April & Oliver by Tess Callahan

April & OliverApril & Oliver by Tess Callahan
Published by Grand Central Publishing

From the publisher:

Best friends since childhood, the sexual tension between April and Oliver has always been palpable. Years after being completely inseparable, they become strangers, but the wildly different paths of their lives cross once again with the sudden death of April’s brother. Oliver, the responsible, newly engaged law student finds himself drawn more than ever to the reckless, mystifying April – and cracks begin to appear in his carefully constructed life. Even as Oliver attempts to “save” his childhood friend from her grief, her menacing boyfriend and herself, it soon becomes apparent that Oliver has some secrets of his own–secrets he hasn’t shared with anyone, even his fiancee. But April knows, and her reappearance in his life derails him. Is it really April’s life that is unraveling, or is it his own? The answer awaits at the end of a downward spiral…towards salvation.

This is not a novel that has a ton of plot, nor is it a book that moves quickly. It is very character-focused – it is a spotlight on these two characters, with a few others factored in, and if you don’t like that kind of book you should probably pass. But if you do, April & Oliver has a lot to offer.

April had an extremely tough childhood and her adulthood has not been great either. As a result, she is the type of person who walks through her life pretending to be okay, but really she has been shaken to her core from all that has happened to her, and has chosen to react to her grief and pain in inappropriate ways. Oliver is there for her, but he almost tries too hard and ends up letting his own life be affected by her in dangerous ways. Oliver has a fiancee, who can clearly see that there’s some unsaid history between the two of them and is of course suspicious of their relationship.

I found these characters extremely nuanced and interesting. The book has a gloomy, depressing feeling throughout, yet I couldn’t stop reading. I continued to hope, despite clear evidence to the contrary, that April would figure herself out and improve the way she felt about herself and her life circumstances. I continued to hope, despite the fact that Oliver was happily engaged, that the two of them would get together. It just felt like no one understood April like Oliver did and no one would be able to help pull her out of her depression and help her live a happy life like he could.

The writing in April & Oliver was quite beautiful and I think that, in combination with how drawn in I was to these characters, was what kept me turning pages in a book that had very little in the way of plot. One major thing that I didn’t like about the book was the ending, which is problematic. That being said, I did really enjoy the time I spent with this novel and I’ve continued to think about the characters, long after I’ve finished it.

The Night Strangers by Chris Bohjalian

The Night StrangersThe Night Strangers by Chris Bohjalian
Published by Crown

From the publisher:

In a dusty corner of a basement in a rambling Victorian house in northern New Hampshire, a door has long been sealed shut with 39 six-inch-long carriage bolts. 
           
The home’s new owners are Chip and Emily Linton and their twin ten-year-old daughters. Together they hope to rebuild their lives there after Chip, an airline pilot, has to ditch his 70-seat regional jet in Lake Champlain after double engine failure. Unlike the Miracle on the Hudson, however, most of the passengers aboard Flight 1611 die on impact or drown. The body count? Thirty-nine – a coincidence not lost on Chip when he discovers the number of bolts in that basement door. Meanwhile, Emily finds herself wondering about the women in this sparsely populated White Mountain village – self-proclaimed herbalists – and their interest in her fifth-grade daughters. Are the women mad? Or is it her husband, in the wake of the tragedy, whose grip on sanity has become desperately tenuous?   

The result is a poignant and powerful ghost story with all the hallmarks readers have come to expect from bestselling novelist Chris Bohjalian: a palpable sense of place, an unerring sense of the demons that drive us, and characters we care about deeply.

The difference this time? Some of those characters are dead.

I feel compelled to start by saying that I LOVE Chris Bohjalian and have pretty much loved everything I’ve read from him. So I was surprised and disappointed when I didn’t love The Night Strangers, didn’t even like it much, in fact. For many reasons, the book just didn’t work for me.

I didn’t feel drawn to any of the characters in the book. I felt for Chip, sure, what he experienced when his plane went down and all of those people were killed was absolutely devastating and I cannot imagine feeling responsible for such a tragedy. But I didn’t connect with him in any real way, and that made it difficult for me to truly care about his situation. With Emily, again I felt for her – having to move to a new town and start a new life and having to live with a husband who has PTSD, all while holding down a job and caring for two children is certainly something I cannot imagine having to deal with – but again, I felt no real connection to her so it was just surface-level caring on my part. And I felt the twins were kept at arms’ length from me, that I wasn’t able to truly get to know them.

