It’s time to confess that I have a problem. I request entirely too many titles on NetGalley. Between taking classes, writing, and working, I really don’t have time to be reading for pleasure, but what can I say? I’m a glutton for punishment.
Thanks to the generosity of several publishers and authors, I’ve been exposed to some truly amazing reads lately. I post my reviews on Goodreads, Amazon, and my review site Read Yourself to Sleep, but I rarely share my thoughts on books here. Today, I’d like to change that! Here’s a list of the ten most recent 4- and 5-star reads I’ve experienced thanks to NetGalley!
10. The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra (5 stars)
Since stumbling across B.J. Novak’s One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories last year, I’ve become increasingly more interested in collections of short fiction. As a novelist, I’m fascinated with the depth and gravity short fiction writers are able to convey in such a small space. I’ve only ever written a handful of short pieces that I wouldn’t be embarrassed to share with the world, so I stand in mythic awe of those who are able to pull the form off over and over again.
This collection captured my attention first with the title, and second with the fabulous cover. I’m sure you agree that both are quite beautiful in their own right. But believe me, the title and the cover don’t even begin to convey the magnificence of the words found within. Anthony Marra’s stories, while able to stand on their own, weave a continuous tale guaranteed to simultaneously disappoint and uplift. The first half, labelled “Side A,” is heartbreaking, and “Side B,” while not exactly light-hearted, will leave you filled with hope for the future.
These stories hinge on the rise, duration, and fall of the Soviet Union. With the popularity of dystopian literature ever on the rise, it’s more important than ever that stories like these be written, read, and dwelt upon. These stories are fictional, yes, but these horrific things really did happen to more people than you or I could count. People really were jailed for no reason. They were imprisoned in concentration camps, worked to the bone, starved, tortured, raped, killed, buried in mass graves, and erased from public record. Neither Big Brother nor the Capitol were the instigators of these atrocities. No, they were perpetrated by real flesh and blood people, just like you and me, who made the choice to disregard the sanctity of human life. It’s important for us to think of these things not just as the thrilling stuff of fiction, but as horrific echoes of the past. We must strive to prevent them from happening again.
Anthony Marra’s writing style is flawless and heartrending. I found it humorous that one of his characters wanted to be a professional aphorist, for I believe that is truly what Mr. Marra is himself. With lines like “To look closely at a face is to open yourself to the possibility of mercy” and “We constantly became people we would later regret having been” and “Her generation had journeyed through hell so we could grow up in purgatory,” it’s clear he has a gift for breathtaking, mind-bending prose. I’m looking forward to reading his novel, as well as any future works.
Recommended for: Everyone. Seriously, this is one of those pieces everyone should read. I’d say this is rated R for violence, disturbing situations, language, and talk of sex, so don’t hand it over to your sixth grader, but…yeah. Everyone should read this. What are you waiting for? Go now.
9. In Another Life by Julie Christine Johnson (4 Stars)
I have to be honest, I snagged this book mostly because of the cover. It’s lovely, isn’t it? That, coupled with a quick scan of the synopsis including the words “historian” and “ancient murder” and “rural France” had me scrambling for the request button.
It sat in my queue for longer than I anticipated, since work on This Dread Road and the two courses I’m taking have pretty much obliterated my free time, but I finally got around to it last week.
Oh. My. Goodness.
Most books are either commercial (meaning they’ll be popular and sell well) or literary (meaning they’ll be discussed in literature classes). This book is both. It has everything people love from time-traveling romances, which are somewhat en vogue, but at the same time prose and subject matter is poignant and elevated. I was entranced within the first few pages, and my interest only grew from there. I am shocked and amazed that this is a debut novel!
Ms. Johnson’s research into medieval French history is evident, but this is not one of those books with a list of prerequisite reading. She manages to present a ton of information in a way that does not feel like a history textbook (although as a historian, I would have been fine with that). I came away from the story interested in learning more about the Cathars, and yearning for more. I hope there’s a sequel!
The reason for a four star rating rather than five: I ended the book still rather confused about what exactly had transpired, vis-à-vis the wandering souls. Were they time travelers? Were they truly reincarnated, as in born as children, or were they given new fully formed bodies? Why are there two Raouls? Are there portals to the past anyone can pass through? Even without really understanding the machinations of all this, though, I came away feeling satisfied and yearning for more.
Recommended for: fans of historical fantasy, time-travel, and romances that don’t necessarily have HFN/HEA endings.
