For whatever reason, I’m left with an overall impression of this month as a slightly bummer reading experience. When I look at my list of favorites, this doesn’t make a ton of sense, because I hugely enjoyed a bunch of books. But I also had a number that I really wanted to like and that just…didn’t quite work for me. Also, I keep searching for a light series to listen to in the evenings and haven’t found one that I’m really clicking with. Anyway, on to my favorites!
Break This House by Candice Iloh: I read this one after loving Every Body Watching when I read it last year. This one similarly deals with some big topics with compelling characters and thoughtful nuances. Iloh is definitely on my list of authors to follow.
Adult fiction, 2022. The interlocking story of Will, Daniel, Lily, Irene, and Alex: five Chinese American students who plan to steal back priceless Chinese artifacts from Western museums.
That’s right–it’s a heist book!
I looooove a heist story, and this one has a lot going for it. Li plays with standard heist tropes, while also exploring personal and professional conflicts, diaspora identity, and the effects of colonialism. In addition, the characters struggle with the path that the thefts lead them down in a way that fet very real. These aren’t master criminals–they’re college students who happen to have specialized skills and backgrounds.
I also enjoyed the prose style, which is slightly heightened in a way that fit the grandeur of the story. There’s a sense of gilded flourishes and magical moments that help sell the characters’ choices and motivations. I think that this also fits with their age; Li captures that moment that’s just on the cusp of adult responsibilities very vividly.
As with many heist stories, there are moments that strain the boundaries of realism. But that’s part of the fun, in my opinion, and Li carries it off with aplomb. I found Portrait of a Thief to be a very strong and enjoyable debut, with enough depth to linger long after finishing the book.
I’m back with a few quick reviews of recent reads!
When No One is Watching by Alyssa Cole
Adult, thriller/horror. Gentrification in a historically Black Brooklyn neighborhood. Theo is one of the new neighbors and Sydney is a long time resident who has just moved back. As they uncover a wide-reaching attempt to take over the neighborhood and displace its current residents, danger threatens. But their own secrets will also test their fragile partnership. This is a fantastically creepy story and I liked the slow reveal of Sydney and Theo’s pasts. The ending did feel a tad abrupt to me–however, this is overall a great book that combines history and current social events in a very powerful way.
2.3, eaudio, first read
Uncommon Charm by Emily Bergslien and Kat Weaver
Adult, historical fantasy, novella. Bergslien and Weaver drop the reader right into the world of this story and leave us to figure out what’s going on. Since that’s part of the charm (hehe)(sorry) of the book, I won’t go into the setup too much. Although this is a slight novella, it contains a powerful mix of magic, complicated family relationships, and the adolescent moment of realizing that the adults around you are as flawed and falliable as anyone else.
2.12, print, first read
Sunshine by Robin McKinley
I loved Sunshine SO much when it first came out, but I hadn’t reread it in a long time. Happily, I felt that it still holds up overall, with complex and intriguing worldbuilding and, of course, great characters. I very much enjoyed revisiting Charlie’s, Rae, and the death of Marat.
The Nun in the Closet by Dorothy Gilman
I remembered enjoying this book when I first read it a few years ago and thought it might be a nice one to listen to. Unfortunately, I wasn’t hugely struck by it this time–it was fine, but not outstanding. I feel like my reading tastes sometimes shift and then shift back, though, so maybe I’ll give this one a few years and try again.
2.8, eaudio, reread
Leave It to Psmith by P.G. Wodehouse
Several people in my librarian book club have been rereading Psmith lately and I couldn’t resist! I’m so glad, because rereading this book was incredibly delightful. I wasn’t sure if it would hold up to my nostalgic teenage memories, and it largely did! Psmith is such a weirdo! I love him! And Baxter in his lemon-colored pajamas still fills me with deep and horrible glee.
As a reader, I’m not nearly as driven by new releases as I used to be–which is probably a good thing! I feel much less pressure to stay on top of every new title coming out, and much more freedom to dive into whatever’s captivating me at the moment.
