Books Read in 2021: Five-Star Everything

Here they are, the ones that knocked my socks off for whatever reason. I am acutely aware, as I have said, that different readers receive different books, well, differently. I do believe that these are all well-written books, but often the thing that differentiates a good reading experience from a great one is my mood or where I am in life, or the time of year, or several other variables. The same will be true with others according to their state of mind or genre preferences. I'd like to say it doesn't hurt my feelings when someone doesn't like a book I loved, but that would be a lie. I recognize, though, that it shouldn't, and I lie about it fairly convincingly, I think.

My soul-and-skull-crushing migraine has departed. Sometimes I can feel it lurking, but I think it's moved on for now. Yoga is keeping my sciatic pain at bay. The situation downtown is still terrible, but a state of emergency has been declared. In some ways that feels even more frightening, and it remains to be seen whether it will lead to actual movement, but at least something is being done. I'm going to go to work tomorrow and come home and stay off social media, because there really isn't much I can do, and dwelling on it is trashing my mental health. 

It's Eve's nineteenth birthday tomorrow and I'm a little sad she's away for it, but she'll be home in two weeks so we can celebrate, and she had a little party with her friends in residence yesterday that looked really fun. She has a lot of work and still gets stressed, and she's finding being back in class in-person exhausting (which I totally get) but even if she gets weepy on FaceTime she recovers quickly and finds something to laugh about. She's really come into her own since she got back after Christmas, and it's tremendously cool to see. 


Far, Far Away by Tom McNeal: The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde: Synopsis from Goodreads: It says quite a lot about Jeremy Johnson Johnson that the strangest thing about him isn't even the fact his mother and father both had the same last name. Jeremy once admitted he's able to hear voices, and the townspeople of Never Better have treated him like an outsider since. After his mother left, his father became a recluse, and it's been up to Jeremy to support the family. But it hasn't been up to Jeremy alone. The truth is, Jeremy can hear voices. Or, specifically, one voice: the voice of the ghost of Jacob Grimm, one half of the infamous writing duo, The Brothers Grimm. Jacob watches over Jeremy, protecting him from an unknown dark evil whispered about in the space between this world and the next. But when the provocative local girl Ginger Boultinghouse takes an interest in Jeremy (and his unique abilities), a grim chain of events is put into motion. And as anyone familiar with the Grimm Brothers know, not all fairy tales have happy endings..

A main character who hears the voice of Jacob Grimm's ghost? Um yeah, sign me the fuck UP. This is somehow a dark fairy tale and also just a cool YA novel with a hint of the uncanny. This book, like The Colours of Madeleine Trilogy, seems like it should be on Best Of lists and yet I came across it (and the trilogy) fortuitously and accidentally while browsing the library ebook catalogue aimlessly. That makes the whole reading experience seem that much more magical, which is good for me but less so for the book (and the author). I went looking for other books by the same author, and found To Be Sung Underwater, a wonderful adult novel. It looks like he's written other books in both genres, plus some children's book, so yeah. Talented. 

Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror

The Lesson by Cadwell Turnbull: Synopsis from Goodreads: THE LESSON explores the nature of belief, the impact of colonialism, and asks how far are we willing to go for progress? Breaking ground as one of the first science fiction novels set in the Virgin Islands, THE LESSON is not only a thought-provoking literary work, delving deeply into allegorical themes of colonialism, but also vividly draws the community of Charlotte Amalie, wherefrom the author hails. An alien ship rests over Water Island. For five years the people of the U.S. Virgin Islands have lived with the Ynaa, a race of super-advanced aliens on a research mission they will not fully disclose. They are benevolent in many ways but meet any act of aggression with disproportional wrath. This has led to a strained relationship between the Ynaa and the local Virgin Islanders and a peace that cannot last. A year after the death of a young boy at the hands of an Ynaa, three families find themselves at the center of the inevitable conflict, witness and victim to events that will touch everyone and teach a terrible lesson.

I requested this from NetGalley and got it, read a few chapters and was completely engaged, and then somehow it got lost on my Kindle and I didn't rediscover it until recently. This was a huge mistake. This is extremely literate and subtle science fiction, layered onto a story about the fallout from colonialism, family relationships, the struggle between faith and science, fear of the other and a bunch of other things I'm probably missing.

It's a different experience reading about black people in a place where most of the population is racialized, so structural racism obviously exists but isn't played out the same way as it is when they aren't a minority population. The issue of racism set against the perception and treatment of the Ynaa who are literally alien is jarring and illuminating.

