Sometimes I read things that aren't fanfiction, and in 2021 I'm trying to do better at this. Here are my totally unsolicited opinions on the books I'm reading. Warning: Spoilers ahead.
If you have a book to recommend, drop me a line. I favour science fiction, magical realism, fantasy, dystopia, speculative fiction, contemporary romance, crime thrillers*, mysteries and the occasional classic or historical fiction. I do not enjoy paranormal romance or Westerns, but I'll try anything if it has good prose and finely written characters.
*note: I'm sick to death of crime thrillers featuring a beautiful dead woman and the rest of the cast is a sausage party. Give me feminist takes on that trope, especially queer lit, and if you're gonna kill the gays or the girls, there had better be a damn good reason for it.
Courtney Summers - All the Rage
I started this book at 11pm, and verily do I regret it. This book stole an entire night’s sleep from me, because I could not put it down.
It was the raw agony in Romy’s story as it unfolds in both past and present, and her toughness masking her vulnerability – both her story and her character reminded me of Veronica Mars more than once, although without the show’s glitzy noir cool veneer. There were no snappy one-liners or fun mysteries to solve here: just people struggling to navigate their way through a life that oozed injustice and sweltering heat.
The horrible thing that happened to Romy – and kept happening every day in the way everyone bullied her relentlessly, reminding her of the trauma she suffered (as if she could ever forget it), blaming her for it and calling her a liar – is all about Romy. It’s the dark shape that moves beneath her surface, shadowing and chaining her. It, or rather he, has a name. But I love that he never makes an actual appearance in this book – because this is Romy’s story, not his.
The only reason I took one point off my score is because of the repetition in the final chapter – I see what Summers is doing there, but it still felt like a cheap way to end such a powerful book.
Courtney Summers - Cracked Up to Be
I may have binged on Courtney Summers this year, and I may need to give her a rest for a little while. Because, while this book is still really, really good, I found myself not devouring it, handkerchief pressed to my lips, the way I did All the Rage or page-turning, saucer-eyed, as I did This Is Not a Test and Please Remain Calm.
I think it's because I'm wise to Summers' formula now. There's the traumatised, secretive teenage girl, there's a kindhearted and sensitive boy, and there's the mysterious terrible thing that looms between them. Don't get me wrong: she does it well. She does it better than most, in fact. But I'd like to read something new from her next time.
Still... a really, really good book. Just not quite as good as her others.
Laurie Halse Anderson - Wintergirls
Trigger warning on this review; but the whole book is a trigger warning, so there you have it.
I started skimming this book because it opened itself on my computer and I thought, why not? Let's see if it's any different from the other teenage anorexia books I've read.
And in substance, it's not, really. All anorexia stories are the same at the bones (terrible pun intended), and many seem to be written by poets. Marya Hornbacher's memoir, Wasted, for example, has stayed with me for years for the stark horrible beauty of its writing.
I don't know if this one will stay with me as long, but what I did find was that my eyes stopped skimming the pages and started lingering. I started to care about Lia even as she revealed herself to be a frankly terrible friend to Cassie, even as I felt so much sympathy for her parents - particularly her goodhearted lion of a stepmother, Jennifer, about whom Lia is horrible and scathing - and her stepsister, Emma, who idolises Lia.
And that's the thing about ED novels, for me. I know it's a dreadful illness and it's not anyone's fault and sometimes people recover and sometimes they don't and a lot of that is luck. But no matter how ugly the truth of an eating disorder, there will always be something fake-glamorous about it - something darkly beautiful about the all-encompassing desperation for thinness. It's the sparkly shellacked veneer that hides the way everything is rotting and falling apart beneath.
I read these novels lusting for the numbers, for the counted ribs and vertebrae and the calories and the scales. And that's why ED novels are as guilty a secret for me as actual disordered eating is for the people who suffer it.
So I hate that I love this book, and others like it. It sings like crystal and ice and white skies and pointe shoes, and it makes me feel sick and sad and dissatisfied with myself. And I haven't starved myself for a very, very long time, so I can only imagine how insidious reading Wintergirls would be for someone already flirting with the edge of that dangerous cliff.
Brit Bennett - The Vanishing Half
This book. *insert frustrated exclamatory humph*
I don't know how this is possible, but I fell for every single character in this novel and still found it an immensely exasperating piece of fiction. Not only does it meander like a drunken bee from storyline to storyline, immersing you in one character's experiences while making you yearn to find out what's happening in another's, then dumping you straight into a third narrative thread, but it relies on improbable plot points to bring some characters together while annoyingly keeping logical threads apart. And it's the ultimate tell-not-show story. There were whole passages I read several times, rewriting them in my head, wishing they'd been done with the deftness and beauty that was sprinkled through this book just sparingly enough to keep me wanting.
The scale of these four women's interwoven lives, and the people they love, is impressive and spans both cities and decades. This could have been an epic. Alas, the novel closes with an end so abrupt I turned a few pages, wondering if my copy was missing some text.
Could have been so beautiful.