August 2021 Reading Round Up: Transformations

After way too many years following an academic calendar, I still think of August as a month on the cusp of new beginnings. That’s why today we’re sharing our stories of transformation–of starting over in a new place, a new era of your life, even a new body.

In our books this month, a family of refugees rebuild their lives in a country that is not as magical as they once believed. The world literally pauses, waiting for one child to flip a switch. A woman turns into a wolf. Anything is possible in these books of transformation, which speak to the ways we are constantly changing, starting over, making ourselves new.

Switch by A.S. King

Genre: YA/Sci-fi | dutton books 2021 | Reviewed by megan foster

Time has completely stopped in Printz award-winning author A.S. King’s surrealist scifi YA novel Switch. When all the adults proceed as normal but leave it to kids to fix the problem, teens like the protagonist Truda face new developments of their own–like, say, a sudden record-breaking, javelin-throwing ability. Meanwhile, Truda’s father obsesses over a mysterious switch in their house that he protects with hundreds of boxes. It’s up to Truda to determine just what went wrong with the world and her family, and how she can make it right again. 

Switch reads like a miraculous blend of Kurt Vonnegut and Daniel Handler; it cracked me up and made me tear up in equal measure. King’s writing has the astute precision of a poet. At times the writing employs dashes and abrupt changes that even read somewhat like caesuras: “Daddy comes from a place where every word is honest / nobody shoots you. This place is war / he is a soldier with six-inch steel nails. This is a circus and he is juggling all of us. War juggling / weapons in flight. Circuits in circles. Me, Richard, sister” (3). Like the best poets, King also utilizes straightforward metaphors that still pack a punch: “I am a missile launcher. Richard is a rifle. Sister is an assortment of bombs” (4). All in all, the book provides a moving commentary on humanity’s struggle against kindness in its rush against time. Truda demonstrates that even the average person–well, superhuman throwing aside–can make monumental change. This weird world desperately needs it.  

Why We Love It: This funny, emotional YA novel is incredibly timely, as we emerge from the Great Pause that was the pandemic. It’s also about how kids can make change–a sentiment we love and stand behind.

young blood by Sifiso mzobe

Genre: literary fiction | catalyst press 2021 | Reviewed by allison mccausland

Crime pays…until it doesn’t. Protagonist Sipho learns this the hard way in Sifiso Mzobe’s South African crime novel, Young Blood. Based on Mzobe’s childhood home in the Durban district, he chronicles the evolution of Sipho as he descends into the world of carjacking at the behest of his syndicate-connected childhood friends Musa and Vusi. Mzobe’s depiction of Sipho’s journey earned him the 2012 Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa, named after the continent’s first non-Sub-Saharan recipient of the Nobel Prize in 1986.

Mzobe immerses readers in the dialect and class conflicts of his setting. Sipho starts out as a low-income mechanic with a flair for drag racing and showing off stylish cars without his personal life interfering. After a run in with a rival syndicate, his friends Musa and Vusi convince Sipho to use his talents as a side hustle to help their hijacking crew. Ensnared by the possibility of earning enough money to move out of his low-income neighborhood and provide a respectable life for his wealthy girlfriend, Sipho agrees and finds that life on the other side of the law has its perks. Nevertheless, all that glitters is not gold when his personal life and the law catch up with him, threatening to destroy the future he’s saving for–and his life.

The gritty realism of Mzobe’s home country is brought to the forefront of each chapter almost as if it’s a character of its own. A journalist by trade, Mzobe’s writing style is a matter of fact and vivid testament to his profession as both a reporter and fiction writer. Young Blood offers readers insight to a not often explored underbelly of South Africa while also providing a fresh narrative on the atypical “descent into crime” story.

Why We Love It: This emotionally complex crime novel is fast-paced and gritty, while highlighting the complex reasons that good people the world over choose crime under capitalism.

nightbitch by rachel yoder

Genre: literary fiction | doubleday books 2021 | Reviewed by swati sudarsan

In the tradition of Kafka, Nightbitch follows one woman’s lycanthropy as she transforms from domesticated parent to feral. Our narrator’s parenthood is shaped by seemingly natural choices, like deferring her dream job as a gallery director to full-time mother (yes, mother as verb). Her husband makes more money in his travel-heavy job, and she can always go back to her career once she is done raising their son. Her choices maximize the best outcomes. They are happy. She is contained.