That being said, there are several books in 2023 that I’m looking forward to reading.
The Heavenly Sword by Alice Poon Glitterland by Alexis Hall (rerelease)
The Crane Husband by Kelly Barnhill The Magician’s Daughter by H.G. Parry
A House with Good Bones by T. Kingfisher
Fairy Bargains of Prospect Hill by Rowenna Miller
Witch King by Martha Wells
Do you have any 2023 titles you’re looking forward to?
January was a strong reading month for me, which is nice! Time is fake, but I do like the sense of starting over that the new year brings. I read 19 books and enjoyed most of them! My journey through T. Kingfisher’s backlist continues, and I made some progress working through my TBR list. This month included a few rereads as well as some new-to-me books.
The House of Rust by Khadija Abdalla Bajaber: A beautiful, strange story that I loved: sharp, gorgeous, and–ultimately–kind. The narrative mostly follows Aisha, a fisherman’s daughter who has to fight the sea, her family, and fate, but it also includes chapters from the perspectives of magicians, crows, cats, and more.
Jade War by Fonda Lee: A reread so I can finally read Jade Legacy! The book covers years and continents, while staying focused on the Kaul family and their struggle with foreign powers, pirates, and of course, their rival clan: the Mountain. There’s a ruthlessness to the characters, even while they are very human in their care for loved ones and for their country, that makes these books so fascinating to read.
The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien : I’ve been meaning to reread The Silmarillion for so long and finally did it, and now I am full of feelings.
Middle grade fantasy, and the third book in the Jumbie trilogy. I wish I had thought to reread the first two books before starting this one because I had a hard time remembering exactly what happened previously. Ultimately, I don’t think it affected my reading experience too much, except that I had a hard time sorting out the different characters mentally.
In this final book, Corinne and her friends and family face devastation from the god Hurican, and have to come together to save their island and homes. I really loved the portrayal of complex families and communities in this one!
1.19, eaudio, first read
The Vanished Bride by Bella Ellis
Historical mystery; the first book in a series about the Bronte sisters as detectives. I’ve been searching for a new mystery series to listen to when unwinding and thought I might as well give this one a try. It was fine as a mystery, although the pacing felt a bit slow from time to time.
The homage to the Bronte sisters wasn’t too grating for me, although I have a long-standing grudge against both Branwell and Patrick Bronte that made it hard for me to accept their sympathetic portrayal here. Overall, this was engaging enough for me to check out the next book as soon as I finished it, so take that for what it’s worth!
1.20, eaudio, first read
The Wonder Engine by T. Kingfisher
Adult fantasy, and the second book in the Clocktaur series, following Slate, Caliban, Brenner, Learned Edmund, and some mysterious creatures known as gnoles.
For some reason, I thought this was a trilogy, so I wasn’t mentally prepared for the storyline to wrap up in this volume. However, I did like the story despite that small hiccup! Kingfisher weaves together narrative strands from the main characters with admirable deftness, and I liked the sense of history (personal and political) that affects the plot.
Mouse’s horrible grandma has died, prompting her to go back to the small North Carolina town where her grandma and her step-grandfather lived. She’s there to clear out the house for her dad before it’s sold, but as she works, she finds her step-grandfather’s diary and the litany of the Twisted Ones. That’s eerie enough when you’re working on your own–but then she stumbles onto another world where the Twisted Ones are real and powerful.
I’m not always naturally drawn to the horror genre, being a tense and anxious soul who doesn’t need something else to worry about. But I was drawn in by the premise here and kept listening because of the need to know what happens in the end.
The early setup of the book, with Mouse in an isolated and unhappy house with only her dog for company, is creepy and effective. The first appearances of the Twisted Ones and their effigies are really startling and horrifying as well, especially in combination with the diary entries from Cotgrave, Mouse’s step-grandfather. The litany of the Twisted Ones does have the right kind of solemn, haunting rhythm.
