Favorite Reads of 2018

Okay, I guess it’s time to call it. I probably won’t read any more favorites at this 11th hour of 2018, so here’s the final roll call on my best books of the year!

Disclaimer: these are listed in the order that I read them, I would never be able to rank in order of favoritism.

P.S. Please don’t mind my poor photography skills, I just wanted to show you the editions I read.

  • The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls. theglasscastleI haven’t read many memoirs, but I should pick up more if this one is anything to judge by– I absolutely loved it. I loved the specific writing aspect of Walls’s story, but I also loved how transferable the theme of chasing your dreams and fighting for them to become realities is. (Please slap me if I keep using the word “love” this frequently, it’s going to get sickening fast!)
  • It by Stephen King. it2Stephen King’s novels have been on my favorites lists for years, though I don’t enjoy all of his books equally. This one is deliciously creepy but it also showcases one of the best childhood group-friendships I’ve ever seen. How did I grow up without a Losers Club? I was also captivated by the deterioration of Derry, a popular King novel setting familiar from others of his works.
  • The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood. theblindassassinI’ve been a fan of Atwood’s writing since the first of her novels that I picked up (The Heart Goes Last), and none of her titles I’ve read since have let me down, though they’ve all been very different. This one is a brilliant balance of tragic family saga and imaginative fantasy, and it’s a book I’m appreciating more the longer it rattles around in my mind.
  • Letter From Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King Jr. letterfrombirminghamjailI don’t read much nonfiction, and I had read parts of this short work previously, but I was impressed anew this year how well King’s messages still apply even beyond his own historic moment. This is a truly inspiring little book that I believe every person should read. The additional works in this volume are more religion-focused, but I would highly recommend reading at least the famed letter.
  • Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. rebeccaI should read more classics. So often I find favorites when I do pick them up, including this one. This was my first du Maurier novel, but it will not be my last. I loved the psychology, the mystery, the Gothic elements, the characterization… Plus it’s got the big creepy house that doesn’t feel like home without throwing in any cheesy haunting cliches. This book is dark perfection.
  • Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi. freshwaterHere’s a book that really challenged the way I view the world this year. This one is about a piece of African culture, the Ogbanje, and the way these bad spirits compare to a more Western idea of fractured self. Ultimately, this is a book about identity and choice that changed the way I see the world, and the way that I made unknowing assumptions about experiences I couldn’t even imagine before reading this book.
  • Not That Bad: Dispatches From Rape Culture ed. by Roxane Gay. img_2017This is the last (but certainly not least) of the nonfiction on this list. Here is a collection of 30 writers, most but not all women, who talk about their experiences with rape culture. I have loved Gay’s writing more for its content than its prose in the past, so her influence in the structure of this book with 30 other writers at the forefront was the perfect combination for me. There is so much here that many people– mostly but not exclusively women– will relate to, even if you think you’ve never had any experience with rape. It’s a powerful book.
  • When I Hit You by Meena Kandasamy. whenihityouThis is the book that I thought should have won the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for 2018. It’s hard-hitting and feminist and reminded me so much of The Bell Jar, another of my all-time favorites. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book about abuse before that felt so heartbreakingly honest, and it was one of those books that I felt like I just got, even though I had nothing in common with the characters. I felt like I learned a lot while reading this one, which features Indian culture.
  • Asking For It by Louise O’Neill. askingforitThis is the only YA book that made the list this year– I’ve been reading increasingly less YA, but I think now that I’ve properly outgrown the age range I just need to find a YA niche that works better for me because some stories are ageless. This one was a hard choice to add to the list because it was so upsetting to read that it hardly seemed like YA material, though I do think young readers should know about rape as much (or more) as older readers. Enter this one with caution, and beware the unlikable (though sympathetic) MC.
  • Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. homegoingA friend lent me this book with high recommendation, but I didn’t really know what to expect going in. I don’t like historical fiction as much as I used to, but this is a multi-generational narrative that speaks more about African and African American culture than any individual or specific event, a technique I adored. I thought it all came together so well, but each piece was also completely captivating on its own. An all-around win.
  • Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie. homefireThis is the book that actually won the Women’s Prize for the year, and even though When I Hit You stole my heart before I picked this one up, I could absolutely see why it won. This book is full of betrayal and misfortune that’s both revelatory and highly addicting. Different characters lead each section of the book, which disappointed me at first but came together so well in the overall narrative that I was completely sold by the end. This is also a modern retelling of Antigone, which made it all the more interesting.
  • Everything Under by Daisy Johnson. everythingunderI read the entire Man Booker longlist this year, and though Everything Under did not win the prize it did become one of my favorite ever magical realism books. So often the magical element of magical realism seems nonsensical and overdone to me, but I thought it fit perfectly in this story that is also full of social commentary, another Greek play retelling, and a focus on words. The main character is a writer of dictionary definitions, which I found fascinating. I just loved everything about this book, including its cover.
  • The Pisces by Melissa Broder. thepiscesThere was a definite trend toward mermaids this year, so I picked up one with a particularly attractive cover and more Greek ties to check out the buzz– and ended up finding this completely bizarre but incredible favorite. This one is definitely not going to be for every reader, but if it is for you it’s really for you. The narrator has such a distinct voice that it doesn’t even matter that she’s kind of awful. This book is a disaster in the best possible way.
  • Milkman by Anna Burns. milkmanAnd here we have the winner of the Man Booker prize for 2018. A nice cap to the list. The prose of this book is so unique that it is admittedly difficult to read, but once I came around to it I was hooked. I loved the use of titles rather than names, the circular way of introducing new elements, and each eccentric character. I will be thinking about this one for a long time, and I will certainly be rereading.

