REVIEW – Saving Ruby King by Catherine Adel West

Saving Ruby King is a heavy book for a debut, and Catherine Adel West pulls it off seamlessly. When Ruby King’s mother is shot and killed, we follow Ruby, her best friend Layla, and both of their (very different) fathers.

Through flashbacks and present day, we learn a number of long-buried secrets that have plagued both families (some for decades). What stood out most to me throughout the story was how the cycle of abuse impacts multiple generations of one family, how the abused can become abusers themselves, and how that can ripple throughout an entire community.

Content warning: domestic abuse, self-harm, brief mention of sexual abuse.

REVIEW – Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld

I had such high hopes for this book (despite the mixed reviews I was seeing). What would have happened if Hillary never married Bill? According to this book, Hillary’s life still would have pretty much revolved around Bill Clinton anyway.

What worked in Sittenfeld’s American Wife is exactly why this one fell flat for me. American Wife is based on real people, but the characters themselves are fictional. You know it’s about “that First Lady” but they have different names, slightly different histories and it’s all very much “based on” without being an attempt to rewrite history. Maybe explicitly naming Hillary was the point, here. Maybe this book would not have captured attention without it.

What should have been a book championing Hillary’s accomplishments (and those that “could have been” in an alternate universe) really just becomes a book where Hillary’s life is propelled and hindered by the men around her. And the inclusion of the-orange-one-who-must-not-be-named and the subsequent plot around THAT character was just unforgivable.

If you’re looking for an empowering book about Hillary, skip this one and read something by the woman herself.

REVIEW – All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson

“We are not as different as you think, and all our stories matter and deserve to be celebrated and told.”

All Boys Aren’t Blue is a deeply personal memoir that should be required reading. George Johnson just has an impeccable way with words – we follow their story from childhood to high school to college and beyond. Johnson and I are around the same age, and I loved some of their stories about growing up – it was so easy for me to picture those moments in time.

“Symbolism gives folks hope. But I’ve come to learn that symbolism is a threat to actual change – it’s a chance for those in power to say, “Look how far you’ve come” rather than admitting, “Look how long we’ve stopped you from getting here.””

Johnson touches on the importance of representation – from teachers to politicians alike. A lot of Black kids (and kids of all races) don’t have Black teachers. (I mean, think about it – when did you have your first Black teacher? I don’t recall having a Black teacher/professor until I was in college.) Queer representation is important too – especially with LGBTQ+ youth being high-risk for suicidal thoughts, homelessness and abuse.

Johnson often mentions the dual struggles of being both Black and queer – and how lucky they are to have a family who supports them as they are. I think Johnson’s story would be much different without the support of their family. Johnson’s grandmother, Nanny, is a strong presence in this book – what an incredible woman! She is the embodiment of pure, unconditional love for her family.

All Boys Aren’t Blue deals with some incredibly heavy topics but the book never feels weighed down – there’s always hope, always growth, always forgiveness.

Note: When this book was released, Johnson used he/him pronouns and has recently switched to using they/them pronouns (just something to keep in mind if/when you write a review for this book).

REVIEW – In Five Years by Rebecca Serle

In Five Years is getting a LOT of hype right now, and I can see why. Dannie is a very organized, very detail-oriented lawyer in NYC. When she nails the most important interview of her career (and gets engaged the same day!) she ends up falling asleep and wakes with a jolt – five years into the future. She’s in an unfamiliar bed with a man she’s never met. There’s an engagement ring on her finger, and it’s not the one she just said “yes!” to. Back in the present, Dannie’s “vision” hangs over her head as she navigates her way through her new job and engagement.

Four and a half years later, Dannie meets the mystery man from her dream. Life unravels from there, and what follows is a heartbreaking love story (but not one that you’d expect).

This book gets heavy – FAST. I knew something sad was probably coming, but had no idea what. The main foundation of this story is a strong female friendship, and the romantic components take a backseat (as they should in this instance).

This is a tearjerker for many (although it didn’t make me cry – not many books make me cry…) and I can see it showing up on some “Best of…” lists at the end of the year.

REVIEW – Catch and Kill by Ronan Farrow

“If you don’t run with this, if you don’t move forward with this and expose him, you’re on the wrong side of history.”

Catch and Kill is one of those books I should have read immediately upon release, when the Weinstein trial was ongoing and his fate was hanging in the balance (I mean, I guess it still is. But the buzz around this story has died down considerably).

Farrow’s relentless pursuit of the truth, and of bringing Weinstein to justice, is commendable. The book is interesting. It’s good. It’s important. But because I have read so much about this case, I did find myself a bit bored in the middle. This book could have easily been reduced by 100 or so pages (again, I think my opinion would have differed had I read this back in October or November).

