Elyssa’s Bookshelf

Next up: THE HENNA HOUSE by Nomi Eve and THE NIGHT CIRCUS by Erin Morgerstern

THE STORIED LIFE OF A.J. FIKRY by Gabrielle Zevin

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This is one of those books I meant to read for ages. And so finally, instead of reaching for the pile of just-released books that is usually calling my name, I reached for something I knew I would love. The truth was that I needed a book that I was certain would be enjoyable. I had quit on a bunch of books about halfway through just before choosing this one (I won’t mention which ones because I try to stay positive in this space) and basically I just couldn’t handle another loser. Not when there aren’t enough hours in the day to read, write, and take care of my family. So I took a book that I knew wouldn’t disappoint…and it exceeded my expectations. It is a gorgeous story set in a bookstore that is exquisite in detail and meaning even as it only slices a tiny section of life on a made-up island off the coast of Boston. The main character is a young widower who isn’t particularly likable if you consider what comes out of his mouth or how judgmental he is, but you can’t help but root for him throughout the book. Zevin created a layered character that I will be unlikely to forget. I also commend her skill at writing a child, the sweet, precocious Maya. To restore my faith in great novels, this is just what the doctor ordered.

MR. PENUMBRA’S 24-HOUR BOOKSTORE by Robin Sloan

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My first audio-book! The narrator had THE PERFECT voice for this book, so I’m certain that really helped my enjoyment. This book is perfect for bibliophiles and mystery lovers, of which I am both, so I feel like Sloan wrote this specifically for people like me. It’s an unusual book (think secret societies, computer coding, Dungeons & Dragons) but somehow it works. I never felt particularly close to any of the characters, but it so didn’t matter. This was about joining the adventure to solve the mystery of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore and about thinking where we are headed as a society in the digital/carbon space and what will happen to bookstores in the future. It is a bookstore book pontificating on bookstores and I kind of love the nerdiness of it all. Highly recommend but *not* to everyone.

THE GIRLS by Emma Cline

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This book is truly haunting. I knew almost nothing about the Charles Manson murders and I confess that a quarter of the way through the book, I Googled the story so knew what was coming in more detail. I don’t think it ruined the book for me at all though since so much of the book lies in the brilliant writing and character development, which no Wikipedia entry can capture. I found the book extremely satisfying, even the ending, which I had worried all along I wouldn’t like. Cline explains so well how a “normal” person can get wrapped in something very crazy and I could even feel that it could have happened to me or someone I love. Highly recommend.

RICH AND PRETTY by Rumaan Alam

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The author is a man. I need to say that first and foremost because I couldn’t get over the way a male author could nail not only two distinct female characters so expertly, but also the intricacies of their friendship (down to what it feels like when they go clothes shopping together). RICH AND PRETTY was a great follow-up to SWEETBITTER because Alam is also a beautiful writer and his descriptions really straddle the line between contemporary fiction and a more literary form. There isn’t much in the way of plot which didn’t bother me that much except to say that I did keep waiting for something major to occur. Three quarters of the way in, I accepted that wasn’t going to happen, but luckily I was still fully invested enough in the characters to enjoy the book. If you are in any way a student of relationships, in particular friendships, this is the book for you. It expertly follows the ebbs and flows of a pair of best friends whose lives take different turns post college. If I have one bone to pick, it’s the title. It’s a catchy one indeed, but I don’t think either character was really that defined by being rich or pretty. I know it’s taken from a line in the book, but I still felt a bit mislead by it.

SWEETBITTER by Stephanie Danler

sweetbitter

I was worried, no joke, about reading this book. It was touted to me as a food book and I expected to be starving throughout the novel, or more realistically, snacking while turning the pages. But it’s really more of a restaurant book, and there’s a big difference. It’s a true coming-of-age in New York City book, and there are many of them, but this one is particularly well done. I think because the young waitress in the city is a unique lens – the narrator, Tess, interacts with extremely varied groups in Manhattan but all through her job (the struggling line cooks, the wealthy patrons, the snobby insiders, etc.) and everything is an education for her. There’s a quasi love story but it doesn’t do much for the book – it reads more like another tool for Danler to show Tess growing up. The book made me feel old (the partying, being in my twenties, it’s all a memory for me), but I loved it anyway. Danler is a gorgeous writer and many passages read like poetry. My only question is where the writer goes from here. SWEETBITTER is clearly a roman-a-clef (Danler worked at Union Square Cafe), so I’m intrigued to see what she’ll write next. I’ll buy it no matter what!

