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The Broken Girls

Title: The Broken Girls

Author: Simon St. James

Genre: mystery, thriller, ghost story

PopSugar Reading Challege Prompt: a genre hybrid (part ghost story, part murder mystery)

I read The Sun Down Motel last year and really enjoyed it. I thought it was well-written and spooky but still plausible. When I heard some buzz around The Broken Girls, I thought I would give it a chance. And I’m happy to report that I enjoyed this book even more!

From Goodreads: Vermont, 1950. There’s a place for the girls whom no one wants–the troublemakers, the illegitimate, the too smart for their own good. It’s called Idlewild Hall. And in the small town where it’s located, there are rumors that the boarding school is haunted. Four roommates bond over their whispered fears, their budding friendship blossoming–until one of them mysteriously disappears. . . .

Vermont, 2014. As much as she’s tried, journalist Fiona Sheridan cannot stop revisiting the events surrounding her older sister’s death. Twenty years ago, her body was found lying in the overgrown fields near the ruins of Idlewild Hall. And though her sister’s boyfriend was tried and convicted of murder, Fiona can’t shake the suspicion that something was never right about the case.

When Fiona discovers that Idlewild Hall is being restored by an anonymous benefactor, she decides to write a story about it. But a shocking discovery during the renovations will link the loss of her sister to secrets that were meant to stay hidden in the past–and a voice that won’t be silenced. . . . 

I don’t believe in ghosts at all, but I enjoy reading ghost stories, especially ones that aren’t too horrifying. This book was a great blend of unsettling supernatural and solving a murder mystery. All the characters were interesting, and I loved how both the 1950 and 2014 stories came together. This story kept me reading and guessing. Definitely recommend this one!

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Zone One

Title: Zone One

Author: Colson Whitehead

Genre: dystopian zombie fiction

PopSugar Reading Challenge prompt: an Afrofuturist book

My first introduction to Whitehead was through The Underground Railroad which was great. Then I read The Nickel Boys and was blown away. It was the best book I read in 2020. When I heard that he also wrote a dystopian book, which is my favorite genre, I knew I had to investigate. Bummer that I just didn’t love this one.

From Goodreads: In this wry take on the post-apocalyptic horror novel, a pandemic has devastated the planet. The plague has sorted humanity into two types: the uninfected and the infected, the living and the living dead.

Now the plague is receding, and Americans are busy rebuild­ing civilization under orders from the provisional govern­ment based in Buffalo. Their top mission: the resettlement of Manhattan. Armed forces have successfully reclaimed the island south of Canal Street—aka Zone One—but pockets of plague-ridden squatters remain. While the army has eliminated the most dangerous of the infected, teams of civilian volunteers are tasked with clearing out a more innocuous variety—the “malfunctioning” stragglers, who exist in a catatonic state, transfixed by their former lives.

Mark Spitz is a member of one of the civilian teams work­ing in lower Manhattan. Alternating between flashbacks of Spitz’s desperate fight for survival during the worst of the outbreak and his present narrative, the novel unfolds over three surreal days, as it depicts the mundane mission of straggler removal, the rigors of Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder, and the impossible job of coming to grips with the fallen world. And then things start to go wrong. Both spine chilling and playfully cerebral, Zone One bril­liantly subverts the genre’s conventions and deconstructs the zombie myth for the twenty-first century.

Admission: I listened to this book, which isn’t my preferred choice. That said, I have listened to plenty others and loved them, so I don’t think that was why I never connected. The story goes back and forth in time, which was a bit confusing. You follow Mark Spitz in those three days of his job, but you also learn about how the outbreak started, what people were doing on the “Last Night” and how Spitz got to this job to begin with. I was engaged in the story, but I guess I was expecting it to be more. More emotional, more powerful….something. But it was a good story, which I’ll take any day.

