The Dark Days Club and The Dark Days Pact by Alison Goodman
This YA fantasy trilogy is set in the Regency period in England (think Jane Austen). Lady Helen learns she is a Reclaimer, gifted with the strength and talent to fight Deceivers, people possessed by demonic spirits who feed off the life energy of others. Some of the fantasy elements struck me as just silly, especially when I tried to picture them visually, or say the made-up words aloud, but if you just go with it (an approach necessary for enjoying much fantasy) it pays off. The period language is fun, as is the juxtaposition of proper speech with scary, violent situations. Lady Helen is an admirable heroine, brave and selfless. She spends a significant portion of the second book in men’s clothes. Details like period dress, locations, and history are well-researched and informative. Lord Carlston, who inducts Lady Helen into the Dark Days Club and teaches her to be a Reclaimer, qualifies as a classically inscrutable and intense Byronic hero. Supporting characters, especially Darby, Lady Helen’s stout maid, are well-drawn and interesting. The plots are structured around mysteries that Lay Helen ably solves–at considerable personal cost.
I was particularly impressed by the ending of The Dark Days Pact. Goodman set her climax inside a real historical murder, explained the mystery of Lord Carlston’s illness and his strong connection with Lady Helen–and then revealed a complication that will keep them apart. Goodman is currently working on the third book in the trilogy, which doesn’t yet have a release date.
These are nice children’s books, but I wouldn’t say they’re interesting or complex enough to cross over and satisfy an adult reader. They feature female protagonists and good use of language. But their problems are either melodramatic or mundane, easily solved and not compelling. I’m not their intended reader, but a 10 year old girl might like them.
Esperanza Rising by Katie Munoz Ryan
This book is about a rich girl in Mexico in 1930, who has to move to California and work on a company farm after she loses her father. There is a subplot about strikes and deportations. As a Spanish teacher, I liked the way that Spanish words and phrases are sprinkled throughout.
A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd.
This is a happy story about a girl whose migratory family comes back to its hometown, which she discovers is a magical place. Felicity Pickle makes a friend and they do good deeds and eat magic ice cream. Her talent is for words, and she’s always collecting odd ones, including cute made-up ones like “spindiddly.”
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
This long novel is one of the most rewarding and satisfying I’ve read in a while. It’s a first-person bildungsroman about loneliness, addiction, PTSD, the love of beautiful objects, and the far-reaching consequences of actions good and bad. The story begins with 13-year-old Theo losing his mother in a terrorist attack at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In the immediate aftermath of the explosion, he befriends a dying man and steals a priceless painting. Motherless, he lives with the rich family of a friend, then with his gambling father in Las Vegas, where he meets a charming drug-addicted Ukranian teenager named Boris, one of the most hilarious, lively, and delightful characters I’ve come across in a while. I’d compare Boris to Alex Perchov from Everything Is Illuminated, because of his adorable way of talking, and because of the way both characters are sweetly innocent, yet also over-experienced for their age. Years later, Theo ends up back in New York, dishonestly managing a struggling antiques business, when his art theft, and Boris, catch up with him. The conclusion surprised me with how happy it was, and then it doused that happiness with a profound, layered philosophical meditation that I’m still pondering. As great as the ending is, getting there is its own pleasure. The story is absolutely engrossing. One of the most remarkable aspects of the book may be the consistency in the quality of the prose over 770 pages. There is at least one sentence on every one of those pages that just sparkles, and often several.
You’ll Grow Out of It by Jessi Klein
This memoir is in the same vein as others by Mindy Kaling, Lena Dunham, Tina Fey, and Amy Pohler, though Jessi Klein is not as famous as they are, and she’s somewhat less bombastic than these other comedians. Klein is a writer for comedy shows, most recently and successfully for Inside Amy Schumer, and has been on camera for shows like VH1’s Best Week Ever. But for the most part she seems a little bit more down-to-earth than these other stars, and few of her essays are about show business.
I related to this book so hard. It was like Klein had looked inside my head and seen all my insecurities. Her take on the problem of female beauty–especially what it’s like to long to be effortlessly gorgeous without that natural gift–really hit home for me. She is about eight years older than me–reading this was like a long sleepover with an older cousin whose life has closely mirrored my own, in themes if not in exact events. Klein’s humor is mostly self-deprecation over her own pathetic life. She writes about allowing herself to be treated poorly in relationships, about a nasty breakup, her engagement, wedding dress, fertility problems, aging, and how long it took her to have the courage to make a leap in her career. Her analysis of cultural phenomena like Anthropologie, The Bachelor, porn, and New Age retreat-spas is spot-on and hilarious. She reads the audiobook herself and delivers her writing with irony and sadness. I strongly recommend it to any woman who has ever felt not good enough.
All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven
This YA novel is about a young couple falling in love…and suicide. The male lead and half-time narrator Finch is a manic pixie dream boy–and the key word there is manic–but he’s very endearing and romantic. He partners with Violet for a gimmick of a class project that forces them to explore unusual places in their state, Indiana. There’s some real talk about grief, and some real family dysfunction that isn’t quite overcome. It has an ending that is both surprising and expected, that’s sad without being entirely bleak and depressing. The love story is sweet and hard and perplexing, one that doesn’t have to last forever for the survivor to emerge wiser and stronger. As romantic as the story is, it thoroughly avoids romanticizing suicide.
I read a couple short books that are parodies of parenting advice books. Often these books are given to parents as gag gifts.
Sh*tty Mom: The Parenting Guide for the Rest of Us by Laurie Kilmartin, Karen Moline, Alicia Ybarbo, and Mary Ann Zoellner
I felt ambivalent about this one. It’s mostly a lot of rants about people who make parenting harder, especially “perfect” moms who make the rest of us look bad and feel guilty and inadequate. There are step-by-step instructions are about how to slack or get away with slacking. And their definition of slacking is my definition of normal. There were a few essays that rubbed me the wrong way, but most were witty and truthful.
How to Traumatize Your Children: 7 Proven Methods to Help You Screw Up Your Kids Deliberately and With Skill
I preferred this book to Sh*tty Mom because it was actually reassuring in a weird way. It provides illustrated step-by-step instructions for ruining a kid’s childhood in several different ways. Chapter titles include “It’s All About You: Parent as Narcissist” and “Validation Is For Parking: Parent as Self-Esteen Killer.” Reading it made me feel better about the small mistakes I’m making as a parent–at least I’m not calling my boys names or literally neglecting them. There are moments in parenting when that perspective is helpful. The tone makes the joke clear: you, reader, are a good parent laughing at truly terrible people who damage their children.The illustrations provide extra humor.
The Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand in the Sun and Be Your Own Person by Shonda Rhimes
This memoir by a TV goddess is empowering and just as funny as I expected it to be. I really enjoy Shonda Rhimes’s TV writing: Scandal, Gray’s Anatomy, and How to Get Away with Murder are addictive and brilliantly plotted. I recognized some of the sentence-level pacing and style from her shows; it works just as well in this format. The gimmick of the book is that in the year 2014 Rhimes made a resolution to say yes to things that scared her. The end result was that she moved from hiding in the writers’ room to taking the spotlight herself, and feeling more comfortable there. She made several intimidating TV appearances and a few public speeches, including her Dartmouth commencement speech. Her stories about working motherhood and the mommy wars. losing weight without self-hate, learning to accept compliments, and taking time to play were perfectly expressed, and just what I needed to hear.