Favorite Books of 2016

It’s the end of the year, and that means: my twelve favorite books of 2016! Some of these were published for the first time this year, some of them I simply experienced for the first time this year, but either way these are the new contenders for my Top 25 Favorite Books Ever list, which I update every February. A small stipulation: I only allow myself to name one book per author, to avoid having an entire series filling up valuable spots on the list. I’m presenting my choices here in the order I read them; the fact that I am consistently unable to pick a single favorite book (hence my list of 25) means that I can’t organize my favorites from most- to least-liked. I love them all. If you’re interested in learning more about any of the books below, click the title to follow the link to my complete review of each book. Without further ado, here are my best reads of 2016:

  1. At the Water’s Edge by Sara Gruen. I already knew I lovebr4d Water for Elephants, so when I found this book on the new arrivals shelf at my library last January, I immediately picked it up. A historical fiction set mainly in Scotland at the end of the second world war, this book shows glamorous parties, the elusive Loch Ness monster, the ravages of war, and painful love, among other things. I like a little romance with a lot of adventure, and this book delivers.
  2. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. I only gave this one 4 br6stars when I read it, but the story and its ambiguous ending have really stuck with me through the year, and, I expect, will stay with me for a long time yet to come. A modern classic, this dystopian divides society in unconscionable ways. Our main character is the “handmaid” who is tasked with conceiving a child for a prestigious, childless couple–and she faces dire consequences for breaking the rules or failing to complete her job. But then she discovers a conspiracy that might save her life or drag her down deeper. I’m still speechless over the ending.
  3. Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith. This is the conclusion br1to Galbraith’s (aka Rowling’s) Cormoran Strike mystery trilogy. While I enjoyed each of these London-based detective stories, the third one, in which Cormoran’s past and Robin’s future collide with the investigator and his assistant, particularly stood out. In this book, the reader sees through the eyes of the killer as he narrows in on the series’ beloved main characters. The detectives must sort through a list of heinous enemies from Strike’s colorful personal history, any of whom could be out to kill him and ruin everything.
  4. Written in My Own Heart’s Blood by Diana Gabaldon. I’ve been a fan of the Outlander br5sereis’ plot (a time-traveling, supernatural, multi-cultural, adventurous romance)  since my foray into the first book. That said, while the characterization in these books is always excellent, I’ve had some major issues with various writing techniques in the story’s layout. This volume, though, the most-recent release, finally seemed to realize Outlander‘s full potential and brought everything together in an explosive way. I’ll be tapping my feet and twiddling my thumbs impatiently until the next book is released and I can check my theories on some of the plot threads. Unfortunately, Gabaldon has announced on her website (rather unkindly, in my opinion) that the next book will not be released any time in 2017. If you haven’t started this series yet, you’ll probably have time to catch up before we can expect published copies of Go and Tell the Bees that I am Gone to begin circulating.
  5. The Secret History by Donna Tart. Another modern classic,br11 this one follows a man retelling his horrifying experience in an exclusive Classics class at a small university in Vermont. The reader is informed early on that one of the six close friends who make up the entirety of the class has died at the hands of the others, and the narrator sets out to show the reader how this gruesome event came about and the disastrous effects of the student’s death. An eerie look into the darker sides of human nature, this novel takes ordinary, affable characters and twists them into criminals who can never escape their own monstrosity.
  6. In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware. I’m relatively new to the thriller genre, so every inadarkdarkwoodtime I pick one up I get a little addicted all over again. Ware is my new favorite thriller author, and I struggled so much to choose between this one and her new release, The Woman in Cabin 10. They’re both pretty phenomenal, but this one had a darkly tragic love story in the background that really sucked me in. A group of young women (and one man) gather in an isolated glass house during a snowstorm for a bachelorette party and fall prey to suspicious events and one malicious guest with murderous intent. This one’s a perfect read for a dark night.
  7. Hidden Bodies by Caroline Kepnes. In this…romance?…the hiddenbodiesreader follows a stalking serial killer who’s been unlucky in love and solves his problems with the people in his life by killing them. Again, Kepnes has two great books that I read this year to choose from, but this sequel (first book being You) has absolutely left me hanging and desperately needing the next installment. The mysteriously compelling murderer, Joe Goldberg, has moved to Los Angeles and left his DNA behind at the scene of a crime, but he’s finally found someone to love him and nothing seems more important. Love distracts him, though, and his failure to be careful on criminal endeavors turns Joe’s life alarmingly sideways at the worst possible moment.
  8. The Girls by Emma Cline. This look into Californian cult life in the 1960’s is less a thegirlsthrilling murder mystery and more an introspective look on the female experience. The Manson-like cult in this novel brings everything to the surface for main character Evie, who tells it like it is: every thought, every impression, every failure and victory that girls of the modern era can understand so well. Evie just wants to be seen, and is fiercely loyal to the people who do see her, even if they’re destructive. There’s crime and death, but those are secondary to Evie’s search for self-realization and acceptance. Can she find her identity in time to escape its collapse?
  9. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. I thought I didn’t know readyplayeroneenough about video games and 80’s pop culture to give this novel a fair chance. But then I read it, and couldn’t believe I had ever hesitated. I had never realized how alike a game could be to a traditional story trajectory–this book is a series of games within a game, and the tension leaves readers on the edge of their seats, as they would be in the high levels of a complicated game with a joystick at their command. Knowing the games referenced in the book is an added bonus, but an interest in puzzles is the only requirement. And really, every book is a puzzle, so you can’t say you like books but don’t have any interest in puzzling out what will happen next.
  10. Golden Son by Pierce Brown. With the Red Rising trilogy, Pierce Brown ripped my goldensonheart out, stomped on it, and kept me coming back for more. If I really had to pick a favorite read of 2016, it would probably be one of the books in this stellar series. The plot opens with a lowly Martian slave who wants to live for more, and zooms through deadly games, conspiracies, duels, space battles, and oh so much more. No one writes betrayals like Pierce Brown. Fast-paced, unpredictable, and irrevocably addictive, this second book in the trilogy is one of the few sequels I’ve ever loved even more than the first book. I’ve never been so excited for a spin-off series, the first book of which you will probably find on this list next year.
  11. The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater. I wanted to cut mytheravenboys list down to ten books, but I just couldn’t do it. Although in the past few years I’ve been straying from YA books, I’ve made an effort to check out a few of the big titles in that age bracket this year. The Raven Cycle reached its conclusion in 2016, and while I haven’t quite gotten to the final book yet, I had to mention my best YA read of the year so far, The Raven Boys. This supernatural story of friendship, discovery, magic, and love is so far from what I expected and written so engagingly that it immediately hooked me. Free of tropes and full of surprises, Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle is currently my favorite YA series, and restored my faith in an entire genre of books I was afraid I’d outgrown.
  12. A Court of Mist and Fury by Sarah J. Maas. This additional YA book (although I’d call it acourtofmistandfuryNA) caught me completely by surprise. After mixed feelings about the first book in this series–even knowing that readers largely preferred this sequel to the first book–I suspected I would be dropping this series after wading through another lukewarm novel; but this book reels readers in with countless surprises, and even where the plot becomes predictable it is utterly irresistible. Set in a high fantasy land full of salacious faeries and dangerous creatures, this adventurous love story reels in readers with its delicious prose and intriguing plot, and demands they pick up the next installment as soon as it is released in May.

