The Help, by Kathryn Stockett

I think I keep saying this but: I’ve been meaning to pull this book off my shelf for quite some time (and of course, to watch the film adaptation afterwards). Well, I finally got around to it, and I see why so many people have been captivated by this story: Stockett keeps the reader turning pages with a great plot, great writing, interesting characters, and so much tension.

This is a story about the struggle for equality, the courage it takes to stand up for what’s write in the face of inequality, and more than anything, it’s about elevating Black voices and Black stories. Of course, it’s a little hard to ignore that this is a story by a white writer, and that the hero protagonist is white, so in that sense the central theme of elevating Black voices seems a little… ironic. Even a bit problematic. Nevertheless, I think Stockett has written a great novel with a powerful message at it’s core.

I should probably add that, just after finishing the novel, I watched the film adaptation. As always, the book is better, and some things were left out or underdeveloped in the film, but overall I enjoyed it.

A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara

I’d heard this was a beautiful, sad story before I started it, and that was about all I knew. But both words – beautiful, sad – are woefully inadequate to describe this novel. This is a story about the power of friendship, but the characters in this novel overcome every kind of obstacle and injustice: addiction, sexual abuse, physical abuse, depression, self-doubt, poverty, grief, and more…. And yet, the story of friendship is really what wins out in the end, and I think that is such a testament to Yanagihara’s storytelling ability. She builds characters that are so convincing and engaging that the reader not only roots for them, but cares for them, and at a very minimum wants to know what happens to them. These are characters I will never forget – friendships I will never forget.

I recently listened to an interview with Hanya Yanagihara discussing this book and was surprised at the professional and somewhat distanced tone she used when speaking of this novel, which is so full of emotion that I was often brought to tears (and left utterly speechless when my husband asked what was wrong). That is the kind of writing I love, and yet, I could not wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone. There is too much pain in this story, too much heartbreak, too many trigger warnings.

If you’ve read this one, I would love to hear from you. I could talk about it for days. If you haven’t read it, proceed with caution…it’s heavy. Worth it, but very heavy.

The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood


I’ve been meaning to read this one for a very long time – in fact, I’ve been meaning to read anything by Margaret Atwood for a very long time, and I finally got around to The Handmaid’s Tale this month. So now, at long last, I understand what all the hype is about.

I had really high expectations coming into this one, and for the most part, Atwood lived up to them. She does an incredible job of building a dystopian society that is somehow both near and far from the one we live in today – a feat that is both impressive and terrifying. (If you’re wondering how that something can be both near and far, consider one huge theme of the book: women’s rights. It’s hard to imagine a near future in which women can’t own property or have autonomy over their own bodies, and yet look at a few of the recent news stories… Texas abortion law… Britney Spears…). Within this dystopia, Atwood explores so many complex themes in addition to woman’s rights: the nature of memory, the importance of language and text, the role of government in society, and so many more.

The only place where I was just a little bit let down was that I felt like the final chapter, which is formatted as a dissertation of sorts on the society that the book depicts, seems to be used as a sort of way to explain questions that are unclear throughout the book. I was a little disappointed that they couldn’t be explained earlier or as part of the narrative, but that’s me getting picky…

Overall, I would recommend this to a lot of folks I know, and you can bet I’ll be listening to a lot of podcasts and book talks about this one. And of course, there is a Netflix series and a sequel (The Testaments) that I’ll be diving into soon as well!

Piranesi, by Susanna Clarke

I haven’t been so captivated by a book since before my daughter was born (and that was over 4 months ago!). I simply couldn’t put Piranesi, by Susanna Clarke, down. Firstly, it’s incredibly unique: it blends our complex, busy, present world with a fantastical, simple, barren one. But if “Fantasy” is a no-go for you, this one is still worth a go – trust me on that. In my opinion, this book could just as easily be categorized as a psychological thriller, mystery, literary fiction, or sci-fi. It really has a little of everything.

Most importantly, though there are just two characters for much of the book, Clarke is somehow able to keep Piranesi’s voice interesting and the novel’s action moving quickly, even in a world where nothing much happens beyond the tides coming and going. It’s truly remarkable.

But beyond just the gripping plot and entrancing voice, there is so much happening in this novel on a thematic level. It asks huge questions of the reader: what happens when we’re left alone? What does it mean to be in touch with one’s surroundings? These questions (and so many others) are, perhaps, even more intriguing and insightful given our recent experiences during a global pandemic – sometimes Piranesi’s experiences hit really close to home.

With so many ethical, philosophical, and thematic overtones, I found it especially helpful after finishing this one to listen in on a few podcasts with the author. In particular, I’d recommend this discussion with Susanna Clarke, from Vox FM (I listened on Spotify, so you can find it there as well!).

10 for 10 I recommend this one to just about anyone.

The Great Offshore Grounds, by Vanessa Veselka

The Great Offshore Grounds, by Vanessa Veselka, follows four members of an unlikely family through tragedy, triumph, and self-discovery. From the outset, this story pulls you in with it’s sass. It’s central characters are two sisters, Cheyenne and Livy, both with strong personalities but not much else – no money, no promising careers, and no close relationships. I was intrigued by both from the start.

Admittedly, I was a little skeptical as I started reading this novel. Cheyenne and Livy set out across the country to find the woman that birthed just one of them – and this is where things felt a little shaky for me (there’s quite a few unanswered questions I have about this point in the plot). From there, the narrative follows these two sisters as they butt heads, make mistakes, travel the country, and figure out their own values. It’s a fun ride, with a lot of misadventure, tragedy, and joy along the way, and gradually the two women come to value their relationship with eachother, their mother and loved ones.

Another thing I couldn’t help but love was the setting in this novel – it’s mostly set in the Pacific Northwest and Veselka does an incredible job of capturing the landscape, beauty, and vibes of my hometown. Woot! Woot!

