All posts by Literary Elephant

Hi. I'm Emily. If you're looking for someone excessively excited about books, you've come to the right place. I received my BA in English on the Creative Writing Track from the University of Iowa, which only reinforced my goal of making authorship my career. While I chase that dream, I'll be posting here. This blog highlights some of my experiences with reading, writing, and building a literary career. I hope you'll stay awhile, and talk about books with me. :)

Review: My Cousin Rachel

It’s been almost TWO YEARS since I read and loved Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, a book that left me suspecting I’d found a new (to me) favorite author, so it was beyond time to try another of her books and seal the deal. This month, I picked up my second-ever du Maurier novel, My Cousin Rachel, in a lovely buddy read with Melanie (@ Grab the Lapels). Fortunately, we both loved it! I’ve linked to her review.

mycousinrachelIn the novel, Philip resides on his uncle’s estate, of which he is the sole heir. When he was orphaned as a baby, this uncle took him in; they are each other’s closest family, and remarkably similar in appearance, opinion, and habit. For his health, the uncle has recently begun wintering away from the property at Cornwall, where much to his surprise Philip one day receives a letter stating that his uncle has married their cousin Rachel and will not be returning home as early as planned. Before long more letters start to arrive- mysterious, accusatory letters, begging Philip to come quickly- which he does, but not before his uncle is pronounced dead. Angry and disbelieving of the supposed cause of death, Philip invites Rachel to stay with him in Cornwall, intending to punish her for whatever role she may have played in his uncle’s demise. But when she arrives, nothing goes quite the way he thought it would.

My Cousin Rachel is a gothic novel with an air of mystery, though ultimately it’s du Maurier’s insightful characterization and atmosphere that drive the reader onward. The ever-present question of whether Rachel had anything to do with her husband’s sudden death is never far from the reader’s mind, though so much else is happening in the foreground that it’s impossible to call this novel anything other than a masterful, layered work.

The entire novel is narrated from Philip’s perspective, which I found immensely interesting as there’s also quite a bit of commentary on- or at least implication surrounding-  the unfairness of traditional gender roles and stereotypes. It seems to have been written with a female audience in mind, as the criticisms lie mainly in understood but unspoken motivations and undercurrents in dialogue, rather than bold statements. Nevertheless, the hint of feminism is no less exciting for its subtlety. Perhaps moreso for the fact that it is apparent through the lens of a self-entitled young man.

” ‘Louise isn’t a woman,’ I said, ‘she’s younger than myself, and I have known her since she ran around in petticoats.’ “

Of course, Philip isn’t the only interesting character; the framing of the novel around his perspective is apparent even in the title, but he is not the titular character. Rachel herself is vibrant and enigmatic; she’s polite, ladylike, and impeccably behaved on the surface, but it’s clear from the start that she’s intelligent and secretive, and won’t take anyone else’s word for who she should be and what she should do. She is entirely worthy of the mystery revolving around her. Additionally, the handful of secondary characters each have their own unique angle into the story, each a necessary cog that keeps the central wheel spinning.

As for the mystery, it plays out perfectly. A slow setup of the situation in the opening chapters allows readers a chance to meet all of the key players and acquaint themselves with the central conflict- the debate over whether or not Rachel is guilty of murder- which begins to wind ever tighter as soon as Rachel arrives on the page. From there, the tension and pacing gradually increase as these disparate personalities bounce off of one another in lieu of much real plot; relationships become increasingly nuanced and disaster looms. The final clues aren’t distributed until the very end of the novel, keeping the reader hooked and questing for answers up to the very last page- and beyond. This is a book that stays with the reader, that keeps asking questions after the cover is closed, and that promises a rich reread as well.

But, despite everything that I loved about this reading experience, there were a couple of elements to it that didn’t quite win me over. (I believe they worked better for Melanie, so be sure to check out her review for another opinion!)

The first is Philip. I’ve already mentioned being impressed with some of what was accomplished with his characterization, so clearly he was a double-edged sword for me. He’s an engaging and readable narrator, and the perfect perspective from which to view this series of tragedies as a mystery, but he’s also not the most likeable character; in itself, that wouldn’t bother me as long as his characterization serves a narrative purpose, but I’m not convinced Philip’s mildly selfish, spoiled personality ever does. It’s not strong enough for me to hate him, nor for me to pity him. He’s single and childless, and his uncle is already dead, so the reader must care about Philip for his own sake, which I never quite did. I found the matter of Rachel’s potential crimes against his family an intellectual curiosity at most, and unfortunately was never emotionally invested in Philip’s fate.

” ‘You have grown up ignorant of women, and if you ever marry it will be hard on your wife. I was saying so to Louise at breakfast.’ / He broke off then, looking – if my godfather could look such a thing – a little uncomfortable, as if he said more than he meant. / ‘That’s all right,’ I said, ‘my wife can take care of all the difficulties when the time comes.’ “

I also found myself frustrated over the murkiness of a few of the characters’ loyalties, especially those of Rachel’s friend/lawyer, and those of Philip’s godfather. I was never quite clear on whether their actions stemmed from genuine feelings, or whether they were merely following the letter of the law and came across as a bit suspicious only because it fed into the pull of the main mystery. I don’t think a bit more clarity on their motives would have hurt the story at all, and so I was disappointed not to have it.

And last but not least, though I did find plenty of surprises in the plot, I also found some aspects very predictable, which is not necessarily a fault of the book but probably inevitable 70 years after a mystery publication with the level of popularity du Maurier’s work has always seen. Though I enjoyed all of it, I saw through some of it, which made me impatient at points. Not a big deal at all, and I can’t be more specific without spoiling things, but I wanted to mention a bit of potential predictability for mystery fans.

