WAITING FOR EDEN by Elliot Ackerman

The title character in Elliot Ackerman’s novel Waiting For Eden is a U.S. soldier who has been gravely wounded in Iraq. When the book opens, he is being airlifted to a burn center in San Antonio, the most wounded U.S. soldier in history. For the next few years, he lies unconscious in the hospital. visited by family for the first year or so, and then only by his wife, Mary.

There are three main characters in the book: Eden, Mary and Eden’s comrade, who is unnamed and who was killed by the same bomb that hurt Eden. Eden’s friend knew Mary and Eden before they deployed to Iraq, and his unspooling of their shared history parallels the process of Eden’s regaining consciousness in the hospital when Mary leaves his side to spend Christmas with their daughter and her mother.

For a short book, Waiting for Eden packs an emotional punch. Eden is trapped in his own head, unable to communicate but desperately willing those around him to understand what he’s experiencing and – painfully – how badly he wants it to end. Mary carries her own guilt about Eden and their relationship, yet she is fiercely loyal to what remains of her husband. By the end, the two are locked in a battle of wills – his desire to put an end to his suffering and her inner conflict fueled by her resentment of his voluntary deployment. Meanwhile Mary and the narrator both 

All three of these sad characters remain in equipoise as the narrator waits for his friend on the other side, Mary waits for clarity and Eden waits to die.

Waiting for Eden is a very powerful and memorable book. This review doesn’t do it justice – it’s a must-read. Ackerman’s writing is spare but devastating, and while the book is concise, the story is rich and dimensional. Don’t let the grim subject deter you. 

THE OTHER WOMAN by Sandie Jones

POPCORN ALERT.

The Other Woman by Sandie Jones is about a boyfriend’s-mother-from-hell. Emily, a twentysomething in London, meets Adam at a pub one night. They start dating, and he seems too good to be true – handsome, successful and attentive. After a few months, Emily meets his mother Pammie. At first, Pammie seems sweet, but by their second meeting, Emily starts to realize how manipulative she is. Pammie undermines Emily at every turn, excludes her and constantly makes her feel insecure about her relationship with Adam. As the chapters go by, Pammie’s behavior grows more and more egregious. Emily is constantly torn between her love for Adam and her hatred of his mother. (She is a rather frustrating and unlikable character herself, but she was in such an unenviable position that I tried to forgive her and cheer her on.)

The cover of The Other Woman proclaims that it is “fiendishly clever with a twist you will not see coming”. So I am not spoiling anything by saying that there is a twist in the book. But I do not want to say much more about the plot for fear of giving anything away. Pammie is definitely a force to be reckoned with and as I read I wondered how things could possibly be resolved. Which of these two women would win out in the end? That kept the pages turning.

I learned from an interview with Sandie Jones that she didn’t know where she was going with the plot when she started, that she worked it out as she went along. I can see that – the resolution wasn’t really consistent with the rest of the book and felt hastily appended.

The Other Woman was a fast read and certainly kept my attention. But it’s popcorn, in the end. If you’re in the mood for an engaging psychological thriller, you might enjoy this one.

I listened to The Other Woman on audio until I was near the end, when I finished it off in print. Great narration by Clare Corbett, who made Pammie just deranged enough to be realistic and communicated Emily’s insecurity and poor judgment credibly. I love those British accents!

THE SEVEN HUSBANDS OF EVELYN HUGO by Taylor Jenkins Reid

2018 is the year I discovered Taylor Jenkins Reid.

My third TJR of the year (after One True Loves and After I Do) was The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo. This book has gotten so much love in the book blogosphere that despite the fact that I passed it up at Book Expo a few years ago, I decided I had to read it.

Evelyn Hugo is a legendary Hollywood film actress in her seventies who famously had seven marriages, but remained tight-lipped about them over the course of her life. Suddenly, Hugo decides that she’s going to tell her story to the world – the truth about the marriages, the scandals and all of the drama that was suspected but never confirmed. She chooses a magazine to write the feature, and even chooses the journalist, a woman named Monique. She makes it clear she will only tell her story to this one specific reporter. But why? What is Hugo’s motivation, and how did she select this writer?

