bookreviews

Six Months in Books (2019)

At least reading-wise these past six months have been productive. Here is my humble little list and mini-reviews. If you read anything on here, please share your impressions!

Second Person Singular

A solid 4-star, eye-opening read. This was the first novel written by an Israeli-Palestinian for me. I couldn’t tear away from it.

American Like Me

I’m partial to stories about immigrant experiences. I could not resist this collection of essays. I do have a bit of beef with the editing choices here (more in my review linked above), but on the whole, it’s fascinating read. We’re much more alike than we’re not!

An Anonymous Girl

I’m a huge fan on this writing duo but this wasn’t a favorite. It fell a bit flat and predictable for me, although maybe some of that may have to do with my own high expectations given the authors’ first book.

All the Rivers

Okay, truth time: I cannot stop thinking about this one. So far this year, this has been my absolute favorite. It gripped me tight and won’t let me go. Highly, highly recommend.

A Girl at the Border

Complex and intriguing plot line. At times, it felt a little cluttered to me but, on the other hand, the language was stunning. Recommend.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

An easy read with a hyper relatable protagonist with zero patience for society’s bullshit. Highly recommend.

The Broken Girls

This one sat on my to-read shelf for a while so I’m glad I finally read it. It’s an easy read with just enough of a hint of the paranormal. A very engaging novel.

The Buried: An Archeology of the Egyptian Revolution

I don’t read enough non-fiction. I came across this book by complete accident but wound up being completely engrossed by it. Peter Hessler is a magnificent storyteller. I learned so much! Highly recommend this book if you are at all interested in Egypt and/or politics.

If you happen to read any of these titles, please let me know. I would love to compare notes!

A Girl at the Border (Book Review)

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A friend of mine recommended this novel to me. She felt that the prose reminded her of my writing. She said it seemed like something I would write, and she meant it as a compliment! She loved the book! Naturally, I was intrigued and simply had to read it ASAP. Luckily, my little virtual book club, MR BOOK CLUB, selected it as it's March/April Official Selection so I got right on it.

I give A Girl at the Border 4 stars. The writing is gorgeous. All the settings, the dialogue—it was all written so expertly and effortlessly. The pictures painted themselves. Psst, if that’s what my friend meant—I’m over the moon by the comparison! The only thing that made me “deduct” a point was that at times the novel seemed a little cluttered, touching on a few too many subjects—parental absenteeism, 9/11, the war on terror. On the flip side, the author did keep me guessing and I did not see the biggest twist coming. Okay, so maybe half a star deduction there, to be fair. The other half? The many time jumps got a little confusing here and there. All in all, however, I loved this book and look forward to more fiction from Leslie Archer.

Moral of the story? Listen to your friends when they give you book recommendations, people:)

All the Rivers (Book Review)

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I came across All the Rivers by way of social media. In one of the many interviews the brilliant Rami Malek gave while promoting Bohemian Rhapsody, he mentioned reading a book that was about a love story between an Israeli woman and a Palestinian man and what a beautiful story that would be tell as an actor. I didn’t hear him mention the title but a few months later, almost by chance, I saw someone reference this title in relation to Mr. Malek. Hurray for power of Instagram! I looked up the description and downloaded the book in seconds. I’m not exaggerating when I say that from the get-go, it took my breath away. I can only dream of ever being able to write in a way that flies off the page like this even when translated to a different language.

I have always clicked with literature translated from the Hebrew language. I’m not sure if this has to do with my relation to and interest in the Middle East and if it’s just self-fulfilling that way, but it’s true! Ever since reading short stories by Savyon Liebrecht in college, something about the thematics in Hebrew literature drew me in. Much like foreign TV shows and films, these feel different in an intriguing way. This novel, however, left me completely and utterly destroyed (and I say that with highest praise). It’s an autobiographical novel, with many elements of the story being lifted straight from the author’s life. For example, Dorit Rabinyan really did have a Palestinian boyfriend who was an artist and…oops, I almost revealed a spoiler! So perhaps it was this aspect that gripped me so. Or maybe it’s because this book served as a reminder that no matter how much we have in common, no matter how much we love each other as people/friends/neighbors/lovers, our political interests are so at arms with each other that they take precedence over personal interests, and frankly, that just hurts. It could also be because the action takes place in New York, in 2002-2003—a time when I myself was 20 and in college and tried to love desperately and hopelessly, just like you’re supposed to at that age. Whatever the reason, this book stands alone when it comes to a work of fiction taking ahold of me so tight and making me feel an ache so physical, it was beautifully terrifying. I can’t say I’m not a crier, but I rarely cry at movies, and I literally have never cried at written work of fiction. This says a lot, or at least it should.