This colorful dozen, along with a long list of second-best choices, have made 2016 a phenomenal reading year for me. (In fact, I’ve just finished reading Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian as my final book of 2016 and am somewhat saddened by the fact that there was no space left on this list for it.) I surpassed my goal in number of books, but more importantly, the books I read often exceeded my expectations and constantly renewed my love of literature. I have even bigger literary plans for 2017, so I’m anticipating even more reading (and writing!) greatness ahead and can hardly wait to share it with you all.

Have you read any of these books, or even added them to your own favorites lists? I recommend every one of them, and I would love to hear any recommendations you might have for me!

Wishing everyone a happy New (reading) Year,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Missing, Presumed

Susie Steiner’s new detective mystery, Missing, Presumed was published in summer 2016, but it makes a better winter read. This story takes place primarily in the cold months of December and January, so it coincides perfectly with the season.

missingpresumedAbout the book: Detective Sergeant Manon Bradshaw is 39, still single, at odds with her remaining family, and a committed police officer of Cambridgeshire. When a high-risk missing person becomes the biggest case of the year, Manon doesn’t want it to become her whole life, but she has little else to occupy her time. All the leads seem to point to nowhere, however. She’s also trying internet dating in her spare time, but that’s not going well either. Davy is dating the wrong girl, Harriet is married to her job, Bryony has a man but worries it’ll go wrong, and Edith… Edith is missing, and none of the people who love her have any idea what’s happened to her. Did her boyfriend have something to do with her disappearance? Did her girlfriend? Her prestigious family? The friendly ex-convict? The young man who turns up mysteriously dead around the same time? Manon doesn’t even know whether the team should be looking for a live girl or a dead one. Her private life, however, offers little respite from the search.

“Nature doesn’t know quite what to do with a childless woman of thirty-nine, except throw her that fertility curveball–aches and pains combined with extra time, like some terrifying end to a high-stakes football match.”

Best aspect: I love these characters. They’re all flawed, they all do great things, and then have a bad day and do things that make the reader cringe in pitying embarrassment. They feel like real people, with real problems, and seeing the minutiae of their days makes reading this book–especially at the same time of year as the story is taking place–feel like a real-life news piece to which the reader has an inside track. The narration is quirky and unexpected, giving such a layer of detail to every action and idea that the simplest statements turn into elaborate explanations that help the reader connect to each and every character.

“She smooths out the pillow and duvet where he’s been and pushes her feet down under the covers, reaching out an arm from the bed to switch on the radio, with its sticker reminding her it remains ‘Property of Cambridgeshire Police.’ A cumbersome bit of kit, and no one at detective sergeant rank is supposed to have one at home, but it is not a plaything. It is the method by which she overcomes insomnia. Some rely on the shipping forecast; Manon prefers low murmurings about road and traffic accidents or drunken altercations outside Level 2 Nightclub on All Saints Passage, all of which she can safely ignore because they are far too lowly for the Major Incident Team… The clicks, switches, whirring, receivers picked up and put down, colleagues conferred with, buttons pressed to receive. To Manon, it is the sound of vigilance, this rapid response to hurt and misdeed. It is human kindness in action, protecting the good against the bad. She sleeps.”

I don’t want to say there was any “worst aspect” to this book, exactly, but I noticed a couple of elements that could have gone smoother.

