So here it is – the overview of what I read in March. I have to say, I’m pretty pleased with myself for posting this so punctually – don’t count on it happening regularly! Anyway, here’s a short overview of the 13 books I read this month:
Wolkenschloss by Kerstin Gier (4.5/5 Stars) (This book has not been translated into English yet, but the title refers to the name of the hotel which the story takes place at)
I didn’t know I’d ever be fantasizing about living in a hotel, but after reading this book, I have to say that it sounds like a pretty cool option. Wolkenschloss follows the story of Fanny Funke, a seventeen-year-old who decided to quit school in order to work as an intern at a hotel in the Swiss Alps. I found Fanny to be an extremely likeable and relatable main character and all the other characters were interesting and fleshed out as well. Even Don, the spoiled and bratty millionaire’s child who terrorizes Fanny with all his pranks really grew on me by the end. The writing is typical for what I’ve come to expect from Kerstin Gier: fun, a bit quirky, but also rich in details that give this book an amazing atmospheric quality – seriously, I want to stay at this hotel! I was immersed in the plot – while you may not see immediately where this book will lead you, it is a fun ride all the way and has everything from the struggles of a hotel maid, annoying rich clients, a bit of romance, an undercover Russian couple, a diamond, and a possibly real kidnapper thrown in. This is probably my favorite of Kerstin Gier’s young adult books so far. While the Ruby Red trilogy will always hold a nostalgic place in my heart, the story arc in this book is much better paced and the ending less (if still a little) cheesy.
Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance (3.5/5 Stars)
This is the interesting and insightful biography of J.D. Vance, who grew up in a “hillbilly family” in Kentucky and Ohio and later became a successful lawyer. J.D.’s childhood was characterized by a fierce and protective family, but also a struggling one. J.D.’s mother constantly changed from one husband to boyfriend to husband to another and struggled with alcoholism. Shouting matches and fights in the house had become normal. Like many people growing up in the area, J.D. felt a certain hopelessness – he would never be able to escape, so he might as well not try. However, with the help of his grandmother, J.D. finally manages to pull himself together enough to finish school. He decides to join the Marines, and afterwards, he knows he has the discipline to finish college. He works hard, and eventually he gets accepted to Yale, where he pursues his goal of becoming a lawyer. This book gives a really interesting perspective on what it’s like to be part of the blue-collar working class in Appalachia. It explains how a once influential area can turn into one of the poorest regions in the US today. It explains how growing up there can give you a hopeless outlook on life, but still make you intensely (and maybe too) loyal to your family and devotedly religious. It gives an unflinching look at some of the problems of today’s “hillbillies”, while also showing the upside of the culture. It gives me a bit of a better understanding why so many people would ever have voted for Trump. That being said, though, it does take a while to fully get into the book. I did feel like the beginning dragged and dumped a lot of facts on the reader, so it took me about 100 pages to really get invested. Also, at some points, it felt like J.D. was looking down the blue-collar working class. A lot of the points he made were valid – however, I don’t think that everyone has the means to work up the ladder like he did. He blames his people for not working hard enough, but in some case, I think people might have gone through so much that they just aren’t able to. In addition, I think it’s perfectly possible to work hard at a blue-collar job and lead a satisfactory life – however, the author made it sound a bit as if you had to leave that class behind entirely in order to have made it. Also, all the “The US is the best country in the world and is responsible for policing everyone else” attitude kind of rubbed me the wrong way. I guess this is just something non-Americans don’t get. And, of course, Germany has a very bad history with thinking it was the best country in the world, so that might also have something to do with my dislike of this attitude. Nonetheless, this book is definitely a very insightful read and helps explain a lot of the underlying currents in today’s society.
Obsidio (The Illuminae Files #3) by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff (4/5 Stars)
As the finale to the Illuminae Files, this was one of my most anticipated books of the year. And for the most part, it didn’t disappoint. There was more awesome space action, my favorite murderous artificial intelligence was back, and again, I was amazed how much a book told solely through a bunch of files can make me care for the characters. Speaking of characters, Obsidio introduces some new ones while also bringing back old favorites. It turns out that several people on Kerenza actually survived BeiTech’s original attack: among them Kady’s cousin Asha. However, the colony is still under BeiTech’s control and Asha is certain that BeiTech will slaughter what’s left of them once they have repaired their damaged jump gate that will enable them to leave the planet. Asha, of course, is unwilling to let this happen and has joined an undercover resistance group on Kerenza. And when her ex-boyfriend Rhys shows up as part of the enemy’s army, the resistance decides there’s no one better than Asha to try to get him on their side. Meanwhile Kady, Ezra, Hanna, Nik, and Ella (and sometimes AIDAN) are onboard the spacecraft Mao, where hundreds of refugees are wondering if and how they will ever survive. Obsidio jumps back and forth between the two storylines, masterfully connecting them in the end. However, while Obsidio does have a lot of action, space-nerd-satisfying drama, a bit of romance, and cool plot twists, I don’t think it is on par with Illuminae and Gemina, the first two books in the series. I found this one slightly less mind-blowing (a lot of the twists, I’d already seen in the first two books) and I also think that it suffered from something common in many finales: not enough character death. Don’t get me wrong: a lot of people died here, but not enough important people did, which made the whole war scenario seem a lot more unrealistic and did not give me that bittersweet feeling that I love at the end of a good finale. Also, I felt as if all the switching back and forth between the Mao and Kerenza meant that I didn’t get as attached to Asha and Rhys as I did to the other main characters, who got an entire book to themselves. So, while I did think that this was a good book, it sadly wasn’t as good as the previous two 😉
City of the Beasts (Eagle and Jaguar #1) by Isabel Allende (2/5 Stars) (original Spanish title: La ciudad de las bestias)
I honestly don’t know what it was about this book. It was set in the Amazon, had a cool, if crazy, grandmother, and just a tad of magic. The main character Alex accompanies his grandmother Kate, who writes for the National Geographic, on an expedition to track down rumors about a bigfoot-like beast that lives in the rainforest and there is plenty of intrigue along the way. It seems like this book would be right up my alley, but for some reason, I just could not get into it and was bored for almost the entire time I read it. I think part of the reason was that the characters felt a little flat, and this, I think, stemmed from the writing. There was a lot of talking about how the characters felt, but little actual showing from which one could deduce their emotions. However, while we were inside the character’s heads, the writing also didn’t mirror their voice. This isn’t as bad as it would be if the book were written in first person (it was written in third), but it still caused a huge disconnect to the characters for me. In some parts of the story, we were following things from Nadia’s perspective (Alex’s friend who grew up in the Amazon), but her thoughts and the writing sounded exactly the same as Alex’s. Also, there was hardly any dialogue in the story; instead, if important spoken information had to be conveyed, it was included in the narrative: “Then WWW said that XXX, and YYY responded that ZZZ.” This slowed the pacing tremendously and I can’t say that I was a fan. In addition, we didn’t see as much character growth as I would have liked from a book marketed as YA. While Alex did change as a character, we did not really get to see his inner struggles as he dealt with these issues: they were explained, yes, but they were told, not shown. This read more like a (mediocre) middle-grade novel with a main character who does not reflect that much about himself but simply takes some of the character changes he goes through for granted. All in all, I was not a fan. Maybe part of it is due to me reading this now (I can imagine really having loved this in elementary school) and maybe part of it is due to the translation. Still, I have to say that I didn’t really like it.
The Shadow of the Wind (The Cemetery of Forgotten Books #1) by Carlos Ruiz Zafón (4.5/5 Stars) (original Spanish title: La sombra del viento)
This book really makes me wish I were fluent in Spanish, because if the writing is already this good in translation, it must be absolutely stunning in the original. Set in the period after the Spanish Civil War, this is the story of Daniel Sempere. Daniel’s father owns a bookshop and on Daniel’s eleventh birthday, he takes him to the secret Library of Forgotten Books, telling him he may pick out any book to take home with him. Daniel picks The Shadow of the Wind by Julián Carax and immediately falls in love. However, he soon finds out that it is almost impossible to obtain one of Carax’s books anymore. Someone has been breaking into bookstores across Spain and France and destroying all copies that they can find. As Daniel grows older, he becomes more and more obsessed with this mystery and is determined to find out everything that he can about Carax’s mysterious past. The Shadow of the Wind (the real one – I can’t speak for the fictional book) has wonderful writing that vividly paints Barcelona at the time and has a wonderful cast of characters. It combines Daniel and Julián’s stories in a beautiful way, dealing with mystery, love, romance, and betrayal. While I do think the ending was perhaps a tad “too perfect”, I loved this book and would recommend it to anyone who loves reading and a bit of mystery.
