June Wrap-Up

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I know I said almost this exact thing last month, but June felt especially dark (thanks so much, idiotic Supreme Court justices!!), so I turned to my handy-dandy bookshelf and immersed myself in fake worlds instead of having to face an ever-terrifying real world. Basically, as soon as I finished a book, I started another one, because then my thoughts could exist in a plane of my own making and prevented me from doom-scrolling.

Because it was Pride Month, I tried to prioritize books by queer authors or featuring queer characters (interspersed with me trying to blast through my Library holds) — from the classic (James Baldwin) to the adorable (T.J. Klune) to the dark (Carmen Maria Machado). I’m close to an 80 percent return rate on NetGalley with my ARCs, and this month’s selections — “My Government Means to Kill Me,” Blood and Moonlight,” and “The Proposal” — were all solid offerings I’d recommend. I can’t stop thinking about “Nightbitch,” because it’s deranged and wild, with absolutely phenomenal writing. (“Acts of Service” had similarily strong writing, but it wasn’t quite as sharp and surprising.) And “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” is going to be one of my most-recommended books, I’m sure.

Here’s hoping next month doesn’t scream doomsday!

June Books:

  1. The House in the Cerulean Sea (5+)
  2. Giovanni’s Room (5)
  3. Nightbitch (5)
  4. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (5)
  5. Bad Girls (5)
  6. Memorial (4.5)
  7. Memphis (4)
  8. My Government Means to Kill Me (4)
  9. Acts of Service (4)
  10. Her Body and Other Parties (4)
  11. Time is a Mother (4)
  12. Blood and Moonlight (3.75)
  13. I Kissed Shara Wheeler (3.5)
  14. The Proposal (3)
  15. True Biz (3)

The Bodyguard” by Katherine Center — 3/5

I had the devil’s own time falling asleep last night, so, at about 1 a.m., I decided to give this book a go, hoping I could read a few chapters to help lull my mind to sleep. Well, I stayed up until about 3:30 a.m. to finish it, instead. 

This is a very readable book with a nice mix of a sweet romance and a lightly simmering suspense, so it’s no wonder I didn’t want to put it down. Katherine Center always knows how to deliver an emotional punch with her trademark pseudo-therapeutic discovery in the late stages of the book, and I really enjoyed watching Hannah figure out who she is and what she wanted. 

The relationship between Hannah and Jack really drew me in because of how sweet their interactions were and how they really opened up to each other and brought out the best in the other person, and the two together were absolutely adorable when they were bantering. (I couldn’t stop giggling.) The dialogue between the two was so strong that I actually wanted tons more of it. The book’s first-person POV created too many interior monologues for my liking, and the direct addressing of the reader (“you saw,” “you know”) and the perspective being from a future point in time (“when I think about it now,” “I didn’t know it then”) put me off the book. All I wanted was more pages of Hannah and Jack being too cute for words!

I also wish I had a better idea of who Hannah was. At the start of the book, she’s defined as a workaholic, which is fine, but we never really learn much about her likes or interests outside of being a badass protection agent who could kill you with a wine opener. She’s supposedly a good cook, but that’s basically it — none of her traits are really explored, and, while I got a good grasp of her personality, Hannah didn’t feel fully realized to me, and she never really develops. (Jack is reasonably one-dimensional, too, but we’re not inside his head for the whole book.) And when Hannah is given characteristics, they’re often her complaining about the job, and her whining made her seem a little unaware and immature. 

And all that bummed me out, because there was a lot in this book I enjoyed, but my hang-ups prevented me from really adoring this read because I didn’t really care about the characters, and I couldn’t quite vibe with the writing style. Still, this book is cute and sweet and has heart. The tropes were wonderfully maneuvered. Hannah and Jack left me smiley and happy; their relationship was well-built, and — yay! — there weren’t any third-act breakup shenanigans caused by miscommunication. And, most importantly, this book did its job: When I finally fell asleep, I had nothing but sweet dreams. 

