Zoe's Staff Picks

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Oligarchy Cover Image
ISBN: 9781640093065
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Counterpoint LLC - January 14th, 2020

This book was hit-or-miss with critics: too dull, too insipid teen-girl, no great plot or conclusion to be found. So, of course, I adored it.

Sometimes you come upon a book that seems to be tailor made for you, specifically, and this was one of these. Girls with eating disorders at a modern boarding school? Sign me right up, please and thanks. It's a niche topic for a niche audience, and not everyone is going to appreciate Natasha and friends' languid, self-obsessed, insular lives. However, as a former vapid teenage girl, I found this book both riotous and chilling, a distressing fractal reflection. We've mostly grown since but some of us will always be a little Natasha at heart, vain and careless and convinced of our immunity, a vicious frightened little burrowing animal that can't help but lash out.   

If that doesn't sound like you, you probably won't appreciate this book. If you think it might, however, there's a lot to be found here. Scarlett Thomas' humor is gloriously pointed, her adult characters devastatingly incompetent, her one-liners impeccable. This book prompted some rare laughs-out-loud from me (a near miracle!). This is a replication of girlhood that I could happily read forever.         

Bunny: A Novel Cover Image
ISBN: 9780525559757
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Penguin Books - June 9th, 2020

Oh, Bunny. What to say about Bunny. 

I made the critical mistake of skipping over this novel when I first saw it because I misinterpreted it as yet another 'struggling young writer finds place in the world' almost-autobiography, which we have far too many of to begin with.

This book is not that.

This book ate me up. This book got on my nerves. This book is what Donna Tartt might write if she were a sixteen year old punk wiccan.

I mention age (and maturity) specifically, as it's related to my least favorite parts of the novel: while the writing is excellent and pointedly cutting, its attitude occasionally strikes me as quite juvenile. Much of this can be blamed on the main character's puerile and one-dimensional misconceptions about herself and her peers, but other parts - the strange proto-misogynist well this book tumbles down in its remaining quarter, specifically - don't gel with Awad's overall skill and accuracy. The conclusion left me torn between vague distaste (at the mechanism and moral) and overwhelming awe at Awad's daring talent (the set up! the cyclical nature!).

What is left is this: Awad is a brilliant author with true talent who perhaps has some growing to do. This book is flawed, but its good aspects more than make up for its missteps. If you want pitch-black college clique witchery, this is the book. Give it a chance. Approach it with an open mind, and one free of spoilers. See where it takes you.       


The Seep Cover Image
ISBN: 9781641290869
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Soho Press - January 21st, 2020

As a wretched pessimist I don't generally enjoy feel-good stories of humanity's innate goodness, but this one is original and sincere enough that it gets a rare pass from me. Trina, the novel's main character, is quite simply a kind person, and her desire to help buoys the story along in a sea of oddity.  

The premise is simple: superior aliens invade. Humans are judged incapable of handling their own affairs, and are assimilated into the protective sphere known as the Seep, a collective that uses its extraworldly science to rebuild life, matter, emotion, and behavior. The Seep is not meant to be a collar (but we know how those things go, in the tumultuous adolescent eye of rebellious humans). It is also not a full-on colonialization, but it is certainly an occupancy, if a mostly peaceful one.  

We never quite get a full picture of what the Seep is capable of, nor do we learn its science. Our characters, as members of the human species, are terminal laymen, and so naturally the story focuses on the immediate social effects of the invasion. These are - surprise! - generally agreed to be positive. There is no more waste, no more pain. No political discord or interpersonal cruelty can pass through the all-comprehending, ever-empathetic membrane of the Seep. 

But some of us - many of us - find purpose and inspiration in struggle, and right away Trina loses her place without it. Where is she meant to belong, now that identity is meaningless? How are we meant to make meaning out of our individual lives when everything is immediate? What is life without suffering? The novel brings these - and other huge questions - to a very satisfying conclusion. If you're a fan of 'social' science fiction a la Octavia Butler and NK Jemisin, I would very much recommend this novel to you. 

