Book review: Black Water Sister by Zen Cho

Black Water Sister by Zen Cho, our second listen for the 2021 Asian Readathon, has earned all 5 stars! We absolutely loved it! Here’s why:

Wanna Skip Ahead?
  1. The Publisher’s Blurb
  2. Why You Should Listen
    1. Because Book
    1. Because Narrator
  3. A Word to the Wise (Content Warnings)
  4. TL;DR
  5. Get Your Own

The Publisher’s Blurb

A reluctant medium discovers the ties that bind can unleash a dangerous power in this compelling Malaysian-set contemporary fantasy.

When Jessamyn Teoh starts hearing a voice in her head, she chalks it up to stress. Closeted, broke and jobless, she’s moving back to Malaysia with her parents – a country she last saw when she was a toddler.

She soon learns the new voice isn’t even hers, it’s the ghost of her estranged grandmother. In life, Ah Ma was a spirit medium, avatar of a mysterious deity called the Black Water Sister. Now she’s determined to settle a score against a business magnate who has offended the god–and she’s decided Jess is going to help her do it, whether Jess wants to or not.

Drawn into a world of gods, ghosts, and family secrets, Jess finds that making deals with capricious spirits is a dangerous business, but dealing with her grandmother is just as complicated. Especially when Ah Ma tries to spy on her personal life, threatens to spill her secrets to her family and uses her body to commit felonies. As Jess fights for retribution for Ah Ma, she’ll also need to regain control of her body and destiny – or the Black Water Sister may finish her off for good.

Why You Should Listen

~Because Book~

Couldn’t put this one down! If you’ve even thought in passing of checking this one out, DO IT! Jess moves to Malaysia with her parents, only to wind up possessed by her grandmother’s ghost. Ah Ma was the medium for the god Black Water Sister and is determined to have Jess become the god’s next medium so the god can take revenge on a developer who plans to redevelop her temple. Of course Jess, who spent most of her life in the US, has no idea what she’s agreeing to and quickly gets in over her head. To be fair, she does try to bargain with Ah Ma, but knowing the duplicitous nature of many spirits, we were anticipating betrayal. If only Jess had read the Dresden Files! 😂 Jess must figure out who to trust, while juggling complicated family dynamics, cultural expectations, and a secret lesbian romance. Zen Cho does an excellent job balancing insider and outsider cultural perspectives, making this story accessible to any reader. She keeps the twists coming and the ending is unforeseen, powerful, and satisfying.

~Because Narrator~

Catherine Ho does a brilliant job narrating. So brilliant we’re disappointed she’s not narrating Zen Cho’s upcoming short story collection Spirits Abroad. Emily Woo Zeller, who seems to be Audible’s go-to for female Asian narration, was tapped instead. And Zeller is great. But Catherine Ho really gets the potent combination of emotion, magic, and gritty reality in Black Water Sister and brings it all out for the listener. While she does use accents for some characters, it’s never difficult to understand and all the voices are distinct.

The very first sentence was confusing because it ends in a Hokien word. We weren’t expecting that and at first thought we had misheard. Keep going; the word will be explained. This was the only instance where the experience suffered from being audio, simply because we couldn’t tell it was a non-English word and not terrible narration or our hearing by looking at the text.

A Word to the Wise (Content Warnings)

Major: Sexual assault, homophobia, violence, manipulation/gaslighting, religious abuse.

Moderate: Heteronormativity.

Minor: Brief mention of drugs.

TL;DR

This audiobook was an amazing experience and we are looking forward to more from Zen Cho! Do yourself a favor and listen to or read this one!

4 out of 5 stars
5 out of 5 stars!

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Star rating graphics are by Yasir72.multan and are licensed via CC BY-SA 3.0.

Our picks for the LGBTQ+ Pride Reading Challenge

Covers for books listed in post on a brick wall painted like a LGBTQ+ Pride flag. Text reads: Our picks for the LGBTQ+ Pride Reading Challenge. Starts June 1st on The StoryGraph. #ReadLGBTQpride

Our friend Ryn is running a reading challenge for Pride 2021! The focus is on LGBTQ+ #OwnVoices works. Check out the official announcement video:

We’re excited to participate and hope you’ll join in! Here’s our picks:

We’ll be reading The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea by Maggie Tokuda-Hall for most of the challenge prompts because it’s written by a BIPOC LGBTQ+ author, has an LGBTQ+ main character, is from your favorite genre, and is non-US centric. More importantly, though, it’s a Japanese pirate tale that just happens to have LGBTQ+ characters, which is right up our alley! We nearly read it for the 2021 Asian Readathon and can’t wait to go on this YA adventure!

