“Nothing to See Here” by Kevin Wilson – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Lillian and Madison were unlikely roommates and yet inseparable friends at their elite boarding school. But then Lillian had to leave the school unexpectedly… and they’ve barely spoken since. Until now, when Lillian gets a letter from Madison pleading for her help.

Madison’s twin stepkids are moving in with her family and she wants Lillian to be their caretaker. However, there’s a catch: the twins spontaneously combust when they get agitated, flames igniting from their skin in a startling but beautiful way.

Goodreads


Everything I’d seen about this one going in prepared me for it being comedic. I didn’t realize, however, that it takes place in Franklin, TN – which is only about 30 minutes from where I live! So that did add an extra layer of fun for me.

Lillian leads a slacker life – working at a grocery store, living in her mom’s attic. When she was a teen, she had dreamed of getting out of her hometown, doing bigger things, and proving everyone wrong. But now she’s nearing 30, and doesn’t know what she wants out of life.

Madison is rich, married to a U.S. Senator, and has a seemingly perfect toddler named Timothy. She reaches out to Lillian occasionally. Lillian loves and admires Madison, but also keeps her at a distance. She’s a constant reminder of how much Lillian hasn’t accomplished since their school days.

But when Madison offers Lillian a job, she accepts without even knowing what the job is. Enter the “fire twins,” Bessie and Roland. Lillian also enters into a world that includes a posh mansion, with a guest house for her and the twins. A few quirky servants round out life on Madison’s premises.

Lillian knows nothing about raising kids, but she figures she should try to earn their trust first. She lets them eat sugary cereal, reads them mystery novels, and teaches them about her favorite past time, basketball. She does earn their trust, in small increments, and she starts to learn more about them… including how their mom committed suicide in front of them.

All along, the Senator has been blaming their mom (his first wife) for their condition. After all, she was crazy, so the fire thing must come from her side of the family. And Madison is all too willing to send them to boarding school in Europe, where they’d be far away from the perfect family of three that she’s cultivated.

So imagine the confusion and shock when Timothy bursts into flames on live TV. Madison isn’t about to have her child taken from her, or sent off to be studied. So now, she has to rethink her stance on the twins, as well.

This book was both absurd and poignant. A lot of it is about comparing the haves and the have-nots, and how they have different priorities. It’s also about trust, being accepted for who you are, and figuring out what’s important.


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“Killers of the Flower Moon” by David Grann – Review

By: Angie Haddock


In the 1920s, the richest people per capita in the world were members of the Osage Indian Nation in Oklahoma. After oil was discovered beneath their land, the Osage rode in chauffeured automobiles, built mansions, and sent their children to study in Europe.

Then, one by one, they began to be killed off. One Osage woman, Mollie Burkhart, watched as her family was murdered. And it was just the beginning, as more Osage began to die under mysterious circumstances.

A true-life murder mystery about one of the most monstrous crimes in American history.

Goodreads


This one has been on my TBR for a few years now, and it’s becoming a movie next year (Scorsese! DiCaprio!), so I thought it was finally time to tackle it. And boy, I was not disappointed!

The full title is “Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI.”

The story takes place mostly in Oklahoma in the 1920s. The author tells of a single murder first, and then branches outward to several more that happened in the same geographical area. We then step back and look at what’s going on in the area, because there are multiple possible motives at play.

First of all, the Osage tribe was forced onto this patch of land by dealings with the federal government in previous generations. Later, oil was found under the land, making it very valuable. This was also the era of prohibition, and with it, the birth of real organized crime nationwide. How much did racism, oil, money, or general lawlessness have to do with the killings of members of the Osage?

The local lawmen and private eyes who tried to look into individual murders seemed to get nowhere, so eventually some federal lawmen were assigned to uncover the truth. These men worked under J. Edgar Hoover, in what would go on to become the FBI. The head of this crew was Tom White, and he got to pick his underlings. Most of them worked undercover, to try to cozy up to locals – both Indigenous and white – to find out what everyone really knew.

In addition to the obvious killings – people who were shot, for example – there were also a lot of Indigenous who would die from unexplained illnesses, or supposed drunkenness. This lead some to believe that there were additional murders that were carried out by poisoning.

