Wrapping Up 2019 Recommendations

As usual, when I look back at the list of things I read this year, many of my favorites are already represented here. Some of them are things I already wrote about (A Sky Painted Gold, The Great Believers), while Rebecca and Anna have covered others (My Sister, the Serial Killer, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street and The Bedlam Stacks). But before we move on to the shiny new world of the 20s, I wanted to highlight a few more books that never quite made it to the blog this year, but that have stuck with me over the year. So, four quick ones:

1. There There by Tommy Orange. I read this right at the beginning of the year, and in my memory it was a very delicate book, sometimes closer to poetry than prose. It tells a modern-day story of urban Indians–Native Americans who live not on reservations, but in Oakland. Different narrators connect and overlap, representing different tribes and generations, painting a vibrant, layered portrait of this community. Did you know that in the 70s a group of Native Americans occupied Alcatraz for more than a year? It’s embarrassing that I had no idea about this.

2. Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala. Okay guys, this one is rough. This is a memoir by a woman who lost her whole family–husband, kids, parents–in the 2004 tsunami. Deraniyagala is unflinching in describing her grief and her process of, I wouldn’t say healing, but of survival. Not for the faint of heart, but this book is really something.

3. Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe. Earlier in the year I mentioned how much I adored the show Derry Girls, which is set in Northern Ireland in the early 90s. In fact, I was so charmed by the show I decided I should read a bit more about the Troubles, which is how a took a sharp tonal turn away from the comedy of Derry Girls to this non-fiction book. Say Nothing ended up on all the major Best of 2019 lists and it is deserved. This is a gripping story that covers generations of conflict while reading like a thriller, not a history book. My main take-away? Gerry Adams is probably a sociopath.

4. Daisy Jones & the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid. Let’s end on something that is not quite such a downer! This is basically a fictional oral history of a band a lot like Fleetwood Mac. If you’ve ever imaged what it might have been like to be a 70s L.A. rocker, this is the book for you. It’s also a super quick read–I read it on one airplane flight and it was perfect for that.

Here’s wishing us all a 2020 of good reading!

The Great Believers

The Great Believers by [Makkai, Rebecca]

I struggle with literary fiction. I read it, but I often feel like there is a disconnect with how the rest of the world, and reviewers in particular, see these novels and how I react to them. Over and over I read a book that the reviews call “funny” or “charming” or “romantic” and come away wondering about their definition of those words, because I found it painfully sad or extremity upsetting. It certainly could be that I am very delicate, or that I have skewed my assessment by reading lots and lots of YA books and romances. It’s not that I require a happy ending and simple black-and-white story in everything I read, but if I dread reading a book because it is making me so unhappy to watch characters suffer, well, it doesn’t matter how well constructed the sentences are. I’m going to stop reading it. I want books to teach me and make me feel things and show me the truth of the human experience! But I also have to get out of bed every day and be a functioning person, and depressing books don’t always help with that. All of this is to say: The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai is the best book I read this year and I recommend it only with extreme caution.

The story runs in two times and two places in parallel–Chicago in the early 1980s and Paris in the recent past. In Chicago we are following Yale, a gay man trying to tackle a professional challenge and be a supportive partner and friend, all while AIDS has begun crashing through his community like a giant snowball gathering steam and size as it rolls down a hill. Decades later in Paris, Fiona, the little sister of one of Yale’s friends, is trying to track down her estranged daughter, lost for years in a cult. The story moves back and forth between these characters, only slowly revealing all the connections between them and how the trauma of the AIDS epidemic continues to ripple through lives.

The book is gorgeous. Yale and Fiona both leap off the page as real people–complicated, not always great decision-makers, but loving. And in the Chicago chapter especially, the sense of place is so strong that I could almost feel that horrible icy wind blowing off Lake Michigan. But I also struggled to read it sometimes, because a felt such a sense of dread about what was going to happen. I swung between not being able to put it down, and wanting to put the book in the freezer because I was so upset for these characters. And I want anyone reading it to know going in: this is not going to be a book about miraculous survival and reunion. I cried and cried. There are parts I would like to go back and reread because I know I raced through them, but I can’t bring myself to do it. But this wasn’t a story that made me think, “Well, what’s the point of anything then?” Which is sometimes my reaction at the end of a fancy literary novel.

