February 24, 2021

Releases I'm Ready For, Spring 2021

The next few months are bringing many new books from authors I'm excited to read more from!

THE COMMITTED by Viet Thanh Nguyen (March 2): It did not occur to me to expect a sequel to THE SYMPATHIZER, but I was excited to learn one was coming. The excellent first novel follows a double agent from Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War to a new life in Los Angeles, and the second takes him to Paris to deal with the many difficult events of his past. I look forward to more time with this fascinating protagonist, and to more of Nguyen's dark humor and clever sentences.

LIBERTIE by Kaitlyn Greenidge (March 30): Greenidge's inventive debut, WE LOVE YOU, CHARLIE FREEMAN, featured well-developed characters, complicated family dynamics, and a wide range of topics including sign language and the history of racist science. LIBERTIE promises to deliver more history and complexity with the story of a young Black woman during the Reconstruction who tries to find a life where she can truly be free.

THE FIVE WOUNDS by Kirstin Valdez Quade (April 6): This novel expands a short story from Quade's great collection, NIGHT AT THE FIESTAS. All those stories did an impressive job rendering characters and relationships fully enough in a few pages to get me invested. I'm eager to see what Quade does with a whole novel to depict a family coming together in the face of a teen pregnancy.

GOOD COMPANY by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney (April 6): I adored Sweeney's debut, THE NEST, a standout in my beloved genre of dysfunctional family dramas. It was a particular delight to enjoy the book so much and see it succeed, because Sweeney and I were workshop-mates at the Community of Writers some years earlier. The new novel explores the truths behind a friendship and a marriage against the backdrop of theater and TV acting.

STOP SAVING THE PLANET!: AN ENVIRONMENTALIST MANIFESTO by Jenny Price (April 20): While I'm bragging about personal connections, I'll divulge that this author is one of my cousins, which is why I'm anticipating a book that's pretty far from my usual tastes. But I am genuinely looking forward to reading this, because I agree with the premise that most "save the planet" efforts do little to address the real problems of climate change and environmental inequity. Jenny is also an entertaining writer, and I recommend her previous book about human connections to nature, FLIGHT MAPS.

FUGITIVE TELEMETRY by Martha Wells (April 27): I read all the previous installments of The Murderbot Diaries last year and put the series at the top of my 2020 favorites. The title character, a cyborg security expert trying to find its place in human society, is an excellent, opinionated narrator, and I can't wait for its next adventure.

SORROWLAND by Rivers Solomon (May 4): AN UNKINDNESS OF GHOSTS and THE DEEP are both intense, beautiful stories about power and complicated relationships. SORROWLAND sounds like it will explore these as well, in the context of another intricately imagined world. I'm especially intrigued by this sentence from the description: "Here, monsters aren't just individuals, but entire nations."

ONE LAST STOP by Casey McQuiston (June 1): Since reading the delightful RED, WHITE & ROYAL BLUE, the politically optimistic gay love story I didn't know I needed, I've been eagerly awaiting more from McQuiston. The new novel is a romance between two women, one of whom is displaced in time, and it sounds just as wonderful.

THE HIDDEN PALACE by Helene Wecker (June 8): This sequel to THE GOLEM AND THE JINNI has undergone changes to both title and release date since it was first announced, but it's really on the way now. I'm thrilled we'll be getting more to the richly developed story of two supernatural beings who met as immigrants to New York City and the world of humanity at the turn of the twentieth century.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Casey McQuiston writes at Goodreads about the importance of queer love stories: "I thought about what it would have meant to a teenager like me, stumbling around and grabbing onto anything that felt sturdy, to see a book like mine while loitering around the stacks. This pastel-colored confection, with a jacket copy describing a fantastical, frothy, happily-ever-after queer love story that sounded like so many of the rom-coms I loved. I think it would have helped her to know that stories like that could be prominently featured in her favorite place."

February 4, 2021

January Reading Recap

My reading year started off well!

