Reading List by Jennie for January through March 2021
Usually I have more books on my quarterly reading list, but in addition to the five books here, I read and reviewed seven other books: The Trials of Koli, Quiet in Her Bones, Overnight Sensation and Superfan, Book of Love, The Fall of Koli, and An Unexpected Peril
All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriott
I happened to pick this up just before hearing that there was another PBS adaptation of it (I still haven’t seen it, nor have I seen the older version). I was looking for something gentle, humorous and not too emotionally taxing. This book mostly fit the bill. I was a little trepidatious, since I figured that a story about a vet would have to involve some animals dying. While that was true, the only one that really felt like a gut punch was the death of an elderly dog belonging to an elderly man, and that was mostly poignant because of the suffering of the poor man losing his only companion.
The humor of All Creatures Great and Small was a bit hit or miss for me – it often felt repetitive, especially in some of the author’s interactions with local farmers. The tales of the rich Mrs. Pumphrey and her spoiled Pekingese Tricki Woo were funny, but I found Herriot’s boss Siegfried obnoxious, when I think I was supposed to find him humorous. Really my favorite aspect of the book was the author’s very clear appreciation for the rural community he settles into in the course of the story. I still have the sequel All Things Bright and Beautiful in my tbr pile. My grade for this is between a B and a B+.
The Girls are All So Nice Here by Laurie Elizabeth Finn
I requested this book for a couple of reasons: it had positive buzz, and the setting intrigued me. Ambrosia “Amb” Wellington is invited to her 10-year college reunion. She has no intention of going, but things change when she gets an ominous, anonymous note: “We need to talk about what we did that night.” From there the story shifts back and forth between the present day college reunion, and Amb’s first year at Wellesley. Amb is insecure and feels like a fish out of water among the wealthier and seemingly more sophisticated kids. She is drawn towards Sloane “Sully” Sullivan, who is the stereotypical DGAF cool girl who might as well have “trouble” tattooed on her forehead. Sully leads Amb into a series of bad decisions, some of which involve Amb’s almost too-sweet-to-be-real roommate, Flora. Amb becomes infatuated with Flora’s boyfriend Kevin, and events start to spiral out of control.
In the present Amb (and Sully, who hasn’t changed a bit) continue to get increasingly menacing messages at the reunion; Amb is also occupied trying to keep her husband Adrian from discovering some of the more unsavory truths about her years at Wellesley.
I figured out a couple of the twists before they were revealed, but there were still plenty of surprises that kept me engrossed in the story. That said, this is a hard book to grade, for a couple of reasons. From a readability perspective, it’d probably get an A- from me; I really was hooked and wanted to find out what would happen next.
But as the story went on, it became more and more unpleasant. I’m sure some readers don’t mind (or perhaps even like!) reading about unlikable people. I need a little balance, and I didn’t find it in Amb. I think I was predisposed to see her as sympathetic because she was the narrator and I did perceive her as being driven by insecurity and feelings of low self-worth. So it took me a while to realize that she was really a monster, and that the things that happened when she was in college weren’t just youthful mistakes. Sully was terrible as well, but she wasn’t as well-realized a character; I found her irritating and doubted Amb’s paeans to her magnetism.
The other thing that brings down the grade is the ending. This was a well-written book and I think I was expecting that it wouldn’t have the kind of batshit ending I see in so many mediocre suspense books. The batshit endings are sort of what makes some of these books worth reading, but I expected more sophistication from The Girls are All So Nice Here. And I didn’t get it – it had a ridiculous ending that wouldn’t bear up under scrutiny at all. So my grade for this a B.
All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung
I follow Chung on social media and had been interested for a while in picking up this, her first book, a memoir detailing her adoption as an infant, growing up as a transracial adoptee, and eventually finding her birth family. Chung was born in Oregon to immigrant parents from South Korea who already had two daughters. Even though her parents were married, she was placed for adoption, ostensibly because she was premature and they were worried about their ability to care for her (she was expected to have complications from her early birth, though that happily was apparently not the case). The truth behind the reason for adoption was somewhat more complex.
