My favorite books of 2019 so far

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

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

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

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

Sadie by Courtney Summers

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

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

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

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

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

White Dancing Elephants by Chaya Bhuvaneswar

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

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

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

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

The Collected Schizophrenias by Esmé Weijun Wang

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

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

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

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

The Proposal by Jasmine Guillory

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

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

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

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

Monday’s Not Coming by Tiffany D. Jackson

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

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

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

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

Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson

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

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

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


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

Book Review: WHITE DANCING ELEPHANTS by Chaya Bhuvaneswar

I love short story collections, but they’re devilishly tricky to review. Luckily, Chaya Bhuvaneswar’s debut collection, White Dancing Elephants, makes it easy for me: every single story is a knockout, cohering into a whole even greater than the sum of each part. Spanning continents, centuries, societies, religions, languages, genders, and sexualities, White Dancing Elephants offers up a profoundly moving series of observations about what it means to be alive (and sometimes dead), in some of the most beautiful prose I’ve read lately. Fans of the short stories of Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, and Jhumpa Lahiri won’t want to miss this one, though this collection is far from a mere imitation of those authors: with White Dancing Elephants, Bhuvaneswar forges terrific new ground all her own.

You can read my full review below.


whitedancingelephantscover

White Dancing Elephants by Chaya Bhuvaneswar

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  • publisher: Dzanc Books
  • publication date: October 9, 2018
  • length: 208 pages

Two years ago, when I went back to Agra, India, at the age of twenty-two, to visit my grandparents and let two of my uncles set up my marriage, my ex-girlfriend Lauren, whom I work with now on a daily basis, came after me, hoping to stop me from giving in.

–from the story “Adristakama,” in White Dancing Elephants by Chaya Bhuvaneswar

I always forget how much scaffolding goes into making a good story until I read–or attempt to write–a short story. A novel (or even a novella) has so much room for curtains and cover-ups, words that smooth over worldbuilding and stakes in order to keep us fully immersed in the fiction. A short story does not.

Authors of short stories must hit a bullseye every time in order to be successful: they need to choose a premise that’s exactly the right size for the story, peopled by the right number of characters, made meaningful by the right array of metaphors and themes and big reveals. One wrong move and the spell is broken.

Assembling a collection is even harder. The stories must not only work well on their own, but add meaning to each other. They must be unified into something that’s more than just a collection of pretty items in a shoebox–something more like a thoughtful exhibit at a museum, something you’d remember for a long time.

I was reminded of all these difficulties because White Dancing Elephants makes it look absolutely effortless. It’s a high wire act that its author, physician and writer Chaya Bhuvaneswar, might as well be performing at ground level for all it seems to test her.

It’s hard to say what, exactly, unifies the stories of White Dancing Elephants, except that they are unified. The titular story (also the first one in the collection) follows a woman struggling with a miscarriage. It’s trippy and surreal, but not self-consciously so, a watercolor-y portrait of pain and dreaming.

From there the collection opens up into a riot of color, idea, sound, humor, violence, ache. “Talinda” is vicious and tender by turns, chronicling a toxic friendship poisoned by cancer, an affair, and overwhelming, terribly attentive cruelty. “A Shaker Chair,” my least favorite story in the collection (but still a damn interesting one) is also about two women determined to hurt each other, but this time it’s a black biracial therapist and her Indian client. It probes at the ways abuse, prejudice, and sex intertwine, especially at how Asian anti-Blackness and Black xenophobia work in frustrating tandem, neither sin of mistrust cancelling out the other.

My favorite story comes near the midpoint and is also, I believe, the shortest. “Neela: Bhopal, 1984” explores the “world’s worst industrial disaster” (the 1984 chemical leak at the Union Carbide pesticide plant) in language that’s far from the clinical and numerical, the way it’s mainly written about in the U.S. today. A girl goes outside to play and does not come home. Bhuvaneswar handles the material with great tenderness and sharpness both, managing to avoid a simple environmentalist morality play in favor of something more spiritual, piercing, and indicting.

I can’t decide if Bhuvaneswar’s style is deceptively simple or simply deceptive: she’s a master of storytelling sleights-of-hand, focusing your attention on the details so that the full emotional weight of each story sneaks up on you right at the end, without feeling like a cheap “gotcha.” I don’t think I’ve ever read a book so full of revelations.

She also writes with incredible specificity, name-dropping brand names and place names and disorders and configurations of queerness. This would feel less interesting if the stories were obviously autobiographical, but they’re not: in addition to “Neela: Bhopal, 1984,” there’s “Heitor,” a story about a Portuguese slave, and “Jagatishwaran,” about an artist living with schizophrenia in an Indian city wandering between a brothel and his fraught family home.