One, is the use of myriad abbreviations. Although these feel like bits of authentic English police jargon, I wasn’t familiar enough with them for each abbreviation to stick after only one brief mention early in the story. I tend to start reading new books at night, starting with about twenty pages to get a feel for the style before spending more time with the story the next day. So I read the beginning of Missing Presumed one night before I fell asleep, and by the time I picked it up the next day, I’d forgotten what most of those capitalized letters stood for and I wasn’t given any reminders. Luckily, the context was helpful enough that even without remembering exactly what everything stood for, I could understand what was going on without any difficulty. I could’ve flipped back to earlier pages to refresh my memory, so the confusion over this felt like my fault more than the book’s, but still worth a mention. Pay attention to those abbreviations, because this book definitely makes it the reader’s job to keep them all straight.

Secondly, this book is told in the present tense, from a close third-person perspective–most of the time. There are some instances where a character will think back on past events and the tense will switch. This threw me off every now and then, but it is done well; the rather uncommon style just takes a little getting used to. On a related topic, there is one character (I’ll refrain from describing whom to prevent spoilers) that is given a first-person narration. There are only a couple of sections in the entire book in which this choice makes an appearance, but I wished it hadn’t been done that way. The third-person narration that follows every other character goes deep enough into the lives and thoughts of everyone that there isn’t anything gained by the use of first-person narration when it appears. Furthermore, by the time this character takes the lead in the story, he/she doesn’t feel like the major character. The reader becomes more concerned with knowing how the investigation will turn out for all the characters who are given more page time up to that point, and so the choice to lend this particular character a first-person narrative feels random and unnecessary.

None of these factors actually detracted from the story for me, though; they were merely small details I noticed that I would have done differently if I’d played a role in the editing process. Nevertheless, I couldn’t resist Steiner’s writing style and word choices, and can’t wait to see more of her work.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I had thought this book was going to be a thriller, but it turned out to be a more straightforward mystery. I enjoyed the story regardless, but it took me a little longer to read than I would’ve planned for a thriller. That said, it was an immersive book. I loved the real-life feel, the depth of each character, and the voice of the narration. I will definitely be keeping an eye out for more books published in what appears to be an ongoing detective series, and I’m looking forward to seeing what comes next for the characters I’ve become acquainted with in Missing, Presumed.

Further recommendations:

  1. The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (aka J. K. Rowling) is a great choice for readers who enjoy England-based detective mysteries. Here, again, the characters feel real and likeable despite their flaws, and the mysteries of this trilogy are completely engaging. For more info, read my complete review of the first book here.
  2. Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None is another stellar read for mystery lovers. Set on an island, ten unique characters realize a killer walks among them and must try to figure out which of them is the murderer before they’re all dead. For more info, read my complete review of this book here.

Coming up next: I’ve just started reading The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. I want to finish this book before the end of the year to count it towards my Goodreads challenge (which I’ll also be posting about within the next few days), so I should have a review ready soon. I’ve read a few books lately that I’ve decided not to review, but I will also be sharing my monthly wrap-up soon with details about every book I’ve read in December, and I’m planning lots more reviewable books in the near future, so fresh posts are imminent!

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

 

Dec. Book Haul

I was going to try a book-buying ban this month, but it was Christmas so there were irresistible sales and thoughtful gifts, and all of my Black Friday orders started shuffling in aaaaand… I acquired a ton of books. Here’s what’s new on my shelves:

