A Summer Reading List That Won’t Make Your Teeth Hurt

Summer is here! I know this because the all-white summer reading lists have begun making their rounds. There was an amusing post by Jason Parham at Gawker with the best title: NYT Summer Reading List Finally Achieves 100 percent Whiteness. The sad thing is that the New York Times is not alone in their 100% White list. And in the coming weeks and months there will be plenty of thoroughly white reading lists, or ones with the same one or two People of Color.

The titles of the reading lists published last week: Beyond the Best-Sellers (NPR), Cool Books for Hot Summer Days (NYT), and 10 Best Novels for Summer Reading (Kirkus). When the lists are diverse, like for Black History Month, it’s up there in the title front and center, so white people know what to expect and don’t abruptly start screaming, “CANNOT RELATE. CANNOT RELATE,” causing mass head explosions all over America. Similarly, using the word “white” in the title would help prepare us People of Color for the blinding whiteness of these lists. It could be something really subtle, like Cool WHITE Books for Hot Summer Days, More Awesome Books by WHITE people to read over Summer.

The lists NPR, the New York Times, and Kirkus came out with featured some fine novels, but the implications of not including even a single author of color are telling. It shouldn’t surprise me when these lists come out every season, every year, and yet it does. These are publications that occasionally review some wonderful books by diverse authors with careful analysis, frequently recommending that people immediately pick these novels up. Then some alien comes in to do their roundups and fills these best-of lists with white people.

Thankfully, this totally boring landscape is being challenged. By bloggers, writers, and social media mavericks. DiversityinYA.com came out with a list: Ten New and Debut Asian American Authors to Read This Summer. And Liberty Hardy over at Book Riot wrote Recommended Summer Reading: An Alternative List  with some great selections by diverse authors, including Tiny Pretty Things! It’s bizarre to me that we have become conditioned to think of a list like the one Book Riot created as “alternative.” Alternative to what? We’re not even supposed to say the word white when it comes to these white book lists. We’re supposed to use terms like “mainstream” and pretend these words don’t pack systematic power in their syllables.

Last year I wrote two lists that could have been much longer: First Lines From 37 Novelists of Color You Missed in 2014 and First Lines From 9 Standout Short Story Collections by Writers of Color in 2014 to counteract the thoroughly white end-of-the-year book lists that made it seem like people of colour had vanished off the face of the earth. Poof, just like that. Hopefully, this December something magical will happen and the book lists will be diverse.

It’s not even June and there have been so many phenomenal books that have already come out by writers of color. I wouldn’t get anything done over summer if I started compiling them all. Just to start, I would add Toni Morrisson, Mat Johnson, Marjorie Liu, Tania James, and tons of YA and MG writers whose books are stacked up on Sona’s desk and on our bookshelves. To narrow down the list significantly and so I can get back to my reading (very important!), here are Ten Summer Reading picks, all by debut novelists of color who have books coming out in summer. And they’re all perfect for indoor use, outdoor use, and definitely on the sand! If you’re a fellow blogger or on goodreads, please, please, please, compile a list, and link back here! I’d love to read it.

Obviously, I’m starting with Tiny Pretty Things. Because I have no ethics policy. Don’t let Dhonielle’s smile fool you. She is an evil librarian.

Tiny Pretty Things by Sona Charaipotra and Dhonielle Clayton (a Cake Literary Project)

Tiny Pretty Things by Sona Charaipotra and Dhonielle Clayton (a Cake Literary Project)

1. Tiny Pretty Things by Sona Charaipotra and Dhonielle Clayton

Because I’m married to one of the writers (Sona; the other one just comes over a lot and chastises me for not writing), I saw the advanced copy of Tiny Pretty Things in December. It was promptly usurped by my father, Pashaura Singh Dhillon, a 73-year-old Punjabi poet and singer, who spent every moment of our holiday in Puerto Rico immersed in the novel. On the beach. In the bed. On the sofa. In the hammock. In the car. Everywhere. He spoke about the manipulative characters like they were real people (he would argue that they are), and had lots of questions about their motivations. I read the novel and was impressed by the gorgeous language, the deliciously wicked characters, and was genuinely surprised by how much dread I felt at the pit of my stomach when I started turning pages, especially during the many scenes filled with tension. Pretty much from the beginning. It’s been described as Pretty Little Liars meets Black Swan, but I’d describe it more as The Godfather meets Fame with a big dollop of Lord of the Flies.

Tiny Pretty Things opens with a scene from the past: Cassie is used as a foil character to illustrate how Bette has no qualms destroying the weak and trusting to secure her position. A year later, Bette is assured she will be chosen to play the much coveted role of Sugar Plum Fairy and (mini spoiler alert), the role goes to Gigi, the seemingly replacement doe-eyed naive newcomer. Hell very slowly and carefully breaks loose in tensely crafted scenes. The three narrators, Bette, June, and Gigi, are brilliantly nuanced, where race and culture are intertwined into the narrative to add multiple layers of complexity.

Gigi adjusts to the culture shock of being in this new ballet school, not because she’s new to dancing or has suddenly realized she’s black, but because the cutthroat culture of the school is so different from the one she went to in California, and her blackness is what makes her different here and viewed as a potential threat. A negative. June is Korean and from Queens. Her character draws heavily from those things.

This is how you write diversity: by being unable to separate a person from what makes them diverse. You can’t change June to some other random Asian or make Gigi not black or Bette non-white without performing literary lobotomy. It would completely change the characters and render many of the plot points unbelievable.

My dad is squarely Team Gigi because, as he puts it, “she just wants to dance. Everyone else is busy trying to break each other’s legs.” I like Gigi because she is a pure soul in a den of evil, but I am also very drawn to June. Bette is pure viciousness and reeks of rich white privilege, so I have zero interest in seeing her get what she wants. You had better pick this mofo up and read through it before the hashtags #TeamGigi, #TeamBette, #TeamJune start trending and you start to really feel the pressure. No matter what I decide, I’ll always be #TeamSona and #TeamCake. (May 26)

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Mayumi And The Sea Of Happiness By Jennifer Tseng

Mayumi And The Sea Of Happiness By Jennifer Tseng

2. Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness by Jennifer Tseng

I took a class with Kent Caroll, editor of Europa, a few years ago at the CUNY Writers’ Institute and loved the aesthetics and experience Europa brings to their novels: beautiful, brightly colored book covers, with stories that center on conflicted characters and choices they make with deeply profound themes and revelations and repercussions. They are all exquisitely written with slow, deliberate sentences. But holy hell were the books overwhelmingly white. So I was ecstatic to see this and elated with the premise that it couldn’t be more PERFECT for the summer.
Mayumi Saito lives on a small island off the coast of New England. She’s a bored wife and mother, middle-aged, and a librarian with ample time for observation of human nature. Her love is for books. One day, a 17-year-old boy walks in and a slow relationship builds, fueled by passion and refocuses her role as an observer, and causes her to re-evaluate her life and the roles she plays for others. Structurally, it reminds me of Elena Ferrante’s, Days of Abandonment, (also by Europa), where the main character’s husband abruptly leaves her for another woman after fifteen years of marriage. She quickly descends into a mental breakdown and her anguish is seen through violence, obsession, and the neglect of her children. In Ferrante’s novel, the major life moments unfold in quick sentences, like a Russian novel. Like Boris Pasternak’s, Dr. Zhivago: “And then they were poor.” Done.
This novel is much slower, turning the knife, with yearning, and Mayumi is at the center of it all.  She isn’t a victim of circumstance, of being put into a situation she is forced to react to. She makes the decisions that move this story forward, that is the source of tension, heartbreak. She actively makes the choice to pursue this doomed affair and further complicates things by becoming friends with the boy’s mother. Content-wise, the parallels with another Russian, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita are obvious, but this is a very multi-layered story with many influences, it would be a mistake to use large brushstrokes and paint this into a corner. This is literally set in the summer. On a sea side. Bring some wine and a beach blanket! (May 26)

Buy “Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness.”
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In The Language of Miracles by Rajia Hassib

