What I read last month: September 2017

In What I Read Last Month, I recap the previous month’s reading and shamelessly copy and paste from my Goodreads reviews. You can read previous months’ What I Read… by clicking here. Disclaimer: Amazon links are affiliate links, but despite wanting to support writers by buying books, I get most of mine from the library.

Magazines

The new Tin House arrived in my mailbox in mid-September. Yay! I’m trying to ration it so it lasts.

I also read a few stories from Bodega and The Baltimore Review.

I secretly love well-written television, and will consume content about television writing at any opportunity. Despite being notoriously snooty about excessive television-watching, I tore right through the New Yorker TV issue. The piece about Jenji Kohan, creator of Weeds and Orange is the New Black, was right up my alley.

Books

Winter Garden

★★★★

Well, shoot. I’m unsure how to rate this one. I almost feel like I need to evaluate the first and second halves of the book separately.

I have to admit, I wished I could put this book down for at least the first half. A lot of things tripped me up: frustrating main characters, who kept hurting good people who loved them. Clunky exposition shoved into characters actions that conflicted with the close third POV. Unnatural-feeling dialogue. Whole sentences summarizing what a savvy reader could easily learn from the surrounding prose.

These trip-ups appear in many, many successful books. And indeed, there’s a reason I kept reading this one. After reading two of her books, I think Kristin Hannah’s special power is creating characters that pop. Even when I felt frustrated with them, the characters felt real enough to me that I couldn’t walk out on them. I had to know what happened.

In this case, perseverance paid off. The first-person chapters are especially powerful. The final half of this book feels like a different story. I couldn’t stop reading. The pacing was spot on, emotions were intense, and the end was totally unexpected. I’d normally say it was too neat, but the neat ending worked for me this time.

I’d give the final act of this book a much higher rating than the beginning, which could use some work. Overall, the average experience for me still balanced out to three or four stars.

Bonita Avenue

★★★

I’m not sure what to make of this book.

On the one hand, it is a truly impressive debut novel. Well-honed, and the writing pulled me right in. The English translation reads wonderfully. Despite its considerable length, especially for an author’s first published novel, I read Bonita Avenue rather quickly.

That said, all this skilled writing hangs on a plot that I struggled to find believable by the end. The one major aspect I found lacking in Bonita Avenue was contrast. As I read on, it seemed every character had something outside the norm going on: schizophrenia, a secret multi-million-dollar porn site, sociopathy (though, as depicted, Wilbert is hardly a believable sociopath, which makes his outcome in life feel overblown), a weird fetish.

This is a consistent pet peeve of mine: books that offer a full slate of outlier characters when one rarely finds that in real life. One might believe the (step)daughter of a university president could have become a secret millionaire from the porn site she ran with her boyfriend. That, in an of itself, is a great plot set-up. But from there, every single circumstance we encounter is extenuating. The POV shifts, though they work well for the book, exacerbate this issue by bringing in backstory and side plots from multiple angles.

Bonita Avenue was well-written enough for me to let this go as a form of abstract art. However, the end of the book really brought this contrast issue into focus for me. The final chapters are troubling and intense, but somewhat dulled by everything we’ve seen thus far.

Without revealing any spoilers, there are also some significant reveals toward the end. These are left mostly unresolved. The end of a book shouldn’t wrap up every plot thread neatly, but neither should the reader be left hanging. It’s a delicate balance. For my taste, Bonita Avenue stopped just short of giving me everything I needed to feel like I could close out my relationship with its characters.

Overall, the reading experience was something I definitely don’t regret, but I had higher hopes for the eventual resolution.

Other stuff

I’ve spent some quality time with Writer’s Market and Guide to Literary Agents, both of which have helped me organize my fiction queries.

I also attended the Baltimore Book Festival with my four-year-old. I had to pass up the opportunity to wander for hours in the used-book tents in deference to my travel companion, but I did snag a free copy of Towson’s Grub Street magazine.

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