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

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

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

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

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

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

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

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

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

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

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

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

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


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

Book Review: BABY TEETH by Zoje Stage

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

You can read my full review below.


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

Baby Teeth by Zoje Stage

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

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

–from Baby Teeth by Zoje Stage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reviews and books you might also enjoy:


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

Book Review: THE PARIS WIFE by Paula McLain

Paula McLain’s bestselling 2011 novel explores Ernest Hemingway’s first marriage, to Hadley Richardson. Told from Hadley’s perspective, it narrates their courtship, marriage, and eventually Hemingway’s affair in Paris that drove the two apart. It’s a gorgeous and melancholy novel and I enjoyed it a lot, even though I wish it reckoned a little more deeply with Hemingway’s toxic legacy and his (to me) inexcusable treatment of Hadley.

For anyone who missed it during its first round of critical acclaim, I highly recommend The Paris Wife for historical fiction lovers. You can read my full review below.


The Paris Wife Cover
cover description: A woman in a blue dress sits at a café table with a man in a gray suit.

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

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  • publisher: Ballantine Books (an imprint of Penguin Random House)
  • publication date: hardcover in 2011, paperback in 2012
  • length: 368 pages

It would be the hardest lesson of my marriage, discovering the flaw in this thinking. I couldn’t reach into every part of Ernest and he didn’t want me to. He needed me to make him feel safe and backed up, yes, the same way I needed him. But he also liked that he could disappear into his work, away from me. And return when he wanted to.

–from The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

Biographical fiction always struggles to reconcile accuracy with art. Too accurate, and it might as well be a biography; too much artistic license, and it feels tawdry. That’s why I was so pleasantly surprised by The Paris Wife, which strikes exactly the right balance of the two.

The novel spans from Hadley’s childhood through her early 30s, which makes it all the more impressive that it’s never dry or documentary-like. We quickly learn that her father died by suicide; her mother and sister stifle her. She’s a skilled pianist who’s too listless to seek out a career.

She’s in her late 20s, watching life pass her by, when she meets a ferociously charming but troubled Ernest Hemingway on a visit to Chicago. It’s easy to see why sparks fly between them: their relationship is never artist/muse, but rather a mutual life raft for two unhappy people. The problem is that once they’re married, Ernest refuses to stay afloat.

My bias: I loathe the real-life Ernest Hemingway. I think his writing is fine; I find the mythology of him absolutely poisonous, and ultimately, I think The Paris Wife falls right into that trap: McLain doesn’t sugarcoat Hemingway’s bad behavior, but she also never quite lets him take the full force of the blame. His mental illness, his abusive upbringing, and his genius are always there to take the fall. I wish they weren’t.

Meanwhile, McLain’s characterization of Hadley is subtle and lovely. Hadley is traditional, introverted, unfashionable, and serious; she’d rather be a stay-at-home mother than an artist in her own right, which makes her feel guilty and out of place in modish 1920s Paris. Most historical fiction protagonists chafe against the restraints of their time; Hadley, on the other hand, seems to want to move backwards. It’s an intriguing change of pace.

From the beginning, Hadley is all in on her marriage. She is honest, supportive, and vulnerable with Ernest in the way that you absolutely need to be with your spouse in order to make a marriage work. Ernest, on the other hand, always has one foot out. He belittles her, lies to her, spends her trust fund unwisely, is repeatedly unfaithful, and always seems to be looking for a better option. He loves her, but he’s bad at it. Instead of choosing to be better, he sabotages.

The Paris Wife is peppered with occasional short italicized chapters told from Ernest’s perspective, about how sorry and conflicted he is. I can’t help but think that if The Paris Wife were a pure work of fiction, we wouldn’t have gotten those chapters. We would have been content to see the marriage through Hadley’s eyes only, to feel sad that sometimes we fall in love with people who change our lives but are ultimately not good for us, and to get catharsis when the marriage dissolves at the end. (Historical spoiler, I guess.)

Instead we get too much about Ernest, most frustratingly in a stilted epilogue. That’s the trouble with biographical fiction: no matter how much more I wanted of Hadley, the inevitable truth is that the most notable thing about her was always Ernest. It makes sense that McLain always keeps one eye trained on him, but it chafes anyway.