Special thanks to NetGalley, St. Martin’s Press, and Katherine Center for proving me with an e-ARC of this book in exchange for my honest review.

“Nightbitch” by Rachel Yoder — 5/5

I like to highlight sentences in books I read that I find particularly memorable or biting or insightful. I had to stop myself from basically highlighting this entire book. Rachel Yoder is a language master, and it made her book an absolute joy to read. Her writing is almost its own character in this book — run-on sentences create energy and anger and anticipation as the sentences build to an explosive end; repetition contributes a sense of the monotony in Nightbitch’s life; the phrasing is dynamic and almost aggressive. Even things like Yoder’s use of parentheses feel fresh. I’ve gone searching for everything Yoder has written after finishing this book.

“Nightbitch” is irreverent and darkly funny, and the absurdity of the plot made me feel insane the entire time I was reading it — in the best way possible. The book grows more and more deranged, mimicking a slow descent into madness. It’s also full of so many interesting themes and ideas that feel particularly relevant in a time when women are really working to find a balance between work life and home life (if one exists). In this case, our main character is given no name other than Nightbitch (and the initials M.M.) and has lost her identity outside of being a mother. She used to be an artist, but she can’t create after giving birth and staying home to raise her son. As Nightbitch’s motherly rage grows as her lack of sleep worsens, she begins manifesting doglike characteristics. Then the book touches on topics such as toxic motherhood, the idea of motherhood as a performance art, the idea of the “working” mom, motherly rage, the magic of motherhood (in the form of literal magic), the transformative properties of motherhood (again literally), and so many other clever themes.

Everything that happens in the book takes place in a society that, unsurprisingly, rewards fathers for doing the bare minimum. And it rings so dang true for real life; If I have to see another post where some woman with fried hair refers to her husband looking after the kids as “babysitting,” I’m going to scream! In the book, the word “mother” appears 424 times. The word “wife” appears 13 times. Comparatively, the word “father” pops up 11 times, while the word “husband” graces these pages on 197 occasions. And because Nightbitch’s husband makes the money, all the emotional labor that falls on her shoulders is discounted. I’ve read a number of books about motherhood this year by happenstance, and what I think Yoder conveys so well as opposed to some of these books is that Nightbitch, for all her complaining and rage, really does love her child. But she gripes and feels like she’s losing her mind while still expressing this unconditional love for her son, and Yoder handles that brilliantly. 

This is an insane story, but Yoder somehow makes everything seem very common and normal — which, at the core of the story it is. A lot of things needed a break after I finished this book — firstly my brain and secondly my highlighter.

“On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” by Ocean Vuong — 5/5

I love reading writing by poets because it’s usually some of the most astounding writing. And this book by Ocean Vuong is no exception. Every paragraph within these pages has an interesting cadence, and there were lines that left me stunned. Vuong has this incredible way of looking at the world and of finding beauty and poignancy in the violent and the mundane. It almost feels like, in his writing, there’s this brutality that’s just wonderfully worded — “to speak in our mother tongue is to speak only partially in Vietnamese, but entirely in war” and “I wanted to cry but did not yet now how to in English” and “It’s not fair that the word laughter is trapped inside slaughter.”

Vuong writes about how some people say history moves in a spiral, and that’s how this book feels: like you’re winding around various threads in someone’s life — and this weaving of ideas creates a rhythm that ties everything together. The telling of this story as a son writing a letter to his mother (who is illiterate and will almost certainly never read it) allows for incredible emotional exploration and depth as their relationship and its impact on his life is stark and profound. This is a heartbreaking book, that’s for sure, but it’s also wonderfully reflective and defiant and tells an intimate tale with far-reaching implications about life and loss and love — and the American experience. 

“True Biz” by Sara Nović — 3/5

One of the things I love most about language is how fluid it is. How words can mean different things in different contexts, how there often isn’t a direct translation for words across languages, how words can evoke different emotions. And this book, which is a beautiful exploration of Deaf culture and their language, does a wonderful job of giving a voice to a community that’s often, well, voiceless.

