True Biz by Sara Nović

True Biz is a novel about River Valley School for the Deaf, where a new student learns to find her place and the headmistresses struggles to keep the school and her marriage going. Charlie has never been around other deaf people before, but when she transfers to the school, she learns the language that was kept from her, makes new friends, and develops her understanding of Deaf culture. Her new friend Austin deals with the birth of his baby sister, who is hearing, and the school’s headmistress February tries to manage threats about the school’s future whilst keeping her worries from her wife.

I loved Nović’s Girl at War so I wanted to read this one, and I’m very glad I did. Told from the perspectives of a range of characters, mostly the three protagonists with occasional moments from somebody else, and interspersed with information on American Sign Language and Deaf history as Charlie learns it, the book immerses you in the lives of the characters, and as a hearing reader I found I learnt a lot whilst following the characters’ journeys. There’s more of a focus on character, with a coming of age element particularly with Charlie, rather than narrative, with the book more of an episode of the characters’ lives rather than a distinct start and finish.

Charlie’s story was particularly engaging, exploring the development of her anger and sense of her own self as she deals with an implant that doesn’t work as it should and realises what she missed out on by having sign language and Deaf culture kept from her. Her political education comes both from history lessons and from other people, and the book really shows the importance of community and sharing history to fight for your rights. The other main story in the book, February dealing with her aging mother, failing to communicate with her wife, and worrying about the school and students, was also good, though didn’t really come to a particular ending. The other characters had less space in the book, but I liked that there was a range of characters and hints of their stories too.

Emphasising the important of other people and shared culture, True Biz is a character-focused coming of age story that has a powerful message about disability rights and Deaf community.

Glitter by Nicole Seymour

Glitter is, well, a book about glitter, part of the Object Lessons series that explores an everyday object through particular lens. In this one, Nicole Seymour explores the uses of and connotations behind glitter, thinking about its environmental impact, its position as a symbol of frivolity, and ways it is seen as hard to get rid of. She also considers how it has been used in products like glitter pizza and beer, has become a symbol of protest, and is important to depictions of gender and sexuality.

This is the second of the Object Lessons series I’ve read, and I really like how these short non-fiction books take different approaches, sometimes exploring the history of an item or its societal impact, sometimes charting personal histories, and sometimes looking to culture or the future of the item. In Glitter, the titular substance is defended against its haters, whilst acknowledging the environmental impacts of plastic glitter, and also considered in what it can stand in for. 

I particularly liked the way that the book concludes by thinking of glitter as more of a colour or an idea, rather than just a physical item, and how this might allow its rehabilitation in the face of ecological crisis. The fact that ‘glitter’ is sometimes a colour (e.g. as a text colour) reinforces this and I found it a very interesting point. I also enjoyed the tensions between ecological and societal elements, and also the connotations involved with different kinds of aesthetics, and these felt like good frames to view glitter through. Both of the Object Lessons books I’ve read now have felt like reading queer history (and future) through an object and I really like this approach, so I’d definitely read more in the series.

The Odyssey by Lara Williams

The Odyssey is a novel about a woman working on a cruise ship whose avoidance of life and the world on dry land is tested by an employee improvement programme. Ingrid works in rotating roles on a huge cruise ship, where all training comes through her tablet and she might be called up to do almost anything. On her days of shore leave, she gets very drunk wherever they’ve docked. When the ship’s strange captain Keith, who thinks himself some kind of guru, picks her for an employee mentorship, suddenly Ingrid faces up to some memories. At the same time, the ship seems to be falling into disrepair.

I was intrigued by this book as it was pitched as similar to Ballard’s High Rise, which it is in some respects, with the closed off cruise ship gradually decaying, though The Odyssey is much more focused on one person’s mental state than the cruise ship itself. It explores Ingrid’s regimented life on the ship, and her memories of the past, including her husband and her alcoholism, and you watch as she makes various decisions (including having her finger cut off) as she tries to reconcile these. The first person narration feels similar to other books focused on a narrator with a strict regimen who is trying to avoid the past or their lack of a future, though the setting does make this one feel different.

One thing I was disappointed by was the fact that the cruise ship setting isn’t really explored as much as you might expect, especially not as things start to turn weird and twisted. I would’ve liked more of it, whether the Japanese obsession of the captain or what was going on with some of the other employees Ingrid knows, as it is a distinctive and unusual setting for literary fiction.

The Odyssey explores an alcoholic character whose avoidance of their past and future has led them to live a permanent present on a strange cruise ship. The protagonist is interesting and the narrative voice is readable, though as it’s quite short, I felt there could’ve been a bit more of the weirdness. 

