Happy February, friends! I recently turned 48, the Philadelphia Eagles are in the Super Bowl, and I spent the last week reading, eating, drinking, visiting bookstores, hanging with fam and friends, and finishing a few books. What could be better? (I know! When The Birds win the whole dang thing...notice I used "when" not "if." I'm manifesting!).
I have a few reviews for you this week (including my top book of 2023 so far!), what I'm reading now, a Black History Month reading list, some book news, and the Cover of the Week. Please feel free to comment and let me know if there's a book I just have to read, how you're enjoying the recent book-to-screen adaptations, and anything else bookish you think I need to know. Thanks for talking books with me!
📚 Book Reviews! 📚
🏒The Beartown Trilogy by Fredrik Backman
Beartown - 🌟🌟🌟🌟
Us Against You - 🌟🌟🌟🌟
The Winners - 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟
At this point, you're in one of two camps—a reader who's never read any of the Beartown books or one who has and LOVES them. I'm in camp #2. What a reading experience!
You just don't read these books. You cheer, cry, laugh, and live them. Written by Backman in a compelling third-person omniscient POV, this trilogy tells the story of the ice-hockey town of Beartown and its residents. While weaving an amazing multi-character story, he also speaks to humanity in general—with emotionally resonant precision.
The story: Beartown, a small rural town in northern Sweden, is all about ice hockey. At a party, Maya, the 15-year-old daughter of the general manager of the ice hockey team, is raped by the star player. The reverberations of this crime pulse through all three books, as the town and its people deal with other dramas, both within their family and friends and on a larger scale. Backman addresses so many important things: first and foremost the toxic culture of masculinity in sports. He also speaks to prejudice, family, friendship, love, hate, violence, politics, life. Throughout it all, he offers some great nuggets of wisdom and emotional moments that tug on your heartstrings.
I could go on and on about the books, but honestly you really should read them. Is The Winners a tad too long? Sure. Do some nuggets of the omniscient narrator's wisdom seem a bit hokey? Yes. But overall this trilogy, even with my minor quibbles, is a fulfilling reading experience. I really loved it.
Also, I listened to parts of them on audio and Marin Ireland does an amazing job narrating all three. She really gives the pieces of wisdom the omniscient narrator imparts extra emotional heft. Highly recommend!
🐇The Snow Hare by Paula Lichtarowicz - 🌟🌟🌟🌟
I love novels about complex, fully realized women and how love and life drive their stories. This novel is exactly one of those.
Evocative and moody, this historical fiction novel is framed through the thoughts, dreams, and memories of an ailing woman on her death bed. Magdalena (Lena), is a strong-willed, smart Polish girl who's passionate about becoming a doctor. After she's hit by a streetcar, she's forced to abandon her dreams of becoming a doctor and marry an older military man named Anton who loves her with a passion that teeters between adoration and obsession. When Anton sends her and their child away from the base due to the rise of WWII, she goes to her family home in northern Poland. She and her family are sent to a Siberian labor camp by the Russians who consider their middle-class family enemies of the state. Here she meets a prisoner-turned-guard, who turns out to be the love of her life.
The way Lichtarowicz moves seamlessly between what a dying Lena is experiencing and what she is remembering is a true feat of storytelling. As a reader I went right along with the changes and loved it all. Lena is my favorite type of female character. Strong-willed (especially for the time in which she lived), smart, complicated, and even frustrating at times. She's a great character through which to drive this story.
I both read and listened to this book. The audio is a wonderful example of how special effects can enhance the storytelling! When Lena is in that space between immortality and mortality, talking to those who have gone before, the narration is done so that it sounds like the voice is in a cage with echoes. It helps the listener know what is a dream or not as an ailing Lena's realities and memories flood the narrative. I loved it. Major props to Rose Ackroyd for the terrific narration.
💰Trust by Hernan Diaz - 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟
It's no wonder this novel was long listed for the Booker Award and won the Kirkus Fiction Award. It's SO good.
In Part One, we read sections of the fictional 1937 novel Bonds, which portrays "Benjamin and Helen Rask" as a mysterious Wall Street genius & his schizophrenic wife. Part Two is pieces of Wall Street tycoon Andrew Bevel's autobiography. Smarting from the not-so-veiled portrait of him & his wife Mildred in the novel Bonds, he employs a ghost writer to help him tell the "truth." Part Three is ghost writer Ida Partenza's story, where she shares her experience working with Bevel. And, finally, Part Four shares the writings of a surprising voice, which unravels this literary-puzzle-of-a-novel in spectacular fashion. Diaz's ability to keep readers riveted with four different types of writing, while slowly revealing the truth of Bevel's life and his wealth is amazing. I was engrossed from start-to-finish. This is as good as the accolades say it is.
🌕 Moonrise Over New Jessup by Jamila Minnicks - 🌟🌟🌟🌟
This quiet novel is more about characters & their relationships than action scenes. In 1957, Alice Young leaves her family home after being violently attacked by her landlord and ends up getting off the train in New Jessup, AL, an all-Black town with residents that have no interest in integration. Content with freedom to exist in a safe space, the residents of New Jessup welcome Alice and she eventually finds love, home, and stability. Yet when she finds out about the National Negro Advancement Society's existence in New Jessup, she must reconcile her yearning for peace with the push for Black people to fight for equality, not just separation. I really loved how Minnicks portrayed this not-often-written-about debate. The characters were strong and their pros/cons for the NAS absolutely interesting. A speed-up in pace at the end was a bit jarring but overall this is a solid debut and a great choice for a Black History Month read. Karen Chilton does a stellar job narrating the audiobook.
🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟 Spotlight! Maame by Jessica George
Wow! What a debut novel. This is easily my favorite book so far this year.
Maddie "Maame" Wright is a 25-year-old woman living in London who is the daughter of Ghanian immigrants. Accommodating, unassuming and self-deprecating, she lives up to the traditional African name her mother calls her: "Maame." Meaning "woman" or "the responsible one," this name has become Maddie's whole identity. She's so responsible and so used to taking on the duties of others that she's been living at home taking care of her father who has Parkinson's and paying for much of her family's bills—all while her mother lives in Ghana every other year and her brother lives his life, not helping at all.
The story follows Maddie's coming-of-age as she deals with family and work struggles, her first real foray into dating and sex, surviving the guilt of tragedy, and the ups and downs of finding her true self and voice—outside of the personality pressed upon her by her nickname. Author George switches easily between deep, emotionally resonant scenes (Maddie's experience with therapy is terrific) and humor as Maddie relies on "Google" to give her help with everything from "What is it like to date a bisexual?" to "How do you know if you're depressed?" There are a few key scenes, too, that deal with Maddie finally recognizing and speaking out against the racial microaggressions she experiences—I really loved her friends' frank discussion about why some white men really date Black women.
Although I'm a middle-aged white woman, I loved this book. It's relatable, beautiful, funny, and heartwarming. You will cheer (I literally did numerous fist-bumps) as Maddie sheds her nickname, speaks up for herself, and starts to live life on her terms. READ THIS BOOK!
This is the February Read with Jenna pick!
📖 What I'm Reading Now 📖
The Sentence by Louise Erdrich - I finished this for my church book club, but didn't get to write a review yet. It's TERRIFIC. It shares the story of a Minneapolis bookstore worker of Indigenous descent who is haunted by a spirit during the first year of the pandemic and the George Floyd protests.
I just started listening to River Sing Me Home by Eleanor Shearer.
Others on the top of my TBR: The Hacienda by Isabel Canas and Victory City, the latest from Salman Rushdie. Beach Read by Emily Henry and Secretly Yours (out 2/7) by Tessa Bailey.
🔖 Black History Month Nonfiction Reading List 🔖
If you're looking for books to enhance your knowledge of Black history, the ones above are some great choices. American Sirens by Kevin Hazzard is a book that came out last year. It shares a little-known fact about Black history—a group of Black men, known as Freedom House, were the world's first paramedics in the 1970s.
South to America by Imani Perry was last year's National Book Award winner for nonfiction. Perry returned to her native Alabama to research this book. In it, she speaks to the many facets of the south and shares that to understand America as a whole, you have to understand this region. I hope to write a review of this one soon.
As we've seen with the College Board's recent decision to alter the curriculum of the AP in African-American Studies, it's paramount that students (young or old) learn the truths of our country's history, including about how African-Americans contributed to its growth.
A few sites have their winter reading lists out. If you're looking for write-ups about many of the books out now or publishing soon, check these out:
This story made me cry and really demonstrates the power of writing. As she was dying, author and playwright Cai Emmons chronicled living with ALS. Her blog posts have a resonance to them that, I think, only someone on the cusp of life and death can communicate. They're heartbreaking, beautiful writing.
In book-banning news, here's an article that speaks the truth about the largest group working to censor books from public schools and public libraries (and the politicians who are perpetuating these lies and solidifying this censorship in vaguely worded, teacher- and librarian-harming laws). As most should know, this group's reasoning is disingenuous, dishonest, and intended to dehumanize marginalized communities. Now if only mainstream media would be as honest as Bookriot is here and write an article speaking to exactly how and why this book-banning is happening. I'm angry and so beyond tired of the voices of hate and ignorance being the loudest. (Shame on the College Board for caving, too.).
And, finally, there are a TON of book-to-screen adaptations streaming right now. I loved the book Fleishman is in Trouble, but couldn't finish the limited series. It was too drawn out and lost the zing of the book. I loved the book Dear Edward and will be checking out the Apple TV+ miniseries this week. I'm VERY excited for the Daisy Jones and the Six limited series that's coming to Prime Video on March 3. And I still need to catch big-screen adaptations of A Man Called Ove and Women Talking.
Cover of the Week!
River Sing Me Home by Eleanor Shearer
This stunning cover was drawn by illustrator Jessica Cruickshank. The bright colors, the silhouette of the main character, the birds, foliage, etc. All together, this cover is a real showstopper. A description of the book is below. It sounds like a great book for Black History Month. I'm going to be listening to it this week.
Her search begins with an ending.…
The master of the Providence plantation in Barbados gathers his slaves and announces the king has decreed an end to slavery. As of the following day, the Emancipation Act of 1834 will come into effect. The cries of joy fall silent when he announces that they are no longer his slaves; they are now his apprentices. No one can leave. They must work for him for another six years. Freedom is just another name for the life they have always lived. So Rachel runs.
Away from Providence, she begins a desperate search to find her children—the five who survived birth and were sold. Are any of them still alive? Rachel has to know. The grueling, dangerous journey takes her from Barbados then, by river, deep into the forest of British Guiana and finally across the sea to Trinidad. She is driven on by the certainty that a mother cannot be truly free without knowing what has become of her children, even if the answer is more than she can bear. These are the stories of Mary Grace, Micah, Thomas Augustus, Cherry Jane and Mercy. But above all this is the story of Rachel and the extraordinary lengths to which a mother will go to find her children...and her freedom.