What I’ve Been Reading During Winter Break

Hello everyone!

I hope you all are staying warm and taking care of yourselves in the midst of the cold and national politics. While I’m currently bracing myself for a return to the Minnesota weather, I’m trying to fit in as much reading before the spring semester as possible, along with trying to keep track of all the great books I’ve devoured in the past few weeks. So, without further ado, here is some of what I’ve been reading since classes ended:

Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James

This was the first book I dove into after flying home from Minnesota for the holidays, finally done with exams and papers and trying to remember how to read for fun again. Black Leopard, Red Wolf is the first in a new trilogy from Man Booker Prize-winner Marlon James, and even if I hadn’t already wanted to read it after reading the synopsis, the cover would have been enough to draw me in. Set in a masterfully built fantasy world based on Africa and African kingdoms such as Songhai and Kush after the fall of the Roman Empire, the book is told from the point of view of Tracker, a mercenary hired to find a mysterious young boy. However, the reader is informed from the outset that by the end of the years-long search, the child is dead. While it took me a few chapters to orient myself and truly feel that the plot had begun, James’ world building and prose are both fantastic, and I was fascinated by how he constructed the many cities and kingdoms through which Tracker travels. Tracker’s narration, told in his distinctive voice, only makes it harder to put down. While the book has considerably more violence and gore than I usually read (including several scenes that reference sexual assault), I am excited to see what the next book holds. (This interview is a great look at the book’s origins, as well.)

Strong Female Protagonist (Book One & Book Two) by Brennan Lee Mulligan and Molly Ostertag

I initially began reading Strong Female Protagonist online ages ago, but unfortunately lost track of it, despite how good it is. This means that I was thrilled when a friend lent me the first two physical books over the break and I was able to devour all of it at once. Strong Female Protagonist is undoubtedly one of the most interesting and striking superhero stories I’ve ever read/watched, centering around a young woman–Allison Green–who eventually quit heroing to attend college and learn about different modes of making the world better. What follows is an intriguing look into ethics and philosophies surrounding saving the world, told through a host of engaging characters that I adored. Molly Ostertag’s art is fantastic, as well, and I would honestly die for the power couple that is Feral and Paladin.

Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith

Danez Smith’s second poetry collection Don’t Call Us Dead is one of those books that I want to write about but consistently end up staring at the blinking cursor instead. Clocking in at a slim 82 pages, Smith’s poems are the kind that stay in my head long after I’ve closed the covers, their urgency and craft impossible to ignore. Smith writes truthfully and at times defiantly about the dangers faced by Black men, particularly queer Black men, and their bodies. Shifting from police violence to AIDS and back again, here metaphors and allusions to gods and pigs mingle with lines that are as stark as the black words on the page: “i tried, white people. i tried to love you, but you spent my brother’s funeral making plans for brunch, talking too loud next to his bones.” These poems contain anger and pain, but also tenderness, a love for boys such as those in “summer, somewhere,” where “paradise is a world where everything/is sanctuary & nothing is a gun.” Don’t Call Us Dead is the kind of book that often feels beyond review. Instead, it leaves me wanting to simply press it into the hands of everyone I meet.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

I adored Celeste Ng’s debut novel Everything I Never Told You, but it took me an embarrassingly long time to finally read her bestselling follow-up, Little Fires Everywhere. Set in the minutely planned community of Shaker Heights, Ohio, the book centers around two very different families who find themselves on opposite sides of a local custody battle, in which a white couple seeks to adopt a Chinese-American baby. However, this book is so much more than its summary–Ng’s methodical development of her characters and the lyrical prose with which she reveals their past and present makes the novel feel almost like an in-depth character study of both the families and their larger community. At times as suspenseful as a thriller, Ng’s writing never rushes, but rather lingers beautifully within each character and moment. Just as the character of Pearl is described as lingering in “the gray spaces,” so too does the book, in a way that made me feel like I had to lay in bed thinking about it for hours after I finished it.

Florida by Lauren Groff

While I’m only about a third of the way through Lauren Groff’s new short story collection, Florida has already reminded me of why I love Groff’s prose so much in the first place. Each story is eerie without being supernatural, embracing the strangeness and uncertainties that emerge in everyday lives with a sort of psychological urgency that leaves me on the edge of my seat. She writes about sisters, a lonely boy, and, often, a troubled mother, among a host of other characters. I am endlessly impressed by the ability of her writing to describe sensations and images in ways that are both surprising and cunningly accurate. The first story, “Ghosts and Empties,” is a particular favorite: “Window after window nears, freezes with its blue fog of television light or its couple hunched over a supper of pizza, holds as I pass, then slides into the forgotten. I think of the way water gathers as it slips down an icicle’s length, pauses to build its glossy drop, becomes too fat to hang on, plummets down.”

That’s all for me today–it’s time to fit in some more reading before I have to start packing. Have a great rest of your Sunday, and keep warm!

Nora

On My Unabashed Love for The Song of the Lioness

Hi everyone! Hope you all have been having a lovely week so far. I’m currently in a house on a lake in rural Wisconsin, which is pretty cool, and am looking forward to devouring as many books as I can while I’m here. But in the meantime, I’ve also been thinking a lot lately about some of my absolute favorite books–the ones that I read years ago and loved, the ones that hold a special place in my heart just by virtue of how much they meant (and still mean) to me. And one series that especially stands out is The Song of the Lioness quartet, by Tamora Pierce.

The quartet chronicles the journey and battles of Alanna of Trebond, a young girl who, determined to become one of the strongest knights in Tortall, bravely and somewhat recklessly disguises herself as her brother in an effort to achieve that dream. This sets Alanna on a long and wild path, one that will involve everything from swordfighting, to magic, to prophecies and a role in protecting the kingdom that is much larger than she ever imagined. It’s an epic, wonderful fantasy, and one that I’ve recommended enthusiastically for quite a while.

I think I read this series for the first time when I was maybe nine or ten years old, and I fell completely in love with it. Alanna’s world of magic and battles and rogues completely captivated me, and I devoured all four books in the span of a week. It was instantly added to my mental list of favorite fantasies, as well as my list of favorite books, period.

One of the reasons I love this series so very much is the pure action and excitement of it. Alanna is constantly surrounded by risks and danger–the danger of being discovered, of not succeeding, of not winning a battle. And the stakes only get higher and higher as the series goes on, finally culminating in an epic final showdown.

I think one of the most interesting things about a book series is being able to look back on it after it is finally finished–at the character development, the growing complexity of the plot, the ebb and flow of the broader story. But it is also interesting to look at those things years later, with a higher level of maturity and a new perspective.

With that in mind, one of the things that most strikes me about The Song of the Lioness is how very feminist it is. It may have been the most feminist book I’d read up to that point in my life, despite my not realizing it at the time. Alanna is a very real, very human young girl who we get to watch develop into an older teenager and then into a full adult. She is complicated, flawed, and brave, and a steadfast believer in the idea that she should have the same opportunities as any boy in Tortall, no matter how rich in money or status he may be. She knows that girls are strong, capable, and more than deserving of respect, and that message is conveyed in every book in the series. I love that Alanna recognizes the systematic sexism of her kingdom’s laws, and promptly says eff it all and does what she wants anyway. And I think that was very important to see, as a young reader, as well as pretty awesome in and of itself.

This series also never fails to make me happy in that it never shows Alanna as anything other than in complete control of her own body. Alanna is aware that her body belongs to her and never anyone else, and that what she wants to do with it is entirely her own decision. As she matures and we watch her grow up, she makes it clear that she owns herself and her sexuality, and not once is she ashamed of it. Tamora Pierce writes frankly about the female body, puberty, and even safe sex, and to me, the idea that these things can and should be discussed, and the idea that women are in charge of their bodies, is something that is very important to see in Young Adult lit–fantasy or otherwise. Seeing these feminist attitudes present throughout the series was an important reason I fell in love with it, and another reason that I recommend this series so enthusiastically.

One of the things that is so engrossing about The Song of the Lioness–and really any series–is that we as readers get to watch Alanna grow and mature throughout the whole thing. A person who began as a courageous and reckless child grows into a mature and experienced (if still somewhat reckless) woman. It’s fascinating, in its own way, and one of the great joys of reading the series in the first place (that, plus all the excitement of Alanna’s world). The Song of the Lionness is arguably one of the first series I ever read that was truly YA, and I fell completely head over heels in love with it. It’s fun, captivating, and I wanted to stay in its magical, feminist world forever. Even if I’d be useless at swordfighting.

That being said, this has been Saturday Afternoon Rambling with Nora. I hope you all have a wonderful rest of the weekend, and take care! And don’t get in too many swordfights.

–Nora

Four Favorite Comfort Reads

Hi everyone! So, I think it’s almost universally acknowledged that Summer 2016 hasn’t been the best it could be. I’ve almost given up even looking at news that isn’t books- or Nationals-related, and I’m seriously considering living under a rock until at least the end of November. 2016 hasn’t been very kind to the world so far.

It’s time like these when I often just want something fun to read–still good, still incredibly well-written, but the kind of book I can just fall into and hopefully come out of feeling a little better. Books for when the real world just doesn’t seem so inviting (although they still pack quite the emotional punch). And so, without further ado, here are four of my favorite comfort reads, the ones I want to turn to again and again.

1. To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is a book that I loved so much the first go-round that I had to resist the urge to just reread it right away as soon as I was done. Lara Jean’s world of love letters, romance, and cookie-baking drew me in right away, and watching her banter with her sort-of-boyfriend-sort-of-not Peter K only makes it more fun. It features sisterly love in a way that I couldn’t get enough of, and the sequel, P.S. I Still Love You, is just as good. It’s a wonderful read to just fall into and enjoy, especially when the front page of the New York Times seems like a bit too much. But be warned: There’s a strong chance it could inspire you to bake to excess, so handle with caution.

2. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley

Many of the books (and shows, and movies) I most like to dive into when I need to take my mind off of things are mysteries. I love the challenge and plot-twists of figuring out who did what, especially when it draws me into a whole new world. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie and its sequels have an added advantage in that they also feature Flavia de Luce, arguably my favorite protagonist of any mystery ever. She’s eleven, an extremely skilled chemist with a strong interest in poisons, and precocious as all get-out to boot. I absolutely adore her, and watching her track down the story behind the dead man she finds in the garden of her English estate completely captivated me. It’s a great series to just get swept up in, poisons, murders, and all.

3. Alanna: The First Adventure by Tamora Pierce

However, as much as I love mysteries, there’s always going to be a special place in my heart reserved solely for fantasies (or just Tamora Pierce, to be honest). Many of my first favorite books were fantasies, and one of my first loves of that genre was  Alanna: The First Adventure, the first book in the Song of the Lioness series. Tamora Pierce spins magic and mayhem out of words, and while the books certainly have their fair share of loss and sadness, reading them, to me, always feels a little like coming home. It comes complete with plot twists and sword fights and romance, not to mention all the magic! (And the completely unabashed feminism, hallelujah.) I’m not sure that I could actually think of a fantasy I’d recommend more, although Ella Enchanted is certainly in the running. In any case, if I ever need to distract myself from the rest of the world for awhile, Alanna is one of the first things that pops into my head.

4. Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins

It took me ages to finally get around to reading Anna and the French Kiss, but I fell in love with it in a way that makes me want to return to it whenever I need to forget about stuff and just spend some quality time with a really good book. Anna’s story of transferring to a high school all the way across the Atlantic, becoming best friends with history-obsessed Étienne St. Clair, and trying to navigate the murky waters of friendship and love totally sucked me in, and then refused to let go. I fell in love with hilarious, film-loving Anna, and all of the other characters felt just as real and genuine. And the setting only makes diving into Anna’s world more fun–I could have happily read about her adventures in Paris for days.

I love books like these because they have the power to pull you into another world completely, spinning you away into these fun, exciting stories when the real world is just a bit too much. They are full of excellent plots, well-written characters, and magic both figurative and literal, and I loved falling into each and every one of them. The world kinda sucks sometimes, but at least there are books like these to help us along. Also chocolate 🙂

Hope you all have a great rest of the weekend, and take care!

–Nora

Quote of the Day: “Keep reading. It’s one of the most marvelous adventures that anyone can have.” –Lloyd Alexander

The Monsters of Templeton

Hello everyone! Hope you all are having wonderful summers, full of ice cream and beaches and movies (and hopefully not summer colds). And, of course, lots and lots of reading. Summer is awesome in large part because of all the time it frees up for new books, and one of the reads I’ve most enjoyed falling into this summer has been The Monsters of Templeton, by Lauren Groff.

The Monsters of Templeton transports the reader to a small town called–you guessed it–Templeton, New York, home to a baseball museum, a glimmering lake, and a monster that lurks beneath its waters. But Templeton is home to many other things, as well, including one Wilhelmina Sunshine Upton, a graduate student studying archaeology who returns to her childhood home in the middle of summer, unexpectedly and in disgrace. However, while there, Willie also begins to explore the history of the town, especially as it pertains to her own ancestors, going as far back as Templeton’s founder himself. And what she discovers are things wholly unexpected and very, very interesting.

One of the reasons I fell so completely in love with this book is the plot itself–Groff takes the reader along on Willie’s journey as she delves into her family tree, switching points of view from relative to relative to relative, while also including information on a number of Templeton’s other residents. She encompasses not only a breadth of information about Willie herself, but also Willie’s mother, her grandparents, her great-great-grandparents, etc., and all with considerable talent and balance. One could imagine the novel’s plot as consisting of innumerable little balls, but Groff juggles them so capably that it looks effortless, all with a healthy helping of mystery that makes it even harder to put the book down.

Groff also writes each character in a way that presents them to the reader as wholly human–full of flaws, but also completely engrossing and endlessly interesting. Willie herself is nowhere near perfect, having, like many of us, made a number of poor decisions in the past (and in the present). But she is also brilliant, and loves very fiercely, a fact that comes through in the book a number of times. I adored her best friend, Clarissa, and couldn’t get enough of reading about many of her ancestors. The characters, and the plot they are entangled in, make it very easy to fall into The Monsters of Templeton and never quite get out.

And, finally, the writing. While the characters are written very well, Groff’s writing itself is so engrossing, so lyrical and descriptive without ever being flowery, that it almost seems separate from the characters’ narration, more like it has a mind of its own. It is concise but also full, completely bringing the reader into Willie’s world, in a way that totally grabbed me. The writing, arguably, is the component of Monsters that most makes me want to read all of Groff’s other books, something I am very much looking forward too. It only makes the novel even more fun to lose yourself in.

The Monsters of Templeton is a book both addicting and incredibly interesting, and it left me wanting to know more even after I had closed the pages. The plot twists and turns like a sort of archaeological maze, and even though I was dying to know how it would end, I also found myself fervently wishing that it could have gone on longer. It’s a great book to dive into, and I’m so glad I picked it up. Definitely a recommended read 🙂

And now I am off to help myself to some butter pecan ice cream and some Steven Universe. Have a great week everybody!

–Nora

Quote of the Day: “Templeton was to me like a less-important limb, something inherently mine, something I took for granted. My own tiny, lovely village with great old mansions and a glorious lake, my own grand little hamlet where everyone knows your name, but with elaborate little frills that made it unlike anywhere else: the baseball museum, the Opera, the hospital that had vast arms extending into the rest of upstate, an odd mix of Podunk and cosmopolitan. I came back when I had to, to feel safe, to recharge; I just hadn’t had to in so long.” —The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff

Get in Trouble

Oh my goodness gracious, it’s a blog post! After quite the unofficial hiatus! But now that Get in TroubleAP exams are done, sleep is more than just a figment of my imagination, and I am somehow a rising senior in high school (how did that happen again??), it’s high time that hiatus came to an end. And what better way to start than with Get in Trouble, Kelly Link’s amazing latest short story collection?

The onslaught of work and exams and the subsequent retreat into a cave of sleep and general vegetation meant that it took me far longer than it should have to finish this book–but that doesn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy it immensely. Picked up while browsing a bookstore and flipped open to a random story, I eventually found myself crouched next to a bookshelf, already starting to wonder how I was going to pull myself out of it. But, alas, it was too late.

(Please note: This is most definitely a very adult book, and does include instances of self-harm and attempted suicide.)

Link’s stories are incredibly hard to sum up neatly, largely because each of them is different, encompassing everything from superheroes to ghosts to abandoned theme parks based on The Wizard of Oz. There’s “I Can See Right Through You,” about an aging movie star and Ouija boards, or “The New Boyfriend,” about teenage friendship with possibly-possessed boyfriend dolls thrown in. There are tales of parallel universes, pocket universes, strange and inexplicable happenings that send shivers up your spine while also keeping you helplessly engrossed. The weirdness abounds, and the result is utterly fantastic.

This weirdness is exactly one of the reasons that I adored this collection so much. I’m loathe to tell anyone too much about the specific stories, not only because I’m not at all sure that I could do them justice, but also because figuring out what on earth is going on is a good part of the fun. I found myself constantly marveling at Link’s ability to take the mundane and everyday and make them anything but, incorporating the magical and supernatural in a way that felt not only incredibly enticing but also seamless. The stories blend the normal and the abnormal wonderfully, creating a sort of magical realism that doesn’t feel real at all. Rather, it feels like a bit of a dream world, almost there but not quite, a fantasy but also not. And almost every story left me wanting more, wanting to know what happened next, or just to see more of the worlds Link created. And the magic makes it seem not too unbelievable that the book may be literally calling your name.

However, despite all these differences, a constant throughout each and every story was Link’s writing, which only made it harder to put the book down. Her words have a certain cadence and voice that lasts throughout the collection, not giving away too much at a time, but rather drawing the reader in through a gradual reveal of the worlds she’s created. She paints her characters, not necessarily concretely, but in a way that gives the reader insight into their inner thoughts and only makes them want to know more. Her characters are just as complex and varied as the stories themselves, and watching them interact with each other, love and hate and friendship and all, only made the book more enjoyable.

Another thing that completely captivated me while reading was the atmosphere Link created for her stories, especially through the settings. The way she describes the worlds of her characters, whether they be in the Keys or a New York City hotel or a wild countryside in the summer, only make the stories more real, painting their surroundings in vivid color. I especially loved the descriptions in “The Summer People,” which made the gardens of roses and beds of laurel of the characters’ home feel so real it was almost as if I could touch them.

Much of the book feels like a heady mixture of the strange and fantastic and eerie, a rabbit hole to fall into right from the first page. Link makes the normal abnormal and vice versa, and her writing perfectly conveys the otherworldly-ness of the stories, drawing the reader in until they can’t escape. While some of the stories did take things to a darker or more disturbing level than I expected, it is nevertheless the kind of book that makes you want to stay up late reading under the covers for hours, until the very last page is turned. Down into the rabbit hole we go.

And on that note, I shall take my leave. >bows< I hope to return soon though! Hope you all have had a great May, and have a great Memorial Day weekend!

–Nora

Bookish Quote of the Day: “They’re making each other realer the longer they look at each other, and isn’t that what love should be? Isn’t that what love should do?” —Get In Trouble by Kelly Link

My Favorite Books of 2015

Oh my god, it’s winter break. So much sleep. So much reading. It’s the most wonderful time of the year.

Now that the year is drawing to a close, it seems only right to tally up some of the best books I read this year and decide which ones were my absolute favorites, and oh my goodness were there some really amazing ones. To make it a little bit easier, I’ve split them up by genre this time around.

Fantasy

I really gravitated towards contemporaries this year, meaning that I also really stepped back from fantasy for awhile, which is a little strange considering fantasy books are a large part of what made me fall in love with reading and start this blog in the first place. (Hence the first review being about The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale.) But that does not at all mean that I don’t still adore great fantasy books, and oh my god were there some fantastic ones.

An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa TahirAn Ember in the Ashes

An Ember in the Ashes was the first fantasy I read after a looong stretch of mostly reading contemporaries, and it was the best re-introduction into the genre I could have asked for. This story of two very different characters living under the rule of the brutal Martial Empire–Laia, a slave girl, and Elias, an extremely accomplished soldier–is absolutely captivating, filled with complex characters and a plot that makes you feel like you’re constantly holding your breath as you turn the pages. There’s magic, an amazing setting, and some of the highest stakes I’ve ever read about, and it is fantastic. This is the kind of book I want to throw into people’s faces just so they’ll read it and can freak out about it with me. Especially Helene, because oh my god Helene. (I also went to a book event featuring Ms. Tahir at Politics and Prose in D.C., and she is absolutely lovely, not to mention hilarious.) (Full review here.)

The Wrath and the DawnThe Wrath and the Dawn by Renée Ahdieh

The Wrath and the Dawn is another fantasy that grabbed me, pulled me in, and refused to let go. Renée Ahdieh’s retelling of One Thousand and One Nights is so full of talent and skill that it still makes my head spin, and its story of Shahrzad and Khalid swept me up and made it near-impossible to put the book down for even a second. Shahrzad and Khalid are both so amazing and complex, not to mention all the other characters, and I fell in love with them so completely that I think I’m still recovering. Ahdieh’s writing is downright gorgeous, and she paints the world of Khorasan so masterfully that it only absorbed me even more. I loved so many things about this book–the plot, the characters, and especially the friendship between Shahrzad and her handmaiden Despina, because yes to awesome female friendship in books. Not to mention the romance, which made me fall in love so completely that it’s arguably the best ship I read about all year. This book made me forget lunch, guys. It’s so good. (Full review here.)

White is for Witching by Helen OyeyemiWhite is for Witching 2

White is for Witching is the most recent fantasy I read, and it’s also one of the most interesting things I picked up all year, nightmares and fairy tales mixed with the very real dangers of the world into a captivating cocktail. Helen Oyeyemi’s tale about Miranda Silver, and the lives of the Silver women who came before her, is something like labyrinth, weaving together what is real and what is not, what is light and what is dark, and and what the reader can and cannot trust. She writes in a way that draws the reader in and then doesn’t let them go, and uses the magic and darkness of her story to also touch on the very real issues of our world. Miranda and the other characters are drawn in a way that makes them feel real and human, despite the supernatural voices that haunt their lives, and the narration is done in such an interesting way that I was caught almost from the beginning. It’s the kind of story that you just can’t look away from, and I loved being swept up in it. (Full review here.)

Contemporary

This year led to me realizing that contemporary is one of my favorite genres in pretty much ever–I love reading about characters in high school, going to work, carrying out their lives in the very same times we live in. While there likely isn’t going to be any pixie dust or dragons, contemporaries can have some amazing stories, and falling headlong into some of them this year led to a lot of great discoveries.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao 2The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz

If I had to name one book I read this year that was closest to my favorite, it would be The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Díaz. I’d been meaning to read this book for ages, and when I received it as a present at the start of the summer, it wasn’t long before I finally tried it. Junot Díaz writes in a way that I fell in love with, and I adored learning about Oscar’s life and those of the people around him, especially the unnamed narrator that we finally meet more than halfway through the book. He narrates in a voice that draws the reader in and makes it incredibly hard to escape, and the characters are all so human and flawed that by the end I felt as if I really knew them. The plot covers generations of Oscar’s family, taking the reader from his home in New Jersey to the Dominican Republic and back again, and it’s filled with conflict, romance, and tons and tons of stories. I loved it so much that I bought the short story collections Drown and This Is How You Lose Her right afterward, which were just as amazing, and my only regret is that I sped through them so quickly that now I don’t have anything else new from Díaz to read. Let the rereading commence.

Purple Hibiscus 2Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Purple Hibiscus is another contemporary I read this year that I became completely absorbed in and absolutely loved. I’d never read anything by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie before, and her first novel was more than enough to convince me to read anything else by her that I can get my hands on. Purple Hibiscus focuses on the lives of Kambili and Jaja, two children living in the household of their fanatically religious father, and Adichie tells the story of their growth and education (particularly while visiting their aunt’s family in Nsukka) in a way that makes it all seem so real and vibrant that I was totally drawn in. She paints the picture of Kambili’s family’s lives in a way that makes the reader feel as if they actually know them, and each of the characters is incredibly real, with their own complex emotions and desires. I loved getting to read about all their conflicts, both internal and external, and part of me wishes that the book had gone on much longer just so I could have read more.

To All the Boys I've Loved BeforeTo All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is one of the many great books of 2014 that I missed out on, but I absolutely adored falling into it this past spring. The story of Lara Jean Song and her hidden (and then not-so-hidden) love letters totally drew me in, full of cookie-baking, fake dating, and sisterly love. I loved getting to know these characters, especially Lara Jean and Peter K, and it was so much fun to see the way they bounced off each other and interacted. Han’s writing and Lara Jean’s narration was as addicting as the cookies Lara Jean bakes, and I loved reading about her family’s interactions and her friendship with her sisters. This is the kind of book that I started reading and just couldn’t stop, and when everything was mixed together–the characters, the details, the romance–it made my little reader heart so very happy 🙂 Not to mention more than a little hungry.

An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih AlameddineAn Unnecssary Woman

An Unnecessary Woman follows a plot that is just about as far away from To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before as possible, but that doesn’t stop me from loving it just as much. Rabih Alameddine’s story of a 72-year-old woman working as a translator in her book-filled apartment in modern Beirut was incredibly hard to put down, especially because of the amazing narration of Aaliya, the main character. Aaliya’s voice is one that I fell completely in love with, telling her own stories and those of other characters in a way that made her almost irresistible. She has the best way of putting things, full of wry and cutting remarks, and describes them in a way that made my weakness for amazing descriptions all the more apparent. She paints a picture of Beirut that made it seem so real I could almost reach out and touch it, a city wracked by the Lebanese Civil War and home to everything she loves. I loved seeing everything through Aaliya’s eyes, and the other characters were just as much fun to read about, sometimes funny, sometimes tragic, and always interesting. What made it even better was Aaliya’s deep and abiding love of books, written in a way that made it seem as if it was almost a living thing, radiating from the pages. It’s yet another one of my weaknesses, and for that I adored the book all the more.

Historical Fiction

When I came to this category, I realized that I read very little historical fiction this year, which is a definite lamentable fact. Historical fiction can be so extremely well done (see: Ann Rinaldi), and I’m not entirely sure how I ended up reading so little of it these past 12 months. Hopefully I’ll get to some really amazing reads in 2016, but for now, there is one book that totally bowled me over in a way that only the best books can.

The Valley of AmazementThe Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan

I finished The Valley of Amazement about two days ago, and I think a part of me is still reeling. It’s the first Amy Tan book I’ve ever read (I know I’m disappointed too), and after finishing it late at night it took me forever to finally fall asleep, because oh my god feelings everywhere. Tan tells the story of Violet Minturn, a young girl growing up in her mother’s courtesan house in Shanghai during the early 20th century. But when a web of lies ends with Violet being forced to become a virgin courtesan, it sends her on an entirely different track in life, one that Tan captures with so much mastery it left me wondering what to do with myself after I was finished. Tan’s writing is amazing, and the story of Violet’s life, interspersed with those of the myriad of other characters, made it near-impossible to put the book down. Each of the characters is original and flawed, and by the end I felt as if they had actually existed, wondering what happened to them after the pages were closed. The writing itself only drew me in more, capturing the expansiveness of the story and switching capably between different points of view. It tackles feelings of love, hate, and abandonment, and I loved it so much that my only problem now is moving on from it and picking which of Tan’s books to read next.

Nonfiction

Like historical fiction, nonfiction is not a genre that I focused on very much this year, despite my newfound love of historical musicals about Alexander Hamilton (seriously, don’t get me started because I could ramble on about Hamilton for literally hours without pausing) (>resists the urge to start singing<). But of course, there is one book that stands out as one of my favorite nonfiction books of the year, and also ever.

March: Book Two by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin, illustrated by Nate March--Book TwoPowell

I adored the first book in Congressman John Lewis’s March series for many reasons–the illustrations, how vibrantly it tells the story of his childhood, the look it gives into the Civil Rights Movement. And I was just as captivated by March: Book Two, if not more so. It’s true that it’s very different from the first book–it’s more violent, more mature, and it gives a much deeper look into the people of the movement and the challenges they faced. Lewis writes unapologetically about these challenges, describing in detail the vicious brutality with which the protests were met, as well as the conflict within the movement itself. Powell’s illustrations only make the book more absorbing and striking, stark black-and-white images accompanying each of Lewis’s words. It brings the racism and brutal history of our country–one built on the genocide and exploitation of black people–to terrifying life, in a way that made me more furious than any other book this year. It’s the kind of book that I want everyone to read, especially in times when the racism of the United States is still alive and well and affecting people in a million ways. It tells a story that’s wholly human and that needs to be told, and if there’s one book people read from this list, I hope it’s this one. (Full review here.)

And that’s about it for my favorite books of 2015. I’m hoping I’ll find myself reading many more in the next year, and hopefully (>crosses fingers<) writing about them as much as I can. It’s true that I didn’t read as much as I would have liked to this year, but many of the books I did get to were absolutely fantastic, and I can’t recommend them enough. And now I’m going to go make Christmas cookies, because it doesn’t need to be the actual holiday to use copious amounts of decorative sugar.

Hope you all are having a wonderful holiday season, and Happy New Year!

–Nora

P.S. I feel like it says something that the little blurbs I write for books are now just about as long as the first reviews on the blog. A master of brevity I am not.

White is for Witching

Hello again! I’m alive! I’m still reading! I haven’t totally fallen off the face of the earth!White is for Witching

Quick general update: Things have been fairly busy/stressful around here since school started. I’m in my junior year of high school now, and while many of my classes are interesting, I’ve gotten pretty caught up in managing the workload, along with still trying to do fun things outside of school (and I need to really start focusing on thinking about college because WOW THAT’S A THING). Unfortunately, the blog kind of fell by the wayside in the midst of all of that, but I’ve still been reading and trying to work on various posts. I’m hoping that now that I’ve gotten fully immersed in junior year and have a better feel for things that I can manage an at-least-semi-regular posting schedule, and I’m really going to try to get a better handle on everything that’s going on. And what better way to start that than with a brand new book review?

(Please note: Trigger warning for eating disorders.)

White is for Witching is the third novel by author Helen Oyeyemi (her most recent is Boy, Snow, Bird), and is the second of hers that I’ve read. The book revolves around one Miranda Silver, a girl living with her parents and twin brother in Dover, England, in the childhood home of her mother. Miranda’s life is inextricably intertwined with those of the Silver women who came before her–her mother, Lily, the grandmother she never knew, Jennifer, and her great-grandmother, Anna Silver. After Miranda’s mother dies, she begins hearing voices. She has an appetite for chalk and plastic. She can’t sleep, she can’t eat, not even the delicious concoctions her father cooks up for her. And after she leaves to attend university at Cambridge and returns with a friend, things only get eerier.

White is for Witching is without a doubt one of the most fascinating and original books I’ve ever read. It’s a maze–winding path after winding path of subplots and language and unreliable narrators. It’s incredibly hard to wrap your mind around, even after the pages are closed, and once you’re done it seems like the only thing to do is to pick it up and reread it to see if you understand it more the second time. It’s so hard to get a handle on, and yet still so amazing to read. It’s also the kind of book that makes me a little scared to tell anyone too much about it, for fear of ruining the mystery for them.

One of the things that makes White is for Witching so fascinating and absorbing is the narration. The story of Miranda and the people she knows is told from various points of view, allowing the reader to become intimately acquainted with Eliot (her brother), their family, a friend she meets at college, and more. The narration is constantly twisting and changing, making it sometimes hard to know who is saying what, and whether you can even believe what is being said. But despite this confusion, it makes the story more complete, adding hidden layers that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. I loved that I got to know so many of the characters, in ways that added a whole new depth to the story overall.

Another thing that makes the book so captivating is how Oyeyemi uses the supernatural elements of her story to touch on things in the real world. She addresses xenophobia, describing the sometimes violent reactions to Kosovan refugees who fled to the UK during the Kosovar War, something still all-too-relevant today. The book also touches on racism and prejudice, and when Miranda’s friend Ore comes to visit her in Dover, these things become physically manifested within the family home. Oyeyemi addresses these subjects so capably and in one of the most interesting ways I’ve ever seen, not shying away from them at all, and it’s part of what makes me want to experience the book all over again. She mixes the supernatural terrors of her stories with the very real issues of our time, and the result is a fascinating use of language that I kind of (and very nerdily) want to analyze in my English class.

And then, there is the plot–the plot that made me feel like my head was spinning and so confused I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what was going on. The plot is the complete opposite of a straight line. It twists and curves and runs in circles. It follows Miranda’s story and the changes in her psyche, while also weaving in the stories of the other Silver women and how they all interact. It felt like Oyeyemi had thrown me into some whirling, twisted dream, where from page to page you can’t help but wonder what’s real and what’s not. What are the voices in Miranda’s head, the person who responds when she writes questions on a piece of paper? What truly inhabits the house in Dover? It’s all so incredibly tangled, but in a way that made the book only more absorbing and hard to put down.

White is for Witching is without a doubt one of the most captivating books I’ve read all year. It resembles a fairy tale, but not at all the ones that are found in Disney movies–it’s twisted and eerie and dark, and sometimes so disturbing I had to take a break from reading to absorb what had happened. Oyeyemi doesn’t shy away from the gruesome or the frightening. She infuses her story with the stuff of monsters and nightmares and things that go bump in the night, drawing the reader in with her prose and characters. It’s strange and peculiar, and, most definitely, not for children.

That’s all for today. Hope you all had a lovely Thanksgiving, if you celebrate it, and that you’re enjoying the last couple days of November!

–Nora

Bookish Quote of the Day: “Miranda Silver is in Dover, in the ground beneath her mother’s house.” —White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi

P.S. White is for Witching leans more towards adult on the spectrum of book genres, and lately I’ve been exploring more adult books when I choose what to read. I’m definitely still very much in love with YA, but just a heads up that some upcoming reviews will feature books that are more likely to be found in the adult section of the library. But of course, that doesn’t mean they can’t be perfect for teens as well 🙂