THE VANISHING HALF by Brit Bennett

One of the Hot Books of Summer 2020 is The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett, the second novel from the author of The Mothers. The Vanishing Half is about racism and identity (racial, gender), issues that have taken center stage in our national discourse this summer.

Why I picked it up: The Vanishing Half has gotten a ton of buzz (and a movie deal), and I am making a conscious effort to read and feature more BIPOC authors. It was my June BOTM pick.

Twin sisters Desiree and Stella escape their small Louisiana town in the 50s, moving to New Orleans to find more opportunity. They both have light skin, and Stella ends up moving away after getting romantically involved with her employer, a white man. Desiree, meanwhile, meets and marries a dark-skinned man and moves to DC. Stella reinvents herself as a white woman, turning her back on her sister and her old life and ending up in California. After suffering years of abuse from her husband, Desiree returns to the small town with her dark-skinned daughter Jude in tow, and while she always feels the acute loss of her twin sister, she settles in to life in her mother’s house. The Vanishing Half tracks Desiree and Stella’s lives, as well as the lives of Jude and Stella’s daughter Kennedy, whose lives intersect in Los Angeles.

I liked The Vanishing Half for the most part. The characters are complicated, Stella most of all with her denial of her blackness combined with her loneliness and longing for Desiree’s friendship. The divergent paths taken by the twins lead to parallel – yet wildly different – lives for the next generation. Both Jude and Kennedy, drawn to each other by an unspoken familial bond, pursue their own dreams and their own partners, meanwhile questioning their inscrutable mothers and scheming about how to reunite them.

The theme of disguise is threaded carefully throughout the book, from the premise of the whole town where the girls grew up to the clothes worn by Jude’s boyfriend and Stella’s white veneer. Even Kennedy’s choice of career – acting – underscores the identity issues each of the main characters experiences over the course of the book. Desiree is the least encumbered by her identity, but the stares drawn by her “blueblack” daughter and the questions raised by their contrasting appearances complicate her return to her hometown.

One complaint: the plot of The Vanishing Half depends too heavily on coincidence and symmetry to make its point. The coincidences detract from an otherwise powerful story that needed no such contrivances to hit its mark. I wish Bennett had been more trusting of the reader without manipulating the plot so blatantly. My frustration at these coincidences was blunted by the complexity of the characters, but I did find myself shaking my head at times, wondering, “Was that really necessary?”

I listened to The Vanishing Half on audio. The performance by Shayna Small was excellent. Her voice was rich and lyrical, and it really enhanced the book for me – I suspect I enjoyed it more on audio than I would have in print.

The Vanishing Half was Book #28 of 2020.

ALL ADULTS HERE by Emma Straub

Whether you will enjoy reading Emma Straub’s All Adults Here this summer will depend on whether a lighthearted, feel-good read helps you escape the pandemic for a while or instead makes you impatient due to its incongruity with what is going on around you. I suspect that this book, which came out in the beginning of May, was probably a lot easier to market before we all went into quarantine.

Why I picked it up: I enjoyed two of Straub’s other novels, The Vacationers and Modern Lovers, in particular her precise, observant writing and her depictions of modern love and parenting.

In All Adults Here, Astrid Strick, a woman in her 60s living in a bucolic town a few hours from NYC, witnesses a bus accident that kills another woman whom she knew but did not particularly like. The accident jars Strick, causing her to reexamine her choices, her parenting, and most of all whether she is living an honest life. Her three adult children – Elliot, a real estate developer living in town with his wife and twin sons; Porter, a single woman pushing 40 who has gotten pregnant on her own; and Nicky, a New Age-y former actor living in Brooklyn with his wife and teenager – have complicated relationships with Astrid, which she vows to improve.

When the book opens, Nicky’s daughter Cecelia has come to town to live with her grandmother because of an incident in her school in Brooklyn. Porter is engaging in an affair with her married high school boyfriend, and Elliot is grappling with whether to rent his empty space downtown to a big corporate store. Astrid, meanwhile, is hiding her two-year relationship with a woman.

