Book Review

A Woman Alone: Travel Tales From Around The Globe

Publisher: Seal Press
Genre: Non-fiction, Travel
Pages: 302
Format: Paperback
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My Rating: 4/5 stars

Summary

What is it about a woman traveling alone that sparks such mystique? From the camaraderie of a “ladies compartment” on a train bound for Bombay, to one writer’s passion for the vulgarity of Las Vegas, A Woman Alone: Travel Tales From Around The Globe explores both the exotic, and not-so-exotic parts of the globe from the perspectives of solo female travelers.

Students, scorned lovers, and ex-nuns share their stimulating experiences while exploring both the good and bad that comes from hitting the road. These women writers recall forming unexpected friendships in Belize, saying “yes” to surprising suggestions in Paris, teaching in mountain villages in Bhutan, and battling feral dogs.

Edited by Faith Conlon, Ingrid Emerick, and Christina Henry De Tessan, A Woman Alone documents the freedom, exhilaration, and even the danger and loneliness that can come from traveling without a companion. Told by a diverse group of women, these twenty-nine true tales capture the essence of travel whether it be by plane, train, or camel. 

Thoughts

The allure of heading into the unknown will surely have readers of this collection pining for the thrill of whatever adventure might lie around the next corner. I know that I was left with a strong urge to strap on a backpack, grab my passport, and make a mad dash for the airport! Written in inspirational, bite-sized chunks, this book kept me entertained during my own daily travels. 

What I found impressive was the diversity of the writers’ backgrounds, and their even more diverse reasons for wanting to go solo. While immersing myself in their stories it was easy to discover some kindred spirits. 

This collection also raises questions—and provides enlightening answers—about cultural differences and the sometimes surprising ways in which we interact with each other. While the concept of women traveling alone has become more commonplace since this book’s publication date of 2001, A Woman Alone still has the power to inspire those to strike out on their own.

Book Review

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

Publisher: Vintage
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 206
Format: Paperback
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My Rating: 5/5 stars

Summary

In her debut novel, The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison explores the undoing of a young black girl, Pecola, who cannot imagine herself as anything but ugly. The story is told by giving voice to members of the community as they experience Pecola’s story and by slowly unfolding the generational trauma done unto her family. Employing brilliant and beautiful language, Morrison explores the depths of poverty, sexual violence, cultural perception, and the vicious cycle of harm perpetuated by those who themselves are wounded.

Thoughts

From the first page, it is clear that Morrison has a power with her words that is unrivaled by most other writers. Equal parts poetic and challenging, this book has a way of slowly climbing back toward its central figure in the most gratifying ways possible. Even when exploring events that happened many years before Pecola’s birth, the book is always working to highlight another aspect of the harm that has been done unto her by her father and mother, her community, and herself.

While the subject matter is devastating, there is something that can be described as nothing less than joyful when reading Morrison’s work. Her deep vocabulary and creative license takes the reader far, and there is a sense that she is always in control. This, combined with the great empathy that pours out of this book for its characters, makes something that is spectacular to read and hard to put down.

If I had to say what my favorite part of reading this book was, I would say that it is the cast of characters that Morrison assembled to tell Pecola’s story. While what has happened to Pecola is enough to drive the novel all on its own, Morrison uses this instance to bring an entire community to life. In doing so, she paints a fuller picture of exactly what led Pecola to wander the streets muttering to herself.

While reading The Bluest Eye, it quickly became apparent why Morrison is so beloved. If you have not had the opportunity to read her work yet, there is no better time!    

Book Review

The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern

Publisher: Doubleday
Genre: Fantasy Fiction
Format: Hardback
Pages: 498
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My Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Summary

As with all good things, this story begins with a book. Zachary Ezra Rawlins, a mildly enthusiastic college student, is wandering through the shelves of his university library. He is searching, although he does not know what for, when he happens upon a book which is more than it seems. The book is old, unmarked and deliciously mysterious. Once Zachary begins to read, he cannot stop, because in its pages Zachary finds stories of pirates, and gatekeepers, and finally, himself.

