Book Review

The Power of Ritual: Turning Everyday Activities into Soulful Practices

Publisher: HarperOne
Genre: Nonfiction, Spiritual, Self-Help
Pages: 224
Format: Hardcover
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My Rating: 4/5 stars

Summary

Could walking your dog be a spiritual experience? Is it possible to turn your yoga or Crossfit class into a community? Can reverently reading the Harry Potter books or watching your favorite movie transform your life?

According to Casper Ter Kuile it can, and will. In The Power of Ritual, Harvard Divinity School Fellow Ter Kuile discusses why people have often flocked to religion for ritual, purpose, and community. Yet, with an increasing number of people listing themselves as “nones,” how can one find rituals and traditions to sustain, nurture, and fortify themselves? Ter Kuile explores how everyday activities such as eating, walking, showering, watching a movie, reading, and gathering are all powerful rituals that can heal and energize. From exercise and connection with nature to tech sabbaths, he provides ways to turn the ordinary into a transcendent experience.

Thoughts

There is a strong vein of religion and theology running throughout The Power of Ritual, which is understandable considering the topic of spirituality. For some, spirituality does look like what most of us visualize— going to church and participating in the corresponding rituals. This book, however, is not necessarily for those people. This instruction manual is for the “nones,” those without a dedicated denomination, who are remixing their lives by taking from the old and adding in the new.  

One of the many interesting rituals that Ter Kuile outlines within this book is the concept of a Tech Sabbath. Closely aligned with the Jewish tradition of Sabbath, his tech version involves shutting down digitally for a 24-hour period. Friday at sundown he stows away his phone and laptop, refusing to engage with them until Saturday at sundown. For a lot of us, this would require massive amounts of willpower, and even Ter Kuile admits to slip-ups now and again. Still, the clarity he receives from this practice (every week!) more than makes up for any type of FOMO, and he uses the time to journal, read, and reflect. 

If this seems too daunting a prospect, not to worry. I found his other suggestions to be far more manageable, and most of the time the activities are ones you already engaged in. All that is required to make an ordinary activity a “ritual” is to put intention behind it. This is something he discusses at length when it comes to building community, connecting to nature, and even watching a film. As one of the founders of the Harry Potter and the Sacred Text podcast, Ter Kuile specializes in making a movie night a revelatory and ritualistic experience.

The Power of Ritual easily mixes in history and theology discussions with pop culture references to make the reading enjoyable without getting too mystic or preachy. It really is about turning what you are already doing into a tradition, ritual, or sacred experience. There are some action items on how to get started, and a framework for prayer (it may look a little different than you think!). Pilgrimages are discussed at length, changing my perspective on what that actually looks like. Spoiler: you don’t have to travel across the globe to complete one, just as far as your door!

I, myself, was surprised at how many rituals I am already engaged in. From my morning journaling to decompressing in the shower, Ter Kuile’s theories ring true. This book will certainly cause you to reflect on those activities, and help you reframe how you participate in them. I did balk at his suggestion to think about your own death. While I am not one to shy away from the eventuality of death, I am just a little apprehensive about telling myself “I might die today.” That statement’s purpose is to remind you (and yes, there’s an app for that) to be grateful for your life and the gifts you have. But I am still not sure I can, on a daily basis, tell myself this.

At this moment, many have found their spiritual practices being curtailed. The pandemic and all the uncertainty it brings has restricted many of the social gatherings, pilgrimages, exercise routines, and religious rituals. Yet, perhaps by utilizing some of the ideas set forth in The Power of Ritual, you may be able to bring some harmony and tradition back into your life!


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

Book Review

I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson

Publisher: Dial Press
Genre: Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 384
Format: Hardcover
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My Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Summary

This story is about a set of fraternal twins, Noah and Jude, as they begin to navigate young adulthood. The two share a love for art—but  Noah is very open about sharing his artistic ability, while Jude tends to keep her talent to herself. Despite being extremely close as children, their relationship begins to shift as tensions rise in each of their personal lives. Further pressuring them is the impending application deadline for a prestigious art school that both twins applied to. 

As their lives progress, Noah and Jude are each faced with their own set of challenges that push them further away from one another. In addition, they begin to lose sight of their own identities. Just as it appears that things couldn’t get any worse, an unanticipated disaster strikes, changing both of their lives in the aftermath. Will something—or someone—bring them back together?

Thoughts

This novel was recommended to me by one of my close friends. I had never heard of it, and as such dove in without many preconceived expectations. To my excitement, the novel was not slow to start and it wasn’t long before I was fully immersed in the stories of each of the two protagonists. Both were very accessible characters, mostly because of the book’s multi-narrative format. Reading from each character’s point of view added a lot of relatability to the novel—I was able to empathize with both Noah and Jude and became invested in each of their stories. 

Perhaps one of my favorite components of this story was the way art was used to develop the theme of personal identity. Throughout the novel, art is something both of the twins use as a form of self-expression and communication. However, Noah and Jude are both dynamic characters—and their relationship to artwork changes as part of their development. At the beginning of the story, both use art as a way to express themselves, privately. By the end of the novel, each character has learned to use art to communicate who they are as people and as a mode to display how they want to be seen. I loved reading as each of the characters experienced this shift in perspective. It even influenced the way I viewed my own ideas concerning creative expression. 

Adding to the novel’s magic are many beautiful quotes riddled throughout. One of the most notable is “We were all heading for each other on a collision course, no matter what. Maybe some people are just meant to be in the same story.” In the context of the story, this signifies that fate may play a role in Noah and Jude’s relationship. No matter how hard they try to distance themselves from one another, they continue to be pulled back together by some unseen force. Although this may not be the case for all real-life relationships, I think it serves as an interesting examination of what causes some people to fall back into each other’s lives, no matter the circumstance.

I removed half a star from my rating of this book because it romanticizes life a little bit too much for my taste at some points. Although it was a great escape from reality, there are some parts of the story that are too overtly chauvinistic to take seriously. I do think the story offers a lot of profound insight on the meaning of life and relationships—but some are too whimsical to buy into. That being said, the moments where the book misses the mark are few and far between, and it didn’t impact the story’s readability at all. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a thought-provoking and heartwarming story. 

Book Review

How to Feed Yourself: 100 Fast, Cheap, and Reliable Recipes for Cooking When You Don’t Know What You’re Doing: A Cookbook by Spoon University

Publisher: Harmony
Genre: Nonfiction, Cookbook
Pages: 224
Format: Paperback
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My Rating: 4/5 stars

Summary

It is back to school season—and whether this fact spurs feelings of fear or excitement, there is one unavoidable, and oftentimes frustrating, subject within everyone’s fall schedules: food. The COVID-19 pandemic has restructured dining halls for college students, tightened the budgets of families, and possibly even allowed time for new at-home hobbies. Spoon University’s How to Feed Yourself is a simple and comprehensive cookbook designed by college students, for college students.

It is incredibly flexible for anyone’s cooking level, desires, and situation. As we enter the fall with changing situations, How to Feed Yourself offers simple, cheap meals that don’t force the reader to buy a plethora of unknown ingredients, spices, and tools. The recipes are based on common ingredients to create plenty of simple, diverse, and healthy (but not too healthy) dishes. Spanning from “All-Day Breakfast Tacos” to a “No-Sharing-Required Mason Jar Banana Split,” Spoon University has prepared dishes for every occasion, every skill level, and every lifestyle.

Thoughts

This year I made the bold and, admittedly nerve-racking, decision to cancel my meal plan as I am sure many incoming and returning students are doing. As I ventured into my new reality of consistently cooking for myself, I wanted a cost-effective, nutritious (but not too healthy), and simple cookbook tailored to my novice skill set to help me out. I am usually apprehensive about cookbooks because they are often shrouded in mystery from complicated recipes, expensive and uncommon ingredients, and unrealistic expectations (because let’s face it—my food never turns out looking like the picture). However, I was very satisfied with this cookbook—it uses simple recipes, has consistent, colorful, and an easy-to-follow page layout, in addition to encouraging language. The ingredients needed for every recipe are basic, and the recipes are created with the expectation that the reader only has “an oven with a stovetop and broiler, a microwave, a fridge, and a sink.” The book is split up largely by chapters with recipes featuring some of the most common food items (eggs, chicken, pasta, fish, potatoes, toast, grains, veggies, and bananas). Later chapters provide recipes for occasions or habits, such as make-ahead meals, group recipes, date-night ideas, alcohol, and desserts. While this structure seems confusing, it allows you to find recipes based on what you have available. The book also outlines the most basic and important points of cooking and flavoring meats, using grains, and seasoning vegetables while offering flexible recipes which is encouraging and a helpful tool to understand the basics of food.

I’ve tried several recipes, including the “Not Your Average BEG,” the “Deconstructed Chicken Pot Pie,” and the “2-Ingredient Flourless Pancakes.” The recipes were fairly delicious and creative. The “Not Your Average BEG” used toaster waffles to create a kind of bun for the egg sandwich, and while the “Deconstructed Chicken Pot Pie” could have used additional seasoning, it was simple and a great dish to learn how to cook with chicken. My favorite recipe so far, however, are the “2-Ingredient Flourless Pancakes” because they offer different flavor suggestions and I had the freedom to get creative and substitute or add ingredients. As a beginning cook and novice cookbook reader, I am very happy to have taken a chance on this book because it is tailored to any cooking level, flavor pallet, and bank account. If you don’t eat meat or need a dairy/gluten free diet, the recipes offer substitutes and diet-specific recipes. Additionally, it has recipes for the lazy days, the single-parents, the working student, and the tired-of-ramen freshman.

We naturally come to food for community and enjoyment, and while our lives might be stressful in many ways right now—and our dinners might look different—our food shouldn’t be stressful. This book gives me hope in my ability to create a meal instead of spending that extra five dollars on the grocery store’s frozen meals section; it gives me hope that I can learn a new skill; and it gives me encouragement during this time—I hope it can for you, too.

Book Review

A House is a Body by Shruti Swamy

Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
Genre: Fiction
Pages: 201
Format: Hardcover
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Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Summary

A House is a Body is a bold and provocative collection of short stories from emerging author Shruti Swamy. Her collection contains twelve short stories that are set in India and the United States. Each one is an intimate dive into the human experience. Her narratives redefine the genre of domestic fiction, focusing on the tension of relationships and the inevitable isolation of being human. Swamy doesn’t hold back any punches. She navigates the challenging circumstances of birth and death, love and loss, betrayal and redemption as if she’s been writing for a lifetime. Swamy’s ability to craft authentic domestic turmoil within such a small space on the page is both impressive and unsettling.

Thoughts

I was beyond excited to pick up my copy of A House is a Body. I discovered Swamy’s collection on a list of exciting books to anticipate in 2020 and was intrigued by the description of her writing as a marriage between the realistic and the fantastic. I couldn’t wait to experience what promised to be a literary uprooting of the domestic. Her stories did not disappoint—each narrative was more compelling than the last, pulling me through the entire collection in a matter of hours.

One of my favorite stories in the collection is titled “The Siege.” The story is told from the point of view of a young queen who is married to a selfish and violent king attempting to steal the wife of another man. The circumstances are dramatic and devastating, yet I still had so much fun reading a story that was placed in a setting with royalty and wars fought over romance. Swamy’s depiction of the setting was fantastic—within just twenty pages she was able to build a world with complex characters and conflict. This story is a can’t miss for anyone who enjoys the fantasy genre.

Another one of my favorites was titled “Wedding Season.” This story takes on a very different tone from the one in “The Siege.” The story is centered on two young women, Teja and Al, who travel from the United States to India for Teja’s counsin’s wedding. The young women are forced to hide the romantic nature of their relationship for fear of being ridiculed for their sexuality. Swamy’s narration manages to be beautiful despite the tragic circumstances. The stark contrast between the beauty of India and the tension of the lovers’ secret makes the story captivating. This is definitely a story for the modern world. I was impressed by how Swamy addressed the subjects of sexuality and identity with such boldness. Her story left me trying to decide if the ending should be considered happy or sad. What I am sure about is that it’s worth reading to decide for yourself.

It’s not often that I find a collection of short stories where I can say I enjoyed every story, but I can confidently say I enjoyed every story in A House is a Body! I would recommend this collection to readers who enjoy strong female characters and the uneasiness of the mundane. In other words, if you like “The Yellow Wallpaper” or “The Story of an Hour,” Swamy is the contemporary voice you’ve been waiting for. This collection is an impressive and promising start to a young author’s career, and I can’t wait to see what’s next for Shruti Swamy.


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

Book Review

Trouble the Saints by Alaya Dawn Johnson

Publisher: Tor Books
Genre: Thriller, Fantasy
Pages: 352
Format: Hardcover
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My Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Summary

The stage is set in pre-second-world-war New York with an oracle, an assassin, and an underworld gang about to lose its alpha—all thriving in a be-bop jazz bar, brazenly ignoring the Prohibition. Phyllis Green, blessed with saints’ hands, is mob boss Victor Dernov’s executioner. Known to some as Victor’s angel, and to most as Victor’s knife, she goes by Phyllis LeBlanc in downtown Manhattan, meting out mob justice with her holster of knives.

That is until she meets Dev. Playing judge, jury, and executioner turns out to be a lot more complicated when she falls in love. Devajyoti Patil, bartender at The Pelican, is also blessed with saints’ hands – he can detect threats on a single touch. But unlike Phyllis, he does not use them to throw knives. Just when Phyllis believes she can act on her promise to Dev of never killing again, she is given a task that forces her to go back on her word.

Someone is killing people with “the hands” and leaving the corpses behind with bleeding stumps and clear signs of having involved them in some form of dark ritual. It’s obvious—they’re trying to steal the power of these hands. Victor’s lieutenant, Red Man, tells Phyllis that the murderer is Trent Sullivan, and that she must take him out.

Having grown up in an all-Black neighborhood, Phyllis has spent her whole adult life trying to pretend that she’s not. Owing to her lighter skin, she passes scrutiny in most segregated places in 1930s New York. She has even taken care to change her name, so no one can trace her back to her old neighborhood—it’s how she has survived. But a decade after she executes Sullivan, and Dev leaves her for it, she finds that her heritage is about to be revealed, and that, suddenly, her life depends on her proving her whiteness.

A lot of factors wrestle for priority as Dev returns unexpectedly to her life as she’s simultaneously given a new assignment. Not to mention, the draft creeps up and starts upending the lives of everyone she holds dear.

Thoughts

The struggles of people of color before World War II that changed society in many irreversible ways are depicted in sincere detail in this book. Skin trumps economic status as Phyllis, Dev, and their friends find themselves increasingly vulnerable as they try to get away from the criminal element that has protected them so far.

It is really promising to find that BIPOC literature is finally making its way into the limelight. The story is set at a time when very few would think to write a novel with a black woman and an Indian man as the lead duo. Hopefully, we are at a time when we can look back at these immortal years from a different perspective than we are used to.


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

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.