Popsugar Reading Challenge category: A self-published book.
Lucky Stars, by H. Claire Taylor.
For a moment I thought I'd stumbled across a parallel-universe version of The Cosmic Turkey: a space comedy with an accidental captain, a misfit crew with a deadly first officer, and even an alien matchmaking service. No real mystery to any of that, of course: accidental leader and misfit crew are popular tropes, and the comedy potential of dating services is limitless. Except of course that the Turkey books are G-rated, while The Alice Luck Space Adventures are hilariously naughty. (The fact that The Star-Crossed Pelican's dating service is called LuckyStar probably amuses me more than it should.)
Alice Luck is a young Texas woman with no job, $80,000 in college debt, a mostly-useless degree in animal husbandry, and a boyfriend who's annoyingly perfect. She gets recruited by aliens to work for their matchmaking service, which helps endangered alien species to breed. Her misfit crew includes Susy "Vel Machiavelli (the aforementioned deadly first officer), Dan Zone (a sort of human-armadillo hybrid who's the genius every SF book needs) Caid (holographic therapist), and the ship' computer, Allura, which makes every comment sound like it's narrating a porn video.
The stakes are high: Alice and crew will either get rich, or be banished to to a miserable faraway planet. There are deadly enemies that Alice's employer conveniently forgot to warn them about. The innuendoes fly fast & furious, though mercifully we don't get all the details of alien sex. The plot is delightfully ludicrous, with a satisfying resolution as Alice discovers strengths she didn't know she had.
The book is well-written and well-edited, exactly the opposite of the stereotype of self-published books - and it's exactly the kind of story traditional publishers are hesitant to take a chance on.
Popsugar Reading Challenge category: A book whose title is a complete sentence.
The Cruelty Is the Point: The Past, Present, and Future of Trump's America, by Adam Serwer.
This is a collection of Serwer's essays from The Atlantic during the Trump years, with a post-Trump introduction for each piece. Serwer pulls apart comforting myths, like the "kindly General Lee," the better class of immigrants who came "the right way," or the Civil War being about anything other than slavery. He repeatedly shows the parallels between the backlash against Reconstruction, and the place our country is now. It's always tempting to say cruelty isn't "who we are as a country," but it would be more accurate to say it isn't all of who we are. None of what we're seeing today is new.
In many cases, cruel policies are actually counterproductive. It costs less to house homeless people than to install "hostile architecture" like spikes under bridges and have police push them from one block to the next. It costs less to treat addicts than to incarcerate them. And the anti-immigrant fervor has left the farming industry scrambling for labor, to the point where they're trying to roll back child labor laws. And, with many of the essays written around the time of the George Floyd killing and protests, Serwer notes the incalculable cost of having no checks or accountability for the people who are nominally supposed to protect the public.
In the title essay, Serwer describes seeing lynching photos at the Museum of African-American History and Culture. What drew his eye was not the victims but the killers, proudly grinning for the camera. Cruelty - even to the point of murder - is a bonding experience for bullies. Think of the Steubenville rapists showing off photos, or the laughter, "indelible in the hippocampus," that Christine Blasey Ford described hearing from her assailants. Trump is instinctively good at making bullies feel good, making them feel like they belong, which is why he breezed through gaffes that would have been career-ending for most people, like mocking a disabled reporter. His following was never really about him; it's about a side of America that we don't like to acknowledge exists.
It's an uncomfortable read, but with a lot of aha moments.
Popsugar Reading Challenge category: A bildungsroman (coming-of-age story)
World's End, by Upton Sinclair
Last year I picked up Sinclair's A World to Win, not realizing it was number 7 in a series about a secret agent. This year I backed up to the first book, which covers Lanny Budd's life from ages 13 to 20. Sinclair clearly knew where he was going with this series, as the seeds are already planted for the man Lanny will become.
Lanny grows up with his American socialite mother on the French Riviera, with occasional visits from his father, a wealthy American arms manufacturer. Lanny's uncle is a radical who takes him to see how impoverished people live, which forces the youth to rethink his view of the world. (Lanny, like Sinclair, will become a committed socialist.)
