Book Review: SADIE by Courtney Summers

Sadie is a high-concept novel with a gritty punch. 19-year-old Sadie’s younger sister is murdered in a small town, and then Sadie herself disappears. A true crime podcast investigates the crime. (Or is it crimes?) Sadie feels both meta and granular, delightful and discomfiting, a story that uplifts forgotten teen girls without ever sinking into naïveté or blasé go, girl! empowerment. Courtney Summers’s prose is blistering and urgent, her tenterhooks-plotting a tour-de-force. This book is unforgettable.

Oh, and I don’t usually offer content warnings, since everyone’s triggers are different, but Sadie has some big ones, so:

Content warning: Sadie has graphic scenes of child abuse, rape, molestation, and pedophilia. If those are triggers for you, I’d recommend leaving this book on the shelf.

You can read my full review below.


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Sadie by Courtney Summers

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

  • publisher: Wednesday Books
  • publication date: September 4, 2018
  • length: 320 pages
  • cover price: $17.99

Restless teenage girls, reckless teenage girls. Teenage girls and their inevitable drama. Sadie had survived a terrible loss, and with very little effort on my part, I dismissed it. Her. I wanted a story that felt fresh, new and exciting and what about a missing teenage girl was that?

We’ve heard this story before.

–from Sadie by Courtney Summers

The first thing that struck me about Sadie was its intense sense of reality: how perfectly I could hear each line of dialogue, picture each setting, hunger for a luscious slice of apple pie, tremble with icy fear at memories that weren’t even mine. I don’t always read for reality–in fact, I often avoid it–but when a fiction author is so gifted at capturing the real world on the page, as Courtney Summers is here, magic happens. Reality becomes as vivid as CGI, as immersive as a first-person video game. Background becomes foreground. You learn the world all over again, like you fell through the looking glass last night as you slept.

Sadie is no fantasy, but reading it is fantastic.

Sadie’s lived her whole life in Cold Creek, a small town rich in natural beauty and poor in just about everything else. A high school dropout who lived for her younger sister, Mattie, Sadie’s world flies to pieces when Mattie is brutally murdered, the killer never caught. And then Sadie disappears, too.

Frustrated with local police’s tepid reaction, Sadie and Mattie’s grandmother calls in a true crime podcaster to investigate, and that’s when the novel begins: Sadie is told in alternating perspectives between the fictional podcast’s transcripts and Sadie’s own first-person narration. We’re always one step ahead of the podcast, trailing Sadie as she flees Cold Creek and seeks vigilante justice against a mysterious abuser. (Perhaps killer.)

But it soon becomes clear that Sadie isn’t telling us everything, even when she’s the one doing the telling. The tension between podcast and girl is a perfect deployment of unreliable narrators: ones that work in service of the story as well as in service of Sadie-the-novel’s brutal meta-commentary on the disposability and forgettability of girls and women.

This novel just…seethes. That’s the word that was on my tongue the whole time I read. I found that weirdly soothing, though. It was nice to be met with the same kind of feminist fury I’ve been feeling my whole life. Sadie‘s violence is relentless, but in it, I found tenderness, too. There’s tenderness in telling the truth.

Again, Sadie is fiction. But it’s remarkable how much it feels like it’s not.

So many stories of sexual and sex-based violence, especially pedophilia-related ones, are either innocence-lost stories or stories of facile revenge. They’re binary stories of either dis- or re-empowerment that place the onus of said empowerment on each girl and woman in isolation.

Meanwhile, Sadie, despite the fact that it’s named for one girl, never loses sight that Sadie is one of many girls. She’s never in isolation. You know from the first page that even if Sadie’s story ends happily (a big question mark!), hers is only one story. It would be her happy ending, not a happy ending. There are so many more. And that makes the novel burn much hotter and brighter.

It’s hard to overstate or overhype the skill Summers displays here. When half your novel is a podcast transcript, having an ear for pitch-perfect dialogue is mission critical; she nails it. (Sadie has a stutter, another detail that could have sent the dialogue awry, but it’s written flawlessly.) It’s almost hard to single out particular things Summers gets right because everything is so damn right, from characterization to plotting to her creative decisions around Sadie‘s risky, courageous ending.

I loved this book. It was the first I read in 2019, so I’m hoping that means something: for the quality of the books I’ll read this year, and also for my hopes for a world where Sadie might feel less urgent, less sharp, less real. It got 2019 off on a feminist, furious foot.

