the sparkly life: All The Books I Read in April and May

Friday, June 5, 2020

All The Books I Read in April and May

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This has been a week, huh? An emotional, tough, but necessary week. My heart has broken a million times in a million different ways, my boil has boiled, I've cried. But through it all, reading, as always, has been a solace for me. I've been soaking in as much news as possible, and then taking a few moments here and there, to momentarily escape and read for pleasure. (And that's absolutely a privilege, I know.)

This post was ready to go up earlier this week, but I held it back for obvious reasons. I still don't know if it's the right time. But I decided to share it for those who are still looking to books at this time, whether that's for escape, joy, education, or whatever you need books to be right now. 

Since I never got around to putting together my April reads (oops!), I combined them here. So there's a lot of books here...! The good news: They are all good! Yep, I didn't read any duds. There are definitely some standouts here (including a couple of books that are some of the best I've read in a long time!), and certainly some are better than others, but everything here is worth reading. How often does that happen??

Also, to note: There are a couple of books here where you'll see that I highly recommend the audiobook versus the print version. And for audiobooks, I love to use, because your purchases go directly to indie bookstores, not Amazon. (And that's so important right now!) If you're not yet a member of Libro, you can use my affiliate link to try it out and you'll get three audiobooks for the price is one. For that, just click here, or use code ALYSSA.

And, while I have you, did you catch me talking books on the podcast Sarah's Bookshelves Live? If not, you can get a link to it here.

But for now, here's every book I read for the last two months. Enjoy! 


RodhamThis is the fictional, imagined story of Hillary Clinton’s life if she had never married Bill. In this alternate universe, after meeting and falling in love in law school, Hillary turns down Bill’s marriage proposal (she’s very presciently nervous about his tendencies towards infidelity!), and the two go their separate ways. We then follow them over the next 40 years and see that very little is the same for either of them, for the country, for history, or really for anyone (even Donald Trump). It makes you think about how the simple decisions one person makes can have a huge ripple effect for so many others. This book is over 400 pages but I read it in less than 24 hours. I simply could not turn the pages fast enough. For the first third or so, I was practically giddy about it (and constantly reminding myself that this was a novel, not a memoir!), because Curtis Sittenfeld did an uncannily good job capturing Hillary’s voice. I adore Hillary, so this book was essentially fan fiction for me, but it’s so much more than that. It’s a great, gripping story, it’s incredibly creative, and it’s ultimately cathartic. Think of it as a true gift for anyone who brought their young daughters to the polls with them on November 8, 2016, and then later spent that night staring blankly at the TV and bawling. I needed this book, and I loved it so, so much. It’s definitely one of my favorite books that I’ve read in 2020, and potentially one of my favorite books ever. It was an absolutely delightful read that briefly took me out of the dark days of our current administration, while reminding me why, always, #imwithher.

The Girl With the Louding Voice - This was both a Book of the Month pick earlier this year, as well as a Read With Jenna pick, and it's the story of Adunni, a young teenager living in Nigeria. We first meet Adunni at 14 when her father sells her off to be the third wife of a much older man. After a series of dramatic events, she then runs away to the city to work as a servant to a wealthy (and horribly abusive woman). But as tough as things get, Adunni never stops believing that one day she will find strength, an education, and ultimately, her “louding voice.” I really loved this book! It has sad moments, it’s inspiring, it’s even funny at times. The characters are amazing and you’ll find yourself rooting for Adunni throughout the book. One note: I’ve heard of people giving up on the book early, because of the distinctive way it’s written in broken English. Do not let that deter you! First, you get used to it, I promise. And second, this writing style ultimately fades away anyway as the book goes on. As Adunni grows and finds her voice, in turn, the voice of the book changes, as well. 

