Ever read a book with such hypnotic writing that you lose all sense of place and time? Welcome to the words of Everywhere You Don't Belong.
Claude McKay Love is just trying to live and thrive in life. Born and raised as a Black man on the South Side of Chicago, Claude's lot is already complex and complicated. It's made even more so with the introduction of riots around his home and the situation of his area. His grandmother, a product of the civil rights era, pushes Claude toward change, and his family members, neighbors, and others in his community push to make him act one way or the other.
But Claude is just trying to live.
As we stride hand-in-hand with Claude through his childhood years and into adulthood, we have a front-row seat to his struggles to identify as a member of the Black community while also hesitant to put himself out there. He tries to leave his past and place in society behind him by leaving the South Side, attending college, and reinventing himself... but that only works well for a hot second, because as the saying goes, "you take yourself with you, wherever you go" and it's hard to outrun the fact that he's Black in America today. And at the end of the day, does Claude even want to outrun himself?
With poignancy, pain, violence, and heartbreak, Everywhere You Don't Belong sounds like the opposite of a funny, heartwarming read. And yet author Gabriel Bump manages to make you laugh and smile along with Claude. It's in the writing. Bump has done something special with this debut... it sings. I strongly encourage all to read this not only for the poignant commentary but also for its shining example of endurance and light.
A powerful book, and an author with writing to watch.
Thank you to Algonquin Books for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
Inspired by the true story of Indian chess champion Malik Mir Sultan Khan in the early 1900s, Game of the Gods is a transporting work that spans the farming country of India to England's elite to New York's bustling streets.
Plot structure: ★★★
Character's voice: ★★★★★
In 1930s British India, a young Malik wants to learn how to play chaturanga, an Eastern ancestor to chess with deeps ties to myth, faith, and enlightenment. Malik meets the wealthy Indian landowner who oversees his small rural village and shares his dream—and to his shock, the landowner takes him back to his palace and grooms him for the game.
Over the years as young Malik grows in talent, he becomes a bauble to his patron, and his patron sees an opportunity: Malik can beat Westerners at the modern game of chess, too. Soon, Malik finds himself in England and competing against the white elite.
Malik always wins. And in the 1930s, his Indian ancestry does not endear him to the British public.
Game of the Gods follows Malik throughout his entire lifespan as we watch his humble beginnings turn into lush winnings and then to mysterious World War II side rooms and finally to a scandalous murder in New York City. A surprisingly passive participant in his own life, Malik's adventures come to him like wafts of air, taking him from place to place.
Italian author Paulo Maurensig used the real-life inspiration of Malik Mir Sultan Khan for Game of the Gods, but he is clear to point out in his forward that there are embellishments to the story. It was relatively easy to tell what was most likely fiction... but that did not stop me from enjoying the tale at all. This was mesmerizing.
I enjoyed Malik's story and found myself extremely invested in how his life would turn out—which was truly something, as right at the beginning of Game of the Gods we are introduced to Malik at the end of his life. So from the top, we know how the story must end. But I still found myself cheering for him at every step.
Fantastic story, beautifully told. Recommended for all fans of the era, chess or strategy games, and good storytelling.
Thank you to World Editions for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
A Southern exposé in a certain way, with grace and pain wrapped between frankly beautiful written pages. I was not expecting to love this story of a white man in the South, but there are some kernels here and no one was more surprised to find them than me.
Characters: ★★★★ 1/2
For those who know me here on Goodreads and in the book community, you might be thinking this really isn't my type of read. (You're totally right) A book written by a white dude, about a white dude in Nashville, Tennessee, with lots of white privilege and classism?? Amy, come on.
Well I had to eat my hat with this one, folks, because this was stunning.
Beautifully written, poignantly described, and filled with an unbelievably delicate balance of self-awareness and reflection on the hypocrisy and decay of the Southern white elite, The Fortunate Ones is a read that will no doubt be a focus of discussion in 2021.
