Overdue book review catch up

I am overdue for quite a few book reviews, so this post is going to be a big wrap of quite a few of them. Let's just get right to it, shall we?

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The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai

The Great Believers is split into two storylines with alternating chapters between them. The first follows Yale, an art museum curator and gay man living in Chicago during the height of the AIDS crisis. AIDS is rippling through his community killing off his friends and loved ones, including his good friend Nico. At the same time, he's trying to secure a large art deal that could be career making from Nico's aunt for the museum. The second storyline follows Nico's sister Fiona in the present day as she tries to find her estranged daughter in Paris while reflecting on how the AIDS crisis deeply affected her life.

I found both storylines compelling and enjoyed reading about both Yale and Fiona. Yale was a truly likable character and I was rooting for him so much. I just wanted things to work out for him, but his storyline fills you with a sense of dread as AIDS hits closer and closer to home. Fiona felt a little uneven - I felt like her character as seen by people like Yale was precocious and quite different than who she seemed to be in the present day, but I still found it believable enough.

I have heard this book compared to A Little Life and The Heart's Invisible Furies. For me, it was closer to The Heart's Invisible Furies, which I rated four stars. (ALL is one of my all time faves and basically nothing can compare.) This book started off a bit slow, but I was immediately drawn to Yale. I found Yale's story moving and I definitely shed some tears while reading this. If you liked ALL or THIF, I think it's worth giving this one a read. I gave it four stars. 

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Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

I love Naomi Novik, y'all. I loved Uprooted and somehow I loved Spinning Silver even more. Her fairy-tale-ish fantasy books are just so readable and enjoyable and fun. Spinning Silver is a retelling of Rumpelstiltskin, kind of. But, it has three strong women for the main characters. Our main main character is Miryem. She's a moneylender's daughter, but her dad isn't very good at collecting his dues. She gets fed up and takes it upon herself to help the family business, and it turns out that she is quite good at it. She gets a reputation for being able to turn silver into gold, so much so that the "evil" Stayrk king takes notice and whisks Miryem off to do the same for him. Other characters include Irina, the daughter of a duke with some Staryk blood who ends up married to an evil tsar controlled by a fire demon, and Wanda, a poor girl from town who's alcoholic father sells her off to be Miryem's assistant. The storylines eventually converge and the whole book is magical. 

This book has many tropes, like Uprooted, but they somehow work for me. As usual, Novik does a great job with building an atmosphere including a fairy tale town, evil woods, and a frozen kingdom. Something about Novik's writing is just so fun for me to read. This book is a true escape and I loved it the whole time. If you like fantasy, and especially if you were a fan of Uprooted, I'd highly recommend this book. It got five stars from me.

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This is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel

I know, I know, I'm late to the party on this one. It's been out for awhile and it took me a long time to pick it up but I'm really glad I did. It's about a family with five sons, except the youngest son, Claude, wants to be a girl from the time he is very young. It's about how the family deals with the challenges of raising a transgender child and the trials and tribulations they go through.

I don't have too much to say about this one, except that it is poignant and insightful and felt very honest and real. It will tug at your heartstrings and maybe even help you understand a different perspective. It also got the seal of approval from Brenda, my mom, and we don't have super overlapping favorite books, so that's a good sign that it should have wide appeal. If you like heartwarming family stories that teach you something, definitely pick this one up. I gave it four stars. 

Heartbreaker by Claudia Dey

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This book is weird. The plot is kind of weird, it's set in a cult (apparently a theme in my recent reading life) that is weird, and the writing is a little weird. The book is divided into three sections. The first is narrated by Pony Fontaine, daughter of Billie Jean Fontaine and "The Heavy". The family lives in "the territory" somewhere very far north and totally detached from the rest of society except for occasional supply shipments paid for by the blood of the territory's teens. Yeah. Billie Jean was an outsider who showed up alone and nearly dead to the territory 17 years ago. When she suddenly takes off and disappears, the residents of the territory look for her. Pony reflects on life up to this point.

The second part of the book is narrated by the family dog, who could apparently communicate with Billie Jean. See what I mean by weird? I actually started liking the writing more in this section. I found the writing in Pony's section to be unnecessarily confusing. Somehow it was more clear when narrated by a dog. The third section is narrated by a boy in the territory, Supernatural. Well, I guess he is a bit older than a boy. He's somewhere between the ages of 17 and 19, I think. I can't remember exactly. 

The book eventually reveals why Billie Jean left. It's a slow build up. I quite liked how everything came together in the end, but again, the whole thing was a weird experience. In a kind of good way? I rated this at three stars in the end. I actually really liked how it all came together. But it was still weird.  If you like cults or writing that is a little out of the ordinary, and stories that aren't entirely straightforward out of the gate, I'd recommend giving this a go. It's certainly unique.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

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My first Ishiguro and boy, dude can write! His prose is beautiful and lyrical yet straightforward and approachable and entirely readable, somehow. He doesn't say anything extra but he says so much at the same time. 

This book is set in a school, so it's a good read for this time of year. It's narrated by Hailsham graduate Kathy, who now works as a "carer". Caring for what, we don't really know for awhile. Hailsham seems like an idyllic English boarding school where the students are taught to focus on art and creativity. However, something is off. You never hear about their parents or where the students are from. They don't seem to go home for Christmas. There is a big mystery about what is really going on at the school that is overarching and slowly and masterfully revealed. This book is lovely and eerie and moving at the same time. 

However... I saw the movie a long time ago, so I knew the big thing from the get-go, which kind of made it a bit less enjoyable for me. The book didn't have a huge emotional impact, because I already knew too much. I think if you haven't seen the movie, or even if you have, this is worth a read, but especially if you haven't because it has the potential for some big emotional moments. Because I had already seen the movie, I also found myself a little bored at times - kind of waiting for the story to get to the point, even though if I hadn't known everything already it would have been revealed quickly enough.

This book is certainly lovely and well written, and I understand why Ishiguro is considered a master of his craft. It almost has a little bit of a Secret History vibe purely because of the setting, which I appreciated. I'd recommend it to anyone who likes a bit of a mystery, wants to maybe cry, and likes books that are set in a school setting.

The Incendiaries and cult chat

Anyone else weirdly fascinated with cults? I know I'm not alone in the world because at least Georgia from My Favorite Murder is with me but how many of you book people are with me in thinking that cults are horribly interesting? Horrible because I mean they are tragic AF often, but I'm so interested in them. 

 JZ Knight, channeler of Ramtha. Photo from this Seattle Times article - http://blogs.seattletimes.com/politicsnorthwest/2014/05/09/democrats-again-under-fire-over-jz-knight-donations/

JZ Knight, channeler of Ramtha. Photo from this Seattle Times article - http://blogs.seattletimes.com/politicsnorthwest/2014/05/09/democrats-again-under-fire-over-jz-knight-donations/

In fact, Yelm, near where I live, has its very own cult! Ramtha's School of Enlightenment. The leader, J.Z. Knight (an old white lady), claims to channel Ramtha the Enlightened One - according to Wikipedia she even puts on an Indian accent when she channels him LOLOLOL. She runs a school out of Yelm. We've driven past many times, and you can't see in at all. The grounds are completely hidden with trees and there are security cameras everywhere. Creepy! They've been accused of using brainwashing and mind control. Ramtha's School does have a few celebrity followers, including Linda Evans and Salma Hayek. Hoping they don't track me down or do some Scientology shit for posting this - I mean I haven't said anything that hasn't been said and documented online before.

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Why am I talking about this? Well, The Incendiaries is about a girl's eventual integration into a cult. It follows Phoebe Lin and Will Kendall, students at a prestigious university. Phoebe feels responsible for her mom's death but doesn't tell anyone. Instead, she bottles up her feelings. Will is a transfer from a religious school who has recently turned away from Christianity, even though his religion previously defined his entire life. Will doesn't have money, so he doesn't quite fit in with the rich student body, but he finds ways to make it work. Will and Phoebe meet at a party, and Will is enchanted with Phoebe. They start dating, but Will feels like he is powerless when Phoebe starts spending more and more time with a cult leader who knows her dad. She doesn't see that it's a cult, or maybe she does and doesn't want to believe it. The group bombs some buildings (not a spoiler btw - this happens right away in the book) and Will tries to understand how Phoebe got to this place.

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I found this book enjoyable overall, but had a few qualms. I felt that it was somewhat overwritten to the point where I was confused about what was actually happening at times. Lots of metaphors and verbose descriptions made it hard to follow. I didn't feel deeply connected to the characters. It kind of felt like watching them through foggy glass. Weirdly, another book about a cult was similar in the overwrittenness - The Girls by Emma Cline - but that one was much worse. In The Incendiaries, it was tolerable and I was engaged enough to keep reading. I ended up putting down The Girls and I still don't understand how there was a bidding war between publishers over it. 

I think if you liked The Girls, or if you're into cults, you might like The Incendiaries as well. And, thanks to Riverhead Books for sharing it with me.

Review and my movie cast for The Banker's Wife

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Do you ever have books where the whole time you're reading them, you're just thinking about how great they would be as a movie? Or even, how much better the movie would be? The Banker's Wife by Cristina Alger is one of those books for me. This review is going to be half review, half dream movie casting.

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The Banker's Wife is about, well, a banker's wife, but also a journalist and the banker's assistant and the journalist's fiancé. When Matthew Lerner's plane crashes in the alps (he is the banker, at the bank Swiss United) with one of his female clients that his wife Annabel had never heard of, she just has a gut feeling that it wasn't an accident. Meanwhile, journalist Marina Tourneau is engaged to Grant Ellis, the son of a powerful businessman who is about to announce his run for president. Marina's mentor leaves her with information about the shady dealings of Swiss United before he is found dead in his home. Her findings tie a lot of powerful people to some unethical and illegal to Swiss United.

Annabel races to uncover the truth about Matthew, while Marina must decide how much of the Swiss United story to expose. Meanwhile, Matthew's beautiful young assistant Zoe must hide from the powerful forces at Swiss United who want to make sure she doesn't know too much. 

This book is a fast paced thriller, and I enjoyed it, but the lack of place and character development kept me from really loving it. However, I can totally picture it as a movie! So, I'm going to give you the movie cast you never asked for. First up, our main lady, the banker's wife herself, Annabel. She's described as a redhead, and beautiful, Matthew only has eyes for her, yadda yadda. But she's also a little bit smarter than the other bankers give her credit for, and she loves art. My choice: Emma Stone!

Next up, we have Marina. Marina was recently engaged to golden boy Grant Ellis, and struggling with her decision to leave her budding career behind and play trophy wife. Her description said black hair and blue eyes, and referred to her being pale so... basically everyone in this book is supposed to be white (of course, the usual), but I don't care so I'm going with Kerry Washington because she would be perf for this role. Serving up some Olivia Pope fierceness as a badass woman journalist crumbling the patriarchy and exposing hideous acts of powerful men.

Zoe is beautiful, young, French, and as is a trend with these women, smarter than men expect. I don't know many blonde French actresses (pretty sure it said blonde? Going with it) but I do think Clemence Poesy would be great.

And the last person I'm going to cast is Jonas. Head of Swiss United, mastermind of schemes. I think Steven Weber would be great for this. Pretends to be nice but secretly (or not secretly) an evil villain, head banker, asshole extraordinaire. 

Most of the rest of the cast would be sleazy bankers, golden boy politicians, and crooked businessmen. I don't really care to cast them.

So what do you think? Do I have a future as a casting director? I think Hollywood would be silly not to hire me. They'd really miss out. Also, if you've read this book, let me know if you agree with my choices!

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Book review: This Must Be the Place by Maggie O'Farrell

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Thought I would start off my blog reviews on a high note... a very high note... a FIVE STAR BOOK high note! That's right, this book earned my notoriously hard to earn fifth star! Meaning, I loved it, I lived for it, I want everyone to read it and I especially want everyone to love it as much as I did.

What is the book, you ask? Or, you don't, because it's in the title. The book is This Must Be the Place, and the brilliant amazing author is Maggie O'Farrell. I heard about this book on the What Should I Read Next podcast from the book blog queen herself, Anne Bogel. Usually I like her recommendations, so when I saw this at my local favorite bookstore (Browsers, pictured), I impulse bought it.

 The two impulse buys on my Browsers trip

The two impulse buys on my Browsers trip

I cannot say enough good things about this book. The writing, the way she weaves together the stories of the characters so that you feel like you got to read 10 different stories (even though they're all anchored together with our main character, Daniel), the way she writes about relationships, and the story. The STORY! The characters! I just fell so in love with this book, I immediately went out and bought two more of her books after finishing it.

This Must Be the Place is about a marriage, and a family. It's also about a man, the man in the marriage, Daniel Sullivan. Daniel is a New Yorker who went to school in England and now lives in a remote home in Ireland with his wife Claudette and their two children. Daniel has two older children from a previous marriage that he never talks to or get to see, but not really by choice. Claudette also has one older son from a previous marriage who is off at boarding school.

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Claudette, as it turns out, is an ex-movie-star turned recluse. She disappeared, just straight up ghosted society, in the middle of filming a movie by running away with her son, and nobody knows where she went. Daniel stumbles upon Claudette when he journeys to Ireland to collect his late grandfather's ashes, and voila, they fall in love and he moves there to be with her.

When Daniel heads back to the US for his father's 90th birthday, he hears a radio program speaking of a long lost lover from his past as if she's been dead for awhile. He looks into it, and she has, and he had no idea... as Daniel spends more time away from Claudette, he tries to confront some things from his past, including his far away children, and gets caught up uncovering the truth about his ex-love's death.

This story is told from multiple perspectives and jumps around in time. I just LOVED the structure of this book. For example, one of Daniel's kids loves footnotes. A chapter focused on him is full of footnotes. Another chapter is entirely full of descriptions of items to be auctioned off that used to belong to Claudette. It's so unique! And, each character has their own story, all related to Daniel or Claudette in some way, but their own so that you feel like you got to read many more books than one by the end, somehow. Maggie O'Farrell's language is entirely readable but also nerdy? Somehow? Is that a thing - nerdy language? It helps that Daniel is a linguist.

For a story about a marriage, this book is so gripping. I didn't want it to end. It was an immensely satisfying book, without a contrived intentionally satisfying ending. The way the story built, the realness of the characters (even those you only spend a little time with) - O'Farrell is so talented. So many times entire books will be about a character and I'll never feel connected or invested in them. With these characters, I was immediately invested. They immediately felt real.

This book tells a story of a complex relationship, and of a man coping with grief and confronting his demons. I highly recommend this to, well, everyone! I can't wait to read more of O'Farrells writing, and This Must Be the Place is going down as one of my favorites. 

Let me know in the comments if you've read this, what you thought of it, if you're going to read it, or if you've read any of her other books! Happy reading!

 Browsers haul of the day + Izzy

Browsers haul of the day + Izzy