Mini-Reviews of Recent Reads – February 2022

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My best reading months always include a good variety of types of books, and this one was excellent.

In addition to finishing the audio of The 1619 Project (an excellent read for Black History Month!), I rounded out the past month with a new literary/historical fiction novel, a thoughtful author memoir, a dystopian novella, and a couple of backlist books from my own shelf.

My own reading challenge for the year is to read some select books from my shelf–more on this soon, including my process for planning my challenge.

If you still need to plan your reading challenge, take the quiz to find your style:

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On to the reviews!

Print and E-Books

Black Cake by Charmaine Wilkerson

Black Cake

Author: Charmaine Wilkerson
Source: Random House – Ballantine via Netgalley
Publish Date: February 1, 2022

Following their mother’s death, twins Benny and Byron come together to listen to an audio recording she left them, along with a Caribbean black cake that they are told to eat when the time is right. But first, they must listen: to a history their mother never shared, that began when she was a teen on an island and unfolds in a shocking tale of murder, escape, and abuse—as well as long-held secrets about her own identity and the true nature of their family.

Black Cake is a masterful exploration of generational trauma and how fear can shape lives. Alongside the family narrative is a fascinating food-centered exploration of culture, tradition, and origin, and how those things are changed and shaped over generations. The one will be on many best-of-2022 lists, and it deserves the praise. 5 stars

More info

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The Painter by Peter Heller

The Painter

Author: Peter Heller
Source: My shelf
Publish Date: May 6, 2014

Acclaimed and reclusive artist Jim Stegner spends his days in rural Colorado painting and fly-fishing, mourning the loss of his daughter and his marriage and fighting the violent demons that landed him in prison years ago. On a fishing outing one day, he encounters a man beating a small horse—and his violent tendencies take over. As questions swirl around what happened, Jim retreats to New Mexico, pursued by men looking for revenge.

I was a huge fan of Heller’s The Dog Stars and The River and have been looking forward to reading this one for a long time. While Heller’s trademark evocative nature scenes are present here, and he creates palpable tension (indeed, one of the pursuers in the story is perhaps the most fascinating character, despite being present in only a few scenes), there are a few areas where this falls apart. Notably: the women are all thinly drawn characters, with some of their descriptions so laughable that I almost put the book down early on. Jim is a Hemingway-esque character—tortured, gruff, and self-indulgent. Heller is supremely talented and I’ll continue to read his work, but this one did not work for me. 3 stars

More info

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Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline

Orphan Train

Author: Christina Baker Kline
Source: My shelf
Publish Date: April 2, 2013

In 2011, a teen girl named Molly is close to aging out of foster care–but in the meantime, she remains at the mercy of the system. When she gets in some minor trouble, a friend arranges for her to complete her community service with a local elderly woman who needs help cleaning her attic.

As she helps Vivian sort through her memories, a story emerges: an orphaned girl in the 1920s, loaded onto a train and placed with families in Minnesota. What follows are years of loneliness, mistreatment, and searching for a place to belong.

The history of the orphan trains is interesting; more than 200,000 orphans were shuttled to rural areas of the country. The present-day storyline was weaker than Vivian’s story–I would have preferred that her story stood alone–but I enjoyed learning about this little-known piece of history. 3.5 stars

More info

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The 1619 Project

The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story

Author: Nikole Hannah-Jones
Source: ALC
Publish Date: November 16, 2021

This past month, I spent several weeks listening to The 1619 Project: a New Origin Story, which expands on The New York Times Magazine’s original 1619 project, described as such: “The 1619 Project is an ongoing initiative from The New York Times Magazine that began in August 2019, the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery. It aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.”

The audiobook, narrated by a full cast (mostly the authors themselves), is a full collection of essays, short fiction, and poetry that explores how slavery built America, and how its legacy persists in every aspect of our lives today. Particularly eye-opening are the many aspects of our history—politics, religion, art, economics—that were influenced by dogged determination to maintain slavery, racism, and inequality as institutions.

There is so much to absorb here, and this is a must-read for anyone dedicated to anti-racist education. I often paused to reflect on what I heard, but I plan to also purchase a hard copy of this book to read and more fully understand each essay individually. There is a plethora of excellent books to read this Black History Month, and this may be one of the best. 5 stars

More info

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I Came All This Way to Meet You by Jami Attenberg

I Came All This Way to Meet You: Writing Myself Home

Author: Jami Attenberg
Source: ALC
Publish Date: January 11, 2022

In author Jami Attenberg’s first foray in memoir and nonfiction, she reflects on her nomadic life in pursuit of her art. Years of crashing on couches, funding her own book tours, and taking odd jobs while doggedly persisting in her writing were largely satisfying. But as a single woman moving through life in a non-traditional way, she often faced criticisms and questions from those who chose a more traditional path–forcing her to grapple with whether her own was valid.

Whether you chose a nomadic life or not, Attenberg’s journey is relatable: at some point, all of us must face what we do and don’t want in life, and decide on the big and small things that are important to us–and those things may be different at every stage. Her growing comfort with her own wants and needs is satisfying and insightful. 4 stars

More info

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The Annual Migration of Clouds by Premee Mohamed

The Annual Migration of Clouds

Author: Premee Mohamed
Source: ALC
Publish Date: September 28, 2021

This novella is a compelling imagining of a future after climate disasters have ravaged the world, leaving those remaining struggling to survive in primitive communities. Amid the turmoil emerged a parasite called Cad, which formed a symbiotic relationship with the people it infected–until they died painfully. Reid is a teen girl who has received an offer to attend an elite university–whose existence is only rumored, and that would have been protected from the disasters under a dome.

Thrilled with the offer but uncertain about leaving her mother, who, along with Reid, is also infected with Cad, Reid ponders the impact of her decisions–to leave, to stay, to put others at risk. Literary and thought-provoking, with excellent passages on how the careless consumption and choices of previous generations (i.e., US) created the disasters. 4 stars

More info

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What have you been reading lately?