#1001Books review: The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri

Sometimes, I finish a book from the 1001 Books list and wonder why, exactly, it’s on the list at all: The Breast by Roth comes (quite unpleasantly) to mind. This is most definitely not one of those times…

The Namesake is a quiet, unassuming, deeply affecting story of an Indian family’s immigrant experience. The story begins with the birth of Gogol Ganguli to his parents, who settled in Massachusetts immediately following their arranged marriage in Calcutta. With flashes into the earlier lives of his father, Ashoke, and his mother, Ashima, we watch as Gogol grows up American in a Bengali family, somewhat ashamed of his heritage and the unusual (from American or Indian perspective) name that he was given. While undoubtably the story of an immigrant experience, The Namesake is full of universally human experiences; growing up and growing old, discovering your own identity, complicated relationships with parents involving embarrassment and the pull of loyalty, falling in love, losing loved ones… there is much for anyone to to relate to and think about.

The writing is beautiful. Lahiri has a way of taking ordinary moments and elevating them with simple turns of phrase to really draw emotion and bring her characters to life. The descriptions of some of Gogol’s experiences with his father had me in tears, while other passages had me smiling and laughing.

“They were things for which it was impossible to prepare but which one spent a lifetime looking back at, trying to accept, interpret, comprehend. Things that should never have happened, that seemed out of place and wrong, these were what prevailed, what endured, in the end.”

This is ‘just’ the story of a family… nothing out of the ordinary or historic happens to them, there is no action, adventure, or drama, and no storybook love affairs, but the human experience is captured perfectly in a fantastic work of literature that made me think and feel. The chance to discover absolutely gorgeous books like The Namesake is why I am such a voracious reader.

The audiobook was very well done, with excellent narration by Sarita Choudhury. I had lots of driving time over the weekend on a family road trip, and I very much enjoyed losing myself in Gogol’s story.

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

I finally read The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah.

As is so often the case, I’ve finished a much-hyped book long after the hype. As is even more often the case, I’ve finished a BOTM book more than a year after it came out. Whoopsie. I’m certainly not one to read new releases (other than ARCs and galleys) when they are still new, but I’ve come to terms with that.

This book was moved down my tbr list many times as I saw several reviews from Litsy friends that were less than stellar. I have read two other novels by this author (liked Night Road and absolutely loved The Nightingale). I am pleased to report I really enjoyed The Great Alone—more than I expected to.

Set mostly in the 1970s in the gorgeous, brutal Alaskan wilderness, this is the story of 13-year-old Leni, whose parents impulsively move the family to off-the-grid Alaska. Leni’s dad is a Vietnam vet who returned from his time as a POW volatile and angry. Ernt and Cora love each other recklessly, but Ernt is violent, controlling and abusive toward his wife and Leni is trapped in their mess of a relationship at the edge of the world as the dark, dangerous Alaskan winter sets in.

Hannah’s writing is beautiful, and she does a great job capturing the time and place in this story. The descriptions of the Alaskan landscapes and conditions are rich and vibrant, and the cast of characters are well-drawn and captivating. I especially love how she’s written the female characters in this story. The plot itself was nonstop entertaining, and I did not want to put this book down. Full of ups and downs, it had my emotions running the gamut.

I can see that this book is not for everyone. There are triggers galore: domestic abuse, violence, gore, hunting, predators and prey… it’s definitely not all sunshine and roses, but I laughed and smiled as much as I sobbed and raged. There are parts that seem a bit far-fetched, but all in all, a satisfying, enjoyable read.

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

ARC review: It Would be Night in Caracas by Karina Sainz Borgo

This was an intense read. It made me realize how little I know about the political situation in Venezuela, and led me to some searching to better educate myself, which I always appreciate. If a book can make me want to know more about a real-life situation, I think the author has done something great.

In the midst of the chaos and upheaval in Caracas, Adelaide loses her mother, the only real family she has ever had, and returns to their apartment and the struggle to survive on her own. She is faced with some very difficult, life-alerting decisions, and the reader gets to feel her indecision and hopelessness along with her.

