This debut came at me from left field! I cried, I laughed, I shouted "why" at the book. Let's just say I connected deeply to Tabitha's emotional journey through the author's skillful window into her world. A new favorite series for me!
I am so late this party—the third (and final?) book in this series is already out and I'm just now pulling up with my review of this first book. Oh well. Sometimes it's like that.
Black Girls Must Die Exhausted is that rare novel that completely transports you into the emotional journey of its protagonist. From page one, I was WITH Tabitha Walker in the way of all great storytelling. Tabitha very quickly became a friend.
Tabitha Walker did everything by the book—even down to the personal milestones. Have a good job. Have a good lifestyle routine. Have a nice-on-paper boyfriend. Have good relationships with her girlfriends. She's reaching for her next promotion and about to land a down payment for her first home. Things are looking good! Check, check, check.
But just as we meet Tabitha, her life freezes in place.
That last thing on her checklist that I forgot to mention? It was having a family. And Tabitha's just found out that she's got 6 months left of viable time to make her parenthood dreams come true.
Now it's time for Tabitha to reassess her life goals and pivot, fast. With her entire checklist now sidelined and reshuffled, we're buckled in as she swerves to keep climbing on her to success.
It seems like curveball after curveball keeps coming her way, and despite all of her successes, this last mic drop moment onto her life has got her sense of self shaking a bit. But there's happiness even in the journey, and Tabitha's framework of friends and family are there to help her weather the tide.
This novel is such a gem.
Now, to get my one and only critique out of the way--yes, this book was a bit of a rambler. I actually started with the audiobook and quickly(!) decided to transition to the physical copy because I found myself struggling to stay on pace with the meandering sense of backstory vs. real plot. There's a TON of context.
But after a while, I got into the flow. The strong sense of Tabitha's personality, which shines from the very first page, kept me going past the meandering back stories and contextual sidebars. And by the time I hit the 30% mark, I was in love with this story. I cared for Tabitha and rooted for her and her friends at each turn. They felt real, like "listening in to a conversation at the next table" real.
I'm so happy that Tabitha's journey has more books in it. While I think many readers could find satisfaction in stopping here at the end of the first book, I am definitely ready to see what happens next!
Call me an oddball: I loved this story. Simple exterior, complex interior. And, best of all, unforgettable.
Keiko Furukura is a woman who lives on the edges of everyone's "normal" expectations. She's worked in a low-level, part-time position at a local convenience store for decades with no advancement or wish for change. She is single, lives alone, and has no desire for change in her personal life either.
In fact, Keiko's life could be defined quite simply as: She is content as she is, and she does not wish for change.
However, as with many people who live outside of the bounds of "normal" societal expectations, the rest of Keiko's social and familial sphere cannot live with this reality.
Even though it doesn't affect them, even though Keiko is happy and able to pay her bills, the rest of the world is constantly asking her for more, for "normal," and for Keiko to change.
As Keiko herself put its, "the foreign body" is either assimilated or eliminated. So Keiko tries to assimilate based on other people's expectations.
Convenience Store Woman is Keiko's journey toward assimilation and selfhood. And she just might find out how to achieve personal joy along the way.
I thought this story was simultaneously extremely endearing and off-putting at the same time. (Much like Keiko herself, perhaps.) Keiko's life and internal motivations are intentionally on the off-beat for the rest of society, and that friction point is the keystone of this novel's entire existence. If it rubs you the wrong way, then it is telling you that this small story has a message worth exploring.
Especially in our modern times, where so many people are exploring different lifestyles, ways of operating in society, and finding their own joy in the human experience—this is excluding discussions of identity, self-presentation, and sexuality, as that's not the core of this novel--I think Convenience Store Woman is a reflection on the bizarre nature of our current times.
Who cares if Keiko is unmarried, alone, and working a "dead-end" job? Why does it bother others, when it doesn't bother Keiko and affects no one in a negative way?
Why do we, as a society, value the "normal" above all else? Even when—or maybe, especially when—our values of "normal" are extremely bizarre when viewed from a distance?
I thought one of the most ground-breaking and fundamental moments in this novel was when Keiko is internally examining the behaviors of her sister and friends when it comes to a relationship decision that she makes in this novel. (Omitting the details to avoid spoilers.)
Keiko's made a choice, and it's arguably made her daily life and future much worse. BUT, because it's a more "normal" decision that others know how to react to, the reactions from her friends and family are satirically positive. They're thrilled, even with this clearly negative life choice! Keiko becomes confused, quite logically, at the reasoning behind this. It's not a good choice for her, and she is not happy with it, but their reaction is so overwhelmingly positive—which is a reaction Keiko is unused to seeing--that is makes Keiko believe that this choice is what she "should" continue to make. This is just one example of societal reflection used throughout the novel that I found so fascinating to read.
Such an interesting social commentary. We've seen this type of concept before in other literary works, of course, but there is something so "of the now" about Convenience Store Woman and its endearingly likeable edge. A very clever novel with a surprising amount of heart.
This was an intentionally messy story. And for...why? I don't know, and the more I sit with this the more I find myself bothered. (But who knows, that's likely the point.)
Overall message: ★★★
The best thing about this novel is its title. That's not as mean as it sounds, hear me out. I Have Some Questions For You relates to our main character's profession—she's a podcaster, she is literally paid to ask questions as talking points—and it also clearly relates to how this book is both posing its own questions at its audience and also meant to make us, as audience, ask questions.
A never-ending chain of questions, if you will.
And that's where this novel frustrated me to no end.
It's 2018. Bodie Kane has accepted a job at her old high school alma mater. Granby, a prestigious and private boarding school for elite high school students, has called her back as a short-term teacher for a podcasting class.
Bodie's got complicated feelings about Granby and her relationship to it.
In 1995, her one-time roommate was murdered. Thalia Keith, the beautiful and enigmatic girl whom everyone liked. The police quickly convicted the Black gym assistant, an early 20-something man who was convicted on hearsay, drug charges, and trace amounts of DNA.
This story is one that you've heard before. As the novel brings up throughout its pages, "you know the one." The one where she asked for it. The one where she was on birth control, and therefore consented. The one where she was found in the pool / the basement / the trunk / the woods. The one where it was the man she trusted. The one who was a beautiful white girl who died. The one where there was a Black man present, and that was enough.
Now armed with middle-aged wisdom and a 2018 lens on gender interactions, police bias, racism, and more, Bodie has feelings about this case. And she's never been able to let that go.
Her podcasting class sees 1995 as ancient history, so when one of her students asks Bodie if she can cover the infamous case of Thalia Keith, Bodie agrees. She's worried that this might be too biased. She's worried about her position of power as a teacher and if this will open up a can of worms she won't be able to justify. But like many things in Bodie's life, she lets it happen around her anyway and she justifies it to herself.
Tangled up in this story are themes of inappropriate conduct, gender imbalances, racism, unsolved justice, the #MeToo movement, messy relationships, and flawed perspectives. And all of the above sits in a messy knot, endlessly looping from one thing to the next and getting tighter and tighter as the novel progresses.
I don't know. I honestly don't. This novel covers understandably heavy topics that are meant to provoke an emotional response. I think it does this element well.
But I think that this novel boils down to one thing: it was messy and unsatisfying.
I Have Some Questions For You seemed to want to poke at everything and everyone indiscriminately—look at all of this injustice, look at all of this bias, look at all of these selfish people protecting themselves, look at this racism, look at this misogyny, look at this horror of endless fetishized female murder.
Every single piece of this story—Bodie's home life, Bodie's work life, Thalia's timeline, the narration style, the side characters, the endless plot points meant to mirror the core themes—seemed to want to simultaneously be a thesis moment confirming the story's overall message and also serve to be its own counterpoint in the argument.
I don't want to spoil this story, so I'll stop there, but let's just say that I did not feel like this tangled knot was justified, and I don't think it did anything to aid the genre or cultural dialogue. It just shone a light on all of the mess, which I guess highlights that I don't like those types of stories where their purpose is just to yell.
I recommend this story more to literary fiction fans as opposed to mystery fans.
