The Unpretentious Reader

book review

What I read on vacation

I managed to read three books while we were in Kauai – and surprisingly, I didn’t read any of the books I brought with me! At the last minute I downloaded a bunch of books to my Kindle (my love for public libraries knows no bounds) and those are the ones that ended up capturing my attention over the ones I brought. Go figure.

Here’s what I read:

Fear Nothing

Fear Nothing, by Lisa Gardner

This is the second book I’ve read in Gardner’s Detective D. D. Warren series, about a 30-year-old murder case and its possible link to a present-day serial killer on the loose. It was a quick and entertaining read, but unfortunately I was able to guess who the killer was early on. I hate when I’m able to do that! As far as mystery/crime thrillers go, though, I like Gardner’s work when I need something that quickly hooks me.

 

Wizard at Large

Wizard at Large, by Terry Brooks

I started reading Terry Brooks’ Magic Kingdom of Landover series years ago but only read the first two books (out of six), so I’ve been meaning to finish the series for a while now. I love Brooks’ Shannara series and grew up reading them – between Brooks and Madeleine L’Engle, I was hooked on reading at a very early age. I have to say that I don’t love the Landover series nearly as much. It’s kind of a “take it for what it is” fantasy series – short and sweet, entertaining, but not exactly challenging for the mind. Regardless, I know I’ll finish the series because I’m just interested enough in the story to keep reading.

 

fates-furies

Fates and Furies, by Lauren Groff

This book has been on my to-read list for quite some time. I usually love stories that span over several decades, and that’s exactly what Fates and Furies does here, but with a twist – the story is told from two different viewpoints, almost as two separate books sandwiched together. It’s a book about marriage, flaws, the lies we tell ourselves and to each other, the things people will do for love, and how two people can live the same marriage but have vastly different experiences. The writing was beautiful, engaging, and the voice was unique. I really enjoyed this one and finished it in about 48 hours!

Book review: Americanah

Americanah

Premise:

Primarily a story about race, with a little bit of love thrown in, Americanah follows the life and experiences of Ifemelu, a young woman born in Nigeria who ends up leaving midway through college to finish her studies in the U.S.

Thoughts:

WOW, what a good book. Americanah is, first and foremost, a study of the complexities and nuances of race and immigration. The book primarily follows Ifemelu, but some chapters also read from Obinze’s perspective, her high school/college boyfriend, who also moves out of Nigeria to London for some time. When Ifemelu moves to the U.S. to finish her studies, she’s confronted with this sudden concept of race, something she never even thought about in Nigeria. What it means to be black and born in the U.S., and what it means to be black and move to the U.S. from another country…which she discovers are two very separate things. She learns to lie about how long she’s lived in the U.S., and she adopts a fake American accent, all so she will be accepted and treated “normally.”

At some point, Ifemelu decides she’s tired of faking it. She begins to embrace her Nigerian roots again, she loses the accent, she wears her hair natural. It’s empowering, and you love her for it. I also just liked her as a character in general – she’s strong-willed, self-assured, stubborn, and never afraid to speak her mind, which sometimes gets her into trouble. She goes through ups and downs during her time living in the U.S., but ultimately she ends up being a successful blogger and writer, choosing to focus on race in America in her blog posts. Despite her academic and professional success, you find out in the very first chapter that Ifemelu has decided to return to Nigeria, a decision many of her friends and family immediately question. She has her reasons, which you find out as the book goes on, with subsequent chapters exploring her early years in Nigeria, her relationship with Obinze, and how everything has changed since then.

I won’t say much more as I’d rather you just discover it for yourselves. This was an important read…extremely engaging and gripping. Highly recommend!

Book review: A Little Life

a-little-life

Premise

This book follows the friendship and lives of four young men who meet in college – an artist, an actor, an architect, and a lawyer – and takes place over a time period of several decades. Initially you hear from all four perspectives, but the story quickly begins to focus in on its most enigmatic character, Jude, whom you find out early on has had an unspeakable, horrific childhood.

Thoughts

I honestly wasn’t going to review this book at all, because I know I can’t do it justice. But it was so impactful to me, and felt so important, that I’m going to try.

A Little Life is truly a masterpiece and well-deserving of the many awards it’s been nominated for. It’s also the hardest book I’ve ever read, and I’ll say right now there’s a huge trigger warning for abuse survivors and/or self-harmers. But it felt necessary to tell the story, which was powerful, tragic, and unimaginable.

