Favorite books read in 2021


Another year of pandemic, another year of over 100 books read. Narrowed it down to my favorites, plus some honorable mentions. Please enjoy!

“Gideon the Ninth” by Tamsyn Muir

Gideon has to be my FAVORITE narrator of this year, for sure! She has such a fantastically dry and hilarious and understandably grumpy demeanor, that reading about these events through her eyes was such a delight. I’d heard that this book was wonderful from a few different pals I trusted, yet it sat unread on my shelf for months. I’m so glad I finally picked it up. This is dark comedy adventure. It’s a mix of genres, and feels much more gritty medieval fantasy action than sci fi. But whatever the genre, I enjoyed the ride. (And yet, I hesitate using words like “Enjoy” and “Comedy” in this write-up, because it’s dark times, the stakes are real, and the body count is high. But I still loved the heck out of it). I was intrigued early on (the glimpses of world-building and trying to figure out what was going on were perfectly revealed, keeping me turning pages and breathless for more data). Discussions of power structures and different kingdoms and battles and rules and monsters and religion and swordfighting …it’s just great! Plus, the way that FONT SIZE was used (And happily it worked on kindle, too) for the “terrible teens” was brilliant. These poor melancholic youths (I mean, honestly, being 14 is HARD, no matter the setting) often have their teenage dialogue (their pleas and whines and asides) spelled out in a smaller different font and it just worked perfectly. “Nooooo. Don’t tell her that!!” in tinier letters so perfectly communicated the tone and emotion. It made me chuckle each time. The relationship between Harrow and Gideon is fascinating, too. I loved these characters deeply. And the pages flew by. I’m holding off reading the second book, because I’ve been sitting with this one for over a month and am not done luxuriating in my remembered enjoyment of it yet. The descriptions are so evocative and the wordplay is delightful. I looked up a name pronunciation guide from the author, which helped me with some these multi-syllabic (greek? Latin?) names. It’s just very smart stuff all around.

“Interior Chinatown” by Charles Yu

Phenomenal. One of my favorite books of the year. What I thought was a gimmick isn’t “gimmick-y” at all. Having our narrator frame his life literally in screenplay format was fascinating. It allowed for insight and commentary and layers upon layers of meaning. The narrow prescribed roles offered to Asian Americans trying to get work on TV cop procedurals and movies (working your way up from dishwasher and food delivery guy to featured extra to the dream of playing “Kung Fu Guy”). The ingrained “othering” and exoticism and allowing no space for nuance or growth or the wide breadth of human experiences. The Asian actors are viewed as so interchangeable (and never as Lead material) such that an actor whose character is killed on the show only has to wait a few weeks before being cast as a different Asian stereotype on the same show. Yu’s writing is clever and funny and sly and fast-paced. It’s a true joy to read, with some really strong observations and emotional hits. The scenes within his apartment building and neighbors’ lives provide such achingly heartfelt descriptions and small moments. As the reader you can easily see how this screenplay lens is trying to provide meaning as well as emotional distance/protection from large endemic problems and hurts, as well as the small hurts of this world (aging parents, a search for dignity and comfort, etc). Especially once the narrator is interacting with his daughter and the screenplay formatting changes: very effective!! Plus some real biting insights and social commentary on many different race relations and power dynamics, as well as the ills of TV and Film media. The struggles against the Hollywood tropes of an Asian Actor, and the greater struggles for the Asian American community to be accepted as American, full stop. It’s such a funny and enjoyable story, but also there’s so much more than that, too. The whole way that Yu uses “Black and White” (the in-book cop procedural with black and white police partners) is such keen satire; the observations are razor sharp, often very humorous, but deeply revealing, too. And then there’s the powerful emotional punch of the final courtroom scenes, but told in such an engaging and familiar way (The dramatic crescendos of the Closing Arguments in our legal drama show). Taking the rhythms and patterns of Film and TV to expose some hard truths about our society. Big statements and small human moments, peppered with some truly funny observations, all wrapped in a fascinatingly clever frame. Bravo.

“Black Sun” by Rebecca Roanhorse

Fantastic world-building, incorporating lots of details from the Pre-Columbian Americas, creating a rich set of theologies and cultures and identities. Everything feels very Lived In and Real. Effortless character introductions, that are instantly gripping and leave you convinced of the truths of their complex inner lives and personal histories. All is revealed as the plot moves along at a steady (sometimes intense) pace: no long clunky exposition-heavy paragraphs here (even if I also LOVE books that have those). Just start following along and you’ll learn as you go. Very character focused, as we shift between several different POV narrated chapters, weaving a beautiful tapestry of a tale. Felt fully three -dimensional and immersive. Great details and descriptions. From Kirkus “ A beautifully crafted setting with complex character dynamics and layers of political intrigue? Perfection.”

“Wide Sargasso Sea” by Jean Rhys

Read this for book club. It has such a dreamy, floaty, lyrical quality to it. Such a strong sense of tone and personality and it knows exactly what it wants to be, even if you (as the reader) might take several pages to fall into its rhythms. Learning that Rhys spent so many years writing this, crafting and re-crafting each word and phrase…that makes total sense. It’s the sort of thing that feels, at first glance, deceptively simple. But it’s actually so careful and clever and powerful. While I was reading and mostly enjoying this floaty journey in the beginning, I found myself totally hooked once she entered the convent for schooling. And then once Rochester enters the picture? I was gripped. And quickly became so disappointed and then enraged by him. By all the men in her life, honestly. This is such an infuriating and believable and real story; women being constantly unlistened to, dismissed, ignored, and over-ruled, to the detriment of all involved. Issues of class and race and gender permeate, in this post-emancipation Caribbean setting. And the final third, when we catch up to the events of “Jane Eyre,” was heartbreaking. I’m so glad I read it. It’s totally its own novel, unlike anything else I’ve read: the interior monologue and observations, the hope and then the dashed hopes. You can see several paths, throughout, when a happy ending (or at least, the avoidance of a tragic ending) are very possible. And instead, Rochester’s pride and ego combine with gossip and rum to damn everyone. Definitely made me want to finally read “Jane Eyre” but gonna have to wait a few months for my rage to simmer down, so I can approach that separate novel on its own terms.

“Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Bronte

One of those classics I’d never read before (although I’ve watched several film and mini-series adaptations, and even enjoyed the stage musical). I knew I needed several months to get over the visceral negative reactions to Rochester that Wide Sargasso Sea gave me. Then I learned the “Hot and Bothered Podcast” was going to be focusing on Jane Eyre. In their “On Eyre” series, they produced several chapter by chapter responses and analysis and critical thinking and really lively and engaging discussions, exploring the themes of power and desire throughout the novel. “Discussions range from ideas of class and colonialism to sex and gender to religion and repression as Lauren and Vanessa explore the roles of oppression and inequality, empowerment and rebellion in the text and beyond, with some help from experts along the way.” It was fantastic. THIS was basically one of the best English Lit classes. Thoughtful interviews with fascinating experts, and laughter and big emotional responses. It was the BEST way to read this novel, gave me so much more depth and insight and critical thinking and Big Ideas to ponder. 100% recommend reading Jane Eyre along with listening to their chapter by chapter analysis. Truly wonderful. Without some friendly informed podcasters challenging you to think as you read this, this would only have been a good but not great reading experience.

