In our monthly book club, we discuss whatever we happen to be reading and ask everyone in the comments to do the same. What Are You Reading This Month?
I have The A.V. Club’s 2019 books preview to thank for putting Mesha Maren’s debut novel, Sugar Run, on my radar. The descriptors “queer” and “Southern noir” were enough to pique my interest, but noncommittally thumbing through the opening pages, I was quickly drawn in by the spectacular sense of place in Maren’s writing—here the rolling blue hills and socioeconomic fringes of rural West Virginia—and the story’s unconventional protagonist. When Sugar Run begins, Jodi McCarty is mere seconds from freedom, 18 years of life behind bars coming to an abrupt, blinding halt at the end of the hallway. On the other side of the door, she has no family to greet her and no idea of what to do with herself, really, except try to follow through with a promise she’s held onto since she got locked up, one she hopes can redeem her. Not long into her journey, Jodi is sucked into the orbit of Miranda, a charming but rudderless young mother of three living at the motel where Jodi is staying. It’s in these borrowed, transient spaces—rented rooms, Miranda’s old Chevette, crashing with Jodi’s toxic family or squatting at her grandmother’s abandoned cabin—where the two carve out a makeshift life together, but like the fracking operations consuming the land around them, reality threatens to overtake it at every turn. Maren tackles a lot across Sugar Run’s 300 pages—the collateral consequences of incarceration, homophobia, poverty, addiction, energy and environmental concerns—but it never feels heavy-handed. It just feels real. [Kelsey J. Waite]
Inspired by the 200-year anniversary of Frankenstein in 2018, I recently picked up British poet Fiona Sampson’s new biography In Search Of Mary Shelley: The Girl Who Wrote Frankenstein, published last summer in honor of that same anniversary. Eclipsed throughout her life by her famous friends and family—first by her radical philosopher parents, and then by her free-love advocate poet husband—the details of Shelley’s childhood and adult inner life remain obscure. And so, as Sampson notes in her introduction to the book, her mission is to reclaim Mary Shelley, both as the mother of the science-fiction genre and as a human being. Sampson’s poetic intuition is key to this reclamation, using the social history of the period as a base from which to make connections between what little facts we do have about Shelley’s life and the romantic, morbid sensibility that permeates her writing in order to create snapshots of key moments in her life. Fifty pages in, I’ve already learned quite a bit about about 19th-century glassblowing and the Enlightenment’s fascination with public dissection, as well as the extremely goth fact that Mary Shelley learned to read by tracing the letters on her mother’s grave. [Katie Rife]
I’ve long been a fan of YA lit, but less so of mysteries—I’m the kind of person who jumps a foot if somebody startles me at work in the middle of the day, and there are plenty of other genres that are better suited to my low threshold for dramatic tension. Which is possibly why I waited a year before reading Truly Devious, the first in a series of YA mysteries by Maureen Johnson (who, full disclosure, sent me a signed copy of Truly Devious last year because we’re friendly on Twitter; I’ve been a fan of her work for some time, and I don’t know her in real life).
Truly Devious takes place at an oddball elite boarding school in Vermont, a two-year high school for a handful of students who have intensely passionate interests and curiosity, like building machines, or writing novels, or, in protagonist Stevie Bell’s case, solving mysteries. Stevie applies to Ellingham Academy based on her interest in a nearly 90-year-old mystery at the school that involves one death and two disappearances. There are things that are predictable: Stevie immediately sets forth to solve the case that nobody else could crack; she feels at home at Ellingham, but also worries that her acceptance was a mistake; she has a confusing and complicated crush on one of her fellow students. But with that as a framework, Johnson builds her most original and elaborately plotted book yet, a novel with overlapping mysteries from the 1930s and present-day that she carefully unspools chapter by chapter. As one mystery appears to resolve, another one opens, and Stevie and the reader move in ragged parallel as the story moves between time.
More than a thoroughly enjoyable mystery, though, Johnson writes Stevie as a real human being, not a plucky heroine with a quick wit. Stevie’s still figuring out her love of detective work, and the adults at Ellingham take her seriously and support it. She and her friends are real and funny, and have different genders and races and mental illnesses—all of which are simply part of their characters, rather than hacky plot devices. It’s deeply compassionate on top of being a lot of fun, even if I had to stay up until 2 a.m. to finish it because I couldn’t handle the anxiety of not knowing how it would end. Because it’s the first book of a series, it ends with more mystery, but luckily for me, the second installment is out next week. [Laura M. Browning]