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The Book Beat - My Fave Books of 2021 & Happy 2022!

Updated: Jan 1, 2022

Me, at author Emma Straub's independent bookstore, Books are Magic, in Brooklyn.

I know, I know. I'm super late again. Still, I wanted to write before the official end of 2021 to do a round-up of my fave books of the year and reviews of some of the books I read since the last time I posted, share some bookish news stories, share some reviews about a book-related Broadway show I saw (before the uptick in the omicron variant of Covid in the city), and my blog plans for 2022 (every two weeks, pinky promise!).

Here's a video of an ornament I made to commemorate all the books I read this year. I found the tutorial online and actually did a decent job. I have no crafting talent, so this ornament was indeed a Christmas miracle. 😂

Illustration by Alex Eben Meyer for School Library Journal

My Suggestions on How to Read More for 2022:

  • Bring a book wherever you go! Whether it's an eBook on an app on your phone or a physical book in your car. There are surprisingly many opportunities to read while out and about (not at lights or in traffic, please!).

  • Audiobooks saved me this year. And, I will say it again, yes, audiobooks count as "reading." Audiobook directors tell their narrators to read slowly so people can understand. Funny enough, I find that they read too slowly, or slower than most people talk in real life. So I speed up my audiobooks to 1.75x to 2x and finish them faster. Trust me, Dave Grohl and Mel Brooks still sound like the people you love at 2x the narration speed. And the stories are no less interesting and moving. I wish I had a picture of me bawling my eyes out when listening to Still Life while raking leaves!

  • Listen to audio while doing boring things...dishes, laundry, cleaning, cooking, weeding, etc. It makes the chores go much faster. Listen to fiction versus nonfiction. It's easier for me to keep track of fiction books as opposed to dense nonfiction books or anecdote-a-minute memoirs.

  • Find yourself doom scrolling on your phone? Switch over to your eBook on the Kindle/Nook/Libby apps or pop in some AirPods and spend your time listening to an audiobook instead. I have a sneaky suspicion, you'll be more entertained and learn more from a book than TikTok!

RIP Jerry Pinkney,

Children's Book Illustrator

Jerry Pinkney, Philadelphia native and celebrated children's book illustrator, passed away recently at age 81. A child of the 1940s, Pinkney specifically sought to celebrate African American stories and culture through his work, including books like The Adventures of Spider: West African Folktales and reimagining classic stories like The Little Mermaid and Little Red Riding Hood with Black characters. In 60 years, he illustrated over 100 books. One of this most famous was a wordless retelling of Aesop's fable, The Lion and the Mouse. This article details the marvels of Pinkney's life and work, and how his talent and legacy live on through his artistic children.

RIP to these other authors we lost in 2021

(not a complete list)...

Joan Didion

Eric Jerome Dickey

Norton Juster 😭

Beverly Cleary 😭

Larry McMurtry

Eric Carle

Gary Paulsen

Anne Rice

bell hooks

1 Broadway Review & (Many) Book Reviews!

Plus, My Top 10 Books of 2021!

Broadway Review!

To Kill a Mockingbird

by Aaron Sorkin & Starring Jeff Daniels

While in NYC in October, I got to see the play To Kill a Mockingbird. I decided to share my thoughts about the production here. It's based on a book, so that's OK, right?! But, first...we lucked out. I hadn't realized that Jeff Daniels had left the show, but in an effort to boost Broadway attendance after the pandemic shut-down, he came back, as well as other key players, including Tony-winner Celia Keenan-Bolger, who plays Scout. Noah Robbins, the actor who played Dill, is terrific, too.

