Reading Report: Mini Reviews of Recent Reads

Mini Reviews of Recent Reads

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The stress of quarantine – homeschooling while also working, uncertainty about the future, being isolated from cherished loved ones – is currently taking a toll on my reading. However, I managed to get through nine books in February and March. I am decently happy with this although most of them were read pre-global pandemic.

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In times of stress in my life, I typically reach for audio books and escape reading (see this list of my fave books for escaping reality). I also had high hopes for the fantasy book Priory of the Orange Tree, but I have not been able to get through the first portion (introduction of characters and essential world-building background, etc) yet.

I do feel like, with the first couple weeks of this situation under my belt, I am starting to settle into the “new normal” and my ability to focus on words on a page is slowly (but surely) returning.

So, here are the books I managed to get through before the excrement hit the oscillator (and a couple I read as things started going nuts and were perfect for taking my mind off the realism of the moment.)

High Fidelity by Nick Hornby (Riverhead Books, 1995)

High Fidelity book cover

High Fidelity is one of my favorite movies of all time, and I have always wanted to get to the book. Sorry, I know that is backwards for a bookworm, but it is what it is. I found the book to be edgy and funny and very similar to the movie. John Cusack made the main character, Rob, way more charming and lovable – in the book he is pretty much an immature jerk. Still, I loved it and laughed my way through as Rob tried to find himself while looking through the lens of his failed relationships.

Synopsis from Goodreads: Do you know your desert-island, all-time, top five most memorable split-ups? Rob does. He keeps a list, in fact. But Laura isn’t on it – even though she’s just become his latest ex. He’s got his life back, you see. He can just do what he wants when he wants: like listen to whatever music he likes, look up the girls that are on his list, and generally behaves as if Laura never mattered. But Rob finds he can’t move on. He’s stuck in a really deep groove – and it’s called Laura. Soon, he’s asking himself some big questions: about love, about life – and about why we choose to share ours with the people we do. 

An Unwanted Guest by Shari Lapena (Pamela Dorman Books, 2018)

An Unwanted Guest book cover

I adore seasonal reading and I listened to An Unwanted Guest in early February when winter was still roaring. Well, as much as a Texas winter “roars.” I was drawn to the setting, a quiet Inn cut off from the world by a blizzard and the guests are locked in with only themselves (and the proprietor and his son) to keep each other company. When the bodies start piling up, the suspicion and blame creeps in and, while the end left a little to be desired, I felt this one gave me about what I needed from it: a really fun and atmospheric AgathaChristie-like whodunnit.

Synopsis from Goodreads: A remote lodge in upstate New York is the perfect getaway. . . until the bodies start piling up. It’s winter in the Catskills and the weather outside is frightful. But Mitchell’s Inn is so delightful! The cozy lodge nestled deep in the woods is perfect for a relaxing–maybe even romantic–weekend away. The Inn boasts spacious old rooms with huge wood-burning fireplaces, a well-stocked wine cellar, and opportunities for cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, or just curling up with a book and someone you love. So when the weather takes a turn for the worse, and a blizzard cuts off the electricity–and all contact with the outside world–the guests settle in for the long haul. The power’s down but they’ve got candles, blankets, and wood–a genuine rustic experience! Soon, though, a body turns up–surely an accident. When a second body appears, they start to panic. Then they find a third body. Within the snowed-in paradise, something–or someone–is picking off the guests one by one...The weekend getaway has turned deadly.

Long Bright River by Liz Moore (Riverhead Books, Jan 7, 2020)

Long Bright River book cover

Long Bright River has been all over bookstagram and on my last visit to Dallas’ Interabang Books (closest Indie bookstore to me), I picked up a copy. I loved the complex themes and the feel of melancholy the author weaved into this domestic suspense which also gives you a peak into the life of drug addiction.

Synopsis from Goodreads: In a Philadelphia neighborhood rocked by the opioid crisis, two once-inseparable sisters find themselves at odds. One, Kacey, lives on the streets in the vise of addiction. The other, Mickey, walks those same blocks on her police beat. They don’t speak anymore, but Mickey never stops worrying about her sibling. Then Kacey disappears, suddenly, at the same time that a mysterious string of murders begins in Mickey’s district, and Mickey becomes dangerously obsessed with finding the culprit–and her sister–before it’s too late.

