I don’t know how many times I can say “this fall has really eaten my lunch” but DAMNIT THIS FALL HAS EATEN MY LUNCH. I’m honestly very tired and every time I skip a week of this blog it means I have double the books to talk about for next week and if my books from the last two weeks weren’t so compelling I might honestly consider yelping “CLEAN SLATE” and pretending they didn’t exist. But! Fortunately/Unfortunately for me….most of them were fantastic and one of them wasn’t fantastic in such fascinating ways that I simply must speak on it.
So, deep breaths….and diving….
In at the Deep End – Kate Davies
….see what I did there?
Julia, our protagonist, starts the book determined to end her 3 year ~dry spell~, which leads to a discovery that she much prefers women to men. She thusly embarks on a journey of not just sexual awakening, but awakening into community and purpose. The book is very funny and insightful; I had several cackles and several “oh SHIT” moments. Structurally it does wander a bit and didn’t quite seem able to effectively tie together all the plot threads it was trying to, but it’s very entertaining and touching and quite sexual* all at the same time, which is a difficult chord to strike and I’d love to read more of Davies’ work in the future.
*A quick couple notes before I move on to one of the heavier aspects of the book: this book does include some *ahem* visceral sexual descriptions, including several forms of kink. Separately, I wouldn’t say this book quite takes an uncharitable view of polyamory, but it’s not particularly charitable either, so if that’s something that might bother you, be aware!
Trigger warning: emotional abuse, self-harm
The book teeters on whether the relationship between Julia and Sam, her first girlfriend, is abusive or “merely” “toxic.” To be clear, what I mean by this is that I strongly come down on the side of it being abusive — Sam frequently gaslights and attempts to control Julia, intentionally isolates her from friends and family, and clearly manipulates her. To me, that’s textbook abuse. And I think the narrative mostly agrees with me, but there are a couple moments near the end that subtly undermine that agreement. [Also, I’ve gained a lot from the Dear Prudence podcast, hosted by Daniel Lavery, where he frequently talks about our societal tendency to use the word ‘toxic’ without any grounded definition. I love the podcast and I’ve learned a lot from it and I highly recommend!]
Royal Holiday – Jasmine Guillory
2019 may have been trash in many ways, but we did get TWO Jasmine Guillory books in one year, so there’s some redemption! This book features Vivian Forest, the charming mother of Maddie from The Wedding Party, as she accompanies Maddie on a last minute work trip to England to style an unnamed-but-certainly-definitely-Meghan-Markle royal for her Christmas events. While she’s there, Vivian — who has been prioritizing her family and work over romance for a long time — meets and falls for the Queen’s private secretary, Malcolm Hudson.
As with all Guillory books, this one was absolutely delicious. The plot did feel a bit less built out than her other books, and this is probably just a personal preference but the ‘holiday fling that turns into something more serious’ trope kind of stresses me out, but I will never pass up an opportunity to spend more time in Guillory’s world of kind, funny people trying their best and thoughtfully examining the roles love and work play in our lives.
The Testaments – Margaret Atwood
Holy unnecessary sequel, Batman!! I can’t think of a gentle way to start talking about this book, so what I’ll say is this book is what might happen if someone took a hard long look at what really worked well about The Handmaid’s Tale and said “okay but what if we did the opposite of that?” A thing you should understand about this book is that it’s much less a sequel to the 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale than it is a companion novel to the Hulu adaptation show The Handmaid’s Tale, and as such has a whole bunch of corniness, confusing world-building, and hard hitting questions that no one was asking, such as “what if Aunt Lydia was good, actually?” This book is what would happen if the author of a revolutionary text about the natural result about white supremacy and rape culture started standing with a colleague accused of sexual harassment.
What I will say for the book is that Atwood remains a skilled and engaging writer, capable of making even a deeply flawed narrative feel alive. This is going to sound dark, but I think both this book and the show are too invested in hope. I’ve stopped watching the show because I lost patience with it, but they’re both insistent on chronicling the beginning of the end of Gilead, which puts its longevity at oh, about 20 years, which makes it seem like an extreme blip rather than part of history’s long arc of white supremacy and misogyny.
tw: sexual assault, suicide
Goodbye, Vitamin – Rachel Khong
Somehow this book was exactly the right thing I needed to read in the middle of a hectic schedule darkened by some winter blues. Not only is it a short book, it’s written in journal-style vignettes, chronicling the protagonist’s year of moving into her parents’ house at age 30 to assist in the care of her father. Ruth is still dealing with the breakup of a relationship she had wrapped her life around when her mother asks her to move home for a year. Her father has Alzheimer’s, and the book tenderly follows Ruth through the year as she both deepens and re-examines her relationship with her parents and brother.
It has a generous and observational sense of humor and takes an exquisite shift about a third of the way through. I do think it could have used about 50 more pages, because there was imbalance to me between the first half of Ruth’s year and the second half. However, through incredible skill on Khong’s part, a truly sparse number of pages feels like you’ve read much more than that, but in a good way. It doesn’t feel tiresome, it feels like you’ve known these characters for as long as they’ve known each other and care about them almost as much as they care about each other.
Give Me Your Hand – Megan Abbott
I love, love, love a Megan Abbott book. Her writing is twisty and intense and thoughtful and page-turning. What makes reading her even better is that I discovered my love for her on the recommendation of my local librarian when I was in high school. While her depictions of teenage girls were not reflective of my own experiences, they sparked a love of suspense and twisty characters.
This book is her latest (from 2018) and examines the connection between two women when they’re teenagers and when they’re in their late 20s. It’s about ambition and secrets and friendship and envy and I almost don’t want to say more about it. Abbott knows how to turn a story on its head halfway through, and though a couple of the turns felt almost predictable, their consequences ripple in ways that stick with me more than a typical “gotcha!” might.
Also, Abbott created a spotify playlist for this book and it’s PERFECT and I’ll probably listen to it way more. ALSO also, there’s an adaptation of Abbott’s book Dare Me coming out on USA later this month and it looks EXCELLENT. This adaptation has been in various stages of development for years and I’m so excited that it’s finally happening.
That’s all for me! Next week I’m just putting out a list of my favorite books from this year and that’s all she wrote! Feel free to get in contact, via email or twitter or wherever if you’re seeking book recommendations for the coming holidays because that’s one of my greatest joys in life! Toodle loo!