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Between the World and Me

Title: Between the World and Me

Author: Ta-Nehisi Coates

Genre: Black and African-American biographies

PopSugar Reading Challenge prompt: a book on a Black Lives Matter reading list

Of course, I know who Mr. Coates is. I’ve read several of his essays, I’ve heard him speak on videos, and I’ve followed his career via the news. However, I’ve yet to read one of his books. He’s an author that I always meant to get to but just never did. But when I saw the BLM prompt, I knew just what to read. I already owned this book, and without even knowing what it was about, I dove in.

From Goodreads: In a profound work that pivots from the biggest questions about American history and ideals to the most intimate concerns of a father for his son, Ta-Nehisi Coates offers a powerful new framework for understanding our nation’s history and current crisis. Americans have built an empire on the idea of “race,” a falsehood that damages us all but falls most heavily on the bodies of black women and men—bodies exploited through slavery and segregation, and, today, threatened, locked up, and murdered out of all proportion. What is it like to inhabit a black body and find a way to live within it? And how can we all honestly reckon with this fraught history and free ourselves from its burden?
 
Between the World and Me is Ta-Nehisi Coates’s attempt to answer these questions in a letter to his adolescent son. Coates shares with his son—and readers—the story of his awakening to the truth about his place in the world through a series of revelatory experiences, from Howard University to Civil War battlefields, from the South Side of Chicago to Paris, from his childhood home to the living rooms of mothers whose children’s lives were taken as American plunder. Beautifully woven from personal narrative, reimagined history, and fresh, emotionally charged reportage, Between the World and Me clearly illuminates the past, bracingly confronts our present, and offers a transcendent vision for a way forward. 

This book is only 150 or so pages, which makes it really easy to digest. The message is clear: Black people do not own their own bodies. They are constantly fighting for their bodies and their places in the world. Coates discusses his own youth, illuminating his path of realization and discovery. The book is a letter to his son, which makes it even more powerful. He isn’t just speaking to the masses, but to one person he loves. This book really should be required reading. Having young Black people see themselves, their history, their struggles in print is critical. Enough with the dead white people books. Give kids the chance to read about themselves and their peers. The more educating we do, the more this generation will empathize.

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Clap When You Land

Title: Clap When You Land

Author: Elizabeth Acevedo

Genre: YA fiction

When I read With the Fire on High last month, I knew Elizabeth Acevedo was an author who deserved further investigation. I thought that book was fantastic. And I’ve heard so many great things about this one, so I put it on hold at my library in eager anticipation. Little did I know, this was a novel in verse. I was a bit nervous because I didn’t know if it was a style I would enjoy, but I ended up really hooked. What a wonderful story.

From Goodreads: Camino Rios lives for the summers when her father visits her in the Dominican Republic. But this time, on the day when his plane is supposed to land, Camino arrives at the airport to see crowds of crying people…

In New York City, Yahaira Rios is called to the principal’s office, where her mother is waiting to tell her that her father, her hero, has died in a plane crash.

Separated by distance—and Papi’s secrets—the two girls are forced to face a new reality in which their father is dead and their lives are forever altered. And then, when it seems like they’ve lost everything of their father, they learn of each other.

The horror each girl faces losing their father is pretty terrible. But on top of that, they learn of each other. How their father had two separate families, two separate lives. The knowledge is undoing. How can either reconcile the knowledge of the other, while trying to survive their loss? The style of verse is just gorgeous. It is minimal and choppy when it needs to be to parallel the loss and sorry. It’s drawn out and longer to parallel the love and joy. This book should absolutely be taught in classrooms, not just for the own voices aspect, but the writing style. I flew through this book and absolutely loved it.

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The House in the Cerulean Sea

Title: The House in the Cerulean Sea

Author: TJ Klune

Genre: Fantasy Fiction

This book would never had been on my radar if it weren’t to a couple online book clubs I belong to. Really, they are just Facebook groups with several thousand book loving members read and recommend. And this book kept popping up as “delightful” or “charming” or “irresistible.” Too many people loved it for me to keep ignoring it. So, I requested it from my library having zero clue what it was about.

From Goodreads: Linus Baker leads a quiet, solitary life. At forty, he lives in a tiny house with a devious cat and his old records. As a Case Worker at the Department in Charge Of Magical Youth, he spends his days overseeing the well-being of children in government-sanctioned orphanages.

When Linus is unexpectedly summoned by Extremely Upper Management he’s given a curious and highly classified assignment: travel to Marsyas Island Orphanage, where six dangerous children reside: a gnome, a sprite, a wyvern, an unidentifiable green blob, a were-Pomeranian, and the Antichrist. Linus must set aside his fears and determine whether or not they’re likely to bring about the end of days.

