Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane

download (13)Title: Ask Again, Yes
Author: Mary Beth Keane
Release Date: May 28, 2019
Genre: Literary suburban drama
Describe it in a sentence: 
Two neighboring families are forever united by a shocking incident, and forced to keep colliding through a love story.
TV/movie character who would like it: Such a throw-back but I think Ruth of Six Feet Under would appreciate the morbid humor in the characters’ situation,

If you end a book in tears, then you know it worked. It moved ya. This moved me. Bow down, because Mary Beth Keane is a FICTION MASTER. She sets up this impossible situation and boom, lets the cards fall in this remarkable way.

Right, so the Stanhopes and the Gleesons live on the same New Jersey block in the 70s. The dudes in the family had worked for the NYPD at the same time then migrated to the ‘burbs together. The Gleeson house is bursting with lots of joy and daughters. But there’s a strangeness to the Stanhope house. One that the Gleesons don’t go near. Except for Kate, the youngest Gleeson daughter. She can’t stay away from the Stanhope son — and so bruushes with the Stanhope strangeness.

Actually, I’m just going to tease what the event is, because no one should be deprived of a Twist (people who don’t believe in spoilers, get @ me — plot is a thrill experienced without risk and please let us experience our hairpin turns at full velocity!!). Just know that it is really not so great. And the characters have to live with this forevah. Or as long as their lives go on.

Especially Kate Gleeson and Peter Stanhope, whose relationship clinks with their families’ baggage. Hear that? That’s the sound of people who can’t escape their family (it’s a relatable sound).

Ask Again, Yes is a story about family, obviously. How we’re in this long-term relationship with the people that brought us into the world, and who we came into the world alongside. Even estrangement is a kind of relationship. When it comes to a family member, there’s no such thing as a restless absence. There’s a void. A roar. Sometimes the thought of Peter, so lonely, makes me want to reach through the pages and wrap him up in a bear hug.

It’s a story of forgiveness. Of mental health — and what happens when a woman’s wellness is completely ignored, when unhappiness is left to fester. Of neglect and then the process of accepting care after years without it.

I found the ending sentence to be an actual punch in the gut and a hug at the same time. Keane is a helluva story-teller. I recommend this book wholeheartedly to anyone who thinks of life as a voyage, and wants to travel on another person’s.

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The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware

61467918_1847418322025053_4237299821543809294_n(1)Title: The Turn of the Key
Author: Ruth Ware
Release Date: August 19
Genre: true psychological thriller, in the sense that you don’t know if she’s actually seeing ghosts or if she’s actually just cray! 
Describe it in a sentence: 
A young woman takes a “perfect” job nannying for a wealth family in a Scottish highlands “smart” mansion — soon, the house starts playing tricks on her (or the kids? or the ghosts? or her mind?)
TV/movie character who would like it: The governess in The Turn of the Screw, who would feel a real solidarity with our girl Rowan.

Summer, as you and I know, is the season for tearing through books. I want books that leave pages shredded in their wake. I want the desire to read to be near-violent. Everything else pales the the book. I’d safely put The Turn of the Key in that category. I finished the book in a day — and told a lot of people about the book during said day. The Turn of the Key is my first Ruth Ware book, though I doubt it’ll be my last. You could wring out the pages and it’d drip Britishness. WE LOVE A GOOD BRITISH READ.

Anyhoo, let’s do the quick “summary” part. The book begins with a young woman writing to a lawyer from prison. She claims she’s been wrongfully convicted for murdering one of the girls she was nannying. She was typecast as murderer. It adhered to the tropey worst nightmare “troubled nanny” story you occasionally see on the news or an Adele Slimani novel. But in this case, the story wasn’t true.

Rowan’s here to salvage her reputation, and maybe get out of prison along the way. She knows her story isn’t perfect. There are phenomena she can’t explain. What were the noises coming from the attic in the house? Why had this family gone through so many nannies? What was the force that ejected people from the house? She knows her story has holes. But she’s hoping she can explain enough of the space around those holes to redeem herself

As someone who grew up babysitting, Rowan’s story was harrowing. She shows up for her first day of nannying in a house like the one in the movie Smart House – each room has cameras and a Siri-equivalent. So yah, she’s being spied on by her type-a employer who reminded me of Gwyneth Paltrow. Then, on her second day of work, the parents DIP OUT for an undisclosed period of time, leaving her with the four daughters (!) one of whom is straight out of a horror movie. She has that limp stare like the kid in a movie poster. Unsurprisingly things get……..out of hand. It doesn’t help that Rowan is kept up at night by terrifying noises. Maybe the same lingering Victorian ghosts that drove out the other nannies.

So, what HAPPENED during those weeks in Heatherbrae House? The book is driven by those big “wtf” questions that you’ll be desperate to answer. In some ways I found the ultimate conclusions somewhat predictable but I also enjoyed the journey there.

If you like any of the following things — Scotland, mysteries, mischievous children, time-hopping books, smart houses, women like the women in Big Little Lies, the book The Turn of the Screw — then point yourself toward Ruth Ware’s latest book.