Many Voices, Many Cultures: Multicultural British Short Stories (4/5 Stars)
This is an anthology of several short stories by various authors from multiple cultural backgrounds. It starts with a brief introduction about the history of immigration in Britain and an overview of British authors actively writing from a multicultural perspective. While I did already know most of this (English minor, remember?), I did think it was very informative and a good summary for someone not as well versed in the topic. The collection then includes twelve different short stories, all by different authors and from different cultural backgrounds, and to my surprise, I actually enjoyed all of them, except “Samahadrarow and the Partial Exchange” by Matthew Singh-Toor, which wasn’t bad, but just so weird that I felt it was trying too hard to be literary and left me more confused than anything else. My favorite story by far was “Batik” by Romesh Gunesekera. The main character, Nalini, fled her home country to marry her husband, whose people are at war with hers, and the story is basically about the development of their marriage. I don’t know why this story in particular hit me so hard, but I loved it. It was real, sad, heartbreaking, and hopeful all at the same time and one of the best short stories I have read in a long time. I really enjoyed the rest of the anthology, too, but since I’d be here forever if I went into detail about every story, I’m just going to leave it at that. However, if you like short stories, I can definitely recommend this anthology. It’s eye-opening to some of the struggles minority groups have to go through, and just includes some really good literature. However, to those interested, here’s a list of all the stories (and one poem) in the collection: “Ballad of the Little Black Boy” by David Dabydeen, “Obeah in the Grove” by Sam Selvon, “Let them Call it Jazz” by Jean Rhys, “Batik” by Romesh Gunesekera, “The Visit” by Merle Collins, “Two Kinda Truth” by Farrukh Dhondy, “My Son the Fanatic” by Hanif Kureishi, “Oh Buddha” by Jan Shinebourne, “Samahadrarow and the Partial Exchange” by Matthew Singh-Toor, “A Neo-Northerner” by Julia O’Faolain, and “Bedbugs” by Clive Sinclair.
Life, the Universe and Everything (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy #3) by Douglas Adams (2/5 Stars)
Soooo – after over a month, I finally finished this and I have to say what I already knew reading the first two books but wouldn’t fully admit to myself: This series is not for me and I probably won’t be picking up the rest any time soon (or ever). While I do think that this has a lot of fun ideas and there is a scene every now and then that gets me to think, the overall ridiculousness of the plot, which entirely gets rid of all notions of cause-and-effect, is just not for me. After three books of this, I no longer find it amusing, so I ended up extremely bored while reading it. Although I must say, this book may have more plot than the first two volumes. We have an angry planet whose sole mission is to exterminate the rest of the universe and an army of lethal robots. There is a kind of showdown at the end. Still, this didn’t grip me. I’m very sorry to all the people who have been badgering me to read this, but it’s just not my kind of humor…
Autoboyography by Christina Lauren (4.5/5 Stars)
I really, really loved this book and was immersed in the story from page one. It follows Tanner, who moved from California to Provo, Utah, three years before. Tanner is bisexual, but ever since he has moved to Provo, he is back in the closet, as the town is highly influenced by Mormon ideals. However, when Tanner’s friend Autumn badgers Tanner into taking Provo High’s Seminar, a course in which students have to write a book in the course of a semester, Tanner meets Sebastian, who sold his own book the previous year and is now helping out as teaching assistant. Tanner knows he’s a goner as soon as he meets Sebastian and he can’t help to fall for him more and more the longer he spends time with him. He knows he will never find anyone like Sebastian, and he is sure he wants them to be together. Sebastian, however, has grown up in the Mormon community, and being Mormon is a huge part of who he is. Being with Tanner would go against what his religion teaches and is something his family would never accept. This book is a wonderful love story that made me feel the full spectrum of emotions. I laughed, I teared up a bit, I gushed, and, at some points, I was so embarrassed on account of fictional characters that I had to put the book down for a second until I could continue. The book has extremely fleshed out characters, wonderful family dynamics, one of the best portrayals of a girl-boy friendship I have read in a long time, and it introduced me to so many aspects of the Mormon religion that I had no clue about. I think it handled the topic of homophobia within the Latter Day Saints’ community extremely well, without bashing the religion or giving way to stereotypes. It was a great contemporary novel and my only complaint is that I would have liked a bit more focus on the Seminar (and the actual writing workshop) and Tanner and Autumn’s friendship. While this was part of the book, it sometimes felt like it was pushed aside a little in favor of the romance, so I would have liked to see a bit more.
The Trials of Morrigan Crow (Nevermoor #1) by Jessica Townsend (3/5 Stars)
This book has been hyped up to no end – everyone who has read it seems to love it, it has been compared to Harry Potter and Percy Jackson, called completely original and breathtaking, the next big middle-grade thing out there… I’ll have to admit, I fail to understand why. After all the hype, the book turned out to be a bit of a letdown. Not that it was bad, by any means – it was a fairly decent read. I just didn’t think it was amazing, either. The premise actually very interesting. Morrigan Crow is a cursed child: everything that goes wrong in her town is blamed on her and she has always known that she will die on Eventide, the last day of the age. However, just before she is supposed to die, she is whisked away to the Free State of Nevermoor by Jupiter North, an eccentric hotel owner and member of the prestigious Wundrous Society. Jupiter takes Morrigan on as his candidate for the nine new members of the Wundrous Society that will be selected that year through a series of trials. The only problem is that members of the Wundrous Society are supposed to have a special talent and Morrigan, apart from her curse, is perfectly ordinary. I have to admit, there were certain things I really liked about this book. For example, Morrigan was an extremely likeable main character, as were her friends, especially Hawthorne, Jack, Fen, and Cadence. The setting was fun and rich in nice details – I especially loved Jupiter’s hotel and all the magical aspects it had. However, I found the plot less convincing. All the trials Morrigan won, she won through luck. She never had to act for herself, study, think of clever solutions or DO anything. Someone always came to save the day (or she was never really in danger), so Morrigan came off as one of the least active characters I have ever come across. Also, many of the scenes in the book felt as if they were thrown in just for the sake of introducing a cool magical element but were otherwise extremely disconnected to the rest of the plot, which made me question why they were there in the first place and led to my being bored, as I kept waiting for something relevant to happen. Also, nobody ever told Morrigan anything, just for the sake of plot convenience. This is something that I find extremely annoying, and, in this case, I was doubly annoyed because Morrigan made no real effort to find out the things people weren’t telling her. In addition, there are two major plot twists/reveals in this book – however, I guessed these about a fourth of the way in, which added to my boredom, as characters spent forever thinking about what seemed obvious to me. Since this is a middle-grade book, I think it’s okay that these things might seem a bit more obvious to an adult. However, the plot should not be so dependent on these reveals that the story seems boring if you’ve already guessed them. So, overall, I thought this was a pretty average middle-grade book. It was okay, but definitely not amazing. And, it’s definitely nothing like Harry Potter or Percy Jackson. If you do need to compare it to something, I’d say the feel of it is a bit similar to The School for Good and Evil. But that also doesn’t describe it well.
Unwind (Unwind #1) by Neal Shusterman (4/5 Stars)
I’ve got to hand it to Neal Shusterman: he’s a pro at examining the moral and ethical dilemmas behind dystopian futures in a way that really gets me thinking. This follow a post-war world in which pro-choice and pro-life activists came to a compromise by allowing parents to unwind their children between the ages 13 to 18: this means that the children will be split up into their various organs, which will then be donated to other people so that no part of a person technically dies. Unwind follows the story of three such teenagers: Connor, a troubled child whose parents no longer want him around, Risa, a ward of the State selected for unwinding due to cutting costs, and Lev, a boy who has been prepared for unwinding as a religious tithe all his life. By chance, the three teenagers’ paths cross and they are able to escape. What follows is a thought-provoking and action-packed story with wonderfully fleshed out characters that I can definitely recommend to dystopian fans out there. However, my one complaint about this is that I was not completely convinced by how normal the process of unwinding has become. While I did think that many of the characters’ backstories sounded realistic, there were other stories, such as Connor’s, that did not convince me completely. I just find it hard to believe that any normal, caring parent would ever decide to unwind their child and I would have needed harsher political regulations to convince me, such as a one-child-policy or laws punishing the entire family for a child’s wrongdoing. Also, while I do think that the compromise of unwinding might have been accepted to end the war, I don’t think either pro-choice or pro-life activists would actually be convinced in the long run, so I fail to see why it held up without people protesting against it. However, aside from that “reality” issue (and also the extremely high expectations I had due to Scythe), this was an excellent book. And who knows – maybe some of my questions will be answered in the rest of the series.