For our non-fiction book and the bonus challenge spotlighting lesser-emphasized parts of the LGBTQ+ community, we’re reading Ace: What Asexuality Reveals About Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex by Angela Chen. This will be a buddy read with AdventuRyn. Described as “an engaging exploration of what it means to be asexual in a world that’s obsessed with sexual attraction, and what the ace perspective can teach all of us about desire and identity,” we’re hoping it will help us wrap our pansexual brain around asexuality so we can better understand and support our ace friends.

Since we’ve intended to read The Picture of Dorian Gray and Other Writings by Oscar Wilde for years—and since we suggested the “read a book with an LGBTQ+ focus written before 1950” bonus challenge—we will finally read this classic tale. We both hope it lives up to the hype and that it’s not as creepy as we’ve heard.

Finally, we will read The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang to fulfill the “read a book with trans/non-binary characters or by a trans/non-binary author” and “read a book by a new-to-you LGBTQ+ author” bonus challenges. Prince Sebastian lives a secret life as fashion icon Lady Crystallia. He’s able to do this because of his friendship with the amazing dressmaker, Frances. But how long will she be able to stand keeping her talent and his identity secret?This graphic novel comes highly recommended by friends and family, so we’re looking forward to it!

We hope our picks have inspired you to join the fun! We will be following the hashtag #ReadLGBTQpride here and on Instagram, so be sure to let us know which books you choose and what you think of them!


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The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey review

We listened to The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey, our first pick for the 2021 Asian Readathon and enjoyed it enough we will listen to the sequel. We gave it 4 out of 5 stars. Here’s why:

Wanna Skip Ahead?
  1. The Publisher’s Blurb
  2. Why You Should Listen
    1. Because Book
    1. Because Narrator
  3. A Word to the Wise (Content Warnings)
  4. TL;DR
  5. Get Your Own

The Publisher’s Blurb

Bombay, 1921: Perveen Mistry, the daughter of a respected Zoroastrian family, has just joined her father’s law firm, becoming one of the first female lawyers in India. Armed with a legal education from Oxford, Perveen also has a tragic personal history that makes her especially devoted to championing and protecting women’s rights. 

Mistry Law is handling the will of Mr. Omar Farid, a wealthy Muslim mill owner who has left three widows behind. But as Perveen goes through the papers, she notices something strange: all three have signed over their inheritance to a charity. What will they live on if they forefeit what their husband left them? Perveen is suspicious.

The Farid widows live in purdah: strict seclusion, never leaving the women’s quarters or speaking to any men. Are they being taken advantage of by an unscrupulous guardian? Perveen tries to investigate and realizes her instincts about the will were correct when tensions escalate to murder. It’s her responsibility to figure out what really happened on Malabar Hill, and to ensure that nobody is in further danger.

Why You Should Listen

~Because Book~

We would classify The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey as a cozy mystery that just happens to be set in 1920s Bombay. Think the legal maneuvering of David Rosenfeldt’s Andy Carpenter series with the small town feel of Rita Mae Brown’s Mrs. Murphy series, all infused with the delicious flavors of India.

The main character, Perveen Mistry, is based on the first female lawyer in India. We really enjoyed watching her use the law to fight for justice where only she can: within a Muslim household’s zenana. We also enjoyed watching her grow as she becomes more competent, takes on new challenges, and learns to work around the constraints society places on her. The characters in the story kept us hooked – for the most part.

Sadly there were some sections where the book started to drag and it felt like we were slogging through the doldrums. We enjoyed the rest of the book so much that it thoroughly aggravates us that Massey chose to include the chapters set in 1917. At first we assumed that there would be a connection between Cyrus, the love interest featured in these chapters, and the murder in 1920. Spoiler: Cyrus is a Chekhov’s gun. We really have no idea why the author thought it was necessary to include him at all. It feels like the 1917 chapters are Massey preaching to the reader about how awful things were for women in Bombay. These chapters should’ve hit the cutting room floor, or at the least been massively condensed. Take our advice and skip the 1917 chapters. It will significantly improve your reading experience.