Fourteen favorites this year, which I think is a record number for me. It’s been a couple of months since I read the last one, so I was a bit surprised to find that there were so many I had to include for 2018.

Tell me a favorite of yours for 2018! Have you read any of these?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

 

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Review: Fangirl

Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl was a last year’s Christmas gift that I wanted to read before this year’s Christmas. I cut it a bit close by picking it up in the week before Christmas, but I did finish in time! I even wrote most of this review before Christmas– I’ve just been bad about keeping up with blogging lately. But I’m getting back on track now.

fangirlAbout the book: Cath and her identical twin sister, Wren, have been the best of friends all their lives. When their mother walked out of their childhoods, they stuck together and built their lives with their eccentric and creative father. But when it’s time to pack up for college, Wren decides not to room with Cath, to encourage both girls to make new friends. The only friends Cath wants though are fictional– so she dedicates her first semester to completing her Simon Snow fanfiction alone. Her unsocial tendencies only get Cath so far, however, and she can’t help being caught up in some real-life experiences.

Despite my decreasing interest in fluffy YA, there’s a lot about this book that I thought would still appeal to me in my adult years. Cath is so nervous about college and unsocial without quite being rude, which fits my own experience a lot better than the excitement for change and adulthood that most people (real and fictional) seem to express. Furthermore, though I hadn’t taken to the internet with any of my own writing by the time I started college, I was writing my own fiction and had a hard time balancing what I wrote for fun with the classics and more serious works studied in proper English classes. In some ways, I related to Cath’s perspective completely, and was immediately invested in finding out how the year would end for her.

A younger me might have really loved this book. If I had read it immediately upon its release, it might have stood a better chance as something more meaningful to me than a cute break from my real adult life. But I didn’t read it at 18 in my first semester of college when YA was still one of my favorite categories to read, and at 24 I found it a bit too Quirky. (Cath’s actual name is Cather, which is supposed to fit with Wren as two halves of the single name Catherine. No one will ever be able to convince me that Cather does not sound completely ridiculous as a first name and much too reminiscent of “catheter.”)

Fangirl is also a bit too aware of its own awkwardness.

“Levi guffawed. (You don’t get many opportunities to use that word, Cath thought, but this is one of them.)

This first quote is easier to excuse because the qualification seems to come from a writing standpoint that fits Cath’s character. It makes sense that she would think like a writer, though it does give her writing a more amateurish feel to see her process this way. Admittedly, she is fresh out of high school. “Amateur” does not mean “no room for growth;” everyone has to start somewhere.

But here’s another one that just seems dumb:

“Levi’s face clouded over. Not grimly, she thought– thoughtfully. In thoughtful clouds.”

I mean, if you need that much clarification, maybe what you’re trying to say just doesn’t make sense?

I am always interested in reading about writing though, and some of the content Rowell includes about writing for college feels spot-on:

“She wasn’t going to stop typing until she had a first draft. Even if that meant typing things like, I don’t know what the fuck I’m typing right now, blah, blah, blah.

Everyone who’s ever written a paper for college should know that desperate moment well.

As you can see, Rowell’s writing and some of the details didn’t entirely work for me in this book, but I did try to overlook small qualms and just enjoy the overall story. For the most part, Fangirl is readable and it does make some good points about making room for relationships and hobbies/passions in college. I would not recommend this book as any sort of how-to-survive manual for upcoming freshmen, but I do think young readers would benefit from seeing a college story like this that promotes loyalty to oneself above the need to try new things. The new experiences will happen anyway– there’s no reason to change who you are in the search for them. The end resolution is a bit sparse, in my opinion, but this is a solid story with original characters. Bonus points for Levi’s ranch background– farmers/agriculture workers are hardly ever presented in a flattering light but I thought Rowell nailed the rural lifestyle with Levi.

