My Reading List: August 2017

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Aside from one book, my August reading list was all about the thrillers. Maybe it was because of the early fall weather we were having? Regardless, there were two books that I thought were really great, and another two that were just good. Keep on reading for the reviews, and here’s the link to last month’s massive book review post, just in case you missed it!

The Hate U Give

My favorite read this month was The Hate U Give. You never know how it’s going to turn out with buzzy books, but I’m happy to report that I loved this one.

The book follows Starr Carter, who witnesses the murder of one of her good friends. Two black teenagers are driving around, minding their own business. A cop pulls them over and murders her friend, Khalil. As you can imagine, Starr is devastated and Khalil’s death causes her to reevaluate her life and the community she’s a part of.

Obviously, the book is timely, and on top of that, it’s so heartfelt. I connected with Starr’s character almost immediately, and was very invested in her entire emotional journey. Starr is just a kid and deals with a situation that is absolutely terrible, but not unimaginable in today’s world.

Starr attends an elite, private school in a different neighborhood than the one she lives in. Sometimes she feels like she has to be two different people. One version of Starr is one of four black kids in her grade, surrounded by white classmates and teachers all day. The second Starr acts differently with her family and the people in her neighborhood. I could identify with Starr’s struggles and the feelings that she was either “too black” or “not black enough.”

This book has humor, warmth, and strength, all while tackling a very difficult and sensitive subject. I cannot wait to see the movie version. I’ve been following the casting announcements and the list is pretty 100 right now.

The Girl Before

When I was looking through my Goodreads TBR and spotted this book, I noticed that there’s another thriller with the same title, by a different author (The Girl Before by J.P. Delaney). After a brief internal struggle, I chose the book by Rena Olsen because the synopsis sounded a lot more interesting to me.

At the beginning of this novel, police storm into Clara’s house, arrest her husband, and take her into protective custody. Her husband tells her one thing before he’s dragged off: “Say nothing.”

I hadn’t read a good psychological thriller in a while and I thought this was pretty great. The pacing is steady, slowly and carefully giving you pieces of the puzzle until you’re able to put together the big picture. Clara was a pretty fascinating character. The book is told from her first-person perspective, so we are really in her head as she tries to figure out how to handle her husband’s arrest. Also, the narrative moves back and forth between the present and the past so that we see how Clara ended up where she is today.

It’s a fascinating look at the human mind, and the ways in which we can convince ourselves that something is the truth, or is a lie. It’s a dark and thought-provoking read, which is just the way I like my thrillers.

The Ice Beneath Her

I forgot how much I like Nordic Noir. I picked up this book based on Abby’s (also known as Crime by the Book) recommendation, and she was right, it’s a great read. The book is told from three main perspectives. There’s Peter, the detective who’s investigating the murder of a young woman who is found beheaded in the home of a infamous CEO. Emma is the fiancé of that CEO, or at least she was, up until he disappears without a word. And finally, there’s Hanne, the psychologist who’s called in to consult on the case.

I think the characters are the best part of this book. The author does an excellent job of making them fully-realized, so that I understood who they are as people. For example, Peter is kind of a jerk and a coward, but he’s still a fascinating character, and I still wanted to root for him. The writing is atmospheric, and while I was reading it, I felt like I was there in Sweden, experiencing the cold, brutal winter.

It’s a story about love and betrayal. Sometimes the ones we love the most have the ability to damage us the most. If you’re looking for a thriller with depth and strong characters, I’d recommend this one.

Girl in Snow

Remember when I talked about the danger of buzzy books? Well I’d seen a quite a bit of buzz about this book, but it disappointed me. Not to say that it was bad, but my expectations didn’t match the reality. After reading two solid thrillers, I wanted to dive into another one. This book is described as a thriller, but really it’s an exploration of these characters that happens to include a mystery, which is not as central to the story as you might think.

Lucinda Hayes is the girl who was murdered. Cameron is the boy who was in love with her, Jade is the girl who grew up with her, and Russ is one of the cops handling her case. The story is really about these three characters and their ideas about who Lucinda was. It’s set in a small town in the mountains of Colorado, one of those towns that doesn’t have much going on.

The book explores how we become who we are as people. Are we shaped by our environment, or the people who raise us, or the way we are treated by others? The answer is all of these things, and more.

While the writing was lyrical, and often beautiful, I wished that the story was stronger. The characters were strong and it was interesting to be in their minds for a while, but I lacked a deeper connection to the narrative.

Final Girls

Final Girls is the most entertaining thriller I read this month and I can see why it’s popular. The media labels Quincy as a “Final Girl” after she is the lone survivor of a horrible massacre. The storyline flashes back and forth between the day it happened and the present. The flashbacks are pretty unnerving because you know that something really terrible is about to happen. Even though we know what the horrible thing is, we don’t know how it happened. The author does a great job of building up that suspense.

Just when you start to think that you have it all figured out, the author throws some curveballs at you. It’s also fascinating the way that the author starts to reveal the cracks in Quincy’s perfect facade.

I had a few small complaints (the ending and some of the dialogue felt off to me) and one major one that had me shaking my head incredulously. I won’t mention it here, because spoilers, but if you’ve read it, let’s chat in the comments below. Overall though, I thought this book was an easy and pretty compelling read.

