Summer Standbys: A Personal Reading List

It’s officially summer (something we in Arizona know only too well), and everyone is securing their final picks for vacation reads. I’m done with summer classes for my program, and I definitely need a mental break when I leave the office. My first order of business was getting a good nights’ sleep; my second order is curating a summer reading list.

I’m not sure if this appeals to any other bibliophiles out there, but summer is a time when I reread books. I have a few standbys that just “make” summer for me.  There’s something about a lazy summer day, a cool drink, and a warped, favorite paperback. So, here are my personal favorites – books that mean it’s summertime and the livin’ is easy.

The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

I love a good epic doorstopper, and there’s no better time than the summer to really dive into one. The Pillars of the Earth is one of my all-time favorites, following several families and their involvement in medieval English history. The main plot lines involve contested succession and the building of a cathedral, so expect lots of intrigue and shady dealings. There are some great romances and some of my favorite female characters. If you saw the Starz adaptation, reading the book will be a real treat!

THE Hot Zone BY Richard Preston

We had to read this one summer as part of our required reading and it was awesome. It was the first time a non-English course required summer reading (that I can recall, at least), and it really stayed with me as a great example of going beyond the theoretical and finding resources that engage students. It’s a totally personal pick that won’t apply to everyone. Still, if you love non-fiction and epidemiology, maybe just give this one a read.

 stephen king

Sometimes I alternate my Stephen King read in the summer and select something new or another favorite. For a long time, it was The Stand. I now recognize this as an imperfect read. It’s almost a case study of how not to write well, but still craft an engaging story that is dominated by, let’s be real, white dudes. The magical negro character is highly problematic. As cheesy as it sounds, The Shining is a great book that gets better with each read, at least for me. Either way, diving into a book by Stephen King just feels like summertime.

What books make your summer? Leave a comment!

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Mini-Reviews from the Southwest, Part II: Pandemic; An Ember in the Ashes; In a Dark, Dark Wood; The Company

Read Part I here!

I took a fiction break with Sonia Shah’s Pandemic: Tracking Contagions, from Cholera to Ebola 23847947and Beyond. I listened to the audio version, which Shah narrates herself. She does a fine job, and
the book is decent. I felt like she didn’t bring anything “new” to the non-fiction epidemiology world, and that a lot of the same themes and insights could be delivered in long-form journalism pieces (this one about Ebola is a personal favorite). I kind of wish that I had chosen her other books instead, but heard the malaria one was a difficult listen and didn’t even see this one about pharmaceuticals and ethics on Audible! Personally, I’m not ready to write off Shah — I appreciate her writing style, how she incorporates herself into the story, and the engaging honesty she offers the reader. Pandemic just wasn’t for me. For a longer review and a look at the complexes you’ll develop after reading this book, please check out  Gin Jenny’s post here!

Next up is a book I heard about through the blogger grapevine and read about on Book Riot! 20560137Seriously, when I see a lot of consistently positive reviews about a genre book, I have to give it a try. Sabaa Tahir’s An Ember in the Ashes is a phenomenal first entry in the series. It’s a great YA exploration of personal/social expectations and pressures, identity, and narratives. The chapters alternate narrators, focusing either on Laia or Elias. Laia comes from a family of spies, but she hasn’t been involved — until her brother is arrested, and she’s forced to take steps to get him back safely. Elias, meanwhile, is a soldier on the eve of graduation — and desertion. His plans are interrupted when he is chosen to partake in the trials to determine the new Emperor. The way the characters come from such different backgrounds and narratives was fascinating, and I was intrigued at the way Tahir presented truth and deception in the book. She also neglects to, well, neglect her secondary characters. There are no flat characters here. This is a book about relationships: to yourself, your family, your country, and your destiny. There will be a second book; I’m not linking to it because it contains major spoilers, but I will say that the synopsis implies at least one additional narrator that should lend a compelling, fascinating voice.

