Okay, I’m 25 reviews behind guys. I’m going to finish them here, and then be done with CBR I think. I absolutely love this community, and will probably keep logging on to read y’all’s awesome reviews, but trying to keep up with my own has felt increasingly like an obligation, not like a fun expansion of my love of reading. But I’ve read some great books this month, so here’s one last blast of recommendations…
The Blood of Emmett Till by Timothy B. Tyson (3 stars)
I’m actually pretty familiar with the Emmett Till case, thanks to my focus in college on the civil rights era (shout out to the world’s most cynically awesome teacher, David Cullen at University of Texas!), but this long, intense book had a lot of information that I’d never known. For those of you who don’t know, Emmett Till was lynched in Mississippi in 1955 after (possibly) whistling at a white woman. The case went to trial, and set the Civil Rights movement on fire. Tyson explains it in great, painful detail here — with a total lack of emotion. I’m not sure if that made me more emotional or not, but this book will make you angry. The most astounding thing of all, I think, is that Tyson actually interviewed the woman at the center of the case, who admitted decades later that she made some of the facts up completely, and can’t remember others at all.
Dragon Teeth by Michael Crichton (2 stars)
Let sleeping books lie! Dragon Teeth is yet another book “discovered” in Michael Crichton’s estate, and published after his death by his wife. It’s really not very good. He wrote it in 1974, and never published it. Maybe the widow Crichton should have figured there was a reason for that… Like many Crichton books, it’s centered around a real life event — the race between scientists Marsh & Cope to discover and name dinosaur fossils in the 1870s. We watch this battle through the eyes of fictional student William Johnson, who tags along on the expedition. The details of dinosaur hunting in the 1870s definitely interested me, and while I’ve read non-fiction about these two scientists before, it was fun to get a little more personal with them. But MY GOD, William Johnson might be the most un-interesting, obnoxious and useless narrator I’ve ever read. He makes bad decision after bad decision, and I spent the whole book annoyed with him. Skip this one and reread Jurassic Park.
Small Steps: The Year I Got Polio by Peg Kehret (4 stars)
This book about Peg Kehret’s experience with polio, which she contracted in 1949 at the age of 12, really amazed me. Apparently it’s taught widely in schools, and I can see why: she does an excellent job of describing an experience that few modern-day children have ever even heard of, and does so with no self-pity. It’s also an interesting glimpse into life and medicine in the 1940s and 1950s — when they didn’t know what caused polio or how to prevent it or treat it. The other kids in her ward at the hospital lived very different lives from Peg — some had been abandoned by their families, others lived their lives in iron lungs with no hope of leaving. She presents their lives to us in a way that makes the reader feel very connected, and I loved her optimistic take on such a terrible event.
Believe Me: A Memoir of Love, Death, and Jazz Chickens by Eddie Izzard (5 stars! 6 stars!)
I loved this book, and if you read it (read it!) get the audio version read by Izzard himself. It’s hysterical, with endless footnotes and asides, and he talks so fast that I actually had to turn the speed down. Izzard, with whom I’m mostly familiar because my friend is a die-hard fan and has made me watch “Cake or Death?” a million times, has led quite an interesting life. He was born in Yemen, lost his mother at an early age, got sent to boarding school, dropped out of university to try street busking (why not?), and along the way has made himself into a champion of LGBT rights. He’s a fascinating person, just incredibly funny and well-spoken, and you should go find a copy of this audiobook right now.
The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple by Jeff Guinn (4 stars)
This book was very interesting and packed full of information and took me forever to read. Some of it was due to the length; some was due to the incredible density of the research. But mostly — it was just sad. In the 1950s, Jim Jones started what he thought would be a utopia — a community with equal rights for people of any color or gender, where everyone would work together for the greater good (the greater good). And a lot of it sounds good, really. But then in 1978, he ordered almost 1,000 of his followers to kill their children and themselves — and they did. Guinn tells the story of how Jim Jones got to that place — his health issues (mental and physical) and the corruption brought on by all that power. It makes me shudder just thinking about reading it again. It’s so incredibly sad, especially reading the viewpoints of families outside of the cult who were trying to saved their loved ones. And all those children. But it’s an excellent cautionary take for the danger of too much power in the hands of one man.
Almost Midnight by Rainbow Rowell (Goodreads Author), Simini Blocker (Illustrator) (5 stars)
Rainbow Rowell! Rainbow Rowell + adorable illustrations of Rainbow Rowell’s adorable writing! How could you possibly go wrong with that? Almost Midnight contains two…novellas? They’re too long to be short stories, I think. Anyway, one (Midnights) tells the story of two friends (Noel and Mags), who run into each other year after year at a New Years Eve party. We watch as their relationship changes from strangers to friends to something more. It’s just a little glimpse into their lives each year. And then Kindred Spirits, which I’ve read before, stars Elena — a die-hard Star Wars fan who has decided to line up to see the newest movie days in advance. Unfortunately, while she expected the kind of party atmosphere that her dad always talked about at the premieres of the original trilogy, she instead spends several days with just two other people. We watch them become friends (adorably), and while I really don’t give a damn about Star Wars, I always enjoy reading about any kind of superfan.
Wolf by Wolf (Wolf By Wolf #1), Blood for Blood (Wolf By Wolf #2), by Ryan Graudin (5 stars each)
These books rocked my world, guys. I listened to the audio versions (highly recommended, great accents) and found myself spending extra time running just to listen. They’re incredible. Wolf by Wolf takes place in an alternate timeline, about 10 years after Hitler won World War II. His mass-exterminations continue, and the world is a terrifying place. Our heroine, Yael (one of the best written young women I’ve read all year), survived a death camp — but her survival came at a price. Experiments performed on Yael gave her a terrible power — she can shape-shift into any girl or woman she’s met or even seen a picture of. After escaping the camp, she befriends some Resistance fighters. Now in 1956, she and her fellow fighters have come up with a plan — she’s going to impersonate a German girl named Adele Wolfe in a world-wide motorcycle race. This will give Yael a chance to get close to Hitler, and end things once and for all. The first book concentrates on the race, and the second book (which I can’t really review because it would spoil everything) focuses on the fall-out. Guys, I just loved these books. The characters, the politics, the risks — just amazing. Again, get the audio version if you can — the rainbow of accents sounds incredible. But read it no matter what — definitely some of my favorite YA this year.
I Can’t Make This Up: Life Lessons by Kevin Hart (4 stars)
Okay, so we all love Kevin Hart, right? He’s so tiny and angry and funny. I took my son to see the new Jumanji a couple weeks ago, and the combination of Kevin Hart and the Rock just can’t be beat. Kevin Hart also turns out to be a very funny writer, which shouldn’t be surprising since his stand up is great. The frame-work of “life lessons” doesn’t quite work here — I feel like he has to stretch some of his stories to make them fit — but the stories themselves cracked me up. His beginnings, however, weren’t so funny. His addict father came in and out of his life, and his mother firmly believed that regular beatings would keep Kevin on track. But through hard work and determination (a LOT of it), he got out of his neighborhood, started doing stand-up and became the funny little guy we love him for today.
Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay (4 stars)
This book really grabbed me. I, like so many women, have always had what’s probably an unhealthy relationship with my body — the way it looks, the way I feed it, the way I feel about it. It wasn’t until I discovered running about 4 years ago that I started making most positive changes, but I still struggle with how I eat and how I look — and probably always will. Roxane Gay’s memoir, Hunger, explains that feeling about a million times more eloquently than I just tried to. She talks about how she used food to isolate herself after a sexual assault as a child, and how her family reacted to the changes she made. She discusses how life treats her differently at different weights — how she feels like less of a person the bigger she is, but also feels more protected against the world. It’s a sad thing to read, especially since her words likely resonate with millions of women (and men) across the planet.
Vacationland: True Stories from Painful Beaches by John Hodgman (3 stars)
Okay, so John Hodgman is the guy from The Daily Show who does the segments where he pretends to be a really rich guy — segments that, in my opinion, start out funny and drag out a little too long. That’s…pretty much how this book goes. Hodgman (and he admits it!) lives a very privileged life, splitting his family’s time between his wife’s house in Maine, and his own family home in Massachusetts. In Vacationland, he shares some funny stories about each location, and about his family. I did like the stories about the people in Maine — those who live their year-round, and just barely hide their contempt for the vacationers who keep their economy alive — because they reminded me of Stephen King. But overall, I found this sort of dull and braggy, and can barely remember most of it just a couple weeks later. Never a good sign.
The Walled City by Ryan Graudin (4 stars)
After finishing Graudin’s excellent Wolf by Wolf books, I eagerly looked to see what else she had written. Overdrive had The Walled City available, so here we are! It was not quite as good as Wolf by Wolf (or its sequel), but still excellent YA. Graudin based it on an actual city, a walled area within China where lawlessness abounded. In the novel, we follow three characters through this walled city: Mei Yee, sold into prostitution by her family. Jin, Mei Yee’s sister, who has been posing as a male street urchin in order to survive, and find her sister. And Dai, who has a mysterious past, which has him spending his last few days trying to accomplish an unknown objective in order to escape. It’s a book full of secrets and strong characters and the horrors of such a place. Also — more fantastic accents on the audio version!
Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore by Matthew J. Sullivan (3 stars)
This book was…okay. It was not great. It was not terrible. It relied too much on a reveal that just didn’t quite do it for me. Lydia Smith, the main character, has been running from her past (which we slowly discover throughout the novel) and her father for years, and currently works in a bookstore. She has taken a special liking to the “BookFrogs”, the patrons who wander into the bookstore looking for a safe, warm place. At the beginning of the novel, one of her favorites — Joey Molina — commits suicide in the store. Lydia gets sucked into Joey’s life after his death, discovering that he left notes and clues for her about her own past. She’s forced to dig up some terrible secrets, especially after a friend from her childhood appears. The slow reveal of Lydia’s past had me interested, but the ending just doesn’t quite live up to the rest of the story — it leaps from interesting to unbelievable very quickly.
Hidden Figures: The Untold True Story of Four African-American Women Who Helped Launch Our Nation into Space by Margot Lee Shetterly (4 stars)
Yeah, I know — I’m the last person on the planet to read this book! I still haven’t seen the movie either (for shame!) but definitely want to after reading this. In fact, and I rarely say this, but seeing the movie first may have been beneficial since I had a little trouble keeping all of the many, many characters straight! Anyway, the book concentrates on four amazing women: Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden. Together, along with many others, these mathematicians worked tirelessly in a world that had no yet invented electronic computers to figure out how to send astronauts into space. These human computers calculated everything needed to launch rockets and keep the astronauts safe. They played an incredible important role in the United States’s race to space — and all in a time where they still had to use segregated bathrooms.
Labyrinth: A Novel Based on the Jim Henson Film by A.C.H. Smith, Terry Jones, Jim Henson (5 stars)
My totally awesome boyfriend got me a set of three novels, all part of the Jim Henson Archive Series: Labyrinth, The Dark Crystal and Jim Henson’s Storyteller. Labyrinth might be my favorite movie ever — it’s definitely top 5 — and this novelization of it gave me the warm and fuzzies. It follows the movie very closely, as most novelizations do, but also gives us extra backstory that the movie couldn’t include. Most of it focuses on Sarah, of course, and tells us a bit more about her parents’ divorce, and how certain events changed her prior to the movie. She comes off as bratty in the book, just as in the movie, but with a bit more of a reason (and I love her anyway). The book also has gorgeous illustrations, drawn by Jim Henson, and his original notes about the characters as well. It’s just beautiful, and I can’t wait to dive into the other two.
Bonfire by Krysten Ritter (4 stars)
Okay, so Krysten Ritter and I go way back. We first fell in love when she played Gia on Veronica Mars, when she tells us her trellis has chlamydia…
Gia Goodman: Mrs Hauser, mine’s wrong. Isn’t this a flower?
Deborah Hauser: No Gia, Chlamydia is not a flower.
Gia Goodman: Well it’s all over the trellis at our beach house.
Veronica: Your trellis is a whore.
…a role she (briefly) reprises on the V.Mars movie. Then there was Breaking Bad, which broke my heart (I still sob during that episode). Then I discovered Don’t Trust the B, which might be one of my favorite tv shows of all time. And now she’s Jessica Jones in Jessica Jones, the only Marvel series that I’ve not only watched, but watched multiple times.
All of this to say — I love this girl, and I’m so happy she wrote a book THAT WAS ACTUALLY GOOD. Bonfire doesn’t break any crazy new ground, but it’s a solid, intriguing and well-written suspense story with an atmosphere you can practically touch. Abby Williams has returned home to her small town after 10 years to investigate EPA violations with her Chicago law firm. While there, she gets dragged back into an old scandal — the illness than disappearance of one of the most popular girls in school. The mystery is interesting, and the main character even more so. Krysten, I’m so proud!
Every Last Word by Tamara Ireland Stone (4 stars)
I’ve discussed my OCD here before, and how it doesn’t really look like the most common version represented in the media — the obsessive counting, hand-washing, etc. Mine primarily manifests as dark spiraling thoughts and magical thinking. I was so relieved to read about Samantha McAllister in Every Last Word — she has Purely-Obsessional OCD, and reminded me so much of myself that it was a little spooky. I’ve been so happy to read so many young adult novels this year that focus on mental disorders — representation matters, guys. So Samantha has been struggling with her OCD quietly — her therapist thinks Samantha’s “popular” friends make it worse, but Samantha just can’t give up being part of that group. So she struggles in silence until a new friend introduces her to a safe place — the Poets Corner. I don’t really want to say too much else — it has a twist ending that I really didn’t like, in fact I think it ruined an otherwise perfect book — but I still think it’s good for people with or without this sort of mental disorder to read books that talk about it. It never hurts to expand your understanding of other people’s lives and minds.