Book Reviews: March-July 2017

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March: Book One

I’m slowly, but surely, adding more graphic novels to my TBR. In March, I read the first book in this trilogy about the life of noted Civil Rights activist John Lewis. As you can imagine, Mr. Lewis has led a very interesting life and I loved learning more about his history. I really like the artwork as well, and as a graphic novel newb, I’m still amazed by how much detail can be captured in a single page, and the different styles of images and lettering that are used to convey different feelings. The first book describes Mr. Lewis’s childhood and his first encounters with the Civil Rights movement. This is a beautifully told story about a critical part of American history and I’m looking forward to continuing the series.

The Woman in Cabin 10

I got along fine with Ruth Ware’s first novel, In a Dark, Dark, Wood, so I was willing to give this book a try as well. Turns out I much preferred this book. Funny enough, I was recently chatting with a friend who has read both books too, and she felt the opposite! I thought the main character, Lo, was much more believable, the setting was appropriately creepy, and the tension was high. Lo is a travel journalist who is invited to attend the maiden voyage of a new, boutique cruise ship. One night on the ship, she hears something terrible- the sound of someone falling overboard. The only problem is, no one is missing from the ship. Lo begins to investigate what she saw and heard, and doubts herself as she keeps coming up empty.

I can’t help but compare the two books, so I’ll tell you what I preferred about this one. I felt that Lo’s occupation as a travel journalist was much more believable than Nora as a writer. Lo at least tried to do her job throughout the story, even if she wasn’t always succeeding. Also, Lo’s ambition and desire to do well on this trip really comes through.

I’ve never been on a cruise before and I might be a bit scared of them after reading this book. The idea of being trapped on a boat for several days with nowhere to go does not seem ideal, particularly in the scenes that take place below deck and below the water line. I’m not really claustrophobic, but the idea of being in a tiny cabin room, underwater, had me taking deep breaths of air in gratitude. There’s also something so isolating about the sea, which certainly played into this story. Ware did a good job of setting the scene and creating a claustrophobic, stifling atmosphere.

The mystery in this book is less predictable, which I was quite happy about. Once you know the main secrets, the plot pretty much goes along as you’d expect, but I was in the dark for most of the book.

Overall, for me, this was certainly an improvement from In a Dark, Dark, Wood with better characters and a more compelling and believable plot. It was also a quick and entertaining read- perfect to take on your next trip.

Sweetbitter

Hmmmm, where to begin with Sweetbitter, a buzzy book from last spring? I’ll start by saying that this book is not for everyone, but I’m glad I read it and I do have an appreciation for it. The reason that I think I got along with this book is that it hits a lot of my literary checkboxes. It takes place in NYC and it’s about a young twenty-something coming of age. Tess moves to NYC with very little to her name and lands a job at the famous restaurant, Union Square Café. It’s about becoming a part of the fast-paced restaurant industry and trying to find your place in the world.

In terms of plot, there’s not much happening in this book. Instead, it’s all about Tess, whose name we don’t even learn until well into the book. We do know that she is young, carefree, and trying to reinvent herself. I was talking to someone who described this book as “self-indulgent,” and they were not wrong. That’s why I think that if you can’t connect with Tess in some form, then this is not the book for you.

Sometimes, the writing is really good. There are a few, beautiful passages that made me wistful and nostalgic about my move to NYC several years ago. At other times, the writing feels pretentious. Ahh, but again, there was so much that I could identify with in this novel. I remember moving into my first place on my own, like Tess does. I remember the hot, humid days of my first summer in New York. I remember some of the places that Tess haunts, because I’ve been there as well. I remember trying to get used to this supersonic pace of life and trying to feel like I belonged here. In some ways, the book is a love letter to NYC, and I throughly enjoyed that aspect of it. I also found her descriptions of working in the restaurant industry really fascinating and eye-opening.

Tess can be a frustrating character, and I believe she is meant to be. There are actions that she takes that I just don’t understand, which make me want to shake her and say “Grow up!” But, I suppose, that’s the whole point. I also didn’t understand the love interest in this story because he sounds like the worst, and I had a hard time seeing what Tess saw in him.

In the end, there were parts of this novel that really grabbed me and which I’m still thinking about now. I think my personal connections to the story definitely shaped my experience in a more positive light. This book seems to incite pretty polarized views, so if you’ve also read this, I’d love to hear what you thought.

You Can’t Touch My Hair

I listened to the audiobook version of this book, and I think it was the right call. Before reading this, I wasn’t super familiar with Phoebe Robinson, but I knew she was a comedian and that she has a podcast with Jessica Williams called 2 Dope Queens. I was sold by the title (seriously, so good), and the description. The book is full of essays about race, gender, pop culture, and more. This was a pretty fun to listen to. I was able to identify with some of her experiences and, as a black woman, I found a lot of Robinson’s observations on race spot on. Of course, she puts a humorous spin on things, but sometimes she takes a step back and uses a more serious tone. At some point, she talks about using humor as a coping mechanism, as a way to deal with and process some of the experiences she’s had to face. She and I have led very different lives, but it’s always nice to read something by someone who gets it, who knows what it’s like. Consider me now a fan of Phoebe Robinson, and I’ll be keeping an eye out for whatever she does next.

Exit West

This book felt like a beautiful indie film to me. It was quiet, evocative, and completely drew me in. The main characters are Saeed and Nadia, two people who fall in love in a time just before their country is devastated by a civil war. However, contrary to what I thought before I started reading it, this book is less about the love story, and more about the horrors of war and what people have to do to survive.

