The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo is a verse novel about a Harlem high school student, Xiomara, who is struggling with her faith, the Church and her mother – all while beginning to navigate the waters of first love. As one who’s struggled with my own issues with being brought up within Catholicism, I recognised this uncertainty and tension. The poetry is powerful – as you can see below, Acevedo knows the slam scene and knows how to deliver a poem.
This month’s surprise-find-on-the-library-new-release-shelf is The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander, noted speculative writer and Hugo, Nebula and Locus Awards finalist. The premise of the alternate history novella was born from two tragic historical events – the Radium Girls, when US female factory workers were knowingly exposed to radium before becoming sick and dying, and the 1903 execution of the elephant Topsy at Coney Island (warning: that link has some distressing images). Angered by the injustices of both events, Bolander weaves a tale that seeks to bring them to light: “I can’t right the wrongs of the past, but as a writer I can damn well make a few more people aware of them.” That quote is taken from a terrific interview at the Barnes and Noble website, and I recommend it. While slim, the novella hasn’t been a quick read (for me): the split narrative jumps forwards and backwards in time and it took me a little while to get a handle on these different threads. Again it demonstrates the imaginative possibilities of speculative fiction and how it excites me these days (as a writer) a lot more than what some realist fiction does.
A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to host to Mother’s Day literary salon and to prepare my discussion with the guests I read The Endsister by Penni Russon and Skylarking by Kate Mildenhall. (I also read Fine by Michelle Wright, which will feature in next month’s reading round-up.) When I finished Skylarking, I was suddenly aware of the deep irony of its title – set on the wild coastline of southern NSW in the 1880s, a small community is shaken by a tragic event. This event is set up in the opening pages but not revealed, so the reader continues with a sense of dread. The central relationship between two girls is a fine coming-of-age portrayal and Mildenhall deftly touches and questions the true nature of what this relationship is or could be while they must also bear the responsibilities of housework and the inevitable question of finding a suitable partner for marriage. There are scenes in this novel that will stay with me for a long time.
I lost count how many times I felt close to tears while reading The Endsister. Russon’s work has always had that effect on me, and I think that’s because I always feel that it is rooted in… experience, and if that’s not quite the right word, perhaps I mean absolute empathy. Nothing will happen to her characters that doesn’t make sense; the plot feels driven by their individualities and quirks, and not by the will of an Author. When the two parents walk down the street in London, exasperated by their new life and the house they inherited, unable to agree as to what to do next, stay or return to Australia, a question is asked: will their relationship be able to survive? I felt their sickening anxiety, as I daresay anyone has when they too have been faced with deal-breaking decisions. I understood the mother’s depression, the screaming tantrums of toddlers, the dourness of teenagers. It’s just lovely.
What are you reading this month?