February 2023 Book Club: The Book of Night

Cover art for Book of Night by Holly Black.

I should probably start by saying that one of the reasons this book was so much fun to read is that the setting of the story takes place around the towns I grew up in. When Holly Black mentioned different college campuses or iconic local places, I’ve been there. It is my opinion that this lead me to enjoy the book more because I shared a lot of the feelings around the different settings with the characters. For better or worse.

Now that that’s out of the way, Book of Night was an interesting take on what would happen if a select few discovered they had the ability to manipulate the world using magic. True, the idea that magic comes with a price is not a new one, the idea that you have to feed your shadow in order to do it is one I hadn’t come across yet. Much like the limitations to magic in the world of the Wheel of Time, there are physical limitations and risks to using magic. Use too much and you won’t be able to use any more. There is also a pecking order created by how strong you are, which seems to make sense in any world that uses this rule of thumb.

There’s also something to be said about a good anti-hero (queue Taylor Swift’s song? No?). Charlie Hall is not the worst person in the room, but she’s not the best one either. Due to her upbringing, she was forced to manipulate those around her in order to survive and it’s clear that the habit has stuck with her even when her original teacher left the picture. Things are always going wrong for Charlie, but a lot of her challenges are self-created. While you want to root for her, there are also moments where your gut reaction as a reader is along the lines of “I mean, you did sort of do that to yourself. You didn’t have to do what you just did”.

Did I like the book enough to be excited about the sequel coming out in the next year or so? I’m not sure. The ending of the book left a lot of room to expand the story as well as enough ends tied up that I could stop here. Do I need to read about the struggle that Charlie will face with her new shadow and trying to get him to remember who she is or can I imagine a possible happily ever after? Holly Black isn’t afraid to make her characters uncomfortable, so even if they do live happily ever after there’s probably going to be a lot of discomfort before they get there. This might be why I enjoy a good Holly Black tale, no one is ever given the ability to be perfectly happy. There are always compromises that need to be made in order to reach the end goal, something that is very relatable.

Cover art for Cinder by Marissa Meyer.

I’ve been putting off reading Cinder by Marissa Meyer since it initially came out and I think I’m in the headspace after Book of Night to take on a fairytale retelling. At the very least, it will be a fun read while I wait for my hold on the 8th book of the Wheel of Time series. As this is my third attempt to get through the series since I read book 1 in high school, I will say this confirms that the timing of a book is really everything. So many people have called the middle books a slog and here I am, enjoying the slow world-building. It also probably helps that I’m not able to read book after book due to everyone wanting to read them now that Amazon has turned the first book into a TV series.

Humans and androids crowd the raucous streets of New Beijing. A deadly plague ravages the population. From space, a ruthless Lunar people watch, waiting to make their move. No one knows that Earth’s fate hinges on one girl. . . . Cinder, a gifted mechanic, is a cyborg.

She’s a second-class citizen with a mysterious past, reviled by her stepmother and blamed for her stepsister’s illness. But when her life becomes intertwined with the handsome Prince Kai’s, she suddenly finds herself at the center of an intergalactic struggle, and a forbidden attraction. Caught between duty and freedom, loyalty and betrayal, she must uncover secrets about her past in order to protect her world’s future.

January 2023 Book Club: The Christie Affair

Cover art for The Christie Affair.

And then there were none by Agatha Christie was one of the first adult books I read. In fact, the memory of finding at my Grandmother’s church book sale is burned into my mind. I was in fourth grade and was getting tired of reading Nancy Drew books. The other women at her church spent hours sorting books into categories so that I could spend minutes pouring over the mystery section, reading the text on the back for any title that caught my eye. In the end, I walked away with three books, And then there were none, Roses are red and Violets are blue.

To this day, And then there were none remains one of my favorite novels, one I reach for again and again. I’m also in love with the recent mini-series adaptation even though it significantly changes the ending. Having read and enjoyed other Agatha Christie books, it wasn’t a huge leap for me to be curious about a fictional book discussing what happened when Agatha Christie went missing.

Let’s start with the fact that Agatha Christie did in fact go missing in 1926 for 12 days. Police searched for her for 3 days after finding her car abandoned with two wheels hanging over the edge of a chalk pit and eventually expanded the search after finding themselves unsatisfied with the results (The New York Times did an excellent summary of the time period). True, she wasn’t as well known as she is now, but for 12 days there wasn’t a reliable witness and to this day no one knows what really happened during the 12 day period. It’s a mystery novel in and of itself.

Using Christie’s Husband’s Mistress as a narrator, The Christie Affair aims to tell a fictional story about what happened during those 12 days and I think it does an amazing job. True, there are elements of the story that are almost too convenient (like who the mother of the child is), but the convenience doesn’t go so far as to take you out of the story.

I enjoyed reading about love, both a mother’s and a lover’s. I enjoyed the portrayal of Agatha as someone who was willing to commit to and keep a secret. This was a fun read and a fantastic way to kick off 2023. This wasn’t a book with levels of hidden depth, but it was one that made you think about how someone’s history affects their present.

