Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Review: When Two Feathers Fell From The Sky

Two Feathers is one of the last horse divers in the United States. World War I has ended and Wild West shows are not as popular as they once were. Two Feathers is thankful to have a regular job leaping into a pool astride her horse Ocher at the Glendale Park Zoo in Nashville, Tennessee. She's also thankful that her fellow employees are starting to feel more like family than colleagues, like Crawford, a black man who carefully tries not to overstep any perceived boundaries; the groundskeeper Clive, who is fighting his own demons from the war; and her boarding house friends Frannie and Marty, sisters who amaze the crowds with their spinning plate routine. 

One day, Two's dive goes terribly wrong. She is injured, and strange things begin happening at the park--animals fall ill, people see ghosts on the grounds, and Two receives letters from a secret admirer who might not have good intentions. 

When Two Feathers Fell From The Sky reminds readers that the boundaries between past and present are not as solid as we imagine them to be. Glendale is built on a Native American burial ground, and Two has a ghost from long ago who watches over her. The characters know that they are fortunate to have jobs and relative safety, but they also understand that the white people who come to the park view them as "exotic" or "dangerous," and it would take very little for their carefully constructed worlds to fall down. 

Verble tries to cover a lot of ground in this book, as she focuses on the challenges faced by Native Americans, people of color, and war veterans within the same book. There are moments of tragic reality, and others when it seems perfectly possible that the dead and the living might occupy the same space. At times, it felt like Verble threw in extra historical references for the sake of it, but she truly evokes a specific time and place in this book. When Two Feathers Fell From The Sky is an engaging read and a story unlike any I've encountered before. 

When Two Feathers Fell From The Sky
By Margaret Verble
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt October 2021
384 pages
Read via Netgalley

Thursday, January 20, 2022

Mini Reviews: Stranger Care and Our Lady of Perpetual Hunger

Sarah and Eric Sentilles make the decision not to have a biological child. Instead, they go through the long and intense process of becoming foster parents. They are thrilled to finally get a call about fostering a baby girl named Coco. The couple welcomes her into their home and makes her a part of their family. And so begins the painful process of getting to know and love a child who was, as Sarah points out, "never ours, yet we belong to each other." 

Stranger Care is a difficult, but important, read. Sentilles is honest about the roller coaster of emotions that she experienced as she came to love this child while also knowing that Coco would likely be reunified with her family. Is it possible to love a child and prepare to let them go at the same time? Sarah and Eric bond with Coco's mother Evelyn and cheer her on as she tries to overcome a drug addiction and find a steady job. In other moments, they quietly hope that Evelyn will fail so they can keep the little girl who has captured their hearts. Stranger Care is an unflinching look at the complications of our foster care system, the lack of staff and resources to care for these children, and the uneasy compromises that biological and foster parents make as they try to do what is best for a child they love. 

Stranger Care
A Memoir of Loving What Isn't Ours
By Sarah Sentilles 
Random House May 2021
400 pages
Read via Netgalley 

Lisa Donovan went from waiting tables in a small-town Italian restaurant to working as a pastry chef with some of the most influential American chefs. Her journey there was not an easy one--she finds herself unexpectedly pregnant, leaves an abusive boyfriend, and works in kitchens that won't pay her fairly and would rather not have women there at all. Our Lady of Perpetual Hunger is the story of Donovan's realization that professional kitchens are often toxic and unsustainable, and her decision to strike out on her own and find a way to be recognized (and make a living) making good food with good people. 

Donovan is a particular kind of narrator--she's angry and belligerent. And she should be; she has faced incredible challenges in her professional and personal life. Perhaps because the experiences were so difficult, Donovan jumps all over the timeline and often spends more time ruminating about her trauma and pulling herself up to the next thing than actually remembering her time baking. This book is a little bit baking memoir, a lot of angry feminist realization, and a whole lot of working hard until you find a place that feels like yours. 

Our Lady of Perpetual Hunger
By Lisa Donovan
Penguin Press August 2020
304 pages
Read via Netgalley

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Review: O Beautiful

Elinor Hanson is trying to reinvent herself. After years of working as a successful "Asian model," she has finished graduate school and is determined to be a successful writer. When her mentor offers her the chance to take over a story about an oil boom in the area where she grew up, Elinor cautiously accepts the assignment. As she interviews the men who have traveled to make their fortunes on the oil fields and the small town residents whose lives have been upended by the oil boom, she realizes anew that she has always been seen as an outsider. 

Elinor grew up in North Dakota as the daughter of a white US airman and the Korean woman he brought home after his time overseas. She knows what it is like to feel like an outsider as one of the few non-white students growing up in her North Dakota town, as an Asian woman in a largely white modeling industry, and as an older student in her journalism classes. 

O Beautiful is an unflinching look at the things that women, especially women of color, deal with on a daily basis. From the first pages, Elinor is accosted by men who "just want to talk" or "were just trying to be friendly." Jung Yun succeeds in portraying just how oppressive it is to live a life where you are always on your guard, always worried, always looking for the next possible threat. Elinor is often angry and I would say that this book is written with anger, too; there is anger about the way racism and sexism impact our lives, the way giant corporations are destroying the planet for profit, and the widening gap between people who can't make ends meet and those who have more money than they could ever spend. 

As the title indicates, this is a story about who belongs in America. Can woman truly feel at home in a society where they need to be on their guard? Can Black or Asian or Latino people find a place to call their own when the people around them see them as threats? O Beautiful is a tightly constructed novel about one woman searching for a place where she will be truly safe and welcome as an Asian American woman. 

O Beautiful
By Jung Yun
St. Martin's Press November 2021
320 pages
Read via Netgalley

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

The Nun and the Atheist: Mini Reviews of Agatha of Little Neon and Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead

Agatha is committed to God and the church but, more than anything, she is committed to her sisters. When their diocese goes bankrupt, she can't fathom doing anything else but going with her sisters wherever they are sent. None of them expected to be assigned to a halfway house in Rhode Island. Agatha, Frances, Therese, and Mary Lucille leave behind their home and everyone they know to try to do some good for the people of Little Neon and the students at the local high school. 

Agatha of Little Neon is, in a way, a coming of age story. While she is in her mid-twenties, Agatha is discovering for the first time that the people in authority are not always looking out for her best interests. She is also starting to wonder who she might be if she hadn't promised her life to God and her sisters. Agatha, Frances, Therese, and Mary Lucille are well-acquainted with many of the virtues, but the thing that rings true on every page is kindness--they are kind to themselves, kind to each other, and kind to the people they encounter who are doing the best they can. This is a story about figuring out who you are and what is important when your community and your beliefs let you down.

Agatha of Little Neon
By Claire Luchette
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux August 2021
274 pages
Read via Netgalley

Gilda is not well. She is anxious and depressed, and usually thinking about death. The local ER staff knows her by name since she frequently goes there, thinking that she is dying. Her relationships with her family and girlfriend are strained. When she sees a flyer for mental health support, she gathers the courage to attend a group at a local church. Instead, she finds a friendly priest who assumes she is applying for the job of church receptionist. Gilda soon finds herself trying to keep too many lies straight--not only is she pretending that she is a straight, Catholic woman who is qualified for this job, she is also keeping up an email correspondence with a friend of her dead predecessor Grace while pretending to be Grace herself. 

Reading Everyone In This Room Will Someday Be Dead is somewhat like watching a horror movie--every few minutes, you want to call out, "No! Don't do that. That is a terrible choice." Yet Gilda persists in lying to everyone around her, even herself. It's not malicious; it's just that Gilda can't see what the good choices might be. I think this book will ring true for many people who struggle with their mental health. It's hard to put this one down, as readers hope that this will be the moment that Gilda gets some help and is finally able to see that there is good in life, even if everyone in the room will indeed be dead someday. 

