August 2020 Book Reviews

It’s the last day of the month and that can only mean one thing: it’s book review day!

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This month I read six books and while there were a few I didn’t totally love, I enjoyed all six for different reasons. I’ve got some nonfiction memoirs, a long historical fiction saga, two rom coms (coincidentally both with protagonists working in the same industries), and a murder mystery whodunit. It was a fun mix of genres and topics and I’m excited to dive in!

The Guest List by Lucy Foley

A glamorous wedding on an obscure island off the coast of Ireland brings together a unique mix of people, including the bride, the plus-one, the bridesmaid, the wedding planner, and the best man. As the wedding festivities unfold, tensions rise and hidden secrets come to light. This alternating perspective whodunit was suspenseful and eerie without being creepy and I could not put it down! The thing about a book like this is that you know from the very beginning (even before you crack open the book, as the back cover mentions it) that a murder happens. But obviously, the author doesn’t want to give too much away too soon. So for the first third of the book, very little is revealed and each chapter ends with a bit of a cliffhanger/allusion to something but you don’t quite know what. It can be a little maddening, but it does make for a binge-worthy read. I just wanted to keep going to finally get a little breadcrumb of a clue. I did guess a few of the twists, some even pretty early on, but there were still some OH DANG moments for me as everything started to come to light. I felt very invested and I had to know who did the murderer was! The thing holding me back from this going on my all-star list is that I wasn’t altogether satisfied by the ending. I appreciated how most of it wrapped up, but there were a few things I wish had been a bit different. There needed to be one more chapter and a touch more resolution, but there are likely many readers who think the ending is perfect. Either way, I’d recommend this as a good binge-y whodunit!

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

But simply punishing the broken – walking away from them or hiding them from sight – only ensures that they remain broken and we do, too. There is no wholeness outside of our reciprocal humanity. (p. 290)

Whenever things got really bad, and they were questioning the value of their lives, I would remind them that each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. I told them that if someone tells a lie, that person is not just a liar. If you take something that doesn’t belong to you, you are not just a thief. Even if you kill someone, you’re not just a killer. . . there is a strength, a power even, in understanding brokenness, because embracing our brokenness creates a need to show mercy. When you experience mercy, you learn things that are hard to learn otherwise. You see things you can’t otherwise see; you hear things you can’t otherwise hear. You begin to recognize the humanity that resides in each of us. (p. 290)

Oh my. I have a hard time even putting this book into words. I had known that our criminal justice system has its issues, but this book really opened my eyes to a lot of the realities of its flaws and the many ways in which “justice” has ultimately failed so many people, particularly people of color and/or the poor. This nonfiction book tells the story of Bryan Stevenson’s life working as a lawyer representing those who are often overlooked by our criminal justice system: the poor, the wrongly accused, and those condemned on death row. A lot of the story focuses on one man in particular: Walter McMillan, who is on death row for a murder he is adamant that he did not commit. While Stevenson works to build a case for Walter, we also read many other stories of people who were sentenced for life for crimes committed as juveniles, people who are imprisoned after having virtually no good representation in their trial, or black people who were purposefully given all-white juries for their trials. It was truly heartbreaking to read the many times you think justice will prevail . . . and it doesn’t. Not every story has a happy ending. Not every wrong is made right. There is so much hurt, so much suffering, and so much that just doesn’t make sense. There were times it was really difficult to read. But there were also stories that gave me hope. There were triumphs and there were moments that restore your faith in humanity. It can be overwhelming to realize there is so much work to still be done, but ultimately this book left me feeling passionate and hopeful.  While this is by no means an easy read, I think it is such an important read and absolutely recommend it!

Open Book by Jessica Simpson

I think it’s okay every now and again to reflect on that time. Get down the box from the top shelf of the emotional closet and marvel at the things that used to mean so much. The keepsakes of our mistakes, the souvenirs of lost years. But know when to start making new memories with people who deserve the you that you are now. (p. 326)

