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Read This Book: IN THE DREAM HOUSE: A MEMOIR by Carmen Maria Machado

Welcome to Read This Book, a weekly newsletter where I recommend one book that I think you absolutely must read. The books will vary across genre and age category to include new releases, backlist titles, and classics. If you’re ready to explode your TBR, buckle up!

in the dream house book coverThis week’s recommendation is In the Dream House: A Memoir by Carmen Maria Machado.

Content warning: domestic abuse, physical intimidation and emotional manipulation

“Love cannot be won or lost; a relationship doesn’t have a scoring system. We are partners, paired against the world. We cannot succeed if we are at odds with each other.”

Carmen Maria Machado is the author of Her Body and Other Parties: Stories, which was a National Book Award finalist in 2017 and one of my favorite reads of the year. She changes up genres in this latest release, which details the two very painful years she spent as a graduate student at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and was in an emotionally abusive relationship with another woman. This is so much more than a memoir, though—Machado plays with form and tropes to tell a complex and beguiling story of her relationship. Beginning with heady infatuation, complicated by differing values, her partnership slowly but surely turns dark, until Machado finds herself alienated and held hostage by the whims of a person whose demands don’t always make sense. The chapters are brief, and labeled as devices or tropes (Dream House as Inciting Incident, Dream House as American Gothic), allowing Machado to examine this time in her life from multiple angles, through varying lenses.

But more than a story of domestic abuse, this is also an important look at domestic abuse between same-sex partners. In writing this book, Machado began researching queer intimate partner abuse and what information she could find was scant or, more often than not, deliberately buried. And so, In the Dream House becomes a touchstone book about queer domestic abuse, demanding that we shed light on this very real and important issue, for as Machado writes, “We deserve to have our wrongdoing represented as much as our heroism, because when we refuse wrongdoing as a possibility for a group of people, we refuse their humanity.”

Machado’s writing is razor-sharp, playful, powerful, and this is ultimately a hopeful book with a happy ending. I read it in a single sitting (the short chapters make it easy to say, “Just one more…”) and I could not stop thinking about the writing for days afterward. For audiobook listeners: Machado narrates the audiobook herself, although due to the experimental structure of this book, you might want to read a physical copy. (Or pick up both. You won’t regret it.)

Happy reading!

–Tirzah

Find me on Book Riot, the Insiders Read Harder podcast, and Twitter.

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Read This Book: Sorcery of Thorns

Welcome to Read This Book, a weekly newsletter where I recommend one book that I think you absolutely must read. The books will vary across genre and age category to include new releases, backlist titles, and classics. If you’re ready to explode your TBR, buckle up!

This week’s pick is a YA fantasy: Sorcery of Thorns by Margaret Rogerson!

“You belonged in the library, as much as any book.”

Elisabeth Scrivener, orphan, is an apprentice in one of the kingdom’s Great Libraries. She aspires to be like her hero, the Director of the Great Library of Summershall, and has grown up believing that sorcery and those who practice it are evil. It is a source of pride for Elisabeth that librarians collect and keep dangerous, sentient grimoires locked in vaults to protect innocent people…until the night a dangerous grimoire escapes, killing the Director and implicating Elisabeth in the crime. In order to clear her name, she must ally herself with a notorious sorcerer Thorn…and save the world along the way.

This is a book-lover’s fantasy. Who wouldn’t want to grow up in magical library where knowledge is prized, magic is safeguarded, and librarians wield swords? From the very beginning, you can feel the love of books radiating through the chapters, evoking that giddy feeling of exploring a new library or walking into a well-stocked bookstore. Elisabeth is a plucky, almost gullible protagonist at the beginning of the novel, but she wises up quickly and deepens into an interesting, complex character who works to confront the misguided information she was fed as a child. Her character growth is satisfying, especially when it involves a slow-burn romance with a sarcastic but secretly soft-at-heart love interest and befriending his slippery (but charming!) demon servant. But don’t worry, the romance takes a backseat to Rogerson’s quick-moving plot that reveals a conspiracy unfolding in a rich and fascinating world.

What’s so great about this book is that we have a heroine who is unabashedly bookish, intellectually curious, and has enough self-awareness to admit when she is wrong, but she doesn’t let injustice grind her down. This is an excellent pick for anyone who enjoys a genuinely fun fantasy in the vein of classics by Robin McKinley and Diana Wynne Jones, but with an updated, modern feel. And bonus—it’s a standalone, so there’s no need to commit to a long series arc! I highly recommend it for fantasy lovers and fantasy dabblers alike.