In The Language of Miracles by Rajia Hassib

3. In the Language of Miracles by Rajia Hassib

Rajia Hassib’s debut is phenomenal. She tackles the complex emotions of the aftermath of grief with grace, and integrates the complexity of Islam and culture and immigration so beautifully. In a small New Jersey town, the Al-Menshawys’ eldest son has killed his ex-girlfriend, then committed suicide. If he was white, it would be brushed aside as him being a troubled kid and just some isolated incident. The story would center on the inner turmoil of the parents, which I’ve read and watched countless times. This adds originality and depth to this well-treaded territory through the lens of an immigration story. Even cliched features of the immigration story like assimilation are rendered complex. The complication here isn’t that they’re Muslim or Egyptian or generic immigrants or that they’re hyphenated Americans. It’s how all of these identity markers are interpreted by the larger community and how that forces this family to react and reshape their grief. They don’t just get to grieve this senseless act. It’s the story of how this family picks up the pieces. Rumors abound about the troubled teen’s links with terrorism, and each family member reacts in a different way. The mother is completely grief-stricken and the sister starts becoming more religious. The father and brother want to rejoin the community and not draw attention to their individuality. The entire novel takes place over five days, but transports the reader through time, from 1985 to the present. (August 11)

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Make Your Home Among Strangers by Jennine Capó Crucet

Make Your Home Among Strangers by Jennine Capó Crucet

4. Make Your Home Among Strangers by Jennine Capó Crucet

I’ve often wondered about the experiences of minorities at Ivy League colleges, and this novel explores this with some real depth. It thankfully explores the lives of its main characters outside of the university and renders what could easily become cliche into something meaningful. Without telling her family, Liz applies to an elite college and makes the decision to leave Miami to attend, which creates a fall out back in Miami. Her Cuban parents are in the midst of a nasty divorce, and the father sells their only home, leaving the mother with unstable income and an unstable place to stay. At college, Liz suddenly feels like a minority, something she never really felt in Miami, and has to deal with the strangeness of these feelings, as well as adjusting to the social and academic rigors. There is also the news story of Ariel Hernandez, the little boy who arrived on the shores of Miami illegally on a raft from Cuba that caused a media frenzy with the popular image of a terrified little boy crying while a SWAT team hauled him away from his relatives. The father ended up taking him back to Cuba. The story embroils the family and fills the story with tension and the high stakes as Lizet is forced to decide whether to put her individual needs first or that of her family. (August 4)

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The Wrath and the Dawn by Renée Ahdieh

The Wrath and the Dawn by Renée Ahdieh

5. The Wrath & The Dawn by Renée Ahdieh

Last year, Porochista Khakpour came out with The Last Illusion, a terrifying retelling of one of the stories from the Shahnamah and I inhaled that book. This novel by Renée Ahdieh, a retelling of the framing story of 1001 nights not only got inhaled, it got smoked. The stories from 1,001 Nights I read growing up all used the framing story of Scheherazade and Shahryar, the crazy-ass serial wife murdering king. Shahryar finds out his brother’s wife is unfaithful and decides that all women are the same, so he marries a string of virgins only to execute them the next morning, pre-empting them being unfaithful. Then Scheherazade, the vizier’s daughter volunteers to marry him and tells him (and the reader) a story from the 1,001 nights, but doesn’t end it, so he keeps her alive for 1,001 nights and eventually love happens. Sigh. Young love. Renée’s rendition of this story makes this framing story the Story, adding depth to the characters and thickening the plot. Renée does a wonderful job in creating the world, adds characters, changes characters, all while paying homage to the original story. Shazi’s motives for volunteering to be this insane King’s wife are part of the mystery and lends to building a firecracker of a character, initially out for revenge. An entire kingdom ruled by an insane King who murders the daughters of his people and they are powerless to stop him. Enter Shazi. (May 12)

Buy “The Wrath and the Dawn.”
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All That Followed by Gabriel Urza

All That Followed by Gabriel Urza

6. All That Followed by Gabriel Urza

In a small town in Basque, a young politician is kidnapped and murdered. A young man is jailed and justice seemingly served. But the town has secrets and there is something about it that is unsettling. The murder rocks the community, but five years later everything has more or less returned to normal. Then the Madrid bombings re-opens these wounds. There are many layers to the crime and many complicit. The only three who really know the full story are the politician’s widow, the young man in jail, and an American. It’s part sociological tapestry, part  murder-mystery, with the heaviness of a terrorist attack in the background, cleverly used to tell an equally heavy story of a small Basque town and its secrets (August 4)

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An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

7. An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

This novel is fantastic and deserves every single accolade it is getting. It’s fantasy, and like her predecessors, from Rowling to Tolkien to Pratchet, Tahir spends a lot of time meticulously world building for more than just aesthetics, but on systematic and sociological structures. It is peppered with the complexities of colonialism and Empire and how implicit every single person in a system is to make it work. It would be easy to vilify the Empire presented in this novel. They’re brutal, needlessly cruel, subjugate cultures through tested means. But Tahir switches things up and creates a complex, layered Empire, with victims amidst their ranks too.

