Book Haul 11.18

This is the prequel to what will probably be my largest book haul of the year. I ordered a ton of books that haven’t arrived yet this month, especially with Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales, so I’m already expecting December to be a doozy and it hasn’t even arrived yet. In the meantime, here’s one of my more reasonable monthly hauls of 2018:

(Titles linked to my reviews, if they exist)

  1. A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne. This was my BOTM selection for November. There were several good-looking selections this month, but since I was too busy in October to read my last BOTM choices I managed to pick only one book. Boyne’s latest novel gives a look at the publishing industry, and at one selfish writer who steals others’ ideas for himself. I did read this one already, and will have a full review up soon.
  2. Finders Keepers by Stephen King. I read King’s Mr. Mercedes, the first book in the Bill Hodges trilogy, in October. I ordered this second book in the trilogy right away, but it took a long time for my copy to arrive. Thankfully, it finally did. I won’t say much about the synopsis because this is a sequel, but I’ll say it’s a crime series that follows a retired detective and his whimsical band of assistants as they attempt to put a stop to a crazy mass murderer that the police couldn’t catch in the wake of his first spree. I’ll probably pick this one up in January.
  3. Lord of Shadows by Cassandra Clare. I read this one earlier in the year and enjoyed it as much as I’ve enjoyed any other Shadowhunter novel in recent years. I’m definitely not as interested as I was in my teens, but it’s a world that I’ve spent a lot of time in and I’m not quite ready to let it go yet. Especially since I finally caught up with all of Clare’s books. I’m collecting them all in the paperback editions with the characters on the spines, though I’ll probably borrow a copy of Queen of Air and Darkness to read before the paperback release, like I did with Lord of Shadows.
  4. Drums of Autumn by Diana Gabaldon. I’ve been slowly collecting the film tie-in covers of this series as they’re released because I originally read library copies and want to own them for guilty pleasure rereads. It’s possible I like the TV show more than the books, for once. But in any case, I’ve read this book already, and now I own paperbacks of the first 4 novels in the series. This is the first Outlander book that takes place primarily in America, but since it is the fourth book I won’t say more about the plot. It was not one of my favorites from the series, but I am definitely looking forward to watching the corresponding season of the TV show.
  5. The Crimes of Grindelwald by J. K. Rowling. This is the screenplay, in a matching edition to the Fantastic Beasts screenplay. I have not yet read either or watched the films, but I need to because I’m extremely out of the loop and the rock I’ve been living under to avoid spoilers on these isn’t going to protect me forever.


Clearly I overshot my monthly 2018 goal of 3 books or less (again), but I don’t feel overwhelmed about it this month. Two of these five books I had read before purchasing, and another one I read within the month.  I’m excited to read the remaining two as soon as possible, and even if I don’t get to them before the end of this year (still trying to meet a few 2018 goals), I don’t imagine they’ll be sitting unread on my shelves for long. So at the end of the month, there are two new books on my owned-unread TBR, but I did read two books from last month’s haul in the meantime, which evens out the numbers. This is getting to be a lot of math, let’s go back to new books…

I was also expecting my copy of In Our Mad and Furious City by Guy Gunaratne to arrive in November, but no luck so far. I was hoping to be able to receive and read that one within November, to finish the Man Booker longlist before the last month of the year. Things always go awry when I try to plan my reading schedule. Hopefully the mail will get sorted out and you’ll be seeing In Our Mad and Furious City in December’s haul instead! Along with a hefty stack of other exciting purchases on their way.

Did you pick up any great new books this month? Have you read any of these titles? Tell me what you thought!


The Literary Elephant

Coffee Book Tag

I was tagged by Rachel for this one; she admits to not drinking coffee, but my confession might be worse: I don’t really like any warm beverages. Or even iced coffee. I drink maybe two cups of tea per year and otherwise just stick mainly to water. But a preference for coffee does not seem to actually be required for this tag, so I’m going to have some fun with it anyway. Here we go:

(P.S. cute font graphics totally borrowed from Romie We Deserve Love)

(P.P.S. titles are linked to my reviews, where applicable)

black coffeeA Series That’s Tough to Get Into But Has Hardcore Fans

redrisingcoverThe Red Rising saga by Pierce Brown. This is a dystopian sci-fi series set in space, and it seems like that’s enough info to turn a lot of readers away. Furthermore, the first book is the weakest of the series, in my opinion. Brown lays some groundwork, but there are some unfortunate parallels to concepts from The Hunger Games in that first book that turn even more readers away. I would definitely advise reading at least through book 2 before deciding, because once you’re hooked, you’re really hooked. The Howlers are an intense  wolf-cloak wearing fanbase that I am happy to be a part of- minus the wolf cloak.

peppermint mochaA Book That Gets More Popular During the Winter or a Festive Time of Year

achristmascarolcoverA Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. This seems obvious to read around the winter holiday season, but I read it for the first time last year. I was already familiar with the story, but had never actually read Dickens’s original, and it is definitely worth the read. It’s a classic about kindness and generosity during festive times of year, with a supernatural twist, and it’s not too religion-focused for those who don’t celebrate Christmas.

hot chocolateA Favorite Children’s Book

thecityofembercoverThe City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau. This is one of the first chapter books I remember reading in elementary school that interested me in the weird and bizarre. I didn’t know about genres back then, but I did learn pretty young that I like books that turn the real world upside down and inside out. Books that toe the line between reality and fantasy. Other favorites from this era in my life include Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, Joseph Bruchac’s Skeleton Man, and The Spiderwick Chronicles by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black.

double shot of espressoA Book That Kept You On the Edge of Your Seat From Start to Finish

darkmattercoverDark Matter by Blake Crouch. This is a science fiction thriller that constantly surprised me. I think the fact that I didn’t know much about dark matter and hadn’t read a thriller for a while probably contributed to how well this one worked for me, but I loved the otherworldliness of the twists and the exploration of “what if you had made different choices in your life?” I never knew what to expect next, and that’s exactly what I was looking for when I picked up this book.

starbucksA Book You See Everywhere

itcoverIt by Stephen King. With a new 2 part-film halfway released, this thousand page monster has been seeing a lot of fresh attention over the last year or so, and I doubt that’ll go away until the excitement from the second film dies down. This one has a strong magical/sci-fi element even by Stephen King standards, but it was the characterization that I loved most. Watching the 6 kids from the Losers Club navigate childhood fears and bullies and seeing them return to their haunted hometown as adults was absolutely fascinating, and they remain some of my favorite King characters.

that hipster coffee shopA Book by an Indie Author

aluckymancoverA Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley. This is probably not exactly what the prompt wants me to do, as this book was a contender for the National Book Award and is thus not so obscure, but it’s got less than 500 ratings on Goodreads so I’m going ahead. I haven’t even actually read this book yet, but I fully intend to, and I hope a lot of others will as well; Brinkley was one of my creative writing teachers at the University of Iowa, and at that time I don’t believe he’d had anything published yet. So it was pretty awesome to look at the National Book Award nominees this year and see a writer that I actually knew and wanted to support for that reason. Unfortunately, though he was shortlisted, he didn’t win. But I liked what I heard of his work back then, and I’m looking forward to picking this one up.

decafA Book You Were Expecting More From

snapcoverSnap by Belinda Bauer. I decided to read the entire Man Booker longlist this year, and this thriller was the first title I picked up. I’ve been looking for a really impressive thriller all year, and I thought that one longlisted for a literary prize might be exactly what I wanted- but it fell short. Though I liked some of the ideas and characters that went into this story, Snap was riddled with so many plot-holes and problems that I ended up pretty frustrated with it.

the perfect blend A Book or Series That Was Both Bitter and Sweet, but Ultimately Satisfying

emmacoverEmma by Jane Austen. This book is full of dramatic irony; it was so frustrating at times to watch the characters make choices that the reader knows are mistakes, but rewarding in the end to see them overcome their earlier failings. I have not quite read all of Austen’s novels yet, but this seems the one that best shows off her skill as a writer, while also featuring the sort of heartwarming romance that she’s best known for.

green teaA Book or Series That is Quietly Beautiful

faithfulcoverFaithful by Alice Hoffman. Though this book starts with a difficult tragedy and the main character takes a lot of time to figure out how to cope with it, it was heartwarming seeing her find her way at last. Also, she adopts a lot of dogs along the way- as a cat person, I must say that the dogs must’ve really been written well to impress even me. (Also I really love looking at that beautiful floral blue cover.)

chai latteA Book or Series That Makes You Dream of Far-Off Places

origincoverOrigin by Dan Brown. Actually the entire Robert Langdon series. I used to read these books because I liked the action and the puzzles, but even though Origin didn’t impress me the same way, it was still full of art and cultures that I would love to see in person. Particularly in this latest book, the Guggenheim Museum of modern art, in Bilbao. Looking up images of the art described was probably my favorite part of reading this book, and it’s the locations rather than the plots that have stuck with me from the previous books in the series.

earl greyA Favorite Classic

rebeccacoverRebecca by Daphne du Maurier. I love classics. I don’t read enough of them, considering how much I enjoy them. This is just the most recent classic I’ve added to my favorites shelf, a Gothic romance with an emphasis on the psychological. Other classic favorites include: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, and George Orwell’s 1984 (though the scene with the rats will always haunt me).
taggingNone, actually. I’m going to leave it open to whoever likes coffee and/or books and wants to try this tag. Link me if you’re interested, I’d love to see some more answers!


The Literary Elephant

Review: Normal People

I’m finally (and somewhat sadly) reaching the end of the Man Booker longlist: I’m still waiting for Gunaratne’s In Our Mad and Furious City to arrive in my mailbox, but in the meantime I finished book #12 (out of 13), Sally Rooney’s Normal People. I saved a couple of titles that I was really looking forward to for last, to end on a high note; Normal People did not disappoint.

normal peopleAbout the book: Connell’s mother works as a cleaner in Marianne’s house. But though Marianne’s family is well-off and Connell’s is just scraping by, Connell is popular at school while Marianne is teased as an outcast. They’ve both accepted the status quo, but the beginnings of a romance between them changes everything. Connell does not want anyone to know what he’s doing with Marianne, and she likes him enough to keep quiet and sneak around. A betrayal changes everything again, but their paths cross again when they’ve both enrolled at the same university. Never quite together and never quite apart, Connell and Marianne navigate their complex relationship as they’re also making choices that will shape the rest of their lives.

“It’s funny the decisions you make because you like someone, he says, and then your whole life is different. I think we’re at that weird age where life can change a lot from small decisions.”

This book is addicting. I read the entire novel in two sittings, about half one evening and half the next. On the surface, Rooney’s writing is simple and straightforward, describing the minutiae of these two characters’ unique lives and their primary emotions. Readers looking for flashy, fast-paced prose will not find much of interest here, but Rooney brings hidden depth to the ordinary.

I mentioned reading this book in halves because I had very different experiences with each. The first half of the novel read a bit like a Jane Austen romance for me, the opening conversation between Marianne and Connell simultaneously mundane and suggestive of the complicated long-lasting relationship that would clearly follow. There are ups and downs to the friendship/love between them, but in that first half Marianne and Connell are innocent and sweet (even when hurting each other), and their every interaction is laced with destiny.

“He senses a certain receptivity in her expression, like she’s gathering information about his feelings, something they have learned to do to each other over a long time, like speaking a private language.”

The second half takes a darker turn. Marianne and Connell experience individual setbacks, and their relationship founders in a way that made me question for the first time whether they would actually end up together, or be driven apart drastically altered. While it was fun to see bits of myself in the characters’ thoughts and impressions in that first half- even the unpleasant ones, the feelings of being rejected and bullied and the regret for the lasting impact of hasty decisions- the resonance of the second half took me to some bleaker places. I still connected with Marianne and Connell in turns, but their depressions and experiments and general despair removed any semblance of sweetness from the story. My life is nothing like Marianne’s or Connell’s, and yet their thoughts are so accessible- perhaps too accessible. The second half of the novel left me so sad and heartbroken.

“He knew that the secret for which he had sacrificed his own happiness and the happiness of another person had been trivial all along, and worthless.”

Normalcy is a goal people strive for, that they cry about in the dark when it seems unattainable. Normal People shows both that everything is normal, and that nothing is. Every human experience is as valid as the next, and every experience is unique to a specific person. So many of the details are different, and yet so many of the feelings we have about them are the same. It’s a simple and astounding message that seems at once obvious and ground-breaking.

“I don’t know why I can’t make people love me. I think there was something wrong with me when I was born.”

But before I get too philosophical (or maybe I already have), let me end by saying that Rooney is a master of showing-not-telling, that Normal People is one of those gems of a book in which the reader can know so much more than the characters are able to see. Though the detailed descriptions of Marianne and Connell’s actions and reactions may seem boring and long-winded to some, Rooney is clearly in full control of her themes and the unspoken motivations driving her characters. This is a novel of identity that many will relate to, and I for one was completely engrossed in both the specifics and the underlying messages of this story.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Sally Rooney is an incredibly skilled writer, though her style won’t be for everyone. Personally, I loved it, but I just can’t say I had a 5-star experience with a book that made me as sad as this one did. And yet… I am awed by Rooney’s ability to take me through the full spectrum of emotions and keep me engaged throughout. When I finished this book, I felt like I’d been having a conversation with Rooney that had been interrupted by a sudden “The End,” and I knew I had to read more of her work. I’ve got Conversations With Friends on hold at the library and will be reading it in a week or so, and I’ll probably also be picking up whatever Rooney publishes next.

More of my Man Booker reviews: Milkman, Everything Under, The Water Cure, From a Low and Quiet Sea, The Mars Room, The Long Take, The Overstory, Sabrina, Warlight, Washington Black, Snap.

What’s your favorite book that made you sad to read?


The Literary Elephant

Review: Elevation

Stephen King had a brand new book published at the end of October, and as a long-time fan of his writing I had to pick it up. I got around to it about halfway through November. It was a one-sitting book, less than 150 pages, which made it impossible to pass up. King’s books usually run so long that a novel of this size from him is a true curiosity.

elevationAbout the book: Scott pays a visit to his old doctor– retired, but still a favorite for medical advice– when he notices a strange trend: though he doesn’t look any different, he’s steadily losing weight. His eating habits haven’t changed; if anything, he’s eating more than he used to, but the numbers on the scale keep going down. More alarmingly, they don’t go up when he steps on the scale with a pocketful of quarters or heavy dumbbells in his hands. As Scott continues to feel lighter and healthier, he’s also trying to befriend the lesbian couple next door that he’s accidentally gotten into a neighborly feud with. There’s no telling what will happen to Scott when the scale hits zero, so his time to make amends for a bad first impression is running out.

“This isn’t just outside my experience, I’d say it’s outside human experience. Hell, I want to say it’s impossible.”

Right away I noticed that Elevation felt a bit gimmicky. Like Stephen King enjoying his fame, publishing because he can, because anything he turns out is going to be a hit even if it’s not a hit. There’s not a lot of meat to this story, but more unusually, there’s not much of the excellent character portrayal and development that Stephen King is known for.

One particular problem I had with Elevation is best explained in conjunction with previous experience; I read Stephen King and Owen King’s Sleeping Beauties earlier this year and noticed that the social commentary was a lot more pointed than I was used to in King’s older novels. As the book was co-written and I had no experience with Owen King’s work, I thought maybe that wasn’t Stephen King’s doing, or at least not entirely. But I had the same issue with Elevation: the social and political commentary is so very on-the-nose. Essentially, the lesbian couple living next to Scott is facing prejudice from the entire town that is strong enough to potentially ruin their business within the year; as Scott tries to befriend them he sees the error of his earlier assumptions and encourages the other townspeople to accept them as well. The moralistic plot is predictable and obvious, Scott’s personal dilemma providing him with an excuse to see the situation from a new and comparable light:

“Why feel bad about what you couldn’t change? Why not embrace it?”

Furthermore, I’m not sure why this book is labeled as horror at all- the weight-loss concept is a bit weird and disturbing, but it’s not presented in a horrifying way. Scott seems to completely accept what is happening to him, and it fades into the background of the story as the situation with the neighbors takes precedence.

With the illustrations at the start of every chapter and the small size of the physical book (in addition to the abovementioned lack of subtlety and horror), Elevation seemed a bit like it wanted to be a children’s book. The entire story seemed a bit confused about its intended direction. If not for King’s name on the cover, I doubt this book would’ve seen much success.

“Not a wind, not even a high, exactly, but an elevation. A sense that you had gone beyond yourself and could go further still.”

And yet, it wasn’t a bad read either. Despite the fact that I kept expecting more from it, the story held my attention from cover to cover, surprising me in a few places and amusing me in others. It had so much potential for disaster, but as always, Stephen King pulls everything together in a uniquely interesting way.

Bonus points for the Pennywise reference.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. This was an easy and acceptable read, though not particularly impressive. It helped me out of the reading slump that I’d been in for half the month (which, ironically, stemmed from my dislike for another novel in The Bachman Books, also written by Stephen King).

Further recommendations:

  • If you enjoyed (or look forward to enjoying) Elevation‘s short simplicity and wacky premise, you’ll probably also like King’s short co-written novel, Gwendy’s Button BoxGwendy’s takes place in the same town as Elevation (and gets an obscure mention in Elevation as well, if you’re interested in reading chronologically and want to pick up Gwendy’s first, though it’s not at all necessary to  read in that order to understand these stories) and is also a book that looks at morality and interpersonal relationships with a bizarre supernatural premise running in the background: a box of buttons that give its holder immense power over the entire world.

Is there an author whose books you pick up immediately upon publication, no matter what they’re about? Does that ever backfire for you?


The Literary Elephant

Review: The Bachman Books

I’ve been reading Stephen King since I was twelve years old, but I still have quite a bit of his oeuvre left on my TBR, which includes works by Richard Bachman, an early pseudonym used by King. At the very end of October, I picked The Bachman Books, a collection of four short novels written by Richard Bachman / Stephen King. It took me almost three weeks (more than half of November) to get through this 700 page collection, but it’s finally behind me and I’m ready to reflect on each of the four stories: Rage, The Long Walk, Roadwork, and The Running Man.

thebachmanbooksInstead of my usual review format to talk about the book as a whole, I’m going to share a bit about each of the four stories before going into general thoughts on the collection.

Rage: This is the story that initially interested me most. It’s an out-of-print story about a school shooting that’s caused a lot of real trouble. This is a bad reason to be interested in a book, but I also just wanted to pick it up because I’m afraid it will become increasingly difficult to find and I didn’t want to end up reading all of King’s works except this one.

There is surprisingly little killing here for a story that revolves entirely around a teen gunman. Instead, Rage is filled with the conversations between students and teachers that the gunman is able to facilitate. I was somewhat put off by the weird and unnecessary sexual turn that basically every one of these conversations took, but it was an interesting look at power dynamics in the school system and I found every character fascinating. Even so, I don’t understand how this book caused so many problems- overall, I found it a pretty mediocre read.

“When you’re five and you hurt, you make a big noise unto the world. At ten you whimper. But by the time you make fifteen you begin to eat the poisoned apples that grow on your inner tree of pain. It’s the Western Way of Enlightenment. You begin to cram your fists into your mouth to stifle the screams. You bleed on the inside.”

The Long Walk: This was my favorite story from the bunch. It seemed like a true Stephen King horror tale, one of the “Where did anyone ever come up with an idea like this?” sort that I particularly enjoy. I’m left with a few unanswered questions about the society that supported and made sport of this fatal long walk (100 boys volunteer/are chosen to walk until they can walk no farther- at which point they are shot. The last boy standing wins). The ending was not surprising or impressive, but 99% of this story completely captivated me. You walk or you die– what a choice. I wonder if Suzanne Collins read this story before writing The Hunger Games, it seemed like The Long Walk could’ve been an inspiration for that sort of thing.

“They got that way, Garraty had noticed. Complete withdrawal from everything and everyone around them. Everything but the road. They stared at the road with a kind of horrid fascination, as if it were a tightrope they had to walk over an endless, bottomless chasm.”

Roadwork: The bane of the collection, in my opinion. I struggled so much with finishing this one, especially in the first of the three parts that it’s divided into. The main character was clearly on a downward spiral, but the narration took SO. LONG. to get past the premise introduction and into the real conflict. I think part of the reason I couldn’t get into this story is that it opens with a character who deals with things he doesn’t like by lying, putting them off, and just generally fooling himself into thinking that if he delays long enough the problem might go away. That’s the way I deal with things I don’t like, at least at first, and I had something I was putting off when I started reading so it was giving me real anxiety to see this character’s problems blow up in his face as he tried to ignore them. And even when I’d gotten past that part, I just didn’t like him. His trajectory was unsurprising and largely uneventful until the final stand- personally, I would’ve enjoyed this a whole lot more if the narration showed only that final scene and worked a minimal amount of backstory into the action of it. I’m still not entirely sure why I spent 2 weeks trying to read 200 pages that did not remotely interest me.

“But it didn’t matter. It had gone too far. He had let the machine run without him too long. He was hypnotized by the coming explosion, almost lusted for it.”

The Running Man: The third of four stories that have a surprising amount of focus on roads… This one was more engaging, thankfully. It features a “contestant” on a “game show”; the main character needs money to take care of his family, which in this case means signing up for a televised event in which he spends thirty days (if he can survive that long) running for his life. He can go anywhere, do anything, but the entire nation is watching the show and helping hunt for him, as are professional “Hunters”. This was another favorite of the collection for me. There’s a lot of psychology, a lot of high-stakes action, and it’s set in a futuristic world that’s clearly a future imagined from the 1970’s/80s, which I found amusing.

” ‘I’m sorry you can’t help kill me. Should I leave a note saying I was here?’ ‘Jesus, couldja? That’d be-‘… ‘Let me out here,’ Richards said abruptly… ‘Couldja gimme that note-‘ ‘Get stuffed, maggot.’ … ‘I hope they getya early, you cheap fuck!‘ “

There’s also an introduction to the book by Stephen King, titled “The Importance of Being Bachman,” which was not entirely gripping and seemed defensive, but there is some interesting info included. Some highlights: King talks about being interviewed by the FBI when Rage was linked to real school shootings, how writing with a pseudonym allowed him to publish a book he wouldn’t have been able to under his own name (The Regulators, which was similar in plot to a novel he’d already written) and how writing under two names inspired the plot for another of his novels (The Dark Half).

What I do think about these Bachman books as a whole is that they seem a bit juvenile compared to works published under his real name. Carrie was King’s first published novel though, and even though that came before any Bachman books hit shelves it didn’t feel that way to me. These stories, however, feel like the thought experiments of a writer just finding his feet, taking crazy ideas as far as he can just to see what happens when you’re the God of your own fictional worlds and can make the characters dance any way you like. They’re not fantasies, but they feel like tests. Try outs. I feel like I’ve seen a piece of King that I never had before, though I’ve read fifteen others of his works, including his memoir. This is different. Dedicated Stephen King fans might be interested to compare and contrast these books with other early King works, but otherwise I don’t think I’ll be recommending The Bachman Books as any sort of Stephen King staple or even as an introduction to his works, despite their early place in King’s publishing chronology.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars (overall- I am not giving separate ratings for each of the four novels though I’ll say I liked them in this order: The Long Walk, The Running Man, Rage, Roadwork). I’m glad I read this, even if it did wreck my motivation for a couple of weeks. I’ve been curious about this collection for years, so I’m proud of myself for following through and finishing these 700 pages even when I wasn’t loving the stories. But I do think I need a little break from Stephen King- or at least from Richard Bachman.

Have you read anything by Richard Bachman? What did you think?

Sincerely, The Literary Elephant

2018 Almost-Favorites

As the year approaches its end, it’s time to start thinking about the year in review- the best and worst books we’ve read in 2018. But looking back on my reading year, I realized that there’s another category I want to acknowledge: the Almost-Favorites. This year, I feel that I’ve really branched out my reading, and taken chances on books that I hoped would educate me as well as entertain. These probably won’t make it to my all-time favorites list, but with Thanksgiving celebrations tomorrow I wanted to take a moment to appreciate the books that have helped me learn and grow as a reader this year. Each of these titles changed my perspective or resonated with me personally in some way.

Without further ado, my 2018 Almost-Favorites (in the order that I read them):

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. eleanoroliphantiscompletelyfineThis novel is probably about a character on the Autism spectrum, though the likelihood that Eleanor has undiagnosed Asperger’s is not discussed in the text. That’s why I loved this book. I had never read a character like Eleanor, and loved the way her perspective was portrayed fairly and casually- this is not a book that sensationalizes autism; instead, it introduces the reader to a new viewpoint that it endeavors to normalize. A bit more subtlety would have made this a true favorite for me, but even at 4 stars Eleanor and her dark past will stick with me.

Emma by Jane Austen. emmaI’ve read 4 of Austen’s novels now, and loved every one. Though each of her stories are entertaining, Emma is the most impressive in terms of structure and dramatic irony. This book is heavy on dialogue that reveals so much of each character to the reader that the plot itself offers little surprise as the characters march toward their inevitable conclusions, but seeing them clash and change along the way makes the novel worth the read. I devoured this book the way I imagine one watches a ventriloquist show- with my eyes not on the characters, but on their master; Austen’s skill is obvious in Emma, and never wavers.

Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong. goodbye,vitaminHere is a story about a grown woman whose life is in shambles, returning home to help her parents through worsening Alzheimer’s. This disease of memory runs in my own family, and though I haven’t personally seen a case as bad as the one in this story, it struck a chord with me. The plot is a bit far-fetched and predictable, but the way that Alzheimer’s affects this family feels real and impactful. It’s not only the forgetting that’s hard, but the change of personality and behavior that accompanies it. I felt for this family, and won’t forget them.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid. thesevenhusbandsofevelynhugoThis book took me completely by surprise. I don’t pay much attention to real celebrities and didn’t expect to enjoy reading about a fictional one- but Evelyn Hugo won me over. This is not a book about a glamorous movie star, but about a woman who does whatever it takes to make a name for herself in an industry that doesn’t want to accept her. She faces discrimination based on her race, gender, and sexuality, but finds a way to become beloved by millions. She taught me a bit about how wrong assumptions can be. If I hadn’t guessed a few key plot points before reading them, this book might have found its way to my favorites list.

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. incoldbloodI had never read a true crime book before this year, unless you count The Devil in the White City which is only partially focused on historical crimes. But this nonfiction narrative is a classic, the first of its genre, and for the most part it does read like a novel. Capote takes the reader through the Clutter family’s last day, the long and difficult investigation, and their killers’ trail. The writing is strong and memorable. I only wished it had focused more on the victims than the killers.

The Vegetarian by Han Kang. img_2044This story is a narrative work of genius. It is divided into three sections, each of which focuses on a character who affects or is affected by a Korean woman who turns vegetarian. The story actually has little to do with vegetarianism- it is about the way people react to someone whose life choices are very different from societal norms. Each of the three perspective characters imposes their own view onto the woman’s choice, and the ways that they take advantage of her or let her down are the true focus of the story. There are so many powerful messages wrapped up in here and Kang’s writing is brilliant and revelatory, but I also found it too uncomfortable and disturbing in places to say that I truly enjoyed it. Even so, this is one of the most intense and unforgettable novels that I’ve ever read.

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan. onchesilbeachCovering mainly a single evening on Chesil Beach, this short novel delves deeply into the failed relationship of a 1960’s newlywed couple. Despite their feelings for each other, their inability to talk about their sexual preferences may drive them apart. McEwan deftly weaves past and future events into the scope of that single eventful night, and turns it all into a portrait of identity and communication. For a story so rooted in time, the themes and tragedies explored still seem surprisingly relevant. I had never read about an asexual character before, and this book was a fantastic introduction to that perspective.

The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner. themarsroomI don’t know why narratives about women’s prisons fascinate me the way they do. There’s something so gripping about injustices in that setting, and though it’s still fairly new to me this was not my first time reading a story of that sort. What impressed me most about this novel though, is that readers must decide for themselves which events are injustices, which are tragedies, and which are fair. Despite a few small sections of the book that felt completely unnecessary to the overall plot, this is a fascinating novel about the wrongs people do to each other, and how they pay for them. It blurs the line between the innocent and guilty, offering instead an all-encompassing moral gray area.

The Emigrants by Vilhelm Moberg. theemigrantnovelsThis is a Swedish classic about a family that emigrates to America. Though this volume is only the first chapter of a broader saga, it touches on a part of my own family history in a way that made this book a compelling read for me. Though the writing didn’t impress me on a sentence-by-sentence level, the scope and structure of the story pulled the narrative together. I have not yet read the rest of the series (I’m afraid the feeling of personal connection to these characters’ journey will fade after the actual emigration), I am looking forward to them. My experience with the first book taught me how important it is for all people from all places to be represented accurately in literature.

Normal People by Sally Rooney. normal peopleI have read twelve (so far) of the thirteen Man Booker longlist titles this year, and I could’ve included most of those books on this list for one reason or another. But Normal People is the one I related to most, and I didn’t want it to be overlooked even though it won’t turn up on my list of 2018 favorites. This is a story about two distinct but ordinary people who begin a relationship as teens and can never quite let each other go afterwards. Though my own life has been very different from either of theirs, I was repeatedly struck by the similarity of their thoughts and feelings to my own. Though I found the plot slightly repetitive and sparse, I found the characters understandable and compelling, and I cannot wait to find out what else Sally Rooney has to say. Full review for this book coming soon.

Have you read any of these books? What are some Almost-Favorites you’re thankful to have read this year?

Happy Thanksgiving!


The Literary Elephant

My Bad Reading Habits

I was tagged a while back by Rachel to show some of my bookish bad habits. So many of her points were relatable, but there are plenty of bad habits to go around… here are some of mine:

  • Thinking about my rating way too early – I don’t generally take any notes for my reviews until after I’ve finished reading, but I do try to keep up an ongoing mental roster of impressions. And thinking about what I want to include in my review always leads to thinking about how many stars I’m going to give. To an extent, knowing whether it’s a 5-star read or a 2-star read is going to impact the sort of review I’ll be writing, but it is totally unfair to any book to try forming a solid judgement when I’m only halfway or a third through the book. And by the time I get to the end, it doesn’t matter what I thought earlier anyway, because the rating almost always seems obvious by then, so all that worrying ahead of time about whether I’m going to say it’s a good book or not is just wasted worry anyway. Like I need more anxiety in my life.
  • Committing myself to too many books – I’m not generally bad at math, but almost every month I have the same problem with overbooking my reading schedule. I pick up 5 books at the library thinking, “yeah, I read more than that in a month, I can handle this,” and then I pull 5 books off my TBR shelf thinking the same thing, and at no point do I think “well, I average more like 8 books a month so I actually have to choose which of these stacks is more important.” And then I borrow a book from a friend and agree to a buddy read and decide to read a prize longlist.
  • Checking the page count first – Before I buy a book, I check the page count. Before I check out a book from the library, I check the page count. When a book I’ve ordered comes in the mail, the first thing I do is check the page count. Unless the book is extremely short or extremely long, the number has no bearing on when I will read the book. I just like to know. The reason I consider this a bad habit and not just a weird one is that looking up the page count means seeing the last page of a book first, and I concentrate so hard on not reading any of the ending that sometimes I accidentally see some of the ending just because I’m so focused on the fact that it’s there. I hate spoilers; I don’t know why I can’t stop checking the page count to help myself avoid them.
  • Mood buying when I’m not mood reading – I didn’t own a lot of books as a kid and as a teen. The school library and the public library were easily available, I was big on rereading, and I didn’t have an allowance or a nearby bookstore. Just in the last 3 or so years I’ve developed a problem with buying way more books than I can keep up with reading. Other than the numbers of what I’m buying and what I’m reading simply not matching up (apparently I’m just bad at book math in general), my biggest issue is that I buy what I’m craving to read, but then I don’t read what I’m craving and the mood passes. I definitely own books that I think I would have appreciated more if I had read them right away instead of waiting. Which goes hand in hand with:
  • Saving the best for last – If I have two unread books in my hands, one of them inevitably excites me more than the other. Instead of reading the exciting one, I start with the one I’m not as sure about so I can end on a high note. Except by the time I’ve read that less-exciting book, I’ve got two more books in my hands, and I’m picking up the less exciting one again just to get that out of the way. And the cycle continues, because there are always new books and I can’t stop buying and borrowing. But if I keep on saving the best for last, I will never get to those books I’m most excited about. I know that no matter how many years I live, I will die with hundreds of books left on various TBR lists. So why am I saving the good books? Why do I put aside books I’m incredibly excited about or interested in? The world may never know. This is the habit I most want to break, because… it’s ridiculous. I need to become one of those Eat Dessert First people.

I’m tagging: Amanda, Nirmala, Claire, and anyone else who wants to confess some bad reading habits. (No pressure of course.) Comment below or link back so I can see your habits!


The Literary Elephant


Review: Sabrina

11th (out of 13) for me in the Man Booker longlist was Nick Drnaso’s Sabrina, the first graphic novel ever to be nominated for the prize. I was interested in picking this one up much sooner but had some difficulty with availability. I read this book in early November.

sabrinaAbout the book: Sabrina is murdered on her way home one night, and her family’s grieving is interrupted by media and the masses as those who hear the news try to “solve” Sabrina’s death themselves. But public opinion and truth do not always align; Sabrina’s boyfriend and the friend he’s staying with after the tragedy learn firsthand the extremes that people will go to in an attempt to make sense of wide-spread confusion, horror, and fear.

“We are now thoroughly desensitized. It’s as if these guys are trying to outdo each other for our attention.”

I’ve not read many graphic novels. A graphic memoir, a few serialized comics, and Sabrina is the extent of my experience with highly illustrated stories. While I do enjoy them, I enjoy words a lot more– so I might have been a bit biased before I even opened the cover of Sabrina.

Right away, I knew the art style was not going to win me over. On one hand, the rather shapeless character drawings made it easy to project this situation into the real world because the characters aren’t too defined and stuck on the page. There is no detraction from Drnaso’s themes by prettiness or ugliness of characters, or elaborately detailed backgrounds. But on the other hand, the characters are so simply represented that at times it can be difficult to distinguish which is whom, especially between characters that are dressed alike. Having to wade through the art to find the story feels counterproductive.

Though I think the messages of this book are important, I did know from early reviews the basics of the premise and the “point” of the story, which perhaps contributed to my lack of shock while reading. There’s some interesting irony in the fact that having read a few reviews of this graphic novel before starting it myself perhaps lessened the impact for me– much as Sabrina demonstrates that an influx of horrible deaths in the news can desensitize a person, I think I was somehow desensitized to those disturbing messages. It’s a strong concept that I appreciate and will remember, but I think it would’ve been a more impactful reading experience if I hadn’t known what to expect going in.

“When the hysteria subsides, this video is destined to be another relic that we will never truly understand. A new tragedy presents itself before we can make sense of the last. Why does this keep happening, and who keeps doing this to us? I wish I could strangle their collective necks and be done with it, so we could build our utopia in peace.”

As humans, aren’t we entitled to the grief and shock and outrage and disbelief that occurs when another human being is murdered? Sabrina doesn’t refute that premise as much as it suggests there must be a way– and we need to find that way as soon as possible– to distinguish between appropriate and hurtful ways to express those emotions. We are entitled to feel, but not to make assumptions or encourage others to feel any particular way about the human condition.

It’s a powerful and widely applicable message. We are dealing with an influx of terrible deaths in the news. But the messages far overbalance the plot, which is why I’ve been pretty vague about specifics in this book. It’s best for you to discover them yourself.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. This was a quick afternoon read with some great relevant commentary that’s horrifying in its reality. Jury’s out on whether I’ll read Dranso’s previous graphic novel, Beverly. But I will certainly be rounding out my longlist reading experience– I’m halfyway through Rooney’s Normal People now (and absolutely loving it), and am hoping to read Gunaratne’s In Our Mad and Furious City before the end of the month, which will wrap up the 2018 Man Booker nominees. Even though every longlisted book hasn’t been a 5-star read for me, it’s been a 5-star reading experience.

My previous Man Booker reviews, in descending order of favoritism: Milkman, Everything Under, The Water Cure, From a Low and Quiet Sea, The Mars Room, The Long Take, The Overstory, Warlight, Washington Black, Snap.

What’s your favorite graphic novel? I could definitely use some suggestions!


The Literary Elephant

Review: Red Dragon

Last year I made Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs my Halloween read, and thought it was brilliantly done. I hadn’t known when I decided to pick it up that The Silence of the Lambs is actually the second book in the Hannibal Lecter series, but since it made such a great Halloween story I thought I would pick up another book from the series for Halloween this year: Harris’s Red Dragon, the first Hannibal Lecter book.

reddragonAbout the book: Two families have been murdered in two different states, but the FBI thinks they’re connected. Will Graham is recruited from retirement in Florida to examine the case and help pinpoint the killer. His family doesn’t want him to go back into the environment that poisons his mind and emotions– getting inside the killer’s head in order to find him takes its toll on Graham– but signs point to another potential slaughter within the month, and he has to try. He’s not supposed to be in any danger, looking over old evidence from the first crimes and offering insight, but a selfish corner-cutting reporter runs a distasteful article about Graham’s involvement. The article, in addition to a poor rapport with asylum-held Hannibal Lecter, is enough to bring Graham to the killer’s attention.

” ‘I know I’m not smarter than you are.’ ‘Then how did you catch me, Will?’ ‘You had disadvantages.’ ‘What disadvantages?’ ‘Passion. And you’re insane.’ “

I found it interesting that even in the first book of the Hannibal Lecter set, we don’t really see Lecter on the outside– before this book begins, Lecter is already imprisoned. We do see some backstory about how he was caught, but Lecter’s role is primarily psychological: one known killer’s brain revealing the workings of another. I think this unique choice is what makes Hannibal Lecter– and Harris’s trilogy– so captivating.

At its core, this entire book (like The Silence of the Lambs) is psychological. It’s also gruesome and full of crimes, but the appeal is the glimpse into the killer’s mentality and the detectives’ efforts to make connections that enable catching him. Lecter as go-between adds an interesting third layer to the madness.

“If he felt Lecter’s madness in his head, he had to contain it quickly, like a spill.”

In all truth though, I did not think Red Dragon was nearly as polished as The Silence of the Lambs. (I’m not going to be able to stop comparing the two, sorry.) The main reason that Red Dragon didn’t hold up for me as well is that the parts of the novel are too separate. The Silence of the Lambs has this great dynamic between the new criminal, the captured crazy, and the dogged young detective. In Red Dragon, though Graham is connected both to Lecter’s and the Dragon’s investigations, the overlap between hunter and prey is not as neatly done. Lecter’s part in the Red Dragon ordeal is so small he’s hardly necessary to the book at all. Furthermore, the detectives aren’t able to figure everything out before the climax, which leaves a lot of “So this is how he did it” inelegant exposition for the final few pages and an impression that the investigation was largely unsuccessful– thought Graham does discern a few key secrets from the Dragon’s almost non-existent trail of clues.

Another problem I had with this novel that I didn’t notice in The Silence of the Lambs is the way the Dragon’s past is revealed. Perhaps the picture of disfigurement and abuse Harris paints for him was newer at the time (this book was originally published in 1981), but so much of the Dragon’s past seemed textbook-case to me. Abandoned by his mother. Bullied by his siblings and peers. Subjected to weird quasi-sexual threats from his caretaker. Developed a strange relationship with love emotions because he tried to care about people that never liked him. Etc. And on top of the predictability of the Dragon’s horrible childhood, it is presented in a stilted telling-rather-than-showing way right in the middle of the book, interrupting the flow of the main narrative. For all of Harris’s psychological prowess (shown through a variety of intelligent characters), the structure of Red Dragon completely lacks the deftness and subtlety with which The Silence of the Lambs‘s narrative excels. The seed of his talent is apparent even in Red Dragon, but it hasn’t grown to anywhere near its full potential yet.

But even though I was not as impressed overall, I’m glad I read this. It was still creepy and skin-crawlingly disturbing in some places, which was just what I was looking for on Halloween. Some particular details will stay in my head for a long time, ready to haunt me when I need a good scare.

“An intelligent psychopath– particularly a sadist– is hard to catch for several reasons. First, there’s no traceable motive. So you can’t go that way. And most of the time you won’t have any help from informants. See, there’s a lot more stooling than sleuthing behind most arrests, but in a case like this there won’t be any informants. He may not even know that he’s doing it. So you have to take whatever evidence you have and extrapolate. You try to find patterns.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I’m glad I gave this one a chance, even though it did not live up to my expectations after The Silence of the Lambs. I don’t imagine I’ll be recommending this one much, unless perhaps to readers like me who loved Silence and are looking for just a bit more of Lecter’s creepy genius. I’m still planning to read book three for Halloween 2019, but I don’t know that I’ll bother with the fourth book that goes back to Lecter’s crimes; it gives me the impression of being a bit too much of the unnecessary reader wish-fulfillment type of book, but I don’t know. We’ll see.

I know Halloween is past now, but I love a good disturbing read– do you have any spooky recommendations for me?


The Literary Elephant

Review: The Overstory

Reading the Man Booker longlist this year has been more rewarding than I could have imagined (I’m almost finished– two left), even though I thought the shortlist was surprisingly underwhelming. The last book from the shortlist that I read this October was Richard Powers’s The Overstory. I picked this one up shortly after the winner announcement, with fairly low expectations but a lot of curiosity.

theoverstoryAbout the book: A diverse array of characters experience life-changing events relating to trees. One man is saved by a tree when he falls out of the sky, but one boy is badly injured when he falls from another. For a few characters, trees are family heirlooms or traditions; for others, trees are neglected until a bad stroke leaves little else of life available. Over their lifetimes, these characters’ lives intersect, joining or clashing with each other. But across each journey, the characters come to realize that humans are dangerous for trees and that something valuable is being lost in the clear-cutting of ancient forests and farming of quick-growing replacements in the name of progress. These characters learn that trees have voices and instincts that most people are unaware of, and there might be a lot more at stake than simple wood.

“Property and mastery: nothing else counts. Earth will be monetized until all trees grow in straight lines, three people own all seven continents, and every large organism is bred to be slaughtered.”

” ‘My life’s work is listening to trees!’ “

I must admit, I often skim over descriptions of nature and landscape when I’m reading novels. The appearance of the setting is one of the least important parts of a story for me, and I have no problem creating a viable image of a story’s world in my own head– the method I prefer for visualizing, unless there are certain aspects to a setting that I would not invent accurately on my own (as in fantasy or futuristic elements). So when I learned that The Overstory is a long novel all about nature and landscape and trees, I thought, “Oh no, I’ll be tempted to skip over half of the information and then I won’t be able to understand or enjoy the rest of it.” It was the only book on the longlist that I didn’t really want to read, but I knew I would not be able to leave one book unread when I’ve gone to the effort to read all twelve others. Also saving my least-anticipated for last seemed like a depressing way to end what has otherwise been a great list. So I picked up The Overstory.

And I was pleasantly surprised. The human characters are present enough from the start that I had no trouble tolerating all of the trees in their lives. And what’s more, the trees themselves are fascinating. Apparently there are a lot of kinds of trees with unique properties or histories that are actually interesting and largely unknown– at least to me. The Chestnut blight. The clearing of trees even in small parks. The difficulties of living 200 feet above ground-level in an ancient Redwood. The possibility that trees communicate. Interesting stuff, and it’s not all about how green the leaves and how strong the trunks and how many the branches. For about two-thirds of the novel, The Overstory really held my attention.

“We know so little about how trees grow. Almost nothing about how they bloom and branch and shed and heal themselves. We’ve learned a little about a few of them, in isolation. But nothing is less isolated or more social than a tree.”

But as the most enthusiastic characters began to drift away from their tree passion, to question it, or to give up hope that they could do anything to help the situation, my interest waned toward the end. If even the staunchest of these tree huggers are losing their nerve, how can they convince me to stay invested?

I also felt that the resolution was a bit unsatisfactory. Each of the story’s threads do come to some end, but I still had so many questions. The final chapters for each of the characters came as a surprise and left me wondering why there wasn’t more. More importantly, those final chapters upset some of my earlier assumptions, leaving me wondering whether the point of the novel is to raise awareness that we’re going to have a shortage of trees if we keep going at the rate we are,  or move readers toward activism in saving trees, or even just to suggest that humans can do what they will to the world but the world will bounce back and outlast us all.

“She sees it in one great glimpse of flashing gold: trees and humans, at war over the land and water and atmosphere. And she can hear, louder than the quaking leaves, which side will loose by winning.”

There were also a lot of romances (all hetero as well, which was kind of disappointing) that counteracted some of the tree commentary. There were several times I wondered whether this character or that character was truly acting for the trees, or for their partner. Advocating for trees because you love a person does not convey quite the same message as characters advocating out of appreciation for the trees themselves. I didn’t need all of the characters to tie together so neatly that they all needed to be paired off with one another, and found their romances rather unnecessary and frustrating in general.

“You’re worth more to me than all the forests this outfit can slaughter.”

But even though I was left uncertain and somewhat unsatisfied with the ending, I can’t deny that I learned a lot while reading this book and that it made me look at the natural world in a new light. Perhaps most surprisingly, I was never bored. The Overstory is a long book with a high risk for tedium, and I don’t doubt that there will be readers who simply can’t stand all the tree talk. But Powers is an intelligent writer who doesn’t get lost in the scope of such a vast topic, and I think his place on the shortlist was well-deserved.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. For most of the book, I was blown away by how much I cared about the trees and their human advocates/acquaintances, but the ending wasn’t strong enough to maintain that momentum. I am glad that I read it, and for a 500 page book about trees it was a faster and more engrossing read than I expected. If it had come together a little more definitively at the end, this might have been a surprising favorite for me from the longlist. But alas.

More Man Booker reviews in order of descending favoritism: Milkman, Everything Under, The Water Cure, From a Low and Quiet Sea, The Mars Room, The Long Take, Warlight, Washington Black, Snap. I’ll also have a review of Sabrina coming up next week.

Have you read any books from the shortlist? Which was your favorite?


The Literary Elephant