WHEN WE WERE VIKINGS by Andrew David MacDonald

When We Were Vikings by Andrew David MacDonald is a novel about siblings trying to make their way through life despite a lot of adversity. Zelda and Gert’s parents are gone – their mother, an alcoholic, died of cancer and their father disappeared when they were young. Zelda was born with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, compromising her mental development and limiting her independence. She is obsessed with Vikings, and turns to Viking culture and rules to guide her throughout life.

Why I picked it up: I got When We Were Vikings as an ARC at Book Expo last year and recently started seeing reviews as its January publication day approached. I’ve seen comparisons to Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, which I enjoyed a lot.

Zelda and Gert have a lot going against them. They’re young and living on their own, having moved out of their uncle’s apartment after he started sexually abusing Zelda. Gert has dropped out of college and now deals drugs in order to support them, and Zelda, who spends her days either at the community center or seeing a therapist or hanging out at home, is dependent on Gert for everything.

When Zelda discovers that Gert is no longer attending classes, she draws inspiration from her beloved Vikings to try turn his life around while contributing more substantially to their home. She gets a job, experiments with having a boyfriend, and tries to repel the shady characters who have started invading their already fragile household, thanks to Gert’s new livelihood.

Zelda is an interesting narrator: she is articulate, engaged and compelling, but she is also naive and has poor judgment. MacDonald walks a fine line here – he has to make Zelda complex enough to feel invested in, but if she comes across as too smart, she’s not plausible as a character. For the most part, I think he did a good job achieving this balance. There were a few times when she seemed too sophisticated and used words that she wouldn’t have known, but in general MacDonald did a good job creating a consistent character.

Gert and Zelda are flawed but fundamentally good people who have been dealt some tough cards. I felt a sense of dread as the book went on, worrying about what was going to happen to them and how they would get through it. (Hint: it’s never good when a gun appears in a book.) When We Were Vikings is a touching novel and Zelda a winning protagonist. I also learned a lot about Vikings. It could have used a little more editing and the end is a bit abrupt (and unrealistic), but for a debut novel, When We Were Vikings was pretty impressive. And Macdonald did a very nice of getting into a woman’s head.

I listened to When We Were Vikings on audio. The narrator, Phoebe Strole, had a perky, upbeat delivery that at times was incongruous with what was happening in the book, but her narration gave Zelda a naivete and optimism that was entirely consistent with her character. I recommend the audio version.

When We Were Vikings was Book #6 of 2020 and satisfies the Debut Novel category of the 2020 EDIWTB Reading Challenge.

DEAR EDWARD by Ann Napolitano

Dear Edward has one of those storylines that makes you want to pick the book up: a plane from New York to Los Angeles crashes over Colorado, killing everyone on board except for one person, a twelve year-old boy named Edward who was flying with his parents and older brother. Dear Edward follows Edward’s life after the crash, when he moves in with his aunt and uncle, and also flashes back to the hours leading up to the crash and the lives of some of the other people on the plane.

Why I picked it up: I fell for this irresistible premise once I started seeing buzz about this book everywhere. It was Read With Jenna‘s January pick as well as a BOTM selection from December. Dear Edward had also been sitting on my shelf since May, when I got it at Book Expo 2019.

I have mixed feelings about Dear Edward. On the one hand, it’s an interesting story, and there were elements that I found particularly compelling. Edward received letters from families of the people who died – hundreds of them – and I could understand that being a realistic response by their authors. After all, Edward was the last person alive to see the other passengers before they died. His sense of dislocation and emotional paralysis after the crash also made a lot of sense and was depicted well by Napolitano.

But I had a hard time connecting to Dear Edward. Napolitano glossed over huge parts of the story, simplifying them down to a conversation or even a few sentences. Edward’s grief – as well as his aunt’s – was superficially plumbed, leaving little sense of the true depth of their loss. Edward’s relationship with Shay, the girl next door who befriends him immediately upon his arrival in his new home, forms the backbone of Dear Edward, but how realistic is it that he would sleep on her bedroom floor for three years straight and not make a single other friend? For every element that rang true, there was one that left me shaking my head. In the end, I had trouble connecting emotionally to this book and found it more simplistic than its topic warranted.

I listened to Dear Edward on audio, and I wonder if that had something to do with my feelings about it. I found that when I read it in print (which I did from time to time), I liked it better. There was something about Cassandra Campbell’s narration that didn’t work for me here. I’ve listened to a lot of her books and maybe she just sounds too familiar to me at this point? When I read the book in print, I found it more substantive.

In the end, this was a 3.5 star read for me. Enough there to make it memorable but not, in the end, one of my favorites so far this year.