The sense of place is vivid and arresting - you can almost feel the heat, smell the vegetation and the cooking. The characters are vibrant and authentic, so even though there are quite a few it's not at all difficult to tell them apart. I had no idea where the story was going to go, but there was a palpable sense of menace and melancholy, of people desperate to connect but doomed by misunderstandings of all sorts.

The way the story starts, with the occupation a foregone conclusion, situates the suspense differently from other alien invasion stories. The Ynaa presence isn't the biggest problem in some of the characters' lives, and the back story of the Ynaa ambassador is endlessly fascinating. This book led me to look immediately for everything else I could find written by this author, and I will read his forthcoming book the second it's available.

The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson: Synopsis from Goodreads: An outsider who can travel between worlds discovers a secret that threatens her new home and her fragile place in it, in a stunning sci-fi debut that’s both a cross-dimensional adventure and a powerful examination of identity, privilege, and belonging. Multiverse travel is finally possible, but there’s just one catch: No one can visit a world where their counterpart is still alive. Enter Cara, whose parallel selves happen to be exceptionally good at dying—from disease, turf wars, or vendettas they couldn’t outrun. Cara’s life has been cut short on 372 worlds in total. On this Earth, however, Cara has survived. Identified as an outlier and therefore a perfect candidate for multiverse travel, Cara is plucked from the dirt of the wastelands. Now she has a nice apartment on the lower levels of the wealthy and walled-off Wiley City. She works—and shamelessly flirts—with her enticing yet aloof handler, Dell, as the two women collect off-world data for the Eldridge Institute. She even occasionally leaves the city to visit her family in the wastes, though she struggles to feel at home in either place. So long as she can keep her head down and avoid trouble, Cara is on a sure path to citizenship and security. But trouble finds Cara when one of her eight remaining doppelgängers dies under mysterious circumstances, plunging her into a new world with an old secret. What she discovers will connect her past and her future in ways she could have never imagined—and reveal her own role in a plot that endangers not just her world, but the entire multiverse.

Omg omg omg I loved this so much. Multiple worlds, interdimensional travel with certain strict rules, Cara's status as, in some ways, the ultimate outsider, questions of identity and family. Just fantastic speculative fiction with wonderful characters (especially when one character is sometimes several characters, you know? Okay, you don't, but you will when you read it) and peerless worldmaking and the age-old dilemma of having to choose between justice and personal safety. Okay, I just had a look at the Goodreads reviews and it appears this is a sharply divisive book, so don't read it on my recommendation because it has been a VERY DIFFICULT month and I don't need the grief. Hmph. 

You Let Me In by Camilla Bruce: Synopsis from Goodreads: You Let Me In delivers a stunning tale from debut author Camilla Bruce, combining the sinister domestic atmosphere of Gillian Flynn's Sharp Objects with the otherwordly thrills of Neil Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Cassandra Tipp is dead...or is she? After all, the notorious recluse and eccentric bestselling novelist has always been prone to flights of fancy--everyone in town remembers the shocking events leading up to Cassie's infamous trial (she may have been acquitted, but the insanity defense only stretches so far). Cassandra Tipp has left behind no body--just her massive fortune, and one final manuscript. Then again, there are enough bodies in her past--her husband Tommy Tipp, whose mysterious disembowelment has never been solved, and a few years later, the shocking murder-suicide of her father and brother. Cassandra Tipp will tell you a story--but it will come with a terrible price. What really happened, out there in the woods--and who has Cassie been protecting all along? Read on, if you dare.

I think the comparisons to Sharp Objects and The Ocean at the End of the Lane are fair - I would also maybe say a super-twisted Life of Pi vibe. My five-star rating is mostly for the pitch-perfect balance between realism and fantasy/magical realism, which strikes me as a very difficult balance to achieve, but the writing is clever and often quite beautiful, while also being incredibly disturbing. Cassandra is a unique voice and a compelling character. Perfect October read - I won't forget this one quickly.

Mapping the Interior by Stephen Graham Joyce: Synopsis from Goodreads: Walking through his own house at night, a twelve-year-old thinks he sees another person stepping through a doorway. Instead of the people who could be there, his mother or his brother, the figure reminds him of his long-gone father, who died mysteriously before his family left the reservation. When he follows it he discovers his house is bigger and deeper than he knew. The house is the kind of wrong place where you can lose yourself and find things you'd rather not have. Over the course of a few nights, the boy tries to map out his house in an effort that puts his little brother in the worst danger, and puts him in the position to save them . . . at terrible cost. 

"There are rules, I know. Not knowing them doesn't mean they don't apply to you."

This was devastating. I don't even know how to review it. The yearning for the lost father, the cycle of poverty and loss and longing, the cascade of wrongness and injustice, all rendered in the most beautiful, scarring language. Laid me right open. 