The writing here is very good and the translation worked well for me. The story is stark, lonely, and at times gruesome. The blurb mentions twists and turns, but it didn’t find these twists in my reading. The present day story flows along evenly, if at times it is somewhat slow, but the flashbacks were distracting and seemed to come at awkward times. I think this is ultimately what keeps the book from being a pick for me. Still, I would be interested in reading more from this author in the future.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the opportunity to read this book prior to release in exchange for an honest review.

⭐️⭐️⭐️

Another gushing review: The Jane Austen Project by Kathleen A. Flynn

I suppose that at some point, I will have to post about a book that I didn’t enjoy, but I’ve been really fortunate to read a lot of good stuff lately. Although there are a couple of things that kept this book from being a 5-star perfect read for me, this is most definitely a review that will be filled with effusive praise and probably some mild spoilers. Consider yourself warned.

The premise: two researchers travel in time from sometime in our future all the way back to 1815. Their mission is to meet, befriend, and steal from Jane Austen herself… more specifically, to steal Jane’s personal letters and the full manuscript of The Watsons. Rachel (our narrator) is an American doctor who has traveled the world in her own time helping with humanitarian relief after disasters, and her colleague Liam is a scholar with a background in acting. In Austen’s time, they pose as a doctor and his spinster sister, just arrived in England after selling their plantation in Jamaica, and are able to insinuate themselves into the social circle of the Austens to get close to Jane herself.

I loved Rachel as a character and seeing the story through her eyes. She’s smart, witty, and independent. Her struggles in adapting her modern (actually, futuristic) thinking to life as a 19th century woman seem very real and affecting, and her developing friendship with Jane Austen and changing relationship with Liam make for fantastic reading. Rachel experiences a lot of personal growth herself over her year in Austen’s time, and I found her surprisingly easy to relate to. And not just for lines like this:

‘Is it possible that I never met the right man because he died centuries before I was born?’

Although, if I’m honest, that line could probably define me. 😆

One of my favorite components of this novel was Rachel and Liam contending with their need to complete their mission without disrupting or changing history (and their own future), while also getting to know Jane Austen as a person and wishing to find a way to prevent her early death. The Austens, mainly Henry and especially Jane, are well-drawn and complete characters themselves. I’m an unashamed Janeite, and I went from being starstruck at her appearance in the novel to enjoying her character as much as Rachel’s.

The writing is solid, although there were some word/phrase choices that stuck out a little (reference to Liam’s penis as a ‘johnson’ being the first that comes to mind – ugh)*. The ending felt a bit rushed, and some of Rachel’s defining characteristics seems to escape her all of the sudden, but I still liked the way the story closed. But, as long as we are fictionalizing dear Jane and giving her a longer, more prolific life, would it have been too much to ask to get to hear her thoughts on the Brontës? I guess I should probably write my own book, huh?

In all seriousness, I very much look forward to more books by this author. Flynn has clearly researched life in the Regency period in England, as well as the Austens themselves, which gives the novel a realistic, historically accurate feeling. The time travel elements are not explained in too much detail, but that’s just fine with me. I came for the historical fiction aspect and for Jane, not for the science-fiction piece, and I was not disappointed. I loved the references to Austen’s novels, and like most Austen fans, I would love to be able to read more of her genius writing. That’s the true fantasy element here.

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

*Apologies for my first ever use of ‘penis’ in the blog. And now the second ever. But I feel this needed to be said.

Review: Whiskey When We’re Dry by John Larison

This is an incredibly good audiobook. I say that both a person that isn’t drawn to westerns, and as a woman who is often disappointed with how male writers write female characters.

Pointing that out as this is a western, written by a white man, about an absolutely brilliant, strong, unforgettable female mixed-race character.

