Review: Sweetbitter

Sweetbitter, Stephanie Danler

Publication: May 24th 2016 by Knopf

Hardcover, 368 pages

Source: ARC gifted from a friend

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“Let’s say I was born when I came over the George Washington Bridge…”

This is how we meet unforgettable Tess, the twenty-two-year-old at the heart of this stunning first novel. Shot from a mundane, provincial past, she’s come to New York to look for a life she can’t define, except as a burning drive to become someone, to belong somewhere. After she stumbles into a coveted job at a renowned Union Square restaurant, we spend the year with her as she learns the chaotic, punishing, privileged life of a “backwaiter,” on duty and off. Her appetites—for food, wine, knowledge, and every kind of experience—are awakened. And she’s pulled into the magnetic thrall of two other servers—a handsome bartender she falls hard for, and an older woman she latches onto with an orphan’s ardor.

These two and their enigmatic connection to each other will prove to be Tess’s hardest lesson of all. Sweetbitter is a story of discovery, enchantment, and the power of what remains after disillusionment.

I think this is my favorite read of 2016 so far.  I don’t think I’m ever going to feel the same way dining out at a nice restaurant.  Tess leaves her childhood home and her life as she’s known it behind at 22 and heads to New York to find her adult path.  She almost never looks back.  She lucks into an apartment to share and a job at an unnamed restaurant in Union Square where she’s hired as a backwaiter.  The training, the hazing, the bar towels, the wine, the food, the semi-incestuous staff relationships, the management, the FOOD, the drugs.  So many things are going on in a restaurant and I had no idea!

Tess navigates new friendships and toxic relationships with the bravado and bluster every 22 year-old should have.  She’s brave and she’s thoughtless and I just loved her story.   The writing is intense and enthralling.  I loved the slips into stream of consciousness as Tess lived out her days at the restaurant.    

Once you admit you want things to taste like more or better versions of themselves – once you commit to flavor as your god – the rest follows.  I started adding salt to everything.  My tongue grew calloused, abraded, overworked.  You want the fish to taste like fish, but fish times a thousand.  Times a million.  Fish on crack.  I was lucky I never tried crack.

Read this with a glass of wine – skip the crack.  Then come talk to me about it!  I’m going to be reading this again soon and then hoping to be out at a great restaurant watching the staff.

Review: Five Days at Memorial

Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital, Sheri Fink

Hardcover, 558 pages

Published September 10th 2013 by Crown

Source: Blogging for Books

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In the tradition of the best investigative journalism, physician and reporter Sheri Fink reconstructs 5 days at Memorial Medical Center and draws the reader into the lives of those who struggled mightily to survive and to maintain life amid chaos.

After Katrina struck and the floodwaters rose, the power failed, and the heat climbed, exhausted caregivers chose to designate certain patients last for rescue. Months later, several health professionals faced criminal allegations that they deliberately injected numerous patients with drugs to hasten their deaths.

Five Days at Memorial, the culmination of six years of reporting, unspools the mystery of what happened in those days, bringing the reader into a hospital fighting for its life and into a conversation about the most terrifying form of health care rationing.

In a voice at once involving and fair, masterful and intimate, Fink exposes the hidden dilemmas of end-of-life care and reveals just how ill-prepared we are in America for the impact of large-scale disasters—and how we can do better. A remarkable book, engrossing from start to finish, Five Days at Memorial radically transforms your understanding of human nature in crisis.

I worked myself up to being extremely nervous before beginning Five Days at Memorial – this was a mistake on my part.  I was afraid this book was going to be an extremely emotional account of the days spent at Memorial Hospital following Hurricane Katrina.   What I found was a well balanced recounting of the history of the hospital, the time leading up to the storm, and riveting accounts of the medical staff and families inside Memorial Hospital.  This is not to say the book was without emotion, but Fink moved so quickly from person to person that I never felt too caught up in any one individual’s story or feelings.

I really don’t want to imagine myself in that powerless, stifling, and terrifying building but Fink nearly had me there in the minds of the nurses and physicians.  I cannot imagine the decisions they were forced to make about triage, evacuating patients, and about letting go of patients that were too sick to face the conditions outside Memorial – all while worrying about their own loved ones and homes.  I can’t stop talking about this book with my friends and family.  Fink brings you to see why the doctors and nurses felt they needed to make the decisions they did, but leaves the reader to wrestle with the implications of those decisions.   

Fink tells the stories without judgement and follows with important discussion about what we’ve learned since Katrina.  It was shocking to read that the same kinds of decisions about patient triage were made in New York facing Hurricane Sandy and I don’t know that we’re any more prepared for medical disasters today.  Pretty terrifying really.  What’s also so important is more discussion about end of life care and about what kind of life prolonging treatment we want for ourselves and our families.  We could be doing so much better.  I think my next non-fiction now has to be The Good Death: An Exploration of Dying in America.   It will be interesting to see how these two link up in my thoughts.  

4 stars!

Thank you Blogging for Books for this copy in exchange for an honest review.

Review: Tender

Tender, Belinda McKeon

Published February 16th 2016 by Lee Boudreaux Books

Hardcover, 416 pages

Source: Galley from publisher

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When they meet in Dublin in the late nineties, Catherine and James become close as two friends can be. She is a sheltered college student, he an adventurous, charismatic young artist. In a city brimming with possibilities, he spurs her to take life on with gusto. But as Catherine opens herself to new experiences, James’s life becomes a prison; as changed as the new Ireland may be, it is still not a place in which he feels able to truly be himself. Catherine, grateful to James and worried for him, desperately wants to help — but as time moves on, and as life begins to take the friends in different directions, she discovers that there is a perilously fine line between helping someone and hurting them further. When crisis hits, Catherine finds herself at the mercy of feelings she cannot control, leading her to jeopardize all she holds dear.

In Tender, Catherine leaves her sheltered life in small town Ireland for her first year of college.  She studies, she drinks, she experiments but still is waiting for more.  Then she meets James.  

Extraordinary.  That was what they were.  That was a James word; that was one of the words she had got, over the summer, from James.

Catherine feels her friendship with James is the extraordinary thing she’s been waiting for her whole life.  James is funny and witty; he’s loud and attention drawing.  Catherine realizes this is what a relationship could feel like – and then James comes out to her.  Mind you, our setting is Ireland, just years after homosexuality has been decriminalized, but definitely not accepted.  Catherine claims to be accepting of James but her feelings are more complicated than she is willing to admit.  It’s not easy being in Catherine’s head all the time, her ups and downs are painful at points.  I found myself cringing in a few places as I was reading waiting to see what she’d do next.  

Tender just put my mind back to that place in college where everything is HUGE.  You can’t see beyond your own personal crises and mistakes are made – that wasn’t just me right?  As things build to a personal crescendo with Catherine and James, so too does McKeon’s writing.  I loved the fragmented quality of the text matching Catherine’s thoughts.  It was amazing how the story flowed from the beginning beautiful prose to to the stilted lines and then on again.  

I expected Tender to go out in an explosive crisis, but rather, McKeon’s quiet ending was even more powerful. There were explosions enough within the plot.  I’ve been walking around for days reflecting back on Tender and that time in my own life and will definitely read this one again.  

5 stars

Thank you Lee Boudreau Books for this advance copy in exchange for an honest opinion!  

Our Best Reads of 2015

Amanda

I fell 10 books behind on my Goodreads challenge of 155 books – I think if I had finagled the Goodreads system for rereads better I would have made it though! Oh well – on to 2016!  I read some books I really loved this year so I’d say this Top Ten order is pretty random.  Its also missing books that I also thought were amazing – like Mortal Heart, Invasion of the Tearling, Crimson Bound, Euphoria and Made You Up.  Sigh.  Maybe I should have done a top twenty list…  These were my happiest or most thought provoking and just best reads of 2015.

  1. A  Man Called Ove by Frederik Backman  
  2. Crazy Rich Asians and China Rich Girlfriend by Kevin Kwan
  3. Romantic Outlaws by Charlotte Gordon (also the longest book I read!)
  4. Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum
  5. All the Rage by Courtney Summers
  6. The Unquiet Dead by Ausuma Zehanat Khan
  7. The Wrath & The Dawn by Renee Ahdieh
  8. A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas
  9. Uprooted by Naomi Novik  
  10. Dietland by Sarai Walker

 

Holly

I read about half as many books as I meant to in 2015, including 8 from Lauren Willig’s Pink Carnation series, 7/12 books from my TBR Challenge list, and 4 read-alongs with my sister (Persuasion, Invasion of the Tearling, Mortal Heart, & Romantic Outlaws). Here, in no particular order, are my favorite books that I read this year:

The Casual Vacancy by J.K. RowlingHurts soooooo good.

The Martian by Andy Weir – On audiobook, but I’m counting it because I loved it so much.

The Lords of Discipline by Pat ConroyNot exactly light honeymoon reading, but definitely a gateway book into more Conroy.

MWF Seeking BFF by Rachel BertscheYoung professional in a new city looking for her bestie? HIts a bit – er – close to home.

Persuasion by Jane AustenThe read-along was at least half the fun of reading this one!

I love reading lists- tell me your best reads of 2015!  Happy New Year!

Review: The Shore

The Shore, Sara Taylor

Amanda

Published May 26th 2015 by Hogarth

Hardcover, 320 pages

Source: Blogging for Books

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Welcome to The Shore: a collection of small islands sticking out from the coast of Virginia into the Atlantic Ocean. Where clumps of evergreens meet wild ponies, oyster-shell roads, tumble-down houses, unwanted pregnancies, murder, storm-making and dark magic in the marshes. . .

Situated off the coast of Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay, the group of islands known as the Shore has been home to generations of fierce and resilient women. Sanctuary to some but nightmare to others, it’s a place they’ve inhabited, fled, and returned to for hundreds of years. From a half-Shawnee Indian’s bold choice to flee an abusive home only to find herself with a man who will one day try to kill her to a brave young girl’s determination to protect her younger sister as methamphetamine ravages their family, to a lesson in summoning storm clouds to help end a drought, these women struggle against domestic violence, savage wilderness, and the corrosive effects of poverty and addiction to secure a sense of well-being for themselves and for those they love.

Together their stories form a deeply affecting legacy of two barrier island families, illuminating 150 years of their many freedoms and constraints, heartbreaks, and pleasures.

I feel like I had an advantage going into The Shore thanks to reading Shannon’s tweets about the book.  I knew it was going to be a series of connected stories over generations rather than one flowing novel.  However, even with that advantage I still felt knocked out after the first chapter!  I really had to put it aside and regroup a day before I moved on.  Taylor pulls no punches in her depictions of addiction, poverty, domestic violence or rape.  Not to say that the book is all dark  – but it’s definitely not a light read.  There is a lot of pain in this book, and Taylor makes you feel it.  But there is also hope and strength and a lot of bravery.  

I absolutely loved how The Shore moved back and forth in time but still felt connected.  We start modern, and then flashback, and then we’re moving in every direction.  The main character of one story can be a bit character in the next which is pretty cool.  The family tree at the beginning was very helpful and I flipped back to it a lot trying to determine who was related to whom and how and WHEN.  I was anxious to learn about the family’s founding couple and how these people got settled on the island – but I thought the placement of their story towards the end was perfect.  I liked trying to trace the characteristics through the family members as I was reading.  At the first chapter break it seemed like Taylor jumped without rhyme or reason, but really it all flows once you keep going.  I love my kindle, but this is a case where I’d advocate for reading the real book- the family tree is worth it. This is just a pretty hardcover – though that beautiful house on the beach is not as simple and innocent as it appears.

And then there was the final chapter set in 2143.  I still am not sure how I feel about that one.  I didn’t hate it but something about it simply didn’t work for me.  The other future chapter set in 2037 was so perfectly eerie that I kind of didn’t want to go any further into this world.  However, I am definitely planning a reread of The Shore already to see how my feelings change.  Maybe it was a better ending than it seemed at first.  

This was a beautiful debut!  4.5 stars!

I am really looking forward to this month’s discussion of The Shore at the Socratic Salon!

Thank you Blogging for Books for this copy in exchange for an honest review!

