The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

Amazon.com: The Midnight Library: A Novel eBook : Haig, Matt: Kindle Store

Nora is done.  She has disappointed almost everyone she knows and feels she is done trying not to.  She gave up swimming and disappointed her dad.  She gave up the band and disappointed her brother.  She gave up her relationship and disappointed her fiancee, Dan.  And now, she’s even disappointed her cat.  She just cannot do anything right.  It’s just time to give up, period.  But when it comes that time, she discovers a place in-between and it may be that there is space for second (and more) chances.  

This book is based on a slightly outrageous, but fascinating premise of a theorem of quantum physics which states that we may be living more than one life simultaneously.  That is, even very tiny choices can lead us toward very divergent paths and have very different consequences for our lives.  And what if each of these are branches from a root life that are going on simultaneously?  And what if, at some point, we have the choice to go back and choose one of these alternative paths?  Sort of an “undo” of our lives?  It’s a pretty wild concept, no?

This narrative begins well.  We feel a deep empathy for Nora and her experience of depression, loneliness, and hopelessness, and understand her decision to escape.  The “midnight library” is an elaborate metaphor and creates a gorgeous image that helps us to understand this concept of simultaneous lives in a way that is accessible to those of us who may not be able to comprehend very abstract concepts of quantum physics. 

Unfortunately, I feel as though the author struggled to know where to drive the storyline once the underlying premise was established.  There is a clear message here, but it is so clear that it makes the outcome transparent way too early on.  Knowing this made it feel like too much work to get there.  And with an ending so predictable, it was also disappointingly melodramatic and “picture perfect.”

What I did appreciate is that the author, Matt Haig, is not afraid to discuss the oft-hushed topics of anxiety, depression and suicidality through fiction.  We know he has first-hand knowledge of these topics, as he has authored a memoir (reviewed in this blog in 2019) called Reasons to Stay Alive, in which he so generously shares his own struggles with these difficult conditions.   In giving voice to mental health issues, creating characters who live with them, it helps to widen the scope of empathy for the millions of folks who struggle with these disorders, both visibly and invisibly.  

So while there is value to this book, in the clever premise and vital message, it is disappointingly predictable. 

PS:

There is another book that presents this theory and in a more subtle way:  The Book of Two Ways, by Jodi Picoult.  See my review from May 29, 2021   

 

 

 

The Reading List by Sara Nisha Adams

The Reading List by Sara Nisha Adams

Aleisha cannot imagine how she’ll survive this long, dreadful summer ahead, working in, of all places, a library! She doesn’t even like to read! And it’s not like she’s excited to go home at the end of the day, either. There, she finds even more stress, never knowing in what condition she will find her mother. And now she has to deal with this grumpy old man…

Meanwhile, Mukesh has not been the same since his wife died 2 years ago. He knows that. But why must his daughters hover over him as if he is incapable of doing anything for himself? Maybe if he can reconnect with his wife through the books she’s read, it’ll do him some good.  But that may mean going to the library.  What a chore…

As a lover of books and reading, I adore the premise of this book. I love that a library becomes a magnet, drawing people together to share their experience of learning about the world– learning about themselves — through characters and stories. Both Aleisha and Mukesh are lonely and stuck inside themselves; the library and the books they share become the tools they use to dig themselves out from under this.

Unfortunately, while the story line has great potential, the writing is choppy, unoriginal, and occasionally simplistic. It was hard to get through, even when I did have curiosity about the outcome. I liked the characters, but the telling of their story did not do them justice, and honestly, I was simply bored at some points.

I firmly agree with the author, that books are a way to learn about others, that characters teach us empathy and how to cope. They can set an example, inspire us, and enlighten us. I only wish this message had been delivered with a bit more subtlety and flair.