This book is beautifully written, heartbreaking, and does not shy away from race, gender, class or sexuality themes. Jess as a character is so well-written, believable and deep. I really wish her story could go on and on. After I finished, I looked up Larimer, and I may have a bit of an author crush now. This guy can write, and what a brilliant goal in writing this book. https://vimeo.com/331129553

The audiobook is very well done. Narrator Sophie Amoss captures the language and voice of these characters in such a way that she really brings them to life. I can’t recommend it enough for audio fans who are interested in this book.

This was also my #genrebusting book for one of my Litsy reading challenges (#booked2019), and it certainly fit the bill. It is gritty and violent and set in the old west, but such a fresh take on the old westerns. I loved everything about it!

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Review: Happy Like This by Ashley Wurzbacher

I sometimes have a hard time connecting to short stories, as I am often left wanting more. I was drawn to this collection mainly because it’s published by University of Iowa Press (my alma mater) and won the Iowa Short Fiction Award.

I am very glad that I stepped out of my comfort zone. These ten stories are all about smart women in different stages of their lives and the choices they are faced with, each on their own search for happiness and fulfillment. The writing is just gorgeous, the characters all unique and real, and I saw a little of myself in more that one of their internal explorations. There’s a story about a professional ballet dancer who has recently ended a pregnancy that just floored me. A story about a family of four each dealing with their own issues and coexisting that felt authentic. Themes of loss and new beginnings throughout, with wit and humor sprinkled throughout. I took my time with these stories and I’m really surprised with how connected I was to each one. Fantastic storytelling, and I look forward to more from this author.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for providing a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

My first two NetGalley reviews

I joined NetGalley in late July, and made the (likely usually) mistake of requesting way too many books right out of the gate. Now I’m sitting here with 23 books to review, so I promptly had to join the #Reviewathon. Whoops!

I finished both of these books a couple of weeks ago… I had big plans of blogging my galley reviews at least weekly, but that hasn’t worked out so far. I will do better!

Seneca Lake by Emily Heebner

This was a short read with a really good concept. I enjoy historical fiction set during WWII, and I liked the characters assembled here. It was interesting to have a Native American character and the author did a good job of showing some of the difficulties he would have living and working with non-native people during a time of war.

There is a lot of beautiful imagery in this book and I enjoyed reading it. However, the book starts and ends very abruptly, is very heavy on dialogue, and the characters don’t feel as fleshed out as they could have been. Overall, a pleasant way to spend my afternoon.

⭐️⭐️⭐️

The Laws of the Skies by Grègoire Courtois

This little book is brutal and horrible and savage. It’s like Lord of the Flies plus Friday the 13th (with literal 6-year-olds instead of teenagers). I’m not giving away anything that isn’t in the description: of the 12 children and 3 adults on this camping trip, none of them survive.

I can’t recommend this book to anyone I know, but it’s well-written, beyond disturbing, and I could not stop reading it. Do with that what you will, but know that this book is one giant trigger warning.

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

#1001Books audiobook review: Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset

I’m slowly making my way through the Boxall list of 1001 Books to Read Before You Die. These books (obviously) aren’t all I read, but I try to get to at least one each month.

So…this is what I have done all week.

Normally, I finish 2-3 books per week, but this week, only this one. This audiobook is long: actually 3 different novels pulled together. In print, it’s over 1000 pages, and this Audible edition is 45 hours long. It is a lot to take in, and I have a lot to say about it.

Set in Norway in the 14th century, this is the story of Kristin, who is the daughter of a wealthy noble, from childhood through her death. Rich in detail, obviously rigorously researched, and beautifully written. There were parts that literally brought me to tears, and parts where I wished I had a physical book to throw across the room.

The imagery is intense, and some of the descriptions were just poetic. The way Undset describes the moon sailing over the world… just blew me away, and I can’t even articulate why.

As a mother of 5 children, I totally connected to Kristin’s feelings towards her children and motherhood. As a single mom in my early 40s, with kids in college, high school, and elementary, I also identified with her internal struggles with regard to her changing role as she and her kids got older. Some things are timeless.

