Dead to Her by Sarah Pinborough–published 2020–thriller–two stars: Setting a thriller in Savannah sounds like a sure bet. Spanish moss and haunted city squares seem like the perfect suspense recipe. Alas, this book doesn’t do its setting justice. Marcie, a former waitress who has married into the upper echelons of Southern society, befriends Keisha, a black British bombshell who is freshly married to Marcie’s husband’s law partner. There is some literal weird voodoo happening in this book, it’s too long, and the ending sucks. The end. Don’t read it.
Godshot by Chelsea Bieker–published 2020–contemporary fiction–three stars: Ummmm, I’ve read tons of bizarre books, but this one might be the weirdest one of all. Fourteen-year-old Lacey May belongs to a cult. Her mother leaves her, and Lacey moves in with her Grandma Cherry, a woman who plays with taxidermied rodents and carries a cane made out of bull testicles. The writing is captivating. I had a hard time putting the novel down, but I also had a hard time with the child rape, the incest, and the teenage pregnancies. Other issues I had? I could go on and on. Lacey May works as a phone sex operator. A person getting away with shooting another person. All of the god glitter. Nobody in the town of Peaches stood up for the poor girls. Ultimately, I know this is a work of fiction and warns of believing in something blindly, but just because it’s readable doesn’t make it a four-star read.
Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips–published 2019–fiction/mystery–four stars: This. Is. How. A. Mystery. Is. Done. Two girls vanish from a remote Russian city. Even though each chapter was told from a brand new character’s perspective and those characters didn’t seem like they had anything to do with the case, I didn’t even care. The girls’ disappearance was always lingering in the background. All of the characters’ lives overlapped by the end. Not only did Philips do a phenomenal job laying out the starkness of the Russian setting and the corruption of the Russian government, but she also delved deep into societal obstacles that women still face. And the ending, gahhhhhhhh! Chills. Chills. Chills.
Happy & You Know It by Laura Hankin–published 2020–contemporary fiction/chick-lit–four stars: Clap your hands! Clap clap! Clap your hands! Clap clap! This book made me happy and I know it. Seriously. (I know I’m lame; I can’t help it.) Booted from a band just before making it big, Claire finds herself crooning toddler tunes for cash to a baby playgroup. During the playgroup, the Upper East Side mommies drink wine and enjoy the free samples that are heaped on their leader Whitney, a Momstagrammer. Claire forms an unlikely friendship with one of the moms named Amara, gets sucked into their group, and discovers the real reason why the mommies can do it all. Y’all. I found the writing hilarious. Hankin makes penning funny similies look easy and can turn that hilarious simile into a metaphor that lasts the whole paragraph. The women drop the F-bomb, and it’s refreshing to see it in writing. Even though the book is borderline far-fetched at the end, who cares? I needed this fun read.
The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein–published 2017–nonfiction/history–four stars: Although this book is more than dry in a few spots, this is an important read, outlining just how pervasive systemic racism is in the United States. For example, I had no clue that the people responsible for the interstate system purposely routed it through Black suburban areas, destroying Black people’s homes and forcing them to move into over-crowded Black urban areas.
Oona Out of Order by Margarita Montimore–published 2020–fiction/time travel–four stars: Moment of honesty: At first I couldn’t buy into this book. On New Year’s Eve the night before Oona’s 19th birthday at the stroke of midnight, Oona time travels to 2015, waking up disoriented and in an aged body. As it turns out, this happens every year at the same time, and Oona experiences her life out of order from year 19 on. If you can move past the unbelievable premise, apparently this only happens to Oona and nobody else, then you might enjoy this mashup of 50 First Dates, Back to the Future II, and The Time Traveler’s Wife.
You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George Washington by Alexis Coe–published 2020–nonfiction/history–three stars: This is the first biography that I’ve read in years, and I’m dustier than a forefather’s boots after a hard ride on a horse when it comes to the American Revolution’s history. Aside from the catchy and borderline risqué title, the book’s quirky writing style fell off the proverbial saddle far too early in the ride. Coe skims the surface of what history readily teaches about Washington and his life, instead delving deep into the forgotten: the many illnesses he overcame, his life as a gentleman farmer, and the often neglected fact that American was founded on slave ownership and that Washington indeed owned slaves. It’s refreshing to see a book that gives the facts that are often left out of textbooks, but the book failed to hold my interest throughout.
Ghosts of Harvard by Francesca Serritella–published 2020–mystery thriller–three stars: Despite Cadence’s brother’s suicide at Harvard during his senior year, Cadence decides to attend Harvard anyway that fall, partially for closure and for figuring out what led to her mentally ill brother’s death. When she starts to hear voices in her head, she begins to question her own sanity, but the voices can’t be ignored. Rant alert: If. I. See. One. More. Naturally. Born. Red-headed. Protagonist. In. The. Next. 50. Fiction. Books. I. Read. I. Might. Scream. Statistically, redheads only occur naturally in 1-2 percent of the world’s population, so why is there an inordinate number of them as female leads in novels? From this point forward, I’m adding an extra column to my book tracking spreadsheet to track this mathematically impossible proliferation of gingers in fiction. And before my soapbox gets too sudsy causing me to slip off, I’m over books set at the Ivies. I’m also over books where a high school protagonist only wants to get into the Ivies. And I’m going to extend my rant to all top twenty universities for that matter. How about a little collegiate diversity? Guess where Serritella went to school? You get one guess. Now that I’ve rinsed off my lather, the ghosts were contrived, and I didn’t like the way the ghosts’ dialogue with Cadence was done. The book was too long. I disliked the storyline. At the end of the book, there was a five years later chapter and an epilogue after that. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a hundred times–#deathtotheepilogue.
A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder (A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder #1) by Holly Jackson–published 2019–YAL mystery/thriller–two stars: Pippa, a high school senior working on a capstone project, investigates the closed case murder of a teenage girl because Pippa doesn’t believe that the girl’s boyfriend, Sal, committed it. Where do I start with this trope-laden novel? How about the title? I can’t stomach the phrase “good girl” anymore. Hello, it’s 2020? What about feminism? The so-called good girl also breaks into a house and faces no consequences for it. Sounds a whole lot like white privilege to me. Jackson replaces character development with giving characters nicknames and terribly punny dialogue. This book should have been written in the first person instead of third-person limited to help the lacking character development. The detective work was too easy; everything felt clinically clean. And if it was that easy for a teenager to figure out, then why didn’t professionals figure it out before? And guess where the aspiring teenage detective wants to go to college: Columbia. (Vomit. See above rant.) I do not get why this is rated more than 4 stars on Goodreads at all.
Everywhere You Don’t Belong by Gabriel Bump–published 2020–contemporary fiction–three stars: Following the story of Claude, a young Black man whose parents have abandoned him to live with his grandma on the South Side of Chicago, the narrative captures his childhood and then follows him to college in Missouri. This book has massive potential and airs on the literary side, but it could have more power as a YAL novel. Bump did an excellent job of capturing Claude’s childhood perspective, and that voice tried to grow with Claude as he aged, but it wasn’t as masterful as it was in the beginning. I felt like the allusions to Chicago and historical events were glaring instead of woven in to highlight the narrative. Some passages had that whole I’m-going-to-teach-you-a-theme vibe that should have been more subtly executed. But the writing in other places was superb. Look at these. (I added further clarification about the quote in a bracket): 1. “Brother,” a bearded one [a white college boy to Claude] said to me, “can’t you help us party?” He was pathetic. He was sad, on the verge of tears. If he didn’t party soon—what was he going to do? He was lost and scared, empty, hopeless. I imagined him in a library, or any quiet setting; I imagined him struggling with his own thoughts. 2. Whitney was terrified of what most terrifies white people in liberal-minded professional environments— Whitney didn’t want Simone to call her a racist. I’m looking forward to picking up another of Bump’s novels in the future.
Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo–published 2020–YAL/poetry–four stars: Camino’s dad who lives in New York City visits her once a year in the Dominican Republic. In NYC, Yahaira resents her father’s yearly trek home to the Dominican Republic. When a plane traveling from NYC to the Dominican Republic crashes, Camino’s and Yahaira’s lives collide, both trying to make sense of the aftermath. The poetry is fire, but I disliked how Camino didn’t tell anyone who loved her that El Cero was a predator, allowing her loved ones to think she was encouraging him. If people were warning her about him, why not speak up and tell them that their worries were warranted? (Also, you’ll never believe where Camino wants to go to college . . . Columbia anyone? Sigh.) Anyway, here’s some of Acevedo’s gorgeous verse: dirt-packed, water-backed, third-world smacked: they say, the soil beneath a country’s nail, they say. I love my home. But it might be a sinkhole.
Every Heart a Doorway (Wayward Children #1) by Seanan McGuire–published 2016–YAL fantasy–four stars: I love a good book about doors that lead to other worlds. Nancy finds herself back in the real world after deciding to make sure that living in an underworld world is the right choice. But upon her arrival home, her parents who have feared her dead after her long absence send her to boarding school, where other children who have been thrust out of their found worlds learn to cope. Most of the students long to go back, looking for doorways around every corner. As the new girl, Nancy becomes the prime suspect when a murderer goes on a spree at the school. There’s a Lewis Carroll nonsense vibe to this book that makes my Alice in Wonderland soul sigh in delight.
The Lies That Bind by Emily Giffin–published 2020–contemporary fiction–two stars: Inevitably an established author is going to write a World War II historical fiction novel or a 9/11 love story. More authors should just say no to both options. I’d love to give Giffin the benefit of the doubt here, but her already proven novelist skills are rudimentary at best in this overplayed storyline set during 9/11. The writing is beyond generic. Her descriptions of the terrorist attack lack emotion, creating no mood as a result. Like a lot of other books I’ve been reading recently set in the ’90s and early 2000s, Giffin plops allusions into the narrative with no real finesse. It makes for stilted reading.
