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 gives me life. I get so excited about the idea of planning a trip that it dominates my thoughts until I have my itinerary planned out. I’m a meticulous researcher, but this book is forcing me to rethink my strategies and fussy planning style. Scott Keyes has a wealth of knowledge about the history of the airline industry and has tons of experience booking airfare. Over the years, he’s developed a different approach that helps him fly cheaper thus traveling more overall. While he goes over lots of tips and hints, the main gist of the book is to explain that the way most people hunt for airfare is all wrong. We choose a location, watch airfare prices, and guess when we think tickets will cost the least. Keyes recommends basing your airfare purchases off where the cheapest deals are – a simple concept but one we often overlook. The more flexible you are about location and dates, the more chances you have of finding a cheap deal. Your first step is to find a variety of cheap flights, pick a cheap flight destination, and then pick one of the cheap flight dates. This doesn’t mean sacrificing nonstop flights or only being able to fly at odd times or dates. Part of his book is promoting his website, but I didn’t find that to be a problem. You can definitely do the leg work yourself using Google Flights, but it’s time-consuming and tedious. I tried out his free membership which gives you a limited airline selection and limited number of deals per day. His team does the tedious work and sends you emails listing deals from Google Flights. I eventually paid for the yearly membership and soon found a deal to the Canary Islands that saved us almost $400 per person. I never even considered this location until this deal came through my inbox. At this point, the yearly membership has already saved us a ton of money for just one vacation. I will warn you, the beginning of the book is a bit laborious. Keyes spends a lot of time talking about the benefits of vacations, and I found that section to be unnecessarily long. Stick with it, and he gets to the good stuff soon enough. I like the idea of being more spontaneous in where we travel; I can still do my psycho travel planning once we have our tickets booked. The idea of planning details AFTER booking a destination is just as fulfilling in the long run. This book is a shiny gem for travel enthusiasts.
Adapted from a popular video series, “Uncomfortable Conversations With a Black Man,” Emmanuel Acho, former NFL player and sports analyst, lays out an accessible explanation of systemic racism for younger readers. The format of the book and casual conversational quality make it more approachable and easy to understand. He covers a wide range of topics that lend insight into what it’s like to be Black in America including relevant terminology, historical context, cultural appropriation, use of the N-word, voter suppression, etc. Although I don’t feel like his book is covering anything radically new in the realm of antiracism, the style feels fresh, and his call to action is perfect for younger audiences.
This is the Cadillac of books for cult-obsessed readers. What makes this particular fresh-take so interesting is that Amanda Montell hones in on the linguistic similarities between groups that many people agree upon as cults and those groups that display “cultish” behavior but may not be thought of as actual cults in our society. She starts by examining some groups that are commonly labeled cults including Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple, Heaven’s Gate, and Scientology. She examines the commonalities that exist including leaders who function as “linguistic chameleons,” customizing word choice and style to influence whoever is in front of them. Most of these groups find ways to get followers to shed their old selves, submitting to this new collective. Heaven’s Gate followers were given new names with the suffix –ody to make them feel special and part of something unique. Scientology leaders co-opted terms from science and psychology to provide a sense of legitimacy to their claims. They also use an abundance of abbreviations for common words, creating a private language available only to followers. Montell then switches gears and begins examining other organizations that share similarly “cultish” language patterns. I’m fascinated by the section on multi-level-marketing companies (MLMs) because they’re so prominent in today’s social media world. This includes Amway, Mary Kay, LulaRoe, Arbonne, and so on. MLMs thrive on toxic positivity by continuing to peddle the dogma that hard work, blood, sweat, and tears will drive you to success while the MLM pyramid scheme parallels usually only benefit those on top. Just like cults, MLMs seek out people who are optimistic and hopeful and will continue gutting it out even when their savings account is dwindling away or their credit card bills are piling up. The forever-optimists will abide by the mantra, “if you’re not meeting goals, it’s because you need to work harder” and then attend that mega-convention where you’re expected to pay for your own flights, hotel, food, and merchandise. Even corporations like Amazon have shared cultish language. Montell wraps up by looking at the cultish behavior of fitness groups. From Peloton to Crossfit, there are leaders embroiled in controversy and characteristics that place these groups into the “cultish” category. The fitness coaches take on a worshipped god-like status where ritual brings followers into a shared community. People get hooked on the feeling of community. Sometimes the coaches at top levels are not even fitness experts, but are instead more successful in the down-line pyramid structure – scooping up new recruits who then also get new recruits under them and so on. And don’t worry, I see the amusing irony that I’m a cult fanatic reading about the language of fanatic cultish groups. Come, read this book - join us...
Victim F: From Crime Victims to Suspects to Survivors by Denise Huskins, Aaron Quinn, Nicole Weisensee Egan
What the shit did I just read? This was bonkers to the highest level, and the horrific part is that this book isn’t fiction. This insane, straight-out-of-a-movie sequence of events happened to a real couple. I remember hearing this story on the news when it first broke, and it all seemed so odd. Then reports switched to the “Gone Girl” victim who “faked it.” And then nothing. The news never circled back around when they were found to be innocent; the sensationalism had passed and none of the media outlets cared enough to report on the injustice. This is truly the stuff of nightmares.
In 2015, Denise Huskins and her boyfriend, Aaron Quinn, are terrorized in the middle of the night by armed men in wet suits flashing red laser beams. They’re bound, drugged, separated, and forced to listen to bizarre audio messages with instructions and threats. Denise is thrown in the trunk of a car and Aaron is ordered to stay in the home with a warning not to call police or Denise would be killed. The intruders tape off a boundary on the first floor for Aaron and inform him of the surveillance cameras that will be monitoring his every move. Aaron eventually contacts police due to his concern for Denise, but when they show up to rescue Aaron, he’s immediately treated as the suspect. Not only do they think he killed Denise, but later when Denise is released, they label her as the “real-life ‘Gone Girl’” who faked her own kidnapping despite mounds of evidence proving both Denise and Aaron were innocent victims. Denise was never given proper victim’s assistance as a sexual assault survivor. They lost their jobs. Some of their friends and family didn’t believe them. Social and news media were exceedingly cruel. The police department and investigators re-victimized this couple over and over again by refusing to follow evidence or admitting missteps. I can’t even begin to imagine surviving an ordeal as heinous as this and then finding that the justice system designed to protect its victims has failed so miserably. Aaron and Denise explain the myriad of ways this tragedy impacted their lives, their health, and their relationships. They read off social media messages they’ve received from random people spewing vile hatred and abuse. Despite the trauma, they find a way to cling to each other and develop as a couple instead of tearing each other apart. Their love story is heartening. I still can’t wrap my brain around this; it’s enraging, and probably one of my top five heartbreaking true crime reads.
A powerful woman, characterized as a witch to demean and vilify her success, is a tale as old as time; one that all women can relate to in some form or another. Madeline Miller takes Circe out of The Odyssey and tells how her story is more than just a woman who turns men into pigs. I’ve never really been into mythology and so I was surprised at how quickly I became entranced by Circe’s story. It’s incredibly sad and empowering all at once but showcases her as a feminine force in a world made for men and gods. Circe is the lesser nymph daughter of the mighty Titan, Helios, and she’s outcast immediately as a weak, insignificant nuisance until she discovers the powers of witchcraft, specifically transformation. She’s banished to an island to live out her days as an exile. Circe lives a lonely existence until she chooses to take her power back. She hones her skills, tames the wild beasts roaming free, and makes the island not only her home, but her strength. She’s flawed in many ways, but Miller doesn’t shy away from showing Circe’s weaknesses as this is exactly what makes her such a relatable and compelling character. A host of familiar mythological figures cross paths with Circe including Icarus, Daedalus, the Minotaur, Hermes, and Odysseus, but it’s clear that they’re only fleeting elements of HER story. I ached for Circe; her pain and loss, so raw throughout her lifetime, is a constant that she faces and accepts but never succumbs. She suffers as a daughter, lover, and mother but ultimately uses her scorn as fuel for triumph, and I rooted for her on every, single page.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a champion for women, and her research is thought-provoking on many levels. Her candor is revealing and challenges perspectives on immigration and women’s rights. Ali uses staggering statistics and mounds of data to present her argument that the increase in sexual violence against women in Europe is linked to increases in immigration from Muslim-majority countries. Stringent gender roles, polygamy, and a lack of legal protection for women all contribute to oppressive ideology. Ali points out how European women are changing their behavior by avoiding certain locations and types of transportation to ensure they don’t become victims of sexual violence. European leaders are afraid to discuss the connection for fear of being labeled racist or xenophobic. Subways offer female-only cars. Parks offer benches for women exclusively. Cafes and bars in parallel community neighborhoods consist of all-male Muslim patrons who sometimes intimidate female citizens if they try to enter. As Muslim asylum-seekers flood into Europe, attacks against women have escalated. Ali asserts that Europeans are putting their heads in the sand instead of facing down a problem that is slowing eroding women’s rights and changing society’s attitudes toward women. Ayaan Hirsi Ali is an immigrant herself, raised in Somalia and having suffered from genital mutilation, she does not advocate against immigration but instead believes that asylum seekers should be required to assimilate into the societies they wish to join. Young Muslim men, as the primary demographic for asylum seekers, must be taught that European culture gives voice and equal protection to women, and they must integrate into this type of society or be denied entry. They will have women colleagues in the workplace, women as bosses, and women in public, dressing as they please. Ali believes that immigration laws have become too loose, and both legal and illegal immigrants have little to fear when seeking refuge in Europe. Ali’s research, while unpopular and contradictory amidst liberal values, has given voice and legitimacy to a concern that has dire implications for European women and sets off warning bells for Americans.
This Tender Land is everything I want in a book – heart, depth, humor, sweeping historical elements, mystery, adventure, and an ending that leaves me feeling right with the world. This was my top read for 2021. Originally, I bought it for my husband who gobbled it up in mere days and then raved about it so intensely that I read it just so he’d stop pestering me. He just wanted me to fall in love with it the same way he did. I quickly fell under the book’s spell, so now he’s happy. It’s a Huck Finn and Wizard of Oz-style mash-up adventure set in 1923 during the Great Depression. Odie, Albert, Mose, and Emmy set out on an epic journey after leaving the Lincoln Indian Training School in Minnesota where Native American children were forcibly separated from their families and stripped entirely of their heritage, language, and identity. Odie and Albert O’Banion, both white, were sent to live as orphans at the Lincoln because it was the only place in the area that had room. Odie constantly gets into trouble with Mrs. Brinkman who runs the school and doles out cruel punishments with intense enjoyment. The O’Banion brothers’ best friend, Mose, is a mute Sioux who speaks by sign language. The boys all have a special place in their hearts for little Emmy, daughter of one of their kind teachers. Tragedy strikes in the form of a tornado and a crime that implicates them all, changing the course of their lives forever. They set out in a canoe on the Gilead River, hiding from their secrets and searching for themselves and a place to call home. They meet a caravan of characters, from sinister to divine, where they learn about what friendship, identity, forgiveness, and family really mean. I imagine this book will be studied as a classic someday. The metaphor of the river propelling them on this life journey is mythic and powerful. This is the kind of book where writing is showcased as a craft - finely tuned, layered, and with thoughtful attention to every word and phrase. I felt like these kids were my pals, dragging me along on their river odyssey. I cling to their stories; I ache for their despair and cry fat, happy tears for the brief moments of joy and belonging that juxtapose the gloom of the Depression era setting. William Kent Krueger ingeniously writes this legendary story in a way that feels both nostalgic and contemporary at the same time. This Tender Land has the darkness of Stand By Me [The Body], the wistfulness of the Grapes of Wrath, and the heart of The Princess Bride.
Travel All the Pages is inspired by my two loves - travel and reading, a combo I can't resist. Enjoy these little pairings.