Category Archives: fiction

Vow of Celibacy by Erin Judge

vowofcelibacyThis is a very late, autumnal review of a book that I LOVED this summer. I was going through a bit of a rut with my summer reading — I felt overwhelmed by reading academic articles for work, nonfiction that detailed not always pleasant things, and fiction novels that usually featured not the sunniest of characters. Vow of Celibacy snatched me out of that funk. 

The novel opens with our main character Natalie at a little bit of a crossroads in her life, she’s not completely satisfied with what she’s doing, where her path is going, or the types of people she’s seeing, but she’s also not completely unhappy either. So she decides to take a ~Vow of Celibacy~ to eliminate one of her unsatisfying aspects of her life as she works through all of her previous relationships to try to determine if a link exists between them that perpetuates her dissatisfaction. The reader gets thrown into her previous romantic and sexual experiences with men and women, whilst bouncing back to current day Natalie, and then back again to previous experiences throughout the whole novel.

Present day Natalie is feeling a little less enchanted with her job as a fashion event planner. Through the encouragement of a new friend, she dips her toe into a new career pathway (being a plus-size model; the internal dialogue as she negotiates this career move with the negative feedback she’s gotten from her mother about her size is A+) and the new, exciting friends that come along with it. She’s also helping her college best friend, Anastaze, navigate her own relationship trysts and ideals after Anastaze decides she wants to enter sexual relationships for the first time which creates a fun contrast between the narrator.

Speaking of fun, this book is filled with it! I laughed so much while because it was exactly my sense of humor. The fact that the author is also a comedian definitely helped amp up the humor that is usually only mildly amusing in other novels. I don’t think I’ve laughed this much or had so much fun while reading a novel since Big Little Lies.

This book is so great in so many ways… down to how the pages of the book were literally the softest of any book pages I have ever felt. When I started reading, I made multiple friends touch the pages to confirm I was not somehow changing their texture in my mind simply because I loved the book so much. Another thing I loved about this book is how Judge introduces a lot of high culture items and gives definitions of what they are (through the narrator’s new perspective to also learning about them) in a way that’s not condescending to the reader and informative in a casual way. I would recommend reading Vow of Celibacy on this merit alone to people on the cusp of hanging with wealthy people, but not coming from a wealthy background themselves just for these bits of accessible high culture (food, wine, etc.).

I also found the later chapters perfectly captures the young adult who moves to New York living experience: being  inundated with bugs and ceilings collapsing, whilst garnering absolutely no remorse from your landlord. I felt worn out for Natalie because I could feel how much New York repeatedly chewed her up and spat her out despite how much she tried to make it work during her immediate post-college years. This book depicts everything so perfectly, including icky situations like New York living and failing, and I cannot recommend it enough. 

When people ask me what was the most fun read of my summer, this is the book that I recommend. As soon as I finished reading Vow of Celibacy, I looked up the author, Erin Judge, because I wanted to gobble up everything she had written. Unfortunately, this is the only book she’s written so far, but I can’t wait to see what she comes up with next.

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Mini Review: The Bad Seed written by Jory John and illustrated by Pete Oswald

badseedMy boyfriend and I were stumbling around a bookstore when this cover stopped us dead in our tracks. What could The Bad Seed, depicting a very sullen yet adorable seedette on the cover, possibly be about? Well… if the title didn’t give it away, it’s about being a baaaaaaaaaad seed. We flipped through a couple of pages and couldn’t stop laughing and one of us has called the other a baaaaaaad seed at least once a week since we found this title a month ago.

When my two year old niece’s birthday snuck up on me, I was at a loss for what book to get her (I always get her a book… I mean c’mon, I’m the aunt with a book blog after all) and I decided to purchase The Bad Seed for her to laugh at when our family members stretch out the baaaaad seed phrase when reading it to her. She’s definitely a little young for this book (it’s probably best for 3 – 6 year olds), but I think the stretched out words will still manage to bring her joy. My niece struggles slightly with manners currently and I think this book gently introduces how some behaviors can be seen as rude and illustrates how rude actions can affect how other people interact with you after you’ve been… wait for it… a baaaaaad seed. At the end, the bad seed decides to reform some of his actions and habits, and while he still isn’t perfect, he’s still mostly successful at choosing to be a nicer person to his peers and reaps some rewards for that. I think this would be a good book to show to children who are struggling with being nice to others and highlight ways that their actions might come back around and ultimately negatively impact them. This is definitely the most fun, new children’s picture book I’ve read in a bit. 

