It feels really good to be writing about books again. Without going into too much detail, this year has held a few tougher seasons for me, and I’ve spent much of it feeling overwhelmed/upset/anxious/depressed about certain aspects of my life. However, I am actively taking steps to change that, including being more active here, in my creative space. Reading and writing make me happy, and we could all use more happy in the day-to-day, right? And so, without further ado, here are my latest reads.
So, full disclosure. I did NOT read all of these books in June. However, I do want to be better about writing monthly book roundup posts, so in that spirit here are my “June” reads!
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer by Michelle McNamara
“Open the door. Show us your face. Walk into the light.”*
I put this book on hold at my local library after hearing about it on my all-time favorite podcast, My Favorite Murder. When the news broke a few short months after its publication that a suspect had finally been arrested in the Golden State Killer case, I caved and bought it that same afternoon. I am so glad I did. Be warned however, if you loathe true crime and anything that comes with this genre, DO NOT READ THIS BOOK.
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark documents the infamous and, until recently, unsolved case of the Golden State Killer. Originally dubbed the East Area Rapist, the Golden State Killer stalked victims throughout Northern California for over a decade without getting caught. While experts believe he began his criminal career as a thief, the GSK went on to commit over 50 sexual assaults and at least 10 murders before disappearing in the mid-80’s. As the intensity of his attacks grew over the years, the GSK refined his criminal skills into sinister calling cards. He would break into the homes of victims in the days leading up to an attack to get a feel for their layouts and to hide any weapons he might find. He would stack dishes on the backs of hog-tied men, threatening them with certain death if he heard a sound while he assaulted their wives or girlfriends in adjacent rooms. Perhaps most disturbingly, he would leave his female victims alone after an initial assault, bound and often too terrified to move for hours. Only when his victim finally allowed herself to relax, undoubtedly thinking her attacker was gone, would he make his presence known once again with a brush of his finger against her skin. The GSK is a true monster who left his victims in emotional shreds and entire neighborhoods crippled in fear of the dark.
Michelle McNamara, who died before she could finish this masterpiece, is easily one of the most talented true crime writers in the field. She first began writing about the monster who terrorized Northern California from 1976-1986 on her blog, True Crime Diary. Her obsession with the case grew, and eventually turned into this terrifying, yet gorgeously written read. McNamara somehow manages to weave the most gruesome of details from police reports, victim statements, and crime scene evidence into a narrative that is so lyrical, you feel as if you’re reading a novel rather than a work of nonfiction.
While many adjectives could be used to describe this book and the case it chronicles, ‘haunting’ is the word I keep returning to. Much like it’s monstrous leading man, the story of the Golden State Killer’s decade long spree jolts your mind with an initial fear, which you think will pass with the closing of the book. In certain moments however- the creak in the stair as you’re falling asleep, or the tickle of a strange gaze on your neck when you’re home alone- that fear will brush itself against your cheek, reminding you it’s still there.
* While the rest of the reviews in this post begin with the first sentence of the books, this review begins with the final sentence , which was too good to choose otherwise.
The Leavers by Lisa Ko
“The day before Deming Guo saw his mother for the last time, she surprised him at school.”
I loved this book from the first sentence to the last, even when it was breaking my heart. The Leavers tells the story of Deming and his mother, Polly, an undocumented Chinese immigrant. When she fails to return from her job at a nail salon one afternoon, Deming is left behind in a cramped Bronx apartment with Polly’s boyfriend and sister-in-law. When it becomes clear that Polly will not be returning for her son, Deming is adopted as “Daniel” by a well-meaning yet clueless white couple in upstate New York. Daniel grows up fighting to bridge the gap between the white-washed life his new family pressures him to accept and the aching memories of his mother. As the novel jumps between the perspectives of mother and son, the mystery of Polly’s disappearance gradually unfolds. Most strikingly however, we come to learn just how fierce, selfish, loving, and driven a person Polly is, both as a woman and as a mother.
I don’t think Lisa Ko could have written this book at a better time. Her novel vividly depicts the struggles immigrants, specifically illegals, face day in and day out in this country. With her debut, Ko holds a mirror up to our society, and it’s important for each of us to take a good long look.
My Absolute Darling** by Gabriel Tallent
**Trigger warning- This book portrays difficult instances of physical and sexual abuse against a child.
“The old house hunkers on its hill, all peeling white paint, bay windows, and spindled wooden railings overgrown with climbing roses and poison oak.”
I chose this book for the cover alone (I know, I know, but let me live). From the first sentence on, Gabriel Tallent lures his readers into a gripping and gut-wrenching tale, laced with vivid descriptions of the Northern California coast. This novel tells the story of Turtle Alveston, a gun-slinging, tough-as-nails fourteen year old being raised on the edge of society by her crazed survivalist father, Martin.
