What’cha Reading: A Month’s Reviews
October is the middle of Fall for most of the West. The last few months have been a season of change for me; we’ve moved to the coast, I’ve setttled into a larger role at work, we’re rolling through another school year with Algebra, we’ve survived Hurricane Ian, I’ve written and re-written a lot in the new book, Taramul Viselor. But, late at night, when the rest of the Western Hemisphere is sleeping and I am battling insomnia, reading has been my escape. Unwilling to buy books for myself and without enough hours in the day to traverse to the library on a regular basis, I downloaded Hoopla and Libby, apps that my local library makes available. Basically, with these apps, you can use your library card to check out ebooks.
It is amazing.
And, so, I thought I’d recap what I’ve read this month—and offer a quick review of each for no other reason than it lets me linger in storyland a little longer.
First up: Verity by Colleen Hoover – read on October 2.
Call me late to the game, but this was the first book I’ve read by Hoover and, seeing as most of her other work seems to be romances, I’ve not found another synopsis that interests me yet. But Verity is a rollercoaster.
The characters are all haunted, and none of them are perfect. By the time you finish the story, you are second guessing who it is you’re supposed to feel empathy for. Also, you’re exhausted because there is so much on every page. The writing is beautiful. It is a disturbing book, with psychopathic character(s) (which one(s) are psychopathic, and how many psychopaths can exist in one book, are up for debate) and scenes that are hard to read. There are not only scenes of child abuse and murder, but these scenes are written in first person narration so they’re doubly hard to read because of how heartless the narrator —— is? Appears to be? Again, up for debate. Lots of things are up for debate in this story. For me, the internal dialogue of Verity, the successful author, is what made this book hard to stomach. She’s not only psychopathic but obsessive, narcissistic and, also, very clever. What you don’t really see for awhile (at least half the book) is that her husband isn’t really Prince Charming, either.
Lowen, a struggling writer, accepts a position finishing a series of popular books by a well-known author, who sustained terrible injuries from a car wreck. She discovers an autobiography written by the author and becomes convinced Verity is not only manipulative but dangerous to the family. After falling for the author’s husband, who appears to be a devoted family man, Lowen ultimately makes a decision to help him find healing and freedom from his dangerous wife that casts her own character into question. At this point in the book, I kind of wanted to throw the book across the room and say, What? It prompts the questions: what are we all capable of? To what lengths will we go to protect that which we most love? Is there anything that might justify heinous acts? And, also, to be frank: You kind of want to sympathize and understand the craziness of Lowen and the “family man” at first because you really hate Verity by this point. And then you start to think: are there good people in the world? Are any of us really good?
On Goodreads, I gave this story four stars because, really, some of the love scenes are just gratuitous, graphic depictions of sex. I’m generally okay with this—if the depictions serve a purpose… but these, for the most part, don’t. They are meant, I think, to establish the husband’s darker fantasies and what drives him to questionable acts. But, after awhile, having the intimate scenes in nearly every chapter, or every other chapter, becomes monotonous. I also felt that the insinuation and depiction of Crew might have crossed a line—I understood that the purpose was to see the evolution of a psychopath, and, as a fellow writer, I could appreciate the need to demonstrate how trauma affects everyone in a household. But the child was in therapy, still young enough for a successful outcome and, frankly, you just need a glimmer of hope after this whirlwind. Instead, the family of Chronics ends up living in fear of a six-year-old and, well, everyone else, too.
The Other Einstein by Marie Benedict read from September 30-October 3
Honestly, this was hard to get through. I wanted to like it, and I did like Mileva. I sympathized with her, and, after researching Einstein myself, do believe he was controlling. I think the author showed the evolution of the disintegration of their marriage well. The character development is well done: the Mileva at the end of the story resembles the youthful Mileva at the beginning very little. But, other than Mileva’s character development, the writing is not very good. There’s a lot of “telling” and not very much “showing.” Some of the passages seemed contrived. It was rather a simple story that lacked the emotional connection to the characters; I was never able to really feel invested in them or their lives.
The Woman in the Library by Sulari Gentill read from October 4-6.