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On the Come Up

Title: On the Come Up

Author: Angie Thomas

Genre: YA Black and African-American fiction

When this book came out, I wasn’t really interested in it because I assumed it was just about a girl trying to make it in the music business. Knowing how powerful The Hate U Give is, I really shouldn’t have made this assumption. Nothing Thomas has written is “fluffy.” Everything has depth and meaning. And although I didn’t LOVE this one like I did THUG and Concrete Rose, it’s still an excellent book with a powerful message and heart.

From Goodreads: Sixteen-year-old Bri wants to be one of the greatest rappers of all time. Or at least make it out of her neighborhood one day. As the daughter of an underground rap legend who died before he hit big, Bri’s got big shoes to fill. But now that her mom has unexpectedly lost her job, food banks and shutoff notices are as much a part of Bri’s life as beats and rhymes. With bills piling up and homelessness staring her family down, Bri no longer just wants to make it—she has to make it.

On the Come Up is Angie Thomas’s homage to hip-hop, the art that sparked her passion for storytelling and continues to inspire her to this day. It is the story of fighting for your dreams, even as the odds are stacked against you; of the struggle to become who you are and not who everyone expects you to be; and of the desperate realities of poor and working-class black families.

Bri is a character who jumps right off the page. She’s so dynamic and powerful, without being cheesy or inauthentic, as many teens girls are written. I was rooting for her the entire book. Her home life isn’t always stable, but she has love and support from her mom, brother, and friends. But when Bri’s very explicit song becomes viral, who she is deep down is quickly misinterpreted and put on display.

This book was so much better than I was expecting. The assumption was entirely my fault. Thomas is three for three in my book. I will read her next book, no doubt about it. I am so thankful for her writing and her voice for today’s teens. She’s exactly who they need.

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Grown

Title: Grown

Author: Tiffany D. Jackson

Genre: YA music fiction

PopSugar Reading Challenge Prompt: book about art or an artist

As much as I enjoyed Monday’s Not Coming last year, it was an extraordinarily difficult read, dealing with a terrible subject. The book blew me away, though. Even though it was hard to stomach, the subject of children in difficult situations (being vague to avoid spoilers) is extra difficult to read, knowing full well that these things are happening in our world. Putting them to paper must be so hard for Jackson, but I am so thankful that she does. She’s giving a voice to those who have had theirs taken away. Grown doesn’t shy away from trouble, either.

From Goodreads: Korey Fields is dead.

When Enchanted Jones wakes with blood on her hands and zero memory of the previous night, no one—the police and Korey’s fans included—has more questions than she does. All she really knows is that this isn’t how things are supposed to be. Korey was Enchanted’s ticket to stardom.

Before there was a dead body, Enchanted was an aspiring singer, struggling with her tight knit family’s recent move to the suburbs while trying to find her place as the lone Black girl in high school. But then legendary R&B artist Korey Fields spots her at an audition. And suddenly her dream of being a professional singer takes flight.

Enchanted is dazzled by Korey’s luxurious life but soon her dream turns into a nightmare. Behind Korey’s charm and star power hides a dark side, one that wants to control her every move, with rage and consequences. Except now he’s dead and the police are at the door. Who killed Korey Fields? All signs point to Enchanted.

The story isn’t as much of a mystery as this summary leads you to believe. Enchanted’s story of how she met, fell for, and was groomed by Korey Fields. Jackson, in the afterword, makes a point to say that this story is not based on R. Kelly, but it is definitely reminiscent of what he has done to young girls. You know from the first introduction that Korey is a monster, and watching Enchanted fall for him and his lies is difficult. I just wanted to reach into the book and tell her that he cannot be trusted.

I didn’t connect with this book as much as I did with Monday’s Not Coming, but I don’t have a reason why. This book is great, and it’s definitely a must read. I have Allegedly on my kindle and will be making a point to get to Jackson’s other book ASAP.

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Hamnet

Title: Hamnet

Author: Maggie O’Farrell

Genre: historical fiction

PopSugar Reading Challenge prompt: a book that has won the Women’s Prize for Fiction

This book has quite a bit of buzz around it. And as much as I love Shakespeare, I’m not a fan of historical fiction. However, this book didn’t read like a historical book to me. Aside from the actual time period, this book really is just about a family, which could have taken place at any time. The death and subsequent grief of losing a child is universal.

