Makenna Knighton is the current communications coordinator for The Spellbinding Shelf. She is studying English Literature through Barrett, the Honors College at Arizona State University, planning to receive both her BA and MA with an emphasis in 19th-century British fiction. She works as a captioning agent, music teacher, and social media content coordinator for a clothing company.
Publisher: Little Bound Books, 8 October 2019 Genre: Memoir Pages: 94 Format: Paperback Buy Local My Rating: 4/5 stars
Beginning with an illustration of the “deep connection to the dead” felt from the European cobblestone streets, Gint Aras begins his story when he is just about to visit the Concentration Camp Memorial nearest to his former Lithuanian home for the first time, announcing his intention to imagine himself not as a victim but as a perpetrator. Switching to past tense, Aras describes formative moments and impressions in his life, from a childhood in the violent West Chicago suburb Cicero in a physically abusive Lithuanian immigrant family to his time in Europe and then back in America.
Aras charts his progression from one who silently accepts and ignores abuse to one who identifies and confronts this behavior, whether it be the Lithuanian complicity in Nazi atrocities towards Jews during WWII to more broad racism, Anti-Semitism, and physical violence. He then ends the memoir back with his visit to Mauthausen in present tense recognizing a “relief by execution” for both prisoner and guard.
The tense and section changes in Aras’ work were somewhat disorienting for me personally, but his easy, conversational style immediately made me feel as involved in his realizations as he was. Though I have not suffered PTSD or uncovered a family and national history of abuse and atrocity, reading Relief by Execution allowed me to experience the emotions and sensations of these moments along with Aras.
In my admittedly brief experience, I too “sense a deep connection to the dead any time I stand on cobblestones in Europe” (1). Aras’ narrative provides a clear individual perspective on how the aftermath of WWII still affects thought patterns today, suggesting that we may not have left those atrocities as far in the past as we may wish to believe.
Since Aras provides such a personal and approachable take on the complicated conceptions of ethnic identity, race, nationality, and abuse, I would recommend Relief by Execution to anyone (high school age or older) who seeks to understand how our individual identities are affected by our cultural and familial baggage.
Thanks to the publicist at The Next Best Book Blog for providing an ARC in exchange for this honest and unbiased review.
Publisher: Shadow Mountain, 2018 Genre: Proper Romance Pages: 358 Format: Paperback Buy Local My Rating: 4.5/5 stars
Greta’s best friend Will promises that he always delivers on her birthday presents, and this year he out-does himself, fulfilling her wish for a perfect boyfriend. While Greta is shelving books at her job as an assistant librarian, Will arranges for her to meet his cousin, Mac, who is single, incredibly attractive, and even seems obviously interested in Greta, based on his adorably poetic texts.
Greta falls for Mac quickly, enjoying the free hot chocolate at the cafe where he works and his clear interest in her, but she can’t help but wonder why he is always so much better at expressing himself in texts. Busy with research and planning various events to save her beloved library from impending foreclosure, Greta has to recognize what she really wants and whether she is willing to go far enough to get it.
Honestly, I was afraid this book was going to be too cliché, but it surprised me in a great way. I ended up reading it all in one sitting, not even just to see how Greta’s relationship would end up, but also because her character arc was so compelling.
In Check Me Out, Becca Wilhite crafts a charming world where Greta takes the reader between the library and the cafe with increasingly more dramatic stakes and powerful recognitions. The romance is not as uncomplicated as it seems from Greta and Mac’s immediate mutual attractions in the first chapter, and Greta’s purposeful choices provide a sense of more weighty thematic elements than just “and they lived happily ever after.”
Greta has poignant interactions with her mother and the library neighbor Mr. Greenwood, and her friend Marigold is simply delightful in her memorable appearances on the page. In the end, the only aspect that felt too cliché was Mac’s relatively flat character, though I fully acknowledge that that was part of the point of his presentation in the novel. Even with that minor wish for more depth, I still really enjoyed this book! You should all go check it out!
I would recommend this book to anyone who likes a good, clean romance, especially all those who can see themselves as readers who are dedicated enough to do anything to save their town’s library.
For us ASU students who are just starting to get used to the routine of this semester, here’s a list of six books that may have been on your school booklist in years past that it may be time to dust off again. Contrary to popular belief, most of the books we read in English class are chosen for a (very good) reason, so I thought it might be very good to revisit some of my favorites. But don’t worry, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (as valuable as it is for every sophomore in America to endure the agony of this reading assignment) didn’t make today’s list.
To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee. First off on the list is Harper Lee’s beloved To Kill a Mockingbird, a favorite read from high school for many. As you likely remember, the narrator Scout’s refreshing tone provides a glimpse into the racially divisive setting of the 1930s American South as her father Atticus Finch defends a black man named Tom Robinson, who has been falsely accused of raping a white woman. With Scout’s honest realizations about race, class, and individual responsibility, this book is especially timely for today’s climate. It’s time to pick To Kill a Mockingbird off your high school bookshelf and take a trip back to Maycomb, Alabama during the Great Depression for a reminder that our natural conceptions of innocence and responsibility are filtered through biases of class and race.
The Diary of a Young Girl – Anne Frank. Many of us haven’t opened a copy Anne Frank’s diary since junior high, but her painfully acute realizations about human nature through the harsh realities of years of hiding during World War II are well worth another look. Though undergoing intense danger, much of her account shows the day-to-day monotony of her situation, with a realistic portrayal of what it felt like to live in her environment. Her story is critically important as one of the few non-American narratives that has entered into popular culture in defining the experiences of Jews in the Holocaust, and provides an accessible lens for viewing genocide—including those that have occurred more recently.
The Giver – Lois Lowry. Lois Lowry’s The Giver is often taught as a children’s dystopian novel, read aloud in elementary school classrooms across the nation. But, Lowry’s work also contains themes vitally important to the modern adult, especially concerning memory, interpersonal relations, and the role of government in controlling people’s lives. When 12-year-old Jonas, who lives in a seemingly utopian society, receives a unique career assignment, he begins to learn the real history of his world and ultimately makes a difficult choice to create his own destiny apart from the governmental system’s prescribed methods. His decisions, and their necessity in his world, provide great insight into our own challenges.
Things Fall Apart – China Achebe. It is wonderful that Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is taught in high school classrooms, but sometimes this prevents us from seeing it holistically, instead treating his work as defining a particular, singular perspective on the world rather than illuminating possibilities for understanding colonialism. Achebe’s chronicle of how things fall apart when white colonizers arrive in a Nigerian village offers implicit commentary about the Nigerian culture and about the colonizing culture, as well as the complications of navigating the intersections of these conceptions.
The Little Prince – Antoine de Saint-Expuéry. After reading Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince in high school English, I had a significantly different experience revisiting this work in college French. The somewhat biographical, somewhat fantastical, account of a pilot’s encounters and adventures with the Little Prince has a much less substantial plot compared to other books on this list, however, its themes are no less critical. The Little Prince teaches important lessons through the observations of a precocious child, suggesting paradigm shifts from traditional adult mindsets to a more dream-driven lifestyle. It’s a quick read, but a valuable one.
It’s time to head back to school, so this is the perfect time for a Storyline Slam about Adulting! Right after the first week of ASU classes, join Changing Hands Bookstore at their Phoenix location for another Storyline Slam focused on adulting life skills.
Ten storytellers (drawn at random) will have six minutes to tell their own stories based on the theme.
With crowd judges, prize money, and an hour of adulting stories, you won’t want to miss this latest installment of Storyline Slam!
Publisher: Dutton Books, 2014 Genre: Dystopian YA novel Pages: 320 Format: Hardback Buy Local My Rating: 4.5/5 stars
Feeling trapped as a hidden siren in the underwater world of Atlantia and forever recognized as the daughter of the beloved deceased leader Oceana, Rio Conwy is desperate to go Above. But her twin sister Bay unexpectedly chooses to go Above instead, without leaving an explanation. Heartbroken and alone, Rio is forced to find answers from the only family she has left—her mother’s sister Maire, the dangerous siren.
As Rio attempts to find out why her sister left and to get Above herself, she discovers secrets and truths about her family and herself, and the Divide system now separating her from Bay. Rio learns to recognize the strength in her own voice through unexpected ways as she unearths the past and determines her future.
Admittedly, Ally Condie is one of my favorite YA authors, so I was a little biased in favor of Atlantia when I chose it off the shelf. However, even for those unfamiliar with Condie’s other award-winning work, Matched, this stand-alone bestseller is sure to be a satisfying read. Though Rio’s story presents serious themes that are handled justly, the narrative retains a feeling of enjoyable entertainment throughout. In particular, the races in the deepmarket have a pleasantly exciting rhythm. The style of the narration flows and fits well with the subject matter, and the ending is appropriate without being unrealistic.
The romantic relationships in this book were paced well, although some of their dialogue and scenes came off somewhat stilted. The romance was the weakest narrative aspect for me personally. The dynamics between family members or friends felt more natural and engaging. In particular, I felt that the difficult decisions at the end for Rio and Bay were well structured, showing the progress and strength in their connection from the beginning when Rio’s world was ripped apart by Bay not explaining beforehand why she had to go Above.
I would recommend this book to any YA reader who enjoys page-turning dystopian fantasies with beautiful world-building and expert character development.
Looking for action and emotion amidst starkly realistic events? Come to Changing Hands Phoenix on Tuesday, August 6th at 7 p.m., where local Arizona author Faye Hamilton will be signing and speaking about her book, Rescue 12 Responding—a novel based off her decades of paramedic experience.
Hamilton’s book follows paramedics David and Jonathan, whose lives are profoundly impacted by a call about a drug overdose at a teenage party. Answering deep questions and provoking poignant memories from various characters, Rescue 12 Responding reveals the surprising depth of emotional complications and insights of paramedics.
Break out the cake, Dobby—it’s Harry Potter’s 39th birthday today! To celebrate, the girls in my house have been doing a Harry Potter book club, and it has been, in a word, fantastic. But we all know that eventually we will have to read Rowling’s last, “All was well,” at which point we will turn to these seven magical reads.
Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus is perfect for any fan of fast-paced and beautifully written fantasy. When our Editor-In-Chief lent me this book (which, incredibly, was originally a draft for NaNoWriMo), I had no idea how much I would enjoy escaping into the world of Celia and Marco in Le Cirque des Rêves. Its powerful imagery and sorcery are reminiscent of the Time-Turner complications with magic that Harry Potter encounters in his third year.
For fans of the later and darker Harry Potter books,The Red Queen is an explosive start to a now-famous young adult series that satisfies readers who enjoy court intrigue, unsteady relationships, and supernatural violence. A powerful protagonist, a glitteringly gory setting, and the swiftly changing loyalties and truths in the narrative make this book hard to read without immediately picking up the next of the series.
Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchantedfollows Ella of Frell in her quest to break her curse of obedience. This is potentially one of my favorite stand-alone fantasy novels, perhaps because it combines the complications of magic that resonate in the later parts of the Harry Potter series (particularly with Harry’s discoveries about prophecies, curses, and destinies) with the simplicity of action and strength of character that Harry shows from the beginning.
For fantasy readers who find themselves somewhat disappointed that dragons are only featured in a few (key, but brief) scenes of J. K. Rowling’s series, turn to Jessica Day George’s Dragon Slipperstrilogy that follows Creel in her enchanting journey through a fantasy full of delightfully personable dragons.
Readers who loved Harry Potter as “the Chosen One” will enjoy Jennifer A. Nielsen’s The False Prince, where an orphan thief named Sage confronts his identity and potential in a fantasy kingdom. Nielsen’s Ascendance Trilogy deals with many of the same themes found in Harry Potter’s encounters with navigating fame and accepting responsibility.
Gwendolyn Clare’s Ink, Iron, and Glassbuilds an engaging fantasy world of scriptology where Elsa learns to navigate reality while understanding the power of the written word. Her realizations about truth mirror Harry’s encounters with Umbridge’s lesson, “I must not tell lies,” in his fifth year, as well as his learning how to sift fact from fiction in Rita Skeeter’s Dumbledore biography in the seventh book. Clare’s book is perfect for Potter fans!
Last but not least, Brandon Mull’s Five Kingdomsseries has perfect action scenes for those readers who loved the various encounters that Harry and his friends had with magical creatures—including trolls and spiders. Sky Raiders is full of Cole’s adventures that are enthralling like Harry’s, and there are four more books to enjoy in the series!
Publisher: Doubleday Books, 2019 Genre: Fiction novel Pages: 283 Format: Paperback Buy Local My Rating: 4/5 stars
On hearing that their biologist father Dr. Ian Grey has died, estranged half-siblings Nolan and Elsa Grey reunite. They travel to his island research station and become acquainted with his team, the Reversalists, who study a duck species in an attempt to prove their theory of reverse evolution.
While learning about and searching for the “Paradise Duck” for which their father had been preoccupied, they also learn about their own “family of origin,” uncovering various layers of family secrets and complications. With flashbacks and foreshadowing, Hauser illustrates the complication that comes with determining how much of the past should affect the future.
To be honest, the first time I attempted to read this book, I failed to get through it. I think this is perhaps because I was not in the right frame of mind to make sense of Hauser’s web of themes and stylistic choices. The flashbacks and foreshadowing tell compelling backstories, but are also more complicated to read than a traditionally chronological narrative. I also particularly struggled with her decision to not separate dialogue with quotation marks. This made the conversational flow difficult for me personally to follow.
That being said, I felt like what redeemed this book was its layering of familial secrets, histories, and relationships. This made the characters feel real and the narrative more engaging. As a reader, I wanted the estranged siblings to find out more about their past which would help them to connect in the present. It was interesting to consider family dynamics in relation to the evolutionary theories posited in the novel.
I would recommend this book to adult readers who like learning about backstories, histories, and scientific theories—and who do not mind the absence of dialogue quotes.
Thanks to the author and publisher for providing an ARC in exchange for this honest and unbiased review.
From Memorial Day to Independence Day to Labor Day and everywhere in between, summer is the perfect time for fiction that explores what it means to be American! While it’s great to return to classics such as Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, Howard Fast’s April Morning, and Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage, not every American origin story centers on a white man in wartime. Here are six powerful classics that reflect the scope of our country’s diversity, showing the value of the past and the determination towards the future that unites Americans regardless of time period or background.
Amy Tan’s masterful The Joy Luck Club is a classic fiction novel that provides a realistic portrayal of American families. Beginning in China and continuing in San Francisco, the Joy Luck Club meets weekly to play mahjong. When its founder, Suyuan, passes away in the 1950s, her daughter Jing-mei is confronted with the truth about her mother’s complicated past. Jing-mei’s feelings of inadequacy in telling her mother’s story are echoed by the other daughters of the club members, as being raised in America gave them markedly distinct experiences than that of their mothers. Told in a series of linked shorter accounts, the book gives us a glimpse into the cultural and generational conflicts with immigrant mothers and American-raised daughters. This novel offers a powerful definition of being American: how—instead of abandoning of the past—the American spirit is strengthened by retaining cultural heritage while still moving forward.
Mexican-American Esperanza may only be twelve years old, but that does not keep her from having big dreams and being determined to leave her family’s poverty in the past. As she matures and undergoes traumatic experiences throughout the year, Esperanza’s story provides a real, raw look into the racial segregation, financial difficulties, and physical challenges that many Americans on the fringe experienced in the late 1950s, just as Esperanza did where she lived in a poor Chicago neighborhood. Esperanza’s learning to balance cultural heritage and personal progression to help others exemplifies a critical dichotomy in true Americanism.
Octavia Butler’s Kindred follows Dana, a 26-year-old black woman in California in 1976, and her literal connections with her past as she interacts with her ancestors in slavery in the early 1800s in Maryland. She makes difficult choices and experiences the atrocities of slavery in a personal way, made more poignant by comparison to her white husband’s treatment. Dana’s cross-century experiences of taking control of her life in the face of misogyny and racism prove the persistence of the past in the attitudes of the present, providing a vivid perspective on these periods in American history that is often overlooked.
Jim Burden reminisces on his experiences with his childhood friend, Ántonia Shimerda, who came with her Bohemian immigrant family to Nebraska in the 1880s. From teaching her English as children to visiting her with her own children decades later, Jim’s account of Ántonia’s life, especially in comparison to his own, does credit to both the lifelong friends. Ántonia’s actions throughout demonstrate her remarkable tenacity of spirit with the balance of remembering history while moving forward. Willa Cather’s masterpiece, My Ántonia, shows how—even with all the complications of her past experiences—Ántonia fully and truly embodies American values.
Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man begins and ends with the unnamed narrator hiding from the world underground saying he is invisible. Pondering Louis Armstrong’s lyrical question, “What did I do to be so black and blue?”, the African-American narrator tells the story of his life, from youth to college to employment centered in 1930s Harlem, where he continually experienced the invisibility that resulted from others’ conscious choices not to see him. This bitterly reflective classic points out that keeping the American spirit moving forward should not come at the expense of forgetting the more complicated parts of our past or ignoring the reminders of those circumstances that surround us.
And finally, perhaps the most classic of the list—Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, with its famous heroine Scarlett O’Hara in 1861 Georgia before, during, and after the Civil War. Scarlett is not at all the typical protagonist for a Civil War novel, nor is she the typical Southern Belle. With her quick thinking and perseverance, Scarlett never gives up despite all the challenges she encounters, and to the less-than-happy end she retains her determination, representing the true American spirit.
All readers are just one step away from being writers. If you’ve ever thought about being a writer but you aren’t sure how to make your dream into a reality—or even where to start—a panel of newly-published writers are coming to Changing Hands to explain how they went from dreamers to achievers!
Being the Phoenix chapter of the national women’s writing organization, Sisters in Crime, the Desert Sleuths panel is made up of local, published authors ready to support you in your writing dreams.
Find more information on Changing Hands’ website here!
Location: Changing Hands Phoenix, 300 W. Camelback Road, Phoenix