For 2018, I hope to read at least 52 books by the end of the year. This may seem like a low goal, so it may also come as a surprise to you that I’m a slow reader, considering how much I read. However, my undergraduate and graduate courses have helped me nail the novel-per-week schedule in the past, so I think 52 books is doable for me.
At the end of the month, as a response to each book, I plan to write mini-reviews. The reviews will consist of mainly what worked and links to the book. If you wish to discuss what didn’t work in the novel—or better yet, your own reading goals for the year—I’d encourage you to comment on this post.
Without further ado, here are the mini-reviews for this month. (Mild spoilers may follow.)
Summary from the Penguin Random House website:
In the spirit of Station Eleven and California, award-winning novelist Holly Goddard Jones offers a literary spin on the dystopian genre with this gripping story of survival and humanity about a group of adrenaline junkies who jump “the Salt Line.”How far will they go for their freedom—once they decide what freedom really means?In an unspecified future, the United States’ borders have receded behind a salt line—a ring of scorched earth that protects its citizens from deadly disease-carrying ticks. Those within the zone live safe, if limited, lives in a society controlled by a common fear. Few have any reason to venture out of zone, except for the adrenaline junkies who pay a fortune to tour what’s left of nature. Those among the latest expedition include a popstar and his girlfriend, Edie; the tech giant Wes; and Marta; a seemingly simple housewife. Once out of zone, the group find themselves at the mercy of deadly ticks—and at the center of a murderous plot. They become captives in Ruby City, a community made up of outer-zone survivors determined to protect their hardscrabble existence. As alliances and friendships shift amongst the hostages, Edie, Wes, and Marta must decide how far they are willing to go to get to the right side of the salt line.
- The characters were a major strength of this novel. They felt like real people with their own complicated flaws and desires. Even many of the minor characters were mostly rounded out by the end of the novel. When the text shifts to a different character’s perspective, I was always clear about who the narrator was because all of the characters were distinct.
- The world building was pretty spot on too. I could see the characters putting on their micro-suits, obsessing over their tablets, “stamping” their legs after a tick bite. I could feel the Terra-Vibra from Atlantic Zone’s massive wall buzzing in my chest and the jolts of the vehicle-jostling potholes on the roads outside the zones. The quick pace and quality prose helped to prevent reader doubt as well.
Who should read The Salt Line:
- Fans of California
- Those who like literary fiction and dystopia
- Readers who don’t need clear heroes and villains
- Those who enjoy novels with themes about motherhood
Seeing the title Idaho on a book jacket while walking around my local Barnes & Noble piqued my interest immediately. I know little about the state and jumped at the chance to see it portrayed in fiction. Emily Ruskovich doesn’t disappoint with this interesting novel.
Summary from the Penguin Random House website:
A stunning debut novel about love and forgiveness, about the violence of memory and the equal violence of its loss—from O. Henry Prize–winning author Emily Ruskovich
Ann and Wade have carved out a life for themselves from a rugged landscape in northern Idaho, where they are bound together by more than love. With her husband’s memory fading, Ann attempts to piece together the truth of what happened to Wade’s first wife, Jenny, and to their daughters. In a story written in exquisite prose and told from multiple perspectives—including Ann, Wade, and Jenny, now in prison—we gradually learn of the mysterious and shocking act that fractured Wade and Jenny’s lives, of the love and compassion that brought Ann and Wade together, and of the memories that reverberate through the lives of every character in Idaho.
In a wild emotional and physical landscape, Wade’s past becomes the center of Ann’s imagination, as Ann becomes determined to understand the family she never knew—and to take responsibility for them, reassembling their lives, and her own.
What worked well:
- The prose is by far the star of this novel. Beautifully crafted sentences flow seamlessly into one another. At times it feels poetic, other times it’s simple but powerful prose. What blew me away was how often Ruskovich used “to be” verbs while still making the prose feel strong and active.
- To say the novel is mainly about a state would be incorrect. However, Ruskovich’s descriptions of the settings (Idaho’s plains, mountains, cities, towns, and even the prison) makes the world of this book feel alive and tangible. Ruskovich’s use of sensory details, along with an occasional focus on insect, plant, and animal life, helps to bring color to the landscape. The tidbits of state history added in also works well.
Who should read Idaho:
- Those who appreciate excellently crafted prose
- Readers who don’t mind a slow rate of revelation
- Those who enjoy novels with themes about loss of innocence
- Fans of books about families and what makes up a family
I’m always looking to read another Two Dollar Radio book after first falling in love with The Gloaming by Melanie Finn. I bought Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib‘s collection of essays, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, from the small press. Abdurraqib is a genius writer from my home state of Ohio and his essay collection is arguably one of the most important essay collections ever written—especially when considering the political climate of recent years.
Summary from the Two Dollar Radio website:
In an age of confusion, fear, and loss, Hanif Abdurraqib’s is a voice that matters. Whether he’s attending a Bruce Springsteen concert the day after visiting Michael Brown’s grave, or discussing public displays of affection at a Carly Rae Jepsen show, he writes with a poignancy and magnetism that resonates profoundly.
In the wake of the nightclub attacks in Paris, he recalls how he sought refuge as a teenager in music, at shows, and wonders whether the next generation of young Muslims will not be afforded that opportunity now. While discussing the everyday threat to the lives of black Americans, Abdurraqib recounts the first time he was ordered to the ground by police officers: for attempting to enter his own car.
In essays that have been published by the New York Times, MTV, and Pitchfork, among others—along with original, previously unreleased essays—Abdurraqib uses music and culture as a lens through which to view our world, so that we might better understand ourselves, and in so doing proves himself a bellwether for our times.
What worked well:
- At the beginning of the book, there is a quote from Kiese Laymon. The quote states that, “No writer alive writes first and last sentences like Hanif.” I would wholeheartedly agree. Also a poet, Abdurraqib does not waste words and often writes with a noticeable cadence. The products of his careful construction, of close attention to rhythm and strategic repetition, are superb sentences with enduring impact. Add this with how he plays with form—fragments and sentences connected by ampersands, sentences left without periods—and the reader is given a style of writing that compliments the songs and subjects of Abdurraqib’s essays.
- Abdurraqib also has a natural talent for unpacking important topics like racism, death, and inclusion. His ability to focus on these often abstract concepts and pinpoint how these things act upon all of us, particularly the marginalized groups within the United States, makes this collection of essays incredibly important.
Who should read They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us:
- Every person in the United States, especially Midwesterners, especially Ohioans
- Fans of music and the history of music (check out a tribute playlist here)
- Those who love books about social justice
- Readers who enjoy essays that play with form
Much of my own published writing is flash fiction, so it only makes sense for me to read and learn from some of the best writers in the field. I practically vibrated with excitement when I cracked open The Best Small Fictions 2017 and began to read. This series underwent major changes this past year and it’s great to know that editor Tara L. Masih and team fought so hard to make sure it continued.
Summary from the Braddock Avenue Books website:
The Best Small Fictions is the first contemporary anthology solely devoted to honoring the best short hybrid fiction published in a calendar year. The series began in 2015, featuring seasoned and emerging writers. Flash, micro fiction, prose poetry, and haibun stories are just some examples of the hybrid forms honored. Tara L. Masih founded the annual series and serves as series editor; guest editors include Pulitzer Prize–winning author Robert Olen Butler (2015), PEN/Malamud Award winner and O. Henry Prize winner Stuart Dybek (2016), and Rea Award and PEN/Malamud Award winner Amy Hempel (2017).
What worked well:
- It’s always wonderful to read work by writers you look up to. I was thrilled to see stories in here by Kathy Fish, Sherrie Flick, Stuart Dybek, Pamela Painter, and Tara Laskowski. I also found some new favorites in Harriot West, William Woolfitt, Jen Knox, Joy Katz, Allegra Hyde, Lydia Armstrong, W. Todd Kaneko, Gina Del Raye, Cameron Quincy Todd, Na’amen Gobert Tilahun, and the late Brian Doyle. I was pleasantly surprised by Ras Mashramani’s story “Silent Hill,” which of course refers to the PlayStation video game. Overall, the writers gave me a lot to aspire to with their imaginative and potent stories.
- In addition, I appreciated how The Best Small Fictions 2017 honored different forms of short fiction. My personal favorite was the haibun by Harriot West, “Picking Sunflowers for Van Gogh.” It made me instantly curious about the history of the form. It also made me want to try and write one.
Who should read The Best Small Fictions 2017:
- Anyone who appreciates flash fiction and its many forms
- Those who want quick stories that reference the madness that was 2017
- Fans of (mostly) literary flash fiction
- Those who appreciate the wisdom of Amy Hempel