Second, the ghost story part of the book. I like a good ghost story as much as the next person. To me, this wasn’t a “good” ghost story. It was simply a few ghosts, from the plane that crashed, scaring Chip. Or were they even ghosts? Was that his PTSD talking and they were all in his head? The reader never really knows, which can be cool, but in this case I found it relatively annoying. Especially when Chip started going off the deep end – I just didn’t get it.

And then we have the herbalist women. My absolute least favorite thing about the entire book. They felt SO out of place among the rest of the novel. I just could not with these women. And the ending? Not a fan, not even a little bit.

Basically … I found the entire book to be uneven and not very cohesive. It’s very likely a case of this particular book and this particular reader not being a good match, because truly I have loved most everything Bohalian has done and I will continue reading his novels. But this one will never be one I can recommend.

Sister by A. Manette Ansay

SisterSister by A. Manette Ansay
Published by Harper Perennial

From the publisher:

Abigail Schiller lives a seemingly normal childhood in a rural Catholic community in Wisconsin. But that life is shattered when her younger brother, Sam, vanishes at the age of seventeen, fleeing their father’s rigid rules of masculinity and the violence their mother denies. Finally, thirty years old and expecting a child of her own, Abby is determined to retrace her lost sibling’s dark descent–embarking upon an emotional journey that will test the strength of her spirit, and contradict everything, she once believed about her family and herself.

A stunning work of rare poignancy and unsettling power, A. Manette Ansay’s Sister marks the literary maturation of a truly exceptional voice in contemporary American fiction. Deftly spinning triumph out of tragedy, the award-winning author of Vinegar Hill offers us a fresh understanding, of family, memory, faith. Abigail Schiller lives in a seemingly normal childhood in a rural Catholic community in Wisconsin. But that life is shattered when her younger brother, Sam, vanishes at the age of seventeen, fleeing their father’s rigid rules of masculinity and the violence their mother denies. Finally, thirty years old and expecting a child of her own, Abby is determined to retrace her lost sibling’s dark descent–embarking upon an emotional journey that will test the strength of her spirit, and contradict everything she once believed her family and herself.

I’ve had this book on my TBR shelves forever. During the heyday of Oprah’s Book Club, I read and loved Ansay’s Vinegar Hill (about which I remember nothing), so I grabbed this one at a used book store years ago hoping to one day pick it up. I think this is the kind of novel I have to be in a particular mood for: quiet family drama where there is a big thing in the background, but generally speaking not much happens. The best thing I can say about this novel is that the writing was good and I halfheartedly cared about the characters. Is that bad? It was just okay.

One thing that bothered me immensely about the book is that Abigail’s father is extremely abusive and that abuse is never discussed or dealt with in any real way. As this is the second book in a row I’ve read with a similar abusive family situation that is not addressed, it particularly bothered me. He’s verbally, emotionally, sexually and mildly physically abusive. It was all kinds of terrible, and yet Abigail never once addresses it with either of her parents. It was difficult to read about, especially because it was clear that Abigail and Sam were truly damaged by the abuse they suffered and unable to voice their anger about it.

The ending was generally what I was expecting, so it wasn’t disappointing exactly, just not shocking at all. It was … boring? I guess is the best way to put it.

I was hoping for more from Sister. I certainly didn’t hate the novel but it was just okay.

11/22/63 by Stephen King

11/22/6311/22/63 by Stephen King
Published by Scribner

From the publisher:

Life can turn on a dime—or stumble into the extraordinary, as it does for Jake Epping, a high school English teacher in Lisbon Falls, Maine. While grading essays by his GED students, Jake reads a gruesome, enthralling piece penned by janitor Harry Dunning: fifty years ago, Harry somehow survived his father’s sledgehammer slaughter of his entire family. Jake is blown away…but an even more bizarre secret comes to light when Jake’s friend Al, owner of the local diner, enlists Jake to take over the mission that has become his obsession—to prevent the Kennedy assassination. How? By stepping through a portal in the diner’s storeroom, and into the era of Ike and Elvis, of big American cars, sock hops, and cigarette smoke… Finding himself in warmhearted Jodie, Texas, Jake begins a new life. But all turns in the road lead to a troubled loner named Lee Harvey Oswald. The course of history is about to be rewritten…and become heart-stoppingly suspenseful.