” ‘Sometimes,’ she said slowly, ‘you are so like him that I become afraid. I see your eyes, with that same expression, turned upon me; and it is as though, after all, he had not died, and everything that was endured must be endured once more.’ “

Ultimately, My Cousin Rachel lacked for me that sense of everything falling perfectly into place (such as I found in Rebecca), though I did appreciate most of the lingering ambiguity. At the end of the story, there’s still a major choice of belief left up to the reader, narrowed down to a simple yes or no question that even a strong opinion one way or the other will not banish uncertainty from. It’s cleverly crafted and fun from start to finish, entirely worth the read.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This was really close to a 5 star rating, and even though it didn’t quite make it for me, the experience has cemented du Maurier as one of my favorite authors, and leaves me determined to read the rest of her work. Next up for me (though I’m not sure when I’ll get to it) will probably be The House on the Strand. I’ll also be watching the film adaptation for My Cousin Rachel as soon as possible.

Have you read or seen this one?

 

The Literary Elephant

 

 

The Literary Elephant

 

 

Top of the TBR 1.13.20

After an unexpected 3-month hiatus from this series, I’m finally bringing it back!

Top of the TBR is a (now biweekly) post that showcases some of the books recently added to my Goodreads TBR, with a short explanation of why each caught my interest. Each title will be linked back to its Goodreads page for anyone interested in exploring further. 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 looking forward to reading! 🙂

Here are some of the books I’ve added on Goodreads recently:

49649443. sy475 Things in Jars by Jess Kidd (Pub: Feb 2020)

How I found it: This was one of the BOTM selections for January! Kidd has been on my TBR but I haven’t actually picked up any of her work yet, so I didn’t know she had a new novel coming out until I saw it there.

Why I added it: All of Kidd’s books sound pretty good to me, and this one’s no exception. It’s a historical mystery with a fantasy element- and, it’s gothic.

Priority: Middling. I don’t have a specific plan yet as to when I’ll pick this one up, but it would be easy to add it on to my next BOTM box!

48333823Empire of Gold by S. A. Chakraborty (Pub: June 2020)

How I found it: I read the first two books in this trilogy last year, and have always known it’s set to be a trilogy. I tend to add each book of a series to my TBR only after I’ve finished the last one, and I just read and quite enjoyed The Kingdom of Copper in December, so it was time to look this one up.

Why I added it: I didn’t get off to the best start with this trilogy, partially because I thought the beginning was a bit trope-y and partially because I just wasn’t as much in the mood for a fantasy as I thought when I picked it up, but after putting book two on hold I ended up having a much better experience with it and am very much looking forward to seeing how this will end!

Priority: High. I own books 1 and 2, so I’ll probably buy a copy of this one in June and try to read it promptly while I still remember where the plot left off.

48425934Mother Daughter Widow Wife by Robin Wasserman (Pub: June 2020)

How I found it: On this excellent list of 2020 releases. (The Millions Most Anticipated.)

Why I added it: On a whim, really. It’s categorized on Goodreads as contemporary, which I’ve not been reading a lot of lately, and this sounds like it could be hit or miss. Yet something about this premise of a woman on a bus without any recollection of her life definitely appeals. It was this line from the synopsis that convinced me to give it a shot: “once a woman is untethered from all past and present obligations of womanhood, who is she allowed to become?

Priority: Low. This could change as the release date approaches and I find out more about it, but for now this is mainly a curiosity, and I want to focus my reading this year more on things I highly suspect I’ll enjoy.

27999638. sy475 The Iron King by Maurice Druon (Pub: April 1955)

How I found it: In Naty’s favorite books of the year post!

Why I added it: I suppose I knew George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones had been inspired by something, but I had no idea it was this book- in fact I’d never heard of this book. But Naty says it’s great, historical fantasy sounds great, and I’m going to need something to do with my time between A Dance with Dragons and The Winds of Winter.

Priority: Low, only because I need to finish A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons before diving into another full fantasy series, especially a semi-related one. But I think the time for that is fast approaching!

43615778. sy475 Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha (Pub: Oct 2019)

How I found it: In The Morning News’ 2020 Tournament of Books longlist! In the meantime, it’s also been shortlisted.

Why I added it: I had a lot of fun watching last year’s TOB unfold and expect I’ll follow along again this year. The longlist is really long but there tend to be some really interesting titles included and this is one of the books I’m most interested in from the 2020 list! Even moreso since it made the shortlist cut. It follows two LA-based families in the aftermath of a shooting. I believe it’s a mystery with a diverse cast.

Priority: Middling. If I can find time, I’d like to pack in a couple more of the shortlisted titles before the tournament in March.

50158836. sx318 sy475 The Lost Family: How DNA Testing is Upending Who We Are by Libby Copeland (Pub: March 2020)

How I found it: In someone’s anticipated releases post, but I’m sad to say I don’t remember whose!

Why I added it: I’ve been growing more and more interested in ancestry tests lately but had not really considered the cons until I saw this book. It was close-minded of me not to consider that these tests could reveal very surprising or even traumatic truths, but I’m now very interested to learn more about this possibility.

Priority: Middling. This is one of the nonfiction titles I’m suddenly most interested in picking up this year, but since it’s coming out during Women’s Prize time I can’t commit to reading it immediately upon release. Hopefully soon after.

226868A Crime in the Neighborhood by Suzanne Berne (Pub: Jan 1997)

How I found it: This one’s a previous Women’s Prize winner, the next I’m planning to read, and my next buddy read. Sarah has already read the book early and wasn’t thrilled so I’m going in cautiously, but am still curious to see why this might have won the Women’s Prize.

Why I added it: I don’t have all the Women’s Prize winners on my TBR yet even though I’d like to read them all, so I included it when we set the buddy read plan. This uninspiring cover is the one available at my library, so it’s the edition I’ll be reading.