The Night Swim by Megan Goldin: Synopsis from Goodreads: After the first season of her true crime podcast became an overnight sensation and set an innocent man free, Rachel Krall is now a household name―and the last hope for thousands of people seeking justice. But she’s used to being recognized for her voice, not her face. Which makes it all the more unsettling when she finds a note on her car windshield, addressed to her, begging for help. The small town of Neapolis is being torn apart by a devastating rape trial. The town’s golden boy, a swimmer destined for Olympic greatness, has been accused of raping a high school student, the beloved granddaughter of the police chief. Under pressure to make Season Three a success, Rachel throws herself into interviewing and investigating―but the mysterious letters keep showing up in unexpected places. Someone is following her, and she won’t stop until Rachel finds out what happened to her sister twenty-five years ago. Officially, Jenny Stills tragically drowned, but the letters insists she was murdered―and when Rachel starts asking questions, nobody seems to want to answer. The past and present start to collide as Rachel uncovers startling connections between the two cases that will change the course of the trial and the lives of everyone involved. Electrifying and propulsive, The Night Swim asks: What is the price of a reputation? Can a small town ever right the wrongs of its past? And what really happened to Jenny? 

“The idea that guilt must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt dates back to the eighteenth-century British jurist Sir William Blackstone, who wrote in his seminal works that underpin our legal system: “Better than ten guilty persons escape, than that one innocent suffer.”Studies show that rapists tend to be repeat offenders more than other criminals. They go on to rape again, at a rate of around five rapes in their lifetime. That means the ten guilty rapists who escape, to paraphrase Sir Blackstone, might go on to rape fifty women”

Another book about a true crime podcast. That was done really well, but it also deftly layers in an incisive commentary on rape culture, particularly as it impacts on lower income girls and women. I find a book that can tell an engaging story while also illustrating a destructive social problem really impressive. Looking forward to reading more of her work. 

Crimson Lake (Crimson Lake #1) by Candice Fox: Synopsis from Goodreads: Crimson Lake, by Sydney-based, Ned Kelly Award-winning author Candice Fox, is a thrilling contemporary crime novel set in Queensland, Australia, perfect for readers of authors like James Patterson, Harlan Coben, Lisa Gardner, and Tana French. How do you move on when the world won’t let you? 12:46: Claire Bingley stands alone at a bus stop 12:47: Ted Conkaffey parks his car beside her 12:52: The girl is missing . . . Six minutes in the wrong place at the wrong time—that’s all it took to ruin Sydney detective Ted Conkaffey’s life. Accused but not convicted of a brutal abduction,Ted is now a free man—and public enemy number one. Maintaining his innocence, he flees north to keep a low profile amidst the steamy, croc-infested wetlands of Crimson Lake. 

There, Ted’s lawyer introduces him to eccentric private investigator Amanda Pharrell, herself a convicted murderer. Not entirely convinced Amanda is a cold-blooded killer, Ted agrees to help with her investigation, a case full of deception and obsession, while secretly digging into her troubled past. The residents of Crimson Lake are watching the pair's every move... and the town offers no place to hide.

Redemption Point (Crimson Lake #2) by Candice Fox: Synopsis from Goodreads: When former police detective Ted Conkaffey was wrongly accused of abducting Claire Bingley, he hoped the Queensland rainforest town of Crimson Lake would be a good place to disappear. But nowhere is safe from Claire's devastated father.  Dale Bingley has a brutal revenge plan all worked out - and if Ted doesn't help find the real abductor, he'll be its first casualty. Meanwhile, in a dark roadside hovel called the Barking Frog Inn, the bodies of two young bartenders lie on the beer-sodden floor. It's Detective Inspector Pip Sweeney's first homicide investigation - complicated by the arrival of private detective Amanda Pharrell to 'assist' on the case. Amanda's conviction for murder a decade ago has left her with some odd behavioural traits, top-to-toe tatts - and a keen eye for killers . . . For Ted and Amanda, the hunt for the truth will draw them into a violent dance with evil. Redemption is certainly on the cards - but it may well cost them their lives.

Gone by Midnight (Crimson Lake #3) by Candice Fox: Synopsis from Goodreads: Crimson Lake is where people with dark pasts come to disappear—and where others vanish into thin air… Four young boys are left alone in a hotel room while their parents dine downstairs. When Sara Farrow checks on the children at midnight, her son is missing. Distrustful of the police, Sara turns to Crimson Lake’s unlikeliest private investigators—disgraced cop Ted Conkaffey and convicted killer Amanda Pharrell. For Ted, the case couldn’t have come at a worse time. Two years ago a false accusation robbed him of his career, his reputation, and most importantly, his family. But now Lillian, the daughter he barely knows, is coming to stay in his ramshackle cottage by the lake. Ted must dredge up the area’s worst characters to find the missing boy. The clock is ticking, and the danger he uncovers could well put his own child in deadly peril.

-”Because whatever Hollywood-inspired expectations I’d had about making friends in prison, I knew almost straightaway that it was impossible. Prison is full of criminals, who can and will sell out anyone around for even the smallest comfort. It’s better to have the thicker mattress than a friend. It’s better to have extended TV time than a friend. It’s better to move down to a less secure section than to have a friend. In all situations, making sacrifices so you can make a friend isn’t worth it. You do get close to people so that as a group you can take or protect these small advantages and comforts from other groups of people, but the people in your group aren’t your ‘friends.’ Inside the group, it’s only a matter of time before those advantages have to be divided, and then it’s every man for himself.”

I'm reviewing the whole trilogy instead of each book separately partly because I read them back to back, partly because they are a single entity in my mind, and partly because I'm just running out of words. I think I mentioned I got really into Australian mysteries this year - grateful for whatever vagaries of the publishing world have made them more available here. Many of them were excellent, but these were the ones that blew me away. In lesser hands the story lines could seem sensationalized, but the writing is deft and assured enough to override that. It's a profound study of what it's like to live in the wake of being falsely accused of something unforgivable, a convincing portrayal of remote small-town insularity, and two broken people with a whack-ass friendship rebuilding their lives. I was so sad when it was all over. 

Exit by Belinda Bauer: Synopsis from Goodreads: IT WAS NEVER SUPPOSED TO BE MURDER ...Pensioner Felix Pink is about to find out that it’s never too late ... for life to go horribly wrong. When Felix lets himself in to Number 3 Black Lane, he’s there to perform an act of kindness and charity: to keep a dying man company as he takes his final breath ... But just fifteen minutes later Felix is on the run from the police – after making the biggest mistake of his life. Now his routine world is turned upside down as he tries to discover what went wrong, while staying one step ahead of the law.

-”However, that kindness was doing him no favours. Skipper was older than him and terribly frail. But he was also enraged -- whereas Felix was only sorry he’d ever come. He finally gripped the business end of the walking stick and tried to wrestle it away from his assailant in a series of jerks that only succeeded in unbalancing them both and -- after an odd, tottering tango around the end of the bed -- they both fell over and hit the floor with matching grunts.”

I feel like I've already used up all the superlatives on all the other Belinda Bauer books I've read. She's so damned good. It's like every book is both the perfect mystery and the perfect novel about human connection and the general perversity of things and the universe being a giant dick and then sometimes also being surprisingly kind. It's vanishingly rare to find all of those things in a single book, and she keeps turning them out reliably. I couldn't smash the 'borrow' button fast enough. It was about medically-assisted death, what to do when your partner has died and you think your life is basically over, policing in a small town, generational trauma, gambling, dogs, and an asshole cat. It was perfection.


Wow, No Thank-You: Essays by Samantha Irby: Synopsis from Goodreads: A new essay collection from Samantha Irby about aging, marriage, settling down with step-children in white, small-town America. Irby is turning forty, and increasingly uncomfortable in her own skin. She has left her job as a receptionist at a veterinary clinic, has published successful books and is courted by Hollywood, left Chicago, and moved into a house with a garden that requires repairs and know-how with her wife and two step-children in a small white, Republican town in Michigan where she now hosts book clubs. This is the bourgeois life of dreams. She goes on bad dates with new friends, spends weeks in Los Angeles taking meetings with "skinny, luminous peoples" while being a "cheese fry-eating slightly damp Midwest person," "with neck pain and no cartilage in [her] knees," and hides Entenmann's cookies under her bed and unopened bills under her pillow.

“I don’t do anything hard, because my life has already been hard. You know those people who are always running and jumping and diving into some challenging bullshit to test themselves? That’s not me.”

Holy shit, this lady is funny. 