Read this book. It was will hurt, but it will also teach you some valuable lessons not just about the impossible conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, but also about yourself. Please let me know if you do.

An Anonymous Girl (book review)

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Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen are a dynamic duo of sorts. I mean, I hear they write together in real time! Having read The Wife Between Us last summer, I could not wait to get my hands on their next collaboration. Expectations were high given that I devoured Wife at the time (see my review here). So how did it fare?

Well, here is the thing about expectations—they are a double edged sword. On one hand, you write an awesome book, you get a new fan! Hundreds, thousands of new fans. Hurray for you! But then all those fans expect to be wowed each and every time you put pen to paper. And it’s difficult to wow each and every time. It’s legitimately difficult.

This was the problem here—my expectations were way too high after The Wife Between Us. All the twists and surprises there were truly unexpected, the pace exciting. An Anonymous Girl , on the other hand, was perfectly satisfactory. Good, even! But it was no Wife. Herein was its problem. None of the twists were unexpected and the novel fell a little flat for me. The characters didn’t ring true and the dialogue didn’t flow as naturally as I expected from these brilliant authors. Some of this may have had a little bit to do with the fact that I listened to the book on Audible; narration, after all, makes a big difference. Perhaps the voices given to the main characters did my perception of the novel a disservice. If you read this one, please let me know what you think. I give it 3.5-4 stars.

American Like Me (Book Review)

I was so excited to read American Like Me when MR. BOOK CLUB selected it as our January/February official selection. As an immigrant child, memories of my early days in America still fill me with the most confusing mix of emotions: there was fear, there was excitement, there was naiveté, there was misinformation. Ah, there is even an aroma of our very first American apartment that I can still tap to if I focus enough. All and all, it was a nerve-wracking time that was also kind of delicious (literally! We ate like pigs!) and full of hope. So, of course, if I see a compilation of essays written about various immigrant experiences, you damn right I’m going to read it! Plus it’s an America Ferrera project! Who doesn’t like America Ferrera?!

For the most part, I loved the book. The essays, one after the other, left me feeling giddy. Besides the occasional existential insight into what the term “American Dream” truly means, these were mostly reflections on childhood experiences. Turns out that all of us immigrants (or first generation kiddos) who were tweens in the early 90s, no matter our backgrounds, have very similar experiences. We all watched Family Matters and dreamed big 90210 dreams. We all had those tall mean girls we were afraid of and all our parents wanted us to become doctors or lawyers. This fact was of such comfort to me. How relatable! How universal! We truly are one. Reading this book, I even became inspired to revisit a long ago shelved idea of mine. See, I really want to write and publish a memoir focusing on my first year experience in America. I know, I know, here I am waxing poetic about how all of our experiences are similar and yet I want to write and sell my own story. Yes, yes, I hear a bit of a contradiction there. Well, allow me to ask you to take my word for it right now, but I’m telling ya, my story has a bit of a unique flavor to it. Will it ever be written? Yes. When? I don’t know. Suffice it to say that not everyone in my family will be lining up for a copy so that’s a bit of a deterrent. Sometimes, anyway.

Anywho, long story short: Did I like this book? Yes. Would I recommend it? Yes. How many stars would I give it? 3.5. And here is why: the stories lacked diversity. Predominantly, the essays were written by various celebrities of Hispanic descent, in addition to an occasional Asian perspective. Missing entirely are Jewish voices. Not a one. Russian-Jewish immigration came in a massive wave in early and mid ‘90s; surely, our voices deserve some representation, too. We too had obstacles to overcome, a language to learn, parents’ hopes and dreams to crush. Was Mila Kunis not available? Or Natalie Portman (an Israeli immigrant)? Also missing are Arab voices (were Tony Shalhoub and/or Rami Malek not available either?), with the only one present being that of Linda Sansour—a woman known for generally doing a poor job of hiding her anti-Semitic tendencies. The combination makes one wonder if this was an editorial oversight or an intentional statement. I don’t know. But I do know that I expected better from America Ferrera.

