Wild and Crooked

Finished Wild and Crooked by Leah Thomas. I received a copy for review.

Summary (from Goodreads):

Critically-acclaimed author Leah Thomas blends a small-town setting with the secrets of a long-ago crime, in a compelling novel about breaking free from the past.

In Samsboro, Kentucky, Kalyn Spence’s name is inseparable from the brutal murder her father committed when he was a teenager. Forced to return to town, Kalyn must attend school under a pseudonym . . . or face the lingering anger of Samsboro’s citizens, who refuse to forget the crime.

Gus Peake has never had the luxury of redefining himself. A Samsboro native, he’s either known as the “disabled kid” because of his cerebral palsy, or as the kid whose dad was murdered. Gus just wants to be known as himself.

When Gus meets Kalyn, her frankness is refreshing, and they form a deep friendship. Until their families’ pasts emerge. And when the accepted version of the truth is questioned, Kalyn and Gus are caught in the center of a national uproar. Can they break free from a legacy of inherited lies and chart their own paths forward?”

In her acknowledgments, Leah Thomas thanks Karen and Georgia and calls herself a Murderino. I didn’t make the connection before reading it, but yes, this is definitely the My Favorite Murder kind of true crime. It’s darkly funny (“grim” works) and, above all, it honors the victim and his family.

It’s not surprising that I love Kalyn, right? She’s so sarcastic and tough, and that’s because she’s had to be. Her life has been almost impossible because of who her dad is.

Throughout the book, we see how the impact of that one night continues to reverberate almost two full decades later. It’s a sad but necessary thing to contemplate.

This is an amazing book. I’m sure it’ll be compared to Sadie by Courtney Summers; it’s a worthy comparison.

Highly recommended.


So Here’s the Thing

Finished So Here’s the Thing by Alyssa Mastromonaco.

Summary (from Goodreads):

From the New York Times bestselling author of Who Thought This Was a Good Idea? comes a fun, frank book of reflections, essays, and interviews on topics important to young women, ranging from politics and career to motherhood, sisterhood, and making and sustaining relationships of all kinds in the age of social media.
Alyssa Mastromonaco is back with a bold, no-nonsense, and no-holds-barred twenty-first-century girl’s guide to life, tackling the highs and lows of bodies, politics, relationships, moms, education, life on the internet, and pop culture. Whether discussing Barbra Streisand or The Bachelor, working in the West Wing or working on finding a wing woman, Alyssa leaves no stone unturned…and no awkward situation unexamined.
Like her bestseller Who Thought This Was a Good Idea?, SO HERE’S THE THING… brings a sharp eye and outsize sense of humor to the myriad issues facing women the world over, both in and out of the workplace. Along with Alyssa’s personal experiences and hard-won life lessons, interviews with women like Monica Lewinsky, Susan Rice, and Chelsea Handler round out this modern woman’s guide to, well, just about everything you can think of.”

This is a really fun book of essays. It’s focused a lot more on pop culture than politics, so if the fact that it’s written by President Obama’s former deputy chief of staff is a stumbling block, don’t let that keep you from enjoying it.

But as much as I love talking about pop culture, it’s the political essays that I liked the most. Alyssa is a little bit older than I am, and the chapter on Monica Lewinsky is probably my favorite in the book. When that scandal was happening, I was a teenager and I didn’t pay that much attention. I’m pretty sure my attitude was roughly the same as everyone else’s (somewhat anti-Monica, making fun of her looks and that dress; very little feeling about Bill Clinton’s responsibility/culpability in the whole thing) which I’m ashamed of now. We didn’t really think about power differentials in the 1990s and we certainly didn’t do things like hold men accountable for their actions. (We barely do that now!). But I’m better now.

I also loved her brief list chapters (things in her bag and things on her nightstand, etc.). I don’t know what it is, but I absolutely love lists. I love making them but I also love reading other people’s. I guess it’s just interesting seeing what other people care enough to write down? (Or type, I guess; lists on paper can be rare now.)

This is a fast read, and I hope to read her first book soon. I have it; I just haven’t read it yet. (That would be the first sentence on my list of things I say most often, btw.)


Five Midnights

Finished Five Midnights by Ann Davila Cardinal. I received a copy for review.

Summary (from Goodreads):

Five friends cursed. Five deadly fates. Five nights of retribución.

If Lupe Dávila and Javier Utierre can survive each other’s company, together they can solve a series of grisly murders sweeping though Puerto Rico. But the clues lead them out of the real world and into the realm of myths and legends. And if they want to catch the killer, they’ll have to step into the shadows to see what’s lurking there—murderer, or monster?”

I love urban legends so much and I especially love ones I haven’t heard of before. I’m not familiar at all with Puerto Rican culture, and this book was an excellent crash course (even besides the horror elements, which were great).

