I picked up Everywhere I Look at the library on the strength of its really lovely/well-designed cover: the author’s name in bold black sans serif, the title beneath in the same font but smaller and red, and then a color photo that spans the front, spine, and back: the author in the center, looking at us, a dog by her side, with others in the background, against a white brick wall topped by a hedge: a woman talking to a small boy, a woman with a mobile phone, a man with a bicycle, a younger woman, an older one, an older man. It’s a staged and stylized photo but also has something of the feel of life, ordinary people moving through their days, and it’s an apt image for the book, whose essays and diary entries feel polished, crafted and carefully shaped, but with vivid moments of humor and lived experience.

The book is divided into six parts, some of which are more thematically organized than others, and some of which I liked more than others. Part Four, for example, with its five pieces about crime/court cases, was not my favorite section of the book, though there were things in it I liked, particularly the descriptions of an exhibit of photos of mug shots and crime scenes at the Sydney Justice and Police Museum in “On Darkness.” I also really liked the ending of “The City at Night”: in the piece, Garner writes about the period just after Jill Meagher’s rape and murder—hearing that a suspect has been charged, the crowds at the vigil, the experience of talking to a friend at a bar about the crime and the public reaction to it. And then the piece ends with an encounter with a stranger at a train station, which starts out a little uncomfortable but turns really sweet: here’s how we live, how we have to live, with moments of trust and kindness and connection in a world in which horrible things happen.

Elsewhere in the book, I really liked “Some Furniture,” which is about moving house and settling in and learning a place, and which proceeds by way of accumulation: little bits of Garner’s own experiences and also conversations she’s had about moving with various people, all piled together into a piece that works really well. I like all the diary pieces, filled as they are with a satisfying mix of thoughts and vignettes, conversations with friends and family and strangers, things seen on television or read in books or magazines or seen or overheard while out and about: a funny handwritten sign in a public restroom, or a conversation with women on a train about the challenges of baking scones. The pieces of criticism were all good, though I might have liked them more if I’d read more of the writers or seen more of the films they were discussing. The last two pieces in the book, though, are what I liked best: “The Insults of Age” is moving and very funny, and makes me want to be a badass like Helen Garner when I am seventy-one. My very favorite thing in this book, though, has to be “In The Wings,” which is a beautiful and perfectly-crafted piece about the behind-the-scenes workings of a ballet company: Garner observes a morning class for company members, rehearsals, and a wardrobe fitting, and it’s just a sheer delight. “Everywhere I look I see a wonder,” she writes, and I’m enthralled by those wonders and how Garner captures them.

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 loved Tamara Shopsin’s Mumbai New York Scranton when I read it a few years ago, so I was super-excited when I learned she had a new book out this year, and Arbitrary Stupid Goal did not disappoint. It’s an illustrated memoir that’s more a series of vignettes, but with some unifying elements; a lot of it, but not all of it, is about the NYC of Shopsin’s youth, and the cast of characters who hung out at the store her parents owned (which later became a restaurant). We get glimpses of family members and customers and neighbors, and neighbors who are practically family members (especially a man named Willy, whose presence in the book is a big part of it). We also get pieces of trips elsewhere: the time the Shopsins didn’t quite go to Dollywood, or the time that Shopsin and her husband went to a complex of old Nazi bunkers in Poland, or the time they went to Missouri and argued about locking/not locking the car doors. We get a story of a customer who taught Shopsin how to fold a napkin into the shape of a penis, and a story about the time before she was born when her parents’ store got held up and her brother asked the thief if he was a “hand robber” when he meant to say “armed robber” (which totally made me laugh out loud on the subway). I really liked the structure and style of this book, and all the life and humanity and history and community it’s got in it, the humor and tenderness and excellent stories.

(Also: this New Yorker piece about Shopsin and her book by Alexandra Schwartz is pretty great.)

I Hate Everyone But You is an epistolary novel that takes the form of emails and text messages between two best friends, Ava and Gen. It’s their first semester of college and they’re across the country from one another: Ava’s in film school at USC (they grew up in LA); Gen’s studying journalism at Emerson. We see the bits of their lives that they share with one another, which is to say the fun/funny/stressful bits, the parts about hook-ups and relationships and social lives. From the start of the book it’s clear that Ava is the more cautious one of the pair (“Experiment with things so I don’t have to,” she jokes, in her first email to Gen); she’s been dealing with anxiety and other mental health issues for much of her life. Gen’s bolder and more easygoing, and being far from home for college suits her fine, since her family isn’t the easiest to handle (her alcoholic dad and his vow to get sober becomes a plot point).

This book was a quick and fun read, though there are some maddening moments, characterwise and otherwise. I liked the humor of Ava and Gen’s banter, but also the way they really are there for each other, despite some tensions. I didn’t like the fact that the authors referenced their own YouTube channel in the text of the book: being self-referential can be funny/cute, but this wasn’t. I also found Ava’s difficulty handling Gen’s coming out as queer to be pretty frustrating, though maybe realistic, I don’t know: Gen tells Ava she’s hooking up with women; Ava refers to Gen as gay even after Gen says she’s not; Ava also says things like “You like guys again?” even though Gen’s never stopped liking guys.

Overall, though, I liked reading about Ava and Gen’s college explorations—Ava joining a sorority and then wondering whether she should quit; Gen having various fun hookups and some associated drama; Ava having some guy trouble of her own.

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?

I basically devoured The First Rule of Punk over the course of two days, and aw, it’s such a great middle-grade novel. Our narrator Malú is twelve, almost thirteen, and at the start of the book she’s sad about having to move from Gainesville to Chicago for two years because of her mom’s new temporary professorship there. Malú doesn’t have a lot of close friends in Gainesville, but it’s home, and she’s also going to miss her dad: her parents are divorced and her dad owns a record store; she feels culturally closer to him, because of their shared love for punk music, than she does to her Mexican American mom. (Malú’s nickname for her mom is SuperMexican, because Malú feels like she’s intensely into Mexican culture and wants Malú to be equally enthusiastic.) And she’s not exactly looking forward to starting a new school in a new place. But she doesn’t have a choice, and though school gets off to a bit of a rough start, Malú manages to make friends and to learn some things about herself, her family, and Chicanx culture in the process.

One of the most pleasing things about this book, for me, is the fact that Malú (like the author of the book) makes zines, which are incorporated into the book itself. Having read Celia C. Pérez’s zine anthology, Ofrenda, earlier this year, I knew I liked her style, and it was great to see the zines she made in Malú’s style and voice, which are fun and sometimes gorgeous (a page where Malú writes about how she’s going to miss the “Spanish moss hanging from trees like ghosts” in Gainesville has a background of tangled string, and it’s totally lovely) and also feel true to Malú’s character/the kind of zines a smart twelve-year-old would make.

The plot has enough conflict to keep things interesting (Malú decides to start a band; Malú decides to stand up for self-expression in various ways) but it’s balanced by really satisfying descriptions of daily life, like this, about October in Chicago:

I loved the sound of the leaves crunching under my shoes and the smell of wood burning. Mom and I took a trip to a farmers’ market where I discovered that there are so many different types of apples and that my new favorite food was the apple cider doughnut. I wanted to bottle up all the smells and colors and the feeling of fall so they’d always be close. I wished I could iron it all between sheets of wax paper like I’d done with the bright red maple leaf I’d mailed to Dad. And the weird thing was that when I remembered we had another fall in Chicago, I didn’t feel as unhappy as I thought I would. (221)

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is one of those very famous kids’ books (it won the Newbery Medal in 1977) that I somehow never read as a child: I’m curious as to how it would have affected me, and I wish I had been exposed to more diverse books when I was younger, but, well, better late than never.

This novel, which is set in Mississippi in the early 1930s, has a whole lot going on in it. It’s narrated by 9-year-old Cassie Logan, who’s a pretty great character: she’s smart and no-nonsense, and good at standing up for the people she cares about, and also for herself. (I felt like we got a great introduction to Cassie early in the book, when it’s the first day of school and the teacher wants the class to reply to her in unison, and Cassie doesn’t – “I never did approve of group responses,” Cassie narrates, which cracked me up because I totally relate.) Cassie and her family are something of an oddity in their community because they own their own land, whereas most of the other African-American families in the area are sharecroppers. But money is tight, and the income from the cotton the Logans grow and Cassie’s mom’s job as a teacher isn’t enough: Cassie’s dad has had to take a job on the railroad, which means he’s away from home a lot, leaving Cassie and her three brothers with their mom and grandma. Which is fine, until it’s not: a violent attack on three black men by some white men (because one of the black men has been accused of making a pass at a white woman) makes everyone uneasy, and a big part of the book has to do with how Cassie’s family responds to that violence, and to the threat of more. But that’s not all that Cassie is dealing with: another main thread in the book is the way that Cassie finds herself learning about racism’s daily manifestations, the ways in which she and her family aren’t treated equally or fairly or nicely by their white neighbors: the way her grandmother has to put her wagon at the back of the field when she goes to sell eggs at the market; the way a shopkeeper stops helping her family to help white customers; the way a white girl and her father respond when Cassie accidentally bumps into the girl on the sidewalk. Cassie starts to see the compromises the adults in her life make in the name of safety and survival, and starts to figure out what compromises she will or won’t make for herself.

I feel like historical fiction can be very hard to do well, maybe especially when it’s historical fiction for kids—sometimes the amount of explaining that needs to be done about the circumstances of a different place/time to make events make sense to a modern reader can make things feel a bit slow or didactic, and there were a few moments like that in this book (I’m thinking especially of a passage where a sharecropping neighbor is explaining his specific financial difficulties to Cassie’s mom). Overall, though, I found myself drawn into Cassie’s story/her family’s story as the book progressed; near the end, there was totally a scene that made me teary-eyed on the subway.

I’ve read and quite liked four of Scarlett Thomas’s novels for grown-ups, so when I found out she was writing a middle-grade fantasy novel, I knew I was going to want to read it, and I’m glad I did. Dragon’s Green gets off to something of a slow start (world-building and getting our characters into their various dilemmas) but once it gets going, it’s a fast-paced delight.

I can’t do this book justice with a plot summary, but basically: our protagonist, eleven-year-old Effie Truelove, has been spending a lot of time with her grandfather since her mother disappeared. Her mother’s disappearance, five years before the action of the book starts, seems to have had something to do with the worldquake, which was a mysterious seven-and-a-half-minute-long earthquake that shook the entire planet and somehow broke the internet and cell phones, sending the world “back to something like 1992,” technology-wise (8). Effie’s pretty sure her grandfather knows magic: his rooms are full of all sorts of interesting objects, and he has an amazing library that’s been off-limits to Effie—but he won’t do any magic for her or teach her any. Eventually he explains that he promised her father he wouldn’t teach her magic, but he relents a bit: he lets Effie read from his library, and starts teaching her the basics of what he calls “magical thinking.” When he ends up in the hospital, though, it becomes clear that Effie is going to have to figure magic out on her own.

Well: not entirely on her own: it turns out that there are other kids in her year at her school who have magical interests/aptitude, and circumstances bring them together into an unlikely friend-group that nevertheless totally works. And it’s a good thing Effie isn’t entirely on her own, because she has a lot to figure out, like how to navigate between this world and its magical neighbor/counterpart, the Otherworld, and oh, also how to keep an evil mage from destroying the books in her grandfather’s library.

Those books in Effie’s grandfather’s library, by the way, give rise to some of my favorite parts of the book: there’s a great story within a story where it becomes clear that Effie is going to subvert some expectations around princesses and dragons and heroes, and another story within a story where Effie’s friend Maximilian finds himself in a room full of people quoting James Joyce and Katherine Mansfield at each other. A lot of the magic/plot in this book has to do with books (it’s complicated), and that bookishness ends up being a big part of its appeal, which I guess shouldn’t surprise me: my other favorite Scarlett Thomas book is Our Tragic Universe, which has a whole lot in it about narrative/story/the structure of stories, and there’s definitely some of that in this book, too.

More Than Two is, as its subtitle says, “a practical guide”: there’s a lot in this book about navigating particular kinds of relationship circumstances/scenarios/difficulties specific to polyamorous relationships, a lot of which didn’t feel super-applicable to me (like: being polyamorous and having kids, or coming out to your family as non-monogamous when you’ve historically been in a monogamous relationship, or being in a couple in the midst of opening up a formerly monogamous relationship, or being in a relationship where one person self-identifies as monogamous and the other person doesn’t). And Veaux and Rickert seem pretty judgmental about some things in ways that don’t really make sense to me. (The main instance of this: I understand their point that a couple looking for someone to be involved with both of them can end up being coercive, if the price for continued involvement with one of the members of the couple is continued involvement with the other, even when that isn’t what the third person ends up really wanting. But to me that doesn’t translate to it being a bad idea for a couple to look for someone to be involved with both of them, and it seems like for them, it might. I feel like the answer can be “don’t do it badly,” rather than just “don’t do it.”)

But these are pretty minor quibbles, and I appreciated a lot of the main themes of the book, which I think are applicable to building good relationships of any type. The idea, for example, that “happiness is something we re-create every day” seems like a good thing to remember about life in general: you have to show up and you have to keep showing up, and if things aren’t working you have to figure out what changes you can make to bring you towards the kind of life you want. I also liked the themes/values/ideas that Veaux and Rickert list near the start of the book, which, again, seem really broadly applicable/useful things to think about in a whole lot of contexts: trust, courage, abundance (as opposed to scarcity), ethics, and empowerment. Another highlight for me was the reminder of the concept of the “relationship escalator,” i.e. the way that society tends to assume that a successful relationship is a series of increasing predefined commitments – dating, then living together and/or marriage and maybe children – and that it can take work to not buy into this, and to get other people to recognize the worth of relationships that don’t fit this pattern—and also the related idea that there’s a continuum of relationship styles from “solo” to “entwined,” and the reminder that different relationship styles will lead to relationships that may look different, but that may still be serious, committed, etc. Also, the concept of “self-efficacy”—believing you can handle something even if something you’ve never dealt with before—seems like a good thing to think about/strive for in general, as do a lot of the principles/ideas/techniques related to boundaries, communication, and knowing your needs/working with your partner(s) to figure out how those needs can be met.