Eventually, the team came up with suspects in at least a few of the murders. Once the drama moved into the courtroom, many witnesses went back and forth on their statements, as they are continuously bribed or threatened. There was no guarantee that the suspects would really end up behind bars.

And even then, the government treated the case like it was successfully closed. But were the same few men responsible for all the killings? How many others could have been involved?

There is a final part of this book, in which the author tries to uncover those last questions. Ultimately – and not surprisingly – it seemed like there were many more people involved than those who were brought to justice.

This is a riveting true story, which I definitely don’t remember learning about in U.S. history classes! The topics at play – race, class, land rights, etc. – are still ones we grapple with today. I would recommend this one to anyone interested in history, social justice, or true crime.


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“The Island of Sea Women” by Lisa See – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Set on the Korean island of Jeju, “The Island of Sea Women” follows Mi-ja and Young-sook, two girls from very different backgrounds, as they begin working in the sea with their village’s all-female diving collective. Over many decades—through the Japanese colonialism of the 1930s and 1940s, World War II, the Korean War, and the era of cellphones and wet suits for the women divers—Mi-ja and Young-sook develop the closest of bonds. Nevertheless, their differences are impossible to ignore: Mi-ja is the daughter of a Japanese collaborator, forever marking her, and Young-sook was born into a long line of haenyeo and will inherit her mother’s position leading the divers. After hundreds of dives and years of friendship, forces outside their control will push their relationship to the breaking point.

Goodreads


I knew absolutely nothing about the island of Jeju – or diving, really – going into this book. But, it seemed like solid historical fiction material – a friendship that survives decades, and all the things that happen during those decades.

We meet Young-sook in 2008, when she is already quite old. The “present day” chapters are fewer and shorter than the various flashback ones, though, and that’s where the real story starts to develop.

Young-sook and Mi-ja meet when they are still children, and Mi-ja is new to the village of Hado. Young-sook’s mother is the chief of her diving collective, but they also have some crops to care for on dry land. Mi-ja originally helps with some of this work, in exchange for some food. As they grow older, they also learn to dive together, and even travel to other countries to make more money.

We learn early on that the women in this village are the true heads of their households – at least, where “making a living” is concerned – and the husbands usually stay home and take care of babies. The roles of men and women are debated often, especially while the women are gossiping before or after a day of diving.

Early on, there are two diving accidents that change Young-sook’s life, and the makeup of their collective. Another young diver, only a few years older than her, has an accident that she never fully recovers from. While the girl lives, she is unable to speak again. Not long after, Young-sook loses her mother. This makes her the family’s primary breadwinner.

In their early twenties, Young-sook and Mi-ja enter into arranged marriages, and start having babies. This is where their lives start to diverge, as Mi-ja moves away to live with her husband’s family in the city.

While there is already a lot of personal drama this far into the story, the worst is yet to come.

Things first start to change on Jeju during the World War II years. They were already under the control of the Japanese, who most of them despised, but after the war they now have to contend with Americans. The division of North and South Korea also affects them, as does internal fighting between the government and rebels who want an independent election.

The story takes some brutal turns that I was not prepared for. The adage that came to my mind is “the personal is political,” as these women’s daily lives are definitely affected by the things going on in Korea and in the world at large. One very climactic event was based on real events that happened in 1948-1949. The government then made it basically illegal for people to talk about what happened for decades afterward! Even when the events were publicly acknowledged, and no longer a secret, many older folks – like those in the fictional Young-sook’s age range – still had trouble talking about it, because they had kept their secrets for so long. This aspect of the story was both fascinating and disturbing.

Near the end of the story, I started putting together one “twist,” if you will. The final chapter confirmed my theory, but also still held two more heartbreaking revelations.

Life on Jeju, especially back in the 1930s, was such a different world to me, that it did take me a few chapters to really get into this one. But I loved the strong female characters from early on, and was intrigued by their way of life. That way of life changed drastically over the decades, but the personal and political dramas within their lives became the bigger story.

If you’re a fan of historical fiction, or want to learn more about cultures much different from American/modern culture, this one might be a good pick. But be forewarned that there are some brutal scenes.


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“Gods of Jade and Shadow” by Silvia Moreno-Garcia – Review

By: Angie Haddock


The Mayan god of death sends a young woman on a harrowing, life-changing journey in this one-of-a-kind fairy tale inspired by Mexican folklore.

Goodreads


This book starts out in the tiny village of Uukumil, in the Yucatán peninsula of Mexico, in the year 1927. Our heroine, Casiopea Tun, is a teenager living in her grandfather’s household, alongside her widowed mother and various members of her extended family.

Casiopea is practically a slave to her grandfather, and is looked down upon by other members of her family. She is darker, with partially indigenous heritage, and her mother came back home poor. Casiopea waits on her cranky old grandfather hand and foot. Her older cousin, Martín, is the rightful heir to the family homestead and reputation – he’s male, after all – and he is constantly mean to her. She dreams of getting out into the world someday, but assumes this will always be just a dream.

One day, while the rest of the family is away, she opens a trunk that has always sat near her grandfather’s bed. Shockingly, the bones inside reassemble themselves into a man – of sorts. He has a commanding presence, but does not look like most men she’s met before. He’s also missing a few parts.

Hun-Kamé, who claims he is the rightful ruler of the Underworld, Xibalba, was imprisoned decades ago in this trunk. He was disassembled by his brother, and left to Casiopea’s grandfather for safe keeping. But now that he’s free, he must travel to other regions to find all his missing parts, then face his brother to reclaim his throne. And Casiopea is going with him.

So, one fun aspect of this book is all the mythology involved. We also have a road trip aspect, which is great for our main character, because she has always wanted to get away. A lot of it is an ode to the landscapes, both within Mexico and along the Mexico-US border, and to the era – women cutting their hair short, riding in an automobile for the first time, etc.

The full description also mentions that it’s a love story, and that had me worried. Our main character is a young-seeming teen, and her travel companion is an immortal god. Of death. So, that seems creepy. But, Hun-Kamé has never had to live like a human before, so inevitably he comes away learning as much from Casiopea as she does from him (or, their travels overall). This aspect makes him a lot less intimidating, to both Casiopea and the reader.

Our big final battle takes shape as a race down the Black Road, the main road in Xibalba that leads to the palace. The usurper brother had chosen Martín as his proxy, and Hun-Kamé has Casiopea as his. This part of the story doesn’t really get started until about 80% in, so the traveling and getting close to the main characters are truly the bulk of the book.

No, I won’t tell you how it ends. But it’s surprisingly emotional.

If you’re into fantasy stories with some real world geography thrown in, this one might be for you.


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“Circe” by Madeline Miller – Review

By: Angie Haddock


In the house of Helios, god of the sun and mightiest of the Titans, a daughter is born. But Circe is a strange child – not powerful, like her father, nor viciously alluring like her mother. Turning to the world of mortals for companionship, she discovers that she does possess power – the power of witchcraft, which can transform rivals into monsters and menace the gods themselves.

Goodreads


I had heard the name Circe before, and a quick Google search reminded me that she was in The Odyssey. I did read that, but in high school, so… it’d been a minute. For anyone who is familiar with that story – Odysseus does play an important role in this story, but his ship does not appear until about half way through this book.

The first half of this one is dedicated to Circe’s childhood and growth into the witch she becomes. She is one of four siblings who all possess the ability to use herbs and spells to change the beings and world around them. She is meek as a child, and is the last of them to discover her abilities.

Her first attempt at spells comes after she falls in love with a mortal, and wants to make him immortal (like her). After he rises to the ranks of the gods, however, he falls in love with a nymph named Scylla. Circe uses some potions on Scylla that turn her into a hideous and ravenous beast. For this, Circe is exiled from the halls of the gods, and sent to live alone on an abandoned island.

She uses her time there to hone her abilities, and experiment with the plants she finds on the island. But she doesn’t remain alone for long, as she occasionally receives visitors – sometimes gods, but more often sailors who are lost or in need of restocking their supplies. (She even gets to leave the island herself, to help her sister in childbirth.)

So, she loosely keeps up with the world around her. Eventually, Odysseus and his men arrive, and they end up staying for a good while. She does take Odysseus as a lover, but he wasn’t the first. What makes her tryst with him different, though, is that she gets pregnant.