From Goodreads: Drawing on Maggie O’Farrell’s long-term fascination with the little-known story behind Shakespeare’s most enigmatic play, HAMNET is a luminous portrait of a marriage, at its heart the loss of a beloved child.

Warwickshire in the 1580s. Agnes is a woman as feared as she is sought after for her unusual gifts. She settles with her husband in Henley street, Stratford, and has three children: a daughter, Susanna, and then twins, Hamnet and Judith. The boy, Hamnet, dies in 1596, aged eleven. Four years or so later, the husband writes a play called Hamlet.

Award-winning author Maggie O’Farrell’s new novel breathes full-blooded life into the story of a loss usually consigned to literary footnotes, and provides an unforgettable vindication of Agnes, a woman intriguingly absent from history.

This story is beautifully written. Somehow O’Farrell manages never to write the words William or Shakespeare in the entire book. He’s always the husband, brother, father, uncle, or playwright. Agnes really is the center of this story. Once she is married, her story takes over. The love she has for nature and her children is clear. And although her husband is away a lot doing “things” in London, Agnes is a survivor, dealing with her house, her children, and her pain. The death of Hamnet levels her to the ground. She manages to find her way out, but the climb is excruciating.

As great as this book is, I just didn’t LOVE love it. But I completely understand how others do. It was just my personal preference. Hamnet deserves all the awards it won, and I definitely will be recommending it. I just didn’t connect with it in a way I had been expecting.

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Girl A

Title: Girl A

Author: Abigail Dean

Genre: Women’s fiction

PopSugar Reading Challenge Prompt: A book you think your best friend would like

This book was one of the Book of the Month‘s selections for February. I absolutely had to select Kristin Hannah’s newest, and I already had another book as an add-on, so I checked with my local library and saw they had this one as an ebook. The blurb sounded really good, so I took a stab and checked it out.

From Goodreads: Lex Gracie doesn’t want to think about her family. She doesn’t want to think about growing up in her parents’ House of Horrors. And she doesn’t want to think about her identity as Girl A: the girl who escaped, the eldest sister who freed her older brother and four younger siblings. It’s been easy enough to avoid her parents–her father never made it out of the House of Horrors he created, and her mother spent the rest of her life behind bars. But when her mother dies in prison and leaves Lex and her siblings the family home, she can’t run from her past any longer. Together with her sister, Evie, Lex intends to turn the House of Horrors into a force for good. But first she must come to terms with her siblings – and with the childhood they shared.

What begins as a propulsive tale of escape and survival becomes a gripping psychological family story about the shifting alliances and betrayals of sibling relationships–about the secrets our siblings keep, from themselves and each other. Who have each of these siblings become? How do their memories defy or galvanize Lex’s own? As Lex pins each sibling down to agree to her family’s final act, she discovers how potent the spell of their shared family mythology is, and who among them remains in its thrall and who has truly broken free.

Wow. You guys. This book just kept me reading. I couldn’t put it down. The House of Horrors was terrible, but not as graphic as I was expecting. Lex frequently references her scars, but how she gets them is referred to, but not described in detail. More is left up to the imagination than not, which might be worse, depending on who you are. The story is told as both present time and flashbacks so by the book’s end, you understand Lex and her family’s full story. As tough as this book is, it’s also beautifully written. I definitely recommend this one!

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The Eighth Detective

Title: The Eighth Detective

Author: Alex Pavesi

Genre: detective mystery

PopSugar Reading Challenge prompt: a locked-room mystery

Holy smokes this was a great book. I discovered it via Twitter because Jeff VanderMeer (he wrote The Southern Reach trilogy, Borne, City of Saints and Madmen) recommended it. Anytime an author I like recommends something, I make a note to check it out, if it’s a book I would normally enjoy. And not only was it a great book, it filled the locked-room mystery prompt of the PopSugar Reading Challenge. Most of the locked-room mystery books recommended, I’ve already read. There are actually seven different locked-room mysteries in this one. I’m really surprised this book doesn’t have more people talking about it.

