Angry Angel Books: Top 7 Books of 2020

Welcome to the year of hell where anything goes! Recently I’ve been discouraged because I can’t seem to calm my brain down enough to pay attention to any book, but when I looked back at the year as a whole, I discovered that I had read several that I really enjoyed earlier in the year.

If you’re like me and can barely concentrate long enough to read an article, these books were compelling enough to hold my attention. Maybe they will do the same for you. Grab a bottle of wine and read your way into the new year.

The Institute

A fantastic blend of horror, sci-fi, and fantasy, this was a book I could not put down from top to bottom.

Review: The Institute

The Nickel Boys

A glimpse inside the famous Dozier School for Boys in Florida and how white and black juveniles received two different types of punishment. A fictional story that covers a very real school’s horrific past.

Review: The Nickel Boys

Recursion

A smart sci-fi time travel adventure that not only asks if we could do something but also whether we should.

Review: Recursion

Wow, No Thank You

A collection of essays from the hilarious, raunchy, and insightful Samantha Irby. Always a must read.

Review: Wow, No Thank You

The Janes

There is no better mystery/thriller author writing in this moment. You should also read Two Girls Down first for context on the main characters

Review: The Janes (Alice Vega #2)

Where the Crawdads Sing

Have you been abandoned by people you love and forced to create a life and figure out the world on your own, only to be taken advantage of along the way? Are you at your most comfortable in solitude? This book will reach into your heart and whisper “you’re doing okay kid, keep going.”
Review: Where the Crawdads Sing

The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires

Suburban housewives band together to rid their subdivision of a literal vampire, but must first overcome their husbands to get it done. A real parable, this one.

Review: The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires

Return to Hogwarts: Prisoner of Azkaban

Sorcerer’s Stone
Chamber of Secrets

This is one of my favorite books of the series. The things that happen make sense for the most part, they reveal more of the history of Harry’s circumstances, and they set the stage for things to get much, much worse. I love the mystery of Sirius Black and how Remus Lupin helps him. I love the idea of the Marauder’s Map and the magic of Hogsmeade (I gotta get in Honeyduke’s). I love that Hagrid gets to be a teacher in a subject that is 100% in his lane and he picks a book that chomps. This book lets each character shine and really cements who they are and what their purposes are.

There are also less places for me to quibble about in this book. There’s no Harry facing off with Professor Quirrel/Voldemort after facing a magical obstacle course or Harry fighting a basilisk after finding the entrance to a chamber that adults should have found years ago. Prisoner of Azkaban is just teenagers doing teenager things and facing above average danger along the way. It’s a really great story.

It’s also the first time Harry begins to form a found family. There is someone out there that knew his parents and is his godfather and wants to support him, plus one of his teachers ends up being one of his dad’s best friends too. He already has his friends but this is different, these are adults who care about him because they want to, not because they are a teacher or otherwise obligated.

This is also a book where Hermione really shines. Punching Draco, using the time turner, learning so many subjects – this is a book about how essential Hermione is to Harry’s story. Dumbledore absolutely knows how important she is, hence the permission to use the time turner to take more classes to learn more than she normally would. She also comes out of her shell a bit in terms of following the rules. Where before she was a stickler, she’s starting to see that the world isn’t black and white, that sometimes to do what’s right you have to live in the grey.

Ron continues to be the most useless, terrible character in this entire series. He has one bright moment in the Philosopher’s Stone where he’s good at chess (?) but then we forget about that and he just continues to be poor and dumb with very few redeeming qualities. He’s the every man that’s there to ground Harry maybe? Pressure him into just being a normal kid that doesn’t like homework and messes around instead of growing into his birthright as the chosen one and being awesome at everything? I’m not sure, but I’ve never liked Ron and this book did not help his case.

I love this book. I love that rereading it only confirmed that it was one of my favorites. Now onto the largest book in the series and we’ll see if it holds up as one of my favorites as well.

The Hunger Games (The Hunger Games #1)

I know, I know, I’m two thousand and late with this one but lately starting a new book I’ve never read has been difficult. I’m re-reading the Harry Potter books and I decided to revisit The Hunger Games trilogy as well. I’ve never actually read Mockingjay (the third book), only seen the terrible movies, and this will be my chance to see if the book is better.

The first book in this trilogy goes so fucking hard. Honestly the speed with which Collins moves you through the absolute, gut-wrenching trauma of this universe is really spectacular. The first chapter manages to familiarize us with District 12, Katniss, her family’s history, her survival skills, her love for her sister, and the 74th Hunger Games reaping all in one short chapter and it’s simply amazing. I’ve read this book before and I was still hooked immediately and couldn’t stop reading.

What I like most about the story is the bright elements of humanity scattered throughout. In the midst of teenagers murdering each other for the entertainment of the entire nation, we still see friendships, empathy, support, grief, and love. I would argue that these elements are made even more stark when staged against the bloodbath and terror of the games. They give you a moment to breathe before you’re watching Katniss or Peeta fight/run for their lives again.

The trilogy as a whole (again, I’ve never read the third book, only seen the movies based on it) tracks Katniss’ journey from having no choice to being able to choose and claim agency. In this first book her survival skills and management of her family’s day to day operations is not her choice, it is essential and necessary if she wants to keep them all alive. Her inclusion in the games may seem like a choice, but again keeping her family alive and safe isn’t a choice, it’s duty to her. There was no other option but to volunteer in Prim’s place. Even in the Games she has no choice but to act like she is in love with Peeta because their “star crossed lovers” routine earns them sponsors and gifts in the arena, and she has promised Prim to try to win. Everything in this first book is something she must do, not anything she chooses to do.

This is a book that speaks to me on many levels. The idea of an obligation being disguised as a choice happens to people who are on the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder all the time. Just because we are presented with options does not mean that they are all viable choices we can make. The choice Katniss has between poaching and death, learning safe, edible plants or dying, volunteering for the Games or having Prim go and die – none of these are choices between this or that. They are obvious directives.

Right now we are in the middle of a global pandemic, and school districts around the country are boasting about offering parents a choice: online or back to physical school. Aren’t we magnanimous to offer these options! Parents get to choose what is best for their families! In reality more well-off families, or parents who work from home will be able to keep their students SAFE, while other parents must send their kids back because they have to go to work and while they are given options, they don’t really have a choice.

Even farther down (further down? fuck it, I’m not looking it up) teachers were given options too! Come back to physical schools, teach a combo of online or in-person, or teach online only from home. If none of these worked for a teacher, they could resign, retire, or take a leave of absence. The only trick was that the availability of online only or the combo options depended on the responses from the parent survey. So, for example, if a school had 100% of the kids say they were coming back, no teacher assigned to that school would be able to teach safely from home even if they chose that option. Even if they had cancer. Even if they had asthma. Even if they had any number of conditions. Even if they were simply scared to work in unsafe conditions. Teachers had no choice at all – their preference was left to the mercy of however many kids came back or not.

Is it The Hunger Games? No, but the spirit of the Games is present here in America in 2020. No choice, fighting for survival and resources, and lining up to see the case and death numbers rise without doing anything to stop it. At all the state and federal Capitols they sit in their money and glamour and watch as we fight and try to survive, and it doesn’t even touch them. They have no concept of what living in America costs, whether those costs be financial or emotional, and even if they do they do not care. It’s more entertaining to watch us fight for scraps.

Reading this book right now is so necessary, it’s so relevant. If you haven’t read it before, you should. You might recognize more themes from our own reality than you expect. Go get you some.

The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires

I thought that when I finished Where the Crawdads Sing I had used up my excellent book karma for the entire year. Oh boy was I wrong. Grady Hendrix has spun a yarn here that is so vibrant and arresting that by the end I actually had to go lie down to slow my speeding heartbeat.

I felt so many emotions. Horror and fear of course, but anger at how badly the women of the group are treated by their husbands. The eighties and nineties really suffered from a 1950s hangover in terms of how wives and housewives were treated (although I would argue that married women/mothers are still not treated well or equitably, but this book takes place in the eighties and nineties so that’s the context for now).

I was heartened by how the women supported each other. Whether it was childcare, cleaning, elder care, carpools, you name it and the women were a closely knit team who had each other’s backs.

Hendrix wove racial differences between communities into the story seamlessly. Mrs. Greene, the black housekeeper that the MC hires to take care of her elderly mother-in-law that comes to live with them full time, brings the vampire activity to the women’s attention showing them how the black children were falling prey to him and because they were from the black community it never made the papers and anyone outside the black neighborhood didn’t notice.

