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Book Review: Grit by Gillian French

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Darcy Prentiss lives in rural Maine. When she isn’t raking berries with her sister Mags and cousin Nell, she spends her time drinking and swimming in the quarry. She’s got a reputation, but she also knows how to have a really good time, and her reputation as the town “slut” means that everyone is watching her every move. When someone nominates her for the Bay Festival Princess, Darcy realizes that it might be as a joke–but it might have a more sinister meaning behind, it too. As the summer heats up, so do the secrets that Darcy’s been trying to keep hidden.

Gillian French’s novel about girlhood and sisters and secrets is so gorgeously written that this review could stop right there. But French’s prose is just the tip of the iceberg on this memorable, smart, and captivating book. Darcy’s narration is riveting and real, and she’s a heroine who is flawed but so strong and determined it’s impossible not to root for her even as she makes mistakes.

Secondary characters are also given care and consideration, rounding them out from the caricatures they could easily become in a less gifted writer’s hands. The bonds between Nell and Darcy and Mags are fully realized, and French spends time examining the prickly bonds of sisterhood and family. There’s a lot of exploration of what it is to be a girl in the world, of what it is to be a sexual being, of what it is to be poor.  It’s really excellent.

Although it’s not a straight-up mystery, there are secrets that help propel the narrative forward. French does a beautiful job of weaving hints into the narrative without every being too obtuse nor too obvious, and the result is very satisfying and realistic. Readers will be guessing until the end, and even those who figure it out early will find the ending emotionally resonant. I loved this one. One of my favorite reads of the year.

Grit by Gillian French. Harper Teen: 2017. Library copy.

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Book Review: Made for Love by Alissa Nutting

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Hazel is on the run from her tech-giant CEO husband and has found herself crashing with her elderly father and his lifelike sex doll in his trailer park. Determined to go off the grid after a decade being essentially held prisoner in her husband’s tech compound, Hazel fully immerses herself into a different kind of life, one filled with strange characters.

Nutting’s first novel, the deeply riveting and equally disturbing Tampa, set her up as an author to watch. That novel was excellently plotted, and fully explored the unsettling ideas it put forth. This is not the case with Nutting’s follow-up, which presents a ton of fascinating ideas at the onset and then fails to see any of them through. The result is muddled, disappointing, and a bit boring at times.

Part of the problem lies with Hazel, who never really becomes a fully realized character. Neither does Jasper, a con artist whose freak encounter with a dolphin fundamentally alters his sexual proclivities. It’s hard to connect (ironically, part of Nutting’s central thesis) as a result.

The result is uneven and unsatisfying. While the novel starts with a promising few chapters, it quickly loses its momentum and focus, and the result is disappointing. I can’t wait to see what Nutting does next, but I hope it’s not more of this.

Made for Love by Alissa Nutting. Ecco: 2017. Library copy.

 

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Book Review: When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon

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Dimple Shah is ready for her college life, and she thinks that a special coding summer course is the thing to give her a leg up when she starts her program in the fall. She’s surprised when her parents agree to it. Enter summer course classmate Rishi Patel, a boy who is a hopeless romantic…and apparently Dimple’s future husband. Unbeknownst to Dimple, both sets of parents have set in motion an arranged marriage for the two. Dimple fights it, but Rishi is actually pretty sweet. Maybe opposites do attract?

Told in alternating chapters, Dimple and Rishi narrate this lighthearted novel about culture and identity. Menon’s book has garnered a great deal of praise, and it’s easy to see why people are attracted to it: she blends Hindi language and traditions into the narrative without it ever feeling jarring, and she manages to distinctly encapsulate the personalities of two very different protagonists. It’s a heartwarming story with a happy ending that many readers will gobble up.

That said, it’s also way, way too long. Nearly every conflict presented in the book is resolved about two-thirds of the way through, leaving readers with another 100 pages where the narrative threads largely unravel. The result is a flabby mess of an ending, and one that could have been avoided with a stronger editing hand. Menon is also a debut author, and there are moments where the prose isn’t nearly as strong as it could be.

