Books We Loved, June 2021
Updated: Jul 14
Leigh Bardugo, Shadow and Bone (Henry Holt, 2021)
I read Shadow and Bone after watching the fantasy Netflix series of the same name. It’s based on the Russian-influenced Grishaverse world that bestselling author Leigh Bardugo created. The Netflix series seems to be an amalgam of several different books, in which the plot lines have been reworked to intersect, so the novel Shadow and Bone is not as intricately plotted—or confusing, depending on your perspective. Certainly, we get to know the characters better through reading the book, and their motivations are clearer.
Alina Starkov, a cartographer in the continuing war, is an unassuming narrator who has no unique characteristics. She’s not especially pretty, she doesn’t revel in the company of others, nor does she have any striking talents. (From that perspective, she’s perhaps a YA character that many teens can relate to.) An orphan, she does have one significant relationship, with her best friend from childhood, Mal. Mal is an amazing, handsome tracker and has his own circle of devoted friends. Aline, serving alongside him in the army, increasingly feels peripheral.
When Mal almost dies during the crossing of a dangerous magical chasm of darkness which has sundered the land, Alina instinctively protects him, thus discovering her latent magic. She’s then whisked off to be trained as a magician under the auspices of the Darkling, the most powerful witch at the court of the Tsar. The Darkling has dedicated himself to the rehabilitation of witches after the creation of the monster-infested chasm through magic hundreds of years ago. He becomes Alina’s advocate at the Court of the Tsar. Soon Alina, feeling neglected by Mal, is drawn to the Darkling’s charisma and attentiveness, as well as his humanitarian intentions.
But things aren’t always what they seem, and Bardugo has some surprises in store.—GM
Emily Henry, Beach Read (Penguin, 2020)
January Andrews is a romance writer with a rapidly approaching deadline and no good ideas. To make matters worse, she’s just lost her father and learned at the funeral that he had a secret second life. Coming to terms with a dirty family secret while trying to find inspiration for a bestseller won’t be easy, but maybe living in a charming cottage overlooking Lake Michigan will make it easier.
Then again, the cottage is the love nest January’s father shared with the Other Woman. And her next-door neighbor—who not only blasts glum rock on repeat in the middle of the night and just happens to be her gorgeous, if insufferable, college rival—is also acclaimed literary darling Augustus Everett. So maybe the beachside house isn’t the best place for January to exorcise her demons.
But without anywhere else to go, a strained relationship with her mother, and e-mails from her agent appearing with increasing frequency, January settles into the uncomfortable reality of a summer on Lake Michigan as she forces herself to write and enters a truce with Gus that sees them trading places to get the creative juices flowing. Gus, who has a strong disdain for Happily-Ever-Afters, vows to write a romance novel while January, who no longer believes in true love anyway, accepts the challenge of writing something dark and gritty. As the summer, and their novels, progress, January and Gus learn more about each other and start to wonder if the end of summer won’t be the beginning of something more.
The title Beach Read hints at a story that’s fluffy, lacking in depth, and easily forgotten as soon as the last page is read. But while this is the perfect book to read with your toes in the sand or between dips in the pool, it’s more substantial than superficial, with appealing and relatable characters with real-life problems, a small-town beach setting you’ll want to visit in real life, and a satisfying ending.—CJH
Garrett Hutson, Assassin’s Hood
(Warfleigh Publishing, 2019)
This sequel to 2017’s The Jade Dragon picks up the story of Douglas Bainbridge, a lieutenant commander in the US Navy who travels somewhat undercover, six months after his arrival in Shanghai for a two-year immersion program in Chinese language and culture. He is still recovering emotionally from the events of the first book, in which a friend he hasn’t seen since childhood is found murdered in a back alley before Doug can even settle into his new apartment. When it becomes clear that the police have no interest in solving the crime, Doug’s sense of obligation to his friend sends him on a hunt for the killer. But his unfamiliarity with Shanghai and its customs force him into a reluctant partnership with an often-grumpy journalist known as Jonesy, in the process battling a powerful crime gang, the Chinese and Japanese secret services, the communist insurgency, and corrupt authorities.
By the time Assassin’s Hood begins in November 1935, Doug has mastered Shanghainese and is putting down roots in the city while awaiting the return of Lucy Kinzler, the girlfriend he met on the boat over, from the United States. He receives an ultimatum from the local communist cell that sends him to Hong Kong with the approval of his bosses at US Naval Intelligence. That trip rebounds on Doug with a vengeance when someone starts assassinating Japanese naval officers and civilians, both in Shanghai and elsewhere in China. The Japanese secret service focuses its attention on him, determined to discover what he did in Hong Kong and why. But many forces may stand behind the killings: the Nationalist government, the communists, either of two criminal organizations, or even one of these groups framing another. With help from Jonesy and Lucy—now back in Shanghai—Doug sets out to discover the truth.
These are fast-moving, well-written murder mysteries with a refreshing take on the complexities of Chinese culture in this difficult period leading up to the Japanese invasion of 1937. The characters have enough disagreements and flaws to keep them interesting, and the theme of various characters’ homosexuality and Doug’s growing acceptance of them is well handled. I’m looking forward to book 3, due to come out in the fall.—CPL
Cherie Jones, How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House (Little Brown, 2021)
How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House is as colorful as its title and as sparkling as the island of Barbados, where the story takes place. It’s also painful, like so many stories that focus on communities whose ancestors were initially brought over from West Africa as slaves during European colonization. Women from these communities have been doubly debased. Even after emancipation, even after decolonization (Barbados became an independent state in 1966), they were made to continue to endure the abusive patriarchy dominant among their own people. They endured for so long, in fact, that—this point is made clear in the book—they came to blame themselves for the abuses inflicted on them by men. As Wilma, the grandmother of LaLa (LaLa is the main character in the book), confirms, the women in her family have for generations been cursed with the ability to bewitch men. They can’t help it. And men cannot help the things they do to them.
How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House takes place in 1984. The title comes from a cautionary tale that Wilma tells LaLa, in the hope that her granddaughter will stay out of trouble … or at least stay away from a series of underground shafts and tunnels where criminal activities and other dark deeds are known to take place. Not only does LaLa ignore her, but she moves into her lover/husband Adan’s house (a shack on the beach) located near the mouth of the tunnels. Before long she is practically a prisoner there, in part because of Adan’s possessiveness and violent inclinations, and in part because the steep cement staircase (25 steps in all) leading from the door of the shack to the ground has no railing and is increasingly difficult to navigate once LaLa is pregnant.
For the tourists, of course, the island is paradise—the sun, the white sands, the glittering sea. LaLa understands something of the dichotomy between the two worlds, because she works on the tourist beach braiding and beading the silky hair of vacationers and has a view of the beautiful beach houses they stay in. On the night that she is compelled to descend the treacherous stairs at Adan’s house in the dark so as to search for him—because she is bleeding and in pain and afraid of losing her baby—she knows instinctively that she will find him “working” in the tourist area. She does, and the events that unfold that night drive the plot thereafter.
How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House is nonlinear and told from multiple perspectives. The story wobbles back and forth between the tourist community and the area of the beach where the shacks and caves are located. It is always rich, often dangerous, and downright dazzling—a wonderful, eye-opening, honest read.—JS