Mini-reviews: With moldy aliens, adopted war orphans, and science-y sex books.

Another giant week of reading! And I found two books I really love, including one that I can see being the book I recommend the most this year. A book I think everyone will have strong reactions to when I tell them what it’s about…

Girl at War, by Sara Novic (Random House, 2015, 320 pages, hardcover). This was a self-gift at Christmas because I’m a sucker for both war stories, and those set in the Balkans. Oh, and immigration stories. Could this book ring any more of my bells at the same time? Girl at War tells the story of a young girl (surprise) who comes of age during Yugoslavia’s civil war. Her baby sister is violently ill and must be shipped stateside to a hospital (and foster family) to get better. Then, well, war erupts and things happen. We next catch our protag as she’s in college in New York City, trying to get her issues in line, and decides she has to go back to Croatia to untangle her past if she’s to move forward with any sense of peace. Trigger warning for adoption issues (I appreciate that they didn’t paint them in black and white, but a little more compassion for both sides was in order). Otherwise, READ, READ, READ. This hit a lot of Best Of lists last year, but it should have been on more. The writing is fantastic and the window into the issues discussed was new and (mostly) well-painted. 4 1/2 of 5 stars.

Act of God, by Jill Ciment (Pantheon, 2015, 192 pages, ebook). I thought this book was going to be a homerun: a modern apocalyptic story as a deadly mold found in a closet of an apartment in New York City takes over the city, ruining life in the city as the characters know it. So the story was supposed to be a screwball comedy (in fact, copy on the cover uses just those words) as the mess of characters in the rowhouses, townhouses, and high rises all wait out the plague of…what? Aliens? Contamination? The end of the world? But I found them all rather annoying. It was a case of not being able to lock into the voice of the story, so it might still be for you, but it wasn’t for me. 1 of 5 stars.

Come As You Are, by Emily Nagoski (Simon & Schuster, 2015, 400 pages, ebook). I had forgotten I had places a hold on this ebook awhile back, so when it popped up in my inbox, I was pleasantly surprised after reminding myself what it was about. A sex book! About using science to get better results? And reassuring everyone – yes, everyone – that they’re normal? Let’s see what it says! And really, what I found was as much about understanding women’s emotional make-up as anything else. (Sex and emotions and moods are tied together for women? YOU DON’T SAY.) In fact, not only am I shoving it at all my girl friends, but also at all my guy friends, too. Want to understand women better? Read this book. Truly. Yes, there’s a bunch of REALLY – no, REALLY – helpful information about the why and hows of being more aware of your sexual want-tos, but there’s even more about emotional make-up and why women are built that way. For instance, the analogy of a woman’s accelerator and brake that make her want (or not want) some good lovin’? It can also be applied to what makes her tick. Or at least for me. And that’s helped me be more aware of my temper. Good, good things are stuffed in here on every page. READ IT. 5 of 5 stars.

Loteria, by Mario Alberto Zambrano (Harper, 2013, 288 pages, ebook). Not quite a Young Adult selection, although the story is about a young girl who has been taken from her violently abusive family. She’s sitting in a room, using cards from a Mexican bingo-type game to prompt short memories that she writes in her journal, finding her voice and freeing her story. I had mucho problemos with this story. I didn’t think the older male author captured at all the complexities and authenticity of a young girl. The stories skip around, and while I don’t have an issue with that technique, I do ask that they form a bigger picture at some point – or that the incompleteness of the picture is a bigger point the author’s intending to make. I didn’t get that sense here at all. And for the randomness of the stories, everything else seemed forced and faked. The revelations of what happened. The oh-I-can’t-remember-but-now-I-do narrator. The appropriation of culture that shores up the entire book and distracts rather than informs. It took away from what could have been a place to discuss family violence. 2 of 5 stars.

A Spool of Blue Thread, by Anne Tyler (Bond Street Books, 2015, 358 pages, ebook). Oh my god, you guys – Anne Tyler just isn’t my favorite author. I can see why many disagree with me, but she’s just not my thing. So I could appreciate the multi-gen story about the matriarch’s life and how the family (and Abby) deals with the idea of her mortality, but…meh. I honestly choked it down for Tournament of Books and only for that reason. And sometimes that’s not a bad thing, reading books you don’t wanna. 2 of 5 stars.

Avenue of Mysteries, by John Irving (Simon & Schuster, 2015, 460 pages, ebook). The more I read John Irving, the more I realize that sometimes I think he’s the most insightful author I’ve read (A Prayer for Owen Meany, Cider House Rules, The World According to Garp), and sometimes I just don’t care a jolt what he says (A Widow for One Year, In One Person). This, unfortunately, was one of the latter. Again, a total appropriation of culture. Of cliched appropriation. It was ridiculous. And while I don’t fault authors for trying new things or trotting out different voices – isn’t that partly what writing fiction is for? – that doesn’t mean all of them are going to be hits. This was a big miss. I couldn’t even finish it, the thing moved so dang slowly. Ugh. 1 of 5 stars.

Harriet Wolf’s Seventh Book of Wonders, by Julianna Baggott (Little, Brown & Company, 2015, 352 pages, hardcover). I was delighted to find this at the library because it was starred on my TBR list. A book about three generations of women trying to find the lost manuscript to their grandmother’s infamous book series – yes! But, no. It wasn’t quite Thirteenth Tale. It was much more A.J. Fikry. And you know how much I hated Fikry. I just, I don’t know. I could read through the story okay, so it’s not like it wasn’t warm. It’s more that…well, I just didn’t care. The women all seemed too dippy, too troubled, too flaky. I like complicated characters, so I didn’t mind the troubled bit so much, but the rest – no, thanks. I have to put up with those kinds of people too often in real life to do it for fun – or at least without a good enough payoff. I didn’t find that here. 2 of 5 stars.

Descent, by Tim Johnston (Algonquin Books, 2015, 376 pages, ebook). This was supposed to be a scary, creepy, psychologically interesting book. A family’s college-bound daughter goes missing as she and her brother are off running in the woods while on vacation. The family does everything they can to find her, and loses themselves along the way. An increasingly fractured family? Cynthia Ng with a heavy dose of mystery and horror? Not really. The characters were despicable people I couldn’t empathize with. The teens were bratty and didn’t seem to care for each other. The father’s affair (did he? didn’t he?) was cliche and he was a jerk. And the mom was so wallflower. Nope. They weren’t even unlikable in a provocative way. 1 of 5 stars.

Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of Your Fist, by Sunil Yapa (Little, Brown & Company, 2016, 306 pages, ebook). This book is buzz, buzz, buzz! I was so excited to score an ecopy from the library so quickly. Until I started reading it and the main character sounds like Shaggy stumbled into the Occupy movement. Sometimes I think I expect too much. Sigh. 2 of 5 stars.

So there you go. What have you been reading lately? What books should I throw into my To Read list next? Do you ever feel like your reading standards are too high?

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