Burial Rites

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Burial Rites has been on my bookshelf for a little while. I kept saving it for the winter because I felt that it would fit the season, but then I also thought that it would be a sad book, so I kept putting it off because I wasn’t in the mood.

This novel is set in Iceland in the 1820’s. Agnes Magnúsdóttir, Fridrik Sigurdsson, and Sigrídur Gudmundsdóttir have been accused of murdering an herbalist and another man and setting the herbalist’s home on fire in an attempt to hide the crime. Agnus awaits her execution in the care of nearby family, who are less than thrilled to host a murderess in their home, but Agnus grows closer to her hosts as she comes to terms with her fate. The novel is based on a true story.

I wouldn’t read this book if you are not in a good mental headspace because it is emotionally intense. The setting is also very harsh and bleak, and the writing and story reflect the setting. Agnus’s fate is decided, so she spends her days thinking about her past and awaiting her death. I came to sympathize with her and her story. Her hosts are understandably uncomfortable with her presence in their home, especially because they have two impressionable daughters, but I enjoyed seeing the supporting cast grow to care about and respect Agnus as I did. The book’s chapters are rather long, but they are broken into sections. The perspective that you read from changes throughout the chapter, which took some time for me to get used to. Some sections are in Agnus’s first-person perspective. Other times the perspective is in third person with a focus on either the host family or the reverend that is tasked with soothing Agnus’s soul.

The author did a great job of fleshing out the village and its people, the valley’s gossip and rumors, and the truth behind the murder. The plot is not action packed. Most of the story involves Agnus sitting down with other characters and her telling her backstory to them. Only a small portion of the action is set in the present. I really enjoyed the novel, but I found it a bit too predictable. Since it is based on the true story of the last execution in Iceland, the ending is not a surprise. But I also guessed a few of the major plot events as well as the truth behind the murder. The writing is beautiful and very introspective, and as I said it fits the setting very well. There is a lot of symbolism and themes/discussion on feminism, the patriarchy, justice, etc., but for some reasons I wasn’t overly impressed by what I read.

I gave Burial Rites four out of five stars, which is an excellent rating, but it just wasn’t a favorite. However, I enjoyed the atmospheric writing and the emotional depth of the novel very much and would recommend it to fans of historical fiction.

Fingersmith

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Fingersmith is a historical fiction novel set in Victorian England and filled with twists, devious plots and people, betrayal, and a female/female romance. Sue Trinder was raised on the harsh side of London by a house of thieves. Her mother figure buys and sells orphans, her father figure is a fence for stolen goods, and her friends are all swindlers of some sort. One night a family friend called Gentleman enters Sue’s home and offers her a partnership. He plans to seduce a rich heiress with Sue’s help. Sue is to become the heiress’s maid and help convince her to marry Gentleman, then he will claim that the heiress is insane, put her into an asylum, and split the girl’s money with Sue. The plot gets complicated when Sue finds herself falling for the heiress and when some long held lies start coming to the surface.

I’ve read a couple other novels by Sarah Waters, so I am definitely a fan of her work. Each novel I have read is unique, character driven, and even if the plot is rather “quiet,” I still find her books difficult to put down. Fingersmith was no different. Many readers may find the book slow. A lot of time is spent with Sue and the heiress, Maud. The girls slowly become friends, and maybe something more, but you can tell that both girls are also hiding parts of themselves. This is one reason that I could not put the book down. I really wanted to know what was going on between the characters and their pasts. Both Maud and Sue are heavily developed throughout the novel and many secrets are revealed in time. Side characters are also given a lot of care, and it is the side characters that are integral to many of the plot’s twists. I won’t say too much about this, but no one is who they appear to be.

Plot-wise, again, the novel could be a bit slow for some readers. There isn’t a lot of action in the first half or so, and the main setting is in Maud’s uncle’s manor with a very structured daily routine. The novel begins with Sue’s perspective. We see Gentleman’s plot through her eyes up until the plan is complete. Sue’s perspective ends on a huge cliffhanger, but the next section is in Maud’s perspective, leaving the resolution of the cliffhanger up in the air for quite some time. Much of Maud’s past is talked about, but what I found most interesting about Maud’s section of the book is that we see many of the same events from Sue’s section through Maud’s eyes. This allows the reader to see inside both of their hearts and minds. For example, Sue’s perspective may make it sound like she has kept a cool head during an event, but when reading from Maud’s view, Maud actually noticed that Sue was not as calm as she appeared. I really love when authors show two sides of the same event like this. The latter half of the book has more action, intrigue, and satisfying reveals. And I adored the ending.

