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March Book Reviews: Elucidating the Star Rating System


A photo collage of the eleven books I read in March 2021

I rate my books according to the five star rating system ubiquitous among the online reading community. But what does each rating really mean? Are they like letter grades, where five stars is an A and one star is an F? Or are they like percentages, wherein three stars is a mere 60%?



The star rating system is its own thing, and here’s how I use it.


⭐️ I hated it

⭐️⭐️ I disliked it

⭐️⭐️⭐️ I liked it

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ I loved it

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ I adored it


I also use 💫 half-stars when I need more precision.


Any book that gets three stars or more is a book I recommend.


In March I picked up eleven books to read. Check out their ratings and reviews below!



1. Conditional Citizens

Laila Lalami

DNF

Conditional Citizens by Laila Lalami

An immigrant from Morocco, Lalami describes the process she underwent toward U.S. citizenship and then contextualizes it with history and politics to demonstrate the patterns of how, despite being a citizen, she is treated differently than white people who were born in this country.


I read about 25% of the book and then didn’t pick it up for days. After reading All the Real Indians Died Off (see review below) and while working through Caste, I didn’t have it in me to read a third book about the need for social justice in the face of systemic discrimination. I may be a white person with a lot to educate myself on, but I don’t need to do it all at once. I DNF’d this for now and reshelved it to be read later.


2. The Mother-in-Law

Sally Hepworth

⭐️⭐️⭐️

The Mother-in-Law by Sally Hepworth

Lucy’s mother-in-law is dead, and it looks like suicide, but might have been murder. So which is it, suicide or murder? And if it’s the latter, who’s guilty?


The audiobook version of this domestic mystery captivated me, and I nearly finished the book in a single day. The writing (and the narrator’s Australian accent) reminded me of Liane Moriarty’s novels as both pick at the surface of a family to see what’s underneath.


I enjoyed unraveling each character’s secrets to the end, but the novel only confirmed my opinion of contemporary thrillers: The characters are written around the plot rather than the characters being developed in a way that propels the plot to its inevitable end. In other words, part of what keeps the mystery is that the characters aren’t written well enough to allow you to predict who has it in them to murder. The author withholds details and therefore manipulates the reader into being surprised when the truth is finally revealed. At first I had fun with the mystery, but the more I thought about the characters, the less convincing the plot became in my mind.


3. Stay Sexy and Don’t Get Murdered

Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark

⭐️⭐️⭐️

Stay Sexy and Don’t Get Murdered by Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark

Karen and Georgia, creators of the podcast My Favorite Murder, wrote a book! It’s the thing to do when you are internet-famous, or a comedian, or a true-crime influencer, and thus this book follows the same genre-niche formula that blends elements of humor and memoir.


I very much enjoy Karen and Georgia. They bring their vulnerable, therapy-raving selves to the pages along with their individual brands of humor in alternating sections of the book. I loved the chapter “Fuck Politeness.” I was further impressed with Georgia’s writing in a section that she interspersed with Ray Bradbury quotes.


However, the humor that works so well for them in the podcast and their live shows doesn’t translate as well in writing. I find this to be true repeatedly with people who become famous for a non-writer reason and then write a book (most notably in comedian Ali Wong’s disappointing memoir Dear Girls). Karen and Georgia are definitely more funny in the podcast whereas the humor in the book has a forced feel to it. I recommend reading the audiobook so that you can hear it in their own voices, which helps compensate for that and makes it more fun.


4. Before the Coffee Gets Cold

Toshikazu Kawaguchi

Translated by Geoffrey Trousselot

⭐️⭐️⭐️💫

Before the Coffee gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi

In a basement cafe in Tokyo is a chair one may sit in to visit the past. Remember to drink up before your coffee gets cold or you won’t be able to come back!


This novella demonstrates the atmospheric, spare prose I’ve come to expect from Japanese writers. Another thing I’ve learned to expect from Japanese fiction is to sit with sadness and explore its facets.


Writing about time travel is tricky. It’s so easy to veer into either contrived or nonsensical territory. In this piece, the time travel works because of all of the rules. Limiting its possibilities allowed me to suspend disbelief more easily.


5. American Royals 2: Majesty

Katharine McGee

⭐️⭐️⭐️💫

American Royals II: Majesty by Katharine McGee

In the American Royals duet, The Princess Diaries meets Downton Abbey in a United States unlike the one we live in. Rather than having an elected president, we have a monarchy that began with King George Washington. Lavish parties, devious schemes, even someone who wakes up from a coma, and the relationship drama, OMG.


In Majesty, Beatrice Washington is now the first Queen of the United States. She’s a young woman navigating how to lead a country in which the citizens aren’t receptive to having a woman lead. Her sister Samantha resents being the back-up princess, “the spare” as she calls herself, while their brother Jefferson despairs for his ex, Nina.


This book is so fun yet kind of ridiculous. I have so many thoughts about it to share, but I don’t want to spoil it for anyone! Go read American Royals, then Majesty, and then we can talk when I post “American Royals: After the Final Page.”


6. The Almost Sisters

Joshilyn Jackson

⭐️⭐️⭐️💫

The Almost Sisters by Joshilyn Jackson

Leah goes to small-town Alabama to help care for her grandmother who has dementia. Leah has her own problems to deal with too: she’s pregnant, and she feels totally uninspired to write the prequel to her graphic novel that she promised to her publisher. Then her step-sister Rachel, whose life seems perfect, has marriage issues. (Sisters Leah and Rachel? You’ll get why Jackson uses this Biblical allusion if you read the book, but come on. 🙄) When Leah uncovers what’s hidden in her grandmother’s attic, all their troubles escalate.


Jackson writes convincingly the conflicts between Leah and Rachel, how assumptions and resentments feed one another to increase tension and foil attempts to communicate between sisters.


Taking place in the south, of course the novel also ties in race. Told from the perspective of a white woman, the discussion on race is white-centric and superficial, even though Leah works on an interpersonal scale to correct and counteract the racism that she sees.


7. Outlawed

Anna North

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Outlawed by Anna North with bookmark beside it with the words “Oh, hello again” and a cloud design

Trained by her mother to be a midwife, Ada is barren. When another young woman in the community miscarries, Ada becomes the scapegoat, accused of being a witch and cursing the woman’s pregnancy. Run out of town, Ada finds a new home with the Hole in the Wall Gang led by the Kid.


This book was well-crafted feel-good entertainment. But to call it entertainment alone negates the depth found in its themes of mental illness and existential angst. When you are exiled and labeled a witch, cut off from your family and your home, what do you do to survive, and why should you try?


Ada, honest, earnest, and forward-thinking feminist, is a character to love and root for. And her story is good, smart fun.


You can read more about Outlawed as featured on Wordy Wednesday.


8. All the Real Indians Died Off and 20 Other Myths about Native Americans

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and Dina Gilio-Whitaker

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

All the Real Indians Died Off by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and Dina Gilio-Whitaker

Last year after reading Chelsea Vowel’s Indigenous Writes, which focuses on Indigenous peoples’ issues in present-day Canada, I hoped I would one day find a book similar in scope specific to the U.S. This book is it.


Sometimes in books about social justice I feel as if the author isn’t saying anything revolutionary—to use a cliché, the author is preaching to the choir. In contrast All the Real Indians was a proper education for me, providing historical lessons I hadn’t learned in school, exposing stereotypes I had never before given any thought. The writing is strong, too.


Of course reading a book like this does feel like work to an extent. It’s fascinating and important, but not particularly fun, and it’s not meant to be.


9. González and Daughter Trucking Co.

María Amparo Escandón

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

González and Daughter Trucking Co. by María Amparo Escandón

Libertad is in prison, but what did she do to get there? All of the inmates at Mexicali Penal Institution for Women want to know. Libertad tells her story one hour at a time during Wednesday’s library club.


This charming book is slow to start, but the pace picks up in the end. The author invests in character development early on so that their actions make sense for who they are. The fully fleshed-out characters makes the story heartfelt as opposed to sappy. Escandón doesn’t wallow in the pain of the characters or make a voyeur out of the reader either. None of the emotions are overdone, but they’re all there.


You can read more about the novel in its Wordy Wednesday post.


10. Energy Medicine: The Scientific Basis

James L. Oschman

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Energy Medicine by James L. Oschman with lots of post-its sticking out of it, laying on top of an open journal and a bookmark alongside it

This book is basically a small textbook disguised as a 350-page paperback. It took me over a month to read diligently through it all, but as an alternative health practitioner (chiropractor) I stand by its worth.


Oschman addresses both the scientific research and philosophical principles of science in order to argue for a paradigm shift in medicine that will address the movement of energy into and out of our bodies and how that affects our biology and our health. He argues that when you marry the biophysics of energy medicine with the biochemistry of today’s mainstream medicine, you get a complete picture of health and illness.


The author is not the clearest writer, as is often the case in scientific writing, so I had to work extra hard to understand what he was saying, but I learned a ton. For anyone who takes care of patients, this is more than a compelling read—it is the future of medicine.


11. The New Wilderness

Diane Cook

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

The New Wilderness by Diane Cook lying over a dark gray swirl of fabric

Bea, Glen, and daughter Agnes live in the Wilderness State, participating as subjects in research of a twenty-person roster leading a nomadic leave-no-trace lifestyle in the last area of undeveloped land. It is a harsh life in which most time, energy, and resources go toward their survival.


They move to the Wilderness to escape the toxic City which makes Agnes so sick that her life is in threat. Supposedly the wealthy elite reside in the Private Lands where life is idyllic, but some doubt that the Private Lands even exist.


This book has so much to unpack. The premise obviously pertains to what climate change will mean for the earth and humankind. However, the relationship between mother and daughter is at the center of the novel. Another theme is rules, both the written rules of the Manual, which when broken incur fines, and the unwritten rules each generation learns to follow based on life experience.


I suspect the story is an allegory that may have nothing to do with the manifest content of the story, but I don’t want to spoil anything by explaining my theory any further.


I also predict this book could become a classic that stands the test of time. Both the writing and the story are that powerful. While the story feels prescient, the themes are universal.



Did you read any good books this month? What would you recommend? Share in the comments!



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