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

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  • 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

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  • 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.

Friday Bookbag, 10.19.18

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.

Since it’s been so long since a Friday Bookbag (er…that was in early August, to be exact), this will be a loosey-goosey, mega-stuffed, big ol’ omnibus post full of the books that have come and gone from my possession over the past couple months. No time to waste. Let’s dive in!


Sabrina and Corina by Kali Fajardo-Anstine

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Sabrina and Corina Coverthe premise: Sabrina and Corina is Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s debut collection of short stories, centered on Indigenous Latina women living in the American West. Her characters include mothers and daughters, sex workers and prisoners, ancestors and descendants.

why I’m excited: Sabrina and Corina doesn’t release until April 2019, but I was lucky enough to be approved for a review copy on Netgalley. I’m so excited for this one that it makes my fingertips tingle. I love the innovation and beauty happening in the short story collection space right now: it seems that more collections are being published by major presses than there have been in a long time. I’m thrilled that this one (with that gorgeous cover!) gets to see the light of day in mainstream publishing. Fajardo-Anstine is working with familiar short story themes of family, legacy, and death, but she populates them with settings and characters that feel fresh and timely in this climate. I just can’t wait for April, when you’ll all get to dive into this one with me. (It’s currently available for pre-order.)

Starless by Jacqueline Carey

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble IndieBound

34357122the premise: Khai has been training from birth to protect the Princess Zariya, in a world where gods walk among humans and magic reigns. When a secret and a dark god threaten to upend his world, Khai must journey to the ends of the earth, deep beneath starless skies, to save himself and Zariya both.

why I’m excited: I did a Ballyhoo about this one way back in May and I’m excited to say that I finally got to the top of the library waiting list for it. Jacqueline Carey is one of the most thrilling authors working in fantasy today: she transforms familiar fantasy tropes (fantasy, fated mates, broody warriors, fierce yet vulnerable princesses) into powerhouses of storytelling that rip my heart out of my chest and stomp on it. I’m a die-hard fan of her Kushiel novels and I can’t wait to lose myself in this new world of hers.

Just Kids by Patti Smith

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Just Kids Coverthe premise: Just Kids is rock legend Patti Smith’s memoir of her storied relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, beginning with her sickly, dreamy childhood in New Jersey and continuing with her bohemian years in New York City as an artist and poet crossing paths with legends from Janis Joplin to Bob Dylan to Lou Reed.

why I’m excited: This one feels like cheating to include, since I’ve read it so many times before, including for the most recent time last week (when I bought an e-book copy, which is why I’ve included it). It’s a memoir that has profoundly shaped my life: it’s hard not to feel inspired and awed by Smith’s work as an artist. Just Kids could so easily have been a self-hagiography–and frankly, Patti Smith has earned such an indulgence–but it’s not. It’s a slim, modest book that’s at its heart a love story, sometimes romantic and sometimes powerfully platonic, between her and Mapplethorpe. What a gift to get a peek into a New York arts scene that’s long since vanished, and what a gift that Smith is a talented enough writer to make that peek a work of literature instead of a mere voyeuristic exercise.

Incendiary Girls by Kodi Scheer

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Incendiary Girls Coverthe premise: Like Sabrina and Corina, Incendiary Girls is a short story collection that feels uniquely able to exist because of the short story renaissance. Incendiary Girls is a madcap, magical, humorous romp through modern life, with characters ranging from a woman whose mother has been reincarnated as a Thoroughbred mare to an unorthodox angel.

why I’m excited: I’m wary of short story collections that seem self-consciously irreverent, and this one’s wacky advertised premises definitely come across that way. But there’s something about it that captured me. Maybe it’s that cover, which is gloriously understated even as the stories seem like they’re anything but. Maybe it’s that it seems that Scheer’s characters are mostly women, a quality I always seek out in my fiction. Either way, I took a chance on it, and I’m looking forward to seeing whether or not it pays off.

