Review: Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

Do you ever pick up a book and know you are reading it at the wrong time? 

I feel like that is every book I’ve held in 2021. After a huge romance binge at the end of 2020 (Hello Bridgerton family, I miss you but I am glad to be living in the real world again) I thought I would start January off with the books I couldn’t quite stomach in the previous year. 

Except nothing has really changed. Books about hard subjects are still hard. Give me more regency romance and happy endings, please! 

Which brings me to Sing, Unburied, Sing. Ward won her second National Book Award for this Faulkneresq tale of a family struggling in the Jim Crow south. 

The writing is fantastic, the characters haunting but compelling, and the story feels real despite supernatural elements that left me often uncomfortable. 

On paper I don’t have many bad things to say about Ward’s work. Salvage the Bone remains on my TBR. Except I just couldn’t like Sing, Unburied, Sing. Reading it felt like work. It often felt more like homework to continue to understand the inequalities in America than just a story. 

I guess the works we read are not just a product of their time but also of the time we read them. 

I couldn’t bring myself to deeply care for Jojo and his young sister Kayla. I couldn’t find sympathy for Leonie even though she is product of her environment and deserving of grace. I couldn’t care about this Odyssey of a trip to pick up a father and lover from prison. At once I felt like I was reading a gripping emotional tale and completely separate from what was happening, and that wasn’t Ward’s fault. 

In the end this isn’t a great review. Sing, Unburied, Sing is a great book. It is an important work. It would make for great book club discussion and probably fits into a lot of readers yearly challenges. It just wasn’t for me this week. 

Often I think that readers, especially readers like us, who blog, tweet, instagram or tiktok, are harder on ourselves than we should be. We want to read the important books and the popular books. We also want to read the books we like that make us feel good, or let us have a good cry. We want to be transported and feel safe in the worlds we are exploring. 

Usually these wants are conflicting. The important books can’t always give us warm fuzzies. Fantasy that is really meaningful cannot always make us feel safe as we explore a new world. The buzziest new literary fiction has buzz for a reason, and it isn’t usually because it is a feel good tour of pizzerias in Italy. 

Sometimes it is okay to read for self preservation. Picking up our favorite novels and escaping into places that feel like home is just as important as reading about struggle and strife. 

This is all to say that Sing, Unburied, Sing is a fantastic novel. It is also a novel I have had 3 friends DNF in the last 2 weeks. All plan on revisiting when their mental health allows them more bandwidth, and that is okay.

Review: Sex and Vanity by Kevin Kwan

Lately I am capable of 3 things:

  1. Staring into nothing with no energy to do anything
  2. Ordering delivery because I can’t seem to make myself cook
  3. Reading romance novels. 

The last few weeks have been hard. I’ve fallen into a bit of a Pandepression. All of the Covid news, the state of America, and the friends and family that have now decided that masks, social distancing and behaving safely are optional have put me in a funk. 

Escapism is harder to come by 4 months in. Fantasy sometimes does the trick. I’m still working slowly through Ferrente’s wonderful Neopalitan novels, but worry what will happen to my state of mind when I finish. 

In their place I have picked up every romance novel that sounds remotely interesting. 

I’m just lucky that Kevin Kwan, of Crazy Rich Asians fame came out with a new book this month. It was right on time for me. 

Sex and Vanity is a modern and decedent retelling of E.M. Forster’s A Room With a View. Instead of an Edwardian vacation in Florence, Kwan finds his versions Lucie, Charlotte, and George in Carpi for the wedding of the decade. Propriety, desire, and insecurity drives the story as we weave through 8 years of Lucie’s life. 

Kwan does an excellent job updating source material that can feel out of touch to modern readers. With that said, A Room with a View is a harder sell in modern times. Sex and Vanity follows the same line, all the major plot points are still there, but where as Lucy originally feels like a more modern woman in the Forster text Kwan’s Lucie feels repressed, aimless, and generally unlikeable. 

Don’t get me wrong, I’m here for unlikeable characters, except Sex and Vanity is full of them. Charlotte, while intolerable in View, is a new level of awful in Capri. Cecil is comically awful. It is hard to see how George, the one character to make a positive impression in most, if not all of his scenes wants to be associated with any of these people. 