Priority: High. I will for sure be reading this in February.

43982429. sy475 This is Your Brain on Birth Control: The Surprising Science of Women, Hormones, and the Law of Unintended Consequences by Sarah E. Hill, PhD (Pub: Oct 2019)

How I found it: I think in a Goodreads ad or recommendation. The recommendations tend to be so off on Goodreads that it’s pleasantly surprising to actually find something I’m interested in there.

Why I added it: As a woman who has used birth control I’m beyond curious about those unintended consequences and would very much like to know how my brain might be affected by something that has become so commonplace.

Priority: High. I don’t have a copy yet but I must find one soon.

42785832The Possession by Michael Rutger (Pub: July 2019)

How I found it: I think I saw a review on Instagram. Not even a favorable one, but it caught my attention.

Why I added it: This is a sequel to a supernatural thriller that I really liked two years go, The Anomaly. The writing was a bit man-ish but nevertheless it was one of the most suspenseful and creepy books I had ever read and two years later I’m still v impressed with it. So, I’m definitely picking up this sequel. The main criticism seems to be that it’s unbelievable as a sequel and would have been better as a standalone, but as long as the premise is good and creepy I think I can overlook that flaw.

Priority: Middling. This is not available at my library so I will probably have to give in and purchase it at some point.

And a last minute addition:

24331526Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier (Pub: 1935)

How I found it: I just finished reading My Cousin Rachel for a buddy read with Melanie and we both really enjoyed it! (Review coming soon.) I know Jamaica Inn was Melanie’s favorite fiction book of 2019 so it’s another du Maurier title I’m definitely looking forward to checking out.

Why I added it: I don’t usually add multiple books from the same author to my TBR, and I still have House on the Strand on deck as my next du Maurier, but I want to make sure I keep this one in mind, and having two in queue might help motivate me to pick them up faster.

Priority: Low, only in the sense that I still intend to read House on the Strand first and I don’t even have a copy lined up yet. But fresh on the high of My Cousin Rachel I am very much in the mood for another du Maurier!

Have you read any of these, or recognize them from your own TBR?

 

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: Trust Exercise

CW: abuse of mentorship roles, molestation, statutory rape

For my first read of the year, I chose the 2019 National Book Award winner, Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise. Though it didn’t go at all the way I was expecting, it really impressed me by the end!

trustexerciseIn the novel, a group of teens attends an exclusive performing arts school in Texas, in the 1980’s. Two of them, a girl and a boy, skirt around each other in an angst-filled battle of wills in which they both want a relationship but express themselves in different ways, ultimately getting their wires crossed. The whole school, of course, is privy to the dramas of their unrequited love. In the midst of this emotional turmoil, the cool theater teacher, the one who was on Broadway, the one all the kids want to be friends with, makes a game of their stubborn pride. For good measure, a few British theater students with two infamous teachers of their own are thrown into the mix, and so proceeds a chaotic tale of inappropriate relationships built around inappropriate art. Years later, the students- now adults- settle into their lives, still fixated the mess of their high school experience.

The book is divided into three parts, each labelled simply, “Trust Exercise.” They’re very different pieces and each, in their own way, requires some trust from the reader.

The first section, which takes up about half of the novel, is set in the 80’s art school. We mainly follow the teen girl, but the perspective is 3rd person and reveals a bit of each of the main characters. The one thing that I thought I knew about this book going in- that it features a pervy teacher breaking up a teen relationship and possibly molesting the girl- isn’t really what I found here, which really threw me off. Instead, it’s a plotless slog about two teens who desperately want to be together and can’t seem to make it happen. The teacher does seem questionable, but he spends little time alone with the girl, and most of that she spends crying in front of him as he asks invasive questions. On top of that, he’s gay, meaning that any apparent manipulations seem like a mental game rather than anything sexual.

” ‘You wanted me to go after her and make her feel better, and tell her we were still best friends. And I did, even though I was lying. And now I have to keep lying because she thinks that we’re best friends again.’ / ‘What makes you think that’s what I wanted?’ / ‘Because you told me to go after her!’ / ‘Yes, but that’s all I told you to do. I didn’t tell you to make her feel better. I didn’t tell you to lie, and say the two of you were still friends.’ “

But there’s clearly plenty of unacceptable behavior taking place and it’s intellectually interesting, seeing all the ways in which these students don’t understand they’re being manipulated or taken advantage of. The people they see as mentors treat them not as children to respect as such, but as inexperienced adults who can sort through the fallout of their uninformed decisions in their own time. It should be a fascinating power study, but it’s diluted by the focus on the failed teen romance and ultimately, the whole section seems to go nowhere anyway, ending rather arbitrarily with nothing resolved or concluded. Add to this the fact that I didn’t care about any of the characters at this point and had no interest in the theater aspect, and you can begin to understand why wasn’t enjoying myself.

Then comes the second section. Here, years later, we follow a woman who previously seemed like a minor character as she turns the entire narrative on its head. We find out that she’s been reading a novel written by one of her old classmates, that the first part of Trust Exercise is actually the first part of this novel, and then we find out that many of the events and details from this fiction-within-fiction are clues or coverups hiding the truth of what really happened. Our narrator in this section speaks in the first person, but also speaks about herself in the 3rd person, going by the fake name given to her by the novelist classmate. This tactic gives us a bit of duality, showing two sides of a much more interesting character who shines a light on what’s already been read and paints it over in an entirely different color.

The meta elements here and the addition of some darker plot twists really turned things around for me. The use of 1st and 3rd person from the same character as well as the introduction of a play brings the acting aspect together. It truly becomes a story not of power imbalance alone but of sexual abuse, of long-term trauma, and of the men in high places who for so many years have gotten away with too much.

