Book Review: Dark and Deepest Red by Anna-Marie McLemore

OUT JANUARY 14th! Thank you to Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group and NetGalley for providing me with an advance review copy in exchange for an honest review.

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If there are people in your life (or if you are this person) who are thirsting for beautiful, thoughtful, magical YA novels with an inclusive and LGBTQ+ focus, look no further than Anna-Marie McLemore! Their classic fairy tale retellings and LGBTQ+ fantasy-lite YA novels really scratch an itch and fill the soul.

They continue to delight with Dark and Deepest Red, a retelling of both the classic fairy tale The Red Shoes by Hans Christian Andersen and real historical events from hundreds of years ago. McLemore seamlessly moves the narrative between two teens living in a slightly enchanted modern town and a young Roma woman (Lala) trying to pass in society with her aunt and a trans boy in Strasbourg in 1518, the same year a mysterious dancing mania overcame hundreds of residents in the city. The two stories blend together and inform each other in ways that will break and mend your heart. This is a story about building acceptance, community, and self-love. It is about honoring your past, your heritage, and your place in the world.

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Book Review: Why We Can’t Sleep by Ada Calhoun

OUT JANUARY 7th! Thank you to Grove Press and NetGalley for providing me with an advance review copy in exchange for an honest review.
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Image from Goodreads

While I am very solidly in the Millennial generational bracket, I really enjoyed reading Why We Can’t Sleep, Ada Calhoun’s nonfiction examination of Gen X women’s experiences with aging and managing their middle-aged years. I appreciated the discussion as a way to prepare myself for midlife, which will be coming for me in about a decade. Calhoun hoped as much, that younger women would learn from the generation above them, but she also does a lot of work explaining why Gen X has been uniquely set up to experience the issues that they currently are doing battle with.

In Why We Can’t Sleep, Calhoun talks about how a lot of Gen X women have found themselves to be miserable in their 40s and 50s. Maybe their careers (or lack thereof) are nothing like they expected. Maybe they hate their children or their partner or their body. Maybe they desperately want children and are running out of time to have them. The list is long, as I’m sure we can all understand. No one is 100% satisfied all the time.

Calhoun looks at the reasons why Gen X women seem to be more miserable than the women of other generations. She looks at how they were raised, with elevated expectations after Title IX and with elevated levels of parental neglect. She looks at the geo-political climate over the course of the entire lives and what made the biggest impacts on Gen Xers. And she examines the roll advances in medicine, science, and technology have had on a Gen Xers lives and their choices, as well as the shifts in social/cultural/gender dynamics from their parents’ generation. With all of this, she concludes that Gen X just seems to be the generation in the wrong place at the wrong time. They were hit hardest by the Great Recession and continue to, as a generation, hold the most consumer debt. They have a deep distrust of authority, the biggest deficit between reality and expectations, and they have acted as a kind of oldest child to Millennials and Gen Zers…facing technologically induced problems first.

Why We Can’t Sleep is an incredibly addictive read. I found myself unable to put it down, perhaps because I craved a fuller (and more honest) understanding of real women’s experiences. Calhoun’s writing was engaging and entertaining, and she covers a good range of topics. That being said, I have a couple issues with Why We Can’t Sleep. The first is that at times it can come off as one giant complaining session and whoa is me-ing. There are legitimate reasons why Gen X has had a rough go, but some things in the book make me want to roll my eyes.

Part of that is wrapped up in the second issue…she refers to Millennials as kids multiple times. The youngest of us are out of undergrad and the oldest of us are nearly 40. We are adults with adult issues. We don’t have our heads buried in video games. We are fully engaged with what’s happening in the world, and (I hate to break this to everyone) some of us actually do remember a time without Internet in our homes OR AT ALL. We are battling with our own set of grown bullshit that is decidedly not childish in nature. She also uses some generalizations about Millennials and Boomers as ways to prove why Gen Xers have it the worst, and that just doesn’t fly with me. Stereotypes don’t prove points.

My third and probably biggest issue with Calhoun’s book is her seeming lack of diversity in voices. While there is at least one queer person’s story, we’re not really told the ethnicity or socioeconomic situation or childhood environment for a lot of the women in the book. I know Calhoun isn’t trying to conduct an exhaustive survey on the issue, but I think that the reason I felt like rolling my eyes at a lot of the stories in this book was because they felt like #FirstWorldProblems.

Loosing jobs is awful, being in debt is awful, facing fertility issues when you want children is incredibly painful, but what happens when you face these things as a Gen X woman who came from a very impoverished family or who can’t pay for groceries every week or who has been homeless or has suffered racial discrimination. I don’t think trans women were mentioned at all (and that would have been incredibly valuable). We don’t get much insight on those women’s experiences, or a look at how a Black Gen X woman or a trans Gen X woman experience the difficulties of middle age differently than a White Gen X woman. I am certain that there are notable differences that are worth discussion.

But those issues aside, this was a very readable book that does offer valuable insight into our middle aged years in the new world we live in. I found it helpful (as a white, middle class, cishet woman), and if you are a Gen X woman you will probably feel some great comfort in reading your peers’ experiences. I applaud Calhoun for sharing these details about female life. Middle aged women tend to get pushed aside and their problems not taken seriously, so this was a nice step to correcting that.

I’m at a point in my life where big decisions have to be made. These things affect the rest of our lives, and choices we make will sometimes come back to haunt us. I greatly appreciated hearing the stories and lessons of women 10-20 years my senior. Sharing that knowledge is very important, especially for women. And while I did feel comforted in some ways, I also learned that there is no right way to do anything in life. Women interviewed by Calhoun were miserable for the same reasons other women were happy. And some women were miserable because they couldn’t have the things other women had (like a family or high-powered career or both), but some of those same women who do have those things hate them and wished they’d never attained them.

So honestly, it feels to me like the best we can do is try to know and love ourselves as well as possible, make educated guesses as to how to proceed with life, try to live in the moment and appreciate what we have when we have it, temper our expectations in order to have an achievable goal of happiness, and not be afraid to change something that makes us unhappy if it is possible to change! Calhoun’s book does have plenty of positive stories to offset the sad ones, and she does leave us on a hopeful note. Many of the women she talks to who are going through a hard time end up in a better place when she follows up with them later on. Humans are adaptable and resilient, and while life is getting harder and things have changed drastically from the Baby Boomers’ experience, there is hope for happy and fulfilling lives as we age!

 

 

Book Review: The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern

Thank you to Doubleday Books and NetGalley for providing me with an advance review copy in exchange for an honest review.
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Image from Goodreads

The Night Circus was a bit of a slow burn phenomenon for the bookish world. Over the 7/8 years since it was published, people have found it and fallen deeply in love with it at their own pace. I didn’t go crazy over The Night Circus when I first read it, but all these years later I find myself thinking about it a lot. The atmosphere, the setting, the magic, the character relationships. It really stuck in my brain, so I was very excited to hear that Morgenstern was finally coming out with a new book this year!

I was shocked when I saw The Starless Sea available for request on NetGalley. I had just assumed it would remain elusive and exclusive to only the most renowned of book reviewers. I was even more surprised when I was approved for the digital ARC.

A real quick synopsis: Zachary Ezra Rawlins is a grad student studying immersive media (video games) design and storytelling. One day he stumbles on a mysterious book in the library that appears to be a collection of short fairy tales and folklore. The thing is…a true story from his childhood is in this book. No one else knows this story but Zachary, and on top of that, the book looks to have been written way before Zachary was born. He starts to do some digging and in the process gets stuck down in a weird underground magical library where clothes are perfectly tailored for him and the food is exactly what you need and cats wander everywhere. But there is like, no one else in this library. The space itself is confusing and labyrinthine, and time and place don’t hold much power.

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Book Review: The Twisted Ones by T. Kingfisher

OUT OCTOBER 1ST! Thank you to Gallery / Saga Press and NetGalley for providing me with an advance review copy in exchange for an honest review.
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My Aunt’s dock at Bloody Pond

A few years ago, I went with my Mom to stay with her and my Aunt at my aunt’s new cabin on a kettle lake in upstate New York. Kettle lakes look like ponds, but they were formed by ice blocks melting many a year ago. Bloody Pond, the kettle lake my Aunt has her cabin on, is spring fed so the water is crisp and clear. It’s very refreshing! My Aunt’s cabin is set deep among some pines, and it feels very bewitching to be there.

We had a lovely weekend in her adorable cabin, swimming, reading, eating, and drinking. There was, of course, an amazing campfire, and we stayed up late talking and laughing. But the later we stayed up (and the more red wine I drank), the more I couldn’t stop looking out into the pines. It got really creepy. What could be in those pines? Were there creatures watching us? What kind of creatures?

I was also raised on a very healthy dose of creepy folklore. My family has a lot of Scottish and Irish blood, so stories of changelings and brownies and selkies etc. were very common. I’m convinced my mom is in good with some faeries. I think it’s because of all of this that I loved T. Kingfisher’s The Twisted Ones so much. I think I love folk horror best now.

Mouse lives in Pittsburgh (heyo, local gal!), and she doesn’t see much of her immediate family. Her Aunt raised her after her Mom died, but she talks to her Dad every week on the phone. Her Grandma lived in rural North Carolina (I also have family in North Carolina…too many coincidences), but now that both she and her Step-grandpa are dead, their house is just sitting vacant. Mouse’s Dad calls her up and asks a huge favor…would she please go down and clean the house out so they can decide what to do next with it? She can’t say no.

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Book Review: The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow

OUT SEPTEMBER 10TH! Thank you to Redhook Books and Netgalley for providing me with an advance review copy in exchange for an honest review.

43521657When I read Alix H. Harrow’s short story “A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies” in the February 2018 issue of Apex magazine, I cried. That story hits on a very deeply rooted value I hold in librarianship and illustrates the life-saving abilities of literacy.

In it, a librarian watches a young boy come in to the library time and time again, lingering longer each time, using the books to escape whatever real life horrors were happening outside of the stacks. In the story, the librarian is a witch. There are rules to the magic of librarianship. Some magical books are not to be offered to patrons, and there is knowledge that should be locked away safely, protected. The librarian knows this, and she knows what will happen to her if she breaks those ancient rules. But she also knows the exact book this boy needs to break free of his oppressive life and find happiness in a new world. She gives him the book and watches him escape to better life, risking her own exile and ostracism.

This is important to me not only because of the obvious metaphor concerning literacy, education, and freedom, but also because of what it says about librarianship. It’s hard to explain fully to folks who don’t work in libraries, but there is a bit of a split between librarians and what we think librarianship should be. I belong to the camp of disobedient witches.

I bring all of this up to say that Harrow’s The Ten Thousand Doors of January is written with just as much passion using similar plot devices and metaphors, and it’s fucking beautiful. January Scaller and her father Julian are outsiders to the wealthy white elite of Vermont in the early 1900s. The color of their skin makes that known immediately. But January has the privilege of growing up in a fine mansion under the care of their benefactor, Mr. Locke. Julian travels the world for Mr. Locke, bringing back rare artifacts stolen from other cultures in exchange for taking care of his daughter. Mr. Locke then takes these items and “safely” preserves them by locking them away in dusty rooms and cases.

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Book Review: Violet by Scott Thomas

OUT SEPTEMBER 24TH! Thank you to Inkshares for providing me with an advance review copy in exchange for an honest review.
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Image from Amazon

I grew up on a lake. My grandparents had an adorable lake house on one of the Finger Lakes in upstate New York very close to the small town I grew up in. We spent most of our summer days making the quick drive to their house and enjoying the fresh, cool water, the slight breeze, the gorgeous and magical woods, and the secret worlds we created. There were caves, waterfalls, glens, clearings, fields of wild flowers, and of course the lake itself. We learned how to swim and sail on that lake, and spent countless hours sunbathing on the dock and telling ghost stories around the fire on the beach. Our favorites were about the ancient monsters that lived at the bottom of the deep Finger Lakes, which were formed by glaciers making giant cuts in the land thousands of years ago.

Lake houses mean true peace, serenity, and happiness to me, so this book hit me like a ton of bricks. I was always on the look-out for ghosts in and around my grandparents’ lake house, but Scott Thomas’ Violet has made me grateful I never found them!

After Kris’ husband is killed in a crash, Kris takes her young daughter Sadie to her family’s lake house on Lost Lake in Pacington Kansas to get away from the memories and the prying eyes of family for the summer. Kris hasn’t been back to the lake house in thirty years, since she was a child herself. Her memories of the place are happy and full of joy, and she thinks the house could help her and her daughter handle the grief of suddenly losing her husband. The issue (one of many, as it turns out) is that the lake house hasn’t been touched in years. It has been neglected and is now overgrown and even rotting in some places. And it becomes very clear early on that the state of the lake house mirrors the state of Kris’ soul, and just like with her own trauma, Kris assumes she can just slap a coat of paint over it and it will get better.

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How I Discover Books

IMG_20190731_082053If you follow me on Instagram (or just know me as a human), you know that I love giving book talks and recommendations. I also love to talk about different book-related resources and discovery tools. A while ago, a friend of mine requested a blog post that put all these resources in one place for all you bookish babes. I am, of course, here to please.

First of all, I’m obviously going to say, “GO TO THE LIBRARY!” Librarians are on hand to offer you on-the-spot book recommendations, and they (read “I”) love to do it. It’s like a fun puzzle that needs to be solved. You can also ask me for book recommendations directly. I adore giving recommendations and would do it all day long if I could. And if you haven’t tapped into the Instagram #Bookstagram community yet, make sure you get on that! Book recs all day long!

Below is a list of websites, tools, apps, book boxes/subscriptions, and podcasts that I’m addicted to that help me discover books, talk about books, and manage my book ownership and reading life! All of these things I have tried and enjoy. Warning, quite a few things are specific to genre, so if you’re not a fan of that genre maybe it isn’t for you.

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Book Review: A Cosmology of Monsters by Shaun Hamill

OUT SEPTEMBER 17TH! Thank you to Pantheon for providing me with an advance review copy in exchange for an honest review.
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From Goodreads

There are monsters in the world, unspeakable evils that rob us of that which is most precious to us. Life can break your heart and rip you apart, but Noah Turner has more to contend with than the familiar horrors of human existence. Noah can see monsters, like real monsters. Big harry creatures. And they can see him too.

Shaun Hamill’s A Cosmology of Monsters is an incredibly touching story about the Turner family. What starts off as a cute love story quickly turns to sorrow as Harry and Margaret Turner and their three children face tragedy after tragedy over the years. But in the midst of their struggles (struggles that many of us would recognize and be acquainted with), a fantastical element rears it’s furry, sharp-toothed head. A true monster has had its sights on the Turner family for decades, and Noah, the youngest, decides to let it into his home, his family, and his heart. What Noah doesn’t know is that his father also saw monsters, and his mother knew something was wrong.

I knew from the cover art that this was a book I needed to pick up. Once I read the synopsis I was hooked, and I couldn’t put it down. This stunning literary horror debut hit me in all the right places. I was up way past lights out flipping the pages, fully invested in the Turner family’s story and the monster(s) that haven’t stopped haunting them for generations. I couldn’t get enough of the throwback 80s/90s vibes mixed with Lovecraftian horror! Despite it being a horror/fantasy novel, I found it oddly relatable.

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The Books to Read When You Want to Save the World and Yourself.

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The obsession is real.

The other day, I was a little extra tired after being out later than normal for my husband’s birthday the night before. I got home and started making dinner, and my husband walked into the kitchen and asked, “Weren’t we going to go to empanada night?” Our favorite bar was hosting an empanada food truck and we had been excited for it all week. I basically had a breakdown right there because I forgot about the empanadas, desperately wanted to go get them, but was so tired and had already started making food at home. I freaked out and felt a panic attack building, and I eventually said, “I’m so overwhelmed all the time, just thinking makes me overwhelmed. I’m exhausted.”

I just planned a wedding, and that process took so much out of me. I wasn’t expecting it to be as bad as it was. I had panic attacks and horrible bouts with my anxiety. I thought I’d be back to my normal self after the wedding was done, but I’m not. I’m burnt out. And this moment has made me realize that I’ve been burnt out for a long time, not just because of my wedding.

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We got married in a library!

My anxiety and feelings of being overwhelmed, even when it appears that I’m not, have prevented me from doing so many things I expect of myself. It causes a kind of paralysis that then spirals into guilt and frustration, and it just gets more fun from there. Recently I’ve realized that my anxiety and existential struggles are, in ways, directly connected to our modern American culture of achievement, consumerism, and “disruption”. With the attention economy (social and traditional media) following us everywhere we go thanks to invasive technologies, this frantic culture has infected every aspect of our lives. I’m overdue for a refocusing of my life.

Luckily, I’ve happened upon four books that, when read together, validated what I was feeling and helped me start to build a plan for how to get out of this headspace. I realized that I needed to take a step back and refocus in a way that allows me to build meaningful awareness and take pointed actions in my life. These books are The Year of Less by Cait Flanders, Braiding Sweetgrass by Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer, Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino, and How To Do Nothing by Jenny Odell. I recommend these books to everyone.

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Readers’ Advisory: Read-a-likes for Kurt Vonnegut by Women Authors

 

A friend of mine recently asked for book recommendations for her partner. Her partner greatly enjoys Kurt Vonnegut, but she’d love for him to try reading more books by women. She wondered…are there female authors who strike the same chord? Scratch the same itch? Hit the same nerve? Etcetcetc. When I asked further questions, she mentioned that she thought that what he loved most about Vonnegut was the humor.

This question kind of stumped me. As I wracked my brain to figure out who I could recommend to my dear friend that was both a woman and also a read-a-like for Vonnegut, I shorted out a bit. I haven’t yet read a lot of Vonnegut, so I’m working with a handicap. I decided to pull my resources and consult my boss, who is well-read, loves Vonnegut, and has an incredible sense of humor.

Here are both her and my suggestions for my friend’s partner:

44453Dorothy Parker: Parker’s writing is sharp, witty, and incredibly hilarious in the same cynical way as Vonnegut. Satire is absolutely her realm. She got her start as a theater critic and was one of the original members of the Algonquin Round Table (along with Robert Benchley and Robert E. Sherwood). Her writing stretches across so many different styles, including poetry, short stories, and screenplays to name a few. Fun Fact, she co-wrote the script for the ORIGINAL ORIGINAL A Star Is Born starring Judy Garland. I recommend perhaps starting with her Complete Short Stories. And if you want a taste of her wit, check out this delightful list of one-liners.

 

 

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Nora Ephron: Ephron, like Parker, is known as a prolific writer with a lot in her toolbox. She’s a journalist, screenwriter, essayist, playwright, and novelist, among other things. Most, but not all, of her writing has a strong vein of humor running through it. She writes from a frank perspective with a sharp wit, and while she’s not quiet Vonnegut-esque, she is absolutely a big name talent in humor writing! I would tell my friend’s partner to start with Wallflower at the Orgy, a collection of Ephron’s magazine writings published in 1970 that take a witty and cynical look at American culture. Ephron lived an incredible life which includes being one of the only people to know the true identity of Deep Throat before it was revealed decades after the Watergate scandal. Her perspective and talent oozes from everything she writes. She is worth your time and attention!

51keam5kkxl._sx330_bo1,204,203,200_Becky Chambers: Now we’re veering off a bit. I recently read the first installment of Chambers’ Wayfarers series and really enjoyed it!It was SUPER funny, smart, tender, and absolutely killed it as both a science fiction book and a story about found family. And if you like Firefly, Titan A.E., or Star Trek, you will probably enjoy these books. If my friend’s partner is into science fiction, I highly recommend starting there!

 

 

 

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Sarah Vowell: Vowell is more of a read-a-like for John Hodgman if you enjoyed Hodgman’s recent Vacationland: True Stories from Painful Beaches (which I did, IMMENSELY). She writes deep-dive quirky non-fiction in a really unique style that can, I admit, be hard to get used to at first. It stops just short of stream of consciousness, but man is it witty and fun! If I had to giver her humor style an official designation, I’d say it is in the vicinity of wise-crackin’. I read her Unfamiliar Fishes, which is about the history of Hawai’i and how the US basically stole it, but for for my friend’s partner I think I would recommend he try Assassination Vacation, wherein Vowell takes a roadtrip across the US to visit places where significant political assassination occurred throughout history. Fascinating!

12868761Jenny Lawson: Lawson became a big name in humor when her hit memoir Let’s Pretend This Never Happened: A Mostly True Memoir hit the scene in 2012. This book, which covers her childhood among other things, approaches the shit of life with humor and a big ol’ “Welp”. More appropriate for David Sedaris fans, I do think my friend’s partner will enjoy this first memoir from Lawson because it’s just so damn funny!

 

 

 

33381433Samantha Irby: (Unfortunately the only woman of color I’ve included on this list…please send me your WOC Vonnegut read-a-likes!!) Irby is a comedian and blogger known for her humorous blog bitches gotta eat and her wry, sarcastic style. Her gut-splitting essay collection We Are Never Meeting In Real Life was released in 2017 to rave reviews. This  is a great pick for my friend’s partner!

 

 

 

9780143128045Shirley Jackson: UUUHHHH WHHAAATTT?? Did your eyes just explode out of your head? This was no mistake, my friends. Yes, Jackson is known best for her haunting gothic tales, and yes I am contractually obligated to write about her as often as humanly possible.  But she also wrote about her family and what it was like to be a mother and the weirdness of life in a small community. Often these personal topics were treated with sarcastic wit. You can draw a direct line between this writing and her horror writing, but you will probably laugh more with her memoirs. I recommend my friend’s partner start with Life Among the Savages.

 

As you can see, many of these women write a lot in the “nonfiction” and “essay” genres. I find it interesting that some of the funniest writing I’ve ever read by women is, in some way, a truthful account of a situation or thought or experience or event. I think there is something to this–something that comments on the differences between how men and women interpret and experience the world. This was part of why my brain melted a bit when I first tried to contemplate this question.

My boss and I are still trying to think of additional authors who fit this bill (you thought I was out of them, ha!), so if you have any additional suggestions we would GREATLY appreciate you offering them up in the comments! It’s a difficult question because Vonnegut is so singular, and women are still fighting that ridiculous stigma put on them that they “aren’t funny”. That is incredibly false, of course, but it is still prevalent and blocks very funny women from getting their due. Let’s do our part to break it down!