BEFORE I LET GO - Kennedy Ryan
Well I've clearly wasted many previous years without the joy that is Kennedy Ryan. Before I Let Go was nothing short of flawless.
Emotional Range: ★★★★★
Sense of Joy: ★★★★★
Yasmen and Josiah Wade are divorced. After a cataclysmic series of tragedies, the Wades couldn't keep their foundation strong—they fractured in the aftermath of a sorrow so deep they couldn't reach each other. Their vows included "til the wheels fall off." They never imagined that anything could shake that unbreakable, lifetime love.
But something did, and now they're two separate ships.
Well... Not quite.
They're still co-parents of two beautiful children, Deja and Kassim, which they both co-raise with love and daily support.
They're also still co-owners of their business—the highly successful restaurant, Grits, is something they grew together and is almost as important to them as their children.
So the Wades are still a team... even if that team looks a little (lot) different these days.
Yasmen's spent two years in therapy, and with a healthier way to cope and the assistance of her therapist and medication, she's finally starting to feel like herself again after two years of endless night. She'll never, NEVER stop loving Josiah, even though she's the one who forced their hand into the situation of separation.
Josiah's always been strong. He won't stop for the bad things, because if he keeps moving those bad things will fade. He's been in constant motion ever since the wrecking ball hit. Every bone in Josiah's body will always love Yasmen. However, he knows that door is closed and all he can do is try to pick up his pieces and love what's left.
But where there is love... there is always a way back in. And the Wades are going to find that the light and love could reach them if they find a way to follow it.
Before I Let Go is a story of pain, grief, and recovery. It's a second-chance phoenix rising from the ashes. I sobbed my way through this reading experience—sometimes sad tears, sometimes happy tears, sometimes more. This was an emotional release of a book!
I aspire to have a life as rich and beautiful as Yasmen and Josiah's. From the tears and pain to the light and love, this was such a beautiful, real journey and I feel blessed to have had this reading experience in my life. I have no complaints, besides of course my own internal AGH! that it took me this long to try Kennedy Ryan.
This book might include some serious darkness, true, but it is really about the light that shines in all the cracks. What a stunning, utterly perfect read. Pick it up!
This was such a fun read, and perfect for historical fiction fans and casual fans alike! A unique hook—bonesetting in 1700s London. And a very uniquely endearing character—Endurance "Durie" Proudfoot.
In the mid 1700s, Endurance "Durie" Proudfoot enters the world in the small English town of Lewes. She's larger than most women, stronger than most women, and her no-nonsense honest attitude takes up as much space in the room as her physical presence. In short, Durie sticks out. And not in an acceptable way for ladies to stick out in history.
Her father is a bonesetter, someone who sets people's broken bones, sprains, dislocations, and more through a hands-on knowledge of anatomy and brute strength. It's a "knack," according to him, and one that's been passed down through the line of men in their family for generations.
Durie has the knack too—it's just, she's a woman.
When circumstances change and Durie has to follow her sister to London, Durie slowly realizes that her knack might be worth practicing here in London society. There's a lot of people with ailments, and the modern doctors with their random poultices are making things worse. Durie's never been one to let things sit when something good can be done, so she starts to practice.
A lot happens when Durie--with her men's boots, large frame, blunt attitude, and undeniable talent—enters the London scene. She's in for an adventure....
That Bonesetter Woman took me by complete surprise. I am a very, VERY rare historical fiction reader—I tend to fall into these books via some other hook that gets me invested. In this case, it was the act of bonesetting.
Bonesetting as a career was new to me, and immediately piqued my interest as I love all things medical history and macabre. Obviously, this fit the bill!
However, it wasn't the act of bonesetting that kept me turning the pages of this novel. It was Durie herself. I fell in love with this blunt, kind-hearted woman who stuck out in all the ways it was possible to stuck out like a sore thumb at the time. I quickly found myself invested in Durie's journey, her passions, and her capacity for kindness and love.
This is a character-driven story with a lot of humor and heart.
I will say, due to the above pros in this tale, there were a few cons by comparison. This plot was predictable at every turn—do NOT come for a unique and surprisingly take on this type of "girl goes to the big city and shoots her shot" type of story. All of the things that happen in that stereotyped tale happen here, and with the same outcomes you'd expect.
However, if you can put the predictableness aside, this story will steal your attention and your heart anyway. Go Durie, go!
Wow, what a honey-slow, menacing descent into the edges of one town's humanity. This book's unique flow, storytelling, and surprising mystery made for a stunning read.
Actual flow of story: ★★★★★
Enjoyment: I couldn't put this down, I read it into the night
I am utterly and entirely entranced by this story. From the reading experience to the well crafted mystery to the ominous and never-ending undertone of death, We Are All the Same in the Dark is a mystery/thriller that I will remember.
Trumanell Branson disappeared from the Branson home in rural Texas ten years ago. A bloody handprint was found on the doorframe, but no body was ever recovered. Her father, the unpopular and abusive Frank Branson, also disappeared that fateful night. The only Branson who made it out of that night alive was Wyatt, the younger brother whose mind cracked that night and no one could ever prove fully innocent (or guilty).
Odette Tucker's past is tied up in that bloody night like a bundle of chicken wire—one that she refuses to forget and yet can never fully solve. Her father was the policeman first on the scene at the Branson home. Odette herself was dating Wyatt Branson. And Odette's alibi for the night of Trumanell's disappearance is bloody—she was in a rollover car crash a few miles from the Branson property.
Now a partial leg amputee and haunted by that night for personal and professional reasons, Odette's turned into the Tucker legacy: a cop for the local community. And she's never let go of the Trumanell case.
Tangled up with guilt, a personal pressure to solve the unsolvable, and the sense that what's happened in the past might be happening again, Odette's not as surprised as she should be when Wyatt—now an unstable adult still living in the fateful home—discovers a young woman on the side of road with a dangerous past.
They call her Angel, and she's unknowingly brought everything crashing down in this tiny town.
I really, really can't say more of the plot without ruining some of the magic. Let's stop there.
I thought this novel did a few things brilliantly. One: the narrative voice. It's a spoiler to say WHY I am calling out the narrative voice as the best part of this novel, but just trust me on the fact that there are some unique surprises in just who is telling the story (and mystery fans, it's not that unreliable narrator nonsense).
Two: the almost hypnotic sense of reality vs. storytelling at play, and the constant sense that we have, as the reader, that there's elements of the story that we should know (but don't) and that there are things being told to us via these characters that they feel is obvious (but we can't really tell what that is). This is hard to describe, but I've seen it as a negative in other people's reviews when, for me, it was a huge positive. I like a level of confusion, especially when it's done as spectacularly as this.
Fans of intelligent mystery/thrillers with a dash of the gothic, pick this up.
A miniature mansion, a woman who lovingly crafts its tiny rooms and shares them on the internet for others to see, and a man on the other side of the country who is inexplicably finding photos of a dollhouse on the internet that portrays... his actual home?
Myra Malone lives in her home surrounded by the frozen time warp that is her life. At the age of five, she was in a devastating car accident—it killed her step-grandmother and left Myra traumatized and near death. Her recovery journey went from coping with some altered facial differences as a child to isolating herself inside as a homeschool student to being an adult wholly unable to leave her home.
In this very, very isolated and hermit-like existence, Myra has her Mansion.
Well, it's not a mansion. It's actually a very well-crafted large dollhouse, complete with dozens of furnished rooms, beautiful miniaturized fixtures, and a little extra something that Myra herself never questions. (If the rooms she creates react and adapt on their own, who's to say? Myra knows there's something a bit like magic happening under her nose, but she doesn't mind.)
Across the country, Alex works in his father's furniture store. His family is Virginian old money, and they have an old estate in the woods that his father hates and Alex loves. It's a true mansion in the Virginian woods, and it calls to Alex like some kind of magic. Furniture moves around when he's not looking, and every once in a while he can here music and voices.
Alex and Myra don't know it, but their worlds are about to collide.
Myra made an online blog about her miniature Mansion, and it developed a massive cult following despite her lack of interest—it was all her friend Gwen's idea, after all. But that cult following kept growing, and one day it reached the ears of Alex in Virginia.
Alex is stunned to discover that Myra's "Mansion" is... his house. And the bedroom she just took a photo of is... his bedroom. Done in miniature, of course, but it's his room. And that's his library, and that's his... and on.
Myra and Alex are about to uncover a lot of history and the magical ties that bind them together...
The Miniscule Mansion of Myra Malone was such an enchanting and original read. I was drawn to this story by its very unique title, but the ultimate thing that made me ask for an early reading copy was this concept of a magic dollhouse tied to a real mansion. What a fun twist on the magical house trope!
And, for those who come to this story for that reason, I think you're in for a similarly delightful read. Quaint, soft, yet overwhelmingly filled with heart and healing, this is a story that I think will find broad appeal in the soft fantasy, romance, light historical, and contemporary literature market. There's a dash of this, a dash of that...
At times too drawn out and at others too condensed, I did feel like this story included too much and yet also too little. This was a deceptively large concept hiding behind a small pitch line, and once you pulled on the first thread it all just collapsed into your metaphorical reader lap.
Something about this story that I did not expect were the multiple timelines throughout it. This is a multi-generational epic that spans over 100 years, with chapters of various points in time. Myra and Alex each have their own POV thread with chapters throughout the book, but interspersed continuously through that main story arc is a very dense historical narrative with some other characters. I wasn't expecting that in this story, and frankly I think it led me as reader to feeling too spread out between such a long time period and too many characters. My personal preference would have been to keep this story contemporary, with Myra and Alex, and let the past be the past. But take that with a grain of salt—I am not a historical fiction reader!
However, quibbles aside, I think this story will find its niche audience and bring out some joy and emotional healing to its readers.
Thank you to the publisher for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
THE CLOISTERS - Katy Hays
Medieval history secrets, ancient tarot decks, a dark academia museum setting, and a close-knit group of coworkers who blur the lines between personal and professional... I'd love to live in this version of higher academia, please, potentiality for murder be damned.
Use of history: ★★★★★
"Death always came for me in August."
Ann Sitwell, a recent college graduate from Nowhere Important in small town Washington, has arrived in New York City. She's an art history graduate with a passion for esoteric Renaissance and late Medieval pieces with a bend toward the arcane—her niche topic isn't necessarily the most relevant, her internship opportunities slim. So when she arrives at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to find out that they don't want her anymore, she's paralyzed.
But then, a fortuitous chance meeting with the enigmatic head curator at The Cloisters, Patrick, changes Ann's trajectory forever.
The Cloisters, a gothic museum settled right in the heart of Manhattan and incongruously secluded, is a museum unlike any Ann has ever laid eyes on. Its history seeps from the walls, and priceless collections, artifacts, and archives all tailored to Ann's areas of interest seem like an unbelievable dream.
There's Patrick, the established curator and head of The Cloisters, who has amassed a small and cloistered—pun so very intended—group around him for his current passion project in the occult. He's searching for hints of the earliest tarot decks and their potential links between the Medieval and Renaissance periods. He's searching, unbelievably, for a hint of true magic amongst the earliest of divination decks.
There is Leo, the gardener for the magical copse of deadly plants in the center of The Cloisters' museum structure. Surrounded by plants used historically in poisons, medicines, and aids to the divine, Leo's orbit as the non-academic in this seat of hushed knowledge is an itch that Ann just might find herself scratching.
And then there is Rachel, Patrick's other assistant. Beautiful, ethereal, unbelievably wealthy and connected Rachel. Rachel is also interested in this same field of study and welcomes Ann into the fold like a sorority sister inducting a new member, teaching her all of the tricks and ways of life in this small, set apart academic pocket.
When academic stakes meet deadly games, Ann just might find that she's found more than she bargained for...
Welcome to The Cloisters.
I'll keep my thoughts short and sweet on this one, because it's all high praise. This honey-slow, lingering, and deathly divine story was one that I could not stop reading. The Cloisters is a novel that breathes, sharing its secrets and obsessive drive with you. Ann's journey through grief, her enmeshing into this closed system of claustrophobic academics, and the ultimate unraveling of it all was such a treat to read.
