Book Reviews: January 2018

I mentioned this on Instagram already - I’m changing up my book blogs slightly for the foreseeable future. Instead of an individual post for each book, I’m going to do a monthly roundup. I’ve already been doing this a little the past couple months (grouping book club reads and celebrity memoirs, for example) because all the reviews take up a lot of time. I have some other things I’m trying to focus on right now and I don’t want reading to become a chore. I’ll still be saying something about each book, just with shorter reviews and less frequent posts! If anything this will help me be consistent with posting, since there’s just one a month.

In January 2018 I read only two books, mainly because I basically hibernate in winter and I did a loooooot more Nexflix/HBO-ing than normal. (The Office. Harry Potter. That’s all.)

No spoilers below!

 

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology is a collection of stories inspired by traditional Norse myths. Gaiman sticks close to the source material in a novel-ish format, culminating with an epic prediction of the world’s end.

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I know exactly zero things about Norse mythology, and close to zero things about every other kind of mythology. I enjoyed this, though. The myths were told in a classic style with sentences like, "Tyr found one-handed, but he fought bravely, and he slew his share of giants that day." So even if Gaiman took some creative liberties it still felt like I was reading mythology. This made me look forward to reading more of his work.

My favorite story was The Children of Loki - I really liked the Fenris Wolf stories - and Loki ended up being my favorite character. Tyr was a close second. I pictured Thor and Loki in my head as Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston...not sure if that's because I've watched the Marvel movies too many times or if those actors are just right for their roles.

Rating: 4 of 5 stars

 

Pretty Girls by Karin Slaughter

I have never done this on a review, but I need to add a trigger warning. TW - This book contains graphic and shocking violence against women, rape, and torture scenes. If you don’t like reading violence, this is not for you.

In Pretty Girls, sisters Claire and Lydia have been estranged for decades, ever since their sister disappeared. When Claire’s husband is shockingly murdered, the two reconnect and realize they might uncover the truth about both crimes.

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I thought this book was going to be a sort of Gone Girl or Girl on the Train type thriller, but with a different vibe since the main characters were sisters. I was not at all prepared for the graphic, violent scenes. There were so many descriptions of the violence I just started to skim those parts a bit as they were making me queasy and were just plain horrific. Honestly, if I had known it had such content I wouldn't have picked it up. I can handle the occasional murder mystery just fine, but this went beyond that. And the official book summary would never lead you to suspect it!!

Slaughter did a great job of pacing this novel; the book was long but it never felt redundant. There wasn't just one dramatic scene at the end but four or five parts when I was really anxious to find out what happened next. (Mostly because I wanted to see the bad/evil/heinous guy get what he so deserved.) Between the two sisters, I thought Lydia was more relatable - and her family was cute - but I liked their relationship dynamic overall. 

My husband was glad (and I was too) when I finished reading this because he could tell it was bumming me out. Still, I’m rating it higher because Slaughter is a great, suspenseful storyteller.

Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

Final 2017 Reviews

In an attempt to write a little something on every book I read this year, I'm lumping six books together in one group review so I can knock out 2017. Yes, I'm being lazy. Yes, I should've done these separate. Yes, it's been a couple months since I read these. That's the main reason for the lumping - I've forgotten specifics and don't want to spend days agonizing over six blogs. 

Some very minor spoilers may be below. Now, in the order I read them:

The Assassin’s Blade by Sarah J. Maas

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The Assassin’s Blade is a collection of short stories that take place prior to the first book in Sarah Maas’ Throne of Glass series. TOG fans should definitely read these at some point, but if you’ve already read the first one don’t panic. I would just recommend reading them before you start Heir of Fire (book 3) at least.  

While reading these, I got the feeling Maas was just trying to clarify on a few points she failed to cover in the regular books. There were so many hints about Sam and Celaena’s relationship in TOG that I just did not care about because I knew nothing about Sam, but thankfully The Assassin’s Blade made me like him a lot. (Can we just keep him instead of Dorian?) Celaena had many, many flaws throughout the series (Mary Sue and not a believable assassin, to start) and these novellas added necessary depth and badass-ery to her.

My two favorite novellas were The Assassin and the Healer and The Assassin and the Desert. I enjoyed seeing Celaena somewhere other than Rifthold and both of those showed a more vulnerable side to her character while establishing that she was actually good at her job.

Rating: 3 of 5 stars

 

The Storied Life of AJ Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

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Recently widowed AJ Fikry is having a hard time in life - his bookstore is struggling and one of his rare pieces was stolen. When a package of sorts is left at his store one night, Fikry realizes he has the chance to start over and have a meaningful life. 

This is, to put it simply, a happy book. It’s basically a Lifetime/Hallmark movie in book format. Normally, I don’t really care for this genre, but in The Storied Life of AJ Fikry all the characters were bookworms and so of course I loved it. It’s heartwarming and easy to get through if you’re needing something to put a smile on your face. Several of the plot points were a bit predictable, which is my only critique, but I didn't really care all that much. The happy ending was too cute for me to get worked up about a few cliches.

One big plus was all the literary references that the characters made. Many of them I knew but others I had to look up, so it was like a little treasure hunt!

Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

 

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

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Two young girls love to dance; one has talent and the other has no rhythm, leaving Smith's unnamed narrator in the shadow of her friend Tracey's skills. Though this friendship ends, the two girls keep finding themselves interconnected in the strangest stages of life. 

Swing Time was neither amazing nor awful for me, though I did end up liking Smith’s writing style quite a bit. My main problem with Swing Time was that it didn’t feel very cohesive; it had so many different themes like celebrity culture, colonialism, broken childhood friendships, etc. I never knew what to focus on. I kept wanting more know more about Aimee. And then Tracey. And then I found myself wishing I was reading more about two girls trying to make it as dancers, which is what I originally thought this book was about.  

I definitely plan to read more of Smith's work as she's very skilled; hopefully, the next one will click with me a bit more. 

Rating: 3 of 5 stars

 

The Armageddon Rag by George RR Martin

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In The Armageddon Rag, journalist Sandy Blair is following a story that takes him back to his radical youth in the 1960’s. When he reconnects with one of the world's most popular bands, the Nazgul, he realizes his story is taking him deep into a sinister plot he may not be able to escape.

It pains me to say this because GRRM is one of my all-time favorite authors, but...I didn’t care for this. At all. By the time I got to the last third of the novel I was just trying to hurry up and finish it. I think maybe someone who came of age in the 60’s would really enjoy it, or at least appreciate all the references. (I did get some of the musical references but much of it was over my head.) I got the impression from this that Martin missed his youth and the feeling of the 60’s. Blair was also the most one-dimensional character Martin has ever written, which was straight up weird because he's generally amazing with all his characters. 

The story itself is fairly entertaining so if the 60’s is something you deeply love, give it a chance. Be prepared for a lot of redundant descriptions of feeling the music.

Rating: 2 of 5 stars

 

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

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A Thousand Splendid Suns spans thirty years in the life of a family living in Afghanistan. Mariam and Laila, two women from different generations brought together by chance, develop a relationship that alters their course of their lives. 

This was one of my favorite reads of the year, thanks to the female characters. I cried reading about Mariam's childhood. I cried when tragedy struck Laila. I cried when, against all odds, the two grew an unbreakable bond. I cried even more at the ending. If nothing else, this is a beautiful story about strong women. 

I’ve seen a couple reviews that criticize Hosseini for his portrayal of Afghan culture but I’m not here to add to that. Obviously, I don’t know from personal experience how accurate it is. I thought he was respectful, specifically toward religion. For example, the women felt positively about their burqas and didn't feel oppressed by wearing them. I can see how the husband was a stereotype, but it just made me angry about abusive men in general. 

Hosseini's writing was lovely, as well. I'm excited to read his other books. A couple quotes I marked as I was reading:

“...Children that they had not bled away with soapy water and the bodily filth of strangers down some bathhouse drain.”

“Only at dusk did the winds die down. And then if a night breeze blew, it did so timidly, as if to atone for the excesses of its daytime sibling.”

Rating: 5 of 5 stars

 

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

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The Perks of Being a Wallflower follows high school freshman Charlie as he learns how to grow up with his new, loyal friends.

Perks contained many different mature themes - rape, homophobia, sexual abuse, substance abuse, physical abuse, first sexual experiences, just to name a few. In spite of all that, the powerful moments were glossed over because of the narrator, Charlie. Charlie was supposed to be ridiculously smart and observant, but I felt like I was reading about high school through the mind of a child. I had to remind myself constantly that he wasn't 10, but 15/16. (I've seen people say that Charlie had a learning disability, but that wasn't confirmed anywhere in the book so I'm going to assume he didn't. If he did, that should've been made clear.)

The ending felt very rushed, like I was expected to suddenly feel sorry for Charlie because of the last second revelation. Sure, it was horrific and anyone who experiences what he did in real life has my deepest sympathy. The book just wasn't well written.

I think you have to be in high school to appreciate this one. Adult me was just glad it was short.

Rating: 2 of 5 stars

Review: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Americanah begins with two teenagers, Ifemelu and Obinze, who fall in love in Nigeria. Ifemelu takes the opportunity to immigrate to America in the midst of Nigeria's political unrest and reluctantly leaves Obinze behind. Years later, Obinze is a businessman and Ifemelu is a well-known blogger writing about racial issues from her perspective as an immigrant. Both have changed and reconnecting will prove harder than either expects. 

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My Thoughts:

The first thing I want to say is that this book is not at all what I expected it to be - in a good way. I initially thought “Oh hey, this will be a romance novel with some of Adichie’s experiences as an immigrant thrown in!” This is more like a fictionalized version of Adichie’s opinions on, well, everything. Most of these opinions took the form of Ifemelu’s thoughts or excerpts from her blog. And I loved it, but the style threw me off at first. So just know going in that there will be a lot of mini-lectures and Americanah will make more sense to you.

Americanah was pretty long but I got through it quickly, mainly because Adichie created really strong characters. Even the minor characters were solid. I liked Ifemelu's white boyfriend, Curt, and the genuine connection they shared. Blaine was okay, the best part of their relationship was watching them come together to support Obama. Obinze was my favorite overall.

Adichie made a strong argument for every issue she tackled, and so many times she put immigrant issues into a perspective most people have never really considered. I'm not an immigrant, so it was good to read something honest from the perspective of someone who has lived that hard life. Americanah, for that reason, is powerful. 

My only critique is that I didn’t think the flashback structure was necessary. A strictly chronological timeline would’ve been just fine, since 99% of the book was told that way anyway. When it did hop back into the novel’s present day, I was distracted and it took away from the tensions in Ifemelu’s life.

Below are a couple quotes that stood out to me:

“And what’s a Magic Negro, you ask? The black man who is eternally wise and kind. He never reacts under great suffering, never gets angry, is never threatening. He always forgives all kinds of racist shit. He teaches the white person how to break down the sad but understandable prejudice in his heart. You see this man in many films. And Obama is straight from central casting.” (This wasn't meant as a diss toward Obama.)

“If you’re telling a non-black person about something racist that happened to you, make sure you are not bitter. Don’t complain. Be forgiving. If possible, make it funny. Most of all, do not be angry. Black people are not supposed to be angry about racism. Otherwise you get no sympathy. This applies only for white liberals, by the way. Don’t even bother telling a white conservative about anything racist that happened to you. Because the conservative will tell you that YOU are the real racist and your mouth will hang open in confusion." (I hope I'm the kind of white liberal that people can show their anger around.)

There was one more quote I really loved, something about romantic love being an important key in eradicating racism in the future. I forgot to mark that one as I was reading, though, and I couldn’t find it later.

Rating: 4/5 - Some parts felt a bit redundant but overall this was a really strong novel. 

Review: The Other End of the Leash by Patricia McConnell

The Other End of the Leash is basically the Bible for dog owners and lovers. It should be required reading for every single human being who has a dog in their life. After reading Karen Pryor’s books on clicker training, I realized I have so much more to learn about dog behavior and picked this one up.

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My Thoughts:

This book was eye opening. Instead of focusing just on what the dog is doing wrong and trying to correct it with words and raised voices, McConnell suggests we stop and use the body language dogs can understand. But first, we humans have to understand what we're saying with our bodies. She also emphasized respecting the dog's full range of emotions - dogs are not always happy and cuddly. They feel upset, sad, and anxious, and it's up to the owner to accept that but also do their best to solve problems. (McConnell talked about making sure you can appropriately exercise your dog based on your living situation.)

Being aggressive (leash pulling, yelling, smacking) toward a dog without understanding what it needs is only going to cause problems. I’m never aggressive toward Yoshi, but this book did show me how my own actions might be perceived by him. For example, walking directly at him very quickly. I might just be headed toward the refrigerator, but in dog language this can be interpreted as rude and strange. The "Truth About Dominance" section had a lot of great information on why you should never physically force a dog into recognizing you as "alpha." 

Since McConnell is the animal behavior expert, not me, I have the following quotes to share from the book. I think these all sum it up nicely. 

“The next time you see a dog you’d like to greet, stop a few feet away, stand sideways rather than straight on, and avoid looking directly into her eyes. Wait for the dog to come all the way to you. If she doesn’t, she doesn’t want to be petted. So don’t pet her. It’s not really that much to ask.”

(I loved this the second I read it. It’s ALWAYS been a pet peeve of mine to see a grown human being start squealing in the face of a strange dog. If it’s that annoying to me, how much more does the average dog hate that? I can assure you mine only tolerates it, he does not enjoy it. If this quote personally offends you...you’re probably one of those people that doesn’t respect the dog’s space.)

“We confuse our dogs by repeating words no matter what the dog is doing because that’s what chimps and humans tend to do when they get anxious or excited. We’re oblivious to the visual signals that we’re sending to our dogs while we’re busy constructing long sentences, because speech is so very important to our species. We raise our voices for no reason and are far too quick to jerk a leash around if we get frustrated, because that’s what bipedal apes tend to do.”

“It’s a lot easier to stop catering to your dog when you’re aware that, after about three years of age, she is a mature adult and perfectly capable of the emotional control that is necessary in all social animals.”

“So much old-fashioned obedience training could be summarized as ‘Do it because I told you to, and if you don’t, I’ll hurt you.’ (She’s referring to physical force on a dog, the alpha rollover for example.) ...But this approach terrorizes many dogs and leads to dogs who are afraid of their owners or who become defensively aggressive because they perceive that they are under attack all the time.”

“You don’t need to use physical force to impress your dog. If you do, you’re sending the message that you have no real power and no alternative but force and intimidation… You may get obedience out of a dog by threatening him, but mostly you’re going to get a dog who is afraid of you. Far too often, you’ll get a dog who learns to defend himself by getting aggressive back.”

(I guess this is why dog trainers know there’s no such thing as a dog who “suddenly snaps.” It’s a build up of frustration and their signals getting ignored.)

In summary: Learn what your body language says to dogs. Learn what theirs says to you. Respect the dog.

Rating: 4.5/5 stars (Not a 5 because the writing was a bit cutesy at times.)