July 2, 2024

June Reading Recap

I read some great, inventive, and varied novels last month!

THE OTHER VALLEY by Scott Alexander Howard: Odile is sixteen and friendless, and she rarely speaks to anyone at school. She doesn't seem a good candidate to vie for a competitive apprenticeship on the Conseil, but at her mother's insistence, she applies. The Conseil governs Odile's valley and makes decisions about the very small number of visits permitted to the neighboring valleys. In the valley to the west is a town identical to Odile's, exactly as every person and place existed twenty years earlier. To the east, life proceeds twenty years in the future. Visitations are only allowed in cases of extreme grief, so that loved ones may be viewed at a distance. These visits are carefully controlled because any interference could have consequences on the circumstances of future valleys. When Odile accidentally catches sight of a visiting group, the dangerous knowledge changes her prospects, leading to new friends and a chance at a spot on the Conseil.

I'm always excited to read a new twist on time travel, and I'm thrilled when the the resulting story is as good as this one. From the start, I felt immersed in Odile's world and invested in her friendships and career prospects. The tension of the novel comes as much from the subtle shifts in character dynamics as the looming speculative stakes. A plot that plays around with time needs an ending that's clever, logically consistent, and satisfying, and Howard delivers. Highly recommended for my fellow fans of time-bending stories.

THE HAZELBOURNE LADIES MOTORCYCLE AND FLYING CLUB by Helen Simonson: In 1919, as Britain recovers from the war and the influenza, new and old ways of life collide in the seaside town of Hazelbourne. Constance, who managed a grand estate during the war, has the qualifications for a career in bookkeeping, but employers want to hire returning soldiers and encourage her to become a governess or get married. Her new friend Poppy is wonderfully modern, riding a motorcycle and running a small business staffed by other lady riders, but Poppy's wealthy upbringing makes her outlook more traditional than she realizes, and she's cavalier about money in a way Constance can never be. Poppy's brother Harris lost a leg in the war and is haunted by all the other loss he witnessed, and since everyone is determined to view him as an invalid, he has little hope in ever finding work or love.

These characters and many more populate this novel that delightfully picks apart the class and social customs of the era while also addressing the numerous ways people suffered during and after World War I. As always, Simonson writes with a clever humor as well as thoughtful compassion. I loved getting to know the wonderful characters, and I was only sorry there were so many that some dropped out in the middle of the book before resurfacing when the many subplots came together at the end. The setting is well-developed, and I learned some pieces of history I hadn't known about. I remain an enthusiastic fan of Simonson's work, and I recommend all her novels.

THE EXTINCTION OF IRENA REY by Jennifer Croft: A group of eight devoted translators gather for a summit with "Our Author", the celebrated Polish novelist Irena Rey. They are meeting at her home on the edge of the Białowieża Forest to translate her latest masterpiece before it's revealed to the world, as they always do. But this summit is immediately unlike every previous one. Irena's dependable husband is absent without any explanation, so there's nobody providing meals or structuring the schedule. After a couple days of chaos, Irena disappears as well, and her only message is the completed manuscript. The translators are left searching for clues in the text, the house, and the village as their usual solidarity and their sense of purpose fracture.

This novel is funny, strange, and wonderfully meta. Translations don't happen at an author's house this way in reality, but Croft is well aware as an accomplished translator herself, and she has great fun with the premise she's created. The characters refer to each other by their languages rather than their names, and a note at the beginning establishes that the book we're reading was written by the character Spanish and translated by English, who provides disapproving footnotes throughout. The story becomes increasingly unhinged, and toward the end, I wished for things to come together a bit more clearly, but I was always entertained.

THE DEFAULT WORLD by Naomi Kanakia: Jhanvi has a stable job and a community of other trans women in Sacramento, where she'll eventually be able to save up the money she needs for expensive gender-affirming surgeries. But she's tired of waiting, and she's bored by Sacramento. Her old college friends in San Francisco are rich tech workers who spend their leisure time organizing sex parties, and though Jhanvi finds them shallow, she also envies their life. She goes to stay at their communal house with a bold scheme: to marry one of them and become eligible for the generous trans benefits their companies provide.

This is a great premise, and Jhanvi is a great character who is motivated by so many competing desires and constantly reckoning with those contradictions. As always, Kanakia demonstrates skill at teasing apart the complicated nuances of characters and their interactions. However, I thought this novel fell short of what it might have been with a clearer throughline and different pacing. The story often felt disjointed, without enough sense of the progression between events. There's a lot that's compelling in the book, but more that frustrated me.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Molly Templeton at Reactor wonders, Can a Book Really Be For Everyone?: "Listening to [Gabrielle] Zevin, I thought about what makes a book for everyone.... I mean the kind of book that can draw packs of teens, writers, parents, readers, and everyone else in a community into a theater on one rainy Thursday afternoon. Is it the presence of universal themes? Approachable prose? Intergenerational narratives? A certain sense of transparency, like you can see what the author is doing even as you appreciate it?"