2016 bookshelf update: september

Honesty time: I lowered my reading goal from 60 to 50 for the year. Over-ambition wasn’t working for me this year.

A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles


[Book of the Month Club pick]

So this was another slow reading month numbers-wise, and this book is the reason why. It’s a highly atmospheric novel, set in Moscow and spanning a large portion of the 20th century.

The Bolsheviks didn’t execute Count Alexander Rostov in the summer of 1922. Instead, they sentenced him to a life confined to Hotel Metropol. If he ever took a step outside, he would be shot. He is removed from his luxurious suite and installed in a tiny attic room, hardly big enough to do his morning stretches.

As the years pass and the country undergoes dramatic change, Count Rostov attempts to establish a life within the hotel walls. A cast of characters cycles through the lobby, including an actress, a chef, and an inquisitive young girl, all influencing Rostov’s life as they come and go.

This isn’t a book you devour. There’s too many years involved for that, too much change. Sometimes the pacing fits the story, other times it drags. Overall, a satisfactory read, if a little prolonged.

[4/5 stars]

Behold the Dreamers, by Imbolo Mbue


[Book of the Month Club pick]

A compulsively readable debut novel about marriage, immigration, class, race, and the trapdoors in the American Dream—the unforgettable story of a young Cameroonian couple making a new life in New York just as the Great Recession upends the economy.

That blurb hooked me before I had finished reading it, and the book hooked me almost as quickly.

Jende and Neni Jonga and their son have moved to America for a better life. After years of bit jobs, Jende finds his way into a cushy driver position for Lehman Brothers executive Clark Edwards and his family. His hours are normal, and there is enough money to keep Neni in college so she can eventually become a pharmacist.

As the lives of the Jongas and the Edwardses become more intricately entwined, the world is about to learn that Lehman Brothers and other companies have led the American economy to the brink. The effects of this upheaval ripples through both families, reaching into cracks they didn’t even know existed (or refused to acknowledge).

Part of me is surprised that this is the first book I’ve read set among the Great Recession, part of me isn’t. All of me is happy I chose this as a BOTMC pick. It was fascinating and human and I recommend it.

[4.25/5 stars]

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, by J.K. Rowling


Fun fact: I own this book in Spanish. I didn’t read it in that version, but that’s beside the point.

Second fun fact: I have no idea how many times I’ve read this book, but it’s a lot.

Am I the only one who really loves CoS? Like, as a book and not just as part of the Harry Potter series? It’s a great narrative that also sets up the massive, magical world we’re all still desperate to occupy a decade later. I will defend this book until I die (and the movie, too, y’all, don’t start with me).

[5/5 stars, obviously]

Favorite book this month: Behold the Dreamers and Chamber of Secrets

Most likely to re-read: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Most likely to recommend: Behold the Dreamers and Chamber of Secrets

Hoping for a bit more speed in my October reading. Also hoping for actual fall weather. I got boots and sweaters to wear, y’all.

Keep reading and support your local libraries!

2016 bookshelf update: august

WHAT A MONTH, Y’ALL. Seven books for the first time in a long time, and it feels so good.

Crazy Love: Overwhelmed by a Relentless God, by Francis Chan


I’m kind of mad at myself for not writing this review right after reading it because a lot of the fine details are escaping me now. But I did genuinely enjoy reading this, especially since it’s been sitting on my shelf for nearly three years now (oops). I recommend keeping a pencil with your copy as you read because it lends itself to underlining and earmarking quite well.

There was something about some of the phrasings and the tone that was…off? At least in my mind. Nothing was heinously sacrilegious, obviously, but there were some bits that didn’t totally hit with me.

[4.25/5 stars]

Missing, Presumed, by Susie Steiner


Do I really have to talk about this? Ughhhhh.

Normally I am all. over. a missing person-based thriller, and so I figured this book and I would get along.


So here’s the run-down: Post-grad Edith Hind is missing. Her well-to-do family is naturally distraught, and the police are struggling to find any solid leads. Is it the boyfriend? The best friend? The many-times-a-convict living nearby? The investigation is turning up very little, and the longer a missing person’s case goes on, the bleaker the outlook becomes. Detective Sergeant Manon Bradshaw and her partner can’t make heads nor tails of it.

The problem with this book is that there are too many pieces being played with, and the ones that ultimately attempt some form of pay-off are the ones I wasn’t begging for more of. High-level events happen on the way to the resolution of the case that strung me along just enough, yet the actual answer was too simple to appease the set-up. I think what Steiner wanted was for this to be more of a character piece for DS Bradshaw, but that’s not what I was looking for here (also I didn’t like her all that much).

Compounding my disinterest in this novel was the fact that it left me with a really specific and intense loneliness while I was reading it. Like, I don’t know how really to describe it, only that I was sitting in my favorite coffee shop reading this book and all of a sudden I got very sad in a very specific, lonely way. So all in all, a big thumbs down from me, with only a slight uptick for some bits of solid writing.