The tone is detached and somewhat wistful and whimsical. The detachment doesn’t prevent you from connecting with the characters, and perhaps it is necessary in order to process the terrible events that take place. The idea is that horrible things happen, but as things get worse, the original horrors start to feel almost normal (which is its own type of horror).

There’s certainly a lot to think about in this novel, particularly in relation to the themes of displacement and migration. The situation becomes so untenable that Saeed and Nadia decide they must flee. They have to leave behind their friends, their family, and everything that they previously knew. Hamid describes what it’s like to be a refugee and how refugees are treated (unsurprisingly and sadly, the answer is not very well). We see Saeed and Nadia struggle to build and settle into new lives, apart from their previous lives.

Magical realism is a tool used subtly in this book and it fits in quite naturally with the story. The entire book is graceful and thought-provoking. People suffer and struggle, but in some ways, it’s amazing that people are able to live through and survive these experiences. I think this is an important and worthwhile read, particularly given the current state of affairs.

The Dark Days Club

This book made me remember how much I enjoy historical fiction. The Dark Days Club revolves around Lady Helen, a young lady living in the Regency era. Shortly before her debutante ball, Helen begins to develop certain abilities. Soon she learns that there’s a whole underground world in London, full of demons and the people that protect the innocent. When Helen discovers this world, she struggles with the societal expectations for a young woman of her breeding, and the powers she has to combat evil and make the world a better place.

I had a bit of a slow start with this book. Since I knew that magic was involved, I kept waiting for that aspect to appear in the plot. That said, the beginning of the book really sets the historical context, and I enjoyed that. I love reading descriptions of fashion and style in books, which are happily quite plentiful in this novel.

In addition to the normal struggles of growing up and reconciling the person that you’re expected to be with the person that you want to be, Helen has magical abilities that she didn’t expect and doesn’t necessarily want. As you can imagine, being a woman in this time period was very limiting. I love that even before she discovers her powers, Helen fights against societal norms and wants to be independent. I thought Helen was a strong, intelligent character, and even when I didn’t agree with her decisions, I was rooting for her.

Although it took a while for the magical elements to emerge, I thought they were pretty compelling, particularly in the way that they interacted with more normal aspects of life. However, I have some questions about the world that Goodman created, which will hopefully be answered in Book 2. I thought certain words were a bit overused and some of the dialogue made me question if people ever really spoke like that. Despite a few qualms and the slow start, I was engaged by this story and really curious to read about how Helen would fare with her powers. I’m looking forward to picking up the next book in this series when it comes out!

The Song Rising

The best part of a series is having the chance to revisit a world that you love and so far, I’ve really liked all the books in the Bone Season series. It’s rather interesting to compare the Paige that we met in the first book, with the Paige in this third installment. She’s grown so much as a character, and even though she’s much stronger now, she still doubts herself sometimes.

I love this world and I continue to be impressed by Shannon’s abilities. This world is so rich and yet it seems that there’s still much more to explore. In terms of plot, it’s somewhat unbelievable how quickly things progress in the second chunk of the book, but it does make it pretty exciting. We also learn some interesting information about Paige’s past, which gives us further insight into what motivates Paige. I can’t wait to see how those details from her past play out in future books. Nick is probably my favorite character after Paige, so I was very glad that he’s more involved in this book. I think their friendship is strong and they really have been through so much together.

The book ended on a pretty exciting note and I really cannot wait to see what happens next!

Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom

Guys guys guys. Multiple people told me to read these a while ago and I had it on my TBR for ages. I wish I’d listened to them and read this right away because I loved. this. series. Witty dialogue, action and adventure, a fantastic world, amazing characters- these books had it all.

Let’s start with the characters. Ugh, they were so good. If I were to give a very brief description of the plot, I’d say that it’s about six characters who band together to pull off a heist, but that’s really just the tip of the iceberg. Each character has their specific skill set and distinct, unique personalities. I love when a group of different people band together for a common purpose, and this book delivers that in spades. I can’t talk about how great these characters are without mentioning my favorite, Inej. She’s a young woman who’s been through so much trauma, but is somehow still standing. She’s learned how to take care of herself and survive in a cutthroat world. She fiercely protects the people she loves, and at the same time, can show compassion to her enemies. All of the characters are really well done in these books, but I couldn’t help but gush a little about Inej because her grace and strength really spoke to me.

These are the first books I’ve read by Leigh Bardugo, so I was completely unfamiliar with the Grisha universe. That meant that was I rather confused by some of the terms in the beginning. Once I caught up though, I was completely fascinated by this world. The Grisha have special powers, such as the ability to heal or to manipulate the weather, and because of this, they are hunted. I love the way that the real and magical worlds blend in these books. The “real” world of Ketterdam is just as compelling as the magical elements. It’s full of fascinating details, from the structure of the gangs, to the languages, to the descriptions of other countries in this world.

Each of the characters has a pretty colorful past, and each must reshape who they are as people, to varying degrees. The books also explore the various forces that drive people, whether it’s love, greed, duty, revenge, or something else. The reason that I love books that feature people from different backgrounds who come together is because there is something very powerful about the families that are forged not by blood, but by choice. I loved reading about the various relationships between these characters, and what brought them together in the first place. I really appreciated that Bardugo doesn’t rush these relationships and really takes the time to show us they’ve developed over the years.

