The longest January since… well, last January, has finally wrapped. We made it, yo! Every other day might have felt like it brought on a new and more terrible garbage fire, but many cups of tea, only slightly less wine and a lot of Pilates doth all conspired to keep me more or less sane. And then of course, there were the books. Let’s talk a little more about that last part.
My reading life is highly affected by my mood. If my personal life is in shambles, if my stress levels are peaking, if a lying sack of cytoplasm is the president of my country… I want comfort. I want tea, I want chocolate, I want carne asada fries and ALL of the avocado. But more than all that combined, I was escapism.
When I get in these moods, I tend to hone in on a specific type of read: a mystery or thriller, some magic and fantasy, perhaps a little YA to combine all of the above. The trouble with that approach is that THIS LAST YEAR HAS BEEN A SHIT STORM. A quick scroll through social media or a gander at a newscast on damn near any given day of 2017 was an endeavor in heightened anxiety. All I wanted to do was re-read Harry Potter and Agatha Christie favorites, to sink deep into familiar whimsy and wrap myself in coziness.
I didn’t though, at least not all year. And here’s why: people are writing some amazing shit. Famed writers, new writers, women, authors of color. Art and creativity are flowing from folks’ fingertips like liquid gold and THAT, dear reader, is what gives me hope. It’s enough to make me shake off that oh-shit-oh-shit-oh-shit-we’re-doomed sensation and pick up a book I might otherwise skip over. I’m still reading genre, that won’t ever change. But I will read more widely to support the work of these wordsmiths and world builders and do my part to make this industry thrive on the whole.
So, at last, here at the six months I took down in January. Disclaimer: I somehow failed pretty hard at reading diversely. Four of these books are by women but not a one is by an author of color. Weak. That’s not usually my steez and I will do better in February.
And now, the list of books I read in January 2018.
The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin - This book was kind of buzzy and to be honest, I don’t always trust buzz. This was worth the hype though, so, so much. One summer in late 1960s New York, the four Gold children hear that there's a woman in the neighborhood who will tell you the exact date of your death. They’re a bunch of bored kids, so they’re like, “Seems legit. Yeah, let’s totes do that.” They find their way to the woman and get exactly what they came for, heading home with new information they're not sure they should trust.
The rest of this family saga is told in four parts, one for each of the siblings: Simon, who runs off to San Francisco to live freely as a gay man in the Castro; Klara, who dreams of being a world-famous magician, first in San Francisco and then in 1980s Las Vegas; Daniel, an army physician looking for safety and security in his work, assessing whether soldiers are mentally and physically fit enough for combat; and Varya, a scientist studying aging and how to reverse or even halt it affects. Each of these stories explores the ways in which the knowledge these characters have been given affects the trajectory of their lives, blurring the line between fate and free will, of destiny and choice. At its root it is also about the complicated love that exists between siblings and about the responsibility we feel - or perhaps don't- to the ones we love. Aaaargh, so good!
Fire Sermon by Jaime Quattro - This short little book packs a freakin' punch in just a couple of hundred pages, making me feel super sheepish about my own ability to slap some words together and make my readers feel a thing. It's about a writer named Maggie who is fiercely devoted to her husband, her children and God. She decides one day to email James, a poet she admires, to express her love of his work. He responds, and what starts as a platonic exchange of ideas on poetry, love and religion quickly morphs into a passionate physical and emotional affair. Maggie's lustful obsession causes her to examine her feelings towards her husband and the god she's so desperately clung to all her life. Nothing is clear, and yet everything is.
This isn't a page-turner, per se - it's not super plot-heavy, and you pretty much know from jump that the affair is a thing. What will keep you turning those pages is the beautiful and painful way in which the author writes about longing: her deep desire for a man that isn't her husband; a desperate insistence that her complicated marriage remain intact; an intense craving for guidance and answers inside the framework of her religion. You know when reviews describe a book as being worth it for the beautiful language? Yep, Right here, folks. Absolutely gorgeous.
Oh: in case you didn't already assume, some of the language is steamy. I read half of this on a bench on the street outside the bookstore where I work and kept looking up to see if people were judging me. Hijole!
The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn - Let me just give it to you straight: the first quarter of the book or so is going to give you strong "this author took a course called 'How to Write the Next Girl on a Train For Dummies'" vibes. Unreliable narrator? Check. Narrator loves them some booze? Yep. Narrator is obsessed with surveillance of people she don't know? Pues si. But it gets good, so keep reading. It's not a life-changing read or anything but it is a really fun thriller. I especially enjoyed reading it as what I call a palette cleanser read: a pleasure read to break up darker or more literary reads, or to cheer me up after I've read something that has me crying on the bathroom floor screaming, "Whyyyyyy?" You do that too, right?
The Third Hotel by Laura van den Berg - I begged my boss at the bookstore to bring me a galley of this back from Winter Institute, an annual conference put on by the American Book Seller's Association. I'd never read Laura van den Berg but I saw her latest popping up on more than one list of anticipated releases for 2018. It's about a woman who travels to Havana for a horror film festival that she should have attended with her husband. He was recently killed in a car accident though, which is why it's just a little bit weird that she sees him standing outside a museum in Havana. She pursues him, stealthily at first and then more aggressively. The line between what's real and what isn't starts to blur as bits of her upbringing and role in her husband's death are slowly revealed.
So here's the thing - I wanted to love this. The concept sounded so interesting! I was expecting a chilling read with a touch of horror and a dark, twisty plot line. Technically, the book satisfies that description but is not ultimately the thriller I mistakenly assumed it was; it just never really sank its hooks into me the way I think it might for a different type of reader. The writing here is good, it's actually almost too good - it takes skill to create the weird and eerie dreamlike quality that van den Berg has achieved with her language. She did such a good job that I felt like I was constantly in a cloud of fog, like I was underwater and everything was muffled. I appreciate how tough it is to do that as a writer, so I gives all the kudos. The haziness left me a little unsatisfied, but that probably has more to do with my own projections.
The moral of this story: it is indeed possible to recommend a book you did not yourself love.
Release date: 8/7/18
The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer - when a book is getting the kind of buzz that bills it as the next great American novel, you read it.
Meg Wolitzer is perhaps best known for The Interestings though her body of work is certainly more extensive than that. Her novel Belzhar is one of my favorite books so picking her latest work was like... duh. This novel rings a lot of my bells: discussions on feminism, friendship, nuanced female characters, a main character that I saw a lot of myself in... I'm like yes, give me all of that. I'll take it all.
At the open, we meet Greer Kadetsky, a shy college freshman whose description on page fucking one still low key feels like Ms. Wolitzer came *directly* for me. "Greer... was selectively and furiously shy. She could give answers readily, but rarely opinions. 'Which makes no sense, because I am stuffed with opinions. I am a piñata of opinions,' she'd said to Cory during one of their nightly Skype sessions since college separated them. She'd always been a tireless student and a constant reader, but she found it impossible to speak in the wild and free ways that other people did." WELL. Then. Drag me to filth!
Back to the book: Greer and her boyfriend Cory both get accepted to Yale, but Greer finds herself having to go to her backup school when her absentee parents do her real dirty and fail to file for financial aid because the paperwork was, like, really hard. This little oops leaves the family unable to pay for the Ivy League education Greer had spent her lifetime planning for, so it's a no on Yale and a yeah-I-guess on Ryland. You could say Greer is a bit miffed.
Greer is trying to figure out her place in the world when she meets Faith Frank, a glamorous icon of the women's movement. A chance encounter shapes the rest of Greer's life, from her career to her relationship with her best friend to her interpretations of activism, feminism and ambition.
This book is great. I will say only that I'd have liked it SO much more if I hadn't heard it framed as the next great American novel. It's good, phenomenal even, though I can't say it cut deeply enough for me to call it a soul-shaker (Or was it? I was so conflicted that I gave it a four star rating on Goodreads, then a three star, and now the decision haunts me and I wonder if I've underscored it and SOMEONE TELL ME WHAT TO DO!). If you've ever struggled with your feminism, asked yourself if you're doing enough, if you've had a hero let you down, if you've ridden the ups and down of a decade-long friendship, felt the sting of the end of a first love, experienced loss... basically, if you've breathed air, you will find something compelling and relatable about this read. Just go into it with as blank a slate as you can muster and you'll enjoy it more than if you read it like I did and keep begging it to make you cry.
On sale date: 4/3/18
The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell - This is a mind fuck and that's all I really have for you.
Ugh. Ok. Fine. Let me try and tackle this.
So... I have been meaning to read The Bone Clocks since I first discovered Book Riot (whomInowwriteforshamelessplug). I was watching YouTube videos about new releases and buzzy things and saw the Bone Clocks being talked about a lot. The plot sounded like a doozy and one really fucking stupid thing kept me from reading it: I was so concerned with hitting my “number of books read” goal that I shied away from Bone Clocks because it was so long and might have slowed me down. What a doofus. Ugh. Shame me, I welcome you.
I ended up finally reading it last month because my boss/bookstore owner looooves him some David Mitchell. The guy once turned a fanboy blog post into the opportunity to meet David and then host a talk and movie screening for the film adaptation’s release. They became, like, buddies and shit. He is even credited in the acknowledgement for Bone Clocks! Sheesh. I felt like I had to read this at last, if for nothing else to get to know my employer a little bit better. So, I went for it.
The plot is... oh sweet Jesus, where do I begin? It starts with teenager Holly Sykes who runs away from home after a nasty "But I love him!" row with her mum. She ends up wandering all the way from London into the English countryside where strange, paranormal things keep happening to her that she can't really explain. She senses that it *might* have to do with the fact that she used to hear voices as a kid. Turns out she's right: there's a pack of mind-reading/mind-bending crazies out to get her in order to harness her latent powers.
Things are really set in motion when Holly's little brother disappears, never to be seen again. What Holly can't know at the time is that this turn of events will have trickling effects in the lives of numerous other people for generations to come. Each chapter picks up in the life and times of one of those "other people," where Mitchell ties together each of their narratives in intricate, subtle ways to form one big, sweeping saga that left my jaw on the floor. Oh, and add a whole bunch of psychic, mind-control stuff in there too, the kind that led me to send my boss the following text:
I could keep on trying to butcher this description or you could just read it.
So there it is, folks. Pick some of these up and tell me what you think! Or tell me what you read and loved and why. Let's just talk about books.