Ruth Ware’s In a Dark, Dark Wood is a taut British mystery and yet another audiobook in my 23783496collection. I saw the hardback cover at my local indie, read a few pages, and knew I had to read the rest. I snapped a pic to remember (does anyone else do this?) and scooped this up with Audible credits a few months later. Ware’s take on the “unreliable female narrator” is an interesting one, as the protagonist has landed herself in the hospital after a car crash and can’t remember how (or where) the bachelorette/hen party she attended went wrong. Think a tamer version of Girl on the Train, with just as much suspense and a dash of early Tana French. This is Ware’s debut novel, but she has a second one coming out this year. I know I will get it, as Ware has already earned herself a spot on my “authors to follow” list. I recommend this one to fans of atmospheric British novels and mysteries.

The last book on my list has been on my shelf forever! My dad recommended Robert Littell’s The Company to me in high school. I read Part One, and for whatever reason, I abandoned it. I’m kind 25535845of glad I did, because I’m not sure I would have appreciated it as much at a young age. As an adult, I have a much better understanding of scope and how events connected. And let me tell you, there are some events in this book. At almost 900 pages, it’s a doorstopper of a book. I’m a fast reader, but this was the only book I read (outside of class reading assignments) on our vacation to Grand Cayman. The book is set in the Cold War, starting with spy recruitment post-World War II and ending after the August 1991 Soviet coup d’etat attempt. It also focuses on a lot of American failures in the Cold War – Kim Philby, Hungary, and the Bay of Pigs make for interesting, interconnected plot points. There’s a much larger spy versus spy story here, as espionage focuses not just on global events, but playing agents and agencies against each other. I grew up with a very big picture of the Cold War, but this book imagines it at a much more human, intimate level. Read this if you’re interesting in twentieth century history or love The Americans.

What books would you recommend to an English grad student? Leave a comment!

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Mini-Reviews from the Southwest, Part I: The Dog Stars; The Dark Net; Shadowshaper

One of the hardest things I’ve experienced in my English MA program is finding a bookish balance. I know it seems weird, but when you spend your extra time juggling memoirs and English drama, it can be hard figuring out what you want to read. I experience a lot of fear and hesitation: what if I pick something too similar to what I’m doing? What if I start this book and it isn’t good enough to keep my attention? I hate to admit that I spent a lot of time determining what I needed, and then more time trying to create strategies to meet those needs — but that’s another post for another time 🤓

For the purposes of this post, I’ve excluded those books I read for grad school. Now, did I manage to fit these “free time” books into discussion? Of course. I wrote a post about Tropic Thunder, identity, and conflict that my professor loved. Being able to work “unrelated” books into conversation is an English grad student’s bread and butter and probably why reading this blog appeals to you!

I spent more time with fiction than non-fiction, and almost all of these were recommendations or gifts. I thought it was pretty cool that I ended up investing time with pay-it-forward books.

16041830Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars was one of the first books I read this year, and a pleasant surprise gifted to me by my husband. I’m a huge fan of post-apocalyptic fiction and I’ve read a ton. What I liked about The Dog Stars was that it bridged a lot of gaps: a different type of story and plot (the
protagonist is a pilot!), while still feeling familiar; universal but intimate; lyrical and approachable. I highly recommend this one for those who love post-apocalyptic fiction, or for those who are looking for something unique from the genre. It’s a short read, but it packs an emotional punch. If you’ve listened to the audio version, I’d love to know what you thought – this one screams for an audio listen.

My next read was a recommendation I got from Gin Jenny’s 25387743blog! I read The Dark Net by Jamie Bartlett and referred to it a ton in my digital literacy class. I had a slightly different experience while reading it; it ended up falling more into “academic interests” than personal ones. It’s more a series of essays than anything else, and I would have loved if the book felt more connected. It almost seemed like Bartlett didn’t realize the purpose until the conclusion, or at least didn’t reveal it to the reader. Also, it should be noted that the Dark Net in question isn’t so much a darknet as it is the darker side of global web connections. If you’re looking for an in-depth exploration of what the darknet is, this might not be the book for you. And major trigger warning: this book features instances of hate messaging, self-harm, and sexual violence/harm to children.