” ‘We were never children,’ he said.”

The third section, the shortest of all, gives the reader an interaction between two  characters, both clearly recognizable despite the fact that one has not been named up to this point, and the other bears a new name. There’s not much new information to be found here, and nothing that happens between them is particularly surprising, and yet it is a necessary ending that ties the rest of the story together. The perfect garnish that puts the right tone on the book’s content and makes its purpose apparent.

My time with this book was a roller coaster experience, from a slow, seemingly straightforward, uninteresting start, to an utterly engaging and emotionally taxing middle, to the smooth leveling off of the end. This should probably have rounded off to a 4-star book for me. It took me three days to get through the first half and I didn’t like it. The framework of the story felt unbalanced. Choi has a tendency of overwriting in places, belaboring the point and drawing out an idea into a page-long paragraph when a single sentence would have sufficed. One character’s excellent memory means we occasionally get full dictionary definitions (this is not an exaggeration) for individual words, including commentary on how each possible interpretation of the word applies. It’s easy to see how readers who find the writing more grating, or who aren’t as enraptured as I was with the shift in the second part of the book, might have a more disappointing experience.

And yet, despite its flaws, I was completely caught up in the ride. I loved the book’s examination of power and abuse, and how far it pursued these themes. I loved the artistry involved in the narrative style and structure. I loved the misdirection that left me doubting what should have been obvious. I loved how quickly and completely Choi was able to change my mind about what I had read. She took my sky-high expectations and dropped them low, then lifted them right back up again. I’m actually looking forward to rereading that boring first section with my fresh knowledge. For this, I’m marking Trust Exercise as a 5-star read. It’s a brutal little book that isn’t as it first appears and requires a bit of mental reconstruction to piece together. I didn’t love every moment of the experience, but when I closed the book and set it aside, the story remained stuck in my head and I’ve been carrying it around with me for days.

“Your life outside school isn’t any of his goddamn business. You know that, don’t you?”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I chose this book from my 2019 books I missed list, and I’m so glad I finally picked it up. It took a while to convince me, but it got there in the end. Despite the rocky start, this one is setting a high bar for my 2020 reading!

 

The Literary Elephant

TBR 1.20

I’m going to sneak this TBR in between my December and January reviews, even though it’s a little late!

A new year means a new TBR system for me, because I still haven’t found the best fit. I like a bit of structure in my reading schedule, but I don’t like feeling stifled by an overfull list, so this year I’m taking the best features of a few different TBR methods I’ve tried and combining them in what I hope will turn out to be the TBR system that’s right for me.

Here’s the plan: at the beginning of the month, I’ll put 5 books that I’m hoping to read on my TBR. The goal is to read all of those books, and also have a little room left over for (unofficial) surprise additions. At the end of the month, whether I’ve read the books or not, the TBR is done and replaced with a new one. I’m not going to carry anything over, although if there are titles I don’t get to I still will read them at some point, I just don’t want to end up in a situation where I drag a few books with me through the whole year and feel married to a TBR that’s just not happening. Those are the only rules- 5 books, 1 month only. We’ll see what happens.

This is what my January reading looks like:

  1. Trust Exercise by Susan Choi. A library checkout, the 2019 National Book Award winner, and a title from my “books I missed” list. It’s about two teens in a prestigious arts school (in the 80’s) whose relationship is interfered with by their theater teacher.
  2. My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier. A buddy read, an author I’ve loved in the past, and the basis for a film adaptation I’m eager to see. It’s about a young man who was orphaned as a child, meeting the wife (a possible murderess) of the cousin who raised him.
  3. The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy. A library checkout, and the last of the 2019 Booker nominees I’m reading before wrapping up my experience with last year’s long list. It’s about a man who is hit by a car on Abbey Road. (That’s an overly simple synopsis but I don’t know much more and I’ve heard it’s best not to know too much about this one beforehand.)
  4. The Martian by Andy Weir. A 20 in ’20 book from my list of backlist 5-star predictions, and a popular sci-fi that’ll put me in the right mindset for the Spotlight on Sci-Fi post I’m working on this month. It’s about a man who’s left behind a research mission on Mars.
  5. Long Bright River by Liz Moore. A 2020 release, and an unread BOTM book from my shelves. It’s about a missing girl from Philadelphia, and the opioid crisis.

All 5 of these fit different goals and projects I’m working on this month or this year, and they’re all books that I think could be 5-star reads for me. As it’s already the 9th, I’ve read one of these books already (Trust Exercise) and started a second (My Cousin Rachel), and I’ve finished an extra book besides. So, hopefully the rest of the month will be just as productive (or even more so- to be honest, I’ve been reading a bit slowly). I have several more titles I’m REALLY wanting to get to this month, another project I want to finish soon and plenty of excellent 2020 releases that I’m starting to get my hands on, but in the spirit of the new TBR I’m leaving my base goal at these five.

tbr1.20

But wait! There’s another feature I want to add to my 2020 TBRs: a list of the books coming out this month that I’ve got my eye on! I might or might not pick these up this month or this year (there are SO MANY excellent-looking 2020 releases), but I’m excited about these, I’m looking out for reviews on these, and I’ll be picking them up here and there when I can. So, here are the January releases that most caught my attention (by US publication date):