On another note, I was surprised to find myself completely uninterested in the Simon and Baz excerpts from Cath’s fanfiction, even though I thought I would like that aspect of the book. I usually like fantasy and from everything I’ve heard, Carry On (the Rainbow Rowell novel modeled after Cath’s fanfiction in Fangirl) sounds promising. Maybe it’s just that we get such small snippets, some as Gemma T. Leslie’s canon Simon Snow fiction and some as Cath’s fanfiction, that it can be hard to keep the versions of the characters straight and even harder to get invested in each short scene. I still intend to read Carry On eventually, so I hope my reaction to those parts in Fangirl is not indicative of how that experience will go.

But I do love that the villain is called the Insidious Humdrum.

“That was the beauty in stacking up words– they got cheaper, the more you had of them. It would feel good to cut this when she’d worked her way to something better.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. It’s not a perfect book, but I was in the mood for something young and light and this hit the spot. I didn’t quite like it more than Rowell’s Eleanor & Park, but it did work better for me than Attachments or Landline did.

Further recommendations:

  • If you’ve not yet read it, Rowell’s Eleanor & Park is (I think, anyway) the best of her fiction novels. Though it is a high school romance, it focuses primarily on social issues for different minority students and it is an all-around beautiful YA book.

What’s your favorite Rainbow Rowell novel? Or, if you haven’t read Rowell, your favorite contemporary YA?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

 

Book Haul 12.18

So Christmas hit me pretty hard this year. Mostly in good ways, but I’ve been so exhausted the last few days and off of my usual routine. But I’m finally coming around and getting excited for the year’s wrap up and the start of 2019. This post ties in to both, as it shows the books I’ve acquired throughout the last month, which are also the books I’ll be reading in the first month of the new year. I set a 2019 goal for myself to read the new books I pick up within the next month, so this is basically my January TBR. There will be some exceptions, some of these I know I won’t read in January and also I’ll have some library holds coming up that I’ll prioritize. But let’s get to the book haul! Since there are so many (and I don’t remember a lot of the synopses) I’m not going to say much about them. I’m sure you have better things to do today. Without further ado, my final book haul of 2018!

What’s new:

  1. The City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty. This is an adult fantasy I’ve had my eye on for awhile, and finally found a cheap copy. This book and the next 13 came from a Black Friday haul from Book Outlet; everything was insanely cheap (which is why this list is so long).
  2. The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley. I probably won’t read this historical/magical novel in January because I still need to read The Watchmaker of Filigree Street first.
  3. Self-Portrait with Boy by Rachel Lyon. I heard great things about this lit fic all through 2018 but I didn’t end up reading it yet. I’m really looking forward to it.
  4. Love and Other Words by Christina Lauren. I was in a romance novel mood in Nov./Dec. and wanted to give this author duo a try. I read a different one of their books (Josh and Hazel’s Guide to Not Dating) in early Dec. through the library that didn’t impress me, but I’m hoping I’ll enjoy this one more.
  5. Love and Friendship and Other Youthful Writings by Jane Austen. I’ve been making a slow tour through Austen’s novels, and I want to read this bonus book of Austen material when I finish with the novels. (I have Mansfield Park and Sense and Sensibility left.) I probably won’t be reading all three of those in January.
  6. Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh. I’ve been so intrigued to read this author and I want to get back into some short story collections in 2019 after my failed attempt at that this fall.
  7. Autumn by Ali Smith. I’ve been interested in checking out Smith’s seasonal quartet for a few months now and I’m looking forward to giving this first book in the series a go.
  8. The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. I’ve not read any Ishiguro yet and I feel like that needs to be remedied. There are several Ishiguro titles I want to pick up, but this was the one on sale so I’ll start here.
  9. The Mothers by Brit Bennett. I’ve heard good things about this one, and it was cheap. One of my friends is also going to be reading it soon, so it will be nice to chat about it.
  10. The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell. Purcell’s The Corset caught my attention in 2018, but I’ve decided to start with this earlier publication which sounds even more appealing to me.
  11. Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote. I’ve seen the movie but never read the book, and I hear they’re pretty different. I’d love to compare them for myself, and there are several short works in this copy that will fit well into my short story reading efforts.
  12. The Time Machine by H. G. Wells. I’ve never read any H. G. Wells, and due to my interest both in classics and sci-fi it seemed like a good time to change that.
  13. Hag-seed by Margaret Atwood. I’ve read this one! I love Atwood’s writing, and this modern take on Shakespeare’s The Tempest made me appreciate the original in a way I never did while reading the play. I wanted my own copy to reread and lend, I won’t be reading this in January.
  14. The Magicians by Lev Grossman. Another I’ve already read- I loved this adult fantasy trilogy when I read it in 2017 and I do eventually want to won all three books, but I don’t like paying a lot for something I’ve already read, so I got the one that was cheap and I’ll get the others later. I won’t be rereading this one in January.
  15. A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi. I actually picked this up as a potential Christmas gift for a friend who likes YA more than I do, but she got her own copy before Christmas so this one’s mine. I don’t mind, I’ve heard good things.
  16. Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King. Apparently I’m on a mission to read all of King’s publications. It’s going to be a slow trek over a span of years, but I’m starting to pick up more of his titles. This is a short story collection. I won’t read all of my new Stephen King books in January, but I would like to read this one as well as one of the novels.
  17. The Shining by Stephen King. I’ve actually read this one already but wanted my own copy. I also own the sequel, Doctor Sleep, which I haven’t read yet; I want to reread The Shining before I get to the sequel. No guarantees this will be a project for January.
  18. Dolores Claiborne by Stephen King. This sounds like one of King’s more psychological novels, which intrigues me a lot.
  19. In Our Mad and Furious City by Guy Gunaratne. Don’t even get me started on this one. It’s the final title I needed to wrap up my Man Booker longlist experience and I had a frustratingly difficult time getting a copy. This is not the edition I originally ordered, and it took way too long to arrive, but I did want to read it before the end of the year so I had to just go with what I could get in the end. I’m currently reading this one and do plan to finish before 2019. (Since it was on my nightstand instead of in my TBR box, I forgot to include it in the haul thumbnail. I have the yellow US paperback right now.)
  20. The Eyes of the Dragon by Stephen King. This is one of King’s fantasy novels, and one thing about King’s writing that’s intriguing me lately is how varied his writing. There’s something distinctly King-y about all of his work, but he has written in a wide range of genres and I want to check them all out. This one seemed like an easier place to start than his Dark Tower series.
  21. Sawkill Girls by Claire Legrand. I picked up this creepy YA fantasy on a Christmas sale, and am absolutely looking forward to picking it up ASAP.
  22. Fen by Daisy Johnson. I read Johnson’s Everything Under from the Man Booker longlist (and shortlist) this year and loved it enough that I wanted to read Johnson’s other publication. This is her short story collection.
  23. The Lottery by Shirley Jackson. This one is invisible in my haul thumbnail (but it is there!) because I got a very tiny edition of the single short story. My mom’s been recommending this one to me for ages, and I do want to read more of Jackson’s work so I suggested she could give me a copy for Christmas. She found this binding of the single story, somehow. I do eventually want to read the entire The Lottery and Other Stories collection, but I guess I’ll start with this one. It should be an easy title to cross off my January TBR, as the story is only 16 pages long.
  24. Severance by Ling Ma. This was my December BOTM selection, and I am ashamed to say it is the only BOTM main selection that I haven’t finished within the year. I’ve gotten a couple of extras that are still waiting on my shelf and I haven’t entirely caught up with last year’s extras, but I did so well reading my main selection every month of 2018. Until now. It’s my own fault, for taking time off of reading and blogging to sleep and regroup these last few days. I am definitely looking forward to picking this apocalyptic satire up in January.
  25. The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay. This was a December BOTM extra for me, which I knew I wouldn’t have time for in Dec. I am hoping to find time for this cultural lit fic also in January. It sounds like a good winter read.

bookhaul12.18

I think that’s everything new. I think. I have a couple of backup Christmas gifts that I am holding on to for a final Christmas celebration with a bookish friend, and if she doesn’t already have the first-choice books I picked out for her then the backups will be mine. If she does, then I’ll keep the ones she has. I’ve learned this is the only way surprise book gifts work with her, especially when we do our gift exchange after Christmas. So I’ll have two of those backups as well as final Christmas books by the 31st, but I’ll add those to my January haul because this one is already looking a bit unmanageable and I’m ready to post.

My 2019 goal to read my new books within the following month is intended to stop the increasing of my owned-unread TBR every month. I want to read what I’m buying when I buy it, so the unread books I’ve hauled here are going to be top priority. I did buy 3 books I’ve already read, plus I’m reading a 4th, but 21 books is still more than my recent monthly averages. I have no idea which books will be left on this list at the end of the month, but I’m aiming to read the majority. Only future me can say how that will go. Stay tuned for my January wrap-up to find out!

Which books found their way to your shelves this December? Have you read any of these?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

2019 Bookish Goals

It feels out of order to list my goals before going through my results from this past year’s goals, but it would feel just as backwards to wrap up my 2018 goals before the end of the year or save my 2019 goals until January, so we’ll give this a go. I’m still using December to meet a few more of my 2018 goals, but the end of the year is close enough that I’ve put some thought into what I’ve accomplished (or not) this year and how I want to move forward.

Reading Goals:

  • Goodreads – I’ve been doing the Goodreads reading challenge only for three years so far, I think, so I’m still able to raise my goal a little bit every year without the number becoming unrealistic. I do want to set a number that will challenge me to read more, but I don’t want it to be so high that I end up limiting myself to short books. Based on my reading in 2018, I think I can comfortably raise my goal to 100 books for 2019 without sacrificing quality for quantity.
  • Personal – I did create my own reading challenge for 2018 (and I’ll have a whole post to wrap it up in a couple of weeks), but I have decided not to commit to any year-long reading challenges this year. I think every month or quarter I’ll set short term goals for myself so that I can adjust throughout the year if I decide to read a prize longlist or try a summer challenge or something. I want to read more impulsively in 2019.
  • TBRs – I’m going back to monthly TBRs for 2019. I’m going to be experimenting a little throughout the year to see whether small or large TBRs work better for me, rigid vs. flexible TBRs, etc. I haven’t found a good TBR system yet that really works for me, so I want to try to figure that out this year. Mostly, it should help with this next goal:
  • Book hauls – I am not setting a buying ban or trying to limit myself to a certain number of books I can buy per month for 2019. Instead, to keep my owned-unread books under control, I’m going to challenge myself to read every new book I pick up by the end of the next month. So the books I add to my shelves this December will form the bulk of my January TBR, and my new January books will appear on my February TBR, etc. I’m hoping this will help me stop my unread stacks from growing so overwhelming and it’ll force me to read what I’m interested in before my interests have a chance to change. This should encourage me to limit my book buying in a way that’s realistic and sustainable for me. At least, that’s the idea. This is my biggest reading goal for the year, above all other reading priorities. I need to get my owned-unread books under control. (But stay tuned for my December book haul, because I already know January will be ridiculous…)

Writing Goals:

  • New project – I want to write an entire novel in 2019. I don’t mean an outline or a rough draft or finishing something I’ve already started; I want to push myself to complete an entire project in 2019, from start to finish. I don’t know if this is realistic for me, but I do have an idea and I think if I pace myself I can make a solid go of it.
  • Old project – I’m going to try to find an agent/editor/publisher for the novel I’m currently finishing. I’m terrified of the involving-other-people steps, and I don’t know if my book will go anywhere, but you don’t know until you try so I should make that leap. This is going to be a big struggle for me because I don’t have any connections and I’m terrible at talking myself (or my work) up to strangers. Also I’m not entirely sure how to go about it, but hey we’ll make it an adventure. Tips and tricks are more than welcome in the comments!

These are my main bookish goals for 2019. Instead of a lot of little things that might or might not happen, this year I’m focusing on fine-tuning my current habits to make my reading and writing a bit… healthier? I just want to do the best I can with what I’ve got.

And in a couple weeks or so, throughout the first days of January, I’ll be doing my 2018 wrap-ups. I’m going to have a separate post for my hodge-podged 2018 reading challenge, and then a master list of some reading stats and experiences from the year. I’ll also have my 2018 favorites coming up. I just don’t want to call it before 2018’s truly over, you know? But I love new years. They’re so full of hope and innocence. I can’t wait to see what this next one brings.

How about you? What’s your top-priority bookish goal for 2019?

2018 Bookish Disappointments

Last month I created a post of my 2018 almost-favorite books, and before I get into my true faves this year I wanted to look at the other end of that spectrum: my greatest reading disappointments of 2018. These are not exactly least favorites, or even my lowest rated books of the year– those categories are too depressing to dwell on. Instead, I’m going to list the books that for one reason or another I expected more from than the book had to offer.

Without further ado, my Top 2018 Bookish Disappointments (listed in the order that I read them, with titles linked to my full reviews):

asbrightasheavenAs Bright as Heaven by Susan Meissner. 

Expectation – This was my first Book of the Month Club selection of 2018, and after a wonderful year with BOTM in 2017 I had high hopes for the new year. I chose this historical fiction about the Spanish Flu in America in the early 1920’s in an attempt to read something outside of my normal range. I was looking for hard-hitting tragedy, and hoping to learn something about that epidemic.

Reality – I didn’t learn much. The story is overly sentimental for my taste, with the focus on one family whose tale encompasses so much more than the difficult months of the influenza crisis. The flu actually seemed like such a small part of this narrative, which mainly left me feeling like I was reading a different book than the one I’d signed on for.

thepowerThe Power by Naomi Alderman.

Expectation – A bizarre (supernatural) feminist story that impressed a lot of readers before I got around to picking it up. This one had been getting so much buzz and the premise sounded perfect for me: women develop the ability to channel electricity through their hands, which changes the world order of power.

Reality – The book is not much more than its premise. It sounded so good, but the execution fell flat for me. Not only did many of the characters seem unlikely and somewhat uninteresting, but the scope of the story tries to go a bit too far with a major war and upheaval that becomes much more political than character-driven. Furthermore, Alderman seems to be making a point of showing that a world ruled by women would be no better than a world ruled by men, which is… beside the point.

originOrigin by Dan Brown.

Expectation – A fast-paced thrill full of art and history and a bit of science. I’ve read the entire Robert Langdon series through the years, and have always enjoyed them in the past. I had no reason to think this newest addition to the series (book 5) would be any different.

Reality – I just couldn’t engage with this one. I had a good time looking up images of the art that’s mentioned, but the artificial intelligence aspect of the story did not seem innovative and much of the chase seemed surprisingly low stakes compared to earlier Robert Langdon novels. It’s likely my reading tastes have changed in the four years or so since I read Inferno (book 4).

thedeathofmrs.westawayThe Death of Mrs. Westaway by Ruth Ware.

Expectation – This is another case of judging an author by her earlier work. I’ve loved a couple of Ruth Ware’s previous thrillers, though admittedly I don’t think I would like them as much if I were reading them for the first time this year as I did when I actually read them. Still, Ware writes such great atmosphere.

Reality – The atmosphere was definitely there, but not much else. I found the plot predictable and unnecessarily convoluted. I saw through the red herrings easily and never felt that the potential killer would get away with murder even if it could be brought about. The creepy old house and the insights into tarot readings were the only aspects I enjoyed, and my faith has definitely been shaken in Ware. One more dud will probably turn me away from her books in the future.

snapSnap by Belinda Bauer.

Expectation – This thriller was nominated for the 2018 Man Booker prize, and the combination of anticipated thrills and a fresh literary list had me reaching for this book as soon as I could get my hands on a copy. I hadn’t quite decided to read the entire longlist at the time I read Snap, but I was excited about many of the titles and thought this would be an easy and exciting start to the list.

Reality – This story is so riddled with plot holes I’m surprised it holds together at all. There are a few characters and concepts that I found intriguing, but I mourned them appearing in such an unpolished book. I was left a lot more uncertain about reading the Man Booker longlist after this rough experience.

youthinkiti'llsayitYou Think It, I’ll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld.

Expectation – I read Sittenfeld’s Eligible last year and had a uproariously good time with it. I found it so light and funny, and yet all the pieces fit so well together that Sittenfeld’s skill was absolutely apparent. I wanted to get back into reading some short stories in the latter half of 2018, and this was my first collection of that attempt.

Reality – I was turned off of wanting to read more short stories in the immediate future. I tried to deny it by acquiring a few other collections, but I haven’t actually mustered the will to try those others yet. In theory, there’s a great idea (discouraging assumptions about other people) behind this set of stories, but that’s established early on and once I figured that out all the stories seemed basically the same with different characters. I was profoundly bored.

crossherheartCross Her Heart by Sarah Pinborough. 

Expectation – I’d been having a bad year with thrillers by this point, but Pinborough’s Behind Her Eyes so impressed me with its twist so far out in left field last year that I thought this one might be weird enough to give me the change I needed in that genre.

Reality – This was such a run-of-the-mill thriller. The characters were a bit bland, the stakes too low, the format tired. This is not a mystery one could solve along with the characters because the clues aren’t provided sufficiently throughout the lead-up to the big show-down. My biggest disappointment though was simply that this was nothing like Behind Her Eyes. Apparently a common theme for me this year was leaning too heavily on authors that had impressed me in the past.

elevationElevation by Stephen King.

Expectation – Here we have yet another (and the final) case of hoping to see the same level of work from an author I’ve loved in the past. Actually I still love King’s writing, but I’m on a long quest through his oeuvre now that’s definitely challenging my earlier assumptions. In any case, I picked up this book looking for horror and compelling characters, the two things King is most known for.

Reality – I have no idea why this book is marketed as horror. The underlying concept is maybe a bit horrifying to contemplate, but it is not presented in any sort of terrifying way. Furthermore, the characters lack any subtlety or nuance, and the whole (short) book seemed rather confused about its target age range. Maybe if King hadn’t attempted an unimaginative “accept the lesbians” commentary here he might have teased out a more interesting story. But it wasn’t a total loss for me; I’m continuing through King’s works with a fresh eye for flaws, and I think I’m getting a more accurate impression by exploring the ups and the downs instead of just the ups.

joshandhazel'sguidetonotdatingJosh and Hazel’s Guide to Not Dating by Christina Lauren.

Expectation – I read romance novels pretty rarely, but I’ve had good luck with the titles I’ve chosen this year. Christina Lauren was a new-to-me author duo, but they seem to be popular lately and have high ratings. I was just looking for some feels and a predictably good time.

Reality – There is no tension in this story whatsoever. Putting aside the cringe-worthy blind double-dating game, there are simply no obstacles to Josh and Hazel ending up together. I appreciated the diversity and acceptance of all kinds of minorities that’s promoted through the writing, but I didn’t find any emotion or noteworthy commentary.

eclipseEclipse by Stephenie Meyer.

Expectation – I mean, my expectations were low for this one to begin with. I’ve been doing a slow reread of the Twilight saga for over a year now in the interest of some reflection on how my reading tastes have changed, and though the first two books were not exactly funEclipse had once been my favorite of the series and I expected at least the same level of nostalgic enjoyment and self-enlightenment (from the reflection, obviously, not the content).

Reality – This is now my least favorite book in the series. I did take some quality reflection away from the experience (linked through title if you want to check out my opinions on subjectivity and books), but this was the longest and worst reread yet. I was never a fan of the Jacob-Bella romance, but it’s absolutely abhorrent in this volume. I’m not sure how my teenaged self overlooked that, but it was definitely torturous this time around. The bar was already low when I started reading, but the actual reread was worse. Much worse.

And that’s a wrap.

Fortunately, it was harder to put this list together than it was to assemble potential favorites, but there are always some disappointments and 2018 was no exception. This is not to say that any of the books on this list are “terrible” or that it’s bad to like them– again, they’re just titles that left me unhappy with my reading experience.

What was your greatest reading disappointment this year? Why was it so disappointing?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

 

 

Review: Bird Box

Josh Malerman’s Bird Box was on my TBR for ages, and I had the best of intentions of reading it for a good scare in October, but it just didn’t happen. When I saw that the film adaptation is coming to Netflix on December 21st, I knew I couldn’t put it off until next October, so here I am. Reviewing the book and eagerly anticipating the movie.

birdboxAbout the book: Malorie discovers she is pregnant, just as the world as she knew it grinds to a halt. All over the world, there are news reports of people going inexplicably mad, harming those around them and themselves. No one is sure about the cause of this colossal problem, but gradually they learn about mysterious creatures that are dangerous to look at. The people that are left at that point barricade themselves indoors, blacking their windows and wearing blindfolds for even the shortest trips outdoors. Malorie joins other survivors in a safe house, where she spends years adapting to the new world order and trying to find a better situation for her new babies– which necessitates venturing out into the unknown.

“Nobody has answers. Nobody knows what is going on. People are seeing something that drives them to hurt others. To hurt themselves. People are dying. Buy why?”

First off, I loved the psychological aspects to this story. For a book that involves a lot of voluntary blindness, Malerman works a lot of very visual and vivid details into Bird Box. Though I did find the writing itself a bit emotionless and unexciting, the concepts are strong enough that I was engaged in the story even when I had a sense of detachment from the characters. Even though I didn’t feel Malorie’s tension in certain circumstances, the ideas inspired my own underlying horror. I could imagine what it would be like to walk in Malorie’s shoes, and those were compellingly awful prospects.

“The moment between deciding to open your eyes and then actually doing it is as scary a thing as there is in the new world.”

There is so much room for ambiguity in Bird Box, considering the fact that the survivors can never see these creatures. Some don’t believe the creatures actually exist. Some believe the horror is in the form they take, others believe it is a flaw in the human mind that causes such an extreme reaction to them. The characters hear noises or sense a presence, but they can never be sure what is happening right beside them. There are theories and disagreements, and Malerman does an excellent job of answering the questions that need to be and leaving other possibilities vague. I will say though that I was somewhat disappointed that there seemed to be no ambiguity about the book’s ending; madness, especially after Malerman shows how it has affected a *certain* character, can be a very ambiguous concept in a novel, and I wished he had taken it a step further than he did. But none of the details Malerman provides are to the detriment of the story.

I think my only real hindrance with Bird Box came in the fact that I was a bit overhyped for it. I opened to the first page a little worried that I had elected to read by lamplight at night after the rest of the house was asleep, but even though the suspense builds and builds, the story never quite took my breath away. Perhaps the fact that the creatures don’t seem do anything but show themselves to humans made reading about them less suspenseful? Malorie was so determined not to look, and it seemed like as long as she held on to that conviction there was nothing to worry about.

But Bird Box seems written specifically for film adaptation– there were so many scenes that I could just see, that will probably be perfect in a visual setting. I’m definitely curious to see how this will translate to the screen, because so much of the visualization is up to the reader in the book (obviously)– even the main characters do not actually see a lot of what’s going on to describe it to the reader, leaving even more up to the imagination than a novel usually does. It’s incredible to see how well Malerman manages to help the characters and the reader internalize something that is physically present in the world, and I don’t think the movie will be able to convey that in the same way. I’m so curious to see how the movie will be different, and discover which format works better for me. Stay tuned for the Book-to-Film section of my December wrap-up to find out.

“It’s better to face madness with a plan than to sit still and let it take you in pieces.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I would absolutely read another Josh Malerman book; I’m particularly looking forward to his upcoming release, Inspection, expected to hit shelves in April 2019. I wish I had been able to read Bird Box back in October, but I love a good scare enough that I really should allow myself to read more horror without waiting for Halloween.

Further recommendations:

  • Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter is a sci-fi thriller with some strong psychological thrills that I think fans of Bird Box would enjoy. Though the monsters of Dark Matter are much more human, the twists are fantastic, and the world feels just as frighteningly real. This is a what-if story about the paths not taken.
  • Michael Rutger’s The Anomaly is another thriller with a supernatural bent, and this one does feature some creepy creatures along with the psychological aspects. In this book, a group of documentary filmers overnights in the Grand Canyon, seeking a secret cave– that they get stuck in, when weird things start happening.
  • It by Stephen King. Though the monster in this story often appears as Pennywise the Dancing Clown, it’s much scarier than a man in face paint and funny clothes. This creature preys on children in a Maine town where the adults look the other way when disaster strikes, and it’s up to the Losers Club to face the thing everyone fears. This is a long book, but absolutely worth the time.

What’s the scariest book you’ve ever read?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Conversations with Friends

I read Sally Rooney’s Normal People in my trek through the Man Booker longlist this year and was floored by how readable and relatable I found Rooney’s prose. One novel was simply not enough, so I borrowed a copy of Conversations with Friends through my library immediately. It took a bit longer to read than I would have liked because I’m trying to wrap up so many different things this month, but I finally finished and was just as impressed with Rooney’s debut.

conversationswithfriendsAbout the book: Frances is an Irish college student without a plan for her future. She writes poetry that she performs with her ex, Bobbi, and the two remain close. But when Melissa writes an article about Frances and Bobbi’s work, the two students form tenuous friendships with the older couple, Melissa and her actor husband, Nick. As Frances’s relationship with Bobbi fluctuates and their circumstances undergo gradual changes, Frances pursues Nick in an exciting but disastrous way while Bobbi cozies up to Melissa. Through many conversations and events, the four form an odd bond that will see them through affairs, fights, and illnesses– for better, and for worse.

“All I could decide was whether or not to have sex with Nick; I couldn’t decide how to feel about it, or what it meant. And although I could decide to fight with him, and what we would fight about, I couldn’t decide what he would say, or how much it would hurt me. Curled up in bed with my arms folded I thought bitterly: he has all the power and I have none. This wasn’t exactly true, but that night it was clear to me for the first time how badly I’d underestimated my vulnerability.”

As with Rooney’s Normal People, it’s hard to describe the plot of Conversations with Friends. The story takes a journey through several months of France’s life, depicted in a series of seemingly mundane scenes and dialogues that reveal the main characters in a more objective way than they would ever be able to describe themselves. (Though Frances would certainly take a shot at it if asked.)

The beauty of Rooney’s stories, in my opinion, is that each character is equally understandable. In this novel, Frances is our narrator throughout the tale, but there are certainly times when the other characters behave or speak in a way that she doesn’t expect that are much more identifiable to the reader. Though I often sympathized with Frances, Bobbi was actually my favorite character in the book. Each character operates with their own motivations and personalities, and despite Frances’s occasional misinterpretations, her acquaintances are just as accessible to the reader as she is. A reader’s opinion of Conversations with Friends can probably be determined by how well he/she can stand Frances’s narration, but even those who ultimately find her unlikable can find much to appreciate in Rooney’s commentary on relationships and one’s perception of the self.

“You think you’re the kind of person who can deal with something and then it happens and you realize you can’t.”

That last quote was a snippet of Bobbi’s dialogue. The flow of the novel is improved by the lack of quotations around spoken words, and Rooney is careful enough never to confuse the reader about who is speaking or when, even without the additional visual cues. This lends the story a sort of informality that allows the reader to feel as though he/she could be any one of these characters, and that the rest could be his/her close friends.

I can see why some readers might be put off by Rooney’s way of detailing what can seem like trivialities (who’s drinking what, how many times Frances checks her appearance in the mirror, the seating arrangements at every table), but these details are revelatory of the characters’ states of mind and their relation to one another. Furthermore, I think many readers will see bits of themselves in Frances’s actions and impressions. She is alternatingly egotistic and self-deprecating, always the center of her own world, but she’s also just another twenty-one year-old girl who wants to be seen as impressive and worthwhile, and is easily crushed by perceived rejections. She’s shockingly human. I found her absolutely compelling, even when I disagreed with her choices.

“Things matter to me more than they do to normal people, I thought. I need to relax and let things go. I should experiment with drugs. These thoughts were not unusual for me.”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. Perhaps due to the fact that I read it first, I think I was more impressed with Normal People from a literary standpoint, though that one was less pleasant for me emotionally. Conversations with Friends was an easier read, which both won me over and didn’t. Though Rooney’s style and characterization are similar in both books, these are distinct works, and I can’t wait to see what Rooney writes next. I already know I’m on board.

Further recommendations:

  • Sally Rooney’s Normal People, obviously. Though there seems to be some disagreement among Rooney fans over which of her novels is the favorite of the two, I think anyone who enjoys Rooney’s prose will find merit in both books. If you liked Conversations with Friends, you should definitely check out Normal People, which features a boy and girl who meet in childhood and spend many years wrapped in the sphere of the other’s life afterward.
  • Emma by Jane Austen. This is a classic novel for readers who love knowing more about the characters than the characters do themselves. If you love Rooney’s deftness with conveying personality through dialogue and others’ impressions, you’d probably enjoy this literary masterpiece about a young woman who decides to “better” her friend by planting her in a new social circle. The disparities between what is spoken and what is meant are entertainingly obvious.

What’s a book that inspired you to check out more work by the same author?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant