Jo's November 2021 pick
This book is brimming with everything I love: well-researched historical fiction, adorable queers, a murder mystery, and fantastic magic.
Set in Edwardian England, A Marvellous Light follows Robin Blyth and Edwin Courcey as they unravel a centuries-old mystery at the heart of British magical society.
The magic of this book is homegrown and utterly unique. It’s hard not to fall for a theory of magic based on cat’s cradle spell casting.
But the true brilliance of this book is the characters, Robin and Edwin are well-drawn as individuals but together they are extraordinary. Freya Marske finds the right balance of sweet and sexy that will leave you wishing for more time in this world.
Jo's October 2021 pick
I have waited ten years for this book, and it was well worth the wait.
Anyone who has read Aristotle and Dante Discover The Secrets of the Universe knows the way that these characters and Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s lyrical prose can bury themselves in your heart.
Aristotle and Dante Dive Into The Waters of the World picks up right where the first book left off, following Ari and Dante as they navigate the perils of first love as well as the realities of being queer in 1980s America.
Through Aristotle and Dante Sáenz creates a map of the world on which queer kids can boldly write their names, knowing that they have every right to claim it as their own.
Jo's September 2021 pick, 1 of 2
Lauren Groff builds a defiant female space within the cloistered world of a medieval nunnery.
When Marie is forced from the glittering English Court to a drab rural abbey she is determined to return to court and her beloved Eleanor of Aquitaine. When her plan to win back the favor of the queen goes unnoticed she turns her focus onto revitalizing the abbey. As she gains power she starts to make the abbey into her own separate world, determined to protect the women in her care at all costs.
Jo's September 2021 pick, 2 of 2
Three women, or two women and an alien presenting as a woman, are at the heart of Ryka Aoki's brilliant and big-hearted novel.
Katrina, a young trans-girl who runs away from home with nothing more than a bag full of clothes and her beloved violin.
Shizuoka Satomi, a legendary violin teacher known as the queen of hell because while her students all burn brightly they all seem to succumb to mysterious and fiery ends.
And Lan Tran, an alien who has fled the galactic empire with her family in order to run the best donut shop in the San Gabriel Valley.
Come for the Faustian deals and flirting over Alaska sized donuts, stay for a queer found family that will bury themselves deep in your heart
Jo's August 2021 pick, 1 of 2
Sharp and darkly funny, All’s Well blends themes from Shakespeare into an acerbic commentary on women’s pain. In the midst of trying to save her production of All’s Well The Ends Well from a mutinous cast bent on putting on Macbeth, Miranda is approached by three men offering to help her with her chronic pain. Readers will find themselves unable to put this book down as they are caught up in Miranda’s vertiginous spiral of self indulgence and paranoia.
Jo's August 2021 pick, 2 of 2
This is the first of this year's Booker Longlist that I've read and Maggie Shipstead has set a very high bar for the rest of the list.
Great Circle tells the story of Marion Graves, a pioneering female aviator who disappeared while attempting to circumnavigate the globe longitudinally in 1950. Marion's story is interwoven with that of Hadley Baxter, an actress cast to play Marion in an Oscar-bait biopic.
From fiery beginning aboard a sinking ship to mysterious end Marion's story is one of defiance and persistence against a world determined to ground her. Meanwhile Hadley comes to terms with the fact that no matter how much you dig, the mysteries of other people's lives are not always meant to be solved.
Jo's July 2021 pick
There a few things I live more than queer historical fantasy and She Who Became The Sun is a brilliant addition to the genre.
I went in expecting it to be more fantasy and less history but was really pleased to discover that there is a lot of real Chinese history in these pages.
Set in 14th century China, this book follows the story of a girl who takes on the identity of her dead brother, Zhu Chongba, in hopes of fulfilling his great destiny. Gorgeously queer and incredibly sharp Zhu maneuvers herself into history.
The first in a duology She Who Became The Sun left me desperate for the next entry in Zhu’s story.
Jo's June 2021 pick, 1 of 2
An absolutely stunning take on one of American Literature's best loved books. Nghi Vo weaves magic into the world of Gatsby with an ease and confidence that makes it feel natural, almost inevitable. Vo adapts Fitzgerald's lush imagery in a way that both pays homage to the original while being wholly unique.
Jordan Baker's outsider's perspective explores the depth's and complexities of race and sexuality that have always been on the periphery of discussions about The Great Gatsby.
A retelling of the highest class The Chosen and the Beautiful will keep readers spellbound from it's first line till the very end.
Jo's June 2021 pick, 2 of 2
Reading Filthy Animals is a cathartic and deeply humanizing experience unlike anything I’ve encountered before. Brandon Taylor has an incredible talent for taking the pain, fear, and sadness of life and laying them bare on a page. Taylor pulls at the deep anxieties in each of us and in doing so reminds the reader of their place in a greater story.
Jo's May 2021 pick
The Sackler name has been a low level hum throughout the last century of American life. A hum that many of us may not have even been aware we were hearing. If, like me, you enjoy art museums you have probably spent considerable amounts of time in galleries that bear their name around the world.
