Book Review: KNOCK WOOD by Jennifer Militello

This is a poet’s memoir, both literally and stylistically. Knock Wood is Jennifer Militello’s first book of not-poetry, after three critically acclaimed and award-winning poetry collections. It begins with Militello reflecting on a “knock on wood” that was, unluckily, actually a knock on a surface that wasn’t wood. From there, the memoir blooms out into everything she believes was touched by that ill luck knock, from an uncle’s death three years before to a crumbling marriage to an arrest for theft to an aunt’s suicide attempt and mental illness.

Knock Wood is full of revelatory, quotable gorgeousness, and it’s surprisingly easy to read given its time-warping experimental format. (The lightning-fast 144-page length helps, too.) I enjoyed it very much, with one significant reservation: Militello consistently treats disability and fatness as grotesque. I still recommend this book, but I want to arm readers with that knowledge going in so that they’re not so unpleasantly caught off guard by it as I was.

You can read my full review below.


Knock Wood Cover
cover description: the outline of a scraggly tree is burnt into a woodgrain background.

Knock Wood by Jennifer Militello

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

  • publisher: Dzanc Books
  • publication date: August 13, 2019
  • length: 144 pages

I don’t want to remember. Memory is the bush in the yard that we keep cutting down as it keeps growing back. I don’t know what species it is. It is the kind that has berries you can’t eat. Bird berries, my mother used to call them. Red and round and smooth. Now I tell my daughter, don’t eat them. They’ll make you sick.

–from Knock Wood by Jennifer Militello*

Knock Wood asks you to take a leap of faith. Its opening scene, in which Jennifer Militello describes an ill-fated knock on wood on an airplane to London in 2016, is extremely idiosyncratic, almost a parody of the mannerisms of creative nonfiction. Militello recounts reading “a Murakami novel about an uncle with cancer,”* knocking on wood (which turns out to be plastic or metal, something not-wood), and then suddenly realizing that this unlucky knock caused the death of her uncle three years before.

It’s a leap, and for a couple of pages, I held my breath, wondering if I was going to be stuck reading something painfully strained and false for the duration of this memoir, Militello’s first book of prose after three books of poetry.

Luckily, I wasn’t stuck: in fact, I was gripped before the first chapter had even ended, when a description of a hide being tanned sent deep shivers down my spine.

It’s not a chronological or even fully comprehensible memoir. It’s a deeply intuitive experience, like literally show me a healthy person by Darcie Wilder or, to a lesser extent, much of Annie Dillard’s work. Knock Wood is a memoir held together by déjà vu.

It reminded me of the way that a particular formation of clouds transports me back to summer camp every time I see it. I don’t have a distinct memory of seeing those clouds while I was actually at camp; I have no idea why the link is so strong, but it is. Militello moved me from memory to disparate memory in the same way: it didn’t make sense if I stopped to think about it, but it definitely felt right.

Militello spends a lot of time with the monstrous and chilling, the pulsing and bleeding, the ghostly and the all-too-embodied. This is mostly a good and interesting thing, but it leads me to my one, very serious criticism of Knock Wood: Militello’s dehumanizing treatment of disabled and fat bodies.

Much of this memoir revolves around Militello’s aunt Kathy, who was a model until severe mental illness struck. Over and over, Militello equates Kathy’s illness with ugliness and repulsiveness. Kathy is at first described as an elegant, slim, suicidal woman in a houndstooth coat. After treatment and medication, she becomes a breathless fat monster in tacky clothes one size (or more) too small.

There are plenty of ways to write about physical transformation that aren’t nearly so judgmental and cruel. Not only is this lazy writing, it’s a lazy reflection of a widespread belief that I find infinitely more monstrous than mental illness or fatness could ever be: that it is better to die beautiful than live to become undesirable.

I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder seven years ago, and it very nearly killed me. I refused to take my medication, because antipsychotic drugs (along with many other types of medication for mental illness) cause weight gain, and I refused–refused–to be fat, for fear I would become exactly the kind of object of pity and scorn that Militello paints here.

