Review: Ugly Love

I read Hoover’s It Ends With Us a little over a year ago. I liked what it was trying to do, but wasn’t thrilled with the ways it went about it. But it did have some good morals, was fun to read, and made me think I should try another of Colleen Hoover’s romance novels before giving up. At the very least, romance novels are occasionally a nice guilty-pleasure read for me. From her oeuvre, I chose Ugly Love.

uglyloveAbout the book: Tate moves into her brother’s apartment in Seattle because the empty room allows for a convenient commute to her nursing job. She isn’t intending to stay forever, but she gets along well with her pilot brother and a few months with him seems like a good choice. While she’s there, she meets one of her brother’s pilot friends, Miles. He’s drunk and desperate and in need of assistance. Their reintroduction in the morning when he’s sobered up a bit doesn’t go much better. But he is attractive, and she sees something in him that first night, a vulnerability that he’s extremely careful never to show when he’s in control of himself. So even when he makes it clear that he’s not interested in talking about the past or the future or love, that he’s only looking for a physical relationship, she agrees, hoping she’ll see that real, raw, deeper part of him again eventually. He’s highly motivated to make sure that doesn’t happen, which seems to doom their relationship from the start.

“I don’t see how love could get ugly enough for a person to just shut himself off from it completely.”

First, let’s look at the formatting. Many of Miles’ POV sections, which mostly focus on his traumatic past, are written with center alignment. Usually I appreciate unusual formats, but this simply had no purpose. I believe it was intended to make some of his story seem more poetic, but Miles is a pilot, not a poet. All of the books on his stuffed-full shelves are aerodynamic texts. And present-day Miles is still pretty bitter about the events unfolding in those past sections, not poetic.

What the formatting does accomplish however, is emphasis. This has more to do with spacing and sentence structure than the central alignment, and it’s especially noticeable in Tate’s POV chapters. There’s a lot of emphasis to be found in the parts that are probably supposed to be romantic. But spacing does not make up for the fact that the narration is constantly telling rather than showing in Ugly Love.

And what is it telling? A cute sentence Miles speaks is repeated in Tate’s head word. by. word. as the phrase becomes her new favorite sentence. Someone blushes and it’s mentally gushed over for an entire paragraph. “His fingertip touched my knee. OMG HE TOUCHED. MY. KNEE.” These are things that any reader can generally pick up on without being told three times in various ways that something significant is happening. An interested reader can identify a cute bit of dialogue without being told it’s there. He/she can identify a blush and recognize what it signifies. And if these cues are being given appropriately, we will be just as interested as the protagonist that the tiniest bit of the love interest’s skin is casually touching her knee. A tighter round of editing might have served better than the emphatic use of spacing, central alignment, and italics. So many italics.

“You look up there and think, I wish I was up there. But you’re not. Ugly love becomes you. Consumes you. Makes you hate it all. Makes you realize that all the beautiful parts aren’t even worth it. Without the beautiful, you’ll never risk feeling this. You’ll never risk feeling the ugly.”

But even the worst formatting, if a story has good bones, can be overlooked. And yet I could not quite bring myself to appreciate Ugly Love‘s bones. Tate is made to seem commendable for sticking with Miles while he struggles with his past. But sticking with him is pretty harmful to Tate from the start, worse as the novel wears on, and awful toward the end. There is a time she thinks “he RUINED me,” and stays with him. There is an incident when kissing is compared to killing. Miles is never physically or even intentionally abusive, but he’s constantly hurting Tate, and I didn’t think it commendable to show readers that staying in those situations is good for the person who’s constantly being hurt and coming back for more. But let’s skip to the big question of the novel: Are the ugliest parts of love worth the beautiful parts? An old question. One that’s already been answered time and time again, in better ways. Who doesn’t know “It’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all?” The romance is obvious before one even cracks open the book– but even the themes are predictable.

Where there’s predictability, there’s boredom. I didn’t need 100+ pages of proof that Miles had been in love before his romantic tragedy. That’s a no-brainer. That’s what makes his disaster disastrous. The tragedy itself has good shock value, but I believe I would’ve had the same reaction to reading it without all the backstory of how they’d gotten there. Even just hearing Miles say it in present day would’ve been as powerful as reading it directly from his past. Hoover gives point 1, dangles point 2, and then with 2 in sight she takes the reader on a scenic trip to 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, etc. There could’ve been a bit more mystery to the book, a bit more subtlety.