Her son is mortal, and Circe has to spend a lot of energy warding off the goddess Athena, who has promised to kill him. Around age 16, though, he wants to venture out into the world and find his father. Circe struggles with the idea that she will not be able to protect him forever – much like we mortal moms do still to this day. She does realize that, even if she can keep him under her wing, she would still have to watch him die from old age someday. So she lets him make his own decisions.

Near the end, with her son gone, Circe decides she has one mission she must complete – stop the monstrous Scylla from killing sailors who pass her cave. Since Circe turned her into the monster she is, she feels guilty for much of Scylla’s destruction. She must blackmail her father into releasing her from her exile, but she is finally able to go into the world for herself to accomplish this task.


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“The Book of Delights” by Ross Gay – Review

By: Angie Haddock


a genre-defying book of essays—some as short as a paragraph; some as long as five pages—that record the small joys that occurred in one year, from birthday to birthday, and that we often overlook in our busy lives. His is a meditation on delight that takes a clear-eyed view of the complexities, even the terrors, in his life, including living in America as a black man; the ecological and psychic violence of our consumer culture; the loss of those he loves.

Goodreads


This is another one off my TBR, and I honestly don’t remember how long it’s been there. But what a great one to be reading around New Year’s Eve! It even prompted my to start my own list – although mine is less eloquent than Ross Gay’s.

The idea is this: Ross set out to keep a chronicle of things that delighted him for one year, starting on his 42nd birthday (in August) and ending on his 43rd. It’s a little like a gratitude journal, but not quite. Also, since he is a poet by trade, his musings are wordy and worded in fun, unique ways. That is to say… reading his words are a delight in and of themselves, regardless of what delight he is talking about in any given chapter.

And the chapters are small, easy to read. Some are really just a paragraph.

His musings often center on plants, and other things found in nature (birds, bees); music; nostalgia and memories; and other people/people watching. And some of those are interconnected – music can bring up memories, often connected to other people, for example.

Many of the musings are really about connectedness, I think. His ones on people often describle how people greet one another, or whether or not he is acknowleged by people in his surrounding area (at the coffee shop, airport, etc.). One delight is about a stewardess calling him “baby!” So, while this is obviously a person who takes his gardening and plants seriously… he’s also very observant of the connections between humans.

A few fun quotes:

“And further, I wonder if this impulse suggests – and this is just a hypothesis, though, I suspect there is enough evidence to make it a theorem – that our delight grows as we share it.”

“It might be that the logics of delight interrupt the logics of capitalism.”

If you’re looking for a sweet little pick-me-up sometime, keep this one in mind.


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“Adult Conversation” by Brandy Ferner – Review

By: Angie Haddock


April is a thoughtful yet sarcastic mother of two who tries her best to be a caring, connected mom in a middle-class culture where motherhood has become relentless. April rages at modern motherhood’s impossible pressures, her husband’s “Dad privilege,” and her kids’ incessant snack requests. She wants to enjoy motherhood, but her idealist vision and lived experience are in constant conflict with one another. Is she broken—or is motherhood?

Goodreads


This book came out in 2020, but I just got around to reading it… familiar story, right?

It starts out as expected – frazzled mom juggling two kids and all the craziness that comes with that (like goldfish crackers and Baby Shark). If you’re a mom who is in that phase now, or can remember it vividly, you will definitely see yourself in many of her daily struggles! I know I laughed out loud at some of the random, everyday stuff she brings up.

But, this story doesn’t just stay in that lane. Oh, no, it gets wild.

April decides to go out of her comfort zone and find a therapist. Just the act of going is a challenge, as it requires her to put on real pants and get someone to watch the kids.

There is a very harrowing scene just over half way through the book that definitely made my heart start racing. This incident brings her closer to her therapist, despite rules of professionalism.

As these women’s lives become more intertwined, things get both scary and fun. (If you know the name Calvin Broadus, and what his “supply” might be… it’s involved. Just sayin’. Cue up your favorite nineties hip-hop while reading.)

April comes to a place where she can appreciate her life. She still needs to work on some things, for sure, but she’s getting there.

I first heard of this book on Facebook, and you can follow the author’s musings there.


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