I completely understand if, after looking at the headlines of the day, all you want to do is read something light and fluffy and warm and comforting. I have done more than my share of that lately, and I don’t want to a recommend a book that could upset someone at a time when they can least handle it. Reading isn’t your job, there is no course credit here–read the books you enjoy. But if you are in a place to be challenged and to be sad and to feel, The Great Believers is a wonderful book. For me, this is a literary fiction novel that speaks to the fact that there is a point and that we are all here together to find it.

Kinsey’s Three Word Review: Heartbreaking but beautiful

You might also like: TransAtlantic by Colum McCann is another gorgeous book that moves about in time to tell interwoven stories, although on a big bigger scale, and The Three Junes by Julia Glass is always a favorite of mine. Then there is The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin–I read this earlier in the year and almost reviewed it here, before deciding that the book started much stronger than it ended. It’s the story of four siblings who visit a fortune teller who tells them each the exact date she says they are going to die. Whether they believe it or not, that information affects how each of them move forward, and the book follows each sibling in succession. I adored the first story–the youngest son moves to San Francisco to live as an out gay man–and liked each of the next three less and less. But other people liked this book a lot, and that first story is gorgeous.

War Witch by Layla Nash

WarWitchCoverWar Witch
by Layla Nash
2017

This was a BookBub find and it was a fun urban fantasy with witches and werewolves. It’s set fifteen years after The Breaking, when supernatural powers and creatures were revealed to the rest of humanity, and five years after The Truce was implemented at the end of an exceptionally bloody 10-year-long civil war in which everyone was fighting everyone else and a lot of people died.

Out main character, Lily, was an incredibly powerful witch at the forefront of the fighting during the civil war and is now trying to find some semblance of peace and wanting nothing to do with the current power structure, staying as unaligned as she possibly can from the many, many factions still struggling to figure out their place. Nash has done some amazing world building with the concept that there’s the truce between humans and supernatural beings, but each side is made up of groups that contain smaller groups that contain individuals and pretty much all of them have their own conflicts and alliances and motives. And five years is a very short time for peace while ten years is a very long time for a civil war. So the whole society is extremely fraught.

And into this situation some witches work illegal demon magic and Lily is the main suspect. (In part because she’s been hiding that she can and has summoned demons, but not this particular time.)

In addition to the world building, I also kind of love the romance side plot. It’s really obvious the Lily, an unaligned witch trying to lay low, and Leif, an extremely high ranked werewolf enforcer for the current power structure, are attracted to each other. However, they are also in conflict with each other because they can sympathize with but not abide by each other’s political stances. It’s just a really interesting dynamic and I enjoyed seeing how Nash worked it.

What I wasn’t so happy with was how it ended with a clear set-up for a second book. I’m increasingly developing a pet peeve against books that spend their final chapter(s) setting up the next book rather than completing the current book. Also, this book doesn’t appear to have a sequel yet anyway. But anyway, I found the end of the book annoying, but the world building was excellent and the character interactions were both fascinating and hilarious.

 

Certain Dark Things by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

CertainDarkThingsCertain Dark Things
Silvia Moreno-Garcia
2016

This book was listed on the tumblr post Adult fantasy books not by straight white men and only realized afterwards that Anna was already reading a book by the same author. This book was summarized as “vampire noir in Mexico city.” It is really good!

It’s a vaguely futuristic dystopian world where there’s so much extreme poverty that the futuristic elements are minor flashes that just highlight how nothing has changed for the vast majority of people. It’s also a world where all the vampire legends from different lands are based on real beings, and there are ten confirmed types of vampires. It’s only been a few decades since vampires were revealed as real creatures but it’s now the norm, and the norm is that vampires run several of the major drug cartels. So in addition to the conflicts between government and drug cartel, there’s also conflict between government and vampires, between different vampire species, and between different drug cartels. And it all gets extremely messy and extremely bloody.

While the novel switches out point of view between several different characters, our main character is Domingo, a human guy in his late teens I think, who starts off feeling pretty good about himself and his place in the world: he’s got a steady income picking through trash and finding things he can sell and a place of his own in an abandoned metro tunnel. And then he sees a beautiful woman and tries talking to her and she actually acknowledges him! How lucky is he?

And just, he is kind of lucky because of all the vampires that he could have met she needs help that doesn’t involve him dying. Mostly.

It is also very much a noir. The bad guys are the bad guys because they are truly horrifically evil and the good guys are the good guys because at least they’re not as bad as the bad guys. But it’s a gritty world and no one is truly innocent. In the end everything works out in the best possible way but there’s just no real chance at a happy ending.

Actually, I take that back, spoiler alert: the dog lives. So that’s happy.

Fast Women by Jennifer Crusie

FastWomenFast Women
by Jennifer Crusie
2001

This was both a perfect palate cleanser after How To Be Alone and something of a direct rebuttal of it as well. Because this is definitely a romance novel, with a plot focused around two characters getting together and a guaranteed happy ending, but it’s also a remarkably nuanced look into a number of complex relationships. Fast Women is very much on the literary side of things — it deals with divorce, alcoholism, abuse, neglect, despair, and having to start over — and but is saved from that genre by maintaining a generally optimistic outlook on life. While a lot of purported ‘literature’ is unpleasant people living unpleasant lives, this book is consists of delightful people living interesting lives, but it’s no less complex or nuanced. It also has a number of ridiculous situations and conversations that had me giggling every other page.

The main character is Nell and her love interest is Gabe, but Nell has a friend group of two other women, and Gabe has a friend and business partner, and they each have a college-age kid, and each of these five characters is fully developed with their own personal issues and plot-lines.

The plot, such as it is, is an investigation that’s in large part trying to figure out what to investigate because there’s blackmail and murder and arson and theft and they’re all connected in some way, but it takes a good 400 pages for our characters to figure out how.

Anyway, it’s delightful and funny and I definitely recommend it. It’s also a reminder to me that the romance book genre is massive and contains pretty much any subgenre a person could possibly want to read.

 

A Sky Painted Gold

A Sky Painted Gold

I recently took a trip that involved many, many hours on a plane. I usually use flights like this to catch up on movies I never got around to seeing, but this time none of the movies really called to me, so I watched that Zac Efron as Ted Bundy thing (he was good, the movie is not worth your time) and then decided to just read instead. Over my many flights I read Daisy Jones and the Six (fun, quick, perfect vacation read, a fiction version of an oral history of a 70s rock band), One Day in December (perfectly nice rom com story set in London), and most of the latest Elizabeth Gilbert City of Girls (so far, pretty fun, but I’m still finishing up so no promises). But the book that I want to tell you about is a YA coming-of-age story called a A Sky Painted Gold by Laura Wood. I have no idea where I heard about this book–a copy was on my Kindle but my library doesn’t have it, so I must have bought it? On someone’s recommendation? I don’t remember any of this, but it was exactly the kind of book I like and I was so glad it was there waiting for me.

Without giving too much away, Lou is a teenage girl who lives with her big, wild family on the coast in Cornwall between the World Wars. She has dreams, but leaving home and living a life outside her village seems impossible. She stumbles into a friendship with some local aristocrats and gets sucked into their Bright Young Things circle of fun, but what will happen when they ultimately go off to their city lives and she is left behind in Cornwall? This description makes her sound like an ugly duckling among swans, but I think one of the smartest things the book does is acknowledge those optics, while never making Lou seem dumb or lesser than some of the more glittering characters.

The book contains many, many things I like, including:

  • Detailed descriptions of elegant clothing
  • English village life
  • Characters enjoying lots of cocktails
  • A little bit of romance
  • Sympathetic parents, so the main story isn’t about how her parents just don’t understand

Overall, A Sky Painted Gold is a fairly traditional story, nothing terribly surprising is happening here, but it’s got a modern air about it. It was like rereading an old favorite from childhood, but without discovering any weird racist or sexist things that you’d forgotten about but that now make you cringe.

Kinsey’s Three(ish) Word Review: Dreamy, romantic interwar England coming-of-age.

You might also like: I’ve definitely recommended all these before, but A Sky Painted Gold fits so well into a set of books I love that includes Cold Comfort Farm, I Capture the Castle, and The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets.

Unmarriageable

Unmarriageable: A Novel by [Kamal, Soniah]

I think it’s safe to say that we here at Biblio-therapy are connoisseurs of all formats of Jane Austen tributes/adaptions/updates. In the past we’ve raved about the Lizzie Bennett Diaries and Longbourn, and I quite enjoyed Eligible, the most recent modern-day version of the story I’d read. The latest entry into the Pride and Prejudice but with X catalog is Unmarriagable,  which initially struck me as just a relocation of the classic but ultimately turned out to have a little more going on underneath.

This telling of the story takes place in Pakistan in 2000-2001, and positions the Bennetts as a family that slid from the upper-middle class after some business disasters. They’re now trying to maintain respectability in a small, backwater city. The two oldest girls teach at the English language high school in town, while their mother clings to her old status through the connections of family and friends. The author sticks very, very closely to the original–essentially every character and plot point has a direct translation to the new setting. This made the book feel a bit rote as I read through the very familiar beats: now we’re at the first ball, now it’s the first proposal, now Lizzie (Alys in this version) is traveling with her aunt, etc. But it was fun to see how names and clothes and celebrations were adapted to twentieth-century Pakistan, and I found myself doing a lot of Googling to make sure I could accurately picture the shawl a character was wearing, or the food they were eating.

So it was an enjoyable read, but I wasn’t sure if I initially felt it was adding anything new to the genre (at this point, I think retellings of Jane Austen is its own genre). However, as the book went along, it became clear that the author was using this story and setting as a vehicle to explore colonialism and culture. Alys teaches literature at the English school, which mostly consists of teaching her Pakistani students classics of English literature. But is this their culture? British colonization of India resulted in generations of Pakistanis who speak English and were raised on English classics, so these are their stories as much as anyone else’s. But how can Alys and her students also see themselves and their lives and cultures reflected in the cannon? Unmarriagable doesn’t necessarily have answers to these big questions, but watching Alys try to work them out for herself forces the reader to face them, as well.

Kinsey’s Three(ish) Word Review: Elizabeth Bennett in Pakistan!

You might also like: Other than the many other Pride and Prejudice-adjacent materials I’ve already mentioned, I’m going to recommend two widely different books. First, When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon is a charming YA story about teenagers whose parents may have planned for them to marry and how they choose to deal with that in present-day San Francisco. Second, A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth is literally 1,000 pages long and reading it felt like entering a long-term relationship, but it is a classic story of love and class and gender in 1950s India.

Defying Doomsday

defyingdoomsdayDefying Doomsday
edited by Tsana Dolichva and Holly Kench
2016

It was probably not my best idea to read this anthology of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic short stories while dealing with a local black-out caused by heavy storms. It’s the type of situation that’s all the worse for the stories being really well-written and interesting. Beyond just dealing with the apocalypse (“just”, I say), the theme that brings these stories together is disabilities.  The heroes and heroines of each story have some disability — physical, sensory, and/or mental.

The introduction made a really good point about how so many post-apocalyptic stories act like people with disabilities will be the first to die and are a burden to those around them. The stories in this anthology refute that. A few of the authors look at how something that our modern world calls a disability could well be an adaptive feature in a massively changed one. Most of them, however, look at how people who are used to living in a world that doesn’t cater to their needs have experience and practice that more abled people don’t get in our modern world. Reading my kindle by candle light was already highlighting to me how unprepared I was for any sort of harsh living: I live a very catered-to life.

I’m not going to write individual reviews about each story, although I certainly thought about it since the stories are all very good, but also all significantly different from one another. Instead, here are my top three:

“Something in the Rain” by Seanan McGuire is probably my favorite. I find the apocalypse situation particularly terrifying and I like the heroine the best with her ruthless perseverance. And spoiler: the cat lives.

“Given Sufficient Desperation”, by Bogi Takács, felt like a wonderfully subtle modern take on Gordon R. Dickson’s classic, “Danger-Human”.

“No Shit”, by K. L. Evangelista, is an subversion of a couple of classic post-apocolyptic tropes that also directly addresses the issue of how just the idea of roving bands of robbers would impact the people who survive.

The whole anthology a love song to the old adage: what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. What doesn’t kill you can make you more broken, but it also gives you the experience of carrying on anyway. I definitely recommend it.

The Orphans of Raspay by Lois McMaster Bujold

OrphansOfRaspay1The Orphans of Raspay
by Lois McMaster Bujold
2019

Yay! Another Penric & Desdemona short story by Bujold! For the first time, Amazon’s update email was actually useful to me despite going out a full week after the novella was published on July 17th. Normally I stalk Bujold’s listing much more carefully but I’ve been busy recently and thus only learned about this title on the 24th when Amazon finally got around to emailing me.

It is a delight! It’s also a novella of extreme self-indulgence, with both plot and character arc being mostly absent, but adventure and swashbuckling in quantity!

This is also an amazing example of what you can get away with if you set up the world-building right. Because in this fantasy world, there are five gods (father, mother, son, daughter, and bastard) and Penric is a devotee of the Bastard: literally the god of luck (good and bad) and all things out of season. And thus, it actually makes perfect in-universe sense for Penric to have amazingly good and bad luck in all things, especially when one takes into account his demon Desdemona who sheds chaos even as she also provides him with extraordinary powers.

The story starts with his ship being attacked by pirates and continues on in wacky hijinks after he’s taken on the temporary guardianship, as best he can, of two young orphans who were also taken by the pirates.*

This is an utter delight and I have no idea how comprehensible it is to anyone who hasn’t read the rest of the series but I’d be interested to know if it’s so indulgent that it actually can stand on its own. It’s essentially a day-in-the-life (or, in this case, week-in-the-life) of a temple sorcerer in a fantasy world.  And I love it!

* While I love this story, here’s a warning for pirates being pirates and actually genuinely bad and there are threats of sexual assault.

Awesome New(ish) TV By and About Women

Do other people fall into reading ruts where you’re reading all the time and finishing lots of books, but nothing really excites you or even sticks in your memory? Over the past couple of months I’ve read all sorts of things, including some with quite a bit of buzz (The Woman in the Window, The Immortalists), but have been pretty uninspired by all of them.  But I have been watching lots of great TV, across the full range of steaming services I apparently now have to pay for. I have particularly enjoyed several short series that show some realities of being a woman that I haven’t often seen on TV before. So here are Kinsey’s official recommendations for your spring TV viewing. They’re all short enough to knock out in a single evening, although they are all also at least a little raunchy and maybe things you don’t want to watch with your mom or your kids. Although, I don’t know your life or your mom or your kids, you do you.

Derry Girls (Netflix) is a comedy about a group of friends who go to a Catholic girls school in Northern Ireland in the 1990s.  It captures the intricate social strata of high school girls perfectly, and the family interactions have a completely non-saccharine ring of truth to them, while also being very funny. There’s a scene where someone drops a glass on the kitchen floor and a character’s mom acts like a nuclear spill has occurred and makes everyone stand on chairs–I loved it so much I had to rewind and watch that bit again. But as funny as the show is, the Troubles in Northern Ireland are always hovering on the edges, never letting anyone completely forget that they are living their lives in a battle zone. Also, there is amazing 90s music for my fellow Gen Xers, and Northern Irish accents that required me to have subtitles on to understand everything going on.

Shrill (Hulu) Lindy West’s memoir didn’t originally strike me as good source material for a fictional show, but the first season absolutely charmed me. Aidy Bryant (who I didn’t know before because I hate Saturday Night Live and never watch it) is amazing as a woman trying to navigate life as an entry-level journalist with a meddling mom and a terrible non-boyfriend. I guess you would say that her weight is the hook of the show, but it’s not like every episode is about how hard it is to be fat. Very early on she decides she is going to stop obsessing and just live her damn life, and most of the episodes are about her doing just that. Within the first five minutes of episode one I started googling to try to figure out where to buy her cute clothes and the infuriating answer is that they had to custom make basically everything because plus-size clothes are so awful. So enjoy the show, but know going in that you will not be able to buy those dresses.

Fleabag (Amazon) When I started writing this I initially thought, “Oh, I have three women-centered comedies to recommend!” But Fleabag might stretch the definition of comedy, so be warned. It follows a young London woman though encounters with men, her father and stepmother (played by the marvelous Olivia Coleman as possibly the worst woman in the world), and her sister. The main character is clearly on the verge of falling apart after a tragedy that is only slowly revealed in the show, and her relationships with her family make me want to use words like “searing” and “blistering.” Phoebe Waller-Bridge is the star and creator, and she is so observant and specific about the absurdity of life that the show is funny, while also pressing on some very painful areas of the psyche. Season 1 has been out for a couple of years, but I was finally inspired to watch it because Season 2 just showed to raves in the UK, and will be coming to Amazon in May. So now is a good time to get on this dark, dark train.