stuff I read

Real Life by Brandon Taylor

46263943Summary from Goodreads:
Named one of the most anticipated books of the year by Entertainment Weekly, Harper’s Bazaar, BuzzFeed, and more.

A novel of startling intimacy, violence, and mercy among friends in a Midwestern university town, from an electric new voice.

Almost everything about Wallace is at odds with the Midwestern university town where he is working uneasily toward a biochem degree. An introverted young man from Alabama, black and queer, he has left behind his family without escaping the long shadows of his childhood. For reasons of self-preservation, Wallace has enforced a wary distance even within his own circle of friends—some dating each other, some dating women, some feigning straightness. But over the course of a late-summer weekend, a series of confrontations with colleagues, and an unexpected encounter with an ostensibly straight, white classmate, conspire to fracture his defenses while exposing long-hidden currents of hostility and desire within their community.

Real Life is a novel of profound and lacerating power, a story that asks if it’s ever really possible to overcome our private wounds, and at what cost.

About four or five (six? what is time?) years ago, someone RT’d a reaction gif of Pride and Prejudice (from the miniseries) into my Twitter feed. It was clever and spot on, from a guy named Brandon who was a biochem grad student. He had a whole string of gifs from a live-Tweet of the miniseries so I hit the follow button. I have never regretted it as Brandon shared more and more of his writing, beautiful short stories and personal essays, and his quietly sarcastic humor with us on Twitter and in various literary publications. After he moved to my town for the MFA program in writing, our paths crossed often on campus and at literary events. And I’m absolutely floored by Brandon’s debut novel Real Life. (I’m not surprised, since he’s so damn talented and has a heck of a work ethic, but the book is still a stunner.)

Real Life is a campus novel about a character who is always on the periphery of campus novels – a gay, black, and broke young man named Wallace in a prestigious biochemistry program at a very (very) white Midwestern university. This is not funny like Lucky Jim or navel-gaze-y like The Marriage Plot or Stoner. This is about one weekend in Wallace’s career in graduate school. Three days. One choice (accepting an invitation to hang at the lake with friends after his summer project goes wrong and he just doesn’t have the spoons to restart it that evening) that is the first domino in a chain of many to fall and lead him to the ultimate decision: should he stay in his graduate program and endure all manners of microaggressions and macroaggressions and continue to work doggedly toward his PhD or should he leave and take a chance on the unknown? Underlying all of Wallace’s actions is the knowledge that his estranged father died several weeks ago; no matter how much Wallace might try to keep the past buried safely in the past it bubbles up to confront him.

Wallace’s story is lovely, quiet, and so very, very real (Brandon always says he writes domestic realism and he isn’t wrong). Wallace is the kind of character who feels conditioned to keep an even keel and keep himself to himself, no matter how angry or happy or sad he might feel on the inside, because if he does drop the facade and express emotion he’s immediately smacked down for it. He’s picked on for his “deficiencies” – an absolutely maddening term and one I’ve heard used by faculty in the past to describe students from less-privileged (i.e. often code for “black”) backgrounds – and snidely dismissed by his adviser. His keep-your-head-down-and-work-hard ethic is thrown back at him as arrogant. Even though these events might seem like high drama, Brandon’s prose has such a calm beauty in his description. Even a description of breeding and plating nematodes has such beauty that we are hit with dismay when it’s revealed the plates are colonized by fungi, ruining the project. But it all feels so intimate, so quiet, particularly an extraordinary stream-of-consciousness chapter where Wallace narrates his childhood history to a lover (hook-up? lover? Booty-call isn’t right, either). Such a beautiful character study.

*Edit to add: at Brandon’s reading at Prairie Lights on Wednesday, he mentioned that some white reviewers see this novel as “raw” (or various similar descriptors) which…definitely not Wallace. I might concede rawness when it comes to showing the racist and homophobic micro and macroaggressions from his friends and colleagues, including one really awful scene where a fellow graduate student (and I absolutely despise this character) uses the n- and f- words before accusing him of misogyny. Brandon isn’t interested in coating their treatment of Wallace in politeness, to make white people feel better. There’s no window-dressing or walking-back to soften these characters. It feels raw because the “nice” and “who mean well” has been removed from the Nice White People Who Mean Well. They’re presented in all their ickiness.

