#52Books: April Roundup

It’s June, so I might as well post about the books I read in April. THERE WERE A LOT. This is due partly to just choosing good books, and partly to choosing quick books. Also I listened to a lot of these on audio (every one of the celebrity memoirs was audio, and all were read by the author, and that was a really enjoyable experience), which definitely helped speed up the reading experience.

Going to be a little briefer than usual in my recaps this time, because if I’m not, I will probably never finish this post. My attention span lately is like that of an erratic squirrel.

Don’t expect a list NEARLY this long for May. My groove has slowed waaaaaay down, what with the end of school and just… life in general.

19. The Girl From Everywhere by Heidi Heilig

As the daughter of a time traveler, Nix has spent sixteen years sweeping across the globe and through the centuries aboard her father’s ship. Modern-day New York City, nineteenth-century Hawaii, other lands seen only in myth and legend—Nix has been to them all.

But when her father gambles with her very existence, it all may be about to end. Rae Carson meets Outlander in this epic debut fantasy.

If there is a map, Nix’s father can sail his ship, The Temptation, to any place and any time. But now that he’s uncovered the one map he’s always sought—1868 Honolulu, the year before Nix’s mother died in childbirth—Nix’s life, her entire existence, is at stake. No one knows what will happen if her father changes the past. It could erase Nix’s future, her dreams, her adventures . . . her connection with the charming Persian thief, Kash, who’s been part of their crew for two years.

This was a really fun premise (a TIME TRAVELING PIRATE SHIP, yes please) and I enjoyed the diverse and spirited cast of characters as well as the time-bendy hijinx. I never got quite as deeply engaged emotionally as I would have liked to have been — I was more interested in the imaginative world than I was invested in the lives of the characters —  BUT it still kept me reading to the end, and entertained throughout.

20. Silence by Shusaku Endo

Seventeenth-century Japan: Two Portuguese Jesuit priests travel to a country hostile to their religion, where feudal lords force the faithful to publicly renounce their beliefs. Eventually captured and forced to watch their Japanese Christian brothers lay down their lives for their faith, the priests bear witness to unimaginable cruelties that test their own beliefs. Shusaku Endo is one of the most celebrated and well-known Japanese fiction writers of the twentieth century, and Silence is widely considered to be his great masterpiece.

This is probably the most challenging book I’ve read this year, due both to the subject matter and the sometimes rocky translation from the original Japanese. I had an extremely hard time connecting with the characters, which I believe was intentional, and as a story it’s just… really sad and depressing. Still, it was a deeply thought-provoking book and a hard look at a period of history I was previously ignorant of, so I’m absolutely glad I read it.

21. And I Darken by Kiersten White

NO ONE EXPECTS A PRINCESS TO BE BRUTAL. And Lada Dragwlya likes it that way. Ever since she and her gentle younger brother, Radu, were wrenched from their homeland of Wallachia and abandoned by their father to be raised in the Ottoman courts, Lada has known that being ruthless is the key to survival. She and Radu are doomed to act as pawns in a vicious game, an unseen sword hovering over their every move. For the lineage that makes them special also makes them targets.

Lada despises the Ottomans and bides her time, planning her vengeance for the day when she can return to Wallachia and claim her birthright. Radu longs only for a place where he feels safe. And when they meet Mehmed, the defiant and lonely son of the sultan, who’s expected to rule a nation, Radu feels that he’s made a true friend—and Lada wonders if she’s finally found someone worthy of her passion.

But Mehmed is heir to the very empire that Lada has sworn to fight against—and that Radu now considers home. Together, Lada, Radu, and Mehmed form a toxic triangle that strains the bonds of love and loyalty to the breaking point.

From New York Times bestselling author Kiersten White comes the first book in a dark, sweeping new series in which heads will roll, bodies will be impaled . . . and hearts will be broken.

This is historical fiction that reads like a fantasy, and I read it for two reasons: lots of strong buzz, and I really loved the narrator of the audiobook (she had previously narrated The Scorpio Races and the Ember in the Ashes books, which are among my favorite audiobooks ever). The writing and worldbuilding in this one was really strong, and I appreciated that every one of the main characters were markedly different from the archetypes we typically get in these sort of epic historical fantasies. I totally get all the glowing reviews. However, for me personally, I never really connected with this one, so this will probably be it for me with this series.

22. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter moves between two worlds: the poor neighborhood where she lives and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. The uneasy balance between these worlds is shattered when Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil at the hands of a police officer. Khalil was unarmed.

Soon afterward, his death is a national headline. Some are calling him a thug, maybe even a drug dealer and a gangbanger. Protesters are taking to the streets in Khalil’s name. Some cops and the local drug lord try to intimidate Starr and her family. What everyone wants to know is: what really went down that night? And the only person alive who can answer that is Starr.

But what Starr does—or does not—say could upend her community. It could also endanger her life.

This was another book with a ton of early buzz, and one of the rare books I preordered without either knowing the author personally or reading any of her previous work (this is Angie Thomas’s debut). But wow, did it ever live up to the hype. This is the second of three books on racism and police brutality I’ve read this year (the last one will be in my May post), which is a hard subject both to engage with in life and to read about in fiction. But I thought this book did an excellent job unpacking its delicate subject matter, making me cry and laugh and above all, think. I loved it.

23. Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon

My disease is as rare as it is famous. Basically, I’m allergic to the world. I don’t leave my house, have not left my house in seventeen years. The only people I ever see are my mom and my nurse, Carla.
 
But then one day, a moving truck arrives next door. I look out my window, and I see him. He’s tall, lean and wearing all black—black T-shirt, black jeans, black sneakers, and a black knit cap that covers his hair completely. He catches me looking and stares at me. I stare right back. His name is Olly.
 
Maybe we can’t predict the future, but we can predict some things. For example, I am certainly going to fall in love with Olly. It’s almost certainly going to be a disaster.

Everything, Everything will make you laugh, cry, and feel everything in between. It’s an innovative,  inspiring, and heartbreakingly romantic debut novel that unfolds via vignettes, diary entries, illustrations, and more.

This is a tricky one to review because my opinion of it is highly influenced by how it ends, and I don’t want to spoil anyone. So let me just say that it is beautifully written and easy to read, with endearing characters and an interesting premise, and I absolutely see why it’s a bestseller and a movie. That said, I wish it had made some different narrative choices, but I enjoyed it for what it was.

24. Scrappy Little Nobody by Anna Kendrick

Even before she made a name for herself on the silver screen starring in films like Pitch Perfect, Up in the Air, Twilight, and Into the Woods, Anna Kendrick was unusually small, weird, and “10 percent defiant.”

At the ripe age of thirteen, she had already resolved to “keep the crazy inside my head where it belonged. Forever. But here’s the thing about crazy: It. Wants. Out.” In Scrappy Little Nobody, she invites readers inside her brain, sharing extraordinary and charmingly ordinary stories with candor and winningly wry observations.

With her razor-sharp wit, Anna recounts the absurdities she’s experienced on her way to and from the heart of pop culture as only she can—from her unusual path to the performing arts (Vanilla Ice and baggy neon pants may have played a role) to her double life as a middle-school student who also starred on Broadway to her initial “dating experiments” (including only liking boys who didn’t like her back) to reviewing a binder full of butt doubles to her struggle to live like an adult woman instead of a perpetual “man-child.”