This was the month’s selection for my library‘s book club. The story starts out at the Boston Public Library, where four strangers are seated at the same Reading table. Two of them are writers and one of them is a murderer. But—when you think you have a handle on this weird book—guess again! This is a murder mystery—it’s a story within a story within a story. Literally.
And here’s where my problems begin: to start with, the characters are not very engaging, they are not very believable because they actually reinforce the stereotypes the author presents them as. In the opening chapter, one of the characters (of the first storyline) judges the other three — and her initial assumptions about them based on their appearances are reinforced and credited throughout the book. Convienently, each of the males start a relationship with the corresponding, stereotypical female. It’s all predictable. This begs the question: how accurate are stereotypes?
Next, how many storylines are too many? The story within the story (storyline #2) is about this other murderer and it adds absolutely nothing to storyline #1. Storyline #3 is the budding romances between the characters of storyline #1. Storyline #3 is about solving the murder in storyline #2. Confused yet? Just wait—there’s a couple more subplots and twists in each storyline. None of the storylines ever converge. So, with rather unimaginative characters and too many unrelated storylines, this just isn’t it, Chief. I wanted to like this book… but I just couldn’t give it a more than 2 star in Goodreads.
The Things We Cannot Say by Kelly Rimmer, read October 6-7.
I could likely write an entire blog post, and more besides, on this book. It is probably my favorite book I’ve read all year. It is absolutely beautiful. The book alternates between war-torn Europe and present day. The historical pieces on the Holocaust are well-researched and there are scenes that many fictional writers shy away from when writing about the era. There are scenes that will break your heart and will make you cry. It is in these chapters that we watch the story of Tomas and Alina unfold. At its heart, this book is their love story. And it is heart-warming. These characters are brimming with poignancy, life, and more besides. I loved how Alina never saw herself as a fighter, she never saw herself as brave—and, yet, with motivation from Tomas, and her family, she never shied away from the bold moves that would define her. She is both humble and yet strong; fierce, and yet, endearingly, simultaneously, fragile.
The present day chapters follow the story of Alina’s granddaughter, Alice. Alice has two children, one of them gifted, the other with special needs. She has a husband who loves her but struggles to connect with their son. Alice is mentally and organically, physically exhausted from being the caretaker for everyone. She hasn’t cared for herself in years. Her marriage is at risk for the early stages of resentment to bloom. And then—her dying grandmother asks a final wish and it becomes the thing that Alice, and her family, needs to move forward in a healthy way.
Typically, I’m not a huge fan of multiple storylines and alternating between past and present because it is really hard for me to become invested in both storylines; I usually find myself dreading the present storyline and gravitating to the historical pieces. But not here. Here, I loved Alice. I really loved her husband. And I loved her children. I even liked her mother. And I wanted them to be okay.
I cried during this book and I rejoiced during this book. I really hope this becomes a movie because it is a lovely story. I gave this a 5/5 review on Goodreads, but I wish I could give it more. On Hoopla’s app, this was a 683 page book that I read in two evenings. To keep a reader invested for 700 pages is a testament not only to the skill of writing but also, more importantly, to the story itself.
Never Saw Me Coming by Vera Kurlan , read on October 8.
Let’s go back to the question asked in Verity’s review: how many psychopaths can co-exist in one book? How many psychopaths do you work with? How many psychopaths go to your college? So, here, we have a lovely college trying to collect psychopaths. They offer them free tuition in exchange for the opportunity to study them; they have to wear smart bracelets, they participate in very interesting surveys with each other and, also, someone is trying to kill them all. While they are being hunted, one skilled psychopath, Chloe, is really only at college to do one thing: kill Will. She’s been planning it for a long time because Will is not a nice guy; he raped her when she was 12. Chloe meets deranged Charles; they both meet a pretender: Andre. Andre is not a real psychopath, he’s pretending to be a psychopath because he actually did want the education.
This was an entertaining, fun read that provoked all sorts of questions but, at the end of the day, made me feel invested in each of the characters. Not typically a fan of multiple narrators-I’m rather boring reader, I like one consistent storyline. But the more narratives that came into play, the further along I fell into the twists and turns that make this story up. And it has meaningful questions and does try to show that not everyone with a diagnosis of psychopath is also a murderer: some legitimately try to control the disorder. It is a smart read. I’ll give it a 3/5.
