Friday Bookbag, 6.8.18

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.

I didn’t post last week, but my book acquisitions continued apace, so I’ve got an extra-full bookbag to go through this week. Black klansmen, chronic illness, family tragedies, queer coming of age, short stories, and MORE. Oh my! Let’s dive in.


Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer by Barbara Ehrenreich

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the premise: Nickel and Dimed author Barbara Ehrenreich turns her journalistic prowess towards aging, dieting, fitness fads, and preventive care as she argues that we over-prepare for death. Death is an inevitability, but our unhealthy obsession with postponing it need not be.

why I’m excited: Nickel and Dimed is one of my favorite books and health is one of my favorite topics, so this book is a slam dunk. I majored in public health in college, and one of my biggest takeaways from my coursework was that it’s important to clearly define what “health” means before we strive for it. Does health mean living the longest? Does it mean life without disability? (That raises uncomfortable questions for the already-disabled–like me–then, doesn’t it?) Does it mean a happy and fulfilling life, and if so, how do we define happiness and fulfillment? Health and aging are a minefield of biases, and while I’m sure I’ll find plenty to disagree with in Ehrenreich’s book, her sharp assertion that we need to care less about death and more about living is a refreshing one in today’s longevity-obsessed culture.

Speak No Evil by Uzodinma Iweala

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the premise: Niru is a successful, Harvard-bound American high school student with a secret: he’s gay, which is unacceptable to his conservative Nigerian parents. When his secret comes out (as secrets usually do), Niru’s world is turned upside-down, and he’s left to lean on his best friend Meredith–the daughter of Washington D.C. insiders–who is dealing with problems of her own.

why I’m excited: Honestly, where to start? Coming out stories, especially in literary fiction–I think genre fiction is slightly better about this–are so overwhelmingly white and homogenous that Iweala’s story of a Nigerian American high schooler coming of age as a gay man is already going to feel fresh to me. I’m interested in the Washington D.C. setting, and I’m curious about how much American politics is going to play into the plot. Most of all, I’m excited for Iweala’s writing, which is highly acclaimed. (He’s the author of Beasts of No Nation, a book that’s on my to-read list that was also adapted into a movie, which was also acclaimed). Lastly, it’s short. Bless authors who tell small stories with big punches–they’re perfect for readers with short attention spans, like yours truly.

LaRose by Louise Erdrich

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the premise: Two families, both alike in dignity…LaRose isn’t exactly a tragic romance, but it’s tragic. Landreaux Iron accidentally kills his neighbor’s son in a hunting accident, and decides to make amends through an ancient tradition: he gives the neighbors his own son–LaRose–to raise. The two families slowly begin to heal, but when a bitter man with a grudge stumbles into their lives and begins to raise hell, the fragile peace is upended.

why I’m excited: Erdrich’s Love Medicine is another one of my favorite books. (I also liked The Master Butchers Singing Club.) Her writing is like a dream: it doesn’t always make sense on the surface, but it always plumbs deeper truths underneath. The premise of this book is really intriguing to me–I can’t imagine how painful literally giving up a child would be–and I think Erdrich is exactly the right person to tell the story.

The Red Convertible: Selected and New Stories by Louise Erdrich

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the premise: Exactly what it says on the tin: it’s a collection of short fiction by Erdrich, whose career spans from the 1970s to the present. The Red Convertible contains several short stories that Erdrich later turned into longer works, most notably “Future Home of the Living God,” a story about human evolution and motherhood that was released as a novel last year.

why I’m excited: I decided to do an Erdrich deep-dive both because I love her work (she’s been a heavy influence on the way I think about fiction, and I can only hope my work is a fraction as good as hers) and because the recent revelations about Sherman Alexie have me wanting to think more deeply about my relationship to works by Native American writers. Erdrich is one of the greats, and I’m hoping to read more work by newer Native authors this year, too. (Rebecca Roanhorse comes to mind–her story “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™” is chilling and she has a novel, Trail of Lightning, releasing this year.)

Black Klansman: Race, Hate, and the Undercover Investigation of a Lifetime by Ron Stallworth

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the premise: Stallworth is a real-life law enforcement veteran who undertook an incredibly risky infiltration operation into the Ku Klux Klan beginning in 1978. Stallworth was the voice on the phone, and his white and Jewish coworkers showed up in person to rallies. The operation exposed white supremacists infiltrating the military, sabotaged cross burnings, and even fooled David Duke.

why I’m excited: I first heard of this story because of the trailer for Spike Lee’s upcoming adaptation of this memoir, which debuted at Cannes recently and was highly acclaimed. You should watch that trailer, because it’s amazing:

I couldn’t believe that this actually happened, but it did, and Stallworth has a hell of a story to tell. I can’t wait to dig into this one to get more of the facts before watching the film, which looks like it’s on the stylized side.

