Americanah

by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
First sentence: “Princeton, in the summer, smelled of nothing, and although Ifemelu liked the tranquil greenness of the many trees, the clean streets and stately homes, the delicately overpriced shops, and the quiet, abiding air of earned grace, it was this, the lack of smell, that most appealed to her, perhaps because the other American cities she knew well had all smelled distinctly.”
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Content: There is some on-screen sex, including a rape scene, as well as swearing, including f-bombs. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

It’s hard to know where to start on the plot of this one. It’s basically the story of two Nigerians — Ifemelu and Obinze — who met in high school and fell in love, and their distinct paths. They attended college together, but in a political uprising in Nigeria, their education got interrupted. Ifemelu — whose aunt had moved to America years before — got into a college in the US and went there. Obinze was denied a visa to the US and so ended up as an illegal immigrant in the UK. Most of the book is about their experiences — told in flashback, mostly — as immigrants in Western countries.

That part of the book was fascinating, though I found Ifemelu’s story more interesting. Obinze only spent a few years in the UK, working underground, trying to become legal, before he was caught and deported back to Nigeria, where he actually ended up becoming very wealthy. Ifemelu spent a long time in the US — 15 years — and had a myriad of experiences from the terrible to the banal to the good. She ended up writing a blog about being a non-American Black in the US and about race relations. All of which I found a fascinating perspective. Ifemelu had some interesting observations about race in the US and the role immigrants — especially Black immigrants — play in the discussion about race.

In the end, though, this is a story about relationships, how they work and change over time. Not just romantic ones, though it is that, but all interpersonal relationships. There is an ebb and flow to relationships, people who come in and go out of our lives, and I think Adichie captured that quite eloquently. In fact, Adichie is a gorgeous writer, balancing beautiful words with characterization and enough plot to keep me turning pages.

Recommended.

Harrow the Ninth

by Tamsyn Muir
First sentence: “Your room had long ago plunged into near-complete darkness, leaving now distraction from the great rocking thump-thump-thump of body after body flinging itself onto the great mass already coating the hull.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Others in the series: Gideon the Ninth
Content: It’s violent, brutal, and doesn’t mince swear words. It’s in the Science Fiction/Fantasy section of the bookstore.

There really is no way to mention the plot without spoiling it; truly the less you know about Harrow going in, the better it will be. Trust me.

Know this: Harrow has been made a Lyctor. The first three-fourth of the book will have you questioning your sanity and wonder what the hell Muir is up to. Stick with it. It is not uninteresting, and Muir will keep you guessing and wondering. The final fourth makes up for everything that went before.

It is awesome and amazing and I can’t wait to see how Muir ends this all.

Sex and Vanity

by Kevin Kwan
First sentence: “The trail was lit by tall flickering torches, but Charlotte Barclay still felt like she could have fallen a thousand times on the pathway.”
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Content: There’s a lot of swearing, including multiple f-bombs, plus a tasteful sex scene, a very awkward sex scene, and some talk of oral sex. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

First off, you’re going to want to compare this to Crazy Rich Asians, and it’s not. Sure, it’s crazy rich people and there are the same comparisons of old vs. new money that cropped up in Crazy Rich Asians, as well as the subtle racism that BIPOC — in this case, very wealthy BIPOC — get when running around white circles — in this case, very rich, white circles. But, this is so much more than that.

Kwan has taken E. M. Forester’s book, A Room with a View and thoroughly updated while keeping all the charm from both the book and the Merchant Ivory film, both of which I have loved for ages. (Seriously: he changed details, but the beats of the plot were exactly the same. It felt familiar and new all at the same time.) And he did it so seamlessly. The characters were their own individual characters, and yet I could see the original Charlotte, Lucy, George, and Cecil laid on top of them. I adored the modernization, I adored the homage to Italy and New York. I adored Kwan’s obsession with fashion and food and how new money can be both crass and understandable. It really was the perfect retelling of a classic story, and a perfect book to read on a hot summer day.

Absolutely recommended.

If Beale Street Could Talk

by James Baldwin
First sentence: “I look at myself in the mirror.”
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Content: There is some swearing, including multiple f-bombs. It’s in the fiction sections of the bookstore.

This is the story of Tish and Fonny, a young Black couple who are looking forward to a life together. Until Fonny is falsely arrested and imprisoned for rape. But Tish, pregnant with Fonny’s baby, and her family and Fonny’s father, are determined to get him out.

It’s a pretty basic plot when you sketch it out, but Baldwin is more about the words and the feel than the plot. He’s a very lyrical writer, which sometimes (for me) got in the way of the characters and the story, but mostly just enhanced it. I do love the way he characterizes the people in the book, fleshing them out so they feel whole. It did feel dated with some of the language, but that’s to be expected for a book written in 1973. But, the themes — of white supremacy and systemic racism in the police force — are still relevant.

