“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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“The Lesbiana’s Guide to Catholic School” by Sonora Reyes – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Seventeen-year-old Yamilet Flores prefers drawing attention for her killer eyeliner, not for being the new kid at a mostly white, very rich, Catholic school. But at least here no one knows she’s gay, and Yami intends to keep it that way. After being outed by her crush and ex-best friend, she could use the fresh start.

Goodreads


This book has a lot going on, and it starts going in ways I didn’t expect at only about a third of the way into it! Per the author’s own note, though, there are trigger warnings for racism, homophobia, and suicidal ideation.

Our main character is Yamilet, who lives with her mom and her younger brother, Cesar. Her dad, who she was very close to, was deported to Mexico when she was ten years old.

When we meet them, Yami and Cesar are about to start a new school year at a new school. Obviously, this always comes with some nervousness… but moreso for Yami, who is gay but not out. In addition to that, she feels like she is poorer than most kids at the private school, and she’s one of very few non-white kids there. Her initial goal is to just stay out of trouble, but that doesn’t last long.

On her first day, she has a class with Bo, an Asian girl who is out and pretty bold about it. This confuses Yamilet, because on one hand she wants to befriend Bo and learn more about her… but on the other, can she do that without outing herself?

So, this brings up an interesting aspect of the book. In so many ways, it’s easier for people of all ages to be “out” now than in previous decades, but that doesn’t mean it’s equally easy for everyone. Of course, the religious nature of her new school is a deterrent, as is the fact that her mom is religious and makes gay jokes. With their dad already deported, Yami and Cesar also have a healthy fear of police or authorities of an “official” variety. There are a lot of reasons these kids want to protect the various identities that they see as being different from their classmates.

I don’t want to give away too much, but a lot happens during the course of the school year. Yamilet definitely gets closer to Bo, and learns that, even though she is more confident about her sexuality, she has her own struggles with her ethnic heritage. She also, unexpectedly, makes a friend of a popular jock who starts the year with a crush on her. She learns some unexpected things about her brother, clashes with a parent, and of course ends up becoming more confident in who she is.

This was such a good book. While I don’t share all of the heroine’s identities, I did switch from public to Catholic school – and that alone was intimidating! Yami and Cesar have so many other issues on their plates, and I really sympathized with them.

This YA novel comes out today, May 17th, from Harper Collins. I was able to read an advanced copy through Books Forward, and through Netgalley.

According to The Trevor Project, LGBTQ youth are more than four times as likely to attempt suicide than their peers. If you are struggling and need to talk to someone, their site has resources for you. If you are in Nashville, please see the Oasis Center for local support.


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“Flappers and Philosophers” by F. Scott Fitzgerald – Review

By: Angie Haddock


By the Irish American Jazz Age novelist and short story writer regarded as one of the greatest American writers of the twentieth century. Flappers and Philosophers (1920) was his first collection of short stories.

Goodreads


F. Scott Fitzgerald is known now for his great novels – notably, “The Great Gatsby,” “This Side of Paradise,” or “The Beautiful and the Damned” – but in his own time, he was known largely for writing short stories. These were often published in weekly or monthly newspapers and magazines, but some were also compiled into books after they’d been published.

Such is the case with this tome, “Flappers and Philosophers,” which was first published in 1920. The individual stories would have all been written some time before that date – and it shows.

Some of the language here is downright cringe-worthy for people reading today, especially when he’s referring to people of color, foreigners, and women. But, as they say, it was a different time.

The other factor here that made me roll my eyes is that almost every story starred a girl of nineteen years, who was wise beyond her years and beautiful with one quirky factor – maybe gray or violet eyes, for example. That set-up got old fast.

But, if you can get past the biases of the time, the stories are all pretty good. There are eight in total, and most of them have a twist near the end. Fitzgerald’s writing is beautiful and poetic in places, which serves as a reminder of why his works are still read at all.

To give you an idea of what’s included, the stories here are titled: The Offshore Pirate, The Ice Palace, Head and Shoulders, The Cut-Glass Bowl, Bernice Bobs Her Hair, Benediction, Dalyrimple Goes Wrong, and The Four Fists.

Some topics are classics of Fitzgerald’s writing, like the differences in ideas between people who have money and who don’t. He also pits other ideologies against each other, such as those of Northerners an Southerners. One character falls into a life of crime. Religion, war, and how flappers wear their hair are concerns of other characters. In one of my favorites, a husband gives up his writing career to better take care of his wife… only to see her start a writing career while staying home, and eventually make more than he does.

