a lit-el forecast

(Title still under construction, I seem to be low on creativity at the moment, sorry)

1.16.21

A brief look back:

There have been a lot of gray, overcast days in my corner of the world so far this year, and it was very pleasant to see the sun come out for a little stretch this week. Unfortunately a blizzard hit right after that, but it wasn’t as bad as the last one and the power stayed on this time, so the winter weather isn’t managing to get me down. When the storm blew over and I went out to make sure all of the farm cats were still hanging around and doing okay (they have outbuildings to go into with heat lamps and everything), I found a stray gray stripey along with the regulars! I couldn’t get close enough to pet him (he looked like a tom based on size and shape)- hopefully the others told him this is a good place to be and invited him back. I wasn’t able to get a picture, unfortunately.

But I do have other pictures from The 365 to share this week: the sunny days I think are obvious, with a good manicure and a sourdough soft pretzel day thrown in to break up the weather fixation as well.

As for reading, I spent this week with:

  • We Keep the Dead Close by Becky Cooper – 5 stars. This was an incredible read. It begins as a true crime case of a long-unsolved murder at Harvard, but from there goes into a memoir-ish deep dive of gatekeeping and abuses of power in academia, with a focus on Harvard’s archeology department. I knew women and POC have historically been kept out of educational and career opportunities, but the recency of the anecdotes here is shocking. Cooper is also great at examining potential villains, building up a tense scene, and then if the lead doesn’t pan out she still manages to keep each thread interesting by exploring why the suspect is an appealing culprit and what that narrative achieves- it’s anthropological in a way that fits well with its subject matter. I’ll definitely have more to say about this one, and am aiming to do a paired review later in the month.
  • The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld – 4 stars. I didn’t quite finish this in time to post a review on Friday; it was off to a slow start for me, but I did get really into the second half and ended up loving a lot about this book. It’s set in Scotland, where a small island called Bass Rock overlooks centuries of femicide and sexism; the story follows three main perspectives, with a handful of additional small character vignettes peppered in as well. It’s a bit gothic and ominous in tone, with some ghosts and gaslighting and an awful picnic game thrown in to infuse every moment with potential violence. I’ll have more to say about this one too.
  • The Echo Wife by Sarah Gailey – ongoing. I’m 20% through this eARC now, still moving slowly but steadily through it and I think I’ll be picking up the pace now that I’m properly into the story. I’m finding the concept intriguing and I like the feminism involved, but I’m not enjoying the execution quite as much as the idea at this point.
  • One by One by Ruth Ware – ongoing. I just started this mystery/thriller, but it seems like it’ll be a fast read and as usual I’m finding Ware’s writing and atmosphere addictively readable. I’m not as big a Ware fan as I once was, but I expect this will be reliably entertaining if not groundbreaking. Final thoughts will be coming up in a compare/contrast post of wintery mystery/thrillers.

Posts from the week included:

Looking forward:

I’m aiming to finish three books this week: Ruth Ware’s One By One, followed by a return to my January TBR with David Heska Wanbli Weiden’s Winter Counts and then probably Charles Yu’s National Book Award winning Interior Chinatown.

I’m tentatively planning to complete and share these posts for the week:

  • a review of The Bass Rock
  • a wrap-up, ranking, and preferred shortlist for the Women’s Prize Squad longlist, which I’ve just completed(!) with The Bass Rock
  • my winter mystery/thrillers comparison featuring Lucy Foley’s The Hunting Party, Ruth Ware’s One by One, and David Heska Wanbli Weiden’s Winter Counts.

The Literary Elephant

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murder and magic in Mexico

Review: Hurricane Season by Fernanada Melchor, translated by Sophie Hughes

I wanted to read more translations this year, and starting out with a gutpunch like this has been both validation of that goal and further encouragement. Melchor’s first novel to appear in the English language and shortlisted for the International Booker Prize, Hurricane Season brings a whole lot to the table.

In the novel, the witch of La Matosa is dead. Evidence on the body points toward murder, prompting an investigation that reveals at every turn another layer of violence and trauma. The desperation of marginalized people in this small and unforgiving community breeds a self-perpetuating cycle of pain received and pain dealt- in this case, culminating in the untimely death of a social outcast who is, nonetheless, one of their own.

Trigger warnings are needed here for basically everything, from homophobia to bestiality to drug abuse to corporal punishment. If you can imagine it, it’s probably in this book. This is not a feel-good tale in any way, instead cloaked in horror and tragedy at every turn. But it is short- just over 200 pages- and if you can stomach the content, it’s well worth the read.

Divided into eight chapters that each bring a new perspective related in some way to the witch’s demise, the entire book is written in a sort of stream-of-consciousness style with sentences that go on and on and paragraphs that seem never to end. But the first chapter, just two pages long, gives the reader an easy introduction to the style and proves just how effectively Melchor (and Hughes) can pull the reader into this tale; it’s fast paced and sharp, the run-ons coming across not as a slog to wade through but rather as a headfirst pitch down a steep slope, a motion that once started cannot be stopped until the inevitable crash at the bottom. Here’s a passage I liked, to give you a better feel for the narrative voice than I could ever possibly articulate:

“The fucking cat didn’t move an inch when Brando raised a leg as if to kick him; it didn’t even bat an eyelid, although from its closed mouth came a vicious hiss that made Brando step back and glance over at the table for another knife. And just then the lights in the kitchen and all over the house went out, and it dawned on Brando that this furious creature, this beast hissing in the darkness was the devil himself, the devil incarnate, the devil who’d been following him all those years, the devil who had finally come to carry him to hell, and he understood too that if he didn’t run, if he didn’t escape from the house that very instant he’d be trapped with that grim beast in the darkness forever, and he leaped toward the door, pulled aside the bar, and pushed with all his might, falling flat on his face on the hard ground in the yard with the demon still growling in his ears.”

There’s an air of mystery to it all as the narrative unearths the witch’s fate a kernel at a time from each of the tangential characters, but this is not a whodunnit. Rather, the community’s tendency toward superstition (evidenced in the quote above) and the novel’s very balanced use of rumor and magic both as a cultural tradition and a mechanism for social critique is what fans the flame of mysteriousness here and drives the story forward. The village really does seem to see the witch and her plants and potions as a source of magic- it is not entirely metaphor, though the fear of the unknown and uncontrollable that typically drives such superstitions is also at the root of other issues explored here- sexism, homophobia, poverty, mental illness. It all comes together to perfect effect, the setting intricately intertwined with these characters and the plot that plays out between them.

It’s masterfully done, each character as interesting as the last and none of them what you’d first assume; Melchor has an impressive talent for laying her characters out first as others see them, then peeling back the veil of bias to provide a fuller view. The narrative circles the witch’s death by opening each new perspective in medias res, circling through their pertinent backstory before coming back to the witch. For such a clever, convoluted structure it’s shockingly easy to follow the flow, and hard to put down at any point- this is a book best read in as few sittings as possible, and because it is so layered, I imagine it would make for great rereads as well. I know I’ll certainly want to pick it up again.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. Hurricane Season felt to me simultaneously like a window to another world and a mirror through which I can glimpse a few dark truths that hit closer to home, all packed into one small package of searing prose. This is exactly how I wanted to start my reading year.

The Literary Elephant

on Mantel and Cromwell

Before 2020, the name Thomas Cromwell meant very little to me. My knowledge started and stopped with ‘advisor to Henry VIII,’ and all I knew about Henry VIII was ‘the one with all the wives and beheadings.’ I’ve not been particularly interested in the British monarchy until recently (I’ve also been watching The Crown this year) and I wasn’t following book prizes when Mantel won with the first two books in her Cromwell trilogy, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. But because I followed the prizes in 2020 and because many expected to see Mantel walk away with another win for her Cromwell finale, The Mirror and the Light, I decided to give this sweeping historical saga a go. Everyone seemed to be loving it! But alas, my own experience with these books was not quite as enthusiastic.

If you’re brand new to these books and avoiding all spoilers, you can safely read my thoughts on Wolf Hall; very mild spoilers will be included in discussions of the latter two volumes. However, this series is really more about the journey than the (well-known) historical events, so I don’t think reading all three reviews will ruin the read for anyone. Your choice though, of course! And a last note: it is best to read the books in order if you want to read them all, as they feature the same characters and build off of previous events and character dynamics.

Wolf Hall (Thomas Cromwell, #1)

In Wolf Hall, Thomas Cromwell serves Cardinal Wolsey, a powerful Catholic figure in England, a formal advisor and close friend to reigning King Henry VIII; Wolsey is in as high a position as any man other than the king could be, so long as he keeps the fickle ruler happy. Staying in the king’s good graces means bending the rules when they don’t fit Henry’s desires, though the Cardinal’s role within the church limits his ability to bend, particularly in the matter of the divorce Henry seeks from his first wife. Cromwell, Wolsey’s devoted right-hand man, is able to learn from his work with Wolsey how England’s hierarchy of power protects itself, with the help of legal trickery; this understanding makes him a prime candidate to serve the king as Wolsey falls out of favor. And hovering in the background, awaiting the king’s freedom from his marriage: Anne Boleyn.

“Beneath every history, another history.”

Wolf Hall was hard for me to get into. It’s slow, dense, and sprawling, and for someone without much idea of the specific history, the tension of the novel felt uneven to me, without a clear sense of what the threat actually was or where the narrative was headed. The cast is huge, and even Mantel acknowledges that far too many of the characters are named Thomas; instead of delivering nicknames or using distinguishing features or some other narrative trick to help readers differentiate, Mantel seems content to leave the reader to puzzle out who is who with only context to go by. There is a list of characters, but I found the accompanying definitions for each name too sparse to be of much help in remembering who’s been involved in what, and on which side. Furthermore, Mantel often elects to refer to Cromwell often simply as ‘he,’ as though he is god, perhaps; it’s an interesting characterization tactic that forces Cromwell always into the center of the tale, but I found it confusing, having spent my reading life learning that pronouns generally refer to the last person named, which does not hold true here.

“He hears her calling, Thomas, Thomas… It is a name that will bring half the house out, tumbling from their bedside prayers, from their very beds; yes, are you looking for me?”

But despite being a tedious read for me, I’d be lying to say that I found Wolf Hall unimpressive. It is intricately layered and detailed, the harshness and beauty of this world writ large. Cromwell- and most everyone else- feels well enough imagined that it seems he could walk straight out of the pages. It may be a book I appreciated more after closing the cover than while reading, but once I understood its direction and purpose I did appreciate how deftly Mantel illustrated the turning tide, the gradual shift of politics that would end lives and utterly change England. The years of this novel are a portent of what’s to come, and they are milestones in themselves, for the monarchy, for law, for Christianity.

I suppose my main complaint of this book is that Cromwell is not himself much of a key player, this story is in many ways happening to him here rather than at his own hands; these are the events that set his prosperous career with the king in motion, and yet this is largely Wolsey’s story, viewed from a distance. It is nonetheless a story worth reading.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. This is not a book I would have bestowed with a literary prize, but it is a very promising start to what is clearly a remarkable series. I can’t even imagine how much research must go into a book like this, and it has my respect for that reason even if I didn’t love the read quite as much as I expected, based on the immense hype.

Bring Up the Bodies

In Bring Up the Bodies, Henry VIII has broken with Wolsey and with the Catholic church. Rather than a cardinal at his side, Henry has instead a lawyer, one who is able to angle the law to give the king what he wants: that man is Thomas Cromwell. Unfortunately, what the king wants continues to change. He grows tired of Anne Boleyn and has his eye instead on a new prospective bride. Can Cromwell succeed where Wolsey failed, finding a way to free Henry from his second marriage to make way for a third?

“He has always rated Anne highly as a strategist. He has never believed in her as a passionate, spontaneous woman. Everything she does is calculated, like everything he does. He notes, as he has these many years, the careful deployment of her flashing eyes. He wonders what it would take to make her panic.”

This second installment was an improvement for me. Instead of spanning years, it focuses on about two weeks of Cromwell’s life, and rather than sowing slow seeds of discord it narrows in on one particular problem, which swiftly ends with a dramatic event. The cast shifts a little, but most of the prominent characters are repeated, and Cromwell’s tendency to reflect on his past makes this story easier to sink into from the start.