The Paris Wife is terrific: the very best of its category. It’s just funny how a piece of fiction this good can leave you with a bad taste in your mouth about the facts. ★★★★☆

Reviews and books you might also enjoy:


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

Friday Bookbag, 6.14.19

FridayBookbag

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

This weekend my wife and I are looking forward to some fun Father’s Day plans with my father-in-law (on Saturday) and with my dad (on Sunday). It’s not going to leave a lot of time for reading, but it’s putting a sunny spin on my next few days nonetheless. And if Father’s Day is a difficult day for you, as Mother’s Day very much is for me, I hope you take excellent care of yourself this weekend and get to curl up with the very best books and a good cup of tea.

I’m even more excited than usual about the books I nabbed this week. Let’s dive in!


Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape by Jenna Miscavige Hill (with Lisa Pulitzer)

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Beyond Belief Cover
cover description: a young white blonde girl in white robes smiles at the camera in what appears to be a family photo.

the premise: From Goodreads:

“Jenna Miscavige was raised to obey. As niece of the Church of Scientology’s leader David Miscavige, she grew up at the center of this controversial organization. At 21, she made a break, risking everything she’d ever known and loved to leave Scientology once and for all. Now she speaks out about her life, the Church, her escape, going deep inside a religion that, for decades, has been the subject of fierce debate and speculation worldwide.

Piercing the veil of secrecy that has shrouded the world of Scientology, this insider reveals unprecedented firsthand knowledge of the religion, its rituals and its mysterious leader—David Miscavige.”

why I’m excited: I’ve been on a kick of consuming content about cults niche movements this month. (Which is part of a broader pattern of me lapping this stuff up.) I’m currently obsessed with NXIVM, which shares a lot of similarities with Scientology, though Scientology has yet to implode quite so spectacularly. It’s always brave to write a memoir about a troubled childhood, and I think Miscavige has been particularly brave to write this one. I look forward to reading it.

Behind the Throne: A Domestic History of the British Royal Household by Adrian Tinniswood

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Behind the Throne Cover
cover description: an illustration of Queen Elizabeth I being carried in a litter.

the premise: From Goodreads:

“Monarchs: they’re just like us. They entertain their friends and eat and worry about money. Henry VIII tripped over his dogs. George II threw his son out of the house. James I had to cut back on the alcohol bills.

In Behind the Throne, historian Adrian Tinniswood uncovers the reality of five centuries of life at the English court, taking the reader on a remarkable journey from one Queen Elizabeth to another and exploring life as it was lived by clerks and courtiers and clowns and crowned heads: the power struggles and petty rivalries, the tension between duty and desire, the practicalities of cooking dinner for thousands and of ensuring the king always won when he played a game of tennis.

A masterful and witty social history of five centuries of royal life, Behind the Throne offers a grand tour of England’s grandest households.”

why I’m excited: I simultaneously think that the British monarchy is antiquated BS that UK citizens shouldn’t have to foot the bill for…and am completely fascinated by it, rabidly consuming royal content (fictional and…even more fictional) from the Netflix series The Crown to Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl. I have always wondered about the practicalities of keeping monarchs happy, and this looks like a fun peek behind that curtain.

A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories by Lucia Berlin

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

A Manual for Cleaning Women Cover
cover description: A housekeeper’s key against a reddish-pink background.

the premise: From Goodreads:

“A Manual for Cleaning Women compiles the best work of the legendary short-story writer Lucia Berlin. With the grit of Raymond Carver, the humor of Grace Paley, and a blend of wit and melancholy all her own, Berlin crafts miracles from the everyday, uncovering moments of grace in the laundromats and halfway houses of the American Southwest, in the homes of the Bay Area upper class, among switchboard operators and struggling mothers, hitchhikers and bad Christians. Readers will revel in this remarkable collection from a master of the form and wonder how they’d ever overlooked her in the first place.”

why I’m excited: I’m always looking for more short fiction to read, and I particularly love this sort of margins-of-society short fiction. And I super-particularly love what writers from the ’50s-’80s were doing with the form, which was when Berlin was writing. (She was born in 1936 and passed away in 2004.) This looks great.