Regardless of my reading experience, I was disgusted to learn just how many people were covering up for Weinstein, or turning a blind eye to his crimes. I wasn’t surprised, necessarily, but when it’s spelled out in front of you, it packs a punch. On the flip side, i’m grateful that good, moral people still exist to make sure criminals like Weinstein get what they deserve (although, he got away with it for so long, i’m not sure the punishment can truly fit the crime).

REVIEW – White Oleander by Janet Fitch

“I had seen girls clamor for new clothes and complain about what their mothers made for dinner. I was always mortified. Didn’t they know they were tying their mothers to the ground? Weren’t chains ashamed of their prisoners?”

I picked this book up from the library not knowing a thing about it (just knowing that a lot of people list it as one of their favorites). This book is HEAVY. It wasn’t at all what I expected, but it was good. It’s hard to say it was enjoyable because poor Astrid never catches a break or really experiences any love or joy.

“How it was that the earth could open up under you and swallow you whole, close above you as if you never were.”

Oh, Astrid. A practically invisible child thrust into the foster system after her mother poisons an ex-lover. She makes misguided, childish mistakes (understandably) and ends up with a string of foster mothers and other figures who each provide their own wisdom, but are also terribly lost in their own ways.

“I hated labels anyway. People didn’t fit into slots – prostitute, housewife, saint – like sorting the mail.”

There are so many complex women throughout this book. Some are explored more than others, but the examination of different women, their thoughts, their struggles, their weaknesses, is likely what makes this book so memorable for so many readers.

“Loneliness is the human condition, get used to it.”

Ingrid is arguably the most complex character in the book and also the worst. I think we’re supposed to believe that she loves her daughter but everything she does and says is to the contrary. She’s frustrating and heartless and pretentious. There isn’t a “villain” in this story but she’s as close as it gets.

REVIEW – The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

“The boys could have been many things had they not been ruined by that place. Doctors who cure diseases or perform brain surgery, inventing shit that saves lives. Run for president. …but they had been denied even the simple pleasure of being ordinary.”

As you can imagine from the synopsis, this is a difficult book to read. But it’s an IMPORTANT book. So many victims of our nation’s twisted, sordid, racist past (and present) are forgotten or overlooked. The Nickel Boys is fiction, but it’s based on a real place. This book should make you uncomfortable and it should make you angry.

Whitehead’s writing is simple and direct – not flowery or elaborate – but packed with emotion, wisdom and vivid imagery.

“You can change the law but you can’t change people and how they treat each other.”

REVIEW – City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert

“My friends! My oldest friends in the world! My oldest friends in the world whom I’d only met two weeks ago.”

City of Girls starts off as the literary equivalent of a fizzy, fruity cocktail. It’s fun, it’s funny, it’s lighthearted. The characters are great friends – the theatre crew is an interesting mix of personalities, but they all get along so well. Just when you think you’ve settled in to an easy breezy story, it delivers a gut punch.

“The sooner you get flattened to the ground, the sooner you can begin to rebuild your life again.”

There are some brutally real and crushing moments in this book – which deviates completely from the tone set early on. What starts as a tale of a frivolous, stupid 19 year old girl (weren’t we all idiots at that age?) turns into an epic about one woman’s fascinating journey through life.

It’s racy and shocking at times. It’s set during WWII but unlike any historical fiction I’ve read from the same era. The pacing is incredible and the writing is exquisite. The examination of relationships, mostly of the different types of female friendships, is very real and honest.

The last few chapters are the most emotional. They make up such a brief – but powerful – part of the book.

“Anyway, at some point in a woman’s life, she just gets tired of being ashamed all the time. After that, she is free to become whoever she truly is.”

REVIEW – Wanderers by Chuck Wendig

“This is how the world ends, with both a bang and a whimper.”

A bang and a whimper – this perfectly explains how I feel about this book. It hooked me from the beginning. Wendig is a talented writer – he nails the thoughts, feelings, sights, sounds, etc of mundane, everyday life (interwoven with the impending apocalypse, of course).

As more details unfold, this becomes a chilling page-turner. I was dying to learn more, to figure out how it ends. But then…it’s just a bit too long. A little repetitive (we get it, bad guys are bad. The world is ending.)

And ultimately, the ending just…didn’t work for me. It should be terrifying, but it didn’t quite deliver the punch I think it intended to. A solid entry into the apocalyptic fiction category, but hindered by an excessive page count.

REVIEW – Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

Commonwealth had my interest at the beginning, and slowly lost it as the book went on…eventually losing it completely by the end.

The characters are barely likable. The overall vibe is just kind of odd and depressing and seemingly unrealistic. I feel like important details aren’t explored enough, and unimportant parts are brought up again and again…and again.