Mad Honey by Jodi Picoult & Jennifer Finney Boylan, read October 12-14.
Normally, I enjoy Picoult’s books. They challenge my beliefs sometimes and make me think. This is why I normally like her books. The authors have a discussion at a nearby theater and so we went. I enjoyed the discussion with the authors—especially learning about their writing styles and Jennifer was very engaging. The story centers around two families with two mothers who love their children very much. Lily is the new girl in town, and Asher quickly falls for her. I really liked both Asher & Lily… and I liked their young love story. There are hints of Asher’s anger issues, but when Lily shares with him a really big secret, he ultimately is comforting and reassuring.
But Asher makes a big mistake: he tries to reunite Lily with her estranged father and this threatens their rather volatile relationship. Before a resolution happens, Lily winds up dead and rasher is charged with her murder. During the trial, bombshell after bombshell is uncovered and a mother’s trust in what she’s always thought she knew of her child is questioned. What she thought she knew of herself is questioned.
In a nutshell: this is an intense book. Olivia, Asher’s mother, is a survivor of domestic abuse and her history is well handled and well told. The authors excel at character development; nearly each one is complex and you could argue that there really aren’t any minor characters here. I really enjoyed the courtroom drama pieces.
But I don’t love this book. Whereas Small Great Things handled sensitive, controversial issues in a balanced way that left you thinking, this book threw half a dozen big topics at you and left you feeling lectured at. Everything from abortion to LGBTQ+ to domestic violence to several other things are brought up. It detracted from the core of the story and from it’s main issue / topic which was that Lily was transgender. Overall, Picoult is well-researched and thought provoking and a skilled writer. Boylan wrote all but one of the Lily chapters and she, too, is well adept at making you care for a young girl. It could have been great; instead, I felt it was bogged down with extra issues that sidelined the primary plot, which is why I gave it a 3/5 on Goodreads.
Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell , read October 16.
This is a sad story. It is the story of one family’s grief over the death of a beloved child. In the story, Hamnet is a twin; his father, whose name is never actually mentioned, is Shakespeare. Father travels frequently for work on the stage. Hamnet & his twin are left in the care of their mother and grandmother. When Hamnet’s sister falls ill with the plague, Hamnet takes her place (heartbreaking scene) and dies. The scene of his mother and grandmother preparing his body for burial is gut wrenching. The writing for this simple tale is lyrical, the pace and the plot on pointe and, most of all, it is a story that will stay with you. I gave this story a 4/5 on Goodreads.
The Long Walk by Stephen King, read October 17-18.
Every year, boys can sign up to be part of the walk, but only 300 are chosen. If you win, the Prize is anything you can think of to ask. But, if you don’t win, you die. The task is simple: walk at 4 miles per hour until there is no one else walking but you. If you fall behind in pace, you are given 3 warnings—and then you are shot. The story is really about 4 of these boys—and their conversations as they walk the long road, passing crowds that are cheering them on. It is Stephen King and he is Stephen King for a reason: the writing is above reproach. You feel like the plot is too simple to be interesting as a book (maybe as a prequel to The Hunger Games, as a movie) but King’s writing makes it so that you feel like you are actually walking. The passing of each town feels different, the keeping of time, and the symbolism of about a million things keep you reading. You know the ending when you start: 200 boys are going to die; your narrator will likely win, but maybe not, and, anyway, is there ever a winner of a game like The Walk? I gave this a 4/5–my only draw back was character development—for some reason, I really didn’t feel that the narrator was relatable and that kept me from becoming overly invested. Instead, I felt like a spectator on the sidelines… which was likely exactly what King wanted readers to feel like….
The Girl in His Shadow by Audrey Blake, read on October 22
This is a beautifully told story that drew me in from the beginning and didn’t let go. It’s a simple one, really, but the characters are loveable, the pace good and the writing solid. Nora is an orphan who goes up in the home of an odd, but brilliant, surgeon. She learns medicine organically and assists with dissections, experiments, treating patients, drawings and more. But when the opportunity arises to help a patient by performing an audacious, rarely attempted surgery, she is one who knows enough to do it. One betrayal later and the repercussions are significant: she is turned into a pariah, forced to stifle her intelligence and curiosity—until offered a special chance to study abroad. The opportunity requires sacrifices, mainly that of leaving a newfound love and a beloved father figure. But dreams are worth it and so I gave this a 5/5.
The Dictionary of Lost Words , by Pip Williams , October 27-28.
At its core, this is a love letter to words. It spans an entire lifetime; we watch Esme grow from a child of six or seven until her death at 46. She hides under the sorting table of the Scriptorium where her father, and other men, work on creating the Oxford Dictionary. When a slip of paper falls, she takes it. It is the word bondmaid and Esme doesn’t like the definition of it because it is derogatory, especially to women, and makes her think of Lizzie, the maid. Esme is first a thief who steals the words that she doesn’t think belong in the Dictionary. She moves from opportunistic thief to collector; she wants the words the men won’t include. To find them, she tracks down the disreputable women, the crass and ugly insults women use because they have accepted as part of the definition of woman. Later on in her life, Esme becomes a champion—a champion of women and of words. Words are precious to her—more precious than diamonds, even. And, through it all, she hoards that which matters to her in a truck under her servant’s bed: letters, the Dictionary she edited with the women’s words, pamphlets of the theater she loved and more besides. When she dies, the trunk makes its way to the daughter she gave up, now 21, and we see how a life is made up, at the end, of words. It is a unique that reignited my own love of words and word studies and is a poignant story. I gave this book a 4/5 review.
Winter Sisters by Robin Oliveria, read October 27-29.
Horrifying, but true fact: in 1879, the age of consent in New York was 10 years old; in Delaware, the age of consent was 7. This is what ultimately sparked the idea for this story. It is the Winter of 1879 when a blizzard strikes a NY village. The village is comprised of an array of colorful people: there is the unconventional woman doctor, Mary Sutter, her husband, William, who is also a doctor, the beloved wealthy family who owns the local lumber company and provides social opportunities for the town, the shady police Captain and a family of 4: a loving couple who are the parents of two beautiful little girls, Emma and Claire, ages 10 and 7.
The blizzard comes on suddenly. The little girls’ parents both die; they are released from school once the storm stops but when their parents, who have died, do not show up to retrieve them, they begin to walk home. They are kidnapped, imprisoned and the oldest of the two, Emma, is battered and raped repeatedly. The younger girl is not sexually assaulted because, at 7, she is not at the NY legal age of consent whereas her 10 year old sister — is.
Once they are discovered and returned to family members – the doctors’ home – the full extent of the trauma is made apparent. Emma is withdrawn, shaky and unable to tell anyone the name of the man who raped her. It was dark and she never saw him; she only heard his voice. There were two men, she steadfastedly and adamantly insists, one “good” man and “the other” who “hurt” her. They find the one she claims is the “good” man because, in order to escape, she injured him. The prosecuting attorney is relentless. He arrests the man, but he fails to listen to Emma; he doesn’t believe that there were two men. He believes there was only the one in custody and he is relentless in his pursuit to discredit Emma’s story. Weren’t you a little excited? Didn’t you really kind of want It? Don’t think you are making it up, there wasn’t really two men, was there, there was only one. You just needed to believe he was good because you are too fragile to have coped otherwise.
Ultimately, it will take a compassionate, smart, defense attorney and persistent, patient and loving care of the doctors to pursue and obtain both healing and Justice.
Overall, this is a touching story about child rape and its effects along with NY law of 1879. The subject matter is handled sensitively and focuses more on the trauma of the aftermath of abuse than on the actual abuse. It’s also a story of how love can offer healing and, ina different storyline, redemption. I gave this book a 4/5.
Overall, the month was a month of psychological and historical novels with a pinch of current hot topics with the Mad Honey. The joy of reading is that it can help me escape, it can offer friendship, it can teach and it can inspire. Sometimes, it can do all of that even within the pages of a single book.