This month felt particularly bleak from a societal stand point, so, toward the end of the month, a lot of the books that were sitting on my TBR list got left there as I turned toward books that seemed more comforting and engaging (or toward mindless scrolling on TikTok). Still, I read a number of books in May that really got me thinking about history and how it can be cyclical (see: “Beasts of a Little Land,” “Neruda on the Park,” and “Damnation Spring”) and books that have stuck with me for the whole month (see: “Vladimir” and “Brown Girls”).
Guess I’ll have to use June to catch up on that large pile of books sitting next to my bed!
- Vladimir (4.5)
- Brown Girls (4.5)
- Beasts of a Little Land (4.5)
- A Marvelous Light (4)
- Neruda on the Park (4)
- The Daughter of Doctor Moreau (3.75)
- Set on You (3.5)
- Damnation Spring (3.25)
- Under One Roof (3)
- A Bride’s Guide to Marriage and Murder (3)
“A Marvellous Light” by Freya Marske — 4/5
Every once in a while, I come across a character I feel so protective of and adore so much that I just want to pick them up and put them in my pocket. I felt that way about so many dang characters in this book (especially you, Edwin; you’re perfect) and am beyond glad there’s a sequel so I get to spend more time with them.
The characters are charming and quirky and endearing, and Freya Markse deploys them well to create an environment that’s both whimsical and a little stuffy — classically British, if you will. Robin and Edwin, in particular, are characterized quite delicately, and it’s a joy to watch them both come into their personalities — and to find themselves in the other. Their romance is sweet and heartfelt, and the way they open up to each other is wonderful.
Markse does a tremendous job in taking a detailed and complex magic system and making it approachable for readers. Having Robin (who is smart but not especially brainy) as our guide to magic once he learns about its existence is cleverly done; it allows the reader to get the gist of what is and isn’t possible and to give us a rough sense of the magic system (as more details get filled in later). Markse has also created a lush and sumptuous world and does makes it a blast to inhibit. Sometimes, yes, the writing felt overly detailed and clogged things up a bit, but it also did add a charm because there’s no way to imagine you’re any place other than exactly where Marske wants you to be. Although, you might not always want to be in hedge mazes and houses that seem to want to kill you!
The pacing was one of the only drawbacks for me. There’s a deadly curse placed on one of the characters, and it’s approached languidly in the book by the characters (and by Marske’s pictorial writing style). As much as I enjoyed all the details, they came at the expense of, really, any urgency within these pages. Marske does well to conjure an interesting air of mystery that floats throughout (and that is very well done), but the bad actors didn’t seem quite as bad as I think Marske intended them to be.
I’m incredibly impressed with how this book, which is in a well-inhabited genre (magic in the early 1900s), feels fresh and new. This is a cozy and charming book, and it sets an interesting stage of what’s to come in future books.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go take my pocket Edwin out for a walk.
“Brown Girls” by Daphne Palasi Andreades —4.5/5
I’m a sucker for good writing, so I’m a sucker for this book. I read it once — and then immediately read it again just so I could really soak up every word and sentence individually. It’s hard to believe this is Daphne Palasi Andreades’ literary debut. There’s a movement to Palasi Andreades’ writing, and both her use of “we” as a chorus and her pacing feel musical and beautifully composed. Her repetition feels vibrant and engaging, and her wording sings. I mean: “Brown girls brown girls brown girls who profess a deep, unshakeable love for these boys who sometimes see them, but mostly don’t” and “Brown girls brown girls brown girls who morph into marionettes on a stage — Charming, so charming! — spotlights hot and blinding.” This book is a joy to read.
This is a short novel (with some chapters that are just two pages), so there isn’t a ton of depth here. Characters are mostly nameless and have more general attributes projected onto them, but they are given different ideals and dreams and experiences as they’re grouped together differently. (Because I’m white, I’m definitely not the person to ask whether it’s fair to combine all these broad and differing experiences under the umbrella term “brown girls.”) But that’s not to say that interesting concepts unique to the “brown girl” experience aren’t explored. Palasi Andreades may not give too much space to some of these ideas, but the way she does approach the ideas is sharp and poignant (and beautiful):
“Even in song, we become fluent in the language of our colonizers. Our English, impeccable. Our mother tongues, if we were taught them at all, become atrophied muscles, half-remembered melodies.”
“No matter their zip code or tax bracket, listen as these white people deem us and our families the good immigrants, the hard-working ones—not like the lazy people in this country who are a burden on the system. (It dawns on us that some of our families have parroted this argument, too.) No, we are the grateful brown people. Thank you for colonizing our ancestors’ countries, for the wars and dictators! We are so thankful for your civilizing religion and visas! Oh thank you, thank you, thank you.”
This book covers wide swaths of time — ending with death — and covers timely topics but still feels timeless. The setting (Queens) sings with descriptions that give the borough an energetic feeling. This book is alive. This may be a short novel and a quick read, but it packs a punch.
“Under One Roof” by Ali Hazelwood — 3/5
This is the perfect kind of right-before-bed read — it’s short and easy, and it’s gooey enough to ensure only the best and sugariest dreams. Ali Hazelwood shows that her mastery of trope-y writing in “The Love Hypothesis” wasn’t a flash in the pan, and this novella is adorable. But, as much fun as this read is, it felt like an abridged version of “The Love Hypothesis,” with how similar the characters and their interactions were. There isn’t much room within these pages, so it’s hard to flesh things out, but the characters don’t really have personalities or seem to stand on their own. (Liam, the male lead, is a tall, silent lawyer, and Mara, the female lead, is a quirky, “Bachelor”-loving engineer.) Their lack of awareness regarding the other’s interest boggled my mind a bit, but, while they may be idiots, they’re MY idiots. There isn’t much to this novella, but it made me smile and squeal.
Now, I’m off to dream of being in forced proximity in a beautiful townhouse with my intellectual nemesis, who just happens to be tall, ripped, and loaded.
“Beasts of a Little Land” by Juhea Kim — 4.5/5
I’ve read a number of historical, war-based novels — but they’ve almost entirely been based around wars here in the United States. This book makes me realize what all I’ve been missing out on. I knew broad swaths of this time period in Korea and Japan, but to have it laid out so beautifully made this a truly special (and enlightening) read.
So many historical fiction books read too heavy in the direction of either history or fiction, but this never tips the balance. Sure, the book covers 1917 to 1965, and happenings revolve around the 35-year Japanese occupation and the wars during that period, but this truly is a story about love of all sorts — romantic, familial, tragic, platonic — in a cast of characters that includes courtesans, independence fighters, communists, the occupying military, and businessmen. Covering such a wide time with so many different characters could make this novel hard to follow, but, instead, it reads intimately. This doesn’t read like a debut novel from Juhea Kim. It’s elegant, and the structure is complex. Kim does an incredible job of painting the almost dreamlike setting, and she’s woven a captivating tale with tons of emotion.
As great as the pacing was toward the front of the book, it almost seemed like Kim realized she had to wrap the story up before it reached 1,000 pages, so the time jumps toward the end become much bigger, which took me out of the rhythm with the characters. And so much is banked on a romantic connection between two of the characters… that I never really felt. Because so much of the book is based around the idea of inyeon (“the human thread”) that ties everyone together, I just wished I felt it a little more between those two characters, because everything felt so nicely tied together elsewhere.
Overall, though, this is an incredible book that intricately brings life to an important period with wonderfully complex characters. Kim’s writing often left me speechless, and I didn’t want to put this book down.
“Set on You” by Amy Lea — 3.5/5
As someone who previously had some disordered eating habits and found her saving grace in focusing on building her strength and not on losing weight, I loved the plot of this book. I loved how Amy Lea wrote this book to encourage and empower, not to shame and cast judgment. Lea’s main female character, Crystal Chen, is relatable and kind, and she knows her worth. And her competitive streak — as well as the competitive streak of the main male character, Scott — contribute tons of fun sparks to this book. Both characters are fully fleshed out with both positive attributes and flaws, which makes them more interesting to read about. (Perfection is boring!) And the surrounding characters pique your interest, too — which is perfect given that a few of them seem to be getting books of their own!
The writing is approachable and is a nice mix of funny and emotional. And I like how Lea lets Crystal and Scott’s relationship develop with time. I do, however, think the book would have been aided by the use of dual POVs, because I sometimes felt like I had no idea what Scott was thinking or doing, and I don’t think it would’ve hurt the storyline much to cut some of Crystal’s chapters. I also think it might have made me care about the romance more than I did. The third-act shenanigans rang a bit false for me — not because I don’t think the issues that arose were real ones, but the way they were handled seemed a little out-of-character for Crystal, for whatever reason. The emotions and struggles she has are completely valid — and are refreshing to see in a book — but it just didn’t feel like third-act Crystal handled the situation the way first-act Crystal would have.
I had a lot of fun reading this book, and it was the perfect quick read to get me out of some bad day–blues with so many cute and cozy moments throughout these pages. The message here is tremendous, and I absolutely loved Crystal. I’m just not sure the romance is as memorable as I wanted it to be.
“A Bride’s Guide to Marriage and Murder” by Dianne Freeman — 3/5
Cozy, historical mystery novels are my cup of tea (and are generally best enjoyed with a nice mug of that exact beverage), so this was very much a “me” type of read.
I have to admit to requesting this ARC without realizing it was the fifth book in a series (what can I say, the title really grabbed me!), so I had to do a crash course in the previous four books. Luckily, Dianne Freeman understands there are people (read: idiots) like me, so this book did a great job of getting newbies up to speed and giving the who, the what, the where, the how, and the why.
Freeman’s writing is very straightforward, which helped me fly through this book. The murder mystery is compelling and fun to solve, and the characters are whimsical and entertaining — but I never felt much attachment to either the mystery or the characters. I think the cast of characters isn’t quite as charming as they want to be — Frances’ family comes across more crazy than kooky — and I never quite felt like I knew or understood them. And the big reveal didn’t seem as perfectly worked-out and intricate as I thought it could have been.
Still, this is a fun read, and I think that, if you’ve already read the other books in this series and have developed quite a fondness for them, this might just be your cup of tea, even if, as much as I wanted it to be, it wasn’t quite mine.
Special thanks to NetGalley, Kensington Books, and Dianne Freeman for proving me with an e-ARC of this book in exchange for my honest review.
“Neruda on the Park” by Cleyvis Natera — 4/5
My dad told me once that there’s a moment in a parent-child relationship where there’s a shift — the child thinks they’re grown up sooner than they are, and the parent thinks the child is grown up later than they are. (Not that I would have any experience with this conflict whatsoever.) While this book by Clyevis Natera is about many things, at the core of it is the story of a mother, Eusebia, and her daughter, Luz, whose relationship comes to a head when a white developer begins to gentrify their neighborhood.
Both Eusebia and Luz’s identities are so tied up in each other — as Luz’s mom, as Eusebia’s daughter — that neither of them has had much time to really process who they are individually and what it is they want for themselves. Eusebia has put immense pressure on Luz academically and is encouraging her to go work for a high-paying law firm. Luz is helping pay for a home in the Dominican Republic her father is building that he and Eusebia can retire to and enjoy. Meanwhile, Luz wants a work-life balance, and Eusebia doesn’t want to leave the United States. When the nearby construction begins, the noise and the summer heat create a building sense of pressure, and the two realize what they want for themselves versus what the other wants for them are two different things. It’s almost an interesting coming-of-age story at not coming-of-age ages — Luz is 29, and Eusebia is probably in her 50s. But, for the first time, they’re putting themselves first… even if they have dueling new awarenesses and purposes.
Eusebia is a hard character, because, for so much of her life, she’s acquiesced to what others want, but now, after a shift in her mental state and beliefs, she’s determined to do whatever it takes to save her neighborhood (and the people in it) from these developers — no matter how awful and dangerous the steps she has to take to do it are. She’s been so good for so long, and she’s snapped. Her actions, while they started in a good place, are rash and careless, trying to save her “home,” no matter the cost and no matter who gets hurt along the way (and people do get hurt along the way). She becomes manic and loses all grasp of reality, but she’s still grounded in the idea of helping people who really do need the help.
Natera is an incredible writer, especially with how she plays with contrasts; for example, everyone in the book has a different idea of home — the Dominican Republic for the father, Nothar Park for the mother, and somewhere in between and people-based for Luz. The neighborhood where the characters live, Nothar Park, is often described in colorful terms that enliven the brown buildings, almost as a giant middle finger to the coming white gentrification. Natera’s writing style and description is masterful, too. The way Natera writes her characters makes you feel incredibly connected to them — you know their morning routines, how they like their eggs, what their hair looks like in the morning. Natera also introduces an almost Greek chorus with “the Tongues,” a group of three women who have lived in the area for what feels like forever. (I actually wish there had been more from them, because I found their addition so refreshing.)
The book moves quite slowly, and while I wonder if that was almost Natera’s intention — to have the reader feeling this immense pressure building to an eruption just as it happens in the book — the slow speed made it a little hard to get through. And I’m not quite sure how I feel about the ending. It left me a little unsatisfied, but, again, maybe that’s the point? Maybe not everything, especially with complicated matters and beliefs like these, can be wrapped up neatly and nicely, because there’s nothing nice and neat about gentrification and the constant fight by immigrants to find their place in a country that tells them to leave. I do wish there had been a little more closure with Eusebia and her story, just because we spend so much time learning about her motivations and desires that it would have been nice to get more of a sense of what was next for her with this renewed sense of self.
The idea of what “home” is will never not be a fascinating topic to me — is it a place? A feeling? A memory? A person? — and Natera has done an incredible job of combining that idea into a story where the immigrant and first-generation experience is the focus. This book is a fascinating exploration of self and home — and whether the two are intertwined — through interesting characters and their generational conflict.
Special thanks to NetGalley, Random House/Ballantine, and Cleyvis Natera for proving me with an e-ARC of this book in exchange for my honest review.
“Vladimir” by Julia May Jonas — 4.5/5
The first sentence of this book — “When I was a child, I loved old men, and I could tell that they also loved me” — is pretty much a flashing red light that this is going to be a dark and twisted read. And it is. It’s cynical and uncomfortable, sly and subversive. But it’s witty. And it’s so, so entertaining; I wanted to gorge myself on this book.
Early on, Julia May Jonas’ narrator, a professor at a small-ish college in upstate New York, talks about books she’s teaching and mentions Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca” as, “in many ways, a story that is erected in misogyny, demonizing women, demonizing the other.” Talk about an allusion! As in that book, Jonas’ narrator is never given a name while, similarly, her obsession gets the title. And the narrator’s take on the classic book is an interesting one, given the position she finds herself in when the book starts: Her husband has been suspended from the school where they both teach, for having affairs with students. No, the narrator doesn’t care about her husband’s misdeeds — she (vaguely) knew about them, and she says the students were all of-age and the affairs happened before teacher-student relationships were banned by the school. As she sees it, “Now, however, young women have apparently lost all agency in romantic entanglements. Now my husband was abusing his power, never mind that power is the reason they desired him in the first place.” She’s grossed out thinking about her husband texting these women, and she repeatedly talks about how “perky” these students were. (The narrator’s obsession with age abounds in these pages.) The narrator is, however, embarrassed and feels shame that she’s now being put under the microscope as a result of what her husband has done.
And the narrator’s thoughts continue to spiral — she’s vapid and can be cruel — but she’s a gripping character. She’s sharp and smart, and I wanted more. More of her depraved thoughts. More of her immoral behavior. It’s a tough mind to be inside, but the narrator is addicting.
When a new teacher, Vladimir, comes to the school to teach, our narrator becomes obsessed with him — and what he offers. He’s recently released a well-received novel and is on the tenure track (after mentioning his wife’s suicide attempt in his interview to secure the position at the school). But what was most interesting to me was what Vladimir represents — sure, the narrator finds him intensely attractive, but a lot of her fantasies revolve around him in more domestic situations. She creates fantasies around the idea of him without ever really knowing anything about him. She thinks he’ll be self-conscious when taking off his shirt. He isn’t. She thinks she sees him when she’s out on a hiking trail — “the way he walked was recognizable… I thought for sure it was him” — only to realize it’s not him at all. The moment these lustful and all-encompassing thoughts begin isn’t even when the narrator is looking at Vladimir, it’s when she sees his reflection in her dark window. It’s an interesting kind of lust — more intellectual and based on banality — which made it all the more engrossing as her thoughts and actions get more and more out of hand.
The final few chapters of the book let me down just a bit because they felt rushed, but this is such an engrossing and sumptuous read — as dark and twisted as it is — that I know I’ll be reading anything else Julia May Jonas writes.
“Damnation Spring” by Ash Davidson — 3.25/5
This book, set in 1977, could have been written today, with the way it talks about the destruction of our planet at the hands of mankind. This story is centered on a small town where logging is the life blood of the community and economy — but it’s an insidious industry that exacts a high toll on its citizens and the environment. This book focuses on a family, but they’re really there to convey the tensions that come to a head when the destruction becomes personal and the logging community and the environmentalists become embroiled in a conflict around the ravaging of forests and the harmful effects on humankind.
I couldn’t get into and disliked the first quarter of the book, I enjoyed the next two quarters, and I hated the final quarter. (The ending is, well, not great.) This book dives right into a tight-knit community without explanation, so I had trouble keeping all the characters straight, and I never had much connection to any of them outside of our main couple, Colleen and Rich. (Almost every single one of the outside characters sucks, which is… a choice.) It felt a tad like Ash Davidson wanted to show off all the research she’d done and the knowledge she had about the logging community and industry in this era, because there were long paragraphs (and even pages) of complicated terminology and know-how that seemed to exist just to bump up the word count. The story does grow into itself, and Davidson does do an incredible job of conveying setting and characterization; I could smell the forest air and could taste the creek water. She has a wonderful eye for detail, and, while she sometimes goes a little overboard, as a whole, she creates a vivid picture.
The book really hinges on how the reader feels about Rich and Colleen, and Davidson portrays the complications in and the resiliency of their marriage with a deft hand. I had some trouble finding Colleen sympathetic after a certain event toward the beginning of the book, but it’s a credit to Davidson that, by the end of the book, I had grown to understand her. Meanwhile, Rich is carrying his family legacy on his sturdy shoulders — but can’t communicate and is trapped by circumstance. To that point, Davidson does well to capture the insulated, claustrophobic feeling of the town where so much is simmering under the surface, and she neatly balances a lot of complicated and valid feelings. But then the story ends unsatisfactorily, and all my frustrations with the book came bubbling back up.
Davidson captures the lingering resentment in a downtrodden town and the durability of its citizens wonderfully. This small little logging community is home to a whole host of desperate individuals who are being overrun and outrun by time and circumstance, and their distress at the changing world is palpable. Protecting the environment is obviously good, but what if contributing to its ruin is the only available job and is the only way you can feed your family? Is speaking up and out worth the ostracization and danger? Given the current lack of care for the climate by corporations and the corner-cutting by different industries, this book rings all too true for today’s conversations.
“The Daughter of Doctor Moreau” by Silvia Moreno-Garcia — 3.75/5
Silvia Moreno-Garcia can write every genre — and she can write every genre well. I’ve read (and thoroughly enjoyed) a number of her other books, so, as soon as this book was announced, I preordered it. (Having such a beautiful cover on my shelf was a bonus.) Getting approved for an ARC was even more exciting. Moreno-Garcia has an incredible mastery of language, and she always gives the reader an inventive and compelling book — which is definitely the case here.
Right off the bat, I could imagine myself wandering the reddish-yellow dirt paths through the dense scrub and could hear the jungle with its mangroves teeming with the songs of the birds. I felt like I was inside the small hacienda with its dark wood and white interior, sitting on the velvet furnishings and listening to the sound of someone playing an off-tune piano and the ticking of a baroque clock. This setting is lush and dense with an arresting air of mystery, and I wanted to live in it. And, while I was within these pages, I did. Moreno-Garcia’s settings often act as a kind of character within her novels, and this one, with its untamed environment and a mix of decay and wilderness, was spectacularly done and provided a perfect backdrop for the events of the novel.
The storyline here is engrossing, and the use of dual POVs for Carlota and Montgomery is a clever addition. Moreno-Garcia clearly understood these characters and how their development would play out from the get-go, even if their characterization did sometimes feel a tad overdone and repetitive. At times, the writing felt like it veered more toward tell than show, and the characters never quite felt 3D. Still, I was invested in both characters and their journeys within these pages. While Montgomery changes some throughout the book, I felt frustrated with Carlota and her lack of a real evolution — toward the beginning of the book, she wants peace and ease, which is almost exactly what she wants toward the end of the book, despite the myriad horrible things that have happened to her in the middle. I also wish some of the secondary characters — Lupe, Cachito, and Ramona, in particular — had been rounded out more, given they’re the impetus for so much in the book.
I think Moreno-Garcia does a wonderful job of conveying different themes — the primitive versus the animalistic, the horrors of colonialism, man as God — in a way that really gets the reader thinking. I found myself constantly questioning ideas raised in this book. Some of the suspense did feel a little telegraphed, but that could also just be because I’m a very close reader.
This is an immensely clever retelling of a well-known story, and I appreciated the twists Moreno-Garcia put on it and the way she expanded on the source material. This book is a clever mix of science fiction and romance and historical — and I loved the way it weaves folklore and religion, lushness and creepiness, obedience and independence, and a whole host of other contradictions together to make a very readable and enjoyable book.
Special thanks to NetGalley, Random House/Ballantine, and Silvia Moreno-Garcia for proving me with an e-ARC of this book in exchange for my honest review.