The Best Book I’ll Read This Year

I talk a lot about books written for children and teens. They are the core group I serve at the library; I spend a lot of time with books intended for this audience. It helps ensure that I am prepared for any questions that come my way and that I can always hold my own and suggest new titles when I chat with our young readers in the library. None of this is a complaint – I greatly enjoy my time with children’s books, and firmly believe that some of the strongest, most important, and empathy-building literature today comes from the world of YA.

On occasion, however, I like to treat myself to a book actually intended for an adult audience. Usually these are books by authors I enjoy or novels belonging to genres I can’t resist, but every once in a while buzz builds around an author and I can’t resist the hype. It was mounting excitement for Tommy Orange’s writing that led me to his debut novel, There There. To say this novel blew me away is a massive understatement. By the second page of the prologue, I was hooked. By the beginning of chapter one, I was picking my jaw up off the floor.

OAFHYIS7MYI6RMVYBCSTRWO32YThere There centers on the city of Oakland, California in the days, weeks, and months leading up to a major powwow. It follows twelve different characters, all of whom identify as Native or come from Native descent and have had different experiences as Urban Indians in a gentrifying city. There’s a young boy who has learned traditional dances from YouTube and is determined to dance at the Powwow and a teenager whose life has been framed by violence and seems to be hurtling towards the Powwow at devastating speed. There are characters who have suffered from addiction and fought their way back, some who have fought for a country that has always sought to erase them, some raised around tribal tradition and others who are just beginning to discover their roots. Orange slowly but brilliantly weaves spider-webbed connections between these characters, masterfully uncovering how these disparate lives will come together.

Beyond the compelling narrative, there is so much to praise about this novel. Orange considers identity with a deft touch, making a difficult concept accessible without diminishing its complexity. Through his character’s experiences, he dissects the ways that Native people are made to feel too Indian or not Indian enough. He explores self-discovery and self-loathing, kindness and cruelty, abuse and tender love, all side-by-side but without condemnation. Orange is able to touch on traumas that many groups experience like bigotry, cultural appropriation, and gentrification, and make them feel simultaneously universal to oppressed populations and specifically and undeniably Indian. And he manages to weave together the history of Native activism in America, the many abuses that Native people have suffered, and the ever-evolving effects that generations of systematic and cultural genocide have had on a people.

Then there is the writing itself. I’m not sure I can do justice to Orange’s skill, his ability to write a paragraph that leaves me staggered without being ostentatious. There are writers who are praised for their terse, spare prose and others for their elegant and complex language. I’m not sure quite where Orange falls on this spectrum, but I know it is exactly where I want to be. As I previously mentioned, I knew I was reading something special early in the prologue. I can actually pinpoint the exact moment. While talking about migration to cities, Orange writes:

We did not move to cities to die. The sidewalks and streets, the concrete, absorbed our heaviness. The glass, metal, rubber, and wires, the speed, the hurtling masses—the city took us in. We were not Urban Indians then. This was part of the Indian Relocation Act, which was part of the Indian Termination Policy, which was and is exactly what it sounds like. Make them look and act like us. Become us. And so disappear. But it wasn’t just like that. Plenty of us came by choice, to start over, to make money, or for a new experience. Some of us came to cities to escape the reservation. We stayed after fighting in the Second World War. After Vietnam too. We stayed because the city sounds like a war, and you can’t leave a war once you’ve been, you can only keep it at bay—which is easier when you can see and hear it near you, that fast metal, that constant firing around you, cars up and down the streets and freeways like bullets. The quiet of the reservation, the side-of-the-highway towns, rural communities, that kind of silence just makes the sound of your brain on fire that much more pronounced.

I recently heard Glen Weldon, a writer and critic for NPR, draw a distinction when talking about stories that represent diverse experiences. To paraphrase, he said that we shouldn’t talk about stories that haven’t been told before – even if they did not reach our ears, they’ve likely been told. Instead, we should talk about these as stories that we haven’t heard yet. There There tells a kind of story I hadn’t read before, and Orange tells it with intelligence, heart, dexterity, and a swagger that makes it feel absolutely essential.    

Chariot on the Mountain by Jack Ford

I very much enjoyed Chariot on the Mountain by Jack Ford! Based on the true story of Kitty who was the daughter of a slave woman and Samuel Maddox, the “Master” in Virginia. Samuel’s dying wish was that Kitty and her children be set free. The entire estate is left to his wife Mary, with his nephew and namesake Samuel Maddox named to inherit upon Mary’s death.

Mary helps Kitty and her children escape on the Underground Railroad to Pennsylvania and freedom. A few months later, nephew Samuel kidnaps Kitty and her children from Pennsylvania claiming that because the estate will eventually go to him, he has a say in its operation and that they are his property.

