Book Review

Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover

Publisher: Random House
Genre: Autobiography, Memoir
Pages: 352
Format: Hardcover
Buy Local

Summary

Growing up in a remote area of beautiful Idaho may seem like a dream come true. But for Tara Westover, the remote location mirrored her own isolation, both in beliefs and in terms of those she could relate to.

Born into a family of devout Mormon extremists and survivalists, Tara was not allowed to take medicine, have a valid form of personal identification, or even attend school. Moments that might have been spent learning how to read were instead needed to prepare for the inevitable doomsday that her family believed was quickly approaching.

My Thoughts

Tara’s journey—from a child unable to attend school to a young adult earning her PhD at the renowned Cambridge University—is filled with heartbreak, tears, and genuine happiness. The eloquent yet accessible nature of Tara’s writing style allows her readers to go through the journey of her young life with her. Even though her life experiences are likely vastly different from those of the majority of her readers, Tara has a way of telling her story that is innately human. Although most of her readers may not relate to Tara’s memories of things like being in a horrible car accident and then forbidden to go to the hospital for her injuries, themes like familial tensions and the struggle to find the meaning of one’s academic education will certainly resonate with many others. 

Educated is worth the read not only because Tara’s story is compelling, but also because it will positively leave readers with something long after they’ve closed the book—whether that be gratefulness for the opportunities education has afforded the audience or reflection on what life and education means to them. I encourage everyone to delve in as soon as possible, and I promise you won’t be able to put it down.

Book Review

Better Together by Christine Riccio

Publisher: Wednesday Books
Genre: Young Adult, Coming of Age
Pages: 448
Format: Hardcover
Buy Local
My Rating: 4/5 stars

Summary

If you’re looking for an extraordinarily unique, dark twist on a classic story, look no further than Christine Riccio’s Better Together. Jamie and Siri are sisters separated at a young age and completely devoid of contact for over a decade due to their parents’ nasty divorce.

In a twist of luck (or fate) the two sisters are reunited at the same “rediscover yourself” retreat and hatch a devious plan: the two will switch places and confront their respective parents.

However, not everything goes as planned, and it’s going to take a lot more than switching places to understand each other, find themselves, and ultimately face the complexities of family.

Thoughts

It has been almost a year since my very first post with The Spellbinding Shelf where I discussed one of my favorite young adult novels, Again but Better by Christine Riccio. Now, coming full circle, I decided to review her newly released second novel, Better Together. While very witty, I have to admit that initially I was not completely sold on the plot—mostly because it wasn’t my usual type of young adult novel. The whimsical magic reminiscent of The Parent Trap and Freaky Friday are classically engaging, but I was not as enthused with those themes. Perhaps due to my hesitancy, I ended up being disengaged, and the combination of short and rather uneventful chapters left me searching for more.

Despite some of these shortcomings, I was pleasantly surprised with Riccio’s capability to take a traditionally lighthearted storyline and investigate the twisted, dark, and traumatizing difficulties of divorce, dysfunctional families, and the impact of parents’ choices on their children. Indeed, there were moments in the book where, while I was craving more action, I couldn’t ignore the insight and attention to how both Jamie and Siri processed their emotional baggage. Riccio does an amazing job detailing the struggles of both characters who have completely different personalities and means of handling their past to move towards their future. There were multiple times in which I had to underline prominent messages or found myself laughing at the page as Riccio nicely combined comedy, romance, and sardonic tones with the seriousness of her overall topic.

Most importantly, Better Together was primarily written during the pandemic—a heaviness that is translated in its pages as the reader slowly feels the suffocation and eventual release of tension most everyone has felt over the past year. In this manner, I appreciated Better Together not only because of its mix of tragedy and comedy, but also its overall feeling of angst and the eventual, much needed, feeling of relief.

Book Review

We Do This ‘Til We Free Us: Abolitionist Organizing and Transforming Justice by Mariame Kaba

Publisher: Haymarket Books
Genre: Political Science, Essays
Pages: 240
Format: Paperback
Buy Local
My Rating: 4/5 stars

Summary

Educator, organizer, and curator Mariame Kaba collects seven years of essays and conversations on Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) abolition into one volume.

