Recent Books I've Clutched In My Hands With Joy: September 2019

Over the summer, I rewrote the first half of a manuscript and plotted out the second. Rewriting has been a painfully slow process, especially while the rest of my life keeps spinning around me in loopy monkey whirls, and well-meaning people ask me if I'm "still" working on the same story. "Wow!" they say, not in a good way. I've been riding my bike a lot more, up much bigger hills.

The good news is that it's also been a few months of reading and re-reading. I was really drawn to both literary fiction and fantasy this summer. I read--or at least started--a bunch of other books from other genres, but I think I was craving moody magic where my Kindle chanted low arcana in my hand. Below are the highlights.

Women Talking by Miriam Toews

Has there ever been a book premise more likely to drive people out of the room in an instant? A group of Amish ... women ... alone in a room ... talking. Maybe they'll make a snappy musical, huh?! Yet, every part of my soul hopes that this book becomes part of the high school English curriculum in the U.S. (maybe no more Lord of the Flies at long last?). This fresh milk of a story has an incredibly distinctive, lamb-soft but bunioned and axe-pitched voice that makes the central plot--a lengthy debate over whether the women of an Amish community should stay or leave following a long series of heinous rapes--impossible to put down. It feels like a chat with a fascinating group of new friends, but the content is like St. Thomas Aquinas or Aristotle developing theories of morality. Again, I'm making this book sound painfully dull. But truly, it's a knock out, like getting trampled by a horse.

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

Ocean Vuong is primarily a poet, which is immediately clear in this stunning memoir of his childhood. The book is written in the style of letters to his mother, but the form ebbs and flows, building towards small moments that explode in tiny firefly lights. Fleeting beauty. Bone-deep terror. Vuong's mother and grandmother were Vietnamese immigrants who came to the U.S. after--and because of--the Vietnam War. Vuong spends the brief book exploring that legacy as well as the complications of his own evolving identify as a gay man and son within a culture that doesn't seem to embrace this part of him. Pick this book up if you want to inhabit the space between violent sadness and gorgeous flickering fireworks.

Uprooted and Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

There is something so intoxicating about books in which the villain is say, The Woods. Not Trump or the neighbor who holds band practice at 1 am on Wednesdays. But Winter. It's the best of childhood, where the world is broad and unformed, yet achingly specific. Novik's Uprooted (villain: woods) and Spinning Silver (villain: winter) are quite different books--the former is much snappier from the get go--and inhabit different worlds. But true to the metaphysical battles of our childhood, they are both magical and satisfying in ways I haven't experienced in a long time with fantasy, even excellent fantasy. I want to give a particular shout out to the ending of Uprooted, which was one of the most velvety, cathartic, well-built chapters I've read in many years. Escape to these books!


The Bride Test and The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang

Hoang's books are neither literary fiction nor fantasy, but I'm including them here because they absolutely hard rock. Again, like Women Talking, the premise of reading about main characters on the Autism spectrum fumbling their way through relationships and sex might sound inaccessible or off-putting to some at first glance. But NO! These are extremely sexy, fun books. Like, explicitly so. If anything, they make a great case for dating people on the spectrum, or at least just doing the sex. There definitely appears to be an upside to a lover with intense focus, yes? Fun fun reads.

YA/Middle Grade

The Warrior Heir by Cinda Williams Chima

I was initially a little leery of yet another chosen one white boy story. But this book is actually exactly what I want my son to be reading (in addition to mostly books starring and written by women of color). It's an easy-going story about a boy discovering he is a sought-after magical being destined to fight in a tournament for the blood sport of some jaded old wizards. It could go so trite with that set up, right? But this story is spot on: it's a friendship story, it's about the power of non-violence, the main character is embedded in a world of fascinating women and the few male role models are well-drawn, flawed, thoughtful men. There's some romance, but it's not overpowering. Plus, it's just straightforward fun. Oh, and action scenes in libraries. I mean, come on! Definitely a pick for my kids.

City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau

I have successfully indoctrinated my son into the world of dystopias. And he loves kid power themes in any sort of book. So he ate up City of Ember in one night. I admit that I couldn't get through it, but that's okay. It's a cool premise: kids living in a city completely underground that's running out of power. They find instructions on how to escape, but a baby ate part of the instructions. Seems oddly realistic. My kid totally recommends this to other kids.

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