Category Archives: Bestseller

The Vanishing Half

Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half has a LONG waitlist at the library, and so when I found it on the ‘Seven Day Quick Reads’ shelf I scooped it up (knowing, as I did, that I would be accruing serious fines as the likelihood of me finishing it in seven days was… poor. Given I was still reading A Little Life. Alas. The library deserves my money. ANYWAY.). Long waitlist, no doubt, because the book tops many of the top recommendations for 2020 novels and hits the right notes for a bestseller: family saga, race and identity in America, rich people, good writing. And I fault no one for recommending it, and no one for seeking it out and reading it.

You can feel the ‘but’ coming, can’t you?

But. The novel takes it’s ‘point’ and makes it just too didactic for this reader’s enjoyment. Like if you took a Bernenstain Bear’s picture book that has a literal moral on the front page and made it into well written literary fiction. Just as preschoolers can smell the moral a mile away and find the badgering about sharing or politeness or bullying (or more recently, environmentalism) to be off-putting, the way this novel continues to circle, draw arrows, reinforce in bold its message that identity is created and identity is performative and well, it gets to be a bit distracting.

So right – the plot: twins are born in Mallard, an African-American town premised on its preference for light skin. In their teenage years they run away and separate: one twin, Stella, goes on to live her life ‘passing’ as a white woman, the other, Desiree, returns to Mallard to raise her darkest-dark skinned daughter, Jude. Jude meets Stella’s daughter, Kennedy. The history and present of the family collapses, collides, secrets and ‘truths’ threaten and reveal. [Oh and Jude falls in love with a trans man, Reese, whose addition to the story reads as entirely about driving home for the reader the gaps and tensions between who we are, how we are ‘read’ by the world, how we perform and the meaning our bodies create and signify – and of course the material consequences of how others read us.] And the book does make that clear. That as much as Stella has the option of passing, Jude would not, that the idea that all identity is performative runs up against the way the world reads us, not ever simply or only how we wish to be seen or valued.

So yes. I do think there’s enough of interest her to make this a book well worth reading, and certainly an excellent selection for a book club. Just not a book you’ll read without feeling (at a few points) like maybe it was written to be taught in high school or undergraduate classes. Or a book club!

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Filed under American literature, Bestseller, Book Club, Fiction

Big Summer: Uhhhhh. I’m Failing at Instagram

So I have an Instagram account where I post pictures of my kids and follow my friends from grad school. I sort of thought of it as a virtual photo album not fully realizing it’s a whole world of commerce and connection and posturing. Okay, so I do know that I sometimes make my kids do extra cute things for the likes, but I didn’t realize you could monetize that and I know, I know, Luddite, etc. Tbh (to be honest – for you, mum), I don’t know how to use a filter, or how people add the sparkling things like lips and hearts, and I don’t really care to learn. Except if maybe it would make me millions of dollars like the ‘influencers’ in Jennifer Weiner’s Big Summer do. Maybe I could be a mom influencer? I have many ideas for cute snacks that I… never execute.

But really, this book is both a total waste of your time to read because it’s silly and hilariously over-the-top, and also the exact sort of summer candy that will make your beach vacation a blast because of course you are going on a beach vacation because you are fancy and can do just that.

The novel starts out as a somewhat serious exploration of female friendship, online culture and body acceptance. It then takes a radical pivot (in the sense I didn’t see it coming at all) to murder mystery and romance. (Like the kind of romance where you squirm a little because there are A Lot of Details and you weren’t prepared for that kind of reading right now.) And the rest of the novel is something of a whodunnit mixed with a splashy polished fancy rich things catalogue. Like it was almost impossible to stop thinking about how the book was setting itself up to be adapted for HBO.

SOOOO. What? Do you read it? I don’t know. It’s so silly. Even while it’s trying to be Serious and Important with its themes of bullying and fat acceptance. But maybe silly is exactly what we all need right now. Maybe. You tell me! You never do, but still. Maybe if I was a better #influencer you would…

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Filed under Bestseller, Book I'll Forget I Read, Fiction

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes: Totally fun.

I was a big fan of the Hunger Games Trilogy (uhhh. don’t follow that link. turns out I read the trilogy but was too busy to post beyond saying I read it and liked it). But I’ve always been a skeptic of the prequel that seems only to be written to capitalize on a giant market demanding more of the series. Because (obvs) these books tend to be bad and obvious about their effort to rake in some more money (think: all the appendages to the Harry Potter franchise).

Happy was the day, then, that I picked up Suzanne Collins’ The Ballad on Songbirds and Snakes on the recommendation of David Plotz from my most favourite Slate Political Gabfest podcast. He was right! It’s a totally fun read. If you’re in to child murder? Okay, no. But it’s fun in that the world of the Hunger Games quickly comes alive in a fully developed and independent plot, with interesting questions to explore: how do atrocities (like a game about child murder) come to be accepted (and celebrated) by a general public? to what extent are individuals (in this case the eventual President Snow) crafted by circumstance or by choice?

I particularly liked the way the book unsettled expectations for the plot arc. I was expecting it to climax with the annual hunger games, but the games serve only as a pivot point to take the reader into a second build-up of character development and tension.

If I had one complaint it would be that the ending read as rushed and not entirely consistent. Without giving too much away the erstwhile romance takes a dramatic turn, and I’ll claim it was my fault, but I didn’t see the ending coming At. All. and as a consequence found it read like it wanted to get to a particular conclusion but didn’t have the logic (or perhaps the patience?) to bring the reader to that point.

So if you liked the Hunger Games by all means read this one. If you haven’t read that trilogy yet… what are you still doing reading this? xo

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Filed under Bestseller, Fiction

The Passage: 800 Pages of a Vampire Pandemic

I wanted a hefty summer read and so I chose… a book about a vampire pandemic? I blame some NYTimes column of summer reading suggestions for pointing me to Justin Cronin’s The Passage. Blame suggests it was a bad choice. I don’t know. It might have been. Probably the part about reading about a pandemic where there are only a handful of human survivors left was a bad choice. But the part about a virus that creates vampires was excellent.

I was about to write that it would make a great adaptation for TV and then I checked and it has ALREADY BEEN ADAPTED. Clearly TV producers are reading my mind/blog. A great adaptation because it’s super plot driven, with lots of hanging scenes where you’re left wondering if someone is still alive, or why they are having a strange dream, or whether X hero is going to make out with Y hero. Plus lots of descriptions of fancy military equipment and gritty technology that makes for excellent set design.

Reasons you could probably skip the EIGHT HUNDRED PAGES and just watch the show:

  1. There are many, many other better things to read
  2. The characters aren’t all that interesting or well developed and so the novelistic interiority wouldn’t be missed
  3. There are many, many other better things to read

Reasons you might want to read EIGHT HUNDRED PAGES (and also watch the show):

  1. You have a newborn/puppy/insomnia/high maintenance plant and are forced to be awake at outrageous hours where the best thing preventing you from falling asleep in your chair and thus RISKING THE LIFE OF YOUR CHILD/puppy/sanity/plant is an epic book about a vampire pandemic.
  2. You are similarly trapped somewhere and the only thing available to read is this giant book.
  3. Did I say trapped? I mean, #blessed.

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