#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.

Review: THIS SAVAGE SONG by Victoria Schwab

It’s been a few years since Victoria Schwab has given us a new YA; she’s been spending the past couple years working toward world domination establishing her adult brand with Vicious and the Darker Shade series. During that time, she’s gained a lot of new readers, and I hope they follow her back to her YA roots for This Savage Song

I wasn’t sure what to expect from her monstrous new release (every time Victoria was asked about it, responses ranged from nonverbal grunting noises to maniacal cackling to “it’s so weird, you guys”) but once I finally got my grubby little paws on an ARC and read the first few pages, I couldn’t put it down. Now I can honestly say that This Savage Song this is my favorite of Victoria’s YA. Tonally, it feels like the younger YA cousin to Vicious, which is my favorite book of Victoria’s overall, and I am so excited that it’s finally crept its way into the world.

The Plot (from Goodreads):

There’s no such thing as safe in a city at war, a city overrun with monsters. In this dark urban fantasy from author Victoria Schwab, a young woman and a young man must choose whether to become heroes or villains—and friends or enemies—with the future of their home at stake. The first of two books.

Kate Harker and August Flynn are the heirs to a divided city—a city where the violence has begun to breed actual monsters. All Kate wants is to be as ruthless as her father, who lets the monsters roam free and makes the humans pay for his protection. All August wants is to be human, as good-hearted as his own father, to play a bigger role in protecting the innocent—but he’s one of the monsters. One who can steal a soul with a simple strain of music. When the chance arises to keep an eye on Kate, who’s just been kicked out of her sixth boarding school and returned home, August jumps at it. But Kate discovers August’s secret, and after a failed assassination attempt the pair must flee for their lives.

My Thoughts:

For the past couple years, Victoria (V.E.) Schwab has been focusing on her adult books, with Vicious and her Darker Shade series. However, This Savage Song takes her back to her start in YA, with an urban fantasy that explores the question of what it means to be monstrous. For readers of her adult works, expect a tone closer to Vicious than Darker Shade, and for readers of her YA, be prepared for a darker, twistier tale than either The Archived or The Near Witch.

This Savage Song takes place in a time and place not too removed from the world we live in now, except for one crucial detail — in this world, acts of violence breed literal monsters. The more horrific the violence, the more terrible the creature it creates.

August, one of the two narrators, is one such monster, born out of an event so horrible, he can barely bring himself to think of it. He wants nothing more than to be human, but throughout the story, it becomes increasingly clear why that can never be possible, and why, even so, he can never stop trying.

Kate Harker, the other narrator, is the teenage daughter of the most powerful man in the city, and would happily throw away her humanity if it won her the attention of her father. She and August don’t so much come together as collide, and the narrative of This Savage Song clearly relishes playing out the tension between the monster boy longing for the very thing his human companion doesn’t seem to value at all, and the girl trying to reconcile what she knows of monsters with the boy standing in front of her.

It’s hard to discuss the plot of This Savage Song without getting into spoilers, so suffice it to say that the entire book is a tense, thrilling exploration of what it means to be human, what can make someone monstrous, and the marks violence leaves, both on the soul and on society. Kate and August’s relationship follows one of my favorite trajectories in fiction, from enemies to wary allies to respected partners to trusted friends, and I loved every delicious moment of their slow-burn friendship (is slow-burn friendship a thing? Because it should be).

I also was fascinated by the monsters that populated the dark world of This Savage Song. For the most part, they are not the mindless, salivating brutes of horror novels and fairy tales, but sinister, intelligent beings with agendas of their own. When the story starts, the monsters have more or less taken over the city, but they still have structure and hierarchy within their new, monstrous society. I’ve always considered worldbuilding one of Victoria’s great strengths, and This Savage Song is no exception, as she feels her way through how the world as we know it would change — and how it would remain the same — if monsters roamed among us.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the writing itself; as always, Victoria’s prose is beautiful, each word carefully chosen, each paragraph meticulously crafted. On a sentence level, I truly feel she’s one of the most talented writers in the game today. There’s hardly a page that goes by without a phrase that would be appropriate to print in loopy script and place in a frame somewhere. Her worldbuilding is lush and detailed, the dialogue sharp, the action taught, and the act of reading her words is decadence and joy and education all in one.

Make no mistake, This Savage Song is very dark, probably Schwab’s darkest since Vicious, and therefore won’t be for everyone. It’s violent and disturbing and, at times, very sad. But despite its darkness, it’s not a depressing book. Yes, Kate and August go through terrible trials and have to face awful things, but when I turned the final few pages of This Savage Song (which, it’s worth noting, ends on a very satisfying note, despite this book being the first of a duology), I felt oddly uplifted. For me, though it’s subtle, there was an undercurrent of light woven throughout the story, enough to leave the reader with the impression that though things may get bad, so bad it seems nearly impossible for them to ever turn around, that there is always hope. There is always goodness somewhere, maybe buried deep, maybe not where you’d expect to find it, and you might have to fight tooth and nail to get to it, but it’s there nonetheless. It’s a difficult balance to strike, but in my opinion, it’s executed beautifully here.

