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

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.

A Thousand Lives: How Books Connect Us to Our World and Beyond

As readers, we live double lives—the first as individuals who exist within the confines of reality, the second as incessant travelers. 

My library, ever-growing and changing through the years, has taken me across different universes. From large-scale battles between humans and High Fae, to adventures with sword-bearing demigods, to life-altering cab rides with a driver carrying messages. The destinations and layovers are endless, yet the vehicle remains the same: books.

Fantasy writer George R.R. Martin once explained, “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies…The man who never reads lives only one.” But books do more than connect us to other fictional lives. They also connect us to our own lives in the real world.

Today, I’d like to share just a few small—but powerful—ways in which books have personally connected me to the world.

Exchanges

From lending out well-loved copies of Harry Potter in exchange for Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone, to borrowing a roommate’s graphic novel collection of The Last Airbender in exchange for Brandon Sanderson’s original Mistborn trilogy, book exchanges have strengthened my relationships in incredible ways. In fact, I like to think that my roommate became a close confidant largely because of our shared evenings filled with animated book discussions.

Recently, I participated in an online book exchange that I stumbled upon on Instagram. I sat with a close friend of mine over frozen yogurt and scattered stationary as we wrote letters to our respective recipients. The experience was a firm reminder of how book reading can enrich existing friendships, as well as provide hope for a new one that is waiting to form.

Reminders of Strength

As a lover of literature, books have been more than a way to pass the time—they have smoothed things over for me both in turbulent times and in the chaos of travel; I imagine this rings true for all of you self-proclaimed book worms. 

Traveling has been embedded in my identity the very moment I stuffed my belongings into a bright red suitcase seven years ago. When my family and I left my small Philippine hometown to pursue a better life in the United States, the very act of traveling suddenly took the connotation of hard goodbyes and painful memories.

What helped me during the moving process itself was what came inside that bright red suitcase. Stuffed in its main compartment were bits from home: my grandmother’s rosary, printed photos from my childhood, pressed flowers from our home garden. And in the front pocket, situated there entirely for accessibility, was my copy of A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini.

Mariam and Laia’s story has always inspired me, but right then, it was different. It was a more immersive experience; I took all of my anxiety and dismay and allowed them to suspend momentarily. Instead, I dove deep into a story of turmoil paired with healing. As I folded myself into the uncomfortable airplane seat, I was able to draw irrevocable strength from the characters’ experiences of loss, pain, and ultimately, powerful recovery.

Sources of Comfort

Whenever I set out on a journey, I always ensure at least one thing makes it onto my agenda: a trip to a new bookstore.

My trip to San Francisco comes to mind most readily. As I explored City Lights Bookstore, I felt a keen and deep sense of belonging upon seeing titles that promised paths to different universes—titles that allowed me to brave the unfamiliar and terrifying in more accessible (yet still exhilarating) ways. In books, I found the stepping stones I needed towards courage.

So, although traveling—especially when it entails abandoning the familiar—is never a comforting experience, books have given me an avenue out of the uncertainty and discomfort: a way to ground myself in familiarity for when I inevitably travel again.

***

Through books, I have seen places of pure fantasy come to life; I have learned new ways to make closer bonds out of my friendships, to look at wrenching pain as a story of redemption, and to find comfort even in the most frightening places.

In reading, we get to live the only way we should: fully, completely, and—if we’re lucky—a thousand times.


Guest blog post courtesy of Arni Dizon.

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

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

Just for Clicks by Kara McDowell

Publisher: Amberjack Publishing, 2019
Genre: Young Adult Literature
Pages: 343
Format: Paperback
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My Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Summary

Though everyone on the Internet thinks Claire Dixon is “life goals,” she isn’t sure how long she can keep having her life on display—but with her mom Ashley’s famous blog and her twin Poppy’s commitment to their social media influence, she doesn’t feel like she has much of a choice.

With viral videos, stolen secrets, and critical choices, Claire navigates how to let herself be “just Claire.” This insightful read follows her journey to recognize that life shouldn’t be “just for clicks,” revealing that under the surface of this teen Internet star’s life is the depth of real emotions and the courage of personal discovery.

Thoughts

Being a twin from Arizona, I expected to relate to this narrative superficially; what I did not expect was to feel so much genuine emotion during what I assumed would be a light read. The heart-wrenching account with discovery of family and oneself felt powerfully real.

I thought that the themes and messages were particularly relevant and poignant. Claire, the narrator, provides an honest look into a high schooler trying to find her own identity through all the likes and texts.

Beyond suggesting that no online profile, no matter how perfect, provides an accurate picture into reality, Claire’s journey explores the choices that each of us as young adults have to make in today’s society, including when to go with family and when to find your own path, when to forgive and when to say no, when to make eye contact, and when to press delete.

For anyone familiar with the experience of high school in the Valley of the Sun, this book will be a treat for its accurate portrayal of Gilbert and the surrounding area. The descriptions are both strikingly beautiful and impressively accurate.

5 Most Readable Coffee Shops in the Valley

There are very few pleasures that rival finding the perfect coffee shop—whether that’s to read, write, convene with pals, or just sip on your favorite order, finding your coffee spot is one of life’s small-but-mighty pleasures. But in my experience, despite having a favorite go-to coffee stop, the place where I want to crack open a new book or thumb through some well-worn pages changes depending on my mood. And you know what, guys? That is okay. So for those of you who are itching to find new spots to read your favorite book, I’ve put together a comprehensive list of the 5 most readable coffee shops in the East Valley. Oh, and don’t worry; I’ve personally tested them all. What can I say? It’s just part of the job.