Lupe is a kickass character, the kind of girl who can take care of herself and will do so without apology. She’s on vacation visiting family (her uncle is the police chief, as it happens) and ends up stuck right in the middle of this complete nightmare scenario.

This book starts hard and doesn’t stop. It’s also intense and scary, so be aware if you don’t really like horror so much. It’s not constantly scary, but it’s steady suspense that spikes every so often. You’ve been warned.

I found it incredibly fun and hope that Ann Davila Cardinal writes a lot more in this vein. Recommended.

Furious Hours

Finished Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep.

Summary (from Goodreads):

“The stunning story of an Alabama serial killer and the true-crime book that Harper Lee worked on obsessively in the years after To Kill a Mockingbird.

Reverend Willie Maxwell was a rural preacher accused of murdering five of his family members for insurance money in the 1970s. With the help of a savvy lawyer, he escaped justice for years until a relative shot him dead at the funeral of his last victim. Despite hundreds of witnesses, Maxwell’s murderer was acquitted–thanks to the same attorney who had previously defended the Reverend.

Sitting in the audience during the vigilante’s trial was Harper Lee, who had traveled from New York City to her native Alabama with the idea of writing her own In Cold Blood, the true-crime classic she had helped her friend Truman Capote research seventeen years earlier. Lee spent a year in town reporting, and many more working on her own version of the case.

Now Casey Cep brings this story to life, from the shocking murders to the courtroom drama to the racial politics of the Deep South. At the same time, she offers a deeply moving portrait of one of the country’s most beloved writers and her struggle with fame, success, and the mystery of artistic creativity.”

This is divided into three sections. The first focuses on Willie Maxwell, the second on the lawyer who defended the man who murdered Maxwell and the third on Harper Lee. Each section is fascinating for different reasons and I think the book focuses on my three favorite things: true crime (section one), politics (section two) and literature (obviously section three). If there’s ever been something that’s more perfectly for me and my interests, I’m not sure what it is.

Like a lot of actively literate people, I love To Kill a Mockingbird and its author. I read Go Set a Watchman and I think I would’ve preferred this book be published. (I’m guessing that her notes and drafts really were destroyed—as she wrote to someone—because otherwise, this would’ve been released, too.)

I would have loved it if this were three books, each one a more thorough telling of each section of this book. It’s succinct and flows well, but I would’ve liked to learn more (and to spend more time with Harper Lee, which was probably my most favorite part).

Stay Sexy & Don’t Get Murdered

Finished Stay Sexy & Don’t Get Murdered by Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark.

Summary (from Goodreads):

The highly anticipated first book by Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark, the voices behind the #1 hit podcast My Favorite Murder!

Sharing never-before-heard stories ranging from their struggles with depression, eating disorders, and addiction, Karen and Georgia irreverently recount their biggest mistakes and deepest fears, reflecting on the formative life events that shaped them into two of the most followed voices in the nation.

In Stay Sexy & Don’t Get Murdered, Karen and Georgia focus on the importance of self-advocating and valuing personal safety over being ‘nice’ or ‘helpful.’ They delve into their own pasts, true crime stories, and beyond to discuss meaningful cultural and societal issues with fierce empathy and unapologetic frankness.”

This doesn’t really deal with true crime (there is very little discussion of murder and crime). Instead, it’s a collection of essays from Karen and Georgia. They discuss their lives and experiences (good and bad). It’s incredibly funny and completely heartbreaking. Karen’s chapter on her mom’s Alzheimer’s is especially devastating; so is Georgia’s chapter that details her experience with a photographer. (She discussed it a little bit on their podcast; this is in greater detail.)

The thing with this book (and their podcast) is that it fosters such a sense of community. We may have gone through the exact same thing, or something similar; we may just relate to the underlying feeling. But either way, this feels like a series of conversations with our best, oldest friend, the one we don’t talk to as much as we’d like to because we’re all so busy, where they say something that’s exactly how we’d been feeling but we didn’t have the words for it, and all you can say back is, “YES. Me, too. That’s exactly how it is for me.”

When I went to the live show in Baltimore, Karen read part of one of the chapters (“Karen’s Lecture on Self-Care”) and said, “You deserve to be happy, no matter what your brain tells you.” It felt like the entire theater audibly gasped but that reading is in the Audible version of this, and I didn’t hear the gasp there. (It still feels true.) I think we should all get that tattooed somewhere.

I love Karen and Georgia and their podcast and this book is the perfect example of why. It’s OK to not have it all together, so long as you’re trying to reach the point where you do. And it’s OK to follow your instincts, if your instincts are saying, “This is not safe. You need to go.”

And it’s OK to stay sexy and not get murdered.

The Great Alone

Finished The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah.

