Friday Bookbag, 7.19.19

FridayBookbag

Friday Bookbag is a weekly feature where I share a list of books I’ve borrowed, bought, or received during the week. It’s my chance to buzz about my excitement for books I might not get the chance to review.

I’m still cleaning out my backlog, so this is another long post. (I seriously need to stop buying/borrowing books. Good gravy.) This week I’ve got a gritty novel about a school shooting, a suburban short story collection, a novel about being sick, a surprising retelling of Robin Hood, and three novels that use fantasy and fiction to interrogate very real-world injustices. Let’s dive in!


Bloomland by John Englehardt

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Bloomland Cover
cover description: An abstract design of cutouts in a black background that reveal a bright floral pattern.

source: received an ARC from the publisher

the premise: From Goodreads:

Bloomland opens during finals week at a fictional southern university, when a student walks into the library with his roommate’s semi-automatic rifle and opens fire. When he stops shooting, twelve people are dead.

In this richly textured debut, John Englehardt explores how the origin and aftermath of the shooting impacts the lives of three characters: a disillusioned student, a grieving professor, and a young man whose valuation of fear and disconnection funnels him into the role of the aggressor. As the community wrestles with the fallout, Bloomland interrogates social and cultural dysfunction in a nation where mass violence has become all too familiar.”

why I’m excited: Dzanc Books compared this novel to Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room when they sent an ARC to me, which sold me on Bloomland instantly. (You might remember that I loved The Mars Room.) It’s going to be tough to stomach reading about a school shooting, but it sounds like the emotional payoff will be more than worth it.

Bloomland will be released on September 10th, 2019 and is currently available for pre-order.

Sherwood by Meagan Spooner

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Sherwood Cover
cover description: A girl in a green cloak looks out over a medieval town while holding a bow and arrows.

source: purchased

the premise: From Goodreads:

“Robin of Locksley is dead.

Maid Marian doesn’t know how she’ll go on, but the people of Locksley town, persecuted by the Sheriff of Nottingham, need a protector. And the dreadful Guy of Gisborne, the Sheriff’s right hand, wishes to step into Robin’s shoes as Lord of Locksley and Marian’s fiancé.

Who is there to stop them?

Marian never meant to tread in Robin’s footsteps—never intended to stand as a beacon of hope to those awaiting his triumphant return. But with a sweep of his green cloak and the flash of her sword, Marian makes the choice to become her own hero: Robin Hood.”

why I’m excited: Everything about this delights me. Robin Hood isn’t exactly my most cherished myth or legend, but this update to it has me completely hooked. A grieving Maid Marian who’s also a badass? Sign me up. I’ve also heard that this book has a fairly realistic medieval setting, which intrigues me. I like the idea of a non-fantasy-inflected Robin Hood story.

The Book of Night Women by Marlon James

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

The Book of Night Women Cover
cover description: An 18th-century style illustration of a Black woman wearing a white turban.

source: purchased

the premise: From Goodreads:

The Book of Night Women is a sweeping, startling novel, a true tour de force of both voice and storytelling. It is the story of Lilith, born into slavery on a Jamaican sugar plantation at the end of the eighteenth century. Even at her birth, the slave women around her recognize a dark power that they and she will come to both revere and fear. 

The Night Women, as they call themselves, have long been plotting a slave revolt, and as Lilith comes of age and reveals the extent of her power, they see her as the key to their plans. But when she begins to understand her own feelings and desires and identity, Lilith starts to push at the edges of what is imaginable for the life of a slave woman in Jamaica, and risks becoming the conspiracy’s weak link. 

Lilith’s story overflows with high drama and heartbreak, and life on the plantation is rife with dangerous secrets, unspoken jealousies, inhuman violence, and very human emotion between slave and master, between slave and overseer, and among the slaves themselves. Lilith finds herself at the heart of it all. And all of it told in one of the boldest literary voices to grace the page recently–and the secret of that voice is one of the book’s most intriguing mysteries.”

why I’m excited: I’ve been interested in Marlon James’s work for a long time, but I’m also someone who doesn’t do well with long novels, and both A Brief History of Seven Killings and Black Leopard, Red Wolf are extremely weighty tomes. The Book of Night Women is a little shorter (448 pages), and its premise is a little more intriguing and approachable to me. I love stories about magical women, especially about the dark side of that magic. This looks intense and gripping.

An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

An Unkindess of Ghosts Cover
cover description: an illustration of a Black woman’s face covered in glittering stars.

source: purchased

the premise: From Goodreads:

Odd-mannered, obsessive, withdrawn, Aster has little to offer folks in the way of rebuttal when they call her ogre and freak. She’s used to the names; she only wishes there was more truth to them. If she were truly a monster, as they accuse, she’d be powerful enough to tear down the walls around her until nothing remained of her world, save for stories told around the cookfire.

