June 2021 Reading Round Up: Page Turners

We have just a few titles for our June round up as we ease into the summer weather and spend a little more time outside. This month, we’re sharing four wildly different novels that have one thing in common: we couldn’t put them down.

Whether you’re looking to lose yourself in a fantasy universe, a love story, an all-too-relatable satire, or a modern fable, we’ve got you covered.

Amari and the Night brothers by B.b. Alston

Genre: Ya/middle grade | harperteen 2021 | Reviewed by angela gualtieri

B.B. Alston’s debut middle grade novel, Amari and the Night Brothers, follows a young black girl named Amari Peters as she tries to uncover what happened to her missing brother, Quinton. Determined to search for the truth, Amari’s quest leads her to a briefcase. Enclosed inside is an invitation to the summer tryouts for the Bureau of Supernatural Affairs. She accepts the invitation, leading her down a path into a world of magic. Once inside the Bureau, Amari must compete against other children while learning important truths about herself.

Although the book is geared toward children, Alston weaves significant themes like race, class, friendship, and loyalty throughout the narrative, making it a valuable book for readers of any age. At her school, Jefferson Academy, Amari is bullied for being poor, whereas in the Bureau, she’s targeted for her unique abilities and lack of magical experience – showing the impact of privilege on Amari’s daily life. As Agent Magnus says, “People are going to form opinions and say nasty things about you based on nothing more than what you are” (101). Amari’s kindness and strength indicate Alston’s response to this bias: Amari overcomes these obstacles through her determination, compassion, and openness, changing people’s minds and hearts.

Why We Love It: This middle grade read combines important topics like race and bullying with a crazy-amazing fantasy world full of Black girl magic that no one can resist!

The Weak Spot by Lucie elven

Genre: literary fiction | soft skull 2021 | Reviewed by rebecca valley

“If he wasn’t any good, then why was he winning elections? Why was his behavior confirmed by the people around him?”

In this modern fable set in an offbeat and unnamed European mountain town, a young pharmacist-in-training finds herself listening to the daily gossip and woes of the local townspeople while helping her increasingly malicious and manipulative boss seek election in a mayoral campaign. But what begins as a relatively mundane book about life in this peculiar village becomes a chronicle of the rise of a powerful man, and the ways that the women around him begin to realize that their realities, and their sense of self, have deteriorated in his presence.

As the book goes on, the once enthusiastic and driven pharmacist finds herself falling into numbness. She becomes a person she doesn’t entirely recognize, along the way recounting the small manipulations of the men in her life—her uncle, her boss, her boss’s campaign manager. “Every day, she noticed someone she was close to was telling her she experienced her life wrongly.” Unsure where to turn, the narrator finds solace in other women in the town, whose pains mirror her own, and in the foggy mountaintop in whose dark mythologies she finds a kind of solace: “Later I learned that it was a part of the country that deviants ran away to in books, a place for murderers, thieves, and alcoholic former lawyers to lie low, a landscape full of abrupt drops, deep craters, boars, snakes, and wolves—a vast, sleeping boundary, a safe haven.”

Like many fairy tales, this little novel is saying more than it lets on about the masculinity, power, gaslighting, and the importance of sharing stories of abuse.

Why We Love It: The rise of this narcissistic and abusive leader at the center of this fable feels eerily familiar–and validates the confusion, sadness, and lethargy many marginalized people experienced during the Trump administration.

Memorial by Bryan Washington

Genre: literary fiction | riverhead books 2020 | Reviewed by a mana nava

Bryan Washington writes queer, nonwhite interracial, modern couples for a new generation of readers in his debut novel, Memorial. 

Relationships are complicated: the way they start, how to maneuver in them, communicating your desires, making life decisions with another person in and outside times of crisis, and blending two worlds together. In Memorial, all these factors collide for our main characters Benson and Mike. Benson is a daycare worker. He has his hands full with his student, Ahmad, who’s being bullied by the other kids. Mike is a chef. Both are unhappy. They fight regularly, and instead of resolving problems, their arguments dissolve into sex. This pattern of confrontation and avoidance becomes a regular dance for them. 

That is, until Mike’s mom, Mitsuko, calls. She tells Mike that his father, Eiju, has cancer. He’s dying. As Mitsuko comes to America, Mike leaves to join his father in Japan, breaking the never-ending cycle between him and Benson.

When it comes to craft, Washington experiments with form, breaking the reader’s expectation of what literary fiction can look like. Audiences might already be familiar with his expertly crafted micro-scenes after reading his short story collection Lot (2019). Washington’s micro-scenes give the reader a flash of a character’s life, emphasizing one emotion, action, or thought. Washington’s micro-scenes speed up the reading pace of this story, and it’s addicting to zip through this beautiful, rich literary novel full of melodrama and interpersonal conflict, almost like a straight-to-paperback thriller. 

Washington also surprises readers with his inclusion of pictures throughout the novel. Because Mike is in Japan and Benson is back home in Texas, the couple’s only avenue of communication is through messages. To further express the divide in the couple’s connection, Mike starts to sporadically send pictures instead of written texts.  the reader also sees  Japanese buildings, streets, and corridors, which gives the novel a sense of realism. This is exactly what happens when one goes someplace and wants to share what they see with another person in the modern world. Memorial is an observation of a relationship during its last cycle. Washington shows us that love and intimacy cannot exist in a bubble. At some point, a  crisis will occur, and the bubble will burst—like someone’s father dying of cancer a whole ocean away.

Why We Love It: This inventive debut novel is a realistic portrait of queer, interracial love, family, and the struggle to stay connected across both physical and emotional distance.

interior chinatown by charles yu

Genre: literary fiction | vintage 2020 | Reviewed by allison mccausland

Society boxes people into categories, both consciously and unconsciously. Race, religion, gender, nationality—all propagate stereotypes that influence how we see ourselves and how others see us. Charles Yu’s National Book Award winning novel, Interior Chinatown, examines the internalization of these stereotypes through protagonist Willis Wu, a self-described Generic Asian Man who dreams of progressing to the role of Kung Fu Guy, the title everyone in his Chinatown home strives to embody.

Yu’s script-based style sets up Wu’s journey by combining first-person narration with the frame of various TV show genres. As Wu slowly works toward the role of Kung Fu Guy, his interactions with his parents, wife, and other “main characters,” such as Turner (Black Dude Cop) and Green (White Lady Cop), shape how he internalizes bias, even when he is trying to rise above the generic role he has assigned to himself. With the help of his mother, daughter, and Older Brother (a former Kung Fu Guy who goes “missing”), Wu breaks the mold created by the culture around him and learns to fit whatever role he wants.

Interior Chinatown is Yu’s testament to the compartmentalization of American culture, and how the idea of the American Dream applies to groups outside the atypical masculine WASP narratives that make up most of our official history. Through Wu’s journey and the satire of popular entertainment outlets that Yu knows well from his screenwriting career, readers can see the damaging impact of stereotypes and start to release themselves from the shackles of self-containment. Instead, Yu’s novel gives a voice to our intersectionality, and the scope of our ambitions beyond the prejudices that run rampant in today’s world.

Why We Love It: Yu brings his script-writing expertise into this Hollywood satire that forces readers to think about how they put marginalized folks in boxes–and the boxes they put themselves in, too.

Want to review a book for our next round-up? Head to our submissions page for more information and to see a list of titles we’d love to cover.

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