Tuesday, October 31, 2017

"Beasts Made of Night" by Tochi Onyebuchi

FTC disclosure: I received an ARC of this book from the author for review consideration.

Today I can finally share a book I have been excited about for months. I had the pleasure of working with Tochi Onyebuchi on the Morningside Muckraker, and he graced this blog with a guest post this time last year. Back in the spring, he sent me an ARC of his debut YA novel, "Beasts Made of Night." When I was working nonstop and traveling across the country, this was the book that kept me company. It was the only novel that held my attention and gave me a few minutes of escape from pressing work demands. I'm thrilled everyone can finally discover the beautifully rendered world of Kos.

Taj is the most talented of the sin eaters, individuals with the rare ability to take on the sins of others. By conquering the shadowy manifestations of others' sins and assuming the accompanying guilt, the original sinner can live without the sin on their conscious. The wealthy of Kos hire these sin eaters while society as a whole reviles them.When Taj is called to the palace to eat hte sins of royalty, he finds himself embroiled in a vast conspiracy that threatens his family & the city he serves.

In the sin eaters, Onyebuchi has created a necessary but scorned subclass of children. They are torn from their impoverished families to serve an upper class that can't be bothered with their basic needs or even their very humanity. These children band together to care for and teach one another, creating a new family about whom Taj cannot help but care deeply. Beyond this family, Taj builds relationships with a variety of strong female secondary characters. A princess, a scholar, an outlaw, and an expert vie for Taj's attention, offering clues to & opinions on the conspiracy underlying Kos's existence.

This is a novel of inequality and oppression, of hope and empowerment, set in a lushly imagined, Nigerian-inspired world. It is a tale of casting off society's assigned roles and reclaiming one's identity. Simply put, I loved this novel & think you will, too.

Verdict: Affirmed. YA fantasy fans & readers looking for diverse reads and/or fresh, inventive plots, this is a must-read novel from a powerful voice.

"Beasts Made of Night" by Tochi Onyebuchi, published October 31, 2017 by Razorbill.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

"Beartown" by Fredrik Backman

FTC Disclosure: I received an eARC from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for my honest review. I checked out the audiobook from my library through Overdrive.

Fredrik Backman's signature blend of humor, charm, and heartfelt portrayals of close, life-shaping relationships is right up my alley. His novella brought me to tears, and his novels have warmed my heart. His most recent novel, "Beartown," has a different tone, but was deeply affecting nonetheless.

In "Beartown," we meet a small town whose very heart is its hockey team. Indeed, at this point, the town doens't have much else going for it, with jobs dwindling and people moving away. Backman presents a large cast of characters, all of whom are connected to the town's junior hockey team: players, classmates, coaches, parents, ardent fans. The team is headed to the national championship playoffs when its star player is pulled due to a horrific act he commits at a victory party.

The town is rocked by the allegations and Backman has characters on all sides. He portrays these characters with empathy without excusing the reprehensible acts of some. Right and wrong are clear, as are the paths that lead characters to their decisions and actions. Readers feel deeply for them, and never more so than when two sides of the same relationship are shown.

This novel lacks Backman's humor that lightened the heavy subject matter n ""My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry" and "Britt-Marie Was Here" (thugh readers of the latter will recognize a tiny bit of overlap). This more somber tone fits "Beartown"'s serious central themes, and the novel does not suffer for it. Rather, it rises to the occaision, having a deeper impact on the reader for its sincere, serious portrayal of this town and its community members at a time of crisis.

Verdict: Affirmed. For both fans of Backman and those who couldn't connect with the humor in his previous novels, "Beartown" is an excellent novel.

"Beartown" by Fredrik Backman, translated by Neil Smith, published by Simon & Schuster on April 25, 2017. Audio narration by Marin Ireland, published by Simon & Schuster Audio on April 25, 2017.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

"And Every Morning the Road Home Gets Longer and Longer" by Frederick Backman

FTC Disclosure: I received an eARC from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for my honest review. I checked out the audiobook from my library through Overdrive.

A few months ago, it had been weeks since I've finished a book. It was probably the longest I've ever gone without finishing a book; it's certainly the longest I remember. Yet on my most recent work trip, I found myself with an hour left of my flight and no more work to do. Luckily, I had downloaded "And Every Morning the Road Home Gets Longer" by Frederick Backman on audio from my library before my trip.

Knowing that I'm a fan of Backman, his publisher had originally sent me an e-ARC of this novella prior to its publication. Unfortunately, I wasn't up for a contemplative work at the time, and failed to make time for it in time for a publication day review. But it turned out to be the perfect reading experience for my unexpected hour of free time.

This is a novella "about missing someone who is still here," to quote Backman himself. It's about the relationships between grandfathers and grandsons, and fathers and sons, and how these relationships are remembered at the end of a life. Backman opens with an introduction explaining that this is a personal piece of writing through which he worked out his own feelings as he wrote. Yet this portrayal of Alzheimer's will ring true to those who have been through this experience with a loved one.

This charming novella feels different from Backman's other works. It lacks the quirky humor of his novels but retains the ability to pull on your heart strings. I found myself crying as the plane entered its initial descent to our final destination. It's charming and heartfelt, and a worthwhile read.

