Letter from the Editor:
Happy 2021! I hope your reading year has begun on a good foot; if not, there are still eleven months to sink your teeth into delicious literature!
The very first book I read this year was Garfield Sits at Home (#7), a comic strip book. I think I find that cynical, chunky feline even funnier as an adult now that I “manage” two cats of my own, who both certainly have distinct attitudes. After that first booklet, I read two more Garfield collections because that was exactly what I needed at the beginning of this month.
Aside from misadventures in Jon’s household, I’ve also read a few other incredible books, which I’m excited to write about! In today’s issue of Bookish Brains, I’m discussing Luster by Raven Leilani, Take a Hint, Dani Brown by Talia Hibbert, In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado, and Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi, as well as my current reads The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune and The Shining by Stephen King.
Moving forward, I plan to publish these issues of Bookish Brains on the last Friday of every month and use the opportunity to summarize the month’s reading. Hope you enjoy!
The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune
I am currently listening to the audiobook for The House in the Cerulean Sea through Libby. While I originally thought this was aimed at a young adult audience, I’ve realized that it’s honestly a book for all ages. It’s a fantasy novel in which the main character, Linus Baker, is a forty-year-old case worker for magical orphanages. He’s the type of man who frequently reads his company’s rules and regulations and lives according to order. When his company sends him to the Marsyas Island Orphanage on a mysterious month-long case, Linus’s understanding of the world is turned upside down. Among the children at this house are a gnome named Talia, a tentacled bellhop-in-training Chauncey, and the “anti-Christ” sweetly referred to as Lucy. The orphanage’s headmaster Arthur bonds with Linus and encourages him to deconstruct his prejudices towards magical beings and open his eyes to the real harm his company may be causing.
I’m about 56% through this 12-hour audiobook, and the narrator is doing a wonderful job embodying the unique voices of each character. I’m finding it charming and ambitious, and I plan to finish it before the end of the month. As I’m listening, I keep thinking of how this would make an amazing animated film! It truly lends itself to a wide audience, as the main characters are adults, yet the cast of characters are children. In terms of fantasy, it’s quite “light,” so if you’re new to the genre this should ease you in nicely!
The Shining by Stephen King
I’m a whopping 36 pages into this novel at the time I type this, and somehow I think I’m going to finish it before February? We’ll see–apparently, I have high hopes for my time management.
The Shining is certainly one of King’s most popular books, so you probably already know what this is about. Jack, his wife, and his son move into a hotel during the winter to take care of the grounds on its off-season, but of course, strange things are afoot in the hotel. Many years ago I watched the movie, but I’ve heard that the reading experience is much richer; after reading and watching Misery last year, I can see this being true (the movie left out a lot of the book, although it is an adequate adaptation and the actors were amazing). Even though I’ve only just begun it, it’s already getting really creepy, so I know I’m in for a wild ride!
Luster by Raven Leilani
- Published 2020
- 227 pages
After my week of reading Garfield, I decided to pick up Luster. This novel is narrated by a 23-year-old woman named Edie who lives in Bushwick, NY and works a dull admin job. Through a dating app, she meets Eric, who is an older white man whose wife Rebecca has agreed to an open marriage–with rules. The two of them begin dating, but then Rebecca changes her mind, and their relationship becomes a complicated and clandestine on/off affair. But then Edie loses her job, and her apartment, and in an interesting turn of events, Rebecca invites her to live with them in their house while Eric is out of town. During her stay, Edie tries to bond with their adopted daughter Akila, as well as struggles with her painting, her identity, and her loneliness.
I found the writing in this book to be very compelling–Edie has a melancholy, rambling style of narration. There was also an interesting and nuanced power dynamic throughout this, Eric being an older white man and Edie a younger Black woman. The relationships are very peculiar, and sometimes a bit unbelievable, but I appreciated how the narrator depicted these challenging situations. There were a lot of scenarios which felt similar to ones that appear in Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams and Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid, which is not to say that this is a copy of either of those, but there were a lot of parallel experiences (although I prefer Luster to either of those).