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays by Alexander Chee

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel Cover
cover description: a tiny black and white photo of the author sits slightly off center against a red background.

the premise: From Goodreads:

“How to Write an Autobiographical Novel is the author’s manifesto on the entangling of life, literature, and politics, and how the lessons learned from a life spent reading and writing fiction have changed him. In these essays, he grows from student to teacher, reader to writer, and reckons with his identities as a son, a gay man, a Korean American, an artist, an activist, a lover, and a friend. He examines some of the most formative experiences of his life and the nation’s history, including his father’s death, the AIDS crisis, 9/11, the jobs that supported his writing—Tarot-reading, bookselling, cater-waiting for William F. Buckley—the writing of his first novel, Edinburgh, and the election of Donald Trump.

By turns commanding, heartbreaking, and wry, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel asks questions about how we create ourselves in life and in art, and how to fight when our dearest truths are under attack.”

why I’m excited: I’ve heard nothing but glowing things about this book, and I also love this author’s Twitter presence. I’ve been digging essay collections lately and I hope this one really blows my socks off.

Slipping: Stories, Essays, and Other Writing by Lauren Beukes

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Slipping Cover
cover description: an anatomical illustration of a heart against an electric blue background.

the premise: From Goodreads:

“In her edgy, satiric debut collection, award-winning South African journalist and author Lauren Beukes (The Shining Girls, Moxyland) never holds back. Nothing is simple and everything is perilous when humans are involved: corruption, greed, and even love (of a sort).

A permanent corporate branding gives a young woman enhanced physical abilities and a nearly-constant high
Recruits lifted out of poverty find a far worse fate collecting biohazardous plants on an inhospitable world
The only adult survivor of the apocalypse decides he will be the savior of teenagers; the teenagers are not amused.

From Johannesburg to outer space, these previously uncollected tales are a compelling, dark, and slippery ride.”

why I’m excited: This really blends my current interest in short story collections and essays, doesn’t it? This book feels like a project Neil Gaiman would do, or Margaret Atwood. It looks funny and sharp and memorable. Even if I don’t like this, exactly, I know I’ll love the boldness. I’m excited.


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

Friday Bookbag, 6.7.19

FridayBookbag

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

I missed Friday Bookbag last week so this is an extra-super-duper stuffed version, full of some of the most exciting books I’ve bought in awhile. I’ve been enjoying the nice weather we’ve been having here in the Twin Cities, so I’m ready to get some serious summer reading done. (In fact, I might grab my Kindle and head down to the patio as soon as I’m finished writing this.)

Let’s dive in!


Tampa by Alissa Nutting

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Tampa Cover
cover description: A closeup of a buttonhole on a pink shirt. It’s deliberately styled to look like labia/a vagina.

the premise: From Goodreads:

“Celeste Price is an eighth-grade English teacher in suburban Tampa. She’s undeniably attractive. She drives a red Corvette with tinted windows. Her husband, Ford, is rich, square-jawed, and devoted to her.

But Celeste’s devotion lies elsewhere. She has a singular sexual obsession—fourteen-year-old boys. Celeste pursues her craving with sociopathic meticulousness and forethought; her sole purpose in becoming a teacher is to fulfill her passion and provide her access to her compulsion. As the novel opens, fall semester at Jefferson Jr. High is beginning.

In mere weeks, Celeste has chosen and lured the lusciously naive Jack Patrick into her web. Jack is enthralled and in awe of his teacher, and, most important, willing to accept Celeste’s terms for a secret relationship—car rides after school; rendezvous at Jack’s house while his single father works late; body-slamming encounters in Celeste’s empty classroom between periods.

