Wrap-Up 6.20

Black lives matter! If you haven’t yet, check out this post where I’ve rounded up and explained a number of ways to help the movement, or just go straight here to do your part.

One of the things I’m doing to try to show my support and (hopefully) affect a change is to increase the number of Black authors whose work I’m buying, reading, and promoting through my book accounts. For this reason, 66% of the books I finished in June were written by Black authors. In July I’m aiming for 50%; yes, that’s a decrease, but the goal is ultimately to read diversely from many races and countries, not to replace the Black-authored works in my reading lists with content from white Americans.

For the record, here was the June TBR I decided on before protests swept America and my reading interests for the immediate future drastically changed:

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As predicted, I didn’t read many of these books within the month, though I will be working them back into my reading schedule soon because they’re related to various reading goals and commitments I’ve made. From the chosen 5, I finished one (My Dark Vanessa) and a half (Four Past Midnight, a buddy read that a friend and I had to postpone for timing, though we’re finding ways to fit it in alongside other reading priorities and have now read 2 of the 4 novellas from the collection).

Instead of sticking to my TBR, I read:

  1. Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo. 3 stars. This was a May TBR title for me that I did read most of in May and just finished up this month. It’s an urban fantasy novel set on the Yale campus, featuring magical secret societies. I loved a lot about it but this volume felt like groundlaying for future installments; I suspect I’ll like the sequel considerably more, but this was a very solid start. This will be my next review.
  2. The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead. 5 stars. I put this on my list both because of the synopsis (historical fiction featuring a racist and abusive reformatory school in Florida, based on a real place) and also because I’d enjoyed a previous book from the author. I was even more invested in this newest release from Whitehead than the last, and am eager to keep reading from his backlist!
  3. Lot by Bryan Washington. 4 stars. I picked up this story collection following a mixed race gay man in Houston; the stories also highlight other experiences from minority groups in the area. I liked that it felt both very specific to these characters but at the same time also indicative of the treatment many people in cities across America receive. It’s perhaps not the best starting point if you’re new to fiction about racism and/or LGBTQ+ discrimination; it’s wonderfully subtle.
  4. Real Life by Brandon Taylor. 5 stars. This is a literary fiction campus novel that dissects how racism affects one man’s stint in grad school (studying biochemistry), taking place over the course of a single weekend. I loved Taylor’s writing overall (though it did feel a bit overwritten in places) and that he hones in on the MC’s distinct voice and experience rather than using him as a mouthpiece to speak for an entire group of people (though it is clear that the MC is not alone in his struggle). I suspect this one will end up on my favorites list at the end of the year!
  5. Pet by Akwaeke Emezi. 4 stars. A YA utopian/dystopian novel set in a city where justice and equality for all have finally become the norm, with peace disturbed when a creature comes out of a painting, certain that a “monster” is hiding in their midst, and working with trans teen Jam to hunt him down. This was a little young for me, but glorious nonetheless.
  6. Aries by Stella Andromeda. 4 stars. A helpful guide to get me started in astrology. I’ve always been vaguely interested, but the fact that there are a few glaring discrepancies between my personality and my sun sign has made me slow to dig deeper. Now I know there’s more to it (I’m a Gemini moon and Pisces ascendant, for those curious). The imagery is simple but pleasing, the info split pretty evenly between sign-specific insights (this volume is part of a series that includes a book for each sign of the zodiac) and broader info on astrology- how it should be used, what the other signs mean and how they interact, where to find and how to read your chart, etc. This is great for beginners, and lists further resources at the end. I may look into the Gemini and Pisces volumes at some point, but I suspect a lot of the basics will be repeated so I don’t think it’s necessary to read more than one or two of these to get the gist of how they apply to one’s personal life. I probably won’t review this book in full, as it’s pretty self-explanatory and small, so free to ask further in the comments if you have any questions!  (Sort of related, I’ve also been vaguely interested in tarot for a long time and have just started my journey on that; is anyone interested in an experience/review post for specific tarot decks and guidebooks or should I stick to the monthly wrap-ups for those as well??? Comment below if you’re interested, please!)
  7. My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell. 5 stars. This is the book I was reading (as part of the Women’s Prize Squad longlist!) that I desperately needed a break from and thus picked up Aries. Russell’s fictional account of a fifteen year old girl groomed and sexually abused by a teacher at her private school utterly broke my heart. It’s incredibly written and insightful, and makes for a very emotional and thought-provoking read. I’ll have a review coming soon.
  8. Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi. 4 stars. For a book under 200 pages, this one packed a big punch in the end for me. It took me a little while to warm up to this contemporary-with-a-fabulist-element story about modern oppression and its effects, but the final section left a big impression. It’s a great fictional story and also motivated me to do some further research, so a win-win.
  9. The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House by Audre Lorde. 5 stars. It’s rare for me to rate a very short book (this one’s around 50 pages) so highly, but Lorde’s writing is stunning and hits right at the truth. There are 5 essays collected in this little volume, some of which I found more impactful than others, but I appreciated them all and would highly recommend Lorde’s work to anyone doing nonfiction reading about racism and feminism. Not to be missed.

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Dedicating June mostly to books by Black authors has been one of the best reading decisions I’ve made all year, as I had a much higher set of ratings last month than I have for most of 2020, and I felt like I was getting a lot out of what I was reading, which is always my goal. Some of these books I’ve been sleeping on for far too long, and I’ll definitely be using this positive experience as encouragement to make my reading more diverse in the future. I’m pretty excited about my line-up for July, as a start!

 

Some Stats:

Average rating – 4.3!

Best of month – I don’t think I can choose. I would say The Master’s Tools may be overall the “best,” although My Dark Vanessa had the most emotional impact and I was most impressed with the style and impact of Real Life, but The Nickel Boys was also pretty much flawless… I think having to choose between FOUR 5-star reads in one month is unprecedented for me, but it’s a wonderful dilemma to have!

Owned books read for the first time – 9 out of 9. Two of them were new purchases this month, but 7 were pulled from my own-unread stacks from previous months. But I also acquired another 9 books in June that I haven’t read yet, so… *shrugs.* My library is in the process of reopening now but there have been a surge of covid cases in my area so the jury’s still out on whether I’ll be borrowing any physical books anytime soon.

Year total – 52 at the end of the month, which had me slightly ahead of my goal to read 100 books this year (the end of June marked the halfway point of 2020- hopefully the second half will be better than the first all around!). But I’ve also finished two more books in July already (that I had started in June but not quite finished) so I’m well on-track with my reading goal.

 

Non-review posts in June included:

 

Something good this month: I received a raspberry plant as a belated birthday gift. It arrived in the mail, looked dry but alive, and after I planted it there were several days it looked like it wasn’t going to make it. In the last few days though, it’s got several areas of new growth and is now thriving! I love raspberries but the ones available in stores are just not the same as the home-grown variety, and they don’t seem to be a common farmer’s market item where I live. I’m so excited to have some fresh berries later this summer!

Tell me something good that happened to you in June!

 

The Literary Elephant

Spotlight on: Mystery

Black lives matter! If you haven’t yet, check out this post where I’ve rounded up and explained a number of ways to help the movement, or just go straight here to do your part.

 

Welcome to my Spotlight series! Every month in 2020 I am focusing on a different genre that I enjoy reading- not because I’m an expert, but because I want to celebrate a worthwhile category of books! I’m hoping this will be a space where everyone feels free to share their experiences with a genre of the month, whether you’ve read one book from the category or a hundred (or more!). I’ll share here what Mystery means to me, filling the post with titles and recommendations from my own experience, and then I’ll look forward to chatting with you in the comments about icons and recommendations I’ve missed (because that’s inevitable- I haven’t read everything)!

 

What is Mystery?

The mystery genre is full of books in which a question is presented at the beginning of the story that will be answered by the end, usually with clues (and red herrings) strewn along the way that allow the reader to guess at the answer. One “type” that appears often is the murder mystery. These often follow a detective (official or not) looking into a suspicious death. But murder is not a requirement of the genre; detectives can investigate any question to which an answer is initially unknown. Another “type” is the closed room mystery, in which a crime or other grievance has been committed in an enclosed space that defies entrance or exit- the culprit is stuck inside, hiding among innocents, and everyone is suspect.