I continue to be shocked at myself by the fact that I hadn’t read a book by Stephen King until I was over the age of thirty. WHAT the hell had I been waiting for all this time? And while this is only my third experience with King, I’m still in awe of his incredible talent as a writer as well as the variety of his work – the three books of his I’ve read at this point have each been so different from one another, yet each contain elements of a signature style that I’m beginning to recognize as uniquely King.

But let’s talk about 11/22/63, shall we? I’ll start with the obvious: the length of this thing overwhelmed me for quite some time, which is why it’s been on my TBR for years. It intimidated me as I began reading it, too, because it did take me a good fifty or so pages to really be into the story and wanting to know what happens next. BUT once it gets going, it is really going. And I quickly forgot about the fact that the book was more than 800 pages as I immersed myself in the story, in this world, and got to know and care about these characters.

There’s a lot going on in this sprawling, mind-bending journey of a novel, and I loved just about every minute of the journey. To talk much about plot would ruin some key points that I believe would be spoilery, but let’s just say that even though there is a LOT of plot, and also a lot of not too terribly much happening, the book never for one second felt too long for me. There’s a lot of preparation for things that will happen, a lot of nervous anticipation that said things might not (will probably not) go as planned, but all that build-up is quite worth the several major BOOMs throughout the book. One thing that made the length of the book more of a positive than a negative was the depth of character development King was able to do within those eight hundred pages. I truly got to know and understand Jake – his motivations, his hopes, dreams, plans for the future, his biggest fears – everything about him. The minor characters were less interesting, mostly because I think everything and everyone was supposed to pale in comparison to what Jake was trying to accomplish, but I enjoyed getting to know them even so.

I’ve heard some readers complaining about the love story, saying it wasn’t necessary to the plot, but I have to disagree. If anything, I feel it enhanced the plot because it gave Jake an additional sense of urgency to do what he came to do. Also, it added another element of suspense to the story, as there were several times where his journey and goals were thwarted because of his relationship. There were moments when it seemed like he might give up the entire goal of why he came there simply because he found love instead. I liked that aspect of the book quite a bit.

11/22/63 was so much fun and I’m incredibly glad I finally picked it up. I really, truly understand why Stephen King has so many die-hard fans. If you’re one of them – which Stephen King should I pick up next? Which of his novels is your absolute favorite?

The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother by James McBride

The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White MotherThe Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother by James McBride
Published by Riverhead Trade

From the publisher:

The Color of Water tells the remarkable story of Ruth McBride Jordan, the two good men she married, and the 12 good children she raised. Jordan, born Rachel Shilsky, a Polish Jew, immigrated to America soon after birth; as an adult she moved to New York City, leaving her family and faith behind in Virginia. Jordan met and married a black man, making her isolation even more profound. The book is a success story, a testament to one woman’s true heart, solid values, and indomitable will. Ruth Jordan battled not only racism but also poverty to raise her children and, despite being sorely tested, never wavered. In telling her story–along with her son’s–The Color of Water addresses racial identity with compassion, insight, and realism. It is, in a word, inspiring, and you will finish it with unalloyed admiration for a flawed but remarkable individual. And, perhaps, a little more faith in us all.

I’ve had The Color of Water on my TBR shelves FOREVER so I was happy to use the excuse of #ReadMyOwnDamnBooks to finally read the damn thing. It was really good – why did I wait so long?

Ruth McBride’s story is inspiring and fascinating. That she had the courage to go her own way, to leave her family and religion of origin in the name of true love and being authentically herself is inspiring. That she felt more at home among her husband’s family and friends and culture than her own is fascinating and a true testament to the fact that how a person is raised does not have to be how a person chooses to be as an adult in the world. Reading her story of how she grew up among fear and intolerance and a religious tradition that was not very favorable towards women sheds a lot of light on why she made the choice to leave that culture, but I’m sure many people grew up in a similar fashion and did not make the same choice. It was so fascinating reading about the circumstances and the series of events that led to her making the choices she did.

