2019 Reading List #1

It’s been a good couple of months, as far as my reading is concerned. I’ve raced through eight books, and even managed to get in two non-fiction works (both of which were really, really good).

As usual, most of my reading happened on the Kindle, or rather the Kindle app on my phone. I don’t mind it much, because my very simple philosophy is do whatever it takes to read. Since most of my reading happens during my daily commute, especially in the evening, it’s a lot more convenient to read on my phone than figuring out an extra light system for my book. Obviously it does no wonders for my screen time, but then it’s all for a good cause, right? :)

Anyway, these are the books I’ve read over the last couple of months! If you’ve read any of these, please tell me your thoughts!!!!! And also, I am always happy to hear suggestions for what to read next!

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1| HALF OF WHAT YOU HEAR – KRISTYN KUSEK LEWIS

The story: Bess & Cole move back to Cole’s hometown after a disastrous job ending in Washington. Cole takes over the family’ss inn-keeping business and Bess tries to piece back her sense of purpose while immersing herself in small-town life. A chance to write an article for the lifestyle supplement of a prestigious newspaper brings her face to face with the town’s most enigmatic resident – Susannah Lane. What follows is the unraveling of family secrets and testing of loyalties, just as Bess is trying to find her place back in the world.

My thoughts: The book was a fast paced read, and mostly well-written. Bess’ struggles to fit in were very beautifully captured, and I think the small town ambience was very well-created. But I didn’t find myself particularly invested in the many mysteries being alluded to, and couldn’t get behind how most of the characters seemed rather unlikeable.

Rating? ★★★

Amazon USA | Amazon India

2| BAD BLOOD – JOHN CARREYROU

The story: In 2003, Elizabeth Holmes dropped out of Stanford and created a med-tech startup Theranos, which promised to revolutionize blood testing and deliver a product which could conduct blood tests only from a pinprick of blood drawn and provide near-instantaneous blood-work results. In 2015, John Carreyrou published a series of articles in the Wall Street Journal to show how Theranos & Elizabeth Holmes had deceived and wilfully misled investors, regulators and customers for nearly a decade, which soon led to several investigations into the company and eventually resulted in Elizabeth Holmes being indicted for several charges in 2018.

My thoughts: I read Bad Blood pretty much immediately after watching the Netflix Fyre documentary and ended up with a severe case of my-mind-is-blown-at-how-unbelievable-these-stories-are!!!

The book is incredibly well-researched and thorough, and the story almost reads like a movie script. I don’t think Elizabeth Holmes’ intention, at least when she was starting out, was to deceive people. She genuinely believed that Theranos could deliver a product which by all means would have changed the game of blood testing. The problem began when she realised that things weren’t working out, and yet she chose to keep up the facade and never come clean to investors or customers.

The level of manipulation and intimidation documented in the book is just insane! To see the kind of sales pitch that some of the most intelligent people in the US venture/tech world fell for, without any proof of delivery, makes me wonder about just how much stuff some people can get away with.

Apart from the actual Theranos story, I loved how the book also covered some of the behind-the-scene aspects of investigative journalism. I know we live in a world of “easy news” where WhatsApp forwards have unfortunately become news sources in their own right, which is why it is ever so important to support credible newspapers / media sites and the work that they do, and in this book, you get a good sense of the kind of hard work such kind of reporting usually entails!

Rating? ★★★★★  

Amazon USA | Amazon India

3| A DISCOVERY OF WITCHES – DEBORAH HARKNESS (BOOK #1 OF THE ALL SOULS TRILOGY)

The story: In a world where humans & creatures coexist, Diana Bishop, an accomplished scholar, unknowingly calls up a bewitched alchemical manuscript – Ashmole 782 – as a part of her research. Diana also happens to be a descendant of one of the most powerful witch families and recognises the magic contained within the book.

Having shunned the world of magic almost all her life, she does not pay much heed, and returns the books after making a few notes. She has little idea about the forces that she has inadvertently unleashed. It also brings Matthew Clairmont, a vampire, into her life. He wants the book, but in the process, finds her, and eventually the two fall in love. Their love is forbidden, and as they both try to uncover the mystery behind the book, they find themselves on the run through place and time, to protect themselves and their love.

My thoughts: The story starts off with such an interesting premise, and I remember reading somewhere that this whole series was like Harry Potter for adults. Sadly, after having read through the entire trilogy, I think that’s a bit of a stretch.

Diana starts off as an independent-minded woman but a few chapters in, she seems to give up all sense of control to Matthew and then perpetually seems to be in the damsel in distress mode. There is certainly a sense of romance and suspense, but the writing is pretty average and the pace is really slow. It took forever to get to any sense of urgency or forward movement in the plot.

I liked the atmosphere build up throughout the novel though I can’t really vouch for the accuracy of all historical events and references. On the whole, the overall story was interesting enough for me to plod through the rather lengthy volume and move on to Book #2.

Rating? I’ve rated the series collectively after Book 3 below.

4| SHADOW OF THE NIGHT – DEBORAH HARKNESS (BOOK #2 OF THE ALL SOULS TRILOGY)

The story: Book #2 picks up exactly where Book #1 ends. Matthew & Diana make it to late 16th century England (1590, to be precise) and they stumble upon a world which Matthew had inhabited at some point in his life. Diana has a lot of learning to do, from learning a new (old????) language, to keeping house, to dealing with suspicious neighbours and friends, to actual magic. Diana & Matthew continue on their quest to unravel the mysteries of Ashmole 782, and in the process, encounter new enemies and dangers.