THE OFFICE OF HISTORICAL CORRECTIONS by Danielle Evans is an impressively, consistently strong collection of stories. They're just so good! Each one puts well-drawn characters into nuanced conflicts, often with themselves.

Evans is particularly skilled at combining a bunch of seemingly unrelated elements so the story feels organic and lifelike, yet delivers a satisfying narrative arc. In "Happily Ever After," a woman works in the gift shop at a landlocked replica of the Titanic, she has a difficult health decision to make, and these threads and more weave together into a compelling whole. (An earlier, shorter version of the story appears online.) "Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain" juxtaposes a potentially doomed wedding weekend with the disastrous circumstances in which a guest and the groom first met.

The situations in these stories are complicated. In "Boys Go To Jupiter," a college student goes viral for casual racism, and the story unfolds her tangled past. "Anything Could Disappear" presents a traveler with a series of choices that lead to an emotional journey through ethical gray areas.

The title novella has space for even more complexity in the plot and character relationships. The protagonist works at the Institute for Public History, a federal agency that combats misinformation by issuing corrections to plaques, public records, and so on. She's tasked with making a particularly knotty correction that puts her back into contact with an old frenemy and their longstanding rivalry. It's a fascinating end to an incredible collection!

WE RIDE UPON STICKS by Quan Barry: Danvers, Massachusetts, borders the more famous Salem, but it was part of Salem Village in 1692, when a group of teen girls discovered the power they could wield by accusing neighbors of witchcraft. The Danvers Falcons Women's Varsity Field Hockey Team have never come anywhere close to a successful season, but in the fall of 1989, their goalie turns to local lore for help. She makes a dark pledge that the rest of the team join by solemnly signing their names—to a notebook with Emilio Estevez on the cover. With the magic of Emilio fueling them, the eleven team members discover their own power. They start scoring (both on and off the field), they grow into their truest selves, and they delight in wreaking havoc on their own terms.

I loved this quirky novel and found it wicked funny and at times quite moving. It didn't hurt that I was also a Massachusetts high school student in 1989, so every cultural reference charmed me. Barry does a great job managing an ensemble of eleven main characters, plus assorted classmates and adults, and I developed deep affection for everyone in the story. In the middle, I felt some sections dragged a bit, but in retrospect, I'm not sure I'd give up any part of the book. It's a lot of fun, it has a lot of heart, and all its weirdnesses lined up well with my own.

RING SHOUT by P. Djèlí Clark: Maryse fights monsters that wear Ku Klux Klan robes. And they really are monsters: hideous creatures from who-knows-where that feed on racist hatred and take over the bodies of weak, despicable fools. Most people can't see the signs of the monsters lurking beneath the skin of the humans they've turned. Maryse and her friends have the sight, and they're part of a group using both magic and firepower to fight back against evil in 1922 Georgia.

This short book is packed with exciting action scenes and effectively disturbing body horror. I'm not the best audience for either of those, but I appreciated many parts of the story, including the opportunity to read about Black women wielding power in the Jim Crow South. I was intrigued by the premise and the connections made to historical events, and I would have enjoyed more worldbuilding about the origins and spread of the monsters. You can judge this book by the cover: The KKK robe and the mouths where they don't belong encapsulate the story's horrors, so use that to decide whether it's for you.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Literary Hub, Ruth Madievsky looks at the differences in reviews of women-centric and male-centric literary fiction on Goodreads: "In our publishing climate—where women authors (especially queer women and women of color) are often assumed to be writing autobiographically, are dismissed for writing work that is 'domestic' and characters who are 'unlikable,' and are reviewed significantly less than men in major media outlets—this ratings discrepancy doesn't feel benign."

→ Melissa Baron introduces Book Riot to the genre of ergodic fiction, a new term for me: "What that really amounts to is whether or not the text follows the conventional format of paragraphs, dialogue tags, standard margins, and all the things that make reading it easy."

January 15, 2021

2020 By The Books

It's my habit in January to look back at the books I read in the year just ended. In 2020, of course, everything was different, but reading was the one part of my life that didn't change all that much.

I read 46 books in 2020. While that looks like a notable increase from the previous year's 39, the number of novellas and other shorter works means I don't think I spent substantially more time reading. I've been fortunate not to have the sort of reading block many people have experienced during the pandemic, though my ability to focus on a story certainly fluctuated week by week and hour by hour. Often fiction was the only thing that could distract me from the news, and I might have ended up reading a whole lot more if I hadn't eventually started writing again.

My book selection patterns remained fairly stable in 2020. More than half my reading was brand new books, with almost all the rest from the past five years. I read my usual mix of realistic fiction, speculative, and stories that fall somewhere in between. As always, fiction dominated, but I also read a couple of books about writing, two other nonfiction works, and a book of poetry. The one type of book I wanted little to do with was my previously beloved apocalyptic genre (though I did make one exception). And a weird trend was that without meaning to, I happened into quite a few stories involving characters who see ghosts.

I read a lot of good books in 2020, which is perhaps the nicest thing I have to say about the year. Here's a rundown of the ones that impressed me most, each linked to the monthly recap with a full review:

The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells brought me the most reading delight, though it has an unfair advantage as a series. I was hooked by ALL SYSTEMS RED (May), the first thrilling adventure of the Security Unit who's great at its job but not at interacting with humans. Three more novellas and a novel (so far) provide further action, intrigue, and space travel, while also developing an increasingly complex exploration of friendship, anxiety, and feelings. I love how Wells combines these elements, and I can't wait for more Murderbot this spring.

SUCH A FUN AGE by Kiley Reid (January) was one of my first reads of the year and remains one of my most frequent recommendations. This page-turner revolves around a babysitter and her employer when the mother decides to address the race and class differences between them. Good intentions and bad assumptions go wonderfully awry as the plot winds tighter, and Reid brings the story to life with fantastic dialogue and nuanced, compassionate character portrayals.

LEAVE THE WORLD BEHIND by Rumaan Alam (October) was the one apocalyptic scenario I was willing to read this year, because I was so intrigued by the combination of author and premise. Alam writes such strong, well-observed character interactions, and the story starts with a promisingly uncomfortable dynamic. A family on vacation at an Airbnb is surprised by the late-night arrival of a panicked couple who say they're the owners, and that something terrible is happening in New York City. Events outside the house grow more and more disturbing as the occupants try to cope with the awkwardness inside. This novel is profoundly unsettling, and so good.

THE LOST BOOK OF ADANA MOREAU by Michael Zapata (February) is a novel set in the real world that's about and for lovers of science fiction. The mystery of a lost and found manuscript connects characters across generations in a tale that explores immigration, loss, and family. Zapata has crafted a gorgeous, inventive novel about stories, journeys, and the rambling path both often take, and I was captivated all the way through.

January 8, 2021

December Reading Recap

I closed out last year with some great reading. Now that I've caught up on reviewing everything I read in 2020, I'll get to work on my list of favorites to share next week.

HOW MUCH OF THESE HILLS IS GOLD by C Pam Zhang: In 1862 California, two young siblings are left orphaned by the death of their father, a man hardened by poverty and failure. After a racist incident in town, the kids decide they must flee without taking time to bury their Ba. Sam packs a trunk with their belongings, and they load it onto a stolen horse. They travel for days before Lucy discovers that the trunk contains Ba's body. Sam is determined to find the right place for burial, and though Lucy is the older one, she's never been able to tell stubborn Sam what to do, so they continue their journey into unknown territory.

This is a powerful novel full of both beauty and ugliness. As you might guess from my summary of the opening events, it's not a story for the squeamish, and there's a wide range of difficult content as the story unfolds. That unfolding comes gradually, through shifts in time and perspective, and sometimes reluctantly. Lucy, Sam, and their parents hold close the secrets of their selves and pasts, so the suspense in this novel is not only about what will happen, but what has happened. Zhang wields perfect control over the narrative to make discoveries about this complicated family as rewarding as a glimpse of hidden gold.

