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Books in Review
The books at the top of the conversation aren't always the ones that deserve to be there. And, book recommendations!
Hey! Happy Shot Day! Before we begin, a note on the regularity of this newsletter: Shot days happen once a week. They are supposed to be on the same day, but I always forget or I procrastinate or I do a combination of both. In honor of that, this newsletter will come out every week, but the day will vary. It’s a bit chaotic, but it’s who I am.
Okay! Great! Here’s the words part of the newsletter, then.
I can’t claim that I’ll be talking or writing about publishing if I’m not also going to talk and write about books, so I’ll be devoting a certain amount of space and time to that going forward. I also run a very modest (but fun!) Bookstagram that I try to update regularly, and I couldn’t resist buying this notebook to keep track of the books I’ve read this year. I also use Storygraph, a brilliant invention, and of course Libby for all my library audio and e-books. I could write an entire post on the beauty and necessity of libraries, and I probably will, but not here - we’re going in a different direction and I am going to do my best to stick to the plot.
I’ve read countless books this summer - but a good bulk of those are manuscripts that may not ever become books, or may not become books for years, so in a way they don’t fully count (at least, for me). But there have been some truly standout published books that I’ve gotten the chance to read this summer, and one of the best things about reading a bunch of books is getting to recommend them, or dissuade people from them, once you’re finished.
This Week’s Recommendations:
Two of the three of these books have made big names for themselves - lots of buzz from other wonderful authors, reviews rolling in the week before and the day of pub day, and so I read them partially out of curiosity for their content, and partially out of my ever-growing desire to understand what makes a book worth the big publicity all hands on deck that goes on behind the scenes at publishing houses. Who lives, who dies, that kind of thing (in terms of the books, no real deaths as far as I know). These are the books I recommend as we finish out August. Another quick note here before we dive in: these are just three of the roughly 20 full MS/books that I’ve read this month. I’ve chosen them in part because they are some of my most recent reads, and also because they are in similar conversations with one another, but have received very different welcomes on their publishing day.
Ruthie Fear by Maxim Loskutoff
Published by W.W. Norton in 2021, RUTHIE FEAR1 is a"haunting parable of the American West, [in which] a young woman faces the violent past of her remote Montana valley."
This only sort of alongside my review, but have you ever read anything written by a cis man who is trying to write from the POV of, or about a woman? Here’s a fun example from Reddit:
Anyway, this is nothing like that. Loskutoff deftly writes Ruthie, our main character and heroine, with grace and a light touch throughout the novel. There’s a richness in the world that Loskutoff builds - it reads green and lush, and you can smell the sharp scent of the woods and the stale beer from the trailer that Ruthie and her father, Rutherford, inhabit.
I actually think telling people the specific plot of books doesn’t help them decide whether or not they want to read it - instead telling them the genre to start and then how the book will make them feel is more the way I like to go. I picked this up, in large part, from my dear friend Christine who works at one of the best bookstores in all of D.C. - Loyalty Books.
This has all the dark, twisting angst and pain of a young person growing up quickly, coming to understand the people around her long before they understand themselves, seeing them with more wholeness and empathy than we can generally expect from others. Ruthie reminds me of flint, in this way - she’s hard-edged, jagged in the places people tried to chip her into another shape or tie her into a life she didn’t want, and she’s got a glinting threat of a spark just underneath her skin.
We follow Ruthie from her childhood through her growing up into a young adult in this novel, watching her watch the world through the lens of her small valley in Montana. There’s class conflict, and complicated relationships, and a creature unknown to us until the end. This book reminded me what it is to be so wrapped up in a life, in the writing, and I wanted to pick it right back up every time I had to put it down. I hope you’ll read this one the most, out of all the three I’m discussing here. It did win awards but hasn’t had nearly the reception nor the sales that the other two books have had. I hadn’t heard of it, actually, at all before seeing it displayed in Loyalty. I ended up not buying it in an attempt to limit myself to an arbitrary number - are three books really enough to leave a bookstore with? really? - and coming back a few weeks later, the cover art still clear in my mind. Picking this book up reminded me so much of being younger, without any concept of the book world or who’s who or who recommends what. I just chose it, and was well rewarded for that.
Thrust by Lidia Yuknavitch
This is a recent one - published June 28, 2022 by Riverhead Books (an imprint of PRH), THRUST was an instant national bestseller, according to it’s Amazon page2 .