As a teen, Lanny has two close friends, Rick (British) and Kurt (German). When World War 1 breaks out, both Rick and Kurt serve in their country's armies. Living in France, Lanny sees the devastation wrought on the country, and understands his French stepfather's desire to volunteer for the army. At the same time, Lanny believes Kurt is a good person, and carries on an illicit correspondence with him.
A major piece of the story is the conference where the terms of the peace treaty were hammered out. Lanny, now nineteen or twenty, works as a secretary for one of the participants, and gets a close-up view of the power struggles and colonialism among the victor countries; none of the participants come off as the "good guys."
There are other hints of where the later books will take Lanny. His stepfather is an artist; Lanny will someday be an art dealer. When one of his friends is in danger, Lanny has a vision of him; Lanny will have a lifelong fascination with spiritualism, though always with a touch of skepticism. And his involvement with socialists drops Lanny into a dangerous situation. Lanny has trouble lying his way out it, and ironically thinks that he could never be a successful spy. Which, of course, he will.
Sinclair's writing style has a modern, unpretentious feel, and is always an easy read. While this book gives the setup for the series, it's also a satisfying read as a standalone. which is a good thing, because the books in this series run to 800-1000 pages, so who knows when I'll get to the next one.
Popsugar Reading Challenge category: A book that takes place in the snow
Snowpiercer 1: The Escape, by Jacques Lob, illustrated by Jean-Marc Rochette
This is the graphic novel that inspired the movie and TV show. All three have different plots, but the same premise: a worldwide catastrophe had plunged the planet into arctic conditions, and the survivors - possibly the last humans on earth - have stayed alive aboard a luxury train.
The allegory isn't subtle: the front cars are occupied by the privileged few, the middle cars belong to working people, and the tail cars are are crowded with people living in starvation and filth, forbidden to enter the rest of the train.
Proloff, a "tail rat" from the squalid tail cars, breaks into a middle car and is captured. Adeline, an idealistic middle-car dweller, tries to advocate for him. She's part of a movement that wants to integrate the cars, but Proloff isn't concerned with revolutions - he can't focus on anything except getting himself out. Adeline wants to change his mind about that.
The story is as grim as you'd expect, but perfectly drawn, and affecting.
Politics & Current Events:
Wayne Besen, Lies With a Straight Face: Exposing the Cranks & Cons Behind the “Ex-gay” Industry
Shakirah Bourne & Dana Alison Levy, Eds., Allies: Real Talk About Showing Up, Screwing Up, and Trying Again
Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism
Philip S. Gorski & Samuel L. Perry, The Flag and the Cross: White Christian Nationalism and the Threat to American Democracy
Gabrielle Jackson, Pain and Prejudice: How the Medical System Ignores Women — And What We Can Do About It
Lyz Lenz, Belabored: A Vindication of the Rights of Pregnant Women
Ijeoma Olou, Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America
Maureen Ryan, Burn It Down: Power, Complicity, and a Call for Change in Hollywood
Nancy Schwartzman & Nora Zelevansky, Roll Red Roll: Rape, Power & Football in the American Heartland
Rebecca Solnit & Thelma Young Lutunatabua, Eds., Not Too Late: Changing the Climate Story From Despair to Possibility
Some powerful feminist books in there. Burn It Down is about #MeToo, and about the structural barriers that keep women and POC out of power in Hollywood. Roll Red Roll is about the infamous rape of a high school girl in Steubenville, and the complicity of school personnel and others in protecting the assailants. Pain and Prejudice is about the medical establishment’s tendency to discount women’s symptoms, exclude women from studies (this one’s changing, somewhat), and fail to research or treat issues that mostly affect women. Belabored was written too soon — it talks about the ways law and custom encroach on women’s freedom during pregnancy, but the book came out before the Dobbs decision that radically changed the landscape in the US.
