Mini Reviews of Recent Reads: March 2019
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I’ve had a great month of reading since my February book reviews, with only one book that didn’t work for me.
A few of these are excellent new releases in 2019, so you’ll want to get them on your TBR list ASAP.
I anticipate that a couple of these will make my best books of 2019 list–it will take some heavy hitters to knock them off.
I also managed to fit in more audiobooks than usual, including some middle grade books, which I found are surprisingly delightful on audio and provide a nice balance when the print books I’m reading are a little heavier.
Middle grade audiobooks also tend to be quite short, which means I can fit more in (or I just don’t have to rush through my library holds).
Choosing audiobooks always feels a little more difficult than choosing print books.
They need to have just the right amount of lightness–but generally not be so fluffy that I lose interest–plus they need to have a great narrator and a prose that doesn’t lose me in the listening.
Anyway, in addition to the books below, you can also check out the other books I’m reading in March–more exciting new releases!
And, if you have great audiobooks to recommend, please let me know!
New 2019 Releases
Publish dates and sources are noted for new March and April releases that I received from the publisher for review. The others were from the library or my own shelf.
The Altruists: A Novel
Debut author Andrew Ridker flips the traditional inheritance tale when struggling professor Arthur Alter coaxes his children home with the aim of gaining a piece of the pie left to them by their late mother. Daughter Maggie is caught by her own ideals, working odd jobs in New York and renouncing her inheritance, while son Ethan is spending it recklessly and floundering.
Both nurse a bitterness toward their father, but curiosity and the sense of unfinished business bring them back to St. Louis. Arthur clings to his past pursuits as evidence of his own goodness, and without their mother to hold them together, all three fail to see themselves clearly.
None of these characters are very likable, but Ridker grants humanity to even the most flawed of them, while inserting searing commentary into the prose. It’s the writing here that really shines–this is some of the sharpest I’ve read in a while.
Books with unlikable characters can sometimes be hard to love, but I found myself eager to read just to catch his next razor-sharp asides. The story itself is maybe not my favorite family drama–my personal taste calls for more sympathetic characters for it to be a favorite–but I look forward to more from Andrew Ridker.
Tomorrow There Will Be Sun: A Novel
Jenna has been planning their vacation to celebrate her husband’s 50th birthday in Mexico for ages. It promises to be a much-needed trip filled with family, friends, and total luxury. But things go wrong when her husband starts taking secret phone calls, she’s annoyed with their friends, and her daughter is spending time with a boy who’s been kicked out of school for some unknown trouble.
I had hoped this would be a light, beach read with elements of family and friend stories that I tend to like, but it disappointed on that front. The escapist element of a vacation story was also missing here–maybe because the families who were vacationing together also worked together, so the daily suburban struggles just happened to be playing out on a beach in Mexico.
It was light enough, and a quick read, but I found myself irritated by Jenna throughout. Not every protagonist has to be likable, of course, but I wanted to sympathize with her struggles and she seemed to bring so many of them upon herself. Others have recommended Siracusa as a similar book that may work better.
On The Come Up
While I was among the many readers who loved Angie Thomas’ debut, The Hate U Give, I wasn’t certain that On the Come Up should go on my reading list. Did I really want to read a book about hip hop–a topic that didn’t interest me–and a sophomore effort at that (historically a disappointment for many authors)?
I tentatively started it, but immediately I couldn’t put it down. I will dare to say that On the Come Up may be even better than The Hate U Give. Teen protagonist Bri is a little less likable than Starr but Thomas makes you root for her just as much.
That need for likability is part of the point. Bri is an aspiring hip hop artist, supremely talented and the daughter of a late underground legend. She views success in hip hop as not just a dream, but an imperative; her family is on the verge of eviction, the power is off, and the fridge is empty.
But the path to success is fraught with compromise, particularly when you’re young, black, poor, and in hip hop. Bri soon finds herself pulled between her own ideals and the persona the industry wants her to adopt.
Thomas perfectly captures how exhausting and frustrating it is when the world wants you to be one way for its own money-making purposes, but also expects perfection and humility from you for its own comfort. Any sign of anger or frustration is used against you, words are twisted, intentions are misconstrued. It’s no-win, all the time.
This is an eye-opening book for many reasons, not least of which is the incredible talent and creativity of freestyle rappers. It’s a world I’m unfamiliar with, and my respect for it increased 100-fold just by reading this amazing book. Read it now.
Once Upon a River: A Novel
While a bit slow at first, I stuck with this Victorian-era novel set along the Thames and soon found myself captivated. The river itself is almost a character–a mysterious one, with an all encompassing power to give and take at will.
When a little girl is pulled from the river, seemingly dead, and comes back to life, the mystery of her survival is just the beginning. Three families claim she may belong to them–but none are sure, and the little girl isn’t saying.
Setterfield truly creates an atmosphere, one shaped by the powers of storytelling, nature, and mysticism. I don’t always like magical elements, but when it’s done well I can go along for the ride–and Once Upon a River does it well. The magic is nicely balanced by two scientifically minded characters who bring reason to all the magical speculation.
Despite this, not every question can be answered, and the people of the time did not always get full explanations for strange occurrences. Some readers may find this frustrating, but those open to a bit of mysticism will enjoy the journey.
Boy Swallows Universe: A Novel
Wow–this book delivered on the hype and met all of my high hopes for a truly excellent read. It was gritty, brutal, a little dreamy, and utterly absorbing.
Twelve-year old Eli Bell loves his messed-up family: his older brother, August, who stopped talking after a childhood trauma, and his mother and stepfather who are heroin dealers and former addicts. Eli’s best friend and babysitter, Slim Halliday, is a notorious felon, famous for his multiple escapes from prison. Things go south when the violence of his parents’ business comes to their home. His stepfather disappears and his mother ends up in jail.
Eli embarks on several missions: to save his mother, to find out what happened to his stepfather, to become a crime journalist, and to become a good man–all while taking down the man running the drug show in his seedy Australian suburb.
Fair warning: parts of this book are brutal and a little gruesome. Dalton based the story on his own youth as the child of drug dealers–Slim Halliday was a real person who was actually Dalton’s babysitter–which makes it all the more fascinating. I didn’t realize this tie to real life until I finished the book, and I immediately started Googling to learn more. If this catches the interest of other readers, it may be a candidate for a future story of the story post.
I fit in a few audiobooks this month, and the adult ones both featured quirky narrators–one real and one fictional.
Even more than reading a familiar author in print, listening to a familiar audiobook narrator, especially one who writes memoir-type essays like David Sedaris, is like catching up with an old friend (one who would be a lot, in this case, but he would also keep life interesting!).
Here are the adult audiobooks I listened to this month:
David Sedaris’s offbeat personal essays and narration have long been a favorite. He’s aware of his own quirks, and he shares them in such a delightful, self-effacing way. Most of his essay collections have been pure entertainment with a hint of sharp observation that always makes them feel smart. Calypso follows this path, but it’s darker and more poignant.
The familiar Sedaris family is aging, and with age comes all the attendant self reflection and life changes. This plays out differently for each family member and affects their relationships with one another. In this collection, most of the family feel closer to one another than they ever have before, with the exception of Tiffany, whose suicide shadows most of the essays here.
Sedaris’ writings on Tiffany’s suicide, as well as aging, politics, addiction, and regret, make this essay collection darker and more reflective than many of his previous. He is still dryly funny, and the ability to prompt regular laughter while writing about such serious topics is a particular talent.
Sedaris has been writing about his family for so long that they may start to seem like characters, frozen in time on the pages, rather than real people for whom the years are passing. As Sedaris faces aging–both his own and that of his family–so too do his long-time fans, who know them only through the bits and pieces he chooses to share. I anticipate an ongoing change in tone in the coming years, but I will continue to read and listen for as long as Sedaris is writing.
Chemistry: A novel
Usually, a fiction audiobook that is light on plot and heavy on reflective musings would not work very well for me. That describes Chemistry, and somehow it worked. The unnamed narrator (a literary pet-peeve of mine that didn’t bother me here) is a chemistry PhD student whose boyfriend has just proposed to her. Instead of excitement, she feels only ambivalence: toward the proposal, her degree program and career path, and the overachieving life she’s been pushed to chase by her Chinese parents.
What makes her brand of self-reflection so refreshing is its utter artlessness. There’s no fluff here; she is a scientist, and her systematic ways of deconstructing life and the events around her are by turns charming, observant, and arresting. While I sometimes found my mind wandering, as her musings did, the sheer order of them was soothing and a pleasure to listen to.
Middle Grade Audiobooks
It’s been a while since I read any middle grade books, but I’m on the lookout for some great new ones–particularly since my daughter and I have finished reading all of the Harry Potter books aloud.
Listening to middle grade on audio was wonderful!
The books are short and easy to follow, and with middle grade, it’s really more about a great story than complicated prose.
Not that middle grade books don’t have great writing, but it tends to be a bit simpler than adult books and more suited to listening (for me).
Amal is a young Pakistani girl, and she is happy. She loves school, she enjoys her family and helping out at home, and she has high hopes for her future as a teacher. School is put on hold when she has to stay home to help out after the birth of a new baby, but the pause is meant to be temporary. It becomes more permanent when, after a brief flare of temper directed at the wrong man in the market, Amal is pressed into servitude at the home of her village’s corrupt landlord to pay off her debt.
Hopeless, helpless, and lonely, Amal sees the future she dreamed of slipping away. Life in the Khan house is fearful and filled with small deceits, but Amal also finds friendship in some of the others who work there. But as she learns more about the Khans, she must make difficult decisions that could have far-reaching affects on herself, her new friends, and all of the people in her village.
This was such a wonderful middle grade book, introducing young readers to the life of a girl in Pakistan, with all its hopes and limitations. While Amal doesn’t face the same dangers as Malala Youszafzai (who the author briefly discusses in a lovely note at the end), she still has to learn to stand up for herself and others, and find her own bravery, at a young age.
Louisiana’s Way Home
When young Louisiana Elefante’s granny hustles her out the door in the middle of the night, she doesn’t initially realize her granny’s intentions: to leave Florida and never return. They make it as far as a small Georgia town before they are sidelined by Granny’s debilitating toothache. While Granny recovers after having all her teeth pulled, Louisiana schemes to return home and tries to stay above the suspicions of the townspeople.
But charming Louisiana is soon a part of the lives of the people she meets, and they too have worked their way into her heart. When she learns some devastating news about her past, she must determine: what defines a person? A family? A home?
Southern charm abounds in this book, made all the better by the audio narration. Quirky characters and a heartfelt story make Louisiana’s Way Home a book that both kids and adults will enjoy. This is the sequel to Raymie Nightingale, which I haven’t read, but I had no problem reading this as a stand-alone.
Hm it sounds like my initial reaction to Chemistry is the same as yours. I do enjoy structured, rational thinking though so it might be worth a shot! This the first I’ve heard of this one, so thanks for sharing!
Yeah, I wouldn’t say that Chemistry is for everyone. I do wonder what I would have thought if I’d read it instead of listened. I’ll be interested to hear what you think if you try it.
I’m currently struggling to read THE THIRTEENTH TALE, which was Setterfield’s first novel. I know it’s a HUGE hit with so many people, but….I just am not getting into it. :-\ I really wanted to read it and then read ONCE UPON A RIVER, but I’m wondering if her style (more “literary fiction”??) is just not one I prefer since I also had trouble getting into THE LITTLE STRANGER by Sarah Waters and MELMOTH by Sarah Perry, both of which I would say are written in a similar style. Good to know that you found ONCE UPON A RIVER a little slow to start, though. If I decide to try it, I know to not expect fireworks from the very beginning. 🙂