Faker + A River of Stars; 2.5.20

Hello again! I took last week off, mostly because I only finished one book, but also because I have fallen down a deep hole of longing for Ewan McGregor from which I may never climb out. 

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These books aren’t terribly similar, but I feel bad about what I’m about to say, which is that I enjoyed the first 80-100 pages of both of them more than I liked the rest of them. I don’t like going long about books that I didn’t overall enjoy but have no capital-p Problem with, so this one is probably going to be a little truncated. Plus, I have many Ewan McGregor gifs to stare at.

Faker – Sarah Smith


This one was recommended via Carly Lane-Perry’s excellent romance-focused newsletter Kissing Books, which I really really enjoy and I feel bad that I’m bringing it up first (because I’m sure it’ll come up many times in this blog!) in a section about a book I felt kind of ‘meh’ on. I found the characters and writing in this book very engaging, but the book was premised on a version of “enemies to lovers” that didn’t really work for me. Slight spoiler, but if the enemies-to-lovers trope is something that frequently gives you trouble, you’ll probably actually really like this book, because it turned out the hate was really one-sided and based on a misunderstanding all along. What I prefer is when the protagonists really genuinely despise each other at the start, both for the heat it causes and to see how the author overcomes the challenge of making us believe by the end they genuinely love each other. And I do believe these protagonists really loved each other by the end, but they got lovey-dovey pretty quickly and then spent a lot of the book just being in a pretty conflict-free relationship, which is…fine? Sure! But I got a little bored of it, despite liking the characters (Emmy and Tate, coworkers at a construction company, which I just realized I didn’t mention at all before now).

A River of Stars – Vanessa Hua


I really really liked the concept of this and the main two characters. Scarlett Chen, the protagonist, is a pregnant Chinese woman who has been flown to the US by her lover/boss to stay at a home for pregnant Chinese women so that their babies will be born as US citizens. But then! She runs away! Along with one of the other women, a teenager named Daisy, she wants a life for her and her child not controlled by the child’s father or the owner of Perfume Bay, or anyone else. 

I really really liked the story of Scarlett and Daisy and think I would have loved the book if it had stayed focused on them. But about a quarter of the way through, the narrative started switching between them and the father of Scarlett’s child [Boss Yeung], and occasional input from another character, and I just didn’t find that terribly engaging. I really liked Hua’s writing, and the way she developed the bond between Scarlett and Daisy, but the book had a hard time holding my attention because I just didn’t care about what Boss Yeung was doing, and then the ending was kind of a let-down.

Alright, bye for now! 

Forbidden + Educated; 1.22.20

It’s STILL January????? WHY.

Okay that’s pretty much all I have to say. Thank you for your patience as I shorten these preludes to by a staggering degree because *whew*. I am tired. 

I think a thing I used to do up here is talk briefly about movies/TV I’m enjoying?? Anyways, I don’t think I mentioned that I saw the new Little Women and absolutely loved it and am going to talk more about it with the brilliant Hannah Evans on the next edition of our newsletter.

Forbidden – Beverly Jenkins


This was my first Beverly Jenkins book, and it’s clear why she’s revered in Romancelandia. Eddy and Rhine, the protagonists in this book, are determined and funny and kind, as are many of the people around them. Eddy is on her way West to start a new life in California when a shyster dumps her in the middle of the Nevada desert. She only barely survives the elements, thanks to Rhine, a saloon owner who scoops her up and gets her to safety. As she recovers and makes a temporary home in Nevada, there’s an undeniable attraction between them that they’re both determined to put aside, primarily because Eddy is Black and Rhine is white. EXCEPT……..he’s actually not. (This isn’t a spoiler, it’s in the prologue.) Rhine has been passing as white, which has allowed him to build wealth that he primarily uses to support the Black community in the city, but has kept him from fully engaging in the community. But *puts on intensely romantic voice* Eddy might just be too wonderful to stay away from.

