A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

A Little LifeA Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
Published by Doubleday

So I FINALLY read this doorstopper of a novel, the one that everyone has talked up and cried over and absolutely loved. Interestingly enough, two of my bookish friends had polar opposite reactions to the novel – one gave it one star, the other gave it five stars.

So what did I think? Strangely, I’m somewhere in the middle. I can see why people love this novel. The writing is perfection. The way that Yanagihara gets to the heart and soul of her characters and creates these fully-realized humans that you wish would jump out of the page and into your life is fantastic. The way she gets the reader to follow along with these people’s lives over the course of so many years is captivating and not at all boring (while I expected to be bored at some point during these 700 pages, I never was, not for one second).

Here’s my issue. I absolutely loved getting to know all four main characters: Jude, J.B., Malcolm, and Willem. I loved them and hated them throughout the book for many reasons but ultimately I felt close to each of them and each one stayed in my heart long after I finished the book. But. SO MUCH TIME is spent on Jude that it became obnoxious, ridiculous, and frankly annoying. It is quite clear early on in the novel that Jude has suffered in his past, there has probably been some kind of abuse, and he has no relationship with any family or individuals from before he met the other three guys at the start of their freshman year of college. It is obvious that at some point in the book, it will be revealed to the reader what exactly happened to him and why he has no family or friendships from before college. The slow reveal of his past didn’t bother me. The horrific nature of his abuse, once it’s finally spelled out for the reader, was insanely bad but the fact that it was in the book didn’t bother me. What bothered me is that I didn’t find the other three guys’ stories less interesting than Jude’s, yet all I did was read about Jude for five hundred of the seven hundred pages. I wanted to read about all four of them. Every time I got a glimpse at the lives of one of the other three, it was like a hidden gem that I had to savor knowing it would soon be over and it would be back to Jude’s sad story and Jude’s sad life and Jude’s sad attitude of it would be easier for everyone if he were just dead.

So. I can appreciate A Little Life. But I did not love it, and I’m not even sure I liked it. I believe in Yanagihara as a writer, so I’m excited to see what she does next. But I think she majorly missed the boat with this novel and it could have been so much better.

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Run by Ann Patchett

RunRun by Ann Patchett
Published by Harper

Tip and Teddy Doyle were adopted at a young age and grew up in a supportive, loving, and privileged home – although their mother died when they were young, their father, Bernard, was focused on them and vigilant about their development into civic-minded, intelligent humans, even while simultaneously working hard as the mayor of Boston. But while the boys grew up with plenty of money, attention, and love, and never wanted for anything, of course they always wondered about their birth mother. So when a chance encounter with a stranger offers them a possible window into their biological origins, they are unable to resist the temptation to find out more.

Ann Patchett is an author I unquestionably love. I will read anything she writes. Bel Canto is one of my favorite novels, and This is the Story of a Happy Marriage is probably my number one favorite collection of essays I’ve read. Her writing is just so good, so delicious, exquisite, I don’t even know what else to say. I LOVE HER. Got it?

So imagine my sadness when I thought this novel was just okay. It felt to me that she was attempting to say something about race but I really struggled with what exactly that was. My pessimistic, negative brain tells me that the book felt racist in a way, and while I’m sure that wasn’t Patchett’s intention it might be a little true. The black boys get adopted by a white family and grow up in wealth and prosperity while their biological mother lives just minutes from them in a shitty neighborhood? Ugh. It was the type of premise that is just dripping with racism but trying so hard to be the opposite of racist – does that make sense? It was just uncomfortable to read.

As usual, Patchett’s writing is fantastic. These characters are well-drawn if a bit one-dimensional. The dialogue is witty, the twists and turns of the novel are well-placed, especially given the fact that the book takes place over a period of twenty-four hours. Yes, there were things I liked about Run. But the overall book made me roll my eyes and the premise was just so uncomfortable. I still love Patchett but I would not recommend this novel because she is SO much better than what she put forth in this book. Please read Bel Canto or State of Wonder or literally anything else she’s written instead.

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.

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.