Aster lives in the low-deck slums of the HSS Matilda, a space vessel organized much like the antebellum South. For generations, the Matilda has ferried the last of humanity to a mythical Promised Land. On its way, the ship’s leaders have imposed harsh moral restrictions and deep indignities on dark-skinned sharecroppers like Aster, who they consider to be less than human.

When the autopsy of Matilda’s sovereign reveals a surprising link between his death and her mother’s suicide some quarter-century before, Aster retraces her mother’s footsteps. Embroiled in a grudge with a brutal overseer and sowing the seeds of civil war, Aster learns there may be a way off the ship if she’s willing to fight for it.

why I’m excited: This is the kind of high concept science fiction novel I’m here for. This sounds like something Octavia Butler might have written. A prickly protagonist, a mystery, social commentary, deep space…I couldn’t ask for more out of a sci-fi novel.

The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

The Golem and the Jinni Cover
cover description: A dark figure stands in a misty archway.

source: purchased

the premise: From Goodreads:

“In The Golem and the Jinni, a chance meeting between mythical beings takes readers on a dazzling journey through cultures in turn-of-the-century New York. 

Chava is a golem, a creature made of clay, brought to life by a disgraced rabbi who dabbles in dark Kabbalistic magic and dies at sea on the voyage from Poland. Chava is unmoored and adrift as the ship arrives in New York harbor in 1899. 

Ahmad is a jinni, a being of fire born in the ancient Syrian desert, trapped in an old copper flask, and released in New York City, though still not entirely free. 

Ahmad and Chava become unlikely friends and soul mates with a mystical connection. Marvelous and compulsively readable, Helene Wecker’s debut novel The Golem and the Jinni weaves strands of Yiddish and Middle Eastern literature, historical fiction and magical fable, into a wondrously inventive and unforgettable tale.”

why I’m excited: Sorry (not sorry) to mention Octavia Butler twice in one post, but this premise reminds me so much of the immortal love story in Wild Seedthe first of her Patternist series, except with a different cultural twist. This came out in 2013, but it seems like an essential fantasy story for this moment, when Islamophobia and antisemitism are being set up in opposition to each other rather than being seen as interlinked oppressions. Most of all, this book looks fun. I can’t wait to read it.

The Body Myth by Rheea Mukherjee

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

The Body Myth Cover
cover description: An illustration of some kind of tree or vines growing out of two broken halves of a body. The background is orange.

source: the library

the premise: From the back of the book:

“Mira is a teacher living in the heart of Suryam–a bustling metropolis and the only place in the world where the fickle Rasagura fruit grows. She lives a quiet life, binge-reading the French existentialists and visiting with her aging father, until the day she witnesses a beautiful woman having a seizure in the park. Mira runs to help even as doubts begin to creep in. Was the seizure real? Or had she glimpsed the woman waiting, until just the right moment, to begin convulsing?

Soon, Mira is drawn into the lives of this mysterious woman, Sara–who suffers a constellation of undiagnosed maladies–and Sara’s kind, intensely supportive husband Rahil. Striking up intimate and volatile friendships with each of them, Mira discovers just how undefinable both illness and love can be.”

why I’m excited: I’m a chronically ill person who’s always interested in reading stories about other people being sick. It’s my life, so it fascinates me. I’m not sure whether chronic illness in this case is taken seriously or if it’s more of a metaphor, but this looks like an interesting novel regardless.

That Time I Loved You: Stories by Carianne Leung

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

That Time I Loved You Cover
cover description: An illustration of rows and rows of similar houses with different colored roofs separated by solid dark blue bars.

source: the library

the premise: From the inside flap:

“Writing with incisive nuance and dark humor, Leung enlivens a singular group of characters sharing a new subdivision in the cosmopolitan melting pot of Scarborough, Ontario. The uniformity of the neighborhood is uncanny, with its smooth sidewalks and shiny cars, the streets differing only in their fruit trees–Winifred Street bears crabapples, Maud Street cherries, and Clara Street sour plums.

With teeth clenched behind fake smiles, the residents bear the truth beneath a fast clip of shocking deaths…[]

When a series of inexplicable suicides begins to haunt the community, no one is more fascinated by the terrible phenomenon than young June. The daughter of Chinese immigrants, she sits hawkeyed at the center, witness to the truth of it all: the hushed affairs, the overt racism, the hidden abuses.”

why I’m excited: I love this kind of suburban fiction, especially when it’s not written by men, especially when it’s written by women of color. This looks sharp and funny and interesting, like a cross between Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng and The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides. It’s a short story collection, but apparently the stories are linked, which is another thing I love. I’m excited!


What’s in your bookbag this week? Do you have any exciting weekend reading plans? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to link to your own book reviews and blog posts!

Book Review: DIFFICULT WOMEN by Roxane Gay

Roxane Gay’s highly anticipated (and well-received) 2017 short story collection, Difficult Women, is, in short, worth every bit of that anticipating and receiving. Difficult Women is everything I want out of a short story collection and a lot more: the stories on their own are excellent; together, they’re transcendent. This is easily one of my favorite books I have ever read.

You can read my full review below.


Difficult Women Cover
cover description: A shattered pink glass heart against a black background.

Difficult Women by Roxane Gay

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

  • publisher: Grove Press
  • publication date: 2017
  • length: 272 pages

Boys don’t really know how to hurt girls.

–from “Baby Arm” in Difficult Women by Roxane Gay

I’ve loved Roxane Gay’s short fiction for many years, even before she became as beloved and well-known as she is now. As a teenager, between writing my own short stories, I would pore over the “Writing” page on her website, tracking down and devouring every short story I could find that wasn’t behind a paywall.

Yet even that abiding love for Gay’s uncollected work did not prepare me for how much I would adore Difficult Women.

Difficult Women‘s parts are extraordinary, but as a whole it’s even more powerful. I don’t think I’ve ever read a collection so artfully assembled. Themes are established with exquisite care; one of my favorite runs of stories builds from metaphor to magical realism to straight-up science fiction about society and prejudice. Without that onramp, the sci-fi story (set in the near-future) would have felt jarring in an otherwise realistic collection. With the onramp, it only strengthens Gay’s real-world themes.

Another standout run of stories is about fertility and infertility, without ever feeling like it’s about fertility and infertility. A moral kills a short story; luckily, each story in Difficult Women has the desperate feeling of a message in a bottle sent from a place where morals have unraveled.

This is, unsurprisingly, a difficult book. It is not essential reading. It is not a crystallization of our times. It is not palatable, exactly. But it is gripping, sharp, indulgent, and pleasurable in the way of an excellent meal had at an expensive and unfamiliar restaurant.

“Difficult” does not have to mean unpleasant, distasteful, or uncomfortable. Difficult Women is a blueprint for how to write a difficult book that’s a delight to read.

I think much of that comes from how embodied Gay’s writing is. Gay is a top-notch sex writer who understands, and uses, sensation completely.

Difficult Women encompasses a wide variety of bodies: thin ones, muscled ones, fat ones, wounded ones, transparent glass ones, sadists, masochists, bad priests. Gay (presumably) only has one body, but she transports readers effortlessly into all of these different and contradictory bodies. Even when I didn’t totally love or understand a story’s plot, I was always so taken with its feel that it hardly mattered.

It’s difficult to choose favorite stories since this collection fits together so well, but with a gun to my head I might pick “Baby Arm,” about a fight club, “North Country,” about an isolated engineer in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, “Requiem for a Glass Heart,” about a woman made of glass and her careful careless husband, and “I Am a Knife,” about a woman (the knife) and her husband (a gun).

I can’t wait to re-read Difficult Women. Many reviews I’ve seen of this book describe it as a deeply relatable book, about women like “us.” I didn’t find it that way. I didn’t understand these characters at all. Sometimes a book is better for being unfathomable; I think Difficult Women is unfathomable in the best way, an endlessly fascinating Rorschach test kind of way.

If you missed Difficult Women during all its initial fanfare, please come back for it. I’m glad I did. This book is a treasure. ★★★★★

Reviews and books you might also enjoy:


I purchased my own copy of Difficult Women and was in no way compensated for this review.

Book Review: THIS WILL BE MY UNDOING by Morgan Jerkins

In This Will Be My Undoing, Morgan Jerkins exposes raw nerve after raw nerve, seemingly fearless about sharing her most vulnerable experiences. This book is technically an essay collection, but the essays bled together in my mind into something more closely approaching a memoir of Jerkins’s education as a black woman in a white world. It’s a great premise for a book, and Jerkins has a wealth of interesting experiences to draw on. Unfortunately, I really, really did not like the finished product. Sloppily edited, wildly uneven in tone, and at times self-contradictory in ways that felt un-self-aware rather than nuanced, I found it a deeply frustrating and unsatisfying read. I’m looking forward to seeing where Jerkins goes next–her talent is clear, so I’m not writing all of her work off as “not for me” just yet–but I think this collection is a dud.

You can read my full review below.


This Will Be My Undoing Cover
cover description: A black and white image of author Morgan Jerkins, a black woman wearing glasses and with her hair styled in long braids, leans back with her eyes closed. She looks peaceful and focused.

This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America by Morgan Jerkins

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  • publisher: Harper Perennial (an imprint of HarperCollins)
  • publication date: January 30, 2018
  • length: 272 pages

When I was ten, I realized that I was black. In some ways, that had nothing to do with actual cheerleading, but rather with what blackness meant, writ large, learned from the experience of trying to force myself into this pristine, white, and coveted space, which spit me out before I could realize how much I had been abused.

–from This Will Be My Undoing by Morgan Jerkins

Reviewing memoirs and personal essay collections is always fraught for me. It’s extraordinarily difficult to take someone’s life story in my hands and not feel strange about nitpicking how they’ve told it to me. It is a gift when writers are willing to bare so much of themselves to us, and I try not to take it lightly.

That’s why, when I felt my first prickles of dislike about This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America–Jerkins’s debut essay collection–before I’d even finished the first essay, I felt so much dread and disappointment.

The actual experiences of misogynoir that Morgan Jerkins writes about could never be trivial, petty, or boring. They are critically important. I’m glad she’s writing about them. But in This Will Be My Undoing, I think her writing itself is all of those adjectives, and more.

First and foremost, the essays are rambling and unfocused. Not one essay stands out on its own in my memory. The events she writes about–racist taunts at cheerleading tryouts, witnessing a Nazi salute while tipsy in St. Petersburg, miraculously getting into Princeton after getting stuck on a waiting list of 1200 applicants–are notable, but robbed of their full power because their context is so wonky.

Anecdotes run too long, or too short. Truly shocking experiences go weirdly undertapped, while every last drop of portent and then some is wrung out of things that struck me as fairly mundane. Quotes and research are dropped in excessively where they’re not needed, but then her wilder claims (like one that’s been cited in many reviews already, where Jerkins asserts that every black woman she’s met has lost her virginity in a traumatic way) go unsupported.

Much of this could, and probably should, have been cleaned up by an editor before it ever reached my hands; in fact, it’s been a long time since a collection’s editing stood out to me so strongly, and not in a good way. Jerkins has chops, but even the best writers need good and challenging editors. This book doesn’t feel like it had one.

This Will Be My Undoing is at its best when Jerkins is writing from direct personal experience or historical research, and at its very worst when she tries to get into other people’s heads, and in its connective tissue between ideas.

For example, when Jerkins writes about a guilty preference for porn where blonde white women are penetrated and subjugated, the collection crackles with power. It’s uncomfortable and weird and great, because it’s one of the few times Jerkins fully seems to own and control what she’s writing about.

Conversely, my least favorite moment of the book is when Jerkins weakly points out that black disabled women are underrepresented beneath the umbrella of Black Girl Magic, because so much Black Girl Magic is about athleticism. Nothing about those paragraphs feels authentic or fresh. (Jerkins is not disabled.) It’s a thinkpiece-y attempt to unify ideas that do not need to be unified, to bring everyone into one big happy tent where they don’t actually need to be.

That essay, titled “Black Girl Magic,” is primarily about Jerkins’s labiaplasty. I appreciate that in a book so concerned with intersectional analysis, Jerkins is trying to incorporate disability into her lens. But the connection between labiaplasty and disability just doesn’t work. In fact, the labiaplasty itself seems to have very little to do with the theme of Black Girl Magic. It’s one more way Jerkins chooses to dilute a potent message by trying to make it universal, instead of doubling down on her own unique perspective.

It’s clear that Jerkins is willing to dive deep and go hard in pursuit of a great essay. That’s why it’s frustrating when she repeatedly pulls back at the last second and buries the good stuff between way too much 101-level explaining.

I don’t think the essays in This Will Be My Undoing work at all, much less the book as a whole. That’s a damn shame. ★★☆☆☆

Reviews and books you might also enjoy:


I purchased my own copy of This Will Be My Undoing and was in no way compensated for this review.

Friday Bookbag, 7.12.19

FridayBookbag

Friday Bookbag is a weekly feature where I share a list of books I’ve borrowed, bought, or received during the week. It’s my chance to buzz about my excitement for books I might not get the chance to review.

I’m catching up on a backlog of purchases over the past few weeks when I was taking a break from blogging, so expect extra-stuffed Friday Bookbags for the next few weeks.

This week I’ve got a novel about an Afghani family in crisis, a memoir of teaching English undercover in North Korea, and two very different (and exciting!) lesbian YA titles.


When the Moon is Low by Nadia Hashimi

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

When the Moon is Low Cover
cover description: A hijabi woman sits on a hill and gazes at the moon.

the premise: From Goodreads:

“In Kabul, we meet Fereiba, a schoolteacher who puts her troubled childhood behind her when she finds love in an arranged marriage. But Fereiba’s comfortable life implodes when the Taliban rises to power and her family becomes a target of the new fundamentalist regime. Forced to flee with her three children, Fereiba has one hope for survival: to seek refuge with her sister’s family in London. 

Traveling with forged papers and depending on the kindness of strangers, Fereiba and the children make a dangerous crossing into Iran under cover of darkness, the start of a harrowing journey that reduces her from a respected wife and mother to a desperate refugee.”

why I’m excited: “Excited” seems like the wrong word to use about my feelings for a book with a premise this sad, but this book has gotten great reviews, so I’m interested to read it. It’s about an earlier refugee crisis than the ones that make the news right now, but it still couldn’t be more timely.

Without You, There Is No Us: Undercover Among the Sons of North Korea’s Elite by Suki Kim

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

the premise: From Goodreads:

Without You There Is No Us Cover
cover description: An illustration of a classroom against a reddish-pink background. Shadowy figures look up at portraits of North Korean leaders.

“Every day, three times a day, the students march in two straight lines, singing praises to Kim Jong-il and North Korea: Without you, there is no motherland. Without you, there is no us. It is a chilling scene, but gradually Suki Kim, too, learns the tune and, without noticing, begins to hum it. It is 2011, and all universities in North Korea have been shut down for an entire year, the students sent to construction fields—except for the 270 students at the all-male Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), a walled compound where portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il look on impassively from the walls of every room, and where Suki has gone undercover as a missionary and a teacher. Over the next six months, she will eat three meals a day with her young charges and struggle to teach them English, all under the watchful eye of the regime.”

why I’m excited: This is the real-life memoir of a woman who went undercover in North Korea. I’m fascinated by how difficult and dangerous that must have been. In fact, I’m almost looking forward more to learning more about the author than I am in reading about what she saw, since it takes a special kind of person to be willing to do this kind of unimaginably risky undercover work.

Ash by Malinda Lo

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Ash Cover
cover description: A black and white image of a girl in a white dress laying in a fetal position in tall grass.

the premise: From Goodreads:

“In the wake of her father’s death, Ash is left at the mercy of her cruel stepmother. Consumed with grief, her only joy comes by the light of the dying hearth fire, rereading the fairy tales her mother once told her. In her dreams, someday the fairies will steal her away, as they are said to do. When she meets the dark and dangerous fairy Sidhean, she believes that her wish may be granted.

The day that Ash meets Kaisa, the King’s Huntress, her heart begins to change. Instead of chasing fairies, Ash learns to hunt with Kaisa. Though their friendship is as delicate as a new bloom, it reawakens Ash’s capacity for love–and her desire to live. But Sidhean has already claimed Ash for his own, and she must make a choice between fairy tale dreams and true love.

Entrancing, empowering, and romantic, Ash is about the connection between life and love, and solitude and death, where transformation can come from even the deepest grief.”

why I’m excited: To call Ash, a lesbian Cinderella retelling, ahead of its time for YA literature would be an understatement. I first read it when the first edition was released 10 years ago, when I was a baby gay and years before I came out of the closet. It’s not just its queerness that matters to me, though–it’s also a genuinely gripping and unusual fantasy novel, especially for a Cinderella retelling. I bought the 10th anniversary edition for my Kindle. I can’t wait to revisit it.

Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel by Sara Farizan

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Tell Me Again How A Crush Should Feel Cover
cover description: Two girls’ faces are opposite to each other on the cover, one at the top of the cover and one on the bottom. The background is pink stripes.

the premise: From Goodreads:

“High-school junior Leila has made it most of the way through Armstead Academy without having a crush on anyone, which is something of a relief. Her Persian heritage already makes her different from her classmates; if word got out that she liked girls, life would be twice as hard. But when a sophisticated, beautiful new girl, Saskia, shows up, Leila starts to take risks she never thought she would, especially when it looks as if the attraction between them is mutual. Struggling to sort out her growing feelings and Saskia’s confusing signals, Leila confides in her old friend, Lisa, and grows closer to her fellow drama tech-crew members, especially Tomas, whose comments about his own sexuality are frank, funny, wise, and sometimes painful. Gradually, Leila begins to see that almost all her classmates are more complicated than they first appear to be, and many are keeping fascinating secrets of their own.”

why I’m excited: Unlike Ash, I’ve never read this lesbian YA novel, even though it came out back in 2014. This premise is my favorite out of all the books I’m featuring this week. A lesbian romance that’s also about learning to loosen up, make friends, and find your faith in humanity? Oh, hell yes. I’m getting emotional just thinking about it. In fact, I think I’m going to start reading it right away. Bye, y’all.


What’s in your bookbag this week? Do you have any exciting weekend reading plans? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to link to your own book reviews and blog posts!

Throwback Thursday: THE BLIND ASSASSIN by Margaret Atwood

ThrowbackThursday.jpg

Throwback Thursday is a periodic feature about books I once loved, no matter how embarrassing (or awesome!) I find them today. The first and only installment in this series so far took aim at the Twilight novels.

Today I’m featuring a very different book: The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood’s 2001 novel about two heiress sisters, Laura and Iris, who navigate privilege, patriarchy, and regret in Canada through the 1930s to today. It’s heart-rending from the very first line, narrated by Iris:

Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge.

From there, it never stops being deeply sad, although it can also be very funny, and at time it seethes with a rage so intense that it’s terrible (in that word’s original sense of inspiring terror) to read.

The Blind Assassin Cover
cover description: An edition of The Blind Assassin. An illustration of a brunette woman with a 1930s bob haircut and slinky black dress looking over her shoulder at the viewer.

In addition to the story of Laura and Iris, The Blind Assassin also contains many fictional news stories and a novel-within-a-novel. I normally dislike the use of pretend news stories in books: it’s very rare for an author to get the tone of a real newspaper story just right, and the information they’re trying to convey often comes across as painfully obvious and hack-y. Luckily, Atwood nails it. I can’t even imagine how many 1930s-40s news stories she had to read in order to get the imitation right.

But it’s the novel-within-a-novel that’s the star of the show, and rightly so: it’s so pitch-perfect that, even if it were read separately from the rest of the book, it would still be achingly lovely and memorable. It’s told from the perspective of an unnamed couple–a wealthy woman and a working-class man on the run–who are having an affair. Together, they tell each other a hard-boiled science fiction story set on a faraway planet where a decaying society is ruled by a cruel and corrupt upper class.

In that world, a blind assassin is assigned to kill a mute woman who’s intended to be brutally sacrificed. Instead, they fall in love and plot the kind of escape that the unnamed lovers telling the story cannot.

We’re told that this novel-within-a-novel–titled The Blind Assassin, of course–was written by Laura before her suicide at the end of World War II. Iris, by now an old woman, guards her sister’s legacy and begins to write her own story (though at first it’s unclear whom she’s writing to).

The Blind Assassin Cover 2
cover description: An edition of The Blind Assassin. An illustration of a 1930s-era woman wearing a fur coat against a light blue background. The woman’s face is photorealistic but the fur coat is only sketched in.

The reason The Blind Assassin has meant so much to me over the years (it’s been my favorite novel since I was 14) is because, in addition to being beautifully written, it’s a painful reminder of how complicity and cowardice can destroy a life. Atwood’s most famous novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, also tackles this, but where The Handmaid’s Tale is ferocious, The Blind Assassin is slippery. The consequences of complicity in The Handmaid’s Tale are as subtle as a cleaver; in The Blind Assassin, they’re more like those mythical razors embedded in sweet candy apples at Halloween.

Iris is difficult, without being so boneheaded that I stop being able to understand or support her. Vain, frightened, and proud, she clings to what she knows and resists introspection. She wants the cachet of being a class traitor but can’t tolerate the discomfort of actually doing the betraying. She fails to protect Laura again and again, culminating in Laura’s suicide; she fails to protect herself, and you get the sense that it’s on purpose, as a sort of pointless punishment in place of the substantive change she desperately needs to make instead.

The Blind Assassin Cover 3
cover description: An edition of The Blind Assassin. An illustration of a 1930s woman wearing an elegant hat and pearls. It’s a close-up of her face, set against a dark background.

Most of all, it’s the very end of The Blind Assassin that haunts me (page 521 of my battered paperback):

What is it that I’ll want from you? Not love: that would be too much to ask. Not forgiveness, which isn’t yours to bestow. Only a listener, perhaps; only someone who will see me. Don’t prettify me though, whatever else you do: I have no wish to be a decorated skull.

But I leave myself in your hands. What choice do I have? By the time you read this last page, that–if anywhere–is the only place I will be.

Like Iris, I often write simply because I want a listener; I want to exist somewhere, anywhere, outside of my own head. The Blind Assassin reminds me that I can do more than simply leave my words and deeds to someone else. I have a choice: speak now or speak later, long after the time to make a change. I hope I always choose to speak now.

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

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My favorite books of 2019 so far

I’ve been making pretty abysmal progress on my reading goals this year: I’ve only read 19 books so far in 2019. (According to Goodreads, that’s 32 books behind schedule if I want to hit my goal of 100 books–but who’s counting?)

Luckily, the books I have read have been almost universally wonderful. I thought I’d highlight my very favorites so far. I’m counting any book I read and reviewed for the blog in 2019, no matter when it actually came out. I’ve ordered them chronologically based on when I read them, not based on how much I loved them. (I’m planning to do a year-end list this year, so I’m pushing that herculean task of ranking off till December.)

Here are my favorite books of 2019 so far! Clicking on the title links will open my original review of the book in a new tab.

sadie cover
cover description: A mostly black-and-white sketch of a girl, except for her bright red hoodie. The girl’s face is obscured.

Sadie by Courtney Summers

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If you’re tired of crime stories (both true and fictional) that are more interested in lurid details and beautiful victims than they are in real justice or the unvarnished truth, then the YA novel Sadie is for you. Courtney Summers blends “transcripts” of a Serial-style fictional investigative podcast with a first person narrative from the perspective of Sadie, a teen girl out for revenge against the man who murdered her younger sister.

Honestly, I tear up just thinking about this book. I sometimes feel so helpless in a world that treats women as disposable objects. Sadie tells me I’m not wrong to feel that way, but it also pushed me to remember my own strength, grit, and skills as a survivor.

This novel will empower you as much as it breaks your heart, no matter your age. It has one of the best endings I have ever read. I promise you: if you read Sadie, you’ll never forget her.

whitedancingelephantscover
cover description: An out-of-focus close-up of a South Asian woman’s face.

White Dancing Elephants by Chaya Bhuvaneswar

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White Dancing Elephants is Chaya Bhuvaneswar’s first book, but it reads like the confident output of short fiction writers as respected and established as Jhumpa Lahiri, Margaret Atwood, and Alice Munro. These stories are sometimes devastating and difficult, sometimes effervescent and hopeful. They are always good.

One story in the collection that hasn’t left my mind since I read it is “Neela: Bhopal, 1984,” about a little girl on the day of the Bhopal industrial disaster that killed and injured thousands. The story is emblematic of how Bhuvaneswar isn’t just content to tell stories that entertain us or provoke thought. This is agitating fiction. You won’t feel like sitting still after reading it.

“Diverse” has become a borderline-meaningless buzzword in publishing (most often used as a euphemism for “not white”), but White Dancing Elephants is truly diverse: diverse in its characters, settings, styles, goals, and forms. It is an explosion of talent and skill. What a gift.

The Collected Schizophrenias Cover
cover description: Styled to look like a composition notebook with a colorful marbled pattern.

The Collected Schizophrenias by Esmé Weijun Wang

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Of all the books I’ve read this year, this is the one that cut deepest on a personal level. I was diagnosed with bipolar I with psychotic tendencies seven years ago. That’s a different diagnosis than Esmé Weijun Wang’s schizoaffective disorder (bipolar type), but I hung on every word of this essay collection anyway.

Wang’s essay-length examinations of what it means to lose your mind when, as a writer, you make your entire living off your mind, are as surprisingly hopeful as they are grief-stricken. Wang’s style is understated with secret sharp edges, almost scientific. These are field notes. It is a privilege that Wang lets us read them.

Books do save your life; it’s been a long time since my mental illness has sent me fully spinning off my axis, but if it ever does again, The Collected Schizophrenias will be the first life raft I turn to.

The Proposal Cover
cover description: Bright blue, with illustrations of a Black woman wearing sunglasses and a Latino man in a blue ballcap. There are also cute illustrations of a baseball, taco, palm trees, a cupcake, and the sun.

The Proposal by Jasmine Guillory

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Right when you need a good book most, The Proposal will be there for you, like the cupcake or tasty taco you treat yourself to on a bad day. This is the Room of Requirement of books. It’s a romance between two people who think they don’t need romance; if you also think you don’t need romance, it will be happy to show you why you’re wrong.

Nik just survived a catastrophically bad Jumbotron proposal from her crappy actor boyfriend, Fisher. Luckily, Carlos (whom you may remember as the best friend from Jasmine Guillory’s first novel, The Wedding Date) is there to safely shepherd her out of the stadium.

I read this book when I was feeling sad and down, and what surprised me most about it was how, even when it was so joyful it defied gravity, it was still grounded in real-world problems. If you’re happy and looking for a happy read, it’ll be there. If you’re sad and looking to be cheered up, it’ll be there. Guillory works magic.

Monday's Not Coming Cover
cover description: A young Black girl is sitting down. She looks upset. Everything is tinted red.

Monday’s Not Coming by Tiffany D. Jackson

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I found this book so intense and triggering that, in the title of the post I wrote about it, I put “I’m not reviewing Monday’s Not Coming.” The truth is that the post turned out to be a review anyway, but this YA novel about a girl whose best friend Monday disappears deals with some seriously painful subject matter.

The thing is, that’s what makes it great. As I wrote in my not-a-review, Tiffany D. Jackson knows that many teens are dealing with situations that would make many adults’ toes curl every day. Monday’s Not Coming will make those teens feel seen. (It made me feel seen, even though I’m 24.)

It’s technically a young adult novel, but it’s one that I think many adults would find riveting, too. Jackson’s writing style is pitch-perfect, and she finds the beauty even in this very brutal story. Like Sadie, Monday is impossible to forget.

Alif the Unseen Cover
cover description: A yellow and green abstract Arabesque pattern that also looks like the circuits of a computer.

Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson

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If you’re looking for a sci-fi/fantasy novel that breaks out of those genre’s typical  boxes, then it would be hard to do better than Alif the Unseen. This novel (technically YA, though it’s even more crossover-y than Sadie and Monday’s Not Coming) follows Alif, a pseudonymous hacker who finds himself on the wrong side of his Middle Eastern security state’s law enforcement.

It has djinn, oppressive governments, dystopian revolution, a love story, and lots of interesting things to say about faith, doubt, and Islam. It’s fun, funny, and profound in all the right places.

My wife is a computer programmer and cyber security expert, and I had a ton of fun talking over the tech in this novel with her. Alif the Unseen should be right up there with M.T. Anderson’s Feed and Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash in the canon of game-changing cyber sci-fi.


Have you read and loved any of these? Do you have your own favorites of 2019 to add? I’d love to hear about them in the comments!

Book Review: BABY TEETH by Zoje Stage

In Baby Teeth, Zoje Stage makes both motherhood and daughterhood terrifying, or perhaps just lays bare the terror that’s been there all along. Alternating between the perspectives of mute, violent 7-year-old Hanna and her chronically ill stay-at-home mother, Suzette, Baby Teeth is a deeply unsettling and hauntingly realistic horror story. Stage’s writing style is crisp, creepy, and compulsively readable; I can already tell that all its haunting little details have worked themselves deep into my psyche. I loved this book, even if it’s going to have me sleeping with a night light on for the foreseeable future.

You can read my full review below.


Baby Teeth Cover
cover description: A shattered red lollipop against a cream-colored background.

Baby Teeth by Zoje Stage

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  • publisher: St. Martin’s Press (an imprint of Macmillan)
  • publication date: July 17, 2018
  • length: 320 pages

She had tried, as a little girl, to express what was within her. But it came out like marbles. Nonsense. Babbling. Disappointing even to her own ears. She’d practiced, alone in her room, but the bugs fell from her mouth, frighteningly alive, scampering over her skin and bedclothes. She flicked them away. Watched them escape under her closed door. Words, ever unreliable, were no one’s friend.

–from Baby Teeth by Zoje Stage

I went into Baby Teeth expecting some kind of substitute Gillian Flynn-inspired horror, yet another novel that would temporarily fill the Gone Girl and Sharp Objects-shaped hole in my heart without ever really capturing the pulse of what makes those novels great. Boy, was I wrong: Baby Teeth is a potent and terrifying experience all its own, no pale comparisons to Flynn needed.

In Baby Teeth, Zoje Stage efficiently winds up an unsettling conflict between a mother and her young daughter–Suzette and Hanna, respectively–in a chapter or two, and then spends the next 300 or so pages toying with the reader. This novel gave me a literal feeling of queasiness. First Suzette has the upper hand, then Hanna; vicious acts of violence are immediately undercut by devastating emotional vulnerabilities.

There’s nowhere safe to place your sympathies. In the end, no one has the upper hand here but Stage.

My favorite part of Baby Teeth is its specificity: Suzette is a Jewish interior designer who feels alienated from her religious and ethnic heritage because of her abusive mother. Suzette’s husband and Hanna’s father, Alex, is a Swedish architect who loves fika and holidays. (There is a significant amount of Swedish in this book, little of it directly translated.) We get all kinds of believable detail about this family’s home, food, clothes, and rituals, meaning that when those rituals inevitably fall apart, we’re just as disturbed and unmoored as the characters are.

I especially loved how health and illness were handled. Suzette has Crohn’s disease, and lives in terror of flares, surgeries, fistulas, and colostomy bags; even though my chronic illnesses are different, Stage captures the fear and uncertainty of chronic illness just right. When mental illness and intellectual disabilities enter the novel in significant ways, Stage zeroes in on what’s scary about those things without piling on stigma. (In fact, much of the horror in this novel springs directly from the stigma and institutionalization its characters experience.)

Choosing to tell this story from a dual perspective was risky, especially when one of those perspectives is that of a mute 7-year-old. Lucky for us, Stage makes it look effortless. Each voice is distinct; all the needling ways Suzette and Hanna get under each other’s skin are incredibly discomfiting since they’re so believable. No dramatic pea soup vomiting here: just the dynamics that are inherent to parent/child relationships, ever so slightly dialed up to the “chilling” setting.

Suzette is so terrified of being a bad mother (just like her own bad, abusive mother) that it brings out the bad mother in her. Even if you’re not a parent, who can’t identify with that helpless feeling of failure? And who can’t identify with being afraid of your own creation, biological or otherwise?

Meanwhile, Hanna becomes the cuckoo in Suzette and Alex’s marriage, determined to push out Suzette and get her (clueless, trusting) father’s love all to herself. She may go to desperate lengths to do so, but that hunger for love feels universal.

I did find Baby Teeth‘s third act a little overlong and understuffed, and its ending was not quite as conclusive as I wanted it to be. But that’s hardly a dealbreaker in a novel that’s otherwise so electrifyingly good.

In a novel this scary, you expect monsters. But it’s much more frightening–and satisfying–that ultimately, there are none. ★★★★☆

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I purchased my own copy of Baby Teeth and was in no way compensated for this review.