What I read in May

I always set myself a reading goal of 52 books for the year (so on average a book a week). Well, somehow (lockdown), I’ve hit that goal 5 months into 2021. Here are the top 10 fiction and top 5 nonfiction books I’ve read so far this year — what should I put on my to-read list for the rest of the year?

Fiction:

The Rain Heron by Robbie Arnott
Rule of Wolves by Leigh Bardugo
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin
The Absolute Book by Elizabeth Knox
No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood
Furia by Yamile Saied Méndez
Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas
The Yield by Tara June Winch
Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu

Nonfiction:

Empire of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe
Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe
Born a Crime by Trevor Noah
Can’t Even by Anne Helen Petersen
Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner

Read on for reviews of the books I read in May:

Fiction

Rule of Wolves by Leigh Bardugo

Epic in scale and intimate in character development, this book has everything you could want in a fantasy novel. Political intrigue, espionage, war, romance, magic, and more. Maybe it’s recency bias, but this might just be my favourite book in the Grisha universe. I don’t really have too much to say about it (or rather, I have a lot to say about it but it’s all spoilery)—but if you are a fan and are at all hesitant because you don’t like Zoya or you’re wary of some of the plotlines introduced in the last book, it’s well worth giving it a go and you may be surprised.

The Flatshare by Beth O’Leary

This is very good fun. An array of all the best tropes—she’s an underpaid, overworked-but-still-having-fun publishing assistant, he’s an introverted nurse with a heart of gold, and of course the entire thing hinges on two of the ultimate feel good romcom tropes: omg they were roommates AND oops there’s only one bed!

I love the way the romance develops through the notes they write each other, I love that they are quirky but not overly (or at least not annoyingly) so, and I love that there are actual deep narrative themes that are well handled involving Tiffy’s abusive ex, Leon’s incarcerated brother, and of course, financial situations that result in them sharing a one-bedroom flat despite not meeting for months.

My only quibble was that the narrative style for Leon’s POV chapters felt more like he was personally telling the story to someone or writing maybe it in a journal, particularly with the dialogue that was written in script format (e.g. Me: [dialogue]; Tiffy: [dialogue]). Since there was no reason or indication that his narration was anything more than the classic first-person POV, same as Tiffy’s, it felt a bit out of place, but this was really only a minor gripe with what is otherwise an absolutely delightful book.

How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones

It can be tough to read a story that you know isn’t going to have a happy ending for anyone involved. A story of generational trauma and abuse, violence, poverty, misogyny—there is no end to the sadness that befalls Lala and everyone else in the story. It’s an authentic story, and written very well (I wouldn’t put it in the “misery porn” category anyway, despite the unrelenting bleakness) but that doesn’t make it any more bearable to read. Where I think the novel struggles is in creating a world around Lala. For example, it felt like Mira was supposed to be a foil for her, a contrasting and intersecting storyline, but Mira never feels as developed as Lala and so the comparison doesn’t feel quite as complete as it should. The ending also feels very abrupt. What I liked best about this novel was the writing style, rhythmic and full of imagery that paints the picture of the beach and the tragedy in equal measures.

Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu

What an innovative and clever novel. I love when a book has an interesting format, and I love even more when the format is perfectly fitting for the story. Written in the format of a TV screenplay, it tells the story of Willis Wu, Generic Asian Man who dreams of being Kung Fu Guy—the latter being as much as a pigeonhole stereotype as the latter, but it’s the best an Asian character on a procedural TV show set in Chinatown can get, right? This book is so smart, so darkly funny, so thoughtful. I absolutely loved it, one to recommend to everyone I know.

Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas

“Boarding school with a spoooooky secret” is one of my favourite tropes, so when a friend recommended this one to me I was fairly certain I was going to enjoy it. Deliciously gothic and atmospheric, I was drawn into the setting straight away. It took me much longer to get a sense of the protagonist, but I think that was deliberate, and once I connected with her I felt very invested in her choices. I found the final third of the book predictable, but not in a dull way. The author set up the story so that the events and Ines’s actions followed logically to their end conclusion—not everything needs a massive, un-foreshadowed twist in the final few pages. An eerie and engaging dark academia novel. 

Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller

A dark and quiet book about two middle-aged siblings whose lives are thrown into disarray when their mother—with whom they live, on whom they depend, with whom they eke out a living through selling produce from the garden and doing various odd jobs around their rural village—suddenly dies. They, particularly Jeanie who is the main POV of the novel, have little sense of independence and are left behind in a world that is far more modern than their run-down cottage with its outdoor privy and kerosene lamps would suggest. The story of their attempts to maintain their lives and move forward is sometimes frustrating in their refusal to accept assistance where it is genuinely offered, although understandable in their long-belated first tentative steps toward independence, devastating in their failures, and uplifting in their successes. As family secrets unravel and are revealed and they begin to learn more about a past they never knew—and a future they were denied?—the book guides you through with tense, evocative writing. It’s a slow, atmospheric book, in no way a “thriller” in the traditional sense, but it had me on the edge of my seat waiting to see how it would all shake out.

Nonfiction

Four Hundred Souls edited by Ibram X Kendi and Keisha N Blain (audiobook read by a full cast)

This is an excellent book and an incredible audiobook. I would definitely recommend listening to it if you have the choice. A series of essays tracing the history of Black people in America, beginning with an essay from an essay from Nikole Hannah-Jones on 1619 and ending with one from Black Lives Matter founder Alicia Garza on the movement. I like the mix of essay styles, with some more academic and some more in the style of memoir. On audiobook, each essay is read by someone different, some by the authors and some by actors and other figures, which really emphasises the depth and breadth of voices that span this rich history.

Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner (audiobook read by the author)

This is a really special book. It’s so intimate and personal—the conversational style makes it feel as though the author is telling the story directly to you (and I listened to it on audiobook so even moreso). A heartbreaking memoir about grief and love, full of both, written in a way that is simultaneously frank and lyrical. Devastating, and yet beautiful to read.

World Travel by Laurie Woolever and Anthony Bourdain

I feel bad rating this book poorly because I understand why the author, Bourdain’s longtime assistant, wrote it. It was meant to be a project they completed together as they did the cookbook Appetites, but they only had one meeting about it before his death—and the book as it was published was clearly meant to be a homage to the man and the many places he traveled. But it doesn’t really work.

The pure travel guide moments are too unnecessary, we don’t really need another book explaining how to get from the airport into the centre of various cities. The quotes from Bourdain’s various shows are great of course, but I’d rather rewatch No Reservations or Parts Unknown and hear them said aloud. It would also have been nice to have a list of all of the restaurants he went to on the show; when I travel somewhere I know there’s been an episode of one of his shows on, I always google “Anthony Bourdain [location]” to see where he went that I could also go. That would set this travel guide a bit more apart and at least be a resource for fans.

And as a tribute, there isn’t enough; the true gems of the book are the essays from people whose restaurants Bourdain visited, people with whom he travelled and worked, and so on, but these are few and far between. I would have gladly read an entire anthology of these recollections.

The Third Rainbow Girl by Emma Copey Eisenberg (audiobook)

This book tried to be so many things—is it a true crime story? a memoir? a cultural history of Appalachia? a coming of age tale or coming out story? And in the end, it’s not really any of those, or much of anything at all. Muddled, disjointed, rambling in places and too sparse in others. It’s not cohesive, and it feels like the author is trying to use the veneer of the crime as a hook to draw people in to reading her memoir, which only has the result of making it feel as though she’s trying to centre herself in a tragic event that has really nothing to do with her. I never feel like I got a sense of the victims, the region or even, despite her efforts, the author.

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