But we still loved the book enough to read it four out of five stars and buy the sequel. Perveen, her father Jamshadji, and her friend Alice are all characters we definitely want to spend more time with. We also love the vivid pictures Massey paints of life in Bombay with the wide variety of cultures and their clashes with British colonialism. She uses just the right salting of languages like Hindi to add authentic detail without confusing readers who don’t know these terms – especially important in an audiobook when we didn’t know how to spell the non-English words in order to look them up.

The Twitch VODs below are great resources if you’d like to learn more about the history of ancient Persia and Zoroastrianism. They aren’t necessary to enjoy the book, but definitely added to our experience. We had no knowledge of Zoroastrianism before reading this book and as Perveen is Parsi, Zoroastrian customs play a role throughout. We felt better having a basic understanding of the religion as a framework to help mentally organize what we read about in the book. Note that there will be plenty of irreverent nerd humor!

History of Ancient Persia
History of Zoroastrianism
~Because Narrator~

Soneela Nankani does an excellent job of narrating. She gives slightly different accents to characters from different cultures and has a pleasant voice. She never seems to stumble over non-English words. While some reviewers found it difficult to keep track of who is who, we had no trouble tracking who was speaking. While we appreciate the energy Nankani brings to the narration, after a while we noticed that she seems to give every sentence an astonished feeling, which does become annoying. We noticed that Audible switches narrators with the sequel. We usually hate it when they do this, but perhaps Sneha Mathan’s narration will not suffer from the constant astonishment problem.

A Word to the Wise (Content Warnings)

Major: Domestic violence; sexism, misogyny, and colonialism/racism appropriate to the period; toxic family dynamics; manipulation/gaslighting; religious abuse.

Moderate: Assault, alcoholism, kidnapping, child abuse, violence, homophobia, heteronormativity.

Minor: Brief mention of blood, incest.

TL;DR

We already consider the Asian Readathon a success because we found a new series to love. The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey is a book anyone who loves a good cozy legal mystery with a plucky heroine should try. we are already looking forward to book two!

4 out of 5 stars
4 out of 5 stars

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Star rating graphics are by Yasir72.multan and are licensed via CC BY-SA 3.0.

How can we honorably harvest books?

Today we finished listening to part three of Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer for our friend AdventuRyn’s Botany Book Club. (Join the fun live on Twitch at 4:00 PM Pacific every Monday!) We were really struck by the last essay in this section, “The Honorable Harvest”. In this essay Kimmerer explores what it means to harvest honorably, from ancient indigenous traditions to the aisles of today’s supermarkets. The keys are respect and reciprocity. At the end of the essay she talks about going shopping for pens and how she is unable to honorably harvest them because “everything [in the store] is dead.”

This immediately made us think about books because while many consider them to be dead objects, we firmly believe that each book has a soul. Many Native American peoples believe that stories are alive because they come to life as they are told by the storyteller. We don’t know if they would also regard books as alive, but we do. Stories come to life through their pages or via the audiobook narrator.

If books are alive, then they also deserve to be treated with respect and reciprocity. How can we practice honorable harvesting when we read?

Our answer is by taking our time. We show respect by paying careful attention. We do not rush. We do not cram tales in our mouth like Cookie Monster with a plate of cookies. We take time to savor them. To let each one into our heart and mind. To reciprocate by thinking about and discussing them. And finally, we pay the gift forward by recommending them to others who will cherish them.

Harvest your own copy to cherish:

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Gitanjali by Rabindranath Tagore mini review

Gitanjali is a collection of poems by Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore. It was first published in 1913 and is one of his best known works, for which he earned the Nobel Prize in Literature. We read the English translation. We aren’t clear whether it was translated by W.B. Yeats, or Yeats had it translated, but it is clear from his introduction that Yeats greatly admired Tagore’s work. Since we have enjoyed Yeats, we were intrigued.

We had never heard of Rabindranath Tagore before. We discovered Gitanjali when we were looking for a book that would fulfill The StoryGraph’s 2021 Genre Challenge’s “Read a poetry collection under 100 pages” prompt. Happily, we could also use this book to fulfill prompts for The StoryGraph’s 2021 Translation Challenge and as a bonus read for ReadWithCindy’s 2021 Asian Readathon. (If you decide to participate in reading challenges, we suggest doubling up on prompts as much as possible.)

