The Great Five from Libromance: Best Fiction Books of 2017

Book Reviews, Fiction, Sunday Spotlight

Running a book blog is lots of hard (but pleasurable!) work and one of the things I’m always excited for are end of the year lists, best picks and titles deemed noteworthy usually announced around this time.

I’ve seen a lot of best of the year book lists and here are some of my favorites:

Out of all these lists though, I’m particularly partial to The New York Times best of the year book list, which usually consists of fiction and nonfiction books. Selected by the editors of The New York Times Book Review, it is something I look forward to every year.

So when it was finally released on November 30th, I was thrilled to see all five of their listed fiction books as titles I read and reviewed this year on the blog! Five-starred and highly rated, these books are the kind I hope to read for the rest of my life, stories that move and shake and empathize and challenge. I cried throughout most of them, and I’ve probably listed them on numerous lists prior to this post. They are the kind of stories I love reading and I hope to write in the same vein someday.

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The Great Five

Here are *the great five* of 2017, along with excerpts from my book reviews this year:

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

Reading Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing was like having a deep, deep breath lodged in the cavity of my chest, something I held on to for its entirety. Ward’s newest novel isn’t for the faint of heart either, but for someone who’s strong of will, someone who can understand the gravity of what it means to be healed, and what it means to need healing, specially at a time when the world just feels too heavy. Read the full review here.

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

The book follows the lives of reluctant lovers (at first), Nadia and Saeed in the process of living, of leaving. Saeed is very much the son of his parents, timid and reserved, while Nadia is out on her own, having left the roof of her parents’ house as soon as she was able to. She dons black robes for protection, as she rides her motorcycle through the city of an unspecified country. It is a love story as much as it is a story of migration and transitions. Instead of focusing on the journey out, what Hamid focused on was how wars move and change people. Read the full review here.

Autumn by Ali Smith

This is a novel set in the UK, not a love story but a story about love in many forms. There’s Elisabeth and her mom, living alongside their neighbor, Mr. Daniel Gluck, and the world around them revolving in varying degrees of discovery and reconciliation. Theirs (the main characters’)  was no ordinary friendship, no feudal relationship. They talked about arts, books, ways of looking at the world. The ever-present question, always Gluck’s greeting to the young one was: What you reading? Read the full review here.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

This endless work and suffering is what bookends the story, manifested in different characters. Lee portrays all kinds of women in Pachinko, as she lays out layers of complexities. With each generation, she highlights the struggles of Korean women within their respective socio-economic contexts: women who aren’t allowed to work because of their husband’s beliefs, women who are imprisoned in their marriages because of economic and social reasons, women who are fiercely independent, women who long to come home to Korea, women who long to move to America, broken women, heavy-hearted women, happy women, but always, suffering women. Read the full review here.

The Power by Naomi Alderman

This book is something I dove right into where men are actually fearful of women. Where young boys are told to be careful while walking by themselves. Where men cry oppression for themselves because in Alderman’s book, women, specially young girls have the upper hand. Many of Alderman’s main characters are young women, specially those who have risen out of difficulties in their life. Out of anger, out of grief, they were able to summon the power within themselves, which came in the form of jolts of electricity emanating from fingertips. Read the full review here.

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Have you read any of these books? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Who Run the World? Girls! With Naomi Alderman (A Book Review of “The Power”)

Book Reviews, Fiction

“I was attracted to science fiction because it was so wide open. I was able to do anything and there were no walls to hem you in and there was no human condition that you were stopped from examining.”
Octavia Butler

I remember reading Octavia Butler’s book once, the first time I’ve ever been drawn to science fiction. It was crossing a realm of spirituality that I never knew could exist in science fiction, because I’ve long dismissed the genre as something that young men only enjoyed. That was an embarrassing mistake.

These days, I seem to gravitate towards certain kinds of literature, always on the lookout for the next best read. After reading Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado, I wanted more. I started reading this book soon after, and ended with the most appropriate title I could have ever picked up — Adrienne Maree Brown’s Emergent Strategy (review coming soon). I was on a feminist science fiction kick, and I didn’t even realize it!

