Only Human by Sylvain Neuvel

Only Human (Themis Files, #3)Only Human by Sylvain Neuvel
Published by Del Rey Books

The third book in this series made me SO happy. I know that when I have talked about the first two books, all I’ve done is gush about how great and fun and lovely they are, and Only Human is also all of those things. Neuvel wraps some things up but leaves a lot of issues up to get sorted out later – the world that has been created between these three books and in the forty-ish years that the books span has a LOT of stuff to sort out. There are no easy answers here, and a lot of what is within these pages is rumination on human nature and the decisions we make when faced with fear and otherness and differences between people/species/whatever BUT it’s within an incredibly suspenseful, creative, and unique story about humans and aliens colliding in the most unpredictable of ways.

I can’t say enough great things about these books. PLEASE read this series if you haven’t already. Especially if you don’t think you’re a sci-fi fan – I really don’t read sci-fi and these books were so perfect for me. I want more accessible and creative sci-fi, please. With great characters. Give me all the recs.

Super highly extremely recommended. READ THESE BOOKS.

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Waking Gods by Sylvain Neuvel

Waking Gods (Themis Files, #2)Waking Gods by Sylvain Neuvel
Published by Del Rey

Sleeping Giants, the first novel in this series, introduced the reader to Rose Franklin, a researcher who leads a team of people trying to understand these strange alien robot that was found, in multiple pieces, scattered across the earth, buried underground. Waking Gods takes place ten years after the first book ends, and Rose and her team are shocked when a fully formed second robot shows up in London one day. The unanswered questions form the first book become more pressing than ever as this team of scientists and government officials race against time to protect the world from whatever these things are and whomever is in control of them.

This series continues to be fantastic and is just one that you need to read to fully comprehend its greatness. To talk too much about the plot of Waking Gods would spoil not only the book itself, but many things that occur in the first book, so I won’t get into details – but these books are SO GOOD! Just like the first book, this book is told through interviews, diary entries, scientific logs, transcripts, and a bunch of other things that make it an incredibly unique and fast-moving experience. I feel that each book is examining different things about the human condition, and about what people do when facing fear, hope, and other emotions. This book gets really bleak, and ultimately terrifying, but people do rise to the occasion and look for solutions when it seems that all hope is lost. One thing I like about this series is there really isn’t a good/evil dynamic. Pretty much everyone in the book does good things sometimes and bad things other times, and most of the time they just make the best decision they can with the information they have at the time. Sometimes those decisions turn out to be awful; sometimes they save the day – but they are just being people, thrust in an unfamiliar landscape, trying to do the best they can.

Read these books! They are so great.

Love, Hate & Other Filters by Samira Ahmed

Love, Hate & Other FiltersLove, Hate & Other Filters by Samira Ahmed
Published by Soho Teen
Review copy provided by the publisher

Maya Aziz is seventeen and feels as though she’s caught between two worlds – the life her parents want her to lead as a dutiful Indian daughter, looking to be paired up with a Muslim boy that they choose for her, and the life of a typical Chicago-area teenager, hanging out with her friends and crushing on the white boy she’s not allowed to date. When a crime is committed far from her neighborhood, issues that Maya has ignored for years within her community suddenly come to the surface, and her teenager problems don’t seem so bad anymore, now that she is facing real issues.

This was an interesting novel for me because I appreciated what Samira Ahmed did with the plot of this book. The first half of the book is very YA with a multicultural twist – teenage girl with parents who don’t understand her, she has a crush on a guy who is “wrong” for her, she is culturally different from most of her friends but in general fits in pretty well, you know the drill. Very standard but good for YA stuff. Then halfway through the book, this Major Event happens, and supposedly changes the way that the main character, Maya, sees the world around her and possibly herself. Although, to be honest, I’m not sure how successful the melding of these two story lines was, and that’s the main issue I had with the novel.

I felt that Ahmed was trying to do too much with the book in a way that never really gelled for me. I believed in Maya as a character, and I was definitely on board with the whole dating a guy her parents chose for her while at the same time starting up a friendship with this other guy who she truly liked but knew she wouldn’t be “allowed” to actually date – that felt very YA and very fun for me to read. I just wish that the terrorism stuff wasn’t made to be this huge thing in the book because while it of course is a huge thing, in the book and in real life, I’m not sure that Maya as a character treated it as such, which felt a bit inauthentic to me and didn’t mesh with the Maya I thought I’d gotten to know throughout the beginning of the book. On the other hand … as I’m writing this I also feel that Maya handled the situation like any other teenager would – yes it’s a big deal, yes she has to think about things a bit differently, but there’s school and boys and getting into college and all that other stuff on her mind. So I’m torn.