[2/5 stars]

The Woman in Cabin 10, by Ruth Ware


THIS BOOK. THIS BOOK, Y’ALL. After a long string of mostly sub-par books, this was everything I needed. Locked room murder mystery. Possibly untrustworthy narrator. Things that are not what they appear. And it all takes place on an uber-luxury cruise to see the Northern Lights. YES YES YES YES YES.

I flew through this book in just under 48 hours (it’s a relatively short book, but still). I absolutely could not put it down. I went double my usual walking distance on the treadmill because I didn’t want to stop reading. It is absolutely gripping.

The characters aren’t as fully textured as I usually like them to be, but I think more broadly drawn characters are suitable for whodunnits. The rich, suave host. The mystery girl. The snobbish woman who’s prone to backstabbing. The handsome gentleman with a possible secret. Not having to reckon with thickly-drawn characters can be more liberating in a book like this, so I can easily look past a lack of nuanced characterization here.

This was my August Book of the Month Club pick, and I could not be happier with my choice. BOTM is definitely one of the best decisions I’ve made in quite some time.

[5/5 stars]

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, by J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany, and Jack Thorne


I wrote about this script/book earlier in the month when it was freshly read, and I still hold to everything I said in that post. If you’re interested in debating/dissecting it, I’m more than happy to share in that with you.

[4/5 stars]

The Assistants, by Camille Perri


Since I had finished Cabin 10 and Cursed Child so quickly, I plucked this sub-300 page Book Fairy gift off my shelf to keep the speed read train steaming along.

In this novel, thirty-year-old Tina Fontana is the assistant to multi-billionare media mogul Robert Barlow. She’s excellent at her job, essentially invaluable, but she’s disgruntled watching her boss treat money like it’s a playtoy when she’s barely making enough to cover rent in NYC.

Due to a technical error, Tina is offered the chance to cash a personal reimbursement that she’s already been refunded. It’s enough to pay off all her student loans, and it’s such a small amount for Robert, so…she takes the chance and cashes the check.

It’s a very strange feeling, reading this book. I’m a chronic underdog supporter, but how do you support embezzlement, even when it’s done Robin Hood style? The author infused much more texture into her characters than I expected for this style of novel, especially in Robert Barlow’s case, which made the experience of reading this all the more confusing. The end does wrap up too simply for plausibility, in my opinion, but I found it to be a great easy-breezy summer read.

[3.5/5 stars]

Still Life with Bread Crumbs, by Anna Quindlin


This was on a lot of 2014 best book lists, and so I was happy to pluck myself a copy from the library sale earlier this year. I really didn’t know much of what I was getting into, even after reading the cover blurb, but what I found in the pages was a unique, simple, layered, and satisfying portrait of a formerly-famous photographer and what living is like in the years after “life” has begun to unravel.

Rebecca Winter has moved to secluded cabin in a rural New York town for two reasons. One is that she needs inspiration. The other is that NYC is expensive, and she’s barely bringing in any new money. The first reason is mostly a cover-up for the second. How do you support your aging and ailing parents, yourself, and occasionally your adult son when your photography work isn’t making enough money anymore?

While tucked away, Rebecca discovers a friendship, a romance, a dog, and a reinvented sense of self. The other characters play off each other realistically enough, though with a level of “small town kook” to some of them that I mostly found endearing. There were elements of mystery laced through, as well, to satisfactory pay-off. I closed the book with a feeling of calm and peace, not just because of the story itself, but because of the way it was told.

[4.25/5 stars]

The Bridges of Madison County, by Robert James Waller


I’ve discovered that the internet has very strong feelings about this book. It’s one of the most polarizing books I’ve seen reviewed, if not the single most polarizing. So logically, I fell somewhere in the middle.

Essentially, the story follows as so: A handsome, man of the road photographer rolls into sleepy Madison County, Iowa. He stops to ask for directions from a beautiful farmer’s wife, and immediately they both sense a connection. Over the few days he’s in town (the woman’s family is out of town for the week, of course), they ignite a passionate affair that ends with *SPOILER ALERT* him hitting the road again and her staying in Madison County because she can’t and won’t give up her family.

The main thing I enjoyed about this book was that the writing was really lovely. There are some beautiful pieces of prose in here, and I think that’s a big reason it’s lasted so long in the American literary consciousness. It reads fast, it’s paced well, and it’s definitely engaging.

What I didn’t enjoy was, you know, a “love” story rooted in adultery. A great many books that I read feature plot lines that I take moral issue with, and in most I can ignore them to a decent extent depending on the rest of the book. But this is a very short book with only one plot line, so it’s hard to skim over it.

I found myself comparing this reading experience to reading The Notebook. Both feature women in passion/loveless matches with otherwise-satisfactory men, who fall into affairs with a rugged man of nature. The book is written to convince you that the man who sparks passion is the right choice for our lead female. And in The Notebook, I’m happy to hop on board because no one is married. In Bridges, I’m looking at where Waller is trying to lead and balking because HELLO, ADULTERY??

