One Day by David Nicholls

One DayOne Day by David Nicholls
Published by Hodder & Stoughton

Dexter and Emma meet on the night of their graduation from college, July 15th, and while they spend a passionate night together, both agree that there is no real future for the two of them and they go their separate ways. But over the course of the next twenty years, their paths intertwine in various ways, and the novel shows the reader exactly how they are in and out of each other’s lives by giving us a snapshot of each year on July 15th.

This is one of those novels where I can’t figure out what I really think about it or how to feel about it. To start with, I didn’t enjoy either Dexter or Emma as characters – Dexter was selfish and obnoxious, Emma was too passive and didn’t ever want to make decisions about her own life. I sort of liked Emma as a person, and I wanted to root for her, but she frustrated me. Dexter I just plain couldn’t stand. He was SUCH A JERK. To the point that when he finally stopped being such a major asshole, I couldn’t care about his character enough to be happy that he had grown as a person. I was just done with him.

So much of the plot felt manipulative to me as the reader. Nicholls was trying to create emotions within the reader, and while he definitely did that, it felt a bit overdone. Like one more bad thing couldn’t possibly happen to drive these two apart when it was obvious from the first chapter that the whole point of this book is for them to be together, eventually. The ending especially made me angry … and while I can appreciate an ending like this, it was just not what I had ever imagined could possibly happen to this story and these characters. It left me wanting to throw the book across the room.

BUT. Here’s the thing. I could not put this book down. I read it voraciously, intensely, desperately. It had been a long time since I’d felt so tied to a book, so desperate to find out what would happen next. Additionally, I find it incredible that Nicholls was able to pull these emotions out of me, about fictional characters’ lives. The fact that he made me question whether I loved or hated the book (and I’m still not sure) is a testament to his talent as a writer.

So would I recommend the book? Absolutely yes, based on the experience I had reading it and how deeply I felt tied to it. Did I love it? No, but I loved how it made me feel. I didn’t hate it either – I can’t quite categorize my feelings. But this back and forth in my brain about the book makes me want to talk about it with everyone, so please let me know if you’ve read it and what you thought!

Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto

KitchenKitchen by Banana Yoshimoto
Published by Grove Press

This is a sweet little book about Mikage, who was orphaned as a young child and then raised by her grandmother. When her grandmother dies, she finds solace in her friend Yoichi and his mother Eriko. The three of them become a new kind of family, and the book details their relationship as well as how the losses the three of them suffer, independently and as a unit, affect each of them in a myriad of ways.

There were some things I absolutely loved about this book. The writing is really pretty, flowery without being over the top, descriptive but not to the point of being annoying. The way Yoshimoto describes grief and its hold on a person’s soul is absolutely gorgeous. I also loved how the relationships between the three main characters went places I wasn’t expecting while at the same time remaining very true to their personalities. Another thing I loved was Yoshimoto’s handling of a trans character in Eriko. Eriko used to be Yoichi’s father and is now his mother, and the way that Yoshimoto has the characters handle this fact is SO nonchalant, like it’s no big deal whatsoever (as it shouldn’t be) is really amazing. The way that Yoichi explained it to Mikage, and how Mikage just accepted it and loved Eriko exactly the same as she did before she knew this information about her, was really incredible to see in fiction.

While I loved certain aspects of Kitchen, overall it was not my favorite novel. I appreciate that it was slim, but I wanted more from it. I wanted more emotion, I wanted to get to know the characters even better, and I wanted to feel a deeper connection to them. This could possibly have been accomplished by making the novel longer, but I’m not sure that Yoshimoto’s style could have made that happen for me. Either way, I can see what people love about this author and there were definitely things about the book that really worked for me.

Last Night in Montreal by Emily St. John Mandel

Last Night in MontrealLast Night in Montreal by Emily St. John Mandel
Published by Unbridled Books

When an author puts together a cast of quirky, interesting characters, adds beautiful writing and a plot that moves along but is slightly nonlinear, that combination just might be my perfect storm of literary happiness. I have loved the previous two books I have read by this author and that trend continues with Last Night in Montreal. In this novel, we meet Lilia, a young woman who spent her entire life traveling from place to place with her father, who kidnapped her after an event that took place at her mother’s home which she doesn’t remember. Lilia is trying to make her way in the world but can’t seem to allow herself to stay in one place for more than a few months, even though her father has long since put down roots with a new wife and child. The reader is then introduced to Eli, who is in love with Lilia and despite the fact that she’d warned him she would eventually leave him, when she leaves New York for Montreal, Eli follows her, desperate to understand her secrets and her past, and hopeful that she will love him back.

While the book is mostly about Lilia and Eli’s longing for her and desperation to understand her, to be close to her, there are several other characters that pop up throughout the book, some of which are more important than others. They were each nuanced and interesting in their own ways, and each new person that was introduced added something significant to the overall reading experience and story arc that in some cases wasn’t fully revealed until the end of the book. I described one of Mandel’s other novels like peeling away the layers of an onion, and that analogy works well here too – there is a lot going on here, and you don’t quite get how everything and everyone is related until the very end. This, for me, is probably the most enjoyable kind of reading experience there is.