Early on in the novel, it was clear that a sinister thread formed the core of the relationship between father and daughter. Martin has taught Turtle all he knows when it comes to survival, even when it comes to surviving him. Turtle leads an isolated life confined to occasional visits with her aging grandfather and days spent fighting off the worried curiosity of classmates and teachers at her middle school. However, when she meets Jacob, a local high school boy, Turtle’s world is broadened at last, pushing her to take the first steps towards becoming her own hero.
While I think that this is a solid first novel from a newish author, I do have some significant problems with it. Why is ANOTHER white guy writing about female abuse and trauma (and not at LEAST giving the girl her own first-person voice!)? Why did NO ONE in this story call child services? Do ANY teenage boys speak to each other like Jacob and his friends do? And, my goodness, WHY DOES IT TAKE A TEENAGE CRUSH TO GET TURTLE MOVING? In a book that doesn’t shy away from depictions of a father raping his daughter, I was beyond disappointed that a romantic crush was the spark that gets Turtle moving towards her own salvation. I am positive that she could- and should- have done so on her damn own, or at least with guidance from a positive, non-romantic relationship in her life.
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
“There are two kinds of people in the world, those who leave home, and those who don’t.”
I’m not sure if Jones meant this or not (we can never really be sure with author intent, can we?), but the first line of this fucking stunning novel could not capture its essence more perfectly. In these pages we meet Roy and Celestial, a husband and wife whose story begs the reader to consider what it means to leave and find home- and a marriage- against one’s wishes or otherwise.
Just as they are settling into their roles as a married couple, Roy, a young professional Black man, gets sentenced to twelve years in prison for a crime he did not commit. After her husband’s unjust incarceration Celestial, a bold up-and-coming artist, throws herself into her growing business as her feelings for her husband gradually begin to fade. While she remains loyal to her husband, she eventually turns to Andre, her childhood friend and best man at her wedding, for comfort. When Roy is unexpectedly released from prison five years into his sentence, both he and Celestial are forced to confront the state of their marriage, and to finally question where, and who, home really is.
To say I tore through this novel is an understatement to say the least. Jones’ writing is eloquent, crisp, and at times biting. This book has some important things to say about our country’s criminal justice system (specifically its treatment of Black men), loyalty in impossible situations, and love, in and out of marriage.
The Wonder*** by Emma Donoghue
***Trigger warning: This book contains instances of physical and sexual abuse against a child.
“The journey was no worse than she expected.”
Emma Donoghue is quickly becoming one of my favorite authors. Her newest novel takes us to 1850’s Ireland where Lib Wright, a widowed English nurse trained by Florence Nightingale herself, is called to a tiny village for a weird, yet simple assignment. Tourists have been flooding the hamlet to try and catch a glimpse of Lib’s soon-to-be charge, the young Anna O’Donnell, ever since she stopped eating four months prior. While some hail the little girl as a saint, others cast doubt on her fast and so it falls to Lib to stay with her in her home, day and night, to watch her constantly in the hopes that she can prove, or disprove, Anna’s “holiness.”
Even though many of the locals, including the doctor who hires Lib and Anna’s own parents, believe that the girl’s refusal to eat is divinely inspired, Lib staunchly believes that Anna has somehow managed to fool them all. As time passes and Anna’s health continually declines, Lib begins to question her own beliefs about the girl. Is she as saintly as her small village believes? Or is Anna the victim of a much darker happening?
This read is a bit slow in the beginning (at least for me), but I am beyond glad that I stuck with hit. Emma Donoghue does a beautiful job of forcing us to ponder how far we could, and should go, for our beliefs.
Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult
“The miracle happened on West Seventy-Fourth Street, in the home where Mama worked.”
Jodi Picoult has done it again with her newest novel. This story introduces us to Ruth Jefferson, a talented labor and delivery nurse whose life is thrown into turmoil during a routine infant checkup during one of her shifts. The new baby’s parents, avid white supremacists, are horrified when Ruth, a Black woman, tends to their child, and immediately demand that she have no further interaction with their son. The hospital sides with the white family, and Ruth is ordered not to touch the baby in order to “respect” their preferences. Later, she finds herself alone in the nursery with the child as he begins to undergo cardiac distress. Ruth’s ultimate reaction lands her in the courtroom, facing an unimaginable charge.
When Kennedy McQuarrie, a white public defender with some questionable advice, gets assigned to Ruth’s case, both women find themselves learning how to work together. In the process, ugly truths about racism and prejudice burn bridges between the two, yet ultimately help them to rebuild trust in each other.
I will admit, I had some initial problems when reading this book. I often caught myself wondering, Why is a white woman author putting words into the mouth of a Black female character? and mentally declaring, Not ALL white people are racist, Jodi! However, after finishing both the story and Picoult’s author’s note, my tune had changed. In short, this book made me face some hard truths about myself, my perception of what qualifies as “racist” behavior, and what I need to a better job of as a white woman of privilege.
Bottom line: White people have privilege and PROTECTION in this country that Black people and minorities simply do not have. Is this situation the fault of white people? Yes and no. Is it racist if we continue to benefit from this system and do nothing to change it? Yes, yes, a thousand times yes.