Know My Name by Chanel Miller: Synopsis from Goodreads: She was known to the world as Emily Doe when she stunned millions with a letter. Brock Turner had been sentenced to just six months in county jail after he was found sexually assaulting her on Stanford’s campus. Her victim impact statement was posted on BuzzFeed, where it instantly went viral–viewed by eleven million people within four days, it was translated globally and read on the floor of Congress; it inspired changes in California law and the recall of the judge in the case. Thousands wrote to say that she had given them the courage to share their own experiences of assault for the first time. Now she reclaims her identity to tell her story of trauma, transcendence, and the power of words. It was the perfect case, in many ways–there were eyewitnesses, Turner ran away, physical evidence was immediately secured. But her struggles with isolation and shame during the aftermath and the trial reveal the oppression victims face in even the best-case scenarios. Her story illuminates a culture biased to protect perpetrators, indicts a criminal justice system designed to fail the most vulnerable, and, ultimately, shines with the courage required to move through suffering and live a full and beautiful life. Know My Name will forever transform the way we think about sexual assault, challenging our beliefs about what is acceptable and speaking truth to the tumultuous reality of healing. It also introduces readers to an extraordinary writer, one whose words have already changed our world. Entwining pain, resilience, and humor, this memoir will stand as a modern classic.

-”In rape cases it’s starnge to me when poeple say, Well why didn’t you fight him? If you woke up to a robber in your home, saw him taking your stuff people wouldn’t ask, Well why didn’t you fight him? Why didn’t you tell him no? He’s already violating an unspoken rule, why would he suddenly decide to adhere to reason? What would give you reason to think he’d stop if you told him to? And in this case, with my being unconscious, why were there still so many questions?”

-”Ram Dass said, Allow that you are at this moment not in the wrong place in your life. Consider the possibility that there have been no errors in the game. Just consider it. Consider that there is not an error, and everything that’s come down on your plate is the way it is and here we are. I don’t believe it was my fate to be raped. But I do believe that here we are is all we have. For a long time, it was too painful to be here. My mind preferred to be dissociated. I used to believe the goal was forgetting.

It took me a long time to learn healing is not about advancing. It is about returning repeatedly to forage something. Writing this book allowed me to go back to that place. I learned to stay in the hurt, to resist leaving.”

I didn't want to read this book. I thought I knew a lot of what it was going to say and I didn't want to go there again. I was wrong, and I'm really, really glad I forced myself, because the whole point of it was that she's more than just Brock Turner's victim, and it's an amazing book in its own right. I never, ever think that "things happen for a reason", like a terminal illness or a horrible life event that results in growth or something for a person - the growth is incidental, we don't get to think that that person should be grateful for the suffering. But what a gift to the world that this woman - so emotionally mature and articulate for her age, so able to voice some vitally important things about rape culture and how the justice system treats sexual assault cases, such a beautiful writer and a funny, witty, compassionate person - gave us this book. I would have happily read about her life even if she hadn't gone through what she did. I am incensed that she had to go through what she did, but so impressed and grateful that she gave us this book.

 Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist and Our Lives Revealed by Lori Gottlieb: Synopsis from Goodreads: From a New York Times best-selling author, psychotherapist, and national advice columnist, a hilarious, thought-provoking, and surprising new book that takes us behind the scenes of a therapist's world -- where her patients are looking for answers (and so is she). One day, Lori Gottlieb is a therapist who helps patients in her Los Angeles practice. The next, a crisis causes her world to come crashing down. Enter Wendell, the quirky but seasoned therapist in whose office she suddenly lands. With his balding head, cardigan, and khakis, he seems to have come straight from Therapist Central Casting. Yet he will turn out to be anything but. As Gottlieb explores the inner chambers of her patients' lives -- a self-absorbed Hollywood producer, a young newlywed diagnosed with a terminal illness, a senior citizen threatening to end her life on her birthday if nothing gets better, and a twenty-something who can't stop hooking up with the wrong guys -- she finds that the questions they are struggling with are the very ones she is now bringing to Wendell. With startling wisdom and humor, Gottlieb invites us into her world as both clinician and patient, examining the truths and fictions we tell ourselves and others as we teeter on the tightrope between love and desire, meaning and mortality, guilt and redemption, terror and courage, hope and change. Maybe You Should Talk to Someone is revolutionary in its candor, offering a deeply personal yet universal tour of our hearts and minds and providing the rarest of gifts: a boldly revealing portrait of what it means to be human, and a disarmingly funny and illuminating account of our own mysterious lives and our power to transform them.

-”’Or I could just leave a pair of boxing gloves at the door so you could hit yourself with them all session. Would that be easier?’ Wendell smiles, and I feel myself take in some air, let it out, relax into the kindness. I flash on a thought I often have when seeing my own self-flagellating patients: You are not the best person to talk to you about you right now. There is a difference, I point out to them, between self-blame and self-responsibility., which is a corollary to something Jack Kornfield said: ‘A second quality of mature spirituality is kindness. It is based on a fundamental notion of self-acceptance.’ In therapy we aim for self-compassion (Am I human?) versus self-esteem (a judgment: Am I good or bad?)

It seems weird to be happy that Lori Gottlieb's boyfriend dumped her so we could have this book. But the twinned structure of her treating her patients and being treated in turn by her therapist, and the attendant vagaries of both, works so beautifully. This book was just filled with so much insight and kindness. It made me think I should consider therapy, and then laugh at myself as I realized how bad I would be for trying to anticipate what my therapist expected of me and then trying to either meet or subvert those expectations. I admire Gottlieb's honesty and self-critical faculties. 


Igifu by Scholastique Mukasonga: Synopsis from Goodreads: The stories in Igifu summon phantom memories of Rwanda and radiate with the fierce ache of a survivor. From the National Book Award finalist who Zadie Smith says, "rescues a million souls from the collective noun genocide." Scholastique Mukasonga's autobiographical stories rend a glorious Rwanda from the obliterating force of recent history, conjuring the noble cows of her home or the dew-swollen grass they graze on. In the title story, five-year-old Colomba tells of a merciless overlord, hunger or igifu, gnawing away at her belly. She searches for sap at the bud of a flower, scraps of sweet potato at the foot of her parent's bed, or a few grains of sorghum in the floor sweepings. Igifu becomes a dizzying hole in her stomach, a plunging abyss into which she falls. In a desperate act of preservation, Colomba's mother gathers enough sorghum to whip up a nourishing porridge, bringing Colomba back to life. This elixir courses through each story, a balm to soothe the pains of those so ferociously fighting for survival. Her writing eclipses the great gaps of time and memory; in one scene she is a child sitting squat with a jug of sweet, frothy milk and in another she is an exiled teacher, writing down lists of her dead. As in all her work, Scholastique sits up with them, her witty and beaming beloved.

-”When dawn came, we were greatly surprised to find ourselves lying fully clothed side by side...little by little came reassuring news… The Nyamata market was bustling as always. At noon, the alarm was lifted. The days ahead would be hard, because we’d used up all our provisions to face the great fear. Now we would go back to a life lived on borrowed time, back to the everyday fear. They hadn’t come this time, but we knew one day they would.”

Well, this was utterly devastating and I have no idea how to review it. I keep picturing myself as this privileged basic-ass white woman weeping trying to tell people how life-changing this book is while, well, not really changing anything. Mukasonga is a Tutsi from Rwanda and the stories are from that point of view, so I assume there are autobiographical elements. They are the soul of simplicity - focusing on how the demon of hunger directs and fills a child's entire day, or how the Tutsis love and revere their cows and how wrenching it is when that simple pleasure is denied them in exile, or how beauty is more of a curse than a blessing when you are a marginalized person. And there is the shame of being poor and hungry and oppressed, and the daily, moment-to-moment grief and terror and conviction that, even once the genocide wasn't present anymore, any person you meet on the street could be planning to kill you. How does one group of people do this to another group, based on nothing but a name they call themselves? How does the rest of the world let it happen?

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi: Synopsis from Goodreads: Yaa Gyasi's stunning follow-up to her acclaimed national best seller Homegoing is a powerful, raw, intimate, deeply layered novel about a Ghanaian family in Alabama. Gifty is a fifth-year candidate in neuroscience at Stanford School of Medicine studying reward-seeking behavior in mice and the neural circuits of depression and addiction. Her brother, Nana, was a gifted high school athlete who died of a heroin overdose after a knee injury left him hooked on OxyContin. Her suicidal mother is living in her bed. Gifty is determined to discover the scientific basis for the suffering she sees all around her.But even as she turns to the hard sciences to unlock the mystery of her family's loss, she finds herself hungering for her childhood faith and grappling with the evangelical church in which she was raised, whose promise of salvation remains as tantalizing as it is elusive. Transcendent Kingdom is a deeply moving portrait of a family of Ghanaian immigrants ravaged by depression and addiction and grief--a novel about faith, science, religion, love. Exquisitely written, emotionally searing, this is an exceptionally powerful follow-up to Gyasi's phenomenal debut. 

“I knew what those glances meant, but I wasn’t ready for that long walk down to the altar, for the entire congregation to train their eyes on me, praying that Jesus take my sins away. I still wanted my sins. I still wanted my childhood, my freedom to fall asleep in big church with little consequence. I didn’t know what would become of me once I crossed the line from sinner to saved.”

This author's first book was one of my favourites of last year, so I thought might as well read this one and probably find it lacking by comparison. Nope. Still brilliant. Still interweaves elements of faith and history with modern struggles and traumas. A wrenching picture of the devastation wrought by addiction, and the ways we use our study and work to try to resolve childhood and family wounds. 

Butter Honey Pig Bread by Francesca Ekwuyasi: Synopsis from Goodreads: Spanning three continents, Butter Honey Pig Bread tells the interconnected stories of three Nigerian women: Kambirinachi and her twin daughters, Kehinde and Taiye. Kambirinachi believes that she is an Ogbanje, or an Abiku, a non-human spirit that plagues a family with misfortune by being born and then dying in childhood to cause a human mother misery. She has made the unnatural choice of staying alive to love her human family but lives in fear of the consequences of her decision. Kambirinachi and her two daughters become estranged from one another because of a trauma that Kehinde experiences in childhood, which leads her to move away and cut off all contact. She ultimately finds her path as an artist and seeks to raise a family of her own, despite her fear that she won't be a good mother. Meanwhile, Taiye is plagued by guilt for what her sister suffered and also runs away, attempting to fill the void of that lost relationship with casual flings with women. She eventually discovers a way out of her stifling loneliness through a passion for food and cooking. But now, after more than a decade of living apart, Taiye and Kehinde have returned home to Lagos. It is here that the three women must face each other and address the wounds of the past if they are to reconcile and move forward. For readers of African diasporic authors such as Teju Cole and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Butter Honey Pig Bread is a story of choices and their consequences, of motherhood, of the malleable line between the spirit and the mind, of finding new homes and mending old ones, of voracious appetites, of queer love, of friendship, faith, and above all, family.

-”If you ask Kambirinachi, this is how she’ll tell it: There was a spirit, a child, whose reluctance to be born, and subsequent boredom with life, caused her to come and go between realms as she pleased. Succumbing to the messy ordeal of being birthed, she would traverse to the flesh realm, only to carelessly, suddenly, let go of living like it was an inconvenient load. Death is only a doorway, and her dying was always a simple event; she would merely stop breathing. It was her nature. The dark tales of malevolent spirit children, Ogbanjes, are twisted and untrue. It was never her intention to cause her mother misery; she was just restless. It was just the way.”

-”Our mother is not well. I can scarcely remember a time when she was. She is a vast garden of water-hungry flowers in a land of perpetual drought.”

Brilliant, filled with passion and colour and flavour and magical realism. I read this concurrently with How to Pronounce Knife and appreciated how it reminded me why representation is important and diversity in literature is crucial. How to Pronounce Knife is about being different and unwelcome, and racism plays a big part. Butter Honey Pig Bread has trauma, but not centered in ethnicity or racism. Much of it takes part in Nigeria, the home country of the characters, and the daughters' experiences in the UK and Canada are largely positive. It's about family and food and healing, not racism. And we need both types of book.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke: Synopsis from Goodreads: Piranesi's house is no ordinary building: its rooms are infinite, its corridors endless, its walls are lined with thousands upon thousands of statues, each one different from all the others. Within the labyrinth of halls an ocean is imprisoned; waves thunder up staircases, rooms are flooded in an instant. But Piranesi is not afraid; he understands the tides as he understands the pattern of the labyrinth itself. He lives to explore the house.There is one other person in the house—a man called The Other, who visits Piranesi twice a week and asks for help with research into A Great and Secret Knowledge. But as Piranesi explores, evidence emerges of another person, and a terrible truth begins to unravel, revealing a world beyond the one Piranesi has always known.

-”My only difficulty was that I did not know how to sign the letter. I could not write ‘YOUR FRIEND’ as I did when I wrote to the Other or to Laurence (the person who had wanted to see the Statue of an Elderly Fox teaching some Squirrels). 16 and I were not friends. I tried putting ‘your enemy’ but this seemed unnecessarily confrontational. I considered ‘the one who will never submit to being driven mad by you’ but that was rather long (and not a little pompous). In the end, I simply but: PIRANESI. This being what the Other calls me. (But I do not think that is my name)."

I stuck this in the "book about art" square (there are a lot of descriptions of statues) for Book Bingo, but I was never not going to read it because I loved Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell so (although that same fact made me afraid this would suffer by comparison). I don't even know how to say how many ways this amazed me. It's so different from Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and yet equally as wonderful. It's the most perfectly-paced book I can ever recall reading - even when virtually nothing was happening I was completely content to stay immersed in the beautifully detailed exquisiteness of the world, even as I could feel the inevitable drawing closer by excruciatingly measured and unhurried increments. And Piranesi! What a heart-stirringly flawlessly complex and yet consummately simple creation of a character. This is masterful. I am smitten. Please god may another 16 years not go by before her next book.

How the Penguins Saved Veronica by Hazel Prior: Synopsis from Goodreads: A curmudgeonly but charming old woman, her estranged grandson, and a colony of penguins proves it's never too late to be the person you want to be in this rich, heartwarming story from the acclaimed author of Ellie and the Harpmaker. Eighty-five-year-old Veronica McCreedy is estranged from her family and wants to find a worthwhile cause to leave her fortune to. When she sees a documentary about penguins being studied in Antarctica, she tells the scientists she’s coming to visit—and won’t take no for an answer. Shortly after arriving, she convinces the reluctant team to rescue an orphaned baby penguin. He becomes part of life at the base, and Veronica's closed heart starts to open. Her grandson, Patrick, comes to Antarctica to make one last attempt to get to know his grandmother. Together, Veronica, Patrick, and even the scientists learn what family, love, and connection are all about.

--”Not me. Not anymore. Nobody could call my life a success. Why make the effort to hang on to it any longer? And yet. When a cannonball of a young penguin propels himself onto your prostrate body and stares into your face with glittering eyes, you stop whatever you are doing for a moment, even if what you are doing is dying.”

Oh sure, I could screw around with four stars, but whatever, I found this amazing and it was exactly the book I wanted to read right as I read it. I suspect that it seems much easier to write this kind of book than it actually is. It's both simple and utterly profound, and I loved it. Also, what the hell have I been doing with my life that I haven't spent more time around penguins?

Milkman by Anna Bruce:Synopsis from Goodreads: In this unnamed city, to be interesting is dangerous. Middle sister, our protagonist, is busy attempting to keep her mother from discovering her maybe-boyfriend and to keep everyone in the dark about her encounter with Milkman. But when first brother-in-law sniffs out her struggle, and rumours start to swell, middle sister becomes 'interesting'. The last thing she ever wanted to be. To be interesting is to be noticed and to be noticed is dangerous.
Milkman is a tale of gossip and hearsay, silence and deliberate deafness. It is the story of inaction with enormous consequences.

Someone put this on our book club list, and when I opened it and saw the massive blocks of text with scarcely any paragraph breaks my heart sank. I started reading and was almost instantly beguiled. There are no names, just designations (first brother-in-law, maybe boyfriend, little sisters, milkman and the milkman, who are not the same). The protagonist likes to read and so has put herself in the 'beyond-the-pale' camp, without certain protections afforded to 'normal' citizens. A paramilitary man decides to make her an object of his sexual interest, and even though she does not have an affair with him or want to, everybody shortly believes that she has. The parts where she tries to get her own mother to believe and understand her made my head physically hurt and my fists clench. There is great violence, terror, absurdity, black humour and fleeting tenderness. It's an eerily visceral capture of what it's like to live in a place riven by political division with frequent eruptions of violence, and what it's like to be a young woman (or any woman) who is not believed about ongoing sexual harassment and assault. It's freaking brilliant. 


I now have way too many books on my Goodreads "I want to read" shelf. Thanks a lot.
Ernie said…
Happy Birthday to Eve. Glad to hear the migraine has subsided. I'm super excited about the memoirs that you read here. I have heard of WOW, NO THANK YOU, but I haven't read anything by her yet. I appreciate the reminder. I really, really liked MAYBE YOU SHOULD TALK TO SOMEONE. I don't want to read that KNOW MY NAME book, but how can I not after your endorsement? It sounds good and disturbing as I prepare to send my first daughter off to college.

"I'd like to say it doesn't hurt my feelings when someone doesn't like a book I loved, but that would be a lie." - favorite bit. ;)
Happy birthday Eve (I like fireball too!)

Oooh, I love the five star list. I loved Transcendent Kingdom, also the Gottleib and Irby books so much. Okay, off to add these to my list.

StephLove said…
I'm glad to hear Piranesi wasn't a let down because I've had it on my list for a while but I haven't read it yet and I was utterly entranced with Jonathan Strange.

I know what you mean about wanting people to love the books you do. I had a generally positive experience leading my book club's discussion of The Haunting of Hill House (one of my very favorite books) but I later saw one of the members rated it a 2 on Goodreads and I was kind of crushed.
I’ve only read The Space Between Worlds which I thought I’d rated higher but just looked and only gave a 3 star…so I don’t know. I’ve been extra moody in terms of hoe books are hitting me the past year. *shrug* honestly I remember really loving it in the beginning so maybe I was too hard on it. I dunno.

Happy birthday to Eve! I’ve actually never had Fireball but I think I would like it. I’m too scared to drink alcohol that I really like though as i think it could easily fall down into a hole for me so I’ll stick with soda water and cranberry. I’m pretty wild and crazy.
Suzanne said…
SO pleased to hear that your migraine has gone!

And all of these sound SO GOOD. How is a person to read ALL the books in the world? Or only the GOOD ones?!?!?! Impossible!

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