“Skullsworn” by Brian Staveley

What a delightfully fun adventure in a richly imagined world. Follows an assassin priestess in a fantasy realm with strong Southeast Asia vibes. It starts with a dynamic and unusual premise: in order to ascend to the next level in service to the God of Death, she must kill seven specific categories of people in two weeks. One of whom must be a person she loves. Trouble is, she’s not sure she’s ever been in love. So now she’s got 14 days to fall in love and then kill the person. What?!? While all these other action adventure things are happening. Politics and insurrection and crocodiles and poisonous snakes! And it’s full of fun back-and-forth dialogue, and great descriptions/world-building. So you’re following along on these adventures, sort of rooting for her to be able to kindle this romance into love, but also in the back of your mind aware of the consequences and so maybe NOT rooting for it?!? It’s complex and intriguing, and the pages turn. And this is a world full of danger (from the Natural world, from other humans, possibly from the supernatural). The two Witnesses (her guardians/observers during this trial) provide such an enjoyable dynamic (cantankerous grump and sensual bon vivant). This is a prequel from a trilogy I have not read. But my friend convinced me it was a stand-alone story, and she was correct. I loved being immersed in this world and it’s characters. Chuckling to myself over the verbal sparring and cranky observations, gasping and engaged at the twists and turns. I mean, it’s got dark themes but it never felt heavy or dour. It mostly felt fast and enjoyable, even if there’s a high body count. (That whole part about being a priestess of the god of death). Plus, the title is just so Metal!!!

“Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants” by Robin Wall Kimmerer

This was a gorgeous experience. The writing is lovely and evocative. Full of wisdom and deep thoughts and small simple observations and lovely little details and emotions and ecology and Native stories and histories. Both personal and global in its approach. Powerful memoir and scientific treatise, providing illustrative examples for everyone. I enjoyed it more than I’d expected to. It was recommended by the Cannon Beach bookstore. Not all of the chapters were fast-paced enough to be “Beach Reading,” exactly. But I devoured the first third, and then really enjoyed returning to read a chapter or two in between other books. So it was super fun when my bookclub chose this book, as I’d finished it. Many images and thoughts that have been percolating in my brain for months now. Great stuff.

“Ghostland: An American History of Haunted Places” by Colin Dickey

What an unexpectedly entertaining and informative cultural history. Starts off by telling the spooky legends of a place, and then shares the historical facts, which often contrast strongly. Interesting historical details about how some of these legends were intentionally crafted to sell attraction tickets. Or how in many cases, locals had an issue with independent women and crafted stories about them. Or how the House of Seven Gables had a different number of gables, but this was a more evocative title. Ha. Really fascinating interviews with ghost hunters and historians. The author is impressively even-handed and not ever interested in disproving (or proving) ghosts. Instead, he is sharing the documented historical facts, and often sharing the documented history and creation of misinformation over the years. Discusses lots of interesting cultural reasons why some of these legends and stories might have been crafted, and gets into some of the anthropological reasons why we create these legends and what important roles they play in society. I really loved reading the documentation of how different legends changed dramatically over the years, and what historical and cultural shifts might have led to the adoption of new and different ghost legends. Also discussing how different gender and racial politics throughout the centuries have shaped the cultural landscape and created/changed ghost legends. Discusses the importance of these stories in society. Just a fascinating book. I’d been worried it might be too spooky, but it really wasn’t. Fun and interesting stuff.

“The Jasmine Throne” by Tasha Suri

Fantastic South-Asian-Inspired world setting. Wonderful interplay and issues with power dynamics and different religions and the different regions and countries and peoples. Not to mention all of the very realized gender inequalities in this world. There is an underlying simmering rage that feels SO JUSTIFIED. As revolution and struggle is brimming everywhere, from many sources. As women are being burned alive for religious purification. As a strange plant-based plague ravages the land. As intrigue and hidden societies and extremes of poverty and wealth divide people. As a now forbidden religion reveals it still has practitioners. Switching between narrators, unveiling this world and the plot in such careful small details and then in big crashing waves. The writing is superb. The characterizations varied and gorgeous and effective. There are so many fully realized different peoples and places. This is not a happy time or place. But it is a very Important time and place, at the dawning of revolution and great change. It is hard. Things are dire. There is great risk and little hope for reward. Therefore grabbing onto sweetness and hope where one can is even more important. And those who have deadened themselves and tried to be content living safe half-lives for years are asked to awaken, to risk, to feel again. This was gorgeous. “A fiercely and unapologetically feminist tale of endurance and revolution set against a gorgeous, unique magical world” (S. A. Chakraborty).
“Suri’s writing always brings me to another world; one full of wonders and terrors, where every detail feels intricately and carefully imagined. The Jasmine Throne is gripping and harrowing from the very start.” —R. F. Kuang

Binti trilogy by Nnedi Okorafor

The first book set up a fascinating world and characters, but was occasionally choppy/truncated in its story telling. The final two were superb. She eschews easy “happily ever after” dynamics, but this is still a very rewarding reading experience. As much as I’ve found myself craving more simplistic and reassuring reading in these tough times, I really appreciate the complexity and indepth story telling here. Things didn’t go as I expected nor as I wanted, but mayhaps they went where they needed to go (or inevitably were going). Good little adventures, with fascinating cultural and family and inter-species dynamics. The second book follows Binti at Space University (not it’s real title) as she continues to deal with the trauma and fall out of the events of the first book. Focusing on growth and PTSD and therapy and self determination and new friends and identity. Binti feels called to return to her people on earth and complete her tribe’s traditional pilgrimage. But going back home isn’t as easy or straightforward as she’d hoped. Lots more secrets and interesting new layers of world-building are revealed. Fractious relations with some of her siblings. The impossible choice of trying to balance familial and cultural expectations with her own desires and skills and calling. Learning to accept oneself and utilize ones power and gifts, despite external pressures. No easy answers, but necessary choices and actions must be taken. Good stuff.

“Memorial” by Bryan Washington

I really really loved this novel. I wasn’t sure I was in the headspace for award-winning Literature (rather than escapist genre fiction) but I found myself instantly engrossed in this novel. There is a powerful sparse-ness to the writing. Sparse seems to imply a lack of something, so maybe that’s the wrong word. Washington expertly uses great restraint in his writing. There is precision in just the few words and details he uses, but they paint such a full picture. This is such a current, real, and moving story. We start by following Benson, who’s partner Mike has just left him (flying home to check on Mike’s father in Osaka, who has cancer). The thing is, Mike’s mother just arrived from Japan to stay with them. And so we follow Benson learning to cohabitate with Mike’s mom, with Mike’s absence looming large. As a reader, you learn Benson and Mike had issues in their relationship and you’re totally on Benson’s side here. Then, 1/3 of the way in, the book switches to Mike in Osaka. And you’re prepared to keep him cast as villain, but turns out people are complex. And Washington’s skill in writing two such clear and distinct and powerful narrative voices really shows. And everything (relationships, family, life, jobs) is complicated and hard. And everyone is just trying their best. And so many people (especially these two men) are so damn terrible at communication (with each other, with their families, with their coworkers). And then the book ends again with Benson’s narration, and everything has so much more depth and less easy answers. And three cheers to the women in this story (the sisters, the friends, the mothers, the coworkers/bar patrons) who continue to offer their presence and guidance and observations and to tell the guys that they should be doing Thing X. It’s not that the advice of others is always accurate or necessary. But that they continue to prod and encourage and ask the guys to examine their feelings and make a choice. These are important people to have in your life. I dunno quite how to write this review. Because I’m not quire sure how Washington created the Magic Trick that is this novel. And just listing it’s ingredients/components doesn’t convey the feeling and tone and strong sense of place and of person crafted with so few words. Tiny interactions at the daycare or a restaurant and the reader immediately knows so much. Again, one big life lesson: Use Your Words! Another would be to read this novel. It was really wonderful. (Although I personally did have to take a break, when we got to describing some of the symptoms of Mike’s dad’s cancer. Again, the descriptions are so restrained and simple, but a few of them recalled personal memories too strongly. But I was able to return a few days later and I’m glad I did).

“Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead” by Olga Tokarczuk

I really loved this hard to characterize novel. Our narrator is such a joy to read. She’s this eccentric older woman who has a truly unique view on life and her surroundings. She spouts things that might sound insane, but I found myself agreeing with her much of the time, sometimes much to my surprise. Even as you start to realize that she’s maybe an unreliable narrator, she is just so dang compelling. Even when she’s endlessly talking about astrology, which does not interest me, I found myself intrigued to learn what Fate and what sense of control she gained from her star charts. I always love learning how others make meaning in their worlds. The descriptions are perfect… often just giving one small detail that perfectly sets the scene. This is a fantastic translation from the Polish (one assumes), as the writing is masterful and a joy and full of so many wonderful little pronouncements and observations. I highlighted so many passages!! She narrates in Capital Nouns so often (speaking of the Deer and Anger and Sadness). Apparently Blake was known for lots of capitalization, too.
It’s also a brilliant capital L piece of Literature. So many powerful themes (nature, violence, borders: both national and between people, poetry). The use of Blake’s poetry is fascinating. And the section about the difficulties of translation was amazing, as in the original Polish she gave three different examples of how to translate English poem into Polish and then our translator had to translate those examples back into three different versions of English. Ha.
The plot is satisfying. This village is peppered with such oddball characters, described to such great effect by our narrator. And we start to learn she may be the strangest of the strange (yet she makes a lot of sense, a lot of the time. And she’s won the affection and care of many of the village). I was engaged throughout, often tickled and delighted by wording or concepts. I think I may re-read this within the year. This time not needing the “now pay attention” (as the first chapter instructs), but instead just luxuriating in this strange journey. From Kirkus Review. Tokarczuk’s novel is a riot of quirkiness and eccentricity, and the mood of the book, which shifts from droll humor to melancholy to gentle vulnerability, is unclassifiable—and just right. 

“How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia” by Mohsin Hamid

There are two potential gimmicks with this book. One, the loose framework of being an instructional guide, self-help type of book. Second (and more worrying to me, initially), is that the entire book is written in second person. At least, I think that’s the proper term. The self help narrator continues to address “You” and tell the reader what you did and what you were thinking, etc. Yet, it works wonderfully. I thought I’d hate it, or at least that it would cause me distance. But I was instantly drawn in, in ways I hadn’t expected. Hamid’s descriptions are vivid and often visceral. His characterizations sometimes sparse, but always telling. You may only get a few details but they give you a strong sense of the whole person. And following “Your” journey in this Pakistan-ish country, from rural farm life, to enterprising young boy, through all the stages of “your” life. It was engaging and interesting and at times unexpected and at times emotionally resonant and powerful. This was such a unique and clever framework, and it is accomplished masterfully. The way BIG reveals are just dropped in as small asides sometimes took my breath away. But, of course, telling about the things “You” are doing, “your” internal monologue wouldn’t be dwelling on a revelation “you” already know, so when “you” have a fleeting thought about Thing X, it is an illuminating moment for the reader. At times caustic and critical, at other times tender, this tells a full story of a life, working within and around broken systems, succeeding and failing at various points. Very well done.

“Planetfall”/”After Atlas” by Emma Newman

Planetfall: This was not the Sci Fi book I was expecting, but I still loved it. AND I loved the second book even more!! The first is really an intense character study, and Ren is fascinating. She’s eminently understandable, her logic is clearly laid out and as the reader, you follow along quite willingly (for the most part). The world-building is wonderful, well thought out but it’s all explained organically as you read along. The story all takes place AFTER when the traditional stories would end. Hundreds of people from a Future Earth have traveled vast distances by spaceship to colonize this planet, all following a Prophet (of sorts), who had a vision with coordinates. Our story starts years and years after landing and establishing their colony. Things seem to be going relatively well, but there are allusions to a Big Dark Secret that could destabilize everything, plus a mysterious stranger. We catch glimpses through memory and flashbacks, as well as Ren’s current clandestine explorations of the mysterious alien “city” living structure (plant? Animal?) next door, imbued with Theological Significance by the colonists. Religion and Culture and Human Relationships and Mental Illness and Secrets and Issues of Control. It’s just all fascinating and some of the reveals had me literally GASPING. Yet they’re almost all VERY believable in-world. The characters are so well developed and feel so grounded in their truths and identities (even minor side characters) that you as reader are able to easily go along for the ride. This world is well established, following its own internal rules, and the character actions and decisions are all so damn understandable. I found myself thinking about this world and these people and their religious beliefs and the seed pods for weeks after finishing.

After Atlas: I loved even more! Story takes place in same Universe(s) but with completely different characters and setting. I was so pleased to see this was set on Future Earth, because I had loved the glimpses of Earth’s future in “Planetfall” and felt so certain the author had this whole world-building completed even though readers only got tiniest glimpse. This world, our world in a believable future, is equal parts fascinating and horrifying (attributes it shares with our current world, if we’re honest). Story telling is dynamic and pages turn. Literal corporate slavery and murky motives. Plus, this is a good old fashioned detective story!! AND there’s religious cult stuff! Compelling. I also love the sheer gall of the author to write a sequel to her Sci Fi planetary exploration novel and set it entirely on Earth with different characters. Ha!

“Unnatural Magic” by C.M. Waggoner

Aw, this was just a lovely thing to read. Following several characters in a magical world. There are so many stories all mashed together (small town girl is extremely smart and magical, but learns that the Boys Club system was never actually interested in allowing her a fair shot, and so she sets off to blaze her own path. Conflicted Troll, fighting against her clan’s expectations and their disregard for her identity choices. Disaffected Officer (youngest son of a bankrupt Lord), dealing with PTSD and trying to find his way in the world. Handsome and tragic young Mage Lord (greatest wizard of a region) dealing with his tragic past and the responsibilities of his position. The world is full of diversity (different races and cultures and species and religions) and lots of interesting and different approaches to gender identity and sexuality (across species and countries and religions). The way that magic works in this world was interesting, too. Basically all spells/magic are created with mathematical equations and parameters. It was fun to be able to see characters working on a practical real-world task to create their spells. The pages flowed well, the dialogue and characters were interesting. And gosh darn it, the side story of Jeckran and Tsira falling for each other was just so dang sweet. Both of them are so concerned about consent and not wanting to ruin their partnership and thinking the other isn’t into them (Use Your Words!!), that it’s just full of lots of longing and blushing and sideways glances and rushing out of the room! The plot moves along at a good clip, with new things being introduced often. There’s even a murder investigation/detective plot for the 2nd half of the book. Now, the criticisms: The world building is bit uneven and unclear at times. I really love when books just drop you into the middle of events and the world’s rules reveal themselves as the plot unfolds. But that wasn’t 100% successful here. There is a LOT of new vocabulary (names for countries and religions and regions, etc) and it wasn’t always clear what exactly each one meant. I mean, as a world-building junkie, I also don’t mind big paragraphs of exposition (and a map at the beginning. And a glossary/cast of characters at the end). This novel could’ve been improved by having some of that. As it was a bit inscrutable, I would just move on…expecting to soon encounter that term again, with more context over what being from that region or religion means…but that didn’t always happen. My other main critique is that the final bit of the book wasn’t as great as what came before. I’m not exactly sure what was lacking (as one would imagine it would be great when all of our characters finally meet up, to work together on the main mystery). But it didn’t touch my heart in the same way as previous parts of the book. Maybe it was too focused on plot and we lost character details. I mean, there’s still fun banter and cute little moments, but I didn’t love the final quarter of the book as much as I’d loved all that came before. Still, it was the perfect thing to read over a few sunny days and put a smile on my face/made me chuckle several times.