Until she is not. When our unnamed narrator begins to suspect she is turning into a dog, her husband laughs her off. He ignores her urgent revelation that she is losing her impulse control and morality, not to mention that she craves raw meat in the dead of night. At first our narrator fears her zoomorphication, and begins to research her condition. When she finds a mysterious book that affirms her experience, even mythologizes it, she realizes that losing control feels good. The harder she falls into the lore of the book, the more she embodies the persona of Nightbitch.

Nightbitch explores how mom-shaming is used against women to control their desires and multiply their burdens. Whether they are working moms, full-time moms, never moms, or too young to be moms, femmes face a lose-lose situation of fulfilling or subverting expectations. Because of this, Nightbitch is at once repulsive and desirable. We question whether our narrator’s drive to unadulterated violence is a hallmark of slipping out of her skin or growing into it. Is she losing control or finally gaining it back? Either way, Nightbitch is the embodiment of pure feminine rage – that atavistic, red hot, pulsing rage that started at the first rape and never stopped. The rage that resides in every femme paying the penance of womanhood.

In Nightbitch, we see what happens when societal expectations are torn to shreds. Nightbitch is satisfying because it is about carnal desire and lust for authentically violent, feminine expression.

Why We Love It: This unconventional werewolf book challenges patriarchy and the idea of self-sacrificing motherhood. It’s a book about female rage–and it takes no prisoners.

on fragile waves by e. lily yu

Genre: literary fiction | erewhon books 2021 | Reviewed by allison mccausland

In E. Lily Yu’s debut novel, On Fragile Waves, Yu takes an unflinching look at the hazards, heartbreak, and small, bittersweet victories that refugees face when escaping their homelands for a brighter future. With stream of consciousness prose and pointed dialogue, Yu makes use of her research from Kabul and Melborne when portraying Firuzeh, an Afghanistan refugee, and her family as they seek asylum in Australia.

Yu weaves Firuzeh’s coming of age with her parents’ stories of Afghani folklore. Myth and reality overlap after Firuzeh’s deceased friend starts appearing to her as a sea nymph, a reflection of how her friend drowned during the first leg of the refugees’ journey. With despondent parents, a spoiled brother, and the culture shock of a social hierarchy at her school, Firuzeh uses the tales of her country and the ghost of her fearless friend to navigate the trials of adjusting to a dimly lit new life, all without losing her sense of self.    

Why We Love It: This book combines magical realism with the heartfelt story of a family of Afghani refugees struggling to acclimate to life in a foreign nation.

the barren grounds by david a. robertson

Genre: ya/fantasy | puffin books 2020 | Reviewed by tain leonard-peck

Morgan and Eli, two Native children, band together in  Manitoba, Canada. Forlorn of Native homes, Native families, Native culture, they rely on each other for strength and sanity in a forest of steel, glass, and concrete. Thus begins a long, painful battle to keep in touch with their roots: to find ways to tie folklore into white-washed school curriculum, and to find magic in mundane life. 

It proves to be a struggle, and maybe an insurmountable one, until the two children, Morgan and Eli, find a mysterious portal to another place: a world of hard, frozen ground and biting snow and wind. They encounter Ochek, a lone hunter keeping his village, Misewa, alive with food. The three–who soon become four, joined by the squirrel Arik–embark on a journey to save the village, bringing salvation in the face of endless smothering winter. 

The Barren Grounds is a story of connecting to your roots, even if those roots aren’t always a harbinger of happy days. It chronicles the mourning of the loss of culture in the face of colonialism and industrialization. It is a triumphal story of oppressed peoples reclaiming their birthright even in the face of grim adversity.

Why We Love It: An amazing, Narnia-like fantasy series that focuses on the lives and struggles of Native kids trying to make peace with their beautiful and fraught histories. We can’t wait to read more!

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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