Contemporary Fiction/Non-Fiction

The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz

This is tightly written and compelling. The action centers around a former MFA Low Residency writing instructor that had one breakout novel, but has a faltering writing career. While an instructor, he encounters a student who reveals only to him the plot of what he believes is a “can’t miss” novel. Fast forward a few years later, and he finds out that the student has died before he ever wrote his mega-novel, and decides to steal the plot. “His” novel becomes a sensation and all is well, until the mysterious messages start coming in.

The author winds a wicked tale of intrigue, toying with what “authorship” truly means. There are all kinds of interesting twists, some of which I guessed but were still satisfying.

If you’re a writer, or even an avid reader, I’d call this required reading.

Rating: 5 stars

Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal

An interesting tale of intertwined lives that gives you a peek into the culture of food and how people relate to it. The book delves into each of the characters’ lives briefly, but not in a shallow way, and ends up showing how they all are connected in some way without hitting you over the head with it.

There is swearing and adult content, so be aware, but I think the character studies are really good in this and I like how the ends are tied up without being put into a nice bow. Plenty of shoutouts to Minnesotans in this one.

Rating: 4 stars

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

**Trigger warning – suicide**

“Somewhere between life and death, there is a library.” After an extended depression, a job loss, and the death of her cat, Nora decides to overdose, only to find herself in a library with her childhood librarian. In the library, she looks through her Book of Regrets. She then has the opportunity to choose any of the books that will allow her to face one of her regrets and live an alternate version of her life based on a decision she made differently.

I found the premise fascinating. Most people have wondered what their lives would be like if they had made different choices at different times in their lives. After all, what would lead to the perfect life? The journey Nora goes on is interesting and unpredictable, as is the ending.

The whole concept doesn’t fit with my spiritual beliefs, but was an interesting exercise in looking at alternative beliefs. The characters are rich and vibrant and the events are believable, but unexpected. It can be difficult to read at times, but it is definitely compelling.

I listed to this on audio and finished it in two evenings. I think the audio version add another layer of personalness to the book.

I recommend this book to anyone who likes the “sliding doors” concept in a book.

Rating: 4 stars

28 Summers by Elin Hilderbrand

Elin Hilderbrand has done it again. Even though I read this in the wintertime, I was transported to Nantucket for 28 summers of a beautiful love affair. Mallory and Jake have a “Same time next year” relationship where they only get together on Labor Day each year and recreate their first weekend together. The affair carries on through all the ups and downs of their lives, with a stunning conclusion.

Hilderbrand shows her characters’ full personalities, flaws and all, but there are no demons in this book. She always finds the balance in each character without making them flat and unmemorable.

The setting, the characters, and the plotting of the book all meld together into one unforgettable story. I listened to this on audio and recommend it, though it is a big time commitment.

Rating: 5 stars 

The Lazy Genius Way by Kendra Adachi

I read a lot of books on organizing and time management, but this one felt unique. I liked the idea of the “lazy genius,” who lands somewhere between a perfectionist approach and a lazy, not productive approach. To me, this is the sweet spot of operation where you can get things done without worrying about being perfect. It’s an ode to the “good enough” life, one where happiness can be found without the stress of perfectionism.

It’s not really a system, per say, but does have techniques described for how to approach things in life. The techniques were pretty simple to use and I’ve tried to integrate them into my everyday way of being.

The book has a humorous tone and is not written as information given from on high. I highly recommend this for anyone who’s looking for a unique way to approach life.

Rating: Five stars

I Miss You When I Blink by Mary Laura Philpott

I listened to this on audiobook, which I love to do with books of essays. It’s read by the author and the work comes through in a much more touching way through audio. The author shares about her life and work and family, all tied together with a quote from her son which makes the title of the book.

It’s not really a how-to, lessons on life type of book, but you certainly can learn from Philpott’s experiences. The essays give insight not only into her life, but into how we shape our lives as well. Never preachy, Philpott shares her experiences in a way that is relatable and gives you hope that your life is full of interesting experiences too.

Rating: 4 stars

Let Me Tell You What I Mean by Joan Didion

This is a great survey of Joan Didion’s best essays. The subjects vary from a Gambler’s anonymous meeting to Martha Stewart. Each essay shows insight and research into the topic with a charming voice. Didion is a favorite of mine, especially Year of Magical Thinking. If you want a deep dive into Didion’s body of work, this is the book for you.

Rating: Five stars

The Basement Quilt by Ann Hazelwood

Not what I expected, so I think that affected my view of the book. The plot involves a group of related women who put together a quilt in the basement of the mother’s home. It follows their lives and has some supernatural elements.

I read this for our book club and had the impression it was supposed to be a Christian book (which it only kind of was). I think that affected my ability to enjoy the book. 