Ever mindful of the danger—the perpetual risk of exposure, Jack’s father’s own attraction to her, and the ticking clock as Jack leaves innocent boyhood behind—the hyperbolically insatiable Celeste bypasses each hurdle with swift thinking and shameless determination, even when the solutions involve greater misdeeds than the affair itself. In slaking her sexual thirst, Celeste Price is remorseless and deviously free of hesitation, a monstress driven by pure motivation. She deceives everyone, and cares nothing for anyone or anything but her own pleasure.”

why I’m excited: This is a satire, a sort of gender-swapped Lolita that examines the way we view the vulnerability of young boys and young girls differently. It looks like it’s going to be a very challenging read, but I’ve been intrigued by it ever since it came out in 2013, so when the ebook came on sale, I finally decided to take the chance. Not sure if I’ll like it, but “like” might not be the right metric to use here anyway, since this novel is so deliberately inflammatory.

The Wangs vs. The World by Jade Chang

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

The Wangs vs The World Cover
cover description: a gold background with red circles of varying shades forming an irregular shape in the middle.

the premise: From IndieBound:

“The Wangs vs. the World is an outrageously funny tale about a wealthy Chinese-American family that “loses it all, then takes a healing, uproarious road trip across the United States” (Entertainment Weekly). Their spectacular fall from riches to rags brings the Wangs together in a way money never could. It’s an epic family saga and an entirely fresh look at what it means to belong in America.”

why I’m excited: This is being marketed as similar to Crazy Rich Asians, a book I didn’t always love but was definitely always entertained by. A road trip story, family story, rags to riches story, healing story, funny story? That all sounds pretty great to me, and I’m really happy to see this recent crop of humorous (or at minimum, bittersweet rather than just plain tragic) novels about Asian American families getting traction in publishing. Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong had a somewhat similar vibe and I really dug it.

All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

All Grown Up Cover
cover description: a stylized drawing of a woman’s face, with skyscrapers reflected in her sunglasses.

the premise: From Barnes & Noble’s site:

“Who is Andrea Bern? When her therapist asks the question, Andrea knows the right things to say: she’s a designer, a friend, a daughter, a sister. But it’s what she leaves unsaid—she’s alone, a drinker, a former artist, a shrieker in bed, captain of the sinking ship that is her flesh—that feels the most true. Everyone around her seems to have an entirely different idea of what it means to be an adult: her best friend, Indigo, is getting married; her brother—who miraculously seems unscathed by their shared tumultuous childhood—and sister-in-law are having a hoped-for baby; and her friend Matthew continues to wholly devote himself to making dark paintings at the cost of being flat broke.

But when Andrea’s niece finally arrives, born with a heartbreaking ailment, the Bern family is forced to reexamine what really matters. Will this drive them together or tear them apart? Told in gut-wrenchingly honest, mordantly comic vignettes, All Grown Up is a breathtaking display of Jami Attenberg’s power as a storyteller, a whip-smart examination of one woman’s life, lived entirely on her own terms.”

why I’m excited: I love this kind of personal/family drama. Reading about other people’s baggage makes my own a little more tolerable. Plus, this one looks funny as well as poignant, which is always a nice quality.

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue Cover
cover description: An old fashioned portrait of a young white man in fancy clothes. The title is in a modern cartoonish font and there are tiny illustrations of cards, a ship, a violin, and more.

the premise: From Goodreads:

“Henry “Monty” Montague was born and bred to be a gentleman, but he was never one to be tamed. The finest boarding schools in England and the constant disapproval of his father haven’t been able to curb any of his roguish passions—not for gambling halls, late nights spent with a bottle of spirits, or waking up in the arms of women or men.

But as Monty embarks on his Grand Tour of Europe, his quest for a life filled with pleasure and vice is in danger of coming to an end. Not only does his father expect him to take over the family’s estate upon his return, but Monty is also nursing an impossible crush on his best friend and traveling companion, Percy.

Still it isn’t in Monty’s nature to give up. Even with his younger sister, Felicity, in tow, he vows to make this yearlong escapade one last hedonistic hurrah and flirt with Percy from Paris to Rome. But when one of Monty’s reckless decisions turns their trip abroad into a harrowing manhunt that spans across Europe, it calls into question everything he knows, including his relationship with the boy he adores.”

why I’m excited: If you’re not excited about that description, then I don’t know what to tell you. Check your wrist for a pulse? This looks FANTASTIC, with a legion of glowing reviews to back it up. I can’t wait to dig in.