I liked the book a lot, in particular the characters and community that Eddy and Rhine are a part of. I did feel that the two protagonists didn’t spend very much time together in the first half of the book, and while I understand the narrative reasons for that, as I discussed a couple weeks ago, the whole ~mysterious connection instant attraction~ thing doesn’t really do it for me, so I felt more engaged in the second half of the book. But I will definitely be reading more of Jenkins’ work, particularly in this series. I haven’t read many in the Old West romance subgenre and I really dug it.

Educated – Tara Westover


This is one of those books that spread like wildfire, topping bestseller charts and book club lists everywhere. Westover’s memoir about growing up with fundamentalist Mormon parents has inspired a lot of discussions about religion, education, and abuse. She was the youngest of 7 children, with parents who entirely rejected the medical establishment and traditional schooling. They claimed to homeschool their children, but the lessons didn’t pass much further than learning how to read. 

I may have read this book faster than it deserved, but its hard not to — the family is constantly on the edge of calamity, with potential injury around every corner. It’s a harrowing book in many ways, not just the physical risk that the family frequently finds themselves in, but the abuse Westover and several of her siblings endure, and the distress Westover finds herself in upon entering the “real world” and finding that not only does she not have a financial or emotional safety net, there’s quite a bit of knowledge and skills she has to struggle for on her own. Westover is a fantastic writer, and clearly reflective of the challenges of writing a memoir about one’s family.

tw: domestic abuse

Okay that’s all for me today! Go see Little Women!

spoonful of books; 1.15.20

Hello! So something exciting has happened since last week, which is that my first review with the website Twin Cities Geek came out! I reviewed the movie Underwater and though I didn’t think the movie was very good, I’m quite pleased with how the review turned out.

The Ambassadors – Henry James

Image result for the ambassadors henry jamesI was reading this book…….for what felt like forever. I think in reality it was no longer than the time it took me to read The Portrait of a Lady, but the difference is…..I loved The Portrait of a Lady. Every character was distinct and even though the decisions they made often happened at a glacial pace (with a NOTABLE EXCEPTION), there was at least the positive sense that decisions were happening.

The book happens at least 70% (maybe more) within the consciousness of the protagonist, Lambert Strether, a middle-aged man from Massachusetts who’s been dispatched to Paris to retrieve the son of his wealthy fiancee. Chad Newsome, said son, is not exactly ready to be retrieved, having fallen in love with life in Paris and possibly also a married woman. To Strether’s surprise, he becomes wrapped up in the same enthusiasms and ends up needing to be fetched himself. As with James in general, many of his sentences take a good deal of unraveling, which is a process I really do find rewarding, but I think an issue I kept running into with this book was a frequent unfamiliarity with the particular emotions he was trying to portray.

I think I maybe didn’t understand this book, but because I am unwell I will probably reread it sometime in my life and hopefully more of it will stick. If you’re for any reason interested in reading Henry James, while I haven’t read all of his works (YET) I’d encourage you not to be put off by the length of Portrait because I really loved it a lot.

Home – Julie Andrews

2511690I think this is actually the FIRST time that I’ve reread a book since starting this blog, which is BONKERS because I love to reread, but I guess I just haven’t done it in almost 2 years? I first read this as a preteen, and I have a very distinct memory of finding it in my local library shelves and being PSYCHED. I’m pretty sure it’s one of the first memoirs I ever read, and I couldn’t have picked a better one to start with.

This is actually the first of two memoirs, the second of which is called Home Work and came out about 2 months ago. I haven’t started it yet but I have it and will be diving in SOON. Home covers Andrews’ childhood, her start in show business through vaudeville shows around age 12, and her time originating the roles of Eliza Doolittle and Guinevere in the musicals My Fair Lady and Camelot. The book closes just after she has her first child and right before she and her family move to California for her to begin filming Mary Poppins.

As is often the case with memoirs and biographies — in particular those of performers — I found the early childhood stuff a bit tiresome, though Andrews writes it with charm and compassion. Her childhood and teen years were incredibly difficult, both as a result of growing up during World War II and as a result of the adults in her life frequently making decisions about their lives (and thus hers) that didn’t exactly lead to a stable childhood. I wrote more specifically on Twitter about that, and just an FYI this book includes brief depictions of domestic abuse, including sexual abuse. Andrews is remarkably thoughtful and generous towards her parents, while not shying away from the ways she was hurt by their actions and attitudes.

I enjoyed this book most when she was writing about the ins and outs of her work, the ways she’s trained her voice and learned how to create a character and her delight in performance. I’m extra excited to see that play out in the sections in Home Work about Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music and rewatch both of those movies afterwards with that information in mind!!!

So long! Farewell!

welcome to January, again; 1.8.20

We’re still in January, I guess!! My absolutely least favorite month! I actually really like New Year’s, and symbolically January as a beginning makes me feel very relieved [despite the absolute garbage happening in the world right now] but as you know, I live in Minnesota, so I spend most of January feeling like my eyeballs are going to freeze right out of my face. So if someone wants to transplant my entire life to Arizona, maybe I’ll like January more! However, the first two books I read in 2020 are great and I’m excited to talk about them!

Welcome to Lagos – Chibundu Onuzo

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I absolutely loved the characters in this book, particularly the five-person band of down-on-their luck strangers who latch onto each other for both survival and family. Chike, Yẹmi, Isoken, Fineboy, and Oma find each other early in the book and become the optimistic heart of the novel, surrounded as they are by cynicism and schemes. Together they’re just trying to survive in Lagos, but when their paths cross an embezzling politician on the run they all have a chance to discover a new sense of purpose. Every person in this book feels instantly and recognizably layered, real, and impossible not to root for.

I do think it either needed to be 50 pages shorter or about 150 pages longer, and I know that’s a wide span, but something about the pacing just didn’t quite work for me. There’s an extended section about two-thirds of the way through in which a character leaves Lagos and while I liked what it meant for that character, its function in the plot felt a bit roundabout, which I think might have gone differently for me if Onuzo had expanded the world of the book.

That being said, I really liked it and would recommend it. In some ways it reminded me of the movie Parasite, which came out this year and is excellently fun and devastating; they’re both stories about surviving in cities divided by capitalism into the extremely wealthy and extremely poor and they both feature characters who stick in your heart.

tw: sexual assault, discussions of past domestic abuse

Blitzed – Alexa Martin


As has become my pattern with Alexa Martin books, I picked this one up to read “just a little bit” before carrying on with the rest of the day’s plans, but then ended up cancelling the rest of the day’s plans (which, to be fair, was just going to a movie with myself, so really everyone won here) to blast through the whole thing in one day.

I expected this to be more of an “enemies to lovers” read [my catnip], but it turned out to be more of a “friends to lovers” story, which, while not being as much of an immediate “LET’S GO” for me, was very compelling. Brynn Larson and Maxwell Lewis do not start out this book on the best of terms; despite crushing on each other for years, a poorly timed incident at the end of Fumbled sets their relationship off on the wrong foot. If you’ve read Intercepted and/or Fumbled (both of which I highly recommend!) you know Brynn as the close friend of those heroines and owner of the bar they frequent, and Maxwell as the professional football teammate of the heroes.

The love story that develops between the two of the them is very sweet and earned, and I have absolutely mind-cast Brynn’s dad as Enrico Colantoni, Best TV Dad. As with the other books in this series, there’s a bit of ~intrigue~ throughout that I did feel was resolved a bit too quickly at the end, but the part I really cared about is the relationships between not just the love interests but the community around them, which is so rich and warm that they trick me into feeling that if I moved to Denver I would somehow be able to meet these fictional characters and become friends with them.

tw: discussions of past sexual assault

Stay warm out there, and go see Parasite!

shut up about the decade!!; 1.1.20

Maybe now that we’re finally in the 20s, we can stop talking about them!!

But keep talking about books!

This Common Secret: My Journey as an Abortion Doctor – Susan Wicklund

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This book starts powerfully, with Wicklund nervously preparing to tell her grandmother about her work as an abortion provider. Her “confession” sparks one from her grandmother, a harrowing story of life when reproductive care wasn’t merely inaccessible, but not even spoken of. With that framing, Wicklund goes back to the beginning of her story, detailing how she became an abortion doctor and the challenges and joys of her career. She describes the exhaustion, the difficult decisions, and the nightmarish harassment from anti-abortion activists (including stalking and death threats). It’s a pretty straightforward, no-frills memoir, with some historical context filling out Wicklund’s personal story. There were a couple of instances in which Wicklund expressed a bit of judginess towards patients whose choices she disagreed with, which made me uncomfortable, but on the whole I’m glad I read it.

