Review: Goodbye, Vitamin

Sometimes I have more luck with the Book of the Month selections I don’t choose than the ones I do; Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong is one of the selections that I decided against last year, though it caught my eye. My library had a new copy of it this month so I finally picked it up. And I loved it!

goodbye,vitaminAbout the book: Ruth goes home for Christmas for the first time in years, and to her surprise she’s asked to stay for the year to help with her father, who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. At first her dad seems like his old self and the only proof of the dementia comes to Ruth through stories from his colleagues and students at the local college. But as time passes, she sees the change for herself. She finds reason to worry about her mother as well, and her parents’ marriage. And through it all, she’s dealing with big changes in her own life– the loss of her fiance to another woman, regret for dropping out of college, a move, uncertainty about her career. She finds unexpected help along the way, and unexpected strength within herself.

Sounds pretty straightforward, right? It is. There’s very little plot to this book, which is usually a turn-off for me. But it worked here.

Goodbye, Vitamin is narrated through journal entries. The style changes occasionally, but the voice remains the same. Interspersed are pages from a journal Ruth’s father kept for her when she was small– just a few lines here and there about what young Ruth did today. (Some of these entries are more overtly “cute” than the book needs, but many of them are just amusing.) The reader knows early on how this book will be structured: slightly rambling accounts of Ruth’s days, including all the events that may or may not seem significant later on. Some of it is fluff, certainly, but most of it is interesting. Ruth is interested in trivia so there are some weird factoids worked in, but even her commentary of daily minutiae is unique and entertaining. It’s sentimental without being overly sentimental.

“The fish are getting fatter. The fish, in fact, are obese. Today I see why: I watch Dad feed the fish, sit down, and minutes later, rise to feed them again.”

Running through it all is the Alzheimer’s. Even in the moments when Ruth’s father seems fine and remembers everything correctly and acts normally, memory remains a constant theme. Ruth learns about foods that help fight dementia, she compares what she remembers of the past to what her younger brother remembers, she writes about what is known medically about the Alzheimer’s disease, and she considers which parts of her life she would be glad to remember or wishes weren’t in her head at all.

“There is, presently, no single test or scan that can diagnose dementia with complete accuracy. It’s only after the person is dead that you can cut his or her brain open and look for tell-tale plaques and tangles. For now, it’s process of elimination. What we have are tests that rule out other possible causes of memory loss. In diagnosing Alzheimer’s, doctors can only tell you everything that it isn’t.”

I have to admit, even for a character who’s losing his mind I had a hard time believing Ruth’s father wouldn’t have seen right through the phony class she told him was real. And maybe I’m just too cynical but I had an equally hard time believing several university students would go through the time and effort of taking a fake class for no credit, as a kindness to an ailing professor. But that obvious plot device was the only complaint I had while reading the book, and I did nevertheless appreciate the additional characters it introduced to the story.

As is necessary in a book without much plot, the characters drive the story in Goodbye, Vitamin. It’s pretty clear which characters the reader is meant to like and which he/she isn’t, but each one is unique and brings something important to the table. Ruth and her family are the most ambiguous in terms of “good” and “bad,” as they should be, and each of the supporting characters filters the way we see the main ones. None of their stories are coincidental or easy, and I would not have minded reading another year’s worth of journal entries to see where they ended up next, though this story didn’t require more from them. I appreciated how Ruth’s experiences with each of the secondary characters all tied back to memory and the mind. It’s a focused ramble from the first page to the last.

“Memories are stored in collections of cells, and when we remember, we reassemble the cells like a puzzle.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. It’s entirely possible that this book worked for me because Alzheimer’s runs in my family and I’m morbidly interested in malfunctions of memory and the mind. I usually don’t like plot-less books, but I was genuinely pleased to pick this one up, for the two sittings it lasted. I did take off one star for the lack of plot and surprise, but even so this one might make an appearance on my favorites list at the end of the year. It’s not the sort of book that everyone will love, but it was the right sort of book for me.

Are there any weirdly specific topics you like to read about even if they’re never wildly popular?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

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Review: The Power

While I’m (still…) waiting for my April selections from Book of the Month, I decided to dip into my backlog from last year again. As glad as I am that I’ve finally read Naomi Alderman’s much-discussed novel, The Power, I really wish I had found the time to read this one back in October when it was new. From the colors and sci-fi details on the cover to the otherworldliness of this story, this would’ve been a perfect Halloween read.

thepowerAbout the book: All over the world, women begin to develop the power to conduct electricity through their hands. From a wide range of reactions– panic, discouragement, anger– emerges a new world order. Women upend religion, politics, and social norms as they take back their right to live without fear, although in relatively little time equality is not enough and the women seek to reign supreme. Men are afraid to leave their homes, to speak their minds.  As the world becomes more and more unstable in the face of such a sudden and incontrovertible shift in the power dynamic, a major war looms on the horizon, the result of which will determine who will write the laws and enforce order.