I also enjoyed Mouse’s neighbors on the hippie commune, although I wish that Tomas and Skip had been developed beyond their surface-level identities. Roxy, as the neighbor Mouse spends the most time with, has more development, but still suffers a bit from being whatever Mouse needs her to be at that moment.
For me, the second half of the book was somewhat less engaging than the first. There are some genuinely creepy and chilling moments and images! However, I personally felt that the rising tension of the first part of the story dissipated into a more straightforward race to safety.
I also noticed an interesting issue that I’ve seen in other stories recently. Mouse as a narrator is very aware of the conventions of the horror genre. She refers to classic horror tropes and images. But because of this, the story also has work hard at times to justify her choices–to stay in the house once things are going sideways, for instance. I personally felt that this slowed the pace of the book and actually created more cracks in the windshield. Why does she stay? Why doesn’t she buy a new phone in town?
Despite these moments, I did find The Twisted Ones to be an enjoyably creepy book with a solid narrative setup. Definitely recommended for T. Kingfisher fans, or anyone who likes folkloric horror.
Starting the year off with some strong books! Here are quick thoughts on the titles I’ve finished so far.
Queen of the Tiles – Hanna Alkaf
YA mystery about a girl trying to uncover the truth about the mysterious death of her best friend the year before. Set across a weekend in Malaysia’s competitive Scrabble scene, this is a compelling story that made me want to keep reading. I found the way Trina (the best friend) always stays at the edge of the story sad, but also realistic in this scenario. Najwa’s grief and frustration ring out from the page and I could understand why she struggles to find the truth, given the shifting allegiances and hidden agendas of the people around her. All in all, I think Hanna Alkaf is definitely a writer to watch!
1.4, print, first read
American as Paneer Pie – Supriya Kelkar
Middle grade realistic fiction about Lehka, who has grown up as the only Indian American kid in her small Michigan town. She’s used to being the good desi girl at home and the quiet target of bullies at school. But then a new neighbor moves in next door. It turns out that the new family is Indian and has a daughter almost exactly Lehka’s age–a daughter who isn’t afraid to speak up at school.
There are a number of different strands to this story and it could easily have fallen apart or come across as a glib look at contemporary issues, such as politics and racism. However, Kelkar wove them together in a way that showed how Lehka learns to integrate her home, school, and friendships. I think the ultimate conclusion about the possibility for change strikes a good balance between realistic and hopeful for this age group.
1.5, eaudio, first read
The Unbalancing by R.B. Lemberg
I believe this is Lemberg’s second full-length Birdverse novel, and I found it another thoughtful and strong entry in this universe. Renra is the recently appointed starkeeper of a small island and Lilun is a resident of the island who could be starkeeper but has chosen a different path. But the star is failing and an explosion is on the way. Against the backdrop of a difficult personal and political situation, Renta and Lilun meet and begin to grow closer.
I liked the way this story challenged assumptions about power and right of rule. Both Renra and Lilun make deliberate choices about how to use their magical abilities and political position in a way that felt very careful and nuanced.
1.6, print, first read
The Cold Between by Elizabeth Bonesteel
I’m not sure at all how I actually feel about this book. It’s military scifi, which is a genre I sometimes enjoy and sometimes really dislike. It features some competent female characters in leadership roles. But there’s also a pervasive reliance on tropes that I don’t enjoy very much, particularly a competent female character who is loved by two male characters. That tension and jealousy propels a lot of the plot. While I think Bonesteel tries to counteract some of the more frustrating aspects of these patterns, I’m not sure she does so successfully. All in all, while I did finish this book, I don’t think I’ll be continuing with the series that follows.
1.8, eaudio, first read
Kaikeyi by Vaisnavi Patel
Adult fiction, retelling the story of Kaikeyi, one of the characters in the Ramayana. I’m not very familiar with the source, but liked this retelling quite a bit. I’m sure it’s garnering comparisons to Circe, with the focus on an often-maligned female character from a deeply-rooted myth. I personally think it stands well on its own, and appreciated the complexity of the relationships between the different characters. Although it’s a complex and longish book, I found it compelling and overall, the pacing still seemed tight.