If you read my book post from the end of 2020, you might remember that I used to read a lot, and then I had kids. (tl;dr I read like 4 books in 3 years.) But I'm back with more book recommendations for you!
Last fall I got my book mojo back. I'm still tearing through books and it's making me so happy. Earlier last year my brain couldn't handle it, but now that I can focus on the plot, it's the right amount of escapism and engagement. So these are the books I read in the first 3 months of the year, broken into fiction and non-fiction because that seemed easier.
It's been a huge source of my self-care, however. I worked from home before the pandemic, and while there are many benefits, it can also feel like you're always at work. Since a lot of my work gets done in tiny bits of "time confetti" (social media, answering emails on my phone, etc.), immersing myself in a novel is a needed escape.
Disclosure: These are affiliate links, so if you purchase through them, I receive a few cents. I'm trying to set up a Bookshop account but haven't figured it out yet, or just get them at the library!
Nonfiction ReadsHeavy by Kiese Laymon
This memoir really was heavy. The author recounts growing up in a large Black body in the Southern United States which is basically the opposite of my childhood. Parts of it were hard to read, so I can only imagine how hard they were to experience. It's hard to say I enjoyed reading it for that reason, but I'm glad that I did.
The Fixed Stars by Molly Wizenberg
I was a long-time reader of Molly's blog, Orangette, for years, and read her first book for a foodie book club before I had kids. I've never been a reality TV fan, but there must be a similar draw to following people online. But where TV presents a particular view, reading someone's writing about their own life is another perspective. Her first book chronicles her childhood and the death of her father through meeting her eventual husband. This book is the tale of her marriage falling apart and her coming out. As someone who watched a lot of the story unfold piecemeal on social media, I enjoyed filling in the blanks. I couldn't tell you how the experience would be if you don't know who she is, and I know some LGBT friends who weren't huge fans, but I'm just nosy and was happy to feel like I got the inside scoop.
Born a Crime by Trevor Noah
Daily Show host Trevor Noah is delightful and funny, and it was interesting to read about his upbringing in South Africa where his very existence was technically illegal. I've heard that the audiobook is amazing since he reads it himself. He incorporates a lot of pieces of all the languages he speaks, which would have been good to hear. It's self-deprecating but insightful, and I learned a lot about the racial climate he grew up in and how that informs his experience in the United States.
Fair Play by Eve Rodsky
I'm a sucker for a book about mental load, gender roles, and relationship communication since that's a huge focus of my work with parents, and I tore through this book. The basic approach isn't terribly different from what we do at our house, but the author has taken her professional systematization skills to game-ify chore distribution more equitably. There's even a card deck you can buy to go with it, or print your own. She includes how to bring the topic up with your partner and how to troubleshoot when plans go awry. If you feel overwhelmed trying to figure out where to start and would like a playbook to follow, this could help. If you just need the concept, I have a podcast episode about it, too.
Caste by Isabel Wilkerson
Caste somehow manages to be incredibly dense, and exceptionally readable at the same time. It was informative and thought-provoking while weaving together academic insight and personal stories and experiences. The premise is that racism in the United States creates and perpetuates a caste structure not unlike that found in India which inhibits socioeconomic mobility. Highly recommended.
Unschooled by Kerry McDonald
This was my least favorite book I've read so far this year. We've decided to homeschool next year since my oldest is doing really well at home, even though his school is awesome, and I saw this suggested in a homeschooling group. The first half or so is interesting information about the origins of schooling and how public schools developed in the United States. Some of it was new, some wasn't, and it's a book about unschooling, so the anti-school sentiment wasn't a surprise. I was really disappointed at how few people of color she included as examples, and the Black family featured had very young kids, so not a ton of experience yet.
I hoped the last half would have some examples of unschooling families and how their lives look, but no. Instead it was all about "maker spaces" that are basically unschooling co-ops on the east coast. Finally I had to look up the author, and it made sense when I read that she's "a libertarian think tank operative." It felt like she was pushing her own agenda without offering practical information. If you're trying to convince yourself not to send your kids to school, the first half might help, but the second half is only useful if you live in Massachusetts. I regret finishing it.
Hood Feminism by Mikki Kendall
This book is powerful. I read on my Kindle app and wanted to highlight the whole thing. There was an error exporting my notes and I almost cried when I saw that they wouldn't open. The "downside" was that I had to re-read several sections because there was so much information that I couldn't absorb it in one pass. It's unvarnished truth that can be hard for white people like me to read, but it's important.
Wintering by Katherine May
My only regret is that I read this book in the spring, and it's definitely a snuggle-up-by-the-fire kind of read. It's about how we survive winter, both literally and metaphorically. She's a mother and that perspective obviously resonated with me, and I was very drawn to her comparison of how we like to think of time as linear, but it's more cyclical in nature. Parts of it feel pessimistic, but that's also the point. There's no toxic positivity to look on the bright side of everything, just the reminder that we can choose how to approach challenging phases. There were a few lulls for me, but then a paragraph would just leap off the page with truth. "A great deal of life will always suck. There will be moments when we’re riding high and moments when we can’t bear to get out of bed. Both are normal. Both in fact require a little perspective."