Furthermore, Cromwell’s characterization soars to new heights here. The entire world and cast is still impeccably detailed, but Cromwell in particular is in fine form. He’s got agency, and he’s on the rise; up and up and up the ranks he goes, and no one is closer to the king. He is crafty and quick, and he is reaping the rewards. But he is also at a moral crossroads. Cromwell is now in a position to destroy the king’s enemies; when backed into the same corner as Wolsey, Cromwell must choose whether to push ahead, damn the consequences. The events of this volume will haunt him, and yet he will gain further favor for them with the king. He is doing both the right thing and the wrong thing at once, and because Cromwell does nothing in halves, he manages to destroy a few of his own enemies along the way.

It’s a complex and horrifying story brimming with death, and perhaps the most unsettling thing about it is that it feels inevitable. It doesn’t matter whether Cromwell is a good or bad person, and indeed it is hard to tell here how black his heart really is- the position that he is in gives him no choice but to dirty his hands for the king, or lose everything. He has already seen Wolsey, his true master, lose. But Wolsey had to listen to the Pope, and Cromwell would rather see religion put into the hands of the people, with the printing of an English Bible, than continue to give Rome that authority. He is, in many ways, a perfect match for the king, though it is necessarily a difficult, delicate relationship.

“‘It was a bad moment for me. How many men can say, as I must, “I am a man whose only friend is the King of England”? I have everything, you would think. And yet take Henry away and I have nothing.'”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This sequel, while slightly shorter and more compact than its predecessor, was still somewhat too long and dense for my personal interest level in Cromwell et al; this seems like a good time to remind readers that I rate based on my own enjoyment/appreciation rather than objective merit (if such a thing can be said to exist in any art form). This is the one I would’ve happily given awards to, if that had in any way been my choice!

The Mirror & The Light (Thomas Cromwell, #3)

In The Mirror and the Light, Cromwell is reaching the end of his rope. The unfortunate demise of Henry’s beloved third wife is a blow for England, and as foreign allegiances shift against Henry and his blatant disregard for Catholicism, it puts Cromwell in the tough position of needing to find Henry a new bride that will bring allies for England. Further complicating matters, rumors against Cromwell inspire civil unrest, several prospects vie for the throne and expect Cromwell’s help to get there, and Cromwell’s own religious and political interests become entangled with his advise to the king, limiting Cromwell’s viable paths forward much as Catholicism limited Wolsey. A misstep is all it will take for everything Cromwell has built to come crumbling down.

“This is what Henry does. He uses people up. He takes all they give him and more. When he is finished with them he is noisier and fatter and they are husks or corpses.”

In case history (and Mantel’s previous work in this series) has not made it clear, even the synopsis tells the reader straight out that The Mirror and the Light will follow Cromwell through his final years- and so we know what is coming at the end of this tale, and if we know anything about Henry VIII at this point, it is that those who lose his favor do not meet pretty ends. The gradual downward slope of things gone wrong builds a wonderful hold-your-breath tension here; as in Wolf Hall I found the wider scope of years and events to be a bit too long and meandering for real cohesion, though having a better sense of what the narrative was working toward this time around did make it a better reading experience for me than Wolf Hall, even if not as tight and sharp as Bring Up the Bodies.

“‘I am in awe of myself,’ he says. ‘I never know what I will do next.'”

For prose, I would probably say that The Mirror and the Light is Mantel at her best. She is in full command here, her writing insightful, poetic, measured. We even get ‘he, Cromwell’ usage here in place of the all-confusing ‘he,’ which is a vast improvement in clarity. But she makes one particular move with language that just didn’t work for me: repetition. Even in the first book, Cromwell was in the habit of recalling his past and reflecting on changes that have come into his life, but here Mantel recounts whole scenes, interrupting the flow of the “present” to remind the reader where Cromwell stood in the past. Perhaps because I read this volume immediately after the second book rather than years after it, as more loyal fans who’ve kept up with her publications will have done, I found the continual dredging up of moments already covered to be too much padding in an overly long tome. I can see the method working better for other readers: the laying of two images side by side for stark comparison, but for me I found the constant reminders insulting to my memory of the character. No one is picking up The Mirror and the Light without having read books one and two, are they? Mantel’s working of small observances into the story that turn out later to have been clues woven subtly into the plot are far more to her credit, showcasing a mastery of detail and timing that Cromwell’s clumsier dips into memory lack. I would also exclude the memories that reveal new insight from this criticism, though I found these to be few.

There was one other choice made in the narration of this story that didn’t quite suit me: the final characterization of Cromwell, the tone that the book’s last chapters end on. What I’ve loved most about this trilogy is the moral complexity, the sense that Cromwell has simply been a cog in a machine ever rolling forward, destined to follow the dark path he is set upon by the royal figure who for all intents and purposes cannot be blamed (at least not by his contemporaries) for the wrongdoing he incites. But The Mirror and the Light, in my opinion, undoes that somewhat, asking the reader to see Cromwell as good, as sympathetic, and sadly lost in the end- drawing on his love for his wife and daughters, his devotion to keeping promises, his penchant for helping poor folk who are down on their luck. There’s an air of martyrdom infused in the way this book approaches the death of Cromwell, accused of a crime that evidence must be invented for in order to secure a conviction; while I don’t know enough about the real history of Cromwell to argue against the authenticity of this bid for pity, and of course he would have been as human as any of the rest of us, this choice of characterization just wasn’t what I was looking for from this read. I was much more drawn into the earlier painting of Cromwell as a sort of necessary villain. The martyr bit has already been done with Wolsey, and I was hoping to see Mantel take Cromwell’s peril to new heights.

“He has lived by the laws he has made and must be content to die by them. But the law is not an instrument to find out truth. It is there to create a fiction that will help us move past atrocious acts and face our future. It seems there is no mercy in this world, but a kind of haphazard justice: men pay for crimes, but not necessarily their own.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I think Mantel may have fallen victim here to a fear of leaving anything good out, at the cost of including more than necessary. But nevertheless, and in spite of my quibbles, I was rapt from cover to cover, finished the book feeling haunted by Cromwell, and am walking away far more aware of and piqued by this chapter of history than I ever have been, which I have to call a resounding win.

If you’re still with me, thank you; having read over 2,000 pages in order to write this post I’m letting myself indulge a bit (which is perhaps how Mantel felt, having obviously waded through massive amounts of research to bring us this trilogy).

Because I read The Mirror and the Light primarily in relation to the book prizes I followed this year, I’d like to wrap up with some final prize-related thoughts.

As regards the 2020 Women’s Prize: The Mirror and the Light was both longlisted and shortlisted for this year’s prize, and I stand by that. In my longlist wrap-up earlier this year, I ranked the 15 books I’d read; having now read all 16, I’d say that Mantel ranks 6th on the list for me, near the bottom of my 4-star reads from the longlist. In that spot, I don’t have any complaints about how far The Mirror and the Light went with the WP. And, though I know it’ll upset a few of my followers to hear it, I’m still happy with Hamnet taking the win over Mirror even now that I can properly compare the both- Hamnet managed to excite me more. But Mantel does have one major thing going for her with Mirror– this is the only WP nominee from the 2020 longlist that isn’t primarily focused on motherhood and family. Gold star. This year’s list was in desperate need of more variety, and Mantel should be commended for providing that.

Oh, and just for fun, my WP wrap-up included a few quotes from longlisted nominees that felt eerily timely given this year’s pandemic, and I’d like to add a snippet from Mirror to that list:

“But now there are rumors of plague and sweating sickness. It is not wise to allow crowds in the street, or pack bodies into indoor spaces.”

As regards the 2020 Booker Prize: Mirror was longlisted but not shortlisted for the Booker prize, much to everyone’s shock after Mantel’s previous Booker wins with Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. To be honest I’m also shocked this volume was excluded from this year’s shortlist; it is, in my opinion, a stronger offering than Wolf Hall, and if not quite as impressive for me as Bring Up the Bodies, Mirror did, in my opinion, deserve a spot on this year’s shortlist. It would’ve ranked 3rd on the shortlist for me, and 5th on the longlist. I found this year’s Booker winner, Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain, more immediately engaging and enjoyable to read, so I don’t begrudge Stuart his win and wouldn’t necessarily have wanted Mantel to take that slot instead, but in all fairness I’m sure Mirror will live on in my memory much longer than Shuggie, so it certainly rates right up there for me.

In conclusion, Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy was a somewhat ponderous and trying reading experience for me, but ultimately a journey I’m glad I’ve taken and would not hesitate to recommend to history buffs and anyone interested in character-driven political dramas. It’s an incredible collection of work, and Mantel’s dedication to doing the subject justice and inciting curiosity in a shady long-dead figure is plain on every page. Though the trilogy requires some patience, it is, truly, a masterpiece.

The Literary Elephant

a lit-el forecast

(It’s a title in progress. Lit-el for Literary Elephant, meant to be read as ‘little’ since there’ll be a new one every week… is it working? Too weird? Please weigh in.)

1.9.21

Commencing: the first of my weekly wrap-up/look-aheads for 2021! I’ll have no monthly wrap-ups for the duration of this experiment, though I will be working my monthly 5-book TBR lists and a few monthly reading stats into the appropriate forecasts.

First up, a brief look back, and for this first post I’m looking all the way back to the 1st of January. I was lucky enough to ring in the new year with a good friend (appropriate isolation before and after did occur/is occurring) and 2021 was off to a good start for me. Was, of course, until the insurrectionist coup on the US Capitol building on the 6th. If you ever wonder why I’m not more openly political here or across social media, it’s because I’m living in proximity with family members who get excited about things like alt-right riots, and trying to correct their bad opinions is a constant, draining effort in itself. It’s been a rough few days, and as a cishet white person far from any metropolis I’m one of the lucky ones. (Please no pity/worry, I’m fine, help those who need it more than I do.) Black lives matter. Wear your mask. Donate as often as you can. Let’s hope Biden and Harris make it safely into office this month and that the year will get better from here.

One thing I’m doing to help keep a more positive/coping mindset this year is a photography project. It’s lowkey, and really more of a mindfulness project; the idea is to take a photo every day of something that makes me smile, makes me think, or somehow brings a little light into my life, so that when things look grim I have something pleasant to reference. In that spirit, I now have an album titled ‘The 365’ that one photo goes into every day.

Here are the first 8 (I won’t add today’s to the album until night, so that I can choose from whatever photographable moments arise throughout the day), with a bonus of the new year’s spread my friend put together on the 31st; I contributed some great sourdough soft pretzels but we ate them before I remembered to take the picture, sorry. They’ll probably appear before long though, they’ve been a big hit!

As you can see, I won’t be winning any photography awards, and maybe no one but me cares to see when I have a good mail day or put together a jigsaw puzzle or find a great-smelling bath bomb (the last photo- it did not dissolve impressively enough to photograph the fizz but smelled AMAZINGLY fruity). My life really isn’t that interesting, sorry. But it’s my life, and I thought this might be an interesting way to share a bit more of it. We’ll see what the year brings.

Because I pushed harder on reading and blogging in December than usual, I’ve let myself have a slow week, book-wise. I’ve been reading:

  • The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley – 4 stars. This new year’s thriller was not nearly as tense as I expected from an atmospheric closed-room whodunnit, but I did find it very enjoyable to read. I have a couple of other winter mystery/thrillers on my list for January so I’m tentatively planning to post about all of them at once, maybe looking more broadly at the appeal of snowy thrills and doing a comparison between the books of what works or doesn’t?
  • Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor, translated by Sophie Hughes – 5 stars. This is a BRILLIANT little book drawing on superstition and rumor within the community of a small Mexican village; it opens with the sudden death of ‘the Witch,’ and from there circles through several different perspectives, each opening the situation further to reveal deeper layers of casual violence and pain. The two books are different, of course, but I think fans of Anna Burns’s Milkman will love this one (and find Melchor’s style more accessible). I’ll write a full review soon.
  • We Keep the Dead Close by Becky Cooper – ongoing. I started this true crime account of an infamous murder at Harvard yesterday, and already I’m HOOKED. I’ve just had the idea to read Lacy Crawford’s Notes on a Silencing soon, to review alongside this one in a post about traumas covered up by prestigious schools? I’ll have to look at the two a little closer and see if I can work Notes on a Silencing into my reading schedule in a timely manner before guaranteeing this will happen, but it’s a thought. I’m hoping that as I figure out the direction I want my review-posts-on-a-slant to go this year that planning ahead will get easier. Until then, I guess weekly forecasts will be my sounding board, so let me know what sounds good or doesn’t.
  • The Echo Wife by Sarah Gailey – ongoing. I’ve got an eARC from Netgalley (my first!); I don’t really prefer reading on a screen (and I only have my phone, not proper ereader/tablet) so this is a bit of an adjustment for me, but something fun I want to try for 2021. I’ve been reading a chapter or two here and there, only about 13% through so far, but things are getting interesting.

