Just like the poster in my middle-school library proclaimed, “Reading Takes You Places.” Whether you’re filling your last four weeks of summer with callbacks or soaking up the last rays of summer sun at the beach, here are a few destinations for your last round of armchair-travel before classes start up again.
“Black Chalk” has been the sleeper hit of my summer reading. I had other deadlines to meet, books to read, and things to do, but I kept putting them off as long as possible to squeeze in a few more pages of this incredible thriller.
Six friends meet at a university in England and agree to play the Game. Now, one of them is dead, and another is struggling to pick up the pieces of his life in the United States. This lost soul narrates both his muddled present and flashbacks to university, searching for answers and salvation in the origins and development of his friendships and the Game itself.
The combination of didn’t-see-that-coming twists and unreliable narration is deftly managed by Christopher J. Yates. I gasped aloud several times, but never felt taken in by a cheap plot trick. It’s difficult to write a book with genuinely unexpected twists while remaining true to your characters and narrative, but Yates manages brilliantly. Lest you think this novel is all twists and no substance, “Black Chalk” explores the foundations upon which friendships are built and what it takes to tear people apart.
Verdict: Affirmed. For both fans of “Gone Girl” and those who read it and saw all the twists coming, check out “Black Chalk” for a new level of unexpected twists and turns.
So you’ve read “The Fault in Our Stars” and you want to read the next beautifully-written YA book that will reduce you to hysterical tears? E. Lockhart’s “We Were Liars” is the perfect fast read to take your mind off EIP or give you one last taste of summer before another year of classes.
Cadence Sinclair has been visiting her family’s private island off the coast of New England every summer for her whole life. She, her two cousins Miren and Johnny, and their friend Gat are the Liars – the same age and inseparable every summer. But in Summer 17 something has changed – Cadence has a head injury and can’t remember what happened in Summer 15 that caused her accident, made her family start treating her differently, and why she missed Summer 16.
I thought I knew where this book was going several times and it continuously surprised me in the best way. Lockhart’s prose is both simple and wrought with emotion. Aridane Meyers does an excellent narration in audio, perfectly capturing the young protagonist’s voice and the feeling behind it. This novel of memory, family, and first love is a treasure, and at only 240 pages, a perfect last hurrah to summer before the new school year.
Verdict: Affirmed. For YA fans of course, but also lovers of literary fiction. This book easily holds its own among the best of adult and YA fiction.
In Manhattan during the 1920’s, a father keeps his twelve daughters locked up inside his mansion. The sisters hide by day, making as little noise as possible while they teach each other to dance. By night, they sneak out to dance at the city’s speakeasies where they are known only as the Princesses.
This retelling of the classic fairy tale, “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” had me brushing up on the original. The novel departs from the original tale in well-chosen places, creating strong heroines determined to seize control of their own lives in whatever little ways they can. As a sister myself, the relationships among the sisters were what kept me interested. The indelible bonds between sisters ring true and form the backbone of the tale.
While for the first 50 pages it was difficult to remember which sister was which, Valentine did an admirable job differentiating them, creating twelve unique and captivating characters in a relatively short space. As the story develops, each comes into her own, and the novel finishes strongly.
Verdict: Jury’s Out. Genevieve Valentine’s book appeals to two particular literary interests of mine – Prohibition-era New York and fairy tale retellings. If either piques your interest, check this one out. If not, it probably won’t hold your attention.
I’m pretty late to this novel that won the 2012 National Book Award and a 2013 ALA Alex Award, among others, but let me add myself to the chorus of praise surrounding “The Round House.”
In summer of 1988, Joe’s mother is attacked on a reservation in North Dakota. The fallout from the brutal attack shakes Joe’s family to the core and has repercussions throughout their small community, revealing underlying tensions and longstanding resentments. Joe, at only 13 years old, is just beginning to understand the fraught relationships among his tribe and between them and the surrounding townspeople. Largely left out of the formal justice pursued by his father, a tribal judge, Joe undertakes his own investigation in pursuit of justice for his mother.
This isn’t just a crime story, it’s also Joe’s coming-of-age. Old enough to understand most of what is going on around him, but young enough to be left out of most of it, Joe navigates complicated relationships with his family and friends. These supporting characters round out the novel and offer a small glimpse into the Ojibwe tribal community on and nearby the reservation.
“The Round House” is at once a scathing portrayal of the legal limbo in which crimes fall that are perpetrated by non-tribe members on tribal lands and an intimate exploration of the effects of a crime on the victim and her loved ones.
Verdict: Affirmed. An absolute must-read for anyone interested in criminal justice or tribal law, and strongly recommended for anyone looking for a good read, generally.
“An Untamed State” is a book that I’ll constantly return to, but never want to read again. Mirielle Duval is kidnapped when visiting her family in Haiti, travelling with her American husband and infant son. We know on the first page that she is held for thirteen days. We do not yet know what she must do to survive. Gay’s debut novel is both horrifying and deeply moving.
Before I go any further, let me put a huge trigger warning on this novel for violence against women. The novel describes Mirielle’s myriad abuses at the hands of her kidnappers in excruciating detail. The reader is placed inside her head as Mirielle comes to terms with what she must do to survive, and then figures out how to function afterward. Gay’s stream-of-consciousness passages are impeccable. While reading, I cried, gasped, and shrank in fear along with Miri more times that I can count.
A strong-willed, stubborn, passionate woman before her kidnapping, her experience will change her in unspeakable, unknowable ways. Gay intersperses the narrative of Duval’s kidnapping with scenes from the fairy tale of how she met and married her husband, highlighting the stark differences between the person she was before and the person her kidnapping forces her to become. This incredibly personal novel offers one individual’s story that stands for so much more – the often fraught, ever-changing relationships between men and women, the way familial relationships evolve with life experiences, and the fault lines between the outer extremes of the rich and poor.
Verdict: Affirmed. This isn’t a book you read, but one you experience. It’s a lot to handle, but the emotional tumult of the reader speaks to Gay’s remarkable accomplishment.
In some ways, Melanie is an ordinary girl. She goes to class five days each week, where she sometimes sees her favorite teacher, Miss Justineau. All she wants is to continue learning and to impress Miss Justineau. But she and her classmates live in prison-like cells, are transported by armed guards to class, and remain physically restrained whenever they are outside their cells. What makes Melanie so special?
For some reason, the apocalyptic event that transformed Earth has affected Melanie and her classmates differently. Without revealing a major spoiler, I had really mixed feelings on this. On one hand, I would not have requested this book from the publisher if I had known it belonged to its particular subgenre. On the other, I really enjoyed it when I wasn’t grumbling about being tricked. In the end, I’m glad I read it, so I’m leaving you unspoiled too.
When their home base is irrevocably changed, Melanie, Miss Justineau, and two of the armed guards venture into a hostile landscape, trying to return to the last vestiges of civilization. Melanie is an incredible character, and her relationship with her teacher is what makes this book stand apart. Melanie and Miss Justineau’s relationship transcends the genre, reminiscent of Matilda & Miss Honey, redeeming a subgenre I otherwise would not have read. If this review catches your interest, read this book. You won’t be disappointed.
Verdict: Affirmed. Trappings aside, the heart of this novel is a story about how one adult’s support can inspire a child to overcome the most daunting obstacles. If you’re a fan of post-apocalyptic fiction or children with gifts, it’s well worth your time.
I have been bemoaning the state of the American Romantic Comedy for years – Britain has been killing it with “Love Actually” and “About Time” while we just turn out nonsense like “Drinking Buddies.” Now British Chick Lit is stepping up its game as well. Jojo Moyes first burst on the American scene with “Me Before You” in 2012, and her newest offering, “One Plus One,” lives up to the legacy.
Jess is a hardworking, down-on-her-luck, functionally single mother of two trying to make ends meet so her prodigy daughter can attend a fancy private school. Ed is your typical nerd who started his own software company and struck it rich. Their paths intersect unexpectedly when Ed offers to drive Jess, her kids Tanzie and Nicky, and their dog to the Math Olympiad in Scotland.
It’s a pretty typical RomCom set-up – a meet-cute, opposites attract, a falling out, a reunion. You’ll see it all coming. What I didn’t expect was just how much Tanzie, Nicky, and their dog Norman would tug at my heartstrings. Theirs is a charming family, and Jess & Ed’s story fulfilled my RomCom search.
Verdict: Jury’s Out. If you’re looking for one last beach read or something light to take your mind off your classes next semester, look no further. If you want something with a bit more substance, though, check out others on this list.
Ove is a curmudgeon – a cantankerous old man who believes rules are rules and wishes the rest of the world would follow them. He decides he’s done with his life, but his neighbors just won’t let him move on. Darkly humorous, a little un-PC, with a heart of pure gold, this book completely knocked my socks off.
We open on Ove trying to buy an iPad. I kid you not, Ove’s conversation with the salesperson is identical to the one I had with a salesperson in Best Buy when I tried to buy a laptop for law school. As Ove meets his new neighbors, and we learn his life’s story, we find out how Ove came to be the upstanding, rule-abiding, honorable man he is. I laughed out loud, squealed over the adorable moments, and sighed over Ove’s heartbreaking backstory.
Ove speaks to that part of all of us that gets annoyed when someone can’t read a sign and suspects a salesperson is ripping you off. More broadly, this novel gets at the core of human existence – our need to connect with others, even when we really don’t feel like it.
Verdict: Affirmed. So. Many. Feels. This book wormed its way into my heart, and won a place on my permanent shelf. Highly recommended to anyone who liked “The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry,” is interested in a debut from an international author, or is looking for a heartwarming read, generally.
A Little Bit of Everywhere – “Unruly Places: Lost Spaces, Secret Cities, and Other Inscrutable Geographies” by Alastair Bonnett (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
When I heard this issue of the Muckraker was travel-themed, I requested this book from the publisher. “Unruly Places” explores unusual places around the world, taking us from underground cities to unwanted tracts of land, disappearing islands to repeatedly-destroyed villages.
This book is more than I expected. It’s not just a collection of places with interesting back stories, but an examination of the very concept of a “place.” Bonnett looks out how our ideas around places shape and are shaped by how people understand both each other and their own role in the world. The list of interesting places is there, but this book goes way deeper and makes for an enriching and thought-provoking read. A fun bonus, Bonnett includes coordinates for Google Maps whenever possible, so you can check out spots like The Archaeological Park of Sicilian Incompletion on Google Earth.
At times, the philosophical side got to be a bit much for me. I skimmed the section on “Fox Den,” which detailed the author’s following a fox to its den and a small rambling on animal spaces within those inhabited by humans. I could do without the author’s personal feelings on the places he visited, especially since they’re not presented with every entry, giving to a bit of an uneven feel. But if you’re looking to hit a handful of places in your armchair travels or pick up some interesting conversation starters for lunch during your callbacks, this is a great place to start.
Verdict: Jury’s Out. The philosophy-heavy writing might not be for everyone. If you like some deeper food for thought with your trivia, this one’s for you.
Disclosure: I received e-copies of “Black Chalk,” “The Girls at the Kingfisher Club, “The Girl with All the Gifts,” “One Plus One,” “A Man Called Ove,” and “Unruly Places” in exchange for an honest review through NetGalley.