Ask Me About My Uterus: A Quest to Make Doctors Believe in Women’s Pain by Abby Norman

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the premise: Abby Norman went from college student and dancer to sudden dropout who was bedridden because of pain. Doctors assumed it was a UTI and sent her home with antibiotics; Norman knew something else was wrong, and embarked on a quest to figure out what. Norman was eventually diagnosed with endometriosis and now works as a science reporter. Ask Me About My Uterus is an exploration not just of her own story, but of medicine’s long history of dismissing women’s pain and suppressing women’s access to good treatment.

why I’m excited: I have endometriosis and am currently facing surgery to correct it. It’s a hell disease that’s taken a terrible toll on my life, and I’ve faced a lot of dismissal and misdiagnosis (though I’m lucky to be diagnosed at 23 when many others wait decades for diagnosis and treatment). Unsurprisingly, this book is personal for me, but I’m also academically interested in this book (as with Natural Causes, this has major public health implications). I almost squealed out loud when I saw this book available on my library’s new arrivals shelf and I can’t wait to read it.


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: STRAYING by Molly McCloskey

Straying is a portrait of a marriage gone stale; it’s also the story of a daughter struggling to understand her mother, and the story of an American woman in Ireland who finds–metaphorically, at least–that she can’t go home again. (Straying‘s protagonist, Alice, is at the heart of all three threads–she’s the cheating wife, the disappointing daughter, and the wander-lost American, respectively.) Nothing is new or exciting about that plot, but Molly McCloskey’s sharp prose style elevates the experience somewhat, especially in the first third of the book, which captures the staticky, on-edge feeling of being in love with the wrong person perfectly. Unfortunately, the decay of Alice’s marriage is nowhere as insightful or interesting as its beginning, and while I understand that that’s likely a conscious choice on McCloskey’s part, the latter two-thirds still make for dry, abrasive reading. Straying starts with a spark and plenty of tinder, but it never catches fire.

You can read my full review below.


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Straying by Molly McCloskey

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  • publisher: Scribner Book Company (an imprint of Simon & Schuster)
  • publication date: February 20, 2018
  • length: 224 pages
  • cover price: $24.00

How do people do it, I used to wonder. Well, I learned. That sort of secret feels like an illness, the way the world slows to a crawl as though for your inspection. So much clarity and consequence–it was like enlightenment, it was like being in the truth, which is a funny thing to say about deceit.

Straying, page 1

I think that there are two iconic American dreams: one of coming to America and one of leaving it. Alice, Straying‘s narrator, decides to visit Ireland because she realizes that a full European tour is out of her budget; she ends up moving there in working in a pub for a summer, and though her experience isn’t glamorous at all I still felt my heart beating faster.

How romantic! I thought. I wish I could drop everything and move to Ireland.

And that was the last romantic, silly thought I had while reading this book, which is one of the dreariest I’ve experienced in some time.

Part of that dullness lies in Straying’s subject matter. I don’t like to ding authors for that in my reviews, since more than anything else, our preferences for what we like to read and write about are personal. I can’t develop a coherent rubric for why I love books about cults but am wary of mid-life crisis novels; it’s pure preference, and I had the sneaking suspicion throughout Straying that nearly everything I disliked about it was just that: preference.

McCloskey seems to evade (or at times, to stomp on) warm-fuzzies everywhere they might naturally pop up. In a nutshell, Straying is about how Alice moves to Ireland, falls in a sort-of love, falls out of it, embarks on an affair, works for NGOs in war zones, loses her mother, and feels a lot of things about homesickness. The novel is told out of order, partially in flashback to the ’80s and partially in the present day, so this is all established early (which is why I don’t consider them spoilers). The tension lies entirely in the sordid specifics, which unspool agonizingly slowly and pessimistically.

For example, instead of finding any sort of tourist’s joy in Ireland, Alice seems disenchanted immediately. The kindest, most loving thought she has about Eddie, her once-husband, is about his solidness–that he will someday be the kind of old man she likes. She loves her mother recklessly and yet lives almost her whole life away from her.

To me that’s all very realistic, very sad, and very, very boring.

But what do I know? Another major theme of the book is the recklessness of youth. I’m 23 and fully in my reckless phase, so it was probably inevitable that I would find this book as dry as sawdust. (When I initially picked it up, I thought more of it would focus on Alice’s younger self, but it’s mostly told from her late middle age.) I’m about to get married myself–of course I’m not going to want to be reminded of all the ways my life could go wrong. Of course I would find this book stolid. Of course I would find it unpleasantly hardened.

But there’s still a lot to like here. Every character feels almost disconcertingly three-dimensional, like I could access their backstories Magic Eye-style by crossing my eyes a bit. McCloskey has a knack for making observations about life that are so true and painful that they made my blood run cold. And Alice is a truly wonderful first-person narrator, prickly and vulnerable, someone we get a real sense of as a participant in the story instead of someone who is just a glorified third-person narrator.

Most of all, I loved how McCloskey writes about Ireland in the 1980s. While I was reading, Ireland’s grimy upstart-ness, its trauma and resilience, its falls and rebirths, and its smells and sights and geography were all as real to me as the Saint Paul, Minnesota streets outside my window.

While Straying wasn’t to my taste, it still felt like a conversation with someone very interesting; someone whom you want very much to like you and think of you as sophisticated. Maybe it wasn’t to my taste exactly because I didn’t feel like I measured up to the novel’s exacting gaze.

No one likes to be predictable. Everyone likes to think their story is the special one. Perhaps McCloskey’s refusal to write about someone special is, in itself, very special, even if it is far from enjoyable. It’s food for thought, anyway. ★★★☆☆


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

Friday Bookbag, 5.25.18

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.

In my bookbag this week, I’ve got a nonfiction opus about addiction and a short story collection from an exciting contemporary Russian voice. Let’s dive in!


 The Recovering: Intoxication and its Aftermath by Leslie Jamison

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9780316259613the premise: Acclaimed writer Leslie Jamison puts a new spin on the “addiction memoir” by blending personal narrative, literary criticism, history, and journalism. The Recovering probes at the stories we tell ourselves about addiction–paying special attention to the trope (and reality) of addicted artists–and she also uncovers the history and probably future of the recovery movement, complete with its fascinating intersections with class and race.

why I’m excited: Part of this book was excerpted in The New Yorker recently and I fell in love immediately with Jamison’s probing, piercing writing style. (The excerpt tackles the forgotten legacy of George Cain, a brilliant black writer whose work is inexplicably absent from the addiction canon.) I’m really excited for this one–I’m drafting this post on a Wednesday and I think I might curl up with it this afternoon. Stay tuned!

(Update: Yes, I did read it that afternoon–and it’s very, very good.)

Aetherial Worlds by Tatyana Tolstaya

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9781524732776the premise: Tatyana Tolstaya is a renowned author of fiction and political criticism in her native Russia, but her work rarely makes it to the U.S.–this, a short story collection, is her first book translated to English in over twenty years. As with all short story collections, I’m at a loss for how to summarize it–but I do know that Tolstaya is known for her compassion and whip-smart humor.

why I’m excited: I’m on a major short story collection kick right now, so I couldn’t resist this one when I spotted it on my library’s shelves. I love the flourishing of the form that’s happening right now, and I’m always seeking out works by international authors–especially translations. I know that when I think of Russian literature, I always think of the past (and I’m not too proud to admit that I’ve utterly failed to get beyond the first pages of any of those classics–too long and dense for me). It’s exciting to get the chance to read a contemporary Russian voice.


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, 5.18.18

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.

This week I’ve got three short books in my bookbag that each carry a big, emotional, firecracker punch. Let’s dive in!


Straying by Molly McCloskey

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9781501172465the premise: Alice, a young American woman, moves to Ireland in the late 1980s, settles down, marries an Irishman…and then embarks on an affair that shatters the life she’d carefully created for herself. Years later, grieving her mother’s death and recovering from years of working in war zones, Alice returns to Ireland and discovers that her marriage and the affair that ended it may not have been at all what they seemed.

why I’m excited: I’m a big fan of stories that hinge on an affair–there’s so much inherent tension in cheating that it’s no wonder it’s such a trope. Lately, I’ve also been seeking out books set in countries other than the United States. McCloskey is a renowned writer in her native Ireland and part of Straying‘s plot is the alienation and culture shock Alice experiences when she moves away from the United States. Both of these elements add up to a novel I’m really excited about.

9781936787845Cove by Cynan James

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the premise: A man out kayaking at sea is struck by lightning in a sudden storm. He awakes with his memory gone, still adrift in a hostile sea. Relying on instincts and imagination, he sets out for home in an ultimate man-against-nature adventure.

why I’m excited: This is a tiny book: it’s made up of barely 92 pages of spare prose. That’s great for me, since I much prefer short books to long ones (Larissa Pham recently tweeted that “the novella might be the ideal form” and I relate), and I also love nature and survival stories. I’m terrified of open water, so the kayaking element promises to be especially thrilling for me.

9781250113429The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror by Daniel Mallory Ortberg

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the premise: Ortberg transforms beloved fairy tales into eleven creepy short stories in this collection–“tales of everyday horror” seems to be the perfect subtitle.

why I’m excited: Two reasons: one, I love fairytales, and two, over the course of writing this book, Ortberg came out as a trans man, in part because of the way these stories challenged him to think about gender. (For more on that, you should read this excellent interview with Ortberg in The Cut. ) I would have been sold on this book regardless without that second part, but as a nonbinary person myself, I’m really excited to read a book by a fellow transgender person that pushes gender boundaries.


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, 5.11.18

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.

This week I have three works of literary fiction that toy with gender, optimism, and expectations in my bookbag. Let’s dive in!


The Optimistic Decade by Heather Abel

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9781616206307the premise: Set in the 1980s, The Optimistic Decade takes place at Llamalo, a “utopian summer camp.” As they learn camp survival skills through booms and busts, wars and protests, and dreams and mistakes, the novel’s five central characters push up against the limits of idealism and themselves.

why I’m excited: I love novels set in the recent past, and while there are plenty set in the ’50s-’70s, there are fewer about the ’80s. I think the title–particularly the “optimistic” part–says it all: so much of the ’80s feels both glamorous and naive in hindsight and I like that the premise of the novel (especially the back-to-the-land element) plays around with that.

A Lucky Man: Stories by Jamel Brinkley

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9781555978051the premise: This short story collection contains nine stories set in Brooklyn and the Bronx. Each story probes at the ways the ways men make and interact with power, exploring facets of masculinity from elementary school through adulthood.

why I’m excited: I’m tired of the fact that the entire weight of “gender” fiction is placed on the shoulders of everyone who isn’t a man. That’s why I’m excited for this collection, which promises to not only be interesting from a writing and craft standpoint but also because Brinkley seems to be taking on masculinity from a man’s perspective. That shouldn’t feel fresh, but it does–and the buzz this book is receiving is more than enough to convince me to read it.

Eventide by Therese Bohman

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9781590518939the premise: Karolina Andersson, a solitary art history professor in her forties, becomes entangled in a ferocious, erotic game that threatens to uproot her personal and professional lives. When she begins to advise a postgraduate student whose research could turn Swedish art history upside-down, Andersson finds herself reckoning with much more than academic consequences.

why I’m excited: This is a relatively slim book that promises to pack a big punch. I love translated works (Eventide is translated from the Swedish by Marlaine Delargy) and this one tackles gendered double-standards, academia, and loneliness in a big, fascinating way. I can’t wait.


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, 5.4.18

FridayBookbag

Greetings, and May the Fourth be with you!

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With that out of the way, we can get down to the business of Friday Bookbag, a weekly feature where I share a list of books I’ve borrowed, bought, or received during the week. It’s my chance to buzz about my excitement for books I might not get the chance to review.

This week I’ve got a thrilling spy-novel-slash-marriage-drama and a sweet, funny romance about a fake wedding date that turns into something more. Let’s dive in!


The Italian Party by Christina Lynch

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9781250147837the premise: Newlyweds Scottie and Michael move to Sienna, Italy in 1956. Little do they know that they’re about to uncover explosive and dangerous secrets–ones on an international scale, and more intimate ones they have chosen to keep from one another. The Italian Party is a thrilling spy novel that’s also about America’s messy position on the world stage.

why I’m excited: Spies! Mid-century drama! A dissolving marriage! A sensual exploration of Italy! Thoughtful criticism of American foreign policy! This book has so many ingredients that appeal to me that it’s hard to boil down my interest in this book to a sentence or two. Suffice to say that I’m sold!

The Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory

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9780399587665the premise: Alexa Monroe gets stuck in an elevator with Drew Nichols and, though she’s not usually the spontaneous type, she finds herself agreeing to be his fake date for his ex’s wedding. But these two high-powered professionals find that they’re in for more than they bargained for when their fake date turns into real sparks flying.

why I’m excited: Goodness gracious, I love romance. I don’t write about it a lot on this blog because a) I don’t like to review it, since my feelings on romance novels tend to be of the gushy and incoherent type (I don’t know how Smart Bitches does it) and b) I’ve been distracted by other genres for the past few months. This book feels like the perfect stepping-stone back into romance for me: an utterly charming premise, rave reviews, and an author whose nonfiction pieces I love. I can’t wait.


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: GUN LOVE by Jennifer Clement

Gun Love, about a mother and daughter who live in their car in a Florida trailer park and the “gun love” and trafficking they get tangled up in, is always dark but never heavy; Jennifer Clement’s prose is so gentle and beautiful that I’m convinced she could write a textbook about the most awful subjects imaginable and it would still be a joy to read. Gun Love has the close-focus, raw feel of an indie movie–in fact, it has a lot in common topically and tonally with 2017’s The Florida Project–but it’s never brutal or tortured. It’s an “issue book” that’s actually enjoyable to read–and what an enormous accomplishment that is, especially when the issue (America’s toxic relationship with guns) is so fraught and urgent.

You can read my full review below.


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Gun Love by Jennifer Clement

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  • publisher: Hogarth Press (an imprint of Penguin Random House)
  • publication date: March 6, 2018
  • length: 256 pages
  • cover price: $25.00

My mother was a cup of sugar. You could borrow her anytime.

My mother was so sweet, her hands were always birthday-party sticky. Her breath held the five flavors of Life Savers candy.

And she knew all the love songs that are a university for love. She knew “Slowly Walk Close to Me,” “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?,” “Born Under a Bad Sign,” and all the I’ll-kill-you-if-you-leave-me songs.

But sweetness is always looking for Mr. Bad and Mr. Bad can pick out Miss Sweet in any crowd.

Gun Love, page 1

There’s a corner that stories written in the first person get backed into, and it’s that in the real world, most people don’t articulate their thoughts very well. First person stories need to sound authentic–you can’t sock-puppet haunting, lyrical prose from someone who wouldn’t speak and think in haunting, lyrical ways–but stories also need to be well-written, and those goals are sometimes at odds.

Gun Love is written in the first person from the perspective of a 14-year-old girl, Pearl France, who’s been raised all her life in a car parked in a decaying trailer park. She’s malnourished and tiny for her age; she’s being slowly poisoned by the dump behind the park and the Raid her mother sprays every night to keep the mosquitos down. School is a joke with no bearing on her life, and she doesn’t even have a proper birth certificate. Worst of all, her mother has fallen in love with Eli, a man with a deep undercurrent of trouble that Pearl senses from the start.

Pearl has every right to hate her life and never see the beauty in it. What’s amazing about Gun Love, however, is that it’s a book very deeply concerned with beauty, even in the most difficult of places. Pearl’s voice is as haunting and lyrical as they come, but it somehow rings completely true.

A frequent complaint I have on this blog is that some books revel in darkness and grittiness in ways that are tortuous to read. The events of Gun Love are shocking and horrible–unsurprisingly, it’s thick with gun violence–but Clement’s touch is so light that I never found myself dragged down by it. In one scene, a pair of conjoined alligator twins are found in the river near the trailer park. Reporters and gawkers rush into the trailer park to take in their beauty and strangeness; then, overnight, someone shoots the twins to pieces with a machine gun. It’s a senseless and yet understandable act. In Gun Love, beauty and death entwine in intoxicating and original ways that you can’t look away from–you don’t even want to look away.

It helps that every single character in the novel is fascinating and empathetic, even the murderous ones. My particular favorites were Mr. Brodsky, an aging Jewish foster parent who takes in “shoots,” children whose biological parents have been murdered, and Noelle, an autistic 30-year-old woman who loves Barbie dolls and speaks mostly in fortune cookie quotes. If Clement were less skilled, these people might have come off like pathetic caricatures of poverty and desperation. Instead, they are vibrant, resilient, and full of agency, lovable even when they do unforgivable things.

Over the course of the novel, Pearl hardens and freezes as her mother softens and melts, a testament to how hard it is to grow up at all, much less to grow up in circumstances so literally toxic. (Gun Love definitely has YA crossover appeal.) The mother/daughter relationship in this book reminded me of White Oleander by Janet Fitch, though the mothers in question couldn’t be more different. The through-line of violence traveling through generations is powerful and adds even more depth to the novel.

Another favorite through-line of mine was Selena Quintanilla’s murder. A Mexican couple at the trailer park traffic in guns (as do most of their white neighbors) but they also idolize Selena and mourn her murder daily, especially the wife, Corazón. It’s a taut irony that drives the narrative home without feeling overdone.

In Gun Love, guns are Pandora’s box–its characters can’t live with them yet can’t live without them; they can’t live with the hatred and suffering they dole out yet also can’t live without the power and joy they bring, too. This novel is a nuanced and empathetic gift. Don’t miss it. 5/5 stars.


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