What I Read | DECEMBER 2016

I returned to my hometown this month, which means I got a LOT of books at my public library.  This is especially noteworthy because somehow in smalltown Illinois, my library is really great at stocking diverse books.  The number of books I read about people of color BY people of color increased this month, which I’m quite pleased about.  I also accidentally read several books with the word “star” in the title, but they had nothing in common beyond that.


case-historiesCase Histories by Kate Atkinson

I’m not usually into the mystery genre, but this book was excellent!  Each character (and there are a lot of them) is detailed and flawed and believable.  There is a lot of violence against women, but that’s the point:  there is a lot of violence against women.  I love a good male protagonist (bonus points for a detective) who understands this reality and grieves it.

hitman-anders-and-the-meaning-of-it-allHitman Anders and the Meaning of It All by Jonas Jonasson

Jonasson is a hilarious writer with amazing dry wit.  This book covers some dark topics (murders, cons, fake religions) and somehow turns our awful protagonists into accidentally good people that we the readers root for.  Yet another reason to go to Sweden!

why-be-happy-when-you-could-be-normalWhy Be Happy When You Could Be Normal by Jeanette Winterson

Oooowww, this book is emotionally painful.  It is the sad and beautiful memoir of a woman raised by an abusive mother who somehow manages to fiercely pursue life and love.  It’s very quotable, and towards the end I was especially intrigued by Winterson’s fascinating ideas about madness – what causes it and how to find healing.

24641800The Demon in the Wood by Leigh Bardugo

This is a short story about the Darkling from the Grisha Trilogy, and I am always interested in the backstory’s of villains.  This story humanizes him and explains his behaviors, but more interestingly, it shows how individual actions are created by, and reinforce, cultural oppression.

5Sofia Khan is Not Obliged by Ayisha Malik

I did not know how much I needed a Muslim Pride and Prejudice in my life, but I did!  This is such a fun and cute book that feels familiar while also being a refreshingly unique interpretation on an overdone classic.  I loved reading about modern Muslim culture in the Western world, and Sofia’s Bridget Jones-esque diary entries are perfection.  I can’t recommend this enough.

17270515Serafina’s Promise by Ann E. Burg

This novel in verse about a young Haitian girl who dreams of someday attending school so that she can become a doctor is a beautiful story beautifully written.  Serafina fights for her dreams despite poverty and the Haitian earthquake, giving us lines like: “Without dreams the world is only dirt and dust.”

28588345The Midnight Star by Marie Lu

I loved Lu’s Young Elite series, but I found this final book a lot weirder than the others in a way that doesn’t quite fit.  I had to keep reminding myself that we had already established their magical world, but somehow the mystical realm of death stuff felt out of place.  I also wish that Adelina’s villainy had stuck more – the book never could quite commit to her descent into a lust for power and control.

fish-in-a-tree-335x512Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt

A cute middle grade book about a dyslexic girl whose new teacher manages to understand her and show her her greatness.  It is simplistic but lovely, and a great book for kids to learn the value of differences.  Definitely something I would have pushed hard when I was a children’s librarian.

17927395A Court of Mist and Fury by Sarah J. Maas

This is an excellent sequel to a mediocre book.  I cannot describe how thrilled I was when the stereotypical romance from A Court of Thorns and Roses was revealed to be not protective…but abusive.  Feyre’s growing affections for Rhysand make total sense because he is a feminist fantasy:  an extremely powerful, intelligent, witty man who only wants to let his loved one make her own choices and be her best self.  The plot is non-stop, the romance is sizzling, and I am mad that I have to wait several more months for the next book!

28763485The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon

This unrealistic but engrossing romance details the one day in which a Korean guy and a Jamaican girl meet and fall in love before she is deported away from New York City.  I rolled my eyes at the love-at-first-site gimic quite a bit, but the book won major points for its unique POV-changing chapters.  We see things from both protagonists’ points of view, but also from parents and the guy who almost ran into them.  Because of that, the story is both tiny (one day) but also broad (so many people affected their meeting).

635797417603710039-laststar-coverThe Last Star by Rick Yancey

The final book in the 5th Wave series is a worse disappointment than the LOST series finale.  So many questions were left unanswered, and some of the answers were so convoluted and ridiculous that I didn’t even try to understand.  I found this to be a very unsatisfying conclusion to what started as a thrilling series.

18263530A Time to Dance by Padma Venkatraman

Another novel in verse, this time about an Indian girl who loses and regains her dream of dancing after her foot is amputated.  It’s an inspiring story that feels both diverse and universal.  I really liked the story’s assertion that rather than ruining a person’s creativity, pain and loss can actually deepen and enrich a person’s artwork.

9780545151337_zoomThe Last Summer of the Death Warriors by Francisco X. Stork

This is SUCH a great book.  It feels light even though it covers heavy topics – Pancho is an orphaned teenager who wants to find and kill the man who murdered his mentally disabled sister, but who then finds new meaning in life when he is befriended by a guy with brain cancer.  Yikes, right?  But despite the morbid plot points, this book is so uplifting and inspiring.  That’s the point though: in a world of death and pain, we can still choose to pursue life and love every day that we are given.

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The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh

18798983I thought this book was a retelling of A Thousand and One Nights, but I just saw that the book jacket actually says it’s “inspired” by the classic Middle Eastern story.  That makes much more sense, because the plot of “woman saves her life by telling the wife-killing king a story every night” only lasts for, like, three nights.  Then they fall in love!!!

Which is my main problem with the story:  too much insta-love.  Khalid, the ruler of Khorasan, apparently falls in love with Shahrzad at first sight because she is honest.  And, okay, whatever, maybe I can believe that.  But then Shahrzad, whose only purpose in becoming his wife is to murder him and therefore avenge her murdered best friend, falls in love with him!!  After only a couple weeks!  Because she realizes he is secretive rather than a total monster.  It just didn’t fly for me.

But the world was incredibly interesting, and even though it was unbelievable, the dynamic between Khalid and Shahrzad was super compelling.  So after a few chapters I just decided to accept the fact that they were entangled in a forbidden love and enjoy it….and I did!  It’s a very enjoyable book about murderous plots, curses forcing good people to do bad things, and Love Conquering All.  Sometimes you just wanna turn your brain off and enjoy a good emotional story.

It’s a series, though, which I didn’t know going in.  I honestly don’t know if I’ll read the second book.  It feels like even more Forced Obstacles will be thrown in their path, and I already got what I wanted out of the story: confessed love and cute kisses.  Who knows!  By the time it comes out, maybe I’ll be ready to suspend my disbelief again.

I do know I want more Middle Eastern settings in books, though.  More desert royalty and extravagant costumes, please!   Continue reading

The Bull from the Sea by Mary Renault

51k61IaGEZL._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_Reading Greek mythology in Greece is such a cool experience.  The Bull from the Sea opens with Theseus returning to Attica from Crete without changing his sails from black to white, the result of which is his father, King Aigeus, leaping to his death from the cliff in Sounio.  I just went to Sounio!  It’s a real place!  With a real history!

That history bit is what makes Renault’s book so fascinating.  She does a remarkable job of interpreting myth as fact.  The supernatural elements of mythology are present in her stories, but with explanations that are easily interpreted as superstitions.  The people in this book believe in the gods and goddesses and fate, but is it real?  Or is that larger-than-normal boar simply exaggerated into mythic proportions?  And is that man the son of a god or simply extremely talented?  It’s such a fun balance, and perhaps ironically, it makes the myths seem more alive.  By setting them in a historical context and allowing for skepticism, Renault lets her readers see just how plausible the ancient stories are.

Theseus is a fascinating character.  He’s almost annoying perfect at everything…until his charmed life falls apart.  I should have expected the book to border on depressing, because all the Greek myths are fairly depressing.  They are lessons couched in stories, after all, and Theseus shows us that one can never escape one’s fate.  He knows, from the moment he sees Hippolyta (awesome Amazon warrior queen/king) that she will be his doom.  But knowing his fate, he embraces the good while it lasts, and does what he can to accept the fallout when it happens.  And wow, is the fallout depressing.  Murder and sacrifice and incest, oh my!  The Greek stories are never boring.

The one thing I found annoying was the way the narrative treated women.  To some extent, this is simply Renault being true to her source material.  And of course, Hippolyta is a force to be reckoned with.  But all the other women are stereotypes.  And Theseus himself is occasionally a hard man to idolize – he’s perfect, we’re supposed to believe, but he treats women as playthings or distractions.  They’re always around to serve HIS needs.  Basically, it’s super sexist, both because it was written in the 1960s and based on stories thousands of years old.  BUT.  Even though it’s problematic, this book is worth the read!

Mary Renault is a genius at breathing new life into old myths, and I’m definitely going to check out some of her other books!  I suggest you do the same.   Continue reading

Such Wicked Intent by Kenneth Oppel

13063098One of my favorite things about the first Victor Frankenstein book, This Dark Endeavor, was how its adventures and mysticism refused to be categorized as science, faith, or magic.  The events that transpired could have been the result of any of the three philosophies, and I really enjoyed wondering what was “true.”  That all changed with Such Wicked Intent.  There’s no longer any doubt that the supernatural exists, and can be tampered with.

While I’m sad at the loss of ambiguity, I’m also SO INTO the world of the dead that Oppel created.   Continue reading

This Dark Endeavor by Kenneth Oppel

this-dark-endeavor-final-coverI’ve never been hugely drawn to stories about Frankenstein or his monster, but my librarian friend Kelly suggested I read This Dark Endeavor after I admitted liking Oppel’s book The Nest.  Although I may never get into horror movies, I really enjoyed the book!

Oppel gives us Frankenstein’s origin story, and man, is it a good one.  It might have been a ridiculous task, creating a believable history for a character who will grow up to be obsessed with immortality to the extent of creating a literal monster.  But Oppel does a phenomenal job:  teenaged Victor is the twin of his two-minutes older, stronger, faster, wiser brother who also gets the girl.  Clearly we have a case of sibling rivalry, although Victor and Konrad also have a lot of affection for each other.  The more you love someone, the more you hate them!

When Konrad falls ill soon after they discover a hidden room in their mansion – a room filled with illegal alchemical formulas – Victor becomes obsessed with finding a cure for his twin’s disease…and maybe a cure for death itself.  While he’s at it, if cousin Elizabeth decides she’s in love with him instead of Konrad, well, all the better.  So many twisted motivations and emotions!

The three-part adventure retrieving alchemical ingredients is really exciting, but I loved the book most for its complex family dynamics and questions of science/faith/magic.

This Dark Endeavor stands alone, but apparently there’s a second book, so I will have to give that one a try too!   Continue reading

The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

 

Okay, this wins apenelopiad_coverll the retellings (of which I am, admittedly, just starting to read)!  I LOVED reading Penelope’s side of the story, seeing Odysseus’s cleverness from her perspective, gently allowing her unreliable narration.  Was she faithful?  Was she not?  She sure wants us to think she was, just like Odysseus wants us to think he’s a tragic hero.  They’re a perfect match for each other….which is only half the story!

Undoubtedly, the highlight of this book is the way it dissects the story of the twelve maids who were hung at Odysseus’s return.  The historical, cultural, and sexual discussions surrounding their role in the story are both fascinating and horrifying. And so clever (which is fitting, in a book about Penelope and Odysseus).  Every few chapters, the maids speak for themselves, sometimes in poetry, sometimes in song, sometimes in lecture, sometimes in a mock trial.  Their righteous indignation is so simple and powerful, right from the beginning, with their “The Chorus Line: A Rope-Jumping Rhyme”:  Continue reading

First & Then by Emma Mills

23310751This book was so cute!  And despite our protagonist Devon’s love for all things Jane Austen, I was two-thirds through the book before I realized I was reading a Pride and Prejudice retelling.  Maybe I am super dumb, but I like to think that it was also pretty subtle.

You’ve got the proud Ezra with barely any facial expressions but ‘apathetic,’ and you’ve got the prejudiced Devon, who cannot believe what a jerk he is.  But as they are thrown in each other’s paths more often, they learn more about each other and realize they were wrong about their judgments.  Okay, that doesn’t sound subtle.  What Mills does so well is incorporate so much more into her story.  There’s Foster, Devon’s cousin whose addict mom sends him to stay with her, giving her the little brother she never wanted.  There’s Cas and Lindsay, and Devon’s growing awareness that just because the boy she’s crushing on likes The Perfect Girl doesn’t mean Devon has to hate her.  There’s Devon working through her fear of the future by getting excited about college at Reeding.   Continue reading