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.