I have to say, as I write this out, these problems all just seem small. I found All Adults Here to be a pleasant read, in that I cared enough about the characters to keep going, and everything resolved pretty well for them. But frankly, with the backdrop of what’s going on today, looking back on the book with a few days of distance, it all seems insignificant. There also isn’t that much tension or conflict in the book. There is one middle high school bully, and even she is completely defanged by the end. When I finished, I thought to myself, “So what?”

A few quotes in the book did really resonate with me. One was: “That was the problem with being part of a family: Everyone could mean well and it could still be a disaster. Love didn’t cure all, not in terms of missed communications and hurt feelings during an otherwise uneventful dinner conversation. Love couldn’t change the misread tone of a text message or a quick temper.” Unfortunately, for me the rest of the book didn’t really live up to that quote. I didn’t buy the deep-seated issues between the Stricks, and therefore found their resolutions even less meaningful.

All Adults Here was Book #27 of 2020.

HOME IS BURNING by Dan Marshall

I have found that some pandemic reads are too light, while some are just too heavy. Others, for whatever other reason, just don’t fit the bill. From what I’ve learned from talking to my friends and those who follow my blog and Bookstagram, we readers today are a picky and fickle bunch. I am not sure what drove me to read Home Is Burning this month, other than that it was on my list of 7 Backlist Books I Want To Read, and I’ve been enjoying memoirs lately. It’s about Dan Marshall’s year taking care of his father, who was dying of ALS, and while it sounds super depressing, it’s also very funny at times.

Why I picked it up: Home Is Burning has been on my shelves for years (it came out in 2015). I don’t even remember where I got it. It thought it might hit the weird reading spot I am in right now. And, I was able to get it on audio via Scribd, which sealed the deal.

Dan Marshall was living the dream – working in LA in his early 20s, seeing his long-distance girlfriend regularly – when his father finally got an explanation for some strange symptoms he’d been having. He was diagnosed with ALS, a crushing blow for a family man who ran marathons and took care of his wife, Dan’s mother, who was in treatment for a second bout of cancer. Despite having three siblings living near or with his parents in Utah, Dan and his brother Greg made the difficult decision to move back home so that they could care for their father full-time. Home Is Burning chronicles the year after Dan returned to Utah, when his father’s condition deteriorated and Dan had to contend with the loss of his father as well as that of his job, home and girlfriend.

The Marshall family, made up of Dan’s parents, two sisters and a brother, was a close one, with his father the source of financial and emotional support for all of his children. Watching his father deteriorate was horrific for everyone, especially Dan, who took on the lion’s share of his father’s physical care. He chronicles the ways they adapted the house to accommodate the wheelchair, the difficult decision to intubate his father so that he could breathe and receive nutrition, and his father’s ultimate decision to end his life by going off the respirator. He’s quite honest about his own shortcomings as a son and a caretaker, and he admits that he was quite hard on his poor mother, who was undergoing chemo while all this was going on. This is all heavy, sad stuff, but Dan is so entertaining and honest that I actually wanted to keep returning to Home Is Burning, even though I knew what was going to happen. He’s really funny. The book is also full of sex and profanity (be warned!), so even at the most touching and poignant moments, there’s always a funny line coming out of Dan’s mouth. There isn’t much here about the nature of loss and how to survive it – Dan’s not the most introspective guy – but it was memorable and thought-provoking and even entertaining.

I listened to Home Is Burning on audio. It’s narrated by Dan himself, and I couldn’t imagine it any other way. You know how you can tell when an author is reading his or her book, rather than a professional narrator? You can tell here. But it’s totally worth it for the personal perspective (because this is a highly personal book) – and for his imitations, particularly of his family’s housekeeper.

Home Is Burning was Book #26 of 2020 and fulfilled the Book Sitting On My Shelf For 2+ Years category of the 2020 EDIWTB Reading Challenge.

TEA BY THE SEA by Donna Hemans

Donna Hemans’ novel Tea By The Sea looks at how a single decision – 23 year-old Lemworth’s taking his newborn daughter Opal away from her 18 year-old mother Plum, hours after the baby’s birth – affects Lemworth’s and Plum’s lives – and ultimately Opal’s. While Lemworth’s actions were reprehensible, he had reasons for them, however misguided, and had to live with them in the decades to come. Plum’s subsequent search for Opal, meanwhile, became the single guiding factor for her life, affecting all of her future decisions and relationships.