Mary and her friend rescue Kitty and her kids from Samuel and a groundbreaking lawsuit ensues. I was not able to read fast enough to get to the end and find out how it all ended! The book is a touching story of forgiveness, as Mary comes to terms with her husband’s betrayal. It is also about deep friendships that both endure politics and overcome racism.

More the Best of 2018 (So Far)!

Like a crisp newly-minted road map, the music of 2018 unfolds before our eyes leaving a wake of paper cuts and indecipherable allusions. Welcome to: More the best of 2018 (so far)!

The first thing one might notice about Screaming Females is that only one-third of the band is female. Were I to describe them in one word, that word would be HEAVY. Distorted guitars, hard rock riffs, vocals that bring to mind Ann Wilson. Screaming Females does not enter the realm of sludge nor are they simply hard rock, but there is a certain weight that permeates the music of their 2018 release All at Once.

Screaming

From the Bunyanesque opening chords of Glass House to the spine-blowing mammothness of Agnes Martin (a song about an American abstract painter) to the angular punkosity of Fantasy Lens, you could say that SF deliver the musical goods in a hefty bag filled with delight. But don’t get the idea that these two mute fellas and one screaming gal have only a single note in their bag of picks (see what I did there?); their music moves effortlessly in and out of a variety of feels and genres. In the words of Thomas Alva Edison, it’s good when a band is hard to pigeonhole.

If you like a hefty sound filled with hoo-ha and hullabaloo, you could certainly do worse than All at Once. This seventh album by an unknown-to-me band, fronted by a singer/guitarist I’ve never heard of who has been named the 77th greatest guitarist of all-time by Spin magazine, is definitely a standout in 2018. So far. As always, check it out.

In an unintentional gender-solidarity pick, Goat Girl (Goat Girl, Screaming Females; get it?) delivers another more-the-best-of-2018-(so-far)! album with their self-titled debut.

Goat Girl

The music is genre-defying: cavernous reverb, country-tinged riffs, jazz noir vocals… These elements combine to create a dark goth-like palette filled with down-home fiddle licks and a free ticket to the rodeo of the undead.

It’s hard to describe music that’s like nothing one’s ever heard. Take the song Cracker Drool. The opening features a simple, typical country bass line. Drums with an equally simple country backbeat, sparse faux pedal steel guitar and good-ol’-girl vocals complete this simple song. But wait! Simplicity is quickly engulfed by a driving, dissonant section that just as quickly disappears. This pattern more or less repeats and we think we’ve got the song figured out. Mais non! Suddenly the tempo and feel change dramatically, although the riffs stay fairly constant, and after a bit of this the song ends. Not at all typical.

And Cracker Drool is unlike any other song on the album. Variety is king. Sounds ranging from riot grrrl to swamp blues to indie rock with a country fiddle permeate this brilliant debut. So get out the excessive eyeliner, saddle up and discover aural worlds never dreamed of with Goat Girl. As always, seat belts are recommended.

2018 has already brought us a mix of pleasant, even brilliant albums. Stay tuned to the future for more excursions into the best of 2018 (so far)! Time machines are optional.

The Nerdiest Murder Mystery Ever

What do you think of when you read the words Comic Con? Do you think of ECCC, the Emerald City Comic Con in Seattle? Do you think of Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, or Star Wars? Indie comics artists, fandom cosplay, and merch galore? How about murder? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller?

A result of a power partnership between two veteran comics geniuses (writer Fred Van Lente and illustrator Tom FowlerThe Con Artist is more than just a hilarious mystery where a slightly washed-up comics artist is blamed for the death of his bitter rival. The whole book is set up to mimic a written police statement, recounting day by day and hour by hour what exactly happened at Comic Con. Here’s the opening note:

Due to ongoing litigation, many names of the companies, trademarked characters, and real people in the statement of Michael “Mike M” Mason have been changed upon the advice of the publisher’s counsel. However, none of the artwork has been altered in any way; it has been reproduced exactly as it was found in the sketchbook confiscated by the San Diego Police Department.

So let me tell you more about Mike. He had some limited success years ago as a comics illustrator, but is mostly known for his run on Mister Mystery, a popular long-running comics series owned by one of the industry’s most lucrative publishers. In the last few years, he’s become essentially homeless. He flies from convention to convention often giving up some or all of his appearance fee in exchange for a longer hotel stay. He’s running away from permanence, from the possibility that he’s now a has-been and he doesn’t know how to enter the next phase of his life. He’s also running away from a breakup and betrayal that did a tap dance on his confidence and smashed his heart into a tiny million pieces.

But back to the con! After arriving at the airport in San Diego, Mike is immediately swept into the madness that is the world’s biggest and most well-known comic convention: SDCC. It’s not long before he eases back into the norm of con life, the signings and parties, only to be slapped with the news that his comics mentor has died. Everyone thinks it was natural causes, but Mike starts to wonder if maybe someone got to his mentor before he could secure the intellectual property rights to one of his biggest creations.

To make matters worse, Mike’s mortal enemy is also at Comic Con. And who’s on his arm? None other than the ex-love of his life, the one who betrayed him and tossed his life into chaos. Mike tries to keep his cool, but after a well-publicized fight at an after hours Comic Con party, his rival winds up dead and Mike’s the San Diego PD’s prime suspect.

Mike knows he didn’t murder anyone, but he has to convince the police that he’s innocent. He starts his own investigation knowing that serving up the real killer on a silver platter is the only way to completely remove suspicion from himself. But then other people start turning up dead and it becomes a race the clock for Mike. Not only does this need to be wrapped up before the end of the con, but the killer just might decide to kill Mike next.

It’s important to note that both the author and illustrator are seasoned comics veterans and that really shines through the pages. I’ve only been to one big comic con (ECCC, big but not nearly as big as SDCC I know) but I relived some of my experiences (lines! getting to meet rad artists in Artists’ Alley! awesome cosplayers!) while reading this book.

In getting the con experience right, and in highlighting the details that only the people on the other side of the table (comics professionals) would experience, the author holds up con culture, nerd culture, and the entire comics industry for scrutiny. Pay attention to the social commentary, especially surrounding the darker side of comics where artists’ original intellectual properties often become absorbed by mega publishers and where no health care is to be found for these artists and writers who brought so much joy to children and adults through their staple-bound pages.

The text is lightly peppered with sketches from the main character’s notebook and I figured there would probably be clues in them that the reader should try to interpret to determine whodunit. Mike occasionally recalls a clue from one of his sketches, but once or twice he recalled details I could not discern from the sketches I saw. It helped prolong the unmasking of the killer’s identity for me, which added to the suspense.

Thanks to our book vendor for sending us an early copy from the publisher, I was reading this book while in line at Everett Comics for Free Comic Book Day back in May. If that’s not meta I don’t know what is. Nerds, read this book and rejoice!

The Work of Roxane Gay

Roxane Gay is one of my heroes. I first discovered her short fiction on a trip to Portland while I was browsing in Powell’s Books. Difficult Women was the first book I read and I was both entranced and awed by her writing. She did not become my hero until I saw her interviewed by Trevor Noah about the publication of her book Hunger. 

Today, I want to honor all of the books written by Roxane Gay. The title of this post definitely refers to the body of writing Roxane Gay has created, but it also refers to the emotional work that is required when reading either her fiction or nonfiction. I have also included a quote from Gay before each book description to give you an idea of her voice and her politics.

difficult

Difficult Women

I think women are oftentimes termed ‘difficult’ when we want too much, when we ask for too much, when we think too highly of ourselves, or have any kind of standards…I wanted to play with this idea that women are difficult, when in reality it’s generally the people around them who are the difficult ones.

Gay’s quote about Difficult Women captures the essence of this short story collection. The stories explore a range of different women’s experiences. There is loss, unthinkable abuse, and complicated relationships and marriages. Not only are the stories about a range of experiences, but the characters in each story stand out individually. There are two inseparable twin sisters, a grief stricken mother, a stripper, a wealthy suburban housewife, and an engineer. This beautifully written collection makes you look, even when you don’t want to, at the realities and experiences of a wide cross section of women.

ayiti

Ayiti

The waters did not run deep. It was just a border between two geographies of grief.

This compact collection was Gay’s writing debut and is comprised of what I would think of as short shorts. The stories explore a range of experiences about Haitians in their native Haiti and the diaspora experience. The subjects of the stories are varied and even though the collection is compact, it is powerful in its succinctness.

wakanda

Black Panther: World of Wakanda

I didn’t realize I would be the first Black woman writer at Marvel. It is overwhelming and also pretty frustrating because this is 2016 and there are many Black women and other Women of Color who are working in comics. I cannot think about the hype. I just cannot. It’s too much pressure. I’m focusing on what I’ve been asked to do, which is to tell the story of the Dora Milaje.

Gay co-wrote the first book in this series with Ta-Nehisi Coates and it takes place in the kingdom of Wakanda. It is a love story about two Midnight Angels, Ayo and Aneka. The two women have both been recruited to be a part of the Dora Milaje, a prestigious cadre of soldiers trained to defend the crown of Wakanda. The kingdom desperately needs their help and Ayo and Aneka must figure out how to balance the kingdom’s needs and the love they have for each other.

untamed

An Untamed State

There are three Haitis—the country Americans know and the country Haitians know and the country I thought I knew.

An Untamed State is Roxane Gay’s debut novel and it tells the story of Mireille Duval Jameson, a successful attorney in Miami and the daughter of one of Haiti’s wealthiest men. Her life appears to be perfect until the day she is kidnapped by a violent group of men while vacationing in Port au Prince. Mireille assumes her father will quickly pay ransom, but instead he is resistant to this idea. Mireille endures unthinkable violence while being held captive. Her perfect life from the past is juxtaposed with her brutal existence in the present day and she struggles to get back to the person she once was.

bad feminist

Bad Feminist

No matter what issues I have with feminism, I am a feminist. I cannot and will not deny the importance and absolute necessity of feminism.

This New York Times bestseller is a collection of essays spanning a wide range of topics that include politics and feminism. Gay writes about these subjects in relation to herself with humor and clarity.

hunger

Hunger: A Memoir of my Body

This is what most girls are taught — that we should be slender and small. We should not take up space. We should be seen and not heard, and if we are seen, we should be pleasing to men, acceptable to society. And most women know this, that we are supposed to disappear, but it’s something that needs to be said, loudly, over and over again, so that we can resist surrendering to what is expected of us.

In Hunger, Gay shares the horrific sexual trauma she experienced at age twelve and how it changed the trajectory of her life and her relationship to her body. The courage it took to write this book is unimaginable. She gave and continues to give many female survivors of sexual abuse a gift, reminding them that they are not alone on their journey to recovery.

dispatches

Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture

We have spent countless hours focused on manners, education, the perils of drugs. We teach them about stranger-danger and making good choices. But recently I’ve become aware that we must speak to our children about boundaries between the sexes. And what it means to not be a danger to someone else. To that end, we are making an effort to teach our sons about affirmative consent. We explain that the onus is on them to explicitly ask if their partner consents. And we tell them that a shrug or a smile or a sigh won’t suffice. They have to hear yes.

This timely collection of first person essays was selected and compiled by Gay and includes an introduction that she wrote. The essays address many topics and personal experiences related to what it is like to live in a rape culture. The contributors to this collection include established writers, never before published writers, men and women, and queer and transgender individuals.

I Don’t Want the Drama, Just Tell Me 110% of What’s Going On

A thirty year old unsolved murder.

A mother frozen in time.

A wife discovers a devastating secret.

A woman revisits her past.

Sounds like a Lifetime movie, doesn’t it? Except Valerie Bertinelli isn’t in this one and what happens is oh so more interesting than a movie of the week.

In Liane Moriarty’s The Husband’s Secret, three seemingly unconnected lives collide head on.

30 years ago, Rachel’s daughter Janie was found murdered in a park and Rachel hasn’t moved on. What mother could? She works at a private school and has a grandson she absolutely adores; the one bright spot in a life that has seemed empty after the loss of her daughter. But now her son and daughter-in-law are going to move to New York for a couple of years and she’ll be empty again.

She’s had a suspect in mind for her daughter’s murder, a man named Connor who was madly in love with Janie when they were teenagers. Connor works at her school as a gym teacher. Over the years Rachel has hounded the police with her suspicions and knows they tend to humor her with sympathy while brushing her off at the same time.

Tess runs a successful business with her husband and her cousin Felicity who has been her best friend since birth. They’ve been inseparable. Just one thing: the two sit Tess down one evening and tell her they’ve fallen in love with one another. Oops. Sorry.

Tess packs a bag and takes their 7-year-old son Liam far away to her mother’s place to regroup, maybe start fresh. She registers her son at the private school Rachel works at and sees that her old boyfriend Connor is a teacher there. Tess begins to think about staying, getting a new job, and rekindling things with him.

Cecilia is a mother, a wife in a comfortable (if not much of a physical) marriage, and a businesswoman with a formidable Tupperware empire. She’s still in love with her husband even though they’ve been married roughly 500 years and he’s away on business most of the time. Cecilia’s life is supremely organized, everything in the right place. Life is good. It is frustrating at times with three daughters and an AWOL husband but she thanks her stars for everything good in her life.

But one day she needs to find something in the attic. She knocks down a box belonging to her husband and a letter settles to the floor. It has her name on it and it’s sealed.  She respects his privacy and doesn’t snoop, but the sealed letter is on her mind throughout the following days. She mentions it to her away on business husband and he makes her promise not to read it, to put it back where she found it.

Well, now she just wants to read it even more. One day she opens it and begins reading. What happens next will bring the three women together in a harrowing disaster that makes each of them wonder if they’ll come out whole on the other side.

By the author of Little Big Lies, The Husband’s Secret draws the reader in with fine honed characters and a twisting plot, leaving anyone to wonder: what would they do after discovering a life altering secret?

Spot-Lit for July 2018

Spot-Lit

These titles – from established, new, and emerging authors – are some of the most anticipated new releases of the month, based on advance reviews and book world enthusiasm.

Click here to see all of these titles in the Everett Public Library catalog, where you can read reviews or summaries and place holds. Or click on a book cover below to enlarge it, or to view the covers as a slide show.

Notable New Fiction 2018 (to date) | All On-Order Fiction