Allies is aimed at white people, straight people, etc., who want to fight systems of oppression. White Fragility discusses why it’s so hard to make any progress with this; changing the world is more appealing than changing yourself. The Flag and the Cross zeroes in on the intersection of far-right Evangelical Christianity and fascism.
I have a weird, inexplicable fascination with the “ex-gay” movement. So does Wayne Besen, who wrote Anything But Straight in the movement’s heyday in the early 2000’s. Lies With a Straight Face traces the movement’s decline, an assortment of scandals, and the exporting of extremism to places like Uganda which now has a “kill the gays” law.
Not Too Late is a collection of essays about choosing hope and action in the struggle with climate change. The contributing authors include Pacific Islanders who have seen the effects up close.
Rita Mae Brown, Rita Will: Memoir of a Literary Rabble-Rouser
Shirin Ebadi, Iran Awakening
Primo Levi, Moments of Reprieve: A Memoir of Auschwitz
Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad
Richard Wills, Bloody Social Worker
I tend to prefer memoirs that are about bigger issues. Shirin Ebadi was a judge before the Iranian revolution stripped most rights away from women. She saw signs of hope when the book was written in 2007, but I’m afraid she was overly optimistic. Primo Levi’s Moments of Reprieve captures the rare moments of humanity behind the walls of a concentration camp. (Still a grim read, to be clear.)
Bloody Social Worker is about bigger issues, but it’s definitely a from-the-trenches view.
I usually love Twain, but The Innocents Abroad didn’t do much for me. I did enjoy Twain’s sly commentary on the way the same saint relics showed up in every cathedral they visited.
Rita Will dishes on being an out lesbian author in the 1970s, and Brown’s affairs and breakups with famous women. She mined her unique family history for a lot of the material in her early books.
Margaret Atwood, Dearly
June Bates, The Lavender Haze
Bryan Borland, Ed., If You Can Hear This: Poems in Protest of an American Inauguration
Jericho Brown, Please
Jeffrey Lamar Coleman, Ed., Words of Protest, Words of Freedom: Poetry of the American Civil Rights Movement and Era
Rita Dove, Selected Poems
Nikki Giovanni, Bicycles: Love Poems and Make Me Rain
Hattie Gossett, The Immigrant Suite: Hey Xenophobe! Who You Calling a Foreigner?
Alvin Greenberg, Why We Live With Animals
Marilyn Hacker, Names
Honor Moore, Red Shoes
Pablo Neruda, Five Decades: Poems 1925-1970
Sapphire, Black Wings & Blind Angels
Katharine Washburn, John S. Major, & Clifton Fadiman, Eds., World Poetry: An Anthology of Verse From Antiquity to Our Time
I have two preferences for poetry; I like it (1) comprehensible, and (2) actually about something. A couple of really good books of political poetry are on this list: If You Can Hear This and Words of Protest, Words of Freedom.
I’ve reached the age where a lot of my early favorites, like Atwood and Hacker, are writing a lot about mortality and aging. Nikki Giovanni still writes love poems, and they have the feel of poems written in maturity, with a lot of life experience behind them.
Jericho Brown is a recent favorite of mine. Please is his first book, and while I think he blossomed in the later volumes, I definitely see the roots in this one.
World Poetry is one of those giant tomes with poems from ancient Sumer and China, progressing though the millennia to the late 20th century. (While I finished it in 2023, I’m not sure what year I started it.) There’s something oddly consoling about seeing that people in a very different place & time still wrote about love, grief, and the corruption of politicians.
Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot
Henrik Ibsen, A Doll’s House
A Doll’s House was very ahead of its time. I knew the general premise of Waiting for Godot, but reading the whole thing just had me saying “huh?” Maybe I’d get it if I saw it performed.