Instead, there’s insta-love. My problem with insta-love isn’t that I don’t agree with the possibility of love at first sight, it’s when the initial attraction never becomes more than that superficial first layer of physical attraction. And after finishing Ugly Love, I still can’t tell you what either Tate or Miles might have found lovable about the other. It’s just relentless physical attraction. Where’s the love?

Also there are a handful of details that seem to be pulled directly from Fifty Shades, which is unfortunate.

My reaction: 2 of 5 stars. Not the worst book I’ve ever read. It just wasn’t right for me, apparently. I had a lot of eye-rolling moments, but I did also laugh twice. It’s a romance, which is what Ugly Love purports to be, so it is successful in that.  I just wish there had been more focus on provocative and worthwhile content than on distracting formatting and familiar sentiments. I still feel like maybe in one of her novels Hoover will get just the right balance of unique and interesting story with the proper, powerful narration it deserves. But I’m not in a hurry to comb through the rest of her books looking for the one that will finally hit that mark.

Further recommendations:

  1. If you’re serious about picking up a Hoover book and haven’t already tried It Ends With Us, I recommend that one. While parts of It Ends With Us seemed preachy to me, there were more main characters and deeper questions, morals I wanted to hang on to longer. This one deals with spousal abuse and homelessness, and the epistolary formatting for part of the story is reasonably explained. It’s not so predictable.
  2. Although I would say Hoover’s books would be considered Adult romance, or maybe New Adult at lowest, I’m going to suggest Paper Princess by Erin Watt if you want a romance that really has the power to surprise. Paper Princess, a romance in the YA age range, was also a guilty pleasure for me, but I didn’t have nearly as many problems with it. The characters are teens, but it’s just as explicit as an adult romance. It’s gritty and weird and a little less obvious– there’s a whole family of hot boys, and it took me longer than I want to admit to figure out which one of them was the love interest. They’re interesting people, at the very least.

I’m sorry to have so many complaints about one book and I want to end on a good note: “It’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all” is indeed a beautiful sentiment.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

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Novel Progress 1.18

Have you ever wanted something so badly that you almost don’t even want to try for it? Because there’s that chance that you won’t get it, that you’ll give everything you’ve got and you still can’t get it, and that’s worse than dreaming forever without following through.

That’s how I feel about writing a novel.

But I know that’s not a helpful way of thinking, or of potentially succeeding at my goals. So here I am again, committing to monthly progress updates (whether anyone else is interested in them or not) to hold myself accountable, to push forward and find out whether writing is a dream I should keep chasing.

So here’s where I’m at:

Between my busy fall job and the holiday season, I started back at the beginning (as I’ve done a hundred times before) with the intent to revise, edit, finish writing in missing pieces, etc. all the way through to the end of my working manuscript. My book is divided into nine sections that’ll be about 10,000 words each (further divided into chapters within the sections). Currently I’m trending toward running closer to 11 or 12 thousand words per section, but I think at this point that’s the preferable way to skew. I want to hit the end without being short on anything, then do one final sweep to take out anything that doesn’t belong.

Right now I’m very happy with the first two sections, and working hard on the third. I’ve never been this excited about the progress I’m making, the changes to the story and the way it’s all turning out. I wish I could share a few excerpts here, but I just don’t trust the internet enough with something I hope to publish at some point. But I think the very fact that I’m ready to share parts of it, that I can read back through what I’ve edited and think, ‘Wow, I wrote that?’ is a great sign of achievement. I cannot wait until I feel that way about the entire book, and send it out into the world to try my luck with publishing.

But I’m not getting ahead of myself this time. I’m a big believer in goals, but I don’t want to fall back into the trap that brought my progress to a halt last year: failing to meet my goal meant I didn’t want to post a progress report, and when there were no progress reports to keep me motivated to work, there was less incentive to make progress… It was a vicious cycle in which I accomplished very little for too many months.

So right now I’m working in section three of nine. I’m expecting to take about two weeks to pick it apart and stitch it back together in a way that’ll satisfy me. This isn’t a goal, it’s an estimate based on the time frame of the last two sections I edited and the current state of section three. I’m hammering out small details in my editing, but I’m also still asking myself the big questions, ‘What themes am I reaching for here,’ ‘What’s the point of this character, or this event, or this chapter?’ I have an ending in mind, but I haven’t written as much of the plot in the later sections so I want to make sure I stay on track with the purposes of the novel and make sure everything is staying together cohesively.

I don’t know if anyone’s actually curious about my novel-writing endeavors, but I think it would be kind of cool to have some record of my working on it in case it ever does turn into the biggest accomplishment of my life.

