Mini Reviews of Recent Reads – October 2020
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It’s time for fall reading with new book reviews for October 2020. This month’s reviews include both print and audiobooks of recent releases The Death of Vivek Oji, Everything Here is Under Control, The Evening and the Morning, Leave the World Behind, The Last Story of Mina Lee, and We Dream of Space.
It’s been another great month of reading, and dare I say, reading at least is starting to feel a little more normal.
After spending most of my reading time on audiobooks since the start of the pandemic, it’s finally switched back to more print books–including a hefty historical fiction novel.
It’s a relief to have one small thing feel semi-normal, because of course, nothing else is. The kids are back in school a couple days a week but still doing lots of virtual learning. COVID dominates everything, when the election doesn’t.
And in my neck of the woods, we are often confined inside as smoke chokes the air, the fires get closer, and it truly looks apocalyptic outside (alternating with lovely blue sky days, depending on how the wind blows).
It’s all just 2020, and we’re all dealing with the same common big things, plus our individual things as well. I hope that whatever dominates your thoughts and anxieties day-to-day, you’re finding some comfort somewhere. Maybe books? Here are a few:
The Death of Vivek Oji
Author: Akwaeke Emezi
Source: Book of the Month
Publish Date: August 4, 2020
In a Nigerian town, a mother opens the door and finds the body of her son. As she grieves his death, she tries to understand the person Vivek was and find out how he was killed. A gentle soul, Vivek struggles with identity and finding a place in the world. A close relationship with some girls in the town and especially with Vivek’s cousin Osita finally brings Vivek to a greater sense of self–only to have it end in tragedy. Told from multiple perspectives, the story reconstructs the events leading to Vivek’s death and the heartbreaking struggle for self-acceptance in a world that is determined to deny it. Eye-opening and worth reading.
This is an #ownvoices novel by Akwaeke Emezi, a non-binary trans writer. Their novel Freshwater was longlisted for the Women’s Prize in 2019, but they declined to submit The Death of Vivek Oji after the committee requested information on Emezi’s “sex as defined by law,” citing the prize’s exclusion of non-binary and gender-fluid authors.
Everything Here Is Under Control
Author: Emily Adrian
Source: Blackstone Publishing via Edelweiss
Publish Date: July 28, 2020
Amanda is struggling with new motherhood. Exhausted and in conflict with her partner, she drives with her baby from New York to her hometown in Ohio, landing on the door of her former best friend, Carrie.
Carrie, who remained in Ohio when she had a baby in high school, is wary, but she lets Amanda stay with her. As Amanda reflects on the ups and downs and indignities of giving birth and new motherhood, the two untangle the past that led to their estrangement.
This book examined both the raw realities of early motherhood and the complexities of female friendship. Mothers in particular will relate, and anyone who likes friendship stories might enjoy this.
The Evening and the Morning
Author: Ken Follett
Source: Viking via Edelweiss
Publish Date: September 15, 2020
I am an unabashed fan of Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth series and have been excited for this prequel. The Evening and the Morning takes us back to 997 at the end of the Dark Ages. Noble families continue to exploit their tenants in and around Shiring, and Kingsbridge doesn’t yet exist. Edgar and his family are forced to move to a small hamlet when Vikings destroy their shipbuilding business and kill his father. There they encounter a learned monk and a Norman noblewoman in conflict with a conniving bishop.
I love this series for the soapy historical drama, the evil villains, and the peek into the lives of the nobles and peasants of centuries ago. Follett makes no effort to avoid modern language in his tellings or dialogue. While this brings some inauthenticity to the stories, it also makes them compulsively readable.
None of the additional books have quite lived up to the original Pillars, and this one is a bit slow at times, but it’s still a good escapist read for right now.
Leave the World Behind
Author: Rumaan Alam
Source: HarperCollins Publishers via NetGalley
Publish Date: October 6, 2020
Amanda and Clay, a white couple, have just started a relaxing vacation in the Hamptons with their teen son and daughter when there is a knock at the door. G.H. and Ruth, a black couple who say they are the owners of the home, have arrived from New York. All they know is there has been a blackout. They are worried, and speculating, and could they stay in the home while they figure out what’s happening?
The couples eye one another with suspicion, forced to trust while cut off from the world. Phones, internet, and television don’t work. Large booms and strange animal behavior unnerve them. What does one do, while still safe but suspecting that the world is ending?
This deeply unsettling book is perfect for any reader who is leaning into disaster lit during the pandemic. If your anxiety is high–skip it for now. I fall somewhere in between; plenty of anxiety, but I couldn’t look away from this book. The tension, language, and interweaving of race and class commentary are subtle and masterful.
The Last Story of Mina Lee
Author: Nancy Jooyoun Kim
Publish Date: September 1, 2020
When Margot can’t get ahold of her mother, Mina, in Los Angeles, she travels from Seattle and finds her mother dead in her apartment. Determined to find out what happened, Margot begins digging in Mina’s past, from her immigration from Korea to her life as a single, undocumented mother, to the mystery of Margot’s father. As Margot learns more, long-held resentments surface for resolution.
Told in alternating narratives (with Mina’s story being the most compelling), this is an intriguing mother/daughter story. I might have liked it better in print; the audiobook narration was unfortunately a little robotic for my liking.
We Dream of Space
Author: Erin Entrada Kelly
Publish Date: May 5, 2020
Siblings Cash, Fitch, and Bird are each wrestling with their own struggles. Cash is trying to make sure he doesn’t fail seventh grade again. Fitch fights his own anger. And Bird wants only to go to space–if only to escape the world while carving her place in it. In addition to their individual struggles, their volatile home life weighs heavy on each of them.
Their teacher, Ms. Solonga, pushes her students to figuratively put themselves on the upcoming Challenger launch with a class simulation. She herself applied for the Teacher in Space program, and her enthusiasm wasn’t dimmed by not winning the spot. Bird latches on to the dream, idolizing astronaut Judith Resnick and dreaming of the day she would be on the shuttle. And then the worst happens.
I was a little young to remember much about the Challenger explosion, but this lovely book brought me back to the 80s, to wonderful teachers (I later had a high school teacher who had also applied for Teacher in Space, and who did an excellent space simulation project with us), and to big childhood dreams. A wonderful audiobook listen.
How did you like or what did you think of The Death of Vivek?
I liked it–it was very sad, but wonderfully told.
Wow, you had some really good reads recently! I want to get to the Akwaeke Emezi book soon. I’ve only read Pet so far and LOVED it.
I started The Last Story of Mina Lee on audio but ended up finished it in print. I enjoyed the print version much more for the reason you mentioned. I appreciate your thoughts on Leave the World Behind. I was not a fan of Rich and Pretty and have since avoided Rumaan Alam, but after what you’ve written (and others), I may consider giving this book a try.