The Power (Indiebound) by Naomi Alderman cements this period for me, as I dove right into a world where men are actually fearful of women. Where young boys are told to be careful while walking by themselves. Where men cry oppression for themselves because in Alderman’s book, women, specially young girls have the upper hand.

Scientists are confounded. Government officials are panic-stricken. Mothers become fearful, unsure of what’s happening at first.

And then it becomes apparent: it is only young girls who are gifted with skein, electricity humming and coursing through their bodies. Chaos ensues, as everything gets upended.

Many of Alderman’s main characters are young women, specially those who have risen out of difficulties in their life. Out of anger, out of grief, they were able to summon the power within themselves, which came in the form of jolts of electricity emanating from fingertips.

There’s a girl who calls herself Eve, (called Allie before the power) who listens to a voice she hears in her mind for the next steps, the back and forth conversation which has proved to save her life more than once. After repeated assaults by her guardian, she runs off to a convent and finds herself cared for by nuns, along with other girls who have run away themselves. This is where Eve finds footing to fulfill a prophecy, of being the chosen leader by the Goddess.

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December Book List

Sunday Spotlight

🎄 Happy holidays! 🎄

Before the year ends, I want to thank each and every one of you for subscribing, reading my posts and for the many ways we’ve built with each other here at Libromance. It’s been an amazing year of reading and writing, and I couldn’t have done it without your support.

And while I’m wrapping up a few things and getting ready for 2018, I wanted to share with you all my book list for December — quite a varied selection of books that have caught my attention, and a title I’ve been meaning to get into for awhile now.

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When I first saw How to Reform Capitalism by The School of Life Press, I knew I had to read it for myself. I’ve been following TSoL for awhile now, and I’m a huge fan of its founder, Alain de Botton (whose books I’ve reviewed here in the blog). Living in a time when imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism, reigns, I wanted to see what the good folks over at TSoL had to say. Here’s a synopsis of the book:

As this bold essay argues, the path to a better sort of capitalism starts with a clear-eyed understanding of our emotional functioning and the workings of our psyches. What follows is nothing less than a blueprint, revolutionary yet utterly practical, for a wiser and better kind of capitalism.

Others on the list are:

The Diary of Anaïs Nin which I picked up at the Henry Miller Memorial up in Big Sur, as I figured it was about time I acquainted myself with thinker/writer, after hearing so much about her;

The Autobiography of Gucci Mane, a book about the Atlanta-based rapper whose song Wasted is one of my faves; a synopsis:

For the first time Gucci Mane tells his story in his own words. It is the captivating life of an artist who forged an unlikely path to stardom and personal rebirth. Gucci Mane began writing his memoir in a maximum-security federal prison. Released in 2016, he emerged radically transformed. He was sober, smiling, focused, and positive—a far cry from the Gucci Mane of years past;

and Louise Erdrich’s Future of the Living God, a just released title from the Native American writer. This will be my first read of the author’s work, and I’m looking forward to that; a synopsis:

A chilling dystopian novel both provocative and prescient, Future Home of the Living God is a startlingly original work from one of our most acclaimed writers: a moving meditation on female agency, self-determination, biology, and natural rights that speaks to the troubling changes of our time.

What’s on your bedside table this time?
Do share what book you’re ending the year with in the comments below! 

A Lifetime of Looking, with Lisa Ko (A Book Review of “The Leavers”)

Book Reviews, Fiction

Days after reading Lisa Ko’s The Leavers (Amazon | Indiebound), one question lingered in my mind: can we really spare our loved ones the most gory, painful thing in our lives in order to save them–whatever “saving” looks like?

The story is written in the same format Arundhati Roy’s latest book The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, where you find out more and more about the characters, the bulk of the story and really, the depth of the plot as you go on. But I guess that’s a major driving point in the book, the search for elusive truth. As with our lives, tbqh.

The Leavers is a book about a Chinese immigrant family in New York, a mother and her son, as they struggle to make a new life for themselves away from home. And almost like every immigrant family I know, both Pei-lan/Polly and Deming/Daniel go through the process of navigating cultural shifts and managing personal transformations.

