Permission by Saskia Vogel

January 15th, 2020

Much of this novel is narrated by Echo, who’s in her mid-twenties and grew up on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, though she now has her own apartment in LA. She’s adrift: she started acting as a teen and has been trying to build a career in it, but she’s not been getting any parts lately; she has an ongoing hookup situation with a dude who’s a musician who lives with his parents, but finds herself thinking about her high school best friend, Ana, who she had been hooking up with when they were in school together (until Ana’s dad walked in on them), but from whom she’s now estranged. We don’t get a sense of the shape of Echo’s normal daily life—her routines or lack thereof, her friends or lack thereof—because her life is up-ended near the start of the book by her father’s unexpected death. She goes to stay with her mom in her childhood home, and the two of them are stuck in their grief (not that her parents’ marriage had been particularly happy; not that anyone in the family seems like a particularly easy person). Meanwhile, she meets Orly, who’s in her thirties and has just moved in across the street with a slightly older male housemate, Lonnie, also known as Piggy. It turns out that Orly works as a dominatrix, which intrigues Echo, and a lot of the book ends up being about Orly and Echo’s quick/newfound intimacy, and also the strain that this puts on Piggy, whose normal routines are interrupted by Echo’s presence. The writing is lush and often lovely, but there is a whole lot of unease in this book. I like the descriptions of the coastal California landscape, though: the threat of earthquakes, but the beauty of whales; jasmine and honeysuckle and roses; jacaranda blossoms. And I like how Echo is trying to figure out how to navigate desire and grief, and how part of doing that, for her, is finding comfort in the physical in a way different from what she’s known in the past. Also: the final two pages of this book, in which Echo goes to the beach at night, are so beautiful and so good: such a perfect ending, not a resolution but a sense of possibility, of more.

The True Queen by Zen Cho

January 8th, 2020

I really liked Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown when I read it in 2015, and I think I felt similarly about The True Queen: I felt that the plot took a while to get moving, but once things picked up I was totally there for it. The True Queen starts with two girls, Sakti and Muna, finding themselves washed up on a beach on the island of Janda Baik after a storm. They have no memories of their lives other than their names, and end up living with a witch named Mak Genggang, who has a habit of taking in strays, especially magical ones. Sakti, it turns out, has a lot of magical talent, though Muna doesn’t seem to—though it seems like maybe she used to/maybe it was taken from her. When Sakti wakes up one day with a hole through her body (not a wound, just an absence of flesh), the girls figure they’re cursed, and end up deciding they need to go to England to try to get the curse lifted. But on the way there, Sakti disappears in Fairy/the Unseen Realm, meaning that Muna ends up in England alone, desperate to figure out how to rescue her sister from whatever surely-terrible fate has befallen her. Muna needs help, though, and appeals to Prunella Wythe, the Sorceress Royal, and to Prunella’s friend Henrietta Stapleton, who teaches at the school for magiciennes that Prunella runs. Adventures ensue, along with Fairy-related political intrigue, and I find the setting (Regency England with magic, the Unseen Realm with its Fairy Court and imps and dragons) to be lots of fun. I like, too, the way that the book explores agency and self-determination and questions of loyalty and family and friendship.

2019 in Books

January 5th, 2020

In 2019, I read 36 books, with the breakdown as follows:

Picture books: 1 (the delightful Fireboat by Maira Kalman, which I should have gotten around to sooner).

Middle-grade and YA: 10. Highlights: re-reading From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg, which I love as much as ever. Turtles All the Way Down by John Green, which combines regular high school stuff with bigger issues in a way I thought worked really well.

Fiction for grown-ups: 18. Interestingly, I only read one translated work of fiction for grown-ups this year, and it was a graphic novel—I feel like I usually read more fictional works in translation than that. Highlights: This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone, which just hit so many sweet spots for me in terms of style and details. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, which was totally engrossing to me and great to read while I was on jury duty. Fox 8 by George Saunders, which was smart and funny and moving and made me want to read more by him. Spring by Ali Smith, because she’s my favorite. Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney, because it’s so smart and so readable and so good. Crudo by Olivia Laing, for the same reasons.

Non-fiction: 6 (of which three were translated from other languages). None of the nonfiction books I read in 2019 totally blew me away, but I liked them all. If I’m picking highlights, I think I’d say The Philosopher in the Kitchen by Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, which had some very interesting and very funny bits, even if I didn’t love all of it, and Walking by Erling Kagge, because I like walking and I like reading about it and I really liked the parts where Kagge talks about his own more offbeat walking experiences, like walking in LA or walking through sewer tunnels in New York with an urban explorer.

Plays: 1 (the excellent The Wolves by Sarah DeLappe, which I read one weekend morning).

I don’t really have specific 2020 reading goals, though there are some kids’ series I’ve never finished reading that I’d like to pick up where I left off (the Anastasia Krupnik books and the Dido Twite books come to mind) and also some books I’ve been gifted that I want to read (including Normal People by Sally Rooney and Black Wave by Michelle Tea).

Fireboat by Maira Kalman

December 27th, 2019

Maira Kalman is one of my favorite artists, so when I found a copy of Fireboat: The Heroic Adventures of the John J. Harvey on the street, I clearly had to bring it home. I don’t know why it took me so long to get around to actually reading it: I like Kalman, I like boats, I like books about NYC. Well, no matter: I finally read it, and aww, what a sweet/touching picture book this is. I actually got to take a (free!) ride on the John J. Harvey in 2010, so I think I must have learned the boat’s story at that time, but I’d forgotten. The John J. Harvey was built in 1931 and served as a fireboat in NYC for decades, fighting fires on the piers when they were crowded with passenger ships and cargo ships—but was due to be sold for scrap after being retired in 1995. Instead, the boat was bought and restored, and ended up being called into service on September 11, 2001—first to ferry people uptown, and then to actually pump water at the World Trade Center site. The gouache artwork in this book is classic Maira Kalman (I find her style really quirky and charming), and I like the way Kalman tells the story, too, starting with the background of what else was happening the same year the John J. Harvey was first launched and then moving on to the boat itself, and then to the events of 9/11. From other work I’ve seen of hers, it seems like she’s very much interested in stories told through things from the past, and also in how things from the past can still be interesting/useful/beautiful, and this book fits in with that sensibility perfectly.

I generally like Max Gladstone’s writing, and I like this book’s message of community/collaboration, but space opera as a genre is not particularly my thing. The way the characters escape from one dangerous situation straight into another one sometimes leaves me feeling bored; I don’t particularly care about enormous spaceships and epic battles and deadly robots, which this book has in abundance; it also doesn’t help that a major plot point is way too obvious, way too early. That said, this was a pretty fun vacation read: it starts with Vivian Liao, a tech genius who thinks she’s about to be in trouble with a government that isn’t above torturing its enemies, throwing herself a birthday party only to disappear from it. She heads to a server farm in Boston, as planned, and starts running a script that she thinks will self-optimize to solve all sorts of problems. At that point, things go wrong, and Viv finds herself in a different story entirely, one where she has to defeat the Empress of the book’s title, working together with a cast of characters including a monk, a long-imprisoned pirate queen, a woman born to be a pilot, and a matter-devouring shape-shifting monster (who might be my favorite character of all) to save the galaxy from the Empress’s tyranny. Like I said: not particularly my thing, but I didn’t consider abandoning it, and I like the book’s sense of humor and heart.

Honor Girl by Maggie Thrash

December 15th, 2019

It’s summertime, and fifteen-year-old Maggie Thrash is at the same Appalachian all-girls camp she’s been attending for years, which her mom and grandmother also attended when they were young. She thinks it’ll be a summer like any other, full of practice at the rifle range and rainy-day talent-show performances and hanging out with friends. And it is full of those things, at least in part. But it’s also the summer in which Thrash first realizes she likes girls, when she falls for a counselor named Erin who’s four years older, who also turns out not to be straight. In addition to grappling with her own feelings, Maggie is worried about others realizing she’s queer and ostracizing her for it; she’s in her head a whole lot, except when she’s at the rifle range, where she goes from OK shooting to amazing shooting when a counselor advises her to just pretend to be someone else. She realizes that she can empty her mind when she’s at the range, but even that isn’t a perfect escape: there’s another girl working toward the same rifle certification as Maggie who gets really jealous of Maggie’s sudden improvement.

There’s so much longing and wistfulness in this book, and my favorite parts, in terms of the art, are the big quiet panels that capture some of that sense of the vastness of feelings: tents and trees and a dark blue sky speckled with stars, or two girls silhouetted against a sky tinged purple and lighter blue and darker blue. But it’s not all seriousness: one of my favorite sections is when Maggie and other campers are stranded away from camp (they went to see a play in town; there was a huge storm; they couldn’t get across the river to go back) and we get to see all their cabin fever, hours and hours of watching movies and eating Skittles and wondering when they’ll be able to get back to their normal camp lives.

We Are Okay by Nina LaCour

December 1st, 2019

In her foreword, Nicola Yoon says this book is “a small, glittering world of beauty and emotion and truth,” which I think sums it up pretty nicely. I read this book over the course of two days and loved being immersed in Marin’s world, raw as it felt. (I cried near the end of the book. Twice.) The dual-timeline narration goes back and forth between Marin’s present (a winter break that she’s spending in her freshman dorm) and recent past (the end of her senior year of high school in San Francisco, and the summer before college started). That kind of narration can sometimes feel gimmicky to me (like the author doesn’t trust the story to be engaging enough on its own), but here it worked: Marin is dealing with grief and coming back to herself, and the dual narration lets us see how Marin got to where she is when the book opens.

It’s hard to talk about this book without spoilers, so I’ll be vague, but one thing I love is the way that Marin and her best friend Mabel talk about art and literature—the way that Marin spins out interpretations of a painting or a novel, the way that the ambiguity or complications of a narrative are exciting to her or stressful to her, the way that coming to terms with her grief involves thinking about how things could have been different but accepting how they are, while also realizing that there isn’t actually a single interpretation for or explanation of that.

I read and liked the first three books in this kids’ series in 2007, 2008, and 2009, and also read and liked the prequel in 2012, so I was delighted to learn, this year, that there was now another Mysterious Benedict Society novel. Like the others, it’s about super-smart kids (well, they’re a bit older now) solving puzzles and fighting bad guys; also like the others, I found it to be a quick and fun read. At the start of the book, we learn that the Ten Men (the muscle of the evil genius Mr. Curtain, so called because they have ten ways to hurt you) have escaped from a supposedly escape-proof prison, and are no doubt planning to spring Mr. Curtain (who is imprisoned in a separate facility) loose as well. This means that Constance, Kate, Reynie, and Sticky have to act fast to prevent that from happening. Everyone’s a bit older than they were in the other books: Constance has better control over both her temper and her telepathy, and the other three are all figuring out what they want to do next. That’s a big element of the book—the story of childhood best friends growing apart/not knowing how their old selves and old friends fit with the people they’re becoming. But there’s also a lot of straight-up adventure, and a sweet new addition to the crew, a five-year-old boy named Tai who gets to the town where the others are by hiding amongst sheep on a freight car: “I petted every single one of them,” he says, and I was totally charmed.

I read a few sentences of This Is How You Lose the Time War aloud to my boyfriend because I was liking it so much, and he just looked at me and asked if this book was written for me. It really is full of things I’m into: tea and cities and literary allusions and lush prose and crystalline details; there’s also letter-writing, and the kind of time-travel plot I really enjoy. The book follows two characters we know as Red and Blue: they’re rivals from different futures, each of whom is sent to various points in time to influence the outcome of events in their future’s favor. There’s narrative about them, but we also get letters by them, to each other: letters that start as brags and taunts and shift as the book progresses; letters that are mostly encoded in things, rather than being written on paper: a letter in the flight of a bee or the flow of lava.

It’s a really pleasing conceit, and when it comes with sentences like the ones I read aloud…Yeah, I’m here for this:

London Next—the same day, month, year, but one strand over—is the kind of London other Londons dream: sepia tinted, skies strung with dirigibles, the viciousness of empire acknowledged only as a rosy backdrop glow redolent of spice and petalled sugar. Mannered as a novel, filthy only where story requires it, all meat pies and monarchy—this is a place Blue loves, and hates herself for loving. (55)

Dracula by Bram Stoker

November 13th, 2019

Having never read Dracula before, I didn’t know what kind of reading experience I was in for when I picked it up, in ways good, bad, and funny. The good: I didn’t realize that it was presented as the journal/diary entries and letters of various characters, plus things like newspaper clippings and telegrams, rather than as a single-perspective narrative. I like the way the story is pieced together from all the little bits. The bad: I could have done without all the misogyny. I definitely felt myself scowling as I was reading on the train and reached a sentence about how a female character has a man’s brain and a woman’s heart, ugh. The funny: I obviously knew before I started reading that Dracula is a vampire. But the book’s characters don’t know this at the beginning, which makes for some amusing moments: like, a character gets a letter signed “Your friend, Dracula,” because, you know, that’s just the guy’s name, but it’s as if the letter were signed “Your friend, the vampire,” because we all know that Castle Dracula is not some charming/comfortable place, but of course the character getting the letter doesn’t yet know what he’s in for. Also: I wouldn’t have guessed this book would have so much snow in it, or so many wolves, both of which are excellent additions to the overall mood. There are some extremely creepy moments in this book, and also some passages of tedious narration (there is one character in particular who isn’t a native English speaker whose speech patterns are super-annoying) but also descriptions of things like “the wonderful smoky beauty of a sunset over London, with its lurid lights and inky shadows and all the marvellous tints that come on foul clouds even as on foul water” (120).