After reading this post, I think you’ll be just as confused as I am by what the h*ck my taste in books even is.
The Clique series by Lisi Harrison
A middle school favorite, I reread it again this summer after first rereading it a few summers ago. It’s such a guilty pleasure, but I have no shame in declaring that it puts me in the best mood and brings back funny, sweet, and petty memories of my own time as a preteen navigating the highs and lows of… sixth grade. It’s basically about a clique of bitchy, rich, popular girls in middle school, but it’s so cleverly written and full of such funny cultural references and empathy that it’s fun to read even now at nearly 25 years old. I personally LOVED middle school, even the “heartbreak,” friend drama, and insecurities. In fact, I miss when my problems used to be so small, and I even recognized at like 13 years old that I had it good, that the things I was upset about weren’t actually a big deal and just added to the richness and fun of everyday life. Reading The Clique series puts me back in that time period when a boy acknowledging you existed was something to email your friends about (yes, I emailed my friends before I had a cell phone), and when you and your squad fought over stupid things but ultimately were there for each other. I haven’t had a real friend group since high school, and I miss it despite the groupthink and cattiness that came with it.
Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Davis
I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I hadn’t come across the prison abolition movement until this June after George Floyd’s murder. Davis is one of the original prison abolition activists, and although this work didn’t answer my questions about what a post-carceral society would look like and how exactly we would get there, it was an accessible introduction to a newbie like me.
Abolition Democracy: Beyond Prisons, Torture, and Empire by Angela Davis
The interview/Q&A format of this book simultaneously expanded its breadth while limiting its depth. I was confused at times because not enough context could be given for a particular topic, but I also liked that the book was a brief introduction to every topic that could be broached when it comes to prison abolition. There were a lot of quotes I took pictures of, whether because they stirred something in me or because I was curious to learn more.
Hawk by James Patterson
After promising us with about five different books that that one was the final Maximum Ride installment and that the series was officially over, I actually believed Patterson when the “last” one came out years ago that it had finally come to its painful, fiery end. And then out of the ashes emerged Hawk, following Max’s annoying, abrasive teenage daughter as she rejoins her family and fights a president oddly similar to Trump, and I’m simultaneously cursing Patterson and his ghostwriter and spending money on this hot trash. The reason Maximum Ride is even still on its 10th iteration when it was supposed to stop at #3 is because of suckers like me who are so emotionally attached to the Flock that we will continue throwing our money at whatever garbage Patterson and his team come up with. I can honestly say Hawk was the worst book I’ve ever read. There was almost no plot, every single character was unlikable and cringy (even the original Flock), and it wasn’t funny or fast-paced like the old books were. I’m not trying to be mean or dramatic when I say that the Maximum Ride fanfictions I wrote when I was 10 years old were better than this book. However, the series was/is such a formative part of my childhood and even my life as an adult that I know when the next book inevitably comes out, I’ll buy it.
The Daevabad Trilogy by S. A. Chakraborty
I first read City of Brass in January, and while I liked it, I didn’t love it. However, in June when I read its sequel, Kingdom of Copper, I was HOOKED. That’s when I knew I’d found a new favorite series, something that rarely happens since I’m so loyal to my old favorites. While waiting for the release of the final book in the trilogy, I went back and reread all of City of Brass and parts of Kingdom of Copper. Then when the last book, Empire of Gold, came out, I read all 766 pages in four days.
There are several reasons I love this trilogy so much. The world-building is rich, with Chakraborty spinning a magical Islamic empire based on real geography. The mythical city of Daevabad is in modern-day Pakistan, Prince Alizayd’s family hails from the Horn of Africa, and Tukharistani traders cross through from what is now Central Asia. The vocabulary of our heroes is speckled with Arabic greetings, Persian roots, and historical references, and although a fictional religion competes with Islam among the tribes of the trilogy, it’s clear which one has the most cultural and political influence.
The main draw to the books for me, though, is its nuanced handling of ethnic tension, genocide, and the unwillingness of the ruling class to truly protect minorities. I was reading the trilogy in June and July, when Azeris and Armenians were entangled in military conflict, when I was learning about Srebrenica in my BCS class, and when protests and anti-racist action in response to the killing of George Floyd and other Black folks dominated the national discourse. (And still does!) The books helped me process what was happening in real life, especially since we were given a look into the lives of characters that ultimately had their hands tied when it came to enacting meaningful change for their citizens. I didn’t come out hating the royalty in the books, but rather understanding that they shouldn’t exist at all.
