Book Review

The Land of Dreams by Vidar Sundstøl

Translated by Tiina Nunnally

Publisher: University of Minnesota Press
Genre: Mystery
Pages: 296
Format: Paperback
Series: Minnesota Trilogy
My Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Summary

The first of Sundstøl’s Minnesota Trilogy, The Land of Dreams takes place along Minnesota’s northern shore of Lake Superior. When local policeman and genealogist Lance Hansen encounters a brutal murder of a Norwegian tourist, Georg Loftus, the surrounding towns are equally horrified and in awe—as they believe it to be the first murder ever recorded on the North Shore.

However, as Hansen begins to unearth more about the North Shore’s past, he begins to wonder if it is in fact the first murder. Regardless, he soon discovers an unbreakable tie that links him to Georg Loftus’s murder, leaving Lance to question everything he once knew to be moral—and more importantly, how the ties of loyalty shape his morality.

Thoughts

As luck would have it, I came upon this book while wandering through an old used-bookstore along the North Shore of Minnesota. Having lived in Duluth for almost two years, and in that time explored much of the North Shore, I had the privilege of knowing exactly where Sundstøl set his story—right down to the beloved pizza shop in Grand Marais called “Sven and Ole’s.”

For me, it was so fun and very special to be able to read a book and be able to follow along with the characters so acutely, bringing my own personal experiences with the Shore into the reading.

I thought Sundstøl did an exceptional job of capturing the spirit of small North Shore towns like Grand Marais, Grand Portage, and Tofte. But that is just the beginning of his wonderful work. I thoroughly enjoyed the story Sundstøl wove. Complicated as it was, I never once found myself confused or muddled in the stories or characters. It made to be a riveting read, and I cannot wait to pick up the second book in the trilogy.

Sundstøl lived on the North Shore, so he is very knowledgeable of the area, and, at times, his book can feel a bit academic. His ability to explain the history is incredible and interesting. That being said, there were a few paragraphs I simply scanned because I wanted to move on with the story. Send me off to literary jail!

Nevertheless, the history Sundstøl provides is not only interesting, but very important to the story, and I am so grateful he included it in the work. I only suggest that readers have a bit of patience when it comes to a dense part in the novel, as the outcome is extremely worth it.

Due to some graphic descriptions and delicate subject matter, I would suggest this book be read at a high school level or above.

If you’re looking for a great mystery that will also teach you more about one of America’s most beautiful regions, I cannot recommend Vidar Sundstøl’s The Land of Dreams highly enough.

Book Review

Destroy All Monsters by Sam J. Miller

Publisher: Harper Tee
Genre: Young Adult
Pages: 394
Format: Hardcover
My Rating: 5/5

Summary

Destroy All Monsters, by Sam J. Miller, is a book with its feet in two worlds. In one world, Ash is as normal as any other teenager fighting to protect her homeless best friend, Solomon, who is on the verge of being swallowed up by the system. In the other world, Solomon rides on an allosaurus and believes Ash to be a princess in hiding with dormant magical powers that can save the world. While their perception of reality is vastly different, there is something that their worlds have in common—they are plagued by a secretive group spreading hate and divisive attitudes through vandalism, targeting those who are already marginalized. All the while, the story is driven by a mystery—what happened between Solomon and Ash when they were twelve that put them on their present course?

Thoughts

This book is incredibly imaginative and ambitious in its form. It is told from both Ash and Solomon’s perspective, though each of them view the world very differently. Subsequently, scenes are revisited and replayed, however, the result is anything but repetitive. Reading this book is like listening to a concept album that continuously finds ways to integrate a thematic melody in fresh and exciting ways! It has a memory of its own, and it comes alive to create a nearly interactive experience for the reader. 

While I would not describe reading this book as anything less than fun, it also finds a way to deal with some pretty heavy issues. Chief among them is the way that it addresses the relationship between trauma and mental health, and the way that it explores the spectrum of homelessness in a way that goes beyond static perceptions of the community. Most importantly, at least in my opinion, it also lays out a blueprint for unifying communities against the divisive rhetoric  that has become so prevalent as of late.  

Destroy All Monsters is a book of immense power and imagination. In its pages there is an adventure to be seized, mysteries to be solved, and worlds to immerse yourself in; but, there is also an examination of community and our responsibility to take care of one another. For these reasons, I cannot recommend this book enough. 