From Goodreads: There are rules for murder mysteries. There must be a victim. A suspect. A detective. The rest is just shuffling the sequence. Expanding the permutations. Grant McAllister, a professor of mathematics, once sat down and worked them all out – calculating the different orders and possibilities of a mystery into seven perfect detective stories he quietly published. But that was thirty years ago. Now Grant lives in seclusion on a remote Mediterranean island, counting the rest of his days.

Until Julia Hart, a sharp, ambitious editor knocks on his door. Julia wishes to republish his book, and together they must revisit those old stories: an author hiding from his past, and an editor, keen to understand it.

But there are things in the stories that don’t add up. Inconsistencies left by Grant that a sharp-eyed editor begins to suspect are more than mistakes. They may be clues, and Julia finds herself with a mystery of her own to solve.

Every other chapter is a short murder mystery, in between short chapters of conversation between Julia and Grant. Julia sees small errors in each mystery, but Grant chalks them up to carelessness. The unraveling of the inconsistencies is so much fun. And by the time I had gotten through all seven mysteries and realized I still had a chunk of the book left, I really had no idea what else I was in store for. I really loved this book. It’s creative, well-written, clever, and intelligent. I will be recommending this one to anyone!

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Shuggie Bain

Title: Shuggie Bain

Author: Douglas Stuart

Genre: Literary Fiction

PopSugar Reading Challenge: A free book from your TBR list

WINNER OF THE BOOKER PRIZE
NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
FINALIST FOR THE NATIONAL BOOK AWARD

This book has gotten rave reviews from just about every source imaginable. The list of reviews and blurbs on Amazon is crazy long. When a book has this many people talking about it, I’m suspicious. I rarely like what “everyone” likes, and books just don’t live up to the hype. That said, I understand why this book is so loved. But, it is ridiculously depressing, which made me not love it.

From Goodreads: Shuggie Bain is the unforgettable story of young Hugh “Shuggie” Bain, a sweet and lonely boy who spends his 1980s childhood in run-down public housing in Glasgow, Scotland. Shuggie’s mother Agnes walks a wayward path: she is Shuggie’s guiding light but a burden for him and his siblings. She dreams of a house with its own front door while she flicks through the pages of the Freemans catalogue, ordering a little happiness on credit, anything to brighten up her grey life. Married to a philandering taxi-driver husband, Agnes keeps her pride by looking good–her beehive, make-up, and pearly-white false teeth offer a glamorous image of a Glaswegian Elizabeth Taylor. But under the surface, Agnes finds increasing solace in drink, and she drains away the lion’s share of each week’s benefits–all the family has to live on–on cans of extra-strong lager hidden in handbags and poured into tea mugs. Agnes’s older children find their own ways to get a safe distance from their mother, abandoning Shuggie to care for her as she swings between alcoholic binges and sobriety. Shuggie is meanwhile struggling to somehow become the normal boy he desperately longs to be, but everyone has realized that he is “no right,” a boy with a secret that all but him can see. Agnes is supportive of her son, but her addiction has the power to eclipse everyone close to her–even her beloved Shuggie.

A heartbreaking story of addiction, sexuality, and love, Shuggie Bain is an epic portrayal of a working-class family that is rarely seen in fiction. It is a blistering debut by a brilliant novelist who has a powerful and important story to tell.

So, see what I mean. Depressing. But it’s a great book. Really great. Well-written, full of heart and heartache. Shuggie is such a good kid, and his mother really wants to be there for him, but her alcoholism has such a strong hold on her. I can’t say I loved this book, but I agree with the critics about how good it is. I’m just not a “depressing book” kind of person. But if this sounds like a book you would enjoy, then read it because it really is an excellent book.

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Just Mercy

Title: Just Mercy

Author: Bryan Stevenson

Genre: Criminology

PopSugar Reading Challenge Prompt: a book about a social justice issue

Of course I’ve heard of this book and subsequent movie, which I haven’t seen. But I know that it features a young lawyer trying to get a falsely convicted man out of prison. That’s the bare bones of this book, though. I had no idea this book was about prisons in general and how the criminal justice system fails so many people.

