We Set the Dark On Fire by Tehlor Key Mejia

819wRE-AaMLTitle: We Set the Dark On Fire
Author: Tehlor Kay Mejia
Genre: 
YA dystopia — but not the kind you’re used to
Describe it in a sentence: 
A young woman has been primed to be a “Primera,” or “first wife,” to a man in a world upheld by bigamist marriages and extreme inequality (and some pretty creative mythologies)
TV/movie character who would like it: The women in The Handmaid’s Tale would definitely feel solidarity to Dani’s problems.

In preparation for Refinery29’s YA Month, I’ve been reading a lot of YA. A lot. And I’ve enjoyed a lot of them. But among them all, We Set the Dark on Fire by debut novelist Tehlor Kay Mejia stands out for its timeliness, its stunning prose, and its absolutely new/creative/wonderful world.

Dani was never supposed to get to where she was: At the Primera graduation ceremony, about to be married off to the son of an incredibly powerful family. Years ago, her parents illegally crossed over to Medio, the affluent half of the island, making their daughter’s social ascent possible. So, Dani holds a secret. It will be the first of many.

Dani is married off to Mateo Garcia, poised to be the next President of their country. As a Primera, Dani is supposed to be his partner and intellectual equal. But his soul and body will be nourished by his Segunda wife – Carmen. Of all the wives, Dani didn’t want it to be Carmen. They were sworn enemies. Now, Dani is locked in this cold (but fancy AF) environment. Mateo is like a mini power hungry Commander Fred of The Handmaid’s Tale. He squashes all input from Dani. Her role is to be helpful and supportive. What is she going to do if he rejects all her advances? Well, Mateo knows what he wants her to do: Clean, clean, clean some more. Not quite what she envisioned for herself back at school. But since she’s a Primera, she’s supposed to remain placid, keep her composure.

Of course, Mateo’s so busy being a teenage man about town he doesn’t realize what else is happening right under his nose. Dani and Carmen realize their friction may have come from another source. Not hate, but fascination. Not hate, but looove. Yes! There are some terrific moments of intimacy, punctuating the bleak conditions of Medio. As with my favorite books, there are sprinklings of attraction that remind us why we’re on the planet.

There’s also the other factor moving the book’s plot forward. The revolution. They’ve tapped Dani. She’ll have to sacrifice her safety to be a part of something bigger than herself.

Mejia has tapped into something special with this book. It’s politically relevant, yet, but also emotionally potent. I was cheering Dani on. She’s not invulnerable, not completely brave all the time like so many YA protagonists in dystopias are. She has to become brave, because no one else is looking out for her in this cold, unequal world. TOO REAL!

I’m really looking forward to seeing how she expands the world in the next book. Unlike adult dystopias, there’s a glimpse of hope at the end of this book. Dani might be all right. Medio might be, too.

Are You the Most Important Person In the World? Or: The Heavens by Sandra Newman

91mmm8FL3xL.jpgTitle: The Heavens
Author: Sandra Newman
Genre: 
Literary fiction (but the kind you can tear through)
Describe it in a sentence: 
A young woman believes that her dreams — which uniformly take place in Elizabethan England — are actually real; they start having an impact on her life in New York. 
TV/movie character who would like it: Nadia of Russian Doll, who also wakes up in a slightly altered universe every day

Most of the time, I take home books for work, read a few pages, and move on. But The Heavens wrapped its smoky coils around me and kept me inside its enchanting, wildly imaginative story until I found out what would happen (and TBH, I still don’t completely know).

Do you ever wonder what your place in the world is; if it matters? Are you ever pulled between the impulses of thinking you’re insignificant, versus thinking you’re extremely special? Kate feels destined for something. She always has. It’s because of her dreams. Her dreams that seem realer than real life.

Real life, for Kate, takes place in an alternate New York in the year 2000. This is a clean, bright, beautiful city — kind of a liberal’s fever dream. There are no cars! Global warming isn’t even a phrase anyone knows! Kate lives with her wealthy friend in a large apartment building, where a cast of colorful characters walks in and out. At one such party, Kate meets Ben, the man who will remain her constant on what will become a haywire journey. At the party, they debate about the validity of the “great man” theory. Is it possible that a few key individuals really define the course of human history? But they’re so swept up in fast love that they don’t continue the argument.

