If We Were Villains

If We Were VillainsIf We Were Villains by M.L. Rio

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

So long as we did it together, our individual sins might be abated. There is no comfort like complicity.

If We Were Villains is moving into the top spot for my favorite book of the year so far. (Overtaking the Gentleman’s Guide!! #GGTVAV 4-ever) The group dynamic among the collegiate theater students is complex, and our understanding grows organically. I loved all these murderous little darlings. This is a rare book that hooks you in the beginning and drives urgently toward the conclusion, but somehow the middle is truly the best part. If you like Shakespeare at all, this is a must read.

My Absolute Darling

My Absolute DarlingMy Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Here is the problem with My Absolute Darling.

Yes, the writing is beautiful. Northern California is wonderfully evoked. The survivalist stuff sounds cool.

But here is the problem: It is a balletic, orgiastic symphony of violence. You can write books about violence, you can read books about violence, totally fine, I’m opposed to censorship, etc. But my personal complaint is that the story revels in its violence. It gives more time, care, and loving attention to detail to Turtle’s torture and pain than it does to her interior life. The point of the book is the violence. The author would probably tell you it’s about survival–it’s not. Survival is at best a secondary interest.

Books obviously don’t have to be about good things happening to good people, or bad things happening to bad people. Books don’t “have” to be about anything. They also don’t have to be about violence in and of itself.

Wicked Like a Wildfire

Wicked Like a Wildfire (Hibiscus Daughter, #1)Wicked Like a Wildfire by Lana Popović

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

❝Mama’s desserts were nothing if not suspenseful.❞

🌺 I loved the magic system and the Montenegrin setting. The dynamic between the twin sisters feels real and loving and sometimes painful. I didn’t grow up with any sisters, although I have THREE beloved sisters now as an adult which I think was quite clever of me!
Two complaints, both pretty minor: Iris comes across as passive at times. A lot of the plot involves her finding out about her past, so she spends much of her time confused and hearing about herself from others. Also there is a key point that gets abandoned–Jasmina tells her daughters they may never fall in love, which is a really interesting idea and would have been fun to pursue. But it just kinda gets dropped.
Regardless I enjoyed reading and I’m looking forward to another installment in the series!

Fierce Kingdom

Fierce KingdomFierce Kingdom by Gin Phillips

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“And here they are where death is shoving its bloody snout in their faces, and she has not considered it, not really… That is what you do when you have a child, isn’t it, open yourself up to unimaginable pain and then try to pretend away the possibilities.”

I LOVED this book. It’s no spoiler to say this is a story about something bad that happens in a zoo, and even so, within the first ten pages I was practically yelling for Joan to get out of the zoo. (Also not a spoiler: It’s not a story about the parking lot outside a zoo!)

I was reading with my own personal favorite four-year-old in mind, and I loved Lincoln and the tiny details of his relationship with his mother. The prose is tense and tightly written, with no spare syllable taking up space. Highly recommended.

Sour Heart

Sour HeartSour Heart by Jenny Zhang

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Reading this book feels like swirling my fingers through Jenny Zhang’s blood. It is warm and salty and utterly personal and essential to life.
There are seven short stories about Chinese immigrant families, mostly centered around the daughters in those families, told in the first-person full-speed-ahead voice of the young. I envy Ms. Zhang her ballsy sentence structure and the way she unfurls a scene slowly, as we begin to understand each narrator’s unique perspective.
The first story is clearly the strongest, and the first sentence announces itself like the horn of a train. We are in a nasty Brooklyn apartment alongside drug dealers and cockroaches from the first sentence, my friends, even as we strive for impossible grace. It’s not a bad summary of the rest of the book, to be honest.
Even the parts I didn’t “like” or enjoy reading felt important. Each of the seven families feels a bit similar, in some ways, which annoyed me but felt purposeful. Yes, your family is unique, but guess what? It’s also just like every other family! The scatological language annoyed me (seriously, there is a shitload of shit and piss and vomit and saliva in this book) and was certainly also purposeful. All that shit is an earthy connection to our animal natures and another reminder that we are all not quite so different as we like to pretend.
Overall, I hope and believe reading this book made me a more empathetic human.

The Library of Fates

The Library of FatesThe Library of Fates by Aditi Khorana

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“Girl, who you are isn’t about who gave birth to you or who raised you. One finds out who he or she is over the course of a life.”
“How do I do that?”
“Through your actions, through your choices.”

This story has the dreamy, hazy quality of a fairy tale. Our heroine is courageous and more powerful than she knows, and all the young men are handsome and selfless. Even the bad guy gets a sympathetic backstory. I appreciated the interweaving of myth and gods, but overall it’s not my preferred sort of story. I like my YA fantasies a little darker and grittier. (My YA book boyfriends are scheming, limping Kaz Brekker and scarred sociopath Jorg Ancrath) But I love the cover, and the ending was unique and surprising.

Modern Gods

Modern GodsModern Gods by Nick Laird

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“The light of Ulster traveled not by particle or wave but by indirection, hint, and rumor. A kind of light of no-light, emanating from a sun so swathed in clouds it was impossible to tell where it lurked in the sky.”

A beautifully written story of the damage wreaked by competing religions in both Northern Ireland and Papua New Guinea. The quote above and a few others had me entranced. A remote police station is labeled “in yellow tile across its forehead” and a skink becomes a “tiny dinosaur…to look at them, in their impertinence.”

The tiny, complex familial details of the adult Donnelly children returning home to their aging parents is near and dear to me and expertly drawn. If I have any gripe, it’s a pet peeve of mine to wildly swing among third-person omniscient points of view. This happens throughout, often for only a paragraph or two before shifting again.

The writing is luminous and confident and the Donnellys were frustrating and wonderful. Overall lovely and highly recommended.

The Devil’s Feast

The Devil's Feast (Avery & Blake, #3)The Devil’s Feast by M.J. Carter

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is the third in a detective series, and it takes considerable narrative cojones to throw your most compelling character in prison and keep him away from the action for the first third of the novel. I’m not sure it quite paid off in this case. But the descriptions of elaborate Victorian dinners are rivaled only by GRRM’s medieval feasts for detail and jaw-dropping excess! And…I totally ship Avery+Blake ooh la la…

The Essex Serpent

The Essex SerpentThe Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The language in this book is lovely and evocative. Ms. Perry’s familiarity with the mud and fogs of the Blackwater estuary is put to excellent use. The way the dialogue reads on the page calls forth real speech–some fits and starts, plenty of em dashes and commas, important things left unsaid, all mixed in with a few moments of beautiful insight.

Cora Seaborne and Will Ransome are a pairing unlike any other I’ve read in memory, and the alternating tension and understanding between them was my favorite part of the story.

The serpent is the ancient symbol of knowledge, and I think that’s true in this book as well. But for me it also symbolized desire–Cora goes chasing it, Will tries to pretend it doesn’t exist, pre-teen Joanna is terrified of it, and her friend Naomi runs away.

The subplots about socialism and housing reform sadly failed to capture my interest, and Martha deserved a bit better. Luke Garrett’s subplot was tightly written and engrossing, though. I found Stella Ransome to be fascinating and heartbreaking and even mostly believable, which I know many others did not.

I cannot wait to read what Sarah Perry comes up with next.

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue

The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and VirtueThe Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Loved it — Monty is brave and heartbreaking, and you feel each one of his (many) mistakes like a punch in the gut. Sometimes I wanted to shake him, and sometimes I wanted to wrap him up and keep him safe. His journey from vice toward virtue is slow and realistic, with fits and starts along the way. Ms. Lee’s writing is lively and brisk. The villain in the plot is somewhat underdeveloped, with few characteristics other than chasing our hero, but I didn’t mind because we got to spend more time with Monty and Percy. Highly recommended.

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