What I Read and Loved in March 2020

Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash

March was certainly a chaotic month, and April promises more of the same. I always strive to be a grateful person, but more than ever, I’m thankful for things I usually take for granted, like having enough food to eat, a home where I’m safe, and a job that continues to support me as I work from home.

I’m also grateful for books and the escape they provide in times of stress. Keep on reading to see what books I devoured last month (and for a lengthy list of other things that have helped keep me sane).

What I Read

Here for it book cover

Here for It: Or, How to Save Your Soul in America by R. Eric Thomas

I was unfamiliar with R. Eric Thomas before I read this book, and now I want to be his best friend. He writes a humor column for Elle, which, according to the site, “skewers politics, pop culture, celebrity shade, and schadenfreude.” Here for It is so funny that it made me laugh out loud several times, but Thomas also knows how to be serious, like in the essay where he talks about a friend’s death. If you enjoy writers like David Sedaris and Sloane Crosley, don’t miss this gem of a debut.

The girls in the garden book cover

The Girls in the Garden by Lisa Jewell

Everything I love about Lisa Jewell’s books is present in The Girls in the Garden: a lush English setting, characters whose lives intersect in surprising ways, and the perfect amount of suspense. The setting for this book is an urban London neighborhood where the houses share a communal park that serves as their backyard. One night after a neighborhood party has ended, a teen girl is found battered and half-naked in the grass. As the book progresses, readers learn more about who she is and who might have left her for dead. If you’re looking for a great page-turner, this is it.

My dark Vanessa book cover

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

If you’re sensitive to stories of abuse, it’s probably best to skip this one.

When we meet Vanessa Wye, she’s a grown woman working at the concierge desk of a hotel. She used to attend boarding school, and one day a former peer reaches out to her about a teacher there she says abused both of them. Vanessa doesn’t see it that way, though. The man, a then-42-year-old named Jacob Strane, loved her, and she loved him. What her peer sees as abuse, Vanessa sees as her life’s great love story. The novel goes back and forth between timelines, giving readers Vanessa’s point of view as a teen and an adult. First-time novelist Kate Elizabeth Russell beautifully captures the way Vanessa must reinterpret her past and come to terms with her life. My Dark Vanessa is one of the best books I’ve read so far in 2020. It’s one I’ll be thinking about for a long time.

Eight perfect murders book cover

Eight Perfect Murders by Peter Swanson

Malcolm co-owns and manages a bookstore that sells mysteries. Soon he’s thrust into the middle of his own when an FBI agent comes into his store and starts asking him questions about a list he posted online. Years earlier, Malcolm published a blog post on the bookstore’s website that listed eight perfect murders from various books. The FBI agent suspects someone is using Malcolm’s list to kill and wants his help. Peter Swanson has delivered another great mystery with this book, which is perfect for fans of thrillers and suspense stories. This novel is such a fun, twisted, and exciting book, and an ideal choice if you need a good distraction right about now.

Then she was gone book cover

Then She Was Gone by Lisa Jewell

One day, fifteen-year-old Ellie was walking to the library, but never came home. Ten years later, her family is still trying to pick up the pieces, desperate for answers about what happened to her. In an effort to move on, her mom, Laurel, starts a new relationship with Floyd, a charming man who quickly sweeps her off her feet. But the more Laurel gets to know Floyd and his young daughter, the more questions she has about what really happened to Ellie. Then She Was Gone is a fine book, but it’s my least favorite Lisa Jewell novel so far. I saw the ending coming and wasn’t entirely satisfied with how the story wrapped up.

Notes on a Nervous Planet by Matt Haig

I’ve been a fan of Matt Haig since I read his memoir Reasons to Stay Alive. I love that book and think it should be required reading for anyone struggling with anxiety and depression. In this follow-up, Haig talks about what it’s like to live in a world that’s continually provoking anxiety. People are more connected than ever, yet loneliness is still a huge problem. We have more options today than we’ve ever had before, but that much freedom can provoke plenty of worries. Haig’s short chapters and helpful lists give readers a lot to think about, and his vulnerability in sharing his own mental health struggles is refreshing and appreciated.

Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee
by Casey Cep

Furious Hours is divided into three parts: the story of the alleged serial murderer and fraudster Reverend Willie Maxwell, the trial against Maxwell’s eventual killer, and Harper Lee’s attempt to chronicle these stories in the long-awaited follow-up to To Kill a Mockingbird. Each part is interesting, but I think the book could have been a bit shorter. Casey Cep is a great writer who provides a lot of detail, and I didn’t think all of those details were necessary to the overall story she’s trying to tell. Still, Furious Hours is a fascinating book that’s perfect for true-crime lovers who are also interested in American literature.

What I Loved

All I can say in this time of great distress is thank God for streaming services that fill me with endless entertainment and stories of people who are crazier than I thought anyone could ever be.

The McMillions docuseries on HBO is an excellent fraud story, and I’m convinced that Doug, the FBI agent, needs his own show.

Like nearly everyone else in the world, I watched and was amazed by Netflix’s Tiger King. I listened to the podcast version of this story, but seeing these characters come to life onscreen was certainly an experience I won’t soon forget. Some of those images are seared into my mind forever.

Schitt’s Creek is one of my favorite discoveries so far this year. I love love love this show and have already watched several episodes multiple times. I will never get tired of Moira and David on my television screen.

I was not expecting how tense I’d feel while watching a baking show, but when a custard doesn’t set or a tiered cake comes crashing down, part of me withers and dies inside. In spite of that, The Great British Baking Show is exactly the kind of entertainment I need right now.


What did you read and love in March? What should I read and watch next? Let me know in the comments! Stay safe and healthy.

10 Lighthearted Reads for Times of Chaos

Photo by Nick Hillier on Unsplash

This is my question for 2020:

Animated GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Like many people around the world right now, I’m spending a lot of time at home, trying my best to avoid endless scrolling on my phone, where I see nonstop articles about impending doom. I think books are fantastic all the time, but they’re especially enjoyable when I need a distraction. I think most of us could use a distraction right about now, so today I want to share a list of lighthearted reads that will entertain you and, hopefully, make you smile.

Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life by Steve Martin

I’ve been a Steve Martin fan since I was a little kid who was obsessed with Father of the Bride. As I’ve seen more of his work, there’s something about Martin’s quirky comedy that always surprises me and makes me laugh. Born Standing Up is an excellent memoir about Martin’s rise to fame and why he decided to walk away at the height of it.

Bossypants by Tina Fey

I don’t think it’s possible for me to love Tina Fey more than I already do. I recently rewatched 30 Rock and was reminded just how brilliant she is as a writer and performer. Bossypants is as funny as you hope it’ll be, especially the audiobook, which Fey reads herself. If you’re interested in comedy as an art form, don’t miss this gem of a book.

Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise
by Ruth Reichl

Even though I have the palate of an eight-year-old child, I love food and cooking. I kept seeing Ruth Reichl’s name pop up as a can’t-miss food writer, so I decided to pick up Garlic and Sapphires. I read it in a couple of days because it’s such a fun book chronicling Reichl’s time as a food critic. Even if your favorite meal is chicken nuggets, Reichl’s passion for food will inspire you to get in the kitchen and distract yourself with something delicious.

Here For It: Or, How to Save Your Soul in America by R. Eric Thomas

You might already know R. Eric Thomas from his Elle column or his hilarious Twitter feed. If you don’t know him, change that immediately and start with his new book. Here For It is a funny, thoughtful, and of-the-moment collection of essays about making it as a writer, racism, going viral, politics, religion, sexuality, and so much more. These essays made me laugh out loud, but also included stories that touched me deeply. I love this book and know I’ll be recommending it often.

I’ll Be There for You: The One about Friends by Kelsey Miller

When I’m stressed, one of my favorite things to do is put on my comfiest pajamas, curl up in front of the TV, and watch a show I’ve seen countless times. For many people, that show is Friends. If you’re a fan, I’ll Be There for You will be a fun look behind the scenes of the show that took America by storm.

Look Alive Out There by Sloane Crosley

Sloane Crosley is one of my favorite essayists. She’s consistently funny, which makes her books perfect companions for times of stress. Her latest collection is Look Alive Out There, which is worth reading just for the story of her guest role on Gossip Girl. Crosley’s growth as a writer shines in these essays.

The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce

It’s 1988, and Frank owns a music store full of records. Because he refuses to sell CDs, he’s struggling to keep the store open. One day a customer walks in and wants to know more about music. She’s a mysterious woman who ends up opening some old wounds, but Frank can’t get her out of his head. The Music Shop is a sweet, hope-filled story about second chances, forgiveness, and belonging that inspires without being saccharine. Plus, that cover is major eye candy.

One Day in December by Josie Silver

Looking out from a bus window, Laurie locks eyes with Jack. Something comes over her and convinces her this stranger is the one. And then the bus drives away. Laurie spends a year hoping to find this mystery man, and then he shows up at her flat to attend a party. The only problem is that he’s dating her best friend. One Day in December is the charming story of two people whose paths keep crossing, but never at the right time. You’ll be rooting for Laurie and Jack until the final sentence.

One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories by B. J. Novak

If your favorite TV show to rewatch is The Office, don’t miss this collection of stories by B. J. Novak, a.k.a. Ryan the Temp. Some stories are just quick blurbs, and others are several pages. No matter the length, Novak’s writing is always witty and matches the tone of the show where he got his start.

Theft by Finding: Diaries 1977-2002 by David Sedaris

Any David Sedaris book is a good choice when you want something fun to read, but Theft by Finding is the one that’ll keep you entertained the longest thanks to its page count. It’s a lengthy collection of diary entries that prove Sedaris is still hilarious even when he’s not trying.


What are your go-to books in chaotic times? What authors can you always trust to distract you?

7 Elements I Look for in Books (And 35 Titles That Deliver)

Photo by Giammarco Boscaro on Unsplash

February was an awful reading month for me. I only finished one book, though I started several. There were books I was excited to read, but once I started, I quickly realized they weren’t for me. This situation got me thinking: what do I look for in a book? What elements pique my interest enough for me to want to read something? I thought about those questions, and today I’m sharing my answers.

Element #1: Good Writing

My #1 criteria for a book is good writing. I want beautiful prose and sentences that give me pause. I want writing that moves and surprises me.

When I read On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong, it was easy to tell from the language that Vuong is also a poet. Normal People by Sally Rooney has excellent dialogue, which makes it feel like she eavesdropped on two people trying to navigate their relationship and wrote a book about it. When I read Leslie Jamison’s newest essay collection, Let It Scream, Let It Burn, I was reminded of how lovely her writing is and why I keep picking up her work. No other essayist makes me laugh like David Sedaris does. He combines hilarity and heartbreak like no one else, especially in his latest, Calypso. The profound and heartfelt letters from a preacher to his young son in Gilead by Marilynne Robinson have stayed with me for years.

Good writing makes for books that get inside my head and stay there.

Element #2: Well-Developed Characters

When I read fiction, I consider characters before plot. I’ve read several books that have a great plot yet zero character development. No matter how entertaining those books might have been, they were ultimately unsatisfying.

After reading My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh, I felt like I knew the unnamed narrator because Moshfegh described her emotional crisis so intimately. I enjoyed Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid because the ever-so-complicated Alix Chamberlain seems like a real blogger, someone whose Instagram I might follow because her life looks perfect on the outside. The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai is a novel that’s precious to me because of Yale and Fiona, Makkai’s two protagonists whose lives intertwine over the years. I remember sitting in my car listening to This Is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel and feeling such concern for Rosie and Penn as they figure out the best way to support their child. When I heard that Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng was being turned in a TV show, I was thrilled because Elena and Mia captivate me because of their different worldviews, and I want to know them even better.

I’m fascinated by people (even fictional ones) and want nothing more than to learn what makes someone who they are. Good character development gives me that and is one of the many reasons I adore books.

Element #3: A Vivid Setting

When I read, I like to feel immersed in a text. I want to see the world inside the pages clearly in my mind.

That experience is precisely what I got when I read In the Woods by Tana French. I felt the eeriness of the dark, creepy woods and the chilly Irish air. I felt the stifling Australian heat when I read Jane Harper’s The Dry. I imagined I was in the middle of a busy and loud NYC restaurant as I made my way through Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler. Ruth Ware’s The Woman in Cabin 10 is mostly set on a luxury cruise, and the confined spaces make the tension even higher. Though I don’t like snow in real life, I enjoyed it in The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley because it stranded a group of friends at a remote lodge, provoking excellent drama found in the best thrillers.

I love plenty of books that don’t have a vivid setting, but I always appreciate it when I find a book that takes me someplace new and uses setting to add to the story.

Element #4: Knowledge

When I was a child, my mom tells me I’d come up to her and ask, “Mommy, will you learn me?” I’ve always loved learning, and when I want to know about something, my first instinct is to read.

I wanted to know more about America’s opioid epidemic, and Beth Macy’s Dopesick certainly delivered. I finished that book with a mix of sadness and anger because of what I’d learned. Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick shines a light on what it’s like in North Korea, a place unlike any other in the world. One of my favorite things to learn about is presidential history, and The Presidents Club by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy is one of the best books I’ve read on the subject. Their stories about the relationships between presidents were riveting and inspiring. I think Missoula by Jon Krakauer should be required reading for anyone about to go off to college because his reporting on rape and justice on a college campus is an essential addition to the conversation about sexual assault. I work with teenagers every day, so I picked up American Girls by Nancy Jo Sales, hoping to learn more about their social media habits. What I found out shocked me.

Thanks to the internet and the spread of media, learning is easier now than it’s ever been. For me, though, nothing beats a book when I want to know more about a topic.

Element #5: Entertainment

Though I’m passionate about learning, sometimes I want a book that will just entertain me.

Gillan Flynn’s Gone Girl was the book that hooked me on mysteries and thrillers because I couldn’t put it down. I raced through Lisa Jewell’s Watching You, wholly wrapped up in the lives of the people whose lives intersected in the upscale English neighborhood she created. Though it’s long, I devoured Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty in one sitting. I did the same with Daisy Jones & the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid. Few things entertain me the way humor does, and Scaachi Koul’s One Day We’ll All Be Dead, and None of This Will Matter is a hilarious and thoughtful essay collection.

My perfect reading life consists of a balance between books that teach and entertain me. The best books do both.

Element #6: Creativity

I’ve read a lot over the years, so it’s a particular delight when I find a book that offers originality.

Providence by Caroline Kepnes was a mixture of horror, mystery, thriller, and romance, all coming together to create a novel that I love and have recommended. Claudia Rankine’s Citizen is a combination of essay and poetry, which perfectly captures the racial tension in modern America. Twenty-One Truths About Love by Matthew Dicks is a novel written in the form of lists. I was skeptical, yet ended up charmed and surprised by the book’s depth. Something I love almost as much as a good book is a good podcast, so when I heard that Sadie by Courtney Summers is partially written as a podcast, I was sold. Marisha Pessl’s Night Film (which I’ve referenced about 4782 times on this blog) includes photos, articles, and screenshots, making an already creepy novel about ten times spookier.

No matter what form creativity takes, I always appreciate and remember it.

Element #7: Honesty

Like most people, I just want Brené Brown to be proud of me. I value vulnerability, which is only possible with honesty.

In The Wondering Years, Knox McCoy talks about his evolving faith and the role pop culture plays in it in a way that makes sense to me, someone who grew up in an evangelical world just like he did. Journalists Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey helped bring about the #MeToo movement because of their courageous reporting and the frankness of the women who shared their stories with them. Their book She Said is a must-read. Jami Attenberg’s All Grown Up encapsulates the messiness and confusion adulthood can bring, something we don’t talk about nearly enough. Kristi Coulter’s Nothing Good Can Come from This is a funny and smart story of giving up alcohol in a world that seems to be obsessed with it. When I read Small Fry by Lisa Brennan-Jobs, a blunt memoir about growing up with Steve Jobs as a father, I realized how many assumptions I made about what it would be like to grow up around so much wealth and prestige.

All of these books taught me something thanks to the honesty of their authors who faced the chaos of life head-on and then wrote it down.


What about you? What elements do you look for in books? What is it that makes you love your favorite book? I’ve love to hear your thoughts!

