A quick round-up of my 5-star books for the summer so far:
In the Neighborhood of True by Susan Kaplan Carlton. 5/5
In 1958, Ruth Robb and her sister Nattie move to Atlanta with their mother to move in with her mother’s parents after the death of their father. While Nattie and her mother find new connections and strength at their new temple, Ruth is pushed and pulled by the lure of the South’s Christian debutante traditions and her grandmother’s desire for her to succeed there. Smart, conflicted Ruth learns to navigate the difficult path of hiding her identity, until the temple, where the progressive rabbi works for integration and voting rights, is bombed by Ruth’s boyfriend’s brother. Well-written, with characters who feel real and descriptions that evoke the American South and its world, this is a terrific book–a coming of age story that isn’t predictable or preachy or prudish, but that engages with difficult issues and doesn’t punish the protagonist for doing what is right for her, whether that’s sleeping with her boyfriend or testifying in court about the bombing. I grew up in the South, where my dad was the son of a Baptist preacher and my mom’s family were non-religious Jews, a place where my mom warned me about not telling anyone about our Jewish ancestry, especially not when I was a guest at the country club or at school. I wish I’d had this book to read then, and to give my friends to read.
Depart, Depart! by Sim Kern. 5/5
I absolutely loved this hopeful, beautiful novel about solidarity, the development of identity, and the strength of community and love and acceptance. Noah is a survivor of a devastating hurricane that destroys Houston. Evacuated to Dallas, he’s given shelter in an athletic arena, where neighborhoods of similar folks spring up. There he finds other trans people who are–like him–in need of medical care and emotional support. And to top it all off, Noah is being haunted by his great-grandfather Abe, whose presence has been both life-saving and disquieting. Over the course of several weeks, Noah and his new friends form tight bonds, face very real and very dangerous transphobia and other forms of bigotry, and begin to make steps towards creating new lives for themselves.
Kern does an absolutely beautiful job of showing the ways in which trans people are treated by those who are ignorant, unaccepting, or think of themselves as allies but haven’t truly gotten past deeply ingrained beliefs to the contrary. They illustrate the difficulties that all refugees from minority groups in volatile situations like those that arise in shelters are forced to face, and show how much it can mean to have a few people in authority on your side. They also write with great depth about the struggles in trying to reconcile religion with lived experiences. Noah is a secular Jew, but in researching why Abe is haunting him, he finds religious texts and arguments that are both enormously uplifting and relatable, and others that make him push back from identifying as a Jew. Based on my own reading, I think secular Jews and queer people are going to feel a chill of understanding as they read about Noah’s experiences as he thinks about his Jewish heritage and the way its religious texts can offer both comfort and despair.
This is such a real story, and such an important one, that I want this novel to succeed: I want it taught in schools, I want it chosen for book clubs and reading groups, I want it on library displays everywhere. I want everyone to read it, and hope.
Uncrowned Queen by Nicola Tallis. 5/5
Uncrowned Queen is an excellent biography of Margaret Beaufort, mother of King Henry VII and a savvy political figure active in the Wars of the Roses. Thoroughly researched, the book is an entertaining and detailed read, and Tallis does a great job of making all of the often complicated bloodlines and inheritances clear and relevant. Readers interested in the Tudors and their history will enjoy this account of Margaret’s careful planning and plots to install her son on the throne, as well as the detail Tallis provides on Margaret’s estates, clothes, and jewelry, all managed and and used for specific purposes to secure her life, that of her her heir, and her freedom and positions over the course of her life.
Vesper Flights by Helen Macdonald. 5/5
This is a luminous book, a guide to Macdonald’s life and ways of thinking, and, along, the way, a meditation on birds and nature and change and cows and falcons and deer. I can’t wait to be able to give this book to people who love words and nature and will savor every poetic phrase and observation.
Inheritors by Asako Serizawa. 5/5
A stunning and magnificent book about World War II in Japan and America that everyone should read. Serizawa’s writing is beautiful, brash, and wholly enthralling as she charts the emotions and reactions and relationships that touch on one Japanese family over many generations. Serizawa’s tiny details, a sense or proportion, and the ability to write unflinchingly about horror and trauma make this book outstanding.
Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. 5/5
A gorgeous Gothic novel full of the traditional elements of the genre, expertly handled and made interesting and new again. Moreno-Garcia gives readers a lot of hints throughout, but while they were obvious it never felt too heavy-handed. Her use of characters who can communicate in both English and Spanish, keeping non-Spanish speakers from understanding, was a good device, but could have been more powerful if she’d replaced Spanish with an indigenous language to further emphasize difference and the eugenicist beliefs of certain characters. The novel serves as a fantastic allegory for colonization and corruption.
The Gilded Ones by Namina Forna. 5/5
This is a wonderful book about the power of women and allyship and playing the long game to achieve something truly spectacular. Young women, ostracized from their communities, are trained as warriors….but when the biggest battle comes, there is a startling and liberating secret that has to come out. I loved this book, which draws from West African myth and lore, has well-developed and diverse characters, and is masterpiece of layered stories and motivations.
Devolution by Max Brooks. 5/5
Having taken on zombies in World War Z, Max Brooks now tackles Bigfoot/Sasquatch in his new novel. Like World War Z, Devolution is structured as a journalistic account, using interviews, diaries, and other materials from the world of the novel to create a fast-paced and compelling thriller about one so-called utopia and how its residents handle the arrival of aggressive and hungry Sasquatch after Mount Rainier erupts. The characters are deftly created, and I appreciated the fact that women were the main characters and leaders of the group. Anyone who has enjoyed Brooks’s other work, likes dystopias or apocalyptic settings, or likes tales of the unknown will get a kick out of this fun and clever book.
To Calais, In Ordinary Time by James Meek. 5/5
An astonishing and brilliant book intended to–and effective at–capturing the world and language of late 14th-century England. A former priest, an archer, and a noblewoman on the run find themselves traveling together to Calais in a time of plague, war, and uncertainty. Exploring social mores, religious belief, gender, sexuality, politics, and more, Meek creates a wondrous tale of resistance and persistence.