These books had me on the edge of my seat. There’s so much action and excitement- I was practically biting my fingernails because I was anxious to know what happened next. I also have this bad habit of skimming forward a couple of paragraphs when something really exciting is happening before I catch myself and go back. I found myself doing that a lot with these books. I could go on and on about these books, but I’ll stop myself here (but if anyone wants to discuss in the comments, I’m game!). I do think that Leigh Bardugo left the ending rather open-ended and she could totally write a third book if she wanted to. Fingers crossed that that wish comes true one day- I’d be thrilled to revisit this world!

Strange the Dreamer

I throughly enjoyed the Daughter of Smoke and Bone series, so I was pretty excited when I heard that Taylor was writing a new book. I have to say right off the bat though that this book disappointed me. I don’t think that it was bad, but it never really captured me the way that I wanted it to.

Lazlo is a dreamer. He always has his head stuck in a book and is fascinated by tales of a long-forgotten city known as Weep. He dreams about having the chance to rediscover this city. He can hardly believe it when one day, a group of people he’s only read about it appear in his city and present an opportunity to realize his dreams.

Naturally, I love that Lazlo is a bookworm and finds both solace and escape in his books.Throughout the book though, I wished I felt a stronger connection to Lazlo, or to any of the other characters in the book. The characters felt a bit one-note and I thought the book would have had a lot more impact if I had any strong feelings towards the characters. There’s also some instalove in this book. I think I have a relatively high tolerance for instalove and even I couldn’t understand what brought these characters together, other than circumstances.

There are some interesting thoughts on the idea that good people can do terrible things. If a good person commits a horrible act, can they still be a hero or are they a monster? It also explores the theme of the ordinary becoming extraordinary and the idea that unlikely people can become heroes. While I enjoyed Taylor’s writing style before, but it didn’t work as well for me in this book. Certain descriptions and phrases were repeated, which I found grating after a while. I also thought the ending was quite frustrating. This is entirely my fault, but I couldn’t help but compare this book to the Daughter of Smoke and Bone series, and I was just hoping for a lot more. There are certainly interesting elements in this book, yet it failed to come together completely for me.

Wonder

I wasn’t expecting this to be so heartbreaking and heartwarming at the same time. It’s a story about a 10 year-old boy named Auggie who was born with a facial deformity. At the beginning of the book, he starts going to school with other kids for the first time and we follow his journey as he struggles to be accepted.

Man, this one certainly tugged on my heartstrings. Auggie is such a sweet boy and school is just one of the many things he’s had to endure in his short life. What got to me the most were the people who didn’t intend or even realize they were being mean to Auggie. They’d make comments that they thought were harmless, but were really insensitive. He’d know the exact moment when someone saw his face for the first time and notice their reactions. At some point in the book, he talks about how he only has a few friends, but that’s all he needs, and he’s so right. A handful of true, loyal friends are worth a pack of superficial ones.

Writing from a child’s perspective is not an easy feat and I think Palacio did an excellent job in this book. I’m not sure if this book is considered middle-grade or YA, but really I think it can be read by a wide range of ages. The lesson is important and universal- we could all stand to be a lot kinder to each other.

The Wrath & The Dawn and The Rose & The Dagger

I cannot lie, these books were disappointing reads for me. The story is supposed to be a retelling of A Thousand and One Nights, but in the first book, I didn’t find anything new or inventive about the story. I kept waiting for the author to put her own unique spin or perspective on the story, but it never happened. Instead, these books featured some YA tropes that tend to drive people crazy, including instalove (seriously, it takes the main character like 1-2 days to go from utterly vengeful to completely in love) and melodrama. I thought the main characters, Shazi and Khalid, were one-note, and I particularly expected better from our heroine.

I was really disappointed by the first book, but I decided to pick up the second anyway. The first one ends so abruptly and I wanted to know what happened next and how the author would change the storyline. Plus, I was hoping that the second book would be an improvement upon the first.

I did fare slightly better with the second book and I’d give it an extra half star for plot development because at least the plot finally deviated from A Thousand and One Nights. Still, a lot of the issues I had with the first book are prevalent in the second one. Sometimes I wanted to shake the characters and ask them why they were making the exact same mistakes they made in book one! Then, the main plot point of book one is resolved way too neatly and we get this other subplot that’s confusing and kind of appears out of nowhere. You know at the beginning of this paragraph, I was willing to give a half star for the plot, but now I think I’ve convinced myself to take it back…

Long short story, I wanted, and was expecting, a lot more from this series. If you’re looking to read an exciting retelling, I’d have to recommend that you look elsewhere.

The Muse

My general impression of this book is that it was a pleasant surprise. This book revolves around two main characters, Odelle and Olive, and a special painting that impacts both of their lives. Throughout the novel, we find out the origins of this painting, as the book moves back and forth in time.

I think the author did a good job of making both time lines compelling. I’ll admit that the first switch was jarring because I was just starting to settle into the book and I wasn’t expecting it. Once I realized what was happening, I was eager to find out what happened in both stories, although I did have a slight preference for Odelle’s.

Either I was not paying attention when I first read the synopsis, or I just forgot, but I didn’t realize that this novel features a person of color. Odelle describes her experiences as a woman of color living in the mid-1960s and the microagressions that she has to face on a regular basis.

This book focuses on the artist and the art they create. It explores what motivates people to produce art, how different people interpret it, and the importance of art. I’ve always had an amateur interest in art, so I really enjoyed that aspect of the novel. It made me think of another novel that explores art and the art world, An Object of Beauty.