The Vanishing Half - This is the story of identical twin sisters, Desiree and Stella Vignes. They are born in the small town of Mallard, Louisiana, which is celebrated for its African American residents being extremely light-skinned. After witnessing the violent lynching of their father at a very young age, the twins are raised by their single mother, who takes them out of school as teenagers, so that they can earn money cleaning for a white family. But this is not the life the twins want, so they run away to the city. Soon, their lives veer apart in very different ways. Desiree goes on to marry a black man and have a child with him, but Stella learns she can "pass" as white, and takes this to the extreme, marrying a white man and living undiscovered in a white community. She leaves Mallard, her old life, and even her twin sister behind her. This book is amazing, and truly one of the best things I've read this year. The writing is beautiful and the story is incredibly gripping. I will say, the first third or so, is a bit slow, with lots of (necessary) background, but then there is a moment where everything changes and you won't be able to put it down. It's a fascinating look at racism, colorism, family, and the secrets that can destroy us. It is quite simply, a really, really wonderful book. Note: This is available now as a Book of the Month pick for June (if you're not a member yet, you can click this link to join and get a free book!), and is sure to be on many Best Of lists this year.

Commonwealth - Ever since falling in love with the Ann Patchett novel The Dutch House late last year, I've been on a mission to read everything else she has written. This is one that is very often cited as  many people's favorite Patchett book, and I can see why. It's the kind of book that I am a total sucker for: an extremely well-written family drama that spans decades and is very hard to put down. The story starts when a married man kisses a married woman (who is not his wife!) at a party, and that one act sets off so many changes for both spouses, and the six children between them, for years to come. We see the kids as children, shuttled between both homes once the parents remarry, and we see them as adults, deeply affected by the choices of their parents. This book is just so good, and the wrting is exquisite. If you love great writing and immersive family dramas, this one is a must-read.

Untamed - I love Glennon Doyle's writing, and I loved this book. It's a collection of essays that combine her own life experiences with inspiring, empowering advice for women. (It's also really funny!) I listened to the audiobook (highly recommend!), and found myself nodding throughout. I wish I had been able to read it in my early 20s, so I could have heard and hopefully internalized these things earlier, but I still found it so valuable now. 

The Wife Stalker - I hadn't read a great, immersive thriller in a while, but this one was just what I needed. It's a psychological thriller told from the point of view of two different women: Joanna, a Westport, CT mother of two and wife to lawyer Leo, and Piper, a younger, gorgeous, conniving yoga instructor/business owner who sets her sights on Leo and quickly sweeps him off his feet. He dumps Joanna immediately. The story is told in alternating chapters from each point of view, as we see Piper wrap Leo more and more around her finger (and as she takes those kids further and further from Joanna), and Joanna as she investigates Piper’s mysterious background, which includes multiple aliases—and multiple dead spouses. This book is incredibly propulsive (I simply could not put it down!), but I was a little frustrated at first because some of the characters seemed to act in a really far-fetched way and I thought I had it essentially figured out early on. But NOPE!!! Turns out I had NO IDEA what was coming and I absolutely loved the way it all wrapped up in the end. Every character ended up surprising me, and the book was a fun, suspenseful, truly unputdownable book that was an easy joy of a read. 

The Chiffon Trenches - This was one of the books I mentioned when I appeared on the Sarah's Bookshelves Live podcast, so I was definitely looking forward to it. And I was not disappointed! Andre Leon Talley is a longtime, iconic editor in the fashion world, and was Anna Wintour's right-hand man for many years. In this memoir, he looks back at his life in fashion and dishes on everyone from Andy Warhol to Karl Lagerfeld to, yes, Anna Wintour. There's lots of gossip-y moments (he's very open), but there's also just a ton of amazing fashion history and insight. It basically felt like a fashion masterclass with the world's coolest instructor. I do think the audiobook is a must, but it's a very quick one! 


Stamped: Racism, Anti-Racism, and You - This is a "remix" of a longer, more in-depth book called Stamped From the Beginning. It's a (cool, super interesting) history lesson going back to the "world's first racist" and contiuning on through modern history. I found it so fascinating and informative to see how all of these things connected and got us to where we are today. I did the audiobook, which I highly recommend (there are musical elements and the narrator is fantastic), and listened to it in ONE four-hour sitting! If current events have you committed to educating yourself on racism and the black experience (and I do hope that's the case), then this an excellent book to start with.