All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

All the Ugly and Wonderful Things Cover
cover description: A field of wheat under a starry sky.

the premise: From Goodreads:

“As the daughter of a meth dealer, Wavy knows not to trust people, not even her own parents. Struggling to raise her little brother, eight-year-old Wavy is the only responsible “adult” around. She finds peace in the starry Midwestern night sky above the fields behind her house. One night everything changes when she witnesses one of her father’s thugs, Kellen, a tattooed ex-con with a heart of gold, wreck his motorcycle. What follows is a powerful and shocking love story between two unlikely people that asks tough questions, reminding us of all the ugly and wonderful things that life has to offer.”

why I’m excited: This looks like it will either be very satisfying or absolutely terrible. I decided to take a chance because I like reading about characters who need to take care of their younger siblings. I lived in an area torn up by meth for years so I’m always interested in reading stories about that, too. Describing the boyfriend as having a “heart of gold” is the biggest red flag here, but hopefully that’s just the description. Fingers crossed that the actual book is much more nuanced.

The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

the premise: From Goodreads:

The Poppy War Cover
cover description: A woman firing a bow. The illustrations and font on the cover have a smoky, ashy look.

“When Rin aced the Keju, the Empire-wide test to find the most talented youth to learn at the Academies, it was a shock to everyone: to the test officials, who couldn’t believe a war orphan from Rooster Province could pass without cheating; to Rin’s guardians, who believed they’d finally be able to marry her off and further their criminal enterprise; and to Rin herself, who realized she was finally free of the servitude and despair that had made up her daily existence. That she got into Sinegard, the most elite military school in Nikan, was even more surprising.

But surprises aren’t always good.

Because being a dark-skinned peasant girl from the south is not an easy thing at Sinegard. Targeted from the outset by rival classmates for her color, poverty, and gender, Rin discovers she possesses a lethal, unearthly power—an aptitude for the nearly-mythical art of shamanism. Exploring the depths of her gift with the help of a seemingly insane teacher and psychoactive substances, Rin learns that gods long thought dead are very much alive—and that mastering control over those powers could mean more than just surviving school.

For while the Nikara Empire is at peace, the Federation of Mugen still lurks across a narrow sea. The militarily advanced Federation occupied Nikan for decades after the First Poppy War, and only barely lost the continent in the Second. And while most of the people are complacent to go about their lives, a few are aware that a Third Poppy War is just a spark away . . .

Rin’s shamanic powers may be the only way to save her people. But as she finds out more about the god that has chosen her, the vengeful Phoenix, she fears that winning the war may cost her humanity . . . and that it may already be too late.”

why I’m excited: Holy shit, this looks amazing! I don’t have much to say about it except that. I’m a sucker for “warrior school” fantasy novels (ditto “finishing school” types) and the special powers in this novel sound original and fascinating. This just leapt to the top of my TBR list.

Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead by Sara Gran

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead Cover
cover description: A stylized illustration of a green parrot over a bright yellow background.

the premise: From Goodreads:

“This knock-out start to a bracingly original new series features Claire DeWitt, the world’s greatest PI—at least, that’s what she calls herself. A one-time teen detective in Brooklyn, she is a follower of the esoteric French detective Jacques Silette, whose mysterious handbook Détection inspired Claire’s unusual practices. Claire also has deep roots in New Orleans, where she was mentored by Silette’s student the brilliant Constance Darling—until Darling was murdered. When a respected DA goes missing she returns to the hurricane-ravaged city to find out why.”

why I’m excited: I’m intrigued by the idea of a Girl with the Dragon Tattoo-style series that seems to take much better care of its central female characters. I love books set in New Orleans, and I love the idea of a teenaged detective prodigy. (I started rewatching Veronica Mars for the fifth or sixth time this week, so I must really have a craving for this sort of thing). I’m excited for this one.