I’d say that is a fairly slow book. It’s also a much darker novel than I expected, particularly in Olive’s storyline, which touches on the turbulent political atmosphere in Spain in the later 1930s. While I really enjoyed this novel, there’s still something that prevents me from giving it four stars. I’m not sure if it was the distance I felt that prevented me from completely connecting with the characters, or the rather slow pacing. Still, I thought this was a very solid read and it certainly made me curious about Burton’s previous novel, The Miniaturist.

The Queen of the Tearling

I’ve had this on my TBR for ages and I’m very glad to have finally read it. Even better, since I waited so long, the full trilogy has been published and I was able to jump straight from the first book to the second. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

Kelsea has had a rather lonely, isolated childhood, but she’s always know that it was her destiny to be queen one day. Shortly after her 19th birthday, the Queen’s Guard arrive to escort her to royal castle so she can assume her throne. However, the road is not an easy one, since both her uncle, the regent, and the witch queen of Mortmesne are trying to kill her. And, even though she’s been groomed for the throne, there’s still so many secrets that have been kept from her.

This was entertaining and full of adventure. I really liked Kelsea as a character. She’s strong, tough, determined, and not afraid to speak her mind. In this world, there are many sexist notions about what a woman should do and how women act. Kelsea constantly pushes against those boundaries and strives to be a great ruler for all her people. One thing that I’m not sure how i feel about though- there’s quite the fixation on Kelsea’s physical appearance and descriptions of how plain she is. It seems like an obsession, which somewhat makes sense when I think about the insecurities we all have, the things we constantly wish we could change. But still, it felt odd how frequently it was mentioned and I wished that focus would have been placed on Kelsea’s other qualities.

Originally I thought this was set in the past, but then I realized it’s set in the future, which was a fun twist for me (but again, if I’d read the synopsis, I would have known that!). It’s pretty fascinating to consider a world after this one which society has somewhat regressed. However, there are things that don’t change, such as the factors that motivate people, whether it’s greed, religion, ambition, duty, or something else.

This world also features magic, which I love. I think this first book did a really good job of setting out this world, and hooking me into the story. Aside from Kelsea, there are other great characters, like the Mace, and I got the sense that we’ve only scratched the surface of his background.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Minutes after finishing it, I’d already started reading the second book- that’s how engrossed I was! As I write this, I’m currently in the middle of book 2 and I can’t wait to see where the story goes from here.

The Invasion of the Tearling and The Fate of the Tearling

After reading the first book in the series, I dove right into book 2 and then book 3. Now that I’ve finished the trilogy, I can say that overall, I did like the series. I think the character arc for Kelsea, in particular, is pretty great to witness. The world building was strong in the first book, and it was wonderful to delve deeper into the history of this world in the remaining two books.

I did feel like the pacing slows down over the next two books. Also, as a few new perspectives are introduced, the main storylines felt a bit convoluted, especially in the final book. While I didn’t always agree with what was happening, I did enjoy the journey these books took me on and I appreciate the world that the author built.

The Perfume Collector

I chose this book for its cosmopolitan setting. The story takes place in New York, London, and Paris, among other places, and focuses on a woman named Grace. Grace is a bored and unhappy housewife who wants a life with more meaning. One day, she discovers that she’s been named in a will and been bequeathed an apartment in Paris. The only problem is that Grace knows nothing about the woman, Eva, who left the apartment in her name, so she decides to uncover this woman’s story and her connection to Grace.

The writing was good in this novel and the author did a good job of evoking the different scents she described. I wanted Grace to have a bit more oomph and gumption as a character, which she did develop a bit over the course of the novel. There was a strong theme of independence and of a woman being able to choose her own path. Thanks to societal norms, women didn’t (don’t) always have a lot of choices, and it was interesting to see both Grace and Eva navigate around societal constraints.

I thought this was a solid piece of historical fiction and I loved reading about the lifestyles in the various settings, particularly the scenes that took place in New York City in the 1920s and 1930s. I would definitely read more of Tessaro’s work.

The Magicians

I started out loving this, but by the end, I was kind of tired of it. At the beginning of the book, Quentin, our main character, discovers that magic is real. He applies to and is accepted at a magical college named Brakebills, and the book takes off from there.

I will say that the writing in this book is really great, which is what kept me going, even when I found the plot a little boring. Quentin started to grate on me, however. He is often complaining, perpetually unsatisfied, and makes some pretty dumb decisions. The book takes place over the course of several years, so I was hoping we’d see Quentin grow up a bit, but that doesn’t really happen, at least not in the first installment of this series.

The magical system is interesting and seems a lot more technical than other magical worlds that I’ve read about. I felt that the book’s pacing was a bit strange and it seems like we fast forwarded through some of the more interesting times (when Quentin was in school) and spent too long on scenes where nothing was happening.

I was hoping to really love this book, but in the end, I wasn’t blown away. I think I’m to blame a bit. I read the book in short spurts over a few weeks, but I think I would have had a better reading experience if I’d read it in longer sittings. I wasn’t eager to read the rest of the trilogy after finishing book 1, but then I talked to a friend who told me that books 2 and 3 do get better. That gave me some hope, so I may decide to continue this series at some point.