Overall I did like the writing, did like the main character, and strongly believe in more books being published that do what Love, Hate & Other Filters does. So I do recommend the book, even though I personally felt that some aspects of the plot fell short.

How to Walk Away by Katherine Center

How to Walk AwayHow to Walk Away by Katherine Center
Published by St. Martin’s Press
Review copy provided by Netgalley

On the evening that Margaret Jacobson is going to get engaged to the love of her life, a shocking accident not only ruins the proposal, but severely wounds and almost kills her. In the aftermath, she is faced with the realization that her life will be completely different from this point on, and the people and things she thought were most important to her become almost insignificant as she wrestles with the understanding that nothing will ever be the same again.

Brief summary, I know, but this book was SO MUCH MORE than any kind of summary I (or the publisher) can provide. On the surface, How to Walk Away seems like it would be saccharine-sweet, full of clichés about trying to rebuild life after a huge tragedy, learning what is “most important”, and uncovering deep secrets about family and loved ones. And it kind of is all of that – but in Katherine Center’s capable and creative hands, it is so much more.

I absolutely loved Margaret and rooted for her the whole way through this book. At the beginning of the book, I found her to be shallow and a bit self-absorbed, perhaps a little too interested in the material things in life, but that quickly changed for me. When she began recovering from her accident, she turned into a person with sharp edges but a kind heart, a person who really started to understand what she wanted out of life. This transformation could have come across as inauthentic but it really was just the opposite – I totally believed Margaret’s journey and loved watching her grow into this more mature, more peaceful version of herself. It felt very real to me.

There is a love story in the book but it is very soft, not a huge focus of the story at all. Ultimately it becomes A Thing, but it’s very sweet and done in such an adorable way – I loved it so much. The novel is so much more about Margaret finding her way, reconciling who she thought she was supposed to be with who she truly is, and realizing that her family is imperfect but she can still love them despite their imperfections and secrets that have been hiding for years. It’s a coming of age story, despite the fact that the person coming of age is a grown woman.

I thought How to Walk Away was just so darn sweet and charming and I loved every minute I spent with it. These kinds of books just make me so happy and are exactly what we need to read sometimes to remind us that the world is not all darkness and sadness, at least not all of the time. Highly recommended for a fun, happy book to make you smile.

 

A Friend of the Family by Lauren Grodstein

A Friend of the FamilyA Friend of the Family by Lauren Grodstein
Published by Algonquin Books

This novel centers around Pete Dinzinoff, a fortysomething doctor who loves his wife and his teenage son, Alec, and is content with the choices he’s made to offer the kind of life he has always wanted for his family. Pete’s best friend has a daughter, Laura, who was estranged for the family for years, but has recently moved home while putting the pieces of her life back together. The book explores what happens to these two families, and to Pete specifically, after Laura has returned home.

The summary I provided here is extremely vague, because while this seems like an ordinary story, there’s a lot more than meets the eye, but to say exactly what the “more” is would be giving too much information. The summary on Goodreads gives too much away, in my opinion, while the summary on my book jacket led me to believe that the book was going to be something completely different from what it was. So – if you’re going to read this book, skip the summaries.

Anyway, I am not sure what to think of A Friend of the Family. For one thing, it is a very character-driven novel, and I really didn’t like any of the characters. The reader spends almost the entire book inside Pete’s head, and to be honest, Pete is pretty much a jerk. He’s self-absorbed, thinks his way is the only right way in just about every situation, and believes strongly that he gets to make major decisions for his son’s life, without giving a shit about what his son actually wants. He annoyed the crap out of me. And since the reader only sees the other characters from his point of view, it’s difficult to really get to know any of them. It’s like a half-assed version of the characters, because Grodstein presents them with some complexity, but it’s almost exclusively through Pete’s eyes so these characterizations aren’t exactly reliable.

I really did like Grodstein’s writing – the way she described things, the simplest of moments and interactions between people became super poignant with her talented writing style. I had a difficult time with the plot itself at times – it was slow throughout much of the book – but the way she twisted things towards the end of the novel, barreling towards a shocking conclusion, really impressed me. The ending was unexpected and really threw me for a loop, in a good way.