Concerning My Daughter by Kim Hye-Jin

Concerning My Daughter is a novel about a woman whose thirtysomething daughter moves back in with her, bringing along her girlfriend and forcing the mother to face up to what she wants for her child. Translated from Korean, the narrative follows a woman who works in a care home, where she looks after a patient with dementia whose has no family but was well-renowned when younger. When the woman’s daughter Green needs to move in with her, bringing along her girlfriend Lane, the woman finds it hard to be civil, wanting her daughter to get married and have children. Her fears are complex, revolving not only around the life she had, but on the treatment of her elderly patients without children to fight for their care.

This is an intriguing book, very simple in narrative and premise (traditional, homophobic mother struggles with how to deal with daughter), but also powerful in how it shows the impact society and tradition can have on viewpoints, and the intersection of different kinds of crises (in this case, care of the elderly and homophobia). It can be painful to read at times, repeating the protagonist’s obsession with her daughter not having a ‘real’ relationship, and the depiction of the care of the elderly can be brutal, but there’s also tenderness underneath, for example the glimpses of Green and Lane’s relationship even only through the eyes of someone who won’t accept it.

A lot of the key elements of the book are things that cross over many cultures and countries, particularly in terms of changing kinds of families and how various groups of people (including older people and LGBTQ people) outside of a traditional norm are treated. Some people might not like the simplicity of Concerning My Daughter and other people might find it too difficult to read the mother’s perspective and her inability to listen about what kind of life her daughter wants to read, but it’s a powerful look at a character struggling with the position of different women in society and how love can make people misguided.

Devil House by John Darnielle

Devil House is a novel about a true crime writer who finds himself tangled up in a web of what story he is telling. Gage Chandler had a hit debut true crime book, and subsequent movie adaptation, to make his name, and then more books that were less successful. His latest opportunity is to move into the ‘Devil House’, the location of murders in the 1980s that seemed to be part of the Satanic Panic, and use his techniques for uncovering the story to write his next book. However, as he writes and explores what happened, true crime starts to get less clear for him as a goal.

I’ve not read anything by Darnielle before (and heard about one Mountain Goats song, though I’ve heard of them a lot) so I didn’t know what to expect going in, other than the lurid cover that is perhaps a bit of misdirection (though it is very Satanic Panic). The novel is broken into different sections, moving between Chandler’s narrative of researching and writing, the story of the Devil House, and some other parts woven in too. Until quite near the end, it’s not quite clear what is going to happen, and the ending wasn’t what I expected, but I enjoyed how it played out for the most part (I didn’t quite get the Arthurian digression, though I do like Arthurian stuff and on reflection I can kinda see the point).

As a novel, it is mostly a commentary on true crime, writing, and obsession, and I thought the stuff about true crime was very interesting, though as someone who doesn’t read or watch the genre, I don’t know much about levels of fictionality and fact in it. Ideas of what is a ‘good’ narrative and how you turn the messy truth into something gripping are very intriguing, and the book does play with that by luring you into thinking you have a nice narrative, though the actual ending of the whole book is perhaps a little underwhelming because of it all. I liked the experiment of this novel in terms of the layers of narrative and the different stories you are told, though, as with true crime, you almost wish all the stories could be wrapped up a little more neatly.

Portrait of a Thief by Grace D. Li

Portrait of a Thief is a heist story wrapped up in the tale of five Chinese-American students carving their own futures, as they race to try and reclaim sculptures for China. Will Chen is an art history student at Harvard who wants to make a difference. When a powerful Chinese company offers him fifty million dollars to put together a heist crew and steal five sculptures from various galleries, he would do it without the money, just to bring the art back to its creators. He puts together a team, of his sister Irene, who can talk anyone into anything, his best friend Daniel who is applying to med schools, Irene’s roommate and street racer Lily, and Alex, an MIT dropout working for Google though she’s feeling lost. Together, despite lacking any experience of stealing art, they try to work out how they can get in and, most importantly, get the art back out.

I love heist films and I love stories of university students doing illegal/questionable things, so this book immediately appealed to me. I like how it feels like a literary twist on the heist, more focused on the characters and their often haphazard attempts to pull heists off than being a simple slick display, and I was drawn into the characters’ interpersonal relationships, particularly Irene and Alex’s dynamic. For a heist story, you saw a lot of the characters’ thoughts and motivations, and though as there’s five main characters these can sometimes feel a little overemphasised, that still felt fitting with how heist films need obvious dynamics and roles.

The focus on reclaiming art felt like a great frame for the book (though I did expect some comment on the repeated appearance of the Sackler, as another important issue in the art world) and though this kind of book isn’t necessarily going to go into great depth about issues in museum and gallery collections, it brings together both interesting social and political questions and reflections on the characters’ own senses of self and morality. Importantly, it’s also just fun, with a inexpert crew of young twentysomethings doing relatable things like using a Google Doc to plan it. Sure, it’s ridiculous, but so are most heist films.