Eventually I did take my meds. Eventually I did become fat. I wore clothes that were too small. I have a double chin. I sweat easily. The hair on my face grows in oddly. And yet my life is still worth living! Imagine that.

That Militello leans so much on the same tired, insulting tropes of the grotesque in a memoir that is otherwise so gorgeous, humble, and insightful feels like a slap in the face.

This book was well worth reading, and Militello is a tremendously gifted nonfiction writer. Her words will be reverberating with me for some time. But some of the words she invokes are powerful for all the wrong reasons. ★★★★☆

Knock Wood hits stores and your favorite online retailers tomorrow, August 13th.

* Please note that all quotes in this review come from an ARC, which is an uncorrected proof. Quotes may appear differently in the final version.

Reviews and books you might also enjoy:


I received a copy of Knock Wood from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. I received no other compensation and opinions are entirely my own.

Friday Bookbag, 8.2.19

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.

It was all libraries, all the time for me this week. I’ve got six great library finds I’m really excited about, and apparently I’m on a short story kick, since short story collections made up over half of my haul. I’ve also got two very different Chinese American novels, one a modernist classic from the 1960s and the other a more recent wicked satire about a model young Chinese American woman who just might be a serial killer. Let’s dive in!


Rutting Season: Stories by Mandeliene Smith

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Rutting Season Cover
cover description: A mustard yellow background has a cutout in the shape of a hand that features a nature illustration of a pink flower and a yellow bird.

source: the library

the premise: From the inside flap:

“In these lucid, sharply observant stories, Mandeliene Smith traces the lives of people in moments of crisis. In “What it Takes,” a teenage girl navigates race and class as the school’s pot dealer. “The Someday Cat” follows a small girl terrified of being given away by her neglectful mother. “Three Views of a Pond” is a meditation on the healing that time brings for a college student considering suicide. And in “Animals,” a child wrestles with the contradictions inherent in her family’s relationship with the farm animals they both care for and kill.

In barnyards, office buildings, and dilapidated houses, Smith’s characters fight for happiness and survival, and the choices they make reveal the power of instinct to save or destroy. Whether she’s writing about wives struggling with love, teenage girls resisting authority, or men and women reeling from loss, Smith illuminates her characters with pointed, gorgeous language and searing insight. Rutting Season is an unforgettable, unmissable collection from an exciting new voice in fiction.”

why I’m excited: Like I said in my preamble to this week’s post, I’m really digging short story collections right now. (Carrianne Leung’s collection That Time I Loved You, a previous Friday Bookbag entry, inspired me. I’m really loving that one.) And as much as I love sci-fi and magical short stories, I have a real soft spot for realistic ones like these. Rutting Season is a provocative title for what I hope is a thought-provoking book.

Mars: Stories by Asja Bakić (translated by Jennifer Zoble)

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Mars Cover
cover description: The cover is bright green and cream. It has an abstract marbled pattern.

source: the library

the premise: From the back of the book:

“Mars showcases a series of twisted universes where every character is tasked with making sense of their strange reality. One woman will be freed from purgatory once she writes the perfect book; another abides in a world devoid of physical contact. With wry prose and skewed humor, this debut collection from the Balkans explores twenty-first-century promises of knowledge, freedom, and power.”

why I’m excited: I like works in translation and I’m not sure that I’ve ever read one from the Balkans region. (This short story collection was originally published in 2015 in Croatia before being translated by Jennifer Zoble and published here by Feminist Press in 2019.) That description is tantalizingly short, but the stories it does tease sound fascinating. It was blurbed by Jeff VanderMeer, an author I really enjoy and admire. And on top of all that, this book is really short–only 144 pages. I’m looking forward to it!

The End of Youth by Rebecca Brown

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

The End of Youth Cover
cover description: A three-quarters view of the bottom half of a woman’s face behind a matrix of tiny dots.

source: the library

the premise: From IndieBound:

“The End of Youth is a collection of 13 linked stories, essays and rants, about carrying on after youth’s hope is gone. In “Afraid of the Dark,” a child learns that there is good reason to be afraid. The adolescent narrator of “Description of a Struggle” finds that love can be brutal. “The Smokers” -examines an adult’s realization that longevity means seeing loved ones die. Written with the same spare and vivid beauty as her earlier award-winning works, The End of Youth is certain to win even wider acclaim.”

why I’m excited: This is another itty-bitty-tiny small press book, even shorter than Mars at only 123 pages. It’s from 2003 and I think it might even be out of print, but it looked so much like my thing that I couldn’t leave it on the library shelf. It’s yet another short story collection (and from what I can read online, I think it might blend in some personal essays, too). It looks great, and I don’t think it’ll even take me as much as an afternoon to devour it.

Foreign Soil and Other Stories by Maxine Beneba Clarke

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Foreign Soil and Other Stories Cover
cover description: A bright yellow cover with stylized illustrations of a red fish, a boat, a passport, an envelope, a needle and thread, a knife, nail polish, pins, a molotov cocktail, and a flower with heavy dark seeds or stamens.

source: the library

the premise: From the inside flap:

“In this collection of acclaimed stories, the reader is transported around the globe and back. In “David,” two women from Sudan randomly meet in the streets of Melbourne. The younger one feels like she’s being judged by the older woman, a refugee from the Sudanese civil war, for discarding the ways of her country, until she realizes the woman is more interested in her bicycle–a powerful symbol of all that she’s left behind in her native country. Harlem Jones, in the eponymous story, takes an index finger and “carefully wipes specks of London grime” from his light gray Adidas stripes before he joins a crowd of angry rioters protesting police brutality, simultaneously swatting away the feeling–and the resulting anger–that he just might be the next casualty of the authorities.

In the tradition of storytellers Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Marlon James, and Helen Oyeyemi, this urgent, poetic, and essential work announces the arrival of a fresh and talented voice in international fiction.”

why I’m excited: The final short story collection in my haul, this is another international title (though unlike Mars, it was originally written in English). Maxine Beneba Clarke lives in Melbourne, Australia. I like the authors she’s compared to in that description and most of all I like the quote that opens the book (I peeked into the inside and saw it):

“Let no one be fooled by the fact that we may write in English, for we intend to do unheard-of things with it.” –Chinua Achebe.

I’ll be delighted to read those unheard-of things.

Crossings by Chuang Hua

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Crossings Cover
cover description: A black and white photo of half of a Chinese woman’s face. It’s a photograph of the author, Chuang Hua.

source: the library

the premise: From the back of the book:

“Crossings, Chuang Hua’s erotic semi-autobiographical novel, is widely recognized as the first modernist novel to address the Asian American experience. It’s deeply imagistic prose, as haunting as the dreamlike visions of Jane Bowles, centers around the character of Fourth Jane, the fourth of seven children of a Chinese immigrant family, who becomes caught in an intense love affair with a married Parisian journalist. Jane’s intimate encounters with her lover are collaged with recollections of her family, her homeland, and her constant migrations between four continents. What emerges is a deeply stirring story of one woman’s chronological, geographical, and emotional crossings. Spare, lyrical, Taoist in form and elusiveness, visually cinematic, tender and sensual, Chuang Hua’s powerful novel endures as a moving and original work of American literature.”

why I’m excited: This is kind of an old book for me to be featuring on this blog. It was originally published in 1968; it was Chuang Hua’s only novel and she died in 2000. But modernism is my favorite literary movement and this premise caught my eye. (It actually sounds a little like the modernist novel-within-a-novel that Margaret Atwood created for The Blind Assassin.) I think this book will be an interesting experience.

Hello Kitty Must Die by Angela S. Choi

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Hello Kitty Must Die Cover
cover description: A hot pink cover with creepy white font and a cartoon white skull and crossbones that has a red bow perched jauntily on its head like the cartoon character Hello Kitty.

source: the library

the premise: From the inside flap:

“On the outside, twenty-eight-year-old Fiona Yu appears to be just another Hello Kitty–an educated, well-mannered Asian-American woman. Secretly, she feels torn between the traditional Chinese values of her family and the social mores of being an American girl.

To escape the burden of carrying her family’s honor, Fiona decides to take her own virginity. In the process, she makes a surprising discovery that reunites her with a long-lost friend, Sean Killroy. Sean introduces her to a dark world of excitement, danger, cunning and cruelty, pushing her to the limits of her own morality. But Fiona’s father throws her new life into disarray when he dupes her into an overnight trip which results in a hasty engagement to Don Koo, the spoiled son of a wealthy chef. Determined to thwart her parents’ plan to marry her off into Asian suburbia, Fiona seeks her freedom at any price. How far will she go to bury the Hello Kitty stereotype forever? Fiona’s journey of self-discovery is biting and clever as she embraces her true nature and creates her own version of the American Dream, eliminating–without fear or remorse–anyone who stands in her way.”

why I’m excited: This sounds vaguely like American Psycho meets Crazy Rich Asians, which will either be amazing or just a little too weird for me. I love the cover and title and I’m curious just how wild this satire is going to get! I look forward to reporting back to all of you.


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: THAT TIME I LOVED YOU by Carrianne Leung

In ten linked stories that function almost as a novel, Carrianne Leung writes with a simple directness that belies the depth and power of her themes. That Time I Loved You is entirely set in one suburban neighborhood in Scarborough, Canada. It has a recurring cast of characters, but its central character is a Chinese Canadian middle schooler, June. June is the narrator of three stories and appears as a watchful presence in the rest. The action kicks off with a series of suicides of parents in the neighborhood, which send the surviving adults (and especially their kids) into a tizzy of fear and gossip.

Suburbia is a common setting for literary fiction, but Leung really makes it something special here. Her writing reminded me of Celeste Ng’s, another writer who understands that suburbs are more complex–in race, class, gender, sexual, and family dynamics–than your stereotypical snooty WASPs and manicured lawns. At times I wished she had been a little more ambitious with her straight-ahead prose, but overall, I thought this quiet, lovely collection was well worth my time.

You can read my full review below.


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.

That Time I Loved You by Carrianne Leung

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

  • publisher: Liveright Publishing Corporation (an imprint of W. W. Norton & Company)
  • publication date: February 26, 2019
  • length: 224 pages

1979: This was the year the parents in my neighborhood began killing themselves. I was eleven years old and in Grade 6. Elsewhere in the world, big things were happening. McDonald’s introduced the Happy Meal, Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran and Michael Jackson released his album Off the Wall. But none of that was as significant to me as the suicides.

–from “Grass” in That Time I Loved You by Carrianne Leung

I recently tried to re-read The Virgin Suicides, a novel I read and failed to understand or connect with when I was about 14. Unfortunately I found it just as opaque and slippery the second time around, and set it aside without finishing.

That Time I Loved You, Carrianne Leung’s first short story collection, is worth comparing to The Virgin Suicides in more ways than one. First, it’s about a series of suicides; second, it’s about 1970s-1980s suburbia and how hard it is to grow up. But where Jeffrey Eugenides took a highly stylized, metaphorical approach to those themes–too stylized and too metaphorical, in my opinion–Leung’s style is so direct and realistic it almost reads like memoir. (Leung did in fact grow up in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough, where That Time I Loved You is set.)

Perhaps a better comparison is Celeste Ng’s hit novel Little Fires Everywhere, which I loved, and which is soon to be made into a Hulu TV series. If you loved that, you’ll also find a lot to love in this.

Like Ng, Leung intimately understands suburbs, not as narrative devices or places to be derided by people who live in the city, but as real places. Her characters are not icy, repressed blondes; they’re a far more diverse group of mainly immigrants: Chinese, Jamaican, Portuguese, Italian. The sex these people have doesn’t feel like a defilement of the American Dream (not least because they’re Canadian); it feels like the sex that real people have. The growing up that June and her friends must do doesn’t happen in some single cathartic moment that’s a statement about the loss of innocence; instead, it happens in a series of tiny, dizzying forward shifts, the way growing up actually felt for me (and, I imagine, the way it felt for most people).

Leung’s suburbia, in other words, resembles the majority of suburbs in which my family and friends have lived. It’s set in 1979 and the very early 1980s, but it felt especially representative of what suburbs look like today, after gentrification and the reverse white flight that has pushed marginalized people back out to the suburbs.

That Time I Loved You‘s suicides feel equally real. They’re the catalyst for the book, but they’re also surprisingly quiet and small. In fact, the most notable thing about them is how un-notable they become to the surviving neighbors. I was concerned that this book would be difficult for me to read given my own history of mental health problems, but luckily Leung treats the subject with great respect and compassion.

That Time I Loved You functions well as a short story collection, but its structure is just close enough to a novel that I’d still recommend it to people who don’t usually like short story collections. That it’s anchored by one memorable character, June, makes it much easier to follow than a typical collection. It’s roughly chronological and takes place all in the same location; events that happen in one story affect the others.

That That Time I Loved You is so realistic helps, too. As much as I like current trends in reality-blurring short fiction, it’s nice to take a break and read a book that doesn’t feature extended dream sequences, hallucinations, or other long jaunts away from the recognizable world.

But as much as I liked having straightforward stories, I did wish that Leung had ventured beyond straightforward prose. Leung is exceptionally talented at developing characters and plot, but her writing style is very simple–which on one hand was kind of a welcome rest for my brain (I’ve done a lot of reading for work and pleasure recently), and on the other left me somewhat unsatisfied, like a meal that tasted good but came in too small a portion. Oh well.

There wasn’t a single story here that I didn’t like, but my favorites were “Fences,” about an Italian American woman struggling to conceive a child with a husband she doesn’t really love, “Sweets,” about June’s grandmother who becomes a surprising ally to one of June’s genderqueer friends, and the final, titular story, “That Time I Loved You,” which is a tour de force culmination of all the stories that came before.

That Time I Loved You is light on its feet despite its serious subject matter, but it never feels insubstantial. It’s a great example of how diverse in form and style short story collections can be–and it’s welcome that its characters are so diverse, too. This book will stay with me. ★★★★☆

Reviews and books you might also enjoy:


My copy of That Time I Loved You came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

In Review: July 2019

InReview

In Review posts are a chance for me to catch my breath, note that I am actually making progress towards my reading goals, and give each month’s blog posts a little extra love.

This month was a particularly exciting reading month. I liked or loved almost everything I read (with one major exception), and as a bonus, I finally got a library card at my new address. Also, a bunch of new people followed this blog. Hi, new people! I hope you’ll stick around!

Here’s hoping August is more of the same. Happy reading!


I reviewed 6 books this month:

 

I borrowed, bought, and received 16 books this month:

Friday Bookbag, 7.12

  • When the Moon is Low by Nadia Hashimi
  • Without You, There Is No Us: Undercover Among the Sons of North Korea’s Elite by Suki Kim
  • Ash (10th Anniversary Edition) by Malinda Lo
  • Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel by Sara Farizan

 

Friday Bookbag, 7.19

  • Bloomland by John Englehardt
  • Sherwood by Meagan Spooner
  • The Book of Night Women by Marlon James
  • An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon
  • The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
  • The Body Myth by Rheea Mukherjee
  • That Time I Loved You by Carrianne Leung

 

Friday Bookbag, 7.26

  • Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys’ Club of Silicon Valley by Emily Chang
  • The Real Lolita: A Lost Girl, an Unthinkable Crime, and a Scandalous Masterpiece by Sarah Weinman
  • Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri
  • My Soul to Keep by Tananarive Due
  • Modern Lovers by Emma Straub

 

Other things I wrote this month:

I have read 25 books so far in 2019!

You can follow along with my reading progress on Goodreads.

Author acknowledgments: Do you read them? Why or why not?

Acknowledgements are the (optional, but pretty typical) part of a book where an author thanks friends, family, their agent, editors, and anyone else who they want to shout out for their help in making the book a reality. Sometimes authors add a religious or spiritual shout out or a thank you to their readers, too.

It’s the one place in a book where authors finally get the freedom to be personal, unhampered, and often a little weird. One of my favorite examples of this is in the acknowledgements of the Twilight books, where author Stephenie Meyer would list the bands she listened to while she wrote. Muse always got a mention, which I remember because that’s why I started listening to Muse!

I always read the acknowledgements section very carefully, even if I hated the book. In fact, when a book doesn’t have acknowledgements, it disturbs me a little bit. Reading the acknowledgements (which are almost always at the end of a book) is part of my ritual for coming down from the intense experience of reading.

Acknowledgements also help me to understand connections between authors, agents, editors, and publishers. Authors usually thank their critique group in the acknowledgements, which often includes other published authors. I like paying attention to who’s close with whom, since sometimes you learn interesting things. (Some authors, like Holly Black, include Easter eggs in their books that reference author friends and their work. It’s fun to be able to recognize those Easter eggs!)

Finally, I’m working on my own fiction, so if a book really resonates with me and my style, I’ll also make a note of that author’s agent and publisher in case it helps me when I query later on.

Acknowledgements are like an Oscars acceptance speech, but way quieter and more shy. And just like an Oscars acceptance speech, they’re always a fun glimpse into the “backstage” of an author’s life.

But I know not everyone cares as much about acknowledgements as I do, so now I’m curious: Do you read the acknowledgements? If so, why? Is it for the same reasons I do, or are there other compelling reasons I’m missing? I’d love to hear all about it in the comments!

Book Review: THEY BOTH DIE AT THE END by Adam Silvera

What if you knew what day you would die? How would you feel? What would you spend your last hours doing? They Both Die at the End takes place in a world where everyone gets a phone call the day they will die, giving them time to say goodbyes, plan their own funerals, and cram in as much life as they can. Two strangers, Mateo and Rufus, get their call on the same day. They meet on an app designed for “Deckers” (people who’ve received their call) and take off on an adventure across New York City.

For a book that spoils its ending right in the title, They Both Die at the End is surprisingly gripping. It’s a tearjerker that never feels manipulative or hokey. I occasionally found its shifting perspectives hard to follow (chapters alternate between Mateo, Rufus, and a few side characters), but overall I enjoyed this book very much. If you enjoy sad but ultimately hopeful stories along the lines of Netflix’s Russian Doll, you’ll love They Both Die at the End.

You can read my full review below.


9780062457790
cover description: An illustration of silhouetted figures walking side by side along a pier in New York City. It’s nighttime, the sky is dark blue, and the moon and stars are bright.

They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

  • publisher: HarperTeen (an imprint of HarperCollins)
  • publication date: September 5, 2017
  • length: 384 pages

Everything has come full circle between my mother and me. She died the day I was born and now I’ll be buried next to her. Reunion.

–from They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera

Awhile back I tweeted about how “four star” books often mean more to me than many “five star” books, because the little bit I don’t love about them gets under my skin, irritates me, and keeps the book on my mind. The grit makes them unforgettable.

I didn’t love everything about They Both Die at the End and that, somehow, makes it even more special to me.

They Both Die at the End is about two teen boys, Mateo and Rufus, who live very different lives in New York City until they get a call telling them they won’t live to see the next day at all. 17-year-old foster kid Rufus beats up his ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend to within an inch of his life: he receives the jarring phone call mid-beating, and suddenly decides that he has more important stuff to accomplish than petty revenge.

Mateo, on the other hand, is a meek 18-year-old whose mother died in childbirth and whose dad is in a coma. He’s put off all his dreams till adulthood, and then the phone call tells him he won’t have an adulthood, sending him straight into an existential crisis.

Both boys turn to an app designed to connect people living their last day–called “Deckers”–to each other, giving them one last friend to spend their last hours with. Mateo and Rufus become each other’s last friend, and maybe more.

Mateo and Rufus are wonderful characters. So many teen boys in YA are either tortured tough guys or dreamy princes, with little room for the real world in between, but Rufus and Mateo felt so real that I wouldn’t be surprised if I met them on the street.

Rufus can be angry and violent, but he’s also gentle and thoughtful when it counts. He’s out as bisexual, and everyone in his life accepts it, which is a nice change to read about. Plenty of non-tortured, non-repressed bisexual teen boys exist, but I’m not sure I’ve ever read about one in YA.

Mateo is shy and weak in some ways, but portrayed as ultimately incredibly kind and loving, the kind of person who would literally give the shoes off his feet to someone experiencing homelessness.

Their friends, too, are richly drawn anti-caricatures. I particularly loved Mateo’s best friend Lidia, a Colombian American teen mom. She’s smart and ambitious and loves her kid, Penny, more than anything in the world.

The large cast of great characters has a downside, though: perspective-jumping that had me losing the plot more than once. Mateo and Rufus’s chapters are told in the first person, and we get third-person chapters from side characters. I didn’t mind the jumping between Mateo and Rufus, but it became difficult to keep track once other subplots were introduced, some of which are critical to understanding the ending. It was frustrating to get to the ending and feel like I was missing its full effect because I couldn’t keep the details straight.

That’s my only complaint, but it’s a major one. Fortunately, the rest of this book is so darn good that it didn’t ruin my enjoyment.

Adam Silvera does a great job envisioning what a near future world would be like where everyone knew when they would die. Details include cruel social media trolls trawling death day-related Instagram tags, an “ultimate one night stand” dating app named Necro, and a spate of expensive, weaksauce businesses looking to exploit people’s last-minute desire to try things like skydiving. All of it felt extremely believable and interesting.

If you don’t like sci-fi, the sci-fi elements of this novel are subtle enough that you’ll probably enjoy this book anyway–but if you do like sci-fi, there’s plenty of thought-provoking speculative material to sink your teeth into.

It didn’t surprise me that I cried at multiple points while reading They Both Die at the End; the sadness is right there in the title. It did surprise me that those tears felt so spontaneous and natural every time. I knew I was reading a tearjerker of a book, but in the end, my tears didn’t feel so much jerked as earned. This book is so, so tender and loving, like a warm, sturdy hug when you’re grieving. It’s healing. Kudos to you, Adam Silvera; you’re a miracle-worker.

I don’t know when I’m going to die, but even if my last day ended up being tomorrow, I’d still be glad I took the time to read They Both Die at the End. ★★★★☆

Books and reviews you might also enjoy:


I purchased my own copy of They Both Die at the End and was in no way compensated for this review.

Friday Bookbag, 7.26.19

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.

This week I’ve got some buzzy nonfiction about Silicon Valley and the inspiration for Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, a fantasy novel about a desert empire and blood magic, an Afrofuturistic vampire epic, and a sweet comedy about aging band members who have all settled down together in Brooklyn. Let’s dive in!


Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys’ Club of Silicon Valley by Emily Chang

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Brotopia Cover
cover description: A highly stylized, colorful illustration of a woman with light skin and dark hair trying to open a locked glass door that has a sign showing women aren’t allowed.

source: purchased

the premise: From Goodreads:

“For women in tech, Silicon Valley is not a fantasyland where millions of dollars grow on trees. It’s a “Brotopia,” where men hold all the cards and make all the rules. Vastly outnumbered, women face toxic workplaces rife with discrimination and sexual harassment, where investors take meetings in hot tubs and network at sex parties.

In this powerful exposé, Bloomberg TV journalist Emily Chang reveals how Silicon Valley got so sexist despite its utopian ideals, why bro culture endures despite decades of companies claiming the moral high ground (Don’t Be Evil! Connect the World!)–and how women are finally starting to speak out and fight back.”

why I’m excited: My wife is a computer programmer and has some interesting stories about being a woman in tech, so this kind of story is interesting to me personally. And, I think everyone has an interest in understanding how Silicon Valley works, given how omnipresent tech is in our lives. This looks fascinating.

The Real Lolita: A Lost Girl, an Unthinkable Crime, and a Scandalous Masterpiece by Sarah Weinman

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

The Real Lolita Cover
cover description: A black and white photo of Sally Horner with a red filter. There are also two illustrations of moths.

source: purchased

the premise: From Goodreads:

“Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita is one of the most beloved and notorious novels of all time. And yet very few of its readers know that the subject of the novel was inspired by a real-life case: the 1948 abduction of eleven-year-old Sally Horner.

Weaving together suspenseful crime narrative, cultural and social history, and literary investigation, The Real Lolita tells Sally Horner’s full story for the very first time. Drawing upon extensive investigations, legal documents, public records, and interviews with remaining relatives, Sarah Weinman uncovers how much Nabokov knew of the Sally Horner case and the efforts he took to disguise that knowledge during the process of writing and publishing Lolita.

Sally Horner’s story echoes the stories of countless girls and women who never had the chance to speak for themselves. By diving deeper in the publication history of Lolita and restoring Sally to her rightful place in the lore of the novel’s creation, The Real Lolita casts a new light on the dark inspiration for a modern classic.”

why I’m excited: I’ve never read Lolita, but I’m fascinated by the cultural fascination with Lolita. Does that make sense? Anyway… I’m also fascinated by true crime, especially the ways that the kidnapping of white girls take over the media and cause massive ripple effects. This looks cool!

Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Empire of Sand Cover
cover description: A photo of an ornate curved knife against a red background. A starry pattern is visible around the corners of the image.

source: purchased

the premise: From Goodreads:

“The Amrithi are outcasts; nomads descended of desert spirits, they are coveted and persecuted throughout the Empire for the power in their blood. Mehr is the illegitimate daughter of an imperial governor and an exiled Amrithi mother she can barely remember, but whose face and magic she has inherited.

When Mehr’s power comes to the attention of the Emperor’s most feared mystics, she must use every ounce of will, subtlety, and power she possesses to resist their cruel agenda.

Should she fail, the gods themselves may awaken seeking vengeance…”

why I’m excited: This looks like fabulous fantasy. I’ve mentioned before how I have a soft spot for fantasy that invokes gods and religion (see: Jacqueline Carey’s Starless and G. Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen), so that part looks great; anything with deserts and magic and nobility and royalty and cruel empires is also fine by me. I can’t wait.

My Soul to Keep by Tananarive Due

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

My Soul to Keep Cover
cover description: A blood red sunset.

source: purchased

the premise: From Goodreads:

“When Jessica marries David, he is everything she wants in a family man: brilliant, attentive, ever youthful. Yet she still feels something about him is just out of reach. Soon, as people close to Jessica begin to meet violent, mysterious deaths, David makes an unimaginable confession: More than 400 years ago, he and other members of an Ethiopian sect traded their humanity so they would never die, a secret he must protect at any cost. Now, his immortal brethren have decided David must return and leave his family in Miami. Instead, David vows to invoke a forbidden ritual to keep Jessica and his daughter with him forever. Harrowing, engrossing and skillfully rendered, My Soul to Keeptraps Jessica between the desperation of immortals who want to rob her of her life and a husband who wants to rob her of her soul. With deft plotting and an unforgettable climax, this tour de force reminiscent of early Anne Rice will win Due a new legion of fans.”

why I’m excited: Everything about this premise looks creepy and great. Plus, who could resist that favorable a blurb from Stephen King? (The blurb from King appears on the cover and reads: “An eerie epic…bears favorable comparison to Interview with the Vampire. I loved this novel.”)

Modern Lovers by Emma Straub

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Modern Lovers Cover
Cover description: A bright turquoise and yellow cover that has lots of tiny illustrations of people walking around in the city.

source: purchased

the premise: From Goodreads:

“Friends and former college bandmates Elizabeth and Andrew and Zoe have watched one another marry, buy real estate, and start businesses and families, all while trying to hold on to the identities of their youth. But nothing ages them like having to suddenly pass the torch (of sexuality, independence, and the ineffable alchemy of cool) to their own offspring.

Back in the band’s heyday, Elizabeth put on a snarl over her Midwestern smile, Andrew let his unwashed hair grow past his chin, and Zoe was the lesbian all the straight women wanted to sleep with. Now nearing fifty, they all live within shouting distance in the same neighborhood deep in gentrified Brooklyn, and the trappings of the adult world seem to have arrived with ease. But the summer that their children reach maturity (and start sleeping together), the fabric of the adults’ lives suddenly begins to unravel, and the secrets and revelations that are finally let loose—about themselves, and about the famous fourth band member who soared and fell without them—can never be reclaimed.”

why I’m excited: This book was compared to the movie Almost Famous in promos, which, for all its flaws, is one of my favorite movies. Bands are great fiction fodder. This book sounds really fun.


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!