Happy reading!

–Tirzah

Find me on Book Riot, the Insiders Read Harder podcast, and Twitter.

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Read This Book…

Welcome to Read This Book, a weekly newsletter where I recommend one book that I think you absolutely must read. The books will vary across genre and age category to include new releases, backlist titles, and classics. If you’re ready to explode your TBR, buckle up!

This week’s pick is a backlist title that made me cry like a baby–My Real Children by Jo Walton.

“It was when she thought of her children that she was most truly confused.”

This is a strange book with an unconventional structure that opens with our protagonist, Patricia Cowan, as a very old woman. She lives in a nursing home and is often very confused. She has dementia, but she doesn’t simply forget details and events—she remembers two different timelines of her adult life. She remembers becoming a dissatisfied housewife, and having a successful writing career. An unhappy marriage with a man, and a passionate partnership with a woman. Raising four children, and raising three children. Living in a peaceful society of openness and acceptance, and navigating life in a world plagued by war.

Just when the reader is nearly as confused as Patricia, Walton takes readers back to 1933, when the world still resembles the one we know today. In elegant and mesmerizing prose, Walton recounts Patricia’s childhood and early years through the war, leading us up to a telephone box in the school where Patricia works, where her beau demands that she give him an answer to his marriage proposal. It’s in this moment that Patricia’s story, and her timeline split.

I was initially drawn to this book because of its exploration of alternate worlds and histories, but while reading I found myself equally if not more fascinated by Walton’s brilliant characterization of Patricia. In one timeline she is Pat, and the other she is Trish, and even though her lives diverge wildly, she is still, at her core, the same person. She raises two different families that she loves fiercely. She finds a career, friends, and passions, albeit not in the same order. She faces horrible tragedies. Her two lives are profoundly moving and made all the more fascinating because of how they differ from our own world, first in small ways and then in very large shifts.

The temptation to compare Patricia’s two lives is strong, both in the reader and in Patricia herself. In one life, there is world peace but little (and hard-won) personal fulfillment. In another, true love with her soulmate and a satisfying career against the backdrop of violence and unrest that eventually overwhelms her happy life. The details are fascinating to read, and I found myself thinking that this is a great book for someone who is curious about speculative fiction but wary of diving into something that diverges too far from reality.

Ultimately, Walton isn’t asking the reader, or Patricia, to choose which is more real or which life is worthier. In fact, she makes it clear that it’s impossible for Patricia to make such a choice, because “whichever way she chose, it’d break her heart to lose her children. All of them were her real children.” What’s most compelling isn’t the premise, but the story of Patricia building her families and her intense love for them both. This novel is a reminder that the same person can live two very different lives, and have a far-reaching impact on her world. By the end of her life, Patricia passionately believes that “you can do whatever you want to, make yourself whatever you want to be.”

Just remember, your choices have consequences.

Happy reading, book nerds!

–Tirzah

Find me on Book Riot, the Insiders Read Harder podcast, and Twitter.

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Read This Book…

Welcome to Read This Book, a weekly newsletter where I recommend one book that I think you absolutely must read. The books will vary across genre and age category to include new releases, backlist titles, and classics. If you’re ready to explode your TBR, buckle up!

such a fun ageThis week’s pick is a new release that just squeaked in at the end of 2019, but definitely should not be forgotten as you head into 2020–Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid!

Content warnings: racism

Emira Tucker is nearly 26 and adrift. A Black college graduate, she’s the only one in her family who hasn’t found her passion, and she cobbles together a living between a part-time typing gig and babysitting three-year-old Briar for the wealthy, white Chamberlain family. One night, she’s stopped in a grocery store and accused of kidnapping. Although the incident is resolved before the police arrive, the exchange is caught on camera by a bystander, who shares the video with Emira before agreeing to delete it.

“I don’t need you to be mad that it happened. I need you to be mad that it just like … happens.”