Why I picked it up: I was invited by Red Hen Press to join a blog tour for Tea By The Sea, and I was intrigued by the premise of the book.

Plum and Lemworth are memorable characters in heartbreaking situations. The pain Lemworth causes Plum is unforgivable, as is his subsequent treatment of Opal, a girl left without her mother. Plum’s loss of control so early in her life – taken away by Lemworth and her parents – leads to her intense need for control and agency in later years, alongside the acute and constant pain from the loss of her daughter. Hemans’ dual-tracked exploration of the ways in which both Lemworth and Plum try to move on from Lemworth’s actions in Jamaica was interesting, depicting the braiding of their subsequent paths as Plum searches for Lemworth and he consistently slips from her reach.

Hemans seamlessly shifts the action of Tea By The Sea between Jamaica, where Opal was born, and Plum’s hometown of Brooklyn, to which she returned after leaving Jamaica. I enjoyed both settings and found that the contrast between the two only highlighted Plum’s loss and the distance – emotional and physical – she felt from Opal.

Hemans also does a nice job building suspense throughout the novel. Will Plum find Opal, and when she confronts Lemworth, how will she make him pay for his actions seventeen years earlier? While the resolution wasn’t as clean or satisfying as I would have liked, I think that was intentional. There is no happy ending to this situation, given the pain suffered by so many people. The best we – and they – can hope for is a semblance of peace at the end and the possibility of rebuilding what was lost, albeit in a different form.

Tea By The Sea was Book #25 of 2020.

THE HOLDOUT by Graham Moore

The Holdout by Graham Moore is a legal thriller that goes back and forth in time between the past – ten years earlier, when a sequestered jury acquitted a teacher accused of killing his student with whom he was allegedly having a relationship, and ten years later, when the jury has reconvened on the anniversary of the trial to film a special. Maya, one of the jury members, was the sole holdout, and she eventually convinced the rest of the jury to change their verdicts to not guilty, a verdict that was questioned by everyone who had watched the trial on television. When Maya returns to her hotel room on the night of the reunion to find one of her fellow jurors dead, all eyes are on her.

Why I picked it up: The Holdout isn’t my genre – legal thriller – but it was well-received and was my book club’s May pick.

The Holdout looks back on why each member of the jury eventually chose to acquit the defendant, and how Rick, the juror found dead in the “now” section, became obsessed after the trial with finding out the truth. But who would have wanted him dead?

The Holdout has a lot going for it – jury dynamics are fascinating, and there are a number of plot twists throughout that I didn’t see coming. It turned out to be a well-timed read as well, given its treatment of race and the criminal justice system. It’s a relatively quick read, too. But The Holdout just didn’t do much for me. I don’t love thrillers and I particularly don’t love courtroom books. (There’s a reason I left the law.) There are some pretty unrealistic elements to the story, one of them being Maya’s own behavior after she was accused of the murder, and I found myself sighing at several points over how unlikely they were. And most of all, it has been almost a week since I finished The Holdout and I’ve barely thought about it since our book club discussion – never a good sign.

If you like thrillers and are looking for a beach read this summer, The Holdout might fit the bill. Otherwise, I’d pass.

The Holdout was Book #24 of 2020.

Blog tour: TEA BY THE SEA by Donna Hemans

One book that I am adding to my summer TBR: Tea By The Sea by Donna Hemans. I was lucky enough to be invited by Red Hen Press to be part of a blog tour for Tea By The Sea, and hope to get to it in the next week or two.

What it’s about: A mother’s circuitous route to finding the daughter taken from her at birth. From the publisher: “A seventeen-year-old taken from her mother at birth, an Episcopal priest with a daughter whose face he cannot bear to see, a mother weary of searching for her lost child: Tea By The Sea is their story—that of a family uniting and unraveling. To find the daughter taken from her, Plum Valentine must find the child’s father who walked out of a hospital with the day-old baby girl without explanation. Seventeen years later, weary of her unfruitful search, Plum sees an article in a community newspaper with a photo of the man for whom she has spent half her life searching. He has become an Episcopal priest. Her plan: confront him and walk away with the daughter he took from her. From Brooklyn to the island of Jamaica, Tea by the Sea traces Plum’s circuitous route to finding her daughter and how Plum’s and the priest’s love came apart.

Why I want to read it: Family drama, secrets and a long-overdue mother-daughter reunion… what’s not to like? I am also excited to read a book from a Jamaican-born author.

Would you like to read it too? I have a copy of Tea By The Sea to give away, along with a special tea blend that Hemans created just for the blog tour. (U.S. and Caribbean readers only.) If you’d like a chance to win Tea By The Sea, leave me a comment here on the blog. I’ll pick a winner at random on Friday, June 12.

Please add Tea By The Sea to your library hold list or order it from your favorite bookstore. It comes out on Tuesday, June 9.

BEACH READ by Emily Henry

I am pretty new to the romance genre. I read a few of them last year – both Sally Thorne books (The Hating Game and 99 Percent Mine), which I enjoyed. I just read a third – Beach Read by Emily Henry – and the ones I’ve read have followed a pattern: 1) take a pair who have historically hated each other or had some other impediment to a civil relationship; 2) throw them into a situation requiring sustained contact; 3) reveal her to be stubbornly protective yet emotionally vulnerable and him to be quiet but deeply passionate; 4) build up the physical tension until it snaps; 5) give them a week or two of bliss; 6) throw a major wrench into the budding relationship; then 7) quickly remove the wrench and allow them to move on happily ever after. It’s a fun pattern, but definitely a pattern (at least gleaned from my admittedly small sample size).

Why I picked it up: Beach Read was an April 2020 Book Of The Month pick and got good buzz when it came out, so when I was invited by Berkley to join a blog tour for it, I thought I’d take a chance on another romance.

January Andrews is a romance novelist who finds herself broken and jaded about love after her father dies, leaving behind a secret mistress and a heretofore unknown beach house in Lake Michigan. January retreats to the beach house to try to finish her latest book, due to her publisher in a few months, and try to get over the loss of both her father and her trust in him. At the house, she discovers that her next door neighbor is her college rival Gus Everett, a literary fiction writer who is also plagued with writer’s block after his own emotional trauma. Gus and January were not exactly friends in college, so finding him living in the house next door is not a welcome discovery.

The two writers eventually learn that they are in the same predicament, and challenge each other to swap genres and see who produces the better work. Meanwhile, January will force Gus to take romantic outings with her on Saturday nights – all for the sake of research, of course – while Gus will bring January along on interviews he is conducting about mass deaths at a remote cult camp in order to expose her to grittier fodder for her literary fiction novel. (See steps 3-7 for the rest.)

Beach Read is a fun, light read that will likely please most romance fans. Henry does a nice job with the physical buildup between the Gus and January and simultaneous breakdown of the protective walls they’ve each erected. Despite (or perhaps because of) the incongruity between its subject and tone and the reality happening on TV and literally one mile from my house, I flew through this book. I don’t think I will ever become a romance fan – I like my books to surprise me more – but Beach Read provided a nice respite this month. The genre swap subplot felt a little forced at times and I’m not sure that either writer was truly pushed into unfamiliar ground, but it provided a nice pretext for put these two into some interesting situations. The banter between Gus and January was also sexy, smart and funny.

I listened to Beach Read on audio. It is performed by narrator extraordinaire Julia Whelan, which I found to be an interesting choice for January because she has a serious tone to her voice that didn’t necessarily match that of the book. (She’ll always be Tara Westover to me.) Nevertheless, it was a good audiobook and certainly kept me interested.

Beach Read was Book #23 of 2020. Thank you to Berkley for inviting me to participate in this book tour.

RODHAM by Curtis Sittenfeld

Hillary Rodham Clinton is one of the most scrutinized, analyzed and discussed public figures in the world. Most of us are pretty familiar with her narrative at this point, from her Yale Law School days through her years in Arkansas when Bill Clinton was governor, her 8 years as First Lady, and then her post-White House career as senator from New York, Secretary of State, and candidate for U.S. President. But what if that narrative had taken a very different turn? What if Hillary had turned down Bill’s multiple marriage proposals? How would her career have turned out? Would she have run for office, and would she have won? This is the subject of Curtis Sittenfeld’s latest novel, Rodham.