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Second Person Singular

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I met Sayed Kashua once. A friend of a friend, we were introduced after a screening of Write Down-I am an Arab, a documentary about a renowned Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. I found him intimidating. Kashua, not Darwish. His mood that day can easily be explained by the timing of our meeting—we’d just come out of the discussion about the film and the life of Mahmoud Darwish, and inevitably, the conversation had turned to the life and status of Arab Israelis. My friend Mira Award (who’d adapted Darwish’s poetry to her original music for this project) and Sayed Kashua (who himself is an Israeli Arab journalist and novelist, writing primarily in Hebrew) were poised and polite in the face of some rather ignorant questions, but when it was over and we all headed over the a nearby bar somewhere around NYU, Sayed was visibly shaken and annoyed. By way of context, he had apparently recently moved to the United States with his family, vowing never to return to Israel. He spoke very fast, mostly in Arabic and Hebrew (neither one of which I speak), and I remember feeling very intimidated. He smoked a lot and left before anyone else did. I was relieved! Needless to say, I didn’t even think to mention that I am a writer—a title I still feel insecure about throwing around by way of a self-descriptor. Now, half a decade older, I realize what a wasted opportunity this meeting was! Not because I regret not making a “contact” in Mr. Kashua, but because, had I been braver and not allowed myself to become so easily flustered, I could’ve learned something from such an accomplished author! I’ve been kicking myself and wanting to read Sayed’s novels ever since.

I proposed reading Second Person Singular to my Facebook Book Club, MR. BOOK CLUB, but it lost to American Like Me. I, of course, knew that, win or lose, I was going to finally read this novel, and I have to say, I am glad that I did. I am embarrassed to admit that this is the first work of fiction I’ve read that was written by an Israeli Arab. I’ve read literature by Jewish Israelis leaning to the left of the local political spectrum, of course, but obviously that is not the same thing.

I must say, I don’t remember the last time I felt like I truly learned something from a novel. For example, I had no idea about the friction between Israeli Arabs from the Galilee vs those from the “triangle,” the Christian and Muslim Arabs etc. The way I see it, underneath it all, this book is about insecurity. On all levels—personal, cultural, political. No wonder I can relate! The writing is crystal clear, despite the translation from Hebrew, and truly pulls you in. On the whole, this is a fascinating and rewarding read and I highly recommend it.


Nine Perfect Strangers

I’m just gonna say it—I love Liane Moriarty. Granted, I was a little late to the party, only giving her books a try two years ago; I, therefore, may be overcompensating a bit. I read Big Little Lies, What Alice Forgot, and My Husband’s Secret. Ms. Moriarty’s voice is unlike anyone else’s and I cannot get enough. I’ll be honest, Nine Perfect Strangers is not my favorite novel by Ms. Moriarty, but it is a worthy, enjoyable read. It was my on-line book club’s official November/December selection. Join us here: MR. BOOK CLUB.

Currently, I am wrapping up a manuscript with multiple points of view so getting my hands on a book with that many POVs written by one of my favorite authors was godsent. Quality writing is indeed inspiring. On this front, Ms. Moriarty did not disappoint—nine characters were introduced effortlessly and naturally. Lots to learn from the master! The multiple voices were not overwhelming and it was helpful to hear inner dialogue and different perspectives on the previously introduced conflict. This, of course, was the highlight of the book for me.

Each character was distinct and different and developed to a different degree, but Masha stood out to me for a rather obvious reason. I’m naturally hypersensitive to representation of Russian-speaking characters in books and movies, and here is Masha—the gorgeous, know-it-all, arrogant health resort owner. Naturally, I was on guard from the second I read her name. I need not have been, as it turns out. Not because Masha was portrayed as a highly relatable, likable starlet, but because she was not. Highly educated and of enviable will power, Masha doesn’t hide her distaste for those around her. She feels superior to them not because she is naturally better than them but because she fought and worked hard for everything in her new life in Australia (despite immeasurable trauma, as it turns out). I’ve met women like Masha in my local immigrant community. She’s well-written. She’s believable. I didn’t like her but I understood where she was coming from.

