Book Haul 4.18

April is my birthday month, so I didn’t bother expecting to stick to my 3-book buying rule. (So far I’ve met that goal only once in 2018, but there’s still time.) It’s been fun picking up way more books that I needed this month, but it has also reminded me of why the 3-book rule is in place: I’m starting to feel overwhelmed again about the unread books on my shelves. I think May will be a very different sort of month for me as a result, but before we get there, these are the new books on my shelf in April:

  1. In March I bought (and read) 6 books from the new Penguin Modern collection, and loved them enough to buy 6 more in April. I have not read any of this new batch yet, and all I know about them is: most of these authors were familiar to me, they cover a range of fiction and nonfiction topics, and they’re about 60 pages each (which is why I’m counting all 6 as one book here). I’ll provide more info in my upcoming reviews, but for now I’ll just list my new titles: Notes on Nationalism by George Orwell, Lance by Vladimir Nabokov, The Breakthrough by Daphne du Maurier, Vigilante by John Steinbeck, Food by Gertrude Stein, and Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer by Wendell Berry.
  2. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. A classic, a birthday gift, and a recommendation from a friend. It’s been years since I read Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and lately it’s bothering me that he has other great works I haven’t checked out yet. This one focuses on the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl in the 1930’s, a piece of American’s history that has always interested me.
  3. Origin by Dan Brown. Another birthday gift. My grandma has been sharing the books in this series with me for years, and I think part of the reason she was so eager to pick this one up for my birthday is because she wants to read it herself. I’ve already read this one so I can pass it on to her. This one is typical Robert Langdon, but while I still enjoy the plots of this series I am outgrowing their narrative style. A mixed-thoughts review will be coming soon.
  4. House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski. The last of my birthday gifts. I’ve heard some interesting things about this book over the years, but all I remember at present is that Stephen King recommends it. I’m a big King fan so I thought I’d give this one a try. I think it’s supposed to be kind of creepy, so I’m planning to read this one in October.
  5. I Have Lost My Way by Gayle Forman. I’m a sucker for discounts and Barnes and Noble exclusive editions. This is the third B&N exclusive that I bought in March, though it didn’t arrive until April. It’s been years since I’ve read a Gayle Forman book, but I have liked what I’ve read and this newest novel features four lost souls helping each other find their way.  Plus the cover looks perfect for spring, and now that the snow is finally gone here it finally feels like spring.
  6. Circe, by M Miller. I’ve heard some great things about this book and I do love Greek mythology. I caved and bought the beautiful UK edition, which is possibly the prettiest book on my shelf to date. I was hoping to read this one within the month but it just arrived days ago and I haven’t had time yet. I’m planning to get to it in May.
  7. The Girl Who Smiled Beads by Clemantine Wamariya and Elizabeth Weil. Here is one of my April Book of the Month selections. I let myself break my one-BOTM-book-per-month rule for 2018 because birthdays only come once a year and what better (self-)gift than books? This one is a memoir, a genre I’ve been especially enjoying this year. This one follows an African girl through disaster in Rawanda and eventually to the US as she tries to move on from the war in her past.
  8. Our Kind of Cruelty by Araminta Hall. My second April BOTM selection is a Gillian Flynn-approved thriller set to release in May. I like early finished copies and I loved Flynn’s books, so this seemed like an obvious choice. But I read this one already and didn’t actually like it much. It’s about a weird sex-game gone wrong, but it was more than the plot that went wrong for me with this one. (Click the title to see my full review.)
  9. The Oracle Year by Charles Soule. And this is the April BOTM selection I was most excited for, a sci-fi drama about a man who wakes up one morning with certain prophecies about the future. I’m really bummed that I didn’t read this one within the month, but my BOTM box arrived so late in April that I only picked up the one that I thought would be the fastest read, and I decided to save this one for a time when I could read it more leisurely. I’m hoping that’ll be really soon now.
  10. The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner. I mentioned in March’s book haul that I’ve been in a mood for some YA fantasy, and while I haven’t actually read much of that lately, this craving has still been influencing my book buying. Here’s a first-in-a-series YA fantasy that I know absolutely nothing about other than the series has been getting pretty high reviews. Also it’s won an award, which seems promising.
  11. The Darkest Minds by Alexandra Bracken. I don’t know much about the premise of this book either, but I do know it’s a completed trilogy that I’ve had my eye on for a while, and it’s becoming a movie soon. This is probably the next YA fantasy I’ll read, and hopefully that’ll happen soon because I feel a bad habit in the making, of buying rather than reading when I’m in a certain reading mood. That seems counterproductive.
  12. Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake. Same fantasy-craving reasoning, although I do know a bit more about the premise of this one. Three princesses must battle each other for the throne of their kingdom. I believe these sisters possess different kinds of magic, and they’re trying to kill each other subtly rather than the usual brutal duel-to-the-death stuff. This is the first book in a trilogy that’s going to end later this year, so I’m hoping to get on board before the final book is released.