Such a Fun Age is a stellar novel (and a debut, no less!) about class, racism, and privilege that is both funny and upbeat, but also sharply critical of white people who go out of their way to prove just how woke they are. It’s told from the perspectives of both Emira and Briar’s mother, Alix, and the contrast is stark but endlessly fascinating. Alix is a former influencer turned motivational speaker who is floundering in her career. After the incident in the grocery store, she tackles getting to know Emira with the same relentless enthusiasm that she goes after a shot at partnering with the Hillary Clinton campaign, not totally ignorant of her manipulative tactics but certain of her virtue. Emira is not fooled by Alix’s newfound interest in her, but she doesn’t want to make the tape public–she has bigger things to worry about, like how to be an adult and find a job with health insurance. Both Alix and Emira come across as sympathetic and fully-realized characters, although as the tensions ramp up between the two women, Alix shows her true colors.

This is a novel with heart and a healthy dose of reality, and like Chekhov’s gun, the existence of the tape hangs in suspense over the entire story. Reid’s writing skewers white people who seek out friendship with people of color for diversity cookies, and who embrace a version of reality that only serves them. At the same time, Emira’s story is about survival, surrounding yourself with a healthy support network, and knowing who your true friends are. Both stories are resonant and sometimes painfully relatable. I highly recommend it if you loved An American Marriage, but are looking for a read that isn’t quite so emotionally heavy. Bonus: The audiobook performance by Nicole Lewis is excellent!

And hey, if you love literary fiction and want more, Book Riot has just launched a new litfic podcast called Novel Gazing! Check it out.

Happy reading, book nerds!

–Tirzah

Find me on Book Riot, the Insiders Read Harder podcast, and Twitter.

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Read This Book…

Welcome to the first edition of the Read This Book! This is a weekly newsletter where I recommend one book that I think you absolutely must read. The books will vary across genre and age category to include new releases, back list titles, and classics. If you’re ready to explode your TBR, buckle up!

pet-book-coverThis week’s Read This Book recommendation is Pet by Akwaeke Emezi.

Content warnings: child abuse

“Angels can look like many things. So can monsters.”

Welcome to Lucille, where Jam and her best friend Redemption grew up hearing about how the angels got rid of the monsters before they were born so they can live in a safe, accepting, diverse society. Lucille lives by the words written by the poet Gwendolyn Brooks:

“…we are each other’s
harvest:
we are each other’s
business:
we are each other’s
magnitude and bond.”

But one day, Jam’s mother paints a monstrous creature that comes to life. Its name is Pet, and it tells Jam there is a monster in Lucille that they must hunt. Jam is understandably confused, and reluctant to help—especially when Pet reveals the monster is lurking in Redemption’s house.

To Jam and Redemption’s understanding, monsters are the billionaires who destroyed the environment, the crooked police who abused their powers, the criminals who took advantage. None of those things exist in Redemption’s house. But as much as she doesn’t want to believe Pet, Pet doesn’t let Jam shirk this duty. Jam and Redemption must hunt this monster. The monster must be dealt with.

Pet is a slim, strange novel that may feel deceptively simple when you first begin reading. It unfolds like a fable, but with each paragraph Emezi skillfully builds a highly suspenseful story about the monsters that lurk in plain sight and the obligation that we have to look out for others, especially the most vulnerable. With lyrical writing, they also paint an alluring world that is inclusive and accepting in an unfussy way—people in Lucille exist on a spectrum of gender, sexuality, ability, and mobility, and all of these differences are acknowledged and included. Pet is a book that will make you think, make you gasp, and keep you on the edge of your metaphorical seat. Adults will be absorbed, but it’s also an excellent novel for teens and upper middle grade readers to talk about community, abuse, the responsibilities that we have to others, and how appearances can be deceiving. I believe this book is, at its core, about the dangers of not recognizing a monster (or evil) when you see it, and finding the bravery to see the truth.

It’s no wonder that Pet was a National Book Award finalist for 2019—this book pulls no punches. Emezi knows exactly when to pull away and when to get in close, no matter how much throwing the light on a monster may scare you. And even though Pet didn’t take the award, you simply must read this book.

Bonus: Pet makes an excellent audiobook! It’s narrated by Christopher Myers, founder of Pet’s publisher, the imprint Make Me a World. Myers brings energy, compassion, and an urgency to this book that is deeply compelling.

Happy reading, book nerds! See you next week.

Tirzah

Find me on Book Riot, the Insiders Read Harder podcast, or on Twitter!

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Read This Book: PET by Akwaeke Emezi

Welcome to the first edition of the Read This Book! This is a weekly newsletter where I recommend one book that I think you absolutely must read. The books will vary across genre and age category to include new releases, back list titles, and classics. If you’re ready to explode your TBR, buckle up!

pet-book-coverThis week’s Read This Book recommendation is Pet by Akwaeke Emezi.

(Content warnings: child abuse)

“Angels can look like many things. So can monsters.”

Welcome to Lucille, where there are no more monsters. Jam and her best friend Redemption grew up hearing about how the angels got rid of the monsters before they were born, so they can live in a safe, accepting, diverse society. Lucille lives by the words written by the poet Gwendolyn Brooks (from her poem “Paul Robeson”):

“…we are each other’s
harvest:
we are each other’s
business:
we are each other’s
magnitude and bond.”

In many ways, Lucille is a true utopia: Jam is a selectively mute trans teen girl who has always found love and acceptance, even from a young age. Her best friend Redemption’s family includes three parents, one who uses they/them pronouns. Life is happy, and monsters are a thing of the past, something Jam wonders about but does not fear. But one day, Jam’s mother paints a monstrous creature and when Jam accidentally spills her blood on the artwork, the creature comes to life. Its name is Pet, and it tells Jam that there is a monster in Lucille that they must hunt.

Jam is understandably confused, and reluctant to help—especially when Pet reveals that the monster is lurking in Redemption’s house. To Jam and Redemption’s understanding, monsters are the billionaires who destroyed the environment, the crooked police who abused their power, the criminals who took advantage of the weak. None of those things exist in Redemption’s house. But as much as she doesn’t want to believe Pet, and as painful as it is to tell Redemption about Pet and the existence of the monster, Pet doesn’t let Jam shirk this duty. Even when Jam’s parents would turn a blind eye, Pet makes it clear that Jam and Redemption must hunt this monster. The monster must be dealt with, and quickly.

Pet is a slim, strange novel that feels deceptively simple when you first begin reading. It feels like a light fable, but with each paragraph Emezi is skillfully building a highly suspenseful story about the monsters that can lurk in plain sight, and the obligation that we have to look out for others–especially the most vulnerable. With lyrical writing, they also paint an alluring and intriguing world that is inclusive and accepting in an unfussy way. People in Lucille exist on a spectrum of gender, sexuality, ability, and mobility, and all of these differences are acknowledged and included. Pet is a book that will make you think, make you gasp, and keep you on the edge of your (metaphorical) seat. I believe adults will be utterly absorbed, but it’s also an excellent novel for teens and upper middle grade readers (the book’s target audience) to talk about community, abuse, and how appearances can be deceiving. I believe this book is, at its core, about the dangers of not recognizing a monster (or evil) when you see it, and the imperative we have to look upon our world with clear eyes, open hearts, and say, “We are each other’s harvest, we are each other’s business. We are each other’s magnitude and bond.”

It’s no wonder that Pet was a National Book Award finalist for 2019—this book pulls no punches. Emezi knows exactly when to pull away and when to get in close, no matter how much throwing the light on a monster may scare you. And even though Pet didn’t take the award, you simply must read this book.

Bonus: Pet makes an excellent audiobook! It’s narrated by Christopher Myers, founder of Pet’s publisher, the imprint Make Me a World (a division of Random House). Myers brings energy, compassion, and an urgency to this book that is deeply compelling.

Happy reading, book nerds! See you next week.

Tirzah

Find me on Book Riot, the Insiders Read Harder podcast, and Twitter!

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One Book Dev Post — Thrillers are Having a Moment

Thrillers are having a moment. Twisty, suspenseful stories about mistaken identities, missing girls, unreliable narrators, and domestic bliss that isn’t what it seems are all over the bestseller charts. You know the books I mean: everything from The Girl on the Train to Ruth Ware’s latest, The Turn of the Key. This style of crime fiction is often called a domestic thriller, which can best be described as a “psychological thriller that focuses on interpersonal relationships,” often those between husbands and wives or parents and children.

The domestic thriller has a particular focus on and association with women (perhaps that’s why the publishing industry seems to have saddled an entire sub-genre with such an eyeroll-inducing name). Many bestselling thriller authors are women. Many of the narrators of these novels are women, too. And many of the problems in these novels are those which concern women in particular: domestic violence and other forms of violence against women, including abduction and rape; husbands who aren’t who they claim to be; troublesome neighbours; gaslighting and emotional abuse; the demands of motherhood.

Freefall by Jessica Barry book coverAt CrimeReads, thriller writer Jessica Barry (author of Freefall) explores the ties women have to this genre, arguing that for women, thrillers can be heroic narratives. “The narrative is not—or at least not only, and not always—that bad things happen to women,” she writes. “It’s that women have the ability to survive when bad things happen.” And at Bustle, Mary Widdicks calls thrillers “a safe space” where women can encounter their fears in a controlled environment. Both are compelling arguments. If one half of the population regularly experiences violence and abuse, it only makes sense that that group of people would be drawn to stories where characters overcome similar behaviour or are offered some form of justice.

The thing is, women’s love for domestic thrillers isn’t anything new. Erin Kelly points outthat marriage-gone-bad narratives, a staple of the genre, are as old as the Ancient Greeks and Shakespeare. And the domestic thriller as we know it today was born in the 19th century, with the rise of sensation fiction.

Sensation fiction was a popular genre of fiction that peaked in the 1860s. It was a fusion of genres including Gothic fiction, romance, and realist fiction; that fusion was a significant reason for its widespread popularity. Sensation fiction blended the juiciest, most sensational romantic and Gothic plot lines—think secret babies, kidnapping, poisoned spouses, and adultery, like Victorian-era soap operas. These topics all sound fantastic, but when they appear in familiar domestic settings, like a cozy family parlour, they take on a newly thrilling, threatening quality.

Sensation novels were meant to provoke intense emotion in readers, and boy did Victorian readers love that blend of crime and everyday life. Realism was already a popular form of fiction at the time, as seen in Dickens’s novels inspired by his experiences growing up in a workhouse (Little Dorrit) and by a real-life court case that dragged on for years (Bleak House). Sensation novels took the most salacious newspaper headlines, those about divorces, crimes, and murder cases, and made them as familiar to middle-class readers—the people who had money to spend on books and libraries—as a family sitting down to tea. Both domestic thrillers and sensation fiction have that ripped-from-the-headlines quality that we pretend we don’t love.

cover of Lady Audley's Secret by Mary Elizabeth BraddonWilkie Collins, author of The MoonstoneThe Woman in White, and other books now considered to be classics, is probably the most well-known sensation fiction author. But, and this may not surprise you, it was a genre primarily associated with women. Authors such as Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Ellen Wood were hugely popular. Even the Brontës borrowed from sensation fiction. Braddon was known for Lady Audley’s Secret, a novel about, in the words of Matthew Sweet, “a murderously ambitious Pre-Raphaelite beauty who secures a fortune by shoving her husband down the garden well.” Published in 1862, it was one of the first sensation novels. Braddon’s books, and those by other sensation fiction authors, were very popular with female readers.

Serious Literary Critics, of course, were no fans of the sensation novel, and many worried that young women in particular would be corrupted by reading these tales of murder and mayhem. As you probably already know, Victorian society was strictly divided along gender lines, with men responsible for the public sphere and women confined to a private, domestic world. It’s no surprise that stories about women murdering their husbands, committing bigamy, having secret babies, and stealing jewels were looked upon with suspicion by critics and excitement by female readers. These novels threatened the very fabric of orderly middle-class Victorian life by allowing women to feel emotions and imagine situations far beyond their daily experiences.

Fast forward to 2019, and we have our own version of sensation fiction: the domestic thriller. Domestic thrillers aren’t quite as threatening to the fabric of our society. To me, they seem to reflect the worst bits of it back at us with a few distortions, like a funhouse mirror. Domestic thrillers can be an escape, but I think they’re also something of a punishment: look how bad we’ve let things get.

What domestic thrillers and sensation fiction both do so well is portray the crimes and betrayals experienced by women, from major violence to the everyday indignity of having a man belittle your opinion. Like female characters in Victorian sensation fiction, female protagonists in domestic thrillers may be unreliable; they may drink too much or withdraw from public life; they may have suspicions no one believes. They have a tragic incident in their pasts or a secret they can’t reveal. They definitely have a man in their life gaslighting them.

All of these are things that happen in real life. We think they’re just newspaper headlines, but they’re happening all around us behind closed doors. Domestic thrillers and sensation fiction—both shine light on a world that we think can’t touch us. It’s been there all along.