Someday I hope the message of this book will feel obsolete, but I’m certain its remarkable craft and storytelling never will be. ★★★★★

Books you might also enjoy:


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

Book Review: CROSS HER HEART by Sarah Pinborough

In Cross Her Heart, Lisa is a mother and career woman who’s just starting to open up after decades-old trauma she refuses to speak about. Ava is Lisa’s daughter, a frustrated teen who’s desperate to get some independence from her smothering mother. And Marilyn is Lisa’s best friend and coworker, a kind, generous woman who seems to have it all. Of course, this novel is a thriller, which means all of them are hiding secrets that threaten to tear them apart.

Cross Her Heart is a well-plotted thrill ride written in no-nonsense, clear prose that’s fun and easy to read even through the twistiest of turns. Unfortunately, I found a few of its tropes grating, and thought it was a tad too long, leaving me liking it but not loving it.

You can read my full review below.


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Cross Her Heart by Sarah Pinborough

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  • publisher: William Morrow (an imprint of HarperCollins)
  • publication date: September 4, 2018
  • length: 352 pages
  • cover price: $26.99

I was lonely for a long time. In some ways, I still am. I try to be kind to lonely people now. I’ve learned that kindness is important. What else is there, really?

Cross Her Heart, page 9*

Cross Her Heart moves at breakneck speed from the very first page, when a mysterious man identified only as Him in the chapter header discovers a note from the woman who’s leaving him. Bitch, he thinks. And with that, Cross Her Heart establishes that this is a story about the cruelty women endure, mostly at the hands of men, but sometimes at the hands of each other.

It alternates between the perspectives of three women (with a few additional perspectives thrown in here and there): mother Lisa, daughter Ava, and Lisa’s best friend Marilyn. Each is obviously holding something back, but Sarah Pinborough manages the withholding deftly, unspooling the plot just fast enough to keep you flipping pages. She writes each perspective in an open, first-person style that feels disarming in a thriller. From that disarmingly open quality comes the thrills.

Pinborough is an eminently talented writer. I was in awe of the lightness of her prose compared with the darkness of her subject matter and the density with which she needs to keep throwing us clues and red herrings. She’s written over 20 books between pen names, so it’s clear she knows what she’s doing. This was one of the first twisty-turny books I’ve ever read where I think I was able to keep a handle on the plot the entire time–that’s a good thing, since being surprised is a good feeling, but being confused is not.

Unfortunately, despite the quality of the writing and the obvious care with which the plot has been drawn, the actual events and characters of Cross Her Heart didn’t grab me, and in some cases, actively pissed me off.

First, Cross Her Heart has a sordid, mushy, nastiness to it. There’s a lot of unpleasant sex, vicious abuse, slimy office drama, incompetent cops, and opportunistic, cruel paparazzi. These details are the spice to a lot of successful thrillers, but in Cross Her Heart they feel not quite repellent nor fun enough to drive the plot. They clunked leadenly across the page, making me feel sad and bored instead of interested.

Cross Her Heart also has a strong bent of female empowerment to it that is at times glorious, but more often struck me as hollow and almost silly. The close female friendship between Lisa and Marilyn veers from cliché to interesting and then back to cliché; Ava is at times a believable teenager who’s understandably struggling to live with her mother’s strange moods, and at times a sullen kid who makes terrible, horror movie, don’t go upstairs, what the hell, are you kidding me!!!!-type decisions.

I think that while Pinborough excels at plot, she’s less good at characterization–at least in this novel–and that results in characters occasionally doing things that are wildly out of character for the sake of the next move in Cross Her Heart’s chess game.

At least the female characters feel at least little bit real, whereas the male characters range from cartoonishly evil to a cartoonishly good-hearted deus ex machina. It’s an intriguing flip from the usual thriller problem of terribly characterized women and just-okay men, but that doesn’t make it good writing.

Next, I’m going to give some very light spoilers in the paragraph below, because they’re important to my lukewarm reaction to this book. Skip if you’d like to go in totally cold.

Most frustratingly of all for me, towards the end of Cross Her Heart, there’s a distinct tone of lesbian panic, which fully spoiled the “girl power” qualities of the book. I’m not going to go into details, but when your gayest character is also the most evil, it’s going to rub me the wrong way. (Looking at you, Disney movies.) It’s not that you can’t have a queer baddie, but Cross Her Heart’s baddie seems to be evil partially because she’s queer and sexually frustrated, which, ugh.