Also, updates help keep me on track. I’m aiming for one update per month, and I think the more I get into it, the more I’ll share details about it, and about my process. Right now I’m going through sentence by sentence, changing everything that just doesn’t excite me. Making sure every word is relevant to the overall story. Culling adverbs. Streamlining dialogue tags. Adding sensory details. Cutting redundancies. There’s a lot of set-up in this first third of the book, but by the end of section three, everyone important is introduced, all of the fictional elements specific to my novel’s world are named and explored, the settings are covered, etc.

Oh, it’s a superhero book, by the way. New heroes, new monsters, new plot. New Adult age range primarily, but I wouldn’t say it’s inappropriate for younger audiences or too immature for adults. It’s also an exploration of soul mates– whether they exist, under what conditions, how important they are (or aren’t) in the grand scheme of things. It’s a nice balance between fast action and introspection (at least I think so); it’s got a strong female lead with an admirable sometimes-partner in a world turned upside down by man’s quest for immortality. I’m hoping it’ll be pretty good, in the end.

But I gotta get back to section three now.

Any other writers out there? How long have you been working on your projects?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

I’m on a quest to eliminate my BOTM backlist, and the first one on the agenda was my December selection, Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. It’s adult literary fiction, which was all I knew going in other than that Eleanor’s social skills are nonexistent at best, and abrasive at worst.

“Did men ever look in the mirror, I wondered, and find themselves wanting in deeply fundamental ways? When they opened a newspaper or watched a film, were they presented with nothing but exceptionally handsome young men, and did this make them feel intimidated, inferior, because they were not as young, not as handsome? Did they then read newspaper articles ridiculing those same handsome men if they gained weight or wore something unflattering?”

eleanoroliphantiscompletelyfineAbout the book: Eleanor has a crush. He’s a musician, and she’s seen him on stage once. They’ve never met. Nevertheless, she decides he’s absolutely the man of her dreams, he’ll fall madly in love with her when they meet, and he’s the key to turning her life around. And so she embarks on a self-remake journey and reconnaissance mission to learn about him before making her move. In the meantime, she’s thrust into a new social circle when she aids an elderly man who had a heart attack in the street; between her experiences with them and her weekly conversations with Mummy, she reveals a dark and tragic past that has made her adult life bleak and lonely. Her difficulty understanding other people’s perspectives has always made her seem so aloof and strange, but as the musician and the elderly man (along with a few other new acquaintances) begin to turn her life upside down, she learns that she’s not as remote and untouchable as she thought.

“Although it’s good to try new things and keep an open mind, it’s also extremely important to stay true to who you are. I read that in a magazine at the hairdressers.”

Eleanor’s dark past is one of the most intriguing aspects of the novel. The reader learns almost right away that there is more to Eleanor than meets the eye, and every subsequent clue is deeper and more curious. Her personality alone is enough to captivate the reader, but she also gives frequent hints about people in her past that turned bad (or were always bad without her quite understanding), the origin of her facial scars, and certain disastrous events which led to further hardships and her current life situation.

“Life is all about taking decisive action, darling. Whatever you want to do, do it– whatever you want to take, grab it. Whatever you want to bring to an end, END IT. And live with the consequences.”

I don’t know much about Asperger’s, but I’ve seen reviews claiming that Eleanor exhibits similar symptoms from the Autism spectrum. This is not a matter directly addressed in the novel, but from what little I do know, I do believe that this could be a contributing factor in Eleanor’s unusual personality. If this is indeed the case, I want to mention that the novel handles it pretty well. First, because it’s subtle. Eleanor has been mistreated, perhaps taken advantage of because a child with a neurological disorder can be particularly vulnerable, but the story is essentially about Eleanor, it’s not a moralizing reprimand to the masses about how to (and how not to) treat persons with Asperger’s; not that those books don’t have their place, but I find a subtle approach like this more endearing and effective. But most importantly, Eleanor Oliphant also offers readers examples of kind people who persist in helpful relationships with Eleanor not because of or despite any social difficulties she might display, but because she’s a person who needs friends like any other person needs friends. I know the world needs more diverse books– better representations of genders, races, disabilities– and this is the kind of novel I like to see fulfilling that demand: it’s informative but not preachy, enlightening but still fun. Eleanor is a fantastic character.

“Was this how it worked, then, successful social integration? Was it really that simple? Wear some lipstick, go to the hairdressers and alternate the clothes you wear? Someone ought to write a book, or at least an explanatory pamphlet, and pass this information on.”

Sadly, the present-day part of the plot is fairly transparent. It takes very little observation of Eleanor’s social encounters to figure out exactly how her plans with the musician are going to end up (though I was actually a bit disappointed with how internalized that final confrontation was, I was expecting more… confrontation), and almost as little time studying Raymond’s personality to know how things will end up with him. Even Eleanor’s secrets from the past are not entirely surprising when they’re finally revealed, due to the constant hints throughout the narrative that guide the reader to the truth. A little more subtlety with these techniques would’ve made this a definite 5-star read for me, but I think it’s a testament to how well-written the rest of the novel is that I couldn’t put the book down despite predicting where it was headed.

“These days, loneliness is the new cancer– a shameful, embarrassing thing, brought upon yourself in some obscure way. A fearful, incurable thing, so horrifying that you dare not mention it; other people don’t want to hear the word spoken aloud for fear that they might too be afflicted, or that it might tempt fate into visiting a similar horror upon them.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I absolutely loved Eleanor. She may be a bit unusual in her willingness to say out loud the first thought that pops into her head, but she has some darn good points to make in some cases, and even when I could see the mistakes in her assumptions, they never failed to amuse me. Eleanor Oliphant was Honeyman’s debut novel, and you can bet that I’ll be anxiously awaiting any new works she’ll have coming out in the future.

Further recommendations:

  1. Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar is a darker classic about a young woman who becomes dangerously depressed when she goes out to find her place in the world. Unlike Eleanor, who’s tragedy lies in her past and can be pushed behind her, Esther’s catastrophes take place during the time frame of the novel, which she struggles to turn back around.
  2. A Man Called Ove by Frederick Backman is a lighter book with similar themes. Ove, an elderly Swede, has been grouchy and cantankerous (and downright unsocial) since the death of his wife– but when a new family moves in next door, he begins to see that he still has a few things worth living for. This book is as humorous as it is emotional, perfect for fans of Eleanor.

Have you read any books that surprised you lately?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: The Glass Castle

If you think your parents are odd, you probably haven’t read Jeannette Walls’ memoir, The Glass Castle. One of my reading intents for 2018 is to pick up more non-fiction, and The Glass Castle gave me an easy start– it reads like a fictional coming-of-age story while further impressing readers with its ties to reality.

theglasscastleAbout the book: From an incident involving a stove fire and subsequent hospitalization at the age of three, Jeannette takes readers on a scenic trip through her eccentric childhood. Her adventurous parents are fond of the “skedaddle,” checking out of hospitals, homes, and whole states Rex Walls style– quickly and without paying the bills. Jeannette and her siblings are given a very free rein as her parents shuttle them from town to town, trying to strike it rich by finding gold or making it as an artist. Jeannette has grown up in the midst of her parents’ grand dreams, including the infamous Glass Castle, an elaborate home Rex would like to build for his family. None of them are short on dreams, but neither parent is inclined to hold a job for long and they take the ensuing years of poverty as part of the adventure– an adventure their children are fated to endure right along with them. From sleeping in cardboard boxes to using a back window as a front door and counting a yellow bucket as “indoor plumbing,” the adventure goes on and on, until it seems more like a trap to be escaped.

” ‘You can’t quit your job,’ I said. ‘We need the money.’ ‘Why do I always have to be the one who earns the money?’ Mom asked. ‘You have a job. You can earn money. Lori can earn money, too. I’ve got more important things to do.’ “

The Glass Castle is a tale of questionable parenting, but there’s no denying the love. Jeannette’s parents may make some truly awful decisions about the family’s living situations and their children’s basic needs, but they do have hearts full of love, some great advice, and open minds. In some ways they’re careless, but in other ways they’re enviably carefree. Jeannette writes it all without that sickly sweet element of sentimentality that would make the book read too much like a list of morals. She offers no reprimand to the adults that made beds for their children out of cardboard boxes or sneakily ate giant chocolate bars while their kids went hungry. Jeannette tackles these details with the adventurous spirit of the child she was, admitting that some of the hardships were actually fun and exciting. Her older, wiser self is apparent in the details she chooses to share and the pointed way she ends certain segments of her story, but she  refrains from guiding the reader too blatantly down a path of judgment and resentment.

” ‘Erma can’t let go of her misery,’ Mom said. ‘It’s all she knows.’ She added that you should never hate anyone, even your worst enemies. ‘Everyone has something good about them,’ she said. ‘You have to find the redeeming quality and love the person for that.’ ‘Oh yeah?’ I said. ‘How about Hitler? What was his redeeming quality?’ ‘Hitler loved dogs,’ Mom said without hesitation.”