I read this for a book group discussion (which I missed… boo on me!) and I’m sad I missed the discussion; there is much to talk about here. At any rate, I’m glad I missed it.

The Chicken Sisters

by KJ Dell’Antonia
First sentence: “The hit TRC series Food Wars is back!”
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Release date: June 30, 2020
Content: There’s swearing, including multiple f-bombs. It will be in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

First, some background: in Pittsburg, Kansas, there are two fried chicken places: Chicken Annie’s and Chicken Mary’s. There is some bit of controversy over which is better (I’ve eaten at one, but I don’t remember which) and they’re both pretty famous. Dell’Antonia is taking that idea — of two fried chicken places in a small Kansas town — and spinning a story around it. This time, there’s a feud between the two places, going back generations to the two sisters who started the restaurants: Frannie and Mimi. The feud has gotten so bad that when Amanda, one of Mimi’s descendants, marries Frank, one of Frannie’s she’s disowned, practically speaking, from her own family. And so, when on a whim, Amanda invites Food Wars to town to judge between Frannie’s and Mimi’s she has no idea what she has unleashed.

There’s more to the story; Amanda is distant from her older sister, Mae, who has made a career in reality television as someone who can clean and organize the heck out of everything. It doesn’t help that their mother, Barbara, is a hoarder. Or that Amanda’s husband and father-in-law died in a crash about 15 years prior, and so Amanda’s basically been holding on, raising two kids on her own.

It’s a sweet little book, nothing to deep or out of the ordinary. Just two sisters and their families trying to figure out how on earth they got where they are, and maybe, just maybe, they can figure out how to fix it.

A perfect summer read. (Also, I really want some good fried chicken now!)

Beach Read

by Emily Henry
First sentence: “I have a fatal flaw.”
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Content: There are swear words, including multiple f-bombs. There are also two on-screen, but not overly graphic, sex scenes. It’s in the fiction section of the bookstore.

January Andrews has a problem: she’s a romance (sorry: “women’s fiction”) writer and has hit a roadblock in her writing: she no longer believes in happily-ever-afters. Her dad died and at his funeral, January found out he’d been cheating on her mom. And then her long-time boyfriend broke up with her. In a hot tub. So, she moves back to her dad’s hometown in Michigan (the upper part of the lower peninsula) into the house her dad bought to share with his mistress. Not fun, but also cheap. As it turns out, she moved in next door to her college writing nemesis: Gus Everett. And (of course) they reconnect. This leads to (after a bad evening) a bet: Gus, who writes Literary Fiction, will take on writing a Romance book, and January will write a Novel. In order to help facilitate this, they will take the other one on excursions as “research” (definitely not dates). The catch: Absolutely NO falling in love.

Of course, it doesn’t work out that way (it is Women’s Fiction, after all). But it’s incredibly fun getting to the end of this book. Henry’s dealing with more than just falling in love: she’s dealing with grief and loss, grappling with the idea that parents aren’t always who we think they are, and with perceptions (or misperceptions) of other people. In between all this, there is a smart love story, with some fun, sassy moments, and I felt like the development of the relationship between Gus and January wasn’t contrived. It was defiantly a happy-making book. Perfect for a, well, beach read.

Audiobook: The Glass Hotel

by Emily St. John Mandel
Read by Dylan Moore
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Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There is a lot of swearing, including multiple f-bombs. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

This one is a bit hard to sum up, plot wise. We mostly follow Vincent, who grew up in a small town in British Columbia, on the ocean, and whose mom died in a freak accident when she was 13. She’s working as a bartender in the posh Hotel Caiette when she meets Jonathan Alkaitis, who ends up going to jail for running a Ponzi scheme. There are various sub-plots and diversions, but that’s the basic meat of it.

However, the joy in this book comes from the diversions. It doesn’t follow a linear timeline, jumping back and forth throughout the years, as we get to know Vincent and others. Mandel focuses on the effects of actions, and everything in the book is interconnected. There’s a bit of mystery, a bit of romance, a bit of commentary on class issues, and a bit of reflection of art. That sounds disjointed, but it never felt that way. Mandel knows how to bring a reader in and help them care about her characters.

Though, maybe it’s because I listened to the book. The narrator was fabulous, and she was able to pull me in and keep me interested even though the timeline wasn’t always the easiest to follow. I found myself caring about Vincent and her life, as well as a lot of the people who intersected with it, and I’m sure that’s almost entirely because of the way Moore told the story.

It’s not my favorite book of the year, but it was certainly an intriguing one.

Carpe Jugulum

by Terry Pratchett
First sentence: “Through the shredded black clouds a fire moved like a dying star, falling back to earth–“
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Others in the series:  Equal RitesWyrd SistersWitches AbroadLords and LadiesMaskerade
Content: There’s a few jokes about sex and a bit of violence. It would be in the science fiction/fantasy section of the bookstore if we had it.

We’re back in Lancre, and Magrat has just had a baby. They’re doing a naming ceremony, and her husband, King Verence, has decided that it would be “modern” and “diplomatic” to invite the residents of the next kingdom over, Uberwald. Which would have been a really great idea, except they’re vampires. Or rather: Vampyres, because they’re modern and sophisticated.

Thus starts a romp as Grany Weatherwax (who thought she didn’t get invited to the naming) goes into hiding as the vampyres take over, and it’s up to Nanny Ogg, Agnes, and Magrat (with some help from an Om preacher, Mighty Oats — go read Small Gods before this, because there are Easter eggs) to get rid of the infestation.

The thing I love most about Terry Pratchett’s books are the little things. Like a character named Igor, who limps and has a lisp and keeps complaining about the new vampires, saying “the old mathter did it better”. Or the page or two of thinly veiled penis jokes in the middle of a vampire fight that had me laughing out loud. Or the fact that the vampire castle is called Don’tgonearthe Castle. Or the Nac Mac Feegle (!), who show up (in an early iteration; they speak mostly gibberish and Nanny has to translate at one point. I like them better in Wee Free Men, but it was still delightful to see them). I think this is one of the better witch books: I liked how all the witches from Granny to Agnes got to play a role, and use their strengths to help.

It’s truly a delight, and a fitting end to the adult witch books. Now to dive into some more parts of Discworld!

Audiobook: Pretty Things

by Janelle Brown
Read by Julia WhelanLauren Fortgang & Hillary Huber 
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Or listen on Libro.fm
Content: There is a lot of swearing, including many f-bombs, as well as non-graphic depictions of sex. It’s in the Fiction section of the bookstore.

Nina Ross has always been at the mercy of her mother’s lifestyle. They’ve moved over and over again, never quite getting ahead. Mostly because her mother really couldn’t hold down a job, preferring to con rich men out of their money. It’s not been a great life, except for that one year when she lived up in Tahoe, and met Benny, but was put off by his uber-rich family (including his sister, Vanessa). But that was all in the past, and Nina herself has resorted to conning and stealing with her boyfriend to help pay her mother’s medical bills since she came down with cancer.

Vanessa is the privileged daughter of a once uber-wealthy family. She wanted to make her own mark on the world, though, so she tried out several things (losing a lot of her trust fund) until she settled on being an Instagram influencer and all that comes with it. But her mother committed suicide, her brother is in an asylum because of his schizophrenia, and her father died and left her the family home, Stonehaven, at Tahoe.

Which is where Vanessa and Nina’s lives intersect: Nina and her boyfriend head up to Tahoe to con Vanessa out of the money Nina is sure is in the house safe. But will they succeed?

Alternating Vanessa and Nina’s viewpoints, this one kept me thoroughly engrossed. I don’t know if it was in part because the narrators were so fabulous (So fabulous!) or if it was the story that kept me interested, but I would sit for hours (working on puzzles) listening to the tale of Vanessa and Nina unfold. There’s a lot in there as well: class issues and privilege and perspectives and how we do or don’t trust and believe in people. Ultimately, it is the story of two women figuring out how to believe in themselves.

Definitely worth reading.

The Knockout Queen

by Rufi Thorpe
First sentence: “When I was eleven years old, I moved in with my aunt after my mother was sent to prison”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: April 28, 2020
Content: There is a lot of swearing, including many f-bombs, and some graphic sex. It will be in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

When Michael moved to North Shore, California, he moved in next door to Bunny Lampert and her father. Bunny was the star of North Shore, tall, blonde, beautiful (even at eleven) and talented at volleyball. Even though Michael was none of those things — being, rather, a tortured, deeply in the closet gay teenage boy — he and Bunny became best friends. Not the sort of friends that hung out at school (or even after, really) but the kind that stays up late at night doing face masks and talking about all sorts of things. While they were not inseparable, they were devoted.

So much so, that Bunny is willing to go to bat for Michael when a girl on the volleyball team starts badmouthing him. Go to bat, in the sense that she beat the other girl into a coma. From there, Michael’s and Bunny’s paths irrevocably diverge.

This story is all told through Michael’s reflections as an adult, as he tries to figure out who he is, and why society is so deeply unfair to those who don’t have the money to make a decent life for themselves (his mother was sent to prison for defending herself against and abusive husband). He gets into abusive relationships because he’s deeply self-loathing, as is Bunny, and maybe this self-loathing is what ties them together? It’s not a happy narrative, but it is one that has made me think. About perceptions — did Bunny become the person everyone thought she was, or was she always that way — about class, about the things in our lives that affect us.

I’m not entirely sure I liked this book, but it is one that will stay with me for a while, and perhaps that’s worth something, in the end.