This book is as much about family as it is about Ruth McBride. It’s about how family can be whatever a person decides it to be – family can be created, family can become something different from what a person always anticipated they’d want as a child – family consists of many complex and nuanced relationships, there is a love/hate relationship among many members within a family. James McBride’s interactions and relationships with all of his brothers and sisters and of course, his mother, show how complex and complicated and interesting and sometimes, frankly, weird, family can be. But there is so much love in this book, love for his mother, love for his brothers and sisters, for his father he never knew and his stepfather who raised him, and pride for the woman his mother is and for the man she raised him to become.

The Color of Water is really a beautiful book, such a gorgeous tribute to an incredible woman who lived an ordinary and also extraordinary life. Highly recommended.

The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

The Night WatchThe Night Watch by Sarah Waters
Published by Riverhead Books

From the publisher:

Moving back through the 1940s, through air raids, blacked-out streets, illicit partying, and sexual adventure, to end with its beginning in 1941, The Night Watch tells the story of four Londoners—three women and a young man with a past—whose lives, and those of their friends and lovers, connect in tragedy, stunning surprise and exquisite turns, only to change irreversibly in the shadow of a grand historical event.

This was my second time reading a Sarah Waters novel – The Little Stranger was the first – and while the two books of hers I’ve read are nothing like one another, there’s a certain style to her writing that came through in both novels that I really, really loved.

Waters is a master at developing her characters in subtle, simple ways that over the course of the book, lead the reader to feeling super close and connected to them. These characters are flawed, miserable at times, smart, witty, inspiring at times, and just trying to live decent, happyish lives despite the horrors of war around them. These characters were unique in that many of them were gay, in a time when being so was socially unacceptable. The way Waters handles this aspect of her story is to never explicitly handle it at all – which I loved. They are just people, women living ordinary lives in the 1940’s, who happen to also like other women, and this is an important aspect of their lives because in this time in history it had to be hidden, but at the same time, it’s just a small aspect of their personalities and who they are overall. I don’t think I’m explaining it well at all, but I just loved so much how while the sexuality of these characters played a part in the book, it was so far from the point of the book as to almost be a non-issue. AS IT IS FOR ALL STRAIGHT CHARACTERS IN ALL BOOKS. Does that make sense?

Waters jumps around in time throughout the book, starting from two years after the war, and ending the book just as the war is beginning. This was an extremely clever way to tell the stories of these characters, but I’ll admit that it was pretty confusing at first. And when I got to the end, I had to go back to a few parts of the beginning of the book to re-read them to remind myself how these characters ended up, five years later. I liked that aspect of the book, a lot honestly, but it did make me have to sit up and pay attention a little more than I may have had to otherwise.

The Night Watch is a mostly quiet novel, but Waters does such an incredible job of showing the disastrous aspects of war right alongside the ordinary aspects of living through a war. It is a beautifully written novel with characters I loved getting to know. I’ll definitely be reading the rest of Waters’ backlist soon.

Blindsighted by Karin Slaughter

Blindsighted (Grant County, #1)Blindsighted by Karin Slaughter
Published by HarperTorch

From the publisher:

A small Georgia town erupts in panic when a young college professor is found brutally mutilated in the local diner. But it’s only when town pediatrician and coroner Sara Linton does the autopsy that the full extent of the killer’s twisted work becomes clear.

Sara’s ex-husband, police chief Jeffrey Tolliver, leads the investigation — a trail of terror that grows increasingly macabre when another local woman is found crucified a few days later. But he’s got more than a sadistic serial killer on his hands, for the county’s sole female detective, Lena Adams — the first victim’s sister — want to serve her own justice.

But it is Sara who holds the key to finding the killer. A secret from her past could unmask the brilliantly malevolent psychopath… or mean her death.

After being impressed with Slaughter’s newest thriller, Pretty Girls, I decided to go back and read some of her older titles, and since this is the first book in a substantial series, it made sense to start here. I’m glad I did, because I plan to continue reading these books and the characters really started to grow on me in just the first book.

While Blindsighted wasn’t the best thriller ever, it was definitely engaging, kept me on the edge of my seat, and was pretty brutal in terms of the murder/gory stuff. I’m getting better at handling that stuff in fiction, because I really do like these kinds of books, and I hope to continue reading more like it.

