Mini Reviews of Recent Reads – August 2019
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So many wonderful books in my August 2019 reviews! At least one of these will definitely make my best-of-year list, and many others were excellent summer reads.
If you love thrillers, there are two options here–one is more cat-and-mouse and the other offers a twist that truly surprised me.
I seem to be reading in pairs this month, because two of these are set on islands and two deal with issues of race–one in the United States and one in South Africa.
Finally, two of these are more uplifting than you might expect: one about a decade-long friendship and one a dystopia. An uplifting dystopia? Read on…
August 2019 Book Reviews
Never Have I Ever: A Novel
When an intriguing woman appears at the neighborhood book club and threatens to derail Amy’s perfect life by revealing secrets she’d rather leave buried, Amy has to figure out who just who the woman is, what she knows, and how to beat her at her own game.
Joshilyn Jackson’s first foray into domestic suspense did not disappoint, and this was excellent summer reading. Jackson was on point with her usual quirky, well-developed characters and excellent writing. Add in a twisty cat-and-mouse game that truly surprises–I thought I had things figured out multiple times and was so close, but new layers emerged–and you have one of the most fun thrillers I’ve read in a while.
The Islanders: A Novel
One summer on Block Island, three strangers’ lives intersect: Joy is a single mom, struggling to keep her pie business afloat; Anthony is an author, brought down by scandal and trying to put himself back together; and Lu is a mom of two young children, struggling with her feelings of discontent and her desire to build a business.
I am really into island settings this year and I loved visiting Block Island–it was a change from the wealth that underlies Elin Hilderbrand’s Nantucket. Some of the characters in this novel frustrated me, and I struggled to like them, though I believe they were meant to be sympathetic. I did enjoy reading a book with a blog as a main plot point. If you like Hilderbrand, give this one a try–the tone and writing felt very similar.
The Lightest Object in the Universe: A Novel
I admit to a weakness for dystopian novels–particularly ones that seem plausible today and are told on a small, personal scale (like The Age of Miracles or Into the Forest). This one imagines a collapse of the global economy and electrical grid. Carson is on the east coast and is desperate to make his way to Beatrix, on the west coast. Beatrix, meanwhile, joins with her neighborhood to share resources and rebuild their lives. Hovering over these efforts is the persistent voice of Jonathan Blue, promising food and safety–but is the promised salvation too good to be true?
Dystopias tend to be persistently dark. The Lightest Object in the Universe was not without darkness, but true to its title, it offers more light and hope than any other novel I’ve read about similar circumstances. Filled with characters who are ready to offer help, empathy, encouragement, friendship, and family, Eisele offers a refreshingly optimistic view of human nature and behavior in the worst of circumstances. She weaves into the story examples of impoverished communities in Latin America where people band together in similar ways to survive. Maybe such community is too much to hope for if the fall ever does come to the U.S., but I like to think that thousands of communities like Beatrix’s would rise again.
If You Want to Make God Laugh
In post-Apartheid South Africa, two estranged sisters find themselves back in their childhood home. Ruth is attempting to hold it together after several breakdowns and the collapse of her marriage, while Delilah faces her past and the things she left behind when she was disgraced out of the convent. When a black baby is abandoned on their doorstep, with his desperate mother Zodwa not far behind, they may be able to rebuild as a different kind of family–if the world will let them.
I haven’t read many books set in South Africa, and the political upheaval, rampant racism, and emerging AIDS pandemic were fascinating historical backdrops to this deeply personal story. Zodwa’s heartbreaking story in particular illuminated the lack of options for women in poverty, as well as the sexism, prejudices, indignities, and violence that force them to make unthinkable choices–for themselves and their children.
The Other’s Gold: A Novel
Lainey, Ji Sun, Alice, and Margaret are roommates and best friends in college, and the independence and intensity of campus life bonds them forever. Over the years, as the women graduate and move into adulthood, each makes a terrible mistake. The book walks through each–the Accident, the Accusation, the Kiss, and the Bite–examining the shifts and evolution in the women and their friendships.
I loved following the women through the ups and downs of their friendships--The Other’s Gold is easily one of my favorite books of 2019. They are each differently flawed, and these flaws tinge their relationships in wonderfully complex and subtle ways, forcing the women to again and again examine themselves, their values, and their loyalties.
The Silent Patient
Alicia is a successful painter, living with her photographer husband in London–until he returns home one night and she shoots him in the face. She never says another word. Now she’s locked away is a psychiatric facility, and criminal psychotherapist Theo Faber is determined to figure out what Alice isn’t saying.