Mystery has plenty of crossover with thriller genre- I’ll be focusing on that one more next month, but I want to draw a distinction in the meantime. Though a book can be both mystery and thriller, I also think a line can be drawn between the two genres, and that comes down to a difference in tone and level of suspense. A subjective matter, to be sure. For me the difference is usually determined by the degree of danger which the detective faces- if their life isn’t directly on the line, or is only in danger only because they happen to be present in a sticky situation, those are often mysteries. If the stakes are reasonably low and/or or distanced from the protagonist(s), that’s a mystery. If it’s a puzzle without edge-of-your-seat life-or-death-urgency, that’s a mystery to me.

Mystery can overlap with pretty much any genre, and it will mean a difference only in the setting or the way that the puzzle is being presented, though no other genre *requires* a puzzle the way Mystery does. Other frequent crossovers include gothic and horror stories.

 

My History with Mystery

I was one of many US children introduced to Gertrude Chandler Warner’s Boxcar Children mysteries during early forays into “chapter books.” The Boxcar Children (The Boxcar Children, #1)I don’t own very many but I did read every volume available at both my school and public libraries, some more than once, throughout elementary school. I am also far from unique in moving on from those to Carolyn Keene’s Nancy Drew series. Mystery is a great genre for young readers generally, because it provides a hook to keep kids engaged from start to finish, can teach a moral, and uses simple tropes that can be repeated and recognized over and over in endless slightly altered configurations. Quite a lot of stories for young readers are mysteries. I read a lot of them and I remember few.

After binging on mysteries in my young reading years, I took a bit of a break from the genre. I became interested in more varied and wild stories, especially fantasy and the supernatural. Because mystery can fit into any genre, I did encounter it again in the process of seeking more fantastical reading; In my tweens / early teens I briefly loved Elizabeth Chandler’s Dark Secrets series and Meg Cabot’s 1-800-Where-R-You series. The Face on the Milk Carton (Janie Johnson, #1)I also remember reading Caroline B. Cooney’s The Face on the Milk Carton around this time (though faces had never appeared on any of my milk cartons and I remember being young enough that I had to ask someone what that was all about).

In high school I fell into a murder mystery phase, and also a cringey reading-whoever-took-up-the-most-shelf-space-at-the-library phase, which meant (among others) Joanne Fluke, Janet Evanovich (I read a Stephanie Plum per day for a little while there, firmly team Ranger), and James Patterson. By college I was better at finding standalones to fit my taste and preferred a real challenge in guessing the whodunnits, and more suspense.

 

Mystery Classics and Staples

And Then There Were NoneDoes more need to be said than the name Agatha Christie? She’s dubbed “the queen of mystery” for a reason! I’ve actually only read a handful of her books so far, but one doesn’t need to read many to see her skill with the genre. My favorites to date have been (to no one’s surprise) And Then There Were None and Murder on the Orient Express. The former is a closed room mystery which takes place on an island, where ten people are gathered and die one by one while they wait to leave and try desperately to determine which among them is the killer. The latter, another closed room mystery, takes place on a train, where one passenger winds up dead and the evidence seems contradictory.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier is a gothic mystery classic in which a young wife feels judged against her husband’s former (now dead) wife, though no one will tell her what happend to the last Mrs. de Winter.

The Good Daughter (Good Daughter, #1)For more modern representation, Karin Slaughter is not to be overlooked. I started with The Good Daughter, in which a woman who survived a terrible attack as a child is later privy to the aftermath of another horrible crime, one that demands she take another look at the past tragedy that changed her family irrevocably. This title in itself isn’t necessarily the staple, but Karin Slaughter is enough of a mystery icon that all of her titles are on the map.

I must also mention Liane Moriarty, whose popular mystery Big Little Lies is a big little adaptation these days; this one follows a group of women whose children attend an Australian school where the parent drama turns deadly.

Robert Galbraith is another big name in mystery, probably due to the fact that J. K. Rowling hides behind the name, but for whichever reason, you’ll probably hear about the Cormoran Strike series if you’re digging into this genre! These are UK-based puzzles led by a one-legged private investigator and his intrepid secretary/partner.

The Silence of the LambsThere’s also Thomas Harris’s infamous Hannibal Lecter series for the horror fans- these are a bit grislier, but if you’re not interested in the whole series skip straight to The Silence of the Lambsit can be read on its own, and is not to be missed! In this story, the FBI’s new behavioral science unit is hunting an evasive serial killer- with the help of an eclectic madman they’ve already caught.

And of course mystery is a popular genre outside of the English language as well. I’ve not yet read The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (translated from the Swedish by Reg Keeland), a major contender, but I have enjoyed Sarah Blaedel’s The Forgotten Girls (translated from the Danish by Signe Rød Golly), Katrine Engberg’s The Tenant (translated from the Danish by Tara Chace) and Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones), a recent nominee for several literary prizes. It’s good fun to see how mysteries are done in other countries, I highly recommend looking around the world for additional titles!

 

Further Mystery Recommendations

If you’re new to the genre and not sure where to start, let me offer a few suggestions based on other categories you may already be interested in. These recommendations are based off of my own reading, rather than an exhaustive list of everything that’s out there; if anyone has further suggestions please drop them in the comments below!

The OutsiderIf you like YA: Courtney Summers’s Sadie, Akwaeke Emezi’s Pet

If you like magical or supernatural elements: Stephen King’s The Outsider, Yangsze Choo’s The Night Tiger, Caroline Kepnes’s Providence

If you like history: Caleb Carr’s The Alienist, Tina May Hall’s The Snow Collectors, Jess Kidd’s Things in Jars, Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44

If you like social issues: Liz Moore’s Long Bright River, Deepa Anappara’s Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line, Angie Kim’s Miracle Creek

If you like lit fic: Julia Phillips’ Disappearing Earth, Maria Hummel’s Still Lives

If you like thrillers: Hanna Jameson’s The Last, Riley Sager’s The Last Time I Lied, Ruth Ware’s The Turn of the Key

If you like police procedurals: Susie Steiner’s Missing, Presumed, Adam Sternbergh’s The Blinds (to be clear, the sheriff of The Blinds is a fellow inmate in an experimental town full of criminals so this is a police procedural with a twist)Behind Her Eyes

Special shoutout to my favorite mystery twist to date, found in Sarah Pinborough’s Behind Her Eyes, which I can’t talk about without giving it away. This one’s polarizing but… I loved it! If anyone is looking for a wild card recommendation, this is it.

 

Mysteries on my TBR:

Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Complete Sherlock Holmes is a mystery must that I’ve been sleeping on for far too long! I’m embarrassed not to have read any of these stories yet. I also have Anthony Horowitz high on my mystery to-read list, starting with The Word is Murder. Stuart Turton’s The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is waiting patiently on my shelf, along with Jo Baker’s The Body Lies, and Silvia Moreno Garcia’s Mexican Gothic is on its way to my mailbox. (I’m hazy on whether this is actually a mystery or just gothic, so please excuse me if I’m wrong but I’m getting mystery vibes.) I’ve also got Kate Weinberg’s The Truants on my list, as well as Danielle Trussoni’s The Ancestor, and Claire Fuller’s Bitter Orange, for a few examples. Bitter OrangeAnd I want to do a deep dive into Agatha Christie’s work at some point! Which mysteries are on your TBR?

 

Why Read Mystery?

To exercise your brain! To brush with the morbid and macabre! To learn about real problems with crime from around the world! Mystery can also help readers build a sense of empathy and understand motivations because they often focus closely on character. These are perfect books to escape into, and you can choose to work on the puzzle for yourself while reading or simply follow along as the characters figure things out. Either way, it’s a great blend of fun format with thoughtful (and often very serious) content.

 

Your turn

We’ve reached the part where I encourage you to drop a comment below sharing anything you love (or don’t) about this genre. Tell me about your own experiences, good and bad! If you have recommendations, if you’re looking for recommendations, if you have questions or hangups that stop you from reaching for mystery books, mention them below! I’m not trying to pressure anyone into reading what they don’t want to, but I’d love to discuss anything and everything about the genre. That’s the point of this post! A genre can mean something different to everyone, so to take a wider view, I’d love to see what it means to you.