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

manhattanbeachI was eager to read the next novel by Jennifer Egan after loving A Visit from the Goon Squad, which was intriguingly constructed and unique. That story spun from character to character and wove a beautiful, interconnected web. To her credit, Egan tried to establish a similar web with Manhattan Beach, but it mostly fell flat for me. In contrast to the other, the reader spends their time reading the perspectives of three characters instead of a wider multitude and the character spins aren’t as great. While Egan clearly excelled at writing some of the characters, not all of them seemed fully developed. 
Manhattan Beach mostly takes place during the 1940s, but weaves to times before then occasionally, and the war is perpetually on the horizon. A theme of water moves throughout the entire novel with our three main characters all meeting at the beach for the first time, two of the characters diving together to find clues about a third, and one working on a ship.
The main characters are Eddie, the patriarch of an Irish family in Brooklyn who eventually becomes involved with the shadow world aka organized crime, Eddie’s daughter Anna who we follow from youth to her early 20s where she aspires to be a civilian diver at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and Dexter Styles, a prominent figure within New York’s shadow world who employs Eddie. In addition to our three central characters, so many characters are mentioned in passing (particularly those related to Dexter Styles) that it was hard to keep track of who they are, why they matter, and what their relevant traits are when they’re reintroduced. 
I liked all of the bits from Eddie’s perspective the best and if we had followed him throughout the entire novel instead, this book very well could have garnered 5 stars from me. There’s a moving scene with Eddie on a raft that will stay with me for weeks. Aside from Eddie’s bits, the novel trudges along slowly and picks up in the last 100 pages (though it seems like other reviewers disagree with me and felt like the first 100 pages were the most engaging).
Overall, the novel was well written, but the story arcs and setting just weren’t for me. I haven’t been a fan of historical fiction in over a decade (remember that Dear America diary series? *swoon*) and this book didn’t incite me to switch back into the historical fiction appreciation camp. When I was more interested in this genre, I was partial to historical pieces that aren’t based in America so it’s very possible I could’ve liked something like this had it been situated elsewhere, but I simply didn’t find this story all that interesting. If you’re an Egan fan with a hunkering for some NYC historical fiction, this will be great. If you’re not… well, you’re not. 
My favorite quote from the novel is, of course from one of Eddie’s bits, when he is reflecting on his relationship with his daughter Anna:
“It was as if being his daughter had blinded her uniquely, as if anyone else — everyone — had seen and known him in a way she could not.”
Manhattan Beach will be released at physical and digital U.S. bookstores on October 3, 2017! 
Disclaimer: I was provided with a digital copy of this book for free from Scribner via NetGalley. All opinions expressed in the review are my own and have not been influenced by Scribner or NetGalley.

Mini Review: Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk by David Sedaris

squirrelseekschipmunkI scooped this up from a library $1/book sale, having no idea about the contents, but knowing I mildly enjoyed Sedaris and had an affinity for squirrels and chipmunks and woodland creatures. I thought this would be more like Sedaris’s other works instead of aged up woodland tales that were vulgar and not humorous. The only thing this collection of vile mini stories has going for it is that it was a very quick read and I finished it in only 4 bus rides.

The best story within the collection was The Grieving Owl, which was the very last in the collection. I’m not sure I would’ve even liked the story if it had been featured in a collection I actually enjoyed though.

I clearly don’t recommend reading this. I feel kind of sorry for whoever picks this up from my nearest Little Free Library under the same guise that compelled me to read the collection.

Last Night in Montreal by Emily St. John Mandel

lastnightinmontrealI’m slowly making my way through reading other works by the authors who dominated the list of my 5 favorite reads of 2016: I’m currently reading an ARC of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s newest collection, We Were 8 Years in Power; I scooped up Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild, in a bookshop last week; and I finally tackled Last Night in Montreal by Emily St. John Mandel despite snagging it in February.

While I absolutely adore Mandel’s writing style (she has some of the prettiest prose I’ve ever stumbled across), this book was not as breathtaking as Station Eleven. I fell in love with several sentences throughout the novel, but the story as a whole simply didn’t move me in the same way. All of that said, it was still an interesting novel that I pored through incredibly quickly and didn’t find myself bored along the way… but if I was going to recommend one of Mandel’s works to you, I would forcefully push Station Eleven into your lap and leave Last Night in Montreal on the bookshelf for you to pick up on your own when the winds call you that way.

Is this review a little harsh for me actually enjoying the book? Yes! I think I just have a hard time comparing it to Mandel’s other riveting work, but this was still good. In the same way that Station Eleven weaves around narrators and individual lives, Last Night in Montreal largely shifts between four narrators and weaves in and out of the present and when a big event happened in the lives of one of the narrators.

