Book Reviews: May and June ’20

I’ve taken a few months off from blogging to get back into a new routine (quarantine and then the return to work / a new normal has really messed with me). I always wanted blogging to be a creative outlet that I enjoyed without feeling stressed out by it – and it just seemed like an added chore when life was more stressful lately. I’m in the right headspace to get back to it.

I read some great books in May and June and am excited to share them with you. One other note – I recently discovered an online marketplace for books as an alternative to Amazon – Bookshop. Bookshop supports local bookstores and is very comparable in price to Amazon. I’ll be linking to books from there instead of Amazon moving forward.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. (Fiction, 2017). I think I’m the only person on the planet that has not seen the Hulu serialized version of Little Fires Everywhere, but I don’t have Hulu and I really liked the book, so I think I might not bother watching it. Little Fires Everywhere follows the intersection of a well-to-do suburban family and children with the mother and daughter who rent a home from them. The juxtaposition of the high brow, white collar family with their corporate executive father and community-involved mother vs. the table waiting, avante-garde photographer is startling. As the background of the mother and daughter remains mysterious, and as a child custody case in the community rages, the families connection grows complicated. I will read almost anything that has great character development and this book has just that. You get an intimate look into the lives of all five children and a look at the perspectives behind both mothers. While not a particularly satisfying end (no loose ends tied up here), it is a book that captivated me and made me think.

Troublemaker: Surviving Hollywood and Scientology by Leah Remini. (Non-Fiction/Autobiography, 2015). One of my embarrassing areas of interest is fringe religious groups that are highly secretive. I think it’s fascinating that the United States has so many of them and how highly successful some of them are. One of the most successful religious organizations (financially-speaking) is The Church of Scientology. Leah Remini is among some of the most famous of former members (in the circle with Tom Hanks), but she is notorious for how she left, how much she has upset The Church, and how vocal she is on the outside about the abuses of power that take place within The Church. While The Church of Scientology does actively recruit (and aggressively) in Hollywood to cater to up and coming actors, Leah was recruited through her mother’s membership to the church as a child. Having excelled through nearly all of the ranks of The Church, she offers a viewpoint and level of access to leadership that many never see. If you are even remotely interested in what goes on in the secretive world of Scientology, this book is a fascinating read.

Mr. Trump’s Wild Ride: The Thrills, Chills, Screams, and Occasional Blackouts of an Extraordinary Presidency by Major Garrett. (Non-Fiction, 2018). I’m reading this book far too late (I should have read it right when it came out since I LOVE the author), but better late than never. Major Garrett is my all-time favorite journalist and one of the best political reporters in my opinion. He hosts a fantastic podcast called The Takeout where he interviews people inside Washington (on both sides of the aisle) about their background, their jobs and their personal lives over a meal at a Washington, DC restaurant. Anyway, this is about his most recent book – not his podcast! (But check out both). Major Garrett covered some six dozen Trump rallies during the 2016 campaign and then covered the twists and turns of the Trump administration as CBS News’ chief White House correspondent. Written in an approachable way, the book explains why the Trump Administration is so chaotic compared to any of the other administrations that Major has covered over the decades. It is not written in a “you are a horrible criminal” vantage point, but rather highlights the tensions between staff and the President’s aloof and dealmaker nature – how that leadership style is so different from the norm and the chaos it creates.

The Forgotten Girl by David Bell. (Thriller, 2014). I really didn’t realize how much of a thriller fan I am until this past year. They’re nothing particularly deep, but they are entertaining and they really are hard to put down if well-written. In The Forgotten Girl, Jason and his wife have relocated back to his childhood home in Ohio during the economic recession and their marriage is strained. Jason’s long lost sister (with a penchant for trouble) returns in the middle of the night asking that Jason watch her teenage daughter for 48 hours without questions while she ties up some loose ends. When his sister doesn’t return, the family begins frantically retracing her steps and discovers her involvement with dangerous characters and unsolved murders.

Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson. (Fiction, 2019). I heard this author interviewed on NPR shortly after this book was released last year and assumed it would be a crazier story than it was. Nothing to See Here follows two children who have a condition where they spontaneously catch fire. It does not hurt them, but it burns their clothing and scares anyone around them (needless to say). Main character Lillian has had her entire life upended since high school and it is heading next to nowhere. Her former roommate Madison contacts her out of the blue saying that she wants her to come visit, and asks her to take on a job nannying her husband’s children from a prior marriage. The catch: their spontaneous combustion. As Madison’s husband’s career climbs, his children are proving to be a liability and there is an effort to keep them under wraps and out of prying eyes. Lillian recognizes some of her own frustration in these misunderstood children and connects with them in a way that few else have.

Less by Andrew Sean Greer. (Fiction, 2017). This book was a happy accident that I found and the direct result of judging a book by its cover. As I didn’t read the description, I wildly presumed from the title and cover that this was a book about embracing minimalism and how we are all falling wildly into a void in the information age. I was about as far off as you could get, but the book was still a really great read. It follows the story of Arthur Less, a relatively unsuccessful writer who (by good fortune or bad luck) had a long term relationship with an ex boyfriend who WAS an incredibly successful author. After being dumped by his last, much younger boyfriend, who would then go on to get engaged almost immediately to the young son of his own wealthy and successful peer, Arthur is feeling ever older and ever more the failure. He decided to take a whirlwind and worldwide trip, traversing the globe to visit old friends, accept obscure literary awards, engage in teaching a course abroad and escape his old life. Through his travels, he ends facing more of his past than he thought, but also finds peace – and chaos – in his adventures. This was a lovely, lighthearted book that I never would have found had I not taken a guess at the subject matter by the title!

The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware. (Thriller, 2016). My neighbor loaned me this book and it was a wonderful, quick read of a thriller. Following British travel writer Lo as she sets off on an exclusive northern Scandinavian cruise, she is already on edge following a violent break-in to her flat. She hopes that the cruise will be both a chance to relax and to make valuable connections to further her career. She ends up believing that she has witnessed a murder and insists that there is a missing person that had been on the ship that is no longer onboard. Her efforts to push for justice are met by questioning of her memories of the situation and accusations that she had been drinking too much to clearly assess her surroundings. As she grows suspicious of the entire crew of the ship, she unravels from the stress of questioning herself and watching her own back constantly for fearing that she knows too much.

Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton. (Drama, 1948). This book was one I stumbled upon by going through older years of Oprah’s book club picks. I’ve read a number of her book club features in the last year and they’re typically very compelling, so this one made my list. I didn’t realize until I received it that it was actually published more than 80 years ago! The story ages well and was a good read. To describe it as a sad story is the understatement of the year. It follows the tribulations of Stephen Kumalo, a poor minister in a rural village in South Africa, as he seeks to resolve the troubles of his wayward family members. A pious and good man, Stephen travels to Johannesburg to come to the aid of his sister, her son, and his own son – all who have ventured far from their home and have gotten into trouble with the law or otherwise. While his travels do not result in his being able to help his immediate family members, he is able to help those in their circle and to build valuable relationships (through hardship) to help his impoverished community. Written in the 1940s just before the adoption of aparthaid, the book highlights the clear inequities between white and black, particularly in the heyday of mineral extraction where black workers worked in dangerous conditions for very little pay. I didn’t know this prior to reading it, but the author, Alan Paton, is a particularly famous author and anti-aparthaid activist. An area of global history that I know little about, it was very interesting to examine through the lens of how aparthaid so divided South Africa for decades following the publication of this book.

Circe by Madeline Miller. (Fantasy/Mythology, 2018). Circe was rated as one of the top audiobooks in recent years and as it’s been more difficult to access library books during the pandemic, I’ve been maximizing my library’s use of Libby to borrow e-books and audiobooks. I’m not normally a big mythology/fantasy reader, but this was an exceptional book. The narrator (Perdita Weeks) has such a melodic voice and adds such depth to the story. It follows the story of Circe, an enchantress and daughter of the Greek god Helios. She is featured in Homer’s Odyssey as the character who turns his ship crew into pigs. Knowing only that bare minimum of her story, this lent itself to an interesting alternative perspective of a well known mythology. The story is captivating both for its twists and turns, but also the beauty of the narrator’s voice. Circe is a character you start by generally disliking, but grow to love as the story unfolds when you see her traits of loyalty, courage and tenacity. Even if you aren’t much for this genre, I’d highly suggest this book.

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