Without giving away too many details, Jude had a terrible childhood. The worst you can possibly think of, and then even worse than that. The effects of which, as you can imagine, follow him into adulthood and influence every single area of his life. Details of his childhood are painfully slow to be released, and there were still plenty of things I didn’t find out about until the last 1/3 of the book. It really explored the psychology of being a victim – how it’s so easy, from the outside, for us to say “Well why doesn’t that person just do this, and then their life would be better!” but in reality, it’s nowhere near that easy for the person living through the trauma. Jude makes a lot of choices that leave you with a desperate need to reach through the pages and save him, stop him, talk sense into him. But for Jude, those were the only choices that made sense to him at the time. He became the person he was because of his childhood (as we all do). It just so happens that his childhood was horrific.

As a side note, it’s also a beautiful examination of friendship – lifelong friendships that have their ups and downs, that aren’t sugarcoated, that are real. There aren’t many happy moments in the book, but the ones that do appear are more often than not comprised of moments/memories with Jude and his friends – the people who care about him.

The writing is flawless, gritty, and engaging. How many more adjectives can I use? This story stayed with me long after I finished listening (the audio version was very good, FYI). I’m also a huge fan of books that follow characters over several decades (it’s why I love Donna Tartt’s books so much), so that definitely helped keep my interest. If I had to come up with one criticism of the book, it would be the lack of women in the story. This starts to make a little sense as you learn more about Jude and his friends, but still, I could’ve done with at least one main female character just to balance it out a bit.

I don’t know. I feel like I’m just rambling here, but this is a hard one to review without giving away details. I’ll just say, if you can handle really tough subject matter, I’d highly suggest you give this one a read. Find out for yourself what kind of book it is — I wasn’t disappointed. (Though, admittedly, I had to read something light-hearted afterwards!)

Book review: Devoted

Devoted, by Jennifer Mathieu

Premise

Imagine: You’re a 17-year-old girl whose future has been reduced to being a wife and mother of as many children as you can bear. You live at home and are homeschooled with your multitude of younger siblings, some of whom you – not your parents – are responsible for feeding, teaching, and putting to bed. You have virtually no contact with the outside world, and your sole purpose in life is serving God and doing whatever your father says (your father has all control over your life, since you’re a girl). Welcome to Rachel’s world.

Rachel starts to get curious about life outside her religious cult when, during her very limited time allowed on the computer, she discovers the blog of someone who recently “escaped” the cult and now lives a normal life. As guilty as Rachel feels for reading this, she also begins to wonder what that might be like – to live in control of your own life, your own destiny, and your own body. As things begin to intensify for Rachel at home, she starts to consider the possibility of running away.

Thoughts

Oh my GOSH, you guys, this book. Obviously drawing inspiration from the Duggars, Devoted covers what it’s like to grow up in a very specific cultish religion (Quiverfull – though it’s never mentioned by name in the book, unless I missed it). I am unashamedly fascinated by cults and extreme religions (why I read Under the Banner of Heaven earlier this year), especially when reading stories about people who have escaped said cults. I empathized a lot with Rachel and just wanted to reach through the pages and save her so many times. She’s taught to believe that anything outside of what she knows, of her very strict belief system and family structure, is scary. Wrong. Bad. She’s taught to be ashamed of her body. She learns from an early age that she must submit to the male authorities in her life – first her father, then her future husband. She is given no agency. No authority over her own body, her own self, and her own choices. It’s maddening…and heartbreaking. Little girls are growing up RIGHT NOW in environments just like this. Today.

I also appreciated so much how the author made a conscious choice to not bash all other religions (something she could’ve easily done), while simultaneously talking about the very real and harmful effects of Rachel’s specific religion. She really delved in to Rachel’s thought processes and revealed just how screwed up her environment was, and how it led her to think in a very inflexible, closed-minded way. If Rachel were a real person, she’d be in desperate need for some cognitive behavioral therapy.

Anyways, enough of my rambling. I loved Jennifer Mathieu’s debut novel, The Truth About Alice, and had a feeling I would love this one too. Spoiler: I did! 😉 This was a quick, sobering, and at times emotional read, and if you’re also fascinated by cults/extreme religions, I think you’ll like it, too.

Book review: Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town

Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town

Premise

Jon Krakauer (Into the Wild, Under the Banner of Heaven) meticulously reports on a number of sexual assaults that occurred at the University of Montana over a period of 5-ish years, and focuses on how the cases were handled both in court and by the city’s attorneys and police force. Nonfiction told in narrative-style, Missoula is both eye-opening and sobering.

Thoughts

Everyone should read this book.

I repeat – everyone should read this book.

Because what happened in Missoula, Montana is not an anomaly. It’s the city Krakauer chose to write about, sure, but rape is an epidemic happening nationwide. Krakauer cites study after study, statistic after statistic, leaving the reader with just one thought: “How could anyone NOT see this problem? How could anyone deny this is happening?”