8. Walker Texas Wife (The Book Cellar Mysteries #1) by Melissa Storm and K.M. Hodge (5 Stars)
I don’t usually read mysteries or thrillers–in fact, I could probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve finished a book in either genre over the past ten years. But I’ve long admired K.M. Hodge for her social media presence and her involvement in online writing communities, so I was delighted to get the opportunity to sample her work.
I’m not sure what I was expecting, but Walker Texas Wife still managed to exceed my expectations. It’s like Southern Gossip Girl for grown-ups, which is something I need in my life now that I’ve finished watching that show. The complex characters are wrapped in mystery from the get-go, and the story move along at just the right pace, starting off at a jog and ending in an adrenaline-pumping sprint. As soon as I finished reading the last paragraph, I wished the next book in the series was available.
I would definitely recommend this book to any avid readers of the genre, or for women like me who normally don’t read thrillers. I think you’ll like this one.
7. The Sea Keeper’s Daughters (Carolina Heirlooms #3) by Lisa Wingate (5 Stars)
This is a great read, although I will say it took a while for the narrative to snag my interests. I didn’t realize this was the third in a series or considered Christian fiction until my reading was well underway. For that I am grateful, because had I know either fact beforehand, it’s doubtful I would have picked it up. (I have nothing against those with faith and am myself a Christian, but Christian fiction as a genre has left a bad taste in my mouth thanks to some less-than-thrilling encounters I had in high school.)
Over the course of the novel, Whitney Monroe transforms from a myopic, self-centered woman hellbent on living outside the bounds of love and forgiveness to a caring, compassionate woman who thinks of others before herself. I include this in my review only to encourage current readers who are put off by our protagonist’s initial behavior, which is not very becoming. I enjoyed the contemporary story, but I must say that the historic narrative woven throughout TSKD was much more interesting, and during my reading I almost wished the novel had been written more about that story instead. However, looking back, I understood why Whitney had to be the one to tell the tale.
Ms. Wingate’s descriptions are really quite beautiful, and her prose is almost poetic at points. It is clear she is a seasoned writer who is confident in her abilities. I am definitely interested into finding out more about her work and reading some of the other works in her Carolina Heirlooms series.
The negative bits are both small and few. In places, the dialogue seemed a little wooden and unrealistic, and there was one historical inaccuracy that made me grit my teeth–there were only 48 states in the 1930s, not 50. That might not seem like a big deal, but it did pull me out of the story and, for a while, at least, question the accuracies of the other historical elements I was not as familiar with.
Overall, though, this book was well worth the time. Beautiful, important message with characters who almost jump off the page with the realness. If you, like me, usually shirk the genre and are looking for a quality read, look no further.
6. Firsts by Laurie Elizabeth Flynn (3.5-4 Stars)
I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book. Going by the description alone, I honestly would have written it off, but the other reviews made it seem so compelling, I thought I would try it out.
First off, despite the subject matter, this is not a graphic book. Mercedes, the main character, does have sex several times during the course of the story, but those scenes do not really go into detail about what is happening physically. The discussions about sex are a little vulgar at times, but it’s realistic. I would say this is appropriate for someone sixteen or older, if you’re worried about your high schooler reading it.
I loved that this book humanizes people who make choices that most people would be inclined to judge. What Mercedes does–have sex with other people’s boyfriends–is appalling, and nothing changes that. But when you get farther into the story, you begin to understand why she’s so drawn to the idea. As much as she says its for other girls, so they will have a better first time than she did, it’s really for herself. She’s chasing after a phantom first time that she will never be able to get back. Mercedes is a victim of every single person who matters in her life, in some way or another, and she’s trying to hide from the reality of that and the help she needs with the one thing she knows will make her feel better.
Ms. Flynn did an excellent job of conveying the point that while we shouldn’t exert judgment on a person’s soul based on their sexual activity, there is a definite right and wrong way to use sex. I don’t think that we’re ever supposed to think Mercedes is doing the right thing. Honestly, for most of the book, I just pitied her. I also appreciated the respectful tones aimed toward Mercedes’ best friend Angela, who is saving herself for marriage. Abstinence, especially when imposed for religious reasons, is rarely regarded as a legitimate choice in secular YA lit, so I was impressed by that.
The 1.5 stars deducted here are mainly because I grew so sick of everyone in this book blaming someone else for their own wrongdoings. Obviously, as in Mercedes’ case, that assertion can be true to a point. But the bad things that happened to her in the past didn’t force her to start her campaign with the virgins. The bad things that happened to Kim in the past didn’t force her to be a negligent mother. There comes a point where you are responsible for the choices you make, and while I think Mercedes comes to understand that at the end, the process from the reader’s perspective was laborious.
5. The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend by Katarina Bivald (3.5-4 Stars)
I love a delicious, long, almost sentence-like title, so The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend definitely caught my eye. Who are these readers, what is Broken Wheel, and what exactly do they recommend? I wanted to know. After reading the story description, I was sold.
TROBWR has everything you would expect from a book about small-town life–gossip, sex, intrigue, and teensy tiny dose of lawbreaking. Having said that, though, the book is relatively clean, if that’s something that matters to you. There’s little cursing and no explicit or graphic content. While there is an overarching plot, the story is pieced together with little episodic anecdotes reminiscent of To Kill A Mockingbird that made my Southern Lit loving heart happy as can be.
Ms. Rivald’s true strength is her character development. Each and every character has a story and a fully formed personality. They’re all equal parts lovable and infuriating, and they each have their own fatal flaw. Sara tries to save them through books while they all try to save her from books. It’s all very entertaining.
Now for the critical bits. The translation from Swedish to English could have been better. There were several times where the wording felt off, and while it made linguistic sense, it didn’t feel authentic–I wouldn’t expect a bunch of people from a backwoods town like Broken Wheel to say “mad” rather than “crazy,” for example.
With all that being said, I did enjoy reading TROBWR and would definitely recommend this to anyone who enjoys tales of love, small town living, and of course, books!
4. Esther by Rebecca Kanner (5 Stars)
I approached reading this book with both caution and delight. Fictionalization of Biblical accounts often make me wary–I worry about the author having one agenda or another. But the story of Esther is one of my favorites in the Old Testament, and really in the Bible as a whole, so I was willing to give this a shot. I was glad that I did. Kanner’s prose is absolutely beautiful. The tone was similar to that used in the Biblical narrative, and there are very few (if any) distracting linguistic anachronisms, which is one of my pet peeves in historical fiction. I came to both loathe and care for her characterization of Xerxes, and I was saddened when I reached the end. Something else I appreciated was how Ms. Kanner pointed out where she took artistic license and deviated from the historical/Biblical accounts. I definitely recommend this book, and I look forward to future works from this author.
3. The Trouble with Destiny by Lauren Morrill (5 Stars)
I picked this book up because of the cover and not much else, and I’m really glad I did. I really connected with Liza almost immediately–choir nerds and band geeks have a lot in common, after all. While at times the writing felt amateurish and I felt the manuscript could have gone through one more round of editing, ultimately I loved it. Reading it made me happy and the ending put a smile on my face!
2. The Insanity of Murder (Dr. Dody McCleland #4) by Felicity Young (5 Stars)
This was a great read! I didn’t realize until after I requested the title that it was fourth in a series, so I wasn’t sure I would be able to follow, but the author did a great job of making it accessible to readers who didn’t have the information from the previous three books. It was entertaining, and I almost immediately cared about Dody, Pike, and Florence.
Even though I have a degree in history, I don’t know much about this period of British history, so reading this book was an almost educational experience. I was prompted to look up and research some of the elements mentioned in the story about the treatment of women and the insane. I was hoping these elements were fabricated or exaggerated, but sadly they were not. It’s always a good thing to be reminded about how far we have come as a society, but it’s hard to imagine such horrors being propagated just a little over a hundred years ago in a “civilized” country.
I’m definitely putting the other Dody McCleland books on my To-Read list and hope to see more titles released by this author soon. I would definitely recommend this series for anyone who enjoys historical fiction or mystery.
1. Ophelia’s Muse by Rita Cameron (5 Stars)
When I read this in October, I’d been burned out on everything literature related. I suppose that’s what happens when you write and release two books in less than a year and a half. I’d been forcing myself to read, of course, because I feel it is important, but it had become more of a chore than a leisurely activity.
Ophelia’s Muse helped me remember why I love reading. For the first time in almost a year, I found myself staying up late to read and experiencing serious withdrawal when I had to put the book aside to attend to adult responsibilities.
Rita Cameron’s prose is heartbreakingly beautiful and draws the reader in almost immediately. She takes artistic license with the details of the characters’ lives, but does so in a delicate, responsible way. I was surprised to learn this was a debut novel and hope to see a new title by Cameron out soon!