My posts from the last week include:

And lastly, in other bookish news, I started an StoryGraph account on… the 3rd? I’m not planning to quit Goodreads altogether yet, but I’d like to support a book site not run by Amazon, so the new year seemed like a good time to give the StoryGraph a go. You can find me there @ literaryelephant if you’d like! My account is a work in progress (I’ve done nothing beyond import my Goodreads library and add a profile pic so far) but I will be working on getting everything up to date over there and look forward to learning my way around the site. The stats they offer are such fun!

Looking forward:

This week I’m aiming to finish at least two books: We Keep the Dead Close and another of my library checkouts, either Ruth Ware’s One by One or Evie Wyld’s The Bass Rock. These will be my next reads, to accommodate due dates, and then I’ll be back to my January TBR (but now I’m getting ahead of myself, I doubt I’ll finish more than 2 or possibly 3 books within the next week). I’ll also keep working on The Echo Wife, but so far I’ve been reading it while eating breakfast so it might take a little while, lol.

As for posts, I’m aiming to have my final thoughts on Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy coming up on Monday, a review of Hurricane Season probably on Wednesday, and, if I read The Bass Rock next, possibly a review of that by Friday. That’s a lot of reviews, for wanting to move away from individual reviews of everything, but it’s a process. I’ll stick to Saturdays for my LitEl forecasts, and I expect they won’t be so long once I don’t have to introduce their features… I want these to be just casual check-in posts, ideally.

Is this something I should continue? Anything you want to share about your own week? Let’s chat!

The Literary Elephant

2020 Reading Wrap-Up

In 2020 I read a total of 103 books, beating my goal of 100 in the final weeks of December successfully but without much surplus. It’s the smallest total I’ve had since 2016, but it’s also the first time since 2015 that my total has taken a dip at all from the year before instead of increasing. We all know 2020 has been… a whole year, so I don’t think I need to explain why I’ve had some significant reading slumps in 2020 unlike anything I’ve experienced in years.

I’ve addressed in this post the 2020 goals that I’ve met and failed, and my plans for 2021.

I adopted monthly 5-book TBRs in 2020, of which I managed to complete 54/60 reads.

Titles still outstanding (to be read in 2021):

  • The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel
  • The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins
  • Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge
  • Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngoze Adichie
  • An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir
  • House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

I took part in a couple of personal bookish ‘projects’ in 2020 worth mentioning:

I read the entire Women’s Prize longlist, which was incredibly disappointing but nonetheless I enjoyed chatting with friends new and old about all of the books. I still have a review of Mantel’s longlisted The Mirror and The Light forthcoming, but I did manage to complete it before the end of the year, which was an exciting victory! The Women’s Prize has been further lowered in my esteem, however, by an unfortunate ruling a few months ago that allows only ‘legal women’ to compete for the prize, thus making it even harder for gender noncomforming writers to receive prize recognition and wide readership for their work. For this reason I’m less confident about continuing to follow the prize in the future.

It was a rough round for me with the Booker Prize as well; by the end of the year I capped off my journey through the Booker longlist with 11 books read out of the ‘Booker dozen’ of 13 (again, thoughts on The Mirror and the Light are still forthcoming). This experience was even worse overall, partially because I had such lukewarm responses to most of the nominated books that I read, and partially because it was a busier time of year for me so I wasn’t able to connect with other readers as much to talk about the books, which dampened my enjoyment further.

But a group of blogging friends and I teamed up to create an alternate Women’s Prize longlist this year, the Women’s Prize Squad longlist. I managed to read all but one of our 16 books before the end of the year, had great experiences with ALL of them, and will have an update post coming later this month featuring longlist final thoughts and which way my votes will lean for our upcoming shortlist!

2020 was also the year of a new blogging project for me- I started a Spotlight series focused on genre, and by the end of the year I managed to complete 11 of my 12 planned posts (my classics spotlight is still forthcoming), which generated some great discussions about why we read what we read and how we classify books. They’re also a sort of catalog back through my own eclectic history with reading, so I know I’ll enjoy looking back on these posts after some time has passed and seeing how my reading continues to grow and change. I may also expand the series to cover more genres in the future. If you’re interested in checking out any of these posts, I’ll link here the genres/categories I’ve covered so far: science fiction, romance, historical fiction, literary fiction, fantasy, mystery, thrillers, translated literature, nonfiction, YA, and horror.

Something I started focusing on more earnestly about halfway through the year, thanks to national and world events, was to increase my purchasing, reading, and reviewing of books by Black authors. I want to seriously increase the amount of diversity in my reading going forward but decided to pay particular attention to Black-authored books for 2020, and ended up reading and reviewing 22 books to fit this goal, with additional titles bought and as yet unread that I’m excited to read going forward.

Throughout the year I read primarily but not exclusively US settings; I’d like to work more on branching out in the future, as reading a lot from my home country is typical and once again comprised around half of my reading. But I do think that this year more of my US-based reading involved criticisms of the status quo and featured marginalized characters, which I think is a more thoughtful and valuable consumption than some US-based reading I’ve done in the past. And I have been making more concerted efforts to read books by authors who’ve lived in or had some significant experience with the countries they’re writing about than I have in the past, the one exception this year being Women’s Prize longlisted Girl by Edna O’Brien, a Nigeria-set book by an Irish writer that did feel unsettlingly like an author looking in on someone else’s pain.

I read 82 books by women (including three translations, two of which were also translated by women), 19 books by men, 2 books by an author who identifies as non-binary (yes, the same author twice), and no collections, anthologies, or collaborations from multiple authors. I do want to work on increasing my trans and non-binary author reading representation, but even these 2 books in 2020 are an increase from last year’s zero, so I’m (slowly) moving in the right direction. If you know of any great trans or non-binary-authored books (especially but not limited to fiction) feel free to mention them in the comments below!

It’s typical for me to read mostly books by women, but notable that 2020’s ratio skews about 15% higher toward women authors than it did last year. (Worth noting that I’m counting each individual book, not each individual author, some of which I’ve read more than one book from in all three of these categories.)

I read 88 adult books, 12 YA books, 1 middle grade book, and 2 books appropriate for any reading age. It’s typical for me to read mostly adult books, but my YA reading has increased from last year, partially because of a few Sarah Dessen rereads- the five Dessen novels I reread this fall marked my only rereads of the year, which is more rereads than I’ve had in other recent years but it is typical for my rereads to be YA books.

I read 31 debuts this year (though they weren’t all 2020 debuts); including that number I read 74 total books from new-to-me authors. Thus, only 29 of my reads this year came from authors whose work I’d read before.

I participated in 10 buddy and/or group reads in 2020, which was a record high for me and an all-around enjoyable experience! These partnerings included John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies with Gil, Her Body and Other Parties with Donna, A Crime in the Neighborhood with the Women’s Prize Squad (or more specifically Sarah, in this case!), and a month-long trek through The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor led by Melanie, among other reads.

My ratings this year included 20 5-stars, 41 4-stars, 33 3-stars, 8 2-stars, and 1 unrated read (Stephenie Meyer’s Midnight Sun). This is a pretty typical ratio for me; I’ve rounded up my favorite and almost-favorite reads of the year from my most memorable 4- and 5- star reads, and because I didn’t get around to a ‘disappointing reads’ list this year I’ll round up my 2-star titles here in case you’re in need of a rant review to peruse:

My genre reading was, as usual, all across the board. I decided at the beginning of the year to select one (the most prominent, ideally) genre under which to mark each book I read, so the percentages here are accurate to my 103 books read, though I’ve already decided for 2021 to mark all applicable genres for each book, which I think might feel more accurate to overall genre representation- I tend to enjoy and reach for genre-benders!

My literary fiction percentage looks a bit low this year, but I think while only choosing one category for each book I’ve had to be choosier and some titles that were perhaps literary have been categorized according to their other elements (like fabulism or historical fiction, the latter of which does seem much inflated this year). Also, I’ve lumped anything that just didn’t feel accomplished enough to call literary in the contemporary column (also inflated), including some of this year’s prize nominees which did not seem to play with structure or form in a way that I would classify as literary, though other readers might. And I’ve divided my nonfiction reading into proper genres this year; true crime, history, essays, medical, memoir, and guidebook percentages below were all parts of my nonfiction reading this year, for an overall 10% of my reading, a bit higher than I was expecting.

I read largely books published this year and last, with 37 titles newly released in 2020 and 34 from 2019, making up well over half of my reading. Additionally I read 17 other books from the last decade (between 2010 and 2018), 5 books from the decade before (2000-2009), 4 books from the 90’s, 5 books from earlier in the 20th century (1900-1989), and 1 book from the 19th century. I’ve been trending toward newer books for a few years now, and this year’s stats indicate I’m reading even more recent work than last year.

As for where my books came from, I read an unprecedented amount of books from my own shelves this year, as my local library was closed for a few months and I’ve limited how often I go out for anything at all even now that it’s opened up again. Unfortunately, I also bought way more books than I should have this year; I’m not going to count up my total haul because it will just depress me as far as undoing the impressive dent I could’ve made in my own-unread TBR this year.

I read 75 books from my own shelves this year, 27 books borrowed from the library, no books borrowed from family or friends, and 1 eARC.

Of the books I read from my own shelves, just 30 were titles I owned prior to 2020, while 45 were newly purchased/acquired in 2020 (this includes a reread of a book I originally read from the library and purchased my own copy of this year). Unfortunately no, the 45 new books I read were not the only new books I bought and I’m pretty sure I haven’t actually decreased my TBR at all, in fact probably the opposite. Let’s not talk about that, it was a hard year.

And as long as we’re talking about what I’ve acquired and read (or not) this year, I want to take this opportunity to wrap up my year with Book of the Month. In case you don’t know, BOTM is a US-based subscription service (only delivering within the US for now, though they’ve made a few comments about working toward changing this in the future) from which members can choose month-by-month payments or opt for yearly renewal. I joined BOTM in 2017 and have since that time been renewing yearly (it’s slightly cheaper in the long run).

2020 started particularly rocky with BOTM because it seemed there were a lot of thrillers, romances, and the kind of book-clubbish contemporary and historical fiction titles that just doesn’t really grab me. I was having a hard time choosing from among selections that just didn’t seem to fit my reading taste. But then, three months before I ran out of credits, my yearly subscription automatically renewed. This was my first year with BOTM that renewal was manditorily automatic, and one of my biggest complaints this year was not getting any warning that their renewal policy had changed and that they were about to take a chunk of money out of my account in coordination with my last renewal instead of when I ran out of credits (I’ve been manually renewing when I run out of credits, which can take slightly more than a year if I skip a couple of boxes).

To make matters worse, this was in early May or so, just before BOTM was getting a lot of backlash for their lack of diversity. I had to consider whether this was a company I still wanted to be involved with at all, and while a horde of members cancelled their subscriptions I decided to give it one more month to decide whether backing out entirely was the right move for me. In that time, they shared a great response post to the criticisms they were receiving, with actionable plans for future changes, so I remained cautiously optimistic. I posted a little about the mid-year BOTM controversy here, in case you missed that and want to read more.

In the end, I am glad I stayed with BOTM, and I’ve been happier with the company these last six months than I have been in any of my other years with this service. I have no idea how the situation with deleting comments from a Black Instagrammer turned out; I’m cautiously hoping that a genuine mistake was made, and/or a private apology was issued- all I know is that the complaints abruptly stopped, which seemed to me to indicate some sort of resolution. And BOTM has indeed been more diverse in their selections, as well as somewhat less commercial. Every month since June, their selections have included at least one (and often three or more) book(s) that I’m really excited to read and happy to be able to grab with BOTM’s cheaper pricing.