  1. Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. I read this entire series earlier this year, and it became an instant guilty pleasure. Although it’ll probably be a few years before I’d even consider doing a more thorough reread of the series, there are pieces here and there that I’ll want to able to look back on from time to time, and so I’ll probably start purchasing a few favorite volumes when the opportunity arises. I found this copy of the first book pretty cheap on Book Outlet–the TV show cover edition, which I usually don’t go for, but in this case I love the show even more than the book. I’m happy to have this one on my shelf, and to be able to page through and reminisce about how it all began.
  2. The Rose and the Dagger by Renee Ahdieh. I also found this one relatively cheap on Book Outlet, and since I picked up a copy of the first book in this pair earlier this year, I had been on the lookout for a chance to buy the sequel. I’ll probably be reading both of these within the next couple of months.
  3. The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly by Stephanie Oakes. This one also came from Book Outlet. I went a little crazy ordering books around Black Friday sale time, and as soon as December hit, the book boxes started pouring through the mail like Harry Potter’s Hogwarts letters at Privet Drive. I had heard of this one before but never looked into it very seriously, until I saw how cheap it was, read the intriguing synopsis, and decided to give it a chance.
  4. Early Warning by Jane Smiley. This author attained a degree from the Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa, my alma mater, so I picked up the first book in this series earlier this year, and couldn’t pass up buying the sequel when I found it at such a reasonable price. Although I haven’t read either of the Smiley books I own yet, I know some great writers have come through the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and I’m eager to learn more about some of their books. Also, this series is set across a few generations of an Iowan family, which is relatively uncommon in literature unless the author is making a joke about cornfields.
  5. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them by J. K. Rowling. Everything is cheaper at Sam’s Club–mostly because you have to buy it in bulk. I would buy books there in bulk if they had a bigger selection, because they generally have some great new releases on marked down prices, but it’s usually pretty hit-or-miss with their inventory. I always check though, just in case, and this month I picked up Rowling’s screenplay for a nice discount. I wasn’t anticipating this one as much as Cursed Child, but now that I have it on my shelf I’m pretty intrigued.
  6. The Gold Eaters by Ronald Wright. This one came from another Book Outlet sale order. Historical Fiction books were featured one week around late Nov. / early Dec. and I picked up a few, including this one I’d never heard anything about. I believe it’s set around the fall of the Incan empire, which sounds absolutely fascinating to me. I was glad to have come across it, and can’t wait to pick it up.
  7. The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler. I’ve been hearing vague good things about this one for a little while now, and it sounded right up my alley. When I saw it on the Book Outlet sale, I ordered immediately. I believe this one has a bit of a mix between magical elements and history, so I think I’ll really like this one when I get around to picking it up.
  8. A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson. Again, I found this one on Book Outlet. I picked up Atkinson’s Life After Life earlier this year, and though I’m not sure this is exactly a companion novel to that one, it does have at least one related character, and they both sounded so promising that I wanted to be able to read them together.
  9. Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. I had been on the fence about picking this one up for several months. I knew I wanted to read it, but wasn’t sure I wanted to buy it. It looks like a rather small book, and it always seemed to be just a little more expensive than I was willing to spend. Book Outlet came to the rescue. I’m looking forward to seeing what all the buzz is about.
  10. Unite Me by Tahereh Mafi. The Shatter Me series sounds like exactly the sort of classic YA trilogy a teenaged me would have loved, so when I decided to start reading more YA again this year, this series was one I insisted on checking out. I bought the first two books in the series for great low prices, and although I haven’t had a chance to read them yet and still haven’t found a nice cheap third book to complete my set, I did pick up this set of two related novellas to read between the main volumes.
  11. The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Confession by Leo Tolstoy. I loved Anna Karenina when I read it a couple of summers ago, so I wanted to read more Tolstoy. War and Peace is on my eventual reading list, but when a friend recommended the much shorter The Death of Ivan Ilyich to me, I decided I’d give that one a try first. I bought it in a bind-up of two Tolstoy stories for a couple of dollars on a Black Friday sale.
  12. Frozen Tides by Morgan Rhodes. This is the fourth book in a fantasy series that I haven’t even started yet but very much want to delve into. Again, I found it cheap on Book Outlet, and nothing eases anxiety like knowing you don’t have to worry about cliffhangers for at least four books. The fifth book also came out recently, but I want to start reading these before I buy any more.
  13. City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallburg. This one was another Black Friday buy. Some people buy electronics, some people buy clothes, I buy all the books. I don’t remember the synopsis of this one, but I read it and liked it. I think there are multiple POVs and it’s some sort of thriller and part of the story is told through alternative mediums. I think.
  14. The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell. I’ve heard great things about this book and I’ve had my eye on it for a while. Again, Black Friday sales to the rescue. David Mitchell sounds like an author I might be interested in reading more books from, but I’m excited to start with this one and see where it takes me.
  15. Modern Lovers by Emma Straub. I love the gorgeous colors on the cover of this book. Although I’ll often let beautiful covers catch my eye and draw me in, it takes an interesting synopsis or notable writer to seal the deal for me. This one’s been on my radar almost since its publication date earlier this year, and I was just biding my time until I found it cheap somewhere. I thought I might even wait for the paperback, but then the glorious hardcover edition came across Book Outlet while I was picking sale books and I had to add it to my order.
  16. Like a River Glorious by Rae Carson. This one I picked up with a few other sequels to accompany all those first-in-a-series buys I made a few months ago. I looked at all the series-openers I’d picked up, I looked at which of those were part of completed or ongoing series, I decided which ones I wanted to read sooner than others, and I made a few sequel purchases before deciding I had to catch up with what I’d already bought before trying to complete all those series I’d started. Now I have two books in this historical fiction/fantasy YA trilogy before the third book comes out next year.
  17. Siege and Storm by Leigh Bardugo. This is another sequel I picked up before cutting myself off. I really want to read the Six of Crows duology that’s been radiating all the hype lately, but I decided to read this trilogy first since it takes place in the same world and was published first. Since I want to read that duology so badly and I have such high hopes for this trilogy as well, I think I’ll get to these books pretty soon so I went ahead and also picked up:
  18. Ruin and Rising by Leigh Bardugo. This is the third book in the Shadow and Bone trilogy, and I’m hoping to read all three of these more of less back-to-back in the next month or two.
  19. The Invasion of the Tearling by Erika Johansen. This is the second book in the Tearling series. I’ve heard great things about this trilogy, and I can’t wait to dive in, but I’ve bought the first two books in paperback so I’ll either have to wait to read them all until the final book is released in that format, or risk leaving off on a cliffhanger by reading the two I now own and waiting to read the third book. I haven’t decided yet. I’m impatient to start this series, but I predict I will be even more impatient for the third book once I’ve read the first two.
  20. The Heart of Betrayal by Mary E. Pearson. This is the final sequel I ordered in that sequel-buying spree. This trilogy sounds particularly intriguing, and I know I’m going to want to be able to keep going once I get around to picking up the first book. Even though I know there’s one more that was published recently, I want to wait for that one to come out in paperback also before I buy it, so I have the same problem with this series and my impatience for the third book.
  21. The Female of the Species by Mindy McGinnis.  I’ve heard this one described as a book in which it’s hard to tell what’s going on all the time, and I must confess I particularly enjoy trying to parse those details out. It’s also been called a “dark contemporary” story, which sounds appealing. Contemporaries have a tendency to become predictable, but I think somehow this one will escape that danger. This is an author I’ve been meaning to check out, and this newest book easily stood out as my top McGinnis choice, although if I like this one, I’ll also want to read A Madness so Discreet.
  22. Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys. A friend of mine read this book recently and loved it. It had been on my list, but I just hadn’t been in the mood for a WWII historical fiction and hadn’t really planned on reading it terribly soon. But just after my friend mentioned its greatness, I found a signed copy at my local Barnes and Noble that I think was left over from Black Friday sales, and I just couldn’t pass it up.
  23. Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur. I also found a signed copy of this one at my local Barnes and Noble, and surprisingly at a discounted price. The same friend had pointed me to this book of poetry a few months ago, and I was waiting to borrow her copy, but I saw this one and had to have it. I grew up in an area where there aren’t many author events and book signings going on, and I’ve never had a good opportunity to travel to see my favorite authors, so I hardly own any signed books and I’ve never had one signed personally. Lately I’ve been more interested in signed books, so if I find one that’s on my radar and it’s been signed, I’m probably going to pick it up.
  24. The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah. This is the last one I found signed at Barnes and Noble. I mean, there were more, but I only picked up the books I had already been interested in. This one, actually, a family member purchased and gifted to me for Christmas, so a big Thank You to my aunt for that! Again, this is WWII historical fiction, and I hadn’t been in the mood lately so it was on the back burner, but I do love historical fiction, and I’ve read some other great and powerful books about that time, so I’m confident that I will read and love this one as well as soon as I’m ready to read it.
  25. Red Rising by Pierce Brown. I read this trilogy earlier this year and absolutely loved it. I immediately bought books two and three after reading a library copy of Red Rising because I knew I would want them all eventually. Eventually finally arrived in festive Christmas wrapping paper. These books are going to be bloodydamn well-read before I’m through with them.
  26. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J. K. Rowling. I asked for the illustrated edition for Christmas and was lucky enough to receive it. As a book nerd, of course, it shouldn’t be surprising that I’ve already read this entire series and own all of them, but I’ve had a box set of the first five books in paperback since 5th grade, and while I love them because they were the copies I read, I wanted a more durable set. There are so many great editions out there, but the illustrated copies fit what I was looking for–something fun and current to start collecting that I won’t buy all at once, a new visual of my favorite wizarding world, and hard covers with thick pages that’ll stand up to a lot of use.
  27. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J. K. Rowling. Again, the illustrated edition. Since there are only two of these published so far, I put them both on my list and can thank my wonderful grandma for gifting them to me. From here on out, I’ll probably try to buy them as they’re published and collect the full set.

