The Ten Thousand Doors of January: Book Review

The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow

“I hope you will find the cracks in the world and wedge them wider, so the light of other suns shines through; I hope you will keep the world unruly, messy, full of strange magics; I hope you will run through every open Door and tell stories when you return.”

The Ten Thousand Doors of January has been on my TBR list since it’s release, another example of a beautiful cover captivating my attention. When I saw that the author lived in Kentucky I was even more intrigued.

This novel is fantasy, historical fiction, it follows the upbringing of January Scholar, the semi-adopted foundling by a rich, archeological hobbyist who loves to collect unique items. Her birth father travels the world for his daughter’s benefactor seeking out those unique items.

January struggles to conform to her caretaker’s standards, partially because she is brown-skinned in a white dominated Jim Crow society. She envisions a world of borders and order and boredom until one day she writes open a door and her world is forever changed.

Aside from some painfully obvious naming conventions, I really enjoyed this story. It is truly an escapist’s dream world, and a love letter to the power of words.

The main character is flawed but likable. She simultaneously faces the reality of her privilege while struggling with injustice.

Spoiler below, but only a little bit:

There is a dog and he does NOT die. Too many good books are ruined by killing off the only spark of good in them. The days of killing Ol’ Yeller are over. The dogs can live and the story still have emotional resonance.

Spoiler over.

The writing is poetic, sometimes meta, and rich in descriptive power.

I highly recommend this book to lovers of escapist novels and fantasy settings (not high fantasy).

4/5 Stars

Warning: An Uncited, Rambling Rant

“We don’t need books/libraries, everything is on the Internet.” -a dude who has no idea what he is talking about.

Let’s talk about Google (which some ill-informed people believe to be the Internet) and information as a commodity.

First, it helps to understand how Google, as a search engine works. Google is a business, driven by profit just like Walmart, Amazon, Apple, etc. They exist to make money. How do they make money? By directing users of their service to sponsors and advertisements.

Google, as a business in America, has every right to make money off their users. I like Google, I like Amazon. However, it is completely naïve to believe that Google will subvert their ability to turn a profit to place the best interests of their users above money. They have employees who need to be paid and shareholders who demand a return on their investments.

Now, on to how Google works. Google is not the Internet. The Internet is far, far more expansive than Google. Google indexes websites by using spiders to crawl the Internet and find web pages to add to that index (an estimated 60 trillion web pages exist). Google then searches its own index and shows those results to the user.

How does Google decide what to show you on its result list? Google has an algorithm, a system based on specific factors to evaluate a web page before it shows you the link. Those factors include your geographic region, what people in that region are searching, keywords on the page, and web page “quality.” Over 200 partially unknown factors affect its current algorithm.

While Google typically can satisfy a casual search, far too often it can also suppress or promote insufficient resources based on those algorithm factors. Due to its secretive nature there is also an inability to understand how potential conflicts of interest might be affecting their algorithm.

Let’s move on to that whole idea of information being a commodity.

Google accepts sponsors and advertisements and blends those webpages in with their search results because they make money when their users click on those links. That information, contained in those sponsored links, those advertised links, is not free, it’s not democratic, it’s the capitalist funneling of information onto your screen. It’s another example of how money can influence our daily thoughts and our understanding of the world around us.

Again, this is not necessarily a bad thing. It is definitely a reason to not blindly trust Google and not teach our children and students to blindly trust Google (oh, just google it) or any other search engine.

So, if Google isn’t the God of information delivery, what do we do? Throw out the whole computer?

Learning how to interact with information itself is the solution to how we find our information.

Understanding information as something that is worth money. And that those who can get that information into consumer hands are paid to do so.

Now, libraries and librarians are not immune to the concept of conflicting interests. Libraries employ workers who need a paycheck to survive, the same as Google employees (granted the library employees make far, far, far less). Library workers may have their own conflicts of interest, their own implicit biases that affect the quality of the information they lead patrons to. Libraries may have the potential to censor the information going on their shelves and provided through their online presence.

However, most libraries are funded in some way, shape, or form by tax dollars, at the local, state, and even federal level. The presence of tax dollars in any institution has a standardizing effect on the services and quality of service provided. Unlike Google, most libraries do not make a profit. In fact, many libraries are moving to eliminate late fines and may only charge for lost item replacement. In short, Google has made many a rich man, libraries have never made librarians rich, nor should they.

Is everything really on the Internet, even if Google where to have the entire Internet in their index? No, of course not. Books are still being published, magazines, journals, and newspapers are still being published, many without digital editions. And a great percentage of online content is certainly not free and requires subscriptions, very, very expensive subscriptions to access.

Libraries, through tax dollars (and in academic libraries, institutional budgets) have buying power to purchase access to digital content individuals could never afford or justify to buy on their own. Libraries negotiate contracts with publications and companies so their patrons can access this content under the libraries’ subscription. This can be a particular boon for accessing academic content, the price of academic and scholarly journals having spiked in recent years.

(A note on open access scholarly content: open access is a fantastic initiative that is gaining traction, particularly thanks to libraries, you’re welcome, but it is still lacking in many subjects and many authorities.)

Independent bookstores have recently gotten a boost in the public view, especially locally where the opening of new bookstores is generally seen a good thing, and it is, they should be supported. How can we applaud the independent bookstore and continually denigrate the library? How can we claim to love authors and stories and simultaneously claim the library has no value and the books on their shelves are useless? How can people harbor such contradictory feelings towards the written word and the institutions tasked with preserving an intellectual record?

Typically, this comes down to power differentials and money. But the point is, you can’t love the book and hate the collecting of books. You can’t love the book seller and hate the information facilitator.

One more thing, and I will shut up. In this theoretical world, where every possible piece of information is available on Google and where Google is trustworthy enough to not manipulate your search results in their financial interests, what about people who don’t have internet access 24/7? What about people who can’t afford an internet connection in their home, gas to access a computer everyday? What about isolated rural regions where the internet is either unavailable or insufficient to access increasingly media heavy web content? What about their right and need to access information?

It is a mark of an incredibly privileged and in many ways ignorant individual to believe all people have the same abilities and access.

This is not a simple subject and can be broken down in much more complex detail, and has been in online articles, print books, videos, conference proceedings, on the floor of Congress itself. I won’t flatter myself that I have closed the door on the subject in any significant way. I hope I have at least enlightened some of you to the importance of providing a variety of information conduits, including the printed book and those much harangued libraries and librarians, who contrary to popular belief are not living high on the hog.

Rebecca: Book Review

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

“We’re not meant for happiness, you and I.”

Rebecca is one of those books that appears on every “Books You Must Read Before You Die” type lists. Considered by many to be one of the greatest novels of all time I felt obligated to pick this title up at some point.

I love a good brooding British novel as much as the next white, nerdy, bookish girl but Rebecca didn’t necessarily resonate as much as something like Tess of the D’Urbervilles or Jane Eyre. the mystery was interesting enough to keep me engaged but I found myself being pulled from the story quite often to point out certain plot shortcomings or really awkward phrasing, even for the time period.

While researching the life of the author, one of my favorite pastimes when reading classic novels, I learned that the author had been accused of plagiarizing Rebecca from a “1934 book, A Sucessora (The Successor), by Brazilian writer Carolina Nabuco” (Wikipedia, I am curious about the accusation and have added the book to my TBR list to compare. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the author had borrowed significant portions of the book, I didn’t feel reading it that she had mastered the plot. It felt like a borrowed horse she could barely control.

Rebecca is a widely influential novel. It’s inspired Alfred Hitchcock, Stephen King, Ken Follett, and many others. I’m going to chalk this up to the fact that there were so few authorial voices at the time, most diverse authors were not given the same platform as people like Daphne du Maurier though they had immensely more talent. It also didn’t hurt that she had many connections to the publishing industry.

I’ve devoted a lot of this review to the negatives, but I did somewhat enjoy this book. It by no means changed my life or shifted my worldview and frankly I felt like Rebecca came out feeling like a kind of anti-hero who controlled her own destiny at a time when women still very much depended on men. I am not sure the author particularly meant to make that impression.

The book takes a few interesting turns at opportune moments when I might have been tempted to set it aside and is worth finishing for the resolution, it wasn’t what I expected which I appreciated.

Is this on my list of books you MUST read before you die?


But I’d put it on a “Books You Might Want to Read if the Book You Really Want to Read Has a Long Hold List at the Public Library” list.

3/5 Stars

The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls: Book Review

The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls by Anissa Gray

“”Boys and men are earth and stone,” my mama used to say. “But you girls, us women, we’re water. We can wear away earth and stone, if it comes to it.””

I want to preface this review by stating that I looked for the name of the artist of this book cover and could not find them! I fell in love with this cover and I will admit it is the primary reason I picked the book up to read.

Whoever created this cover deserves some serious accolades because I’m not sure the synopsis would have pulled me in alone. Once I started reading though, I couldn’t stop. So much of this novel resonated with me and the writing is some of the most beautiful usage of the English language I’ve ever read. At one point I stopped and had to say out loud, “that was so beautiful” in reference to a scene with a main character reading from her mother’s notes in her Bible.

The book is about family and particularly about how women take care of each other and everyone else around them.

The characterization was on point, the book switches viewpoints from about four main characters, each with a distinct voice. The POV shift might not appeal to some readers and if that has a tendency to confuse you, you might not like this book. I don’t mind as long as the author can keep the voices sorted. I felt the author did so deftly in this novel.

All in all a fantastic debut and an author I will definitely be keeping an eye on in the future.

5/5 Stars

The World That We Knew: Book Review

The World That We Knew by Alice Hoffman

“If you do not believe in evil, you are doomed to live in a world you will never understand.”

The World That We Knew by Alice Hoffman is another World War II historical novel, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Hoffman’s novel follows an ensemble of characters, Lea and her golem keeper, Ava, the tragic Ettie, Julien, and Marianne through their escape from the Nazi regime.

I knew that France played a large role in World War II but I was ignorant of the French government’s role in helping deport Jews to concentration camps. The book discusses in part the role of rural French towns and people who helped Jewish children escape to Switzerland. 

Anyway, the book is filled with lyrical language and mysticism. Hoffman’s writing blurs the line between reality and the magical, reminiscent of The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. She uses Jewish mythology to craft the story and the mythology really enriches the narrative.

The story of this WWII era group of children turned adults too soon is important. Especially in this day and age, where the lessons we learned from the Jewish genocide seem to be rapidly slipping away.

The World That We Knew is not preachy or moralizing, but it is insightful. The characters are interesting and three-dimensional, Ava being the most dynamic for multiple reasons I won’t delve in to here to prevent spoilers.

I recommend this book for those interested in historical fiction, even if you might be a little over WWII fiction novels. This one has a different spin and is well worth your time. I also recommend this book for readers who love poetic writing and mysticism/mythology.

4/5 Stars

Read 2019: A Year in Books

For 2019 I set my Goodreads goal at 30 books and just barely hit it. Whew, it’s been a year. A high-risk pregnancy, car accident, new baby, and series of bad luck at work have me looking forward to 2020. I need a new start of sorts, a fresh take, and a new year is prime for that kind of perspective. I am not big on New Year’s resolutions but I will take the opportunity to turn the page and start fresh.

Here are the books I read for 2019 and some thoughts on my favorites, least favorites, and trends.

1. The Secret Token: Myth, Obsession, and the Search for the Lost Colony of Roanoke by Andrew Lawler (4/5 Stars)

2. The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden (3/5 Stars)

3. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho (4/5 Stars)

4. The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel (2/5 Stars)

5. The Kingmaker’s Daughter by Philippa Gregory (3/5 Stars)

6. The Art of War for Writers: Fiction Writing Strategies, Tactics, and Exercises by James Scott Bell (5/5 Stars)

7. Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid (4/5 Stars)

8. Outlander by Diana Gabaldon (5/5 Stars) (Reread)

9. The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco (3/5 Stars)

10. Hunter by Mercedes Lackey (3/5 Stars)

11. Elite by Mercedes Lackey (3/5 Stars)

12. The Mueller Report by Robert S. Mueller III (5/5 Stars)

13. Echo North by Joanna Ruth Meyer (3/5 Stars)

14. Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear (3/5 Stars)

15. The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht (4/5 Stars)

16. Wrede on Writing: Tips, Hints, and Opinions on Writing by Patricia C. Wrede (4/5 Stars)

17. The Library Book by Susan Orlean (4/5 Stars)

18. Apex by Mercedes Lackey (3/5 Stars)

19. The Vine Witch by Luanne G. Smith (4/5 Stars)

20. You Are a Badass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life by Jen Sincero (2/5 Stars)

21. City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert (5/5 Stars)

22. Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman (4/5 Stars)

23. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King (5/5 Stars)

24. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (5/5 Stars)

25. The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker (3/5 Stars)

26. The Witches Are Coming by Lindy West (4/5 Stars)

27. Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake (3/5 Stars)

28. The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson (5/5 Stars)

29. The Dutch House by Ann Patchett (4/5 Stars)

30. Story Trumps Structure: How to Write Unforgettable Fiction by Breaking the Rules by Steven James (4/5 Stars)

Top Five Favorite Reads

1. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

2. The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson

3. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

4. Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

5. City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert

Least Favorites

You Are a Badass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life by Jen Sincero

The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel

My 2019 Reading Trends

I learned a few things about myself from my reading habits this year.

First, as I get older I find myself increasingly drawn to literary fiction.

Second, I am very disillusioned by self-help books that refuse to acknowledge systemic inequalities and assume all readers have the same privileges. I get that they are (most likely) writing to an audience of upper middle class white women in suburban regions but to not address any unfairness seems completely blind and very not 2019.

Finally, I have not read a YA novel this year that made me feel much of anything. My selection of authors might very well be the cause here. I didn’t try any really exciting authors who offer a new voice. That is something I plan to remedy in 2020. YA is one of my favorite genres and I can’t imagine not reading it. I know it’s a viable genre, I just need to find the good in the tide of mediocre.

Overall, with the year I’ve had, I’m happy with my reading accomplishments. More good reads than bad ones including falling in love with a new author, Min Jin Lee, whose entire body of work will definitely be making its home on my book shelves soon.

Here’s to only 4 star and up books in 2020!

What were your favorite (or least favorite) books you read this year?

The Dutch House: Book Review

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

“There are a few times in life when you leap up and the past that you’d been standing on falls away behind you, and the future you mean to land on is not yet in place, and for a moment you’re suspended knowing nothing and no one, not even yourself.”

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett is a tale of growing up, nostalgia, and truth. It is a story ultimately about redemption.

The story is framed around a house, an old mansion built in the Dutch architectural style previously owned by a rich couple who made their wealth in tobacco but whose family ultimately fizzled our with no surviving heirs. Mr. Conroy, Danny and Maeve’s father bought the house after their demise, filled with their possessions as a surprise for his wife, an ex-nun accustomed to their simple life on a Navy base.

She is unsettled by the acquisition of the large home and never quite makes peace with her wealth and the general misery of the world’s poor. She leaves the dutch house, and her family, to go to India after reading about Mother Theresa’s charitable work.

Her departure nearly kills Maeve, who is diagnosed with juvenile diabetes after losing her mother. The story picks up with their father’s remarriage to a young woman named Andrea.

The book is about family, the good, the bad, and the ugly. Ultimately it’s the fact that we never can quite remember things as they truly are. And that our capacity for forgiveness supersedes everything else.

The book is beautifully written, with tight prose and vivid imagery. I was nearly disappointed in the ending, believing it would fall back in the old evil stepmother trope. Lucky for us all, it does not do that and the twist at the end makes this book worth reading.

4/5 Stars

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek: Book Review

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson

“To be wilded. Have a wilded heart in this black-treed land full of wilded creatures. There were notches in these hills were a stranger wouldn’t tread, would not venture-the needle-eyed coves and skinny blinds behind rocks, the strangling parts of the blackened-green hills-but Angeline and hillfolk here were wilded and not afraid. And I longed to lift bare feet onto ancient paths and be wilded once again.”

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek is set in Troublesome, Kentucky, an Appalachian Community, in the 1930s. The story follows Packhorse Librarian Cussy Mary (aka Bluet), coal miner’s daughter and one of the legendary blue people of Kentucky. Cussy Mary struggles for acceptance in her conservative and superstitious hometown. Though a Troublesome native, she is viewed through the same suspicious lens as any minority of the region.

Cussy Mary’s father works long hours on night shift in the mines, returning covered in black dust and already suffering from what appears to be black lung, a result of inhaling the coal dust underground and an affliction that coal miner’s still battle today.

Cussy Mary and her father are unique to the setting for their blue skin color, caused by a congenital blood condition. This is based on the blue Fugates of Kentucky, a well known legend to the region.

Back to the story itself, I wasn’t sure I would like this book. Being from the region I am always wary of stories that try to portray the truth of life here. The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek deals with some difficult subject matter, the treatment of minorities in the region, subjugation of women, socioeconomic conditions, and cultural shortcomings. The author handles all of this with a great deal of honesty but also respect to the people who remain here.