TW: references to rape and incest

An Offer from a Gentleman – Julia Quinn


Con: there is very little Colin in this book
Pro: we do get to know Lady Bridgerton and the other Bridgerton girls a bit more, and they seem much more sensible and interesting than Daphne
Con: Benedict

As you may remember, my experience with the Bridgerton books has resembled a rollercoaster, with a thumbs-down for the first and a thumbs-up for the second. And this one……is also a thumbs-down for me. Lots of romance novels start on terms that are perhaps not conducive to a healthy relationships–blackmail, entrapment, mutual loathing, etc. And I can get into that! The fun is seeing how a skilled writer can take those circumstances and make them something engaging that we feel good about rooting for. And while Quinn is certainly a skilled, engaging writer…I did not feel good about rooting for this pairing, and was in fact rooting for Sophie to get away from Benedict.

The story of the second-eldest Bridgerton and Sophie Beckett, the illegitimate daughter of a count (? I don’t remember), starts as a fairly straight-forward Cinderella retelling, with a heavy emphasis on love at first sight, which doesn’t really do it for me. The story then flashes-forward, to Benedict rescuing Sophie from an attempted rape and then not realizing she’s the mysterious woman he danced with two years ago The two discover a mutual attraction, but Sophie is a servant and determined not to be Benedict’s mistress, which he doesn’t take particularly well. Halfway through the book, AFTER he’s decided he simply can’t live without her, Benedict decides to blackmail Sophie. How sexy and fun! As I mentioned up top, stories about blackmail aren’t out of the question for me, but they need to be before the characters are in love, part of the seemingly impossible circumstances the couple is trying to overcome.

So…yeah. If I wasn’t already halfway in love with Colin, who mercifully gets the next book, I would consider quitting the series, but…..COLIN.

TW: attempted rape, also Quinn still seems to have some weird weight/appearance stuff happening? ugh.

Bunny – Mona Awad


Samantha Mackey, our narrator and protagonist, is lonely and frustrated in her MFA fiction writing program. She has writer’s block, her advisor is avoiding her, and oh right, the other members of her cohort are four sickly-sweet, sycophantic women who all call each other ‘Bunny.’ She has one friend outside of the program, but she spends most of her time in claustrophobic workshops, talking at length about “The Body,” among other MFA buzzwords. But then she’s invited to join the clique, and everything changes, by which I mean SHIT GOES ABSOLUTELY WILD.

The amount of times I screeched or gutturally whispered, “fucking WHAT” while reading this probably can’t be quantified in human numbers. Just a heads up, this book gets gory, but in a very prettified way? It has a very unique tone, and unique relationship to ~reality~, which took awhile for me to adjust to. If you’re a “fairytales made dark” person, this is DEFINITELY the book for you, and if you aren’t this book might turn you into one. Awad’s language and imagery are incredibly rich and I hope she keeps writing more fucked-up stories for me to read. (She’s also written another novel called 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, which I haven’t read yet but have heard great things about.)

If, like me, you get to the end of this and IMMEDIATELY need to hear people talk about it, this episode of The Librarian Is In discusses it in spoilery detail, and also Maris Kreizman interviewed Mona Awad on The Maris Review, which isn’t spoilery but which I definitely understood more after having read the book.

Okay! I hope no one tries to engage you in Decade Discourse!!

best of 2019

Whew. Y’all this year has wiped me out, and this fall in particular. I really really hope to get back into my weekly groove in 2020, but until then really all I have left for this year is my ‘best of’ list, and unlike last year I think I’m just going to straight up list them and not add anything but links to where I initially talked about them. I also made a fun picture because that seemed cool:

These are only in the order in which I read them, and most of them didn’t actually come out in 2019:

  1. Rainbirds – Clarissa Goenawan
  2. Children of Blood and Bone – Tomi Adeyemi
  3. Men We Reaped – Jesmyn Ward
  4. We Are Never Meeting in Real Life – Samantha Irby
  5. White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Race – Robin DiAngelo
  6. The Door – Magda Szabó
  7. A Scandalous Deal – Joanna Shupe
  8. America Is Not the Heart – Elaine Castillo
  9. Parable of the Sower – Octavia E. Butler
  10. Home Fire – Kamila Shamsie
  11. So You Want to Talk About Race – Ijeoma Oluo
  12. The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo – Taylor Jenkins Reid
  13. Intercepted – Alexa Martin
  14. Dread Nation – Justina Ireland
  15. Jane and Prudence – Barbara Pym
  16. Doomsday Book – Connie Willis
  17. Parable of the Talents – Octavia E. Butler
  18. Furious Love: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and the Marriage of the Century – Sam Kashner & Nancy Schoenberg
  19. Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower – Brittney Cooper
  20. Zami: A New Spelling of My Name – Audre Lorde
  21. How to Write an Autobiographical Novel – Alexander Chee
  22. Evvie Drake Starts Over – Linda Holmes
  23. The Wedding Party – Jasmine Guillory
  24. The Reckonings – Lacy M. Johnson
  25. Friday Black – Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
  26. The Last Thing He Wanted – Joan Didion
  27. The Governess Game – Tessa Dare
  28. Mostly Dead Things – Kristen Arnett
  29. Fleishman is in Trouble – Taffy Brodessor-Akner
  30. Red at the Bone – Jacqueline Woodson
  31. Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger – Rebecca Traister
  32. The Viscount Who Loved Me – Julia Quinn
  33. The Water Dancer – Ta-Nehisi Coates
  34. Goodbye, Vitamin – Rachel Khong
  35. Give Me Your Hand – Megan Abbott

Okay folks, that’s all for me for this year. Stay safe, stay warm, stay reading.

not a clean slate; 12.17.19

I don’t know how many times I can say “this fall has really eaten my lunch” but DAMNIT THIS FALL HAS EATEN MY LUNCH. I’m honestly very tired and every time I skip a week of this blog it means I have double the books to talk about for next week and if my books from the last two weeks weren’t so compelling I might honestly consider yelping “CLEAN SLATE” and pretending they didn’t exist. But! Fortunately/Unfortunately for me….most of them were fantastic and one of them wasn’t fantastic in such fascinating ways that I simply must speak on it.

So, deep breaths….and diving….

In at the Deep End – Kate Davies

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….see what I did there?

Julia, our protagonist, starts the book determined to end her 3 year ~dry spell~, which leads to a discovery that she much prefers women to men. She thusly embarks on a journey of not just sexual awakening, but awakening into community and purpose. The book is very funny and insightful; I had several cackles and several “oh SHIT” moments. Structurally it does wander a bit and didn’t quite seem able to effectively tie together all the plot threads it was trying to, but it’s very entertaining and touching and quite sexual* all at the same time, which is a difficult chord to strike and I’d love to read more of Davies’ work in the future.

*A quick couple notes before I move on to one of the heavier aspects of the book: this book does include some *ahem* visceral sexual descriptions, including several forms of kink. Separately, I wouldn’t say this book quite takes an uncharitable view of polyamory, but it’s not particularly charitable either, so if that’s something that might bother you, be aware!

Trigger warning: emotional abuse, self-harm

The book teeters on whether the relationship between Julia and Sam, her first girlfriend, is abusive or “merely” “toxic.” To be clear, what I mean by this is that I strongly come down on the side of it being abusive — Sam frequently gaslights and attempts to control Julia, intentionally isolates her from friends and family, and clearly manipulates her. To me, that’s textbook abuse. And I think the narrative mostly agrees with me, but there are a couple moments near the end that subtly undermine that agreement. [Also, I’ve gained a lot from the Dear Prudence podcast, hosted by Daniel Lavery, where he frequently talks about our societal tendency to use the word ‘toxic’ without any grounded definition. I love the podcast and I’ve learned a lot from it and I highly recommend!]

Royal Holiday – Jasmine Guillory

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2019 may have been trash in many ways, but we did get TWO Jasmine Guillory books in one year, so there’s some redemption! This book features Vivian Forest, the charming mother of Maddie from The Wedding Party, as she accompanies Maddie on a last minute work trip to England to style an unnamed-but-certainly-definitely-Meghan-Markle royal for her Christmas events. While she’s there, Vivian — who has been prioritizing her family and work over romance for a long time — meets and falls for the Queen’s private secretary, Malcolm Hudson.

As with all Guillory books, this one was absolutely delicious. The plot did feel a bit less built out than her other books, and this is probably just a personal preference but the ‘holiday fling that turns into something more serious’ trope kind of stresses me out, but I will never pass up an opportunity to spend more time in Guillory’s world of kind, funny people trying their best and thoughtfully examining the roles love and work play in our lives.

The Testaments – Margaret Atwood


Holy unnecessary sequel, Batman!! I can’t think of a gentle way to start talking about this book, so what I’ll say is this book is what might happen if someone took a hard long look at what really worked well about The Handmaid’s Tale and said “okay but what if we did the opposite of that?” A thing you should understand about this book is that it’s much less a sequel to the 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale than it is a companion novel to the Hulu adaptation show The Handmaid’s Tale, and as such has a whole bunch of corniness, confusing world-building, and hard hitting questions that no one was asking, such as “what if Aunt Lydia was good, actually?” This book is what would happen if the author of a revolutionary text about the natural result about white supremacy and rape culture started standing with a colleague accused of sexual harassment

What I will say for the book is that Atwood remains a skilled and engaging writer, capable of making even a deeply flawed narrative feel alive. This is going to sound dark, but I think both this book and the show are too invested in hope. I’ve stopped watching the show because I lost patience with it, but they’re both insistent on chronicling the beginning of the end of Gilead, which puts its longevity at oh, about 20 years, which makes it seem like an extreme blip rather than part of history’s long arc of white supremacy and misogyny. 

tw: sexual assault, suicide

Goodbye, Vitamin – Rachel Khong

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Somehow this book was exactly the right thing I needed to read in the middle of a hectic schedule darkened by some winter blues. Not only is it a short book, it’s written in journal-style vignettes, chronicling the protagonist’s year of moving into her parents’ house at age 30 to assist in the care of her father. Ruth is still dealing with the breakup of a relationship she had wrapped her life around when her mother asks her to move home for a year. Her father has Alzheimer’s, and the book tenderly follows Ruth through the year as she both deepens and re-examines her relationship with her parents and brother.

It has a generous and observational sense of humor and takes an exquisite shift about a third of the way through. I do think it could have used about 50 more pages, because there was imbalance to me between the first half of Ruth’s year and the second half. However, through incredible skill on Khong’s part, a truly sparse number of pages feels like you’ve read much more than that, but in a good way. It doesn’t feel tiresome, it feels like you’ve known these characters for as long as they’ve known each other and care about them almost as much as they care about each other. 

Give Me Your Hand – Megan Abbott


I love, love, love a Megan Abbott book. Her writing is twisty and intense and thoughtful and page-turning. What makes reading her even better is that I discovered my love for her on the recommendation of my local librarian when I was in high school. While her depictions of teenage girls were not reflective of my own experiences, they sparked a love of suspense and twisty characters.

This book is her latest (from 2018) and examines the connection between two women when they’re teenagers and when they’re in their late 20s. It’s about ambition and secrets and friendship and envy and I almost don’t want to say more about it. Abbott knows how to turn a story on its head halfway through, and though a couple of the turns felt almost predictable, their consequences ripple in ways that stick with me more than a typical “gotcha!” might.

Also, Abbott created a spotify playlist for this book and it’s PERFECT and I’ll probably listen to it way more. ALSO also, there’s an adaptation of Abbott’s book Dare Me coming out on USA later this month and it looks EXCELLENT. This adaptation has been in various stages of development for years and I’m so excited that it’s finally happening. 

tw: suicide

That’s all for me! Next week I’m just putting out a list of my favorite books from this year and that’s all she wrote! Feel free to get in contact, via email or twitter or wherever if you’re seeking book recommendations for the coming holidays because that’s one of my greatest joys in life! Toodle loo!