Because You Love to Hate Me

This anthology was a lot of fun. The book is a collection of thirteen tales of villainy, written by different authors and based on prompts provided by booktubers. I thought it was such a unique setup and it was thrilling to see booktubers involved in this anthology.

The idea behind these stories is to add a twist to our traditional notion of villains and to show a different perspective. I loved the idea of blurring the line between villain and hero. These stories tackled questions such as: What makes a person fundamentally good or bad? Can heroes also be villains, and vice versa?

The best part was that this anthology introduced me to several new authors. My favorite stories had me rooting for the villain, including, “The Blessing of Little Wants,” “The Sea Witch,” “Marigold,” and “Sera.” Overall, I thought this was a really entertaining and fun collection, and I’m looking forward to checking out a few new-to-me authors

The Course of Love

After a couple meets and falls in love, what exactly happens during the “happily ever after?” This is the main question that de Botton seeks to answer in this novel. In the first few pages, Rabih and Kirsten meet, fall in love, and become a couple, but that’s only the beginning of their love story. Throughout this book, the author charts the course of their relationship and all the messy, complicated bits that happen in-between.

I’m a horrible romantic and at times it felt like this book was speaking directly to me and my lofty, idealistic notions of love. The book is structured so that the story is broken up by analytical asides from the narrator. There are a lot of interesting thoughts and ruminations on love in these passages, but by the end, I felt that they were too frequent and interrupted the story too often. It started to feel quite didactic, which I believe was the intention, but it was not what I wanted to experience while reading. Sometimes it felt difficult to form your own conclusions as a reader because you knew that the narrator would explain it all to you shortly.

That said, the writing is beautiful. I did enjoy the way the author broke down popular views on love. Rabih and Kirsten were also very strong characters and I could see bits of myself in each of them and they way they approached their relationship. The book does focus mostly on Rabih’s perspective, but I would have loved to learn more about what Kirsten was thinking or feeling in certain situations.

I’d be curious to know how someone who has been or is currently married feels while reading this book. Do the lessons ring true? Regardless, I enjoyed this thoughtful novel/essay on love and I’m looking forward to picking up another de Botton book in the future.

Book Reviews: January and February 2017

the mothers review, the snowman review, jo nesbo, closed casket review, january reads the thunder beneath us, grace review, nicola yoon, the sun is also a star review, the sellout review, february reads

The Mothers

I finally read one of the buzziest books of 2016 and I enjoyed it quite a bit. In fact, it wasn’t what I was expecting it to be, so I guess I did a decent job of avoiding spoilers!

The novel follows a black girl named Nadia, and begins soon after her mother’s suicide. As she grieves, Nadia searches for other relationships to fill the void her mother left, and starts seeing the pastor’s son, Luke. Nadia becomes pregnant with his child and has to make a decision that will have consequences throughout the rest of her life.

I thought the tone of this book was very well done. After her mother’s death, Nadia is changed forever, and there’s a sadness and sense of emptiness pervading the novel. Nadia meets another motherless girl, Aubrey, who is her opposite, but the two of them strike up an unlikely friendship. They are both constantly searching for something: for their mothers or the people they used to be, for happiness, for love.

There are lines in this book where Bennett really nails it. I applaud her ability to capture emotions and her development of characters who feel like real people. However, there’s a narrative device she used that I’m not sure I liked- the Mothers. The Mothers are a group of women in Nadia’s church and they also function as a chorus (similar to the chorus in Fates and Furies). Even though there are some great passages in these sections, I generally found The Mothers’ observations distracting. Though I see how The Mothers are connected to the rest of the characters and the story, I’m not certain that they were necessary.

This book was quieter than I expected it to be, and I really liked that. It’s about difficult decisions, life-changing events, and being disappointed by the people you love the most.

The Snowman

I’ve heard a lot of talk about Jo Nesbo and I think the sticker on the book says that over 22 million copies have been sold (!!). Well, I thought it was time to find out what everyone was raving about. My overall takeaway can be summarized in three words: it was fine.

On the first snow day of the year, a woman goes missing in Oslo. There’s one detail that strikes detective Harry Hole as odd- the snowman found outside her house. This clue ultimately leads him to connect this case with others and makes him realize that he’s dealing with a dangerous criminal who enjoys playing games.

I feel like most of the mysteries/thrillers I read are based in America, so it was nice to read one in a completely different setting. The writing was acceptable, although I found some of the sentences strange and a bit off (I’m not sure if that was intentional, or as a result of translation). On a random note, there were several references to American politics, albeit politics of the past. I wasn’t sure how these were relevant to the story. Honestly, anything political is a really sore subject right now, so I had to wonder, “Was the author trolling me?”

I will give this point to Nesbo: it was a dark and twisted story, just the way I like it. The author kept me guessing throughout and I was thrown off by red herrings. However, there’s a real misogynistic streak in this novel, which I did not like one bit and which made me feel queasy. I won’t go into the details in order to avoid spoilers, but just be warned.

So there was enough intrigue in this story to keep me flipping the pages, but I wasn’t really blown away. I might try another Nesbo novel sometime in the future, but I won’t be rushing to do so.

Closed Casket*

When I heard that Sophie Hannah would be continuing the Agatha Christie books, I was really curious about she’d handle it. If you’ve read any of the original Agatha Christie novels, and then one of the new ones, I feel like you can’t help but compare them. My ultimate verdict is that Hannah did a good job of carrying on Agatha Christie’s legacy. It’s not perfect, but it’s certainly not a disgrace either.