But the children aren’t the only secret the island keeps. Their caretaker is the charming and enigmatic Arthur Parnassus, who will do anything to keep his wards safe. As Arthur and Linus grow closer, long-held secrets are exposed, and Linus must make a choice: destroy a home or watch the world burn.

An enchanting story, masterfully told, The House in the Cerulean Sea is about the profound experience of discovering an unlikely family in an unexpected place—and realizing that family is yours. 

It’s true. This book was an absolute delight. It did start out a bit slow, much like Linus himself. Plodding along, creating the plot. But once Linus meets the kids, it picks up, again, much like Linus does. The kids change how he sees the world. The last third of the book was just wonderful. If anyone is looking for a book to lift you up, fill your heart, and make you smile, this is the one. Just a joy to read.

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Homeland Elegies

Title: Homeland Elegies

Author: Ayad Akhtar

Genre: Asian American Literature

PopSugar Reading Challenge prompt: book by a Muslim American author

I had no idea what this book was about, and I had another book selected for this PopSugar prompt, but I’ve heard people say how great it is, so I put it on my list. Even though it’s fiction, it reads very much like non-fiction. It’s several chapters, but each one is its own story. The stories revolve around Akhtar, but also his family, friends, career, and being Muslim in a post 9/11 and pro-Trump world.

From Goodreads: A deeply personal work about hope and identity in a nation coming apart at the seams, Homeland Elegies blends fact and fiction to tell an epic story of belonging and dispossession in the world that 9/11 made. Part family drama, part social essay, part picaresque adventure — at its heart, it is the story of a father, a son, and the country they both call home.

Akhtar forges a new narrative voice to capture a country in which debt has ruined countless lives and our ideals have been sacrificed to the gods of finance, where a TV personality is president and immigrants live in fear, and where the nation’s unhealed wounds of 9/11 wreak havoc around the world. Akhtar attempts to make sense of it all through the lens of a story about one family, from a heartland town in America to palatial suites in Central Europe to guerilla lookouts in the mountains of Afghanistan, and spares no one — least of all himself — in the process.

I read one chapter a day, which broke the book up into small vignettes. I’m not sure what parts of the story are fiction vs non-fiction. I didn’t do any research, so I don’t know if Akhtar has ever said. I took it all as truth, though. That said, I’m not going to debate anyone who believes it’s entirely fiction. Given that the book deals with actual events like 9/11, Charlottesville, mass shootings, Trump’s election, etc, the book is definitely grounded in truth. Own voices books are critical these days. And I’ve been reading a lot of Black and Latinx authors. But I’m glad the PopSugar challenge put a Muslim American author on the challenge. This one was a really great insight into the life of Muslims these days.

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Let Me Hear a Rhyme

Title: Let Me Hear a Rhyme

Author: Tiffany D. Jackson

Genre: YA fiction

I’ve already read Grown and Monday’s Not Coming from Tiffany D. Jackson, and both books were just outstanding. So I made a point to read her other books. I have Allegedly on my Kindle and will get to it shortly, but this one was a book I’ve heard very little about. And I get why. It’s very different from her other books. It’s fantastic, and I really enjoyed it. I wish it got more hype, though. Whereas her other books are more intense, more edge of your seat, this one is more laid-back. And it’s definitely an homage to her youth. She says in the back of the book that this one is her most personal, and I can see why. She writes about the late 90s in Brooklyn, which is when/where she grew up. When Biggie was murdered, she remembers his funeral, which makes an appearance in the book. Her love and knowledge of hip hop is evident. And where there is a darker plot line, overall the book was less nail-biting than her others.

From Goodreads: Biggie Smalls was right. Things done changed. But that doesn’t mean that Quadir and Jarrell are okay letting their best friend Steph’s tracks lie forgotten in his bedroom after he’s killed—not when his beats could turn any Bed-Stuy corner into a celebration, not after years of having each other’s backs.

Enlisting the help of Steph’s younger sister, Jasmine, Quadir and Jarrell come up with a plan to promote Steph’s music under a new rap name: The Architect. Soon, everyone in Brooklyn is dancing to Steph’s voice. But then his mixtape catches the attention of a hotheaded music rep and—with just hours on the clock—the trio must race to prove Steph’s talent from beyond the grave.

Now, as the pressure—and danger—of keeping their secret grows, Quadir, Jarrell, and Jasmine are forced to confront the truth about what happened to Steph. Only each has something to hide. And with everything riding on Steph’s fame, together they need to decide what they stand for before they lose everything they’ve worked so hard to hold on to—including each other.

Steph’s death happens before the book begins, which makes the loss easier on the reader. Quadir, Jarrell, and Jasmine are really great, fun, dynamic characters who you cheer for from the outset. While they are trying to get Steph’s voice into the community, they are also trying to find out what happens to him, which is the aforementioned darker storyline. That said, this book was a lot lighter than her others. Sadly, it has nowhere near the ratings on Goodreads. But if you enjoy her books, you should absolutely add this one to your list.

