The Book Beat - February 7, 2022
Happy new year, book friends! So far 2022 has been a challenge, but the silver lining is that I've had plenty of time to read, and I hit my personal month best at 15 books read. A great start to the new year books-wise. Otherwise? It was "Covid January" at my house, with my kids and I coming down with the omicron variant. We're all vaccinated, so our symptoms were pretty mild, but it's still a scary illness since so much is still unknown. And I have asthma, so coughing and wheezing scares me in general. And I'm going to say it: Doctors, nurses, and virologists are heroes! Creating a vaccine AND taking care of everyone, vaccinated or not. You all impress me daily with your intelligence, care, and concern. It's amazing.
Thankfully, we are all better AND I was out of quarantine in time to enjoy my birthday. On that day I shared a post on my Bookstagram page with the above pic and chronicled the books that have meant the most to me throughout each of the five decades that I've been alive (47 years, but ALMOST five full decades of reading). I had a blast going through my totes and reminiscing about these books...
Corduroy, Charlotte’s Web, Green Eggs and Ham, A Snowy Day, A Wrinkle in Time, Where the Red Fern Grows (the first book that made me cry), Nancy Drew, The Phantom Tollbooth (the book that made me a bookworm!).
Jane Eyre, Little Women, Pride and Prejudice (the GOAT!), Remember Me and Chain Letter by Christopher Pike, the Junior High and Sweet Valley High series. School books, The Catcher in the Rye, The Joy Luck Club, The Color Purple (the book that made me realize the importance of reading diverse and challenging books), Frankenstein, Romeo and Juliet, The Great Gatsby, A Separate Peace.
The romance years and many Oprah’s Bookclub books! Bet Me, Suzanne Brockmann’s Troubleshooter series, the Bridgerton series, Bridget Jones’s Diary, The Time Traveler’s Wife (I adore this book!), Good in Bed, a gazillion historical and contemporary romances, She’s Come Undone, Memoirs of a Geisha, Midwives, Snow Falling on Cedars, The Memory Keeper’s Daughter.
The “reading to young kids” years and rediscovering my love of reading when the kids were old enough to entertain themselves! Gossie, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Llama Llama Red Pajama, The Library Lion. The Namesake (the book I was reading when I went into labor with my daughter), Orphan Train, Little Children, Eat Pray Love, Fahrenheit 451, Like Water for Chocolate, Gone Girl, and any and all poetry by Mary Oliver and Sharon Olds.
A shift from mostly romances to memoirs, lit fiction, popular fiction, and books I see on bookstagram. Born a Crime, Know My Name, Hana Khan Carries On, Orphan Train, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Cloud Cuckoo Land, The House in the Cerulean Sea, Evvie Drake Starts Over, and the 7 Husbands of Evelyn Hugo…
What books have defined your life (so far)?
Congrats to Aria Mia Loberti, an untrained blind actress who has landed the lead role in the Netflix adaptation of Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See. I haven't read the book yet, but it's on my list for a long-time-on-my-TBR-pile book that I will tackle this year.
Looking to read more short stories this year, or even one a day? Here's a list of short stories you can read online free right now. Enjoy!
I'm a huge fan of audiobooks, especially memoirs read by the subject. This fun article reviews two highly acclaimed recent memoirs by Mel Brooks and Will Smith. I gave Brooks's book ⭐⭐ ⭐⭐ and have Smith's on hold on @Libbyapp.
Bridgerton's Back on March 25!
Season two of this delicious show is back for binging on Friday, March 25. It would be absolutely crazy for someone to take the day off and make plans with her bestie to binge it while eating takeout and drinking wine all day, right?
Book two of the Bridgerton saga is my second favorite of the series (I will most likely pass out from joy when season four arrives, but I digress...). The love story of Anthony Bridgerton and Kate Sheffield is terrific (her name's been changed to Sharma on the show to reflect the actress's Indian heritage). Kate doesn't take Anthony's nonsense and is his equal in every way. These glorious pictures have made me even more ecstatic! It's time for this rake to be taken down a peg (or twelve) and confident and feisty Kate Sharma is just the lady to do it. I'm also VERY EXCITED to see the hilarious game of pall mall from the book translated to the screen.
I've read 15 books so far this year. A few were advanced reader copies I read thanks to @NetGalley and others were ones I read for the bookclubs I'm in. There's a mix of long and short reviews below. I will say, 2022 seems to be another great year for books! All in all, I've enjoyed most of these.
White Hot Hate
by Dick Lehr - ⭐⭐ ⭐⭐
This timely nonfiction book relates the story of a trio of Kansas militia members who conspire to bomb a Somali-immigrant apartment complex in their town of Garden City, KS. Dan Day, a Kansas resident and neighbor, ends up infiltrating the group as an FBI informant to catch them before their plans reach fruition. Historian Dick Lehr has written a propulsive and, at its core, terrifying story that assesses just what a danger domestic terrorism is in the United States of today.
Fueled by racism, an irrational love of guns and gun culture, far-right narratives inspiring hate against then-president Obama and immigrants coming to the United States, and a twisted version of Christianity, these three men amped up their hate from racist rants in private Facebook chatrooms to actually building bombs (using YouTube tutorials!) and setting the date for the murder of hundreds of Somalis. The tightrope Dan walks as a father, husband, and Christian who is against the racism he hears from these men (who claim to be Christians), while keeping up appearances by echoing much of what they say is fascinating and keeps the story moving.
My only quibble was a lack of a larger discussion about this epidemic. What encouraged these men to hate and to try and act on that hate (even to their own detriment) is alluded to be a host of things, but I would have liked a larger discussion about how the rhetoric of supposedly "legit" politicians and newscasters also works to encourage these behaviors and suggestions on what can be done to curtail it, especially considering how the acceptance of violence as a political tool seems to be infecting our current political discourse/reality.
All in all, I was hooked on this very necessary book. If it's not a warning, I don't know what is.
The School for Good Mothers by Jessamine Chan - ⭐⭐⭐
I like a dystopian novel as much as the next person, but this one lacked something...or maybe it just upset me so much, I couldn't personally appreciate it?
Frida's challenges as a mother and the horrific experience she had losing her daughter and then being sent to the school that teaches mothers how to be good is realistic in the sense that she experiences the same challenges, doubts, and emotional/physical exhaustion most mothers experience. Yet, the drastic legal consequences she faces from an exaggerated (yet, still rooted in reality) child welfare entity—paired with the horrific way she's treated by her ex-husband—seem over-the-top and without the usual "fight the man" thread running through them that most dystopian stories feature. Frida's last-ditch "fight" seemed too convenient and not organic to the consistently weak and submissive woman we see throughout the book. Was she suffering from postpartum issues? Was she this submissive in her marriage before having a child? No of this is ever really answered.
I also felt that the plot plodded along at parts. Frida's "treatment" in the facility got repetitive. The constant allusions to the women getting treated much worse than the men just made me angrier and angrier. I kept hoping someone, anyone, would fight back.
The highlight of this book is its commentary on motherhood and marriage that many women face. Chan adds new depth to the discussion with allusions to the racism Asian women and mothers also experience. I loved this inclusion in the book, but was disappointed with the way it was explored. By making the situations and the treatment of Frida so exaggerated, it lessened the impact of the discussion of these true-to-real-life issues.
For a sensitive person like myself, this just wasn't the book for me. I really wish Frida had a bit more fight in her and that the situations she faced weren't so horrifying. Oh and Gust REALLY needed to get a comeuppance in some way, shape, or form. If you enjoy really bleak dystopian stories, this is a book for you.
Thanks to @NetGalley for a free ebook in exchange for an honest review.
The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune - ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
My first five-star read of the year is one that has been out for a while and on my TBR shelf for as long. As I've seen mentioned again and again and again, this book is a breathe of fresh air--funny and heartfelt, with an underlying message about inclusivity and learning how to accept those who are different than you.
I read some of it and listened to some of the audiobook. The audiobook is stellar. Actor Daniel Henning performs it and the different voices he uses for each distinct character are hilarious and distinct. Chauncey, in particular, is wonderful.
Linus Baker is a case worker for the Department of Magical Youth. He leads a rather dull life where he goes to work, comes home to his cranky cat, eats, sleeps, and returns to work. When Linus is tasked with evaluating a house by the sea and the magical youths who live in it, his life takes a turn for the interesting...and better. The children in the house are as different as they are funny. And Linus is intrigued by their caretaker, the dashing yet mysterious Arthur.
Linus and Arthur's courtship is romantic, yet touches on issues experienced by all couples, with a bit of "magic" thrown in. Linus' relationships with the kids are precious, yet still show how much of an advocate he is at calling out those who treat them differently because they fear them or misunderstand them. Again, the way this one explores real-life issues with magic, fun, and heart is a joy to behold. Read/listen to it!
The Maid by Nita Prose - ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
🧹 I love a book with a charmingly quirky main character and Molly, the maid, is definitely that. She’s neurodivergent, which I really enjoyed seeing represented in this novel. Add a compelling mystery to the strong characterization and you have one great book!
🧽 Molly works as a maid at the Regency Grand, a posh boutique hotel that she truly adores cleaning. Raised by her Gran after being abandoned by her mother, Molly lives her life according to her Gran’s rules of etiquette and cleanliness. Her grandmother has recently died, so Molly’s learning how to navigate life without her most important support system…and without the ability to always interpret other people’s social cues. She believes certain people are her friends when they are not and might even be exploiting her to do bad things. One day, Molly discovers the dead body of Mr. Black—a wealthy patron of the hotel—in his bed and ends up being looked at as the culprit, particularly since Mr. Black’s wife Giselle has been very friendly towards Molly. The mystery’s unraveling has a few twists—some that didn’t really click for me and seemed to come out of nowhere—but Molly is her sweet, compelling self throughout and grows a bit in the end as she realizes she has more friends than she thought and maybe, just maybe, wanting to stay “invisible” is not the way to live a fulfilling life. Molly’s sparkling, magnetic personality is the joy of this book. You can’t help but root for her.
👍🏻 If you love neurodivergent characters like Elinor Oliphant or The Kiss Quotient’s Stella or Elinor Lipman’s Alice Thrift, you will love Molly. The mystery is fun, too. Highly recommend this one!
⭐⭐ Four-Star Reads! ⭐⭐
American Royalty by Tracey Livesay (pubs 6/28)
A fierce African-American female rapper meets the crown prince of England and sparks fly. I swooned at this steamy romance. And WHAT a cover!
Blank Pages and Other Stories by Bernard MacLaverty
MacLaverty's 12 stories speak to loss with a bit of hope. My fave was "The End of Days: Vienna 1918." In Vienna, MacLaverty draws a fictional picture of real-life artist Egon Schiele's experience with the Spanish flu in 1918. The flu killed Schiele's pregnant wife and then Egon three days later. This intimate story is incredibly sad, yet written with gorgeous imagery and language.
by Rachel Hawkins
👙 Hawkins' latest is absolutely a page-turner, and I really enjoyed the heightened sense of mystery created by the claustrophobic nature of the characters' circumstance: Spending time together on a deserted South Pacific island that's picture-perfect yet has the lore of shipwrecks, cannibalism, and even murder. I both read and listened to this book. The narrator, Barrie Kreinik, does an amazing job, especially performing all of the different accents of the main six characters. This narration enhanced the characterization of each, while making it easy to differentiate between them and stay focused as the narrative weaved back and forth between past and present.
💀When her boyfriend Nico is hired to transport friends Amma & Brittany to the deserted Pacific Ocean island of Meroe, Lux McAllister tags along looking for adventure. Still adrift after the death of her mother, she's anxious for some fun and sun. When the foursome reaches the island, they come upon a larger boat and wealthy, gorgeous couple Jake and Eliza. The six start partying and exploring, until things go from idyllic to scary. Lux finds a skull in the jungle and the group starts turning on each other in surprising ways. Is it the island itself that brings out the base instincts of its inhabitants or have those instincts been in these characters all along?
🏝️Hawkins' writing and plotting keep you engrossed, as the mystery and tension stay heightened throughout. I had some minor quibbles, but don’t want to spoil, so what I will say, all in all, this is a strong, tense mystery and an entertaining book to spend a snowy day with (especially for the gorgeous description of the beaches, sun, and sand). If you like mysteries and books about the bad beneath the beauty, this one is for you. Definitely recommend!
The Four Winds
by Kristin Hannah
This super-popular book was just a four-star for me. I liked it and Hannah's writing is wonderfully addicting and smooth, but the almost constant sadness and struggle was a bit overwhelming at times. A thread of hope and humanity weaves through the narrative revolving around the Great Depression and the migrant experience in California, which eases things a bit. All in all another sweeping and emotional read from this at-the-top-of-her-game writer.
Joan is Okay by Weike Wang
Joan is the American-born daughter of Chinese immigrants. After her father dies, 30-year-old ICU doctor Joan starts to open herself up a bit more, but still prioritizes her job, which IS her identity. This book is an interesting exploration of a very specific woman going through a multi-cultural existence. Yet, in the end, I couldn't connect with Joan and wasn't very invested in her journey.
Tides by Sara Freeman
Mara is suffering from a staggering loss and leaves her family for a tourist town by the sea. With little money and food, she spends her nights sleeping on the beach and walking into the water. She eventually gets a job at a wine store and finds a kinship with its equally lost owner, Simon. I’ll admit, at first I was worried that this story—written with spare language and dense with despair—was too raw for me to enjoy. But, in the end, I really liked it. Mara's struggle and eventual calm were beautifully depicted on the page.
Love & Other Disasters
by Anita Kelly
This queer rom-com takes place during a reality cooking competition. With lots of talk about food and two characters who are trying to find and be their true selves, this novel is a cut above the usual rom-com fare. I really liked it and thought narrator Lindsey Dorcus did a fabulous job. At times I did find Dahlia (she/her) a little too over-the-top with her zaniness but that didn’t take away from the chemistry her and London (they/them) had. This audiobook kept me smiling while doing my weekend cleaning.
Black History Month Spotlight:
Black Cake by Charmaine Wilkerson - ⭐⭐⭐⭐
This assured debut from Charmaine Wilkerson shares the story of a family torn apart by strife but reunited after their matriarch's death.
Covey Lyncook spends her formative years swimming and baking her beloved black cake in the Caribbean during the 1960s. After her father gets into debt to a mobster, he promises his daughter to the man in marriage. On the day of the marriage, the mobster drops dead from poisoning and Covey disappears under the suspicion of murder.
In the present day, Covey's children, Benny and Bryon, reunite to hear a recording she made before her death. In it she reveals her life as Covey (they know her as Eleanor) and her escape from the Caribbean. She tells them more about a life they've never heard of including her years as a serious swimmer, her challenges in England, and the existence of a sister. Both kids—academic Byron and conflicted Benny—are shocked, but eager to learn more about the mother they never really knew.
As a fan of engrossing family sagas, I really liked this one. The lush descriptions of the Caribbean and food were delectable and the characterizations strong. At times the jumps between time and people (and, occasionally things) slowed the pace a bit, but otherwise this is an emotional, engrossing debut. Give me allll the family dramas, especially ones that are tinged with a bit of mystery and real-life issues like racism, identity, tragedy, and love. I can't wait to see what Charmaine writes next!
I got an early e-copy of this from @NetGalley and @penguinrandomhouse (much thanks!) but also picked this book up from Book of the Month. I mean, LOOK at that gorgeous cover! Major props to artist Jaya Miceli for the colorful and stunning work!
52 Award-Winning Titles Every Book Lover Should Read - Challenge Accepted!
I found this amazing book that challenges you to read one award-winning book a week for a year and journal about them. The books are recommended by the American Library Association and run the gamut of adult books, kids books, and everything in between. The one thing they all have in common is they have each won a prestigious literary award.
The four books pictured here were the ones for January. I'll be honest, I couldn't get into Russell Banks's Lost Memory of Skin. But reviews of the other three are below. As I suspected, America's smarty-pants librarians know their stuff.
The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo - ⭐⭐⭐⭐
I bought this book but also saw it was available on @libby.app. Since Acevedo reads it and it’s an entire book of verse, I figured I'd listen to the slam poetry performed by the author, while reading parts to it, too. It was POWERFUL.
Xiomara is a Dominican teen living in Harlem. She’s confused about so much: Her ability to share her voice in poetry but not in life, her sexual feelings, her relationship to the Catholicism her mother preaches, and her body, bigger than the cultural blueprint of what’s considered attractive but still getting repeatedly propositioned by boys and men. While Xiomara has no problem standing up for her twin brother or herself when bullied, she does have trouble standing up to her mom and speaking her mind.
The only way Xiomara can get her feelings out is to write slam poetry. She has notebooks of verses where she talks about the calm of stoop sitting, the shame she feels about her sexual urges, her frustration with her mother's strict Catholicism, the embarrassment she feels about her “bubble butt,” and so much more. This book is a poetic force - an #ownvoices beauty that celebrates the power of the written word while realistically addressing the frustrations, pain, and dreams of a young Dominican girl in Harlem. It’s the perfect way to introduce all teens to the experiences of a woman of color in the city. Highly recommend this for teens AND adults.
My favorite line...
“…before I can tell her that Jesus feels like a friend
I’ve had my whole childhood
who has suddenly become brand-new;
who invites himself over too often, who texts me too much.”
The Girl Who Drank The Moon by Kelly Barnhill (middle grade) - ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
This one is a gem. I normally don't read much middle-grade (without my kid sitting next to me), so I'm glad this reading challenge took me out of my comfort zone and introduced me to this terrific book.
Every year, the people of Protectorate leave a baby in the woods as a sacrifice to the forest witch in hopes that she won’t terrorize their town. Little do they know, Xan, the witch, is actually sweet and kind and rescues the children she believes are being abandoned and brings them to the village on the other side of the forest where they’re adopted by loving families. When she feeds one of these babies moonlight, the child, Luna, develops magical powers. The escapades of these charming characters—with exploration of serious issues—is terrific. Magic, lore, love, good vs. evil...it's all here. And it's wonderful.
The Line Becomes a River by Francisco Cantu - ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Cantu is a third-generation Mexican-American who, against his mother's wishes, went to work for the U.S. Border Patrol from 2008 - 2012. In this no-holds-barred memoir, he shares horrific stories from his work experience, while also discussing the conflict he experienced seeing the atrocities of death, inhumanity, and evil from the side of law enforcement. Within this narrative, he also discusses the history of how the border between Mexico and the United States came to be and how this location is a hotbed of political discussion today.
Cantu does a wonderful job highlighting the inhumanity of this endeavor. True, a host of issues complicate the reality of immigration and illegal border crossings, yet what's lost in the divisive political rhetoric is the humanity of the many (at one point he mentions mass graves of migrants killed by drug cartels) people who have died. Interestingly, there's no mention of the death of truly evil people. It's not the drug lords or gang members dying in this region. It's the desperate families caught up in years of corruption and calamity and violence who are trying to provide a better life for themselves and their families. His story about Jose, an undocumented man who spent 30 years in the United States before being deported back to Mexico after trying to cross back into the US to reunite with his wife and three sons (he went home to see his mother before she died).
Cantu's narrative is a bit uneven in parts, but the first-person experience he had is affecting. I realize it's "political" to say that I think humanity should outweigh hate and selfishness in these situations, and I'm sure I'm looking at a truly complicated situation with too-sensitive, too-hopeful eyes. Yet, Cantu was immeshed in the realities of this region and he has written not about how dangerous or burdensome undocumented immigrants are, but how much "fixes" for the border problem put humanity last, if at all. Why can't humanity drive our country's solutions?
I'll end with this. I kept thinking of the elaborate funerals we have for people we love. How we celebrate the life a person we love has lived. Imagine someone dying from violence and literally being thrown away in a mass grave with countless others. Don't those people matter? Didn't they each have rich lives filled with people who loved them and experiences they cherished? In my too-sensitive heart, I say they did and they deserve our respect. There must be a humane way we can try and handle this reality. Still, for some powerful and enlightening perspective, do read Cantu's book.
Just Say "No!" to Banning Books!
I'm infuriated by the rash of book-banning happening across our country. As you know, I'm passionate about the accessibility of books in public spheres, particularly ones that highlight the experiences of those in marginalized communities or those that speak to the truths of our countries past and present. I've always said, if you don't want your kid to read a book, don't let them read it (or talk to the school about them not reading it). But complaining about a book (based on "hearing" from others that it's bad or because you falsely believe it has "CRT" in it or it has the words "God damn" in it...all true stories) and getting it removed from public libraries and public schools so no kids/teens have access is unconscionable. And it's especially unconscionable when parents use their kids as scapegoats claiming kids can't handle real, honest discussions about our multicultural melting-pot of a society. You might not want your child to read it, but other kids should have access, particularly in public institutions funded by public money. Plus, banning disrespects the training and expertise of librarians and teachers. Below I talk more about efforts to fight these bans and put the spotlight on one banned book (a new feature I'll be including in every blog post).
To help support the effort to stop book banning, I purchased a #FReadom shirt from a group of Texas librarians who are speaking out against it, in direct opposition to a letter sent by a Texas lawmaker to "question" the inclusion of 850 books in schools and libraries across the state, most of the books being race- and LGBTQ-related.
I was thrilled to hear about an 8th grader (!!!!) starting a Teen Banned Book Club in Kutztown, PA. Focusing on classic novels and books about current hot topics, this club is held at the Firefly Bookstore, an independent bookstore that you can support by purchasing online. It's says a lot that a 14-year-old cares more about the freedom to read, learn, and grow from books—yes, even those that speak about systemic racism and LGBTQ-related issues—than adults. I'd love to see this as a string of clubs across our nation.
Banned Book Spotlight: Separate is Never Equal
Written and Illustrated by Duncan Tonatiuh
Most of us have heard about Brown vs. Board of Education but have you ever heard of Mendez vs. Westminster School District? This case, settled SEVEN years before Brown, is chronicled in this gorgeous children's book by author and illustrator Duncan Tonatiuh.
With fun pictures and kid-friendly prose (a glossary is even in the back), Tonatiuh tells the story of the Mendez family, a Mexican-American family living in Orange County California in the 1940s. Sylvia Mendez and her siblings tried to go to the Westminster school near their farm, but were told they had to go to the "Mexican School," a ramshackle building surrounded by an electric fence that was further from their home. At this time across the country and in the Mendez's hometown, Mexican families were forced to segregate from white families at schools and pools. With the help of a lawyer and other organizations, including Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP, Sylvia's father sued the school district and won (it DID take the judge a year to make his decision).
This book speaks to a truth of American history and touches on prejudices that still exist in today's society. By discussing these concepts openly and honestly (and with beautiful drawings, a glossary, bibliography, author's note, and interviews with Sylvia herself), this book draws kids in to the short-sighted and prejudicial polices of our country's past, guides them on how our society has improved by the present, and how they can continue to do better in the future. This book advocates for progress and compassion and care and humanity...what parent wouldn't want their kids being taught that? Ages 6 to 9.
Cover of the Week!
Beasts of a Little Land by Juhea Kim
Major props to Allison Saltzman and Jasmijn Solange Evans for this stunning cover. A synopsis of this book is below!
An epic story of love, war, and redemption set against the backdrop of the Korean independence movement, following the intertwined fates of a young girl sold to a courtesan school and the penniless son of a hunter
In 1917, deep in the snowy mountains of occupied Korea, an impoverished local hunter on the brink of starvation saves a young Japanese officer from an attacking tiger. In an instant, their fates are connected—and from this encounter unfolds a saga that spans half a century.
In the aftermath, a young girl named Jade is sold by her family to Miss Silver’s courtesan school, an act of desperation that will cement her place in the lowest social status. When she befriends an orphan boy named JungHo, who scrapes together a living begging on the streets of Seoul, they form a deep friendship. As they come of age, JungHo is swept up in the revolutionary fight for independence, and Jade becomes a sought-after performer with a new romantic prospect of noble birth. Soon Jade must decide whether she will risk everything for the one who would do the same for her.
From the perfumed chambers of a courtesan school in Pyongyang to the glamorous cafes of a modernizing Seoul and the boreal forests of Manchuria, where battles rage, Juhea Kim’s unforgettable characters forge their own destinies as they wager their nation’s. Immersive and elegant, Beasts of a Little Land unveils a world where friends become enemies, enemies become saviors, heroes are persecuted, and beasts take many shapes.
I hope you have a great week filled with FAB books! Until next time...