I will rave about Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older as the day is long. I listened to this as an 22295304audiobook and I highly recommend it to anyone with interests in YA/YA fantasy, diverse literature, art, and meta storytelling. This is the book I wanted to get when I read Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments. THIS. Also, educators looking for an engaging, quick read that has deeper themes about heritage, identity, and cultural appropriation couldn’t find a better book. I honestly can’t rec this one enough; it’s my Pointe of 2016, and I would love to get Sierra and Theo in a room together. There is not a love triangle, but I hesitate to call what exists a romance — it’s a kissing book, but Sierra and her love interest feel more like  partners and allies than anything else. This is the first in a series, but it’s a standalone novel and it honestly didn’t feel like a first book setting up a larger storyline. Learning that there would be more adventures for Sierra and her friends was a pleasant surprise (sorry I ruined it), and I hope you’ll give Shadowshaper a try so we can enjoy the next book together! Also, look at that cover. That cover is everything.

Check back in Thursday for Part II!

What books would you recommend to an English grad student? Leave a comment!

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Favorite Reads of 2015

I didn’t read as many books as I have in years past, partially because I incorporated podcasts into my listening rotation and partially because I didn’t read a page during my spring sabbatical (aka wedding and honeymoon). I’m still glad I managed fifty books (hopefully fifty-one, as I want to finish a book this afternoon). It didn’t seem right to say that almost a quarter of what I read was a “favorite,” so I broke my long list of twelve favorites down to the five I loved most.

I don’t have a hands-down favorite, so these are in the order in which I read them this year.

Pointe by Brandy Colbert: An early favorite, and one I remembered fondly throughout the year. Read my character study post and the Women in Fiction guest post from 1:1000 editor Dot Dannenberg to see why it’s such a special, beautiful novel.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nahesi Coates: One of the most uncomfortable books I’ve ever read, but all the more valuable for it. I highlighted my copy like crazy. I could say so many things about this book, but please go read it and discover its message and value for yourself.

Uprooted by Naomi Novak: A touching fantasy story with a wonderful protagonist, this is a surprising delight of a book. The whole thing feels warm and lived-in and real, the kind of book you can just curl up and enjoy.

Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert: Highly recommended for creatives, especially writers! Gilbert’s advice was a much-needed punch in the arm. It may not be for everyone, but it was the inspiration I needed.

The Book of the Unnamed Midwife by Meg Elison: A late read courtesy of an recommendation, I haven’t had a chance to blog about this one yet. It’s a quick book with a hard, brutal core shot through with streaks of bittersweet, hopeful moments. A must-read for fans of The Handmaid’s Tale and last year’s hands-down favorite, The Girl in the Road.

You can check out my original long list on Instagram.

Which books did you love reading this year? Leave a comment!

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2015: A Year of Exploring?

Last year, I half-heartedly committed to focusing my efforts on one little word.


When I selected the word, I wrote that it was “about challenging myself, breaking out of my comfort zone, and immersing myself in experiences…Instead of staring at an obstacle and backtracking, it will mean finding a new route. It means breaking new ground and finding untapped reserves.”

I’m honestly not sure if I achieved that, but I think it’s partially because I didn’t commit to the One Little Word concept as much as I could have. I’m participating in the community/workshop aspect as well this year and I’m hoping I get more out of it.

I will say that I feel like I challenged myself this year, and more often than not I rose to meet those challenges head-on. I learned about the value of having a buddy system, a writing tribe, and collaborating with others. My exploration was less personal than I thought it would be, and more about expanding my relationships and letting other people in to help me navigate those new routes.

I had some lofty reading and writing goals, too.

I more than achieved my writing goals with NaNoWriMo: I let my characters breathe, and I gave up on such tight, controlled narrative outlines. I also wanted to find my voice, and not manufacture it. I know I’m on my way, and it’s come across in some of my more successful 1:1000 pieces and personal feedback I’ve gotten about my writing/blogging.

My reading goals were surprisingly unfulfilled. I haven’t run my numbers yet, but I don’t think I’ll be anywhere close to reading more diversely and exploring new genres and perspectives. If anything, I read comparatively little (I just hit my 50 book goal last night!) and mostly within my comfort zone.

I’m not sure what 2016 will bring, but I look forward to it. I may not have achieved every thing I wanted in 2015, but I’m ending the year happier, healthier, and more self-aware than I started.

How was your year? Did you participate in One Little Word?

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Myfanwy Thomas, written by Daniel O’Malley

The Rook

I initially encountered The Rook on Kim‘s Instagram feed over the summer, and she blogged more about it here. With a description like “Ghostbusters meets James Bond meets Memento, if James Bond were a lady spy who is also a kickass administrative genius,” I kind of had to read it. And broke my only reading challenge for the year, but whatever, it was so worth it. I like weird fiction and fascinating female characters, and this book definitely hit the spot.

The book centers around Myfanwy (rhymes with Tiffany) Thomas, who has to be one of the most unusual characters I’ve encountered. Myfanwy wakes up with no memory  and has to piece things together through clues her past self left (in the form of notes in coat pockets) and excellent deductive reasoning.

Myfanwy has a unique set of skills that would make Liam Neeson’s character from Taken shit his pants.


Myfanwy can control people through touch, and her past self, whom Myfanwy calls Thomas, never really explored that power. The titular Rook, Myfanwy/Thomas serves as a member of the Checquy, a secret British organization responsible for keeping a lid on paranormal activity, conducting research, and offering support to those with powers.

The combination of Myfanwy’s narrative and Thomas’s letters allow the reader a unique perspective into one person whose selves are night and day. Thomas is more timid, a bureaucrat comfortable in a more diplomatic, sometimes soft-spoken role. Understandable — traumatic experiences growing up have made her afraid to use her powers.

Still, Thomas is a force with which to be reckoned. While she might not be an “action girl,” she doesn’t shy away from getting her hands dirty, especially when she realizes that she’s on the trail of something dangerous and potentially deadly.

Myfanwy, by contrast, is more outspoken and bold. She takes chances. She delights in her own capabilities and potential, because she does not bear the emotional trauma of learning to control them. She retains that keen sense of reasoning and intuition, and she finishes the investigation Thomas started.

But for all her blunt bravado, she’d be nothing without her past self’s guidance. It creates a beautiful narrative balance, with both characters reliant on each other and their strengths and weaknesses dovetailing nicely. Two different characters embodying the same woman, seeking to achieve the same goal. It’s a funny, charming, and oddly inspiring work, so I hope you’ll take a moment to sit down and read a few pages.

There will be fist pumps, because Myfanwy isn’t the only awesome character. You’ll see.

A final note: I listened to The Rook as an audiobook and while I really enjoyed it, I would recommend reading the physical book. The narrator, Susan Duerden, does a fantastic job, but the book includes a lot of longer exposition/back story breaks in media res, and I personally find those a bit tedious during a listen.

Thanks for reading! What do you think of Agnieska? 

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Goodreads Choice Awards 2015: The Champions

2015-12-02 08.01.12 pm

Read my opening round post here, my semifinal round post here, and my final predictions here.

Congrats to all the winners this year! There were some impressive slates and stiff competition. Honestly, I feel like as the Goodreads community grows, the Choice Awards get better and more interesting.

Now, I’m coming off 30 days of frenzied writing and while I’m eager to continue, I’m reestablishing a balance with blogging, exercise, and everything else in my life. I’ve said a lot of the nominees, so I thought I’d change it up and throw some GIFs in here. Enjoy!


Predicted: Fates and Furies or Go Set a Watchman

Won: Go Set a Watchman


I’ve made my peace with this one.

Mystery & Thriller

Predicted: The Girl on the Train

Won: The Girl on the Train 

tropic thunder

Guaranteed victory still requires a victory dance. Just look at the vote count: 105K for this one. Second place was Stephen King with a third of that. Hot. Damn.

Historical Fiction

Will Win: A God in Ruins 

Won: The Nightingale


Not even on my radar. Guess I’ll have to check it out now?


Predicted: Trigger Warning

Won: Trigger Warning


“Neil Gaiman be like…”

Also: Sorry, Jenny.

Science Fiction

Predicted: Seveneves

Won: Golden Son

what's a galaga

Wait, what? This is the second book in a series?


Predicted: The Night Sister

Won: Saint Odd


I’m not a Koontz fan, but yeah, okay.


