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With the Fire on High

Title: With the Fire on High

Author: Elizabeth Acevedo

Genre: YA lit

PopSugar Reading Challenge prompt: book set in a restaurant

I just can’t stop reading YA these days. I go through reading phases, like most people, I would guess. But I’m digging through some recent YA books that I didn’t get to the past few years. And I’ve heard so many great things about this author, and this book also happened to fit a Popsugar prompt, so it was doubly worth reading. And I’m so glad I did.

From Goodreads: With her daughter to care for and her abuela to help support, high school senior Emoni Santiago has to make the tough decisions, and do what must be done. The one place she can let her responsibilities go is in the kitchen, where she adds a little something magical to everything she cooks, turning her food into straight-up goodness. Still, she knows she doesn’t have enough time for her school’s new culinary arts class, doesn’t have the money for the class’s trip to Spain — and shouldn’t still be dreaming of someday working in a real kitchen. But even with all the rules she has for her life — and all the rules everyone expects her to play by — once Emoni starts cooking, her only real choice is to let her talent break free.

Emoni is just such a great character. She is realistic and responsible and knows exactly what she wants. But getting there can be tricky. She’s a fantastic mom, but having a baby does cause issues that her peers don’t face. She loves cooking, but her grades aren’t the greatest. She has an amazing grandma who raised her, but her dad isn’t as in the picture as much as he really should be. I’m so thankful for the recent transition in YA lit from annoying teen girl to amazing, strong teen girl. The recent representations are so much more empowering for girls who are reading the books. I listened to this book and couldn’t get through it quickly enough. I just loved being in Emoni’s world and absolutely recommend this one.

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Educated

Title: Educated

Author: Tara Westover

Genre: memoir

PopSugar Reading Challenge Prompt: book set in multiple countries

How in the world did it take me so long to read this book? Of course, I’ve heard about it, but I never really read a blurb of it. I thought it had something to do with the education system and how bad it was. Totally my fault for not investigating more. I started listening to this book, but I couldn’t find enough time to do so, and I was dying to read more and more and more, so I got it on ebook, so I could fly through it. This book is exactly how a memoir should be written. I’ve read a lot, and most are just a sequence of events retelling, but this one is so cleverly crafted.

From Goodreads: Tara Westover was 17 the first time she set foot in a classroom. Born to survivalists in the mountains of Idaho, she prepared for the end of the world by stockpiling home-canned peaches and sleeping with her “head-for-the-hills bag”. In the summer, she stewed herbs for her mother, a midwife and healer, and in the winter she salvaged in her father’s junkyard.

Her father forbade hospitals, so Tara never saw a doctor or nurse. Gashes and concussions, even burns from explosions, were all treated at home with herbalism. The family was so isolated from mainstream society that there was no one to ensure the children received an education and no one to intervene when one of Tara’s older brothers became violent.

Then, lacking any formal education, Tara began to educate herself. She taught herself enough mathematics and grammar to be admitted to Brigham Young University, where she studied history, learning for the first time about important world events like the Holocaust and the civil rights movement. Her quest for knowledge transformed her, taking her over oceans and across continents, to Harvard and to Cambridge. Only then would she wonder if she’d traveled too far, if there was still a way home.

Educated is an account of the struggle for self-invention. It is a tale of fierce family loyalty and of the grief that comes with severing the closest of ties. With the acute insight that distinguishes all great writers, Westover has crafted a universal coming-of-age story that gets to the heart of what an education is and what it offers: the perspective to see one’s life through new eyes and the will to change it.

Holy. Smokes. My jaw just dropped so many times while reading this. The terror that Tara went through really is indescribable. The mental and physical abuse she suffered at the hands of her family is horrific. And although her family is Mormon and her dad is bipolar, Tara never presents these facts as FACTS about Mormonism or people with bipolar disorder. The book is a representation of Tara’s experience only, not about Mormonism or bipolar disorder as a whole. She knows her experience was singular. I could not put this book down. The story itself is captivating, but it was also so well-written. Absolutely compelling.

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Instructions for Dancing

Title: Instructions for Dancing

Author: Nicola Yoon

Genre: YA magical realism

PopSugar reading challenge prompt: a magical realism book

Thank you NetGalley for this book!

I have read one other Nicola Yoon book, The Sun is Also a Star, which I absolutely loved. And I’ve been reading some heavy books as of late. So this little breath of fresh air was the perfect book. Much like Sun, this book is a great combo of light and heavy, love and heartbreak, fun and serious. I flew through this one in just a couple of days because I couldn’t stop reading. I absolutely loved it.

From Goodreads: Evie Thomas doesn’t believe in love anymore. Especially after the strangest thing occurs one otherwise ordinary afternoon: She witnesses a couple kiss and is overcome with a vision of how their romance began . . . and how it will end. After all, even the greatest love stories end with a broken heart, eventually.

As Evie tries to understand why this is happening, she finds herself at La Brea Dance studio, learning to waltz, fox-trot, and tango with a boy named X. X is everything that Evie is not: adventurous, passionate, daring. His philosophy is to say yes to everything–including entering a ballroom dance competition with a girl he’s only just met.

Falling for X is definitely not what Evie had in mind. If her visions of heartbreak have taught her anything, it’s that no one escapes love unscathed. But as she and X dance around and toward each other, Evie is forced to question all she thought she knew about life and love. In the end, is love worth the risk?

Evie is such a fun character that I really related to. She has her one group of friends, doesn’t get out much, studies a lot, snarky, and smart. Her struggles are grounded in reality, and you really understand why she feels the way she does. X and Evie’s friends are a great support system, as well. Just kept giggling at this book in the best way. Young love is always so fun to read about when it is genuine and not full of stupid YA tropes. After reading two excellent books by Yoon, I’ll be reading anything else she writes.

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Homegoing

Title: Homegoing

Author: Yaa Gyasi

Genre: Black historical fiction

PopSugar Reading Challenge Prompt: book with a family tree

I knew absolutely nothing about this book, other than the rave reviews. And by the time I was finished, I couldn’t believe how Gyasi managed to get me to care about each and every character in just a few pages. What a marvel this book is.

From Goodreads:

A novel of breathtaking sweep and emotional power that traces three hundred years in Ghana and along the way also becomes a truly great American novel. Extraordinary for its exquisite language, its implacable sorrow, its soaring beauty, and for its monumental portrait of the forces that shape families and nations, Homegoing heralds the arrival of a major new voice in contemporary fiction.

Two half-sisters, Effia and Esi, are born into different villages in eighteenth-century Ghana. Effia is married off to an Englishman and lives in comfort in the palatial rooms of Cape Coast Castle. Unbeknownst to Effia, her sister, Esi, is imprisoned beneath her in the castle’s dungeons, sold with thousands of others into the Gold Coast’s booming slave trade, and shipped off to America, where her children and grandchildren will be raised in slavery. One thread of Homegoing follows Effia’s descendants through centuries of warfare in Ghana, as the Fante and Asante nations wrestle with the slave trade and British colonization. The other thread follows Esi and her children into America. From the plantations of the South to the Civil War and the Great Migration, from the coal mines of Pratt City, Alabama, to the jazz clubs and dope houses of twentieth-century Harlem, right up through the present day, Homegoing makes history visceral, and captures, with singular and stunning immediacy, how the memory of captivity came to be inscribed in the soul of a nation.

Generation after generation, Yaa Gyasi’s magisterial first novel sets the fate of the individual against the obliterating movements of time, delivering unforgettable characters whose lives were shaped by historical forces beyond their control. Homegoing is a tremendous reading experience, not to be missed, by an astonishingly gifted young writer.

You only spend a short amount of time with each character, and although some bleed into their child’s story, some don’t. But the entire focus is on the new character. I was drawn in so quickly to each story, which felt like small snapshots into what life was like in America and in Africa around the same time. Of course, I knew that slavery would be an atrocity that characters in America face, but I really had no idea what life in Africa would be like for these characters. I was just blown away by how captivating each individual story was. The hype over this book is much deserved. I can’t wait to see what Gyasi’s next novel, Transcendent Kingdom, has in store for me.

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These Violent Delights

Title: These Violent Delights

Author: Chloe Gong

Genre: YA historical romance

PopSugar Reading Challenge Prompt: book on your TBR list with the prettiest cover

This cover is gorgeous. When I read the blurb for it on Book of the Month, I knew this would be my choice. I’m a sucker for Romeo and Juliet retellings. And this story sounded like so much fun. Set in 1920s Shanghi, and instead of falling in love and dying, they just broke up. Now they are older and soon-to-be leaders of their gangs. All this sounds like such a fun book. But I was bored to tears. It took me twice as long to read this one than other books of the same length. I’m sure I’m in the minority, but it was well-written and the characters were dynamic. I just couldn’t get into it.

From Goodreads: The year is 1926, and Shanghai hums to the tune of debauchery. A blood feud between two gangs runs the streets red, leaving the city helpless in the grip of chaos. At the heart of it all is eighteen-year-old Juliette Cai, a former flapper who has returned to assume her role as the proud heir of the Scarlet Gang—a network of criminals far above the law. Their only rivals in power are the White Flowers, who have fought the Scarlets for generations. And behind every move is their heir, Roma Montagov, Juliette’s first love…and first betrayal.

But when gangsters on both sides show signs of instability culminating in clawing their own throats out, the people start to whisper. Of a contagion, a madness. Of a monster in the shadows. As the deaths stack up, Juliette and Roma must set their guns—and grudges—aside and work together, for if they can’t stop this mayhem, then there will be no city left for either to rule.

So the two have to work together to keep people from dying because for some inexplicable reason, even though family members of theirs die, the heads of the gangs have nothing to do with the problem. Juliette drove me insane. I didn’t like her character at all. But again, for no real reason other than personal preference. I was really hoping this book would be fun and engaging. But, for me, it just missed the mark.

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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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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!