“The Cold Millions” by Jess Walter

Bloody fantastic! I don’t know what I was expecting, but this was so much more Fun than I’d have anticipated. Reading about turn-of-the-century Spokane was great. And there’s tons of interesting and important and timely historical information throughout. What I hadn’t expected was what a joy this was to read. Walter is an accomplished writer with a gift for richly creating and describing a cast of fascinating characters. I was gripped within the first few pages, with amazingly wonderful descriptions, and just pitch perfect word choices. We meet a cast of real Capital C Characters throughout this story. Rye and Gig are the heart of this story and are so engaging (orphaned brothers, riding the rails, running from vagrancy laws, joining the “cold millions” trying to find work and earn a dollar, facing violent union busting, brutal police and corrupt businessmen. We also meet a fascinating Vaudeville performer (her act involves removing her bustier while in a cage with a cougar!), private investigators, the amazing Gurley (a true historical figure)…a real firebrand of a teenager and wife, traveling the country helping in multiple labor strikes. Oh yeah, she’s only 19 and pregnant (her age and state of “indecency” only compound the “flaws of her gender” to cause her to be dismissed and ignored by much of the leadership. It’s just, wow. These characters have been rolling around in my brain for a month now. For such intense and sometimes depressing subject matter (made all the more depressing because ALL OF THESE SAME PROBLEMS are still happening now, 110 years later), the book never feels heavy or dour. Instead the writing is sometimes almost effervescent in the way that the sentences just fly along, with clever word choices making you smile, and painting such evocative pictures of these characters. There’s a real spirit of those old timey “Tales of the West” throughout, sharing a fascinating variety of adventures and different life stories. Some heroic and others villainous, and most just human. The overarching plot is engaging, pages fly by. And you just want to protect Rye’s innocent heart (a sentiment shared by many he encounters). A million thank yous to the friend who told me to read this. Truly one of the best books I’ve read this year. And such an important reminder for those who know this history, an opportunity to viscerally connect and expand your historical knowledge, and an even more important glimpse for those unfamiliar with so much of this country’s history. The best kind of historical fiction: engaging, illuminating, gripping.

“The Rise: Black Cooks and the Soul of American Food: A Cookbook” by Marcus Samuelsson

Sat down and read a cookbook over a few days and it was a delight. The approach and design is wonderful, offering fantastic biographies/interviews with all kinds of wonderful people involved in creating, researching, and celebrating Black chefs. The thought and care that went into this book are not a surprise for anyone who has followed Chef Samuelsson. Lots of great information and discussions, wonderful profiles of people we’ll all want to follow/know more about, as well as so many delicious recipes. There’s such a necessary (and belated) recognition happening in the industry. This book is about a real moment in time, and it’ll totally broaden and excite your home kitchen, too. Cultures, histories, personalities, recipes. I also loved the thematic approach to layout/recipes. It’s not something I’ve seen before in a cookbook, but it makes a lot of sense. Plus, this is also a physically gorgeous book; the design is clever and engaging. And the recipes are delicious.

“Witchmark” series by C.L. Polk

1st book: I was utterly charmed by this Edwardian-ish alternate world with secret magic, yet rooted in very real and tough circumstances. It felt effortless as I turned the pages, yet it avoided feeling trite or inconsequential. In a country similar to Edwardian England, we meet mustachioed bicycle riders in a country just returning from a long and brutal world war. Miles is a soldier doctor, trying to help returning soldiers dealing with a very dark form of shellshock. But it’s also a world of budget cuts and poverty/class struggles. This is not a clean and shiny and bright magical world. It’s rooted in the real, but the reader starts to see bits of secret magic revealing itself. The world-building is wonderful. Our main characters feel fully realized and fleshed out. The plot is exposed in a super satisfying way, interwoven with the world building and character development. We’re plunked into this world, and its rules and meanings are revealed page-by-page in a way that feels just right. (I wish we’d had a better understanding of the character of Grace, however. She felt inscrutable, as friend or foe as each chapter required, but not a lot of internal motives revealed or understood. Still, this was just lovely to read and a very interesting world that I can’t wait to explore more. Always great when a first novel feels so Lived In and fleshed out. Devoured it.

2nd book: Second book was good, not great. I spent a few weeks trying to synthesize exactly Why I didn’t love this one so much, and I’m not sure I’ve found the answer. Maybe that Grace is a complicated character, and she was my least favorite in the first book (where she was given short shrift by the author, making her moral ambiguity just irritating, instead of complicated and interesting). So having Grace as our narrator this time was harder for me. Also, I recognize that the first book was so easy to love because, while the world had shades of grey and complicated choices to be made, Miles is just a shockingly good man. His tenderness (in spite of/because of his extreme PTSD and wartime trauma, and his complicated family life) treating soldiers. His firm moral compass. The way he loves (his friends, his patients, his romantic partner, even his family). And even though that world had definite dark and grim bits, it still felt a bit of a fun romp/adventure, with Miles in the lead, it felt more assured that the good guys would win. And they did. But only one metaphorical battle. And so book 2 is facing the consequences of the extremely necessary choice made at end of book 1. But those consequences have created real hardships for the citizens. And for the country. And for the magicians who control the weather. In this book, we’re facing natural disasters, thorny relations with neighboring countries, class struggles and justified calls for a change to the corrupt systems of power. Plus Grace is having a crisis of conscience and identity and questioning (possibly for the first time) everything she was taught and trained for. So it totally makes sense that she’ll be imperfect and stumble and fall back sometimes. And I generally love a morally ambiguous character and some internal struggles (all wrapped in a FAST PACED plot where things are quickly getting out of hand, and there are dangers and real world consequences everywhere and things are slipping out of control, and can’t a girl ask that dashing young reporter to the Ball amidst all of this?!?) This so easily could’ve been a 5 stars for me. But it wasn’t, quite. Really 3.5 stars, if I’m honest, but I’m going to round up this time. Because I wonder if part of my issues are just that I’m seeking easier and more comforting plot lines right now. So maybe it’s a timing/personal issue, rather than an issue with the book itself.

