My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

Ayoola summons me with these words – Korede, I killed him.

I had hoped I would never hear those words again.

91vWDBRqMqLWith that awesome opening, Oyinkan Braithwaite had me hooked from the start. Her debut novel, My Sister, the Serial Killer, is quite the page-turner – a quirky, darkly funny, kind of sad, creepy depiction of sisters caught in a warped dynamic.

Korede is the responsible, plain-looking older sister, working as a nurse in a Lagos hospital. Ayoola is the younger, flightier, more beautiful sister who posts incessantly on Instagram and attracts men easily. We are drawn into the action immediately, as Ayoola asks for her sister’s help after she kills the man she’s been dating.

“We need to move the body,” I tell her.

“Are you angry at me?”

Perhaps a normal person would be angry, but what I feel now is a pressing need to dispose of the body.

We learn more about the sisters’ childhood, their violent and abusive father. We start to understand more about how that affected them.

More and more, she reminds me of him. He could do a bad thing and behave like a model citizen right after. As though the bad thing had never happened. Is it in the blood? But his blood is my blood and my blood is hers.

Korede is in love with a doctor at the hospital named Tade. He is unaware of how she feels, viewing her as a friend who really listens to him. Once Ayoola and Tade meet, a meeting Korede was desperate to block, a chain of events is set into motion that will give Korede the opportunity to break free from the family’s cycle of violence and dysfunction. Will she be strong enough to take it, though?

There are moments of humor sprinkled throughout the novel, enough to make this not a bleak book despite the subject matter.

“You’re not the only one suffering, you know. You act like you are carrying this big thing all by yourself, but I worry too.”

“Do you? ‘Cause the other day, you were singing ‘I Believe I Can Fly.'”

Ayoola shrugs. “It’s a good song.”

I alternately felt sorry for and frustrated by both sisters. But I never lost interest or stopped wanting to turn pages. (I also LOVE the cover.)  This is a smart, insightful debut and I can’t wait to see what Braithwaite does next.

 

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Outer Order, Inner Calm by Gretchen Rubin

“…it’s important to remember that outer order isn’t simply a matter of having less or having more; it’s a matter of wanting what we have.”

41RaMB9o7bL._SX360_BO1,204,203,200_If you’re someone who feels like you’ve got too much stuff and all that stuff weighs on your mind, then Gretchen Rubin’s new book Outer Order, Inner Calm is for you. If you enjoy Marie Kondo’s show on Netflix but you think that her system is too rigid, this is definitely a book you should check out. (Literally. Check it out from your library so you don’t add to your clutter! ) Its bite-sized bits of advice are logical and encouraging and just might give you the push you need to let some things go.

If I only take away one idea from Rubin’s book, it’s this one: If you don’t need it, love, it, or use it, you should probably get rid of it.

Simple, right? And for me, it works better than Kondo’s “spark joy” idea. Everybody’s different, and Rubin seems to get that.

img_3736Another favorite piece of advice: The Three Strikes and You’re Out Rule. If she’s thought about getting rid of something twice before, the third time she thinks it, she gets rid of it. I sometimes find myself holding on to things that people have given me as gifts, but they’re things I don’t really want. I just keep them out of guilt, I guess. Now I can use this idea to show myself that I really DON’T want that scented candle or whatever it is.

Another great tip: Make a Mock Move. Would you bother to wrap up this item in bubble wrap and stick it in a box and put it on a truck to take it to a new house? If not, out it goes.

This is a very approachable advice book for people who don’t want to dump every piece of clothing they own in a big pile on the bed and tackle clutter all at once. Rubin is logical but also recognizes that people need beautiful things and sentimental things in their lives. In fact, her last section is titled “Add Beauty.” I really enjoyed this book and found it very helpful. You can read a few tips at a time or read the whole thing straight through in no time at all. I bet it will inspire you to look at your belongings and habits with a new eye.

 

The Lost Man by Jane Harper

At night, when the sky felt even bigger, he could almost imagine it was a million years ago and he was walking on the bottom of the sea. A million years ago when a million natural events still needed to occur, one after another, to form this land as it lay in front of him now. A place where rivers flooded without rain and seashells fossilized a thousand miles from water and men who left their cars found themselves walking to their deaths.