Kaba has been a foundational organizer in multiple prison abolition projects, including Survived and Punished (which helps free “survivors of domestic and sexual violence and other forms of gender violence who are imprisoned for survival actions”) and Project NIA (which aims “to dramatically reduce the reliance on arrest, detention, and incarceration for addressing youth violence”).

For those who were first introduced to PIC abolitionism last summer through #DefundThePolice, Kaba presents a holistic vision of the movement’s history, present, and future.

Thoughts

The modern theory and practice of PIC abolitionism grew out of the civil rights movement half a century ago. The movement’s roots, as the name implies, can be traced back to the slavery abolition movement that presaged the American Civil War. However, PIC abolition has been almost entirely excluded from mainstream conversations about the American justice system, until its ideas became central to the Ferguson uprising of 2014 and the George Floyd uprising of 2020. But as “Defund the Police”—the first demand of #8toAbolition—became a policy demand of a plurality of local Black Lives Matter organizations, the national news media were forced to suddenly contend with the work and vision of PIC abolitionists.

By the summer of 2020, Mariame Kaba had been writing about PIC abolition for a decade on her blog Prison Culture. I was introduced to PIC abolition through Kaba’s work, as were many other young abolitionists. She is a gateway for a new generation into the ongoing struggle for emancipation.

Kaba’s greatest strength, in my opinion, is the combination of her writing’s accessibility and her scrupulous care to cite the sources of her ideas. I often have trouble understanding works of political theory, but Kaba stubbornly refuses to deal in the abstract; every idea she presents is grounded in examples drawn from her work as an organizer. Likewise, each idea is attributed to the activists, organizers, and writers who provided her with its germ. ‘Til We Free Us thus functions as not only an introductory text, but an index of foundational PIC abolitionist writers (almost entirely Black women).

If you would like a taste of what this book offers, I’d recommend starting with Kaba’s June 2020 opinion piece for the New York Times, “Yes, We Mean Literally Abolish the Police,” which is also included in this anthology.

Book Review

The Anthropocene Reviewed: Essays on a Human-Centered Planet by John Green

Publisher: Dutton
Genre: Social Science, Essays
Pages: 304
Format: Hardcover
Buy Local
My Rating: 4/5 stars

Summary

John Green’s latest book is comprised of a series of essays describing and rating different aspects of the Anthropocene—the current geologic age— on a five star scale. Based on the podcast of the same name, The Anthropocene Reviewed tackles everything from humanity’s temporal range to the world’s largest ball of paint. At their core, these essays ponder the ways in which humans are profoundly and irreversibly shaping the world around us—and, by extension, how we too are being shaped by our actions and experiences in the modern age.

Thoughts

If you’ve visited our blog before, you’re no doubt familiar with our deep and abiding love of John Green. When the writer/Youtuber/ die-hard Liverpool fan announced that his latest book was going to be a non-fiction collection of essays, I’ll admit I was a bit disappointed. While I would be happy reading Green’s shopping list, his novels hold a special place in my heart. Nevertheless, I was pleasantly surprised by The Anthropocene Reviewed, and especially by the glimpse that it gave us into the author’s life.

Through Green’s novels, we’ve learned a great deal about the author himself. Looking for Alaska provided a backdrop for some of the personal events in his own life. Turtles All the Way Down delved into what it’s like living with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Green’s latest book is unique, however, in that his life is not being viewed through the lens of Pudge, or Aza, or Hazel. The stories and insights provided are unencumbered by narratives or characters, and the result is pure, unfiltered John Green.

Obviously, Green is no stranger to sharing personal information with his fans. Aside from his books and his website, he regularly engages with his fans on his Youtube channel, vlogbrothers, that he runs with his brother, Hank Green. Through all of these avenues, we’ve learned a great deal about Green’s life. His latest book differs however, in that it centers around opinions and musings that are deeply and intrinsically influenced by personal experiences. As a result, the author shares a great deal of personal anecdotes and stories about his life.

Another charming feature of this novel is found in its footnotes. I really enjoyed finding and reading the small print hidden throughout the front and back pages providing 5 star ratings about copyright and half-title pages. Beyond this, the back of the page also contains notes and sources for some of the facts and stories Green mentions in each essay. This feature is especially rewarding to the Green fans like myself who are continually amazed and baffled by the amount of diverse knowledge Green possesses about every aspect of human existence.

As a final note, I’d like to add that this book—while a wonderful read for anyone and everyone (since it concerns, well, humanity)—it might resonate more strongly with those who are already fans of Green’s work. I enjoyed seeing glimpses into the author’s early life and seeing connections between his personal experiences and his other novels, for example, which would not be as interesting to someone who knows nothing about John Green. Some of my personal favorite essays included those on our capacity for wonder, the movie Harvey, googling strangers, and Hiroyuki Doi’s circle drawings—all of which struck me as especially candid and earnest. I would recommend this book to any John Green fans, as well as those who enjoy learning obscure details about various facets of human existence.

Book Review

Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

Publisher: Ballantine Books
Genre: Science Fiction
Pages: 496
Format: Hardcover
Buy Local
My Rating: 5/5 stars

Summary

Ryland Grace has to save the earth. By himself. In space. And he doesn’t remember who he is.

Grace awakens onboard a spaceship many light-years and many literal years away from earth and from any other human. He has to learn not only who and where he is but why because Earth is in danger of being wiped out. Grace is their only hope for survival. And the clock is ticking.

Space is big. Really big. But Grace may not be as alone as he thought he was. With his unlikely partner and his memories slowly returning, he uses science to navigate his way through problems and challenges on an interstellar adventure filled with suspense, survival, and an unusual friendship.

Will he save Earth in time?

Thoughts

Project Hail Mary is my favorite book of the year. If you enjoyed Andy Weir’s 2011 novel The Martian, you will enjoy his newest novel Project Hail Mary published May 2021. Think The Martian meets Interstellar. There are a lot of welcomed similarities to his first novel: cheeky humor amid a grisly survival situation, lots of fascinating science, and a lone astronaut trying to survive. Except this time, it’s not the whole earth trying to save one astronaut—it’s one astronaut trying to save the whole earth.

The science Andy Weir weaves throughout the whole book is intriguing and complex, yet it is never overwhelming for novices or distracting from the story. Like in The Martian, the protagonist uses his expert knowledge to problem-solve and the science always moves the plot forward in exciting and page-turning ways. Project Hail Mary brings in microbiology, astrophysics, the theory of relativity, and even communication theory. Woven together are two storylines—the current events of Grace aboard his spaceship and revealing flashbacks back to earth of Grace in his memories.

Despite all the science, Project Hail Mary’s real story is about connection. I won’t share any spoilers, but I will say that the strange partnership—and real friendship—Ryland Grace makes on his adventure is one of the best parts of the novel. The friendship invites intriguing questions about language, communication, life, possibilities, and what it means to be human. Or not human. Despite all the science happening in the novel, the emotional story is what really shines in this novel.

In addition to the novel’s exploration of beyond-human connection, it’s also about connection with our own planet. Project Hail Mary is a piece of speculative fiction. Speculative fiction… well, speculates. What if this happened? What would we do? Even through imagined stories, speculative fiction theorizes about our current world. These “narratives” [are] concerned not so much with science or technology as with human actions in response to a new situation created by science or technology…speculative fiction highlights a human rather than technological problem.” Project Hail Mary is ultimately an optimistic story about saving the earth, which gifts the same optimism to readers living in a very real world with fears and anxieties about climate change and environmental collapse. This story gives us hope.

Book Review

Mara’s Awakening by Leo Flynn

Publisher: Leo Flynn
Genre: Science Fiction
Pages: 44
Format: e-Book
Buy Here
My Rating: 3/5 stars

Summary

Mara’s Awakening follows Mara Keres, a half-robotic peacekeeper who has fallen from grace. She has been kept in solitary confinement in a high security space prison for six years, but is finally released into the general prison population, her captors beliving she is finally broken.

Still a fighting spirit, Mara immediately teams up with her new cell mates, Ishali, a half snake man, and Mallory, a human woman with a secret, to escape the prison. However, that is easier said than done, especially since Mara has made some powerful enemies who would like to see her dead. But who exactly are these enemies, and what did Mara, a renowned peacekeeper, do to find herself surrounded by criminals and hunted at every turn?

Thoughts

Starting off with the good, I really enjoyed the mystery this story presents in regards to how Mara wound up a criminal. Throughout the story the reader is introduced to several people from Mara’s past, all of whom seem to have a great deal of vitriol towards her for quote “betraying them.” Likewise, Mara seems to believe that the government in fact betrayed her—specifically referencing a council that is implied to be in control of the entire galaxy. This framing provides an engaging dichotomy where the reader is unsure if Mara is indeed a criminal or if the government is behind something nefarious. This makes for a fascinating read where the reader cannot trust anyone and must piece together the story from context clues and hints in the dialogue.

A small detail I also enjoyed was how the author gave the main character a distinct way of speaking. Mara speaks with a twang in her voice that is reminiscent of the cockney accent. This distinction helps establish that Mara doesn’t belong, as she is the only character who speaks that way in the entire book. It isolates her from the rest of the world and really drives home how she is, in a sense, adrift and abandoned. I really appreciated how this detail was able to establish so much about Mara’s character without feeling forced.

However, where the book lost me was with the establishing of the setting. It’s important to note that this book is the first in a series of short stories that together tell the story of Mara. This means that the book had very few pages to establish the setting, the characters, and the plot for the entire series, and while the author did establish what the overarching plot of the book to be, the setting was underdeveloped. Through context clues the reader can determine that the prison is on some sort of spaceship, and that there are different species besides humans, but the overall universe where the characters live and the rules of said universe are left unexplained. This causes specific aspects of the book to feel disjointed and sudden. For example: when Ishali, the half-lizard man, is introduced the reader learns his species name, but not much else. The only way I was able to identify that he is a half-lizard man is by one sentence that references him having a lizard-like tail. However, the book doesn’t explain anything about his species nor does it clarify what they are, leaving me to guess that he is some sort of lizard-human hybrid. These disjointed pieces make the book feel like the first chapter to a book—which in a way it is—but since the next chapter would be found in the next book, it leaves the reader a little lost to the world where Mara’s Awakening takes place.

Overall, I loved the setup of the mystery and the characterization of Mara—especially in regards to Mara’s connection to the government—but was disappointed by the limited development of the setting. However, I do expect that the author will divulge more information in his second book, Mara’s Choice, so hopefully this limitation will correct itself with time. If you’re looking for a quick sci-fi read this summer with an excellent mystery and you don’t mind a little confusion, Mara’s Awakening is only 99 cents on Amazon and is definitely worth the read.

Book Review

Staff Writer Book Club

Publisher: Ember
Genre: YA Fiction, Psychological Thriller
Pages: 320
Format:
Paperback
Buy Local
Staff Rating: 4.5/5

This semester, we opted for safety and continued to hold our social event over Zoom. Last month, we all read E. Lockhart’s novel We Were Liars and then got together to share our reactions! We discussed the novel at length and wanted to share our thoughts with you.

Summary

Despite being published seven years ago, We Were Liars has been sweeping the internet these last few months. From the point of view of the protagonist, Cadence Sinclair Eastman, we are whisked into her world of summers on her grandfather’s private island. There, she joins her cousins, Johnny and Mirren, and family friend, Gat for the perfect summer. But with the aunts fighting and kids being stuck in the middle, it is anything but the idyllic summer they were hoping for. Without giving too much away, we can tell you that everything is not as it seems on this island in paradise.

Thoughts

This novel was full of surprises and we couldn’t wait to go through all of them. While, for some of us, it wasn’t the first time reading it, we all found ourselves shocked at the turn of events. Those of us who had read it before pieced together the clues until our memory was jogged, and for those of us who didn’t know what was coming, it was mind-blowing. Our Staff Writer, Lauren said that while she was reading it for the second time, she “really appreciated how much the narration influenced the story and how events are revealed.” Personally, I hadn’t read the novel before and it was one of those moments where you have to stop reading and close the book because you can’t believe it.


Aside from the gripping storyline, the way Lockhart describes people and scenes is mesmerizing—her word choice truly carries you through the novel. We discussed some of her attention to detail in depth and something we pinpointed was that she very thinly walks the line of literal and metaphorical, so much so that there are spaces where the events feel real but with further context turn out to be metaphorical. Our Managing Editor, Jade, explained that she “loves the way that Lockhart explains the characters with the same symbols every time and how the repetition plays so heavily into the plot.” Lockhart truly has a way with words which couples beautifully with unfolding of the plot.


It’s hard to say specifics without giving away the plot, but know that you’re in for a treat if you pick this novel up.

Book Review

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Publisher: Penguin Books
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 416
Format: Paperback
Buy Local
My Rating: 3/5 stars

Summary

In Gail Honeyman’s debut novel, she details the story of Miss Eleanor Oliphant, a 29-year-old intelligent, witty, and independent woman living in Glasgow, Scotland. Eleanor sees the world, and her very existence, as a very private routine that—if kept in order—would allow her to maintain an acceptable and satisfactory life. But Eleanor’s idea of normal quickly crumbles away when she meets her new best friend, Raymond, and experiences human connection like never before.

With every new social interaction comes a fresh internal perspective for Eleanor. Experiences that may seem trivial to the more extroverted person push Eleanor outside of the emotional and physical boundaries that have bubbled around her for so long. These moments test the initial beliefs she held about her life habits and the constructs of her own identity. Seen as a modern Jane Eyre, you will at the very least come to admire the beautifully raw character that is Eleanor Oliphant.

Thoughts

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine proved to be both an entertaining and heartfelt novel that puts you through a rollercoaster of emotions. You will encounter sweet and charming moments contrasting with painful awkwardness, topped by a heart-aching sadness for Eleanor’s history and struggling emotional state.

At first read, you might find Eleanor to carry a distant persona with her unique family history and perspective on life. Yet, as you get deeper into the story, you will empathize with the darkest bits of fear, doubt, and shame that in reality is not easily or regularly voiced to others, but ultimately proves to be a big part of Eleanor’s existence.

Gail Honeyman offers an authentic angle on the realities behind trauma, solitude, and friendship through a narrative laced with unspoken grief. She reflects on what it is like to live in a time where an individual can be surrounded by hundreds of people, either physically or online, and still feel overwhelmingly alone. Honeyman illuminates how this loneliness can be overcome with the support of friends or family and a strong individual will to not just survive, but live freely and with an open heart.


Guest post courtesy of Adrianna Ortero

Book Review

Revisiting ‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King

Publisher: Anchor
Genre: Horror
Pages: 672
Format: Paperback
Buy Local
My Rating: 5/5 stars

Summary

‘Salem’s Lot is still a popular horror novel, despite being published in 1975, a fairly long time ago. For that reason, I believe that it’s appropriate to write a review and revisit this renowned novel that Stephen King regarded as one of his favorites. I hope it inspires you to either read this classic for the first time, or—if it’s been a while since you’ve read it—to dust it off and dive back in. 

At its most basic level, ‘Salem’s Lot is a horror novel about vampires. It takes inspiration from vampire stories such as the infamous Count Dracula, but is far more modern in terms of writing about vampires as they infiltrate regular society, largely inconspicuous until the living start to pay closer attention.