/spoilers.

Lastly, Cross Her Heart is just slightly too long. It could definitely have done with a twist or two edited away; my nominee would be the final reveal, which removed some intriguing moral ambiguity and made it less satisfying. The pages still flew by, but the excessive length made Cross Her Heart‘s flaws more noticeable.

It’s silly to ding a book for following genre conventions; I love thrillers, Cross Her Heart is a thriller, and sordidness is a key element of thrillers. The taboo is part of the thrill. But I was frustrated at the particular sordid buttons Pinborough decided to push here. As competent and enjoyable as Cross Her Heart is, it lacks the spark that makes dirty secrets fun instead of just dirty.

I’m glad I read Cross Her Heart, but I just didn’t love it. I’d recommend it for people who are true thriller fans, but if your experience with the genre is primarily through crossover authors like Stephen King and Gillian Flynn, you might have a harder time with it.

For all its twists, Cross Her Heart still feels like a train on a straight track. Its thrills come from its breakneck speed and Pinborough’s obvious skill as a conductor, but there’s nothing truly special about the ride. ★★★☆☆


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

*Page numbers and quotes came from my advance reader copy, which is an uncorrected proof. These may be different in the final version of the book.

Book Review: USEFUL PHRASES FOR IMMIGRANTS by May-Lee Chai

I am having another week of feeling Extremely Not Well–it turns out chronic illnesses are, well, chronic! –which means I’m not able to give May-Lee Chai’s newest short story collection, Useful Phrases for Immigrants, the full review it deserves. I thought I’d do the next-best thing for this lovely book and write a shorter review instead.

Read it below!


Useful Phrases for Immigrants Cover.jpg

Useful Phrases for Immigrants by May-Lee Chai

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

  • publisher: Blair (an independent publisher)
  • publication date: October 23, 2018
  • length: 166 pages
  • cover price: $16.95

Like that, he felt a stab of ice shoot through his body. He knew in an instant, less than a heartbeat, his luck could change.

Useful Phrases for Immigrants, page 60, “The Body”

Useful Phrases for Immigrants is a slim and unassuming short story collection with oomph in its aftertaste; quiet but powerful in the way only truly experienced and confident writers can achieve. (Author May-Lee Chai is certainly experienced: Useful Phrases is her tenth book. I’ve previously read and loved her YA novel, Dragon Chica, about a girl struggling to adjust to life as a refugee in the U.S. after fleeing the Khmer Rouge regime with her family.)

Chai’s style is both understated and vivid, especially in my favorite stories in the collection, the titular “Useful Phrases for Immigrants,” “First Carvel in Beijing,” and “Shouting Means I Love You.” I particularly enjoyed how diverse Chai’s subjects are: nearly all are Chinese and/or Chinese American, and among them are gay and bi people, Taoists and Buddhists and Catholics, Californians and New Yorkers, the poor and middle class, country kids and urban ones, small children and wizened adults. (Most of the characters are women, something I also appreciate.) Rather than hammer home one single point about one single thing, Chai layers her conflicts like ambitious, gorgeous piano chords.

Useful Phrases for Immigrants exemplifies what good literary fiction can do: it broadens your understanding of what it means to feel human, or happy, or sad, or angry, or bitter, or delighted, or victorious, or often, a little of all of those things at once. It does this without feeling cloying or heavy. It’s a cliché of writing advice, but showing really does go farther than telling, and Chai is a master of showing. She doesn’t tell you what to pay attention to in each tableau; she just creates eight beautiful tableaus that you’ll find yourself thinking about for a long time afterwards.

I absolutely loved Useful Phrases for Immigrants. Even if you’re not sure if you’ll like it, at only 166 pages, it’s easy to take a risk on. ★★★★★


My copy of Useful Phrases for Immigrants came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

We need to talk about the CRAZY RICH ASIANS trilogy!

Crazy Rich Asians Movie Poster.jpg

Crazy Rich Asians burst into my consciousness this summer like a firework. I’d never heard of the novels, but the movie had left my friends and social media timelines positively gleeful. First, it was a rom com, a genre in need of a revival and refresher. Second, its primarily Asian cast made it a big step forward for Hollywood, where Asian and Asian American actors are usually relegated to stereotypical, un-sexy, un-romantic roles.

