What a sad, stressful month. I only read three books in all of March, due to a dozen extenuating circumstances. I’m trying to make up for it in April and am already well on my way. At least the few I did read were all excellent!
I chose The Bell Jar for a banned books project in my Publishing Law class. I picked books I hadn’t read before and wanted to, and this was a great choice for me. As someone who struggled with depression in the past, the novel was haunting in its realism, nearly to the point of tears. Plath’s language was captivating and and her voice unique; it’s remarkable that they were able to suppress her voice so long after her suicide. I would highly recommend to any and every person, but especially to any woman who has ever felt uncertain in her future, her desires, even her womanhood itself.
This was an astounding book that I want to put into the hands of everyone over the age of 10. A little girl named September is spirited away by a Green Wind to Fairyland for adventures, where she must defeat an evil Marquess with the help of a Wyverary (half Wyvern, half library), and a mysterious wish-granting boy named Saturday. She journeys through many lands, loses her shadow, fetches a spoon for a witch, and rides a wild bicycle, all to save Fairyland and get back home to her mother. Valente’s writing is truly stellar, in the vein of Alice in Wonderland and with touches of Lemony Snicket and Neil Gaiman. Part of me highly doubts that the average middle grade reader would understand a lot of this book, let alone enjoy it — even I had to look up several different mythological creatures and people. But a fairy tale lover will pick it up and love it, then read it again in adulthood and love it even more for its intricacies and depth. I’m very excited for the follow-up novels!
March’s Girls in Capes book group pick! I enjoyed this one — quick and entertaining, with a good set-up for the rest of the trilogy, which I intend to read this summer. What’s Left of Me is a dystopian sci-fi young adult novel that takes place in a world where everyone is born with two souls in one body. By a certain age, one of the souls is shown to be dominant, and the other fades into nonexistence. At least, they’re supposed to — Eva never left, but her sister Addie must pretend she isn’t there. When they meet other ‘hybrids’ and try to help Eva gain control over their shared body, they are captured and sent to a facility that intends to make one of their souls disappear for good.
It was a pretty decent month for books! A couple of duds, but a lot of advance galleys that were excellent, and I can’t wait to hand-sell some of them.
Normal by Graeme Cameron (4 of 5 stars)
A classic anti-hero and unreliable narrator reminiscent of Dexter Morgan, Normal is the story of an average everyday guy who also happens to be a serial killer with a cage in his basement. When he meets the girl of his dreams, he decides now is the time to give up his murdering ways. The only problem is, he still has a woman in his basement, and the cops are closing in quickly. This one was creepy of course, but also funny, and fun in a way. I liked being in this guy’s head more than Dexter’s, because he has no remorse for his actions, no code of honor. He’s just a dude who kills people. The reader wants him to get away with it, too, even though he’s clearly dangerous and crazy. Don’t read if you’re squeamish. On sale date is March 31st.
Stupid Cupid by Rhonda Stapleton (3 of 5 stars)
A teenage girl gets hired as a real life cupid, using a magical PDA to spark romance between her peers. She is told certain rules to follow, and immediately ignores them entirely and messes everything up. This was an especially fluffy read, but an interesting premise, and pretty cute overall. Not something I’d ever read again, or even recommend, but it was okay in the moment.
Hector and the Search for Happiness by Francois Lelord (3 of 5 stars)
Hector is a psychiatrist that can’t figure out why his patients are so unhappy when nothing is wrong, so he travels the world to solve the mystery. I enjoyed the writing style (very Little Prince-esque), and his observations about happiness were meaningful. However, I really could’ve done without Hector’s sleeping around and cheating. I actually found him to be a hypocrite and womanizer, under the guise of a “nice guy,” and the more I thought about it, the more irritated I got. I think there’s something to be taken from the book as a whole, but it’s definitely not through the protagonist.
Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli (5 of 5 stars)
I read this book in two days while waiting in line for panels at Katsucon (an anime convention). I was hooked from the first page, and it was everything I could’ve hoped for and more. Simon is cynical and hilarious, and still in the closet. The whole book is two boys adorably falling in love and helping each other come to terms with themselves, told in a totally relatable way. If you’re looking for a light, well-written, happy romance, regardless of sexuality, this is the one to grab. On sale date is April 7th. (Ages 14+)
The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma (4 of 5 stars)
I already posted my full review of this one. I’ll just reiterate that it’s both a supernatural horror and a psychological thriller, with unique and satisfying ending. It has a haunting lyricism you won’t soon forget. (Ages 14+)
Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi (5 of 5 stars)
Oyeyemi is probably the most beautiful and meaningful writer of this generation. She is ground-breaking and world-shaking. I hope her name lives on with the likes of Toni Morrison, Virginia Woolf, Zora Neale Hurston, Sylvia Plath. Mr. Fox, the novel’s namesake, is an author who constantly kills his female characters. His muse, Mary, is alive-but-not, and tries to steer him in a different direction, so the two end up playing a game against each other. This is some serious metafiction, composed in vignettes that are all related but not necessarily connected. A little difficult to explain, but even when the reader is confused, they are still drawn in and gripped tight. Her words refuse to let go. I beg of you to read one of Oyeyemi’s novels immediately.
“Maybe, long ago, we used to be good. Maybe all little girls are good in the beginning.”
Nova Ren Suma’s latest novel is touted on social media as “Orange is the New Black Swan,” but the haunting ghost story is darker than even those comparisons suggest.
THE WALLS AROUND US is told in alternating perspectives: Violet, a Juilliard-bound ballerina with a damning secret, and Amber, a prisoner in a girls’ detention center with secrets of her own. The only connection between them is Orianna, Violet’s former best friend and Amber’s new cellmate.
Through flashbacks and introspection, the two narrators reveal dark pasts and unjust circumstances that plague those around them. Amber and Violet prove that though people don’t always get what they deserve, sometimes they get exactly what is coming to them. A unique plot with lyrical prose harmonize together for a twisted tale of murder and betrayal, all working up to a shocking but satisfying conclusion.
Equal parts psychological thriller and supernatural horror, this lingering, ominous novel is not for the faint of heart. I read it on an airplane, ignoring everything around me for the few hours it took to finish, and my heart was pounding by the end.
Violet is despicable from her first page. She is arrogant, certain of her superiority to everyone around her, and the reader loses sympathy for her character quickly. Amber’s voice, though distinctive to her, spoke for every girl in the prison, as though they were all one and the same –
“We were gasoline rushing for a lit match. We were bared teeth. Balled fists. A stampede of slick feet. We went wild, like anyone would. We lost our fool heads.”
It’s easy to guess a couple of the big reveals in the plot, which was my biggest complaint with the story. Regardless, the reader stays riveted through its entirety, especially the last seventy pages when everything comes together and gets intense. It wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if we found this book on nearly every Best Young Adult of 2015 list. I’ve never read a novel by Suma before this one, but if it’s any indication of her usual style, I’ll definitely seek her out again.
I’d recommend this book to people who loved Black Swan, and who love spooky stories in general. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who is easily creeped out or looking for a happy ending. I’d also suggest readers be 14 years old or older, because of graphic violence and a brief sexual scene.
4 out of 5 stars
Buy it now on IndieBound
See this review on Girls in Capes
I have a few friends who do mini-reviews on the books they read each month, so I thought it might be fun to do that too! It’s an easier way to show people what I’m reading and interested in without writing these page-long essay reviews for every single book. I don’t have time for that mess. I have a thesis in my life.
I also recognize that it is almost March. Apologies for the delay, but this was a recent decision.
1. Like No Other by Una LaMarche
I wrote an article for Girls in Capes about YA romances with a diverse twist, and this was one of the new ones I picked up. Like No Other is the story of Devorah, a Hasidic Jewish girl, and Jaxon, a black public school boy, who get trapped alone in an elevator and end up inexplicably drawn to each other. The star-crossed teens fall in love, but must hide their relationship from Devorah’s family, because she is not allowed to talk to or be alone with any man, let alone see, date, or kiss a boy outside of her faith. Beyond a love story, LaMarche’s novel ends up more about Devorah’s search for understanding in her religious faith as she finds her voice and independence. To be honest, the romance aspect fell flat for me, but I still appreciated Devorah’s journey and a new perspective I hadn’t read about before.
3 out of 5 stars
2. Killer WASPs by Amy Korman
It definitely did its job making me laugh — most things making fun of the crazy rich ladies of the Main Line do that. Korman did a good job of including various character subplots along with the actual mystery of who, of the many with motive, tried to kill the sleazy real estate agent. If you’re looking for a serious, thought-provoking, heart-racing murder mystery, you’re checking out the wrong book. If you’d rather read an Evanovich-esque mystery with quirky Main Liners that makes you chuckle or roll your eyes, KILLER WASPS is more your speed.
I had some serious issues with a few things that could’ve been easily fixed in editorial — several proofreading mistakes, use of the word “shlep” about 8 times in 50 pages, and way too much clothing description, down to the pricetag — but despite these flaws, it was enjoyable enough that I will probably pick up the next one, since the ending was a clear set-up for a series complete with love triangles, world travel, and a fat basset hound.
I work at a bookstore in Bryn Mawr, so I couldn’t pass up a light beach read easily hand-sold to customers who enjoy local interest.
3.5 out of 5 stars
3. Say What You Will by Cammie McGovern
Another for my diverse YA romances! Amy has CP and cannot walk very easily or talk at all. Her senior year of high school, she decides she wants to make friends and have her companions be fellow students instead of hired adults. While she gets along with all her helpers, Amy feels especially drawn to Matthew, a shy boy with severe obsessive-compulsive tendencies. Her whole life, she’s had a physical disorder, and now she wants to help this boy with a mental disorder who won’t help himself. They get each other through their hardest times, and slowly but surely fall in love.
There’s a crazy twist I definitely didn’t see coming, and it all humanizes Amy in a way I haven’t read before. I literally could barely put the book down, no matter because I had to know what happened between these two characters discovering and accepting their flaws, as well as their love for each other. When I read Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper last year, it was my first real experience reading about cerebral palsy, so I couldn’t help imagining that Amy was actually Melody all grown up and ready to fall in love and take on the world.
4 out of 5 stars
4. Red Rising by Pierce Brown
The Girls in Capes Speculative Crossover Book Club read this novel for the month of January. Let me just say that it created a lot of controversy and disagreement among us.
If you haven’t heard, Red Rising is being called a cross of Hunger Games and Ender’s Game, but I would throw in a little Lord of the Flies as well. I enjoyed the strong character growth in Darrow over the course of the novel, especially in understanding the society as a whole. Without giving too much away, he learns to be a good leader instead of relying on his personal vendetta to make it through. I also loved a lot of the supporting characters, most specifically Sevro and Mustang. I did NOT like the fridging of Darrow’s wife; it was too easy of an overused (and offensive) plot device. I also did not like the fact that in the school, they mention (non-graphic) rape, so trigger warning there. However, in a realistic war-like setting, I was not surprised and almost expected it come up, and Darrow does try to correct the situation.
Nearly every review I’ve read says that Golden Son is exceptional, so I’ll definitely read that one too. I’m curious to learn more about the society and see how Darrow survives outside the school setting.
4 out of 5 stars
5. The Secret Sky by Atia Abawi
This novel is truly comparable to Romeo & Juliet, though with a slightly more hopeful ending. A former NBC Afghanistan news correspondent writes about two teenagers, Fatima and Sami, whose greatest transgression is being alone together, but even that is punishable by death. When they are caught alone by Sami’s cousin Rashid, it sparks cruelty from family members. Their families refuse to allow marriage because they are from two different Afghan races, with much tension between them. The decision to run away to the city and get married causes them to be hunted by Taliban soldiers, who leave bloodshed in their wake.