Fiction ReadsMy Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braitwaithe
This quick read following the story of two sister in Nigeria was a ride! It kept me interested without being too heavy, and it was a nice break in between trilogies and nonfiction. There are complex family dynamics, cultural pressures, and the stresses of balancing work and home life against a backdrop of sibling relationships and death. Whee!
Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor
A lot of people call the Akata books "the Nigerian Harry Potter," but in the contemporary setting, the author actually references the series. The similarities of young adult books that center around magical teens are limited. I really enjoyed the world Nnedi Okarafor created and the way magic works in the modern world. So much fantasy is set in northern Europe with dragons and robed wizards, and using African folklore and culture as the foundation is a refreshing change. A girl discovers that she has magical powers which she must hide from her family as she learns to use them.
Akata Warrior by Nnedi Okorafor
This is the sequel to Akata Witch. I admit, I didn't like this one quite as much. I like the world she built, it just felt like the plot wasn't as cohesive as the first book. There are delightful and powerful moments, but it was a bit darker than the first. There’s more contemporary action as our young protagonists have to help one of their brothers.
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
This was Celeste Ng's debut novel, but I read Little Fires Everywhere first. I wish I had read them in the opposite order, because I liked the characters better in her second book. That said, I still totally cried at the end of this one. Both good, just different! Fair warning that it centers around a suspected teen suicide, so know that going in. A family reckons with the death of one of their children, each member in their own way, as they search for the truth of what happened.
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
I loooooooved this book. Like Celeste Ng, I read Yaa Gyasi's books "backwards" (even though they're not related). The book starts with two half-sisters in Ghana, raised apart, and follows their descendants through the generations. One side stays in Africa, the other is sold into slavery in the United States. The vignettes across time are fascinating, and seeing each generation make what choices they can based on what options are available.
Normal People by Sally Rooney
Are these people actually normal? The author does a wonderful job of conveying the awkwardness of youth. It's probably not a book I would have picked up on my own, but the story of two students from different economic and social backgrounds, an unlikely friendship, and how they and their relationship changes after going off to university was well done. I was even more impressed when I realized how young the novelist is!
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
This book was a ride, more for the emotions than a dramatic plot. Eleanor is an odd duck. Her coworkers don't really like her. She doesn't have friends. She lives alone. But then an outgoing man at work cheerfully attempts to befriend her, and Eleanor starts to unfurl and bloom as we learn why she is the way she is. I was glad it didn't feel savior-y, he wasn't taking pity on her, and it isn't the "give the weird girl a makeover and she turns normal and pretty" nonsense.
The Midnight Library by Matt Haig
This book opens with suicide references, so approach with caution if needed. What a concept -- a library with shelves full of possibilities for your life, like the ultimate choose your own adventure. If you could pick out a new version of your life where you made a different choice at a crucial juncture, would you? A creative look at making decisions and regret when given the chance to see "what if…"
The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune
So many of the books I've read lately have been amazing in many ways, but I just loved this one so much. It's technically YA, but has fantasy, romance, and inclusion. I laughed out loud several times, and I was just SO HAPPY at the end because it was delightful and wholesome and sweet. It was a lovely slice of escapism from everything going on in the world while I was reading it. I've been recommending it to everyone. One friend said they found the character voices distracting, but I've heard that the audiobook is well done, too. A government employee goes through the tedious motions of his life, but all that changes when he’s sent to investigate a secret magical boarding school and its mysterious headmaster.
Luster by Raven Leilani
Luster, in contrast to the book listed above it, is gritty. It’s probably not a book I would have picked up on my own, so it’s not my favorite genre, but it was a compelling read. Edie is a young Black woman just trying to get through life, making questionable romantic choices. When she enters into a relationship with a married white man, things get more complicated. Fidelity, marriage, race, class, status, motherhood, transracial adoption, and more intertwine as Edie finds her way.
Circe by Madeline Miller
This is one of those books that I heard recommended so many times that I didn’t want to read it out of spite, but I’m glad I caved in. I was also amused when I realized this is basically professional-grade fan-fiction based on The Odyssey. The story follows the titular character, a nymph, and daughter of the sun god Helios. She is not a favored child and is used as a pawn in her family’s political machinations, but turns the situation to her favor as she develops her own strength and power. I’m not super into mythology so I had to look up some characters for more context, but it was really enjoyable. I’m looking forward to reading The Song of Achilles which I’ve heard is even better.
Anxious People by Frederik Backman
This book was very sweet and satisfying. Most of the book takes place in a Swedish apartment and deals with the interactions of a group of characters thrown together in an unlikely situation. The story comes together like a puzzle being revealed one piece at a time, but you don’t know what the completed picture will be until the end. It’s hard to give details without ruining how it unfolds, but some twists I saw coming, and others I didn’t. A lovely read about our worries and relationships, and how we care about others.
A Man Called Ove by Frederik Backman
I read this right after Anxious People, and Backman definitely has a distinct style and voice. Ove is a cantankerous old man whose story is hilarious and heartbreaking. The book focuses on Ove’s life in his small Swedish town and how aging and social changes impact us all. Much cathartic weeping ensued.
Writers & Lovers by Lily King
This book was super meta — it follows Casey, a young waitress/writer and her various writer friends as they talk about writing and live their writerly lives. It’s not a negative, it was just a bit funny to read a novel about novelists. It wasn’t my favorite, but reading about Casey’s struggles, setbacks, regrets, and successes had me cheering her on.
Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli
This young adult novel about a gay teenager follows Simon’s anonymous email correspondence with another gay classmate. His journey to meeting his email "penpal" and coming out to his family and friends is part school drama and part emo mystery. I do wish it were written by an LGBTQ author, but I’m glad that these stories are being published for teenagers to read. There’s also a second book about his friend, Leah, that I haven’t read.
Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse
Book 1 of a not-yet-finished trilogy alert! I didn’t realize that when I started and I’m sad because I need to know what happens. Rebecca Roanhorse is a Black and Indigenous author, and this trilogy is a post-apocalyptic adventure based on Navajo culture. I suggested this book to my sister, and she said it was too intense and scary for her at the moment, so proceed with caution if that’s a concern for you. (I have returned a few books unfinished because I just couldn’t right now.) It’s a got a little Western adventure, some romance, magic, and a plot influenced by Navajo spirituality. In searching the internet I found that the non-Navajo author’s use of certain characters may be problematic, but I also appreciate reading books that aren’t based on European cultures.
A Storm of Locusts by Rebecca Roanhorse
This is book 2 of the unfinished trilogy! Each book has a standalone plot, but is part of a larger story arc based in the same world with most of the same main characters. I like reading trilogies/series so I can stay immersed in a familiar world, and I’m looking forward to the last book and finding out how she wraps it up.
Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse
One more Rebecca Roanhorse book that I thought was a standalone, but is actually the first book of another trilogy and only came out in October 2020! Drat. Her goal with this trilogy was to write an epic fantasy based on pre-Columbian America, and it’s fascinating. The characters are creative, there’s romance and magic and political/religious intrigue, class struggle, and prophecy. I recommend waiting until more books are published so you don’t have to wait, but I do suggest reading it!
Take It Back by Kia Abdullah
This was more of a legal thriller and not something I would have picked up on my own, but I’m glad I read it. A disabled white British teen accuses a group of her Muslim classmates of sexual assault. It’s not quite as simple as he said/she said with layers of race, religion, gender, disability, trauma, immigration, and justice at play. The girl’s advocate in the case is a Muslim woman who has to balance all of these things along with the feelings of her own community in her search for the truth.
The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern
It seems like more people have read The Night Circus by the same author (see below), but this is the order they arrived from the library. This was a beautiful book to read. It felt like an Alice in Wonderland adventure, but in the most fantastical library you can imagine. The settings were so richly described that I felt like I had a movie in my mind as I read it. There was a ton of symbolism that I’m sure I missed, and sometimes I felt like I didn’t quite "get" some of the plot twists. It wasn’t one of my top reads for that reason, but I still enjoyed the experience of it.
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
A heads up that this isn’t about circuses in the traditional sense! It’s more along the lines of a Cirque du Soleil/Meow Wolf/traveling art installation circus, and the circus isn’t even the main setting of the book. Like The Starless Sea, the visual descriptions are vivid and detailed. Prophecy, magic, questions of what makes a family and what we owe them, beauty, and love make for an emotional tale.
A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness
A friend suggested these these books and I stuck up my nose at vampires. But she was right, and I was wrong, and they’re not what I expected. The author is an historian, and impressively, this was her first novel. Compelling characters, forbidden relationships, an ancient mystery through time, intrigue, magic, and sexy vampires make this trilogy very enjoyable. She even includes a list at the end of the book explaining which characters are based on historical figures, which are composites, and which are fictionalized.
Time’s Convert by Deborah Harkness
This is actually book 4 (a chronological spinoff) which I read out of order. Don’t read them out of order, because there are spoilers, and it won’t make sense. So read the other three, and THEN read this one which follows the story of a new vampire being "reborn," the history of her fiancé becoming a vampire, and more about the characters you met in the previous books.
What Are You Reading?
I post my current reads in my Instagram Stories as I start them, but after working on this post, I'm adding a monthly book thread in the Semi-Crunchy Mama® Club, too. It took me a long time to write this!
Next I'll start my post on my quarter 2 reads so I'm not trying to think of books I read 4 months ago. Oops! I've already read another 17 books since these, and didn't finish five more that I just couldn't get into, or were too intense at the time.
If you feel like you don't have the mental bandwidth to get through a book right now, you're not alone. Maybe this will inspire you to try again when you're ready. I do the vast majority of my reading on the Kindle app on my phone while I put my kids to bed.
If you have been reading, I'd love to hear what you're reading now, or a recent favorite!
Or grab a copy of my book for your kids so they can do activities while you read in peace!