The ending was the only thing that truly bugged me about the novel, to be honest. And even that’s only because it seemed to drag unnecessarily, with multiple updates on the characters in the future.

All in all, I recommend this book to anyone who likes an easy but quality read.

Six Months in Books

Summer is a busy time around my house. What used to be my writing hours are no longer mine at all. Summer is a competitive time for a writer (who doesn't want to be read at the beach?!), but if you're writer who's also a parent, summer is also a tough time on the production end. I'm working on my upcoming novel-Good Morning, Bellingham. It's about half way there. This will be a multiple POV psychological thriller and I'm unreasonably giddy about it. I like to push myself to experiment with different genres and can't wait to share it with the world, but it'll be a little while before I'll be able to announce a release date. Why? See above! Still, a stout believer in routine and maintaining muscle memory, I try to write something every day just to keep the muse happy. Sometimes, it's only a long-winded e-mail, but it's summer so it counts! Again, see above! Summer sucks! This Six Months in Books update is a writing exercise of sorts. Plus, everybody looks for book recommendations in the summer. Two birds? Here we go...

January through June 2018

The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning by Margareta Magnusson

3-stars

This book fell into my lap (or rather, my car's Bluetooth) at the most opportune time-my father had just passed away after five and a half months of torture that is pancreatic cancer. Though we knew from day one that prognosis wasn't optimistic in the least, his actual death came fast: Tuesday, I am driving him to see his oncologist about canceling his treatment in favor of in-home hospice, and Saturday morning he is gone. Left behind was hospice equipment that had barely had the time to be delivered, a boatload of medications, and a lifetime (at least an American one) of acquired junk. Clothes and shoes never worn, countless loose post-its with unidentified phone numbers, and three sheds of cables and screws. Torn between grief and practicality, we cleaned fast. So needless to say, when I came across a title with the words Death and Cleaning in it, it caught my attention. 

I was expecting a how-to, which, luckily, this wasn't. Now that I think about it, how could Ms. Magnusson tell me what to get rid of and what to keep? She didn't try and I thank her. These decisions are tremendously personal. For me, this book served as a gentle kick in the butt to start downsizing now. Hopefully I'll have enough time to do a decent enough job of it before it's my time so as not to leave my mess for my loved ones to deal with. All in all, this was an interesting perspective to read and it did inspire a change in my life. Recommend!

Read more about my thoughts on the book here: https://www.marinaraydun.com/blog/2018/2/26/death-cleaning

Train Girl by Kristina Rienzi

4-stars

I received this short story free of charge as a token of thanks from the author for joining her mailing list. Which is a neat idea, I admit. I, too, must come up with a tangible reward for signing up for my mailing list. Somebody please remind me to do this!

I actually interviewed Kristina back in February of this year. You can read our interview here: https://www.marinaraydun.com/blog/2018/2/5/author-interview-series-kristina-rienzi. The story is incredibly short and is a real page turner. Which, of course, means I swallowed it in one sitting (yes, I read this one instead of listening to it!). It was suspenseful and engaging and the ending was a twist I was not expecting. Recommend!

Behind Closed Doors by B.A. Paris

5-stars

I could not, would not put this down (or turn it off). I got this recommendation on a facebook book group and it was so totally worth it. I listened every chance I got! Even if it meant five minutes at a time, I had to listen. Behind Closed Doors truly kept me on the edge of my seat. I was able to visualize everything so clearly, the writing is that crystal clear. Highly recommend! 

The Breakdown by B.A. Paris

5-stars

Having loved Behind Closed Doors so much, I had to see what else B.A. Paris had to offer. The Breakdown did not disappoint.  Definitely recommend. I will be reading more B.A. Paris books in the near future, I'm sure!

The Girl Before by JP Delaney

4-stars

A sucker for anything British, I do have a bias for books set across the pond. Now that I listen to books, the fact that they are narrated with a British accent is an added bonus. I don't remember now how I came across this title but it was an engaging one. The suspense was executed well and the ending was a bit of a surprise. All in all, a fascinating read.

