Shipped

by Angie Hockman
First sentence: “Every time I collect my mail from the paint-spattered box in the lobby and see my name printed over and over in bold black ink, I’m reminded that I’m named after a rock star.”
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Content: There is swearing, including multiple f-bombs, and some off-screen sex. It’s in the Romance section of the bookstore.

Henley Evans has big goals for her life: work really really hard, progress in her job as marketing manager at a small cruise line, and suriving her work nemesis, Graeme Crawford-Collins (who was, disappointingly, not British. I think with a name like that, you need to be British). When both Henley and Graeme are up for the same promotion, and then sent on a cruise to the Galápagos islands, Henley is sure it’s going to be the worst vacation ever. But things don’t always go as expected, and not everything (and everyone) is what it seems.

I had been reading a few heavy-ish books, and I needed a light, silly, palate-cleanser, and this hit the spot perfectly. It’s a perfect rom-com, following all the familiar beats, with a side trip to the Galápagos islands put in. I enjoyed Henley’s girl crew, including her sister Walsh, and I liked the push-pull between Henley and Graeme. It’s not deep, but it was a lot of fun. Which is exactly what I needed right now.

Libertie

by Kaitlyn Grenidge
First sentence: “I saw my mother raise a man from the dead.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: March 30, 2021
Content: There is tasteful on-screen sex and use of the n-word. It will be in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

It is the middle of the 19th century, and Libertie is a free Black girl being rasied by a single mother who has the audacity to become a doctor. And who wants only the best for Libertie. Which is to say, she expects Libertie to follow in her footsteps and become a doctor as well. The weight of that is so much for Libertie, that before her mother can find out that she flunked out of college, she marries and runs off with a man — her mother’s assistant — to Haiti. Only to find that the freedom she was hoping for isn’t there.

It’s less about the plot, though, than it is about Libertie and her relationship with her mother. There is very much a push-and-pull there; with Libertie wanting love and unconditional acceptance, and her mother showing her love with the expectation of excellence. It’s set in a world where there is slavery, racism, and colorism but that only brushes up against the plot. It’s mostly about expectations: those that are placed upon us by others — parents, spouses, society at large — and the ones we place on ourselves.

Greenidge is a very talented writer, and I think Libertie is a character that will stay with me for a while. I’m not sure I thought the ending was realistic, but I appreciated it. It was a good read and I’m glad I read it.

The Bees

by Laline Paull
First sentence: “The old orchard stood besieged.”
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Content: There is exactly one swear word used. There is some graphic violence, but nature is graphic, I guess. It’s in the adult section of the bookstore.

Flora 717 isn’t your normal, average sanitation worker bee. She can speak, for one, and she’s incredibly curious. So, she breaks the norms of the hive and instead of working in sanitation, drearily cleaning up after more important bees, she goes to take on the jobs of several other of the kin clans, working in the nursery, serving the male drones, foraging for pollen and nectar, and even serving the Queen herself.

This book was simultaneously really really weird — anthropomorphizing bees is not something I’d ever think needed to be done — and also really really compelling. I was fascinated by the way that Paull depicted the hive (do bees really act like that? — not the speaking and everything, but the actions — How much, exactly, is rooted in science and observation?) and the interactions between Flora and the different classes of bees. For not a lot happening — it basically follows Flora through the year of her life (how long do bees live, anyway?) — it was incredibly captivating to read about.

Weird as all get out, though.

When I was telling the family about it, they mentioned that it sounds a lot like Watership Down and I think that’s a super apt comparison. Which is also a pretty good marker for whether or not you’d like a book about an odd little bee in a beehive.

Deacon King Kong

by James McBride
First sentence: “Deacon Cuffy Lambkin of Five Ends Baptist Church became a walking dead man on a cloudy September afternoon in 1969.”
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Content: There is swearing, including many f-bombs, and the use of the n-word. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

The plot of this one is almost incidental: Deacon Cuffy “Sportcoat” Lambkin (who also gets called Deacon King Kong for the amount of hooch he drinks) shot (but did not kill) a local drug dealer, who used to be a kid that played on a baseball team Sportcoat coached and umpired in the projects in Brooklyn. And, because of this, Things Happen. What the Things are doesn’t really matter: this is a novel that is propelled by the characters. And there’s a whole mess of characters. So many that when I tried to listen to this on audio, I got lost with who was who. But, reading it helped keep some of them straight. It’s a whole neighborhood full of characters, their wants and needs and desires and connections to each other. And McBride truly captured a moment in time, and a place, as the people of this Brooklyn neighborhood lived their lives and tried to keep things together as much as they could.

I didn’t absolutely love this book, but I didn’t dislike it either. It’s funny at times, and always interesting, if you like charioteer-driven novels.

Piranesi

by Susanna Clarke
First sentence: “
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Content: There’s some talk of murder, it’s pretty intricate in its writing and there are about a dozen f-bombs at one point. It’s in the Science Fiction/Fantasy section of the bookstore.

I’ll be honest here: I wasn’t going to read this one. I remember reading Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell when it first came out and thought it was a bit overblown. But, I have to admit, my interest was piqued when Maggie Stiefvater said she loved this one. And then M read it and suggested I give it a try (after I picked it up for her to take back with her).

And… the less said about the plot, the better, I think. Know Piranesi is a person who lives in a labyrinth a House full of Statues, and who is mostly alone. There is a mystery of sorts, and perhaps the less you know about that, the better. But know that the mystery really isn’t the point of the book (if you do think it’s the point then you are bound to be disappointed at the Big Reveal like I was). The point, as M pointed out when we were talking about it, is that it’s an homage to curiosity and to resistance. And it’s a meditation on being alone versus being lonely. It’s a charming little book with a completely engaging main character.

It’s probably not going to be my favorite book ever, but I’m not sorry I read it.

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue

by V. E. Schwab
First sentence: “A girl is running for her life.”
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Content: There is a handful of swear words, including the f-bomb, some drug use, and some tasteful on-screen sex. It’s in the science fiction/fantasy section of the bookstore.

Where do I even start with this one? I put off reading it for months and months (I had an early copy) because I was afraid. Mostly because I enjoyed Schwab’s other stuff and I didn’t want this to be awful. And then I put it off because so many people came into the store asking for it, and not the usual science fiction/fantasy-type readers either. Maybe it was one of those books that was too Literary for me and I wouldn’t like it. But this past weekend, after a long week of work, it seemed just the right thing.

And it was.

It’s nominally the story of Addie LaRue, a woman who, on the eve of her wedding in 1791, makes a deal with the darkness: she wants to live a free life. The darkness, in return, takes away her ability to be seen, to be remembered. It’s her story as she flits through the ages, living, trying to figure out her curse, locked in a battle of wills with a fickle god. But it’s also a book about Humanity and Art and the little things that make life worth living. (Hint: it’s being loved, yes, but it’s More Than That, too).

And it was beautiful.

I loved Addie and her story, and Henry — the one person in Addie’s 300 years that actually remembered her, and the twists and turns. It’s a gorgeous book, full of life and heartbreak, and it’s a good thing people are buying it on their own, because I would be a wreck trying to handsell it.

Which is to say, if you haven’t read it yet, you probably should.

Audio book: Mexican Gothic

by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Read by: Frankie Corzo
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Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There is mild swearing and three f-bombs. There is also some disturbing sexual imagery (but no actual sex). It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore

Noemí Taboada is a socialite in Mexico City, without much of a care in the world. Her job is to get married, though she tends to go after boys of whom her father disapproves. Then, as a response to a disturbing letter, Noemí is sent off to High Place, in the mountains, to see what is going on with her cousin and her new husband, Virgil Doyle.

What she finds is a whole lot of weird. Creepy family, creepy house, weird dreams… and it gets increasingly more disturbing. The only ally she has (she is rarely allowed to see her cousin) is the family’s youngest, a 20-something boy named Frances. Perhaps, with his help, she can figure out what the heck is going on, and how she’s going to get out of the mess she found herself in.

Oh, man, this was creepy. Partially it was the narrator, who read it in a super calm voice, even when things were going all sorts of crazy weird. It bothered me at first but eventually it added to the tension of the book. It was wild. And the story itself? Gothic to the core, with an added race factor. The Doyles are not just creepy, they’re racist and Moreno-Garcia plays with at that in some fascinating (and haunting) ways.

It’s not my usual fare, but it was perfect for October.

Riot Baby

by Tochi Onebuchi
First sentence: “Before her Thing begins.”
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Content: There is violence, and a lot of swearing including multiple f-bombs and the use of the n-word. It’s in the science fiction/fantasy section of the bookstore.

Kev was born during the LA Riots into a family where his older sister, Ella, has telekinetic powers. She can see people’s pasts, has visions of the future, and can move (and blow things up) with her mind. For most of their childhood, it’s Kev who’s interacting with the real world, while Ella stays hidden away. But then Kev is arrested in a failed robbery and incarcerated at Rikers. And so Ella has to learn how to interact with the real world.

That’s not even the plot, really. I think the plot is immaterial to the book. It’s really about Rage. Black Rage about systemic racism — Onyebuchi pushes police violence and over-policing to the extreme; in one scene Ella’s house is in a neighborhood where they are monitored 24/7 by drones and tankes, and so she transports to a race track in a white part of the state where they have many, many more freedoms. It’s a condemnation of systemic racism and I felt like I was just bearing witness to Black Rage.

In fact, I’m not entirely sure what I think about this one. I know I didn’t get everything that Onyebuchi meant to portray (not the first time I will have missed things in a book). I think I need to read this in a book club, just so someone can explain the nuance to me, because all I got was Rage.

I’m not sorry I read it, though.

Audio book: Such a Fun Age

by Kiley Reid
Read by Nicole Lewis
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There is a lot of swearing, including multiple f-bombs. There is also talk of sex, but none actual. It’s in the Fiction section of the bookstore.

Emira is a 25-year-old Black woman who is kind of aimless. All her friends seem to have “real” jobs, but she’s working as a temporary typist for the Green Party in Philadelphia and as a babysitter for Alix and Peter Chamberlin. The thing is, Emira adores Briar, the girl she sits, and doesn’t really feel much of a need to change things up. Then she meets Kelly — at a grocery store after Emira had a run-in with a security cop. And they begin to date, which sets up a run-in with Alix.

It doesn’t sound like a whole lot happens in this book from the description, but it’s more thoughtful and intricate than that. It’s a meditation on relationships — can a wealthy White woman really have a “friendship” with her Black babysitter? Is a White man who sees himself as an ally because he has Black friends and dates Black or biracial women, really an ally? — but it’s also a meditation on how we perceive ourselves. Reid did a fabulous job making no one out to be the “villain” here. Everyone had reasonable motivations (or at least presented reasonable motivations) and I could see they were all operating from a place they thought was reasonable. But, I could also see how the decisions were self-interested. Everyone said they were trying to help Emira, but were their decisions really helping? There’s a lot to talk and think about, especially about the way White people center themselves, even when they’re trying to help.

On top of that, the narrator was fabulous. I loved the way she portrayed each character (especially 3-year-old Briar; she was perfect!) and the way she made them distinctive and intriguing. She kept me coming back (though I think this one would have worked for me in print form, as well) and wanting to see what was going on next with Emira and Alix.

Definitely worth the buzz it’s been getting.

Giovanni’s Room

by James Baldwin
First sentence: “I stand at the window of this great house in the south of France as night falls, the night which is leading me to the most terrible morning of my life.”
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Content: There is some talk of sex and some mild swearing. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

I’m at a loss wit this one. The basic plot is this: it’s the 1950s (the book was first published in 1956, which surprised me) and David is a gay man. Except he doesn’t want to believe it. He believes he is sick, he is dirty. And, in Paris, he’s found a girl — Hella — who he mostly likes and asks her to marry him. Except she’s not sure, so she darts off to Spain, and David meets Giovanni. And falls in love. Head-over-heels, living together love. Until Hella comes back, and David completely dumps Giovanni who ends up going into depressive spiral.

On the one hand, good on Baldwin for writing about LGBTQ characters in the 1950s (I haven’t read much classic lit from that time period, so I really don’t know how common or uncommon it was). Also, it surprised me that all of his characters were White (except Giovanni who was Italian, but that’s basically White). Not saying he shouldn’t have written it, just that it surprised me. But, the thing was: this was so full of gay self-loathing. I understand why: it was, culturally (especially for Americans) taboo, and so those who are gay must have felt absolutely awful about it. I appreciate that insight. But it was so hard to take. Maybe because I’m looking at it through 21st-century eyes, but I felt bad for David. He didn’t need to mess up his life so much because he was gay. But, then, it was the 1950s, so maybe he did.

Also: I had a hard time stomaching the sexism. At one point, Hella’s like “I totally need a man to complete me” (not those exact words; Baldwin likes going in for long eloquent sentences), which so eye-rollingly, well, 1950s. I guess it’s really just a reflection of its time.

That said, it was short, and it was interesting (even if it was impossibly sad) and I’m glad I read it. Not my favorite Baldwin book though.