I would highly recommend this book if you are looking for a slow burn female/female romance that has a twisting and complex plot that is just as important, if not more important, than the romance itself. I gave the book a perfect score because even though I don’t tend to like romance, I like when romance is done like this.

Brown Girl Dreaming

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Brown Girl Dreaming is an autobiographical book by Jacqueline Woodson written in verse. Woodson takes the reader into her past as she grows up between South Carolina and New York with her grandparents and mother. The book spans the 60’s and 70’s during the Civil Rights Era in America. Her dynamic writing style paints a picture of what it was like being an African American Jehovah’s Witness in the south and the north during this time period.

Woodson’s writing is exquisite. She is able to effectively convey what it was like to be a child during this turbulent time in America. As a child, she was of course aware of the larger issues of race and class during this time, but those concerns are nested between other things that dominate any child’s mind, like her experiences living with her grandparents, how she discovered her love of writing, and how she felt out of place when she was no longer the baby of the family, when she followed her overachieving big sister through school, and when her religion set her apart from her peers. Woodson’s writing puts the reader in her shoes by covering topics that are easy to relate to while also helping others understand the hardships and challenges she faced through her unique upbringing during this part of American history.

As I said, the book is written in verse, but it feels as engaging and as smooth as any novel I’ve ever read. Woodson is able to convey an astonishing amount of emotion and exposition in the shortest of lines. When I read I can “see” books play out like a movie in my head. I read this as an audiobook, which sometimes makes it difficult for me to picture scenes compared to physical books. However, I had no trouble with this audiobook. Woodson’s writing is just so clear and immersive.

The book hits hard with difficult topics like discrimination, grief, and the trials of growing up in general, let alone growing up as an African American girl during this time period, but the book also has a lot of heart, soul, and moments that made me smile. I would not let the fact that it is written in verse scare you away either. Woodson uses language that is easy to understand but is still beautiful. In fact, I often see this book shelved as middle grade or young adult. Based upon everything I have said and my reading experience, I could not help but give Brown Girl Dreaming five stars.

Solutions and Other Problems

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

I’m not usually one to follow a book’s publication closely, but I read Allie Brosh’s blog Hyperbole and a Half during a rough time in my young life. Her blog made me feel understood, made me laugh, and contributed in a small way to me having my own blog later on. I still think of her post about the “Alot” whenever I see someone online misspell the word. I bought her first book right when it was released, and I eagerly awaited her second when I saw that it was coming. But, if you have also followed her, you probably know that the second book’s release date got pushed back again and again. Just when I thought that it might never be published, Solutions and Other Problems was finally released in September of 2020.

Both of Brosh’s books include comically illustrated stories about her personal life and struggles in a darkly humorous tone. Her first book was a little more lighthearted, but it still dealt with topics like anxiety and depression. Her second book is darker still, but it still made me laugh out loud a few times. In Solution and Other Problems she shares about her divorce, a medical scare, and the loss of her younger sister. It is easy to understand why her second book took so long to be published when she went through so much in the last few years. Her humor isn’t for everyone though, so I would encourage you to view her blog a little before reading either of her books.

Each chapter is about a different story in her life. Some are from her childhood, while others are from more recent years. No matter the topic, her artwork fits perfectly with the text. I think she has even improved in the way she tells her stories and illustrates them. Her art style may look simplistic, but the comedic timing and expressions on her characters’ faces always cracks me up. Even her more series stories’ illustrations excel at being emotive in just the right way. Though some of her drawings are more abstract and easily overlooked for their artistic value, some of the backgrounds and more realistic scenes show that she truly does have artistic talent.

