Title: Sugar Daddy Author: Lisa Kleypas, known for writing historical romances Release Date: 2007 Genre: Texan bildungsroman with hints of steaminess. Describe it in a sentence: Liberty Jones goes from the trailer park to a millionaire’s mansion, and has men from both parts of her life to choose between. TV/movie character who would like it: Tyra Collette from Friday Night Lights. In fact I think she might have written it.
It’s only a matter of time before a real-life sugar baby writes a literary memoir about her time, all short sentences and detached emotions which catch up later, as she smokes a cigarette or showers off the smell of her wealthy older companion’s cologne.
That is not this book. Though it’s called Sugar Baby, a more appropriate title would be Daddy Warbucks. How convenient when a dashing millionaire appears in your life without wanting anything from you other than to love you! Platonically! Yes, that is the better description of this novel.
Sugar Daddy was my first novel by Lisa Kleypas. I read it in the late evenings—which is always when I read my romance novels, because they calm me down. My wonderful romance book club chose it as this month’s selection. After many consecutive rom-coms, I enjoyed this change of pace.
Sugar Daddy is technically a romance, but I find that it’s better classified as a…coming-of-age story that ends in romance. It’s the SAGA of Liberty Jones, belle of the Texas trailer park. My Sugar Daddy reading coinciding with my ending of Friday Night Lights, so I’m just about ready to plan a post-COVID trip to the Lone Star State to get a vibe.
Kleypas manages to make so much happen! There’s a drum-beat in this book. And yet I enjoyed seeing where Liberty, who is our first person narrator, slowed down to savor the moment—like the first time she meets Hardy, the neighbor she imprints on (gah Stephanie Meyer for introducing that word into my vocabulary).
Honestly, to talk about the plot is to spoil a lot. The book winds up to a major twist that changes the course of Liberty’s life. It caught me off guard, as it did her, and I think it makes for a better reader experience not to know. Kleypas pulled a real switcheroo; the book became something I never expected it to become midway through. Certainly, Liberty was as surprised as I was. In a book, it’s fun to not see something coming (less so in life).
I will say: I’ve read romance novels that have introduced similarly gasp-worthy plot twists, and this one does it way better, because Kleypas gives Liberty time to process and deal with what happens. The love introduced isn’t introduced as a way to hurry up her healing. He arrives when she’s ready.
This is the kind of book I might pick up if I was at a hotel and it was in the library because someone left it behind and I’d read it in a day. It reminds me of my aunt’s Danielle Steels on hot summer days in Cyprus. But a bit (read: way steamier). The emphasis is definitely on Liberty—and it worked. I rooted for her from the start. Her practicality and skepticism, balanced by a real heart. In fact, one could say the practicality is the way she protected herself from that big heart—she knew she could get hurt. Look at me, reading into a novel character. That means it worked!
I’m really looking forward to discussing this book with my book club. For one, the names are something else: Gage and Hardy are the two leading men (have you ever MET a Gage or a Hardy?!). Liberty’s sister is named Carrington for a Dynasty character.
I also have Thoughts about the convenient plot machinations, but I also accept them to be the machinations of a novel. And ultimately they produced positive endorphins in me. So I shall not complain…and instead shall read the next book in Kleypas’s Travis series.
Title: The Green Shore Author: Natalie Bakopoulos, whom I was lucky enough to have had as a workshop leader once upon a time Release Date: 2012 Genre: Highbrow historial Describe it in a sentence: A politically connected family in Athens experiences the military coup differently TV/movie character who would like it: Anyone living through the Trump presidency
It’s going to be challenging for me to resist turning this post into a self-centered piece of nostalgia. Look, there I go, right now.
But how can’t I? When I hear Natalie’s name I think of the summer I spent in Greece after my junior year in college at a writing workshop. Now I sit, confined to the house due to a raging pandemic, and I’m reading her book. I would hate to be Cassandra; I’d hate to know the future. In fact I’d like to have the opposite. Be an animal, trapped in the present. I would’ve enjoyed that summer instead of worrying about the future, one I never would’ve been able to predict anyway.
That summer Natalie taught me about writing fiction. I was too starstruck, at the time, to read her book. She was effortlessly cool, boundlessly generosity. I accepted her cigarettes and smoked on the patio and stared at the sea. Whatever choices could get me back to that moment, over and over, that’s the life I wanted. Though my life has indeed changed (see: pandemic), those desires haven’t.
Ultimately I’m happy to have waited to read The Green Shore. The novel came into my life at just the right time. The relevant time. It’s a book about people living through massive political upheaval—emphasis on the living. With guilt and with anguish, they kept living. Because the toppling only affects people at certain points. The rest of us keep living.
It’s something I’ve thought about constantly the last four years. The pandemic is arguably the first time that we’ve all been affected by the Trump presidency at once. But others have been affected. It was easy, as we were living, to forget about them.
The characters in The Green Shore are Greek, so they don’t live quite as restfully as we comfortable Americans. They’re always fighting against the power; being sent to island prisons or locking themselves in universities. Protest is more a part of daily life and ethos in Greece; I admire it. In fact, I think the characters in this book would be on the streets now, as I write this, demanding that Nevada hurries up. Or at least Sophie would be—before she left for Paris.
The book follows a politically active family dealing with the decade-long military junta. The mother, Eleni, is a doctor. Her eldest, Sophie, has to leave Greece after following in her political poet uncle’s footsteps and protesting vehemently. Her son scurries goes off to America at the first opportunity (and I hate to say it, definitely becomes someone who loves the Orange One). Her youngest, Anna, had a journey that I was particularly transfixed by—she morphs from a quiet girl to a firebrand, and I bought it.