Chung’s adoptive parents were a white couple who had been unable to have a baby on their own. In spite of the fact that her parents were loving and supportive, Chung’s depiction of her upbringing in a small, virtually all-white Oregon town is an unhappy one. It’s hard to know how to factor the internal vs. the external – Chung certainly experienced racism and othering, sometimes even from her own family members. But she also seemed to feel an inherent sense of her own difference once she was old enough to understand what it meant that she was adopted. Her well-meaning parents did not help in that they did not acknowledge Chung’s differences or make an attempt to connect her in any way to her birth culture. (To be fair, this choice was probably more in line with the general thinking at the time, which emphasized assimilation.)
I felt some ambivalence about the author’s perspective on adoption, particularly transracial adoption. I think it was good for me to examine my prejudices, which sometimes tilted towards the “aren’t you grateful that these people loved you enough to take you in?” attitude. Ultimately I had to acknowledge that this is Chung’s story, and that I have no idea what it feels like to be either a minority or an adoptee, never mind a transracial adoptee.
Chung ultimately connects her birth family and forges a close bond with one of her sisters (who had been told that the baby they were calling Susie had died). Some of the facts she discovers about her parents do make her realize that maybe her adoption was for the best, even if she still mourns all the things she lost by not growing up in her birth family.
The structure of All that You Can Ever Know was a bit slow and repetitive in places, but over all this was well worth reading; challenging (in a good way!) and thought-provoking. My grade is a B+.
Widowish: A Memoir by Melissa Gould
This was an Amazon First Read – I decided to take a break from mediocre suspense to try a memoir. The author had been married to her husband Joel for 10 years when he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. The progression of the disease was painful and frustrating, as the formerly athletic Joel became increasingly unable to live his normal life. Then he was hospitalized with a mysterious condition, eventually diagnosed as West Nile Virus. Something as prosaic as a mosquito ended up leaving him essentially in a vegetative state, and Melissa had to make the tough decision to end life support. Suddenly, in her 40s, with a 13-year-old daughter, she became something that she never expected to be – a widow.
I was sympathetic to the circumstances of the story (who wouldn’t be?) but found it difficult to connect with the author. In her own narrative, she comes off as annoyingly childlike to me – she becomes obsessed with listening to Joel Osteen on the radio (even though she’s not a Christian) because he has the same first name as her husband. (My anti-Joel Osteen prejudice might be partly at work here.) She visits a psychic and laps up her insights with little hesitance or skepticism. She is open about not wanting to meet other young widows because she’s jealous and possessive of her own status and its seeming uniqueness.
Sometimes it felt like Gould exaggerated situations to make them more interesting or entertaining. When she first meets the man who eventually becomes her boyfriend, she assumes, for very little reason, that he’s an ex-addict. Her reasoning has to do with him living in a house attached to a church and volunteering for them, but I also felt there was a subtext relating to the fact that he’s apparently Latino. This leads her, on their first date, to make a huge deal of him ordering a drink. Again, it felt almost like a bit, but it also made her look idiotic to me.
(Later, when she and this guy officially become a couple, she makes rather more than I thought was tasteful about their differences in class and how odd a couple they must seem to everyone.)
This was relatively readable but (and I feel bad saying this about a first person narrative!) I did not find the protagonist very likable. I’m giving it a B-.
Lying Next to Me by Gregg Olsen
This was recommended by the friend of a friend. Adam and Sophie Warner are on a weekend trip away from home, staying in a cabin near the town where Adam grew up. Adam is out on the water with their three-year-old daughter when he sees Sophie abducted from the deck of the cabin. He tries to row in and get to her in time to save her, but is unsuccessful. Not long after, Sophie turns up dead.
Meanwhile, in another cabin, Connor Moss is waking up from another bender. He doesn’t remember much about the night before. He talks to his wife Kristen about really quitting drinking this time.
Adam is glad that detective Lee Husemann is assigned to the case of Sophie’s murder. Lee is the little sister of Adam’s childhood friend, who died in Afghanistan. Further, Lee and Adam have a history – when she was a young child she was abducted and Adam happened to find and rescue her.
As revelations begin to come to light about a secret connection between the Warners and the Mosses, the list of suspects in Sophie’s murder narrows. Adam seems to be losing it a bit under the pressure, particularly as his hated father-in-law begins to throw around accusations about the state of Adam’s and Sophie’s marriage.
This was a very compelling and readable page-turner, though I did figure out the major elements of the ending relatively early on. I’m giving it a B – I may check out this author’s backlist.