There’s a lot to like here, and Menon should be commended for writing about a touchy subject (especially in a YA novel) with such grace and generosity. Menon is an author to watch, because there’s enormous teen appeal here. I just wish it had been more tightly constructed.

When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon. Simon Pulse: 2017. Library copy.

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What I Read this Week

I didn’t get nearly as much reading done over the long weekend. But here’s what I read this week:

18060008Under the Egg by Laura Marx Fitzgerald:  Theodora spills a bottle of rubbing alcohol on her dead grandfather’s painting, and she discovers what appears to be a Renaissance masterpiece underneath the old paint. It could be great news for Theo, who is struggling to keep her old house in working order and support her loose-cannon mother, but it could also mean she’s in possession of a stolen work of art. With the help of some new friends, Theo unravels the mystery of the painting as well as her grandfather’s life.

I really enjoyed this story of a 13-year-old girl who’s resourceful and plucky. There’s a lot of good stuff here, including some World War II history, a love song to the city of New York, a dash of art history, and some quirky characters. The audiobook narration was great, and I can see this having appeal to a lot of middle grade readers.

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Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert:  Suzette is back at home for the summer after a year away at boarding school. Although she’s dealing with some personal issues of her own, she knows that her step brother, Lionel, needs her emotional support. This is especially true when he tells her he’s gone off his bi-polar meds. But things get extra complicated when Suzette finds herself falling for the same girl that her brother has started to date.

I feel like I’ve been waiting for a new Brandy Colbert book forever, and this one was worth the wait in many ways. A deft exploration of sexual identity as well as the complicated bonds of blended families, I really enjoyed this slow-burn of a book. There’s a lot to like here, and it’s one that should find an audience with adults and teens alike.

25701463You’re Welcome, Universe by Whitney Gardner: Julia’s supposed best friend turns her in for covering up a slur with a beautiful graffiti mural. She gets expelled from her Deaf school, and ends up mainstreamed at a school in the suburbs. Angry, isolated, and unwilling to give up her love of street art, Julia has to contend with the fact that some other street artist is answering her pieces–or destroying them. But who?

I loved this ode to street art and Deaf culture. Julia is a super prickly character, and a lot of readers are going to have a hard time with her, but I thought she was great, with an authentic voice. This one reminded me a great deal of Switched at Birth, so it might be a great readalike for fans of the show.

What did you read this week?

 

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Book Review: See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

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In August of 1892, Lizzie Borden called out to her maid that someone had killed her father. News of the brutal murder of Andrew and his wife Abby flew through town, and it wasn’t long before the Borden daughters, Lizzie and Emma, are embroiled in a police investigation. As the police work to solve the crime, Emma deals with her sister’s increasingly bizarre behavior.

See What I Have Done is Sarah Schmidt’s re-imagining of the Borden murders, but it’s a clever take on the infamous event. While she presents some facts to keep readers grounded in the historical realities of what took place all those years ago, she’s far less interested in presenting a new version of what “really” happened to readers. Instead, she focuses on just four days in the Borden household, and presents it in shifting perspectives to keep things interesting (and unreliable). The result is a claustrophobic fever-dream narration, and it really works.

The writing is compelling, as Schmidt allows Lizzie’s narration to verge from almost lucid to something closer to baby talk, while the mysterious stranger Benjamin’s narration also hints at being somewhat unhinged. Schmidt plays with her prose, allowing nouns to become verbs and relying heavily on sensory language to build tension and also a sense of place. Repetition is used to great effect.

A master at telling readers just enough while leaving many blank spaces for each individual to fill in with their own imaginations, this is a deeply unsettling read. It’s compelling, horrifying, and absolutely riveting. Readers won’t be able to put this one down. Recommended.

See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt. Atlantic Monthly: 2017. Library copy.

 

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What I Read this Week

These are the books I finished this week (and one I forgot to add to last week’s list):

32191677American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land by Monica Hesse: Investigating a series of arsons in Accomack County throughout the winter of 2012, Hesse’s excellent nonfiction book about arson and failing economies reads like fiction but presents facts. By the time the perpetrators were caught, there were more than 60 arson charges pending. But why arson, and why in the town where the perpetrators lived?