Charlie Boykin grows up in a poorer part of Nashville with his single mother, Bonnie. Bonnie got pregnant at 15 and was thrown out of her rich family's house and told never to return. Charlie never knows anything different—his Aunt Sunny is a bar singer, his mother is a cocktail waitress at a bar nicknamed The Divorcee, and his best friend, Terrence, is a Black kid with a lot of heart who looks out for Charlie.
Then Charlie's life dramatically changes in high school. His mother has managed to snag him a need-based scholarship to Yeatman, an all-boy prep school known for housing Nashville's elite children with ties to old money and the Old South. Charlie has no idea what he's in for.
In a move that should feel derivative of The Great Gatsby but manages to stand alone and supersede it, Charlie's life as the "outsider" passes as he reflects on, admires, craves, and worms his way into the glamorous and decaying life of Nashville's rich. His tie to his close friend and occasional secret lover, Archer Creigh, becomes one of unbalanced love and manipulation as Charlie falls deeper and deeper into a world that he's aware is wrong, racist, and fueled by the pain of the lower classes—and yet the lure of the glitz is too much for him to ignore.
Spanning decades and locations, The Fortunate Ones feels like an epic wrapped in a mere 300 pages. Charlie is—surprisingly, for me as a woman from a lower middle class background—a likeable narrator to follow. He's both aware of his privilege and yet aware enough of his ignorance to own up to his blindness in certain arenas.
The people of color in this novel are marginalized and relegated to stereotypical Southern roles, and we as readers are uncomfortably aware of that boundary line even as young Charlie and old Charlie miss most of it. The women of this novel are trapped in the gossamer cage of the trophy, the accessory, the beautiful—and while Charlie catches some of that and misses most of it, Tarkington's skill as an author highlights it for us despite his own narrator's ignorance. I found that extremely well done.
Another element to this story was its fringe revelations in the handling of its gay and lesbian characters. In a society where sexuality is strictly forced into a heteronormative binary, Tarkington's way of highlighting that rot and hypocrisy by having Archer's sexuality bleed through the edges of the page was fascinating, along with Charlie's interactions with a mentor figure who exists as a lesbian amongst this world of "good old boys." I really can't talk about this element without spoilers, but wanted to highlight that it's here for those who would automatically dismiss the story as not including that element. (I totally did that, honestly, so I'm raising my own hand.)
What a beautiful, lingering piece of fiction.
Thank you to Algonquin Books for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
Disturbing, heart wrenching, powerful, and shattering. A Muslim lawyer takes on the hardest legal case of her career and finds the lines between professional and personal slipping as she defends a disabled white girl in her accusation of rape against four local Muslim boys. This is not a casual read by any description, but it is an extremely powerful one.
A court case surrounding a "he said, she said" rape trial with the added complexities of disability and racial tensions? Yeah, we went there. And it was as messy as you can imagine it to be.
Jodie is a a 16-year-old white girl with facial deformities and a story to tell. When she walks into the Artemis House, a legal institution that provides council to women, and tells her story... it's shocking. In it, she accuses 4 Muslim boys from her high school of violence and sexual assault.
Zara, a Muslim herself, is Jodie's case worker. She believes Jodie and vows to defend her no matter the cost.
However, Zara herself is dealing with several personal issues during this time as well. Her family life is shattered: when Zara flees her husband's family and a bad arranged marriage, she's branded negatively by the local Muslim community. Her family is upset at her lack of tradition, her lack of subservience, her mental fortitude and independence.
Adding this sexual assault trial against "their" boys does not help matters.
It also doesn't help that Zara's struggling with her emotional state and her dependence on prescription drugs. When life throws you curveballs, why not take a chill pill? When one becomes two becomes more.... Zara's sinking here too.
And then more things come out about the case, and Jodie's story...
Just who, exactly, is telling the truth?
It's a testament to the author's talent that she evokes such strong themes and visceral reactions to her story. For that reason, Kia Abdullah is one my list to watch for future books. While I think I'm done with sexual assault themes in novels for good—NOT the fault of this book, but something I've learned through trial and error this year is not a good topic for me to consume for personal reasons—this was an extremely powerful and well-told story.