American Street by Ibi Zoboi

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American Street Coverthe premise: American Street is a YA novel about a Haitian teenager, Fabiola Touissant, who finds herself uprooted with her family to harsh Detroit. She struggles to find her footing, but just as it seems she might finally do so, she faces a choice that could shatter everything.

why I’m excited: This book is an instant YA classic. It’s universally beloved by the book-tweeters I follow (shameless self-plug that I am also a book-tweeter) and I’m so excited to finally get the chance to read it. American Street seems to have everything I want in a contemporary YA story: a protagonist making the best of a bad situation, an identity crisis, a sharp look at the problems real teens face all over the world. (And a gorgeous cover, too.) Love, love, love.

We Were Mothers by Katie Sise

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We Were Mothers coverthe premise: In a picturesque, repressed, tight-knit suburban town, two families become entangled in a web of secrets around one daughter’s illicit encounter and another’s disappearance.

why I’m excited: Consider this yet another fix for my twisty-turny, Gone Girl-esque thriller habit. I’ll be honest: this one sounds like Big Little Lies-lite to me (and also like a less thoughtful version of Little Fires Everywhere), and I’m pretty sure I won’t love it…but like I said, it’s a fix. I love this kind of book, so I’ll reserve official judgment on its seemingly derivative elements till I read it.

On the Edge of Gone by Corinne Duyvis

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On the Edge of Gone Coverthe premise: A comet is scheduled to hit the earth in 2035. Denise, her sister, and her mother Iris are on their way to a temporary shelter in Amsterdam, but then Iris disappears and Denise’s drug-addicted mother seems in no hurry to reach the shelter. Luckily, Denise receives another opportunity to survive: to leave earth on a ship that will colonize other worlds after the comet hits. There’s just one catch: everyone on board must have a useful skill, but Denise is autistic, which she fears will disqualify her from a new life among the stars.

why I’m excited: Literally everything about this premise excites me. An imminent societal collapse that isn’t a grim-dark moral on how crappy humanity is, a setting in Amsterdam (more YA set in other countries that isn’t an “issue novel” about those countries, please), and an autistic protagonist who seems to have a great deal of agency. It’s interesting sci-fi with something to say about the world that feels fresh. Love. Can’t wait to start turning the pages of this one.

The Girl with the Red Balloon by Katherine Locke

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Girl with the Red Balloon Coverthe premise: Try reading that title and looking at that cover without humming “99 Luftballons” to yourself–you can’t. And just like the song, The Girl with the Red Balloon’s story hails from a divided Berlin. 16-year-old Ellie Baum accidentally warps to East Berlin in 1988, a city about to (almost literally) shatter. She falls in with the Balloonmakers, a secretive guild who use magic and balloons to help people escape over the wall. But it soon becomes clear that someone is using dark magic to manipulate history, putting Ellie at the center of a battle for the future.

why I’m excited: I can’t believe how untapped the Berlin Wall is as a setting for fiction, especially YA. It’s hard to imagine a more potent real-life event to set a story in. It feels more relevant today than ever, and it also serves as a potent metaphor for the battles over identity and selfhood that teenagers face every day. The Girl with the Red Balloon strikes me as genuinely innovative and interesting, a YA like no other I can think of. How wonderful.


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!

My favorite book covers of 2018 (so far)

“Never judge a book by its cover” is an uber-cliché; in fact, it’s such a boring and trite cliché that it’s spawned a whole second cliché that’s the opposite: “yes, do judge a book by its cover.” But we all do both anyway, right? Judge and not judge? It’s enough to give you a headache.

As with most clichés, the truth is somewhere in between. I try not to let a bad cover put me off an otherwise good book, especially since writers don’t usually have a say in their design. But it’s also true that a spectacular cover will embed a book in my mind, making me more likely to seek it out and less likely to forget it when I’m done.

2018 has been a year of spectacular covers in publishing, with more beautiful books than I could possibly hope to read in 9 or so months. That’s why I’ve narrowed my list down to my 5 favorite covers of books I’ve read this year so far. Let’s dig in!

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An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

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A flat image on a computer screen doesn’t do this cover justice–in person, it’s a glittering metallic–just like a book review can’t possibly do the novel justice. An American Marriage follows a Black couple, their relationship tumultuous but also passionate and strong, who are separated when the husband, Roy, is falsely accused and imprisoned for rape for years. His wife, Celestial, tries to pick up the pieces, and falls in love with her childhood friend, Andre. It’s a novel so star-crossed that it hurts to read, but it’s also vibrantly hopeful, full of vivid romantic and sensory detail that transported me completely into Roy, Celestial, and Andre’s world.

The cover design is simple but intriguing. The golden tree is beautiful, but the metallic finish makes it look a little like prison bars. Family is a major theme of the novel, so a tree on the cover is especially appropriate; its branches soar but there are no roots to speak of. The font, also, strikes me as looking a little bit like something you’d see in colonial America: perfect for a novel that speaks to the legacy of American slavery. All in all, that simple image belies a deeper meaning–just like the novel suggests that simple narratives aren’t always as they seem.

The Mars Room Cover

The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner

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The woman on the cover of The Mars Room looks vulnerable and ready to fight, diminutive but with an outsize attitude. The Mars Room is a vicious, blistering book about a woman named Romy Hall who’s incarcerated for life for killing her stalker. It’s morally complex but also simple at the same time: it posits that Romy is neither good or bad, but shades of grey; it also seems to posit that no one, even if they were bad, deserves the brutal dehumanization of prison.

The cover is as dark, gritty, and somehow alight as the Tenderloin district of San Francisco (where much of the novel is set). It’s grim but captivating. You know the woman in that photograph won’t take any shit, except, of course, for the mountains of shit that have already been shoveled her way. Both cover and novel are unforgettable.

Convenience Store Woman Cover

Convenience Store Woman by Sayata Muraka

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Convenience Store Woman is a charming short novel (almost novella-length) about Keiko Furukura, a woman in her 30s who devotes her entire life and self to working in a convenience store. Her friends and family are baffled as to why she chooses not to get married or get a “real” job, but for Keiko, the convenience store is all she needs. The novel is frank and observant, equal parts achingly sad and laugh-out-loud. It’s one of the best portrayals of an autistic character I’ve ever read. It’s sweet with sharp edges, never cloying or infantilizing.

I don’t have many deep things to say about this cover except that it’s completely adorable. The exquisite design of something as simple and ordinary as a rice  ball (a.k.a onigiri) seems to promise that the story within will be just as surprisingly lovely, and author Sayaka Murata delivers wholeheartedly.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation Cover

My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh

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Sometimes less is more. That’s both the philosophy of this cover and of My Year of Rest and Relaxation‘s unnamed heroine, who decides to drug herself to sleep for an entire year in her New York apartment in 2000. She’s disenchanted and rich and working with a psychiatrist so unbelievably unethical that it made me cringe; she doesn’t care about anything, which means, somehow, that she cares about everything. It’s a difficult book to read. For all its flat affect, it’s also extremely beautiful and emotional.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation is historical fiction set in a very recent past–the held-breath-that-no-one-knew-they-were-holding before September 11th, 2001 in New York City–which makes its cover design all the more clever. The painting is clearly historical, but the woman’s sardonic facial expression and the bold, hot-pink font speak of more recent times. The novel’s protagonist is described as a waif-like blonde, but I couldn’t help picturing her like the cover. The image gets its hooks in your mind and stays there, just like the story does.

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Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion by Michelle Dean

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In the nonfiction book Sharp, Michelle Dean documents the interlinking histories of “sharp” (i.e. brilliant, insightful, and sometimes caustic) women writers of the 20th century, including Joan Didion, Susan Sontag, and Dorothy Parker. It’s a book that feels both academic and dishy: it’s well-researched and -written enough for it to feel “classy,” but brings its claws out enough to be terrific fun to read. It makes you feel like you know the women Dean is writing about.

That’s why I think its cover is especially perfect. The illustrations are charming, done in their own distinctive style, but each woman is fully recognizable as herself. It encapsulates the work Dean has done to create a through-line between these talented and influential writers, and it certainly catches your eye on the shelf.


Did I include any of your favorites? What covers have made you swoon in 2018? I want to hear about them. Leave them in the comments (and feel free to link to your own blog posts!).