April is known for being rainy. (April showers bring May flowers, right?) This year, where I live at least, April lived up to expectations. By the end of the month I was so ready for sunshine I thought I might hop on a plane and chase the sun to Mexico.
But, there’s an upside to constant gloom. It makes you want to stay in and read. And read I did. In fact, I made a good dent in my TBR.
Here are the 10 books I read in April, in the order I read them, along with some brief reviews.
Book 1: Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews (Genre: Crime/Spy Fiction)
I started off the reading month with Red Sparrow, the first of two books chosen by my book club on this list. I don’t typically read crime or spy fiction, so I was excited to dip a literary toe into a new genre.
Unfortunately, I didn’t love this book. It started out fast and furious, but then got weighed down with unnecessary details. In addition, I found the main female character one dimensional and inauthentic (and further proof that men struggle to write believable female characters.) My biggest complaint: the book spends way too much time describing (in significant detail) “going dark.” By the end, I didn’t want to read one more word about how a person spent hours jumping walls, hiding in trunks and running through alleyways just to ensure he/she wasn’t tailed. I am assured, however, I should not let this book be a reflection of all crime/spy books and to give it another chance. (Suggestions anyone?)
Review in a hurry: The book started off exciting, but ultimately lacked authenticity and dimension in its female lead character.
Book 2: Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley (Genre: Historical YA)
“This is such a great book. It’s about the integration of schools in a fictional town in Virginia 1959,” gushed a woman at the NovaTeen Book Festival a few months ago. I looked at her over the pile of books stacked high in my hands and bent down so she could add it to the top.
I don’t regret it. (OK, do I ever regret buying another book?) This book made me gag with disgust and rage with anger and cry with happiness. Even though the story is fictional, we all know the kinds of things that happened to the protagonist, Sarah Dunbar, are not fiction. It was how black students integrating into white schools were treated, in some cases, they were treated even worse. In this day where there is a clear resurgence of rationalized bigotry, this book is more important than ever. Even more, it adds a “twist” I haven’t seen before in non-fiction and fiction books written about this subject matter. But what I really loved about this book was the theme of everyone has a right to their opinions (and a rationale), that doesn’t make their opinion right.
Review in a hurry: The book explores the different perspectives of racism in 1959 in a way that is still very relevant today.
Book 3: The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit by Michael Finkel (Genre: Non-fiction)
One day I was listening to NPR and I heard an interview with Michael Finkel. He told an unusual tale of a man who lived in the woods of Maine for nearly two decades. The man was known as the North Pond Hermit and until he was caught, he was more legend than human. I noted it as interesting and went on with my life.
Then, my family and I took a trip to Maine last summer and I, of course, had to go into every bookstore we came across. In one, I saw this book cover and it sparked the NPR memory. So, of course, I had to buy it. (Of course!) It sat in my TBR until this month, languishing under my general aversion to non-fiction. It was a stupid aversion.
This story is about so much more than just a man who lives in the woods. It’s a story about relationships, nature, society, freedom… The book refuses to fall prey to stereotypes or give explanations for something that only one person on earth could truly understand. It’s a book that makes you think about life and how we judge people.
Review in a hurry: This journalist’s tale of trying to unearth the mystery of a legendary hermit is both fascinating and philosophical. It may just make you rethink your view of the world.
Book 4: Solo by Kwame Alexander & Mary Rand Hess (Genre: Lyrical Poetry)
OK, first of all, does anyone else follow Kwame Alexander on social media? If not, please stop now and go follow him. He has a podcast called Bookish. (I’ve even given you a link. There’s no excuse.) He has this infectious way about him that makes you smile inside and out. I wish he was my friend! (I’m going to start a campaign #HelpmakeKL&Kwamefriends)!! OK. OK. I’m done fangirling now.
So Kwame Alexander is kind of a big deal and would never be friends with a lowly, non-Newbery-Award-winning-author like me. But that’s OK. I’ve made my peace with it. He’s an incredible poet and writer. Solo, which is co-written with Mary Rand Hess, is a wonderful exploration of life and love (or rather heartbreak and then love) under the backdrop of music and family drama. Even if you’re not “into poetry” I promise you’ll love this book. It’s poetry. It’s a story. It’s poetry. I can’t decide. It doesn’t matter. It’s wonderful.
Review in a hurry: A literal poetic story about finding the music inside. It will change the way you view poetry and make you love Kwame Alexander as much as I do!
Book 5: The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot (Genre: Poetry)
In preparation for the second book club book this month, which was a book of poetry (see later in this post), I wanted to go back to my poetry reading roots. Therefore, I went in search of my copy of The Waste Land from college.
I found it tucked away in a bookshelf. It was surreal to see my handwritten margin notes crowded around every stanza. Some felt very maudlin and dramatic. “It’s like a wasteland of the mind, bereft of mental nourishment and intelligent thought.” (First of all, in my head I say this sentence a very high-pitched, British accent. Second, is everyone so pretentious in college? Please say yes. It will make me feel better.)
