Last year, I decided I would go big with my reading goal for the year: 65 books. I’m pretty sure I reached it by August. So, this year, I decided to go even bigger: 100 books. I’d say I’m off to a pretty good start with the 13 books I read this month.
I finally got around to reading “The Sentence,” which had been on my TBR list since I picked it up at the cutest bookstore in LA (Lost Books) when my sister and I were down there in November for the BTS concert, and it set a tremendously high bar. Luckily for me, however, the rest of my reading list really didn’t let me down. The rest of the month was primarily full of the fantastical (“Cemetery Boys,” “Six Crimson Cranes,” “What the Fang,” “The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina”) and the creepy (“Tender is the Flesh,” “Velvet is the Night”), with some other tremendous reads thrown in there, too.
- Cemetery Boys (5)
- The Sentence (4.5)
- Six Crimson Cranes (4.5)
- Tender is the Flesh (4)
- Olga Dies Dreaming (4)
- The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina (4)
- Velvet Was the Night (4)
- A Tiny, Upward Shove (4)
- What the Fang (4)
- A Fate of Wrath and Flame (3.5)
- Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows (3.5)
- Her Name is Knight (3.5)
- Lovelight Farms (3)
“The Sentence” by Louise Erdrich — 4.5/5
I got hooked by the front flap mention of a ghost haunting a bookstore and, having never read anything by Louise Erdrich before, was expecting something much quirkier than I got, but what I got was so captivating and wonderful that I’m much happier to have gotten this version of the book than the one I thought I was getting.
This book marries so many big ideas brilliantly, especially in its use of the literal and the figurative. There’s an actual specter hanging around the bookstore, but there’s also the specter of the unknown looming with the pandemic. There’s an actual haunting, but there’s also the haunting atmosphere of 2020 and the haunting by our fears and our pasts. The idea of isolation — in prison and in the pandemic — is played with, as is the idea of ghosts (real versus regrets; do we believe in them, do we all have them?). Erdrich has also created an interesting take on magical realism, combining the magical (the ghosts and other spiritual aspects of the book) with a harsh reality (the pandemic, the BLM protests, addiction issues, etc.). And, of course, there are so many entendres of “the sentence,” which unravel slowly and wonderfully over the story.
The characters really are the heart of the book. They’re all captivating — I’d read 400 more pages on any and all of them — and all have such different experiences. You feel both like you know them so well and will never know enough about them. That’s incredibly rare to find in a book. I found that the story slowed but never lagged; Erdrich’s prose kept everything singing. It was a little jarring reading this book while we’re still in the middle of the pandemic (and another surge, at that), and I found myself uncomfortable reminiscing on everything that’s happened over the past few years. It’s a challenging read, for sure, but that’s the beauty of it, I think. You have to stop and think about the way indigenous people are devoured by the world and its prevalent white narratives. You have to think about forgiveness and our understanding of those we love — and whether we can truly move on from our past. The book is chock-full of interesting questions and deep reflections that make you grapple with your reality and your place in this world, and that’s quite a beautiful thing.
This book is many things: a hauntingly beautiful ghost story, an all-too-realistic and demanding pandemic novel, a relatable story of people who are just trying to figure out who they are and who they want to be — and a books-I-now-want-to-read list.
“The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina” by Zoraida Córdova — 4/5
What a magical story. The setting is lush, the characters are intriguing, and the prose is beautiful. The book truly pulls you in with its warm and inviting vibes, and you’ll keep reading because of the wonderful storytelling. I fell absolutely in love with what I was reading. Things in the book are fanciful — but they’re deep. And there’s a wonderful dichotomy of the new world (and its practicality) and the old world (and its magic). There are more contrasts, too: the book is delightful, but it’s about survival; there are fantastical elements, but the tension and fraught-ness of the family drama are so real.
At the core, this book is about family and forgiveness and the places we come from. It’s about roots. Over the course of the story, we get to see this yearning for understanding and a place as we watch the characters mature and harden and change in front of our eyes. They’re complex characters who are hard and soft, prickling and inviting. Everything Zoraida Córdova writes about these people feels so real, because we can find ourselves in any one of them, and we know their yearnings so well.
It feels weird to say I loved the first half of this book more than the second half, because the action all comes later in the story. But where I think Córdova did such a masterful job of creating an atmosphere that enveloped me, the latter part of the book wobbled and lost me some. The seven-year time shift was a bit jarring. Death in the story comes with almost shocking ease. Near the end, things felt like they dragged on almost for the sake of increasing page count, and I had to stop myself from skimming and going ahead. The once-impressive characters seemed weak, and the evil didn’t quite seem evil enough.
I’m nitpicking. I loved the first half so much and found myself a little disappointed when the second half didn’t quite live up to my expectations. Still, this is a delightful book, and I wanted to wrap myself up in it. The setting alone makes it a worthy read, and this is a book I know will last with me for quite some time.
“Tender is the Flesh” by Agustina Bazterrica — 4/5
WTF did I just read? This novel is horrifying and sickening and vile — and utterly fascinating. It’s nauseating. It’s brutal.
Agustina Bazterrica has written a horrifying and important condemnation of our society of consumption in all of its sickening glory. She’s written about people getting their pound of flesh — literally. About infections of the mind. About the savagery of our kind and the depths of depravity people will go to to comfort themselves and explain away their actions. And Bazterrica’s terse, emotionless writing style keeps you unsettled and drives the barbaric point of the novel home in spectacular (and frightening) fashion. The atmosphere gets more and more revolting with every page. And the ending will have you questioning everything you just read.
This book truly is a triumph of style and terror. This is not a fun book; it’s unfathomably difficult to read and (SO) twisted in every single possible sense. But it’s a good book.
Now, I’m off to the grocery store to buy 17 blocks of tofu so that I never have to look at meat ever again.
“Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows” by Balli Kaur Jaswal — 3.5/5
Well, I’m never going to look at ghee the same!
At its core, this is a warm-hearted story with color abounding — in the characters, in the setting, in the writing. Everything is dynamic. The book truly has a wonderful cast of characters, and they make it easy and enjoyable to read along, even as you tackle more complicated topics (such as the cost of both tradition and modernity) and emotions (such as grief and fear). I do think the book suffers a bit from not quite having a consistent tone; as playful as the story is at times, it tackles some deeper and scarier topics — and I think Balli Kaur Jaswal got a little heavy-handed with some of the more dangerous aspects and never quite figured out how to write those scenes. Still, I found some of the mystery and the discussion around them to be an interesting and important addition, I just wish everything had been incorporated more smoothly.
I really enjoyed how this novel took on some of the “forgotten” characters in society and gave them room to sing. People are complex, and Jaswal did a wonderful job of showing that, especially as the characters tried to navigate incredibly complex social and cultural issues. This book is about finding pleasure in life (in all sorts of creative ways!) and learning who you are and what you want. And that’s something we all should strive to figure out — no matter what stage of life we’re in.
“Lovelight Farms” by B.K. Borison —3/5
This book is sugar and spice and everything nice… but there isn’t really much to it beyond the initial sugar rush. Don’t get me wrong, it’s very cute. It’s a wonderfully cozy read with adorable characters and an idyllic relationship. It’s just that nothing really happens in the novel — other than our couple being cute, of course. Things take a while to get to get going, and the issues that arise in the book get explained away far too easily. Some of the surrounding details (about our characters, the setting, the timeline, etc.) seem somewhat hazy, too. Still, Stella and Luka are downright precious together, and this book was full of all the fuzzy and warm feelings I need during a winter read.
“Velvet Was the Night” by Silvia Moreno-Garcia — 4/5
Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s books are all very different, but they have one thing in common: I love them all.
This book deftly tackles a hard topic — la Guerra Sucia and El Halconazo — in a way that educates those who know nothing about it and gives those who are familiar with it a personification of the evils of the time period. Moreno-Garcia has given us a horror story cleverly disguised as a mellow noir novel. It’s tightly written, and the language/style does a great job of indicating the simmering tension. Despite all the different happenings in the story — Russians and journalists and secret police, oh, my! — the plot never comes across as complicated as all the different threads are neatly and cleverly woven together.