Predicted: Between the World and Me

Won: Modern Romance


So, full disclosure: I am not thrilled about this. I wanted to find a frumpy-face Tom Haverford gif and this popped up initially and with a book like Modern Romance it seemed too perfect not to share. So, there you go. But also, this:

parks&rec what

Graphic Novels & Comics

Predicted: Ms. Marvel

Won: Saga

jurassic world

Or: This is not what I expected but it is awesome. 

Also, I was a huge Saga supporter for last year’s Choice Awards and surprised at the loss, so a year later this feels great if not overdue. See you next year, Kamala.

YA Fantasy & Science Fiction

Predicted: Carry On

Won: Queen of Shadows

well done

How do you feel about the winners? Drop a note in the comments!

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Goodreads Choice Awards 2015: The Finals

2015-11-17 05.11.04 am

Read my opening round post here and my semifinal round post here.

The final round is open today until the 23rd. Make sure you vote to have your voice heard! The competition remains pretty stiff in several categories.

Also, I know it’s not a countdown per se, but I have Europe’s The Final Countdown stuck in my head. Which means you probably have it stuck in your head, too. Here, have a montage for your troubles:

Reminder: I’ll be leaving out several categories (like Romance, Middle Grade, Picture Books) as my interest is limited (or nonexistent this year).


Should Win: Fates and Furies

Will Win: Fates and Furies or Go Set a Watchman

I honestly can’t tell with this one. I’ve been pulling for Fates and Furies since the opening round, but that doesn’t mean much. The books featured include major winner potential, so I could see this one going to a more popular book that’s been out a while. I’m not sure if Go Set a Watchman will get the nostalgia vote, despite most of the book community’s critical reviews of, well, the entire lead-up to the book hitting shelves.

Related posts: You can read my Hot Off the Press post about Fates and Furies here or my Go Set a Watchman review here

Mystery & Thriller

Should Win: The Girl on the Train

Will Win: The Girl on the Train 

It will be a huge upset if this doesn’t win. Everyone loves this book. It came out months ago and continues to do well.

Related posts: Read Goodreads’ own blog post about the “runaway success” of the book here

Historical Fiction

Should Win: Marriage of Opposites 

Will Win: A God in Ruins 

I’m pulling for Marriage of Opposites to surprise, but I feel like Atkinson has this one over Hoffman. I haven’t read her books, but they delight readers and tend to do very well numbers-wise.

Related posts: Read my Marriage of Opposites review here


Should Win: The Fifth Season

Will Win: Trigger Warning or A Darker Shade of Magic

There’s always one category where I want to throw my hands in the air because I have no idea where voters’ sentiments lie. I’m not sure if The Fifth Season has enough backing to win. Typically bigger names (like Gaiman) are more likely to get publicized and read by a wider variety of people. I’ve seen a lot of good press for A Darker Shade of Magic – I didn’t love it, but plenty of others did, so perhaps it’ll pull out a win.

Related posts: Read about why I chose to bring The Fifth Season with me on an impromptu trip here

Science Fiction

Should Win: Aftermath

Will Win: Seveneves

…oh, and there’s also a category where there are honestly so many good nominees I can’t figure out which book gets my final vote! I’ve been pulling for The Fold, but I also really enjoyed Armada, to the point where I’m thinking that even though I read it months ago, I have fonder memories of it than my more recent listen.

There’s a lot of great nominees, but I think Seveneves may have the numbers here. Just a guess based on the Goodreads ratings, which I only look at when I’m really stumped. Well done, Sci Fi. And even though I’m voting for Armada, I’m rooting for Wendig, because he’s just a phenomenal person and writer and I wish only good things for someone who has personally inspired.

Related posts: Read my review of Armada here and my writing/conference posts about Wendig here, herehere, and here (I may be biased)


Should Win: The Night Sister

Will Win: The Night Sister

Only because I recognize none of the other finalists (authors yes, those particular releases, no), and I’m a huge McMahon fan.

Related posts: My Hot Off the Press preview for The Night Sister here and a review of an earlier McMahon work here


Should Win: Between the World and Me

Will Win: Between the World and Me

So many people have read this book and appreciated how it tackled heavy themes and difficult experiences (“loved” seems an odd choice for the subject matter). Coates earned this victory with a haunting look at racial politics and social values.

Related posts: Read my take on the value of discomfort in reading here

Graphic Novels & Comics

Should Win: Nimona

Will Win: Ms. Marvel

I could be completely wrong here.  I read Nimona as a web comic and it stays with you in a way only great characters can. Everyone in the series is solid, fleshed out, and necessary. And the deconstruction of tropes, especially what it means to be a hero or a villain, is absolutely brilliant. As much as I (and others) love Ms. Marvel, I’m not sure it’s quite there. Hilarious, brilliant, and Kamala Khan is hands down one of Marvel’s best characters, but it doesn’t hit Nimona levels quite yet. Unpopular opinion time, I know.

Related posts: Read my original post about Nimona here

YA Fantasy & Science Fiction

Should Win: Uprooted

Will Win: Carry On

Rainbow Rowell knows her stuff, and she’s a wonderful author who spans YA and adult genres well. I think she’s got this in the bag, but maybe I’m out of touch with the kids these days.

Related posts: Read my Women in Fiction series post about the Uprooted protagonist here

How are you voting? Drop a note in the comments!

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Goodreads Choice Awards 2015: The Semifinals

2015-11-10 05.26.17 am

Read my opening round post here.

The semifinal round is open the 10th – 15th (after the 15th you will not be able to vote). The final round runs the 17th – 23rd. Look for my final round posts and winner posts later this month!

If this is your first Goodreads Choice Awards, the semifinal round is going to seem…very confusing. See, the semifinal round both narrows and widens the competition. During the first round, readers can nominate books that were left off the ballot. If books get enough nominations, they are available for the popular vote in the semifinal round. They knock out books that were on the original ballot but didn’t do so hot. You’ll see some changes to my original picks and predictions in the list below.

Reminder: I’ll be leaving out several categories (like Romance, Middle Grade, Picture Books) as my interest is limited (or nonexistent this year).


Well, well, well. Go Set a Watchman has entered the game. I was surprised it wasn’t in the first round, but figured it might make an appearance during semifinals. Now, I’m wondering if nostalgia will carry it to the finals and to victory. I wasn’t all that impressed with the book, so I will not cast a vote for it. I’m hoping autumn darling Fates and Furies takes it.

Mystery & Thriller

No major changes in this category, at least for me. I still think The Girl on the Train has this one in the bag, even against Robert Galbraith.

Historical Fiction

I’m still hoping for Marriage of Opposites to win – and you can read my review discussing its merits here. I think A God in Ruins has a very solid chance, through, and I’m pleasantly surprised to see Girl Waits with Gun, a blogger favorite, make it into the running.


So, this is where I wish I had rushed into reading the second Queen of the Tearling novel, The Invasion of the Tearling. I really, really enjoyed the first book and thought it was a clever take on an “unprepared female leader” narrative. Kelsea’s just a great character, and I didn’t read the second book precisely because I wanted to wait until closer to the third book’s release. Boo, hiss. I started reading The Fifth Season, but my love for the Tearling characters wins, and I hope The Invasion of the Tearling does, too.

Science Fiction

This is probably the best semifinals slate update I’ve ever seen, and I’m really excited to see the finals round ballot. There were some great updates – Nightvale, Atwood, Wendig, Armada…dang, this a good bunch of nominees, and a great balance of popular and critical hits. I’m still pulling for the The Fold, however!


The Night Sister keeps my vote, but I strongly recommend those with a strong stomach for visceral imagery check out The Deep, another great read. Also, I just learned there was a follow-up to The Three!


I seriously  missed the category last week, and I have no idea how. Anyway, I’m voting for Between the World and Me, but it barely beats out Missoula and Big Magic, which impacted me personally but not in the same ways.

Graphic Novels & Comics

So not only are all of my favorites from last week still there (Saga, Lumberjanes, Rat Queens, Nimona, Sex Criminals, Hawkeye, Ms. Marvel), but Wicked + Divine is nominated, too! I’ll say it again, this is anyone’s game. And yes, I’m still voting for Nimona!

Young Adult

First, read the awesome Women in Fiction guest post by Dot, then go vote for Dumplin’!

YA Fantasy & Science Fiction

I was worried Uprooted wouldn’t pull through, solely because I wasn’t sure if it registered at the same level for YA voters. Obviously I’m a fan, and a biased one at that.

How are you voting? Drop a note in the comments!

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Being the Secret: A Women in Fiction Guest Post by Dot Dannenberg

This week’s Women in Fiction post comes from Dot Dannenberg. Dot is an extremely talented writer and an editor at 1:1000.  Please check out her 1:1000 pieces on our contributors page here. You’d be remiss skipping the 10-part West series (just saying).

Dot’s post below is one of my favorite pieces about books this year, because it’s whip-smart in its observations about teenagers, body image and self-consciousness, and two of my favorite books this year (go read them, for real).

At first glance, the female protagonists of two of this year’s hottest YA novels couldn’t be more different, aside from their boy names. Will (Willowdean) Dickson, in Julie Murphy’s Dumplin’, is an overweight Texas high schooler who upends her small town by entering a local beauty pageant. Theo (Theodora) Cartwright, in Brandy Colbert’s Pointe, is a recovering anorexic ballerina forced to face her past when her best friend’s kidnapper is finally caught.

These two seventeen-year olds seem to be on opposite ends of the spectrum in everything from race to BMI to the circumstances they face. In Pointe, the stakes are much higher than in Dumplin’–Theo’s unreliable narration swirls around the details of past and current loves while only skimming the surface of the darker things going on around her–sexual abuse, drugs, anger. Willowdean’s world is much softer. The darkest cloud in her life is her aunt, dead at thirty-five from obesity complications, who serves as both Willowdean’s guiding light and ghost of Christmas future.

I am not the target audience for young adult fiction starring seventeen-year-old girls. At times, I wanted both books to go deeper into the obsessive internal minds of these narrators, something I recall so clearly from adolescence, which is sadly missing from most YA fiction.

But I was impressed with how these two books about such different young women manage to capture a universal experience I do remember about being a teenage girl: when a boy wants to keep you a secret.

In Pointe, Theo entangles herself with a drug-dealing piano prodigy named Hosea. He understands her. He introduces her to feelings she didn’t know could exist. And, of course, he already has a girlfriend. Theo spends the book oscillating between refusing to be the secret and caving to Hosea’s advances, telling herself to have fun while it lasts–the rest of her life waiting to unravel in the wings.

I kept waiting for the reasoning behind Hosea’s secrecy to appear. Had he and his girlfriend been through some life-changing event? Was it about race, all along, because Theo is black?

But Colbert doesn’t take us there. Instead, we get the mundane truth of high school: high school boys don’t have real reasons. Hosea and his girlfriend have been together for two whole years, and at that age, longevity trumps everything, even self-actualization. Now that I read it, I see how accurate this is–how catastrophic the power-couple breakups at my high school tended to be. I remember the cutest boy at school holding my hand, then agonizing that his recently-dumped girlfriend of two years would be angry he was moving on so fast.

I even more directly relate to Willowdean in Dumplin’. Willowdean crushes hard on Bo, the cute boy she works with at a fast food restaurant. It’s clear from their banter that there’s a connection, but their romantic trysts always seem to take place in secret–behind dumpsters or parked near abandoned buildings. Willowdean almost can’t believe he’s into her, to such an extent that she doesn’t even tell her best girlfriend about her first kiss. And of course, in classic teenage boy style, Bo insists he can’t handle a relationship right now. Sure. That’s what they always say.

It’s taken me almost thirty years to re-write the narratives I told myself about growing up fat. The line I repeated–“boys just weren’t into me”–was a lie. Like Bo with Willowdean, boys were into me. They were just too ashamed to be the guy dating the fat girl. The internal battle between shame and longing rings clear and true in Dumplin’.

I wish I’d had books like Pointe and Dumplin’ when I was in high school. Watching Theo and Willowdean live through these experiences would have made me feel a little less crazy. I would have second-guessed myself less. And maybe I’d have learned a little sooner to speak up for the things I know I deserve.

Thanks for reading! What do you think of Theo and Willowdean?