From learning how to survive as an immigrant (all the bureaucracy, whether above ground or not), the tenderness between mother and son grows with each new discovery. Each day that they are together, specially when Polly has the rare day off, the duo ventures out into the new world they’ve made for themselves.

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Amidst reveling in the simultaneous grandeur and details of the Big Apple, poverty, the struggle to assimilate and immigration woes descend upon the family. And it only gets worse.

Thanksgiving, or The U.S. Apology to All Native Peoples

Book Reviews, Poetry, Sunday Spotlight

In 2009, the United States issued an S.J. Res. 14 “to acknowledge a long history of official depredations and ill-conceived policies by the Federal Government regarding Indian tribes and offer an apology to all Native Peoples on behalf of the United States.”

Thanksgiving has been synonymous to a long holiday weekend, a table laden with food, a time to spend (sometimes uncomfortably) with family, a holiday bespectacled with gratitude and warmth.

My immigrant family has adopted this tradition for over a decade now, although the only thing that resembles the traditional American celebration is a barely-touched turkey at the end of the evening. The tables are usually filled with Filipino dishes and an assortment of sweets, pies and dessert, as conversations toggle between the best Black Friday sales and what’s happening back in our hometown of Apalit, Pampanga.

I have participated in all of this, but because I am a product of my own curiosity and more and more, a stickler for authenticity, I remember trying to figure out where Thanksgiving came from and what it really stood for. That was back in 2004.

I was horrified as soon as I found out. I was coming of age, coming out, coming to terms with trying to acculturate in a new land, only to find out that this land was actually built on the genocide of Native Americans.

I think of all these things as I currently reside in Northern California — Ohlone land. I don’t get a lot of things right but there is a constant re-education interwoven with love, respect, history and memory; an acknowledgment of a reality rooted in the loss of lives of many tribes and indigenous people.

So I remember, I honor in the best ways I can: this Thanksgiving, an homage to the work of Layli Long Soldier, an Oglala Lakota poet, writer and artist.

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On Saturday, December 19, 2009, US President Barack Obama signed the Congressional Resolution of Apology to Native Americans. No tribal leaders or official representatives were invited to witness and receive the Apology on behalf of tribal nations. President Obama never read the Apology aloud, publicly — although, for the record, Senator Sam Brownback five months later read the Apology to a gathering of five tribal leaders, though there are more than 560 federally recognized tribes in the US. The Apology was then folded into a larger, unrelated piece of legislation called the 2010 Defense Appropriation Act.

My response is directed to the Apology’s delivery, as well as the language, crafting, and arrangement of the written document. I am a citizen of the United States and an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, meaning I am a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation — and in this dual citizenship, I must work, I must eat, I must art, I must mother, I must friend, I must listen, I must observe, constantly I must live.

I started reading Whereas on the eve of Thanksgiving, in the same year the #NoDAPL camps were forcibly closed, where Native Americans, allies and protesters stood in defiance of a pipeline project which cuts across Lake Oahe near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation.

I have so many questions regarding the Apology and its language, its delivery as Long Soldier writes, one of only seven apologies made to Native Americans. It reads like someone’s troubled conscience trying to appease itself of its mistakes, without undermining its inequitable gains.

Some parts of it are downright offensive, some playing it safe. Some are affirmative, some negating. Some hopeful, some guaranteed to elicit long sighs.

It almost reads like poetry, Long Soldier says, in an interview with Krista Tippet. In her book Whereas, she writes rightful responses to this Apology as she maps out words, pain, history, remembrance and the right to life.

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Her poem-responses carry the weight of what wasn’t written down, of what wasn’t acknowledged. They relay the untold stories and the depth of what should’ve been read out loud. She writes about living conditions, mental care, how the Apology was followed by budget sequestration.

And instead of the haphazard ways the U.S. government has continued to treat this issue, the people, Native American lives, Long Soldier offers solutions, poems on what the Apology could’ve looked like.