A book of eight short stories is easy to get through, but do go in knowing that these are over 100 years old.


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“True Crime Story” by Joseph Knox – Review

By: Angie Haddock


In the early hours of Saturday 17 December 2011, Zoe Nolan, a nineteen-year-old Manchester University student, walked out of a party taking place in the shared accommodation where she had been living for three months.

Seven years after her disappearance, struggling writer Evelyn Mitchell finds herself drawn into the mystery. Through interviews with Zoe’s closest friends and family, she begins piecing together what really happened in 2011.

Goodreads


If you’re a fan of true crime shows or podcasts, this one’s for you! But a note up front: this book is completely fictional. It just mimics true crime as a genre. Misleading, I know.

But, the format works. The story is told entirely through interviews and emails, with a few (also fake) “editor’s notes” along the way. It makes it fast and easy to read.

Overall, I liked the story here. We’re given a lot of random details, and a lot of twisted characters. Which details are actually important to the case? Which characters had enough of a motive to make someone disappear? And is Zoe dead, or just hiding out somewhere?

One core group of characters are her school mates. Zoe lived in a university flat with several other girls, including her twin sister, Kim. Kim has always lived in Zoe’s shadow, and resents being stuck with her at college. Other flatmates include Alex, who is battling depression, using drugs, and possibly juggling two boyfriends. And Liu Wai, who is kind of a suck up who thinks Zoe is perfect.

Zoe also has a boyfriend, Andrew, who comes from a rich family. They barely get along. His roommate, Jai, is a photographer and a drug dealer who is hard up for money.

There are various other characters introduced – parents, police, professors, etc. – but I think you can already see that everyone has kind of a messy life, which leaves no one’s motives and whereabouts totally “clear cut.”

There are also several mysteries within the bigger one of Zoe’s disappearance. One that comes up in a few different ways relates to the fact that people can sometimes mistake her for Kim, and vice versa. Kim comes out with a confession, years later, that she had been kidnapped a month before Zoe’s disappearance. So, had those kidnappers been after Zoe the whole time? Are the events linked?

If you like a good mystery with lots of tangled storylines, this one could be right up your alley.

I was able to read this book for free through the Sourcebooks Early Reads program.


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“Elatsoe” by Darcie Little Badger – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Imagine an America very similar to our own… (but) this America has been shaped dramatically by the magic, monsters, knowledge, and legends of its peoples, those Indigenous and those not. Some of these forces are charmingly everyday, like the ability to make an orb of light appear or travel across the world through rings of fungi. But other forces are less charming and should never see the light of day.

Elatsoe lives in this slightly stranger America. She can raise the ghosts of dead animals, a skill passed down through generations of her Lipan Apache family. Her beloved cousin has just been murdered in a town that wants no prying eyes. But she is going to do more than pry.

Goodreads


Our main character here is Ellie – real name Elatsoe – a seventeen year old living in Texas. Her best friends are Jay – human, male – and her dog, Kirby. Except Kirby died when Ellie was twelve, and he has been a ghost for the past five years.

The action starts after Ellie’s cousin Trevor dies in a car accident. He lives in a different part of the big state, and it’ll take a whole day of car travel for Ellie and her dad to get there… but Trevor appears to Ellie overnight and tells her that he was murdered, and she needs to protect his wife and baby. He even gives her the name of his murderer!

While supernatural occurrences are common in Ellie’s world, they don’t hold up well in court without proof. So, Ellie needs to find out what really happened the night of Trevor’s death. While she is traveling with her dad, Jay finds all he can online about the supposed murderer – a local doctor with a sterling reputation.

Ghosts aren’t the only beings in this story that we would consider supernatural. Jay’s future brother-in-law, Al, is a vampire, for example. Jay’s family is descended from fairies, and those with fae blood can still travel through fairy rings – although the rings are regulated by the government. (In fact, Jay and his sister travel to Ellie’s location – Willowbee – several times to help her!)

These kids’ lives are also permeated by legends of their ancestors. They talk of their abilities and heroic deeds often and openly, giving their ancestry an important part in their everyday lives.

The story is different for the world it creates, and for the fact that “whodunnit” isn’t the mystery. I found the whole book fascinating and fast-paced. I don’t want to give away too much of the ending, but there is definitely a big “final battle” that includes vampires, revelations, and one casualty that hit me right in the gut.