Judy Batalion, The Light of Days: The Untold Story of Women Resistance Fighters in Hitler’s Ghettos
Jon Butler & Bruno Vincent, Do Ants Have Assholes? And 106 of the World’s Other Most Important Questions
Soraya Chemaly, Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger
Rebecca Hall (Hugo Martinez, Illustrator), Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts (graphic novel)
Erik Loomis, The History of America in 10 Strikes
Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, On Repentance & Repair: Making Amends in an Unapologetic World
Wake and The Light of Days are different styles but a similar theme: women rising up against oppression when victory wasn’t possible but resistance still mattered. The History of America in 10 Strikes actually talks about a lot more than 10 strikes; it’s a pretty thorough history of the strike as a weapon of labor in America. Rage Becomes Her is about anger as the forbidden emotion for women, the one we’re always supposed to keep under control.
And if all that’s too much heavy stuff for you, Do Ants Have Assholes? is a very silly parody of “Ask Dr. Science” books.
Popsugar Reading Challenge category: A book about K-pop
XOXO, by Axie Oh
This is a sweet YA romance with a musical theme. Jenny, a Korean-American teenager in L.A., dreams of being a professional cellist. She meets Jaewoo at her uncle's karaoke place, and they spend a fun evening together before he has to go back to Seoul. Months later, Jenny and her mother temporarily relocate to Seoul to care for her ailing grandmother, and she spends term at a prestigious performing arts school. And there's Jaewoo: he's not only a student there, he's a member of a famous K-pop group whose star is on the rise. And one of the rules for group members is: no dating.
Like me, Jenny doesn't know a lot about K-pop, and it was interesting to hear about how the schools and studios create the groups, turning talented youths into idols (the term is used unironically by all the characters). We get glimpses of the pressures on very young people dealing with fame.
As often happens in YA, the adults are barely a presence. Jenny's father is dead, and the estrangement and reconciliation between her mother and grandmother are dealt with only briefly.
One thing I greatly enjoyed was the portrayal of friendships. Jenny and her roommate Sori have an enemies-to-best-friends arc, and there are other important friendships for Jenny, including Jaewoo's bandmates Nathaniel (another Korean-American) and Youngmin. Which sets us up nicely for the sequel, ASAP, which I hear will be about Sori and Nathaniel.
This year I read 93 books, while my TBR pile continues to grow. I’m pretty sure it’s achieved sentience and is laughing at me. 50 of the books I read were for the Popsugar Reading Challenge, a sort of literary scavenger hunt where the object is to read a book in each of 50 categories (a book with a queer lead, a book with a map, a book set the decade you were born, etc., etc.) I wrote short reviews of those 50 on my website, and linked the reviews below.
Wilkie Collins, Armadale and The Dead Secret
S.E. Hinton, The Outsiders
J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye
Upton Sinclair, A World to Win
Wilkie Collins, a 19th-century mystery/thriller writer, has become a favorite of mine. Armadale has a plot that Hitchcock would love.
The Outsiders is famous for having been written by a teenager, and has a “grittier” feel than most writing for youth in the 60s. The Catcher in the Rye was honestly tedious — the narrator constantly gripes that everything’s lousy and everyone’s phony.
I picked up A World to Win knowing nothing about it, except that the author also wrote The Jungle. Turns out it’s volume 7 of an 11-volume series about a socialist art dealer who goes undercover as a spy against the Nazis. It’s lengthy and has a tangent or two, but I was hooked enough to track down the first 3 books in the series for next year’s TBR pile.
Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy 5-book “trilogy” (reread)
Naomi Alderman, The Power
Remy Apepp, Sand to Glass
Travis Baldree, Legends & Lattes
Catherine Butzen, Painter of the Dead
CJ Cherryh, Fortress in the Eye of Time
Arthur C. Clarke, 2001: A Space Odyssey
Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell
Cait Gordon, The Stealth Lovers
L.A. Guettler, Red Darkling and Bonkpocalypse: A Red Darkling Jam
T.A. Hernandez, Calico Thunder Rides Again
Ann Leckie, The Raven Tower
Deborah J. Natelson, Bargaining Power
Terry Pratchett, Hogfather , I Shall Wear Midnight, and The Shepherd’s Crown.