The book describes the young man as he was in his childhood. It is a chronicle of a moment of magic when Zachary was offered passage into another world—a moment which he chose not to seize. The promise of the book is that this moment has not been lost, only postponed. It is this promise that propels Zachary through a painted doorway into a world full of wonder, a world in which a Starless Sea exists beneath the earth, on whose shores exist all the stories that ever were and that will ever be.

Thoughts

The Starless Sea is long-form love letter to books. It is collection of stories within stories, all neatly woven together with the thread of the main narrative, which the reader learns is yet another story in another book. There is some not so subtle subtext here concerning the nature of “Story,” and what that means to those who are passionate about it. In one of my favorite tangents, those who wish to protect and keep the treasures of the Starless Sea must pass a test in which they relate a story to a single person. Based on their performance they are deemed either worthy or not. This is an enticing prospect, and a call-to-arms of those (such as myself) that fancy themselves storytellers. Morgenstern blatantly states, if you do not love books, this one is not for you.

The powerful imagery immerses the reader in a magical reality outside of the mundane world. From the masquerade party where the attendees must dress as literary characters, to the underground quarters where any food you wish appears by means of an enchanted dumbwaiter, each scenario is finely crafted to enchant the lover of the unusual and fantastic. While there is little explanation as to the why of events, the richness that they offer renders this unnecessary. Why explain the realm of magic? The prose is lovely, full of metaphor, and unabashedly romantic.

For me, this books speaks with the voice of a kindred spirit. If the Reveurs of The Night Circus (Morgenstern’s first book) were my tribe, then this book is our destination. Were we all to go on a voyage, I am sure that we would set sail together on the Starless Sea. Of course, we would be traveling together on a boat crafted from heartwood of the Ancient Forest, with sails of silk woven from the hair of naiads and perfumed with the dew of night-blooming flowers. If this sounds like exactly the type of adventure that you would like to go on—one full of lovers, villains, and unlikely heroes—then this is the book for you. I would highly recommend it devotees of fantasy and bibliophiles alike. Curl up with a nice cup of tea and The Starless Sea and be prepare to be transported into a dream!

Book Review

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

Publisher: Doubleday
Genre: Literary Fiction/ Historical Fiction
Pages: 224
Format: Hardcover
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My Rating: 5/5 stars

Summary

In this novel, Whitehead examines the potential of youth and shows how corruption and injustice can so easily crush that potential. By all accounts, Elwood Curtis is a formidable young man—smart, curious, hardworking, and determined—he is even enrolled in college courses while he is still in high school. When Elwood is sent to the Nickel Academy for stealing a car to get to those classes, he finds that he will have to adapt to a harsh new reality if he wants to survive. Elwood discovers the strength to do so through his dedication to the works of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., which has engrained a deep sense of moral justice within him. At Nickel, however, injustice is bred into the very fabric of the institution.

Thoughts

What most entranced me with this book is the way in which Whitehead masterfully intertwines personal history with the history of an institution. Many chapters of this novel start like the slow panning of a camera until it zooms in on the narrative focal point. No words are wasted, though at times it can feel to the reader as if they are far from the places that the book has previously taken them. Many times I did not think that what I was reading could have anything to do with the Nickel Academy, and then the book would whisper in my ear “trust me.”

I did not feel the full weight of this book’s emotional impact until the epilogue. When I closed the book’s final chapter I was ready to give it a four star rating because I felt somewhat confused and dissatisfied. I could not have felt more different when I turned the final page of the novel. Hold on, this is an emotional and tumultuous ride worth seeing through to the very end.

Book Review

Crux: A Cross-Border Memoir by Jean Guerrero

Publisher: One World
Genre: Memoir
Pages: 320
Format: Hardcover
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My Rating: 5/5 stars

Summary

Sometimes, the only way to find yourself is to go back to your roots. In Crux, Jean Guerrero travels back four generations to understand her father, Marco Antonio, who has been absent most of her adolescence. She starts with her mother, Jeannette, and paternal grandmother, Abuelita Carolina, and proceeds to climb further up the family tree.

Diagnosed with schizophrenia, Marco sees sinister shadows that pursue him around the world when he tries to escape them by leaving his family behind.

Jean is shaped both by her mother’s unwavering dependability and her father’s desertion. She searches for answers in Mexico, her father’s birthplace, a country that holds as much enigma for her as an adult as it terrified her as a child.

Through a series of life-changing experiences, she finds herself at the edge of an age-old chasm and preparing for the crossing: the crossing across country borders, the crossing into lunacy, the crossing between life and death—amalgamated into one flickering fence.

Thoughts

Stretching as far back as the Spanish invasion of Mexico, it is a memoir that reads like a novel owing to the poetic symmetry of the events and characters. Guerrero captures quite a few of her unique experiences in this book along with an element of mysticism—presented with a commendably unbiased view.

Crux is clearly a product of meticulous research and a highly perceptive mind. It uses interviews and historic documents among others as its sources. The compilation of these into a coherent narrative could not have been easy, as first-hand accounts of the family’s lives in or before the early twentieth century were hard to come by. It is a fascinating read and I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in human psychology and/or ancient philosophy.


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

Book Review

Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer

Publisher: Anchor Books
Genre: Nonfiction
Format: Paperback
Pages: 240
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My Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Summary

In this nonfiction book, journalist Jon Krakauer uncovers the story of Chris McCandless, a young man from a successful family who donates his money, abandons most of his possessions, and adopts the name “Alexander Supertramp” on an adventure across the States and into the Alaskan wilderness north of Mt. McKinley.

Four months after his descent into the wilderness, a moose hunter found his body, and several news stories follow, stirring up public criticism about his supposed reckless behavior.

Krakauer follows clues to discover more about McCandless’ adventure and to answer the questions he has about this young man. What exactly was McCandless’ motivation? How should we understand his surprising death? What can we learn from his story?

Thoughts

My first interaction with the true story of Alexander Supertramp was not from Krakauer’s bestseller, nor was it from the 2007 award-winning movie adaptation. Instead, I learned about his legendary travels through my older sister Jessica, who adores this story so much that she begged our parents to stop by the famous Slab City and Salton Sea (which Chris McCandless visited on his journey) on the drive home from a vacation. 11 years old at the time, I hadn’t read the book or watched the movie, nor did I appreciate this lengthy detour in our already long drive. However, it proved extremely memorable, filled with bizarre creations and interesting caricatures, including Leonard, an artist of the desert.

Jessica and Leonard Knight, the artist behind Salvation Mountain who crossed paths with Chris McCandless

Now, almost a decade later, I’ve returned to the story with Krakauer’s book for a proper explanation of Chris McCandless…and a new understanding about why Jessica dragged us out an hour and a half into the middle of nowhere. (Jessica, I might not have been grateful for this detour at the time, but thanks for urging us to take this mini adventure while Leonard was still around!)

I enjoyed reading this book, not only for an explanation of this Slab City visit, but also for Krakauer’s excellent, detailed storytelling and writing style.

Krakauer’s Into the Wild is a book about a journalist’s interest in a young man’s adventure as much as it’s a story about McCandless’ travels into the wild. While it details clues about McCandless, it also provides a deep look into Krakauer himself as he reflects on why Chris’ story resonates with him so much. He even reserves two chapters to discuss his own story and the connections he feels it might have to Chris’ life.

Throughout the book, the author includes pieces of evidence to explain how he constructed an understanding of the Alexander Supertramp adventure: postcards, letters, a journal, photographs, book annotations, and several eye witness and family interviews. Later, when he tries to pinpoint the cause of Chris’ death, he even describes his encounter with researchers and critics as he explores different possible explanations. Since Krakauer unravels little pieces along the way, it sometimes reads more like a mystery than nonfiction, adding intrigue and a need to continue reading.

Each chapter begins with a passage, either from Krakauer’s own choosing or, in some cases, a passage highlighted in one of the books McCandless carried into the wild. Krakauer points out these highlighted passages to show a progression in the traveler’s ideology, ending in his famous scribbled annotation: “HAPPINESS ONLY REAL WHEN SHARED.” I found this detail extremely interesting, and, being a bookworm at heart, it makes me wonder if Chris would have drawn the same conclusion if he were carrying a different set of books with him into the wild. That is, was this revelation a discovery bound to occur from his life experiences, or were these books essential to creating this understanding?

Now that I finally took the time to appreciate a more concrete telling of McCandless’ story, I’m excited to watch the film, which gives more details about Leonard himself, to learn more about the Supertramp adventure.

If you’re not much of a nonfiction reader, it’s worth noting that the author’s prose often reads more like fiction than dry facts, which made Chris’ story beautiful and enjoyable to read. I’d recommend this book to any lover of nonfiction, adventure, or mystery.

Book Review

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

Publisher: Algonquin Books, 2014
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Format: Audiobook
Time Length: 7 hours, 2 minutes
Narrated by Scott Brick
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My Rating: 5/5 stars

Summary

With pitiful book sales, the theft of his most prized rare book, and the loss of his beloved wife, irritable A.J. Fikry begins to dread his life as the sole bookstore owner of Alice Island.

Soon though, a mysterious woman leaves a toddler in Fikry’s bookstore with a simple note: “I want Maya to grow up in a place with books and among people who care about such kinds of things. I love her very much, but I can no longer take care of her.”

As A.J. searches for Maya’s mother, befriends a local cop, and reaches out for childcare help, Fikry begins a journey of transformation that catches the attention of his local book readers as well as the eccentric Knightley Press sale rep, Amelia Loman.

Thoughts

I picked up an audiobook version of this novel after a good friend from our Spellbinding team recommended it to me. (Thank you, Payton, our lovely Managing Editor!)

Listening to this audiobook during my long commutes made me excited to drive to and from school. If you are not a local reader, I can assure you that traffic in the Phoenix area isn’t exactly a pleasant experience. Side effects include grumpiness, checking the time incessantly, boredom, and annoyance. While I might be dramatizing the state of Phoenix’s rush hour traffic, claiming that The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry made my commute enjoyable is, without a doubt, some high literary praise.

Aside from the immediate entertainment value, I adored this book for its narrator’s unabashed quirkiness and love for books. I felt as if I could befriend both A.J. and the book’s narrator, and I could see them fitting in well with the college and literary community here in Phoenix. There were murmurs of bookish preferences throughout the entire novel, from small praises of authors like Flannery O’Connor to an abrupt and hilarious quip about a well-known thriller author using a ghostwriter. Zevin is even comfortable and masterful enough to playfully poke fun at her story’s own intentional cliches.

On top of winning me over for its clear focus on books and the reading life, I easily fell in love with the novel’s main characters. When lovable characters were in pain, my heart sank; and when they triumphed, my heart soared.

I will say, some of the plot was fairly predictable, but certainly not in a disappointing way. It was more a mark of good craftsmanship, as Fikry might suggest.

This book is absolutely perfect for any bookworm with a hunger for literary references and a good story. Any book lover will feel right at home in the cozy bookstore of A.J. Fikry with its stacks of ARCs, Moby Dick-themed restaurant, and both disastrous and successful literary events.


And since I can only imagine A.J. Fikry himself would be appalled at my choice to include an audiobook (Heavens! At least I didn’t include information for an ebook!), I’ll include a link to a locally-sold paperback as well.

Book Review

Ghosts of You by Cathy Ulrich

Publisher: Okay Donkey Press  
Genre: Flash Fiction  
Pages: 176 pages   
Format: Paperback 
My Rating: 3/5  
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Summary

In this flash fiction collection a myriad of victims come alive and show themselves beyond the circumstances they find themselves in. Each piece is set in motion by another murdered woman—including a girl, teacher, mermaid, and others—but there is more to each story than just the inciting tragedy. These stories are laden with grief, intrigue, occasional mystery, and ruminations of what might have been. These are stories of murdered women, but there is more here than meets the eye.   

Thoughts

This collection was thought provoking through and through. It is not often that we see something that seems so familiar, in this case the victim, given new life and dimension. Yet that is exactly what Ulrich has done, she has given a compelling voice to characters who in the past would have been hard to cast as anything but flat. Each story, no matter its length, feels both diverse and dynamic and these pieces are in heavy conversation with one another.

While this collection was overall both interesting and innovate, there were times when it felt too repetitive. When reading one story after the next they start to bleed together and the murdered mermaid becomes hard to tell apart from the murdered babysitter and the murdered girlfriend. That is not to say that there is no joy to be had from reading this collection, but it is perhaps a read best done over an extended period of time.


I would like to thank TNBBC Publicity for providing this ARC
in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.

Book Review

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Publisher: Chiltern Publishing
Genre: Coming-of-Age Drama
Pages: 288
Format: Hardcover
My Rating: 5/5 stars
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Summary

In Little Women, Louisa May Alcott turns the everyday lives of four girls into an entertaining novel of love, loss, and the exceptional power of family. Based on Alcott’s own upbringing, Little Women is a recollection of her childhood experiences, and life lessons while residing in New England during the Civil War.

The adventures of Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy March are captivating as they take on the challenges of growing up—exploring the balance between familial duty and freedom  and society’s expectations of women in the 1800’s. During the uncertainty and scarcity of wartime, the March girls brave illness, romance, societal pressures, and unconventional career ambitions under the watchful eye of their mother, Marmee. Each of the March girls comes of age and discovers who they are through their endeavors, courage, and love of family in this classic novel. 

Thoughts

Every once in a while, Hollywood brings an adaptation of Little Women to the silver screen to remind us what a treasure this story is to behold. This December, audiences will be treated to a version that is sure to introduce the novel to a new generation of women and men alike. With a powerhouse cast of Meryl Streep, Emma Watson, Saoirse Ronan, and Timothee Chalamet, it will no doubt be entertaining.

Audience members and readers will likely identify with one or more of the March family members. Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy are respectively the traditional elder sister, ferocious feminist, sensitive soul, and spoiled artist, respectively. Yet, they are fully realized characters with desires, flaws, and needs that transcend those labels. As such, the story’s relevancy has not diminished with age, and it underscores many of the challenges that even girls today face. New readers will discover timeless themes of familial duty, independence, courage, and generosity. 

What is most striking about this novel is that Alcott dared to re-imagine what a woman’s future could look like by sharing her own experiences through the character of Jo. While its feminist principles are somewhat dated—as its original publication date is 1868—Jo March remains a timeless role model. She defies convention in favor of following her own path to becoming a writer, despite the obstacle of her gender, undoubtedly helped along with the support of her family, especially Marmee. The adventures of the March family, set against the grim background of war, are both charming and life affirming—making Little Women a truly poignant novel that will remain so for each new generation of readers. 


For those of you who are interested, check out the trailer for the upcoming film below!


Guest blog post courtesy of Sharon Enck.

Book Review

Imaginary Friend by Stephen Chbosky

Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Genre: Thriller/Horror
Pages: 706
Format: Hardcover
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My Rating: 5/5 Stars

Summary

20 years in the making, Stephen Chbosky’s second novel Imaginary Friend takes on a whole new genre compared to his previous best-selling novel, The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

Imaginary Friend follows seven year-old Christopher and his mother, Kate Reese, on the run from her abusive ex-boyfriend. She decides the small town of Mill Grove, Pennsylvania is the perfect hidden gem. However, one afternoon, a mother’s worst nightmare occurs when Christopher wanders into the woods and doesn’t come back out for six days.

When Christopher does return, he is different. He can do things he couldn’t do before, thanks to the nice man. His only goal is to build a tree house in the woods by Christmas, with the voice in his head guiding him the whole way. If he fails, the world as he, and everyone in the town, knows it will change forever.

Thoughts

Going into this, I was not sure what to expect because the premise itself is so different from my beloved The Perks of Being a Wallflower. But, I can say with confidence that Chbosky did not disappoint—I found myself tearing through the pages, desperately wanting to solve the mystery and connect the dots. Every character revelation and plot twist felt surprising yet inevitable, leaving me speechless by the end of it.

As with any good horror novel, I will probably have nightmares for a couple of days, but it was worth it to go on this journey with Christopher and his mother. The characters were so vivid that I felt like they were telling me the story themselves. It was terrifying, but in a thrilling way that really makes you think about the world and speculate about what lies beyond it—what we have control over and what we don’t, and what may lurk in the shadows.

Imaginary Friend reveals the power of family, of friendship, and of a mother’s love in the most bone-chilling, mind-blowing way. 20 years after his debut novel, Chbosky is back to remind us that no matter who we are or what our past is, we are not alone: in the the real world or the imaginary.