First the vampire came for the black children, and the women tried to do something but were thwarted by the men, and so Mrs. Greene was left out to dry, her beliefs about white people reaffirmed.

You will hate most of the men by the end of this, but it will be a hatred of their own making. Everything they do is 100% realistic and you’ll recognize all of them. You’ll be frustrated that the women threaten to break apart because they feel a stronger allegiance to their husbands than to each other. All you will want is for the women to forget about their husbands and get together to destroy this leech and keep everyone safe. I found myself continually returning to the rallying cry of today: Believe the women!!! If only the men had believed them from the start, but then we wouldn’t have been given the entirety of this amazing book.

This is an amazing, original take on the vampire story. If you have the time you will read it in one sitting. I was disappointed when I had to put it down to go to sleep or do other things. If you can stomach a little gore and horror, this is a tale that illuminates so much more than good versus evil and you will want to read it. Go get you some immediately!

Where the Crawdads Sing

Every once in awhile I read a book that is so beautiful, so well written, and so personal that I want to recommend it to everyone I meet. It’s the kind of book that is difficult to explain why you should read it, and all that comes out is a garble of “just read it, TRUST ME!” Well, my friends, Where the Crawdads Sing is one of those books.

The solitude of the main character Kya is what makes this book absolutely heart-wrenching. People help her along the way (and discriminate against her ruthlessly) but from child to old woman she is essentially alone and how she navigates that life is the lifeblood of this story. Watching her try to survive in the marsh as her family leaves her one by one, first her mother, then her siblings, and finally her father; seeing the few people who know what her situation is but don’t turn her in to the social services and instead help her survive – I didn’t know I was holding my breath through the entire first half of the book because even I didn’t want her to lose her marsh, her wildlands, her seagulls.

I was inspired by how she made a life out of nothing and how she found joy without other people. My heart broke for her when she trusted and saw that trust betrayed. I was furious when her naivete was taken advantage of. Despite all the bad, Kya finds joy in her simple life and it is a good lesson to receive from such a good book.

I haven’t come across many books about “white trash” in my reading, and so many aspects of Kya’s experience hit home for me, more than I want to admit. This book made me cry several times, not only because the story was powerful but because I remembered feeling what Kya was feeling in relationship to the larger world and the dangers it holds.

This book is powerful in an era where we are increasingly talking about how we need to understand each other better and do away with discrimination and oppression. And from an educator’s standpoint, Kya is an extreme example of the need to meet children where they are so they can learn in the way that is best for them, and I wish that we could teach all poor and secluded children the way Kya was taught. There are a multitude of themes to be discussed while reading and this would make an amazing book club pick in 2020.

If you are a woman, you need to read this book. If you are a man who loves a damaged woman, you need to read this book. If you haven’t already, please, go read this book. TRUST ME.

The Janes (Alice Vega #2)

Two Girls Down (Alice Vega #1)

Alex Vega and Max Caplan are back for this Southwest human trafficking adventure! Two Jane Does are discovered in southern California, and the police department there hires Alex Caplan to investigate because they want to keep it off the radar to assist the DEA in their ongoing drug trafficking investigation. She of course calls in her partner Max Caplan, who is so lovesick agrees immediately even though his most recent job just offered him salary and benefits to come on as a full time investigator at their law firm.

This book starts a LOT faster than Two Girls Down and I was very thankful for that. Luna is a talented storyteller and for these kinds of thrillers I just needed her to get straight to the action. Corrupt cops and drug kingpins and human trafficking of children for sex dungeons – there is a lot going on here. And if you think you know where it’s going, you don’t. It’s what makes this book so fucking amazing.

I have to admit that at the start the way Caplan fawns over Vega, even creepily looking in on her through the blinds of her hotel room, kind of hit me the wrong way. It didn’t seem endearing, it felt like it was kind of dancing on the line between lovesick and obsessed and it made me uncomfortable. He’s got some boundaries though, and never acts on anything, so that’s something. I just feel like the way he was written early on kind of soured my view of how cool he was from the first book.

Eventually that resolves so it isn’t a major focus and we’re off to the races. This book has so many layers and every time I peeled one back I was shocked (and a little terrified) to find the next one. I devoured this book, I didn’t want to stop reading. It’s the first book I’ve taken in to read before bed in a long time because I had to squeeze just one more chapter in before I fell asleep.

You don’t have to read Two Girls Down before this one, but if you want to feel invested in the character development between Vega and Cap and Nell and the Bastard, you’ll want to read it first. You won’t mind though, they are both spectacular. Go get you some.

The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past

Zelda Link to the Past

Gameplay Guide

I finally bought a Switch for the husband and myself at the beginning of 2020, luckily before many of the stay at home orders went into place and everyone frantically bought them out of stock. The Nintendo Shop makes many of the past Nintendo and Super Nintendo games available to play, which is nice because I only had a few to play when I was a kid and now I can try more! One of the games I played was The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, but I can’t remember ever finishing it. So I decided to look up a guide online and make my way through.

There are two levels of this game: the three medallions (master sword) and the seven crystal maidens (Ganon). You have to travel around the map to collect the hero medallions to claim the master sword, which you think you are taking to defeat a wizard, but then a dark world is revealed where 7 maidens (including Zelda, who you think you’ve rescued) have been trapped in crystals in order to fuel the portal that the dark lord Ganon is trying to use to enter the light world that you’ve been playing in so far. You have to travel between the light and dark worlds to save the seven maidens, use their power to unlock Ganon’s tower, and defeat Ganon before he brings darkness to the entire universe.

I used this guide to make my way through the world. Not only does it help you through all the bosses and dungeons, but it helps you to make sure you gather all the tools and supplies you need to beat those dungeons, plus a few extra helpful ones (I’m looking at you, Bombos Medallion!). I spaced out my play by playing up to the next big thing, and then going to do something else. I’d play until I got a medallion, then stop. Next medallion, stop. And so on. This has extended my enjoyment through at least 10 days, but it’s taken more because some of the goodies you go to gather take a bit of time too. 

My favorite item of all the ones you follow the guide to collect was the Cane of Byrna. I’m sure others would say it was the Magic Cape (both items protect you from damage when used) but I liked that I could still see Link when I used the cane to protect him (the cape makes you invisible and all you can see is Link’s shadow). Once you have the cane your path to beating a lot of the dungeon monsters, especially in the dark world, is basically clear. You have to stock at least one glass jar with the medicine of magic to make sure you can use it enough, but it was absolutely necessary for me to get up close to some of the big bads without taking damage to swipe with my sword.

A close second was the Bombos Medallion. This medallion is not required for any of the mechanics of the game like the Ether and Quake Medallions are, but using it will clear any room of enemies. If you can see them, the Bombos will get them, and in some of the dungeons with more annoying enemies it was worth it to throw down a Bombos to clear the way.

One of my criticisms of this and many other games like it is that most of what I’ve done would have been next to impossible without a guide. I see now why I probably didn’t finish it in the past, since having to figure some of this out on my own would have proved highly frustrating. Most of my childhood video game participation was Mario-based, and in most of those you have only one direction to go: forward, and only certain items that can help you along the way, but that you don’t have to hold onto to succeed. Zelda games require you to explore, to use logic and process of elimination to make sure you discover all paths and items in order to move forward, and to try multiple ways to solve a problem. Grown-up me wishes that kid me could have been exposed to more games like this so I could have had another venue in which to learn patience and problem-solving.

This remains one of my favorite retro games and has inspired me to try to play through any of the Zelda games that I have access to. When I do, I’ll be sure to post about them here.

Special Note: If you’re interested in playing these retro games without having to shell out the cash for a Switch (if you could even find one to buy right now), there are other ways to play. The NES Nintendo Classic Edition and the Super Nintendo Classic Edition are both preloaded with the classic games and come with the classic controllers you remember. I am not sure about their availability during this pandemic either, but it’s a cheaper way to return to the video games of yesteryear.

 

 

Recursion

Recursion

Dark Matter

I have loved writing this blog over the past 4 years because it has helped me to understand the kind of books that I really love, and those that I would be better to pass by and leave on the shelf. Books that tell futuristic stories that are SUPER plausible are some of my favorites. Recently I read Stephen King’s The Institute which was gripping because 99% of it was plausible and it made the prospects of the psychological fantasy elements that much more terrifying.

Recursion felt to me, at first, a strange Matrix-like story. A chair is invented that can chart your memories, store them, and then reload them into your brain later so you can experience them like it was the first time. It was meant to help people with dementia or other degenerative brain conditions. The chair’s inventor, Helena, is working on this chair to help her mother specifically and is about to run out of funding when she is approached by an Elon Musk-like character Marcus Slade who offers her unlimited dollars to join him on his super-villian-esque oil rig that has been refitted as a research facility and finish her work on the chair. This begins a chain of events that seem very tangled at first but as you read become terrifyingly clear.

This story is not a memory story but a time travel story, and the idea is so bold and so well executed that I was awe-struck by Crouch’s ingenuity. Where did he get this idea? This is wild and amazing and captivating. The second half the book, a full 150 pages, I read all in one night because I could not put it down. Then I spent the next week thinking about which memories I would choose to travel back to in order to change my life. And not to leave anything undone, Crouch also weaves in fairly severe consequences for traveling in this way, making me think twice about whether it would be worth it.

If you like sci-fi that keeps your feet on the ground and messes with actual systems and forces that run our lives day to day, you cannot miss Crouch’s works. They are close enough to real that they make you wonder about what is possible, and then freak you out because it might actually happen. Go get you some.

The Shadow Glass (The Bone Witch #3)

The Bone Witch (The Bone Witch #1)

The Heart Forger (The Bone Witch #2)

Something that I truly believe about books is that they have the power to grab hold of you and not let go. When I first read The Bone Witch, I thought it was pretty good and returned it to the library. But then my mind kept coming back to it and thinking about what I had read, and then I decided I might as well find out what happened next. I got my hands on The Heart Forger and cried harder than I have cried in a long while after reading a story. These books were so sneaky! How did I come to care about this cast of characters in such a short span of time?

The Shadow Glass moves a lot slower than the other two parts of the trilogy. Tea is often out of sight, and we’re watching her friends try to guess at what she’s going to do next. They all know that she is trying to make shadowglass so she can give her brother Fox his life back and supposedly end all magic forever. Her love, Kaden, is helping her achieve this goal. It’s all pointing toward a huge confrontation with an unknown Faceless. They once thought it was a person named Druj but the major twist of the book is that it was someone they knew all along! In my opinion, it could have been anyone and the twist isn’t as meaningful as the author might have thought? I’m not sure.

I won’t spoil the events leading up to the ending, but I will say that it ends just how you think it might, but with some interesting “what ifs” sprinkled in for good measure. This book wasn’t as exciting as its sisters, but it was a satisfying conclusion to a unique trilogy. If you haven’t read this series, you should put it on your summer TBR. Its a good’un.

The Institute

The InstituteThe Institute was a popular one this past year, and when I first put a hold on it at my library I was number 84 on the list. It finally became available with no renewals, because of course someone else was in line behind me to read it, and so I had 14 days to get through this 600 page thrill ride or else send it back or accept the late fines.

I shouldn’t have worried about it. Once I started I couldn’t stop and I was able to finish it in about 8 days. Children are kidnapped from all over the country and taken to the secluded, northern woodlands of Maine to serve at the institute due to their telekinetic or telepathic abilities. Tests and shots and trauma are inflicted in an attempt to enhance these abilities, and then the children are sent to the back half of the institute, from whence they never return. Not surprisingly when our main character Luke is taken, he’s one of the smartest kids to ever enter the institute. When combined with a later arrival Avery, one of the youngest and most powerful telepaths to ever be brought in, they stage an escape that will keep you on the edge of your seat.

I think my favorite King books are the ones that are 90% reality and 10% fantasy. They are the stories that make you believe in the plausibility of the fantastic existing in a world where the daily and mundane tend to hold sway. This story is especially engaging if you know how many children are taken in the US alone every year and never found again; it’s not so unthinkable that something as wild as the institute might be where they were taken, when reality is that it would probably be something just as traumatizing or worse.

Also knowing what I know about northern Maine, you could hide just about anything up there if you had enough money. People say they love Maine but what they mean is that they love the ocean, or Kittery, or Freeport, or Acadia National Park. They don’t know Maine, and the heart of it comes out in so many of King’s books. The terrifying ruralness that hides a multitude of horrors because no one ever goes there to ask questions.

I strongly recommend that you get on your library’s hold list and read this book. It was a fast read for its length, and the story was 100% airtight the entire way. I loved it, and I’m sure you will too. Go get you some.