I think overall A Friend of the Family was just okay for me. Ultimately I will read more by Grodstein, because I think she is certainly a talented writer, but the main character of this novel was just so insufferable that I could barely stand it and the plot left something to be desired. The ending was good, but didn’t make up for those two major negatives for me.

We Never Asked for Wings by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

We Never Asked for WingsWe Never Asked for Wings by Vanessa Diffenbaugh
Published by Ballantine Books

Letty Espinosa is a young mother who has worked multiple jobs at a time to take care of her family financially while her mother has raised her two children, Alex, fifteen, and Luna, six. When her parents decide to return to their home country of Mexico, Letty is forced to step up and be a parent to Alex and Luna for the first time in her life, while navigating her many jobs, trying to pay the expensive rent and bills in San Francisco where they live, and creating a future that she hopes will result in a better life for her kids.

I really thought this book was going to be too sad for me to enjoy. It starts off on a horrifying note – Letty’s parents leave overnight without warning, and Letty makes the insane decision to drive to Mexico to find them and beg them to come back to San Francisco, leaving her kids alone for DAYS. Reading these pages was torturous for me as Alex tries to feed and care for his little sister with zero support and zero money – it was heartbreaking. Thankfully, while things with this family take a while to improve, Letty does come to her senses and decides to mother her kids. Once Letty makes the decision to do this, the book takes a turn for the gorgeous.

The novel is essentially a book about growing up, in many forms. Letty is the center of it all – for her entire life, her mother has taken care of everything for her. All Letty had to do was go to work and bring home a paycheck, and her mom did everything else – cook, clean, pay the bills, take full responsibility for raising Letty’s children – so when her parents are gone, Letty has to learn how to do all of those things at once. Her determination to figure things out, to scrounge and save enough money to not only pay the rent but give her kids the clothes, school supplies, and the occasional treats they needed was admirable and so beautiful to read. The journey she takes throughout this book is nothing short of remarkable and it was such a joy to watch her grow up over the course of the novel.

Letty’s son, Alex, is growing up throughout the book as well. He’s a teenager when his mother decides to start mothering him, so he really can’t deal with her telling him what to do or even caring about him in general. Watching their relationship develop from barely knowing one another to hesitant friends to mother and son was so sweet and melted my heart. Letty made some mistakes with this relationship, sure, but Alex really stepped up as a son and as a crucial member of this family to work on getting things where they needed to be. Talking more about the specific choices Alex made would give spoilers but it was so clear that he made the best decisions he knew how to make and it was great watching him learn and grow from the (good and bad) choices he made throughout the book.

We Never Asked for Wings is such a gorgeous novel, one that I wanted to savor but I couldn’t put down no matter how hard I tried. These characters crawled into my heart and I’m still thinking about them. Diffenbaugh has an incredible talent for creating flawed characters that are so relatable you feel as if they are your friends by the time you’re finished with the book. This book is just so very human, and for that I adored it.

All We Ever Wanted by Emily Giffin

All We Ever WantedAll We Ever Wanted by Emily Giffin
Published by Ballantine Books
Review copy provided by Netgalley

One decision by a high school student with his entire life ahead of him changes everything for the characters in this book. Nina Browning is happily living in a rich person’s bubble in Nashville – her husband sold his company for millions, she spends her nights at galas, and her adored teenage son is headed to Princeton next year. Tom Volpe’s daughter, Lyla, goes to the same school as Nina’s son, but Tom lives a much different life – working super hard to support Lyla as a single father after her mother left when she was little. When Nina’s son takes an incriminating photo of Lyla and posts it with a racist caption, their lives collide and none of them will ever be the same.

This is going to sounds strange, but for me, All We Ever Wanted was equal parts entertaining and obnoxious. It has all the classic elements of an Emily Giffin novel – intriguing characters who make interesting/horrible choices and learn from their mistakes, snappy dialogue, a smart female lead character, plots that feature elements of stuff that could happen to just about anyone, and a tidy resolution that leaves everyone feeling (mostly) happy at the end. I may be simplifying things a bit, but for me this was a really basic story. Where it gets interesting is what Giffin chose to do with the development of the characters over the course of the novel.

