Mini Reviews of Recent Reads: October 2019

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September and October have been fantastic reading months, with a few darker books after a summer peppered with lighter books (many set on islands, for some reason).

I’m back on the mainland now, and fall reading is in full swing. A few of my reads have been getting a lot of buzz, and let me tell you: the buzz is warranted.

If you’re at all curious about any of the new books out this fall, they are worth reading. You may not love them, but the writing is unfailingly great and you’ll find plenty of topics for discussion. Book clubs, take note!

I also dove into a few backlist books that have been on my radar–something I haven’t done enough this year–as well as an audiobook that I had never heard of but that blew me away.

Before joining the book blogging world, I frequently would try out random books I pulled off the library shelves, with no notion of whether they were popular or buzzy. I found so many great books that way and would like to try it more often–it’s so fun to find hidden gems.

On to the books!

Print Books

The Most Fun We Ever Had: A Novel

The Most Fun We Ever Had: A Novel

Author: Claire Lombardo
Genre: Fiction

The Most Fun We Ever Had is a multi-generational novel told over decades (this time, with flashbacks between present and past–another perfect read for people who like This Is Us). It’s another addition to a sea of similarly themed novels that are out in 2019, and I’m pleased to say that it more than holds its own. The Sorenson family is grounded by the seemingly perfect marriage of Marilyn and David. The four daughters in adulthood seem hampered by this perfection, given an example that is impossible to attain and that brings their own failures and struggles into sharp relief.

But a closer look reveals that perfection in any life is a myth, and there is no one way to face adversity. Lombardo has a way of bringing ALL of their flaws to the fore in a way that makes you think you might dislike the characters, but you still end up loving them. They are all gray and complicated and wonderful. One particular character that I might be most inclined to dislike actually became a favorite–it’s a fine line that Lombardo walked with each of them, and she did it skillfully. This is a long book, and it felt long, but in a good way. I felt fully immersed in the Sorenson’s world and was happy to stay there for the duration.

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The Testaments: The Sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale

The Testaments: The Sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale

Author: Margaret Atwood
Genre: Fiction
Tag: Dystopia

Readers have been abuzz about The Testaments all year. The highly anticipated sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale answers questions that readers have had for thirty years. What happened to Offred? How did Gilead fall? The book is told in the voices of three females: two young women coming of age–one within Gilead and one outside in Canada–and the famed and cruel Aunt Lydia. The step away from the severe oppression experienced by the handmaids provides other interesting perspectives: that of a child growing up in the regime, knowing nothing else; the views of outside countries and the resistance; and the reasons and ways people become complicit in the rise of oppressive societies.

While not as explosive as The Handmaid’s Tale (I first read the book as a young teen and it shook me), The Testaments is a satisfying and compelling conclusion to Atwood’s original story. My initial difficulty tracking the three narrators, plus a marked indifference for the two younger characters, knocked this down a bit for me, but Aunt Lydia’s story had me hooked. Her choices and systematic long game are excellent book club fodder. Atwood is not subtle in her politics or in the ways she draws parallels to today’s political climate. If you share her concerns, or if you’re just fascinated by the Gilead of her imagination, this is a must read.

More info →

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The Dutch House: A Novel

The Dutch House: A Novel

Author: Ann Patchett
Source: Publisher (Harper) via Edelweiss
Publish Date: September 12, 2019

Ann Patchett holds the very top spot on my list of favorite authors, and she further cements it with The Dutch House. Set at the end of World War II and told over five decades, this is the story of a brother, Danny, and sister, Maeve, whose stepmother casts them out of the estate of their childhood after their father’s death. The house looms large in their memories and their relationship, and they revisit it in various ways over the years, never quite able release its hold and its secrets.

I’ve read many sibling books in 2019, and Danny and Maeve’s relationship is unique and special. Patchett deftly examines their commitment to one another and the differences in their perceptions of their youth, despite how intertwined their lives are. I’ve seen this described as a “dark fairy tale,” which isn’t always my thing, but the larger-than-life house and evil stepmother, among other things, definitely add fairy tale elements, without taking it over the top.

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Social Creature

Social Creature

Social Creature was a spur-of-the-moment library grab, because I remembered Sarah’s strong reaction to the book last year. It stuck in my mind as one I had to check out. And everything Sarah said was right: I almost put this down several times, but it took turns that kept me reading and was truly a messed up story.

It reminded me of a recent story in The Cut that I vaguely followed and that caused a bit of an online buzz: read I Was Caroline Calloway and you’ll get the idea (even if you have no idea who Caroline Calloway is, because I certainly didn’t). Briefly: a meek, plain girl meets a charismatic socialite who takes her under her wing. Plain girl becomes sidekick and hanger-on, and both exploit one another in their own ways. Social Creature draws on archetypes that are apparently common in this weird socialite world, but it takes a truly dark turn and follows a twisted path toward its conclusion.

Super dark, messed up books like this aren’t always my thing–I usually feel kind of icky after reading them, and this was no exception (which makes it hard to rate, because the execution was pretty brilliant, if a bit implausible). But sometimes I just can’t resist the premise or strong reactions of other readers. For now I’ll be taking a break from “dark and twisted” until another comes along that I just can’t resist.