So anyway. There’s more I could go into, but I’ll leave it here.

[Writing: 4/5 stars | Plot: 1/5 stars | Overall: 2.5/5 stars]

Favorite book this month: The Woman in Cabin 10

Most likely to re-read: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and Crazy Love

Most likely to recommend: The Woman in Cabin 10 and Still Life with Bread Crumbs

August does always seem to be good to me in the world of reading. It’s nice to be rolling through books quickly again. As always, I’m happy to swap recs and dissect books any day, any time.

Keep reading and support your local libraries, y’all.

#keepthesecrets: my spoiler-free thoughts on cursed child

Did I put on my Hufflepuff socks for the sole purpose of writing this post? Yes. Yes, I did. Badger pride, y’all.


I have never in my life been more nervous to read a book.

With all the mixed reviews (and my own cousin’s vehement vitriol), my copy of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child sat on my kitchen table for nearly two weeks before I finally cracked the cover. And I…enjoyed it. Quite a bit, actually.

Note: J.K. Rowling asked us to #keepthesecrets, so my plan is to be as unspoilery as possible in this post. However, your definition of a spoiler may be different (i.e. stricter) than mine. So if you’re trying to avoid even the slightest hints of spoilers, I suggest you stop reading now.

The first thing about this book is that it’s not a book. It’s a script. That means that we are not getting the full texture of the story on the page. We can’t. That’s not the intention of a script. So while some characterization read flat in places, it allowed me the freedom to imagine how it is taking place on stage, the same way the actors playing these roles in London got to, the same way the actors who eventually play these roles on Broadway will get to, the same way any actors get to who perform this piece in the future. That the beauty of a script. And while it takes a bit of getting used to, I truly liked it.

And actually, for a script, it’s still pretty detailed in regards to the atmosphere. There were stage directions and descriptions of scenery that made my breath catch. While I won’t say I felt as connected to the wizarding world as I did reading the novels, if that experience was a 10m Olympic platform dive, then reading Cursed Child was a diving board cannonball at your neighborhood pool. One definitively has more oomph, but they both get you fully into the appropriate setting.

And as for the plot itself?

It was fun. It was fun to read, fun to react to, fun to analyze. The new characters, especially Scorpius Malfoy, are interesting and engaging to read (Scorpius’ inclusion is not a spoiler, as he has been heavily featured in the theatre promos). I also really appreciated exploring the evolution of relationships previously established in the novels. It wasn’t perfect, but it was perfectly enjoyable.

Yeah, it’s a bit trope-y, a bit fan fiction-esque. I wrote some cheesy HP fan fic myself back in the day (shout out to 2007-09), and between the six unfinished pieces still kicking around on my laptop (no, you can’t read them), I hit three solid plot pieces of this story.

But to be honest, the sheer volume of HP fic that has been written, plus the hours and hours that so many fans have spent reading and analyzing that fic, means that nothing Rowling published about life beyond Deathly Hallows was going to read as truly original. We precluded that end many years ago.

This does bring up the argument “Well, should this have been published at all if it was just going to come off as derivative? Why not just…not?” I understand this line of thought, but I also know that, as a creator, it’s hard to keep something you’re intensely excited about to yourself. I honestly don’t think that Rowling did this just as a money grab. I truly believe that this story was something that, having formed in her mind, she had to share. I may be wrong, but that’s my feelings on it.

There’s a reason Rowling presented this story as a stage play. It’s not quite narratively rich enough for a novel, but it’s got a beautiful intimacy that translates perfectly on stage, aided by some stupendous special effects. The story is allowed to thrive in its smaller nature, to flit between character viewpoints with an ease not given as freely to novels.

Part of me wishes the script weren’t published, that we could all experience the story on stage as Rowling intended. But I’m also truly grateful that there is recognition of the unfortunate inaccessibility of live theatre and that the script was published to help ease that.

I read the script in under 24 hours. I experienced moments of sadness, moments of shock, moments of wonder. I laughed, I gasped, and I shed a tear or two. I was genuinely hooked into the story (seriously, I almost fell off the treadmill while reading).

So, no, this script is likely not going to live on as high a pedestal as the seven novels. There are some plot holes that still confuse me. But it has merit and weight of its own to contribute, and it allowed me to take one more deep, Rowling-given dive into a world I love so dearly.

To be honest, that alone is worth it for me.

2016 bookshelf update: july

I naively thought I’d have a ton of time in July to read and would catch up on my reading goal. But between two weekends booked pretty solid, my apparently constant need to re-watch The West Wing, my binge of Stranger Things, and FINALLY FINALLY FINALLY BEING FULL-TIME, the month got a bit away from me. I still managed four books, but one of those was a re-read I’ve been nibbling at for months, so…

The Railwayman’s Wife, by Ashley Hay


Set on the coast of Australia directly after WWII, Anikka Lachlan finds herself suddenly widowed when her husband is killed in a railway accident. When she takes a job at the library to support her and her daughter, she gets to know a writer’s blocked poet and a corse doctor just returned from the war. How do any of them start over?

