All posts by mspelmanlibrarian

ReCreate Reading Guide for 2023!

Fear not! The Book Blog is here to assist you in your quest to choose the perfect book for Harker’s summer reading program: ReCreate Reading. For the third year running, we’ve put together a comprehensive, yet easy to digest, guide so you can make an informed decision. Want to time travel? We’ve got you covered. How about trying to make a soufflé? Yep, there’s a book for that. Want to feel happier? Who doesn’t! Let a self-help book help you out. Want an author to autograph a copy of their book for you? There will be three of them on campus! There’s something for everyone here. Scroll through the slides below to find your match.

Woke Racism by John McWhorter (Review by Ritu B. ’24)

Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black AmericaWoke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America by John McWhorter
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

You’ve probably heard of anti-racism, and you probably strongly support it. Why wouldn’t you? Everyone knows that being an anti-anti-racist just makes you a racist. And according to John McWhorter, “racist” is just about the worst thing you can be called in this day and age.

In “Woke Racism,” McWhorter distinguishes between three waves of anti-racism. The first wave was about getting rid of segregation and giving Black people the right to vote. The second wave, in the 70’s and 80’s, was about how it’s bad to be a racist person. A Black man himself, McWhorter argues that the well-intentioned third wave of anti-racism which emerged in the last few years has taken a step backwards in helping society reach racial equity.

McWhorter claims that this third wave focuses too much on what people say and how they internalize their role as either racist cogs in a racist machine or eternal victims of oppression. What’s missing is how these psychological exercises actually lead to changing structures to improve Black lives, and McWhorter provides a few suggestions to remedy this. For example, he asks why institutions should default to lowering test scores to increase diversity, when they could instead funnel more money and resources into helping Black people get better preparation so that they can achieve these high scores in the first place.

Even though the first half of the book feels repetitive, I think that McWhorter makes compelling points about the contradictions that exist within this anti-racist ideology and about how third-wave anti-racism has turned into a “religion”: the “original sin” of white privilege forces adherents to repent for a lifetime, and cancel culture bans “heretics” from society. Some of his acute observations caused me to burst out laughing. Others just made me wince in disappointment at what we’ve become.

This was a fascinating read, and I encourage readers to consider McWhorter’s arguments, as well as take the time to explore and think deeply about other points of view. Ultimately, addressing structural racism is a complex and multifaceted topic, and it is important to remember that no one book can hold all the answers. -Review by Ritu B. ’24

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Babel by R.F. Kuang (Review by James B. ’24)

Babel, Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators' RevolutionBabel, Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution by R.F. Kuang
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is an incredibly frustrating book. Definitively, I know that it was well-written and that I mostly enjoyed reading it, especially with all the little etymology lessons. Having said that, I identified some major pitfalls that made it more miss than hit for me personally.

Babel by R. F. Kuang, author of The Poppy War trilogy, is the alternate-history story of a cohort of translation students at Oxford in the 1830s, and how their struggle to be accepted in a culture that will only recognize them as foreigners lends to a greater debate on the ethics of colonization and the necessity of violence.

Whenever I’ve told someone about this book I’ve been sure to mention the full title, as I think it also serves as a rather good summary: Babel, or The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution. Keep in mind that this is *alternative* historical fiction, so it presents events that could have happened in history but didn’t really.

The world-building is fairly strong, though I’ve heard complaints about the addition of fantasy in the way of silverworking in an already very dense book. I believe that the politics are familiar enough to the reader, and the addition of silverworking is just a device that compounds a much broader range of goods.

The plot is quite fast-paced, and surprisingly action-heavy especially towards the end of the book. Kuang does a great job of keeping the stakes high even when the main characters are just attending classes. I actually really enjoyed reading about the academic pressure the characters experience, as would any Harker student because that’s relatable to us.

The message of the novel is very important one, being about the negative impacts of colonization, racism, and cultural genocide. Having said that, there’s no nuance to how it’s delivered, as the author would seemingly rather shove it in your face at every opportunity, which makes the message a lot weaker in my opinion.

Now, the weak point of the book: the characters. Our four main characters are so lacking that at multiple points I was ready to abandon the main story entirely to learn more about the side characters.

SPOILERS AHEAD – Do not read this next section if you intend to read the book!

I would have rather read the story of Griffin, Sterling, and Evie’s love triangle and how Sterling was driven to betray the Hermes Society and murder Griffin. I would have rather read about Professor Craft and why she chose to stay in Babel tower to the very end despite being the only professor and a well-off white woman. I would have rather read about Ibrahim and Juliana’s romance, dying in each other’s arms despite their misgivings.

Instead we get Robin, Ramy, Victoire, and Letty. Victoire, for the massive role she plays in the strike, has no defining traits as a character. Ramy is unremarkable, only defined by his death. Robin is more interesting but only because we get to know his every thought, he doesn’t really do all that much without guidance from others. Oddly enough, Letty is the most complex character, but she’s also the least likeable as the lone white person in a group full of immigrants who betrays them because she can’t understand why they aren’t grateful for being colonized. The romance between Robin and Ramy is infuriating because it’s never really touched on until Ramy dies, so we can only imagine how strong their bond was based on Robin’s overwhelming grief. I also think killing off the two queer characters before ever stating or exploring their identities is cheap and baiting. Honestly, I bought and read Babel in part because I was expecting some queer representation.