The main thing I liked about the book was getting to know the characters and watch the relationships begin to take shape. The mystery part was good, but I’m thinking her books get better because I definitely felt Pretty Girls was much stronger in terms of the writing and pacing of the book. I am looking forward to reading more of the series to continue to get to know the characters and see Slaughter’s writing and storytelling continue to grow.

A Soft Place to Land by Susan Rebecca White

A Soft Place to LandA Soft Place to Land by Susan Rebecca White
Published by Touchstone

From the publisher:

For more than ten years, Naomi and Phil Harrison enjoyed a marriage of heady romance, tempered only by the needs of their children. But on a vacation alone, the couple perishes in a flight over the Grand Canyon. After the funeral, their daughters, Ruthie and Julia, are shocked by the provisions in their will…not the least of which is that they are to be separated.

Spanning nearly two decades, the sisters’ journeys take them from their familiar home in Atlanta to sophisticated bohemian San Francisco, a mountain town in Virginia, the campus of Berkeley, and lofts in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. As they heal from loss, search for love, and begin careers, their sisterhood, once an oasis, becomes complicated by resentment, anger, and jealousy. It seems as though the echoes of their parents’ deaths will never stop reverberating—until another shocking accident changes everything once again.

I’ve had this book on my TBR since falling in love with Susan Rebecca White’s gorgeous novel, A Place at the Table. When you love a book as much as I loved that one, it’s hard not to set exceedingly high expectations for the rest of the author’s work, which is kind of what happened here. I liked A Soft Place to Land. It was good. It was fine. It was sweet. It had emotions. It had pretty good characters. But the book didn’t come anywhere close to what I was hoping it would be.

I think the book started out problematic for me because I couldn’t buy the central premise. Basically, Naomi and Phil’s daughters are separated and raised by two different families after their parents die. The reason for this is complicated – Julia (the older daughter) has a biological father who is not Phil, so even though Naomi has full custody of her, upon her death, her will states that Julia is to live with her biological father and stepmother. And in the will, Ruthie is to live with she and Julia’s aunt and uncle. I get that Julia has to live with her biological parent, but would loving parents really put in a will that if they were to both die, their daughters – who now only have one another – be split up and have to live across the country from each other? And would the people charged with raising them after such a catastrophic event REALLY want to go along with this plan and allow the girls to be raised separately? I get it, but I don’t. There’s a point where the option to be raised together is presented, but various adults decide to be selfish and not do this, and I just couldn’t. Adults should want the best for children – this was NOT the best, and so outside the realm of what I thought was believable that I think it colored the entire book for me.

Besides all of that nonsense, I did like the book. Julia and Ruthie were believable – they each acted out in sometimes horrible ways, as grieving people do. Not only did they grieve for their parents, but their entire lives were turned upside-down because of the whole moving to different states, living with different families thing. Julia didn’t get along with her stepmother, Ruthie didn’t understand or identify with Julia’s rebellious ways, it was just a lot of these girls growing up and figuring things out, without parents and mostly without each other. I definitely feel that Susan Rebecca White can do complicated family dynamics really, REALLY well. And that she understands characters who act terrible and do awful things because of not knowing how else to react to a terrible situation.

I think the moral of the story of this review is that I liked A Soft Place to Land but had issues with it, and if I were going to recommend a book to you, I’d encourage you to pick up A Place at the Table first, as I felt that to be a far stronger novel. But I do plan to read more of the author’s books, because I really enjoy her writing and the way she develops her characters.

The Sunday Salon and #ReadMyOwnDamnBooks Update

47289-sundaysalonI knew it had been a long time since I’ve checked in via The Sunday Salon but holy crap … I looked at my archives and it’s been more than a year?! Wow. I really need to get back to this.

So what has happened recently? Well, I may or may not have shared that we moved in early December. I think I’d mentioned here before that we were having a house built, well it’s done, it’s everything we wanted and we are absolutely loving living in it. We’re still doing odds and ends kind of projects around the house, but mostly everything is how we dreamed it would be. Work has been … work … if you read my Day in the Life post, you were able to see how long my days are sometimes – but mostly I love it, exhausting that it can be at times. My husband changed jobs and he’s loving his new career so far, about a month in. Better growth opportunity within a company plus better pay = an offer he couldn’t possibly refuse, and I’m glad it’s working out so well for him.