All of that said, I had moments when I wondered why I was still listening. I struggle with books about devoutly religious characters, and I had more than enough of hearing how Kristin sinned against God and her father by having the audacity to want something passionate for herself. There is lots and lots of judging going on here.

Still, Kristin is a great character because she could be anyone at anytime… struggling through life and making decisions about what she wants and what is right and proper.

Ultimately, I couldn’t stop because I was invested in Kristin’s experiences, and I’m glad I read on. I have many feelings, but this is an awesome read.

#1001books

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Dewey’s Reverse Readathon!

The day may come when courage does not fail me and I read for the whole 24 hours, but it is not this day!

It’s been a really long first-week-back-to-work after my glorious 11-day vacation, and I’m tired. Still, I’m going to read as much as I can!

My answers to the opening survey:

1) What fine part of the world are you reading from today? And what time is it where you are?

Iowa, USA. My start time was 7 pm.

2) Which book in your stack are you most looking forward to?

I’m about halfway through The Poisonwood Bible and I’m absolutely loving it, so finishing this one.

3) Which snack are you most looking forward to? 

Chocolate covered almonds. Yum.

4) Do you have a #reversereadathon plan of attack?

Just to read as much as I can, hydrate, and use my audiobooks whenever I can’t sit to read.

5) Are you doing the readathon solo or with others?

All by myself, which is exactly how I like it.

Best of luck to everyone participating!

Book and (sort-of) Film Review: The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

If I have any interest in a book that has been adapted to film, I have a fairly strict book-before-movie policy. This tends to result in me seeing adaptations long after they have come out, because my TBR is ridiculous. This week, I am participating in The Reading Rush readathon. One of the challenges is to read and watch a book to movie adaptation, and it seemed like a great time to finally get to this novel. This meant I watched the film within just a year of it’s release…practically a new release by my standards.

The Book:

This was my first experience with Sarah Waters. I had three of her books, including this one, planned for my 2019 reading, and after finishing The Little Stranger, I am very much looking forward to the other two.

The narrator of the story is Dr. Faraday, son of working class parents who sacrificed to send him to school. He’s built a respectable life as a country doctor in the English village that he came from. In the late 1940s, Faraday is called to Hundreds Hall, a local manor where his mother worked as a nursemaid before he was born, and where he had a memorable visit as a young child. Hundreds has been the home of the Ayers family for hundreds of years, but is in decline post-war, and the remaining members of the family are struggling with a changing way of life. As things get darker and stranger at the Hall, Faraday finds himself more and more entangled with the family and the house itself.

This is a creeping, atmospheric gothic novel. The writing is strong, and Waters has crafted a pervading sense of unease. With mounting tension and beautiful imagery, the revelation of the identity of the ‘little stranger’ is very subtle, but none the less jarring. Parts of the story are slow, but as a reader, I tend to appreciate a well-done slow burn. This book was a delightful experience for me, even if it got a little too scary in parts for me to continue listening after dark. (Disclaimer: I am a weenie.)

I listened to this one on audio. It’s read by one of my favorite narrators, Simon Vance, and is a very good production.

★★★★☆

The Film:

Please note that I am most definitely not a film critic. That said, I thought this movie, released in August 2018, was fairly faithful to the book. It definitely succeeded in bringing the house, the characters, and the countryside to life for me. It’s very well cast, especially with Domhnall Gleeson, who is brilliant and moody as Dr. Faraday, and Ruth Wilson, who is outstanding as Caroline Ayers. The film translated that creepy atmosphere well, and the house used for Hundreds is perfect. I really liked the movie, but everything subtle about the book is lost in the film. It seems like the filmmakers want it to be very obvious to the viewer early on who the ‘little stranger’ is, but just in case it wasn’t obvious enough, they sort of smack us upside the head with it at the end of the movie. This is not a horror movie, and it’s really not even very scary (remember, I am a weenie), but if you like gothic movies and don’t mind a slower movie, I definitely recommend this one.

As is generally the case for me, I liked the book more than the movie.

If you’ve read this novel or seen the film, I would love to hear your thoughts!