Audio book: Such a Fun Age

by Kiley Reid
Read by Nicole Lewis
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Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There is a lot of swearing, including multiple f-bombs. There is also talk of sex, but none actual. It’s in the Fiction section of the bookstore.

Emira is a 25-year-old Black woman who is kind of aimless. All her friends seem to have “real” jobs, but she’s working as a temporary typist for the Green Party in Philadelphia and as a babysitter for Alix and Peter Chamberlin. The thing is, Emira adores Briar, the girl she sits, and doesn’t really feel much of a need to change things up. Then she meets Kelly — at a grocery store after Emira had a run-in with a security cop. And they begin to date, which sets up a run-in with Alix.

It doesn’t sound like a whole lot happens in this book from the description, but it’s more thoughtful and intricate than that. It’s a meditation on relationships — can a wealthy White woman really have a “friendship” with her Black babysitter? Is a White man who sees himself as an ally because he has Black friends and dates Black or biracial women, really an ally? — but it’s also a meditation on how we perceive ourselves. Reid did a fabulous job making no one out to be the “villain” here. Everyone had reasonable motivations (or at least presented reasonable motivations) and I could see they were all operating from a place they thought was reasonable. But, I could also see how the decisions were self-interested. Everyone said they were trying to help Emira, but were their decisions really helping? There’s a lot to talk and think about, especially about the way White people center themselves, even when they’re trying to help.

On top of that, the narrator was fabulous. I loved the way she portrayed each character (especially 3-year-old Briar; she was perfect!) and the way she made them distinctive and intriguing. She kept me coming back (though I think this one would have worked for me in print form, as well) and wanting to see what was going on next with Emira and Alix.

Definitely worth the buzz it’s been getting.

Giovanni’s Room

by James Baldwin
First sentence: “I stand at the window of this great house in the south of France as night falls, the night which is leading me to the most terrible morning of my life.”
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Content: There is some talk of sex and some mild swearing. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

I’m at a loss wit this one. The basic plot is this: it’s the 1950s (the book was first published in 1956, which surprised me) and David is a gay man. Except he doesn’t want to believe it. He believes he is sick, he is dirty. And, in Paris, he’s found a girl — Hella — who he mostly likes and asks her to marry him. Except she’s not sure, so she darts off to Spain, and David meets Giovanni. And falls in love. Head-over-heels, living together love. Until Hella comes back, and David completely dumps Giovanni who ends up going into depressive spiral.

On the one hand, good on Baldwin for writing about LGBTQ characters in the 1950s (I haven’t read much classic lit from that time period, so I really don’t know how common or uncommon it was). Also, it surprised me that all of his characters were White (except Giovanni who was Italian, but that’s basically White). Not saying he shouldn’t have written it, just that it surprised me. But, the thing was: this was so full of gay self-loathing. I understand why: it was, culturally (especially for Americans) taboo, and so those who are gay must have felt absolutely awful about it. I appreciate that insight. But it was so hard to take. Maybe because I’m looking at it through 21st-century eyes, but I felt bad for David. He didn’t need to mess up his life so much because he was gay. But, then, it was the 1950s, so maybe he did.

Also: I had a hard time stomaching the sexism. At one point, Hella’s like “I totally need a man to complete me” (not those exact words; Baldwin likes going in for long eloquent sentences), which so eye-rollingly, well, 1950s. I guess it’s really just a reflection of its time.

That said, it was short, and it was interesting (even if it was impossibly sad) and I’m glad I read it. Not my favorite Baldwin book though.

A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor

by Hank Green
First sentence: “
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Others in the series: An Absolutely Remarkable Thing
Content: There is swearing, including multiple f-bombs. It’s in the Science Fiction/Fantasy section of the bookstore.

Spoilers for the first book, obviously.

April has died in a fire, Carl has disappeared, and the world is trying to recover. Mostly April’s friends — Maya, Miranda, and Andy — are trying to move on. And they each do in their way. That is, until they start getting a mysterious book that is telling them what to do. And from there, the plot gets really really complicated and it’s so much better not knowing too much.

And, much like the first book, this one is about more than just humans vs. alien robots. It’s about collective action, and free-will. It’s about whether or not we can stop ourselves from destroying the earth. It’s about friendship and trust and forgiveness.

And, much like the first book, it’s a delight to read. It’s fun, it’s funny, it’s pretentious but not overly-so, and I think Green knows (and has thought long and hard) what he’s talking about. It’s a fun romp, and a good conclusion to the story, but it’s also a thoughtful book with a lot to discuss.

Or maybe I just really like the Green brothers. Either way: it’s a good read.

