Book Of The Month is a subscription service that sends you one hardcover work of modern fiction per month for a monthly subscription fee. You can add 2 more titles to your monthly delivery for $9.99 each, and the price overall is very cheap for full-size hardcovers.
Book Of The Month is not paying me to promote their service. I just love it so much that I’ve turned my monthly deliveries into a feature on my blog 🙂 I do encourage you to try it though, because if you like hardcovers it’s a great deal.
You can use my referral link and code FRIEND50 to receive 30% off a 3-month subscription to Book Of The Month (and I’ll receive a free book if you sign up through my link – win win).
The three titles I picked for my December 2016 delivery were Behold The Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue, Pull Me Under by Kelly Luce and Lucky You by Erika Carter (which was an advanced release exclusive for Book Of The Month). Book Of The Month was also nice enough to include short story The Grownup by Gillian Flynn as a Christmas gift to its subscribers but since I unfortunately really didn’t like it and it’s not a full-length novel anyways, I’m leaving it out of this post.
Behold The Dreamers
by Imbolo Mbue
Published: March 15th, 2016
Plot Teaser (from Goodreads)
A compulsively readable debut novel about marriage, immigration, class, race, and the trapdoors in the American Dream—the unforgettable story of a young Cameroonian couple making a new life in New York just as the Great Recession upends the economy
Jende Jonga, a Cameroonian immigrant living in Harlem, has come to the United States to provide a better life for himself, his wife, Neni, and their six-year-old son. In the fall of 2007, Jende can hardly believe his luck when he lands a job as a chauffeur for Clark Edwards, a senior executive at Lehman Brothers. However, the world of great power and privilege conceals troubling secrets, and soon Jende and Neni notice cracks in their employers’ façades. When the financial world is rocked by the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the Jongas are desperate to keep Jende’s job—even as their marriage threatens to fall apart. As all four lives are dramatically upended, Jende and Neni are forced to make an impossible choice.
What I Liked
Highly topical plot. Immigration is obviously a hot-button topic right now in the United States (and really, when has it ever not been). The book is at its essence an immigrant story, but not one that is a simple American Dream kind of fable. By focusing on a single family that is trying to make a new life for themselves in America, the author is able to touch on many issues that have complicated the experience of immigrants in America in the last few decades. From the line between legitimately or illegitimately seeking refugee status, to working with or without work permits, to having children who are born in the United States and therefore have dual citizenship while their parents don’t, Mbue takes a single family through the rigmarole of navigating the bureaucratic, psychological and emotional morass that is immigrating into another country. Racial discrimination of course comes up, as do cultural differences in religion, diverging economic practices and the meaning of family. There are so many important issues to uncover through the lives of Jende and Neni, and the book felt like it showed me the human side of immigration policy in a way that is hugely relevant at present.
Multi-dimensional, complex characters. Considering how charged the topic of immigration is at the moment, I think it would have been easy for Mbue to turn this novel into a sort of good vs. evil, strictly dualistic and oversimplified story, with the Cameroonian impoverished immigrant family portrayed as innocent and victimized, and the white affluent American family portrayed as wholly selfish, money-driven and cold-hearted. Mbue challenges this simple rhetoric however by making each individual character in her narrative a fully realized human being, with strengths, flaws, desires and human idiosyncracies. This does not mean that Jende and Neni are not victimized by U.S. immigration (because they are), but rather that they make mistakes and fail as humans as well. Jende and Neni are undoubtedly in many ways the story’s heroes, but they also occasionally make terrible decisions and hurt each other or other characters in the story (sometimes purposefully). At the same time, Clark and Cindy Edwards and their children are not a simple foil to the Jonga family. They have their own internal family tensions and dynamics, and their lives are complicated rather than solved by how rich they are. I think the depth of the character development is what really pulled me into the story.
The role of money in the story. Obviously, central to the story is that the Jonga family is really struggling to make ends meet in New York, while the Edwards family is living a lavish lifestyle funded by Clark Edwards’ work at Lehman Brothers. Money sometimes equals happiness in the novel, but most of the time it doesn’t. Jende comes to America to make his fortune, and refuses to return to Cameroon empty-handed, but what ‘fortune’ means turns out to be highly relative and less straightforward than it sounds. Despite their piles of money, for example, the members of the Edwards’ family struggle to connect to each other or to feel loved and appreciated. The small Jonga family, with their sparsely furnished one bedroom apartment, sleeping three to a room, seem so much more in sync with each other and derive strength from their closeness. Ultimately, the economic realities established at the beginning of the novel are upended after the 2008 recession. In the same way that Mbue doesn’t portray her characters as wholly good or wholly bad, she also treats money as something that can solve some problems while it creates others in a way that really makes readers think about what abundance means.
What I Didn’t Like
The novel may have been slightly longer than it needed to be, but barely so. Other than that, it was perfect. It’s not the kind of novel that I would real again, but I felt so enriched by it and it made me really think about many important issues connected to the narrative.
A novel that brings beautifully to light the human element in many current issues including immigration, racial discrimination, cultural diversity and the role of money in happiness.
Pull Me Under
by Kelly Luce
Published: November 1st, 2016
Plot Teaser (from Goodreads)
Kelly Luce’s Pull Me Under tells the story of Rio Silvestri, who, when she was twelve years old, fatally stabbed a school bully. Rio, born Chizuru Akitani, is the Japanese American daughter of the revered violinist Hiro Akitani–a Living National Treasure in Japan and a man Rio hasn’t spoken to since she left her home country for the United States (and a new identity) after her violent crime. Her father’s death spurs her to return to Japan for the first time in twenty years. There she is forced to confront her past in ways she never imagined, pushing herself, her relationships with her husband and daughter, and her own sense of who she is to the brink.
The novel’s illuminating and palpably atmospheric descriptions of Japan and its culture, as well its elegantly dynamic structure, call to mind both Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being and David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars. Pull Me Under is gripping, psychologically complex fiction–at the heart of which is an affecting exploration of home, self-acceptance, and the limits of forgiveness.
What I Liked
Learning about Japanese culture. Japan is one of the countries whose history and cultural practices I’m less familiar with, aside from what is typically portrayed in mass media and is often highly caricatured. I’m talking mostly about anime, crazy game shows in which people very nearly get hurt, and harajuku girls. The book opened up many other arguably more authentic aspects of Japanese culture for me, from Rio’s experiences in her Japanese elementary school, to the descriptions of her childhood home, to the monastery pilgrimage that is carried out by some of the characters in the novel, and even to the sweets that Rio remembers enjoying as a child. Without giving the actual plot line away, the book ends right after a very beautiful recounting of a Japanese lights festival that brings several characters as well as the citizens of the Japanese city out onto the streets and to the banks of a river, where glowing lights are being released in memory of the dead. I think the instances in which the author delved into Japanese rituals like the pilgrimage or this light festival were some of the most poignantly written of the novel, and I enjoyed every minute of them.
The author’s treatment of the theme of home. The theme of home is highly relevant to me as an immigrant living away from my family and country of origin. I often wonder wether home is still Milan or Los Angeles, so I really related to Rio’s sense of being in between worlds, with her past in one place and her present and future in another. The author also explores the way in which being inauthentic affects your ability to feel at home regardless of your physical location. Rio hasn’t come to terms with certain aspects of her past and hasn’t been fully truthful with the people in her present, so her feeling of not fitting in is exacerbated by the fact that she’s made herself renege a whole intrinsic part of herself. By returning to Japan in search of this missing piece of her history and identity, Rio is able to connect more deeply with her American family and also with herself. It may seem cheesy but by the end of the book I realized that home is really your own identity, if you can be authentic and truthful about who you are as a fragmented human being.
What I Didn’t Like
The several years omitted in the plot. Without giving too much away, there’s quite a big jump in the plot of the novel from when Rio is a teenager in Japan, to when she’s married, with one pre-teen child and living in America. I think exploring this part of Rio’s life would have made the novel more interesting to me. It was like Rio was one fully realized human during her childhood in Japan, and then a completely different fully realized human in her adulthood in America, but the reader isn’t allowed to be privy to the transition from one to the other, though the two are eventually brought together when Rio travels back to Japan. I’m a sucker for fish out of water narratives and I had to adapt to U.S. culture myself in college, so I think that reading about Rio’s experience in having to do so would have been extremely interesting to me and to other readers.
Less developed secondary characters.There were several secondary characters that were pretty central to the novel’s plot, including a school teacher from Rio’s past and a student that undertakes the monastery pilgrimage, but I think it’s telling that I don’t even remember their names. Despite being very significant to the novel’s storyline, these characters were less fleshed out and felt less real than I would have liked, considering how central they were to the story itself and to Rio’s experiences. The school teacher seemed a bit like a throwaway, inserted into the plot to complicate Rio’s relationship with her father, while the student I think would have been a great opportunity to explore different aspects of modern Japanese culture, but ended up being little more than a device to propel the plot forward.
An interesting exploration of the meaning of home and identity, which, despite some holes in the narrative, unites beautiful details of Japanese culture with the main character’s quest to find herself.
by Erika Carter
Published: March 14th, 2017
Plot Teaser (from Goodreads)
Three women, early twenties, find themselves aimlessly adrift in Erika Carter’s fierce and darkly funny debut novel, Lucky You. Ellie, Chloe and Rachel are friends (sort of); waitresses at the same tired bar in the Arkansas college town they’ve stuck around in too long. Each is becoming unmoored in her own way: Ellie obliterates all feeling with alcohol and self-destructive acts of sexual promiscuity; Chloe pulls out patches of her hair and struggles to keep incipient mental illness at bay; changeable Rachel has fallen under the sway of a messianic boyfriend with whom she’s agreed to live off-grid for a year in order to return to “health” and asks Ellie and Chloe to join them in “The Project”. In a remote, rural house in the Ozarks, nearly undone by boredom and the brewing tension between them, each tries to solve the conundrum of being alive.
What I Liked
The premise. It was the premise of the novel that led me to decide to pick it as one of my Book Of The Month options. I’m intrigued by subsistence lifestyles and am a big fan of watching TV shows like Alaska: The Last Frontier where people farm and raise cattle to support themselves, or Tiny House Nation, where people try to diminish their ecological footprint as much as possible. I wanted the book to be much more focused on this “Project” which is described in the plot Plot Teaser, but unfortunately that was not the case, and this made the book a lot less appealing to me than I thought it would be. Read below for more details on this.
What I Didn’t Like
Highly unlikable characters. Essentially this book was like a novel version of the TV series Girls, if the characters in the TV series decided to go live in the woods together for a while. If you’ve never watched Girls, all the young women and men portrayed in the series are in their early 20s and making one horrible life decision after the other. They drink, they do drugs, they can’t hold steady jobs, they make dangerous or inappropriate decisions regarding their sex lives and they are often terrible people to their own friends. Ellie, Chloe and Rachel were depicted in the same way – as selfish, self-centered young women who were incapable of making good long term choices. It’s not that I’m not aware that such people actually exist, but that it was really hard for me to relate to them. The character’s relatability was not helped by the fact that aside from their actions, the character’s thoughts were not depicted by the author in a complex or relatable way, so the characters ended up seeming one-dimensional.
Deceiving premise. There is very little to absolutely nothing about legitimate subsistence living in this book. After reading it, I actually felt like subsistence living was mentioned in the premise as a hook to lure more readers in, because it’s a trendy topic right now. I don’t want to spoil the plot of the second half of the book too much (though I don’t recommend you read it), but basically the four main characters end up living in a house in the woods together purportedly to escape modern consumer culture, decrease their ecological footprint on the world, and live off of food they grow in their garden. Now if you’ve read the previous paragraph you know that these are people woefully unprepared for this kind of large-scale, long term life change, which necessitates a high degree of organization and also personal motivation. What ensues is basically akin to a Manson family cult situation in which there are a lot of drugs, some pretend attempts at transcendental meditation, and primarily lots of fighting. Not really what I had signed up for and SO much less interesting than an actual book about responsible, motivated but complex 20-somethings trying to make it as a unit out in the woods.
This is a debut novel and it feels like one. One-dimensional, unlikable characters that seem to have been made unlikable specifically to seem complex. Shallow plot line. I would skip this one.
Have you read Behold The Dreamers, Pull Me Under or Lucky You? What did you think of them? Do you agree with my ratings? Let me know in the comments.
Here’s my Instagram image from when I received my January 2017 delivery from Book Of The Month.