The first month of 2020 is coming to and end! I dunno if it is that 5th week that made January seem to last forever, or maybe its that all that New Year Resolution hype that seems to make tackling January such a daunting task. But we made it through!
I, for one, was grateful that extra long first month gave me some much needed time to spread out my goals for this month and squeeze in some much needed reading time. Perhaps that is the only reason I was able to miraculously (Hi my name is Tara, and I’m a SLOW reader), get through all 5 books on my January reading list with even a few days to spare!
Check out my reviews of all 5 books below and follow me on Goodreads to see what other books I have on my list … maybe you’ll find your next good read!
The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley (Flavia De Luce series #1)
This book was recommended to my by one of my most trusted book recommenders (@ladydalyreads). Knowing my undying love for a good murder mystery and a similar fondness for Agatha Christie this promised to check off two very important boxes.
The Short: I liked this book well enough (at least to continue the series).
The Long: As much as I liked this book and plan on continuing the series, Agatha Christie this is not. But it certainly is a great homage to the great mystery writer. I really wanted to like the main character. A precocious 11 year old girl with a keen love of chemistry and a curious mind? What’s not to love? However I’m afraid for most of the novel I found her to actually more petulant than precocious and sometimes just silly. But that could just be because she IS only 11 years old. I think maybe if I had read this serious as a tween, I would have loved Flavia with the fervor that I love Hermione Granger.
The pace of the novel also felt a bit off. For the first 100 pages or so, there just didn’t seem to be enough happening. Even though a mysterious death occurs almost immediately, there is far too much backstory that needs to be introduced to get the reader to some real tangible clues. One thing that was so great about Agatha Christie novels was the murders and the motives were so real, so close to what any basic human has felt that it did not take lengthy explanation of esoteric hobbies or long winded exposition of a seemingly minor character’s history to get the reader to understand why a death has occurred in the first place. Adding that on top of more scientific explanations as to the actual cause of death just made parts of the novel bulky where other parts seemed to drag.
In contrast, by the last 100 pages or so, everything picks up pace. It is great to see the story move along and some action happening, but it moves too quickly. There is a feeling that suddenly things are rushed to meet a deadline (whether it is the authors or some other unseen force). I wish honestly those last 100 pages could have dragged out a little longer and the sacrifice of much of the exposition in the middle.
All in all, while it lacked the elegance and fluidity of an Agatha Christie, it was still a satisfying murder mystery. I’m hoping that some of these first novel kinks can be smoothed out by the next book and maybe as the series matures, so will some of Flavia’s more irritatingly childish mannerisms.
Verdict: This is a good, easy read for anyone who loves a murder mystery. This definitely sits well in a young adult genre and it well suited to that audience. If you have a particular love of philately, this book in particular may tickle your fancy.
Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan
Well once they made it into a movie with that amazing cast and stunning costume/set design, how could I not read the book?
The Short: For some stories, the movie might actually be better than the book
The Long: I really liked this book and what it means for minority representation in mainstream media. But on its own the story felt like one that could be told in the movies without need for the novel to come first.
I honestly feel like could have used 100 pages less of all the descriptions of all the clothes, all the cars, the designers, the money, the material things these eyes will never see. There were just whole chunks of pages where I found myself saying “ok I get it, rich people buying rich things.” I just didn’t need ten pages describing the detailed layout of a yacht or the seams of a dress. I’ll assume it’s beyond my means and imagination and move on to the actual action in the story. I’m sure fashionistas and shopaholics will love all the description and devour it like morsels of the haute cuisine so frequently mentioned in the book, so it probably suits that audience well. I, however, found it tedious to have huge breaks in the story and action to describe the palatial apartments and estates or the otherworldly couture.
Maybe if the movie had not been made, I would have felt all that description was necessary to truly paint the picture, but the movie was made, so I could see with my eyes the apartments, the dresses, the splendor and the wealth. I just wanted to skip all that to get to what interested me more (and could have been delved into deeper).
The most fascinating parts of the book to me was the sociology of it all. The mentalities and values that had grown with this particular set of moneyed families. Even the growth of that wealth it self and the classism that exists even among these super rich. It was fascinating to see how geopolitics was so deeply entwined in these “values” of who was worthy of socializing with, and whose money, not matter how vast could not mask the very clear visibility of their inadequacy.
Because so much time was spent describing the things, not enough time was spent on the people. I would have loved our love story hero to have more “screen time” in the book and A LOT more self reflection into his feelings about his family, his wealth and the pressures implicitly and explicitly put on him. The book touches every so softly on the realities of how isolating, demoralizing and just plain sad it can feel to be walled in with all your money and no true or meaningful human affection to give you warmth.
The Verdict: The movie is substantive largely for what it means on a larger scale for minority representation and putting those faces and voices in the mainstream. But where the film feels like bread, the book is cake. It is addictive in it’s “cant put it down” speed, it is indulgent in its exotic descriptions of places, social spheres and foods many of us will never get to sample in our real life. The love story, like spun sugar is sweet, and beautiful to watch but holds no real substance and doesn’t really seem essential to the more interesting parts of the book. A great weekend/vacation read.
Maybe You Should Take to Someone by Lori Gottlieb
This book was loaned to me by a friend of mine from whom I have the particular benefit of getting to read any of her Book of the Month books she deems “just what we would love”. We both work in a field that deals pretty heavily with mental health, and often requires us to check in with our own from time to time.