 

Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid: 9781524798659 |  PenguinRandomHouse.com: Books

 

Nina is just not sure she has it in her to go through with her annual Malibu bash this year, given her current, very mortifying, so painfully public circumstance. How could she have been so foolish as to have trusted Brandon with her heart, especially after watching her mother go through this very same thing?  Unfortunately, since no one is actually invited to these parties – they just come! – ,she cannot disinvite them either.  She is committed and she’ll get through this just as she has every other hardship she’s had to endure through her young, somewhat glamorous, but inwardly difficult life.  And she’ll take care of her siblings as they confront their trials and tribulations as well, just as she’s done all of their lives. It’s just the way it has to be.  Well, it certainly feels that way…

Taylor Jenkins Reid has a flair for delving deep into the hearts of the glitterati, often revealing the dark underbelly of fame.  While so many crave the spotlight, Jenkins Reid exposes the isolation and the emptiness that often lies there.   As she narrates the tale of Nina and her siblings and their current day issues, she also flips back in time to the story of Nina’s parents: her “Elvis”-like father who lusts after stardom almost like a drug, to the exclusion of everything else, including Nina’s mother, and his own children.  This strongly contrasts with Nina, who has achieved her own degree of recognition from her new, but quite successful, modeling career,; however, Nina shies away from the attention when she possibly can.  She is utterly devoted to her siblings, and while this is difficult, she also has their love and support always.  There is a clear and present message here.  

And yes, there is quite a bit that is predictable here.  And yes, there are many stereotypes here.  But it is a fun read, with some twists and turns, and some crazy surprises, especially as the big, Malibu bash gets going.  There  is no end to the trouble these stars cause!

Not a MUST-READ, but definitely a fun read!  Enjoy!

 

The Unraveling of Cassidy Holmes by Elissa R Sloan

The Unraveling of Cassidy Holmes by Elissa R. Sloan

“There’s nothing the public loves more than to tear down someone who was once their idol.”

It had been years since Gloss had exploded onto the music scene and then dissolved into disaster when Cassidy deserted the pop girl band, seemingly out of nowhere. Even so, the other surviving band members were still taken aback upon learning of Cassidy’s untimely death. While she was never solidly “one of them,” she did spend a lot of time with them – on tour, in rehearsals – so why did they all feel clueless about what happened to her? Or were they?

This novel is reminiscent of Daisy Jones and the Six, in that it testifies to the drama and strain of sudden fame and exhaustion of the traveling pop star. The image promoted by the media is often completely disparate from what is behind the curtain, so to speak. Moreover, there are so many who rely on, and prey on the maintenance of this image. We see this sort of thing happening on social media often enough with the ordinary person – imagine how magnified it is for the extraordinary.

The narrative here is very effective. The voice swivels around from Cassidy before and during her time in Gloss to the various members of Gloss in current day, post-Gloss. The story is built, layer by careful layer, from this rotation of storytelling and from it we get a gradual, global perspective. The few “aha” moments are quite satisfying and make for an overall, really fun read.

I highly recommend this – as entertaining as a Gloss concert might have been in its heyday!

The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd

 

Amazon.com: The Book of Longings: A Novel: 9780525429760: Kidd, Sue Monk:  Books

Ana is not the typical Jewish girl of her era, the first century, just outside ancient Jerusalem, under Roman rule. She is acutely aware of her powerlessness, even while she is better off than many, with her father being first scribe to the Tetrarch. No, she is still female and still feels the sting of having little agency over her future. While others her age appear to anticipate with wonder their upcoming matches and engagements, she is filled with dread. This is not the life she seeks. Ana is a writer of stories, hungrily stealing away with any papyrus and ink she might snatch from her father’s cache. She documents the pain and the courage that she witnesses in the women around her. She cannot imagine herself with any man – that is, until she stumbles upon the man called Jesus…

This fascinating novel of historical fiction imagines Jesus not as a celibate ascetic, but rather more as a man. He is pious and righteous and utterly generous and he promotes kindness, forgiveness, love and all of the doctrines for which he is known and beloved. But he is also human, with human instincts and human desires.

More importantly, the focus of the novel is not directed toward Jesus, but rather on Ana. The message here, I believe, is that we are ALWAYS hearing about the men. We always hear about how righteous they are and how they opine. Very few women are highlighted in the Bible, for example, and if they are, it is often to let us know whom they have “begotten,” or worse, if they have not been able to “beget.” There is quite a lot of violence toward these women, and there is quite a lot of hushing and rejection of them as well. Ana makes it her business to tell their stories, the stories of her women, not only of the Bible, but also of her peers and her family. She sees it as her mission to ensure that they are not forgotten, as women often are.