Well Met by Jen Deluca (Berkley, 2019)

Well Met book cover

I am not into romance books but my friend Sarah of Really Into This guest posted recently and suggested a few romance books she thought my readers would like. I decided to choose at least one from her list and try and suffer through it. I was pleasantly surprised to actually really enjoy this super fun enemies-to-lovers tale told with the backdrop of a Renaissance Faire. I found the dialogue to be fun, the romance steamy (without going over the top) and the characters relatable.

Synopsis from Goodreads: Emily knew there would be strings attached when she relocated to the small town of Willow Creek, Maryland, for the summer to help her sister recover from an accident, but who could anticipate getting roped into volunteering for the local Renaissance Faire alongside her teenaged niece? Or that the irritating and inscrutable schoolteacher in charge of the volunteers would be so annoying that she finds it impossible to stop thinking about him? This summer was only ever supposed to be a pit stop on the way to somewhere else for Emily, but soon she can’t seem to shake the fantasy of establishing something more with Simon, or a permanent home of her own in Willow Creek.

Buy Yourself the F*cking Lilies: And Other Rituals to Fix Your Life, from Someone Who’s Been There by Tara Schuster (Dial Press, Feb 18, 2020)

Buy Yourself Lilies book cover

Buy Yourself the F*cking Lilies* will be on my best books of the year (so far) list once I get around to putting that list together. I thought this book would be light, fun, and affirming of my (relatively) recent realization about the connection between regular self care and good mental health. It is SO much more.

* Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher, Dial Press, for my free copy in exchange for an honest review.

Synopsis from Goodreads: By the time she was in her late twenties, Tara Schuster was a sought-after TV executive who had worked with Jon Stewart and launched Key & Peele to viral superstardom. By all appearances, she had mastered being a grown-up. But beneath that veneer of success, she was a chronically anxious, self-medicating mess. Buy Yourself the F*cking Lilies is the story of Tara’s path to re-parenting herself and becoming a “ninja of self-love.” This is the book Tara wished someone had given her and it is the book many of us desperately need: a candid, funny, practical guide to growing up and learning to love yourself in a non-throw-up-in-your-mouth-it’s-so-cheesy way.

Into the Beautiful North by Luis Alberto Urrea (Little, Brown & Co, 2009)

Into the Beautiful North book cover

When the recent controversy over American Dirt really got going earlier this year, I decided I need to seek out and read some Own Voices authors. I happily found a copy of Into the Beautiful North, a “comedic tragedy” about a young girl who travels to the U.S. to save her small Mexican town from ruin. I thought it was quirky, well-written and contained an amazing and colorful cast of characters that made me laugh out loud. The end was a little anti-climatic, but otherwise I throughly enjoyed this off the beaten path (for me) read.

Synopsis from Goodreads: Nineteen-year-old Nayeli works at a taco shop in her Mexican village and dreams about her father, who journeyed to the United States to find work. Recently, it has dawned on her that he isn’t the only man who has left town. In fact, there are almost no men in the village–they’ve all gone north. While watching The Magnificent Seven, Nayeli decides to go north herself and recruit seven men–her own “Siete Magníficos”–to repopulate her hometown and protect it from the bandidos who plan on taking it over. Filled with unforgettable characters and prose as radiant as the Sinaloan sun, Into the Beautiful North is the story of an irresistible young woman’s quest to find herself on both sides of the fence.

Gretchen by Shannon Kirk (Thomas & Mercer, 2019)

Gretchen book cover

I am a pretty major horror fan and Shannon Kirk has been on my radar ever since I discovered her books when I did this list of thrillers and included one of her other books, In the Vines (this one is STILL on my “to be read” list). I found Gretchen to be a solid creepy thriller with gothic horror vibes that grabbed me quickly and delivered some interesting twists and a satisfying resolution at the end.

