Category Archives: 2020 Books

Just Us

Finished Just Us by Claudia Rankine.

Summary (from Goodreads):

Claudia Rankine’s Citizen changed the conversation–Just Us urges all of us into it

As everyday white supremacy becomes increasingly vocalized with no clear answers at hand, how best might we approach one another? Claudia Rankine, without telling us what to do, urges us to begin the discussions that might open pathways through this divisive and stuck moment in American history.

Just Us is an invitation to discover what it takes to stay in the room together, even and especially in breaching the silence, guilt, and violence that follow direct addresses of whiteness. Rankine’s questions disrupt the false comfort of our culture’s liminal and private spaces–the airport, the theater, the dinner party, the voting booth–where neutrality and politeness live on the surface of differing commitments, beliefs, and prejudices as our public and private lives intersect.

This brilliant arrangement of essays, poems, and images includes the voices and rebuttals of others: white men in first class responding to, and with, their white male privilege; a friend’s explanation of her infuriating behavior at a play; and women confronting the political currency of dying their hair blond, all running alongside fact-checked notes and commentary that complements Rankine’s own text, complicating notions of authority and who gets the last word.

Sometimes wry, often vulnerable, and always prescient, Just Us is Rankine’s most intimate work, less interested in being right than in being true, being together.”

I was a huge fan of her poetry collection Citizen, and so I was really excited to see this in time to preorder. It’s got some poetry but it’s more of an essay collection.

It’s incredibly thought-provoking but there also isn’t a solution. For example, there’s a chapter on Black women dying their hair blonde. There are some thoughts on why this may happen (conforming to a white standard of beauty? Maybe they just like it? It makes women look younger?) but no actual answer. Probably because chances are that many of them do it for multiple reasons and why one woman may do it could have no bearing on why another chose to.

I also liked the discussion of white male privilege, which led to a sidebar discussion of why white people seem to become incredibly angry when they’re called “white.” (I don’t have a problem with it; I’m white. And I’m okay with that being specified because it shouldn’t be the default color for “person.”)

I’m going to be thinking about this for a while and I already am planning to re-read it. Highly recommended.

The Wicker King

Finished The Wicker King by K Ancrum.

Summary (from Goodreads):

“When August learns that his best friend, Jack, shows signs of degenerative hallucinatory disorder, he is determined to help Jack cope. Jack’s vivid and long-term visions take the form of an elaborate fantasy world layered over our own—a world ruled by the Wicker King. As Jack leads them on a quest to fulfill a dark prophecy in this alternate world, even August begins to question what is real or not.

August and Jack struggle to keep afloat as they teeter between fantasy and their own emotions. In the end, each must choose his own truth.”

When I finished The Weight of the Stars, I knew a book hangover was coming. I managed to avoid it by diving into K. Ancrum’s debut novel, The Wicker King, but now what? Darling isn’t out until next year (late spring/early summer) and her next book won’t be out until 2022.

The two books are incredibly different, but both deal with the same idea of found families and both have fantasy elements but are unmistakably contemporary.

Like The Weight of the Stars, the Wicker King was just a pure delight to read (even as it did hurt in parts) and I feel just so grateful to have been able to read them back to back…even if the wait for Darling will be long and hard.

Just read these books. I can’t do either of them justice but know that both are actual perfect reads. Highly recommended.

The Weight of Stars

Finished The Weight of Stars by K Ancrum.

Summary (from Goodreads):

“Ryann Bird dreams of traveling across the stars. But a career in space isn’t an option for a girl who lives in a trailer park on the wrong side of town. So Ryann becomes her circumstances and settles for acting out and skipping school to hang out with her delinquent friends.

One day she meets Alexandria: a furious loner who spurns Ryann’s offer of friendship. After a horrific accident leaves Alexandria with a broken arm, the two misfits are brought together despite themselves—and Ryann learns her secret: Alexandria’s mother is an astronaut who volunteered for a one-way trip to the edge of the solar system.

Every night without fail, Alexandria waits to catch radio signals from her mother. And its up to Ryann to lift her onto the roof day after day until the silence between them grows into friendship, and eventually something more . . .

In K. Ancrum’s signature poetic style, this slow-burn romance will have you savoring every page.”

There are not enough stars in the world for this book.

This is an absolutely gorgeous exploration of love and friendship and humanity and dreams and everything good in the world and the people in it.

It is the kind of book that reminds me why I love to read, and why I love books so much that my friends and I literally have a podcast to talk about them.

I am absolutely blown away. All the stars and all the praise; highly recommended.

Grown

Finished Grown by Tiffany D. Jackson.

Summary (from Goodreads):

“Korey Fields is dead.

When Enchanted Jones wakes with blood on her hands and zero memory of the previous night, no one—the police and Korey’s fans included—has more questions than she does. All she really knows is that this isn’t how things are supposed to be. Korey was Enchanted’s ticket to stardom.

Before there was a dead body, Enchanted was an aspiring singer, struggling with her tight knit family’s recent move to the suburbs while trying to find her place as the lone Black girl in high school. But then legendary R&B artist Korey Fields spots her at an audition. And suddenly her dream of being a professional singer takes flight.

Enchanted is dazzled by Korey’s luxurious life but soon her dream turns into a nightmare. Behind Korey’s charm and star power hides a dark side, one that wants to control her every move, with rage and consequences. Except now he’s dead and the police are at the door. Who killed Korey Fields?

All signs point to Enchanted.”

I’m a huge fan of Tiffany Jackson’s books. I’ve read all four and they’ve all been amazing. This one may be my favorite but I also think it’s her best yet. (This is a high bar.)

But you should know going in that this is a really hard book to read. As I read it, I kept thinking of R. Kelly. This is definitely not that story, but there are obvious comparisons.

Enchanted has talent and drive, but she’s also 17. And so when Korey Fields (too old for her, but also super cute and also very famous) shows an interest in her, she is sucked in. If I had read this as a teenager, I would’ve been like, “THIS IS SO COOL! They are Romeo and Juliet” but reading this as a 40-year-old, I was like, “He is grooming you. You are in danger. Tell your mom.”

And it’s not even subtle what he’s doing. Korey is clearly a predator and one who uses every technique at his disposal to become the most manipulative person ever. He tells her stories about his pre-famous life and tells her things like “You’re all I have” and “you’re the only person who understands me.” He encourages her to keep secrets and slowly becomes the most important person in her life, isolating her from her family.

Obviously it ends badly.

This is one of those reads that deeply affected me. It’s absolutely haunting and it’s not a book that’s easy to shake off or stop thinking about. Even so, it’s absolutely worth it. Highly recommended.

TBR for the Rest of the Year

So we all have realized that I’m awful at keeping these, right? I make a list and immediately lose all interest. But since I also have a tendency to overdo it, I thought maybe 12 books would be doable.

So here are six books I have now, six books I will be getting later and six books for you.

SIX NOW:

  1. Watch Over Me by Nina LaCour
  2. Don’t Look For Me by Wendy Walker
  3. None Shall Sleep by Ellie Marney
  4. Sanctuary by V.V. James
  5. Now That I’ve Found You by Kristina Forrest
  6. Darius the Great Deserves Better by Adib Khorram

SIX LATER:

  1. Early Departures by Justin A. Reynolds (out September 22)
  2. The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow (out October 13)
  3. This is All Your Fault by Aminah Mae Safi (out October 13)
  4. On a Good Horse by Darby Karchut (out November 10)
  5. Rent a Boyfriend by Gloria Chao (out November 10)
  6. This is How We Fly by Anna Meriano (out December 15)

SIX FOR YOU:

  1. Don’t Date Rosa Santos by Nina Moreno
  2. The Assignment by Liza Wiemer
  3. The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
  4. Love, Creekwood by Becky Albertalli
  5. You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah Johnson
  6. Cinderella is Dead by Kalynn Bayron

Have you read any of them? Let me know where I should start!

Don’t Judge Me

Finished Don’t Judge Me by Lisa Schroeder. I received a copy for review. It will be released on November 10.

Summary (from Goodreads):

“Inspired by a true story of girl empowerment, acclaimed author Lisa Schroeder’s new novel explores trust, self-worth, and speaking up — especially when you’re told to keep quiet.

Hazel doesn’t like to make waves. Middle school is hard enough without causing more trouble, right? She’s happy just eating lunch in the library with her BFF, writing secret haikus, and taking care of an adorable rescue tortoise.

But then Hazel discovers a list that rates the girls at her middle school based on their looks — started by her best friend’s older brother. She knows she has to do something, and she can’t do it alone. The wave she’ll be making might turn into a tsunami, but if Hazel can find the courage to speak up, she might just change everything.”

I was so excited to get to read this early, because Lisa Schroeder is one of my absolute most favorite authors. She deals with heavy topics but she does it with sensitivity and while treating her characters and the kids who will be reading her books with the utmost respect.

Hazel is in the middle of a situation that she doesn’t know how to handle. She’s found a notebook that rates the girls at her school (including Hazel herself) and all she knows for sure is that she doesn’t feel comfortable talking to adults about it. She thinks her parents will either go straight to the principal or confront the boy whose notebook she stole (her best friend’s older brother) and she doesn’t want to get in trouble and she doesn’t want to get other people in trouble, either. She just wants this behavior to stop.

I essentially was Hazel in middle school, so I had so much empathy for her. And when she realizes that she is braver and more capable than she thought, I felt like her mom. I was so happy and so proud.

Lisa Schroeder’s books (and Lisa herself) are just pure magic. They always make me happy, even as they remind me that there’s a lot of good in the world. (Yes, there are also awful people. But there are more good people than bad, especially when the good ones speak up.)

Highly recommended.

Don’t Date Rosa Santos

Finished Don’t Date Rosa Santos by Nina Moreno.

Summary (from Goodreads):

“Rosa Santos is cursed by the sea-at least, that’s what they say. Dating her is bad news, especially if you’re a boy with a boat.

But Rosa feels more caught than cursed. Caught between cultures and choices. Between her abuela, a beloved healer and pillar of their community, and her mother, an artist who crashes in and out of her life like a hurricane. Between Port Coral, the quirky South Florida town they call home, and Cuba, the island her abuela refuses to talk about.

As her college decision looms, Rosa collides – literally – with Alex Aquino, the mysterious boy with tattoos of the ocean whose family owns the marina. With her heart, her family, and her future on the line, can Rosa break a curse and find her place beyond the horizon?”

I absolutely love this book! First, it’s about so much more than this curse. It’s been compared to Gilmore Girls and I think that’s an incredibly apt and earned choice. This book is all about family, and it was such a delightful read.

Rosa is mostly raised by her abuela, because her mom travels the country for work. (Whether or not the curse is real, it’s clearly too painful for her to stay in the small town for very long, but it’s also Rosa’s favorite place. That’s the solution that her mom came up with.)

And Rosa does love the town, but she’s also fascinated with Cuba, which is where her family initially came from. Her abuela came to Florida when she was pregnant and never returned. Rosa’s so desperate to learn about that part of her heritage and history, but it never happens because her abuela won’t talk about it and obviously traveling there isn’t likely. I love the way that she views Cuba as almost like a part of her family, even though she’s never been there.

This book is a complete joy and I am definitely buying everything Nina Moreno ever writes.

Paola Santiago and the River of Tears

Finished Paola Santiago and the River of Tears by Tehlor Kay Mejia.

Summary (from Goodreads):

“Space-obsessed 12-year-old Paola Santiago and her two best friends, Emma and Dante, know the rule: Stay away from the river. It’s all they’ve heard since a schoolmate of theirs drowned a year ago. Pao is embarrassed to admit that she has been told to stay away for even longer than that, because her mother is constantly warning her about La Llorona, the wailing ghost woman who wanders the banks of the Gila at night, looking for young people to drag into its murky depths.

Hating her mother’s humiliating superstitions and knowing that she and her friends would never venture into the water, Pao organizes a meet-up to test out her new telescope near the Gila, since it’s the best stargazing spot. But when Emma never arrives and Pao sees a shadowy figure in the reeds, it seems like maybe her mom was right. . . .

Pao has always relied on hard science to make sense of the world, but to find her friend she will have to enter the world of her nightmares, which includes unnatural mist, mind-bending monsters, and relentless spirits controlled by a terrifying force that defies both logic and legend.”

I love Paola. She’s smart and she cares so much about her friends; if I end up going missing, I hope I have someone like Paola trying to find me, because she would not stop, EVER, until she managed to find me and bring me back safely. It wouldn’t be like, “We looked for two hours but then we figured we might as well call the search off.”

I also love all the folklore elements in this. Paola’s mom has a tale for every occasion, and they all terrify Paola. (She doesn’t believe any of them, but they still freak her out and she has nightmares on a regular basis.) You can imagine how unhappy she is to learn that her mom was somehow not wrong about any of it.

The synopsis makes it sound like this is a horror novel, but it’s more like action/adventure. Yes, there are incredibly creepy monsters (including La Llorona) but it’s not scary until the end. (Although if you know kids who are interested in starting to read horror, this could be a very good gateway for them.)

This is just an incredibly fun story and perfect for shorter days and huddling under a blanket to read.

Don’t Ask Me Where I’m From


Finished Don’t Ask Me Where I’m From by Jennifer De Leon.

Summary (from Goodreads):

First-generation American LatinX Liliana Cruz does what it takes to fit in at her new nearly all-white school. But when family secrets spill out and racism at school ramps up, she must decide what she believes in and take a stand.

Fifteen-year-old Liliana is fine, thank you very much. It’s fine that her best friend, Jade, is all caught up in her new boyfriend lately. It’s fine that her inner-city high school is disorganized and underfunded. It’s fine that her father took off again—okay, maybe that isn’t fine, but what is Liliana supposed to do? She’s fifteen! Being left with her increasingly crazy mom? Fine. Her heathen little brothers? Fine, fine, fine. But it turns out Dad did leave one thing behind besides her crazy family. Before he left, he signed Liliana up for a school desegregation program called METCO. And she’s been accepted.

Being accepted into METCO, however, isn’t the same as being accepted at her new school. In her old school, Liliana—half-Guatemalan and half-Salvadorian—was part of the majority where almost everyone was a person of color. But now at Westburg, where almost everyone is white, the struggles of being a minority are unavoidable. It becomes clear that the only way to survive is to lighten up—whiten up. And if Dad signed her up for this program, he wouldn’t have just wanted Liliana to survive, he would have wanted her to thrive. So what if Liliana is now going by Lili? So what if she’s acting like she thinks she’s better than her old friends? It’s not a big deal. It’s fine.

But then she discovers the gutting truth about her father: He’s not on one of his side trips. And it isn’t that he doesn’t want to come home…he can’t. He’s undocumented and he’s been deported back to Guatemala. Soon, nothing is fine, and Lili has to make a choice: She’s done trying to make her white classmates and teachers feel more comfortable. Done changing who she is, denying her culture and where she came from. They want to know where she’s from, what she’s about? Liliana is ready to tell them.”

I think I literally couldn’t possibly love this book any more than I do.

First, I absolutely adored Liliana Cruz. She’s an absolute rock for her family, and her life is thrown into upheaval. Her dad’s been deported and she’s now at a new school. (She’s gone from having a lot of friends to being one of only a very few non-white students at a new, much fancier school.) She’s trying to adapt, but it’s hard.

There are some political elements in terms of trying to combat racism (which shouldn’t be considered political and yet here we are) and also dealing with immigration and deportation. Liliana’s mom is also clearly going through some depressive episodes, which is also important to see.

It’s such a smart book and it deals with so much, but it never feels forced or like Jennifer De Leon was trying to see how many issues she could cram into one book. Instead, it felt like an accurate representation. Many people have more than one major problem, and I could absolutely understand how Liliana’s mom could maybe not cope perfectly well, given that her husband’s gone and there’s no telling when he’ll come back. (And, due to the dangerous nature of crossing into the country, there’s a decent chance that he would either die or be arrested if he tried. It’s not as easy as conservatives would have us believe.) So she has that fear weighing on her and she also has to protect her children. Liliana’s older and so eventually finds out, but her twin sons are still incredibly little. So yeah, it’s definitely understandable how she wasn’t at 100% all day every day. (Also, you know how Ellen Hopkins sometimes does adult novels about the parents in some of her YA? If we could get a book about the mom, I would preorder that immediately.)

Highly recommended.