The power from the story comes from two places: the first is the disillusionment concerning one’s parents. No matter how different the reader’s own past may be, growing up and learning that your parents aren’t invincible or even always good is a hard lesson. Many readers can relate to discovering that their parents have lied, that some of their plans are no more than fantasies that will never come to pass, that they’re more focused on their own lives than their children’s. There are some wonderful people in the world, and certainly some of them are parents, but even in the best of circumstances it can be difficult to suddenly see one’s parents as people, rather than solely as parents, the forces that make the world an inhabitable place and answer all of one’s questions. This shift in perspective is what The Glass Castle explores, and the juxtaposition of Jeannette’s childhood opinions with her adult writing style tackle it aptly.

“As awful as he could be, I always knew he loved me in a way no one else ever had.”

The other point of power in this story is the relationship between Jeannette and her siblings. Their parents may have had a unique way of raising children, but the four of them could always rely on each other to understand the workings of their family. Although they may not have confided every thought that entered their heads, the four siblings stand firmly together when the other schoolkids bully them about their living situation or despicable grown-ups try to take advantage of them. It’s an enviable closeness, and a remarkable example of reliability considering the poor example set by their parents, and any reader with siblings of his/her own or even close friends will recognize certain aspects of the relationship. Whether with siblings or not, it’s the sort of friendship one aspires to find in their own life, and often its the most positive point in Jeannette’s story.

“Other kids wanted to fight us because we had red hair, because Dad was a drunk, because we wore rags and didn’t take as many baths as we should have, because we lived in a falling-down house that was partly painted yellow and had a pit filled with garbage, because they’d go by our dark house at night and see that we couldn’t even afford electricity. But we always fought back, usually as a team.”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. For a while this was just a wacky story, but by the end I was feeling all the emotions and I knew I’d be thinking about this book for a long time. Despite its specificity, The Glass Castle offers lessons for readers from all walks of life; it’s not just about poverty, but about transformation. It’s about chasing one’s dreams instead of letting them die. It’s about making something out of nothing. Turning a bad fortune around. I found it very uplifting, especially in the last third of the book, and I had such a good experience reading this one that I’m encouraged to pick up more memoirs. I’ve got a couple in mind, but I’m fairly new to the genre and would appreciate suggestions!

Further recommendations:

  1. Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee is the disillusioning sequel to Lee’s classic, To Kill a Mockingbird. If you understand (or just appreciate reading about) parents who turn out to be different than one originally thought, I suggest picking this one up (after To Kill a Mockingbird. Don’t worry, they’re both relatively easy reads.)
  2. A Million Junes by Emily Henry is a YA magical realism tale about parents who aren’t what their children thought, although this one also deals with other big themes like grief and first love. It’s a great father-daughter story about making a meaningful life, even after losing someone important. This book is perfect for adults, too.

Are you reading anything outside of your normal comfort zone this year?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

 

 

TBR 1.9.18

*Announcer’s Voice:* Welcome to Literary Elephant’s new and improved TBR system for 2018! Monthly TBRs are a thing of the past, because all year I’m going to be trying something new: the five book TBR.

Why?

It’s hard to predict how much a person will actually read in a month. And what’s a month when it comes to reading? No more than an arbitrary number of days. By the end of my first year of using monthly TBRs (which I reached in mid-2017) I found myself routinely facing one of two problems: 1) either putting too few books on my monthly TBR so that I could succeed at crossing everything off the list, which left me picking up random books at the end of the month that didn’t help me work toward my reading goals, or 2) putting too many books on my monthly TBR so that everything I read was pre-selected, but I didn’t get to feel good about finishing my list by the end of the month. For me, it just seems impossible to pre-select the actual number and titles of books I will be reading in the span of a month. It made me feel bad about my reading, which shouldn’t ever happen. Reading is always good.

So what am I doing about it?

I’m implementing a new TBR system for myself in 2018. Instead of creating a new TBR every month, I’m going to be setting five-book TBRs, to be created every time I finish the previous five books. No deadlines. I’m not even going to try for a no-straying-from-the-TBR rule. If I want to pick up a new book I’ve never heard about before in the middle of my five TBR books, that’s totally acceptable. I’ll just wait to set a new TBR until I finish those original five books. This way, I get to finish my TBR list every time, in the amount of time that works best for me and my current schedule.

Since this is an all-new system for me, I’ll probably be experimenting with it for a while to see how I might want to subdivide it. In my 2018 reading goals, I have a couple of challenges that involve reading 12 books of a certain type throughout the year, which might not fit as easily in this five-book system. I don’t know yet how many of my five books should be reading challenge books on each TBR, or if I’ll want to intentionally set a mix of genres, or make my choices some other way. We’ll see. All I know is that it’s going to be a whole new adventure for me this year.