The 5th Wave (The 5th Wave #1), The Infinite Sea (The 5th Wave #2), The Last Star (The 5th Wave #3) by Rick Yancey
I recently, spur of the moment, decided to drive by myself to see my aunt in Arkansas (from Dallas) for a few days. I listened to all 3 of these books on the road (and during a couple of runs that I did in her area), and they kept me awake like books rarely do. So thank you, Rick Yancey, for that! Our main protagonist in the first novel is Cassie; the cast of characters and perspectives expand a bit in the sequels. Cassie is on the run from The Others, alien invaders who wiped out 99% of the planet in a couple of attacks (waves) and are working on cleaning up the rest now. Cassie’s little brother disappeared with a bunch of other kids on a yellow school bus, supposedly going somewhere safe, but then the men who came for the kids destroyed every other living soul they could find. Cassie made her brother a promise that she would come for him, and will do anything to make it happen. Along the way, she meets Evan Walker, a gorgeous farm boy that she can’t quite trust, but who insists on helping her save Sammy. These books are amazing — full of tough, smart kids and excellent, creepy bad guys. The aliens have the ability to take over a human body, so there’s no knowing who’s been infected and who hasn’t. They have access to amazing technology, which can “upgrade” a human being, or wipe them out with the push of a button. Later in the series, we meet Zombie and Ringer, two other teenagers who’ve been trained to fight the invasion — or so they’ve been told. There’s so much in these books that you can’t trust for certain — makes them impossible to put down.
Unqualified by Anna Faris, Chris Pratt (Foreword) (3 stars)
I will admit that while I try not to get super invested in other people’s relationships, particularly people I don’t actually know, I was pretty bummed when Chris Pratt and Anna Faris split up. They’re just both so likable, and seemed so happy together. But I guess that’s the curse of social media, right? Do not read this book expecting any information about their break up. In fact, it seemed to me, judging by her content plus his foreword, that she wrote her part pre-break up and his part afterwards. But that doesn’t matter. The book itself is still worth the read, if not the best celebrity memoir I’ve ever read. Faris talks about her family, her rise as an actress, and surviving Hollywood. She even talks about her supporting role in Just Friends, one of my favorites, and how while in character (Samantha James — also a fav) she actually ATE a tube of toothpaste because the idea came up last minute and the prop department didn’t have time to get fake toothpaste. She’s funny, and talks a lot about her podcast (which I’ve never heard of, but I’ve never heard of any podcast so…) and also, her name is pronounced Ah-na, not Anna. Learning!
The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way by Bill Bryson (4 stars)
This would make an excellent companion read to Kory Stamper’s Word by Word, which I assume you have all read and loved, despite the fact that it was published about 20 years earlier. Bryson’s writing is hysterical and informative, two of my favorite qualities in non-fiction. He touches on everything here — where words come from, where they’re going, how swear words have changed over the years, how pop culture affects dictionaries, and all sorts of amazing information on punctuation and spelling (yes, I said amazing and I stick by it). I found this endlessly fascinating, and only wish that Bryson would publish an updated version!
Optimists Die First by Susin Nielsen (5 stars)
Caitlin_D suggested I read this, because I guess she thought I would like YA about a crafting, anxious teenager with a major guilt complex. And she was totally right because I listened to the whole audio book in one day…. So Petula De Wilde (yeah, I know, but her parents are weirdos so go with it) attends an art therapy group after a really terrible thing happens to her family. She’s also wracked with anxiety (I hear you, girl). The story really starts when she meets Jacob, a new kid in her class. I will say — I was super irritated at first by the whole trope of “new boy brings out the best in anxious girl and gets her to face her fears”, but the more I learned about Jacob…the less I felt that way. The story — yet another example of mental health issues being represented in excellent YA — grabbed me from the first page and wouldn’t let go. I fell for Petula, and her family, and felt her heartbreak as my own. Really a great read (thanks Cait!)
Thanks, Obama: My Hopey, Changey White House Years by David Litt (4 stars)
Another audio book! This was really really good if you wanted to know everything about David Litt; it was still pretty good if you (like me) downloaded it for more information about the White House behind-the-scenes. Litt rose from campaign staffer to speech writer for President Obama, and takes us along for the ride. His writing, of course, is excellent — that mix of funny and informative that got him to the White House in the first place. I was fascinated by how the White House works, little tidbits about Obama, and all that insiders’ info Litt shared. I was less interested in his various personal crises, but hey — it was an autobiography after all. Overall, it was mostly interesting insights and I’m glad I got the audio version, as Litt manages to imbue his own words with many emotions — the primary being sarcasm, which serves him well.
One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter by Scaachi Koul (4 stars)
Just finished this on a run today — we’ll see if it’s my last of the year (228, if anyone’s still here!). I’ve seen this book on SO MANY lists this year, and it deserves to be there. Koul tackles everything here: online harassment, racism (both casual and overt), anxiety and fear, and everything that comes from not only being a daughter, but being the daughter of immigrant parents with very high expectations. She’s funny and self-deprecating, sarcastic and honest. I loved her views about being an Indian-American in India vs. an Indian-American in North America, and the very different standards applied to each. I’ve never read any of her other writings, but I really enjoyed this and if y’all have suggestions, let me know!