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

Book Review: ALIF THE UNSEEN by G. Willow Wilson

In an unnamed Middle Eastern country where inequality and unrest are simmering and a mysterious censor known as the Hand of God threatens dissidents with prison or worse, Alif is a genius hacker–and a target. He offers web services to a dangerous roster of clients; worse, he’s pursuing a forbidden relationship with the daughter of a man far above Alif’s station. Suddenly Alif’s security is breached and he finds himself on the run, pursued by demons and aided by a jinn, a sheikh, a convert and his childhood best friend, Dina.

I adored this novel. It’s an intricate fantasy set in the modern day–no small feat to write believably–but G. Willow Wilson seamlessly integrates the magic and mysteries of this world with more familiar real-world elements, like computer hacking and ethnic tensions between Arabs and other groups. It’s funny and profound by turns, and also chock-full of mind-blowing ideas about how Muslim theology and computer programming intersect. This story will linger with me for a long time.

You can read my full review below.


Alif the Unseen Cover

Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson

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  • publisher: Grove Press (an imprint of Grove Atlantic)
  • publication date: April 2, 2013
  • length: 456 pages

Alif understood her desire for secrecy. He had spent so much time cloaked behind his screen name, a mere letter of the alphabet, that he no longer thought of himself as anything but an alif—a straight line, a wall. His given name fell flat in his ears now. The act of concealment had become more powerful than what it concealed.

–from Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson

It disappoints me that more fantasy fiction doesn’t draw on religion. I’m not talking vague incense burning or references to moon time rituals; I mean well-thought-out, believably drawn fantasy religions, or meaningful grappling with the real-life religions of our own world.

Some of my favorite fantasy novels do this to great effect. Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey is one. Carey’s latest novel, Starless, also handles its religious themes exceptionally wellThe Golden Compass by Philip Pullman is infamous for its potent atheist themes, which have caused it to be banned over and over again; I’m a Christian and very much not an atheist, but I still find The Golden Compass‘s vision of religion compelling.

Like it or not, religion is one of the most compelling and important parts of humanity’s past and present. So I say again: it disappoints me that more fantasy fiction doesn’t draw on religion.

Luckily, Alif the Unseen doesn’t have that problem. It’s a heady fantasy that sucked me in more than any other book I’ve read lately, drawing on Middle Eastern history, present-day conflicts, and Muslim theology in order to create a rich, textured, and thoroughly believable world.

I don’t think I’m going to be able to summarize this book more concisely than I did in my mini-review, above, so I’m just going to go ahead and copy-paste that summary again here:

In an unnamed Middle Eastern country where inequality and unrest are simmering and a mysterious censor known as the Hand of God threatens dissidents with prison or worse, Alif is a genius hacker–and a target. He offers web services to a dangerous roster of clients; worse, he’s pursuing a forbidden relationship with the daughter of a man far above Alif’s station. Suddenly Alif’s security is breached and he finds himself on the run, pursued by demons and aided by a jinn, a sheikh, a convert and his childhood best friend, Dina.

Alif–a pseudonym, and we don’t find out his real name until the very end–is a terrific protagonist. He’s kind of an asshole: bitter and angry and unable to see the forest for the trees, hurting the people who love him at every turn. But he’s vulnerable, too. We see how his computer hacking prowess makes him arrogant in some ways and leaves him lonely in others; he’s convinced he has all the answers, but fears deep down that his biggest questions might not have answers.

He’s madly in love with Intisar, a college girl from his city’s upper crust. The novel opens with her rejecting him because her parents have matched her with someone else, sending Alif’s world spinning on its axis. At that point, his encounter with a mischievous, magical jinn (a.k.a. genie) named Vikram the Vampire hardly seems that weird.

When the Hand of God finds finds evidence of Alif’s subversive hacking activity, he’s forced to go on the run with his neighbor and childhood friend, Dina (whose decision to wear the niqab, a full-face veil, bewilders and annoys him).

From there the novel unspools into an incredibly profound exploration of the nature of divinity and evil, and how the power of modern technology can unleash both. G. Willow Wilson (who is a convert to Islam, and who includes a sort of American convert self-insert character here) paints a highly textured portrait of Islam, showing the ways it can be misinterpreted and perverted but also the ways it helps people, brings them love and joy, and guides them to be their best selves.