One of the strongest elements of this novel is the balancing act between the two storylines and the actual truth. Like most court cases, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. I appreciated the author's deft handling of the plot's conclusion... especially as it would have been so easy to misstep and deliver one of the more expected outcomes.
This is the kind of novel that continuously asks you, the reader, to check yourself. Are you experiencing bias by wishing for this outcome or the other? Who are you siding with, and why? How do you respond to Zara's personal quagmires? Just who exactly is "winning" here, or are there no winners?
A complex book. Recommended reading for all readers of the genre and, honestly, other adult fiction readers too. A powerful story that deserves a wide audience.
Thank you to St Martins Press for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
A singular, comedic novel about a 20-something woman on the spectrum with a lot of things she doesn't like that could probably be summarized as: Other People.
Dialogue/Formatting: ★★ Not for me
Big Girl, Small Town is a very unique read. For one, it's extremely funny if you like your humor with some bite and darker edges. For another, it is an extremely compelling character study. While I personally had some issues with the formatting, I think this is a stunning debut by an Irish author to watch.
Majella is a 20-something young woman living in a small Northern Ireland border town with her alcoholic mother. She has a job, she has strong likes and dislikes, and most importantly she has a lot of opinions about the world around her.
Told over the span of one week's time, almost down to the minute-to-minute experience, we live Majella's structured existence with her and discover a few things along the way. It's a quirky, over-the-top yet poignant slice of life read with a LOT crammed into its pages.
What will Majella's week bring her? And will she like it?
Majella is a character that will stay with me for a long, long time—and that's a good thing. The author's ability to bring Majella to stunning, technicolor life is something to be admired these days in fiction. I look forward to this author's future works almost solely because of this. Characters are the backbone of every story, and this one's backbone is STRONG.
Besides the glowing positives, I will say that I, as a personal reader, struggled with the formatting and structure of the book. For one, it uses dashes for dialogue instead of quote marks. Yes, I know that seems super minor, but it's not to my preference and therefore it took a while to get into the novel... and I want to highlight it for other readers who may also need the warning. The structural issue I had was in relation to the plot's pacing—living the one week in extreme detail with Majella was a bit tiring for me. I'm used to more breaks from my main characters, and used to more time progressing. Again, complete personal preference!
However, personal notes aside, this is a stunning debut and I would encourage other general fiction readers to give this one a try!
Thank you to Algonquin Books for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
The perfect winter night read with a dash of murder and buried secrets.
Enjoyment: ★★★★ 1/2
Villain(s)/Reveal(s): ★★★★ 1/2
A car is found stranded on the side of a snowed-in road later one dark evening. The door is open. Inside the rapidly freezing car is a small baby boy staring out.
What happened to the mother? Why did she appear to go peacefully, yet leave her child to the freezing elements with the door open?
Vera Stanhope and her squad of British cops are on the case. It's Vera herself who discovers the baby and the car, and when she takes him to the nearest lit house in the dark she's shocked to realize that it's the ancestral manor home of her estranged father. That side of the family is rich and snooty and Vera's not thrilled to be back. But the baby and his mother take priority.
This interesting clashing of the classes occurs in the midst of the missing persons case turned deadly: within a few hours, the mother's body is discovered brutally murdered on the grounds of the estate.
With a closed list of suspects, a small town filled with buried secrets, and the threat of an undiscovered murder, it's time for Vera to connect the dots of the past and see just what happened on the darkest evening.
So this was my first Vera Stanhope and Ann Cleves novel, but it will NOT be my last one. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Vera took some getting used to and her team was odd, but overall a really solid mystery tale with all the hallmarks of the classics. Strong points in this novel were the final reveals, the atmosphere, and the unfolding of secrets.
Thank you to the publisher for my copy of this title in exchange for an honest review.
The last of a trilogy, and it feels like it—this was a nostalgic run through of this series' highlights and a long-awaited romance from two opposing characters. Bring on the tension, the drama, and the steam! (And a house-flip reality TV show?? I should probably mention that first.)
Standalone factor: ★
Overall Enjoyment: ★★★★ 1/2
Tools of Engagement comes out on September 22!
So, real quick - NO, this is not a standalone despite what the marketing says. This is the third book in a trilogy of related characters in a small town and it feels like it. This was SO not a bad thing for me, a devoted reader to the series, but might be for you so please keep that in mind.
Bethany Castle lives a flawless life. No really, she totally does. Ignore the fact that she's hyperventilating in the corner and has a stress rash on her neck and is incapable of letting anyone know the crushing level of perfectionism that keeps her awake at night. Everything is fine, life is perfect, and she is a flawless 30 year old.
The only in Bethany's "perfect" life that upends her image is Wes Daniels.
A cowboy hat wearing, 23-year-old freewheeling guy who lived a spontaneous life until his half sister dumped her 5 year old niece in his lap, Wes Daniels works for Stephen Castle (Bethany's older brother) and flips houses. Wes has been circling Bethany for months and he thinks he's got her number: one day the tension will snap, and they're going to settle things in the sheets.
But then Wes sees the Perfect Life™ of Bethany's dreams is actually just a flimsy sheet in the wind and he realizes that this isn't a game—it's something bigger.
Now let's add in the fact that Bethany and her brother Stephen are asked to compete in a "Flip Off" HGTV reality show of epic sibling rivalry proportions and we've got ourselves some DRAMA.
Will Bethany and Wes get to the good stuff, or will Bethany's need for perfection collapse on top of them under the pressure of the film lights?
Ready, set, ACTION.
What an ending to this trilogy! This installment takes the characters' careers (house building and flipping) to its most literal interpretation: an HGTV competition show. As someone who normally doesn't like the "movie set" life depicted in books, I could handle this one because it really didn't matter to the plot. This was very much a story about Bethany and Wes, and barely involved the "movie" element at all.
This was also the least steamy of the three books, which was interesting. Given the crackling dialogue between Wes and Bethany in the first books, I was ready for some serious steam. There was steam... but I'd almost call it tame compared to Fix Her Up and Love Her or Lose Her. Something to note for those who really enjoyed that element of Bailey's other books.
Like I said at the beginning, if you're new to this series this is NOT the book to start on. Wes and Bethany's plot line relies heavily on prior knowledge of their interactions in the previous books, and their side plots with the other characters are absolutely meaningless without that added background.
Thank you to the publisher for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
A modern tale of one woman discovering her own sense of purpose in Ghana amidst family drama, expectations, and marriage. I'm not one who automatically goes for domestic stories, so extremely pleased to say that this was such a fantastic read.
Enjoyment: ★★★★ 1/2
“Elikem married me in absentia; he did not come to our wedding.”
That's the first line. I think it's charismatic enough on its own—it definitely made me want to pick it up—but for the sake of reviewing, let's get into it.
Afi is a young woman living in a small, rural community near the city of Accra in Ghana. Her mother and herself have existed on the edges of poverty, clinging to the good graces of their extended family and of Aunty, the rich benefactor of the community.
So when Aunty tells Afi and her mother to do something, they do it. Aunty's latest request is more than a passing task, however--Aunty wants Afi to marry her son, Eli.
Now there's obviously a catch to Aunty's "benevolence"--Afi also has another purpose as Eli's wife. Eli is currently living with a Liberian woman...who hates Aunty and doesn't allow the family to be close to them. It is Afi's job to lure him away and make him come back into the family fold.
Whew. Talk about an intense start to a marriage.
Afi was such an interesting character to spend time with, mostly because I found her pure heart and stalwart sense of self to be such a refreshing perspectivee in a female protagonist. This is a novel where it would have been easy to remove the woman's sense of agency—Afi is essentially a bought bride, who is meant to break up an existing relationship and trick her husband--but Afi stands strong. In a reality where she came from nothing and is thrust into a world unrecognizable to her own, she does her best.
And her best is pretty darn good... Accra is a big city, with big dreams. It's time for Afi to find herself and discover what it means to truly be free.
