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.

Cribsheet: A Data-driven Guide to Better, More Relaxed Parenting…

I’ve tried several times to start reading books on pregnancy, parenting, or child development, and haven’t stuck with any of them. Not because I know everything (in fact, I’m learning every day how little I know about parenting), but because most of the books stress me out. Making decisions about your child is hard – the information seems endless and the stakes are high.

A colleague of my husband’s gifted him Emily Oster’s Cribsheet, and I picked it up one night at 3 a.m., because it was the only book lying close enough to reach while nursing my 2-week old. And in two pages I was hooked. Because in this book, Oster isn’t offering solutions or prophesizing catastrophic results for you and your child if you stray from her advice. Rather, from the beginning, Oster promises only to present the data and some helpful considerations as you make your own parenting decisions.

So when the Washington Post called this book “freeing” for parents, I had to agree. Oster presents the information you need to make informed decisions, without all the fear-mongering or judgement of so many other parenting books. I’d highly recommend this one for new or soon-to-be parents.

And if you like cribsheet, you might like to know that Oster also has two other books for parents, including Expecting Better and The Family Firm. The later of these is on my TBR list now – have you read it? What did you think?

Review: Braiding Sweetgrass

Braiding Sweetgrass, the latest from plant biologist and professor Robin Wall Kimmerer, has been on bestseller lists (and my personal TBR pile) for quite some time. And now I understand why: this book really has something for everyone.

Not since “Boys in a Boat” have I read a book where, each time I talk to someone about it, I end up talking about something different. My nerdy cousin loved Kimmerer’s descriptions of plant biology. My friend loved the relatable, simple anecdotes from Kimmerer’s life that she uses to communicate critical messages. Environmentalists and activists are using this book to spread awareness about the history of land abuse that Kimmerer outlines in the later chapters. And me? Well I loved all of that, but was especially drawn to Kimmerer’s detailing of traditional Native American cultural beliefs and practices.

And what’s really great about this book is that, even if all those things aren’t for you, Kimmerer’s writing makes it easy and interesting to learn about all these things (and more). Most importantly, I think she has written a book that simultaneously provides a dire warning and a hopeful how-to guide for getting back to a healthy relationship between humans and nature, which is something we desperately need.

Did you read it? Let me know what YOU loved about the book in the comments below!

Ready to read it? Get the book from an independent publisher by going to my affiliate bookstore at bookshop.org!

Hamnet – To Read or Not To Read?

Definitely “To Read.” There really is no question on this one. Maggie O’Farrell has done such a brilliant job in Hamnet of reimagining the life of Shakespeare and his family. I dove into this one because, as a book nerd, I was excited at the idea of a historical fiction novel based on Shakespeare, but to be honest this book is so well written, and the narrative so enticing, that I wouldn’t have been able to put it down even if it had no historical context or connection to anything. It’s just an incredible story.

However, knowing that this is a historical novel based loosely on Shakespeare added a whole extra layer of intrigue when reading Hamnet. Though it is entirely a work of fiction, I still felt like O’Farrell developed the characters in such a way that gave dignity and life to historical figures who, especially in the cases of Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet, and his wife, Agnes, have largely been criticized or ignored. I really enjoyed listening to Maggie O’Farrell speak to this in the New York Times Book Review Podcast, and would highly encourage anyone who finishes the book to check out the interview, to better understand O’Farrell’s reasons for making the decisions she did when writing Hamnet.

This is probably my favorite book of the year so far, so I really hope you’ll read it. When you do, be sure to let me know what you think in the comments section below!

Related Links

Use my bookshop page to find the book from an independent bookstore or publisher HERE

Listen to the New York Book Review Review Podcast with Maggie O’Farrell HERE

Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist

The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho, is one of those books you’ve seen a million times – in airport bookstores, on the subway, on your own shelves… At least, that’s how it seemed to me and yet, it took me until now to finally get around to reading it. Naturally, my expectations were high because of the book’s overwhelming popularity and longevity.

But to be honest, I was a little bit disappointed with this read. I anticipated a philosophical book with insightful or enlightening messages. And while certainly the book feels philosophical throughout, it’s primary message seems to be nothing more than the age-old “listen to your heart” (along with a few secondary messages that feel equally uninspired for me, like “follow your dreams”, “money isn’t everything”, and “love conquers all”).

I will say that I appreciated the accessibility of the language and the natural flow of the story, which combine to make the narrative fable-like in tone. It occurs to me that this might just be a book that found me at the wrong time in my life or in my reading journey, and I am at least glad that it seems to have resonated with so many readers who found it more inspiring than I.

What did you think of The Alchemist? Am I totally missing something? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

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