“It doesn’t matter that she shouldn’t, that she never would. What matters is that she could, if she wanted. The power to hurt is a kind of wealth.”

The Power is narrated in the third person, in chapters that follow four main characters and a few minor ones. The major perspectives are vastly different, focusing on a mayor interested in climbing the political ladder, a newly independent foster child with an abusive past and a penchant for religion, the illegitimate daughter of a gang lord, and a college student who begins reporting/documenting the change in power dynamic after a confusing sexual experience. The first three of these characters are female, and all four are from different corners of the world. The minor characters are friends/relatives of the major characters. All of the chapters are labelled by character name until their stories start to intersect at the end of the novel.

And all of that is interspersed with drawings of “artifacts” with historical descriptions that depict life “thousands of years ago,” which is actually our near future. The whole story is bookended by written correspondence between the fictional man who has  written this historical novel and Alderman, a friend and early reader.

What worked and didn’t: the character chapters are easy to follow, though occasionally the narration slips from the chapter’s titular character to someone nearby. The artifact drawings interested and amused me, especially after I read Alderman’s explanation of their realness and significance at the end of the book. They seem randomly placed and only abstractly relevant to the overall story, but I liked them. The correspondence between fictional Neil and Naomi was hit-or-miss: in the beginning it confused me, but at the end, it helped explain the story and give a framework that made certain details more significant. And it ended on a great note about publishing under a pseudonym of the opposite gender in order for your work to be “taken seriously.” I’ve never been more sure about using my own name if I get published.

“There are no shortcuts. Not to understand and not to knowledge. You can’t put anyone into a box. Listen, even a stone isn’t the same as any other stone, so I don’t know where you all think you get off labeling humans with simple words and thinking you know everything you need. But most people can’t live that way, even some of the time.”

There are several great lines about power and gender in this book. The concept of the story is fascinating. But in all honesty, I wish I had just read a 5-10 page sample with the concept outlined and the great quotes listed because I think the benefit would’ve been the same. Most of the book was a boring and even unpleasant reading experience for me.

Here are some reasons why: It’s very episodic, and the tension just isn’t there for me when the plot hops around so much. Most of the characters are pretty meh; I didn’t hate them, but I didn’t really like them either. The whole story is very political, which can feel a bit tedious when the politics are hypothetical dystopian projections of real world politics. There’s a lot of violence that I found uncomfortable to read at times, including limbs torn from bodies, multiple rapes, painful electrocutions; a lot of these things are done for the sake of cruelty and/or sadistic sexual pleasure.

“Power doesn’t care who uses it. […] It just says: Yes. Yes, I can. Yes. You’ve got this.”

The worst aspect , in my opinion, is the feminism. That sounds blasphemous. I know “feminism” means equality for all genders, not empowerment for females. And there are some great lines and points made in this book toward general gender equality. But a lot of the novel takes female empowerment to extremes; it became painful to read about how women would turn the world into a chaotic violent mess if they had the choice to do so. It didn’t feel much like a reason to advocate for more female rights in the real world. None of the main female characters in this book are selfless or gentle or particularly kind, and even when I sympathized with them the thought of making them leaders was concerning.

But the biggest problem for me with the feminism in this book is that it seems like it’s trying to tackle too much. It’s trying to show how harmful to society a dominant gender can be, no matter which gender. It’s trying to show what the world might be like if women were in charge, both in peace and wartime. But the world of The Power is not the same as our modern world, and while it was trying to show these new possibilities, it does so with an eye toward more familiar injustices by pushing (unfortunately common) cases of today’s female victimization to their opposites. And the balance of real and imagined gender issues just don’t quite match up into one coherent picture.

“One had done the thing to a boy because he asked her to: this story holds much interest for the girls. Could it be that boys like it? Is it possible they want it? Some of them have found internet forums that suggest that this is the case.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I wanted to like this book, I really did. And I did like parts of it. But in the end it was the sort of book that I liked being able to think about in the aftermath more than during the actual reading process. It’s a great concept, upending the gender power dynamic to demonstrate the need for gender equality, but The Power felt more like a thought experiment than a polished story. I can see why it’s been getting the attention it has, and it deserves the credit for the conversations about equality it starts. But I wouldn’t say I had a fun time reading it.