I honestly hesitate talking too much more about the plot, because I didn’t know a lot about it going in, and I think this is one that’s best experienced relatively blind. What I will say is that the eventual reveal is worth the wait, these characters fully come into view by the very end, and the journey in this case was even more enjoyable than the eventual destination. I absolutely loved this novel and I believe it will stick with me for a long time.

Get Well Soon: History’s Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them by Jennifer Wright

Get Well Soon: History's Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought ThemGet Well Soon: History’s Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them by Jennifer Wright
Published by Henry Holt and Co.

This book is the most fun example of why book clubs are great. I would never have heard of Get Well Soon if it hadn’t been selected for book club and I absolutely loved it – yay for book clubs! Each chapter in this book discusses one plague Wright highlights – from leprosy to syphilis to Spanish flu to polio, and many others – and the book was so incredibly entertaining as well as informative.

Wright delves deep into each plague and discusses the causes, the missteps, the failed treatments, and eventual cures. She does a thing where she highlights the heroes in each story as well as call attention to those who were less than heroic. She sheds light on how certain diseases could have been prevented, or at least the massive spread of said diseases could have been stopped, and goes into the implications of cures for future potential plagues down the road. She does all of this with the most hilarious, snarky, witty sense of humor and I absolutely LOVED it. Think Mary Roach or Sarah Vowell – Jennifer Wright is doing a similar thing here to what those equally hilarious women do in their books.

There are plenty of serious moments in the midst of the jokes, in addition to the straight up information that Wright provides. She talks a little about autism and the incredibly damaging belief that vaccines have a hand in causing it – she goes into explicit detail about why that theory came to be and dispels it swiftly and with force. It’s pretty awesome. She also discusses polio and how incredible it was that Salk came up with the vaccine he did, and how others were trying to do the same thing but were looking to profit from it, whereas Salk only wanted to cure a disease (which he did) and spread the cure to as many people, no matter their socioeconomic background, as humanly possible (which he did). There’s also a discussion about AIDS and how the initial treatment of AIDS victims in this country was not unlike the abhorrent ways in which people with diseases hundreds of years ago were treated and wow, does she go there. It is smart and effective and she makes some really great points. I love when an author can be this informative, interesting, make you think, AND entertaining all at the same time.

Get Well Soon is a total keeper. I loved it.

The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso

The Woman Next DoorThe Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso
Published by Chatto & Windus

This is, on the surface, a simple story about a feud between two neighbors in South Africa and the surrounding details of what the drama between the two women is all about. But this is post-Apartheid South Africa, and since Hortensia is black and Marion is white, their feud comes with all kinds of deep-seated issues of race, class, and background. When one of the women suffers an accident that brings the two of them in close quarters for an extended period of time, they are forced to confront each other as well as their own prejudices as they attempt to forge what can only be described as a tenuous acquaintanceship.

I love reading books set in different cultures and continue to remind myself of the importance of doing so. The Woman Next Door was the perfect example of such a novel, as I have to say that I’m more ignorant about the details of Apartheid than I’d like to be (and plan to remedy that with future books, probably more non-fiction about the topic). The book was a good intro to how the culture has attempted to evolve into a more tolerant and accepting society since the end of Apartheid, but it is clear that the degree to which that has actually happened is minimal at best.

This book is full of little references to the culture in this part of South Africa, the long-lasting effects of Apartheid, and the ways in which living through that shaped how these women think and behave. There are several scenes where Marion begins to have light bulb moments about her part in keeping blacks and whites separate and the fact that she is racist and never realized it until her conversations with Hortensia. There are other moments where Hortensia outright confronts Marion about her racism and doesn’t make it easy for her – she forces her to examine her prejudices head-on and not run or hide from them.

Even with the honesty that Hortensia and Marion face within themselves, I still didn’t think the book went as far as I would have liked to address the racism and prejudices inherent in these women’s lives. Put simply, I liked the concept but wanted more. I wanted even harsher criticisms of Marion’s behavior and I wanted even more intense confrontations between the two women. In addition, I didn’t feel particularly connected to either woman, and I just wanted to feel something more for them. In the end, while I appreciate what Omotoso was doing in this novel, and the writing was great, overall the book didn’t quite live up to my expectations. I liked it but didn’t love it. Again, though, the book exposed me to a culture that I wish I knew more about and looked at some history that I also want to learn more about. So in that sense, it was a total win. I just wish I would have gotten more feeling, more connection, from the characters.

Two Rush-inspired reads

My boyfriend is a huge fan of the band Rush, and as a drummer himself, he particularly loves Neil Peart. He is also not a big reader, so when he suggested that I read a few books that he’s really loved over the years – both Rush-inspired – I definitely wanted to check them out. While I didn’t love either book, I can see how a Rush fan certainly would love them both. Here’s a few thoughts on these two books.