bookhaul4.18

And that’s a wrap. 12 (technically 17) new books living with me now, and I’ve read 2 of them. I wish that I could have read every single one of these books in April because these are the books I’ve been excited about lately (and also because my TBR is feeling out of control again). But April was kind of a disappointing reading month for me (wrap-up coming tomorrow) and these new books are just staring me down now, making me feel guilty for buying more than I could handle. New books are exciting, and I’m ending the month 90% happy with my purchases, but… also with renewed determination to stick to my 3-book goal next month so I can read as I go instead of letting things pile up.

Which new books did you buy or read this month? Have you read any from this list?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

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Review: Our Kind of Cruelty

April was my birthday month so I broke my one-book-per-month rule for Book of the Month Club and treated myself to three of the April selections. I fully intended to read them all within the month, and I was excited for them. But my box arrived 2 weeks later than usual this month, which ruined some of my good feelings. I had to do some TBR shuffling at that point and I knew I wasn’t going to get all three books read within the month when they arrived so late. But now I’ve read the first one, Araminta Hall’s Our Kind of Cruelty, a May 8th release and a Gillian Flynn-approved thriller.

ourkindofcrueltyAbout the book: Mike and Verity were together nine years. In that time, they played a game called “the Crave,” in which Mike stood far enough from Verity at a bar for another man to make a move. At Verity’s signal, Mike would step in to rescue her; this was a turn-on for them, and often led to sex. But Mike went to New York for two years to jump-start his career while Verity stayed in London, and just before he’s ready to return, Verity breaks up with him. The relationship ends messily and Verity is quickly engaged to another man. Mike believes her attempt to push Mike away for her new fiance is simply part of their code– a new, bigger version of the Crave. Is Verity’s increasing difficulty in the matter true affection for Angus, or is she amping up the game for Mike?

“She’s angry because she doesn’t yet understand what I’m doing, but really we’re just playing, we don’t mean any of this, it will all pass as everything does.”

Unfortunately, Our Kind of Cruelty felt almost immediately like a mishmash of a bunch of other books I’ve already read. Mike’s backstory reads a lot like Christian Grey’s in Fifty Shades, his stalking/murdering/jealous tendencies are very reminiscent of Joe Goldberg’s in You, his increasing alcoholism seems an echo of Rachel’s in The Girl on the Train, etc. While the plot itself (including Mike and V’s weird sex game) seemed new enough, most of the narration felt like it was constructed to fit a certain thriller formula that I’ve seen a thousand times before, except in Our Kind of Cruelty it’s never very thrilling.

This book is divided into three parts, all narrated from Mike’s perspective. It’s all part of a “document” he’s writing for his barrister after his arrest. But the big event at the end of part 2 feels inevitable from the introduction of part 1; knowing what will happen takes out a lot of the tension from the majority of the story, leaving the reader with only Mike’s precarious mental state (similar to Patrick Bateman’s in American Psycho) to keep him/her interested in the tale as it moves slowly forward. Most of the events in parts one and two seem orchestrated by the writer to demonstrate Mike’s unusual personality and thought processes, though his psychosis is apparent from the beginning of the book and most of these demonstrations feel like overkill. Many of the secondary characters as well (Kaitlyn, George, Suzi, Elaine) seem to be present in the story for the sole purpose of highlighting certain habits/opinions of Mike’s, and thus act as no more than props.

I almost wish Part Three had been the entire novel. Reading only part three would have given me the entire story without all the repetitions and slow character revelations. Repetitions can be great when they’re serving the purpose of highlighting differences between character perspectives, which I think is indeed the point of the repetitions in Our Kind of Cruelty. But when I these different characters talk about the same scenes, none of their nuances seemed revelatory– once I knew Mike’s perspective, I could filter out his craziness to see what must actually be happening, which made hearing it from the other characters superfluous.

“We are humans, flailing and mistaken, but that doesn’t matter. Because we love, we can forgive. We know the truth. We know what love is: the kindest and the cruelest emotion.”