In the beginning of the book, Nina is, to put it bluntly, selfish and spoiled. She wants to believe she’s a good person, because she was raised modestly, loves her family, donates to charity, all of that jazz. But her husband made a TON of money and now they are living an insanely fancy life that she doesn’t exactly know how to handle. She and her husband have indulged their son to the point where he thinks he can do whatever he wants and can buy his way out of it (he can, and they do). At some point Nina realizes that she can’t go on living her life in this way, but it was annoying to me that she only realized this when she started believing her husband was cheating on her and the fact that her son is not a good human being was thrown in her face by this horrible thing he did. It took these huge things to happen to her for her to look at her life and begin to rethink what her priorities are/should be. I did feel for Nina but I couldn’t help being so annoyed by her for so much of the book. She was so oblivious to the realities of her own life, although once she started to rethink things, I did like the person she started to become.

The whole wrong side of the tracks thing about Tom and Lyla was also not my favorite element of the book. The mixed-race girl lives in the poor side of town while all of the white kids life in the rich part? Boooooring. I don’t know. It was just too predictable and a bit overdone in my opinion. I liked Tom and Lyla but there was nothing about their story or their relationship that really surprised me or made me think.

I know it seems like I’m hating on this book but I did enjoy the reading experience. I liked getting to know these characters and following their trajectory through what was a very difficult time in all of their lives. Giffin can be a bit formulaic but the formula really works for her, and I can see why she has so many fans (I’m one of them!). While All We Ever Wanted had some issues, I definitely had fun with it and liked the book.

In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware

In a Dark, Dark WoodIn a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware
Published by Harvill Secker

Nora and Clare haven’t seen each other for ten years, so when Nora gets an invitation to Clare’s bachelorette weekend, she is surprised and confused. Upon talking to a mutual friend, she decides to go on the weekend trip despite her trepidation. Immediately upon her arrival at the cabin in the woods where the party is to take place, Nora knows something is off, but can’t quite put her finger on what.

Everyone raves about Ruth Ware’s books so I finally decided to read one. There were elements of this book I really loved, but other things about it that really disappointed me. Let’s start with what I loved. The creepy vibe is off the charts in the novel and I absolutely loved the ominous feeling that the book gave me. It’s incredibly clear from the very beginning that shit is going to get crazy within these pages. Nora knows this, she can feel it from the moment she drives up to the cabin, but decides to stick around anyway. There are so many moments throughout the book where Ware gets the tension SO high – to the point where I was biting my fingernails in terror/anticipation of what could possibly happen next. This feeling is exactly why I read these kinds of novels, and I absolutely loved it.

I also really liked how the history of these friendships played a huge role into the mystery itself. There are secrets they are keeping from each other, and from the reader, and it was so much fun to guess at what these secrets, that had kept these friends apart for ten years, could possibly be. All of the hidden things twist into the scary parts of the novel, so I loved that it wasn’t necessarily a “bad guy” situation but a build up of long-standing issues within these friendships leading to majorly scary events.

The issue I had with the novel is that I predicted exactly what was going to happen (and I’m not very good at predicting these things). There’s a point in the book where a clue is “sprinkled in” – but I thought it was annoyingly obvious and the opposite of subtle. As soon as that clue showed up, I knew the entire plot of the book, and I turned out to be completely right. I thought it was so obvious that I ended up super frustrated and annoyed with Nora that she couldn’t see it herself. That ONE thing severely limited how much I was able to enjoy the book.

Even though I enjoyed the experience of reading In a Dark, Dark Wood, I was disappointed overall by how predictable I found the plot to be. I am open to reading more books by this author because I absolutely loved her style, but I really hope they are more mysterious than this one was.

The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

The NestThe Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney
Published by HarperCollins

The four adult children in the Plumb family are anxiously awaiting the day that the youngest, Melody, turns forty, as that is the day that the trust fund, which they call “The Nest”, their deceased father set up for them will pay out. Just a few months shy of that date, the oldest, Leo, gets himself into a major car accident while drunk and has to pay out the family of the nineteen-year-old he injured who he was fooling around with when the accident occurred, using all of the money in The Nest to do so. This of course leaves the other three siblings shocked, angry, and resentful – and holding Leo accountable to figure out how to pay them back.

You would think that reading a story about rich people making stupid decisions that harm other people and not seeming to care too much about that would SUPER annoy me. And usually it would, but in Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s hands, I enjoyed every second of this book. It’s more about the family dynamics between the four siblings – Leo, Jack, Beatrice, and Melody – and how each of them desperately needs the money in The Nest but doesn’t want to reveal to everyone else just how desperate they are. In Jack’s case, he mortgaged a second home without telling his partner and needs the funds to pay that mortgage off so no one will ever know what he did. In Melody’s case, she has spent her entire adult life trying to keep up with the Joneses and needs to figure out how to get her family back on track financially while simultaneously paying for her twin daughters’ college tuition. Bea has been floundering as a writer for years and would love the opportunity to just focus on her true love of writing a novel instead of working at a job she hates. And Leo, well he didn’t really care about the money before, but he certainly does now that he’s facing a divorce and financial ruin.

This is a page-turner for sure. The family dynamics are mostly what you’d expect in a rich people behaving badly type of book, but there were a few surprises and some major reveals that made the book deeper than I was expecting. Everybody in the family has their own issues (and some of them are ISSUES) but at the end of the day, they do try to come together and find a solution because in their own messed-up ways, they do really love each other and want the best for one another. It was funny to me to see the siblings fall into some classic oldest, youngest, middle categories in some ways and completely defy them in others – for example, you’d expect that Bea, one of the middle children, would be a “fixer” and she definitely is, but you’d expect for Leo, the oldest, to be the “responsible one”, which he definitely is not.

Ultimately The Nest is not best book ever material but it was highly entertaining and I really enjoyed the time I spent reading it. If this author writes a second novel I will definitely read it.

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika Sanchez

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican DaughterI Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika Sanchez
Published by Knopf Books for Young Readers

When Julia’s older sister, Olga, is killed in a freak accident, her world is shattered and her parents can barely hold it together. What her parents don’t seem to understand is that Julia is just as devastated as they are, and doesn’t know how she will possibly live the rest of her life without her sister. Unfortunately for Julia, Olga had always been the perfect, well-behaved daughter, so now that she’s gone, Julia’s mother has even more time to focus on Julia’s faults and imperfections. When Julia starts learning things about Olga that contradict the “perfection” she’s always believed her sister to be, she can’t help investigating and gets the opportunity to get to know her sister better than she did when she was alive.

When a book is centered around one character, and that character has a confrontational, prickly, adversarial type of personality, it can be really difficult to like the book. What Sanchez succeeds so well at in this novel is making the reader care about and root for exactly this kind of person in the character of Julia. Julia is not easy to like or even understand. True, most anyone can sympathize and maybe even empathize with the death of a close family member. But Julia had a rough-around-the-edges way about her long before her sister passed away, and it’s clear to the reader throughout the book that she is not the easiest person for others to get along with.

I personally wasn’t irritated by her, because I did sympathize with her situation and I did feel that her parents (especially her mother) put a lot of pressure on her. But there was no question in my mind that she had an obnoxious, over-the-top way about her that made me cringe more than a few times as I read her interactions with others in her life. However – and this is what’s great about how Erika Sanchez wrote this novel – I became deeply invested in her story and truly wanted her life to take a turn for the better. I hoped desperately that she’d start getting along better with her parents, begin understanding the sacrifices they’d made for her and Olga, and become a slightly more mature, level-headed older teen. It was easy to hope for these things because she showed tremendous growth over the course of the novel and in the character of Julia, Sanchez really created a person who comes into her own as the novel progresses. I loved that.

There is a lot of stuff in the book about Mexican culture and immigration and all of the issues that the Mexican community in America has to deal with on a daily basis, but that was a sidebar to Julia’s story. I liked that Sanchez taught the reader a few things as she was teaching those same things to Julia, but the “lessons” didn’t feel heavy-handed or like teaching moments. They felt organic, like I was getting to know this family and their community and their struggles at the same time Julia was growing up and becoming more aware of the world outside of her small personal bubble. It was very well done, in my opinion.

Ultimately I really did enjoy this book. I do have to say that there was a lot of build-up to the big secrets that Olga had been keeping from her family, and the big reveal was less shocking than I was expecting it to be, but truly Olga’s life and death serves as a background for Julia’s story. This book is about Julia growing up and dealing with adult circumstances when she’s just on the verge of being emotionally mature enough to do so. I loved the growth that Julia shows in the book and overall I really enjoyed reading it.