This is a truly unsettling book with very few likable, reliable characters–which left me feeling a little icky, but also made it a great twisty psychological thriller (there’s a reason I don’t read a ton of books like this). The “big twist” I had heard about truly left me reeling, even though I knew it was coming and was on the lookout. I’m skeptical of gimmicky “twists” these days, but I actually felt a little dizzy as the pieces fell into place and my understanding of the story shifted–definitely a first. Impressively done, and a great pick if you like psychological thrillers.
Small Great Things
Ruth Jefferson is a labor and delivery nurse who has faced all kinds of families. But for the first time ever, a new mother and father demand that she be banned from caring for their newborn son--because she is black. Upset but unsure how to proceed, Ruth hesitates when the baby goes into distress--does she help or follow orders?--and dies on her watch.
Thus begins a high-profile trial between grieving white supremacists and a black woman determined to keep her own son safe. Ruth's white public defender, Kennedy, takes a special interest in Ruth's case but advises against discussing race in court. Ruth fights for her freedom while the baby's family fight for their own warped sense of justice.
With alternating narration between Ruth, Kennedy, and Turk, the baby's father, Small Great Things was a fantastic audiobook that was hard to turn off. The look into the world of white supremacy was particularly fascinating (and repulsive), as was the exploration of race in the justice system. There are without a doubt more nuanced stories that cover all of these areas, but Picoult writes page-turners and this is one of her best.More info →
Summer of ’69
Nantucket is again the backdrop for this story from Elin Hilderbrand, in her first foray into historical fiction. In the tumultuous summer of 1969, four siblings each have their own struggles. One is pregnant with twins in Boston, another has a foot in the civil rights movement but is pursuing her independence on Martha's Vineyard, another is deployed in Vietnam, and the fourth is a young teen on Nantucket with her mother and grandmother.
This was an enjoyable enough audio listen, but I'm not sure if I would have stuck with this one in print. Most of the storylines did not feel as propulsive as they could have. While there were high-stakes issues, most fizzled a bit. It felt like a meander through a family's island summer that happened to be studded by a few dramas and backdropped by a particularly rocky year in U.S. history.More info →
Great reviews! Several of these are on my TBR. Agree 100% about Silent Patient.
Thanks! Yes, it’s worth all the buzz, but not a feel-good by any means 🙂
I’ll admit, I had to abandon Small Great Things, even though I’ve heard such great reviews on it. She just did a little *too* good of a job describing the evils and prejudices, and I had to abandon it about 70 pages in because I just found some of the characters and their actions horrific (which is obviously how you should find them), but as I’m a bit sensitive to certain things…I just had to stop. The thing that disturbed me most about it all was that there really are people who think and act this way and think it’s okay, which is one reason I just couldn’t keep reading—it just made me sick.
And a lighthearted dystopia? Intriguing! I’ve kind of given up on the genre as a whole (partly because I just go so sick of reading super depressing stuff), but this one does sound interesting!
Understandable! Small Great Things was very compelling in audio–there were three narrators, and they were fantastic. It was definitely uncomfortable listening to some of Turk’s parts, though, and I recall turning down the volume on my phone when I was listening around the house without headphones! It’s hard to hear someone saying such vile things.
I’m not sure I’d say “lighthearted” so much as uplifting. There are definite dark moments–some very dark, actually–but it overall it was more feel-good than many dystopias.
I enjoyed reading your reviews. Thanks for introducing me to If You Want to Make God Laugh and The Other’s Gold. I’ve added them both to my TBR. They sound like my types of books!
Thanks! I hope you enjoy them!
So glad you loved The Other’s Gold! It’s one of my favorites of the year so far too! And she really surprised me with the “mistakes” she chose to use…that was one of my favorite parts.
Yes, I loved it! You’re right–so much about it was unexpected. None of the mistakes, aftermath, or effects on the friendships were predictable, but not in a gimmicky way.
I thought If You Want to Make God was so good! And yes, the racism and violence is appalling. I wonder how different it is now?
I’m trying with The Other’s Gold, but there is something about her writing style that grates on me. She switches tenses within sentences and it is jarring. Plus, the drama- while creative and unusual feels overdone. You’re the third blogger I know who loved this book, but I am still struggling with it at 40%. I want to love it, but it’s not happening.
Small Great Things was such a well-developed book. It was heart-wrenching at times and thought-provoking. it definitely got me upset (especially at Turk’s character) at the injustice and racism portrayed. It was a powerful read!
Here are my recent reads: https://elle-alice.blogspot.com/2019/07/july-book-reviews.html
I’m listening to Never Have I Ever right now and already got caught off guard by one twist that I thought I had easily figured out. I’m excited to see where the second half of the novel goes!