Anyway, upon a re-read, I think I actually enjoyed this more than I did in college, when I felt pressure to “be smarter” than all my classmates and prove myself. Now I don’t care. I read it to enjoy it and think. I like the way Eliot breaks the book into different stories and the overarching theme of the Fischer King. And I like the concept of how we are becoming a wasteland of ideas and thought. It doesn’t seem to have changed since Eliot wrote this, which is a bit depressing. But I’m glad I re-read it.
Review in a hurry: Don’t let the size of the poem fool you, it won’t be a quick read. But if you give it the time and the thought, perhaps you’ll escape the intellectual wasteland.
Book 6: The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton (Genre: YA fantasy)
I likely would not have picked up this book if I hadn’t heard Dhonielle Clayton talk at the NovaTeen Book Festival. Why? Well, I’ll admit it. I do judge a book by its cover. When I first saw the book, the cover said to me: another princessy retake on a fairy tale. (Meh.) Of course, this is exactly why you should NOT judge a book by its cover. It was nothing like I thought it would be.
In fact, it has one of the most unique premises I’ve ever read—a world where people are born “ugly” and pay excessive amounts of money to have “belles” magically keep them beautiful and fashionable. The writing, although beautifully crafted, is bit indulgent and dense with description at the beginning. (I would have loved fewer semi-colon separated lists.) But, I can understand why the writer would find it difficult to pare down such a fascinating world. Luckily, the book finds its perfect groove quickly.
It also has the distinct feel of a Jane Austen novel, specifically Pride and Prejudice, set in a fantasy world. It’s complete with Darcy and Wickham type characters and the main protagonist is a headstrong “Elizabeth.” Even if it wasn’t intentional, the Austen-ish nature of the book made it even more appealing to me.
Review in a hurry: This YA fantasy novel turns a mirror on society’s obsession with appearance in an utterly unique and compelling fashion (if you’ve read the book, pun intended).
Book 7: Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (Genre: Boring Classics)
About a quarter of the way through Madame Bovary I realized I’d read it before. About halfway through I realized why I didn’t remember reading it before – it’s so boring!
Listen, I usually like the classics. But I could not connect to Madame Bovary, either the prose or the character.
Again, a man writing a story of a woman fails to capture any type of complexity about its female protagonist. (This seems to be an unfortunate theme.) Madame Bovary, the character, is stereotypical and unrelatable. Plus, I think this story has been done better, even by male authors. (See Anna Karenina) Sorry to anyone who might love this book. I just couldn’t find the redeemable qualities.
Review in a hurry: Pass.
Book 8: 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff (Genre: Non-fiction)
This book was chosen for me by a book concierge. (How did I get a book concierge you ask? That’s just a little tease for the next blog…Stay tuned.)
I didn’t even know this book existed and, even if I did, I never would have picked it out for myself. These are the best kinds of books, the unexpected finds or, in the case, the unexpected books that find you.
This book is a collection of actual letters between Helene Hanff, who lived in New York, and a bookstore in London. The letters were exchanged over about two decades between the 1940s through the 1960s. Sounds boring? It was surprisingly interesting. Over the years of correspondence, Hanff forms a long-distance friendship with the people who work at the bookstore. It shows how friendships and bonds can take on any form. Like in a sappy romance novel, I even rooted for her to meet her friends across the pond. I won’t spoil whether it happens or not. You’ll have to read it.
Review in a hurry: A quick, interesting non-fiction read that will make you want to resurrect the art of letter writing.
Book 9: Why I Wake Early by Mary Oliver (Genre: Poetry)
This is the second of my book club books on the list. Oliver’s poems focus heavily on how nature can be a form of reflection and salvation. It was interesting to discuss this at our book club.
Poetry can feel daunting for some people. And there are certainly poetry snobs out there who like to make claims about what is and isn’t poetry and whether or not reading poetry can be “learned.” I love poetry and simply want more people to love it as well. Although not everyone at the book club “loved” this book, I do think they perhaps came away from the book club with a different view of poetry (eg, it’s not just that annoying stuff they taught in school).
Review in a hurry: Oliver’s use of imagery and nature as a metaphor in her poetry gives the reader a lot to ponder. I think anyone could find something about her work to enjoy, if they give it, and themselves, a chance.
Book 10: The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo by Amy Schumer (Genre: Non-fiction, memoir)
Amy Schumer’s comedy is hit or miss for me most of the time. (And, it’s not because I don’t like female comics. I love female comics.) As I often do with many memoirs, I listened to this as an audiobook. Particularly with comedians, I think this can make the book experience more enjoyable. It’s like listening to someone tell a story, a really well-edited story.
Amy’s memoir isn’t fluff. In fact, there’s little fluff. It’s raw and honest and very funny. Some of the best parts of the book are when she reads from her childhood journal. (Well, not exactly her childhood, it’s her journal from her teens and early twenties.) She pauses and makes comments, or rather makes fun of herself, saying things like, “Are you buying this?” or “That was total crap.” It’s pretty funny and also, as a woman, these comments sting with universal truths of young womanhood – we told (and still tell?) ourselves a lot of lies to cover our insecurities.
Review in a hurry: Not quite as good as some other memoirs by comedians I have read, but it’s a funny, entertaining effort.
This was a great month for books. Can’t wait for next month!