It’s time for my annual compilation of 1% of the books I read and recommended this year:
Firsts by Laurie Elizabeth Flynn
The premise of this book sounds ridiculous at first: a teenage girl, Mercedes, has a secret “service” she provides for male classmates eager to lose their virginity. She sleeps with them before they sleep with their girlfriends in order to ensure that the first time is special, and un-awkward. Sounds genius, right? Surely no one could possibly find out about this, and things won’t get very ugly for Mercedes as a result…right?
You can probably guess from the synopsis that things do get ugly, and Mercedes ultimately does face social consequences (she is helping these guys cheat, after all) but that’s precisely what I loved about this book. Mercedes isn’t meant to be likeable at first. You aren’t supposed to feel sorry for her. But the character growth and maturity in this book is unlike anything I’ve read in YA lately. I admit, I was genuinely surprised, but I’m so glad I gave this book a chance, and I hope you do as well. If teenage sexuality isn’t a dealbreaker for you, that is – it goes without saying that there’s plenty of that in here, though I wouldn’t say any of it is graphic.
Devoted by Jennifer Mathieu
Rachel is a teenage girl raised in an extremely fundamentalist family, which I find utterly fascinating, given my secular upbringing. The rules she had to live by are reminiscent of some of my friends who grew up in similar environments: girls could not wear pants, always had to appear cheerful, no movies above PG allowed. Even classic novels were forbidden. As a female, Rachel was raised with the intention of marrying young and having a family. Yet this is not something she’s sure she wants.
Rachel’s doubts, questions, and turmoil are all too believable, and the tension her faith struggle creates within her family make for a gripping read – I finished this book within a day. These aren’t cardboard stereotypes of religious people, either, which is another reason to love this book. And the ending doesn’t wrap up neatly, which I appreciate, given the complex nature of the topic.
Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult
I admit to having a long-held grudge against Jodi for her completely inaccurate, offensive comments about self-published authors, but the premise of this book was too good to pass up: Ruth, a black labor and delivery nurse, is forbidden to care for the newborn of a white supremacist couple. When the baby goes into cardiac arrest, she hesitates, and the baby dies, prompting the supremacists to file a lawsuit against her.
The #BlackLivesMatter movement was probably the best thing to happen to this book in terms of relevance. I saw a great deal of myself in Kennedy, Ruth’s lawyer, when she said, “I don’t see color. The only race that matters is the human race, right?” This book, aside from being a gripping page-turner, does a fantastic job unpacking the privilege (white privilege, that is) behind such statements, well intentioned though they may be. The only people who can claim they don’t “see color” are people for whom color is not an issue. People like Ruth, who are routinely followed by department store employees or treated noticeably harsher than white patrons, don’t have the luxury of not “seeing” color.
The book is written in alternating chapters from the perspectives of Ruth, Kennedy, and Turk, the father of the dead baby. His chapters are, understandably, hard to read, but still illuminating. The epilogue wrapped up a little too neatly, but I still highly recommend this book. I also recommend Roxane Gay’s review here.
Finding God in the Waves by Mike McHargue
I reviewed this book for Off the Page, but here’s an excerpt:
What I appreciate most about this book is that it’s written for people in the middle of the spectrum of absolutism. Inevitably, there will be Christian readers who deride this book for being too lukewarm, as well as nonreligious readers who will scoff at the idea that there is any room at all for the supernatural in the life of a scientist or science-minded person. Finding God elaborates on a popular saying: science explains the how, but religion explains the why. Science explains how life begins, but not its purpose.
The skeptical reader who can’t quite wrap his head around a virgin birth or a dead man coming back to life is invited to, at the very minimum, contemplate Christianity’s answer to our reason for being. This thought reignited McHargue’s faith and enabled him to attend church again. The God he writes about is less concerned with correct beliefs than he is about the condition of one’s heart. The faith McHargue recovers is arguably more genuine and honest than what he started with, because he is learning to engage with God on his own terms rather than follow prescribed formulas.
Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit
A short book that comically explains the phenomenon known as “mansplaining”: men explaining things to women that they already know – in some cases, things women know better than they do. The term itself may be new, although the experience itself is not, and ultimately points to a larger problem: society does not take women seriously, whether it’s in assuming their competence in the workplace, or the seriousness of rape allegations. Far from a “woe is me” narrative, this book takes a serious look at why this happens, and what women can do to stand up for themselves. It does include some disturbing anecdotes about domestic violence and crimes against women worldwide (genital mutilation, bride burning, rape as a tool of warfare), but these are facts we can’t ignore.
At the risk of sounding like your high school English teacher, what books have you read this year?