Thank you, in advance, for participating! 🙂

 

The Literary Elephant

TBR 7.20

Black lives matter! If you haven’t yet, check out this post where I’ve rounded up and explained a number of ways to help the movement, or just go straight here to do your part.

 

I have two main reading goals for July: to continue reading and reviewing books by Black authors, and to catch up on some of my previous TBRs and book lists that I’ve fallen behind on. A lot of those list books are white, so my aim is to alternate between reading those books and reading the books by Black authors that I pulled from my shelf last month or have purchased since. Because I set a rule for myself this year not to repeat TBR books, my July TBR is instead going to focus on the Black-authored half of my planned reading.

Here’s the list:

  1. The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates. This is magical realism historical fiction that I’m hoping I’ll love as much as Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. I’ve been meaning to read Coates’ work for years; I’m actually more interested in his nonfiction and I have Between The World and Me on order to arrive in July, but since I already own this fiction title I want to cross it off my list first.
  2. Black Girl Unlimited by Echo Brown. I believe this one’s either a YA urban fantasy or magical realism novel (I think I’ll have to read it to see which way I lean on categorization). I’ve been seeing rave reviews for it and have been missing YA content in my reading this year! I had such a good time with my last book for younger readers, Akwaeke Emezi’s Pet, that I’m eager to check out another.
  3. A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley. A short story collection written by an Iowa Writer’s Workshop grad who taught one of my undergrad classes. There are so many reasons I want to read this one, not the least of which is that I had a goal to pick up more short story collections this year! I have a buddy read for a white-authored collection in the works as well, so this one will provide balance.
  4. How To Be An Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi. Another of my goals for this year was to read more non-fiction, which I’ve been utterly failing at. Wanting to educate myself on modern racism seems like a great way to increase my non-fiction reading, as with this book which I believe is part memoir, part antiracism guidebook. I’ve ordered a handful of non-fiction books on racism, but since there was such a surge in demand for them they haven’t all shipped yet, much less arrived. So I’ll be starting here. I’ve actually read a few pages already and am looking forward to finishing the rest!
  5. Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge. Another non-fiction book about racism, though this one’s UK based. I want to start with something a little more applicable to the US since that’s where I’m at, but I also want to make sure I’m branching out and taking a broader world view. This seemed like a good place to start to achieve that goal, and I’m sure some of it will echo what’s going on closer to (my) home as well.

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June has been an excellent reading month for me, mostly (wrap-up coming soon!), so it feels plausible right now that I could expect to read all 5 of these AND make a dent in previous TBR books that have fallen by the wayside. But if 2020 has taught me anything, it’s that anything can happen and plans may change in an instant, so we’ll see how this goes. Because I’m aiming to make every other read a Black-authored book in July, those should make up 50% of my reading no matter how far through the lists I get.

 

Before I close, here are the new releases coming out in July that I’ve got my eye on:

  • Mother Daughter Widow Wife by Robin Wasserman. Adult mystery in which a woman steps off a bus in Philadelphia with no ID and no memory of who she is or how she got there. An exploration of the self and the obligations of womanhood.  (This is actually my current read, I was lucky enough to snag an ARC from The Library Hotel earlier this year!) Out July 7th
  • Cinderella is Dead by Kalynn Bayron. YA LGBTQ+ fantasy Cinderella retelling in which girls attend a ball where they are either chosen as wives or never heard from again- at least, until two best friends who’d rather marry each other decide to topple the king’s regime. Out July 7th
  • The Beauty in Breaking by Michele Harper. Memoir of healing the self by healing others, following an African American woman’s experience as an emergency room physician, a profession predominantly comprised of white men. (I was thrilled that BOTM was able to put this on my radar for July! Since I talked extensively about the current BOTM situation here, a little update: it looks like half of the authors featured in their July line-up (5 books, one co-authored) are by POC. That’s a step up for BOTM, although I wouldn’t have minded the predictable white-authored thriller and romance selections to be… something else. Still, I’m sure they select their books months in advance and I think a 50% turn-out for non-white authors shows that they made some quick and meaningful changes in the wake of controversy earlier in June. To be honest I think the next few months will be more telling as to their overall efforts. I’m cautiously hopeful, based on July!) Out July 7th
  • Notes on a Silencing by Lacy Crawford. Memoir of a woman who reports in adulthood her story of sexual abuse in a private school at age 15; the focus is on the ways that the school, police, and other authority figures actively worked against her case when she was a minor, to protect the school’s reputation. Out July 7th
  • Burn Our Bodies Down by Rory Power. This one’s a YA horror in which a teen girl goes searching for her family history and is shocked by what she finds. Out July 7th
  • Betty by TIffany McDaniel. Betty is part of a mixed-race (Cherokee and white) family with eight children and some deep dark secrets; she lives with poverty and violence, but also has a fierce imagination that provides a means for escape. Out July 14th

Any new releases I’m missing that are on your can’t-wait-for-it list? 🙂

 

The Literary Elephant

Reviews: Riot Baby and The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House

Black lives matter! If you haven’t yet, check out this post where I’ve rounded up and explained a number of ways to help the movement, or just go straight here to do your part.

One of the things I’m doing to try to show my support and (hopefully) affect a change is to increase the number of Black authors whose work I’m buying, reading, and promoting through my book accounts. I’d like to put some books on your radar that might have slipped by you, including Tochi Onyebuchi’s adult sci-fi novel, Riot Baby, and Audre Lorde’s The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House, a short essay collection on race, feminism, and more.

 

riotbabyIn Riot Baby, a contemporary novel by Tochi Onyebuchi with a sci-fi/fabulist element, a young girl with the ability to see the fates of those around her witnesses the 1992 race riots in LA at the same time as her brother is born. Kev is healthy and whole, but the city is on fire, and Ella sees the racial injustices taking place. She does what she can to protect her brother, but as they grow up, Ella’s power increases in many ways, and the more she can do, the more she learns about the world, and the more it hurts her to see how much hate is aimed at Black people. She grapples over her responsibilities toward justice in light of her unique capabilities. Meanwhile, her brother suppresses his own rage and falls victim to a system stacked against him, buoyed onward by his sister’s dedication to change.

“I see Ella walking through Milwaukee’s North Side, past makeshift memorials to dead black kids: teddy bears, browning flowers, ribbons tied to telephone poles waving in the breeze, and I know that she’s been touching the ground around those memorials and closing her eyes and seeing the whole of it, whether the bullet came from some other colored kid’s gun or from a cop, watching the whole story unfold before her. She does the same with the Confederate monuments that rise from the ground in the South like weeds. Tributes to treasonous generals and soldiers serving Big Cotton. She touches their bases, feels their mass-produced faces, runs her fingers over their inscriptions. She wants to know who was hanged here. Who was beaten here. In whose name they were violated. She’s gathering it within her. All of it.”

This is a very short and powerful book, but it took me a while to get into it.

There were two reasons for that: the first is that Ella’s powers are an anomaly, and until the last section of the book (there are four) I didn’t feel that this otherworldly element was necessary to the story beyond giving the narration an easy way to depict Black experiences more broadly than two non-empowered characters would have been able to show alone. Ella’s ability to head-hop and see pasts and futures gives a much wider scope to the brutality and systemic racism against Black people on display here, but it takes most of the novel for that breadth of perspective to mesh with the specific experiences of the two main characters. However, I did eventually think they fit together very well.

The other hang-up for me reflects my own privilege and limited experience; it is not Onyebuchi’s job to cater to me as a white reader, it is my job as a white reader to learn about experiences beyond my own in order to be able to understand the conversations about racism that are taking place (both in this novel and beyond). In Riot Baby, the narration takes big jumps between scenes, characters, and even years. The problem I had was some difficulty keeping up; the pacing moves very fast, with the expectation that the reader will inherently understand the nuances of the barrage of injustices on display and be able to contextualize them without pausing for breath. Certain gaps in my own knowledge (Black prison life, the LA riots,  Black-on-Black crime) made this a challenging read for me in places because I could see there was significance and a greater history that I wasn’t fully grasping. I’m mentioning it not because this is in any way Onyebuchi’s or Riot Baby‘s “fault,” but simply because I think other white readers might want to brush up on some nonfiction before diving into this one, or at least keep an internet tab open and be willing to take breaks while reading to ask necessary questions.