decbooks

And we’ve finally reached the end! This has been my largest monthly book haul to date–not just in a blog post, but ever in my life, I think. I’m a big fan of libraries. It feels weird to have a shelf full of books I own but still need to read. What’s your take on buying books faster than you can read them? I think I’ll move my no-buy over to January and try to start evening things out. But no worries–books I ordered in December will be arriving in January, so I’ll still have a haul. Hopefully a more manageable one.

Cheers to a new reading year!

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

January TBR

It’s the most wonderful time of the year… to start planning which books to read in 2017! I read some great books in 2016, but I also had some rocky reading months. Now I’m getting organized to have the best reading year ever, and these are my picks for January:

  1. The Raven King by Maggie Stiefvater. I was hoping I could get around to finishing the Raven Cycle in December because I like finishing projects at the end of the year, but I had so many other books already borrowed and planned that I knew it was unlikely I’d manage to finish this quirky, supernatural  YA series ahead of schedule. I suppose the beginning of a new year is almost as good a time to tie up loose ends, so I’ll be reading this one early in the month, and with as much as I’ve been enjoying the series so far, I’m sure I’ll like this one.
  2. All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders. This is an adult magical realism book that’s been on my radar for a while, and I finally checked it out from the library in December. It’s due back soon, so I’ll be reading this one early in the month as well.
  3. Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood. I think this is a modern retelling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, but set in a prison. I hated The Tempest, but I think that was mostly because I hated the literary class I had to dissect it for; I’ve really loved the Margaret Atwood books I’ve read so far, one of which was also partially set in a prison, so I’m hoping this book will turn my opinions of The Tempest around. At the very least, I am familiar with the play, and I generally enjoy comparing adaptations to familiar stories. I can’t wait to check this one out.
  4. Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton. I meant to read this one in December, but even though it’s short I just didn’t have time. Also, toward the end of the month when I had originally planned to read it, I decided to read one classic per month for 2017 (check out my Year of Classics choices here) and thought this would be a great choice to start off the year. So I’m adding this winter-y tale to my TBR for the second month in a row, and aiming for better results.
  5. Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell. I read my first Rowell novel last month and was intrigued enough to seek more. This one was lent and recommended to me by a friend, and since I didn’t have time for it in December, I’m making time at the start of the year to check it off my list. I feel bad taking very long to read borrowed books, and I fully trust my friend’s reading recommendations, so even though I don’t reach for YA contemporary stories very often, I’m eager to pick this one up soon.
  6. City of Bones by Cassandra Clare. I’ve actually read this urban fantasy YA book already, but it’s been years. My Shadowhunters history: I read the first three books of the Mortal Instruments series and then stopped because that was all that had been published at the time, and the end of the third book felt like an end to a trilogy, so I wasn’t even aware that more books could be expected until a few years later when the Infernal Devices books started appearing on my radar.Since the end of City of Glass felt like an ending to me, I noted that there were more books in that series but jumped right into the Infernal Devices instead. After reading the first two of those, I had to wait for the third one to be published but somehow just didn’t pick it up. By now, I hardly remember anything about any of the five books I’ve read, I really want to read Lady Midnight, and new years are for new attempts–so I’m going to try reading all of Cassandra Clare’s books in publication order this year. I’m hoping to read them faster than one per month, but I don’t think I’ll read them all back to back, either. I’m just going to start with one in January and see where life takes me.
  7. Vows by LaVyrle Spencer. My mom lent me this romance novel several months ago, and I feel badly for taking so long with it, but I see her often enough and I know she hasn’t had much time for reading since she lent it to me so that I don’t feel too much like I’m causing any sort of delay for her. My mom hardly ever lends me books, though, so I am intrigued about this one, and it’s another loose end I wish I’d had time to tie up in December.
  8. Dark Matter by Blake Crouch. I bought so many books in 2016 that I haven’t read yet, and the only way to make it better is to stop borrowing so many books that I don’t have time to read my own. I love the library, and I’ll still go, but I’m going to limit myself there so that I have time each month for at least one book from my own shelf. My one-classic-per-month goal will help with that, because every classic I picked for 2017 is one I already own, but those aren’t the only books from my personal library that I want to read. This one has been at the top of my list since October, and I still haven’t gotten around to reading it. So I’m going to try very hard to make time for this thriller in January.