  • Topics of Conversation by Miranda Popkey. Literary fiction spanning twenty years of one woman’s life, comprised mainly of conversations. Out Jan 7th
  • The Tenant by Katrine Engberg, translated from the Danish by Tara Chace. Literary thriller in which a murdered woman’s novelist landlady is either the culprit or another victim in a larger game. Out Jan 14th
  • How Quickly She Disappears by Raymond Fleishman. Literary suspense set in 1940s small-town Alaska featuring a missing twin and a German bush pilot with three requests. Out Jan 14th
  • Night Theater by Vikram Paralkar. Magical realism set in India, featuring a fleeing surgeon and the three murdered people he tries to mend one night. Out Jan 14th
  • Follow Me to Ground by Sue Rainsford. Magical realism in which a young woman and her father heal villagers by cracking them open and/or burying them, until an affair with a local man and a betrayal turn everything upside down. Out Jan 21st
  • The Seep by Chana Porter. LGBTQ+ science fiction about a post-invasion utopia, a woman who chooses to be reborn as an infant, and the grieving wife who finds herself on an unexpected quest. Out Jan 21st
  • Recipe For a Perfect Wife by Karma Brown. Contemporary/historical fiction in a dual narrative of a modern woman and the 1950s housewife whose cookbook (filled with personal notes) the former inherits with the house; both find themselves stuck in fraught marriages. Out Jan 21st
  • American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins. Contemporary fiction about a Mexican woman running a bookstore whose journalist husband writes a tell-all piece about a man who turned up in her shop- the jefe of a big drug cartel. Out Jan 21st
  • The Teacher by Michal Ben-Naftali, translated from the Hebrew by Daniella Zamir. WWII historical fiction about an enigmatic English teacher at a Tel Aviv high school and the student who hunts for her story. Out Jan 21st

There are more that I’m aware of and I’m sure more will catch my attention throughout the month, but in a fresh attempt to stay organized I’m making up these little lists right before each month begins so I can keep in mind some of the titles I’m most looking forward to hearing more about. These are those, for January.

Have you read any of these, or recognize them from your own TBR?

 

The Literary Elephant

 

Reviews: One Day in December, The Kingdom of Copper, and The Institute

First off, apologies to anyone who wanted to share a comment on my last post and wasn’t able to, thanks to a WordPress glitch. I’ve corrected the post settings and the comment box is back now, so I’ll link it here just in case: Reviews: Know My Name and The Body in Question. (No worries if you don’t want to comment, of course.)

For today, I’ve got another set of short reviews. These don’t have anything in common except for the time period in which I read them, so feel free to skip around if you prefer.

onedayindecemberJosie Silver’s One Day in December is a popular romance novel that I received last Christmas and waited all year for the right time to pick it up! In the end, reading this between Christmas and New Year’s was really the highlight of my experience. It’s formatted as a set of New Year’s resolutions followed by snippets from the year, over the course of a decade.

Other than the perfect timing, a lot of this story just didn’t work for me. First, it’s the least romantic romance I’ve ever read. The main couple “meet” in the first five pages of the book by glimpsing each other through a bus window. This moment was supposedly important enough that neither of them are able to fully love anyone else afterward. Through ten years of narration, we follow both of them as they date various other people; the romance we’re unarguably supposed to be rooting for through nearly 400 pages doesn’t come together until the LAST PAGE of the book. So, no steamy scenes between the two of them, and for most of the interim they can’t even be honest or open with each other. (Where’s the romance?!)

To some extent, I appreciate the longer timeline and the messy relationships, but I didn’t feel that the author used this setup to develop much of a rapport between the two main characters. Both the man and the woman find excellent partners in these 10 years that I would have rather seen them with than each other, which is partially due to the fact that the reader simply spends more time with those couples than the main ship. Even with 390+ pages and ten years’ worth of plot, we don’t really get to know any of the main characters well enough. The writing is so much telling rather than showing, to the point where the characters remain completely unpredictable because they don’t exhibit clear personalities or motives. They seem more like vehicles to push us through this story rather than just, you know, being the story. This made it impossible to invest emotionally, a crucial flaw in a romance.

“Despite the fairy-tale snowstorm out there, this isn’t Narnia. This is London, real life, where hearts get kicked and bruised and broken, but somehow they still keep beating.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. Full disclosure, I think I’ll end up lowering this rating after some time has passed. I had low expectations going in and picked it up at a time when I wanted something light and inconsequential so I didn’t hate the read, but I think it will be the complaints that stick with me most.

thekingdomofcopperI read S. A. Chakraborty’s The City of Brass, the first book in her Daevabad trilogy, almost an entire year ago, and I don’t think I did it justice in my (3-star) review. I remember my expectations not quite fitting what I actually knew about the book (that it’s the first in a Muslim, Middle Eastern high fantasy series), so that’s on me. I also remember feeling a bit disappointed in the use of a few tropes, which seemed to be driving the story in a predictable direction. Long story short, my expectations for The Kingdom of Copper were a bit wonky when I picked it up soon after, and I am now relieved that I set it aside in March and finished it in December. This was the better time for it in my reading life.

I don’t want to say much about the plot since this is a sequel, but in this second volume Chakraborty leaves the cliches behind and gives us three well-developed characters who are growing and changing in interesting ways, who are all brought together into the same conflict, on different sides of the issue. The magic and politics are intriguing, the world-building is excellent, and the characterization is absolutely superb- I found all three POVs equally engaging, which is rare and didn’t happen for me even in the first book of this series. If you enjoy adult high fantasy, this is really a stellar trilogy so far. I can’t wait to see how it all comes together in The Empire of Gold (out in June 2020).

“I know what it’s like to have ambitions, to be the cleverest in the room- and have those ambitions crushed. To have men who are less than you bully and threaten you into a place you know you don’t belong.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. It’s my own fault, but it was definitely a bit jarring trying to jump back into this right in the middle. I think my ratings could definitely change (for the better) in a proper reread of all three books together.

theinstituteMuch to my surprise, after this buddy read went off the rails in early December, my friend and I suddenly decided to try finishing Stephen King’s The Institute in the last three days of the year (while also wrapping up other books)- and succeeded! Aside from that rewarding victory, this was a mixed bag for me.

On one hand, this started out so promisingly with an interesting ex-cop on an unhurried adventure, picking up an old-timey job in a random small town when struck with a whim. As soon as he’s settled in what is foreshadowed to be an important location to the overall plot, the narration switches to a genius boy of twelve who’s taking his SATs (as a formality) in preparation of beginning his college education at two elite schools- at the same time. But something happens that he doesn’t see coming- he’s kidnapped and taken to a secret facility in Maine where children with light psychic abilities are tested, used, and abused. Of course if anyone can figure out a way to stop what’s happening there, it’s the genius kid, and so a large turn of events is set in motion as soon as he arrives. Looks good, right? Unfortunately, it started unraveling for me about right at that point.

My biggest issue was simply that I didn’t buy it. The secret place where thousands of kids have been held captive over the course of 50+ years and used as psychic tools by conspiratorial adults could have been fantastic if it had been a bit more grounded and developed, but instead it feels like a quick sketch of an idea that’s not entirely thought out. There’s no nuance to the adults at this facility, they’re absurdly cruel and apathetic without reasonable explanations. The tests sound cool and retro (“shots for dots”) or provide a vivid image (the immersion tank), but they don’t make much sense. The plot is riddled with holes (it definitely shouldn’t have taken a genius to escape this place), the Stranger Things and even Miss Peregrine’s vibes are weak and doesn’t carry the story, the characters begin to feel less like people and more like plot devices the longer the book goes on. I also kept having to double check that this is set in modern day because the kids don’t speak and behave like modern day kids.

That’s a lot of complaining, but the worst part is King’s tone deafness. In The Institute he commonly refers to a group of kids as “gorks.” These are kids who’ve been kidnapped and abused to the point of essentially losing their minds, and it feels incredibly unfair of him to lump them together with such a thoughtless, hurtful term. Near the end of the book, there’s one character who tries to urge the others not to say “gorks” because its rude, but within two pages she admits it’s too hard not to, and everyone goes on using this term without another thought. This seems to indicate that King knew he would be called out for insensitivity, but either didn’t understand why or didn’t care enough to remove the offensive comments. (And I haven’t even started on how the one woman on the small town police force was “never cut out to be a cop.”)

I’ll leave The Institute at this: I like the core idea and the first third of the book was a 4- or even 5-star read for me, but the execution fell apart in the latter half. I hope King will continue to publish future novels, because I’d really like to see him do better, for old times’ sake.

“It was so simple, but it was a revelation: what you did for yourself was what gave you the power.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I enjoyed bits and pieces, I enjoyed the buddy read experience (as always), but this one is going nowhere near my favorites list.

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

 

The Literary Elephant

 

Reviews: Know My Name and The Body in Question

I’ve already read a book in January that I’m very excited to review, but I SUPPOSE it would make more sense to catch up on my December reviews first. I am going to try implementing my “shorter reviews” goal for 2020 right away here and cram them all into a couple of posts before the end of the week- not because I disliked these books, but because I just don’t have time to do full reviews for all 6 books (plus short stories) if I want to get around to January reviews within the month. So, we’ll see how this goes! For today, I’m looking at Know My Name by Chanel Miller, one of my favorite books of 2019, and at The Body in Question by Jill Ciment. Let’s dive in!

knowmynameIn Chanel Miller’s nonfiction memoir, she shares what happened on the night she was sexually assaulted, how her life changed leading up to the trial, and the ways in which the US legal system proved to be a hostile place for victims.

You may have heard of Emily Doe, the girl sexually assaulted by a talented swimmer on the Standford campus in 2015 whose victim impact statement went viral the following year. That statement is published in Know My Name, along with the rest of Miller’s story. There is certainly difficult content here, including the details of the assault, Miller’s mental struggle in reassembling her life and surviving the trial, and some of the terrible things people have said to and about her as the case began making headlines. And yet, it is absolutely worth the read.

This book looks closely at one case, but with incredible insight and understanding, Miller uses this single experience to explore the ways in which society allows these tragedies to continue to occur. She’s not here to blame her attacker, but to hold him accountable, and to hold accountable every part of the system that makes it so easy for a man with a little money and talent to walk away from a life he’s permanently marred, without ever realizing that what he’s done is wrong. Miller describes her emotions and the challenges she’s faced not because she’s seeking pity, but as a means to explaining why the system in place needs to change- or at least be improved upon.

Miller’s writing is perfectly suited to her task, and every bit as worth reading as this topic. She’s clear and straightforward, explains the legal process in an easily understandable way, and has a natural knack for pacing and balancing events, info, and opinions. She also takes the time at the end of her own narrative to mention how other well-known cases and the #metoo movement are affecting the way the US sees and deals with these cases. Despite the darkness she’s been through and the fury she inspires, Miller’s tone is ultimately hopeful that people will come together over this and ensure a better future. I sincerely hope she’s right.

“It had never occurred to me that the system itself could be wrong, could be changed or improved. Victims could ask for more. We could be treated better. Which meant my onerous experiences were not useless, they were illuminating. Being inside the system would give me insight; the more I encountered issues, the more I’d be able to see what needed to be fixed. I could convert my pain into ideas, could begin brainstorming alternate futures for victims.”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. This is as close to perfect as a book gets, in my opinion. If you haven’t yet, I urge you to pick it up.

thebodyinquestionI wanted to segue back into fiction after Know My Name with another trial book, so I picked up this little volume next, Jill Ciment’s The Body in Question.

In this short novel, a woman is summoned for jury duty. Before going in, she jokes with a summoned man about how they might get out of serving; neither follows through, and they end up watching the case unfold together. The trial, at which a teen girl is accused of setting a fire that killed her infant brother, is a sensational one, and the jury is sequestered. During the weeks of the trial, the man (young, single) and the woman (older, married) strike up a clandestine affair.

This is really intriguing in concept, as it primarily examines whether the jury can remain impartial as relationships and opinions are formed (the other jurors, of course, sensing that something is going on among them). Perhaps if I hadn’t picked this up immediately after a 5-star all-time favorite I might have had a slightly better time reading it, but despite both this one and Know My Name exploring the failings of the US legal system in fascinating ways, this book did not work as well for me as I’d hoped, for two main reasons.

The first is that I found most of the characters unpleasant, and the main woman in particular I found abrasively judgmental. I suspect the author wanted her to seem a bit sharp-edged and rebellious so that the reader wouldn’t question this married woman starting an affair at the drop of a hat, but instead it alienated me from the main character. There’s nothing “wrong” with the other characters, but the book is so short and sticks faithfully to the first woman so the reader is never given enough opportunity to warm to them. My apathy made it nearly impossible to invest in any part of the story.

The second is that the book is so divided between the trial and the affair that the two pieces never came together appreciably for me. We see the trial in bits and pieces; new information is still being conveyed as the jury votes. I could never form an opinion on whether the girl accused of arson was actually guilty or not, which made it hard to form an opinion on whether the jurors having an affair were actually messing up the trial. The main character’s opinion is clear, and her reasoning is clear, but it’s also clear that she’s not giving the reader all of the evidence. On the other hand, if we try to look past the insufficient trial details and focus only on the affair, what is the message? Is it to avoid sleeping with other jury members while on jury duty? (Is that a common problem?!) Or is the point a broader one, that the justice system has plenty of room for error? In which case, is it advocating for stricter observation of jury members under sequestration? For removal of jury from the justice system? Or just stating that human error happens in all sorts of places? I’m really not sure. As intriguing as I found the concept, the two halves of this story just didn’t quite sum up what it had started for me, even though the main character seems certain in the end about what has happened.

“She hardly remembers Tim’s testimony- only that he clenched his molars and ranked Stephana over Jesus. Would she have remembered more of what Tim said if she hadn’t been distracted by the notes her lover had written to her in his jury notebook and then angled the page so she could read the words from one row back, two chairs over?”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. This was entertaining and quick, but never quite convinced me. If the concept intrigues you I’d definitely still recommend giving it a go, I think it’s one of those books that could have very different effects on different readers!

What’s your favorite court/legal story?

 

The Literary Elephant

2019 Reading Wrap-Up

One last hurrah before I return to reviews: all the stats from my reading in 2019!

Let’s start with Goodreads, since that’s one of the main ways I keep track of books:

goodreads2019

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2019readingchallenge

I had no difficulty beating my Goodreads goal of 100 books this year, and I surpassed last year’s record of 118 books as well! But I actually read about 4,000 fewer pages than last year, and my average page count dropped by 54 pages.

This seemed odd to me at first because I read 3 books over 1,000 pages in 2019: A Storm of Swords by George R. R. Martin (1,179 pages), The Stand by Stephen King (1,440 pages), and Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann (1,020 pages), along with 7 additional books each over 500 pages.

But upon reflection, I’m sure the lower page count comes down to the fact that I read 32 individually bound short stories this year! I wasn’t expecting it when the year began, but  2019 ended up being The Year Of The Faber Stories. It was a fun experience sampling all of these tiny volumes (plus a few other short fiction, nonfiction, and graphic pieces), but it has definitely affected my stats!

faberstoriescompleteset

This was also the year for excellent novellas. Many of them didn’t make my favorites lists for the simple fact that I really am partial to longer works, but I can’t close out 2019 without mentioning these superb 4- and 5-star novellas (in the order I read them):

But size isn’t everything. Let’s measure my reading in some other ways… and bring on the pie charts!

2019readingstats.png

As you can see, a lot of my reading this year came from fairly recent publications. This is probably a result of my reading fewer classics in 2019, which I’m sad about but not devastated. I’m sure I’ll return to classics before too long. In the meantime, here’s how my reading shook out by genre:

2019readingstats2

I did my best to pick just ONE genre to represent each book, but alas, I read some real genre-benders this year, and felt especially torn on the classics, most of which fit an actual genre regardless of their age; a few of my 2019 books (about 10) needed more than one category, so the percentages here are slightly skewed away from my 126 book total but I think overall this chart is still a good indicator of what I was reaching for!

Even though 6% seems relatively small, I do want to give a special shoutout to my nonfiction reading this year, primarily because I have never in my life consistently enjoyed nonfiction or actively reached for it before this year. I can think of only 2 nonfiction books I enjoyed before 2019, and one of those I mistook for fiction for over 50 pages, so. I really hope to increase my nonfiction percentage in 2020 because I know I’ve barely dipped my toe in the genre (or technically, collection of genres) and I’ve loved reading to learn, which nonfiction encourages. Since I didn’t have time for recapping my year in nonfic during Nonfiction November, here’s a little overview of what I read this year, all of which convinced me I should be reading more nonfiction:

Also unexpected this year:

2019readingstats3

I’m using “YA+” to represent books like Aesop’s Fables which I think are technically “children’s” tales but are probably read more often by adults these days, and Suspicious Minds, which seemed like an adult story written for a YA audience, as well as a few other tricky cases. But even combined, YA and YA+ made up very little of my 2019 reading, probably less of my yearly reading than ever before in my life. I hope to read a bit more YA in 2020 because I still enjoy lit from that age range, though I expect adult lit will comprise the majority of my reading from here on out.

2019readingstats6

There is of course room for error with assuming gender based on one-paragraph author bios, but I wanted an idea of this ratio so I did the best I could. As far as I know I didn’t read from any trans or non-binary authors this year, which is tragic, but I am happy I’m reading almost twice as many female authors as male.

Technically I calculated this chart by tallying the author of each book read rather than giving each other one tally, so Stephen King actually makes up 6% of the “men” wedge by himself. I am on a slow journey through King’s entire oeuvre, partially because I like his stories, partially because I think it’s fun to track an author’s writing over such a long period of time. In any case, I read 8 of his books this year, including his longest-ever published novel, the 1400+ page uncut edition of The Stand. I think the highlight for me this year was Full Dark, No Stars, a 4-starred collection of 4 novellas/short stories.

Aside from Stephen King, there are only 3 authors I read multiple books from in 2019 (2 books from S. A. Chakraborty, 3 from Jenny Han, and 2 from Margaret Atwood, though one of those was a graphic novel illustrated by another artist). I picked up a few new works by some authors I’ve read in previous years, like Blake Crouch, Riley Sager, Anna Burns, and Taylor Jenkins Reid, among others). I’m not doing a pie chart for this one since there are only two categories, but actually 70% of my 2019 reading came from new-to-me authors.

2019readingstats5

I chose my 2019 TBR system (making all new books acquired in one month my official TBR for the following month) in hopes of encouraging myself to buy fewer books and to read what I’m buying promptly, which obviously didn’t work. I succeeded only once all year, though twice more I came close. All in all, I hauled 145 books this year, not counting books I bought that I’d read in other copies in previous years, which I didn’t realize I wasn’t keeping proper track of. Of those 145 hauled, I read 63 so far, which is 43% of the books I acquired this year, but actually 50% of my 2019 reading. I’m making new goals to address my obvious issue of buying so many more books than I’m reading, but to be honest I just don’t care that much. I want to read all of these books eventually, it encourages and inspires me to own books that I’m excited about, and I don’t really buy myself other “fun” things. Please don’t @ me for my questionable budgeting and hoarding habits.

I think the rest of this chart is fairly self-explanatory; I love using the library and having those checkouts make up a third of my reading is pretty typical. I think the two short stories I read online were the only “ebooks” I completed this year, the rest of my reading was in physical copies. My two rereads were both books that I bought this year, one of which I read twice in 2019, one of which I read first in 2018. (My rereads and online  reads were actually both 1.5% of my reading at two books each, the chart just didn’t like half percents.)

2019readingstats7.png

I was very curious about this one. I did have 7 fewer 5-star reads than last year, which probably plays a part in why my reading year felt generally underwhelming. But the number of my 2-star ratings in 2019, which felt unusually large and in my mind was a big reason for my dissatisfaction with my 2019 reading, is actually a SMALLER percentage than last year, which is shocking to me. This is really making me reconsider whether I should be more open to 1-star ratings, because my 2018 2-stars did not stand out to me as negatively as most of my 2019 2-stars.

Generally, I never feel that I’ve actively hated a book enough to rate it 1-star, and I like to think that if I am THAT disappointed in the reading experience I would break my non-DNFing habit and put the book down. But my lingering negativity for some of these 2-stars is really making me question whether I’m doing ratings wrong. I didn’t do a “most disappointing reads” post this year because I knew it would put me in a terrible mood, but I will list my 2-stars here for anyone curious:

I just want to add a note that these are not necessarily objectively awful books, and I think I tried to specify in each one of my reviews who might get on with them better than I did.

But let’s move on. I only have a couple of things left I want to mention, and I think we can ditch the pie charts now. Here’s one last graph:

2019readingstats4

This is based on setting rather than the author’s country of home/origin. I did try to track whether the author had spent time in the setting country, but had too many that I was still uncertain about to feel I could draw up an accurate graph. I’ll settle for mentioning that I’m confident most of my 2019 reading was from authors who had actually been to the countries they used as settings.

Also worth noting: I counted multiple countries here for books that took place in more than one setting, but only if it felt like a substantial part of the book. There’s some overlap with the “fictional” category as well, I counted two categories for books that were clearly fictionalized versions of a particular country.

I didn’t do very well about reading outside of my home country this year, even though to my credit 59 books is slightly under half of my 2019 reading- a step in the right direction. But I think I only read 6 (ish) translations this year (some of the Faber Stories are not very clear about their translated status, so I’m not sure on the exact number), which is really very sad even though it probably is an improvement from my reading in the past. Hopefully I’ll be able to bump up my percentage of translation reading in the future, and decrease the percentage of books set in the US.

I’ve mentioned a few things now that I hope to see change in the future, some of which are vague ideas at this point- if you’re curious about my specific goals for 2020 or want to find out how my 2019 goals turned out, check out this post of goals.

I’ve also done some other fun lists lately that round up my 2019 reading, including my 2019 favorites and almost-favorites, some books I’m sad to have missed, my 2019 experience with BOTM, and new some new releases that found their way onto my radar. Also looking ahead, I’ve drawn up a 20 in ’20 list of 5-star predictions from my backlist TBR.

And last but not least, another notable facet of my 2019 reading was my completion of the 2019 Women’s Prize longlist; I followed along throughout the prize, posting reviews on each nominated book and thoughts on the judges’ decisions with the shortlist and winner.

I’ve been buddy reading some past Women’s Prize winners with an excellent group of bloggers as well; these are the titles we’ve read in 2019: A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride, A Spell of Winter by Helen Dunmore, and The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht.

I also read most of the 2019 Booker Prize longlist; I’m finishing up with one more title in January, and putting the final title on indefinite hold. My full thoughts on the longlist will be forthcoming this month, but you can find most of my reviews and thoughts through these links to my reaction to the shortlist and my reaction to the winners.

And now, since I’ve waxed on about my reading year long enough, I’ll say adieu. Overall, I would rate 2019 as a 3-star reading year for me, but there were definitely some good moments and I have high hopes for the year ahead.

Best of reading to you all in 2020!

 

The Literary Elephant