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“The Department of Rare Books and Special Collections” by Eva Jurczyk – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Liesl Weiss has been (mostly) happy working in the rare books department of a large university, managing details and working behind the scenes to make the head of the department look good. But when her boss has a stroke and she’s left to run things, she discovers that the library’s most prized manuscript is missing.

Goodreads


I picked this one just because it’s a book about books – and what book-lover wouldn’t enjoy one of those once in a while?

Specifically, this one takes place in a library of ancient and rare books and manuscripts, housed on the campus of a university. The library has its own bevy of big donors, which makes it important to the university at large.

So when Liesl Weiss has to take over for her ailing boss, she doesn’t mind the real work. In fact, she loves looking at upcoming events and catalogs to see what rare items she could collect for the library. But dealing with donors – boozing, schmoozing, and stroking big egos – is not quite her thing.

She had been on sabbatical, writing her own book, when the head of the library fell ill. So, she wasn’t actually there when the newest addition had arrived, and she hasn’t seen it yet herself. The donors who paid for it are eager to view it, but Liesl can’t find it. The boss does have a safe, which she doesn’t have the combination for, so originally she assumes it’s just in there. She is in charge of the place for a good week or so before she starts to realize it’s actually missing.

And so sets the stage for the mystery here. At various points in the book, suspicion is thrown on each of her other long-time coworkers at the library: Francis, an older James Bond type who’s now a semi-bitter grandfather; Max, a former priest who was outed as gay and is the library’s expert on religious texts; and mousy Miriam, who mostly keeps to herself.

I hadn’t read a mystery in a while, and I really enjoyed this one. As with most, I feel like the pace really picks up in the final third or so – as I got closer to finding out who did it, I couldn’t help but keep turning pages. (I will say, though, without giving it away – that the perpetrator was exactly who I thought it’d be from the beginning!)

The copy I read had a little conversation with the author at the end, and she mentioned that one of her reasons for writing this book is because there are so few middle-aged women protagonists. Liesl is around 60, has worked at the library for decades, and is used to playing second banana. Her daughter is college-aged, and her husband has struggled in the past with depression. So she’s lived some life, if you will. But, as this is her first time dealing with anything of this magnitude, she often wrestles with how much she should go along with what the university president thinks, or how much she should stand up for her own opinions. I think a lot of women will find that relatable.

I was able to read this one for free through Sourcebooks Early Reads.


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“Memphis” by Tara Stringfellow – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Unfolding over seventy years through a chorus of voices, Memphis weaves back and forth in time to show how the past and future are forever intertwined. It is only when Joan comes to see herself as a continuation of a long matrilineal tradition–and the women in her family as her guides to healing–that she understands that her life does not have to be defined by vengeance.

Goodreads


TW: Physical abuse and rape of a child.

This story follows one family through three generations. We first meet Hazel in the 1930s, when she is a teenager in Memphis. Later, she has two daughters, Miriam and August. Miriam also has two daughters, Joan and Mya. The story ends in the early 2000s, when Joan is about to graduate from high school.

The story alternates between the perspectives of Hazel, Miriam, August, and Joan. It is not told chronologically. There are other characters, of course – including Hazel’s husband Myron, Miriam’s husband Jax, and August’s son Derek. The house these women leave in – which Myron built – is almost a character of its own. And the neighborhood is filled with other strong characters, mostly women.

These characters live through many trying times, both in their personal lives and on a bigger scale. We see them continue lives at home while their husbands are off at war, participate in the Civil Rights Movement and react to the assassination of Dr. King, and have a personal connection to the events of September 11th.

As mentioned at top, some of the personal events they have to overcome could be upsetting to some readers. I think this was the hardest part of the book, for me. I was rooting for these characters, but also mad at some of the things that happened.

I expect to see this book on a lot of lists – it’s ripe for being an Oprah pick. (Full disclosure, I read it in the fall of 2021, so this is totally a guess from me.) The multi-generational, non-linear storytelling alone lends it a certain epic quality. And the situations discussed – even the ones I did not enjoy – are certainly real for some people. I think it’s a bit of a hard read, but maybe that’s exactly the point.

This book comes out today, April 5, 2022. I was able to read an advanced copy through NetGalley and the publisher, Random House Publishing Group.


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“Survive the Dome” by Kosoko Jackson – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Jamal Lawson just wanted to be a part of something. As an aspiring journalist, he packs up his camera and heads to Baltimore to document a rally protesting police brutality after another Black man is murdered.

But before it even really begins, the city implements a new safety protocol…the Dome. The Dome surrounds the city, forcing those within to subscribe to a total militarized shutdown. No one can get in, and no one can get out.

Goodreads


I was drawn to this book on NetGalley because it had a great-looking cover and title – and who doesn’t love some dystopian YA?

This one doesn’t take place in some far-off future, however. It takes place in today’s America, with much of our own history and current problems – but with one new invention that we don’t have (yet?): The Dome.

Our main character is Jamal, a gay black teen in Annapolis. He drives to Baltimore, where there are some BLM protests going on. The governor of Maryland has been wanting to test the new Dome invention, and the protests offer the perfect opportunity. Now, Jamal is trapped inside. Not only can the citizens not get in or out, but neither can any electronic information – cell calls and texts, emails, etc.

In addition to the Dome, there is one other new technology that the government/police unveil during their Dome experiment: the police have powerful suits of armor that are all linked. The officers wearing the suits are basically super-soldiers. The only caveat is that the suits are pretty bulky, which makes them a little sluggish.

Jamal falls in with Marco, a wannabe hacker with contacts in Nemesis (analogous to the real world’s Anonymous). Marco is a pretty good hacker himself, with high ideals of changing the world, but he hasn’t been accepted into Nemesis because of his criminal record.

They also team up with Catherine, who is just a little older than them. She just got out of basic training, so her military background is useful. At first, she is cagey about herself – how does anyone know who they can trust in this situation? – but eventually we learn that Catherine is fighting to find her parents, who have been taken by the government.

The action here is non-stop, which makes this book move fast. Each chapter picks up right where the last stops, with virtually no down time. The entire story takes place over just a couple days.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book, but I will say that Jamal seems too idealistic at times. He often puts himself in harm’s way to save anyone he comes across, including random people he sees on the streets. He’s precious, but almost too precocious to be a survivor in this harsh environment.

The views on police and government in the story are BLEAK. I’m not even saying they’re out of place, mind you, but they obviously come from a very frustrated place. We see leaders as the villains in most dystopian stories, though – think “The Hunger Games” – so it is really only striking in that these leaders are supposed to represent the ones we have in our present times.

This was a fast-paced read that has a lot of social commentary about the times we live in. It comes out today, March 29th, and I was able to read it ahead of time through NetGalley.


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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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“Campfire Confessions” by Kristine Ochu – Review

By: Angie Haddock


Annie, Sondra, and Jo were the best of childhood friends—but they haven’t seen each other in far too long. To the outside world, their lives are perfect. But appearances can be deceiving…

Goodreads


The story idea here is that three women reconnect on a canoeing trip. They were childhood friends, but two of them have moved away from the small Midwestern town where they grew up. All three are facing big life problems – depression, divorce, overwhelm, recovery from addiction, a sexless marriage, etc.

The first third of the book introduces us to the characters – Annie, Jo, and Sondra – and all the aforementioned issues (and then some). In 100 pages or so, we see multiple sex scenes (plus one with a vibrator), an overdose, and an attempt at blackmail. This all seemed a little too “soap opera-y” for my personal tastes, but I realized that it was just set-up.

The next section of the book has Jo and Sondra returning to their hometown to see Annie. They reconnect with family and old friends, and hatch a plot with Annie’s four sons.

Eventually, they get out onto the river, with two canoes, a tent, and some basic provisions. This part is where the action really picked up. But it also got to be a little too much at times. All three women end up hurt and/or sick before this excursion is out, and many of their encounters were dramatic.

There’s an interesting dichotomy here, in that the book kind of honors multiple spiritualities. For example, Annie is a preacher’s wife, and so the Christian perspective is represented. But Jo’s husband’s family – who live in the area, and interact with our characters a few times – are Indigenous. Especially out in nature, the women talk a lot of spirit animals and the like, so this perspective is also prevalent.

While I enjoyed that the book included multiple perspectives like this, all of them seemed a little too “in your face” at times. For example, when Annie falls and breaks her arm, she passes out and sees Jesus. They have a conversation, and she writes a song about it – while unconscious – that she remembers and sings after she wakes up. I’m not saying that it couldn’t happen, but it was a little over the top for my personal tastes.

This was a decent book – I didn’t love it, but didn’t dislike it, either. And it moved at a good pace, especially in the final two-thirds.

This book comes out today, March 8th, 2022. I was given an advanced copy from the author through the Books Forward program.


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