Zhang's sentences are carefully honed, mixing tight dialogue with vivid imagery. I was constantly admiring the writing style, and I particularly appreciated every description of the hills: "From afar the wet hills shine smooth and bright as ingots—riches upon riches stacked to the Western horizon." I was blown away by this intense, absorbing novel, and I'm eager to see where Zhang will take readers next.

THE PULSE BETWEEN DIMENSIONS AND THE DESERT by Rios de la Luz: This collection of brief short stories covers a range of styles and genres. Some stories are brutally real, some involve time travel, others encompass both. What unites them all is beautiful, dreamy images and powerful emotions.

In "Lupe and Her Time Machine," a grandmother builds and carefully decorates a contraption in her garage. Maybe it's a time machine powered by rose petals, maybe she's simply remembering, but the difference between these isn't as important as the insights she finds. The protagonist of "Esmai" lives prepared for apocalyptic scenarios, but instead she encounters a version of herself from another dimension.

"Ear to the Ground" shifts from childhood innocence to shocking violence, with a pause at this magical interlude: "One night, on your way home, you passed the giant pecan tree in the middle of the neighborhood. A pecan landed on your head and when you cracked it open, there were rounded sprinkles inside. You opened more, one of them had honey inside and another had pomegranate seeds inside. The last pecan you picked up had confetti inside and a photograph. It was of you and Soledad. She made bunny ears behind your head."

If these descriptions intrigue you, you're definitely the right audience for this collection, and I encourage you to seek it out.

NETWORK EFFECT by Martha Wells: Murderbot is the private name of a cyborg known as SecUnit to its clients and friends. Having friends, and working with them as a security consultant out of choice, is a new experience for Murderbot, who until recently was owned by a company and treated (badly) as sophisticated rental equipment. Now it's not only made friends with a group of humans, but it's starting to form a life in their society outside the Corporation Rim. Murderbot has a lot of feelings about this, and it's not wild about feelings, or the way humans always want to talk about them. All of this becomes significantly more complicated when Murderbot's humans are attacked and kidnapped (again), possibly by someone who Murderbot thought was also a friend.

I have become a big Murderbot fan over the course of the four novellas that precede this novel-length installment, and everything about this book delighted me. I was thrilled by the return of some favorite characters and the introduction of excellent new ones. The longer form allows for a more complex plot, as well as space to slow down between action and planning scenes to delve into the nuances of character relationships. This book is a tense adventure, and it's also all about feelings, relationships, trauma, and how hard those are to process, even for someone with the capacity to monitor a dozen inputs while watching an episode of bad TV. I loved it.

NETWORK EFFECT could be read without prior knowledge, but I really recommend starting at the beginning of this great series for a fuller understanding of the characters. The next book will be out in April.

→ In THE TURN OF THE SCREW by Henry James, a young governess takes a first job with strange conditions: She's instructed not to tell her employer anything that happens with the children under her care, and her predecessor has died. She's nervous, but when she arrives at the county estate, things start out well. She becomes fast friends with the housekeeper, and the two children are sweet and well-behaved. But soon she is disturbed by strangers around the house who nobody else acknowledges. These ghostly appearances make her question whether there's a sinister side to the children's perfect behavior.

I enjoyed the slowly building tension in the first half of this novel. Toward the middle, I started to wish things would build a bit less slowly, and I grew tired of James's convoluted sentences. I was eager for some reveal or shift that would pay off all the buildup, but when I reached the abrupt ending, I was utterly confused by how to interpret what had occurred. Then I learned that people have been arguing about the interpretation for the last century. After reading some analysis, I have more appreciation of what the story is doing, but I didn't really get it on my own, even while looking. This leaves me with a mixed reaction: I'm glad to have familiarized myself with the story and its ambiguities, and it was a frustrating read.