The biggest saving grace for this book, in my opinion, comes in the Author’s Note at the end of the book where Hall talks about using this narrative to point out a problem with the patriarchy. I’m all for that, and seeing that note did make me feel a bit better about the book, but even after learning about that intent in the writing it’s still hard to actually see evidence of a jab against the patriarchy in this story. It feels more like one specific and highly unusual case than an advocacy for feminism in any form; sure, things might go wrong if Mike’s side of the story is believed and Verity’s isn’t, but the novel makes it clear from the beginning that Mike is an outlier and not the norm. It just doesn’t seem like an argument for “we should believe the woman in a he said/she said case,” but rather like a specific case of untreated psychosis and a sex game gone wrong.

And yet, for all of my complaints, nothing is actually wrong with this book; it does have the right technical pieces to make a cohesive whole. Mike is a train wreck of a character, but no matter the destruction it’s hard to look away from him.

“There was an undeniable beauty in the idea of V safely packed away in a cell just like mine, waiting to be taken out like a precious jewel in a few years’ time. It almost sounded romantic, like something we might tell our grandchildren.”

My reaction: 2 out of 5 stars. It’s been a while since I’ve read a thriller so I thought even if the surprises weren’t very original I would be able to get behind a book recommended by Gillian Flynn– but there were so few surprises. I wanted to give it a higher rating just because it wasn’t really a struggle to read; I wasn’t dying to DNF it or anything while reading, which is usual for me with 2 star books. But in the Goodreads system 2 stars means “it was okay,” which pretty much sums up my experience with this book.

Further recommendations:

  • Caroline Kepnes’s You is a great choice for anyone who wants to read a mysterious and disturbing tale about a psychotic stalker with a rough past and a lot of delusions. The real win for me with this book is that the stalker is somewhat sympathetic– it’s not that the reader wants to root for him exactly, but that rooting for him to be stopped would end the story and it’s too compulsively readable for that.
  • Anything by Gillian Flynn. If, like me, the Flynn blurb on the cover is what draws you to this novel, let me suggest instead that you pick up one of Gillian Flynn’s own books. If you haven’t read them all, any one of them would be a better choice than Our Kind of Cruelty. Flynn’s titles include: Gone Girl, Sharp Objects, Dark Places, and novella The Grownup. Apparently Flynn’s reading choices are not as impressive as her writing ones, so approach her recommendations with caution.

Have you read any great thrillers lately? I’m in the mood now but I haven’t had much luck this year. I’ve got a copy of The Woman in the Window here with me, is that one worth the read?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: I Stop Somewhere

I really love the way YA literature has expanded since I was a kid. People can hate on Twilight all they want, but I’m still so impressed with the way that the attention the Twilight saga generated for “right” and “wrong” in teen books opened up a whole new chapter for YA lit. Grown people read YA regularly now– that’s a trend I didn’t see much of before Twilight. And most importantly, readers of all ages speak up about what they wanted to see (or not) in YA lit– and writers listen. Now YA shelves are full of books with positive messages, minority representations, and acknowledgement of real-world issues. There’s still progress to be made, but watching the transformation so far has been incredible.

That’s why I keep coming back to YA, even as I outgrow it. I wish YA had looked like it does today back when it was the only thing I read. So I keep picking up books like T E Carter’s new YA novel, I Stop Somewhere. It’s a novel about rape culture in modern society. It narrates, it informs, and it reminds girls that they’re not alone and that they have something to fight for. And it does these things in an accessible way for young readers. That’s so cool.

istopsomewhereAbout the book: Ellie Frias was raped. She fell in love with the first boy who told her she was beautiful, and he took advantage of every inch of her: mind, body, and heart. And afterward, when he keeps doing the same things to other girls, Ellie can’t do anything about it. She spends months waiting for justice for what happened to her, watching her case move slowly forward while her community tears her reputation apart, along with the other girls brave enough to come forward.

I Stop Somewhere is utterly gutting. It delves deeply into two topics from one teenage girl’s perspective: rape, and death. These are covered with a bit of a heavy hand, though it doesn’t quite veer into overly sentimental territory. The chapters go back and forth between Ellie’s past with the events leading up to her rape, and her present while she’s officially a missing person and her attackers are still at large. It’s a powerful premise…

…but succinctness might have packed more of a punch. When I brought this book home from the library, I opened to the first page just to sample the writing, and I could not put it down for about 50 pages. Those early pages sucked me in and let me piece together what happened that separated Ellie’s past and present narratives, but then the arguments began circling each other, picking apart every nuance of every detail. There are times this book feels more like an essay on certain social injustices than a novel, but my issue lied more in the fact that its provocative prose answers so many of its own questions. So much of this story is commentary rather than plot, but I think more of a focus on the plot would’ve started some great commentary on its own. I tabbed a dozen lines in this book that expanded the way I thought about sexism and rape, but even so I was bored. The entire middle portion of the book crawls by as crumbs of information come out at a time, which may be fitting to the time frame of real investigations but did not help me invest in this book the way that I wanted to. So many of the messages in this book are strong and important and exciting to see talked about in a YA novel, but they lose momentum when the plot stagnates.