Kit Rocha, Dance With the Devil
S.D. Simper, The Fate of Stars
Katherine Vick, The Narrative and The Taskmaster
Obviously my favorite genre! If you like your SF/F mixed with humor, then the Adams and Pratchett books are obvious picks. Pratchett’s books often have a serious undercurrent (Hogfather in particular). I Shall Wear Midnight and The Shepherd’s Crown are from his series about teen witch Tiffany Aching. I also strongly recommend Cait Gordon’s The Stealth Lovers, a hilarious gay alien love story. L.A. Guettler’s Red Darkling series is about a down-on-her-luck female smuggler; the comedy gets dark in some places, but the books are fun and filled with NSFW acronyms. And Katherine Vick’s Plot Bandits series is sort of a fantasy version of John Scalzi’s Redshirts: the minor characters get tired of being slaughtered and stage a revolt. I’ve reviewed the last 2 this year, but this is a series that needs to be read in order, so start with The Disposable.
If you prefer your SF/F to be hard-hitting and thought-provoking, try Naomi Alderman’s The Power, in which women develop the ability to give a powerful (even deadly) electric shock. You think you know where the story’s going, but the ending has quite a twist. I also greatly enjoyed Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, about rival 19th-century magicians. The “historical footnotes” add a whole extra dimension to the book.
I’m not sure how to describe Bargaining Power. Urban fantasy spy thriller? It’s a unique brand of weird, and I loved it. The ending did leave some things unexplained. Legends & Lattes is a self-described low-stakes fantasy about an orc opening a coffee shop.
Alexis Hall, Boyfriend Material and A Lady for a Duke
Talia Hibbert, Get a Life, Chloe Brown
Casey McQuiston, Red, White & Royal Blue (reread)
Red, White and Royal Blue remains my favorite queer romance. It’s funny, romantic, and extremely horny. The Amazon Prime movie was also very good; it had to cut out a lot, but kept the heart of the love story.
Get a Life, Chloe Brown is a straight romance that touches on serious issues. Chloe is dealing with chronic illness; Red is dealing with the emotional aftermath of female-on-male domestic violence. They have fabulous banter.
A Lady for a Duke is a regency romance with a twist: the lady is trans. And because romance is an idealistic genre, the only angst in the story is about the things Viola and Justin witnessed at Waterloo. No one deadnames Viola, and her family and friends have surprisingly few questions when they meet the real her. Boyfriend Material , also by Alexis Hall, is a funny contemporary romance between two men with serious parental issues.
Janet Evanovich, Going Rogue: Rise & Shine 29 and Plum Lucky
Carl Hiaasen, Squeeze Me
David Lagercrantz, The Girl in the Spider’s Web
Kelly Miller, Accusing Mr. Darcy
I like mysteries with a side dish of comedy, so I love the shenanigans in Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series (and the love triangle that will hopefully never end). Carl Hiaasen’s Squeeze Me involves an unnamed president, his Eastern European wife, an overpriced club in Florida, pythons, and assorted weirdness.
The Girl in the Spider’s Web is a fairly faithful continuation of the late Stieg Larsson’s Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series. And Accusing Mr Darcy is...Pride & Prejudice as a mystery/thriller?
Jeff Ayers, Skate the Seeker
Michelle Franklin (illustrated by Jonathan Burrello), Dragons Don’t Celebrate Passover and Werewolves Don’t Celebrate Hanukkah
Patrick Ness, The Rest of Us Just Live Here
Tara Sim, Scavenge the Stars and Ravage the Dark
Angie Thomas, Concrete Rose
The Rest of Us Just Live Here is one of the best books I read this year. You know all those stories where the town is periodically attacked by aliens, ghosts, etc., and a few heroic teenagers have to save the world? This book is about the other teens — the ones who just want to go to prom and graduate before the high school gets blown up. Again.
The Tara Sim duology is a reimagining of The Count of Monte Cristo with a teenage girl protagonist. Skate the Seeker is a sequel to the delightful Skate the Thief, about an urchin whose life was changed when she tried to rob a wizard. Start with the first book.
Concrete Rose is the prequel to The Hate U Give, telling the story of Starr’s father, Big Mav.
The Michelle Franklin books are hilarious, wonderfully illustrated books about Jewish holidays. (Fun fact: dragons tend to overcook matzah.) She also has Gryphons Don’t Celebrate Shavuot and Vampires Don’t Observe Shabbos.
Jack Champlin, The Captain & the King
Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Water Dancer
Leila Mottley, Nightcrawling
Nightcrawling is a novel based on a recent real-life scandal: Oakland police officers exploiting and trafficking a teenage girl. The Water Dancer is set during slavery, with the narrator discovering teleportation powers. And The Captain and the King is a historical novel about the strange journey of the famous statue of King Kamehameha from Germany to Hawai’i.
Italo Calvino, T Zero
J.E. Feldman, Ed., Life at Its Best
Zelda Knight & Ekpeki Oghenechovwe, Eds., Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction From Africa & the African Diaspora
L.D. Lewis & Charles Payseur, Eds., We’re Here: The Best Queer Speculative Fiction 2021
Marge Piercy, The Cost of Lunch, Etc.
Dominion has some good SF and fantasy, but the real standouts are the horror stories (including one where a seller of corpse parts for voodoo is confronted with his father’s zombie. It’s awkward.). I also greatly enjoyed We’re Here, which includes a story that had mer-people as an allegory for being trans, and a truly innovative use for being stuck in a time loop: trying & reviewing all the restaurants on a doomed space station.
Marge Piercy’s book includes both fiction and autobiographical nonfiction about her family, her Jewish heritage, and a love affair or two gone wrong.
Life at Its Best is a collection of “women’s fiction” — including one of mine from my Found in Translation series.
Popsugar Reading Challenge category: A book in which someone sleeps for at least 24 hours straight
When the Sleeper Wakes, by H. G. Wells
I am once again doing the Popsugar Reading Challenge, a sort of literary scavenger hunt where the object is to read 50 books in an assortment of categories by author, genre, and as you can see by this week's category, some odd story elements.
H.G. Wells was a pioneer in science fiction, with story premises that would eventually become tropes. In this one, written in 1910, a Victorian man named Graham falls asleep for 200 years. When he wakes, he finds that technology has advanced a great deal (he anticipates television and jet planes) - but human society, not so much.
The ideals of equality and socialism from Graham's day have given way to absolute rulership of the wealthy, where the poor are given little education and worked to death from an early age. Because of investments made by one of his relatives, Graham is now the richest man in the world. A corrupt council has been ruling in his name, and Graham gets pulled into the uprising against them. But their leader turns out to be no better, and Graham must decide whether to be a figurehead or stand with the workers.
Wells is often better at creating situations than characters (the hero of The Time Machine never even got a name), but Graham is fully developed. At first he is pulled along by other characters (literally, in his escape from the Council, as well as figuratively), but at the end of the story, he is truly awake, perhaps for the first time in his life.
Popsugar Reading Challenge Category: A book about a holiday that's not Christmas
Werewolves Don't Celebrate Hanukkah, by Michelle Franklin
This is a funny, charming children's book, explaining Hanukkah customs with Jonathan Burrello's very cute werewolf illustrations. While werewolves have a built-in potato peeler, they would definitely eat up all the latkes and leave none for the humans. The author also suggests that werewolves could solve the ongoing problem of the holiday's lack of a standard spelling: each werewolf could choose a spelling, and then they'd fight it out, with the winner deciding the official name.
Michelle Franklin has several other books in a similar vein: Dragons Don't Celebrate Passover, Gryphons Don't Celebrate Shavuot, and Vampires Don't Observe Shabbos. (Come to think of it, dragons would probably prefer Hanukkah - all those candles.)
Thinklings Books shared their 10 favorite quotes from "The Star-Crossed Pelican." As a bonus, here's mine:
“Frink, there is treatment available for kleptomania.”
“I know. I’ve stolen a few books about it.”
Read the rest here.