Acacia by David Anthony Durham
I think I first heard about this series on a listcicle with a name like “Books to read while you’re waiting for the next Game of Thrones novel” and that’s totally appropriate. The comparison is perfect: Acacia tells the story of the ruling family of a land full of hidden magic as they fall to a rebellion, go into hiding, and begin their own counter-rebellion. Some major issues here are colonization and slavery. The Acacian empire is based on trade with a mysterious “league” that exchanges drugs for children, and the rebels who overthrow them are a people who had been subjugated and treated unfairly, but who continue the trade system. The narrative switches among many characters’ perspectives, on all sides of the war. As in Game of Thrones, no character is safe, no matter how central or virtuous, and complex moral questions arise as the “good guys” get morally tainted. I’d love to see this series made into an HBO series as well. It’s imaginative, engrossing, and super dramatic, with high fantasy language and lots of violent battles and fight scenes.
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
This novel about WWII closely follows a blind French girl and a German soldier, switching between their perspectives and building anticipation for their short but crucial meeting in recently liberated Brittany. The legend of a priceless, cursed diamond lends a fairy-tale feeling to the story. Marie-Laure lives in Paris with her father, the locksmith for a museum who is entrusted with the diamond (or a decoy?) when Paris is taken. They flee to France’s west coast, and then her father is arrested, leaving Marie-Laure with her great-uncle and a housekeeper who is participating in the resistance to the Nazi occupation. Meanwhile, Werner, a German boy with a precocious talent for radios, leaves the orphanage where he grew up to enter a Nazi school, and eventually use his skills to hunt down resistance fighters. The villain is a cancer-ridden Nazi officer charged with finding the cursed diamond; the tension and suspense when Marie-Laure is hiding from him is almost unbearable. The book is sad, as any war story has to be, but somehow also full of wonder. Radio waves serve as a metaphor for a sense of connection between people; other repeated images are snails, shells, mollusks, and enclosed spaces. Marie-Laure and Werner share a fascination with the natural world. Werner and Marie-Laure’s great-uncle struggle to summon the courage to stand up and do the right thing, and when they do it’s incredibly satisfying. This book won the Pulitzer this year, and I think it deserved it.
Heartburn by Nora Ephron
I was somewhat disappointed in this book, and I think that’s mostly because it’s a bit dated. It’s a comedy about divorce. The most profound passages are about how learning of a serious, long-standing infidelity means realizing that your vision of your own life was distorted, and having to rewrite your own history. I also liked the musings about how it’s unfair that therapists always say people bring abuse and unfaithfulness upon themselves through choosing to be with the wrong person. For anyone seriously considering divorce, the book might provide some perspective and a good gut check.
The characters are all ridiculously privileged, jetting between New York and Washington and having fancy dinner parties and vacations and multiple houses. I don’t think there’s a single healthy marriage depicted, or even mentioned, in the entire book; it gives you the impression that cheating is inevitable. That message would bother me more if I had bought into the book as a whole, especially since I am situated similarly to the protagonist: pregnant mother of a toddler. But as it was, I found it more emblematic of the generation (my parents’, or slightly older), time period (early 80’s), and the entitlement and privilege of the characters and their setting. The biggest turn-off for me were some jokes I found racist or homophobic, which may be due to the fact that the book was published before I was born, and it was socially acceptable to say such things then.
After Alice by Gregory Maguire
Maguire, author of Wicked and a few other great books that re-tell beloved stories from different points of view, addresses Alice In Wonderland through giving a story to the people Alice leaves behind when she journeys behind the looking glass. Many of the characters, including the protagonist Ada, are original, though they also meet many of Carroll’s strange creations. Ada is a friend and neighbor of Alice’s who follows her into Wonderland. The story mostly alternates between Ada and Lydia, Alice’s older sister who is looking for her. Lydia and Ada’s governess, Miss Armstrong, exchange barbs and witticisms as they look for the girls and vie for the attention of the visiting American Mr. Winter. Maguire also gives a backstory to Alice’s family: they are mourning her mother, and on the afternoon that Alice goes missing, her father is entertaining Charles Darwin, an old friend making a condolence visit. Ada and her back brace give Maguire occasion to address issues of disability, while Siam, a young former slave in the care of Mr. Winter, allows him to discuss abolition and the American civil war. The wry narrator puts the original Alice in her context, Victorian-era Oxford, and in a few passages that read like a remarkably witty textbook Maguire makes explicit the conflict about sex roles, evolution, empire, race, and class that Carroll was responding to in his trippy, whimsical way.
Winter by Marissa Meyer
This is the last book in the Lunar Chronicles, a cyberpunk series of fairy tale retellings. This one is a new take on Snow White, set against the backdrop of a revolution on the moon. It’s a worthy conclusion to the series and lives up to the promise of the other books, Cinder, Scarlet, and Cress. Cinderella as a long-lost princess turned cyborg revolutionary, her prince captive by the evil queen, Rapunzel as a master hacker–I love the way this series makes passive princesses into skillful leaders and team members, taking control not just of their own destiny, but changing two worlds for the better. The books are all action-packed, with intrigue, plotting, surprises, and high stakes. They’d make a great TV series.
This one is the longest in the series by far because it has so many plotlines to tie up. It’s like with each book in the series Meyer added a ball to the ones she was already juggling, and it takes her a while to put them all down. Perspective shifts between at least eight characters. Each of the series’s love stories had its own satisfying conclusion, sometimes even with a fairy tale touch. The over-the-top evil villain might be a weakness of the series, one Meyer had a chance to remedy through introducing more nuance in Fairest, but didn’t. Despite that, it was thoroughly enjoyable, tons of fun to read.
How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran
I loved Caitlin Moran’s manifesto How to Be a Woman, so when I heard she’d written a novel I was excited to read it. It’s kind of autobiographical: a poor teen girl in government housing in the early-to-mid nineties begins writing for a music magazine. Johanna Morrigan’s first person narration drives the novel; her voice is hilarious, reminding me of a slightly more grown-up and dirty version of Georgia Nicolson from Angus, Thongs, and Full Frontal Snogging. She’s absurd and hilarious and self-effacing and clueless and you can’t help but root for her. There’s a lot of sex, and Johanna has some unhealthy relationships and lets herself be used for a while until she figures out what she wants in bed and in a relationship. The book ends with an inspiring manifesto against cynicism, which is awesome because manifestos seem to be what Caitlin Moran does best. Though she’s known for journalism and memoir, Moran shows here that she can certainly do fiction too. Her characters and scenes are totally believable, a bit gritty, sometimes with an edge of pathos or tragedy, and most of all great fun. I was even impressed by a revelation at the end that provided a nice twist.