That said, I appreciated being pushed out of my comfort zone and loved the heart of this story. Ella’s power and Kev’s suppression of his power present as a metaphors for rage under oppression; one embraces the emotion and endeavors to channel it into productive changes, and the other tries to squash it down just to survive in a white-washed world. Their relationships with each other and their powers show how people beaten down by racism struggle and cope both internally and externally. They are individuals to empathize with, but they are also carrying a world of pain on their shoulders and stand as representatives of a much larger whole. Onyebuchi strikes an incredible balance, and when the pieces fall into place it’s astoundingly effective and emotional, conveying decades (and centuries) of accumulated despair while also inspiring the fight for a better future.

I highly recommend this book to anyone intrigued by the idea of social issues explored through a fabulist element. I think Riot Baby has a lot to say and says it well; any difficulty I had with it is the result of my own lack of knowledge, but if you’re willing to do the work, I think you’ll appreciate where this book will take you. For such a small volume, it digs deep.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I cannot overemphasize how blown away I was by the last section of this book. Parts of the read were difficult for me, but they were supposed to be. I really liked Onyebuchi’s style and the themes explored here, and I’m excited to pick up more of his work in the future. I’ve already ordered Beasts Made of Night, and hope to get to it later this summer. I see it has some lower ratings on GR, but I think having learned a bit about Onyebuchi’s style here and how I need to approach his books as a white reader, I’m eager to give it a try.

 

themaster'stoolswillneverdismantlethemaster'shouseIn The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House, five of Audre Lorde’s essays are collected. They are: “Poetry is Not a Luxury,” “Uses of the Erotic,” “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” “Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism,” and “Learning From the 1960’s.” All were written between 1977-1982, and still apply perfectly today.

“Do not be misled into passivity either by false security (they don’t mean me) or by despair (there’s nothing we can do). Each of us must find our work and do it.”

These essays are fairly short, and the entire book amounts to just over 50 pages. Since it’s so brief, I won’t go into much detail about each of the individual pieces; if you’re looking for that breakdown of info let me recommend Callum’s excellent review from earlier this month (which reminded me I had this volume on my shelf and motivated me to pick it up, thanks Callum!).

The first essays here, on poetry and eroticism, appealed to me the least. There will certainly be readers more interested in those topics who will likely find them more inspiring and vital. I thought both were well-written and worthwhile though they didn’t speak to me quite as personally.

But the latter three essays, all of which deal with racism in various ways, and all of which are filtered through the lens of Lorde’s perspective as a Black lesbian woman specifically, felt so very powerful and crucial to this time (which is worrying, as it shows how little progress has been made since they were written). In these pieces, Lorde touches on feminism, and how hurtful racial divides within that movement can be. She talks about discrimination based on sexual orientations. And of course, racism and civil rights. She argues about how people can be oppressed in different ways, to different degrees, and none of the oppressed groups will find their peace until they unite under the common cause: justice and equality for all. She acknowledges those who have been hurt, and calls out those who have done the hurting, and it’s especially impressive to see her handle this where those two groups overlap, as with white feminists who ignore black women’s needs in favor of their own. It’s important that none of us get too caught up in a single cause to overlook the ultimate goal. As a woman and a feminist I found these essays a helpful reminder on how to be a good ally and advocate by respecting differences AND the shared cause. That’s particular to my experience, but I can’t think of an audience that wouldn’t benefit from Lorde’s words in some way.

“I am a lesbian woman of colour whose children eat regularly because I work in a university. If their full bellies make me fail to recognize my commonality with a woman of colour whose children do not eat because she cannot find work, or who has no children because her insides are rotted from home abortions and sterilization; if I fail to recognize the lesbian who chooses not to have children, the woman who remains closeted because her homophobic community is her only life support, the woman who chooses silence instead of another death, the woman who is terrified lest my anger trigger the explosion of hers; if I fail to recognize them as other faces of myself, then I am contributing not only to each of their oppressions but also to my own, and the anger which stands between us then must be used for clarity and mutual empowerment, not for evasion by guilt or for further separation. I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own. And I am not free as long as one person of colour remains chained. Nor is any one of you.”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. This is one of those books I think EVERYONE should read. With this one to judge by, I look forward to getting back to the other volumes from the Penguin Modern set that I’d forgotten about, and to reading further from Lorde! This was a great place to start with her work, and I’m looking forward to seeing what else she has to say.

 

The Literary Elephant

Mid-Year Book Freak-Out Tag 4.0

Black lives matter! If you haven’t yet, check out this post where I’ve rounded up and explained a number of ways to help the organization and movement, or just go straight here to do your part.

The Mid-Year Freak-Out is one of my favorite tags to do every year, but with everything going on lately I almost forgot about it. I could really use a dose of bookish excitement right about now, so thanks to those who’ve posted this one already, and here is my contribution! (And, in case you’re curious, links to my previous iterations of this tag: 3.0, 2.0, and the original.) If you haven’t already posted or been tagged… consider this your call to participate! 🙂

 

Best Book You’ve Read in 2020 SO FAR

reallife

Real Life by Brandon Taylor. This may be a biased answer because I finished this book very recently, but it just pulled me in from page one and never let me go, and I’m confident I’ll be thinking about this book for the rest of the year.

Best Sequel

allsystemsred

This is a cheat answer because I haven’t actually read ANY sequels yet this year, which is odd! Instead I’m going with a first-in-series book that I loved, which I expect I’ll love the sequels to as well when I get to them (which I should do soon!); I’m talking about All Systems Red by Martha Wells.

New Release You Haven’t Read Yet But Really Want To

theglasshotel

The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel. I loved Station Eleven and ordered the author’s newest novel immediately, but shamefully I haven’t picked it up yet! I can’t wait much longer, I’m still dying to read this one.

Most Anticipated Release for the Second Half of the Year

The Death of Vivek Oji

This is tough because (as always) there are a lot of anticipated releases on my radar, but this year in particular a handful of favorite authors have new books coming up, which complicates the choice. But the one on my mind at the moment is The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi, perhaps because I just read their 2019 YA release and loved it! I cannot wait for this next adult novel, coming in August!

Biggest Disappointment

acrimeintheneighborhood

A Crime in the Neighborhood by Suzanne Berne, primarily because I had such high hopes for it as a previous Women’s Prize winner. (Not to be confused with my least favorite read of the year so far, which is an award that has to go to Edna O’Brien’s Girl this time around!)

Biggest Surprise

trustexercise

Trust Exercise by Susan Choi. It won the National Book Award for Fiction last year, which was the final motivating factor I needed to pick it up. The entire first half of the novel was a bit of a slog for me, so imagine my surprise when the twist of perspective in the second half turned this around to such an extent that it ended up being a 5-star read for me in the end!

Favorite New Author

hamnet

Maggie O’Farrell. I read Hamnet as part of the Women’s Prize longlist, and even though many of her readers say this isn’t her strongest work I had such a good time reading it. I’m so looking forward to checking out more of her books!

Newest Fictional Crush

ninthhouse

I don’t really crush on characters, but I do love great relationships on the page. I think my favorite so far this year is the Darlington/Alex/Dawes combo from Leigh Bardugo’s Ninth House, who are, at the end of the first book, an entirely platonic group… But Bardugo is great at slow-burn romances (I will never get over Kaz and Inej) and I’m really hoping for something to develop here. I don’t even have a preference for which way it goes, any budding relationship here is bound to be fantastic. My review for this book coming soon.

Newest Favorite Character

queenie

Queenie, from Candice Carty-Williams’s Queenie. This may come as a surprise after writing a 3-star review for the book, but what prevented it from being a flawless read for me was not the main character, who I found fierce and resilient and unapologetic. Queenie might not have it all together, but she’s a delight to read. I would 100% pick up a sequel (although I don’t think this story line needs one).

