. I don’t get having both simultaneously.

As an occupational therapist, I was disappointed that Hannah didn’t get any occupational therapy to speak of, though she was discharged home, concerned as to whether she could take care of herself: “I’m looking forward to sleeping in a real bed and bathing myself, maybe blow-drying my hair. Apparently, preparations have to be made to make that work, too. Mark installed a seat in the shower. Oh, to clean myself unaided! These are the things dreams are made of.” By the way, this occurred only a chapter or two after she had a hard time standing. Unrealistic! She also is able to get up from the floor soon after being hospitalized. No.

Overall, I give this book three stars. My favorite aspect of the book was her friendship with Gabby. I just really wish the author consulted health care professionals regarding the rehabilitation process, so that the odd choices would not distract me from the rest of the story.

How to Set Yourself on Fire by Julia Dixon Evans

⭐⭐⭐☄

I received a free copy of this book from Dzanc books in exchange for an honest review. This did not influence my opinion in any way.

This debut novel follows our protagonist Sheila in the loss of her grandmother, strained relationship with her mother and relationships with her next door neighbor Vinnie and his daughter Torrey.

Sheila visits her grandmother the day before she passes away. Her grandmother mentions a shoebox, but tells Sheila she will explain more about it tomorrow. For Sheila’s grandmother, tomorrow never comes as she passes away the next day. Sheila investigates the contents of the shoebox and discovers hundreds of letters addressed to Sheila’s grandmother from a mysterious man called Harold C. Carr (who isn’t her grandfather).

Sheila explores this mystery with her neighbor Vinnie’s daughter and develops a friendship with her (and somewhat of a relationship with Vinnie) along the way.

This book is very funny in parts, tender and also awkward (as Sheila is an awkward and quirky character). Sheila is a bit of a trainwreck and not always entirely likeable.

I recommend this book to anyone who likes quirky stories, intergenerational friendships, domestic dramas/comedy and mysteries.

This book was recently released May 8th of this year and you can get a copy wherever books are sold. Thank you, Dzanc books for the copy for review!

“And then it occurs to me: if Torrey walked right out of my life right now, never to return, I’d be crushed. I’m already in too deep. It’s not like she’s a normal friend. She’s not a sister. She’s not a daughter. She’s something else–someone I don’t have to care about, but I do.”

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

⭐⭐⭐⭐

This year, I’ve been trying to read more classics. Of the suggestions I received, this one stuck out to me. True Crime? Yes. Narrative non-fiction? Yes. Sold! I am a self-described murderino and essentially was compelled to read this book.

As someone who typically shies away from non-fiction, something has to really grab me in order to read non-fiction. I’ve been realizing narrative non-fiction tends to pull me in and keep me hooked more than straight forward non-fiction.

In Cold Blood is based on the true story of The Clutters, a good-natured family from Holcomb, Kansas who get brutally murdered one day in their home. The book follows The Clutters in the days leading up to their death and Dick and Perry, the two men who killed them, culminating to their deaths and subsequent investigation.

What I didn’t expect from this book was an appreciation for small town life. In some ways, I wish there was a separate book that focused on the quaintness of Holcomb, Kansas without the context of The Clutter murders. There’s also a fairly thorough explanation of the psychology of the murderers and somewhat of some sympathy for one of the murderers.

I recommend this book to you if you enjoy true crime, narrative non-fiction and an exploration of the psychology of a murderer.

Tonight, having dried and brushed her hair and bound it in a gauzy bandana, she set out the clothes she intended to wear for church the next morning: nylons, black pumps, a red velveteen dress– her prettiest, which she herself had made. It was the dress in which she was to be buried.”