Mini-Reviews of Recent Reads – June 2020
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Like last month, June 2020 still has me struggling through print books, but as you’ll see from my reviews, I’m listening to more audiobooks than ever.
The books I read in print were both by two authors I’ve read and enjoyed before. Like so many readers, I was looking forward to Suzanne Collins’ new addition to The Hunger Games series.
As you’ll see, it didn’t meet my expectations, and just might be my biggest disappointment of the year.
Luckily, there were many other books this month that made up for it. All of the world’s upheaval has thrown off my reading plans, but I’m glad that I’ve found some unexpected winners.
Little Family is Ishmael Beah’s first fiction effort after his heartbreaking A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, which told of his time as a child soldier in Sierra Leone. Beah takes us back to what he knows–children in Africa (the country is unnamed) struggling to get by on only their wits.
The little family in the title is composed of five children living together in an abandoned airplane: Elimane, the bookish teen elder of the group; Khoudiemata, a motherly figure just coming into her own womanhood; athletic Ndevui and quiet Kpindi, two younger teen boys; and young Namsa, who idolizes Khoudi and is protected by all of them.
Beah brilliantly illustrates the way the children are forced into wisdom and street smarts beyond their years, including the subtle ways they protect their safety while caring for one another. Dubious connections promise security, belonging, and acceptance in a world where they are forgotten, but every leg-up seems to have trade-offs for these children on the fringes.
Lovely, and strangely uplifting and heartbreaking at the same time. My only complaint was an ending that felt rushed.
Like so many readers, I loved The Hunger Games series and was excited to hear about a new book in that world. The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes takes us back to the 10th Hunger Games–only ten years after the end of the war between the Capitol and the districts. Coriolanus Snow is 18 and living with his grandmother and cousin in wealthy poverty–they are barely hanging on to their penthouse and struggling to eat. The family’s standing relies on Snow to rise back to power.
In an effort to draw more interest to the Hunger Games, Snow’s class is tapped to act as mentors to the tributes and he is determined to use the opportunity to full advantage. This origin story of the games was the most interesting part, to me–how they evolved from a messy, brutish event that dehumanizes the tributes from the start, to the later spectacle that turns the tributes into superstars (before brutishly duhamanizing and murdering them).
The rest, frankly, is kind of a boring mess. Snow’s villain origin story is not sympathetic: he is a conniving narcissist from the start, just more subtle about it in his youth. He measures every interaction and move by how it will benefit him, and being inside his head for 500 pages is exhausting. His tribute mentee, Lucy Gray, is charismatic, and the book may have been better served with her providing a dual perspective. The propulsive urgency of the games is lost in this book, because Snow mostly watches them, the tributes are hidden in the arena, and over and over some variation of “not much happened that afternoon” just drags the story on.
Collins shines when her focus is on the tributes–the moments of humanity are what made us love the trilogy before, and it’s those scenes that save this book.
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Nora and Theresa are sisters and young women when they leave Ireland for the U.S. Nora is serious and planning to marry a man she’s uncertain of, while Theresa jumps headlong into the Boston social scene. Theresa ends up pregnant, and Nora comes up with a plan that changes both of their lives.
Decades later, Nora has a large family and Theresa is a nun. After years of silence, the two are coming together again after a tragedy and are forced to reckon with the past.
This was a pleasant-enough listen, but I think I might have enjoyed this sweeping family story more in print, which (for me) lends itself more to complex, character-driven stories.
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Dannie Cohen has it all: she’s a successful lawyer about to land her dream job, and she’s just gotten engaged to her boyfriend. One night, she awakes somewhere she doesn’t recognize: in a different apartment, with a man she doesn’t know. She’s five years in the future and she can’t imagine how she got to this place.
And then she is back. But she can’t shake the feeling that it was more than a dream, that she’s on a collision course with that vision of the future. She tries to move forward and does–until she meets the man from her vision.
This was a perfect audiobook for me, with only a few main characters, all of whom have interesting personalities and relationships with one another. It’s a love story, but not in the way you expect, and I couldn’t stop listening.
I’m not much for self-help books, but I’ve loved the phrase “everything is figureoutable” since I first heard it, so I had to check out this book. It’s an interesting listen, with some definite motivating moments and stories. But it’s still mostly the title that has stuck with me and that I appreciate. When I’m stuck on problems–which are never rocket science or brain surgery–I do like to think of this phrase and that not only are things figureoutable, but that I’m capable of figuring them out. Worth a listen if you find mindset books to be helpful.
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My impression of Jessica Simpson before listening to this book was kind of vague: a little ditzy, but maybe plays into it. A talented singer. Wore those jeans that everyone teased her about (I felt sorry for her). Seems sweet enough. But I wasn’t really a fan or a critic of her.
I only grabbed this one because of so many positive reviews, and I have to say: it’s worth the listen. Jessica lays it all out, so if you want the gory details of her relationships (especially with Nick Lachey and Jon Mayer), you’ll get them. But she’s also thoughtful and reflective. She definitely grew up sheltered, which lends itself to a naiveté that often translates as “ditzy,” but she’s actually quite self-aware and charming. She’s also a surprisingly savvy business woman. Celebrity memoirs aren’t usually on my reading list, but I enjoyed this one.
Like so many others right now, I am working on stepping up my understanding of racism and what it means for me to be an ally. Oluo’s book is an excellent discussion of all the terms and concepts that are relevant to the Black Lives Matter movement: privilege, intersectionality, micro-aggressions, systemic racism, and more.
She defines and elaborates on each of these clearly and talks about their impact–across the black community and on a personal level–in ways that are easy to understand and empathize with. If you’re looking for a good entry into antiracist reading, this is an excellent choice. Fantastic listening, and one I may pick up in print to highlight and revisit regularly.
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Evvie Drake is packing her bags to leave her husband when she gets a phone call: he has died in an accident. As her small Maine community grieves their beloved doctor, she finds herself in a confusing swirl of regret, grief, and anger. Her best friend Andy offers some small financial relief in the form of a tenant for the apartment attached to her house.
Dean is a professional baseball player, recently sidelined with a case of the “yips”–unexplained inability to pitch. He needs some downtime, and an escape from the spotlight.
While the arc of this story is predictable, its execution is absolutely delightful and charming. The romance wasn’t instant, but hard-won as both Evvie and Dean worked through their own difficulties. Evvie’s platonic friendship with Andy is wonderful and realistic. I enjoyed every minute of listening to this (and Julia Whelan narrates, so you know the narration is good!).
What have you been reading this month?
It’s been so long since I read the Hunger Games that I haven’t really been that excited for the new prequel because I don’t know if I remember enough details to really enjoy it and I don’t think I want to commit to a reread of the whole Hunger Games series. Now I’m thinking that maybe I just shouldn’t even worry about it!
It definitely doesn’t require a reread, if you remember the general gist. The reviews I’ve seen are all over the place. Many people enjoyed it and found Snow more sympathetic than I did–I found him vile from start to finish. I still enjoy Collins’ world-building and I would probably read another book in this series if she wrote it. I just wish the focus in this one hadn’t been all Snow.
In Five Years is my Book Club’s pick for June. It sounds very intriguing! Can’t wait to read it and discuss. (Although I may see if I can get the audiobook after reading your review!)
We also read Evvie Drake Starts Over and enjoyed that one a lot. 🙂
I didn’t realize Ishmael Beah wrote a novel! That sounds like a great read, especially with his background! I’ve heard great things about the Jessica Simpson memoir. I may have to pick it up. I liked her as a teen but haven’t been overly interested in her since… but then raving reviews had be intrigued!
Linking my recent reads if interested