Further recommendations:

  1. Tom Miller’s The Philosopher’s Flight is another recent release that turns familiar gender dynamics around to put women in power. This one is also sci-fi, but it’s a lot more adventure-driven than political, and it’s a lot more fun.

Do you have any great feminist fiction reads to recommend for me?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

On Changing Your Mind About a Book

It’s almost my birthday, and as I’m reflecting on another year gone, I thought this would be the perfect time to also stop and consider how I’ve grown as a reader. This is going to be a weird and maybe unpopular way to do it, but I’m going to use a spoiler-ish review of Stephenie Meyer’s New Moon to explore those changes. (To anyone who’s cringing right now: I promise I have a juicy adult lit fic review coming tomorrow and you’re welcome to wait and read that instead.)

newmoonWhy reading growth? Why New Moon? Well, I’ve been rereading the Twilight saga for about a year now, and I’ve just finished the second book, New Moon. It’s taking so long because I’m not as interested as I once was, and I’ve been proceeding at the rate of one chapter per day, only on the days I feel like tackling one. I’m doing this because I know my reading tastes and opinions have evolved so much, and it’s been an enlightening experience to relive a past love and really make myself think about why it might have worked for me before, and why it doesn’t now. You can check out my reaction to rereading Twilight if you missed it, but here I’m delving deeper into my changed opinions on the series and particularly on New Moon.

Yes, I did say “past love.” I was one of those twi-hard fans back in 2007 (I was 12) and I have no regrets about that– it was the first YA fandom that I felt like I was part of right in the height of its coolness and I remember that experience fondly even if the story itself makes me cringe now. I was addicted. But even when I loved the series I hated New Moon.

I hated it because I was Team Edward in the novels (but Team Jacob in the movies) and I was so disappointed that Edward went AWOL in the book. I read New Moon immediately after Twilight, when Eclipse was imminent but had not been released yet; I needed more Bella and Edward and New Moon has only that one “good” Bedward chapter at the end. I spent much of that first read trying SO HARD not to skip ahead to make sure Edward wasn’t being written out of the series, but I did not care about the budding friendship with Jacob at all.

That was the first thing I thought would be different this time around. I thought New Moon would be my favorite reread of the series now that I don’t like Bedward anymore– also I’ve really been enjoying literary breakups in the last few years. Especially in YA. The breakups feel more real and interesting than the instaloves and drawn-out angst, which was definitely not the way I felt about YA romance in 2007. But New Moon is not designed for readers to enjoy the Bedward breakup. Readers even have to fight to like Jacob– every time he’s mentioned Bella thinks something along the lines of, “Well, I like him, but only because I’ve lost the best thing I ever had and I’ll just have to settle for liking what’s left.” The reader is constantly reminded that Edward is basically a vampire god and even as a werewolf Jacob will never be cool enough. I have never liked Bella less.

New Moon is still my least favorite book in the Twilight saga, but not for the same reasons I initially disliked the book.

My first time through, I probably didn’t see anything wrong with Bella and Edward’s relationship. Honestly I don’t remember much of 2007, but I don’t think I would’ve enjoyed the series as much as I did if I had seen something wrong with their relationship. The second step for me was to see that Edward was wrong to be so controlling, though I made excuses for him. Sure, it’s bad to make other people’s decisions just because you’re stronger and can force things to be a certain way, but he’s got a unique set of circumstances and he means well, blah blah, that’s what I thought as the issues with the Bedward relationship became more public and I was forced to acknowledge that the Twilight saga maybe had some flaws. Step three: At some point in high school I reread the series and was shocked to find that once I’d familiarized myself with the arguments against Edward I really didn’t like him much at all. I still didn’t like Jacob much as a character, but I could see he was the healthier option. And the final step: I’ve been rereading these books again, trying to decide whether nostalgia is a good enough reason to keep them or if it’s time to replace them on my shelf– and this time around it’s Bella I can’t stand. She always seemed to me like an adult’s version of a teenage girl, but I liked her ordinariness. Her subpar-ness, even. But now she seems more like a doormat and I’m more frustrated at Bella putting up with Edward’s absurdness than at Edward for being absurd. I know not to blame the victim, but Bella goes above and beyond and hurts a whole string of friends and family in her lost-love misery and I don’t forgive her for it.