It was well written, but it just didn’t sit well with me. I’m not sure what it was that didn’t click for me, but it just didn’t click.

Rating: 3 stars

The Late Bloomers’ Club by Louise Miller

This is a sweet story about two sisters living completely different lives who inherit land from an elderly woman who was their neighbor growing up. One stayed with the family dinner and helped raise her sister after their mother died, then took over the diner after their father died following an Alzheimer’s diagnosis. The other sister seemingly flits from place to place and project to project, chasing her dreams. Cue the friction

A big-box store is interested in building a store on the land, which threatens to up end the small Vermont town. The sisters disagree on whether to sell and the situation is complicated when the responsible sister begins to have feelings for the big-box store consultant sent to sell the town on the new store.

The story is nice, and there are some twists, but it has a rather predictable ending. I liked it and I like how the author wrapped things up, but it almost seemed a little too neat. Just a personal preference thing.

I’ve previously read the City Baker’s Guide To Country Living and loved it, so not sure where the disconnect is here. I will definitely read the author’s next book.

The book is well-written and interesting and the characters and town are well drawn. It just wasn’t for me. I listened to it on audio, so maybe it didn’t translate as well for me.

Rating: Three stars

City Baker’s Guide to Country Living by Louise Miller

What a fun book! Renowned pastry chef Olivia Rawlings moves from Boston to the idyllic town of Guthrie, Vermont (where her best friend lives) after she sets fire to the private club she had worked in. There she meets with an array of characters who become family to her, and one man who could restore her faith in love. Olivia is not pure as the driven snow (she was having an affair with a married man back in Boston), but she is quirky and compassionate and trying to find her place. There is humor, tragedy, music, and an apple pie baking contest to beat them all. It gives you all the feels and keeps you guessing what’s going to happen next. Well written, it breaks the trope of the “big-city girl makes it big in a small town” while providing a satisfying story. I would definitely read this again. 

The Stationery Shop by Marjan Kamali

This is another book I listened to on audiobook. I liked the main characters in the book and the connection to the stationary shop where the two meet. I also love stories that span many years and involve lost love. The story also provides a good look at how women and, in America, women of color are treated in the 50s and ensuing years. Another great read and I would highly recommend it.

This book provides an interesting look at Iranian history using the backdrop of a coup in 1953. It follows the story of two young people who are separated on the eve of their wedding and go on to live separate lives in America, neither knowing about the other’s lives as 60 years pass. They are reunited as friends while he is dying in a nursing facility and new information comes to light that may have changed the course of their lives.

Educated by Tara Westover

I listened to this as an audiobook and found that to be a great way to take in the story. While not narrated by the author, I think the audiobook provides good insight into the text. This book was a hard listen. It reveals the difficult upbringing and educational transformation of Tara Westover, but that upbringing involved mental and emotional abuse by a mentally ill survivalist father and physical and emotional abuse by a sibling. Submission by the mother to the father’s will adds insult to injury, leaving Tara and her siblings at the mercy of their unstable father. The memoir looks at the issue of reality and whose reality is accurate. It also shows the eye-opening growth of Tara from an unschooled mountain child to an well educated and “whole” woman with a PhD from Harvard. 

I can’t say the book was enjoyable, but it was a fascinating look at the psychological mind games and emotional manipulation Tara says she endured. Her story seems fantastical, but credible; something you don’t realize happens in modern society. It looks at a unique pocket of America that relies on home cures, home schooling, and extreme versions of Mormon faith to create what they think is a self-sufficient, off-the-grid lifestyle. Tara is sure in the introduction to say that the book is not an indictment of Mormonism or Mormons, but her experience with her family within an extreme version of that faith. It is a gritty tale, difficult to hear but arresting in its honesty. Highly recommend (but follow it up with something light!). 

Things You Save In A Fire by Katherine Center

Cassie Hanwell loves being a firefighter and she’s great at it. When she’s forced out of her fire station in Austin because of a confrontation with a councilman, she moves to Massachusetts to help her mom, who is having vision problems. While there, she faces a hostile work environment and a rocky relationship with her mother. Cassie has a lot to learn about forgiveness…and learning to love. 

I loved this book. I think the main character had good depth to her. She wasn’t stereotypical in any way. She is admirable but flawed. The men in her firehouse came off pretty realistically as well. 

The plot had some good, though a little predictable, complications. The ending was satisfying, if a little beat. The characters kept you engrossed and the plot was always interesting. There is one sort of spicy love scene. I rarely reread, but I would reread this. 

If you liked this book, and haven’t already read it, try How to Walk Away by the same author. 

Thanks to Macmillan Publishing and NetGalley for each gifting me with a copy for review.

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