Review: The World That We Knew by Alice Hoffman

Alexis:

Despite the fact that the characters were a little too distant and one dimensional for my taste, this was still a five star read for me. Hoffman’s writing is haunting, beautiful, and lyrical. I love magical realism, and this book is a wonderful mix of magical realism, historical fiction, and folklore.

The book focuses on Lea at the beginning of WWII during the Nazi regime. Lea’s mother’s one goal is to keep her daughter safe, so she does the unthinkable: finds Ettie, the daughter of a rabbi, to create a golem, a powerful magical creature/person made from clay, who is to protect Lea at all costs.

This is a Holocaust story, and Hoffman doesn’t shy away from the horrors that the Jewish people of Europe faced. But I love the way Hoffman weaves small beauties into the story, especially with the relationship of Ava (the golem) with the heron. The heron was a beautiful symbol throughout the book. Out of all of the characters, I actually felt like I connected with Ava the most.

This is a survival story, so while I prefer to get into the heart and soul of the characters, the distant POV felt right with the atrocities the characters face in the story. Hoffman focuses on what it means to be human, and what it means to survive.

VERDICT: 5 stars

Review: Betsy Blossom Brown by Kathleen M. Jacobs

Alexis:

Thanks so much to Kathleen M. Jacobs for sending me her book! Jacobs has a gift for writing details, and vividly describing colors and clothes that create a vintage atmosphere and a Southern setting.

However, there are two big issues that kept me from being fully absorbed in the story: the POV randomly switches between first person and third person, and the name “Betsy Blossom Brown” was thrown around a little too often. 

To address the first issue, it happens so often in Betsy Blossom Brown that it made me confused. Even in the first couple of pages, one paragraph says, “‘But I don’t understand,’ Betsy winced.” And five paragraphs later begins with, “I turned each side of my hair behind my ears…” At first, I thought this was a characterization of Besty, that maybe she sometimes referred to herself in third person. But then I remembered that this was a minor problem in Honeysuckle Holiday.

As for Betsy’s name, it is a great Southern name, and makes for a great book title. However, I think the amount of times the repetition of her full name was repeated throughout the story lessened the magic of her name. 

That being said, I thought Jacobs did a great job of talking about and depicting Betsy’s Aspberger’s. Not many works of fiction deal with Aspberger’s, so I found this to be refreshing and enlightening. The story was character-driven, and I found Betsy’s character to be quirky and interesting. 

The writing in Betsy Blossom Brown is full of beautiful imagery, including vivid colors and clothing, that set up a coming-of-age story in a beautiful and nostalgic Southern setting. Jacobs writes in a conversational style that works well for her characters. However, I preferred the storyline in Honeysuckle Holiday, which I also found to be more cohesive. 

VERDICT: 3 stars

Review: Tin Man by Sarah Winman

Alexis: Read 11/28/18

“I said to him that just because you can’t remember, doesn’t mean the past isn’t out there. All those precious moments are still there somewhere.”

This is a poignant story of love and grief. This is a story of first loves, final loves, and dying loves.

Winman’s writing style is gorgeous. It’s simple yet raw and peppered with beautiful descriptions and lyricism. Throughout the book, her lack of quotation marks echoes Ellis’ silent grief.

I love the recurring motifs of the color yellow and Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. Nora, Ellis’ mother, is impactful and realistic, and she sticks throughout the story in the minds of both Ellis and Michael as a reminder to stay true to themselves.

Both Ellis and Michael are realistic characters. Ellis deals with his emotions by withdrawing and keeping to himself, while Michael deals with them through writing. Without giving too much away, both of them end up being more similar than either of them thought. Tin Man is an aptly named book.

I love that this book addresses the importance of art and writing, as said by Nora: “Painting flowers as a sign of friendship and welcome. Men and boys should be capable of beautiful things.”

My only criticism is that Annie does not feel as vibrant as all the other characters. I loved her introduction scene, but I wanted to understand her relationship with Ellis as deeply as I understood Ellis and Michael’s relationship.

All in all, this was a beautiful and quietly harrowing read that I highly recommend.

VERDICT: 5 stars

Review: Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney

Anna: Read 11/26/18

I couldn’t stop reading this. It’s safe to say that I’m in love with Sally Rooney’s writing style- it’s exactly what I want in literary fiction with a modern setting. I also think it’s an accurate representation of my generation. It’s an accomplishment when a book involves technology without taking away from the quality of writing. Everything about this book feels so real. It captures the ideas and ideals of my generation so well, from fluidity when it comes to sexuality, to how frustrating it can be, as a full-time student, managing finances, friendships, and mental health.

I loved Frances as a character. All of the characterization was rich and complex, but especially the main four- Frances, Bobbi, Nick and Melissa.The relationships were complicated and meticulously fleshed out, and the dialogue felt so realistic. I was impressed by the way Frances and Nick’s arguments were written, even over email. This book is aptly named Conversations with Friends as the complexity, frequency, and realness of these dialogues is something that defines this book. These characters actually have real, interesting conversations, which is something I appreciate. There’s nothing worse than fake, fluffy conversation.

Here are some things I didn’t like.

(Below is where the spoilers live!)

I loved this book all the way through, but it would have had even more of an impact without the last chapter. The fact that it implied that Frances is going to enter into a “relationship” with Nick again takes a way a bit from the chapters before.

Frances’s endometriosis diagnosis was a bit strange. I think reproduction problems are important to talk about in fiction, and too often periods aren’t even mentioned in literature, even in explicitly feminist fiction. Though I really appreciated that aspect, I wasn’t exactly sure of its purpose in the plot. All that comes to mind is that Frances being sick interfered with her fixing things with Bobbi and Nick. It also made her think about youthfulness, womanhood, and pregnancy in a different way, especially since she thought she was having a miscarriage when she first experienced the painful symptoms. I wait to read other people’s full reviews until after I write my own, so I will be looking into other takes on this when I finish writing this.

I thought Bobbi was really annoying. She felt so condescending and controlling over Frances, even at the end when Frances had grown a lot and developed her own “real personality.” I liked how complicated and undefined their relationship was, but I couldn’t get over how preachy and elitist Bobbi is throughout the book.

A huge pet peeve I have is how easy it was for Frances to get published. There is NO WAY that her story would have been published in a prestigious journal AND that she was paid royalties for it. Frances wrote the story in one sitting, sent it in unedited, AND it was the first prose she had ever written in her life. As writers and as someone who has worked in publishing, Alexis and I and are very familiar with the publication process. Maybe it’s easier to get published in a journal in Ireland, but I doubt it.

It was funny reading about Frances interning at a literary agency, because I did that. I can say that part was realistic!

This book does so many great things and I enjoyed reading this so much that I am still considering bumming it up a rating, despite the unsatisfying ending. I can’t wait to read Normal People by Sally Rooney soon!

VERDICT: 4 out of 5 books

Review: The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

Alexis: Read 11/22/18

Yesterday, I finished The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang.

I loved the first half. It reminded me of a mix between The Hunger Games, Game of Thrones, and Avatar: the Last Airbender. On her website, R.F. Kuang even mentions that ATLA and Game of Thrones were some of her inspirations.

This brutal book deals with every heavy theme you can think of: genocide, addiction, experimentation, rape, death. Despite being a high-fantasy book, I found many aspects of the war in the latter half of the book to be extremely realistic.

This is because Kuang is a genius. She graduated from Georgetown and is now studying at Cambridge. She’s studying Chinese studies, and you can tell. I was amazed at her worldbuilding. Kuang knows everything about the world she’s created. The book describes the hierarchy, the history, the mythology, you name it. She talks about it. She describes it in detail. She fully understands the world she’s created, and I admired that from the very start of the book. I love the way she based the world off of Chinese history. This includes fascinating aspects like martial arts and mythology. But it also includes the dark side of history. And I love a good dark book.

I generally like the main character, Rin. She is established out-right: we know what she wants and how she’s going to get it. We know her motivation. But Jiang is my favorite character. His personality is the most well-defined, and I love all of his quirks. I love a good quirky, underestimated character. To be honest, I didn’t really care about any of the other secondary characters, though Altan annoyed me in the second half of the book.

Something is lacking in the second half. Even though the plot is still well-defined, too many new elements are thrown together too fast. A whole new crew of characters are introduced. Characters from the first half come in and out. And some huge decisions are made. It isn’t rushed; it takes place over a couple hundred pages. Yet for some reason, it feels jumbled. To be fair, the entire second half is war. War is a mess; war is a jumble. This Poppy War is brutal and messy and isn’t for the fair-hearted reader. But the way Rin acts in the second half almost turned me off from her (I mean that was kind of the point, but still). Her actions and way of thinking are justified in the world, but that doesn’t mean I like the direction her character is going. 

Overall, I enjoyed this book. I loved the messy history and the mythology of the world. I will definitely read the rest of the series in the future, but it just wasn’t a 5 star read for me.

VERDICT: 4 out of 5 books