The author explores the many common misconceptions about rape and its victims, and casts light on the fact that rape cases are simply not treated the same as any other case. Rape victims are asked questions such as, “Do you have a boyfriend?…because sometimes we get girls who have cheated on their boyfriends and don’t want to admit it.” I kid you not.

The reality is, false rape allegations make up 10% or less of total allegations. Meanwhile, a whopping 80% of rapes are estimated to go unreported to police. 80%. Krakauer explores this phenomenon, and provides example after example of why victims might choose not to go to police. At one point, he cites a study where participants were asked varying questions, and I can’t remember the exact details, but basically a number of young men ended up self-identifying as rapists without even realizing it. In other words, you could’ve asked these men if they had ever or would ever rape another person, and they would have answered noeven though their survey answers indicated otherwise. That is terrifying.

The overwhelming message Missoula sends is that we MUST do better as a society. We must advocate for victims, we must default to believing victims until proven otherwise, and we must protest laws that destroy what little progress has been made. Even my own state is about to vote on a bill that would limit the role of victim advocates in sexual assault cases. Why? I have no idea.

Missoula is essential reading. It’s extremely difficult, and it won’t feel good – but it’s absolutely essential.

Book review: Big Little Lies

Big Little Lies, by Liana MoriartyPremise

A group of parents are getting ready to send their respective children to kindergarten at a primary school in a small Australian beachside town. The book switches perspectives between three main characters, each more different and intriguing than the last, and each with her own secrets to hide. Early on you find out that something terrible happens at the school’s parent trivia night, and the book follows the events leading up to the night. It’s a good mix of mystery and humor.

Thoughts

This is not the first book I’ve read by Liane Moriarty, and it certainly won’t be the last. She tends to write about a lot of characters which can sometimes be mentally taxing, but she does it in such a brilliant way that I don’t mind. Each one is unique and complex, and the character development throughout the story is spot-on. You immediately become invested in their lives, their decisions, and their drama. Moriarty’s writing is clever, piercing, and sometimes downright hilarious. The book manages to be both entertaining and sobering at times, covering a wide range of serious issues while simultaneously exploring the sometimes-petty drama of being the parent of a kindergartner. It’s a remarkable look at the way high school doesn’t always seem to end at high school, and gossip and cliques tend to exist for long after.

I flew through this book in just a few days. I loved everything about it! If you enjoy humor and witty writing, don’t mind keeping up with all the characters, and like a little bit of mystery, then you’ll enjoy this book. I’d probably categorize it as a beach read. I felt the same way about The Husband’s Secret, another great one by Moriarty, and I plan on reading What Alice Forgot soon. Also – I just found out that HBO is making a mini-series on Big Little Lies which I am SO excited about!

 

PS. Fans of Jojo Moyes, have you seen the trailer for Me Before You??? It looks so good!

10 books you can’t put down

Over the past year or so I read a number of books that hooked me right from the beginning and didn’t let go until the end. It’s the best kind of reading experience, if you ask me. While it’s true the books that make you work the hardest often provide the most rewarding payoff in the end, some days I just need something easy that invites me in, something that causes me to look up after an unknown number of pages and hours and question, “What time is it?”

These are some of those books.

 

Everything, Everything
Everything, Everything

by Nicola Yoon

YA fiction about a girl who has “bubble baby disease” where she cannot leave her home, because she’s fatally allergic to the world. She lives as full of a life as she can, confined to her house with her mom and full-time nurse, but one day someone moves in next door that has her questioning everything.

 

Bird Box
Bird Box

by Josh Malerman

Horror/thriller. It’s a post-apocalyptic world, there are just a handful of survivors, and something is lurking that has killed the rest of mankind. The things we can’t see are sometimes far scarier than the things we can, and Bird Box does (in my opinion) a phenomenal job of playing up this idea. I had nightmares about this book, and maybe that will scare you off, but it was one of those books that had me thinking about it for DAYS afterward.

 

Tell the Wolves I'm Home
Tell the Wolves I’m Home

by Carol Rifka Brunt

A beautiful, thought-provoking, poignant coming-of-age tale about love, heartache, and loss. Set in the late 1980s, a 14-year-old girl loses her beloved uncle and eventually finds healing in a new and unexpected friendship. It’s emotional and raw and I absolutely loved it.

