Mini-Reviews of Recent Reads – December 2023

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Happy New Year! December was incredibly busy with activities, appointments, and more, but I did fit in a number of great books.

Most of these were really solid choices, which was just what I needed in a month that felt a little overwhelming. The weeks around Christmas finally brought some much-needed rest and time with family.

Here’s what I read in December; also check out my best books of 2023 and please share your favorites as well!

Print and E-Books

A Winter in New York by Josie Silver

A Winter in New York

Author: Josie Silver
Source: Book of the Month Club
Publish Date: October 3, 2023
Genres: Contemporary Fiction, Romance

Iris left England for a new start in New York, but her restart has been slow. She’s dealing with some major traumas, as well as the loss of her mother, and she’s slowly trying to get her bearings. When she stumbles on a familiar door to a gelateria in Little Italy, she knows she’s seen it in one of her mother’s photos–and she may hold the key to saving it. The famous gelato recipe is a secret known only to Gio’s uncle, who has forgotten it after a recent stroke. When Iris tastes a bit of the last batch, she realizes it’s her recipe–the one her mother passed to her, that shaped some of her most precious memories. Realizing she’s stumbled on some complicated history that may not be hers to share, she offers her chef skills to help Gio recreate the recipe.

I was in the mood for a light winter read with I picked this Book of the Month selection, but as I read, I wasn’t sure if the gelato angle would be too cutesy for me. I’m glad I stuck with it. While this is a romance, it didn’t feel central to me. Iris’s unpacking of her complex trauma and the charming ensemble cast of characters were the things that really kept me reading, and this had a lot more depth than I expected.

Happiness Falls by Angie Kim

Happiness Falls

Author: Angie Kim
Publish Date: August 29, 2023
Genres: Literary Fiction

In a DC-area park, a Korean-American father goes missing and his fourteen-year-old son, Eugene, returns home from the park without him, bloody and distraught but unable to communicate anything. Eugene has Angelman syndrome and autism, which means he is unable to speak and is easily overstimulated. Over the next three days, 20-year-old daughter Mia, tells about the missing person investigation that turns into questions about Eugene’s possible role in her father’s disappearance. As she wrestles with what could have happened, she learns secrets about her father and her brother that lead to more questions about what happened that day.

While this is the plot of this literary mystery, Kim explores so much more through Mia’s analytical, somewhat rambling narration, including happiness and how to measure it (or manipulate it), language and how it’s equated with intelligence, and family trauma and secrets. Readers have had mixed feelings about Mia’s narration and copious asides in footnotes. While I could have done without the footnotes (just the format, not the content), I loved her voice, which rang true of a smart but somewhat neurotic, prickly, and self-absorbed 20-year-old. I was fascinated by Kim’s exploration of the science of happiness, language, and disability alongside the mystery. I couldn’t put this one down.


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New books to read: December '23 Reviews

Audiobooks

Yellowface by R.F. Kuang

Yellowface

Author: R.F. Kuang
Narrator: Helen Laser
Source: Library
Publish Date: May 16, 2023
Genres: Contemporary Fiction, Literary Fiction

June Hayward has always been jealous of her “friend,” Athena Liu’s success. Athena has been a literary darling since the days of their MFA program, but June has largely been ignored. When Athena dies, June steals a manuscript, reworks it, and sells it as her own, under the name Juniper Song. It’s a massive success. When questions about the book–and June’s ambiguous pen name–come up, she finds justification for everything and tries desperately to hold onto the success she feels she deserves. But can she deliver another winner?

Yellowface had a lot of buzz in 2023 and I’m glad I fit in the audiobook at the end of the year. I couldn’t stop listening, and it was fascinating to be part of June’s manipulation and lies to herself (and everyone else), through her first-person narration. Lots of fascinating commentary here on white entitlement, cultural appropriation, and the ways that social media can make and break us in an instant.

Above the Fire by Michael O'Donnell

Above the Fire

Author: Michael O’Donnell
Narrator: Robert Fass
Source: Libro.fm ALC
Publish Date: December 5, 2023
Genres: Literary Fiction

Widower Doug and his young son, Tim, are on a backpacking trip in New Hampshire, enjoying new friends, each other’s company, and the outdoors. As they near the end of their trip, communications go down and they spot fires below. Rumors of social collapse reach them, though details are vague. Doug decides to go further into the wilderness, where he and Tim settle into a backcountry cabin for a winter on their own, hoping to wait out the turmoil.

I love survival stories, and when you add in some apocalyptic elements, I’m all in. (Though I admit the appeal of those in recent years has waned a bit–it’s the ever-closer creeping to reality that’s doing it.) This was a quiet version, with the strengthening bond between father and son nicely juxtaposed with the societal unraveling. The outdoor survival aspect makes the publisher’s comparison to Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars apt, and the unsettling unknown of the collapse is reminiscent of Rumaan Alam’s Leave the World Behind.

Hot Springs Drive by Lindsay Hunter

Hot Springs Drive

Author: Lindsay Hunter
Narrator: Emily Ellet
Source: Libro.fm ALC
Publish Date: November 7, 2023
Genres: Mysteries & Thrillers, Literary Fiction

Theresa and Jackie met in the hospital after giving birth–Theresa to her only daughter, and Jackie to one of her four sons. Soon after, they became next-door neighbors and best friends. Together, they deal with the ups and downs of parenting (Jackie always looking on from her loud home to Theresa’s peaceful one), marriage, and self-image and weight struggles. When the women join a weight loss group and Jackie takes it to an extreme, she finally feels in control and within reach of some of what Theresa has–including her husband. Now Theresa is dead, their affair is in the open, and the families are left with the fallout.

This was a dark novel of suburban relationships and discontent, with some sharp observations but few characters to root for (other than some of the children). There’s a bit of a mystery element to it, but we know from the start that Theresa is dead. What follows is a character examination of multiple members of each family, leading to the answer of who did it. It kept me listening, but I rarely find such dark, gritty books enjoyable–this would be best for readers who gravitate toward that tone.

The Last List of Mabel Beaumont

The Last List of Mabel Beaumont

Author: Laura Pearson
Narrator: Penelope Freeman
Source: Libro.fm ALC
Publish Date: August 4, 2023
Genres: Contemporary Fiction

Mabel Beaumont’s husband, Arthur, has died and left her one last to-do list, with only one item: “Find D.” Mabel takes this to mean she needs to find Dot, the best friend she hasn’t seen in more than 60 years. As she begins her search for this old friend, a whole group of new friends comes into her life. As the women support Mabel in her new life without Arthur and in her quest to find Dot, and she in turn supports them, she sees new hope for a future she never thought was possible.

This is a great choice for anyone who enjoys “up-lit” like The Secret Life of Albert Entwistle or A Man Called Ove, with older protagonists who find new friends, adventures, and even love late in life.

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2 Comments

  1. Other than perhaps the ending (which came out of nowhere), what’s the difference between The Plot (which I referred to above) and Yellowface?

    1. Good question, because they basically have the same premise! It’s been a while since I read The Plot so the details are a bit fuzzy, but that one was definitely more of a thriller–it was so hyped, and I remember being underwhelmed. Yellowface has more to say about publishing, cultural appropriation and who should tell what stories, and racism.

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