In this book, Poirot and his colleague Edward Catchpool, another detective, are invited a dinner party at the estate of a famous children’s novelist named Lady Playford. The guests consist of some of Lady Playford’s family and people who are complete strangers (sounds a bit like And Then There Were None, no?). Naturally, Poirot is suspicious about Lady Playford’s decision to randomly invite two detectives to her home. Lo and behold, he’s right to be suspicious since someone is murdered on their first night at the estate.

I loved the premise of this novel and thought that Hannah did a pretty decent job of capturing Christie’s tone. But the characters in this novel, you guys. They were insufferable! For me they were very one-note and I wished that there was a lot more nuance to their actions/words. I did love the portion at the end when Poirot launches into his spiel and explains who committed the murder. I think that section in particular gave me the strongest Agatha Christie feels.

Again, Christie is a very difficult name to live up to. If it were me, I’d be terrified to try to tackle another writer’s work! I think this is a solid effort from Hannah and I would read the other book she’s written as part of the new Hercule Poirot series.

The Thunder Beneath Us*

Best Lightburn (love that name, feels kind of like a superhero name) is a top writer at a women’s magazine. It’s not easy being a black, female writer trying to advance in her career, but Best is doing everything she can to move up the ladder (I’d written a terrible pun here, but I decided to spare you instead, so you’re welcome ;). It seems like she has a great boyfriend, job, friends, and life in general, but she’s haunted by a traumatic event from her past. Ten years ago, Best was in an accident with her two brothers and was the only person to survive. As her past starts to catch up to her, her present-day life begins to unravel, until it seems like nothing is under her control anymore.

My description above makes this book sound rather bleak and it does begin with the terrible event. But there are moments of humor and levity in here too. I really enjoyed the writing style, which was rather conversational. When Best narrates, it’s like you’re gabbing with your girlfriend.

As I was reading, I thought the plot and structure was a bit loose. There were scenes and characters that felt more like tangents, rather than additions to strengthen the story. In parts, I wanted more background. I felt like I was supposed to know and care more about certain characters, but I wasn’t shown enough to understand the relationships between these characters.

Still, I thought the underlying story was raw and real. There were moments that, for reasons, made me pause to catch my breath. The pain that Best felt resonated with me. In general, I really enjoyed this novel and I would definitely read more of the author’s work.

Grace

This book is excellent and I feel like there aren’t enough people talking about how good it is. The main character is Naomi, a slave in the South in the mid-1800s. The book begins with Naomi’s murder, hours after she’s given birth to a child. Naomi dies that night, but she doesn’t quite move on. Instead, she reflects on her experiences before her death, and those of her daughter after her death.

Deon wrote this story beautifully and Naomi was such a rich character. She has a heartbreaking life. I think the idea of having a dead narrator could easily go wrong, but it works really well in this novel. The helplessness and lack of control that Naomi experiences in her life is also reflected after her death. As she watches over her daughter, she wants to care and intervene for her, but she can’t.

This is an important story that’s beautifully written. Y’all should read this one!

The Sun is Also a Star

I enjoyed this even more than Everything, Everything, which I really liked. I had no idea what this novel was about before I started reading it, but I knew from the first few pages that I was going to love it. When the book begins, Natasha’s family is being deported back to Jamaica, and Daniel has a college interview that could decide his future. The novel follows Natasha’s and Daniel’s story as their lives intersect on this pivotal day.

First of all, let’s give a round of applause to this book for featuring a romance between a young black girl and Korean boy. More of this, please! Aside from interracial relationships, this book also explores other topics, such as immigration and identity. I wasn’t expecting the immigration aspect of the novel. It felt particularly timely and relevant since I was reading this right after He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named announced the Muslim ban. I learned some things about the deportation process. Natasha struggles with being forced to return to a country that she barely remembers and having to leave behind the place that she calls home. Daniel wonders if he can still live up to his parent’s strict expectations if he decides to follow his own path. I could certainly identify with Daniel’s story, but Natasha’s story was especially moving to me. I felt her pain and helplessness as she tries to do everything she can think of to avoid being deported.

Despite dealing with such heavy subjects, this book has many humorous and charming moments. It gave me similar feels to those I had while reading Eleanor & Park, which is one of my favorite books. I’m really enjoying what Nicola Yoon is doing in the world of YA and I’m definitely going to keep following her work!

The Sellout

Get ready to go for a wild ride when you read this book! It’s irreverent and incisive from the first few pages and it doesn’t really slow down. The narrator, whose first name we never learn, is a black man living in Dickens, California. He describes Dickens as the original ghetto and is distressed when Dickens is literally erased from the map. The narrator comes up with a plan to get Dickens noticed and put it back on the map- bring back segregation.

This novel is as wacky as that plot description sounds and it’s a satire on race relations in America. Beatty is not afraid to go there, and several times I was wincing at his accurate observations about race. The plot can be unbelievable, until you remind yourself of the current political climate. There’s a lot of truth in this book and a lot to digest. It’s certainly left me reevaluating and taking a hard look at the current state of affairs.

I’m really glad I got around to this one in February. As with all of my Black History Month reads, this story feels even more timely and necessary than ever.

*Disclaimer: These books were sent to me by the publisher or author for review purposes, but these are my honest thoughts and opinions.

