To bring some spice and variety to my reading, I came up with the Old, New, Borrowed, and Blue challenge: read one book that I’ve had a long time, one book that I acquired recently, one book that I borrowed, either from the library or another person, and one book with a blue cover. It was a fun way to choose my next read, plus it encouraged me to shop my own shelves and read some books I already own.

This time I’ve got for you a memoir about becoming a carpenter, bartenders fighting demons with magic cocktails, game-changing nonfiction by a fat activist, and historical fantasy set in an alternate 1940s San Francisco.

Something Old – Hammer Head by Nina MacLaughlin

This book has been on my list since 2015, and I’m so glad this challenge led me to finally pick it up. Nina MacLaughlin liked her job as a journalist at first, but after several years she found herself increasingly uninspired and looking for change. She answered an ad for a carpenter’s assistant despite having no experience or aptitude, and surprised even herself when she was hired. Mary, her new boss, was an experienced carpenter and contractor, and fortunately also a patient teacher, as MacLaughlin had a lot to learn, not just about wood and tools but work ethic and determination. This memoir worked really well for me, as MacLaughlin was an English and Classics major and spends almost as much time philosophizing about her experiences as relating them, somehow without ever becoming pedantic or condescending. I also related to her frequent impulses to give up in the face of difficult jobs—we must share a temperament—but loved how Mary always talked her down by taking one step at a time, doing each task right until the job was complete. MacLaughlin also talks about how few women are in trades like hers and how physical work changed the way she thought of herself as a woman, which I found interesting.

Something New – Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge by Paul Krueger

A fantasy world where bartender superheroes fight demons with cocktails? Sign me up! I got this book as a Christmas gift, so it didn’t languish long on my shelf before I snatched it up. Recent college graduate and recovering overachiever Bailey Chen is feeling aimless—she’s moved back in with her parents and taken a crappy job as a barback at the place where her old high school friend Zane tends bar. The job gets a lot more interesting when Bailey learns Zane and the other bartenders can mix cocktails that give them supernatural abilities and use their smoke breaks to keep the streets of Chicago clear of beasties. Bailey is realistically angsty and immature—I mean, who wasn’t at age 22? —and I kind of loved her tendency to jump into things before she had all the information. A fun, easy read with a unique premise—and there are cocktail recipes included throughout!

Something Borrowed – You Have the Right to Remain Fat by Virgie Tovar

Absolutely transformative. I borrowed this teeny-tiny book from the library and read it over the course of a couple hours, but it had a huge impact on me and I’m still mulling over everything I learned. Virgie Tovar is a super smart writer, and this book is the perfect balance of academic and accessible. She puts words to thoughts I’ve had for years but never knew how to articulate. I especially love how she explains the connection between patriarchal values and fatphobia. This book would be a good companion to Shrill by Lindy West, which I read a couple years ago and still think about. Highly, highly recommended!

Something Blue - Passing Strange by Ellen Klages

For my blue book, I chose the prettiest blue cover on my shelf. Passing Strange is a novella about a group of women who love women in 1940s San Francisco. They make art and have long conversations and support each other during a time when it wasn’t safe to be who they were in a public way. There is a fantastical element as well, as one of the women has an uncanny ability to fold time and space, which Klages works into the plot in much the same way she does other characters’ talents with painting, writing, or science. I loved that the magic was incorporated this way, as if it were just one more thing that made the group of friends special. My favorite part of the story, though, is one that isn’t even mentioned in the publisher’s blurb: the framing device. The novella begins in the future, when the last remaining member of the group is facing death. She goes on a little mission around the city, revisiting old haunts and retrieving a mysterious package from a long neglected basement, the import of which you won’t know until the end. I thought beginning in this way, with an old woman’s journey to her own past, was a lovely way to add suspense. The more I reflect on this one, the more I like it—it’s a warm hug of a book.