November Reading Wrap-Up

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At the start of every month, I make a list of books of I want to try to read in that particular 30-ish days. There were 19 books on my list for November. I read one of them. Oops!

That book, “Legends & Lattes,” was one of my favorites this month, but it was a strong month altogether. The rest of what I read in November was really a mixed bag in terms of what I picked up. There were leftover books from my October books list (“Patricia Wants to Cuddle” and “The Only Good Indians,”); there were books by Indigenous authors in honor of this being Native American History Month (“Moon of the Crusted Snow,” “The Only Good Indians,” and Five Little Indians”); there were authors I wanted to read more of (“The Devotion of Suspect X” and “Astrid Parker Doesn’t Fail”); and there were books recommended to me by family (“Deacon King Kong” and “The Siren of Sussex”) and Twitter (“Murder Most Foul” and “Trespasses”).

Some of what I read was great, some of it was bad, and some of it was just fine.

So here are my full thoughts on this month’s books, all of which were first posted on my Goodreads.

November Books:

  1. Patricia Wants to Cuddle (5)
  2. Deacon King Kong (5)
  3. Legends & Lattes (5)
  4. Trespasses (4.5)
  5. The Devotion of Suspect X (4)
  6. The Only Good Indians (4)
  7. Astrid Parker Doesn’t Fail (3.5)
  8. The Siren of Sussex (3.5)
  9. Five Little Indians (3)
  10. Moon of the Crusted Snow (2)
  11. Murder Most Foul (2)

Five Little Indians by Michelle Good — 3/5

A Harper Collins publication I’m more than happy to review once the company reaches a deal with its union and pays its employees a livable wage.

“Patricia Wants to Cuddle” by Samantha Allen — 5/5

I was — gasp! — in a sorority in college, and Monday nights were designated “Bachelor” nights on the Delta Gamma couch. I, however, was (essentially) banned from watching that show with everyone else after one girl looked at me and said, “Shannon, do you have to be so sarcastic and cynical about everything?” 

The answer, of course, was yes.

So a book that takes a satirical approach to reality dating shows and turns into a horror-lite slasher? Yeah, I’m most definitely going to be reading that.

Samantha Allen, bless her, has given me a whip-smart and bonkers take on authenticity and intimacy in today’s social media–driven culture that I absolutely adored. The book follows the producer of the reality show, Casey, and the four final contestants, all of whom fit certain stereotypes: Renee is the diversity contestant there to set a precedent, Vanessa is the villain, Lilah-Mae is the über-Christian virgin, and Amanda is the bimbo. Yet all are much more complex behind the scenes than their reality TV personas might indicate, and it was a blast and a half to experience each character through their POV chapters (especially because Allen really gives each a distinct voice). 

There were so many fun things about this book, but Allen’s writing is what makes this such a winner for me. She does an amazing job of creating an atmosphere immediately and giving you a sense of the characters and their desires in a really short space. Which allows her to completely go off the rails in the rest of the book! The humor gets ramped up! The crazy somehow gets crazier! It’s all nuts! Her use of message boards and other online blogs to convey background information felt natural and inspired. And some of the lines? Wowza. Here are some quotes I highlighted:

“He tasted minty and yet somehow still disgusting, like Altoids that had been scraped off the floor of a car.”

“It seems like the sort of place where you could actually just live life, instead of researching the best way to live your life on the internet before falling asleep in an apartment full of empty Chinese food containers.”

“How do you return to civilization once its artifice has been exposed?”

“The Catch is just everything fake about the real world elucidated, exaggerated and laid bare. At least hell is honest in its falseness.”

Like, damn! 

I can’t stress enough that this book is bizarre. But I loved the look at how our culture has been commodified and algorithm-itized all in the name of getting “likes” on your Instagrams — or, in the case of this book, “glimmers” on your Glamsta. 

Will this book be for everyone? Absolutely not. But if you, like me, have ever been told to tone down your cynicism when watching a certain show where two people are supposedly going to fall in love in six weeks after going on, like, three dates while knowing next to nothing about each other, this might be the book for you.

“The Sussex Siren” by Mimi Matthews — 3.5/5

(3.5) If there’s a Venn diagram of people who love Victorian fashion and horseback riding, I’m squarely in that middle section. As is author Mimi Matthews, which I know given the extraordinary detail she’s fit into this novel; her love for the subject matter truly shows. (Even if she’s a dressage rider who wants to shame jumpers like me who sometimes need strong bits and martingales, OKAY!?, but I suppose I can let that slide for the point of this review.)

When Evelyn (Evie) Maltravers enters London society to find herself a husband and save her family, she decides to play to her strengths: her horsewomanship. To make a statement, given her bluestocking-ish ways, she decides she has to dress for success. Enter Ahmad Malik: a brilliant South Asian tailor/dressmaker. And how could you not fall in love with a dressmaker who GIVES YOU POCKETS!?

But while they fell head over heels in love with each other, I struggled to fall in love with them. There’s a ton of potential for chemistry — he literally has to have his hands all over her to measure her — yet everything felt a little tame. And I don’t mean that just because this is a very PG book. I never quite felt this supposed soul-stirring connection, and the angst in the book doesn’t work unless you buy them as a couple. Which I didn’t. I needed more tension and higher stakes. I found Evie a little dull and Ahmad a little underexplored. It’s nice to see the ill effects of British colonialism mentioned in a romance novel, but — maybe because it wasn’t the focus of the book — Ahmad’s issues are a little surface level, it’s up to our heroine to explore the societal issues he faces, and no one in Evie’s world remotely seems to care. 

That means the sprawling subject matter — fashion, the equestrian world, romance (for our heroine, for our hero’s cousin, and hints for her friends), Victorian spiritualism, colonialism, racism, etc. — makes this book feel long, disjointed, and slow. It’s 400 pages! It didn’t need to be 400 pages! 

While I didn’t get butterflies from this couple, I liked how Matthews let their relationship develop. They unconditionally support each other in their endeavors and failures, and they do their best to understand where the other is coming from. And I like that both Evie and Ahmad knew what they wanted — in life and in their romance — and neither was wishy-washy or afraid to go after their dreams. Matthews’ writing is strong, and her descriptions of fashion and equestrianism (if you’re into those things) provide really interesting historical context. The rest of the series has a lot of potential, so I’ll try to power through Book No. 2, even though it’s somehow even longer at 406 pages. 

All in all, though, this book is enjoyable, and this series could be a fun ride — pun intended. 

“Trespasses” by Louise Kennedy — 4.5/5

Two sentences into this book, I had to put down my Takis and red wine (a superior combo, by the way) because I realized this was going to be the kind of read I had to pay close attention to. 

This is a challenging book. The subject matter — Northern Ireland during the Troubles — is sobering, and the way Louise Kennedy writes without any quotation marks made me carefully parse every word to make sure I knew what was going on. Kennedy’s tone throughout is gritty — the book feels devoid of color — but every word is used to its full capacity, and tension is carried throughout every page. Kennedy’s writing vibrates (but in a controlled manner), and as pointed as she can be, she also leaves things unsaid, so what’s there is as important as what’s not. The phrasing is short and sharp, which conveys the anger and anguish of the subject matter, and the writing almost feels removed from what’s happening on the page — but this book is never lacking for emotion because of how tenderly Kennedy writes. I experienced this novel deeply, and I found my heart breaking just a little bit more with each and every page.

I expected this book to be about the Troubles themselves, so I was surprised to find that the historical period functioned as more of a whisper to let the background dynamics shine. But I think this book is all the better for focusing on the daily lives of the people affected by the upheaval and violence. Kennedy places her novel in a town that doesn’t experience quite as much violence as a place like Belfast, although there’s still a heavy military and paramilitary presence in her setting. The town is pretty split between Protestants and Catholics at a time when many are feeling economic burdens and having trouble finding jobs, which means the novel focuses equally on religious dynamics and class dynamics. 

The book never takes sides in the conflict or moralizes, more so making the point that no side was good or right. Cushla is a Catholic teaching at a Catholic school but is strongly opposed to the (creepy) priest at the school. She’s having an affair with an older, married Protestant man who has anti-Catholic friends but who works within the legal framework to help Catholics and who manages to piss off both the authorities and the paramilitaries. Cushla’s family owns a bar and has to appeal to all their customers, who are Catholics, Protestants, and part of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. And Cushla takes interest in a mixed-religion family who are tormented by both their Protestant neighbors and the school’s Catholic priest. 

The relationships between the characters are what make this book so compelling and what add warmth to the gray setting. The romance between Cushla and Michael, her Protestant lover, is tender and heartbreaking and real, and I cared deeply about what happened to them, even as I knew it likely wouldn’t end happily for either of them. Cushla’s motherlike relationship with one of her students, Davy, made me want to hug both of them, as both are a little naive to the horrors of the world. The way Kennedy explores all her characters’ connections serves as an exploration of the devastating consequences of seemingly innocuous choices. 

So, no, this isn’t an easy book. It’s a nuanced and honest look at an incredibly dark period; Kennedy pulls no punches when describing life in Northern Ireland at this time. But it’s a heartbreaking book that I think just about everyone should read; just be prepared to feel broken when you close the back cover.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some Takis and wine to get back to. I need something to cheer me up, after all. 

“The Devotion of Suspect X” by Keigo Higashino — 4/5

Three chapters into this book, my sister asked me how it was going. I explained that it was a mystery book and that I already knew who committed the murder, why they committed the murder and how they committed the murder.

“So, what don’t you know?” She asked.

“I DON’T KNOW! THAT’S THE PROBLEM!” I answered.

I was blown away by Keigo Higashino’s “Malice,” so two minutes after finishing it, I went to my Libby app and requested this book, which seemed to be even more beloved. And just like “Malice,” “The Devotion of Suspect X” brilliantly plays around with subverting expectations and shines in its intense character studies. This book is a cat and mouse game built around the cover-up of a crime that had my full attention for the two hours I spent reading. And I don’t really know how to say much more without giving anything away!

In general, I prefer my sleuths to be the centerpiece of the book, so my only hold-up was that I wish the book wasn’t quite so split among the perspectives of the murder cover-up-ers, the (competent, not genius) Detective Kusanagi, and Dr. Yukama, the brilliant university professor who assists the police force (Detective Galileo). I just wanted more interplay between our suspect and the clever non-detective conducting his own investigation into the crime. (Agatha Christie let Hercule Poirot be the star of the show; he didn’t have to share page time with Inspector Japp.)

On paper, this book should be simple because of all the information you’re given up front. But it’s not. It’s full of puzzles, not the least of which is that the reader knows more than the police and less than the suspects — and no one knows how much our Detective Galileo knows. I was so taken in by the plot of the book that I missed the glaring hole that was the key to the whole thing. This isn’t a flashy, gun-driven book with wild shootouts; it’s intellectual, calm, methodical, and almost unassuming. And it’s full of observations on the human condition through both philosophical and mathematical questions. 

So read this book so that you, too, can have no idea what to tell people it’s about when you’re reading it.

“Murder Most Foul” by Elysabeth Grace — 2/5

WANTED: Editor for a steamy, diverse, historical, mystery-ish read. Book has good bones but needs major help. Must be experienced in taking a good plot line and solid-enough writing and making both sparkle, as well as in developing a mystery throughout the text. Bonus if able to copy edit for grammatical mistakes and odd phrasing. Language usage might need a strong eye, too, as the characters’ conversation frequently veers between modern and ye olde English. Main characters are lively but could use an expert eye to add depth via desires and motivations. Preference given to editors who have a deep love and playful understanding of Shakespeare that matches author Elisabeth Grace’s. Not needed: a strong understanding of historical period mentioned or ability to improve descriptions, as author has both covered, but an ability to add exposition through anything other than blocks of dialogue would be handy.

Editor must be able to handle spicy scenes — and must be able to stomach some writing in them that would make even the most frequent smut reader cringe. (E.g.: “Her kitten hadn’t calmed” and “I need to make sure puss is dry before I make her wet again,” as well as frequent reference to “poking.”) Sex scenes, however, are short and are somehow both explicit and fade to black. Important to find feet sexy — main male character has a favorite toe of main female character’s to lick (“the middle one on her left foot was just the right length and size”). Need not apply if uncomfortable with characters getting horny after encountering dead bodies.

If interested in the position, please apply at fixthisbook.com Thank you in advance for your interest.

“The Only Good Indians” by Stephen Graham Jones — 4/5

You know how you’re not supposed to mess with a momma bear? I think that can be amended to add a momma elk, too. (And, tbh, a momma elk might be scarier.)

This book is gruesome and hard to read. It’s creepy (there are a lot of horrific things that can be done with hooves), and horror aficionados will find familiar and beloved tropes, though they appear in clever ways. Stephen Graham Jones’ writing is beautiful, and the story of four Indians being chased by a ghost from their past is poignant. This is an honest, unglamorized look at Native life — sweat lodges are tiny, makeshift tents on ground soaked by animal urine; beer bottles serve as fence decorations; and Jones doesn’t shy away from talking about addiction issues and protection orders. The Rez acts as a main character with its quiet and marred beauty. 

The characters aren’t bad people, but they did a bad thing when they got too greedy on a hunt, and now they face a reckoning. Lewis, in particular, is tormented by his actions on that bloody day, and his guilt over what happened is how he’s able to be haunted — and hunted. I wish the other characters had a similar strong tie to that specific event to make the revenge that’s the centerpiece of the book have a bit more of an emotional tie. But Lewis’ tale is strong enough to draw the reader in, even as his story starts in a rather mundane way — musings on a ladder and a spotlight that randomly turns itself on and off — and gets gory fast. Some other details, while “explained,” still didn’t quite make sense (how is this elk back?, why is she back now?), but, again, Jones has written such an affecting story that it didn’t bug too much. 

Jones’ writing is often stark, which allows the tension to ramp up and the chilling beauty of the setting to shine. And his honest portrayal of the beauty and ugliness of life on and off the Rez, of how to straddle the line between the traditional and contemporary aspects of indigenous life is extraordinary to read. Jones reflects on intergenerational trauma, racism, and substance abuse while writing about the bonds between members of the community and the strength of Native individuals who have been hunted their whole lives — although not usually by ghost elks.

“Deacon King Kong” by James McBride — 5/5

In high school, I wrote a newspaper column about how much I love words; tell me “sumptuous” and “epiphany” and “loquacious” don’t tickle your brain. This entire book is a love letter to the English language. 

James McBride wields language like a sword. He makes a game out of run-on sentences. And short sentences. His writing is playful and pointed, and as a result, his characters are full of life. This book is brazen and bonkers. It’s funny and sad, angry and tender. 

While I usually inhale the books I’m reading, it took me a long time to read this one, because I was finding it something to be savored, not enjoyed at all once. I sometimes felt like I could have overdosed on the zany nature of the book. I mean, there’s a treasure hunt! A mystery! A romance! An alcoholic who shoots the neighborhood drug dealer and spends the day talking to his dead wife! In lesser hands, the book could have overwhelmed. But McBride’s hands tug the strings a little here and there and weave storylines together to make it so I couldn’t put the book down in the second half. The way everything comes together there at the end is, quite simply, brilliant. 

In other words, this book is slightly nonsensical but serendipitous and melancholic with quite a few kerfuffles. 

“Legends & Lattes” by Travis Baldree — 5/5

The next time I want to be wrapped up in a warm hug, I’m just going to reread this book. 

It’s cozy socks and warm mugs of tea. It’s the first bite of a chocolate chip cookie out of the oven. It’s joyous and comforting, and the characters are all well-developed and wonderful. (Especially you, Thimble. If anyone is ever mean to you, my little master chef rattkin, I’m throwing hands.) So, of course, the found family aspects of this book are lovely. The book is a pretty straightforward slice-of-life fantasy novel (how fun does that sound!?) about an orc who wants to leave the barbarian life and open a coffee shop and who, along the way, joins forces with an artistic succubus, a carpenter hob, and my chocolate croissant–inventing rattkin. Oh, and their little shop gets visited by dwarves and gnomes and direcats and all sorts of other colorful characters from Travis Baldree’s inventive imagination. The characters’ emerging friendships made me smile. And I do so dearly love to smile. The stakes stay low throughout — I think the “villain” is maybe in three or four chapters? — so I cruised through this book, having a simply lovely time. 

Like I said, this book is a hug. And I know it’ll always be there for me, because, this book, unlike people, will never let you down.

“Moon of the Crusted Snow” by Waubgeshig Rice — 2/5

There are 154 exclamation points in this book! Yes, I counted!!! This book is 213 pages long!!!!!!!!!

Don’t get me wrong, I love exclamation points as much as anyone, but this is a different kind of writing than a “omg, that Richarlisson goal!” I still remember my high school journalism teacher telling me I got one exclamation point every couple thousand words in my articles. So, while I was reading this book, as much as I tried, I couldn’t focus on anything else except making talliehis book was going to be a home run. The premise is aces. This book is a dystopian, apocalyptic novel that focus on an Anishinaabe community, a group of Indigenous peoples who live near the Great Lakes region, so there’s a lot of room to ruminate on the fact that the Anishinaabe have faced disaster before. And Waubgeshig Rice writes some of favorite passages in his book on that topic. An elder recounts: 

“Our world isn’t ending. It already ended. It ended when the Zhaagnaash came into our home down south on that bay and took it from us.…We had to adapt and luckily we already knew how to hunt and live on the land. We learned how to live here.…But then they followed us up here and started taking our children away. That’s when our world ended again. And that wasn’t the last time. We’ve seen this…apocalypse…over and over. But we always survived. We’re still here. And we’ll still be here, even if the power and the radios don’t come back on and we never see any white people again.”

That has sooooo much promise.

But the execution just prevented me from enjoying what I was reading. It’s a dialogue-driven book, and most of Rice’s dialogue felt wooden. Even with all the exclamation points!!! There were often three or four in one person’s dialogue, and there were frequently more than five on a page. Not good!!! Not good at all!!!!!!! The exclamation points next to the serious subject matter — the world might end, and these poor people are trapped in the middle of a heavy winter with no power — felt jarring. 

The heavy dialogue focus leads to characters who aren’t fleshed out — I mean, I know their names, where they went to school, what they look like, what their jobs are, who is married to whom, etc. but know nothing about who they are. What their motivations are. How they’re feeling in the middle of the upheaval. So, I had zero emotional attachment to the characters and, for as many names as there were in this book, found them interchangeable. The book felt unemotional, too. Here’s how two deaths are recounted:

“‘His face was grey and his mouth and eyes were still open. It was pretty fucked up.’”

“‘So I swung the hammer at the one closest to me. I got him in the head and he went right down. The other guy was startled, so Kevin tackled him and punched him in the face a bunch of times. I told Kevin to move. He got up, and I brought the hammer down on his face.’”

This is a short book, and it’s not an overly complicated read, so it’s good if you need something fast and easy. And, like I said, there are some cool ideas here. But the book feels half-baked. I mean, Rice introduces some potentially cool foreshadowing in the dreams that frequently pop up in the book, but he never returns to them. I wanted more scene-setting. I wanted more tension. More characterization. 

And I wanted fewer exclamation points!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

“Astrid Parker Doesn’t Fail” by Ashley Herring Blake — 3.5/5

Ashley Blake Herring really said “mommy issues!” with this book. And then she said it again. And again. And again. C’mon, can’t we give Astrid a little more depth? And Jordan, too, for that matter? And then maybe give them a little more resolution to their issues?

Minus that, I actually really enjoyed this book. Blake’s writing is very much my style; slipping back into one of her books felt like I was in a conversation with a good friend whom I’d missed talking to. And Blake writes Astrid and Jordan’s relationship quite well, as the couple has great chemistry and a good push and pull. The way the two understand each other, complement each other, and help each other grow is very grown-up and healthy, and I wanted the world for these two — both individually and as a couple.

I adored “Delilah Green Doesn’t Care,” so I was thrilled to see these beloved characters back in the second installment of this series. I do wish there had been a few more in-depth scenes with these side characters (I would’ve killed to see how Astrid and Delilah’s sisterly relationship has grown, because it had so much emotional potential), because the focus on Astrid and Jordan’s relationship makes the book feel a little insular. That was sort of the case with the setting, too. The crux of the story happens in this adorable, haunted inn desperately in need of a refresh, and I felt like I hardly got any color from it at all. Instead, the book focused too much on its reality TV plot, and I didn’t think it entirely made sense. 

So, yeah, the issues with the book were there, but I really didn’t mind that much. This is a cute book with fun characters, and it touches on overcoming a fear of failure, losing who you thought was the love of your life, figuring out your sexuality, and, of course, mommy issues — you know, run-of-the-mill, easy-to-write topics. But Blake infuses those topics with heart (and heat). So, while I didn’t think this book was as good as “Delilah Green Doesn’t Care,” this is an endearing follow-up. Like Astrid Parker, Ashely Blake Herring doesn’t fail. 

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