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I’m hoping to read even more books than this in January, but these are the reads I’m most intent on finishing. I do have other projects I want to work on in 2017, so eight books seemed like a realistic number, in line with the number of books I’ve been reading per month lately. If I read more, I’ll consider them a bonus. I didn’t want to assign myself so many books that I would have to spend February catching up instead of setting up a new TBR. I’ve grown to love setting up new TBRs every month. I didn’t think I would. How do you decide what to read next?

Are any of these books on your list for 2017? It’s a great time of year for a warm blanket and a captivating story. Let me know what you’ll be reading to kick off the new year!

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

A Year of Classics

Need more classics in your life? Me too!

I’ve enjoyed mixing classics into my reading agenda in the past, but when I end up too busy to read as many books as I’d planned, the classics always seem to be the first to be nudged farther down the list. There are so, so many books I want to read this coming year, but in order to prevent the classics on my list from falling by the wayside, I’ve compiled a month-by-month plan of twelve classics to keep me motivated in 2017.

If you’re interested in picking up a few more classics this year, I encourage you to join me in my Year of Classics by following along, or creating your own personalized list. Although I likely won’t be posting full-length reviews for classics, I do include a paragraph of my thoughts on every book I read in my monthly wrap-ups if you want to keep track of my progress with these classics and share your own. I haven’t read any of these books yet, so no spoilers please, but I’d love to see in the comments below if you’ve read or highly recommend any of these stories, and what classics you’re reading!

January: Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

February: Persuasion by Jane Austen

March: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

April: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

May: (To Kill a Mockingbird and) Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

June: Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

July: Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

August: The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

September: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

October: Dracula by Bram Stoker

November: The Iliad by Homer

December: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

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These are twelve of the books I plan to read in 2017. Have you read any of these? What do you want to read more of in the new year?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: Winter (+ Fairest)

Winter weather has struck, and I’ve found an appropriately titled book for the occasion:  This month I read both the final novel in the Lunar Chronicles by Maggie Stiefvater, Winter, as well as the companion novel to the series, Fairest. If you want to check out my thoughts on the first three books, you can follow these links: Cinder, Scarlet, and Cress. Otherwise, find my thoughts on the final volume of the Lunar Chronicles below.

About the book: With Emperor Kaito now on Cinder’s side, the Rampion crew sets out on a winternew mission to thwart Levana. This time, as Queen Levana wages all-out war on Earth in response to the delay of her marriage, it’s an all-or-nothing scheme that brings all of Levana’s enemies together, building their strength in numbers. Princess Winter, a new focus in this novel, also becomes involved in the effort to overthrow Levana. She’s not the sort to condone fighting, but when Levana decides she doesn’t want her beautiful stepdaughter to exist anymore, Winter has little choice but to side with those who want to help her rather than hurt her. Still, though the ragtag group of rebels is growing, can they ever be strong enough to face Levana and all her powerful minions? And even if Levana can be overthrown, how can Cinder be with Kai when they would be leaders of countries thousands of miles apart? How can Thorne be with Cress if she wants to explore Earth but he can’t part with his Rampion? How can Scarlet be with Wolf when he has a chance to reunite with his previous life on Luna, or when he has become so animalistic that he may not be safe company? How can Winter be with Jacin when Levana and her head thaumaturge are so determined to kill them? And what will happen to Luna and Earth if Levana wins supreme control?

I have a lot of things to say about Winter, but let’s start with the things I appreciated most in this novel.

First, we have a great balance of characters and perspectives. The reader is presented with a 3rd person narration that alternates between close focus on eight main characters. The transitions between them are easy to navigate–each section leaving the reader wondering what will come next for that character, but equally eager to move on and find out what’s happening to the others who left us hanging. Almost every chapter ends in a mini cliffhanger that keeps the reader going, but there’s no jarring switches because every character’s story is equally exciting. This is the same format we’ve seen since Scarlet, but in Winter, it finally works perfectly.

Secondly, we have an action-packed plot that keeps moving from start to finish. Something that annoyed me in earlier books was that there seemed to be so much sitting around and reflecting on the situation while the narration seemed to be waiting for something to happen. In this one, there’s hardly a chance for anyone to stand still at all, and that eliminated a lot of my problems with the narration. The plot has always been interesting, but in Winter, we have so much plot that there’s no room for repetitive worries about what might happen.