Cussy Mary, a blue, is treated as a “colored” meaning she is held to the laws of segregation and miscegenation of the time. She is cautious, afraid to touch others and often chided for assuming she is equal to the whites around her. She is humble but eager to be accepted even by those that treat her terribly. Her greatest joy is bringing literacy to her people (an astounding act of rebellion considering them her people even though over half think of her as their inferior). The book reckons with the hypocrisy of a proud, but starving and close-knit but ostracizing community.

The writing is lyrical. More poetry than prose sometimes. That may be off putting to some but if so then literary fiction isn’t really for you anyway. This book is a bittersweet tale of overcoming hardship and bearing witness to tragedy.

5/5 Stars

The Witches Are Coming: Book Review

The Witches Are Coming by Lindy West

This collection of essays by New York Times columnist and Shrill author (also a Hulu original starring SNL star Aidy Bryant), Lindy West discusses several topics ranging from abortion to Adam Sandler (is he funny?).

At its heart, The Witches Are Coming is a heartfelt plea and reassurance that the world is not going to Hell, there is good in it and we have more power than we know.

The title plays off the political rhetoric of the 45th U.S. President’s Witch hunt tirades, which seemingly invoke the persecution of women by religious tyrants through history but specifically during the Salem Witch Trials. West leans into this paranoia and assures Trump, if you want a witch hunt, by God, you’ve got one.

West reclaims witch as a term of female empowerment and wields it as deftly as Dumbledore, or Hermoine perhaps. She calls out our societal hypocrisy, systemic racism and sexism, the cultural shift holding household names accountable to a new generation, one who hopefully doesn’t have to politely ignore sexual harassment because “it’s just the way things are.”

West does all this with wit and humor unrivaled in political commentary I have yet experienced.

I am not going to recommend this book to everybody, because it’s not for everybody, though the message has National, even global, implications. With all political commentary I am sure this book will piss off at least half the people who pick it up. But West is genuine in her beliefs, honest in her own biases, and graceful in understanding, yes, generations understand the world differently but we still must have progress even if it makes certain groups uncomfortable.

Filled with laugh out loud moments, The Witches Are Coming is the perfect way to end the cataclysm that was 2019 on a slightly more hopeful note.

4/5 Stars

Pachinko: Book Review

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

“It was not Hansu that she missed, or even Isak. What she was seeing again in her dreams was her youth, her beginning, and her wishes–so this is how she became a woman.”

“Etsuko had failed in this important way—she had not taught her children to hope, to believe in the perhaps-absurd possibility that they might win. Pachinko was a foolish game, but life was not.”

“Noa had been a sensitive child who had believed that if he followed all the rules and was the best, then somehow, the hostile world would change its mind. His death may have been her fault for having allowed him to believe such cruel ideals.”

Pachinko is a big book of big, complex, sometimes conflicting ideas. This is why I think it is a more accurate view of life.

Sunja is born in Korea pre-WWII and Korean War times that split the nation into the North and South of today. she is born into a relatively poor but surviving family, the daughter of a man born with several congenital deformities, a cleft lip and club foot. But he is an honorable man who loves his daughter. His honor resonates years later with a young minister with tuberculosis who agrees to marry the pregnant and unmarried Sunja and take her to Japan.

The book follows Sunja’s life, the struggles of being Korean in Japan when prejudice was high, being an outsider with no true homeland thanks to the rapidly changing geopolitical landscape of Korea, and the timeless struggle of being a woman who must reckon with her choices and the choices of the men surrounding her.

Pachinko is a generational epic done right. The novel explores many themes as a generational story must, racism and prejudice, socioeconomic distinctions, gender roles, generational differences, guilt, redemption, love and lust. Sunja is a woman who makes mistakes, but as a woman her mistakes resonate throughout her lifetime, affecting not only herself but her loved ones.

This book is worth a read and a reread. My own generational novel is inspired by this book, her near flawless rendering of this family’s fall and rise, and fall and rise. I was not aware of the history that drives this novel, the consequences of WWII for Korea and displaced Koreans who could not return home. Historically the novel offers a lot of perspective and is a great example of the value of minority voices taking their rightful place in the global platform of such narratives.

5/5 Stars