From Goodreads: An unforgettable true story about the potential for mercy to redeem us, and a clarion call to end mass incarceration in America — from one of the most inspiring lawyers of our time.

Bryan Stevenson was a young lawyer when he founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit law office in Montgomery, Alabama, dedicated to defending the poor, the incarcerated, and the wrongly condemned.

Just Mercy tells the story of EJI, from the early days with a small staff facing the nation’s highest death sentencing and execution rates, through a successful campaign to challenge the cruel practice of sentencing children to die in prison, to revolutionary projects designed to confront Americans with our history of racial injustice.

One of EJI’s first clients was Walter McMillian, a young Black man who was sentenced to die for the murder of a young white woman that he didn’t commit. The case exemplifies how the death penalty in America is a direct descendant of lynching — a system that treats the rich and guilty better than the poor and innocent.

As captivating as Walter’s story is, the rest of the book is just as fascinating. Stevenson briefly tells about other cases he’s worked on, people with mental disabilities or juveniles who were guilty of crimes, but who had received extraordinarily harsh punishments. Several juveniles who received life without parole for a non-homicide crime committed at age 14 or 15. How anyone thought this was appropriate to begin with was beyond me. I used to teach that age group. As mature as teens appear to me, they are still children and their brains just aren’t fully developed at all. They do and say bone-headed things. I get holding people accountable for their crimes, but you can’t just make an extreme punishment like that.

This book was fascinating and deeply disturbing. So many of these incarcerated people, whether they are falsely accused or received unnecessarily harsh punishment, had their own story tell. Some were clearly framed, some had terrible, abusive childhoods, and some just had damn bad luck. An attorney, Stevenson’s writing was easy to follow and understand for non-attorneys. The statistics are incredible and shocking. This book is a must read for insight into the terrible world that is our criminal justice system.

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The Deep

Title: The Deep

Authors: Rivers Solomon, Daveed Diggs, William Hutson, Jonathan Snipes

Genre: Black science-fiction

PopSugar Reading Challenge Prompt: A book set mostly or entirely outdoors.

The concept of this book is just so cool. Rivers Solomon heard the song “The Deep” by the band clipping. and was so moved that they wrote this novella in response. You can find the lyrics and a clip (pun intended) of the song here. I wanted to listen to the song before I read the book so I could be in the same frame of mind that Solomon was. And the song was really familiar. I’m a big Hamilton fan, so I knew Diggs had a rap group, but I’ve never listened to any of the songs. When I read the Afterword, I realized that clipping. wrote the song for an episode of This American Life. That’s when the light bulb went off. I heard that episode. It’s an excellent one about Afrofuturism. Here’s a link.

From Goodreads: Yetu holds the memories for her people—water-dwelling descendants of pregnant African slave women thrown overboard by slave owners—who live idyllic lives in the deep. Their past, too traumatic to be remembered regularly, is forgotten by everyone, save one—the historian. This demanding role has been bestowed on Yetu.

Yetu remembers for everyone, and the memories, painful and wonderful, traumatic and terrible and miraculous, are destroying her. And so, she flees to the surface, escaping the memories, the expectations, and the responsibilities—and discovers a world her people left behind long ago.

Yetu will learn more than she ever expected to about her own past—and about the future of her people. If they are all to survive, they’ll need to reclaim the memories, reclaim their identity—and own who they really are.

I’m not a fantasy/sci-fi person at all. It’s my least favorite genre. Well, romance is way worse. But I read An Unkindness of Ghosts last year, and I have Solomon’s newest, Sorrowland, from Netgalley to read, so I wanted to read The Deep as well. The concept is kind of like The Giver where one person holds the past memories of the community, but that’s where the similarities end. Yetu is trying to find who she is deep down and ends up making connections where she least expects it. This book was great. I love that it’s inspired by a song, because music and lyrics can truly be powerful. This book was impactful and will stick with me for awhile.