Verdict: Affirmed, whether you're a fan of Backman or not, this is an endearing departure from his novels.

"And Every Morning the Road Home Gets Longer and Longer" by Fredrik Backman, published November 1, 2016 by Atria Books. Audio narration by David Morse, published November 1, 2016 by Simon & Schuster Audio.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

"The Address" by Fiona Davis

FTC Disclosure: I received an eARC from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for my honest review. I checked out the audiobook from my library through Overdrive.

Fellow readers, I am sorry that "next week" turned into many, many weeks. I did read "The Address," but was traveling and then moving and then starting a new job, and blogging clearly fell to the wayside. But things have settled down and I can collect my thoughts.

Last time I blogged, I wrote about how much I enjoyed Fiona Davis's "The Dollhouse." While "The Address" doesn't quite live up to the promise of "The Dollhouse," I still found it an enjoyable read while traveling. In the 1980's, Bailey just got out of rehab and is hoping to relaunch her interior design career by redecorating her cousin's apartment in The Dakota. In the 1880's, Sara has moved from Britain to New York City to work in the newly built Dakota, where she has to navigate her relationship with her boss and the building's wealthy, demanding residents. Their stories intertwine across history, mysteries ensue.

As I noted on Goodreads, some of the side characters lacked depth and felt like plot devices. The story also took a few weird turns. I didn't think there was enough groundwork laid for some of the twists. Nevertheless, I found both Bailey and Sara to be intriguing protagonists, even if the ultimate answer to the mystery was fairly apparent from the start.

Verdict: Jury's Out. If you like historical fiction, specifically mysteries bouncing between time periods, this novel will scratch that itch. If you need some more depth to your characters and plot, though, look elsewhere.

"The Address" by Fiona Davis, published August 1, 2017 by Dutton Books.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

"The Dollhouse" by Fiona Davis

The DollhouseThis novel was exactly my type of summer read - compelling with a solid plot,  but not dense. I could get lost in the intriguing characters, but still read it quickly.

The Dollhouse is the Barbizon Hotel for Women, an old New York City apartment building whose oldest residents remember the scandals from when it was an all-women residence. Perhaps most famous as Sylvia Plath's residence in "The Bell Jar," this novel centers on a fictitious scandal from the 1950s.  Rose is living there in the present day, looking for a story to jump start her journalism career. As she hears rumors about Darby, one of the remaining residents from when the building housed only women, and and some sort of deahtly squabble with a maid, Rose decides this may be the story she should tell.

The novel alternates between Darby's and Rose's timelines, and Darby's is particularly fleshed out with great side characters and a jazz club. The present-day side is interesting for its unraveling of the mystery, more than for Rose's actual life. Nevertheless, the mystery is well-plotted, so I'm wary of saying anything that could accidentally give something away. This book sold me on Fiona Davis and I am excited to see what she does next. Luckily, I already received and eARC through NetGalley of her next novel, "The Address," which will be released next week!

Verdict: Affirmed. A well-plotted mystery that would be a good change of pace for someone who sticks with chick lit or literary fiction, or for a thriller reader who needs something lighter for the summer.

"The Dollhouse" by Fiona Davis, published August 25, 2016 by Dutton Books.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

"All the Lives I Want" by Alana Massey

FTC Disclosure: I received an e-ARC from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

I requested this book based on its subtitle - "Essays about My Best Friends Who Happen to be Famous Strangers." Essay collections are great to begin with -- add some pop culture commentary about people that are in my fairly limited scope of reference, and I am in!

Massey unpacks the way society views female celebrities like Britney Spears, Amber Rose, and Anjelica Huston. Writing about Lil' Kim and Nicki Minaj, she looks at the feud between the two and explores how the two were pushed into a beef they may not have necessarily wanted, forced to confront an artificial notion that there could only be one widely-recognizable female rapper. She looks at the ways Sylvia Plath has been idolized by young women and the precedent set for today's social media, explaining "Sylvia was an early literary manifestation of a young woman who takes endless selfies and posts them with vicious captions calling herself fat and ugly...The ongoing act of self-documentation in a world that punishes female experience (that doesn't aspire to maleness) is a radical declaration that women are within our rights to contribute to the story of what it means to be human."

Massey's book stands out most because she pairs these views with insights and experiences from her own life. She explores what Amber Rose means to her as a former stripper, and how she relates to Britney Spears' having to deal with incessant media coverage owing to her own struggle with an eating disorder. In each essay, Massey looks at how society is reacting to and consuming female celebrities and characters, how culture re-writes their stories and proscribes new personalities and meaning to them. She ultimately begins to look at how women can re-claim their icons and recognize these women for their varied strengths and dignities. She starts with what they mean to her.

Verdict: Affirmed. Whether you're a fan of pop culture looking for a deep but fresh take, or looking for new, honest writing about one woman's experiences, this essay collection is a great read.

"All the Lives I Want" by Alana Massey, published February 7, 2017 by Grand Central Publishing.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

"The Hammer of Thor" by Rick Riordan

This series is on fire. I don't even think I can write a proper review, I just need to gush.

Plot is normal Riordan -- Thor lost his hammer, Magnus and crew have to go find it. I mentioned in my post on "The Sword of Summer" (Book 1 in this series) that his books are a bit formulaic, but the diversity shines. And then this book just stepped up the game even more.

In this book we see two fantastic developments. First, Alex. Alex is a gender-fluid character and child of Loki. She is fiery and intense and a possible love interest for Magnus. Moreover, the book naturally handles explanations of gender fluidity in age-appropriate terms without feeling like a random info-dump or a lecture. It's just a discussion of who she is, like any discussion of Blitzen as a dwarf or Samirah as a Valkyrie.

And speaking of Samirah, we see a lot more about how she balances her duties as a Valkyrie with her values and beliefs as a Muslim. We get the technical discussion of how she reconciles her faith with her existence in a world of Norse deities, and a deeper exploration of her culture and family life. Add this to meeting Hearth's horrible family and learning more about his upbringing, and this book really opens up the characters in this series.

Plus, it looks like we're heading toward crossover territory by the end, so I am absolutely counting down until book three is released this October!

Verdict: Affirmed. This installment really elevated the Magnus Chase series by fleshing out the side characters, and I can't wait to read more.

"The Hammer of Thor" by Rick Riordan, published October 4, 2016 by Disney-Hyperion. Audio narration by Christopher Guetig, published October 6, 2016 by Listening Libray.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

"The Fall of Lisa Bellow" by Susan Perabo

FTC Disclosure: I received a copy from the publisher for review consideration. Below is my honest review.

When I received this book from the publisher, I didn't know much about it but was very intrigued by the premise. The popular girl at school gets kidnapped, and a nerdy girl is left behind? Sounds fascinating. And Perabo added depth and nuance to this premise to create a fascinating book.

Meredith is picking up a soda after school when the deli is robbed. The clerk is knocked out and Lisa Bellow, the most popular girl in Meredith's eighth grade class, is kidnapped. Meredith is left lying on the floor, wondering why she was left. Now she and her family have to figure out how they move forward after this traumatizing event.

Meredith's family is no stranger to trauma. Her older brother, Even had his eye shattered by a rogue baseball, ending his promising baseball career before it got started. The novel alternates perspectives between Meredith and her mother, Claire, to show how Meredith's experience and process of coping affects the entire family. My minor quibble with the book is that Evan's story often seems like a distraction from Meredith's. However, the relationship between Evan and Meredith is worthwhile, especially seeing how their dynamic shifts as they each try to move on from their own trauma.

The most outstanding feature of the book is how it examines the same incidents from both Meredith and Claire's perspectives. Early in the book, Meredith and her friends discuss Lisa and the popular clique, and some major slut-shaming occurs. I was skeptical, and wondering how this could be so casually inserted without comment. I was too hasty. Cut to Claire's perspective, and we see a mother questioning how she raised a daughter to think so poorly of others without recognizing the harm in her own behavior. Such incidents from both sides add nuance and depth to the novel.

Verdict: Affirmed. What could have been a gossipy novel or average thriller is elevated to a compelling portrait of a family in a time of crisis.

"The Fall of Lisa Bellow" by Susan Perabo, published March 14, 2017 by Simon & Schuster.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

"Fever Dream" by Samantha Schweblin

I requested this from the library after Liberty Hardy recommended it fervently on the All the Books podcast. It was a great recommendation, and probably not something I would've picked up otherwise.

An unrelated mother and son are in a hospital, striving to pinpoint a specific moment by recounting the events that led to their current situation. Amanda is the mother, vacationing with her daughter Nina while her husband works & plans to join them for the weekend.  David is the son, a neighbor of Amanda's vacation rental with his mother Carla. Carla has insisted to Amanda that David is not right, and Amanda fears for her daughter.

Told in an alternating dialogue between David and Amanda, this short book spins its tale in quick, furtive bursts that are rife with detail and mystery. I was afraid along the way that the answer would be too complicated for me to comprehend when I reached the end, leaving me unsatisfied and out of my depth. Luckily, that was not at all the case. I was surprised and pleasantly puzzled, and, just like Liberty, flipped back to the beginning to puzzle over this strange story.

From her bio on the book flap, Samantha Schweblin has been recognized by Granta as a top writer in Spanish under 35 and received several literary awards. Though this is her first novel, she has published three short story collections. I will be hunting down any of her work that has been translated to English & hope to see much, much more from her.

Verdict: Affirmed. This was a weird little book that I found utterly compelling. I'd love for someone  to read it so we can discuss and puzzle it out together.

"Fever Dream" by Samantha Schweblin, translated by Megan McDowell, published January 10, 2017 by Riverhead Books.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

"My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry" by Fredrik Backman

If you have been reading my reviews for a while, you know that "A Man Called Ove" made my top 10 for 2014, and I was similarly smitten with "Britt-Marie Was Here." Yet somehow, Fredrik Backman's sophomore novel almost escaped my notice. And what a shame that would have been, because it is my favorite of Backman's novels so far.

Elsa's eccentric grandmother had been seven-year-old Elsa's best friend. She told Elsa magical stories and took her on adventures in real life.  Now, Elsa has been sent on a mission upon her grandmother's death: she must deliver her grandmother's posthumous apology letters to a wide-ranging cast of characters. Along the way, Elsa makes new friends and learns the roots of her grandmother's magical stories, and ultimately her grandmother's own incredible story.

Admittedly, that descriptions sounds like trite jacket copy. But I don't want to spoil any of the truly lovely, heartwarming details. Basically, this book gave me the warm fuzzies, as my first-grade teacher would say. Elsa's grandmother was a fierce woman, with an admirable devotion to her granddaughter and others around her. She and Elsa are both offbeat in that way I've come to associate with Backman protagonists -- gruff and defensive on the outside, but driven and loyal once tasks have been set and friendships have been developed. The clever plotting and intricate details are lovely, but it is ultimately Backman's unforgettable characters that breathe life into his novels. This one is no exception, and Elsa and her grandmother have become two of my favorites.

A bonus - Britt-Marie of "Britt-Marie Was Here" got her start in this novel, and it's wonderful to see how the seeds of her story were planted here. I can't wait to get to my review copy of the next spinoff, "Beartown," in time for its release in two weeks! (Thanks Atria!)

Verdict: Affirmed. Elsa will charm and endear you as you follow her on her grandmother's last adventure.

"My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry" by Fredrik Backman, published June 16, 2015 by Atria Books.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

"You Will Know Me" by Megan Abbott

Many know that this was the novel Abbott was inspired to write after seeing Aly Raisman's parents watch their daughter compete. What is it like to be inside such a family, where everyone's hopes and fears are pinned to a single member and her solitary pursuit?

If that is the jumping off point, Abbott pushes it to extremes, adding an untimely death in uncertain circumstances to the mix to create a novel that is part family drama, part mystery.  Devon Knox found gymnastics after a freak accident with a lawn mower when she was a toddler.  Since then, her parents Katie and Eric have shaped their lives around getting Devon to the Olympics, dragging her amiable younger brother along for the ride.  Their lives are spent at her gym, among the coaches and other parents. Yet the death of someone in the gym's orbit threatens to derail the Olympic dreams everyone in Devon's orbit has been pushing her toward.

Where "The Fever" stood out for its portrayal of relationships, You Will Know Me focuses on Katie, just one member of the Knox family. It's structurally necessary to limit the information available to the reader and to better maintain the mystery. Yet, it also provides the basis for exploring the underlying theme of how well can you ever know your children and family. The focus on Katie enables the mystery, but constrains the ability to explore the depths of what different parents will do for their children and how parent-child relationships can vary greatly within a single family.  Nevertheless, it's a compelling read, and particularly good on audio.

Verdict: For fans of mysteries and family dramas, this is a solid, quick read.

"You Will Know Me" by Megan Abbott, published July 26, 2016 by Little, Brown. Audio narration by Lauren Fotgang, published July 26, 2016 by Hachette Audio.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

"Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty" by Ramona Ausubel

This 2016 summer release is a doozie. I have so many mixed feelings, so let me just unpack them.

Fern and Edgar are the children of wealthy New Englanders, living a life of ease with their three children when they learn Fern's family money has run out upon the death of her parents. This news sends the couple careening in different directions as they grapple with the choices they must make about their family's future and the changes their decisions will necessitate in their lifestyle.

Fern and Edgar each split off on trips with  a different person who is not their spouse, leaving their 9-year-old daughter and twin 6-year-old sons to fend for themselves. This is children plot line is absurd. Each parent assumes the other is with the children and are not communicating with each other or the children themselves. These are people who are otherwise presented as sane, rational humans, albeit facing difficult decisions. I just did not buy it. There were other, more minor points with Fern's parents and her travel companion that were also not-too-convincingly described, the this children plot line was an absolute mess.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed the excursions into Fern and Edgar's minds, and those of their parents, as they navigated how to live their lives of privilege. Their musings and thought processes are well-written and provide an interesting topic for thought and discussion. The story is told in alternating timelines, which is always confusing on audio, but the background is doled out in bits that tie to the main characters' current musings such that I didn't find myself hopelessly lost. Definitely readable on audio without losing the story or what makes this book tick.

Verdict: Jury's out. There is some interesting food for thought in here, but if you can't get past questionable plot points for the sake of moving the story, look elsewhere.

"Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty" by Ramona Ausubel, published June 14, 2016 by Riverhead Books.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

"Born to Run" by Bruce Springsteen

I was born and raised in New Jersey, a few towns over from Bruce Springsteen's hometown of Freehold & his current home in Rumson. When people ask what part of NJ I'm from, I describe it as "Springsteen country." An earlier biography of his was one of my first reviews for the Morningside Muckraker, and I enjoyed learning more about the man behind the music I grew up with. Now, his autobiography gives fans the chance to learn more from the Boss himself.

The voice in which Springsteen writes is familiar to his fans - it's the same voice we flock to in his music. His prose is lyrical and accessible, familiar and enchanting. It shouldn't be a surprise that he can turn a beautiful phrase, but it was a joy to see how well his songwriting talent translated to prose. And bonus for audiobook listeners, he does the narration himself. This is a plus for most memoirs, but when it's someone known for his distinct voice, it is particularly special.

Springsteen doesn't shy away from the conflicts in his life, both internal and interpersonal. He writes of his own struggles with mental illness honestly and frankly, which I always appreciate. He also describes his relationships, and at times, clashes with those with whom he has works. I was particularly impressed with the respect he demonstrates for everyone about whom he writes. He describes their faults and how those faults interact with his own, sometimes combustibly. Because of his frank admissions of his own shortcomings as a root cause of conflicts with others, his descriptions of the faults of others do not seem vindictive. It is clear that he is a mature adult writing, describing others with magnanimity and fairness.

Verdict: Affirmed. If you're a Springsteen fan, it's a must read. It's also an enjoyable read for anyone who enjoys a beautifully-written career memoir.

"Born to Run" by Bruce Springsteen, published September 27, 2016 by Simon & Schuster. Audio narration by Bruce Springsteen, published December 6, 2016.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

"My Lady Jane" by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows

I have read a lot of historical fiction novels set in the courts of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. It's an interest that dates all the way back to middle school when I first read "Queen's Own Fool" by Jane Yolen, about Mary Queen of Scots. So it is with great confidence and familiarity that I declare "My Lady Jane" one of the freshest, most entertaining novels of Henry VIII's children.

The writers admit in their dedication and prologue that they are taking considerable liberties with historical facts to tell this tale. In real history, Lady Jane Grey took the throne upon her 15-year-old cousin King Edward VI's death. She reigned for nine days before Edward's older sister Mary I claimed the throne. There's a lot more political intrigue behind this, but those are the bare facts. What happens in "My Lady Jane" is markedly different. 

To begin with, instead of a raging social conflict between Protestants and Catholics, we have one between shapeshifters and those without such a gift. Henry VIII would turn into a lion when he was angry, scaring everyone in the court lest he eat someone. So it is not surprising that Verities without such an ability would be distrusting of those with the gift. Meanwhile, Jane is a fierce heroine, and those around her are entertaining as well. Two women met later on the adventure, without giving spoilers, are particular joys. The writing is hilarious, with witty asides and explanations littered throughout. I listened on audio, regularly laughed out loud, and some excerpts even caught Kyle's attention. 

Verdict: Affirmed. This YA take on a grim political tale subverts the true story with wit and humor, and everyone is better off for it.

"My Lady Jane" by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows, published June 7, 2016 by HarperTeen. Audio narration by Katherine Kellgren, published June 7, 2016 by HarperCollins.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

"Gizelle's Bucket List" by Lauren Fern Watt

FTC Disclosure: I received a copy from the publisher for review consideration. Below is my honest review.

If you know me personally, you probably know New York City was not my favorite place to live while I was in law school. (This probably has something to do with the fact that I spent a lot of time studying and didn't find a ton of time to stray too far from my school.) When I went back for my final semester, I had one buddy who made it remarkably more enjoyable: my scruffy rescue terrier Forrest. Having a dog in the city is a ton more work than having a dog when you have a backyard, but a dog also gets you out into the city in ways and with people you never would have experienced or met otherwise. Forrest and I wandered up and down Morningside Heights, wondering at the incredible variety of food people left lying on the street -- he in awe at his good fortune, myself in disgust. We became regulars at our local dog park & everyone cheered when my timid pup finally made friends with the calmer dogs. Forrest barked with the might of a dog twice his size at the strange delivery guy who showed up (unsolicited) at 11:30pm, and I protected him as best I could from the scary radiator noises that are the bane of many NYC apartments.

Lauren Fern Watt can relate to these types of experiences, and plenty more besides. When she graduated from college, she and her 160-pound mastiff, Gizelle, moved to New York City. It's a city that's not built for much personal space, never mind an extra large pup. They attracted plenty of stares and comments, but found the same sorts of routines and special experiences open only to those who brave the city with a canine companion. Watt tells her story of Gizelle's life in two parts: the first runs from getting to Gizelle as a puppy through settling into NYC. The second half is the inevitability every pet owner knows will come, but never wants to face: finding out your best bud is sick & figuring out how to handle what comes next.

Watt makes the best of Gizelle's remaining time, finding adventures to enjoy together and prioritizing spending time with her. Watt grew up alongside Gizelle, drawing strength from her pet while she learned how to cope with her mother's addictions and to navigate her relationships with friends, boyfriends, and family. I don't know how non-pet-owners will relate to Watt's story, but the many lessons and strengths she learned from Gizelle rang true to my own experience. Watt's prose is light and conversational, and the memoir is an easy, heartfelt read. A warning, though: she does not shy away from the tough ending, and I cried while snuggling Forrest extra close for the last 30 pages.

Verdict: Affirmed. This book may have been an unusually perfect fit for me, but I tore through it in two days. If you're a dog lover and can handle a good cry over a life well lived, you'll appreciate this memoir.

"Gizelle's Bucket List: My Life with a Very Large Dog" by Lauren Fern Watt, published March 7, 2017 by Simon & Schuster.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

"How to be a Woman" by Caitlin Moran

 I'd overlooked and then resisted this title for a while. I'd heard Moran's views on feminism were controversial, and she presented them in a particularly crass manner. Crass humor is not typically my thing & I know this, so I try to avoid it so as not to ruin it or complain about things other people are enjoying. But then I heard Moran's talk at Politics & Prose on her new book, "Moranifesto," chuckled and nodded along, and decided it was time to give her work a try.

It was a great decision. "How to be a Woman" is both Moran's memoir and a feminist text, discussing her life story along side her views on shaving, masturbation, weddings, abortion, and Lady Gaga.  Her views are controversial. But they're worth reckoning with. Do I agree with everything she says? Absolutely not. But I am a better feminist for considering her viewpoints and articulating where I find flaws in it. 

There are flaws, some of which Roxane Gay describes well. Casual, caustic use of the word "retarded" and an uniformed discussion of the N-word are insensitive and disappointing; it is important to recognize and criticize these flaws. I don't think, though, that these flaws invalidate Moran's larger message. Her mission to articulate her view of feminism and its importance is successful, if set back by language and references that could have been better chosen.

Moran also does her own audiobook narration, and her conversational tone fits the text well. I look forward to reading or listening to more of Moran's work, though I sincerely hope that she has learned or will learn to choose her words more carefully and consider the plight of those in different positions than her when choosing how to best express herself and her views. 

Verdict: Affirmed, for those looking for a text they can engage with and criticize as appropriate. If you want to laugh at the misadventures of a young British journalist at the start of her career, or have your feminism challenged or complicated, read this book.

"How to Be a Woman" by Caitlin Moran, published June 16, 2011 by Ebury Press, republished October 11, 2016 by Harper Perennial. Audio narration by Caitlin Moran, published February 24, 2012 by Random House Audiobooks.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

"Roses and Rot" by Kat Howard

In law school I served as Managing Editor of the Morningside Muckraker in part because I would get to work with creative people. I'm not artistically creative myself, but I like being around people who are, discussing their work with them, and helping to create spaces where they can be their creative selves. Kat Howard's debut novel "Roses and Rot" evoked this feeling of being around those who live to create. And it gets bonus points for reminding me of excellent parts of "The Night Circus."

Imogen and Marin are sisters, a writer and a dancer, respectively. They grew up together and grew extremely close as they were forced to deal with horrific abuse at the hands of their mother. And yet, at the start of the novel, they haven't spoken in seven years, though they are about to live together in an artist's colony, Melete. Everything at Melete is not what it seems. Imogen and Marin must decide what their art means to them, what are the aims of their ambitions, and what they will sacrifice to achieve their goals. 

Howard creates an enchanting environment in Melete, and it is this setting and the feeling created that reminds me of "The Night Circus." Make no mistake, the books are entirely different, but each has its own carefully crafted atmosphere that draws the reader in an ensnares their attention. Additionally, each character has a slightly different view on art and how to create, though all share a devotion to their work. I enjoyed the opportunity to consider these different approaches.

Finally, Howard is playing with fairy tales. Imogen writes them, the girls are living one, and the novel plays with the structures and tropes of them. I have some thoughts on how this plays out, so get to reading so we can discuss. 

Verdict: Affirmed. "Roses and Rot" is great on audio and ebook (as I learned when my audio rental expired and my aunt generously provided me with the ebook to finish the last several chapters; thank you again!). Fans of fairy tale retellings and inspired works will appreciate this new entry in the subgenre, and sisters will enjoy the complex and true relationship between Marin and Imogen. 

"Roses and Rot" by Kat Howard, published May 17, 2016 by Saga Press.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

"A Gentleman in Moscow" by Amor Towles

I haven't yet read Towles's debut novel "Rules of Civility", but I have read many good things. So when Book of the Month had "A Gentleman in Moscow" as an option back in September, it seemed an interesting pick. Then I managed to get DC book club to read it, and it was a great choice.

Count Alexander Rostov is sentenced by the Soviet government to live out the rest of his life in the Metropol hotel, granted a reprieve from the death sentence due to a poem he authored that inspired many during the communist revolution. He will be killed if he ever leaves. So Rostov sets up a life for himself within the walls of the hotel with both the staff and guests. As time passes, his relationships deepen and remain central to his life, and the novel. Although he is largely isolated from the  events of the world outside the hotel, occasionally the changing world finds its way into the hotel's operations.

A novel about a man determined to find the best in those around him, to tenderly care for his relationships with those he loves, and to live his life as best he is able in his reduced circumstances. Towles obviously took care with his writing, but his prose doesn't quite make it to that joyous effortless plateau that should be the aim of literary fiction. Towles slips at times, especially early on when the Count wanders into past reminiscences that are mere devices for filling in backstory. But as the story progresses (and the reader has the requisite backstory), these trips into the past occur more naturally and Towles finds his stride.

Overall, this novel was a delight to read. The Count's outlook is optimistic, and that viewpoint effuses the reading experience with a certain joy, even in its darker moments.

Verdict: Affirmed, it was widely enjoyed by my book club & would make a great pick for yours, too!

"A Gentleman in Moscow" by Amor Towles, published September 6, 2016 by Viking.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

"The Underground Railroad" by Colson Whitehead

FTC Disclosure: I received an e-ARC from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for my honest review. I purchased a signed first edition out of pocket when I found one at my local bookstore, though. Wasn't going to miss that opportunity!

Everyone has heard of this novel by now, and likely of the fact that Oprah liked it enough to get its release pushed up an entire month so she could feature it in her book club.  I had received an early review copy & had been saving it for after the bar exam  to review in time for the September release. Instead, Oprah scooped me. But Whitehead is deserving of such heaping praise.

The novel follows Cora, a slave whose mother is the only slave ever to have escaped successfully from the Randall plantation in Georgia. Cora faces horrors both unspeakable and far too common for a slave, and becomes a runaway herself.  From there, Whitehead builds on the mistake all young children likely make - that the Underground Railroad is an actual railroad & uses the device to visit several states, each treating its black population with a unique form of cruelty.

There are highs and lows in this novel, but the highs are glorious. The ending is beautiful, and brought tears to my eyes. But I'll admit, I stalled at some parts. The novel alternates between vignettes telling the story of those Cora encounters, and large chunks of her tale as she reaches a new state. The structure works, but the longer chapters dragged at times, for me. I don't think this is a problem all readers will face; dreading a long chapter after I've completed a short one is a tic of mine, especially short ones as self-contained as the vignettes here. I do wish Whitehead had pushed the conceit of the novel a bit further, traveled another stop or two. Yet overall, the writing is great, the story will stick with you, and this book is worthy of the praise it has received.

Verdict: Affirmed, for historical fiction fans particularly, and literary fiction fans broadly.

"The Underground Railroad" by Colson Whitehead, published August 2, 2016 by Doubleday books.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The Broken Earth Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin (Books 1 & 2)

I have so much love for N.K. Jemisin. She spins incredible, engrossing fantasy novels with strong heroines and impeccable, exciting worldbuilding. As if providing an excellent story wasn't enough, her books get bonus points because they're published as trade paperback originals (my favorite reading format), and installments in her series tend to be published in subsequent years, so readers aren't left waiting. Basically, Jemisin is one of my few auto-pre-order authors, and her latest series does not disappoint.

The Broken Earth trilogy is the story of Essa, a woman whose personal world is torn apart when her husband kills their young son and escapes with their young daughter shortly before the an apocalyptic Fifth Season occurs, literally tearing apart the larger world in which Essa lives. Yet these Fifth Seasons are normal in her world, occurring with enough frequency that preceding generations have passed down stone lore detailing methods of survival.

This is also a world where a minority population of orogenes possess immense innate power to control and manipulate earth and stones, yet the powerless majority lives in fear of orogenes, and societies are structured around controlling them at best, killing them at worst. We see these structures through the eyes of an orogene child, Damaya, and an older orogene-in-training, Syenite. Their narratives intertwine with Essa's to give a full picture of this well-crafted world in "The Fifth Season." "The Obelisk Gate" picks up immediately where "The Fifth Season" leaves off, and continues the narrative. To explain more would spoil "The Fifth Season," so I'm going to stop my recapping here.

The Broken Earth trilogy is deeply concerned with themes of oppression, subjugation, and power. How is power created, who should wield it, what rights and responsibilities and struggles come with power, how should power in various forms be confronted or countered and by whom? These themes run deep, providing a lasting resonance to a captivating fantasy series. I can't wait for the conclusion this year.

Verdict: Affirmed. "The Fifth Season" was a book club pick, and most of us went straight on to "The Obelisk Gate." Highly recommended for readers of fantasy and anyone who enjoys strong female characters.

"The Fifth Season" by N.K. Jemisin, published August 4, 2015 by Orbit. "The Obelisk Gate" by N.K. Jemisin, published August 18, 2016.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

"The Mothers" by Brit Bennett

I don't remember first hearing about Brit Bennett's debut novel, "The Mothers," by I remember the buzz building throughout 2016. It helped that Riverhead (the publisher) designed a fantastic-looking tote based on the cover art to help promote the book, but too many early reviewers were raving about this for the popularity to be based solely on good marketing. In fact, so many early reviewers raved throughout the year, that by the time its October publication rolled around, I felt I was the last to read it! Luckily, Book of the Month offered it as an October selection, so I was able to get my hands on a copy quickly.

I ended up saving it for my honeymoon when I could devote my full attention to it. This was the right choice for the wrong reason. this book is engrossing. Bennett writes simple, accessible, but beautiful prose. Once I started, I could not put it down. Luckily, I was able to focus on reading it in 24 hours while on vacation!

The novel opens in a small black church community in Southern California, shortly after Nadia Turner's mother has committed suicide and Nadia has started a relationship with Luke, the preacher's son. Soon, Nadia gets pregnant and decides to have an abortion. Though their abortion is kept a secret, its ramifications ripple through the years, impacting their relationships with each other, their families, their friends, and the larger church community.

The church mothers collectively narrate the book, offering their commentary and perspective that has been shaped largely by rumor. Yet the book offers more than a rumination on secrets within a community, exploring also the evolution of a powerful female friendship and how our struggles and secrets can unite or isolate us from those we love most.

Verdict: Affirmed. One of the best books I read in 2016, I highly & widely recommend this debut novel.

"The Mothers" by Brit Bennett, published October 11, 2016 by Riverhead Books.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Best of 2016

My reading dropped off a bit in the last third of 2016, as you may have noticed by the correlating drop-off in posts. Turns out starting a new job and getting married in a few months leaves a sadly tiny amount of time for reading. I am resolving to find more time in 2017 - all that time spent wedding planning can now go toward reading.

But I still read 134 books this year (45,438 pages, per Goodreads), and really liked a lot of them. As per usual, I'm pulling from all 134 books this year, regardless of publication year, though I'll note the ones that were 2016 releases. I'll also link to my reviews of the book, where applicable, otherwise to the book's Goodreads page. I regret that I failed to write reviews for many of these, and I'm going to get better about corralling my thoughts quickly after finishing a five-star book this year.

Let me know what your favorites were, and if there are any 2016 releases I missed! (This seems a good place to note that I currently have 23% left in "The Underground Railroad," and couldn't quite squeeze it in before the end of the year.)

1. "Homegoing" by Yaa Gyasi. Gyasi's debut novel of half siblings whose lives and those of their descendants are shaped by very different experiences of the slave trade is the best book I read all year, hands down. This was also my single biggest fail in review-writing. I have been recommending it to nearly everyone I've talked books with since I finished it, but didn't manage to get a review together. In my defense, I listened to it on audio and promptly bought a hardcover copy when I finished it, thinking I'd re-read it in print (because the prose is stunning and deserves the direct attention of my eyeballs) and write a more detailed review then. But, I started my new job two weeks later, and the review is unwritten. One day, I will get to it, but for now, this is my favorite book of the year, and everyone, everyone, everyone should read it. (2016 release)

2. "The Library at Mount Char" by Scott Hawkins. This 2015 release was the freshest, most innovative novel I read this year, and another that I listened to on audio (and supplemented with an eARC from NetGalley) and promptly purchased a print copy upon finishing. Hawkins' tale of Carolyn and her siblings and the strange library she inhabits is creepy and intriguing and impossible to put down once you've started.

3. "The Fifth Season" and "The Obelisk Gate" by N.K. Jemisin. A joint review of the first two books in Jemisin's Broken Earth trilogy is forthcoming, as I just finished "The Obelisk Gate" on my honeymoon last week. Jemisin's apocalyptic fantasy novels are powerful dissections of oppressive social structures and the myriad ways people attempt to control or otherwise deal with those who are different and/or feared. I can't wait to read the conclusion this year. ("The Obelisk Gate" is a 2016 release)

4. "A Little Life" by Hanya Yanagihara. Like when I wrote my first review, I don't have much to say about this powerhouse of a novel that hasn't been said more eloquently by others. It blew me away, the prose was stunning, and the utter emotional devastation it brings is a testament to its strength. I am still bitter it didn't win more of the awards for which it was shortlisted.

5. "Behold the Dreamers" by Imbolo Mbue. I loved this debut novel detailing the intertwined stories of an immigrant family and the family of their father's employer in the immediate run-up and aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. The vibrant characters made this novel, and I look forward to more from Mbue. (2016 release)

6. "The Mothers" by Brit Bennett. This is another 2016 debut that lived up to the hype (and its beautiful cover), and another novel whose review is forthcoming, as I also read it on my honeymoon. Bennett's story of Nadia starts with her mother's death and her decision to have an abortion, and covers the ramifications of that decision through the eyes of her church community. It was a fast, powerful read, and I'm glad I managed to get to this one before the end of the year. (2016 release)

7. "Leaving the Atocha Station" by Ben Lerner. This was a NYC book club pick that took our group by surprise. Several of us in that group had met while studying abroad in Madrid, and this novel captures that experience perfectly. It's a modern, and for me, far more accessible version of "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man," with beautiful, lyrical prose. Apologies for re-hashing my Goodreads review here, but my feelings toward this book are identical and, perhaps most tellingly, just as strong seven months after finishing it.

8. "Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family" by Amy Ellis Nutt. This 2015 non-fiction title was another early 2016 read for me, but one that has stuck with me. Nicole's life story and continued activism will remain essential reading as long as transgender people continue to face discrimination.

9. "Middlemarch" by George Eliot. I feel really great when I read a classic and understand how it earned its place in the cannon. We tackled this in big book club, and had some really excellent conversation on feminism and relationships. I'm happy to report it did not kill our book club, and I am glad to have read it and shared it with our group.

10. "Kitchens of the Great Midwest" by J. Ryan Stradal. I'm posting this with the paperback cover under protest, as I far prefer the hardcover, but I suspect the paperback is the one you're more likely to find now. I have been widely recommending this novel as pick-me-up snuggly blanket of a book that makes you feel warm and comforted and loved. It's a novel told in interconnected vignettes centering on a woman with an extraordinary palate that comes together in a delightful, satisfying conclusion.

So there you have it! To wrap up, I'll also share my other five-star books this year, in no particular order:

  • "The Secret History" by Donna Tartt
  • "Aurora" by Kim Stanley Robinson (my favorite SF read of the year)
  • "Shrill" by Lindy West (2016 release)
  • "So You've Been Publicly Shamed" by Jon Ronson
  • "My Life on the Road" by Gloria Steinem
  • "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: The Original Screenplay" by J.K. Rowling (2016 release) - I feel this deserves a small explanation. I pre-ordered the screenplay and read it quickly because I knew I wouldn't make it to the theater opening week, and I didn't want to be spoiled. However, I thought I'd make it to see this in theaters at some point, and was (and still am, I guess) holding my review until I see it it in the form in which it was intended to be enjoyed. But I really loved reading this, and feel it is the rightful heir to the Harry Potter empire. (On the other hand, the further I get from "Cursed Child," the more I would like to pretend it just doesn't exist. I'm a hypocrite, though, since I'll still try and see it when it comes to the US.)