Secret Moments in a Crowded Room

Yes, all three Jasmine Guillory books have T.Swift lyrics in their review title. I can’t help it these two women absolutely kill it in their respective careers.

And when I say Guillory is killing it, I mean it; she may just be sliding her way into my favorite author slot. I can say that confidently after reading three of her five novels. I knew I’d found a stellar author after reading The Proposal in 2019, and recently reading her debut, The Wedding Date, confirmed it for me. I loved it so much that I instantly threw away by #tbr list to divulge into Guillory’s next chronological novel, The Wedding Party.

I read two Guillory books in less than two weeks, and it may have been the two best literary weeks of 2020. The Wedding Party didn’t quite top her previous two books I’d read, but I still enjoyed every moment of it. And Guillory once again gave me everything I loved in her previous work: realistic characters with depth, diversity, entertainment, wit, and a whole lot of love — both literally and euphemistically.

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At Least We Were Electrified

I owe chick lit an apology. Too often this year, I’ve used the genre as a clutch and as an escape. Read something sad? Life and the world are blowing up? No worries; let’s check in with chick lit for a pick-me-up. It will surely turn things around. How did one of my favorite genres become my sidepiece when the going got tough?

Such an amazing genre deserves better, so to end 2020, I decided to make chick lit my main squeeze, starting with Paris for One. By the time I finished it, I knew I had to continue on my Tour de Fun with these light-hearted and entertaining novels by turning to one of the best in the genre: Jasmine Guillory.

I first met Guillory’s writing in the summer of 2019 with her five-flame second book, The Proposal, which is actually the second of five very loosely connected books that Guillory has written. The Proposal was so much fun, made me laugh, and made my mouth salivate with all of its delicious food scenes. Not to mention the characters and their arcs had some serious depth and dealt with real-life issues rather than just romantic clichés. Oh, and it’s full of diversity. If it sounds like Guillory’s books have it all, that’s because they do, which was proven once again in her debut, The Wedding Date. And yes, somehow things got even spicier with this one.

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Bon Voyage

Life is all about balance, right? Well, it definitely applies to literature. At a few points this year, I found myself emotionally affected by books I was reading. The human experience can be some deep shit, and when you’re living it every day, you don’t always want it in your literature. Here Comes the Sun, Normal People, and A Little Life have all had profound effects on my moods and emotions, and I had to quickly proceed these books with fun picks that would distract me from literary chaos and that which exists in the real world.

For the first time in years, though, I recently had to stop a book in the middle of it and find something else as a distraction. Reading two books at once isn’t really a concept my brain understands, but it was something I desperately needed in November. After Kyle and I witnessed a tragedy outside our apartment, my mental health just couldn’t endure Yaa Gyasi‘s powerful and emotional second novel Transcendent Kingdom.

So I scoured available chick lit novels at my library while halfway through Gyasi’s book. I really wanted to continue it, but I knew my heart and brain couldn’t. Eventually I landed on a Jojo Moyes novel: Paris for One. Now, I had some trepidations about this pick. I’ve only read Moyes’ Louisa Clark series, which I loved, and The Giver of Stars, which gave me “meh” lit feels. My skepticism had less to do with her so-so latest book and more to do with the fact that Me Before You almost had me in tears on the subway. Yes, I would generally consider Moyes’ novels to live in the chick lit realm, but her books certainly aren’t devoid of sadness. (News flash: Chick lit isn’t all fluff!) Was this a risk worth taking when my mental health was already teetering?

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A Broken Hallelujah

In a recent #grateful post, I wrote how virtual book events have been a true joy in a year full of crap. One of those events featured author Yaa Gyasi. I previously didn’t know much about her new novel, Transcendent Kingdom, but I had read her debut, Homegoing. If her previous work indicated anything, her latest would surely impress me. Somehow her spoken word at that event transcended just as powerfully as her written word, and I was captivated for the full hour. Also, I’d love for her voice to narrate my life. (Sorry, Morgan Freeman.) I couldn’t wait for Transcendent Kingdom to show up at my apartment.

Gyasi definitely didn’t let me down and even stepped up her already-impressive literary game with her sophomore publication. It’s hard to put down this novel, and Gyasi will get the best of your emotions. (Fair warning: It’s emotionally tough to read.) She deserves every ounce of praise she’s earned for her second book. In a year full of garbage fires, this is the type of flame we actually need and should be grateful for.

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You Never Forget Your First

I keep an ongoing to-do list on my phone. Every time I finish a book, I add the future review to that list. Every time I think of an “Extra Extra” idea, I add it as well. For the last six months, the top of that list has read “Why I Don’t Have One-Flame Reviews.”

It’s not that every book I read is five-flame fabulous or that I go too easy on books. On the contrary, I tend to round down if I initially want to give a book half of a flame. Earlier this year, I realized that the reason I don’t have any one-flame reviews is because I likely wouldn’t even finish a book if I felt that harshly toward it.

Well, that all changed when I picked up a book that’s received quite a bit of attention in 2020 and that was written by an author whose previous work I thoroughly enjoyed. Before reading The Book of Lost Friends, I knew that — in addition to liking the author — this novel fell into the historical fiction realm, took place after a war, and had powerful themes about literature. All things considered, it was certainly poised to be a top contender for my annual “Ranked” list.

Not long after I started it, though, I heard that familiar echo of the white savior and the tone-deaf decision for a white woman to write from a Black person’s perspective, and it irked me in every single way. To a lesser degree, I also was bothered by incongruent storylines, stereotypes, unfulfilling foreshadowing, and an overabundance of detail. I guess there’s a first for everything.

Source: Amazon.com
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Nice to Have a Friend

Mental health seems to be an increasingly common theme in literature. Amen. In fact, books are part of the reason why I started analyzing my own mental health and recognizing that I needed to take better care of it. I recently opened up about starting therapy back in May, and I really believe that reading about so many book characters’ experiences with therapy and about their struggles influenced me to seek help too.

Sometimes books about mental health struggles can intensify your own though. It’s not that they’re bad, but when you’re feeling sad, reading about someone else’s sadness — though making you realize you’re not alone — makes you spiral. That’s what happened recently when I read the profound novel, A Little Life. While it was both beautiful and tragic, the latter quality seemed to take over my own feelings.

So was I ready to pick up another novel dedicated to the same topic (not to mention just weeks before the election during a pandemic)? Fortunately, The Existence of Amy didn’t give me those negative thoughts and feelings. Rather, I felt a kinship with the main character — even if her experiences were completely different than my own — and I felt a rush of emotion for those closest to me who have helped me along the way. I didn’t finish this book feeling anxious and sad; I left it feeling hopeful and grateful.

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Hungry Eyes

I love food almost much as I love books, and on occasion, it takes the cake (pun totally intended). Surprisingly, unless you count the growing number of cookbooks I possess, rarely do food and literature come in contact with each other in my life. They did earlier this year when I read a dreadful book about a supper club. (It was more coming-of-age/confusing drama than supper club, though). That was less than satisfying.

Recently, I finished A Little Life and felt my soul sink to a new low; something can be four or five flames without providing contentment. So BLL friend Dana came through once again when I told her I needed an absolute joyous read that was both flameworthy and would bring me zero sadness.

Zero. Zip. Zilch. Nada.

Enter: A memoir by a former New York Times restaurant critic.

I distinctly remember laughing on page two of Garlic and Sapphires and thinking I had found the perfect pick-me-up. That laughter returned at many, many points during this book, and I also remember a lot of New York nostalgia and my constantly growling stomach … perhaps that’s just par for the course for this book-lovin’ foodie.

Source: Target
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Toe to Toe: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Let me repeat my favorite mantra: literature changes lives. Pick a few of my reviews at random, and my point will be proven. Mary Ann Shaffer must have also strongly believed that when she started writing The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

Say what? What about potatoes?

I know I know. It’s a very odd title, but does it grab your attention and reel you in? Of course, and that’s why it’s a great title. That’s what great books deserve, and that’s exactly what Shaffer’s novel is.

I read this novel at the beginning of the pandemic (apologies for the delay!), and it easily earned four flames. It was moving, funny, heartbreaking and heartwarming, and just a great story. It’s also a movie on Netflix that came out in 2018. Many people have recommended this book to me, including my friend Danielle, who I watched this movie with virtually (#coronavirus). After indulging in this adventure yet again — as well as Michiel Huisman who dreamily plays Dawsey Adam — I decided to take the movie and book toe to toe.

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Love is a Battlefield

I’ve talked several times about not growing up with people who looked, lived, or believed differently than I did, and that lack of diversity influenced my life. When it comes to family, though, it doesn’t matter where you grow up or how you’re raised; we can all relate to having familial disputes.

If there were ever a year for family disagreements, 2020 would smoke the competition. With a heated election, a pandemic, and racial conversations heightening all of the emotions, there are bound to be intense disagreements among family. I’ve definitely experienced my fair share in recent months.

So I was interested that varying viewpoints and morals between a daughter and her family served the focal point for Amulya Malladi’s The Mango Season. Traveling to a new country and reading about a culture completely different than my own made it that much more dynamic.

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Stuck in Reverse

Let’s be frank: There’s a lot of shit in the world today. And 2020 alone is the largest dumpster fire imaginable. So with all the sadness, injustice, hypocrisy, and frustration in the world, I try to find joy wherever possible.

Let me be frank again. There isn’t an ounce of joy in A Little Life. So was this the greatest book for me to be reading or the smartest choice right now when I’ve consciously tried to avoid depressing books in this terrible year? No, no it was not.

But was it a good book? Definitely. It was beautiful and moving and insightful and heartbreaking and possessed all the qualities that make great literature so powerful. And yes, I am glad I read this book and so thankful for my coworker in Germany (yes, Germany — what a saint) who bought this book for me after our many, many discussions about how much he loved it.

Seriously, though, I could have done without 800+ pages of sadness.

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