Book That Made You Cry

mydarkvanessa

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell. Oh my god, this book. It’s incredible, but I found this SO painful to read (it focuses on sexual assault of a minor by a teacher) and had to set it aside often to regroup because it was hitting so hard. My review will be coming soon.

Book That Made You Happy

redwhiteandroyalblue

Red, White, and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston is such a fun romp. Both the main relationship AND the alternative political landscape warmed my heart. I can’t wait to read McQuiston’s next book.

Favorite Book-to-Film Adaptation

senseandsensibility

Sense and Sensibility, based on the book by Jane Austen. I haven’t been watching many movies so I had a small list to choose from here, but I’ve always loved this film adaptation (from 1995). Earlier this year I read the book for the first time and rewatched the movie, which was just as much of a success as usual. The book, actually, is perhaps my least favorite Austen novel (so far- I still have Mansfield Park left to read), but I think the film really goes above and beyond.

Favorite Post This Year

NYC_brooklynbridge2

As always, I love posting prize content and series wrap-ups, and I’ve been getting so excited every month to share another round of my 2020 Genre Spotlight series, but for now I have to go with my Vacation + Book Haul post from my trip to New York earlier this year. To be honest it was a rather hasty round-up of pictures and book synopses and the beginnings of pandemic fear, but at this point it feels like a reminder of a whole different era, and I need to be able to remember some good times to get through the dark ones.

Most Beautiful Book You’ve Bought (or Read) This Year

disappearingearth

Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips. It may look simple, but blue and purple are my colors. I love that the landscape builds the gradient and that the lettering is crisp and cool. I love how bright it is. And this is one of the rare occasions where the people on the cover add rather than detract from the artwork for me. Those two little girl shapes get me all kinds of sad. In a good way?

A Book You Want to Read By the End of the Year

Half of a Yellow Sun

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche. I’m hoping to read this one over the summer actually, because it’s one of the previous Women’s Prize winners that might affect my vote in the Winner of the Winners competition! I’ve recently ordered a copy that’s on its way and the deadline for the vote is November, so I’m hoping this will be the one that breaks the trend of my not reading whatever book I name for this prompt… So far I’m 1/4, and that’s not counting my similarly bad turnout for “new release you haven’t red yet but really want to.”

 

Tell me about a book you’re freaking out about this year!

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor

Black lives matter! If you haven’t yet, check out this post where I’ve rounded up and explained a number of ways to help the movement, or just go straight here to do your part.

 

thecomletestoriesofflanneryoconnorFor today’s catch-up review, we’re looking at Flannery O’Connor, The Complete Stories. I’d read three of these stories previously but started at the beginning and read through the full collection of thirty-one stories in May alongside Melanie’s Month of Flannery O’Connor project. She’s more informed on O’Connor’s life and work than I am, so be sure to check out her posts, which tell a little about the content and publication of each story with some background on O’Connor’s life and overall thoughts on theme and patterns as well. Partially because Melanie did such a fantastic job covering each story (and partially because I didn’t take notes on the individual stories as I read them) I’m going to be talking more broadly about my experience with the collection and some things I’ve noted generally about O’Connor’s short story style.

“She was a good Christian woman with a large respect for religion, though she did not, of course, believe any of it was true.”

The first thing to note about O’Connor’s stories is that they don’t make points so much as they make clear where there’s a point of contention to be grappled with. What I mean is, O’Connor seems intent on highlighting conflict- racial, theological, social- not with the intent of making a stance or guiding the reader’s thinking, but simply to demonstrate that the conflict exists, and perhaps to encourage the reader to consider multiple views before choosing one. Her stories often end without clear resolutions, which I think is why they’re so widely studied- the reader must sift for clues, and what the stories are actually saying is hotly debated.

For example, one of O’Connor’s best-known and most-read pieces, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” is either a story of a woman seeing the error of her ways and finding grace in a moment of peril, or a woman blind to the error of her ways remaining selfish to the end, even at the cost of her lifelong faith. The ambiguity is the draw, and presents as O’Connor’s favorite modus operandi; to sow the seeds of discord and then leave the reader to decide- in the case of “Good Man,” to decide whether the old woman’s final act is a cheapening of her religion or a finding of it. So yes, the story is theologically themed, but it’s impossible to tell from the fiction provided where O’Connor herself stood on the matter or which way she expects the reader to lean upon reading.

This is also why I felt so conflicted about the portrayal of racism in her stories. What’s clear is that it’s there. The white and black characters filling these stories are always at odds, there’s no denying that. There’s no denying that the whites often consider themselves superior because of the color of their skin. It’s also clear that many of these characters suffer as a result of their racism. What’s unclear is what O’Connor’s stance is on all of it. Normally I would say it doesn’t much matter- I’m a big supporter of separating the art from the artist wherever possible, though I can certainly admit there are cases (especially with classics) where knowing a bit about the author’s circumstances can enhance the reading experience. But the fact that there is so much up for debate in O’Connor’s stories leaves the reader uncertain which way things are “meant,” and it’s hard to decide what to believe without knowing the author’s intentions- hence questioning O’Connor’s personal stance on the themes she returns to so often in her fiction.

Frequent use of racial slurs and stereotyping can be found in everything from the first story to the last, and O’Connor’s approach to race remains in-your-face and morally questionable throughout the book. I became increasingly uncomfortable with that facet of these stories, especially since I happened to be reading this as George Floyd was killed, protests swept across America, and the volume was turned way up on conversations about racism. There’s plenty of racism to be found in O’Connor’s stories.

There should never be a time where it’s comfortable to read about racism, but the tail-end of May 2020 was one of the absolute worst moments for it. However, while I agree wholeheartedly that racism should not be condoned or supported in any way, I think including racist characters in fiction can have a positive/worthwhile effect, if the racism is portrayed as an evil. It can be used as a lesson, as a cautionary device. And for the most part, that is how it came across for me in O’Connor’s stories. The racist characters O’Connor writes are often depicted as being in the wrong, and learning so. But there’s also some casual racism that is not challenged, which I chalked up to being a product of its time and place- though an article I read recently has made me reconsider that stance. The 1950s – 60s was still a time of significant racial inequality in the US, but it’s worth noting that America was undergoing a change in these years that other authors of O’Connor’s day handled in other, arguably better, ways. In that same article, one particular hypothesis jumped out at me: that O’Connor’s stories on racial tensions were perhaps a way for her to work through her own racism.

Apparently racism is much more apparent and overt in O’Connor’s essays, letters, and other works. I’ve not read any of O’Connor’s nonfiction, so I can’t speak on it, but the speculation about working through her own racist thoughts struck a chord for me even with only her stories to go on. I came to this collection much more interested in the fiction than the author- I knew O’Connor had been an Iowa Writer’s Workshop grad, and since my undergrad studies brought me in close proximity to that program (the grad students there led the undergrad creative writing workshops that I took part in) it’s been a personal interest of mine to read previous Workshop writers when I can, to see the fiction that was produced and published from that familiar environment. (If you’re looking for better alternatives from Iowa Writer’s Workshop grads, let me strongly recommend Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House, Brandon Taylor’s Real Life, and Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing for starters.) I didn’t intend to learn about O’Connor’s personal history or read her letters- it wasn’t her real life I was interested in. But now that I know a bit about them it’s not something I can ignore.

Ultimately, I have to admit that I don’t know exactly where I stand on whether O’Connor is doing a good thing with the content of her stories or not. I did feel most of the time that O’Connor was questioning and condemning racism through her fiction. But I also thought while reading that perhaps it was progressive for her to do that in her time- but her stories aren’t actually that old, and certainly other writers have done more in the way of calling out racial inequality at that time than O’Connor (these were the days of Martin Luther King Jr’s essays and speeches! He was not alone in challenging the status quo). I want to be able to say that she’s trying to do a good thing here, but I was left feeling uneasy about it all, and I suppose that speaks for itself.

I had the same uncertainties about what O’Connor was trying to say about religion; she’s clearly very concerned with morals and religious rituals, though it’s not always clear where she stands in the fiction despite being Catholic herself. In the end, I just wasn’t as concerned about whether O’Connor was supporting or condemning Christianity as about where she stood on racism. One’s stance on religion, I think, is mainly a reflection of personal choice, whereas one’s approach to racism can impact those surrounding (or in this case reading the work of) that person. Whether you practice religion or not should be up to you. Whether you practice racism should not be.

“She felt that religion was essentially for those people who didn’t have the brains to avoid evil without it.”

So why put myself through all this confusion? Why talk about O’Connor at all? Because she is, I think, a good storyteller (in the way that Stephen King is a good storyteller though he also has a knack for problematic writing). O’Connor’s characters, even the despicable ones, always feel like real people one might meet on the streets (or the farms) of 1950s Georgia. She doesn’t shy away from violence or death, which keeps her plot twists shocking and unpredictable. Her work feels like a snapshot in time- perhaps not a flattering snapshot, but it’s worth recognizing where people have been wrong, I think. Should Flannery O’Connor be remembered and studied? Perhaps. But if so, she should be recognized for her flaws as well as her assets.

I do like that O’Connor doesn’t try to tell the reader what to think; her characters’ actions and opinions leave no room for doubt, and yet conclusions on meaning are still left to the reader. She touches on law and politics, city vs rural life, academia vs spirituality, death and grief, parenthood and care for those in need, loneliness and community, and plenty more big toics that are still relevant today. Her writing noticeably improves as she goes, becoming sharper, more immersive, and I think more personal, toward the end of her career. The stories that originally appeared in her last collection, Everything That Rises Must Converge, are (in my opinion) the most impressive. There’s also a beautiful sort of symmetry to the fact that this chronologically-organized complete collection is bookended by two attempts at writing the same story- her first published short story, “The Geranium,” was also her final work, rewritten as “Revelation,” a much stronger version, shortly before her death. She may not have been a good person, and her talent may have been put to better use with subjects other than race, but she is a skilled writer nonetheless. Do I recommend reading her work? …Not without a lot of caution and a firm idea going in of where you stand on racism and religion.

My favorite stories from the set included:

  • “A Stroke of Good Fortune” – A woman realizes something serious about her health
  • “The River” – A young boy is taken to be baptized by a babysitter and there discovers a way to escape his neglectful parents
  • “A Good Man is Hard to Find” – A family goes on a road trip and encounters danger
  • “The Lame Shall Enter First” – A man takes in a bright but troubled boy, hoping to give him and his own son a better start to adult life
  • “Parker’s Back” – A man gets a bold tattoo in an attempt to impress his wife

“He had not done anything. He was twenty-eight now and, so far as she could see, nothing occupied him but trivia. He had the air of a person who is waiting for some big event and can’t start any work because it would only be interrupted.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I originally pegged this as a 4 because most of the second half of the book consisted of 4-star stories for me, and I was willing to round up for writing growth. But now that I’ve read a bit deeper on O’Connor’s body of work and racist remarks, and as I’ve sat with this collection a bit longer and remember it a little less fondly in general, I’ve changed my rating to a 3 to acknowledge that initial and lasting discomfort over the lack of clarity in whether O’Connor is speaking against racism through these stories. There are certainly individual pieces worth reading, but I would recommend only picking this full collection up if you’re prepared to do a deeper dive into O’Connor’s life and work as a sort of author study; I do think there’s merit here and plenty to learn, but without putting in a substantial amount of work I’m not convinced the reader is able to draw any conclusions that really make the experience worth the time and effort.

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Bunny

Black lives matter! If you haven’t yet, check out this post where I’ve rounded up and explained a number of ways to help the movement, or just go straight here to do your part.

One of the things I’m doing to try to show my support and (hopefully) affect a change is to increase the number of Black authors whose work I’m buying, reading, and promoting through my book accounts. I want this to be a long-term and sustainable project, which means catching up on the posts I’ve been holding back and mixing the Black-authored books I’m reading in with the rest of my content. I’ll have a review of Tochi Onyebuchi’s Riot Baby coming soon, and in the meantime I’m sharing some thoughts on Mona Awad’s Bunny, a fabulist novel about a grad level writing program, which I enjoyed back in May.

bunnyIn the novel, Samantha is taking part in an elite writing program at Warren, a (fictional) New England university. She is one of five students in her cohort, a group of all women for the first time ever. Their second and final year is now underway, but there are two problems- Samantha is hit with a dose of writer’s block, and the rest of the women in her group seem to have formed some sort of bizarre cult. Samantha has been making fun of them for a full year with a friend who’s outside of it all, but things change when the Bunnies extend an invitation to Samantha. She accepts with the hope that she’ll be treated less like a fifth wheel in the program, but soon finds herself deeply involved in the Bunnies’ crazy “writing” project, and reality melts away.

” ‘Rob Valencia,’ I tell the leaves. ‘His head exploded.’ When I say this, I realize how funny it is. A high, shrieking laugh comes out of me. It won’t stop.

She smacks me, hard. Just like that, I’m silenced. Then she strokes my cheek softly. ‘That’s what you think you saw, okay?’

Saw. I think of the silver, toothy blade that cuts things. Trees. Women. Cartoon animals. Skull hail. Brain rain. A severed, still-smoking ear.

‘Saw,’ I say. ‘I saw. I saw, I saw, I saw, I saw, I- “

She smacks me again, harder this time.

‘Things aren’t always what they seem, are they?’ I look at her cat ears. Her golden, pleading eyes. The smiling watermelons in my fist wink at me. The toothy blade of saw dissolves into silvery, light-kissed waters. I float on their buoyant waves.”

Bunny is an incredibly unique and polarizing book. We have, on the surface, a group of grown women acting like the grad student versions of Mean Girls or the Heathers, with an added dose of fabulism. In her first year at Warren, Samantha thought these women were weird- with the cat ears, and the sugary treats, and the over-exuberance, calling each other “Bunny” like they’re all somehow different versions of the same person. In her second year, when she gets her invitation to the Bunnies’ Smut Salon, Samantha discovers there’s more to it than the public display of ultra-girliness: drinks and pills that make her lose track of who she is and what’s happening around her, which is probably for the best while the Bunnies busy themselves turning rabbits into vapid boys with half-formed hands and a tendency to explode. It can’t be real, and yet it’s hard to tell exactly at what point the line between fact and fiction is being crossed, and how, and why.

The fabulist element is, essentially, an elaborate metaphor for killing one’s darlings. Usually, that’s a phrase used to mean culling aspects of one’s writing that the author loves but which don’t ultimately serve the story. Here, Awad presents it rather literally: the Bunnies conjure boys based on combinations of real people and idealized traits, and then have to “kill” them when they reveal their imperfections. There is, of course, more to it, and the process doesn’t always go as planned.

“She gives me the full hate bouquet of her smile. Every fuck you flower. She knows full well that I’m gripping an ax in my coat. She’s not stupid, she fucking invented this game, remember? She knows my every murderous thought, rising and falling like white feathers in a wild breeze. But whatevs. She sips her champagne slowly, savoring it under my wavering gun gaze. Because I’ll never actually go through with it, will you, Samantha? Killing us? Real people? Wouldn’t that be going just a little too far, even for you?

Through the metaphor, Awad is also able to draw commentary about the sexist criticisms women (writers) receive. We see characters judged or even shamed for tears and vulnerability, for the love interests and personal details that make it into their work, for the overt femininity in the cutesy dresses the Bunnies wear and their bubbly personalities. And since this is a campus novel, there’s plenty of fun poked at writing programs and the sort of dialogue that comes up there- “I like where this is heading but it just needs more, you know what I mean?” It’s a breakdown of stereotyping even as it relies on these stereotypes to further the point.

It all culminates in a great twist toward the end, but this is the book’s downfall as well as its boon- through most of the novel it’s clear that what’s going on is not quite real, and that there’s a deeper layer that the reader doesn’t have immediate access to. There are, essentially, two things going on at once, and the reader is allowed to see that while also being made to wait for the key that will fit those two levels of content together. It can be frustrating to recognize that we’re being held at a distance, and I must admit that even while enjoying the magical strangeness of the transformations and rituals there were moments when I knew that I was essentially just reading to find the clue that would make sense of it all.

That said, what meets the eye is wild and distracting, and clearly meant to draw the reader away from wondering too much about what’s going on behind the curtain. It’s not entirely successful in this regard, and I know other readers have found it even less successful here than I did, but for the reader willing to patiently follow the story’s path wherever it may go, I think there is plenty of amusement to be found in the whimsical foreground before the more serious Point is visible behind that (blatant) sleight of hand. And I think Bunny will make for a fantastic reread, as the big reveal changes the way certain elements can be viewed throughout the book. I flipped back through a few pages after reaching the end, and loved seeing some of the exchanges between characters in an entirely new light!

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. It’s bold, it’s unique, it takes writing at the graduate level to its extreme. I loved the experience, though I didn’t quite find it a flawless read. I’ll be keeping an eye out for more of Awad’s work in the future, and I’d highly recommend this title to anyone who enjoys very bizarre books.

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Pet

Black lives matter! If you haven’t yet, check out this post where I’ve rounded up and explained a number of ways to help the movement, or just go straight here to do your part.

One of the things I’m doing to try to show my support and (hopefully) affect a change is to increase the number of Black authors whose work I’m buying, reading, and promoting through my book accounts. I’d like to put some books on your radar that might have slipped by you, including Akwaeke Emezi’s Pet, a prize-nominated MG/YA future-set fantasy book.

petIn the novel, Jam lives in a futuristic city called Lucille. Following a major revolution, it is now a peaceful place where everyone is treated equally, safety is a certainty, and monsters no longer exist. Or so Jam has been taught. But when a frightening creature comes to life from one of her mother’s paintings, it tells Jam that it has come to hunt a monster; after doing some research Jam learns that monsters can look like any one of us and hide in plain sight. The truth is, there aren’t any known monsters in Lucille, but Jam and Pet (the painting creature) set out to unearth an unknown monster and bring him to justice.

“The creature sighed and rustled its fur a little. If you do not know there are things you do not see, it said, then you will not see them because you do not expect them to be there. You think you see everything, so you think everything you see is all there is to be seen.”

Let’s start with age range. I had a tough time placing this one between Middle Grade and Young Adult; Jam, the MC, is sixteen in this novel, and most of the other characters are around her age or older. This typically indicates to me that a YA audience is the target, and based on the way monsters and angels and major government reform are explained, it seems potentially beyond the grasp of 8-12 year olds who might be reading without adult guidance for real world application. That said, the themes (that humans can do monstrous things unnoticed by society, that bad behavior deserves punishment in a way that is beneficial to society rather than cruel to the individual, that instead of a world full of good vs bad people we live in a world full of regular people who do both good and bad things) seem a bit simpler than the 13-18 year old crowd would be looking for. I’d probably recommend this most to 10-14 year-olds, with an adult to read along and discuss if possible. And ultimately, I think there are beneficial messages in Pet for readers of all ages; this is the sort of YA content that would probably also do well among adults who like teen stories.

Now let’s look more closely at content. I can’t give an own voices opinion, but I really admired the representation in Pet. In the first twenty pages, we have a trans girl with fully supportive parents, friends, and community who don’t question or ridicule her identity and help her get access to the resources she needs to be able to live in her body in a way that suits her. She also uses sign language by choice- she is physically capable of audible speech, but often prefers talking with her hands, which is completely accepted and supported by those around her. Jam is friendly with the local librarian, who uses a wheelchair. Later on, we meet Jam’s best friend’s family, in which there are three parents of equal authority, including a person who uses they/them pronouns that are always used respectfully in dialogue and the narration. There are characters with dark skin who, in this utopian setting, are not marginalized because of it. There is just no prejudice whatsoever, against any character, no matter how they present themselves to the world around them. It’s a beautiful thing.

Another positive is how close the peaceful city of Lucille feels at present- the oft-referenced revolution of Pet in many ways resembles what is happening in the US (and beyond) right now:

“The angels took the laws and changed them, tore down those horrible statues of rich men who’d owned people and fought to keep owning people. The angels believed and the people agreed that there was a good amount of proper and deserved shame in history and some things were just never going to be things to be proud of.”

The best part, I think, is that while the text supports holding people accountable for bad actions, it also suggests that no people are inherently bad. Being labelled a “monster” is a result of hurtful behavior, not a name given lightly to an entire group of enemy people. The “angels” are ordinary people making hard choices that come with their own costs, not perfect choices that please everyone immediately. Despite the apparent symbolic simplicity, there is deeper commentary on how we perceive and respond to criminality, with an end goal of peace among all people.

“Angels aren’t pretty pictures in old holy books, just like monsters aren’t ugly pictures. It’s all just people, doing hard things or doing bad things. But is all just people, our people.”

But there is conflict, and a plot. The introduction of Pet and the possibility of a monster in Lucille is challenging for Jam, who has been told all her life that monsters no longer exist. Her parents encourage her to send Pet away, arguing that Pet must be wrong. When she goes to her friend’s house where this monster is supposedly hiding, she sees only happy people full of love for each other and she doubts. In order to find the monster, she must admit that there are still flaws in her society and among her family and friends. She must choose how much to tell her friend, and decide what to do with the monster. It’s a story of bravery and fighting for what’s right even (especially) when it’s not the easy route, and when it goes against everything that you’ve held as the truth.

For all its positivity, there is indeed a monster in this story. There is an adult who hurts a child, and while details are not given on page it is a difficult topic and astute readers will know what has happened. There’s also a gruesome consequence for the monster that might make an impression on younger readers, as well as occasional mentions of police brutality and untimely deaths when the importance of the revolution is being explained. There are some difficult topics at play here, but I think Emezi lays them out patiently and considerately, using them mainly for educational purposes, and I think that makes this an ideal book for young readers looking to learn about empathy between humans and fairness in society. And it’s a call to action for adults too, to stay vigilant, to believe victims, to look deeper than the surface to spot what is lurking beneath. For a short book aimed primarily at a young audience, Pet accomplishes quite a lot, and I wouldn’t wish to change a single detail about it.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Emezi is fast becoming a favorite author for me- if you haven’t read Freshwater yet, what are you waiting for?! The only reason Pet wasn’t quite a 5 for me is that I just don’t jive with books written for a younger age level as much as I used to. Even so, I found this a worthwhile foray outside of my comfort zone, and highly recommend it to basically everyone.

 

The Literary Elephant

Wrap-Up 5.20

Black lives matter! If you haven’t yet, check out this post where I’ve rounded up and explained a number of ways to help the movement, or just go straight here to do your part.

One of the things I’m doing to try to show my support and (hopefully) affect a change is to increase the number of Black authors whose work I’m buying, reading, and promoting through my book accounts. Because I want this to be a long-term and sustainable change, I’m going to start catching up on the posts I’ve been holding back, while also continuing to review Black-authored books as I read them. I’ll have a review of Akwaeke Emezi’s Pet coming soon (hopefully tomorrow), and in the meantime I’m sharing my wrap-up for May. Unfortunately, I didn’t have Black books to promote in May (part of the reason I’ve held off on posting it), but it’s time to hold myself accountable and prepare to do better going forward.