I would never have claimed to be a big Jessica Simpson fan (although I love love love her show collection haha), but she was obviously a big part of pop culture in the 90’s and early 2000’s and I feel like I’ve grown up with her somewhat. I actually really enjoyed this memoir! It brought back a lot of nostalgia, and it was fun to read about things like the people she met trying out for the Mickey Mouse Club and her rise to fame with her music and Newlyweds . I was also fascinated to read all the things that were really going on beyond the things shown in magazines or on MTV; as always, there is more to the story than what meets the eye. While reading, I kept taking breaks to look up things on the internet – everything from her music videos to Newlywed clips or pictures she’s referencing. Jessica doesn’t shy away from the darker moments in her past and she opens up about abuse she’s suffered and unhealthy relationships she’s been in. While she does call out people (I wouldn’t want to be John Mayer’s publicist after this book came out), she also talks about the things she herself has done that she regrets and the mistakes she’s made. This book was fun, intriguing, vulnerable, and engrossing. I really enjoyed it and would recommend, even if you’re not really a Jessica Simpson fan.

Beach Read by Emily Henry

January and Gus are former college classmates turned bestselling authors who find themselves as neighbors in a small town in Michigan where they both are suffering from a bit of writer’s block. Though they aren’t exactly what you would call friends, they make a bet – write a book in the other person’s genre and see who can sell their book first. Through mini boot-camp trainings to educate one another on their genres, they get to know one another better and start to realize maybe they have more in common than a shared passion for writing.

I think my beef with this book is that the cover and the title feel misleading. Technically there is a beach, and there is a lot of reading involved, but the cover gives off a vibe that is not really at all what the book actually reads like. That aside, I thought the actual premise was cute and enjoyed this read. It took me a while to warm up to January but I loved broody and vulnerable Gus. I liked that the book dug into some meatier topics like marital affairs, abuse, rejection, life in a cult (see what I mean by the cover is misleading!?) and wasn’t just a feel-good, surface-level rom com. There were some parts of the story line that didn’t really interest me, but overall it was a nice enough light read to break up the heavier topics in the other books I read this month. I’d recommend it with the caveat that it falls pretty middle of the road for me – enjoyable, but not a standout.

Lost Roses by Martha Hall Kelly

I previously read Lilac Girls from this author and loved it, so I was excited to see this prequel to the book following the perspectives of three women, American socialite Eliza, Russian heiress Sofya, and Russian peasant Varinka as their lives intertwine around the time of WWI and the Russian Revolution. However, I’m finding this book review a little hard to write. I recognize that this is a a good book, but I’m not actually sure if I enjoyed it. Does that even make sense?

First of all, it’s over 400 pages and I just don’t think it needed to be that long. So many words, but really…did that much stuff happen? No. Secondly, I like having someone to root for but there were no clear heros. I had empathy for Sofya and the plight of the White Russians, but it was also frustrating to see their tremendous sense of entitlement and how little regard they had for the peasants’ suffering. I also had empathy for Varinka and all her suffering as a peasant, but she also did some pretty crappy things once she gained even a slight amount of power. And then Eliza’s story provided some American perspective, but her “America” seemed a little entitled and out of touch and her story felt superfluous to me. I think the book just needed less of her. All that being said, I also didn’t hate it. Ha!  Though it takes place during WWI it focuses more on what was specifically happening in Russia which I thought was interesting and I was invested in finding out the outcome for each woman (mostly Sofya and Varinka). I recognize that the author has written complex characters with vulnerabilities, redeeming qualities, and deep flaws. Overall, this falls in the mid-range for me. Didn’t love it, didn’t hate it, unsure if I’d recommend. If character-driven historical fiction is your thing, maybe give it a shot?

Dating You/Hating You by Christina Lauren

Dating You / Hating You by [Christina Lauren]

Evie and Carter meet up at a mutual friend’s party and the chemistry is instant. They’re both Hollywood agents and don’t typical date those in the industry, but in this case, it seems worth a try. That is until they show up to work one day and realize their companies have merged and they’re now vying for the same position. What was once a potential budding relationship is now filled with competition, zany attempts at sabotage, and maybe a little bit of that initial chemistry too? I read this book on my Kindle in about a day. It’s an easy read: it’s got some silliness, it’s got some steaminess, it’s got a fun cast of main and supporting characters. It’s got an interesting setting of the behind-the-scenes world of Hollywood. It kind of reminded me of movies like How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days; even though the plot lines are really different, the general chemistry + sabotage + chemistry dynamic was similar. Overall, I enjoyed this as a nice light read to round out the month.

I’m really excited about a few of the books I have lined up for September so hopefully I’ll have some more great reviews to report next month! What books are you excited to read?

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