THE REVISED FUNDAMENTALS OF CAREGIVING by Jonathan Evison

 revisedfundamental

I decided to read this book in light of the Netflix movie coming out starring Paul Rudd and Megan Ferguson, a lovely girl I knew in college. I have mixed feelings about the book. Evison is a talented writer (every bit as gifted as Jonathan Tropper even though he doesn’t have quite the same name) and he used wonderful detail in both character descriptions and plot. I loved seeing the main character in the caretaking role (it reminded me a lot of JoJo Moyes’s ME BEFORE YOU in that regard) and the road trip is a brilliant device for the book’s progression. The two women encountered on the journey are brilliantly rendered. My only criticism has to do with the heart-breaking back story of the main character (which I won’t give away here). I didn’t think things had to be quite so tragic for the book to be effective, and in fact, I think the backstory is so horrific that it begs the question whether anything can alleviate the pain at all. Looking forward to watching the movie regardless and I’m sure it will be quite good with that cast.

MODERN LOVERS by Emma Straub

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The trouble with loving the first book by an author is that the second one almost always disappoints. I was charmed by MODERN LOVERS and found the Brooklyn backdrop refreshing. The characters are unique (lesbian restaurant owners, former rockstar turned real estate broker, twitchy teens), but I just didn’t get sucked into the book the way THE VACATIONERS took me to Majorca (see my review below). In Straub’s first book, I was hungry the entire time because the food descriptions were so exquisite. I experienced her first book with all five senses. In LOVERS, I’m sad to say I didn’t feel the same way, and I had been so optimistic considering there is a restaurant in the story. I did enjoy the book and I think would really have loved it had I not read VACATIONERS first. Still an enjoyable read with a cast of quirky characters.

HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE by J.K. Rowling

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A bit different than my usual reads, but I’m having the pleasure of sharing Harry Potter with my two big kids and we’ve just started to tackle the fourth book in the famous series. Our goal is to finish all the books before our family trip to London in February so we can see the Cursed Child play, which would be a dream come true for all. This book marks a big leap in the series (in my view). It feels more grown up and has more “jokes” for the adults (a magic carpet importer is frustrated by a ban on his products; a young witch does a hunger strike to protest the slave labor of house-elves). I worry a bit that my kids (ages 8 and 6) are missing some of these gems, but they seem just as enraptured as they did with the earlier books.

THE DINNER PARTY by Brenda Janowitz

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Who doesn’t love to read about a sort-of dysfunctional family around the holidays? This book is seasoned writer Brenda Janowitz’s fifth novel and it was truly excellent. I loved the matriarch of the Gold family, Sylvia, right from page one. She’s far from perfect (overprotective, difficult, a perfectionist), but I found myself rooting for her, even as she made life a bit challenging for her three grown children. Janowitz packed quite a few surprises in the book and a satisfying ending. Wonderful descriptions of Jewish traditions and Passover food made the book especially fun to read.

THE NEST by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

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One of the best I’ve read this year. I had very high expectations and I’m thrilled to say the book didn’t disappoint. There is a great, original storyline and a wonderful cast of characters. When I finished the book I was surprised that it wasn’t even that long. I say that because I felt so intimately close to all of the characters, and there were at least eight who served as narrators. Sweeney is very accomplished at drawing the reader in quickly and making each character feel totally unique in voice and personality. There are larger themes at work in the book (family ties, money, growing up), but the most impactful part of the book is the way Sweeney seamlessly weaves so many storylines together.

THE RAMBLERS by Aidan Donnelley Rowley

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I read this book in three days. It came with me everywhere. Beautiful prose, a perfectly woven story about three lost souls, gorgeous setting in New York and intricate plotting. Wonderful example of contemporary fiction at its best. Highly recommend!

PRETTY GIRLS by Karin Slaughter 

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I need to stop reading this type of book. Especially after I left I AM PILGRIM in the middle. These thriller books just don’t do it for me, and PRETTY GIRLS was no exception. I didn’t feel connected to the characters or believe much of the story. A disappointment for me.

I AM PILGRIM by Terry Hayes

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Totally out of my wheelhouse, but two people I trust recommended this book to me. I couldn’t get past the first 1/3. Which isn’t to say I didn’t give it the old college try, because the book is really long so reading the first third does count. I think I’m just not the right reader for spy novels. I don’t feel bad putting down the book because it was a major bestseller so I know that I’m in the minority. I liked learning about the undercover world and about what motivates terrorism, but other than that I thought the book was way too heavy on details that were above my head (e.g. how to clone the smallpox virus). The characters didn’t feel real to me — it had almost a Hollywood narration quality to it.

THIS WAS NOT THE PLAN by Cristina Alger

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A super charming book that I read in two sittings. It tells the story of a father faced with unexpected single parenthood trying to juggle his stressful career while raising his unconventional little boy. The novel gives great insight into the culture of corporate law firms and raising a family in the wilds of New York City. I loved Alger’s humor throughout the book and she definitely managed to surprise me with the plot twists. It’s a perfectly constructed books with very likable and nuanced characters. As an aside, if you haven’t read Alger’s first novel, THE DARLINGS, do so immediately. It’s very different (a financial thriller) but another fast and highly entertaining read that shows how tremendous the author’s range is.

ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE by Anthony Doerr

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It’s embarrassing to admit it took me so long to read this book, but there you have it. It sat on my shelf for a while and I never wanted to pick it up, thinking that I’d had it with World War II books. But then I finished A LITTLE LIFE and didn’t want to risk picking up something less than stellar after and knew this book wouldn’t disappoint. Maybe it’s because I’ve been distracted writing my second book and dealing with my kids, but at first the book confused me with its jumping back and forth in time and between characters. But once I fell into the rhythm, I loved every page. I was blown away by Doerr’s ability to write so well from the perspective of a young, blind girl. Though his skillful writing, I imagined for the first time what complete darkness might feel like. Doerr also humanizes a German soldier in a very compelling way by creating a fascinating backstory for him and showing how he is able to maintain his humanity throughout the war even when it was nearly impossible. Add a touch of mysticism, which Doerr weaves throughout, and you have another great read that I strongly recommend.

A LITTLE LIFE by Hanya Yanagihara

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Well, it wasn’t a light read. But I knew that going in and I was prepared for it. Expectations make all the difference and knowing in advance how gut-wrenching this book would be helped. The book is a major feat in that it stunningly weaves together the lives of many different characters over decades. Yanagihara is a gorgeous writer and while so much of the focus on the book centers around how deep she goes into sexual abuse, choosing to vividly detail episodes instead of letting the reader fill it in, what is getting somewhat overlooked is what an impressive wordsmith she is. The main character, Jude, is in tremendous physical pain and the author is able to convey that pain throughout the book in ways that feel fresh each time we read them. You feel his pain all over again when you read another tortured description. I would recommend this book to anyone and everyone. Be prepared to bawl but come away changed from the experience of reading it.

THE VACATIONERS by Emma Straub

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This book was phenomenal! It follows a family and some of their friends/significant others on a two-week trip in Mallorca. It’s impossible to read this book and not wish with every morsel of your being that you are on vacation (preferably in a charming European coastal village). Even though the trip is stressful and every traveler has their own grievances, Straub’s sensual descriptions of the landscape and food make it difficult not to photoshop yourself into this family’s album. Each character feels fully developed, which is impressive because there are a lot of them. I can’t wait for the next book from Straub.

THE ORPHAN TRAIN by Christina Baker Kline

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This book came out a while ago and EVERYONE read it. Somehow I just didn’t get around to it, but finally decided I can’t wait any longer, especially because the author and I are at the same imprint, William Morrow. I enjoyed the book and found the writing smooth and seamless, but the part I liked best was learning about the transportation of orphans via trains to the Midwest. Like most people who read this book, I had no idea that practice ever existed and it was terrific that the author carefully studied the historical artifacts and diaries and crafted a novel from them.

FATES AND FURIES by Lauren Groff

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Simply put, I’m blown away. Groff’s talent is so tremendous, this is one of the most humbling books I’ve ever read. Every line read like poetry. I loved the subtlety. Huge things happen in two lines – if you aren’t careful, you’ll miss it. The book is full of shockers, but you don’t learn them in a gotcha way that would feel cheesy. It’s an unbelievable portrayal of a marriage and so artfully constructed I felt like I was reading an impeccably knit sweater with a complicated pattern. I had read a string of lighter fare recently, and this book reminded me again just how powerful books can be. A MUST READ!

A WINDOW OPENS by Elisabeth Egan

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This book was positively charming and just what I needed. I felt like I was reading a book about myself, a working mother of three dealing with the stress of work-life balance, aging parents and a host of other everyday challenges. Kudos to Egan for writing the book in such a humorous, charming way but still touching on important issues with more than a superficial touch.

EVERYBODY RISE by Stephanie Clifford

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The cover  got me very excited, not to mention all the publicity this book has been getting. It’s kind of funny that I chose to read it after Rules of Civility because they share much in common…woman trying to make her way up to the higher echelons of New York society. The author is a New York Times reporter so her keen eye detail is amazing, but overall the story left me somewhat unsatisfied. I loved the parts of the book that explored the protagonists’s complicated relationship with her parents, but was less convinced by the interactions with her new circle of friends which felt undeveloped to me.

RULES OF CIVILITY by Amor Towles

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Rules of Civility was not what I planned to read next. My family’s summer home burned down this past weekend. Fortunately, nobody was injured but everything inside was destroyed, including my beloved Kindle. Desperate for a book, I found Rules of Civility on my shelf at home in NYC and remembered how much I had wanted to read it. I liked it mostly for the way the author, Amor Towles, captured the time period. It was fun to live in 1930s New York City for a while, but overall I wasn’t dying to pick up the book every night. There were two surprising plot twists and I appreciated those because I typically feel like I can always see them coming – and I couldn’t see these. Not my favorite book this year, but Towles is a talented writer who clearly did his homework researching the time period, down to the perfect lingo.