The Majesties: A Novel Cover Image
ISBN: 9781982115500
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Atria Books - January 21st, 2020

This novel was marketed as a thriller, and it sort of is, but the bulk of the story is spent nose-deep in the personal buisness of an ultra-wealthy family of elites who use their status to do terrible, irrisponsible, catty things. They are dazzlingly awful. They are careless and spiteful and casually cruel.

And: the novel opens with all of them dying.

That isn't a spoiler, by the way. It's how Tsao ropes you in right from the start, and this knowlege colors every other interaction in the novel with spiteful catharsis; regardless of how awfully these people are treating each other (and anyone else who happens to wander into their lives), we know they are all going to die. Oh, sweet, sweet vengeance. 

That is not to say that I didn't enjoy my time with these characters. I loved every selfish, vain, petty moment. If Tiffany Tsao wrote several more novels following this family and their extended generations of unpleasant children I would be thrilled.

(But she can't. Because they are dead.)

If you, too, love unrepentant awfulness in your characters, The Majesties is the book for you. 

Behind Every Great Woman Is a Great Cat Cover Image
By Justine Solomons-Moat, Lulu Mayo (Illustrator)
ISBN: 9781684620067
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Get Creative 6 - February 11th, 2020

Wow, a book about my two favorite things, cats and women! What's not to like!!!!!! It's chock full of loveable cats and their ladies, and the art is wonderful and striking, enough so that I wish I could make posters out of several of its spreads. 

I don't have much else to say about this book, because it's excellent, so I am going to rhapsodize about my cat, Baby, who is my huge son. He is a rescue from a hoarder situation and the sweetest, most empty-headed cat I have ever met in my life. All he does is lie around with his belly in the air and his feet splayed out. He is like a giant smelly rug and I love him more than anything else. His best quality is his feeties, which are huge and soft. He likes it when you pet his ears and his armpits and he will put his entire face directly into whatever you are eating if you are foolish enough to get within yomping range. He likes to get his front half brushed, but he will yell at anyone who dares to brush his haunches. Can I insert a picture of him here? Aw, I don't think I can. Oh well. He's a grey persian and he's shockingly handsome. 



The Virgin Suicides: A Novel (Picador Modern Classics) Cover Image
ISBN: 9781250074812
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Picador Modern Classics - November 3rd, 2015

The Virgin Suicides is one of those rare novels that feels like it broadens the possibilities of writing. At the time I read it, I'd read nothing like it before; I still haven't found anything quite comparable. This is one of my all-time-favorites and is on my top-ten list for certain.

It isn't for everyone. It's very specifically a novel of small-town suburban American teenagerhood, and the many ways that specific subculture can go very wrong. If you've lived a similar experience, I very much suggest you give this novel a try. I consider it an absolute classic, and this edition is so darling. Look at that little cover! It's so cute, and it looks so nice on a shelf!  

They Will Drown in Their Mothers' Tears Cover Image
By Johannes Anyuru, Saskia Vogel (Translator)
ISBN: 9781931883894
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Two Lines Press - November 5th, 2019

I'm having trouble writing about this novel due to how thoroughly I enjoyed each working part of it. In essence, it's a well-crafted, expertly-translated piece that leans far heavier toward the social rather than technical sciences (as I find my favorite pieces of speculative fiction generally do).

To be fair, Anyuru could have considered his universe-hopping logic more carefully, but the science isn't the point here - if you're going into this expecting a Michael Chrichton-style tech-heavy narrative, you're going to be disappointed. Instead, it's the plausibility of the setting that's the draw. Guantanamo Bay happened; race-oriented travel bans have been implemented; border camps for non-citizens do exist. The future Anyuru suggests is visible from where we are standing. The process of taking a class of citizen and converting them to criminal and finally to non-person is an observable, doccumented phenomenon. The line shifts, the rules shift, and so does the acceptable definition of personhood.

The characters and their maligned identities are the heart of this novel. Too often Muslim characters have their faith made happenstance, turned to an unfortunate situation they are caught up in so they are sympathetic to a white audience, but Anyuru takes the opportunity to write a portrait of Islam that is both devout and caring, meditative and familial. Every beautiful moment, he writes, is a love poem from God - is there anything more lovely than that (even if you don't believe)? When you pause, when you watch the world with silent wonder - that is a love poem just for you.     