I’ve already decided I won’t put every book I read in 2018 on these lists. My five-book TBRs are not for books I pick up on a whim, books I’m not as serious about finishing, books I’ve already started and have vague hopes for finishing within the time of the list. My TBRs are goal lists, the highest priorities and most important books of the moment. For example, right now I’m buddy reading Stephen King’s It (1,153 pages) with a friend, but you won’t see that on this list. I don’t know when exactly we’ll be finishing It, I’m reading other books at the same time, and I don’t need that extra push to make sure I’m picking It up this month, so I’m saving my TBR spaces for other things I do want an extra push for. (But I will still review just about everything I read, regardless of whether it was on a TBR, including It.)

Here’s a look at my first five books, which I will read in whichever order I feel like picking them up:

  1. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. This was my Book of the Month selection from December, and I’ve been dying to start reading it. I actually have started reading it between the time of starting to draft this post and finally publishing it, so I’m already at work on my TBR and I’m loving this first selection. Eleanor is definitely not fine, but she thinks she is. She just doesn’t know yet that life is about more than being fine. She’s a unique and compelling narrator though, and I can already tell I’m going to rate this one highly.
  2. Iron Gold by Pierce Brown. A new release. This one doesn’t come out until January 16, but I know I’ll be receiving it within the month, and I want to be reading it right away. I’ve been waiting over a year for this fourth book in the Red Rising series, so there’s no way I’m procrastinating on it now. Morning Star left off on a good note (ending what should have been a trilogy), so I’m a little wary about what will happen to this series as it continues. I trust Brown’s writing though, so I’m going to dive right in as soon as I can get my hands on it.
  3. Emma by Jane Austen. A classic from my Another Year of Classics list. I have these set up to read one per month, and I am going to try to stick to that goal even though it might not fit perfectly in my five-book TBRs. I’m not sure how many of these TBRs I’ll be posting per month– last year I averaged reading 9 books per month, so I’m thinking I’ll have 1 or 2 TBRs every month, though they won’t always appear at the same time of the month. Anyway, I received a nice copy of Emma as a Christmas gift and it’s going to be my first classic of the year. I’ve read three other Austen novels but I know absolutely nothing about this one yet, but I’m pretty sure I’ll enjoy it as much as the other Austen novels I’ve read.
  4. The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood. I like reading an Atwood book at the beginning of the year, and I’m trying to catch up on BOTM books, as I mentioned above. This was an extra BOTM book from several months ago and while I do also have a backlog problem, this is one I’ve been holding onto specifically for this time of year when I like to read one of Atwood’s novels. I just never know what to expect from them and January is a great time for exciting surprises. This one looks pleasantly chunky and mysterious, but I no longer remember the synopsis. Which is good for me, even though it means I can’t give you any hints of what it’s about before I review it.
  5. Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo. A YA sequel. I read four of Bardugo’s books in 2017, including this one’s predecessor, Six of Crows. I was too busy trying to catch up with my 2017 reading challenge at the end of the year to get back into the world of Ketterdam and find out what happens with Inej, but I’m so ready to return to this duology. I’m tentatively planning to read less YA in 2018, but only in that I’m going to be more selective in which titles I pick up, which I think will end up meaning I’m reading fewer YA titles but getting more enjoyment out of the ones I do pick up. Crooked Kingdom definitely makes the cut, though. No way I’m missing out on this one.

TBR 1.9.18

(Morning Star is standing in for Iron Gold, which hasn’t arrived yet. Also I’m not especially impressed with Iron Gold’s cover, but it’s the contents that count, right?)

I’ll be reviewing each of these books as I read them, and when I reach the end of the list, I’ll post a new TBR, labelled with the specific date when it’s set rather than the month (because I’m anticipating some months having multiple TBRs). This will help me track what a comfortable reading speed is for me, and push me to read the books that are most worthwhile rather than the easiest books to fit in a certain month. I’m so excited about this!

I will still post monthly wrap-ups so that I have a way of putting all of the books I’ve been reading recently in one place. My wrap-ups won’t necessarily fall at the end of a TBR anymore, but they’ll probably include more than the titles on these TBRs, which is why I want to continue them as usual. Monthly wrap-ups will also help me keep track of those bigger reading goals for the year: the twelve classics, the new releases, backlog BOTM books, etc.

