I started off November planning to get through as many of my Book of the Month picks as I could – I’m great about ordering them, but not great about actually following through and reading them soon after I get them. But then library books and book club and freelance work took over, and I concentrated on reading those things instead. This was a pretty good month for reading: I loved some books, didn’t like some others, but I managed to read a ton.
The Power | Naomi Alderman
In THE POWER, the world is a recognizable place: there’s a rich Nigerian boy who lounges around the family pool; a foster kid whose religious parents hide their true nature; an ambitious American politician; a tough London girl from a tricky family. But then a vital new force takes root and flourishes, causing their lives to converge with devastating effect. Teenage girls now have immense physical power–they can cause agonizing pain and even death. And, with this small twist of nature, the world drastically resets.
Mixed feelings about this one. The concept is super cool – it’s kind of a genderswapped history, with women in charge – but I didn’t entirely love how it played out. It felt kind of…forgettable? I did enjoy reading it, I just think it could have been better. Maybe I expected too much.
Little Fires Everywhere | Celeste Ng
In Shaker Heights, a placid, progressive suburb of Cleveland, everything is planned – from the layout of the winding roads, to the colors of the houses, to the successful lives its residents will go on to lead. And no one embodies this spirit more than Elena Richardson, whose guiding principle is playing by the rules.
Enter Mia Warren – an enigmatic artist and single mother – who arrives in this idyllic bubble with her teenaged daughter Pearl, and rents a house from the Richardsons. Soon Mia and Pearl become more than tenants: all four Richardson children are drawn to the mother-daughter pair. But Mia carries with her a mysterious past and a disregard for the status quo that threatens to upend this carefully ordered community.
I absolutely loved this one. It portrays so many different versions of motherhood and mothering. The characters all felt really authentic, especially the high schoolers (which is important to me). I’m excited that I get to discuss it with my book club in January.
And We’re Off | Dana Schwartz
Seventeen-year-old Nora Holmes is an artist, a painter from the moment she could hold a brush. She inherited the skill from her grandfather, Robert, who’s always nurtured Nora’s talent and encouraged her to follow her passion. Still, Nora is shocked and elated when Robert offers her a gift: an all-expenses-paid summer trip to Europe to immerse herself in the craft and to study history’s most famous artists. The only catch? Nora has to create an original piece of artwork at every stop and send it back to her grandfather. It’s a no-brainer: Nora is in!
Unfortunately, Nora’s mother, Alice, is less than thrilled about the trip. She worries about what the future holds for her young, idealistic daughter—and her opinions haven’t gone unnoticed. Nora couldn’t feel more unsupported by her mother, and in the weeks leading up to the trip, the women are as disconnected as they’ve ever been. But seconds after saying goodbye to Alice at the airport terminal, Nora hears a voice call out: “Wait! Stop! I’m coming with you!”
And . . . they’re off.
This one made me really nostalgic for study abroad! I liked all the characters and I liked the idea of this one, but it’s another case of it not matching up to my expectations. Maybe because a big part of it is set in Ireland, where I’ve spent a lot of time and I’m super conscious of books being set in Ireland being too cheesy or overdone. This had a bit of that, but not as much as others, which I appreciated, so I don’t think that’s really the issue. Basically, it was intriguing and engaging and I liked reading it, but overall kind of flat. I think it mainly just wasn’t the book for me at the time.
1984 | George Orwell
“The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.”
Winston Smith toes the Party line, rewriting history to satisfy the demands of the Ministry of Truth. With each lie he writes, Winston grows to hate the Party that seeks power for its own sake and persecutes those who dare to commit thoughtcrimes. But as he starts to think for himself, Winston can’t escape the fact that Big Brother is always watching…
I know this book is supposed to be a big cultural touchstone and I can see the value in that, but I didn’t like it. I found it difficult to get through and when I finished it I was like “that’s ALL that happens??” One I’m glad I read but that I never need to revisit.
The Women in the Castle | Jessica Shattuck
Amid the ashes of Nazi Germany’s defeat, Marianne von Lingenfels returns to the once-grand castle of her husband’s ancestors, an imposing stone fortress now fallen into ruin following years of war. The widow of a resister murdered in the failed July 20, 1944, plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, Marianne plans to uphold the promise she made to her husband’s brave conspirators: to find and protect their wives, her fellow resistance widows.
First Marianne rescues six-year-old Martin, the son of her dearest childhood friend, from a Nazi reeducation home. Together, they make their way across the smoldering wreckage of their homeland to Berlin, where Martin’s mother, the beautiful and naive Benita, has fallen into the hands of occupying Red Army soldiers. Then she locates Ania, another resister’s wife, and her two boys, now refugees languishing in one of the many camps that house the millions displaced by the war.
I read this one for my book club and loved it SO much. It’s absolutely one of the ones I’d recommend of the books I read this year. It’s a post-World War II book that weaves in flashbacks so well, told from the point of view of the widows of German resisters. I’ve read a lot of World War II books but never one from this POV, so I appreciated a new look into events of the war.
Girls on Fire | Robin Wasserman
On Halloween, 1991, a popular high school basketball star ventures into the woods near Battle Creek, Pennsylvania, and disappears. Three days later, he’s found with a bullet in his head and a gun in his hand—a discovery that sends tremors through this conservative community, already unnerved by growing rumors of Satanic worship in the region.
In the wake of this incident, bright but lonely Hannah Dexter is befriended by Lacey Champlain, a dark-eyed, Cobain-worshiping bad influence in lip gloss and Doc Martens. The charismatic, seductive Lacey forges a fast, intimate bond with the impressionable Dex, making her over in her own image and unleashing a fierce defiance that neither girl expected. But as Lacey gradually lures Dex away from her safe life into a feverish spiral of obsession, rebellion, and ever greater risk, an unwelcome figure appears on the horizon—and Lacey’s secret history collides with Dex’s worst nightmare.
This one was weird. It felt like a combination of The Girls (which I read earlier this year and didn’t particularly like) and The Crucible, but set in the early 90s. It was super violent and dark and it felt like so many other “good girl gone bad” books that I just didn’t enjoy it.
While Beauty Slept | Elizabeth Blackwell
“I am not the sort of person about whom stories are told.”
And so begins Elise Dalriss’s story. When she hears her great-granddaughter recount a minstrel’s tale about a beautiful princess asleep in a tower, it pushes open a door to the past, a door Elise has long kept locked. For Elise was the companion to the real princess who slumbered—and she is the only one left who knows what actually happened so many years ago. Her story unveils a labyrinth where secrets connect to an inconceivable evil. As only Elise understands all too well, the truth is no fairy tale.
I read this one in a day on Black Friday! It was a retelling of Sleeping Beauty, told from the POV of her closest lady-in-waiting. It was a good read, but a bit repetitive, and about 100 pages too long. One of those books that I liked but will probably honestly have no impact on me.
In the Unlikely Event | Judy Blume
In 1987, Miri Ammerman returns to her hometown of Elizabeth, New Jersey, to attend a commemoration of the worst year of her life. Thirty-five years earlier, when Miri was fifteen, and in love for the first time, a succession of airplanes fell from the sky, leaving a community reeling. Against this backdrop of actual events that Blume experienced in the early 1950s, when airline travel was new and exciting and everyone dreamed of going somewhere, she paints a vivid portrait of a particular time and place—Nat King Cole singing “Unforgettable,” Elizabeth Taylor haircuts, young (and not-so-young) love, explosive friendships, A-bomb hysteria, rumors of Communist threat. And a young journalist who makes his name reporting tragedy. Through it all, one generation reminds another that life goes on.
This is another book I liked but won’t particularly stick with me. There were a lot of characters, and a lot of plot, and I felt like it got bogged down in all of that. It was fun to read an adult book from Judy Blume, who I grew up reading, and it was of course well-written, but it’s not one of my favorites.
Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis | JD Vance
Hillbilly Elegy is a passionate and personal analysis of a culture in crisis—that of white working-class Americans. The decline of this group, a demographic of our country that has been slowly disintegrating over forty years, has been reported on with growing frequency and alarm, but has never before been written about as searingly from the inside. J. D. Vance tells the true story of what a social, regional, and class decline feels like when you were born with it hung around your neck.
The Vance family story begins hopefully in postwar America. J. D.’s grandparents were “dirt poor and in love,” and moved north from Kentucky’s Appalachia region to Ohio in the hopes of escaping the dreadful poverty around them. They raised a middle-class family, and eventually their grandchild (the author) would graduate from Yale Law School, a conventional marker of their success in achieving generational upward mobility.
This was a quick read that I found very enlightening. The author’s upbringing was so different than mine, and it was eye-opening to read about his life.
The Good Daughter | Karin Slaughter
Twenty-eight years ago, Charlotte and Samantha Quinn’s happy small-town family life was torn apart by a terrifying attack on their family home. It left their mother dead. It left their father — Pikeville’s notorious defense attorney — devastated. And it left the family fractured beyond repair, consumed by secrets from that terrible night.
Twenty-eight years later, and Charlie has followed in her father’s footsteps to become a lawyer herself — the ideal good daughter. But when violence comes to Pikeville again — and a shocking tragedy leaves the whole town traumatized — Charlie is plunged into a nightmare. Not only is she the first witness on the scene, but it’s a case that unleashes the terrible memories she’s spent so long trying to suppress. Because the shocking truth about the crime that destroyed her family nearly thirty years ago won’t stay buried forever.
I read this one super quickly. It’s really gripping and engaging. It reminded me of a Jodi Picoult book, but less formulaic (and also a bit less emotional). I definitely would like to read more from this author in the future, despite the fact that I tend to dislike thriller-type books.
The Stars Are Fire | Anita Shreve
In October 1947, after a summer long drought, fires break out all along the Maine coast from Bar Harbor to Kittery and are soon racing out of control from town to village. Five months pregnant, Grace Holland is left alone to protect her two toddlers when her husband, Gene, joins the volunteer firefighters. Along with her best friend, Rosie, and Rosie’s two young children, Grace watches helplessly as their houses burn to the ground, the flames finally forcing them all into the ocean as a last resort. The women spend the night frantically protecting their children, and in the morning find their lives forever changed: homeless, penniless, awaiting news of their husbands’ fate, and left to face an uncertain future in a town that no longer exists. In the midst of this devastating loss, Grace discovers glorious new freedoms–joys and triumphs she could never have expected her narrow life with Gene could contain–and her spirit soars. And then the unthinkable happens–and Grace’s bravery is tested as never before.
This could have been a good story but I didn’t particularly enjoy it. It was very character-driven, which I’m learning I like in some books and dislike totally in others.
Total number of books in November: eleven
Number of fiction books in November: ten
Number of nonfiction books in November: one
Total number of books this year: seventy one
One more month (really 2 weeks, at this point) to go!