Jane Harper writes consistently thoughtful, gripping mysteries. Her third and latest book, The Lost Man, isn’t shelved in the mystery section at my library (but I think it should be.) Taking a break from her Agent Aaron Falk series, Harper keeps the setting in Australia, this time in the sweltering Christmas time Outback of Queensland. Once again, she creates a vivid portrait of an unforgiving landscape and, in this outing, a seriously dysfunctional family.51XFkVOYqOL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_

The Bright family owns a lot of land, giant cattle ranches split between the three brothers, Nathan, Cameron, and Bub. Vast distances separate their homesteads – a three hour’s drive from Nathan’s to Cameron’s, which was the original family home. The land is rather bleak and Harper once again does a wonderful job of situating her story into a very atmospheric setting. The book opens with a gruesome death – middle brother and golden boy Cameron’s body is found dehydrated and heat-stricken in the meager shadow of a local landmark, the Stockman’s Grave. His car is later found fully stocked with water and supplies and in good condition but miles away from his body. No one in their right mind would walk away from safety into the extremely dangerous temperatures of the Outback. Was it suicide? What had his state of mind been lately? Little by little, eldest brother Nathan, a divorced dad and black sheep of the family, starts peeling back the layers of the mystery. In doing so he has to relive and confront some very ugly truths about his family’s past.

I read this quickly, in just a few days, and when I had to put it down I longed to pick it back up as soon as possible. I found that Harper has a wonderful way of ending a chapter with a little revelation or a question so that I felt compelled to keep reading. In spite of the relative isolation of the setting, Harper gives the reader plenty of characters who act just a little bit shady and may have the motive to commit murder. I confess I didn’t see the solution coming. While the family dynamics at play here may seem just a shade over the top, I felt the characters were credible enough for me to enjoy the story. Nathan in particular was a compelling character, trying to break free from the mistakes of his past and the walls he’d put up in the meantime. If you’ve not read Harper before this standalone would make a great place to start. (Although there is a fun little Easter egg connection to her first book, The Dry.) Just know that she’s more of a slow burn kind of author with great attention to detail rather than a breakneck pace kind of writer. I really liked this one. 4 stars.

The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan (Reading Ireland Month)

For Cathy’s annual Reading Ireland Month celebration and exploration of Irish literature, I chose an author I’d read and loved before: Donal Ryan. The Spinning Heart is a short book (156 pages) but it packs a huge emotional punch. I kept having to put it down because each chapter was so weighty and gave me so much to consider. He is an absolutely beautiful writer, and if you’ve never tried him before I highly recommend him. But be warned, this is not escapist reading.

712fj-pYwALEach chapter of the book is narrated by a different character, and they don’t come back to narrate another chapter later as in so many other books told from multiple perspectives. Because this takes place in a small town everybody knows everybody else, so we hear about characters again and again from different points of view. In this way the action of the story keeps moving forward despite not having continuity in storytellers.

Set just after the booming economy of the “Celtic Tiger” burst, everyone in the town is feeling the after effects. Jobs vanished, men who’s self-esteem depend on bringing home a paycheck are angry and depressed. Some consider moving to Europe or Australia to look for work. But underneath the narrative of the economic crisis is another story about long-buried secrets and emotions. Emotionally abusive or withholding fathers, boyfriends and husbands who can’t find the words to tell their women how they really feel, women who have lost children and lost their way. A surprising act of violence sets everyone on edge and tongues wagging, and then another surprising twist makes everyone doubt whether they know their neighbors at all.

“The air is thick with platitudes around here. We’ll all pull together. We’re a tight-knot community. We’ll all support each other. Oh really? Will we?”

I kept putting down this novel after every chapter initially. The weight of each character’s separate sadness felt too heavy for me to continue on. Like Bobby, the foreman of the local construction outfit, who everyone views as an upstanding man. His father was emotionally vicious and his mother died too young. The fear and shame of no work is eating him alive, and the bond between he and his wife Triona is all he has with which to steady himself.

“I couldn’t stand her smiling through her fear and having to coax me out of my misery like a big, sulky child. I wish to God I could talk to her the way she wants me to, besides forever making her guess what I’m thinking. Why can’t I find the words?”

This is a beautifully written novel about people who are hurting from emotional wounds both long scarred over and fresh. Donal Ryan is a gorgeous writer who portrays even the most appalling, unsympathetic characters with a measure of care and gives them many layers. The Spinning Heart is a moving exploration of the ways families hurt and heal one another, and the ways a terrible event can expose the frayed seams of a small town community. Four Stars, and a very good pick for Reading Ireland Month.

What I’ve Been Reading Lately

I’ve been reading some good stuff lately, y’all. These books probably deserve individual posts but I’m just trying to get back into the blogging groove, so here I am with a round-up. Let’s start with the most recently finished.

36300687French Exit by Patrick deWitt. I have a weakness for books about what I call “rich people problems.” You know, where urbanites with a lot of money and family squabbles get together and hash it all out. (Think The Nest or Seating Arrangements.) So I was immediately charmed and entertained by deWitt’s novel of a fractured family, mother Frances and her thirty-something son Malcolm. (They reminded me of Lucille and Buster Bluth from Arrested Development only not as ridiculous.) They are running out of money and are forced to make a serious life change. This novel was so witty, inventive, absurd, and went in a slightly darker direction than I had anticipated. And I loved every second of it, devouring it quickly. I’ve never read deWitt before. I’ve added his The Sisters Brothers to my TBR list.

