REVIEW – Deacon King Kong by James McBride

“He was a peaceful man beloved by all. So what happened?”

I didn’t really know what to expect when I picked up Deacon King Kong, but I was definitely surprised. Tihs book is so much funnier and lighthearted than I anticipated (but I wouldn’t say it’s a “lighthearted book”). You might not fall in love with Sportcoat right away, but you’ll realize just how much you enjoy his character by the end of the book.

I would say this is definitely more character-driven vs. plot-driven, which isn’t usually my cup of tea (or bottle of King Kong, in this instance) but I really loved this book. I don’t think the 1969 setting is incredibly consequential here, but it does make some parts of the story more plausible.

There’s so much heart in this book – each chapter almost feels like its own story, and it all contributes to the overall narrative. Everyone and everything is connected in some way, and McBride’s writing is so clever and vibrant, you can’t help but want to know who you’re going to meet next.

The shorter version? Jesus cheese. It’s all about the Jesus cheese.

REVIEW – The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah

I have some questions for Kristin Hannah. Does she enjoy making readers cry? Does she enjoy crying? Does she cry when she writes her books? Because this is NOT the first time she’s made me cry, and i’m sure it won’t be the last.

The Four Winds is just stunning. Even if you’re not typically into historical fiction, i’d highly recommend this book. In an industry that’s oversaturated with WWII stories (but hey, I love those too!) it’s so nice to read historical fiction set during a different time. The Four Winds starts in the early 1920s, where we meet Elsa. Elsa suffered an illness as a teen, and her family has treated her like glass ever since (and boy, are they RUDE AF to her! It’s so frustrating).

We spend a brief amount of time there before moving forward into 1934. Elsa lives on her in-laws’ farm with her small family. She has changed a LOT and definitely for the better. She’s strong and capable, but she’s also dealing with some pre-teen drama from her daughter and a prolonged drought that’s proving to be catastrophic for the farm (and the farm animals…oh, my heart). On top of that, we’re also right in the middle of the Great Depression which is, well, upsetting to say the least.

After a series of unfortunate events (SERIOUSLY) Elsa packs up her kids and heads west to California, where things are supposed to be better. But…they’re not. I’m sure you could figure that out for yourself. What happens from there is brutally, dismally sad. This book will break your heart. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. Also, read the Author’s Note at the end – it’s amazing.

Thank you St. Martin’s Press for the NetGalley ARC.

REVIEW – Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

Hamnet was one of my most anticipated books of 2020, but somehow I failed to pick it up until the very beginning of 2021. This is incredibly well written, and although it’s a slower story, O’Farrell’s writing moves the reader along swiftly and easily.

“She grows up with the awareness that she is merely tolerated, an irritant, useless, that she does not deserve love, that she will need to change herself substantially, crush herself down if she is to be married..”

Although named after Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet is really a story about Agnes – Shakespeare’s wife and Hamnet’s mother. She’s a fascinating character with a complex back story, a strong woman who is bound by the expectations and customs of her time. Her heartbreak is front and center after Hamnet’s death, and O’Farrell handles Agnes’ grief beautifully.

“He glances over his shoulder at the tunnel of dark beside the door. The blackness is depthless, soft, absolute. Turn away, he says to Death. Close your eyes. Just for a moment.”

The writing in Hamnet is stellar, and places it firmly in the literary fiction category (historical yes, but it doesn’t have the same vibe that most mainstream historical fiction seems to have). You don’t need to know much of anything about Shakespeare to understand and appreciate this book. In fact, Shakespeare himself is never actually mentioned by name.

REVIEW – A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes

I had incredibly high hopes for this book and it delivered (and then some). A Thousand Ships is absolutely stunning right from the first chapter. It toggles between different perspectives, all of which are women affected in some way by the Trojan War. We get to visit some characters a few times, and others are only mentioned once – but the impact is never diminished. These are stories of grief, loss, strength, grace, pain and revenge. If you’re a fan of Circe or Song of Achilles, this is an absolute MUST read for you.

Thank you Harper Books for the ARC!

REVIEW – I Know This Much is True by Wally Lamb

Oh, boy. This book is full of unlikeable men that we’re, for some reason, supposed to be rooting for? Bad thing after bad thing piles on, until the book (after almost 900! pages) wraps up everything hunky-dory with a neat little bow.

There’s so much potential in this story – Thomas and Dominick are fascinating (at first). Thomas, although being such a key part of the story, doesn’t really get much page time. You know who does? Thomas and Dominick’s arrogant, sexist, horrible grandfather – via his haphazardly constructed memoir. The memoir eats up almost 200 pages of the book (at least that’s what other reviewers have said, I didn’t count). And we aren’t even introduced to the memoir until more than 500 pages in.

Content warnings abound in this one, and pretty much zero good things happen to anyone until the last 20 or so pages. We have multiple mentions of rape (one of which we’re apparently supposed to ignore because the perpetrator is MISUNDERSTOOD and CONFUSED and DIDN’T MEAN IT). We have an abusive husband and stepfather that is somehow kind of redeemed towards the end of the book? We have some pretty severe self-harm. Multiple suicides (definitely two but probably three?) Horrific accidents. AIDS! SIDS! What else am I missing? Oh, a child is murdered but it’s briefly mentioned and really more of a plot device than anything. And that child’s twin is also sexually abused.