The Seven Husbands Of Evelyn Hugo is about the price of fame, and specifically the cost of living up to an image that people have of you that may not be true. Hugo pays the price over and over, only learning too late that her one precious life was being wasted by her dishonesty.

I think it would have been hard for any book to live up to the hype around The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo. I liked it, but I didn’t love it. Like all of Reid’s novels, it’s immensely readable and entertaining. You get sucked in, and the pages fly by. Hugo is an interesting character, and there are several surprises along the way as she tells her story to Monique in a series of meetings in her New York apartment. But in the end this one felt a little flat for me. Things happened quickly – relationships, marriages, deaths – and it all felt rushed and shallow. It was an interesting story, but devoid of depth and detail. I enjoyed Reid’s other two books more, because they really analyzed what the characters were thinking and let events unfold slowly and meticulously.

The Seven Husbands Of Evelyn Hugo is absolutely beloved among many readers and my not-as-glowing review feels like blasphemy. Don’t get me wrong – it’s an enjoyable read and I’m glad I sought it out. It just wasn’t my favorite book – or even favorite TJR book – of the year.

A CLOUD IN THE SHAPE OF A GIRL by Jean Thompson

[I am FOUR reviews behind. Ugh! I think I need to make these posts shorter.]

A Cloud In The Shape Of A Girl by Jean Thompson is probably going to make my top 3 books of 2018. I really enjoyed this story about three generations of women in one midwestern university town. Warning: it’s pretty depressing.

Evelyn, the grandmother, is dying when the book opens. Thompson takes the reader back to Evelyn’s marriage, shortly after World War II, and her relationship with her professor husband. Evelyn isn’t particularly happy with him or with her life, but she participates dutifully as they attend events at the university and raise two children, Mark and Laura. She isn’t a particularly warm mother or grandmother, and in her old age, grows more prickly.

Laura grows up, gets married and has two kids of her own. She stays in the same university town, close to her parents, and works for the university. Her husband Gabe is a difficult alcoholic, and his behavior, along with their son’s drug addiction, puts a strain on their marriage. Their daughter, Grace, tries to get as far away from her family as she can, but feels the pull of obligation when her mother gets sick and her father and brother’s relationship deteriorates.

This is not lighthearted stuff.

I thought Thompson did an excellent job of tracking the family threads binding these people together, happily or unhappily, and the ways our parents shape us and define our lives. I dog-eared so many pages of this book because the writing was so insightful. Here are a few sentences I loved:

“When did you reach the point when you started counting up losses, rather than looking forward to adventures?” (Ugh – so sad!)

“When your parents died, you lost your childhood, or at least the best witnesses to it.”

“Death was impersonal. It pulled your loves and hates up by the roots. It rolled right over your likes and dislikes. It took as much as it could of history and memory. This was its moment. All else fell back behind it.”

A Cloud In The Shape Of A Girl is not action-packed. So much of what happens are small gestures – people just making it through the day. But the women felt incredibly real to me, and I felt their pain, longing and conflict right along with them. Cancer, drug addiction, alcoholism are all explored in relatable, poignant detail in Thompson’s quiet, understated prose. These characters’ lives are messy, and they don’t end tied up in neat bows. That’s life, right?

2018 Holiday Gift Guide For The Readers On Your List

Do you have readers on your holiday shopping list this year? Are you at a loss for what to get them? I’ve pulled together some a holiday gift guide for different types of readers. Hopefully this will keep you from aimlessly wandering the aisles at the bookstore or resorting to the dreaded gift card.

Also, Nicole Bonia and I recorded a 2018 Gift Guide episode for our podcast, The Readerly Report, in which we discuss her recommendations as well as mine. I’ll post the episode here when it’s up.