King Coffee, Tempe, AZ. Located just off of Mill Avenue and University, King Coffee is the perfect spot for those who want to stay close to ASU. Complete with cozy study nooks and tons of seating, you’ll feel right at home as soon as you walk through the bright orange door. And did I mention the coffee? Phe-nom-e-nal. Positively. While everything there is so (so) good, I personally recommend their almond milk lattes. Open from 7 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday through Friday and 8 a.m.-7 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, King Coffee is a must-try; I guarantee it’ll become a household name.


Sozo Coffeehouse, Chandler, AZ. With cozy couches, table seating, crazy-good-coffee, and live music/events scattered throughout the week, Sozo Coffeehouse is an absolute gem of a coffee shop in the Valley. Whether you’re looking to curl up in an armchair with an Agatha Christie detective novel or gather your book club together, Sozo is a most quiet, calming, and inspiring environment. Open Monday through Saturday from 7 a.m.-10 p.m., it’s the perfect spot for connecting with a good read or with good friends. You can check out their calendar here for a list of their upcoming events that support local artists.


Royal Coffee Bar, Tempe, AZ. Royal Coffee Bar packs a powerful punch in a bite-sized space. Located just off of ASU’s Tempe campus, it’s a great place to grab a dirty chai between classes while you read those textbooks. Or fun books. Or both, because life is all about balance. Geared towards busy college students, there are plenty of outlets along the coffee bar and even outdoor seating for when the weather isn’t sweltering. They serve their signature European style coffee from 7 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday through Friday and 8 a.m.-noon on Saturdays. Family owned and absolutely charming, Royal Coffee Bar will make for an unforgettable coffee experience.


Cartel Coffee Lab, Tempe, AZ. Boasting some truly industrial (and good) vibes, Cartel Coffee Lab’s Tempe location is a mere 10 minute walk from ASU’s campus. Their signature coffee roast delivers a bitter and smooth flavor, making their drinks a lively addition to any current read you bring along. Deceivingly small at first, Cartel’s versatile seating wraps around behind their coffee bar with tables, benches, and just about everything in between. With an effortlessly cool atmosphere, all of you bookworms will feel right at home turning on your headphones and diving headfirst into a good book. Open daily from 7 a.m.-10 p.m., Cartel will become your new favorite hangout.


Black Rock Coffee Bar, AZ. Clocking in at multiple locations around the valley (my personal favorite being Power and Ray!), Black Rock Coffee Bar strikes the perfect balance between edgy and insanely inviting. With strong and smooth coffee that is roasted in-house, everything from their Americanos to their signature Caramel Truffle is truly magnificent. Not only that, but each location offers a great amount of seating at both gorgeous wood tables or comfy leather chairs and couches. Harboring down-to-earth employees and killer playlists, Black Rock is the perfect place to read, study, or make new friends. Each location is open 5 a.m.-9 p.m., so, whether you’re an early riser or an up-all-nighter, Black Rock will never disappoint.


Book Review

The Now Dark Sky, Setting Us All on Fire by Robert Krut

Publisher: Codhill Press, 2019
Genre: Poetry
Pages: 56
Format: Paperback
My Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Summary

Krut’s collection contains three sections: the first two with fourteen poems each and the last one with thirteen. The poems do not necessarily tell a single unified narrative, though they do flow and have a definitively similar tone.

However, it is worth noting that these poems must be read in order to gain a true sense of the collection.

While I cannot claim a perfect understanding of this collection, I can say that the title gives a good indication of the themes, subjects, and images that repeat throughout the collection. The sky is dark “now”, encompasses the immediate value and poignancy of these poems, as well as the action they contain. The striking images of a dark sky setting us on fire illuminates how the natural world has this effect on “us all”, a reminder of a unifying inability to control our own mortality.

Thoughts

When you read a poem, you get a tiny glimpse into the author’s perspective on the poem’s subject filtered through the perception of the poem’s speaker. But when you read a collection of poems, you really get a sense for who the author is, what they feel, and what is on their mind. This poetry collection reveals the mind of a man who has a sharp eye for observation and keen insight into the common experience of human emotions, filtered through startlingly unique and moving imagery.

Krut’s collection surprised me with its portrayals of the world that felt both aptly universal and intensely personal, capturing the essence of the human journey with its yearnings and fears. The most repeated setting, or at least the one that left the deepest impression on me, was the graffitied streets of a city bustling with cabs that was still somehow hollow inside. Krut’s distinctive voice characterized cities and their residents with unique associations that relayed powerful truths.

Though many of the images in Krut’s collection were unsettling, this felt intentional rather than jarring. Each poem had its beauty, albeit an evocative and haunting appeal. My personal favorite, “The Tuning Fork and the Listeners,” was the one that seemed to most aptly characterize the echoing that resounds throughout our world, masterfully applied through the metaphor of song and a tuning fork. Krut’s skill in conveying ideas in a few lines is evident on each page in the collection; the short length is a gift that allows readers to return and glean more insight from the poetry.

Despite the intensity of the imagery and sophisticated writing, I believe high school students and above should be able to understand Krut’s message, or at least, appreciate his thematic and stylistic construction.


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