I can’t believe I ever cared about such a weak and misguided character. Even assuming she loves Edward beyond reason, where’s her self-respect? The Twilight saga was probably the closest thing to romance I had read by the time I encountered the Twilight saga, which might have been why I liked it. Genre exploration is a good thing, I still believe that. I still like reading love stories, and actually I still like reading about vampires on occasion as well.

But I think my changing opinions reflect more on my mental state through the last eleven years. Looking back at my 4-step realization of New Moon‘s poor characterization, I can make a personal map: At step 1) I wanted a relationship so badly i didn’t care if it wasn’t a particularly healthy one, there was no point even making that distinction because I would rather have something than nothing. 2) I wanted a healthy relationship but was willing to settle. 3) I understood that I deserved a healthy relationship as much as the next person, and finally 4) I currently believe that life’s too short to put up with anybody’s crap for any reason and it’s better to be alone than in a bad relationship.

Bella didn’t seem to think so, but I’ve moved on.

The biggest change for me since my first read of New Moon in 2007 is that I expect more from a book now. I’ve read more, I’ve lived more, and I’m less tolerant of what’s not working in a book. If this had been my first time through the series, I don’t think I would’ve even finished New Moon. There’s just nothing happening except the preservation of a bad relationship at the cost of a potentially better one. But even though Jacob might be the better choice… he’s so boring. Whether it’s the writing or just me, I just can’t get excited about Jacob. I guess that’s my one opinion on New Moon that hasn’t changed in the last eleven years. He’s got all the potential, but New Moon reads like Meyer didn’t want readers to side with him and I can’t get past that.

I also rewatched the film to cap off this New Moon experience, and I think it’s safe to say the only thing I appreciate about the Twilight movies at this point in the game is the music. I had some good laughs, at least.

My reaction: New Moon was an amusing if frequently unpleasant reading experience. I am planning to finish my reread of the series, one chapter per day. We’ll see if Eclipse takes six months like the first two did. And when I’m done… I think I’m done with these books altogether. It’s been interesting to unearth some truths about my growth as a reader, and I don’t think the experiment would’ve worked with something I’ve consistently loved through the years, like Harry Potter. But I’m ready to take what I can get from this series and lay it firmly to rest in my 12 year-old past, where it belongs.

Have you ever changed your mind about a book you used to love (or hate)?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

2018 Reading Challenge: Update 1

A quarter of the year is gone (what?! where?), and it’s time to check in. In case you missed it, I assembled my own personal reading challenge for 2018 full of goals and titles that fit my tastes and my reading aspirations for the year. I haven’t been very systematic about tackling the challenges yet, so I’ll be as surprised as you about where I stand and what my plans will be moving forward. Let’s take a look – – – >

Strikethrough font means I’ve completed the task, (parentheses) means I’ve designated a book for the task but not completed it yet.

Here is the first set of challenges: individual books.

  1. A book you didn’t get around to in 2017 = Lady Midnight by Cassandra Clare
  2. A book with a blue cover = Ugly Love by Colleen Hoover
  3. A Stephen King book
  4. An illustrated Harry Potter book = (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J. K. Rowling)
  5. A book you’ve loved in the past = Hawksong by Amelia Atwater-Rhodes
  6. A book at least 1000 pages long = It by Stephen King
  7. The last book in a series = (Obsidio by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff)
  8. A book recommended by a friend = (Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi)
  9. A prize-winning book
  10. A non-fiction book = Night by Elie Weisel
  11. A book picked up on a whim from the library = Gwendy’s Button Box by Stephen King and Richard T. Chizmar
  12. A book at the bottom of your to-read list = (Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen)
  13. A book with a strong female lead
  14. A book from the staff recommendations display at a bookstore = (Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore by Matthew J. Sullivan)
  15. A book in which a beloved character dies
  16. A Shakespeare play = (King Lear by Shakespeare)
  17. A book that takes place in space = (The Martian by Andy Weir)
  18. A book by a new-to-you author = (Vicious by V. E. Schwab)
  19. A new book by an author you already love = Iron Gold by Pierce Brown
  20. A book of short stories
  21. A memoir = The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
  22. A true-crime book = (In Cold Blood by Truman Capote)
  23. A book with a five-word title = (Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor)
  24. A book set in another country = The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
  25. A book of poetry = (Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur)

And for the second set: the big categories. Books that count for this part of the challenge can also be counted for a category in the sets above or below.

  1. Twelve classics
    1. Emma by Jane Austen
    2. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
    3. (The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hide by Robert Louis Stevenson)
    4. (A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens)
    5. (The Odyssey by Homer)
    6. (The Waves by Virginia Woolf)
    7. (The Beautiful and Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald)
    8. (The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas)
    9. (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle)
    10. (Dracula by Bram Stoker)
    11. (Mansfield Park by Jane Austen)
    12. (King Lear by Shakespeare)
  2. Twelve books within a month of their publication dates
    1. Iron Gold by Pierce Brown
    2. As Bright as Heaven by Susan Meissner
    3. The Philospher’s Flight by Tom Miller
    4. Rainbirds by Clarissa Goenawan
    5. Red Rising Sons of Ares by Pierce Brown, Rik Hoskin, and Eli Powell
    6. Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi
  3. The rest of the A Song of Ice and Fire Series
    1. (A Storm of Swords by George R. R. Martin)
    2. (A Feast for Crows by George R. R. Martin)
    3. (A Dance with Dragons by George R. R. Martin)
  4. All of my unread Book of the Month books
    1. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
    2. (Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich)
    3. (Artemis by Andy Weir)
    4. (The Power by Naomi Alderman)
    5. (Sleeping Beauties by Stephen and Owen King)
    6. (Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng)
    7. The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
    8. (Since We Fell by Dennis Lehane)
    9. (One Day We’ll All Be Dead And None of This Will Matter by Scaachi Koul)
    10. (All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood)
    11. (Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller)
    12. As Bright As Heaven by Susan Meissner
    13. (The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne)
    14. The Philosopher’s Flight by Tom Miller
    15. Rainbirds by Clarissa Goenawan
    16. (The Oracle Year by Charles Soule)
    17. (Our Kind of Cruelty by Araminta Hall)
    18. (The Girl Who Smiled Beads by Clemantine Wamariya)
  5. Nine books by Victoria/V. E. Schwab
    1. (The Archived)
    2. (The Unbound)
    3. (This Savage Song)
    4. (This Dark Duet)
    5. (Vicious)
    6. (Vengeful)
    7. (A Darker Shade of Magic)
    8. (A Gathering of Shadows)
    9. (A Conjuring of Light)

Final set: some specific titles I definitely want to read in 2018. These can also count in the sets above.

  1. The Fellowship of the Ring by J. R. R. Tolkien
  2. Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
  3. The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah
  4. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
  5. Dracula by Bram Stoker
  6. The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
  7. Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor
  8. The Martian by Andy Weir
  9. Iron Gold by Pierce Brown
  10. Obsidio by Jay Kristoff and Amy Kaufman

And that’s that. So far I have completed 23 challenge tasks, and I have at least 72 challenge tasks left. When I set this challenge for myself, I made it large because I really wanted to push myself this year, but I had no idea if I would actually be able to complete it within a year. Some of the tasks are designed to make me read more than one book, but being able to count some books more than once across the three sets might help even that out. Right now, it looks like if I keep going at the same rate I should have a chance at finishing. I haven’t been trying very hard yet to meet any of these challenges– I did well when I set these tasks because they are fitting pretty well with what I’m reaching for naturally, and even the bigger tasks (like reading all of my BOTM books) are things I want to work toward just because I feel I should, which means I’m not feeling bogged down by the restrictions of the challenge. At least not yet. I’m happy with where I’m at, I’m hopeful about my chances of completion, and I’m excited to watch my progress as the year progresses.

Are you taking part in any reading challenges this year, and if so how’s it going? Are there any tasks or specific titles on my list that you’ve read lately or are excited for me to get to?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Children of Blood and Bone

I have been reading significantly less YA this year, for no particular reason, but Tomi Adeyemi’s new YA fantasy, Children of Blood and Bone, caught my attention. An entirely non-white cast is pretty new and exciting for a big title in YA fantasy, but a great set of characters needs a great plot to back them up, and that’s what I was hoping to find in Children of Blood and Bone.

childrenofbloodandboneAbout the book: Eleven years ago, the Raid killed Zelie’s mother, hurt her father irreparably, uprooted her family, and sent a wave of grief across the entire nation of Orisha. The King, fearing the magic that hurt him once, used the Raid as the first step in eliminating not only magic from Orisha, but every maji with the potential to wield it. When his quest to end magic eventually reaches his daughter, Amari runs away from the Royal Palace, and her brother Inan runs after her with the King’s might behind him to stop her. Amari meets Zelie and begs for her help; with destruction in their wake and no way to turn back, a new quest begins: a quest to restore magic to Orisha as it was before the Raid. It’s a race against time as well as the King, and it’s likely no one will survive…

Children of Blood and Bone is narrated through three first-person perspectives: Zelie, Amari, and Inan. Though their backstories and motivations differ vastly, the narrative voice remains the same among the three of them. The book benefits from the use of multiple voices, but when they aren’t thinking about the unique details of their circumstances it can be hard to tell them apart.

“There are parts of it, parts of her, that light something inside me. But the light only lasts a moment. Then I drown inside the darkness of her pain.”

I also found it rather odd that there are four main characters and only three perspectives; those three have clearly been chosen for proximity to certain advancement points of the plot, but the imbalance kept me constantly questioning that choice. Amari’s connection to magic seems the flimsiest of all four (the maji friend she loses appears only once, through Amari’s eyes, and then only through her memories. Seeing a princess/servant friendship only through the eyes of the pampered princess weakens that link). Inan’s perspective is repetitive and confusing, but his character is such a wild card that he can’t be discounted. Zelie is obviously necessary as the lead character. But I would’ve loved seeing Tzain’s perspective, as a non-magical member of a magical family (he’s Zelie’s brother). He has so much respect for magic and majis though he isn’t one himself, and his motives are the most intriguing to me. It seems an oversight not to allow him a voice in this story.

But the real trouble with Children of Blood and Bone is that it lacks tension. There are surprises in the plot and so many of the details are captivating and unique, but (trying not to spoil anything here) I never doubted that no matter what impossibilities blocked their way, these teens would find a way to scrape by and save the day. Of course they will, that’s the point of the book, as it is with so many other books, but it’s the sort of familiar plot arc that makes it impossible to forget you’re reading fiction. Even wacky fantasies, if written well, can feel like they’re real (even if only in some distant alternate universe), but Children of Blood and Bone was always words on a page for me. When the stakes raised I sat back quietly wondering how the writer would maneuver her characters out of their current mess, never ‘will they get out of the mess?’

“My heart sinks as we continue forward. To our deaths we go.

Or not.

Zelie and her friends are “chosen by the gods” as the only people who can save magic– and thus the world– despite the fact that they’re teens distracted by their own budding loves and secret animosities. They have a deadline that’s presented as impossible when it’s two weeks away, but after unplanned stops and detours and obstacles, that deadline never slips out of reach. Some real tragedies are happening in the meantime, and the book certainly doesn’t lack emotional pull, but the plot is a bit… familiar. Convenient. Fictional.

Overlooking that, there’s no denying that the writing itself is gorgeous. Adeyemi’s words are intelligently chosen and aptly placed. She introduces new phrases rather than relying on old cliches, and the resulting sentences are a delight to read. Her characters are unique and sympathetic. And most importantly, she makes some great points about racism that are tweaked to fit the fantasy world but are largely applicable to the modern world. Check out these heart-wrenching beauties:

“They built this world for you, built it to love you. They never cursed at you in the streets, never broke down the doors of your home. They didn’t drag your mother by her neck and hang her for the whole world to see.”

“I won’t let your ignorance silence my pain.”

A warning: this book ends on a cliff-hanger. It’s the first book in an ongoing trilogy, so it doesn’t end with much resolution. And before it gets to the end, there are some graphic scenes including torture and dramatic deaths. I would say it’s heavier than it is dark, but in either case it’s not a book to pick up lightly.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Other than taking longer to read than I was expecting, I did enjoy my experience with this book. The plot wasn’t quite as strong as early reviews led me to believe, but I’m intrigued by where this one ended and I will be reading the next book with strong hopes that it’ll be onward and upward from here. Tomi Adeyemi is certainly an author to watch; but I don’t mind having to wait a year or so to check out the next book in this series.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Wrap-up 3.18

March has been an incredible reading month, but I’m glad it’s over. (It was starting to feel like another January, which always seems to last about a year.) I read some great things, I was excited to see all the great new releases this month (even though I haven’t read them all yet), and I was happy with my progress on my reading challenge. It was just an all-around great reading month, but I’m ready to start fresh again. But before we get too far into April, here’s how March looked – – – >

Personal trends:

  • February was black history month, and March was women’s history month. I wasn’t prepared in February so I read to honor both this month.
  • March was also the month of Penguin Moderns for me; I read six of the little volumes in this new set already and I added another 6 to my shelf already.
  • I had one of those crazy book-buying sprees this month where all of my patient book-buying resistance of 2018 turned into a free-for-all at the bookstore. You can check out my book haul if you want, but I’ll admit right here that I was way past my limit this month for no good reason.

Book-to-Film Adaptations:

  • I watched Stephen King’s It (1990), the mini-series (although it watches like a normal 3-ish hour movie). I read the novel It in January 2018 for my first buddy read, and rated it 5 stars. My buddy and I finally got together for an It film marathon. I wasn’t really impressed with this version, and I don’t think I would have liked it at all without having read the book, but this one does follow the novel’s details pretty well, which I appreciated.
  • We also watched the new (2017) adaptation of It, which is the first part of a two-movie duo. The second part comes out Sept. 2019, but I can see myself watching this one repeatedly in the meantime. It doesn’t follow the novel as religiously, but I think the changes it made suited the story. The scares were more dramatic than terrifying (though the movie is rated R and I would not recommend it to immature viewers), and you don’t need to read the (1000+ page) novel to enjoy this one.
  • I saw The Glass Castle this month, after reading Jeannette Walls’ memoir of the same name in January 2018, which I rated 5 stars. I prefer the book to the movie, but the film made me cry (which is rare), and I loved seeing the real photos/videos of the Walls family with the movie credits.
  • I also saw Ready Player One this month; I’ve been eagerly awaiting this film since reading Ernest Cline’s corresponding novel in  September 2016 and rating it 5 stars. The movie seemed less 80’s than the book, but it had equally great characters and a compelling plot and I honestly loved the movie as much as the book despite their differences. Highly recommend.

Books I finished reading this month:

  1. The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin. thestoriedlifeofajfikry3 stars. I did like this book, but it didn’t wow me. I appreciated the diversity and uniqueness of the characters, but I found the plot predictable and the conclusion obvious. Some of the characterization even seemed a little weak. Nevertheless, there are things I like about Zevin’s writing, even in a book with a transparent plot. This is a book for book lovers about book lovers, with lots of literary references that are fun if not always relevant to the overall story.
  2. Hunger by Roxane Gay.hunger 4 stars. This memoir was a phenomenal and enlightening reading experience, and only a few stylistic details in the writing structure kept me from a 5-star rating here. Recently I’ve been loving nonfiction books that advocate for equality and loving yourself, and I love learning about the real world in a way that doesn’t feel like reading a textbook. I’m going to be recommending this one a lot.
  3. An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. anamericanmarriage4 stars. This one has been named Oprah’s 2018 book club selection, so I’m sure it’ll be getting a lot of attention this year and I’m glad. I thought I was over love triangles in literature, but this one stems from wrongful imprisonment rather than any of the usual petty drama, and it’s used not as a love saga but an acknowledgment of current social injustices. I’m on more of a read-to-learn kick this year, and books like this are a great way to step into other people’s shoes without leaving my beloved realm of fiction.
  4. The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood. theblindassassin4 stars. I read an Atwood book every year; this is my fourth year, and all four novels have been vastly different. Atwood is one of my favorite writers, and even though this one took me a long time to finish (I started it in February) it did nothing but reinforce my good opinions of Atwood and her literary works. This one made me sadder than I can convey, but I’ll definitely read it again someday (t’s one of those books that has more to offer on subsequent reads).
  5. Letter From Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King, Jr. letterfrombirminghamjail5 stars. I was even more thrilled with my Penguin Moderns when they arrived in my mailbox than I’d expected. I decided to read the ones I bought in numerical order. This was the first one, and it was a great note to start on. I’m so glad America has seen strong voices like this one; I love reading about the need and effort to reach equality, and and I love that great writers/orators can put their words to such constructive and powerful use.
  6. Rainbirds by Clarissa Goenawan. rainbirds3 stars. This is my March BOTM, and I actually read it before the month was half over. So proud. Although I found the style of writing in this book very readable, I couldn’t connect with any of the characters in the emotional way I expected to so it ended up being a bit of a bland read. The plot interested and occasionally surprised me, but there’s a lot of grief in this book that I just wasn’t feeling. I debated between 2 and 3 stars, but even though I don’t have many fond thoughts of it in the aftermath I really didn’t struggle while reading it.
  7. Create Dangerously by Albert Camus. createdangerously3 stars. Even though I didn’t love this volume as much as expected, I did find appreciable points within it and my mild reaction wasn’t enough to turn me off of the Penguin Moderns. There are some beautiful ideas in this volume of three speeches, and I liked the size and variety of the works. It was Camus’s philosophical style I was having a hard time with, and I recognized it as a personal issue rather than anything wrong with this book.
  8. The Missing Girl by Shirley Jackson. themissinggirl4 stars. I sped through this one a lot faster than the nonfiction Penguin Moderns. I was completely engaged in the stories but I don’t think they’re going to stick with me and keep me thinking the way that the nonfiction books did. Still, this is my favorite kind of fiction: reality with a twist. Well-crafted creepiness that keeps me wanting more. (P. S. Mint green is hard to photograph accurately and I’m just bad at photography in general, I know. I just like to provide a visual of the edition I’m reviewing.)
  9. Stillhouse Lake by Rachel Caine. stillhouselakesquare3 stars. I started this one way back on Christmas 2017, as my first Kindle Unlimited book. I have been reading it off and on all this time, just a few pages here and there when I have some unexpected free time on my hands. It probably would’ve gone faster if I had enjoyed it more, but I was determined not to quit. I’m glad I didn’t, because once the plot picked up about halfway through I did speed up and enjoy this enough that I’ll continue with the sequel.
  10. The Distance of the Moon by Italo Calvino. thedistanceofthemoon5 stars.  This one really surprised and delighted me, and it was the one that helped me decide to buy more Penguin Moderns to read after this month. I love Calvino’s writing even more than I love these specific stories, and I really love these stories. If you’re interested in literary astrology (or just some short well-written sci-fi), this is the volume for you. The writing is beautiful and constantly unexpected.
  11. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. rebecca5 stars.  I was a little worried in the first chapter of this book because I don’t like a lot of place description and revelatory dreaming, but even those aspects found their place in this story and by chapter 2 I was enchanted. I don’t read a lot of Gothic literature (there does tend to be a lot of description of nature/landscapes as well as prophetic/revelatory dreaming), but in small doses I absolutely love the creepiness and the old buildings and the ghosts. This book was a perfect fit for me, even better than Jane Eyre.
  12. Red Rising Sons of Ares by Pierce Brown, Rik Hoskin, and Eli Powell. sonsofares4 stars. I was looking for some sort of graphic novel to check out while I’m waiting for the next Saga comic, and I realized this one was going to be published in March. Of course, it’s Pierce Brown so I had to read it right away. I’m glad I waited until all six volumes were published in one book. It was not my favorite part of the Red Rising story, but it was a great way to spend an evening nevertheless. And now I can’t wait to reread the novels in anticipation of Dark Age, Brown’s Sept. ’18 release.
  13. Piers of the Homeless Night by Jack Kerouac. piersofthehomelessnight2 stars. I thought I might be interested in some of Kerouac’s books, but I’d heard more about his topics than his style. I haven’t had many encounters with stream-of-consciousness writing, but I was definitely not a fan with this volume. I’m glad I figured out Kerouac isn’t for me with this little sample volume rather than an entire book; I did like reading some of his thoughts, but I don’t think I’ll be reading any more of them.
  14. The Problem That Has No Name by Betty Friedan. theproblemthathasnoname5 stars. The last of my Penguin Moderns for the month, and a good note to end on. I had not heard of Friedan before picking up this volume and the blurbs for these books are so short and not entirely helpful in discerning contents, so I was really pleasantly surprised by this one. It’s a sort of feminist history that’s unlike any of the more recent books on feminism that I’ve read. I felt like I learned a lot with this one.
  15. Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi. childrenofbloodandbone4 stars. First, this book has some glorious exterior details, and they absolutely fit the gorgeous writing within the story. Some of the broader sweeps of the story seemed rather stock (a “chosen” teen on a quest to save magic with three artifacts despite powerful opposition), but the cultural details are beautiful and plentiful, and an undercurrent of modern social issues helps set this story apart. I’m glad dipped back into YA for this one. Full review tomorrow.

Some stats:

  • average monthly rating = 3.9 (pretty typical for me)
  • books hauled = 15 (I counted the Penguin Moderns as one book in my book haul, but here I’ll count each of them. Either way, I clearly failed my 3 books or less goal)
  • owned books read for the first time this month = 11 (WOW, even if 6 of them were short! But even so, my TBR shelf grew)
  • total books read in 2018 = 33

And that was March! This has been an excessively long post, so I’ll stop here. Fingers crossed for April being even better– because it’s my birthday month!

Have you read any of these books? What did you think?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant