Book Review

The Selection by Kiera Cass

Publisher:  HarperTeen
Genre: YA Fiction
Pages: 352
Format: Paperback
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My Rating: 3/5 stars

Summary

In a dystopian world, the United States has become a monarchy named Illea where citizens are forced into a One (royalty) through Eight (criminals and outcasts) caste system. The prince of the country is looking for a new wife and will hold a competition with ordinary girls from all different castes and locations around the country to choose his new princess. 

 Kiera Cass’s novel, The Selection, is another classic 2010’s dystopian piece similar to Divergent, Hunger Games, with even a little bit of “The Bachelor” mixed in. The main protagonist in the story is a fiery red-head named America, a Five, who does not want to follow the rules of this repressive government. She is already in love with Aspen, a Seven, but when she is selected to enter into the Selection (basically the Prince’s version of “The Bachelor”), she is forced to leave behind her old life and enter into this cutthroat competition against girls of all different castes and locations for the crown.

Throughout the book, America comes to learn more about herself and what she is capable of and questions the beliefs and prejudices she has held for her whole life.

Thoughts

The Selection in its plot is very ordinary, almost fulfilling that checklist of YA dystopian novels: the love triangle, the feisty main character who has a blatant disregard for the rules, and the clear mistrust between the protagonist and the main leadership character (in this case, America and the King Clarkson). Despite its seemingly “normal-ness,” the book actually always sticks with me. Why? It’s not only because I have a taste for these dystopian YA novels, but because the book used such descriptive language so that I could see each character, emotion, and location clearly in my head. The images and feelings that were described by America and her backstories to help the audience understand the context of the situation are so detailed that I could imagine each of the scenes in my head, play-by-play. I knew exactly how the palace looked, her feelings about the Prince, the Selection, and even the strawberry tart she had before her first official meeting with Prince Maxon. The imagery in the text was strong and will make it memorable in this way for the audience. 

One of the most interesting themes of the story was actually along the lines of judgement and prejudice. Throughout the book, each of the characters has some sort of a judgment about the other characters due to the stereotypes of the castes and royalty that they have learned growing up. This stubborn prejudice clouds America’s judgement and prevents her from seeing the important and caring qualities that Maxon has, and her innate quality to rule. Maxon, on the other hand, also had prejudices about those from lower castes but he was quick to learn from his mistakes, which shows a stark contrast between America and Maxon’s characters and learning curves.

Overall, although the book was a bit predictable and followed the classic YA fiction tropes, I still found that it combined interesting themes and borrowed from pop culture in ways that were new (such as using the concept behind The Bachelor). It was the perfect before-bed read—relaxing, interesting, with the perfect amount of romance mixed in.



Thanks to Israa Jahan for this guest post.

Book Review

Flying on the Ground by Richie Billing

Publisher: Self Published 
Genre: Short Fiction Collection Ranging in Genre
Pages: 374
Format: E-book
My Rating: 4/5 Stars

Summary

Flying on the Ground, is a collection of the previously published short fiction of Richie Billing. The stories that make up the collection range in genre from fantasy, historical fiction, general fiction, horror, and crime. Thematically they explore notions of poverty, gentrification, addiction, hunger, survival, and much more. In all, it is an impressive collection that shows the author’s range, ability to build a compelling world, and his skill at placing characters who are just as compelling into that world.

Thoughts

As I was reading Flying on the Ground, schools were closing statewide as my community braced for whatever the coronavirus was going to bring our way. The circumstances were changing hour by hour, and while I did not witness any panicking, the tension and stress of uncertainty was palpable. This collection was the perfect distraction from all of that. Full of useful tropes and colorful characters, these stories don’t reinvent the wheel, but that is because they do not need to—this collection is entertaining, fun and well worth the read! 

I most enjoyed the fantasy section of the collection and was drawn in by the way Billing seamlessly builds the world around his characters. Some of these stories take place in a shared world, and the overflow of the stories into one another was delightfully done and contributed to a larger arch. I thought that it was interesting how each story can stand on its own as an enjoyable tale, but was also a piece of a larger picture. 

If you are looking for a quick read that will distract you from all of the things unfolding that we currently need distraction from, this collection is for you!  


I would like to thank the author for this ARC in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.

Book Review

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel

Publisher: Mariner Books
Genre: Graphic Novel, Memoir
Pages: 233 pages
Format: Paperback
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My Rating: 4/5

Summary

Alison Bechdel brings her troubled journey into adulthood to life in this groundbreaking graphic memoir. She chronicles a tumultuous relationship with her father while using lighthearted graphics, heavy literary allusion, and tough personal topics which redefine what we might come to expect from the “comic book” or “graphic novel” genre. Alison recalls moments from her childhood that may have led to the discovery of her father’s closeted homosexuality and his eventual suspected suicide, all while simultaneously discovering her own identity as a lesbian. Bechdel never quite comes to terms with her father’s actions or the truth behind his death, but it becomes a poignant story about making peace with the man that he was and the part he played in who she became.

Thoughts

Fun Home is a graphic novel that tackles some heavy concepts in an unconventional medium. The coined term “tragicomic” aptly describes the feelings of isolation Bechdel struggles with while growing up with her distant and private father, who is a staunch perfectionist with a quick temper. Her father’s fate is quickly revealed, and his supposed suicide sets the tone for the rest of her story. Despite the somber faces drawn on her cartoonish characters, there is the distinct undertone of a child who sorely wants to just be a normal child—and to be loved and noticed by her parents.

Fun Home is also able to effectively describe the struggle of a child trying to make sense of their identity when everyone around them is giving them contradicting signals. Its an important coming-of-age story for LBGTQ+ youth, as we see the signals in Bechdel’s childhood that she only took notice of in her adult years. However, this definitely isn’t a children’s graphic novel. There are mild but definite depictions of sex and masturbation as well as the unfortunate story of her father’s cavorting with his English students that present some rather mature discussions. The novel in all aspects is meant to make you think and reconsider the fear of recognizing your own identity and facing the judgement of your peers. There is a complex understanding between Bechdel and her father that translates to the reader as we try to decide if we feel sorry for her father having been born in a time he felt he had to hide his sexuality, or if we feel the same sympathy for her mother after dealing with years of infidelity and covering up her husband’s affairs with young men. We are also presented with the aftermath of Bechdel’s coming out, where she is rejected by her mother but is able to develop a novel relationship with her father in his last few weeks of life. If anything, these conflicts and tough emotions make for a profoundly honest story, because real people aren’t always easy to understand.

Her father’s career as an English teacher and his passion for literature passed down to Bechdel herself adds another layer of depth to Fun Home. Books play a huge role in how Alison comes to embrace her sexuality, and later a way for her to connect with her father who has always struggled with honest communication. Bechdel’s father hides behind his books, and uses them as a way to communicate his truth without coming out with it. He presents Bechdel with a copy of Ulysses by James Joyce, and the novel not only becomes an important part of her coming out as a lesbian, but serves as another point of comparison for the complicated relationship she shares with her father. Indeed, throughout the book Bechdel references James Joyce works to illustrate her story, creating a layered story that might be somewhat exaggerated as a memoir, but becomes a novel that takes Bechdel’s life and makes it relevant to so many readers in an important way.

The end of the novel makes it very clear that there are no cut-and-paste methods to make peace with the loss of a parent, especially to set back years of complicated emotion and pain. Bechdel was only able to connect to her father in the months before his death, and this was not nearly enough time to come to terms with her childhood and the actions that he took while he hid who he really was from the world and let that action tear him apart inside. As you finish the book, you as a reader can feel the unfinished resolution that comes from death. Alison Bechdel’s story as an individual is unfinished, as evidenced by her continued and successful career as a writer and a champion of LGBTQ+ representation, but the enlightenment she gains from her memoir resonates with any person that is struggling or has struggled to find themselves.

Book Review

The Other Bennet Sister by Janice Hadlow

Publisher: Henry Holt & Company, 31 March 2020
Genre: Fiction
Pages: 463
Format: Paperback
My Rating: 4.5/5 stars

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Summary

For fans of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Janice Hadlow has imagined the story from the perspective of “the other Bennet sister,” Mary, who was always perceived as less physically attractive than her sisters and thus shunted into the background.

Now, Mary gets the spotlight and, finally, a fully fleshed-out character. Key scenes from Austen’s novel are told from Mary’s perspective and then her story continues in describing her life after her sisters’ marriages.

Mary struggles with finding her place in the world, especially in a sense of home. She tries living with Jane and Charles Bingley, then with Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam Darcy, and then an extended visit to Charlotte Lucas and William Collins, but in each place she lacks purpose and belonging, and she cannot rid her mind of the stinging retorts of Caroline Bingley. It is not until she goes with her aunt and uncle Gardiner in town that she begins to discover who she really is and what she really wants for her life.

Thoughts

As an unashamed Janeite, I was thrilled to read more imaginings in the world of Pride and Prejudice, and The Other Bennet Sister did not disappoint. I loved being able to dive back into 95 (yes, 95!) more chapters of life following the Bennets. Hadlow’s portrayals of the scenes from Austen’s original novel read faithfully, as were her representations of the characters. In particular, she captured Charlotte Lucas Collins’s characterization and choices strikingly well.

Without giving away Mary’s ending, I will say that even the predictability of the conclusion was satisfying. The echoes for Mary’s experiences from what Elizabeth suffered during the latter part of Austen’s original were tastefully included.

Overall, watching Mary’s progression from a little girl in her sister’s shadows to a confident woman capable of securing her own happiness was even more delightful than the pleasure of seeing beloved Pride and Prejudice characters in new scenes. For that reason, I could recommend this book to readers looking for a taste of Austen’s characters and themes even if they haven’t read Pride and Prejudice (although knowing that story first would definitely make this read a much richer experience). And for other Janeites, this is a first-rate addition to your Austen bookshelf!


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

Book Review

Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea

Publisher: Parnassus Press, 1968
Genre: Fantasy, Bildungsroman
Format: Hardcover
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My Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Summary

Although this book is considered by many to be a book of fantasy, A Wizard of Earthsea could very well also be considered in the self-help genre through the main character’s overcoming of his self. In the fictional archipelago of Earthsea, Ged, or “sparrowhawk” as he is also known, originally is born on the island of Gont. After practicing his mage work for some time, he decides that it is time for him to enroll in the school of wizardry. While at school, Ged engages in an argument with another student over who is the better wizard, and Ged subsequently performs a difficult spell that goes awry and releases a shadow creature. The rest of the novel contains the constant hunter v.s. hunted nature of Ged and his shadow, from which Ged hopes he will eventually be liberated.

Thoughts

To me, there is no better novel than one that equally applies to both children and adults. There is no need for sophisticated language or superior wording because the message and/or story is so strong, pure, and plain awesome. 

The first time that I ever even took a glance at the staff picks section of the Hayden library, I found this somewhat worn out and torn book with an interesting illustration on the front cover: A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin. The book is described as “a classic fantasy epic” that brings readers into an entirely new world. In my eyes, this book is the Harry Potter before Harry Potter. One enjoyable piece from Le Guin is her inclusion of a map of the new world, Earthsea, on the first page of the book. At times I found myself flipping back and forth between the page that I was reading and the map in the beginning, as though a treasure hunt was included. When speaking about Roke or a certain sailing direction past The Hands (2 islands in the novel), I searched through the map to get a feel for where this character, Ged, was travelling towards. It is as though the inclusion of the map brings readers back to a time period without Google search or the Internet. The name of an island was not able to be typed into a search bar and subsequently “magically” pop up in front of my eyes with almost no effort. No, the travelling character’s whereabouts and direction had to be searched for. Le Guin, with this process creation, made me feel as though this foreign land was real and had been lost in time.

Along with the fantasy epic’s awesome creativity, the illustrations by Ruth Robbins in the particular edition that I read are quite badass. At the beginning of each chapter, a picture is included that appears to be a mix of a stained glass window with fantasy myth.

The physical writing brings a reader to a new land; however, no land is complete without its own culture. Le Guin did a fantastic job of giving each island and its inhabitants their own faith & beliefs. Also, there are a few overlying beliefs for the entirety of Earthsea, such as the constant need for balance in the world. This relates to our modern world in that there are an infinite number of religions and beliefs out there; however, all have at least one underlying consistency: a belief in something greater than humanity. 

At the beginning of this novel I was a bit lost due to the new interestingly different cultures of those in the book, but once past this short phase I became captivated by the language and artistry used within the novel.  I highly recommend it to all who are searching for their next book to pickup… Especially recommend reading the paperback or hardcover version of this book found in the Hayden library so as to include illustrations, as Mrs. Le Guin originally desired.


Guest Post courtesy of Will Hillery

Book Review

The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri

Publisher: Mariner Books
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 291
Format: Paperback
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My Rating: 5/5 Stars

Summary

Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel The Namesake follows two generations of Bengali immigrants as they make a life for themselves in America. The Ganguli family, consisting of Ashima (mother), Ashoke (father), Gogol (son) and Sonia (daughter), paint a representation of how Indian American families cope with cultural divides and intimacy across generations. 

The novel begins with a young Ashima and Ashoke as they move from Calcutta, India to America. Ashoke is a young college student at MIT trying to prove himself among his peers. Ashima is a mother who is frightened of the unfamiliar world she finds herself in. Their children, Gogol and Sonia, are the focal point of much of the novel. As they grow up, the children are faced with pressure to conform to either American or Indian culture. Eventually, as they become adults, Gogol and Sonia learn how to coexist with these social pressures. The children create their own families and self identities. Ashima and Ashoke find a way to accept the lives their children create for themselves.

Thoughts

 What most impressed me most about The Namesake was how invested I became in the story of this fictional family. Lahiri is gifted at crafting intimate moments between characters. The novel begins in a moment of discomfort as Ashima gives birth to her son in an unfamiliar hospital in an unfamiliar country. It’s clear from the first narrative moment that Lahiri is not afraid to show pain and raw emotion in her work. This trend continues throughout the novel as the children grow up and begin exploring their American culture. Every moment of tension, sadness, and joy could be felt through the page. By the end, I felt that I knew each of the characters personally and had been on a journey of self-exploration with them.

Turning the final page of The Namesake was a sad moment for me. I felt like I was abandoning the characters halfway through their journey. Even though I had read about two whole generations of the family, I wanted to continue on with them and see what new challenges life would present them. The Namesake is a beautifully written novel that I would recommend to anyone who enjoys emotional, character driven writing, or, just a good cry. Jhumpa Lahiri is a talented author whose other books are definitely on my 2020 Reading List.

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.