Thank you so much to Algonquin Books for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
I adore this series. Historical romance with a slap of women's suffrage? BRING it, babe, and keep them coming.
Historic vibes: ★★★★ 1/2
Witty dialogue: ★★★★★
A Rogue of One's Own comes out on September 1, 2020!
This is fast becoming one of my favorite series in the niche genre of historical romances. Neck in neck with Tessa Dare's Girl Meets Duke series, this is filled to the brim with witty banter, sharp women, self aware yet powerful men, and a historical setting with a refreshingly modern sense of female independence. (Okay, that last one obviously bends the rules of "historical accuracy," but excuse me... this is a romance and I'm not complaining.)
Lucie is not happy. A woman who has given up her reputation in society and worked herself to the bone for The Cause (women's rights), Lucie is finally at the point where she and her team of Oxford suffragists have successfully landed a spot to shine the light on their cause: They've purchased 50% of the shares of a publishing house, and they mean to use them to fight the good fight and spread the word.
The only thing in Lucie's way is Lord Tristan Ballentine.
Tristan and Lucie grew up together, and Lucie cannot BELIEVE that at this moment, the most important moment of her Cause, it's Tristan standing in her way. As far back as she can remember, it was Tristan in her path. He threw pranks her way, he never left her alone, and he never disappeared from her line of sight. Of course, these days he's keeping himself in her life by flaunting his lovers and sexual escapades in the society's gossip rags.... but still.
Tristan Ballentine has bought the other 50% of shares at the publishing house.
Lucie's not about to let that stand. She's ready for battle, and as always, Tristan is there ready to spar. What could possibly make Tristan do this?
Well, if the man has been infatuated with the spitfire suffragist since she was old enough to slap him at the age of 13, that's his business. He's spent decades doing everything he possibly can to provoke a reaction from Lucie. But this time, Tristan's actions aren't necessarily about Lucie, and he's found himself on the other side of the sparring field quite by accident.
He guesses it's time to see how far this can go. Oh dear, Lucie. Get ready for a ride.
LOVED this, folks. Perfectly paced hate-to-love romance, with a huge dash of mutual angst and pining because, duh, it's also historical. One of the best elements of historical romances is the strict society rules, and how our heroes decide to subvert them. This story was no exception. Their ending was perfect for their character arcs.
Tristan and Lucie's chemistry zings. Really zings. I loved their back stories, their reasonings, and even enjoyed the stereotypical elements of "reluctant historical female meets notorious rogue" that usually sets my teeth on edge. Because Lucie's character was so independent and strong, I didn't mind. She held her own and then some.
Also, it must be said that the author does a fantastic job of grounding us in the time period of women fighting for their rights in England. There's a section of notes in the back explaining where things fit into the real historic timeline, and I really appreciated it.
Thank you to Berkley for an ARC of this title in exchange for an honest review.
This collection was stunning, hypnotic, and voyeuristic in the best way.
A House Is a Body by Shruti Swamy is a remarkable collection of short stories. Invasive with its characters, unflinching in its portrayals of the modern Indian woman and her experiences. Some of my favorite stories combined India's mythic roots with modern problems, and others told devastating tales of secrecy and loss.
Some of my favorite stories in the collection:
Earthly Pleasures - 5 stars
A woman meets Krishna, the divine lover in Hindu mythology. Her tale of loneliness, heartbreak, and alcohol intersecting with Krishna's check-ins into her life was beautiful—made even more so by their interesting relationship.
Mourners - 4.5 stars
A heavy-hitter. This tale of one woman's death—no longer a wife, a sister, a mother, a friend—and her family's attempt to salvage the situation as grief spins them out into spirals. Beautiful prose, interesting commentaries on how grief patches itself with grief.
The Laughter Artist - 5 stars
I don't even want to describe this one. It's perfect.
If you're interested in short stories, definitely pick this one up. If you're into feminism, motherhood, women loving women, modern juxtaposed with old... definitely pick this one up.
Thank you to Algonquin Books for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
Amy Imogene Reads
Just someone looking for her own door into Wonderland.