The ending left me pensive, though, and I wasn’t sure what to make of the book, necessarily. Overall, I liked it a lot and there was some really sharp writing in it. Even though Edie was quite somber, I still felt really empathetic for her, and I ended up rating this book quite highly.
Take a Hint, Dani Brown by Talia Hibbert
- Fiction / Adult Romance
- Published in 2020
- 10 h ? m
Last month I listened to this book’s prequel, Get a Life, Chloe Brown (read my review here), and thankfully I was able to listen to this audiobook through Libby soon after that. I said I liked Chloe’s audiobook narrator, but I liked Dani’s narrator even more!
Danika Brown is Chloe’s younger sister, and her story tells the tale of her fake relationship with the hunky security guard Zafir Ansari. Dani is a woman who knows what she wants: academic and professional success and no-strings-attached sex. She’s decided that relationships are not for her, and after she has a falling out with her sex partner Jo, Dani experiences a “dry spell” and asks the universe to send her a new friend-with-benefits using her witchy know-how. So when a routine workplace fire drill catches Dani off-guard and Zafir has to rescue her from a stalled elevator, Dani sees it as a sign–especially when a photo of that moment goes viral and they are thrust together in a fake relationship. This friends-to-lovers romance is a playful, emotional, and sexy story about two passionate individuals who must figure out if their “fake” relationship is perhaps very real.
Talia Hibbert is the romance expert. In this novel, she has once again succeeded at creating natural and witty banter, healthy boundaries and emotional intimacy, well-rounded and lovable characters, and steamy sex scenes. Is it a bit cheesy? Of course. But that’s why we read romance: for the characters to find love together. The audiobook was a treat to listen to and I cannot wait for the third Brown sister’s novel Act Your Age, Eve Brown to come out later this year!
In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado
- Published 2019
- 247 pages
Before I read this book, I had seen its writing highly praised by several of the reviewers I follow on the internet, and I was not disappointed! This memoir begins with the author addressing the lack of an “archive” regarding abusive same-sex relationships. Machado explains that, because the people in power ultimately make the decision on which voices get to endure, many times queer voices have been misinterpreted or erased altogether. Because of this, there are not many literary works that exist which describe this very real experience.
Thus, this memoir, while an account of likely the darkest time in her life, is important because it contributes Machado’s perspective to that limited archive. In the Dream House’s fragmented “narrative” focuses on Machado’s experience with an emotionally abusive same-sex partner during her 20’s. To contextualize her situation and flesh out her story, Machado draws from past media pieces (such as the 1940 film Gaslight) and literary works (for example, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Bluebeard) which are interspersed throughout the book. She uses footnotes pointing to the Thompson Motif-Index of Folk-Literature to add yet another layer to her tale, and she makes sharp stylistic decisions like refraining from naming her abuser (always “she” or “the girlfriend”) and makes a distinction between her current self and abused self by switching from “I” to “you.”
I found this exploration into Machado’s past intelligent, emotional, and concise, and I appreciated it for its experimental and self-aware nature. The execution was not unlike Alison Bechdel in her fantastic graphic memoirs Fun Home and Are You My Mother?, both which I recommend if you have enjoyed In the Dream House (or vice versa).
My single critique is that perhaps Machado could have driven home the theme of the “dream house” a bit more explicitly in the prose of the ending. In her defense, she heads every chapter with the phrase “Dream House as _____,” and not only does she refer to her abuser’s house in Bloomington, Indiana as the Dream House but she alludes to how memoirs and the memory are themselves a form of architecture. However, because I’m a stickler for powerful endings, I would have liked a sentence or two bringing it all together with a nod to the title.
That being said, I gave this book 5 out of 5 stars on Goodreads! I know there are many people who have disliked this book for the very same reasons that I loved it, but I loved reading this and I love the level of introspection and research that went into creating it.