The City of Brass (The Daevabad Trilogy #1) by S. A. Chakraborty (5/5 Stars)
This is an excellent political fantasy novel following the perspectives of two characters. Nahri is a healer in 18th-century Cairo who does not shy away from thieving or scamming customers in order to survive. One day, she accidentally calls the attention of an ifrit, an evil spirit and enemy of the djinn, and meets Dara, a djinn warrior belonging to the daeva tribe. With Dara’s help, Nahri finds out more and more about her family history – a history that forces her to flee for her life and has made her more than one political enemy. The story’s second main character is Ali, the youngest prince of the djinn kingdom. Deeply religious and devoted to his family, Ali can’t help but notice how the shafit, djinn with human blood, are treated in his city. When an attempt to help the shafit causes more trouble than Ali could have foreseen, he is drawn more and more into a centuries-old conflict between the different djinn tribes and the djinn and shafit. And Nahri and Dara’s arrival in Daevabad, the capital of the djinn, only adds more fuel to the fire… This book has everything I would ask for in a good fantasy novel: a rich, detailed setting that is enhanced by beautiful writing (and, in this case, inspired by Egyptian, middle Eastern and Asian culture and mythology, which was really refreshing). Vibrant and flawed characters with interesting back stories and character development. Action, friendship, romance, a fleshed-out history, and lots and lots of politics. This book read like a richly woven tapestry and I have so many theories as to coming twists that I seriously need the next book.
The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin (5/5 Stars)
I absolutely adored this book. It has everything I ever could have wished for and if The Penderwicks at Last weren’t coming out later this year, I’d have bet that this would become my favorite book of 2018. It’s surprising how much this story grew on me – when I first started reading, it didn’t actually seem like anything that special. But oh boy – at about 50 pages in, I could no longer put it down. The novel follows A.J. Fikry, a cranky and slightly eccentric bookstore owner on the small island town of Alice, and all the people who are important in his life. A.J.’s wife died about two years prior to the begin of the novel while driving an author to the ferry, and ever since he has become more and more withdrawn and snobbish in his taste in books. However, when a rare edition of one of Edgar Allan Poe’s books gets stolen and a baby gets left behind in A.J.’s store, his life takes an unsuspected turn. It is a story about books, fiction, family, and love and has some of the most endearing characters I have ever read about. The writing was beautiful – simplistic but also poetic – and I thought it was an instance of third person present done extremely well. Each chapter is followed by a short note of A.J.’s on one of his favorite short stories (I’m going to have to get my hands on the ones I haven’t read yet…) and is itself structured like a short story, following the perspective of one of the characters in A.J.’s life. However, the chapters also form a seamless narrative to portray the story of A.J.’s life and the effect the bookstore has on its community. This book is a blend between family story, mystery, romance, literary fiction and who knows what else. I loved it.
The Weight of Feathers by Anna-Marie McLemore (4/5 Stars)
A magical-realism novel with extremely poetic writing, this book follows the story of Lace Paloma and Cluck Corveau, two teenagers from rivaling performing families. The Palomas enchant crowds with their water shows, in which the woman are dressed as mermaids. The Corveaus don wings and flit about the trees, mesmerizing their audience. However, for 20 years, the Palomas and Corveaus have been bitter enemies and each are sure that so much as touching one of the other will curse them. However, when a disaster strikes the town the performers are staying at and Cluck saves Lace’s life, the teenagers start to question what their families have been telling them about the other. This was a beautifully written story about hatred and prejudice set against an almost magical background of performers and a wonderful hate-to-love relationship. Although the book was rather slow at first, I soon got into it and really enjoyed the Spanish, French, and Romani language snippets. My one complaint is that I would have liked a bit more resolution at the end of the novel, but I can’t deny that this was wonderfully whimsical and beautifully written.