Since June, every month’s selections have included 2-4 (out of 5) BIPOC authors for the main selections, and more in ‘extras’ each month as well. A Black author won the Book of the Year title, and another made the top 5 nominees. There are still the token romances and thrillers, but even these have been less whitewashed lately.

I wouldn’t say BOTM is perfect yet, but they are looking much more like a subscription service I’m happy to support; there’s something to be said for making the effort toward positive change while being closely scrutinized and criticized. I heard of a lot of people quitting their BOTM subscriptions in May- some in protest at the lack of diversity (prior to June, BOTM tended to include only 1 BIPOC author out of 5 selections), and some (if the bookstagram comments are to be believed) who argued that BOTM would lean toward focusing on author skin color over the quality of the books. *eye roll* The quality of the selections has improved apace with the increased diversity, imo. BOTM is in a perfect position, being so commercially popular, to help introduce more marginalized authors in all genres to a wider readership, and it’s worth celebrating that they’ve headed in this direction these last few months, I think.

Additionally, it’s been fun taking part in BOTM’s inaugural reading challenge this year (in which I received two badges and missed the third by only half of a book), and I’m pleased to report they seem to have finally adopted some fancy effects (namely, gold foil) for a few of their covers! Any improvement in quality is nice to see.

For the books, here are the BOTM selections I’ve picked up throughout 2020 (mostly in the order I acquired them, except for three on the far left which were 2019 selections that I added to 2020 boxes):

And here are the BOTM selections I actually managed to read this year, some from 2020 and a few from previous years that I’d not gotten around to reading before, shown in the order that I read them:

All right, I think I’ve touched on everything bookish that I wanted to (shoutout to my New York City trip back in early March, my one non-bookish highlight of the year); this post is long enough already, so I think it’s (FINALLY) time to say au revoir to 2020!

The Literary Elephant

wrap-up 12.20 + TBR 1.21

I’m still gathering my stats and drafting my reading year wrap-up post for 2020, but in the meantime here’s a look at how the last month of the year went for me. I started with an impossible goal of catching up on 18 books from various TBRs throughout the year, and as expected, didn’t quite make it, though I’m happy with the progress I made!

This was my final monthly TBR of the year:

I had a great victory in the end, and one frustrating loss; first, with much dogged determination, I did finally finish Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy! I managed to fit both Bring Up the Bodies and The Mirror and the Light into my December reading schedule, reading a little bit of the series almost every day of the month. But my other big goal, to complete the BOTM reading challenge, I ended up missing by half of a book- I finished The Hunting Party in the new year. I didn’t realize when I was setting this goal that BOTM was actually sending free candles out as a reward to readers who completed the challenge, but now I know I missed out on that. No big deal really, but all the more irksome for the fact that I had actually read more than 12 BOTM books in 2020 (the only challenge category I missed), they just weren’t counting backlist titles toward the challenge. Fortunately they do seem to be counting backlist books toward the 2021 challenge (having already accepted The Hunting Party for me), and with my goal of catching up on my BOTM stack this year I expect I’ll complete the challenge early this next time around!

Here’s the full rundown on what I finished reading last month:

  1. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara – 5 stars. A captivating and tragic true crime narrative about the Golden State Killer. It’s been a little while since I’ve read true crime but I was quickly swept up in this one, with its careful attention to detail and thoughtful presentation of crimes in a way that doesn’t glorify the criminal. I’m eager to watch the corresponding documentary series.
  2. Girl Made of Stars by Ashley Herring Blake – 5 stars. Contemporary YA following a teenage twin whose brother has been accused by her friend / his girlfriend of rape. This is one of the most nuanced and deftly delivered YA novels I’ve ever read on this topic, or on any topic, really. It’s a very character-driven story with a heavy focus on trauma and morality, and a great read even as an adult.
  3. Everything Leads to You by Nina LaCour – 3 stars. A sapphic YA contemporary romance that’s glamorous (set in LA and focused on film-making) and sweet; I can see why readers like Nina LaCour’s writing and stories, and as a teen this might have worked better for me, but this just was not the right fit for me as an adult. I prefer my novels (especially YA) a bit more hard-hitting and gritty rather than escapist and heartwarming. *shrugs*
  4. Life and Death by Stephenie Meyer – 2 stars. This tenth-anniversary gender-swapped edition of Twilight is a total flop. My review turned out as more of a rant, and writing it was the most enjoyment I got out of this whole experience. The main problem is that Meyer changes enough behavioral details along with the character pronouns that she doesn’t escape any of the Twilight sexism she argues that this story is meant to combat.
  5. Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel – 4 stars. This second volume in Mantel’s acclaimed Cromwell trilogy is a bit shorter than Wolf Hall and more condensed: it follows just a couple of weeks of Cromwell’s life, focusing primarily on one looming event, and this degree of narrowing in really helped boost my enjoyment after a lukewarm response to the more meandering Wolf Hall. Cromwell’s struggles with morality and ambition reach some great levels of tension at last. Series review coming soon.
  6. The Butterfly Garden by Dot Hutchison – 4 stars. A horror presented as a mystery, though the driving force of the novel is not any burning question about what happened or who did it or why, but rather a long string of traumas recounted retrospectively along the way. I wasn’t entirely sold on the structure of the book or its ending, but found it a compelling read on the whole with some solid commentary on physical and psychological trauma.
  7. The Deep by Alma Katsu – 3 stars. Marketed as Titanic horror, I found this novel instead more of a YA-friendly historical fiction with mystery and supernatural elements; there’s some light ghost content, social commentary that doesn’t really go anywhere, and a monster presented with none of the lore to anchor her. My preexisting interest in Titanic helped me through; it’s not a bad book, but not dark or sharp either, and in the end I’d recommend it to an altogether different audience than the jacket copy seems to suggest.
  8. A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley – 4 stars. A short story collection that offers a very balanced look at the relationships of Black children and their fathers, and the devastating effects of that relationship being broken. That Black men are so often divided from their families for one reason or another was not an issue very high on my radar but Brinkley examines it with depth and subtlety and the lessons I’ve learned here will stick with me.
  9. Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi – 5 stars. A beautiful and heartbreaking look at a Ghanaian American family- the father driven back to his home land as a result of racism, the son dead young at the hands of addiction, the mother a victim of deep depression, and the daughter a neuroscientist just trying to make sense of the uncontrolled behaviors of her family and their tragic affects. There’s not a lot of plot to this one, but the narrative voice is exquisite and the protagonist’s interior struggles alone are worth reading for.
  10. Memorial by Bryan Washington – 4 stars. A contemporary novel following the relationship between two gay men and their respective families, as one travels back to Osaka to care for his dying father. This is a quick read highlighting the intersections of culture in modern life and the struggles of marginalized people in America. Washington is fantastic with detail and characterization.
  11. The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel – 4 stars. The finale to Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy; though this volume looses the close focus I loved in book 2, it keeps the dedicated attention to characterization as it wanders through the last few years of Cromwell’s life. It’s expansive, it’s tense in places, it’s incredibly layered and obviously well-researched, but I still found it hard to stay engaged this long and grew tired of Mantel’s tendency toward repetition. I can see why readers are calling this book a masterpiece, and I do think Mantel’s rendering of this history is worth reading, but I have some conflicted thoughts about the reading experience. Again, series review coming soon.

Not quite the best-case-scenario of 18 books that I was hoping for, but I read over 4,100 words in December, the most I’ve read in any month all year, and I’m really pleased with how much I did get through. The Mirror and the Light alone was 875 pages, and finishing it at last on the 30th was so exciting that I’m completely ready to let the rest go for now. I am using the second half of my 2020 bullet journal for 2021 so I expect I’ll still have those uncompleted TBR books lingering on my radar going forward, and I’d like to finish those last six books in the new year.

Some stats:

Average rating – 3.9

Best of month – Transcendent Kingdom

Owned books read for the first time – 11. No library checkouts or borrowed books or eARCs at all this month. Even so, with Christmas in there, I added more books to my physical TBR than I read (this includes a box set though, and even counting each book in the set individually I really wasn’t too far off!).

Year total – 103. I met my reading goal of 100 books for the year!

Additional posts this month:

And something I want to try this year is combining my wrap-ups and TBRs into a single post each month, so I’ll end here by sharing what’s on the top of my January stack:

  1. Outlawed by Anna North – An LGBTQ+ Western in which a woman who has trouble getting pregnant joins a gang of outcasts who run heists and endeavor to carve a space for those that their society doesn’t accept. I’m aiming to catch up with as many of my BOTM titles as I can in 2021, and part of that goal means keeping up with new books I’m adding to the stack; this is one of BOTM’s January selections.
  2. Winter Counts by David Heska Wanbli Weiden – “A groundbreaking thriller about a vigilante on a Native American reservation who embarks on a dangerous mission to track down the source of a heroin influx.” A backlist BOTM title to keep the ball rolling, and it’s got winter in the title, so it feels seasonally appropriate. I’ve got a few other winter-y books on hand as well if I can find the time to fit them in!
  3. Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu – 2020’s National Book Award winner for fiction, featuring a man who views himself as generically Asian; he’s got a small role in a procedural cop show, but stumbles into his dream of becoming Kung Fu Guy, which changes his perspective. Last January I read 2019’s NBA fiction winner, and it turned out to be one of my favorite reads all year, so I’m hoping for a repeat!
  4. We Keep the Dead Close by Becky Cooper – Nonfiction true crime in which a Harvard student investigates an infamous, silenced murder in the campus’s history. I’ve heard great things, and I want to increase my nonfiction reading this year so I jumped on this one as soon as my library got a copy.
  5. Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor, translated by Sophie Hughes – In a Mexican village full of seemingly irredeemable characters, the death of the local Witch sparks an investigation through several narrators all with their own connections to violence. I’ve already started this one, as you may notice with my bookmark in the picture (sorry for the low quality photo by the way, the light was going by the time I took it so it turned out a bit dim and pinkish) and am enjoying it immensely. I want to up my intake of translated fiction this year, and was hoping to start my year off with a bang, which this title seems sure to deliver!

How’s the switch from one year to the next treating you? Any great milestones reached or big plans ahead? What are you reading in the transition? Let me know below!

The Literary Elephant

Favorite Reads of 2020

What better way to cap off a dismal year than to highlight some of the best things that happened between all the rest?? 2020 left a lot to be desired, as I’m sure we all know so why dwell, but I did find some truly superb reads worth celebrating along the way and I hope that by collecting them here I might convince a few more readers to do themselves a favor and pick a great book up!

In case you missed it, I’ve already rounded up a list of almost-favorite runners-up here… and now let’s get to the main event, my top ten reads of 2020 (plus one extra honorable mention because apparently I made my list a little too early this year).

10. The Fire Starters by Jan Carson. A Belfast-set magical realism tale about two fathers who believe their children are a danger to the public, warring over their conflicting responsibilities to their children and their community. Magical realism doesn’t always work for me, but when it does it really does. The use of sirens and magical children along with the atmospheric summer heatwave and Tall Fires really bring the themes of challenging parenthood and political unrest to life. It certainly didn’t hurt that I was drawn in immediately by Carson’s impeccable prose, as well. Among the lessons to be learned here is that when Rachel tells you to pick up a book, you should listen.

9. Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado. With a a special shout out to Machado’s memoir In the Dream House as well, which didn’t quite make my lists this year but is a stellar piece on abuse on same-sex relationships that I’d also highly recommend. Her Body and Other Parties is a short story collection with horror, fantasy, and LGBTQ+ elements, and while there were a few ups and downs for me in the individual pieces the collection as a whole stands firm and has stuck with me strongly throughout the year. I’m not sure I’ve ever read a short story quite as inventive and interesting as Machado’s recapping of Law and Order SVU episodes in “Especially Heinous,” and there are several other pieces here I know I’ll be delighted to reread in the future as well.

8. The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave. This is an unassuming but tense novel that takes the familiar witch narrative to new heights. In a small 17th century Norwegian fishing village, a tragic accident leaves the local women to fend for themselves; the use of witchcraft accusations as a means of sifting difficult women from society is nothing new, but Millwood Hargrave makes this sapphic tale of female strength stand apart with beautiful attention to history, character, and interpersonal rifts. Though the witchcraft conflict remains at the center of this story, it’s not a particularly *witchy* book, instead circling around weaponized religion, community conflict, and the many traumatic aftereffects of natural disaster, as a means to furthering the feminist themes. It’s an impressively layered work, noteworthy as Millwood Hargrave’s first adult publication.

