Sunday, April 17, 2016

Recently Read: In-Depth Reviews - April 2016 Edition

I usually try to write my reviews immediately after finishing a book (or as close to immediately as possible), but I didn't do that as much in March/the beginning of April. And, unfortunately, I think it's kind of obvious.

The reason I write these more in-depth reviews in the first place is because I like to take some time to process what I've read and how I feel about it. Obviously some books are meant solely for entertainment and don't evoke strong emotions, but other books really make me think and/or stir up a lot of emotions. But it's not as easy to discuss my thoughts on a book days (or weeks) after I've finished it, especially since I've usually moved on to another book (or two or three) by then.

That being said, hopefully these reviews can still give you a little more insight into why I did/didn't like a book.

If lengthy reviews aren't your thing, don't worry. My slightly more condensed reviews of these books can be found here (assuming you haven't read those already).

And if you don't want to read about books at all, feel free to skip this post and come back another day. I talk about books a lot, but I also post about plenty of other topics.

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The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah - 438 pages

Completed on 03/09/2016
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I know I've mentioned before that I'm not the biggest fan of historical fiction. I don't hate it or anything, but the plot has to sound really good in order for me to feel compelled to pick up a book in this genre.

That being said, I decided to pick a couple of historical fiction novels for Book Challenge by Erin 4.0. These books happened to be on my "To Read" list already, and, since I like to use book challenges to both cross items off that list and challenge myself to read at least a couple of things I might not normally choose, they seemed like the perfect choices for my book challenge list.

I know most people have probably already read The Nightingale (or are at least familiar with it), but just in case, here is a quick summary of the plot:

Vianne Mauriac is a wife and mother living in the small French village of Carriveau. At the start of World War II, she is forced to say goodbye to her husband, Antoine, as he heads off to fight. Ever the optimist, Vianne hopes the war will be over quickly and they'll all survive relatively unscathed. But her world begins to spin horribly out of control as the Nazis begin to occupy France and she is forced to house an enemy. Fearing for both herself and her daughter, Vianne is forced to make many tough (and often terrible) choices in an effort to survive.

Vianne's younger sister, Isabelle, is a rebellious and often reckless 18-year-old searching for a way to make a difference in the war. After meeting and falling for a young man with similar goals, Isabelle is heartbroken when he leaves with only a note saying she isn't "ready." Determined not to give up, she joins the Resistance without a second thought to the very real and deadly consequences.

Before picking this up, I honestly was a little worried that this book was going to be a "romance" kind of book. While there's nothing wrong with romance books, they're just not my kind of thing. However, I don't mind books that include a romance as a subplot, and I would say The Nightingale is more like that. Some focus is given to romantic relationships, but the book is much less about that and much more about the war as women experienced it. It also focuses on the often complex relationships that arise within a family: particularly between sisters and between fathers and daughters.

One of the things I really appreciated about this novel was that Kristin Hannah didn't shy away from the atrocities of the war. This is a book that, in my opinion, is very much geared toward women (though it's definitely not chick-lit!), and it was refreshing to see that these things weren't sugarcoated or glossed over. It made the story feel authentic ... Like I was reading someone's actual account of what they experienced during the war.

I also loved that Hannah created two very different main female characters, both strong in their own ways. I liked Vianne a lot (even when she made bad choices), but I absolutely fell in love with Isabelle. While she was sometimes reckless, she was also incredibly brave. I was completely captivated by her portions of the story.

I really loved The Nightingale overall, but there were a couple of things that did annoy me.

I didn't like that there were French words or phrases peppered in randomly while the characters were speaking to one another. Yes, I realize that the novel was set in France ... But it actually took me out of the story a bit when Kristin Hannah threw some French into the dialogue.

The reason this bothered me was because I assumed that, being French, the characters were always speaking in French to one another. Writing it in this way made it seem as though they were speaking mostly English with some French words and phrases sprinkled in. I would much rather read it as though it were translated into English from French (even though it wasn't).

I don't know if that makes sense, but basically I just felt confused as to why it felt like the characters were speaking in English to one another then suddenly answering, "Oui," to a question and then going back to English for another three pages. I know that probably wasn't the author's intention (I think it was even stated that several of the characters didn't speak English or didn't speak it well), but that's how it flowed in my mind.

My only other complaint was the fact that Isabelle fell madly in love with Gaetan after only knowing him for a very short time. That's just a personal pet peeve, though. I understand why the author wrote it that way (though I'll admit that I didn't for a portion of the novel), but I don't think I'll ever not hate the "immediate love" thing in books and movies. And, for a story that otherwise felt pretty realistic, it really bothered me. It didn't bother me enough to knock down my overall rating (I gave it 5 stars on Goodreads), but it was probably my least favorite thing about the book.

Despite those "flaws" (which probably didn't bother most people), I thought The Nightingale was amazing and worthy of all the hype. I also took Erin's Instagram picture of herself sobbing after finishing the book as a warning and made sure I finished the book in the privacy of my home. And I'm really glad I did that because I was the definition of a hot mess by the time the book was over. Seriously ... You'll need some tissues and some privacy for the end of this book!

Grotesque by Natsuo Kirino - 530 pages

Completed on 03/19/2016
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Last year I read and reviewed Out (by the same author), and, for the most part, I really enjoyed it. So obviously I had high hopes for Grotesque.

Unfortunately, Natsuo Kirino just didn't deliver this time. But, before I go into detail about what I did and didn't like about this book, I'll tell you a little more about it:

Grotesque follows a total of four narratives: a female unnamed narrator who despises her younger sister, Yuriko, for her astonishing beauty and her ability to float through life and receive special treatment simply because she's beautiful; Yuriko, a woman once admired and feared for her exquisite and unusual beauty who has grown unattractive with time and age; Kazue, a high school acquaintance of both Yuriko and the unnamed narrator who obsesses over being the best; and Zhang, a Chinese immigrant who came to Japan in search of more opportunities and a better life only to find himself on trial for the murders of Yuriko and Kazue.

From the beginning, the reader knows that Yuriko and Kazue have gone from students at an elite high school to prostitutes. As the story unfolds, we begin to learn why they made their choices and what led to their murders.

I feel like the idea behind Grotesque was amazing. I like stories that offer multiple points of view (even if every single narrator is completely unreliable, as was the case with this novel), and I like my stories dark ... And obviously a book whose plot revolves around the murder of two prostitutes is probably going to be dark. (Not to mention the fact that I knew from Kirino's previous work that she likes to write about fucked up shit.)

I also like books that expose me to different cultures, and how those cultures affect an individual's overall experience. In the case of Grotesque, Kirino spent a lot of time discussing how age, beauty, and (to some degree) wealth can affect a woman's standing in Japanese society.

All of those things were fascinating, and made me feel like the book wasn't a complete waste of time ... But the overall execution left much to be desired.

As I was reading Zhang's portion of the book in particular, I kept thinking, "Oh my God, how much longer is this part?" It seriously dragged on and on for me, and by the end of that section I felt nothing but relief.

Honestly, there were several parts that I found tedious and boring, but Zhang's portion was the absolute worst. It's funny because the unnamed narrator comments on each person's section (each is supposedly told in a series of journal entries or essays that she's had access to), and with regard to Zhang's she says, "What a ridiculously long and tedious piece of work. Zhang goes on and on about completely irrelevant matters: the hardships he faced in China, all the things his darling little sister did, and so on. I skipped over most of it." When I read that, I laughed and thought, "I wish I'd done the same!"

I wouldn't say I hated this book, but I did only feel it was "okay" and gave it 2 stars on Goodreads. Since I know that Natsuo Kirino is capable of writing a captivating novel, I think that knowledge intensified the disappointment I felt when I realized much of Grotesque was filled with the random and often uninteresting ramblings of four generally unlikable (and possibly crazy) people. I don't mind unlikable characters, but when they're also pretty boring it can make for a tedious read. It's also particularly disappointing when you know the author can do so much better.

What She Left Behind by Ellen Marie Wiseman - 312 pages

Completed on 03/24/2016
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I went into this book with no real expectations. I added it to my "To Read" list on a whim several months ago, and, since it worked for one of the categories in Book Challenge by Erin 4.0, it got pushed to the top of the list.

What She Left Behind tells the stories of two very different young women living almost 70 years apart. In 1929, wealthy and rebellious Clara Cartwright's overbearing father sends her to a home for "nervous invalids" after she refuses to go along with her parents' plans for an arranged marriage. When her family loses their fortune following the stock market crash, Clara's father is no longer able to pay for her stay at the home ... And she is forced to move to a public insane asylum.

Nearly 70 years later, Izzy Stone is asked to help her foster parents, employees at a local museum, catalog items that belonged to the patients at the Willard Asylum, an institution that shut its doors years ago. Hoping to forget her own troubled past and the difficulty she's having fitting in at her new school, Izzy soon becomes intrigued with a journal she finds among a former patient's things.

The journal, which once belonged to Clara Cartwright, not only gives Izzy insight into Clara's experiences at the asylum but also forces her to question what she knows about her biological mother. Did her mother murder her father because she was mentally ill or is there more to the story?

I gave this book 5 stars mostly because I wanted to keep reading it to find out what would happen to these characters next. Izzy was an okay character, but I became pretty invested in Clara's story. The treatment given at insane asylums during the 20s and 30s was horrific (especially when it came to female patients). It became even more unsettling when I read some of the information at the back of the book and realized that Wiseman had done her research: the often unbelievable therapies she described were all considered legitimate treatments for the mentally ill at that time.

The writing itself didn't blow me away, and as I continued to read, I wondered if this was going to become one of those books where pretty much every bad scenario imaginable is thrown at the main characters. (And, for the record, it was one of those books.) I usually hate that, not because I'm a person who loves happy endings but because at some point it just becomes repetitive and boring. It's like, "Okay, we get it. Bad shit is happening and will continue to happen to these characters. There is no hope for them." But, for whatever reason, I was able to (mostly) overlook that here. (Maybe it was because I was fascinated by Clara's experiences at the asylum?)

I was also somehow able to (mostly) overlook the fact that I often felt like I was reading the script for a soap opera. There were quite a few over-the-top moments that bordered on silly, and there were also a few too many things that just fell into place effortlessly. (I can't go into those things without spoilers, though, so I'll leave it at that.)

Obviously this book had some major issues (for me, at least) ... But I still really enjoyed it. I found myself thinking about it when I wasn't reading it, and I was eager to pick it up when I had free time. It isn't the type of book that I would normally rate 5 stars, and it certainly isn't one of my favorite books of the year. It's also not a book I think everyone should read. But something about it stuck with me enough to make me want to give it a high rating.

Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney - 208 pages

Completed on 03/27/2016
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This was yet another book for Book Challenge by Erin 4.0, and one I probably never would have read (or even heard of) if I wasn't required to choose a book published the year I was born. And, while I wouldn't consider it a new favorite, I'm glad I read it.

Bright Lights, Big City follows a young man (who remains unnamed throughout the novel) living in New York City as he tries to figure out his life. His wife, Amanda, is a model who recently left him after her career took off. Now, without someone to come home to, he finds himself staying out later and later with his best friend, Tad Allagash, hitting clubs, snorting coke, and picking up women (or at least attempting to). His lifestyle begins to catch up with him, though, and he begins struggling to keep up with his work as a fact checker for a prominent magazine.

My favorite thing about this book was the writing itself. It's witty and very quotable, and I love authors who can write interesting passages that make me want to stop and share those lines with the nearest person. This was one of my favorites: "Your soul is as disheveled as your apartment, and until you can clean it up a little you don't want to invite anyone inside."

My only real issue with this book was that it felt underdeveloped and incomplete in some ways. It's a very short novel, so that's probably not too surprising ... But I turned the final page and felt like I wanted more. McInerney didn't necessarily need to tie up all the loose ends or anything, but I just felt dissatisfied with the somewhat abrupt ending.