Sorkin's interpretation of this classic story is as dynamic and linguistically sharp as you'd expect. He adds some new aspects that enhance the story, including subtle recognitions of Dill's queer identity (the character was based on Lee's close friend Truman Capote) and having the telling of the tale shared by all three "child" characters, Scout, Jem, and Dill. I really enjoyed the joint narration. As you would expect, though, Scout is the one who truly shines. One minor quibble: Daniels' voice gets garbled as times and some of his dialogue was difficult to hear (we were nine rows back in the orchestra). The story, in this recent incarnation, remains as powerful, emotional, and necessary as ever. If you can, go see it...maybe after the Omicron surge? (P.S. As of this writing, you need to show proof of vaccination and wear a mask to attend all Broadway shows).

Book Reviews!

🎧 Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro - ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

When I first finished this audiobook, I wasn't a huge fan of it. I even rated it three stars. As intriguing of a concept as it was—an "artificial friend" named Klara from a not-to-distant future chronicles her friendship with a human girl and her family—I still wasn't too immersed in the story. Yet after discussing it with one of the book clubs I'm in, I enjoyed it much more than I originally thought. I think that's what book clubs can do...make you rethink your reaction to books and expand your thoughts about them.

I think my main issue with it was how eloquent Ishiguro’s writing usually is, so when he writes a book in the first person, especially from the perspective of a highly intelligent robot, it limits how evocative he can get with his words. Still, the story brings up some interesting questions about AI, the future of technology, and how much control technology should have on the conception of human life.

2 Memoirs! You Got Anything Stronger by Gabrielle Union &

🎧The Storyteller by Dave Grohl

“Here was a father who was interviewed every day—after every single practice and game—and at no point did anyone ever ask him, ‘How do you manage it all?’ Because there was never an expectation that he—or any man—had to.”

Gabrielle Union again handing out the truths in her second collection of personal stories. I read her book and listened to Dave Grohl read his (what can I say, the 90s were my most formative years!). Both are ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️. It’s been a great year for memoirs!

While both Gabrielle and Dave are “celebrities,” who have help that us normal people don’t have, I found their comments and advice about parenting the most poignant parts of their stories. It’s interesting how similar and different they are when it comes to parenting.

Gabrielle’s book offers intimate stories, like her first great memoir, We’re Going to Need More Wine. I love how honest and forthright she is. Even when, as the quote above shows, she's commenting on the difference in expectation for her husband and herself when it comes to doing the nitty-gritty jobs of parenting. Dave talks about this, too. Actually one of his funniest stories is how he pulled off commuting—from Australia to LA and back—to attend his daughters’ Father/Daughter dance. Food poisoning didn’t even stop him.

While these two people differ in regards to race and the type of celebrity they have and the careers they pursue, I still loved reading about the similarities and differences of their lived-in experiences. Gabrielle openly speaks about the feelings of inadequacy she felt when pursuing the surrogacy that lead to the birth of her daughter Kaavia James and how she experienced so many questions and fears about motherhood. She also discusses her trans stepdaughter with husband Dwyane Wade and how they both worked to learn and support her through her coming out. Dave talks about his super-close bond with his mother (his "best friend," cue the awwwwwwws) and his own close relationships with his three daughters.

Both of these books peel off the layers of flash and celebrity and let you “live” in the skin of these stars for a time. Gabrielle and Dave both share relatable stories that will endear them to you. I highly recommend both of these!

The Love Hypothesis by Ali Hazelwood - ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

This delightful romance has all the tropes and details you expect from a romance book. Enemies-to-lovers. Fake dating. Steamy scenes. The "I need a hotel room and there are none left, so I'll have to bunk with you" conundrum (don't you hate it when that happens? 😊). A cute, cartoon cover. Yet, it rises above the usual with some fun twists. The heroine, Olive, is a Ph.D. student in science. The story takes place in an academia setting, which seems like it'd be boring, but it's actually pretty fun. The hero, Adam, is a jerk, but his banter with Olive belies a super serious yet funny guy who's a fan of dry humor. Their chemistry is strong and the storyline is enhanced by little details that shape appealing characters (Olive's propensity for junk food and Adam's habit of wearing all black). This book was a hit on Bookstagram and I can see why. It's a highlight of the romance genre and one of the best romances I've read in the last few years. Check it out!

Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann - ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Wow! This book has been out for a number of years, and I've always heard good things about it. It definitely lives up to the hype! This whole story is riveting. Not only does it detail an intricate multiple murder case, it also touches on the racism the Osage Indians faced in the early 1900s when the land their tribe was forced onto by the US gov't unexpectedly struck oil.

In clear and engaging prose, Gann shares the story of how, in the 1920s, Mollie Burkhart, an Osage living on oil-rich Oklahoma land, saw her family members killed one by one (starting with her sister Anna) in addition to other Osage community members and those associated with them in a large conspiracy to secure "head rights," or monetary rights to the profits made from owning the oil-rich land. Local law enforcement, hampered by resistance to new investigation techniques and an old-school-cowboy-with-a-horse-and-holster mentality, weren't able to do much, so the soon-to-be FBI stepped in with J. Edgar Hoover taking a special interest in the case. All in all it was, at turns, fascinating, intriguing, infuriating, and gripping. An absolute must-read...or listen to! Actor Will Patton (Yellowstone, Armageddon) narrates part of it. His voice is so distinct! I loved listening to him detail the work of the newly formed FBI to try and crack the case.

Highly recommend the true crime nonfiction gem!

Within These Wicked Walls by Lauren Blackwood - ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

A YA Jane Eyre reimagining with a strong, unforgettable heroine.

Seven Days in June by Tia Williams - ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

A sexy, smart romance, which celebrates Black literary culture.

Hooked by Sutton Foster - ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

This ode to crafting/memoir by the theater and TV star was such a pleasant surprise. I didn’t expect it to be as profound and emotional as it was. I listened to Sutton read the audiobook, and the sweetness and humor you see on screen and stage are very evident in the heartfelt and searingly honest reading of her story she does here. Much thanks to @hachetteaudio for the free audiobook in exchange for an honest review!

Foster shares about how crafting, particularly crochet and mixed-media art, has helped her overcome and work through an, at times, fraught relationship with her mother (who suffered from mental illness) and her own anxiety. She goes through her rise from teenage chorus girl to TV star and theater luminary with humility, humor, honesty, and heart. She also shares several recipes and patterns, from crochet blankets to cross-stitch designs (the audiobook comes with a PDF). This memoir (which, honestly, I didn’t realize was such a detailed memoir since it didn’t have the usual “memoir” label on the cover) is terrific. It was lovely to hear how someone who suffered deep and what-could-have-been destructive emotional abuse as a child by her mentally ill mother was able to repair that relationship later in life and forge a better, healthier relationship with her own daughter. And I especially love that art and creativity were the things that soothed Sutton’s soul and brought her to a better emotional space. Art and crafting for the win! I highly recommend it, particularly if you’re a fan of the actress and/or crafting.

The Trouble with White Women by Kyla Schuller - ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Schuller's essential audiobook--wonderfully narrated by Christine Lakin and Mela Lee--expertly defines both white and intersectional feminism and compares and contrasts the work of some of the movements' female standard bearers. This compare/contrast literary format is both an ingenious way to illustrate white feminism's faults and harms, but to also keep this academic discussion easily digestible and accessible to all readers. Her thesis is forthright and bold: White feminism (through 1940s suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton to Facebook leader Sheryl Sandberg of Lean In fame) has failed to work towards intersectional feminism that promotes a true gender equality that dovetails with the fights for racial, economic, sexual, and disability justice. In short, white feminism promotes equality for white, middle-class women and forgets to include ALL women, including trans women, Black women, poor women, and disabled women.

Schuller isn't shy in her condemnations of the work of well-know white feminists. The writings and work of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Alice Fletcher, Margaret Sanger, Pauli Murray, Janice Raymond, and Sheryl Sandberg are dissected to show their flaws and how they held back opportunities for all women by centering white women in the narrative for equality. On the flip side, the work and achievements of often-overlooked (at least in school and history books) Black, trans, and indigenous women are touted. I had no clue a trans woman activist named Sandy Stone worked tirelessly to promote trans rights in the 1970s and 1980s. Yet, I HAD heard about Anita Bryant, an anti-trans writer and singer from the same time period.

I highly recommend this book, particularly for white women. It's an essential examination of white feminism's past and present insistence on centering white, middle-class women as the only ones who deserve true equality. Instead, as Schuller advocates for here, intersectional feminism is the true goal. It centers all women, no matter economic circumstance or racial, ethnic, or gender identity. For all women to be treated equal in the world's power structures, all women need to be fought for...not just white, middle-class women.

Much thanks to @NetGalley and @HachetteAudio for the free copies of this book in exchange for an honest review.

A Certain Appeal

by Vanessa King - ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

[🏆 Top 10 of 2021 🏆]

Pride and Prejudice is the GOAT of romances to me, and I love reading adaptations of it. This entertaining and sexy one is a true original. Set in the fun and provocative world of Manhattan’s burlesque scene, it features all the hallmarks you love of the original, with some updated twists. Jane is a Black gay man who falls madly in love with the dapper Bingley. Wickham is a duplicitous cad who at first woos Liz and then reveals his true, sleazy self. Liz is the self-assured “kitten” of the Meryton Burlesque show who butts heads (and eventually other extremities—I’d give this a 3.5/5 for spiciness) with the aloof yet honorable Will Darcy. A celebration of burlesque, romance, love, diversity, inclusively, and the family you make with friends, it was one of my favorite books of the year.

Still Life by Sarah Winman - ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

[🏆 Top 10 of 2021 🏆]

This book is astounding. Easily one of my favorites of the year.

An epic tale of history, art, love, loss, and life, this novel felt like a lush, expansive movie. Author Winman crafts a vivid, mesmerizing narrative that covers 40 years of history, both big moments and everyday occurances.

In 1944, Ulysses Temper, an Allied forces soldier, has a chance meeting with an older art historian named Evelyn Skinner. As bombs fall, they hide out in a wine cellar in Florence with Temper's Captain. The brief moment in time stays with both Ulysses and Evelyn even after they say farewell. After the war ends, Ulysses heads back to his hometown of London to a rag-tag group of pub-goers who are family more than friends and his estranged wife Peg, who, in his absence, had a baby named Alys with an American man. Evelyn continues to teach art history and enjoy spending time with several female lovers.

Ulysses and Evelyn eventually find one another again, yet during the 40 years they are apart, the narrative focuses on Ulysses's life with his friends in London and his eventual move to Florence. Each character is richly drawn, making you laugh, cry, and cheer, as they navigate the highs and lows of the day-to-day and the occasional "big" event that affects them. While the bulk of the narrative focuses on everyday events, it still enchants and engrosses. Even when the setting switches to Florence, the lives of the new characters we meet and Ulysses's experiences (and those of Cress and Alys, who go with him) are engaging and enlightening.

When Ulysses and Evelyn meet up again, the story moves to its inevitable and thoroughly satisfying conclusion. I loved every part of this (big!) novel. The commentary on how art heals and reveals our humanity. How the true-to-life 1966 Flood of the Arno is described and how Ulysses and his friends navigate the damage and devastation. Evelyn's rich sapphic love life and her encounters with famous artists and writers, especially E.M. Forester. The charming A Room with a View homage that enhances the historical chronology.

All in all, this sweeping saga is a gloriously rendered historical fiction novel that enchants with vivid writing and a historical timeline that highlights some truly momentous occasions. Yet, it still makes quite a case for the beauty, humor, and heart of the quiet, day-to-day moments. Under the frozen, "perfect" image of a still-life painting, lies the "messy" components that went into making it...but even in them, there is beauty. Similarly, the major challenges and conflicts of life are underscored by the tedium and pattern of the everyday. And even in those, there is beauty.

NOTE: I listened to a live Zoom event where Sarah (bottom) talked about her novel. Note: She's also an actress and does an AMAZING job narrating the audiobook (even the parrot!).

Much thanks to @NetGalley for the free eBook in exchange for an honest review (although I bought both the audiobook and the hardcover, it's THAT good).

We Are Not Like Them by Christine Pride

and Jo Piazza - ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

This Philly-based book (👍🏻) follows Jenny, a white woman whose husband who is a police officer and Riley, a Black TV news reporter. They've been best friends since childhood. Their friendship is tested--and readers get a perceptive, smart, insightful story--when Jenny's husband shoots and kills an unarmed Black boy and Riley covers the story. Christine and Jo do a wonderful job telling this fraught, multidimensional tale. Their camaraderie and friendship was evident in person, too, when I watched a Zoom interview with them about their book. Highly recommend this one!

Duke, Actually by Jenny Holiday - ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

I was in the mood for a fun, sexy holiday romance between two charismatic leads & this book did not disappoint! To quote the hero Max, it was a "goddamn delight!"

Max von Hansburg, Baron of Lauden, travels all the way from his home near Eldovia (a fake kingdom from Holiday's previous book in this series, A Princess for Christmas) to meet up with his best friend Marie's fiancée’s best friend, Dani Martinez. Dani, an English professor in NYC, has been dumped by her husband for a much younger women who used to be his student and wants to show up at the university holiday party with a hot, debonair almost-Duke on her arm. This party leads to a friendship between Dani and Max, that eventually takes them to Eldovia for the Christmas wedding of their respective best friends.

To say Dani and Max have fun banter is an understatement. What's even better, behind the jokes "real" issues are addressed. Max's public persona as the "Depraved Duke" or "man-whore" (why, indeed, Dani, do we have to qualify that word with "man" when referencing an actual man's sexual activities?). Dani's repressing of her dreams for her domineering almost-ex. Max's tense family life and his parents' insistence on an arranged marriage. There are plenty of fun holiday nods (The Nutcracker in NYC! Snow angel making in Central Park!), including homages to my favorite movie of all time, Love, Actually. I expected to enjoy this because of the title, but I was pleasantly surprised by the real vulnerabilities expressed by the main characters and how they worked with the support of each other to find their HEA together & as individuals.

Thanks to @NetGalley and @Avonbooks for the free copy in exchange for an honest review!

The Girl With Stars in Her Eyes by Xio Axelrod- ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

I really enjoyed this character-driven story. Antonia “Toni” Bennette wants nothing more than to leave small-town PA (and her neglectful parents) and play music…on her terms. No big stardom for her, she just wants to play her classic “Minx” guitar and rock out in Philly. She expected to make the journey with her childhood friend (and crush) Sebastian Quick…until he leaves their hometown without a word. Needing money to realize her dream of becoming part owner of a Philly recording studio, Toni becomes associated with The Lillys, an all-female rock band that’s on the cusp of stardom. Seb happens to be their acting manager. Can these two reconnect and will Toni let him into her heart, after he broke it?

Strong characters, particularly Toni, propel this story. I wish I was more versed in music…I don’t think I got as much out of those parts as I could have. Still, Axelrod, a musician herself, does a great job making it sound thrilling. While the scenes in the present did a great job of showing Toni and Seb’s strong chemistry, I felt like the short past scenes kept their shared childhood traumas from having maximum narrative impact. The members of the Lillys and their strong, female-centered dynamic was another highlight. All in all a rockin’ (if I say that, do I sound old?😂) entry into the romance genre. A Philly setting, strong female characters, diversity, and a tease of an LGBTQ relationship to come. Strongly recommend!

When Two Feathers Fell from the Sky by Margaret Verble - ⭐️⭐️⭐️

I love reading historical fiction, particularly novels that touch upon the darker parts of American history. This story promised that and a strong, female character so I jumped at the chance to read it.

The setting is 1920s Tennessee, where Two Feathers, a Cherokee girl, is a horse-diver at the Glendale Park Zoo. Also working at the zoo are Crawford, a Black man who owns a plantation, and Clive, a WW1 vet haunted by his past. After Two suffers a horrible event while diving, a big secret is revealed and supernatural elements come to the fore. Many themes are touched upon in this book--the desecration of Native American land and lives by white people, Two's struggles with her precarious life as a "famous" Indian, the laws of nature/animal vs. manmade structures/cages, racism, etc. This novel spans only a few months, but the themes it incorporates are many.

When separated out by single storyline, this novel engages and entertains. But when viewed as a whole, it seems to plod along at parts and lack a cohesive tie holding it all together. Is it a romance? A mystery? A commentary on 1920s racism against Native Americans and Black Americans? Is it a ghost story? It doesn't seem to know what the main theme is and suffers for it. I loved the character of Two and really wanted to spend more time with her, instead of other characters that are given a lot of "page" time, but who ultimately don't move the story forward much. Crawford was intriguing as well, but again, his specific experiences with racism weren't explored as much as I would have liked.

The issues this novel brought up regarding the differences between Native American culture and the culture of the white people who took their land and caged their animals were its most interesting parts. I loved how Verble addressed each theme separately. I also enjoyed the character of Two. While relatively quiet and subdued, her strength and passion are still evident. Crawford and Clive intrigued as well. All in all, this novel explores important historical issues in a distinct setting with unique characters. I just would have preferred a bit more cohesiveness and closure.

Much thanks to @NetGalley for a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Dava Shastri's Last Day

by Kirthana Ramisetti - ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

This expansive family drama from debut author Kirthana Ramisetti follows philanthropist & billionaire Dava Shastri, the matriarch of a big Indian-American family, on her last day alive. Dying of cancer, Dava decides to end her life on her own terms. Before that moment, she alerts the press that she has already died so she can see how she'll be eulogized. She also gathers her children, their partners, and kids at her home off of Long Island. While trapped by a storm, family secrets are revealed and Dava, an Indian woman who yearns for the clout and accomplishments of JD Rockefeller, tries to counteract the media's sensational narratives about her by inspiring her children & grandchildren to carry on her legacy.

I listened to this audiobook and the narrator, Soneela Nankani, does a wonderful job portraying a large cast. This novel is stuffed with characters, storylines, and conflict. Dava's story, rightly, intrigues above them all...but it's so compelling, I became somewhat bored with all the other characters, who seemed very similar to one another. One other quibble--the story takes place in 2044, but I didn't really get a feel for anything "futuristic" in the details Ramisetti shares in each scene.

That said, Dava is a wonderful character and absolutely the star of this novel. Complex and distinct, she's a force of nature with a complicated core. The stereotypical narrative is reversed--she's the breadwinner and strong personality of her marriage, while her husband is the docile one who handles domestic matters. She makes no apologies for her ambition, which is refreshing. And while she is strong in her convictions, she's still relatable in how vulnerable she becomes when her life nears its end.

I enjoyed this book and the emotive narration by Nankani. Yet, the storylines were still a bit too convoluted for me to be fully invested in the secondary characters and their stories. If you're a fan of messy, dramatic, family-centered novels, you'll absolutely enjoy this debut.

Much thanks to @netgalley and @grandcentralpublishing for the #giftedcopies in exchange for an honest review.

For a nerd like me, books about social justice issues give me a chance to read perspectives from people who are deeply involved in government and activism.

As a whole, both these books offer detailed & knowledgeable information about systemic racism in government & society. Both books are informative, enlightening & hopeful. I suggest them for anyone, not only for their information & scholarship, but also for the unique perspective each has based on the authors’ entrenchment in government & activism and their experiences as Black Americans.

Race Against Time by Keith Boykin - ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

CNN commentator and Clinton administration staffer Boykin traces the existence of overt and subtle racism through various presidential administrations, from George HW Bush through Donald Trump. He’s critical of both Republicans and Democrats, especially Clinton whose work he experienced first-hand. Boykin’s writing is conversational and accessible to all. I was especially impressed by the ending, where he suggests concrete steps on how America can truly live up to its claim of justice and equality for all.

Becoming Abolitionists by Dereka Purnell - ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Purnell, an organizer, lawyer & writer, offers a bold & provocative stance: Ending police and prison violence through an abolitionist framework. Purnell addresses this hot-button topic with historical assessment and her own activist experiences. What's refreshing about Purnell is how, through reading and experience, her own critical assessments of our country and its justice system have changed over time. While controversial, Purnell's beliefs are rooted in her own experiences on the ground in Ferguson, MI during the post-Michael-Brown protests and her extensive travel around the globe to learn how other countries address justice. Narrator Karen Chilton does a wonderful job injecting passion into her reading of Purnell's accessible writing.

Instructions for Dancing by Nicola Yoon - ⭐️⭐️⭐️

This YA book lacked the closure and ending I was hoping for, so it wasn't a highlight for me.

The Memoirs of Stockholm Sven by Nathaniel Ian Miller - ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

An expansive and intriguing story, this book was slow but, in the end, turned out to be a wonderful character study based on the rumors of a real-life man.

The Days of Afrekete by Asali Solomon - ⭐️⭐️⭐️

This book is a deep character study of two middle-aged women. The first is Liselle, the wife of a man who loses an election but seems to be heading to jail due to some nefarious campaign activities. While throwing a dinner party for donors, Liselle questions her privileged yet unhappy life, particularly in relation to her years as a Black lesbian who attended Bryn Mawr College and loved a woman named Selena. Selena’s mid-life struggles are also explored, but not nearly as in-depth as Liselle’s. This imbalance kept me from truly connecting with the characters individual struggles and their relationship with each other. Their past seemed much more vivid than their present and the ending seemed to lack closure.

Five Tuesdays in Winter by Lily King - ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

King’s superpower as a writer seems to be to take very specific fictional situations and mine them for relatable human experiences, including humor, pathos, good, evil, and heart. This collection features a bunch of great stories, with some standing out above others. I really enjoyed “Creature,” “Five Tuesdays in Winter,” and “The Man at the Door.” Some themes that carry through all of them are parent-child relationships, life and death, sexuality, love, and coming-of-age. King has a lovely way with words and there are several lines in this collection that resonate. I read parts of this and listened to the audiobook, which has a different narrator for each story (including Perfect Strangers’ Bronson Pinchot!). If you love short stories, this is a great collection to experience.

All About Me! by Mel Brooks - ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Ever since I went to the theater 3 times to see Spaceballs, I've been enamored with Mel Brooks' spoof-laden humor. In his memoir, Mel speaks a bit about his childhood growing up poor in Brooklyn, his service in WWII, his family, and the love of his life, Anne Bancroft. Still, his work takes precedence. Mel's entire comedic philosophy is this: By skewering atrocities like anti-Semitism and racism, he makes the perpetrators look ridiculous, and, in turn, eases the pain and lifts up those who are denigrated. I loved learning behind-the-scenes info about Hollywood & how thankful and loving Mel was about everyone he's worked with (Mel & Carl Reiner forever!). Maybe it's his goal of humor, but Mel's memoir doesn't have the emotional heft that Kal's does. I missed a strong emotional current underneath the hilarity. Still, he's got a healthy ego, which is tempered by his genuine love for all the work he's done and the people he’s worked with. A great read/listen!

You Can’t Be Serious by Kal Penn - ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

As the child of Indian immigrants in New Jersey, Kalpen Suresh Modi has faced both struggles & triumphs in his acting & political lives. He shares stories about the racism he’s experienced in Hollywood & Washington. “Can you do that with an accent?” is a common refrain. He also talks about his decision to be an advocate for candidate Obama & work in his White House as a liaison for the arts & AAPI communities. Kal reads his memoir with humor & heart. He’s humble about his success in a system that still doesn't treat Asian-Americans fairly & the political work he’s done to make life better for marginalized communities. One caveat: Kal essentially comes out to the public in this book & I really wanted to hear more about that experience. True, it's his personal story & he has every right to keep it personal...still I was curious. His memoir has the perfect combo of emotional/real-world heft and Hollywood info that makes it stand out. Loved it!

A Net for Small Fishes by Lucy Jago - ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

This engaging historical fiction novel follows the friendship and lives of two women in the 17th century court of Jacobean England. Anne Turner is a seamstress who befriends Frances Howard, the Countess of Somerset, who she dresses her for an event at court. Over time, Anne comes to know Frankie and sees the bruises from the abuse Frankie suffers at the hands of her sadistic and impotent husband. Anne and Frankie grow closer as time goes on, including when Anne's husband dies and Frankie embarks on an affair with the King's consort, Sir Robert Carr.

All of the court machinations and the events are told through first-person narration by Anne. Jago spins an intriguing fiction around the true-to-life core of this story: In 1615, Anne was hanged for her role in the murder of Sir Thomas Overbury (she provided the poison that was put in tarts supposedly fed to Overbury), the only man seemingly standing in the way of Frankie getting an annulment from her cruel husband and marrying her true love, Sir Robert Carr. When on the scaffold, Anne was forced to wear the extravagant starched cuffs that she was known for introducing into the court fashion scene. Frankie was convicted of being an accessory to the murder (working with Anne to hatch the poison plot), but ended up being pardoned in 1622.

Jago envisions a close friendship between the two women, explores the sexism and abuse they are subjected to as women living in the late 1600s, and questions the legitimacy of the murder conviction (did the poisons they concoct really kill Overbury or was Anne railroaded by a zealous and misogynistic Chief Justice?).

I really enjoyed Jago's spinning of this historical fiction tale. At times it's a bit uneven as the action slows when it's one court backstabbing after another and the lack of page time between Anne and her children prevent the reader from truly connecting with her on a strong emotional level. Yet the treatment the women face, even Frankie, as supposed high-class courtier, is devastating and does reverberate through Jago's gripping tale. If you love historical fiction and narratives that focus on the role of women in historical societies and the abuse/sexism they faced, this is the book for you. Thanks to @NetGalley for the free eBook in exchange for an honest review.

Book Pics!

My Little Free Library is finally installed (Charter #120244, which you can find on the map on their main website) & more book pics!

My Top 10 Books of 2021 &

Some of the 111 Books I Read

🏆 My Top 10 of 2021 🏆


Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr - ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

I finished this book yesterday, so it was just in the nick of time to add it to my top ten of 2021. I’ve seen mixed reviews, but I loved it. Epic in every sense of the word (this is a 600+ pager, but it went really fast to me, due to many chapters within chapters, so there are a lot of empty pages), this ode to books and the power of story follows three timelines and Doerr’s ability to capture each with originality and realness is amazing. Comprised of what-we-now-call Constantinople of the past, Idaho of the present, and a spacecraft of the future, it shares how an ancient text called Cloud Cuckoo Land makes its way through time, enlightening so many with its main message: Life, with all its imperfections and heartbreaks, is more vivid, more fun, more amazing, and more EVERYTHING than the banality of perfection. And, honestly, isn’t that the #1 message of all?

To get the pic of me with some of the books I read this year, I braved ironing a sheet and a surly teen on a ladder, so although I see imperfections (SO MANY WRINKLES on that *&%^$% sheet no matter how many times I ironed it!) I’m sharing it.

This year’s books have illuminated more of the world and its people for me, kept me entertained by providing an escape from the craziness of life (especially Covid life), made me swoon through fantasy and romance, and, most importantly, allowed me to squeal, cheer, cry, and interact with all of you. Thank YOU for the bookish fun, and I look forward to much more in 2022. In the new year, I WILL be posting every two weeks (pinky promise!) with more Covers of the Week, reviews, news, and info about my continual goal of fighting the banning of books.

Happy New Year, health, happiness, and lots of reading to you all!

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