Recent Reads, March 2024

I had a really great month of reading! March was not super busy for me outside of work, so I had even more time than usual to read. Not only did I read a lot, but I really enjoyed everything I read, too. I also read a really nice mix of genres – some fantasy / scifi, some litfic, some rom coms, and a memoir. Here’s what I read in March.

Light from Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki

This story is a mix of fantasy and scifi, and is a beautiful story about the power of love and music. Shizuki is known as the “Queen of Hell,” and has made a deal with a demon to send seven souls to hell, all of whom are extremely talented vioilinists who hit their peak before they tragically lose their lives. She is running out of time to find the seventh soul when she comes across Katrina, a transgender runaway, in the park, and takes her under her tutelage. Shizuka also meets Lan, a donut shop owner and intergalactic refugee, and Shizuka’s relationships with these two women start to slowly change her. I’m not usually a scifi person, but this story was more about how pivotal and impactful music can be, the perils of fame and ambition, and how important found family can be. Honestly, it made me want to buy a ticket to the symphony immediately!

Big Swiss by Jen Beagin

I don’t know exactly how to describe this book – it’s funny, it’s weird, it’s cringe, and it’s so good! Greta has recently moved to a new town, and is working as a transcriptionist for a local sex therapist, Om. She starts to become obsessed with one of his patients, who she nicknames “Big Swiss,” based solely on the sessions that she’s transcribed. One day, Greta runs into Big Swiss in real life, and recognizes her voice. Even though Greta knows she should stay away, she can’t help herself, and creates an alternate identity for herself as she starts a friendship – and then an affair – with Big Swiss. There are so many moments I found myself physically cringing, and felt so nervous for Greta as her lies started to pile up on themselves! But I loved how the story deals with trauma, and relationships, and mental health, and the lies and hidden lives people have. If you don’t like awkward and slightly weird, don’t read this! But if you’re like me and that sounds like exactly what you love to read, I highly recommend this.

The Rom-Commers by Katherine Center

(I got this as an ARC through NetGalley – it will be available on June 11, 2024.) You won’t be shocked based on the title to learn that this is a romcom, and I really loved it. Emma dreams of making it in screenwriting, but has been making a living by writing while also teaching at the local college, and being the primary caregiver for her dad after he was injured years earlier. But her agent calls her one day, offering her the opportunity to re-write a script for a rom com (her favorite!) with legendary screenwriter Charlie Yates… but she has to go to LA for six weeks for the job. It’s too good of an opportunity to pass up, so she pushes down her guilt and her anxiety as her sister agrees to move in to care for their dad, and off Emma goes. Except, when she arrives, she learns that Charlie has no idea she was coming and doesn’t really care about making the script, either – he just want to make it ok enough to move on. Eventually, he agrees to let Emma stay and work on the script, and Emma is determined to spend the next six weeks changing his mind about romcoms, and about love. I will admit that I was a little worried that this book was going to be all about how much of a burden caregiving is, and, in turn, make me feel like a burden as someone who needs care. But it actually also showed the joy and the love that can come from caregiving, and I thought that was really special.

Ink Blood Sister Scribe by Emma Törzs

I had been meaning to read this book for a while, and I’m so glad that I finally got around to it. It’s a book about the magic of books – in the sense that in the world, there are some books that are literally magic. Joanna and Esther are half-sisters who are part of a family dedicated to protecting some of these magical books. Esther has been living the life of a nomad, moving every single year to try to hide herself from the people who killed her mother. Joanna has lived the life of a recluse, studying and protecting a small library of magical books that her family has collected. But one year, Esther decides not to leave at the year mark, setting off a domino effect where she realizes, for the first time, that the warning she had been heeding all these years was real. I loved this story – about how magical books can be, about family (the kind you’re related to and the kind you create), about loyalty and resentments, a little bit of romance, and just enough elements of a thriller to keep me guessing. I didn’t want to put it down!

Penance by Eliza Clark

This was such an interesting, thought-provoking (though extremely, extremely dark) book. The way it’s written is interesting itself – it starts out with a fictional introduction about how this book is being published even though its come out that the journalist who wrote it fabricated some of the material in the interviews included. The plot revolves around this journalist’s comprehensive book about a murder that had occurred years earlier – a group of teenage girls had burned another girl, and she had died. He has done interviews – of people who lived in the town, and even with the murderers themselves – and the book also includes snippets of (again, fictional) podcasts and interviews where the murder was discussed. The book is excellent, though it feels wrong to say that I “liked” it – it is deeply, deeply dark and unsettling. But it’s a very smart look at class lines, especially in high school, and about society’s obsession and borderline glamorization of true crime, and the people who commit those crimes.

A Love Song for Ricki Wilde by Tia Williams

This is my second romance from Tia Williams, and I think I can now officially say that I’m a fan. Ricki Wilde is from the Wildes of Atlanta, the funeral home dynasty who have built out their business so much that they’re able to live the lives of wealthy socialities. But Ricki has always been the black sheep of her family, never fitting in and following the rules of the life that has been prescribed for her. So when an older woman comes in one day to arrange the funeral of her husband and offers to let Ricki move into the bottom level of her Harlem brownstone, Ricki feels like it was meant to be, and jumps at the chance. As Ricki is building a life in New York, and getting her flower business off the ground, she runs into a mysterious man who she sees through the window of her shop, and her curiousity is piqued. The two keep having chance encounters, but there’s something mysterious about him, something secret. I love the mix of romance with just a little bit of magic in this story, and the funny ways that people end up being connected to each other. I also thought the descriptions of the Harlem Renaissance period were so beautiful – this book made me want to read more set during that time!

Denison Avenue by Christina Wong

Oh, wow – this was such an achingly gorgeous story. It’s a short novel paired with beautiful illustrations, and tells the story of Wong Cho Sum. She lives in a rapidly-gentrifying neighborhood in Toronto, and feels incredibly alone and disconnected when her husband unexpectedly dies. She starts collecting bottles and cans, spending her days walking all over and collecting them, her routes taking her all over the neighborhood. She walks and watches the neighborhood change and morph around her, making new friends but also feeling like she and her generation are being left behind as the neighborhood is rebuilt. Each time Wong Cho Sum talks, the dialogue is printed first in her native Toisan dialect, and then the English translation follows. It’s a great way to underscore the loneliness that she is feeling, while still helping the reader to be able to understand what she’s saying and what’s happening – I felt so isolated while reading it! This is really an important story, told in such a beautiful way.

Welcome Home, Caroline Kline by Courtney Preiss

(I got this as an ARC through NetGalley – it will be available on April 16, 2024.) Caroline is living her best life in NYC, until she has a breakup, and is left with no job, nowhere to live, and no idea what she’s going to do. When her dad is injured and needs months to recover, he and her stepmom beg Caroline to come home – both to help him recuperate, and to take his place in her hometown’s famous men’s only softball league, because he’s convinced the team has the chance to go all the way this year. All Caroline has ever wanted is to get out of her New Jersey suburb, but she begrudgingly agrees to come home. One out of control night leads to an unexpected meeting with her old crush, and she starts a friendship with him, but also is dealing with the all-male team she’s playing on having some serious resentments toward her, her worries about her dad’s health, and her feelings about fleeing NYC (even temporarily) and being home. It’s a funny and cute romcom about growth, and family, and recovery, what it really means to be there for someone, and how you can find happiness in unexpected places and paths.

Anita de Monte Laughs Last by Xochitl Gonzalez

I have been waiting for Xochitl Gonzalez’s second book ever since I read and loved Olga Dies Dreaming, and it did not disappoint. There are two main POVs in this book – Anita de Monte’s, a rising star in the art world who, in 1985, is tragically found dead, and Raquel, an art history student who is working on her thesis while feeling like an outsider as a minority student surrounded by people of privilege. The chapters go back and forth, and Raquel gets into a relationship with a slightly older, wealthy and well-connected man, whose family eventually introduces her to Anita’s work. This sets Raquel down a new path of investigation – how is there this artist who she has never heard of? The story is really all about questions of legacy, and of who is remembered by history – and why and how. There’s just a touch of magic, mixed with the power of being remembered and thought of. I loved it so much! Sometimes books with two points of view are tough, because I find myself much more interested in one than the other, but that wasn’t the case here – both storylines were equally compelling.

In Sensorium: Notes for My People by Tanaïs

I don’t even know if I can accurately describe this memoir – it was so much more layered than I expected (pun intended). Tanaïs is a perfumer, and sets up the book just like a perfume – with the base, heart, and head notes of their story and their life mirroring those the layers of a perfume. The book covers so much, all from the perspective of a Bangladeshi Muslim who is queer. Tanaïs often juxtaposes their own history with the history of their country, and their people, as a whole – the cycle of trauma and oppression that has been ongoing for years. It also delves into their own personal experiences – of growing up, of intimate relationships and experiences with drugs, all while making parallels to fragrance and perfume the whole time. It is incredibly beautifully written and so very unique, and will be with me for a long, long time.

Love You, Mean It by Jilly Gagnon

(I got this as an ARC from NetGalley – it will be available on April 30, 2024.) Fake dating isn’t always my favorite romcom trope, but this one was extremely cute, because the tension was there from the start. After a short attempt at creating and selling her designs in NYC, Ellie moved back home after her dad died to run the family’s deli. While she’s not sure that it’s her dream job, it is something that she’s fiercely protective of, which is why she’s extremely nervous and outraged when she learns a developer is attempting to bring in a big-box Italian store which would almost certainly put the deli out of business. Ellie sets up a meeting with Theo, and after a short bout of injury-induced amnesia, the two agree to pretend to fake date, and Theo agrees to help try to stop the new store from moving in. Very soon, though, the fake part of fake dating starts to get blurry, and Ellie gets confused… and a little bit nervous! The tension in this book was so good; I kept wanting to read just a few more pages to see if Ellie and Theo would finally admit that their feelings had become real. I also really liked how Ellie’s story ended – it was a nice reminder that sometimes, we don’t want to admit to ourselves what we really want, and what makes us happy.

Rouge by Mona Awad

This book is so strange, but in the best possible way – it’s weird but funny, and reading it sometimes feels like a dream, where you’re not exactly sure what’s going on, or even what’s real. After the unexpected death of her mother, Belle returns to California for the funeral, and to try to tie up loose ends with her mother’s belongings and condo, which has fallen into disrepair. During the funeral, a woman dressed in all red talks to Belle, hinting at her mother’s secrets, and then Belle watches a strange video about an exclusive spa, which is especially interesting to her, as she’s had a lifelong obsession with beauty and skincare. Belle finds a pair of red shoes among her mother’s belongings, puts them on, and finds herself inexplicably drawn to a mysterious spa, where she’s whisked inside and treated as a VIP. From there, things get cloudy and murky, and Belle tries to unravel her own past, her mother’s death, and what’s happening now on her quest for beauty. It ends up being a really poignant story about the relationships between mothers and daughters, and about our obsession with beauty and youth. One of my favorite parts of reading this was trying to figure out which absurdly-named beauty products were real, and which were fictional! It was pretty evenly split.

Tom Lake by Ann Patchett

I have actually never read a book by Ann Patchett before, but I saw that the audiobook version was narrated by Meryl Streep, and I couldn’t resist. I’m so glad I didn’t – this was a really beautiful, comforting, warm hug of a book. The pandemic has recently brought all three of Lara’s daughters home, to their cherry orchard in Northern Michigan. While home, her daughters beg her to tell them the story of how she knew Peter Duke, a famous celebrity. This takes her back to her time at Tom Lake, a theater company, where she played Emily in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. As Lara recounts her youth, her daughters learn that there is so much about their mother’s life before them that they had no idea about, or that they had completely wrong. It’s interesting, because it’s not a story where anything major happens, but is more a story about families and family dynamics, about parents and children, and about coming together and coming home when the world outside is kind of falling apart. But reading it (or listening to it, in my case), I just felt so absolutely enmeshed in Lara’s life and her story. It was gorgeous and captured me completely.

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

This memoir is written like no other memoir that I’ve ever read – it’s really a reflection on the author’s abusive relationship, chronicling it and inspecting it from many different angles and views. Each chapter of the book has it’s own literary trope, and Machado investigates her relationship through that lens for that chapter – starting from how her relationship started, how and when it became abusive, and the impact it had on her life and her current relationship, which is inextricably intertwined with her last. It’s not always easy to read, but it is incredibly powerful, especially when Carmen moves beyond her own relationship and looks at queer relationships in general. There’s also a very unique “choose your own adventure” chapter, which is something I’ve never seen done before! I definitely recommend checking content warnings before you read this, since it does center on an abusive relationship, but if it’s something you can handle, it’s incredibly worthwhile.

White Supremacy Is All Around: Notes from a Black Disabled Woman in a White World by Dr. Akilah Cadet

(I got this as an ARC through NetGalley, but it’s available now!) I actually read this in February, but completely forgot to include it in my monthly post! I have been a fan of Akilah for a while now, following along with her life on Instagram, and fangirling over the Akilah of having a Nap Dress style named after her fame. This books is a look at Akilah’s own experiences, navigating the world as a Black, disabled woman who is working hard to actively take down white supremacy through her work and her very existence. She shares her experiences in the workforce, in relationships, in building her own consulting business, while facing discrimination and ableism along the way. She shares a space for other Black disabled women to feel seen and represented, and also shares real, actionable tips for being an ally, or accomplice, in the fight against white supremacy. And for any fellow members of Nap Dress Nation, yes, she does talk about working with Nell! I love Akilah’s style of writing, too – I felt like I’d just had a deep heart-to-heart with a friend when I was done. Don’t miss this one!

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