Grass Cover Image
By Keum Suk Gendry-Kim, Janet Hong (Translated by)
ISBN: 9781770463622
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Drawn and Quarterly - August 27th, 2019

Keum Suk Gendry-Kim utilizes her considerable biographical and artistic skill to give voice to the painful story of Lee Ok-Sun, a sex slave (or, euphemistically, 'comfort woman') kidnaped under the Japanese occupation of Korea from 1910 to 1945. Gendry-Kim's stark, inky artwork perfectly frames her conflicted relationship with Lee, whose status as a heavily politicized figure and history as a sex slave makes her simultaneously outcast and honored celebrity.  

This novel is not an easy read. From the very beginning, Lee's life is studded with constant tragedy, and even long after the war has come to a close, she continues to question her happiness. However, hers is a critical piece of history, and one prime minister Abe Shinzo (who continues to refuse to aknowledge the suffering of Korean citizens under a despotic Japanese occupation) would rather we forget. Non-combatants are often overlooked in the drama of war, and this is a tragedy and indignity to their memories.  

The Migration Cover Image
ISBN: 9780735272620
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Random House Canada - March 5th, 2019

There is certainly no dearth of "humanity v plague" novels available on the market; however, The Migration - presented, as it is, as a "plague" novel - strays enough from the path to linger in new, thoughtful territory. Unlike novels such as World War Z, Fire-us, The Fireman, and countless others, The Migration is less centered on the struggle between humanity and plague but rather the fraught relationship between the two. It's in part a reminder that these novels - while largely fantastic in their pathology - are based on calamities that have truly shaped the flow of history and the evolution of nations. Marshall's imagined infection is transformative rather than destructive in a more literal fashion, but the similarities are clear.

While this is not strictly a horror novel, it's a valuable read for veterans of the horror genre.         

Staff Pick Badge
Cats Are a Liquid Cover Image
By Rebecca Donnelly, Misa Saburi (Illustrator)
ISBN: 9781250206596
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Henry Holt and Co. (BYR) - October 8th, 2019

I love this absolutely adorable picture book. It's a fun introduction to a pretty simple scientific concept - liquid conforms to whatever container it's put into - paired with a quick and bouncy story and art so cute I can hardly stand it (you might even find a cat that looks just like yours hiding somewhere in the pages!!). There's also a recipe for oobleck included in the back, an experiment any child will enjoy.    

On Such a Full Sea: A Novel Cover Image
ISBN: 9781594632891
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Riverhead Books - December 2nd, 2014

What better way to explore an unfamiliar landscape than to take a character across it? Chang-rae Lee sets us on an odyssey through a desolate America and, along the way, explores the fate of identity and individualism under the indiscriminate boot of late-stage capitalism. It's also just an enjoyable dystopian romp, if you're not looking for an involved read.

Chang-rae Lee is better known for his impactful historical fiction, but he's a phenomenal writer overall and this novel is, really, a lot of fun.     

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See You Again in Pyongyang: A Journey into Kim Jong Un's North Korea Cover Image
ISBN: 9780316509145
Availability: Usually Arrives to Store in 1-5 Days
Published: Hachette Books - May 28th, 2019

Stories of life in North Korea are so often exaggerated and sensationalized that it's difficult for insiders and outsiders alike to decide what's fact and what's fiction, especially when each and every story is centered in a national narrative that changes on a whim. Survivors' stories are valuable, but when survival begets fame and becomes someone's livelihood - as in the case of Yeonmi Park, whose autobiography famously vacillates in content between talk circuit, stage, and written record - mistakes are inevitably made, and shock value is prioritized over truth. 

I am far more intrigued by the stories that, by nature, are the most difficult to extract - that is, those of people who still live in the "hermit nation". Who are they? What are their daily lives like? Where do they find contentment?

This book doesn't thoroughly answer those questions - it's narrated by a foreigner, who lawfully can't conduct interviews with average citizens - but Jeppesen's observations serve as a window into that world, however small. It ranks up there with Barbara Demick's Nothing To Envy in its empathy, insight, and attention to detail.

As borders continue to thin, I can only hope more books like this are written.