Book Review

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

Publisher: Penguin Press, 2019
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 256
Format: Hardcover
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My Rating: 5/5 stars

Summary

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, by Ocean Vuong, is written as a candid letter from Vietnamese immigrant Little Dog to his illiterate mother in which he recants his version of their family and his personal history. In the letter, he explores both his mother and grandmother’s experience as Vietnamese citizens during the American war, as well as their subsequent stories as immigrants in America. He also details his understanding of American culture and the ways in which it is embedded with violence, and he confesses the sordid affair of his first-love with OxyContin addicted Trevor. All the while, Little Dog tries to find his place in his family, in America, and in the world, while remaining both hopeful and grateful for the imperfect love in his life. 

My Thoughts

From the novel’s opening in which Little Dog evokes Chinse poet Bei Dao in comparing freedom to the distance between the hunter and its prey, I was sucked in by its emotional depth and expressive language. This book is as beautiful and vivid as it is honest and devastating. At times, the string of hope that runs throughout the novel gets so thin that it is barely visible, but in its own subtle way, it always seems to bubble back toward the surface. This makes for an emotionally tumultuous read that is well worth it. 

What I believe makes this novel so important is the way in which it addresses the immigrant experience in America. All the while, it employs evocative language to show the power of communication—which is largely taken away from Little Dog’s mother and grandmother. Through the cruelty of assumption born of the lack of communication, the book shows the way in which we all want to belong, and how America represents a collective sense of belonging that Little Dog desperately wishes to be tethered to in order to feel more legitimate. This novel speaks to all of our experiences as immigrants, maybe not from country to country, but on smaller scale, such as moving to a new school or starting a new job; it relates those experiences back into a basic shared human desire to belong. 

Another interesting aspect of this novel is the way in which Vuong’s background in poetry influences the form of the novel. The letter Little Dog is writing to his mother is written in a series of vignettes that allow the reader to explore his memories in a way that feels unseated in time. At the same time, the distance between the narrator and the story he is telling is constantly fluctuating. In one scene, that lasts less than four pages, Little Dog imagines his mother taking the long walk home from work. In quick secession the reader learns about some of the layout of Hartford, Connecticut, Little Dog’s job and supervisor at the Boston Market, the origins of Trevor’s addiction to OxyContin, and Little Dog’s Grandmother’s memory of a girl killed in Vietnam while wearing sandals made of the burned rubber of a tire. Through all of this, Little Dog never forgets to return to speak directly to his mother to orient her both emotionally and on the streets that he imagines her traversing. I have to praise Vuong for his ability to make each word and each sentence have so much impact. It is a stunning feature of this novel and one that is likely to keep you hooked throughout its entirety. 

At its core, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a novel that strives to both accept and celebrate the ways in which love enters our lives. Love, like all things, is imperfect, but that does not mean that we should not cherish it all the same. It is a vibrantly written emotional experience that will stick with you long after you have read the last page. It makes my required reading list for life, and I cannot recommend this book enough.   

Book Review

Atlantia by Ally Condie

Publisher: Dutton Books, 2014
Genre: Dystopian YA novel
Pages: 320
Format: Hardback
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My Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Summary

Feeling trapped as a hidden siren in the underwater world of Atlantia and forever recognized as the daughter of the beloved deceased leader Oceana, Rio Conwy is desperate to go Above. But her twin sister Bay unexpectedly chooses to go Above instead, without leaving an explanation. Heartbroken and alone, Rio is forced to find answers from the only family she has left—her mother’s sister Maire, the dangerous siren.

As Rio attempts to find out why her sister left and to get Above herself, she discovers secrets and truths about her family and herself, and the Divide system now separating her from Bay. Rio learns to recognize the strength in her own voice through unexpected ways as she unearths the past and determines her future.

Thoughts

Admittedly, Ally Condie is one of my favorite YA authors, so I was a little biased in favor of Atlantia when I chose it off the shelf. However, even for those unfamiliar with Condie’s other award-winning work, Matched, this stand-alone bestseller is sure to be a satisfying read. Though Rio’s story presents serious themes that are handled justly, the narrative retains a feeling of enjoyable entertainment throughout. In particular, the races in the deepmarket have a pleasantly exciting rhythm. The style of the narration flows and fits well with the subject matter, and the ending is appropriate without being unrealistic.

The romantic relationships in this book were paced well, although some of their dialogue and scenes came off somewhat stilted. The romance was the weakest narrative aspect for me personally. The dynamics between family members or friends felt more natural and engaging. In particular, I felt that the difficult decisions at the end for Rio and Bay were well structured, showing the progress and strength in their connection from the beginning when Rio’s world was ripped apart by Bay not explaining beforehand why she had to go Above.


I would recommend this book to any YA reader who enjoys page-turning dystopian fantasies with beautiful world-building and expert character development.


Book Review

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2018
Genre: Fiction
Pages: 384
Format: Hardcover
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My Ratings: 5/5 stars

Summary

Outside a small town on the North Carolina coast, Kya Clark’s family abandons her in a shack on the marshland, where she must learn to survive on her own, living off of the land she admires and studies. For years, rumors and prejudice follow Kya, known as the uneducated, wild “Marsh Girl.”

When two men from town become entranced by her wild beauty, Kya decides to open her heart to the vulnerability of love—only to find herself hurt and in pain.

After the town’s beloved quarterback, Chase Andrews, is found dead, townspeople point fingers at “Marsh Girl,” the suspicious figure that looms behind the twists and turns of the marsh’s waterways. How did Chase Andrews die? Was it murder? And if so, did Kya have anything to do with his death?

Thoughts

This coming-of-age story is my favorite book of the summer so far. It’s hard for me to characterize this book—other than to say it is a work of coming-of-age fiction. In some ways it is a mystery, revolving around the suspicious death of Chase Andrews and borrowing tricks from the crime fiction genre. In other ways it’s a romance, but it only offers small glimpses into Kya’s relationships with the two townie boys. Owens chose to focus more on the development of Kya and pain the men caused her. Still, in other ways, it has some elements of a young adult book, where Kya learns about menstruation and womanhood from a wise woman named Mabel. However, it targets a more mature audience in its commentary on human behavior, especially that of sexuality and violence. I think the fact that Owens borrows elements and storytelling strategies from so many different genres makes her work more compelling. Her story isn’t confined by one specific genre expectation.

The novel is a nonlinear narrative, containing switchbacks between Kya’s story growing up in the marsh and the discovery of Chase Andrews’ body (and subsequent investigation and court trial). Although date-jumbling like this can be a risky writing choice, I think Owens executed her plan perfectly. It was easy to jump between the two story strands, and I felt that she switched between the two parts of the story at the right moments, keeping me interested and not letting me forget about one narrative strand or the other. She never lost me once in all of the switchbacks, but I can’t say the same for some of the other books I’ve read that use this technique!

The protagonist, Kya Clark lives mostly in isolation with only the landscape to keep her company throughout much of the narrative. It was interesting to see a character like this learn to open up to other people and try to apply her knowledge of other creatures to her understanding of humanity.

The one critique I had was about the poetry of Amanda Hamilton that is intertwined throughout the novel. To me, the poems seem a bit trite and on the nose, but I believe this is forgivable once you reach the story’s conclusion. I’m jumping around a spoiler here, but the unexpected ending ties the novel together and answered my remaining questions, leaving me feeling satisfied with the story.

Because the book borrows from so many different genres and explores such an interesting protagonist, I suspect many fiction lovers will adore this beautifully-crafted novel.

Book Review

Strange Diary Days by Blake Edwards

Publisher: Independently published, 2018
Genre: Poetry
Pages: 32
Format: Paperback
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My Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Summary

Hailing from Tucson, Arizona, local author Blake Edwards shares the first volume of his two volume collection, Strange Diary Days.

Beginning in ethereal desert landscapes, readers soon leave the dust behind as they are transported into a world both surreal yet strikingly tangible.

From dirt roads to ancient spells awaking, Edwards’ work truly delivers his promise to his readers—a world where all that can be imagined exists; and you are right in the middle of it.

Thoughts

I would like to preface my review with this tidbit of knowledge about my literary preferences: normally, I am not one to get easily immersed in fantasy. My poetry collections are few, and they are grounded in reality with the likes of Carolyn Forche. To be honest, I just wasn’t sure if I would connect with this collection because of it’s promises.

I have never been so pleased at being wrong.

Edwards took a brilliant approach to this collection; the first poem of the collection, “Strange Diary Days,” hints at the otherworldly themes readers will encounter later, but only just so. He then goes on to ground his readers in beautiful but relatable realities in which he describes the desert and his perspective having grown up in Tucson, Arizona.

My favorite poem from this first part of the collection is “Winter Throes.” I found Edwards’ details so tangible—”I listen to the fire crackle deep, yet the floor is cold”—yet also so ethereal—”Past these boneyards lie quick-wild spring, where colors spill over and salve the scars away.” His words were the perfect balance of grounding and ethereal, poignantly preparing the reader for what was to come in the later half of the volume.

Slowly I saw the ethereal take hold over the realistic, as if each poem were my feet leaving the ground a little bit more, until I looked down and saw that they were no longer on the floor. It was gradual, painless, and so cleverly crafted.

“Wicked” was my favorite poem from the second half of the collection, clocking in at four stanzas and leaving me pouring over them again and again. Edwards’ craftsmanship with each word left an incredible imprint on me as a reader.

I would recommend Strange Diary Days to anyone—no matter what genre, material, or platform you prefer. It was a true delight to be taken into Edwards’ world, and I hope each reader gets a chance to experience what I did.


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

Book Review

Family of Origin by CJ Hauser

Publisher: Doubleday Books, 2019
Genre: Fiction novel
Pages: 283
Format: Paperback
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My Rating: 4/5 stars

Summary

On hearing that their biologist father Dr. Ian Grey has died, estranged half-siblings Nolan and Elsa Grey reunite. They travel to his island research station and become acquainted with his team, the Reversalists, who study a duck species in an attempt to prove their theory of reverse evolution.

While learning about and searching for the “Paradise Duck” for which their father had been preoccupied, they also learn about their own “family of origin,” uncovering various layers of family secrets and complications. With flashbacks and foreshadowing, Hauser illustrates the complication that comes with determining how much of the past should affect the future.

Thoughts

To be honest, the first time I attempted to read this book, I failed to get through it. I think this is perhaps because I was not in the right frame of mind to make sense of Hauser’s web of themes and stylistic choices. The flashbacks and foreshadowing tell compelling backstories, but are also more complicated to read than a traditionally chronological narrative. I also particularly struggled with her decision to not separate dialogue with quotation marks. This made the conversational flow difficult for me personally to follow.

That being said, I felt like what redeemed this book was its layering of familial secrets, histories, and relationships. This made the characters feel real and the narrative more engaging. As a reader, I wanted the estranged siblings to find out more about their past which would help them to connect in the present. It was interesting to consider family dynamics in relation to the evolutionary theories posited in the novel.

I would recommend this book to adult readers who like learning about backstories, histories, and scientific theories—and who do not mind the absence of dialogue quotes.


Thanks to the author and publisher for providing an ARC in
exchange for this honest and unbiased review.

Book Review

The Tenth Muse by Catherine Chung

Publisher: Ecco, 2019
Genre: Historical Fiction
Pages: 304
Format: Paperback
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My Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Summary

In this coming-of-age story, we see a young girl named Katherine grow up to become a well-respected mathematician with a fascination for all things numbers and a special interest in the famous Riemann hypothesis.

As she pursues a career in mathematics, she is forced to question and evaluate her identity. Growing up in the 1950s, she studies in a male-dominated field where she feels she must learn how to fit in when she can’t help but stand out. Hoping to find her biological parents for answers about who she really is, she uncovers a complicated, tangled family history that seems to raise more questions than answers.

Katherine learns to rethink her identity as she discovers beautiful mathematics as well as chilling stories of the women who came before her.

Thoughts

Before I begin, I do have a confession: I am a bit of a math nerd. Going against the stereotype that English majors fear and despise numbers, I actually enjoy learning theorems and even took a few college mathematics courses despite my academic advisor’s confusion and explanation that the classes wouldn’t help me graduate.

Because of my love for numbers and logic, I really adored Catherine Chung’s well-researched novel about a young mathematician. The book contains quite a few hidden math gems such as a variation of the Gauss addition story, the Königsberg bridge problem, and several references to historical mathematicians and scientists. That being said, you don’t have to love math to appreciate Chung’s beautiful novel that explores identity, family history, and legacy.

Since the theorems and math references are written about in more of a metaphorical way than a technical manner, the book makes imagining the experience of a young woman trying to find her place in the world of mathematics accessible to a wider reading audience.

The main character, Katherine, grows up with the understanding that she is the daughter of a Chinese immigrant and World War II American veteran. However, she soon learns that her family history is much more complicated than her parents once claimed. This, in addition to the realization that some people questioned her place in mathematics, forces her to redefine her identity and learn to make a contribution to mathematics—for herself, and by herself.

It’s a beautiful novel that examines what it means to truly know yourself and act independently of societal expectations, and I highly recommend it to anyone who is a fan of historical or bildungsroman fiction.


If you are, in fact, a math nerd like me, you can learn more about the Riemann hypothesis, which Katherine attempts to tackle in the book, in the video below.


Thanks to the author and publisher for providing an ARC in
exchange for this honest and unbiased review.

Book Review

Bully Love by Patricia Colleen Murphy

Publisher: Press 53, April 2019
Genre: Poetry
Pages: 84
Format: Paperback
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Summary

Winner of the 2019 Press 53 Award for Poetry, Patricia Colleen Murphy shares her journey from Ohio to Arizona in her latest book, Bully Love.

The collection offers glimpses into the harsh but beautiful Sonoran Desert, painful but important memories, and an unexpected but powerful love for landscape and people.

Amidst the many life changes—from Ohio twisters to Arizona monsoons, childhood to adulthood, and solitude to love—the poet examines how she finds peace and beauty in spite of hardships, including death and grief, as she leaves a broken home behind to build up a new life.

Thoughts

Although I consider myself to be more of a fiction junkie than anything else, a few poetry collections have found their way onto my bookshelves. Usually these collections sit on my shelves for years as I pick away at them one poem at a time. A poem here during a stressful finals week. A poem there to break up my reading flow during the hot summer months.

Reading Bully Love was a different poetry experience for me as I read it in its entirety (and even reread some of the poems) over a few short hours. I really appreciated the curation of this collection. Although each poem captures a specific scene or memory, they each clearly belong together to explain the poet’s transition from Ohio to Arizona. There’s a contrast between these two different landscapes that’s mirrored in other areas of the book: having parents and being parentless, being alone and finding a companion, remembering childhood and reflecting on adulthood. I think it’s this contrast in both the moments and scenery that tie the poems together and kept me reading.

I found the most haunting—and perhaps most revealing—poem to be “Tell Your Story Walking,” where the poet admits,

There are two ways to tell a story.

When I was fifteen you went mad and I saved you.

When I was fifteen you went mad and I never forgave you.

This collection embraces all of life—both the suffering and happiness it brings—bravely and without being timid. Although Murphy grapples with some difficult topics in many of her poems—such as loss, loneliness, and madness—the poems are still very digestible because of the imagery she couples these topics with. By sharing descriptions of the landscape and those who inhabit it, the poems make reflecting on life’s hardships feel more manageable.

As a fellow Arizonan hiker, I absolutely loved the landscape imagery and was even able to recognize some of the desert locations described. I think the writing brings the Sonoran Desert to life almost as a character of sorts. It was interesting to see how place, especially the desert, is so important to these poems. In fact, many of the poems’ titles are place names, reflecting the importance of the land in these shared memories.

I suspect that I’ll return to this collection soon—if not to read it in full, then to tuck a poem or two away for a stressful week, or a change of pace, or a reminder that unexpected beauty can be found even in hardship.

Book Review

The Reunion: A Novel by Guillaume Musso

Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Genre: Thriller
Pages: 273
Format: Paperback
Publication Date: July 9, 2019
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My Rating: 5/5 stars

Summary

25 years after his high school love’s disappearance, Thomas returns to his childhood home on the Côte d’Azur to prepare for his former prep school’s class reunion—and his inevitable arrest. 25 years ago, he and his friends, Fanny and Maxime, buried a body in the school’s walls. Their secret is secure until the school plans a demolition for renovations.

However, as the day for demolition draws closer, the three friends begin to discover that perhaps there are far more secrets about to be unearthed than just the body in the wall—and they are caught dead in the center of them.

From France’s #1 author, Guillaume Musso, The Reunion packs everything from friendship and betrayal to affairs and dangerously addicting plot twists. Without a doubt, The Reunion will leave you with one massive book-hangover. Luckily, you can grab another one of Musso’s great books right after. Hair of the dog anyone?

Thoughts

This was my first time reading a novel by Guillaume Musso, and all I can say is that I’ve found one of my new favorite authors. Because the book was originally written in French, I was expecting some of the story to fall through the cracks of the translation; however, I was blown away. The translation was absolutely brilliant, and it felt like no nuance was lost on the pages.

The Reunion is definitely unlike any thriller (or book for that matter) that I’ve read before; I started off feeling like I had the whole story figured out, but each page showed me just how little I knew. It was delightful to unravel the story with the main character, Thomas, and as the novel finished I couldn’t believe how much Musso was able to subvert my expectations of the classic “who-dun-it.”

While thrillers run the risk of feeling dated and dry with the same formula, The Reunion surprised me in the most incredible and exciting ways. I cannot sing high enough praises of Musso’s newest masterpiece!

Due to a few graphic scenes of violence and a some more mature subject matters, I would recommend this book to be read at a high school level or above.


Thanks to the author and publisher for providing an ARC in
exchange for this honest and unbiased review.