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X

Title: X

Authors: Ilyasah Shabazz and Kekla Magoon

Genre: YA fiction/historical fiction

PopSugar Reading Challenge prompt: A book whose title starts with Q X or Z

Back when I was teaching middle school, I handed my students two excerpts of pieces of writing: “The Ballot or the Bullet” and “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” I didn’t tell the kids the authors of either. After they read them, we had a discussion about which was more powerful, better written, more persuasive, etc. Hands-down, they selected “Ballot or the Bullet” as the piece they gravitated toward. Then, I played an audio recording of both authors. I can’t remember if it was the same pieces of writing or not, but the kids immediately switched sides. As powerful of a writer as Malcolm X was, Dr. King’s speaking ability was second to none. The lesson was a really great way to compare the written word vs. spoken word, not to mention how different Malcolm X’s and Dr. King’s beliefs were.

I bought this book on my kindle ages ago but never got around to reading it….story of my life. And I had completely forgotten what it was even about. But since it fit the prompt and was one I already had, it was an easy decision to select this one. I’m so glad I did. Co-written by Malcolm X’s daughter, this book is a fictionalized (based on facts, of course) account of Malcolm’s childhood and teenage years. He’s arrested and incarcerated toward the end of the book, and his prison time is briefly described. At the end of the book, he abandons his last name and changes to X.

From Goodreads: Malcolm Little’s parents have always told him that he can achieve anything, but from what he can tell, that’s nothing but a pack of lies—after all, his father’s been murdered, his mother’s been taken away, and his dreams of becoming a lawyer have gotten him laughed out of school. There’s no point in trying, he figures, and lured by the nightlife of Boston and New York, he escapes into a world of fancy suits, jazz, girls, and reefer.

follows Malcolm from his childhood to his imprisonment for theft at age twenty, when he found the faith that would lead him to forge a new path and command a voice that still resonates today.

But Malcolm’s efforts to leave the past behind lead him into increasingly dangerous territory when what starts as some small-time hustling quickly spins out of control. Deep down, he knows that the freedom he’s found is only an illusion—and that he can’t run forever.

This book is fantastic. I don’t know much about Malcolm X’s background, let alone details of his childhood. I’ve never read his autobiography (for no particular reason…just never have). As much as I try to educate myself of important Black authors and activists, I am seriously lacking. I’ve never read James Baldwin, Richard Wright, or WEB DuBois. I am making a point to read more current Black authors, learning their stories, listening to their voices, but the formative authors are ones I need to investigate. And this book is an excellent way for young people, as well as for me, to do that.

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Bad Marie

Title: Bad Marie

Author: Marcy Dermansky

Genre: domestic thriller

PopSugar Reading Challenge Prompt: The book that’s been on your TBR list for the longest amount of time (according to my Goodreads “to read” shelf)

It’s no joke that Marie is bad. But I didn’t hate her at all. She makes some terrible decisions, but it’s pretty clear that she isn’t intending to physically harm anyone. She’s selfish more than anything. Her background was pretty rough, but that doesn’t justify her actions. But by the end of the book, I mostly felt sorry for her. She is just lost.

From Goodreads: Bad Marie is the story of Marie, tall, voluptuous, beautiful, thirty years old, and fresh from six years in prison for being an accessory to murder and armed robbery. The only job Marie can get on the outside is as a nanny for her childhood friend Ellen Kendall, an upwardly mobile Manhattan executive whose mother employed Marie’s mother as a housekeeper. After Marie moves in with Ellen, Ellen’s angelic baby Caitlin, and Ellen’s husband, a very attractive French novelist named Benoit Doniel, things get complicated, and almost before she knows what she’s doing, Marie has absconded to Paris with both Caitlin and Benoit Doniel. On the run and out of her depth, Marie will travel to distant shores and experience the highs and lows of foreign culture, lawless living, and motherhood as she figures out how to be an adult; how deeply she can love; and what it truly means to be “bad.”

When the trio escapes to Paris, the story really picks up. The entire time, Marie is taking care of Caitlin as best as she can. She’s a great “mother” for her. The one person in the entire world that she loves is this little girl who doesn’t belong to her. And that, at least, motivates her to make some better decisions. While they are on the run, Marie begins to run out of money, but luckily finds a way to get more, but that leads to more bad decisions. As impulsive as she is, she still has Caitlin’s best interest at heart, aside from keeping her from her mother, of course. This book was really compelling, and I kept reading to see what mess Marie would get into next.

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The Lost Apothecary

Title: The Lost Apothecary

Author: Sarah Penner

Genre: historical fiction, mystery

PopSugar Reading Challenge prompt: a book with a heart, diamond, club, or spade on the cover (look at the top of the vial)

This book was a choice for Book of the Month club, but I’m not really a historical fiction fan, so I didn’t select it. But enough people told me that I needed to check it out anyway because it was really good. And I’m glad I did. I really enjoyed this one, even though a couple parts were predictable. Told in both present and past plot lines, the book gives you a good idea of what life was like back in the late 1700s for the apothecary, Nella and her reluctantly-taken-on apprentice, Eliza. I enjoyed the past story more than the present day, oddly enough. Caroline’s story wasn’t as interesting to me, although I thought she was a great character.

From Goodreads:

A female apothecary secretly dispenses poisons to liberate women from the men who have wronged them—setting three lives across centuries on a dangerous collision course.Rule #1: The poison must never be used to harm another woman. Rule #2: The names of the murderer and her victim must be recorded in the apothecary’s register.

One cold February evening in 1791, at the back of a dark London alley in a hidden apothecary shop, Nella awaits her newest customer. Once a respected healer, Nella now uses her knowledge for a darker purpose—selling well-disguised poisons to desperate women who would kill to be free of the men in their lives. But when her new patron turns out to be a precocious twelve-year-old named Eliza Fanning, an unexpected friendship sets in motion a string of events that jeopardizes Nella’s world and threatens to expose the many women whose names are written in her register.

In present-day London, aspiring historian Caroline Parcewell spends her tenth wedding anniversary alone, reeling from the discovery of her husband’s infidelity. When she finds an old apothecary vial near the river Thames, she can’t resist investigating, only to realize she’s found a link to the unsolved “apothecary murders” that haunted London over two centuries ago. As she deepens her search, Caroline’s life collides with Nella’s and Eliza’s in a stunning twist of fate—and not everyone will survive.

Writing two timelines is really tricky. But Penner did a great job uncovering details in the past timeline that became important in the next chapter of the present timeline. I’m always impressed with authors who can do this. Some authors can’t even get one timeline straight, let alone two. The present day story was a bit dull for me. Caroline is dealing with a cheating husband, an unhappy marriage, a desire for children, which is real, but it just isn’t one that appeals to me. Overall, this book was really great. I read it in just a couple days. Nella and Eliza were great characters, and I would love to see more of them.

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Darling Rose Gold

Title: Darling Rose Gold

Author: Stephanie Wrobel

Genre: Psychological fiction

PopSugar Reading Challenge: a book with a gem, mineral, or rock in the title

I’m not a big fan of ripped from the headlines plots in books. This story clearly was inspired by that of Gypsy Rose Blanchard. However, I couldn’t put this book down. The story was different enough that I had no idea where it was going. Rose Gold was such a great character. You never really knew her true motivations because the story is told out of order. You have a present day storyline where Patty gets out of jail and lives with Rose Gold. But then you back and forth between past and Rose Gold is trying to navigate life after the deceptions are revealed and the present day of living with her mother. This book was cleverly crafted so the true plot isn’t revealed until the very end.

From Goodreads: For the first eighteen years of her life, Rose Gold Watts believed she was seriously ill. She was allergic to everything, used a wheelchair and practically lived at the hospital. Neighbors did all they could, holding fundraisers but no matter how many doctors, tests, or surgeries, no one could figure out what was wrong with Rose Gold.Turns out her mom, Patty Watts, was just a really good liar.

After serving five years in prison, Patty begs her daughter to take her in. The entire community is shocked when Rose Gold says yes. And Rose Gold is no longer her weak little darling… And she’s waited such a long time for her mother to come home.

I couldn’t stop reading this book. And I was so nervous while doing so. Patty really is the worst. Very early on after her release, you realize she hasn’t changed at all. She still has no remorse for what she did, and she didn’t learn anything from her incarceration. So, when Rose Gold takes her back, you immediately cringe because you fully expect the worst to happen. I flew through this book. It is a tough read because it deals with some pretty awful stuff regarding children, but it’s definitely worth it in the end.

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Let’s Talk About Hard Things

Title: Let’s Talk About Hard Things

Author: Anna Sale

Genre: conversation etiquette guide, social skills, interpersonal relations

PopSugar Reading Challenge prompt: a book by a blogger, vlogger, YouTube video creator, or other online personality

I don’t follow any blogs of people who have published books, and instead of just picking one at random, this book was one I knew I wanted to read. So, I’m considering Anna Sale an “online personality” because she hosts a podcast. I don’t think that’s a far reach at all. She is the host of Death, Sex, and Money, which is one of my favorite podcasts. Sale has just a lovely speaking voice (critical when you’re a radio/podcast person) and asks such great questions. Clearly, some are prepared because you can tell she has done her research and put a lot of thought into them, but also she responds so well to her guests’ answers. I love that she covers difficult topics with grace. The “sex” aspect might be a turn-off (pun intended!) to some people, but it’s not graphic, and Sale doesn’t really dig into personal details. It’s not salacious in any way. A lot of the sex part is about relationships, intimacy, and connection. I highly recommend you check it out.

From Goodreads: Anna Sale wants you to have that conversation. You know the one. The one that you’ve been avoiding or putting off, maybe for years. The one that you’ve thought “they’ll never understand” or “do I really want to bring that up?” or “it’s not going to go well, so why even try?”

Sale is the founder and host of WNYC’s popular, award-winning podcast Death, Sex, & Money, or as the New York Times dubbed her, “a therapist at happy hour.” She and her guests have direct and thought-provoking conversations, discussing topics that most of us are too squeamish, polite, or nervous to bring up. But Sale argues that we all experience these hard things, and by not talking to one another, we cut ourselves off, leading us to feel isolated and disconnected from the people who can help us most.

In Let’s Talk About Hard Things, Sale uses the best of what she’s learned from her podcast to reveal that when we have the courage to talk about hard things, we learn about ourselves, others, and the world that we make together. Diving into five of the most fraught conversation topics—death, sex, money, family, and identity—she moves between memoir, fascinating snapshots of a variety of Americans opening up about their lives, and expert opinions to show why having tough conversations is important and how to do them in a thoughtful and generous way. She uncovers that listening may be the most important part of a tough conversation, that the end goal should be understanding without the pressure of reconciliation, and that there are some things that words can’t fix (and why that’s actually okay).

Touching, personal, and inspiring, Let’s Talk About Hard Things is a profound meditation on why communication can connect us instead of divide us and how we can all do it better.

It’s funny because Sale writes exactly how she talks. The same phrasing, the same word choice, which was so comforting. I read the entire book hearing her voice in my mind. What I loved best about this book is that it didn’t feel at all like a self-help book, but even though it was, of sorts. It wasn’t preachy at all. I’m sure people read this to learn how to be a better person or to understand other people who are different from them, which is why I mostly read it. It’s the same reason I listen to the podcast. To hear other stories, see how I relate to them, see how I can learn from them. I cannot recommend the podcast and this book enough.

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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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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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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.