This was supposed to be a productive reading month. And then I had to finish a giant chunk of my ghostwriting project. And then my mom had hip surgery. And then TikTok finally gave me the ability to put my favorites into folders (yes, I did spend weeks organizing all 10,000 videos I had saved into distinct categories.) So… my big month turned into a grand total of seven books.
The thing is, three of the books I read in March might very well be my favorite books I’ve read this year — “The Love Song of W.E.B. Du Bois,” “The Night Circus,” and “The Death of Vivek Oji” — so this month ends up as a massive win. I finished “Love Song” while waiting for my mom to come out of surgery, and the book overwhelmed me. (In a good way.) It’s comprehensive and emotional — which, maybe isn’t the best when you start crying in a hospital waiting room and people start to try to comfort you. “Vivek Oji” is simple and heartbreaking and exquisite, and I’ll be thinking about that book for a long time. And “Night Circus” is basically just all vibes, no plot, but the vibes are tremendous, and I know the book has earned a place on my “comfort reads” shelf.
- The Love Song of W.E.B Dubois (5)
- The Night Circus (5)
- The Death of Vivek Oji (5)
- The Last Cuentista (4)
- A Far Wilder Magic (3.5)
- The Silence of the Girls (3)
- Sari, Not Sari (2)
“The Death of Vivek Oji” by Akwaeke Emezi — 5/5
The problem with the title of a book giving away exactly what’s going to happen is that you find yourself waiting with bated breath for the titular event to happen. And that’s the case with this book. You know Vivek Oji is going to die, and you still spend 248 pages falling hopelessly in love with him and his story.
Akwaeke Emezi has created a masterpiece. They’ve written an intimate book whose events are explored slowly through lingering moments of memory, which only makes the death of Vivek Oji that much more heartbreaking. While reading, I think my heart began pleading with my hand to stop turning the pages, because if I never got to the end of the book, these characters would live forever — and they do, but that’s because of the brilliant way Emezi has written them.
Emezi’s writing style is approachable but elegant, and their characterizations are unpacked over time so that you grasp a little more of each character every time they appear on the page. And Emezi’s way of describing things is so interesting; one of their characters talks about life being like playing in mud — as a kid, it’s slippery and fun, but then, as an adult, it dries on you and turns you into “an uneven block, chipping and sparking on the hard ground, tearing off into painful chunks.” The setting, too, is wonderfully done. You’ll feel like you’re walking down these roads and seeing the woman with her bright blue eyeshadow and are running your hands through Vivek’s hair. You’ll smell the bougainvillea and will feel the dusty-pink bedsheets. It’s amazing.
So while “The Death of Vivek Oji” does indeed involve a death, it’s really a book about so much more. It’s a story about a mother going mad with grief as she desperately tries to figure out what happened to her child and who they really were. It’s a story about identity and tenderness and understanding. So, yes, this is a story about death, but it’s also about belonging and being — and about life and love.
“The Night Circus” by Erin Morgenstern — 5/5
As a kid, whenever I couldn’t find someone in my family and asked my dad where that person was, he always answered, “They ran off to join the circus.” Growing up, that never made any sense to me — clowns are creepy, and the smell of (stale) peanuts is only entrancing for so long. Now, however, I have to admit Erin Morgenstern has made me understand the urge to pack up all my belongings, chase down those striped tents, and never leave.
I think I made it two pages into “The Night Circus” before deciding I wanted to live within this book. The smells waft off the page — apple cider and caramel corn and pine trees and something magical you can’t quite place — and the setting is lushly mysterious. The beguiling aesthetics of the book pull you in as you try to puzzle out for yourself what everything looks like, creating a miniature of the circus in your mind. There are candle-laden wishing trees and pools of tears and cloud towers, and you’ll want to experience every single aspect of the circus; because of the way the book is written, you do. There’s enough detail for the characters and the setting to hook you, but there’s also enough room for the reader to imagine things for themselves — Morgenstern’s own kind of magician’s trick. Everything within these pages is sumptuous and enchanting, and I felt bereft when I shut this book, knowing I was done with its story.
This is a slow novel where nothing much happens over and over again as the story is told in multiple and nonlinear POVs — and yet, everything happens. It’s a broad novel, but it feels intimate and cozy as it’s mostly contained to the circus. There’s also a certain illusion to the book; you can’t look too closely, or you’ll see some of the cracks in the story (the sinister aspects aren’t truly that sinister, there’s not much urgency to the tale, some of the emotional impact feels distant, etc.). But the slow unraveling of this tale — the heartbreaking consequence of a bet — tells a beautiful story that leaves the reader engrossed and feeling like it belongs to them. And as much as the magical setting seduces and dazzles, it’s the simple story of two magicians, Celia and Marco, who cast a spell over everything that happens in this book and over you, the reader.
So, if you ever can’t find me, it’s likely because I’ve run off to join the circus — a very specific one, at that.
“The Silence of the Girls” by Pat Barker — 3/5
There have been about 800 retellings of the myth of Achilles and the Iliad (and I’ve read just about every single one of them), so when I come across a book that promises to tell the story of the forgotten women in the tale, instead, you better believe I’m going to read it.
Unlike so many of the other mythological retellings of this tale, Pat Barker doesn’t glorify the war and its characters. I enjoyed her unflinching and unforgiving look at the Trojan War — war is war. Barker does a remarkable job of creating a vivid setting; she writes about the buzzing flies and the rubbish dumps and the myriad rats, and she writes about the horrors of war (such as pillaging and rape) particularly inflicted on these women who did nothing wrong except be not-Greek. It all serves as a reminder that the Trojan War wasn’t just wine in chalices and wonderful tapestries and beautiful golden men fighting in ornate armor and sandals and flexing their divinity.
But while I liked the idea behind the book — giving power to the voiceless and oft-overlooked women who suffer from war — I don’t think the execution quite works. My real issue is that while the book is called “The Silence of the Girls,” Barker seems to lose track of the story she’s trying to tell. A third of the book is told from Achilles’ POV, and the rest of the book makes it clear that this is still very much Achilles’ story. (I wondered, at one point, if the story would even pass the Bechdel test.) Barker also chooses to focus on one woman, Briseis, who, while a slave, is the former wife of a king and is Achilles’ “trophy,” so she’s treated better than a lot of the other women in the camps. (Natalie Haynes’ “A Thousand Ships” has a similar premise but achieves it from short chapters from all sorts of female POVs, which gives a fuller scope of the horrors of the war.) I didn’t develop much emotional attachment to any of the characters, which surprised me given the content and made the climax fall a bit flat. And for a story this rooted in ancient history, Barker’s modern writing style didn’t quite work for me, although it’s an interesting way to interpret the tale.
Overall, I just wished Barker had fleshed Briseis and the other women in the Greek camps out more, because there’s certainly ripe material there. Barker gets close to doing so but seems to shy away in search of the more recognizable tale. All in all, despite her title, Barker seems to inadvertently silence the girls herself.
“A Far Wilder Magic” by Allison Saft — 3.5/5
You know those dreams where everything is fantastical and vivid and engrossing? Those dreams you really never want to end? So much of this book felt exactly like one of those dreams.
The first thing that struck me about this book is how good the writing is. Allison Saft has created a truly beautiful setting full of incredible imagery — “rich, amethyst purple skies,” “skin dusted with silver,” etc. — and everything is so atmospheric that the descriptions just jump off the page and straight into your imagination. Saft’s two main characters, Margaret and Wes, are fully developed, and their intimacy and tenderness is a strong selling point for the book. You’ll love them, and your heart will break for them given their situations. They’re both so earnest — but they’re so naive (they both face discrimination because of their religion, so he wants to be a politician to change things; she just wants her (horrid) mother to come back so they can be a family once again). Their characterizations are close to brilliant (Wes amasses too many half-drunk coffee cups when he’s working and often forgets which one is fresh), and it doesn’t take long for them to burrow their ways into your heart.
But where some of the haziness created a kind of haunting atmosphere, the lack of details about the timeline confused me. Once you get about 40 percent of the way through the book, you find out this is supposedly taking place in 1918, but, before that, I was having trouble placing where in the (fantasy) world I was. I also wish some of the world-building was more thorough — the coded layers smack you in the face (one of the protagonists is essentially Irish, and the other is essentially Jewish, and both face the horrifying prejudices common in 1920s (and today, to be fair)), and the thinly disguised allusions felt a little lazy. Some of the details in the world, too, feel not entirely thought-out; $75 is supposedly gobs and gobs of money, but, in 1918 in the U.S., that would amount to about $1,400. Which, sure, is a lot of money, but I’m not sure I’d risk my life in a deadly hunt for a godly creature for it.
This is a languid novel — there’s not much sense of urgency, as the hunt takes up about three percent of the book while the rest of the book is just the lead-up — but it’s an engrossing one. Plus, it’s so beautifully written that it’s a joy to read. But, like any dream, some things are a little too hazy and just don’t quite make perfect sense.
“Sari, Not Sari” by Sonya Singh — 2/5
Unfortunately, the best thing about this book is its title.
The premise here has potential — an Americanized Indian woman realizes she knows nothing about her culture and seeks help from an Indian man who can give her cultural lessons (at a traditional Indian wedding) in exchange for her helping get his family off his back about dating a non-Indian woman — but just about everything about this book falls flat. It dearly needed to be stripped down to its bare bones and reworked. I found the entire book overwritten and overwrought with adjectives and descriptions of every. little. thing. I could never get into a rhythm, because I was overloaded with two paragraphs about the interior of a bar and nine sentences about how exactly someone picked their dress for a gala-type event — neither of which had any relevance whatsoever to the plot. And that was par for the course throughout these 300ish pages. The repetition and the myriad pop culture references were a struggle for me, too, (if you took a shot every time you came across Priyanka Chopra Jonas’ name, you’d be drunk a few pages in), and the dialogue was wooden and unnatural. I feel like Sonya Singh could have made this a much better book if she’d written a whole heck of a lot less “tell” and a good deal more “show.”
I also think the characters could have been reworked to distill their essences, too. Both Manny and Sammy could be interesting characters, but they’ve got so much going on that you never truly get to know them — or to like them. Plus, their chemistry is nonexistent. And writing like this — “A passionate kiss that felt like no other and yet at the same time way more familiar as the wet warmth made its way past my longing lips, to the nape of my neck, my trembling legs, and my aching heart.” — isn’t doing much to convince me otherwise.
A number of other things didn’t work for me, too. The idea for Manny’s company —writing breakup emails — is a horrible one, especially when the company is supposedly ending multiple-year marriages and engagements and relationships over Gmail accounts. Some of the LGBTQ+ characters seem to exist just as stereotypes. The plot is all over the place. The relationship between Manny and Sammy happens over a week and ends rather insanely — and some of their (supposed) googly eyes happen while they’re still in relationships with other people (although both SOs are objectively horrible). I can’t speak to the Indian culture aspects of the book, so I’d definitely recommend reading reviews from individuals who can.
I can easily see what this book could have been, and I’m bummed it didn’t live up to my expectations. I know you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover; I guess I shouldn’t judge a book by its title, either.
Special thanks to NetGalley, Simon & Schuster Canada, and Sonya Singh for proving me with an e-ARC of this book in exchange for my honest review.
“The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois” by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers — 5/5
It’s hard to figure out what to say about this book that hasn’t already been said, because “The Love Songs of W.E.B DuBois” deserves all the praise that has been heaped on it — and then some. This is a masterfully woven story that spans years and years and years (the late 1700s to present-ish) along one family’s matriarchal line, and yet this story feels intimate because of Honoreé Fanonne Jeffers’ deft hand. The writing sweeps you up into the story in a way that’s almost lullaby-like. The characters are complicated and wonderful and interesting, and the story itself is incredible with the way it both makes you mad you and makes you tear up. I haven’t read a book like this in quite some time — and I’m not sure I’ll read one like it again.
This book is almost 800 pages, and, still, I’d read another 800.
“The Last Cuentista” by Donna Barba Higuera — 4/5
One of the practice topics I got in my 10th grade debate class was on school uniforms: Are they a help or a hindrance? On one side, everyone dressing the same promotes equality and uniformity but, on the other side, doing so removes creativity and individuality. So, which is better?
This book has a similar premise at its core; right ahead of the destruction of Earth, our main character, Petra, and chosen others enter stasis and journey to a new planet. But Petra wakes to find she’s the only one who can remember Earth after the Collective has wiped out all memory of the planet in search of “harmony” and “unity” and “unanimity,” with the goal to avoid the evils that befell Earth. But, while the Collective’s intentions may be good, they achieve them at disastrous cost.
The book jumps into the action quickly, and the pace never really slows down — perhaps a bit to its detriment. The meat of the story really takes place when Petra is awoken from her stasis, about 300 years after the spaceships have left Earth. I really liked how those 300 years were kept blurry, because it lets the reader guess what happened — and how — and it keeps some of the horrors of humanity in the book at bay. But, in contrast, everything on the new planet, Sagan, seems to happen incredibly quickly. I almost wish that the book had been a bit more substantive and drawn out and that it had taken place over a longer time, just to ramp up some of the intensity and angst. I might have made the ending a little less open-ended, too.
That was really my only hang-up with this book, though. I loved the characters — Petra is brave and sweet and smart (and handles this whole shitshow a million times better than I ever could), and Voxy has my whole heart. Donna Barba Higuera’s vivid imagery paints beautiful and well-developed scenery. She’s written a fascinating and emotional book based around a really cool concept, and she’s filled these pages with wonderful storytelling in a book ostensibly about the power of telling stories. The way Petra recounts some of the stories she heard from her abuelita, who heard it from her abuelita and so on and so on for generations really adds a spark to the book, and the cuentas told to others on board the spaceship that tie mythology and current happenings together move this book along wonderfully.
I loved Higuera’s take on suffering in the name of forced equality. Everyone is supposed to be equal in this society, but even this “better” society has elevated someone to the position of chancellor, and this society stills treat anyone different from them like dirt and like pawns. It’s also interesting that appearance isn’t supposed to matter, but the “epiderm filter” the Collective has chosen still reeks of Eurocentrism — the skin tone is still white-ish (translucent), the eyes are still blue-ish (lilac), and the hair is still blonde.
There’s an adage that says something along the lines of “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it,” and this book does an interesting job of exploring the idea. We need to remember the good, the bad, and the mundane because it’s those memories — and our differences — that make Earth a place worth living.