Review: Where the Crawdads Sing

Hey readers,

I was lucky to receive a copy of Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens last month from Penguin Random House and Putnam Books in exchange for an honest review, and I can honestly say that this book is definitely on the short list for my top 10 books of the year. It’s that good.

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Delia Owens has written a beautiful first novel that is a murder mystery, coming of age story and a study of nature all in one. She tells the story of Kya Clark, a young woman raised by nature and Chase Andrews, a local man who is found murdered. Kya, known to the locals as “Marsh Girl” is immediately a suspect in the murder. Jumping back in time to 1952 when at age six, Kya’s beloved mother walks down the lane and disappears without looking back, we journey through alternating chapters between Kya’s past and present to learn how she got to where she is now.

“The sun, warm as a blanket, wrapped Kya’s shoulders, coaxing her deeper into the marsh. Sometimes she heard night-sounds she didn’t know or jumped from lightning too close, but whenever she stumbled, it was the land that caught her. Until at last, at some unclaimed moment, the heart-pain seemed away like water into sand. Still there, but deep. Kya laid her hand upon the breathing, wet earth, and the marsh became her mother.”

Delia Owen’s writing is lush and descriptive as she tells you the story of an abandoned six year old growing up in the marsh lands of North Carolina. She tells a magical tale as she reflects back through Kya’s own fascination with birds, insects, shifting tides and the light of the swamp. Through Kya’s eyes as she experiences the swamp and all it has to offer her, the swamp itself becomes a vivid character all on its own. Her thoughtful, poetic prose evokes emotion and tells a story that will make the North Carolina swamp lands and Kya Clark stick with readers for a long time after finishing the book.

I have a soft spot in my heart for strong female heroines and Delia Clark doesn’t let me down with Kya Clark. After her mother abandons her at age six, and then each of her four siblings leave her in turn, she is left to be with her drunk and abusive father all alone. She learns to dart between sunbeams and shadows to survive her fathers moods, and though for awhile they share a couple weeks of bliss for our young Kya, at age ten he slips back into alcoholism and abandons her as well. Her heart-breaking formative years, forces her to learn to survive on her own and miraculously after all this abandonment and time alone she allows herself to open up to people, not just the two young men who find themselves drawn to her, but to a couple who take her under their wing and treat Kya as much like a daughter as she will allow. Her resiliency, strength, and determination has definitely found her a spot among the list of my favorite female characters.

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Overall this novel had everything I want in a novel: hope and redemption, love and loss, loneliness and belonging, and strength and determination. I hope that everyone will read it and find themselves where the crawdads sing.

 

My Rating: 5/5 Stars

– Hannah

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Review – Next Year in Havana

I picked up Next Year in Havana by Chanel Cleeton after Reese Witherspoon announced in as her July book pick for the Reese’s Book Club. Not only was this the first book I read for Reese’s Book Club but it was also my first read by Chanel Cleeton and I was not disappointed by either.

We follow two women, Elisa Perez living in Havana before the rebellion until her family’s exile in 1958 and her granddaughter Marisol, visiting Cuba for the first time in 2017. And through Elisa and Marisol we get to experience Cuba. Cleeton’s writing is so atmospheric that if I closed my eyes, I could picture Cuba, the sights, the sounds and smells. Through these characters and their experiences we also learn about the people of Cuba as a whole – those who left Cuba with their belongings on their backs, passing along memories to their descendants and those who stayed behind with hopes of change that would not happen.

One of the things that I loved about this novel, was the way that Cleeton addressed Marisol’s view of herself as a Cuban-American. How she was concerned that she wouldn’t be welcome in Cuba, that she wasn’t “Cuban” enough. It was particularly clear in the way that Cleeton described Marisol feeling both at home while still feeling like an outsider in a country that meant so much to her and to her family.

“You speak as though politics is its own separate entity,’ he says. ‘As though it isn’t in the air around us, as though ever single part of us isn’t political. How can you dismiss something that is so fundamental to the integrity of who we are as a people, as a country? How can you dismiss something that directly affects the lives of so many?”

I didn’t know very much about Cuba before I read this book. I knew some basic information but the depth of Cuba: the politics, the way Cuban’s live, the history, etc – was all new to me. The politics of Cuba come up a lot in this book as the undercurrent of the story, it pushes it forward.  Not just the politics of the government, but also the politics of the social classes. How each social class viewed the rebellion, who agreed and who disagreed, and the the politics of why. And not just that, but how those who stayed in Cuba viewed those who left and vice versa.

One of my favorite things about the genre of historical fiction is that you can learn about history in a way that is almost hands on. With characters like those of Chanel Cleeton’s in Next Year in Havana, they help the reader view the situation through their own eyes in a way that a history book doesn’t. It allows you to experience it instead of just getting the facts. Chanel Cleeton describes this book as a “book of my heart”, stating that her family also escaped Cuba and that she credits their stories with some of the bases for this book. The fact that her family lived through these experiences only adds to that feeling.