2018 HOLIDAY GIFT GUIDE FOR READERS

Books for your best friend, so that you can discuss together. (You’ll need to buy two of these: one for you and one for your friend)

You Think It, I’ll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld (reviewed here). These short stories are so honest and realistic that they are crying out to be discussed and affirmed.

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill (reviewed here). A breathtaking, yet depressing, look at urban marriage and parenthood. I couldn’t get enough of this one – and I know my best friend couldn’t either. You will laugh and commiserate together. Bonus: it’s short.

The Stars Are Fire by Anita Shreve (reviewed here). I read this one with Nicole, and thankfully I had her to share the tension and suspense with. I absolutely needed to talk about it with someone! Shreve is an expert storyteller and this book did not disappoint.

Books for your friend who needs to take her mind off of something

One Day In December by Josie Silver (reviewed here). It’s romantic and schmaltzy but damn if I couldn’t put this book down for the three days I was reading it. Will Laurie and Jack, who meet one December day when they lock eyes through a bus window, end up together? Ten years after they meet, you’ll get your answer.

One True Loves by Taylor Jenkins Reid (reviewed here).  Another addictive read. Emma and Jesse are soul mates… until his plane goes down in Alaska and he’s never heard from again. Emma grieves and moves on… until Jesse reappears in her life a few years later, after she’s gotten engaged to someone else. Who will she choose?

 

Books for your friend who is always posting alarming stuff 

Red Clocks by Leni Zumas (reviewed here). Imagine a world in which abortion and IVF are illegal and adoption is only permitted by heterosexual couples. Zumas takes four women in different stages of life and explores what it is like to be female in such a world. Bleak indeed.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (reviewed here). This dystopian novel may not take on the things we’re worrying about today – climate change, racial violence, women’s rights – but it’s dark and stressful, and a post-apocalyptic world is a post-apocalyptic world, no matter how we got there. This is an imaginative and moving book.

Books for your friend who only reads literary fiction

Everything Here Is Beautiful by Mira T. Lee (reviewed here): A moving look at the relationship between two sisters, one with mental illness, and how the thread connecting them is strained but never severed.

The Leavers by Lisa Ko (reviewed here): A novel about the tragic consequences of our draconian immigration policies.

A Cloud In The Shape Of A Girl by Jean Thompson (review to come): My personal weakness: the story of three generations of women in the Midwest and their inner hopes, loves and disappointments. One of my favorite books of the year.

Books for the non-fiction reader

The Four by Scott Galloway: A look at how Amazon, Google, Facebook and Apple became essential to our daily lives. (Warning: I haven’t read this yet but I really want to.)

Bad Blood by John Carreyrou: This story of high stakes fraud and deception by the high-flying startup Theranos has to be the second-most highly reviewed book of 2018! I’ve heard nothing but amazing things about it and have bought it for two people already. (Again, I haven’t read this one.)

 

Audiobooks for Anglophiles

For some reason the majority of the audiobooks I’ve listened to this year were set in England with British narrators. Don’t be a knob – get these clever recordings for your friend who couldn’t turn off the last two royal weddings:

One Day In December by Josie Silver (reviewed here)

Mary B. by Katherine Chen (reviewed here)

Still Me by Jojo Moyes (reviewed here)

 

 

Books For Anyone

Becoming by Michelle Obama: OK, I haven’t read this one yet, but I plan to soon, and how could it be anything other than amazing? It is the fastest-selling book of 2018.

Kitchens Of The Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal (reviewed here and here): Yes, I know. I’m annoying about this book. Just buy it – whoever it is for will love it.

A Good Audiobook Speaks Volumes Holiday Blog Tour And Giveaway

I am happy to be joining the Audio Publishers Association’s A Good Audiobook Speaks Volumes Holiday Blog Tour and Giveaway! As I have written often on this blog, I am a huge fan of audiobooks and have listened to 15 so far this year. I listen in my car during my short commute, and when I am really into a book, I’ll listen while walking the dog, making dinner, even in the shower sometimes. Listening to audio is a great way to squeeze in more books, and the experience of listening can enrich a book, lending emotional depth and immediacy.