There are also moments, particularly in the middle portion of the book as the investigation proceeds, when connections are being made almost too easily for belief. With little or no evidence, girls’ stories are linked, assumptions are made about the criminals and their crimes, and the police make discoveries based on vague clues. No more than the bare bones of the legal processes are holding up the plausibility of this story– its heavy on the morality, and light on intriguing courtroom drama.

Let’s go back to the emphasis on social commentary: specifically involving rape and death. I wish I Stop Somewhere had focused on one of those extremes (preferably the rapes) more exclusively. The death discussion does relate to rape and it does create a narrative structure for this story, but a lot of the death exploration is no more than speculation. There’s a lot of coverage on the rules of death in this fictional world– where someone goes after death, what physical rules still constrain them, how they can move in and interact with the world at that time. And all of that feels so unnecessary to the bigger problem being addressed: the difficulty of prosecuting a rapist.

“They’ve been trying to get more girls to come forward. But I can’t imagine why anyone would. The system is set up to make you want to be quiet.”

Aside from the technical hang-ups, I found a lot to love about I Stop Somewhere. The size of Ellie’s high school is pretty close to the size of mine, so it was easy to plant this hypothetical into my own sphere of experience. Although my personal experiences have been nothing like Ellie’s, I found her easy to empathize with: she’s a completely ordinary teen with common teen worries about fitting in and becoming a woman that will probably resonate with a wide audience of readers from many backgrounds (and not exclusively female, though girls do seem to be the target audience).

“I don’t want to blame myself anymore. I only wanted to belong. I wanted so badly to be taken in– by someone, someplace. Anyone. Anyplace. I wanted it enough to screw up and lose myself, but I am still not to blame.”

And most importantly, I Stop Somewhere is a book that inspires change. It highlights a problem in modern society to draw attention to where the judicial system is failing. It acknowledges that for girls with situations like Ellie’s or the others mentioned in this book that it is hard to come forward and advocate for rebuilding the system– but also that every voice matters. Every girl’s story is important, and every small victory is a step toward securing the respect and justice that all girls deserve.

“Being a girl was all that landed me here. Having all the parts they wanted, but being nothing more than that.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. In a lot of ways, I Stop Somewhere felt like an updated The Lovely Bones. I loved The Lovely Bones in high school but it’s been years since I’ve had any reminders of it so I actually liked that. Although I Stop Somewhere is not my favorite YA book– not even my favorite YA book about rape– I think it’s great that books like this exist for young readers. It was an infuriating and validating reading experience, and I’m glad I read it, even though it made me cry.

Further recommendations:

  • The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold. I’m on the fence here, between recommending either this one or I Stop Somewhere more strongly. They are very similar in some ways. I would probably recommend I Stop Somewhere for teen readers, and The Lovely Bones for older readers who still dabble in YA.
  • The Female of the Species by Mindy McGinnis. This is my favorite YA novel about modern rape culture. There are a few harder-to-believe aspects that makes this one feel a little less realistic, but it’s no less fierce and important for that. If you’re only going to read one YA book about rape, this one would be a great choice.
  • The Girls by Emma Cline. This one has less to do with rape, but it features a similar sort of commentary on what it’s like to be a girl. It also focuses on death, by fictionalizing Charles Manson’s cult and their murderous crimes. This is an adult book, though the main character is a teen girl.
  • The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. Here’s another great YA book for readers interested in fiction that deals with real social issues. This one has nothing to do with rape, but it does offer some great commentary about racism.

Have you read any good YA books with real-life applications lately? I would love some more suggestions!

