Tag Archives: fiction

CBR9 #13: Bird Box by Josh Malerman

Hey, you know what’s a good idea?  Read a disturbing, scary piece of fiction right after reading a disturbing piece of realistic fiction.  Because why not make yourself feel creeped out in a different way?

I have no idea why I added Bird Box to my TBR list.  A few friends reviewed it over on Goodreads and they all said it was creepy and for some reason I thought it would be a good idea to add it.  And having a new Kindle Paperwhite means instant downloads.  The title was available, and here we are.


Some four years and nine months ago, something arrived.  Appeared?  Was created?  It started out as a few freaky stories coming out of Russia.  And then more reports.  Things started happening in the States.  Monthly, then weekly, and then the news couldn’t keep up with it all.

No one knew what it was because no one survived to tell what they saw.  One look and you go mad.  Violently mad.  Sometimes a person would kill those around them in gruesome and violent ways.  People who saw always ended up killing themselves in equally horrific ways.  And people who lived?  What measures do you take to prevent seeing?  Do you destroy yourself in the hope of saving loved ones?

What was out there?

People stayed inside, covering windows and doors with blankets, plywood, anything they could find.  Some recognized what was happening and stockpiled food.

After her sister accidentally sees, Malorie desperately drives to a rumored safe house without once looking up.  But are these things in the sky?

Six months pregnant, the members take her in and we wait for something to happen.  People test theories and it leads to more violent madness.  Food is counted.  Water drawn blind from a well near the river.

Outside means blindfolds, counted steps and sounds.

The book is claustrophobic with its darkness.  Everything is told via sounds and scents and terrified moments of reaching out to feel.

What is out there?  Animal?  Human?  Other?  Is it watching when you leave the house to count your steps to draw water?  Does it stand next to you when you slip apples to the birds?  What happens if the humans gathered together to survive grow suspicious of each other and panic at the unknown?

The structure of this book is solid.  Each chapter goes back and forth from when things first started to happen to Malorie’s present time.  We know she was just pregnant when people began to stay inside.  We know she now has two four year olds, trained from birth to keep their eyes closed and navigate by sound.  She is alone, but she wasn’t always alone.

And she has an escape, but she doesn’t know if it’s real.

Does she take the two children, count her steps to a boat that might not be in the river?  Blindfolds on, does she push off and row, trusting that saviors are real?  What will they hear?  Will someone find them?

Yet again, I managed to pick a book that resulted in physical tension.  I realized I was clenching my jaw.  You’re blind reading this book and forced to trust two four year old children who are better listeners than Malorie can be.

The movement down the river is constant, and yet there are things on the banks that could pull them in.

And what is being seen?  What are they?  This is the most horrific part for me… the not knowing.

Fans of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road will be on board with this one.  People with kids… not so much.

CBR9 #12: The Dinner by Herman Koch, translated by Sam Garrett

This book is going to be difficult to review because I don’t want to give anything away but I really want people to read it.

Paul and Claire are meeting Paul’s brother Serge and his wife Babette for dinner. They do not want to go. Immediately I wanted to know the family history. Serge seems like he’s been steamrolling Paul all their lives and yet Paul knows he won’t skip out on the meeting. He fantasizes about all the things he can do to get the upper hand during the encounter while at the same time knowing exactly what’s going to happen and how it’s going to make him feel angry and small.

Suddenly the book takes a hard turn and Paul tells us he snuck into his fifteen year old son’s room to snoop through his phone. He watches a video, his suspicions are confirmed and he doesn’t know what is going to happen.

And back to dinner.

I was completely on board with the brother plot and then was given the son plot for just a second and was all “Wait!  Go back to that!”  But Paul is telling this story and has little regard for the reader.  His narcissism would never make him pause to wonder if the reader wants different details.  Because we are on his side, we will of course let him tell the story his way – the correct way.

Throughout the dinner, the four circle around the topic of their sons. Paul doesn’t know how much information the other three have. He’s not even sure what his wife knows and if he’s protecting her or if she’s keeping things from him.

Paul eventually lets the reader know what Michael has been up to and how Serge’s sons Rick and Beau are involved.

The relationships here are fascinating. Family is everything, but Paul is faced with dueling realities.  Does his brother come first or his wife and son?

More information is slowly revealed to Paul while he also reveals his own knowledge to the reader.  Very early on in this book I knew that something terrible had happened and something even worse would happen next.

Having the couples avoid or ignore everything builds tension, especially because the reader does not know the full details of what happened and also does not know what the characters know.  Everyone is hiding details and  I had a physical reaction throughout.  It was the feeling of putting your arms out to try and stop something that you know you can’t stop.  Watching a car accident as it unfolds.  Waiting for a balloon to pop.  Cringing and looking away, but not quite all the way because you want to know what happens.

While Paul tells the story of dinner and lets us in on what he knows and what he is figuring out about Michael, Rick and Beau, he nonchalantly reveals details about himself and I liked these parts the best.  There are things that have happened that are incredibly disturbing but Paul presents them the same way he’d tell you his favorite color, the name of his third grade teacher or how old he was when he learned to ride a bike. It never occurs to him that anything would bother the reader because, again, we are on his side.

It was clear to me what was going to happen and Koch’s talent here is keeping the reader on board to see if there will be repercussions or a happy ending.  I wasn’t sure how things would resolve but I had a horrid feeling that characters were going to get away with abhorrent acts.  Even worse, maybe I would want them to get away with it.

Koch reveals events slowly and his narrator is so unreliable that it’s like watching ballet. I can’t tell if Paul believes what he is saying or not. I never felt like he was trying to convince the reader of anything because he has no reason to ever doubt that we’d be on his side.  The narcissism is overwhelming but Koch writes Paul in such a way that there were times I didn’t feel disgust because Paul doesn’t.  I loved it.

Major appreciation to Garrett for the translation.

If you like Frank Underwood, you will enjoy this book.

CBR9 #11: Universal Harvester by John Darnielle

Whaaaaaaaaaaaaaat did I just read and why did I like it?  And why is it called Universal Harvester?  I need this to be a book club book so someone can tell me what they thought was happening and we can hash out the whys.

Darnielle’s writing is breathtaking.  I mean this literally.  There is a sentence with a pronoun shift that made me gasp and I got a sinking feeling in my stomach.  One pronoun scared me.  A PRONOUN.  He has a powerful gift.  There are songs on The Mountain Goats album The Sunset Tree that I cannot listen to because the combination of his words, voice and music almost immediately knocks me into tears and I cannot have that.  His songwriting skills blend beautifully into his fiction and the flow and beats and pauses are just as lyrical.  Wolf in White Van did it to me, too.  I had to pause from time to time to sit with the words.

Adding a confusing as hell plot to such carefully crafted words made this a satisfying read.  I wanted to race through it because what the fucking fuck was happening, but I also want to take my time and enjoy the language.

We’re in Iowa.  Video stores are still a thing and Jonah works at the local Video Hut. Stephanie returns a video and tells him that there’s “something” on it.   A second customer returns a different movie and also tells him that there’s “something” on it.  When Jonah finally watches it and the added scene appears, it scares the hell out of him and gave me a stomach ache.

A barn.  Someone breathing.  Movement under a sack.

What is he seeing?  Was someone hurt?  Is this an art project?  A cry for help?  A threat?  Why is it so terrifying and why isn’t there an explanation?  Should he go to the cops?

Jonah’s boss Sarah Jane watches and becomes obsessed.  She recognizes that barn.  Stephanie also wants to investigate but Jonah wants to be done with everything.  Something is wrong.  It’s unexplainable.  He can’t sleep and he wants to forget what he’s seen.

The book is split by perspectives and time.  The first section is Jonah’s and was by far my favorite.  The mystery is creepy as fuck and Jonah is a strong character.  I enjoyed going through everything with him, even if I didn’t enjoy the content.  (Again, a pronoun shift scared me.)

The second part of the book is a flashback to a new character and mystery and I waited to see how it would catch up to the tapes.  The strength here was not understanding Lisa’s mother’s actions.  It’s a strong choice because Lisa cannot understand what happened, so we shouldn’t be able to either.  And even better, why did this mother’s choice result in someone adding creepy ass footage to VHS rentals?  Where is the logic in a time-consuming, detailed job?

Part three brings us back to Jonah and a reveal that explained nothing to me, and this is where I need a book club because whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat is going on and whyyyyyyyyyyyyy are these videos being made and whyyyyyyyyy are people participating?  Everything was slow and sad and confusing and I felt like I was going crazy because characters were accepting things as if they were logical.  I couldn’t see the logic and I loved it.

Part four pops us into the future with a whole new cast of characters but the same old tapes.  More is revealed that made me flip back to part three because, again whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat is going on and whyyyyyyyyyyyyy are these videos being made and whyyyyyyyyy are people participating?  Our future family sees Jonah on one of the tapes and has the same reaction as Jonah did when he first saw a cutscene.  The Pratts don’t know if they should go to the police or shrug it off as an art project.  But it’s creepy as hell and they don’t like it.

It’s still creepy to me because I know who these people are but I still don’t know why they’re participating and what the point to all of this is.  The creator of the films tells us why and states it with calm logic, as if we are foolish to even have to ask.

I did understand why videos were the medium used.  There is permanence to film, both video and photographs.  Visuals were used to both search for answers and send messages, so even though I didn’t get it, I was on board with why it was happening.

This book legitimately stressed me out and Darnielle led me through it all.  I was concerned for the characters and even gave pause to ask if I wanted to know what was happening in that barn.  I was concerned that it was going to be a total brain fuck and maybe I didn’t want to have it in my mind.  (See: Requiem for a Dream)  However, because I am already solidly in love with what Darnielle does, there was no way I was going to put this down.



CBR9 #10: The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

Jules miraculously lands at a creative arts summer camp her junior year of high school.  Even more miraculous, she is somehow taken in by the most popular crowd there.  The six of them decide they are the Interestings and Jules redefines her life based on what they see.

For reasons that Jules never understands, the beautiful and perfect Ash becomes her best friend.  Jules doesn’t see why she, or any of the Interstings want her around and she knows at any minute they will realize they’ve made a mistake.

Teenage Jules through late forties/early fifties Jules tells us this over and over and over and over again.  She is not worthy.  The rest of them are.

Ash’s brother Goodman is beautiful and Jules of course is enthralled by him.

Jonah has some sort of secret, but does he even know what it is?

Cathy is a dancer cursed with a woman’s body and too much passion.

And Fig is brilliant and talented and extremely unattractive.  So unattractive.  There are many reminders of this.

Early on we know that Something happens.  While the six are inseparable at camp, we know only four get together as adults.  We know Goodman disappears at some point.  And through all of this, Jules remains unsure of why Ash wants her around.

In order for this book to work you have to either be completely in love with Ash and understand why Jules defines herself by Ash’s existence OR you have to completely understand why Ash and Fig want Jules in their lives.  Or both.

The problem I had was that so much of Jules’ personality is believing to her core that she doesn’t measure up to Ash and Fig in any way.  Ash comes from money and knows at sixteen what she wants to do.  Fig’s talent is clearly going to lead him to success which will bring money.  Jules… what is her point?  She’s not going to be a comedic actress.  She’s not going to create art.  So what should she do?

The more Jules drowns herself in her self-bestowed mediocrity and acceptance that she’ll never be as good as anyone, the more I wondered why Ash and Fig wanted her around.  If her inner monologue was ever voiced, they would be so sick of her shit.  She never feels equal.  She never feels part of them, even as she explains over and over again that Ash is family.  But Ash and Fig constantly tell her that they would not get through life without her.

I didn’t see it.  I wasn’t in love with Jules, and while I could understand why she was in love with Ash, I wasn’t in love with Ash, so the book only worked for me in pieces.

When the Something happens, I was not surprised.  The aftermath is what was interesting (heh).  What happens to a family when a life-altering event happens?  How much do the adults define the reactions of the children, and when those children grow up, can they redefine themselves and logically review the facts of What Happened?  If your behavior was dictated by authority, do you ever question what happened and search for your own opinion, or do you take the simple answer and decide the adults knew what they were doing, so it’s best to go along?

Because of the Something, it was obvious that Something Else was going to happen and this kept me interested (heh).  At some point in the book, knowledge was going to be shared and I wanted to know what the fallout would be.  I wanted to know if that knowledge would be shared willingly or if there would be an accidental reveal.

While I waited, I was hoping Jules would either see her own worth or articulate why Ash was deserving of her adoration… or if she was deserving.  It seemed like there were too many moments where Jules doesn’t decide anything for herself.  Instead she acts the way she thinks Ash’s best friend should act.  At times I couldn’t understand why Jules’ husband fell in love with her if she was so caught up in what she was not.