So what does it take to get all these fancy bold sentences above your book description? Why THRUST and not others? Who makes the lists, whose lists matter, so on and so on?
I’ll pause here to say that I do recommend this book - it was an absolute pleasure to read in every sense of the word (you’ll see what I mean if you do read it, in all it’s mildly NSFW glory!), but this sort of experimental storytelling I feel is often overlooked, and so when one isn’t just “not overlooked” but overtly celebrated, hitting lists, named Best Of or Most Anticipated, I’m always extra curious. My bet is that if publishers would allow for it, take larger risks on authors writing their wild, wonderful manuscripts, this would be less of a rarity. It’s sort of a manufactured scarcity in that way. People say, “oh the fiction world is so hard, we just never know what will sell and what won’t, it’s just such a big risk,” but then no risks are taken at all - which obviously sort of proves their point.
On the flip side, every so often you’ll see books like THRUST come around (and more often lately, which is certainly cause for celebration) and there will be a huge rollout for it, which results in huge sales, and lots of buzz, and making-of-lists. My point here is that part of the reason fiction is seen as such a big risk is that there’s often not a big publicity push behind it, which inevitably hurts sales and gives people an out for the next time around. Obviously, I say all this with all the caveats in mind, so no need to remind me of them, though I would be curious to hear your thoughts on this take!
All that said, let’s talk about this book in itself - if you’ve read HOW HIGH WE GO IN THE DARK by Sequoia Nagamatsu (if not, very much recommend!) then you’ll find some familiarity here in THRUST. It’s strange and beautiful, and reading it felt like being brought back to my most simplest form of being a human - the gorgeous interconnectedness of the Earth and the creatures that inhabit it. Our main character travels through, around, back and forth, in time. She is a carrier and a trader, of knowledge and of objects. We glimpse a world we are likely heading for - rising sea waters, drowned cities, collapse of the world we knew (the opening scene includes a “AWN SHOP,” as the P has been missing for so long our main character doesn’t even know it should read “Pawn”). There is despair and also childlike wonder. Our character finds herself in a van, but really that van is the belly of a whale, and that whale tells us the story of another while, this one all white, who was killed and made a monster by humans (sound familiar?).
An examination of what it means to carry things with us through time, THRUST is unabashed in its desire. If you’re an audiobook person, this novel is particularly well suited to being listened to.
Yuknavitch asks us to commit to a new way of imagining, and the sooner you agree to it, the more quickly you can fall into the waves of this work. It’s the kind of lit fic that makes you look around more closely when you walk outside after finishing it. The same feeling of getting glasses for the first time, and realizing that indeed things are that bright, and sharp, and rich in color and hue around you.
Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin
Our final recommendation this week! Certainly the last but not least is true here. Published July 5, 2022 by Knopf. See all the bold text below for a quick insight to how well this book was received:
This is slightly different from the other two books that we’ve discussed here in that Zevin has been a successful author for quite some time now, so there’s built-in anticipation for her next book and her team can also expect a warm welcome come pub day.
I’ll hop off my soap box for a moment to discuss the contents of this book, which simultaneously made me wish I still had my red GameBoy Advance and made me want to call my friends and tell them our friendships mean the world to me and I hope they never forget that.
Interspersed with scenes from video games and a particularly lovely chapter about being a bird, Zevin holds the tangled ball of a fiercely platonic and unique friendship up to the light for all of us to see. We’re carried through a world that feels so similar to our own, but in brief moments, Zevin reminds us that there’s another world existing right alongside us: the realm of video games. Within TOMORROW, Zevin creates worlds inside worlds, each tucked in and entirely her own making, each a new space for her characters and her readers to slip further into, which in turn offers the chance to heal through the simple and fundamental desire to play.
Neither Sam nor Sadie, our two main characters, are anywhere near perfect. But in that, we can see ourselves, and that, to me, is one of the core values of reading fiction: you may unknot your own life while pulling at the strings of a fictional character’s.
Questions? Comments? Thoughts? Concerns? Book recommendations? Leave it all below, and see you sometime next week!
In book-world, we place titles in all caps to make them easier to spot in big blocks of text. There are probably other reasons, too, but I don’t know them so I will be ignoring that for now. Querying authors take note! Being able to find the information that’s most important, like the title of your book/MS, makes a big difference. That trend will continue here in the newsletter!
Don’t buy books from Amazon. But it is a helpful place to look at a book and get most of the publication information in one go. But again. No buying.