7. Trust Exercise by Susan Choi. My very first read of 2020 was a complicated one- at first I could not bring myself to care about these students and their inappropriate hero worship of a charismatic theater teacher. The writing felt, frankly, a bit full of itself. But about halfway through, there’s a narrative shift that reframes the way we look at the entire first half, and I was stunned at how effective I found that switch, how suddenly invested and enraged I was by the situation at this school and its aftermath. It’s not a perfect read- one has to be willing to embrace unlikable characters, and there’s a rather eye-roll worthy revenge plot twist toward the end that is in itself an exercise in trust, but the structure of the novel so perfectly fits its themes and conceit, and I really don’t mind a bit of silly camp- as such, this has remained a strong favorite for me from the first day of the year to the last.

6. How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee. An incredibly moving story about the Japanese occupation of Singapore during WWII and the captives forced to serve as comfort women for Japanese soldiers. There’s a secondary narrative here in which a young boy chases down his recently-deceased grandmother’s secrets, and I know this aspect of the story for some readers took away from the more immediate and powerful tale of the comfort women, but I found myself largely unbothered by the divide and completely drawn into the story as a whole, which brought to my awareness a chapter of history I’ve never looked into before. Very few books have the power to draw me back into WWII narratives these days, but this one did, and broke my heart in new ways.

5. How Much of These Hills is Gold by C Pam Zhang. One of my top Booker Prize reads this year (it is a CRIME this book did not advance to the shortlist!), How Much of These Hills is a sharp look at the American gold rush that focuses on historical immigrant experiences and captures the beauty of Indigenous traditions and values. It is as scathingly critical of America’s power hierarchy and racist attitudes as it is adventurous and heartfelt, and the author’s tendency to play on reader assumptions about character is memorable and refreshing. It can be a very dark book, but it’s to Zhang’s credit that the light shines through.

4. Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips. Here we have the story of two missing girls, told circuitously in short stories from fringe perspectives related to or affected in some way by the disappearances. This is a very quiet novel that requires patience and a willingness to follow the author through stories that seem only loosely connected at first, if at all. It’s not a book to turn to if you’re looking for a tense whodunnit mystery, instead focusing more broadly on the community response to such a tragedy in northeast Russia, a beautiful but complex place already rife with social tensions. It’s a masterful rendering of far-reaching fear and grief.

3. The Only Plane in the Sky by Garrett M. Graff. It’s rare for nonfiction to appear on my favorites list, but Graff’s carefully collected and structured oral history of 9/11 is well-deserving of a top spot; drawn from firsthand testimony of hundreds of survivors, this overview of the 2001 terrorist attack is both broad and detailed. Though it can be hard to read in places due to the severity and nature of the devastation, I was in awe of how carefully curated this work is in order to avoid any sense of gratuity or sensationalism without missing any facets of that day. It is, first and foremost, a depiction of humanity in the face of disaster- grief-stricken but resilient, rising to the occasion to survive and help those in need.

2. My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell. I don’t know what it is about rape and sexual assault literature; I am fortunate enough to have no personal connection to the subject beyond growing up as a woman and thus carrying the fear around with me as so many do, but somehow books on this topic always manage to make my soul bleed. Russell manages here with such a deft hand to dig into a case of student-teacher rape in which the student, a teenage girl at the start, does not believe she is a victim despite many people in her life telling her she is. It’s a very complicated situation that Russell expands upon with great care and subtlety, and I had to put the book down several times as it brought out such pain and rage in me. Any narrative that holds that sort of power even when I can’t directly relate to it is a standout in my book, and I know this reading experience will haunt me (an odd response to rate highly on a favorites list perhaps, but this is what works for me) for a very long time.

1. Real Life by Brandon Taylor. The one book that I’ve thought about more than any other this year, that most changed the way I look at the world, that both captivated me with its language on the page and held my attention with its implications long after I’d closed the cover: Real Life. Is it a flawless, perfect book? Maybe not, but it is an absolutely stunning debut that secured its author a spot on my favorite writers list with only the one work to go by. This is the story of a gay, Black biochemistry grad student enduring racist micro- (and macro-) aggressions from friends and fellow students over the course of one eventful weekend, as he wonders whether pursuing this academic interest is worth the pain at all. It is both dramatic and deep, entertaining on the surface with such heft to its characters and the themes beneath, in glorious Sally Rooney-esque style.

And an honorable mention: Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi. I had to draft out my favorites list a few weeks before the end of the year in order to pinpoint which titles to highlight in my almost-favorites list, so I was already at ten books that I had to mention here when I read another favorite! I’m having some difficulty placing this one in the ranking since it’s so fresh (part of what makes a favorite for me is how well it stands the test of time), and thus I’m going with an honorable mention instead of ranking everything here properly on a scale of 11.

Here we have the story of a Ghanaian American neuroscientist who runs behavioral experiments with lab mice are a direct response to the cruel hand her family has been dealt- racism, addiction, and depression have torn apart Gifty’s family of four, and as a result she grapples for a balance between religion and science, just trying to find a way to survive and understand. There’s so little plot to this story, and yet I would follow Gifty anywhere. It’s such a measured narrative, both weighty and beautiful.

Transcendent Kingdom

These are my favorite books of 2020- some new this year, some just new-to-me, but all have left their mark in one way or another. Absolutely none of these are cheery or even particularly optimistic, but they’ve helped me through a tough year, and if you’re a reader of heavy books they might appeal to you, too.

(How Much of These Hills is Gold not pictured- I read and returned a library copy.)

Here’s to hoping we’ve all got some fantastic literary gems on our horizons for 2021!

The Literary Elephant

Reviews: A Lucky Man, Transcendent Kingdom, and Memorial

My final reviews of the year! This will have me all caught up, aside from my two current reads, which I’m still hoping to finish before the new year and talk more about in January (they’re Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light and Lucy Foley’s The Hunting Party). My favorite reads of the year should be up tomorrow, or, worst case scenario, the first of January. Today I’ve got Jamel Brinkley’s 2019 National Book Award shortlistee, the short story collection A Lucky Man, as well as two recent contemporary/literary releases from authors I’ve enjoyed in the past: Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom and Bryan Washington’s Memorial.

A Lucky Man

In A Lucky Man, Brinkley presents a collection of short stories featuring Black sons of various ages who endure complicated or severed relationships with their fathers. The stories are not mutually exclusive but they don’t share any connections beyond exploring the generational ramifications of antiblack racism in America.

“‘I got an agitated soul,’ he said. ‘Most of us do, I think. Not from no conspiracy or nothing. Just from being black and alive.'”

Though the collection as a whole is a nuanced look at the affects of racism on the relationships of Black men and their children, this isn’t a book to turn to for punchy, quotable statements about race. The writing is accomplished and thorough, but the book’s messages are primarily apparent through character dynamics, behaviors over time, and the overall volume of Black fathers here who have been pushed out of their sons’ lives in one way or another; it’s what can be read between the lines that is most impressive about this work. It’s one of the most thoughtful and cohesive collections I’ve ever read; every piece stands strong on its own, though looking at them all together is what best brings out their meaning. There were only two stories out of nine that I personally found a little less gripping, but they all belong equally to the whole.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I can see why this collection went far with lit awards last year, and I think it deserves a wider readership than it seems to have. It’s quiet and sad, but there’s undeniable skill here that makes each piece of the set engaging in its own right. Brinkley is an author to watch.

And as a bonus, I think it’s very much to the author’s credit that I was particularly attuned to the difficult relationships between Black men and their children in my next two reads, as well; A Lucky Man clarified this particular facet of family life in America for me in a very effective way.

Transcendent Kingdom

In Transcendent Kingdom, Gifty is a neuroscientist running behavioral experiments on mice in the hopes of better understanding what has befallen her family; her brother died young in the grip of addiction, and afterward her mother succumbed to a debilitating depression that has, years later, suddenly returned.

“It’s true that for years before he died, I would look at his face and think, What a pity, what a waste. But the waste was my own, the waste was what I missed out on whenever I looked at him and saw just his addiction.”

There’s little plot here; Gifty goes back and forth between the lab where she works with the mice, and her home, where she tends to her unresponsive mother. The beauty of the novel comes through Gifty’s internal grappling with her family history and her struggle to strike a balance between her relationships with science and religion. This is another very quiet book, and it’s hard to explain the charm that comes through in Gifty’s voice, but rest assured that this is a must-read. It’s rich in social commentary but it’s also captivatingly specific; not too detailed to be alienating to those of us unscientifically-minded readers, but just detailed enough to bring another layer of texture to this story and make it feel lived-in and real.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. This is such a different reading experience from Gyasi’s historical and expansive Homegoing, but no less brilliant for the change of pace. I really hope we’re going to see this title up for a lit prize or two in 2021, but there’s no need to wait for it to appear on the lists to pick it up- you won’t regret it!

Memorial

In Memorial, Mike is flying to Osaka to aid his dying father, leaving his visiting mother to wait for his return in the apartment he shares with his boyfriend, Ben. Mike and Ben’s relationship has been a little rocky lately, but neither of them are strangers to complicated relationships and they’re all still trying to figure out how they fit together, or whether they should bother trying to fit together at all.

“And how did everything come to such a turning point between us? Quietly, I guess. The big moments are never big when they’re actually fucking happening.”

Memorial is a quick read packed with (unpunctuated) dialogue and a steady stream of brief anecdotes that drive the story forward and backward simultaneously. The narrative is not quite linear, but Washington is clear about sequences of events and the easy pace helps hold everything together and keep the story moving. Though little happens aside from personal reckonings, it’s a sharp book that digs into the ups and downs of multi-cultural life in the modern world (Ben is a Black American, Mike is Japanese American, and both are gay; they live together in Houston, Texas in a eclectic neighborhood halfway between low-income and up-and-coming).

It’s essentially a character study in two parts, a relationship study, if you will. I thought a little more could’ve been done with the men’s professions and sense of home, and I thought a few less expletives might have served the book just as well, but ultimately it’s a compelling representation of marginalized America; I’m not an own voices reader/reviewer, but I thought the depictions of gay, multi-cultural, polyamorous men were thoughtful and realistically messy. It’s the sort of book you don’t mind going on and on even whhen nothing is really happening because the characters are magnetic enough in themselves.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I enjoyed this novel more than Lot, though I do think that Washington’s story collection has strengths of its own that are maybe not as well-realized here- the broad exploration of setting/community, for example. But I am partial to longer form fiction and appreciated the greater depth of character Memorial had to offer; I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out for more of Washington’s work going forward.

Are any of these titles on your radar?