The Secret Sky sheds light on a culture that most Americans know little to nothing about, and its portrayal is both powerful and frightening. This one is not for the faint of heart, due to graphic violence. My biggest issue was how two people who have never even kissed before and have barely seen each other for a decade will suddenly be married and spend their lives together, but that could just be my cynicism. The fundamentalist leaders’ flaws were particularly heavy-handed, but I don’t know enough about the truth to question it. Overall, the culture was unique compared to things I’ve read before, but the writing didn’t blow me away, and it’s a story we’ve all heard before, just in a different setting.
3.5 out of 5 stars
6. Guy in Real Life by Steve Brezenoff
This was one of my favorites from the YA Romance list, mostly because I identify with nerd culture. Lesh and Svetlana meet entirely by accident, despite going to the same school. He’s a metalhead who plays MMOs; she’s an artistic RPG dungeon master. This chance meeting causes them to be constantly put in the other’s path and thoughts. This is not only an adorable love story of two very different loners finding each other, but also brings up a lot of problematic aspects of the gaming community. It discusses prejudices of women in gaming as well as prejudices within separate nerd-dom factions, but without being snobby or pushy about it. The alternating points of view are essentially from Lesh and Svetlana, but also include their perspectives as MMO character and RPG storyteller. A fun read even if you don’t play MMOs or RPGs (though having prior knowledge of the two makes it a lot more interesting).
4 out of 5 stars
No books changed my life in January, but I didn’t hate any of them either, so overall a successful reading month!
I don’t know how many I’ll have for the coming months, since thesis will be taking up all my conscious thoughts, but I’ll definitely have a few for February (which perhaps I can post in a more timely fashion).
I don’t remember how or why CROAK, Gina Damico’s debut novel, ended up on my bookshelf, but my best friend plucked it off and read it before I got the chance. She returned it and told me, “You HAVE to read this book immediately,” which I did, and I’ve been hooked on Damico’s books ever since. After the dark and hilarious CROAK trilogy, I was hell-bent (heh) on getting ahold of her new stand-alone novel.
Max is the kind of teenage boy who times his crossword puzzles and digs for dinosaur fossils in his spare time – a good kid who takes care of his sick mother instead of hanging out with friends (of which he has one or two). When he steals a cat bobblehead from work to make his mom smile, he never intends for this dishonest misdeed to unearth a devil.
Burg is a loud, no-pants-wearing, red-horn-having devil who needs a place of his own, pronto. He makes the deal that if Max finds him a house (with a hot tub!), he will heal Max’s mother’s heart condition. Unable to pass up the chance to save his mom, Max enlists the help of Lore, a former Goth girl who has dealt with her own demons, and who has a crowbar outfitted with googly eyes.
Complete with a giant fiberglass killer whale and Project Runway drinking game, this was a clever, unique story that’ll make you laugh out loud and punch you in the gut three pages later.
My biggest criticism is of the ending: the last fifty pages feel rushed, like Damico was trying to squeeze everything into a strict word count that was cut off too soon. It is a complete story, just not as fleshed-out as it should have been.
That said, if you’re a fan of Bryan Fuller shows like Pushing Daisies, Wonderfalls, and Dead Like Me, then you’ll love Gina Damico. The snarky humor flows easily into the macabre, and you can always count on plot twists and inimitable characters in true Damico fashion. While HELLHOLE was not as strong as the CROAK trilogy, it’s still a solid read in its own right.
I recommend HELLHOLE for those over age 14 (due to cursing, death, and sex jokes) and for someone looking for a book that feels light at first with all the sarcasm and absurdity, but leaves readers with a more memorable experience in the end.
4 out of 5 stars
Buy it now on IndieBound
See this review on Girls in Capes
“Our stories say that when the human world was first made, not all of it fit.”
Winterspell falls into the current trend of fairy tale retellings, but with a unique origin. Inspired by the ballet The Nutcracker, Claire Legrand spins an intricate story of faeries and mages in another world.
Clara Stole is haunted by the brutal murder of her mother, but she has to care for her younger sister and drunken father, the mayor of New York City in 1899. Her only constant is her godfather, Drosselmeyer, who teaches her self-defense and provides an escape from the watchful eyes of the Concordia mafia, and especially the cruel Dr. Victor, who expresses a bit too much interest in Clara.