Logavina Street: Life and Death in a Sarajevo Neighborhood by Barbara Demick
I had already read and loved Demick’s sophomore book, Nothing to Envy, which followed the lives of North Korean refugees before, during, and after their escape. This book was written before that one, and although Demick’s writing style was a little less refined, organized, and thoughtful, it followed the same format of pieces of a story at a time, not always on a linear chronological timeline. It tells the stories of ordinary citizens in Sarajevo during the siege of 1992-1995 that left their city and their families destroyed. Although I rated Logavina Street five stars on Goodreads, I’m thinking it was more a 4-star read for me because it felt like every other cliche piece Americans could write about wartime Bosnia. I read a beautiful piece in Bosnian by Faruk Šehić about his city burning, and it somehow painted his compatriots as neither heroes nor victims, his city as neither perfect nor destroyed. His essay of only a few pages painted a full-color, three-dimensional picture of Sarajevo for his readers that Demick’s entire book couldn’t accomplish.
Orlando by Virgina Woolf
I first read this in 2015 for a Queer Lit class I took at NYU, and I decided to reread it because I saw that the Vienna Opera would be showing it – the first time a work directed by a woman would grace that hall! I read online that Woolf wrote this as a fictional biography of her lover, and that it might not have even been intended for publication. That would explain why much of the book didn’t make a ton of sense to me. There’s this whole fanfare about how funny and lovingly the book is written that I just couldn’t pick up on while wading through the pages-long paragraphs following the life of a young, attractive English nobleman who gets his heart broken by an unfaithful Russian girl, takes up a diplomatic post in Constantinople, transforms into a woman, runs away with “gypsies,” returns to England, and lives for centuries. Being who I am, it was also hard to ignore the overt racism, like in the very first page when Orlando is kicking around the head of an African or Muslim that he killed. The best thing I got out of this book was a line about Orlando realizing that the “gypsies” considered it obscene that she was bragging about a house with a hundred rooms when they had the whole world. That was a great confirmation to me that humans can construct all we want, but it’s nature that actually rules the entire universe.
Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde
I was mainly drawn to this book by the opening essay written about Lorde’s experience as a Black, feminist lesbian from the West touring Soviet Russia and Uzbekistan. What was amusing to me was that I found some of her observations about Uzbekistan to be coming from the colonizer’s eye, a viewpoint I only normally accredit to white people. It just goes to show that non-white people can also have a colonizer perspective depending on the context, so we always need to be checking ourselves! I did like, though, that Lorde acknowledged that a lot of what we accused the USSR of doing or being, we also do in America, it’s just legal, under a different name, or to a lesser degree. And of course, from a very personal standpoint, I was fascinated by a glimpse into the Uzbek SSR – Lorde made it to Tashkent, Samarkand, and even Gulistan!
To my delight, there are far better essays and speeches than the USSR one. I’m thinking of rereading the entire book sometime soon because I need more time to process everything I’ve learned about the intersections of race, sexuality, gender, and even parenthood. This is the kind of book that you need to read slowly, one essay at a time, so you can really digest the words jumping at you.
One of my favorite essays was the very last one, a report about US military action in Grenada. I didn’t even know where Grenada was, let alone what the US was doing there, and I ended up staying late Googling the country and reading about the conflicts on its territory.
The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
I wanted to love this book the way I love 1984 and Fahrenheit 451, but I really just ended up being frustrated by the characters’ choppy speech (I know it’s meant to imitate Japanese influence on everyday language) and mundane lives. It’s a speculative fiction novel exploring what the USA would be like if the Nazis and Japanese had won World War II, and there’s even a speculative fiction novel within this speculative fiction novel about what the USA would be like if the Allies had won the war (though not in the same way we actually won in real life). Brilliant premise, but nothing made me actually care about what happened to anyone, and everything big that happened felt anticlimactic. The entire book was like a fever dream to me, devoid of reason and reality. Maybe I need to reread it to appreciate its genius – I came across plenty of reviews that got me excited about it, but whenever I returned to the book, I was disappointed again.
The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins
After finishing the Daevabad trilogy, I was craving a story full of idealism and action to fill the hole it left. I’d read The Hunger Games trilogy two or three times before, which sounds like a lot, but compared to other series that I’ve read at least 10 times, that’s nothing! I’d actually tried rereading it a few years ago, but I remember being stuck on Mockingjay and just never finishing it. However, after a conversation with my brother in which we discussed how Katniss and Gale were supposed to be Native Americans and how the premise of the story is actually about racial oppression, I knew I’d found my next favorite series. I wasn’t disappointed. While the writing, world-building, and complexity of The Hunger Games pales in comparison to Daevabad – after all, the latter is adult fiction, not YA – I couldn’t put the books down. I barely remembered what happened in Catching Fire and didn’t remember Mockingjay at all, so it felt a bit like experiencing the trilogy through new eyes. The opening chapters of the first book could’ve been taken word-for-word from things North Korean refugees have said about life in their villages, and the theme of fighting back against a tyrannical Capitol is relevant to the protests around the world and in America right now. I love rereading YA books now as an adult because I can apply my own experiences to them, and apply them to real life!
My next blog post about books will likely be just as scattered and genre-defying as this. What do we want to call my taste in books? Fantasy action with a dash of idealism, a scoop of teen angst, and a heavy sprinkling of revolution?