Since Gitanjali is now in the public domain, you can find it for free online. We happened to find the copy we read on spiritualbee.com. The website also has several of Rabindranath Tagore’s other works and they recommend you read his prose first so you can better appreciate his poetry. Good advice we cheerfully ignored.

One of the things we enjoyed about this edition were the included illustrations, like this drawing by Asit Kumar Haldar, which accompanies one of our favorite poems in the collection, number 96 or “When I go from hence let this be my parting word”.

We ended up rating Gitanjali three out of five stars. Most of it is deeply spiritual poetry which addresses the author’s relationship with God, and as we do not share his faith, and perhaps also because we do not know the allusions to his prose work, it did not speak to us. The format also makes it difficult to tell whether each poem is supposed to stand alone or is a continuation of the previous poem. But there are still several gems in the collection that speak to universal themes of joy, oneness with the universe, and human nature.

Poem number 30 made us laugh:

I CAME out alone on my way to my tryst. But who is this that follows me in the silent dark?

I move aside to avoid his presence but I escape him not.

He makes the dust rise from the earth with his swagger; he adds his loud voice to every word that I utter.

He is my own little self, my lord, he knows no shame; but I am ashamed to come to thy door in his company.

Rabindranath Tagore, Gitanjali, poem no. 30

Who hasn’t experienced this? Perhaps last time we were in our friends company we were arrogant and boastful or couldn’t help lashing out in anger and despair.Now we come to our friend sheepishly, hoping they will still embrace us despite the dumbass things we did.

There were also poems that gave us goosebumps from sheer brilliance. One of these was poem number 74:

THE day is no more, the shadow is upon the earth. It is time that I go to the stream to fill my pitcher.

The evening air is eager with the sad music of the water. Ah, it calls me out into the dusk. In the lonely lane there is no passer by, the wind is up, the ripples are rampant in the river.

I know not if I shall come back home. I know not whom I shall chance to meet. There at the fording in the little boat the unknown man plays upon his lute.

Rabindranath Tagore, Gitanjali, poem no. 74

This poem gives a feeling of ineffable sadness, but also beauty, and makes us think of Swan Lake’s haunting refrain. We can easily envision the dusk closing in on this nearly deserted shore. Even the lute player has a sense of ghostly liminality. It is the sort of scene where worlds meet and tales begin.

So if you enjoy poetry, are looking to expand your knowledge of Bengali writers, or both we encourage you to read this small poetry collection for the few gems that might sparkle as brightly for you.

3 out of 5 stars
Rated 3 out of 5 stars.
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Star rating graphics are by Yasir72.multan and are licensed via CC BY-SA 3.0.

The Secret History of the Pink Carnation by Lauren Willig review

We finished a relisten of Lauren Willig’s The Secret History of the Pink Carnation last night, and since we are counting it for The StoryGraph’s Genre Challenge 2021, here’s our review!

Wanna Skip Ahead?
  1. The Publisher’s Blurb
  2. Why You Should Listen
    1. Because Book
    1. Because Narrator
  3. A Word to the Wise (Content Warnings)
  4. TL;DR
  5. Get Your Own

The Publisher’s Blurb

Deciding that true romantic heroes are a thing of the past, Eloise Kelly, an intelligent American who always manages to wear her Jimmy Choo suede boots on the day it rains, leaves Harvard’s Widener Library bound for England to finish her dissertation on the dashing pair of spies the Scarlet Pimpernel and the Purple Gentian. What she discovers is something the finest historians have missed: a secret history that begins with a letter dated 1803. Eloise has found the secret history of the Pink Carnation the most elusive spy of all time, the spy who single-handedly saved England from Napoleon’s invasion.

The Secret History of the Pink Carnation, a wildly imaginative and highly adventurous debut, opens with the story of a modern-day heroine but soon becomes a book within a book. Eloise Kelly settles in to read the secret history hoping to unmask the Pink Carnation’s identity, but before she can make this discovery, she uncovers a passionate romance within the pages of the secret history that almost threw off the course of world events. How did the Pink Carnation save England? What became of the Scarlet Pimpernel and the Purple Gentian? And will Eloise Kelly find a hero of her own?

Why You Should Listen

~Because Book~

This book has survived several relistens over the years. Eloise Kelly makes a very likable narrator and we find her thesis-researching travails easy to identify with. It’s through Eloise we’re introduced to Amy, our Regency heroine and would-be member of the League of the Purple Gentian. The author sets up nice parallels between the modern and historical romantic action. This device does tend to highlight the plot’s predictability—and formulaic plots are something the series suffers from as you read other installments—but we’re not here for an original plot.

We’re here for the characters and the humor that keeps us laughing out loud. The banter is spot-on in a dry, tongue in cheek flavor that hits our sweet spot. The characters may do absolutely stupid things, but they get roasted for it, often by themselves. Our favorite characters are actually the chaperone, Miss Gwen, and Amy’s sensible cousin, Jane. They provide balance and keep the book from veering into utterly ridiculous territory. If you love Amelia Peabody and Alexia Tarabotti, you’ll love Miss Gwen.

As far as we can tell, the historical accuracy is spot-on, too. Author Lauren Willig makes Napoleon’s France come to life. She uses a wealth of detail to make her characters seem as if they must have really existed—and who wouldn’t want such dashing spies to be real?

~Because Narrator~

Kate Reading narrates with a lovely contralto. Most of the time her performance allows you to forget the book is being read to you, which is great! She’s able to differentiate the characters’ voices and switch among genders and ages with ease. At times, her renditions, while true to character, get a bit stridently high-pitched for our taste, especially in Amy’s impassioned moments. So this audiobook is not really a good choice if you’re looking for a story to nod off to (though the content is often exciting enough to keep you awake on its own). We also found some of her French accents grating, but since she also performs some superbly (to our American ears, at least), we assume she exaggerated for comedic effect. Obviously, none of this has kept us from listening time and time again.

A Word to the Wise (Content Warnings)

Major: Detailed sex scenes

Moderate: Sexism and misogyny appropriate to the period (usually counterbalanced by feminine subversion), attempted sexual assault, violence, heteronormativity

Minor: Brief mention of blood and torture

TL;DR

The Secret History of the Pink Carnation is a great listen if you’re in the mood for a funny, lighthearted, adventure with dashing spies and girl power, as long as you don’t mind the predictable romance aspects. The characters’ witty repartee will keep you coming back for more. Good narration, but not for bedtime listening.

3.5 out of 5 stars
A solid 3.5 out of 5 stars.

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Our Picks for the 2021 Asian Readathon

May is Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month and we will be participating in ReadWithCindy’s 2021 Asian Readathon to celebrate! The readathon is meant to be a very accessible and easy to complete event that promotes Asian and Pacific Islander author and protagonist visibility. There are five challenges:

  1. Read any book written by an Asian author.
  2. Read any book featuring an Asian protagonist.
  3. Read any book written by an Asian author in your favorite genre.
  4. Read any nonfiction book written by an Asian author.
  5. Read any book written by an Asian author that’s not US-centric.

You can fulfill multiple prompts with one book, but if you read multiple books, each book needs to be by an author of a different Asian heritage, because diversity! Not sure what counts as Asian? Cindy has a list! She also has a directory of books by Asian authors on StoryGraph to help you choose! We usually don’t care about the author’s ethnicity or gender as long as the writing is good, so the database was very helpful.

We decided to make this extra challenging for ourselves by adding a personal rule that we can’t count authors we’ve read before. Of course, you don’t have to, but we think this gets into the spirit of stretching horizons! 😄

On to our picks!

To fulfill challenges #1, 2, and 5, we decided to read The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey. We already had this delicious-looking mystery in our Audible library, but haven’t listened to it yet. We were attracted by the pro-feminist narrative, which promises a strong female lawyer who champions the titular widows in the face of cultural tensions that escalate to murder. Add the 1920s Bombay setting, and we were sold! This book promises to tick many of our favorite boxes.

As delicious as The Widows of Malabar Hill sounds, if we were forced to pick a favorite genre it would be fantasy. So for challenge #3, we selected Black Water Sister by Zen Cho. Coming to Audible on May 11, 2021 and available now in paperback and Kindle, Black Water Sister looks like an exciting ride!

