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It’s Twisted TV Week at What To Read If

Hi friends,

Congrats to Cat, winner of our inaugural Summer Reading Bingo challenge and thanks to everyone who participated! Some of Cat’s favorites from this summer include A Touch of Jen by Beth Morgan, Oak Flat: A Fight for Sacred Land in the American West by Lauren Redniss and Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer.

I enjoyed trying to complete my card (I got close but didn’t succeed) and seeing what you all were reading. If you’d be interested in doing another similar challenge, let me know in the comments.

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As a kid, I always loved “fractured fairy tales,” retellings of classic stories, such as John Scieszka’s The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs. It’s a reimagining of the three little pigs fable from the wolf’s perspective — he’s not evil, you see, he just has allergies that make him huff and puff. I loved the way changing the wolf’s personality illuminated aspects from the original tale.

In that spirit, I’m celebrating Twisted TV Week (it’s a holiday I just made up). This week’s recs reminded me of popular TV shows, but with a new spin. Whether you like the shows or not, you might still enjoy the books.

And, now, what to read if…

You Wish “The Crown” were a Murder Mystery

The Windsor Knot by SJ Bennet

The Windsor Knot, the first book in a new series, imagines Queen Elizabeth secretly solves mysteries while simultaneously performing her royal duties. It’s a wonderfully quirky premise — and SJ Bennet sticks the landing, offering political intrigue, charming dialogue and a strong, tightly plotted mystery.

Bennet’s Queen Elizabeth has been working as a part-time sleuth since her teenage years. Throughout the book, set in the run-up to the Her Majesty’s 90th birthday in the spring of 2016, Elizabeth directs her recently hired Assistant Private Secretary, Rozie Oshodi, to make a series of bizarre inquiries on her behalf. Rozie, a British Nigerian officer, fearful of upsetting her new boss — the Queen — agrees, even as she questions what is going on.

The Windsor Knot is a lot of fun. The voice Bennet developed for Queen Elizabeth sounds exactly like what I always imagined the Queen to sound like. Avid viewers of “The Crown” will note that Bennet is more sympathetic to Prince Phillip than the TV show is, but Charles plays the fool in both of them.

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You Want “Bridgerton” — With Magic

The Midnight Bargain by C.L. Polk

The first season of Netflix’s “Bridgerton” follows Daphne, the Bridgerton family’s oldest daughter, as she navigates London’s society season, hunting for a husband. (Sidebar: I’m looking forward to the second season — I think the second book in the series is far better than the first.) C.L. Polk takes the familiar marriage season framing device and adds a magical element to it in The Midnight Bargain.

In the magical world Polk, who uses they/them pronouns, builds, women are forced to wear collars that eliminate their powers after getting married,  for the protection of their unborn children. The book’s main character, Beatrice Clayborn, is a powerful sorceress, practicing in secret because she has gained more power than respectable women are allowed to have. Beatrice dreads the day she will be forced to don the collar — and instead works surreptitiously to become a Magus, a full-time magician, even though she knows it will leave her unmarriageable. Complicating Beatrice’s plans, though, are her family’s precarious financial position — they’re counting on her to marry a wealthy man to save them — and her growing feelings for Ianthe Lavan, a kind, handsome and wealthy businessman.

I read The Midnight Bargain to fulfill the “sci-fi/fantasy” box in my Summer Reading Bingo card — and I’m so glad I did. Polk uses the rigid rules of The Midnight Bargain’s fictional society to illuminate issues in our own world. If you’re a romance reader — or a Jane Austen fan — looking to try a fantasy novel, give this one a try.

You’re After a Less Violent “Big Little Lies”

The Gifted School by Bruce Holsinger

The first season of HBO’s adaptation of Lianne Moriarty’s Big Little Lies was a brilliant — and violent — exploration of the friendship between a group of mothers with children in the same school. The Gifted School by Bruce Holsinger has a similar premise — but without the murder and sexual assault.

The Gifted School centers on a group of four friends, who met more than ten years earlier in infant swim classes, as their children vie for spots in a new public school for academically advanced students. The competition causes long-hidden resentments and secrets to surface and drives wedges between the four friends, their partners and their children. The Gifted School is written from multiple perspectives, and Holsinger has a real talent for writing teenage dialogue that feels real.

It’s a soapy, propulsive read that kept me turning pages as I waited to find out who got into the school, who didn’t and how their parents handled it. My one quibble with The Gifted School isn’t with the book but how it was marketed (and one of my major annoyances with publishing in general). Had The Gifted School — a juicy read about upper-class women and their families — been written by a female writer, it would have been considered “women’s fiction,” a nebulous genre that apparently describes any book by a woman about family or friendships. But, since a man wrote it, The Gifted School earned glowing reviews in The New YorkerThe New York Times and The Washington Post, among others. It’s a racket the “literary Jonathan” have been benefiting from for years. The Gifted School earned those reviews, certainly, and I hope someday a similar book by a woman will be given the same serious treatment.

Do you have similarly strong opinions on the existence of “women’s fiction” as a genre? Let me know!

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