Big SummerDaphne and Drue were best friends growing up and throughout high school, but things ended badly, suddenly, six years ago. Then, Drue appears out of the blue, asking Daphne if she will be her maid-of-honor in her upcoming wedding. It’s unexpected, to say the least, and Daphne is torn about what to do. For their entire lives, Daphne lived in Drue’s shadow. Drue was beautiful, rich, and the life of the party. Daphne was overweight and not nearly as popular. But lately, the balance appears to be shifting somewhat. Daphne now makes her living as a successful, plus-size influencer, and Drue—though still gorgeous and wealthy—appears to no longer have as many friends. Nonetheless, Daphne remembers the good times (and she feels bad!), so she accepts the offer to be in Drue’s wedding party. And from that moment on, nothing will ever be the same for anyone
This book is clearly marketed as a novel about female friendship—something author Jennifer Weiner does, so well—and it is that. But it is so much more. There is mystery and even murder (!), which was something I did not expect! This was a fun, suspenseful book that was very tough to put down. It’s a quick read, but a great one, and a perfect beach read.

Catherine House Catherine House is a mysterious, elite school tucked away in the woods of rural Pennsylvania. Students live and study at the school for three years and must leave behind all of their possessions, photos, and clothing when they entire its gates. They won’t be able to watch TV or listen to music. They have to wear school-issued clothes. They can’t talk to or see their loved ones while they’re at the school; they can’t even leave its grounds. For three years, they must give themselves over to the secrecy of Catherine House entirely. But if they do, they are promised success and an unrivaled education. (Catherine House graduates include famous artists, inventors, Supreme Court justices, presidents, and more!) We meet our main character, Ines, when she is starting her first year at the school. Like many first-year students, Ines is struggling to adjust to life after high school. But in addition to a rigorous schedule and new friends, at Catherine, Ines also has to learn to deal with the rigid environment, strange happenings, and oh so many secrets. This is one of those books that is tough to talk about without giving anything away, but lets just say, it was impossible to put down—especially after you got about halfway through—and combines so many of my favorite literary things: secret societies, campus hijinks, suspense, thrills, and maybe even a little sci-fi. It’s a great read, and I really hope it becomes a movie. It would make such an incredible film!

Perfect Tunes - In the year 2000, Laura moves to New York City to become a musician. She is just starting to play shows with her best friend and find a small bit of success, when she meets another young musician and starts a brief but intense love affair with him. Soon, nothing is the same for her relationship, her career, or really, her life. Fifteen years later, Laura is living a completely different--and much less glamorous--life in Brooklyn, with her husband and teenage daughters. Her daughter, Marie, begins asking questions about the father she has never met, and Laura must figure out how to navigate this. I really liked this book. It was well-written, and was funny at times and sad at others. It did a good job at looking at regret, and how our lives can turn out so much different than how we imagined they'd be when we were young. The ending felt a little abrupt to me though. I didn't dislike it; it just had me wanting more. I think she must be planning a sequel!

Invisible Girl Owen Picks is a 30-something “incel” (involuntary celibate) who lives with his aunt and has just lost his job over a sexual harassment allegation. Meanwhile, right across the street lives Cate, a physical therapist and mom of two teens, who is married to Roan, a child psychologist. When one of Roan’s patients—a teen named Saffyre Maddox—disappears, suddenly it seems everyone is under suspicion. This psychological thriller is suspenseful, gripping, and maybe even a little bit disturbing, but it will definitely keep you turning those pages! I loved how it forced you to go back and forth in your head as to who was the culprit, and I also found it to be a fascinating look at the idea that people are rarely what they appear to be. (Note: This doesn't actually come out until October, but you can preorder!)

Home Before Dark - Maggie Holt is a very young child when her family moves into Baneberry Hall, a spooky old home that turns out to be a real life haunted house with a violent and troubling history. Things get so bad, in fact, that the family ends up fleeing the home a mere three weeks later. Now, 25 years later, Maggie is a grown woman with no memory of living in Baneberry Hall; all she knows comes from the best-selling book her father wrote about their experience. When the book begins, her father has just passed away and left her the home in his will. (She has no idea he still, secretly, owned it!) Maggie, who happens to be a restorer of old homes, goes back to the house to renovate it for sale. She’s not nervous. She doesn’t believe a word of anything her father wrote in that book. But then, strange things start to happen in the house. Lights and record players turn on by themselves. There are mysterious noises, and even shadowy figures lurking on the property. Suddenly, the oh-so-skeptical Maggie starts to believe that maybe some of her father’s book may have been true, after all. Told in alternating chapters that toggle between Maggie’s present day experience and the best-selling book itself, we slowly learn the secrets of Baneberry Hall, right along with our main character. I really enjoyed this book—I think it’s my favorite Riley Sager yet! It’s creepy and gripping, but still somehow seems totally realistic! I was turning the pages so quickly, and actually found myself wishing I could visit Baneberry Hall in real life. (But maybe only during the daytime hours!)


We Were The Lucky Ones - This is WWII historical fiction about the Kurcs, a Jewish family living in Poland at the start of the war. Every member of the family is separated from each other, and you will be on the edge of your seat as they each traverse the continent to find their way back to each other. I liked this book while reading it, but liked it even more when I got to the end when I reached the end and (not a spoiler) learned that the book is based on the true story of the author's own relatives. (And not even loosely based, it seems!!) I honestly thought some parts of the story seemed a little too fantastical to to be true, but it turns out, those parts were real! It's really incredible. If you love WWII fiction, this is definitely a worthwhile read.

The Swallows - Alexandra Witt is just starting as a new teacher at a fancy schmancy New England boarding school when she begins to uncover a dark secret. She learns that there is a group of boys running something called "the Darkroom," which rules the social hierachy at the school, and seems to be very upsetting for many of the female students. She soon teams up with a group of these girls, and basically enacts a revenge plot against the boys. This book is smart and touches on sexual assault, consent, and the gray areas surrounding all of that. This story is not what you'd expect.

Seinfeldia - This was a fun little book I picked up on a whim when I saw it was available right away on Libby. I did the audiobook, but that is not a must. (Nothing special about the audio version!) It's a fun read if you're a big Seinfeld fan like me. Lots of history and behind the scenes info on the making of the series.

The Red Lotus - Alexis--the E.R. doctor who is the main character of this story--is on a biking trip in Vietnam with Austin, her boyfriend of six months, when he suddenly goes missing. When the search proves futile, she eventually returns to the United States and investigates  This was a bit of a "surface level" read for me, which means that even if I enjoyed reading it, it won't stick with me. I didn't particularly care about the characters or what happened to them (and I prefer to care about characters), but I still read this in one day, which I always love. It's definitely totally plot-driven and will keep you turning those pages.

Beach Read - January Andrews is a romance writer, who has just lost her father (and learned some distrubing family secrets). Augutus Everett is a fancy (and sexy!) literary fiction author. When the two find themselves living next door to each other in their beach houses, they are butting heads, but soon decide to make a deal to get them out of their dueling cases of writer's block. Augustus will write a romance book (since it's sooo easy, right?), and January will write a more serious literary novel. And since this book is a romance novel, I think we ultimately can guess where it goes from here, right? So, I’m very picky about romances, and this one is definitely predictable, so it just ok for me for that reason, but there was still a lot to love in it. I thought the writing was smart and totally non-cheesy, I loved the more emotional parts that involved her dad, and it was a quick, easy read that kept my interest the entire time. All in all, if you love a romance, I think this is a good one.

The Guest List - So many people loved this one--and it's the latest Reese's Book Club pick--but it was just okay for me. (I listened to it on audio though, so maybe that's why?). In this Agatha-Christie-esque mystery/thriller, a wedding is about to take place on a remote island off the coast of Ireland. As the story is told in alternating POVs, we hear from the bride, her groom to be (a reality TV star), her sister, members of the wedding party, and the proprietress of the wedding venue. Slowly, we learn that there are many different secrets that many of these people have--and that will seriously affect everyone involved. I was definitely engrossed in the book the whole time, and there's some big surprises, so if you are really into mysteries/thrillers, it might be one try. (Especially, because again, I'm in the minority on this. Most people loved it!)

Have you guys read any of these? What did you think? And if there's anything else awesome you've read lately, please let me know!


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