Thursday, January 31, 2019

January Wrap-Up and Plans for February

Ugh, January.


I'm usually off to a strong start with the TBR Pile Challenge, but I only read one book from my list this month and it was late in the month and a pretty short book. That was Shattering Glass by Gail Giles. I've now started Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward which is great so far.

One of my goals this year is to find a new (to me) poem that I love every month. It's been a long time since I've read poetry regularly and I'd like to get back into it. I read one book of poetry in January, A Memory of the Future by Elizabeth Spires. I haven't posted about it yet because I can't find a lot to say about poetry even when I like it, so I'm just waiting to read another collection or two and then make a combined post.

Looking back at the books I read (or at least finished) in January, I think my favorite may have been The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton, and I'm eagerly awaiting the sequel. Another book that I still keep thinking about long after finishing it is the forthcoming Famous Men Who Never Lived by K Chess.

I always like to look at how much nonfiction I'm reading, and it appears I finished two nonfiction books, Priceless and Scrappy Little Nobody, both of which I liked a lot.


Speaking of nonfiction, I'm currently listening to the (nineteen-hour long!) memoir by Michelle Obama that is all the rage right now. It's good but I'm not sure I'll be giving it the 5-star rating that everyone else seems to. I will say, though, that she is a very good narrator. She could definitely do that for a job if she wanted to. Stay tuned for my review on this, but it might be a while since it's taking me so long to get through!


Another goal this year is to watch all of Wong Kar-Wai's films. In the Mood For Love is one of my favorite movies, but I hadn't watched any of his others. I recently was watching an episode of Parts Unknown in which Anthony Bourdain was visiting Hong Kong and he talked a lot about how much he loved Wong Kar-Wai's work and I decided it was time to sample more of it. So far I have watched As Tears Go By which I liked a lot, and Chungking Express which I wasn't crazy about.

This month I also finished the third and final season of A Series of Unfortunate Events. What a great show that was!

Random nice pic of Boston
I was sick the first three days of the year, but during that time I watched Bird Box, which I liked but didn't love, and The Haunting of Hill House which was so very good I want to go back and watch it all again. That scene where you find out the truth about the Bent-Neck Lady is just amazing.

I'm still watching The Good Place which just finished it's third season. My love is waning a bit, but I'll still keep watching because I love the characters so much. Well, except Jason. I like Jason, but it took me a long time to warm up to him and he's still my least favorite.

I've been watching a lot of cooking shows. I finished Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat which I liked but didn't really learn as much from as I was hoping. To be fair, I've read the book so I think I already gleaned any information I would have gotten from the show from the book first, but even that was limited: use more salt than you think you need, and if something doesn't taste exciting enough add lemon juice or something else acidic. Good advice, but I could use more of it.

I'm currently watching The Great British Baking Show: Masterclass and I've just started The French Chef with Julia Child which I got from the library. I like her style. On the very first episode she screwed up like two things and kept saying things like "nobody will know!" and "it doesn't look as nice as I had hoped so let's put some cheese on it" and these are exactly the kind of things I need to hear. I'm taking more suggestions for cooking shows containing practical advice for everyday meals, so please let me know if you have any to recommend!


Spicy Chickpeas with Ginger
I've done some actual cooking too! One new thing I made this month was Pork and Tomatillo Stew from Ruth Reichl's My Kitchen Year. Somebody brought it to Cookbook Club and it was delicious so I made it at home soon after. I also tried a couple of recipes from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone that I hadn't tried before (though I've owned the book for years.) One was Spicy Chickpeas with Ginger which was very good and I'll definitely make again. The other was Marinated and Fried Tempeh, Indonesian Style which was good but maybe more trouble than it was worth.

For Cookbook Club I baked Reichl's Banana Bread, which was the first time I've ever made it from a recipe other than my mother's. It's also the first time I've planned to make banana bread rather than just doing it because I had some overripe bananas. This means I had to plan when to buy the bananas, so that was interesting. I bought them 3 weeks ahead of time, which ended up being about right. I had to buy buttermilk for this version, which is inconvenient and now I have all this buttermilk leftover (and the banana bread wasn't even better than my mother's simpler version, btw) so I made something called Starbucks Indonesian Coffee Cake that someone from Cookbook Club gave to me when I mentioned all the leftover buttermilk. It was ok but I probably won't make it again.

I made the Caramelized Broccoli Soup from Dinner again, which I made for the first time in December. This is definitely becoming part of my regular soup rotation. These are just the highlights: I actually did a decent amount of cooking and baking this month!

If you've been following along, you know that one of my goals last year was to be a better cook and I was making a concerted effort to cook more. I'm continuing that this year but with some more specific goals; one of those is to come up with a list of dishes that are good for week nights. And I'm not talking about what Deb Perelman or Christopher Kimball or people like that consider to be reasonable for a week night. I mean few ingredients, quick preparation, something that will come together in 30 minutes or so including all the chopping. I know there are things I've made before that fall under this category, but I need to start pulling them all together into one list so I don't have to go hunting around every time I need to plan a weeknight meal.


Apparently I've mostly been reading, watching tv, and cooking. (And eating. Constantly, it feels like.) But I'm also going to physical therapy twice a week for my shoulder which consumes more time and energy than I had realized. I'm not really doing other exercise right now because it's just too much. I also visited the dentist and now have to use prescription toothpaste (did you know that's a thing that exists? I didn't!) and I have to floss twice a day instead of just once. Basically I feel like all I do is floss and go to physical therapy.
Such indignity

Despite that, and despite starting the year by being super sick for three days, I've had a little time for fun. My friend hosted her annual Russian Christmas celebration on the 12th, and I saw a production of Othello last weekend. Eric was supposed to accompany me, but instead had to take Petri to the vet because she had been limping for a couple of days and that was the only time he could get an appointment. (She's fine.)

So in summary, all I've really done in January is watch tv and survive, which I think is enough this time of year.

Plans for February

I'm going to see Angie Thomas (my friend bought tickets a few months ago!) and I'm also hoping to see Elizabeth McCracken. I love her, but it's not an event for which you need to buy tickets, so I'll be subject to the weather and my own ever-changing whims for that one. But I really really hope that I go! Also I am dying to read her new book. DYING.

I'll be hosting a Knit-along at work, along with a couple of co-workers. My first session is the afternoon of February 1. We're making this shawl and I've already cast on because it's a complicated enough cast-on that I didn't want to do it while trying to host. I knit a little just to get a feel for the pattern. It was fun shopping online for yarn, which I haven't done for a while. I needed four colors (or I could have used just one or five but wanted to replicate the idea of the original) but ended up buying two different batches in case one array didn't work out when I got to look at it in person. I'm using Madelinetosh Farm Twist in the colorways Whiskey Barrel, Glazed Pecan, Antique Lace, and Coffee Grounds which all sounds incredibly delightful, doesn't it?

Hopefully my physical therapy, and with it my shoulder pain, will also come to an end in February.

How was your January?

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

My One and Only Duke

My One and Only Duke (Rogues to Riches #1) by Grace Burrowes (2018)

Quinn Wentworth is a successful banker who is about to be hung for a crime he didn't commit. While biding his time in Newgate Prison, he meets a minister's daughter, widowed and pregnant. He decides to help her out by marrying her so she'll inherit his money, giving her means to raise her child. Meanwhile, authorities are trying to identify the heir to a dukedom and lo, it turns out to be Quinn. His execution is stayed at the last moment - really, after the last moment as technically he had been hung but just hadn't died yet. So now he's alive! And married!

I thought this was all a great premise to begin with, but of course there's more to it. Quinn wants to know who set him up, Jane has to adjust to the Wentworth household that she never expected to be a part of, and her father is threatening her child's future. There is a lot to be resolved.

Quinn tries to give her an out if she needs it, but Jane is committed to staying married. The truth is, they do like each other quite a bit even though they didn't get to know each other very well while she was visiting the prison. They vow to be honest to each other, but they're already lying: Quinn doesn't want Jane to know about his plan to find out who framed him and take revenge, and Jane doesn't want Quinn to know that her father is planning to take the baby away and raise it himself. (Oh, and her dad may be a minister, but he is bad news and not fit to raise a child.) They both have messy histories, which is something I appreciated a lot about this book. Not only is the heroine not a virgin (I mean, obviously, since she's pregnant) but her marriage was a series of poor choices and I really liked that even though it wasn't great and her husband wasn't a great choice, neither was he awful. Quinn's sexual history is also complicated and shameful to him and he wants to keep it a secret from Jane.

I also really enjoyed Quinn's sisters. They were all born poor, but through luck and good investments their position was much improved. However, Althea and Constance are not genteel tea-drinking ladies, they drink gin and curse and don't act demure for even a second. Quinn finds them difficult to live with but they are just the kind of fierce women you want on your side.

Basically I found everything about this to be rather delightful, despite the poorly-photoshopped cover. I had read some good reviews of it and hadn't read this author before, so I thought I'd try it. It was fun, and just the thing I needed after reading so much heavy scifi and horror recently.

Sunday, January 27, 2019


Nightingale by Amy Lukavics (2018)

It's the early 50s and June Hardie is not living up to her mother's idea of what a young woman should be. June is not interested in learning how to be a good wife, but prefers to work on her story about a woman who is abducted by aliens. She ends up in a mental hospital and the story goes back and forth between "the institution" and "days past" as we learn the full story of why she is there and what happens to her in the hospital.

As part of a business deal, her father wanted her to date a particular young man to better forge a relationship with his father. June wasn't crazy about Robert, but felt she had no choice but to go along with the scheme. Meanwhile, her mother was giving her lessons in cooking, shopping, and other domestic arts to better prepare her to be a housewife. Little did she know that June was secretly applying to a writing program to attend after her upcoming graduation.

Fast forward to the mental institution. June is convinced her parents have been replaced by beings who are not her parents. In the hospital she meets other young women with strange experiences, like her roommate Eleanor who is convinced that she died three years ago. Something at the hospital doesn't seem right to June. The girls are sometimes locked into their rooms for long periods, she's given drugs before even seeing the doctor, and when she does see the doctor he doesn't talk to her - the nurse Joya stands next to him and does all the talking. The threat of lobotomy hangs over everyone.

June was a smart, ambitious young woman who just wanted to be free from the narrow role her parents wanted her to play. She could picture herself at the writing retreat, living the kind of life that she wanted; it was so close but, alas, it was not to be. She was stifled at home and stifled in the hospital. She was convinced that her parents were not her parents, but wanted to cooperate with the hospital in order to secure her freedom at the same time that she suspected something sinister was going on. She didn't know if going along with what the hospital staff wanted would actually help or hurt her. It was ominous and realistic enough to be the sort of horror that feels all too possible.

The ending was very strange. A number of things happened late in the book, some of which were pretty bizarre and I still don't quite understand, some of which I liked and found satisfying. I can't actually criticize it because I think it's just my preference, and actually maybe made sense with the rest of the story. It really was a pretty good horror story!

I've read two other books by Amy Lukavics. Daughters Unto Devils remains a favorite, and although I didn't love The Women in the Walls as much, I still really enjoyed it. She's got one more novel that I haven't read, The Ravenous, which is second only to Daughters Unto Devils as far as the Goodreads average rating. I'm putting that one on my list to read as well!

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Famous Men Who Never Lived

Famous Men Who Never Lived by K Chess (2019)

In 1910 there was a timeline split, resulting in two different versions of the United States. Recently in one of the timelines cataclysmic disaster struck, but 156,000 people managed to escape through a gate between timelines and now they are in the U.S. that we know. They were picked through a lottery, adults only, and they couldn't bring family members. One of those people was Hel, who left behind a young son and a career as a doctor. She now lives with a man named Vikram, who came through with only a backpack of books - books that don't exist in this timeline, except the copies he brought with him. One of them is The Pyronauts by Ezra Sleight. Hel reads it and becomes obsessed with the idea that it's the only copy left in existence, and that the man who wrote it in their world, here died as a child. She wants to build a museum of all the things the refugees brought with them from the alternate U.S. that don't otherwise exist here. She has a hard time convincing potential partners that it's a good idea, and then the precious copy of The Pyronauts goes missing.

I heard about this book through an email from the publisher that just contained a brief description and a link to request an advanced copy. I couldn't click fast enough. Often, books don't live up to the hype and I don't request many ARCs because I tend to only invest time in a book after hearing about it from reviews, and since this book isn't out until March I hadn't seen any reviews yet. I was just so intrigued by the premise, I wanted to get my hot little hands on it. Reader, it didn't disappoint.

Three years after arriving the refugees are still trying to assimilate, to forget everything they left behind and will never see again, to rebuild their lives. They're unsettled and unsure and they're all going through the experience in their own way. Some, like Hel, won't even consider trying to rebuild a life anything like her former one. She could be a doctor here too, but she doesn't want to. She won't deal with the loss of her son, or the fact that she chose to leave when he could not. What do you do in this situation? How do you live?

This is a story about refugees, which means there is another aspect to the story. Many people from this world don't trust the newcomers, and don't want to know anything about where they came from or their previous lives. They just want them to fit in, adopt our way of living and speaking and behaving so they can pretend we're all just the same. The UDPs - Universally Displaced Persons - know it too, and there are rumors about people being rounded up in camps. They know they're not treated the same, that many people are suspicious of them.

There were so many little things that illustrated the difficulties faced by the UDPs. For instance, the world they came from had no Nazis, so swastikas retained an older meaning. One UDP had a swastika tattoo on his neck, for luck, but was ostracized for it until he realized what it means here and he removed it as best he could. When one UDP realized how little people here bothered to learn about her world, she started making up outrageous lies about lives and customs in the alternate world and people believed her. I was fascinated by all the ways people dealt with this impossible situation.

What if you were a refugee from a place you could never go back to because it no longer exists? And where you are now, it never existed. You can't turn on the news and find out if everyone there died of radiation or if some people escaped. You can't even find out if anyone you know also made it through the gate because that would mean letting the government make a directory of all UDPs, and that could be the first step in tracking you all and being able to easily round you up if needed.

This book poses so many questions, and gave me a lot to think about. I suspect it may haunt me for a while.

I received my copy of Famous Men Who Never Lived courtesy of the publisher. I was not compensated for this review.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Shattering Glass

Shattering Glass by Gail Giles (2002)

Here's my first read for the 2019 TBR Pile Challenge. Unlike most books on my list, this book has actually been sitting in a physical pile rather than just languishing on a list. A friend bought it for me, oh, several years ago now. I have no idea why it took me so long to read it. It's a short (just over 200 pages) teen book that I knew would be quick. And the premise was intriguing! So when mid-January came and I was panicking because I hadn't even begun a book for the challenge yet, this seemed like the perfect one to start with.

A group of high school boys, particularly a new student named Rob, are tired of this super-popular Lance guy being in charge. One day when Rob sees Lance picking on Simon Glass, a fat nerdy kid, he decides he's going to make Simon popular. He enlists his friends, including the story's narrator, Young Steward. We know from the beginning that Simon Glass ends up dead. The chapters all move forward in a linear manner, but each chapter begins with a quote from five years later that fills in a few details here and there until the story reaches the final deadly scene.

Some aspects of this story reminded me of Lord of the Flies. The way these kids aligned themselves and manipulated each other was cruel and dangerous and some, like Young Steward, weren't easy to categorize as good or bad. It was a chilling portrayal of human nature. Teenagers are especially vulnerable to the influence of someone who takes a strong leader role. At that age you're not experienced enough to know that someone like Rob is bad news, and of course you're trying to fit in with your friends and not risk being the victim of harassment and bullying yourself. This was easy to see in Young, who is told by another character, "You're everybody's idea of a 'good guy,' but you're not good because of any convictions or moral compass. You're good because you don't say no. You do as you're told and so far, nobody told you to do anything wrong...But someday, someone will."

It took me a bit to get into the book because the dialogue was awkward in spots and the character development wasn't as strong as it could be. For instance, Young disliked Simon from the beginning but didn't spend much time reflecting on why that is. Several of his friends had pretty interesting flaws that weren't really delved into, and in many ways I think a deeper exploration would have made a stronger story. On the other hand, it would have been longer and moved more slowly, and this is a book written for teens, not for middle-aged women. I can definitely see teens who aren't patient enough for a detailed plodding novel really enjoying this one. It's a quick easy read - I blew through it in a 24-hour period - but leaves you with a lot to think about.

Now that I've read the shortest, easiest book on my challenge list, it will only become more difficult. But I had a lot of books out of the library, plus an ARC I want to read before it's actually published, and now things are a little more manageable. I need to make a plan so I can be sure to read everything on my list this year (plus all the new books I have on hold from the library!) but I'm sure I can pull it off.

Friday, January 18, 2019


Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World's Stolen Treasures by Robert K. Wittman (2010)

I've become very intrigued by art theft. While listening to the podcast Last Seen, a close examination of the still-unsolved theft at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, I had a lot of questions about who steals art and where it goes. So for Christmas I asked for a book on the topic. My husband being who he is, he bought me not one but three books on the topic. The first one I started to read is the one he warned me was probably awful. It was also the most difficult to get. It was Hot Art, Cold Cash by Michel van Rijn, a dealer who got his start selling antiquities looted from politically turbulent countries. It would have been an interesting story had someone else written it, but this guy was a pompous braggart who mostly wanted to brag about all the women he slept with and I wasn't even sure how much of his sensationalist story to believe. I made it through 100 pages or so of the more than 400-page book before giving up. I knew the other two would be better.

Priceless is written by a retired undercover agent from the FBI's Art Crime Team, and he had actually appeared on Last Seen so I was already a bit familiar with some of his story. He begins at the beginning, his mixed-race heritage and the prejudice he faced growing up half-Japanese, his entry into the FBI, his growing interest in art. The heart of the story, of course, is his work. Wittman learned a lot about art to prepare for his specialty, but he had a natural talent for dealing with people that made him a successful undercover agent.

He was one of the first FBI agents who focused on art crime, and because of the nature of the work his goals were sometimes counter to that of the Bureau as a whole. He did want to see the thieves punished for their actions, but his most important goal was always recovering the art. He recovered paintings from artists as famous as Rembrandt and Normal Rockwell, but also irreplaceable items like an original copy of the Bill of Rights and a Civil War battle flag from one of the first units of black soldiers who fought for the Union. These stories were fascinating, and I can't imagine how thrilling it must be to get hold of such an important piece of history that has been missing and could have easily gone missing forever.

I learned some surprising things, like the fact that European countries have huge art crime teams but that we had almost like it in the U.S. until Wittman made it his focus. Stolen art and antiquities have apparently not been a priority here.

Most of the surprises are related to the Gardner case, and surprising because I just listened to a multi-part podcast that delved quite deeply so I thought I knew practically everything there was to know about it (that the public can know anyhow.) But from Wittman's account it really sounds like the case was bungled by the Boston FBI - the podcast touched upon complications relating to the Boston team not being willing to relinquish their hold. But according to Wittman they really didn't know how to handle people involved with stolen art and wouldn't let him use his expertise to its full potential and it has cost us. (It also caused him a huge career-related headache.) There was a whole operation in 2006-2007 based on a really strong lead and from the podcast it sounded like nobody knows if those people ever had the paintings, but Wittman's account makes it sound like they probably did but the FBI blew their chance of getting them. It makes me want to go back and listen to a couple of episodes of the podcast.

This memoir was fascinating and I learned a lot, but still want to learn more. The third and final book in my art crime Christmas haul is the art-adjacent The Map Thief by Michael Blanding. It'll probably be a while before I get to it because of other reading I have lined up, but I'm looking forward to it!

Thursday, January 17, 2019

How Long 'Til Black Future Month?

How Long 'Til Black Future Month? by N.K. Jemisin (2018)

We're not going anywhere until we talk about this cover and title. I mean, come on. That amazing hair with those weird but cool adornments, the cool but self-confident look on the young woman's face, the necklace. The fact that she doesn't care we're here because she has other things to think about. The moment I read this title in a review I told a coworker who instantly decided it will be the theme of our annual Black History Month display and now our display will be about Afro-futurism.

Also, this is a collection of short stories by N.K. Jemisin and if you've been following along at home you'll know that I read the Broken Earth series late in 2018, all three books right in a row. This author is so imaginative and perfectly executes all her ideas, as she shows us in this collection. These stories range from AI taking on a life of its own to a mysterious restaurant that can re-create any meal you've had in your life down to the tiniest ingredients if you just tell them the date on which you ate it.

There are a lot of stories in this collection, 22 I think. Some are set in the same, or similar, worlds but in general they're so different from each other. Which I guess is the thing about science fiction and fantasy. There's a story set in the Broken Earth world, and I think one set in the Dreamblood world, though I'm not sure as I haven't read that series (yet.) There was not a story that I disliked or even found meh.

Ones that I remember vividly a few days after having finished the whole collection: "L'Alchimista," in which a mysterious stranger approaches a chef with a strange bundle of ingredients and recipe for her to make for him (it doesn't sound like much, but trust me). In "The Effluent Engine" a Haitian woman visits New Orleans to ask a particular man for help developing an engine to turn rum by-product into a power source, but finds his sister more helpful in the process and, not insignificantly, more attractive. "Valedictorian" takes place in an isolated place in which the top and bottom students are sent outside, never to return, and although everyone is afraid of going one student is still determined to be at the top of her class. In "Walking Awake" children are raised and used to be bodies for beings that change them out like outfits. I can't even adequately describe "The Trojan Girl."

Short stories will probably never be as appealing to me as novels. Reading a collection can be jarring, switching from one to another just when you've gotten the lay of the land and figured out what's going on. Sometimes a short story is enough unto itself, and at other times I wish it were a whole novel. There were both kinds in this collection and I feel like I visited so many different worlds and people and people who were maybe not quite people. Speculative fiction is weird. But I do know one thing, which is that N.K. Jemisin is excellent at writing it.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Scrappy Little Nobody

Scrappy Little Nobody by Anna Kendrick (2016), narrated by Anna Kendrick

I'm a huge fan of the Pitch Perfect franchise. Even though I hardly ever go to the movies, I've seen all three in theaters with friends, and we will continue right through Pitch Perfect 99 if they go that far. When Pitch Perfect 2 was about to be released, I organized a sing-along to the first movie at the library, which was attended primarily by library staff. But the important thing is that it forced me to purchase the Aca-Awesome Sing-Along edition on DVD, which now lives in my personal collection.

I also enjoy a celebrity memoir on audio, especially if it's nice and short like this one. But the truth is, I could have happily listened to a couple more hours of this.

Anna Kendrick is a fellow Mainer, which I didn't realize until I started this book (though for the record she's from Portland, which most of us don't consider to be real Maine.) She chronicles her early life, especially her high school years when she began getting into acting, and her later move to L.A. where she scraped by until she really got her career off the ground.

Her stories were great. She tells us about how her parents were supportive, but also had jobs, so after a few trips to New York for auditions when she was 12, they decided that her 14-year-old brother was a good enough chaperone and they sent the two youngsters off together. The day trip turned into a few days because of her callbacks, so the two kids stayed at a hotel and washed their underwear in the sink, and managed to explore New York a bit without any major mishaps. She talked about being outside of Maine in the theater world and not knowing which of those things accounted for the strangeness she experienced. She pondered "Is that what everyone outside of Maine is like?" (I've asked myself that same question.)

There was a point at which she became successful enough to have a stylist but not enough to be making much money and her stylist told her to buy $1000 shoes, which was far more than the rent she was struggling to pay. She still lived with roommates. At one point she ended up asking if she could downgrade her hotel room, and keep the difference because she needed the money. This aspect of her early success was fascinating to me. She attended the Independent Spirit Awards while still in high school and her classmates, teachers, and family were totally unimpressed because they were unfamiliar with that particular award.

She didn't really talk about making the Pitch Perfect movies - I think she only mentioned them briefly. She talked more about Up In the Air, probably because she was nominated for an Academy Award. Also, she was in the Twilight movies, which I didn't even realize. Oh, she also talked about some of her experiences with Into the Woods, which I liked a lot! But mostly she didn't talk a lot about her actual work. It felt more like an introduction to what she's like as a person.

I liked her already, but getting to know what an awkward, rule-following, anxietal person she is was really reassuring and made me like her even more. She doesn't take things too seriously (like fashion, which she reminds us is supposed to be fun) and is pretty down-to-earth for a person who has never had a normal job.

She narrates the audiobook herself, which made the whole experience feel like she was just telling me about her life. It was a lot of fun!

Monday, January 7, 2019

The Poet X

The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo (2018)

Xiomara writes poetry in a journal her twin brother bought her; poems about her family, the boy she likes, her doubts about religion. Her mother is extremely strict and is forcing Xiomara to attend confirmation classes, which meet at the same time as the poetry club she wishes she could attend. She is not supposed to have a boyfriend or go out dancing or do anything her mother sees as a sin. But she has been seeing a boy, Aman, even though her friend Caridad and her brother caution her about how much trouble she'll be in if her mother finds out. All of this is described in poetry, making this book quick to read and somewhat unusual.

I'm always hesitant to read books written in verse. I loved The Good Braider, but the verse form wasn't like reading poems. In this case, it really was like reading a series of poems, in slightly different forms, that all made up one story. It took me a while to get into, but I ended up liking it more than I initially thought I would. Of course it makes total sense that it's written as poems since that's how Xiomara expresses herself.

Her life epitomized the worst parts of being a teenager. She was just trying to live her life and do things she enjoyed, and her mother was always there trying to force her into this tiny little box of what she thought was appropriate. There were SO many rules and no room for any fun at all. Her mother really, really infuriated me. Why even have kids if you just want to make them miserable? This lady was so obsessed with God and following rules and not sinning that she didn't even seem to care that she was making her daughter miserable. She seemed intent on destroying any shred of happiness that Xiomara might have, which only made Xiomara hate her. How could she not see that's what she was doing?

Xiomara, though, is such a strong person! She's creative and expressive and alive! Sure she makes mistakes - we all do when we're young and that is how we learn - but she definitely knows her limits. She spends time with Aman even though she knows she's not supposed to, but they're just hanging out together and there is nothing wrong with teenagers making out, regardless of what Xiomara's mother thinks. She does end up lying to her mother and I don't blame her when she does. Her mother won't listen to her or what is important to her.

Everything about her complicated feelings towards religion resonated with me as I was also raised Catholic and forced to attend confirmation classes even though I wasn't the least bit interested in doing so. My mother was not the horrible person hers is, but she did force me to go to church which I honestly still don't understand. Forcing someone into religion doesn't make them believe it. Even Xiomara asking the priest challenging questions reminded me of my own behavior in confirmation classes. (Unlike her, I was actually kicked out. And unlike her I was still forced to go through confirmation.)

I loved that Xiomara got to experience poetry slams and really grow as a poet, despite the limitations her mother placed on her. Although there were some very painful moments as their conflict grew to a head, the novel ended with hope and some small steps forward in their relationship. Acevedo managed to fit a lot of story and feeling in very few words, which I suppose is how poetry works.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

The Belles

The Belles (The Belles #1) by Dhonielle Clayton (2018)

I was drawn to the gorgeous cover the first time I saw it, but it was only after reading Dhonielle Clayton's short story "When the Moonlight Isn't Enough" from The Radical Element that I finally decided to read this book.

Set in the dystopian world of Orleans, Camellia Beauregard is a Belle - one of a very small number of girls who have the power to change the way people look. This is a highly valued commodity in this world because most people have gray skin, straw-like hair, and red eyes in their natural state. But the Belles can change all that for the right price. Of course the Belles don't work for themselves or have any control over their own lives, but they still feel privileged. Not only do they have these special powers, but they are the only people who possess natural beauty themselves.

Camellia and her Belle sisters have been training and now are ready to find out where they will go to practice their craft. All hope to become the "favorite," the Belle chosen by the Queen to serve at the palace. The Belles have been raised in isolation, and when they begin their assignments, all is not as they thought it would be. Dark secrets await them, and they will be forced to make impossible choices.

This is a very strange world. One in which beauty is so hard to come by, but is considered all the more important because of that. And the way people can change their looks goes far beyond what is possible in our world - they can change their height, their build, their bone structure, in addition to things like hair texture and eye color. It's painful but everyone is willing to endure it to look beautiful and unique. Looks are prized above everything else.

These transformations have a price for the Belles too. Making changes wears them out and they need to be restored by the use of leeches. Often they are taxed beyond what they really have energy for, but they don't have an option to refuse, especially if it's for the Queen or the Princess.

Camellia is one of the best at her work - possibly the best - but even she has her limits to what she is able, or willing, to do. She also has so many questions about the things she sees and hears in the first months of her work. Rumors about the royal family and the mysteriously ill princess, strange crying in the night and talk of "other" Belles that aren't the official Belles she grew up with. Plus the presence of a charming young man she keeps running into who continues flirting with her despite the harsh penalties that exist for behaving that way towards Belles. The more Camellia learns about all of these mysteries, the more horrified and trapped she feels.

I won't lie - one of the things I loved most about this book was all the descriptions of the looks created by the Belles for their clients. But the desperation these people feel to look beautiful and outdo each other, and what they're willing to endure to make that happen is horrifying. I also loved the relationship between the Belles and the way they try to help each other out in the world. They were not prepared for much of what they were to experience, and it's unclear why that is. I have so many questions about this society and how things became the way they are. I'm also convinced that things aren't necessarily the same everywhere, or at least that's what I'd like to believe.

Of course this is the first in a series, so some of these questions may be answered. I'm going to have to wait a bit though - the second book, The Everlasting Rose, doesn't come out until March. I already put a hold on it through the library so hopefully I'll get one of the first copies available. I can't wait to see what's in store for Camellia and her Belle sisters!

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

A Year of Reading: 2018

1. Lab Girl by Hope Jahrens
2. The Jewel by Amy Ewing
3. Allegedly by Tiffany Jackson
4. Binti: Home by Nnedi Okorafor
5. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
6. The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith
7. Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics by Dan Harris
8. Nomadland by Jessica Bruder
9. The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly by Stephanie Oakes
10. Tempest by Beverly Jenkins
11. Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones
12. Fetch by Nicole Georges
13. Longbourn by Jo Baker
14. Red Clocks by Leni Zumas
15. Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat by Samin Nosrat
16. Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera
17. I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez
18. Assata: An Autobiography by Assata Shakur
19. We Are Never Meeting in Real Life by Samantha Irby
20. Wrong To Need You by Alisha Rai
21. So You Want To Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo
22. The Rose Garden by Susanna Kearsley
23. My Real Children by Jo Walton
24. Sourdough by Robin Sloan
25. Alexander Hamilton: Revolutionary by Martha Brockenbrough
26. All the Beautiful Lies by Peter Swanson
27. The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson
28. Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
29. Pro by Katha Pollitt
30. The Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory
31. The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin
32. The Girl is Murder by Kathryn Miller Haines (re-read, original review is here.)
33. An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
34. Made For Love by Alissa Nutting
35. Binti: The Night Masquerade by Nnedi Okorafor
36. A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
37. The Girl is Trouble by Kathryn Miller Haines
38. Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck
39. Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds
40. The Outsider by Stephen King
41. Forever, Interrupted by Taylor Jenkins Reid
42. The Last Summer of the Garrett Girls by Jessica Spotswood
43. A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
44. The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith
45. A Princess in Theory by Alyssa Cole
46. Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
47. The Four Tendencies by Gretchen Rubin
48. Good Luck With That by Kristan Higgins
49. Piecing Me Together by Renee Watson
50. The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry
51. Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin
52. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
53. Dating You / Hating You by Christina Lauren
54. A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers
55. From Here To Eternity by Caitlin Doughty
56. Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata
57. The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
58. Journal Me Organized by Rebecca Spooner
59. The Psychopath Test by Ron Jonson
60. The Radical Element edited by Jessica Spotswood
61. The Russian Dreambook of Colour and Flight by Gina Ochsner
62. My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh
63. One of Us Is Lying by Karen McManus
64. The Arrangement by Mary Balogh
65. Catherine the Great by Robert K. Massie
66. Slade House by David Mitchell
67. Can't Nothing Bring Me Down by Ida Keeling
68. The Girl With All the Gifts by M.R. Carey
69. An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green
70. Mercies in Disguise by Gina Kolata
71. Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers
72. The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin
73. The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang
74. The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin
75. The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin
76. Hurts to Love You by Alisha Rai
77. The Lady's Guide to Petticoats and Piracy by Mackenzi Lee
78. Working Stiff by Judy Melinek and T.J. Mitchell
79. Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan
80. Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty
81. Are U Ok? by Kati Morton
82. A Quick and Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns by Archie Bongiovanni and Tristan Jimerson
83. Your Best Year Yet! by Jinny Ditzler
84. Jane, Unlimited by Kristin Cashore
85. The Proposal by Jasmine Guillory

This is the least number of books I've read in several years, which is interesting. I think it's because I didn't listen to a ton of audiobooks (so many great podcasts out there now!) and also I read a few books that were quite long. Catherine the Great, for instance, took me something like 3 weeks to read (and I don't regret a moment of it!) A Little Life also took me longer than most books. I think there were a few other lengthy tomes in there as well, and I'm glad I finally buckled down and read them, since I had previously been daunted by their length.

Checking my Goodreads shelves, it looks like my 5-star reads for the year were:

Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin
Catherine the Great by Robert K. Massie
Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
So You Want To Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo

Huh. I've really been talking up An American Marriage by Tayari Jones, The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin, and My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh but managed to give them each only 4 stars. The more I look at this list, the more I see some really great books that got fewer than 5 stars. But I've always been stingy with 5-star ratings, and they usually go to books that I'm blown away by in the moment rather than those that I'm thinking about months later after I've given them the rating. Which is all just to say that the star ratings aren't everything.

In 2019 I'm participating in the TBR Pile Challenge again, which always means discovering wonderful books that I've put off reading for far too long. I'm looking forward to finding some new favorites this year!