Sharks in the Time of Saviors by Kawai Strong Washburn
Publisher: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux Genre: Literary Fiction Pages: 284 Format: Hardcover Buy Local My Rating: 4/5 stars
The Flores family works hard to combat the poverty they face along with their fellow Hawaiians. The Big Island swarms with tourism and wealth, making it difficult for its residents to eke out a life amid high costs and few job opportunities. For Malia Flores and her husband, a miracle arrives when their youngest son, Nainoa, falls off a boat into shark-infested waters: the sharks swarm, but one of the largest takes Nainoa gently into its jaws and brings him safely back to the boat. The story spreads like wildfire across the island, especially when young Nainoa suddenly begins to show an uncanny ability to heal—a gift Malia attributes to mystical signs from the island preceding his birth.
Noa’s staus brings the family much-needed money, but, it also exacts a toll on the elder children. Dean excels at basketball, but has a penchant for trouble. Middle-child Kaui is fiercely intelligent, but nobody seems to notice. As the children become adults and the family drifts apart, Noa’s gift haunts each of them in different ways. Noa can’t content himself with the person he thinks he’s supposed to be, and his siblings blame him because their lives have been overshadowed by his gifts. When tragedy strikes, threatening to shatter the Flores family for good, the island begins to pull on each of them, leaving them to reconstruct their connection to their homeland and the magic of family bonds.
Sharks in the Time of Saviors is Washburn’s debut novel as well as a love letter to his native homeland. Hawaii is an irrefutable paradise, but sitting in the shadows of its jungle lies a people whose deep ancestral connection to their homeland is challenged by poverty and the relentless influx of Western culture. Washburn constructs this world carefully as both a place of struggle and of deep magic, characterizing Hawaii with a great beating heart. Aside from Noa’s miracle, the land itself weaves through each character with heavy roots, showing us how our homeland shapes us as much as our experiences.
Washburn does more than take us on a journey to his home, however. The characters Noa, Kaui, and Dean pulse with the frustration of trying to find themselves within the confines of Western culture, which has taken so much from them. Each sibling battles against the ancestral land that tethers them while they stake out their own identities. It’s a novel about both growing up and going home.
Beautifully written and sparkling with life, Sharks in the Time of Saviors is a stunning debut and a promising start to the career of a powerful new literary voice.
“People like you must create. If you don’t create, Bernadette, you will become a menace to society” – Paul Jellinek, Where’d You Go, Bernadette
In Maria Semple’s novel Where’d You Go, Bernadette, Bernadette Fox is a menace, both to herself and society. A lost soul, she finds a unique solution to rediscovering her creativity and the family whom she’s been neglecting by literally running away to Antarctica. As a woman right about Bernadette’s age, I am drawn to books and films that portray the protagonist in the throes of a breakdown or midlife crisis. It is highly satisfying to follow along on a character’s journey of self-discovery, and Where’d You Go, Bernadette is no exception. As an architectural-genius-gone-recluse after several setbacks, I thoroughly enjoyed her path to enlightenment.
So, when they announced a film version starring Cate Blanchett in the titular role, I was cautiously optimistic. In truth, I would probably pay to watch Blanchett read the back of a cereal box, but I had my reservations about this particular book-to-film adaptation. As Semple’s novel is largely a collection of emails, letters, and police reports, I was unsure how writer and director Richard Linklater would translate that to the screen. In addition, the novel’s success is credited to the strong, multi-dimensional characters. As it turns out, I had some cause for concern. Be warned, there are spoilers ahead!
Blanchett rose beautifully to the challenge of portraying the quirky, vulnerable, and misguided genius Bernadette Fox. For me, Blanchett was Bernadette—with huge, dark sunglasses and a scarf draped over her hair, she was the epitome of the reclusive genius. She wears all of Bernadette’s absentmindedness, and eccentricities as portrayed in the novel as easily as she dons her rubber rain boots and fishing vest.
Some of Blanchett’s best scenes, in my opinion, are the ones in which she composes frantic emails to Manjula, the identity thief posing as a Delhi personal assistant. The filmmakers make the wise decision to have Bernadette use voice to text email to communicate her exhaustive requests while she plods about her decrepit home making the odd repair, and sopping up rain from the constant roof leaks. The witty, and mostly manic, monologues from the novel surrounding planning her daughter Balakrishna’s (Bee) gift trip to Antarctica are hilarious. Most telling are the verbal detours that Bernadette takes in the form of tirades about Seattle and the gnats (otherwise known as the other parents). These rants, to a non-existent Manjula, reveal so much about Bernadette’s insecurities, paranoia, and anti-social behavior.
It is that true-to-the-novel attitude that works in telling Bernadette’s story. A fine example comes in the form of the video essay: after a chance meeting with a fan of her architectural work, Bernadette discovers a biographical video essay to commemorate one of her biggest accomplishments and heartbreaks, the Twenty Mile House. Done documentary-style, the video gives the audience a much-needed glimpse into Bernadette’s architectural past, offering an explanation as to why she has chosen to hide herself, and her talent, away. At one point in the film, the video and Elgin’s real-time discussion with a shrink about Bernadette’s self-destructive behavior toggle back and forth—this editing choice makes his concern for Bernadette all the more believable.
With Blanchett’s larger-than-life Bernadette, the other characters of the novel get short-changed, in my opinion. Bernadette’s husband, Elgin, played authentically by Billy Crudup, gets a bit of a makeover. In the novel, he is a self-absorbed Microsoft workaholic with little time for Bernadette and her shenanigans. His frustration leads to an affair with his assistant, Soo-Lin, who in the film is relegated to just being overly involved. The filmmakers choose to present him as more kindhearted and loyal, which works for the movie’s happy ending.
Emma Nelson as Bee has some important scenes which establish the mother-daughter bond that is so evident in the novel. Unfortunately, in the movie, that bond manifests itself as mostly defending Bernadette’s actions. The two actresses however, are at their best when driving through the rain singing along to “Time After Time” by Cyndi Lauper. Bernadette’s love and affection for Bee is clear here, and evokes enough vulnerability to balance out her quirky recluse persona. She again taps into this vulnerability when the two lock eyes during Bee’s school performance. I found those scenes to be more affecting than the film’s parting, in which Bernadette’s letter to Bee from the novel becomes a voicemail message—Bernadette rambles into the telephone receiver as Elgin and Bee look on. While the reunion is sweet, I much preferred the novel’s ending that features Bernadette’s letter filled with hope, love, and the promise of a new future for all three of them.
A pivotal character that is far more prominent in the novel is Audrey Griffin, the gnat from Galer Street School which Bee attends. Played by Kristen Wiig, Audrey, like Elgin, is a little more palatable in the film than in the novel. The thorn in Bernadette’s anti-social side, Wiig provides the film with some standout moments from the novel including the injured foot, and the no trespassing billboard. Wiig does a good job of balancing out Audrey’s detestable personality with a vulnerability that comes through in an important moment during the escape. After Bernadette jumps out of her bathroom window, she and Audrey patch up their differences in a revealing and funny way that I preferred to the novel’s. Add the backdrop of Audrey’s filthy home thanks to the mudslide (as funny on film as it is in the novel) and you have a great scene between two confused women.
Overall, as a film about a woman rediscovering herself, Where’d You Go, Bernadette is a success, in my opinion. It is wildly funny, and touching where it counts—thanks mainly to the strong lead performances, particularly Blanchett’s. Where the novel surpasses the film is in its development of the supporting characters and their contributions to the story. As you often see with a book-to-film adaptation, the novel offers more depth than its movie counterpart. Not a runaway hit, but still good fun.
In 2005, Rick Riordan had the brilliant idea to write about a fantastical universe where ancient Greek mythical characters are “alive and kicking.” However, the gods have adapted to the growth of civilization and developed some new characteristics: Dionysus, god of wine, is on withdrawal and drinks nothing but Diet Coke. He is unhappily in charge of a summer camp for demigods, children of gods and mortals. Mount Olympus, home of the gods, is perched atop the Empire State Building (invisible to mortal eyes), which, of course, means that the entrance to the Underworld, land of the dead, is in L.A.
Growing up as a Riordan fan, I developed a keen interest in Greek and Egyptian mythology. But, as enraptured as I was with his three series—Percy Jackson and the Olympians, The Heroes of Olympus (a spin-off of PJO) and The Kane Chronicles—I couldn’t help but notice a pattern in his character sketches that really bothered me.
No one can deny that Riordan has created some very powerful female characters. He places fierce warriors like Annabeth Chase and Clarisse La Rue on the frontline in battle scenes. His depiction of Artemis, goddess of the moon, and her immortal troupe of maiden hunters (who have swapped their tunics for camo pants and combat boots) is bordering on reverent. But he also, maybe inadvertently, puts down several female characters who are traditionally more feminine—Aphrodite, goddess of love, is portrayed as an affected diva who likes to meddle in people’s love lives. Most of her demigod children are vain and have skills that are of little use to Camp Half-Blood, and their cabin is described as “decorated like a Barbie house” where “supermodels go to die.” The final insult comes in the form of her daughter, Piper McLean, who is revolted to find out her godly parentage.
This demonization of femininity is not unique to Riordan. Many male authors find the need to create heroines who are unmistakably “tomboyish,” and who despise all things pale pink or frilly. Although the intent behind this is to empower these characters and, consecutively, the preadolescent girls who idolize them, it is inherently sexist because it assumes that femininity is weak. I can’t stress enough how damaging a message like this is to a young girl’s psyche—finding your identity as a teenager is confusing enough as it is. Adding to it, characters like Piper McLean, who has a huge “not-like-other-girls” complex, shame young girls with naturally feminine tastes. It also suggests to young boys that women who don’t show outward toughness somehow deserve less respect and are, therefore, at the mercy of the men in their world.
To Riordan’s credit, however, the vilification seems to reach its peak with Piper. Sadie Kane, who first appeared in 2010 in The Red Pyramid, the first book in The Kane Chronicles series, is more realistic. At twelve, she is moody, chews a lot of gum and wears combat boots. But she also wears a chic dress and light makeup to her school dance. She is much closer to the idea of a real adolescent girl than most of the heroines in the other two series because her personality grows and changes substantially through the series. More importantly, she’s respectful of other people’s tastes, even when they don’t match her own.
Despite giving the impression that they were all initially built from the same mold, Riordan’s heroines are inspirational to say the least. In the world of Greek mythology, which is the definition of a patriarchy, the idea of female heroes who go on quests with their male peers as equals is a novelty that the heroes take in their stride. The three series also address issues like racism and homophobia, which is rare for young adult fiction published around the same time. As a loyal reader who stuck with Annabeth and Sadie and their respective gangs till the very end, I hope to see more strong women with diverse personalities on the pages of Riordan’s future books.
As fashion editor for Haute magazine, Margot seems to have the glamorous, picture-perfect life of any girl’s dreams. Looking forward to deepening her relationship with her oldest friend Winnie through their shared experience of pregnancy, Margot prepares and looks to the future, even handpicking her maternity replacement, Maggie.
But when Winnie’s baby dies, their friendship falls apart as Winnie rejects Margot’s attempts to reach her. Margot spirals into negative cycles of neuroses as she grapples with her repressed trauma from an accident years before, her fears of her own baby’s death, paranoia that Maggie is too good of a replacement in her job, and the intense pressure from a social media harasser that seems to know a little too well how to jab her where it hurts.
Though focused primarily on Margot’s anxieties and struggles, this engaging thriller also contains scenes from Maggie and Winnie’s perspectives, as the three women’s lives become more progressively, and darkly, intertwined.
I picked up this book one evening intending to read for fifteen minutes before starting my homework—only realizing that I had forgotten about my homework hours later when I actually gasped out loud at the unexpected ending. Walker’s writing pulled me in immediately, and the characters felt so real I forgot I was reading until the very last pages.
Besides being totally gripping and engrossing, The New Girl also provides insightful glimpses into female insecurity, motherhood and career, and the effects of cyberbullying, among other subjects. By dusting the veneer off of an outwardly perfect life, Walker reveals the gritty reality of the anxiety of comparison and compulsion for her vivid characters.
With consistent pacing and a surprising ending, this page-turning debut would be good fit for those who like thrilling surprises, complex relationships, high fashion, and/or unreliable narrators.
Thanks to the Changing Hands Bookstore for providing an ARC in exchange for this honest and unbiased review.
In this new era of COVID-19, there are plenty of us staying at home suffering from a different kind of illness: cabin fever. Quarantine and isolation are entering their third month for many of us, and the spring season gaining traction isn’t helping at all. Spring typically motivates people to start new projects, clean out their homes and garages, start their gardens, and get outside. Unfortunately, for many people this still isn’t a safe option and may not be for a long time yet. For others, caution would still need to consistently exercised, but as local parks and trails begin to reopen, the opportunity to exercise some old fashioned social distancing by venturing out into nature might just be what the doctor ordered. Regardless of your options or what the future holds, a great way to scratch that itch for exploration is through the following books, each of which is able to spark that sense of wanderlust in their readers. The benefit of being a book-lover is that there are always worlds to explore inside the pages of a book, but, these books have the added benefit of offering a mental escape whilst reading that inspires real-life travel and adventure. So, let’s see if we can fight a little of that cabin fever with these seven books of wanderlust literature.
On the Roadby Jack Kerouac—I’ve always been a sucker for the Beat Generation, and On the Road is one of those iconic pieces of work that has come to represent the genre. The novel follows characters that can’t seem to sit still, and as such can never settle down and stay in one place for too long. They definitely make some questionable choices along the way, but there is something to be said about their sense of recklessness in association with their constant search for meaning and adventure in their lives. This novel has a sense of restlessness that all of us can feel sometimes deep down—especially now that we are confined in our homes and hometowns. While this book probably won’t inspire you to engage in the same sort of shenanigans the characters are engaging in (hopefully), it just might inspire you to do a little soul-searching like they have, whether its while you are lost in the pages or on the open road yourself.
A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail by Bill Bryson—Bill Bryson has become a famous voice in the world of travel writing, probably because he writes with the tone of the uncle who seems to have a funny anecdote for everything. What is really appealing about him, though, is just how relatable he can be—he’s a regular guy who decided to undertake a challenge usually only completed by people who have trained their whole life to do. Spoiler alert: it’s a lot harder than he anticipated. But, it’s his persistence and his observations that make his account so enjoyable. Sometimes, it just takes an itch for adventure and discovery to push us out the door, and despite the challenges that this might present, the journey, not the destination, ends up being the best part of the story.
Walden: Life in the Woodsby Henry David Thoreau—A book quoted by naturalists for the last hundred years or more, Walden is the ultimate memoir for the nature lover. Thoreau’s spiritual quest to connect with mother nature is recounted in great and quotable detail in this book. What’s so important about this novel in the current climate is the idea that isolation and solitude are not always negative things to undergo in one’s lifetime, and in fact can sometimes be good for the human spirit. Reconnecting with one’s self, beliefs, and nature itself is important for the mind, body, and soul—and what better time to attempt it? Meanwhile, enjoy this classic piece of influential literature and the enlightenment that it can offer.
Into the Wildby Jon Krakauer—This is a book that has been mentioned on this blog before, and for good reason—it’s a powerful and tragic true story of a boy who wanted to attempt something greater than himself. Idols such as Jack London, John Muir, and the aforementioned Thoreau inspired the love of nature and travel which sent Chris McCandless on his ill-fated journey. And though most of us know about his sad, lonely end, his drive to push on into the wilderness still inspires a sense of romance and wanderlust in the readers of his story.
Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed—Second only to the infamous Appalachian Trail is the Pacific Crest trail on the other side of the country. Reflecting on a painful divorce, the illness and subsequent death of her mother, and the influence of drug use, Strayed makes the decision to set out on the trail with no prior experience or knowledge if only to get moving to try to find something missing from her life. It’s also a familiar feeling, to feel powerless as one’s life spirals out of control, to want to run or move to try to escape your problems. On the trail, instead of running away, Strayed confronts her past and finds a sort of spiritual awakening in the different kind of difficulties she encounters there. While not the safest guidebook on attempting a hike of this magnitude, Strayed’s memoir is a truly a “lost to found” kind of story.
Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert—In this well-known memoir about self-discovery, Gilbert travels across Italy, India, and Indonesia after a difficult divorce and a failed rebound relationship. At a certain point, we sometimes have to contemplate if we are happy with the way our lives are going. The bravery to make a change and to pursue your own happiness is a powerful message in Gilbert’s novel, and is something many people never had the chance to consider when we’re rushing through our work weeks and trying to make ends meet. This time to slow down can be used to take a closer look at our own happiness and to make the changes we need.
The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien—I seriously considered leaving this book off this list, but, I simply could not do it. The Hobbit is so near and dear to my heart that a list about wanderlust and finding yourself seemed incomplete without it. While it stands apart as a work of fantasy compared to the memoirs on this list, it is no less the story of Bilbo Baggins taking that first step out his door (with a little bit of a nudge from Gandalf) and discovering a whole new side to himself along an epic and dangerous journey. If we are confined to literature and fantasy to satisfy our cabin fever, then so be it, a trip from the Shire to the Lonely Mountain might just be the cure we need. And if it’s future real-life adventure you’re craving, The Hobbit, and all the other books on this list, are testament to what can be gained from taking that first step.
In times of uncertainty and stress, I’ve always found myself with my nose in a book. But somehow, amidst the stress of working remotely and social distancing from the people I love the most, I found myself pushing away reading. Of course I would do some mild reading in my free time, but I couldn’t focus on the stories or get involved with the narrative the way I used to. Seeing my lack of motivation, a friend shared a podcast with me about how the objects around us can make us happy. I learned that the colors, shapes, and physical spaces we surround ourselves with have much more to do with our happiness than I ever imagined. Being the determined book lover I am, I decided to take this new knowledge to my bookshelf. Out of the nearly one hundred books I own but have not yet read, I selected the three with the covers that made me feel happiest. My hope was that seeing these covers would help me get involved with the story and give myself an escape from other daily stresses. The three books I discovered were The Nix by Nathan Hill, Commonwealth by Ann Patchett, and Untamed by Glennon Doyle. These authors did not disappoint.
The Nix by Nathan Hill
With its bold, colorful font and homage to 1960’s “hippie” culture, the cover of The Nix called to me. I’m certainly glad it did. Within the pages of The Nix, I found an important story about a son’s re-connection with the mother who abandoned him. But, more importantly, I found characters I could relate to. Nathan Hill’s characters are the definition of flawed: they are selfish, lazy, untruthful and somehow they are exactly what I need at a time when I am distanced from the people I love. Within these flawed characters, I found people I could relate to and cheer on through their troubles. Reading The Nix was an oddly similar experience to listening to that one friend who always seems to have drama despite their good heart. I wanted to give Hill’s characters advice and became so wrapped up in their lives I forgot I was reading a seven hundred page novel. I would recommend this novel to anyone who is looking for a realistic story about love and redemption.
Commonwealth by Ann Patchett
The cover of Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth appealed to me with its simple beauty. This was not my first time enjoying Patchett’s work, so I wasn’t surprised to find the novel engaging and heartfelt. As always, Patchett’s characters are realistic and the plot felt important. However, I did have a tougher time getting through the work compared to some of her other novels; it almost felt like Commonwealth was written to be consumed slowly. There were many moments when tension between characters made me want to take a break in my reading to give myself and them a moment to breath. Although the work was slow paced, it did give me much of the same comfort as Hill’s novel, that comfort being knowledge that I am not alone in my inevitable human flaws.
Untamed by Glennon Doyle
Reading Untamed by Glennon Doyle felt like a simultaneous breath of fresh air and a much needed slap in the face. Doyle is most famous for her work as a blogger and her memoir Love Warrior. I picked up Glennon Doyle’s newest memoir, Untamed, a few weeks after it came out in March 2020. I haven’t read Doyle’s other popular works, but this one had interested me because it supposedly told the story of her marriage to retired soccer star Abby Wambach. As an avid soccer fan, I was compelled to purchase the memoir, but it had been quickly forgotten on my bookshelf. Forgotten, that is, until I searched for the happiest covers I owned and found Untamed with it’s collage of glittery paint. Under this bold cover, I found Doyle’s voice summing up the lessons I had already been teaching myself through the other two novels I read; we all have setbacks, but they will not stop us. Although her memoir is aimed at women, it seems to apply to anyone who has experienced a disruption in their life they weren’t sure they would overcome. In a time where nearly every person in the world is experiencing a disruption of their normal lifestyle, Doyle’s words feel vital. Untamed was a memorable read that I am still contemplating even as I write about it.
Everyone has been warned not to judge books by their covers, but if it might bring you happiness, then why not? I’ve never been the type of reader to select a book at random. I usually have a list of which books I will be reading next based on recommendations, new releases and reviews I read about them. Defying this usual routine felt liberating in a way that allowed me to enjoy the novels for what they were instead of what I expected them to be. Who knows, I might even make it a habit to read a book every once in a while simply because looking at it makes me happy.
I started watching BookTube pretty recently and I have found that it is a great way to keep in touch with the literary community while we are all stuck inside. For those of us who are new to BookTube, it is the segment of YouTube that focuses on all things book-related. The content ranges from book reviews to book crafts, from funny to focused, and from YA books to classics. It is also an excellent way to find new books to read, or, to explore different genres. I picked these channels because they represent a wide range of BookTube styles. Whatever you are looking for, there is bound to be a BookTuber for you!
readwithcindy—First of all, Cindy is absolutely hilarious! Her self-deprecating humor adds a lot of flavor to her videos. She makes wrap-ups, which are summaries of all the books that she read during any given month and they are normally spoiler-free, as well as read-with-me vlogs. She also makes some artsier content, such as redesigning book websites or book covers, which are a lot of fun to watch.
What sets Cindy apart from other BookTubers is that she is staunchly against consumerism on BookTube. She only owns four books and gets all of her books from the library. She also promotes diversity in literature and hosts the Asian Read-athon. She is a bigger BookTuber who got her start pretty rapidly, but for every subscriber-count milestone that she reaches, she promotes smaller BookTubers. Cindy’s content is clever and engaging, so I definitely recommend watching her videos!
Merphy Napier—The biggest strength of Merphy’s channel is how focused it is. It centers strictly around “book” content and not “bookish” content, which means that she does not make videos about things that are only loosely related to books. She makes very typical BookTube content, such as reviews, wrap-ups, and rankings of characters and books.
Merphy is an author herself, so she also gives writing advice and has “Dear Author” videos in which she gives her opinions on tropes and book features. These videos can be pretty helpful for aspiring writers. I recommend her channel for people who enjoy more focused, book-related content.
James Tullos—James’s channel mostly consists of very analytical videos. I love these because I get to learn so much more about the books that he reads than I would from most other BookTubers.
He mostly reads science fiction and high fantasy, such as Tolkien and Sanderson. Because the universes have such extensive lore, he makes a lot of in-depth videos about worldbuilding. James has a dry sense of humor that lends itself very well to his analytical content. He also does book reviews and top ten lists, all of which are very well made and entertaining.
Caleb Joseph—Caleb is one of my personal favorite BookTubers. His sense of humor is amazing and makes his rather lengthy videos worth the watch. His content is better classified as “bookish” because he will make videos about bad crafts involving books or about hosting a wedding for two of his books, in addition to traditional book reviews.
He will also make videos for book releases and do read-with-me vlogs, which are some of his best videos. Caleb reads a lot of “Bad Boy” romances, cringey Wattpad stories, and books that he knows he will dislike (which sounds strange, but all of this makes for absolutely incredible rant reviews). He mainly reads YA, so if that is your cup of tea, you will definitely enjoy Caleb’s content!
paperbackdreams—Kat’s channel is absolutely adorable! She is the epitome of a classic BookTuber: she makes wrap-ups, book reviews, read-with-me vlogs, book hauls, and lots of collaboration videos with other BookTubers.
She has an awkward and adorable, yet calm sense of humor that makes her videos very watchable and enjoyable. Kat mainly reads YA books, like many other BookTubers, and the process of how she reads books is very relatable to many of us readers. For an introduction as to what a typical BookTuber is like, Kat’s channel is perfect.
The Artisan Geek—I love Seji’s channel! First of all, she has the most lovely and relaxing voice to listen to which makes her videos super fun to watch! She also reads a lot of classics, which is interesting because many BookTubers focus on YA.
Seji makes a lot of videos about book hauls, her to-be-read list, wrap-ups, and she even reads stories out loud occasionally! She reads a lot of books from diverse authors, which is wonderful because BookTube can often lack diversity. I also love Seji because she knits and occasionally posts videos about her life. Her channel is really fun to watch and it is a great introduction to BookTube!
Publisher: Pantheon, 2020 Genre: Urban Fiction Pages: 304 Format: Hardcover Buy Local My Rating: 4/5 stars
Morningside Heightstells the story of Pru Steiner, a graduate student ready to take the world by storm. Set in New York circa 1976, Pru is ambitious, daring, and proud. Her plans quickly fall by the wayside, however, when she meets her charming young Shakespeare professor, Spence Robin. Spence is everything Pru didn’t know that she was looking for: dreamy, brilliant, and charismatic. The two quickly become involved, and Pru’s life is subsequently turned upside down. Pru’s relationship with Professor Robin complicates her academic career, forcing her to reevaluate everything she thought she knew about herself and her path in life.
Thirty years later, Spence isn’t acting like his usual self. He is lethargic, is always cold, and has trouble concentrating on simple tasks. Pru is left to handle this new challenge on her own, as their daughter, Sarah, is away at medical school. In the midst of Spence and Pru’s adjustment to a new way of life from a diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer’s is Arlo: Spence’s estranged son from his first marriage. Arlo randomly reappears in his father’s life, only now as a wealthy biotech entrepreneur and his father’s best hope for recovery. Pru, meanwhile, meets a man in the midst of her isolation and loneliness, and a potential romance begins to form. Morningside Heights is a story of love, loss, and the simutlaneous hateful and wonderful messiness that comes with being human.
Joshua Henkin’s works are highly lauded for their complex, dynamic characters, and Morningside Heights is no exception. Largely set in the titular neighborhood in Manhattan, this book pays homage to the varied lives of people living in New York. There are no sidekicks in this novel; every character is a completely fleshed out individual with their own thoughts, hopes, and fears. Everyone is highly unique: from Spence, who struggles with the deterioration of his once-great mind, to Ginny, his no-nonsense caretaker, every person in the story adds something special. As is the case in real life (and is often difficult to translate into fiction), no characters are created for the sole purpose of advancing the plot. The reader, as a result, feels seen through the triumphs and struggles of the characters: you will truly feel for them, to the point of being embarrassed, outraged, and devastated for them as the story unfolds.
This novel also cleverly utilizes a shifting timeline, which is at once engaging and (delightfully) disconcerting. It adds to the reader’s depth and understanding of the story to see certain events transpire, then to see their precursors in the past. The characters also find themselves at many points looking back on their lives, and wondering where their plans went awry. Morningside Heights tackles a wide variety of issues, from love (both romantic and familial), to changing expectations in the times when life takes a turn we could never have anticipated for ourselves.
Perhaps the most important thing this book has to offer is found in its versatility and the connection it creates between people of all walks of life. Suffering doesn’t discriminate; and we as humans are united in the fact that none of our lives are untouched by hardships. Morningside Heights is a book about how to react when things don’t go as planned, something we’ve all experienced for ourselves. Pru’s life is constantly in flux: from Spencer’s diagnosis to Arlo’s sporadic appearances, Pru is constantly adapting to a new way of life. The important thing to note, however, is that Pru doesn’t always handle these changes well. She makes mistakes. She gets angry. She wallows in the unfairness of life. Don’t we all? This story is powerful and resonant in that it sheds light on the fact that sometimes bad things happen, and that we aren’t supposed to handle everything perfectly. More so than this, it reminds us that beautiful, wonderful things can grow from the mistakes and hardships we endure.
Thank you to Changing Hands Bookstore for providing an ARC in exchange for this honest and unbiased review.
When I think of cracking open a good book, I immediately imagine myself in my favorite reading nook—nothing is more luxurious than relaxing in my spot of choice, book in hand. Inspired by the solace my own favorite spot provides me with, I decided to ask some of our staff writers what their favorite reading spots are, and why. So, if you also love a good reading spot, scroll down to find some new ideas for where to spend your page-turning time.
Favorite place to read: Outside
Why: Whenever my family goes on vacation, whether it’s out in the mountains or on the beach, we sneak in a few hours of reading time outside. I love this little mini-vacation within our vacation, where I get to travel to a new fictional world with the sound of ocean waves in my ears or the shadows from a tall pine on my cheeks. Bonus points for any reading scene where a cacophony of nature sounds (I absolutely love to hear the birds singing to each other!) replaces your everyday traffic and crowd noise, so you can fully immerse yourself in the fictional world.
Favorite place to read: In a big, squishy chair
Why: If there is one thing that I have discovered about myself, it’s that I can read anywhere: in grocery store lines, on planes, trains, and in automobiles. Yet my favorite place to read has to be the enormous chair and a half that sits in our living room. The room is well lit, and I can see trees outside the window when I bring my eyes up for air. Typically, I have a candle burning so it always smells good, and there’s a lamp nearby for when it gets dark. The chair is squishy enough to sink into, and is big enough to curl my legs to the side. A throw blanket hangs off the arm in case I get chilly, or just feel the need to cozy up. A cup of hot chocolate and I am set!
Favorite Place to Read: In bed
Why: I always love reading in my bed because it usually means I get to go to sleep soon! It’s also such a relaxing place to lay back and get lost in a book, of course, with my kitty by my side. Plus, you just can’t beat all the coziness that comes with the territory of blankets, pillows, and a nightstand candle—there’s nothing like it for reading time.
Why: My favorite place to read is my back porch, it is unbelievably serene. It has been my favorite spot since I was a little kid and could read. My house backs up to a greenbelt with a creek, so aside from the occasional runner/dog walker, it is quiet and peaceful. When the weather is nice, it’s the perfect temperature and a great way to get outside right now without going in public. It is so relaxing I have actually fallen asleep while reading here before! You get to be surrounded by nature and read a book, so it’s really the best of both worlds.
Favorite Place to Read: By the pool
Why: My favorite place to read is sitting in my backyard dipping my feet in the pool, probably because it is just nice to get outside and escape into whatever fictional world I have for that day. I like being able to tell when I am so engaged in my book that I stop hearing the bird calls and feeling the water ripples. There’s no better way to soak up the sun while beating the AZ heat!
Favorite Place to Read: Coffee Shops
Why: Personally, I love reading at coffee shops. Nothing accentuates the (wonderfully) disorienting return to reality after getting lost in a good book like being surrounded by people, music, and the tantalizing smell of coffee. Locally-owned shops also have the added benefit of a calm and cozy atmosphere that ensures your reading experience isn’t hampered by the hustle and bustle of everyday life, as is often the case in other public spaces. Beyond this, a good cup of coffee or tea is an essential part of a complete reading experience. I have grown especially fond of Tempe’s King Coffee: the coffee is superb, there are plenty of cozy reading nooks, and the atmosphere is perfect for diving into a good book.
Why: Although I can read just about anywhere as soon as I’ve found myself a little nook and tuned off the outside world, my favorite place to read is in bed, just before I’m about to turn in for the day. Other than being cozy and peaceful, it’s also a great way to unwind and coax the body into sleep mode. Reading to sleep is probably the best antidote to stress insomnia.
A little tip: It’s better to read from a printed book than an ebook during this time because the light from the phone can keep you awake.
So there you have it, some of our staff’s favorite places to read. Where is your favorite place to read? Comment below!
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Genre: Crime/Suspense Pages: 321 Format: Paperback Buy Local My Rating: 4.5/5 Stars
This novel follows Arden Maynor, now Olivia Meyer, on the 20th anniversary of the day she was found in the small town of Widow Hills. When Arden was six years old, she was sleepwalking and went missing for three days until she was found clinging to the bars of a storm drain.
After that, her life was never the same. Growing tired of the cameras in her face and the news constantly circling around her, she moved hundreds of miles away and changed her name to Oliva Meyer, hoping to start over. Which worked, for a while, until the 20th anniversary of the incident comes up, and everything Arden tried to bury comes bubbling to the surface.
This novel surprised me in many ways. I am a big fan of suspense/crime novels and because of that, I can be a bit critical of them. That being said, this novel delivered in every department necessary to make a good one. It had murder, mystery, a splash of romance, and a plot twist I never saw coming. Everything you think you know at the beginning of the novel is upended by the end, and I think I actually gasped at one point. The story truly whisks you away into the drama that seems to follow Arden everywhere.
Arden is a great example of an unreliable narrator, but somehow that made me trust her more. Being close to her as the reader brings the story closer—it allowed every twist and turn to be even more shocking as we found out things as they were revealed to her. The best stories are the ones that suck you in and make you a character, and this is one of those.
The only critique I have is that it starts a bit slow. The real action doesn’t occur until about a third of the way in. That being said, the characters are so interesting and mysterious that I was able to latch onto them immediately, and so, this didn’t prove to be too much of an issue.
If you’re in the market for a good suspense novel, The Girl from Widow Hills is sure to keep you on your toes. It will be in stores on June 23, 2020 and is available for pre-order from Changing Hands Bookstore here.
Thank you to Changing Hands Bookstore for providing an ARC in exchange for this honest and unbiased review.