I’m racking my brain trying to think of any other novel that’s as bold and ambitious and empathetic towards any real-world religion as Alif the Unseen is–much less one that extends that empathy towards Islam, which has been so deeply demonized in Western culture.

All that adds immeasurably to this book’s worldbuilding, stakes, and character development. I particularly loved the way Dina’s faith shapes her moral backbone and her decision to help Alif, even when Alif is being a total jerk towards her.

Most of all, it’s hard to believe Alif the Unseen was written before the Arab Spring. (It was, though it wasn’t released till after.) Its vision of how technology can uproot whole societies, for better or worse, is prescient and urgent and kept me racing till the final page.

I feel like I’m talking a lot about this book’s big themes, and not a lot about the plot–but that’s because Wilson integrates the book’s themes into its plot so seamlessly that it’s difficult to separate them.

This book races along at a breakneck pace, never once feeling heavy or dry despite its weighty source material and implications. It’s an adventure novel, one that’s perfectly situated between a YA audience and an adult one. (I recommend it heartily for teens and adults alike.) The magical world of the jinn is beautiful and intoxicating; the romance(s) are compelling and impossible not to root for; the final battle had me quivering with anticipation.

Alif the Unseen is an impressive balancing act: a novel that’s as thrilling and entertaining as it is studied and thought-provoking. Don’t miss it. I especially can’t wait to get my hands on its recently released companion novel, The Bird King. ★★★★★

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

I’m not reviewing MONDAY’S NOT COMING by Tiffany D. Jackson (but you should read it anyway)

Monday’s Not Coming by Tiffany D. Jackson is one of the best YA novels I’ve ever read. It’s up there for best novel of all time, too. It’s engrossing, pitch-perfect, and elegantly plotted, and its characters are so real it’s hard to remember that this is fiction, not fact.

Unfortunately, that intensity and reality made this an extremely triggering book for me, and I won’t be doing a normal review of it, even though I loved it.

Here’s the description, from Goodreads:

Monday Charles is missing, and only Claudia seems to notice. Claudia and Monday have always been inseparable—more sisters than friends. So when Monday doesn’t turn up for the first day of school, Claudia’s worried. When she doesn’t show for the second day, or second week, Claudia knows that something is wrong. Monday wouldn’t just leave her to endure tests and bullies alone. Not after last year’s rumors and not with her grades on the line. Now Claudia needs her best—and only—friend more than ever. But Monday’s mother refuses to give Claudia a straight answer, and Monday’s sister April is even less help.

As Claudia digs deeper into her friend’s disappearance, she discovers that no one seems to remember the last time they saw Monday. How can a teenage girl just vanish without anyone noticing that she’s gone?

Triggers in this book include graphic child abuse and general violence, as well as some references to sexual abuse and violence. To a lesser extent this book has triggers for racism and bullying, since a large component of the novel is that the main character, Claudia, who is Black, is not believed by the police or her peers in school.

Obviously, triggers are different for everyone, and sometimes I hesitate to include trigger warnings in my reviews because what throws up red flags for me might be perfectly fine for someone else, and what would bother someone else might not even register for me. But Monday’s Not Coming has so much difficult content that I wanted to give my readers a heads up.

On the brighter side, even if you do find this book traumatic, you might find it cathartic, too. Tiffany D. Jackson is so good at writing about how hard it is to be a teen girl. You can tell how much she cares about teens’ real-life experiences. Many teens have lived through things worse than some adults could ever imagine, and by writing about those things honestly, Tiffany D. Jackson is helping those teens (whether they’re still teens or now-adults, like me) feel seen.

That’s pretty special, especially for the Black girls out there who get much less good representation than white teens and adults like me do.

I really loved this book, despite everything it dredged up for me. As long as it’s safe for you to read, I highly recommend it. ★★★★★

Monday's Not Coming Cover

Monday’s Not Coming by Tiffany D. Jackson

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

  • publisher: Katherine Tegen Books (an imprint of HarperCollins)
  • publication date: May 22, 2018
  • length: 448 pages

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I purchased my own copy of Monday’s Not Coming and was in no way compensated for this post.