Ultimately I loved this book, and I am really looking forward to more of Chanel Cleeton’s writing, especially to hear Beatriz’s story in When We Left Cuba in 2019.

My Rating: 4/5 Stars

– Hannah

Review: A Place For Us

Recently Sarah Jessica Parker released the first book published by her imprint, SJP for Hogarth, of Penguin Random House and if the first book she chose says anything about future releases, you better believe that I will be buying everything that she publishes.

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Fatima Farheen Mirza’s debut novel A Place for Us tells the emotionally evocative story of a Indian-American family and each family member’s struggles in their own ways with their sense of identity and belonging. The story is set in Northern California, and we start the story at Hadia’s wedding, where we find out the whole family is there, struggling with what will happen that day as the prodigal son, Amar, has returned after being absent for three years. And while Mirza will come back to the wedding multiple times throughout the novel, it is through her flashbacks that we learn about the family, their triumphs, failures, betrayals and secrets.

Through the characters memories we travel back in time, to before the parents, Layla and Rafiq, arranged marriage, throughout the building of their family, the children going through adolescence, Amar falling in love for the first time, the tragedy of 9/11 and Hadia going off to medical school and making her own love match. Mirza doesn’t focus on telling us the story chronologically, hopping back and forth between timelines and characters flawlessly, allowing us to view each individual incident from multiple points of view, each one changing the meaning of simple actions like a spelling test.

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Fatima Farheen Mirza’s writing is in a word: breathtaking. It is mature, elegant and beautiful in a way that when you realize that she was 26 when this book, her debut, was published, becomes mind-blowing. Her capability of switching perspectives gracefully is just one of the things that make Mirza’s writing stunning, we sense each of the character’s feelings strongly. The loss of love, the panic of parents who are watching a son making decisions they do not understand, the struggle of an immigrant family trying to find balance between their culture, tradition and religion in America today.

I was fully invested in this story, staying up until 1 in the morning when I had work the next day, when I realized that I wasn’t going to finish the novel without crying. A Place for Us was heart-wrenching in all of the right ways. I am emotional going back to think about all the ways that I loved this book. My heartbreak for each of the characters feeling fresh in my mind and my heart. My heart is heavy as I go back to talk about this book and the characters in the most satisfying way.

“When I watch the old tapes, and look through the old photographs, it’s as if I wasn’t there at all. But they are mine, I remind myself, they are my memories, they are exactly how I stood and saw them.”

When I say that I have no doubt that A Place for Us will go down as my all time favorite book of 2018 I do not say that lightly. I know that no other book I have read this year (and in a very long time) has affected me the way that this book has. Fatima Farheen Mirza has proven herself to be a wonderful and strong new voice in the literary world.

My Rating: 5/5 Stars

– Hannah

 

Review: The Great Alone

The Great Alone was the first novel by Kristin Hannah that I have read, and I absolutely loved it. I read this book in about two sittings, mostly spending one Saturday curled up on the couch where I didn’t stop reading until I was sobbing and turning the last page. This then prompted my daughter to ask “Mommy, why do you always read books that make you cry?” That may need to be a post for another day, but I was so engrossed in Hannah’s characters and the story of a teenage girl trapped in her parents toxic relationship that tears were bound to happen. The Great Alone left me heartbroken and at peace all at the same time, and honestly books that manage to do that are always my favorite books.

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The Great Alone tells the story of Ernt Allbright, a Vietnam vet and POW, who finds out that he has inherited a piece of land in Alaska from one of his friends from his time in the military. This comes at the perfect time for Ernt because, unable to keep a job and unable to quit drinking, he is running out of options. Cora, his wife, unfailingly devoted to her husband agrees to move to America’s last frontier with him. Leni, their 13 year old daughter hopes that in Alaska she will finally find a place where she belongs.

At first, Alaska is everything they have dreamed of. They find a close knit community of strong men and even stronger women who are willing to help them learn how to navigate the wilderness around them, and Ernt finally seems to be doing better. Unfortunately, Alaska’s wilderness isn’t the only thing that is volatile, as winter approaches and the days get shorter and darkness falls upon Alaska, darkness also starts to fall on Cora and Leni, as Ernt’s mental state deteriorates.

“In the silence, Leni wondered if one person could ever really save another, or if it was the kind of thing you had to do for yourself.”

The thing I loved most about this novel was the characters. Each character was so different to the rest, but they were all fully fleshed out. There was Large Marge, a former D.C lawyer, intense and strong, willing to do what she needed to do to protect her unprepared neighbors. There is Matthew, who brings romance to Leni. The two of them turn into Alaska’s Romeo and Juliet once Ernt starts to have a problem with Matthew’s father. There is even a family of survivalists, the family of the friend who gives Ernt his property, whose patriarch doesn’t help Ernt’s state of mind with their ranting and raving of the collapse of their great country. Each character brings something to this community of Kaneq that helps propel this story along.

Leni and Cora Allbright were the strength of this story however. Leni finds herself in Alaska, she learns to take care of herself, she becomes strong, willing to do what she needs to do in order to survive. She starts to see the cracks in her own parents relationship but doesn’t let that stop her from finding love of her own. Cora, at first glance, is a battered woman. She follows Ernt blindly, willing to do whatever it takes to make him happy, even though she knows that it’s only a matter of time before he explodes. Cora finds her strength in Alaska too, although it’s not Alaska where she finds her happiness. Hannah does her leading ladies justice, they find peace and happiness in their own way.

The Great Alone is a tour de force of drama, emotion, and tragedy. Hannah writes a novel that forces us to look at the way that wilderness lives within us, and the way that sometimes in order to survive what we need to do is look inside ourself for the strength that lies within us.

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Kristin Hannah is an author I now need to go out, buy, and read, everything that she has ever written. For those of you who have read her other novels, let me know which one I should read next in the comments!

My Rating: 5/5 Stars

– Hannah

Review: An American Marriage

Tayari Jones’s fourth novel and Oprah’s 2018 Book Club pick, An American Marriage, is an emotional, powerful and gripping novel about love, family, and the criminal justice system and its injustices. It is an intimate portrait of love and how tragic events can cause that love to falter. How sometimes, love, just isn’t enough.

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Synopsis from Goodreads: “Newlyweds Celestial and Roy are the embodiment of both the American Dream and the New South. He is a young executive, and she is an artist on the brink of an exciting career. But as they settle into the routine of their life together, they are ripped apart by circumstances neither could have imagined. Roy is arrested and sentenced to twelve years for a crime Celestial knows he didn’t commit. Though fiercely independent, Celestial finds herself bereft and unmoored, taking comfort in Andre, her childhood friend, and best man at their wedding. As Roy’s time in prison passes, she is unable to hold on to the love that has been her center. After five years, Roy’s conviction is suddenly overturned, and he returns to Atlanta ready to resume their life together.”

An American Marriage was my Book of the Month pick for February and I am so happy that I ended up choosing it. The writing was spectacular, the characters were rich, and the story was moving. Jones does not pull any punches, her writing hits you in the gut with emotion from all sides. I read this book in two days, and on the first day I started crying on page 35 and didn’t stop until I put the book down on page 138.

Told in part by letters between Roy and Celestial, and then told from the perspectives of the three main characters, this isn’t the story of courtroom drama, like one might expect when you find out one of the characters is wrongly committed of a crime, but one of the devastation of a family. Both Roy and Celestial are doing all of the right things, they are hard working, in love, and young, they still suffer the fate of having their lives dashed. An innocent man, confined to a prison cell for 12 years, the action of someone else derailing Roy’s life, leaving him powerless to stop what is going to happen – it is this that makes the slow burn of the book all the more powerful.

“Love makes a place in your life, it makes a place for itself in your bed. Invisibly, it makes a place in your body, rerouting all your blood vessels, throbbing right alongside your heart. When it’s gone, nothing is whole again.”

While this story is very much about the personal story of Celestial and Roy, you can not dismiss the racial context of the story. Roy is a black man, convicted wrongly of rape, and he loses his freedom for it. However, throughout the story, the characters mainly remain thankful that he is even alive, Celestial says at one point that there is “no appealing a cop’s bullet.” While even though Roy has done everything right, he has a good job, he is a good man, he makes good choices, even his family have lived good middle class lives, he recognizes that what happened to him could have happened to anyone, and when he says this, his friend, Andre responds with, “You think I don’t know that? I been black all my life.” Now released, he is set to become someone that society all too frequently casts aside and dismisses: the ex-convict. Although Jones makes it clear that this doesn’t have to be Roy’s future. That there is still hope.

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This book moved me, and it stuck with me for the next couple days after I finished it. It still sticks with me now as I think about it. My conflicts with the characters and the decisions that were made, my heartbreak for them, and the overwhelming sense of hopelessness that I felt with Roy for most of the book. All I wanted was for these characters to find happiness, and I think Jones gives it to them, and for that I am grateful.

– Hannah

p.s. After I finished reading I immediately cast my perfect movie adaptation and it goes as follows:

Roy: Michael B Jordan

Celestial: Lupita Nyong’o

Andre: Daniel Kaluuya

It would be perfect. You’re welcome to the future production company that chooses to make this book into a film. I’ve done all your hard work for you.

 

 

Review: The Wedding Date

Alexa and Drew are strangers and after finding themselves stuck in an elevator together, and hitting it off, Drew convinces Alexa to accompany him as his plus one to his ex-girlfriends wedding. It’s the stuff of a rom-com dream. As what was supposed to be fake relationship turns into a one night stand turns to weekend trips to see each other, Alexa and Drew have to decide what exactly they mean to each other.

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This romance novel was a breath of fresh air when it comes to romances. The characters are equally relatable, both are charming and both have their flaws which keeps the story moving. They have their own inside joke about sandwiches which pops up multiple times during the story which makes their relationship seem all the more realistic and relatable. And there are even some quirky friends that add even more flavor to the story.

There is a lot of sex in the book, but it is not off putting at all. It doesn’t seem over done and it isn’t raunchy or distasteful. It flows well with the story, especially since Drew and Alexa’s relationship started being based solely on physical attraction.

Now what did I really love about the book? Well Jasmine Guillory wrote a female character that I find is uncharacteristic towards the normal rom-com heroine. She is a larger African-American woman, who is consistently unapologetically herself. She is down to earth, she knows her worth, she is strong and confident in who she is and in her own skin, and she LOVES to eat. There was so much talk of food and eating in this book it was amazing. I don’t know how many times in a romance or rom-com I’ve heard the leading lady talking about how she forgot to eat that day, or that all she had was a salad. It was nice to be seeing something different embracing that body positive and food positive lifestyle.

Guillory also looks at and highlights interracial relationships and what race can mean when it comes to dating. Alexa is much more aware of situations that can be difficult for her due to her experiences and as she communicates about those situations to Drew, he learns more about his own privilege, and another reason why I love this book – he doesn’t question her experience. There was a scene when she told him that she had experienced racism at the hands of someone he knew, he didn’t question her experience at all, took her side immediately and then did what he needed to do to make sure she didn’t experience that again. Basically, he reacted exactly the way any white person should react when a person of color is explaining the racism that they face on a day-to-day basis.

I gave this book 4 stars. I really enjoyed this book, it was the perfect read when I was in the mood for something quick, fast paced, relatively light, and delicious. If that is what you are looking for – look no further. The Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory is just what you need.

– Hannah

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Review: My Absolute Darling

This debut novel by Gabriel Tallent, My Absolute Darling, is an excellent but unsettling novel of extreme child abuse. It is heart breaking and devastating to read but it captivates you and makes it hard to stop, even when you feel like you can’t take anymore. The novel has a pretty even pace as you move through it, but as you get closer to the end, the pace quickens, making it almost impossible to put down.

Turtle, whose real name is Julia, although only her teacher and principal call her that, lives with her father Martin, a sociopath who believes that the world is due for an ecological disaster any day. In the house she shares with him she suffers severe and traumatic emotional, physical, and sexual abuse at the hands of her father. The way that Tallent details the abuse is difficult to read, in the very first scene of the book Martin is calling her a “little bitch”, and it only gets worse from there.

As the novel progresses, Turtle starts to realize that she needs to escape. This urge to escape is only heightened when she meets two high school boys, and develops a crush on one of them, Jacob. The boys instantly take a liking to Turtle, and the way that they talk makes her dizzy.  The boys also bring some light hearted scenes to the novel which helps break up the otherwise disturbing content of the novel.

The language that Tallent uses to convey these violent scenes of horrific abuse that Turtle undergoes at the hand of her father is uncomfortable to say the least. He explores Turtle’s case of Stockholm syndrome in a way that makes you feel for Turtle, but never have pity on her. She is a 14 year old who faced with the violence that she is subjected to is strong and brave, and even finds herself able to provide moments of tenderness when it is needed. He is really able to convey why a victim of abuse sometimes chooses to stay with their abuser, even if they know on some level that it’s wrong.

I gave this novel five stars. The writing is beautiful and lush, all of the characters are full and well rounded, and the story is dark and captivating. There are going to be people who don’t like the way that Tallent described Turtle and her relationship to her father, almost as one who likes her abuse, “In the waiting she by turns wants and does not want it. His touch brings her skin to life, and she holds it all within the private theatre of her mind, where anything is permitted, their two shadows cast across the sheet and knit together.” Tallent makes it clear that it is abuse, but also wants it known that the characters love each other, although not neccesarily a love that should be celebrated. Martin’s love for Turtle is a possessive love, denying Turtle her individuality. Turtle’s a complex mix of a daughter’s love for her father and a 14 year old girl suffering from Stockholm syndrome.

I had a hard time walking away from this novel, as I turned the page I was hoping for more but at the same time, I don’t think I could have taken anymore. I am very excited to see what Gabriel Tallent does next.

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– Hannah

 

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