Thirdly, we have all the romance this series has been waiting for. It bothered me a little that all of the main characters were neatly paired off in relationships where the biggest problem always seemed to be pining during separation, but this book puts true strain on each relationship that makes every victory in love more intense. It’s great that each female character is able to do something important on her own–there may be “princes” involved in each fairy tale story, and sometimes the “princesses” need help, but sometimes it’s the princes that need help, and each female is strong enough to stand on her own. The love stories may be cute in a predictable way, but each individual character is an interesting and capable person; they don’t depend on each other, but they make each other happy. I think that’s a positive way to portray any relationship.

“Act natural? Act natural? When her legs were made of noodles and her heart was about to pound right out of her chest and he’d said that he loved her, at least in a sense. What did it even mean to act natural in the first place? When had she ever in her life known how to act natural?”

And fourthly, my favorite part of Winter is Winter herself. Although the narration remains in third person throughout the series, we now have a close look at a character who’s a little mentally unstable. Winter has refused to use her Lunar gift, which makes her a little crazy. It’s so much fun to read about her life and have to separate what’s real from what’s imagined in her head. She’s an unpredictable character, which is wonderful. Winter is just the princess this series needed to pull everything in the plot together.

But let’s also look at the aspects that didn’t jive.

“Levana had been living with her excuses for a long time.”

Levana felt like a drastically different character to me between Fairest (the companion book about Levana’s past) and the Lunar Chronicles proper. In Winter and the rest of the main novels, Levana seems intentionally malicious, someone who enjoys hurting people for the sake of hurting them, whether physically, emotionally, or mentally. In Fairest, I did not have that impression at all. Although the narrator of Fairest describes an event in Levana’s childhood that could have caused a mental breakdown and the turning of her character from a sweet little girl to an evil one,that was not the impression I was left with. Levana seemed never to hold any remorse or true understanding of the pain she was inflicting on her victims, as though she was born missing the sympathetic gene. She could do hateful things with dire consequences, using flimsy excuses that she seemed to believe whole-heartedly, but she did them because she thought something could be gained for the betterment of Luna. She was often wrong, but she believed she was helping. In the main books of the series, however, including Winter, Levana acts vengefully. If a character displeases her, she lashes out, not for the betterment of Luna but to hurt that character. She doesn’t seem like a character who grew up without an understanding of sympathy, she seems like she enjoys cutting down every enemy, and when those are gone, creating more enemies to cut down. Although Fairest gave some helpful background information on the Lunar royal family tree, the whole book felt largely like a discrepancy. The most significant reveals were also uncovered in Winter, and after finishing both books, I felt that I hadn’t gained anything by reading Fairest at all. But back to Levana:

“No, Levana was a monster, but it wasn’t because of the face she’d kept hidden all these years. Her monstrosities were buried much deeper than that.”

Are they though? Does Levana really even know that what she’s doing is monstrous? Also, there was definitely undue attention to the “monstrosities” of Levana’s face. It really bothered me throughout this series–and especially in Winter where the matter comes to the forefront–that Levana’s ugliness could be her worst flaw. She’s more concerned with being known as a beautiful queen than a good queen, and it seems that everyone who sees her true appearance says or thinks that she’s catastrophically hideous. I know that in the familiar story of Snow White, the evil queen is obsessed with the fact that the mirror claims her stepdaughter is more beautiful, but I think this series takes the queen’s desire to be beautiful in a bad direction. See, it’s Levana’s scars that make her ugly–scars that were inflicted upon her as torture when she was a child. It felt very wrong to me for so many characters to hold her appearance against her when her scars were the result of the same sort of victimization by manipulation that the rest of them all fear from Levana.

I think the revelation of what happened to Levana as a child had the potential to make the queen a very interesting character with more depth, but instead Meyer took only Levana’s appearance into account and made her a victim again, sending the wrong messages to young Lunar Chronicles readers–that beauty can be more important than fairness or kindness, and that it is acceptable to judge someone based on their appearance, no matter what may have caused the disfiguration.  A little vanity would have been understandable and perhaps even excusable. But when Cinder wants to show everyone on Luna what Levana truly looks like to win more people to her own side, although the point may be to demonstrate the extent of Levana’s lies, the idea seems more like a call to raise arms against Levana because of her ugliness. Fighting because you don’t like the way someone looks is, again, not a good message to be sending impressionable readers.

Speaking of bad messages, there were also a few that stemmed from the narration around Jacin’s character. He was often disheartened or outright upset about how things were playing out for him, leaving him cynical and somewhat hopeless, but he gave the reader some really bad lines. Although in context, the narration makes clear to the reader that his opinions are wrong and come from a place of depression, there are a few things he says that I didn’t want to read, ever, in any context. Things like, “Dreams are for people with nothing more important to do.” There was also one that stood out to me about hope being pointless. I don’t know the wordings of these quotes for sure. I didn’t mark them to look back on. That’s my point–whenever I read any book, I mark passages that are inspiring or well-done, quotes I want to remember later. I think this is something many readers do. I don’t want to read things that would ever make me feel bad about dreaming or having hope, and I don’t think those sorts of statements should be in a book like this at all–maybe in any book. So I didn’t mark them as I read, but they stuck with me. I understood Jacin was feeling particularly down on his luck, and I didn’t have a problem with that, but I think the narration expressed it in a bad way.