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Bring this to the table, bring this with you. Bring Long Soldier’s poetry in the arcs of your mouths, in the same manner that you say thanks.

 

Deviant Lives, with Carmen Maria Machado (A Book Review of ‘Her Body and Other Parties’)

Book Reviews, Fiction, Love, Writing

I picked up Carmen Maria Machado’s book of short stories Her Body and Other Parties (Amazon | Indiebound) after seeing it on the National Book Awards shortlist for fiction. The title first drew me. I looked up to see who Machado was and found she’s a queer Latinx (yes!), which made me want to read her work even more. And whoa. As soon as I finished one story, I knew I was in for a wild, beautiful ride.

The first story on the book called The Ribbon was my first introduction to Machado. Hers is a concise but weighty voice, one that told the story but kept important details hidden. It was both what she is and what she isn’t saying that drew me even closer to the text, a kind of magnetic pull impossible to resist.

I think it’s also in the way she writes about women in the book, filled with audacious desire and a wonderfully overwhelming presence that had me enthralled. They were eerie in their brilliance, as if something hummed underneath the story line.

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Writing Ourselves Whole

Sunday Spotlight

This piece was originally published on Hella Pinay.

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When her daughter did not know a Filipino-American hero to write a report on because no such books have ever existed, Filipina writer and artist Gayle Romasanta knew what needed to be done–not just for her daughter or for her family, but for millions of Filipino-Americans in the country.  

Thus the birth of Journey for Justice: The Life of Larry Itliong, the first of a series of Filipino-American history books for children. With long-time colleague and researcher Dawn Mabalon PhD and illustrator Andre Sibuyan, this book series will be the first to shed much needed light and focus on the historical contributions of Filipino-Americans in the country. It will also be the first endeavor of Bridge + Delta Publishing founded by Romasanta herself, an homage to a lineage of farm workers in the family.

“We knew that we couldn’t ask for it. We needed to do it on our own.”

Romasanta is no stranger to being a pioneer in the Filipino-American community. When she was 19 years old, she founded Kappa Psi Epsilon, a Filipino-based sorority focusing on Fil-Am history and culture currently in five universities in California. She was also an Artistic Director of Bindlestiff Studio, the only Filipino theater space in the nation. Her first foray in publishing was through Beautiful Eyes (2012), a children’s book based on motor skills and a memory game which aimed to nurture a sense of self for the Filipino baby. The book is now part of the San Francisco Unified School District’s Filipino Language Program curriculum.

Born and raised in Stockton, California, Mabalon is currently an Associate Professor at San Francisco State University. She is the author of Little Manila is in the Heart: The Making of the Filipina/o American Community in Stockton, California, a book which delves into the history of Filipino communities in the area from the early twentieth century. As she was writing her book, she came across Larry Itliong and other Filipino farm labor organizers critical in the formation of the farm labor movement, all missing from textbooks where only Cesar Chavez is mentioned.

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More than just a children’s book, Journey for Justiceis the culmination of years of oral history, community organizing and research. It is a book steeped in the forgotten truths of the farm labor movement, which employed a militant and radical approach overshadowed by many complicated factors as UFW and Chavez rose to prominence.

And while many books on Filipino-American history are accessible at the collegiate level, there aren’t many books or resource within the K-12 grade levels. In fact it was only in 2013 when the bill AB123 was passed, which required the California state curriculum to include the contributions of Filipino-Americans to the farmworker labor movement. Last year, the California Department of Education finally adopted the new curriculum standards for history and social sciences which included the roles of Filipinos during World War II and in the UFW.

Filipino-Americans have long straddled this dichotomy–for those who have immigrated (like Romasanta when she was a toddler) or for those who were born here. A hyphenated identity is always a cause for probing, an exploration and a search for understanding who we are as a people in the diaspora. This reflection is mirrored even in the relationship between the Philippines and the U.S., a relationship that has always been contentious. And while our history has been riddled with suffering, oppression and continuous displacement in the hands of the U.S., millions have called America home. And many more will.

The contradictions are endless.

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I admit that I haven’t really given what being “Filipino-American” is nary a thought, because I have always been tethered to the kind of nationalism rooted only in the place I was born in, only in the Philippines. So much so that I haven’t hyphenated my identity to include the “-American” portion, even after becoming a U.S. citizen in 2015. Apart from finding the contradiction of reaping the benefits of living as a citizen fully aware and wholly opposed to the tactics employed by the state on its people and on people around the world, I’ve found it hard to.

But in the midst of this personal struggle, perhaps, is an unexpected nugget of light. That the history of America is not just defined by its imperial, oppressive system but that it has also been shaped by many intersecting struggles of black people, Latinxs, Asians, Filipinos. That perhaps I haven’t been able to conceptualize “Filipino-American” because I didn’t see the need to ingrain myself within the system, the same system that swallows me up and spits me right back out. And it wasn’t until I spoke with Romasanta about Journey for Justicethat I started seeing the possibility of being able to claim this other part of ourselves–as active participants of history beyond our own nation’s borders–in a different kind of light. The kind of light that remembers and honors the work of those who have come before us, like Larry Itliong, Philip Vera Cruz, even all the Filipino soldiers during World War II, that those who are just growing up trying to understand what being Filipino-American means will know that their ancestors mattered. That people like them have contributed to the world they will be moving in, glorious in their own brown skin.

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Support Journey for Justice: The Life of Larry Itliong by donating to their IndieGoGo campaign which runs until November 20 and invest in creating the first ever Filipino American history books for children.

The Woman’s Lot, with Min Jin Lee (A Book Review of ‘Pachinko’)

Book Reviews, Fiction

As I write this, Trump’s visit to Southeast Asia is underway. The 12-day tour in Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines reflects the increasing importance of the region tied to American interests, in aspects of geopolitics and economics.

South Korea is his second stop, and I think about the increasing provocation from his administration and North Korea’s regarding nuclear weapons. This has been the most dominant issue in the news cycle. Many cower in fear, but many more are calling for anti-militarization, specifically from a country with the largest military budget in the world.

This was the context as I read Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko (Amazon | Indiebound), a multi-generational saga of a Korean family in the early 1900s. From the shores of Yeongdo beside the port city of Busan comes Sunja, the daughter of a poor couple who has thrived in spite of living under imperial Japan’s tutelage.

Lee’s book tells Sunja’s story from her birth throughout her life, as she moved from Korea to Japan. After becoming pregnant with a man who turned out to be married, Sunja’s life turned upside down. Her pregnancy was sure to bring shame to her family, until a sickly minister, Isak, volunteers to take her as his wife and bring her to Osaka.

It is in Osaka where most of the book takes place, as Sunja and her newfound family (Isak’s brother Yoseb and his wife, Kyung-hee) face the rest of their lives head on. Two more generations follow, with Sunja’s sons and their respective children, as they try to survive in a country that either ignores or loathes Koreans.

Throughout the entire story, the women suffer the most — from carrying the burden of shame with Sunja’s unwanted pregnancy, to being the kind of wives their husbands expected them to (such as Kyung-hee’s predicament), to the indelible and incredible task of mothering.

Even at a young age, this was what her mother taught Sunja.

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Nesting on Fire, with Celeste Ng (A Book Review of ‘Little Fires Everywhere’)

Book Reviews, Fiction

Sometimes all the hype turns out to be the real thing.

You know a book’s about to be B-I-G when all the book sites are talking about it, when emails pop up in your inbox with that one book over and over again.

Before I even knew what it was about, Celeste Ng‘s Little Fires Everywhere (Amazon | Indiebound) was that book. I had to get it.

Turns out, the hype wasn’t just noise. It was actually substance. A lot of it.

Little Fires is Ng’s second novel, following her first book Everything I Never Told You which became an instant bookseller, bagging numerous awards.

In this book, Ng portrayed what the nuclear American family should look like, in a pretty progressive place too nonetheless, that she was able to effectively support America’s delusion into thinking that it is, for the most part, doing the right thing.

She begins by detailing the life in Shaker Heights in Ohio, close to Cleveland, a haven of manicured lawns and matching houses where most folks are upper middle class. A small town where most people come back to live from college and nest quite comfortably.