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A Dark Lure

Title: A Dark Lure

Author: Loreth Anne White

Genre: Thriller

I read In the Dark last year, which ended up being one of my top 10 of 2020. I just thought it was so clever and well-written. That book immediately put White on my radar as an author who I want to keep reading. And this one definitely kept her on my list. What a great, thrilling, suspenseful book.

From Goodreads: Twelve years ago, Sarah Baker was abducted by the Watt Lake Killer and sexually assaulted for months before managing to escape. The killer was caught, but Sarah lost everything: her marriage, her child, and the life she loved.

Struggling with PTSD, Sarah changes her name to Olivia West and finds sanctuary working on Broken Bar Ranch. But as her scars finally begin to heal, a cop involved with her horrific case remains convinced the Watt Lake Killer is still out there. He sets a lure for the murderer, and a fresh body is discovered. Now Olivia must face the impossible—could the butcher be back, this time to finish the job?

As a frigid winter isolates the ranch, only one person can help Olivia: Cole McDonough, a writer, adventurer, and ranch heir who stirs long-dormant feelings in her. But this time, Olivia’s determination to shut out her past may destroy more than her chance at love. It could cost her her life.

What I love about this is that all the character motivations make sense. A lot of thrillers just have characters doing things that really don’t make sense, just to make the plot work. And it’s so frustrating. But White has her characters’ actions make sense within the development of said character. When Sarah/Olivia keeps her past a secret, sure it helps the plot, but it’s really because White has created a character the craves privacy because of her past. I just detest thrillers that underestimate the reader. We are smart. We require well-written books. And so many writers just cheapen the genre. Not Loreth Anne White. She’s the real deal and I can’t wait to read the next book in this series.

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The Haunting of Maddy Clare

Title: The Haunting of Maddy Clare

Author: Simone St. James

Genre: ghost story, historical fiction

I love finding new to me authors and going through their back catalogs. Simone St. James is one of them. I first read The Sun Down Motel and really loved it. It was a great mix of thriller and supernatural. Then I read The Broken Girls, another mix of thriller and ghost story. So, I decided to keep going. This one is more of a historical fiction and ghost story, heavy on the ghost, namely Maddy Clare who is haunting a barn where she died.

From Goodreads: Sarah Piper’s lonely, threadbare existence changes when her temporary agency sends her to assist a ghost hunter. Alistair Gellis—rich, handsome, scarred by World War I, and obsessed with ghosts—has been summoned to investigate the spirit of nineteen-year-old maid Maddy Clare, who is haunting the barn where she committed suicide.
Since Maddy hated men in life, it is Sarah’s task to confront her in death. Soon Sarah is caught up in a desperate struggle. For Maddy’s ghost is real, she’s angry, and she has powers that defy all reason. Can Sarah and Alistair’s assistant, the rough, unsettling Matthew Ryder, discover who Maddy was, where she came from, and what is driving her desire for vengeance—before she destroys them all?

I’m not a big historical fiction fan, but this one was much more of a ghost story than anything. I’m not a believer in ghosts, so the story wasn’t truly scary to me, but it was definitely well-written and creepy. You really do start to feel bad for ghost Maddy when you learn more of her background. Sarah, Matthew, and Alistair make a good team and try to figure out why Maddy is still around. What needs to be resolved before she moves on, out of our world? I’m at the point where Simone St. James has yet to let me down, so, even though I don’t normally read ghost stories, I thought this one was great. I’ll definitely keep reading her books.

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Hairpin Bridge

Title: Hairpin Bridge

Author: Taylor Adams

Genre: psychological thriller

Thank you NetGalley for this book!

I LOVED No Exit. One of the best, most suspenseful thrillers I’ve read in a long time. So when I saw that another Taylor Adams book was coming and was available on NetGalley, I jumped at the chance to get it. Thankfully, my request was approved because this one was fantastic. I’m happy to share a fantastic review of this one. And I cannot wait to go through Adams’ back catalog to uncover some other gems of his.

From Goodreads: Three months ago, Lena Nguyen’s estranged twin sister, Cambry, drove to a remote bridge sixty miles outside of Missoula, Montana, and jumped two hundred feet to her death. At least, that is the official police version. But Lena isn’t buying it.

Now she’s come to that very bridge, driving her dead twin’s car and armed with a cassette recorder, determined to find out what really happened by interviewing the highway patrolman who allegedly discovered her sister’s body.

Corporal Raymond Raycevic has agreed to meet Lena at the scene. He is sympathetic, forthright, and professional. But his story doesn’t seem to add up. For one thing, he stopped Cambry for speeding a full hour before she supposedly leapt to her death. Then there are the sixteen attempted 911 calls from her cell phone, made in what was unfortunately a dead zone.