But Ash and Fig are constantly telling us how important she is, and that’s another problem I had.  Wolitzer is a good writer and I want to try some of her other books, but there were moments where she told instead of showed and there was no reason.  At one point Fig makes a joke and knows immediately he’s gone too far when he sees Jules’ face.  But we don’t get to see her face, so I don’t know if she looked angry or shocked or was about to cry or turned red or turned away or what.  Fig tells us he went too far.  He tells us that Jules is important.  He tells us that he would never have had success if it wasn’t for her.  She can do no wrong, even when she does.  At camp, we are told that Jules’ is funny, but we never see it.  Too much telling in this book.

Ash is also defined by everyone around her, but because she is so sure of herself, I found her a more sympathetic character than Jules.  Ash was born into money so there are immediate expectations and behaviors.  She is defined by the Something that happens.  Growing up, Goodman’s behavior dictates her own.  If he’s going to be the troubled son, she has to be the perfect daughter.  I didn’t feel like she had many choices in her life, but what she did have was activity and action in the space she occupied.  Jules had to wait for someone to tell her what to do, or decide for herself what she thought they’d tell her to do.  It doesn’t seem to occur to Ash that she can’t do things because she hasn’t had many obstacles in her life.  And money gets things done.

Jules never felt like part of the story to me because she kept telling me over and over and over again that she shouldn’t be there.  It didn’t make sense that Ash and Fig insisted on her because I couldn’t see their version of her.

I was really disappointed in the ending of the book.  I don’t know if Wolitzer fell into the trap of not knowing how to end things so she chose a cliche, but something happens that forces people to get together and I wasn’t impressed.

I didn’t hate this but I also never fully bought into it.  Even when a fifty year old Jules makes a major decision, it didn’t make sense until her husband explained it to the reader by saying it to her.  Why didn’t I see this part of Jules’ thought process?  Was it an intentional writing choice to keep her apart from the reader the way she felt she was apart from the Interestings?

If you’re a fan of Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld, you’ll like this one.  If you hated that book because you hated everyone in it, give this one a pass.  Different books, but similar feelings of alienation and the rich, cool kids.

CBR9 #8: The Realm of Last Chances by Steve Yarbrough

realmHere’s another book that I liked and I don’t know why.  Something about the structure worked well for me.  It felt like the book was made up of slices and I only had a vague sense of the timeline, and I liked that.  Time is told through New England weather and I wonder if readers from places where there are no seasons got stuck trying to figure out how long this story lasted.

The plot is one of frustration.  Kristen and Cal have relocated from California to Massachusetts.  They’re in their fifties and this was not an expected move, but Kristen lost her job in higher ed administration, and you move to where the next job is, even when it’s a step down.  I don’t think Cal has a job.  He exists.

This was one of the things I liked about this book.  Kristen never defines or explains her second marriage.  We know when her first marriage ended, it was a complete shock and even looking back decades later, she doesn’t see any warning signs of what was coming.  With Cal, it’s simpler.  They ask for what they need.  If there is silence, it’s because no one wants anything.  Cal detests Kristen’s work and academic life, but rather than punish her, he simply waits to see if she will want to talk about things.  Kristen seems to like this freedom within her marriage, although there are times when she wonders what it would be like to love something as much as Cal loves music.

It was fascinating to watch them together because they seemed completely separate, and yet others saw their partnership.  Perhaps neither one could see it until someone outside showed them.

Kristen finds herself frustrated and lonely in her new world.  Cal has music and is remodeling and fixing their new house.  Kristen has her work, but there’s little comfort there as she tries to adjust to a small Massachusetts college.

A flooded basement leads her to a new friendship with a younger neighbor.  Matt is also alone, even among his friends.  His choices led to losing his job, marriage and kids, and so he keeps to himself and is on pause.  He knows he can’t go back, so he doesn’t bother to move forward.

Kristen is the first person he’s met who both needs him and is entirely self-sufficient.  Their friendship brings comfort and then an affair.  Kristen logically examines the end of her marriage while we see a few slices of Cal’s story and reactions.

What I liked the most about this book is that we never get the full story of Cal and Kristen.  There is a huge reveal about Cal that was fascinating.  There was a earlier reveal, but it’s old news when we find out about it, so it sits in the background until we learn the other story.  I was impressed at how Yarbrough constructed Cal’s personality.  He’s filled with music and disgust.  We see his depression and action.  He seems completely still and I wondered how much of his life he had lived letting things happen to him.  I wanted to know how he and Kristen chose each other, and yet it didn’t matter.

There is extreme violence in this story, and yet the book felt calm and slow, and I can’t figure out how or why.  Yarbrough laid out a clear path for his characters and then took his time following it.  There are a few flashbacks and side steps, but it moves forward and the ending makes sense.  If I had read this when I was younger, I don’t think I would have liked the ending at all.  It works for me now because it’s realistic and shows that life simply is sometimes.


Does The Dog Die Spoiler:

There is a dog.  Nothing bad happens to the dog.  Hooray!

CBR9 #7: My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry by Fredrik Backman

my-grandmotherI don’t know why I liked this book.  It’s sweet.  It’s as far from cynical as one can get.   It’s… nice.

But the characters aren’t.  They are sarcastic.  And angry.  Super dysfunctional.  And really funny.

Seven year old Elsa tells this story and she is hilarious.  She’s far too smart for her age and finds other seven year olds to be boring and useless.  Adults aren’t much better, especially the ones at school.

Granny is her savior.  Granny doesn’t have time for rules.  Spelling is a suggestion.  Tormenting her neighbors in the apartment building is a must.  Sneaking out with Elsa in the middle of the night to break into the zoo is logical.

Within the first few paragraphs, I knew Granny wasn’t long for this world.

Sure enough, Elsa overhears a conversation and has to look up lots of information about cancer.  Granny gives her a letter and Elsa is sent on an adventure to tell people she only knows by sight that Granny has asked her to tell them she’s sorry.

Elsa learns that a seven year old doesn’t really know much about a grandmother.  She wasn’t always a grandmother.  She wasn’t a great mother.  The woman Elsa got is not the woman Elsa’s mother got, and that’s hard for anyone to process.

She learns more about her neighbors and pieces things together from the vivid stories Granny told her from the magical land she created.  No one has ever had much of a choice when Granny made a decision, so even now Elsa has to finish her quest and those who knew Granny are forced to participate.

There were points where the book made me laugh out loud and more than a few places where I sniffled through.  I didn’t understand why Granny was sending Elsa off on this adventure and why she didn’t sort things out on her own before she died, but on the other hand, it’s hard to turn away a dead woman’s apology being delivered by a seven year old.

I liked how all the pieces came together and the realistically happy ending.  Elsa’s world is much bigger and an apology from the afterlife helped a lot of Granny’s friends move forward.

The only part that didn’t work for me were a few moments where I didn’t know if Elsa’s voice was truthful.  Not having kids, I don’t know what serious conversations between a seven year old and her mother are like.  It mostly felt true, especially when her mother broke down and said she didn’t know how to talk about this stuff.  But other times I wasn’t sure how the reality of the story fit through Elsa’s narrative.  Another character couldn’t suddenly step in to explain it, so there were a few times I felt like a sentence didn’t quite fit.

If you liked Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer, give this one a try.  There are some similarities, but Granny does not have the 9/11 backdrop.



Does The Dog Die Spoiler:

Unfortunately there is a not a book version of Does The Dog Die.  There’s a dog in this book.  The dog does not make it to the end of the book.  My friends are legally obligated to tell me if an animal in a book gets hurt or dies, so I freely pass this service on to you.

CRB9 #6: The Secret of Raven Point by Jennifer Vanderbes

ravenI am so ambivalent about this book that it’s taken me several minutes to compose this first sentence.  I want to read some satisfying fiction, and this was not it.

We start out in 1941 with our protagonist Juliet blowing stuff up in the science lab at school.  I am on board with this.  I’m thinking this is going to be a book about a woman doing science during the war having to deal with everything this entails.

This is not what the book is about.  It’s confusing that Vanderbes started out with such a strong setting and gives Juliet a brilliant mind and then makes the book not about that.

Juliet has an older brother named Tuck and he is her entire world.  Their dad is loving, but quiet and reserved.  Their mom died when Juliet was three, and her dad’s new wife is decent, but there’s not demonstrative love in this house.  This is a house of science, and calm, rational discussion.

I get the sense that Tuck gets to experience and feel more things because he’s a boy and star of all the sports, so he can move quickly and speak loudly.  He gets to make decisions and take action and Juliet is there to support him.

Things happen to Juliet, and that’s my biggest complaint about this book.

Even when she takes action, I never felt like it was her own choice.  Tuck made decisions, so she made her decisions based on him.  I never really got to know Juliet even though the entire book is her perspective.  I didn’t feel frustrated when she did.  There were a few moments where I felt her anger, but she seemed so detached from everything.

But then again, it’s WWII and detachment might mean survival.

We’ve got the basic war plot where Tuck signs up and heads off.  Letters stop coming.  A telegram comes.  He’s missing, which is sometimes worse than death.

Juliet has decided to become a nurse.  She didn’t know she had decided to become a nurse.  She said it out loud and, oh hey, she’s going to become a nurse.

Again, she is super smart and I wanted more of that scientific brilliance to show through.

So she becomes a nurse and she plans on doing domestic nurse things until she turns 18 and can join the Nurse Corps.  Now that Tuck is missing?  What if she were to lie about her age and keep putting in for transfers until she gets as close as possible to where he last was?

Can that happen?  I don’t have any prior knowledge here, but this seemed really unlikely.  I liked the idea.  Tuck is her world, so of course she’s going to go look for him, but would this work?

Before Tuck went missing he sent Juliet a really weird letter.  He referred to Raven Point, their childhood safe place.  He used the code phrase they invented but not in a context that made sense.  Juliet reads it again and again trying to puzzle out what he was trying to tell her.  It didn’t match any of his other letters and they’d never had a face to face conversation like this.  She decides that he must be asking for her help, which fuels her to get as close to battle as possible.

She’s thrown in with a good cast of characters but she remains distant, which meant I remained distant from her.  I never got the sense that she loved her job or was proud of what she did.  It felt flat to me.

I’m reading and waiting for the secret of Raven Point to be revealed.  Conveniently, a member of Tuck’s platoon shows up, only Tuck has never written about him.  She knows everything about the other men, but nothing about this guy.  Also, he’s in a coma-like state.  Juliet is convinced that if she can unlock his mind, she’ll find Tuck.

I had checked out of the book long before this, but half-heartedly finished because I was interested in the secret and what kind of resolution comes with a missing-in-action brother.  I also realized I’d be able to finish it in one read, which was good because if I had put it down, I wouldn’t have gone back to it.

The did like the final few pages, which was in itself a let down because I thought the rest of the book could have done better.  The problem with the last bit though was that it was a bunch of telling and tying things up with pretty bows.


Not a horrible book, just not for me.  Unless I am completely on board with a main character, I’m going to have a hard time with the story.


CBR9 #4: The Bookseller by Cynthia Swanson

booksellerIt’s such a bummer when you read a book that’s just “eh”.

If it’s something you hate, you can decide if you want to cast it out of your life and be done with it or if you want to revel in how bad it is, knowing you’ll be able to write a fun review. (See Dan Brown. And also Anne Rice’s Sleeping Beauty trilogy.)

But an “eh” book is tough because maybe it’ll get better. Maybe there will be a twist or an ending that’s satisfying.  Or maybe you’ll finish it and it won’t be great and you’ll be mad you spent time on a book that wasn’t your thing.

That is  what I have been struggling with while reading The Bookseller. It’s not a bad book. I’m curious about the conflict and unknown. It’s not the type of book where I don’t care about the characters.

But… eh.

It’s human nature to wonder about the life we don’t have.  The one we’d be living in today if we had chosen a different college.  Taken the bus instead of walking.  Not answered the phone.  Got the job.  Turned left instead of right.

Kitty is currently living both of these lives right now, only one version is an incredibly real dream.  Here, she’s married and has children.  She somehow knows how to be a wife and mother.  She is deeply in love with her husband.  There is an easiness here.  Bills are paid.  Grocery lists are organized by meal.  Days are scheduled.  She is Kathryn.

In Kitty’s waking world, there is confusion.  She and her best friend are struggling to keep their bookstore open.  There are no dates.  No love.  But there is friendship and the familiar and she’s never felt miserable.  Just… maybe not completely whole.

Kathryn, however, is complete.  Dependable.  She knows what to do and what to say.  How to be a mother.

But something is wrong here and Kitty is having a hard time keeping up with the rules of the dream.

And then the book turned and went from being “eh” to becoming “What in the hell?”

Kitty starts remembering things in Kathryn’s world that she shouldn’t know.  Then she starts forgetting things in her waking world.  She’s lost two days, sort of.  She knows she must have gone to work, but doesn’t remember how she got there.  Dreaming, Kathryn can’t remember how to drive from the park to the grocery store, but she knows what kind of shoes to get for her kid.

Clearly something was going to be decided and I couldn’t tell what it was.  Was Kathryn dead?  Was Kitty dead?  Did Kitty get to decide to go to sleep and never wake up and stay as Kathryn?  Would Kathryn overthrow Kitty?  Was she in a mental institution?  Was ANY of this real?

I burnt through the last third of the book because I could not figure out what was real.  Or was ANY of it real?

I liked being confused, even if I was worried Swanson wasn’t going to be able to end it in a way that made sense.

I liked the setting of this one a lot.  It’s early 1960’s and women don’t have it super awesome.  Kitty and her best friend have their own bookstore, but had to have Frieda’s father cosign because women can’t get loans.  They’re in their thirties and unmarried and there’s a mix of freedom and “Oh, how sad.”

And there are infuriating moments where women are blamed for things they have no control over.  I thank science for figuring out that A did not happen because of B.  Things happened in Kitty’s dream life of Kathryn that made me clench my jaw because I’m sure women are still told it’s their fault if they need to get a c-section.  And that it’s the mother’s fault if things aren’t right at home.  And the wife’s fault if there is unease in the marriage.  It’s worse here though because there is no one telling her that this is all bullshit.  Little details that made the book feel honest.

This is another addition to the “What if…” conversations that we will continue to have.  What would your life be like if you kissed that person?  What if you had ordered the chicken instead of the pasta?  If you had left your house ten minutes before you did?  If you had taken the later flight?

And what would you do if you dreamt an entirely different life?  Would you wake up?


CBR9 #3: The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

miniaturistI don’t know how to write this review.

Partly this is a physical problem.  I have an injured dog wearing a cone trying to get as close to me as possible, forcing me to twist toward the keyboard which will result in muscle rebellion later.  (He scratched his eye and will be fine, but is so very pitiful right now.)

But more than that, this book is hard to describe because of how different and solitary it is.  I keep pausing to find my adjectives and debate connotation over denotation.  It’s a strange book, but that’s not quite the right word.  It’s not something brand new, but it is very much its own thing.  I’m not madly in love with it, but these characters are absolutely going to live in my mind and I know I’m going to be wondering what came next.  Burton did something that’s now part of me, and not all authors win the rights to my brain space this way.

It’s 1686.  Nella is 18 and newly married.  A quick ceremony and her husband is off without a wedding night or even a kiss at the ceremony.  Nella leaves home to join him in Amsterdam.  Her father is recently dead, leaving the family with an old name and endless debts.  Her mother wrote letters, found a solution for her eldest, and here she is, standing in front of her husband’s house, waiting for someone to open the door.

Her husband’s house.  Her house?

Instead of the comforts of wealth she may have expected, she is met by a cold sister who has no interest in kindness or conversation.  Is Nella to be the mistress or merely a child in Marin’s way?  What does Marin want?

And where is her husband?  And why doesn’t Marin know where her brother is?

So many secrets and confusion for both me and Nella and I found myself quickly wondering if there would be any happy endings in this book.

I am the worst at piecing together mysteries and rarely figure out the secrets ahead of time.  I was searching for clues throughout these pages and while I had guessed at a few, I had no idea what the full truth was.  Burton is very careful with her slipped in clues and sentences that I had to go back to later.

Something is wrong in this house, but also on the streets and canals of Amsterdam.  There is money, but there is also fear of God.

Nella receives gifts that she doesn’t understand.  Items that she ordered, but then others that are too real.  Someone knows what she doesn’t and can see into rooms that Nella thinks are closed.  She tries to puzzle out the meanings of the pieces and cannot tell if she is being warned or if she is being toyed with.

Money is power but secrets are worth more.  Nella comes to her husband’s house with few skills and grasps for friendship and knowledge anywhere she can find it.  Her husband, when he is there, is kind, but something is wrong.  Marin and Johannes fight and I was as lost as Nella trying to figure out their relationship.  They each protect the other, but from what?  What secrets do they share and what’s being hidden?  Who is running the business and who keeps the family safe?

And still the gifts come.


One of the strengths of this book was that all of the characters were well developed and written.  I didn’t hate anyone, mostly because I was so confused.  I knew Marin had a past and there must be a reason for her to behave the way she does, especially toward Nella.  And her actions felt so real.  There were moments of… not kindness, but a sort of understanding where it was clear she didn’t wish harm on Nella, but painfully understood that Nella was in no way prepared for the truths behind closed doors.  Her anger with her brother was also shot through with love and I knew that something must have happened that Marin was trying to either make up for or protect him from.  Or punish him with?  It depended on the sentence.

Nella was a perfect slate for the story to be written on because she was a complete outsider.  Nothing was familiar to her, and things she was expecting from a marriage weren’t there.  She had to piece things together, and because the setting of the story was completely unfamiliar to me as well, I was right there with her in confusion.  She’s not a child, but with her lack of knowledge, she might have been a schoolgirl still learning basic lessons.  She struggles to keep her feet beneath her and hang on to her dignity.  She has value and she knows if she can just find a crack to dig into or a corner to call her own, she’ll be OK.

But eventually things begin to slip out from behind closed doors and Nella has to decide what to do in order to keep the family intact.


CBR9 #2: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

aristotle-and-danteFew things are as satisfying as starting a book and realizing you’re going to sit there and read it straight through.  It is such a wonderful moment where you know this is your life’s purpose for the next few hours and you can measure your next bit of existing by the number of pages the author has handed to you.  It didn’t take me long to know I’d be with Aristotle and Dante and Sáenz until the last word.

Ari is 15.  He’s bored and miserable.  He can’t figure himself out or anyone else.  He can throw a punch, so everyone leaves him alone, and this makes him happy.  He doesn’t understand how people interact with each other.  What they talk about.  How they’re supposed to feel.  So he hopes things will change but you can tell he doesn’t really even know what that would mean either.

Happily he has a great relationship with his mom.  She worries about him, but there’s lots of love there.  Several times during this book I wondered what Ari’s life would be if he didn’t have her.  His dad?  That one is confusing.  He’s back from Vietnam, but he’s not really back.  He and Ari try, but for Ari, it’s easier to avoid and wonder why his mom fell in love with the guy in the first place.

Ari is waiting for things to change.  For summer to end.  For it not to be so hot.

And then he meets Dante and… Ari doesn’t know what’s happening.  Are things changing?  Is this how you act when you have a friend?

Dante is different from anyone Ari has ever met.  He gets excited about things.  He wants to talk about everything.  He shares his thoughts and ideas and experiences.  He wants Ari to do the same.

Ari doesn’t get it.  He doesn’t want to share.  He’s worried that he doesn’t have anything to share.  Maybe he’s so entirely different that if he did share, Dante would realize there is something wrong with him and decide he didn’t want to hang around.

But that doesn’t happen.  Suddenly Ari is laughing all the time.  He’s reading books he didn’t know about.  He’s thinking more about who he is and why he acts the way he does.  He doesn’t like that part so much.

He wants to know the secrets in his family.  Dante is always asking questions, but Ari stopped asking long ago.

And then he finds out Dante is leaving at the end of the summer.  Ari doesn’t know how he’s supposed to feel.  How to react.  He’s sad and excited for Dante.  Jealous.  Relieved.  He doesn’t know how to be a friend.  He won’t have to answer questions.

And after the accident happens, he won’t have to see Dante cry.

School starts.  There are letters.  Ari wants to go back to who he was, but he didn’t know who he was before Dante and he doesn’t know who he is now.

More time passes.  More confusion.  Anger.  Relief.

And then Dante is back.


Oh, this book.  Ari is a complicated and carefully written character.  The way he questions everything without wanting to think is both confusing and true.  Sáenz has created a strict set of rules for Ari and does not break them.  There’s sadness and sometimes you see hope.  Ari is afraid of hope.  He’s afraid of Dante.  Of not being friends with Dante.  Of not knowing how to be a friend or how to talk to people.  Of being normal.  Of not being normal.

Dante on the other hand?  Pure and open and honest.  Sure, he has a few things he keeps to himself, but other than that?  If he thinks it, he says it.  His questions don’t stay locked up.  He wants to know favorite colors and deepest fears.  Ari is a puzzle.  Ari is a friend and Dante wants Ari to be open and honest.  Dante has the social constructs down for friendship, but Ari is hesitant because he knows some questions aren’t supposed to be asked.

The parents in this book are so awesome.  Mistakes are made, but there is so much love there.  Knowing Ari and Dante had their parents before they had each other is comforting.

Watching Ari navigate and distrust friendship spins perfectly around the secrets in his own family.  How can you be a friend if you don’t know what happened when you were too little to remember?  How can you be open and trusting when your mom shuts down when your brother’s name is mentioned?  Who is your dad and why do you only get to see parts of him?

Everything about this book… struggles of growing up, coming of age, anger, first kisses, school, fights, family, pure confusion and terror of being a teen.  Sáenz is gifted.  He created a world and made me care about everyone.

I’m really curious about what’s in store for Ari and Dante in There Will Be Other Summers.