Reading the historical events had me Googling through the entire book. One of the details struck me. I knew that Greek islands were used as prisons for political prisoners, but actually reading of the reality of those islands was striking. The Greek islands retain a reputation of being a vacation bliss, with the intellectual aura as old as the Odyssey. It’s the seat of the good life, the place where the Mediterranean diet gives people unusually long life expectancies (hey there, Ikaria).
But they’ve also been used as prisons—adjacent to where people are vacationing. And they’ve been used as essentially holding pens for migrants, the ones who survive and aren’t drowned in the Mediterranean. The Green Shore forced me to interrogate my somewhat rosy picture of Greece after visiting for vacations. The islands, through another slant, are not beautiful—they’re barren, isolated. A place cut off from the world, where terrors can take place without witnesses. A testament to exile.
So yes, I went down those grim paths, got stung by a few thorns. But there were roses too. The relationships between characters were carefully drawn. I enjoyed that Eleni defied stereotypes of the Greek mother—she was hands off, allowing her kids to make their own decisions in the world (sometimes too hands off). Also interesting to see how she negotiated (and excused) having a boyfriend that leaned conservative for years. Reminded me of the few women I know who disagree with their boyfriends’ political leanings (and yes, I wonder how they do it).
While The Green Shore is a special book to me because of my connection to Greece and Natalie, this would’ve been a memorable read regardless. Historical fiction that’s grounded in eternally relevant dynamics and lyrical language. Sign! Me! Up!
Not sure what to read anymore? Are all of your days blending together in a gray blur, as if highlighters no longer had neon ink but dull? My “Read it in a Day” book recommendations are for whiling the day away.
Title: The Guest List Author: Lucy Foley, who has the kind of name I wish I had. Release Date: 2020 Reese’s Book Club edition Genre: Isolated island thriller Describe it in a sentence: A bunch of privileged guests with money and secrets gather on a gloomy Irish island for a wedding. TV/movie character who would like it: The cast of Lost, who would say, This is nothing!
Books about entrapment. Books where characters are dealing with the idea that there is no way out, no way off this ride. I bet it’s no surprise that books like this are particularly fascinating to me right now (cough: quarantine). I like seeing what happens to people, how their personalities change, when forces are closing in on them. I guess you could call them “claustrophobic books,” though they needn’t take place in elevators. It’s almost like they’re preparing me for what my life could be like this winter as the temperature drops lower and lower and I can’t leave (Lucy Foley let me know if you need inspo for a new horror novel).
Currently I’m reading Tina Brown’s brilliant biography of Princess Diana, called The Diana Chronicles. After the wedding, it sinks in that she’s really going to have to spend the rest of her life with these stodgy people and their stuffy rules, so old that dust would come up if you blew on ’em. Naturally, she freaks out.
The characters in The Guest List don’t have to spend the rest of their lives on that tiny island off the coast of Ireland, barely inhabitable. But they do have to spend the rest of their lives with themselves. And based on the revelations in this carefully plotted mystery novel, that’s enough of a shame. The setting, an island so small you can walk the circumference, separated from the mainland by a rough passage, complements the almost spiritual claustrophobia of secrets. They can’t run from themselves any longer.
The Guest List has whiffs of HBO’s Big Little Lies (rich people behaving badly, plus a timeline that goes back and forth) and Agatha Christie (a medley of voices, any of whom could be the killer). It’s the kind of book you can read in one day, and be happy you did—I was totally surprised by the ending, making the race to the finish worthy. OK, maybe not totally, but pretty much surprised. It still gave me that longed-for jolt of attention: I should’ve known!
Here’s the deal. This obnoxious couple insists on planning a destination wedding even though the destination is universally inconvenient for everyone, themselves included. They’re these kind of people: “But it’s all about the moment, a wedding. All about the day. It’s not really about the marriage at all, in spite of what everyone says.”
They want to have a “special” and “unique” wedding. Based on the baggage and secrets on both sides of the wedding party, their wedding would’ve been “special” and “unique” everywhere (and I use those words in exactly the tone you think I’m using them). But thanks to the rough terrain of the island that stormy night, the party becomes…dun-dun-dun: Homicidal.
Foley lets the story unfold in the voices of multiple characters (and potential victims and suspects): The bride, the plus one, the best man, the wedding planner, the bridesmaid, and the body. Foley’s writing flows effortlessly and easily—deceptively so. Since the characters are all speaking in first-person, if you read too fast, you might mss what they’re saying. Pay attention and it’s totally possible to see the ending coming toward you like headlights in the fog.
Naturally, I had to cast all of these characters. Except for the body—no spoilers. Here are my deranged castings:
The bride, Jules, is a media tycoon so I pictured her as Stella Bugbee from The Cut.
The plus one, Hannah, is skeptical of all of the people at the wedding. I saw her as the English actress Sarah Lancashire (Happy Valley).
Johnno is the best man. I imagined him as the mix of an ex and the actor Daniel Mays (who is in White Lines).
Olivia the Bridesmaid is absolutely Xanthippe from The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Dylan Nicole Gelula).
Aoife the wedding planner had to be someone foreboding and austere. She is Harriet Walker, queen of stern and sly old women.
The groom, Will, is smug TV host of an adventure show. I pictured him Jack Whitehall in hiking gear.
Charlie is Jules’s bestie. Due to the overwhelming stickiness of Lost, I can only picture people named Charle as Charlie from Lost.
I think I also liked this book because it was skeptical of all the same things I’m skeptical of: Namely, blowout weddings for couples who only just met. My antenna is always up when that happens IRL, but it was fun to have the chance to be freely judgmental. I guess that’s another lesser-acknowledged virtue of reading. Judge away. Characters can’t have their feelings hurt when you roll your eyes at them.
Are there any claustrophobic books that have spoken to your current situation? Or are you reaching for the opposite kind of book now—travelogues and escapist fantasies? Let me know!