Dear Edward was Book #5 of 2020 and satisfies the Book With A Blue Cover category of the 2020 EDIWTB Reading Challenge.

THE CACTUS LEAGUE by Emily Nemens

Emily Nemens’ debut novel, The Cactus League, is a book about baseball told through interconnected chapters set in Scottsdale at the beginning of spring training in 2013. Jason Goodyear, a two-time MVP outfielder for the fictional L.A. Lions who is going through a tough stretch, is a recurring character threaded through the chapters (of which there are nine, of course), but the book is told through the point of view of other characters living in varying distances from the sport.

Why I picked it: This one was a no-brainer. I am a huge baseball fan, and The Cactus League was recommended by my fave author J. Ryan Stradal when he came on The Readerly Report podcast. It was a pleasant surprise to learn that Nemens’ novel is structured like Stradal’s Kitchens Of The Great Midwest.

Warning for baseball fans: The Cactus League may take a bit of the sheen off the sport. These characters are down on their luck, for the most part, dealing with personal demons. The book opens when a late-career minor league hitting coach arrives in town for spring training to the grim discovery that his Arizona house has been looted and trashed by squatters. A hotshot sports agent is, we learn later, sick with what appears to be cancer. One of the team’s owners makes an impulsive but career-changing decision about a star outfielder after his ego is bruised. These people, some in town only during spring training and some of whom live in Scottsdale year-round, struggle with their self-worth and the prospects for their future. There is a lot of detail and atmosphere in The Cactus League, all of which add up to a richly textured depiction of this strange but revered desert ecosystem.

But spring is a period of renewal and hope. Nemens describes beautifully how the pre-season awakens in players the drive to start over with a clean slate, to erase past failures and claim their rightful lineup spot or win the title that’s escaped them through their years in the majors. For the industry hangers-on – the stadium organist, the wives, the woman selling hot dogs in the new stadium – they too express their hopes and resolutions amidst the warming sun and green grass of the newly mowed field. Will they find redemption?

The Cactus League is a rarity – a beautifully written, character-driven novel about sports. As for whether you need to be a baseball fan to enjoy it? I can’t answer that. I will say that as a baseball fan, I absolutely loved it.

The Cactus League was Book #4 of 2020 and satisfies four categories in the 2020 EDWITB Reading Challenge: Debut Novel, Book Recommended On A Blog/Podcast, Book With A Blue Cover and Book About Sports. I’ll figure out later where it goes but for now I am putting it in Book Recommended On A Blog/Podcast.

YOU WERE THERE TOO by Colleen Oakley

Mia is a thirtysomething artist living in suburban Pennsylvania with her husband Harrison. When she meets a man by chance named Oliver who has also appeared in her dreams since she was young, she starts to question everything – her marriage, what she wants out of life, and whether she and Oliver are destined for a deeper relationship.

Why I picked it: Random House/Berkley Publishing invited me to participate in a blog tour supporting You Were There Too’s January 2020 release.

You Were There Too has an interesting premise. What role do, and should, our dreams play in our lives? Can they predict the future? These questions intrigued me. I also liked the setup of the book. Mia and Harrison have had a number of miscarriages which have put a strain on their marriage, and Harrison is now unsure about whether he wants kids at all. Mia, who has paused her career as an artist to start a family, is understandably upset about Harrison’s change of heart, and is confused about how to resolve her disappointment in his decision along with the feelings she’s developing for Oliver.

Oakley builds suspense throughout the You Were There Too, and I definitely wanted to know how it would resolve and who Mia would choose. Mia is a complicated character, and I liked that the people in the book defied stereotypes and felt real. But I did find that the story dragged and got repetitive at times. Mia was inconsistent in a way that weakened the story by making her feelings less believable. The ending was abrupt and tied together a number of threads in a confluence of events that actually confused me more than it explained.

I see on Goodreads that a lot of people adored this book and found it gut-wrenching and heartbreaking. There were definitely parts of it that I found touching – especially the treatment of infertility – but I wasn’t nearly as affected by it as many other readers have been.

I listened to You Were There Too on audio. It was narrated by Sophie Amoss and Dan Bittner, and they did a nice job with the performances. Amoss made Mia relatable, and she has a very memorable voice that I can still hear in my head days after I finished it (in a good way). Bittner’s chapters are told in third person, so they don’t leave as much of a mark as Amoss’, but they provided a nice contrast with and break to the Mia chapters.

You Were There Too was Book #3 of 2020. Thank you to Berkley/Random House for inviting me to participate in the blog tour.

UNCANNY VALLEY by Anna Wiener

Anna Wiener was a twentysomething living in Brooklyn in the 2010s and working in publishing when, on a whim, she applied to work for a tech startup in the e-book space. After a few months there, she decided to move to San Francisco and try her luck in the promised land of tech. Uncanny Valley is Wiener’s memoir about working at two startups in San Francisco and her take on the digital economy and what it’s like to experience it from the inside.