Our main narrator, Eli, is perturbed when his girlfriend Lilia, another one of our narrators, abruptly disappears. But disappearing has been one of the only constants in her life since she was about seven years old and abducted from her home by her father. The private investigator attempting to track Lilia’s whereabouts is one of our other narrators, as is his daughter, Michaela, who is nearly the same age as Lilia. The main portions of the tale revolve around getting us to understand the nature of Lilia’s abduction, why she can’t seem to stay in one place, Eli’s grappling with Lilia being a loose thread, yet more connected to her purpose than the stationary Eli who talks about creating great things, but never seems to actually create anything, and Michaela who is attempting to understand her father’s motivations and the dissolution of her own family system. I was able to predict one of the bigger mysteries and felt like Mandel could’ve used her beautiful words to paint a more colorful picture instead of leaving the reader with a muted, vague, somewhat empty canvas of an explanation for one of the bigger questions in the novel, but I enjoyed the ride anyway. 

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

norwegianwoodOof — I wanted to love my first time reading Murakami, an author beloved by many of my friends, but Norwegian Wood simply didn’t stand up to my expectations. Initially, I really enjoyed the story and writing style until I hit the 70 page mark and my affection took a nosedive, likely because of the introduction of a character (Midori) that I couldn’t stand at all.

Norwegian Wood follows about a year in the life of a college student, Toru, in Japan, as he weaves through the tangled web of love, sex, and adolescence. I’ve read and enjoyed many similar stories before and didn’t think I would mind reading another iteration, but I couldn’t jive with this. The entire novel was wrought with symbolism, which I’m guessing is true to Murakami’s style and also something that I might be able to better stomach for a storyline I appreciated more. Instead, so many of the pages were dominated by my least favorite character in the novel, Midori, trying hard to be a sensitive dream girl with #DeepFeelings, when it actuality it appears like a costume that most readers will probably see through. I’ve liked unlikable characters in other novels that I’ve read, but I found Midori so grating and rolled my eyes each time she was involved in a dialogue exchange. Midori isn’t actually a manic pixie dream girl, but she reads like someone who desperately wants to fulfill that role for a lover, becoming the sad, one-dimensional, but still cute girlfriend with #feelings and #emotions. Can you tell I use #hashtags when I’m mocking something? It’s almost become my way of conveying ~sarcasm via the internet~.

The story did manage to suck me back in once Midori disappeared, but I found myself rolling my eyes as soon as she was reintroduced around page 220. I did really like the other characters (Toru, Naoko, and Reiko), but I just couldn’t get over hating Midori to be able to enjoy the book. If you can, power to you, but the inclusion of Midori made my entire view of Norwegian Wood be reduced to a superficial attempt at depicting sadness, depression, and the ~deep feelings~ associated with them. 

All of that considered, I might give Murakami another shot, if someone can convince me to read another of his books that isn’t the massive tome that is 1Q84.

How to Behave in a Crowd by Camille Bordas

howtobehaveinacrowdHow to Behave in a Crowd is a novel about a family with a set of precocious, “exceptional”, excelling siblings, ranging in age from around 10 to mid-20s. The Mazal family and their attributes is very reminiscent of the Glass family, of Salinger lore — a group of siblings that are just so smart and specialized in their studies, but floundering in a world that requires more skill sets than pure intellect. Everyone’s a little too smart, everyone’s a little too annoyed with the rest of society, everyone is a little too much of a self imposed shut in because they think their intellect is too “alienating.” While this could put off a lot of readers, I still found How to Behave in a Crowd entertaining and I silently laughed to myself several times with sentences that perfectly set me up to be caught off guard. 

All of the children are prodigies in academia or musical performance, except for the youngest and the narrator Isidore/Dory, who seems to have more emotional and social ability than the others. While his siblings often discount Isidore’s statements, it also seems like they wish for his social adeptness in the same way that Isidore wants to be as academically excellent as each of his siblings.

The dialogue about life and other people is what really makes this novel shine. Two of the Mazal siblings are in the midst of completing PhD programs and I found their strings of consciousness quite amusing, since I’m partially through my own PhD studies at the moment. In the same way that you’ll have a favorite Glass if you read Salinger’s collection, you’ll have a favorite in the Mazal family too. I think my favorite Mazal is Aurore, which isn’t too surprising given that my favorite Glass is Franny.

At times I wondered if How to Behave in a Crowd may have been better as a short story because most of the pages seem to be dazzling examples of the author waving her pretty pen and witty commentary without actually moving the plot anywhere. The novel is kind of like a great conversation you’re really engaged in while it’s happening, but you can’t remember any of the specific details the next day, but just how you felt while having it. That’s not a bad thing necessarily, I simply mean that a lot of the writing seemed superfluous and unnecessary for the story at large. I still enjoyed the paths it took me along anyway.

Some of my favorite quotes were:

“I have an opinion on everyone who seems to have a good time being a teenager.” – Aurore (p. 152)

“She was good at turning everything you said into yet another example of how complicated she was.” (p. 208) Isidore on Denise.

“One only cried if one expected something from the world and was disappointed.” (p. 83)

Disclaimer: I was provided with a digital copy of this book for free from Penguin via First to Read. All opinions expressed in the review are my own and have not been influenced by Penguin or First to Read.