Kwan succeeds in giving readers decadent societies and socialites with elaborate backstories. Sex and Vanity is its best when it strays from Forster’s influence. The wedding on Capri, Puppy Yoga, and an over the top proposal give the story life. Even Lucie’s experienced as a mixed Chinese American gives new breath to this overly stuffy story. 

After all Kwan is at his best when showcasing microaggressions in society amongst the glitz and glamor. Lucie could have done with some more introspection, and a story that wasn’t surrounded by family expectation and romance. 

Or…readers really just deserved a story about Freddie and George having the summer of their lives in the Hamptons. 

Regardless, Sex and Vanity is a fun story with deliciously detestable and fun characters. It scratches that travel itch I think most of us are starting to experience as travel still feels a bit unsafe, and lets you live like one of the 1% for a few hundred pages. 

Review: Well Met by Jen DeLuca

I have never been a huge fan of renaissance fairies. In theory they sound wonderful for my historical fiction loving self. Old timey costumes, some vague medieval setting, josts and turkey legs and historic looking jewelry all sound great. I spent so much of my life doing theatre and reading Shakespeare that I want to love a good Ren Fest. I really do. 

But I don’t love crowds, or dust clouds and dirt. I don’t like dressing up in costumes and paying an arm and a leg to walk around what is essentially a faire ground playing at time travel.  

So I wasn’t sure what I was getting myself into when I started Well Met. Jen DeLuca’s lovely romance is set in a small town in Maryland famous for their local Renaissance Faire. Emily is in town to help her sister incapacitated sister and teenage niece. It helps that she needed to leave Boston anyway after a bad break up. When her niece decides she wants to be a part of this year’s Ren Faire Emily steps up to chaperone and finds that maybe small town life isn’t so bad, and that the neurotic faire runner, Simon, may be more fun than he looks. 

I adored everything about this book. I couldn’t put it down. Like had it on multiple devices and was reading it as my boyfriend drove me to and from eye appointments. The plot isn’t exactly unique. Girl meets boy. Girl thinks boy is a bit of an uptight asshole. Girl falls for boy…while he is wearing a pirate costume…but DeLuca creates a beautiful town in Willow Creek, Maryland and inhabits it with vibrant people of all walks of life. That is the beauty of Willow Creek’s Faire – everybody participates in some way. 

It also helps that Emily is a relatable twenty something out of a bad relationship. She is working at finding her confidence and trying to find her niche. Simon is a bit up tight but has *Tragic Backstory Syndrome* and is also a very well versed English teacher. Plus the “I hate you but maybe I just want to bang you” mood is REAL. Really, all of my favorite tropes are here in a very real feeling world ready for tears and superman speed reading. 

On top of everything Well Met is a very cute, very satisfying read. There is real character growth for both our main duo and supporting characters. There is enough research into Faire life to make it feel real. There is handfasting and taverns and stage combat. Really, just take my word for it and go read Well Met.

Series Review: A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J Maas

Last week a good friend popped into our Pandemic check in thread to demand we all read this series. She devoured the books over a few days, which is saying something as I know her daughter is wonderful and headstrong and all of 2 years old with a ton of energy.  I was between books at the time and hadn’t yet found something to fully hold my attention. 

Plus the ebook was like $6 and that is well within my budget. So I started to read A Court of Thorns and Roses. 

The rest of the week is a bit of a blur. Another friend joined our reading frenzy and we were more or less moved to a lesser group thread so our constant texting didn’t bother our less invested friends. 

So now I sit here, full book hangover in place wondering what I just read and how can it possibly be over. 

As always, let me back up and give you some ACoTaR background. 

Cue a world split in 2 by an invisible wall. Below the wall. Humans, above Faerie – complete with magic and immortality and their own problems. When Feyre ends up breaking an unknown section of the treaty separating the two people she is now called to the Faerie lands, to Prythian, where magic cannot solve everything and there are people who need saving. 

Of course there is a love story (or two…or more.) There are swoon worthy scenes and some very steamy moments that made me want to cheer for sex positivity in YA publishing. It is also a story full of hope, of fighting for a better future. It is full of characters learning their own worth, dealing with past trauma, and learning to love themselves. 

Sarah J. Maas builds an atmospheric world in Prythian. It was a bit of a shock to finish the last book in the series proper (A Court of Wings and Ruin) to know that my time among the various courts was coming to a close. 

It feels like I have just now come up for air. My friends and I had a social distanced meeting to discuss our favorite characters, favorite plotlines, twists and turns of the story. It was the most time any of us has spent talking in person without mentioning the current pandemic. It was refreshing. 

So I know I’m behind in singing my praise for one of Maas’ signature series, but I’m here now and looking for all of the merch and fanart.

Review: Catherine House By Elisabeth Thomas

Anyone have a soft spot for Dark Academia? I know it isn’t just me. 

I love reading about educational settings. The more elite and weird the better. I love uniforms and uppity students studying things that will make them somehow less employable then when they started their courses. I love moody old estates housing young adults who are both too stressed and drunk to have logical thought. I love the cult like feeling of these books. They make me want to pull out my tweed skirt, my cardigan with the elbow patches and walk through an old campus. 

If you’re like me and love all aspects of dark academia then please go pick up Catherine House. 

Catherine House is about a school. A school called Catherine. Catherine is highly selective, with a strange application process. It has a reputation of being both more difficult to gain admission to and more elite than any of the Ivy’s. Once accepted to Catherine your tuition and boarding is covered for your 3 years of study. The only catch – you leave your old life behind. Trinkets, cell phones, music…nothing from the outside world is permitted. It is next to impossible to communicate with loved ones. Catherine requires its students to eat, breath and sleep Catherine.

As readers we are introduced to Catherine through Ines, an incoming student who is looking to run away from her old, troubled life. At first I was skeptical of Ines as narrator. She seemed too aloof to fall for the school’s scheme, with too many hard edges. I’m happy to say I was wrong. What follows is a descent into Catherine’s seedy underbelly, and Ines’ descent into something that could be called madness. 

Thomas excels at creating an entirely real setting and populating it with real characters. Ines’ community ebbs and flows as her story progresses. Her community also shows the varying degrees of commitment to Catherine’s mission. There are certainly different levels of kool aid drinking going on. 

The classes sound both interesting and too obtuse for my media fried brain. Everything about the New Materials concentration is equal parts bizarre and engrossing. Catherine House is the type of book that makes me want to study something entirely obscure just to say I have. 

Go read Catherine House. As a bonus you’ll add diversity to your bookshelf with a debut book by a Black woman. It is a perfect escape from this time and also oddly timely. 

Honestly I can’t sing praises for Catherine House loudly enough.

Review: The Book of Longings by Sue Monk Kidd

This weekend I did something I rarely do. I talked to my mom about a book. She isn’t a reader. She likes that I read, she likes my job, she thinks all of these qualities are good things but she would much rather doddle in the kitchen or work in her garden than pick up a book. 

It’s okay. We’re different people. 

Anyway, I was talking to her about The Book of Longing. She wasn’t the first person I approached. She wasn’t the last. But she was the biggest departure from my traditional bookish circle. 

I spent the whole weekend with Kidd’s latest story in my heart and on my mind. It weighed on me. 

Looking back I don’t know what else I expected to happen. 

The Book of Longings is the story of Ana, the wife of Jesus. Yes, that Jesus. The one on the cross, with all of those churches. Jesus. Except Jesus is only here to play second fiddle to Ana and her wonderful story as a scribe, a believer, and a woman of her own mind. 

I went into Longings skeptical. In the wrong hangs this story could either be fanatical fanfiction or straight sacrilege.  I’m happy to say I was proven wrong. While the novel has a slow (and slightly horrific) start it really finds its stride in the marriage of Ana and Jesus. They are a good match, with character and living situations informed by diligent research and understanding of the time.  I spent my first reading session picking through the Authors Note at the end of the text. I needed some comfort about the level of research and intention. In a similar way that I cannot seem to bring myself to read Setterfield’s new novel about an alternate reality for Hilary Clinton I could see the purpose and power in Kidd’s work. I highly recommend reading the authors note for The Book of Longings if you are skeptical, also if you want to know more about the research process and about histories both real and liberally adapted. 

Now for the actual story. 

I found myself engrossed in the political drama, the religious inspirations, and the day to day tasks of a house wife in equal measure. Ana’s longing to be a voice and to share the stories of silenced women is honorable in any age, but especially in the first century. She is iconic in her own right – clever, educated, and compassionate. Kidd managed to create a character bigger than her historically significant (hello understatement) husband. Go Sue Monk Kidd. 