The characters here are interesting, too; they’re the heart of the story. In a less deft hand, they could come across as unlikable, but Moreno-Garcia has imbued them with such wonderful, detailed characterizations that you find yourself wanting them to succeed. Maite feels knocked down by life, and her only companions are her parakeet and the romance comics she obsessively reads. Her dreams of living an interesting life have her making up wild stories about a pretend love life to tell a coworker and stealing little trinkets from apartments. Elvis is an old soul with a learning disability who has found himself acting as a thug. But he abhors violence, and he really just wants to learn new words and listen to rock ’n’ roll. These are two (very) lonely souls who find themselves stuck in their current situations while desperately seeking validation and adventure and a better life.
I have no idea what genre Moreno-Garcia will tackle next, but you better believe I’ll be reading it.
“Six Crimson Cranes” by Elizabeth Lim — 4.5/5
I would’ve read at least 500 more pages of this book. It’s an absolute delight. It’s engrossing and adventurous and wonderful. Elizabeth Lim has woven quite the spell; she’s given us a spectacular tale that refuses to be forgotten. I loved the characters endlessly, and I would kill to be transported into the magical world Lim has built. The mythology is *chef’s kiss*. Just about everything in this book is a triumph. I couldn’t put it down (hence why I’m writing this review at 3:18 am).
My only hesitation (and it’s not a big enough one to deter me from recommending this book to just about everyone I know) comes with some of the exposition of the magic and its rules. Around page 400, one of the characters says, “slow down… I don’t understand,” and that’s kind of how I felt. When I got to the end of the book as some of the big plot points started to unravel, I was just rolling with everything without really understanding what was happening. It was a wild and fantastical journey, but I didn’t entirely understand how we got to our final destination.
The thing about this book is that even without being able to grasp everything, Lim’s characters and their story and the way it’s told is good enough to overcome that. I found this to be, quite simply, a magical read, and I’ll be waiting with bated breath for the next book just so I can slip into this wonderful world with its fantastic characters once more.
“Cemetery Boys” by Aiden Thomas — 5/5
Who needs a one-genre book when you could read “Cemetery Boys” and get about seventeen genres in one? Aiden Thomas’ book has so many amazing layers to it — it’s a fantasy and a mystery and a romance and a coming-of-age novel all wrapped-up in 344 pages — and you won’t want to put it down.
The way Thomas parses a complicated landscape is beautiful. It’s both heartbreaking and hopeful as Yadriel navigates his world and tries to figure out the difference between his identity and his purpose. But you’re happy to be along on the journey every step of the way. The book is so good at depicting a family relationship where, even though they love each other, they still hurt each other. Everyone is trying to figure everything out. And it’s hard. The topics covered, too, are challenging — things such as the LGBTQ+ experience, racism, poverty, deportation — but they’re tackled with aplomb.
As wonderful as the writing is and as fun as the plot is, it’s the characters who make this book sing. Yadriel, Julian, and Maritza, in particular, give this book near-endless amounts of emotion. They’re the reason this book has heart. But the side characters offer this book so much, too; they’re immensely well-developed and provide this novel with oodles and oodles of depth. The setting also adds an extra dimension, because it’s so energetic that it really gives this book a pulse. The book drags just a tiny bit toward the end, but I was happy to be in this world with these characters for as long as possible.
If you can read this book without a smile on your face: seek help.
“Olga Dies Dreaming” by Xóchitl González — 4/5
As soon as I read the first chapter, I knew I was going to like this book. It introduced Olga in such an irreverent and darkly humorous way that I was hooked. And that humor and wonderful characterization continued throughout the rest of the book. Olga and Prieto, in particular, really shine, but Matteo and Lola and Mabel (and on and on) have distinct personalities. And the characterization is cleverly done, with you getting a chance to see the characters (warts and all — and there are plenty of them) from the perspectives of the others involved. It’s clever, and it allows for a more complete picture of the people you’re reading a book about.
I really liked how, with Olga and Prieto, Gonzalez gave us these two characters who, on the outside, look glamorous (the wedding planner and the congressman) but who, on the inside, are gritty and real and massively imperfect. There’s this kind of nuanced humanity that I think was really successful in this book. And that style (the gritty and the pretty) carries over into the style of the book, where Gonzalez’s breezy writing style is tempered by serious concepts, such as Puerto Rico and its struggle for statehood or independence.
The book hit a bit of a lull with about 100 pages to go (a bit of a shame, because I was desperately hoping for something to take my mind away from the absolute dud of a football game between the Niners and the Packers); I think some of that had to do, for me, with the front flap summary. Based on what was written there, I kept waiting for Olga and Preto’s mother to show up in New York, and… she was nowhere to be found. With their mother, Blanca, it wasn’t so much as her “barreling back into their lives” as it was that she was a constant specter, haunting them from who knows where. Some of the happenings at the end with Olga and the most unlikable of unlikable characters felt gratuitous, but I understand the point Gonzalez was trying to make with it. I didn’t like it, but I see where she was coming from. And the ending as a whole didn’t feel entirely believable — the good guys actually sorta win against the dirty money in politics!? — but it makes for a more enjoyable read, that’s for sure.
There are many different aspects to this book, but I think, if you boil everything down and strip away all the bells and whistles, Xochitl Gonzalez has written a really stark and interesting look at the American Dream — what it actually is, what it’ll actually take to achieve it, and who is actually entitled to it. The thoughts and ideals raised and talked about in this book are ones that should — and will — linger.
“A Fate of Wrath & Flame” by K.A. Tucker — 3.5/5
This is one of my sister’s absolute favorite recent reads, so here’s me finally (!!) reading it for some big sister brownie points.
I liked this a lot. The book has a fun and engaging storyline that moves along rather nicely, an intriguing and well-built-out world, and characters who are interesting and developed. Oh, and the romance between Romy and Zander is definitely a high point of the book. (Give me a good enemies to lovers and you’ll have my whole heart and soul.) The idea behind the plot — a character from another world is thrust into the body of her doppelgänger — was clever, because we’re learning about the world and its secrets at the same time our main character is, so I never felt any frustration about the main character being ignorant and unaware like can be the case in other fantasy books. (It also helps because Romy can put things in terminology that readers, who come from the same time period as her, can easily understand.)
(Here’s where I hope you don’t hate me, Clare!) The writing style held me back from completely and utterly loving this book. The language often came across as over-written, which made it hard for me to really get into the book. I also wish there was less info dumping and more of the reader being allowed to figure things out for themselves. Let’s just say K.A. Tucker doesn’t do subtlety particularly well. I felt like Tucker was hitting me over the head with some of her hints and foreshadowing rather than allowing me to puzzle secrets out myself. Like, yes, I know conversations between two shady characters are bad. I don’t need to be told 37 different times. It all felt heavy-handed. I also think the book should have been streamlined some, which would have created more tension and interest.
This book does also give me some pause, because it shares a lot of similarities with “From Blood and Ash” (like, a lot a lot). I understand there are templates authors tend to follow with fantasy books (the title here is a perfect example of that!), but the characters had a lot of similarities and ideals, and the monsters and gods here were very to the ones in the other series.
I don’t think this book breaks any molds, but I think it shines enough with its characters and its world and its romance that it doesn’t especially need to. It’s a straight-forward book, but it’s a good one. There’s intrigue and back-stabbing and prophecies and sword-fighting (and did I mention the enemies to lovers, cause…!) — and what more could you want? I was left with enough questions that I’ll definitely be picking up the second book in the series to see how everything is going to play out.
“Her Name is Knight” by Yasmin Angoe — 3.5/5
You know that TikTok sound that’s all “I support women’s rights, but more importantly, I support women’s wrongs”? Yeah, that’s how I feel about this book. A read featuring a badass female assassin with a secret heart of gold and scores to settle? I’m sold.
Nena Knight is a survivor. Her past is full of monstrous evils (please, please, please check trigger warnings before reading this book!), but she’s still standing. And not even that, she’s thriving. When her past rears its ugly head, she’s more than ready to face it head-on. With Nena, Yasmin Angoe has created a richly developed and quite fascinating character who you find yourself rooting for from the first page.
This is a really solid read. It moves along at a nice clip, and the two timelines — Nena’s past and her now — are woven together seamlessly. My tension levels were definitely raised as I was reading this book, and I was never bored. I just wish the book somehow had a little more oomph, one final punch that would have made this a standout read. Maybe that’s because the book covers some seriously cruel subject matter with so much suffering and awfulness that it was hard-to-stomach at times? I’m not really sure. I just know that, for me, this book could have used some additional zing and impact.
I wish Nena’s emotions were explored more in the “after” sections when the POV switches to third-person (her characterization is so, so good in the first-person POV “before” sections), which I think could have added some emotional depth to the climax of the story. And I wish Nena had taken a bit more of an active role in her revenge — it seemed like things were happening to her and forcing her hand more than she was exacting her revenge herself. And, while I liked the characters’ romance, it felt forced and unbelievable given the timeline.
I’m mightily impressed with the humanity Angoe managed to put into this book. It’s truly a heart-wrenching read packaged as a high-octane thriller. The emotions here are deep and well-captured. This book was a fast and fun read, and I’m really looking forward to see how this series develops. We need more books about badass female assassins and their wrongs, after all.
“What the Fang” by Stacey Kennedy — 4/5
Spooky Season is definitely more of a mentality than an actual time of year, and this book shows just why that is! This is a fun and flirty read — with all sorts of wicked deliciousness.
Stacey Kennedy does a wonderful job of getting you into the world and catching you up on its mythology and happenings quickly. The rest of the book is tightly written, and, while the dialogue and characterization is abundant, nothing ever feels excessive. All the scenes are set well — without ever diving into over-loquaciousness. Perhaps the best part of the book is how, these 198 pages, you really grow to care about the characters; they’re vibrant and quirky and real. Plus, there’s a miniature-sized pet dragon, which, alone, is worth the price of admission.
As much as I was loving where things were going in this book, it almost felt like the end came too soon and surprised even the author. The climax felt a little fast, and the romance felt a tad overwrought (mostly in relation to its depth). Still, this book is an engaging and quick read, and I’m really looking forward to seeing how this book develops into a whole series. The first book has already cast a spell on me!
Special thanks to NetGalley and Stacey Kennedy for proving me with an ARC of this book in exchange for my honest review.
“A Tiny Upward Shove” by Melissa Chadburn — 4/5
I made a mistake when I first picked up this book, and that was deciding I could read it while absolutely exhausted and waiting for the women’s Australian Open final to finally start (go, Ash Barty!). I decided I was being unfair to the story — this sounded exactly like the kind of book I’d love and deserved more than a half-awake reader — so I decided to give the book another go the next day with a fresh start. And I’m so, so glad I did, because this was a tremendous read. It’s a slow book that needs to be savored, not a book you can power through while your eyelids are demanding to close and your brain feels a bit fuzzy.
The storyline in this book is brilliant; threads are woven together elegantly. And all the (heartbreaking) happenings are talked about unflinchingly. It’s not an easy book to read, but it’s not meant to be. The topics covered here are hard, but they’re real. And the whisper of mythology in the background adds to a haunting sense — both by the aswang, a creature from Filipino folklore, and what’s happening to the characters inside these pages. Everything is rough and vulgar and falling apart, but it’s written about in such beautiful fashion, which almost makes what’s happening worse. It creates intricacies to the mundane.
As much as I was able to really get into the book, it still took me a little time to do so on my second start. Once I was about 15 percent of the way through, I found a rhythm, and some of the issues I was having with the writing no longer bothered me. In general, I think I had a love-hate relationship with some of the writing. (Well, maybe more like love-dislike.) There were times I was left stunned by Melissa Chadburn’s writing — its musicality, its boldness, its almost onomatopoeia-like energy — but there were other times I felt like I could skip two pages of prose and not really miss much of the story. Some brilliant writing felt bogged down by six other very good lines, which lessened some of the impact for me. It feels weird to say a book was overwrought with beautiful language and imagery, but this occasionally felt like the case.
This book is jam-packed with heart and longing, and the languid and descriptive writing does well to create an atmosphere that matches the plot. There’s an interesting sense of timelessness, which makes it clear that this book could really be written at any point in our history. These struggles are human and are happening all around us — and they’ll continue to do so with the broken societal structures in place. This is a heart-rending tale of life and all its ugliness, but it’s also a beautiful story of family and humanity.
Special thanks to NetGalley; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; and Melissa Chadburn for proving me with an ARC of this book in exchange for my honest review.