Clockwork Angels (Clockwork Angels, #1)Clockwork Angels by Kevin J. Anderson
Published by ECW Press

This is a sort-of steampunk, sort-of dystopian novel that was inspired by Neil Peart’s lyrics in the Rush album Clockwork Angels. It’s basically about a teenage boy who grew up knowing that the Watchmaker (almost like the Wizard from The Wizard of Oz) has put the world in such a perfect ordered way so that everyone can have peace and happiness. Everything is done in a prescribed way, every day is exactly like the one before it, and as long as everyone follows the rules and their routines, everything will be great. But when he’s on the cusp of becoming an adult in this society, he goes on an adventure that changes everything for him, as he learns that the way he grew up is not the only way of doing things, and he can live in a different society, with a different way of life, if he chooses to leave his father and everything he knows behind.

I liked the concept of Clockwork Angels enough and the way the world is explained by Anderson was interesting and gave me a feel for what’s going on within it. The main character, Owen was extremely ignorant about the world around him, which, although annoying, was of course by design so it made sense. Also, I would have liked to see a bit more character development within Owen, which could possibly have made me want to read future novels in this (I think) series. The story is well-paced and definitely held my interest – at no point did I consider giving up on the book, even though I found the writing and the story itself just okay.

The main thing I can say about Clockwork Angels is that I can totally see how a Rush fan would absolutely love it. There are tons of Rush lyrics sprinkled throughout the book – it would almost be like a scavenger hunt for a Rush super-fan to attempt to find them all. And now that I know some of the songs from the Clockwork Angels album, I can see how a fan of the band would love that the concepts of the album were expanded into a novel. Ultimately, this is a conceptual book more than anything else, and while it works on that level, either you’d like it if you’re a Rush fan and probably just not get it if you are not.

Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing RoadGhost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road by Neil Peart
Published by ECW Press

When Neil Peart was in his mid-forties, his nineteen-year-old daughter was in a fatal car accident. A year later, after being unable to cope with her grief, his wife Jackie succumbed to terminal cancer and also died. Ghost Rider is Peart’s memoir chronicling the year he spent by himself, driving around Canada, the US, and Mexico on his motorcycle, attempting to grieve and heal from the pain of losing the two most important people in his life.

Can you imagine losing a child, and then watching your spouse die just a year later? I certainly cannot, and I think these two things are the two things in the world most people fear the most. This was an interesting memoir because the way Peart chose to deal with his grief is definitely unique, but he knew himself well enough to know that this was the only way he could possibly heal and maybe move on to some other life he couldn’t dream of at the time that he started his journey. I liked reading Ghost Rider as a memoir on grief and found it interesting how Peart was able to heal himself throughout this journey.

While I liked the book, I can see how Rush fans must absolutely love it. Peart is a relatively private person and doesn’t like giving interviews or meeting fans, so for a Rush fan to get this much of an intimate look inside his thoughts, to get to know him this well, must be a pretty great thing. I would recommend Ghost Rider to any Rush fan or anyone who is looking for a memoir around the grieving process.

The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom

The Kitchen HouseThe Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom
Published by Touchstone

Lavinia is a seven-year-old Irish immigrant who, after being orphaned on the ship over to the US, is taken in by a plantation owner and raised among the slaves as if she were a member of their family. The novel starts out by introducing the reader to Lavinia, the family of slaves who she grows up feeling as though they’re her parents, brothers, sisters, etc., and the white family who own the plantation. Quickly, though, the book ratchets up its pace and a LOT happens. There is abuse, affairs, MASSIVE power dynamics, questions about race, humans owning other humans, all of the typical stuff you see in novels set during slave times, but at its core, this is a book about two families – one white, one black – and one girl who must navigate between these two totally separate worlds.

I really enjoyed The Kitchen House and I find it remarkable what Grissom managed to do with these characters throughout this novel. The book spans about twenty years, and so much happens to the characters, but she really gives the reader a complete understanding of who they are, what their motivations are, who and what they love and will fight for, and why they make the decisions they make throughout the book. I found it interesting that while the book focuses on Lavinia as its center, she was the character I found myself caring about least. Instead, I was much more drawn to her family, the slaves, and the various struggles and issues they had to deal with. Grissom did such an amazing job bringing these characters to life on the page – especially Belle, Laviania’s older “sister” who is actually the illegitimate daughter of the plantation owner. I loved Belle and was disappointed that, while she narrates a few of the chapters, her sections were not long enough for my tastes.

While some of the events in the book would fall into the stereotypical for a slavery novel category, I would venture to say that these things (whippings, children being sold away from their parents, slaves being forced to marry whoever the overseer wanted them to marry, physical abuse, rape, I could go on and on…) are stereotypical because they happened all the time. So in my uneducated brain, Grissom stayed very true to history, and there’s even a note in the back about all of the research that she did and the factual story that the novel was based on. So while the book was tough to read at times, historical fiction can and should be tough to read, and I thought Grissom did an amazing job weaving the elements of life as a slave in with the humanity of the people who actually did experience that awful existence.

This was a book club pick and universally everyone liked the book, although to varying degrees. We had a good discussion about some of the questions the book brought up in our thoughts, a good conversation about power dynamics and how lack of power contributed to many of the characters’ choices, and overall it was a great book club pick.

I honestly have nothing negative to say about this one. The Kitchen House was fantastic.