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

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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

The Upside of Unrequited

Hello everyone!

It’s a stiflingly hot summer day here in Maryland, a.k.a. the perfect day to hide out inside with lots of ice water and books and YouTube (until the dog needs a walk, of course). And one of the books that I’ve really enjoyed diving into recently has been The Upside of Unrequited, by Becky Albertalli.

I’ve been meaning to read Albertalli’s award-winning debut Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda for ages now, but while my library didn’t have it in stock, it did have The Upside of Unrequited, published just a few months ago in April 2017. And oh my goodness, am I glad I checked it out.

The book is narrated by Molly Peskin-Suso, a crafty, chubby seventeen year old twin living in Takoma Park, Maryland, who has had twenty-six crushes already in her short life. Molly is a true romantic, falling fast and hard, but she’s always, always careful. After all, she has to be, right?

Molly’s twin Cassie, however, doesn’t tend to get lovestruck at all–that is until she falls hard for Mina, a girl she and Molly meet at a concert one night. As they begin their own relationship, Mina and Cassie become determined to set Molly up with Mina’s friend Will–something the ever-cautious Molly is not exactly thrilled about, as cute as he is. And then there’s Reid, Molly’s nerdy, funny, Lord of the Rings-loving coworker. It’s all shaping up to be an extremely interesting start to the summer, to say the least. Now Molly just has to figure out how to navigate it.

One of the things that really drew me into The Upside of Unrequited (and made it way too hard to put down) was Molly’s voice. It took me a couple of chapters to truly get a sense of her character, but after that, I was hooked. There’s no question that Molly is shy and introverted, and she finds it extremely difficult to have as much confidence as her twin sister–in her body, around other people, etc. But one of the best things about The Upside of Unrequited was getting to watch Molly gain that confidence, in her own way. Everyone has their insecurities, and while Molly of course has her fair share, she is also a very well-written, strong character with tons of development. I loved that her gaining of confidence was not linked to any boy liking her, but rather, her learning to like herself more, and consciously deciding to take more risks and try to step out of her comfort zone a little. Plus, Molly’s narration is just so perfectly her–from her love of arts and crafts, to her trepidation over her and Cassie’s changing relationship, to her talent for baking. I have never read a book that made me crave cookie dough so much in my life.

It was also really refreshing to read a book featuring a teenage main character who takes anxiety medication, without it being a huge deal. With how stigmatized mental health issues still are, there was something about reading about Molly’s anxiety as just another facet of her character that made my heart happy. While there’s obviously no problem with books that focus more on a character’s mental health, I like that there are also books showing that it doesn’t have to be a big deal, or that medication doesn’t have to be a big deal. Plus, speaking as someone who has also dealt with her fair share of anxiety, it was comforting to read about a character who goes through the same anxious thought-loops, even if it was just one part of the book. It made me only enjoy and relate to Molly’s character more.

Of course, I couldn’t help but fall in love with many of the other characters, too, especially Molly’s family. While Cassie is of course very different from Molly, despite their shared DNA, and I didn’t relate to her nearly as much, she obviously loves Molly just as much Molly loves her, and fiercely at that. She is just as unsure about the shifts in their sisterhood as Molly is, but I loved the way Albertalli portrayed those shifts (growing apart, being nervous about growing apart, etc.) in a way that felt very real and genuine. I also enjoyed the way she showed Cassie’s side of things, too, even though the book is narrated by Molly.

The rest of their family is no less lovable. Their moms, Patty and Nadine, are both funny, supportive, and so enjoyable to read about, not to mention that the twins’ baby brother sounds way too cute to be legal. Many of Molly’s and Cassie’s friends are also unique, well written characters that only made the book richer, especially their best friends Abby and Olivia. However, I think the one I was most fond of (and this is a hard decision) was ultimately Reid, Molly’s adorable, dorky coworker whose fascination with Queen Elizabeth the First was both hilarious and relatable (to an extent). It’s not hard to see why Molly likes him so much, and it makes the reader love him, too.

However, arguably the thing that made me love this book the most was how genuine and real everything in it felt. Molly’s voice is so perfectly that of a seventeen year old girl still figuring out who she is and what she wants, and all the other characters feel just as authentic. This is especially true with how rich and realistic the cast of characters is in its diversity–Molly and her family are Jewish, one of her moms and her little brother are black, Mina is Asian and pansexual, the list goes on. This is the kind of diversity that should be everywhere in books these days, and while it’s sad that it isn’t, it’s great to read a book that actually shows that inclusiveness. Plus, there’s a certain sort of thrill in reading a book set not very far from your own home (I knew exactly what kind of Metro poles Molly was talking about!).

All in all, The Upside of Unrequited is an excellently written story about growing up and coming into one’s own that I absolutely loved reading, even when I probably should have been sleeping. It’s a perfect book to get lost in, and I wanted to hang out with Molly in its pages forever. Now I just hope that my library finally has Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda back in stock.

Thanks for reading everyone, and have a great rest of your weekend!

Nora

The Hate U Give

Hello everyone!

It has been quite awhile since my last post, and lots of exciting things have happened, the most obvious being that I am officially done with high school! Summer break has been pretty great so far, needless to say, what with providing truly delicious amounts of free time for reading, sleeping, and finally getting the chance to watch The Get Down. (Don’t even talk to me about Netflix canceling it. I could write an essay on what a messed up decision that is.) And for working on blog posts! And the book I have been meaning to review ever since I stayed up until 2 am finishing it a couple months or so ago is The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas.

The Hate U Give is one of the few books that I specifically asked for as a birthday present, but I probably would have done anything to get my hands on it anyway (well, anything within reason). It’s a completely captivating and searing story of an all-too-familiar narrative–that of a young, black, and unarmed boy shot by a white police officer, only to have his character put on trial rather than the cop’s, his name replaced with “drug dealer,” and his humanity assaulted in a way we all know a white boy’s never would have been. But The Hate U Give also tells a story that isn’t always as prominent: That of the one witness who was with this boy, Khalil, when he was shot–16 year old Starr Carter. She is the only one, other than the cop himself, who can tell what happened that night. But she is also afraid, not only for her own safety but for that of her family, as well.

Starr is no stranger to how an individual’s race and background affect how they are treated and how the world expects them to behave. As one of the few black students at a predominantly-white and wealthy private school, Starr is automatically cool because she is black, but is also appalled to hear her white classmates (such as one of her close friends) refer to Khalil simply as a “drug dealer” who was up to no good. At home in Garden Heights, however, she is “Big Mav’s daughter who works in the store,” one who feels comfortable using slang and doesn’t feel the pressure to make sure she never comes off as the “angry black girl.” But she’s also set apart from her peers–it’s hard to keep Garden Heights Starr and Williamson Starr completely separate.

It’s even harder to keep her two selves apart after Starr becomes the principal witness to Khalil’s death. All of a sudden she is a key player in a narrative so terribly similar to those she has read about on the internet and reblogged on her Tumblr. And the way Thomas tells Starr’s story is not only near-impossible to put down, but also a constant reminder of the systemic racism that still runs rampant in the U.S. today.

It doesn’t take very long to realize why The Hate U Give is one of the best books of the year. I was instantly drawn in by Starr’s first person narrative. Her voice is candid and so very much her own, masterfully expressing her conflicts, her fears, and how hard it is for her to be two different versions of herself depending on where she is. And then, after Khalil’s death, how hard it is for her to not only grieve one of her best friends, but to face the prospect of having to defend his humanity.

Starr’s character was without a doubt one of my favorite parts of the book. She is smart, clever, and honest, and it comes through on every single page. She is desperate to do something to get justice for Khalil, but at the same time is terrified of the consequences. She knows what race relations in America are like, and while she isn’t afraid to point them out to the reader, she struggles to make her non-black friends understand. Watching Starr’s growth throughout the book–as she copes with levels of grief and fear that no 16 year old should have to face, as she overcomes her trepidation and takes control of her own anger–is one of the most powerful aspects of reading The Hate U Give, and made me never want to put the book down.

But there are many other characters that I loved besides Starr, most of all her family. Her parents, her little brother, her step-brother Seven–all would go to the ends of the earth for Starr, and all are lovable in their own ways. Her dad is a former gang member who wants to help make Garden Heights better, while her mom wants desperately to make sure her kids are safe. Seven may sometimes play the role of the protective older brother too much for Starr’s taste, but his everlasting support for her made me love him. And her little brother, well, he’s the only one who doesn’t treat Starr a little differently after the shooting, and she loves him for it.

Another part of The Hate U Give that made me never want to put it down again was, of course, Angie Thomas’s writing itself. It is lively, cutting, and perfectly on-point, never feeling stiff or clunky. It seamlessly communicates everything Starr is feeling–her pain, her confusion, even her love for Fresh Prince, and it only makes the book more absorbing. And while the focus of the novel largely consists of police brutality, it touches on a myriad of other issues, too–cultural appropriation, microaggressions, supposedly “harmless” jokes that are really anything but. The writing and the language is a large part of what makes The Hate U Give feel so real and immediate, just as it should be, and it captures the urgency of the book’s story masterfully.

It is hard to describe how one feels after finishing The Hate U Give. It is not a fluffy, happy, uplifting read. It is not sending the message that progress will be easy, that the deaths of black people at the hands of police are isolated incidents, that things will change if we just root out the “few bad apples.” It sure has hell doesn’t coddle.

But it does end with the sense that progress is necessary. It is not a question of whether one is brave enough, or whether an unarmed black boy was a drug dealer or not. It is a question of when a hoodie will qualify as a piece of clothing rather than a reason to shoot, a toy gun as just that–a toy–rather than a reason to take the life of a 12 year old kid. No one knows when that time will be. Starr certainly doesn’t, as she points out at the end of the book. But as Starr learns to speak her truth throughout the novel, it becomes a call for others to speak their truths, as well, and for allies to amplify those voices as best they can. The Hate U Give can certainly make things feel hopeless at times. But it does not send the message that the situation itself is hopeless. Rather, it sends the message that the situation will improve, but only through extremely hard work and struggle. Through listening and allyship. Through making people’s voices heard.

And that, that right there, is part of what makes The Hate U Give so important.

Take care of yourselves, and enjoy the rest of the weekend. Hopefully I’ll be back with another post soon.

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

Skim

Hey everyone! Hope you all have had a lovely weekend, full of tea and sunshine and binge-watching clips of The Late Show (or is that just me?). Today’s book is Skim, by the amazing due of Mariko and Jillian Tamaki, and a wonderful graphic novel at that.

“Skim” is actually Kimberly Keiko Cameron, a young high schooler who goes to an all-girls school in Canada and is a lover of Wicca, tarot cards, and astrology. Skim’s school is all of a sudden thrown into turmoil as news spreads of the suicide of Katie Matthews’s ex-boyfriend, leading to the creation of a “Girls Celebrate Life” club, as Skim herself is falling into a deep depression as she contemplates questions of friendship, love, and sexuality.

As readers, we’re sort of dropped into the middle of Skim’s life–we get to watch as she grows and changes and begins to delve into deeper questions about herself, until the book ends and we step out of that little glimpse. But that glimpse itself is extremely well done–Mariko Tamaki writes from the point of view of Skim writing in her diary, allowing us to see many of her private thoughts, but also leaving many things unsaid. Skim’s voice sounds authentic, and, while not always stating things directly, still conveys what she’s feeling very well, especially as she deals with trying to figure out what love is and how to know when you’re in it. It’s amazing how we can still feel the turmoil and pain going on inside her mind, both the confusion of love and the deepness of depression, and it’s one of the things I most enjoyed while reading.

The other characters–Skim’s friends, her classmates, and even her parents–are portrayed with similar clarity. While we of course don’t get as close a look at their inner thoughts as we do at Skim’s, we still get a sense of how they’re feeling about what’s going on around them, especially through their expressions and body language. It makes them feel more real and human, and only makes it harder to put the book down and leave their world.

Which brings me to one of the things that I most loved about this book–the seamless way in which the words and illustrations work together to tell this small part of Skim’s story. Jillian Tamaki’s drawings are beautiful and striking, black and white and intricately detailed in a way that I kept marveling at as I read. There were so many moments when I just wanted to sit back and look at the pictures, because they’re so well done and they flow with the words in a way that’s almost magical. The placement of the prose and the way the words sit on the page often gives them added weight, pausing at all the right places to give the reader a chance to consider what Skim is saying. It only brought me deeper into Skim’s life, and made me feel as if I could really see her surroundings and what her world was like. It’s one of the things that most made me never want to put the book back down.

Skim only provides us with a small look into one girl’s life, but it’s one that I so enjoyed falling into. Skim, her school, and her world feel so authentic and real that I closed the pages feeling as though they must actually exist, and that somewhere out there Skim was continuing to go about her day, figuring out who she is and reading book after book about Wicca. It’s a great read, and perfect for a rainy afternoon to boot 🙂

Hope you all have a lovely Monday, and stay cool!

–Nora

Quote of the Day: “I feel like I have wings but my bones are bricks. Because…because…because…” —Skim, by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki

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.