TBR 6.19

My TBR goal for the year is to read any new books I’ve acquired by the end of the following month. We’re not quite halfway through the year yet, but I am seriously considering throwing this goal out the window, which is an unusual stance for me in general and especially after May, which was the first month all year that I’ve succeeded with this self-challenge. But May has also been the first month of my new Top of the TBR series, which I’m enjoying a whole lot more than these book haul TBR posts. And May has also been the third month in a row for me of no 5-star novels, which is seriously putting me in the mood to just reach for whatever I think is going to break this weird reading funk I’m in and skip the plans and lists.

But I’ve decided to stick with this set-up for the month of June, at which point the year will be half over- a nice round number that seems opportune for reassessment. So here are the new books I’ve picked up in May that my TBR goal says I should be reading in June:

  1. The Buried: An Archeology of the Egyptian Revolution by Peter Hessler. This was my BOTM selection for May, and it’s at the top of my list for the nonfiction binge I tend to partake in this summer. (List of probable nonfiction titles I’ll be reading coming soon.) I haven’t read Hessler before and I don’t know anything more about this book beyond what the title suggests, but I thought a regional history of a country I’m not especially familiar with would be a great addition to my summer nonfiction stack.
  2. The Killer Across the Table by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker. This was an extra nonfiction title I picked up from BOTM in May. I just watched the first season of Mindhunter recently (on Netflix), which is related content. I’ve succumbed to a serial killer / true crime fascination and am looking forward to continuing down that path in my reading life as well.
  3. A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley. This is a collection of short stories that was shortlisted for the National Book Award in 2018, and the author was one of my TAs in the creative writing program at the University of Iowa. I’m also trying to read more short stories this year, and as I near the end of the Faber Stories collection I’m looking forward to getting back into other collections of short stories.
  4. Exit, Pursued by a Bear by E. K. Johnston. I believe this is a YA novel about a high school cheerleader who is drugged and assaulted at a party. I haven’t been reading much YA this year but I do still appreciate hard-hitting books from that age range. This also sounds a bit like Louise O’Neill’s Asking For It, which turned out to be one of my favorite reads of 2018. The clincher was that this was only $1 on Book Outlet.
  5. Winter by Ali Smith. I own but haven’t read Autumn yet, though all signs point to me enjoying this seasonal quartet when I get around to it. I didn’t expect I would ever find it cheaper than I did this month, so I decided it was worth getting it now for my future self. I don’t really anticipate that I’ll be reading either Autumn or Winter this June, which means I’ve probably failed my TBR goal for the month before I’ve even begun. But who knows, anything could happen.
  6. A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf. I actually read the titular piece from this book last year, and liked it enough that I wanted to pick up my own copy. This one matches my edition of The Waves (which I have not read yet). But it also contains a second essay, much to my surprise, so I will have to read that as well before I can count this as completed.
  7. Fever Dream by Samanta Scweblin. I was not expecting this one to be as small as it is, but I suppose that bodes well for my ability to get around to it right away. This one is the 2018 Tournament of Books winner, and I also remember it being described as something like a psychological ghost story? That sounds right up my alley. I will actually pick this one up soon. Probably.

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Those are the books I’ve picked up in May and haven’t read yet. In the interest of inclusivity, I’m also going to mention that I picked up my own copy of An American Marriage by Tayari Jones for a good price this month, and am currently rereading it in preparation for a Women’s Prize shortlist wrap-up post (coming soon). I’m also working my way through another batch of Faber Stories that I’m pretty confident I’ll finish before the end of May- I’ve already read Akhil Sharma’s Cosmopolitan and will promptly be reading Samuel Beckett’s Dante and the Lobster and Djuna Barnes’s The Lydia Steptoe Stories (mini-reviews coming soon). All of these I’ve acquired in May but expect to finish before June begins.

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Additionally, I’ve got a few library holds that have come in recently that I’ll be reading in the first half of June: Helen Hoang’s The Bride Test, Hanna Jameson’s The Last, and Melanie Golding’s Little Darlings.

Furthermore, I’m on a quest to finish reading George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series (as much of it as is published so far); I’ve got a few episodes left to watch from season 4 of the corresponding Game of Thrones TV series, and then I anticipate that I’ll be reading A Feast for Crows in June.

And in case that wasn’t enough, I’ve also agreed to a buddy read of Stephen King’s The Stand, his longest novel (we’re reading the uncut 1400+ page version), starting on the first of June. Which we aren’t even expecting to finish until early/mid July. I’ll only be reading about 200-250 pages of this per week, which is typically less than half of my weekly reading, so I will be reading plenty of other books in the meantime, but there’s no use denying that this is a substantial commitment.
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So as you can see, my reading is all over the place and there’s no way I’ll manage to fit everything in unless I suddenly learn to speed read this month. But there’s a lot I’m looking forward to, and I’m hoping something here will break my sad no-5-stars streak. I have been enjoying most of what I’ve been reading, and I haven’t stopped reading so I wouldn’t say I’m in a slump, but something just has not been right in my reading life lately. (May wrap-up coming soon.) So if there’s anything I’ve mentioned in this post that you really want to see me review, let me know in the comments so nothing gets lost in this month’s shuffle! I really have no idea how much of this I might be reading in June, or what to prioritize. Send help.

Have you read any of these books? What’s your top-priority read for June?

 

The Literary Elephant

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Review: Miracle Creek

I have been moving away from mystery/thrillers over the last year or so because I haven’t been able to find books in those genres that manage to surprise and thrill me. But I saw Angie Kim’s Miracle Creek as a BOTM selection for April and thought a courtroom drama with current social commentary looked too good to pass up, even if it did have a mystery element. So I took a chance and read it this month.

miracle creekIn the novel, the Yoo family attends a trial in which one of their clients stands accused of starting a fire that destroyed the Yoos’ Miracle Submarine (a submarine-like enclosure that allows patients to receive controversial pure-oxygen treatments) and resulted in the loss of two lives as well as additional injuries. The woman arrested for this crime is the mother of a young boy who died in the fire, a boy who had been diagnosed with autism. The day of the explosion was the first and only day Elizabeth sat out during the treatment, after making sure her son’s oxygen helmet was hooked to the tank that was soon to be targeted by the arsonist. But as guilty as she looks, Elizabeth may not have been the only person on the premises with the opportunity and motive to start a fire; and if the jury leans in that direction… who committed the crime?

“The first time she hurt her son on purpose was six years ago, when Henry was three.”

There’s a lot to like about this book. The Yoos are an immigrant family from Korea who have been in the US for only a few years and have much insight to offer about that experience. Furthermore, most of their patients are special needs kids; as the narrative shifts through POVs, the reader is offered commentary on autism and cerebral palsy, as well as some of the struggle that comes with parenting children with these diagnoses. And for additional intrigue, the book also showcases the shortcomings of the US legal system as the attorneys become progressively more interested in winning the case without any regard for surfacing truths about what might actually have happened. Each of these aspects is delivered impeccably well and makes the book feel relevant and important rather than presenting as 300 pages of simple whodunnit entertainment.

“It scared Matt a little, how these lawyers could take a given set of facts and spin them in opposite directions… Matt got the feeling that Abe cared about the truth only insofar as it was consistent with his theory of the case; otherwise, not so much. Any new evidence that didn’t fit was not cause to reconsider his position, but something to explain away.”

Unfortunately, it was the mystery structure that threatened to ruin the story for me. Miracle Creek contains both of my mystery novel pet peeves, a combination that doesn’t happen often. The only sort of mystery I consider a success is one that hints at its solution throughout the story and still manages to surprise the reader when all is revealed. A solution that is possible to guess, but that I do not guess correctly. With Miracle Creek I correctly pegged the criminal immediately, and yet the narration makes guessing motive impossible until the author spells it out.

The first issue is specific to my reading experience, and perhaps not a fault of the book: I was able to guess the true culprit of the Miracle Submarine arson within the first twenty pages or so, which made the book’s attempts to confuse and shock me seem like transparent parlor tricks instead, once I knew who to watch for. This likely won’t be a problem for every reader, especially for those fairly new to the genre or those who can resist the urge to make a prediction.

But the second issue is something that I do consider a flaw in the book, though admittedly this criticism may also stem from my personal reading taste: the narration intentionally misleads the reader with numerous red herrings, promoting wrong assumptions, and even withholding key information while providing perspective chapters from the dishonest characters. On top of the added difficulty of investing in characters that are clearly hiding things from the reader, this tactic means that character motives and crime details are impossible to decipher throughout the book. There is no way to engage with the mystery (the “why” and “how” of it, at least. You can imagine how uncommon it is to be able to guess the ultimate solution and yet be entirely incapable of figuring out why that person committed the crime); Miracle Creek insists on using every slight reveal as a twist to further characterization, instead of allowing the reader a true glimpse of the characters before the facts are out in the open. This was the most frustrating facet of the book for me, and left me feeling like the plot was dragging me through the novel and that very little of the information precluding the climax is actually crucial to the mystery.

“That was the thing about lying: you had to throw in occasional kernels of shameful truths to serve as decoys for the things you really needed to hide. How easy it was, to anchor his lies with these fragments of vulnerable honesty, then twist the details to build a believable story.”

This quote is a nice reflection of Kim’s tactic in laying out the Miracle Creek mystery. Though the characters do not outright lie to the reader (to each other, yes), the narration is formatted with the intent of misdirecting the reader from the truth. This happens so often that the reader knows when the characters are making incorrect assumptions, at which point their waffling on about them becomes, frankly, a bit annoying. The red herrings are lightly camouflaged with juicy snippets of shameful truths that slowly reveal each of the characters for who they truly are.

Mystery aside, I did enjoy my time with these characters. I learned early on that first impressions are never accurate portrayals, and liked to see Kim mine each one for hidden depths that made each of them unique and interesting. They’re multi-faceted and compellingly flawed, with a nice mix of relatable traits and specific experiences to share. The medical aspects also seem well-researched and informative. In the end I appreciated everything about this book except for its attempt at mysteriousness. I wonder whether I might have liked Miracle Creek more if Kim had been upfront about the cause of the fire in the beginning, and simply followed these characters through the decisions they make during the trial without trying to shock her readers at every turn. I think that story might have made more of an impact for me.

But I would still highly recommend this book if the premise intrigues you, because I think my reaction has been a bit of an anomaly and I don’t see any reason why this book would be a disappointment to anyone who has a better time with the mystery than I did.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I wanted to love this book. When I read the first chapter about the night of the fire, I thought I really would love this book. Sadly, my struggle with mysteries and thrillers continues, instead. But I’m not sad I picked this one up. I would read more from Angie Kim in the future, and I’m still optimistic about my other unread 2019 BOTM selections, which I’m still hoping to catch up on soon!

Have you read this book? What did you think?

 

The Literary Elephant

Top of the TBR (5.27.19)

Top of the TBR is a new series I’m starting with the intent of it eventually replacing my book hauls. Since my TBR goal for this year is tied to the new books I’m buying throughout the year, I will (probably) still be mentioning new titles I’ve acquired each month for a while yet. But by the end of the year, Top of the TBR should have completely replaced those book hauls. (See my first Top of the TBR post for more info on why I’m making this switch.)

But what is Top of the TBR? Good question. It’s a weekly post that will showcase any new books I’ve added to my Goodreads TBR recently, with a short explanation of why each title caught my interest. I’ll aim for 5-10 books per post- in weeks that I’ve added more than that, I’ll hold some back, and in weeks that I don’t have enough, I’ll include titles I haven’t discussed yet. Each title will be linked back to its Goodreads page for anyone interested in exploring further, as I’m not a fan of copy/pasting synopses. Anyone who wants to take part in this series with me is absolutely welcome! Please link back to any of my Top of the TBR posts so I can see what you’re reading! 🙂

Here are some of the new books I’ve added on Goodreads over the last week:

50246The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier. (Pub: 1969)

How I found It: I recently saw Cathy’s wonderful review of this one, and realized that I forgot to add the book to my TBR after deciding to based on Callum’s review a while back!

Why I added it: I’ve only read du Maurier’s Rebecca, which is one of my all-time favorite books, and I’d very much like to branch out with some of her other brilliant novels. I’ve also got My Cousin Rachel on my TBR, so I’ll aim to read these two before adding more du Maurier books to my TBR- I like to add only one or two books by any given author rather than bogging down my list with an entire series or oeuvre.

Priority: Middling. I expect that du Maurier will be an author I love beyond Rebecca, so it makes sense to prioritize what I know I’ll enjoy, but I don’t have a copy of this one yet and it sounds like a good book for fall.

25904473So Sad Today by Melissa Broder. (Pub: March 2016)

How I found it: I read Broder’s The Pisces (and loved it!) almost a year ago. Upon completion, I looked up other works by the author, and this was the only non-poetry title I came up with.

Why I added it: I wasn’t sure at first whether enjoying Broder’s fiction meant I wanted to read her essay collection, but after seeing Rachel’s review last week I was ready to give it a chance.

Priority: Middling. I might make this a part of my summer nonfiction list, as I don’t have any other essay collections in mind yet and I do want to read a variety of types/subjects for that.

41150487Red, White, and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston. (Pub: May 2019)

How I found it: I’ve seen ARCs of this one floating around the blogosphere and Bookstagram, etc. It’s been on my radar for weeks.

Why I added it: I’m not sure that I’ve ever read an LGBTQ+ rom com. I just don’t read romances very often, but I’ve heard too many good things about this one to skip over it for something more lackluster, which tbh is my usual .

Priority: Middling. I read usually 2-3 romances a year, and I already have Hoang’s The Bride Test coming up soon in my reading queue, so it’ll probably be a few months before I’m ready for another. But this will be the next in line.

40917488Naamah by Sarah Blake. (Pub: Apr 2019)

How I found it: I saw this short but intriguing review, which was the first time I realized that this book is about the biblical Ark story, from Noah’s wife’s perspective.

Why I added it: To keep it on my radar, primarily. I do look through my Goodreads TBR shelf quite often, taking off anything that I’ve decided against reading and checking in on titles I’ve been on the fence about, so I’ve mainly added this one in the interest of further consideration. It seems like there are quite a few lukewarm and negative reviews, so even though the premise intrigues me I’ll have to look into this one further before I go looking for a copy.

Priority: Low. Not even sure I will read. (If you’ve read this, please share your thoughts!)

42202089An Ocean of Minutes by Thea Lim. (Pub: June 2018)

How I found it: I don’t remember. This has been on my TBR for a while but got shifted in the order of my list this week when I entered a Goodreads giveaway for it (still ongoing if you’re interested!)

Why I added it: This is a sci-fi dystopian in which a flu pandemic rages through America and a woman decides to try time travel to save her boyfriend. If I remember correctly, the themes running under the surface plot have more to do with uprooting one’s life and then finding oneself in a strange place not entirely like what was expected, similar to an immigrant’s experience. I was getting a bit of an Exit West vibe from the synopsis, which is a favorable comparison for me.

Priority: Low. If I won a free copy I would get around to this one faster, but as I don’t yet have a copy and I do have a list of more pressing summer reads (probably the reason most of this list is turning out to seem low priority, tbh), I’m not in a hurry to get to this one.

41961994The Library of the Unwritten by A. J. Hackwith. (Pub: Oct 2019)

How I found it: Mentioned on Bookstagram.

Why I added it: The Library of the Unwritten is a place in the afterlife full of unwritten books, as far as I understand. The librarian has to hunt down a missing book, with “a handful of Hell’s most unlikely escorts.” If that’s not intriguing, I don’t know what is.

Priority: Middling. I’m looking forward to catching some early reviews of this one, which could either prompt me to drop this book entirely, or bump it up to the top of my list, depending on whether the promise of the premise seems to hold up in execution.

39653535Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi, trans. Marilyn Booth. (Pub: 2010/2018)

How I found it: I did a thorough look through the Man Booker International longlist earlier this year, and actually thought I’d put this one on my TBR at that point. Now that it’s won, I went back to its Goodreads page to read more about it and realized it wasn’t on my list yet, for some reason.

Why I added it: I’ve become much more interested in winners and nominees of literary prizes in the last couple of years, and I do want to be a more worldly reader. I added quite a few of the longlisted titles for this prize of translations into English, and of course I want to read the winner.

Priority: Middling. Maybe high. I don’t have a copy yet, but I’d love to get to this one before shifting focus to the Man Booker Prize for Fiction in July.

44140764Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo. (Pub: Oct 2019)

How I found it: I went searching for this one on Goodreads last week. I vaguely remembered Bardugo had another book coming out this year and wanted to look it up.

Why I added it: This is Bardugo’s first adult book. I liked her Grisha trilogy and loved Six of Crows, but have opted out of King of Scars (so far) because I’m not much in the mood for YA spin-off fantasy this year, apparently. An adult possibly-fantasy book sounds much more my current speed, and the mention of Yale secret societies dabbling in the occult sounds like something I must explore further.

Priority: High. This sounds like a great October read, I’d really like to read it upon release.

 

Have you read any of these books, or recognize them from your own TBR? Spot something new that you like? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments!

 

The Literary Elephant

 

Tag: Spring Cleaning

I was nominated for this Spring Cleaning bookish tag by Hannah last month! I’ve fallen desperately behind this season between being busy and a bit of a reading/blogging slump, but I had a lot of fun putting this one together and it’s still spring in my corner of the world, so thanks for the tag, Hannah!

The Struggle of Getting Started: A Book or Series You Struggle to Begin Because of Its Size

11264999I’d have to say A Song of Ice and Fire, by George R. R. Martin. I struggle with picking up every single one of the books in this series, even though I love the world and story and do delight in reading them once I get going. I believe the shortest of the series is the first book, A Game of Thrones, which stands at over 800 pages (at least in the copy that I own). I’m currently hesitating about picking up book 4, but I think I’ll get around to it in about a week or so.

Cleaning Out the Closet: A Book or Series You Want to Unhaul

6186357The Maze Runner series by James Dashner. After the harassment allegations against Dashner a couple of years ago I no longer want to support his writing in any way. I’ve been hesitating because The Death Cure (book 3, the final installment) would be the first book I’ve bought and then unhauled without reading, which doesn’t sit well with me either. Though I found the plot of this story interesting, the writing style has bothered me from the first chapter of the first book, so between that and Dashner’s recent reputation, I just don’t have any interest in picking it up in order to read it to send it away- a stalemate.

Opening the Window and Letting Fresh Air In: A Book that was Refreshing

40597810Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid. I’d heard a lot of hype, I’d seen some reviews criticizing the documentary-script-style formatting, and I wasn’t sure how interested I was in reading about a fictional 70’s rock band. But The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo had convinced me to set my expectations aside and give TJR a chance with any subject and style, and to no one’s surprise I adored almost everything about this book. By the time I finished, I found myself completely addicted to classic rock. The modern spin on this “historical” trend was perfection. Refreshing.

Washing Out the Sheets: A Scene that you Wish You Could Rewrite

39938177I really liked the plot and characters of Taylor Adams’s recent thriller, No Exit, but there was one disturbing scene that felt gratuitously cruel and ruined the suspension of disbelief for me once and for all. (It was the door hinge scene, for anyone curious who’s read the book. Not really a spoiler for anyone who hasn’t.) I’m not sure what I would have wanted to happen in place of this event, but I found it disturbing and unnecessary in a way that negatively impacted my opinion of the entire book.

Throwing Out Unnecessary Knick-Knacks: A Book in a Series You Didn’t Think Was Necessary

32283133Origin by Dan Brown. Honestly the art that I was encouraged to look up after encountering it in this novel is the only benefit I remember encountering as a result of reading this book. I loved the first three books in Brown’s Robert Langdon series when I was in high school and my first year of college. Inferno (book 4) was beginning to lose my interest, but I still found its concept intriguing (forced mass sterility as a method of worldwide population control) and was interested in Dante and his Divine Comedy at the time, so I didn’t mind. But Origin (book 5) felt completely unnecessary and frankly much less engaging than I’d found the rest of the series. So unnecessary that I’m not sure I would ever continue reading future books that might follow it someday.

Polishing Doorknobs: A Book That Had a Clean Finish

30849411I tend to prefer endings that leave something open for the reader to consider after closing the book, which is not exactly what I would call a “clean” ending. The first thing that comes to mind that might fit what I think is the spirit of this prompt is Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. This is a multi-generational story set in multiple locations, and though the ending was not the most impressive chapter of the book for me, I did appreciate how it tied all of the characters and their stories together without wrapping up all of the suffering in the book in an overly neat or dismissive way. Just the right amount of hope and grief.

Reaching to Dust the Fan: A Book That Tried Too Hard to Covey a Certain Message

37969723I think I’ll have to go with The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker. Overall, I enjoyed this book and appreciate its themes, but after much consideration (probably due in part to the book’s inclusion on the Women’s Prize shortlist this year) I’m still not on board with the Achilles chapters. I think Barker makes a valuable point about ownership of stories and history by including him the way she does- allowing him to take over Briseis’s story- and perhaps disliking his character the way I did was the Point. But I wish she had found some other way to make this Point because the Achilles chapters continue to mildly irritate me, months later.

The Tiring Yet Satisfying Finish: A Series That was Tiring But Satisfying to Get Through

165035Last year I read Vilhelm Moberg’s (translated) Emigrants series, about a Swedish farming family relocating to the American Midwest in the mid 1800s. I found the writing a bit dry and progressed through the four books rather slowly, but ultimately look back on this series fondly. I had never before read anything remotely similar to my own family’s history, so it felt rewarding to learn about it through my favorite art medium- fiction, obviously. I’ve actually met some of my grandma’s Swedish relatives since finishing this series, and appreciated having a bit more context with Swedish history and culture prior to meeting them.

 

Since we’re just on the cusp of summer (at least we are where I’m at), I won’t obligate anyone to this decidedly spring tag. It’s definitely my own fault that I’m getting to this one so late, which is not a reflection of my enjoyment level over putting these answers together! So I’m not tagging anyone specifically, but please feel free to try it if it looks interesting to you, and link back to me so I can see your answers!

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

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Women Talking

I’ve been anticipating Miriam Toews’s Women Talking for months, and in the wake of 1000+ pages of George R. R. Martin‘s writing I was in desperate need of some feminism. Women Talking, along with Mary Beard’s Women & Power (which I’ll talk about more in my month wrap-up) gave me exactly what I needed.

womentalkingIn the novel, a handful of women from the Mennonite colony of Molotschna gather secretly in a hay loft to discuss a response to the men that have raped them. The eight men who stand accused of making nightly visits to women of all ages in the colony- subduing them with an anesthetic spray  and then raping them while they lie unconscious in their beds- are being held in the city jail, away from Molotschna. Others from the community have gone to post bail and bring them home pending trial. The women know they will be asked to forgive these men and carry on as usual; refusing forgiveness would mean- according to bishop Peters- being barred from heaven for the hatred they harbor.

“A very small amount of hate is a necessary ingredient to life.”

It would be easy to make an argument that this book presents as fiction for feminism newbies. The Molotschnan women have been cut off from the rest of the world- they are even made to speak a dead language that prevents them from communicating with anyone outside of their own religion- and thus are coming to the idea of gender equality as though it’s a radical revolution. All facets of this concept are new to them, or at least new as a topic of discussion outside their own private thoughts, and thus all sides of the issue are laid out simply and in great detail. To consider disobeying the men of their community is indeed an act of rebellion. The women laugh at the prospect of asking for more rights and protections because they know these desires will be stamped down without any fair consideration. Such is life in Molotschna.

“She once explained to me that, as a Molotschnan, she had everything she wanted; all she had to do was convince herself that she wanted very little.”

What keeps the story from feeling behind the times or too basic is the specific combination of rapes and religion in this limited environment. In an introductory statement, Toews mentions a real-life case of Bolivian colony women who were subjected to similar mysterious attacks as recently as 2009. Beyond the outrage of such a parallel is the necessary consideration that the men in this equation are husbands, brothers, sons, and long-time acquaintances of the women. They have been raised to value non-violence and forgiveness, to such an extent that they believe retaliating will cost them their souls. This is no straightforward discussion about taking revenge against evil men, but an exploration of the community hierarchy that birthed such a situation, without disregarding the fact that these women have been conditioned to believe that fighting the system could mean eternal damnation, a fate they actively fear.

Women Talking takes a philosophical approach to this one unique case of injustice, through which many broader statements can be more generally applied. It is at heart an examination of faith and the self- what each woman is willing to do or sacrifice for what she believes she deserves- rather than a condemnation of men or religion outright.

“Our freedom and safety are the ultimate goals, and it is men who prevent us from achieving those goals.

But not all men, says Mejal.

Ona clarifies: Perhaps not men, per se, but a pernicious ideology that has been allowed to take hold of men’s hearts and minds.”

If you’re looking for plot, you won’t find it here; the title tells it true- almost the entire book consists of a handful of women talking through their options across two days of meetings. Because the women can’t write, they entrust one man with the task of keeping minutes for the meeting- he is our narrator. He goes on many tangents, makes his own assumptions, and in the end manages to skew the process of recording the minutes to seem a project entirely about himself, all of which contributes to the sense of claustrophobia and powerlessness these women must be experiencing.

The format and general lack of action happening on the page will likely alienate some readers, but I found it a beautiful, insightful look at a problematic power structure, which paired nicely with Beard’s nonfiction lectures/essays in Women & Power. I found myself outraged and emotional over many of the story’s details (there are so many infractions I haven’t mentioned in this review), and devoured both books in one sitting.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Though a bit too short and beginner-friendly to pack the full 5-star punch for me, I did find this little book an absorbing change of pace. Everything about it fit so seamlessly together, and I loved the way that this piece of fiction reflects/addresses a real-life catastrophe in a way that gives voice to silenced women. I may pick up more from Toews in the future, but I was more interested in this specific concept and book than the author’s work more broadly at the moment; Women Talking was exactly what I wanted it to be, but… I’m fine with it ending here for now. Feel free to drop suggestions if you think there’s another Toews book I’m missing out on, though!

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: A Storm of Swords

It took me 15 days to read all 1,000+ pages of George R. R. Martin’s A Storm of Swords, but I stuck with it. In all that time, I wasn’t sure whether I would end up posting a review for it, spoilery or non. But after spending half of my reading month on one book, I’ve finally decided that I do want to talk about this one, whether or not anyone is interested in following my (slow) progress.

A disclaimer before we get rolling: I’ve only read books 1-3 at this point, and I’ve only watched through half of the third season. PLEASE DON’T SPOIL ME! This will be a mostly non-spoiler review, in which I’ll talk only about the third book, but expect that I’ll be mentioning some events (vaguely) and characters who are still alive in the third book; if you want to avoid even that much info, please don’t read any further. If you’d rather check out my (also non-spoiler) reviews for A Game of Thrones or A Clash of Kings in the meantime, please do!

astormofswordsIn the novel, the Lannisters retain control of the Iron Throne in Westeros, doing their very best to knock other contending kings out of the running. Robb Stark has lost no battles, but can’t seem to hold his allies and lands. Stannis Baratheon has suffered a major defeat on the Blackwater, but refuses to relinquish his claim. The Greyjoys have made their move rather uncontested, but lack support. Across the sea, Daenerys Targaryen builds an army and watches her dragons grow. Tywin Lannister, official Hand of the King, plots to keep these enemies at bay, but even in King’s Landing chaos reins. King Joffrey’s commands win him no friends. The Tyrells and Martells could be powerful allies for the Lannisters, but are at each other’s throats instead. The Lannister children war with each other. No one is safe, and no one can be trusted. Meanwhile, Beyond the Wall, another king is on the move with plans to invade, and all of the Watch’s pleas for aid seem to be going unanswered…

” ‘Is it all lies, forever and ever, everyone and everything?’

‘Almost everyone. Save you and I, of course.’

I’ve already raved about the complex characters, politics, and world-building in my previous Song of Ice and Fire reviews (linked above), and those opinions hold steady through the third book, as well as my dislike of the way most women are represented as objects to be raped and/or stolen, and their general lack of rights. It feels redundant to examine them at length again, so I won’t be sharing more about those aspects in this review. Which will perhaps be more of a reflection.

What I do want to talk about are a few trends I noticed in this book that may be new elements, or may simply have been new observations of old elements that I wasn’t able to pick up on while reading books 1 and 2 (it’s been over a year since I read the earlier books in this series, in which time both my reading tastes and my critiquing abilities have changed).

The first is that there were far fewer surprises for me in this book than I remember discovering in the previous two volumes. To some extent, this may be due to mild spoilers I’ve been subjected to over the last year, and especially during the run of the final season of the corresponding TV series. Another explanation may be that this is such a middle-of-the-series book, and it shows; the scene has been set in the first two books, but it’s too early for anything climactic, so book three felt like Martin marking time, slowly moving his pawns a few short spaces across the board in preparation for bigger events to come. But ultimately, I think the biggest factor for fewer surprises stems from the fact that I’m growing accustomed to Martin’s writing. I can spot his foreshadowing a mile away. I can’t help noticing threads left mysteriously dangling, no matter what other distractions he provides in the foreground.  I’m familiar with the way he plays on the reader’s emotions or expectations by building up scenes or particular character dynamics right before he plans to upset them. I love trying to “crack” each author’s code in this way, but with at least two books (and hopefully four, in the end) left to read in this series, it’s also a bit disappointing to find predictability through familiarity with the writer’s style.

Which of course isn’t to say I saw everything coming, because I didn’t. In addition to quite a bit of foreshadowing, Martin does like to drop the occasional bomb that can’t be seen coming. The combination of both tactics keeps things interesting even for readers like me who begin to suspect they’ve cracked the code. I can’t say I experienced much boredom while reading, despite the sheer enormity of the book and the weeks I spent reading it exclusively. Each chapter adds something new and significant to the overall narrative, though like any book, some are certainly stronger and more memorable than others.

“Why won’t they let me be? I just need to rest, that’s all, to rest and sleep some, and maybe die a little.”

Which brings me to another frustrating trend I found in this book, for the first time while reading this series: some plot arcs, for some characters, have begun to feel rather unnecessary to the overall scheme of things. Of course I have plenty of pages left to read in the final books so it’s possible I’ll find more sense in some of these choices later on, but for now I’m confused. I’ll give one example (skip to the end of the paragraph if you want to avoid vague hints about one character’s plot line): Jon’s time Beyond the Wall. I was so excited when this plot arc began at the end of book 2 because of all the possibilities for nuanced alliances and betrayals, secrets he might learn, acts of sabotage he might commit… but then he reaches the wall again and Martin has not capitalized on any of those opportunities. Rather than nuance and fresh character dynamics, I felt as many of the other characters seemed to: that Jon was a poor actor who’d accomplished little other than survival in a situation where much more than his own life was at stake. He is able to issue a warning, but his knowledge of the enemy’s numbers proves irrelevant and he hasn’t gained any insight into their tactics. So much could have been made of this journey, but instead it felt like mere shuffling from one setting to another, and then a shuffle back to start. There were a couple of other situations I felt similarly about, but in the interest of not spoiling or confusing anyone with my vague rants I’ll keep them to myself for now.

One more trend, on a bit of a more positive note. This book, more so than I remember in books 1 and 2, is full of assumptions. What I mean is that Martin feeds different characters different bits of information, or no information at all, and lets them all reach their own conclusions. Some staunchly believe so-and-so to be dead, some staunchly believe so-and-so to be in such-and-such a location, etc. Martin often allows the reader to know when a character is expressing opinion rather than fact, but not in every case. I particularly enjoy this level of irony (and mystery), so this was a fun element for me.

“There is much confusion in any war. Many false reports.”

Of course, this is all compounded by an intriguing layer of magic. I do quite love the bits of magic infused throughout this world, though I will admit that a couple of times in A Storm of Swords it began to feel like a cop-out response to a difficult situation. I hope that impression does not continue.

Otherwise, I could go on and on about my favorite and least favorite characters, events I liked and didn’t, theories for what comes next, etc. But I think I’ll save more spoilery thoughts for a full series discussion when I’ve reached the end of the books- or at least, as many are published so far.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This is the first book in the Song of Ice and Fire series that I have not given 5 stars, mainly for the reasons listed above: finding the foreshadowing is getting a bit overly obvious, and feeling that the book is overly long for the amount (or lack) of important twists occurring. But I’m still fully invested in this series, and looking forward to continuing. I’m currently watching season 3, and I intend to finish season 4 as well before I continue on to A Feast for Crows. Here’s a handy chart I’ve been referring to in order to help me decide how many episodes to watch, at what point in the reading process, if you’re interested in trying a similar approach or simply enjoy comparing the differences between the story’s mediums.

Do you watch / read the Game of Thrones / Song of Ice and Fire series? What are your (non-spoilery!) thoughts so far?

 

The Literary Elephant

 

Top of the TBR (5.20.19)

Top of the TBR is a new series I’m starting with the intent of it eventually replacing my book hauls. Since my TBR goal for this year is tied to the new books I’m buying throughout the year, I will (probably) still be mentioning new titles I’ve acquired each month for a while yet. But by the end of the year, Top of the TBR should have completely replaced those book hauls. (See my first Top of the TBR post for more info on why I’m making this switch.)

But what is Top of the TBR? Good question. It’s a weekly (or bi-weekly; it might take me a couple of weeks to determine how to schedule this content) post that will showcase any new books I’ve added to my Goodreads TBR recently, with a short explanation of why each title caught my interest. I’ll aim for 5-10 books per post- in weeks that I’ve added more than that, I’ll hold some back, and in weeks that I don’t have enough, I’ll include titles I haven’t discussed yet. Each title will be linked back to its Goodreads page for anyone interested in exploring further, as I’m not a fan of copy/pasting synopses. Anyone who wants to take part in this series with me is absolutely welcome! Please link back to any of my Top of the TBR posts so I can see what you’re reading! 🙂

Here are some of the new books I’ve added on Goodreads over the last week:

27003The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde. (Pub: July 2001)

How I found it: Kristin posts a similar series about new books added to her TBR, and mentioned this one!

Why I added it: Time travel and Jane Eyre. That’s all I know about this one, but it was enough to pique my interest, especially after reading Fforde’s Early Riser last month and deciding I needed to try another of his books before forming a solid opinion on whether his writing is for me or not.

Priority: Low. Which is only to say I don’t have a copy on hand and am not sure when I’ll get around to picking one up, rather than a reflection of my interest level.

43231095American Predator: The Hunt for the Most Meticulous Serial Killer of the 21st Century by Maureen Callahan. (Pub: July 2019)

How I found it: I’ve seen ARCs and anticipation posts for this title floating around Bookstagram lately.

Why I added it: I’m looking forward to binging on some nonfiction this summer, and this sounds like a perfect fit for my recent true crime / serial killer fascination. I just finished watching Mindhunter and The Ted Bundy Tapes on Netflix and have had my eye on several similar books. I think the trend must be wearing itself out a bit though now that we’re down to the “most meticulous” killer and the more familiar names have already been well-covered.

Priority: Middling. I haven’t set my summer nonfiction TBR yet for sure, so this might indeed make an appearance, but I definitely plan to read The Killer Across the Table by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker first, so we’ll see where my interest level in serial killers stands after that.

Blank 133x176If It Bleeds by Stephen King. (Pub: 2020)

How I found it: Browsing Goodreads. Browsing Stephen King’s oeuvre on Goodreads, specifically, because that’s something I do occasionally.

Why I added it: I’m on a long-term quest to read all of Stephen King’s books. So far I’ve gotten through 24 of (about) 74, which means I have a ways to go, but I’m not in any hurry. It’ll be a sad day when there are no more King books left to read. I think this one might also be connected to King’s Mr. Mercedes series.

Priority: Low. It’s not out for another year, and I have plenty of other King books to read in the meantime. I even have other Mr. Mercedes books I will need to finish beforehand. So this is on my radar, but I can wait for it.

The Great BelieversThe Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai. (Pub: June 2018)

How I found it: This has been on my TBR for around a year already, so I really can’t recall. I remember it getting a lot of buzz right away when it was published, and then when it was shortlisted for the National Book Award I made a firm decision to read it at some point. I’m not sure when it was originally added to my TBR.

Why I added it: It just got bumped up my Goodreads list because I entered a giveaway for it recently (still ongoing if you’re interested!). I started reading more award nominees last year and this one looked really good. Now that it’s also been announced as a Pulitzer Prize finalist, I really need to get around to picking it up.

Priority: Middling. I would say my interest level is high, but I don’t have a copy at the moment so I won’t be starting in tomorrow or anything.

42550681How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee. (Pub: May 2019)

How I found it: I saw a wonderful review Jenna posted for this book!

Why I added it: I don’t like historical fiction as much as I used to, and I am especially uninterested in WWII fiction lately, but something about this one is calling to me. I haven’t read much about Singapore, so the settling is appealing, and I think reading something unique and wonderful about this time period might help guide me back into historical fiction, which I don’t want to abandon entirely. It sounds a bit like Pachinko, which I loved, but not too similar, which I also appreciate.

Priority: Middling. I don’t have a copy but am definitely intrigued.

57891

Battle Royale by Koushun Takami, trans. by Yuji Oniki. (Pub: 1999)

How I found it: This title was mentioned in Laura‘s very interesting post about graphic violence in fiction!

Why I added it: Deciding to read a book that I’ve just been warned is graphically violent might seem an odd choice. In reality, I’ve had this book on my radar for years and just never known enough of what it’s about to want to read it. Now that I know it’s a sort of Japanese classic in the style of Lord of the Flies / The Hunger Games, categorized as horror and thriller and dystopian, I’m much more interested in checking it out. Also, it’s blurbed by Stephen King.

Priority: Middling. I want to read this over the summer, and am working on getting a copy, but as I haven’t gotten it yet I’m not entirely sure when I’ll be reading.

41880604Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips. (Pub: May 2019)

How I found it: I’ll admit the colors of the cover caught my eye first, but then I saw Emily May had just posted a glowing review of this one on Goodreads and I had to look into it further.

Why I added it: The synopsis calls this “a multifaceted story of the intimate lives of women – their vulnerabilities and perils, their desires and dreams,” which sounds appealing. Also, it’s a mystery of missing girls set in Russia, which sounds really appealing. I’ve never read anything set in Russia that I didn’t like.

Priority: High. This one both fits my current reading mood and will soon be available at my library, so I expect I’ll be picking it up in the near future.

43208989The Glass Woman by Caoline Lea. (Pub: Sep. 2019)

How I found it: I honestly don’t remember. This has been on my TBR since last fall, but it got re-added to my TBR when I entered the giveaway for it (still ongoing, if you’re interested!).

Why I added it: It’s set in Iceland. (I love reading books set in countries that I haven’t read much about yet!) This looks like another mystery, this time about a wife who marries quickly and moves to an unfamiliar village, where she is isolated and left to wonder about her husband’s secrets. Also, it has very favorable blurbs from Sophie Mackintosh and and Sarah Moss, authors whose writing I’ve adored over the past year.

Priority: Low. This one’s low on my radar at the moment because it’s not out for several months yet in the US, and because I’ve seen interest for it but no actual reviews yet. I could definitely be swayed either way by reviews at this point.

28789711SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard. (Pub: Oct. 2015)

How I found it: I just read Beard’s Women & Power over the weekend (review coming soon) and was interested enough in her writing to go looking for another of her books to add to my list.

Why I added it: I chose this particular title of Beard’s because it sounded the most beginner-friendly, and it was the only one of her books that I was remotely familiar with. I did study some Roman history in college, but I wouldn’t say I’ve ever felt like I have a firm grasp on all the vaguely familiar names and events, so this book sounds like the perfect opportunity to brush up my knowledge.

Priority: Middling. I have an Egyptian history book already on my nonfiction summer TBR (The Buried by Peter Hessler) which I’m prioritizing because it was a BOTM selection for me, so I’m going to wait and see whether that fulfills or whets my appetite for historical nonfiction before I make definite plans with this one.

 

This week’s TBR additions seem like an odd bunch altogether, but my reading taste is pretty varied so I expect that’ll turn out to be a trend in my Top of the TBR posts. I’m still a bit bogged down with other books I want to finish this month, so I don’t know that I’ll be picking any of these up immediately, though I am excited about them all at this point! Sharing the bookish excitement is definitely one of my top reasons for creating these posts. Do you see anything here that you’ve read or already have on your TBR? Anything new that’s caught your eye? Let me know in the comments!

The Literary Elephant