On Christmas Eve, Clara’s home is attacked by mechanized creatures shaped like rats, and her father is kidnapped. She must venture to Cane, another world entirely, with the help of Nicholas, a dethroned and cursed prince, and her own hidden powers to defeat the evil faery queen and rescue her father.
Clara experiences an exceptional growth over the course of the novel in every way. Legrand is rare in her inclusion of deliberate teenage sexuality and discovery. It was realistic in progression from fear and curiosity to acceptance and comfort.
The most interesting character, though, comes in the form of Anise, the faery queen. Half faery and half royal, her magic is stronger than that of anyone Cane has ever seen before. Her sordid backstory and uncertain motivations add complexity to her disposition and enrich the world around them. The two of them make very strong female characters on both ends of the spectrum, protagonist and antagonist. Each woman is not only capable of taking care of herself, but they both choose to do so at various intervals.
Winterspell is not an exact retelling by any means; it is a much darker and more mature version of the ballet. Sugar becomes an addictive drug forced on humans to coerce them into complacency. The Nutcracker figure (Nicholas) is angry and mysterious in his intentions for Clara and for Cane. There is a surprise element of LGBT, but I don’t want to reveal too much about it. The descriptions of both setting and actions are so vivid in world-building, it could make an excellent fantasy film, but only if given a Hobbit-sized budget. It could go very cheesy very fast if put on the big screen without great effort.
I recommend this book for the older YA fan, someone looking for an impressive fantasy world and a distinctive twist on an old classic. Legrand’s first venture from middle grade to young adult is, in my opinion, a definite success.
4 out of 5 stars
Buy it now on IndieBound
See this review on Girls in Capes
Marjorie Hall — Director of Ludington Library in Bryn Mawr, PA
Hannah Schwartz — Owner of Children’s Book World in Haverford, PA
How do you make your decision when buying books?
HS: Being close to NYC, salespeople from publishers will come to the store so employees can read through them and look at pictures. They used to be more catalog-driven, but today’s catalogs are not as colorful and detailed, and are often online — it is better to hold and read the books before purchasing them. The buy two seasons in advance.
MH: Libraries focus heavily on reviews from Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist, and Library Journal. She and the other librarians also need to pay attention to appearances on talk shows and radio stations. Purchasing books requires knowing what is popular, what is rare, what the community demographic enjoys, and what will become available in four-months’ time. They also make sure to buy non-reviewed series titles (the next book in a sequence), new and revised editions of older books, and ‘no-brainer’ authors (James Patterson, Stephen King, etc.). The opinions in reviews matter for fiction,the language matters most in non-fiction (would the average person understand?), and good translations are important across all genres.
Is there a certain amount of subjectivity to the decisions you make?
Both: Even when purchasing books for sale or lending, Hannah and Margery agreed that they will attain books they personally do not like because there will be at least one person out there who might like it.
Hannah always gets the input of her employees so that more than just her own opinion is going into it. Marjorie, has a panel of librarians and community members who all review the review journals and catalogs and make recommendations. Both make sure to compile suggestions and requests.
How would you define success for your work?
HS: For a bookstore, success is generally based on sales. Beyond that, listening to customers’ wants and needs. Success can be finding an obscure book that fits perfectly to the customer and what they may be searching for, or listening to a demand for a certain book to be sold in the store.
MH: Libraries are somewhat different in terms of success, since there aren’t really sales. Instead, one must pay attention to circulation as well as the number of reserves on a book. If a book is constantly moving in and out of the library instead of sitting on the shelf and gathering dust, or if there are suddenly dozens of holds on the same book, it is successful. These are usually signs to Marjorie that she should purchase another copy.
Do you have any advice for current and future publishers?
HS: Publish more picture books to encourage reading in children. Pay attention and edit properly. And remember that independent bookstores (and really all brick-and-mortar bookstores) are important, so they shouldn’t be forgotten, even with the boom of e-publishing.
MH: Editors and publishers need to remember their audience and the fact that they have varying interests. When something becomes a hit — like vampires, 50 Shades, dystopian — she wishes publishers would not jump the bandwagon and only publish similar titles. Like Hannah, she wants publishers to remember the libraries and their role in the book world.
I love splitting these into 5 and 5 apparently, so once more with feeling!
5 Characters I’d Be for Halloween
1. The Paper Bag Princess from The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch
The Paper Bag Princess was my favorite picture book as a little girl. I was big into fantasy stories, and my mother is big into feminism, so Munsch’s classic was perfect for both of us. This photo from WhimsyDarling is a great representation!
Instead of a book from my childhood, Zombie in Love is a recent publication that I received at Main Point Books and fell in love with. Mortimer was so adorable! I want to make my fiance dress up with me.
Apparently the picture book has been turned into a musical by the Oregon Children’s Theatre, and I am incredibly sad that I didn’t get to see it.
3. Viola Swamp from Miss Nelson is Missing! by Harry Allard
Where did Miss Nelson go? And who is this woman in her place?
It might be fun to dress as Miss Nelson for the first part of the night, then change into Viola Swamp later on!
4. Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith
Because Elizabeth Bennet from regular old Pride and Prejudice just isn’t cool unless she’s covered in blood and carrying a sword.
5. Sophie from Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones
Full disclosure: I have actually done this one. But not on Halloween — at an anime convention. Yes, that is me, with my fiance dressed as Howl. Kindly withhold all judgment.
I love Howl’s Moving Castle, both the book and the film, because of all the fantastic elements and a love story that doesn’t hold back flaws.
5 Books for the Halloween Mood!
I don’t read many scary things, because I tend to read before bedtime and that is not a smart move. However, I definitely have some applicable titles for this one
1. Which Witch? by Eva Ibbotson (middle grade)
This was my first introduction to Ibbotson’s books, and I devoured it as a child. Upon re-reading it last year, it still holds up. Which Witch? is unique and hilarious tale about Arriman the Awful who holds a contest to determine who his new bride will be. The witch who performs the darkest piece of magic will have the honor of marrying the wizard. Belladonna is madly in love with Arriman and wants to win more than anything, but she is a good witch. She cannot perform dark magic, but she will stop at nothing to win this contest. The other witches in the coven are dark and unusual, always picking on Belladonna for being so good, but they all have their own specialties and personalities.
2. Gossip Girl: Psycho Killer by Cecily von Ziegesar (young adult)
A ridiculous parody written by the author of the original series, Gossip Girl: Psycho Killer puts a very different spin on the rich boarding school story. Hannibal Lecter and Freddy Krueger even provided blurbs for the cover copy! In this novel, Serena and Blair decide that many Upper East Siders deserve to die, and they take it upon themselves to make it happen.
3. Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion (adult)
Contrary to what the movie would have you think, this book is not a YA title. Marion’s writing is astounding — there were several parts of this novel that I read aloud to people around me. Told from the perspective of R, a zombie with no memories but full cognizance of what’s going on in his zombie society. One day he saves a girl from being eaten instead of eating her. Their unnatural bond causes rifts in both the zombie and human worlds. A unique take on the classic zombie story mixed with some Romeo & Juliet.
4. I Hunt Killers by Barry Lyga (young adult)
Read for a Girls in Capes book club, this is a YA murder mystery told from the perspective of the son of a serial killer. Jazz is constantly trying to prove to the people in town that he is not and never will be like his father. When someone starts committing copycat murders from his dad’s original crimes, Jazz has to use his insider knowledge to find the killer and prove that he is not the killer.
5. White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi (adult)
Helen Oyeyemi is a young genius who has already written four brilliant critically acclaimed novels, and she hasn’t even hit age 30 yet. This is the sort of book I could never explain. This book has so many layers and concepts to it, so much symbolism and intricate language. There are some sentences and passages that you have to read twice — they just make you go “wow”. It blends reality and supernatural seamlessly, and edges on disturbing, especially the last portion.
What are some of your favorite books to read for Halloween? Share any pictures of you dressed up as a book character!