I also love audiobook narrators! They are the coolest group of people. I try not to pepper them with questions whenever I am with them, but it’s hard for me to resist. I am fascinated by the whole narration process and I always want to learn more about it.

This holiday season, for some reason I’ve been in a British mood. The last three audiobooks I’ve listened to were all narrated by British performers – One Day In December, The Adults and The Other Woman (still listening). British accents make characters seem smarter (more clever, as they would say) and more articulate, and I really enjoy them.

This time of year is a great time for audiobooks! Many people take long road trips for Thanksgiving or Christmas, and audiobooks are a perfect way to pass the time. I get ones that my 6 year-old son will enjoy for when he’s in the car too, and he really likes them. Audiobooks are also good for trains and planes, long waits in airports, etc. Don’t leave home without a loaded phone!

If you need audiobook gift ideas, here are a few of my favorite 2018 listens:

One Day In December by Josie Silver

I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell

Born To Run, Bruce Springsteen

Do you like audiobooks too? The APA is letting me give away a fantastic selection of 8 audiobooks that have been donated by the following publishers: Beacon Press, High Bridge Audio, LA Theatre Works, Macmillan Audio, Penguin Random House Audio, Scholastic, Simon & Schuster Audio, and Tantor Audio. The books will be available for free download on Libro.fm. If you want to win these books, leave me a comment below with the name of a book that you’re hoping someone buys as a gift for you this year. I’ll pick a winner on December 8.

The giveaway books:

  • BRIDGE OF CLAY by Markus Zusak (Penguin Random House Audio)
  • SPILL by Leigh Fondakowski (LA Theatre Works)
  • HOW TO BE LESS STUPID ABOUT RACE by Crystal Fleming (Beacon Press)
  • AN AMERICAN MARRIAGE by Tayari Jones (HighBridge Audio)
  • SALVATION by Peter F. Hamilton (Tantor Audio)
  • THE HUNGER GAMES: Special Edition by Suzanne Collins (Scholastic)
  • THE LIBRARY BOOK by Susan Orlean (Simon Audio)
  • NINE PERFECT STRANGERS by Liane Moriarty (Macmillan Audio)

And check out the rest of the blog tour! 29 other bloggers have written about why they love audiobooks – find out what they had to say.

 

THE ADULTS by Caroline Hulse

The Adults by Caroline Hulse is about two divorced parents in England – Claire and Matt – who decide to spend Christmas together, along with their current partners, so that they can both spend the holiday with their seven year-old daughter. Their partners – Claire’s boyfriend Patrick and Matt’s girlfriend Alex – reluctantly join them, leery of how the long weekend will unfold. Unsurprisingly, as the days pass, nerves fray and old tensions resurface, while both relationships are tested. The weekend ends with an archery incident that sends one of the four to the hospital (not a spoiler), with the book gradually explaining how they got to the point that one of them was shot by one of the others.

This book is meant to be funny, and it definitely has its funny moments. I liked Hulse’s little observations about parenting and relationships, and the fun she pokes at The Happy Forest, the family-friendly resort that this doomed fivesome chooses for their holiday. The partners are insecure about Claire and Matt’s relationship, Alex is a recovering alcoholic and a very bad drunk, while Patrick secretly tries to flirt with a popular girl from high school who is coincidentally at the resort at the same time. And Scarlett – the 7 year-old daughter – talks incessantly to an imaginary giant stuffed rabbit.

I listened to The Adults on audio. The narrators – Penelope Rawlins, Peter Kenny, Sarah Ovens – were entertaining. I especially liked the narration for Patrick – I assume that was Peter Kenny – because he made Patrick seem so desperate, yet sympathetic at the same time. If you like wry British narrators, you’ll enjoy this one.

In the end, I found The Adults to be mildly entertaining and pretty forgettable. None of the characters was particularly likable, and while their predicament was unenviable, I grew kind of impatient by the end with how poorly they coped with the weekend. The archery incident was unrealistic and over the top. So I give The Adults a rather tepid recommendation.