I also appreciated the treatment of sensitive material. I was not looking forward to reading about the crucifixion. I was raised Lutheran with very religious parents. I’ve taken to praying more during this crazy time and finding some solace in thinking about faith in a more holistic way. I was still worried about how a modern author would treat the bases of Christianity. 

I wasn’t disappointed. I was upset. I was horrified. I don’t do well with body horror in any context. But the scenes were tasteful. They were powerful. They were important for Ana. In the same way I appreciate how the rest of Ana’s long and successful life was portrayed. I started The Book of Longings thinking that I was hitching my horse to a character I couldn’t get behind for the sake of a sensational story and found myself routing for an incredible and fully developed character in a precarious place in time and history that could stand on her own two feet. 

Honestly I can’t recommend this book enough. I have major reading hangover right now and not even my recent package from my local indie bookstore can seem to snap me out of it. Maybe tomorrow I can fall in love with a new book but today I will honor Ana and continue to talk about her strength and voice with anyone who will listen.

Review: Invisible Guardian by Dolores Redondo

First off, a bit of a disclaimer. I don’t read a ton of crime fiction. I don’t love mysteries. Suspense is not a genre I am overly fond of. For this reason I am asking you take the following review with a grain of salt, a glass of wine, and some compassion. It is a bit scattered. My overall feelings on this book are a bit scattered as well. 

So why did I read a crime novel? Especially one that appears to tick all of my “nope, will pass” buttons?

The simple answer is, as is usual, book club. 

Let me back up. The Invisible Guardian centers around the murders of several girls. Amaia Salazar is sent back to work a case in her hometown, a place she swore she would never return, to advance her career. There she finds struggles with other investigators, repressed anxiety about her family life, and a mythology around her home region that seems to interfere with her case. 

I should start by saying that I actually enjoyed this reading experience quite a bit. There was a little frustration from my general dislike of mysteries, but I was compelled to keep reading and enjoyed the twists and turns. 

With that said, I hated Amaia. I am not particularly fond of characters that are unbending. I don’t think they read very true to life. This is especially true of Amaia, who’s backstory we learn should bring her to be a little bit more compassionate, and a little more understanding of the interest in mythos that surrounds her big case. Amaia believes in some instances of the supernatural but is amazingly unkind when people open up to her with their own very personal stories. 

Now, for the crimes. Someone is going around a small region in Spain killing young women and doings some fairly disturbing things with their bodies. I will be very honest and say that crimes like this are the reason I cannot watch shows like SVU or Criminal minds anymore. I had a very hard time getting past the horrific violence against women in this novel. Amaia, while upset because she is a detective and one of the “good guys” doesn’t seem to relate to these crimes on a deeper level. My excitement for having a woman lead this investigation dropped quite quickly when I realized she would act like “one of the guys”. 

And my final big “meh” was the ending. I get misdirects in crime fiction. I understand the fun is solving the mystery ahead of the main character. Invisible Guardians doesn’t give you any of that satisfaction because the resolution doesn’t make a lick of sense. It detracts from all of the fun and just left me and my book club with a confused hour of discussion. 

Books like this make me glad I decided not to do star reviews. Clearly I was not in love with this book but I did enjoy my time with it. Sometimes I think the difference between good and enjoyable is important. This is one of those times.

Review: Wayward Son by Rainbow Rowell

Five years ago I was in grad school. My social circle had kind of imploded as everyone went from carefree young twenty something to real adults needing to make real life choices. While I kept my very boring day job and started my program in library science I rekindled a love of reading. I found myself drawn more and more to Young Adult novels for comfort. I found myself in love with Rainbow Rowell’s writing. 

Over the years I kept up with her work. I even reviewed her new graphic novel the week it was released last year. 

But I put off reading Wayward Son. I didn’t remember much of  Carry On, just that I found it engrossing and fun. I didn’t feel like revisiting a fantasy land that required studying up on characters I could barely remember. Last fall my life was so busy I couldn’t imagine doing the extra work to refresh my memory of the first Simon Snow book to even think about starting the sequel. Holiday’s happened. Life went on. 

And then the world paused. 

I spent time looking at my unread books. I had friends doing the same. And suddenly Carry On and Wayward Son were back on my radar. Needless to say I found the time to refresh my memory about Simon, Baz, Penelope, and Agatha. 

For those of you not familiar with Rainbow Rowell’s work. Wayward Son is the sequel to Carry On. Fanfiction about Carry On’s fictional series is included in her novel Fangirl It is all super meta and very good. Wayward Son Picks up after a great battle (think Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows level steaks) with the main character picking up the pieces of their lives. That involves a Road Trip, some hard conversations, and a lot of vampire and wizard(ish) brooding stares. 

I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to fall into the Simon Snow’s universe the same way I did years ago. I was so far removed from the person I was when I first enjoyed Rowell’s work. I was pleasantly surprised to find that Simon and Company (Baz. Mostly Baz) are great at any time. 

Wayward Son reads very much as a middle book in a trilogy. Nothing about it eels like a stand alone book. Characters are coping with the events of Carry On. There is some real PTSD happening with everyone. Relationships are established and complicated. Nothing about this road trip makes sense on its own. And that is okay. Just please don’t jump in thinking this is a good entry to the universe of  Simon Snow. 

There is, of course, a sudden emergency that needs attention, a few new fun characters for exposition, and a cliffhanger to ensure readers come back for more. 

Overall I was pleased with Wayward Son. It had action, brooding, vampires, and witches. It made me miss roadtrips and has me waiting for the final book in the Carry On trilogy.

Review: To Have and to Hoax by Martha Waters

I live for a good regency era romance. 

Okay, I really live for Jane Austen retellings, Jane Austen novels, and novels based on side characters in Jane Austen novels that also have super romantic plot lines. 

It’s my comfort zone. I have no shame. 

So when I heard about To Have and To Hoax I was immediately drawn in. Debut author. Regency romance. Husband and Wife in a love/hate relationship hellbent on tricking the other into respecting them again?

Sign me up. And then sign me up for the reread, the book club discussion, the blog post, and the general fangirling. 

Needless to say I bought To Have and To Hoax for my kindle immediately. And then I spent a week immersed in the absolutely crazy schemes of Violet and James Audley.

And that is basically all To Have and to Hoax is about. Violet and James have fought. They haven’t spoken meaningfully in 4 years. Now both have plans to get the other to crack. 

Waters does a fantastic job of creating and writing comedy. Nothing about her first novel feels serious. The occasional trope is discovered and canceled out by more cunning (or ridiculous plans.) The dialogue between Violet and James is perfect. Witty banter is the star of the show. 

I will say some of the scheming is a bit over the top, but it fits in perfectly with the tone of the story. 

If you’re looking for a quick, fun read from a new author please check out To Have to Hoax. It will fill the Jane Austen void in your life and give you some great laughs.

Review: Hex by Rebecca Dinerstein Knight

Sometimes expectations get the better of us. Sometimes a description is so well written, the reviews by other authors so promising, and the buzz so enticing that there is nothing to do but raise your hopes for the occasion.

That is what happened to me with The Hex. Wow. This is not the book I thought it would be. It certainly wasn’t the book I wanted it to be. 

For starters I would like to direct you to the goodreads description of Hex. It is lush, full of drama and some very interesting botany. 

A more adequate description would read “an expelled PhD student continues to obsess over her advisor, loses all motivation, sort of tries to do something with toxic plants? Maybe? And there are somehow lots of love triangles and shitty relationships all in a brief 250ish page stream of consciousness novel.”

See how my expectations may have been artificially raised? As a lover of Circe, Outlander, and other books with women working with herbs and plants I really thought Hex would be a tour de force. I wanted a descent into madness over plants that could kill, and a quest to find antidotes out of some goodness. None of that happens. 

In its place there is Nell. Nell who isn’t even interested in her own PhD research. Nell who is in love with her advisor, Joan, but not her boyfriend. Nell, who is only upset about her expulsion because it means she see’s less of Joan. Joan, Joan, Joan. It would help if there was anything remotely interesting about Joan, but she is just a normal person in academia. There is no impressive CV mentioned, no indication that her teaching style is anything other than intimidation and harsh grading. Nothing. She’s just a person, once who Nell cannot even describe in a way to make the reader mildly curious about her, let alone obsessed over her ourselves. 

The stream of consciousness writing was admittedly beautiful. Paired with short diary entry style chapters it is easily the start of the book. Without these choices by Knight I am sure this would have been in my DNF pile within pages. Instead it is one of my most highlighted kindle books of the last few months while also being my most disappointing read of the spring. 

I’m curious to read other bloggers thoughts on Hex. Let me know if you’ve posted a review and I’ll be sure to check it out!