Summary (from Goodreads):

“Alaska, 1974.
Unpredictable. Unforgiving. Untamed.
For a family in crisis, the ultimate test of survival.

Ernt Allbright, a former POW, comes home from the Vietnam war a changed and volatile man. When he loses yet another job, he makes an impulsive decision: he will move his family north, to Alaska, where they will live off the grid in America’s last true frontier.

Thirteen-year-old Leni, a girl coming of age in a tumultuous time, caught in the riptide of her parents’ passionate, stormy relationship, dares to hope that a new land will lead to a better future for her family. She is desperate for a place to belong. Her mother, Cora, will do anything and go anywhere for the man she loves, even if it means following him into the unknown

At first, Alaska seems to be the answer to their prayers. In a wild, remote corner of the state, they find a fiercely independent community of strong men and even stronger women. The long, sunlit days and the generosity of the locals make up for the Allbrights’ lack of preparation and dwindling resources.

But as winter approaches and darkness descends on Alaska, Ernt’s fragile mental state deteriorates and the family begins to fracture. Soon the perils outside pale in comparison to threats from within. In their small cabin, covered in snow, blanketed in eighteen hours of night, Leni and her mother learn the terrible truth: they are on their own. In the wild, there is no one to save them but themselves.

In this unforgettable portrait of human frailty and resilience, Kristin Hannah reveals the indomitable character of the modern American pioneer and the spirit of a vanishing Alaska―a place of incomparable beauty and danger. The Great Alone is a daring, beautiful, stay-up-all-night story about love and loss, the fight for survival, and the wildness that lives in both man and nature.”

I’ve never had any desire to go to Alaska. (My dislike of snow guaranteed that it’s a place I can’t ever see.) This book almost made me want to change that.

As much as it’s a story about Leni and her parents, it’s also about Alaska. It’s a character as much as any of them are. And it’s beautiful, desolate and unforgiving.

The descriptions (especially when the flowers are blooming and there’s fresh salmon all over the river) make me want to go immediately and it’s dangerously easy to overlook the fact that winter is most of the year, and that there’s precious little daylight then. Like Australia, there are a lot of predators and a lot of ways to die.

But there are a lot of great people and I feel like I know them. I felt as embraced by the townsfolk as Cora and Leni did. These are good people, and I miss them.

It’s best you don’t know too much, but you need to read this book immediately. Don’t wait as long as I did.

Highly recommended.

Property of the Rebel Librarian

Finished Property of the Rebel Librarian by Allison Varnes.

Summary (from Goodreads):

“When twelve-year-old June Harper’s parents discover what they deem an inappropriate library book, they take strict parenting to a whole new level. And everything June loves about Dogwood Middle School unravels: librarian Ms. Bradshaw is suspended, an author appearance is canceled, the library is gutted, and all books on the premises must have administrative approval.

But June can’t give up books . . . and she realizes she doesn’t have to when she spies a Little Free Library on her walk to school. As the rules become stricter at school and at home, June keeps turning the pages of the banned books that continue to appear in the little library. It’s a delicious secret . . . and one she can’t keep to herself. June starts a banned book library of her own in an abandoned locker at school. The risks grow alongside her library’s popularity, and a movement begins at Dogwood Middle–a movement that, if exposed, could destroy her. But if it’s powerful enough, maybe it can save Ms. Bradshaw and all that she represents: the freedom to read.

Equal parts fun and empowering, this novel explores censorship, freedom of speech, and activism. For any kid who doesn’t believe one person can effect change…and for all the kids who already know they can!”

This book is a delight. It’s over the top, yes, but in the best possible way.

I love June so much and she reminds me a lot of me as a kid. And I love how reading became the cool thing at the school once the principal, teachers and parents banned most of the books. (Fun fact: I was in a magnet school for elementary school and in fourth grade, we all started reading Stephen King. [Explains a lot, doesn’t it?] One of the teachers got incredibly mad at us and threatened to take the books away and tell our parents. We were like, “How do you think we got these books? THEY BOUGHT THEM FOR US.” And while we can certainly have a discussion on whether fourth grade is too young for Stephen King, we are all fine adults now and none of us have any lasting trauma.)

But these kids aren’t reading Stephen King. They’re reading age appropriate books, like Because of Winn Dixie and Bridge to Terabithia. They’re reading some of the books I read at their age—or maybe a little younger—and it’s not like they’re reading Tropic of Cancer…or, I guess, The Stand.

If you know any kid who loves books, get them a copy of this. They’ll love it, and they should. It was literally made for them. Recommended.

Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls

Finished Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls by T Kira Madden.

Summary (from Goodreads):

“Acclaimed literary essayist T Kira Madden’s raw and redemptive debut memoir is about coming of age and reckoning with desire as a queer, biracial teenager amidst the fierce contradictions of Boca Raton, Florida, a place where she found cult-like privilege, shocking racial disparities, rampant white-collar crime, and powerfully destructive standards of beauty hiding in plain sight.

