Review: Swamplandia by Karen Russell

This book was on my TBR for a while, and it was one of the many that I picked up in the $1 section of The Strand when I lived in New York. Unfortunately, Swamplandia and I didn’t get along.

While I was intrigued by the Swamplandia theme park as a character, I felt like the whole thing was a big metaphor for mental health that I didn’t understand. There are some parts I did like, like the quirky and flawed Bigtree family and its members, who are all very different from each other. Kiwi’s perspective was my favorite, and by far the most interesting.

I also didn’t like the way Russel handled some aspects of this book…Native American appropriation, anyone? I found much of the plot confusing but also kind of pointless, particularly what happened to Ava in the woods. And can someone please tell me what the red seth represented? Womanhood?!

Ultimately, I felt this is something I feel I didn’t understand and didn’t care to figure out.

 Support Independent Bookstores - Visit
VERDICT: 3 out of 5 books

Review: The fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin

Recently I was in the mood for some fantasy, and this did the trick! I loved this atmospheric book!

Warning: this book is really confusing at first. It’s hard to explain even after reading it. It plops you right into this strange world and runs with it, and it took me a couple hundred pages to really feel like I had any sort of grasp of what was going on. You don’t know how the different perspectives relate. Enough people warned me of this that I knew I had to keep going, and it was Jemisin’s power of characterization–specifically the fact that I both empathized with and was so frustrated with Essun–that hooked me from the start.

The Fifth Season has a little bit of everything–badass women, love triangles that don’t suck, violence, great worldbuilding, and a prevailing theme of overcoming otherness. This is a book that flips typical elements of epic fantasy on its head–namely its general lack of black, female, and queer characters–all of which have ample representation in The Fifth Season. Specifically, in The Stillness, the people with the power have dark skin and Essun repeatedly feels self-conscious about her lighter, silky hair. The Fifth Season also successful utilizes multiple perspective and different points of view, including the second person, something I never would have thought possible.

This book is fantastically unique and I’d highly recommend it. I’m looking forward to reading the second book in The Broken Earth Series!

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit

VERDICT: 4 out of 5 books


Review: Commonwealth by Ann Patchett


It’s official. Ann Patchett is a literary genius.

Commonwealth is hard to explain, and it took me so long to pick up because besides being a multigenerational family tale, the description is pretty vague. I’m so glad I finally read it! This is a book that kept me reading late into the night, and only regretted a little bit the next day at work, which I haven’t done in a while.

The book is extremely character-driven, which is one of the reasons I liked it so much. Despite the depth of characterization, I wouldn’t describe the plot as slow-moving at all–there’s a family tragedy at the center of it all that ties the characters together and keeps the reader guessing.

This book has many different characters and perspectives, which is something I love in a book but is often difficult to do well. Ann Patchett does this beautifully. All the characters are fully fleshed out with real motivations and lives, even the ones that only have a few pages in their perspective. At the end thought about who I would identify as the central character. It’s probabably, Franny–the baby at the baptism responsible for mixing all their lives together in the first place–bringing the book full circle! Yet every other character feels just as vital.

Commonwealth is about guilt, forgiveness, and the complexities of familial love. It’s also set partially in Virginia, where I live and where everything bad in the book happens! I cracked up at all the descriptions of the summer heat and mosquitoes.

VERDICT: 4 books

Which Ann Patchett book should I pick up next? The only other one I’ve read is State of Wonder.

Review: Convenience Story Woman by Sayaka Murata

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, translated from Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori, is like nothing I’ve read before. This is a short, easy read that challenges everything you think about society, education, identity, and what it means to be happy and successful.

Keiko Furukura, now approaching middle age, has worked in a convenience store since she was eighteen. She loves her job, and finds value in the work she does every day. Everyone else tells Keiko that she’s wrong to feel this way, and that this makes her not normal. They tell her she can’t be truly happy unless she has a full time job, a husband, and kids. When a lazy ex-employee, Shiraha, moves in with her and people assume they’re dating, Keiko’s happy little world is turned upside down. 

This book is crazy. Keiko is a unique character and she’s so happy and innocent that it’s heartbreaking. She has adapted to mimicking the speech patterns and behaviors of others based on what she’s been told is “normal”. I’ve heard other people speculate that Keiko is psychotic—I don’t think that’s the case, and I have no need to diagnose her. I think this book is really about society’s expectations surrounding identity and success. 

I gave Convenience Store a three and a half book rating because I thought it was too short and ended too early. However, I think this unique story is something I’ll think about for a long time.

VERDICT: 3.5 books

Review: The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker

Anna: I love apocalyptic fiction, but I heard so many conflicting opinions about this author’s recent release, The Dreamers, that I decided to start with her previous novel.