LUCKIEST GIRL ALIVE by Jessica Knoll

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Luckiest Girl Alive made me feel like the luckiest reader alive. Because for three days (that’s all it took me to read this insanely good book) I was enraptured. The main character is one of the most interesting, nuanced, hatable (but also oddly lovable) women I’ve ever found in a book. The mystery is great – you definitely keep turning pages to find out what the big secret is. But the book is really more than that. It’s a fabulous character study of both the major and minor characters, and a fascinating sociological study as well. Knoll touches on issues of wealth and class, peer pressure, sexual assault and family dynamics. I can’t wait to see this in the movie theater! Who is going to be Ani? I vote for Jennifer Lawrence.

THE NIGHTINGALE by Kristin Hannah

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I’m almost done with Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale so I feel like I can put my two cents in at this point. I was hesitant to read this book when I saw the subject matter. I’ve read at least thirty Holocaust books (some of my favorites being Sarah’s Key and The Invisible Bridge) and while you can never read enough about this important topic, I was in the mood for lighter fare – it being summer and all. But everyone was talking about it so I felt compelled. It didn’t disappoint. It’s a great story about two strong but very different sisters and Hannah weaves between their journeys fluidly. Somehow this was my first Hannah book and I will be sure to read her back titles.

THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN by Paula Hawkins

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I’ve joined the rest of America with this one. Two million people can’t be wrong, right? I couldn’t put this book down, but that isn’t necessarily because I was in love with it. I’m a sucker for a good whodunit, and this book certainly fits the bill. That said, I never felt like I knew the characters all that well or particularly cared what happened to them. For lovers of Gone Girl, this book is definitely for you.

BEAUTIFUL RUINS by Jess Walter

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This book is beautiful. Why did I just get to it now? I blame that on the three time drains that I live with, otherwise known as my children. But I recently had a meeting with my publisher and there right before me was a stack of this book, ripe for plucking. I can’t even believe Jess Walter and I share a publisher. I feel so unworthy. The novel goes back and forth in time and between characters, from 1960s Italy to modern-day Seattle and Hollywood, from real people (think Elizabeth Taylor) to imagined characters, from pockets of sadness to laugh out loud scenes. Jess Walter is interviewed in the back of the book about his process of writing. Were graphs and timelines involved? He said no, the plot just existed in his mind as he wrote. It seems impossible to me. And that’s just the clever story woven together. The language is a whole other impressive feat. Bravo! I can’t wait to read The Financial Lives of Poets this summer.

CARTWHEEL by Jennifer DuBois

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Page-turner alert! I’m obsessed with Cartwheel by Jennifer duBois. It’s loosely based on Amanda Knox and I was skeptical at first. Why would I want to read the novel version of something that already happened? Boy was I wrong. I can’t put this thing down. Sorry everyone in my orbit, I can’t speak until I finish. This is the best of 48 Hours Mystery and Dateline rolled into one in a book. Heaven.

US by David Nicholls


 

US

I’m about halfway through a new book, Us by David Nicholls, which was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. I started to read it as research for my next novel, as half of it is written from the perspective of a married man and a good friend recommended Us as a great reference point. The book is about a couple on the verge of splitting up who are traveling across Europe with their college-bound son. It’s a gritty and realistic picture of parenthood and marriage and so far I’m really liking it.


 

THEN WE CAME TO AN END by Joshua Ferris


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Already I’m sucked in. Truthfully, I just prefer fiction to non-fiction, which is why I’ve never read more than a few chapters of any parenting book even though I could certainly use the help. I love the use of the first person plural in this novel. Everyone is so much more impactful when it starts with a “we.” We were hungry. We hated waiting in line. We love this book. You get it!

I finally finished the book after a break. I have to say I ended up being slightly disappointed. It started out very strongly but I found that it never hit the crescendo I was hoping for. I do think the fact that I haven’t worked in a traditional office in a long time contributed to my ambivalence. I’m certain those who toil in cubicles all day long will find pretty much every line in this book to be genius.

THE OPPOSITE OF SPOILED by Ron Lieber

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I’m in Beaver Creek suffering through the hell of being a beginner skier. But I’ve got an interesting book to keep me company. It’s been getting a lot of press. I found Lieber’s most useful advice to be his give, save, spend jars that he puts on the cover. We’d never thought of allowance in that way before. I also enjoyed reading all of his research anecdotes as it’s always reassuring to know you aren’t alone with these tough questions. I took issue with the amount of transparency he suggests having with children about the family’s financial situation. I know a lot of information is available online, but not your tax returns!