Title: Love Medicine Author: Louise Erdrich, living goddess, who published her debut novel at age 29 Release Date: 2020 Genre: Instant classic Describe it in a sentence: The intertwining lives of two Ojibwe families on a reservation in North Dakota, narrated by different family members TV/movie character who would like it: Bear with me, but Noah and Helen of The Affair—a show about marital infidelity told through each character’s perspective.
It’s not every day that you read a book that reminds you of everything a book can be. Most of the time the books I read are confirmations of what I already know.
To put it bluntly, Love Medicine, Louise Erdrich’s first novel and the first one I read by Louise Erdrich, exploded the novel. Actually, I’m self-conscious of writing sentences down now, having seen all that Erdrich in her mid-twenties could do. I found myself nodding along the way you do when you see the truth repackaged in a new way.
Love Medicine is the start of a trilogy that follows the same families. It’s a polyphonic book, narrated by different characters, all of whom feel the repercussions of the others decisions. The novel breaks with form, retreading the same events through different lenses. Later Erdrich said she wrote her first novel this way because she didn’t know how to structure an entire book leaning on only one voice.
That surprises me, that this is an accident. Because the book seems masterful—far from a first-time novelist relying on gimmick. Sometimes it was hard to follow, but I decided to trust the characters; eventually, the story would come into focus. And it did (though families trees will help).
Take even the degree of differences between each narrator. The cadence of the sentences alters depending on who is telling the story. Language and syntax becomes a vessel for character—the unapologetic, matter-of-factness of Lulu Lamartine, mother of eight sons to different men; Lyman Lamartine as he watches his luck come and go in quick sentences. Characters seamlessly process the magical alongside the real, living in a reality that is abundant in possibility, if limited in opportunity.
It feels a bit silly, for that reason, to go into the plot details. You should let the Kashpaws, Lamartines, and co. tell it yourself. But this is the deal: In the opening scene, June Morrissey, a Chippewa woman, dies after an encounter in a remote mining town. She walks into the snow, and it feels, according to Erdirch’s narration, like going home. Or maybe it doesn’t feel like coming home—maybe it is. After reading Love Medicine, you may take indeed sentence—“The snow fell deeper that Easter than it had in forty years, but June walked over it like water and came home”—literally.
Later on, a character beautifully remarks on the thin boundary between life and death: “Your life feels different on you, once you greet death and understand your heart’s position. You wear your life like a garment from the mission bundle sale ever after—lightly because you realize you never paid nothing for it, cherishing because you know you won’t ever come by such a bargain again.”
Erdrich describes June’s death as a kind of home-going. Appropriate, because the entire book is concerned with home, with the reservation these people were born on, and live their lives on—bumping into the same people, the same ceilings of opportunity. Even when the characters aren’t home, they’re thinking of it.
Anyway, June’s character is refined via the narrative engine of the book: A love triangle between Nector Kashpaw and Lulu Lamartine, both Chippewas, and Marie Lazarre, a white 14-year-old who—after escaping a convent—meets Nector in a field. The drama begins when they’re teenagers, and never ends, only evolve.
And how could it end? Lulu, Marie, and Nector have no choice but to live through their connections as they change. Marie’s adopted grandson, one of the “strays” she takes in, comments on her relationship with Nector (who, by that point, is losing his mind to dementia but is lowkey carrying out an affair with Lulu). They’re both seniors, but are just as firey with each other—defying his expectation that older people are somehow more docile, somehow feel less.
“You see I thought love got easier over, the years so it didn’t hurt so bad when it hurt, or feel so good when it felt good. I thought it smoothed out and old people hardly noticed it. I thought it curled up and died, I guess. Now I saw it rear up like a whip and lash. She loved him. She was jealous. She mourned him like the dead. And he just smiled into the air, trapped in the seams of his mind,” Lipsha said.
This novel is about what happens when people live in close proximity, and simply never leave. There’s a fishbowl quality to it, like a long social experiment: What happens when you cordon people off into one geographic region, and watch their lives play out?
Then again, what the outside world holds might not be any better. Characters are ruined by war. By emotionally meaningless, but physically destructive, encounters with men. By poverty, injustice, and racism. On the reservation, you get the sense that at least characters are understood by one another. Because the world outside the reservation holds the people who made the concept of a reservation necessary at all.
Erdrich’s book is teeming with insight into life on a North Dakota reservation in the 20th century, and with plain ‘ol wisdom, including gems like this: “The greatest wisdom doesn’t know itself. The richest plan is not to have one.”
I’m so happy I read it—and so happy I let the powers of the aisle work their magic. The art of the wander.
While I loved it, Love Medicine came into my life completely by chance. Erdrich’s name was on that hazy list of authors whose work I hadn’t gotten to yet. During my first trip to the library stacks post-quarantine, I was overwhelmed with choice and possibility. It felt like staring at a timetable in an airport and instead of dreaming of boarding a plane to all those destinations, actually going to those destinations. Books are the closest thing I get to travel these days, and the emotional experience of this book was honestly akin to some of the immersive rushes I’ve had while walking alone down an foreign city’s street, seeing the familiar refracted through a new light.
Luckily, I happened to pick her first book, and the first in the trilogy. Now, I fully intend to dive into the Erdrich extended universe, which includes an array of stories—including one dystopia that looks delectable.
Have you read other books by Louise Erdrich? Let me know! I need help guiding my next read.
