I like the worlds and characters of Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series a whole lot, and I like McGuire’s writing style: I mean, at one point in this book she describes how a skeleton “floated like a bath toy for the world’s most morbid child” (78). That said, this book was my least favorite of the series so far, I think because it’s a quest narrative, which made it feel both unputdownable and a bit less interesting to me. I mean, the mechanics of a quest narrative are pretty standard: a character or group sets out in search of something/trying to accomplish some goal, there are twists and setbacks along the way, there is a climax in which they fail (or probably more usually) succeed, and then things get wrapped up at the end. The nature of a quest narrative means that it’s pretty plot-driven, which is part of what made me read this book so quickly, but plot-driven isn’t my favorite kind of fiction. Still, this book was a fun read.

So, the plot: early in the book, a girl falls from the sky into the pond at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children (which is a school for kids who have traveled to other worlds and then ended up back in this one). The girl, Rini, is looking for her mother, who was a student there. But there’s a problem: her mother is dead. The fact of her mother’s death is making Rini herself disappear, and is also causing major problems in Rini’s home world, which her mother saved from an authoritarian ruler. So several students (Christopher and Kade, both of whom are great/both of whom we know from previous books in the series, and Nadya, who spends a lot of time at the turtle pond wishing she were back in the river-world she went to, and Cora, a new student who was a mermaid in an ocean-world) set out with Rini to try to set things right. This involves a trip to a cemetery and the Halls of the Dead (where they hope an ex-student of the school will be able to help them out) and then to Rini’s home world, Confection, where farmers grow candy corn and the ocean is made of strawberry-rhubarb soda. The details of the settings are pleasing, and the advances and setbacks are exciting, and I like Cora, who proves herself smart, perceptive, and capable, even as she finds herself on a quest she never really signed up for, helping people she doesn’t really know. I also like the narrative’s body-positivity, even if it can feel a little heavy-handed, and the way it emphasizes strength through difference/diversity: “Everyone’s lives prepared them for something different,” Cora thinks, at one point (76). And of course, in this kind of narrative, that means everyone has a part to play in the quest.

Winter is the second novel in Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet, and I initially found it less approachable than Autumn, though I think that’s absolutely by design. This is a story about a family, and about family memories and secrets and dysfunctions, and its characters aren’t as instantly likable as those in Autumn, but it’s also, eventually, a book about light and connection and generosity and warmth in a midwinter time of darkness, and as things got a little brighter I found myself enjoying the book more.

The book is set mostly in Cornwall, mostly around Christmas: an older woman, Sophia Cleves, is expecting her son Art and his girlfriend Charlotte for a holiday visit. But Art and Charlotte have broken up, not that he wants to tell Sophia that, and since Sophia and Charlotte have never met, Art figures he can bring someone else, someone who will pretend to be Charlotte for a few days. But when Art and his companion arrive, it’s clear that all is not quite right with Sophia, so Art’s environmentalist/activist/ex-squatter aunt Iris is called in to help out, despite the fact that she and Sophia haven’t spoken for decades.

All of that, though, makes this book sound like more of a straightforward holiday family drama than it is. There’s various bits of strangeness throughout, like when Sophia sees something in her field of vision that seems to turn into the disembodied head of a child, which then keeps her company for several days, or when Art gets drunk at dinner and sees a bit of coastline looming in the air over the dining room table. And there’s lots of humor and wordplay and pleasingly-constructed passages (like a bit where we get a whole conversation first in terms of what one of the characters is saying, and then in terms of the other character’s replies) and thoughts about art and memory and emotion and nature and the current political moment and life in general, and bits of Autumn that come into play in this story, too, and it all ultimately really worked for me, despite the initial chilliness of it.

Malacqua is about what its subtitle says it’s about—”Four Days of Rain in the City of Naples, Waiting for the Occurrence of an Extraordinary Event”—but that only partly captures the mood and feel of this atmospheric novel. Malacqua is about four days of rain, yes, but it’s also about how things work or don’t work, about how the government works or doesn’t work, about how people are stuck or indecisive or unsure or resolved about things in their lives, and about how life goes on, and about how people move through their days, with their everyday frustrations and rebellions (or dreams thereof) and hopes and worries. There’s an introduction/prologue, and then a section of the book for each of the four days; the narration of each day is made of long sentences, long paragraphs, wonderful unspooling phrases about city-life, city-moments, with the focus shifting from place to place, character to character. The book starts and ends with a journalist, Carlo Andreoli (who’s 35, though I read him as ten or twenty years older and was surprised when his age was mentioned), and focuses partly on the direct consequences of the rain that starts and then continues for four days: a sinkhole opens in a road; buildings collapse; people die. But we also get little snippets of other inhabitants of Naples and their lives: a stenographer thinking about sex and her boyfriend, a girl in her late teens meeting up with a lover, a poet giving a reading, a café owner and his English wife, a mother whose son has just gotten married, a ten-year-old girl whose mother is difficult, a secretary waiting for a bus and thinking about her romantic relationships. We also get some magical realism, which is sort of loosely integrated into the story: a few weird/inexplicable things happen, but mostly we’re in a more or less realistic, if soggy, landscape.

I loved the descriptive passages about Naples and its water and its weather, from the first sentence of the book on: here’s how the book starts:

And through the windowpane steaming grey thoughts following the sea, with Santa Lucia huddled behind him, hands in his pockets, listening to the silence of his silence, the gusts of the coming wind, and those leaves twisting in the street, down into the asphalt (9)

A few pages later, we read about “the brackish air, the smell of diesel” (11). Later, night arrives “with inky streaks and sudden gusts” (13); later still, there’s this, which I think is great:

The harbour was peaceful and silent, with very few lights still burning, and only from time to time a train’s rattle in the silence, a rattling train and a few silent cars inside that silence. There was night, only night, floating over the telegraph poles, the neon signs. (61)

I also like the way that the narrative shifts from character to character, and the way that different characters’ thoughts and memories are explored: I like how a passage about a police officer looking at the sea turns into him thinking about swimming off a boat with his friends when he was a kid, which turns into him thinking about his marriage and his wife, who’s ill/anxious, so that you can’t help but reflect on the contrast between his childhood (all possibility and freedom) and his adult life, but in a way that doesn’t feel heavy-handed, in a way that just flows.

Malacqua was originally published in Italian in 1977, and this is the first time it’s been published in English translation: as the back cover explains, it was withdrawn from publication until after Pugliese’s death, at his request. This was Pugliese’s only novel, but I wish he’d written others: I found myself thoroughly immersed in this book and its style, transported from a wintry New York existence to a rainy autumnal Neapolitan one.

Standard Deviation is a novel about married life and parenting, but also about life in general: it’s full of “all that stuff you do every day that sometimes seems pleasurable and sometimes seems pointless but never seems to end” (259). Those everyday moments, particularly the ones that are on the edge of ridiculous, are a big part of what I like about this book. The everyday moments we see are from the twelfth year of Graham and Audra’s marriage: he’s 56, she’s 41, and he cheated on his first wife, Elspeth, with her, but now they’ve been together for longer than he and Elspeth were, and they have a son, Matthew, who’s 10 and on the autism spectrum. I like that we see Graham and Audra going grocery shopping (where she runs into her yoga teacher and lies about why she missed class that morning) and going about their workdays (Graham’s young/clueless secretary is pretty great) and doing parental tasks they’d rather not (from a party for parents of kids in Matthew’s Cub Scout troop to an origami conference to a really great scene in which Graham and their doorman, Julio, rush around collecting food from various parents for a multicultural school event). I like the humor of scenes like a disastrous Thanksgiving dinner, scenes which are often made funnier by Audra’s lack of a filter: she seems to say whatever she’s thinking, without any sense of whether or not it’s appropriate for the time/place/audience. And I like the way we see Graham and Audra, and then just Graham, interacting with Elspeth (who hasn’t been in their lives at all until now) after Graham runs into her by chance at a deli. I like the way Graham and Elspeth’s interactions, in particular, are used to explore friendship and intimacy and personhood and agency, and I also like the scenes where we see Graham and Audra and Elspeth together. I like how Heiny captures little things so well, like the “half-present, half-absent sort of voice people use when they’re looking at a computer screen and talking at the same time” (16), or like this:

Graham’s and Audra’s were not the only universes. There were also other universes—hidden ones, secret ones. Little pocket universes scattered around and you slipped into them unexpectedly, like when you stopped into a bodega for milk and discovered a cardboard display stand of Sucrets or Love’s Baby Soft perfume or some other long-defunct product. (43)

That said, I think I’m not really the ideal audience for this book, or maybe for books about marriage in general: I disliked how the question of infidelity kept coming up in various ways/for various people, without any recognition of the fact that monogamy is not the only relationship model (even though I realize that for a lot of people, it is).

All the Dirty Parts was an extremely fast and extremely fun read for me. The day I started it, I was reading it on the elevator en route to work, and a woman who I don’t know/who works elsewhere in the building asked what I was reading and how it was. I think I said it was funny, which it was, at that moment, but that is not, overall, a word I would use to describe this book. I also added that it was “by the guy who writes as Lemony Snicket, you know, the kids’ books, but this is not for kids.” I don’t know that I’d recommend All the Dirty Parts to that woman on the elevator without knowing anything about her, but if you are OK with reading a whole lot of explicit teenage sex scenes and are into stories told as a series of vignettes, this might be the book for you. One of the back cover blurbs is by Jenny Offill, and I can see how people who liked Dept. of Speculation might like this book, too: I definitely enjoyed them both.

So, right: All the Dirty Parts is pretty much what the title says, though it’s not only the dirty parts, just mostly. It’s narrated by Cole, a seventeen-year-old boy who runs cross-country and takes art class and sometimes fails tests and thinks about sex basically always. When the book opens, he’s slept with eleven girls, and has “a rep” around school for being into casual hookups. He’s eloquent about sex, about the delight of it and the hotness of it and the occasional humor of it and the way he constantly wants it. His eloquence feels more adult than adolescent, but I was willing to give the narrative the benefit of the doubt, particularly because it results in some lovely descriptions, like when Cole is talking about pretty girls and how he wants “to capture their whole bodies under a blanket with enough light to see the pleasure of what we are doing” (3).

I like all the little bits that make up this narrative, the way the story unfolds: Cole talking about sharing online porn with his best friend, Alec, and the unspoken code they have about it; Cole’s conversations with a female friend about sex and his rep and how he treats girls; Cole’s thoughts on the Kinsey scale, after he and Alec have messed around a bit; Cole meeting a girl, Grisaille, who wants sex as much as he does, and how he feels when he’s in the unfamiliar position of being more into the other person than the other person is into him. I like that Cole is knowledgable about sex, that he talks about things like knowing where a clitoris is and going down on girls; I like that Grisaille puts her own pleasure first sometimes. I really like the way the sentences flow, the way the tone is easy and conversational, like in this bit where Cole and Alec are watching porn together: “We both keep shifting, our jeans crackling, weird and hot to watch it together. More weird than hot, or the other way, I don’t know” (35). And I like the funny bits, too, like when Grisaille asks Cole if he has “a favorite German poet” and he replies, “Sorry, I thought you were kidding. Let me answer for everyone you will ever meet in this town, no, we don’t have favorite German poets. We have favorite dinners and beers” (54).

I’m not sure I would have enjoyed Startup as much as I did if I didn’t a) live in NYC and b) know people who work in tech, but I found it to be a very fun, funny, and quick read, even though none of the characters are particularly sympathetic. There’s Mack McAllister, the 28-year-old founder of a mindfulness app called TakeOff, who’s stressed about getting more funding for his company, which has been burning through cash, and who’s also belatedly realizing he’s totally falling for Isabel Taylor, the woman he’s been casually hooking up with for a while (who’s one of his employees, and who, it turns out, doesn’t feel the same way about him). There’s Sabrina Choe Blum, a 36-year-old MFA-program graduate who was a stay-at-home-mom for a few years but now is back in the workforce as an “Engagement Ninja” at TakeOff, reporting to Isabel (who’s a decade younger than she is). There’s Dan Blum, Sabrina’s husband, who’s 39 and an editor at TechScene, a website that covers tech news and is based in the same office building as TakeOff. And there’s Katya Pasternack, a 24-year-old reporter at TechScene who works for Dan and is feeling pressured to break a big story, particularly after the heads of TechScene implement a new ranking system for their writers that’s based on the impact of their pieces rather than just on traffic.

Spoiler alert: the story Katya ends up wanting to break is about Mack and Isabel and the question of whether he’s been sexually harassing her: he sends her a series of dick pics, which Katya happens to see on Isabel’s phone at a party, and that’s really just the beginning of his bad behavior. There are some really cringe-inducing scenes about misogyny in startup office culture, and, honestly, culture at large: that thing where women are painted as “unstable”; that thing where, as Katya puts it, far too many guys seem to subscribe to the “call women crazy whenever they do something that makes you uncomfortable” school of thought (253).

But while I found the sexual harassment plot thread interesting and timely and thought-provoking, and while I appreciated the book’s feminism, I was really here for this book as a portrait of New York now, the new “Promised Land of Duane Reades and Chase ATMs on every corner, luxury doorman buildings, Pilates studios and spin classes, eighteen-dollar rosemary-infused cocktails and seven-dollar cups of single-origin coffee” (4), the New York of sober morning raves (yes, that is a real thing; no, I’ve never been to one, though I was tempted when there was one at the climbing gym I go to) and start-up incubators and offices with fancy coffee and twenty-somethings who seem totally fine with the degree to which their lives revolve around their work/their co-workers.

I saw Alissa Nutting read from Made for Love at Brooklyn Bridge Park over the summer: the scene she read is a hilarious bit where the protagonist, Hazel, who has moved in with her septuagenarian father after leaving her evil-tech-genius-billionaire husband, gets her arm stuck in the mouth of her dad’s new purchase, a highly realistic sex doll. It’s a laugh-out-loud funny bit, and also maybe one of the less weird things in the book. Made for Love follows Hazel and her predicament—she left her husband, Byron, because he wanted to put a chip in her brain so their minds could connect; she fears he’ll stop at nothing to try to get her back, and also fears that if he realizes she’s not coming back, he’ll just have her killed. It’s not just about Hazel, though: we also meet Jasper, a con-man who pretends he’s in love with women, convinces them to give him large sums of money, then skips town. He has a predicament of his own, which is complicated but involves a bizarre experience with a dolphin. There’s also a whole bunch of satire about imagined near-future technology, and a whole lot of very funny/over-the-top scenes, including a great bit where Hazel, very drunk, steals a plastic lawn flamingo and ends up snuggling with it in bed.

It was interesting to read this book after having read Connie Willis’s Crosstalk, which has some similar plot points and explores some of the same themes: they’re both about the threats of technological over-connectedness, and they both explore selfhood and agency and authenticity and the dangers of losing oneself in something that seems like love but isn’t at all. I think both books succeed at what they’re trying to do: I found Crosstalk fast-paced and impossible to put down, and Made for Love less immediately gripping but ultimately more subtle and thought-provoking than I was expecting.

I think Max Gladstone’s Craft books are the only series I’m fully on top of these days, the only series where, when I hear there’s a new book out, I place a hold on it at the library immediately and drop everything when it arrives. I’m currently a few issues behind on the New Yorker, because this book is big, and also I definitely stayed up past my bedtime the night I finished it, but I don’t care: that is the kind of series this is, and this book did not disappoint. This book wears its heart and its politics on its sleeve, and I love it for that: it’s the story of a city governed uneasily by a colonial power (with the help of squid gods, because that’s the kind of world this is) and a push for freedom by some of that city’s residents; it’s about art and story and the power of narrative; it’s about love of various kinds; it’s about a bunch of badass women, queer and otherwise: I think I might be this book’s target audience.

This is the sixth book in the series in both chronological order and publication order, and it was immensely satisfying to read about characters from past books: one of the protagonists this time around is Kai Pohala, from Full Fathom Five; other characters from that book and others make appearances too. Kai is visiting the city of Agdel Lex to look into some investment opportunities, but stays longer than planned when she learns that her sister, Ley, is in some kind of major but mysterious trouble. The book opens with a scene from Kai and Ley’s childhood in which Kai acts as the protective older sister, and it’s a fitting introduction: clearly that family dynamic is still there, even though Kai’s relationship with Ley in adulthood has been distant/strained. It takes a while for the situation Ley’s in to become clear, to both Kai and the reader, and it’s too complicated to explain, but the peculiarities of Agdel Lex are central to both Ley’s situation and the book’s plot. Agdel Lex is the city of the Iskari, that aforementioned colonial power with their squid gods, and it’s a place of order. But it’s built on/coexists with a dead city, ruined in a war that’s still not really over despite having ended a century and a half ago, and also coexists with Alikand, that dead city in a not-dead state, preserved via the memories and family histories of its native inhabitants. The way that Agdel Lex and Alikand and the dead city overlap is really interesting/beautiful/full of plot potential that Gladstone makes great use of, and is a big part of the reason I liked this book so much. And Kai being in a place that’s not home works really well: we get passages like this, when Kai’s en route to her sister’s place:

Observations on her own observation: the unfamiliar drew her eye, so she noticed life-ways she didn’t know, this storyteller, that blue wine, the mask, that unrecognizable card game like a sort of four-way solitaire. She didn’t note samenesses: fathers and children, boys holding hands, a kiss in shadows. (88)

Also: I love the moments of humor in the Craft books, and this one is no exception. I’m a sucker for the way Gladstone draws funny parallels between the world of these books and our world: there’s a passage early in the book where Kai is en route to Agdel Lex and the flight is just one headache after another in a way that will be familiar to anyone who has ever flown economy in our world, never mind that the vessel Kai’s a passenger of is suspended from a dragon. There’s also a series of funny/awful start-up pitch meetings Kai has to sit through, and a great bit where a neighborhood is described as “the kind of place where twenty-year-old guidebooks would have cautioned visitors against walking alone at night, but which had since embraced a coffee-shop-and performance space-based economy” (172).

One complaint: there are rather a lot of typos in this book, including one spot I noticed where a character’s name is misspelled. But all the good stuff made me not mind that so much. I mean, I’ll forgive a lot of typos for bits like this: “cities are acts of will. Cities are decisions people make, every day. They are artist and audience and art” (411). Did I mention I think I might be this book’s target audience?

Pétronille, which was originally published in French in 2014, is the second book in a row that I’ve read that features a narrator who is a writer/shares a name with the author, which I hadn’t really thought about it when I picked it up but which was funny once I realized it. According to this PEN Atlas Q&A, the character of Pétronille herself is inspired by an actual person, and some events in the book are true to life: the Vivienne Westwood interview that the Q&A mentions was probably the highlight of the book for me.

But, OK, let me back up: Pétronille starts with the narrator waxing rhapsodic about being champagne-drunk, which “makes one gracious, disinterested, light as air yet profound at the same time”; champagne, she says “exalts love and confers elegance upon the loss of love” (10). But getting champagne-drunk would surely be more fun with a friend, so the narrator decides she needs a drinking companion, though she’s not sure anyone she knows will actually be up to the task: she takes her champagne-drinking seriously. Well: enter Pétronille, who heard the narrator speak on the radio and read her books, then started exchanging letters with her, and eventually comes to a book-signing to meet her. They talk, and Pétronille charms the narrator by getting an annoying photographer to leave the bookshop: she’s all bravery and action, and her boldness is clearly part of her appeal. They arrange to get drinks another day, which they do, though maybe the narrator feels differently about Pétronille’s boldness now: she pisses in the street and accuses the narrator (who’s from a wealthy family) of slumming. A few years later, though, the narrator sees that Pétronille has published a novel: she reads it, and it’s good, which prompts the narrator to write to her. Their friendship picks up again, and though it’s not always smooth, the lovely moments are really great: I love one bit where, after a champagne-tasting full of snobby society ladies looking down their noses at Pétronille (who’s wearing jeans and a leather jacket), the narrator tells Pétronille to take her to someplace she loves. Pétronille takes her to Shakespeare and Company and then to a Roman amphitheatre and we get this:

We gazed respectfully at the arena. A silence of catacombs reigned.
“I feel very Gallo-Roman,” declared Pétronille.
“Tonight, or in general?”
“You are so not normal,” she answered with a laugh.” (43)

The class difference between Pétronille and the narrator does cause tension, as do other things: the largeness of Pétronille’s personality, the way she loses her temper, the way she expects the narrator to be there for her even when she’s kind of a jerk, but the narrator clearly feels tender and protective towards Pétronille, though maybe she shouldn’t. At one point the narrator refers to “that strange sort of love which is so mysterious and so dangerous and where you never quite know what is at stake: friendship” (94). It feels like that’s what’s at the heart of this book, those mysteries and dangers, full of dark humor, lightened with flutes of champagne.

This epistolary novel is made up of sixteen letters from our narrator (Fay—who, yes, apparently shares some similarities with the book’s author) to her niece, Alice, who is eighteen and studying literature and feeling grumpy about having to read Jane Austen. Fay’s letters endeavor to explain why Austen is still relevant, and to give Alice some context about Austen’s life and times, but end up being more wide-ranging than that: they contain a lot of advice about reading and writing (Fay is a novelist, and Alice is working on a novel too), and also bits about Fay’s life and travels and family history. I found it to be smart and funny and fun, and it made me want to read Emma (which I’ve never read) or re-read Northanger Abbey or Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility (all of which I read in school, years and years ago). Fay is rather didactic, but in a way that I think works: I like how she mixes pronouncements on literature in general with details of the plots of Austen’s novels, or details about the circumstances of their writing or publication. I like the funny bits, like when Fay refers at one point to “Shelley and his wife Mary of Frankenstein fame,” then immediately follows it by referencing “Byron and his sister Augusta, of incest fame” (103). Or like this, when she’s slightly-condescendingly talking to Alice about wanting her to enjoy literature:

I know no one’s ever set you a proper example. (Your mother reads books on tennis, I know: I doubt she’s read a novel since an overdose of Georgette Heyer made her marry your father. Books can be dangerous.)(20)

I also like that Fay writes to Alice about things like empathy, and in particular about empathy as something we can cultivate by reading novels; the narrative voice of this book is concerned with the transformative possibilities of fiction/literature, and I find that emphasis pretty pleasing.