Smart, well-researched, and absolutely captivating, this is a lovely blend of social science and true crime writing. I really liked this one.
17543256Beauty and the Blacksmith by Tessa Dare: This novella takes place in the fictional town of Spindle Cove and features a light and incredibly improbable romance between a noblewoman and the town’s blacksmith. Though they know their love is socially unacceptable, they can’t help themselves.

This was my first Tessa Dare, read during a slow Saturday shift at the library. It was very silly, very light, and very fun.

31706530Grit by Gillian French: Darcy spends her summer days raking berries with her sister Mags and her cousin Nell, and most of her nights swimming in the quarry and drinking beer with boys. She has a reputation, but she also knows how to have a good time. Darcy likes to have fun, because it keeps the demons of her past at bay. But then someone nominates her for the Bay Festival Princess, and she realizes that she might not be able to keep her past as hidden as she’d like.

This is a phenomenal read, with a fully realized setting, vivid characters, and gripping narration on the part of Darcy. I loved it, and I kept thinking about the characters even in between reading sessions. One of my favorite reads of the year.

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The Best Man by Kristan Higgins: Ever since she was left at the alter, Faith Holland has been wary of finding the perfect man. She returns home to her family’s vineyard to confront her ghosts and move on with her life once and for all. But Levi Cooper, the police chief and best friend of her former fiancee, can’t seem to leave her alone. And even though the two of them seem to hate each other, they can’t deny the attraction.

I don’t know, guys. I wanted to like this one–I know Higgins is known for her quirky romances that always feature a dog, but this one was so formulaic it bored me from the start. Faith is so desperate to get married it’s off-putting, and while I liked Levi, his problems felt pretty formulaic, too.  By far the biggest issue is the book’s blatant transphobia, which really soured the entire read.

What did you read this week?

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August 2017 Recap

This is how the month of August shaped up for me in terms of reading books and watching movies. And a lot of terrible TV.

Books:

Total: 35
Picture Books: 21
Middle Grade: 3
YA: 3
Adult: 8
Fiction: 30
Non-Fiction: 5
Audiobooks: 2
Total Pages Read: 4254

Favorite Reads in August:

32940879Gather the Daughters by Jennie Melamed: I loved this dystopian tale about an island where the (increasingly inbred) population follows a religion based on ancestor worship and strange mating rituals. It’s dark and haunting and beautifully written. I couldn’t pt it down. It’s one of my favorite reads of the year.

Grit by Gillian French: This fantastic YA novel about a girl31706530 living with a reputation in rural Maine was gripping and gorgeous. It’s my favorite kind of YA: dark, a little gritty, and featuring an authentic teen voice. French is an author to watch, and this is one of my favorite YA novels of the year, for sure.

Viewing

Total Movies: 6
New: 5
Re-Watch: 1

Favorite Movies in August: 

landlineLandline: I really really liked this dramedy about a family each dealing with their own issues. Set in 1995, things change for youngest daughter Ali (Abby Quinn) when she realizes her father (John Turturro) is having an affair. Meanwhile, Ali’s older sister Dana (Jenny Slate) starts to question her long-term relationship with nice guy Ben (Jay Duplass). It’s a smart movie, full of genuinely funny and sad moments about family and love and sisters, and while director Gillian Robespierre’s first movie Obvious Child remains my favorite, I really loved watching this tighter, more controlled narrative.

Everything else I watched in August was mostly garbage, including Baywatch, Beatriz at Dinner, and The Dinner.

Other Things I’ve Been Watching:

I’m almost done with Dawson’s Creek, and I want it to be over so desperately. I also can’t not finish, so I’m stuck in a pain cycle of my own doing. Everyone on the show is simultaneously boring and also the worst. I forgot how boring the show is in general, but it’s especially true of the college years.

I finally convinced the boyf to watch The Office, so we’ve been tearing through that. We started with Season 2, because he’s particularly sensitive to super awkward humor, and he seems to really be enjoying it, which is fun for me because it’s still one of my absolute favorite series.

That’s it, really. I’m hoping to read more genre fiction in September, and try to squeeze in a few movies, too.