The good: The prose is very, very pretty. There is some gorgeous description of setting and emotion in this book.

The bad: But the book seems to get caught up too much in the prose and the Australian backdrop to actually develop any of the characters too deeply. I never found myself willing to invest in any of their lives.

The ugly: I couldn’t tell what this book wanted to be. I think maybe Hay was trying to be “unpredictable” with her choices, but to be honest, that’s not at all what I want from a book like this. I kept hoping things would tie back together, but it was just a slog of a book with a incredibly disappointing end.

[1.5/5 stars]

Grit: The Power of Passion & Perseverance, by Angela Duckworth


In this must-read book for anyone striving to succeed, pioneering psychologist Angela Duckworth shows parents, educators, students, and business people—both seasoned and new—that the secret to outstanding achievement is not talent but a focused persistence called “grit.”

Why do some people succeed and others fail? Sharing new insights from her landmark research on grit, MacArthur “genius” Angela Duckworth explains why talent is hardly a guarantor of success. Rather, other factors can be even more crucial such as identifying our passions and following through on our commitments.

I’m don’t normally read books of this variety, so it was an interesting change of pace. And as someone who was always considered the “gifted” kid and perpetually has been fascinated by the “nature vs. nurture” debate, this particular topic was intriguing to me.

Duckworth dives into numerous examples and studies illustrating her central premise: that “grittier” people are more successful in the long-term than those who are solely “talented.” There are some other related lessons scattered through, but it’s mostly a lot of reiteration on the main lesson.

I enjoyed reading it, and it was pretty illuminating in parts, so I think it’s worth reading if you’re curious about the subject. But it’s not something I’m going to shove at every person yelling “READ THIS NOW.”

[3.75/5 stars]

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, by J.K. Rowling


Though my TBR list is forever long, I never regret making time for a return trip to Hogwarts. After all this time? Always.

I received the illustrated edition for Christmas (thanks, London fam!), and I’ve been reading a bit of it every now and then in the months since. I’m glad I took my time with it, too, because it gave me more time to savor Jim Kay’s gorgeous artwork.


Scholastic is planning to release the illustrated edition of each book, one every year for seven years. I’m on the fence about continuing to collect them beyond book 1 since I have no idea what books 4-7 will look like in terms of size. But let’s be honest, I can’t really resist pretty Harry Potter things, and these are the ultimate pretty Harry Potter things. So expect to see me gushing about the illustrated Chamber of Secrets toward the end of this year.

[5/5 stars, obviously]

Sleeping Giants, by Sylvain Neuvel


STORY TIME! I got an email from Goodreads in mid-July saying “A book you want to read is on sale for $1.99 for the Kindle!” While I haven’t done much any e-reading as of late (and, tbh, I didn’t even remember adding this book to my TBR list), I put grabbing this deal on my To Do list for the day.

Around lunchtime the same day, Book of the Month club (a service I’ve flirted with joining about seventeen times but never bit the bullet on) sent an email promoting a “$5 for the first month” deal that ended that day. I decided to see if the July books were worth taking the bait for, AND SLEEPING GIANTS WAS ONE OF THE BOOKS! Plus I could add another July book that I was intrigued by for $9.99.

$15 for two newly-released hardbacks? YES MA’AM, PLEASE AND THANK YOU.

So that’s how I got my hands on this incredibly interesting sci-fi novel.

Dr. Rose Franklin leads a team of scientists, linguists, and more in investigating the mystery of a giant robot hand Rose herself stumbled upon as a young girl. As more parts of the robot are discovered, it raises the question of how these parts came to exist and, more importantly, who left them for us to find?

The story unfolds mostly through conversation transcripts, journal entries, and voice logs, all of which appear to come from the files of an unknown male questioner. He knows more than he should, and he’s definitely a pro at playing the long game. But other than that, we know very little about him.

While it took me a bit to warm up to the narrative style, I found myself incredibly invested in the story by the end of part one. Things never went exactly where I expected them to go, and I especially enjoyed how the political and militaristic ramifications of a find like this were brought to the forefront. I also appreciated that the lead scientist and lead pilot are both women with well-defined personalities and methods of operation. While there’s a bit of a romantic plotline, it’s mostly a device to move other pieces of the story forward.

Oh yeah, and the epilogue made me gasp because holy cliffhanger, Batman. I’m not sure when book 2 is coming out, but I’m getting it ASAP.

[4/5 stars]

Favorite book this month: Sleeping Giants

Most likely to re-read: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Most likely to recommend: Sleeping Giants (I’ve already recommended it to two people) and Harry Potter, obviously. Also, Book of the Month is pretty stellar, too, so consider that your bonus rec of the month.

So that was July. I’m feeling the pressure of being 4 books behind on my goal going into August, but this is normally the time of year I speed through books, so that’s a good sign.

Keep reading, and support your local libraries, y’all.


2016 bookshelf update: june

Guess who’s late with her update again? *oops* The beginning of July is just so busy, y’all. Plus I keep getting really distracted by the new school supplies that are out at Target…

Lab Girl, by Hope Jahren


One of my favorite things in life is getting people talking about the things they’re passionate about. Their eyes light up and they’ve got a big grin on their face, so much so that, even if you don’t know the first thing about the topic, you find yourself completely enraptured. This book was just like that. Acclaimed paleobotonist Hope Jahren loves plants, and by the end of her memoir, you’ll love them, too.

This book follows Hope from her childhood in Minnesota, to grad school at UCLA, to her experiences as a professor at Georgia Tech, Johns Hopkins, and the University of Hawai’i. Her best friend is a bit of an odd duck named Bill, and both of them are passionate (and sometimes gently reckless) about their love for trees. Hope also has bipolar disorder, which is discussed in a manner that is somehow both frank and oblique.

And while you’re learning about Hope’s life, you’re also getting mini lectures on the memories of trees, the life cycle of plants, and a million other things regarding paleobotony that you never knew to care about until now. It’s the rare book I’ve found that splits its chapters between two focuses and never made me love one more than the other. It was a supremely satisfying book, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone looking for an insightful and uniquely educational read.

[5/5 stars]

Spider-Gwen Vol. 1: Greater Power, by Jason Latour


Though I’ve been meaning to look into this series for a while now, this wound up being 100% an impulse purchase at 2nd and Charles. And a very odd one, too, because apparently they decided that the first in this bind-up series would be Vol. 0, which means I was missing some key exposition when I launched into Vol. 1. So that’s fun.

Anyway, the first thing that grabbed me (beyond being very lost by the story) was the artwork. This is stunning work by Robbie Rodriquez. It was worth the impulse purchase for the cover alone.

If you’re not familiar with the Spider-Gwen titles, it’s essentially an alternate Earth (Earth-65) where Gwen Stacy is the one who winds up with the spider powers instead of Peter Parker. As much as I love me some classic Spidey, it was so much fun to read about Gwen as the superhero, especially given that her dad is a police officer who isn’t so keen on the Spider-Woman. It gave it an extra layer that was really interesting.

I don’t want to give too much away plot-wise, especially since my information doesn’t have the most solid expositional background, but I had fun reading it, and I’m looking forward to grabbing Vols. 0, 2 and beyond.

[4/5 stars]

Eligible, by Curtis Sittenfeld


This novel is #4 in The Austen Project, which has contemporary authors adapt the works of Jane Austen for present day. The first three entries into the series didn’t get such hot reviews, but this one is doing much better for itself, and for good reason. It’s downright fun.

Sittenfeld has taken all the characters and plot beats from the original and brought them into modern Cincinatti. The Bennett girls are all considerably older (Jane is near 40, while the youngest two are in their early 20s). Elizabeth is a writer, Jane is a yoga teacher, Darcy is a brain surgeon, and Bingley is another doctor who recently appeared on a The Bachelor copycat called Eligible, etc. Bingley moving to Cincinatti to work for the hospital is, just as his move is in the original, the impetus for much of the plot.

I really want to hold back as much as possible when reviewing this book because most of the ways Sittenfeld updated the plot and characters are so insanely clever. She didn’t try and force some of the points that came off as mere coincidence in Austen’s work but would have been an awkward fit here, and she actually gave a lot of focus to the actual themes of pride and prejudice instead of just the romance, which is what you see much more often in modern P&P renditions. And with the Bennett sisters being older, there’s room for a lot of sharp, feminist commentary.

“Are you single right now?”

It was a strange question; just a few days before, she’d have said no. “I am, ” she said, “but it’s recent. Anyway, everyone knows it’s completely different for a woman. [A man] could stand on a street corner, announce [his] want [of] a wife, and be engaged fifteen minutes later. I have to convince people to overlook my rapidly approaching expiration date.”

It’s not a perfect book, but it reads quickly and addictively. If you’re an Austen purist, I wouldn’t recommend it, but otherwise it’s one of the most enjoyable books you’ll read this summer.

CONTENT WARNING: Adult language/situations; politically charged topics. If it weren’t written so engagingly, some of it might have been enough for me to DNF.

[4.5/5 stars]

Operation: S.I.N.—Agent Carter, by Kathryn Immonen


This was another impulse buy from the same trip where I bought Spider-Gwen. I was still sad about the Agent Carter tv show being cancelled, so I felt I had an obligation to pick up this title.

Unfortunately, this wound up being the first comic bind-up that I didn’t fully enjoy. It wasn’t bad by any means, but I just didn’t really dig it. Maybe I’m just too attached to Hayley Atwell’s screen version of Agent Carter and couldn’t open my heart to anything new. Maybe I didn’t have enough backstory. I don’t know. But it was just a middling read for me.

[3/5 stars]

Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi


Okay, first I want you to stare at that cover for a good long while. How absolutely gorgeous is it? My version is a paperback ARC, but I’m absolutely going to have to grab the hardback at some point because it is just too pretty not to own in its full glory.

This novel begins with the stories of two half-sisters in eighteenth-century Ghana. They have never met and do not know the other exists. One is married off to a British officer who works running the slave trade out of Cape Coast Castle. The other is captured and sold to the slave traders, living in the squalid dungeons of the castle until she is shipped to America. The story stretches from there through the generations, with each subsequent pair of chapters focusing on a descendent from each sister’s line.

I can say with confidence that this is most likely going to be the most beautiful piece of storytelling I read all year. Gyasi brings into sharp focus so many strikingly different characters, each of whom I would have happily read an entire novel about.She takes the story from Ghana to Alabama to Harlem, every setting crackling with life as the characters navigated the new and different challenges associated with each. She balances the trickiest of themes throughout, introducing nuance into formerly black and white history lessons and not shying away from hard realities. It was stunning to read.

Go pick this one up if you can. It is 100% worthy of your attention.

[5/5 stars]

The Rose & The Dagger (The Wrath & the Dawn, #2), by Renee Ahdieh


This is the sequel to The Wrath and the Dawn, which I read with much enthusiasm at the beginning of this year. Having quite enjoyed TW&TD, I was looking forward to wrapping up the duology.

It was…disappointing? Much of what I loved from the first book (the romantic tension, the unsteady trust, the banter) was gone, replaced with more of what had irked me in the first book (that darn love triangle). Without giving much away for fear of spoilers, I felt that a lot of the characterization was flattened and there were some random plot lines that were either 1. unnecessary or 2. awkwardly handled and/or wrapped up. I mean, that ending? What even was that?

The writing was still really lovely, and I do love getting to read more YA set outside the U.S. and the modern day. And some of the new character introduced were really intriguing. But unfortunately this sequel fell flat for me.

[3/5 stars]

Favorite book this month: Homegoing, hands down.

Most likely to re-read: Homegoing and Lab Girl

Most likely to recommend: Homegoing (without reservation) and Eligible (for certain folks)Quite probably Spider-Gwen as well.

So that’s my June in books. Maybe July’s wrap-up won’t take me nearly halfway into August to post (fingers crossed).

Keep reading and support your local libraries, y’all. And remember: Homeless and women and children’s shelters are always looking for new reads, so keep them in mind when you’re donating books.

2016 bookshelf update: may

Birthday month, woo! And another five books added to the 2016 bookshelf. I’m still behind on my 2016 reading goals (thanks, February), but at least I held steady and didn’t dig myself down any further.

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America, by Erik Larson


DitWC tells the true story of two men in Chicago at the end of the 19th century: Daniel Burnham, the lead architect and mastermind behind the 1893 World’s Fair; and Dr. H. H. Holmes, the charismatic serial killer who used the fair as a way to lure victims to his hotel/murder castle. The book alternates chapters between the drama of creating the biggest spectacle of a fair the world had ever seen and how Holmes managed to elude creditors, family members, and reporters to become one of America’s first documented serial killers.

I’m not entirely sure how to categorize this book. It’s non-fiction, since all the events written about actually happened and all quotations were pulled from records and writings of the period, but it also veers toward speculative fiction since Larson obviously must fill in the historical framework with guesswork details. So it walks a tricky ground from the get-go.

As interested as I was in the history of the creation of the World’s Fair (and Larson gives us absolutely fascinating history here), for most of the book I was just waiting to get to the next Holmes chapter. The “sexiness” of the serial killer story distracted me from more intricate World’s Fair information. I was also a bit confused about the bearing the two stories had on each other; yes, Holmes used the fair to lure victims, but he was killing long before the fair and continued on afterwards. It might have been better served as two books, maybe?

[3.5/5 stars]

The Interestings, by Meg Wolitzer


The summer that Nixon resigns, six teenagers at a summer camp for the arts become inseparable. Decades later the bond remains powerful, but so much else has changed.

This book was, rather appropriately, interesting. The story centers mainly around Jules Jacobson and how she handles the evolutions of her relationships from teenagerdom to adulthood. Does childhood giftedness translate to adulthood giftedness? How do you balance your dreams with practical reality? What is the weight of a secret, of envy, and how to they interact? Who do you believe when life gets tricky?

The Interestings is quite lengthy, but it never gets too loud. It flows at a fairly steady pace, and choices are not made necessarily how the reader would assume. I personally couldn’t find a way to connect with the main characters; there was an undercurrent of bitterness and apathy that pushed me away. I was amazed at the lack of joy presented in much of the story. I’m glad to have given it a chance, but it’s likely not going to be one I revisit.

[2.5/5 stars]

Hamilton: The Revolution, by Jeremy McCarter and Lin-Manuel Miranda


Big, big thanks to my aunt and uncle for gifting this to me for my birthday!

Look, I’ve been listening to the Hamilton soundtrack almost nonstop (ba dum tss) since it was released in September. I follow Lin and the official musical pages on all social channels. I’ve watched every single (legally released) clip that exists online and cried watching the cast perform on the Grammys. I’m impatiently biding my time until I can actually see it performed on stage. I love this musical.

Affectionately referred to online as the #Hamiltome, the book combines the musical’s libretto with backstory on how the musical was put together and background on the actors, dancers, producers, and others that brought it to life. It also contains Lin’s annotations of the lyrics, usually about who/what inspired a line or some historical context. And beyond that, it contains stunning photos. It’s the next best thing to actually seeing the musical in person.

Needless to say, I absolutely devoured the thing. I laughed. I cried. I reread portions three times before moving on. It sits proudly in my living room, and I smile when I look at it. It is my current favorite thing. If you like Hamilton, you want to get your hands on this book (just not my copy).

[ALL THE STARS/5 stars]

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs


This has been on my TBR list for ages. It’s all over the internet, and there’s a movie coming out soon. I’m amazed it took me this long, but oh well.

Sixteen-year-old Jacob grew up hearing his grandfather’s strange stories. Stories about an island, about children with special abilities, about the monsters. Jacob and his family shrugged them off as flights of fancy, but his grandfather’s mysterious death forces Jacob to revisit the stories and determine what’s true. As he digs further into the stories of his grandfather’s childhood, the more peculiarities he finds, and the more dangers.

I’ll be honest, it took a good chunk of the book before I was really hooked into the plot. Part of that stemmed from not being entirely sure of the genre going in, so I had some issues suspending disbelief for the early part of the book. But I eventually got into the flow of the plot, and by the end I got the “OH SNAP, THAT JUST HAPPENED” moment that I love in books and that will most likely get me to continue with the next book in the series.

The most unique aspect of the book was the interweaving of antique photographs, which served to illustrate the grandfather’s childhood stories and Jacob’s discoveries. At times it felt like Riggs was stretching to include a photo he found interesting, but it was a interesting touch most of the time.

[3.75/5 stars]

How to Set a Fire and Why, by Jesse Ball


Lucia’s father is dead; her mother is in a mental institute; she’s living in a garage-turned-bedroom with her aunt. And now she’s been kicked out of school—again. Making her way through the world with only a book, a zippo lighter, a pocket full of stolen licorice, a biting wit, and striking intelligence she tries to hide, she spends her days riding the bus to visit her mother and following the only rule that makes any sense to her: Don’t do things you aren’t proud of. But when she discovers that her new school has a secret Arson Club, she’s willing to do anything to be a part of it, and her life is suddenly lit up. And as her fascination with the Arson Club grows, her story becomes one of misguided friendship and, ultimately, destruction.

So I have the most wonderful thing a book lover could have: a Book Fairy. She’s a friend of my dad’s who somehow gets bunches of Advance Reader Copies (ARCs) and likes to pass them on to our family. I went home recently for my birthday and came back with a box full of about 20 books with the most gorgeous covers (which we all know is my favorite thing). I may not have room for them on my bookshelves, but I’m still giddy excited for all these new reads.

Anyway, this was one of those new books, and I was immediately drawn in by the title and the cover (THAT DESIGN, THOUGH). It was written in a very interesting style, and the characters felt very specifically drawn. Unfortunately, I just couldn’t really get into the vibe of the story. Lucia had such anger and put-upon flippancy; she had every right to be angry, but I have a hard time feeling much empathy with characters who seem like they do everything possible to hold onto that anger. I thought there was a lot more to explore with both her character and the Arson Club plotline that Ball never really got into. I admire the effort, but it’s not a winner for me.

[2.25/5 stars]

Favorite book this monthHamilton: The Revolution

Most likely to re-read: Hamilton: The Revolution

Most likely to recommend: Hamilton: The Revolution

So that’s May: one super standout, two okay reads, and two lackluster novels. But, you know, that happens. And I’ve got all sorts of new books ready to fill my summer, so you can look forward to those over the next three months!

Keep reading and support your local libraries!

2016 bookshelf update: april

You know, if I didn’t fall asleep on the couch every time I sat down to read, I’d have a lot more books to write about here. But alas, I am getting old.

Nothing Gold Can Stay, by Ron Rash


I absolutely devoured Rash’s novel Serena, so I figured nabbing this at the local library sale would be worth my dollar. It’s a collection of Americana short stories spanning various time periods, all, of course, written in Rash’s no-frills prose. As is the case with most short story collections, some stories were stronger or more interesting than others, but it was an enjoyable read and perfect for those minutes before bed.

