This month was a productive but messy one, because I made two big mistakes: I joined NetGalley and started requesting ARCs like crazy, thinking I’d get approved for maybe one or two (not nine million); and I finally got a library card (which I can use with my Kindle account), and all my loan requests got approved all at once. Of course, on top of that, a friend recommended the “Broken Earth” series, and I fell in love with it and had to devour every page as quickly as possible. All that to say I felt like I was reading like a madwoman.
The three N.K. Jemisin books were certainly the high point of the month — her world building is absolutely insane, and the happenings in this series are thought-provoking and vivid. I felt trendy reading “The School for Good Mothers” and “Black Cake,” (thanks, Libby app), and I can’t wait for “The Wolf Den” and “Portrait of a Thief” to be released so I can make everyone I know read them.
- The Fifth Season (5)
- The Stone Sky (5)
- The Obelisk Gate (4)
- The Wolf Den (4)
- The School for Good Mothers (4)
- Razorblade Tears (4)
- Portrait of a Thief (4)
- Somebody’s Daughter (4)
- Hook, Line, and Sinker (4)
- Black Cake (3.5)
- On Rotation (3.5)
- Rules of Arrangement (3.25)
- Marrying the Ketchups (2)
“Rules of Arrangement” by Maren Mackenzie — 3.25/5
It felt almost shockingly easy to slip into this book. From the first chapter, I felt quite the pull to get me to keep reading and not stop, so I did just that and devoured every page. The book is immensely compelling, and the academia vibes in the setting and its atmosphere were wonderful. Give me an ivy-covered school and a high-end art world, and I’m pretty much sold. The plot is fun and engaging, and the pacing was very well-done. I was never bored.
But… I’m not so sure how I felt about the characters. Adelaide was at times fascinating, but, at other times, she felt half-written. She’s an incredibly smart young woman who knows enough about a broad variety of topics to successfully write college papers for other students, but she’s somewhat dull in conversations and lets herself be manipulated by the men around her. I wished she had more agency. And then there were the “I’m-not-like-other-girls,” “I-don’t-know-I’m-beautiful” vibes that occasionally emanated from her. Adelaide also falls prey to the whole “hot-guy-with-nice-abs-is-interested-in-me-so-I-forget-everything-else-that’s-important-to me” trope, neglecting both her schoolwork (which she’s made her priority up until now) and her friends (who are the only people she can open up to).
At times, the romance between Adelaide and Jack — which I didn’t expect to take up so much of the story, but I’m not mad it did — was swoon-worthy and gave all the requisite butterflies. But, then, at other times, I’m not quite sure where their connection was coming from. I never really got a good sense of why Jack actually liked Adelaide. Why did they want to be together? To that end, I also felt like they weren’t given much of an ending together, and Adelaide wasn’t given one on her own; a lot is made about her future, and then the book ends rather abruptly.
I think more depth and understanding of character would have made me like this book a bit more, but I still definitely enjoyed reading it. Maren Mackenzie’s debut novel is richly interesting and well-plotted, it’s glamorous and intriguing. I’m looking forward to seeing what’s next from this author.
Special thanks to NetGalley, Marmack Books, and Maren Mackenzie for proving me with an ARC of this book in exchange for my honest review.
“Hook, Line, and Sinker” by Tessa Bailey — 4/5
Can we somehow discover a third Bellinger sister? Because after getting absorbed by Piper’s and now Hannah’s stories, I’m desperate for more from these characters and this setting.
Hannah might just be the best character in this duology. She’s kind and smart and motivated, and she’s admirable in how she sees past what people try to show the world and into their hearts — and she loves what she finds there, no matter what. She’s not as glitzy and exciting as Piper, but Hannah is warmer and steadier and is the kind of person you want in your corner. Meanwhile, Fox is a fun and flirty complicated mess who could most definitely benefit from a good deal of therapy. But what would contemporary romance be without at least one character who is so caught up in their own head and with their own flaws that some professional help would be useful?
While I think I preferred these characters and their relationship to those in “It Happened One Summer,” this book could have used a tad more depth and some plot outside of Hannah and Fox’s relationship. It’s fun being caught up in their world, but it gets just an eensy bit claustrophobic when most of the book takes place in Fox’s two-bedroom home. I wish that more happened in the book and that we got more time with the setting and other characters we met in the prior book. I did, however, like how Hannah and Fox aren’t idiots in love who don’t understand their feelings for each other; they’re just idiots in love who won’t act on them.
Yet again, Tessa Bailey has written a book that’s sickeningly adorable in the best possible way. The relationship is a wonderful mix of steamy and sweet, and reading this book gives you all the “ugh, I want that for myself” feelings you could dream of.
Special thanks to NetGalley, Avon Books, and Tessa Bailey for proving me with an ARC of this book in exchange for my honest review.
“Somebody’s Daughter” by Ashley C. Ford — 4/5
When one of your favorite Twitter follows writes a book, you read said book. I’ve read her writing elsewhere, but this book reminded me that Ashley C. Ford is a truly wonderful writer. She writes about her heartbreaking past unflinchingly, and her language is emotional and pulls at your heartstrings. Ford examines her life and spares no tragic detail, and her honesty in how she observes those happenings adds so much to these pages. Occasionally, it felt like the breezy tone she writes with and the short page number seemed at odds with all the serious subject matter tackled — rape, an incarcerated parent, abuse, etc. I wish some topics had been explored more; people and stories were sometimes left unresolved, so I felt unfulfilled. The breadth of what this book covers almost comes at the detriment of its depth, and I wish there had been more of a narrative thread woven throughout.
But none of that really hindered my reading experience. This book is powerful, and I ran the gamut of emotions reading this — rage, sorrow, love, pain, joy. I’ll continue reading Ford’s Twitter feed until she blesses us with another book.
“The Fifth Season” by N.K. Jemisin — 5/5
I definitely struggled to find a foothold in this book (and kept putting it down for a bit before trying to dive back into the story again), but I’m so glad I never permanently left this book alone. Once I really found my way into the story, I was astounded. N.K. Jemisin has given readers a sweeping and epic tale full of wonderful and interesting characters. The world-building is massive and vibrant and cleverly mirrors today’s society, and I’ve never seen anything like the way the threads of the three different storylines are neatly woven together. The writing is so deft and clever that you want to gorge yourself on it. Heck, Jemisin even made second person narrative work, and that in and of itself makes this book worthy of five stars. This is a story with a pulse — and lots of heart. I can’t wait to read what comes next in this series and see where the story takes me; based on this first book, I know it’s going to be somewhere good.
“The Obelisk Gate” by N.K. Jemisin — 4/5
The second book in the Broken Earth series masterfully picks up where “The Fifth Season” ended and seamlessly continues the narrative thread. “The Obelisk Gate” has the big task of fleshing out plot points and characters more, and it does that incredibly well as it also hints toward the larger picture and the final conclusion.
“Portrait of a Thief” by Grace D. Li — 4/5
When I was in high school, I was obsessed with the show “White Collar,” which is (mostly) about a con man/thief who teams up with an FBI agent to solve art crimes. It was glamorous and fun, and this book, when I saw its description, reminded me so much of the show I loved. I mean, this book’s description references “Ocean’s Eleven” right off the bat and calls the book a “heist novel.”
And… this book isn’t that; in fact, I think it’s almost a disservice to call it a heist novel. Don’t get me wrong, this is a very good book, and I truly enjoyed reading it. But I felt a little let down by its description and the way it’s been marketed. This is a book about homeland and birthrights, of past and future. It’s a book about who owns whose history — and what can be done to get it back where it ostensibly belongs. It’s a book about the diaspora, through the lens of five very different (and very interesting) characters. The heist is a tiny part of this book, and I wish I had known that going in.
You also have to suspend a good amount of disbelief when reading. You’re telling me that some horny college students without any experience are going to pull off arts heists in some of the most secure museums in the world — and they’re going to do so using Google Docs? I like to edit stories with mindless procedurals on in the background and can barely follow who has done what and how and why, yet I feel like I know more about getting away with a crime than these kids. Plus, there’s another crew introduced in the book that actually seems to be professional and well-funded and makes sense as a group to pull off these high-risk maneuvers; the instigator of the heists choosing these kids as their crew just looks puzzling in comparison. As much as I wish the heists hadn’t taken 0.2 seconds to read, I can’t really blame Grace D. Li for glossing over them, because I’m not sure there was actually much of a plan for them when she was writing this book.
But, if you can successfully roll with the idea that these five college students were chosen over pros, and you can see beyond the “heist novel” marketing, what you’ll find is a deeply intriguing and moving novel. Li’s novel is timely — the idea of Western museums displaying other countries’ history as a result of colonization and imperialism is being talked about frequently these days (see: the Parthenon marbles) — and the heart of this book is carried out well. The pacing is interesting, and I absolutely loved the way the characters were introduced and developed. They’re all interesting in their own way, as are their motivations for being involved in the heist, and I think the ensemble cast was a nice addition here. The writing is tight, but it’s also descriptive and elegant and interesting.
So no, this isn’t a heist novel. It’s a nuanced look at what “home” and “homeland” mean to five characters who come at it from five viewpoints. But in these pages is a beautiful story of longing, and there’s a powerful critique of Western societies that take and take and take. Li has written an interesting critique of the conquerors and the blood that was spilled to cause these ill-gotten spoils to be displayed in glass cases far, far away from where they belong. Because, overall, this book is about belonging. When I finished the novel, there was one line in particular that stuck with me: “It feels like home shouldn’t have to be this complicated.”
Special thanks to NetGalley, Dutton Books/Penguin Random House, and Grace D. Li for proving me with an ARC of this book in exchange for my honest review.
“Marrying the Ketchups” by Jennifer Close — 2/5
As Jennifer Close reminds us, family is complicated. And so are my emotions about this book. On the one hand, the writing is lovely, and this book is clearly an exemplar character study. On the other hand, all the characters are miserable, unhappy people, and not much happens in the book.
I felt exhausted by the book because of the people in it. Every character is just so passive in their life and is always complaining about something — or someone — or other, and it’s hard to tell if any of them actually like each other. Trust me, I totally get that family often drives you a special kind of insane, but family is also a source of so much love and happiness. And that latter part felt missing. Instead, we just get too many pages of people doing stupid things, justifying them, and then continuing the cycle. You then get caught up in the minds of these characters who are harsh and hard on themselves, and I found myself starting to get annoyed and dragged down alongside them. The book is ostensibly about a family running a restaurant, but the fact that it follows just three of the family members (the family tree at the start has 13 names) made me feel like there was a missing thread that would tie the whole family together.
The book is set in 2016 after the Cubs have won the World Series and after Trump’s election, and, while I loved the addition of the Cubs‘ win to the storyline, the Trump part felt forced. It came across like Close thought she had to put the election in there given the timeline, not that she wanted to. The reactions to the election didn’t really add much to the story other than to point out the whiteness of the characters and their actions. Maybe it just felt like there weren’t really any stakes for them with the election? One character even remarks on that, saying, “It’s not as bad as you think. Nothing is really going to change for us.” Yes, there’s mention of what this (horrid) election means and what the characters are going to do to protest it, but it’s mostly a sentence every once in a while, and the emotions never really feel explored. All the talk of Trump felt surface-level and shoehorned-in and very, very white.
I do feel like Close really understands her characters, and she did a wonderful job of differentiating them and of describing them in a well-rounded fashion. I didn’t like them much, but I definitely saw where they were coming from and why they were acting the way they were (even if they annoyed the pants off me). The writing in this book was also wonderfully done. Close has an easygoing and approachable writing style, which makes this a read you can slip right into. The writing never weighs you down, and there are some parts that are delightful.
Not all books are for everyone, and I’m bummed this one wasn’t for me. I love the title and the cover and was so excited by the description, but the characters just couldn’t redeem themselves for me. If you’re someone who really enjoys in-depth studies of flawed characters and nice writing, this book will be right up your alley. This book will, for better or worse, definitely make you feel like you’re part of the Sullivan clan — annoyances and grievances included.
Special thanks to NetGalley, Knopf Doubleday, and Jennifer Close for proving me with an ARC of this book in exchange for my honest review.
“On Rotation” by Shirlene Obuobi — 3.5/5
This book was a reminder that I shouldn’t read contemporary romance when I’m about to start my period, because my emotions get all gooey, and I feel painfully single. And, man alive, did the two main characters in this book make me realize that I didn’t have a special someone as I read this sprawled across my bed in ratty sweats and with way-too-oily hair.
Our two romantic leads, Angie and Ricky, have chemistry that leaps off the page, and I really enjoyed them both as a couple and as individuals. They’re flawed characters, but they come off as likable, and you’re definitely hoping the two figure things out. I wish Ricky had been a bit more developed; the first-person narrative from Angie’s POV makes it hard occasionally to see him as a fully realized individual and not a figment of his relationship to Angie. That narration style also sometimes came across as monologue-y, which is never my favorite. Angie and Ricky’s will-they, won’t-they, sometimes defined, sometimes undefined situationship was a bit hard to follow, and I occasionally got annoyed with the way things were playing out. Still, you rooted for the couple’s happily ever after.
It’s more than obvious in this book that Shirlene Obuobi knows what she’s talking about when it comes to the medical jargon, but she never gets you get bogged down in it. Instead, everything is approachable. Her conversational writing style and the book’s cheeky tone make this an easy book to move through. It also really adds to the characterizations, especially Angie’s (as we get her every unfiltered thought); you feel like you’re her best friend. Now, this is a weird thing to have an issue with, but I didn’t love all the asterisks in the book. Because I was reading an electronic copy of the book, the asterisks moved me to the back of the book only to then make me find my original place back in the text. Some of the asterisks related to defining fancy terminology, but others were dialogue and asides that could have easily been included in the text. Things might be different in a print copy of the book, but the constant flipping around for no really good reason grated on me.
I thought Obuobi tackled big issues with aplomb — such as the immigrant experience, implicit bias in medicine, challenging family situations, distrust in medical professionals. The heavy topics never took you out of the book because of the wonderful way Obouobi wrote about them, and everything furthered Angie’s journey. And Angie’s journey was most definitely an enjoyable one to be along for; you really care about her (and feel protective of her) and want her to get everything she desires. I think, largely because Angie is such an enjoyable character, this book has a wonderful heart to it and is a fun read — just, maybe, unlike me, don’t read it when you’re about to start your period if you, too, are single.
Special thanks to NetGalley, Avon and Harper Voyage, and Shirlene Obuobi for proving me with an e-ARC of this book in exchange for my honest review.
“The Wolf Den” by Elodie Harper — 4/5
After picking up Elodie Harper’s “The Wolf Den,” I thought I’d just read a few chapters before bed. Next thing I knew, I was two-thirds of the way through the book. Oops?
Harper’s approachable writing style is what, I think, kept me turning pages well into the night. Everything is neat and tidy, but she still does a very good job of setting the scene and creating an intricately woven plot with recognizable historical aspects (such as the city of Pompeii and Pliny the Elder). Sometimes the writing came across a tad too modern for a historical fiction novel, but it never takes you out of the story too much. The way Harper writes is candid and raw, and it adds a lot to the story. It’s hard to believe this is a debut novel.
This isn’t an especially fast-paced book, which is part of the reason I was surprised I couldn’t seem to put it down. It mostly relies on its characters to pull you into the story. And they certainly do! The women, in particular, in this novel are captivating. They’re all sex slaves trapped in a horrible situation, yet they’re so lively and so, so real in such different ways. Their vulnerability abounds, even as they’re basically living a life with an approaching expiration date. The she-wolves are all amazing — kind and bitter and strong and broken. With the main character, Amara, especially, the reader gets to be there as she processes all sorts of complicated emotions — pride, greed, shame, honor, jealousy, tenderness, love — and as she tries to exert some control over her own life in a situation where she has none. She starts off the book as a bit of an innocent (she’s smart and shrewd but not really about life), and she develops into a young woman who will do what it takes not to be beholden to anyone as she desperately grabs for any tendril of power in a society that wants to keep her powerless. That, however, comes with some guilt, the cost of doing what you have to do to survive at the cost of all those you’re leaving behind.
This isn’t an easy story to read, that’s for sure. But for every depravity these women suffer, there are moments of laughter and joy and love. The she-wolves suffer their indignities because of the bond they share and the love they have for each other (even though there’s still resentment to go around). The story ended fittingly, and I’ll be interested to read about Amara’s further development in the next two books in the trilogy. Maybe then I’ll remember to set a reading limit so I can actually keep my eyes open the next day.
Special thanks to NetGalley, Union Square & Co., and Elodie Harper for proving me with an e-ARC of this book in exchange for my honest review.
“The School for Good Mothers” by Jessamine Chan — 4/5
The scariest things in life aren’t the monsters that hide under your bed. The scariest things in life have a kernel of truth to them. And this dystopian, darkly satirical book has enough in common with today’s society to be terrifying.
The plot of “The School for Good Mothers” felt even more vivid for me after reading a recent story in New York magazine about a father spending years and years trying to regain custody of his son after Child Protective Services (CPS) massively mishandled his case and then placed the child with a wealthy family. And that story of CPS overreach and family separation is dramatized to the max here.
This is a frustrating book, but it’s supposed to be. I was tense the entire time I was reading it, and I had to take numerous breaks to look at cute videos of highland cows to calm down. I hated the situation in the book, and I hated the characters. Frida, our main character, is an overwhelmed single mother who leaves her 18-month-old daughter, Harriet, alone in an unlocked home for two hours while Frida goes to get coffee and pick up a file from her office. She’s drowning in dirty clothes and empty fridges and a filthy house, and she’s been diagnosed with depression but is no longer taking medication for it. She’s wishy-washy and pathetic and desperate for male attention; she never stands up for herself (e.g., she let her husband’s cheating stay out of divorce proceedings after he convinced her it would be beneficial to their child); and she seems content to let things happen to her. She never takes ownership of her actions — repeatedly referring to her child abandonment as just a “very bad day” — and really lives life in limbo. She’s drowning. It’s a testament to Jessamine Chan’s writing that, despite all that, while I didn’t like Frida, I felt for her.
The thing is, I didn’t just dislike Frida; I disliked every character in this book. Chan’s supporting characters are fascinating and horrible, too. Such as Susanna, the woman Frida’s husband had an affair with and who is now serving as a co-parent to Frida’s young daughter. While Frida is the “bad mother,” Susanna is ostensibly her foil. She’s the mother society says everyone should strive to be. Yet Susanna is awful, too — she’s a crystal-loving, anti-vax Pilates instructor who has decided baby Harriet shouldn’t be allowed sugar or carbs (until Harriet’s pediatrician says she’s getting too thin and needs gluten back in her diet). Susanna seems to use Harriet as an Instagram accessory. But she fits the perfect cookie-cutter mother mold; she’s peppy and wealthy and young and never has a hair out of place and gives lots of hugs and doesn’t have to — gasp — have a job or hire a babysitter. Susanna is the good kind of bad mother. Or maybe she’s the bad kind of good mother. Then there are the other mothers at the school with Frida, who are there because of varying spectrums of bad behavior and who, along with Frida’s unemotional immigrant mother, really give the book lots of different motherly archetypes.
As much as this book seems to be about anything, it seems to be a critique of today’s mom-shaming society where motherhood seems like a competition — and every mother is trying to “win.” You have to give the right kind of hugs, use the right kind of tone, play with the right kind of toys — all things taught at the school. Even the other women at the school with Frida who have done similarly bad things to their kids — and, in some situations, worse — mom-shame each other. And if you have a kid, you can only be a mother, not a woman and a mother. Of course, all the men in the book skate by. Frida’s ex-husband, Gust, is horrible, but no one cares, because he’s a man, and he’s allowed to do whatever he wants. At the neighboring rehabilitation school for bad fathers, the fathers are allowed more privileges than the mothers, such as never having their call privileges revoked, because it’s important they stay in their kids’ lives. As one character says of the fathers, “All they have to do is show up.”
Despite all my anger (as evidenced by the fact that my review for this book is about 400 words too long) and all the times I put this book down and desperately didn’t want to pick it back up, this is a wonderfully written book. Chan’s writing is clear and concise, and the fact that everything is written so unemotionally only drives your emotions higher. Everything within these pages is described coldly and starkly, but that really allows the reader to take everything in and form your own opinions. Chan never points out the horrors and absurdities, but you grasp them all the same.
This book will make you think that maybe motherhood is the scariest thing, after all.
“Black Cake” by Charmaine Wilkerson — 3.5/5
I’ve come to realize over my time spent in the kitchen that there are really two different kinds of bakers. The first type is me, the methodical baker, who weighs all the ingredients carefully and reads the recipe at least four times. The other type is my sister, the go-with-your-gut baker, who measures with her heart and guesstimates on quantities. The characters in Charmaine Wilkerson’s “Black Cake” have a similar revelation about the titular baked good — the recipe has no quantities or directions and relies on the baker’s instincts to make it turn out perfectly. The recipe does, however, have all the ingredients listed, which means it’ll be hard to make a truly bad cake, but doesn’t exactly mean it’ll be a perfect one, either. And that’s how I felt about this book; it had all the right components, but sometimes the execution wasn’t exactly there, and I didn’t find this book as tasty as I think it could have been.
I loved the inventive framing of the novel — after dying, a mother has her children listen to a recording she made explaining to them the sordid and sad truth about her life — and the way the layers to Eleanor’s story are slowly revealed is wonderfully done. Wilkerson has written a beautiful unraveling of the past with all its complicated details. There are interesting characters and plot points, too, and they made this an enjoyable read. But some of the exact things I loved about the book — the framing device, the narratives of the same events but from different characters — made it hard for me to really get into the book. The many interspersed narratives and characters and POVs seemed a little excessive, and the short chapters (and the sheer number of them) made it hard to find a rhythm. I never felt enveloped in the story, as much as I found it interesting. Engaging plot points quickly become repetitive, because we’re constantly rehashing them, and characters frequently express thoughts in the same vein. This book is certainly jam-packed with interesting elements and ideas, but it felt overloaded and wasn’t quite as cohesive as I think it maybe could have been.
The writing here is lush and lyrical and meant to be savored, and the storytelling is top-tier. Wilkerson has written a compelling and emotional family drama that we can all relate to as we think about our pasts, presents, and futures. It just feels that she went about writing this book by measuring with her heart and making the directions up as she went along, and there may have been some miscalculated quantities or missing steps. It’s a good cake, and you’ll happily eat a second bite, but you’re not sure you’d share a bite of the cake with Gordon Ramsay.
“The Stone Sky” by N.K. Jemisin — 5/5
A brilliant end to a brilliant series. Just… wow.
“Razorblade Tears” by S.A. Cosby — 4/5
There’s a 99.9 percent chance my resting heart rate was about 20 beats higher than normal as I was reading this book. “Razorblade Tears” is a high-octane book that never seems to take its foot off the gas pedal, and you’re just glad to be along for this wild ride every step of the way.
I’m not entirely sure what I was expecting going into this book, but I was left amazed by S.A. Cosby’s writing and imagery. It’s nothing short of wonderful, and some of the ideas and thoughts raised inside his pages are poignant. In Ike and Buddy Lee, Cosby has created characters I certainly won’t be forgetting any time soon. There is quite a bit of violence in this book — and, almost because of how excessive it felt at times, I found myself numb to it by the end and had to stop myself from skimming passages. And while the excessive homophobia is a huge part of the plot (as is the point about how wrong it is), the violence and hatred toward the LGBTQIA community is hard to stomach.
But as violent a book as this is, Cosby really shines when he writes tenderness and emotion. Ike and Buddy Lee are two angry fathers who will do anything to get revenge on those who killed their sons — but they’re also despondent fathers who are grappling with their inability to love every facet of their kids. So now they’re trying to show their sons how much they loved them in the only way they know how: by seeking retribution. At the end of the book, Ike and Buddy Lee are faced with a simple question: When everything is all said and done, in the end, does it matter more who your kid was or whether they were loved?
You’ll read this book for its action, and you’ll stick around because of the urgency in its pages, but you’ll remember it because of all the heartbreaking questions raised and the moments in between.