Fake Like Me by Barbara Bourland

51mAzWVBwOL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgTitle: Fake Like Me
Author: Barbara Bourland
Release Date: June 2019
Genre: Intellectual thriller
Describe it in a sentence: 
After an unnamed painter (wow, I’m just realizing she’s unnamed because she felt so real to me) her latest project in a fire, she travels to the compound of a famous group of painters to repaint; while there, she discovers their secrets. 
TV/movie character who would like it: The artists in Velvet Buzzsaw, a far more satirical take on the art world

I’ve been thinking a lot about scammers. How can’t I, when they’re everywhere? Anna Delvey isn’t sorry for cheating rich, vacuous New Yorkers. Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman were caught in the great scam that is the American “meritocracy.” Last summer there was the great Social Creatures by Tara Isabella Burton; I recently read a great book called Duped by Abby Elin about what it’s like to date a fraud. All of this is to say — I’m fascinated by the subject. 

But whatever else I read, Fake Like Me blows it out of the water. What a thoughtful, philosophical dive into what it means to be a woman, to be an artist, to be a woman artist! After the first-person protagonist’s paintings burn down, she decides to commit what she calls fraud: She’s going to recreate the massive oil paintings, which had taken her three years to paint, over the course of a summer.

In comparison to the other shit that goes down in the novel, though, her intentions are just sweet! Simply adorable! She’s a scammer with the best intentions: Personal ambition. She’s not hurting anyone unlike some of the oooother characters (you know who I’m looking at, you genetically blessed but cruel bunch!)

After pulling some strings, she scores studio space at the upstate commune that belongs to “Park City,” a collective of five artists who hit it big after art school. The most famous, Carey Logan, was known for alarming life-like sculptures of the human body. Two years prior, Carey walked into the lake near Park City and took her own life. None of the remaining artist have ever been the same.

Carey’s the elephant in every room. Think Rebecca of Rebecca, but of its own kind of torture for the artist. Especially since she had always looked up to Carey. Both had pulled themselves up from rough, working class backgrounds; both worked incredibly hard. When the artist starts sleeping with Carey’s ex, Tyler, the lines between her and Carey become thinner.

Bourland clearly knows what she’s writing about. She goes into such detail about the labor required to create art. That art comes from some collision of originality and actual sweat — the skill required to pull a vision into the real world. Every time the artist took measurements about cutting a canvas or paying 22,000 in oil paints my brain jolted. Art is rock ‘n roll, man. I also loved the snippets of dinner party conversation — artists talking about other people’s projects. The way that vast quantities of money are attached to esoteric ideas…the economy of the art world is fascinating. (And also so concerning. This stuff isn’t going to museums! It’s going to the Monopoly Man!)

To add another layer to this book about art, Bourland herself is so obviously an artist. Sentences, all carefully wrought, add up to shape this incredibly complicated character study of many compromised people. I’d recommend slowing down while reading the book. As a notorious speed reader, I found that treating this book more literary and less thriller was rewarding. It deals in ideas as much as plot. So when you get to the end, if you’ve been following the ideas, it’ll have been far more rewarding.

I REALLY recommend this book to people looking for guilt-free page-turners. You’ll underline the shit out of it. I’ll leave you with this brilliant passage of the weight of the seven “virtues” on women. How these concepts police women, but they’re really just traps:

D6pIb_eXYAcIz2_.jpgThe forced perspective of humility. The delirium of purity. The weight of chastity. The rage of temperance. The shame of modesty. The regret of prudence.

The REGRET OF PRUDENCE. *head explosion emoji.* The rim of sadness around all of those nights spend in, spent prudently make sense now.

We Set the Dark On Fire by Tehlor Key Mejia

819wRE-AaMLTitle: We Set the Dark On Fire
Author: Tehlor Kay Mejia
Genre: 
YA dystopia — but not the kind you’re used to
Describe it in a sentence: 
A young woman has been primed to be a “Primera,” or “first wife,” to a man in a world upheld by bigamist marriages and extreme inequality (and some pretty creative mythologies)
TV/movie character who would like it: The women in The Handmaid’s Tale would definitely feel solidarity to Dani’s problems.

In preparation for Refinery29’s YA Month, I’ve been reading a lot of YA. A lot. And I’ve enjoyed a lot of them. But among them all, We Set the Dark on Fire by debut novelist Tehlor Kay Mejia stands out for its timeliness, its stunning prose, and its absolutely new/creative/wonderful world.

Dani was never supposed to get to where she was: At the Primera graduation ceremony, about to be married off to the son of an incredibly powerful family. Years ago, her parents illegally crossed over to Medio, the affluent half of the island, making their daughter’s social ascent possible. So, Dani holds a secret. It will be the first of many.

Dani is married off to Mateo Garcia, poised to be the next President of their country. As a Primera, Dani is supposed to be his partner and intellectual equal. But his soul and body will be nourished by his Segunda wife – Carmen. Of all the wives, Dani didn’t want it to be Carmen. They were sworn enemies. Now, Dani is locked in this cold (but fancy AF) environment. Mateo is like a mini power hungry Commander Fred of The Handmaid’s Tale. He squashes all input from Dani. Her role is to be helpful and supportive. What is she going to do if he rejects all her advances? Well, Mateo knows what he wants her to do: Clean, clean, clean some more. Not quite what she envisioned for herself back at school. But since she’s a Primera, she’s supposed to remain placid, keep her composure.