This book is a love letter to the Deaf community. And that made it a fascinating read as I got to learn more about ASL, Deaf culture, and the variety of experiences in a community that often get lumped together under one header: deaf. 

“True Biz” really focuses on three characters who come at the world from different places — February, the headmistress of the school, is a hearing child of deaf parents (a CODA); Charlie, a student, has a faulty cochlear implant and never learned ASL (and neither have her parents); and Austin, another student, is fifth-generation deaf on his mother’s side and is almost royalty at the school because of it. The book also incorporates a lot of the history of the Deaf community (and all the historical horrors associated with it), which fascinated me, and I loved the addition of graphics to show how ASL is communicated and all the intricacies involved that I’d previously never thought about (where on your body you’re signing, the use of your eyebrows and mouth, the speed and repetition involved, etc.). Sara Nović portrays this community with tons of intricacies, and it’s interesting to read about a character such as Charlie who finds her voice through silence. 

There was a lot going on with the plot of this book — probably too much. When you’re focusing on three characters and each character has about three side plots, it makes it hard to focus on the core of the story. Did February really need a sick mom, marital issues (caused by a former flame being on her teaching staff), and a school facing budgetary issues? And Austin’s mean girl ex-girlfriend and Charlie’s anarchist friend with benefits just created too many complications in a book that needed to be streamlined. I also wish the characterization had rung a bit more true. I never really felt like I had a good grasp on their motivations and who they were at their core, so, when the third-act fireworks arrived, I wasn’t entirely sure why or how we got to where we were. Nović mostly commits to focusing on the three main characters but then throws in standalone chapters from other POVs, which I didn’t feel like were needed. (Plus, having a chapter devoted to Kayla just to have her talk  about BASL (Black American Sign Language) didn’t quite sit right with me. I’d have either made her a main character and devoted more time to her story or cut the chapter.) Some of the attitudes in the book toward sex, drinking, and drugs didn’t sit right with me, given we’re dealing primarily with underage teenagers. (Fifteen-year-old Charlie is literally referred to as “Jailbait” by the friends of the probably 19-year-old guy she’s hooking up with.)

The ending of the book left me unsatisfied, because none of the various threads running throughout this text get resolved. I understand there’s no easy way to fix the massive issues facing the Deaf community and the attacks on their culture as some people want to eradicate it, so I wasn’t looking for Nović to wave a magic wand and declare all the serious — and very real — issues solved. But, because there’s so much happening in this book, there needed to be some sort of closing of storylines that made the story complete. Instead, it just seemed like Nović realized wrapping up a book would be hard and kind of gave up.

I think this book gets bogged down by trying to be too much too fast, but I appreciate what it taught me about Deaf culture and the richness with which Nović writes about it. Most importantly, she does an incredible job of portraying the importance of language — in all its disparate forms.

“My Government Means to Kill Me” by Rasheed Newson — 4/5

Last night, I glanced up from reading this book to look at the TV, which was on in the background. It took me a few seconds to realize that this book — set during the AIDS crisis in the late-1980s — and the current reality the newscaster was talking about (violence at LGBTQ+ events, the attempted extinction of the trans community, etc.) aren’t all that far apart. What was happening within these pages and what was happening on the screen in front me were about 40 years apart, yet too much is the same.

Rasheed Newson imbues this book, a fake autobiography of a young, gay, Black man named Trey during the AIDS epidemic, with tons of heart, and Newson’s setting comes to life. This book is peppered with interesting historical tidbits and characters that add zest and make a tough-to-talk-about time period in our nation’s history more fleshed out. As a result, the story is approachable, and Newson’s lively writing style makes Trey’s voice sing. As a whole, Trey is an interesting character because he’s sheltered and naive and a little self-serving, and he stumbles into the life of an activist — he’s unable to pay his rent and, as a result, decides to start a rent strike in his building. (Fred Trump is, naturally, the despicable landlord.)

