The Grace Year is powered by plot. This is a delightfully twisty and genuinely frightening plot for a YA title, and that makes it a rapid, careening ride. The character development and motivation is definitely a little more on the two-dimensional side, but for the younger reader who is looking for a thrill, this novel will deliver with its high-voltage mix of survival narrative, romance, mean girl comeuppance, and minor gore. This book would make a great stepping stone to The Handmaid’s Tale.
Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s sea-soaked novel The Mercies is as unflinching as it is intimate. Told through the perspectives of two women brought together by circumstance and hardship, it is as much a love story as it is an impeccably researched account of what it might have felt like to live as a woman at the northern edge of the world during a time when the smallest deviance could become a witchery death sentence. Hargrave’s book is moving, menacing, and marvelous.
Brian Sonia-Wallace’s meandering memoir stops off at unexpected destinations as he explores what it means to make a living as a busking poet in today’s America. Through the lens of his spontaneous poetry that is born of conversations with whomever approaches his typewriter and table, he contemplates all different kinds of desires, legacies, and wishes for the future that define the lives of the strangers that he begins to know. From the shiny temple to commercialism that is the Mall of America to a van that fortune tellers call home in the middle of the desert, these stories show a portrait of a nation and offer poetry as a possible prescription to mend the divisions of its people.
Sue Rainsford’s style in Follow Me to Ground is sensational, quietly bizarre. It achieves a very difficult feat–making magic feel real, personal, and everyday. The book is captivating, with mysteries and grisly heat around every turn. The way Ada’s narrative is interspersed with short interviews from the townspeople adds another dimension to the strong culture that Rainsford creates, and it’s all very bewitching. This would have been five stars for me but for my feminist uneasiness at how the heroine’s desire, while all-consuming, is portrayed as her undoing, and how the men in her life seem to have ownership over her immense power, whether applied with love, cruelty, or both.
Claire Vaye Watkins has established herself as a writer to watch with her novel debut Gold Fame Citrus. I read this book as extreme devastation was ravishing California with wildfire, which feels dangerously close to the future Watkins offers here–the novel is set in a California scorched by extreme drought, fire, and an encroaching sea of sand. The writing is extraordinarily bold, and I admired it for that–it’s very free and very incisive all at once, and there are so many scenes that are just razor sharp. The social criticism here is definitely on point, though it’s truly devoid of hope. The more imperiled the environment becomes in Gold Fame Citrus, the more morally bankrupt its people, the more willing to believe in lies to preserve their own sense of comfort. This book, at its most basic level–even for all of Watkins’ play–is terrifying.
How much of us is our body? How much of us is our history?
The Hatchet and the Hammer by Caitlin Scarano is here to reckon, defying genre, clear-eyed and standing two inches from those questions without flinching or ornament. Generations of trauma and violence, physical and imagined, threaten the speaker–but Scarano’s poetry dissects that threat in a way that peers into its origins, interrogates the idea of blame, is still standing at the end, and finishes with a roar.
This is my second read of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. I first read it the year that it came out, just a few short years after 9/11. I remember being astounded by Foer’s work, and how it stumbled through the rubble of that tragedy and tried to tell the story of America. Returning to it now, it feels different, but still brilliant. I particularly noticed how deftly Foer layers the generational experiences of loss, of war, of fathers and sons, of wives and husbands–history repeats but never reverses. In this story, we learn along with the remarkable young protagonist that there are always new inventions of love and terror, regrets that frame our identities, and ways to hold what we have while it’s in front of us. It’s one of the most human books I’ve ever read.
Poetry subverts the failure of language to embody another human’s experience. Reginald Dwayne Betts harnesses this power with Felon: Poems, his poetry collection about the impact of mass incarceration in America and the hands it holds with racism. These poems are breathing things–they speak to our time and are spun from whispers and screams from all angles of the things we call prisons… and the social systems that contribute to filling them.
My favorites from this collection: -“When I Think of Tamir Rice While Driving” -“City of the Moon” -“Diesel Therapy” -“Essay on Reentry (I)” -“Night” -“Exile”
Before even thinking about reading this book, ask yourself three questions: 1. Have I read Borne yet? 2. Do I love Jeff VanderMeer from the very depths of my soul? 3. Am I down for a HIGHLY (whatever you’re thinking, add five to it) experimental narrative structure?
If you answered yes to all three questions, like me, you may proceed.
Dead Astronauts is a demanding journey through many perspectives, most of which are not (or not quite) human. There are multiple timelines woven through simultaneously, and the characters that you begin the book with are not the characters that you’ll stay with. I had to smile as I was reading because I do love Jeff VanderMeer from the very depths of my soul and I have never seen him write with such absolute freedom. Jeff has been unleashed here, and in order to enjoy the book, you need to just trust that after carrying you through bout after bout of madness, that he will ultimately carry you back to a place, in the end, where you feel the full essence and meaning of the book. Even for me, it was hard to trust at times, but once I got there, it was incredibly satisfying. This book broke my heart a little and I didn’t even fully know what happened. It’s not really a book. It’s more like a ride.