Of Curses and Kisses

by Sandhya Menon
First sentence: “Just outside Aspen, Colorado, nestled between the sentinel mountains and an inkblot lake, lies St. Rosetta’s International Academy.”
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Review copy provided by the bookstore.
Release date: February 18, 2019
Content: There is some talk of teenage drinking and swearing, including a half-dozen or so f-bombs. It will be in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore, but I’d give it to a younger kid if they were okay with the language.

One of the perks of working at a bookstore is the galley shelves in our basement. All the ARCs that come in (and aren’t nabbed and never returned) are put on these shelves for booksellers to pilfer through. I was down there a week or so ago, looking for something new to read (because it’s not like I don’t have enough on my shelves; it’s just that there was nothing on my shelves I really felt like reading. You get that, right?) and I stumbled across this one. I’ve read her before, and enjoyed it well enough, so I took this one home.

And was I glad I did! Jaya Rao is a “princess” of a small state in southern India. She’s basically the ruling class, and takes her responsibility of being the heir incredibly seriously. Grey Emerson is the son of a British lord, whose family used to be part of the British Empire in India. In fact, the Emersons stole a precious ruby from the Rao family temple when they left India in 1947. And Jaya’s great-great grandmother cursed the Emerson line.

So, when Jaya and her sister Isha are forced to go to a new boarding school because of a scandal involving Isha, a couple of boys, and Isha’s desire to be a mechanic (which is not a very princess-like thing to do), and they end up at the same school as Grey Emerson, Jaya decides to get revenge: make Grey fall in love with her and then break his heart.

Of course (of course!) it’s not that simple or easy. But it is thoroughly delightful. Switching between Jaya’s and Grey’s perspectives allowed the reader to get the full perspective, and the fact that both Grey and Jaya are conflicted about their position in their respective families as well as their future helped deepen the characters. And even though they were surrounded with the children of the rich and elite, Menon made pretty much everyone Jaya came into contact with a three-dimensional character. It’s a fluffy romance book, sure, but it’s a fluffy romance book with LAYERS. Which is the best kind.

Absolutely a delightful read.

Children of Virtue and Vengeance

by Tomi Adeyemi
First sentence: “I try not to think of him.”
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Others in the series: Children of Blood & Bone
Content: There is a lot of violence, some of it graphic. And talk of sex but none on the page. It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

This book picks up right after the first one in the series, so spoilers (obviously).

It’s a few weeks after Zélie brought magic back to Orisha, but things haven’t gotten any better for the magi. In fact, when magic came back, it came back not only to those who had magic, but to those who have magic ancestry. Which means, unfortunately, that the royals who have been oppressing the magi now have magic… and so they keep oppressing (and killing) the magi, especially those who have decided that the royals must go.

It’s not a happy book, this. It’s very much a second in a series — they won a battle in the first book, but it wasn’t enough to win the war. And so one side retaliates, and then the other side retaliates, and then the first side retaliates again… you get the picture. In fact, that’s what I got out of it: it’s a very long musing on what happens when people can’t let go of past hurts and work towards a mutually beneficial solution. Though maybe, sometimes, burning everything to the ground may be the best option. There’s a lot to think about.

I still really like Adeyemi’s world building, and I like the way magic is evolving and being used in new ways. I enjoy that no character is fully good or evil; the “bad guys” have motivations that make sense, and the “good guys” aren’t wholly without fault or blameless. There’s even complexity in the relationships in the book. And I find all that highly satisfying.

I do have to say that I’m quite curious where this next book is going to go. I’m definitely going along for the ride!

A Blade So Black

by L. L. McKinney
First sentence: “Alice couldn’t cry.”
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Content: There is some violence and three f-bombs. It’s in the teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore, but I’d give it to a younger kid if they were interested.

The day her father died was the first time that Alice saw a Nightmare. She didn’t know what it was, this monster snarling at her and trying to eat her, but since she could see him — and the mysterious boy, Addison Hatta, who slayed the Nightmare for her — she was recruited to become a Dreamwalker and help protect the world from the Bad Things in Wonderland.

Except it’s not as easy as it sounds. Hatta’s been poisoned, the Black Knight is on the loose, and it’s getting harder and harder to keep out of trouble with Alice’s mom (seriously: she kept sneaking out, and I was just waiting for the time that everything would got to hell because Alice’s mom locked her in her room or something like that). It doesn’t help that Alice’s friendship with her best friends is on the rocks because of all of the Wonderland stuff.

Oh this one was fun! I’ll admit that I’m not a huge fan of Alice in Wonderland, but McKinney used her source material so incredibly cleverly. With the Queens and Knights and the Vorpal Blade, and the Tweedle twins (they were Russian: Dee and Dem). It was all very, very cleverly used. And on top of that McKinny wove an incredible magic world, but gave it real world consequences. I know I snarked a bit about Alice’s mom, but McKinney thought about the consequences of Alice’s actions, and gave her mother realistic reactions. I appreciated that Alice’s mom was a viable presence throughout the book, acting as any good mom would.

It’s a good start to a series, and one that I’m actually curious to find out where it takes me.

Dominicana

by Angie Cruz
First sentence: “The first time Juan Ruiz proposes, I’m eleven years old, skinny and flat-chested.”
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Content: There is swearing, domestic violence and rape. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

Ana Canción is a 15-year-old girl living in the Domincan Republic. It’s 1965, and all her family wants is for her to marry well, particularly a Dominican who has immigrated to America. So when 32 year old Juan Ruiz proposes (seriously: he’s 32! She’s 15!) her parents basically sell her to him (well, they give Juan a piece of their land in order to get him to take her) and she’s off to New York.

Where life is hard. Juan has a lover, Caridad, and is always going to see her. And he’s abusive — both physically and controlling her life and who she sees and talks to — on top of that. So, when he’s called back to the Dominican Republic to hold onto some land during the revolution, Ana takes the opportunity to enjoy life: take some English classes, start a small business, fall in love with Juan’s brother Ceasar.

And because it’s an adult book, that doesn’t mean there’s a happily ever after.

I liked that it was an immigrant story. I liked hearing Ana’s perspective about America, and how hard these characters worked to make ends meet. They hustled and worked and saved and tried their hardest. And though Cruz didn’t directly touch on racism and discrimination, it was an undercurrent. I appreciated that she even brought up the Ruiz brother’s attitudes towards Jewish or black people; racism comes in many shapes and forms. I appreciated how hard it was for Ana to make friends (though much of that was Juan’s abuse) and how hard it was for her to find a place.

But I had a hard time stomaching the abuse. A really hard time. It was abuse and rape, and a 17 year age difference (!) and while I finished the book, I couldn’t, in the end, get past those parts of the story.

I know that this book was being raved about, and I do agree that immigrant stories need to be told. I just wish this one was easier (for me) to take.

Audio book: Talking to Strangers

by Malcolm Gladwell
Read by the author
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Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There is swearing, including multiple f-bombs, and talk about sexual assault, abuse, and rape. It’s in the Sociology section of the bookstore.

I think I’ve read Malcolm Gladwell in the past, but it’s been a very long time. However, after listening to an interview with him on It’s Been a Minute, I kind of felt like this was an important book to read. And I’m so glad I chose it on audio; it was a fabulous way to experience this book.

Gladwell takes the arrest of Sandra Bland in Texas in 2015 and examines it to find out what went wrong. He comes up with three areas that affect the way we talk to strangers: human’s tendency to default to truth — we always believe that everyone else is on the level; the expectation of transparency — that our faces show our emotions the way the faces in movies and television do; and the idea of coupling — that there are certain things that go together, like crime and certain behaviors.

It’s a fascinating and revealing book, one that makes me believe that our current crisis with tribalism and police brutality really might boil down to an incredible lack of understanding all around. We don’t really get to know people anymore, and so we’re constantly surrounded by strangers. Which means, we’re constantly relying on these faulty “tools” that we use to get by in society.

The audio is fabulous as well; instead of reading the book straight, Gladwell uses original audio as much as possible, so that it has the feel of a podcast rather than an audiobook. I think it made for a better reading experience than if I had just read it outright. It definitely gave me much to think about.

Highly recommended.

The Good Luck Girls

by Charlotte Nicole Davis
First sentence: “It was easier, she’d been told, if you kept a tune in your head.”
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Content: There are illusions to sex and drinking, but none actual. There is also some mild swearing, It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

The Good Luck Girls work at a Welcome House providing “services” to male clients. Most of them have been sold to the welcome house, because their family needs the money. Sisters Clementine and Aster — not their real names; they take on flower names when they’re sold to the house — decide to run when Clementine accidentally kills a “brag” — one of the men they service — which is not an easy feat. They end up taking three other girls with them when they get away, but they’re on the run from the law and the raveners — men who possess powers to create despair and pain — and in search of a bedtime story: Lady Ghost who is supposed to help girls like them.

It’s a long, dangerous path, and one that the girls can only make with the help of a ranger, Zee. Aster is the leader and our main character, and it’s interesting following the journey through her eyes. She doesn’t have the love arc (that belongs to other characters) or the sacrifice arc, but I do appreciate how she grows as a leader. She has difficult decisions to make, and I thought Davis did an excellent job giving Aster the complicated storyline.

It’s a good “road trip” story, with a hint of the old west. I liked that the girls were up against the patriarchy, even if Zee was a bit overhelpful. It made sense though, since the girls didn’t have much outside experience. As fantasy is a way to explore real world issues, this brings to light the plight of girls who are sold into sex work, and the ways in which they are kept captive.

It also works as a stand-alone, which is nice. I think there’s potential for a series, but there doesn’t have to be, and I find that immensely fulfilling.

A good debut.

Born a Crime

by Trevor Noah
First sentence: “The genius of apartheid was convincing people who were the overwhelming majority to turn on each other.”
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Content: There is violence and swearing, including multiple f-bombs. It’s in the biography section of the bookstore.

I am a sucker for celebrity memoirs (especially on audio, and I’ve heard this one is great), but it seems like I’m the last person to read this one. I don’t know why I put it off, but I was really glad that my in-person book group picked it.

It’s basically the story of Trevor Noah’s (host of the Daily Show) upbringing in South Africa. He was born under apartheid to a black mother and a white father (who were not married), and his mother raised him. To be honest, it’s more a love story to his mother; you can tell, reading this, that Noah loves and admires his mother and the sacrifices she made for him. It’s a very funny book: Noah was not a “good” child, and was constantly in trouble. But, it’s also a reflective book: Noah breaks down apartheid and racism and why South Africa is so messed up. It’s thoughtful and funny and sweet and interesting, which is actually very remarkable for a celebrity memoir.

And I’m really glad I read it.