Get the book HERE!

Win Me Something, by Kyle Lucia Wu

This forthcoming, debut novel from Kyle Lucia Wu recounts the experience of a young woman who becomes a live-in nanny for a wealthy New York family. For me, the protagonist of Win Me Something, Willa Chen, feels like a familiar character – someone we’ve all known. After graduating college she’s left without a clear direction in either her professional or personal life. She ends up a nanny by chance, and her relationships develop throughout the narrative more out of convenience versus intention. She reflects at length about her childhood and family relations, but her reflections don’t seem to have a significant impact on her decisions or progress – she struggles to find her place with her “hired” family as much as she did with her own.

While I found the story and characters familiar and even relatable at times, I was also a little bit disappointed in them. There wasn’t anything especially surprising or gripping about their development – it felt hard to root for the protagonist because she barely rooted for herself. And while there are some meaningful comments on class and race throughout this debut, they didn’t take up quite as much space as I would have liked.

This is an easy, modern read with a familiar caste of characters and relatable struggle, but all told it left me somewhat underwhelmed.

The Granta Book of the Irish Short Story

I’ve had this collection on my shelf for several years and finally picked it up in September. Like most of the Irish literature I’ve read, these stories were dense, subtle, and often very contextual. More than once, I had to look up some local slang that I hadn’t come across before, research a little bit of Irish politics or history, or even search for an analysis of a story whose message was so subtle. On one hand, this makes for a little bit of a tedious read, but, if you’re willing to do the work, it’s very rewarding. I say “very rewarding” for two reasons.

First, I think these are the kind of stories that can make you a better reader. You have to pay close attention and work toward understanding. You have to value the craft of setting, tone, plot, and dialogue to truly appreciate how skilled some of these writers are.

Secondly, doing the work to read these stories is rewarding because, well, they’re good stories! Most are gloomy, eerie, or even sad. But several of them have stuck with me, even just for an image or ambiance that they captured particularly well. I’ve found myself constantly thinking back to them when something (anything! the weather, a fence post, a bicycle) reminds me of a scene from one of these stories.

I’m sad to say that this collection is pretty hard to come by now, so I can’t link to it in my Bookshop page, but it’s still available in select locations and on Amazon.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, by Olga Tokarczuk

It’s been a long time since I was so intrigued by a narrator, or even by a protagonist. In Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, Tokarczuk delivers a character that is incredibly complex; she is serious but funny, odd but convincing, unstable but proactive. Even without the plot that drives this novel forward, I think I would have kept reading just to observe her.

That said, there is a plot, and it’s the classic whodunit murder mystery, set in a tiny Polish village. But while I often think of murder mysteries as being pure entertainment, this novel was much, much more. Tokarczuk elevates this plot to grapple with some really big topics: borders, motherhood, death, justice, mental health, art, and so much more. I picked this one up because it’s the @fictionmatters book club pick of the month, and I just can’t wait to discuss some of these big themes.

I have to admit, before starting this one, I was a little skeptical, having read Tokarczuk’s prize-winning story collection, Flights, and not absolutely loving it. But now that I’ve so thoroughly enjoyed Drive Your Plow…, I may need to revisit Flights (admittedly I was much younger and I’m a different reader now). I’ll definitely be doing that soon…

Book Review: Jazz, by Toni Morrison

If you’ve been following along, you know by now that I’m a huge Toni Morrison fan, and I’ve slowly been making my way through all of her novels. Jazz is the latest on the list and, as always, Toni Morrison creates some very complex and compelling characters in this novel – characters you simultaneously criticize and sympathize with, characters that feel like real people. And, also typical of Toni Morrison, this novel touches on some very big topics: race, class, love, trust, and forgiveness, to name a few.

However, I have to admit that this is probably my least favorite Morrison novel so far. Though at times I was thoroughly entertained and couldn’t put the book down, there were other times when the writing felt slow and meandering. Basically, in terms of plot, I didn’t find this one quite as compelling as books such as Beloved or Sula. So, I might not recommend starting with this Morrison novel if you’re new to her work.

Book Review: ‘The Sympathizer’

After hearing Viet Thanh Nguyen speak at a conference last Spring, I decided I needed to bump his Pulitzer Prize The Sympathizer to the top of my TBR pile. Best decision I’ve made in a long time. And yet…

This isn’t a book I would recommend outright to many readers, because you don’t have to be a ‘sensitive’ reader in order to be devastated by this novel. As you might expect in a book about war and exile, there are so many scenes that are incredibly violent, graphic, crude, and/or disturbing. Nothing in this book is going to give a reader sweet dreams.

But with that disclaimer complete, I’ll say that this book is irresistible. Nguyen’s voice is captivating and sharp, so that even uneventful scenes or extensive monologues will put the reader on edge. I’m not typically one to read war novels or books that are heavy on political theory or philosophizing, but it was that voice that made both tolerable here. Even while reading brief passages about Communist ideology or American policy in Vietnam, I felt as though I was constantly bracing myself for something bad to happen to the characters in the book, which is the ultimate sign of a good thriller. Nguyen’s ability to balance history, philosophy, and politics with character and plot development is incredible. So that no matter what you’re looking for, you get it – almost without realizing it.

Finally, this book is so timely right now, given the United States’ recent decision to pull out of Afghanistan and the events that have unfolded in Kabul since. Some of the scenes I read in Nguyen’s book have uncanny parallels to those I’m seeing in the news, and the implications of American guilt are heavy in both. Nguyen recently wrote an excellent piece in the New York Times discussing these parallels, which I’d highly recommend.

The sequel to The Sympathizer is called The Committed, and I just can’t wait to get my hands on that one.

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