3rd book: Really interesting and grown-up finish to this trilogy. As this story has unfolded across these three books, layers are peeled back, exposing more atrocities and crimes committed by the corrupt in power. And these books don’t offer the superficial and easy “it all magically got better as soon as the abuses were exposed” ending often shown in these types of stories. Instead, this has very real world implications and cause and effect, even if THIS world does have some magical elements. Especially as this book follows Robin. She’s friggin amazing: a very practical and accomplished nurse, part of the resistance, part of the working class, part of the marginalized classes. Her pragmatism is matched only by her resolve, but also, she’s absolutely committed to reform and restitution. And joins with others who are unwilling to be placated by the “go slowly” and “wait for unity” by the new figurehead of the status quo. There’s a real revolutionary thread, but it’s a very modern and real world revolution (which means it is hard and complicated and those in power don’t play by the rules and there’s corruption and a disaffected populace and division and heartache. But also community and love and tiny joys and powerful changes. Reading the first novel, I hadn’t expected that THIS is where we’d end up. But having read all three, I can’t imagine how we’d have gotten anywhere else. Implications of colonialism and oppression and a cowed (owned?) journalism class. The institutional problems are daunting and vast and feel so true, while also trying to deal with matters of the human heart, and assassination attempts, and impending magical weather disasters and diplomatic politics from neighboring realms. And how to reintegrate an abused jailed populace. Just, fascinating stuff.

“The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps”/ “A Taste of Honey” by Kai Ashante Wilson

Sorcerer: It was such a pleasure to re-read this novella. It’s not an easy read, meaning only that it requires you to pay attention (and not just mindlessly turn pages). Kai Ashante Wilson use such craft in word choice and structure, and it feels so tightly cut down to the core, to the very essence of what this story demanded. But it’s never stingy, providing vibrant striking descriptions. But the lack of “filler” and the structure (there are flashbacks that are not Boldly announced. Sometimes conversations are not separated with quotation marks/line breaks. Also Demane’s rich internal life and observations are oft interwoven with what’s happening around him) mean that a reader should not skim this book, but should instead actually read it, revelling in the words, learning about the cultures and religions of this world, and feeling all the emotions. It’s been 3 years since I last read it, and it was such an absolute joy to rediscover these characters and this style of writing and the sly glimpses of rich rich world-building.

Taste of Honey:Just lovely. Much easier to read and immediately digest compared to “Sorcerer of the Wildeeps,” so if you found it harder to get into that story, perhaps try this work instead. I was actually a bit sad at the omission of some of that, because I adored the experience of Wildeeps, and re-read it before starting this. (excuse me as I shed a tear because I didn’t get footnotes in my fiction this time) It’s not that THIS beautiful story isn’t complex, actually, and if it was all I had read of Wilson’s work, I’d have been Blown Away! It is just easier to follow, requiring less care and attention from the reader in order to follow the plot and find the meanings. That’s not a bad thing, it’s just a different experience.. And if it gets more people reading Wilson’s work, even better! And you don’t need to have read Wildeeps to read this story at all. This is not a sequel. Only that it is set in the same world. And what a JOY this world is to explore!! It is so richly imagined and lush, but Wilson’s writing always has such care and precision. Instead of the standard paragraphs stuffed full of world-building description, he’ll present a sly sentence, focusing on one small detail, and that detail illuminates so much about this world.
So refreshing to read something outside the standard Fantasy World of Alternate Medieval Europe. This is instead a rich Alternate African setting. There are occasional god-like beings who wander among the people. Physics and Mathematics are considered “women’s work.” It was amazing watching the world glimpsed in Wildeeps become even further fleshed out here. In Wildeeps we followed soldiers protecting a caravan traveling across the continent to one of the shining Cities, facing dangerous magics and creatures in the wilds. Amazing glimpses of different cultures and social mores, stopping at big trading stations along the route. “A Taste of Honey” takes place in one of those destination Shining cities, Royal Seat of the area and following Aquib (assistant keeper at the Royal Menagerie). Here we are also first introduced to a pseudo-Roman Empire, that has sent a delegation. And you watch the different cultures, norms, beliefs, and languages interact, too. Gosh, it’s just a lovely story. And it flashes forward and backward along the timeline. However in this book, Wilson makes it very clear where the reader is on the timeline. And as he states the ending at the beginning of the story, it is fascinating and tragic and powerful to watch how things play out leading up to “the event” (no spoilers). But also there are many Flash Forwards, showing life 10, 30, 50 years later, too. There is such a depth of feeling and experience here. I didn’t feel compelled to re-read it immediately (as I did with Wildeeps) but I’ll definitely return to it within the year. This time to luxuriate in his prose and small but oh-so-evocative character details. In how he so precisely provides deep insight into cultural beliefs and world building with just the smallest observation or phrase. It’s so damn smart. (The interaction, early on, where you learn that the Olurans are not quite as good at the others’ language as they think. And then watching that play out throughout the book, characters swollen with self-importance continuing the common incorrect phrases (Latin is tough), and the Empire’s soldiers too polite or savvy to mention it. This tiny interesting detail early on then pays such rewarding dividends as the story continues. So good). Also, just reading at a surface level, it’s a lovely and powerful and heart-aching story. We need more voices like this in the world.

“The Empress of Salt and Fortune” by Nghi Vo

This was such a delicate and sly little thing. I first attempted reading it a few months ago, but after a few pages I could tell it wasn’t the time yet. Returned to it recently, in a more settled headspace, and I instantly sunk into it’s lovely words. It manages to provide a depth of emotions and character development with precision (as good novellas must, because of their shorter size). Yet the descriptions and writing were full of lush, rich detail. The rhythms of the story were so pleasing, and the subtle subtle subtle ways that Big things were revealed… masterfully done. I don’t think I’ve read what feels like a story of injustice and big rebellion wrapped in such a deceptively sedate slow package before. Wonderful.

“Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You” by Jason Reynolds, Ibram X. Kendi

So good. And the audiobook is wonderful listening. Powerful, timely, this “not a history book” speaks so well about information that was often missed (at least, definitely under-represented) in many of our schoolbooks. Centuries of important information, told in an engaging and powerful way. Plus, dividing people up into the three categories was a very clever and useful tool: Segregationists are the haters, Assimilationists and the likers, and Anti-Racists the Ride or Die lovers. For those new to this information, or those of us who can always use a refresher, it’s a great read/listen.

Sirantha Jax series: Endgame by Ann Aguirre

Oh, I’m so glad this series concluded well (I’d been pretty dissatisfied in the 5th book, so hooray for the 6th book getting back on course). Overall these were a great way to pass the time. Plot heavy, fun and interesting character details, good dialogue and adventure. I will say, this is one of the more grim and difficult plots in the series, as one would expect, because our gang is involved in a many months (years?) long insurrection/rebellion of a planet’s enslaved population. Guerilla warfare, needing the better-armed better-funded slavers and colonizers to decide the cost of continued enslavement/control of the planet is not worth it. Some dark choices are made. This series never shied away from having Real Stakes (even during the lighter “Band-of-Space-Pirates on an Adventure” stories at the beginning of the series), which I really appreciated. Deaths weren’t just faceless storm troopers. But in this book, we’re no longer fighting a war against all-killing unsympathetic devouring monsters (as in a previous installment). These are humans versus hominids (humanoids?). And losses and deaths are real and dark. Atrocities are committed. Plus all the gross inhumane acts done to enslaved persons. Rebellion fighters trying their best, often in impossible situations. Rebellion fighters not trying their best, being real and affected by emotions and rage and guilt and vengeance and despair. Sometimes motives are pure and sometimes they are murky! I appreciated the real look at what these situations do to people. But also, it’s still mostly wrapped in a semi-shiny, fun, Sci Fi world, so it’s not like reading stories set in Earth’s history, ya know? It didn’t leave me hopeless or depressed. And there are some really interesting hurdles among interpersonal relationships, too. As well as some choices that really examine the nature of Self and Identity (going deep under cover with extreme body mod/surgery to change ones face and body. What that does to your own identity and to those who know you. Which is also continuing themes explored in previous works, about seeing and interacting with non-hominid alien beings, and distinctions between surface and internal selves). So yeah, Aguirre continues to surprise me (in good ways), while providing a very readable adventure.

“Silver in the Wood” by Emily Tesh

Gorgeous little novella, incorporating The Green Man mythology into a really fascinating story, well-told. Lovely descriptions and emotions and a good story arc. Could totally see this growing into a series, but am also quite content with it as a solo journey.

Honorable Mentions:

“A Dark and Starless Forest” by Sarah Hollowell

This was NOT what I was expecting. I was expecting engaging witch-y fantasy adventure. This story was filled with much more real world darkness (parental abuse and mind-games, some real Cult stuff going on) as well as way creepier fantasy horror stuff. Now, the horror parts may not be everyone’s Super Scary Things, but they hit ALL MY BUTTONS and I ended up having to stay up until 4am to finish reading the darn thing because I was too freaked out. In my opinion, I’d like an upfront warning about LITTLE KID GHOSTS, especially if they are jittery and glitchy and have messed up faces and their audible speech doesn’t line up with their mouth moving…. *shudder* Overall, this was a very good and interesting story, that went to super unexpected places, but was ultimately a satisfying read. However, it’s also messy and clunky at times. Especially in the initial set up and exposition and meeting all 9 of the adopted siblings. It’s awesome for representation of a wide variety of races and backgrounds and gender identities and different body sizes and different ways of being human. And SUPER refreshing to read a Fat character whose narrative (internal or external) is not consumed with her fatness. She’s just a person who happens to be fat, and deals with the full scope of person things. So that’s rad, and nice to have a larger person on the cover of a YA book. The characters face some real Capital S “Stakes” throughout this, there are no easy answers and lots of pain and uncertainty. And I really appreciated how the siblings all worked together yet had very believable differences and squabbles, and their interactions with their guardian also felt super real. The rules and way that Magic populates this world is fascinating. But there were times when the writing and character exposition and plot unfolding was awkward and clunky. First novel problems. Still, overall, glad I read it. Even if the ghost girl gave me the willies!! Just know it’s dark and violent and scary. Man, my junior high self would’ve been OBSESSED with this book.

“Less” by Andrew Sean Greer

I was definitely NOT sure about this novel for the first few chapters. It felt just so calculated, a sharp skewering of writers and publishing, winking at the reader in an elite/judgy way. The Pulitzer Prize win felt like a prize for reflecting an industry and a group back to themselves, and we humans SO love that. (In-group lampoonings are often beloved by the in-group). I wasn’t sure I was going to care about this story or these people. But I started to see beyond Less and see what the narrator was actually revealing. Plus the lovely metaphors and the secretly beautiful phrases and descriptions. Then the heart of this novel snuck up on me. The author is very skilled, and I’m glad I didn’t discount this. Because at its surface, Arthur Less is just a very uninteresting Eeyore character. The later mentions of the novel within the novel (and how readers just aren’t that interested in hearing the sad thougths of a white guy in his 50’s wandering SF, even if he is gay) are very illuminating and well done. It’s also a very funny novel, but in a sly way. Less’s spoken dialogue is often super sharp and hilarious, but seeing his sad sack inner thoughts could dampen that, if you’re not paying attention. And that also explains the seeming-disconnect between how most people treat him (fondly, seeming to enjoy his company, laughing and wanting to have conversation with him) and how he is feeling/observing the world around him. Once you realize what’s happening with the narration and realize there are at least two stories happening here (Less’s inner thoughts and Less’s actual actions/words in the world), it becomes way more enjoyable. I can definitely see how some readers couldn’t shake the doldrums to be able to enjoy this story. But boy, I sure ended up having a blast reading this. So glad I stuck past those first few chapters, when I was sure I knew what this story was, and didn’t think I cared for another self-congratulatory NYC publishing in-group exploration. And then this turned into the most interesting travel memoir, too, as Less agrees to a series of literary events and freelance gigs that will take him around the world (thereby missing the wedding of his former lover, and avoiding his 50th birthday at home). Lots of explorations of love and heartache and aging. About art and writing and sense of self and worth and how one should live ones life. There are some impressive observational skills (of the human condition, of the human heart, of the different countries visited…or more accurately, of the experience of being a traveler in those countries). From its beginning, I definitely didn’t predict that this novel would end up being so tender and such a fan of love. And the discussion that, just because a relationship ends after 20 years Does Not Mean that said relationship was a failure. Other collaborations of 20 years would be considered a triumph. You definitely need to be in the proper headspace for this novel, and be willing to give it a few chapters and to look between the lines, figure out what’s happening with the narration, and start piecing things together. But I ended up finding this novel a delight. And now, here are two of the many descriptions I highlighted: “He kisses—how do I explain it? Like someone in love. Like he has nothing to lose. Like someone who has just learned a foreign language and can use only the present tense and only the second person. Only now, only you.”

“Strange to be almost fifty, no? I feel like I just understood how to be young.”
“Yes! It’s like the last day in a foreign country. You finally figure out where to get coffee, and drinks, and a good steak. And then you have to leave. And you won’t ever be back.”

“Midnight Robber” by Nalo Hopkinson

The content warning that our book club wished we’d known ahead of time: sexual violence, rape of a child, pregnancies as a consequence of rape. So, yeah. Be warned. That said, this was a very powerful and fascinating story. This Afro-Caribbean colonized future planet is so amazingly well realized, and the way that Hopkinson unveils the world-building is super satisfying. An extremely successful “drop the reader into the action” approach, without paragraphs of exposition. Yet you are very quickly exposed to and learning about how this world works. Truly fascinating and engaging. Seeing this imagined future and how different pieces of culture and folklore have traveled through the generations. The role of the Nanny (implanted neural network) is handled in such a unique way, as well as the off-shoot group of “extremists/weirdos” who preach the importance of making objects by hand and eschewing technology. And just as you’re starting to settle into this new world, our lead Tan-Tan is shunted off to a whole other planet. A prison exile planet, where we get to learn even more interesting and new world building. I LOVE learning about created cultures, and the douen were some of the most interesting alien creatures/cultures I’ve read about. I loved it! And I loved how different facets of knowledge and understanding unfold throughout. These characters will make your heart ache!!! Tan-Tan is a narrator I won’t soon forget. She’s also beautifully and believably flawed, too. I feel like we often don’t allow our female characters to be imperfect, but this felt so damn real and relatable and my heart just hurt for her and understood her and hoped for her. As one would expect, a prison exile planet is a harsh environment (not only the lack of resources and human comforts, but also the different aliens and creatures who are a threat). But as always proves the case, the biggest monsters are fellow humans, darn it. This book is written in a stylized patois, and at times I found it a little difficult to get started (but in those times, I’d read it aloud, focusing on the sound of the words and then the meaning generally revealed itself and I’d find myself slipping into its hypnotic rhythms. Definitely added to the sense of immersion and strong sense of place on these future planets). A friend listened to the audio book but also struggled to comprehend/follow sometimes. The BEST approach was in one pal who listened to the audio book WHILE reading along with the text, for a truly textured experience. Still, I was able to sink into these words and their meanings relatively quickly. I don’t have extensive knowledge of Afro-Carribean myths and culture, and so I’m sure I missed several of the allusions and symbolism (apparently the doeun are party modeled after creatures from folklore), but I still loved and was able to fully enjoy this.

“Educated” by Tara Westover

Intense! Pages turn very quickly. Westover is a dynamic and evocative writer and this story is fascinating and often unbelievable. A lot of the childhood scrapes and misadventures and injuries had me wanting to do the reading equivelent of watching a horror movie through my fingers. But then things start to take a much more disturbing turn. It’s a very raw retelling of her abuse, and the extreme mental turmoil and doubt and gaslighting and f*cked up power dynamics. How hard it is to escape. Deprogramming is a journey. And how gut-wrenching it is when one is faced with losing part of their family for telling the truth. The people here are so fascinating, presented with so many angles and emotions and beliefs and foibles and tenderness and blindness and powerlessness and corruption and delusion and grandeur and pain and love. The complexities are laid bare and it’s fascinating. (I was relieved to not see the abuses include sexual abuse on the page, just because there were already enough horrors to read about. But boy, it is hinted at. Installing a lock on a bedroom door sure seems like an attempt at protecting from certain attacks, right?). Westover is frank and honest throughout, shockingly so at times. And I really appreciated her honesty about certain incidents where there are different memories between the siblings. Fascinating.

“The Crimson Crown” Seven Realms series by Cinda Williams Chima

What a satisfying conclusion to this four book series. Continues to raise the stakes and the pages continue to fly by. Fast paced, engaging, adventure. And the fact that it’s all 17 year olds in these vital positions of trying to save each other and their kingdom?!? Sometimes that part of YA books is off-putting for me, but I found this worked well. The world building and characters felt real. The circumstances that have led us here were believable. And it continues to have ample foreshadowing so the reader can feel super smart, having guessed at many of the “big reveals,” but still has enough surprises to keep things interesting. This was a great four-book escape.

“I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter” by Erika L Sanchez

Worthy addition to the coming-of-age genre. At the opening, Julia’s older sister (the “sainted” Olga) is killed by a semi truck. Teenage Julia has always struggled to fit into her family and to connect to her parents. This grief sends each family member into their own tailspin, and none of it seems to be going well. Julia’s narrative voice is fresh and honest and snarky and brutal at times. Felt very real. Upfront about her struggles through depression and mental health. Searching for identity and meaning and sense of self, while also getting her first boyfriend and dealing with high school and college applications. Spending time with her extended family in Mexico. Trying to uncover the mysterious clues she found in Olga’s bedroom, even though nobody else seems interested in pursuing them. Quick read, full of emotions and big questions and struggle and laughs and love and heartache. Hits all the marks.

“An Ember in the Ashes” by Sabaa Tahir

Found on my mom’s shelf. This was such a compelling story, that kept the pages turning and was a very satisfying read. The world-building is great. Much of the publicity talks about how this world is modeled after Ancient Rome, and there’s definitely aspects of that, and themes of imperialism and oppression and caste systems abound. But I found that description misleading as soon as we started following some of the soldier characters. That may be a loose framework, but the small fantastical elements the author has woven throughout are rich and surprising and sometimes so deeply unsettling. The entire concept of the Mask soldiers is so creepy and powerful. From the outside, they are so effectively removed from their humanity, as well as being imbued with such power and fear. Yet this story also contains some really well-rounded side characters, and that includes the soldiers, too. This world and story could so easily have been told on the surface level, and it’s plot adventures would’ve carried it along well enough. So it was such a nice surprise to see some real depth and emotion, too. Also, heads up, this world is stunningly brutal at times. (While it’s YA fantasy, it doesn’t shy away from dark truths). I mean, it begins with action and death, and that continues. But also, it gets worse as pages go by. Or maybe it’s just that it took me a bit to get into this book. I found the story fine, but it took me a bit to start caring/understanding the characters. So I’m not sure if later cruelties are worse or it’s just that I was more invested. I don’t want to give the wrong idea with this warning. It’s not Torture-Porn or Horror. But this world of martial law and underclasses and slavery has brutality and threat of sexual assault in it, and this book doesn’t shy away from that. And then, partway through this story, things shift again. Or new layers are revealed. The introduction of the augurs and mystical elements take things in new directions. And the physical/mental harms and body counts rise. But the struggles feel justified and the story compelling. I really enjoyed this journey and am looking forward to the next book.

“Sweep of the Blade” by Ilona Andrews

This series is just plain fun. In this 4th book, the pages turn, dialogue is snappy, lots of adventure and the stakes keep being raised. I actually enjoyed this much more than the first three, as it follows Dinah’s sister’s adventures on the Vampire Planet (Remember in this world that all supernatural beings exist, but they’re all aliens. Werewolves come from werewolf planet, Vampires from Vampire Planet, etc) and I liked this world and adventures more than the Earthbound “we can’t let normal humans know about the aliens” plots of the first three books. Super skilled bad-ass heroine, who is constantly being overlooked and undervalued (but never by the male lead!!! which was quite refreshing), so there are many many satisfying comeuppances. Also, so nice NOT to be dealing with a brooding and wounded male love interest (an over-used trope). In this case, it’s our heroine who is sorting through some serious baggage, but never in a way that’s too deep or too much of a bummer. This book knows exactly what it is trying to be, and it delivers.

“The Ruthless Lady’s Guide to Wizardry” by C. M. Waggoner

Well, darn. I am so conflicted in how to rate this book. The first half was 100% one of the most fun things I’ve read in months. I was instantly gripped by the way the author plays with language. Our narrator’s pseudo-cockney slang and insane loquaciousness is super charming. I ended up reading some of it aloud, just to play with the words. Our hard-drinking petty thief finds herself hired as part of a bodyguard contingent for a Nobleman’s daughter. And the adventure is a rollicking good time. Pages turn at a brisk pace, it’s interesting and fun. While this is another book set in the same world as “Unnatural Magic,” it’s not really a sequel. It’s in a different country with entirely different characters (one of whom is the now adult daughter of the of a couple from the first book. So there are minor mentions of her parents, but nothing that would require you to have read the first book). Also, it feels ENTIRELY different from the first book, in tone and approach and subject matter and plotting and characters. The first book told many characters’ stories, and dealt with issues of prejudice and gender inequity and politics and warfare and magic and trust and love and really fascinating religious and gender structures. This book is truly only Delly’s story. She is our narrator, and it is her experience that frames everything. And it’s much more about class and economic differences and issues therein. However I noticed that the world-building isn’t repeated in this book, so new readers to this world will know the pseudo-Victorian landscape and social rules, but they won’t really have any framework for the larger religious, magic, and householding rules explained in book one. Although those aren’t really necessary for understanding this plot, and they don’t overly concern Delly so they’re not really observed or discussed. But I wonder if that lack of familiarity might make some of the descriptions and plot feel less Full then what I experienced (because I’d read the first book). However, the first book is so different in every way that not everyone who would like one of these books would necessarily like the other. Regardless, my real complaints and worries with this book is that it completely LOSES MOMENTUM halfway through. The adventure grinds to a halt, and seems to be replaced with a mystery and investigation (which would be great). But the answer is found pretty quickly, and instead there are chapters and chapters of essentially Waiting Around. The plot to ingratiate themselves with a local crime ring requires concocting their own better version of the new street drug. And so we spend over a hundred pages building a lab and running tests and there just is no momentum for any of it. It drags extra hard because during these weeks of waiting, Delly is having huge doubts about her burgeoning relationship and whether she could (or even Should) try to live with someone from the upper class. Some very understandable worries and real life problems, but it is just a LOT of pages of worry and no actual communication and it is kind of a slog. (Even the strange necromancied mouse who talks in sound effects isn’t enough to make this middle section a joy to read). The novel ends alright, and I’m definitely still glad I read it. I’m just so sad that it couldn’t maintain it’s vibrancy, and that the page-turning slowed way down. It’s not that Delly’s thoughts or internal journey weren’t valid, just that they were not presented in an interesting or engaging way. I dunno, but it just missed the mark somehow. At page 120 I was ready to crow about this book from the rooftops. But by the time I finished it, I’m left with this 3.5 star experience (because the first half was 5 stars and the second half is 2 stars). Ah well, this is definitely still an author to watch. Both of their books have such great promise and a lot to recommend them. And as they keep writing, I’m sure some of the rough edges and problems will get smoothed out.

“American Street” by Ibi Zoboi

Fabiola is such an earnest and poignant narrator. As a teenager, leaving Haiti for Detroit, her mother is detained by ICE, forcing her to navigate alone this new world with her Aunt and cousins. The emotions are raw and true, as the struggles are big and small. It’s hard enough finding your identity and sense of self in high school, but doing it with all the big cultural changes and without her mother’s guidance, in a household where she’s mostly left to fend for herself. It all felt so real: the world is big and messy and complicated and we’re all just doing our best, and it’s difficult trying to parse out cultural understandings and hidden meanings and societal rules. Made more complicated as she’s trying to define who she is as she enters adulthood, who she wants to be in this new city, and how not to lose too much of her history and self in the process. Add in a tender burgeoning romance, questions of who can and cannot be trusted, issues of abuse and secrets, and it is all a LOT to deal with. I loved the continued exploration and integration of her faith and beliefs…the use of Papa Legba was particularly powerful. This novel is very grounded in the real world, and doesn’t offer Disney Fairytale magical endings. But it’s true and heartfelt and affecting. Plus, this cover is just stunningly beautiful.

“Float Plan” by Trish Doller

I sure do love a travel story, and after 14+ months of closed borders, it was wonderful to be sailing the Caribbean. I personally have no desire for a long sailboat voyage, but I’ve sure read some wonderful books about them (“An Embarrassment of Mangoes” is a wonderful travel memoir example). And this was lovely. It’s an examination of grief and healing. Anna’s fiance died of suicide almost a year ago, and she’s been in deep depression and adrift since then, understandably. Before Ben died, they’d been talking of taking this big sailing adventure. Rather spontaneously, Anna quits her job and heads out on the boat to take the journey they were denied. However, Ben was the sailor in their relationship and Anna is a bit of a mess (emotionally, mentally, physically, and where sailing skills are required). So she determines she must hire a sailor to help complete the journey. Enter Keane, an Irish gent working through his own challenges. Once a top ranked competitive sailor, the loss of his leg has led him to be viewed as a risk by most crews. And so, it’s two people going on an adventure, each working up the courage to face what they’re sailing away from, and trying their own ways to work through their individual losses. It’s not really a spoiler to say that things get a bit romantic between them, but I appreciated that this journey was about them as individuals and wary friendship for most of the book. It felt more natural (even if Keane is almost magical in his skills and knowledge…not only an expert sailor, but he seems to have beloved friendships with the locals on all the islands, allowing for wonderful interactions throughout the journey). I appreciated very much the frank discussions of his different types of prosthesis legs and the extra care/attention necessary. It was real and refreshing, neither ignored nor used as his Defining Characteristic! Just nice to see this representation. My practical self occasionally questioned the finances of this trip (their decided lack of funds is a constant plot point, but does require a few Kindness of Strangers/Deus ex Machina to help save the day). A very pleasant read.

“Polaris Rising” series by Jessie Mihalik

Loved the first book the best. It’s a rollicking good time. Page-turning adventures with a kick ass Space princess, in hiding and on the run. Mercenaries and inter-planetary politics and intense contract negotiations and deceit. Prison breakouts and endearing criminals and romantic tension and fights and chases (on foot and in space). I think I read this in like two days. Had a smile on my face most of the time. There is not enough depth of character development, world-building, nor writing craft to justify repeat readings. But there’s snark, and fast-paced dialogue, and sexy times, and our group of scrappy pals against impossible odds. This book knows exactly what it is trying to be and it succeeds. A delightful journey. The second book was perfectly fine, but I didn’t love it as much. Then I read the third/final book. When the real world is this turbulent, there is something so comforting about reading a series. I knew exactly what to expect after the first two books. The world-building was already established. I knew the good guys would ultimately win the day. Those are things that, in the past, didn’t always appeal to me. But for the last two years, the familiarity and safety are appealing. And it’s just silly action fun. Fast-paced, higher stakes, bad guys continue to do more bad things, scrappy group of good guy super soldiers continue to win the day against impossible odds. These are strong-willed and very smart heroines, often working through some trust and communication issues. But it’s all banter and quick reveals and page turning. Nothing earth-shattering, but a perfectly entertaining adventure and a relatively satisfying conclusion to a decent adventure trilogy.

“Garnet Hill” by Denise Mina

Very good mystery investigation. Unusual lead, thrust into a tough situation. She’s fascinatingly complicated, and the whole situation is such a mess, and the institutions that are supposed to protect and serve (police, hospitals, doctors) have all failed her (& everyone involved). The pacing is great. The setting of Glasgow is very well realized. Some of the slang I didn’t know, of course. Most I could get from context, but a few times I had to Google when it clearly affected the plot. Characters are all really interesting and feel very real and unique. Also, heads up, it deals with some dark grim themes (sexual abuse, incest, betrayal of trust). The characters often make infuriating choices, but it’s always explained and you can see how/why they think their chosen course of action is the proper one (even though you’re screaming at them to make a different choice. And maybe drink a little less. But the alcoholism also totally is understandable, just a bummer too, in a series of bummers). But it ends in a satisfying way, which didn’t feel guaranteed while reading it. It’s gritty, but not in a celebratory/titillating way (sometimes “gritty” mysteries feel like suffering and hardship is supposed to be titillating). It’s presenting a true version of life that is hard, and people who are let down by (or outright abused by) the system and their circumstances. These characters have been stuck in my brain for two weeks since I finished this. First heard about the author on the Graham Norton talk show. Looked her up and this was a recommended starting place. I’ll definitely read the next one.

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