However, upon a closer glance, the novel all is not what it seems on the surface. In fact, vampires aren’t even suspected for at least the first 100 pages. Instead, the focus is on the introduction and development of the characters. Their stories are what carry the novel and make it important and a worthwhile read. As King often does in his books, there are underlying themes woven intricately into the subplots and characters that require closer attention from the readers—mirroring the relationship between the vampire, Kurt Barlow, and the protagonist, Ben Mears (joined by the townspeople). As Mears and some of the townspeople join forces to defeat the vampire infestation, much is learned about the characters and their pasts. 

Even though the vampires are supposed to be the antagonists of the story, it could be argued that the real antagonist is the pressure of living in an idyllic town, and the damage that can be done by burying some of the traumas that the townspeople feel are better left unsaid, due to the importance of maintaining the town’s ‘squeaky clean’ image. 

That being said, there is a reason King is regularly associated with the horror genre. While there are more tender, human, components of the novel, the concept of the undead comes alive within the novel, and it is equally engaging. King stays true to traditional vampire lore, complete with nods to garlic and holy crosses. However, pairing these stereotypes with a rural North American town setting make it both modern and haunting.

With everything from scares to keep you up at night to well developed characters you’ll fall in love with, ‘Salem’s Lot is, without a doubt, a novel both worth reading for the first time or dusting off after a long hiatus.

Book Review

A Taste of Honey by Kai Ashante Wilson

Publisher: Tor.com
Genre: Fantasy
Pages: 160
Format: Paperback
Buy Local
My Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Summary

In this queer fantasy romance, Aqib bgm Sadiqi, son of a lesser noble in the court of Olorum, falls hard for Lucrio, a Daluçan soldier in the city as part of a trade delegation. Their love burns quick and bright, both knowing that each moment together is precious. All too soon the treaty will be signed, and Lucrio will be called back home. But they must also be careful, for the religion of Aqib’s forefathers does not approve of their union.

While kings and gods negotiate the future of their nations, Aqib and Lucrio negotiate their own futures in a treaty no less monumental for all that it defines—not relations between kingdoms and empires, but only between their two hearts.

Thoughts

The wonderful thing about short books is that you can read them in one sitting, and ever since Tor.com decided to start publishing novellas (one of the most underappreciated literary forms, in my humble opinion) I’ve been on the hype train.

A Taste of Honey is Wilson’s second novella from the imprint, set in the same world as his debut The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps. Tonally, however, the two books could not be more different. Sorcerer was a tour de force of experimental fantasy: a traditional sword-and-sorcery story with a non-linear narrative structure, and a masterful use of layered, naturalistic dialect. Imagine my surprise upon picking A Taste of Honey to discover an aching summer romance, full of queer longing and forbidden love.

Honey is in many ways a more casually approachable work than Sorcerer. This was a purposeful decision on the part of Wilson, who wrote in his essay “A POC Guide to Writing Dialect in Fiction” that “Many people won’t read even gorgeously written dialect—cannot, in the first place, perceive the beauty in it.” Therefore he toned-down the dialect in his second work, though he notes that Honey is still “deeply although subtly spiced with it.” His experiments with form, on the other hand, have been—if anything—heightened. The warp and weft of interwoven past and present give the book an almost dreamlike quality, imbedding the reader into a diachronic character study of Aqib bmg Sadiqi.

Aqib’s personal turmoil takes center stage in Honey. I’m not ashamed to say this book made me cry as Aqib’s thorny relationship with his family tore its way through my heart. (Don’t worry though, Ashante knows better than to violate romance’s sacred trust of the happily ever after).

And Lucrio—sweet Lucrio—is just about the best Prince Charming I’ve ever encountered in print. If you fall hopelessly in love with storybook characters (as I do), be prepared to go head over heels for this strong and gentle Daluçan soldier.

I recommend this book whole-heartedly. You would be hard pressed to find a more intimate portrait of tragedy, romance, and longing in a smaller package than A Taste of Honey. Come spend a chilly winter evening warmed by love and the light of the Olorum summer sun.