Of course, Mateo’s so busy being a teenage man about town he doesn’t realize what else is happening right under his nose. Dani and Carmen realize their friction may have come from another source. Not hate, but fascination. Not hate, but looove. Yes! There are some terrific moments of intimacy, punctuating the bleak conditions of Medio. As with my favorite books, there are sprinklings of attraction that remind us why we’re on the planet.

There’s also the other factor moving the book’s plot forward. The revolution. They’ve tapped Dani. She’ll have to sacrifice her safety to be a part of something bigger than herself.

Mejia has tapped into something special with this book. It’s politically relevant, yet, but also emotionally potent. I was cheering Dani on. She’s not invulnerable, not completely brave all the time like so many YA protagonists in dystopias are. She has to become brave, because no one else is looking out for her in this cold, unequal world. TOO REAL!

I’m really looking forward to seeing how she expands the world in the next book. Unlike adult dystopias, there’s a glimpse of hope at the end of this book. Dani might be all right. Medio might be, too.

Are You the Most Important Person In the World? Or: The Heavens by Sandra Newman

91mmm8FL3xL.jpgTitle: The Heavens
Author: Sandra Newman
Genre: 
Literary fiction (but the kind you can tear through)
Describe it in a sentence: 
A young woman believes that her dreams — which uniformly take place in Elizabethan England — are actually real; they start having an impact on her life in New York. 
TV/movie character who would like it: Nadia of Russian Doll, who also wakes up in a slightly altered universe every day

Most of the time, I take home books for work, read a few pages, and move on. But The Heavens wrapped its smoky coils around me and kept me inside its enchanting, wildly imaginative story until I found out what would happen (and TBH, I still don’t completely know).

Do you ever wonder what your place in the world is; if it matters? Are you ever pulled between the impulses of thinking you’re insignificant, versus thinking you’re extremely special? Kate feels destined for something. She always has. It’s because of her dreams. Her dreams that seem realer than real life.

Real life, for Kate, takes place in an alternate New York in the year 2000. This is a clean, bright, beautiful city — kind of a liberal’s fever dream. There are no cars! Global warming isn’t even a phrase anyone knows! Kate lives with her wealthy friend in a large apartment building, where a cast of colorful characters walks in and out. At one such party, Kate meets Ben, the man who will remain her constant on what will become a haywire journey. At the party, they debate about the validity of the “great man” theory. Is it possible that a few key individuals really define the course of human history? But they’re so swept up in fast love that they don’t continue the argument.

Kate begins to dream more frequently. Her dreams last longer, are more vivid. And when she wakes up, she wakes up in a world slightly altered by whatever she changed in her dream — and altered for the worst. Kate doesn’t understand very basic facts of this new world she’s woken up in. A new president? Cars on the road? Her friends think she’s quirky, at first. Then, after enough lapses, they think she’s deranged.

Is she deranged? Newman keeps us guessing throughout this structurally inventive novel. The whole time I read this book, I questioned whether it was possible a book could be so up my alley. Guess what? It can be! This is a bold, playful foray into big questions: The fate of ourselves, the fate of the world. What a thrill to read a book that defies all of our expectations, and takes us on a wild ride instead.

The Hating Game by Sally Thorne & The Curse of the “Nice Guy”

514sa3HcecL.jpgTitle: The Hating Game
Author: Sally Thorne
Genre: 
hot hot HOT romance, plus some jokes
Describe it in a sentence: 
Two co-workers at an Australian publishing house think that they hate each other, but it turns out that hate is just masking lakes and lakes of luuust (and eventually maybe love?)
TV/movie character who would like it: This book was pulled straight out of the central romance in Much Ado About Nothing. Beatrice and Benedick would see Josh and Lucy and nod knowingly.

I first heard about The Hating Game when I was researching a story about rom-com books for Refinery29. Thorne’s debut novel pre-dates the current rom-com resurgence by a few years. This book came out all the way back in 2016; it’s only now that rom-coms are flooding the market with their cute illustrated covers. These covers mask a whole lot of sexiness, you guys. Because This. Book. Is. SEXY!

Lucy and Joshua are co-workers at Bexley and Gamin, a publishing house that had merged a few years prior. Just as Bexley and Gamin had two different governing philosophies, so do Lucy and Joshua. They’re polar opposites (for more reasons than their height difference). Josh is a neat freak, uptight, seething, grouch. Everyone in the office is afraid of him. Lucy makes it her job to be professionally agreeable — to everyone except Josh. When the book kicks off, Lucy and Josh are regularly throwing insults and each other and racking up HR violations (TBH they do not work in the healthiest work environment – their bosses pit them against each other in a race for a promotion and it’s very corporate Hunger Games).

Don’t be fooled by their friction. Friction fuels fire! The more these two good-looking leads combat each other, the more other feelings grow. Lucy finds herself drowning in her all-consuming hatred for Josh, and then the weird feelings of affection that sprout the more she looks into his eyes.