The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani

3-stars

I'm sorry to say, but this was a total disappointment for me. The book is a winner of a very prestigious award and I feel a bit like a jackass for finding it overrated. It goes for profound, grappling with some serious societal issues, but winds up stretched very thin and superficial. I just did not like it, although I read it very fast (and at the beach). I have a separate entry about this one. Read it here: https://www.marinaraydun.com/blog/2018/4/9/the-next-gone-girl

After Anna by Lisa Scottoline

5-stars

A reader at a street fair recommended this book to me. I won't lie-the whole thing did remind me of a quintessential Lifetime movie but it did hold my attention. The twist wasn't entirely unexpected, but the execution was entertaining. 

You Think It, I’ll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld

5-stars

Short stories are my jam! I find it such an intriguing and difficult genre. Putting out a compilation of short stories is on my bucket list. It's an ambitious dream. It's collections like this one that make it seem so intimidating because, oh my G-d, these stories right here are just sheer brilliance. So poignant and nuanced. So relatable. If you like short stories, please do yourself a favor and check out this book. One of my favorites!

The Perfect Mother by Aimee Molloy

5-stars

This was the one "the new Gone Girl" book that did not disappoint. Good suspense, yes, but it also delved into some real struggles that new mothers face. Highly recommend.

Little Book of Hygge by Meik Wiking

3.5-stars

There are many Little Books out there nowadays. I was afraid this one was going to be a preachy book about finding your happiness. I don't do those. I'm one of those rare few people out there who did not like Eat, Pray, Love. But no, this wound up reading like a funny scholarly paper with a bit of statistics and anthropology. It was fun. I now want to learn how to ride a bike and light some candles. 

2017 in Books

2017 was the year I discovered Audible, which changed my reading life forever. Below is a list of the books it has allowed me to read this past year, along with some short notes. I hope you can find something that piques your interest for your own 2018 reading list!

Happy New Year!

Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple

Today Will Be Different was the last novel I actually "read." I was about to say it was my last paperback, but that would be wrong-I read it on my beloved Kindle. I love Maria Semple. Where Did You Go, Bernadette? was genius, and Today Will Be Different did not disappoint. A relatable, flawed and troubled protagonist is everything for me. I highly recommend this novel to those seeking literary fiction at its best.

11/22/63 by Stephen King

11/22/63 was my first Audible book and also my first Stephen King novel (yes, yes, I know!). The creativity and the attention to detail of this one blew me away. Just to think of all the research that went into this novel! Highly recommend to thriller lovers.

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

I've resisted reading Liane Moriarty for a while. The rebel in me sometimes winds up missing out on something fun just for the sake of being contrary. But HBO was coming out with an adaptation (I don't have HBO), so I decided to give it a try. Holy crap, was I immediately hooked! Liane Moriarty is one of my most favorite authors now. The way she writes her characters is impeccable. They are nuanced, they are relatable. Loved Big Little Lies.

The Husband's Secret by Liane Moriarty

Pretty much "read above." Highly recommend to those who love quality women's literature.

In the Woods by Tana French

I've heard a lot of buzz about the Tana French mysteries and finally decided to give this one a try. It was good, and I certainly wanted to know what comes next, but it didn't click that much for me. I'm curious about the background of the main character, but I'm not sure I'll continue with the series for now. I may get back to it.

The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena

I'm sorry to admit this but The Couple Next Door is my least favorite book this year. This doesn't happen often, but try as I might, I still can't find much to say about it. There is too much telling, barely any showing, and the whole thing is riddled with stereotypes on every level. This is a well ranked and reviewed book so this was quite a surprise.

What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty

After having such a negative experience, I simply had to cleanse the palette with some more Liane Moriarty. What Alice Forgot wound up being my favorite book by the author. Alice and I share quite a lot in common.

Stillhouse Lake by Rachel Caine

A highly suspenseful novel! I can't wait for the next installment. 

Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan

I don't read much YA but this was such a thoughtful book. Simply lovely. It does a wonderful job at attempting to renew your faith in mankind. Highly recommend to fans of the genre.

A Dark and Twisted Tide by Sharon Bolton

This is probably my most favorite thriller. I could not turn it off (an Audible equivalent of being unable to put the book down). Great imagery, great foreshadowing, a great story. It's #4 in the series but I read it as a standalone book and it totally worked.