The characters depicted here are lifelike and enduring in our minds. We are drawn to Yaltha, Ana’s aunt, for example, because of her untiring loyalty and rebellious spirit. We also have deep sympathy for her because, bit by bit, her dark and tragic history is revealed to us. She has been so mistreated but yet she remains steadfast in her devotion to Ana. We cannot help loving her for this.

This is a beautiful work of imagination and imagery that I believe will stay at least with me for a long time. I’d very much love to hear what others think of it as well!

China Boy by Gus Lee

Amazon.com: China Boy: 9780452271586: Lee, Gus: Books

Kai has had a tender beginning, with a loving mother who has nurtured him, even favoring him as the “Only Son” among his sisters.  Now, however, he finds himself at a much harsher juncture, being the tiny, nearsighted, vulnerable target of all the neighborhood bullies.  Caught between his family tradition and his worldly circumstance, Kai struggles to overcome his daily obstacles, utilizing strength he never knew he had.

On its face, this is a potentially beautiful story, but I felt it was disappointingly told.  While Chinese history and culture from the 1940’s was colorfully embroidered into Kai’s family/back story, this background encompasses over half of the book.  Admittedly, some of it was interesting and deepened the context, but there is both redundancy and repetitiveness throughout.  Further,  while we endure every gory detail of each of Kai’s beatings, there is only minimal detail about his relationships with his sisters.  Kai’s sister, Jane, for example, is a strong, willful character who stands up to her stepmother.  I would have loved to have heard more about her and her relationship with Kai.  She is, unfortunately though, kept at bay.  Likewise, we know even less about his 2 older sisters.  

Similarly, once we do (finally) get to the plot, there is not much there that we cannot predict.  While Kai is a very endearing character, and we do root for him, we know where the story will take us before we get to the ending.  No surprises, no twists.  Nothing.

There is so much potential in the idea of this story.  Was it the writing?  The editing?  Not sure, but at least in my opinion, someone failed.  

 

A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende

A Long Petal of the Sea: A Novel: Allende, Isabel, Caistor, Nick,  Hopkinson, Amanda: 9781984820150: Amazon.com: Books

Victor Dalmau has found himself rooted, with only a few years of medical training, in the trenches of the Spanish Civil War, repairing the wounds of the Republicans fighting the Fascists who are seeking to rule Spain.  While he is useless with a gun —  quite unlike his brother Guillem, the consummate warrior — he finds purpose in healing those who are, and he supports them in their calling.  Little does he know how deeply he would continue to feel the pain of injustice and persecution and how this early mission would direct the trajectory of his life and that of his family. 

This is a beautifully written novel, based on the true story of one survivor of the Spanish Civil War.  After this war,  thousands fled first to France, were placed in dreadful concentration camps, and two thousand fortunate souls were rescued by the poet Neruda on a ship to Chile called the Winnipeg.  In Chile, they were welcomed and given refuge and opportunity and allowed to flourish until there was political unrest there as well.  Our hero, Victor, embodies the strong, immigrant character: hardworking, valuing family above all else, and devoted to the preservation of humanity and justice.    

I am so thankful to have read this novel.  In my ignorance of history, I have never known much about this tragic era in our world’s history.   Learning it through the eyes of these gorgeous characters was, in my view, the best way to attempt to correct this, because the facts are interwoven with deep emotion, and this is how they are best etched into our memories.  And while this is not necessarily an absolute/comprehensive and final look, it is certainly a great start to learning about this dark moment in Spain, France and South America.  

And even while enlightening us about the historical period, the author does not neglect to interweave a complex plot, with suspense, subplots, and even romance that bear surprise twists.  She keeps us intrigued with each step of Victor’s harrowing journey.  

This is an important read for those who are are unaware of this period of history – and even for those who aren’t.  And while I don’t like to overload the “MUST READ’s,” this has to be placed there – sorry!