Coming up for me is a family vacation starting this Thursday – my mom, aunt and cousin are coming in from Chicago and we’ll spend a few days at Ana Maria Island and a few days just hanging out here at the house. A trip to The Wine Room is definitely on the agenda, as well as perhaps spending a day at one of the Disney parks. Not sure yet, but we’ll have a great time no matter what.

I have been doing phenomenally well on #ReadMyOwnDamnBooks. Of the 25 books I read in the first quarter of the year, TWELVE of them were from my TBR shelves. Maybe that doesn’t sound like a lot to some people but I’m pretty sure that’s way more than I read all of last year from my own shelves. Only six of the books were from the library, one was a book I bought (for book club, still counts but I couldn’t get it any other way), and one was a review copy. The rest were a combination of audio, re-read, and comics, three categories I’m not counting towards my personal challenge. What’s most exciting about this is that I’m finding books I really like – and getting rid of ones I don’t. Additionally, I’ve read two books that were over 500 pages (and about to start a third), and three nonfiction books from my shelves – well on my way to my goal of six of each. While my first book finished in April was a review copy, and I do have some library stuff in the queue, I feel confident that I’ll continue this trend for the next few months. Check back in with me at the end of June for a second quarter update!

That’s all for today. It’s my husband’s birthday and all he wants to do is relax and lay low for the day, something I’m more than happy to indulge in myself. I plan to make these French Dip Sandwiches for dinner – one of his favorites – so I better get started on getting that together and in the slow-cooker.

Happy Sunday, everyone! What have you been up to lately? Anything exciting going on in your world?

And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic by Randy Shilts

And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS EpidemicAnd the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic by Randy Shilts
Published by Stonewall Inn Editions

From the publisher:

By the time Rock Hudson’s death in 1985 alerted all America to the danger of the AIDS epidemic, the disease had spread across the nation, killing thousands of people and emerging as the greatest health crisis of the 20th century. America faced a troubling question: What happened? How was this epidemic allowed to spread so far before it was taken seriously? In answering these questions, Shilts weaves the disparate threads into a coherent story, pinning down every evasion and contradiction at the highest levels of the medical, political, and media establishments.

Shilts shows that the epidemic spread wildly because the federal government put budget ahead of the nation’s welfare; health authorities placed political expediency before the public health; and scientists were often more concerned with international prestige than saving lives. Against this backdrop, Shilts tells the heroic stories of individuals in science and politics, public health and the gay community, who struggled to alert the nation to the enormity of the danger it faced. And the Band Played On is both a tribute to these heroic people and a stinging indictment of the institutions that failed the nation so badly.

I don’t even know what to say about this incredible, devastating, marvel of a book. I feel like I have nothing whatsoever to add to what was I’m sure an intensely interesting conversation when the book was first published, nor do I have anything to add to these three words: incredibly important read.

I just can’t with this. The insanity of a government, of the very people elected to serve and protect the citizens of a country, making the conscious decision NOT to spread awareness and educate the very group of people most at-risk for a deadly disease is just unconscionable to me. And yet. This is what happened, not many years ago, in the United States, with the AIDS virus. There is so much more to this book than that, but much of the trajectory of the spread of AIDS resulted from that one simple fact. And it is just bananas to me.

This book is really, heartbreakingly sad. Shilts gives the reader an up close and personal look at the lives of many of the people who were some of the first to be diagnosed with AIDS, and of the people who were fighting for education and preventative measures, and you fall in love with these men and root for them, and then almost all of them die. And then if you’re like me, when you finish the book, you research the author to learn that he also died of AIDS. It’s sad in the saddest of sad ways. But it is also fascinating and SO well-written and unbelievably compelling and really, this book produced so many emotions in me I can’t even begin to explain it.

So here is what I will leave you with – yes, this book is long, and complicated, and really freaking sad, but how important it is outweighs all of that. To me, And the Band Played On falls in the must-read category, one hundred percent. As difficult and heartbreaking and infuriating as the book is, it is so incredibly great. And so, so important.