Thanks to Partner Libro.fm for the digital ALC of The Toni Morrison Book Club in exchange for an honest review. The book is available now. Juda Bennett, Winifred Brown-Glaude, Cassandra Jackson, and Piper Kendrix Williams wrote The Toni Morrison Book Club collaboratively, an extension of their real-world book club and their experiences reading four Toni Morrison novels.
Their book, which I listened to via Libro.fm, mirrors some of my favorite things about the best book clubs and buddy reads: it’s both a serious and analytical consideration of Morrison’s work AND an exploration of the ways that her books reflect the book club members’ realities.
The diversity of the four authors--the publisher explains that they are “black and white, gay and straight, immigrant and American-born”--is a strength, as each author shares the ways that she (or he) connects to a particular Morrison novel. The Toni Morrison Book Club is organized into a series of essays about The Bluest Eye, Beloved, A Mercy, and Song of Solomon, and the authors’ approaches aren’t always straightforward. So, there are focuses on parenthood, on humor, and on toxic masculinity (among others), rather than just examinations of main themes. I should say, as well, that I’ve read three of the four books discussed--and it’s been a long time for two of them--but I still found the essays to be rich, and there’s enough context provided that I wasn’t lost.
Shorter essays connect the main chapters, explaining how the book club members came to write about each topic chosen. Some of these connecting pieces were stronger than others, but I appreciated the details about each journey. I often find my way to true understandings of books through conversation, so to hear that experience reflected through the book felt right.
The Toni Morrison Book Club is a timely and serious endeavor, but one that’s also challenging and enjoyable in the ways that the best, real-life book clubs can be. I would definitely recommend the audiobook, since the multiple narrators helped to reflect the four distinct contributors.
Brandy Colbert's THE VOTING BOOTH
Thanks to Partner NetGalley for the digital ARC of Katherine Reay's Of Literature and Lattes in exchange for an honest review. The book is available to read.
Katherine Reay's Of Literature and Lattes is a cozy comfort read. There's a warmth that infuses each page as we inhabit the small community of Winsome, Illinois, floating from character to character. I had a sense of dropping into lives in progress, of a shared history that came before and that would continue after the end of the novel.
Though the narrative moves through an array of characters’ perspectives, Reay focuses primarily on Alyssa and Jeremy. Alyssa has fled home to Winsome in disgrace after a Theranos-like scandal ended her employment at Vita XGC. Unfortunately, she's fleeing to a home she had already fled. Her relationship with her mother had always been contentious, but when Alyssa found out that her mother had been cheating, Alyssa broke off contact. Now, she's returning to divorced parents, no job prospects, utter disgrace, and horrible guilt that she was a part of a corrupt company.
Jeremy saw Winsome in the opposite light, moving there in hopes of nurturing his relationship with his young daughter, Becca. He and Becca's mom separated before Becca was born, and he wants to be a true father for her. He and his friend Ryan, a recovering addict, buy the local coffee shop, the Daily Brew, hoping that a complete overhaul can make it a success and allow each to start over.
Alyssa’s and Jeremy’s stories wind together eventually, but they also move within the larger story of the town. We come to know characters who are grieving, who are in love, who are aging. My favorite subplot is the one about Alyssa and her mom, who have to work through decades of resentment and repression to come to know each other again.
Of Literature and Lattes is a novel about redemption and forgiveness, about families born and chosen, about the ways that our communities can save us. The characters here are flawed and human, and I was absorbed in watching them come to terms with their own mistakes and misunderstandings and then working to move past them. It's not an earth shattering novel, nor is it overly plot driven. Instead, Of Literature and Lattes is a beautifully character-focused book that was, for me, a lovely and heartfelt escape.
The Week at Unabridged (June 8-13)
Thanks to Partner Edelweiss for the digital ARC of Jasmine Guillory's Party of Two in exchange for an honest review. The book releases Tuesday, June 23.
Party of Two, the fifth book in Jasmine Guillory's loosely connected The Wedding Date series, is a joyful read. I loved the main characters, Olivia and Max, and we watch the development of their relationship from alternating perspectives, which I think is fun in romance novels.
Olivia--who first appeared in The Wedding Date--is an attorney who just moved from New York, where she was a small part of a big law firm, to L.A. to start her own firm with her friend. She's staying in a hotel until her house is ready and having a drink at the bar one night when she meets Max, a handsome guy with a great sense of humor. They have a good conversation, and then Olivia goes to her room, amused to turn on the television and see the guy she just met. It turns out that Max is a public figure, a first-term Senator. She laughs and then shrugs it off. Then, by chance, they see each other at an event a few weeks later, and Max starts to woo Olivia. She's willing to see him again but isn't looking for anything serious . . . until (of course!) romance ensues.
Their relationship really is the sweetest, and Guillory does a great job showing them as characters who connect and have chemistry but who have to work to understand the other's life. Max is white, grew up in an affluent family, and is incredibly impulsive. Olivia is Black and is a thinker and planner. They work through their conflicts and differences through honest conversations and compromises and sincere attempts to understand the other person's outlook.
I've been a fan of each of Guillory's books, but up until now, book one was my favorite. I think this one has taken its place for me because of its authenticity in following a relationship over time. I definitely recommend Party of Two for contemporary romance fans!
Thanks to Partner NetGalley for the digital ARC of Kevin Kwan's Sex and Vanity in exchange for an honest review. The book releases Tuesday, July 14.
I had high hopes for Kevin Kwan's Sex and Vanity. I enjoyed the Crazy Rich Asians trilogy, with its examination of class difference, of tradition, and of the ways that groups can discriminate within.
Sex and Vanity has many of the elements that I so enjoyed in the trilogy: Kwan builds a vivid portrait of wealth and privilege beginning with the attendance of Lucie Churchill and her cousin Charlotte at a lavish wedding. As soon as they land on Capri, Lucie and Charlotte are swept up in a crowd where education matters--parenthetical lists of all of the schools someone has attended follow every character's introduction--and extreme, thoughtless spending is an expectation.
Lucie, the daughter of a white, upper-class father and a Chinese-American mother, has been caught since childhood in the web of her white family's discomfort with her Chinese features. Charlotte--her cousin on her father's side--makes a point, when she introduces Lucie, of explaining the full history of their connection. This practice, of course, only makes Lucie more aware of Charlotte's discomfort with her mother, a discomfort that plagues Lucie's relationships with all of her white family.
At the heart of the novel is Lucie's relationship with George Zao, who she meets at the wedding. Lucie isn't sure, from the beginning, what to make of George--at first, he seems cold and disengaged, but as she comes to know him, she begins to admire all that he does well.
Lucie continues to be drawn to George, and their connection grows. Until something happens at the wedding. Then, we're propelled five years into the future, in New York City, where Lucie is engaged to an extravagantly wealthy, "new money" heir from Texas. And then she sees George again . . .
There is a certain glee, a delicious wickedness, to the way that Kwan describes the world in which Lucie, her family, and her friends live, throwing around brand names and lavish descriptions. He employs liberally the footnotes that are so fun in his original trilogy, speaking to the reader and providing further explanations of just how wealthy and overboard these people are. And I get it. But at a certain point, it became less fun than tiresome for me. I also really disliked Lucie. Kwan does a lot of work to make her empathetic, and certainly, the way that her family treats her is horrible. But--again, for me--she acts horribly. She does some really loathsome things in her quest to shape her life so that she can fit in. And her redemption comes too late in the book.
Thanks to Partner NetGalley for the digital ARC of Hannah Orenstein's Head Over Heels in exchange for an honest review. The book releases Tuesday, June 23.
Hannah Orenstein's Head Over Heels has a lot going for it: a fantastic cover; a great, insider's perspective on women's gymnastics; and a compelling, coming-of-age/redemption story for its protagonist. Avery Abrahams was at the center of the U.S. gymnastics world when she had a career-ending injury during the meet that should have cemented her path to the Olympics. Instead, her best friend Jasmine takes her place on the team, and Avery becomes a college dropout whose main focus is her professional football player boyfriend. When their relationship ends, Avery slouches home to her parents and her hometown.
She has nothing to look forward to. Until Ryan Nicholson calls. Ryan was a male gymnast on the Olympic team, and he's now coaching another Olympic hopeful. Hallie has a lot of potential . . . but a disastrous floor routine, which just happens to be Avery's specialty. Avery agrees to help Hallie and sees a chance to redeem herself and to find some meaning in her life.
This book does so much well, particularly in commenting about the scandals that have rocked the sport of gymnastics recently. It also confronts some of the health issues that plague the sport, through Avery's coach, her memories of his abusive coaching style, and her lingering issues with her self-image. The least successful part of the book, for me, was the romance. The author tells the reader, repeatedly, about the chemistry between Avery and Ryan, but I didn't feel it. Instead, the course of their relationship seems to be shoehorned into an otherwise compelling story of a woman trying to establish an identity after her dream is crushed in a moment.
At the time, I'd read several other books by Kingsolver, and for some reason, I didn't enjoy The Poisonwood Bible. Since that time, I've remembered that--though I love Kingsolver--this book was my least favorite of hers. What was I thinking?! This novel blew me away.
"Everything you're sure is right can be wrong in another place" (505).
It's the story of the Prices, a missionary family from the Southern United States who travel to the Congo in 1959, completely unprepared for what they'll find. The women are the true stars of this narrative: mother Orleanna and the family's four daughters are dragged along by patriarch Nathan. The narrative alternates between those five distinct female characters--I could not believe how unique each voice was. I didn't even need the chapter headers to know who was speaking.
The book, which covers decades, is wide ranging. Nathan, determined to convert the Congolese, can hear no voice and see no perspective but his own. He is both a realistic character and a symbol for the colonialism that has intruded on the Congo--first the Belgians, who maintain a presence despite their official surrender, and then the British, Americans, and Soviets, who each seek to maintain influence so they can take advantage of the country's resources.
Nathan's family initially is so focused on the life they left that they can't see their own situation or the lives of those around them clearly. But as they continue to live in the Congo, they come to understand the type of power they lack and the ways that they can work around that absence to assert their independence in spite of it.
Coming to know each woman here was my favorite part of this book--Kingsolver is such an amazing writer (I was employing my book darts liberally!), and though I found gorgeous sentences and thought-provoking ideas everywhere, I never confused Rachel's vanity and superficiality with Leah's toughness and determination to do what's right, or Ruth May's attempts to escape her birth-order fate as the youngest to move ahead with Adah's brilliant--and silent--determination to opt out of the demoralizingly mundane daily life of her family. Orleanna narrates her sections from decades after the Prices have left the Congo, and her reflection of what she lost and, perhaps, gained there gives her sections a resonance that is both painful and keen.
"There is not justice in this world. Father, forgive me wherever you are, but this world has brought one vile abomination after another down on the heads of the gentle, and I'll not live to see the meek inherit anything. What there is in this world, I think, is a tendency for human errors to level themselves like water throughout their sphere of influence. That's pretty much the whole of what I can say, looking back. There's the possibility of balance. Unbearable burdens that the world somehow does bear with a certain grace" (522).
Most of all, there's a beautiful sense of place here. Kingsolver--through research and travel to other parts of Africa (as she explains in her Author's Note)--communicates the brutality and eminence of nature, the ways that despite the Prices' attempts to control their world, it doesn't take long for the land of the Congo to erase the evidence of their existence. I could not have loved this book more, and I'm so glad to have the chance to be reminded, once again, that we never read the same book twice, that as we change, our responses to and understandings of the books we read necessarily change as well.
I'm Jen Moyers, co-host of the Unabridged Podcast and an English teacher.