My TBR for the month of May looked like this:

tbr5.20

I managed to read two and a half books from this list within May, and wrapped up the third (Ninth House) in June. 3/5 is getting to be a familiar track record! But I did read a few other things over the month as well, including one lingering title from a previous 5-book TBR. Here’s a run-down of what I read in May:

  1. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. 3 stars. I read quite a bit of this Thomas Cromwell historical fiction novel in April and finally finished it up in early May. I spent nearly a full month reading this, which I think is the longest amount of time I’ve spent focusing on a single book (ie not reading other things on the side) in well over a year. I liked the story but wasn’t as excited about it as others seem to be. My hopes for the rest of the trilogy are higher though- I’ll be reviewing all three books together later this summer.
  2. Shanti by Vikram Chandra. 3 stars. The last of the Faber Stories for me, it was quite rewarding to finish this short story reading project after more than a year, even though I didn’t end it on favorite title. I needed a win and this post-WWII story-within-a-story provided. If you’re interested in this set at all, I recommend following the link in the title to my latest batch of reviews, where I rank the full collection and connect to reviews for each story.
  3. Beach Read by Emily Henry. 3 stars. I was hoping to find a little much-needed escapism in this new bookish romance, and fortunately succeeded. I had some petty personal issues with some of the writing choices, but ultimately appreciated the way Henry used a romance format to talk about deeper issues like grief and genre snobbery while still delivering a pretty great romance as well.
  4. The Gifts of Reading by Robert Macfarlane. 4 stars. One romance novel was not enough positivity, so I turned to this personal essay about the power of giving books as gifts. It’s a very specific piece that doesn’t echo much of my own experience, but it increased my optimism and served as a nice reminder that there is still some good in the world, which was much needed.
  5. The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne. 4 stars. I did a buddy read for this one with Gil, who is an incredible blogger that you should definitely check out and follow! This saga of a gay Irishman’s life did not quite live up to expectations for either of us (we were expecting a serious literary work and were a bit put off by the level of comedy involved), but it was an interesting read nonetheless and having someone to joke about the absurd bits with really made the experience for me. 🙂
  6. Bunny by Mona Awad. 4 stars. I finally tried getting into the Women’s Prize Squad list that I helped assemble with some great blogger friends, and it was a good choice. When the world gets you down, you can still trust your friends to recommend great books. This is a sort of dramatic light-fantasy account of an MFA writing program taken to extremes. Full review forthcoming.
  7. Flannery O’Connor: The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor. 4 stars. While I still can’t believe I actually managed to stick with Melanie’s read-along schedule of one story per day throughout the entire month of May, I think the structure of it was helpful for me in keeping some balance as the world went steeply downhill. That said, as much as I enjoyed following along with Melanie’s discussion posts and was impressed with O’Connor’s writing, the slurs and racism in here became increasingly painful to read alongside current news. I have lots of thoughts about the content and the timing that I’ll share in a forthcoming review.

wrapup5.20

Two very short books, two buddy reads (and thus outside forces to hold me accountable!), one book I had a solid headstart on, and two attempts at escapism. I read from Ireland, Canada, India, the UK, and the US, but sadly this list is predominantly white. I posted this TBR for June, but have mainly been reading the Black-authored books listed in the final section of the post rather than focusing on the 5 books I had prepped into the post earlier in May. My next wrap-up will look different!

 

Some Stats:

Average rating – 3.6; once again, no 5-star reads this month.

Best of month – Bunny. 

Owned books read for the first time – 7 out of 7. Isolation still in full swing here.

Year total – 43. Goodreads said that at the end of May I was two books ahead of schedule for my goal of 100 books this year.

 

And in case you missed it, my one non-review post last month was the latest installment in my genre series: Spotlight on Fantasy. Head over to the post to talk all things fantasy with me in the comments! Coming up toward the end of June will be my Spotlight on Mystery.

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Real Life

Black lives matter! If you haven’t yet, check out this post where I’ve rounded up and explained a number of ways to help the movement, or just go straight here to do your part.

One of the things I’m doing to try to show my support and (hopefully) affect a change is to increase the number of Black authors whose work I’m buying, reading, and promoting through my book accounts. I’d like to put some books on your radar that might have slipped by you, including a literary fiction novel that released earlier this year: Brandon Taylor’s Real Life. It’s a stunning debut!

reallifeIn the novel, Wallace is a (Black) graduate student spending his summer doing lab work toward his biochemistry degree. Over the course of a weekend, he grapples with a major setback (probably sabotage) in the lab, while also sorting out his feelings about his dad’s recent death, and dealing with fraught, changing relationships among his (White) friend group. The magnitude of obstacles stacked against him and the deeply ingrained prejudices that affect even his closest friendships at the Midwestern school leave him wondering whether the education and career path he has chosen is worth the misery it is causing him.

“But to stay in graduate school, to stay where he is, means to accept the futility of his efforts to blend in seamlessly with those around him. It is a life spent swimming against the gradient, struggling up the channel of other people’s cruelty. It grates him to consider this, the shutting away of the part of him that now throbs and writhes like a new organ that senses so keenly the limitations of his life. Stay here and suffer, or exit and drown, he thinks.”

If you love literary fiction and are looking for the perfect book to read right now to support Black authors and also honor Pride month, look no further. This is it. It’s gay, it exposes all kinds of racism, and Taylor’s writing is incredible. To be honest I thought there were a few overwritten passages, but that’s really my only criticism for the entire book. I loved every page, was repeatedly stunned by the character dynamics and commentary Taylor was able to draw through them, and appreciated that the narrative voice was able both to teach me about an experience very different from my own and to reveal how I, as a white person, may be complicit in forcing this experience on someone else, whether I’ve been aware of it or not.

“There will always be good white people who love him and want the best for him but who are more afraid of other white people than of letting him down. It is easier for them to let it happen and to triage the wound later than to introduce an element of the unknown into the situation. No matter how good they are, no matter how loving, they will always be complicit, a danger, a wound waiting to happen… It’s the place in every white person’s heart where their racism lives and flourishes, not some vast open plain but a small crack, which is all it takes.”

One of the most remarkable things about this book is that it is simultaneously self-contained and expansive. The entire novel takes place over a single weekend, with most of the characters, conflicts, and themes laid out in the first chapter or two. From there, the same people go back and forth in the same places, over the same issues, and yet each new scene is a fresh moment of tension that spirals out from itself and grows toward confrontations that feel huge and breathless.

There are so many separate parts to this story, and yet they all circle the same problem: that letting a person of color through the door is not the only step required in ensuring they have the same opportunities as a white person. Wallace has a paid fellowship at the school, and yet he is constantly told he needs to “catch up.” He has a spot in a lab and a project to work on, but his labmates talk down to him and report him for things he hasn’t done. He has friends, but feels like they invite him out of obligation rather than a desire for his company. He’s having sex with the guy he has a crush on, but when Wallace reveals a trauma from his past, Miller reveals his guilt over hurting someone who didn’t deserve it, and is upset when Wallace won’t condole him. Wallace is stuck in cycles of being hurt, being unable to voice the problem without making things worse, and having to hold the hurt inside of himself as the only way to acknowledge when a wrong has been done and hold on to his humanity. So yes, technically he has the chance to get a biochemistry degree, but he feels like he must lose himself along the way- and what kind of opportunity is that? Not one that is equal to the opportunities his fellow students are experiencing, though many of them fail to spot the difference.

“Just because you say you’re sorry, or you say that someone doesn’t deserve something, does not erase the facts of what has or has not happened, or who has or has not acted. Wallace is tired.”

So much of this story is internal discord- Wallace does have agency and makes both good and bad choices, and the people around him do and say plenty that affects him, but Wallace isn’t trying to personally right an entirely wrong system. He’s trying to get by, as one does. The battles that he has with other people are typically one-on-one personal confrontations, mostly verbal. He’s wrestling with himself over how much unfairness he can take, and at what point the price of accepting it becomes too high. This shows both that the problem of racism is an ongoing issue, no matter what Wallace does or doesn’t do, and it shows some of the deep psychological affects that trying to live under racism can cause. It hurts seeing Wallace try to justify everyone’s shitty behavior, feeling like he “had it coming,” making excuses for others’ failures, or thinking he should have done something different to avoid being in the path of racism at all. There’s no avoiding it, of course. And Taylor doesn’t pull any punches in depicting just how toxic that can be.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I loved coming back to this book every time I picked it up and hated when I had to put it down. I suspect it’ll be appearing on my favorite reads of the year list. Really, I should’ve known I’d love this one, as Brandon Taylor was one of the contributors to Not That Bad: Dispatches From Rape Culture ed. by Roxane Gay, which made such an impact on me, so it should’ve been no surprise to find his writing so spot-on here as well. And I suspect the few overwritten wrinkles I saw will be hammered out of Taylor’s style as he goes; surely his next book will be even stronger. I can’t wait to read it.

 

The Literary Elephant

Conquering the world of literature, one book at a time