Before that I gobbled up Ian Rankin’s Knots and Crosses, the first Detective Rebus 634407mystery. I’d been meaning to try this series for years now and I finally felt in the mood for a mystery. I have to say that Rebus is a very tortured detective, more so than I’m used to.  I’m not quite sure that I like him, but I’m willing to read another one to see if I do. In this one he has to deal with not only a brother that is doing something shady, but a deranged serial killer going after young girls in Edinburgh. His very deeply buried past experiences may hold the clue to catching the killer. This was a quick read and I’ve checked out the second one, Hide and Seek.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry was another book I’d been meaning to read for a while. Rachel Joyce had made a big impact on my with last year’s The Music Shop and I’d heard good things about Harold. I really liked it, and boy did it make me cry. Keep your tissues handy for this one if you’ve 9780812993295_p0_v1_s550x406not read it. Harold gets a letter from an old co-worker, Queenie Hennessy, who’s dying. Instead of posting his response in the nearest mailbox, as he sets out to do, he ends up walking hundreds of miles to see her, convinced that if he keeps walking she will live. I enjoyed the vicarious walk through England and getting to know both Harold and his wife, Maureen. They’ve gone through some things and not dealt with them very well, and as the book goes along it was lovely to see them both break out of old, destructive habits. This is a lovely, touching read. I added Joyce’s  The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy to my TBR list.

The best read of the year so far for me has been Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge.51wuQJpliWL._AC_UL320_SR206,320_ Linked short stories, all directly about Olive or mentioning her in some capacity, this was tremendously moving and just gorgeously written. I think Strout is going on my favorite writers list, especially since in the last two years I’ve adored her My Name is Lucy Barton and Anything is Possible. The woman can write! Olive is a cranky, no-nonsense, but ultimately kind and more perceptive woman than she’s given credit for. She’s no saint, and Strout doesn’t shy away from letting the reader see her fully, warts and all. This novel provides a kaleidoscopic view not only of her but of a town full of people with secrets, dreams, broken hearts, disappointments, and hopes, and I found it masterful. I can see myself reading this again.

My February pick for the #UnreadShelfProject challenge on Instagram was American Street by Ibi Zoboi. It’s a YA novel about a young Haitian woman named Fabiola who americanstreet_wblurbcomes to the US with her mother to live with her aunt and cousins in Detroit. Only, her mother gets detained indefinitely in customs and she has to travel to Detroit without her. It’s a culture-clash novel, a coming of age novel, and a meditation on race and poverty with a heavy dose of magical realism. There’s a lot going on here. But it was absorbing and gave me a better picture of Haitian culture than I had before I read it. I didn’t love it, but I always keep in mind that YA novels aren’t really written for a 40-something woman. I think that a 14 year old could really get into this and learn a lot from it. I’m glad I finally read it and now it can find a good home at my library’s book sale in the Spring. Hooray for reading my own books!

So that’s what I’ve been reading lately (aside from The Count, of course. That reminds me, I need to start reading my next 100 pages.) Have you read any of my recent picks? What have you been reading lately?

Five Sentence Reviews: Dear Mrs. Bird, Anne Lamott, and Romance!

I’ve been on a month-long yoga journey with the amazing Adriene Mishler of Yoga With Adriene. I’ve practiced EVERY NIGHT. This is kind of a big deal because I’m famous for starting things and not finishing them. There are three practices left in the sequence (I started a day late.) I’m telling you this because the nightly yoga, while amazing for my soul, posture, and core, is not conducive to blog posting. I’ve been reading, though, so I’m (as usual) a bit behind on reviews. Here are some five-sentence reviews to clear the decks. All of these were four-star reads. In fact, in January I’ve had ALL four-star reads. Still waiting for the first five-star of 2019!

81w5wudgvllDear Mrs. Bird by A.J. Pearce. A charming historical fiction novel set in London during World War II. Emmy Lake is an irresistibly plucky heroine. She takes a job that she thinks is going to be a junior reporter for a newspaper but turns out to be a typist for an advice columnist at a floundering women’s magazine. Mrs. Bird, the advice columnist, is prudish and severe, so Emmy decides to secretly help the young women who need friendly advice in a scary time. This was an enjoyable yet moving look at lives in England during the Blitz.

After a big raid it was always sad to see flattened buildings and burnt-out churches which had stood for hundreds of years, but there was something rather triumphant about the monuments and statues, even the parks and big department stores that were still there, getting on with things. The Luftwaffe may have been  trying to blast us to pieces, but everyone just kept getting back up.

Almost Everything: Notes on Hope by Anne Lamott. I love Anne Lamott. I listened to 39203790the audiobook, read by the author, and it was wonderful. If you’ve never read her before, she’s like a kindly, slightly kooky neighbor or aunt who tells you hard truths about life but also gives you M&Ms and hugs. She is consistently hopeful yet aware of the pain of the world and unfairness of life. Reading her makes me feel better, stronger, less crazy, and this was one of her better recent books.

It’s okay to stop hitting the snooze button and to wake up and pay attention to what makes you feel okay about yourself, one meal at a time. Unfortunately, it’s yet another inside job. If you are not okay with yourself at 185 pounds, you may not be okay at 150, or even 135. The self-respect and peace of mind you long for is not in your weight. It’s within you. I resent that more than I can say. But it’s true. Finding a way to have a relatively healthy and safe relationship with food is hard, and it involves being one’s very own dearest person. This will not cause chaos or death, as you were surely taught, but rather an environment where you can drown out the many mean and mistaken voices.

51flpz8fm5lA Princess in Theory by Alyssa Cole (Reluctant Royals #1.) A fun, smart, sexy page-turner. This contemporary romance features a guarded, independent STEM-based grad student heroine, Naledi, and an actual prince from the fictional African country of Thesolo, Thabiso, who comes to New York to track down his long-lost betrothed. A case of mistaken identity brings to two together, where they experience undeniable chemistry. The storyline was so well-crafted I kind of skimmed over the sexy parts, to be honest. These characters were fully realized and incredibly likeable; I can’t wait to read more of this series (the next focuses on Naledi’s best friend Portia.)

“Um,” she said. Her general reaction to men she met in her daily life was indifference or tolerance, at best, but something about this man sent her thoughts spinning far, far away from lab work or serving or studying. The only data she was currently interested in collecting was the exact tensile pressure of his beard against her inner thigh, and the shift in mass of his body on top of hers.

Have you read any of these? Have you had a five-star read yet in 2019?

 

 

 

 

Thoughts on Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin (#CCSpin #19)

And the darkness of John’s sin was like the darkness of the church on Saturday evenings; like the silence of the church when he was there alone, sweeping, and running water into the great bucket, and overturning chairs, long before the saints arrived. It was like his thoughts as he moved about the tabernacle in which his life had been spent; the tabernacle that he hated, yet loved and feared.

510dFZyJmyL._SX303_BO1,204,203,200_I feel like I got way with something by reading Go Tell It on the Mountain for the latest Classics Club Spin. We were supposed to be reading one of the longer books on our lists, but I only put ten “big books” on mine, and the spin result happened to be Baldwin’s 1953 first novel. The one I borrowed from the library clocked in at 291 pages. Oh well. Those big books are still waiting for me.

This is a challenging books to write about. It’s a family story and a coming of age story. Goodreads says it’s semi-autobiographical and my copy’s jacket flap quotes Baldwin himself as saying, “Mountain is the book I had to write if I was ever going to write anything else.” I’ve now read three of Baldwin’s books, and I’ve seen the exquisite documentary about him, I Am Not your Negro, but I do want to read a biography about him or at least do some more research into this life.

Not only is this book challenging to describe but it was challenging to read as well, because I felt so bad for the main character, the young teenager John. His family lives in 1930’s era New York City, and his cold and critical father Gabriel is an associate pastor of a very Evangelical type of church. His world seems pretty sheltered and restricted, and you can feel John wanting to break free and explore the variety of experience that New York offers.

He stood on the crest of the hill, hands clasped beneath his chin, looking down. Then he, John, felt like a giant who might crumble this city with his anger; he felt like a tyrant who might crush this city beneath his heel; he felt like a long-awaited conqueror at whose feet flowers would be strewn, and before whom multitudes cried, Hosanna! He would be, of all, the mightiest, the most beloved, the Lord’s anointed; and he would live in this shining city which his ancestors had seen with longing from far way. For it was his; the inhabitants of the city had told him it was his; he had but to run down, crying, and the would take him to their hearts and show him wonders his eyes had never seen. 

Gabriel and John do not get along, and we come to find out that John is Gabriel’s wife Elizabeth’s son by another man. Gabriel becomes a bit more humanized and sympathetic as we delve into flashbacks of his story, and we come to understand in flashbacks how and why Elizabeth married him as well. The last section of the book is John’s feverish, nightmarish religious experience (salvation? conversion?) with an ambiguous ending.

Did I enjoy this book? Enjoy is not exactly the word – it was a surprisingly page-turning read. Some parts were more engaging than others, especially the back stories of John’s aunt Florence and mother Elizabeth. But I gave it four stars because of the beauty and precision of the language and the challenging spiritual imagery.

Time was indifferent, like snow and ice; but the heart, crazed wanderer in the driving waste, carried the curse forever.

Have you read this? If you’ve read Baldwin before, what is your favorite of his books? Are you interested in seeing the new film If Beale Street Could Talk (based on Baldwin’s 1974 novel?)