Most of the reason that these characters feel so empty is because we hardly ever get to see them interact with one another. The whole book they’re either stressed or fighting and avoiding each other, and in the rare moments that they behave like friends the author summarizes their conversations in place of actual dialogue.

Okay, I’m done.
Read this book if you’re interested in learning more about the events leading up to the Opium War or really enjoy etymology and linguistics and enjoy a strong. Do not read this book if you are a character-focused reader, or are looking for a fun dark-academia read with queer representation.

Here are some of my favorite quotes:

“”English did not just borrow words from other languages; it was stuffed to the brim with foreign influences, a Frankenstein vernacular.””

“This is how colonialism works. It convinces us that the fallout from resistance is entirely our fault, that the immoral choice is resistance itself rather than the circumstances that demanded it.”

“There are no kind masters, Letty,’ Anthony continued. ‘It doesn’t matter how lenient, how gracious, how invested in your education they make out to be. Masters are masters in the end.”

Happy reading! -Review by James B. ’24

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If We Were Villains by M. L. Rio (Review by James B. ’24)

If We Were VillainsIf We Were Villains by M.L. Rio
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have a love-hate relationship with this book, but if I didn’t give it five stars I would be lying to you as well as to myself. It’s a battering-ram to the mind and I loved every minute of it, consuming the entire thing in a single sitting on a five-hour flight.

If We Were Villains is the epic, dark-academia story of a class of seven students at an elite arts school, studying and performing Shakespeare. The story is told by Oliver Marks ten years later, after serving prison time, as he recounts what really happened that year to a detective.

Through his testimony, we learn how an obsessive group of actors began to fulfill their roles off stage, spiraling into violence, betrayal, and murder.

This book is deliciously indulgent, especially for those of us who like some Shakespearean levels of drama. I felt super engaged in pretty much all of the characters, and ravenously followed the twists and turns of the story.

Honestly, If We Were Villains was out of my comfort zone. I don’t usually read thriller/mystery books because I find them too predictable, and while I wouldn’t read this book if you’re expecting a breathtaking twist, it’s so fun to read I didn’t even mind that it was a bit predictable. I would recommend this for anyone who likes melodrama and strong characters, and more specifically those who love found family even more when it’s a little toxic.

Here are some of my favorite quotes:

“For someone who loved words as much as I did, it was amazing how often they failed me.”

“You can justify anything if you do it poetically enough.”

“What is more important, that Caesar is assassinated or that he is assassinated by his intimate friends? … That,’ Frederick said, ‘is where the tragedy is.”

“I never asked where he went, worried he wouldn’t ask me to follow.”

“How could we explain that standing on a stage and speaking someone else’s words as if they are your own is less an act of bravery than a desperate lunge at mutual understanding?”

Happy reading! –Review by James B. ’24

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Our Favorite Mysteries!

We are so excited about “Books with Barsky”! This is a fun new opportunity on campus—hosted by the venerable head of our Upper School, Mr. Barsky—to gather, gush, and discuss books we’ve read on the pre-decided theme or genre.

In honor of the chosen genre of mystery for our first meeting on December 9th, we’ve compiled some of our favorite twisty, crime-solving-keeps-you-guessing-till-the-end books. Apparently we are fairly loyal to the Queen of Mystery, Agatha Christie, but we have other recommendations as well… Happy solving!

A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson was fast-paced, exciting, and engaging. -Anoushka C. ‘26

I am currently reading A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder, and I really like the plot sequence and the protagonist. -Alana B. ‘26


The A.B.C. Murders. One of the funniest murder mystery books I’ve ever read. -Ritu B. ‘24

Dark Places by Gillian Flynn. I loved the plot twists and the raw, horrifying narrative that Flynn presented throughout the book. -Hita T. ‘23

I loved Devil In the White City because it captured glamour and grit all while staying true to nonfiction. -Paulina G. ‘23

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is classic Agatha Christie and, moreover, details a thrilling story (those who know, know). -Rupert C. ‘23

Sparkling Cyanide by Agatha Christie. I was cautious about venturing beyond Poirot to a standalone Christie novel, but this is such a compelling, self-contained mystery with a plot twist and writing voice I’ll never forget; part of the fun, even, is figuring out which characters to trust—and they all have a stake in what truth may come to light—when there’s no omniscient detective, twirling his mustaches, separate from the action. -Trisha I. ‘24

The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides. I enjoyed it because I have a bad habit of trying to guess the twist in a novel and despite this habit I can confidently say that I never could’ve predicted the truth. -James B. ‘24

Announcing the Winners of The Second Annual FanFiction Contest!

This year we had a fantastic turnout consisting of imaginative, fantastic, beautifully written pieces. We are so honored by those who opted to share their passion and talents with us. Thank you to all who submitted their writing. Without further ado:

First Place ($50 Barnes & Noble Gift Card)

 Anatomy by James B. (Frankenstein)

Second Place ($40 B&N Gift Card)

 想いよひとつになれ – Feelings, Become One by Silver (“Love Live! Sunshine!!”)

Third Place ($30 B&N Gift Card)

 A Most Dangerous Squid Game by Jason S. (“The Most Dangerous Game” x  “Squid Game”)

Fourth Place ($30 B&N Gift Card) 

The Man by Jessica W. (The Raven)

Here Come the Waterworks: Books that Made Me Cry Actual Tears (By Ms. Pelman)

I don’t seek out tearjerkers. Sometimes people want to read a sad book, I don’t know why—perhaps because a good cry is cathartic, or they feel a need to commiserate, or to wallow, or just to feel something strongly… Whatever the reason, it’s not wrong. The reason people choose what to read is never wrong, it’s just what they gravitate towards in the moment, and that is the beauty of choice. Even though I don’t actively seek out sad books, they still happen. Think about it, you sit down to watch a movie that you know a little about, and it ends up making you cry. You didn’t anticipate it, but that’s how it goes. I don’t cry easily or very often, so it’s rare for a book to move me to tears (like actually needing a tissue). When they do, though, holy cow. That book becomes indelibly marked in my memory. I remember—not only what was happening in the book when I cried, but what year it was, where I was sitting, what position I was sitting in, and what I did immediately after putting the book down. Before I tell you what these books were, I would like to note that the emotion elicited by books (or movies, or music for that matter) is exceedingly personal and context matters. For instance, a book that made me lie on the kitchen floor and blubber like a baby would very likely have little effect on me now. All I’m saying is that reading a book about death right after your beloved grandmother dies may be a trigger (speaking from personal experience). At any rate, here, in no particular order, are a few that had that effect on me:

Before I Die by Jenny Downham 

A terminally ill teenager makes a bucket list of what she wants to do before she dies. See above about blubbering on the kitchen floor…

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry 

A big fat dusty tale of the old west with so much heart. I spent roughly a month with these lovable characters (it’s 960 pages!). I was suffering from a bout of pneumonia at the time, so escaping into their world was most welcome, and at times, very intense.

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

The now contemporary classic about a high school girl finding her voice, her strength, and powerful artistic expression while working through the horrific trauma of being raped. I mean… I didn’t really stand a chance here.

The Great Believers By Rebecca Makkai

A book about the AIDS crisis set in 1980s Chicago. Let’s just say there was a beautifully wrenching moment with a cat that utterly destroyed me. 

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

I don’t even need to provide an explanation here, do I?

Honorable mention: I’ll be There by Holly Goldberg Sloan, and Me Before You by JoJo Moyes. What books made you cry? Leave ’em in the comments!

The Twisted Ones by T. Kingfisher (Review by Hita T. ’23)

The Twisted OnesThe Twisted Ones by T. Kingfisher
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Melissa, known to close family and friends as Mouse, only had one job: clean her late grandmother’s house in North Carolina. Her grandmother was unfortunately a hoarder, but she could clean it up. No problem at all. However, in the process, she discovers her late step-father’s journal, which is filled with seemingly nonsensical rants. Mouse is quick to disregard the rambling, chalking it up to his deteriorating health, but when strange happenings start to occur, it becomes increasingly clear that perhaps his journal held more than just the ramblings of an old man. Driven to figure out what’s going on and spooked by an unplanned night stroll (courtesy of her dog Bongo), Mouse begins to uncover secrets in the woods, and the deeper she digs into it, the more terrifying it becomes…
Kingfisher does a brilliant job of spinning a modern take on the folklore of The White People, as it is horrifying yet entertaining at the same time. The narrative is filled with realistic humor and conversations and during the more action packed scenes, the reaction seems to be just right; there is no exaggeration of fear nor is there apathy towards the events. Even though I’m not the most avid horror reader, I absolutely loved this book and would definitely recommend it. —Review by Hita T. ’23

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The Wandering Inn by Pirateaba (Review by Maggie Y ’24)

The Wandering Inn: Volume 1 (The Wandering Inn, #1)The Wandering Inn: Volume 1 by Pirateaba
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is my first web novel. It is an interesting concept, and it was still being written and updated as I read. The Wandering Inn is set in a video game-esque world, with classes (ex. [Soldier], [King], [Florist], etc.), skills, and levels. Following the view of Erin Solstice, a girl who comes from ‘our’ universe and is suddenly dropped into this one, the story documents her adventures in this world as an innkeeper. There’s the occasional side chapter following other characters in this world, but the main focus is on Erin. The first volume might admittedly be considered lacking by some, but I found it to have a decent start. However, the author noticeably improves in their writing abilities as the book progresses; battles and other character interactions are well-written, and the world building becomes all the more immersive and detailed.

The Wandering Inn is a beautifully crafted story with plenty of developed history and places. There isn’t a lot of emotional conflict, so I think it might be less appealing for people who solely enjoy those types of books. However, this novel felt almost personally tailored to my interests. I value world building so much in a good story, as well as the idea of a video game world. If you do too, be prepared to read it well into the night. —Review by Maggie Y ‘24

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