The Murmur of Bees

by Sofia Segovia
Translated by Simon Bruni
First sentence: “That early morning in October, the baby’s wails mingled with the cool wind that blew through the trees, with the birdsong, and with the night’s insects saying their farewell.”
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Content: There is some violence, but none on-screen, and some mild swearing. (There may have been one or two f-bombs, but honestly? I’m not remembering any.)

This is a sweeping family saga, set in Linares, Mexico, and following the Morales family over the course of many decades. It’s not exactly linear, though it nominally follows the life of Simonopio, an abandoned baby that was found covered in bees, and how his life affected that of the Morales family. It’s told through reminiscences by the youngest of the Morales children, Francisco, as he heads back to Linares after many many years away.

It has a loose plot, but mostly it’s just small stories connected together to tell the tale of a family and a time — the late 19th century and early 20th — in their history.

And all of this makes it sound less than it was. Segovia’s writing is gorgeous, and even the magical realism elements — Simonopio talks to his bees, and has an uncanny ability to sense and predict things — added to the overall sense of wonder this book created. Maybe because it was nominally told as a series of flashbacks, with Francisco interrupting to explain and comment upon his family that it all worked together seamlessly.

It truly was a delight to read, and I’m glad I did.

Americanah

by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
First sentence: “Princeton, in the summer, smelled of nothing, and although Ifemelu liked the tranquil greenness of the many trees, the clean streets and stately homes, the delicately overpriced shops, and the quiet, abiding air of earned grace, it was this, the lack of smell, that most appealed to her, perhaps because the other American cities she knew well had all smelled distinctly.”
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Content: There is some on-screen sex, including a rape scene, as well as swearing, including f-bombs. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

It’s hard to know where to start on the plot of this one. It’s basically the story of two Nigerians — Ifemelu and Obinze — who met in high school and fell in love, and their distinct paths. They attended college together, but in a political uprising in Nigeria, their education got interrupted. Ifemelu — whose aunt had moved to America years before — got into a college in the US and went there. Obinze was denied a visa to the US and so ended up as an illegal immigrant in the UK. Most of the book is about their experiences — told in flashback, mostly — as immigrants in Western countries.

That part of the book was fascinating, though I found Ifemelu’s story more interesting. Obinze only spent a few years in the UK, working underground, trying to become legal, before he was caught and deported back to Nigeria, where he actually ended up becoming very wealthy. Ifemelu spent a long time in the US — 15 years — and had a myriad of experiences from the terrible to the banal to the good. She ended up writing a blog about being a non-American Black in the US and about race relations. All of which I found a fascinating perspective. Ifemelu had some interesting observations about race in the US and the role immigrants — especially Black immigrants — play in the discussion about race.

In the end, though, this is a story about relationships, how they work and change over time. Not just romantic ones, though it is that, but all interpersonal relationships. There is an ebb and flow to relationships, people who come in and go out of our lives, and I think Adichie captured that quite eloquently. In fact, Adichie is a gorgeous writer, balancing beautiful words with characterization and enough plot to keep me turning pages.

Recommended.

Harrow the Ninth

by Tamsyn Muir
First sentence: “Your room had long ago plunged into near-complete darkness, leaving now distraction from the great rocking thump-thump-thump of body after body flinging itself onto the great mass already coating the hull.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Others in the series: Gideon the Ninth
Content: It’s violent, brutal, and doesn’t mince swear words. It’s in the Science Fiction/Fantasy section of the bookstore.

There really is no way to mention the plot without spoiling it; truly the less you know about Harrow going in, the better it will be. Trust me.

Know this: Harrow has been made a Lyctor. The first three-fourth of the book will have you questioning your sanity and wonder what the hell Muir is up to. Stick with it. It is not uninteresting, and Muir will keep you guessing and wondering. The final fourth makes up for everything that went before.

It is awesome and amazing and I can’t wait to see how Muir ends this all.

Sex and Vanity

by Kevin Kwan
First sentence: “The trail was lit by tall flickering torches, but Charlotte Barclay still felt like she could have fallen a thousand times on the pathway.”
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Content: There’s a lot of swearing, including multiple f-bombs, plus a tasteful sex scene, a very awkward sex scene, and some talk of oral sex. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

First off, you’re going to want to compare this to Crazy Rich Asians, and it’s not. Sure, it’s crazy rich people and there are the same comparisons of old vs. new money that cropped up in Crazy Rich Asians, as well as the subtle racism that BIPOC — in this case, very wealthy BIPOC — get when running around white circles — in this case, very rich, white circles. But, this is so much more than that.

Kwan has taken E. M. Forester’s book, A Room with a View and thoroughly updated while keeping all the charm from both the book and the Merchant Ivory film, both of which I have loved for ages. (Seriously: he changed details, but the beats of the plot were exactly the same. It felt familiar and new all at the same time.) And he did it so seamlessly. The characters were their own individual characters, and yet I could see the original Charlotte, Lucy, George, and Cecil laid on top of them. I adored the modernization, I adored the homage to Italy and New York. I adored Kwan’s obsession with fashion and food and how new money can be both crass and understandable. It really was the perfect retelling of a classic story, and a perfect book to read on a hot summer day.

Absolutely recommended.

If Beale Street Could Talk

by James Baldwin
First sentence: “I look at myself in the mirror.”
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Content: There is some swearing, including multiple f-bombs. It’s in the fiction sections of the bookstore.

This is the story of Tish and Fonny, a young Black couple who are looking forward to a life together. Until Fonny is falsely arrested and imprisoned for rape. But Tish, pregnant with Fonny’s baby, and her family and Fonny’s father, are determined to get him out.

It’s a pretty basic plot when you sketch it out, but Baldwin is more about the words and the feel than the plot. He’s a very lyrical writer, which sometimes (for me) got in the way of the characters and the story, but mostly just enhanced it. I do love the way he characterizes the people in the book, fleshing them out so they feel whole. It did feel dated with some of the language, but that’s to be expected for a book written in 1973. But, the themes — of white supremacy and systemic racism in the police force — are still relevant.

I read this for a book group discussion (which I missed… boo on me!) and I’m sad I missed the discussion; there is much to talk about here. At any rate, I’m glad I missed it.

The Chicken Sisters

by KJ Dell’Antonia
First sentence: “The hit TRC series Food Wars is back!”
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Release date: December 1, 2020
Content: There’s swearing, including multiple f-bombs. It will be in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

First, some background: in Pittsburg, Kansas, there are two fried chicken places: Chicken Annie’s and Chicken Mary’s. There is some bit of controversy over which is better (I’ve eaten at one, but I don’t remember which) and they’re both pretty famous. Dell’Antonia is taking that idea — of two fried chicken places in a small Kansas town — and spinning a story around it. This time, there’s a feud between the two places, going back generations to the two sisters who started the restaurants: Frannie and Mimi. The feud has gotten so bad that when Amanda, one of Mimi’s descendants, marries Frank, one of Frannie’s she’s disowned, practically speaking, from her own family. And so, when on a whim, Amanda invites Food Wars to town to judge between Frannie’s and Mimi’s she has no idea what she has unleashed.

There’s more to the story; Amanda is distant from her older sister, Mae, who has made a career in reality television as someone who can clean and organize the heck out of everything. It doesn’t help that their mother, Barbara, is a hoarder. Or that Amanda’s husband and father-in-law died in a crash about 15 years prior, and so Amanda’s basically been holding on, raising two kids on her own.

It’s a sweet little book, nothing to deep or out of the ordinary. Just two sisters and their families trying to figure out how on earth they got where they are, and maybe, just maybe, they can figure out how to fix it.

A perfect summer read. (Also, I really want some good fried chicken now!)

Beach Read

by Emily Henry
First sentence: “I have a fatal flaw.”
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Content: There are swear words, including multiple f-bombs. There are also two on-screen, but not overly graphic, sex scenes. It’s in the fiction section of the bookstore.

January Andrews has a problem: she’s a romance (sorry: “women’s fiction”) writer and has hit a roadblock in her writing: she no longer believes in happily-ever-afters. Her dad died and at his funeral, January found out he’d been cheating on her mom. And then her long-time boyfriend broke up with her. In a hot tub. So, she moves back to her dad’s hometown in Michigan (the upper part of the lower peninsula) into the house her dad bought to share with his mistress. Not fun, but also cheap. As it turns out, she moved in next door to her college writing nemesis: Gus Everett. And (of course) they reconnect. This leads to (after a bad evening) a bet: Gus, who writes Literary Fiction, will take on writing a Romance book, and January will write a Novel. In order to help facilitate this, they will take the other one on excursions as “research” (definitely not dates). The catch: Absolutely NO falling in love.

Of course, it doesn’t work out that way (it is Women’s Fiction, after all). But it’s incredibly fun getting to the end of this book. Henry’s dealing with more than just falling in love: she’s dealing with grief and loss, grappling with the idea that parents aren’t always who we think they are, and with perceptions (or misperceptions) of other people. In between all this, there is a smart love story, with some fun, sassy moments, and I felt like the development of the relationship between Gus and January wasn’t contrived. It was defiantly a happy-making book. Perfect for a, well, beach read.