This verse novel left me wrecked. Safia Elhillo’s writing is so elegant and intense that I had chills the whole way through. I’m not typically into verse novels, but I wanted to pick one up in honor of National Poetry Month for April. What a standout. Run to the book store or grab your digital reader; it’s worth the rush. Nima lives in America but feels like an outsider. She struggles with identity and clings to the idea of a life she was meant to have instead of this one filled with isolation and post 9/11 harassment. She wears the same dirty sweatshirt every day, doesn’t engage with her classmates, and endures bullying and physical harassment. Naima’s mother was an immigrant from an unnamed Muslim country, and as Nima feels detached from both her mother and her American life, she begins to imagine a parallel universe ushered by her alter-ego, Yasmeen. Yasmeen’s father is alive and lives in their Arabic-speaking homeland filled with family, friends, music, and dancing. Nima is disillusioned and adrift in her present life. She’s angry and unable to accept why her mother brought her to this country. In America, she views her mother from afar with sadness and frustration, but when she travels “home” with Yasmeen, she sees her as a dancer full of life and promise. But as Yasmeen pulls back the curtain of this past life like the spirits in Dickens’ Christmas Carol, Nima begins to also see the cloudy, wavering parts of the mirage. This life she thought she was meant to have is not what she had conjured up in her longings. Yasmeen reveals a darkness that helps Nima embrace her present, reconnect with her mother and family in America, and discover her identity in ways that satisfy both her love for nostalgia but also her desire to belong. Nima’s home is what she makes for herself. I can’t stop thinking about the beauty of this book. It’s both gentle and shocking at the same time. I ached for Nima and her mother as they circled their distant relationship, never quite reaching one another. Elhillo’s book provides countless avenues for thoughtful reflection and is going straight to my “new loves” shelf.
I like this book, but I’m dying for the cover. Finally, a cover highlighting the female protagonist to look as I imagine her; she’s straight-up dazzling. I enjoyed this YA read, but wasn’t blown away. Enchanted Jones is an aspiring singer, swimmer student athlete, and feeling like an outsider after her close family moves to the suburbs. She’s the only black girl in her school, and she’s trying to figure out exactly where she fits in. Cue Korey Fields, a famous adult R&B artist, who spots her at a talent audition and grooms her R. Kelly-style. Enchanted yearns to be a professional singer but is also at a tender age when teens are just trying to figure out who they are. She notices Korey’s controlling behavior but writes it off because he’s an adult, and she believes in him. Korey gaslights her and manipulates her family into trusting him. Tiffany D. Jackson does a good job showing the subtle ways that Enchanted’s abuser creeps into all parts of her life, taking advantage of her drive to be a singer and alienating her from her loved ones and friends. The book starts off with a shocking scene where Enchanted wakes up to blood everywhere and a body. The murder mystery element gets convoluted in the end and is ultimately where I lost interest in the book. I also found the plot was too carbon copy replica of the R. Kelly scandal. I wanted Enchanted’s story to be more of her own instead of what felt like a re-telling. With that said, it’s a book that will surely resonate with many young adults.
Whoa. Now this is a mystery and suspense thriller with a shut-the-front-door twist. A whole lot happened in this book, and it somehow worked. Often when authors try to cram 50 pounds of mystery/thriller into a 15 pound book, it bursts, but somehow, Lisa Jewell made this crazy plot completely plausible. Daughter, Ellie, goes missing at the age of 15. Mom, Laurel, gets divorced and fast-forward ten years when she meets new guy, Floyd. Floyd’s daughter Poppy is a bit odd but reminds Laurel of Ellie in multiple ways. Laurel is completely enamored with Floyd but she begins to sense something is off. Just when she thought she would be able to put her daughter’s memory to rest and move forward with her life, secrets about Ellie’s disappearance begin unraveling. Laurel’s tightly wound life spirals, and the answers about what happened to Ellie Mack are shocking. This was an easy read and not too cerebral which is great when you just want to be entertained. All characters are assumed white.
Stick with me on this. You know that part of The Labyrinth movie where Jareth the Goblin King (David Bowie) tries to lure Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) with visions of this swirling, lavish ballroom after making her eat the poisoned fruit, and there are all of these opulently dressed people with grotesque masks undulating in and out of the screen? This book makes me think of that scene – magic, mystery, deception, darkness, masquerade. I loved it all but also felt strange about it at the same time.
In all of its black and white striped glory, the Le Cirque de Reves appears mysteriously - no fanfare, no announcement, no flurry of activity setting up tents. It’s just there one day, open in the evenings only, and after a period of time, it’s not anymore. Two magicians, Celia and Marco, have been groomed from a very young age under the tutelage of cruel instructors more interested in mind games and power than their innocent students. They are pitted against one another in a battle of magical wits and ability. Their competition plays out in ways that impact the other circus performers as well as the patrons who are so desperately entranced in the circus’ lure. But the magic instructors and the circus designers couldn’t possibly have planned for how the magnetism of the place takes on a life of its own, birthing both a love story and a tragedy behind and beyond the canvas flaps. The writing is lyrical and mystical, and the characters are dreamlike. The Night Circus is an alluring blend of the best in literature and magic.
This book kept me on the edge of my seat mainly because I had no idea what was going on until the very end, but when I finished it, I felt let down. The idea behind Wilder Girls is so cool - a bunch of girls stuck Lord-of-the-Flies-style on an island plagued by the gruesome Tox. They're all living at a boarding school when girls suddenly start experiencing horrific, painful symptoms. Byatt grows a second spine. Hetty's eye seals shut. Someone sprouts gills. Reese gets a scaly hand. I mean, how twisted is that? The island is quarantined from the mainland, and the girls and two remaining adults set up a system for survival. The mainland sends food and supplies as they try to discover a cure. This is how I like my horror, grisly and terrifying.
I loved how all the elements of this meshed together into something cohesive - post-apocalyptic, survival, feminist, sapphic horror, environmental critique, and a smidge of romance and longing. If I'm ever cut off from society in a pandemic, I want the girls from this book with me as my survival squad. The whole book felt very girl power-ish but not in a corny way at all. I appreciated the unique name choices, unique but not outrageous like Moon Puzzle. Some of the names I've been seeing in YA fiction lately make me cringe. Who can take Moon Puzzle seriously? All of the main characters are assumed white.
One of Byatt's cyclic changes forces her into the infirmary, but she never returns. Hetty is determined to find her. Reese is quiet and brooding, and the sexual tension between Hetty and Reese is electrifying and gradual. The girls grapple with the physical challenges created by the Tox but also with one another and the elements outside their compound. The Tox has affected nature, and wild animals show signs of infection. My biggest issue with the book was the reveal of the nature of the Tox including the secrets surrounding it and the adults who are controlling information on the island. Answers are teased through the whole book and then dumped in your lap in a giant, messy pile with no fanfare. It's like the author decided to wrap things up by spilling all the secrets in one anticlimactic word vomit. I felt like I was holding my breath through the entire book, and then the big gulp of air I got to take at the end was stale and smelled like a paper mill at the same time. Harsh. If you've never smelled the emissions from a paper mill, consider yourself lucky. It's a putrid mix of sauerkraut and rotten eggs. I digress. My main point is that I was frustrated with the ending and the reveal, and it ultimately ruined the book for me.
I've been reading intense books lately, and was happy to find this murder mystery to be a bit more breezy. I finished it in two days since Lucy Foley keeps the reader in suspense up until the absolute last chapter. Right away, I felt a real Agatha Christie vibe as Foley sets the scene for a dark, moody wedding on a remote island off the coast of Ireland. I love the haunting descriptions of the harsh landscape, mucky bogs, and the stories of dead bodies stuck under the mire. The setting is crucial to the overall atmosphere of this doomed wedding. Each chapter is told from the perspective of a different person including the bride, groom, best man, wedding planner/venue owner, and some of the guests. All characters are white, except for one usher named Femi who is black. Each person begins to reveal their connection to the wedding and their motivations for being disgruntled toward one or more persons involved in the big day. This slow tease is what I enjoyed most; I had so many predictions for who would be murdered and why, and it fluctuated drastically with each new chapter. Many of the characters seem like perfectly horrid people, and Foley does a great job showcasing their flaws and even some redeeming qualities. If you like your murder mysteries to keep you guessing, you can't go wrong with this one.
Ryn is the main character, and she's a badass gravedigger who also slays bone houses (living dead) in her spare time. This YA fantasy reads like a step back in time but it packs a modern punch. Ryn and her siblings live on their own in a small village surrounded by an iron fence built to keep the bone houses out. Much of the folklore surrounding the bone houses in Colbren is viewed as just that - old stories, but Ryn knows better. She comes upon a mysterious man named Ellis being attacked by one of the risen dead, and after she saves him (hooray for females who do the saving) she finds out he's a mapmaker who has gotten himself lost. I felt very distant from the characters when I first started reading this, and the magical elements felt too separate from Ryn's story, but I stuck with it and was not disappointed. In fact, I was riveted. Things pick up when Ryn and Ellis team up to figure out why the bone houses are suddenly attacking in mass. Some of the plot elements surprised me so much that I had to reread parts to make sure I was understanding what happened. I love when books take me by surprise.
I especially love how both Ryn and Ellis' characters were developed slowly and expertly. Ellis may have some physical weaknesses but Ryn's strengths make up for it, and they complement each other in a way that doesn't leave one overpowering the other. They become a team that isn't based on stereotypical gender roles. When Ellis is tender, Ryn is tough. They bond as orphans and the agony of not knowing exactly what happened to one of their parents.
Without spoiling anything, there's also a zombie animal that plays a big part of Ryn and Ellis' journey to stop the bone houses. This decaying pet becomes their savior in many ways and was a fascinating supernatural element. Bravo to Emily Lloyd-Jones for a fantasy zombie book that is so satisfyingly unique and special.
My husband and I, as inexperienced international travelers, embarked on a six country European travel blitz a few years after getting married. We had no idea what we were doing, but this trip is what started our travel obsession. Out of the six cities we stopped in, Budapest was the one that left me with the most wonder. Split into two parts, Buda is the western, hilly side with grand views and thermal spas. Pest (pronounced PESHT) is the flat, commercial business side. The two sides united into one city in 1873, but they couldn't be more distinct. Budapest has a beauty and grandeur that I wasn't expecting. There's a curious juxtaposition of atmospheres here that entranced me from the moment we arrived.
Turning Pages: Places to Check Out
Hungarian Parliament Building
This was under renovation when we visited, and we didn't end up visiting the interior of the building at all. Taking in this grand structure from across the Danube both during the day and night are some of the most vivid memories I have from our entire Europe trip. The symmetry of all the arches and spires is dazzling. I can't imagine living and working in a place where this is your view on a daily basis. How does this thing even exist?
Younger, thinner, and sporting natural, unprocessed hair, I couldn't get enough of these bridges. They're everywhere. I loved how each bridge has it's own character and personality. The Elizabeth Bridge is modern while the Chain Bridge is more historic and the most recognized in all of Budapest.
This street is known as the soul of the tourist district. Here you will find tons of shopping and cafes, all located along a pedestrian walkway lined with sophisticated buildings.
We were surprised to learn that Budapest is well known for its thermal waters, and there are many baths to choose from, each with it's own unique features. The baths all use the mineral-rich water from the ground and are great for entertainment, healing, and just general relaxation.
Completely unprepared and having done zero research ahead of time, we chose one, Szechenyi, and showed up with suits in hand. The man in the window knew we were idiots as we couldn't figure out what to do. He spoke no English, and this was before cell phones so we couldn't look up anything to translate. As I said before, we were very inexperienced and should have been prepared to ask for help in Hungarian. There was a menu hanging up above the ticket window, so we randomly pointed to something and hoped it was an entrance ticket we were paying for. He pointed to a door and off we went. We went to separate gender changing rooms and then met up on the other side in a beautiful room with tall columns and a long, skinny pool. There are varying temperatures in each of the different indoor pools, and we tried several. The outdoor pools weren't open when we visited which was a bummer because they're incredibly grand. See photos and videos of both:
Menu Pages: Eats and Drinks
Great Market Hall
This indoor market is located on the Pest side, and is an overwhelming assault on your senses. You can definitely spend hours here eating your way through the first floor food vendors. Try the langos. These are a deep-fried bread that you can get with various sweet or savory toppings. We tried the cheese, and it was amazing and incredibly cheap.
Hungary's national drink, Unicum is everywhere. We had it in shots before a meal. It's bitter and has a piney taste that was just too medicinal and herbal for me, but it obviously has its fans all over this country.
Appendix: A Hodge Podge
Holocaust Memorial Center - a moving tribute to the more than half a million Hungarian citizens/deports who became victims in the Holocaust
Heroes Square - largest square in Budapest
Folk Dinner and Gypsy Show - lots of places offer folk shows, and these are fun to watch people in traditional Hungarian costumes dancing with bottles on their heads and cracking whips. They often grab tourists out of their seats to join in on the fun.
Postscript: What I Missed
There are oodles of places that we didn't get to and wish we had. These are just a few on our list for next time.
Royal Palace (Buda Castle) - includes the Hungarian National Gallery, the National Széchenyi Library, and the Castle Museum
Gellert Baths - has an Art Nouveau style and an outdoor wave pool
Danube river cruise - we did one in Amsterdam instead so we decided to skip it here
Faust Wine Cellars - sample wines underneath Buda Castle
Budapest is only one of the stops in this impressive historical fiction monstrosity, and the city fits the vampiric, moody vibe of this book like a sleek, black velvet glove.
Vampires and librarians and history, oh my! It's a nerd trifecta, and I loved every bit of it. You have to love historical fiction to read this. It's very dense in the history department but in an exquisite, luscious, romantic kind of way. It's also a beast of a book, literally. At 642 pages, I found myself slogging through it at times and just wishing it would wrap up. In the end, I was satisfied and glad to have stuck it out.
The narrator begins the story as a young girl who finds a book with a woodcut of a dragon in it among her father's things. She asks him about it, and Paul slowly and reluctantly unravels the story. The book mysteriously appeared in his study carrel when he was a younger man studying at the library during his graduate program. Interested in it's origin, he takes the book to his mentor, Professor Rossi and is stunned to find out that Rossi also has a copy of the same book. Rossi explains that in his research of the strange book, he uncovers information about Vlad Tepes (Dracula) and believes he is still alive. Soon after, Rossi goes missing, leaving behind a blood-smeared office. Paul is devastated and heads off on a whirlwind world adventure to figure out what happened to his beloved mentor. All three characters are presumed to be white. The book weaves in and out of libraries, small villages, quaint cafes, and monasteries. The adventures span various cities including Amsterdam, Istanbul, Budapest, and a host of other eastern European locations.
I was spellbound by the vivid descriptions of each location. Elizabeth Kostova does an incredible job capturing the hypnotic effect of traveling around the world. Not only was the travel meticulously detailed, but the historical backgrounds of every, single location were weaved in so seamlessly, you felt like you were part of each page. Now I love historical fiction, but this one really crammed it in. The middle pages got repetitive, and I was wishing for a change of pace in the plot elements. I wasn't sure if I would ever finish this book, but you could tell this was a dramatic labor of love for this author. Without spoiling too much, I can't stop thinking about how awesome it is to have beady, little librarian vampires roaming around. I keep imagining scrawny, bat-faced men dressed up in tweed suits. Libraries are pretty much my world and combining these two elements is almost too much for my bibliophile heart to take.
This is a prototypical, young adult, dystopian series that leaves teen girls swooning in a science fiction love triangle between Cassia and two super hunky, brooding boys. All is not as it seems in Cassia's world where young people are paired up with their spouses at age 17 at a special banquet. She's matched with her best friend, Xander, but when she views her Match video giving information about Xander, a picture of mysterious Ky flashes into view and makes her question whether the Match is destiny or not. The Society has close control over romantic partners, death, jobs, and food intake, and Cassia begins to wonder why everything is chosen for them. Matched is an interesting YA exploration of free will and how a tightly controlled environment always has dirty secrets lurking in the shadows. This was a very popular series when it first came out, and a classic constant in the dystopian genre.
Eleanor Oliphant is bizarre and responds to people with such a black and white obliviousness that she's rude and misunderstood. She's also deeply lonely and doesn't realize it. She lives each day with order and repetition that includes minimal contact with other people, vodka, frozen pizza, and her mundane office job. Then the order of her life gets thrown off track when she meets new IT guy, Raymond, and his warmth and gentleness show Eleanor how much friendship and love are missing from her life. She begins to slowly reveal her childhood trauma and the lingering effects of a desolate upbringing. Eleanor starts off as a pitiful, sad character, but painfully develops into a likeable oddball who braves the deluge of emotions locked away to create a better, completely fine life. Eleanor was so hard to read at first, and I thought I would dislike this book right away. Honeyman has clearly mastered character development, and it's a sweet read up until the last word.
Travel All the Pages is inspired by my two loves - travel and reading, a combo I can't resist. Enjoy these little pairings.