Needless to say, I have a hard time rating this below three stars because it did hold my interest enough to want to finish. And I did enjoy some parts. I just thought it would be more about the relationship between two brothers (one neurotypical, one severely mentally ill). I thought i’d get something a bit more cohesive.

REVIEW – The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

“She hadn’t realized how long it takes to become somebody else, or how lonely it can be living in a world not meant for you.”

The Vanishing Half has been receiving a LOT of hype in the book world lately. The book explores the lives of twin sisters who run away from home (and end up going in different directions). Desiree and Stella are light-skinned black girls from Mallard (no, the town can’t be found on a map). When we meet up with the twins 14 years after they have left home, we find out that Desiree married a very dark-skinned black man, and Stella has been passing as a white woman for years.

“You could never know who might hurt you until it was too late.”

What we learn about their lives and families is incredibly fascinating. We get the perspectives of a handful of characters in this book – each having their own experiences with and ideas about race, racism and identity. These relationships are COMPLICATED. This book probably won’t end the way you expect (and I love it). There are things here that never come to a head or get resolved and it’s honestly better that way – the fact that Bennett didn’t feel the need to wrap everything up in a nice little bow is refreshing.

REVIEW – Truths I Never Told You by Kelly Rimmer

{Available April 14, 2020} Presented in dual timelines (the early to mid-1950s and a few weeks in 1996) The Truths I Never Told You is somewhat presented as a mystery, with maybe a thriller edge, but is really a story about family secrets, the seemingly mysterious death of our main character’s mother, and the surrounding events. This book is sad, but it’s also filled with love and hope.

The family’s strength really shines through in this one – both the present-day situation with the four siblings and the sacrifices made in the past.

I think this story will resonate most with mothers – women who have experienced the ups and downs of pregnancy, childbirth and the early months and years of parenting. As someone without children, I could still understand the anxiety, fear and depression that both Grace and Beth faced, but only on the surface level.

Content warning: mentions of abortion and suicide.

Thank you Graydon House for sending me an ARC of this book!

REVIEW – Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

“Rich or poor, we will keep together and be happy in one another.”
I think it’s safe to say that everyone who enjoys this book desperately wishes they could be part of the March family (which makes Laurie so incredibly relatable at times). This is a great read for the Christmas season, but honestly holds up any time of year – it’s cozy, it’s funny, it has so much heart. I figured the best way to review it would be to break it down by character – particularly the March sisters and Marmee.

MEG
“Call yourself any names you like; but I am neither a rascal nor a minx, and I don’t choose to be called so.”
Meg’s story is incredibly important – she’s the only sister who dreams of what’s “expected” of her. And for Meg, she gets exactly what she wants and ends up thriving. Alcott outlines some marriage and parenthood struggles in Meg’s life, but they’re relatable – she and her husband grow closer as a couple because of them, and Meg ends up living a lovely life that she’s proud of.

JO
“I like good, strong words, that mean something,” replied Jo.
Many of us avid readers (and writers) identify with Jo – she’s technically the “main” character of the novel, and her story is the most interesting (arguably tied with Amy). Jo’s journey from bookworm tomboy to published writer has you rooting for her every step of the way. I will admit, i’m not really pleased with how her story ends (however, I am glad she doesn’t end up with Laurie) but I also understand why Alcott made the choices she did for Jo given the time period (and Little Women is loosely based on Alcott’s life).

BETH
“If Jo is a tom-boy, and Amy a goose, what am I, please?” asked Beth, ready to share the lecture. “You’re a dear, and nothing else,” answered Meg.
Dear, sweet Beth. The unfairness of her story has always been apparent to me. After contracting scarlet fever (that she was exposed to only because she was being kind and helping others), she spends the rest of the book sitting idly by, while her sisters grow up, travel and marry. Somehow, Beth’s faith and sweetness never change – she gladly welcomes death and worries most about how her loved ones will carry on once she’s gone.

AMY
“I want to be great, or nothing.”
I think Amy gets a lot of unfair criticism for being the “worst” March sister. Amy grows the most throughout the novel – she starts as a sometimes silly, often selfish 12-year-old girl, but she grows into a thoughtful, smart and determined young woman. Amy seems the most “real” to me, because she has the most to learn.

MARMEE
“Once upon a time there were four girls, who had enough to eat, and drink, and wear, a good many comforts and pleasures, kind friends and parents, who loved them dearly, and yet they were not contented.”
Marmee is, in my opinion, the best literary mother of all time. Although her character does take a bit of a backseat to the four sisters, her influence is evident. She has managed to raise four kind, intelligent, caring girls – the lessons she teaches them still (mostly) hold up today, and I always love coming across her nuggets of wisdom while reading.

At its core, Little Women is truly a feminist piece of literature (there are some antiquated thoughts and statements in the text, but they are merely a symptom of their time). There are timeless life lessons about growing up, family, friendship and individuality.

REVIEW – The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

“I will never leave him. It will be this, always, for as long as he will let me.”

Circe was one of the best books I read this year, and I knew I had to pick up The Song of Achilles. Miller is an incredible writer – she has a way of turning words into something beautiful and heartbreaking and hopeful at the same time.

Patroclus is a wonderful narrator. I felt bad from him from the beginning – a disappointment to his father, his involvement in a fatal accident results in his banishment. He meets Achilles and the two become fast friends.

This is easily one of the most romantic, most beautiful books I’ve ever read. I cannot wait to see what Miller writes next.

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.