Remember how I told you that, even thought my reading was way down, where I was really failing was in getting the reviews written? So in order to start the new year off with a clean slate, I'm going to have a second post on this last day of the year and do mini-reviews of the last four books I finished in 2021.
Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney
Read by Aoife McMahon
Published September 2021 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Alice, a novelist, meets Felix, who works in a warehouse, and asks him if he’d like to travel to Rome with her. In Dublin, her best friend, Eileen, is getting over a break-up and slips back into flirting with Simon, a man she has known since childhood. Alice, Felix, Eileen, and Simon are still young—but life is catching up with them. They desire each other, they delude each other, they get together, they break apart. They have sex, they worry about sex, they worry about their friendships and the world they live in. Are they standing in the last lighted room before the darkness, bearing witness to something? Will they find a way to believe in a beautiful world?
I've been meaning to get to one of Rooney's books for a long time so when this one started getting buzz, I decided it was as good a place to start as any. And it won the Good Reads Choice Award for Fiction for 2021, an award chosen by people like myself.
I gave up on it 70% in. I never give up on a book when I'm more than half way through it but I couldn't stand any more of any of these characters or the weird way that Rooney paced her story. There were long emails between Alice and Eileen where one or the other of them opined about the state of the world and then we were treated to long passages of the minutiae of their lives. And sex. Lots of sex. It might be a good book - it wasn't for me at this time. And while Aoife McMahon did a terrific job, maybe I would have enjoyed it more in print. I'll never find out because there are too many other books I'd rather pick up.
by Richard Powers
Read by Edoardo Bellerini
Published September 2021 by W. W. Norton Company
The astrobiologist Theo Byrne searches for life throughout the cosmos while singlehandedly raising his unusual nine-year-old son, Robin, following the death of his wife. Robin is funny, loving, and filled with plans. He thinks and feels deeply and can spend hours painting elaborate pictures of the endangered animals he loves. He is also about to be expelled from third grade for smashing his friend in the face.
What can a father do, when the only solution offered to his troubled son is to put him on psychoactive drugs? What can he say when his boy comes to him wanting an explanation for a world that is clearly in love with its own destruction?
With its soaring descriptions of the natural world, its tantalizing visions of life beyond and its account of a father and son's ferocious love, Bewilderment marks Richard Powers's most intimate and moving novel. At its heart lies the question: How can we tell our children the truth about this beautiful, imperiled planet?
This one is written by a Pulitzer Prize winner, a prize awarded not by readers like me. And I read and found enough in Powers' The Overstory to be intrigued to see how he would incorporate science into a story about interesting people this time.
Like The Overstory, Kirkus Reviews and I agree about this one. While it can veer into planetary fantasy frequently, those pieces also serve to give readers insight into the relationship between father and son. And it's a marvelous relationship between a man who is deeply grieving the wife he adored and his challenging son who is equally lost without the person who understood him best.
Powers makes his opinion of the previous administration, about climate change and what humans are doing to our planet, and his thoughts about our eagerness to medicate over finding better solutions clear. And yet this one did not feel quite a preachy. Maybe because I agree with him. Maybe because I cared so much about Theo and Robin.
The Sweetness of Water
by Nathan Harris
Read by William DeMeritt
Published June 2021 by Hachette Book Group
In the waning days of the Civil War, brothers Prentiss and Landry—freed by the Emancipation Proclamation—seek refuge on the homestead of George Walker and his wife, Isabelle. The Walkers, wracked by the loss of their only son to the war, hire the brothers to work their farm, hoping through an unexpected friendship to stanch their grief. Prentiss and Landry, meanwhile, plan to save money for the journey north and a chance to reunite with their mother, who was sold away when they were boys.
Parallel to their story runs a forbidden romance between two Confederate soldiers. The young men, recently returned from the war to the town of Old Ox, hold their trysts in the woods. But when their secret is discovered, the resulting chaos, including a murder, unleashes convulsive repercussions on the entire community. In the aftermath of so much turmoil, it is Isabelle who emerges as an unlikely leader, proffering a healing vision for the land and for the newly free citizens of Old Ox.
With candor and sympathy, debut novelist Nathan Harris creates an unforgettable cast of characters, depicting Georgia in the violent crucible of Reconstruction. Equal parts beauty and terror, as gripping as it is moving, The Sweetness of Water is an epic whose grandeur locates humanity and love amid the most harrowing circumstances.
Yep, 100% agree with the publisher on this one. These characters are unforgettable and Harris does a wonderful job of balancing the terror and beauty of this time, this place, and these people. While very bad things do happen, though, Harris balances that with hope and it made all the difference for me. I'm not sure why this one didn't get more press and acclaim.
For the second time in one post, I have to admit to agreeing with Kirkus Reviews who found this book just as moving as I did.
The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue
by V. E. Schwab
Read by Julia Whalen
Published October 2020 by Tom Dougherty Associates
France, 1714: in a moment of desperation, a young woman makes a Faustian bargain to live forever and is cursed to be forgotten by everyone she meets.
Thus begins the extraordinary life of Addie LaRue, and a dazzling adventure that will play out across centuries and continents, across history and art, as a young woman learns how far she will go to leave her mark on the world.
But everything changes when, after nearly 300 years, Addie stumbles across a young man in a hidden bookstore and he remembers her name.
If you look at this one on Goodreads, you'll find that you'll see a lot of one- and two-star reviews and then a lot of five-star reviews, not much in between. Here's the thing - I get both of those reactions. It's too long and probably Schwab spends too much time in the present and not enough time following Addie through the 300 years of her life. We learn that she spent time working as a spy during WWII but we know nothing her experiences doing that. We know that she traveled over time but never to a country where the population was anything other than predominately white. And we have to buy into the idea that she could fall for the the devil to whom she has promised her soul and who appears to her in a form she conceived (the ultimate bad boy).
This one was, perhaps, the right book at the right time for me because I was willing for forgive Schwab most of that (except maybe perhaps the length). How hard would it be to survive if no one ever remembered you - you couldn't hold a job, couldn't rent an apartment. It's impossible to survive while never bending the rules yet, when she finally does meet the man who does remember her, how to justify all she's done? And how will their relationship survive? I found myself more than willing to suspend disbelief and go along for the ride. Julia Whelan's reading, as always, only served to enhance the experience.
And that's a wrap for 2021 folks. No year-end statistics. Just an updated list at the top of this page of my favorite books of the year.