The Literary Elephant

Goals: 2020 Reflections and 2021 Plans

A post of lists. Let’s start out looking ahead, shall we? Here are my bookish goals for 2021:

  • Read 100 books. Straightforward, specific. A realistic challenge for me, but not crazy enough to stress me out.
  • Read diversely. Every year I do a little better at this, but 2020 has really been a wake up call for the distance I still need to go. I’m not going to set a specific number of books from specific authors or countries because I never want to feel like I’m picking up a book by a marginalized author to tick a box- I just want to make sure I’m more conscious of my reading range.
  • Read more translated literature. I could probably count on one hand the number of translations I read this last year and that seems like a failure. I enjoy reading from cultures beyond my own and it’s important to me to support these books, their authors and translators. So again, I want to make a more conscious, active effort. Ideally, at least one translation per month, as a starting point.
  • Read more nonfiction. 2019 was my first significant forray into nonfiction, and I was hoping 2020 would be the year I’d really expand my nonfiction reading. Unfortunately, that didn’t end up being the case. I was not making any sort of active effort to keep this ball rolling. I want to be making more of an effort on this throughout the new year.
  • Don’t read the Booker longlist! It’s fine to pick up titles that interest me and I probably will want to read the winner at least, but the last two longlists have been disappointing for me. I decided last year not to push myself through the entire 2020 longlist, but in the end I read… 10 of the 13 books, and I’m currently working through an 11th. Less than half have been 4 or 5 star reads for me this year, so I need to just let go of the fomo and stop picking up titles I don’t really expect to like, no matter how much buzz they’re getting.
  • Read the Women’s Prize longlist? I’ve read the entire WP longlist for the last three years, and it’s been great fun reviewing the books and chatting about them with other readers. But 2020’s longlist was extremely underwhelming for me, and to cap it off the Women’s Prize ruled a few months ago against allowing non-binary or transitioning women to compete for the prize, which is grievously disappointing and disheartening to see and even feels somewhat against the original spirit of the prize. I cannot express how much joy it brings me to know that at least one non-binary writer made it onto a WP longlist before this ruling, and the prize’s stance going forward can’t do anything to change that, so. Joke’s on them. But even while I’m unhappy with this ruling, and want to make sure I’m including trans and non-binary writers in my reading, I also do want to read and support women authors, and I think it’s worth remembering that the authors nominated for this prize haven’t had any say in the ‘legal women only’ ruling so boycotting entirely doesn’t necessarily feel like the right solution to me either. No matter how many WP books I end up reading going forward though, I will be acknowledging the WP’s limitations if/when I mention the prize on my blog, and my words of support will be going toward the authors, not the prize.
  • Catch up with Book of the Month. After a rocky couple of years, BOTM seems to have finally hit their stride, thanks to some scathing criticism about their lack of diversity earlier this year. I’ll be talking more about my 2020 experience with BOTM in my year wrap-up, but here I’ll just say that I’m loving their improved selections now and have been maxing out my monthly boxes with great-sounding books. Unfortunately, that also means that my BOTM titles are stacking up faster than I’m reading them, and I want to change that.
  • Go on a book buying ban. I’m hoping to at least make it farther than I did in 2020- in which this goal lasted only until March. Oops. BOTM will be the exception, since I have credits already paid for. Otherwise, my library has a great no-contact checkout system going and I’m hoping to get into Netgalley a bit more earnestly this year, so I’m going to try hard to limit my purchases. I need to get my physical TBR under control and this seems like a crucial first step toward will have to be a longer term plan.
  • Stick to 5-book monthly TBRs. I started this practice in 2020, and it’s required a bit of trial and error but ultimately it’s my favorite TBR system so far. It helps me focus on various reading goals and projects but it also leaves me some freedom of choice each month, as well. It’s rewarding to complete the lists but easy enough to move on from months where that just doesn’t happen.
  • Change up my blogging. Yes, that’s vague. I feel like I’m getting stuck in a blogging rut and most of my posts are reviews that are probably longer than anyone really wants to read. I’ve got some tentative ideas for themed recommendation posts, perhaps expanding my Spotlight series to additional / more specific genres throughout this next year, and possibly some discussion post ideas, but I’m still brainstorming. I also (unrelated to books) am setting myself a photography goal for 2021: I want to take one thoughtful picture of my life every day, whatever that may look like. Maybe this will be a way I can share a little more of my life here than just book reviews, which might end up meaning a weekly update post and shorter or more selective reviews overall instead of reviewing absolutely everything I read so extensively. It might take a few attempts to hit on whatever’s going to work for me longer term. I will still be sharing lots of thoughts on books, so I hope this won’t result in a lot of people jumping ship, but I need a change.

All right, apologies for my vagueness in goals, but I think that’s all for 2021. I like my goals to be general focus points to help give my year direction rather than bog me down with expectations I can’t adjust as needed throughout the year, so hopefully these plans will work for me in whatever form they might end up taking.

And for the curious, let’s take a look at whether or not I stuck with any of my 2020 plans throughout this hell year:

  • Read 100 books, increasing overall page count from 2019. A hit and a miss. I have read 102 books so far this year and am guessing my final tally will be 104 or possibly 105. The page count goal reflects a secondary challenge of reading fewer *really short* books; in 2019 I read 126 books for a total of 35,139 pages, but that included 30 individually bound Faber Stories so I wanted to read fewer books but with greater overall length, essentially. in 2020 I’ve read so far 33,452 pages and I don’t think I’m going to get through another 1500+ before the new year. So, the theory was probably correct, that I could’ve had a higher page count in under 126 books, but I didn’t quite get far enough to hit that target. I’m close enough not to mind, however.
  • Avoid formal reading challenges. A win! Instead of participating in any specific prompt-focused challenges, I assembled a few 5-star-hopeful lists of my own; ideally I would’ve loved to read all of the books I listed, but 2020 just wasn’t that kind of year and I struggled with sticking to schedules, so I think no formal challenges turned out to be helpful for my reading year.
  • Find more 5-star reads. This ties in to my 5-star-hopeful lists, which I’ll run through at the bottom of this post. I have this awkward bad habit of picking up books that I just want to know what the buzz is all about (hence getting drawn into prize lists even when I’m not enjoying them) rather than reaching for things I think I might actually love. I’ll read just about anything, but too often that willingness to pick up whatever means I’m not picking up the reads that would be the best fit for me, and that’s frustrating. So, in 2019 I read 17 5-star books, and in 2020 I have read 20 5-star books. Technically a win, but kind of an accidental one, really, my plan to actively seek out books that I thought would be 5-star reads kind of fell by the wayside after February, unfortunately.
  • Don’t read full longlists aside from the Women’s Prize. Another win! I came close with the Booker but let myself pass over two of the longlist titles, which… means I need to do a bit more work on letting prize lists go, but at least it’s a start. My completionist heart is on its way to healthier habits.
  • Read at least 8 short story collections. A win! I have read 9, if we count the two Stephen King novella collections, which I am doing.
  • Read more from Stephen King’s backlist. Technically a win, though I think I failed the spirit of the prompt. I read those 2 novella collections and that’s it. The point of this goal was to make a solid dent in my largest ongoing reading project: working through (with the end goal of ranking them all) King’s entire fiction catalog. 2 titles hardly feels like a dent considering I still have 43 titles left, not counting upcoming publications. But 2 is better than 0 and King is problematic enough that I’m not beating myself up over not reading more of his work. It’ll happen when it happens, or it won’t.
  • Read more past prize winners. A fail. This was referring to all major book prizes, but since the Women’s Prize was having a public vote for a ‘winner of the winners’ champion title this year I wanted to focus mostly on those; after reading 2 past winners in February and the 2020 winner along with the rest of this year’s longlist, I completely fell behind on this goal. I did also read the 2020 Booker Prize winner (which admittedly was not a ‘past’ winner) and the 2019 National Book Award winner (barely a past winner, lol) but I almost didn’t even remember to vote in the WP poll.
  • Write shorter reviews. Fail. I started trying to post two or three reviews in a single post when convenient, but ultimately this just led to longer posts rather than helping me condense anything. I don’t feel bad about writing the amount that I felt it necessary to write to convey my thoughts, but I really need to work on time management when it comes to blog posts and for 2020 I did not make this work.
  • Bring back my Top of the TBR series. Sort of a win? I did post some additions to this TBR series throughout the year (in which I highlight books recently added to my TBR and shout out readers who introduced me to the titles), but it was a weird year and ended up being too hard to stay consistent with this, both because my TBR additions became more erratic and because my reading and blogging schedule went a bit haywire. Ultimately I decided it was best to use this format now and then when applicable than trying to force it into a regular schedule, and I adhered to that so… I’m calling it a win.
  • Start a genre Spotlight series. Win! Mostly. I had to check out of blogging this fall when my work schedule got too busy, which threw me off, but I’m *almost* caught up now, having done 11 of the 12 genre spotlights that I planned. I’m not entirely sure whether I’ll squeeze in the 12th (classics) before New Year’s, but it will be coming soon in any case and I’m reasonably happy with how the series is turning out.
  • Use a 5-book monthly TBR. Win. I set a TBR for each month this year, and though I didn’t always read the 5 books within the month I have by the end of the year read most of them. I won’t quite make it through all 60 before the new year but I’m close enough to be satisfied and did find it a motivational system that wasn’t too demanding.
  • Limit book buying to 5 books per month tops. Fail. I did great in Jan and Feb, but then the year went off the rails and I went book buying with abandon. I think I came back from New York in early March with more books in my suitcase than clothes, and that set me back far enough that it seemed like a lost cause anyway. I did have more months later on where I hit this goal or came really close, but it was incidental rather than intentional at that point, so no win.

As I expected after watching this year play out, I missed some 2020 goals. But I survived in the face of some unforeseen complications, so it really doesn’t seem worth dwelling on anything that didn’t quite go as planned. I’m eager to see 2021 be a fresh new start with lots of room for improvements, and am hopeful that my stats at the end of this next year will be even stronger.

I’m going to close out this post with a few of the lists I’ve mentioned above.

To help me in my quest for 2020 5-star reads I assembled a 20 in ’20 list of backlist titles from my shelves; I’ll link each title completed to my review, but I’m not going to bother listing the titles I didn’t get to at all.

  1. Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado – 4 stars
  2. The Butterfly Garden by Dot Hutchison – 4 stars
  3. Girl Made of Stars by Ashley Herring Blake – 5 stars
  4. The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller – 5 stars
  5. Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen – 4 stars
  6. The Martian by Andy Weir – 4 stars
  7. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara – 5 stars
  8. The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne – 4 stars

I also compiled a list of 20 2019 titles that I missed as they were released and wanted to read this year, hoping for 5-star reads.

  1. Trust Exercise by Susan Choi – 5 stars
  2. Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips – 5 stars
  3. Bunny by Mona Awad – 4 stars
  4. The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa, translated by Stephen Snyder – 3 stars (might bump this rating up to 4, as it has stuck with me very well throughout the year in a good way, but I wanted to reflect my original rating here)
  5. Pet by Akwaeke Emezi – 4 stars
  6. The Only Plane in the Sky by Garrett M. Graff – 5 stars
  7. In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado – 4 stars

In addition I had a list of 20 2020 releases that I thought might be 5-star reads.

  1. Home Before Dark by Riley Sager – 2 stars
  2. Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi – 5 stars (review coming soon)
  3. The Death of Vivek Oji by Akweake Emezi – 4 stars
  4. Sisters by Daisy Johnson – 5 stars
  5. Recipe for a Perfect Wife by Karma Brown – 3 stars
  6. Follow Me to Ground by Sue Rainsford – 4 stars
  7. The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave – 5 stars
  8. My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell – 5 stars
  9. The Deep by Alma Katsu – 3 stars

Clearly not all of my hopeful 5-star reads turned out quite as well for me as I’d wanted, but most of my ratings from these lists are 4s and 5s, among the titles that I did get around to reading! There are titles left from each list that I’ll still want to pick up when I can and have high hopes for; I expect to get to more of them in 2021.

Also in 2021, I mentioned above that I want to work through my BOTM backlist. I’m not going to number this list because I’m ashamed (please don’t count) but I thought it would be fun to share the titles I have outstanding right now, so here’s one more list. Be sure to let me know which titles I should pick up first!

  • Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller
  • All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood
  • One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter by Scaachi Koul
  • Since We Fell by Dennis Lehane
  • Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
  • Artemis by Andy Weir
  • Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich
  • The Girl Who Smiled Beads by Clemantine Wamariya and Elizabeth Weil
  • The Clockmaker’s Daughter by Kate Morton
  • A Woman is No Man by Etaf Rum
  • When the Sky Fell on Splendor by Emily Henry
  • The Buried by Peter Hessler
  • City of Omens by Dan Werb
  • Three Women by Lisa Taddeo
  • American Predator by Maureen Callahan
  • The Great Pretender by Susannah Cahalan
  • Anna K by Jenny Lee
  • The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson
  • Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore
  • The Knockout Queen by Rufi Thorpe
  • A Burning by Megan Majumdar
  • Full Disclosure by Camryn Garrett
  • The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
  • Luster by Raven Leilani
  • Notes on a Silencing by Lucy Crawford
  • True Story by Kate Reed Petty
  • Betty by Tiffany McDaniel
  • Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam
  • Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
  • The Invisible Life of Addie Larue by V. E. Schwab
  • One to Watch by Kate Stayman-London
  • Winter Counts by David Heska Wanbli
  • White Ivy by Susie Yang
  • The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans

Plus my January BOTM books are already on their way (help me):

  • The Removed by Brandon Hobson
  • Outlawed by Anna North
  • Aftershocks by Nadia Owusu
  • The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Dare

And that’s a wrap! I’ll have 2020 stats and favorites coming up yet, but on the whole I’m ready to cast out the old year and welcome the new. This time of year always feels so wonderfully full of possibilities to me, and it hasn’t come a moment too soon this time around. Here’s hoping the 2020’s will be making an upward trend from here forward!

The Literary Elephant

Anticipated 2021 Releases

It seems every other year I go between having a surplus of goals, plans, and eagerly awaited publications, or wanting to be completely free to go with the flow; 2021 is one of those years I want to take as it comes without a lot of plans steering me in any particular direction. As such, while I m looking forward to 2021 releases I also feel… less committed to them than I have in the past. Nevertheless, I am getting excited about looking forward generally and finding new bookish favorites, so! I will share this list of books that appeal to me even though I have no idea if or when I will get to them; where applicable I’ll link back to the bloggers who’ve put these titles on my radar.

And now, on to the books! (These are US covers and release dates by the way, unless I mess it up, in which case feel free to correct me!)

Lore

Lore by Alexandra Bracken – Jan 5 – YA fantasy

Every seven years, nine Greek gods are rendered mortal and hunted by rival descendants who want to gain the gods’ power and immortality for themselves. Lore’s family fell victim to this punishment, but now she’s teaming up with Castor and Athena against a mutual enemy, hoping to bring the hunt to an end.

Hadeer’s list brought this one to my attention! I’ve fallen away from YA somewhat in recent years but there are still titles that tempt me. Greek myth retellings/expansions are always difficult to resist!

The Prophets

The Prophets by Robert Jones Jr. – Jan 5 – Historical fiction

Two men enslaved on a Deep South plantation build a refuge and a relationship in the barn where they are tasked with caring for the animals- at least until another slave turns on them to gain favor. The master’s religion calls their love a sin, leaving their lives and the balance of the plantation in jeopardy.

Book of the Month introduced me to this debut. I’m not sure my paraphrased summary is doing it justice, but I’m envisioning this as a commentary on LGBTQ+ persecution compounded by rampant racism and weaponized religion, which sounds like a conversation very worth listening to.

Milk Fed

Milk Fed by Melissa Broder – Feb 2 – Literary fiction

At the urging of her therapist, Rachel embarks on a communication detox from her mother, who instilled in her a strict habit of calorie counting. When the detox begins, Rachel meets an Orthodox Jew at a frozen yogurt shop and the two grow close, into a journey defined by appetites.

I loved Broder’s The Pisces. I hear this one is very different (CW: eating disorders) and have seen a few balanced reviews that have me adjusting expectations somewhat, but I still hope to enjoy Broder’s sophomore novel.

What Big Teeth

What Big Teeth by Rose Szabo – Feb 2 – YA horror

Eleanor returns home to her monstrous family for the first time in years, finally ready to reconcile. But as soon as she starts to settle in and find the acceptance she craved, a strange death brings new chaos, and Eleanor must confront the monster within tyrannical Grandmere- and herself- in order to survive.

I’ve seen this one getting some hype, but it was Kristin’s 2021 YA post that finally put it on my list!

Kink: Stories

Kink: Stories edited by R. O. Kwon and Garth Greenwell – Feb 9 – Short stories

Kink is a dynamic anthology of literary fiction that opens an imaginative door into the world of desire. The stories within this collection portray love, desire, BDSM, and sexual kinks in all their glory with a bold new vision. The collection includes works by renowned fiction writers such as Callum Angus, Alexander Chee, Vanessa Clark, Melissa Febos, Kim Fu, Roxane Gay, Cara Hoffman, Zeyn Joukhadar, Chris Kraus, Carmen Maria Machado, Peter Mountford, Larissa Pham, and Brandon Taylor.”

This collection seems to be on many 2021 lists, and I was initially waiting to see more actual reviews of the collection as a whole as opposed to just anticipatory hype for the premise and author list, but… I’m hyped.

Never Have I Ever

Never Have I Ever by Isabel Yap – Feb 9 – Short stories

A debut collection of “spells and stories, urban legends and immigrant tales.” It looks like this one includes horror and fantasy elements.

Story collections often slip by me unnoticed, so thanks to Hannah’s 2021 fiction list for bringing this title to my attention! It looks dark and promising, potentially full of cultural details and magic. Also, I love that cover!

The Sanatorium

The Sanatorium by Sarah Pierce – Feb 18 – Mystery/thriller

In the Swiss Alps, a lavish hotel that was once a sanatorium for tuberculosis patients is now the site of an engagement party from which a woman disappears. Elin encounters a body and the hotel’s dark history, but will she find her brother’s fiancee before it’s too late?

I first saw this title when Naty mentioned getting an ARC, but I’ve seen it on a few other upcoming thriller lists since then as well and there’s just something about an atmospheric, isolated location missing person/murder mystery that always draws me in.

Down Comes the Night

Down Comes the Night by Allison Saft – Mar 2 – YA fantasy/romance

Wren’s magic has gotten her into trouble, so she takes the chance to cure a servant at Colwick Hall to redeem herself. Except it turns out that Hal isn’t a servant but a sworn enemy of her kingdom, looking for redemption of his own in the mysterious, monstrous mansion that could ruin them both unless they work together.

Another title I couldn’t resist from Hadeer’s list. Perhaps 2021 will be the year I get back into some exciting YA releases!

In the Quick

In the Quick by Kate Hope Day – Mar 2 – Science fiction

June has a coveted post as an engineer on a space station, but she’s preoccupied by the mystery of a spacecraft her uncle was on board that went missing years ago; the world has all but forgotten it, but June believes the crew is still alive and in need of rescue, and teams up with her uncle’s former protegee to find a solution to the problem of its failed fuel cell- and in the process falls in love.

I found this title in Naty’s list of 2021 releases! It sounds like a sapphic new version ofThe Martian, which I am here for.

Later

Later by Stephen King – Mar 2 – Horror

Jamie is a kid with an unusual ability, though using it comes at a high cost. His understanding of right and wrong is challenged when a detective convinces him to help stop a killer who’s threatened to kill again from beyond the grave.

I’m on a quest to read and review all of King’s fiction. His writing is certainly flawed, but I often like his plots if not always his choice of wording and characterization. I’ve been burned before, but I just keep coming back. I do tend to enjoy when King writes young characters, so I’m hopeful.

Women and Other Monsters: Building a New Mythology

Women and Other Monsters: Building a New Mythology by Jess Zimmerman – Mar 9 – Nonfiction (essays?)

Drawing on eleven female monsters from Greek mythology, Zimmerman guides readers through a feminist reassessment of the ancient lore that has shaped our understanding of women who don’t follow the rules; noncompliance may historically be presented as monstrous, but perhaps that isn’t a bad thing- monsters have power, agency, and a freedom from restraint worth celebrating and maybe even emulating.

I found this title in Hannah’s incredible list of upcoming nonfiction releases!

American Betiya

American Betiya by Anuradha D. Rajurkar – Mar 9 – YA contemporary romance

Rani is drawn to a boy her mother wouldn’t like, and so she keeps him a secret from her parents. But Oliver has a troubled home life and begins asking of Rani more than she can give; a summer in Pune, India for Rani leads her to a reckoning with herself and her first love.

I swear Hadeer’s anticipated releases list is not exclusively YA-focused, but apparently those are the titles that were calling out to me most. I like YA that’s hard-hitting and/or explores social/cultural issues. Also, I read a book set in Pune for the first time earlier this year and would like to give myself a bit more context for the setting by reading about it again from another writer.

Redder Days

Redder Days by Sue Rainsford – Mar 11 – Dystopian

Set in an abandoned commune, this book follows a pair of twins who keep watch day and night, looking toward an imminent apocalyptic event. The commune’s former leader lives there with them, controlling their daily rituals, but their understanding of the present world is thrown off balance when a former commune inhabitant returns unexpectedly.

I read Rainsford’s Follow Me to Ground earlier this year and quite liked it; I was vaguely aware that she had a new novel coming out soon, but spotting this one on Callum’s list was the reminder I needed!

Lolita in the Afterlife: On Beauty, Risk, and Reckoning with the Most Indelible and Shocking Novel of the Twentieth Century

Lolita in the Afterlife edited by Jenny Minton Quigley – Mar 16 – Essays

“A vibrant collection of sharp and essential modern pieces on the perennially controversial Lolita, by a wide range of celebrated writers, edited by the daughter of Lolita’s original publisher.”

Thanks to Rennie for putting this title on my radar with her list of upcoming nonfiction releases! Lolita is, yes, controversial, but it’s also very memorable and layered and full of calculated horror, all of which I found very effective in the classic. I’m certainly curious to see what others have to say about it in the modern age.

There's No Such Thing as an Easy Job

There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job by Kikuko Tsumura, translated by Polly Barton – Mar 23 – Literary fiction in translation

A woman looking for a job that requires little from her finds herself watching an author on a hidden-camera feed, wondering how she found herself in this situation. A string of “easy” jobs follow as it gradually becomes clear that she is looking for something more meaningful in her search than ease.

If I remember right I think I first saw this book on an excellent post of Fatma’s earlier this year, featuring books translated from Japanese!

The Secret Talker

The Secret Talker by Geling Yan – Mar 30 – Thriller

Hongmei is a perfect wife with a quiet life, but when a stalker begins tormenting her via email, dredging up Hongmei’s dark past in China, her only hope of regaining control of her life is to uncover her stalker’s own secret history, even at the cost of breaking her marriage.

I came across this potential little gem (160 pages!) on Rachel’s anticipated releases list.

Of Women and Salt

Of Women and Salt by Gabriela Garcia – Mar 30 – Historical fiction

Jeanette is the daughter of a Cuban immigrant, determined to finally uncover her family’s history; the relationships between Jeanette and her mother and grandmother are complex and full of secrets. Meanwhile, Jeanette is also battling addiction and caring for the daughter of a neighbor detained by ICE.

I came across this title in Kristin’s list of anticipated 2021 adult releases. I’m interested in reading more immigrant stories, and the focus on addiction particularly caught my interest after reading Gyasi’s thoughtful Transcendent Kingdom earlier this month (review pending).

Bullet Train

Bullet Train by Kotaro Isaka, translated by Sam Malissa – Apr 1 – Thriller

“Five killers find themselves on a bullet train from Tokyo competing for a suitcase full of money. Who will make it to the last station?”

This enticing translated title came to my list from Diana’s post of five anticipated 2021 releases.

You Love Me (You, #3)

You Love Me by Caroline Kepnes – Apr 6 – Horror/thriller

In this third installment of Kepnes’s Joe Goldberg (You) series, Joe is done with cities; he’s settled in on an island in the Pacific Northwest, working at a local library. He wants to start a family. There’s just one problem- the librarian he wants to coax into his happily ever after is already a mother with her own life… how long will Joe’s patience last?

I’ve been highly entertained and horrified by the previous books in this series, and though the second book did not impress me as much on the whole as the first, it ended on a dramatic moment and I have been DYING to see the resolution.

Pride and Premeditation (Jane Austen Murder Mystery, #1)

Pride and Premeditation by Tirzah Price – Apr 6 – YA historical mystery/romance

Aspiring teen lawyer Lizzie sets out to solve the mystery of a scandalous murder, in which she believes the authorities have arrested the wrong person. As Lizzie realizes how dangerous her hunt for the truth may be, she also develops increasingly complicated feelings for the interfering Mr. Darcy, young heir to the Pemberley Associates firm.

Kristin’s 2021 YA list strikes again! Who doesn’t love a good retelling? And how does one resist a classic romance turned murder mystery??

The Helm of Midnight (The Five Penalties, #1)

The Helm of Midnight by Marnina J. Lostetter – Apr 13 – Fantasy

A group of thieves have stolen a death mask imbued with the spirit of a terrifying serial killer, who seems to be killing again from beyond the grave. The new deaths, however, seem to follow a new pattern which demands an answer to a sinister question.

Thanks go to Hannah’s list of 2021 SFF releases for bringing this impressively dark title to my attention!

People We Meet on Vacation

People We Meet on Vacation by Emily Henry – May 11 – Romance

Poppy and Alex have almost nothing in common, but shared a car ride once in college and thus became the kind of loyal friends who meet every summer for a glorious week of vacation. Except on their last trip, something ruinous happened to their relationship; after an unhappy two years, they’ve finally agreed to try again, but it will mean acknowledging the one big truth standing quietly between them.