Portrait of a Thief is the trashy literary heist book I didn’t know I needed, maybe particularly aimed at people who love both the Ocean’s films and The Secret History, but also with a look at cultural imperalism and diaspora. It’s not perfect, but I was holding my breath to know what would happen, and I loved the character dynamics. I would not be sad if there was a sequel, either.

Time Is A Mother by Ocean Vuong

Time is a Mother is Ocean Vuong’s second collection of poetry, exploring grief and memory and the important details as well as larger questions of self and place. The writing is lyrical and beautiful, as I expected, but also the poems are highly readable, telling stories and putting together images masterfully. 

My two favourites were probably ‘Beautiful Short Loser’, which feels like a collection of biting observations and tells multiple stories at once, and ‘Not Even’, which is a breathtaking look at self and the past. I also particularly liked ‘Dear T’ and ‘No One Knows the Way to Heaven’, and I enjoyed a lot of the different use of form, particularly space, and also the format of ‘Amazon History of a Former Nail Salon Worker’ which was very powerful whilst only using an Amazon purchase history.

Fans of Ocean’s Vuong’s poetry probably won’t be disappointed—I wasn’t, but was drawn into the poems, and I’ll definitely want to return to them. I’m still in awe at the combination of powerful meaning, concisely expressed thoughts, and sheer readability of Vuong’s poetry.

Young Mungo by Douglas Stuart

Young Mungo is a novel about first love between two Glaswegian boys, a Protestant and a Catholic, as they try and find their place within the world they live. Mungo lives with his sister and, sometimes, his mother, an alcoholic who often disappears. His older brother is his model for masculinity, but Mungo has always been different. When he meets James, a boy who lives nearby and looks after pigeons, it seems he’s found someone who understands him, even if James is a Catholic, and as they fall in love, the threat of discovery looms. And then, later on, Mungo is sent on a fishing trip with two strange men by his mother.

I’ve not yet read Shuggie Bain, but I was drawn to the description of Young Mungo. It is told through two timelines, almost a ‘before’ and ‘after’ though not quite, opening with Mungo leaving for the trip with the two men off into the countryside, and then the next chapter moving to the ‘start’ of the story. The structure worked well, with an awful inevitability to the ‘before’ part of the narrative and a lingering dread to the ‘after’. Mungo’s world is vivid, particularly his family, and it is heartbreaking to see the choices he ends up with, as well as his ongoing hope for his alcoholic mother, even as his sister has given up on her.

This is an immersive book exploring love, violence, and masculinity in working class Glasgow, as well as the failings of family. It is brutal at times, both in terms of violence and grim reality, and it isn’t a cheery read, but there’s still a lot of tenderness in it, as you might expect from a book about first love.

Woman, Eating by Claire Kohda

Woman, Eating is a novel about hunger and trying to live on your own, as a vampire adjusts to living without her mother and looks for artistic direction. Lydia has been a vampire since she was a baby, living with her mother in a reasonably regular life. But now her mother is in a care home and Lydia has an internship at a London gallery. The trouble is, she’s hungry, and what she needs isn’t what she wants. 

This is a different take on the vampire novel, a literary vampire story that focuses on food and hunger, and being caught between worlds and cultures. Lydia’s vampire side keeps her away from her dead father by stopping her from trying Japanese food, and a lot of the focus of the novel is on the importance of eating, identity, and the in between. She is directionless, like a lot of young protagonists trying to find themselves, but partly because she cannot form connections, cannot envision her eternity. 

The concept of a vampire enjoying what I eat in a day videos is an amazing one, and in general I really enjoyed the way this book explores vampires as being caught between worlds and also having difficulties, both relatable and not, forging a place in the modern world. The narrative doesn’t really go anywhere so it’s not one for someone expecting a plot, but instead it takes the directionless artsy millennial trope and gives it a different angle. 

Vagabonds! by Eloghosa Osunde

Vagabonds! is a novel about a city, living oppressed, and finding joy, as the streets of Lagos form the location for interwoven stories and scenes. Each section tells different stories, of different characters across the city, the various titular ‘vagabonds’ who are people living unseen or hiding, and finding new ways to exist. A lot of the stories are about queerness in Nigeria, but they also explore power, corruption and hypocrisy, and the ways in which people are interlinked.

One particular stand out element of the book is the way that Lagos is so important in it, a living, breathing character that causes things to happen. The combination of this with the exploration of different queer lives gives a sense of the importance of place in self and identity, whether you like it or not, and also how places can be given different meanings. Though the stories can often be very brief and with so many characters there’s always going to be some moments you connect with more than others, as a whole book it works well, building towards an ending and with enough glimpses of previous characters to feel like it wasn’t just completely separate stories.

Displaying a range of characters as they live and love outside what is deemed the norm, Vagabonds! is for people who like their short stories interconnected or enjoy when a city is brought to life and becomes part of the fabric of a book. Sometimes you might get lost in the crowd, but there’s a lot of memorable moments and emotion in there.