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2023 Book Reviews

I like to end every year reviewing some books that came out within that year, so these are some from 2023. I ended up with several new cookbooks this year (two from creators I like and one that I picked up randomly) and a lot of genre fiction. There are a few anomalies, but that was the general trend.

I wanted to try some more popular books, too, but that didn’t go as well. For instance, early this year, hardly a day went by without me checking a Colleen Hoover book in or out to someone at the library. I tried one of hers, but I just couldn’t get through it. A few more went that way, so I went back to reading things that looked interesting to me. These are the books I’m reviewing this year:

  • Shut Up and Write the Book by Jenna Moreci – 4/5
  • How to Sell a Haunted House by Grady Hendrix – 2/5
  • Lone Women by Victor LaValle – 3/5
  • Tasting History by Max Miller with Ann Volkwein – 5/5
  • Above Ground by Clint Smith – 3/5
  • Hamra and the Jungle of Memories by Hanna Alkaf – 3/5
  • The House of Wolves by James Patterson & Mike Lupica – 2/5
  • Knife Drop by Nick DiGiovanni – 3/5
  • The Official Five Nights at Freddy’s Cookbook by Rob Morris – 4/5
  • The Skull: A Tyrolean Folktale by Jon Klassen – 4/5
  • A Door in the Dark by Scott Reintgen – 4/5

Shut Up and Write the Book: A Step-by-Step Guide to Crafting Your Novel from Plan to Print by Jenna Moreci – 4/5

I read the Advanced Reader Copy of this book at the beginning of the year. The book is part instruction, part motivation. It doesn’t go deep into any topic, but it’s a good overview with some helpful tips throughout and end-of-chapter summaries for reference. It’s very informal and has the very strong voice that you’ll know if you watch her YouTube channel. (Be advised, she sometimes uses strong language in both her videos and this book.) It’s easier to read than a lot of how-to guides, and it has some food for thought.

How to Sell a Haunted House by Grady Hendrix – 2/5

It might be unfair to this book, but I’m going to have to review it by comparing it to another book, because that’s the only way I think of it. Shortly before reading this book, I read a book that came out last year (Thistlefoot by GennaRose Nethercott) that also dealt with a brother and sister inheriting a mystical house and fighting over it, and the sister is frustrated with her unreliable brother, and puppets come to life. Both were about family relations, and I can see where both authors were going with the story, but in both cases, the characters annoyed me, and the book was a slog to get through at times. Thistlefoot at least occasionally interspersed the family drama with the more interesting perspectives of the house and the villain. The villain in Haunted House is your run-of-the-mill haunted puppet, and there was nothing to break up the story. I would’ve liked some highs and lows to take me on an emotional rollercoaster. Instead, the characters marched on through their misery, and I was left feeling tired at the end. Without any variation in the book, it didn’t give me the thrills I was looking for in a horror novel.

Lone Women by Victor LaValle – 3/5

The two things the author did well are: portraying interesting characters and developing a sense of suspense around the central horror element. Unfortunately, there were a lot of little things that kept jarring me out of the story, like odd perspective shifts. There was often something modern about the narrative, like saying a kid went to “bop around” with some others. There was also one time when the author broke the fourth wall a ways into the story, even though this wasn’t a regular/established device. It might sound nitpicky, but these choices added up, and they kept yanking me out of the story.

Tasting History by Max Miller with Ann Volkwein – 5/5

This must be the year of YouTuber books for me. This one, I eagerly preordered, and it met all my expectations. The YouTube channel Tasting History with Max Miller showcases historical recipes and modifies them so they can be done with modern ingredients and equipment. At the same time, it offers some relevant historical context to flesh out the subject and make it more interesting.

The book is exactly the same, and it compiles a lot of the recipes from the show itself. Recipes are organized by place and time (and there’s a good range for both). The book comes with the original recipes and the modern equivalent recipes, plus that historical context. Pictures in the book are a mixture of old illustrations and some beautiful photography of finished products. It’s informative and attractively laid out. The recipes are easy to follow. If you’re a fan of food and/or history, I’d strongly recommend the book, the channel, or both. If you try some of the recipes yourself, it can give you an immersive (and tasty) historical experience.

Above Ground by Clint Smith – 3/5

Even though I’m not a big fan of free verse poetry, there were a few lines here and there that made me smile or made me think. Some of the poems even had enough of these moments that I’m glad I read them. The better ones tended to be the shorter, focused poems – usually the personal ones about fatherhood. They gave his unique perspective on his kids, and that carried his emotions along with it. There were a few other interesting ones, like one about the difference punctuation can make in a sentence. If the whole book was like this, I would’ve really liked it. However, some of the poems ran on too long or briefly touched on different subjects without leaving an impact. If you like modern poetry, you’ll probably find some poems in the book that resonate with you.

Hamra and the Jungle of Memories by Hanna Alkaf – 3/5

This is a middle grade fantasy novel, which I read while my library coworkers and I were getting ready for kids’ book talks (from a book list that the school district gave us). I had hopes for this one, but it fell flat for me. It was strong on the real-world characterization without enough weight to the fantasy.

Pros: The premise was strong. In this Malaysian retelling of Little Red Riding Hood, a weretiger tells a girl to return him to his human form after she steals from him. She’s a realistic kid – flawed but sympathetic.

Cons: The book’s heavy on dialogue and narration, when I would’ve liked a little more description of the titular jungle, among other things. It would’ve helped to set the scene. Another downside, which had to do with personal preference, was that this book was built around the pandemic lockdown at a point when I’m exhausted by the pandemic and ready for more escapism in my stories. I might feel differently in another decade or two. Lastly, while Hamra got very (understandably) worked up about the pandemic and family problems, she was pretty unfazed by the weretiger. She acted more annoyed than anything else. It’s hard for me to feel like a character is in danger if she doesn’t feel like it, so I couldn’t get invested.

Side Note: The book I liked best from Book Talk prep was Refugee by Alan Gratz. It came out a few years ago, so it doesn’t fit the requirements of my list here, but it’s still worth a recommendation. The book rotates between the stories of three refugee kids in their families from different places and times. The stories are woven together to connect the characters. There’s plenty of suspense and heart, and I cared about all three stories and their protagonists.

The House of Wolves by James Patterson & Mike Lupica – 2/5

If you see a book by James Patterson and Mike Lupica, you might expect a thriller about sports. This is a sports book with some family drama and a murder mystery, which would be just fine, except that it wasn’t memorable or page-turning enough for me.

The main problem is the pacing. While the book starts out with a murder, and there are other problems and threats, the murder takes a back seat for most of the book. Even when the investigation and the lead detective start to appear more, the murder is still less important than everything else. It’s not treated as a priority or threat in any way – just a fact of life. The other problems the characters face, mainly football wins and media relations, go in a repetitive loop.

During all of their problems, major and minor, the text is constantly telling the reader what’s happening instead of showing it. This is especially notable in the dialogue, where it flips back and forth between regular dialogue tags and narrative text explaining what the characters said. The weird narration takes the reader out of the story, and it takes longer to say the same thing. And this happens the entire book. Similarly, there are plenty of scenes where characters are building up for a confrontation, the chapter cuts off, and the next chapter opens with one character recapping the confrontation for someone else. It sucks away the emotion and tension, and it’s very distracting.

Besides pacing issues, the book lacks individuality. The story is structured around the usual tropes for sports dramas and dysfunctional families. There’s nothing new here. I only found one character in the entire book memorable in any way (a replacement quarterback who has a bit of flair and some character ups and downs). The whirlwind of generic names doesn’t help. There were too many characters, and they all had names like Ted, Chris, and Ryan that do nothing to stand out. The main family’s surname was Wolf, which did stand out, but it was done to death as a metaphor.

Knife Drop by Nick DiGiovanni – 3/5

This book is clearly written, and the author seems personable, but the book wasn’t as original as I would’ve liked (barring the inclusion of QR codes linking the reader to some extra video tips). Most of the recipes are fancier versions of common foods, which is fine, but I would’ve liked something new mixed in.

That being said, the recipes I tried were decent. There were also a few ideas I’ll incorporate into my cooking, even if I don’t use the full recipe. For instance, I hadn’t thought of adding chicken bouillon powder into my scrambled eggs, and that works well, even if I don’t go all out and make crème fraîche and such to fold in every time. Ditto for adding browned butter to more things.

The Official Five Nights at Freddy’s Cookbook by Rob Morris – 4/5

Even though I’ve stopped reviewing most of the FNaF books because they were taking too much space on my yearly recap posts, I’ll make an exception for this one since it breaks the format. If I were rating it on its merits as a FNaF tie-in, it would easily be a 5/5. It has recipes for foods from the franchise, plenty of inside jokes, and a fun layout.

I have to take a point off for the book as a cookbook, because there aren’t as many recipes there as I would like. As for the recipes that are there, most of them come in chunks. We get one base ingredient (like pizza dough or burger mix), and then a few recipes using that base in different ways. This makes sense from an in-universe perspective, since a lot of restaurants do this rather than making all new recipes from scratch. For this real-world cookbook, though, the authors are banking on the audience liking those few things. So far, the recipes that I’ve made from here so far have been really tasty. (The salmon burger had a surprisingly layered flavor.) I just wish there was more variety, especially in the side dishes.

The Skull: A Tyrolean Folktale by Jon Klassen – 4/5

This was a kids’ book that was recommended to me and I enjoyed reading. It’s a reimagining of a folktale where a young girl runs away from home and befriends a skull. The story’s dark in places but very sweet, and it has beautiful artwork.

A Door in the Dark by Scott Reintgen – 4/5

Just like my review of the Hendrix book, I’m going to have to compare A Door in the Dark to another book from last year– in this case Babel by R.F. Kuang. Both were dark academia books about young adults in magic universities where the lead character is extremely talented but part of a small group in the school fighting an uphill battle against classism. As it happens, the strengths of one were the weaknesses of the other. If someone could combine the two, it would make for a fantastic fantasy novel.

While Babel was slow-moving and repetitive, it excelled in world-building, creating a magic system that tied smoothly into the plot and the themes. It could also be poetic at times. A Door in the Dark has a magic society that’s more disjointed. However, this book moves at a good pace. I wanted to know what would happen, and I had a good time reading it. This is one of the few 2023 books I read that made me want to read more, so I’ll definitely check out the sequel next year.

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