Reading Workout: Books That Spark Conversation

Flex those literary muscles and expand your reading horizons by picking up a book that you might normally shy away from. That’s the theme of our reading workouts, where we challenge you to step outside your reading comfort zone.

This month we’re bringing books that will get you talking. From an up-ending of the ‘tragic’ trans-memoir to a meditation on what it means to lose your freedom, these books will challenge you to think differently about the world and make for perfect book club picks.

Liam recommends…

Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars by Kai Cheng Thom
(Metonymy Press, 9780994047137, p/b, £12.99)

Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars is the sort-of true coming-of-age story of a young Asian trans girl, pathological liar, and kung-fu expert who runs away from her parents’ abusive home in a rainy city called Gloom. Striking off on her own, she finds her true family in a group of larger-than-life trans femmes who live in a mysterious pleasure district known only as the Street of Miracles.

Under the wings of this fierce and fabulous flock, the protagonist blossoms into the woman she has always dreamed of being, with a little help from the unscrupulous Doctor Crocodile. When one of their number is brutally murdered, she joins her sisters in forming a vigilante gang to fight back against the transphobes, violent johns, and cops that stalk the Street of Miracles. But when things go terribly wrong, she must find the truth within herself in order to stop the violence and discover what it really means to grow up and find your family.

Or support your local bookstore.

The Red Word by Sarah Henstra
(Tramp Press, 9781999700874, p/b, £12.99)

When Ivy League university student Karen wakes up after a frat party on the lawn of a house of radical feminists, she gets a crash course in anti-frat activism on campus. One frat house, GBC, is especially notorious, with several brothers named on a list of date rapists by female students. Despite continuing to party at GBC and even dating one of the brothers, Karen is seduced by the intellectual stimulation and indomitable spirit of the Raghurst women. As she finds herself caught between two increasingly polarised camps, her feminist housemates believe they have hit on the perfect way to bring down the fraternity and expose rape culture… but the war between the houses will exact a terrible price.

Or support your local bookstore.

We Had No Rules by Corinne Manning
(Arsenal Pulp Press, 9781551527994, p/b, £13.99)

In Corinne Manning’s stunning debut story collection, a cast of queer characters explore the choice of assimilation over rebellion. In this historical moment that’s hyperaware of and desperate to define even the slowest of continental shifts, when commitment succumbs to the logic of capitalism and nobody knows what to call each other or themselves – Gay? Lesbian? Queer? Partners? Dad? – who are we? And if we don’t know who we are, what exactly can we offer each other? Spanning the years 1992 to 2019, and moving from New York to North Carolina to Seattle, the eleven first-person stories in We Had No Rules feature characters who feel the promise of a radically reimagined world but choose complicity instead.

Or support your local bookstore.

Eleanor recommends…

A More Perfect Union by Tammye Huf
(Myriad Editions, 9781912408979, p/b, £8.99)

This extraordinary debut novel follows the forbidden love story between a slave woman and an Irish immigrant in pre-Civil War America, and is inspired by the author’s great-great-grandparents. When Henry O’Toole escapes the Irish famine and sails to America, he doesn’t expect the anti-Irish prejudice that awaits him. Determined never to starve again, he changes his name to Henry Taylor to secure a job and safeguard his future. Travelling south to Virginia, he meets Sarah, a slave torn from her family and sold to another plantation. There she must navigate the power system of the white masters, as well as the hierarchy of her fellow slaves. Longlisted for the Jhalak Prize, A More Perfect Union has already accrued much acclaim, with The Times listing it among their Best Of Historical Fiction (“A fabulous debut… powerful and moving”), and BBC Radio 2’s Jo Whiley selecting it for her book club in late 2020.

Or support your local bookstore.

U Up? by Catie Disabato
(Melville House U.S., 9781612198910, p/b, £12.99)

A vivid, ultra-modern portrait of a young woman investigating her best friend’s disappearance while navigating codependent friendships, toxic exes, and witchy rituals. Eve has a carefully curated online life, works occasionally, and texts constantly with her best friend, Ezra. She also carries on a conversation with her friend Miggy, who died the year before, from beyond the grave. Everything falls apart when, on the anniversary of Miggy’s death, Ezra goes missing.

Her panic and anger over his disappearance lead her to a frantic weekend of investigation, scouring his social media and dredging up clues to a life he had kept hidden, which in turn causes her to question everything she thought she knew about him – and herself. This is a pitch-perfect look at the way we live now, always connected, always online, holding a mirror to the ways the phantom selves we create to live through on the Internet can escape their bounds and cause emotional havoc.

Or support your local bookstore.

Severance by Ling Ma
(Text Publishing, 9781922330642, p/b, £8.99)

This original, sharp, and moving debut was first published in 2018, which lends an uncanny prescience to Ma’s tale of Candace Chen, an office worker, who barely notices when a pandemic sweeps through Manhattan and the world. She joins a small group of survivors headed by the power-hungry Bob, who leads them to the Facility where, he promises, they will have everything they could ever need to start society anew. Candace, however, is carrying a secret that she can’t let Bob find out, and faces the decision of whether to escape from her rescuers. This send-up of the rituals of everyday life is simultaneously a moving family story, a deadpan satire, and a different experience to read now, in 2021.

Or support your local bookstore.

If anything you’ve read about on our blog catches your eye, consider ordering from your local bookshop. Find yours here. Alternatively, you can browse your favourite indies on

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