I’m a bit worried I am not doing Real Life justice in my review. Sometimes, you finish a book and just sit in wonder. This book speaks to me on many levels and on other levels I know I have missed nuances. As a nice, white, straight, middle-aged lady, there are corners and layers in Wallace’s story that I will never uncover, no matter how hard I try because I just don’t have the experience or background to see them. To make up for this, allow me to link to three incredible reviews of Real Life, all by men who are both black and queer: Michael Arceneaux in Time, Jeremy O. Harris in The New York Times, and MJ Franklin also in the Times.

Real Life is an early contender for one of my best books of 2020 (and 2020 publishing is bananas, y’all). Please, please buy it, read it, recommend it for your library to purchase. Meanwhile, I’ll be waiting on pins and needles for Brandon’s short story collection, Filthy Animals. Real Life is available everywhere in the US today!

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss and will be buying a copy at Brandon’s reading tomorrow. Also, he’s a friend, so take that as you will.

 

Reading Diversely · Romantic Reads · stuff I read

Get a Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert (The Brown Sisters #1)

43884209Summary from Goodreads:
Chloe Brown is a chronically ill computer geek with a goal, a plan, and a list. After almost—but not quite—dying, she’s come up with seven directives to help her “Get a Life”, and she’s already completed the first: finally moving out of her glamorous family’s mansion. The next items?

• Enjoy a drunken night out.
• Ride a motorcycle.
• Go camping.
• Have meaningless but thoroughly enjoyable sex.
• Travel the world with nothing but hand luggage.
• And… do something bad.

But it’s not easy being bad, even when you’ve written step-by-step guidelines on how to do it correctly. What Chloe needs is a teacher, and she knows just the man for the job.

Redford ‘Red’ Morgan is a handyman with tattoos, a motorcycle, and more sex appeal than ten-thousand Hollywood heartthrobs. He’s also an artist who paints at night and hides his work in the light of day, which Chloe knows because she spies on him occasionally. Just the teeniest, tiniest bit.

But when she enlists Red in her mission to rebel, she learns things about him that no spy session could teach her. Like why he clearly resents Chloe’s wealthy background. And why he never shows his art to anyone. And what really lies beneath his rough exterior…

Do you want a mad-sexy romance between a sarcastic programmer/web designer with chronic pain syndromes and a motorcycle-riding, secret artist building superintendent set in Nottingham? Where both main characters have some emotional garbage in their pasts they have to deal with in very real-world, adult ways? Plus a very sweet cat?

You do. You so do. Get a Life, Chloe Brown starts when the titular Chloe is almost run-over by a drunk driver. Like, the car misses her by three feet. In the life-flashing-past-her-eyes moment she imagines the eulogy at her funeral, which boils down to she never did anything and possibly might have a more exciting life as a dead person. Ouch. So she decides to make some changes. First off: get her own place (family is great, but they might be contributing to the problem). Second: make a list of exciting tasks.

So Chloe moves into an apartment complex managed by Red Morgan who is sexy and fit, with gorgeous ginger hair, and Chloe is immediately attracted to him (he paints at night without his shirt on, not that Chloe is spying on him or anything….she totally isn’t! Ok, fine. She is.). But he apparently doesn’t like her. (Incorrect: he is very attracted to her, too, but his ex-girlfriend was a moneyed, emotionally abusive piece of trash and Chloe sounds like money, therefore, he thinks Chloe is not for him.) When Chloe tries to rescue a cat stuck in a tree – overexerting herself, which sets off her fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue – Red comes to her rescue. And they slowly start to learn about each other. Soon Red is helping Chloe with her list.

Get a Life, Chloe Brown is a wonderful one-sitting read!!!! I hadn’t got around to reading my galley when it came out in November but it was Valentine’s Day and Dani’s book comes out this summer so I plopped myself down and DEVOURED Chloe’s book. (It’s Red’s book, too, but you know.) It’s such a rom-com, with a great “meet-cute” and funny sisters and scenes that just make you smile with joy, but Hibbert makes her characters very real. Chloe has a “real” body, rather than an imagined ideal figure, with a physical illness that isn’t often represented in fiction and one that has contributed to the walls she has built around her heart. Red is an absolute sweetheart but he has been the victim of an abusive manipulator; his confidence and ability to trust has to be rebuilt and he starts figuring out how to do this as a result of his relationship with Chloe. They both make mistakes that require considerable acts of trust to overcome. That makes the resolution of their story that much sweeter.

Chloe and Red are funny and sexy and sweet and very honest and if someone doesn’t option this book to adapt it as a movie and fill it with sexy British people (and a cat) this timeline has no soul. I personally vote for Tom Hardy – sexy man who can play a bit of rough – and, although this wouldn’t work IRL because Chloe is in her late 20s (I think), Marianne Jean-Baptiste can deliver perfect sarcasm that would be spot-on for that character. Although I think Tom is too old, too, given Red’s age in the book so WHO KNOWS! DREAM CASTING FOR EVERYONE! (Also putting forward a vote for Letitia Wright to play Chloe’s youngest sister Eve, because she can totally pull that character off and then get her own love story in book/movie three.)

CW: description of mental abuse of a character in the past and its aftermath, but very well-handled

Dear FTC: I read my copy of this book on my Nook because I didn’t get to my galley before it expired.

audiobooks · mini-review · Overdue Reads · Read My Own Damn Books · Reading Diversely · stuff I read

The Devil’s Highway: A True Story by Luis Alberto Urrea

13646449._SY475_Summary from Goodreads:
In this work of grave beauty and searing power – one of the most widely praised pieces of investigative reporting to appear in recent years – we follow twenty-six men who in May 2001 attempted to cross the Mexican border into the desert of southern Arizona, through the deadly region known as the Devil’s Highway, a desert so harsh and desolate that even the Border Patrol is afraid to travel through it, a place that for hundreds of years has stolen men’s souls and swallowed their blood. Only twelve men made it out.

I’ve had a copy of The Devil’s Highway for years, ever since I heard Luis Alberto Urrea speak at his award reception for the Paul Engle Prize at the Iowa City Book Festival in 2014. I slipped out at the end of his speech to buy a copy and have him sign it. But I just never got around to reading it. But I was recently goaded to re-evaluate my reading about border stories, border policy, and Latinx/non-white Hispanic authors because American Dirt was selected for all sorts of stuff this spring, including the Barnes and Noble Book Club (I’ll get into this in a later post since I can’t get out of reading that book, which rankles because I had decided that I didn’t want to read it but I can’t just fob the group off on someone else so will have to suck it up, grrr). When I checked to see what audiobooks were currently available in the ICPL Libby/Overdrive service, I got incredibly lucky to see that The Devil’s Highway was available to download immediately.

The Devil’s Highway is a poetic recounting of the tragedy that occurred in 2001 when 26 men attempted to cross into the United States via the Devil’s Highway near Yuma, Arizona – only 12 survived. This a book that falls very much in the vein of In Cold Blood in the ways that Urrea sets a scene and keeps the narrative thread of the book moving (particularly in the last sections) but unlike Capote deals very much in facts and only reconstructs what he was unable to verify such as “Mike F.” (the Border Patrol officer who found the walkers who was unable to be interviewed at the time) and some of the thoughts and actions of the walkers who died in the Devil’s Highway. This is a very haunting and heartbreaking tale. There are no easy answers and no easy solutions.

In addition, Urrea narrates this audiobook. It is such a treat. He is an excellent storyteller and speaker. I highly recommend the audiobook if that’s available to you.

Dear FTC: I have a signed paperback copy and borrowed the audiobook from the library’s Libby/Overdrive service.

Romantic Reads · stuff I read

Headliners by Lucy Parker (London Celebrities #5)

47826382Summary from Goodreads:
Sparks fly when two feuding TV presenters are thrown together to host a live morning show in Lucy Parker’s latest enemies-to-lovers contemporary romance.

He might be the sexiest man in London, according to his fan site (which he definitely writes himself), but he’s also the most arrogant man she’s ever met.

She might have the longest legs he’s ever seen, but she also has the sharpest tongue.

For years, rival TV presenters Sabrina Carlton and Nick Davenport have traded barbs on their respective shows. The public can’t get enough of their feud, but after Nick airs Sabrina’s family scandals to all of Britain, the gloves are off. They can barely be in the same room together—but these longtime enemies are about to become the unlikeliest of cohosts.

With their reputations on the rocks, Sabrina and Nick have one last chance to save their careers. If they can resurrect a sinking morning show, they’ll still have a future in television. But with ratings at an all-time low and a Christmas Eve deadline to win back the nation’s favor, the clock is ticking—and someone on their staff doesn’t want them to succeed.

Small mishaps on set start adding up, and Sabrina and Nick find themselves—quelle horreur—working together to hunt down the saboteur…and discovering they might have more in common than they thought. When a fiery encounter is caught on camera, the public is convinced that the reluctant cohosts are secretly lusting after one another.

The public might not be wrong.

Their chemistry has always been explosive, but with hate turning to love, the stakes are rising and everything is on the line. Neither is sure if they can trust these new feelings…or if they’ll still have a job in the New Year.

Now, if you haven’t read London Celebrities book 4, The Austen Playbook, you can read Headliners without it but I suggest you just go read it (and the rest of the series) because it’s really flipping good. And the big climax of that book leads directly into Sabs’ and Nick’s story here (you are hereby warned about spoilers…). 

Sabrina Carlton and Nick Davenport have been professional rivals and competitors for years with competing evening news shows. Their separate networks have recently combined in a merger – so there’s only one spot at the top. But Nick displayed questionable ethics and broke a massive story about Sabs’ family that ruined one of his closest friendships and almost cost her sister Freddy her career (The Austen Playbook), not to mention tanking Sabrina’s credit with the network. On top of that, Nick got caught on camera in a dressing room rant about the network’s shady new boss. So he’s doubly in the doghouse and what was going to be a professional dogfight is now a knives-out grudge-match. But they’re each given one more chance: work together to rehab the network’s flagging morning chat show in one month and maybe they won’t be out on their asses in the New Year. Nick and Sabrina have to make nice for the camera but then doing it for the camera leads to perhaps making nice IRL…and then something more (knitting is involved, it’s adorable). And when a saboteur starts causing strange accidents – a misprogrammed child’s toy, salt in the sugar in a baking segment, a rogue boom mike – Nick and Sabs are in a race against time to save their careers and find time to come together (SPARKS DO SOME FLYING, OH YEAH). 

Headliners is an absolutely smashing enemies-to-lovers contemporary. This is an excellent addition to books that rehab the “bad guy” (Devil in Winter, Duke of Sin, Loving Rose) except rather than a rakish nobleman who kidnapped the previous book’s heroine or tried to kill the hero the stakes are much more realistic. Nick is a reporter who made a very ill-considered decision with professional and personal consequences. The fallout cost him friendships and integrity. The incident was also connected to Sabs discovering her boyfriend had been cheating on her (again) while on air which contributed to her bad press. Parker really gets into how one has to adult up after making a such a huge mistake, how trust has to be rebuilt. 

It’s also another in a recent string of contemporaries where everyone refreshingly is an adult and has adult problems. Nick and Sabs, despite their seemingly glamorous television presenter jobs, get up every morning – too damn early for normal humans, in my opinion – and do the daily grind. They have family to deal with, former lovers, surprise job opportunities. They are eventually able to talk about what happened, about all the hurt that Nick’s decision caused. And, to top it off, when Sabs gets her period and rotten cramps and the whole nine yards, and needs supplies, Nick goes out and gets them for her from the store, no whining, no acting like an nincompoop about it. Seeing characters on the page who aren’t jerks about menstrual cycles is such a great step forward. (If you were wondering if the infamous Sadie Foster, instigator of all the problems in The Austen Playbook, is still around, you best read this book.)

The Austen Playbook is out today, January 20, in ebook formats! (Paperbacks are out next week.)

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Netgalley and I bought a copy on my Nook.

stuff I read

Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo (Alex Stern #1)

48431439Summary from Goodreads:
The mesmerizing adult debut from #1 New York Times bestselling author Leigh Bardugo

Galaxy “Alex” Stern is the most unlikely member of Yale’s freshman class. Raised in the Los Angeles hinterlands by a hippie mom, Alex dropped out of school early and into a world of shady drug dealer boyfriends, dead-end jobs, and much, much worse. By age twenty, in fact, she is the sole survivor of a horrific, unsolved multiple homicide. Some might say she’s thrown her life away. But at her hospital bed, Alex is offered a second chance: to attend one of the world’s most elite universities on a full ride. What’s the catch, and why her?

Still searching for answers to this herself, Alex arrives in New Haven tasked by her mysterious benefactors with monitoring the activities of Yale’s secret societies. These eight windowless “tombs” are well-known to be haunts of the future rich and powerful, from high-ranking politicos to Wall Street and Hollywood’s biggest players. But their occult activities are revealed to be more sinister and more extraordinary than any paranoid imagination might conceive.

Nipped out the last few pages last night before Book Club.

Ninth House is a compulsively readable fantasy novel that smashes together The Secret History, the Rivers of London series, and a whodunnit. I’ve read reviews comparing Alex to Lisbeth Salander, however, she strikes me as more in the vein of Thursday Next, but less principled. The first 100 pages felt a little boggy to me with the back-and-forth between time periods and narrators and backstory but about midpoint the plot really kicked into high gear. I really liked Bardugo’s not-subtle commentary about the systems of power, magical and otherwise, relied on by these societies at Yale (and elsewhere, since alums keep coming back to have the “tombs” help them achieve success) and how everything functions to prop them up even to the point of covering up rape and murder.

I will give a trigger warning for descriptions of rape and sexual abuse (not incredibly graphic or used to give another character motivation but they do happen on the page) and drug use.

Dear FTC: I read an advance galley provided by the publisher for the discussion leader at my store.

mini-review · Reading Women · stuff I read

Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi, translated by Marilyn Booth

untitledSummary from Goodreads:
Winner of the 2019 Man Booker International Prize

In the village of al-Awafi in Oman, we encounter three sisters: Mayya, who marries after a heartbreak; Asma, who marries from a sense of duty; and Khawla, who chooses to refuse all offers and await a reunion with the man she loves, who has emigrated to Canada.

These three women and their families, their losses and loves, unspool beautifully against a backdrop of a rapidly changing Oman, a country evolving from a traditional, slave-owning society into its complex present. Through the sisters, we glimpse a society in all its degrees, from the very poorest of the local slave families to those making money through the advent of new wealth.

The first novel originally written in Arabic to ever win the Man Booker International Prize, and the first book by a female Omani author to be translated into English, Celestial Bodies marks the arrival in the United States of a major international writer.

I was very interested in this International Man Booker winner, the first Arabic-language winner of the prize and the first-ever novel by an Omani woman to be translated to English. Catapult was kind enough to approve my galley request. It is a beautifully-translated novel comprised of linked vignettes (best descriptor I have since the narrative is only vaguely linear with many narrators and points-of-view). Alharthi’s dream-like narrative uses the many perspectives of three generations of a family to capture a country and culture transitioning into the modern world.  There are a LOT of characters and the narrative shifts back and forth in time, so this definitely isn’t a fast read, but they’re all so interesting, especially the three sisters Mayya, Asma, and Khawla, Mayya’s husband Abdullah, and Zarifa, a woman formerly enslaved to Abdullah’s father.

Celestial Bodies is out now.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

stuff I read

The Penguin Book of Migration Literature: Departures, Arrivals, Generations, Returns edited by Dohra Ahmad, Edwidge Danticat (Foreword)

9780143133384_fbc9eSummary from Goodreads:
The first global anthology of migration literature featuring works by Mohsin Hamid, Zadie Smith, Marjane Satrapi, Salman Rushdie, and Warsan Shire, with a foreword by Edwidge Danticat, author of Everything Inside

Every year, three to four million people move to a new country. From war refugees to corporate expats, migrants constantly reshape their places of origin and arrival. This selection of works collected together for the first time brings together the most compelling literary depictions of migration.

Organized in four parts (Departures, Arrivals, Generations, and Returns), The Penguin Book of Migration Literature conveys the intricacy of worldwide migration patterns, the diversity of immigrant experiences, and the commonalities among many of those diverse experiences. Ranging widely across the eighteenth through twenty-first centuries, across every continent of the earth, and across multiple literary genres, the anthology gives readers an understanding of our rapidly changing world, through the eyes of those at the center of that change. With thirty carefully selected poems, short stories, and excerpts spanning three hundred years and twenty-five countries, the collection brings together luminaries, emerging writers, and others who have earned a wide following in their home countries but have been less recognized in the Anglophone world. Editor of the volume Dohra Ahmad provides a contextual introduction, notes, and suggestions for further exploration.

Penguin Classics has been knocking it out of the park these last few years with their anthologies and The Penguin Book of Migration Literature is no exception. It is a wonderfully solid and wide-ranging anthology of fiction, poetry, memoir, and personal essay on the subject of migration, whether voluntary or involuntary. The pieces are diverse geographically and chronologically (earliest works are from eighteenth-century writers and enslaved persons Olaudah Equiano and Phyllis Wheatley and the more recent are migrations from the Middle East and mid-2000s green card worries). My only complaint is that for excerpts of longer pieces (like from Zadie Smith’s White Teeth) there isn’t much context to orient the reader. The “Additional Reading/Watching” section at the back of the book is excellent.

The Penguin Book of Migration Literature is out now!

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

stuff I read

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

47517597._SY475_Summary from Goodreads:
In this bravura follow-up to the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award-winning #1 New York Times bestseller The Underground Railroad , Colson Whitehead brilliantly dramatizes another strand of American history through the story of two boys sentenced to a hellish reform school in Jim Crow-era Florida.

As the Civil Rights movement begins to reach the black enclave of Frenchtown in segregated Tallahassee, Elwood Curtis takes the words of Dr. Martin Luther King to heart: He is “as good as anyone.” Abandoned by his parents, but kept on the straight and narrow by his grandmother, Elwood is about to enroll in the local black college. But for a black boy in the Jim Crow South in the early 1960s, one innocent mistake is enough to destroy the future. Elwood is sentenced to a juvenile reformatory called The Nickel Academy, whose mission statement says it provides “physical, intellectual and moral training” so the delinquent boys in their charge can become “honorable and honest men.”

In reality, The Nickel Academy is a grotesque chamber of horrors, where the sadistic staff beats and sexually abuses the students, corrupt officials and locals steal food and supplies, and any boy who resists is likely to disappear “out back.” Stunned to find himself in such a vicious environment, Elwood tries to hold on to Dr. King’s ringing assertion “Throw us in jail and we will still love you.” His friend Turner thinks Elwood is worse than naive, that the world is crooked and the only way to survive is to scheme and avoid trouble.

The tension between Elwood’s ideals and Turner’s skepticism leads to a decision whose repercussions will echo down the decades. Formed in the crucible of the evils Jim Crow wrought, the boys’ fates will be determined by what they endured at The Nickel Academy.

Based on the real story of a reform school in Florida that operated for one hundred and eleven years and warped the lives of thousands of children, The Nickel Boys is a devastating, driven narrative that showcases a great American novelist writing at the height of his powers.

I was so excited when The Nickel Boys was announced because The Underground Railroad was one of the best books I read in 2016. So much is packed into this little book. Now, it didn’t wreck me like The Underground Railroad – I was a sobbing mess by the end of that book. The Nickel Boys was more quietly devastating. Whitehead didn’t pull his punches but instead slipped them around from behind. The violence doesn’t hit you in the face, it come from the side, stabs you in the back. I also thought a lot about Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us, currently streaming on Netflix, of all the years and opportunities schools and jails like the Nickel Academy steal from young black men.

Read for the Barnes and Noble Book Club – the best book they’ve picked for the program by far.

Dear FTC: I read an advance galley sent to my store for the book club discussion leader (me).