I also didn't connect with the main character the way I wanted to, but I attribute this more to age and experience than anything else. (Oh, and the fact that I'm not a cokehead.) If I'd read this book as a teenager (or even in my early 20s), I probably would have loved it and given it a really high rating. But, at 31, I gave it a solid 3 stars on Goodreads: it was a good book, but it definitely didn't blow me away.

This is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper - 339 pages

Completed on 04/02/2016
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After reading Bright Lights, Big City I wasn't sure if I was really in the mood for yet another witty book from a male point of view, but, in an effort to complete Book Challenge by Erin 4.0, I decided to pick up This is Where I Leave You. And I'm so glad I did because I absolutely loved this book!

You've probably already either read it or seen the movie, but if you're not familiar with it, here's a quick summary:

The entire Foxman family hasn't been together under one roof in years, but that all changes when Mort, beloved husband and father of four, passes away. He has requested that the family sit shiva, and the dysfunctional Foxmans have to figure out a way to coexist for seven days and nights without killing each other or losing their minds.

Jonathan Tropper did an excellent job keeping me entertained and engaged in the story. The characters were flawed in realistic ways, and I felt like I was reading a story about a real family. And even though the characters weren't always very likable, I still found myself wanting them to work through their problems and succeed in dealing with whatever shit life has thrown their way.

I expected this book to be funny, and it didn't disappoint ... I found myself laughing out loud numerous times throughout. What I didn't expect, though, was that I'd be on the verge of tears just as often. Tropper masterfully blends the humorous with the heartfelt, and I was pleasantly surprised by the wide range of emotions this book made me feel.

I gave this book 5 stars on Goodreads. It's the sort of book I'd recommend to everyone without hesitation. (And I don't get to say that too often because my tastes run pretty dark!) I'm definitely looking forward to reading more of Tropper's work in the future.

In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware - 310 pages

Completed on 04/04/2016
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This is the only book I've read recently that wasn't for the book challenge. My original plan was to finish the challenge in March, but when that didn't happen, I figured I'd move on to one of the other library books I'd recently picked up.

I'll be completely honest here: the premise for In a Dark, Dark Wood seemed a little cliché. I feel like we've all read plenty of books (and seen plenty of movies!) in which a group of old friends spend a weekend in a remote cabin/house in the woods only to find themselves in the heart of some sort of danger.

But the (mostly) great reviews on Goodreads and pretty cover (yes, sometimes I do judge a book by its cover) made me think that there was probably more to this story than just a simple "weekend in the woods gone wrong" plot.

I'm glad I decided to give this book a chance because it was one of the best thrillers I've read in a while! Although I did have things figured out before they were revealed, I didn't feel like it was obvious. Ruth Ware twisted the story quite a bit and kept me wondering what might happen next.

One thing I found really interesting about the book was the fact that Ware took some clichés I'd normally hate and changed them just enough to make them seem fresh again. I don't mind an author recycling certain themes and ideas (I mean, you almost have to at this point since so many things have been done at least once!), but I get annoyed when I feel like I'm just reading the same tired trope over and over. When a writer puts a slightly different spin on things, it's refreshing ... And that's a great word to describe In a Dark, Dark Wood.

I read most of it in a single day, and that says a lot since I don't consider myself a very fast reader. I couldn't put it down! It was one of those books that just completely sucked me in and made me forget about pretty much everything else.

The only reason I gave this book 4 stars instead of 5 was because it sort of fell apart a bit in the end for me. It didn't seriously let me down, and I wasn't like, "What the hell kind of ending is this?!?!" (Which, unfortunately, is something I find myself wondering a good portion of the time with suspense/thriller books. I love these types of books so much, but there have been so many times when I've felt the ending was unsatisfying.) The book just felt like it lost its momentum at some point near the end. And, while I still wanted to find out what happened, I wasn't glued to it the way I was during the weekend when I spent the majority of my Sunday frantically turning the pages because I had to know where the story was going to go next.

The Bloodletter's Daughter by Linda Lafferty - 512  pages

Completed on 04/10/2016
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The Bloodletter's Daughter was the last book I needed to finish in order to complete Book Challenge by Erin 4.0. I can now officially say I've made it through all ten categories!