Sally Thorne is great at writing rom-coms. I would read her rom-coms for days. Quippy dialogue, singular characters, plot that traipses along in between “the good parts” (and you know what the good parts are. I believe in Lucy and Josh’s chemistry.

BUT. I totally worry for them! I worry for their emotional intelligence! First of all, it’s not healthy to fill up your days with a deep and wild hatred for your coworker. Second of all, Josh makes being a “nice guy” out to be like, the worst trait in the world. In the book, “nice” is code for boring, dull, safe, etc. Josh is not expressly “nice” but he will love Lucy with scary intensity. And somehow that is a fair exchange? A loyal pitbull man instead of a friendly golden retriever.

Admittedly, I have historically been drawn to guys like Josh. Guys who make you bend over backwards to crumple their intensity. Cold guys, who make you so hungry for affection that you’ll blush at a smile. Stubborn guys who don’t deviate from their own code of ethics. Hard-working guys who promise they’ll take you where they’re going — so long as you play by their rules. My relationships ended when I had to ask for the simple request: Please be kind to me.

Guys like Josh can be sexy! But the whole book I kept saying to myself – Lucy, be careful! Yes, he makes you feel special now — but only because he’s been a total ass for so many years. Maybe I’m reading too far into this? But the “gruff asshole is secretly a kind softie” is a trope that I see work out in a lot of books, but not necessarily in real life. What do you think?

Overall, I definitely recommend The Hating Game, if you take the relationship with a grain of salt, and not as a model. Here’s hoping that Josh is kind to her as his relationship with Lucy continues (and that he doesn’t turn into his father!)

A Year In Books

I read 102 books in 2018, or at least that’s what my Goodreads count added up to. That’s not including the half-devoured books — books with a chapter to go piled up next to my bed (it’s a bad habit), books I only tasted for work so I had a feeling for prose, books I decided not to give my hours to anymore.

It’s hard for me to describe just HOW instrumental books have been this year, and all my life. Sometimes I mistake books for my life. Like, some of my best memories of 2018 have been reading. In the week between Christmas and New Years, I spent an hour a day reading next to the Christmas tree. I deliberately forced myself to put down my work and dive into my novel. Reading a novel is useful leisure time. The world expands, gets fuller with each word. What other activity can compare?

2018 was full of changes. Most of them hard. I’ll say: Books kept me stable. When life was too much, I got to live someone else’s. Of course, there’s always a balance between choosing the books I really, really want to read for fun and the books I have to read for work (the chic books of 2018, etc). Sometimes I ache for the days of my past when I read eclectically and according to whims. But then I pinch myself and say: I CAN’T BELIEVE THIS IS MY JOB!! I can’t believe I get to INTERVIEW AUTHORS for work! It’s a dream, through and through. So I ended up “keeping up” with the books of 2018, big time. Plugged into the discourse.

So, without further ado: Here are some of the highlights, and what I thought.

Nonfiction

  • Ninety-nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret by Craig Brown: We’re allowed to write biographies with such narrative freedom? Brown interweaves biographical details about Princess Margaret with gossip, imaginative musings, and my favorite of them all — a recounting of the time Margaret commissioned a plane to fly around some old poet’s house (I don’t remember who!!) in a variety of different forms, from haiku to sonnet. WHO DOES THAT?! Craig Brown does, my friends. A must read for anyone who loves snark and The Crown. Though admittedly, as an American, some of these British customs were blisteringly foreign to me (aka royalty in general!!)
  • Going Clear by Lawrence Wright: I thought Scientology was scary before I read this book. Now I know it’s much scarier than scary.
  • Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer: In order to explain how two fundamentalist Mormon men decided to murder their sister in law and her baby — and justify it as being a directive from God — Krakauer brilliantly situates the crime within the framework of Mormonism. I learned so much about this American-grown religion. This should be taught in high schools!
  • Bad Blood by John Carreyrou: Make this a movie, now.
  • Vanishing Twins by Leah Dieterich: Will be pressing this lyrical, freakin’ BRILLIANT memoir about love, commitment, marriage, preserving a sense of self in a relationship, into everyone’s hands, forever.
  • Future Perfect by Victoria Loustalot: Victoria, like me, is prone to hoping that psychics are real. The main difference: She writes a book about her experience with psychics, I just putz around and go to psychics.
  • The Ghost Photographer by Julie Rieger: Rieger, a top executive at 20th Century Fox, documents her journey into the world of spirits and ghost encounters, which began after her mother passed away. It’s rare to read a book written with such humor and warmth and complete lack of pretension. When Julie writes about the “other realm,” you want to believe her. This book inspired me to start my own exploratory journey. For a taste, check out my juicy interview with her.
  • Eurydice Street by Sofka Zinovieff: I struggled to read this book for a selfish reason: Zinovieff so perfectly captured the rhythm and quirks of Greece that my heart actually hurt, I missed it so much. Did I look up plane tickets while reading it? Did I consider abandoning my life to move there? Won’t answer, but you can guess.
  • Calypso by David Sedaris: We are not worthy of his humor. Thank you for sharing your family with us, Dave.
  • I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell: WHY DIDN’T THIS BOOK MAKE YEAR END LISTS?! In fact, the fact that it didn’t makes me doubt year-end lists even more than I already do; the subjectiveness and myopia that goes into each one. O’Farrell describes her 17 “brushes with death” with real even-keeled attitude, even though it’s freakin’ terrifying. The book sent me into an existential crisis. It also made me seize my own seconds.
  • Unwifeable by Mandy Stadtmiller: Grateful that Mandy shared such an intimate account of her difficult childhood, her rollicking 30s as a newly single woman documenting her dating life for the NY Post, and her addiction problems. She manages to do it all with such humor. I’d know – she was a hoot to talk to.
  • Small Fry by Lisa Brennan Jobs: You should read this book. But a warning: You won’t ever want to use your iPhone again.
  • Dead Girls by Alice Bolin: Threw the book across the room bc Alice Bolin’s brain was so electrifying that I couldn’t process it.
  • And Now We Have Everything by Meaghan O’Connell: If you are a woman or know women, read this book about motherhood (and childbirth – one of the most shocking hours of my life was spent reading O’Connell’s meticulous description of her difficult childbirth). Was so floored I had to interviewinterview her.
  • Stealing the Show by Joy Press: Takeaway: The women who revolutionized TV also revolutionized culture.