My thoughts: This book was too much, in so many ways. Too much historical name dropping. Too many characters. Too many words. Too many unnecessary details. Too many layers. Too much stuff happening. It just felt like one never ending saga, when in reality, not a whole lot was happening from a story point of view.

Again, Deborah Harkness is really great with the details (which figures, given her own background as a historian) and in creating an atmosphere, especially of 16th century England, but it all becomes repetitive and unnecessary too soon. Way too much talk of dresses and such stuff, which we could easily have done without.   

Many elements of the story required a serious suspension of belief. Also, the whole time travel part was dealt with rather casually. It’s weird that you expect major characters to time travel (or walk, whatever!), shake things up, time travel back, and yet no major change has really happened. The whole part of the story set in Poland made me roll my eyes once too many.

The first book, even with its problems, had a semblance of story to it. Book #2 takes that forward, but it’s literally just about hanging by a thread. By this point, I was majorly done with the books, but having gone through 2 out of the 3 books in the series, I really didn’t want to give up, so I moved on to Book #3.

Rating? I’ve rated the series collectively after Book 3 below.

5| THE BOOK OF LIFE – DEBORAH HARKNESS (BOOK #3 OF THE ALL SOULS TRILOGY)

The story: Matthew & Diana make it back to modern day France/England/USA, and are reunited with most of the characters from the first book. As they get closer to piecing together the mystery of Ashmole 782, just like in Book #2, they encounter new (but really, old) enemies and dangers.

My thoughts: Given that this was the final book of the trilogy, I obviously expected most of the loose ends to be tied up, and I think for some bits, the book delivered on that aspect. Granted, most of it came about in haphazard fashion, and with some plot inconsistencies. Too, too many things happen in this book, most of it without much logic.

All in all, was it a satisfactory ending to the trilogy? Well, it was an end, let me put it that way.

Rating? ★★ (for the series on the whole)  

Amazon USA | Amazon India

6| THE BURNING GIRL – CLAIRE MESSUD

The story: Julia and Cassie are childhood friends, growing up in a small, unassuming town in Massachusetts. As they enter adolescence, they gradually grow apart and when Cassie starts walking down a difficult path, Julia is forced back into her life.

My thoughts: This was such a non-story, really. I don’t quite know how to explain it but the way the story is set up, you’re just following along these two girls growing up into their teenage years, and there does not seem to be much else that’s happening. Of course Julia (Juju), from whose perspective the story is told, shares about her feelings and her way of dealing with the growing separation with Cassie, but it still feels like it’s all on the surface.

One thing that I positively didn’t like about the story was how it hinted at a whodunit, when in reality, that just felt like a false rouse, and I really didn’t appreciate that.

Rating? ★★

Amazon USA | Amazon India

7| THE REMINDERS – VAL EMMICH

The story: Joan is a precocious 10 year old, with an uncanny ability to remember nearly all details of her life and daily occurrences. Gavin, a friend of Joan’s parents, is heartbroken over the sudden loss of his partner, Sydney, and comes to live with Joan’s family in an attempt to get away from his demons.

They both find a certain type of solace in each other, and strike a deal: Gavin would help Joan in a songwriting contest, while she would recount to Gavin all the details that she remembers of Sydney. In the process, Gavin finds some closure (and some questions) while Joan learns more about songwriting and life in general.

My thoughts: This was an adorable story, filled with quirky characters and delicate, heartwarming insights. I found some similarity in tone with the book, Wonder.

It’s a light read but not without some important life lessons. The characters are unique, yet relatable. I mean, loss and grief is a universal language which most of us do understand in some shape and form.

I loved the relationship portrayed between Gavin & Joan, and especially how they progress from being wary of each other, to cultivating a deep, meaningful relationship. There is a warmth of it which come across beautifully.

Rating? ★★★★

Amazon USA | Amazon India

8| EDUCATED – TARA WESTOVER

The story: Tara Westover and her siblings are brought up in a survivalist household, and their father has a deep distrust of the government, formal education and hospitals. The siblings help their father in his junkyard business, often subject to physical harm. Pushed by one of the elder siblings, Tara enters a classroom for the first time at age 17, and from thereon, begins her formal education. Her natural abilities and hard work take her to prestigious universities, and yet, she finds herself yearning for the acceptance of her family.

My thoughts: I’ve saved the best for the last. This book was such a beautiful, but incredibly difficult read – especially the first half. So many instances made me gasp out aloud.

The thing is, when you’re reading fiction, even in the most horrific parts you know that it is not a real life story. There is a sense of separation that you can practice. But in memoirs such as this, you have no such luxury. Knowing that what’s been written about has actually happened, I think that affects you on a much deeper level.

Tara Westover is a powerful storyteller. Her words evoke vivid imagery, and there is a sense of objectivity that she tries to maintain for most parts of the book. There was no overt “look how cruel my father was to me and my siblings” kind of a vibe that you get, which I think is commendable, given the kind of abuse that they were subjected to for most of their lives.

Tara’s ability (and also of her two other siblings) to move beyond her childhood beliefs, her acting on her want to explore the world beyond the Princess’ Peak, her sheer gumption to learn and succeed in the conventional academic world, is beyond commendable.  

As difficult as Tara’s story was, I really enjoyed the book a great deal.

Rating? ★★★★

Amazon USA | Amazon India

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3 Comments

  1. That book Educated look really interesting. I love reading memoirs, so that suggestion is right up my alley. Thanks for sharing!

  2. I love book recaps. I did read the All Saints Trilogy and remember I liked it. But then I couldn’t recall what really happened so it must have not been overly great. Educated is also on my TBR.
    Happy Sunday to you Tobia