Justin: No one else writes like Nell Zink. Her dialogue is infinitely sharper than real life, and her characters routinely make the kinds of decisions the rest of us thankfully avoid. And yet, the results of those bad decisions make for achingly good fiction. Mislaid tells the story of Peggy, a lesbian who goes to college in 1960s Virginia, where she falls in love with a gay man. Like most poorly considered relationships, Peggy and Lee’s ends badly, with Peggy driving a car into the pond and running away with one of their two children, assuming the identity of an African American family along the way. For all its zany antics, this is a story about making it (or not) in America. While Peggy and her daughter scrape by on the margins of society, Lee and his son enjoy the privileges that flow naturally to those of their gender, race, and class. It could all be awfully heavy, but Zink gamely handles subjects most of her countrymen shy away from or approach only with the utmost seriousness. Here, she manages to turn racism, sexism, classism, and Southern history into rich veins of pitiless, yet breezy comedy.
One More Thing
Freya: One More Thing is a book of “what ifs”. What if the tortoise and the hare had a rematch? What if Chris Hansen went to a Justin Bieber concert? What if Nelson Mandela was roasted on Comedy Central? What if your blind date was a warlord? What if a sex robot loved you back? Animatedly narrated by a star-studded cast, including Katy Perry and Rainn Wilson, the collection of 64 short stories by BJ Novak (yeah, that guy from The Office) covers an absurdly diverse range of topics. In fact, “absurd” is a description that frequently comes to mind when reading One More Thing, but so do the words “hilarious” and “delightful.” It’s a hodgepodge of pop culture references, twists on fables, satire, comedy, and at times, some truly poignant and moving moments. Some of the stories are a mere few sentences. Others go on for several pages. Some will make you laugh out loud. Others may leave you wondering, “what exactly did I just read?” Still, with each page Novak proves to have an uncanny ability to take “what if” and transform it into a story that will both surprise and delight in a bizarrely brilliant way.
Alex: With a protagonist named Anna and the ominous appearance of trains on the first page, it’s not difficult to see where Hausfrau is headed. Suffused with an unshakeable ennui, Anna is the expat housewife of a handsome but distant Swiss banker and mother to their three children, drifting through a suffocating-yet-comfortable existence in the Swiss suburbs. Anna cannot summon the agency to learn her adopted country’s language, make friends, or open a bank account, and is incapable of being honest even with her psychoanalyst. Her only brief and illusory joy comes from infidelities; affairs follow one after the other, overlapping, never bringing much relief. As Anna’s literary ancestors (Bovary, Karenina) demonstrate, female characters cannot escape such a flawed existence unscathed.
The psychoanalyst’s frustrations with Anna mimic the reader’s: “A modern woman needn’t be so unhappy,” she says. “You should go more places and do more things.” It does at times feel anachronistic that a woman in Anna’s circumstances would be so limited; her predecessors in claustrophobically comfortable existences experienced societal oppression that Anna is largely spared from. But Essbaum captures the prison of depression with an accuracy and a lyricism that’s impossible to deny. The final 30 pages were some of the most emotionally riveting I’ve read recently; even knowing what fate befalls such Annas, I couldn’t bear to look away from the trainwreck unfolding before my eyes.
Ready Player One
Joey: Ready Player One. Any gamer who was alive to see the 80s and 90s has seen these words scrawled across the load screen of an arcade cabinet at least a few times. Ernest Cline’s novel by that name is a thick barrage of nerdy pop culture nostalgia, formed into the shape of a post-apocalyptic bildungsroman. It is a title equally concerned with teenage angst and evil multinational megacorporations, with video games as escapism and a world without reliable energy.
Wade Watts is a teenager living in the dilapidated stacks of trailers that pass as slums in a dystopian vision of America’s future, after fossil fuels have run out entirely. He spends most of his time as the rest of the world does—logged into The Oasis, an immersive online virtual reality experience created by the legendary (fictional) video game designer, James Halliday. When Halliday passed away, he coded a special Easter egg into the game. The first person to solve his incredibly difficult puzzles and unlock the secret wins the prize—complete control over the Oasis and hundreds of billions of dollars. And Wade finds the first part of the puzzle.
Cline does rely heavily on pop culture references, but his characters are deep and relatable, and his plots compelling. This book is full of moments that will make any true superfan chuckle, not least of which is the choice of narrator for the audiobook—none other than the greatest superfan himself, Wil Wheaton.
The Hollow Kingdom
Ashley: Goblins, usually relegated to side characters (prime examples being Harry Potter and Artemis Fowl), get to be the enigmatic and charming stars of Clare B. Dunkle’s The Hollow Kingdom. This made me realize I don’t know anything about goblins (I enjoyed beating them up in Final Fantasy Tactics, that’s a fact). Looking up the basics about goblins (they’re small and greedy) has made me realize it doesn’t matter if you know nothing about them, because Dunkle defies goblin stereotypes to make creatures all her own (they’re tall and witty, for one).
Dunkle’s trilogy is lauded as an underappreciated YA fantasy series, and as I make my way through the first book, I can see why its small but loyal fanbase loves it so much. It follows two sisters, Kate and Emily, who have recently inherited the estate of Hollow Hill, currently kept by their cousin, Hugh, who’s very sophisticated and doesn’t believe any of the stories about goblins that are associated with the property. He’s dismayed when Kate and Emily begin ranting about strange encounters they had with hooded, inhuman creatures, thinking them mad, silly girls. Kate and Emily prove to be proper but spunky English girls, pushing the boundaries of traditional gender roles (it’s hard when you’re trying not to be kidnapped by a hideous goblin king to be his bride). The story follows a familiar fairytale-like script, specifically that of Beauty and the Beast, but adds plenty of twists and turns to create an alluringly elusive and chilling atmosphere.