I chose this book not only because it satisfied one of the categories, but also because I'd added it to my "To Read" list at least a year ago and I knew I'd probably put off reading it forever if I didn't feel like I needed to read it. I originally added it because the story sounded interesting ... But I know myself pretty well, and I know that historical fiction (especially historical fiction that takes place hundreds of years ago) isn't really my favorite thing to read. So, unless I had some sort of reason to pick this book up, I probably would never bother getting to it.

That being said, it wouldn't have been terrible if I didn't read it. While this book had its interesting moments, it was definitely very worthy of my 2 star rating. I didn't hate it, but it definitely wasn't better than "okay." (And, really, it was barely even okay.)

In 1606, Emperor Rudolf II sends his bastard son, Don Julius, away from Prague to a remote Bohemian village. He is shut away in a castle there, and, in an effort to cure him of his madness and depravity, he is only allowed to see and speak with a priest and a physician.

Believing they can cure him with bloodletting, the physician requests the help of the village bloodletter. When Don Julius meets the bloodletter's beautiful daughter, Marketa, he is instantly drawn to her, believing her to be the embodiment of the women in his prized Coded Book of Wonder. His enchantment quickly grows to dangerous obsession, and Marketa, both frightened and fascinated, can't stay away.

I'll admit that I don't know much about life in the Czech Republic in the 1600s, nor did I know anything about the true story of Don Julius and Marketa's murder. (Don't worry, that's not a spoiler. It tells you on the back of the book that the novel was "inspired by a true murder that rocked the Hapsburg dynasty," and, given the context, it's not difficult to figure out that this refers to Marketa's death.) I couldn't tell you whether or not there were a lot of historical inaccuracies because I simply don't know.

What I can say, however, is that a story that could have been great was just sort of "meh." There were so many things that really didn't make sense to me (unfortunately, I can't really talk about them here because I try to always avoid spoilers), and the epilogue left me thinking, "Really? This is so ridiculous!" The writing wasn't the worst I've ever read, but it definitely wasn't good.

One of the reasons I typically don't like books set so many years in the past is because I really dislike the stiff, formal language writers use when characters are speaking to one another. This book was no different. Unfortunately, the dialogue itself was often repetitive and silly, so I got a double whammy.

This book is also very "rapey." There's no other way to describe it. I'll be completely honest here and say that, in general, I don't mind a book that uses rape as a major part of the plot (or even uses it to propel a subplot). But this book goes far beyond that. When I first started reading it, I read a couple of chapters and thought, "I don't know if I'm going to be able to finish this book." There wasn't even any rape in the first couple of chapters, but the descriptions of Marketa's experiences in the bathhouse her mother runs were just weird and very telling of the way she would be treated throughout the book.

Basically, The Bloodletter's Daughter sort of reminded me of a really bad romance story with some rape and supernatural elements thrown in. I think the only reason I kept reading was because I wanted to know how the author would describe the events leading up to the murder (and because I just can't abandon books!). It just wasn't very good, and I'm glad it's over.


  1. We've discussed this...rarely do I start a book and not finish it. I checked out Grotesque. I started it and got about 40 pages in. I thought maybe I just wasn't in the mood. I read another book and went back to it. Read about 20 more pages. I didn't mind the subject matter, but I felt the writing was labor intensive. It felt like work to read it. I set it aside again to read another library book. Then, Memoirs of a Geisha came up ready for me. I read that. Then, I thought "well, maybe my mind is in Japan mode, and I'll be ready for Grotesque." Nope. I gave up after finding myself needing to read pages two or three times to absorb them because I'd read it and nothing would stick.
    We talked about Tropper already
    and The Nightingale
    I look forward to reading What She Left Behind.
    I just finished another historical fiction that does an excellent job at not shying away from the atrocities of war and is also written for the enjoyment of women (I believe). It was called Girl at War, and I recommend it.

  2. I added "What She Left Behind" and an earlier book by the same author (can't remember the name right now) to my to reads list. The Nightingale is definitely already on my list. I feel like everyone loves it!