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What an amazing month of reading I’ve had since my March reviews!
There were a few books I had planned to read this month that I ended up not finishing, but that freed up time to squeeze in some others–and my month has been filled with four- and five-star reads.
Only one book–an award-winner, but a short one–ended up being just mediocre.
The others were page-turners, in different ways. Whether you’re looking for historical fiction, gritty darkness, family drama, thrills and adventure, or juicy reads perfect for summer, there’s something here for you.
April 2019 Book Reviews
I loved Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars, so I’ve been looking forward to this new book from him. It did not disappoint. Not only was this a five-star read, but I couldn’t put it down over the two days I read it.
The story starts slowly, with college friends Wynn and Jack drifting down a Canadian river in their canoe. The two met in college and quickly became best friends, bonding over their shared love of the outdoors and literature. As they drifted along, I settled in for a story that I thought may slowly meander. Heller’s writing was pleasant, and I already liked Jack and Wynn. I didn’t expect it to pick up as fast as it did.
The two men spot a wildfire in the distance, then encounter two other pairs on the river and try to warn them. Their leisurely journey turns into a race to safety, where the fire is not the only threat they face.
Heller is obviously a skilled outdoorsman; he doesn’t ignore the beauty and brutality of the setting or what it takes to survive in it, even as he builds the tension of the story. He grants both Jack and Wynn enviable survival skills and toughness. While different, they also have artistic, empathetic hearts that make you love them both and root for their friendship, even as the struggles of the trip strain it. This would make an excellent movie–I hope it happens someday!
A truly riveting story of a Russian teen, Ilya, from a poor family who wants nothing more than to go to America. He idolizes his older brother, Vladimir, despite his troublemaking and eventual drug addiction. Ilya continues on the straight-and-narrow and eventually makes it to a family in Texas. But back in Russia, his brother is imprisoned for the murders of three local women. Ilya is determined to exonerate Vladimir while finding that, despite the excesses of America, drugs are just as devastating as in Russia.
The characters here are vivid, as are the locales that shape them. I loved the juxtaposition of the two cities, both illuminated nightly by the refineries that are the lifeblood–and in many ways, the undoing–of both locations. Dark and gritty, but highly recommended.
In 1965, Helen Gurley Brown takes the helm as editor of Cosmopolitan magazine, forever changing the face of women’s magazines. “Her girls” don’t want to read about cleaning products; they want to read about beauty, sex, relationships, and their own bodies.
This fictional look at her first year as editor places Alice Weiss as Gurley Brown’s assistant. While most of us are poised to think of New York magazine editors in the vein of frosty, difficult Anna Wintour (or her fictional alter-ego, Miranda Priestly), Gurley Brown was a different personality. Driven, determined, but also fragile and sentimental, she was a complicated figure who had a vision, and she fought hard for it.
Alice’s story, alongside Gurley Brown’s, is just as juicy and entertaining as the real-life drama. Park Avenue Summer was light and fun, with touches of feminist discussion without getting too heavy-handed (Gurley Brown is sometimes pitted against Betty Friedan and other feminist women of the era, but she sees herself as offering women her own brand of liberation.). This would be a fantastic summer beach read.
When aging movie star Evelyn Hugo recruits Monique Grant, an unknown reporter, to write her biography, Monique can’t fathom why Evelyn would want her. She is quickly drawn into Evelyn’s winding tale, from her rise to stardom, her multiple marriages, and the dramas of her life. Through it all remains the question: why was she chosen for this coveted job?
Evelyn is an enigmatic character–fascinating, confident, and powerful. It’s no wonder, since she and her story are based on several of Hollywood’s leading ladies. I’ve been hearing about how excellent this book is for a while, so I decided to squeeze it in, figuring if it was as good as I’d heard, it would be a quick read. It definitely was.
I loved the peek behind the curtain of the careful construction of Evelyn’s public life versus her private life. I will never look at another Hollywood story in the same way. This was juicy, smart, and unputdownable.
When their Punjabi mother dies, British-born sisters Rajni, Jezmeen, and Shirina agree to carry out her last wish: a pilgrimage, carefully planned by their mother, to India. They are to visit places that were meaningful to her and to deliver her ashes to their final resting place.
The three sisters have never been close and couldn’t be more different. Authoritarian Rajni secretly agonizes about a dilemma at home in her own family, while flighty Jezmeen tries to figure out how to save her floundering acting career after an embarrassing video goes viral. People-pleaser Shirina, meanwhile, is ill-at-ease and preoccupied by demands made on her by her wealthy in-laws in Australia.
The three sisters grapple with their grief, their strained relationships, and the stresses of their regular lives, while attempting to carry out their mother’s wishes and perhaps come together in a way they never have.
This was a fast, smart read, filled with vivid characters and places, as well as interesting reflections on India from a female generation raised outside of it. Visiting forces them to recognize the dangers and limitations of women’s lives there. The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters was a surprise 5-star read; I look forward to more from this author.
Strangely compelling but also somewhat disappointing, this National Book Award winner is less a story about a woman’s healing relationship with the Great Dane left to her by her deceased friend than it is a meditation on grief. The friend and mentor, who committed suicide and left no note, looms large in her thoughts and memories. The snippets with the dog are charming, but they are not the focus.
The deceased friend has few redeeming qualities, making the reader wonder about the narrator’s attachment to him, but part of the point seems to be the nature of suicide and the impossibility of resolution for those left behind.