And lastly, most importantly: it was fun, at least as far as I heard. (I was drowning in wedding planning when it came out in theaters, so I missed it then, but I’m planning to rent it on streaming ASAP.)

The movie version of Crazy Rich Asians was opulent, sweet, sexy, fun, fashionable, and full of mouthwatering food. It was a hit at the box office and critically. It was a sensation.

So when I saw the novel that started it all–Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan–I snapped it up at my library as fast as I could. I clutched it in my grip on the way to the checkout counter like someone was going to snatch it from me, and as I walked home, I had a giddy, dizzy feeling like I’d just accomplished a covert operation.

(I’m kind of dramatic when it comes to books, you see.)

In truth, Crazy Rich Asians came out back in 2013, so I doubt anyone was going to mug me for it. But this series has been crazy popular since its release, and after reading the first book, it’s not hard to see why: they’re bitchy, gossipy, silly, escapist, ridiculous, and high on the hog, but they’re also whip-smart about politics, family, love, loss, and the ever-shifting role Asians play in a world where white people have traditionally reigned supreme–but don’t any longer.

So far I’ve read Crazy Rich Asians and the second novel in the trilogy, China Rich Girlfriend. I reviewed Crazy Rich Asians a few months ago, but the reason I’m throwing China Rich Girlfriend out to a discussion post instead of trying to articulate my feelings in a review is that…I had a lot of feelings.

The whole trilogy is clearly satire, but where the plot of Crazy Rich Asians was at least a little bit plausible in the real world, China Rich Girlfriend ups the ante to ridiculous heights. There are hushed-up murders, poisonings, last-minute trips to Paris ateliers, helicopters crashing weddings…you get the picture.

The truth is that I loved the first and second books in the trilogy, but if you think of my positive feelings as matter, I had a lot of squicky feelings that quelched those adoring feelings like anti-matter. The experience of reading them is fantastic, but I walked away  from the last page with a whole tangle of ambivalence and nothingness.

For every great zinger the books get off, there are bizarre moral equivalencies and mean jokes that make me recoil. For every genuinely sweet scene, there are scenes that I think are supposed to be sweet, but instead come off intensely creepy.

For example, I still haven’t fallen in love with Rachel and Nick, the couple at the center of the series, because they are simultaneously too perfect…and also terrible? There are nods to the fact that their obscene wealth (and the obscene wealth of those around them) is morally appalling when you consider how many people are starving and struggling around the world. But then they’ll turn around and say that at least rich people spend their money on quality things, whereas the poor and middle class buy stuff from sweatshops which just…perpetuates poverty? I’m genuinely uncertain whether this is a position Kwan agrees with or is skewering.

I don’t even know. It’s a lot. I think it would be a lot even if you’re not a pinko like I am. I don’t know who I’m supposed to be rooting for, and what’s supposed to be making fun of these ridiculous characters, and what’s supposed to be sympathetic to them.

I haven’t  read Rich People Problems yet, and I really want to, but I’m bracing myself for an even bigger tangle of feelings about it. I’m dying to know how the Kitty Pong and Astrid Leong subplots conclude, since I don’t really give a damn about Rachel and Nick. I’m looking forward to losing myself in this world of insane opulence, but also not looking forward to the conflicted feelings that this particular brand of escapism stirs up in me.

How many novels have I read in my life about “crazy rich” English, French, Italian, American (etc. etc.) people in my life? So many. And frankly, the fact that those books treat it as tacky to talk about wealth when the entire story and lives of the characters are defined by wealth is maybe even weirder than the way Crazy Rich Asians throws a party and rolls around in it.

So I’m sensitive to the fact that my knee-jerk reactions may not be fair ones.

Am I a snob? A prude? Do I need to just shut up and love the books, which are incredibly funny and well-written, instead of overthinking it? I don’t know, and that’s why we need to talk about Crazy Rich Asians, whether you’ve seen the movie, read the books, both, or neither.

What are your thoughts? How crazy is too crazy? Did you love them, hate them, or have mixed feelings like I did? Let’s try to avoid big spoilers, but if you simply must talk about the twists (so many twists!), go ahead and put SPOILERS in all caps or something first.

Have at it in the comments!


I checked out these novels at my local library and was in no way sponsored or compensated for this post.

Book Review: STARLESS by Jacqueline Carey

Starless is a wildly ambitious fantasy adventure about a world where stars were banished from the sky after conspiring against their sun-and-moons parents, sent to the earth as gods who play games with the lives of the mortals who worship them. A prophecy foretells a devastating apocalypse, but in the Sun-Blessed desert land of Zarkhoum, such doom seems far away: warrior wunderkind Khai is too busy learning to fight to defend the Sun to his Shadow, Princess Zariya, whom he’s never met. Of course the two ultimately end up on a high-stakes quest–this is a Jacqueline Carey novel, after all.

I adored this book for a million reasons, and it’s easily one of my favorites of the year. You can read my full review below.

This review contains spoilers. They are marked so you can skip over them if you want to go in completely cold.


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Starless by Jacqueline Carey

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble IndieBound

  • publisher: Tor Books
  • publication date: June 12, 2018
  • length: 592 pages
  • cover price: $26.99

I was nine years old the first time I tried to kill a man, and although in the end I was glad my attempt failed, I had been looking forward to the opportunity for quite some months.

Starless, page 1

Forgive me if you’ve heard this one before: a fated warrior hooks up with a motley crew to fulfill a prophecy and annihilate an ultimate evil. Just like that’s the plot of a thousand fantasy books before it, it’s basically the plot of Starless. But upon this sturdy scaffolding, Jacqueline Carey builds a fantasy that’s stunningly affecting and unique.

Starless follows Khai, a young and gifted warrior raised in the desert as a fated companion to Princess Zariya. Both born during a lunar eclipse, they are Shadow and Sun, respectively, with an emotional and physical bond no one can break. Starless is a long novel with so many different settings and twists that you’ll feel a different person at the end of it than you were at the beginning.

That’s a good thing, and it’s exactly why I (and I suspect many others) love epic fantasy novels when we might not tolerate such long books in other genres. There’s something so cathartic and pure about that journey from humble to hero, and with characters as lovely, heroic, and complex as Khai and Zariya, it’s an even more satisfying journey than usual.

If you’re already familiar with Carey, it’s probably because of her Kushiel novels. Kushiel’s Dart, the first installment, introduced the world to the unforgettable courtesan-spy Phèdre nó Delauney. I’m a die-hard fan of that series, and I picked up Starless looking for another fix of Carey’s sensual, intricate, unpredictable approach to plotting and world-building.

Kushiel’s Dart is known for being incredibly opulent and erotic, but I think its enduring draw lies in its goodness, almost a purity: despite its kinky, dark elements, it’s full of characters who love and seek to do good with their whole hearts. It’s a series I’ve been turning to a lot in a world that feels increasingly devoid of heroes.

To my surprise (at first worried, then pleasant), Carey takes Starless in a very different direction to Kushiel. Where those books dripped with sex and wealth and desire, Starless’s world is quieter, more stark, and more alien. The gods of Kushiel mostly watch over their own; the gods of Starless are capricious and even cowardly. The map of Kushiel is recognizable; Starless takes place in a holy (and literally starless) archipelago unlike any you’d find in our world.

Carey is clearly fascinated by the relationships between mortals and immortals, and that fascination comes across as just plain weird in Starless where it was more conventional in Kushiel. I think it’s a good kind of weird. Carey is a beloved author at the top of her game who can take big risks. They pay off.

Starless’s world is so intricate that it’s genuinely shocking to me that Carey just…came up with it, as opposed to unearthing it on a sacred tablet somewhere. Her clear inspirations range from the Middle East (complete with “veiled” women, though they veil to honor a fiery goddess and not because of Islam), to northern Europe, to the jungles of Australia and South America. But most of the cultures and histories of Starless have no clear inspiration at all. These details make unforgettable cameos and then disappear, almost as if Carey is showing off the depths of her imagination. I loved it.

Starless is also full of characters who in our world wouldn’t be considered white–there are lots of descriptions of different skin tones and hair textures, and the protagonists are described as “dark-skinned” with dark eyes–which is refreshing.

The descriptor I keep coming back to for Starless is rich: this book is a delicious, perfectly spiced, and filling meal. You don’t know how the chef made it but you can’t stop eating.