The Short: I absolutely loved this book!
The Long: I normally hate hokey self help-ey or self discovery type books. But when a social worker friend of mine had it at her desk, I was intrigued. I casually asked how she was liking it and she immediately promised to let me borrow it when she was done (under solemn oath to return it to her because she wanted it for her bookshelf).
I am so happy I picked it up and I really feel like its a read everyone should pick up. Without being heavy handed or overly preachy, this book gave an accessible and easy to follow glimpse into therapy, mental health and the human experience. Reading it alone felt a little bit like therapy and helped me to even see some patterns and behaviors in myself, to look closely in them and try to see a deeper meaning.
The different interwoven stories of the author’s patients, her own experience of loss, and her frustration, appreciation and acceptance of the guidance her therapist provides her was truly powerful to read. Even as each story told of minutely specific traumas and issues each patient was facing, the themes of loss, acceptance, fear, uncertainty and self inspection were universal. At the same time, it provides a nice little peak into what therapy can be like, especially for anyone who has never tried, is afraid to try or firmly believes in it’s silliness. It was interesting to see from a therapist’s perspective how someone comes to therapy, how they process and what they can learn about themselves (and how to help themselves) in the process.
The Verdict: In the book the author speaks at length about her own struggles with fear, avoidance and depression that surround her own struggle to write a book. I am so happy that she was able to work through the pitfalls and false starts to finally come to write this book. This was absolutely the perfect book for her to write! After I returned this copy to my friend, I went out and bought my own so I can keep it in my own personal library and pass it on to family and friends who could use it. Everyone, maybe you should talk to someone.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple
I picked this book up on impulse at the airport a while back. I’m always intrigued by books that get made into movies (especially when they aren’t part of franchiseable series), to see what about the novel made a room full of execs think this is worth it to put on screen.
The Short: I do not know why this book is so popular and certainly why it got made into a movie.
The Long: Nearly every single character is insufferable and even accounting for the tinge of satire, there is no grounding any of them in reality.
This was such a torturous read because honestly who cares about selfish narcissists doing narcissist antics. The only reason I finished this book at all is because I like the idea of telling the narrative through the characters’ correspondence and writing. It is, as a literary mechanism, an interesting way to tell a story. But I felt it was a bulky yoke around the author’s neck which forced them to write unrealistic correspondences for the characters and thus add to the detachment from reality. People just simply don’t write emails or faxes or handwritten notes as long winded and overly expositive as the characters in this book. It is clear they had to be written this way though to provide any real information to the reader or to give the characters some depth. Ultimately it read to me as clumsy and forced. Coupled with satirically exaggerated characters it just felt silly and frivolous to read.
I few people have told me that the characters are purposely obnoxious as a form of satire. I just don’t think it lands here. Usually one character is the control, the normal, non-exaggerated ferryman that takes on the journey past the caricatures. They serve as the foil to point out how ridiculous those other characters are. I think perhaps the daughter, Buzz, is supposed to be that foil. But she is also ridiculous. Maybe in a way all high school prodigy’s with wacky parents are supposed to be. But I just didn’t find her to be the reprieve from the outrageous and weird going on in this book.
The Verdict: This book was not my cup of tea. A lot of people really seemed to like it and I hear the movie is better.
Brick Lane by Monica Ali
I bought this at the Strand in NYC largely because it was on sale and the cover intrigued me.
The Short: This book was tedious to get through and in the end, I’m not sure what even was the point
The Long: I’m not sure what I expected from this book but nevertheless I was disappointed. It seemed like it was going to cover a lot of things that interest me: the immigrant experience in the west, south asian culture, brick lane in London. But something about this book left me indifferent about all of those elements.
I found the overall narrative to be dreary and disconnected. Paragraphs within a chapter would jump from scene to scene, location to location to location. They seemed disconnected in a way that made it unclear if these were flashbacks, memories or a narrative shift in focus character/events.
In addition to being disconnected, the indifference and lack of real participation of the main character in her own life and story was frustrating. Why is the reader expected to care more about what happens to her than she does herself. I lost count of how many times the possibility of action, of change, or movement (physical or emotional) passed in front of the main character only to have her say or think (it was really hard to tell what was dialogue or internal thoughts) “It is up to fate, who am I to interfere.” The overall effect was to coat the entire novel in a mist of bleakness and apathy. What is the point of doing anything? Wanting anything? Trying to change things? Fate is the ultimate decider and what is will be and what isn’t will not. That entire theme throughout the novel made it very hard for me to relate to any of the characters or even have some emotion about what happened to them.
Adding to the disconnect I felt, was the fact that the entire immigrant experience described in these jumbled paragraphs of moments and memories, simply looked like nothing I experienced as a child of immigrants. Certainly no two immigrant experiences are the same, and no book should pretend to be panacea to that. But as a child of south asian immigrants I hoped to see something familiar in this story. I instead felt like I was getting a glimpse into a culture and experience entirely foreign to my own. That foreignness alone is not necessarily a bad thing, but what I found most troubling was that this particular experience seemed to only show powerlessness. It seemed no matter what any of the characters did differently to the struggles of being a stranger in a strange land, the unifying result was defeat, despair, and the apparent futility of all their efforts. Perhaps it would have been more palatable if the novel hit some other notes to give the characters and stories more dimension.
The Verdict: Hard Pass for me.