Mini-Reviews of Recent Reads: September 2018

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While all of the books I’m reviewing this September weren’t ultimately winners, they were all enjoyable or thought-provoking enough that I count the whole as a successful reading month.

A couple of them nicely rounded out the summer reading season, while others felt just right for ushering in fall. One is a likely candidate for my overall best of 2018 list, another is a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography that I’ve been wanting to read all year, and another has been on my mind since I finished it–despite my ultimate conclusion that it took a wrong turn.

If you’ve read any of these, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

September 2018 Book Reviews

The Summer Wives: A Novel

The Summer Wives: A Novel

The Summer Wives is just what summer reading should be: intriguing, escapist, and smart. The story takes place on Winthrop Island, a summer haven for wealthy families. Miranda Schuyler finds herself immersed in the oppressive, secretive world of the rich when her mother marries Hugh Fisher, one of the island's wealthy inhabitants. She forms a fast friendship with her reckless new stepsister, Isobel, who has a complicated relationship with Joseph Vargas, the son of the lighthouse keeper.

Miranda's romance with Joseph culminates in an explosive event that sends him to prison and keeps her from the island for two decades. Upon returning, she finds that old resentments and secrets remain intact and she must dive into them to save Joseph. Both the setting and the rich-family intrigue are draws here, but one of the most interesting aspects is the barely present rich man on whom everything hinges--not just a feature of life among the elite, but perhaps one felt more deeply.

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Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder

Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder

I was a huge fan of everything Little House when I was a kid. I read the books over and over, and I watched the television series. This past year, I've been diving back into that world. I've been reading the books aloud with my daughter, but I've also been taking a more nuanced look at the world presented by Laura Ingalls Wilder. First, I read (and loved) Caroline: Little House, Revisited (Ma's fictional perspective on the Little House on the Prairie story), and then I dove into the true story with this detailed biography.

There are parts of Prairie Fires that read like a history textbook; the book is long, and it can get quite dry. It presents the broader historical context in which the Ingalls and Wilder families lived, and that included things like farm loans, railroads, crop pricing, and politics.

At the same time, when the book circles back to the families, it makes clear how these things affected their lives and decisions. As a reader of the books, it was gratifying to learn that many of the events actually happened--but also interesting as an adult to learn of the ommissions, both of events and of character flaws. Most illuminating was the incessant devastation that occurred through their lives: fires, grasshoppers, storms, illness--and ongoing poverty that resulted. While these things were present in the books, the reality of them is a contrast to the idyllic lives we remember.

The later years of Wilder's life were also fascinating--especially her relationship with her volatile daughter, Rose. Their partnership brought the books we love to life, but they would have been quite different without both Laura's measured approach and Rose's editing talent and flair for the dramatic (inserted sparingly, thanks to her mother's reserve). Rose herself is an interesting character, and there were moments when the author seemed to question her sanity. Laura's husband, Almanzo, unfortunately, is not a strong presence. The author drew heavily from the letters and writing of the women, and he was not a writer.

While I enjoyed this biography, because of the length and level of detail, I would only recommend this to other avid fans of the Little House books.

 

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Related: When Childhood Classics Turn Dark: Reading Anne of Green Gables, Little House, and Little Women as an Adult

 

Where the Crawdads Sing

Where the Crawdads Sing

For Kya, the marsh is everything: her home, her family, her safety. Abandoned at a young age, she survives alone, aided only by a poor black couple and a boy who teaches her to read and gives her hope for the future. Over the years, she becomes a local legend--the eccentric "Marsh Girl" who refuses to attend school and avoids most people. Lonely, uneducated, and left behind, she finds respite in her emotional and scientific connection with the wilds of the marsh. But her ties to the marsh, her fear of abandonment, and her inability to connect with people are her undoing. Long-held suspicions find their target when a former high school sports hero is found dead and Kya is named as the prime suspect.

While the marsh setting was not appealing to me at first, Owens (who is a nature writer) brought it to life through Kya's eyes. She made me care deeply about both Kya--a resourceful survivor who also feels endlessly vulnerable--and the marsh as her sacred refuge. This character-driven survival story checked a number of boxes for me and will likely be one of the best books of 2018.

Like this book? Check out 13 Books Like Where the Crawdads Sing

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The Great Alone

The Great Alone

When Leni's father, a traumatized Vietnam veteran, uproots her and her mother Cora to claim land left to them in Alaska, she expects yet another difficult adjustment to school but hopes for a new beginning with her family. What she finds instead is a landscape that enchants even while it endangers, a community that both confounds and comes together, and an unexpected camaraderie with her only classmate. The long, dark winter, however, proves to be her father's undoing. Cora and Leni live on edge, attempting to build a life while avoiding the blows from his next drunken outburst.

Hannah brings Alaska to life and manages to evoke feelings of vast expansiveness, possibility, and oppressive isolation. About three-quarters of this book had me captivated; the characters were well-drawn and realistic, and the landscape provided endless mysteries and surprises. The last quarter, however, felt rushed and several events rang less true than the rest of the story. I can't dismiss this one entirely but I do wish it had ended stronger.

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First Frost

First Frost

A light read about a family of sisters gifted with small touches of magic. As the first frost approaches, the women grow unsettled, and then a stranger arrives and disrupts their understanding of their family and themselves.

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All the Ugly and Wonderful Things

All the Ugly and Wonderful Things

Wavy has never felt safe, wanted, or loved. From a young age, she took responsibility for her younger brother, Donal, caring for him from babyhood while her parents and the adults around her wrecked themselves with the products of their large-scale meth lab. When a chance encounter brings Kellen--one of her father's drug runners--into her life, she finally finds someone who cares for her. Kellen becomes a friend and father-figure, but his and Wavy's relationship gradually veers toward romance as she becomes a teenager. A tragedy brings them under public scrutiny and they must deal with the fall-out from the relationship that kept them both alive but is unacceptable to the rest of the world.

There were many things I loved about this book, and I've been struggling with the direction it went and the things it asks the reader to accept--namely, that Wavy was effectively an adult no matter her age. Wavy was robbed of her childhood, then granted aspects of it back, and then again pushed into adulthood at too young an age. The various "ugly" situations--and the wonderful ones--are realistic and worth exploring in literature. For me, the "ugly" went a step too far and I wasn't able to root for the characters (as was clearly the author's intent) and what they thought they wanted.

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What have you been reading lately? If you’ve read any of these books, what did you think?

Book reviews of September 2018 reads, including The Summer Wives, Where the Crawdads Sing, Prairie Fires, First Frost, The Great Alone, and All the Ugly and Wonderful Things. | MindJoggle.com

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8 Comments

  1. I haven’t read all of these but the ones I have I agree with you! Except I went even further in my feelings about The Great Alone. I thought that up to the midpoint it was memorable storytelling but then the last half and the events that transpired became ludicrous. It went too far over the top for me.

    So far September is shaping up to be one of my best months of the year- which is awesome! I fell in love with The Pasha of Cuisine and just finished The Golden State which I thought was really well done. I’m hoping the month continues to be more great than meh reading.

  2. All The Ugly and Wonderful Things sounds like such a challenging book (my favourite kind, hehehe). I really love books that force you to confront questions and situations that you wouldn’t otherwise consider. It really sounds like Greenwood has done a good job of making the reader question their assumptions about right and wrong, and no matter what side you fall on that’s always a good thing 😉

  3. I’m so happy you ended up enjoying Crawdads! I felt the exact same way about The Great Alone. The ending completely fell apart for me, it felt rushed and parts were so over the top which is surprising coming from Kristin Hannah

  4. I couldn’t agree with you more about The Great Alone. The last quarter of the book was SO disappointing, especially being a huge fan of The Nightingale which had a perfect ending.

    Glad the you’re a fan of Crawdads!

  5. The only one of these I’ve read is The Great Alone. I totally agree with you that the ending was a let-down, but I sure did find her descriptions of the Alaska wilderness breathtaking! I’m glad I ended up finding The Great Alone first and reading the Nightingale later because I loved Nightingale so much more. I’ve heard a lot of good things about Where the Crawdads Sing. I’m excited to try that one next.

    1. Everyone seems to love The Nightingale–I can’t believe I haven’t read it yet! I think I need to prioritize it next year.

  6. I have heard many raving reviews about Where the Crawdads Sing. It’s on my TBR list now. Likewise, I have heard great reviews about The Great Alone but I have been hesitating because A) I wasn’t crazy about her writing in The Nightingale (I know I must be one of the only ones in the world who didn’t love that book) and B) the heavy, hard topic of PTSD and violence would be really difficult to read about. Do you think it is worth picking up despite these reservations and despite the last part of the book not being very strong?

  7. I have read The Great Alone and Prairie Fires. For me, both of these started very promisingly, but disappointed me in the end. I completely agree with your assessment of The Great Alone, and in the case of Prairie Fires, I really felt like the second half focused too much on Rose and not enough on Laura herself. Sure, understanding Rose helps us to understand her relationship with her mother, but the second half felt much more like a biography of Rose.

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