Most of all, I loved the attention Carey pays to sex and gender, which is unsurprising after Kushiel’s Dart (a true innovator in fantasy in this area) but still a novelty. What I’d like to talk about is something of a twist, so I’ve placed it behind a spoilers tag:

Highlight to read spoilers:

We find out about 1/5th of the way through the book that Khai was female at birth, but because of his status as a fated Shadow, was raised as a man while training in the desert. This is hidden from him until puberty, when his body starts to change. He ultimately develops a nonbinary identity that’s really nuanced and interesting and that felt completely true to the character.

I’m nonbinary myself and I want to buy this book for every other nonbinary or trans person I know. It’s something that’s integral to the plot and world without feeling like an after-school special “issue,” and the representation meant the world to me.

End spoilers.

There was one thing I didn’t like about Starless: Carey feeds into an unfortunate fantasy trope that grates on me, the one where fatness is equated with greed and weakness. Literally the only characters described as “fat” are portrayed as pathetic tricksters, monsters, and even child rapists. (She throws out weak allusions to other characters with “curves” who aren’t portrayed negatively, but the word “fat” definitely equals “bad” in this novel.) Fatness is not a sign of immorality! As a fat person, I was really disturbed that Carey leans on this when she’s so good at evading stereotype everywhere else. It’s infrequent enough that it didn’t ruin my enjoyment, but I wanted to mention it, since it’s a terrible flaw in an otherwise wonderful book.

Carey’s imagination is full of riches, and her skills as a writer have only strengthened in the many years since Kushiel’s Dart. This novel is an electric testament to what happens when you let fantasy be fantasy: the farther it gets from our own world (and the world of Tolkien-lite), the truer and more riveting it gets. It tugs on heartstrings and cuts right to the bone.

Starless is damn near flawless. ★★★★★

Related books you might also enjoy:


My copy of Starless came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD voted the #1 “Great American Read”: What do you think?

To Kill a Mockingbird Cover.JPGPBS recently undertook a weeks-long process involving polls and interviews to try and discover the top 100 most-loved books in America, a project they called “The Great American Read.” Now the results are in, with To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee occupying the top spot.

I find this project so fascinating because it’s not out to find the “best” book, per se–and I’m not convinced there is such a thing, anyway–but rather to find which books have been most well-loved and influential in Americans’ lives.

The list was dominated by books that are common on high school and middle school reading lists, including Jane Eyre (#10), 1984 (#18), Call of the Wild (#37), and War and Peace (#50).

There were plenty of newer and YA-oriented finalists too, including the Harry Potter series (#3), The Book Thief (#14), The Da Vinci Code (#33), The Hunger Games (#40), and the Twilight saga (#73).

twilight coverFinally, I was delighted to see the volume of sci-fi and fantasy novels on the list. I wasn’t surprised to see 1984 or the Lord of the Rings trilogy (#5), but I was surprised that the Outlander series (#2!!! wow), Game of Thrones (#48), and Ready Player One (#76) were all so well-loved. Further proof that despite these genres’ reputation as niche, fringe, geeky, and weird, they are in fact extremely popular and influential.

It was especially interesting to digest these results after writing yesterday’s rant about “canon” and why I think it’s silly to think of certain books as universal. I was struck by how few books I’ve read on this list, not just the ones by men (which was my main point yesterday) but also the ones by women: I think I’ve read maybe 25% of this list, and that’s being generous. I’ve never even read To Kill a Mockingbird. 

I don’t necessarily see that as a bad thing. Again, I’d much prefer to read to my own interests (life is short) and there are a great deal of books on that list that don’t look appealing to me. But it was interesting.

I would also love to see a Venn diagram of sorts about who voted for what. Could we cross-reference how many people voted for Atlas Shrugged (#20) and also, say, Their Eyes Were Watching God (#51) or The Notebook (#56)? I’m always interested in the range of people’s tastes and this seems like a treasure trove of data in that regard.

A big thank you to pop culture writer and podcaster Linda Holmes, whose tweets this morning brought this list to my attention.

So, what do you think about these results? Did some surprise you or even shock you? Did some make you roll your eyes? (As much as I try to reserve judgment about others’ tastes, there were definitely a few of those for me.) Did others delight you?

I want to hear about it, so please leave your thoughts in the comments.

Why I read women (or, why “universal” literature is bunk)

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

If you’ve spent any time on my blog–if so, thank you! –I think you’ll soon realize how few books by men I seek out, read, and write about. Scanning back a few months, the last two books by men that I’ve mentioned were Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan (in September) and November Road by Lou Berney, in a Friday Bookbag all the way back at the beginning of August.

It’s not that there aren’t books by men that I enjoy. To discount the artistic ability of nearly half the population would be absurd, right? (Ha.) It’s that, for me, reading is personal. I have always read what I want to read, and I want to read about women.

Luckily, at least in this regard, I grew up homeschooled. (The only formal schooling I got before college was one hellish year in kindergarten.) While the experience was a mixed bag, one thing I remain grateful for was that my mother did not insist I read classics, leaving me instead to read…well, everything else.

Before starting this blog, I ran a YA book blog titled “Bibliophilia – Maggie’s Bookshelf” (clearly, I’m not particularly creative with blog names) from 2009-2013 or so. I took it down some time ago–it was full of embarrassing coming-of-age content that I no longer wanted to broadcast to the web–but the experience was profound. It was my first exposure to ARCs, reviews, the ins and outs of publishing, and most importantly, the incredible diversity of books that are out there if you’re willing to find them.

Once, both for that blog and for my own enjoyment, I read 365 books in a year. It’s a great fun fact.

And yet I’ve never read Moby Dick. I’ve never read Lord of the Flies or 1984 or Lolita or Steinbeck or Twain or Dostoyevsky or any of the dozens more defining books of the English-language canon.

It’s not something I’m proud of, per se, because canons exist to create common ground, and no reader is an island. I may not have read Moby Dick but I have read countless other books by authors who care a lot about Moby Dick. To be so unfamiliar with their source material is a loss, not a gain.

But I still don’t know if I’ll ever read Moby Dick, because I value fun–or at the very least, human connection–in what I read, and Moby Dick strikes me as neither fun nor about the kind of humans I care for, although perhaps I would be interested in the whale. If that makes me a bad reader, so be it.

There is also, quite simply, so much else to read.

I once began a college essay with “I have never been fond of feminism as a way of being.” It was an essay for an English literature class; an essay on Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, no less. It’s an essay I look back on with a fair amount of embarrassment, but also, strangely, delight.

Because earlier that same year, I devoured Mockingjay, hunting an elusive release day copy at every bookstore in town. I would soon be introduced to Tris of Divergent. I already loved the kooky, Southern Belle-esque feminine wiles of Bleeding Violet by Dia Reeves, about a schizophrenic biracial girl who returns to a Lovecraftian Texas town to fight monsters. I was enthralled by Gemma Doyle, Libba Bray’s Victorian witchy badass who has a vulnerable side, too. I was addicted to Philippa Gregory’s “historical,” smutty novels about the women of Tudor England. Which is to say nothing of Katsa or Lauren Olamina or Offred, or–heaven help me–Bella Swan, or Merricat and Constance of We Have Always Lived in the Castle itself, or the dozens of other intense, prickly, complex heroines who have profoundly shaped my life.

I am delighted by my crappy college essay because it has the broken-clock quality of understanding that feminism, to me, is not a way of being, at least not in any cohesive sense. It is merely–and perhaps that is the wrong word–merely the acknowledgment that the lives of women and nonbinary people are not second-rate. (Revolutionarily.)

Their stories aren’t second-rate, either, something I must have understood already, based on my tastes. Based, as well, on my analysis of Jackson’s creepy, idiosyncratic, lovely novel about two sisters, an uncle, and a sugar bowl. I still think that analysis is quite good; I found that novel to be deadly serious, and still do, just as I find the lives of young girls everywhere to be deadly serious.

If I were to assemble a personal canon, here are the novels I would place most prominently within it:

  • The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
  • Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler
  • History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund
  • Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters
  • Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson
  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
  • The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory
  • and, yes, We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson.

It is not the canon. It is a canon, and I am always re-shaping it. It is a key to my heart and also, somehow, my heart itself. I encourage you to develop your own.

My life is not second-rate. My experiences are not second-rate. And neither of the stories of other oft-forgottens, especially the stories of Black women, Indigenous women, and other women of color. I am always reading–devouring–stories that affirm that truth, however frivolous they seem. (In fact, the more frivolous, the better.) This is an act of self-love and an act of love for the universe.

It is not that I find the male literary canon to be irrelevant. It is that it is a treasure that already has a home and a prominent shelf to itself.

And I am looking to find treasures of my own.