Book Review

Book Review: The Nest

I am very excited to be able to share my thoughts about Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s debut novel The Nest. I have not been this excited about a novel since I read Liane Moriarty’s book Big Little Lies.

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The Nest centers around the Plumb family – four siblings who have been living their lives and making (mostly poor) decisions with the expectation that when the youngest sibling turns 40, they’ll all receive huge sums of money from a nest egg that their father invested before his death. However, something happens that threatens the nest egg and causes each sibling to examine his or her life and choices.

This was an absolutely brilliant novel. The most frequent criticism of the book is that the characters are unlikable. I think this is valid to an extent. Most of the characters are very self-centered, but aren’t we all at some point in our lives, especially when our expectations of how our lives are going to go are challenged? I thought that each and every character, even the numerous minor characters, were so realistically crafted. I will admit that the volume of characters in this book (four siblings + some significant others + some children + coworkers + ex-significant others + a grumpy mother + additional tertiary characters) was a bit intimidating at first, but because even the most minor of characters was given character-development moments, I was able to easily keep everyone straight. Everyone had a distinct personality and remained consistent throughout the novel. Even the character growth was all very plausible and kept in mind how each character had already been established. No one had a seemingly miraculous transformation. They all acted and reacted and responded in ways that made sense for their characters.

The closer I got to the ending, the more I began to fear what was going to happen with the narrative. Would the author choose a cheesy happily-ever-after that negated all of the realism of the previous pages? Would she go for an ending filled with tragedy or would it feel entirely unresolved? I obviously will not be giving away the ending, and I don’t even really want to hint at it, but I will say that it was perfectly crafted. It ended on a note of believable hope and optimism. Things were as resolved as they could be for a dysfunctional family, which is to say that there was still room for anything to happen after “The End” but the immediate core conflicts faced by the characters in the book were resolved beautifully and realistically.

I would absolutely recommend this book to anyone looking for character-driven contemporary fiction, especially if you’re looking for something that deals with domestic issues. Any type of relationship you can imagine (parenthood, romantic entanglements, sibling rivalry, friendship, etc.) is addressed at some point. For writers, I would definitely recommend this book as an example of where an author successfully broke a rule of writing fiction: she does not keep a consistent point-of-view. In this novel, the POV changes almost constantly with each scene, but it absolutely worked. This novel would have been a totally different creature if we were getting information about all of the characters filtered through the eyes of only one character, who will naturally be biased. The way that this is written, we get a true “big picture” view of each character and how they seem themselves and others. It is amazing in terms of character development. Similarly, the way the dialogue is written seems so organic. It never feels stilted or forced. Anyone struggling with writing dialogue should read this dialogue as an example of how to write believable conversations.

I can’t wait to see what Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney writes next. I’ll have to look through my Goodreads page to confirm, but I’m fairly certain that this was the best book I read during 2016.

Book Review

Book Review: Confessions of a Shopaholic

Title: Confessions of a Shopaholic

Author: Sophie Kinsella (the pen name of Madeleine Wickham)

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Quick Takeaway: This is the uproariously funny chick-lit novel that inspired the movie by the same title. The book and movie are very different but are equally charming.

Who Should Read This? This is definitely targeted towards chick-lit lovers who enjoy shopping at high-end brands. There is a lot of humor and romance, and the focus is absolutely plot over character development.

Review: I think this is a wonderful frothy, fun book. I do my fair share of reading character-driven literary fiction, but sometimes, I just want to relax and read something that makes me laugh and doesn’t require a ton of thinking. I am probably biased towards liking this book due to my potential shopping addiction. I have really enjoyed this series, especially the first three books.

The main character, Becky Bloomwood, is a very endearing main character. She is flawed and often makes terrible decisions, but she is also very relatable and she is good at heart. I loved listening to her train of thought. I also really enjoyed both the romantic and friendship aspects of this book. While the scenarios are larger than life, the ultimate core of the situations and the emotions behind them are easily recognizable. Sure, Becky is a bit flaky and she sometimes doesn’t seem to have much common sense, but I still liked her and was rooting for her.

This is a really fun series. For those who have seen the movie, there are lots of differences. For one, the character is British and she is living in England. Also, some of the things that happen in the movie actually take place in book two. The main “villain” Alicia is also very different in the book, though I don’t want to give too much away.

Final Thoughts: If you are turned off by consumerism, give this one a pass. But if you are looking for something lighthearted with a hilarious main character who is really struggling to grow up, give this one a try!

Book Review

Book Review: Veronika Decides to Die

Title: Veronika Decides to Die

Author: Paulo Coelho

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Quick Takeaway: The book’s subtitle sums this book up brilliantly: “A Novel of Redemption.” Don’t be dissuaded by the dark title. This is ultimately a very uplifting book.

Who Should Read this Book? People interested in human nature, psychology, and sociology

Review: Veronika, a young woman who thinks she has nothing to live for, attempts but fails at suicide. As she recovers in a mental hospital, she learns that her suicide attempt has done damage to her heart and she has very little time to live. But her time in the hospital helps her to regain the joy of living and the freedom of being herself.

This book has many very sad moments, but it has a very triumphant feel. The life lessons that Veronika learns during her stay in the mental hospital are very universally valuable. There are some very profound moments here. I’ve actually read this book several times. Whenever I’m feeling like I’m in a rut, or when I feel like I’m not experiencing all the joys that life has to offer, I reread this book in order to be reminded of the importance of being myself and never giving up on the beauty that can be found in the most unlikely places.

Final Thoughts: This is a very powerful book. I think that it has many timeless qualities, and it expertly delves into many aspects of the human condition.

Book Review

Book Review: The Art Forger

Title: The Art Forger

Author: Barbara A. Shapiro

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Quick Takeaway: I read this for a book club that I lead for the library. While it did meander at times, I enjoyed it overall and we were able to have a great discussion for our book club.

Who Should Read This? This is a great read for art lovers and those looking for a mystery that focuses more on character than plot.

Review: While this is a mystery, it is not very traditional. I absolutely love mysteries, but I was much less interested in the mystery aspects of this book than I was the central characters. The main character Claire, a professional art forger whose career is legally forging famous art for commercial purposes, is commissioned to forge a famous stolen painting. The circumstances under which she is asked to perform this task are suspect, but she finds herself falling for the enigmatic art dealer Aiden Markel  who may not be as he seems.

I really enjoyed the character of Claire. She was sympathetic and she was really put through a lot of relatable tragedies. She is a very talented artist, but she has a terrible reputation in the art world, and she struggles to overcome the decisions she’s made.

I also really enjoyed learning more about the process of painting, especially the process of forgery. I’ve dabbled in abstract painting but only as a hobby, so I felt like this was a really interesting learning experience about the world of art, especially classic art.

Final Thoughts: I don’t think this book will appeal to everyone. If someone loves a good traditional mystery and has little interest in learning about the creation of art, this may be a bit of a letdown. However, if you’re more interested in character and you’re fascinated by art, go ahead and give this one a try!

Book Review

Book Review: The Elegance of the Hedgehog

Title: The Elegance of the Hedgehog

Author: Muriel Barbery

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Quick Takeaway: I have read this book 4 or 5 times. It might be my favorite book in the whole world, so  I just wanted to be able to share it with everyone!

Who Should Read This? Anyone who is interested in French culture, philosophy, or human nature in general.

Review: This narrative follows two very different characters both living under the same roof: Renee (a Parisian concierge who is world-weary, stuck in the class system, and tired of interacting with the rich, pretentious inhabitants of the exclusive apartments she attends to) and Paloma (a genius 12-year old who has a fascination with Japanese culture and pointing out the absurdity of adults). The inner-thoughts of both of these characters are just so rich in understandable philosophy and profound thoughts about human nature. The two strike up an unlikely friendship with each other and a new tenant – a wise, Japanese man who seems to understand them both better than themselves. Their own perceptions about themselves and their surroundings are questioned, and they are both given opportunities for personal growth and finding more happiness than they thought possible.

I love the character of Paloma so much that someday I plan on naming a pet Paloma in her honor. She would probably prefer for me to choose a goldfish, but I suspect it will be a cat. Paloma is just such a brilliantly drawn portrait of a precocious, highly intelligent adolescent girl. In a lesser writer’s hands, she could have come across as annoying or really contrived, but Barbery does a masterful job at creating a believable, endearing character instead. Watching her learn more about life and mature over the course of the novel is a special experience. This is one of the only books that I have tried to read as slowly as possible so that I could savor every second. I actually felt a sense of loss when the book was over because I just didn’t want it to end.

Final Thoughts: This is just such a beautiful book. It’s definitely more character-focused than anything, so those who are more into plot my find this too slow for their liking. I just find that each time I reread this one, something new and profound stands out. It’s definitely worth a try if you’re interested.

 

Book Review

Book Review: The Vegetarian

Title: The Vegetarian

Author: Han Kang 

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Quick Takeaway: The Vegetarian by Korean author Han Kang tells the story of Yeong-Hye, a woman who swears off meat after experiencing recurring, blood-soaked nightmares. The novel tracks her swift mental decline and describes how she is treated by South Korean society and her family.

Who Should Read This?  Anyone interested in mental illness, South Korean culture, or dark/absurdist scenarios.

Review: I picked up this book after reading a really interesting review about it in the New York Times Book Review. I must say that this is one of the most original books that I have read in quite a while. Despite the name and the description, this book is not preachy or actually trying to convince readers not to eat meat. Rather, it is a really interesting character study about a woman’s decline into madness. This begins when she has horrifying bloody dreams and becomes obsessed with avoiding meat because she thinks this will cause the nightmares to stop. Her family has no idea how to handle her. Society has no idea how to handle her. This book is very much allegorical about South Korean society, but I found the mental illness aspects to be the most interesting.

If I had to try to classify this novel, I think I would describe it as literary horror. There are many horrific elements and descriptions, but the focus is definitely the characters rather than the events surrounding the book. I found Yeong-Hye’s relationships with her sister and brother-in-law to be the most interesting. The moments with her sister were very realistic and intriguing. The moments with her brother-in-law, a photograper, were incredibly absurd in a strangely artistic way. I don’t want to give too much away, so I think I’ll just leave that there.

Final Thoughts: Not everyone will like this book. It is pretty experimental and sort of falls between genres, but I was impressed by it and I think that there’s a good chance that literary horror lovers will enjoy this one.

Book Review

Book Review: Where’d You Go, Bernadette

Title: Where’d You Go, Bernadette

Author: Maria Semple

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Quick Takeaway: Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple is a fun, quick-paced domestic mystery. When 15-year-old Bee’s mother Bernadette Fox goes missing, Bee makes it her mission to uncover information about her mother’s mysterious past in order to try to find her.

Who Should Read This? Anyone looking for an entertaining read about a flawed mother who deeply loves her daughter. Anyone who adores quirky characters.

Review: This is such a fun book. I loved the quirky characters and the incredibly interesting scenarios that unfold. Bernadette is a flawed, but vastly interesting character who tries to be a good wife and mother, but she frequently fails because of her own mental state and her propensity to be a bit selfish. Bee, her daughter, is highly gifted for her age, and she has a very close relationship with her mother. Her quest to find her mother once Bernadette goes missing is really incredible. There were a few things that didn’t seem quite believable. For instance, while it is understandable that Bee is mature for her age because she is so gifted, some of the revelations she has and things she says still feel they don’t naturally come from someone with so little life experience. Also, some of the ways that Bee uncovers information about her mother seem just a little too convenient. I could see this bothering some people, but it didn’t really bother me because I was just enjoying the book so much that I was willing to overlook those things. Still, if you don’t allowing a bit of suspension of disbelief, you might not find this as enjoyable as I did.

Final Thoughts: This book is just so fun. It’s a quick read, and I think you should give it a try if you want to be entertained by a fun mix of quirky characters and interesting plots.