Why I picked it up: I am a big fan of both women – Sittenfeld and Clinton – so this was a no-brainer for me. (I am also a Sittenfeld completist.)

[A confession upfront: I love Hillary. I voted for her, I wish (hourly) that she were our president. My husband worked for her at the State Department, so I’ve met her and know (through him) what she was like to work for. I also feel a little protective of her, so I approached Rodham with a little trepidation too.]

I liked Rodham and found it engaging and thought-provoking. Sittenfeld is a master storyteller, and she doesn’t disappoint in this latest book. There’s a lot to unpack here – Hillary’s relationship with Bill, the origins of her public service career, the misogyny she has faced from the beginning of her professional life. The book is very sympathetic to Hillary, offering her perspective on some of the statements that have dogged her for years (remember the “home baking cookies” comment?) and expressing her own confusion over why she often provoked such enmity. And of course, it’s interesting to think about the ways in which our history would have changed if Hillary hadn’t taken the path she had: the elections she would have fun for, the offices she could have held, the presidencies (ahem!) she could have prevented. I had to remind myself often of Sittenfeld’s timeline, replacing history in my mind with this new fact pattern.

I did have a few issues with Rodham First, I am not sure Sittenfeld sufficiently made the case for why Hillary was so polarizing beyond just being an accomplished, smart woman. Without Whitewater, her failed health care reform and the scandal of Bill’s presidency, the foundation for why she was so hated by the time she ran for president was a little shaky. Second, I think Bill gets a raw deal here. (This Bill is pretty awful.) I mean, the man has flaws, but there were some great things about Bill Clinton. And finally, Trump plays a role here too – not the one he’s in now, thank god, but one that felt inconsistent with the rest of the book. (Sittenfeld does portray him pretty accurately, though.)

Overall, Rodham was a very good read. It kept my attention and I’ve been thinking about it a lot since I finished it. I will read anything Sittenfeld writes, but I did seek this one out and was particularly excited to read it. It’s well-researched and never boring. And it will certainly get you riled up by the end, angry at the way women are treated in politics, the double standards and the extra hoops women jump through that men don’t even think about.

I listened to Rodham on audio and the narrator Carrington MacDuffie did an excellent job. She sounded kind of like Hillary – articulate, precise and rational. This was a take-the-phone-in-the-shower listen for me.

Rodham was Book #22 of 2020.

SING, UNBURIED, SING by Jesmyn Ward

Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing came out to great acclaim in 2017, and even though I picked up an ARC at Book Expo that year, I just never got to it. Perhaps I was daunted by what I expected to be a difficult topic? It sat on my shelf until a few weeks ago, when I decided to try it in an audio/print tandem read. It helped that Ron Charles discussed how good the audiobook was when he came on The Readerly Report, and that Nicole also spoke highly of the book when she, too, finally got to it earlier this year.

Why I picked it up: I was way overdue.

Sing, Unburied, Sing is about a family living in Mississippi. Mam and Pop live with their grown daughter Leonie (their son Given is dead) and their grandchildren Jojo and Kayla. The kids’ father, Michael, is in prison but soon to be released. Leonie is black and Michael is white. Michael’s parents have never accepted Leonie as their son’s partner nor sought any relationship with their grandchildren, while Mam and Pop have basically raised Jojo and Kayla while Leonie is often off getting high. Jojo, 13, takes care of Kayla too, filling a parental void left by Leonie’s frequent absences.

When Michael’s release date approaches, Leonie decides to drive to get him from prison, along with their kids and a friend she knows from work. The road trip to and from the prison takes up much of the book. Along the way, the distance between Jojo and Leonie gets more pronounced, with Jojo increasingly frustrated at his mother’s failures as a parent and Leonie’s resentment of her children’s closeness and lack of need for her. Meanwhile, Jojo, on the precipice between boy- and adulthood, gains a clearer picture of his mother – her limitations and also the tenderness she shows to Michael.

The ride also provides Ward a vehicle to explore racism – the group gets pulled over by the police en route back from the prison, and an unannounced visit to Michael’s parents does not go well. Meanwhile, both Jojo and Leonie are haunted by ghosts along the way, with Leonie seeing her dead brother Given every time she gets high and Jojo being accompanied by the ghost of boy his age named Ritchie who served time in the same prison as Pop decades earlier. These ghosts serve as a painful reminder of the legacy of racism in Mississippi and are a grim foreboding of what Jojo will face in his life as a black man.

Ward’s writing is lyrical and sensuous. I felt like I was in the back of that hot car with the kids, experiencing their mixture of dread, curiosity, anger and the yearning for a family unit that could buffer some of the pain of growing up amidst racism and inequality. There is a lot of pain here: guilty characters trying to redeem themselves and disappointed characters trying to forgive and rebuild. The ghosts – victims of horrific acts of violence – add another layer of unease to the story. So while this is not an easy read – and arguably not the best choice for a pandemic – I am so glad I picked it up.

I listened to Sing, Unburied, Sing on audio and also read the print, probably a 50/50 split. The audio is fantastic. It is performed by Kelvin Harrison Jr., Chris Chalk and Rutina Weley, and they make the prose sound like poetry. Ron Charles (or was it his wife?) was exactly right – it’s a superb audiobook. I recommend having the print available too because there are times, especially those involving the ghosts, when it’s helpful to reinforce the audio with the print just to make sure you’re following what’s going on.

Sing, Unburied, Sing was Book #21 of 2020 and it satisfies the “Book That’s Been On My Shelf For 2+ Years” category of the 2020 EDIWTB Reading Challenge.

INSIDE OUT by Demi Moore

One book genre that has unexpectedly been holding my attention during quarantine is what I call pop culture nonfiction. The Office was an engaging audiobook, one of the few books I finished in April, and after finishing it I turned to Demi Moore’s memoir, Inside Out. It turned out to be surprisingly interesting, and was a book I returned to eagerly whenever I had the chance. (I know I’m into a book when I bring my iPhone in the shower to get a few extra minutes of listening in. Weird?)

Inside Out is the story of Demi Moore’s chaotic childhood, entry into acting, rise to superstardom and experience as a wife and mother. As a child of the 80s, my Demi Moore consciousness was shaped by movies like St. Elmo’s Fire and About Last Night, but her bigger hits – movies like Striptease and G.I. Jane – and celebrity marriages propelled her into the echelon of highest-paid actresses and cemented her place on Hollywood’s A-list. In recent decades Moore has perhaps been best known as the mother to her three daughters with Bruce Willis, as Ashton Kutcher’s wife – and ex-wife, and for her well-publicized struggle with drugs, topics she covers with honesty in Inside Out.

Moore was born to two alcoholic parents who provided their daughter with an extremely unstable home life punctuated by frequent moves and school changes, separations and reconciliations, exposure to drugs and alcohol and a complete lack of parenting and guidance. Moore’s crazy childhood and adolescence, coupled with her complicated relationship with her troubled mother (her father committed suicide in 1980), formed the root of problems that would follow her throughout her life – alcoholism and drug addiction, lack of self-confidence, disordered eating and issues with intimacy and reliance on others. Moore is very honest in the book about her doubts about her acting ability and her attitudes about her body, exercise and dieting. She also goes deep into her relationships with the men in her life – Emilio Estevez, Willis and Kutcher, explaining what attracted her to them, what worked, and what eventually broke them up.

I found the sections about being a mother to her three daughters especially poignant, as Moore identifies parenting as the one activity and accomplishment in her life that she is most proud of. After a drug overdose in the early 2010s, she endured three years of her family not speaking to her, a very painful time for Moore. After reconciling with her daughters, she embarked on the book project, publishing Inside Out in 2019.

Moore does like to play the blame game, shifting responsibility for some of her poor decisions onto her parents, her exes, her critics, Hollywood’s expectations, etc. That got a little tiresome. But I liked a lot of what she had to say about pay equity, balancing motherhood with career and not losing your identity in your relationships.

I listened to Inside Out on audio, narrated by Moore. I couldn’t imagine hearing these words in anything other than Moore’s signature raspy voice. Great audiobook (and pretty short too, at 6.5 hours).

Inside Out was Book #20 of 2020 and satisfies the Celebrity Memoir category of the 2020 EDIWTB Reading Challenge.