Over halfway through the year already! At the beginning of 2023, I made it a personal reading goal of mine to keep on top of new releases. There have been plenty of brilliant reads coming out (and duds, and everything in-between) - but here are the ones that stood out to me the most.
Chain-Gang All-Stars - Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
Easily my favourite release of this year so far, Chain-Gang All-Stars is equal parts enthralling and horrific. As a teen, I savoured The Hunger Games for its examination of violence as spectacle and the exploitation of poor lives for the rich’s profit. Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah dissects these themes through the lens of America’s prison system, in a richly-crafted dystopian world where inmates fight to the death for the chance for freedom.
The Criminal Action Penal Entertainment programme, or CAPE, is a televised “hard-action” sports series that draws huge viewership and huge profits. Though the narrative follows a range of different characters, we primarily follow two of CAPE’s biggest stars, Loretta Thurwar and Hamara “Hurricane Staxxx” Stacker. Thurwar’s soon to be released (or ‘High Freed’), provided she wins her next few fights. But whilst she’s trying to uphold the humanity of her lover Staxx and the other teammates in her Chain-Gang, she’s struggling with her own personal turmoil about her past actions. And she’s just learned of the existence of a new, terrible rule.
The world of the novel, though elaborate and brilliantly realised, is never too far from our own reality - the text is interspersed with footnotes displaying true prison statistics and stories in the US. It’s a harrowing demonstration of the many ways in which the system is failing - racial disparity in sentencing, the torture, dehumanisation and exploitation of inmates, and the capitalistic nature of mass incarceration. The reading experience was heavy, but so, so rewarding. Adjei-Brenyah builds a universe you will become absorbed in, with strong-voiced, complex characters. Humanity, with all its beauty and malice and infinite intricacies, shines out of every page.
Does each evil cancel the other out? Does disappearing one person from the earth clean it some? I seen men I knew were a danger to the world and they too deserve better than this. A shame for me to hope for better, but I know it's better that can be done. Ain't no magic potions for these bleeding human hearts. Ain't no building full of hurt gonna save the masses.
Yellowface - R. F. Kuang
R.F. Kuang has been all the rage recently, with her dark fantasy series The Poppy War and linguistic history Babel flying off the charts. I haven’t gotten round to reading her previous body of work yet, but Yellowface has certainly convinced me to add her novels to the list.
This delightfully dark satire follows June Heyward, a young writer who seethes enviously in the shadow of her dazzling friend Athena Liu. Athena has everything June wants - book deals, acclaimed novels, rapt attention from people in the literary scene (or just about anyone, anywhere - Athena is also stunningly beautiful). So when Athena dies very suddenly, June seizes the opportunity to pass off her unfinished manuscript as her own. The problem is, the novel follows the relatively unknown history of Chinese labourers during World War I, and June is decidedly Not Chinese. But with a few inconspicuous tactics (rebranding as Juniper Song, financially supporting Asian community groups, using an author photo that makes her race unclear), June is certain she can convince everyone that she’s the person to tell this story.
I do love a good downwards spiral, so watching June desperately scramble to cover her lies was an absolute delight. The narrative propels itself forward, while building up a deeply uncomfortable, guilt-ridden atmosphere. R. F. Kuang balances this with plenty of thought-provoking discourse on the publishing industry, the Asian-American experience, online culture, identity, and voices in literature. It’ll certainly get you confronting your own perceptions.
I imagine a crowd of angry voices and pointed fingers, converging on me to rip pieces of flesh from my body like the naiads did to Orpheus, until all that's left is the prurient, whispered question, "Did you hear about Juniper Song?" and fragments of rumors growing darker and more distorted; bloody, decomposing shreds of my virtual identity; until there is nothing left but the statement, justified or not, that Juniper Song Is Canceled.
I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself - Marisa Crane
In this world, you learn to hold the good days and the bad days together in your lungs, and you don't dare to breathe out, for fear that in releasing the bad days, you'll also lose the good ones.
I was immediately drawn to this read for its creative concept - a future where, instead of serving jail time, lawbreakers are given an extra shadow. This brands the so-called ‘Shadesters’ to all of society as criminals. And we all know how society treats criminals.
Our protagonist Kris is a newly single mother, with a baby who’s already been branded a criminal. Alone, she must navigate life with an extra shadow, raising a child with an extra shadow, in a world that does not value the rights of those with extra shadows. All the while, she’s dealing with the grief brought about by her wife’s death.
I particularly loved the structure of this novel. It’s reminiscent of Department of Speculation by Jenny Offill, or No One is Talking about This by Patricia Lockwood - fragmented glimpses of life and thought that weave and intertwine as an entire story. I wasn’t surprised to find out the author is a poet.