As for the content of the stories, as I said several are on darker subjects. The ones about her sister were more heartfelt than funny, but the way she spoke about grief and regret was completely relatable. I found the story about her ex-husband fighting over a ski trip and a grocery store trip funny but also sad. It reminded me of the decline of my own past relationships, and I appreciated how she could find humor in such a sad moment. The melancholic feeling that that story gave me has stuck with me even weeks after reading it. Of course there are also some very funny stories, like how her family’s home had mysterious piles of poop appearing in it day after day and how she was overly curious about a neighbor as a child. Whatever the subject, Brosh is able to bring the reader into her memories through her conversational writing and bright illustrations.

If you liked her first book and her blog, you’ll like this one too. It definitely has a heavier tone, and at times I felt like she was trying too hard to make a sad moment funnier, but I really enjoyed both the funny and heartfelt stories. I am definitely a person who shares her sense of humor and her ability to find humor in the darkest moments of life. I appreciate how open and honest Brosh was with her feelings and her struggles. As always, she made me laugh, cry, and by the end I wanted to give her a big hug. This was a great book to start off 2021.

Locke and Key Vol. 1-3

Rating: 4 out of 5.

As 2020 comes to a close, I have found myself in a reading slump. I haven’t read a full novel in several months now. Luckily, I read a lot more during the spring and summer and had several reviews scheduled ahead throughout the year. This has been my worst reading year since I got back into reading in my 20’s, so as I struggle to meet my 50 book reading goal, I have turned to graphic novels. (If you’re struggling to read even 1, 2, or 3 books this year, I’m not putting you down of course. Everyone has different goals!) But that isn’t a bad thing. In fact, I have been wanting to watch the Locke and Key series, but I wanted to read the graphic novels first, so it worked out.

Locke and Key is about the Locke family. After tragedy upends the family’s life, they move to an intricate New England manor called Keyhouse. The youngest son begins finding strange, magical keys throughout the manor, and what the family thinks is just a heinous crime turns out to have occult origins. The Locke kids must combat supernatural forces as well as the more normal trials of growing up and surviving trauma.

To begin, the series does deal with tough topics and disturbing scenes, like murder, alcoholism, and abuse. It is a horror graphic novel, though the kids are the main characters. Speaking of the kids, there are three Locke children, Tyler, Kinsey, and Bode. I’m usually not a fan of child characters, but I like this group. They all have well developed characterization. They feel like realistic children, but they aren’t grating or annoying. Tyler, the oldest, puts on a brave face and carries a lot of guilt and pain, but he is the rock of the family in a lot of ways. Kinsey is just becoming a teen and is struggling with fitting in and knowing herself on top of what her family has gone through. She would rather repress or remove her pain and fear than confront it, but I wouldn’t call her a coward. Bode, the youngest, still has childlike wonder and immerses himself in the mysteries of the house. He takes a lot of the craziness and dysfunction in stride, but his family doesn’t always listen or have time for him. Other characters, like their mother and uncle, are also fleshed out well and will likely continue to develop as the series progresses. I love good character development, and I think this series delivers.

Plot-wise, I found the first volume to be very cohesive and engaging. The next volumes meander a little, and I wasn’t sure where the series was going, but were enough twists and mysteries to keep me interested. The concept of the different magical keys is very interesting too. Some keys open doors where crossing the threshold turns one into a ghost, while others can open up a person’s mind. I wouldn’t say that the use of the keys made anything too convenient, and I don’t think (so far) that they are over used as a plot device, which was a concern of mine. By volume three I am wondering just how everything will come together in the end, but I trust Joe Hill as an author since I’ve loved several of his novels. I have high hopes for the series as a whole.

So, if you’re like me and need something quick, short, and satisfying to read, I would recommend this series. I don’t find it scary as much as sad or slightly disturbing or unsettling at times. Overall, I would rate the first three volumes four out of five stars. The overall plot could be tighter, but I still enjoy the side plots that develop the characters and expand the world. The artwork is also very colorful and creative, and I enjoy the art style more than many other graphic novels.

2020 in Review, Looking Forward to 2021

Goodbye 2020, and hello to 2021! I’m positive that I’m not the only person looking forward to a new year. Even if the calendar changing doesn’t reset the world, it somehow feels like a fresh start. So, I started this end of the year series in 2017, and I did it in 2018, but I must have missed 2019 (at least I can’t find my own post about it). I used a spreadsheet made by Portal in the Pages on YouTube to track my reading this year.

In 2020 I had some broad goals: read more new releases, read more from POC authors, use my library more/buy less books, and reduce my physical TBR or “to be read” pile of unread books on my shelves. I succeeded in some areas and failed a bit in others.

2020 Statistics

At the start of 2020, I had 59 unread books on my shelves. Throughout the year I borrowed 13 books from my library and bought or was gifted 28 books. By the end of the year I had 49 unread books. So, I reduced my unread pile by 10 despite bringing in 41 new books. I read all of the books I borrowed, and I read most of the new books I bought or was gifted. In 2021 I’d like to reduce my TBR pile even more.

As shown in the first table, I read a total of 50 books this year, just barely making my yearly reading goal. Though I did not finish 3 of the 50, I still counted them toward the total since I read the majority of the books before giving up. I read about 16,951 pages (again, this total counts the DNF’d books) with an average 339 pages per book. I know I read shorter books this year than pervious years. Out of 50 books, my average rating out of 5 stars was 3.6.

As you can see from the table to the right, I read the most books in May when I was off work and feeling kind of good about having to stay home due to the pandemic. Of course, my totals took a steep drop during the rest of the year as work ramped up and my depression reared its ugly head.

The blog definitely reflected these next stats. Almost half of everything I read was fantasy because I love fantasy and needed the escapism. Surprisingly, graphic novels came in second, mainly because I borrowed several from my library at the end of the year to make my reading goal. The number of sci-fi and non-fiction is surprising as I didn’t realize I read that many. Historical fiction and thrillers, usually genres I gravitate toward often, had lower than normal numbers for this year. I didn’t push myself to read anything that I didn’t want to, and I’m already a mood reader, so I unfortunately really stayed in my comfort zone this year.

Lastly, I wanted to read from more diverse authors in 2020. I would say that I used to read from more male authors than female, but in the past few years it has been close to 50/50. You’ll notice that my author gender category has only 48 books counted. This is because two books had more than one author, and I didn’t update the spreadsheet to count books by multiple authors. Only one third of what I read was from POC writers, and I’d like to get this closer to 50/50 next year just to expose myself to different peoples, perspectives, and cultures.

2021 PLANS AND GOALS

So, what are my reading plans for 2021? Well, I’d like to read more books in general. I used to read about 100 books per year, but I’m not in college any more and have less free time, so I’m not sure how realistic 100 books is. However, since another of my goals is to use my library even more, I can borrow more audio and eBooks, which I think will help me reach a higher amount of books read. I actually saved about $150 this year just by borrowing books from the library instead of buying books. Use your library if you can! And if I do buy books, I want to avoid using Amazon and instead buy exclusively from independent bookstores. I started this in 2020, and I plan to continue in 2021 and beyond. As I said earlier in this post, I want to read from more diverse authors again in 2021 as well as continue to read more newer releases. Lastly, I want to read books that have been sitting on my shelves for years and get my physical TBR down to around 20-25 books.

How was your reading in 2020? What are some of your reading goals for 2021?

The Umbrella Academy Vol. 1-3

Rating: 2 out of 5.

It’s rare for me to watch TV series, but I fell head over heels for The Umbrella Academy on Netflix. I didn’t realize that it was adapted from a graphic novel until I finished season 1, so of course I had to go read the series after finishing season 2. I usually prefer to read the source material before watching an adaptation, but in this case I didn’t even know it existed. However, had I read the graphic novel series first, I might not have bothered to watch the TV show. I won’t spoil the series or the TV show, but I will compare aspects of the two in this review.

The premise of the graphic novel is that several children around the world were born with extraordinary powers, and a rich, eccentric man named Reginald Hargreeves was able to adopt and train seven of them to become a team of superheroes. However, over time, the children grew up and parted ways. The siblings reunite when Hargreeves dies to save the world again.

From the book to movie/TV show adaptions I’ve read and seen, generally the written material has more plot and character depth, while the film adaptions favor more action and often cut out some of the slow moments in the books. This wasn’t the case for the The Umbrella Academy. I love character development, and I love the characters on The Umbrella Academy TV show so, so much. They are funny, very flawed, and the siblings have complex relationships with each other. They have a lot of trauma, communication issues, and big egos. The graphic novel does not portray the siblings’ relationships and personalities well at all. There’s very little chemistry between them, the banter is stilted, and they just lack emotional depth. I only saw a few flashes of who the characters are in the show. For example, Luther’s, Allison’s, and Diego’s struggles are hinted at but not focused on in any depth. Vanya was very underdeveloped compared to her TV portrayal, Klaus and Five are nowhere near as interesting or charming, and other side characters from the show are either entirely absent or only mentioned in passing. The TV show utilized the characters, their personalities, powers, and backstories much more effectively.

My feelings for the plot are much of the same. The plot in the graphic novels is often unclear or shallow. I often wondered why we were fighting an enemy, and many aspects of the world went unexplained. I wasn’t sure what was happening or why, and the dialogue and illustrations didn’t clear up much of my confusion. I will say that the illustrations are nicely done, but the writing and perhaps how the panels themselves were planned out just didn’t work well for me.

The graphic novel has so many of interesting elements, characters, and ideas, but nothing really comes together well. When I watched The Umbrella Academy I thought the weakest point was the plot, because at times it was unclear or had moments that were too convenient and probably there just to move the plot along, but I actually have more respect for the show’s writers and the actors now. They were able to take the disjointed story and flat characters in the graphic novels and put together something that made much more sense and explored the characters and the setting in engaging detail.

So, unfortunately, I gave The Umbrella Academy‘s first volume 3/5, the second volume 2.5/5, and the third volume 2/5 stars. If you really love the show, it is interesting to see the source material, but it just doesn’t stand strongly on its own.

Life and Death in the Andes

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What?! A book that isn’t fantasy?! I know! A year (or two?) ago I was really into reading and learning about South America, particularly the indigenous people who have lived there over time. Because of that I bought several nonfiction books on various topics, and I’m just now getting around to reading them. This book covers historical events and their consequences in Columbia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina. Topics range from Charles Darwin and other explorers of the region, to Pablo Escobar and other criminals and bandits, to people who are the last to speak their native tongue, to people who live on floating islands in Lake Titicaca. Each chapter is a different essay, and each essay gives both a micro and macro view of the place or people in the aforementioned countries.

I was very impressed by this book. Kim MacQuarrie writes in such an engaging way that I had to remind myself that this was a nonfiction title instead of fiction. He weaves together his own explorations, myths and legends, and gives the individuals he encounters and interviews their own distinct voices. His writing is both descriptive and emotive yet still very informative. I could tell that he has a great respect for the people and places that he writes about. The only real gripe I have toward the book is that I would have preferred the essays to be edited down a little more for conciseness.  I think I felt this way mainly because I had prior knowledge of some of the topics, but for readers who aren’t as familiar with these places, peoples, or myths, the extra context would probably be more enjoyable and helpful to read about.

This very detailed collection of essays gets a well deserved four and a half out of five stars from me. I would highly recommend this book as a starting point if you want to learn about the political, cultural, and criminal events that took place in the Andes.

The Turn of the Key

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It has been a quite while since I read a thriller, but I usually get in the mood for them around this time of year. A couple of years ago I read Ruth Ware’s The Woman in Cabin 10. I certainly didn’t hate that novel, but I thought it had some imperfections that bothered me. Since then I have heard many people rave about Ware’s other books, so I thought I would take a second look at the author’s work by reading one of her newer books that appealed to me.

The Elincourts purchased Heatherbrae House, an old home in the Scottish countryside with a violent and mysterious history. They have used their architectural and technological knowledge to make it into a “smart home.” All they need now is a reliable nanny to take care of their four children while they are busy with their demanding careers. They have actually had several nannies, but each one has made a hasty exit after experiencing odd, possibly supernatural, experiences within the home. With the high salary and a chance at a new life, Rowan Caine decides to apply to be their newest nanny. What could possibly go wrong?

The novel opens with Rowan writing to a lawyer who might be able to get her out of prison. She is in prison because she has been accused of killing one of the Elincourt’s children, but she claims she is innocent. Throughout the novel she narrates her tenure as the family’s nanny. If you do not enjoy an epistolary format, don’t worry. It is very easy to forget that Rowan is writing the story for someone else. She only addresses the lawyer by name a few times in the beginning and a handful of times throughout the rest of book.

I love a good haunted house story, and not only does Heatherbrae House have a mysterious history but it being a smart house makes for even more unsettling situations. The rooms being filled with security cameras, everything being controlled by a phone app, and being able to talk to people in different rooms via the speaker system all lead to many crazy and creepy happenings. In my opinion, the best parts of this novel were the atmospheric and suspenseful scenes. The author is talented at drawing you in and making you question everything, including the narrator herself.

However, as with The Woman in Cabin 10, I sometimes got annoyed at the main character’s decision making. Admittedly, Rowan isn’t nearly as frustratingly stupid as The Woman in Cabin 10‘s lead, but there were still a couple of instances that made me angry at Rowan. I also noticed that both main characters in Ware’s novels turned to alcohol or made mistakes because of alcohol, which sometimes felt like a lazy plot device in my opinion. Maybe just don’t drink on the job?

Anyway, one other thing I disliked was the way the novel wrapped up. I’m a big fan of thrillers where it is unclear if a supernatural force is really there or not, and I actually love when the novel doesn’t answer whether it is there or not at the end. This novel makes a clear distinction about the cause of the strange occurrences, which is fine, but the twist is somewhat easy to guess and wasn’t a twist I particularly liked. I didn’t quite understand Rowan’s motivation for taking the nanny position by the end, and I felt that the conclusion wasn’t as interesting as the journey. I know that is rather vague and subjective, so I definitely encourage you to pick up the novel and form your own opinions.

Despite my gripes, this was a fun, atmospheric, and fast-paced book that I ultimately enjoyed reading. Three and a half stars out of five for The Turn of the Key.

A Phoenix First Must Burn

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A while ago I made a list of fantasy books by people of color, primarily women of color, that I wanted to focus on. This blog doesn’t have a huge audience, but I felt that I should do my part (however small) to spread the word about books that aren’t as mainstream and/or books by people of color. And of course I’m always looking for new and unique voices for my own personal reading enjoyment. It’s been a while since I’ve read a collection of short stories, but in general I find them to be one of the best ways to introduce yourself to new authors. With all of these considerations in mind, I chose to read A Phoenix First Must Burn, and I was very happy that I did.

I’ve been in a bit of a reading slump for most of this year, and one of my favorite ways to get out of one is to read books that are lighter or to read a book that I can dip in and out of over time, so a YA short story collection was perfect. But despite this collection being YA fantasy, I wouldn’t say that every story was particularly light. I believe every story has a black or brown female main character, and several stories feature LGBTQ+ main characters as well. Common themes and topics in the stories include, love (romantic and familial), slavery, sexism, racism, homophobia, and many stories reference black myths, folklore, and history. Some of the stories hit hard, but there is a good mix of writing styles and thematic tones throughout the collection.

For example, one of my favorite lighter, more humorous stories was “Melie” by Justina Ireland. This one was in your typical fantasy setting. It has a black female protagonist who wants to become a magician but is discriminated against because of who she is as well as her body size. I enjoyed this story’s fun dialogue and the small twists. Melie is smart and resourceful and goes on a grand adventure where she confronts mermaids, dragons, and betrayal with wit and grace.

Another favorite was “Letting the Right One In” by Patrice Caldwell. I would call this one an urban fantasy set in modern day Louisiana. It is a sweet love story between a bookish girl with depression and a female vampire. Both main characters are black (Yes, a black vampire!). I liked the parallel between feeling like an outcast and being a vampire and how race, class, and history tied into the story. The romance was a little too quick for my taste, but it is a short story. Despite that I loved how the sweet budding romance formed, the characters, and I really wished it had been longer so that I knew what happened to them! After reading this story and a few others in this collection, I think I really like sweet female/female romance.

I also enjoyed some of the more serious and hard-hitting stories, like “Gilded” by Elizabeth Acevedo. I would classify this as a historical magical realism story, and the plot involves a slave uprising. The main character struggles between the chance of buying her freedom through working hard for her master or by helping her friends and taking freedom for herself.

I could go on, but hopefully you can see the range of different stories within this collection. There is likely something for everyone here if you like fantasy, magical realism, or sci-fi. I didn’t love every story, but the collection as a whole is very strong, so I gave it four out of five stars.