Kate begins to dream more frequently. Her dreams last longer, are more vivid. And when she wakes up, she wakes up in a world slightly altered by whatever she changed in her dream — and altered for the worst. Kate doesn’t understand very basic facts of this new world she’s woken up in. A new president? Cars on the road? Her friends think she’s quirky, at first. Then, after enough lapses, they think she’s deranged.

Is she deranged? Newman keeps us guessing throughout this structurally inventive novel. The whole time I read this book, I questioned whether it was possible a book could be so up my alley. Guess what? It can be! This is a bold, playful foray into big questions: The fate of ourselves, the fate of the world. What a thrill to read a book that defies all of our expectations, and takes us on a wild ride instead.

The Hating Game by Sally Thorne & The Curse of the “Nice Guy”

514sa3HcecL.jpgTitle: The Hating Game
Author: Sally Thorne
Genre: 
hot hot HOT romance, plus some jokes
Describe it in a sentence: 
Two co-workers at an Australian publishing house think that they hate each other, but it turns out that hate is just masking lakes and lakes of luuust (and eventually maybe love?)
TV/movie character who would like it: This book was pulled straight out of the central romance in Much Ado About Nothing. Beatrice and Benedick would see Josh and Lucy and nod knowingly.

I first heard about The Hating Game when I was researching a story about rom-com books for Refinery29. Thorne’s debut novel pre-dates the current rom-com resurgence by a few years. This book came out all the way back in 2016; it’s only now that rom-coms are flooding the market with their cute illustrated covers. These covers mask a whole lot of sexiness, you guys. Because This. Book. Is. SEXY!

Lucy and Joshua are co-workers at Bexley and Gamin, a publishing house that had merged a few years prior. Just as Bexley and Gamin had two different governing philosophies, so do Lucy and Joshua. They’re polar opposites (for more reasons than their height difference). Josh is a neat freak, uptight, seething, grouch. Everyone in the office is afraid of him. Lucy makes it her job to be professionally agreeable — to everyone except Josh. When the book kicks off, Lucy and Josh are regularly throwing insults and each other and racking up HR violations (TBH they do not work in the healthiest work environment – their bosses pit them against each other in a race for a promotion and it’s very corporate Hunger Games).

Don’t be fooled by their friction. Friction fuels fire! The more these two good-looking leads combat each other, the more other feelings grow. Lucy finds herself drowning in her all-consuming hatred for Josh, and then the weird feelings of affection that sprout the more she looks into his eyes.

Sally Thorne is great at writing rom-coms. I would read her rom-coms for days. Quippy dialogue, singular characters, plot that traipses along in between “the good parts” (and you know what the good parts are. I believe in Lucy and Josh’s chemistry.

BUT. I totally worry for them! I worry for their emotional intelligence! First of all, it’s not healthy to fill up your days with a deep and wild hatred for your coworker. Second of all, Josh makes being a “nice guy” out to be like, the worst trait in the world. In the book, “nice” is code for boring, dull, safe, etc. Josh is not expressly “nice” but he will love Lucy with scary intensity. And somehow that is a fair exchange? A loyal pitbull man instead of a friendly golden retriever.

Admittedly, I have historically been drawn to guys like Josh. Guys who make you bend over backwards to crumple their intensity. Cold guys, who make you so hungry for affection that you’ll blush at a smile. Stubborn guys who don’t deviate from their own code of ethics. Hard-working guys who promise they’ll take you where they’re going — so long as you play by their rules. My relationships ended when I had to ask for the simple request: Please be kind to me.

Guys like Josh can be sexy! But the whole book I kept saying to myself – Lucy, be careful! Yes, he makes you feel special now — but only because he’s been a total ass for so many years. Maybe I’m reading too far into this? But the “gruff asshole is secretly a kind softie” is a trope that I see work out in a lot of books, but not necessarily in real life. What do you think?

Overall, I definitely recommend The Hating Game, if you take the relationship with a grain of salt, and not as a model. Here’s hoping that Josh is kind to her as his relationship with Lucy continues (and that he doesn’t turn into his father!)

Baby’s First Tana French

download (31)Title: The Witch Elm
Author: Tana French
Genre: 
Psychological crime
Describe it in a sentence: 
A young Irish man’s life is upended after he sustains a brain injury during a robbery, then is sent swirling further when a skull is dug up in his family’s Dublin estate. 
TV/movie character who would like it: Stella Gibson in The Fall. She’d appreciate Toby’s journey because she probably knew he’d been deceiving himself all along. She’s smart like that.

The Witch Elm was 500-page dream I didn’t want to wake up from. So often first person is deployed to approximately 30% of its full potential (yes, this is a scientific blog). The Witch Elm, conversely, featured was masterful, deceptive first-person that wanted to make you feel really comfortable, only so French could spin you around and make you dizzy.

This first-person was like a couch. You sink into it. You take Toby’s perception of the world at face value, for a while. Then it turns out the couch has rotted at the bottom. It’s not even a couch at all, but a bunch of pillows balanced over a void. If you think about it too much or lean in too hard, then it’ll collapse and you’ll be floating in a universe askew.

In a phrase: I loved it. I love Tana French! And so does Stephen King, by the way — in case my word doesn’t quite convey the authority as King King’s does.

What did I like about The Witch Elm? So much. I liked that it was a crime novel concerned with pressing existential concerns — most fundamentally, who are we? Are we separated from our brains? If our minds are injured, is our “self,” or the self we know as our “self,” lost? How much of our selves are constructed by memories, selected carefully and constructed into fortresses of personality? If all of that psychic construction is shattered in a moment, what kind of Frankenstein self takes its place?

If this sounds lofty for a crime novel, that’s because it’s a dense, lofty book. Yet French manages to carry along the scenes with such pace and wit that it doesn’t feel dense, just exhilarating. There are some pages-long sequences in which Toby is poring over the past with his two cousins. All their dynamics are so raw, unspoken. There is underbrush to their conversation we’re only just beginning to sense. And yet the conversation itself travels quickly, hops along. She balances depth with sheer pleasure so well.

I don’t want to give any major plot points away. But the book is about a young Dubliner whose life changes when he’s gravely injured in a robbery. He moves out to the country to take care of his ailing uncle. While there, they make a discovery about hidden remains in the backyard. But that only happens at like, page 200! A lot of this book is about Toby and his crisis. Which to me was a very interesting crisis. I understand why someone looking for a standard crime novel might get tired of his circuitous thoughts and hospital descriptions.

However, if you’re looking for a genre-defying book that is as thought-provoking as it is engrossing, I recommend The Witch Elm wholeheartedly.

The Books I Read On Vacation, Ranked By How Quickly I Devoured Them

Do you know what happens to a human brain when it detached from the suction of work? It puts its proverbial arms behind its proverbial head. It looks around at the blue sky above it and the blue, not quite the same shade but close, sea ahead of it. It is happy.

After breathing the crisp air of an open schedule for a few moments, the little anxieties about unchecked emails, unfinished stories, life paths, regrets start poking through the sand like hermit crabs. The only way to vanquish the hermit crabs, which are rapidly gathering and taking out their snippers, is to put your feet up on the chaise lounge and methodically go the stack of books you brought.

Then when you finish the stack of books, you will inevitably face a moment of irrational panic. Can I really read on a kindle on the beach? The answer is yes, you can, you will.

All right, that ^ ^ is one reading of how I spent my two (!!) weeks of vacation. Yes, I ate, adventured, and hung out with friends and family. But mostly, I read. Here’s the list, in order of how quickly I read them:

  1. The Seven Husband of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid
  2. You by Carolyn Kepnes
  3. Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld (bought in a bookstore on a Greek island, thank you bookstore)
  4. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
  5. Under the Banner of Heaven by John Krakauer
  6. Going Clear by Lawrence Wright.

So, as you can see, the trip was divided between fiction by women and batshit nonfiction about extremist religion by men. That is one of my favorite divisions. Also, NOW I GET WHAT Y’ALL WERE TALKING ABOUT WHEN YOU WERE TALKING ABOUT PACHINKO. IT IS SO GOOD. I WANT TO MAKE A PILGRIMAGE TO JAPAN AND VISIT FICTIONAL CHARACTERS’ GRAVES.

That is all.

 

Literary Names I Might Steal For My Future Daughters

Let’s be clear: I never want my future children, should I have them, to feel like they have to grow into an impossible mold. I want them to grow into themselves, not, say, into a literary icon. That said, why not use a pleasing combination of sounds and syllables that just so happens to have an epic connotation? I like all these first names. I like their legacies. If I should have a daughter I’d want her to have these books on her side.

  1. Luna, Harry Potter
  2. Ramona, Ramona
  3. Zelie, Children of Blood and Bone
  4. Calypso, The Odyssey
  5. Denver, Beloved
  6. Lisbeth, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
  7. Astrid, Crazy Rich Asians
  8. Matilda, Matilda
  9. Lara Jean Song Covey, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before
  10. Jane, Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice, why not
  11. Oryx, Oryx and Crake
  12. Katherine Clifton, The English Patient
  13. Serena, The Trumpet of the Swan
  14. Hero, Much Ado About Nothing
  15. Camille, Sharp Objects
  16. Portia, The Merchant of Venice
  17. Natalia, War and Peace
  18. Arya, A Song of Ice and Fire
  19. Daisy, The Great Gatsby 
  20. Jo, Little Women
  21. Madeline, Madeline series
  22. Tacy, Betsy Tacy
  23. Zora, Their Eyes Were Watching God
  24. Lyra, His Dark Materials

Yes, yes, you’ve got me — in addition to collecting favorite books I also collect a) paint chips b) baby names and c) pretty words. This is a collection of b) and c).

Maybe next up I’ll match books with colors….

How To Talk About Talking About Books

My college days are behind me. A year behind me, to be precise, though sometimes I still trip on campus’s uneven stone pavement and I remember the lecture hall chairs’ stiff backs and my professors’ stiff upper lips and I wonder, what’s a year, anyway? Some years are fuller than others. My four years of college filled me up, and I’ll be running on that mileage for ages.

Luckily for me, many of my friends are little walking universities, in the sense that they don’t let my mind fall asleep. Otherwise, who knows: I might turn on Bravo one day and never turn it off. We all wrestle with temptation.

Today, a friend texted me out of the blue asking whether I could send her a critical essay I wrote in college. The specifications were broad. She just wanted any essay in which I responded to a work of literature with precise language. I sent her a short paper on Virginia Woolf’s The Waves.

My friend, C., is many wonderful things, but perhaps my favorite thing about her is that she is a Capital R Reader. The first time I spoke to her about books, we were on a beach in Greece. We began playing “What Have You Read?” ping-pong, my favorite mental sparring game. I found we had the same taste. I also found myself desperately out of my league. C’s one of those readers who makes me want to be a better (and more voracious) reader.

Both now out of college, C. and I love reading — and yet we have no outlet with which we can intellectually analyze books. I frequently recommend books to people, or gush about them. I say things like, “I missed my train stop, this book was so good!” Or, “I couldn’t get out of bed because I was devastated when it ended!”

But what about the part of my brain which could X-Ray into the book’s machinations and the author’s manipulations? Read for craft, as well as general effect? What about the endless exercises in close-reading and poring through the part to understand the whole?

When reading literature in college, I often fought against the tyranny of close-reading. As an intuitive, emotional person, I would always trust my first instinct first. I was more interested in the general impression of the book. Whether I was moved. Whether I liked it. Now, out of college, I find myself pulled to the opposite camp. It’s not enough to know that I liked it. I want to know why, and speak to the book until it speaks back.

In college, I was reading books that I didn’t always want to be reading. I was relieved when I found a book that I liked at all, so I savored it. Now, I read a lot of books that I enjoy because the syllabus is of my own choosing. I pop books like candy. Sure, it’s better than TV, but how much depth am I plumbing from each book? Is it a hearty mental exercise if I’m skimming sentences?

My goal is to begin writing pieces for each book I read. More than reviews, really, but something between a reaction and an analysis. Something voice-driven, but also data-driven. A mash-up between my conflicting desires when reading books: To understand the language, and to feel the narrative.

I’m sure C. and I will be alright, so long as we continue to read, converse, and keep an aura of undergraduate naivety about us.