I knew Henry had another book coming up but it had fallen off my radar tbh- shout out to Marija for reminding me of the title and release date with her extensive anticipated releases list! I enjoyed Beach Read and A Million Junes by the same author so I’m on board for her new release as well, even though this premise doesn’t grab me quite as much as her others have.

Madam

Madam by Phoebe Wynne – May 18 – Gothic mystery

Rose is the new head of the Classics department at an elite girls’ boarding school propped amid Scottish cliffs. It’s a prestigious place, but for Rose the shine soon wears off as her predecessor haunts the halls and she begins to discover the school’s secret purpose- and her own role in it.

This title has really been making the rounds, and it almost sounds too good to pull off, but obviously I’m hoping it’ll be a hit!

Mister Impossible (Dreamer Trilogy, #2)

Mister Impossible by Maggie Stiefvater – May 18 – YA Fantasy

In this sequel to Call Down the Hawk, Ronan and his new friends are working hard to make dreamers (people who can bring things back from the dream world into waking life) more powerful, all while they are pursued by a team of assassins who believe the dreamers will bring about the end of the world.

It’s not my favorite series or anything and I loathe the title, but… I’m invested.

The Lights of Prague

The Lights of Prague by Nicole Jarvis – May 18 – Historical fantasy

Unknown to the citizens of gaslight-era Prague, the lamplighters keep the monsters of the city at bay; Domek, one of the hunters, befriends a secretive widow, endures a haunting, and faces a dangerous will-‘o-the-wisp, all while battling the vampiric creatures who conspire to terrorize the daylight world.

Another exciting title I found on Hadeer’s list of 2021 releases! Vampires, Prague, the gaslight-era… I’m pretty sure this is going to slap.

The Other Black Girl

The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris – June 1 – Mystery/thriller

Nella is an editorial assistant getting her start in publishing. It’s a very white community, and she’s tired of being the only Black woman in her workplace. But when Hazel shows up in the next cubicle, the relief of having another Black woman around is short lived; soon Hazel is the office darling and Nella is receiving threatening notes- and there may be more than a career at stake.

I’ve been seeing a lot of buzz around this one, and it sounds great. Thrillers are always fun, but it looks like this one’s going to stand out for its meaningful social commentary on race and office politics as well as its plot!

The Chosen and the Beautiful

The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo – June 1 – Historical fantasy

“Jordan Baker grows up in the most rarefied circles of 1920s American society―she has money, education, a killer golf handicap, and invitations to some of the most exclusive parties of the Jazz Age. She’s also queer, Asian, adopted, and treated as an exotic attraction by her peers, while the most important doors remain closed to her.”

I think I have Hadeer to thank again for first introducing me to this book, but I’ve seen it on several more lists in the meantime as well, and for good reason, it seems! This looks like a magical retelling of The Great Gatsby in which Jordan Baker is an immigrant magician… just sign me up immediately.

One Last Stop

One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston – June 1 – Romance

August doesn’t believe in magic and cinematic love stories, and she can’t imagine her move to cramped, busy NYC changing her mind- but the drudgery of her subway commute is interrupted when she meets Jane. Complicating August’s subway crush though, is the fact that Jane seems to have skipped out of her own time, the 1970’s, and she needs a little help getting unstuck.

I’ve been looking forward to McQuiston’s next release since loving Red, White and Royal Blue earlier this year!

The Natural Mother of the Child

The Natural Mother of the Child by Krys Malcom Belc – June 15 – Memoir

Giving birth to his son helped clarify Belc’s gender identity, though the legal documents of his son’s adoption list Belc as the ‘natural mother of the child;’ Belc is a nonbinary transmasculine parent reflecting here on the interplay between parenthood and gender.

I came across this very appealing piece of nonfiction on Callum’s list. It looks like just the sort of challenging and thoughtful work to break me out of my motherhood narrative funk, with style.

Filthy Animals: Stories

Filthy Animals by Brandon Taylor – June 22 – Short stories

“A young man treads delicate emotional waters as he navigates a series of sexually fraught encounters with two dancers in an open relationship, forcing him to weigh his vulnerabilities against his loneliness. In other stories, a young woman battles with the cancers draining her body and her family; menacing undercurrents among a group of teenagers explode in violence on a winter night; a little girl tears through a house like a tornado, driving her babysitter to the brink; and couples feel out the jagged edges of connection, comfort, and cruelty” in this series of linked stories set in the Midwest.

I loved Taylor’s Real Life earlier this year and have been highly anticipating his next release; this collection will be a must-read for me!

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Dear Senthuran: A Black spirit memoir by Akwaeke Emezi – June 29 – Memoir

The author uses letters addressed to friends and family (biological and chosen) to describe a life outside the boundaries of social expectations. This is their story of building a future in the face of chronic pain and embodiment as a nonhuman, among other challenges.

I keep an eye out for new Emezi releases, as they’re fast becoming a favorite author for me. I’ve loved all of their books so far (most recently, The Death of Vivek Oji)- each shares some similarity in theme, though they’re also very different stories; I’m excited to see what new layers this book will explore.

Survive the Night

Survive the Night by Riley Sager – July 6 – Thriller

It’s 1991, and college student Charlie is catching a ride to Ohio after the death of her best friend at the hands of the Campus Killer. She doesn’t know the driver- she met Josh at the campus ride board; as the road spins away behind them she becomes increasingly suspicious that Josh may actually be the Campus Killer- or is she just paranoid after too many horror films?

I’ve read all of Sager’s thrillers as they’ve come out, and they’re always entertaining even though I seem to be in an alternating hit-and-miss trend with his work. If the pattern continues (Home Before Dark was a miss for me), this next release should be a hit again, and the synopsis does sound promising!

Magma

Magma by Thora Hjortleifsdottir – July 13 – Literary fiction in translation

Lilja is in love- she’s twenty years old and has met a brilliant young man at school, whom she promptly moves in with. But as she tries to please him, what begin as nearly imperceptible abuses lead to Lilja letting go of her boundaries and losing her sense of self.

This sounds like an incredible portrayal of violence and toxicity rooted in romance; it found its way to my list from Rachel’s!

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The World Ends Here by Rory Power – July – YA/?

There’s no synopsis for this book yet; I liked Power’s Wilder Girls but was never sufficiently excited enough about her 2020 release to pick it up. I think 2021 will be the year I’m ready to try more of her work! I like the sound of the title so I’m looking forward to seeing what this book will be.

All's Well

All’s Well by Mona Awad – Aug 3 – Horror

Miranda is plagued by chronic pain after an incident with a Shakespeare play (All’s Well that Ends Well, of course) that cost her her acting career and marriage. Now that she’s a college theater director the same play threatens to take what little she’s got left, as her students rebel in favor of Macbeth. But a trio of mysterious benefactors are waiting in the wings to deliver justice to Miranda at last.

I had great fun with Awad’s Bunny and am curious to see what else the author can do. I’m very much drawn to the prospect of chronic/invisible pain commentary.

If the Shoe Fits (Meant to Be, #1)

If the Shoe Fits by Julie Murphey – Aug 3 – Romance

Cindy’s just gotten a degree in shoe design and is working for her stepmother on the production end of a popular reality TV show to get started. But when a spot on the show desperately needs filling and Cindy steps in, she quickly becomes a body positivity icon, as the only plus size woman in the reality dating competition. She only wanted a start in the fashion world, but there may be love and inspiration to find along the way as well.

I’ve not yet read One to Watch by Kate Stayman-London and I still am not a fan of reality dating competitions, but the premise appeals! I can’t explain my interest, but there it is. Also, I loved Julie Murphey’s Dumplin. Thanks to Kristin’s list of 2021 romance releases for putting this one on my radar!

The Heart Principle (The Kiss Quotient, #3)

The Heart Principle by Helen Hoang – Aug 17 – Romance

Quan isn’t known for making a good impression, but now that he’s a CEO he’s been getting plenty of attention. He’s got his eye on a woman who turned him down long ago, but she’s otherwise attached now, and her sister Anna has her eye on Quan. Anna’s put a lot of effort into overcoming her anxiety and OCD, but it’s still a challenge admitting her crush; can she do it to keep Quan from ruining her sister’s engagement?

I always enjoy Hoang’s characters and romances even though the premises sometimes require a suspension of disbelief. But I’ve been looking forward to this one ever since reading The Bride Test and am happy to see the end of the wait is in sight at last.

A Slow Fire Burning

A Slow Fire Burning by Paula Hawkins – Aug 31 – Mystery/thriller

A likely suspect is found after a brutal murder on a London canal boat, but complications arise. “No tragedy happens in isolation,” Hawkins explains; an accident or an occasion of misplaced trust can result in consequences far down the line, and these events can shape who a person becomes.

The Girl on the Train may not seem especially impressive by thriller standards today, but when it was new it was the second thriller I ever read, and at the time I loved it. I enjoyed Into the Water to a lesser extent, but am nevertheless very curious to see what Hawkins is doing next.

And to cap off my list, I’d like to include a few imminent releases that I have more certainty about reading, as I already have copies available or on their way; these are books that weren’t really on my radar until I suddenly had the chance to read them, so I haven’t quite been anticipating them in the same way but I do want to acknowledge them as 2021 releases that I’m looking forward to:

Outlawed

Outlawed by Anna North – Jan 5 – Historical western

A year after her wedding with no pregnancy in sight, in a town that hangs barren women as witches, Ada joins a band of outlaws. The Hole in the Wall Gang runs dangerous heists in the name of creating safe havens for outcasts and building a new future for all.

I’ll talk more about Book of the Month in my year wrap-up, but for now I’ll say that I’ve been LOVING the increased diversity and variety in their offered titles over the last six months, and January seems to be off to a phenomenal start for the subscription service as well. (If you’re in the US and interested in joining, you can use this link to get a first month discount, and at no cost to you it will put a credit in my account, too!) I’m not generally big on Westerns, but this feminist LGBTQ+ take on the genre seems like a fun ride that’ll help boost me out of my comfort zone a little while also keeping me fully entertained.

Aftershocks

Aftershocks by Nadia Owusu – Jan 12 – Memoir

A coming-of-age story about a woman who grew up all over the world, motherless from the age of two, adrift amid a wash of cultures. Owusu explores identity in the wake of emotional trauma and competing personas.

I’m looking to increase my nonfiction reading in 2021, and I’m always interested in reading about cultures and identity, so I was thrilled to see this title offered as an extra through BOTM for January and happily added it to my box.

The Removed

The Removed by Brandon Hobson – Feb 2 – Contemporary fiction

Maria is trying to hold her family together as grief for her son- who was killed in a police shooting- lingers years after his death. A bonfire in remembrance of him and the Cherokee National Holiday marks a turning point, as Maria and her husband foster a child who affects them and their surviving children in strange ways; the line between life and the spirit world begins to blur.

Another January BOTM selection, this one drawing on Cherokee folklore. Over the last few years I’ve been trying to diversify my reading more and more, but one area I’ve failed in this endeavor is reading from and about Indigenous peoples, so I’m excited to see BOTM introducing me to such a great-sounding title that’ll help me start out the new year on the right foot.

The Echo Wife

The Echo Wife by Sarah Gailey – Feb 16 – Science fiction/thriller

“Martine is a genetically cloned replica made from Evelyn Caldwell’s award-winning research. She’s patient and gentle and obedient. She’s everything Evelyn swore she’d never be. And she’s having an affair with Evelyn’s husband. Now, the cheating bastard is dead, and the Caldwell wives have a mess to clean up. Good thing Evelyn Caldwell is used to getting her hands dirty.”

I got an eARC for this title from Netgalley that I need to read soon; I’ve been wanting to try some of Gailey’s work for a while but I’m new to Netgalley so I thought I’d take a chance, and apparently it was meant to be that I should start here. It sounds like great starting point, tbh, bring on the clones!

WE’VE REACHED THE END! This has been a much larger endeavor than I was imagining, but it did help boost my excitement for the year’s upcoming books, so we’ll call it a win. Let me know if anything here catches your eye, or what your most anticipated release for 2021 is!

The Literary Elephant

Conquering the world of literature, one book at a time