Mini-Reviews of Recent Reads: August 2018
This post may include affiliate links. That means if you click and make a purchase, I may earn a small commission. Please see Disclosures for more information.
After a bit of a slump last month, my summer reading has picked up with a couple of top-notch books, plus some non-fiction I’ve been meaning to get to and a light, fluffy YA novel for good measure.
I’m in the thick of some excellent reads right now and have a couple coming up that other readers have raved about. Late summer and fall reading is definitely looking promising!
For now, here’s what I’ve been reading since July’s update.
I’m linking up with Modern Mrs. Darcy for Quick Lit.
Summer Reading Reviews
The Great Believers
Set in two time periods, the first in 1980s Chicago and the second in 2015 Paris, The Great Believers throws readers into the thick of–and the aftermath of–the 1980s AIDS crisis.More info →
Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear
In Big Magic, author Elizabeth Gilbert (of Eat, Pray, Love fame) shares reflections and lessons on living a creative life. While she can get a little woo-woo for my taste, overall I enjoyed her perspective on creativity. Gilbert strives to keep a positive attitude toward the process, craft, and work of a creative life, rejecting the notion that creatives must be tortured souls who suffer for their art. I'm not sure I fully buy into her magical notions of creative ideas as living things, but there's certainly no harm in the visualization. I see more value in it that in the self-flagellation that often occurs when artists struggle to bring something to life. Overall, I love her sense of gratitude for the opportunity to create, and I could see myself revisiting this if I ever find myself despairing over my own creative efforts.More info →
Us Against You
Us Against You brings us back to Beartown, the town where Backman's previous novel of the same name is set. Beartown is a hockey town. Hockey means everything, but it also means different things to the various residents of Beartown: the past, the future, identity, escape, belonging. Now, in the aftermath of a rape committed by its star player and a defection by the majority of the team to neighboring Hed, it also means divisiveness. And violence.
As the rivalry grows more intense, Beartown fights to keep its team alive and the face-offs happen both on and off the ice.
While some stories have an easy villain, this isn't one of them. While Backman builds the tension, he also shows the humanity behind every person involved. I'm a sucker for this type of thing, so it worked for me--I love getting small insights into tertiary characters.
Even so, there were moments where the "showing the good side" of every character felt a little overdone. This and the many nameless characters who nonetheless kept showing up (which felt like it conflicted with Backman's impulse to give stories to side characters) were my only complaints about Us Against You.
Beartown is not a place where I would want to live, but Backman infuses it with such soul that I will always want to visit. If he returns to it, so will I.More info →
Swing Time reminded me a bit of My Brilliant Friend, with two young girls growing up together in a poor neighborhood. Each dreams of greatness and is differently talented, but one forever seems to be straining to catch up. Their relationship falls square into "frenemy" territory, especially as they grow up and lives grow more complicated.
While this premise is intriguing, the book itself confused me. It strayed far from this original setup, so one of the girls, Tracey, didn't loom as large as it seemed she was supposed to. She felt like more of a shadow figure to me, occasionally popping up but never coming into focus. Lending to this inability to settle into the story was a device that I'm learning bothers me as a reader: the unnamed narrator.
While it seems the device was meant to demonstrate the narrator's inability to forge her own identity, first in Tracey's shadow, and then in Amy's--a famous singer who employs her in adulthood--the narrator didn't feel any more unfocused than most 20-somethings, and she felt worthy of a name.
I'd love to hear from someone who loved this book, because it felt scattered to me and I think I just didn't get it.More info →
P.S. I Still Love You (To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before)
This follow-up to the young adult novel To All the Boys I've Loved Before is just as sweet and charming as the first, though I found the overall plot a little less interesting (which boy will she choose?). The real charmer here is Lara Jean herself, who is unfailingly well-meaning and sometimes head-scratchingly innocent. Her devotion to her family is refreshing for a YA novel.
I don't love these books in the way that many readers do, but I will probably pick up the third in the series, and watch the Netflix adaptation. They are sweet, light, and uncomplicated, which is sometimes just what a reader needs.More info →
The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit
For 27 years, Christopher Knight lived in the woods of Maine without coming into contact with another person. In 1986, at age 20, he drove into the woods and left his car behind for a life of seclusion. He broke into nearby homes and a summer camp for supplies, taking only what he needed to survive. These break-ins made him a legend--elusive, never violent, but unsettling all the same.
He was finally caught during one of his burglaries, and author Michael Finkel was fascinated by the story of the last true hermit. He connected with Knight through letters and interviews. Though Knight wanted no fame and had kept no record of his life of solitude, his story was slowly revealed.
Finkel tells the story of a man with an extreme desire for isolation and how he managed to elude authorities and the intrusion of the outside world for so many years. Knight is a fascinating person, resourceful and singularly focused. I listened to this on audio and it was riveting.More info →
Have you read any of these? What have you been reading lately?
So glad you loved The Great Believers and Us Against You…and Stranger in the Woods on audio! I loved all three!
All were great books to pull me out of my slump. So glad I fit in The Great Believers, especially!
I loved Big Magic and Stranger in the Woods! Us against You was a miss for me. If you haven’t listened to Gilbert’s Big Magic lessons podcast give it a try, it’s so good!
Thanks, Renee–I’ll have to check it out!
Stranger in the Woods sounds fascinating to me, and reminds me a bit from this summary of Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer. Have you read that one?
I know what you mean about Us Against You when it comes to trying maybe a little *too* hard to showcase the good and bad in everyone. It was like he tried so hard to make EVERY character well-rounded, but it started to get a little out of hand. Still an interesting read though, even if I didn’t like it as much as the first.
Curious to see what you’ll think of the 3rd one of the Jenny Han series!
I haven’t read Into the Wild, but my husband and I rewatched the movie recently. For some reason, I don’t usually pick up a book after I’ve seen the movie (though I love to watch movies after I read the book). Is it worth the read?
I’m so glad you liked The Great Believers. I compared it to the same books as you. It was one of those books you can’t stop reading, but hate to finish. I also listened to Stranger in the Woods and thought it was amazing. A very odd guy indeed! I didn’t mind all the side characters in Us Against You, but can see why that might get old to others. Nice reviews!
Thanks, Susie! I really loved The Great Believers. And it’s not that I minded the side characters so much in Us Against You but more that so many of them didn’t get names, while others did. Kira’s colleague never got a name, nor did two of the politicians who were mentioned throughout, but some of the Pack were named. Maybe Backman had reasons for naming some and not others, but I didn’t crack the code. Also, I think I was sensitive to nameless characters after Swing Time 🙂
Ohhhh I’ve been meaning to read Big Magic for YEARS, thank you for the reminder to get on to it 😉 it sounds like you’re having such a great month, keep it up!!
I liked Big Magic, but like you the magic part got to be a bit much for me. Still, I could see referring to it again if I were exploring my creativity.
Stranger in the Woods was such a conflicting book! On the one hand, I felt terrible for this man who just wanted to live in isolation on his own, but on the other, he really wasn’t. He was stealing from other people. It made me feel sad all the way around.