In Dragon’s Green, the first book in her Worldquake middle-grade fantasy sequence, Scarlett Thomas introduced us to Effie Truelove, a young True Hero just discovering her magical abilities, and to her also-magical friends/classmates (Lexy, Maximilian, Raven, and Wolf), and to the shape of the world in which they live, where a lot of magical power is bound up with books and stories. In The Chosen Ones, the second book of the series, we get to see Effie learn more about herself and magic, and we also get to see her friends getting themselves and each other in and out of peril. There’s a whole lot of plot, but the short version is that evil publisher Skylurian Midzhar is planning to use some bookish magic to give herself and her fellow villains a whole lot of power; it’s up to Effie and her friends to foil that plan.

The Chosen Ones, like Dragon’s Green, is smart and lots of fun: Thomas is an English professor, and it shows: there’s one part where Effie and her friends are given a close-reading assignment as homework, and a great moment where Skylurian explains that she and her colleagues “at the Matchstick Press have always been subscribers to the theory of the Death of the Author” (350). Which isn’t to say that the only delights of The Chosen Ones are the bookish moments: the mix of moments of action and moments of reflection really worked for me, as did the way the story shifts between Effie and others (mostly Maximilian, who goes on a few adventures of his own, and Raven, whose ability to communicate with animals gives her some early knowledge of crucial plot points). I also liked the mix of magic and other things: Effie isn’t just learning about saving the universe, but also about friendship and sadness and how to take care of herself and how to let others help her when she needs it, too.

Border Districts is one of those books that I admire, even though I didn’t love it: it feels well-constructed, and there’s a lot I appreciate about Murnane’s style, even as I feel like I’m maybe not the ideal reader for this book. It’s very much in its narrator’s head—if you’re looking for something plot-driven, look elsewhere—and it’s very concerned with memory and reading and thinking and seeing, with the life of the mind and with the imagined inner lives of others. All of which is pretty appealing to me, but there were times when I felt like this book was a slog, though it’s pretty short, and I’m not sure I can articulate why. It’s narrated by an older man who has moved from an unnamed Australian city to a more remote town; it’s full of recurring images and themes: stained glass, light, color, sight, interiority. The narrator thinks about praying in chapel in his days as a schoolboy at a Catholic school, and how he compared his own known thoughts/experience to the unknown thoughts/experience of his fellow-students: “I was never satisfied with my attempts to pray or to contemplate, and I often wondered what exactly was taking place in the mind of my devout-seeming classmate” (5). He thinks about “the life and death of mental entities” (17): how he remembers some bits of stories he read decades ago, or how he still has certain mental images relating to Catholicism even though he’s no longer a believer, or how other formerly-religious people end up realizing that they “no longer considered sacred some of the persons, places, and things that they had previously deemed so” (18).

Some of the narrative feels very dry and a bit tedious to me (like when the narrator is describing a mental image he had that was prompted by an author photograph on the back of a book), but I found other sections to be a delight, like this:

I consider myself a student of colours and shades and hues and tints. Crimson lake, burnt umber, ultramarine… I was too clumsy as a child to paint with my moistened brush the scenery that I would have liked to bring into being. I preferred to leave untouched in their white metallic surroundings my rows of powdery rectangles of water-colours, to read aloud one after another of the tiny printed names of the coloured rectangles, and to let each colour seem to soak into each word of its name or even into each syllable of each word of each name so that I could afterwards call to mind an exact shade or hue from an image of no more than black letters on a white ground. (54-55)

Animals Eat Each Other is short and dark and intense, the kind of book it was easy to read in a day, even though being immersed in its narrator’s world made me feel a little queasy. It’s a story about obsession and insecurity and need and emptiness, and if you’re bothered by the idea of reading about people in their late teens/early twenties drinking and doing drugs and getting tattoos and having kinky group sex, this is not the book for you. It’s a story about post-high-school indirection and suburban boredom: our narrator, “Lilith,” whose real name we never learn, works at RadioShack, sneaks pills from her mom’s supply of painkillers, and drinks cough syrup for a good time. She also embarks on a relationship with a male/female couple around her age to whom she’s introduced by a friend, sleeps with her manager at work, and ends up having sex with her closest female friend, too. As the title of one chapter puts it, “the thing about boundary issues is that you end up fucking your friends or maybe everyone you know” (29).

The story is told with the benefit of distance (an older Lilith looking back at her younger self), but you get the sense that she’s self-aware in the midst of it, too. “I was more attracted to a person’s interest in me than to the particulars of their personalities, or the things they liked to eat, or what they liked to do when they weren’t texting me or sleeping with me,” she says at one point (22). And then, later: “I could feel the manipulative part of myself light up like a highway at dusk” (61). Even as Lilith is trying and failing to use sex and relationships to feel validated and wanted and needed, she can see how she’s messing things up, and that, rather than the subject matter, was what made me feel queasy: that uncomfortable combination of self-knowledge and self-destructiveness, that sense of compulsion.

This short book (it’s only sixty pages) consists of three biographical essays about writers: there’s one about Thomas De Quincey, one about John Keats, and one about Marcel Schwob. I was somewhat familiar with Keats before reading this, a bit less familiar with De Quincey (or TDQ, as he’s referred to in the book), and not at all familiar with Schwob, and I’m curious as to how these pieces would read to someone more familiar with these figures than I was. These essays trace their subjects’ lives from childhood to literary career to death, and in each piece, there’s a sense of the writer as devoted to literature. Jaeggy describes Schwob, for example, as someone whose “head was stuffed with names, words, and legends” (52). Or there’s this, about Keats when he decided to be a writer instead of practicing medicine: “He devoured books, he copied, translated sections, he became the scribe and secretary to his mind” (31). Jaeggy isn’t only writing about these men, though, but about the times and places in which they lived: I love the start of the Keats essay, which you can read in full on the New York Review of Books website. My favorite piece, though, was the one about De Quincey, maybe for its wintry mood, which made a pleasant contrast to summer in New York. I like atmospheric lines like this: “From the first week in November until the end of January he pleaded with the sky: he wanted more snow, more ice, more storms and frost” (10). Or this: “Cloaked in a driver’s mantle, some legal papers, and frost, Thomas surprised his shoes and went skating down the street” (15). Though this book is not a novel, it made me think of Danielle Dutton’s Margaret the First: I feel like people who enjoyed that book would like this one, and vice versa, because they both explore historical writerly figures in stylistically interesting ways.

I’ve been loving Jeanne Birdsall’s books about the Penderwick siblings since I read the first one back in 2008, and this finale to the series was as delightful as I had hoped it would be. In The Penderwicks at Last, the focus is mainly on Lydia, the youngest Penderwick, who is now eleven: this makes sense, since these are middle-grade novels/it’s appealing to have a protagonist who’s the same age as the target audience. But all the other Penderwicks make appearances, too, as do other beloved (and not-so-beloved) characters from the earlier books.

At the start of the book, Lydia is waiting for her older sister Batty to come home from college, and we learn that the whole family will be going to Arundel, the estate in the Berkshires where the Penderwicks rented a cottage for the summer in the very first book. Arundel now belongs to honorary Penderwick/close family friend Jeffrey Tifton (rather than to his rather prickly mother), and he’s told the oldest Penderwick, Rosalind, that she can have her wedding on the grounds. This is super-exciting for Lydia, who’s been hearing about Arundel for years but has never been herself, so she’s delighted that she and Batty (and the family’s two dogs) will be the first to arrive, with the rest of the siblings and her parents following behind in stages. When they get there, Lydia finds that Arundel is as enchanting as she had hoped—and there turns out to be a girl her age, Alice, who’s the daughter of Cagney (who we met in the first book—he was Arundel’s gardener) and his wife Natalie, who’s an artist. Alice is a bit grumpy because her brother Jack is off having adventures with a cousin in Canada, and Lydia’s not sure they’ll be friends, but after a tentative start to things, of course they are, and it’s sweet to read about the summery fun that Alice and Lydia have together, whether they’re festooning a Great Dane with yarn and ribbons, watching Alice’s family’s chickens, splashing in a stream, or reading Lewis Carroll to a sheep.

Speaking of sheep and chickens and that Great Dane, I love how Birdsall writes about animals, dogs especially. There are so many funny and sweet animal-focused moments in this book: I particularly love the Penderwicks’ younger dog, Feldspar, who is always finding some random object and claiming it as his new favorite thing/carrying it around everywhere. I also like how Lydia is as good with people as Batty is with animals: she’s perceptive and emotionally intelligent, and capable of dealing with/seeing the humanity in just about everyone, even the disagreeable Mrs. Tifton.

I like Diana Wynne Jones a whole lot, in general: I feel like her books are a reliable blend of magic, inventiveness, well-developed characters, humor, heart, and satisfying plots. The Game, alas, feels lacking in terms of characters (and therefore heart), and the plot feels a little formulaic. But even though I feel like this book doesn’t live up to my standards for Diana Wynne Jones books, it was still a fast and fun read.

At the start of the book, we meet Hayley, who normally lives with her grandparents but has just been sent to a castle in Ireland to live with her aunt. The castle is overrun with other members of Hayley’s extended family—it’s normally just one other kid and his mom who live there, but Hayley arrives during the one week a year when almost all the other aunts and cousins come to visit, too. It’s a contrast from Hayley’s usual life as an only child, and Hayley feels “bewildered and in disgrace” at having been sent away from home (7). She reflects on how she ended up being sent to Ireland, which has something to do with her grandmother’s strictness and her grandfather’s job, though she doesn’t really know what he does, “except that it seem[s] to involve keeping up with the whole world” (22). She does know that it’s something to do with the mythosphere, which he explained to her almost by accident one day, and which is represented by the image of the globe encircled by threads that weave together into skeins. Hayley’s grandfather explains that the mythosphere is “made up of all the stories, theories and beliefs, legends, myths and hopes, that are generated here on Earth” and that it’s “constantly growing and moving as people invent new tales to tell or find new things to believe” (30).

After learning about the mythosphere, Hayley is delighted to find that she can actually travel to/through it, which is what ends up getting her sent to Ireland: her grandmother is not pleased, and says her uncle Jolyon won’t be pleased, either. In Ireland, Hayley travels to the mythosphere again, this time with her cousins as part of a game they play every year, and she learns more about what the mythosphere is and how her family is connected to it, though there are a lot of pieces of the story that become clear only gradually. Hayley learns things about her absent parents, though, and her aunts and cousins, and why her uncle has always wanted to keep an eye on her, and there are quests and adventures that first seem just to be for fun but then turn more serious, and there are bits of myth and fairy tale and story. It all feels like it has a ton of potential, but I wanted more from this book.

Partly I wanted there to be more satisfying descriptive passages than there were, though there were some (including a great section about Hayley’s first trip to the mythosphere). I wanted more of the castle in Ireland (though the description of a flood that happens the night Hayley arrives is pretty great), and more of Hayley’s grandparents’ house (which is tantalizingly described as being full of radios and televisions and computers). I also wanted there to be more of a sense of Hayley and her family members and how they relate to one another: there’s a bit of that, when we learn about how Hayley’s grandfather has taught her about stars and planets and atoms, or when Hayley’s cousins teach her about how things ended up the way they are, but I wanted more. I did appreciate Hayley’s delight, when she’s at the castle, at being able to choose her own clothes for a change, and being able to dress in practical/comfortable attire, and the freedom she feels when she realizes no one cares if she looks neat and tidy or not.

Side note: the edition of the book I read has some added bits at the end about mythology and planets and the zodiac, and one of the things it says is that the “most-well known” mnemonic for remembering the order of the planets (Pluto included) is “Mother Very Easily Made Jam Sandwiches Under No Protest.” Wait, what?! Is that a British thing? Because the one I learned was definitely “My Very Educated Mother Just Showed Us Nine Planets.”

I’d read some of the twenty-one pieces in Calypso before, since some of them appeared in The New Yorker, but that didn’t diminish my enjoyment of this book at all: I feel like a David Sedaris essay generally stands up to a re-read. A back cover blurb from Marion Winik at Newsday captures the appeal perfectly: “His personal essays,” Winik writes, “are put together so carefully that none of the seams show; they often ingeniously build to a sneak attack of wisdom or poignancy in the final lines.” These pieces are about family and loss and middle-age and mortality and being a flawed human interacting with other flawed humans, and they manage to be funny and moving and totally engaging: my boyfriend and I were reading this book at the same time, and we both kept commenting on what a pleasure it was.

In this book, Sedaris writes about family clashes and connections and missed opportunities: about worrying he’ll get on his family’s nerves when they visit him and his partner in England, or arguing with his dad about politics, or shopping with two of his sisters in Tokyo, or the last time he saw his sister Tiffany (who later committed suicide), or how none of his siblings ever confronted their mother about her alcoholism. He writes about the differences between his partner’s family and his own, and about easy beach-house conversation during board games, or while lounging in the sun. He writes about how his father is (mostly) easier to get along with in his old age than he was earlier in his life, and about how it feels like they don’t really know how to talk to one another, though they bond over jazz. He writes about personal experiences ranging from an adventure in tumor removal to his obsession with his Fitbit (the Fitbit piece, “Stepping Out,” is totally one of my favorites in the book), and about what business travel in the US is like, and about a fox that had been visiting his backyard in West Sussex. He writes about same-sex marriage, and about ghosts, and about insults people use in other countries. Throughout, I found myself grinning and laughing and nodding in recognition: I read this book over the course of four days and kept looking forward to when I’d be able to pick it up next.

(Note: though Eileen Myles used the pronoun “she” at the time this book was written, they now use the singular “they,” so that’s what I’m using here.)

Near the end of Inferno (which is split into three sections, each one loosely corresponding to a section of Dante’s Divine Comedy), Eileen Myles writes that “poetry is most of all a mastery of places, not the world but the weather of the states that form in your life and what you read and how things were taken and what came back” (260). That’s also a pretty good description of this book, which is an autobiographical novel about the narrator’s coming of age as a writer and a queer person. It’s also about New York in the late 1960s and 1970s (and onward), and it’s smart and wryly funny and really satisfying, maybe especially the first section, which mostly alternates between the narrator’s experience in a literature class at U Mass Boston and a story about going out on a double date of sorts with a near-stranger and two visiting Italian businessmen, fairly early in the narrator’s NYC life. The second section is partly structured as a grant application, partly as a series of vignettes about being a writer (among other things); the last section is another series of vignettes, about being a writer and sex and life.

I love Myles’s descriptions of New York: “Millions of little covens. It’s not a big city at all,” they write (51). Or, later in the book: “It’s the way New York is: all the realities blinking next to each other” (203). Myles captures a feeling of possibility related to being young in the city and to being a writer and to being queer, and that feeling is probably all the more pronounced because of the way that New York’s openness contrasts with the narrator’s Boston-adjacent childhood and adolescence. Myles writes this, about Catholic school: “the nuns enclosed the world with sanity and god. The rules flowed up and down the calendar and around the clock and in the day the sky, the world was rules—known by god the nuns said” (8). And then Myles writes about the city, about “being completely open to the world” in a “temporary way,” “notebook open to all the light coming in” (33). I also love this, about poetry readings at the West End bar by Columbia: “The light poured in from Broadway behind the poet so you could see it was winter and the trees were skinny and the cars on Broadway were moving fast and a reading was going on. The world was a movie” (53).

(I also totally love the sweet and tender and observant way Myles writes about their dog Rosie in this book—I’d already wanted to read Afterglow, Myles’s “dog memoir”, and now I’m even more excited about it.)

I found some of the fourteen essays in this collection more compelling than others, but, overall, I like Chew-Bose’s voice and the way she writes about memory/family/personal history and larger issues like race and the experience of being a first-generation North American. I liked “Summer Pictures,” about going to the movies in the summertime, a whole bunch – how Chew-Bose writes about the “sense of ceremony” that an excursion to the theater brings, and how sitting in the cool dark in the summer heat feels like “playing hooky,” “pretending that adulthood is no match for summer’s precedent” of freedom (189, 191). I liked “Tan Lines,” about summer heat and family stories and Chew-Bose’s childhood summer awareness of her body, her brown-skinned body in a largely-white place, and also the way Chew-Bose writes in this piece about summers now, about moments sitting on rooftops in New York City, trying to read, feeling “indebted to the car passing below blasting that song” (183). I liked “Since Living Alone,” in which Chew-Bose writes about figuring out who she is in her own space, by herself, not defined in relation to others: this, from that piece, is great:

I count living alone as, in a manner of speaking, finding interest in my own story, of prospering, of creating a space where I repeat the same actions every day, whetting them, rearranging them, starting from scratch but with variables I can control, or, conversely, eagerly appeal to their chaos. (173)

I also really liked “D as In,” about having a non-Anglo name in a mostly-Anglo place, and about considerations of privilege related to race and to names, and “Moby-Dick,” about reading in the library and the way moments from books can line up, pleasingly, with the outer world. And I liked the meandering/digressive structure of the long first piece, “Heart Museum,” which is about the heart and life and wonder and everyday ordinariness and families and how art affects us and friendship and heartbreak and sense memories and more.

I don’t know what to say about Concluding other than that I agree with the quote from Deborah Eisenberg on the cover of the edition I read: “Uncanny, gorgeous, enigmatic.”

Concluding takes place over the course of a single day at an all-girls boarding school for future state servants, somewhere in England, in a vague and vaguely dystopian future. Two of the school’s students have gone missing, and the question of what exactly happened to them is an element of the book, but maybe not the central one. The book more closely focuses on one Mr Rock, a retired scientist of some sort who lives in a cottage on the school grounds with his granddaughter Elizabeth. Elizabeth, who’s 35 years old, is dating one of the school’s male teachers and recovering from a nervous breakdown. Rock is (rightly) worried that the school’s principals, Edge and Baker (well, mostly Edge) are scheming to get him out of the cottage, and the question of what’s going to happen to Rock is kind of the central question, but it isn’t exactly, either.

The characters of Concluding go through the book talking to each other and mishearing or misunderstanding each other, and those misunderstandings and lapses in communication or connection are maybe the central thing about this book. But what I like most about Concluding is the way it captures the rhythms of a day, the way it shows various characters doing all the ordinary (or slightly out of the ordinary) daily things: having breakfast and talking about the weather, taking an afternoon nap, getting ready for tea, getting ready for the school’s annual Founder’s Day dance. I like the descriptive passages, too, especially the ones about light and shadow, the way light divides or transforms a space, or about motion: starlings swirling through the sky at dawn and dusk, or this, from just before the dance starts: “what had been formless became a group, by music, merged to a line of white in pairs, white faces, to the flowers and lighted ballroom, each pair of lips open to the spiralling dance” (179).