Book Review

Dear Emmie Blue by Lia Louis

Publisher: Atria/ Emily Bestler Books
Genre: Fiction, Romance
Pages: 320
Format: Hardcover
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My Rating: 4/5 stars

Summary

Dear Emmie Blue tells the story of Emmeline Blue as her life falls to pieces. When she was 16, Emmie released a balloon with a secret written on it, only for it to wash up on a distant shore and introduce her to her best friend, Lucas. Now in her twenties, she is hopelessly and irretrievably in love with Lucas, and thinks he is finally going to ask her out—only for him to announce that he is getting married. To make matters worse, Lucas wants Emmie to be his “best woman,” prolonging and magnifying her anguish. From her dead-end job, distant mother, and aloof landlady, Lucas’s engagement is the last straw for Emmie.

Despite all the loneliness and heartache, however, wonderful things are in store for Emmie Blue. Lia Louis’ novel pays homage to the idea that life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans, and reminds us that unexpectedly wonderful things could be waiting just around the corner.

Thoughts

I don’t know about you, but this year has been a doozy for me. This was a book that I desperately needed to help me cope with this unpredictable—and sometimes depressing—world we’re living in. This might seem to be an odd sentiment, given that Emmie faces heartbreak and calamity for a decent portion of the book. I would argue, though, that a book with a certain amount of despair is fitting, given the current state of things (so long as all ends well). While Louis undoubtedly forces the reader to empathize with the protagonist, there is a certain hope found in seeing a character continue pressing on, even when things look bleak.

I think a great deal of charm in this novel comes from Emmie Blue herself. She manages to be strong and fragile, resilient and weary, all at once. More so than this, you truly feel for her throughout the book. Especially when she divulges the details of a sexual assault in her youth, and wrestles with her broken relationship with her parents, you can’t help but root for her. It’s hard to not be in Emmie’s corner, especially concerning her relationship with Lucas—a kismet meeting if ever there was one. Both Emmie and us as the reader see these two as so obviously destined to be together, and it’s beyond frustrating that they aren’t. Even characters that I didn’t find very likable, such as Rosie and Marie, were appreciated insofar as they related to Emmie.

Dear Emmie Blue is an important reminder that life is unpredictable, and that sometimes that’s the best thing about it. If everything stayed the same, there would be no way for things to get better. It’s a cheesy sentiment, sure, but true nevertheless. The only complaint I had about this book comes from the predictability of the ending, but I would argue that even this lends a certain charm—knowing how something ends doesn’t make the journey any less meaningful, right? I would recommend this book to anyone who needs a mental reset, or a reminder that there are sunnier days ahead.


Thank you to Changing Hands Bookstore for providing an ARC
in exchange for this honest and unbiased review.

Book Review

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins

Publisher: Scholastic Press
Genre: Science Fiction
Pages: 517
Format: Hardcover
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My Rating: 4.5/5 Stars

Summary

As I’m sure many of you know, this novel is the prequel to the Hunger Games series. It is set 63 years before Katniss’ Games and follows President Snow, known at this time as Coriolanus Snow.

Snow is only 18, and his family is facing hard times as the effects of the war play out. The story begins the morning of the reaping for the 10th annual Hunger Games. Snow is determined to get into University, and needs to mentor a winning tribute to help solidify his spot. The odds are not in his favor when he is assigned the girl tribute from District 12.

Much to his surprise, his tribute wows the crowd all on her own. Determined to win, no matter the cost, Snow takes a chance on her. He grows close to her as their fates are largely intertwined in a game unlike any before, leaving him to wonder, was it all worth it?

Thoughts

There were a lot of mixed expectations towards this novel—some people were upset that President Snow was getting a prequel when he was very clearly a terrible person. While I would love a prequel about Finnick or Mags, I also love a good villain origin story and couldn’t wait for this novel to come out. The moment I saw it on the shelf at Target, I ran to pick it up and, honestly, it exceeded my expectations.

I fully expected it to be a story that showed Snow as an empathetic, caring person who was turned sour by a negative experience. Without giving too much away, I can say the story subverted my expectations completely. While he certainly did not have the upbringing I expected, his goal was always clear. Various obstacles were thrown in his way, all adding to his character but never wavering his stance. In that way, the star of the story is the first person point-of-view. His actions and his thoughts are so different at times, if we weren’t constantly in his head, that we would have no idea. It appears that from a young age, Snow mastered the art of performance. While he certainly isn’t an admirable character, he sure is an interesting one. The connections between his actions and circumstances in this novel, to that in original Hunger Games novel are beautifully done and I loved finding them laced throughout. I had more ah-hah moments than I can count!

The only reason I didn’t give this novel a full 5/5 stars is because of the ending. There was one unanswered question that I still haven’t found the answer to, which caused some of the ending to feel anti-climatic. It is too small of a detail, though, for me to not highly recommend all Hunger Games trilogy lovers give it a read.

Even if you absolutely despise President Snow, this will be a treat for you. I truly hope it becomes a movie soon so I can enjoy it all over again!

Book Review

Again, But Better by Christine Riccio

Publisher: Wednesday Books
Genre: Contemporary, YA Fiction
Pages: 384
Format: Paperback
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My Rating: 4.95/5 stars

Summary

Written by well-known BookTuber Christine Riccio, Again, But Better is a story for anyone needing encouragement to find themselves and gain the confidence to live in the moment. The novel follows shy and awkward Shane, a 20-year-old pre-med major who decides to spend a semester in London on a limb. As Shane begins her semester abroad, she is determined to essentially re-do her college experience—this means not overthinking, being more outgoing, and having the confidence to go after her dream and her crush. However, as Shane begins to explore new experiences, she is constantly torn between her desire to be a writer and her parents’ expectations of medical school. When these two forces collide, Shane has a decision to make—but will she make the right one? Riccio frames the story so that we are not just reading about Shane’s development, but we begin to understand that everyone is just trying to find themselves. In the end, Riccio shows us that with some courage, faith, and strength we can live up to our personal expectations and desires, and that ultimately anything is possible.

Thoughts

I originally picked up this book because I strongly resonated with the description of Shane. I thought it was unique that a young adult novel focused on a 20-year-old rather than the typical 16–18-year-olds. Shane’s age, as well as the internal conflicts she deals with throughout the novel, is a subject that was close to my heart—Again, but Better is about a college student trying to find who they are and who they want to be, and I think this is something everyone can relate to, especially college students. The novel is great because the reader can feel the anxiety and struggle Shane experiences, but the struggles of the other characters are also evident. There is a beautiful balance in seeing not only how we can be consumed by our own worry, but also the great comfort of knowing everyone is sharing this experience.

One of the aspects which I greatly appreciated was how Riccio doesn’t sugarcoat the fantasy of having a crush or the fear associated with going outside your comfort zone. The initial interactions between the characters is awkward—especially as Shane describes not knowing how to stand in front of her crush, or not initially “clicking” with one of her roommates. The evident anxiety within Pilot (the male protagonist and Shane’s love interest) in making an incorrect decision is one which almost everyone can relate to, and Riccio doesn’t represent this agony as simple. People are oftentimes represented to us from what we outwardly see, but this book makes a good point in showing that what we outwardly express isn’t what we always are; it links the perception of who we are on the outside to who we want to be on the inside.

Above all else, I loved how the central idea of the novel wasn’t consumed with the notion that if Shane only finds “love,” she will inevitably find herself. The romance within the book adds exceptional flavor, but it is in no way the main course. Rather, Riccio chooses to emphasize Shane’s discovery of herself in a time separate from Pilot. It is a book that goes beyond the stereotypical “find love and find yourself” narrative, but really focuses on the development of the characters and the development of yourself as a reader. This concept is so refreshing in a young adult novel.

Again, But Better is a fast-paced and personal read for those who want something lighter, but still deeply meaningful. No matter who reads it, the themes and development of the characters is something that can resonate with everyone. We overthink, we get discouraged, and we let others expectations of ourself get in the way of what we really want. The second half of the book allows the reader to acknowledge Shane’s mistakes and see where we ourselves tend to slip up. We see her struggle, and the struggles of those around her, as we try to navigate the world in relation to others and ourselves.

If you enjoyed Again, But Better, author Christine Riccio created a Spotify playlist to accompany the novel that can be found here!


Guest post courtesy of Lauren Kuhman

Book Review

Horse Crazy by Sarah Maslin Nir

Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Genre: Memoir/Nonfiction
Pages: 291
Format: Paperback
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My Rating: 4/5 stars

Summary

Horse Crazy is an exciting look into the world of horse lovers. In this tribute to these free-spirited animals, Nir explains her deep love for horses and how they have shaped her life, and the lives of many people across the globe. From Nir’s Jewish upbringing under the care of emotionally distant parents to her world travels as a journalist, Nir describes the way horses allowed her to feel accepted. She uses this book as an opportunity to express just how much animals impact our lives. Although the narrative is built around her personal experiences, Nir also explores the importance of horses in other cultures by acknowledging the different beliefs and practices surrounding horses in communities around the world. Ultimately, Nir shows her readers the way animals help us connect despite our differences.

Thoughts

Horse Crazy impressed me with its ability to simultaneously teach and entertain me. Nir’s experience as a journalist really shines through in this work. I was surprised to find myself feeling as if Nir had let me into a secret world—both in her personal experience as the child of a Holocaust survivor and the tight-knit world of horse lovers. Her blend of personal narratives and informational advocacy for the humane treatment of animals made the book consistently engaging. Horse Crazy was the perfect summer read. I would recommend this book to anyone who is an animal lover or who is looking for a lighthearted read.


Thank you to Changing Hands Bookstore for providing an ARC
in exchange for this honest and unbiased reviews.

Book Review

Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan

Publisher: Ecco
Genre: Contemporary, LGBTQ+
Pages: 242
Format: Paperback
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My Rating: 3/5 Stars

Summary

In Exciting Times, Ava, Dublin born and bred, finds herself in Hong Kong teaching English to elementary school students while searching for happiness. When petulant roommates threaten to destroy her sanity, Julian, a wealthy financier, offers her the chance to live a much swankier life than her teacher salary can afford. More companions than romantic partners, they enter into an undefined relationship that Ava continually struggles to decipher and maneuver. When Julian goes out of town for work, Ava meets Edith, a Hong Kong lawyer. Edith upsets the strange balance, leading Ava to question her whole relationship with Julian and ultimately her own identity.

Thoughts

With a title like Exciting Times, I had page-turning high hopes, but overall the novel didn’t necessarily live up to the hype for me. I found myself frustrated with its central group of characters (although that could have been Dolan’s intent). I did agree with the back cover’s assessment of Ava having a cold personality—which is evident in some of her interactions with students and colleagues. However, I did not find Julian all that “witty”; his indifference and callousness with Ava is deflating. The appearance of Edith, the Hong Kong lawyer with whom Ava becomes fixated, gives the novel some drama, as she delivers where Julian cannot in terms of affection and commitment. For me however, the love triangle never quite takes off in a way that is very satisfying. 

Dolan’s use of the characters’ careers as plot devices is fascinating. Her dive into the world of finance through Julian’s career was interesting to the point that I actually had to look up certain industry jargon. The peek into Ava’s career teaching grammar to Hong Kong children is also a fun aspect of the novel. This could have a lot to do with the fact that I am studying to be an English teacher, however the little “lessons” that Dolan interweaves into Ava’s inner monologues nicely punctuate certain scenes. 

Dolan’s commentary on social class is also interesting, as the reader vividly experiences Ava’s struggle with fitting into Julian’s crowd of friends and colleagues. Their differences are not just financial, and Ava is made painfully aware of this during the course of their relationship. Anyone who has dated outside their tax bracket will find her dilemma relatable.

Ava deals with these insecurities and doubts by engaging in a quirky habit of composing text and email messages that she never intends to send. She reveals her true feelings through these “drafts” and they make for some of the more humorous areas of the novel. Dolan makes the choice to use an “accidental” transmission of one of the messages as a plot device, and it is effective in revealing Julian’s continued indifference. 

The novel spends a lot of time inside Ava’s head, as she battles her own good judgement to leave what is ultimately a toxic, unfulfilling relationship. Ava’s opportunity for growth, I believe, was stunted despite all of her rumination, and when the novel concludes, she hadn’t really learned much about herself.


Thank you to Changing Hands Bookstore for providing an ARC
in exchange for this honest and unbiased review.

Book Review

Blackwood by Michael Farris Smith

Publisher: Little, Brown, and Company
Genre: Fiction
Pages: 304
Format: Hardcover
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My Rating: 4/5 stars

Summary

Red Bluff, Mississippi has both literally and symbolically been transformed by the kudzu vines that creep ever forward. This town provides the landscape for characters such as Colburn, a sculptor who was returned to his hometown vaguely searching for answers about his traumatic childhood; Myer, the older lawman who desperately believes that there is good left in Red Bluff; Celia, the bartender; and a family of vagrants who care little for one another.

These startlingly human characters all meet in Red Bluff and they are all impacted by the town itself—struggling against it, the encroaching kudzu, and themselves. Regret, violence, and hatred mark the landscape and make you wonder if any good can be found in Red Bluff at all.

Thoughts

This Southern gothic’s primary strength and weakness is its prose. I have never read a book that is written in quite this style before and I enjoyed it immensely. Its fragmented sentences create a frenzied sense of urgency while at the same time lengthening and slowing down the story, almost placing it in a realm outside of time. I read this book rapidly, even though each of the minutes spent reading it felt much longer than they should. The only issue I found is that this style lacks clarity. While this seems intentional on Smith’s part (since the style mimics the landscape itself), I did find myself having to reread passages to truly understand what was happening (or, at the very least, who was speaking).

Throughout the novel, Smith describes the “brutality of indifference.” The kudzu swallows towns without caring what it harms or who it leaves behind, Colburn struggles to find meaning and purpose, and the vagrant family who moved to Red Bluff is so marked by indifference that they barely even know their own names. These are the things that cause the most pain in the novel. I found it refreshing that the evil that lurks in the town is not malicious but rather apathetic, because I rarely read books that frame wickedness in this way. 

As someone who grew up in a small town—though not quite as small as Red Bluff—I can definitely relate to the apathy that can often permeate throughout them. I loved reading about a small town that was filled with such an evil caused by indifference because I have observed that for my entire life. It was a refreshing take on small towns, since most of what we read about them either glorifies the experience or asserts that they are filled with bad or crazy people. The people in Blackwood were not evil, but rather apathetic and stuck. However, the relationships that you form with others can still be meaningful despite all of this, something that the novel captures excellently.

I definitely recommend this novel to fans of gothic literature, people who grew up in small towns, and to people who are looking to reading something different and interesting!


Thanks to the Changing Hands Bookstore for providing an ARC in
exchange for this honest and unbiased review.

Book Review

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Genre: Thriller, Bildungsroman
Pages: 784
Format: Paperback
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My Rating: 4/5 stars

Summary

The Goldfinch follows thirteen-year-old Theo Decker, the son of a loving mother and reckless father. The young New-Yorker’s life is forever changed when he miraculously survives a terrible accident that kills his mother. Theo unwittingly steals a masterpiece from the museum where the tragedy occurred, and the captivating little painting provides a source of hope and comfort, as it reminds him of his mother. Theo is soon taken in by a wealthy friend, but he lives tormented by longing for the life he once had.

In adulthood, Theo’s stolen painting propels him deep into the art underworld, and he finds himself leading a double life as an antique dealer and as a con. He soon becomes entwined in a dangerous web of deceit, one that leaves him alienated and at risk of losing everything. Theo’s story is one of self-discovery, legacy, and the ways in which a single event can forever alter the course of our lives.

Thoughts

It goes without saying that Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch is a real page-turner—as the title suggests, the story largely revolves around an (accidental) art theft. The plot is brilliantly weaved together, and the reader is plagued with the same anxieties as the protagonist when it comes to the stolen masterpiece. Theo is a thoroughly interesting character to follow, in that his life is tinged with loss and continual sorrows, and the reader witnesses first-hand how these trials change him from a hopeful boy to a cynical adult. Theo also meets a host of interesting characters throughout the novel—from Pippa, an impish musician who was also present during the bombing, to Hobie, a kindly antique store-owner turned father-figure, the book is certainly not lacking in personality.

The only fault I found in this book comes from the way it tended to drag on in places. Some plot points (such as the time Theo spends with Boris, his bedraggled, drug-addicted friend) felt unnecessarily drawn out and did little to advance the plot. The only purpose I could see this serving would be to make sudden plot advances all the more jarring for the reader—you are lulled into a false sense of security, only to have the rug immediately pulled out from under you as the plot thickens.

One of the things I found most memorable about The Goldfinch comes from the fact that the message of the story doesn’t become apparent until the end of the book. Throughout the novel, I found myself (worriedly) wondering if the plot was building towards any meaningful revelations, and was delighted to find that Tartt did an excellent job of tying the events of the novel to universally contemplated aspects of the human experience (you know, for those of us who can’t personally relate to Theo’s dabbling in art theft). Of the many themes expressed, there is a beautiful message about our loving art because of the ways that loved objects take on a life of their own, as well as serving to connect us to some greater beauty. The novel also tackles ideas such as whether or not to follow a heart that can’t be trusted, the times when bad actions can still lead to good outcomes, and challenging the notion of free will. In short, Tartt poses some of the great questions that we as humans should be contemplating without necessarily giving us the answers. Instead, she plants seeds of thought and leaves you as the reader to ponder the subject yourself and arrive at your own conclusions.

Overall, this book is a vastly entertaining story about a young boy placed in increasingly despairing circumstances. Beyond this, however, The Goldfinch will be especially loved by those looking for a revelatory piece dealing with topics such as legacy, love, fate, and beauty.

Book Review

Seven Lies by Elizabeth Kay

Publisher: Penguin Random House
Genre: Thriller/Suspense
Pages: 335
Format: Paperback
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My Rating: 5/5 Stars

Summary

This novel follows best friends Jane and Marnie as they navigate adult life. The girls have been best friends since they were 12 and don’t know what a life without the other would look like. That is, until Marnie gets a boyfriend, Charles, whom Jane despises. When Marnie asks her if she likes him, Jane lies and says he is great. Jane’s one lie spirals into six more, each slightly worse than the last. Each one adds strain to a seemingly unbreakable friendship.
So when Charles dies, Jane is left wondering—if she didn’t tell that first lie, would he still be alive?

Thoughts

A lot can be said about the way in which a story is told, especially a retelling of events. Often, when we tell stories about ourselves, we subconsciously make ourselves seem better, or justified. Jane is the narrator of this story, meaning the recap of events we get is from her perspective. This allows the story to be extremely personal and unique, which I absolutely loved—it felt like sitting down with a friend and having them tell you a story. She wasn’t just telling the story, she was having a conversation with the reader. There were moments when she would directly address us to try and justify her actions. It made the story even more compelling and I found myself hanging on her every word. It forces the reader to look past the narrator and see her actions, good and bad, for what they are.

The story itself is extremely captivating. The narration style pulls you in, but the unfolding of events keeps you there. As each lie grows more intense, the reader is pulled further in until you are tearing through the pages to get to the end. While the things that take place seem impossible, they could happen to anyone; it makes us as readers contemplate the intentions behind our actions. We can often trick ourselves into thinking we are doing the right thing, but that doesn’t mean we’re fooling the people around us. Jane is the perfect character to remind us that even though we are the protagonist of our stories, that doesn’t make us perfect. It is often said that people will do anything for love, and Seven Lies reminds us that that includes platonic love, too.

Kay perfectly weaves suspense with heartfelt narration to create a novel that is sure to keep you on your toes. You never know what is around the corner and the end will leave you pondering this novel for days. I highly recommend it to anyone looking for a new book. It will be in stores June 16 and is available for pre-order from Changing Hands Bookstore here.


Thank you to Changing Hands Bookstore for providing an ARC
in exchange for this honest and unbiased review.


Book Review

Sharks in the Time of Saviors by Kawai Strong Washburn

Publisher: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 284
Format: Hardcover
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My Rating: 4/5 stars

Summary

The Flores family works hard to combat the poverty they face along with their fellow Hawaiians. The Big Island swarms with tourism and wealth, making it difficult for its residents to eke out a life amid high costs and few job opportunities. For Malia Flores and her husband, a miracle arrives when their youngest son, Nainoa, falls off a boat into shark-infested waters: the sharks swarm, but one of the largest takes Nainoa gently into its jaws and brings him safely back to the boat. The story spreads like wildfire across the island, especially when young Nainoa suddenly begins to show an uncanny ability to heal—a gift Malia attributes to mystical signs from the island preceding his birth.

Noa’s staus brings the family much-needed money, but, it also exacts a toll on the elder children. Dean excels at basketball, but has a penchant for trouble. Middle-child Kaui is fiercely intelligent, but nobody seems to notice. As the children become adults and the family drifts apart, Noa’s gift haunts each of them in different ways. Noa can’t content himself with the person he thinks he’s supposed to be, and his siblings blame him because their lives have been overshadowed by his gifts. When tragedy strikes, threatening to shatter the Flores family for good, the island begins to pull on each of them, leaving them to reconstruct their connection to their homeland and the magic of family bonds.

Thoughts

Sharks in the Time of Saviors is Washburn’s debut novel as well as a love letter to his native homeland. Hawaii is an irrefutable paradise, but sitting in the shadows of its jungle lies a people whose deep ancestral connection to their homeland is challenged by poverty and the relentless influx of Western culture. Washburn constructs this world carefully as both a place of struggle and of deep magic, characterizing Hawaii with a great beating heart. Aside from Noa’s miracle, the land itself weaves through each character with heavy roots, showing us how our homeland shapes us as much as our experiences.

Washburn does more than take us on a journey to his home, however. The characters Noa, Kaui, and Dean pulse with the frustration of trying to find themselves within the confines of Western culture, which has taken so much from them. Each sibling battles against the ancestral land that tethers them while they stake out their own identities. It’s a novel about both growing up and going home.

Beautifully written and sparkling with life, Sharks in the Time of Saviors is a stunning debut and a promising start to the career of a powerful new literary voice.


Guest post courtesy of Ryan Doskocil

Book Review

The New Girl by Harriet Walker

Publisher: Ballantine Books, May 19, 2020
Genre: Fiction
Pages: 293
Format: Paperback
My Rating: 4/5 stars

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Summary

As fashion editor for Haute magazine, Margot seems to have the glamorous, picture-perfect life of any girl’s dreams. Looking forward to deepening her relationship with her oldest friend Winnie through their shared experience of pregnancy, Margot prepares and looks to the future, even handpicking her maternity replacement, Maggie.

But when Winnie’s baby dies, their friendship falls apart as Winnie rejects Margot’s attempts to reach her. Margot spirals into negative cycles of neuroses as she grapples with her repressed trauma from an accident years before, her fears of her own baby’s death, paranoia that Maggie is too good of a replacement in her job, and the intense pressure from a social media harasser that seems to know a little too well how to jab her where it hurts.

Though focused primarily on Margot’s anxieties and struggles, this engaging thriller also contains scenes from Maggie and Winnie’s perspectives, as the three women’s lives become more progressively, and darkly, intertwined.

Thoughts

I picked up this book one evening intending to read for fifteen minutes before starting my homework—only realizing that I had forgotten about my homework hours later when I actually gasped out loud at the unexpected ending. Walker’s writing pulled me in immediately, and the characters felt so real I forgot I was reading until the very last pages.

Besides being totally gripping and engrossing, The New Girl also provides insightful glimpses into female insecurity, motherhood and career, and the effects of cyberbullying, among other subjects. By dusting the veneer off of an outwardly perfect life, Walker reveals the gritty reality of the anxiety of comparison and compulsion for her vivid characters.

With consistent pacing and a surprising ending, this page-turning debut would be good fit for those who like thrilling surprises, complex relationships, high fashion, and/or unreliable narrators.


Thanks to the Changing Hands Bookstore for providing an ARC in
exchange for this honest and unbiased review.