 

The Secrets We Keep by Kate Hewitt

The Secrets We Keep by Kate Hewitt

Tessa is praying that this summer in the Finger Lake region of New York will be a reboot for her family.  Back home in Brooklyn, her daughter, Katherine, so shy and disconnected, and her son, Ben, energetic and rambunctious, have had such difficulty making friends, just as Tessa herself has.  Maybe this is just what they need.  When they meet the family in the beautiful house next door, they are a bit taken aback.  Rebecca, and her 3 children appear at first to be the type of New York family they have been trying to escape.  On the other hand, Rebecca does seem different, offering something of herself, some vulnerability that Tessa has not seen from the Brooklynites she’s encountered.  Could this ben the friendship she’s looking for?  Could this be her opportunity for change?  

The writing  in this novel is wonderful in that it plays into the stereotypes of the Manhattan upper-crust socialite and the Brooklyn self-righteous idealist – and presents motherhood and its challenges as the great equalizer.  Both Tessa and Rebecca are battling their own demons — and demons do not see caste, do they?  Loneliness and trauma can exist in anyone, no matter how they may look on the outside.  Moreover, it can blind us to other people’s pain as well, even the pain of our own family.  

I would have liked to have known more about Charlotte, Rebecca’s daughter.  She is described only as “easy” and beautiful, and confident,  but there is clearly more going on with her, as we ultimately learn.  It might have been interesting to add a third voice,  to learn what is going on in her head.  She is obviously a much more complicated character, even at only 11 years old, but we are only allotted surface details.  

This is a gripping novel that will keep you reading late into the night and it is also guaranteed to wrench at your heart – but, I think, you will also be glad you’ve read it!

 

The Good Daughters by Joyce Maynard

The Good Daughters by Joyce Maynard

 

Nine months after a stormy night in a small town in New Hampshire, 2 baby girls were born to 2 different families within 2 hours of each other, earning them the moniker of the “birthday sisters.”   Ruth was brought home to her parents’ farm, home to many generations of Planks who were deeply rooted to their many acres of New Hampshire soil.  Dana was brought home to her family, the Dickersons, a bohemian, nomadic household.   And even though the Dickersons’ wanderings soon took them away from their small town, Ruth’s mother, in particular, made a strong effort to keep the families in touch.  Who could explain that magnet that kept pulling the families together, when they felt so very different?   

There was so much in this novel but yet I felt a bit let down.  The writing was solid, as expected in a novel by Joyce Maynard.  The characters are complicated and messy (in a good way!) but yet somewhat predictable and just this side of stereotypical.  I think it is the plot that was most disappointing, for as it builds to what is likely the crescendo, we also kind of know what is likely going on.  We’ve figured it out already and are just watching it play out.  And though there are some subtle turns of events that are revealed, we’ve sort of guessed at these as well, and we take these in as expected.  I did not have a huge “aha” moment, which I crave from a book like this.  

I don’t think I’m cynical–  I love a good plot twist!  I just didn’t find any here, where I felt it needed one. 

I”d be very curious to hear what others think!  Please write and let me know…! 

 

Minding Frankie by Maeve Binchy

Minding Frankie by Maeve Binchy: 9780307475480 | PenguinRandomHouse.com:  Books

Although Noel is a grown man, he doesn’t think it odd that he still lives with his parents.  He goes about his business and they go about theirs.  In fact, they are so immersed in their own quirky religious observances and their own private anxieties that they are oblivious to the fact that Noel has been spending every evening sitting alone at (and often being kicked out of) the neighborhood bar. Life may have continued along this path, had Emily, Noel’s older cousin from New York,  not come to visit, in order to reconnect with her Irish roots. Emily quickly immerses herself in their little community and in her tactful way, provides Noel with the support he needs to confront his alcoholism. But will he be able to continue to be strong when he is confronted with the ultimate stressor of them all?

Within the pages of this entertaining novel by Maeve Binchy, we are introduced to a colorful cast of characters that are intertwined with Noel and Emily. We are invited into the fabric of their stories almost as if we are yet another one of their idiosyncratic neighbors ourselves, and we delight in their successes and worry over their problems as if they are our own.  Because they are depicted with such extraordinary detail, they are tactile and 3-dimensional.   Binchy’s imagination is in full evidence here.

While there is a bit of blind faith in believing this story and how it all plays out, it is worth the bit of the stretch for the fun of it.  Follow along and you will be entertained, you will laugh and worry, and you will not “mind Frankie” at all!