Some Books I Have Been Reading Lately

Vanessa Berry
Ninety9
160pp. Giramondo. 9781922146328

Longtime Australian zine-maker Vanessa Berry's full-length book, Ninety-9, is a memoir in objects: an obsessive and personal assemblage of all the cherished items of a particular nineties adolescence and the stories that surround their collection, exchange, and archiving. It's a loving, funny, and intimate book, but even more striking for me as a reader was the extent to which my own (white, suburban/rural, middle-class, female) adolescence mirrored Berry's, despite the fact that we grew up on opposite sides of the planet. In that sense Ninety-9 is a fascinating cross-section of the globalization of adolescent discontent in the nineties and the mechanisms with which discontent's soundtrack and aesthetics were disseminated before the Internet made the transmission of information instantaneous. But it's also a great, personal, charming and clear-eyed ode to an era of zine pen pals, ritualistically assembled mixtapes, and finding community via carefully selected band shirts.

Claire LeGrand
The Year of Shadows
416pp. Simon & Schuster. 9781442442948

Olivia Stellatella is having a real shitty year. Her mom is AWOL, her orchestra-conductor dad, the Maestro, is losing his marbles, and her family is so broke the Maestro has moved Olivia and her grandmother into the falling-apart hall where his second-rate orchestra rehearses and performs--and which turns out to be haunted by some particularly needy ghosts. Olivia's only friends are a dirty cat named Igor and pesky, overly involved Henry, who's not so much a friend as someone who won't leave her alone. When Olivia learns that the hall may be torn down, leaving both her and her ghost friends homeless, she takes action--and may have taken on much more than she realized.

Olivia--surly, displeased by emotion, preferring drawing to human company, splendidly goth--is a heroine so immediately endearing that, even if LeGrand were a less masterful storyteller or stylist, I'd happily follow her journey; but her voice is so clear and assured and her story so perfectly plotted that Olivia's gloriousness is only one strand of the novel's neatly woven tapestry. I feel like I may have overreached myself with that metaphor but nothing ventured, nothing gained. I loved Olivia so much, and I loved that her prickliness, her stubbornness, and her ferocity are portrayed as strengths as often as they are faults. Olivia gets to be loyal, brave, determined, hugely giving and a cantankerous little shit who periodically lets her selfishness get in the way of her better intentions--in short, she gets to be human, and her gradual (and somewhat reluctant) evolution is a joy to watch, as is the development of her beautiful and ultimately touching friendship with Henry, who turns out to be having a pretty shitty year of his own. LeGrand leaves you with a bittersweet ending that perfectly doesn't resolve Olivia's problems while still leaving you with confidence that her drive and generosity of spirit will carry her through the difficulties that still face her.

Black Spring
Alison Croggon
288pp. Candlewick. 9780763660093

I was a huge fan of Alison Croggon's Pellinor series and so was very happy to catch s.e. smith's review of her newest, Black Spring, an appropriately gothic, witchy take on Wuthering Heights (which, for the record, I haven't read since high school, but distinctly remember hating). Black Spring's heroine, Lina, is born with violet eyes in the violent, patriarchal Northern Plateau, and it's only her noble birth that saves her from a witch's habitual fate in that country: being left on a hillside to die as a newborn. Raised with her foster brother, moody, protective, and fiercely loyal Damek, she's protected from persecution--until her father dies, setting in motion a terrifyingly destructive chain of events.

Black Spring's narration moves between a foppish self-styled poet on sabbatical in the badlands, whose hilariously oblivious voice is perfectly wrought; Anna, Lina's childhood playmate and eventual housekeeper; and Lina herself, and Croggon ties these disparate voices together into a harrowing story of love, death, and revenge that gallops forward at a relentless pace. Lina herself is a fantastic character: narcissistic, gifted, beautiful, and wholly selfish but also vulnerable and, ultimately, sympathetic. Croggon masterfully uses Anna's wry, no-nonsense voice to bring home a larger story about women whose lives and loves are too big for the society they're born into without ever coming across as preachy or heavy-handed, making this a pageturner with real truth at its heart.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Americanah
608pp. Anchor. 9780307455925

Americanah is the story of Ifemelu, a wicked smart and strong-willed young woman who leaves her native Nigeria to attend college in the United States. After weathering the transition--which ranges from bewildering to outright harrowing--she starts up a wildly popular blog, “Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-­American Black," and snags a fellowship at Princeton. But she never forgets her childhood sweetheart, Obinze, who remains in Nigeria, pining for the girl he lost even as he builds a complex and sometimes perilous life of his own.

A huge, brilliant, glory of a novel that satisfies on every possible level, Americanah is a sharp and funny exploration of race, class, identity, and gender, a master class in craft, and a brilliantly plotted good old-fashioned novel peopled with characters that are so alive and real and complete that they seem like people you could go visit in the real world. It's a rare novelist indeed who can so effortlessly balance withering social commentary with a propulsive pageturner of a plot; I enjoyed Adichie's earlier books, but Americanah is the work of a writer at the very top of her game. All the hype: wholly deserved. (If you missed the livestream of her excellent conversation with Zadie Smith last week, you can watch it here.)