Why I picked it: I love memoirs, and I work for a tech startup so I figured I’d recognize some of what she describes. I am fascinated – always have been – with anything Internet-related, so this was a no-brainer.

Off the bat: Wiener is a beautiful writer. What I would give to have her talent! She writes so eloquently about San Francisco, her colleagues, the work she did – she made it poetic. About SF: “The city, trapped in nostalgia for its own mythology, stuck in a hallucination of a halcyon past, had not quite caught up to the newfound momentum of tech’s dark triad: capital, power, and a bland, overcorrected heterosexual masculinity.” About a cabinet secretary: “I wondered what it was like to lead a life of public service – climbing the ladder, accumulating credentials, walking the thinnest lines, probably owning a tuxedo – only to find himself catering to the growing power of Silicon Valley, with its baby tyrants, all the one-hit wonders who had dropped out of school and become their own bosses and thought they knew how the world worked.”

So I thought the first half of this book was brilliant. Wiener depicted so well the culture shock in the tech world, her vacillation between wanting to belong and questioning the value of her work, and the occasional absurdity of the digital economy. She also raises legitimate questions about privacy and the amount of personal information available to employees at all levels of the companies she worked for, a data analytics startup and an open source sharing site (unnamed, but it’s Github). I relished every page, nodding in recognition at times, eagerly absorbing information at others.

The second half of the book took a turn, though, and became somewhat meandering and lost its purpose. Wiener has general complaints about how women are treated in tech, but she doesn’t base them in her own experience beyond a few limited examples. She is restless in her customer success manager role, far removed from and considered less important than her developer colleagues’, but she doesn’t seem to have a sense for what she’d rather be doing. She’s sort of along for the ride. Aside from Weiner’s high-level doomsday warnings about the dangers posed by “the social network everyone hates” and the monetization of data and erosion of privacy, it’s hard to get at her agenda.

So Uncanny Valley was a mixed bag for me. I *loved* a lot of it, but in the end was left a bit empty. On balance, though, I’d recommend picking it up.

Uncanny Valley was Book #2 of 2020 and also satisfied the Non-Fiction category of the 2020 EDIWTB Reading Challenge.

WEATHER by Jenny Offill

These are trying times for parents of young kids. How do you focus on the minutiae of child rearing when there are so many really big things to worry about? That’s the subject of Jenny Offill’s new novel, Weather. I loved her last book, Dept. of Speculation, which documented a failing marriage through short paragraphs and wry observations that verged on poetry. Weather is written in a similar style. Once again told from the point of view of a young mother, Weather takes on Trump’s America and the heightened anxiety we now live with.

Lizzie, once a graduate student full of promise, now works as a librarian at a university, with a side gig of helping a former professor answer emails about her doomsday podcast. Lizzie’s brother, an addict, is a constant worry to her as well, even after he marries and has a baby. She and her husband live in Brooklyn with their young son. Not a lot actually happens in the book – this is not for people who like plot-driven novels – but like Dept. of Speculation, Weather is full of breathtaking insight, wit and honesty. Lizzie’s mind ping pongs among the mundane and the philosophical, the personal and the universal, exploring the challenge of how to balance macro fears like climate change and impending disaster with modern life and its daily banalities.

I love, love, love Jenny Offill. I dogeared so many pages of Weather – there’s a gem of brilliance on almost every page. I often laughed – or grimaced – in recognition, and I read slowly so as to savor the experience. And if I didn’t have a bazillion other books to read, I’d probably start this one over again today.

It was a long wait for another Jenny Offill book, but it was worth it. (Actually, this doesn’t come out for another month – sorry – but you can pre-order now!)

Weather was Book #1 of 2020 and counts in the 2020 EDIWTB Reading Challenge as a Book By An Author I Love.

First Book 2020

Every year, Sheila at Book Journey hosts First Book, where she invites readers to send in photos of them with their first read of the year. I’ve participated the last 4 years, and am excited to do so this year too. So give Book Journey a visit and see what people are reading on the first day of 2020. Thank you Sheila for keeping up this fun tradition!

Here’s my pick: Weather, by Jenny Offill. I was a huge fan of her last book, Dept. of Speculation, and this one is written in a similar style. I am really looking forward to it. It comes out in February 2020, but I am too excited to read it to wait another month. In this picture, I am standing outside Oracle Park in San Francisco on a chilly, grey, wet day (hence the frizzy hair). We were in California for a week over break and are now headed home.

Happy new year, everyone! What is your First Book of 2020?