Review: All the Rage

All the Rage, Courtney Summers

Amanda

Published: April 14th 2015 by St. Martin’s Griffin

Hardcover, 336 pages

Source: Shelf Awareness Giveaway

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From Goodreads…

The sheriff’s son, Kellan Turner, is not the golden boy everyone thinks he is, and Romy Grey knows that for a fact. Because no one wants to believe a girl from the wrong side of town, the truth about him has cost her everything—friends, family, and her community. Branded a liar and bullied relentlessly by a group of kids she used to hang out with, Romy’s only refuge is the diner where she works outside of town. No one knows her name or her past there; she can finally be anonymous. But when a girl with ties to both Romy and Kellan goes missing after a party, and news of him assaulting another girl in a town close by gets out, Romy must decide whether she wants to fight or carry the burden of knowing more girls could get hurt if she doesn’t speak up. Nobody believed her the first time—and they certainly won’t now — but the cost of her silence might be more than she can bear. 

With a shocking conclusion and writing that will absolutely knock you out, All the Rage examines the shame and silence inflicted upon young women after an act of sexual violence, forcing us to ask ourselves: In a culture that refuses to protect its young girls, how can they survive?

ALL THE STARS to All the Rage.

I don’t read a lot of YA contemporary but something about this book drew me to request it.  While at the same time I was also honestly afraid to read it based on the description.  This book was not what I expected with respect to the sexual violence- the violence is largely in the past and Romy is an incredibly brave young woman going on every day. Romy’s rape is over, but she’s still constantly being attacked.  She can’t go to school or go out with her mother without being mocked or humiliated in some way for being brave enough to say she was raped. Yet she paints on her armor of red lipstick and nailpolish and tries to hold her head high.  Romy is not perfect by any stretch, but she feels so real.

Aside from being a powerful book addressing sexual violence, shame, abuse of power, and horrible high school classmates All the Rage has incredibly moving writing, a compelling mystery and a sweet and hopeful romance.  I’ve been trying to find the words to review this book for months and I still feel like I’m failing.  Just read it okay and talk to me about it!  Courtney Summers made me cry and made me rage and I will definitely be reading all of her books.

This is such an important book to read and discuss.  We live in a rape culture and we lose so many young women before they have a real chance.  How do we fix that?  How do we channel the rage and help our girls?

5 stars

Thank you Shelf Awareness and St. Martin’s Griffin for this advance copy!

Review: My Sunshine Away

My Sunshine Away

M.O. Walsh

320 pages

Publication Date: February 10, 2015

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I remember reading, or at least, attempting to read, A Separate Peace in high school English, and finding the coming-of-age of an adolescent male completely unrelatable. I have mostly blocked that book from my head, and relegated it to a category of “boy books” that are just not for me.

M.O. Walsh’s My Sunshine Away, is a book about being a boy, but it is not a boy book. I won’t be giving anything away by saying (it is mentioned in the first sentence) that this book is about our narrator’s reflections on his neighborhood friend being raped, and how that shapes his adolescence.

It is hard to say “this book is about the rape of a teenage girl” and then go on to say “this book is phenomenal and you should read it,” but I will. This book is phenomenal. You should read it. In addition to the vividly described Baton Rouge setting and the depth of the characters, what really gets me is the narrator’s voice. This is not a novel written in the voice of an unrealistically self-aware adolescent, (ahem). Our narrator is looking back on what happened years before, with an adept understanding of the feelings and choices of his younger self. I felt, in reading this, that I was reading about thoughts and feelings and actions that captured truths about the experience of growing up a teenage boy.

If you’ve read this one, what did you think? And, should I give A Separate Peace another chance?

If you’re not sure about My Sunshine Away, let me leave you with this passage:

All this to say that what my uncle Barry displayed for me that summer was just how strange and complicated adults are. As a kid you assume you know them because they care for you. But for every adult person you look up to in life there is trailing behind them an invisible chain gang of ghosts, all of which, as a child, you are generously spared from meeting.

I know now, however, that these ghosts exist, and that other adults can see them. The lost loves, the hurt friends, the dead; they follow their owner forever. Perhaps this is why we feel so crowded around those people who we know have had hard times. Perhaps this is why we find so little to say. We suffer an odd brand of stage fright, I think, before all those dreadful eyes. And maybe that’s what my uncle had noticed about Mr. Simpson on the lawn that night of the fight. Maybe in my eyes, a child’s eyes, it was just the three of us squatting in the grass. But, to those two men, the lawn appeared to be full of bodies, full of the people they’d made mistakes with in life now tethered to them and ill-rested and serving no purpose but to remind them of the one awful thing: that life is made up, ever increasingly, of what you cannot change.

Five Stars

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Penguin’s First To Read program.