OMG this was an awesome book! It’s absolutely rare that I ever think, “I wish there were more than five stars!” but this one fits that bill. As someone who reviews constantly, edits frequently, and is also a published author with constant deadlines, it’s also rare that I get caught up at 11 o’clock at night finishing a book, but this one did that too.
What set this book apart for me–as someone who was an English teacher for 24 years and taught in juvenile corrections, so knows her way around diverse voices in YA–was the fact that this was not just another “my terrible life in the ghetto” book. This story accurately portrayed the greater reality, that man students who would be considered at-risk and who may live in less-than-ideal conditions also attend schools with affluent students. Too many people think of “black schools” and “white schools” instead of schools filled with students of every race and color, as well as every income level and need.
Aside from that aspect which first made me fall in love with this book, the author seamlessly weaves a story of a typical teenager who happens to face tremendous obstacles. Yes, his father is absent, but it’s due to cancer (not the stereotype). Yes, his mother is in prison, but it’s due to alcoholism caused by grief that led to a DUI (again, not the stereotype). Yes, the protagonist is a young black male, but as even he points out, his pants don’t sag and he’s being hounded throughout the book to accept the position of co-editor of his high school’s lit mag. No stereotypes there either, just a normal, semi-adjusted student.
His problems arise early when his sister disappears. This is where the stereotypes hit hard, though. Jay turns to the police, who dismiss him outright. A local news channel picks up the story to do a public plea, then turns it into a scandal piece and paints his sister as a drug-using dropout who’s dating a drug dealer. Suffice to say, the “bad guys” in the book turn out to be heroes, the “good guys” are the worst of the worst.
It was great to see a book that was so intricately woven, so well-written, and so engaging that also manages to blow apart the stereotypes. Highly recommend this read!!!
Cinderella Is Dead by Kalynn Bayron
It is so refreshing to read a really original plot–even one that is based entirely around one of the oldest and most beloved fairy tales–that I cannot say enough incredible things about this story. At the same time, it is so out-of-the-ordinary and handles uncommon plot threads in a seamless, no-big-thing kind of way.
In this fictional kingdom, the Cinderella fairy tale is practically their religion. Blind allegiance to the king is required, the subjugation of women is even more prevalent. Every household must own and memorize the Bible, of sort–a pristine, palace-approved version of Cinderella. Worse, every household must send its daughter at age 16 to the ball to be selected by the men of the kingdom.
Failure to do so means death.
So what is a 16-year-old girl to do if she has no interest in marriage–and if her girlfriend refuses to run away with her?
What makes this story so intriguing is not the LGBTQ elements, the women’s rights issues, or even the fact that men’s clothing has pockets and women’s clothing does not (I’ll admit, I laughed out loud when a character explains her preference for men’s clothing simply by stating, “It has pockets.”), but that we see an entirely different telling of Cinderella. What if everything we know about the original story is a lie that was put forth by the palace to control the subjects? And what if the only one who can help the main character is a fairy godmother who’s done terrible things, and who should have died 200 years ago?
This is one of those rare treats that actually does make you stay up all night to see what happens. It dealt with “sensitive” subjects and offered incredible opportunities for much-needed representation. It was just a winner all the way around!
This was an absolutely riveting book, one whose writing was truly incredible. I cannot recall the last time an author’s distinct voice was so compelling–important, since it is told from three separate perspectives–coupled with a really fun, eerie premise. The total effect is just mesmerizing.
One of the most intriguing aspects to the book is the fantastical element of “saint’s hands,” a unique genetic ability that the first main character possesses. The explanation of saint’s hands is slow in coming out, yet somehow, the way the author throws in mentions and tiny yet sufficient descriptions, the reader feels like they’ve known about this phenomenon all along.
Of course, the idealized setting is perfect for this three-part story. The Harlem Renaissance has reached its contemporary peak and the US is on the brink of entering World War II. The racial injustice that serves as a skeleton holding up the meat of the book is an understated fact of life for the characters, cropping up from time to time as if it’s a character all on its own (as in, the argument in the hospital lobby over permitting one of the characters to receive emergency treatment there). The events of the world are a great backdrop for the more important events on the page.
The book is an unputdownable read with a flowing, distinctive style that was simply magic.
Trouble The Saints by Alaya Dawn Johnson
This book read a lot like Sex and the City meets the elementary school set. It reminded me of the constantly moving character arcs of Dominic Dunne’s People Like Us, only starring “bright future”-obsessed moms in the elitist world of gifted kids who are driven to succeed, only their parents are at the wheel.
In the high-brow world of Crystal, Colorado, children are basically your badge of honor… if they’re gifted. Even one characters’ twin sons–albeit not thought of as overly academic by other characters in the story–are on an elite travel soccer team that competes around the country. Violin on Tuesdays, ballet on Wednesdays, “test tutoring” three times a week… you get the idea.
But when word gets out that there will be a new “gifted school” that will pull only the top one percent from the five public school districts in the area, even the deepest of marriages and friendships will be the ones tested.
While the story was compelling from a “thank god that’s not my reality” standpoint–like watching a car wreck about to unfold involving people you really despise–I got the sense that this was nothing new. I think most of society is now aware of the “upper crust” parents, the top-tier of people who have not only money to burn on private (re: no undesirables allowed) schools and a million extracurricular activities, but also the way they push their children into a future of drugs and suicide for failing to meet their arbitrary goals.
The author could not have intended this, this was the perfect book to read during a global pandemic in which many parents are concerned about their children missing out due to school closing, virtual learning, and social distancing. With every page, I couldn’t help but think, “Thank goodness my children didn’t live like this.”
Where the book does bring in some much-needed originality to a done-to-death but also very realistic plot is in the way the climax comes about. It was absolutely a surprise, and a refreshing one at that.
First, I love historical fiction, even ones such as this one that are “filling in the gaps” of real people, real events, and very recent history. Euphoria is based on the story of Margaret Mead, well-known anthropologist, and two lesser well-known men in her life. I really enjoy books where we get to envision the actual conversations, settings, even attire of the people when key events took place, and this one was no different.
Unfortunately, readers will need to go into it with a lot more prior knowledge of Mead’s work and anthropology in general to appreciate the complex, clever story. Much of my later enjoyment of the book came from reading published industry reviews–something I do AFTER reading a book so that I don’t go into it with spoilers or preconceived judgments.
I had three key criticisms, though:
1. As so many works of fiction involving this topic already do, the aboriginal people that Mead/Nell were studying are secondary to the white people, white values, white culture of the main characters. It would have been nice to actually learn more about them instead of seeing them through the lens, so to speak.
2. The writing style was beautiful but chaotic. I would read entire passages, reach a pronoun, and realize the wrong person was speaking (or at least, not the person I’d thought had been speaking). The use of quotation marks wasn’t entirely conventional, but that’s my failing and not the author’s.
3. There was far too much inference/alluding for my tastes. Some readers love it, I do not. I do not like being left in the dark or lured into a scene by not realizing what has or is about to take place. The first time I remember this feeling in this book, for example, was when Nell is narrating the fact that she cannot see well because her husband has broken her glasses. It dimmed my view of him as a character, either intentionally or not.
This book is well-deserving of its advanced praise and accolades, but read it with the understanding that it is by far not a mainstream topic. It’s great to expand your horizons, though, and this book will certainly do that. The writing is superb and beautiful, and the vivid descriptions of the setting are perfect.
After borrowing the ebook three times from my library and never even getting a chance to open it before it auto-returned, I actually SCHEDULED a time to get it, open it, and read it. I was NOT sorry I did! This book is delightful. At times intriguing and uplifting, at other times heart-wrenching and soul-burning, it’s a very clear portrayal of something we often don’t learn about: Reconstruction-era life for lots of people, especially marginalized communities.
Jo Kuan is equal parts brilliantly intelligent and lovably endearing. You just want her to win, she’s so well depicted. Her plotting and her opinionated nature could easily be the end of her, though she still manages to rise to the top.
The historical portrayal in this novel was gripping, too. The plight of freed slaves in the South, Chinese laborers who’d been brought in to “replace” slaves, women who were still expected to marry well even if they didn’t wish to marry at all, even the women who fought for (and against each other’s) voting rights were amazingly done.
From the book description:
By day, seventeen-year-old Jo Kuan works as a lady’s maid for the cruel daughter of one of the wealthiest men in Atlanta. But by night, Jo moonlights as the pseudonymous author of a newspaper advice column for the genteel Southern lady, “Dear Miss Sweetie.” When her column becomes wildly popular, she uses the power of the pen to address some of society’s ills, but she’s not prepared for the backlash that follows when her column challenges fixed ideas about race and gender.
While her opponents clamor to uncover the secret identity of Miss Sweetie, a mysterious letter sets Jo off on a search for her own past and the parents who abandoned her as a baby. But when her efforts put her in the crosshairs of Atlanta’s most notorious criminal, Jo must decide whether she, a girl used to living in the shadows, is ready to step into the light.
Full disclosure: I’m not a romance “fan” in the way that traditional devotees of the genre are. I enjoy a nice, fun, intriguing romance once in a while to simply relax. I literally read and write for a living, full-time, “oh my god you get to work in your pajamas” and everything. Basically, I don’t read anything more involved than the Hot Pocket instructions for free.
Unless I find myself with some rare time off and a desire to just get swept away by something really fun… and boy, did this book deliver.
First, I loaded up my library loans and Kindle app with books by authors who are taking a very vocal stand on the @RomanceWriters RWA scandal. Heads should roll over what has been a lifetime of intentional racism and homophobia coupled with active attempts at shutting down diverse voices. As a non-member, my best courses of action were to RT the heck out of those who are exposing the truth and buy/borrow books by these authors.
While three of @CourtneyMilan’s are currently on my hold list from my library, I went ahead and bought Tessa Dare’s book after reading a review online (See? Reviewing REALLY HELPS! DO YOUR PART!) and peeking at the sample. It’s just so damn funny!
But then, sh!t gets real. Our FMC is (be still my beating heart) a woman in STEM and lifelong world traveler! She’s not a wilting wallflower looking for a husband, and in fact, spoiler alert she kind of doesn’t have much interest in marriage. Our love-him-hate-him dashing soon-to-be-duke? Damaged doesn’t begin to cover it. The two children who need a governess? Oh no, they’re not side characters who hide away in the nursery while the plot unfolds everywhere but with them… I WANT TO ADOPT THEM MYSELF!
If you thought you knew what a bodice ripper was by stumbling on your grandma’s old brown grocery sack of Harlequin romances while cleaning out her spare room after the funeral, you couldn’t be more wrong. THIS one is so incredibly different while still offering everything we love and enjoy about romance.
Go get it today. You will not be sorry.
A lot of book lovers have their go-to favorite sources of great reads. Whether you buy or borrow, have a fetish for small shops or rely on your book blogger status to keep your TBR pile full, there’s no limit to the many sources of great reads.
But here are two that all readers need to pursue (or renew, or fall in love with again, etc) in 2020.
First, Smashwords. It’s a fantastic site for affordably priced ebooks, but more importantly, they do great things for both their authors and their readers. If you’re not signed up to buy books there, you’re truly missing out. (Authors, if you’re not publishing there, you’re missing a huge opportunity… they are one of the easiest and most effective ways to get your books into libraries and to sell on Apple, among other great opportunities.)
Second, those aforementioned libraries. Far too many book fans don’t know how easy it is and how widely available borrowing ebooks from their local library can be. In many instances, local libraries–through their partnership with Overdrive–have great content that you can borrow, read, sample, and return from anywhere… no visit to the library required, no fines to deal with, no stack of books in your backseat that you meant to return!
Speaking of visits to the library, here’s a sneaky act of resistance that ALL book lovers should be engaging in on a regular basis: every time you borrow an ebook from a library, it counts as a “visit!” Whether you rely on your local public library or not, there are many people who desperately need the services they provide. By borrowing an ebook, YOU are increasing library patronage and helping your library demonstrate its relevance to the community! That’s important when it comes to setting budgets, buying more content, and more.
While you’re revamping your book reading strategy, go sign up for a book challenge. Goodreads hosts one every year, Twitter has a number of hashtags for reading challenges, and there are even genre and author-specific challenges to be found online, ie, reading x-number of books written by indie authors, by authors from marginalized demographics, and more.
Whatever you do and however you do it, just read.
While I’m not usually an avid reader of “intense” thrillers, there’s something wonderful about “accidental detective” stories, the tales of people who bring unique characteristics to a case. Fardig’s heroine, Ellie Matthews, is just such a person: she’s highly trained and highly skilled due to her work as a professor of forensic science, but she’s also just reluctant enough that we don’t have to sit through backstory involving their years on the force and the resulting drinking problem they’ve overcome.
Part of the fun of an accidental detective story is that they don’t have instant resources at their fingertips, not that those resources always help the police solve the case, either. But part of the fun of Fardig’s take on the grizzly murder of a young college student is that we also don’t have to sit through the usual “stay out of our case” mess that a lot of these stories rely on. (As if any detective in his right mind would walk past a seasoned forensic science teacher and refuse to speak to them, let alone pick their brains?)
Fardig’s novel is fun for the reasons I mentioned above, but only fell microscopically short for me for two reasons: first, there was a lot of narration that I felt kept me from getting really pulled into the story, and second (inexplicably, since there was so much narration!) I also never really felt like I knew the characters the way readers of book one in this series did. I was often lost for just a split second, and had to remind myself that I have not read the first Ellie Matthews novel.
I strongly recommend this book, but also highly encourage readers to start with book one!