Enter Anna’s world and follow her rise from “scrappy little nobody” to somebody who dazzles on the stage, the screen, and now the page—with an electric, singular voice, at once familiar and surprising, sharp and sweet, funny and serious (well, not that serious).

This book does not contain any great insights or wisdom, and is pretty much the book-length equivalent of following Anna Kendrick on Twitter. That said, if you enjoy following Anna Kendrick on Twitter, this is a really fun, quick read, full of amusing anecdotes from Anna’s experiences on Broadway and in Hollywood.

25. Yes Please by Amy Poehler

Do you want to get to know the woman we first came to love on Comedy Central’s Upright Citizens Brigade? Do you want to spend some time with the lady who made you howl with laughter on Saturday Night Live, and in movies like Baby Mama, Blades of Glory, and They Came Together? Do you find yourself daydreaming about hanging out with the actor behind the brilliant Leslie Knope on Parks and Recreation? Did you wish you were in the audience at the last two Golden Globes ceremonies, so you could bask in the hilarity of Amy’s one-liners?

If your answer to these questions is “Yes Please!” then you are in luck. In her first book, one of our most beloved funny folk delivers a smart, pointed, and ultimately inspirational read. Full of the comedic skill that makes us all love Amy, Yes Please is a rich and varied collection of stories, lists, poetry (Plastic Surgery Haiku, to be specific), photographs, mantras and advice. With chapters like “Treat Your Career Like a Bad Boyfriend,” “Plain Girl Versus the Demon” and “The Robots Will Kill Us All” Yes Please will make you think as much as it will make you laugh. Honest, personal, real, and righteous, Yes Please is full of words to live by.

Again, not a lot of huge life lessons or profound insight in this one, but it was really interesting hearing Amy Poehler talk about the journey that brought her to Saturday Night Live and Parks and Recreation. Amy has a sharp wit and is an engaging storyteller, and listening to this book made me want to rewatch Parks and Rec from the beginning, which is really never a wrong choice.

26. Bossypants by Tina Fey

Before Liz Lemon, before “Weekend Update,” before “Sarah Palin,” Tina Fey was just a young girl with a dream: a recurring stress dream that she was being chased through a local airport by her middle-school gym teacher. She also had a dream that one day she would be a comedian on TV.

She has seen both these dreams come true.

At last, Tina Fey’s story can be told. From her youthful days as a vicious nerd to her tour of duty on Saturday Night Live; from her passionately halfhearted pursuit of physical beauty to her life as a mother eating things off the floor; from her one-sided college romance to her nearly fatal honeymoon — from the beginning of this paragraph to this final sentence.

Tina Fey reveals all, and proves what we’ve all suspected: you’re no one until someone calls you bossy.

Everything I said above about Amy Poehler’s book, just, ditto for this one, except substitute 30 Rock for Parks and Recreation. I’ve never watched 30 Rock beyond the pilot, which Tina says is terrible, but this book made me want to give it a try.

27. Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? by Mindy Kaling

Mindy Kaling has lived many lives: the obedient child of immigrant professionals, a timid chubster afraid of her own bike, a Ben Affleck–impersonating Off-Broadway performer and playwright, and, finally, a comedy writer and actress prone to starting fights with her friends and coworkers with the sentence “Can I just say one last thing about this, and then I swear I’ll shut up about it?”
 
Perhaps you want to know what Mindy thinks makes a great best friend (someone who will fill your prescription in the middle of the night), or what makes a great guy (one who is aware of all elderly people in any room at any time and acts accordingly), or what is the perfect amount of fame (so famous you can never get convicted of murder in a court of law), or how to maintain a trim figure (you will not find that information in these pages). If so, you’ve come to the right book, mostly!
 
In Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?, Mindy invites readers on a tour of her life and her unscientific observations on romance, friendship, and Hollywood, with several conveniently placed stopping points for you to run errands and make phone calls. Mindy Kaling really is just a Girl Next Door—not so much literally anywhere in the continental United States, but definitely if you live in India or Sri Lanka.

I was surprised that of all the Funny Lady Celebrity Memoirs I read this month, Mindy’s was actually the one I related to the most. Which was odd, since I don’t think she’s actually the one I would most easily be friends with in real life, should the opportunity present itself. (That would be Anna Kendrick. For the record.) But something about the way she talked about herself felt really familiar to me, even though I can’t quite put my finger on why. As with the above books, this one was funny, engaging, and quick, but not life-changing.

28. Year of Yes by Shonda Rhimes

The instant New York Times bestseller from the creator of Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal and executive producer of How to Get Away With Murder shares how saying YES changed her life. “As fun to read as Rhimes’s TV series are to watch” (Los Angeles Times).

She’s the creator and producer of some of the most groundbreaking and audacious shows on television today. Her iconic characters live boldly and speak their minds. So who would suspect that Shonda Rhimes is an introvert? That she hired a publicist so she could avoid public appearances? That she suffered panic attacks before media interviews?

With three children at home and three hit television shows, it was easy for Shonda to say she was simply too busy. But in truth, she was also afraid. And then, over Thanksgiving dinner, her sister muttered something that was both a wake up and a call to arms: You never say yes to anything. Shonda knew she had to embrace the challenge: for one year, she would say YES to everything that scared her.

This poignant, intimate, and hilarious memoir explores Shonda’s life before her Year of Yes—from her nerdy, book-loving childhood to her devotion to creating television characters who reflected the world she saw around her. The book chronicles her life after her Year of Yes had begun—when Shonda forced herself out of the house and onto the stage; when she learned to explore, empower, applaud, and love her truest self. Yes.

“Honest, raw, and revelatory” (The Washington Post), this wildly candid and compulsively readable book reveals how the mega talented Shonda Rhimes finally achieved badassery worthy of a Shondaland character. Best of all, she “can help motivate even the most determined homebody to get out and try something new” (Chicago Tribune).

I am in a long-term committed relationship with Grey’s Anatomy. I have been faithful to that show for thirteen years, and fully plan to stick with it until one of us dies (preferably, the show will go first). So I was definitely expecting to like the book written by its creator, Shonda Rhimes, because I like her writing so much on television. However I was not prepared for just how inspired I felt after reading this. Not everything she talks about pertained to me, but it was just such an empowering and energizing read. I wanted to go build empires when I finished this book. And don’t worry, while she does talk about Grey’s some, watching thirteen seasons of the show is absolutely not a prerequisite for reading this book. It’s just a bonus.

29. As You Wish by Cary Elwes

From actor Cary Elwes, who played the iconic role of Westley in The Princess Bride, comes a first-person account and behind-the-scenes look at the making of the cult classic film filled with never-before-told stories, exclusive photographs, and interviews with costars Robin Wright, Wallace Shawn, Billy Crystal, Christopher Guest, and Mandy Patinkin, as well as author and screenwriter William Goldman, producer Norman Lear, and director Rob Reiner.

The Princess Bride has been a family favorite for close to three decades. Ranked by the American Film Institute as one of the top 100 Greatest Love Stories and by the Writers Guild of America as one of the top 100 screenplays of all time, The Princess Bride will continue to resonate with audiences for years to come.

Cary Elwes was inspired to share his memories and give fans an unprecedented look into the creation of the film while participating in the twenty-fifth anniversary cast reunion. In As You Wish he has created an enchanting experience; in addition to never-before seen photos and interviews with his fellow cast mates, there are plenty of set secrets and backstage stories.

With a foreword by Rob Reiner and a limited edition original poster by acclaimed artist Shepard Fairey, As You Wish is a must-have for all fans of this beloved film.

The Princess Bride has been one of my favorite movies since I was itty bitty, and my favorite book since I first read it in high school. This was a really interesting look into the making of the movie, and the audio was a joy, with many individuals involved in its production, including Robin Wright, Billy Crystal, Rob Reiner, Wallace Shawn, and Chris Sarandon, returning to share their memories of that time. I particularly enjoyed the stories Cary shared about Andre the Giant, who sounds like he would have been an absolutely delightful person to know. Highly recommend this one for anyone who treasures the movie as much as I do.

30. Why Not Me? by Mindy Kaling

In Why Not Me?, Kaling shares her ongoing journey to find contentment and excitement in her adult life, whether it’s falling in love at work, seeking new friendships in lonely places, attempting to be the first person in history to lose weight without any behavior modification whatsoever, or most important, believing that you have a place in Hollywood when you’re constantly reminded that no one looks like you.
 
In “How to Look Spectacular: A Starlet’s Confessions,” Kaling gives her tongue-in-cheek secrets for surefire on-camera beauty, (“Your natural hair color may be appropriate for your skin tone, but this isn’t the land of appropriate–this is Hollywood, baby. Out here, a dark-skinned woman’s traditional hair color is honey blonde.”) “Player” tells the story of Kaling being seduced and dumped by a female friend in L.A. (“I had been replaced by a younger model. And now they had matching bangs.”) In “Unlikely Leading Lady,” she muses on America’s fixation with the weight of actresses, (“Most women we see onscreen are either so thin that they’re walking clavicles or so huge that their only scenes involve them breaking furniture.”) And in “Soup Snakes,” Kaling spills some secrets on her relationship with her ex-boyfriend and close friend, B.J. Novak (“I will freely admit: my relationship with B.J. Novak is weird as hell.”)
 
Mindy turns the anxieties, the glamour, and the celebrations of her second coming-of-age into a laugh-out-loud funny collection of essays that anyone who’s ever been at a turning point in their life or career can relate to. And those who’ve never been at a turning point can skip to the parts where she talks about meeting Bradley Cooper.

I didn’t enjoy this one as much as Mindy’s first book, and didn’t connect to her nearly as well this time, but it was still an enjoyable read. During some of her essays, which wandered far from her actual life to indulge in pages of “what if” scenarios, I found myself checking my metaphorical watch. But overall, it was quick and fun and entertaining, if not stellar.

31. Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Raised in South Carolina and New York, Woodson always felt halfway home in each place. In vivid poems, she shares what it was like to grow up as an African American in the 1960s and 1970s, living with the remnants of Jim Crow and her growing awareness of the Civil Rights movement. Touching and powerful, each poem is both accessible and emotionally charged, each line a glimpse into a child’s soul as she searches for her place in the world. Woodson’s eloquent poetry also reflects the joy of finding her voice through writing stories, despite the fact that she struggled with reading as a child. Her love of stories inspired her and stayed with her, creating the first sparks of the gifted writer she was to become.

I’m not normally one for books written in verse, or poetry in general, but once I settled into this one, it was lovely. Despite the author’s childhood looking very different from mine, there was much I could relate to in who she was as a person, and when I didn’t relate, her beautiful words made it easy to imagine. I still don’t think I’m going to gravitate towards books in verse, but I very much enjoyed this one, and am glad I read it.

32. Dress Codes for Small Towns by Courtney Stevens

As the tomboy daughter of the town’s preacher, Billie McCaffrey has always struggled with fitting the mold of what everyone says she should be. She’d rather wear sweats, build furniture, and get into trouble with her solid group of friends: Woods, Mash, Davey, Fifty, and Janie Lee.

But when Janie Lee confesses to Billie that she’s in love with Woods, Billie’s filled with a nagging sadness as she realizes that she is also in love with Woods…and maybe with Janie Lee, too.

Always considered “one of the guys,” Billie doesn’t want anyone slapping a label on her sexuality before she can understand it herself. So she keeps her conflicting feelings to herself, for fear of ruining the group dynamic. Except it’s not just about keeping the peace, it’s about understanding love on her terms—this thing that has always been defined as a boy and a girl falling in love and living happily ever after. For Billie—a box-defying dynamo—it’s not that simple.

Readers will be drawn to Billie as she comes to terms with the gray areas of love, gender, and friendship, in this John Hughes-esque exploration of sexual fluidity.

Courtney is a friend of mine, which was how I was able to get my hands on an early copy of her third novel, which will hit bookstores in August of this year. Something Courtney has excelled at in all of her books is writing them from a place of sincere honesty, even when it’s not pretty or neat. In Dress Codes, she takes a deep look at complex themes of friendship, love, family, gender, and sexuality, all in the context of a rural town and her main character’s own deep faith. I rarely see the subject of faith approached so frankly in YA, especially when tangled with sexuality, and loved Courtney’s empathetic and nuanced examination of both through her characters. If you’re a fan of contemporary YA narratives and complex, honest characters, definitely pick this one up in August.

#52Books: March Roundup

Yes, I am aware that we are double digits into May and I am just now posting my March roundup. No, I do not have a good excuse, unless you consider “every time I look at my computer and consider writing words of any sort, I become overwhelmed with the sudden desire to nap” a good excuse.

I haven’t been napping every day, for the record. But with my brain chanting “NAP! NAP! NAP!” at me like a frat boy at a keg* every time I sit down in front of my laptop, there are only so many words I can get it to squeeze out. And considering that I am also supposed to be writing a book right now (to my agent, if you are reading this, I SWEAR I’M WRITING IT. RIGHT NOW. Just, you know, not right NOW), I have been spending the 500-1000 words my brain will deign to produce each day on said book.

Writers, never brag to people that you are a “fast drafter,” because if you say this enough times your muse will come out of the bathroom mirror like Candyman**, except instead of killing you it will shrivel up like an old raisin, and you will stare at it in horror, and from then on you will be creatively constipated and it will be entirely your own fault.

So anyway, I have not been able to write much, and what little I’ve written has not been in the form of blog posts. I’m sorry. But not that sorry, as I really do want to finish drafting this book.

Anyway! Here is a very belated March post. I didn’t read as many books this month as last month, mostly because I decided to tackle some pretty lengthy books, some of which I still haven’t finished, but I at least hit my book-a-week minimum goal (yes, this does mean I am reading multiple books at once, and yes, I realize this isn’t the most conducive method to actually finishing books, and no, I have no intention of changing my approach).

Plus April was pretty respectable, which, realistically, I will probably blog about sometime in July.

Guys, I am just trying to be honest.

*in movies, that is, as I have never actually witnessed this behavior in real life. But I’m assuming this is a thing that happens, because it is in pretty much every college movie ever, and why would it be there if it wasn’t true? Surely college movies are true to the Typical College Experience, unless of course you had my college experience, which was great for me but which most people would probably consider Astoundingly Boring.

** I have also never actually seen Candymandoes he come out of the mirror? I imagine something very much like The Ring, but maybe it’s not like that at all. I suppose I could look up the scene on YouTube, but if it is even marginally like The Ring that would be a terrible idea, because The Ring made me have to cover my television set with a blanket and sleep with all the lights on for three weeks.

March

14. A Conjuring of Light by V.E. Schwab

 THE BALANCE OF POWER HAS FINALLY TIPPED…
The precarious equilibrium among four Londons has reached its breaking point. Once brimming with the red vivacity of magic, darkness casts a shadow over the Maresh Empire, leaving a space for another London to rise.

WHO WILL CRUMBLE?
Kell – once assumed to be the last surviving Antari – begins to waver under the pressure of competing loyalties. And in the wake of tragedy, can Arnes survive?

WHO WILL RISE?
Lila Bard, once a commonplace – but never common – thief, has survived and flourished through a series of magical trials. But now she must learn to control the magic, before it bleeds her dry. Meanwhile, the disgraced Captain Alucard Emery of the Night Spire collects his crew, attempting a race against time to acquire the impossible.

WHO WILL TAKE CONTROL?
And an ancient enemy returns to claim a crown while a fallen hero tries to save a world in decay.

This is the conclusion to the Shades of Magic trilogy, and in my humble opinion, it’s the best book of the series. All the threads that have been painstakingly crafted throughout the first two books finally are able to come together in exciting and unexpected ways, and I laughed, cried, and gasped as these brilliant characters fought their way to the end of the story. It’s really difficult to deliver a satisfying ending to a series, especially one with as many moving parts as are in Shades of Magic (I believe A Conjuring of Light has something like 14 point-of-view characters), but this one sticks the landing so hard it might actually have fused to the ground.

15. Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers

Seventeen-year-old Ismae escapes from the brutality of an arranged marriage into the sanctuary of the convent of St. Mortain, where the sisters still serve the gods of old. Here she learns that the god of Death Himself has blessed her with dangerous gifts—and a violent destiny. If she chooses to stay at the convent, she will be trained as an assassin and serve as a handmaiden to Death. To claim her new life, she must destroy the lives of others.

Ismae’s most important assignment takes her straight into the high court of Brittany—where she finds herself woefully under prepared—not only for the deadly games of intrigue and treason, but for the impossible choices she must make. For how can she deliver Death’s vengeance upon a target who, against her will, has stolen her heart?

I’ve heard great things about the His Fair Assassin trilogy for a long time, so I was excited to finally read the first book in Robin LaFevers’ historical series about assassin nuns. It did not disappoint, with intricate worldbuilding, fully developed characters, and beautiful writing. I did have some trouble connecting fully with the characters and investing in the conflict, so I’m not sure if I’ll keep going or not, but this book was well written and meticulously crafted, so if historical fantasy with a hefty helping of intrigue is your thing, I’d definitely recommend it.

16. Waters of Salt & Sin by Alisha Klapheke

A dangerous romance, a stolen sister, and the mythical treasure that could change everything. The first in the Uncommon World series of standalone novels, Waters of Salt and Sin combines the epic setting of Game of Thrones with the humor and romance of Pirates of the Caribbean—perfect for Sabaa Tahir and Sarah J. Maas fans! To save her sister from starvation and hold on to her relationship with Calev—the high-caste friend she secretly loves—Kinneret sets out for a lost island of silver. But when a madman enslaves her sister, Kinneret must make a deal with the local ruler: Help the leader find the island and secure the ruler’s place in history. In return, the leader’s fighting sailors will rescue her sister. Using Salt Magic to navigate cursed waters, Kinneret and Calev struggle to hide their taboo, caste-breaking feelings for one another, knowing if the ruler witnesses the attraction, she’ll cancel the agreement. But when Calev makes a terrible mistake, Kinneret must choose between the life of her only remaining family member and saving the boy she loves from a traitor’s death.

Alisha is one of my amazing critique partners and this is her debut fantasy, which I cannot speak totally objectively on (due to our aforementioned critique partner relationship) but I highly recommend if you’re searching for a new immersive fantasy with plenty of adventure, romance, intrigue, and pirates. Alisha weaves her prose with a deft hand and serves up a heaping helping of action, suspense, and swashbuckling fun. This is just the first book in her Uncommon World series, but the next one is coming soon, so get on it, fantasy readers!

17. Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older

Sierra Santiago planned an easy summer of making art and hanging out with her friends. But then a corpse crashes their first party. Her stroke-ridden grandfather starts apologizing over and over. And when the murals in her neighborhood begin to weep tears… Well, something more sinister than the usual Brooklyn ruckus is going on.

With the help of a fellow artist named Robbie, Sierra discovers shadowshaping, a magic that infuses ancestral spirits into paintings, music, and stories. But someone is killing the shadowshapers one by one. Now Sierra must unravel her family’s past, take down the killer in the present, and save the future of shadowshaping for generations to come.

I don’t read a lot of urban fantasy, but this one was a lot of fun, full of magic and twists and chalk drawings that come to life and run around the streets and walls of Brooklyn. This was an exciting, quick read, with a vibrant and diverse cast of characters and a world rooted deeply in the culture of the protagonist. It managed to balance its fantastic conflict perfectly with its real-world elements and kept the pace galloping along until the end. This book recently got optioned for a movie, and I really hope it gets made, because this story would be absolutely gorgeous on film.

18. March: Book One by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell

 Congressman John Lewis (GA-5) is an American icon, one of the key figures of the civil rights movement. His commitment to justice and nonviolence has taken him from an Alabama sharecropper’s farm to the halls of Congress, from a segregated schoolroom to the 1963 March on Washington, and from receiving beatings from state troopers to receiving the Medal of Freedom from the first African-American president.

I’ve never read a nonfiction graphic novel before, but this was an excellent one to get my feet wet. This book begins the story of John Lewis’s experiences during the civil rights movement, focusing largely on his first meetings with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and taking the reader through the department store lunch counter sit-ins in the 1960s. This book was intense and moving, while also being hopeful and inspiring. There are three books so far in the March series, which I am eager to read, and will definitely be giving to my kids to read when they’re just a little older.

#52Books: February Roundup


Despite February being the shortest month, I managed to blow right past my goal of one book a week, and actually wound up reading eight books. I don’t expect this breakneck pace to continue indefinitely (March is thus far proving to be much slower), but it was fun while it lasted.

February

6. A Torch Against the Night by Sabaa Tahir

 

After the events of the Fourth Trial, Martial soldiers hunt the two fugitives as they flee the city of Serra and undertake a perilous journey through the heart of the Empire.
 
Laia is determined to break into Kauf—the Empire’s most secure and dangerous prison—to save her brother, who is the key to the Scholars’ survival. And Elias is determined to help Laia succeed, even if it means giving up his last chance at freedom.
 
But dark forces, human and otherworldly, work against Laia and Elias. The pair must fight every step of the way to outsmart their enemies: the bloodthirsty Emperor Marcus, the merciless Commandant, the sadistic Warden of Kauf, and, most heartbreaking of all, Helene—Elias’s former friend and the Empire’s newest Blood Shrike.

Bound to Marcus’s will, Helene faces a torturous mission of her own—one that might destroy her: find the traitor Elias Veturius and the Scholar slave who helped him escape…and kill them both.

So many times sequels fall short of whatever was special and captivating about the first book in the series, but this was not the case with A Torch Against the Night. Sabaa Tahir knocked this follow-up to An Ember in the Ashes out of the park, bringing back all the elements and characters I loved from the first book while adding fresh new elements that kept me utterly enthralled. One of my favorite secondary characters from the first book becomes a POV character in this one, which was a welcome surprise, and Tahir weaves the three narratives together seamlessly. I absolutely cannot wait for the third (but not final!) book in this series.

Also I listened to this one on audio, and it is spectacular. Honestly one of the best audiobooks I’ve ever heard.

7. I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban by Malala Yousafzai

 

“I come from a country that was created at midnight. When I almost died it was just after midday.”

When the Taliban took control of the Swat Valley in Pakistan, one girl spoke out. Malala Yousafzai refused to be silenced and fought for her right to an education.

On Tuesday, October 9, 2012, when she was fifteen, she almost paid the ultimate price. She was shot in the head at point-blank range while riding the bus home from school, and few expected her to survive.

Instead, Malala’s miraculous recovery has taken her on an extraordinary journey from a remote valley in northern Pakistan to the halls of the United Nations in New York. At sixteen, she became a global symbol of peaceful protest and the youngest nominee ever for the Nobel Peace Prize.

I AM MALALA is the remarkable tale of a family uprooted by global terrorism, of the fight for girls’ education, of a father who, himself a school owner, championed and encouraged his daughter to write and attend school, and of brave parents who have a fierce love for their daughter in a society that prizes sons.

I AM MALALA will make you believe in the power of one person’s voice to inspire change in the world.

I knew it would be difficult to listen to Malala Yousafzai talk about her life — the Taliban bombings, the pressure from her community to deny her her education, the constant fear, and, of course, the shooting — and while I was correct, I was unprepared for how uplifting it would be at the same time. In this beautifully written, honest memoir, Malala writes eloquently about her life growing up in Pakistan, not shying away from the ugliness she faced each day, while still embracing all the things she loved — and loves — about her home, her faith, and her culture. This book was eye-opening, and helped solidify the lines of a country and culture that had previously been dotted and fuzzy in my mind. While I Am Malala is, at times, absolutely sad and upsetting, ultimately it is an inspiring, hopeful accounting of a young girl determined to leave this world better than she found it.

8. Ghost by Jason Reynolds

 

Ghost wants to be the fastest sprinter on his elite middle school track team, but his past is slowing him down in this first electrifying novel of a brand-new series from Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award–winning author Jason Reynolds.

Ghost. Lu. Patina. Sunny. Four kids from wildly different backgrounds with personalities that are explosive when they clash. But they are also four kids chosen for an elite middle school track team—a team that could qualify them for the Junior Olympics if they can get their acts together. They all have a lot to lose, but they also have a lot to prove, not only to each other, but to themselves.

Ghost has a crazy natural talent, but no formal training. If he can stay on track, literally and figuratively, he could be the best sprinter in the city. But Ghost has been running for the wrong reasons—it all starting with running away from his father, who, when Ghost was a very little boy, chased him and his mother through their apartment, then down the street, with a loaded gun, aiming to kill. Since then, Ghost has been the one causing problems—and running away from them—until he meets Coach, an ex-Olympic Medalist who blew his own shot at success by using drugs, and who is determined to keep other kids from blowing their shots at life.

I don’t read a lot of middle grade fiction, but Ghost has come so highly recommended that I was super excited to read it, and am pleased to say it did not disappoint. The story of Ghost is simple – it follows Castle Crenshaw (who goes by the nickname Ghost, but only in his head), a kid with a few skeletons in his closet and not much drive, who decides on a whim to challenge the fastest sprinter on a local track team to a race, and ultimately winds up on the team himself. It doesn’t seem like a “troubled kid joins a track team” narrative should be all that compelling, but Jason Reynolds manages to make Ghost’s journey from delinquent to track star in turns heartbreaking, hilarious, and deeply moving. I loved this book.

9. Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly

 

Before John Glenn orbited the earth, or Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, a group of dedicated female mathematicians known as “human computers” used pencils, slide rules and adding machines to calculate the numbers that would launch rockets, and astronauts, into space.

Among these problem-solvers were a group of exceptionally talented African American women, some of the brightest minds of their generation. Originally relegated to teaching math in the South’s segregated public schools, they were called into service during the labor shortages of World War II, when America’s aeronautics industry was in dire need of anyone who had the right stuff. Suddenly, these overlooked math whizzes had a shot at jobs worthy of their skills, and they answered Uncle Sam’s call, moving to Hampton, Virginia and the fascinating, high-energy world of the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory.

Even as Virginia’s Jim Crow laws required them to be segregated from their white counterparts, the women of Langley’s all-black “West Computing” group helped America achieve one of the things it desired most: a decisive victory over the Soviet Union in the Cold War, and complete domination of the heavens.

Starting in World War II and moving through to the Cold War, the Civil Rights Movement and the Space Race, Hidden Figures follows the interwoven accounts of Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson and Christine Darden, four African American women who participated in some of NASA’s greatest successes. It chronicles their careers over nearly three decades they faced challenges, forged alliances and used their intellect to change their own lives, and their country’s future.

After seeing (and loving) the film Hidden Figures, I was eager to check out the book and compare the real version to the Hollywood dramatization. And while, as expected, the movie took some liberties with timelines and character relationships, as well as introduced a few fictional conflicts for the sake of drama, I was happy to find that the impressive accomplishments of the women in the movie were all, in fact, real — and in many cases, far exceeded what was shown in the movie. While this book was far more factually than narratively driven, and therefore took me a little while to get through, it was fascinating and inspiring to read about the contributions of black women to both the space race and NASA as a whole, and I’m so glad that their stories are getting told.

10. The Circle by Dave Eggers

 

When Mae Holland is hired to work for the Circle, the world’s most powerful internet company, she feels she’s been given the opportunity of a lifetime. The Circle, run out of a sprawling California campus, links users’ personal emails, social media, banking, and purchasing with their universal operating system, resulting in one online identity and a new age of civility and transparency. As Mae tours the open-plan office spaces, the towering glass dining facilities, the cozy dorms for those who spend nights at work, she is thrilled with the company’s modernity and activity. There are parties that last through the night, there are famous musicians playing on the lawn, there are athletic activities and clubs and brunches, and even an aquarium of rare fish retrieved from the Marianas Trench by the CEO. Mae can’t believe her luck, her great fortune to work for the most influential company in the world—even as life beyond the campus grows distant, even as a strange encounter with a colleague leaves her shaken, even as her role at the Circle becomes increasingly public. What begins as the captivating story of one woman’s ambition and idealism soon becomes a heart-racing novel of suspense, raising questions about memory, history, privacy, democracy, and the limits of human knowledge.

I still haven’t fully unpacked all my feelings about The Circle. On the one hand, despite it being a little clunky in its prose and poorly paced, I was completely riveted by this book, and could not stop turning pages. It’s not short — nearly 500 pages — but I inhaled it in just a couple days. The near-future technological premise is plausible and creepy, and I was utterly intrigued by how The Circle slowly tentacled out until it touched every aspect of modern life. So obviously it was doing something very, very right.

On the other hand, Mae is an absurdly frustrating narrator who goes through absolutely no personal growth and shows no agency at any point throughout the story. None of the characters behave or talk in a believable way (particularly the female characters, who felt like they’d all been modeled after Stepford wives; Mae is so bad that I am honestly shocked Emma Watson agreed to play Mae in the movie), the pacing is incredibly uneven, and the ending is wholly unsatisfying, both emotionally and narratively. I sincerely couldn’t even tell you if I liked this book, or if I’d recommend it. All I know is that it infuriated me, I couldn’t put it down, I couldn’t stop thinking about it after it was done, and that I’m definitely going to see the movie.

11. All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely

 

In this Coretta Scott King Honor Award–winning novel, two teens—one black, one white—grapple with the repercussions of a single violent act that leaves their school, their community, and, ultimately, the country bitterly divided by racial tension.

A bag of chips. That’s all sixteen-year-old Rashad is looking for at the corner bodega. What he finds instead is a fist-happy cop, Paul Galluzzo, who mistakes Rashad for a shoplifter, mistakes Rashad’s pleadings that he’s stolen nothing for belligerence, mistakes Rashad’s resistance to leave the bodega as resisting arrest, mistakes Rashad’s every flinch at every punch the cop throws as further resistance and refusal to STAY STILL as ordered. But how can you stay still when someone is pounding your face into the concrete pavement?

There were witnesses: Quinn Collins—a varsity basketball player and Rashad’s classmate who has been raised by Paul since his own father died in Afghanistan—and a video camera. Soon the beating is all over the news and Paul is getting threatened with accusations of prejudice and racial brutality. Quinn refuses to believe that the man who has basically been his savior could possibly be guilty. But then Rashad is absent. And absent again. And again. And the basketball team—half of whom are Rashad’s best friends—start to take sides. As does the school. And the town. Simmering tensions threaten to explode as Rashad and Quinn are forced to face decisions and consequences they had never considered before.

Written in tandem by two award-winning authors, this four-starred reviews tour de force shares the alternating perspectives of Rashad and Quinn as the complications from that single violent moment, the type taken from the headlines, unfold and reverberate to highlight an unwelcome truth.

All American Boys was my second Jason Reynolds book this month (sidebar: I totally understand all the praise for Jason Reynolds now), and as with Ghost, it did not disappoint. It alternates between two points of view – Rashad, a black teen whose first chapter takes us up to and through the moment when he’s horribly, publicly beaten by a white police officer over a misunderstanding; and Quinn, the white basketball player who witnesses the whole thing. While the subject matter is incredibly heavy and relevant, the book does a good job injecting humor and softness into the narrative, managing to keep the reading experience enjoyable while pulling no punches in the story. In addition to its excellent commentary on and insights into racism and activism, All American Boys tackles a subject I haven’t seen done successfully very often — what do you do when someone you love and respect does something monstrous — and manages to make everyone involved feel very human and even sympathetic, without ever making excuses or handwaving away consequences. This book stayed with me a long time after I finished reading it, and I would hope it makes its way into classrooms all across America.

12. Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari

 

At some point, every one of us embarks on a journey to find love. We meet people, date, get into and out of relationships, all with the hope of finding someone with whom we share a deep connection. This seems standard now, but it’s wildly different from what people did even just decades ago. Single people today have more romantic options than at any point in human history. With technology, our abilities to connect with and sort through these options are staggering. So why are so many people frustrated?

Some of our problems are unique to our time. “Why did this guy just text me an emoji of a pizza?” “Should I go out with this girl even though she listed Combos as one of her favorite snack foods? Combos?!” “My girlfriend just got a message from some dude named Nathan. Who’s Nathan? Did he just send her a photo of his penis? Should I check just to be sure?” 

But the transformation of our romantic lives can’t be explained by technology alone. In a short period of time, the whole culture of finding love has changed dramatically. A few decades ago, people would find a decent person who lived in their neighborhood. Their families would meet and, after deciding neither party seemed like a murderer, they would get married and soon have a kid, all by the time they were twenty-four. Today, people marry later than ever and spend years of their lives on a quest to find the perfect person, a soul mate.

For years, Aziz Ansari has been aiming his comic insight at modern romance, but for Modern Romance, the book, he decided he needed to take things to another level. He teamed up with NYU sociologist Eric Klinenberg and designed a massive research project, including hundreds of interviews and focus groups conducted everywhere from Tokyo to Buenos Aires to Wichita. They analyzed behavioral data and surveys and created their own online research forum on Reddit, which drew thousands of messages. They enlisted the world’s leading social scientists, including Andrew Cherlin, Eli Finkel, Helen Fisher, Sheena Iyengar, Barry Schwartz, Sherry Turkle, and Robb Willer. The result is unlike any social science or humor book we’ve seen before.

In Modern Romance, Ansari combines his irreverent humor with cutting-edge social science to give us an unforgettable tour of our new romantic world.

When I picked up Modern Romance, I was expecting a book version of Aziz Ansari’s stand-up, where he talks about his awkward experiences dating and gets his audience to laugh about it. And while that is sort of what his book is, it’s really his interpretation of a heavily researched sociological study that he conducted in conjunction with an NYU sociologist. The results are fascinating, kind of scary (Husband read this book too, and both of our takeaways were that neither of us is ever allowed to die, because the world of modern dating is terrifying), and often really funny. Now, even though it’s clear he tried his best to be objective, it’s still clear in some of his conclusions that Aziz Ansari is not actually a social scientist, but I wasn’t reading a book by a comedian for the Accurate Science. So take the data presented with a few grains of salt. But for what it was — a humorous book on being single in the 21st century, written by a comedian and supported by his own extensive research — I thought Modern Romance thoroughly delivered.

As a bonus, know that if you listen to Modern Romance on audio, you get Aziz Ansari yelling at you for being lazy by asking him to read to you (even though I was totally listening while exercising, TAKE THAT, AZIZ).

13. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

 

One snowy night a famous Hollywood actor slumps over and dies onstage during a production of King Lear. Hours later, the world as we know it begins to dissolve. Moving back and forth in time—from the actor’s early days as a film star to fifteen years in the future, when a theater troupe known as The Travelling Symphony roams the wasteland of what remains—this suspenseful, elegiac, spellbinding novel charts the strange twists of fate that connect five people: the actor, the man who tried to save him, the actor’s first wife, his oldest friend, and a young actress with the Traveling Symphony, caught in the crosshairs of a dangerous self-proclaimed prophet. Sometimes terrifying, sometimes tender, Station Eleven tells a story about the relationships that sustain us, the ephemeral nature of fame, and the beauty of the world as we know it.”

I keep trying to explain to people what Station Eleven is about and failing miserably. It’s about an apocalyptic pandemic, certainly, and how humanity recovers in the aftermath, but at the same time, that all feels almost secondary to the heart of Station Eleven. It feels more accurate to say it’s an examination of relationships, art, and meaning, set against the backdrop of the period right before the end of the world, and the period after. Despite being centered around a cataclysmic global event, it’s not a very plot-heavy book; there’s not really much of an arc, or even a main conflict, and when the book ends, there’s very little resolution. Yet for me, it worked, and when it ended, I was completely satisfied. What’s more, even though there wasn’t a lot of conflict or rising action to keep me invested, I found Station Eleven riveting, and listened to the whole thing on audio in two days. I’m not sure how to recommend this one, only that I loved it, and if you’re on the fence about picking it up, I hope you’ll give it a shot.

#52Books: January Roundup

*blows dust off blog*

*taps mic*

Is this thing still on?

Sorry I haven’t posted in so long. It’s been partially Life Things, and partially not being able to muster the energy to write reviews, and partially slacking off in the reading department. But it is a new year (hush, I know we’re in February now, but it’s still a new year since I last posted so it’s okay) and with new years come new resolutions.

And I know everyone says this, but this year, I’m actually going to keep those resolutions.

One of my — let’s call them “goals,” shall we, instead of “resolutions?” — is to read at least one book each week that I’ve never read before. Within this goal, I have a sub-goal (is that a word?) to intentionally diversify my reading. What does this mean? Well, in taking a look over my bookshelves, I’ve come to the realization that left to my own devices, the vast majority of the books I read would fall under the umbrella of “YA Fiction Written By White Authors.”

Let me be clear: There is absolutely nothing wrong with YA Fiction Written By White Authors. There is a huge amount of variety — and quality! — underneath that umbrella, and I’ve discovered some of my favorite books and authors within that pool.

But! Why limit myself to just that one category when there are so many more out there to discover? Reading is one of the best ways to learn about perspectives outside our own, and no matter how much I happen to love what I’d been reading, I could see plenty of benefit and absolutely no downside in trying to be more intentional about reading outside the lane I’ve traveled in for so long.

Plus, let’s be real. My slacking off in the reading department was so tremendous that diversifying my selection will proooobably not result in me reading fewer of the books I was reading before. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if I wind up reading more of them, since I’m not going to let myself take three months to finish a single book this year.

Shhhhh don’t judge me.

(Sidebar: remember when I used to read 3-4 books a week? How did I do that? Did I have a time-turner?)

Anyway, what does this look like in practice? Well, being intentional doesn’t mean I’m making myself a meticulously curated reading list or anything. I’m still a really flighty reader, and tend to pick what I read next based entirely on my mood at the time, and I am terrible about finishing books that aren’t really grabbing me. Which means I need to be able to give myself the freedom to pick books based on my mood, and also to put a book down if it’s not gripping me and pick up something else.

So really, my only rule for myself is this: I can’t read two books back to back that don’t differ significantly in a major way (unless the second book is a sequel, which is an amendment I added to the rule for Reasons, because it’s my rule and I’ll do what I want). Easy peasy.

And while I know myself well enough to know I can’t possibly keep up with one full review a week, I also don’t want to not talk about the books I’m reading, because chances are, anything I read in under a week, I’m going to want to recommend.

So after each month, I’ll do a roundup post of every book I completed in that month, with a quick summary of my thoughts for each. I may still do full reviews for some, but the capsule reviews will, at least, allow me to give each book a little bit of love without completely overwhelming me.

Which brings me to…

January

All summaries will be from Goodreads.

  1. History Is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera

     

    When Griffin’s first love and ex-boyfriend, Theo, dies in a drowning accident, his universe implodes. Even though Theo had moved to California for college and started seeing Jackson, Griffin never doubted Theo would come back to him when the time was right. But now, the future he’s been imagining for himself has gone far off course.

    To make things worse, the only person who truly understands his heartache is Jackson. But no matter how much they open up to each other, Griffin’s downward spiral continues. He’s losing himself in his obsessive compulsions and destructive choices, and the secrets he’s been keeping are tearing him apart.

    If Griffin is ever to rebuild his future, he must first confront his history, every last heartbreaking piece in the puzzle of his life.

    I loved Adam’s debut, More Happy Than Not (which… it is now occurring to me that I never reviewed here, whoops), and while I didn’t connect with his sophomore novel quite as much, it was still a poignant examination of loss and grief that was sometimes funny, sometimes devastating, and always exceedingly raw and honest. I’ve heard from many people that this book is one of the best examinations of grief they’ve read, as well as one of the more realistic depictions of OCD in a narrator. I don’t know if “enjoyed” is the right word for a book like History, but I thoroughly appreciated it, and thought about it for a long time after I finished.

  2. Wolf By Wolf by Ryan Graudin

     

    The year is 1956, and the Axis powers of the Third Reich and Imperial Japan rule. To commemorate their Great Victory, Hitler and Emperor Hirohito host the Axis Tour: an annual motorcycle race across their conjoined continents. The victor is awarded an audience with the highly reclusive Adolf Hitler at the Victor’s Ball in Tokyo.

    Yael, a former death camp prisoner, has witnessed too much suffering, and the five wolves tattooed on her arm are a constant reminder of the loved ones she lost. The resistance has given Yael one goal: Win the race and kill Hitler. A survivor of painful human experimentation, Yael has the power to skinshift and must complete her mission by impersonating last year’s only female racer, Adele Wolfe. This deception becomes more difficult when Felix, Adele twin’s brother, and Luka, her former love interest, enter the race and watch Yael’s every move.

    But as Yael grows closer to the other competitors, can she bring herself to be as ruthless as she needs to be to avoid discovery and complete her mission?

    From the author of The Walled City comes a fast-paced and innovative novel that will leave you breathless.

    I don’t read a lot of alternate history, but maybe I should. Wolf By Wolf was a fascinating take on a what-if scenario, examining an alternative outcome of World War II as examined through the lens of a cross-continental motorcycle race. This book was quick-paced and exhilarating, almost a Hunger Games meets Man in the High Castle mashup. I didn’t fully connect on an emotional level with the characters, but the plot kept me consistently intrigued and invested, and I’m eager to see what happens in the sequel.

  3. The Girl With All the Gifts by M.R. Carey

     

    Melanie is a very special girl. Dr. Caldwell calls her “our little genius.

    “Every morning, Melanie waits in her cell to be collected for class. When they come for her, Sergeant Parks keeps his gun pointing at her while two of his people strap her into the wheelchair. She thinks they don’t like her. She jokes that she won’t bite, but they don’t laugh.

    Melanie loves school. She loves learning about spelling and sums and the world outside the classroom and the children’s cells. She tells her favorite teacher all the things she’ll do when she grows up. Melanie doesn’t know why this makes Miss Justineau look sad.

    The Girl with All the Gifts is a sensational thriller, perfect for fans of Stephen King, Justin Cronin, and Neil Gaiman.

    The Girl With All the Gifts reminded me of being in high school and devouring old-school Michael Crichton novels, if Michael Crichton wrote about zombies. With its thrilling pace and high-intensity setpieces sprinkled throughout, this became one of those books I carried around everywhere with me, sneaking in a page here, a paragraph there, whenever I could. Even though zombies are hardly a new topic in fiction, I thoroughly enjoyed this twist on the undead, which constantly has the reader questioning who the true monsters are. My one quibble would be how the whole book wraps up — it felt a little too convenient for me — but I’m willing to give it a pass on the ending, since the ride to get there was so much fun.

  4. The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

     

    Author Erik Larson imbues the incredible events surrounding the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair with such drama that readers may find themselves checking the book’s categorization to be sure that ‘The Devil in the White City’ is not, in fact, a highly imaginative novel. Larson tells the stories of two men: Daniel H. Burnham, the architect responsible for the fair’s construction, and H.H. Holmes, a serial killer masquerading as a charming doctor.

    Burnham’s challenge was immense. In a short period of time, he was forced to overcome the death of his partner and numerous other obstacles to construct the famous “White City” around which the fair was built. His efforts to complete the project, and the fair’s incredible success, are skillfully related along with entertaining appearances by such notables as Buffalo Bill Cody, Susan B. Anthony, Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison.

    The activities of the sinister Dr. Holmes, who is believed to be responsible for scores of murders around the time of the fair, are equally remarkable. He devised and erected the World’s Fair Hotel, complete with crematorium and gas chamber, near the fairgrounds and used the event as well as his own charismatic personality to lure victims.

    I was a little surprised by Devil in the White City. Despite it being nonfiction, I was expecting it to read a little closer to a thriller, and while some of the H.H. Holmes segments were definitely suspenseful, and the subject matter was intriguing, the pacing overall was far more literary than thrilling. Additionally, though I was expecting the stories of Burnham and Holmes to intertwine in some way, they never really did, and the two separate narratives almost read like two different books shuffled into one. There is just as much about architecture in here as there is about mysterious murders, and one really doesn’t have much to do with the other. Still, both individual tales were extremely interesting (though I will admit, I was definitely partial to the Holmes sections), and I really enjoyed this one while learning quite a bit about a period I’d never really given much thought.

  5. An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

     

    Laia is a slave. Elias is a soldier. Neither is free.

    Under the Martial Empire, defiance is met with death. Those who do not vow their blood and bodies to the Emperor risk the execution of their loved ones and the destruction of all they hold dear.

    It is in this brutal world, inspired by ancient Rome, that Laia lives with her grandparents and older brother. The family ekes out an existence in the Empire’s impoverished backstreets. They do not challenge the Empire. They’ve seen what happens to those who do.

    But when Laia’s brother is arrested for treason, Laia is forced to make a decision. In exchange for help from rebels who promise to rescue her brother, she will risk her life to spy for them from within the Empire’s greatest military academy.

    There, Laia meets Elias, the school’s finest soldier—and secretly, its most unwilling. Elias wants only to be free of the tyranny he’s being trained to enforce. He and Laia will soon realize that their destinies are intertwined—and that their choices will change the fate of the Empire itself.

    It’s been a long time since a fantasy novel has grabbed me the way this one did. Part of it may have had something to do with the quality of the audiobook (which is phenomenal), but even the best audiobook can’t do much to fix a mediocre plot or flat characters. Fortunately, An Ember in the Ashes was the perfect marriage of amazing characters, a thrilling, perfectly paced, twisting plot, a fascinating fantasy world, and impeccable narration from the voice actors. I loved every minute of this book, and as soon as it was over, I rushed to pick up the sequel. Its only flaw, as far as I can tell, is that only the first two books in this series are out right now, and I need all four.

Review: KIDS OF APPETITE by David Arnold

It’s no secret that David Arnold is a good friend of mine, and that we occasionally read for one another, but trust me when I say that even if I’d never met him, I’d still be a fervent fan. There’s just something about the way his characters see the world — hope and wonder tempered with dry, razor-sharp wit — that is simultaneously endlessly fun to read while being deeply moving. I’m not typically the speediest reader, but with David’s stories…well, let’s just say that if they were cookies, I might as well be a hairy blue monster with giant googly eyes and an insatiable sweet tooth. And after David’s phenomenal debut Mosquitoland, I know I wasn’t the only one waiting with bated breath for his sophomore novel, Kids of Appetite.

Also, to pull back the curtain just a tad, I’d like to draw attention to this video David made about the four individuals with Moebius Syndrome who helped him bring Vic to life. As I’ve heard him say many times, they did more than just help him get Vic right; without them, there would be no Vic at all.

The Plot (from Goodreads):

Victor Benucci and Madeline Falco have a story to tell.
It begins with the death of Vic’s father.
It ends with the murder of Mad’s uncle.
The Hackensack Police Department would very much like to hear it.
But in order to tell their story, Vic and Mad must focus on all the chapters in between.

This is a story about:

1. A coded mission to scatter ashes across New Jersey.
2. The momentous nature of the Palisades in winter.
3. One dormant submarine.
4. Two songs about flowers.
5. Being cool in the traditional sense.
6. Sunsets & ice cream & orchards & graveyards.
7. Simultaneous extreme opposites.
8. A narrow escape from a war-torn country.
9. A story collector.
10. How to listen to someone who does not talk.
11. Falling in love with a painting.
12. Falling in love with a song.
13. Falling in love.

My Thoughts:

It’s always a little risky, both as a writer and a reader, taking on a book told from multiple points of view. It’s hard enough to find a book with one narrator I love, let alone two or more. Throw on top of that a non-linear structure — KIDS OF APPETITE opens on a scene that actually takes place near the end of the story, with the bulk of the narrative told in flashback — and in less capable hands, you might have a recipe for literary disaster.

Fortunately, David Arnold is far more than capable, and KIDS OF APPETITE is an often poignant, occasionally hilarious, surprisingly twisty delight from start to finish.

The central characters of KIDS OF APPETITE are a boy, Victor “Vic” Benucci, and a girl, Madeline “Mad” Falco, who meet by chance two years after the death of Vic’s father, and wind up profoundly changing each other’s lives forever. The narrative flips between both of their POVs, and alternates between their separate interrogations in a police station, and the events that brought them there. It’s a tricky structure, but it works. Both voices are sharp and distinctive, and the skips back and forth in time flow well, and are never jarring or confusing.

Vic is a boy still grieving his father’s death following a long illness. After fleeing his house during a particularly upsetting night, Vic encounters Mad and the rest of the Kids of Appetite — Baz and Zuz, refugee brothers from the Republic of the Congo, and Coco, an 11-year-old girl with a boundless imagination and a penchant for swearing. The four Kids live together in a neglected greenhouse, where they spend their time musing upon life, making grand declarations, and, every now and then, deciding to take it upon themselves to make someone else’s life better. When Vic and the Kids collide, they set out on a mission to fulfill his father’s final wish, and in doing so, bring Vic the closure he so desperately needs. But even as they are all working to help Vic, Vic is focused on Mad, who, despite her guarded exterior, he suspects could use some help of her own.

As the story went on, I fell in love with each of these characters. As in David Arnold’s previous book, MOSQUITOLAND, the members of his cast are like a bunch of mismatched puzzle pieces coming together to to form a sort of Wes Anderson-ized whole, full of quirks and flaws and idiosyncrasies that may make them an odd fit anywhere else, but work perfectly with each other. David Arnold’s great strength as a writer is in painting his characters with a vivid brush, and then stepping back and allowing them to shine through their dialogue as they interact with each other, and that talent is on full display here. In both the large moments and the small, loud and quiet, it was a joy to experience life with these characters, and to watch them live and laugh and see that it was good.

I want to take a moment to talk about the disability representation with Vic, who has a rare neurological disorder known as Moebius Syndrome, which is characterized by complete or partial facial paralysis. Before reading KIDS OF APPETITE, I had never even heard of Moebius Syndrome, and certainly had never met anyone who had it. It was evident in reading Vic’s point-of-view that David was very aware that this might be the first exposure many of his readers have to Moebius, as well as the first time his readers with Moebius see someone like them represented in fiction. The care and attention to detail was clear, and there is an author’s note at the end which thanks four individuals with Moebius for consulting closely on the development of Vic’s character. While I am not disabled, I am a strong proponent of increased diversity in fiction, as I believe that reading about a broad spectrum of human experiences can only serve to increase empathy. There are so few books out there with disabled protagonists, and even fewer where the author really opened themselves up to input from the community they are aiming to represent. And while KIDS OF APPETITE is definitely not a book about Moebius, I really appreciated the thoughtfulness that went into crafting Vic and making sure that the portrayal of a character with Moebius was accurate.

In the end, KIDS OF APPETITE is a beautiful story of grief and healing, of friendship and found family, of first impressions and broadened horizons, and of how you can know someone so well, yet discover there are parts of them you never knew at all. It is in turns funny and heartfelt, thrilling and surprising and gutting. It is a brilliant, honest, Super Racehorse of a book, and one I wholeheartedly recommend to anyone who loves great stories.