Reluctant medium Jessamyn Teoh returns home to Malaysia where her grandmother’s spirit contacts her, demanding Jessamyn take revenge on a gang boss on behalf of Black Water Sister, the diety her grandmother served. Of course, it’s a dangerous mission made even more perilous because grandmother and Black Water Sister may not be what they seem. We’re really looking forward to this book and just hope it doesn’t get too dark for us, since it is also marketed as a thriller.

Surprisingly, challenge #4, nonfiction by an Asian author, was the most difficult to find. We typically avoid memoirs because they are often too sad or dark for us, but we expected it to be easy to find a science book by an Asian author. Guess that’s one stereotype we didn’t realize we believed busted! This readathon has already succeeded!

We spent a lot of time perusing the nonfiction part of the directory. We really appreciated StoryGraph’s content warnings feature, which lets other readers warn you of potentially triggering material. We’d click on an interesting-looking title, check the content warnings, and nope on out of there. We eventually settled on a book, but after talking to our friend AdventuRyn, we’re saving that one for Pride in June. Instead we will be joining them in reading World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments by Aimee Nezhukumatathil. The Audible version is read by the author, and from the sample she gives it a cozy, exciting bedtime fairy story feel! We’re hoping we are in for a book in the vein of Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. In other words, a beautiful and poetic exploration of some of nature’s wonders.

Of course we will review these books as we read (or listen, lol) to them, so stay tuned to this blog for more!

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The StoryGraph review

We recently discovered The StoryGraph thanks to ReadWithCindy’s 2021 Asian Readathon (check out our picks here). According to the website, “The StoryGraph helps you track your reading and choose your next book based on your mood and your favorite topics and themes.” Intrigued, we decided to take it for a test drive.

A Few Caveats

We’ve only checked out The StoryGraph on our iPhone, so keep in mind that the desktop version may have features we didn’t get to experience. But let’s be honest, all major features should work on all versions of a site, especially when users can’t opt to switch to desktop mode. If we can’t do it on our iPhone, it might as well not exist. 😆

It’s also important to note the site is still in beta mode and actively adding new features while troubleshooting existing ones. The StoryGraph seems very responsive to user demand and it’s fair to expect many of the limitations we experienced will be temporary.

The StoryGraph Difference: Things to Love

The StoryGraph’s UI is clean and minimalist. We appreciate the calming, uncluttered vibe. It does lack a dark mode, though, so photosensitive viewers may want to use a dark reader. Sign up is quick, easy, and doesn’t ask for sensitive information. We haven’t been spammed since we signed up, either! The StoryGraph can import your Goodreads library for you, but we decided to start with a fresh slate.

Let’s talk about how The StoryGraph stands out from the crowd. Two things are at the heart of the StoryGraph experience: moods and statistics.

The StoryGraph’s tagline is “Because life’s too short to read a book you’re not in the mood for.” Thus, books are primarily judged on feels. In addition to the mood list to the right, readers can indicate a book’s pace, length, whether it’s plot- or character-driven, and even content warnings. These are great metrics for deciding whether a book is a good fit for you. We’d like a few more mood options, but the current set covers a lot of ground.

We’re especially excited about the ability to flag content warnings! This is extremely useful. You can note whether potentially triggering material is major, moderate, or mild. We would like the ability to do this if we haven’t finished a book, though. What if the material was so triggering we had to stop reading? That’s important information for others to know without having to check out the written review. It should be part of the aggregate data. It also needs to be easier to add content warnings to the menu. The StoryGraph figures this is covered by tags, but as far as we can tell, tags are useless. The tagging function might as well not exist.

Of course, you can rate books you’ve read out of 5 stars, but The StoryGraph lets you do so to a quarter-star level of granularity! You can also add a written review and include links.

The StoryGraph takes all the data you’ve given it about what kind of books you enjoy and generates a reader profile. Even with little to go on, it had us pretty well pegged from the get-go.

Mainly reads fiction books that are adventurous, mysterious, and challenging. Typically chooses slow-paced books that are 300-499 pages long.

This assessment gets more accurate the more you fill out your The StoryGraph library. Ours changed from the initial, “Mainly Reads fiction books that are adventurous, mysterious, and challenging. Typically chooses slow-paced books that are 300-499 pages long,” to adventurous, mysterious, funny, and fast-paced. The StoryGraph uses this profile to generate recommendations—which are pretty good—and pretty graphs of your reading stats. Unfortunately, there is a lag between updating the profile and the graphs, which can result in confusing mismatches like the one shown below.

Which is correct? In these screenshots, taken just a few seconds apart, our reader profile says we typically choose fast-paced books that are 300-499 pages long, but our stats say we typically choose slow-paced books under 300 pages.

The graphs are fun, though, and the way they crunch the days really does make it easier to find books you’ll love. The StoryGraph also sidesteps the Goodreads toxicity simply by not having a social media aspect. The only way to interact with others on the site is to follow them or join a reading challenge. Even so, it’s at a remove. “This is what I read and what I thought. The end.” It’s rather refreshing and adds to the chill vibe.

We’ve found the biggest reason to stay active on The StoryGraph are the reading challenges. These are a fun way to stretch your reading horizons. When you challenge yourself to read books that fit theprompts, you’ll find yourself adding new authors and genres to your TBR pile! It’s also easy to create your own reading challenges and you can keep them to yourself, share privately with friends, or make them public so anyone can join.

What Needs Work

Navigation overall is clunky. For example, if you use the reading journal feature to jot down a note about your reading and then save it, there is no button to add another entry on the resulting screen. You have to go back to the book’s page and press “track progress” and then “add note”.

It’s easy to search for and add books by title or author using the main search bar. Key word: or. As of this writing, you can’t do both. You cannot filter those results or search for tags. You can only filter results from the “Browse all books” search. As power searchers, we hate this with the same passion we hated Google doing away with Boolean operators. You can’t use the main search bar to find other users or reading challenges, either. That has to be done in their respective sections. Searching by ISBN doesn’t work, unless you’re in the “add a book/edition” dialogs (which, while we’re on the subject, aren’t user-friendly—and we say this with librarian training). The StoryGraph’s selection is mostly English titles that are currently in print. The site also isn’t set up to track journals and periodicals. We want to be able to search for anything using the main search bar, or at least have an advanced search mode that does that. If we have a physical copy, we also want to be able to use our phone camera to “scan” the barcode.

What would’ve been really useful would’ve been a way to import our Audible library and listening history. Unfortunately, The StoryGraph, like all the other reading sites out there, doesn’t cater to audiobook lovers. Their form for manually adding other editions makes it look like they are planning to correct this, since you can manually add an audiobook edition and input length in hours and minutes. We have yet to see an audiobook edition on The StoryGraph “in the wild”, though, probably because you have to add it yourself—a pain in the ass most users won’t have time for.

Even if you do add an audiobook edition, you can only track your reading progress by percentage read. That means we have to look at the progress bar in our audio player and guesstimate. The site should be able to do the math for you; just put in the hours and minutes you’ve listened so far and—lo!—a progress bar appears! But no, they want you to do division in base 60. Hopefully addressing these issues is in the works. We think it would help The StoryGraph stand out as a welcoming site for neurodivergent and disabled readers.

Our final complaint is that whoever designed the books and pages read goals is a sadistic bastard. We are here for fun. We really do not need the site to push our anxiety buttons by telling us we’re behind. Once we took a screenshot for this review, we deleted our goals for our mental health.

TL;DR:

  • Being able to find books based on what you’re in the mood for is fabulous!
  • Content Warnings! SO USEFUL! It needs to be easier to add CWs that aren’t on the list yet, though.
  • Reading challenges are what keep us coming back. They’re great fun!
  • Reader profiles, and thus recommendations, are very good with only limited data, which does the strength of their algorithms.
  • The site looks pretty and soothing, but needs a dark mode.
  • Love the lack of social media features! Makes it a chill, nontoxic environment.
  • Navigation is clunky and less-prominent features are hard to use.
  • Tags are pretty much useless. The function might as well not exist.
  • As much as we love ye olde paper books, The StoryGraph needs to get with the times and support audiobook and ebook readers.
  • Whoever designed the books and pages read progress reporting is a sadistic bastard. We do not recommend anyone with anxiety, perfectionism, or workaholism issues use this feature.
  • Most of the flaws are probably due to The StoryGraph being fairly new and primarily relying on librarian volunteers. Hopefully they’ll improve if the site continues to grow and gain traction.

Final Thoughts

We think we will be sticking with The StoryGraph for a while and encourage you to check it out for yourself if you haven’t yet! We look forward to the site growing into its shoes, so to speak, and are thrilled to have a site where we can share our love of books without getting overwhelmed by the social aspect.