Next month, we’ll read Book of night by Holly Black. I’m particularly excited about this one because it’s Black’s first adult novel (I read a lot of her books growing up) and because it takes place in an area that I grew up in and around.

Cover art for Book of Night by Holly Black.

In Charlie Hall’s world, shadows can be altered, for entertainment and cosmetic preferences—but also to increase power and influence. You can alter someone’s feelings—and memories—but manipulating shadows has a cost, with the potential to take hours or days from your life. Your shadow holds all the parts of you that you want to keep hidden—a second self, standing just to your left, walking behind you into lit rooms. And sometimes, it has a life of its own.

Charlie is a low-level con artist, working as a bartender while trying to distance herself from the powerful and dangerous underground world of shadow trading. She gets by doing odd jobs for her patrons and the naive new money in her town at the edge of the Berkshires. But when a terrible figure from her past returns, Charlie’s present life is thrown into chaos, and her future seems at best, unclear—and at worst, non-existent. Determined to survive, Charlie throws herself into a maelstrom of secrets and murder, setting her against a cast of doppelgängers, mercurial billionaires, shadow thieves, and her own sister—all desperate to control the magic of the shadows.

December 2022 Book Club: The Chosen and the Beautiful

The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo had a whimsical description, but it really should have just called itself a retelling of the Great Gatsby from a different perspective. Rereading the description, I’m actually frustrated by the ways that I was let down by it.

Let’s start with the element of magic. In the description, Jordan is said to be able to work magic by using paper. In fact, the description makes it seem that Jordan needs to learn the magic in order to save her life or something of that grandure. When executed, it seemed randomly placed throughout the story. Something that she could do, not something that held any weight to the plot or who she is as a person.

That being said, I like that Jordan recognized that she didn’t like hanging out with people who were “like her” because she was no longer an exotic creature. This was the first true insight into the fact that she enjoyed being treated as such, other than a few other moments where she made a point of telling the reader that she was different (usually when her Aunt and Aunt’s older friends were chatting or when someone asked if she was “one of those girls”) race didn’t seem to matter. I’m not sure what “doors” I was expecting to be closed to her, but it did seem that Jordan could float through society unencumbered.

Although, perhaps that was the point. Perhaps, as we saw with her relationship with Nick, there were things that she wanted but couldn’t have and had developed an external persona to cope with those needs. There are moments, for example, where we are given glimpses of her attraction to women and an understanding that the other women saw it as more of a game than she did. Despite those glimpses and her love for Daisy (as noted in the final chapters), you don’t really get a sense that she wants to be in a relationship with any of those women. Is this another limitation based upon society? Considering the book was written in the first person I feel as though the lack of internal dialog is a missed opportunity. I would like like to sit in what it was like to be Asian and Queer in the 1920s a little bit more.

Another thread I would have liked pursued was the moment when Jordan realizes that she may have been taken from her parents. What must that do to a person? It seemed like a big revelation and Jordan didn’t really dwell on it for very long.

All in all, I enjoyed The Chosen and the Beautiful, I just wanted more depth to it. I feel as though I’ve been given the opportunity to know Jordan at a very surface level. Was this the point? If so, why utilize the first-person narrator?

After reading my fill of Nancy Drew, one of the first mystery authors I reached for was Agatha Christie. I still remember picking up And Then There Were None from my Grandmother’s church book sale (I still have the same copy on my bookshelf, over two decades later). It shouldn’t have spoken to me, the cover literally has nothing other than the title and a noose on it. And yet, that was enough for me to pick it up and read the back cover. Since then, I’ve enjoyed many of her other novels and a few of the film adaptations. For January, let’s dive into what happened during her 11 day disappearance with The Christie Affair by Nina de Gramont (fiction).

Cover art for the Christie Affair by Nina de Gramont.

In 1925, Miss Nan O’Dea infiltrated the wealthy, rarefied world of author Agatha Christie and her husband, Archie. In every way, she became a part of their life––first, both Christies. Then, just Archie. Soon, Nan became Archie’s mistress, luring him away from his devoted wife, desperate to marry him. Nan’s plot didn’t begin the day she met Archie and Agatha.

It began decades before, in Ireland, when Nan was a young girl. She and the man she loved were a star-crossed couple who were destined to be together––until the Great War, a pandemic, and shameful secrets tore them apart. Then acts of unspeakable cruelty kept them separated.

What drives someone to murder? What will someone do in the name of love? What kind of crime can someone never forgive? Nina de Gramont’s brilliant, unforgettable novel explores these questions and more.

November 2022 Book Club: Such a Fun Age

Cover art for Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid.

I feel the need to start this review by discussing the title. Is the fun age that Briar is a toddler? That Emira is navigating her 20s? That Alix is looking back to her high school years without much fondness? Or that she’s navigating life as a working mom of two in her 30s? Or is the point of the title that you can find struggle no matter what your age is? Since such a fun age is often said with a hint of sarcasm, I’m leaning towards the last one.

It was interesting to be launched into the story via conflict (Emira being accused of kidnapping Briar) because it set the tone very early on (we all knew that video was going to be released). It started a very interesting dialog around race in the very beginning a) Emira being worried she was going to be fired for the incident and b) the Chamberlains being wary of coming across as racist and causing Emira to quit. To me, it really demonstrated how little each knew of the other and how they didn’t really have much of a relationship despite Alix wanting Emira to be seen as family.

A lot of focus is actually put on Alix’s high school experience coming to light when Kelley starts dating Emira. Apparently, in high school, Alix sent a note to Kelley with information about how to enter their house and it fell into the wrong hands. When Robbie and some other kids showed up to crash Alix and Kelley’s intimate evening, she called the cops on them causing Robbie to get arrested and lose his scholarship. This led to Alix losing any social standing she had and Kelley suddenly gaining it as well as the two breaking up.

Real talk: I felt like too much emphasis is placed on Alix calling the cops and Robbie losing his scholarship. This may be an unpopular opinion, but why is it Alix (then Alex)’s fault that he had coke in his pocket and that he chose to break into her house to take advantage of her parents not being home? Don’t get me wrong, Alix was a bit crazy for other reasons, but I sort of agreed with her that the driveway was long enough that they could see the cops coming. Where I disagreed was that she should have tried to ask them to leave first and that Kelley didn’t step up and do the same.

In the end, it seemed like a competition between Alix and Kelley to see who could be more “woke”. Alix trying to save Emira and Kelley insisting that Emira post the video he recorded (there are other moments too, but this one is ultimately why the two started to get to know each other). Neither person seemed truly supportive of Emira and I found that sad. Though she was still figuring out what she wanted to do in life, Emira is a strong thoughtful woman who pays attention to those around her. There were so many moments in this book where I found myself internally screaming “Emira you deserve better!” and then cheering when she walked out post-interview.

I went into this book a little skeptical but walked out thinking that it was really well done and wondering what Reid’s next novel will be like.

It’s hard to believe that our final book club of 2022 is just about here. For our December club, we’ll be reading: The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo. This is another book recommendation via Goodreads, specifically, their most popular new fantasy list. Let’s see if we align with popular opinion!

Cover art for the Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo.

Immigrant. Socialite. Magician.

Jordan Baker grows up in the most rarefied circles of 1920s American society—she has money, education, a killer golf handicap, and invitations to some of the most exclusive parties of the Jazz Age. She’s also queer, Asian, adopted, and treated as an exotic attraction by her peers, while the most important doors remain closed to her.

But the world is full of wonders: infernal pacts and dazzling illusions, lost ghosts and elemental mysteries. In all paper is fire, and Jordan can burn the cut paper heart out of a man. She just has to learn how.

Nghi Vo’s debut novel The Chosen and the Beautiful reinvents this classic of the American canon as a coming-of-age story full of magic, mystery, and glittering excess, and introduces a major new literary voice. 

October 2022 Book Club: The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea

Cover art for the Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea by Axie Oh.

If I had to describe this book to someone, the first way that comes to mind is that it’s very similar to Spirited Away. Within the first few pages, you’re whisked (on with the aid of a dragon) into the spirit world where friends and danger lie around every corner.

One theater technique that is relied upon heavily in this book is the use of masks to convey that someone is keeping a secret. Mina’s three closest companions in the story all wear masks to hide their identity, something that actually comes across very subtly because you sort of assume that all spirits wear a mask for a while (or was that just me?). It brought tears to my eyes to learn that they were wearing masks to hide the fact that they were Mina’s ancestors and weren’t allowed to interfere.

I also enjoyed the twist that the Sea God wasn’t really the Sea God, this prevented the story from being completely predictable (which wouldn’t have been a bad thing either because the story was enjoyable). My only real question, having finished the book, was why did people remember Mina but not remember who the Sea god and the Prince were?

It was also interesting to participate in the characters’ debate on the duties and responsibilities of Gods and Humans. Do the gods deserve payment for their services? Why isn’t prayer enough? This debate was excellently punctuated by the goddess of moon and memory becoming the goddess of women.

I wish the book’s pacing was a little different, parts seemed rushed and it would have been nice to spend a little bit more time in the world that Oh created.

Next month, we’re stealing a book from Reese’s recommendations: Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid. While I feel a little bit as though this book can go either way, Reese’s recs tend to be books I enjoy.

Cover art for Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid.

Alix Chamberlain is a woman who gets what she wants and has made a living, with her confidence-driven brand, showing other women how to do the same. So she is shocked when her babysitter, Emira Tucker, is confronted while watching the Chamberlains’ toddler one night, walking the aisles of their local high-end supermarket. The store’s security guard, seeing a young black woman out late with a white child, accuses Emira of kidnapping two-year-old Briar. A small crowd gathers, a bystander films everything, and Emira is furious and humiliated. Alix resolves to make things right.

But Emira herself is aimless, broke, and wary of Alix’s desire to help. At twenty-five, she is about to lose her health insurance and has no idea what to do with her life. When the video of Emira unearths someone from Alix’s past, both women find themselves on a crash course that will upend everything they think they know about themselves, and each other.

With empathy and piercing social commentary, Such a Fun Age explores the stickiness of transactional relationships, what it means to make someone family, and the complicated reality of being a grown-up. It is a searing debut for our times.