Fiction

  • The Ensemble by Aja Gable: Best friendship novel of 2018. There, I said it.
  • The Incendiaries by RO Kwon: Read it twice. Liked it even more the second time. One must respect sentences like this, sentences that have been wrested and fused together like each was some deliberate piece of art. The prose is a puzzle — Kwon has worked on it for TEN YEARS to make sure it all fit together.
  • Pachinko by Min Jin Lee: I loved the characters in this sprawling, epic novel so much I considered going to Japan to visit their graves (yes, I know they are fictional)
  • The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid: Dying film star Evelyn Hugo promises to tell her life story to a journalist; readers around the world cannot shut book until they find out which of her husbands was her favorite (it’s not who you think it’ll be)
  • The Friend by Sigrid Nunez: Read this because it won the National Book Award. I can imagine Nunez in a one-bedroom apartment writing away, not letting the hype get to her. I met a Great Dane the other day and couldn’t stop thinking about the narrator in this book, as if she were real. Loneliness is not a glamorous topic for a book, but man, is it a pillar in so many lives. The Beatles asked where all the lonely people come from; read this book to learn.
  • The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides: Took this thriller (out in January) on vacation. The ending was gasp-worthy.
  • Rules of Civility by Amor Towles: What a GORGEOUS gem of a book. What a narrator to admire, with pluck and heroism and the perfect amount of social climber instinct to make for an adventure. The book ended with a quote that will haunt me forever: “In our twenties, when there is still so much time ahead of us, time that seems ample for a hundred indecisions, for a hundred visions and revisions—we draw a card, and we must decide right then and there whether to keep that card and discard the next, or discard the first card and keep the second. And before we know it, the deck has been played out and the decisions we have just made will shape our lives for decades to come.”
  • Less by Andrew Sean Greer: Thank god he won the Pulitzer and someone recognized that humor is a form of brilliance.
  • Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn: As always, when I’m reading Flynn, I wonder what she would be like at a dinner party. And if I could sit across from her, knowing that she was capable of coming up with these twisted women, and wonder if she would interpret my mannerisms and verbal ticks as some kind of dark language of the subconscious.
  • Bowlaway by Elizabeth McCracken: A. perfect. novel. THE PERFECT NOVEL. I will read it, and reread it. And then go read The Giant’s House, her book which I read WAY too young and led me by the hand into the gorgeous possibilities of adult fiction.
  • The Age of Light by Whitney Scharer: All hail Lee Miller, the model turned war photographer at the heart of this fascinating work of historical fiction. She’s my new role model.
  • Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss: Sometimes you read a book and are reminded of how unbelievably smart humans can be; Ghost Wall is one of those. Moss essentially captures the entire pattern of human history in 180 pages describing an experimental archaeology trip to Northumbria. Just go with it.
  • Golden Child by Claire Adam: Read this for your book club. Get prepared to argue.
  • The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins: A magical, Gaiman-esque book about a library that contains all the knowledge of the universe and none of the universe’s rules. Haven’t lost myself in a book like this since I was 7 and reading Harry Potter, maybe.
  • NOS4A2 by Joe Hill: A real thought I had while reading this: “Wow! I love books with plot!!!!!” Joe Hill is funny and witty and scary as all hell. What are you doing? Go buy one of his books!
  • Elevation by Stephen King: Since I loved his son’s book so much, I decided to read some Stephen King. Sorry! I like Joe Hill more!!!
  • The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh: Best feminist dystopia yet.
  • The Falconer by Dana Czapnik: Oh, to be 18, oh to think in long-winded spools of philosophy, oh to be idealistic, oh to have unrequited crushes. I ached.
  • The Arrangement by Sonya Lalli: As she nears 30, a woman contemplates actually going through with an arranged marriage. I liked the way Lalli weighed two different approaches to marriage and didn’t say that one was necessarily better than the others.
  • The Witch Elm by Tana French: Considering what a mess Toby was, I’m surprised I enjoyed spending 600 pages in his head.
  • Melmoth by Sarah Perry: This book was full of fascinating modern explorations of mythology. Melmoth is a woman who bears witness to the most evil of humanity. Perry cleverly interweaves linear narrative with primary documents about Melmoth encounters. This is the kind of haunting story that would’ve terrified me as a kid. Melmoth, hissing over your shoulder.
  • My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite: What a fresh new voice. Really dark but also really witty, satirical, clever. Hard to distill the tone of this book. Which is why it is better read than described.
  • The Auctioneer by Joan Samson: Written in the ’70s. A crazed outsider comes to this quiet New Hampshire town and makes everyone start giving away their belongings in an auction to support the town’s police squad. Prescient read.
  • Dare Me by Megan Abbott: cheerleaders don’t talk like this in real life
  • Give Me Your Hand by Megan Abbott: Now THIS Abbott I loved loved loved.
  • Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver: I see both sides of the argument about this book. Kingsolver (like Meg Wolitzer in the female persuasion) definitely doesn’t look at the world’s changes as a young person would, but also, how could she?
  • That Kind of Mother by Rumaan Alam: REBECCA, you gotta wake up!! That’s what you’ll be thinking throughout Alam’s book about a privileged white woman raising her nanny’s black son, written in close third-person.
  • Before She Sleeps by Bina Shah: Bina Shah told me in an interview that for her, growing up in Pakistan, The Handmaid’s Tale reflected much of her reality. She created a feminist dystopia rooted in her own soil.