Mindf*ck (Books 1-5) by S.T. Abby–published 2016–dark romance–three stars: I’m reviewing the entire series in one mini book review because 1. These are more like novellas than books and 2. I read them all in the same month. Normally, this isn’t something I would pick up because I mainly read books I can get from the library, but a friend told me I had to check the out. And I’m all for reading out of my normal reading zone. Lana, a serial killer, falls in love with the enemy–an FBI agent named Logan. Throughout the novels, the real reason behind Lana’s past and what’s made her become a murderer is revealed, making the reader question their moral compass. The second book in the series is the best one. And while the entire series is totally binge-able and a little bit of a guilty pleasure, the writing itself is merely competent.
Serpent & Dove (Serpent & Dove #1) by Shelby Mahurin–published 2019–YAL fantasy–two stars: I knew the universe would punish me for reading 6 novellas in a month; however, I didn’t know it would seek its revenge swiftly nor in the form of a lengthy YAL fantasy book that the masses (for reasons I cannot ascertain) adore. Similar to the setting and storyline in Sin Eater, S & D takes place in an alternate version of Europe, France from what I understand here, and focuses on how religious zealots can inflict harm on the world when they possess little knowledge about what they’re fighting against, in this case, witches. Reid, a witch hunter, is forced to marry Lou–a plucky, bawdy witch–without realizing he’s married to the enemy. Every plotline in this story lacks originality. A seventh-grader could have constructed the syntax lining the pages. Since Mahurin went to the trouble of describing how the magic works in the world, she could have done a better job making the magic come alive–instead, it’s an afterthought. Just plopping a plot into an alternate version of history isn’t worldbuilding. Lou and Coco shamelessly flirt with Ansel, a 16-year-old. Gross. Lou and Reid have sex for the first time on the rooftop while it’s freezing during Yuletide like some kind of salacious Christmas carol gone wrong. (Sex on the rooftop, click click click! Down through the chimney with good Saint Dick.) Gross, gross, gross. Overall, this novel amounts to nothing more than a commercially placating YAL money grab. Read Sarah J. Maas or Holly Black instead.
Red, White, & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston–published 2019–romance/LGBTQ+–four stars: Considering I’m a year late to singing this book’s praises, you probably don’t need to read this review because you’ve probably already read it. For some reason, I kept backlisting this book, but in an attempt to finally listen to an audiobook to completion, I enlisted my high school friend, an audiobook aficionado, to recommend one. She said this one was excellent, so I listened. And I listened. And I listened. And I listened. And that’s the problem with audiobooks and me. I’d rather read it because I enjoy it more and it takes less time. I need to see words on a page. I need to see how the sentences form. I need to see where there are breaks in chapters. However, this particular audiobook was excellent. Now to the story itself, the First Son of the United States Alex falls hard, and in once instance into a very expensive royal wedding cake, for his rival across the pond, Prince Henry. But how can Alex and Henry keep their romance a secret without inciting an international political disaster? Alex and Henry’s love story radiates off the page (iPhone?) with warmth and humor. (If I hadn’t just finished binging Schitt’s Creek, I’d say Alex and Henry’s love story is my new favorite, but David and Patrick’s has won that title.) The characters are well-developed and diverse. McQuiston writes with wit and unmistakable style. I also love that she’s an LSU grad, Geaux Tigers! Is this book closer to a five star read? Sure, for some, and it might have been for me too if not for a couple of different reasons. First of all, I should have read it instead of listened to it. And secondly, no matter how witty emails between two lovers can be, I don’t want to read/listen to them. I hate reading other people’s steamy emails/letters/whatever IRL. Why would I want to read them in a book?
Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld–published 2020–contemporary fiction–contemporary fiction–two stars: In this novel, Sittenfeld writes what Hillary Clinton’s life could have been like if she never married Bill. While the story is well-researched and a plausible what-if, it failed to engage me, managing instead to signal my icky radar into high alert. If you think that imagining former presidents having sex with their wives is akin to thinking about what your parents do between the sheets, then this book is not for you. A naked Bill plays the saxophone for Hills, gag. Furthermore, watermelons, of the literal kind, are mentioned all too frequently by Bill. I could not read a single line of Bill’s dialogue without hearing his good-ol-boy twang in my head. And Sittenfeld’s chosen portrayal of Hillary perplexes me. Hillary can’t get over how handsome Bill is. Hillary just wants to be loved. Hillary comes off as stiff and aloof; it’s even reflected in the sentence structure. Hillary is ruthless. Did Sittenfeld want to make Hillary unlikeable? And while this is an alternative historical narrative, I had a hard time digesting Sittenfeld’s choice to erase Carol Moseley Braun, the first Black female US Senator, from history so Hillary could get elected to Congress. This is, by far, my least favorite Sittenfeld venture.
All cover art taken from Goodreads.
As always, any discussion is welcome!