Everyone In This Room Will Someday Be Dead
By Emily R. Austin
Atria Books July 2021
226 pages
Read via Netgalley 

Friday, January 7, 2022

Review: When You Get The Chance

Millie knows exactly what she wants, and how to get it. She will star on Broadway one day, and the best way to get there is to go across the country to a program that turns teens into stars. The only problem is that her dad isn't convinced she needs this program. Millie decides to stage her own Mama Mia-style investigation and find the mom who abandoned her--surely her mother will support her dreams. Is her mom the dance teacher at Millie's new class, the nurturing mother who hosts get-togethers for Broadway fanatics, or the actress/receptionist at Millie's internship? Finding her mom and figuring out the next right step is going to be a lot harder than belting out an 11 o'clock number. 

Millie is a force of nature. Emma Lord has written a character who is vivacious and determined, but slowly coming to realize that her impulsive choices impact the people in her life. And it's a beautiful cast of characters we get to enjoy--Millie's nerdy dad; her aunt who makes amazing milkshakes and runs a nightclub; Millie's geocaching best friend Teddy; and the perpetual thorn in her side, school stage manager Oliver. 

One of my favorite aspects of this story was the way Emma Lord captures people doing the best that they can. Millie's dad isn't trying to hide information about her mom; he just doesn't know how to talk about the woman he loved who left Millie with him and disapeared. Millie isn't trying to be sneaky or deceitful when she hatches her latest scheme; she just imagines it's the quickest way from point A to point B. This story is a beautiful look at the ways we inadvertently hurt the people we love and the ways that we can mend those relationships.  

When You Get The Chance is flat-out charming. It's a must-read for any YA theatre lover, and reading it would be a delightful way to spend any weekend. 

When You Get The Chance
By Emma Lord
Wednesday Books January 2022
320 pages
Read via Netgalley

Thursday, January 6, 2022

Sci-Fi Mini Reviews: Queen's Peril & Sword and Pen

Padme Naberrie is newly elected as the queen of Naboo. She leaves her family behind and travels to the palace to begin her reign. But she will not be alone--she will live alongside a group of talented young women who will protect, advise, and assist her. When Naboo is invaded by the Trade Federation, the Queen and her handmaidens will have to work together like never before to survive the invasion and restore freedom to their planet.

Many of us watched The Phantom Menace and wished for more time with the brilliant, beautifully dressed, Queen Amidala of Naboo without interference from a certain whiny boy Jedi. E.K. Johnston has given us that chance with her fantastic trilogy (the third book will be out in April 2022). In Queen's Peril, Johnston expands what we saw in that first movie and shows readers that the greatest relationship in Padme's life was the bond between the queen and the handmaidens who would do anything for her. The book has some moments that readers may find difficult--as it turns out, the queen and her court have a fair amount of boring business to take care of and they are also teenage girls with an endless wardrobe at their disposal, so there is a lot of discussion of clothing. But Johnston excels at giving us a fuller understand of who Padme was and just how young she was when she was sent to rule an entire planet and ultimately, play a pivotal role in the future of the galaxy.

Queen's Peril
By E.K. Johnston 
Disney Lucasfilm Press June 2020
288 pages
Read via Netgalley 

Everything has led up to this moment--Jess Brightwell and his friends have defeated the corrupt leaders of the Great Library. But they aren't out of danger yet--other nations and powers are willing to fight for their chance at control, and establishing a new Archivist could be the most perilous battle of all.

It's incredibly difficult to write about the last book in a series without spoiling the other four, so I will stick to discussing the series as a whole. Rachel Caine wrote an excellent YA series with The Great Library. The world she created is fully realized, and the characters are easy to love. Readers will truly see how much each character has grown since we first met them in book 1, and there is a straight line from strangers to wary allies to a found family that each of them would die to protect. It is no small feat to write five books with edge-of-your-seat action and characters who truly grow and evolve throughout the series. The Great Library series is a excellent addition to any YA collection. 

Sword and Pen
The Great Library #5
By Rachel Caine
Berkley September 2019
368 pages
Read via Netgalley