I had a fantastic reading month. So many good reads.
An Ember in the Ashes (An Ember in the Ashes #1) by Sabaa Tahir–published 2016–YAL fantasy–four stars: Considering I’ve been let down more often than not in recent months with YAL fantasy, this was a much-needed surprise. When Laia’s grandparents are murdered and her brother is taken captive by the Empire, Laia joins forces with the Resistance, becoming a slave and a spy to free her brother. A cadet named Elias, the bastard son of the vicious Commandant, wants nothing more to escape his fate, but soon discovers that destiny has other plans for him, including colliding with Laia. As a fantasy reader, the first couple of chapters are always the hardest for me. It’s difficult to orient myself in a made-up world, and if I can’t find solid footing after committing myself to 10 percent of the book, I often give up. At first, this book’s minimal worldbuilding took a bit too long to establish itself, but once I crossed the threshold, I was quickly swept up by the tale. The writing isn’t anything fancy, and the whole in-love-with-the-enemy-archetype is used, but the story twists and enchants anyway. Towards the book’s last 25 percent, the chapters end on crescendoing cliffhangers, and what’s not to love about that?
Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools by Monique W. Morris–published 2016–nonfiction–four stars: Morris delineates how the education system fails to meet the needs of Black girls and how often they get overlooked because there’s so much emphasis on Black boys. She critiques schools’ zero-tolerance and uniform policies, schools’ lack of mental health services, teachers’ approaches to discipline, etc. This book breaks my heart because it further highlights how entrenched systemic racism is in the current educational model. All schools and teachers need to approach discipline through the lens of intersectionality, and more mental health services need to be provided for students so they can find success in the classroom instead of being criminalized by a system that fails to meet their needs. When will this country start shoveling money into public schools?
Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas–published 2020–contemporary fiction–three stars: What a strange, strange little book. Catherine House is like an Ivy League school, but it’s not. It’s super selective, but its students are misfits and drunks. It’s prestigious and beautiful, but it’s crumbling. The curriculum is challenging, but it’s nonlinear and overlapping. At first, Ines struggles to find meaning while navigating the mysterious campus and can feel that something deeper, more sinister, lies at the heart of the school. A selective group of students focuses their work on plasm, and Ines becomes obsessed with it, even though it’s not her focus of study. Eventually, the mystery behind plasm and Catherine House reveals itself, forcing Ines to make the one choice she doesn’t want to have to make. This book has so much potential, but . . . the plot meanders and takes a really long time to come together, probably because it takes place over such a long time frame. The storyline could have been tidier if it had taken place over a year instead of three. For such a complicated, unconventional adult story, the Lexile level came off as lower middle grade. If you’re big into atmosphere, I could see you really enjoying this book, but for the most part, it doesn’t have mass appeal.
Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism: And Other Arguments for Economic Independence by Kristen R. Ghodsee–published 2018–political nonfiction–four stars: An interesting argument on how capitalism commodifies and inhibits women from achieving financial freedom from men. In a capitalistic society that runs on women’s unpaid work and stereotypical gender roles instead of providing appropriate public social assistance programs that help women get access to birth control and pay for costly child care, women can never truly be free nor truly enjoy sex. I’m interested in learning more about sexual economics theory.
The Marriage Game by Sara Desai–published 2020–romance–two stars: After a breakup with an influencer and a viral retaliation video, Layla moves from NYC back to Cali to start her own personnel business. Her parents who own a Michelin-starred Indian restaurant have the perfect office space for her in their building, but Layla’s dad leased the space to Sam, a former doctor turned corporate for-hire-to-fire man. Layla refuses to give up the space, and Sam, instantly attracted to Layla’s sass and curves, decides to let her stay put, as long as she lets him help her weed her way through a list of potential husbands from an arranged marriage website. A cute concept hides in this book, but the third person omniscient narration obscures it. The narrative jumps around and has gaps. When Layla goes on her dates with potential husbands, Sam tags along, and they both hold conversations with one another like the third person isn’t there. Every man that Layla goes on a date with is a stereotype. At the end of the novel, Sam hasn’t learned anything and is still an asshat when it comes to his sister, but he gets the girl–and isn’t that the only thing that matters in a romance novel at the end?
Sex and Vanity by Kevin Kwan–published 2020–contemporary fiction/romance–two stars: Kwan can do wrong. Sex and Vanity fails to rise to the juicy, dishy vivaciousness of the Crazy Rich Asian series. The end.
A Torch Against the Night (An Ember in the Ashes #2) by Sabaa Tahir–published 2016–YAL fantasy–four stars: Book two picks up right where the first left off, maintaining a breakneck pace through the first several chapters. Helene’s first-person perspective is introduced into the narrative alongside Laia’s and Elias’s. Book two isn’t quite as good as the first one, worrying me about where the storyline is going to go in the next two books. The plot in the middle of the book felt like boring filler, which I find tends to happen with longish YAL fantasy reads, but the pace picked up again towards the books’ end. In contrast to the pace, the magic reveals itself slowly, which tortures me. When I’m reading fantasy, I expect magic, magic, magic. The Commandant’s spy is revealed, and who it is is an interesting twist. I’ve got high hopes for book three.
Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone by Brené Brown–published 2017–nonfiction/self-help–four stars: Somehow, the universe knew when to place this book in my hands. I could hear the lyrics of my favorite the Chicks song, “The Long Way Around,” buzzing around in the soundtrack of my mind the whole I time I was reading:
I opened my mouth, and I heard myself
It can get pretty lonely when you show yourself
Guess I could have made it easier on myself
No, I, I could never follow.
Friends and Strangers by J. Courtney Sullivan–published 2020–contemporary fiction–three stars: Elisabeth, a new mother and an author, hires Sam, a student at an all women’s college, to watch her baby three days a week while she writes her next book. Despite their age difference, the two women become close. Elisabeth meddles in Sam’s life, and Sam envies Elisabeth’s privilege. I’m conflicted here. Friends and Strangers parallels Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age in so many ways–highlighting themes ranging from racism, ageism, elitism, etc.–but it lacks the humor and the depth that Such a Fun Age achieves. Sullivan covers so many topics–new motherhood, capitalism, cattiness, influencers, IVF, Facebook forums and on and on–through her characters’ conversations, but it’s presented in a way that’s already been done before. There is no fresh take. And while she writes with ease, the sentences are short, as are the paragraphs, and sometimes plot events are just listed in a paragraph consisting of a sentence or two before moving on to the next one. I did like how Sullivan switches out of the present narrative to describe past events and does so frequently, which is refreshing. And I liked how even though this is told from Sam’s and Elisabeth’s third-person limited perspectives, it felt like I was reading a story in the first person. Maybe if I hadn’t read Such a Fun Age first, I would have enjoyed this more.
The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich–published 2020–historical fiction–three stars: Set In 1953 on a Chippewa reservation in North Dakota, Thomas works as a night watchman for a factory. When he receives notification that Congress is posing a bill that would take the reservation away from them, he devises a way for community members to travel to Washington D.C. to speak out against it. A young woman named Patrice, Thomas’s niece, works in the plant but takes some time off to travel to Minneapolis to look for her sister who’s missing, getting kidnapped upon stepping off the train in the city and swept up with the same shady business circle that her sister found herself in. Patrice escapes, returning without her sister but with something just as dear, changed by her time in the city. I adored Patrice as well as Wood Mountain and the wide range of characters and their development. Erdrich speckles the pages with deep, well-written thoughts like: Things started going wrong, as far as Zhaanat was concerned, when places everywhere were named for people–political figures, priests, explorers–and not for the real things that happened in these places–the dreaming, the eating, the death, the appearance of animals. I saw refreshing historical vernacular like “gadabout” and “toothsome,” which I’m totally stealing and am going to try to bring both of them back into fashion. Think I can get my 8th graders to start describing their crushes as toothsome instead of snacks? But, she structured the book in such a way that it detracted from the story. You’re not only privy to Patrice’s and Thomas’s stories as the focus of the third person narration, but at least 15 other characters as well— including a ghost and a couple of horses that ditch the homecoming parade to mate. The chapters are short and told from MOSTLY one perspective and then switch to a new point of view in the next, making it hard to get invested in any one character’s story at a time. Then other parts of the story are told in the first person, and another part is like a transcript. Verdict: too many perspectives and too many different structures. Also, I found my eyes glazing over, like Thomas’s from lack of sleep while he’s on night watch, while reading about him on night watch. This book is based on the real-life events surrounding Erdrich’s own grandfather, and the story is totally interesting, but the structure will make the book inaccessible and unpalatable for some.
Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia–published 2020–historical fiction/horror–four stars: The Haunting of Hill House meets Jane Eyre with hints of “The Yellow Wallpaper.” In Mexico during the 1950s, gorgeous, headstrong Noemí gets sent from Mexico City by her father to check on her married cousin Catalina, who has sent a disturbing letter, in a remote part of the country. When Noemí arrives at High Place, the house itself and its inhabits exhibit strange behavior, and Noemí starts having terrible dreams. Determined to rescue her cousin, Noemí refuses to leave until she can escape with Catalina. My only criticism of this novel is that it could have been creepier. Moreno-Garcia layers on repetition, much like Shirley Jackson does in The Haunting of Hill House, subtly at first but oh so effectively. It was nice to watch the imagery of the ouroboros, mushrooms, fairy tales, the color yellow, etc. build into the narrative. At times you don’t know what’s real versus what’s a dream. This was just so well done and such a welcome break in the monotony of a mediocre adult fiction reading streak for me.
We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie–published 2014–nonfiction–four stars: Based on her TEDx talk on the same topic, Adichie provides her own insights on feminism. I’ve been reading oodles of feminist literature this year, and this short essay reiterates ideas outlined in what I’ve already read. If you’re just getting into feminist literature though, this might be a good starting point for you. I did like what she had to say here: Because human beings lived then in a world in which physical strength was the most important attribute for survival; the physically stronger person was more likely to lead. And men in general are physically stronger. (There are of course many exceptions.) Today, we live in a vastly different world. The person more qualified to lead is not the physically stronger person. It is the more intelligent, the more knowledgeable, the more creative, more innovative. And there are no hormones for those attributes. A man is as likely as a woman to be intelligent, innovative, creative. We have evolved. But our ideas of gender have not evolved very much.
The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams–published 1944–play–three stars: I needed to read something in a legitimate honest-to-god book. I’d read 80 ebooks in a row, and I was starting to read books differently. Lucky for me, I have a book that belonged to my grandmother that’s four of Willaims’s plays. I jumped into The Glass Menagerie thinking that I’d never encountered it before, but I quickly realized that I must have read it long ago as it became increasingly familiar. It was pretty okay. I’m going to tackle A Streetcar Named Desire next when I need to touch paper again.
A Good Marriage by Kimberly McCreight–published 2020–thriller–four stars: When an old law school friend calls Lizzie collect from Rikers wanting her to represent him because he’s about to be charged with his wife’s murder, Lizzie doesn’t want to get involved but promises him that she’ll find a lawyer to defend him. After bringing it up with her boss, Lizzie decides to take on the case, believing in Zach’s innocence, but as she digs deeper, she uncovers a hidden ugliness in her old friend’s life and the truth of the crime. Alternating with Lizzie’s perspective, Amanda’s story is told as it leads up to her death. I really, really, really enjoyed this thriller, a thriller miracle for me. The title is multilayered. Multiple storylines and twists come together nicely. I couldn’t put this book down the last 40 percent of it. However, the writing isn’t anything spectacular, and there were a couple of loose ends. I bet this book is going to be Goodreads’s best thriller of 2020.
One to Watch by Kate Stayman-London–published 2020–contemporary fiction/romance–four stars: [Whispers to herself] I will not overanalyze or overthink this read. [A little bit louder now] I will not overanalyze or overthink this read. As a plus-size fashion blogger, Bea is used to internet trolls bashing her. But when she becomes Main Squeeze’s new leading lady, think a cheesier version of The Bachelor, after writing a blog post about the show’s lack of body diversity that goes viral, America and the internet can’t decide if they love her or hate her. Determined not to fall in love on set, Bea shuts down, even though the cast is made up of hunky men. She questions whether they really could fall in love with a girl like her. If you’re looking for something light-hearted and easy to escape into, this is the book for you.
The Swap by Robyn Harding–published 2020–thriller–three stars: At the beginning of the year, I found novels with influencer main characters a novelty. Now, I’m so over it. If I read one more book this year that has a self-centered, stunning influencer as a main character I might consider a reading strike. Freya, a former influencer, lives with her former professional hockey player husband in a glass house in the woods. But this couple is no Carrie Underwood and Mike Fisher. A little lonely, Freya makes friends with a teenaged Low, to whom she gives pottery classes. Low becomes obsessed with Freya and is furious when she makes another friend, Jaime. When Jaime and her husband go over to Freya’s house to do shrooms as a double date (is this, like, a thing?), the night gets out of control when some good, old-fashioned partner swapping occurs. Emotions run high, and the ugly truth behind Freya and her husband’s marriage comes to light. Since when is partner swapping such a thing in books? Maybe it’s just a thriller thing? I mean A Good Marriage featured some swinging too. So here’s the deal: I didn’t hate this thriller, but it wasn’t anything fantastic.
Why We Can’t Sleep: Women’s New Midlife Crisis by Ada Calhoun–published 2020–feminist nonfiction–four stars: To prepare for my impending midlife crisis–hopefully it’s still a good decade away–I decided to read up on what to expect. While this book focuses on Gen Xers, this millennial totally related to the content. This book is particularly great because it features the voices of so many different women and lets other women know that they’re not alone.
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett–published 2020–historical fiction–five stars: Raised in a small Louisiana Black community, light-skinned twin sisters Stella and Desiree run away to New Orleans to escape the small-mindedness of their town. The twins’ lives diverge there, Desiree moving to Washington D.C. after Stella runs away without saying goodbye. Desiree marries an abusive man and escapes back home with her daughter Jude. Although Desiree doesn’t want to stay in Mallard, she moves back in with her mother, enrolling Jude in school, where Judes suffers for years in a hostile environment because she’s darker than the other Black children. Stella, meanwhile, makes the decision to pass as white and marries a banker, and even though she’s wealthy and has everything she could ever ask for, her lies haunt her. She too has a daughter, and Stella’s and Desiree’s girls eventually cross paths, forcing the twins to confront their pasts and their mistakes. Bennett is masterful at weaving in and out of different decades and perspectives. I loved how the two generations’ stories interlaced. Add. This. Book. To. Your. TBR. Now. This is the best fiction I’ve read all year.
Aurora Rising (The Aurora Cycle #1) by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff–published 2019–YAL science fiction–three stars: Read Brian Sanderson’s Skyward instead. There are so many eerie parallels between Skyward and Aurora Rising. Both feature female protagonists with latent, world-saving powers, space fighting, and quippy AIs–just to mention a few. Aurora Rising has too many narrators and not enough worldbuilding. Despite this, I can understand why teenagers would like it, but I won’t be recommending it to my students.
(All cover art taken from Goodreads.)