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Illuminae

I’m a little late to this train, but I’ve been meaning to read Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff’s Illuminae Files (first book: Illuminae) for ages, and I’ve decided to get around to them while the last book in the trilogy is still fresh. I have now finished book one and can confirm that I’m interested in reading the entire series.

illuminaeAbout the book: In the year 2575, Kady and Ezra have just broken up on their home planet, Kerenza, when mega-corporation BeiTech tries to take Kerenza for itself by flattening its current inhabitants. Kady and Ezra escape– separately– onto different ships of the Alexander’s fleet. As BeiTech pursues the Alexander to eradicate the last witnesses to its crimes, Kady and Ezra adapt to life in a state of emergency aboard their respective ships, and eventually resume contact with each other. As one of the Alexander fleet’s three ships is ravaged by a mutating zombie-like disease, another experiences deadly difficulty with an insane Artificial Intelligence system, and the third, which was never meant to traverse space alone, struggles for survival after its crew has been gutted to aid the other ships. Ezra is recruited as a pilot and Kady finds a mentor in coding and hacking; both throw everything they have left into surviving, even if that means keeping the entire fleet alive by themselves.

“I’m sorry I didn’t write you back. I should have. I mean, when you say ‘I’m never going to speak to you again,’ you don’t think your planet’s going to be invaded that afternoon.”

First, let me rave about the layout. Illuminae is formatted as a file, a set of documents compiled on the Kerenza/BeiTech incident and its aftermath. The entire story is narrated through emails, reports, communication logs, online journal entries, data stream, online journals, etc. It utilizes different fonts, backgrounds, graphics, and more on the visual spectrum. There are no “chapters,” per se, but each document section is a sort of chapter unto itself, and they’re all delivered in addictive bite-sized pieces that flow easily from one to the next and make the book nearly impossible to put down– a bad case of the “one more chapter” excuse going on into infinity because there’s always such a short and intriguing section coming up next.

“She is a thief. A whisper. Melting through curtains of code and shadow like a knife through black water.”

Beyond it’s unique narrative style, I enjoyed the plot and characters immensely. What I didn’t love: the way this story felt dumbed-down in places, my biggest pet peeve with YA lit. For example, the surveillance camera footage documentations. There is so much extra commentary and guiding of the narrative being done on top of reporting what is actually taking place on screen that those sections felt totally inauthentic to me and not at all visual. Another example– the briefing notes. These little guide maps through the story felt like a way for the authors to hold the reader’s hand through the story, to shine their laser pointers on the details we’re meant to notice. (Note this time stamp. Remember that this person has appeared in this earlier scene. See how reaction X to event Y means Z.) Very little interpretation is left up to the reader, to which I say: YA fiction should not be approached by writers as watered down adult fiction. A younger target audience does not mean that readers can’t follow a story and make their own inferences.

And then there’s the AI system, AIDAN. I think we all know by now that “computer goes haywire, thinks it knows best, and kills a bunch of humans” is a tired plot line. I was worried when it seemed at first that Illuminae was headed in that direction, but AIDAN was a pleasant surprise. I actually disliked most of AIDAN’s data stream/narration because it didn’t feel much like glimpsing inside the thought processes of a super computer, but I liked that the book left AIDAN ambiguous– maybe it is acting for the greater good when it massacres thousands of people. Maybe it isn’t. That’s entirely up to the reader, which is a great move on Kaufman and Kristoff’s end.

“They are beyond me. These humans. With their brief lives and their tiny dreams and their hopes that seem fragile as glass.”

More I liked: the body count is incredibly high in proportion to the number of characters introduced in the story. Important characters die, which makes the constant threat of impending doom feel plausible and amps up the tension. Another YA pet peeve of mine is that teen heroes often put very little work into learning/leading and yet somehow they are the ones to outsmart and outlast the wisest of elders, without the reader ever really doubting that they’ll somehow save the day. Illuminae isn’t like that. It’s teens aren’t “chosen,” they work hard, and they seem to be at real risk.

“The universe owes you nothing[.] It has already given you everything, after all. It was here long before you, and it will go on long after you. The only way it will remember you is if you do something worthy of remembrance.”

It’s definitely a YA book, a little overly dramatic in places and full of flirting at times you’d think the characters would be more interested in fighting for their lives. But Illuminae is also a well-plotted story with a great layout, and if you’ve got any interest in YA sci-fi (or just YA or sci-fi) and haven’t read this series yet, I do recommend it. It’s a fun (but tense) experience.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I docked one for the narrative hand-holding, but I did really love reading Illuminae. I have a (maybe irrationally) low tolerance for zombie stories, but even when I realized halfway through this novel that the mysterious sickness strain was turning people into zombies I stayed hooked. I will definitely be reading books 2 and 3, hopefully soon but my to-be-read-immediately pile is really stacking up. I’ll probably be reading Gemina (Illuminae Files #2) within a month. All I know about the next book is that it maybe doesn’t feature the same characters, which I find myself surprisingly okay with despite the cliffhanger in this one.

Further recs:

  1. Pierce Brown’s Red Rising, especially for readers who are straddling the YA/adult lit line. If you like a good space drama, you can’t miss this one. Brown’s readers are currently awaiting book 5 in this series and let me tell you the books just keep getting better. Cool tech, twisty plot, plentiful battle scenes, a little romance and a giant fight for equality– what’s not to like?

Have you read the Illuminae series? What did you think? Are books 2 and 3 as good as book 1?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Sing, Unburied, Sing

I’m still waiting for my April Book of the Month box to arrive, but it’s taking so long that it’s throwing off my reading. Instead of spending this extra time reading more from my BOTM backlog, I’ve been checking out library copies of past BOTM selections that I don’t own. First Goodbye, Vitamin and now Jesmyn Ward’s National Book Award-winning Sing, Unburied, Sing, which was also a contender for BOTM’s 2017 book of the year.

sing,unburied,singAbout the book: Jojo, Kayla, and their mother, Leonie, live in Mississippi with Leonie’s parents. Leonie isn’t well-equipped for childcare, so Jojo takes care of his baby sister Kayla, and their grandparents make sure  both children are fed and housed and shown some kindness and attention. Leonie’s boyfriend, the father of her children, has been in jail for three years but he’s getting out now. Leonie plans to take her bad-news best friend (who also has a boyfriend in the same facility) and her reluctant children to retrieve him. Jojo doesn’t particularly like his father, Kayla has never met him, and their grandmother is very sick at home. They don’t want to make the trip. But Leonie gives them no choice, and there’s a bit of destiny involved. At the prison, they pick up an extra passenger– a ghost that only the children can see, a stuck soul with ties to their family.

“Sometimes I think it done changed. And then I sleep and wake up, and it ain’t changed none.”

I’ve read one of Ward’s works in the past: her memoir, Men We Reaped. I loved her writing style and the concepts she worked into that story, but in the end I felt like she had just scratched the surface, like she could reach the meat of the story but was trying too hard to make it elaborate and some of its potential was lost in the process. It was the sort of book that left me feeling like she maybe hadn’t quite gotten into the swing of things yet and I should check back in with a later publication. So I picked up her most recent novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing; a lot of people seem to love it and it was nominated for plenty of awards. But ultimately I had the same experience as with Men We Reaped: I loved the ideas behind the story and I’m so sure that something Ward writes will be a strong favorite for me, but Sing, Unburied, Sing wasn’t it.

“Sometimes the world don’t give you what you need, no matter how hard you look. Sometimes it withholds.”

The main plot of the book (this is premise, not spoiler territory) is Leonie (and crew)’s trip to the jail to retrieve her boyfriend. So much of the main story line takes place in the car, or on the stops they have to make during the journey. Although a few interesting things do happen during that trip, it’s the least exciting part of the book. It doesn’t give the reader much new information about the family, except for some of the backstory and ruminations that surface at that time which could have been written in other ways without that long trip.

The point of the journey, from a plotting perspective, is the encounter with Richie. Richie was a friend of Jojo’s grandfather, and is a ghost at the time of Jojo’s story. Richie’s is one of three first-person perspectives in the book (along with Jojo’s and Leonie’s), but the strongest parts of his story are the parts we see through other characters’ eyes. Richie’s backstory was the most impactful part of the book for me, but his perspective chapters also seemed the most bland and/or unbelievable. I like a supernatural twist, usually. My problem with Richie wasn’t that he was a ghost, but rather that he spent so much time trying to convey what it felt like to be a ghost though none of his description seemed new or surprising as far as ghost characters go.

The supernatural aspect was not a total wash for me, though. By the end of the book, when Jojo sees birds in a tree and is beginning to understand the lingering nature of wrongs done to African Americans, I felt all the sadness and creepiness and outrage that it seemed I was supposed to, though the otherworldly life/death/magic details near the end were stretching my suspension of disbelief to its limits. The image of the birds in the tree is strong enough on its own, in my opinion, and the points Jesmyn makes with it saved the story for me after the crossing-over chaos nearly ruined it.

Though parts of the book seemed boring or unnecessary, I was reminded right away in the first chapter why I was trying again with Ward, and why I’ll probably pick up another of her books in the future: her writing is visceral and beautiful, her insights sharp and her emotions radiant. Though very little actually happens to Jojo throughout this book, he’s extremely sympathetic and easily my favorite character. His grandparents are unique and fascinating, with a wealth of history to share. Even Leonie (and her boyfriend, though we don’t see as much of him) who we’re not meant to like, is humanized in a way that helped me understand her questionable motives even when I did not remotely agree with them. Ward has talent, especially with character.

“But I knew this was her cottage, and when it all came down to it, I’m Black and she’s White, and if someone heard us tussling and decided to call the cops, I’d be the one going to jail. Not her. Best friend and all.”

And the best part is the culture she captures so vividly. There is better representation in American literature with every passing year, but Ward’s voice still stands out. She shows the significance of familiar history in new and evocative ways.

But after convincing me that the past is important, I wish she had ended Sing, Unburied, Sing with an eye toward the future, to leave me with more to think about after closing the cover on this book. I’m afraid I’m going to forget everything but the image of the birds in the tree pretty quickly, though as long as that sticks with me I’ll know I have the most important piece.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. The writing style in this book kept me engaged, even in the places where I doubted the story. I still feel that Ward has so much potential, but I think Men We Reaped has already stuck with me longer than Sing, Unburied, Sing ever will. I will probably try again with a future publication of Ward’s, assuming there will be one. I’m so sure that I’m going to love one of her books eventually, but it wasn’t this one. She has important things to say, and I can see why it’s been a popular choice, but I didn’t find as much here as I hoped for.

Further recommendations:

  1. If you’re looking for another novel from a writer of color about the current impact of a long history of racism, try Tayari Jones’ An American Marriage, which features a modern family torn by injustice and jail time minus the focus on ghosts and magic. This is a great choice for someone looking to read about social issues of race without the magical realism element.
  2. If, like me, you appreciate the messages that Sing, Unburied, Sing has to offer more than the way they’re offered, let me recommend Ward’s Men We Reaped. Although this book is a memoir, it reads as easily as fiction and its messages are emphasized by the truth behind them. This book focuses on recent deaths and despair as a result of past racism.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

 

Reading Widely vs. Deeply

I came across a post a month or so ago that I’ve been thinking a lot about. Actually, it wasn’t even the main points of the post that kept me thinking– something about literary tropes/cliches, I believe– but a side remark about genre. I don’t remember the blogger or the post, to be honest, and I didn’t even think much of the remark at the time, but it’s been eating at me for weeks now. This blogger said, “Every reader has a preferred genre.” I think the argument was that readers are more likely to tolerate tropes in their preferred genre. But what stuck with me was that assertion of preference.

And maybe this person went on to make a few concessions, that it’s possible to prefer two genres, or that you don’t know what your genre is until you start categorizing the books you’ve been reading lately and a pattern emerges, but generally the commenters seemed to agree that they had one preferred genre. Or maybe two. Looking through other peoples’ posts on booktube, on blogs, on bookstagram, etc. it’s easier to see when readers lean toward a certain type of book than it is to see for myself. But I’ve really been trying and I can’t figure out my type. I’ve been asking around to see what my family and friends think of the things I read, and the common opinion seems to be that I have eclectic taste, that I like “weird things.” By which I assume they mean “different things than I read.”

I don’t know why it bothers me so much that I don’t have a favorite genre, but I think that’s the truth, after days and days of deliberation. I like to read everything. Everything that’s written well, anyway. If a book is well-written, it does not matter to me what its subject is. Sure, I have moods and phases, but generally I switch easily from one genre to the next, and that’s my favorite way to read. I don’t want to read 2 fantasies in a row, or 2 contemporaries, or 2 classics, or 2 YA novels, or 2 thrillers, or 2 memoirs. But I want to read all of those things, and more. So far this month I’ve read a lit fic, a contemporary, an urban fantasy, and a sci-fi novel. I’m currently reading a YA novel, and next up on deck I have a mystery, a historical fiction, and a nonfiction book. And they all feel like “my type” of book.

I think part of the reason I’m uncomfortable with having no reading specialty, shall we say, is that I always feel like I’m behind. I just can’t read a substantial number of books in every genre out there in a reasonable period of time. I’m not a speed reader, nor is reading the only thing I have to do in my life. My TBR just keeps getting larger and more out of control because I want to read all of the books that exclusively YA readers are interested in, and all of the thrillers that the adrenaline junkies have their eye on, and all the nonfiction that worldly readers enjoy. But I can’t keep up with it all. Of course, even readers with one preferred genre might be in over their heads with all the publications new and old within a single category, but in reading widely, I have to be so much more selective in what I spend my time on because I have less time to spend on each genre with the more genres I dabble in.

I want to be a reading expert, but I feel like I can’t be an expert in all areas. There’s no way to tackle all of the new releases, let alone the great books that are already out there. So here’s the big question: is it better to have a taste of everything, or to really know a certain flavor or two?

Do you read widely (across a wide range of genres/subjects) or deeply (really delving into a select genre or two that you come back to over and over for all the nuances)? Is one option better than the other?

I don’t know.

What do you think? Let me know in the comments if you have a genre preference, or why you gravitate toward the books that you do.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Novel Progress 4.18

I’m writing, I’m writing! In my last update, I felt like I had made a lot of progress and things were moving fast and I was excited. But my writing usually fluctuates, I have a week or two of great progress and then an off week or two, and then I’m back again. So this month I have less progress to report but I’m on the upswing and I’m still excited about what’s going on in my story.

I used to feel bad about the weeks when I just can’t seem to get anywhere in my manuscript– still do sometimes– but these last weeks have emphasized for me why that doesn’t help anything. In my off weeks this last writing month, I started to feel guilty about not getting anywhere and I did manage to force myself into getting words onto the page. I needed about 2,500 more words in Chapter 4 when I started out, and after editing and revising what I already had I got to the end where I knew I needed a little more content with only about 1,000 more words needed at most. That’s about where I was at during my last update in March, and I thought at the rate I was going I’d finish Chapter 4 within days of that update post.

Cue the off weeks. As I said, I forced myself to write through it and I was right up there at the 10,000 words mark after long days and then long weeks of struggling, when the writing mood finally hit hard and I realized I was going to have to rewrite a lot of the new content I had added as well as some of the revisions I had been making in the chapter at the same time. All the answers just started falling into place and I knew what needed to be said in the chapter, but I had said a lot of unnecessary things instead in those off weeks.

So I’ve spent the last week and a half redoing most of my progress. I was so into the work (finally) that I was shirking my reading (I have an overdue library book for the first time all year) and my blogging (I let a few days that I had posts planned for just go by without even looking at the drafts I had started), but when the writing fire lights I don’t want to miss the magic before it fizzles out again.

I finished Chapter 4 today, all but a final read-through that I like to do at night when it’s quiet. I’m just over 10,500 words and I feel really good about it– not just about being done with the chapter, but about having quality content in it. Even though it’s less progress to report than last month I feel just as good about it. It took more time and effort to finish Chapter 4 than Chapter 3 (8 of my 9 chapters are named but it’s easier to refer to them by number while the manuscript is in progress), but I think the end results of 4 were worth it. Did I mention I’m really excited about how it’s looking right now?

I know some writers have rules/goals about writing every day and pushing through slumps (and probably also about finishing writing before trying to edit and revise anything), but this month I learned all over again that I should listen to my instincts about what works for me, at least when it comes to my manuscript. I have plenty of side projects that I could’ve worked on and not cared if I messed up in those off weeks, but instead I created a lot of extra work for myself by trying to be more proactive than I was ready to be. In the end I probably could’ve finished Chapter 4 faster if I hadn’t put a lot of mediocre content in there when I wasn’t feeling it, but I’m so happy with where it’s at right now that I’m more interested in living and learning than resenting the lost time.

Current standing: other than a final read-through of the chapter tonight (just for small word choice edits and double-checking that everything lines up), I’m confidently finished with 4 of my 9 chapters. I have over 130 pages and over 40,000 words that feel like final draft material, but I know Chapter 5 is going to be more/different work than I’ve been doing so far. There’s a lot of content still missing from Chapter 5 so I’ll be back to writing and editing at the same time like the end of Chapter 4. (I don’t have an outline per se but I do have notes of what’s generally supposed to be happening and some pieces put in here and there in the middle.) Chapters 5 and 9 are the ones I’ve put the least time into so far so I’ve got plenty of work coming up but 5 will be exceptionally pleasing to finish– because it’ll mean a lot of work done and because it’ll put me safely past the halfway point. I think the key thing to remember going forward, after the writing month I’ve just had, will be to use the good writing days when I have them and not to worry too much about the off days when they strike.

If you haven’t checked out my previous updates and are wondering, I’m aiming for a 90,000 (up to 100,000 at most) finished product divided into 9 chapters (10,000 words each) with smaller sections inside the chapters. I have two main perspectives but also two minor perspectives that come into the story regularly, all in third person because I have an omniscient narrator. It fits best into the sci-fi genre, but primarily it’s a character-driven story about ordinary people turned superheroes with just enough science to explain what’s going on. The best age range is NA, as the characters are college-aged and figuring out life. I think it’s a pretty great read, but I’m biased.

What do you do when you hit a writing (or even reading) slump? Is it best to wait it out or do you have a trick for working through it? Tell me about it in the comments!

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant