Recommended Reading: 3 Wintry Reads That Live Up to the Hype

Hey there, bookworms. Are you on a quest for some fantasy titles for this wintry season? Look no further! I’ve been feverishly reading some hyped backlist titles and these three are perfect for those chilly winter days spent snuggled on the couch. Check it out!

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  1. The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden. I finally read this Russian folklore-esque tale a few weeks ago and I freaking loved it. Settled in a northern img_8153 egion of medieval Russia, the story follows young Vasilisa, a strange and perhaps magical girl, as she struggles to take the reins of her own life — despite her resentful stepmother’s attempts to stifle her. Meanwhile, Vasya’s village is plagued by an increasing sense of fear and foreboding about the winter to come. When a new priest arrives, determined to drive out the demons (and the pastoral people’s torn devotion between the modern church and ancient pagan customs), Vasya is (mostly) alone in her struggle to combat the unseen forces that will devastate her people. This work of fantasy is so vivid and rich in its composition, I couldn’t put it down — and now I’m keeping my fingers and toes crossed that I get the second book in the trilogy for Christmas!
  2. The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey. I raved about this fairytale-based novel last Christmas — and I’m strongly tempted to read it again this winter. The story begins with a middle-aged couple who has resettled in the Alaskan territory, determined to forget the disappointments of a childless life amid extended family back East. Mabel and Jack grow increasingly distant with each passing day, each facing their own disappointments about marriage without children; but when they build a snowgirl on a whim during the first snow of the img_8151 laskan winter, they seem to find a bit of joy again. Later, when a mysterious child begins to appear in the snowy forest, Mabel is intent on rescuing the girl — and becoming the mother she’s always longed to be.
  3. The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker. In an absolutely poetic work of majesty, Wecker weaves together the narrative of Chava the Golem — a clay being brought to life — and Ahmad the Jinni — a fire-spirit trapped in human form. While much of the novel takes place in 1890s New York City, the story crosses centuries and continents in the winding telling of the Jinni’s storied past. The novel begins by bringing both characters “to life” in the overwhelmingly vibrant city, near one another but without any img_8152knowledge that the other exists. When fate crosses their paths, the magical beings forge a friendship that is everything their human relationships cannot be: honest, open, without hidden sections of self. But the Golem and the Jinni are dangerous creatures, and always at risk of being discovered — so when several elements combine to create a disastrous situation, the two must make a devastating decision that may forever end their relationship. I was utterly captivated by the beautiful and exotic worlds Wecker built in this fantasy with its roots in Syrian legends and culture. Truth be told, I never wanted it to end — and I’m now eagerly anticipating the slated-2020 release of the second book in this series.

These three titles absolutely live up to the hype they’ve received online — I marveled at each of the works, all three of them richly composed out of ancient folklore and fairytales with more complexity than the standard Disney lot (no princesses falling for charming blondes, here!). Heroes and villains retain elements of both good and bad, desires are achingly raw and relatable, and the writing itself in each of the novels is commendable.

Have you read any of these works? If so, what’d you think? Tell me in the comments below!

 

Review: One Day in December

May I present to thee — An Unpopular Opinion About a Book Receiving Great Praise But To Which My Feelings Seem To Be Impervious?

One Day in December, by Josie Silver, is receiving all kinds of accolades on the bookstagram-osphere. It was selected as a Book of the Month pick (which, you know, has been more miss than hit this past year or so), and basically anybody who’s somebody has read the book, gushed about it, and scrambled to buy a giveaway copy.

The work is classic rom-com fodder: Girl meets — no, doesn’t meet; she makes eye contact with — boy at a crowded train station. Girl and boy fail to connect, but there was something there — she’s sure of it. Girl tells best friend about boy, and the two search for him. A year later: best friend introduces girl to her new boyfriend. He’s *the* boy. Train Station Boy. Girl unselfishly withholds this information, pines over boy from afar — or, really, actually quite close — and thus ensues a period of unfortunate missed-opportunities.

As a movie, this would’ve probably worked for me. I’d have been entertained, I might’ve shed a tear or two, and it may have become one of those love stories I watch when I need a reminder that romance lives on. And I won’t be surprised if it does become a movie.

Sadly, as a novel, the story didn’t work for me. Because the story reminded me so much of former books-turned-films One Day and Something Borrowed, the plot felt predictable and cliche. I knew what would ultimately happen before I even turned the page of the third chapter, and thus, there was little magic in this one, for me. And maybe that’s why I disliked the book so much — I was hoping for that magical Christmastime vibe, and One Day in December just didn’t have it, because predictability.

Perhaps even more off-putting than the predictability: the main characters. I know, I know — this is shaping up to be a weird review. Most of you have probably only seen gushing and heart-eyes emoji about the novel’s characters who are “refreshingly real.” Here’s my issue: Laurie starts off the novel in a foul mood (we’ve all had those, totally understand that). She’s on a crowded bus, irritated with the closeness of strangers, and her inner dialogue is horrendous. I think she actually hates the woman in front of her for having dandruff — and that, my friends, got me started on the wrong foot. It’s just . . . too spiteful for me, I think. Later, she comes across as a much kinder person, but at the back of my mind, I just kept thinking about her vitriol from page one and the lady with dandruff. I couldn’t shake the scene. (Isn’t it weird, what readers latch on to?) And then Jack: Jack is painted as this knight in shining armor, right from the start. He’s introduced as thoughtful, sweet, and charming. So later, when he starts making some choices and acting in a way that feels like a complete 180, that’s when it starts to get uncomfortable. He’s a jerk, point blank, and I didn’t find that a redeeming bit of “realism”. 

Perhaps most unsettling for me: the way the main characters continually trample the emotions of their “friends” to get what they want. Laurie and Jack do it to each other, to their significant others, and to their friends throughout the course of the book. All’s fair in love and war, it seems, quite literally.

Ultimately, I couldn’t get on board with this kind of sabotage, and though I was compelled enough to finish the novel, it left a bitter taste in my mouth. If you’re into romance and you’re more capable of suspending disbelief than I, this might be the read for you. But if you have a hard time justifying despicable behavior and self-serving attitudes, well, you might want to pass.

Overall: 2 stars.

WWW Wednesday – 12/12

It’s that time of the week again! I’ve been reading some pretty fantastic stuff lately and I can’t wait to share with you!

WWW Wednesdays

WWW Wednesday is hosted by Sam over at Taking on a World of Words — if you’re interested in participating simply answer the following questions:

  1. What are you currently reading?
  2. What did you recently finish reading?
  3. What do you think you’ll read next?

Here’s what I’m currently reading…

The Bear and The Nightingale by Katherine Arden. This fantasy/respun fairytale has been on my list since its gorgeous cover hit shelves a year ago. I didn’t grab a copy until it came out in paperback, though, and I wanted to save it for winter — AND WINTER IS HERE, Y’ALL! In just a few hours during my kid’s afternoon nap, I’ve managed to read about 40% of the book. It’s so. freaking. good. img_7759Vasilisa is born into a northern family in the depths of winter. Her mother dies with the effort of childbirth, and her family is left to manage without a woman — until her father travels to Moscow when Vasilisa is six, bringing home a cold new wife with him. The girl, always “different,” struggles against her stepmother’s unmoving piety. While a priest works to exorcise the community of demons, Vasilisa befriends these guardians and grows increasingly interested in the world they have to offer.
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The Train of Lost Things by Ammi-Joan Pacquette. This middle-grades read is a bit out of my ordinary wheelhouse, but I decided to jump in on a buddy read of the title, hosted by my buddy Kathleen (@book_beat) on Instagram! Marty’s most prized possession is a denim jacket his dad gave him for his birthday. Every time the two do something special together, they find a pin to attach to the jacket as a sort of commemoration. But the jacket goes missing one day — the same day Marty discovers his father is dying (soon) of cancer — and Marty sets off on a mission to recover the jacket from the Train of Lost Things, a mythical and magical train from his father’s stories. When Marty finds the train, though, he doesn’t expect to also find another kid looking for a lost possession — Dina — or that the train has gone of the rails and is stealing things. 

The Ragged Edge of Night by Olivia Hawker. A historical fiction novel set in WWII-era Germany, in which Anton — a middle-aged man stripped of his role as friar and teacher by Nazis — travels to a small village to respond to a wanted ad. His mission? To marry the young widow Elisabeth, mother to three small children. Anton isn’t looking for love; rather, he’s seeking to make amends for his failure of the schoolchildren who haunt his memory. But he’s surprised at how quickly the children capture his heart, and as the threads of resistance tug, Anton must make a choice between his new family and the secret rebellion. I’m listening to this one while I workout — so far, so good!

Here’s what I’ve recently finished…

Undiscovered Country by Lin Enger. Touted as a retelling of Hamlet, this literary thriller tells the story of 17-year-old Jesse’s strife to bring his father’s death to truth. On img_7632an evening hunting trip, Jesse discovers his father shot through the head, and though the police rule it a suicide, Jesse is certain his dad would never do such a thing. He sets out to discover the identity of the murderer and uncovers some disturbing truths — about his father, his mother, and himself — along the way. This was a well-drawn, engaging story that satisfied my longing for grit and darkness. 3.5 stars.

One Day in December by Josie Silver. I’ll spare you the synopsis, as this one’s all over the internet right now; ultimately, the book is touted as a rom-com/chick lit novel, and that’s a pretty accurate placement of the work. I keep trying romance in hopes that someday I’ll find one I like, but sadly, this wasn’t it for me. I didn’t really love either of the main characters, who often railroaded others in their efforts to fulfill their own desires; and I’ll spare you the spoilers, but some things Jack did were downright uncharacteristic of the initial development the author gave us. I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t love it, either. 2.5 stars.

Voyager by Diana Gabaldon. This was another strong installment in the Outlander series. While certain aspects of Jamie and Claire’s relationship continue to frustrate me (not gonna say it, but if you’ve read this book, YOU KNOW), I continue to enjoy the historical details and elements of adventure in these novels. And, in direct contradiction to the statement in the previous paragraph: I do like the romance between these two. *throws hands up in the air in a shrug*

Here’s what’s next…

I’ve got a looooooot of titles stacked up for December, including these reads:

  • The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
  • The Winter Witch by Paula Brackston
  • I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid

and a couple of ARCs that just came in from HarperBooks:

That’s all for this Wednesday! What’s on your plate this week? Tell me in the comments below!

Hey Publishers: Let’s Talk About Bodies

A few days ago, I had a conversation with a friend about The Kiss Quotient — basically, all the reasons I didn’t like the much-lauded novel (and the romance genre, in general). She gently suggested that even though I didn’t like the love-at-first-sight plot or the writing, it’s still a considered a “good” book because of its groundbreaking qualities — an autistic, Asian female lead. Though I disagree — I think that books should be well-written to be considered “good” — I don’t disagree with her overarching sentiment: that readers need heroines/heroes with whom they can identify. Readers want and need to read about people that look like them, characters who share the same ethnicity or culture or values or gender issues, etc.

And that brings me to the apex of this blog post: body diversity within literature.

It stands to reason that readers want to be swept up in novels about characters that represent them. So why aren’t there more novels that feature women with soft, squishy mom-bods? With stretch marks here and there? With — no, not a perfectly smooth, rounded bum, but — cheeks that have some dimples? And if those characters are out there, why are writers glossing over these goddesses with the blur-feature of authorial photoshop?

I can distinctly remember the struggles I had with body image as a teen. Most of those issues are still alive and well today — there’s constantly an undercurrent of spiteful self-talk running through my mind like a ticker-tape: You’re too fat. You’re too fat. You’re too fat. And I can also remember being an avid reader during those years, noticing — even then — that the characters in the books I read were all the same. They were pretty. They had thigh gaps. They had flat bellies. They didn’t look like me. I was subconsciously aware that with their size 2 jeans and slender ankles, these characters were unhappy with the way they looked — and what the hell kind of message is that supposed to send to a size 12 girl who is, in her teens, utterly preoccupied with looking right?

As an adult, the issue has come into focus with a much sharper lens. Having a child, having a c-section, having a hard time quashing a chocolate addiction — things have gotten increasingly plush around here. I’m hyper-aware of these changes, seemingly at every moment. And in nearly every novel I’ve read (or skimmed, or DNF’d) over the past several years, I’ve been unsurprised to find the same heroine body type over and over again: slender, lean and toned (though somehow she’s almost never athletic?), maybe a few well-placed curves, all topped off with a silky mane and contoured cheekbones. (Unless, of course, she’s an undiscovered beauty who, much like Mia Thermopolis in The Princess Diaries, is in dire need of some Urban Decay and a wardrobe overhaul but still has the makings of a perfect body.)

Right now, the romance genre is making big leaps to change its formulaic white-people-only decades-old trend — here’s a great article about it! — but readers of all genres are still missing something key: varied body types.

Part of this responsibility falls on the shoulders of writers. I get it — authors are tasked with producing what people want to read, and it’s probably safe to say that people mostly want to read about beautiful people/things. But I think writers also have a responsibility to their audience, to go beyond the superficiality of television and magazine beauty standards, to set the precedent for new norms. Norms in which a fluffy, c-section ravaged woman can have a chiseled husband who still finds her hot — and she doesn’t have to feel compelled to change to be proclaimed beautiful. Norms in which stretch marks can cover a woman’s thighs without depleting her sex appeal. Norms in which a female lead can be remarkably unremarkable but not described as “forgettable” or “plain” or “simple” — just described in terms of her actual physical features, so that, you know, readers stop deeming themselves “forgettable” or “plain” or “simple.”

A big piece is up to publishers, too, though. I don’t regularly pick up the types of novels that feature real-life people on the cover (mostly because that kind of cover art usually falls under the romance heading), but I have seen several of these covers floating around the Bookstagram community as of late. I can’t think of a single example in which a fiction book features cover art of a real woman who doesn’t look like she’s been airbrushed and dieted and exercised into a mortal Aphrodite.

Somehow, this seems to be a topic vastly unexamined in the book community. The same people who tip their hats to Aerie for their body positivity campaign — “I’m so refreshed to see models who look like me!” they say — don’t seem to notice (or care?) about the fact that the characters they read about in books are ideal, without flaws (unless they’re dubbed cute “quirks”), coated in some sort of protective layer of surface-level beauty.

I, too, like to escape to a fantasy world in which my thighs don’t chafe as I jog gloriously down the street with boobs that aren’t so big they bobble around like soccer balls but not so small they’re invisible; but sometimes, sometimes — it’s nice to read about a heroine who isn’t “fat comic relief*,” but thick around the middle with goals and problems and seductive powers like the rest of the leading ladies of the literary world.

*Don’t even get me STARTED on the fat-women-on-television problematic tropes

Review: An Unexplained Death

If you follow me on Instagram, you already know how I feel about Mikita Brottman’s latest work of nonfiction, An Unexplained Death. In a few words: transcendent. Introspective. Provocative.

I was immediately drawn to the story’s premise: Rey Rivera, a charismatic and kind young man, goes missing one spring day. A week later, his body is discovered at the historic Belvedere Hotel in Baltimore, and the investigators spend very little time determining it is likely a suicide . . . but they dub the causes “undetermined.” Belvedere resident (the hotel is now an apartment building) Mikita Brottman is captivated by this mystery. Was it really a suicide? Why did the investigators do such a terrific job of traipsing all over the crime scene? Why wasn’t she questioned, though the body fell right past her window? What would lead such a handsome and seemingly-successful man to take his own life?

What ensues is Brottman’s obsessive investigation of Rivera’s death and, mingled in among the details of the hunt, her macabre fascination with the hotel’s history of remarkable suicides. An Unexplained Death is almost, to be honest, three different novels in one: it’s a history of the Belvedere Hotel; it’s a true crime work that explores Rey Rivera’s death; and it’s an exploratory memoir that maps out Brottman’s fixation with life, death, and worthiness.

Brottman’s strengths lie in her analyses of very human traits — our fixation on the misfortune of others, our proclivities for stories with “juicy” details and gruesome outcomes, our predilection for judgement even in the cases of victims. I was stricken many times by the honest — and far-reaching — insights Brottman presents to readers. An example:

“Our unease and mistrust around the stories of missing people is a defense mechanism that lets us keep the horror at bay; we can reassure ourselves that many missing people aren’t ‘really’ missing, and as for kidnap victims, they must have been weak and gullible enough to fall in love with their captors, something a stable, rational person would surely never do.” (p. 6)

I mean, seriously. Here’s the nail, and here’s Brottman hitting it on the head.

“When it comes to missing people, the first day or two after they have gone, it is as though they have left a door open behind them, and they can still turn around and come back. But after five or six days, you get the sense they have crossed all the way over. All that remains, if you’re lucky, is a vague glimpse, caught on tape somewhere, of a pixelated ghost.” (p. 11)

And it doesn’t end at page 11, the noteworthy gemmary of Brottman Wisdom:

“When an event has far-reaching consequences, we assume its causes must be equally momentous, just as when we want to roll a higher number, we shake the dice harder, and for a longer time.” (p. 79)

An Unexplained Death is more than a well-researched work of nonfiction. In a highly-readable narrative form, Brottman manages to take readers on a journey of discovery — of Rey Rivera’s life and death, of the author’s own sense of self, of readers’ tendencies toward the macabre and morbidity. The work is obsessive, it’s introspective, and it’s absolutely captivating. Brottman’s insightful observations on human nature throughout this book are just startlingly good.

Overall: 4/5 stars. A must-read for fans of true crime or nonfiction in general.