Sea Change - Gina Chung
Did I pick up this book just because there was a picture of an octopus on the front? Well, yes, but I’m glad I did - I thoroughly enjoyed this moving debut. The idiom ‘sea change’ refers to a shift in perspective or a metamorphosis, and that’s what this read is. It’s essentially a coming-of-age, but for someone heading into their thirties rather than early adulthood. Despite sometimes still feeling like a teenage girl (don’t ask me about my TikTok addiction), I find myself gravitating towards narratives that deal with quarter-life crises. In my opinion, this one does a pretty fantastic job of it.
The main character, Ro, is having a rough time. She’s rather directionless in life, she has very few friends, her relationship with her mother is strained, she’s still grappling with the loss of her father many years ago. Oh, and her boyfriend is moving to Mars. The only thing that brings Ro solace is a giant pacific octopus named Dolores, whom she cares for at the aquarium. And drinking. Lots of drinking.
When she learns Dolores is going to be sold to a private buyer, it causes her to confront her past and the patterns of thought and behaviour that she’s fallen into. This book deals very eloquently with a range of themes, including grief, generational trauma, environmentalism, the immigrant experience, and self-acceptance. I was invested in Ro’s story from the get-go, and rooted for her to find some solace.
The Guest - Emma Cline
Or maybe Alex had known, in some part of herself, that she was ruining everything, known how bad things could get, and maybe she had done it anyway.
This read might not perhaps be for everyone, but it was certainly for me. I think it’s fine for me to admit at this point that I’m an absolute sucker for stories with unlikeable characters. The more complex the character, the better, in fact. Alex makes her way through life by mooching off of other people, lying, engaging in petty theft, and worming her way into situations she’s not supposed to be in. When past relationships are destroyed because of her deceitfulness, she cuts off all contact and runs to find the next rich person to take care of her.
But Alex is not entirely unsympathetic. She’s a young, poor woman navigating a wealthy, male-dominated scene. She has no stable home or job. There’s a dangerous ex stalking her. We never find out too much about our narrator’s past, but it’s clear she’s alone in the world, without any real support structure. The novel takes place over the course of 5 days, where Alex is unexpectedly forced to fend for herself after a brief period of comfort. I wanted to be a guest right alongside Alex, dipping in and out of the shallow and messy lives of the elite.
Natural Beauty - Ling Ling Huang
I put this book on hold quite a long time before it arrived, so when I checked it out I’d wholly forgotten the plot synopsis. About three quarters of the way through, when things progressed from merely unsettling to really freaky, I happened to look at the spine label - and had a big “ah-ha” moment when I discovered I was not reading a general fiction, but in fact a horror. Don’t get me wrong, this didn’t lessen my enjoyment of it in the slightest. The capitalistic, exploitative beauty industry explored through the lens of a stomach-churning body horror? Yes please!
We follow a Chinese-American narrator, a former piano virtuoso, who is drawn in to work for an elite beauty and wellness store. The place deals in a lot of bizarre, unconventional treatments that would make any vegan or arachnophobe faint (spider-hair eyelash extensions, anyone?) Our protagonist becomes increasingly obsessed with her extensive beauty routine of balms and serums and tinctures and procedures. All the while, she’s looking more and more like her colleagues, who are also suspiciously similar in appearance. It’s readily apparent that there’s something incredibly sinister going on beyond the surface. (Really, I should have picked up on the fact that this is a horror a lot sooner).
Alongside its delightfully disturbing and wacky plot, I enjoyed the deeper themes in this read. There’s some excellent social satire on the ridiculous, Eurocentric beauty standards set for women and the painful lengths we’ll go to achieve those standards. It certainly had me re-examining the wallet-burning self-care trap I tend to fall into every few months.
It isn’t our fault, of course. Buying stuff is supposed to make us happy. It’s a Band-Aid slapped on top of structural issues that actually need to be addressed.
A quarter-life coming of age in which Maddie must balance life as a young Black woman in London whilst caring for her father, who is suffering from Parkinsons's.
Janice Hallett delivers another twisty-beyond-belief mystery using her trademark unconventional format - the tale is told wholly through e-mails, letters, messages, transcripts and other documents.
The absolutely heartwrenching story of a mother, recently escaped from a plantation in Barbados, who sets out to find her missing children.
This haunting read is rather bizarre, but I adored Monica Brashears' writing style. The tale follows 19-year old Magnolia, who is trailed by the ghost of her late grandmother as she is drawn into a strange modelling job at a funeral home.
An absolutely adorable found-family mystery about a determined Chinese auntie who takes matters into her own hands when she discovers a dead body.