While anyone who is close to me is very aware that I’m actively seeking to make a career change, I will say I am still very appreciative of the weeks off I get during the summer in exchange for working in education. Last week was my first official “work free” week and I took advantage of that time to catch up on some books that have been staring at me from the ever-growing TBR piles. Maybe it’s just the energy I have knowing I get a break from my daily work stressors for an extended period of time, but I have been FLYING through books and not a single one has been a disappointment. Below are some brief reviews of the books I’ve already managed to read this month, and I’d easily recommend them all!
In a country teetering on the brink of civil war, two young people meet—sensual, fiercely independent Nadia and gentle, restrained Saeed. They embark on a furtive love affair and are soon cloistered in a premature intimacy by the unrest roiling their city. When it explodes, turning familiar streets into a patchwork of checkpoints and bomb blasts, they begin to hear whispers about doors—doors that can whisk people far away, if perilously and for a price. As the violence escalates, Nadia and Saeed decide that they no longer have a choice. Leaving their homeland and their old lives behind, they find a door and step through.
Exit West follows these characters as they emerge into an alien and uncertain future, struggling to hold on to each other, to their past, to the very sense of who they are. Profoundly intimate and powerfully inventive, it tells an unforgettable story of love, loyalty, and courage that is both completely of our time and for all time.
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
Publication Date: March 7, 2017 by Riverhead
With a nice balance of both reality and fantasy, Exit West is unlike any book I’ve read yet. I tend to stay away from romances, but decided to give this one a try in my efforts to expand my diverse reading choices. For those who love books about people – this is the perfect book to pick up next!
Yes, much of the story focuses on Saaed and Nadia’s relationship, but it is also much more complicated than that. Exit West is a haunting exploration of what it means to be a refugee and gives the reader a firsthand experience of what often is like for those who are considered “outsiders” in a world where too many people are scared of what (and who) they don’t understand (and oftentimes, are unwilling to understand).
One’s relationship to windows now changed in the city. A window was the border through which death was possibly most likely to come. Windows could not stop even the most flagging round of ammunition: any spot indoors with a view of the outside was a spot potentially in the crossfire. Moreover the pane of a window could itself become shrapnel so easily, shattered by a nearby blast, and everyone had heard of someone or other who had bled out after being lacerated by shards of flying glass.
Mohsin also makes the violence we have become a bit too used to on television so very personal. Nadia and Saeed are both such likable and relatable characters and seeing the increasing violence through their eyes adds to the tension in the story. Mohsin has taken an experience that seems so far removed for many in the Western hemisphere and made it frighteningly real and he does this with a writing style that is pure poetry.
Exit West turned out to be a blend of two genres that I usually don’t gravitate towards – romance and fantasy. However, Mohsin writes about events that are very prevalent and he does so while also sharing the very personal experiences of two, well-developed characters. This in combination with Mohsin’s unique writing style makes for an unforgettable read.
André is a listless Brazilian teenager and the son of a successful plastic surgeon who lives a life of wealth and privilege, shuttling between the hot sands of Ipanema beach and his family’s luxurious penthouse apartment. In 1985, when he is just sixteen, André’s mother is killed in a car accident. Clouded with grief, André, his younger brother Thiago, and his father travel with their domestic help to Belem, a jungle city on the mouth of the Amazon, where the intense heat of the rainforest only serves to heighten their volatile emotions. After they arrive back in Rio, André’s father loses himself in his work, while André spends his evenings in the family apartment with Luana, the beautiful daughter of the family’s maid.
Three decades later, and now a successful surgeon himself, André is a middle-aged father, living in London, and recently separated from his British wife. He drinks too much wine and is plagued by recurring dreams. One day he receives an unexpected letter from Luana, which begins to reveal the other side of their story, a story André has long repressed.
Flesh and Bone and Water by Luiza Sauma
Publication Date: June 20, 2017 by Scribner
I lie on my back and float, as I did back then, and I almost feel the same. Just flesh and bone and water, just another animal, another Indian swimming in the Amazon.
I was fortunate to receive a free copy of this book from Scribner (who doesn’t love surprise book mail?!) and found myself immediately drawn into Sauma’s prose. Flesh and Blood and Water is best described as a reflective coming-of-age story – chapters switch back and forth between Andre’s present life at the age of about 45 and events that took place in Brazil when he was a teenager on the cusp of adulthood.
