Back-to-school season means new routines, new habits and attempts at productivity that, let’s be honest, wear thin after the first or second week of the quarter. But reading has been proved to be a significant stress reliever where you can get lost in a different world just for a bit. An extremely angry online mob that threatens to ruin a game developer’s life, an Instagram crush that goes horribly wrong, and a tense tale about a father and son trying to get by on nothing make up the plots of this month’s book review. We recommend new and exciting books that will be a relief from the dullness of assigned reading. Artsweek talked to three debut authors with books so addicting, you’ll get back into reading for pleasure in no time.
“We Are Watching Eliza Bright” by A.E. Osworth (Grand Central Publishing)
In A.E. Osworth’s new genre-bending book, the titular Eliza Bright is a software coder at Fancy Dog Games, where she works up the ladder. She gets a promotion early on but pretty much only because she’s sleeping with her boss, Preston, to earn his favor. Or maybe she doesn’t. Maybe she earns the promotion because she is a beautiful, hard-working and fantastic coder. The truth is, the reader doesn’t really know. The book is told from two “hivemind” sides — one, a far-right, misogynistic, gamer-type group that envies Eliza’s power (what’s a woman doing at our favorite game studio?) and two, a much smaller collection of feminist, liberal minds called the Sixsterhood, who live together and have an infectious positive attitude. On the inspiration for the hivemind narration, Osworth told me, “The Reddit narrators worked their way in from the jump — I found myself typing in the ‘we’ voice, and I thought to myself, ‘Oh, that’s interesting, who are these guys?’ … I ingested a ton of Reddit and 4chan, which was not so very much fun.”
But, of course, there are private moments in the book where the mob doesn’t know everything, like the aforementioned scenario where Eliza may or may not be sleeping with Preston. “Intense fandoms (and that’s what haters are, really) usually make stuff up about the people who are the subjects of their parasocial relationships — so that’s what I went with. The narrators invent things they can’t know,” Osworth says. The rabid Redditors get their information through various leaks at the company, which is how they know the location and details of most of the characters.
The Redditors are lurking in the background, everywhere, including a heated group meeting where things spiral out of control with a top developer, Lewis. Eliza’s life then becomes a constant fight of privacy, cancel culture and hiding from a mob all because of her position at a video game company. The book is a reflection of the polarizing internet culture we all submit to and what dangerous forces could come to fruition.
“A Touch of Jen” by Beth Morgan (Little, Brown and Company)
Beth Morgan’s debut novel shows Remy and Alicia, a couple living in New York whose lives seemingly revolve around Jen, a former co-worker of Remy’s. Her magnetic Instagram profile shows her vacation pictures, a jewelry shop she opened and other illusions of a perfect life. Remy and Alicia are obsessed, and they even float the idea of printing out a picture of Jen’s face that Alicia can wear during sex. They run into Jen at the Apple store one day, and when she invites them to go on a surfing trip, their obsession takes hold in dangerous ways.
Desperate to please, Remy and Alicia come off as awkward, but Jen’s true colors also start to show. She calls Remy a “freak” despite his niceness several times, and she notices Alicia’s need to be liked by her. Because they know her online persona so well, “Alicia has an intimate familiarity with Jen’s image, Jen’s body, but Jen doesn’t have that same relationship with her and understandably is unsettled by Alicia’s sudden intimacy,” Morgan told me.
There’s also a recurring theme of self-actualization: Jen and her friend Carla are obsessed with the book “The Apple Bush,” a self-help guide to realizing your “consummate result” in life (Alicia picks up the book and gets invested as well). To reach your full potential, you must notice the “signifiers” that are presented. Remy, initially skeptical, starts to believe it after a turning point in his life, which is when the oddities and horror element of the book start to set in. “I really wanted to capture the craziness and instability of what it’s like to be caught up in that kind of worldview — how it can warp our sense of reality and lead to this really scary place,” Morgan said.
“Abundance” by Jakob Guanzon (Graywolf Press)
Meet Henry and Junior, a father-son duo with little money to spare (the amount they have is the name of each chapter, slowly dwindling as time progresses). Wanting to make Junior’s eighth birthday special, Henry splurges on McDonald’s, but things take a turn for the worst when Junior gets sick. An interaction with a motel neighbor turns violent, and they have to rush away. After taking away increasingly ill Junior — and with the all-important job interview looming in the back of his mind — Henry works a landscaping job under extreme time pressure, desperately tries to fill up his gas tank, and the reader feels his heightening anxiety (and lessening funds) with each page.
“Even the most hard-working and rugged individuals among [Americans] ultimately find themselves coming up short against a system that was never built for their prosperity, let alone their survival,” Guanzon told me. The desperate situations Henry is placed in really highlight how good we have it, leading to the ironic title “Abundance.” The book is an exercise in gratitude as we see the duo not have money for even basic amenities (Henry basically force-feeds Junior his meal at McDonalds so as not to waste a penny). “The promise of a cushy, customer-is-always-right lifestyle and upward social mobility are so intrinsic to our national ethos that they’ve come to comprise an American birthright,” Guanzon said.
The book’s fast pacing and dramatic situations played like an action movie in my mind, and Guanzon agreed it could translate to the big screen. “A couple studios have expressed interest,” he said, “But if it doesn’t work out, I’m plenty content with the opportunity [Henry and Junior] had to live in readers’ minds. That alone had seemed a lot to aspire for and is now a rare privilege that humbles me every single day.”