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Book reviews of new 2021 books Beautiful World Where Are You?, Wish You Were Here, Vera, Sankofa, The Four Winds, and Crying in H Mart, as well as Maya Angelou’s memoir Mom & Me & Mom.
What a fantastic month of reading this has been! After a year of leaning toward lighter reads, fall felt like a good time to go a little darker.
Several literary fiction, historical fiction, and memoirs rounded out my reading this past month. Some of these (the historical fiction in particular) I’ve been putting off reading, not really feeling up to disaster-oriented stories.
I’m so glad I revisited them, and that I also took a chance on the modern COVID novel that so many readers are hesitant about. They’re worth it.
Here’s what I’ve been reading and writing about over the past month.
Don’t miss getting started on next year’s reading challenge–go take the quiz on the first post below if you’re not sure what challenge you should do next year!
New on the Blog
Author: Sally Rooney
Source: Book of the Month
Publish Date: September 7, 2021
Alice is a young, successful Irish author, renting a house in a rural town and working on her next book after recovering from a breakdown. Her emails with her best friend, Eileen, are her lifeline. As Alice ponders whether she and Felix, a local warehouse worker, have any connection, Eileen fixates on Simon, who she has loved since childhood. As the four navigate their relationships, the two women contemplate their importance when the world at large is falling apart around them.
Rooney’s style is distinctive, though it can be offputting at times. While some may dislike her lack of quotation marks, Alice’s role as a Rooney-like figure, vilifying the spoils of her success, was more distracting to me. Nonetheless, her voice remains compelling. She writes quarter-life angst well, and I don’t doubt the sincerity of her characters’ concern about the world and their conclusion that the small dramas are what makes the world beautiful. 3.5 stars
Author: Jodi Picoult
Source: Ballantine Books via Netgalley
Publish Date: November 30, 2021
Diana and her boyfriend, Finn, are planning a dream vacation to the Galapagos, but their plans are sidelined when COVID hits New York right before they leave. Finn, a surgical resident, has to stay, but he insists Diana take the trip. She makes it to the island just as the world shuts down. Stranded for months, she gets only spotty updates about the horrors Finn and others are facing as the virus ravages thousands. On the island, she forms a bond with a teen girl, her father, and her grandmother–one that has her rethinking the entire course of her life.
I’ve seen many readers say that it’s too soon for a COVID novel, but I think Picoult’s comes at just the right time. It’s not the story you think it is, and it succeeds in bringing close so many different aspects of this virus. It’s exactly the empathy-building book we need right now and I loved it. 5 stars More info
Author: Carol Edgarian
Source: Scriber via Netgalley
Publish Date: March 2, 2021
In 1906 San Francisco, 15-year-old Vera hovers on the edges of the movers and players. The secret daughter of a notorious brothel madam named Rose who almost never sees her, Vera longs for her mother’s affection. Her sharp wit is her only hope–and is the key to her survival when the earthquake rips through the city, leaving it burning.
With her adopted sister, Pie, Vera makes her way to Rose’s mansion on the hill. Determined to find her missing mother, she assembles with a rag-tag group to determine their path forward, with both the fires and the crack-down on the city’s corruption closing in.
Vera is a singular character, vivid and memorable. In fact, Edgarton creates an entire cast of memorable characters here. Some of them are real historical figures, and my only quibble was a bit of Forrest-Gump like awkwardness in bringing Vera close to so many of them. Nonetheless, this was fast-paced, character-driven historical fiction with a unique perspective on a major event that shaped San Francisco. I loved it. 4.5 stars
In an empty NYU dorm over a holiday, a young man is drawn in by an intriguing young socialite named Claudia Castro. He is thrilled to be spending time with her, but she is puzzled and disturbed by events from several nights earlier that she can’t remember. Soon, he is helping her piece them together–and get back at the people who stole those hours.
This was an interesting take on a woman’s reaction after being violated and her choice to get justice in her own way–knowing it was unlikely any other way. With themes of power, privilege, vengeance, and justice, there are no winners here, but it’s an oddly satisfying read after so many real incidents that leave victims suffering for life and perpetrators with no consequences.
Author: Chibundu Onuzo
Publish Date: October 5, 2021
Following the death of her mother, Anna discovers a journal written by the father she never knew. As she reads, she searches for answers on her mixed-race identity that seemed to baffle her white British mother. When she discovers he is alive and living in a small (fictional) African country, she is determined to meet him. But the idealism she reads about in his youth is not what she discovers; her father is the former President of the country–possibly even a dictator.
Anna’s search for identity, family, and some truth about her father was coupled with themes of racism, colonialism, and political power. While Anna could be frustrating, her journey made for a fascinating listen. 4 stars
Author: Kristin Hannah
Publish Date: February 2, 2021
Elsa Martinelli is a farm wife in Texas in the 1930s. When drought and relentless dust storms threaten their health and livelihoods, her husband leaves. With her children’s health declining, she decides to take them to California in search of the promise of work and a better life. But when they arrive, they find they are anything but welcome, and they face a new kind of fight for their survival.
I’ve put off reading this book this year, knowing it would be bleak–and it was. The discrimination, exploitation, and kick-’em-when-they’re-down mentality toward people who are suffering was as alive in the 1930s as it is today. But Hannah also tells a riveting tale with an interesting perspective, and Julia Whelan’s narration is, as always, spot on. I highly recommend this on audio. 5 stars.
Author: Michelle Zauner
Publish Date: April 20, 2021
Crying in H Mart is singer Michelle Zauner’s intimate memoir of her mother and Korean American upbringing. Growing up, she had a complicated relationship with both her mixed-race identity and her exacting mother–both alternately embraced and rejected. After her mother’s death from cancer when Zauner was in her 20s, Zauner revisited to the rich traditions and memories of life with her mother, especially related to food (as found in H Mart).
Zauner deeply grieved her mother and struggled to find footing in her relationship with her father. Her lilting narration will resonate with anyone who has also lost and grieved a loved one. 4 stars
Author: Maya Angelou
Publish Date: April 2, 2013
Back-to-back listening to two audiobooks about daughters’ complicated relationships with their mothers wasn’t intentional, but the reflections of each woman are similar though their experiences are quite different. Angelou’s mother, Vivian Baxter, sent Maya and her brother away when Maya was just three. They were reunited ten years later, but that abandonment shaped Angelou and her later relationship with her mother. In this memoir, Angelou recounts her path from ambivalence to love and admiration. Baxter was a force and she showed up for Angelou and others in ways that changed their lives. Narrated by Angelou, this is a lovely peek into a complicated pocket of her life. 4 stars