But perhaps most troubling of all, the state trooper is referred to by name in Cambry’s final enigmatic text to her sister: Please Forgive Me. I couldn’t live with it. Hopefully you can, Officer Raycevic.

Lena will do anything to uncover the truth. But as her twin’s final hours come into focus, Lena’s search turns into a harrowing, tooth-and-nail fight for her own survival—one that will test everything she thought she knew about her sister and herself.

I loved this book. It was just a notch below No Exit, because that one just floored me, but this one is great and absolutely worth reading. The bulk of the story takes place in just a few hours, which was really interesting. Lena is full of fun surprises, as is Cambry’s story, which is also told, but only from Lena’s guess as to what happened. This duality creates a great unreliable narrator perspective. Is Lena’s idea of what happened to Cambry the truth? Or wishful thinking taking suicide off the table? If you liked No Exit, this one definitely needs to be on your to read list when it comes out. Another great one from Taylor Adams.

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Little Secrets

Title: Little Secrets

Author: Jennifer Hillier

Genre: psychological thriller

I’m a sucker for a good plot twist. As long as it’s reasonable and not just some random thing thrown in to convince the reader that the author is clever. Because it’s not clever. At. All. But if you can lead the reader down a path, throw in a twist, then the reader can follow the plot back and see how it all makes sense… I’m in. Sure thing. And this one definitely made sense. Whew.

From Goodreads: Marin had the perfect life. Married to her college sweetheart, she owns a chain of upscale hair salons, and Derek runs his own company. They’re admired in their community and are a loving family—until their world falls apart the day their son Sebastian is taken.

A year later, Marin is a shadow of herself. The FBI search has gone cold. The publicity has faded. She and her husband rarely speak. She hires a P.I. to pick up where the police left off, but instead of finding Sebastian, she learns that Derek is having an affair with a younger woman. This discovery sparks Marin back to life. She’s lost her son; she’s not about to lose her husband, too. Kenzie is an enemy with a face, which means this is a problem Marin can fix. Permanently.

From the blurb, it sounds like Marin is a pain in the ass, but she’s not. She’s raw and dealing with a terrible situation. She is struggling, her marriage is struggling, and she’s just at a loss on how to deal with anything. She makes rash decisions, but they all make sense. I flew through the second half of the book and couldn’t wait to see what happened. This book was a good, fun, entertaining twisty thriller.

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Punch Me Up to the Gods

Title: Punch Me Up to the Gods

Author: Brian Broome

Genre: memoir

Thank you NetGalley for this book. And really, I am so thankful. What a fantastic book.

I’m a white, cis, straight, woman. Because of these privileges, my life is not hard. Sure, being a woman can be difficult at times, but it doesn’t compare in any way to being a Black person in society these days. Or being a gay person. But being both Black and gay is an unbelievable challenge, to put it mildly. Brian is around my age, grew up in a small town, just like I did, but his life was vastly different all because of his Blackness and his queerness. This theme is the topic of the book, and although the book was difficult to read because of all the struggles he dealt with, I couldn’t put this one down. Reading books written by people who are different from you is critical to being a member of the world. I’m so glad NetGalley sent this one to me.

From Goodreads: Punch Me Up to the Gods introduces a powerful new talent in Brian Broome, whose early years growing up in Ohio as a dark-skinned Black boy harboring crushes on other boys propel forward this gorgeous, aching, and unforgettable debut. Brian’s recounting of his experiences—in all their cringe-worthy, hilarious, and heartbreaking glory—reveal a perpetual outsider awkwardly squirming to find his way in. Indiscriminate sex and escalating drug use help to soothe his hurt, young psyche, usually to uproarious and devastating effect. A no-nonsense mother and broken father play crucial roles in our misfit’s origin story. But it is Brian’s voice in the retelling that shows the true depth of vulnerability for young Black boys that is often quietly near to bursting at the seams.
 
Cleverly framed around Gwendolyn Brooks’s poem “We Real Cool,” the iconic and loving ode to Black boyhood, Punch Me Up to the Gods is at once playful, poignant, and wholly original. Broome’s writing brims with swagger and sensitivity, bringing an exquisite and fresh voice to ongoing cultural conversations about Blackness in America.

Back when I was teaching AP English, I was constantly on the hunt for passages to use in class. One section near the end of this book about Brian wanting a pink shirt is simply one of the best written passages I’ve read in ages. So many people write memoirs their story is interesting, but the writing leaves you cringing because of how cheesy or bad it is. This book is beautifully written from beginning to end. I hope this one gets the reviews it deserves. Own voices books are critical these days, and this is one I will be recommending to everyone.