That’s not to say the narration was all bad, though. Here’s a quote I did like:

“One should never save cake for later when it can be eaten now.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Various aspects of this series have bugged me on and off from the very first book. There was not a single book in this series that I really loved enough to completely overcome my reticence for some of the narrative maneuvers, but obviously I enjoyed them enough to read the entire series. Indeed, Winter was my favorite book of all four. I’m glad that I didn’t quit early, because the series definitely had more to offer than was made apparent in Cinder or Scarlet. I don’t completely understand why this series is so popular, but it certainly has its merits.

What’s Next: I’m currently reading Tom Rob Smith’s Agent 6, the final volume in his Russian Child 44 trilogy. You can find my review of that book here if you’re interested, but since I didn’t create a post about the second book in the series, The Secret Speech, I probably also won’t include one of Agent 6. After that, I intend to read and post about Susie Steiner’s Missing, Presumed, a thriller about a girl who is presumed dead, and the policewoman who’s investigating her case. Also, I’m planning some changes and additions to my blog for the coming year, so although I may not share much for the end of December, there’ll be new excitement in January!

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: And Then There Were None

Agatha Christie is a staple of the mystery genre for a reason. I recently read one of her best-known stand-alone novels, And Then There Were None, which did not disappoint. This one’s a thrilling classic.

About the book: Ten people have been lured to Soldier Island, all under false pretenses of andthentherewerenoneemployment or a summer holiday vacation. By the end of the very first night, however, they discover that they’ve all been lied to, that some of them have kept secrets from each other, and that the systematic elimination of every one of them has already begun. The next morning, after a thorough search, the already-dwindled party realizes that they are in fact alone on the island–if there really is a murderer, he or she is hiding in plan sight, posing as one of the potential victims. Can they discover who it is before it is too late?

“He said: ‘Oh, yes. I’ve no doubt in my own mind that we have been invited here by a madman–probably a dangerous homicidal lunatic.’ “

The characters–the heart of any novel, in my opinion–have been expertly crafted. Not a single one of them is lovable, and yet they are all uniquely colorful and curious beings. Every single one of them is accused of murder; some of them admit freely to killing, and yet, they are all so afraid to die. There is something wonderfully freeing about meeting morally suspect characters: they seem perfectly capable of doing absolutely anything, from making the most heroic sacrifices to the darkest betrayals. The characters of And Then There Were None are not necessarily good people, but they are good to read–wild cards one and all. The most chilling aspect of the tale is that under the premise of the killer hiding among the others, he or she must necessarily be acting the part of a frightened victim as well as the truly terrified ones. He or she must be crazy enough to set up an elaborate ten-murder scheme, but also sane enough to remain undetected even as everyone begins to look at each other suspiciously.

” ‘Many homicidal lunatics are very quiet unassuming people. Delightful fellows.’ “

As for the technical aspects of the story: the narrator is an omniscient third party, who focuses on one character at a time and can describe that target so closely that his or her very thoughts are exposed. This is a precarious technique for a story in which the murders are ongoing and the narrator must not reveal which character is the culprit. Christie handles it fantastically. There are times when this narration allows for the reader to make guesses as to the killer, and times when it helps the reader by supplying information to eliminate one. Christie keeps readers on their toes by seeming to close all the doors of possibility, and then pointing out a window that has been left open. This mystery would not be possible without the narrator Christie gives it.

I am also particularly fond of the format Christie employs in this novel; the chapters are further divided into distinct subsections. The action frequently flows without break from one into the next–even in the middle of a conversation–and the subsections are relatively short, which together make the book easy to read and read and never stop. There’s nothing especially unique about this layout, but it’s my personal favorite: a nearly continuous stream, presented in bite-sized pieces.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. This one had been on my TBR for a little while, but I was in no hurry to read it. Then out of the blue a friend lent me her copy and I decided it must be time. I’ve read some Agatha Christie stories prior to this, and enjoyed them, but none of them have stuck in my mind. This one, I think, won’t be leaving any time soon. I was completely caught up in the story, and the plot was masterfully crafted. The reader sees each character’s thoughts and actions, and still cannot deduce who is the culprit. I can’t resist that. I’ve heard of a YA book entitled Ten that is supposedly very similar to this one, and I think it might be interesting to check that out in conjunction with this one. Perhaps in the next month or two while this one’s still fresh in my mind I’ll find a copy for a comparison.

Further recommendations:

  1. Ruth Ware’s The Woman in Cabin 10 is a 2016 thriller in which a woman goes missing on a small boat. The only passenger who believes the woman existed at all is a journalist who realizes the killer must be one of the other passengers. As she persists in seeking the murderer–convinced that anyone aboard might be next to die–it becomes apparent that the journalist herself may be a target.Check out my complete review here.
  2. Robert Galbraith’s (J. K. Rowling’s) The Cuckoo’s Calling is the first book in a modern mystery series set in London. A detective down on his luck, along with the secretary who’s more of a partner despite the fact that he can barely pay her, sets out to work against the police and popular opinion to find a murderer from a cast of seemingly innocent characters. No one could have done it–but yet, one of them did. Check out my complete review here.

Coming Up Next: I’m currently reading the final book in the Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer, titled Winter. I’m looking forward to seeing how the myriad plot threads from the first three books finally come together here–and how the story will look after reading Fairest, a companion novel following the villain’s perspective. I’ve already read Fairest and will include my review of that book and how it relates to the series along with my thoughts on Winter.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant