February was interesting. I live in Texas, which as you probably know was kind of a disaster this month. I did not get hit nearly as badly as a lot of people, but I did lose power for thirty-six freezing hours. There’s nothing like bundling up in hats and jackets and multiple pairs of socks and huddling with a reading light under a quilt to make you deeply, deeply thankful for modern luxuries like electricity and hot water.
It was really just a week, but when I think about February 2021, I’m always going to think of how cold it was. I did read a lot of good books, though! As usual, I’ll roll these reviews out in the next few weeks and link back them here once they’re live.
If you loved The Hate U Give or On the Come Up, you should absolutely read Concrete Rose. Angie Thomas has created (revisited?) yet another sympathetic, engaging protagonist who defies the racist stereotypes many would like to paint him with, and she has done so with her usual poise and nuance. She’s definitely a writer to be reckoned with. That said, I wouldn’t point any new readers to Concrete Rose, because it definitely feels more like a prologue to THUG than to a full story in its own right. It’s a good book and I liked it a lot, but I did not adore it the way I adored Thomas’ earlier work.
The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune
I wish I’d read this a month ago so I could have talked it up while it was still the B&N monthly pick, because I adored it and would love to put it into more hands. The House in the Cerulean Sea is a gentle, character- and family-driven novel that takes place in a mostly normal world that is populated with a few fantastical people. It is beautifully written, and is both wholesomely heartwarming and quite funny. I’ve seen it compared to a number of other works—The Umbrella Academy,The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, 1984, Harry Potter—and while I can see similar elements, at the end of the day The House in the Cerulean Sea feels unique (though if I HAD to make a comp, I’d probably choose Good Omens). It’s that rare fantasy novel that’s about magical people loving and living their everyday lives. It’s sweet and gentle—there’s no calamitous, world-ending event on the horizon—but no less compelling for it, and I’d wholeheartedly recommend it to readers of any genre.
Heartstopper Volume 1 by Alice Oseman
What I love best about Alice Oseman’s characters is that they’re messy. They feel like real people because they’re struggling internally with the same things that real people struggle with internally. They’re stifled by social conventions that push them into roles they don’t quite fit. They do their best in difficult situations. They keep moving forward even when they’re scared or sad or confused, doing their best to disguise the hurt and uncertainty beneath the surface. I really enjoyed Heartstopper Vol. 1. It’s a quick and cute read that’s romantic without being too cheesy. I’m sure I’ll read any subsequent volumes. But that being said, I didn’t delight in it the way I do Oseman’s novels. The characters feel like two-dimensional versions of themselves. They’re still likable, but with their rough edges sanded off, they aren’t quite as lovable. Heartstopper is a classic friends-to-lovers romance story. It’s sweet and wholesome, but it lacks the slightly cynical but ultimately hopeful tone that characterizes Oseman’s longer work. Would I recommend Heartstopper? Absolutely, especially to someone looking for a quick, romantic pick-me-up. Would it be the first Oseman title I’d list? Probably not, but it’s still adorable.
It’s always weird to read a book for the first time and then turn around to run a book club on it. You take notes, but because you have no idea where the story is going, the notes you take aren’t always focused on the right things. Better Luck Next Time by Julia Claiborne Johnson was not the book I expected. Based on the description and the blurbs, I expected it to be cynical and darkly comedic, a reflection on gender imbalance and divorce that would make the reader laugh and cry with the same wry observations. The real thing is more hopeful. It’s about a few specific divorcees more than it is about divorce in general, and I would be quicker to label it a romance than a comedy. It doesn’t necessarily follow the necessary story blocks for a romance—it lacks the cookie-cutter happily-ever-after that romances must employ—but I certainly didn’t laugh enough to consider Better Luck Next Time primarily by its ability to amuse. It wasn’t not funny, but it wasn’t funny. If that makes sense. Like, I didn’t laugh much, but I also never thought this is trying and failing to be funny.
My overall impression of the novel is that it doesn’t really fit in any category. It’s too cynical to be a great love story, but too neat and romantic to feel like real life. It includes too many difficult subjects to be a fluff piece, but doesn’t reflect deeply enough on them to be traditionally literary. It’s too tragic to be a comedy and too lighthearted to be a tragedy. It sits right there in the middle, and the overall effect is that it is a good read but not quite a great one. I didn’t have any difficulty preparing discussion questions (scattered notes aside), but I can’t see Better Luck Next Time topping critics’ lists of best novels or individual people’s lists of personal favorites. I liked the characters. I wanted things to go well for them and I was interested to know their secrets, but I don’t think they’ll stick with me.
That said, the fact that I liked but did not love this novel makes me think that it’s a particularly good choice for a general book club. Half the point of a book club is to get people to pick up titles they’d otherwise overlook, and for that reason a good pick should appeal to lots of different kinds of readers. While I think that Better Luck Next Time should have backed off its love story to focus even more on the socioeconomic realities of the many divorcees at the ranch, there are likely readers who felt Emily and Ward’s relationship spoke more to them than the reflections on classism and feminism. Better Luck Next Time has the ability to reach a wide swath of readers, and for that reason I’d strongly recommend it to a diverse group to read together, but not necessarily to an individual looking for their next favorite.
What’s it about?
In the thirties, Ward was a cowboy at a dude ranch for divorcees; wealthy women would flock to Reno, stay at the ranch long enough to become Reno residents and obtain their divorces, and then return to their lives one husband fewer. As an old man, Ward reflects back on his experiences, specifically the events of one particular summer that brought two particular women into his life: Nina, a carefree young aviator divorcing her third husband and Emily, an heiress who lives for her daughter.
Please feel free to use these discussion questions for your own book club discussions. Be aware that these questions are full of spoilers, so make sure you’ve finished Better Luck Next Time before diving in.
I always intend to theme my reading a bit more, and I always do a terrible job of it. Here we are, two-thirds of the way through Black History Month and I’ve only read two books by Black authors. I started the month with Angie Thomas’ Concrete Rose, and I just finished Amari and the Night Brothers by B.B. Alston. I’m planning to reread Thomas’ The Hate U Give post-Concrete Rose, but I definitely need to do better.
I haven’t been reading a whole lot of juvenile fiction since I left my library job three years ago, but Amari called to me. For one thing, look at the gorgeous cover. Also, it’s blurbed by Angie Thomas and Nic Stone, who are both great. Plus, Amari is the start to a fantasy series that has been comp’d to Harry Potter. Harry Potter was my childhood, and I’m really struggling to reconcile that love with the things that JK Rowling says now, so anytime I see a fantasy series that is HP-akin but inclusive, I sprint to it. Also, like I said, it’s Black History Month and I’ve taken a look at what I’ve read recently and realized that, much as I try to read diversely, I desperately need to read more books by Black writers (especially when they look this fantastic). If you have any recommendations for me, please let me know in the comments.
What’s it about?
Even though Quinton disappeared months ago and is presumed dead, Amari Peters is certain that her beloved older brother is still out there somewhere. It feels like the mystery is breaking open when she attends a magical camp and she discovers that he was a famous supernatural agent. Unfortunately, the break stops there, because the people in this magical world don’t know what happened to him, either. Amari, though, is determined to find her brother, even if it means joining the dangerous ranks of junior agent herself and getting ostracized every step of the way when she learns that she possesses a type of magic deemed illegal.
What’d I think?
I should preface that I did not read Amari under the best of circumstances. I live in Texas, and if you’ve seen the news at all, you probably know that we got hit with a big ice storm that we were in no way prepared to deal with. I was without power, so I had to grab a reading light, bundle up in multiple layers, and camp out under a giant pile of blankets and hats while praying my phone would keep enough charge that I could find out if I’d be expected at work the next day. It was very cold and quite miserable. I enjoyed Amari, but the experience of reading it was marred by the fact that my hands were so cold it hurt to turn the pages, and the knowledge that I had to read it because I had nothing else to do.
I probably would have read it all day even if I could go outside or watch TV or edit my novel, but I was forcibly aware that I didn’t have any other options and that’s never very nice. But the power is back on now, and now that I’ve had a chance to warm up, workout, and strip down to just one pair of socks, I’m in a much better mood.
There are some books that are harder to review than the average, and Amari is one of them. The best part of the novel is the end, and I can’t talk about my favorite bits without getting into deep spoiler territory. I’m definitely going to talk about the ending, but I’ll do that at the end and mark it with a spoiler warning for anyone who doesn’t want to see it. Just know, non-spoiler people, that this book has a great ending.
Recently, I rewatched the excellent BBC adaptation of And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie. And Then There Were None is one of my two absolute favorite mystery novels (the other is The Westing Gameby Ellen Raskin, and they’re in a league of their own). I’ve read And Then There Were None multiple times over the years, because it’s so psychologically fascinating that it’s thrilling even if you already know whodunit. The 2015 BBC adaptation is great. It’s very faithful but makes a few minor changes. IT’s the only adaptation I’ve seen (not counting the computer game, which I loved), and from what I can tell, it’s the most faithful one. I rewatched the series with my family, and although they’d all seen it before, it had been long enough that they’d forgotten even more than I had, so when I’d tentatively ask wasn’t this bit different in the book? no one could definitively answer me. Which, fair. If you don’t remember the murderer, you’re unlikely to remember whether or not Wargrave had cancer.*
*cancer isn’t specified, but he was dying; the reader doesn’t find out about it until much later than in the series
We finished the series and less than an hour later I’d pulled out my well-worn copy of the novel. As I’ve mentioned here before, I get obsessive. If I enjoy something, instead of moving on like a normal person, I ask how can I extend this for as long as possible? So I reread the book, taking notes of all the differences so that I could write a detailed comparison between the two. This isn’t the first time I’ve done an Agatha Christie book-to-series comparison post, but it is by far the most detailed. Like I said, And Then There Were None is my favorite.
Also, it’s just been way too long since I’ve done a super-nerdy, extremely over-involved post.
What’s it about?
Ten strangers are invited to a mysterious island, but when they arrive, they realize that they were summoned under false pretenses. On the first night, a mysterious voice accuses each of them of murder and in the days that follow they are meticulously killed off one-by-one.
So what changed?
Since this is an in-depth comparison, I’d recommend against reading it unless you’re okay with spoilers or have already either watched the series/read the book. I don’t know if it’s strictly speaking necessary to slap a spoiler warning on a post about a book that was published in 1939, but in case it is, this is that warning. If you don’t know And Then There Were None yet, do yourself a favor and check it out. The miniseries is about three hours long all told, and the book will take you only slightly longer. It’s absolutely worth it.
I figured I’d start with the most minor changes and work my way up to the larger ones (although, as I said, this is a faithful adaptation, so even the largest changes are—in the scheme of things—relatively minor). I’ll also assign points to either the book or the series depending on whether or not I liked the change. I love both versions, so this is just an exercise for my competitive spirit. If I had to guess before starting how it’ll end up, I’ll say that the series will probably get more points early on, and the novel will score more towards the end. The series does great things with the individual characters, but there are a few things about the mystery itself that are stronger in the novel.
The name of the island
The miniseries changes Indian Island to Soldier Island, and ditto for any other instance of “Indians.” The murderous rhyme becomes “The Ten Little Soldier Boys” instead “The Ten Little Indians.” The original title was even worse. The novel is absolutely brilliant, but the racist poem–particularly with the original language–is awful. The change to “soldier boys” doesn’t do anything to amend the best parts of the novel, but it takes out some inexcusable racism. See? Some changes are for the best.
Novel: 0 Series: 1
Yep, another one about racism. This one is more complicated, though. The series softens Lombard in some ways (it hardens him in others, but we’ll get to that later). In the novel, Lombard is vaguely racist. He disparages the Jewish Isaac Morris, and—more damning—is guilty of causing the deaths of twenty-one men, members of an East African tribe. In the novel, Lombard callously implies that killing these East African men is nothing because they are less human than the English, and therefore care less about dying. The series presents it a little differently. Lombard is still unapologetic for the deaths, but it is depicted as him owning up to his crimes. Yeah, he’s a killer, but unlike the other nine he admits that he’s a killer, to himself and to the others. It’s also implied that he would have felt the same about the crime if the men had not been East African. Series Lombard killed people, yes, but he wasn’t racist about it. Interestingly, the series brings in racism in a different way. Although his nationality is not specified in the novel (he’s assumed English), TV’s Lombard is Irish and the others to regard him with added suspicion. He’s not just a murderer who brought a gun to a mysterious island. He’s an Irish murderer in 1939 who brought a gun to a mysterious island. Irish Lombard contributes to the setting and period of the piece, which could otherwise be almost any time or place. He brings a bit of the real world onto the island, demonstrating that no matter how isolated you might be, you can never be entirely cut off from the world at large. On the other hand, Lombard being actively racist makes him considerably worse, like top two bad. Still, since Lombard’s multiple murder is still awful even without it being racially motivated—and because the racism is just present without being much remarked upon—I think I’ll give this one to the series.
Novel: 0 Series: 2
A matter of strength
In the novel, much is made of the fact that Lombard and Blore are the most physically strong. When the group locks things up, they do so in cases with multiple locks, giving one key to Lombard and Blore with the idea that neither of them would be able to take it from the other without causing a ruckus the others would hear. Each time a murder happens, the group discusses who would have had the physical strength to do it, and it is repeatedly reiterated that just because someone (read: a woman) looks weak, they can’t count anyone out because madmen have incredible, unexpected reservoirs of power. In the series, Judge Wargrave says near the beginning that any one of them is capable of the murders and it’s left at that. Book Vera’s story about Cyril (the little boy she killed by sending him into a current he was too weak to swim) is doubted because Cyril was a sickly little boy. In the series Hugo points to Vera’s strength rather than Cyril’s weakness as the suspicious element. I prefer the way the series approaches this one. I’ve never liked the a woman couldn’t have done this; they’re too weak thing that mysteries often have, so it was nice to get it out of the way. Anyone could have done it. They’re all strong enough, and they’re all equally suspicious. Making a mystery more about who is strong enough to do something than about who would have done it is, to me, less interesting.
Novel: 0 Series: 3
In the final few chapters of the novel, the police are fruitlessly trying to figure out what happened on the island. They go over the various clues but are at a loss. Some of their clues come from writings left by the victims. Vera, Miss Brent, and Blore all left written accounts of their time on the island, which give the police some framework. Still, these clues only make things more complicated, as it all seems impossible. The series has no indication of written accounts, and furthermore there is no outside investigation. Once the last character dies, the show ends, and there is nothing afterward. This is a minor thing, but I much prefer the novel version. There’s something especially clever about a crime that remains entirely mysterious despite detailed accounts. Blore was a detective, but his reports still don’t shed any light on the matter. The way this works, alongside Wargrave’s death—we’ll get to that eventually—is just so cool. The way the novel is written, I legitimately thought for a minute that I’d never know who’d done it. I knew it was twisty and clever, but that chapter with the police makes it all the more so. The series version is more cinematic, but less thrilling.
Angie Thomas is a fantastic writer. She’s one of my absolute favorites. The Hate U Giveblew me away when I first read it, so much so that it was one of my first selections for the YA book club I used to run. It made for a great discussion. On the Come Upis just as good, and it officially elevated Thomas from an author who wrote one great book to a consistentfavorite who writes only good books. To say I was excited for Concrete Rose would be an understatement. Lots of my favorite writers are releasing new books this year, but Thomas is the first and I was excited to let her start 2021 off in the right literary direction.
What’s it about?
Before Maverick Carter was the wise and patient patriarch we meet in The Hate U Give, he was a young man with his own problems. Concrete Rose is his story, and it details a period during which he sells drugs to support his mother and learns that a one-night stand with his best friend’s on-again-off-again girlfriend has resulted in a baby. As Mav struggles to figure out how to raise a kid when he’s barely more than a kid himself, fatherhood forces him to decide once and for all what kind of man he aims to be.
What’d I think?
Apparently a lot of readers really latched onto Mav when they read The Hate U Give. I liked him—how could I not? He’s a great dad and a great character—but I’m not one of the people who clambered for a prequel about him. Like I said above, I’ll read anything that Angie Thomas writes, but I’d have preferred a continuation or something entirely new. Prequels are fine, but a lot of dramatic tension is leeched out of them by virtue of what they are. You know how a prequel will end before you crack the spine. We know from The Hate U Give that Mav ends up in a good place. He’s a respected member of his community. He married Lisa and they’re happy together. He got out of the gang and no longer deals drugs. We know he was in prison for a while but now he’s out and he is loved and respected by his children. Knowing all this, it’s hard to get deeply worried about Mav’s romantic woes. We know that Lisa and Mav eventually get married. It’s hard to worry that Mav will fail as a father when we know that Seven—and, later, Starr as well—ends up well-adjusted and happy.
A few months ago, I read Sarah Rees Brennan’s novel In Other Landsand absolutely adored it. I loved it so much that I promptly bought the next book by Rees Brennan that I saw. That book happened to be Fence: Striking Distance. I was slightly hesitant going into it because it is not entirely original. It’s based on a graphic novel series (also called Fence) by C.S. Pacat and Johanna the Mad. The writing in In Other Lands is great, but the creative story and hilariously adorable characters are the stars. I know that Brennan has written for other people’s characters before—she writes short stories for Cassandra Clare’s Shadowhunters—but I’m not at all familiar with C.S. Pacat and therefore didn’t know what kinds of characters and storylines she had to work with.
I needn’t have worried. Fence: Striking Distance is lots of fun. It’s about a fencing team struggling with teamwork. The coach assigns the four boys a series of team-building exercises and the team carries them out to… middling success.
The novel balances four different POV characters: Aiden, the charming heartbreaker; Harvard, the over-responsible captain; Seiji, the socially-confused future Olympian; and Nicholas, the untrained and overeager newbie. While overall I liked all four of them, one could argue that that’s at least one POV too many. I don’t think it’s possible to write that many perspectives without some being more compelling than the others. That was certainly the case here. When I was reading before bed, I’d almost always set the book down if the next chapter was Nicholas. It’s not that I dislike Nicholas. It’s just that if I was winding down and saw Aiden was next, I’d say, “Well, I can read one more” regardless of the time. Same with Harvard. If it was Seiji I’d weigh how tired I was and usually I’d keep reading. Nicholas, though, I could always set aside. I think he might have worked better as a side character like Eugene or Coach: important, but not central.
I was surprised, therefore, when I discovered that Nicholas is the primary hero of the original Fence. I assumed wrongly that Brennan’s novel was essentially a novelization of the existing comic. When I finished the novel and found it significantly less wrapped-up than I anticipated (no one told me this was going to be a series!), I immediately did some Internet research to see if I could get some answers via Pacat’s version and as far as I can tell, the answer is… no. Fence: Striking Distance is an original novel, and while it clearly grabs Pacat’s characters and world, it seems to have adjusted the lens. Nicholas is Pacat’s hero, and Aiden is Brennan’s. All four boys are written well, but Aiden is the one we spend the most time with, the one we empathize with the most, the one who gets the most laughs and the most developed backstory. He’s ever-so-slightly more in focus than the other characters even though from the outside it looks like everyone has equal billing.
In retrospect, this makes perfect sense. Sure, some readers are going to be like me, but I bet a lot of them come from Pacat’s version. With that in mind, it makes far more sense to focus on the characters whose stories haven’t been told (or, at least, not told completely) while still keeping the original protagonists close enough to the forefront to satisfy fans of the graphic novels. Knowing that Nicholas anchors the graphic novel absolutely explains why he’s so central to Fence even though, from a traditional storytelling standpoint, he doesn’t need to be and would arguably have worked better slightly sidelined.
Wow, January was a month. The headlines have been crazy, but my personal life has calmed down. Since the holidays are over, work has gone back to normal. There’s still the extra pandemic stress, but pandemic stress is nothing compared to pandemic-and-holiday stress. Plus, I’ve had more time to play with the puppy. We adopted Darcy in November, and she is an absolute sweetheart. She’s smart and adorable, and she only occasionally tries to eat my books while I’m reading.
I didn’t read any YA this month. That’s deeply uncharacteristic. I promise I haven’t been replaced by an evil twin or anything.
Middlemarch by George Eliot
Well, I finally did it. It took me a whole month, but I finally got through Middlemarch. I’m not really sure why it took me so long. It’s a huge book, but I’ve read equally fat tomes in far less time. Usually my reading speed tells you what I thought of a book. I race through anything I love and slog through the books I dislike. The thing is, though, that I didn’t dislike Middlemarch. It’s a very well-written novel, and it does an excellent job capturing an era of major reform. It juggles an immense cast of characters, and the way that their storylines all come together at the end is nothing short of masterful. There’s no question in my mind that it absolutely deserves its status as part of the literary canon, but there’s also a reason I didn’t write a full review for it. It didn’t really make me feel anything. I enjoyed it for the most part, but I didn’t fall in love with it. None of the characters particularly spoke to me, and I found myself occasionally setting it aside for days at a time. That doesn’t happen with books that I love. Middlemarch is a very long book, and it feels very long. There are other classic novels of comparable length that don’t feel nearly as long. Dumas’ Count of Monte Cristo and Hugo’s Les Misérables are similarly immense but kept me so engaged that I hardly noticed that we were approaching 1,000 pages. Middlemarch makes you feel those pages. It takes its sweet time getting to where it’s getting. Some of the main characters don’t show up until more than a hundred or two hundred pages in. As far as classic literature goes, this one is an investment. It takes a lot of time and commitment and a lot of attention. Unless you’re a history scholar, you may need to have to research some things or accept that you’re going to miss some nuance. At the end of the day, I was relieved to finish Middlemarch. There are some books you want to live in for as long as possible, and there are others that, even if you ultimately give them the thumbs up, you’re glad to finish. For me, Middlemarch is one of the latter. But at least I can now appreciate my sister Maleah’s absolutely phenomenal comic rendering of Lydgate and Rosamund’s plotline:
Please, please do yourself a favor and check out the rest of the comic and Maleah’s other art on her website. It’s a way better site than this blog, I promise.
Finally, a book club book that I enjoyed! I miss the days when I got to curate the book club books, because overall I have not been impressed by the ones I’ve read recently. More than one made my Worst Books of 2020 list. Better Luck Next Time is not exactly my type of book–too much focus on having children–but it is a quick, entertaining read. It is set on a divorce dude ranch during the 1930s. Apparently back then this was a thing: wealthy women who had to go to Reno for divorces would stay at these ranches for the six weeks required to become “residents” eligible for said divorces. I did not know such a thing existed, but it definitely makes for a compelling setting. Better Luck Next Time is just funny enough to keep from being depressing, and it tackles some really interesting themes (I had a fun time writing my discussion questions; there was a lot of material to hit). While I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it widely, it is certainly a good book club choice: there’s a lot to discuss, it’s short enough that there’s no excuse not to finish it, and it’s the sort of book that’s difficult to dislike.
It’s been a little while since I read any junior fiction. I used to read it all the time for my 4th/5th grade book club, but since I’m not in charge of anything like that for my current job, I’ve unfortunately dropped the ball a little bit. When I saw Black Brother, Black Brother by Jewell Parker Rhodes, though, I knew I had to read it. I met her a few years ago at a writing conference and shortly afterward read Ghost Boys. She is absolutely brilliant. Her lectures about writing were insightful and extremely helpful, and she practices what she preaches. Both Ghost Boys and Black Brother, Black Brother are masterfully written. Even though her audience is children, she never talks down to her young audience or dumbs down her content, which is serious and complex. Even more impressively, every scene is packed with impact. More than once, I was tempted to set the book down to record page numbers of some of the most powerful passages… and then I didn’t because I wanted to keep reading. That urge was especially notable because I read Black Brother, Black Brother on the heels of a book I was supposed to be taking notes on but didn’t because nothing struck me as especially poignant.
What’s it about?
Even though he is a well-behaved, intelligent child, 12-year-old Donte struggles in school. His black skin makes him the target of racist bullying (particularly from Alan, the popular captain of the school fencing team) and his teachers’ biases lead them to constantly assume the worst of him and judge him unfavorably against his white-passing brother, Trey. When Donte is dragged out of school and arrested for something he didn’t do—and wouldn’t have warranted arrest even if he had—he vows to stand up to Alan in the only way Alan will understand: fencing.
What’d I think?
It’s hard to know what to say about Black Brother, Black Brother aside from, “Read it.” It balances a fun story that’s reminiscent of The Karate Kid with delicate handling of sensitive subjects. One of the major subjects is colorism. Donte and Trey, despite both being biracial, have drastically different experiences in the world because to the outside eye, Donte looks black and Trey looks white. Donte, our narrator and protagonist, loves his brother deeply but is understandably frustrated by the blatant double standards. Where Trey is welcomed and liked, Donte is ostracized and overdisciplined. Donte sees how people’s reactions to him change on a dime once they see that he has a white father.
Setting the story in the world of fencing is a masterstroke. There are some sports that have a lot of cultural associations. When I think of fencing, I think of rich white men. When Donte and his rec center fencing team walk into the arena, they immediately stick out… until they put on the uniforms that equalize everyone. The fencing both heightens the cultural divide between Donte and Alan and gives them an even playing field for the first time ever. When I first started the book, I was skeptical about the fencing. It struck me as a weird choice initially, because it’s not a common sport in most schools, and certainly not a kingmaker. Basketball, football… those are the sports that usually turn mere students into royalty. But Basketball and football would not have worked for Black Brother, Black Brother. They don’t have the same socioeconomic connotations, and they lack the dramatic tension of a one-on-one confrontation. I never thought I’d say it, but the fencing works so well.
It’s been a long time since I posted about musicals. First I was doing it every week, then every two weeks, and then I just… totally dropped off. Life has been busy, and I haven’t had the time to write anything new, and this blog has been subsisting on my backlog of written but unposted reviews. But I can only go so long without blabbing about how great musicals are, so I’m back. Is this going to be a regular segment again? Hopefully, but I wouldn’t count on it being twice a month. I’ll probably peel it back to once a month. I love writing about musicals and I love maintaining this blog, but I do need to preserve some of my literary energy for other things.
I’ve already written about most of my favorite musicals, but there are still lots of shows I haven’t touched on. These aren’t in my top tier, but I still loved them. You’d be hard pressed to find a musical I don’t love. It’s possible, because there are a few, but you’d have a hard time.
In any case, these two shows are dance-heavy musicals that focus on the arts.
How I’ve experienced it: There’s a proshot of the 2017 West End Revival.
It’s about a chorus girl who joins a Broadway show being helmed by a legendary director and an older actress past her prime.
Why is it so good? Mostly the dancing. There are a few great songs (see below), but it’s the dancing that steals the show. When I saw this the first time, my first impression was how cool it is to see a full cast of phenomenally talented female tap dancers. I’d previously thought of tap as primarily a guy’s dance, so I didn’t expect a show with tap as its primary dance language to feature so many girls. This is definitely a show that needs to be seen to be appreciated, because without the dancing most of the songs are pretty lackluster and only marginally fit into the show (I would LOVE for someone to write a synopsis of Pretty Lady that justifies songs like “Shuffle Off to Buffalo” or that random mime murder during the dance break of “42nd Street.”) While this is not going to be my favorite musical any time soon—Julian’s let me kiss you to show you how to act directing method is pretty iffy, and the plot is a bit ridiculous both inside and outside of Pretty Lady (they legit hired the mob to take out the star’s boyfriend because they were afraid her sugar daddy would pull funding from the show if he found out she was cheating, and protagonist Peggy somehow gets promoted to the lead even though she makes mistakes and derails nearly every rehearsal she attends as a backup dancer)—it is definitely a fun time.
My recommendation (if you can’t see it live): Definitely check out the proshot if you can, because—as I know from experience—this show doesn’t make a great impression from the cast recording alone.
My favorite songs: “42nd Street,” “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” and “We’re in the Money”
2020 was a horrible year, and reading is an escape from the nightmare that is real life. That doesn’t mean all the books I read were enjoyable escapes. I definitely read some books that didn’t do it for me this year, and when I say they ‘didn’t do it for me,’ what I really mean is… I hated them. I really, really hated them. I looked back through my bottom ten lists from previous years, and while I really disliked a few of the entries on those, as a whole I think this may be the worst rant. Maybe the books I read this year are legitimately worse, or maybe 2020 just wore me down. Probably both.
I should mention before diving into this that I am a good reader. I majored in English literature and graduated summa cum laude. I’ve won essay contests for analyzing said English literature. I am very capable of engaging with literature on a high level. I mention this because this is a list of books I don’t like. It’s not necessarily a reflection on their literary merit. There’s at least one classic on this list, and I don’t want people to be like oh, she just isn’t smart enough to get it. I’m perfectly capable of getting it. I just didn’t enjoy it. I am perfectly aware that there are great books that I hate and terrible books that I love. This is not a list of the most objectively bad books I read in 2020. This is a list of the books I most disliked reading. There are two main reasons a book ended on this list: it either bored me or had uncomfortably xenophobic undercurrents.
If you’d rather see some positivity, my top ten list can be found here.
I’ve never been much into romances. I like them occasionally, but they have to do something new: subvert tropes, make social commentary, include elements from other genres, represent minority experiences… something. Playing straight into every single romance trope is not the way to win me over. American Royals isn’t bad by any means, but it ends up being boring because it does too much but none of it is in the least bit new. There are three romances that between them tackle just about every standard romance plotline that exists, and it hits all the snags that romances are prone to unless they actively fight against them. There’s pointless drama, lust/”love” at first sight, ingrained misogyny, bland love interests, and all the rest. There’s maybe one surprise in the whole novel, and it comes far too late to salvage any of what came before. People who like romance to be about hot people making out will be satisfied by American Royals, but that’s the only group that will be. Weirdly enough, the sequel Majesty (which I have no plans to read, for obvious reasons) got much more negative reviews than American Royals, which makes me idly wonder if it doubles down on the things I disliked about this book, or if it abandoned them an alienated its romance-loving base. I’m interested to know, but not interested enough to find out.
Hench has some good ideas, but there’s one thing that keeps it from capitalizing on them: the pacing. Hench speeds through or skips scenes that would provide critical context and align its readers with its protagonist, but slows down to luxuriate in scenes that don’t quite work. We get payoff for buildup we don’t experience, so the whole novel feels hollow. It’s hard to want to root for the POV character Anna because, despite our apparently seeing the world through her eyes, her actions all feel slightly or entirely irrational. She jumps to conclusions and courses of actions that seem iffy at best or evil at worst but we’re apparently supposed to go with her on them… because she used to be poor, I guess? Because superheroes are so evil and they create so much damage and one once broke Anna’s leg and Anna is poor and put upon and she only tortured a child because she had no other choice because her boss politely asked her to and anyway torturing a child is not nearly as bad as accidentally hospitalizing a child-torturer. I’ve read and loved many a novel with a protagonist who does morally suspect things or even flat out heinous things. That Anna is morally objectionable is not the issue. The issue is that Hench fails to make her someone the reader can understand or empathize with. And it’s fairly boring to boot.
I was literally on page eighteen of this novel when I realized that the premise is morally reprehensible. A woman makes a major decision that unilaterally deprives her daughter of all agency, and Florence Adler Swims Forever spends all its pagetime patting her on the back for it. It’s possible to write historical fiction that isn’t horrifically sexist, and there are definitely some out there, but this is not one of them. A major reason I rarely read historical fiction is books like Florence Adler, books that let their protagonists cheerfully say that women should never hold positions of power without anyone questioning or challenging them. I get that it was a different time, but that doesn’t mean I want to root for sexists. If I’m going to read 300+ pages of reprehensible people doing manipulative things, I want some indication that the author knows how awful her creations are. Beanland clearly has no idea. Florence Adler is based on a true story from her family history, and I recognize that for her to recognize the emotional abuse and gaslighting in her novel would be to see it in her own family… but I have no such hangups. This novel is a love letter to emotional manipulation, and seemingly advocates for treating women like baby incubators with no emotions or agency of their own. It’s disgusting.
I read The Cold Millions in mid-December, which is when I start to start reflect on what I read to make my annual top and bottom tens. Looking back, I read some very good books, but I read a lot of books that weren’t to my taste even a little bit. By virtue of being fresh, anything that I read in the last part of the year is more likely to make the list than something I read way back before the shutdown. That said, I suspect Jess Walter’s novel The Cold Millions would end up on my least favorite list even if I’d read it on January first. Putting book down and saying, “thank goodness I’m done with that,” is not a good sign. Reading a climax in which the two lead characters are both in imminent danger of dying violently and not caring in the least is not a good sign. Deciding to rely on a previously-published list of book club discussions rather than writing my own is not a good sign. I did not like The Cold Millions. I try to find something positive to say about even the books I like the least, but when I’m both bored out of my mind and actively irritated it’s tough to be upbeat.
That said, the rest of my book club really enjoyed the book. They loved Walter’s writing and storytelling, and I wonder if my inability to visualize things damaged my perception of it. The book club ladies enthused about the way Walter writes and how he paints a picture. I’ve always found overly descriptive novels annoying and lacking in impact, so maybe that’s why I had such a negative reaction to The Cold Millions even though so many people love it.
What’s it about? (from Goodreads)
“An intimate story of brotherhood, love, sacrifice and betrayal set against the panoramic backdrop of an early twentieth-century century America that eerily echoes our own time, The Cold Millions offers a stunning, kaleidoscopic portrait of a nation grappling with the chasm between rich and poor, between harsh realities and simple dreams. Featuring an unforgettable cast of cops and tramps, suffragists and socialists, madams and murderers.”
What’d I think?
Before I started The Cold Millions, I read Goodreads reviews and checked its star rating. I was excited to see the 4+ rating and to read reviews that called Walter the next great American writer. Almost everyone who read it gushed about it and about him. I was bewildered, absolutely bewildered, by my own reaction having read those. My overwhelming feeling is that Jess Walter is not a good enough writer to have tackled a storyline like the one found inside The Cold Millions. An excellent writer can elevate a mediocre storyline, and a mediocre writer can drag down a powerful storyline. The latter is what happened here. There’s an embarrassingly wide chasm between what we’re told and what we see. Until I read the afterward that told me how Walter felt, I couldn’t figure out what stance he meant to take. The pacing is bad. The characters are forgettable. Things that should be difficult come easily, and almost every character beat feels unearned. The basic plot of the novel? It could have been excellent. I suspect that even in the hands of a great writer it wouldn’t have been my taste, but it could have been interesting and compelling. In Walter’s hands, though? I was bored silly. I was irritated by the characters that should have inspired me. I forgot who was who because they failed to make any impression on me. I repeatedly flipped to the end to count how many pages I still had to suffer through.
Anyone who has ever worked retail during December knows that there’s not a lot of downtime for relaxation and reading. Last month was highly stressful because the combination of a pandemic and cranky holiday shoppers is a doozy, to say the least.
American Royals disappointed me. I expected it to be cleverer and bolder and to have a lot more to say about the current political state of America (well maybe not the current state, because yikes). It’s a standard teen romance with a few too many characters and a bit too much dependence on outdated/sexist tropes. If you’re into romance specifically for the romance, you’ll probably like American Royals, but if you’re looking for anything beyond that, you’d do better to look elsewhere.
World of Wonders by Aimee Nezhukumatathil
This is not the type of book I’d normally read. I never pick nonfiction when left to my own devices, and I’m very wary of anything written by poets since in my experience they tend to use fifty words where two would suffice, but since this was Barnes & Noble’s book of the year, I had to read it. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. The writing is beautiful, and the way that Nezhukumatathil infuses her life story and reflections on the world into her nature essays is remarkably effective. As with any essay collection, I liked some more than others, and I loved the ones that skewed more towards the personal. I like nature, but at least in World of Wonders, it works better as a conduit to humanity more than the subject in and of itself. The fact that I liked this book is remarkable, and I’m sure that anyone more inclined to essays, nature writing, memoirs, or poetry would absolutely adore it.
A lot of people who don’t like young adult literature think that it’s a monolithic genre. When these people think about YA, they almost always think about a certain kind of young adult romance, the kind populated with young, attractive people falling in love with each other at the drop of a hat. They think of Brooding YA Heroes, clumsy yet irresistible Mary Sue heroines, and love triangles. As a huge fan of and advocate for YA fiction, this blanket judgment really irks me. There are lots of YA novels that are as brilliant and insightful as those supposedly for real adults. The Book Thiefis YA. The Hate U Giveis YA. I’ll Give You the Sunis YA. Some YA novels are so clearly excellent that the world tries to pretend that they belong in the regular fiction section because heaven forbid YA be insightful and literary (I’m thinking specifically about The Perks of Being a Wallflowerand The Catcher and the Rye, both of which are textbook YA but rarely acknowledged as such). So, yeah. Some young adults novels are shallow romances. So what? Some people like to read shallow romances. I’m not one of them, and I’m guilty of calling them “bad YA” in contrast to the “good YA” that engages with identity during the awkward transition between childhood and adulthood.
The reason I bring this up before discussing American Royals is because I wasn’t sure, looking at it, if it was going to be “good YA” or “bad YA.” (Again, I don’t mean to shade if you like any of the books I I’d classify as bad or shallow; personally I dislike them, but I have no problem with/don’t look down on people who enjoy them). The concept—what if America were a monarchy run by George Washington’s descendants?—struck me immediately. It’s not exactly a secret that politics in America are significantly flawed, and I thought that American Royals would be an interesting experiment. I didn’t expect it to dive into every possible difference and minute aspect of a wildly reimagined world, but I was sure that the drastically different America would have to play a significant role. Being a constitutional republic/democracy is basically America’s whole thing. For better or for worse, our processes for selecting leaders have shaped the country we now live in. An America that never had Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln or FDR or Ronald Reagan as president would look very different than the one we’re living in now even if you set aside all the cultural differences between what we’ve got now and a full-blown monarchy. I was fascinated to dive into this reimagined America that Katharine McGee created.
I was only a few chapters in when I realized something deeply disappointing: Katharine McGee did not reimagine anything. American Royals’ America is indistinguishable from modern-day America aside from the existence of the royal family. There are a few handwaves to explain why things aren’t any different (the most egregious was a random aside about how one of the kings had won the Louisiana Purchase whilst gambling). McGee didn’t get into it much, but from what I can tell… America is the same. It has all the same states and territories. Political opinions are roughly unchanged. People are neither more progressive nor more conservative regarding issues like women in office, queer acceptance, and treatment of POC. My overwhelming impression was that McGee wanted to write about royals but didn’t want to have to research beyond her own country and culture and decided to just slap a monarchy into America.
It was a tough year, as everyone knows. I’m in the minority in that I actually read far less this year than I have any other year in the near future. I know I’m lucky to have a job since so many lost theirs this year, but it was tough. I was furloughed for just over a month and then brought back for more hours than I’ve ever worked before. Working longer, later, with fewer coworkers, and with the added stress of a pandemic (around idiots who don’t understand that MASKS SHOULD COVER YOUR NOSE) put a big strain on me. I’ve spent most of this year mentally and physically exhausted and I’m honestly just relieved to have made it to the end. My fingers are crossed that 2021 will be better. It seems like it would have to be, but I’m trying not to be too optimistic, lest my hopes be dashed by the unfortunate truth that things can always get worse.
Still, I did a decent amount of reading. I expanded my horizons a bit and read more adult and nonfiction books than I normally do. I made my stated book goal (75 books) but did not maintain my aspirational goal to read 10% classics.
Of my 82 books, I read
4 Junior Fiction/Young Reader Books (4.8%)
47 YA fiction novels (57%)
30 adult novels (36.5%)
4 nonfiction books, of which 3 were memoirs (4.8%/3.6%)
1 book of poetry (1.2%)
3 graphic novels (3.6%)
30 sci-fi, fantasy, or dystopian novels (36.5%)
12 historical fiction books (14.6%)
2 mysteries or thrillers (2.4%)
34 contemporary novels (41.4%)
6 classics (7.3%)
14 rereads (17%)
68 new-to-me books (83%)
I try to expand my reading horizons all the time, but every time I do I come to the same conclusion: I keep reading the same types of books because I consistently like them the best. I’ve been running this blog for four years now, so this is my fourth time doing an end-of-year top ten. I read more widely this year, but my list looks very similar to the previous ones. It’s almost exclusively YA, with fantasy novels and contemporary stories that tell diverse stories doing particularly well. There are even repeat authors. Adam Silvera, Alice Oseman, Taylor Jenkins Reid, and Patrick Ness have all made this list before. What can I say? I’m a loyal fan.
While these books may not be the “best” books that I read this year from scholarly standpoint, they are the ones I enjoyed the most. Classics aren’t given any more weight than trashy romances. This is all my opinion. I only have two rules:
Only new-to-me books are counted; books I reread are not eligible to be on either my top or bottom ten lists (as this would skew the top list and cause too many repetitions; I only reread books I love); books do not have to be new in 2020… only new to me.
Authors can only appear on the list once
I did reread some great books, though. As always, here’s a shoutout to some of my favorite rereads!
But a brief shoutout is all they get today, because this post is about the books I discovered this year. I did rank them, but ranking is a fiddly thing. These were definitely my top reads this year, but the actual numbering was really difficult and there definitely would be some slight differences in ordering if I’d done this at a different time. In any case, these novels are all excellent and I highly recommend all of them.
More than anything else, Cemetery Boys is a novel that winds together diverse cultures and makes something entirely new. The main character is a trans, Latino brujo (wizard, essentially) who accidentally summons the wrong ghost in an attempt to prove himself through a magical ritual. If that description doesn’t catch you, then you definitely have different tastes than I do. Cemetery Boys blends questions of identity and acceptance with an inventive fantasy adventure. I read a lot of fantasy, and it’s exciting to come across one that feels as fresh and richly drawn as this one. Thomas balances fantasy adventure with a myriad of well-developed relationships (from romantic to familial and everything in between) and creates a world that is entirely unique and endlessly interesting. This is Thomas’ first book, and I suspect that they’re an author to watch.
During lockdown, I read a lot of books that I otherwise would have overlooked, and Kindred was one of them (I didn’t have access to a library or bookstore! I borrowed books from my live-in family; Kindred is my sister’s book). Neither science fiction nor historical fiction is usually my jam, so this one took me by surprise. It’s interesting to have read Kindred during the same window I read Outlander, because both employ the same basic premise: a woman travels back in time. Reading them in such close proximity made Kindred’s strengths all the more obvious. Kindred uses its time traveling to provide context for the atrocities of the past rather than simply accepting them and rolling with them. Itwrestles with big ideas like racism and family loyalty while telling a nail-biting time-traveling story that employs time-traveling mechanics unlike any I’ve experienced before. I read somewhere that Kindred is the first science fiction novel by a Black woman, and while first doesn’t inherently say anything about quality, I personally feel that Kindred is easily as good as any modern science fiction novel I’ve read, and better than most.
fantasy/alternate universe/historical fiction (AU mid-to-late 1700s)/ series (book 1)
I spend half my life searching for my next favorite fantasy series. I can honestly track most of my life by my phases. There was the long Harry Potterphase that took up most of my childhood, a Charlie Bone phase, a Percy Jackson phase, an Inkheartphase, a Twilight phase, a Septimus Heap phase, and more. Most recently, I had an intenseSix of Crowsphase and this year I had a brief but powerful Raven Boysphase. The Raven Cycle took me through a significant portion of this year, and when I finished it I felt the lack very keenly. Enter A Darker Shade of Magic. I’d tried the first book of a lot of series, hoping to find something that might be able to fill the suddenly vacant hole, and this was the first one that made me think hm, this could be it. While the characters are good, the main selling point for A Darker Shade of Magic is the complicated but fascinating system of magic. The multiple Londons is a difficult concept to pull off (it’s hard enough to build one world, let alone four!) but Schwab pulls it off with aplomb. The worlds feel so real and yet so fantastical that I just wanted to live in them for a while. The plot is good, but the standout to me is how little I cared about actually getting to the plot. I loved the setup for this novel, and I’d have been content to follow protagonist Kell on his everyday chores for as long as Schwab was willing to let me. I’ve acquired book two, and am looking forward to reading it as soon as I finish Middlemarch.
I work in a bookstore, so I see a lot of books every day. A few months ago, I saw Super Adjacent by Crystal Cestari on a display. I’m a sucker for a cute cover, and the summary sounded cute, so I put it on my to-read list. Then I coincidentally read a bunch of disappointing romances and worried that Super Adjacent would be yet another one and I let it drop several places on my list. Well, I finally got around to reading it, and this is one of those instances where I should’ve gone with my gut. Super Adjacent is an adorable novel that is both a sweet romance and a better superhero novel than any other I’ve read recently.
What’s it about?
Claire has been obsessed with Warrior Nation since she was ten years old and one of the heroes, Blue Streak, saved her life when she and her mother were held at gunpoint. She’s devoted her life to learning everything there is to know about superheroes, and when she lands a coveted internship at Warrior Nation it’s a dream come true. Bridgette has been connected to the superhero world for longer—she’s dating one of the heroes, and has been for four years—and the glow has long since worn off. When you’re a superhero’s girlfriend, your life is full of kidnappings and skipped dates. When Claire and Bridgette are briefly kidnapped by a group of villainous malcontents, they are made forcibly aware that something dangerous is brewing in Chicago’s underbelly.
What’d I think?
I’ve had a run this year where I’ve read a lot of disappointing YA romances because the covers sucked me in. Coincidentally, I’ve also recently read a lot of superhero stories that intended to complicate the hero/villain dichotomy that were executed to… middling results, let’s say. So I’ll admit that I went into Super Adjacent with a healthy heaping of skepticism. I left it thoroughly impressed. I hoped I’d like it—obviously; no one starts a book hoping to dislike it—but it didn’t occur to me that it would be anything more than a sweet, simple romance with some superpowered antics thrown in for good measure. It is a sweet romance with superpowered antics, but it also highlights the villainous potential of a heroic corporation more effectively than most similar titles I’ve encountered.
Specifically, I recently read Henchby Zina Walschots. Hench was billed to me as THE hot title this winter and it promises to lead the reader into a world of villains and henchmen and the not-so-pure superheroes who created them. It disappointed me. It was a novel that expressly promised me a world of moral ambiguity and served me absolutes. Super Adjacent could have gotten away with moral absolutes. I was promised a novel about the difficulties of being a superhero’s girlfriend. It could easily have been sweetly, sappily straightforward. Looking at Hench and Super Adjacent, you could be forgiven for guessing incorrectly which one handles its subject matter in a more mature, more proficient way. Hench has a blurb from a New York Times bestselling author. Super Adjacent has an unattributed tagline. Hench is marketed towards adults. It has a dark, broody, atmospheric cover. Super Adjacent is lavender and has little cartoons on it. It’s clearly meant for teengirls. But teen girls have great taste. Some of the best books I’ve ever read were written for teen girls. Some of the best books I’ve ever read were writtenby teen girls.
My main issue with Hench was that it kept telling us that heroes make villains. It wanted us to sympathize with the villains and one in particular who took on the role of the protagonist even though her actions were largely unconscionable. Super Adjacent actually demonstrates wonderfully how a bad system of heroes can create villains, and it actually got me to sympathize and empathize with its villain even though both of the novel’s POV characters are solidly aligned with the heroes. Super Adjacent definitely focuses most on its romances—the official summary on the inside flap actually includes spoilery late-in-the-game developments, likely because most of the first half is fluffy and largely plotless—but it still manages to do the complex supervillain morality better than Hench, which employs it as its main plot.