Chasing Alice

Finished Chasing Alice by Stephanie Fowler. You can get a copy here.

Summary (from Stephanie’s website):

“On Sunday, September 4th, 2011, Alice Davis, a respected and beloved English teacher at Parkside High School in Salisbury, Maryland, vanished. Her disappearance shocked the community and left her family, friends, fellow teachers, and students fearing the worst. Within days, her husband, Jess Davis, committed suicide just as the police were closing in on him as their prime suspect. Alice’s body was soon discovered in the woods near their home and the terrible crime came to a swift conclusion.

But what remains? For one of Alice’s students, Stephanie L. Fowler, the heartbreaking loss of her high school mentor set her on a journey to honor the teacher she loved. Part memoir, true crime, biography, and cautionary tale, Chasing Alice examines Alice’s life, reveals the dangers of isolation and domestic violence, and seeks to preserve the legacy of a woman who touched the lives of many.”

So I’m not going to be calling her Alice. She was Mrs. Davis to me, and I think she’d understand. And this won’t be a normal review.

So this book is amazing. Stephanie’s writing is so great and and there were sentences that took my breath away. (There are so many that I literally can’t even begin to quote them. They’re all through this book. Which is no surprise–she had the best teacher and she’s literally an award-winning writer.)

In the interest of full disclosure, I’m one of the students interviewed in this book. (She was my AP English teacher my senior year, the year my dad died. My favorite anecdote of that time is in the book, but I’ll tell it here, too. So probably a month or so after my dad died, I was in her class one day. And I was paying attention and awake but I had my head down on the desk and she stopped the class and looked at me and said, “Kelly, if you were a horse, I would shoot you.” And mostly when I tell that story, people are kind of shocked. The reaction is “What a complete bitch!” But it made me laugh then and it made me laugh every other time I tell it or think about it, including right now*. Because here’s the thing: when you’re 17 and your dad dies, people treat you like you’re fragile. (Probably because you are.) But the thing with Mrs. Davis? She was great at sizing people up and seeing what they needed. And I needed someone to make me laugh and to treat me like any other student.

Someone who would make me focus and work. Because her class was WORK. It was harder than any class I’d had up to that point and harder than any class I took in college. (Fun fact: I took a Shakespeare class my sophomore year in college and a lot of plays we read were ones that she taught me two years prior. Did my professor think I was a genius because I remembered everything she taught? Well, okay, “genius” is probably too strong, but he gave me excellent grades. I wish I had thought to call and thank her.)

I’m a fan of true crime and horror movies, probably because I’ve always felt like things are always incredibly close to going horribly wrong and forewarned is forearmed. But it becomes a different thing once you know someone who’s murdered. (She wasn’t my teacher at the time; I graduated in 1998 and she was murdered in 2011–which means it’s been almost a decade, which feels impossible.) And there’s a lot of “the worst” to think about when this happens to someone you know. It’s the worst that her sisters lost her. It’s the worst that her last moments were full of pain and betrayal, because her husband was the one who killed her. And it’s the worst that her stepdaughter and grandchildren lost someone they loved and had the added trauma of knowing that their father/grandfather was responsible for it. It’s all the worst. But for me, the worst is that even with my favorite story about Mrs. Davis, the thing that I think about the most when I think about her is that she was murdered. I hate that and she deserves better.

But here’s the thing I want you to know about this book. It’s about her murder, yes, because it was awful and it was part of her story. But it’s also about her–her family and her life. And I think when you read it, you’ll understand why so many people (myself included) have just been devastated since it happened. Best of all, though, I feel like it gave her back to me. Which I know is overwrought and doesn’t make sense. (Mrs. Davis would probably X through this entire review, if I’m being honest.)

And one of the things that Stephanie attributed to me is the sentence I keep coming back to. She mattered.

There are so many people whose lives were better because they knew her. Her ending was awful in a way that no one deserved but the rest of the story is what makes a life. Hers was extraordinary and so is this book. I’m so proud to be in it and to have helped* Stephanie and I hope to have half the legacy Mrs. Davis does.

This is going to be the best book I read this year. Highly recommended.

* = Which is good, because I’ve also been crying since I finished the book.

** = in this case “helped” = “harassed her to finish.”