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There’s something I love about reading utterly grim books in the middle of Summertime; curling up in the sun, filling your mind with darkness, while the sensory pillars of Summer flicker against your reading brain. Let’s first establish here that ILL WILL is a complete masterpiece. Dan Chaon’s many multiple storylines solidifying around an unsolved murder from the past, and the potentially connected drownings of inebriated college-aged men in the present is transfixing, and brilliantly insane. Add to this the background of Ohio in the wintertime, the ever-present cloud of death that clings to all the characters, and the prose itself which are smoky and muddled with grief, iconic observation, and suspended hilarity. It is an absolute work of art. Read it in the sun on a warm afternoon, but don’t be surprised if you still get a chill.
There is an ancient, all-knowing trickster that listens to the cacophonous daily dronings of a small village some miles outside of London. This trickster is known as Dead Papa Toothwort, and he has a particular affinity for the voice and musings of a young, glittering-of-spirit boy named Lanny. The magical and hyper-real come together in LANNY, breaking apart the collective mind of a community, and the shattered, isolated minds of a family, when faced with darkness. LANNY will tell you secrets in song that you will only remember in that liminal space between waking and sleep. A marvel, a beauty, a dream.
Chicago, between the years of 1930-1990 has seen great, booming, sky-touching change, and it’s all about to be laid out quickly, and out of order. Lauren Beukes’ The Shining Girls tells the story of a depression-era serial killer who is able to travel through time, and his victims-- bright, smart, vibrant girls-- singled out by their promise, whose deaths are unsolved and disconnected. One of these girls, Kirby, survives her attack in 1989, and is left to doggedly focus on solving her own murder. Thrilling, frustrating, and distinctive, Lauren Beukes takes the dimension of time and folds it up, poking holes through it to let the light shine through.
Hiromi Kawakami’s Strange Weather in Tokyo is quiet and cleansing, full of cool humidity and heavy rainy nights. Tsukiko (38, and a bit of a closed circle) encounters her old high school Japanese teacher, Sensei, 70, in a favorite neighborhood bar. The two easily chat over a drink, and discover they share many similarities, and quirks. What follows is the development of a unique and deeply complementary relationship. Kawakami describes this thread tangentially occurring with comfortingly lovely monologues of everyday life. It’s an easy pleasure to read, with prickles of pain, loneliness, and loss. Perfect for this wildly transformative time of year.
If you're really starting to strain against your societal/cultural (other?) tethers, it's time to read this. Byung-Chul Han uncovers disturbing and ugly underlying truths of capitalism, and its' bedfellow, neoliberalism. The truths observed don't necessarily surprise, but rather feel as if they've been purposefully ignored/overlooked for some time. Han's essay culminates on the notion that Big Data is our very own contemporary panopticon, concurrently focusing on the power and control the collective unconscious --in digitally accessible forms-- has. Blood boilingly fascinating, while also strongly endeavoring to strip away individual impotencies, PSYCHOPOLITICS is a force.
For some reason when I close my eyes and think about this novel, I see a drop of blood dissipating throughout a glass of water. I assumed (very briefly) that this was going to be a New York Love Story-- full of self-consciousness and cigarettes. It is decidedly much much more than my initial assumption (I was very gladly off the mark!) It is a constantly chifting novel of two eras, with Kate-- the centerpiece-- stuck between those eras (2000 and 1593). Kate has increasingly vivid dreams in which she is a different person living in Elizabethan England, and the choices she makes will have grave impacts on Kate's world in 2000. Notions of power, sanity, and culpability are threaded throughout-- take a step and see where you land.
I’ve been trying to name what I liked about this book, why I loved it as much as I did. Relationships are a complicated, tangled mess of things; somewhat impossible to describe or get right when written about, but Sally Rooney does it really well. Conversations With Friends follows Frances and Bobbi, college-aged best friends with a relationship that does not fit neatly into any category, and their entanglements with an older married couple. Rooney threads strings through the hearts and guts and brains of her characters, sewing them together in a mishmash of directions that will make you compulsively unable to stop reading, and also squirm with discomfort. I felt somehow both like a voyeur and like I was experiencing something deeply familiar the whole time. An aspect of truth glimmers within this book, and it will match you stride by stride.
"The thing is, you keep existing, whether you have a plan to do so or not," says Romy Hall, the central character followed in Rachel Kushner's The Mars Room, as she serves a double life sentence for killing her stalker. I was blown away by this trip beyond the walls of mass incarceration; expecting only to find a cold, grim reality (which I did), but also found real warmth and humor in the individual lives depicted. Humanity. It is love and it is pain, and you will find equal parts in abundance-- it will warm you as you're chilled by the ironic (and horrific) circumstances of the people in this book. The best book I've read this year.
There are those books you love so much, and so immediately, they take the words out of your own mind; replacing your words with theirs, in varying degrees of forever. I loved this book very much, unconsciously attaching myself to Achilles and Patroclus, their love, lives and thoughts. Reading Song of Achilles is a rush, a swell, a cacaphonous pulse that ends in you, the reader, weeping. Ready yourself, for you will be changed.
It's big, I know, but that's a good thing! NK Jemisin takes us to a glorious world where gods and humans impact each other deeply, and the consequences of actions take thousands of years to resolve, if they ever do at all. I spent a solid week of vacation completely blissed out in this world Jemisin created, it's beautiful, complicated, expansive, sensual, and completely unique. This tome is a wonder and a treat and I loved every page.
Art! Literature! Ghosts! Half fiction, half essay, Ali Smith's Artful cracked my mind open with its' observations of loss, art, and general beauty in the world (not to mention EVERYTHING ELSE that's in here). This book and I went places together, pausing to consider nearly everything (or so it seems to me now) along the way. Open your mind! Read Ali Smith!
I first read Muriel Rukeyser's "Book of the Dead" in a college creative writing class, we were learning about how flexible the poetic medium can be and Rukeyser's poetic nonfiction, building a narrative of beauty and desolation using official court transcripts from the Hawk's Nest Tunnel Disaster, stayed with me. Shortly put, the Hawk's Nest Tunnel Disaster (1930-1935) was the greatest industrial catastrophe in American history, causing an estimated 700-1000 migrant worker deaths by silicosis in an effort to divert a portion of the New River under a mountain through a 3-mile tunnel. In this new edition, which includes an excellent introduction by Catherine Venable Moore (I recommend reading it as the intro, and after you've finished the book), the power of history and poetry attempt to unveil and make known a truth that has been overgrown with time and prejudice. "Knowledge is power", as they say, and Book of the Dead pulses with it as a haunted beacon of truth, a pinprick of light shining through the shrouded history of our country.
What do you do when everything you thought to be true and real is put into question? Sarah Perry explores this question in "The Essex Serpent." In the 1890s, when medicine, science, religion, evolution, and urban development are starkly polarizing the public and informing new ideologies, Cora Seaborne, an amateur naturalist moves to Essex on a mission to track down the fabled Essex serpent. According to local legend, the Essex serpent is a monster that brings dread, doom, and death upon the Essex community, but Cora believes it to be could be a living fossil, and attempts to catch a glimpse of it on the shores. Cora finds herself in a place that exists just on the horizon of myth and reality, culminating of loud instances of mystery, morality, romance, beauty, and pain. This book absolutely captivated me. Dive in, it awaits.
I can't recommend a better book to complement this absurd political, economic, international, and social reality we are all collectively (and singularly) experiencing. Ali Smith's second installment in her seasonal quartet is (mostly) set over the Christmas holiday in Cornwall, where we are the silent fourth wall facing a beautifully dysfunctional family. Winter plays with the ghosts of self, dispersed throughout the dimension of time, and collects the truly unbelievable, yet real (so real) human consciousness into a story. Smith's writing is weighted equally with the horrible and the miraculous, in a harmony of now--everything that's ever been is now, right now.
I read part of this book while I was sick, and had a formative and intense fever dream about it. I woke up confused about where (and when) I was, and deeply concerned about the fate of one of Min Jin Lee's characters. In Pachinko, Lee sweeps us along with a family of Korean immigrants living in pre- and post-war Japan. Lee shows us a community whose history is rooted in stark racism, and stems, as generations pass, into a liminal void of Other; not quite outsider, not quite native. Here is a story of a family endeavoring to keep itself together. Lee writes with palpable emotion and beauty. This is a novel in a class all its' own.
Calling all lovers of fantasy! Tamora Pierce has given us something new! I've been a longtime fan of Pierce's books, and this new series does not disappoint! We follow a young mage, Arram Draper, as he studies at the imperial University of Carthak, with his two close friends, Varice and Ozorne. Pierce is unparalleled in her craft, setting relatable and compelling coming-of-age stories against a vivd and wonderful fantasy world. I ate this book up! Can't wait for the next one!
If you're looking for something to remind you of the beauty in the world, read this! The first time I read Kitchen was after a good friend recommended it with, "this is the perfect thing to read if you're going through any sort of big change," and it truly was. This sweet little book (it's actually two novellas) follows a young woman, Mikage, and the mother and son she stays with after her grandmother passes away. Yoshimoto captures a grief that is serenely beautiful, and adds a gentle quirkiness that will settle itself comfortably inside you. This is a truly special book, definitely the best recommendation I've ever gotten.
Hermione Hoby’s debut novel up close is beautifully chaotic. Back up to the entire picture and it is a shimmering, reflective surface that allows us to see what we, and the world, are made up of. Set in New York City in the hazy summer of 2012, Kate, newly arrived from England and seeking a change in perspective, meets Inez, a magnetic and anarchistic beauty, then randomly, Inez’s father, Bill, a stagnant yet successful has-been author. As they move through the summer tangled in each others’ lives, Hoby plays with elements of narcissism, maturity, isolation, and love, with a depth and understanding that is wholly human. This is a novel that hums with the irony and incredulity of life; a mirror-pond of the human spectacle.
The best science fiction stretches our ingrained concepts of humanity and civilization into a series of questions that entrance and electrify its' readers both by the nature of the questions, and by the contextual reality the author has created. Annalee Newitz shows her mastery of the genre with Autonomous, posing questions relating to ai, consciousness, and ownership, against the backdrop of Earth in 2144; where patent property law rules social order, and indentured people and bots are the new lower class. Autonomous follows Jack, a drug pirate desperately trying to fix a deadly mistake she made while racing against agents Eliasz (a temperamental military agent) and Paladin ( a newly conscious, indentured military bot). The story unravels as it progresses, revisiting Jack's past to illustrate the evolution of her ideology, and showing a unique relationship blooming between Paladin and Eliasz. Newitz forces you to empathize with every character, while pondering the implications of each one of their choices. Autonomous is a true masterpiece.
I think Ali Smith might be made of magic. This book moves; it dances to the arc of characters' recollected memories, it glides over penned autumn winds, it rises and falls with sleep-filled breaths. Autumn tells the story of two friends, Elisabeth and George, who form a singularly special friendship when elementary-aged Elisabeth and her mother move in next door to George, an old (in his eighties) musician, full of passion for art from the sixties. In her typical non-linear style, Smith narrates a fifty-year chunk of time in Britain, focusing especially on the juxtaposition of the then (empowered artists, hope-filled futures), and the now (horrifying nationalism, self-imposed isolation). Smith will leave you clinging to the last page.
You will open this book like any other, but it will open you too, drawing out dormant tears of your own that have collected in a pool in the middle of your chest. Yuknavitch is a glimmering rarity- a woman who's life has been etched into water- and she treads through her past as it trickles through these pages. She writes of her abusive childhood, swimming triumphs, sorrowful early adulthood, alcoholic relationships, and sexual presence with a beauty that held me in its' radiance for days. The ebb and swell of this memoir is a wonder. It will leave you changed; gently, quietly, but powerfully.
This space opera drew me in so fully that I found myself sneaking extra passages in whenever I had a spare moment. Corey has written a future in which humanity has colonized the solar system, with extensive civilaizations on Mars, Earth, and the Asteroid Belt. Leviathan Wakes follows a detective from the Asteroid Belt obsessed with finding a missing woman, and a newly appointed captain from earth, who's fate has been unluckily tied together with some of the dark secrets of the Universe. If you're looking for an epic adventure to get lost in, suit up! This is the one.
I try to spend some time with one of Tamora Pierce's books about once a year, because I love them, and because her books make me feel as excited and wonder-filled as I did when I first read them. In this one, Daine, left with only her pony Cloud, after her village is destroyed by bandits, manages to get a job with Onua, a horse trader, as they both work to bring a herd to the Capital City. Daine has a serious knack with animals-- it's wild magic, a gift that allows her to converse with animals. Pierce connects her readers to her fantastical worlds by depicting characters who are respectful of nature and each other, and who stay with you long after you finish the last page. This is a book that will help reconnect you with that kid who used to read for hours, and loved to get lost in a good story.
Even after sitting with this book, and thinking about it for quite a while, I still don't quite know what to say, other than that fiction (and scifi/fantasy) exist to give us books like this. The Fifth Season follows three narrators who are each on their own journey, both emotional and physical, while the world around them, a place called The Stillness, threatens to end. Jemisin ties the narrators' stories together with a surpirsing twist that adds dimension and meaning to a story that will probably make you want to start the next book immediately.
I think this is a great book to read if you're feeling a little lonely or a little sad. If you've never read Anne of Green Gables, you're in for a wonder. Anne, a feisty, opinionated, and imaginative child is sort of accidentally adopted by Marilla and Matthew-- a pair of elderly siblings that need help managing their farm on Prince Edward Island. The three of them grow to become this beautifully special family, full of admiration and affection for one another, and Montgomery's writing is heart-clutchingly wonderful. Like I said, and excellent choice if you're feeling a little blue, or if you just want a dose of goodness.
In Ling Ma's Severance, Candace Chen is one of the sole human survivors left after an epidemic flattens the human population. We follow her through the near past, working in a comfortable but soul-less corporate job in Times Square trying to fill in the emptiness left behind by both of her parents' deaths, and through the present, traveling with other survivors as they try to comprehend and make reason out of their own survival. Severance plays though Candace's life, hovering over the murkiness of her parents' immigrant experiences and the familial obligations they are both bound to and let fray. By focusing on the Before (infinitely ripe with life) and the After (quiet, still and lonely with jagged endings), Ling Ma captures what it might feel like to observe the leftovers of the world, while living with a deep understanding that you yourself are left over too. I didn't know what to do with this book in the best possible way.
I recently revisited this series from my youth, and it was TRULY even better than I remembered. In this first book, Lyra Belacqua, a child raised by academics in Oxford, races head first into an adventure that spans universes, and changes, or arguably, fulfills, the course of her life. Pullman shows us the abslute horrors a human mind can create when guided by institutions that rely on blind faith, and alternately, the beauty of decisions made when informed by logic and love. I urge you to read this book (and then the other two!) if you have not already.