It was not until recently that many of us registered the Sackler's presence in all our lives as their role in the opioid epidemic became evident in the past couple of years. Even with the increase in news articles about their influence it has been hard to understand exactly who these people are and where they came from.
With Empire of Pain Patrick Radden Keefe, author of the phenomenal Say Nothing, illuminates the history of a family that has wreaked unimaginable havoc on American life. From Valium to Oxyconton the Sackler family has had undue influence over how and when Americans take and are prescribed medication for decades. Well researched and rife with details not often covered in new stories this book is essential for anyone trying to understand not just the opioid epidemic but the larger context of the pharma industry in this country.
Jo's January 2021 pick
I struggle to find adequate words to describe the brilliance and the beauty of The Prophets. I’ll start by saying this may be the best book I have ever read and that is not a title I bestow lightly. Robert Jones Jr’s lyrical prose lays bare the reality of slavery, the horrors but also the brief moments of grace that enslaved people carved out for themselves.
While tender in its intimacy The Prophets is also a sprawling history of black queerness. The ancestral voices woven throughout the novel highlight the truth of the societies that white supremacy tried to destroy and stand as a reminder of their connection to the present.
With this book Robert Jones Jr has taken his place among the great American novelists. This is a gorgeous and necessary reckoning with America history that will stay with you for years.
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Jo's October 2020 pick, 1 of 2
How Much of These Hills Is Gold is a gorgeous debut that defies categorization. Set in the hills of California in the last days of the gold rush it tells the story of Sam and Lucy and their hard scrabble search for a home for their father’s bones.
Every time you feel you understand what this book is C Pam Zhang shifts the story in ways that make you rethink everything you read before.
Underpinning it all are questions about the meaning of home, of belonging, of family.
This is a deeply precious book that I so look forward to revisiting.
Jo's October 2020 pick, 2 of 2
This dark and atmospheric debut is a perfect October read.
Sensitive Paul is drawn to his charismatic classmate Julian immediately. Over the course of their freshman year of college the two begin an obsessive and darkly codependent relationship, with disastrous results.
Micah Nemerever conveys the intensity of Paul and Julian's relationship with claustrophobic immediacy. Their downward spiral is so compellingly drawn that their Leopold and Loeb-esque plot feels natural and inevitable.
This taut and frantic thriller will have you absorbed in its world until the final page. Nemerever is an exciting new voice in queer literature and I can't wait to see what he does next.
Jo's September 2020 pick
As a queer person named after Jo March my review may be a little biased but this was perfect.
I have needed a canonically queer Jo my entire life and Kathleen Gros delivered that beautifully.
Beyond that premise this is just a very well done adaptation. Gros manages to fit the theme of personal growth, explored in the original story through Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progess, into this story without coming off as overly sanctimonious. And each of the March girls as well as Laurie and Marmee were pitch perfect.
Couching this story of growth and self-acceptance within a familiar context will make it’s message more accessible and comfortable for kids going through the process of coming out. I think this book could have really helped me at 13 understand why tomboyish Jo felt so familiar when I first read Little Women.
Jo's September 2020 pick, 1 of 2
Punching The Air is a heartbreaking and powerful novel in verse written in part by Yusef Salaam of the exonerated five. While the book is about a wrongly convicted teenager it does not mirror Salaam’s story exactly. Yet it is clear Salaam’s experiences in the juvenile incarceration system inform the book and lend a depth of feeling to the poetry.
The audiobook is only four hours long but it is deeply impactful. The book forces the reader to confront the injustices of the prison industrial complex and the humanity of those within it.
A must read (or listen) for adults and teenagers.
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Jo's August 2020 pick, 1 of 2
A bit more conventional than their first book, Freshwater, Akwaeke Emezi’s second novel for adults is a grief-stricken portrayal of family and of queer identity in Nigeria.
As the name suggest, The Death of Vivek Oji, focuses on the life and death of Vivek Oji, a favorite son to parents who struggle to understand him. His life is explored through the grief and recollections of his friends and family; mainly his cousin, Osita, and mother, Kavita.
The mystery of Vivek’s death pulls readers in but it is the well-drawn characters that make this novel special. We get very little directly from Vivek but their joy and sadness are woven throughout the book. Emezi once again shows their skill at conveying fractured queer identity through narrative structure.
Jo's August 2020 pick, 2 of 2Betty is a haunting portrait of familial devotion and devastation. The novel’s heroine, based on the author’s mother, recounts her childhood and teen years growing up in rural Southern Ohio as she grapples with the harsh realities of womanhood and racism in 1960s Appalachia.Grounding this story is Betty’s love for her two sisters and her father, as well as her complicated relationship with her damaged and, at times, dangerous mother. Throughout the novel, Betty is the witness to shocking acts of violence and abuse against those she loves. She carries these stories with her in her mind and her stories, yet by the end of the book, she finds a way to give a voice to those in her life who were robbed of their chances to be heard.Betty is a compelling and heart-wrenching read that will stay in my heart for years.
Jo's June 2020 pick
Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine, and Mary-Jane. We all have heard of them but few of us know their names. In The Five Hallie Rubenhold does the essential work of returning to the victims of Jack the Ripper their humanity. The dehumanization of victims and the mythologization of killers stretches far beyond the crime of Jack the Ripper and in this book Rubenhold shows us all a path towards rectifying this injustice.
This is required reading for anyone even passably interested in true crime.
In each section Rubenhold dives deep into the lives of each woman highlighting their individuality while also illustrating how they were all victims of Victorian era sexism and classism. Part history, part biography; The Five paints a vivid picture of a specific time and place through the lives of those deemed most disposable by society.
Jo's May 2020 pick
Verse has always had a unique ability to capture the trials of teenage life and no one is so adept at utilizing this power as Elizabeth Acevedo. Clap When You Land contains all the raw emotionality I have come to expect from Acevedo. Her use of alternating poems to tell the stories of two very different girls is poignant and masterful. With this book Acevedo has solidified her place amongst the most important YA writers today.
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Jo's April 2020 pick, 1 of 2
In her brilliant debut novel, Megan Campisi navigates the complicated relationship between women and food in Christianity, all while maintaining a compelling early modern mystery.
After narrator May is brutally branded a sin eater, condemning her to likely damnation, she must find a way to make herself seen and heard in a world that has quite literally made her unseen and unheard.
May’s struggle to claim her space in this twisted alternate version of the Elizabethan court propels this novel into deep explorations of femininity and original sin that are utterly original and timely.
Jo's April 2020 pick, 2 of 2
Katy Simpson Smith probes the multi-layered depths of Rome through the centuries in this arresting piece of historical fiction.
Set in 2015, 1559, 896-897, and 165; the novel takes the longue durée approach to a city that has fascinated humanity for well over two millennia. Smith artfully weaves together the stories of four Romans through her exploration of belief, love, betrayal, and the human body; pulling it all together with a literal hook.
Perhaps the most striking and affecting element of this novel is the bracketed comments left throughout the book by a Miltonian Satan. Smith’s approach to the fallen angel; and particularly his relationship with god; is bright, fresh, and heartbreaking.
The Everlasting is a phenomenal achievement of literary historical fiction.
Jo's March 2020 pick, 1 of 2
With The Mirror & The Light Hillary Mantel has completed one of the best series of historical fiction in recent memory. She is an expert in showing, not telling her research. Each sentence is infused with meticulous details of the period that never feels forced.
In this final book, Mantel’s portrait of Cromwell reaches new heights. She impeccably renders a man both haunted and haunting, a devious statesman and a vulnerable human.
There are two chapters, in particular, that stand out in this novel, one about halfway through and one at the end that are so stunningly well crafted they leave the reader breathless.
If you are intimidated by their series size or scope trust me it is well worth the time it takes.
Jo's March 2020 pick, 2 of 2
The Glass Hotel is a haunting portrayal of greed and its many ripple effects. As the world faces another major recession, The Glass Hotel portrays the 2008 recession in a bleak and affecting light. Through a large cast of characters spread out across decades, Mandel follows a Ponzi scheme reminiscent of the Bernie Madoff scandal. She skillfully communicates the deep and lasting impact one person's greed and lies can have on everyone around them. Mandel's style is impeccable and her characters are compelling and complex.
This timely tale of greed and the concept of truth will resonate with readers in this time of uncertainty.
Jo's February 2020 pick, 1 of 2
Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s adult debut is a startlingly intimate portrayal of the horrific Norwegian witch trials of the 1620s.
When the arctic village of Vardø is hit by a sudden storm that kills most of the community’s men, the women pull together in order to survive. Three years later the tensions between the women that have been simmering since the storm are brought to a boiling point with the arrival of a Scottish witchfinder.
Hargrave draws raw and deeply human portraits of the women fighting for their lives in a world hostile towards independent women. This brilliant novel masterfully navigates not just the gender politics of the witch trials but issues of sexuality and the deep-seated racism of witchcraft accusations.
It is only February, but I anticipate this being one of the best books of the year.
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Jo's February 2020 pick, 2 of 2
In this complexly structured espionage tale Arthur Phillips examines restoration England and Scotland through the lens of an outsider. Mahmoud Ezzedine finds himself exiled in, “a far-off, sunless, primitive, sodden, heathen kingdom at the far cliffside edge of the civilized earth,” when he is left in London after a diplomatic trip for the Ottoman Sultan. Ezzedine is then pulled into the most compelling drama of the time, the question of succession after the death of Elizabeth I.
Perhaps the most masterful element of this novel is Phillip’s ability to simultaneously acknowledge the absurdity of reformation politics while maintaining the immediacy of the stakes for those involved.
If, like me, you are eagerly anticipating the release of Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light this well-paced, engaging novel will help tide you over until next month.