The reader learns very quickly that something occurred during this time in Andre’s past that he has worked hard to repress when he receives a letter from his family’s prior empregada (maid), Luana. This initial correspondence leads to Andre’s reflection of his teenaged years in Rio and through a slow unravelling of his past memories, the reader begins to piece together what it is that Andre is so frightened to revisit.
Remembering Marajo, I feel as if I’m flicking through a filing cabinet, reading files written in a language I once knew, but am out of practice in. The language of being young, of knowing nothing. I’m setting these memories out as though they came to me so simply. This happened, then this and then this. But that’s not how it is. That’s not how it was.
I ultimately enjoyed Flesh and Bone and Water for Sauma’s descriptive prose. Brazil is a country I’ve yet to visit and I found myself totally absorbed in the environment in a way that let me feel as if I lived there. Andre is far from a likable character and I didn’t find many aspects of the “big reveal” to be that much of a surprise – I found myself more drawn in to the story of Brazil as a whole. While I generally love coming-of-age novels (and would definitely recommend this book to those who do as well!), I actually think Sauma’s writing style is what kept me fully captivated throughout my reading. Knowing that this is her debut novel, I’m excited to see what she writes next!
A single mother turns up dead at the bottom of the river that runs through town. Earlier in the summer, a vulnerable teenage girl met the same fate. They are not the first women lost to these dark waters, but their deaths disturb the river and its history, dredging up secrets long submerged.
Left behind is a lonely fifteen-year-old girl. Parentless and friendless, she now finds herself in the care of her mother’s sister, a fearful stranger who has been dragged back to the place she deliberately ran from—a place to which she vowed she’d never return.
With the same propulsive writing and acute understanding of human instincts that captivated millions of readers around the world in her explosive debut thriller, The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins delivers an urgent, twisting, deeply satisfying read that hinges on the deceptiveness of emotion and memory, as well as the devastating ways that the past can reach a long arm into the present.
Beware a calm surface—you nevGirl on the er know what lies beneath.
Into the Water by Paula Hawkins
Publication Date: May 2, 2017 by Riverhead
Like everybody else in the literary world, I LOVED The Girl on the Train and so I couldn’t wait to get my hands on Hawkins’ second novel. I was hesitant to start when the initial reviews began to pop up and the overall consensus seemed to be that it didn’t live up to her amazing debut. I’m happy to report that I had a very different reading experience than many others!
Into the Water is a much slower story than The Girl on the Train, but that doesn’t mean it is any less engaging. In fact, I found Hawkins’ second novel to show her growth as an author. Yes, Into the Water is another psychological thriller with lots of twists and mystery, but it’s also a novel about women. While the same could be said about The Girl on the Train, I found my reading experience with Hawkins’ follow-up book to be more driven by the complicated female characters and what the story revealed about the experiences women have and how it shapes them than the murder mystery (unlike The Girl on the Train which I felt was much more plot-driven).
Lena’s voice grew cold. ‘I don’t understand you. I don’t understand people like you, who always choose to blame the woman. If there’s two people doing something wrong and one of them’s a girl, it’s got to be her fault, right?’
The style of the book overall DID take some getting used to. The chapters are often brief and they include a myriad of characters. It was also rather jolting at times to find that chapters would switch from first person to third person point of view. Once I came to learn character names, it was easy to follow the flow a bit more. I also came to really enjoy the changes in POV, especially where Lena was concerned since her chapters were typically in first person and I felt that really added to the impact her narrative chapters had on the book as a whole.
If he knew what I’d been feeling, what I’d been through, I don’t think he’d be holding on to my arm. I think he’d be running for his fucking life.
What makes it so much fun to read Hawkins’ books is that she is SO DAMN GOOD at characterization. Women like Lena and Jules prove to be much more complicated than first impressions lead the reader to believe and Hawkins never lets a story end without making you question everything you thought you had come to know about the people involved. Without spoiling anything, all I’ll say is that much like The Girl on the Train, don’t get too comfortable believing that you’ve figured everything out before the last page!
When a bookshop patron commits suicide, it’s his favorite store clerk who must unravel the puzzle he left behind in this fiendishly clever debut novel from an award-winning short story writer.
Lydia Smith lives her life hiding in plain sight. A clerk at the Bright Ideas bookstore, she keeps a meticulously crafted existence among her beloved books, eccentric colleagues, and the BookFrogs—the lost and lonely regulars who spend every day marauding the store’s overwhelmed shelves.
But when Joey McGinty, a young, beguiling BookFrog, kills himself in the bookstore’s back room, Lydia’s life comes unglued. Always Joey’s favorite bookseller, Lydia has been bequeathed his meager worldly possessions. Trinkets and books; the detritus of a lonely, uncared for man. But when Lydia flips through his books she finds them defaced in ways both disturbing and inexplicable. They reveal the psyche of a young man on the verge of an emotional reckoning. And they seem to contain a hidden message. What did Joey know? And what does it have to do with Lydia?
As Lydia untangles the mystery of Joey’s suicide, she unearths a long buried memory from her own violent childhood. Details from that one bloody night begin to circle back. Her distant father returns to the fold, along with an obsessive local cop, and the Hammerman, a murderer who came into Lydia’s life long ago and, as she soon discovers, never completely left. Bedazzling, addictive, and wildly clever, Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore is a heart-pounding mystery that perfectly captures the intellect and eccentricity of the bookstore milieu and will keep you guessing until the very last page.
Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore by Matthew J. Sullivan
Publication Date: June 13, 2017 by Scribner
While I enjoyed Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore for its originality, there was a bit of a discord between the two story lines: Lydia’s childhood trauma and the “truth” behind Joey’s suicide. When the book began to divulge what happened to Lydia as a child, I found myself much more invested in the plot and couldn’t put the book down.
While getting to understand who Joey was prior to his suicide is pivotal to the plot overall, the actual process of learning about him and his connection to Lydia’s past jarred with the overall “feel” of the book. There’s a sense of lightness to following a mystery that involves secret messages cut into books that didn’t connect for me with the information the reader comes to learn about Lydia’s childhood trauma.
That isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy the book – far from it. I found characters like Raj, Plath and Tomas very engaging and felt pulled into the story because of them. I also found Lydia’s story to be frightening yet fascinating and wanted to know how things would ultimately turn out – I was definitely NOT let down by the ending!
Thanks again, Scribner for sending this unique debut novel my way!
The three of them—a twelve-year-old boy, his older brother, their father—have won the war: the father’s term for his bitter divorce and custody battle. They leave their Kansas home and drive through the night to Albuquerque, eager to begin again, united by the thrilling possibility of carving out a new life together. The boys go to school, join basketball teams, make friends. Meanwhile their father works from home, smoking cheap cigars to hide another smell. But soon the little missteps—the dead-eyed absentmindedness, the late night noises, the comings and goings of increasingly odd characters—become sinister, and the boys find themselves watching their father change, grow erratic, then violent.
One of the Boys by Daniel Magariel
Publication Date: March 14, 2017 by Scribner
Reading One of the Boys is a visceral and disturbing experience. I picked this up expecting to just read a few chapters before getting some sleep and instead stayed up until about 2am in order to read this short, vicious book to its conclusion.
As an individual who works with adolescents, I found my heart breaking for the 12 year old narrator since his situation reminded me so much of several of students I’ve encountered over the years. Who are you to trust if you can’t even trust your own parents?
My father snarled at me through the mirror, his hot breath and wet words streaming into my ear. Then he pushed me to the floor, left me panting by the bathtub. I was horrified and confused. I’d seen him whip my mother with a belt before. In fact, there were times when she was so terrorized by him that she would just give up, her entire being, like there was nothing left of her but a plea for mercy. She’d have apologized for the weather if it would have ended his rampage a second sooner. The difference was she deserved it.
Unlike books I’ve read prior that just try way too hard to give a “realistic” voice to a young narrator, I found Magariel’s depiction to be spot-on. As we follow the events through our 12 year-old narrator’s eyes, we see how easily both boys are manipulated by their damaged, addict of a father to believe everything he says (in particular about their mother). It’s only as their father becomes more and more involved in drugs and increasingly violent that they begin to understand the real danger of their predicament.
Our dad was an act with a single end. His trajectory: down, down, down. He was going to kill himself out here. And it wasn’t that I didn’t care anymore. He was my father. It was just that we had spent far too long as his audience, right here on this couch. We’d felt happy, hurt, sad here. We’d been reprimanded, confided in. We’d been dazed, embattled, betrayed. We’d slept here, dreamed here, youthful dreams that would never return.
The anxiety I felt seeing how trapped both boys were in such a horrible and lonely situation never went away while I read One of the Boys.
I am DYING to see what Magariel writes next after reading his stunning debut novel!