In a reading rut? Wondering what to do with yourself as the heat fluctuates wildly and the pandemic presses on (in America, at least)? Here are eight very different books for this eighth month of this endless year. I enjoyed all of them, and I hope you’ll enjoy at least one, too.
1. The Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking (T. Kingfisher/Ursula Vernon) – This book is 2020. The bad people are in charge, the good people aren’t doing enough, we’re all gonna die, and somehow children are the only hope. Not just any children: children the world has decided should be a little bit outcast, you know, for their own good! Fortunately, Mona’s immediate family is more supportive of her wizardry, which only works on baked goods. Unfortunately, there’s murder, an attempted coup, an invasion, and general tyranny. Fortunately again, though, Mona has friends, some of whom she has baked. Her familiar is a sourdough starter. Its name is Bob. I love Bob. I also love Mona, and this book, and you will too.
2. Hannah Green and Her Unfeasibly Mundane Existence (Michael Marshall Smith) – I’ve always had a soft spot for the narrator-as-character trope, probably because of the Narnia books. This book has a very strong narrative voice that dispenses cleverness and wisdom in asides as he tells us about Hannah, whose parents have hit a rocky point in their marriage just as the fabric of the universe might be under threat. The Devil himself shows up, along with a chorus line of demons, drug dealers, engineers, terrifying restaurant patrons, and a squirrel. It’s quirky, sweet, and smart.
3. The Border Keeper (Kerstin Hall) – I missed this one when I came out, and while I’m sad for past me, I’m happy for present me. Whenever you get to experience this book, it will be an amazing time. Incredibly innovative characters and settings with a tense and complex plot make it a quick read, which is the only bad part of it–I really, really wish there were more. A mortal contends with gods and demons, and the Border Keeper tries to keep them all in line while managing the wreckage of her past. 999 realms aren’t enough to contain all this awesome.
4. The Traveling Cat Chronicles (Hiro Arikawa) – If I had to pick one word to describe this book, it would be “awwwwww.” It’s poignant and sincere without being sappy, even if it is a bit of a tearjerker. A cat, adopted by a human and given the name Nana, adopts that human in turn. They take a journey through Satoru’s past as he tries to find a forever-home for Nana, only to discover that both of them might need to find new definitions of belonging. It probably helps if you’re a cat-lover, since Nana’s voice is pretty pitch-perfectly cat: entitled, defiant, and also somehow completely adorable.
5. The Vanished Birds (Simon Jimenez)- Wow, this is a hell of a debut. Elegaic and poetic, this book spans centuries of human expansion into the universe, all while very few things change about human selfishness, corporate greed, and the inevitable prices of “progress.” Yet it’s full of human intimacy, hope, and resilience, too. The found family, and especially the unexpected mother-child bond between Nia and Ahro is luminous. Jimenez is clearly practiced as a short story writer more than a novelist, so it can feel a wee bit choppy at times, but it’s impossible to be upset with this sweeping, lovely book.
6. Little Blue Encyclopedia (for Vivian) (Hazel Jane Plante) – You would think this story about a woman mourning her friend and unrequited love would be unbearably sad. It is sad, but woven through the tragedy is humor, love, hope, and even horniness. A whole human emerges from this humble encyclopedia about a show called Little Blue that never existed. But just because it’s fiction doesn’t mean it’s not real. Vivian and her sorrowful chronicler emerge from the pages living and breathing, both their mundane peccadillos and their extraordinary luminosity. The lens of the encyclopedia keeps reflections short and grief manageable, and the fictional Lynch-esque show keeps them refreshingly unexpected. It’s a beautiful, honest book from start to finish, so utterly deserving of its Lambda and plenty of other awards besides.
7. If I Had Your Face (Frances Cha) – Dear god, what a magnificent debut. This should have been on the list for all the awards and essential reading, but it came out at exactly the wrong time, when we were all in a pandemic-panic in April. I’ve been buying my friends copies of this book to do my part to make up for it. Frances Cha, please keep writing and showing the world your brilliance! Keep showing the world Korea in all its messy awful beauty! Keep showing us female friendship that makes my heart sing!
8. The Honours (Tim Clare) – The prose is arrestingly beautiful, the suspense is incredible, the setting eerie, and the reveals are batshit insane. This book is so totally original and yet so steeped in things I recognize and love, namely gothic horror and a bit of Lovecraft and plucky YA heroines. It stands on strong foundations and reaches all the way to the stars—and the darkness.