Book Reviews: December 2016

what belongs to you review, here comes the sun review, everything everything, white teeth, in a dark dark wood, december reads

White Teeth

I’m so happy to have read my first Zadie Smith. Reading her work has only deepened my crush on her as an author. She always comes across so intelligently and elegantly in interviews and articles (similar to my other love, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie). It was a pleasure to read her first novel and confirm that I enjoyed her writing just as much as I thought I would.

This book follows two families living in London from about 1950-2000. Samad and Archie fought in World War II together and remained friends when Samad moved to London after the war. The book explores race, immigrant experiences, displacement, family dynamics and much more. I loved seeing snippets of what life in London might have been like during this time period.

Smith’s writing is so sharp and witty, and even funny at times, which I wasn’t expecting. Her intelligence seeps through in every paragraph, though not at all in a way that makes you feel like you’re reading a textbook. Zadie Smith discusses Eastern vs. Western ideals and how the two cultures often clash. Samad desperately wants his children to be proper Muslim children, but feels that their lives in London make this impossible.

There’s so much to unpack in this novel that I can’t do it justice here, but I can sufficiently say that I thoroughly enjoyed this novel.

What Belongs to You

I had to add this novel to my list of favorite books of 2016 because I loved it that much. The narrator is an English teacher living in Bulgaria who strikes up a relationship with a young prostitute named Mitko, and the book is mainly about the relationship between these two men.

Greenwell’s writing is simply excellent. It’s so lyrical and flows beautifully, and he does such a wonderful job of capturing human emotions. This story asks how well you can truly know someone. The narrator doesn’t know much about Mitko. He only really knows the face that Mitko has presented to him. He begins to realize, however, that Mitko has many different faces. Perhaps everyone does.

Language is also an important theme. The narrator speaks passing Bulgarian, but isn’t always able to translate everything that Mitko says to him. So there are misunderstandings and meanings that are lost to the narrator because he’s not fluent in the language.

The difficulty with language is only one of the barriers between the narrator and Mitko. The narrator pays Mitko to spend time with him, so he can never really know if Mitko has genuine feelings for him, or if he’s simply there to complete their transaction. Mitko invites the narrator to get to know him and makes him feel important, while at the same time, keeps parts of his life and background hidden.

This book is worth reading for the writing alone, but in addition, there are so many interesting topics discussed in this novel. If you haven’t already read this one, I’d highly recommend that you do.

Everything, Everything

Madeline is the girl who lives in a bubble. She has a severe autoimmune disease and contact with anything in the outside world could cause a reaction and kill her. So she lives in carefully controlled environment and is content with her life, until a new family moves in next door. She starts talking to the boy next door, Ollie, and begins to dream about what life is like outside her four walls.

I thought this was a sweet and charming story. I enjoyed Maddie as a character; she’s mixed race (and it was great to read a novel with a mixed race protagonist) and bookish. The book also features different mediums (there are emails, notes, handwritten illustrations, and more) and I thought the incorporation of those formats was well done. I was really enjoying it and thought it was light-hearted and fun until a thing happened. And after the thing, I liked the book less. Not to the point where I wanted to stop reading, but still, the thing threw me for a loop. Even now, I’m trying to untangle my feelings about the thing and I think my problem is that it felt very inauthentic. Overall, I still liked the novel and I plan to read Nicola Yoon’s other book.

Here Comes the Sun

This was another excellent read that nearly made my favorites of the year. It’s set in Jamaica and tells the story of three women: Delores and her daughters, Margot and Thandi. Each woman has struggles to overcome and goals that they want to achieve.

Delores and Margot have placed all of their hopes and dreams on Thandi because she’s book smart. Both of them work really hard to provide for her because they believe that if she does well in school, she can become a doctor or a lawyer and really make something of herself. Meanwhile, Thandi feels this immense pressure and is apprehensive about sharing her own dreams.

The characterization is excellent in this novel. I felt like I really knew each of these women and understood what motivates them. I also loved the setting and getting a taste of life in Jamaica. The author discusses race and beauty and the idea that darker skin is ugly, while light skin is beautiful. Delores even says something along the lines of, “There is nothing worse than being dark, poor, and ugly” and this idea is ingrained throughout the community.

The author also explores the lives of the residents of this town in Jamaica. The jobs at the resorts are considered cushy jobs because they pay relatively well, but at the same time, the development of new resorts is driving people out of their own homes.

I thought this was a fascinating, well-written novel, filled with true, yet heartbreaking observations. It’s definitely one to add to your TBR if you haven’t read it.

In a Dark, Dark Wood

Nora is invited to the hen (bachelorette) weekend for her friend Clare, but it’s strange because she hasn’t spoken to Clare in nearly ten years. She decides to go anyway, at the very least to find out why Clare has decided to reach out after all these years. The invitees travel to a house in the woods in the English countryside, where things take a dark turn…

Meh. I felt pretty ambivalent towards this book. About two-thirds of the way through, I noticed that I kept putting the book down and tuning into something else. It just wasn’t holding my attention anymore. But I still finished it because it was an easy read and I wasn’t that far away from the end.

This was so predictable, to the point where things happened exactly as I thought they would. I didn’t care about any of the characters or their relationships because they were all one-dimensional. Also, Nora is supposed to be a crime writer in this book, but I just didn’t buy it. I think that if she were a good writer, she’d also have been able to predict where the story was headed. I enjoyed the setting and thought the premise had promise, but this book didn’t thrill me.