About halfway into the book, Trey finds his motivation (which took a little too long for my liking) to get involved in activism, and he finds his footing in the ACT UP grassroots movement — intentionally, this time. That’s where I think the book really shines, because bigger and more important ideas are then explored. Because Trey is so naive and impatient, I sometimes found myself wanting him to understand that there are bigger forces at play and that change takes time and isn’t always linear. (I’m also a lot more pessimistic these days given the state of, well, everything currently happening in this country.) Newson’s addition of Bayard Rustin, a gay activist who helped organize the March on Washington, provided an interesting dose of skepticism and jadedness, and I liked the dichotomy between the two characters. In the book, Rustin talks about putting the movement ahead of a single person and living with the losses — so long as it helps the movement achieve its over-arching goal. Trey can be a bit impetuous and singularly focused, so I found myself wishing he’d be given something to quell some of his optimism and recklessness and look at the bigger picture, as hard as that can be to do. Still, he serves as an interesting exploration of the sacrifices you have to make to devote your life to a cause: people you care about, your morals, and your dreams.

I think the book could have benefited from more dialogue; it’s so well-written when it’s there, and the book is already exposition-heavy. And, while I liked how each chapter was its own lesson, because the time period covered in these pages is so short, the book didn’t feel complete. When it ends, we have a great idea of who Trey is and what he experienced and accomplished during this time, but we don’t have any sense of his future (we don’t know when Trey is “writing” this book from), and there isn’t much resolution to his relationships with some of the other characters.

This is the kind of book I think everyone needs to read, because it shines so much light on a dark time when the U.S. government looked the other way as hundreds of thousands of its citizens died. (But, yeah, let’s give Nancy Reagan a stamp during Pride month.) This an energetic and informative book, and the way the story is told is engrossing. I’d love to reread this book in 30 years and think “Wow, look how much has changed.”

Special thanks to NetGalley, Flatiron Books, and Rasheed Newson for proving me with an e-ARC of this book in exchange for my honest review.

“I Kissed Shara Wheeler” by Casey McQuiston — 3.5/5

I found the first third of this book intriguing, I contemplated DNFing during the second third, and I absolutely adored the final third. 

This book has a cute concept — tracking down a missing classmate, Shara Wheeler, who disappeared right before being crowned prom queen and left behind notes (clues to finding her) addressed to the last three people she kissed: Chloe, Trey, and Smith. As usual, Casey McQuiston does a tremendous job with introducing the characters and the plot. Their writing is always a delight to read, and they’re so good at weaving exposition and dialogue and characterization. So the first third of the book is delightful and nicely paced. 

And then comes the next section of the book. The problem with having the namesake of the book hanging over the pages as a specter is that the character has to live up to the mythology that’s been created. And Shara Wheeler… doesn’t. As her character begins to get explored, she doesn’t come across as interesting or worthy of this in-depth search — she comes across as a narcissistic mean girl. And that means Chloe’s obsession with finding Shara never rang true to me or interested me (and annoyed me as Chloe neglected everything and everyone else because of this single-minded focus).

I’m definitely glad I stuck with the book, though, because I loved the ending. Shara is no longer the sole focus, and the storyline is much more fulfilling when it becomes more about this community of kids who are terrorized by their religious right, homophobic, Christian high school. The side characters in this book are wonderful additions, and there’s so much heart in this final part of the book as they get further explored. (I found myself tearing up on multiple occasions.) The way these students begin to explore who they are — and who they want to be — is a joy to read about. 

I had the hardest time figuring out how to rate this book. Maybe if you read it, just speed read through the second section? You’ll almost certainly like the book regardless, but you’ll save yourself a lot of huffs and puffs along the way.