Daughter of Moloka’i is the follow-up to Brennert’s 2003 novel Moloka’i, which tells the story of Rachel, a young girl diagnosed with leprosy and forced to live in quarantine in the colony for leprosy patients on the island of Moloka’i. I read Moloka’i a number of years ago and loved it, but I didn’t remember a lot about the story. I thought I’d give this a try anyway, and it stands alone well.
Daughter of Moloka’i follows Ruth, the daughter who Rachel was forced to give up–as all leprosy patients were at the time. As a young girl, Ruth is adopted by a Japanese family in Hawai’i. They family makes its way to California, where they build their lives and businesses–until they are ripped from those lives and sent to internment camps after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
While not as riveting as I remember Moloka’i to be, this was an excellent read that covers a lot of ground. Following Ruth’s life takes the reader through the racism against Japanese in the ’30s and 40s, to life in the internment camps, to the lives of remote Hawaii’ans, and finally closes the circle on Rachel and Moloka’i. I highly recommend these two books for anyone looking for historical fiction about a little-covered but fascinating topic.
I listened to three excellent audiobooks over the past month.
I don’t often rate audiobooks five stars (I sometimes feel like I miss too much when listening versus reading), but the last of these earned the rating–and the other two were four stars.
If you’re looking for a good listen and you, like me, are always looking for that light-but-smart sweet spot when it comes to audiobooks, any one of these would be an excellent choice.
This book is everywhere right now–readers are loving it. This oral history of a fictional hit classic rock band of the 70s, as told by the band members and people around them, is loosely based on bands such as Fleetwood Mac. Daisy is the wild-child singer trying to make it big when she joins up with The Six. With Daisy and Billy Dunne leading the band, they skyrocket to stardom, but the behind-the-scenes are filled with conflict and fueled by drugs, alcohol, sexual tension, and of course, music.
I listened to this one on audio, and it was a major production that included big names such as Jennifer Beals, Benjamin Bratt, and Judy Greer. The voice actors were all phenomenal–I really felt like I was listening to an oral history as told by these people. However, I think some of the propulsiveness of the book was lost on me in the listening; I lost track of some of the side characters and occasionally missed storylines. I listened in the same way I might listen to a good NPR story–I was interested, but not riveted.
Readers who loved the print version of the book would probably appreciate listening to the audio. If you haven’t read it yet, I recommend starting with it in print. If you do happen to love large-cast audiobooks, this might be for you.
Maggie has a lot going for her: an exciting new job, a new condo, and a brand-new fiancé. But right after the engagement, an accident puts her in the hospital and the dream life starts to crumble around her. Her long-disappeared sister Kit suddenly reappears, while her fiancé Chip falls apart. Maggie is also stuck with Ian for a physical therapist, a cranky (but attractive) Scot who shows her no mercy. Amid all of this, she is trying to make peace with her new normal and figure out just what her future holds.
This was an excellent choice on audiobook–light, but with an interesting story and characters. It’s by turns funny, sad, romantic, and hopeful, with none of those characteristics taking over the whole story. The narrator was also fabulous; this one had me hooked.
Easily one of the best audiobooks I’ve ever listened to, this story of of three siblings who find each other as teens is a heartwarming, complicated, and realistic exploration of the many meanings of family. Grace was adopted by loving parents at birth and recently gave up her own daughter for adoption, which sends her on a search for her own birth family. Maya was also adopted, but when her adopted family begins to have trouble of its own, she starts to wonder about her origins and whether she truly has a place with the family that chose her. Joaquin, the oldest, remained in foster care and struggles to accept that he could still have a chance at a family.
Julia Whelan narrated this book, and she has become a go-to audiobook narrator for me. The tone and pace of this were perfect for listening: the issues are heavy, but because these are teens, it is sprinkled with levity. The relationships and trust that these three build with one another, through all of their personal difficulties, is charming–these are characters you want to root for.
This book is another National Book Award Winner, and it’s exactly the kind of amazing book I hope to find when I pick up an award winner. I think it would read just as well in print as it did in audio.
Did Not Finish (aka DNFs)
The three books below were all part of my planned April reading and all were a little risky. I hadn’t read the authors before, and for the nonfiction book especially, I knew I would have to be in the right mood for it to catch my attention.
Unfortunately, these didn’t work for me and I put them down, but the books I read above instead made it worth it.
I think this book about the life of Lillian Preston, a female photographer in the 60s who is arrested for obscenity–presented as reflections from her daughter and others–had potential. However, I started reading it around the same time I listened to Daisy Jones and the Six, and the similar format and slower pace of this one made it difficult for me to stay engaged. Maybe it was timing–this has gotten some positive reviews. I didn’t dislike this, but it didn’t capture me quickly enough for me to finish it.
The summary of this book about a group of boarding school students influenced by a charismatic teacher seemed like it could have shades of The Secret History, which I loved. Unfortunately, at 20% I couldn’t tell any of the characters apart and both the teacher and students seemed insufferable and uninteresting. With no compelling reason to keep reading, I put this down. Other reviews seemed to be similarly disappointed in this anticipated book from a well-respected author.
This, again, was a timing thing. I needed a book that was more engaging and faster moving, and this exploration of the wayfinding abilities of humans just wasn’t the right book at this time. It’s a topic that interests me, but this was a little drier than I’d hoped. I may return to it at some point–maybe for Nonfiction November?–and give it another shot.
What have you read this month? Have you read any of the books above, or do any catch your attention?