This is my husband’s favorite book, and he’s been badgering me for years to read it. I always drag my heels when it comes to classics; there are just too many new books that I want to read instead. He wore me down, and I guess I’ll admit defeat. This is an epic novel that captures the prolonged sorrow and fury of migrant families during the Great Depression. The term epic gets thrown around a lot in the book review world, but if I had to give an example, this book would be in the top five. The profound themes reflect the history of the Great Depression but more importantly the humanity of people who find themselves destitute and still able to show kindness and compassion. The main character, Tom Joad, is fresh out of jail, looking to return to his family home. As he meets various people on his journey back, he learns that farm families have been evicted by banks, and people are leaving in droves for California, looking for work and shelter. Steinbeck’s writing is terrifyingly real as he depicts the mass migration with raw, descriptive power. Tom eventually finds his family, and as they too succumb to the draw of California, they encounter one trauma after another, rejected by their fellow Americans. The themes that persist despite their hardships are steadfast dedication to family and the power of pulling together in hard times. The “we take care of our own” vibe persists throughout the book. The final scene of Tom’s sister helping a dying man is a shocking climax to this universal idea of the human experience as one of compassion and altruism. The Grapes of Wrath is classic for a reason, and the rise of fire and dust is still relevant today.
This historical fiction novel explores the complexities and atrocities of antebellum New Orleans on a struggling sugar plantation, Le Petite Cottage. It’s disturbing and grand, horrifying, and eye-opening. It’s one thing to suggest that slavery is atrocious and it’s another to show how slavery stripped human beings of their dignity and self. The violence and sexual content are difficult to read but necessary at the same time. The realities of chattel slavery cannot be censored or glossed over. Rita Williams-Garcia weaves a cast of characters together revealing the many layers that exist between White plantation owners and the people they enslave. Matriarch Madame Sylvie Bernardin de Maret Dacier Guilbert dreams of her glory days in the French royal court. She was taken from France as a child and married off to a plantation owner. She’s arrogant, shrewd, entitled, and thrives on class and racial distinction. Her adult son, Lucien, is equally foul, and they enjoy battling each other for superiority. He tries desperately and pathetically to launch Le Petite Cottage out of debt when he’s not too busy preying on slave women. While Williams-Garcia exposes the Guilbert family’s truly depraved qualities, she also juxtaposes those against painful and tragic events that make them empathetically human. She paints them in dappled shades of darks and lights that are uniquely emotional for readers. Madame Sylvie is both fragile and jagged as her slave servant, Thisbe, wipes her, dresses her, and learns that Madame named her after Marie Antoinette’s dog. Williams-Garcia is a master at ushering the reader to both hate and feel pity for Madame Sylvie as the wretched creature’s big sweeping desire is to sit for a portrait so she can hang onto the last scrap of her legacy. Her grandson and heir to Le Petite Cottage, Byron, lives a double life as a West Point cadet, madly in love with his best friend, Pierce. Lucien does his best to force Pierce to “be a man.” Thisbe is a major character, and although she’s Madame’s personal house slave, isolated from her family day and night, she’s ostracized for having it easier when that’s anything but accurate. Williams-Garcia shows the complex layers of emotion that exist between slaves as they are pitted against one another for favor and survival; the unspoken rules on “how to act” when Whites are around serve as a uniting element. Thisbe “knows her place,” but she’s sharper than Madame Sylvie. She holds her ground, and when Madame Sylvie is at her weakest, Thisbe makes a bold move. A Sitting in St. James is epic, and the tangled emotional impact is jarring. A great book makes you feel, but an epic book makes you question your feelings. This one will sit with me for a long time.
The eighties movie, The Breakfast Club, has always been one of my favorites – a collection of high school student stereotypes all stuck in detention together, discovering that they share more in common than they ever realized. Karen McManus must have been a fan. She does the movie proud but with an added contemporary murder mystery twist, and I loved it. McManus sets this series opener off with a bunch of kids thrown together in detention who end up witnessing the death of another student. They’re all from different cliques but are bonded together as accusations are cast upon each student, and rumors swirl in the surrounding community. Sketchy history comes to light giving each student from detention the motive to commit the murder. Or was it suicide? Or was it something else entirely? McManus keeps readers guessing up until the very end. Her character arcs all happen outside the detention room which is a big diversion from The Breakfast Club movie in addition to the murder mystery element, but the inspired portions are quintessential nostalgia for adult readers. Relatable, unpredictable, angsty thriller fun for teens and adults! The third book is set to come out in 2023.
This is not the first of Ruta Sepetys’ books that I’ve read, and it certainly won’t be the last. She’s a master of storytelling and highlighting under-represented events and periods in history in a way that’s relatable for young people. Her latest is another young adult historical fiction that sheds light on the Nicolae Ceausescu dictatorship and communist rule of Romania in the late 1980s. Romanian citizens lived in terror due a vast and intricate spy network composed of ordinary citizens set up to spy on one another for government favors including food, medicine, and electricity. Families and neighbors, teachers and students, coworkers and friends are all starving, paranoid, and constantly looking over their shoulders worried about who will turn them in for voicing even the slightest bit of discontent over Ceausecscu’s rule by isolation, deprivation, and fear. Homes are bugged. Food rations are extreme. Everything is illegal from Coke and Twinkies to western magazines and typewriters. People trade in Kents (cigarettes). This is the world that teenager, Cristian Florescu, is being raised in. He dreams of being a writer, keeps a secret notebook, and instead of dreaming about his future, he watches his grandfather slowly dying and his parents suffering in silence. Cristian finds himself at the mercy of the secret police, Securitate, as they force him to become an informer, using him to spy and report back for medicine for her grandfather. His efforts at subversion reach a tipping point when the Romanian revolution takes hold, and Cristian can no longer be part of the silence. His rage and frustration are loud, and he takes brave risks to become part of the solution to expose the country’s suffering to the world. Sepetys sears this story into your heart. Cristian’s longing, fear, and passion jump off the page and make him come alive. The country’s suffering is heartbreaking. This is a fascinating, somber, and hopeful historical piece that you can only come away from in awe.
A billionaire’s mansion. A cryptic will. Four alluring grandsons. A family inheritance denied. Secret passages. Is it all just a game left by a twisted, rich old man or is there something deeper to the mystery of why Avery Grambs was left a fortune from a man she’s never even met or heard of? Jennifer Lynn Barnes knows how to keep a reader glued to the pages. This is a breezy, fun delight. Barnes jumpstarts this young adult mystery trilogy with puzzles and twists right from the first few pages. Avery just wants to get out of high school and move on with her life. Billionaire Tobias Hawthorne dies and bequeaths his estate and entire fortune to her. To claim her inheritance, she must move into the sprawling Hawthorne House and stay there for a year. The house is filled with intrigue including the entire disinherited Hawthorne family, and most of them are not too thrilled with the interloper. Who is Avery and why did Tobias leave her everything, cutting the family out entirely? Together with the four handsome Hawthorne grandsons, Avery sets out to discover the truth about the mansion and the old man’s penchant for riddle and games. There’s a lot of lusty tension brewing in between a love triangle of sorts which just adds to the suspense of turning each page. I’m a huge puzzle nerd, so I love the juxtaposition of romance with a clue-based contemporary mystery. Inheritance Games is just plain fun.
Jesse Thistle’s account of drug addiction is scalding and downright painful. I winced repeatedly throughout his story; his voice is so raw and uncomfortable that my skin was crawling. How can someone be on the brink of destruction for so long and come out on the other side? Jesse was abandoned by his parents and lived with his brothers in foster care for a short time before finally ending up with grandparents. Jesse’s cycle of alcohol and drug addiction leaves him homeless and struggling on the streets of Canada. The memoir focuses on the trauma and shock of his downward spiral. It’s unsettling but a vivid portrayal of poverty and addiction. I wish more time was given to the story of his recovery. Jesse’s redemption and the awakening of his Metis heritage is a brief wrap-up at the very end of the memoir and doesn’t bring the reader to a full circle understanding of who he becomes in the end. This memoir is searing but I wanted a little more understanding of how he was able to turn things around by becoming a scholar, fully enveloped in the richness of his Indigenous culture. Prepare yourself to squirm; this one is cringy and downright guttural at best, but a worthy read nonetheless – a glimpse into the abyss.
I expected to fly through this and then gush over it with my other book friends but instead, I slogged through for weeks and found myself avoiding it entirely. It starts with an engrossing love story between Ifemelu and Obinze as young Nigerians. Ifemelu heads to America with the plan for Obinze to join her, and things don’t happen as they intend. Ifemelu is faced with what it’s like to be Black in America and begins writing a blog. Her reflections on race, culture, identity, and immigration are thought-provoking and eye-opening. She writes about what it’s like to be Black in Nigeria versus in America. When Adichie leads with her characters, the book is amazing. When she strays and takes on commentary, it gets choppy, long, and burdensome. Her heavy introspection forces the plot away from the characters and loses the beautiful story-telling that captured my interest early in the book. I longed for Ifemelu and Obinze to tell more of their story but by the end, the momentum crashed and burned. It ended up feeling like a set of disconnected short stories with a thin thread of commonality that never created anything whole.
This duology is a Romeo and Juliet retelling set in Shanghai in the 1920s. Two major gangs run the city and are constantly embroiled in a longstanding blood feud. Juliette Cai, recently returned from America, is the heir to the Scarlet Gang while her childhood friend and once-flame, Roma Montagov, is heir to the Russian White Flowers gang. A sickness creeps into Shanghai, one that causes people to claw their own throats out, and as gang members on both sides fall to this new rival, both Juliet and Roma struggle to find answers. Is it contagion or a monster lurking beneath the darkness of the Huangpu River? Roma and Juliette have to put aside their differences and work together to save their city. The sexual tension between these two is fire. They feign hatred for one other with intensity but then can’t tear away from each other’s eyes; a single brush of a fingertip sends them reeling back to a time when they cared for each other deeply, and family feuds didn’t matter. The push-pull of attraction is satiating. I love how Chloe Gong immerses this story of love and yearning amidst themes of colonization, identity, and culture. Juliette is Chinese and returns only to find that she feels like an outsider in her own home country as foreigners have taken over the city. Roma is torn between loyalty to his family and the violent path they’ve carved out versus loyalty for people he loves regardless of gang ties. The setting is lush with bright lights and seedy, dark alleys, filth and fringe, holstered guns and flapper dresses, gritty streets and golden decadence, and you can’t help but feel part of the city. I didn’t love the ending; it was a hodge-podge of too many things, and it felt a little rushed but still a gorgeous young adult blend of sweeping classic elements and intricate modern drama.
I want to snuggle this book; it’s so warm and fuzzy. This is definitely going on my favorites pile for many reasons. I finished it and couldn’t stop smiling. Linus Baker is a rule follower, and he lives an ordinary, lonely life with a cat. He’s employed as a children’s case worker for the Department in Charge of Magical Youth, and he takes his job very seriously. Linus is charged with inspecting orphanages and making sure the children are “safe” and well-cared for. Due to his extreme sense of duty and strict adherence to rules, Linus is sent on a special, highly classified assignment to Marsyas Island where he meets a peculiar group of magical children that test his limits, his patience, and everything in between. Each child has a fascinating magical ability that humans fear, and Linus begins to wonder if the government wants the children protected or hidden. Mysterious and magnetic, Arthur Parnassus is the caretaker, and in his steadfast dedication to the children of Marsyas, he also helps usher Linus into a new understanding of what it really means to protect them when rule-following doesn’t always shape up to be fair. The message in this book is so universally comforting and seamlessly blended that although it’s set in a fantasy world, it feels like it’s real and completely applicable now. The humor is injected into this book in just the right places, and I chuckled, giggled, and laughed out loud all the way through. I don’t think I could dare pick a favorite child of Marsyas, but Lucy is especially darling as the Antichrist. Don’t be fooled by this sweet review; this book is not a breezy beach read. It’s brimming with tough conversations about hate, prejudice, and the bystander effect. In our world where differences are feared and hatred abounds, T.J. Klune finds a way to leave readers with a little hope. Look for the light in folks and focus on that shimmer; there are joyful parts to our differences, and you can’t help but grin when you see them shining on these pages.
This was way more dry than I was expecting, and although thorough, it just didn’t captivate my attention. I kept drifting off as I was reading and couldn’t' stay focused. Edward Ball tells the history of his family descendant, Constant Lecorgne, who is a white carpenter in New Orleans. Enraged by the emancipation of enslaved African Americans and entitled to the core, Lecorgne terrorizes black people as a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Ball tells intimate details of Lecornge’s life and what drove him to take up the mantle of racism. The details are excruciatingly precise, and it just wasn’t for me. The author also draws on a lot of conjecture and uses the phrase “I imagine” a lot. He makes guesses about what Lecorgne may or may not have done. I found this element distracting and off-putting. I did find the history interesting, especially how he interviewed some descendants of Lecorgne’s victims. Ball also explains that according to demographic estimates, the odds of a white person having a KKK member in his or her genealogy is around 50 percent, and his family story is actually not that uncommon.
Travel All the Pages is inspired by my two loves - travel and reading, a combo I can't resist. Enjoy these little pairings.