  • Strike Your Heart by Amelie Nothomb: Finished this book over the course of a train ride. It sunk its talons in me and BAM, I knew I was reading a dark gem.
  • Crudo by Olivia Laing: The only book I’ve read that captures the whirr and terror of the present day.
  • Praise Song for the Butterflies by Berenice L. McFadden: Maybe the most important book I read in 2018. It’s hard to believe this practice is real, but it is: The main character is sold as a ritual slave to help balance her family’s “luck.”
  • Open Me by Lisa Locascio: A girl’s sexual awakening IS fodder for a novel!!! I love books that respect young girls as independent, important people!
  •  How to Be Famous by Caitlin Moran: ^^repeat the above, just add a TON of sentences so funny I laughed out loud. Real talk? This wry, kind-hearted book about a precocious 19-year-old forging her way in the male-dominated world of ’90s music journalism while nursing a crush for a rock star in was, quite simply, the reading highlight of my year. I swooned through every passage of young love. Caitlin Moran remembers those years!
  • The Pisces by Melissa Broder: Underlined so much of this; all of the narrator’s ramblings about the kind of love that sets you on fire; the kind of emotionally vivid life that feels realer than the calmer, but inevitably duller, life of stable. With that in mind, it’s understandable why our protagonist embarks on an all-consuming romance with a merman. It’s something else.
  • Putney by Sofka Zinovieff: In this book, Zinovieff nimbly unpacks a terribly thorny topic: The affair between a young girl and her older family friend, and how memories change over the years.
  • Severence by Ling Ma: Part end of world account; part workplace comedy; all brilliant.
  • If You Leave Me by Crystal Hana Kim: WAAHHH y u have to be so sad!
  • Rough Animals by Rae Delbianco: A gritty western about characters who don’t live on the edge — they live outside society, on ranches, in open fields, where the rules are of their own making. Rae herself is SO inspiring.
  • The Light We Lost by Jill Santopolo: Truly, I wish I could change the fates of these characters.
  • Hey Ladies: Buy this for your friends.
  • Social Creature by Tara Isabella Burton: Congratulated myself every time I recognized one of the shiny, spectacular New York locales Burton’s two characters, locked in a twisted friendship, visited. Tara and I spoke about why Social Creature is the perfect book for the summer of cons.
  • The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang: In the year 2018, we got a sexy, sexyYyyYy book about a woman on the autism spectrum finding love with the male prostitute she tried to help teach her how to have sex.  Love. Hoang spoke to Refinery29 about her own autism diagnosis.
  • Kudos by Rachel Cusk: One day, in the far future, Rachel Cusk will be considered a Queen of the English Language.
  • Transit by Rachel Cusk: See above.
  • Florida by Lauren Groff: Read the “Midnight Zone” three times and I still haven’t stopped thinking about its implications — that danger is all around us, that we are the danger.
  • The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton: Beauty is a prison!! Dhonielle Clayton’s new YA series examines appearances like my favorite series The Uglies did, but especially how women are expected to be slaves to beauty. And the characters in these books are slaves – that dawning realization shook me.
  • The Proposal by Jasmine Guillory: Quite simply, the book raised my expectations for romantic relationships — so I had to talk to her about them.
  • Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi: A star is born. I had the pleasure of speaking to Tomi RIGHT before she became a straight up celeb.
  • You Think It, I’ll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld: She creates characters who are so easy to judge and skewer – but you know she’d judge and skewer you just as ruthlessly. Speaking to Sittenfeld was naturally a life highlight.
  • The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer: I would’ve read a whole novel about Cory, but that’s it.
  • Circe by Madeline Miller: If you had to create My Ideal Book in a lab, it would be this: Literary but fast-moving feminist myth retelling. A feminist odyssey for the ages. 
  • Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday: God, just read this book. Unexpected. Off kilter. Sentences so gleaming I think of them today.
  • Awayland by Ramona Ausubel: Beautiful short stories! Off-kilter, imaginative, unforgettable.
  • Emergency Contact by Mary HK Choi: First of all, Mary is BRILLIANT and one of my favorite interviews. She got me so inspired to commit myself to pursuing my dreams. Anyway — her debut book captured the way we communicate now, through small bubbles sent over phones. More importantly, she emphasizes how falling in love over texts is a perfectly valid and understandable path today. It’s almost an epistolary age.
  • 99% Mine by Sally Hawkins: SWOOOON! Big, capable men fixing up houses is SUCH a type; it is clearly such a type of mine, too (and the main character’s)
  • The Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory: SWOON, except for the part about being stuck in an elevator. Since I adored Jasmine’s books so much this year, I spoke to her about them.
  • Girls Burn Brighter by Shobha Rao: A life composed of unimaginable tribulations, strung together in close proximity. The book follows two best friends in their journeys out of their tiny Indian village; one by running away, one by marriage. Girls Burn Brighter honors women’s resilience, but also highlights the unfair structures that cause them to need that resilience in the first place.
  • An American Marriage by Tayari Jones: An American Marriage twisted me up, as it was supposed to.
  • The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas: Finally got around to reading the YA sensation. Now will foist this incendiary book about police violence, code switching, growing up amid hate and fighting it with love, upon everyone.
  • The Book of M by Peng Shepherd: Was downright stunned by this magnificently plotted end-of-the-world novel, perfect for fans of Station Eleven.
  • What We Were Promised by Lucy Tan: The kind of book you wish you could intervene in, help the characters out. Sure, they’re in an expensive high-rise Hong Kong apartment. BUT ARE THEY HAPPY?!

Baby’s First Tana French

download (31)Title: The Witch Elm
Author: Tana French
Genre: 
Psychological crime
Describe it in a sentence: 
A young Irish man’s life is upended after he sustains a brain injury during a robbery, then is sent swirling further when a skull is dug up in his family’s Dublin estate. 
TV/movie character who would like it: Stella Gibson in The Fall. She’d appreciate Toby’s journey because she probably knew he’d been deceiving himself all along. She’s smart like that.

The Witch Elm was 500-page dream I didn’t want to wake up from. So often first person is deployed to approximately 30% of its full potential (yes, this is a scientific blog). The Witch Elm, conversely, featured was masterful, deceptive first-person that wanted to make you feel really comfortable, only so French could spin you around and make you dizzy.

This first-person was like a couch. You sink into it. You take Toby’s perception of the world at face value, for a while. Then it turns out the couch has rotted at the bottom. It’s not even a couch at all, but a bunch of pillows balanced over a void. If you think about it too much or lean in too hard, then it’ll collapse and you’ll be floating in a universe askew.

In a phrase: I loved it. I love Tana French! And so does Stephen King, by the way — in case my word doesn’t quite convey the authority as King King’s does.

What did I like about The Witch Elm? So much. I liked that it was a crime novel concerned with pressing existential concerns — most fundamentally, who are we? Are we separated from our brains? If our minds are injured, is our “self,” or the self we know as our “self,” lost? How much of our selves are constructed by memories, selected carefully and constructed into fortresses of personality? If all of that psychic construction is shattered in a moment, what kind of Frankenstein self takes its place?

If this sounds lofty for a crime novel, that’s because it’s a dense, lofty book. Yet French manages to carry along the scenes with such pace and wit that it doesn’t feel dense, just exhilarating. There are some pages-long sequences in which Toby is poring over the past with his two cousins. All their dynamics are so raw, unspoken. There is underbrush to their conversation we’re only just beginning to sense. And yet the conversation itself travels quickly, hops along. She balances depth with sheer pleasure so well.

I don’t want to give any major plot points away. But the book is about a young Dubliner whose life changes when he’s gravely injured in a robbery. He moves out to the country to take care of his ailing uncle. While there, they make a discovery about hidden remains in the backyard. But that only happens at like, page 200! A lot of this book is about Toby and his crisis. Which to me was a very interesting crisis. I understand why someone looking for a standard crime novel might get tired of his circuitous thoughts and hospital descriptions.

However, if you’re looking for a genre-defying book that is as thought-provoking as it is engrossing, I recommend The Witch Elm wholeheartedly.

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

91vWDBRqMqL (1)Title: My Sister, the Serial Killer
Author: Oyinkan Braithwaite
Genre: 
Feminist satirical slasher (perhaps the best niche genre)
Describe it in a sentence: 
A Nigerian woman’s extremely beautiful younger sister lures men into her web then slaughters them, leaving the woman to clean up her messes. 
TV/movie character who would like it: Oh, this one is easy – the women in Killing Eve would eat this book UP. Eve probably reads serial killer fiction just for fun, because she’s an obsessive person and can’t leave work at home. Villanelle probably read the book and smirked at Ayoola’s sloppiness. Amateur.

I’ll admit it. I was compelled to read My Sister, the Serial Killer entirely because of the title and the cover. Clearly, the individuals at Doubleday marketing this book knew how to draw me, a millennial 20-something, into its pages. That girl! She just IS the epitome of cool. She looks at a nearby act of violence with an unreadable Mona Lisa smile. Whereas I would be screaming and calling for the police/Oprah to save me, she seems confident that she’ll be all right. How come? And then the title! Her sister — the serial killer? What! Clearly, the narrator has either an obsession or a reluctant amount of affection for her sister. I needed to know more.

The novel is structured around one hell of a conundrum. Korede is a Nigerian woman whose life has been defined by responsibility. She’s a nurse. She’s always doing the right thing. She’s meticulous AF. All of these traits come in handy when it comes to cleaning up her younger sister Ayoola’s messes, of which there are many. Ayoola is strikingly beautiful, frivolous, lacking in foresight — and in empathy. She gets a TON of attention from men and has grown to loathe them for it. It seems like Ayoola thinks of men as pitiable cockroaches not in control of their instincts. She has to kill them. Normally, Korede is able to separate herself from Ayoola’s victims. Then, Ayoola starts sidling up to a doctor at Korede’s hospital — and suddenly, Korede’s conscious is flaring up. Can she let Ayoola rack up another victim? Korede’s split between loyalties and laws.

Obviously, there’s a rational way to refute the entire premise of this book. Many of you might be thinking, Korede’s crazy! Why is she protecting her serial killer sister?! That is a good question. Obviously, Braithwaite comes up with a plot device that sort of explains it. But it’s never wholly explained. Korede often wants to sabotage her sister. She wants to sell her out. Ultimately, I liked how open-ended and morally ambiguous all the characters are. Here’s a woman who abides by the rules in every way, then uses that instinct to create a system of rules that protects her own rule-breaking sister — just because she loves her sister more than she loves a corrupt, patriarchal society. Humph!! *insert thoughtful emoji here.*

My Sister, the Serial Killer falls squarely into the category of Cathartic Reads. If you’re a woman in America today, you might be turning to food, reality TV, foot massages, long baths, or shutting off all electronics for the duration of the weekend in order to cope with the sad fact that many men do not care about your pain. For some reason, this week, more than many that have come before in the duration of the MeToo movement, has sent me hurtling back into past relationships with men. I’ve been rereading minor instances of dismissal and condescension for what they are — symptoms of an ingrained lack of regard for my experiences and expertise when it came to verbalizing that experience. Ayoola dealt with this in her own way.

This is a book about female rage, about revenge, about sticking it to the man (literally). It’s also about the knottiness of sisterhood, those knots that are tied just by the fact that you grow up in the same circumstances and thus will be bound to each other forever. Even if Korede turned Ayoola in, she’d still be her sister. She’d be the sister who betrayed her own sister. (For a book about siblings betraying other siblings, check out Astrid Holleeder’s electrifying memoir Judas, about her decision to testify against her crime lord brother.).

My Sister, the Serial Killer book balances gory plot with thoughtful implications. If only ALL books could be this fun and this thought-provoking!

The Books I Read On Vacation, Ranked By How Quickly I Devoured Them

Do you know what happens to a human brain when it detached from the suction of work? It puts its proverbial arms behind its proverbial head. It looks around at the blue sky above it and the blue, not quite the same shade but close, sea ahead of it. It is happy.

After breathing the crisp air of an open schedule for a few moments, the little anxieties about unchecked emails, unfinished stories, life paths, regrets start poking through the sand like hermit crabs. The only way to vanquish the hermit crabs, which are rapidly gathering and taking out their snippers, is to put your feet up on the chaise lounge and methodically go the stack of books you brought.

Then when you finish the stack of books, you will inevitably face a moment of irrational panic. Can I really read on a kindle on the beach? The answer is yes, you can, you will.

All right, that ^ ^ is one reading of how I spent my two (!!) weeks of vacation. Yes, I ate, adventured, and hung out with friends and family. But mostly, I read. Here’s the list, in order of how quickly I read them:

  1. The Seven Husband of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid
  2. You by Carolyn Kepnes
  3. Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld (bought in a bookstore on a Greek island, thank you bookstore)
  4. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
  5. Under the Banner of Heaven by John Krakauer
  6. Going Clear by Lawrence Wright.

So, as you can see, the trip was divided between fiction by women and batshit nonfiction about extremist religion by men. That is one of my favorite divisions. Also, NOW I GET WHAT Y’ALL WERE TALKING ABOUT WHEN YOU WERE TALKING ABOUT PACHINKO. IT IS SO GOOD. I WANT TO MAKE A PILGRIMAGE TO JAPAN AND VISIT FICTIONAL CHARACTERS’ GRAVES.

That is all.