10 Books for Black History Month (And the 11 Other Months, Too)

February is Black History Month, and I couldn’t let the month go by without sharing some of my favorite titles by black writers. Diversifying my reading has been a priority for me over the past few years, and following through on that goal has been wonderfully illuminating. Reading books by people who don’t look like me, have grown up in different environments than I have, or who have faced discrimination that I will never know is incredibly important for developing my empathy and understanding. Have you read any of these books? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Americanah book cover

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

At its heart, Americanah is a love story between Ifemelu and Obinze, two Nigerians who fall in love as kids. They go their separate ways, however, when Ifemelu heads to America and Obinze goes to London. This novel has much to say about immigration, identity, and finding your place in the world. It’s beautifully written and engaging from beginning to end.

Becoming by Michelle Obama

Becoming is the story of Michelle Obama’s life from her childhood in Chicago to her role as First Lady of the United States. All of the political stuff is as fascinating as you imagine it is, but Obama’s focus on family and education are my favorite parts of this outstanding and inspiring memoir.

Bluebird, bluebird book cover

Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke

If you’re paying attention, you know that the publishing industry is primarily white. That seems especially true when it comes to the mystery genre. I think Bluebird, Bluebird is the first mystery I’ve read by and about a person of color. Texas Ranger Darren Mathews begins investigating two murders in the small town of Lark. One of the victims is a black lawyer from out of town, and the other is a local white woman. Attica Locke has delivered an unputdownable mystery that’s also a smart look at racism and justice.

Born a crime book cover

Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood
by Trevor Noah

You probably know Trevor Noah as host of The Daily Show, but you’ll know him a lot better after reading this fantastic memoir. In it, Noah talks about growing up biracial in South Africa during apartheid, what it’s like to grow up poor, how his mother survived an abusive relationship, and how he found his way to comedy. Born a Crime is funny, sad, and ultimately hopeful.

Homegoing book cover

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Homegoing is in a rare category of books that left me stunned. Somehow, first-time novelist Yaa Gyasi includes 300 years of Ghanian history in a mere 320 pages and does so beautifully. Each chapter tells the story of a different person who is a descendant of either Effia and Esi, two sisters born in the eighteenth-century. Homegoing is an unforgettable and frank look at the horrific legacy of slavery.

I'm still here book cover

I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness
by Austin Channing Brown

In this memoir, Austin Channing Brown discusses what it was like to grow up black and Christian in a predominantly white culture. Brown cares deeply about racial justice, and that passion shines through each page of this book. I’m Still Here is a good book for anyone to read, but it should be required reading for white Christians who want to do better about honoring black lives and stories.

The mothers book cover

The Mothers by Brit Bennett

When Nadia is seventeen, she gets pregnant by Luke, the pastor’s son. How Nadia handles this pregnancy is what fuels the drama of this excellent novel. The Mothers is a page-turner but is also a smart meditation on grief, secrets, and love.

The nickel boys book cover

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

The Nickel Boys was a novel that I couldn’t stop reading even when I wanted to put it down. It’s about a terrible reform school in Florida that leaves physical and emotional scars on its students. Two of those students are Elwood and Turner, who face abuse, violence, and racism. The Nickel Boys is a bleak, haunting, but ultimately essential story of life in the Jim Crow era.

Sing unburied sing book cover

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

Sing, Unburied, Sing is one of my favorite novels from the past few years. At the heart of the story are Jojo and Kayla, two young biracial kids living with their grandparents. Their mostly-absent mother, Leonie, is in and out of their lives due to drug addiction, and their father is in prison. He’s about to be released, though, so Leonie loads up the kids and her best friend and sets off on a road trip to pick him up. Like The Nickel Boys, this novel can be a challenging read due to its bleak subject matter, but it’s also a gripping look at how love can sustain us even when things are falling apart.

An untamed state book cover

An Untamed State by Roxane Gay

I think Roxane Gay is a brilliant writer. She writes essays, memoir, short stories, and criticism and executes each flawlessly. An Untamed State is her first and only novel about a woman named Mireille. Like Gay, Mireille is of Haitian descent but currently living in America. On a trip to visit her wealthy parents in Port au Prince, Mireille is kidnapped by violent criminals who want money from her father. If you’re a sensitive reader, know that this book contains some rather graphic depictions of assault. It’s a difficult but excellent novel.


What other books by black authors should I add to my reading list? Leave a comment below and let me know your thoughts.