Watch my review on YouTube!
Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi
- Published 2020
- 264 pages
In this novel, Gifty is a candidate for postdoc and studying neuroscience in California when her mother, suffering from a debilitating bout of depression, comes to stay with her. While taking care of her aging mother, Gifty begins to explore their traumatic past, slipping into memories of her childhood in Alabama. Her parents had immigrated to the States from Ghana to have Gifty’s older brother Nana, and while her mother never looked back, her father’s longing ultimately led him to abandon them and return to Ghana before she really had the chance to know him. When she was a child, Gifty would often write journal entries to God, and once Nana began abusing drugs, the writing becomes more troubled until ultimately his death causes her to relinquish religion and her writing. She then turns to science to search for the answers to life and drug addiction that she seeks.
The way Gyasi seamlessly interwove so many different complicated themes and issues astounded me–drug addiction, depression, religion, racism, cultural differences, trauma, grief, neuroscience, all of which is illustrated and pondered throughout this book. I cried at how raw and heartbreaking drug addiction is, and how so many people are affected by it. The writing was exact and emotional.
My main critique is that the ending felt a bit rushed to me–we receive closure, but I would have honestly preferred another thirty pages of story. But that’s just me being greedy! Loved this book so much; I can’t wait to read the author’s other work, Homegoing!
Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin
My partner gifted me a partial anthology of James Baldwin’s works, so for Black History Month I’m going to be reading Giovanni’s Room. Last year, I read my first novel by him, If Beale Street Could Talk and found it phenomenal.
This novel is about an American in Paris who apparently describes his frustrations with other men, with a special focus on a man called Giovanni who he meets at a gay bar. I have high expectations for this and I’m sure I won’t be let down.
March by John Lewis
This trilogy comic series is an autobiographical work narrated from the perspective of John Lewis during the Civil Rights movement. I bought two of these comics for my partner for Christmas, so because February is Black History Month it seems appropriate for me to read them. He’s read the first book so far and highly recommends it, so I’m looking forward to this!
How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps her House by Cherie Jones
Summary from Barnes and Noble: Told from multiple points of view, this captivating debut highlights the disparities and complex relationships between the rich tourists in Barbados and poor locals who struggle with crime, violence, and grief in a tropical paradise. Jones skillfully paints a portrait of colorful characters and their struggle and sacrifice for a good life. An arresting setting, a sophisticated plot, and a whole lot of heart all combine to make How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House both a fast-paced and intimate read. Cherie Jones is one to watch.
Release date: January 5, 2021
Genre: Literary Fiction
My Year Abroad by Chang-Rae Lee
Summary from Penguin: Tiller is an average American college student with a good heart but minimal aspirations. Pong Lou is a larger-than-life, wildly creative Chinese American entrepreneur who sees something intriguing in Tiller beyond his bored exterior and takes him under his wing. When Pong brings him along on a boisterous trip across Asia, Tiller is catapulted from ordinary young man to talented protégé, and pulled into a series of ever more extreme and eye-opening experiences that transform his view of the world, of Pong, and of himself.
In the breathtaking, “precise, elliptical prose” that Chang-rae Lee is known for (The New York Times), the narrative alternates between Tiller’s outlandish, mind-boggling year with Pong and the strange, riveting, emotionally complex domestic life that follows it, as Tiller processes what happened to him abroad and what it means for his future. Rich with commentary on Western attitudes, Eastern stereotypes, capitalism, global trade, mental health, parenthood, mentorship, and more, My Year Abroad is also an exploration of the surprising effects of cultural immersion—on a young American in Asia, on a Chinese man in America, and on an unlikely couple hiding out in the suburbs. Tinged at once with humor and darkness, electric with its accumulating surprises and suspense, My Year Abroad is a novel that only Chang-rae Lee could have written, and one that will be read and discussed for years to come.
Release date: February 2, 2021
Genre: Literary Fiction
Thank you so much for reading! Check out all the issues of Bookish Brains here!