You can feel how precious each story is to Bhuvaneswar, and because their subject matter is so diverse, the effect is one of intense empathy. Perhaps this is what unifies White Dancing Elephants so well: an intense love and attention paid to the margins, wherever they may be.

It also helps that White Dancing Elephants goes out on such a high note. The final story, “Adristakama,” about a star-crossed lesbian couple fighting culture clash, but even more than the culture clash, fighting the fear of loving and being loved freely that I think we all hold inside, is so beautiful I could do nothing but read it again once I finished.

Lastly, if you’re tired of the way American publishing houses market the work of South Asian writers–flowery language, emphasis on spices, lots of images of tea and henna and lotuses and such–you’ll find a lot to love in Bhuvaneswar’s sly commentary about writing and publishing.

In “The Bang Bang,” a father speaks Sanskrit at an open mic and then gives up his family in exchange for literary recognition (and no small amount of tokenism); it’s a darkly funny and sharp critique of publishing as well as being a powerful story about family. Other stories also draw from this well: one’s about a writer on a retreat who’s processing her unsatisfying marriage (“Chronicle of a Marriage, Foretold”; it’s also an element in “Talinda.”

I haven’t even scratched the surface of the stories in this book, nor what they meant to me. How could I? I adored this book. It’s going on my shelf right next to Runaway by Alice Munro, another favorite short story collection marked by its empathy, its vision, its deep sadness.

Chaya Bhuvaneswar is a writer of tremendous power, skill, and gift; her work is visionary and experimental without sacrificing readability. (I tore through each story, barely pausing for breath.) White Dancing Elephants is simply dazzling. ★★★★★

Standout stories: “Jagatishwaran,” “The Bang Bang,” “Neela: Bhopal, 1984,” “Adristakama”

Content warning: White Dancing Elephants contains a graphic rape scene in the story “Orange Popsicles” (highlight to read). It is also substantially about infertility, abuse (including towards disabled people), and bigotry in ways that may be triggering. Read with caution if you have those triggers.

Books you might also enjoy:


I received a copy of White Dancing Elephants from the author in exchange for an honest review. I received no other compensation and opinions are entirely my own.

Friday Bookbag, 2.1.19

FridayBookbag

Friday Bookbag is a (semi-)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’m skipping over the whole pile of books I’ve bought since the last time I put up a Friday Bookbag (in October! Whew!). Instead I’m spotlighting a couple of short story collections I’ve received for review recently. Let’s dive in!


White Dancing Elephants by Chaya Bhuvaneswar

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

White Dancing Elephants Cover.jpgsource: a copy from the author

the premise: Says the back cover:

A woman grieves a miscarriage, haunted by the Buddha’s birth. An artist with schizophrenia tries to survive hatred and indifference in small-town India by turning to the beauty of sculpture and dance. A brief but intense affair between two women culminates in regret and betrayal.

It’s a collection of seventeen stories that centers on women of color, especially queer women of color, trying to survive in a violent world.

why I’m excited: I’m a lesbian, and as much as I love happy portrayals of women loving other women, I’m also a sucker for more complex stories about queer women in the world. White Dancing Elephants promises to be that kind of complex, interesting, diverse read–diverse both in the shorthand sense of not white, not straight and also diverse in the way short story collections are always diverse: an assemblage of different perspectives and approaches to a theme. Where a novel digs deep, a short story collection can go wide. I’m excited about this one.

Mothers: Stories by Chris Power

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Mothers Cover.jpgsource: a copy from the publisher, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, won in a contest

the premise: From the inside flap (can you tell I’ve given up trying to summarize short story collections on my own? there’s just too much much in them):

Ranging from remote English moors to an ancient Swedish burial ground to a hedonistic Mexican wedding, the stories in Mothers lay bare the emotional and psychic damage of life, love, and abandonment.

It’s apparently “braided through” with overarching stories about Eva, “a daughter, wife, and mother, whose search for a self and a place of belonging tracks a devastating path through generations.”

why I’m excited: Well, everything I said about short story collections above still applies here: I just love the experiments with language and storytelling they enable. For another, I love stories about mothers and daughters. That’s not the entirety of the collection, but it’s obviously a critical portion, given the title and repeated stories about Eva. And as I’ve written about extensively before, I prefer to read stories about women. Those will always be the most interesting, precious stories to me, given how often they’re sidelined. I’m curious what Power’s approach will be to this collection, given that he’s a man writing a very feminine-coded book (the cover’s even pink!). I’m curious how he will treat his characters. It could go wrong, or it could go very right! I’m excited to find out which it is.


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!