What are you reading to kick off the new year?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Underground Railroad

I’ve seen Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad on quite a few shelves since its publication toward the end of 2016, but somehow I failed to form a definite opinion about whether or not I wanted to read it until the final two weeks of 2017, when I suddenly needed a Pulitzer Prize winning book to complete my reading challenge. As I perused the list of winners and considered the titles most readily available, The Underground Railroad was the one that jumped out at me, and I had to pick it up immediately. I’m glad I did.

theundergroundrailroadAbout the book: Cora was born on the Randall plantation in pre-Civil War Georgia. When she was ten years old, her mother ran away, leaving Cora behind. As a teenager, Cora is presented with a similar opportunity: she can leave slavery behind and escape with Caesar, who has a connection with the Underground Railroad. Once she steps foot off the Randall property, she’ll either end up free or dead. Although the outcome may sound simple, the journey is anything but. The train ride itself doesn’t take much time, but Cora spends months– years– trying to escape the “crimes” she left behind her and find the life she’s been told she can have off the plantation. “Free” never quite seems like an accurate description of Cora’s situation though, and there’s always the danger that she’ll be returned to Randall for a gruesome fate. A trail of deaths and injustices follows Cora on her search for safety as she travels through a wide range of places with all manner of people and discovers how deep prejudice can run.

“But we have all been branded even if you can’t see it, inside if not without.”

“And America, too, is a delusion, the grandest one of all. The white race believes– believes with all its heart– that it is their right to take the land. To kill Indians. Make war. Enslave their brothers. This nation shouldn’t exist, if there is any justice in the world, for its foundations are murder, theft, and cruelty. Yet here we are.”

One of the most intriguing aspects about this particular Underground Railroad story was the use of a real underground train as part of the system. This new twist is also, I think, the main reason that Whitehead’s novel does not read like any other Underground Railroad tale I’ve ever encountered. The actual traveling between states takes so much less time than traversing on foot that the focus stays firmly on the characters: their lives and choices and hardships.

“Then it comes, always– the overseer’s cry, the call to work, the shadow of the master, the reminder that she is only a human being for a tiny moment across the eternity of her servitude.”

In The Underground Railroad, Whitehead allows the story to radiate out from Cora. We see sections about Caesar (her escape-mate), Cora’s mother and her mother’s mother, and even the slave hunter who’s dedicated himself to tracking Cora down. The reader may not agree with all of these characters’ choices, but the wider view of influencers in Cora’s life humanizes characters that might otherwise have been stock heroes or villains. Whitehead shows the reader the pasts that made each of them who they are, and how those people helped form Cora’s character and life conditions. We also see through Cora’s eyes at many different stages of her life rather than solely the time frame of her escape attempt. Cora herself is easy to appreciate, but the additional perspectives give the story a wider scope and a higher feel of plausibility. Whitehead balances the nuances of the multiple views expertly.

“Somewhere, years ago, she had stepped off the path of life and could no longer find her way back to the family of people.”

“A plantation was a plantation; one might think one’s misfortunes distinct, but the true horror lay in their universality.”

The only thing I would change about this book is the way it jumps through time. Normally I appreciate stories that start in medias res; I appreciate when characters don’t waste time explaining things blatantly to the reader that they wouldn’t be explaining if they weren’t aware that they were narrating a book, things that the reader can learn as the story progresses; but each new chapter of this book, and sometimes sections within chapters, seem to start in different times and places than where it left off, and it was often confusing for several sentences, paragraphs, or even pages how we had gotten from one point to the other and where we had ended up. There are lots of smaller stories within the overall arc of The Underground Railroad, and each of them jumps right in to the important parts without going into those helpful background details like time and place, and the big event that made him/her leave point A for point B in the first place. The Underground Railroad is a book that requires constant attention, but it will get you where you’re going in the end and it’s worth the extra puzzling to discover the truths Cora has to share.

“Freedom was a community laboring for something lovely and rare.”

“The world may be mean, but people don’t have to be, not if they refuse.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This was a great read, a book with pages that practically turn themselves because of the engaging plot and sympathetic characters, but also a book that teaches. For the first time since US history lessons in elementary school, I felt like I was reading a new story about the Underground Railroad, something that connected with me emotionally and still felt like it had relevant messages about kindness and equality even in a time when slavery no longer exists in the US. I’m definitely feeling encouraged to pick up more Pulitzer Prize winners.

Further recommendations:

  1. The Color Purple by Alice Walker is indeed another Pulitzer Prize winner that I read recently and highly respected. It also focuses on racism in southern US, although this time in the early 1900s. It also challenges misogyny and other forms of oppression, in a very uplifting and exciting way. It’s not to be read lightly, as it deals with some pretty heavy subjects, including rape and abuse, but it has some great messages to share for readers willing to brave its stormy seas.

Have you read any Pulitzer Prize books that you would recommend?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Another Year of Classics

In my 2017 Wrap-Up I mentioned meeting my goal of reading at least 12 classics throughout that year. (Check out A Year of Classics for last year’s titles.) I want to do the same for 2018.

In 2017, I read 15 of 12 classics, although I only read 10.3 of the classics I originally designated. Nevertheless, having a classic planned for each month did help me reach that goal of 12, even if I did make some changes to it as the year progressed. So I’m here to designate another 12 classics for the months of 2018.

Here are the titles I’m hoping to read this year:

January- Emma by Jane Austen. (I read two of Austen’s books last year and loved them. Now I’m on a quest to read the rest of Austen’s novels– not too fast, because I want to savor them, but Austen is the only author with two books on this list.)

February- Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. (My enjoyment of Jane Eyre last year sent me in the direction of this mysterious Gothic romance. It sounds like exactly the sort of intrigue I like to read to get me through the long tail-end of winter.)

March- The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hide by Robert Louis Stevenson.
(I read Stevenson’s Treasure Island, and it wasn’t my favorite, but I did enjoy the plot enough that I wanted to try another of his books. I’m hoping that I’ll like this one better.)

April- A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. (A Christmas Carol was the first and only Dickens novel I’ve ever read, but even though I knew the plot going in, the writing and the characters drew me in and made it such a fun experience– especially during the holiday season. I have no excuse to put off trying another Dickens title this year.)

May- The Odyssey by Homer. (I haven’t finished The Iliad yet, so putting The Odyssey in the top half of this list is meant to encourage me to keep working at it in a timely manner. I always intended to read the two of these close enough together that The Iliad is still fresh in my mind when I read The Odyssey, so I’m aiming to wrap up the whole endeavor in 2018.)

June- The Waves by Virginia Woolf. (There are several Woolf titles on my long-term TBR, and while I’ve read lots of excerpts and shorter pieces of Woolf’s, I’ve never read any of her full-length books. If this one goes well, I’ll probably pick up more of them in the future.)

July- The Beautiful and Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald. (It’s been years since I read The Great Gatsby, and I still haven’t picked up any of Fitzgerald’s other works. My opinion of The Great Gatsby has fluctuated over the years, so I’m not sure what to expect from picking up another of Fitzgerald’s novels, but I’m ready to find out.)

August- The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas. (I switched this one out of my classics list last year because I was starting A Game of Thrones again that month and didn’t want to read two really long books in a row. That’s a poor excuse and “epic revenge story” still sounds pretty fantastic, so I’m more determined to actually read this one this year.)

September- Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle. (My knowledge of Sherlock Holmes is vague at best. I have yet to read any of Doyle’s stories, which means I also haven’t watched any corresponding films or TV shows or read any retellings. It’s time to change that, I think. From what I’ve heard, Sherlock sounds like someone I’d be very interested in reading about, so that’s what I’m going to do.)

October- Dracula by Bram Stoker. (This is the other title I switched out of last year’s classics list, and if I’m honest, I’ve been meaning to read it for several Octobers in a row now and always procrastinated until it’s too late. I don’t know why, but here’s to giving it another go.)

November- Mansfield Park by Jane Austen. (As noted above, this is my second Austen title of the year, which will leave only one of her novels for me to read in 2019. I like the idea of spacing them out a bit, to keep the stories and characters from melding together in my mind and also because it’s so sad when there can’t be forthcoming novels by an author you appreciate– I don’t want my first experiences with Austen’s books to be over too soon.)

December- King Lear by Shakespeare. (I wanted a short classic for the end of the year, in case I’m busy trying to wrap up other reading endeavors. It should prevent me from shirking on my classics. I picked this one specifically because it was recommended to me multiple times after I posted my review for Macbeth last month. I’m still on the hunt for my favorite Shakespeare play, and I’m hoping this one will be a contender.)

classics 2018

(p.s I know it’s Macbeth in the picture instead of King Lear. I haven’t bought my copy of King Lear yet but I’m planning to do that later in the year.)

I love classics, but I know I don’t reach for them as readily as I do modern works. A challenge like this helps me to pick up books that might take a little longer to read but will (hopefully) be worth the time they take in the end. I tried to assemble a good mix of genres and authors for 2018 while also selecting books that I genuinely believe I will enjoy. I’m looking forward to reading these, and I hope I’ll have just as much success (or more) with this challenge as I did last year.

Do you read classics? Do you see any favorites on this list?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant