Review: Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper


I read Etta and Otto and Russell and James last year, and I immediately added it to my favorite books list and gave it 5 stars! But I read so many books that, over a year later, I couldn’t remember all the details. I knew I was going to the beach, so I thought, “Why not get it for the beach and give it a re-read?”

The first time I read this, when I checked it out from the library, I didn’t realize it was magical realism. But I love magical realism, and reading it a second time, it made more sense in the story.

This book is character-driven, low on the plot, and heavy on the emotion. The book is non-linear, and switches back and forth not only in POVs (though all are in 3rd person) but also back and forth in time. It explores the relationships between three main characters: Etta, Otto, and Russell. Etta and Otto are married, and Russell is their longtime friend. In the present day, they are all old farmers in Canada. One day, Etta decides to trek across the Canadian wilderness in order to see the ocean for the first time.

In the past, Otto grows up on a farm, and Russell, his neighbor, becomes his best friend. Later, Etta becomes a school teacher while Otto goes off to fight in WWII.

Hooper is a wonderful writer. She’s also a musician, which gives her writing a rhythmic and lyrical feel that I love. Hooper also excludes quotation marks in her dialogue, which adds to the magical realism feel of the book.

Overall, this is a quietly powerful book. At its core, it’s about both a physical and an emotional journey through the Canadian landscape and the characters’ pasts. It explores war, family, and farming, with a talking coyote thrown in there for good measure. If you love magical realism, lyrical, poetic writing, and character-driven stories, I highly recommend it!

VERDICT: 5 stars

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Review: Clock Dance by Anne Tyler


Clock Dance delves into the life of Willa, exploring her life over several different stages. The beginning of the book focuses on Willa at age 11, 21, and 41. The latter, longer half of the book focuses on her at age 61, when she suddenly decides to fly across the country to take care of a woman’s daughter.

What I liked: I really enjoyed the first three sections of the book. I think Tyler did a phenomenal job describing her life and her thoughts at her different life stages. I especially enjoyed learning about Willa’s family at age 11; it was poignant and explored her family’s dynamics.

The image of a saguaro cactus pops up several times in the story, hence the front cover. I enjoyed the recurring imagery and I thought it served the book well. I also adored the descriptions of Airplane the dog!

What I disliked: I wasn’t a huge fan of Willa’s storyline at age 61. Unlike the first three sections, Tylers’ writing was rambling. Other than Willa, I never felt a great connection to any of the other characters, and even though Tyler’s dialogue was on point, the characters felt too flat.

Derek and Peter were also super douchey. And Willa was such a passive character. The last section was supposed to be when Willa stands up for herself, and makes a life-altering decision. But I never really felt that. I appreciated that this is a book that focuses on the life of the always complacent woman, but I wanted the life-altering decision to be bigger.

I ended up skimming the ending because I couldn’t stand reading another description of Denise hobbling on her crutches, or Willa cooking something, or Cheryl watching TV. Also, a nine-year-old named Cheryl? Maybe I’m just being picky, but overall, the fourth section didn’t do it for me.


First 3 sections: 5 stars

Last section: 1 star

Total: 3 stars

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Review: We Never Asked for Wings by Vanessa Diffenbaugh


Anna and I both read The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh years ago and we loved it. We Never Asked for Wings has some similar themes: pregnancy, motherhood, family, and honesty.

The book opens when Letty, a young and troubled mother of two, leaves her children alone to go to Mexico to find her parents. Her parents were living with her and taking care of her children, and she doesn’t know how to be a mother.

The story mostly alternates between Letty and her young teenage son, Alex. While Letty navigates motherhood, Alex navigates school and a budding relationship with a girl named Yesenia, all while caring for his six-year-old sister Luna and searching for the father he’s never known.

I mostly connected with Alex as a character, as his dreams and motivations felt real and true to character. He was a good and innocent character who happened to be in a bad situation. However, because the story did focus on him so much, the book tended to lean towards a more YA vibe.

I think Diffenbaugh did a good job with certain struggles of the Espinosa family, such as poverty and citizenship.

However, I struggled to connect with Letty. She was almost overly flawed, so much so that I disliked reading about her character. I was annoyed with all of her actions. She neglected her family and continued to make a string of bad decisions, including getting her son drunk. She had some almost-redeemable moments towards the end, but it wasn’t enough of a character arc for me.

My biggest problem with the book is that you can tell Diffenbaugh struggled to write the story. In the acknowledgments, Diffenbaugh says, “They say book two is hard. Whether or not this is true I don’t know, but I believed it to be true, and so this book was hard for me. Really hard.”

While I enjoyed the overall core of the story, as well as the motif of bird and feathers, parts of this book felt off. When Wes, Alex’s father, is finally introduced, he never feels like a round character. He, and his personality and motivations, just sort of hover in the story.

The events in the latter part of the book feel too melodramatic. While somewhat believable, Alex’s actions are a little too out of character. And after all the dramatic events at the end, it wraps up just a little too nicely.

VERDICT: 3 stars


Review: Commonwealth by Ann Patchett


It’s official. Ann Patchett is a literary genius.

Commonwealth is hard to explain, and it took me so long to pick up because besides being a multigenerational family tale, the description is pretty vague. I’m so glad I finally read it! This is a book that kept me reading late into the night, and only regretted a little bit the next day at work, which I haven’t done in a while.

The book is extremely character-driven, which is one of the reasons I liked it so much. Despite the depth of characterization, I wouldn’t describe the plot as slow-moving at all–there’s a family tragedy at the center of it all that ties the characters together and keeps the reader guessing.

This book has many different characters and perspectives, which is something I love in a book but is often difficult to do well. Ann Patchett does this beautifully. All the characters are fully fleshed out with real motivations and lives, even the ones that only have a few pages in their perspective. At the end thought about who I would identify as the central character. It’s probabably, Franny–the baby at the baptism responsible for mixing all their lives together in the first place–bringing the book full circle! Yet every other character feels just as vital.

Commonwealth is about guilt, forgiveness, and the complexities of familial love. It’s also set partially in Virginia, where I live and where everything bad in the book happens! I cracked up at all the descriptions of the summer heat and mosquitoes.

VERDICT: 4 books

Which Ann Patchett book should I pick up next? The only other one I’ve read is State of Wonder.

Review: Big Stone Gap by Adriana Trigiani

This was the perfect light read as I adjusted to my new job–one that I could pick up after a long day of work before bed. A mix of Gilmore Girls and Mama Mia, I enjoyed following the adventures of Ave Maria, the “town spinster” in her mid-30s in the rural mountain town of Big Stone Gap, Virginia. After the recent passing of her mother, Ave Maria is the only Italian left. Like any other small town, everyone in Big Stone Gap know everyone else’s business. So when Ave Maria discovers some long-buried secrets about her own identity, the rest of the town is quick to find out.

Parts of this book are downright hilarious. The part when Elizabeth Taylor comes to town actually had me laughing out loud. The same goes for the dog incident and the chicken bone incident. Classic.

I love the Bookmobile, and the fact that Ave Maria loves books. I love her devotion to her town and her mother, despite their faults. I love that Ave Maria is named after a prayer. I love that, because she’s an Italian in the mountains of Virginia, no one can pronounce her name. (My name is Anna-Marie–I can relate.)

Ave Maria does get a little annoying in her stubbornness to remain single,This would have been fine if she truly didn’t want a partner, but her actions tell otherwise. Sadly, she seems more jealous and vindictive toward love more than anything else. She turns men away and insists she’s happy, only to get jealous when those men turn to other women. There are parts of her character that I like and identify with, as I mentioned above, and then there are aspects to her that get really annoying, like her inability to notice what is literally in front of her nose.

Though I enjoyed Big Stone Gap overall, there are some things I can’t get past, which I’ll call here Early 2000’s Problems. It’s kind of like when you watch Gilmore Girls or an old rom com and you’re shocked at how something that you used to regard as so wholesome is actually filled with culturally insensitive, racist, and homophobic jokes. It’s not okay, but you have to approach these things in the context of time and how far we’ve come as a society in accepting people, even since the 2000s (and Big Stone Gap takes place in the late 70s).

Also very 2000’s is Trigani’s assumption that men and women live like species from different planets. There are literally lines such as, “this is how all men are,” and likewise, “ this is how all women are,”  this just isn’t the case! Again, I think that this has to be attributed to the time period (either that, or I just haven’t read a romance in a long time). There’s also an undertone in here that men are objects to be won by women and vice versa, which presents a big problem.

Despite the outdatedness, I still did enjoy reading Big Stone Gap, and I would recommend it if you’re looking for a small town southern romance.

VERDICT: 3 out of 5 books

Now for some very specific things that really irked me (spoilers below)–


The fact that Jack essentially bought Ave Maria’s heart when he paid for all her Italian relatives to visit.

The fact that when the family showed up Ave Maria’s own plans were completely pushed aside.

The fact that as soon as Ave Maria cemented her love to Jack, Jack’s mom IMMEDIATELY died, because she knew Jack was in love and didn’t need her anymore.

I totally thought the best friend and band director was going to come out as gay. Maybe he still does later in the series…?

I love Pearl, except that she is the token fat smart girl who discovered makeup and it made her life better.

Review: The Afterlives by Thomas Pierce

Alexis: Read 3/7/19

This book had an interesting premise, so why not check it out? After a cardiac arrest episode that leaves him legally dead, Jim Byrd lives with a device called the HeartNet. The HeartNet will continue to pump his heart if another cardiac arrest occurs. But now Jim is faced with his own mortality, and can’t help thinking about the afterlife. He and his new wife, Annie, try to figure out the afterlife by attending a new church called the Church of Search, by ghost hunting, and by tracking down a woman who claims she has a machine that will allow you to talk to the dead.

The story is in first person, told by Jim himself. But snippets of the past intersect his story. These snippets are in third person, following a cast of characters who lived in an old house, which is now a haunted restaurant. Jim and Annie aren’t sure why the house is haunted, though one of the house’s former owners, Clara, had a dog who died in a fire. I really liked these snippets into the past and thought it was an interesting choice to include them in the story.

I also really enjoyed Pierce’s writing style. His writing is conversational, and his sentences all have a pleasing cadence. Every character is a round character, with their own idiosyncrasies and passions and opinions on the afterlife.

The book has a small frame that mimics stage directions of a play. I found this fitting, as Annie is a playwright:

“Exit heartbeat. / Exit breath. / Exit every mood, every memory. / Exit you. / To where” (3)?

I enjoyed the sections about the ghost hunt, the machine, and Jim’s musings on life and death, which includes heart worries and panic attacks. There wasn’t much of a plot, and a lot of the middle section was spent on interactions with minor characters and minor plot points. Most of the book almost felt like a memoir or character study of Jim’s life. I enjoyed the beginning and the end, but I felt like 100 pages could’ve been cut out of this book and it would’ve made it more impactful.

The book also takes on a sci-fi edge, with the machine and the inclusion of holograms becoming a part of normal life. The book stretches over decades of Jim’s life, including decades into the future, but I found the holograms an odd choice for the book. Maybe they’re supposed to be symbols, like ghosts, in between life and death?

VERDICT: 3 out of 5 books

Review: The Wildlands by Abby Geni

Alexis: Read 1/4/19

I’m not too fond of prologues, but I found the prologue of The Wildlands to be the perfect introduction to the book. It describes, in detail, Cora’s first memory: the category 5 tornado which destroyed her childhood home and left her, and her siblings, an orphan. I loved Geni’s descriptions from the start. When Cora looks outside before the tornado strikes, the sky has turned green: “…I glanced out the window and saw the Oklahoma sky soaked with a new color. Damp jade. Split pea soup. Moss on stone.”

I was involved in each character’s storyline, especially Cora and Darlene’s, but also Roy’s and even Tucker’s, despite his violence. Geni captures emotions well, whether through her character descriptions or the descriptions of the harsh and barren Oklahoma landscape. She paints a picture of loss, poverty, and family. Many scenes in this book are vividly dark and disturbing, and Geni does a good job of showing how they affect Cora both psychologically and physically. Geni’s writing style mimics the sense of loss that follows the characters throughout the book. Despite the plot, The Wildlands is more of a character-driven story.

Cora’s relationship with her sisters feels raw, real, and appropriate for a nine-year-old. Her relationship with Tucker, however, is borderline obsessive. I couldn’t blame Cora for this, considering her painful childhood, but it was still disturbing at times.

I’m an animal lover, and I found Tucker’s theories about animals and mass extinction interesting yet terrifying. Seeing his thought process was an interesting insight in how someone’s interests can turn into a dangerous and radical obsession. The scenes with the animals towards the end of the book are surreal and poetic.

I understand why Geni includes the epilogue, but I felt like it was unnecessary. The book ended on the right note, but the epilogue drew away from it.

All in all, this was a well-written and thought-provoking read.

VERDICT: 4 and ½ out of 5 books

Review: Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

Anna: Read 11/16/18

In Salvage the Bones, Esch and her three brothers help their alcoholic brothers prepare for the arrival of Hurricane Katrina with their father, who is often drunk. Esch’s mother died giving birth to her youngest brother, Junior. Her brother Skeetah’s dog, China, gives birth to puppies, who he hopes to sell as prized fighting dogs. The oldest brother Randall is distant but protective, and Junior is always getting into trouble. But Esch has her own problem—she’s pregnant.

I loved this book! This is my second Jesmyn Ward book after Sing, Unburied, Sing. Her writing is so atmospheric that you can almost feel the sticky Southern humidity as you read. Ward is hands down one of the most lyrical writers I’ve read, and it’s amazing how she can make something as devastating as the destruction of Hurricane Katrina into something beautiful and even hopeful.

The pacing in this is fantastic and mimics the calm before a storm. As the tension builds and builds and the storm approaches, Esch’s pregnancy becomes harder to hide. I loved Ward’s foreshadowing in China’s motherhood to her puppies, the approach of the storm, and all the water/flood imagery.

I also loved the narrator, Esch, and her family, despite their many flaws. Esch’s memories of her dead mother throughout her day to day life make her as present as the other characters, and these descriptions were some of my favorite parts of the book. You can feel their mother’s love in the family by the way they remember her moving around the house, which they ultimately have to fight to save from the hurricane. Esch’s relationship with her brothers and father shifts as the events of the hurricane play out. This is a fantastic story of family and brotherly sacrifice.

Despite the fact that China was a fighting dog, I enjoyed reading about the bond between China and Skeetah. Even though I’m ethically opposed to dogspotting, I found Ward’s ability to write such calm scenes alongside the bloody ones of the dogfights, and then the destruction of the hurricane, impressive.

A word of warning: don’t read this if you can’t handle dogfighting, or other bad things happening to dogs, if you know what I mean. Honestly, this might be the reason I’m not giving it 5 stars/books. 

VERDICT: 4 out of 5 books

I highly recommend checking out Jesmyn Ward. I’ll definitely be reading the remaining two books on her backlist very soon!

Review: The Child Finder by Rene Denfeld

Nov 13 The Child Seekers

Anna’s review: Read 11/12/18

In The Child Finder by Rene Denfeld, Naomi, a private investigator, specializes in finding lost children. She returns to the snowy landscape of her home state of Oregon to take on the case of a young girl, Madison, who went missing in the forest where her family went to find a Christmas tree. But as Naomi learns what happened to Madison, the events of her own traumatic past begin to come to light.

I’m conflicted by this. There were so many beautiful and harrowing parts of this book. Obviously it deals with difficult themes like abduction, pedophilia, rape, and death, which were all handled respectfully by the author. Denfeld herself is a licensed investigator, and you can tell she knows what she’s writing about.

The biggest problem I had with this book is the huge discrepancy in the quality of writing. Half of the writing style was beautiful and lyrical, especially the scenes from the point of view of the snow girl. I found this sections horrifying but masterfully written. You could feel the coldness creeping into your bones, as well as the desperateness of the child’s situation.

The other half was written so differently that it didn’t even feel like I was reading the same book! For example, there is a line on page 72 that reads, “Her stomach rumbled, reminding her that she soon would be hungry.” There are other lines like this that are so jarring that I kept noticing them as I read and this impacted my overall opinion of it.

I found the romance between Jerome and Naomi particularly cringey. Their dialogue was cheesy, and Jerome’s character is as flat as a pancake. This is where I felt the most distracted by the different writing style, since the rest was so dark.

The other problem I had is Baby Danforth case that Naomi randomly takes on in the middle of the book. Though I know, realistically, a investigator would probably be working on multiple cases at a time, I found this whole case horribly distracting. The only reason I can think to include this is to show that Naomi’s searches can end badly.

Then there’s the characterization of Naomi herself. Naomi is also a “snow child.” She was abducted as a young child and, as a coping mechanism, she has repressed the memories of the traumatic events. As a result, Naomi is reserved and often cold. She left the safety of her foster home, the only place she felt love, because of her fear of closeness and intimacy. Throughout the course of finding out what happened to Madison, Naomi finally remembers the events of her own abduction. I understand that Naomi’s acceptance of Jerome’s love represents part of her healing, but I think I would have enjoyed this book a lot more if the romance hadn’t been included at all. There’s also Ranger Dave, who fell in love with Naomi within days of meeting her, which I found completely random.

Something I really enjoyed was the aspect of fairytale retelling, especially the ones that turned childhood innocence on its head. This dark play with cruelty and innocence is one of the biggest successes of this book. Snowy rural settings are typically my favorite books settings, and The Child Finder was satisfyingly atmospheric.

Ulitmately, I was disappointed by this. I loved the parts with the snow child but was disappointed by some of the rest. This had so many great reviews that I expected to love it. I just can’t look past the discrepancies in the writing and the cheesy romance.

VERDICT: 3 out of 5 books

Alexis: Read 9/2/18

I read this book a couple months ago. I had read one of Denfeld’s books before, The Enchanted, which I had a hard time getting through, but which ended up stuck in my mind. I prepared myself for a dark read with The Child Finder and dug in.

Denfeld’s writing style and descriptions struck me. I even took the time to write down a quote: “Like a leaf that drank from the morning dew, you didn’t question the morning sunrise or the sweet taste on your mouth. You just drank.” Denfeld’s descriptions always surprised me, whether from her word choice or from the contrasting, stilted way she delivered them.

While, like Anna, I found some of her sentences to be a bit off, ultimately the writing style served the purpose of the book. Denfeld was descriptive where she needed to be and off-putting when she needed to be. Three of the main characters deal with life-altering issues, and the writing style reflects their troubled thoughts and feelings.

I agree that Naomi and Jerome’s adult relationship feels forced; however, their relationship as children made sense. But was the distance felt between the two adult characters because of Naomi’s isolationist behavior, or was it because Denfeld’s characterization didn’t step up to the plate?

The chapters from Madison’s point of view, when she’s being held hostage, are brilliant, and I agree with Anna that Denfeld obviously knows what she’s talking about. The realism of the kidnapping, mixed with the almost dream-like quality of the snow child, left an impact on me.

VERDICT: 4 out of 5 books