The Age of Miracles has a lot of potential. At surface level, this book sounds like something I should love. It’s a character drive coming-of-age apocalyptic novel with a young and likable female protagonist, Julia. When earth’s days begin to slow and lengthen, society is split into people who follow the new system of “clock time” and people who abide by the sun and follow “real time”. Those who chose to follow real time are alienated, and the mainstream clock timers begin to exhibit symptoms of a gravity-driven disease.

This book scratches at the surface of something, and then fails to focus on the right things. When something interesting involving the end of the world happened I kept thinking, “we’ll get to that soon” but over and over again, we don’t. The societal division between clock time and real time is such an interesting idea, for example, but it is hardly explored. So much of this book feels like it’s on the surface of something but instead of diving deeper turns away and continues to explore the mundane and expected.

Another big problem I had is that many of the characters just don’t feel believable, besides Julia, who is about only thing about this book that feels real. Julia’s parents are poor stereotypes of a heterosexual marriage. Julia’s mom is always worried, anxious, and nagging her father, while her father is factual and completely robotic. I found it absolutely ridiculous and unbelievable that Julia’s father is completely unworried by the end of the world. HELLO, who wouldn’t be freaking out if Earth’s gravity shifted, people began to get sick, and the days unexplainably lengthened. The fact that he isn’t concerned at all about any of these things drove me insane. The author continually makes Julia’s mom out to be crazy for her anxieties, but since she’s the only character who seems scared by the impending doom, she’s one of the only characters I feel I can trust.

Don’t get me started on Seth. Walker just couldn’t decide what kind of character she wanted him to be. For such a character-driven novel, I expected more dynamic and complicated characters, and this isn’t the case. Both the plot and the characterization fall short.

VERDICT: 3 out of 5 books


Review: Normal People by Sally Rooney

Normal People by Sally Rooney is a book that one hundred percent deserves all the hype! I read Conversations with Friends last year, and it was one of my favorite books of 2018. I couldn’t wait for this one to come out, and I preordered my copy from a local independent bookstore.

Normal People lived up to all my expectations and maybe even exceeded them. Sally Rooney has such a literary talent, and I love her writing style. Her characters are unique but–dare I say it–original. Set in Ireland, this novel captures the joy, anxieties and difficulties of college life perfectly.

This follows Marianne and Connell’s relationship over many years, beginning in the Irish equivalent of high school and continuing through the end of college or university. Marianne and Connell have an intense and complicated relationship that began in secret because Connell was popular in high school and Marianne was not. This dynamic shifted when they went to university, creating an undertone of shame, jealousy, and insecurity that they must continually grapple with.

A prevailing theme in Rooney’s writing is the role that miscommunication plays in relationships. She also frequently writes about how differences in social class, the presence of mental illness, and time abroad and apart affect and change relationships. It’s difficult to describe what happens in this book, because it’s kind of about everything. I love how Rooney writes about everyday life so simply but beautifully, and I loved, loved, loved these two quirky central characters.

I cannot wait until her next book!

VERDICT: 5 books

Review: Nevermoor by Jessica Townsend

Nevermoor is the first installment in a series about Morrigan Crow, who was born on Eventine, the unluckiest day. Morrigan is cursed to die on midnight of her eleventh birthday. Morrigan is blamed for every misfortune in the town, and she’s kept at arm’s length from everyone, including her family. Before the clock can strike midnight on Eventide, she’s swept away to a magical land called Nevermoor by an equally magical man, Jupiter North. Jupiter prepares Morrigan to compete in four trials that, if she’s successful, will grant her entrance into the legendary Wundrous Society.  

Before reading this, I’d heard Nevermoor compared to Harry Potter, and this is true in a lot of ways (although let’s be honest, nothing can ever truly compare). Nevermoor feels like a mix of The Sorcerer’s Stone and The Goblet of Fire, because of Morrigan’s introduction to magic at age 11, and the trials being like a less deadly Triwizard Tournament. The magic system is difficult to summarize. It feels more eclectic than The Wizarding World. I’ve also heard Nevermoor called a mix of Harry Potter and Alice in Wonderland, which I’d call accurate. We also know that there is going to be a special magic school down the line. Jupiter is also a very Dumbledore-y character, as her mentor, and someone who is obviously keeping secrets from Harry. I mean, Morrigan.

Moving on from Harry Potter!

Townsend is a great writer. Nevermoor is fantastically and colorfully written. It’s clever, hilarious, and by far the most creative fantasy I’ve read in a long time. It has great worldbuilding, but still leaves much more to be explored in later books.

I love Morrigan as a character, which is one of the reasons Nevermoor is so compulsively readable. Before Nevermoor, she has never known love. She has been shamed and ostracized by her family for her entire life. She just wants a place to belong. As I mentioned before, It did get a little annoying that Jupiter keeps her in the dark for so much of the book (ahem, Dumbledore) but I understand why that this needs to happen plot-wise. The villains are sufficiently creepy and well-developed, as are the quirky host of characters in the Hotel, and Morrigan’s two close friends, Hawthorne and Jack.

Despite the fact that it’s middle grade, Nevermoor tackles dark themes, such as abuse and death. There’s also a lot of commentary for adults that I never would have picked up on as a kid, such as the discussion of illegal immigration. There’s a scene on page 428 when the Wunderground is experiencing technical difficulties that mirror the MTA subway delay announcements so much that they had me cracking up.

Most importantly, Nevermoor is filled with memorable magic and a story that I can’t wait to keep reading! My one concern is that it’s going to be difficult for the following books in the series to live up to the standard of book number one!

VERDICT: 4.5 out of 5 books

Review: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Alexis: Read 12/16/18

I feel like I’ve been saying this a lot lately, but this is a really hard book for me to rate. Is it 3 ½ stars? 4? 4 and ½? I had a hard time deciding. I will confess, I skimmed a lot of Goodreads reviews and was relieved to find that a lot of other people felt the same way.

I loved aspects of this book; I was confused by aspects of this book; I disliked aspects of this book. I understand the major hype surrounding it, and maybe I went in with too-high expectations.

Morgenstern’s writing is beautiful and lyrical. The best part of this book is how her descriptions of the circus launch you into a wonderful, atmospheric world. She uses all four senses to describe the circus, and I loved the recurring descriptions of how the circus smelled: like popcorn, caramel, and bonfire smoke. I loved the black and white theme of the circus, the intricate clock, and the minute details Morgenstern includes about each tent.

The circus itself is almost the main character as much as it is the setting, which actually fits perfectly when you reach the ending.

As for the characters, both Celia and Marco’s characters start out strong, but seem to flatline as the book progresses. It doesn’t help that the book switches perspectives every chapter. This creates a snapshot effect. Each chapter almost feels like a character study, interspersed with short circus-character studies. Not only does the book jump back and forth in perspectives, but it jumps back and forth in time. Because of this, the first hundred pages or so were a bit of a drag for me. Not much is revealed, and the book’s plot progresses slowly.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that this book doesn’t have much of a plot. Whenever the perspective deviates from Celia and Marco, I found myself feeling annoyed. I wanted them to be more present characters than they were, and I wanted them to do more actions than they did. I found myself gravitating more towards Bailey, Poppet, and Widgets’ storylines, as their characters felt more lively and real.

Despite the skimpy plot, my other issue with the book is the romance. I’m not a fan of the love at first sight storyline unless it serves a good purpose. It would make sense that Celia and Marco would have an outright connection, due to their similarities. However, for a 500 page book, there was definitely room for more of a romantic build up so the reader could actually see them falling in love instead of just being told that they fell in love. Their relationship didn’t feel as deep and real as I wanted it to, and a certain speech by Marco (on pages 419 and 420) didn’t help; Marco and Celia’s dialogue with each other often felt too flat.

Thankfully, I was pleased with the direction the ending went, and I’m glad that it tied up some of the many loose knots tied throughout the book. I just wished there was more of a plot. 

VERDICT: 3 ½ out of 5 books


Anna: Read 12/25/18

Like Alexis, this book was so hyped that I expected a lot of it. Also like Alexis, I loved the descriptions of the circus and its different tents and inhabitants. I was also intrigued by the magic in the beginning, as well as the mystery of the circus, and the competition, and think I lost some interest as more of the rules of the competition are revealed (even though the reader never really gets a fully satisfactory explanation of the competition, which frustrated me.)

Honestly, I would have rated this four stars if not for the love story, which I found both cliche and tedious. Though the romance between Marco and Celia added more tension to the competition, I felt that there are more interesting and imaginative ways to raise the stakes. There is also the troubling fact that Marco and Celia’s relationship is shallow, which makes it hard to root for or even believe. I enjoyed reading from Bailey’s perspective more so that any of the others, and I liked that his storyline grounded the circus in reality. I also agree with Alexis that there are WAY too many unnecessary perspectives in this, which bogs down the pace. Perhaps with the perspectives Morgenstern is trying to show that there are many moving parts to the circus, but I think she relayed this with the sheer amount of characters.

Can I also point out that the way that Marco treats Isobel is that of a misogynist pig? I had a big problem with that.

The melodramatic romance automatically knocked it down one star, as did the resolution of the competition, which I found wishy-washy. Despite the fantastic and magical circus scenes, I’m honestly disappointed!

VERDICT: 3 out of 5 books


Hopefully in future dual reviews we have more varied opinions from each other!