“Time is a Mother” by Ocean Vuong — 4/5

This poetry collection, which is full of the poignant writing I’ve come to expect from Ocean Vuong, is a wonderful exploration of the depths of grief and love. The poems touch on a variety of topics, but the thread of loss is carried throughout in an achingly beautiful (and mournful) tribute to his recently deceased mother. (“Amazon History of a Former Nail Salon Worker” nearly wrecked me.) Vuong has succeeded in keeping his mother alive through his language, and this collection conveys an idea of life through death, as if our existence never truly ends. I’m glad I read “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” before this poetry collection, because it acts almost as a sequel to some of the metaphors and images and stories. But where “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” tells a story, this collection really serves as a way to unpack time (one poem is told in reverse, as if a videotape of someone’s life is being rewound) and to memorialize life’s beauty and sorrow. It sometimes felt like this collection was lacking an oomph somewhere; it’s pretty and fleeting, not bold and memorable. But it’s still quite lovely to read. This is a tender and intimate collection, and it simultaneously broke me and put me back together. 

“Acts of Service ” by Lillian Fishman — 4/5

From the first line of this book, we learn the narrator, Eve, likes to be naked — in both the photos she takes of herself that get the plot rolling, and in her honesty. What follows within these pages is a look at pleasure, morality, and sexuality. Lillian Fishman’s debut is an interesting exploration of queerness told through a woman’s relationship with a straight man, and it’s an unflinching study of insufferable characters acting in hedonistic ways.

From the start, we know that Eve wants others’ eyes on her, that she wants to be seen and appreciated for her body. She never hides her vanity, and it’s refreshing to read about a woman who revels in seeking — and finding — pleasure. All the characters are a lot unlikable and a little pathetic (or vice versa), but their immorality and debauchery make them interesting. Everyone lives in gray areas. The way Fishman describes these characters is brilliant — they’re detailed to the point of recognizablity. And by that I mean that the characters are distinguished enough to have a certain personality and traits but are also vague enough that the reader can project aspects onto them and shape them into who they see the character as. For example, Fishman makes Nathan magnetic — but the reader gets to color in his broad outline based on whatever is magnetic (and sexiest) to them.

There are a lot of interesting ideas raised in this book — on sex, on power dynamics, on gender dynamics, on the male gaze, etc. — and they’re all tackled frankly. But, sometimes, the conversations end right before they’re going to get interesting. Eve tests the boundaries of these questions, but there’s never really any resolution to these ideas. It’s like Fishman is taking you right up to the edge — and then not providing any satisfying release. Sometimes these long paragraphs of exploration are a tad tedious, which lessens the impact when there are so many of them. At times, it’s almost like Fishman is a little too in love with her own writing and wants us to find it as brilliant as she does. But she certainly grabs your attention, and this book truly is filled with some sharp and wonderful writing. 

All in all, this is a book is a pleasure to read — in more ways than one. 

“Giovanni’s Room” by James Baldwin — 5/5

James Baldwin is a genius. Of course, I knew that before I picked up this book, but reading “Giovanni’s Room” just solidified that brilliance for me. I loved this book. Baldwin has the type of rhythmic cadence to his writing that you don’t find too often in literature, and it seduced me. And this story — of the push and pull between a man’s head and his heart, of the fear of loving and being loved, of disgust and adoration, of choice — is a captivating one. The love between David and Giovanni is desperate and raw, and the way Baldwin portrays their relationship in the larger context of the world at the time (the book was published in 1956) shows that these experiences remain universal. This story is an exploration of identity, masculinity, and society told by a character who is full of self-loathing and regret but who has an immense capacity for love and wonder. It’s a melancholic tale — you know how it’s going to end from the start — but the way Baldwin tells it, in all its heartbreaking and triumphant glory, is a work of art. 

“Blood and Moonlight” by Erin Beaty — 3.75/5

This book had me sufficiently hooked at 12 percent of the way through that, at 1:09 a.m. and running on less than four hours of sleep, I couldn’t bear to put it down. 

Erin Beaty has crafted a quite beautiful tale with lovely whispers of magic and romance throughout. This is an ornate world, and it’s so well-researched and well-depicted that it comes alive and acts as a near-perfect backdrop to this story. A lot is based on the fact that you’re able to picture the imagery and the architecture, but Beaty’s way of describing everything is lively and robust without ever coming across as heavy-handed, so I never felt like I was floundering to imagine all the visual intricacies of her setting. The magic in the book was intriguing and fresh, and watching Catrin grow to understand her abilities never came across as forced; she acts as a perfect conduit to this world because she’s charming and spirited and curious. The other characters are intriguing, too, especially Simon and Juliane in regards to their relationship; through them, Beaty deftly tackles some more serious issues (mental illness). 

While this book is many things (maybe too many), it’s mainly a murder mystery,  and it’s well played out within these pages. I figured out who the killer was very early on, and I was still waiting with bated breath to see how the plot developed and what happened in the end. (Even if, when all’s said and done, the motive didn’t quite make sense.) The only problem with the whodunnit being telegraphed — at least for me — was that Catrin was blind to what I saw as so obvious, so her confusion felt like a glaring oversight and became frustrating. Like, the answer is right there!!!! But the investigation of the murders (which, beware, are quite gruesome) is nicely paced — even as the book toggles between being a murder mystery and a fantasy and a romance — and the clues will definitely get the reader theorizing. 

I wish Beaty had created a little more chemistry between Catrin and Simon; instead of their connection growing naturally, it felt like they picked up in the middle of a relationship with no real lead-in, and things thereafter felt a little forced. I really enjoyed the way they related and opened up to each other, but there wasn’t much in these pages to explain this supposedly intense connection they felt. They’re cute together, but, for whatever, reason, I didn’t really buy a deep attraction. I almost think they would have been better as friends. 

So, no, it’s not a perfect book. But it’s a well-woven tale, and it was well worth my __ under-eye bags the next day. 

(Also, I’ll say what we’re all thinking: The cover is absolutely stunning and worth a buy for that alone.)

Special thanks to NetGalley, Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group, and Erin Beaty for proving me with an e-ARC of this book in exchange for my honest review.

“Memorial” by Bryan Washington — 4.5/5

It’s always a little daunting when you pick up a book that every single book critic seems to have loved, because your expectations are sky high, and you desperately want to enjoy it as much as everyone else apparently did. This book by Bryan Washington didn’t let me down. Like the critics said, it’s a wonderfully written, engaging, raw tale about love, both familial and romantic (and at the intersection of race and sexuality). 

Washington gives the two main characters, Ben and Mike, distinct voices, but his own voice is strong and shines throughout. Washington never overcomplicates things — the writing is rather sparse, but he makes every word count. The dialogue is snappy and conversational in tone; this, in turn, really allows the embroiling conflicts between the two men to stand in sharp contrast. And Washington somehow conveys just as much in what’s left unsaid between the characters as in what they’re saying to each other (and to the reader). The silence allows the characters to be themselves in their truest form, which is a remarkable feat. 

Ben and Mike love each other — but they’re not sure they should. And they’re not sure what comes next for them. They don’t have a pretty, picture-perfect relationship; love for them can be hard and heavy and complicated and messy — and beautiful. They’re not really happy, and they’re doing things that are making them even more unhappy, but they’re trying to find a kind of peace and understanding in their relationship. They hurt and get hurt — and then do it all over again — but the love between them is powerful and important. Washington uses Ben and Mike’s families to help express a different kind of love and to show the differences between the family we’re given and the family we choose. All the characters in the book combine to create this really interesting question Washington poses about the true nature of home and where we find it. 

I’m almost always a fan of slice-of-life novels such as this one, because I love the way they look at something so intimate, so mundane and show how much hinges on what we see, in the moment, as the unimportant parts of life. Because, as Washington shows here, most of life happens in the margins with what we’re not saying. And as much as we want love to be easy and unconditional, it isn’t. This is a love story about a love that’s falling apart, told in a wry, vulnerable way. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book.

Gosh dang it, don’t you hate it when the critics are right?

“The House in the Cerulean Sea” by T.J. Klune — 5/5

Today was a no good, horrible day, so I needed a feel-good, heartwarming book that could wrap me up in its tale and make me feel, at least while I was within its pages, that everything was going to be okay. This book feels like a warm hug. And, sometimes, that’s all you want (or need) in a story.

“Memphis” by Tara M. Stringfellow — 4/5

Tara M. Stringfellow’s writing has me about ready to jump on a flight to the Memphis she describes in this book. Her setting is lively — I could smell the aromas from the honeysuckle and the African violets wafting from the pages, and I wanted to climb the magnolias and plum trees alongside the characters — and the city as she writes it is the glue that holds this sprawling story together. With her wonderful cast of characters that tell a tale across 70 years, Stringfellow writes about Black pain, Black sorrow, Black joy, Black love in a beautiful and pure way. She writes about the harsh realities of the life the North women have lived (and will live) but does so with characters who have tremendous strength of spirit. As a result, this book is both heartbreaking and hopeful. Occasionally, the way the book moved from character to character and year to year felt jumpy and confused me (and I’m still wondering why four of the five women on the family tree were given chapters but sweet, spunky Mya wasn’t). But the tapestry Stringfellow has woven with these powerful women tells a stunning and vulnerable tale about familial bonds and the power of love and healing. 

“Bad Girls” by Camila Sosa Villada — 5/5

At one point in this book, Camila Sosa Villada asks of the word “violence,” “how many times have I written that word in these pages?” The answer is 11; “violent” appears a further seven times. But iterations of the word “beautiful” appear 49 times. This book is a deep look at a community that faces unspeakable violence, but also a celebration of the beauty of the travesti existence. (“Travesti” is a word used in Latin America that translates literally to “transvestite” and was intended to demean the existence of those who are born male but develop a different gender identity — Sosa Villada powerfully reclaims the use of the word in an author’s note at the start of the book.) This is a story about choosing your family and the magic — figurative and literal, in this case — that keeps them all together. At the heart of the travestis is 178-year-old Auntie Encarna, whose true love was a headless man and who discovered “her” psychic child, Twinkle In Her Eye, covered in thorns in the bushes near where the travestis find clients. There’s also Maria, a deaf-mute little bird, and Natali, a she-wolf who has to be restrained during the full moon. It’s a menagerie, and animal imagery abounds. 

In this semi-autobiographical tale, our narrator is Camila, who tells with harrowing detail her experience with abuse, prostitution, drugs, rape, and more as she moves from a small town where she hides who she is to one where she’s allowed to live life to her fullest existence (even if it’s almost solely at night). Sosa Villada writes brazenly and exuberantly — and Kit Maude translates that brilliantly — and her novel teems with power and tenderness. Sosa Villada tackles raw topics in a confrontational manner, but her overarching message is one of love — and of finding home. When I finished the book, as sad as parts of it were, I felt hopeful. 

“Her Body and Other Parties” by Carmen Maria Machado — 4/5

I’d like to spend a day inside Carmen Maria Machado’s brain, just to see how on earth she comes up with some of her ideas. “Her Body and Other Parties” is delightfully strange and experimental, and Machado brilliantly conveys the horror of the mundane. She stretches language to its fullest potential and perfectly writes the psychological and the supernatural as if they’re common occurrences (and maybe they are). Some of the short stories in this collection are overlong (“Heinous Crimes”), some are confusing (“The Mother”) — but some are flat-out brilliant. The result is a thrilling and frank look at sexuality, gender, and agency — all told in ways that will make you shiver and check just one more time under your bed to make sure there’s really and truly nothing there. After further thought, maybe I wouldn’t like to be inside Machado’s brain — it seems a kind of freaky place to be. 

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