If you are a fan of urban fantasy, unlikely friendships, gorgeous writing, and thoughtful explorations of morality and monstrousness, rush to your local bookstore and dive into the world of This Savage Song today.

Review: SUFFER LOVE by Ashley Herring Blake

You know those tasks you really should get to, but you have so much time in which to get to them that it’s really not important that you do them right now? So you put them off, and put them off, watching your available time shrink and shrink and shrink until there’s barely enough time to get them done? But by then it’s stressful and rushed, and that gives you anxiety, so instead of buckling down and getting through your tasks, you put them off even more? Until there’s no possible way you can get them done in time, so really, why even try? And then you give up and feel like a failure and claim things “just got away from you,” but you know the truth?

Please tell me I’m not the only one who does this.

Anyway, this has been me and Ashley Herring Blake’s gorgeous YA debut, Suffer Love.

Ashley, as anyone who even casually follows me on Twitter probably knows, is one of my critique partners, but we didn’t meet until after she’d already written and sold Suffer Love. However, she said she could use one more pair of eyes on it before she went into copyedits, so she sent it to me and I read it over, making a few tiny suggestions here and there, but mostly just being utterly absorbed in and swept away by the characters and their story.

This was — I just looked it up — November, 2014.

Suffer Love released in May of this year.

Which means I’ve had a year and a half to write this review and put it up before the release date, and I still didn’t manage to get it done in time.

Anyway, I’m finally getting to it now, because I loved this book and I love Ashley and it deserves a glowing review…even if it’s a little late.

The Plot (from Goodreads):

“Just let it go.”

That’s what everyone keeps telling Hadley St. Clair after she learns that her father cheated on her mother. But Hadley doesn’t want to let it go. She wants to be angry and she wants everyone in her life—her dad most of all—to leave her alone.

Sam Bennett and his family have had their share of drama too. Still reeling from a move to a new town and his parents’ recent divorce, Sam is hoping that he can coast through senior year and then move on to hassle-free, parent-free life in college. He isn’t looking for a relationship…that is, until he sees Hadley for the first time.

Hadley and Sam’s connection is undeniable, but Sam has a secret that could ruin everything. Should he follow his heart or tell the truth?

My Thoughts:

It’s well-known that parents are scarce in YA literature. Either they’re dead, or they’re absent, or they’re around but strangely invisible. It’s understandable; YA is about teens, and it’s hard to put teens front and center if their parents are continually barging in and trying to take charge. So many YA stories deal with this by simply removing the parents, or shifting them to the background.

To be clear, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that approach. One of the main audiences of YA is, in fact, teenagers, and it makes total sense that they’d want to read stories about characters their age, not about their parents. I find absolutely no fault with authors who would rather focus on their teen characters and keep adults mostly out of the mix.

However, I’m a little bit backwards. I was one of those teens who read a lot of adult literature, and now I’m an adult who reads a lot of YA. As such, I’ve always been drawn to stories that feature both perspectives, the adult and the teen. I find it fascinating to explore where they clash, where they overlap, where the gap in years of life experience is an asset and where it’s a hindrance.

Suffer Love is one of those rare YA books that, while remaining solidly YA, really digs in and explores those questions. Sam and Hadley, the two teen narrators, are both dealing with the fallout of their parents’ infidelity. One family has already split apart, the other is trying to stay together but finding it a challenge. One narrator knows the sordid details of their parent’s affair, the other does not. Both are struggling to redefine their relationships with their parents and families, while still working through lingering feelings of anger and betrayal. The parents in both families are well-drawn, fully realized characters, but even when they’re not on the page, their presence is felt. Suffer Love doesn’t shy away from asking hard questions about the relationships between parents and teens, the mistakes both sides can make, and how both parties can move forward after being shaken to their core.

But much as I loved the way Suffer Love is a story about parents and kids and the particular hurting and healing that occurs within families, it’s about more than that. It’s about first love, and grief, and friendship. It’s two people in pain finding each other and realizing that they can heal better together than they can apart. It’s about loyalty, and secrets, and trying to make a good decision when all of the choices available to you are bad.

Sam and Hadley both felt like real people to me as I read. The alternating points of view were never confusing, with each having their own distinct voice and purpose. The side characters never felt peripheral either, and each had their own moments to shine, particularly Sam’s best friend Ajay (my favorite character) and Sam’s younger sister, Livy. Suffer Love is one of those books where you just want to hang out with several of the characters after the book ends, and maybe give a few of them hugs, not just because they need one, but also because you feel so connected to them.

The prose is lush and gorgeous but never gets overly flowery, and is infused with plenty of humor, as well as a hefty dose of Shakespearean references (including quite a few nods to my favorite Shakespeare play, Much Ado About Nothing, from which Suffer Love gets its title). It’s one of those books that strikes the perfect balance between lovely writing and compulsive readability, and I found that once the pages started turning, they didn’t stop.

Suffer Love is a beautiful, emotional story of grief and healing, of trust and friendship, of heartbreak and first love. It is about romance, and family, and the lengths a person will go to for the people they love. If you already love contemporary YA, or haven’t tried it yet and are searching for just the right book to get your feet wet, Ashley Herring Blake’s Suffer Love is a riveting and poignant debut, and I can’t wait to read what she writes next.