 

We Were Liars
We Were Liars

by E. Lockhart

I read this from start to finish on a flight from SLC to Nashville. It was just SO GOOD. A group of friends from very well-off families spend their summers on a private island, where they refer to themselves as The Liars. Mystery lies under the surface, though, and one girl tries to discover the truth of things. It’s a sophisticated, not-your-typical YA fiction, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

 

The Truth About Alice
The Truth About Alice

by Jennifer Mathieu

YA fiction that explores how easily girls are judged, perceived, labeled, and written off as a certain type of person. This book follows the story of Alice and the rumors that are flying about something she may or may not have done one night at a party. It’s a truly brilliant, sobering, insightful look into high school rumors and the havoc they can cause. This is another one that I read entirely in one sitting.

 

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

by Mark Haddon

Christopher is an extremely gifted 15-year-old autistic boy who decides one day that he absolutely must solve the murder of his neighbor’s dog. The book follows his thought processes and challenges as he investigates the murder, and I found it to be charming, well-written, and endearing. I listened to the audiobook, which is read by a British person, and that’s definitely how I recommend reading the book if you can.

 

Room
Room

by Emma Donoghue

Told from the perspective of a 5-year-old boy whose entire world is “Room,” you soon learn that this boy and his young mother have been held captive for years. I didn’t think I would like this book initially, but the author brilliantly tells an engaging, consuming story and you quickly forget you’re listening to a 5-year-old’s voice. I won’t say too much for fear of ruining the plot, but, man – I absolutely loved this one. I have yet to see the film, but it’s on my list.

 

The Fault in Our Stars
The Fault in Our Stars

by John Green

While this book (and author) certainly has its haters, the ratings don’t lie – and I 100% fall into the “I absolutely loved this” camp. In case you’ve been living under a rock and aren’t familiar with the plot: a teenage girl has cancer and one day meets a boy at a cancer support group. It’s a YA love story that will make you cry, and the movie is – surprisingly – a great complement to the book.

 

Gone Girl
Gone Girl

by Gillian Flynn

Another one that you’ve certainly heard of, Gone Girl absolutely lives up to the hype. It’s full of twists and turns, betrayal and shock, and I could never have predicted what was going to happen (and I love it when a book surprises me). I read this over a weekend and thought about it for days afterward. If you haven’t seen the (phenomenal) movie adaptation, I’d recommend reading the book first, for sure.

 

Me Before You
Me Before You

by Jojo Moyes

Oh, Jojo Moyes. You have captured my heart and I will read everything you ever publish, no questions asked. Me Before You is a story about Louisa, a woman in her late 20s, who’s just lost her job and by a series of events ends up taking a job as a caretaker for a man named Will. Will is in his early 30s, and two years previously, was in a terrible motorcycle accident which left him as a quadriplegic. The story is beautiful, well-written, and simultaneously funny and heartbreaking. I found the sequel After You to be just as good.

 

What are some of your favorite, can’t-put-down books?

Book review: The Distance from Me to You

distance-from-me-to-you

Premise

While the rest of her friends are heading off to their first semester as college freshmen, McKenna has chosen a slightly different path – one that involves taking a year off between high school and college, and – no biggie – hiking the entire Appalachian Trail alone. The book follows her journey as she slowly treks her way down from Maine to Georgia.

Thoughts

As a general rule, I find most YA fiction hooks me right at the start, and this book was no exception. I was immediately engaged in the uniqueness of the story, and not only that, but the book just has so many great themes. McKenna is a strong, likable female protagonist who makes decisions that surprise you. The story is empowering, especially for young women, and also depicted what I thought to be a very accurate representation of what it might be like to do something so independent, so potentially dangerous, as a young woman alone. The reactions McKenna gets from people who discover she’s hiking alone are exactly what you’d expect, and when she inevitably runs into a few A-holes on the trail, her thoughts after the encounter really summarize it quite well:

MEN. Making the whole world believe that a woman couldn’t and shouldn’t feel safe on her own. […] It made McKenna seriously mad. Why should she have to feel unsafe? Didn’t this world belong to her as much as it belonged to any man? 

PREACH IT, SISTER! There are tons of moments like this in the book, and it made me love it that much more. So empowering! So liberating! And yes, there’s a bit of a love story thrown in there too, but again, it’s not in the way you’d expect.

The author explores what it might be like to go on a trip entirely alone, and I found the idea becoming more and more appealing with every word. So much so, in fact, that I already have a blog post in the works about it – ha!

The one thing I wish I’d gotten more of is, well, everything! I feel like the book was just this small snippet from McKenna’s life, and she was such an interesting and complex character that I’d absolutely love to read more books about her. What does she do after hiking the AT? Where does life take her? The story has a promising ending, and it really made me wish the book was one in a whole series.

Overall, if you enjoy adventure stories, strong female characters, and YA fiction, I’d say this one is a winner for sure. Special thanks to Brooke for surprising me with this book in the mail – it was such a great read for the new year!