As a child, Madden lived a life of extravagance, from her exclusive private school to her equestrian trophies and designer shoe-brand name. But under the surface was a wild instability. The only child of parents continually battling drug and alcohol addictions, Madden confronted her environment alone. Facing a culture of assault and objectification, she found lifelines in the desperately loving friendships of fatherless girls.

With unflinching honesty and lyrical prose, spanning from 1960s Hawai’i to the present-day struggle of a young woman mourning the loss of a father while unearthing truths that reframe her reality, Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls is equal parts eulogy and love letter. It’s a story about trauma and forgiveness, about families of blood and affinity, both lost and found, unmade and rebuilt, crooked and beautiful.”

This is more of a collection of essays than an actual memoir.

I asked for this for my birthday because I loved the title and the cover, and because it was getting a lot of buzz. I didn’t know much else about it (I am a sucker for clever marketing). And I’m glad, because I ended up loving this book so, so much.

It’s intense and hard to read in a lot of parts; it’s also brilliant and funny.

This isn’t for everyone. It’s about a girl who essentially raised herself and who made what a lot of people would consider to be bad choices (but she does a great job of just presenting what happened and letting the reader make their own judgments…which honestly, I felt a little squeamish about, because, while I enjoy judging people more than I probably should, I also felt very uncomfortable doing so in this case).

I hope this is the start of a lot of books for T Kira Madden. I am here for all of them. Highly recommended.

The Last Honest Horse Thief

Finished The Last Honest Horse Thief by Michael Koryta.

Summary (from Goodreads):

A boy comes of age among a family of grifters in this powerful story from a New York Times–bestselling “master” (Stephen King).

Never knowing a real home, Markus Novak’s only constant in life is his passion for paperback westerns. The child of a family of outlaws, he moves through the West town by town with his mother and two uncles, staying in a place just long enough to run a short con and move along.  After one job goes south and his mom gets locked up, Markus finds himself in the foster care of a rancher and his wife—with whom he’s strangely comfortable, yet torn by loyalty to the family he’s lost.

To distract himself, he spends his days working the farm and his nights fixing a rusty old ’55 Chevy. Then he discovers a note from his uncles hidden in a book at a local pawnshop and learns that they are hiding out in a mountain town near Yellowstone. Restoring the car soon becomes Markus’s only hope of finding them, and maybe finally finding himself, too.”

This is, depending on your definition, either a very long short story or a very short novella. It’s nearly impossible to stop reading, although it’s more character-driven than plot-driven.

It’s lacking Michael Koryta’s traditional suspense in that I was never afraid of Markus or the rancher and his wife. (In most of his books, I would’ve spent every page terrified for them.) At the same time, it’s very much one of his books because I was hooked immediately and I needed to know what would happen.

I don’t know what it is, but I’ve always been fascinated by grifters and people who work short cons. I wish there had been more of a focus on that, but that didn’t make me like this any less.

I hope this gets fleshed into a novel at some point. (We already have two Markus Novak novels, so the market is there!) Recommended.

Amelia Westlake Was Never Here

Finished Amelia Westlake Was Never Here by Erin Gough.

Summary (from Goodreads):

A fiercely funny, queer romantic comedy about two girls who can’t stand each other, but join forces in a grand feminist plan to expose harassment and inequality at their elite private school.

Harriet Price is the perfect student: smart, dutiful, over-achieving. Will Everhart is a troublemaker who’s never met an injustice she didn’t fight. When their swim coach’s inappropriate behavior is swept under the rug, the unlikely duo reluctantly team up to expose his misdeeds, pulling provocative pranks and creating the instantly legendary Amelia Westlake–an imaginary student who helps right the many wrongs of their privileged institution. But as tensions burn throughout their school–who is Amelia Westlake?–and between Harriet and Will, how long can they keep their secret? How far will they go to make a difference? And when will they realize they’re falling for each other?

Award-winning author Erin Gough’s Amelia Westlake Was Never Here is a funny, smart, and all-too-timely story of girls fighting back against power and privilege–and finding love while they’re at it.”

I am obsessed with this book. I love the current trend of feminist contemporary YA and this is a fantastic example. Will is amazing and I love her so much. She’s fierce and uncompromising and determined to see the world become the way it should be. In her own way, Harriet is, too, but she prefers to follow the rules and hope instead of trying to bend the world.

They end up creating a fake student to confront the injustices they see and it ends up becoming a real Spartacus moment; it takes off in ways they never could’ve imagined.

If you need a book that will inspire you and make you feel better about the world, choose this. (Amelia Westlake would approve.)

Highly recommended.