The story centers on my favourite kind of character: a girl who doesn’t give a fuck. She is headstrong, bold, has plenty of witty comebacks, and knows how to kick some ass. Laia goes undercover into the black heart of the Empire – Blackcliff, an imperial academy –to free her brother, who has become enslaved. The story is so richly written, with fully fleshed out characters, some great plot twists, and it doesn’t shy away from the realities of war and subjugation. Rape as a weapon of war and the offhand objectification of Laia is rendered disturbingly real, and is a constant threat. But it never feels like it’s being used as a plot device, it’s part of this brutal world and a tool of the Empire. Fine, this came out on April 28, but goddamnit it was a pretty warm day. Take this to the beach! (April 28)

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Dragonfish by Vu Tran

Dragonfish by Vu Tran

8. Dragonfish by Vu Tran

Murder. Mystery. Literary Thriller. Noir. Crime Fiction. Whatever you want to call it, it’s riveting and unfurls like the best crime fiction should. Sometimes slowly for that slow burn, sometimes abruptly sending you reeling with its plot. Suzy, Robert’s Vietnamese wife, leaves him. Two years later, she disappears again — leaving behind her new husband. The new husband, a violent Vietnemese criminal, blackmails Robert, a policeman, into finding her for him. Through this case, he uncovers more about the enigmatic Suzy, digging into historical moments like the fall of Saigon, a refugee camp in Malaysia, and a plethora of sins that could unravel everything. In classic noir, as soon as Robert gets closer, that’s when the tensions highest and we’re pulled back. A fantastically crafted tale that weaves in lots of intrigue and a good dollop of history.  (August 3)

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The Sta rSide of Bird Hill by Naomi Jackson

The Sta rSide of Bird Hill by Naomi Jackson

9. The Star Side of Bird Hill by Naomi Jackson

This is not the Barbados you’ve seen in brochures. It’s the Barbados of a community, of two sisters growing up, of falling in love, of heartbreak, of betrayal, of mystery, and in the grand scheme of things: immigration. Two sisters, 10 and 16, leave Brooklyn to go live with their grandmother in the summer of 1989. The grandmother is a midwife and a spiritual healer. In the hands of many people, it is with the grandmother that things could go horribly, horribly wrong, resulting in what Dhonielle Clayton would call a Minstrel Show. But in Jackson’s safe hands, the familial story is deep, nuanced and riveting. As both sisters acclimate to their new home and finally come to terms with it, they are then faced with the decision of staying in Barbados or returning to Brooklyn, bringing the continual immigrant dilemma to surface: where is home?  (June 30)

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Only The Strong by Jabari Asim

Only The Strong by Jabari Asim

10. Only the Strong by Jabari Asim

This is a tender read about a very outwardly tough character: Lorenzo “Guts” Tolliver, a former professional leg breaker, moved to mend his ways after the death of Martin Luther King Jr. He is rendered thoroughly complex. I haven’t read Asim’s short story collection, but this novel uses the same fictionalized Midwestern City – Gateway City set in the 1970s. The political and sociological shifts of the time this story is set in lend themselves to the complexity of the plot and depth of characters. We want Lorenzo and Charlotte and Ananias to succeed, but also realize that violence and pain is a constant looming threat. That their past isn’t all that far behind. We want Lorenzo to eat his banana pudding.

This is not a novel exactly, but it’s not a novella or a short story collection either. Whatever it is, trust me when I say it’s good. It’s a glorious panorama. It takes on three major characters and they all intersect. They are all set in a fictionalized version of St. Louis during a very tumultuous time of political and social upheaval. In the first story, Lorenzo struggles to escape his past, and ends up working for Ananias Goode, a local criminal. The second story focuses on Goode, who is also seeking to live a life free from violence and his past, but his relationship with a doctor in good social standing in the community complicates things. And the third story is about Charlotte, a particularly colorful character. She has a complicated relationship she is in while in college. What is interesting in the narrative is that each section takes on different emotions or styles or historic periods, sometimes it’s psychological, other times cultural with history being weaved throughout. The language is hypnotic and poetic, with wonderful control throughout. It is very rare to find fiction about very hard characters and renders the writing with tenderness. When you find something like that, you scoop it up! (May 12)

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