Synopsis from Goodreads: Ever since Lucy was two, she’s been on the run alongside her mother. She’s never understood the reason for a lifetime of paranoia, aliases, and lies. All she understands are the rules: never lock eyes with strangers, never let down your guard, and always be ready to move on. Finally, after thirteen years and eleven states, their next hideaway seems perfect. An isolated, fortresslike place in the New Hampshire woods is the new home they share with its owner, a gentlemanly pianist, and his lonely daughter, Gretchen. She’s Lucy’s age and soon becomes Lucy’s first real friend. But Gretchen and her father have secrets of their own—and an obsession with puzzles that draws Lucy into a terrifying new game of hide-and-seek. Lucy’s dark past is about to come calling. And this time, for her and her mother in the house on the hill, it might be too late to run.

The Bookish Life of Nina Hill by Abbi Waxman (Berkley, 2019)

Bookish LIfe of Nina Hill book cover

I absolutely adored the Bookish Life of Nina Hill which is about an introverted book seller living alone with her cat. The dialogue is incredibly smart and funny and the story is relatable to pretty much all bookworms. It’s charming, well-written escapist fiction at its absolute best.

Synopsis from Goodreads: The only child of a single mother, Nina has her life just as she wants it: a job in a bookstore, a kick-butt trivia team, a world-class planner and a cat named Phil. If she sometimes suspects there might be more to life than reading, she just shrugs and picks up a new book. When the father Nina never knew existed suddenly dies, leaving behind innumerable sisters, brothers, nieces, and nephews, Nina is horrified. They all live close by! They’re all—or mostly all—excited to meet her! She’ll have to Speak. To. Strangers. It’s a disaster! And as if that wasn’t enough, Tom, her trivia nemesis, has turned out to be cute, funny, and deeply interested in getting to know her. Doesn’t he realize what a terrible idea that is?

My Lovely Wife by Samantha Downing (Berkley, 2019)

My Lovely Wife book cover

My Lovely Wife has been on my shelf for a very long time and I finally reached for it about the time things really started falling apart in the world (i.e. Global Pandemic). I absolutely loved it. At once twisted and fun, this unique psychological thriller about husband and wife serial killers, kept me enthralled and guessing through to the end.

Synopsis from Goodreads: Our love story is simple. I met a gorgeous woman. We fell in love. We had kids. We moved to the suburbs. We told each other our biggest dreams, and our darkest secrets. And then we got bored. We look like a normal couple. We’re your neighbors, the parents of your kid’s friend, the acquaintances you keep meaning to get dinner with. We all have secrets to keeping a marriage alive. Ours just happens to be getting away with murder.

Everything is Under Control: A Memoir With Recipes by Phyllis Grant (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, April 21st)

Everything is Under Control book cover

I love food memoirs but I will admit that I had never heard of chef Phyllis Grant until researching and putting together my list of new food memoirs coming out this year. Everything is Under Control* is a very raw and emotional look at Grant’s life as a chef, mother and later, a midwife. A super quick read, I loved the vignette, snippets of life, diary-style writing. The gourmet recipes at the end are simple yet unique and the dishes described exquisitely.

* Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, for my free copy in exchange for an honest review.

Synopsis from Goodreads: Phyllis Grant’s Everything Is Under Control is a memoir about appetite—as it comes, goes, and refocuses its object of desire. With sparse, affecting prose, and an unsparing eye toward her, and her environment’s, darkest corners, Grant’s story follows the sometimes smooth, sometimes jagged, always revealing contours of her life: from her days as a dancer struggling to find her place at Juilliard, to her experiences in and out of four-star kitchens in New York City, to falling in love with her future husband and leaving the city after 9/11 for California where her children are born. All the while, a sense of longing roils in each stage as she moves through the headspace of a young woman longing to be sustained by a city, to a mother now sustaining a family herself. Written with the raw transparency of a diarist, Everything Is Under Control is an unputdownable series of vignettes followed by tried-and-true recipes from Grant’s table–a heartrending yet unsentimental portrait of the highs and lows of young adulthood, motherhood, and a life in the kitchen.

What have you read lately?

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