Obvious comparisons have been made between this novel and other dark academia titans like The Secret History. I agree with those comparisons—if you like the standard favorites in the genre, then this novel is likely going to work for you. But I'd like to expand that filter a bit. If you're interested in magic and its weavings throughout our actual history, if you're interested in tarot, if you're interested in the study of the arcane in any way... this novel will likely work for you also.
Looking forward to more novels from this author.
Told in a hypnotic, prismatic point-of-view using multiple characters all turned toward the same direction—our "main" character, distanced yet vital--Calling for a Blanket Dance is one of the most unique fiction novels I have ever read. And its resonances thrum deep.
Narrative voice: ★★★★★
Plot/Pacing: ★★★ 1/2
Sense of time and place: ★★★★★
Ever Geimausaddle is a Native man living in Oklahoma. This is his story, but it's not told in his voice. (But, is it?)
Carried through the voices, emotions, and chords of his multigenerational family and community, this story follows Ever as he is raised and formed by his community, his family's struggles, and the seemingly endless loop of forced endurance and perspective placed upon him in harsh and gentle knots.
Who are you, individually, among all of the roots and tangles of your family, culture, and place in time and space?
Can you be an individual when the circumstances around you pilot more of your choices and opportunities around you than you do?
These weighty questions and deeper concepts of Native experience, generational expectations and situations, and reactionary living are all explored in Calling for a Blanket Dance. I thought it was beautiful, poignant, surprisingly lyrical yet accessible, and overall an interesting view of the contemporary Native experience. There is a lot of trauma here. There is a lot of joy. There is muchness, there is never-done.
As a white woman living in Michigan, I'm sure I missed some of the deeper ties to Native culture and the possible resonances within the community and others familiar with the unique situations of marginalized groups. I'm interested to see how those with more perspective find this novel. From this non-Native reader, I thought it was stunning.
Looking forward to more from this author.
Thank you to Algonquin Books for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
BET ON IT - Jodie Slaughter
Can two anxious people overcome their obstacles and find love over a bingo card? Strap in for an emotional and lingering journey.
Representation vs. Romance: ★★
A small disclaimer for this review: my rating has nothing to do with this book's actual contents. It has more to do with my perception what this story was going to be based on its description and pitch.
Aja spends each of her days walking hand in hand with her anxiety disorder. It's her constant companion, it affects how she goes about her day, and it occasionally severely impacts how she deals with people and experiences.
So when she has a panic attack in the grocery store one night, the last thing she wants is to meet a cute guy. Said cute guy supports her during her attack, and afterwards Aja flees into the night. She'll never see him again, right?
Well, then the cute guy shows up at Aja's weekly bingo night with the town's senior citizens. Turns out his name is Walker, he's super cute in person, and he's going to be bopping around Aja's life for the next several weeks.
Walker's dealing with some anxiety and other issues on his own, so he not only gets Aja—he's interested in her. Cue the sparks...
Aja and Walker end up in a bizarre bingo pact together that promises to deliver some steam... and they're both very much on board with placing bets on who will come out on top. (In more ways than one.)
I thought Bet On It was a very cute concept for a romance novel. Bingo isn't a sexy activity, really, but the idea of the two young people in a sea of senior citizens having a connection was kind of adorable, and the addition of Aja and Walker's anxieties gave it a very realistic edge.
However... this book kind of lost me when it came to the romance and pacing. I heard "sexy bingo bets" and thought this would be smutty, funny, and quickly paced. Not sure why I thought "quickly paced," exactly, but the other two points seemed like a given.
Instead of a lot of banter and smut, Bet On It delivered on some serious plot points, emotional deep dives, and personalized healing journeys. On a large scale. Not a bad way to go for a general fiction novel about healing from trauma and coping with mental illness, but again, given the hook of "sexy bingo bets" I was...confused. (And bored. I kept getting a bit bored.)
Overall, I thought this novel was extremely sweet and a story of personal triumph over struggle. I will be recommending it to those looking for anxiety representation in stories, and for those who enjoy emotional journey-dominant tropes in their general adult fiction.
Thank you to the publisher for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
Amy Imogene Reads
Just someone looking for her own door into Wonderland.