At the center is Elena Richardson, a white woman, a mother of four who lives in relative stability in Shaker Heights. She is married to a lawyer and is a successful journalist. Except for when she went away for college, she’s spent her entire life in the community. When she takes in the recluse artist Mia Warren and her daughter Pearl as tenants at one of her smaller homes (she sees it as charity, a gesture of goodwill), she didn’t realize the ripple of change that move would set.

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Fiending for (More) Fiction

Fiction, Sunday Spotlight

After doing my #FinestFiction reading challenge in the summer where I attempted to read the longlist for the Man Book Prize, I was hooked. Not only did I push myself to read out of my usual genres, I also stuck with some books I would’ve otherwise put down already. I learned a lot. And I discovered authors I wouldn’t have read otherwise, like Ali Smith and Mohsin Hamid, whose books will be permanently etched in my memory.

In the spirit of that reading challenge, I’m doing another one. More than I actually followed the Man Booker Prize, I’m a huge fan of the National Book Foundation. Headed by Lisa Lucas (!), the NBF is the presenter of the annual National Book Awards. Last year’s NBA fiction titleholder is Colson Whitehead for The Underground Railroad.

This year, I’ve decided that I will be reading the fiction shortlist, a compilation of five mighty books:

Out of this list, I’ve read three so far and I’m slowly making my way through Elliot Ackerman’s Dark at the Crossing. One of my favorite books this year is nominated — Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing which I reviewed a few weeks ago. I’m currently working on reviews for both Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko and Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties, two books I also really liked.

The ceremony is on November 15 in New York City, which means I’ve got about two weeks to finish and review the books. If you’re looking for a book to fall in love with, I guarantee any of these because the finalists for the NBA for fiction have always been stellar. In addition to these fiction titles, I’m also reading one book shortlisted for the nonfiction prize (Marsha Gessen’s The Future is History) and another one shortlisted for poetry (Danez Smith’s Do Not Call Us Dead: Poems).

National Book Awards for Fiction shortlist:
Judges are Alexander Chee, Dave Eggers, Annie Philbrick, Karolina Waclawiak, Jacqueline Woodson (Chair)

Dark at the Crossing by Elliot Ackerman
Haris Abadi is a man in search of a cause. An Arab American with a conflicted past, he is now in Turkey, attempting to cross into Syria and join the fight against Bashar al-Assad’s regime. But he is robbed before he can make it, and is taken in by Amir, a charismatic Syrian refugee and former revolutionary, and Amir’s wife, Daphne, a sophisticated beauty haunted by grief. Told with compassion and a deft hand, Dark at the Crossing is an exploration of loss, of second chances, and of why we choose to believe—a trenchantly observed novel of raw urgency and power.

The Leavers by Lisa Ko
A vivid and moving examination of borders and belonging, The Leavers is the story of how one boy comes into his own when everything he’s loved has been taken away—and how one woman learns to live with the mistakes of her past.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
Pachinko follows one Korean family through the generations, beginning in early 1900s Korea with Sunja, the prized daughter of a poor yet proud family, whose unplanned pregnancy threatens to shame them all. Deserted by her lover, Sunja is saved when a young tubercular minister offers to marry and bring her to Japan. So begins a sweeping saga of an exceptional family in exile from its homeland and caught in the indifferent arc of history. Through desperate struggles and hard-won triumphs, its members are bound together by deep roots as they face enduring questions of faith, family, and identity.

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
Earthy and otherworldly, antic and sexy, queer and caustic, comic and deadly serious, Her Body and Other Parties swings from horrific violence to the most exquisite sentiment. In their explosive originality, these stories enlarge the possibilities of contemporary fiction. 

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
Sing, Unburied, Sing grapples with the ugly truths at the heart of the American story and the power, and limitations, of the bonds of family. Rich with Ward’s distinctive, musical language, Sing, Unburied, Sing is a majestic new work and an essential contribution to American literature.

Which one are you rooting for? 
Tell me in the comments below!