More info →

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Did Not Finish:

Bloomland

Bloomland

Author: John Englehardt
Source: Publisher (Dzanc Books) via Edelweiss
Publish Date: September 10, 2019

During finals week at a fictional southern university, a gunman opens fire in the library, killing 12 people. Bloomland explores both the origin and the aftermath of the shooting through the eyes of a student, a professor, and the shooter.

This book had many raves for its thoughtful, empathetic, and poetic portrayals of grief and disillusionment. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get past the second person narrative. It seemed the narrator was a person who was present at the college, but at 25% in, I still had no notion of who that was or why they were telling the story. The endless stream of “you” became distracting and I had to put it down. If this style doesn’t bother you, it might be worth checking out.

More info →

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Audiobooks

Stay and Fight

Stay and Fight

Author: Madeline Ffitch
Genre: Fiction
Tag: Audiobooks

Stay and Fight was my surprise 5-star listen of 2019. I hadn’t heard a word about this book–it was a spur-of-the-moment library checkout–and once I started listening, I couldn’t stop. Set in Appalachia, this is the story of three women who come together to survive and raise a child. Helen arrives with her boyfriend, full of dreams of living off the land. It goes south quickly. He leaves and she, having put all her resources toward the land they purchased, sticks it out.

Her neighbors, a couple named Karen and Lily, are expecting a child–a boy, which means they must move off of the Women’s Land Trust where they’ve been scraping by. Helen invites them to live on and share ownership of her land. Bent on being independent, together, the three women and the little boy, Perley, build a house, devise systems for surviving, and negotiate their relationships with one another. But they can’t keep the outside world away forever, and soon it begins encroaching on their lives in ways they didn’t expect. This book combines so many themes: the families we create, living off the land, life in Appalachia and poverty, and rugged femininity, all told in multiple riveting voices.

Related: 13 Eco-Fiction Books about the Environment and Nature

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Before the Fall

Before the Fall

Author: Noah Hawley
Genre: Fiction

A private plane goes down on a flight from Martha’s Vineyard to New York City. All onboard are lost, with the exception of a painter and the four-year-old boy he saves, who is also the sole heir to an enormous fortune. The other passengers were wealthy and powerful, and Scott Burroughs, the painter, finds himself the subject of media scrutiny. First for his heroism, and then for his possible role in the crash.

Hawley tells a compelling story as he wades through the pasts of each passenger, examining their relationships and their ultimate paths to a seat on the plane. This didn’t feel like a thriller or suspense novel, as the marketing would suggest, but rather an examination of the characters and the media circus that accompanies incidents surrounding people of power. It was a compelling listen; I found the end somewhat disappointing, but the journey to it was enjoyable.

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My Glory Was I Had Such Friends: A Memoir

My Glory Was I Had Such Friends: A Memoir

Twenty-six years ago, during the infancy of heart transplant surgery, Amy Silverstein received a new heart. Now in her fifties, that heart is failing, and she again waits for a new heart. Her wait requires a move to California with her husband, and with them, nine of Amy’s closest friends sign onto a schedule to keep constant vigil at her bedside. Each bring different histories and qualities to the hospital room and support Amy by turns with empathy, no-nonsense attitudes, shared memories, and persistence. They pass the baton to one another, flying in from across the country for their times with their friend.

This is a brutally raw memoir of suffering and friendship. Amy is unflinching in her examination of herself and what it means to be a sick person, dependent on others, and what it means in such a situation to find the balance between caring for yourself and caring for those who surround you. It’s precarious, and the scales tip easily when emotions run high, requiring extraordinary feats of forgiveness and understanding from all. Highly recommended.

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What are you reading this fall?

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7 Comments

  1. Ok, you’ve sold me on Social Creatures! That kind of icky, slight disturbing, but wholly engrossing female relationship is right in my wheelhouse.

    1. Oh, Social Creatures is a perfect one if you love books like that! There’s a lot about it that felt absurd, but so much of that world is so absurd that you kind of just readily accept it.

  2. I have the The Testaments right now from the library but haven’t started it because I’m torn—I read Handmaid’s Tale three or four years ago, and I feel like I don’t remember enough of the characters and everything else to just dive into this one without revisiting the first. What do you think? Could I get away with just googling a brief synopsis, or would you recommend I reread the first?

    Also, I can’t wait until my hold for The Dutch House comes in. I’ve only read one Patchett novel thus far (Commonwealth), but because of all your enthusing over the time I’ve followed you, I’ve resolved to read a lot more of her work, and this one seems like it will be right up my alley 🙂

    1. I think a little googling will probably give you enough detail. Really, it’s just helpful to have an overview of how Gilead works, with the handmaids, Marthas, Aunts, etc. The specific characters from The Handmaid’s Tale aren’t really in it, except for Aunt Lydia. Offred is mentioned a few times and has ties to the current story but isn’t a major player.

      I hope you love the other Ann Patchett books you try!

  3. The Dutch House is already on my radar and I’m eager to read it, but your review certainly moved it up a few notches. I’ve added Stay and Fight to be my TBR. Never heard of it and it sounds fascinating. Thanks for the recommendation!

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