Title: One to Watch Author: Kate Stayman-London Release Date: 2020 Genre: Rom-com and reality TV revisionist history Describe it in a sentence: A plus-size blogger is chosen to be the equivalent of the Bachelorette, and the ugliest parts of America and dating are exposed TV/movie character who would like it: Honestly? Clare Crawley, because her age is stigmatized on this season of The Bachelorette
It happened in January of 2016, my induction into Bachelor Nation. I didn’t even think it would happen. I went into Ben Hiiggins’ season haughty and skeptical. Now, I am a believer—not only in the Bachelor and Bachelorette as a form of entertainment, but as a method of meeting a romantic partner.
I also believe the show reflects back the ugliest and most entrenched principles of our dating practices. Dating and love stories are often relegated to the women’s sphere (re: the frivolous and unimportant), but they are literally the engine with which society propagates itself. How we date, and interrogatiing guiding compasses people use while dating, are essential acts.
Which is why I appreciated One to Watch, Kate Stayman-London’s debut novel, so much. In addition to being a well-written book that I cut through like it was, say, melted honey (GO WITH IT), One to Watch made me think hard about love stories—and who, normally, gets to have them center stage.
Look, let’s get this out of the way: The contestants on the Bachelor and Bachelorette uniformly adhere to the Instagram standard of beauty, Barbies and Kens of the internet age, all polar white veneers and hungry eyes calculating the viability of a career selling products with spon-con.
The truth is, and an alien who landed on earth and learned about dating via the Bachelor never would get this, you do not have to be conventionally attractive to find love. Yep, extreme conventional beauty is not a prerequisite for love. I know! Shocking.
One to Watch does what I wish the Bachelor would: Opens up the casting of this love show to make the cast representative of real people, and show that real people are worth of love.
Not that Bea isn’t beautiful! She is. She’s a passionate fashion blogger, and the first-ever plus size contestant on The Main Squeeze (essentially The Bachelorette). But she’s not stick-thin. And when men exit the limo and see her, some can’t hide their shock, since the show has made displaying leads with a certain physique a constant as, say, palm trees in Miami.
The reason One to Watch‘s love story feels so earned is because it does go to dark places, like the men exiting the limo—Stayman-London doesn’t shy away from imagining the ugliness that might emerge from this situation. But she also shows the joy! Bea hasmultiple love “journeys,” to co-opt a Bachelorette term, and multiple (attractive) men who desire her, just like any other Bachelorette.
The book’s structure also provided a welcome break from the normal rom-com set-up, in that there were multiple suitors. I was honestly guessing which suitor she’d end up with (and reader, I guessed wrong). ALSO THERE IS A PERSON IN THIS BOOK WHOM I HATE VEHEMENTLY. And that is all I’ll say. But when I think of this character, I turn into a blazing flame-head. An Aries, and I’m a Cancer! OK, I can’t think about this guy, it’s bad for my health. But let me know when you get to him.
I could say this is the story of a woman learning to love herself. But Bea does love herself. It’s a story of a woman letting herself be loved, too, because society truly has done a number on many of us, in dictating who is worthy of love. Bea should not be surprised to learn that she is worthy of a partner who smiles when she walks in the room, and accepts her as she is. But she is—and so are you!
Read One to Watch for a charming and thought-provoking book. And if you’re a Bachelor Nation producer, read One to Watch for a re-imagining of where the show can go, and what it could be. Love isn’t limited to dress size in the real world. So why is it on TV?
Title: The Roommate Author: Rosie Danan, debut author! Go Rosie! Release Date: 2020 Genre: Rom-com with the lights dimmed and the softcore music playing Describe it in a sentence: A buttoned up WASP blows up her life and moves to L.A., where she learns her fetching new roommate is a…….porn star! TV/movie character who would like it: Rachel Bloom from Crazy Ex Girlfriend
Hello, friends, writers, readers, countrymen. It’s been a long time since I picked up my place in this blog. But that doesn’t mean I’ve been reading–I have been! A lot! What else is a person to do in a pandemic, aside from read, worry, take temperature, drink wine, and repeat? If you have an answer, let me know. (You can check out my full list of 2020 reads here).
Anyway, I wanted to add blogging and reviewing to my list of activities, hopefully to knock the anxiety-related ones off a pedastal.
An exceptionally long wind-up to my saying that The Roommate is one of many rom-coms and romances that have provided me with solace and companionship this year as my own romantic prospects have dwindled. These books, with their twists and turns really just currents leading me to a guaranteed happy endings, have been more than comfort food. They’ve been escape pods to a universe where things keep getting better, not worse. They’re full of people like Josh and Clara, the characters in The Roommate, who are flawed, yes, but undeniably decent.
The book’s premise is what drew me to The Roommate, ever since I heard about it a few months ago. I wouldn’t be surprised if it what draws everyone to The Roommate, actually. It’s provocative: What would it be like to date an adult performer? What would it be like to date as an adult performer?
I found the book’s cheery and wholesome tone to be at odds, occasionally, with the subject matter: I wanted more humor, more sharp prodding at the underlying tension between the characters and their positions on the Great American Pyramd. More Clara freaking out at watching Josh have sex with other women (or at least…broach the topic of jealousy at all!) MORE SEX. But more on that later.
Right, so, the premise: Clara Wheaton is a wealthy WASP from a family with Connecticut pedigree (as in, there are university buildings named after them). In a real Rachel Bloom from Crazy Ex Girlfriend move, she moves across the country to chase down her childhood crush, Everett Bloom, who has a spare room in L.A. Right after she arrives, Everett announces he’s moving, leaving Clara to live with the dimpled stranger he met off Craigslist (Note: I don’t know if he’s supposed to have dimples, but he has them in my head).
Enter: Josh Darling, the porn star with a sheen of Midwestern wholesomeness and a heart of gold. (I pictured him as Scott Porter from Friday Night Lights). When Clara learns that her roommate is an adult performer, and holds her breath in so tightly that eventually all of her tightly buttoned up cardigans start to pop.
Until she met Josh, Clara hadn’t given much thought to her own pleasure. Suddenly, it’s all she can think about. They’re both buzzing around at home, constantly horny and yearning, yet unable to give in to each other for different reasons (reminds me of quarantine, TBH).
Finally, these two hyperactive 20-somethings decide to funnel all that energy not into leaping into bed but into…forming a company to teach women to harness their pleasure (and ostensibly give men a GPS to find the clitoris). Their company, Shameless, comes together in rom com-level warp speed, skipping past all the questions I had about logistics. I wanted to know what the product was, its specific pricing, and how they intended to be profitable, okay!
For a book abut embracing pleasure the two characters sure do a good job of denying themselves pleasure constantly. Part of this is for the same reason that allows rom-coms (or most of them) to work: None of This Would Happen If You Just Talked To Each Other Honestly. Lots of miscommunications. But ultimately, they’re able to function despite constantly thudding into a wall of lust.
Here’s the thing.
As someone who has been in a dangerously complicated romanic entanglement with a roommate, I can speak on ths.
The situation is IS A LOT MORE AGONIZING IN REAL LIFE than t’s depicted as being in The Roommate. I needed more torture and high-temperature than I got in The Roommate.Especially given their different positions in life.
This might be a good segue for me to say that I didn’t quite buy them as a couple, Josh and Clara. OR, I would’ve bought them, if Josh and Clara had spent more time actually working out their relationship. Namely, he’s a porn star; she’s an Uptown Girl. I needed them to talk about those things. Not sing the equivalent of a Billy Joel song about it and walk into the sunset.
There’s a place where Danan should’ve slowed down and simmered: The couple’s main conflict at the end. Clara publicly denies that Josh is her boyfriend, because she’s ashamed, because he’s a porn star. Eventually, the conversation gets buttoned up—but without the soul-level excavation of societal programming, gender roles, etc. that’s necessary for them to meet on an even playing field of mutual understanding.
I wanted them to talk about finances, and class, and perception, and privilege, and shame—and how all those filtered into pleasure/female pleasure, their favorite topic of conversation. Talk about why Clara never felt that pleasure was something that should be on her checklist (marrying well, instead, was). And why Josh turned to porn instead of a PhD in art history, when he was aimless (he doesn’t have a trust fund).
Then, once they get together as a couple, I wanted to see them deal with bridging those gaps. That, to me, is the fun. Not only the getting together. The working out, too. An example of a romance novel that does the “working out” bit excellently and convincingly For Real by Alexis Hall. The couple, both men, are about 15 years apart—and their age and wealth gap are grappled with throughout the novel. Since they “get together” (ie sleep together) much sooner than Josh and Clara in The Roommate, this couple has time to, well, talk. Their heads aren’t always buzzing with desire.
The premise of The Roommate book is fascinating, as I stated. Inherent to Josh and Clara’s relationship is a lot to figure out, and a lot to teach each other. I wanted to watch them start the process, at least, of figuring out how this relationship would work in the real world—and maybe I would’ve bought them as a couple more. And bought the scene of Clara’s Greenwich parents having Thanksgiving with Josh (THAT is a conversation I needed to see, especially given her need for their approval!)
Do I sound like a fun sucker? I’m sorry if so. The book was a romp and an optimistic page-turner. I appreciated the characters’ definition of “love” as a kind of freedom to be yourself, and be wholly accepted. I totally recommend it for a feminist take on the porn industry, and a rosy portrayal of what could be in adult entertainment.
The Roommate is a worthy read—after all, it’s always a joy to watch women unravel into puddles of pleasure after reigning themselves in for so long. Sort of like Sandy from Grease, though I could never tell if she wanted to be a Greaser or if she was just changing for Danny.
Whether Clara changed for Josh or because of Josh (and I think it’s the latter), I’m happy it happened. Another woman who learns to exhale, sink into her body, and enjoy her life. Even if she and Josh don’t work out (WHICH I KNOW isn’t the point of the book), I think she’ll remember that lesson in Greenwich.
Title: 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.
Title: 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.
I read 102 books in 2018, or at least that’s what my Goodreads count added up to. That’s not including the half-devoured books — books with a chapter to go piled up next to my bed (it’s a bad habit), books I only tasted for work so I had a feeling for prose, books I decided not to give my hours to anymore.
It’s hard for me to describe just HOW instrumental books have been this year, and all my life. Sometimes I mistake books for my life. Like, some of my best memories of 2018 have been reading. In the week between Christmas and New Years, I spent an hour a day reading next to the Christmas tree. I deliberately forced myself to put down my work and dive into my novel. Reading a novel is useful leisure time. The world expands, gets fuller with each word. What other activity can compare?
2018 was full of changes. Most of them hard. I’ll say: Books kept me stable. When life was too much, I got to live someone else’s. Of course, there’s always a balance between choosing the books I really, really want to read for fun and the books I have to read for work (the chic books of 2018, etc). Sometimes I ache for the days of my past when I read eclectically and according to whims. But then I pinch myself and say: I CAN’T BELIEVE THIS IS MY JOB!! I can’t believe I get to INTERVIEW AUTHORS for work! It’s a dream, through and through. So I ended up “keeping up” with the books of 2018, big time. Plugged into the discourse.
So, without further ado: Here are some of the highlights, and what I thought.
Ninety-nine Glimpses of Princess Margaretby Craig Brown: We’re allowed to write biographies with such narrative freedom? Brown interweaves biographical details about Princess Margaret with gossip, imaginative musings, and my favorite of them all — a recounting of the time Margaret commissioned a plane to fly around some old poet’s house (I don’t remember who!!) in a variety of different forms, from haiku to sonnet. WHO DOES THAT?! Craig Brown does, my friends. A must read for anyone who loves snark and The Crown. Though admittedly, as an American, some of these British customs were blisteringly foreign to me (aka royalty in general!!)
Going Clearby Lawrence Wright: I thought Scientology was scary before I read this book. Now I know it’s much scarier than scary.
Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer: In order to explain how two fundamentalist Mormon men decided to murder their sister in law and her baby — and justify it as being a directive from God — Krakauer brilliantly situates the crime within the framework of Mormonism. I learned so much about this American-grown religion. This should be taught in high schools!
Bad Bloodby John Carreyrou: Make this a movie, now.
Vanishing Twins by Leah Dieterich: Will be pressing this lyrical, freakin’ BRILLIANT memoir about love, commitment, marriage, preserving a sense of self in a relationship, into everyone’s hands, forever.
Future Perfectby Victoria Loustalot: Victoria, like me, is prone to hoping that psychics are real. The main difference: She writes a book about her experience with psychics, I just putz around and go to psychics.
The Ghost Photographer by Julie Rieger: Rieger, a top executive at 20th Century Fox, documents her journey into the world of spirits and ghost encounters, which began after her mother passed away. It’s rare to read a book written with such humor and warmth and complete lack of pretension. When Julie writes about the “other realm,” you want to believe her. This book inspired me to start my own exploratory journey. For a taste, check out my juicy interview with her.
Eurydice Street by Sofka Zinovieff: I struggled to read this book for a selfish reason: Zinovieff so perfectly captured the rhythm and quirks of Greece that my heart actually hurt, I missed it so much. Did I look up plane tickets while reading it? Did I consider abandoning my life to move there? Won’t answer, but you can guess.
Calypso by David Sedaris: We are not worthy of his humor. Thank you for sharing your family with us, Dave.
I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell: WHY DIDN’T THIS BOOK MAKE YEAR END LISTS?! In fact, the fact that it didn’t makes me doubt year-end lists even more than I already do; the subjectiveness and myopia that goes into each one. O’Farrell describes her 17 “brushes with death” with real even-keeled attitude, even though it’s freakin’ terrifying. The book sent me into an existential crisis. It also made me seize my own seconds.
Unwifeable by Mandy Stadtmiller: Grateful that Mandy shared such an intimate account of her difficult childhood, her rollicking 30s as a newly single woman documenting her dating life for the NY Post, and her addiction problems. She manages to do it all with such humor. I’d know – she was a hoot to talk to.
Small Fry by Lisa Brennan Jobs: You should read this book. But a warning: You won’t ever want to use your iPhone again.
Dead Girls by Alice Bolin: Threw the book across the room bc Alice Bolin’s brain was so electrifying that I couldn’t process it.
And Now We Have Everything by Meaghan O’Connell: If you are a woman or know women, read this book about motherhood (and childbirth – one of the most shocking hours of my life was spent reading O’Connell’s meticulous description of her difficult childbirth). Was so floored I had to interviewinterview her.
Stealing the Showby Joy Press: Takeaway: The women who revolutionized TV also revolutionized culture.
The Ensemble by Aja Gable: Best friendship novel of 2018. There, I said it.
The Incendiaries by RO Kwon: Read it twice. Liked it even more the second time. One must respect sentences like this, sentences that have been wrested and fused together like each was some deliberate piece of art. The prose is a puzzle — Kwon has worked on it for TEN YEARS to make sure it all fit together.
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee: I loved the characters in this sprawling, epic novel so much I considered going to Japan to visit their graves (yes, I know they are fictional)
The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid: Dying film star Evelyn Hugo promises to tell her life story to a journalist; readers around the world cannot shut book until they find out which of her husbands was her favorite (it’s not who you think it’ll be)
The Friend by Sigrid Nunez: Read this because it won the National Book Award. I can imagine Nunez in a one-bedroom apartment writing away, not letting the hype get to her. I met a Great Dane the other day and couldn’t stop thinking about the narrator in this book, as if she were real. Loneliness is not a glamorous topic for a book, but man, is it a pillar in so many lives. The Beatles asked where all the lonely people come from; read this book to learn.
The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides: Took this thriller (out in January) on vacation. The ending was gasp-worthy.
Rules of Civility by Amor Towles: What a GORGEOUS gem of a book. What a narrator to admire, with pluck and heroism and the perfect amount of social climber instinct to make for an adventure. The book ended with a quote that will haunt me forever: “In our twenties, when there is still so much time ahead of us, time that seems ample for a hundred indecisions, for a hundred visions and revisions—we draw a card, and we must decide right then and there whether to keep that card and discard the next, or discard the first card and keep the second. And before we know it, the deck has been played out and the decisions we have just made will shape our lives for decades to come.”
Less by Andrew Sean Greer: Thank god he won the Pulitzer and someone recognized that humor is a form of brilliance.
Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn: As always, when I’m reading Flynn, I wonder what she would be like at a dinner party. And if I could sit across from her, knowing that she was capable of coming up with these twisted women, and wonder if she would interpret my mannerisms and verbal ticks as some kind of dark language of the subconscious.
Bowlaway by Elizabeth McCracken: A. perfect. novel. THE PERFECT NOVEL. I will read it, and reread it. And then go read The Giant’s House, her book which I read WAY too young and led me by the hand into the gorgeous possibilities of adult fiction.
The Age of Light by Whitney Scharer: All hail Lee Miller, the model turned war photographer at the heart of this fascinating work of historical fiction. She’s my new role model.
Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss: Sometimes you read a book and are reminded of how unbelievably smart humans can be; Ghost Wall is one of those. Moss essentially captures the entire pattern of human history in 180 pages describing an experimental archaeology trip to Northumbria. Just go with it.
Golden Child by Claire Adam: Read this for your book club. Get prepared to argue.
The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins: A magical, Gaiman-esque book about a library that contains all the knowledge of the universe and none of the universe’s rules. Haven’t lost myself in a book like this since I was 7 and reading Harry Potter, maybe.
NOS4A2 by Joe Hill: A real thought I had while reading this: “Wow! I love books with plot!!!!!” Joe Hill is funny and witty and scary as all hell. What are you doing? Go buy one of his books!
Elevation by Stephen King: Since I loved his son’s book so much, I decided to read some Stephen King. Sorry! I like Joe Hill more!!!
The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh: Best feminist dystopia yet.
The Falconer by Dana Czapnik: Oh, to be 18, oh to think in long-winded spools of philosophy, oh to be idealistic, oh to have unrequited crushes. I ached.
The Arrangement by Sonya Lalli: As she nears 30, a woman contemplates actually going through with an arranged marriage. I liked the way Lalli weighed two different approaches to marriage and didn’t say that one was necessarily better than the others.
The Witch Elm by Tana French: Considering what a mess Toby was, I’m surprised I enjoyed spending 600 pages in his head.
Melmoth by Sarah Perry: This book was full of fascinating modern explorations of mythology. Melmoth is a woman who bears witness to the most evil of humanity. Perry cleverly interweaves linear narrative with primary documents about Melmoth encounters. This is the kind of haunting story that would’ve terrified me as a kid. Melmoth, hissing over your shoulder.
My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite: What a fresh new voice. Really dark but also really witty, satirical, clever. Hard to distill the tone of this book. Which is why it is better read than described.
The Auctioneer by Joan Samson: Written in the ’70s. A crazed outsider comes to this quiet New Hampshire town and makes everyone start giving away their belongings in an auction to support the town’s police squad. Prescient read.
Dare Me by Megan Abbott: cheerleaders don’t talk like this in real life
Give Me Your Hand by Megan Abbott: Now THIS Abbott I loved loved loved.
Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver: I see both sides of the argument about this book. Kingsolver (like Meg Wolitzer in the female persuasion) definitely doesn’t look at the world’s changes as a young person would, but also, how could she?
That Kind of Mother by Rumaan Alam: REBECCA, you gotta wake up!! That’s what you’ll be thinking throughout Alam’s book about a privileged white woman raising her nanny’s black son, written in close third-person.
Before She Sleeps by Bina Shah: Bina Shah told me in an interview that for her, growing up in Pakistan, The Handmaid’s Tale reflected much of her reality. She created a feminist dystopia rooted in her own soil.
Strike Your Heart by Amelie Nothomb: Finished this book over the course of a train ride. It sunk its talons in me and BAM, I knew I was reading a dark gem.
Crudo by Olivia Laing: The only book I’ve read that captures the whirr and terror of the present day.
Praise Song for the Butterflies by Berenice L. McFadden: Maybe the most important book I read in 2018. It’s hard to believe this practice is real, but it is: The main character is sold as a ritual slave to help balance her family’s “luck.”
Open Me by Lisa Locascio: A girl’s sexual awakening IS fodder for a novel!!! I love books that respect young girls as independent, important people!
How to Be Famous by Caitlin Moran: ^^repeat the above, just add a TON of sentences so funny I laughed out loud. Real talk? This wry, kind-hearted book about a precocious 19-year-old forging her way in the male-dominated world of ’90s music journalism while nursing a crush for a rock star in was, quite simply, the reading highlight of my year. I swooned through every passage of young love. Caitlin Moran remembers those years!
The Pisces by Melissa Broder: Underlined so much of this; all of the narrator’s ramblings about the kind of love that sets you on fire; the kind of emotionally vivid life that feels realer than the calmer, but inevitably duller, life of stable. With that in mind, it’s understandable why our protagonist embarks on an all-consuming romance with a merman. It’s something else.
Putney by Sofka Zinovieff: In this book, Zinovieff nimbly unpacks a terribly thorny topic: The affair between a young girl and her older family friend, and how memories change over the years.
Severence by Ling Ma: Part end of world account; part workplace comedy; all brilliant.
If You Leave Me by Crystal Hana Kim: WAAHHH y u have to be so sad!
Rough Animals by Rae Delbianco: A gritty western about characters who don’t live on the edge — they live outside society, on ranches, in open fields, where the rules are of their own making. Rae herself is SO inspiring.
The Light We Lost by Jill Santopolo: Truly, I wish I could change the fates of these characters.
Hey Ladies: Buy this for your friends.
Social Creature by Tara Isabella Burton: Congratulated myself every time I recognized one of the shiny, spectacular New York locales Burton’s two characters, locked in a twisted friendship, visited. Tara and I spoke about why Social Creature is the perfect book for the summer of cons.
The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang: In the year 2018, we got a sexy, sexyYyyYy book about a woman on the autism spectrum finding love with the male prostitute she tried to help teach her how to have sex. Love. Hoang spoke to Refinery29 about her own autism diagnosis.
Kudos by Rachel Cusk: One day, in the far future, Rachel Cusk will be considered a Queen of the English Language.
Transit by Rachel Cusk: See above.
Florida by Lauren Groff: Read the “Midnight Zone” three times and I still haven’t stopped thinking about its implications — that danger is all around us, that we are the danger.
The Bellesby Dhonielle Clayton: Beauty is a prison!! Dhonielle Clayton’s new YA series examines appearances like my favorite series The Uglies did, but especially how women are expected to be slaves to beauty. And the characters in these books are slaves – that dawning realization shook me.
Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi: A star is born. I had the pleasure of speaking to Tomi RIGHT before she became a straight up celeb.
You Think It, I’ll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld: She creates characters who are so easy to judge and skewer – but you know she’d judge and skewer you just as ruthlessly. Speaking to Sittenfeld was naturally a life highlight.
The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer: I would’ve read a whole novel about Cory, but that’s it.
Circe by Madeline Miller: If you had to create My Ideal Book in a lab, it would be this: Literary but fast-moving feminist myth retelling. A feminist odyssey for the ages.
Asymmetryby Lisa Halliday: God, just read this book. Unexpected. Off kilter. Sentences so gleaming I think of them today.
Awayland by Ramona Ausubel: Beautiful short stories! Off-kilter, imaginative, unforgettable.
Emergency Contact by Mary HK Choi: First of all, Mary is BRILLIANT and one of my favorite interviews. She got me so inspired to commit myself to pursuing my dreams. Anyway — her debut book captured the way we communicate now, through small bubbles sent over phones. More importantly, she emphasizes how falling in love over texts is a perfectly valid and understandable path today. It’s almost an epistolary age.
99% Mine by Sally Hawkins: SWOOOON! Big, capable men fixing up houses is SUCH a type; it is clearly such a type of mine, too (and the main character’s)
The Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory: SWOON, except for the part about being stuck in an elevator. Since I adored Jasmine’s books so much this year, I spoke to her about them.
Girls Burn Brighter by Shobha Rao: A life composed of unimaginable tribulations, strung together in close proximity. The book follows two best friends in their journeys out of their tiny Indian village; one by running away, one by marriage. Girls Burn Brighter honors women’s resilience, but also highlights the unfair structures that cause them to need that resilience in the first place.
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones: An American Marriage twisted me up, as it was supposed to.
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas: Finally got around to reading the YA sensation. Now will foist this incendiary book about police violence, code switching, growing up amid hate and fighting it with love, upon everyone.
The Book of M by Peng Shepherd: Was downright stunned by this magnificently plotted end-of-the-world novel, perfect for fans of Station Eleven.
What We Were Promised by Lucy Tan: The kind of book you wish you could intervene in, help the characters out. Sure, they’re in an expensive high-rise Hong Kong apartment. BUT ARE THEY HAPPY?!
Title: My Sister, the Serial Killer Author: Oyinkan Braithwaite
Genre: Feminist satirical slasher (perhaps the best niche genre)
Describe it in a sentence: A Nigerian woman’s extremely beautiful younger sister lures men into her web then slaughters them, leaving the woman to clean up her messes. TV/movie character who would like it: Oh, this one is easy – the women in Killing Eve would eat this book UP. Eve probably reads serial killer fiction just for fun, because she’s an obsessive person and can’t leave work at home. Villanelle probably read the book and smirked at Ayoola’s sloppiness. Amateur.
I’ll admit it. I was compelled to read My Sister, the Serial Killer entirely because of the title and the cover. Clearly, the individuals at Doubleday marketing this book knew how to draw me, a millennial 20-something, into its pages. That girl! She just IS the epitome of cool. She looks at a nearby act of violence with an unreadable Mona Lisa smile. Whereas I would be screaming and calling for the police/Oprah to save me, she seems confident that she’ll be all right. How come? And then the title! Her sister — the serial killer? What! Clearly, the narrator has either an obsession or a reluctant amount of affection for her sister. I needed to know more.
The novel is structured around one hell of a conundrum. Korede is a Nigerian woman whose life has been defined by responsibility. She’s a nurse. She’s always doing the right thing. She’s meticulous AF. All of these traits come in handy when it comes to cleaning up her younger sister Ayoola’s messes, of which there are many. Ayoola is strikingly beautiful, frivolous, lacking in foresight — and in empathy. She gets a TON of attention from men and has grown to loathe them for it. It seems like Ayoola thinks of men as pitiable cockroaches not in control of their instincts. She has to kill them. Normally, Korede is able to separate herself from Ayoola’s victims. Then, Ayoola starts sidling up to a doctor at Korede’s hospital — and suddenly, Korede’s conscious is flaring up. Can she let Ayoola rack up another victim? Korede’s split between loyalties and laws.
Obviously, there’s a rational way to refute the entire premise of this book. Many of you might be thinking, Korede’s crazy! Why is she protecting her serial killer sister?! That is a good question. Obviously, Braithwaite comes up with a plot device that sort of explains it. But it’s never wholly explained. Korede often wants to sabotage her sister. She wants to sell her out. Ultimately, I liked how open-ended and morally ambiguous all the characters are. Here’s a woman who abides by the rules in every way, then uses that instinct to create a system of rules that protects her own rule-breaking sister — just because she loves her sister more than she loves a corrupt, patriarchal society. Humph!! *insert thoughtful emoji here.*
My Sister, the Serial Killer falls squarely into the category of Cathartic Reads. If you’re a woman in America today, you might be turning to food, reality TV, foot massages, long baths, or shutting off all electronics for the duration of the weekend in order to cope with the sad fact that many men do not care about your pain. For some reason, this week, more than many that have come before in the duration of the MeToo movement, has sent me hurtling back into past relationships with men. I’ve been rereading minor instances of dismissal and condescension for what they are — symptoms of an ingrained lack of regard for my experiences and expertise when it came to verbalizing that experience. Ayoola dealt with this in her own way.
This is a book about female rage, about revenge, about sticking it to the man (literally). It’s also about the knottiness of sisterhood, those knots that are tied just by the fact that you grow up in the same circumstances and thus will be bound to each other forever. Even if Korede turned Ayoola in, she’d still be her sister. She’d be the sister who betrayed her own sister. (For a book about siblings betraying other siblings, check out Astrid Holleeder’s electrifying memoir Judas, about her decision to testify against her crime lord brother.).
My Sister, the Serial Killer book balances gory plot with thoughtful implications. If only ALL books could be this fun and this thought-provoking!