[4/5 stars]

The Night Sister, by Jennifer McMahon


I’ll be honest, I only picked this up because I was going to be hanging around a coffeeshop for a few hours and was dangerously close to done with my other book, so obviously I needed a back-up. Thanks, Target.

Like Rash loves Americana, McMahon loves her Northeastern-based, supernatural mysteries (see: The Winter People). The Night Sister begins with the gruesome murder/suicide of Amy Slater, her husband, and her son. Her daughter somehow escaped onto the roof and remained alive. Amy’s childhood friends, Piper and Margot, attempt to unravel the mystery surrounding the killings and around Amy’s family as a whole. This story is interwoven with the story of Amy’s mother and aunt, Rose and Sylvie, and the bitter sibling relationship they lived, each one believing something terrible of the other. It’s all set among the once-prosperous Tower Motel, owned by the Slater family. (This is another of those books that’s hard to summarize without giving away, sorry.)

I mostly enjoyed this book, though I now wish I had saved it for a late autumn read. You go back and forth between trusting and not trusting the characters, the setting, the narrator…everything. Sometimes I felt things could have been fleshed out more realistically, but that might have taken away from some of the aura of mystery. So who knows? Not a perfect book, but definitely satisfactory.

[4/5 stars]

We Should All Be Feminists, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie


This is the essay form of Adichie’s viral TEDx talk of the same name. I have heard clips and always intended to watch the full thing, but never got around to it. So when I needed to add a couple of dollars to my Amazon purchase, this lovely little $5 booklet found its way in. (It’s also beautifully designed, so I’m happy to have it on my shelf.)

In the last few years, I’ve been going through my own personal evaluation of what feminism actually means, both in my life and in society as a whole. I’ve thought many times about writing about it, but I never felt I had the right words. Thankfully, Adichie voices almost exactly my feelings, and she does it a lot more eloquently. I was especially appreciative of how she addressed the fact that both women and men suffer from institutionalized and societal sexism, which is often unconsciously inflicted because “that’s just how it’s done.”

“But by far the worst thing we do to males—by making them feel they have to be hard—is that we leave them with very fragile egos. The harder a man feels compelled to be, the weaker his ego is.”

“And then we do a much greater disservice to girls, because we raise them to cater to the fragile egos of males. We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls: You can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful but not too successful, otherwise you will threaten the man. If you are the breadwinner in your relationship with a man, pretend that you are not, especially in public, otherwise you will emasculate him.”

I would encourage anyone to take the time to watch this TEDx talk or pick up the essay. It’s absolutely worth your attention.

[5/5 stars]

Girl with a Pearl Earring, by Tracy Chevalier


This was another book sale purchase, but thankfully it was one that was already one my TBR list after hearing about it on a radio show a few months ago. Chevalier was interested in the background to Vermeer’s famous painting, Girl with a Pearl Earring, and so decided to novelize it. These kinds of historical novels are probably my favorites, so I was eager to dive in.

Griet is 16, the daughter of a tile painter who was recently made blind in an accident. To make ends meet, her mother arranges for Griet to work as a maid in the Vermeer household. She intends to keep her head down and do her work, but her curiosity and perceptive nature begin to draw her closer to Vermeer’s work and the painter himself.

It’s an incredibly researched novel; the setting feels alive and intimate with the grit of life in Delft. The characters felt a little less so, and I think Chevalier knows that is her weaker element and so leans more heavily on the setting. But it is an excellent novel for anyone with a love for art-based historical fiction.

[4.25/5 stars]

Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates


Apparently I decided that April was the month for me to read books on highly charged topics.

This book is written as a letter from Coates to his teenage son, part memoir and part charge, dealing with the historical and modern oppression of black Americans. Coates is eloquently angry as he explains the ways in which black bodies are stolen and broken, sometimes in the figurative sense and sometimes in the literal. He reckons with the terrible history and burden of being black in America, and there is a palpable current of emotion flowing through his writing.

Parts of this book made me balk, made me think “Oh, that’s an oversimplification” or “That’s not fair.” But that’s why books like this one are important. Because my views and experiences as a white woman are not universal. Because there are certain histories I will never have to reckon with or hurdles I will be forced to jump because of the color of my skin. Just because I don’t personally encounter an obstacle doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist for so many other people (the same thing can be said in regards to feminism, too). We have to pay attention to the stories of others around us. We have to seek to understand when they are angry, why they are angry. Dismissing it does far more harm because it only serves to divide us further.

[5*/5 stars]

*I gave the book 5 stars, but I honestly don’t consider myself qualified to really rate this book. This book is not truly for me. But it did help me, and I wanted to give it a rating to reflect that.

Favorite book this monthWe Should All Be Feminists

Most likely to re-read: We Should All Be Feminists

Most likely to recommend: We Should All Be Feminists and Between the World and Me


And that’s my April in books! As always, recommendations are welcome. And if you’d like to discuss any of the books above (you know the ones I’m talking about), please reach out.

Keep reading and support your local libraries (and their book sales!).