This was a pretty good month of reading – I read the above five novels plus 3 others on audio (I read Never Let Me Go on audio but I also happen to own a physical copy). I’m trying to get a lot of reading during the wintertime while things are relatively quiet with photography – I know when things start to ramp up in the spring I won’t have as much time so I want to take advantage and get ahead on my reading goal!
Never Let Me Go is an absolutely remarkable book. It encompasses so much, all wrapped into one rather small package – it’s a campus novel, a mystery, a coming of age story, it’s a little sci-fi…it’s a lot and yet it is so elegantly put together and beautifully written. I actually read this a long time ago and decided to re-read it, but this time on audio. I remembered the basic plot and that I loved it, but wanted to see how it would hold up for me now. I found that I loved it so much more than I remembered, to the point that this is now definitively one of my favorite books of all time. The novel brings up so many big questions, like what makes someone human? Do we have souls? What makes something art? Is art inherently meaningful? It’s about life itself, and yet at the same time it’s just this beautiful story of friends growing up together, growing apart, and coming back together. It’s beautifully written, poignant, and thought-provoking. I think it would be an amazing book club book because when you dig into it, there is so much to discuss and perhaps debate. The movie is really good too!
This book legitimately freaked me out. It’s about a woman in Victorian England who goes to handle affairs at the crumbling country estate of her recently deceased husband. Along with cagy servants and unfriendly townsfolk, she finds, locked away in a closet, “silent companions,” which are actually a real thing. They’re these flat wooden cutouts, about toddler height, that are shaped and painted in a trompe l’oeil style to look like people – so basically like upright-standing wooden paper dolls that were popular back in seventeenth century Europe. People posit that they might have been just for the entertainment value, to play tricks on people, or to deter thieves. Either way, they are CREEPY AS HELL. And so was this book! There’s just something about creepy dolls or doll-like things…it really freaks me out, I have to admit. This book had it all – creepy silent companions, weird noises, strange movements in the corner of your eye, things creeping around in the night…it was perfect for a cold winter night. I definitely recommend this if you’re into atmospheric, creepy house stories, like Shirley Jackson, Sarah Waters, and the like.
In 1596, Shakespeare’s only son, Hamnet, died of bubonic plague at the age of 11. Four years later, Shakespeare wrote the play Hamlet (a name interchangeable with Hamnet at that time). This novel is about their family and the ways they are shattered by this devastating loss. Shakespeare himself is in the book, obviously, but it’s actually a book more about Agnes, Shakespeare’s wife. Interestingly, Shakespeare is never named in the book – he’s referred to in turns as the Latin tutor, the husband, the father…so with that convention you can sort of understand that this isn’t a book about “William Shakespeare.” It’s about a young woman who inherits a special connection to the woods and nature from her mother, it’s about what happens when a young Latin tutor falls in love with her, and what happens when the Black Death comes to their English village of Stratford. As many have described it, it’s a moving meditation on grief and a portrait of a family who experiences one of the worst possible losses. Maggie O’Farrell is an incredibly talented writer – this novel really pulls you in and envelops you. I found it a bit slow-moving, which is sometimes tough for me, but it was so beautifully written and such an interesting story that I know I won’t forget it anytime soon.
I really liked this a lot! It follows Willa Chen, a Chinese-American girl in her early 20s, as she navigates post-college life in NYC and becomes a nanny for a wealthy family in Tribeca. It also explores her childhood, her relationship with her divorced parents, her experience of being biracial, and so much more. I think you could classify it as a bit of a coming-of-age story, and I liked that it touched on issues of class dynamics, but without hitting you over the head with it. It moved back and forth from present-day, where Willa navigates nannying for this rich NYC family and their precocious daughter, to Willa’s adolescence, spent splitting time between her two remarried parents. In both scenarios she’s a bit adrift, never feeling like she quite fits in. This was kind of a quiet story, but really engaging and absorbing. I found it to be memorable and I’ll be really interested to see what this author does next, as this was her debut novel.
Fake (out Feb 22)
This one follows Emma Caan, a young artist in NYC who makes her living doing legal art forgery (copying famous Impressionist works for collectors or museums, so that when their piece is being cleaned or repaired, it can still appear to be hanging). That was interesting in itself, as I had no idea that was even a thing. When Emma falls into a new job copying for a hugely rich and well-connected art collector, she becomes entangled in the topsy-turvy world of the uber-wealthy and the art world elite…and gets involved in way more than she bargained for. This book takes you from the art galleries of Chelsea to private jets to Art Basel Hong Kong and it all felt very authentic (not that I have any idea what any of that is like, but I was convinced the author did!). I really like Erica Katz as a writer – there’s something unique about her style and plotting. It’s like there’s an underlying tension to her books without delving into outright thriller territory (and I really appreciate that). She also does a good job of bringing the main character’s backstories to light. Similarly to her previous book, The Boys Club, Fake explored someone entering an elite, exclusive world, getting swallowed up by it, then gaining their footing and learning to navigate the treacherous waters (talk about mixed metaphors, lol). It asked the question of what is real, and what is fake? – when it comes not just to art, but to social media, to outward appearances, and even to the stories we tell ourselves. Out Feb 22!
This book was fun! It’s about a futuristic app/program called The Arc, which promises to match you with about 100% certainty to your perfect mate. The story follows two people who are matched and shows what happens with the relationship. I rated this a solid 3. It was fun but I had a few issues with the execution. Ya know that old writing adage about show, don’t tell? One thing that bugged me about the writing was that it seemed like there was a lot of telling, not showing. In the beginning quarter there was this long information dump about the main character, not only her life story but also “who she is,” and “what she’s like.” And to me it felt like, well shouldn’t we see her doing things and interacting with people and draw our own conclusions about her characteristics and what’s important to her? But I didn’t think it was poorly written, overall. It was just the kind of book where I was listening on 2x speed on audio and not missing anything, and I thought it was a little slow, like things could have really been condensed. Despite all of that, I did find it enjoyable overall and was interested in seeing how the story unfolded. The central relationship was cute and the book brought up interesting issues about compatibility in relationships, and themes of free will vs fate vs self-fulfilling prophecies in matters of the heart. It was a unique spin on a romance!
I think these just aren’t the type of books I like anymore. Thrillers, where it’s pretty much completely plot-driven and it’s just kind of about unraveling the mystery or the crime, but there’s no atmosphere, no literary aspect (as there is in a Tana French or Jane Harper), thin character development. It’s just your basic bog standard thriller. It’s about three women, one has amnesia, one is a cop who’s deceased dad was also a cop, and one is a lawyer who was the one who found the first girl after the accident that gave her amnesia. Stuff happens, there are secrets, a dead body..I don’t know, maybe you wouldn’t even classify this one as a thriller. More like a crime novel? I’m not sure. Overall again it was just like racing through to find out “who did it,” and I seriously didn’t even care. But I finished it. Not saying it was bad, again I just think these aren’t the types of books I’m into anymore.
I kind of loved Wahala. This book to me was fun, fast-paced, really engaging, a page-turner, and felt like it was just full of juicy gossip. It follows a group of three English-Nigerian thirty-something friends in London – Ronke, Boo, and Simi. They’re all in different stages of life (two married, one with kids, one single with a flaky boyfriend), and all are in some ways happy and other ways dissatisfied with their situation in life. Isobel, an friend of Simi’s, enters the scene, and havoc ensues. I saw this somewhere being described as Sex and the City meets My Sister the Serial Killer and I think that’s an apt description. The story is told from the alternating viewpoints of the three friends which I don’t always enjoy but here, I did like hearing from all of them. The book had bite to it – at times the friends are really mean to each other and their partners, and make terrible decisions, but that’s how people are sometimes, isn’t it? People are three-dimensional, not all good or all bad, and I felt that that was reflected in these characters. I’ve seen a few criticisms of the book relating to a loose end that didn’t get tied up and an integral character we didn’t get to hear much from, and while I completely understand the critiques, they didn’t negatively impact my enjoyment of this book. It touched on a lot of things that people in their 30s are grappling with – the changing landscape of your friendships as you get older, romantic relationships and marriage, the experience of being mixed race, having kids vs not having kids, career issues, family histories and how that can impact you in adulthood, and more. It also had a tiny bit of that page-turning thriller aspect to it, but I would NOT categorize it as a thriller (despite the first page or two which were tonally a little out of sync with the rest of the book). It was more like there was something of a mystery at the heart of it, and in that way (plus all the drama), it reminded me of a Liane Moriarty book a bit. Also I just love the title, which means ‘trouble’ in Nigerian culture. Highly, highly recommend listening to this one on audio because the reader brought so much to the narration and enhanced the reading experience exponentially!