I really feel that I picked a good mix of books from Book Of The Month for January 2018. There’s a little something for every taste – whether you like moving historical fiction, psychological thrillers or a little dystopian feminist fiction. Each of these titles was also highly anticipated and generated a ton of buzz online.
Two of these books really hit it out of the park for me (and for Goodreads readers who awarded both over 4.0 stars). They epitomized everything I love about their genres. One, instead, really fell short of the mark. Can you guess which is which? Read my full reviews to find out!
Book Of The Month is a subscription service that sends you one hardcover book per month out of five selections for a low 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 to sign up if you’re interested in trying it. You’ll get your first three months for just $9.99 each plus a cute tote. And I’ll get a free book when you join. Win, win!
As Bright As Heaven
Publication Date: February 6th 2018
Published By: Berkley Books
Length In Hardcover: 387 pages
Goodreads Rating: 4.14
From the acclaimed author of Secrets of a Charmed Life and A Bridge Across the Ocean comes a new novel set in Philadelphia during the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, which tells the story of a family reborn through loss and love.
As Bright as Heaven is the compelling story of a mother and her daughters who find themselves in a harsh world, not of their making, which will either crush their resolve to survive or purify it.
Premise and plot. I was very interested by the premise of this novel. I’ve actually read not one, but two nonfiction books about the Spanish flu (the best of the two being The Great Influenza by John M. Barry) and if you’ve never learned about this incredible event in human history, I strongly suggest you take the time to. It’s equal parts horrifying and fascinating for a science buff like me. As a result of my interest in the topic, I really wanted to see how it would be treated in a fictional work. I thought that the idea of setting the majority of the novel within an undertaker’s business was really clever and added to the nuance with which the period of the flu was explored. Meissner also doesn’t skimp on other plot lines, with plenty of action, romance, family themes and mystery intertwined with the tragedy of the flu.
Strong female characters. In at least one way, this novel reminded me of The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, which I actually read as one of my December 2017 Book Of The Month selections. Just like in The Poisonwood Bible, Meissner’s novel follows a family with the wife and her three daughters at its center, alternating point of view chapter-by-chapter to a different one of these female characters. The reader is able to experience the family’s changing reality and the historical events around them in turn from the perspective of a small girl (Willa), a tween (Maggie), a teenager (Evelyn) and their mother (Pauline). Each of these four women is portrayed in a convincingly distinctive way, and I found the strength shown especially by Evelyn and Maggie in later parts of the novel particularly compelling. If you need even more interesting characters, the novel also has just a hint of magical realism with Death showing up as a metaphorical presence.
Higher-caliber writing than expected. I don’t know about you, but I lower my bar a little bit for the writing I’ve come to expect from historical fiction novels. They fit into the ‘easier reading’ category for me, with more casual dialogue, less gorgeous descriptions and significantly more (sometimes cheesy) romance from my usual literary fiction fare. Meissner’s writing, however, was definitely of a much higher caliber than I sometimes encounter in the genre. Her prose was beautiful and easily strayed into literary fiction territory in parts. This took the novel from heartwarming and entertaining to thought-provoking and moving. I included two of my favorite quotes below (show, don’t tell, as they say).
“Change always happens… We adjust to it. Somehow we figure out a way. We straighten what we can or learn how to like something a little crooked. That’s how it is. Something breaks, you fix it as best you can. There’s always a way to make something better, even if it means sweeping up the broken pieces and starting all over. That’s how we keep moving, keep breathing, keep opening our eyes every morning, even when the only thing we know for sure is that we’re still alive.”
“[Evie] says the flu wanted to make barbarians of us, to have us think life is not precious and the dead are not worthy of our kindest care. Our humanity is what made what happened to us so terrible.”
Predictable ending. I’m trying to think of how to talk about the ending of the novel without spoilers. There are two significant events in the life of the Bright family that occur between one fourth and halfway into the novel. Both of these events have very significant repercussions for the four central female characters that reverberate into the rest of the book. One of these events involves the addition of a family member to their ranks, and it’s this story line that I felt progressed in a predictable way from when it arose through to the end of the novel. I could just see the ‘plot twist’ about this new character coming from a mile away and so the ending of the novel, which involved this development and a subsequent event, felt simplistic and expected. I can’t say that it really took away from my overall enjoyment of the novel though.
Beautifully and poignantly written work of historical fiction focused on the lives of four strong female characters during an extremely sad chapter of human history.
The Woman In The Window
by A.J. Finn
Publication Date: January 2nd 2018
Published By: William Morrow
Length In Hardcover: 427 pages
Goodreads Rating: 4.04
Anna Fox lives alone—a recluse in her New York City home, unable to venture outside. She spends her day drinking wine (maybe too much), watching old movies, recalling happier times . . . and spying on her neighbors.Then the Russells move into the house across the way: a father, a mother, their teenage son. The perfect family. But when Anna, gazing out her window one night, sees something she shouldn’t, her world begins to crumble—and its shocking secrets are laid bare.
What is real? What is imagined? Who is in danger? Who is in control? In this diabolically gripping thriller, no one—and nothing—is what it seems.
The format. When I first started reading The Woman In The Window, I was a bit taken aback by how short the chapters are, focusing on just one day and sometimes just a few paragraphs long. I quickly decided that I loved this different kind of format however, when I realized that it felt like popping one candy after the other – bite-size morsels of suspense and mystery that kept me turning the pages. The one-day per chapter setup also really made the story’s unfolding feel immediate. Even though when I started the book I meant to stop after a couple chapters and go to bed, I was halfway in before I actually set it down. The narrative becomes quickly addictive and you just keep wondering what clue or new development the next short chapter will offer.
The protagonist. We all have our quirks but Anna Fox, the protagonist of this thriller, certainly was allotted more than her fair share. I loved the inclusion of the agoraphobia from which Anna suffers and the mystery of how she developed the mental illness. The added twist that Anna was a practicing psychologist before becoming a shut-in is such a delicious element as it has the dual effect of giving Anna a much deeper understanding than normal of her own affliction, while making it extra concerning that she hasn’t been able to psychoanalyze herself out of it after months trapped indoors. The author explores Anna’s life within the confining walls of her house in a way that is very detailed and realistic. The reader is able to genuinely take on Anna’s point of view as she spends her days monitoring, wondering about and suspecting her neighbors. She may be an unreliable narrator, but she’s a very entertaining one.
The twists. The short chapters definitely added to the unrelenting feeling of the novel’s plot, which had a really good mix of action and deceptively quieter moments. There are two major twists in the novel (among more than a few smaller twists). I could see the first major twist coming from a mile away, though based on reviews, I saw that others did find it surprising. Something about different elements in the narrative that connected to this twist before it occurred helped me to guess what was coming. The second twist at the end of the novel, however, came pretty much out of the blue for me. It was disturbing, creepy, shocking, and everything I wanted from a thriller that did such a good job of building an really ominous and oppressive atmosphere over just over 400 pages that flew by.
Some repetitive components. I rated the book 4 stars, but it’s really rounded down from a really excellent 4.4. This novel checked all the boxes for me that I feel a thriller should, and there’s not much to criticize. If I had to nit-pick I would say that there are a couple elements of the novel that are mentioned over and over and become something of a monotonous refrain. The first would be Anna’s love of film noir. I wonder how many different film titles from the genre are included in the text – not that I’m going to actually take the time to count them out. The second repetitive element is Anna’s level of drinking and pill-taking. We get it, she’s an addict who is self-medicating and compromising her faculties as a result. The degree to which she imbibes, however, definitely gets over the top at times. Obviously, her addiction to booze and pills is part of her unreliability as a narrator but also started to become a turn-off when she kept lying to herself about her ability to control her consumption.
Truly excellent thriller that balances a compelling unreliable narrator with a heavy psychological element, an addictive format and some serious twists.
by Leni Zumas
Publication Date: January 16th 2018
Published By: Little, Brown And Company
Length In Hardcover: 368 pages
Goodreads Rating: 3.75
In this novel, abortion is once again illegal in America, in-vitro fertilization is banned, and the Personhood Amendment grants rights to every embryo. In a small Oregon fishing town, five very different women navigate these new barriers alongside age-old questions surrounding motherhood, identity, and freedom.
Ro, a single high-school teacher, is trying to have a baby on her own, while also writing a biography of Eivør, a little-known 19th-century female polar explorer. Susan is a frustrated mother of two, trapped in a crumbling marriage. Mattie is the adopted daughter of doting parents, who finds herself pregnant with nowhere to turn. And Gin is the gifted, forest-dwelling homeopath, or “mender,” who brings all their fates together when she’s put on trial in a frenzied modern-day witch hunt.
The idea. It’s hard for me to pinpoint specific things I actually enjoyed about this novel because right from the first few chapters, I knew that this was a book I would read just to complete my Book Of The Month selections for January and report back. I was almost immediately aware that I wasn’t going to like it due to the really jarring, disjointed writing style. And yet below all that extra ‘stuff’, I could also see the outlines of a book that I could have liked. The basic premise of a dystopia in which abortion is no longer legal – with all of the connected repercussions of this reality – was certainly a worthwhile setting to explore. I also liked the idea of following four different women within that world, at different points in their lives and being affected by the new political and social reality in varying ways. The problem was that this worthwhile premise was buried under a mound of overworked writing.
The writing. On the one hand, I completely understand the kind of tone and feel that the author was going for in composing this novel the way she did. On the other hand, her intentions were very blatant to me in reading, and I cringed at how obvious it was that she had tried to make her writing sound modern and unexpected. The broken sentences, nonsensical word pairings and jarring shifts in topic were basically pleading to be considered original and current. Unfortunately, the very transparency of this gimmicky writing was what made the entire novel fall flat for me. At times, I couldn’t even follow what was happening in the novel because of how jumbled the writing was, and the whole thing felt amateurish. Lots of smoke and mirrors but unfortunately no there, there – just the sacrificing of depth and meaning for barefaced artfulness.
Parts that felt thrown in. In addition to the overwrought writing, I also felt that more than one element of the novel was thrown in just to add to the jumble and to the feigned complexity of the execution. In particular, the sections dedicated to the historical female explorer figure were at times barely intelligible. Clearly, the author was trying to tie her feminist modern-day narrative to a bold female figure in the past, but these chapters were actually painful to read and disconnected from the present narrative they were meant to somehow counterpoint. My favorite character in the novel was The Healer. She felt meaningful, complex and interesting. The remaining three female principals, however, did not really work for me. From the biographer who was easy to dislike from the very beginning, to the mother whose chapters were cringe-worthy to read due to her deep unremitting unhappiness, to the student who felt like nothing more than a foil to include the actual potential of abortion in the story.
See-through attempt at writing something new, unexpected and artful that ends up feeling jumbled, amateurish and overdone.
Have you read As Bright As Heaven, The Woman At The Window or Red Clocks? What did you think of them? Do you agree with my ratings? Let me know in the comments.
If you want to read my previous reviews for my Book Of The Month deliveries here are links to my December 2017, November 2017, October 2017, September 2017, August 2017, July 2017, June 2017, May 2017, April 2017, March 2017, February 2017, and January 2017.
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