Category Archives: Book Lists

2020 Women’s Prize Take 2: Blogger Edition

As much as I appreciated the structure that the Women’s Prize longlist brought to my reading and blogging life over the last two months of global chaos, in the aftermath of the shortlist announcement I have been taking a nice break from both that I didn’t realize I needed so desperately. But, I’m back on my game this weekend and getting back into both!

For a bit of further explanation here, I’ve been part of a chat group called Women’s Prize Squad comprised of some great bloggers with similar bookish interests; it’s low-key and no reading is actually required- two members of the group haven’t read any of this year’s longlist at all yet. These lovely people are: Callum, Hannah, Marija, Naty, Rachel, Sarah, and Steph. Though opinions do vary, one thing we could all agree on this year was that the official longlist wasn’t living up to expectations for us, and in a year with so many great eligible books we found that especially disappointing. So, just before the shortlist announcement, we spent an hour or two assembling our own longlist from this year’s eligible books: fiction written by women published in English in the UK between April 2019 and March 2020.

It wasn’t something we planned or prepared for in advance, and our selection method was the highly scientific process of choosing a random draft order and letting each person pick any two eligible books they wanted to nominate. This is in no way affiliated with the official Women’s Prize, if that hasn’t already been clear. I’m posting about our personal longlist now because I’m going to be reading and reviewing these books on my blog in the coming weeks/months, and for those who’ve followed along with our Women’s Prize Squad content for the prize this year and are looking for some more promising recommendations, we’d like to offer up some alternative titles. This is all in fun, and varies from titles that have been recognized by lit prizes to titles that haven’t, from titles many of us have already read, to titles not a single one of us has read. In the end, these are books we’ve been loving and/or are VERY excited about; if you’ve also been underwhelmed by this year’s WP longlist or have finished it and are looking for a new challenge or just like to look at recommendations lists, I hope this collection of some of our top choice new releases by women over the last year will have something that appeals to you as well!

Without further ado, the list:

Bunny  Bunny by Mona Awad – Literary horror featuring a group of women in a selective New England MFA program; they call themselves Bunnies and take part in workshop rituals that blur the line between reality and their own monstrous fictions. (I’ve just ordered my copy!)

The Body LiesThe Body Lies by Jo Baker – Thriller/suspense novel about a busy and distracted woman teaching creative writing in the English countryside; after a discussion about violence against women, she realizes one of her students has written her into his novel as a character with a terrifying fate. (My copy has just arrived!)

Ninth House (Alex Stern, #1)Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo – Fantasy in which a young woman who is the sole survivor of a multiple homicide is given a free ride to Yale on the condition that she keep track of sinister and occult activities among the school’s secret societies. (I’ll be adding this one to my May BOTM box!)

The Fire StartersThe Fire Starters by Jan Carson – Magical realism set during the Irish Troubles; two fathers begin to have concerns about their children as fires break out across Belfast and the line between right and wrong blurs as the two men must choose who to protect. (I’ve just ordered my copy!)

Ducks, NewburyportDucks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann – Literary fiction following an Ohio housewife who spends her days baking for a living, mothering her children, and worrying constantly about the state of the modern world. Alongside her narrative is the tale of a female mountain lion searching desperately for her stolen cubs. (My 5-star review here!)

ActressActress by Anne Enright – Literary historical fiction about an infamous British-Irish actress (now dead) and her daughter, set partially against the backdrop of the Troubles. Years after her mother has gone mad and shot a man, Norah writes about what her mother was really like behind the wealth and fame. (My 4-star review here!)

Girl, Woman, OtherGirl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo – Literary fiction told in short story-like vignettes that showcase the lives of twelve British women- mostly queer, mostly black. These highlight the challenges minority women have faced in historic and modern London, converging narratively around a successful theater production. (My 4-star review here!)

My Name is MonsterMy Name is Monster by Katie Hale – Science fiction set in post-apocalyptic Scotland. This story features a woman called Mother and a girl called Monster who find each other after the end of the world and rebuild a life in the now-empty world, only to realize as they learn from each other that they want different things. (I’ve just ordered my copy!)

The MerciesThe Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave – Historical fiction depicting a devastating storm in an isolated Norwegian coastal town that leaves most of the men there dead. As the women reassemble their lives in the aftermath, they are further challenged by a Scottish witch hunter planted in their midst, who feeds off the divided community. (My 5-star review here!)

The Man Who Saw EverythingThe Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy – Literary fiction following a man who’s been hit by a car and leaves the scene with a somewhat hazy recollection of his life. As he shares what he knows, he reveals tragedies left in his wake through the years, but also a greater problem that he fails to grasp. (My 5-star review here!)

Disappearing EarthDisappearing Earth by Julia Phillips – Literary mystery in which two girls vanish in northeastern Russia; in the year following their disappearance, women from the area share their own stories, all relating loosely to the missing girls. (My 5-star review here!)

My Dark VanessaMy Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell – Contemporary fiction about a woman reevaluating a relationship she shared with a manipulative teacher during her teen years. It’s a psychological exploration of sexual abuse and its aftermath. (I’ve just ordered my copy!)

Call Down the Hawk (Dreamer Trilogy, #1)Call Down the Hawk by Maggie Stiefvater – Young adult fantasy featuring a character from The Raven Cycle (a YA series by the same author) who can pull things into the real world from his dreams. He is not the only person with this ability. (I’ve read The Raven Cycle but don’t own it- I’ll check this one out from the library when it reopens!)

Supper ClubSupper Club by Lara Williams – Contemporary fiction coming of age story featuring a secret society of women who give in to their hungers and feast, letting go of society-taught repressions and going back into the world with rebellious confidence about the space they fill. (I already have a copy on my shelf!)

Frankissstein: A Love StoryFrankissstein by Jeanette Winterson – Science and historical fiction taking place in a near-future world in which Artificial Intelligence is on the cusp of taking humans’ place in the pecking order; alongside debate on this topic are snippets from Mary Shelley’s history, including her famous character Frankenstein. (My 5-star review here!)

The Bass RockThe Bass Rock by Evie Wyld  – Historical fiction set on the Scottish coast, a place that oversees and absorbs the tales of the people who’ve lived there across centuries. The stories of three women in three timelines loosely intersect in this narrative of violence and resilience through the ages. (I’m having difficulty tracking down a copy, but as the US release date is early September I’m sure it will be easier to get hold of a little later on.)


I, for one, am beyond excited about this list. I’ve already read seven of the books, had seven others on my TBR, and was happy enough to add the last two. From the books I’ve read, I’ve had two 4-star ratings and five 5-stars, for an impressive average of 4.71. So while of course I cannot say this is an objectively better set than the Women’s Prize 2020 longlist (that is not quite the point here), it is obviously much more to my taste; if your taste seems to overlap with mine at all maybe there are some gems here for you as well!

We would like to eventually vote amongst ourselves on a shorlist and winner, but no date has been set. This isn’t something we want to feel pressured into reading on a certain timeline, and we won’t necessarily all read all of the books, so clearly this isn’t as rigid as the official judging process- but I will post about further developments and I’d love to chat about these books with anyone who’s read them or is planning to read them or just wants to have some fun watching how this alternate, blogger-built Women’s Prize turns out!

Are there any titles here you’ve read, or want to read? Do you think you’ll pick any more up? Particularly looking forward to any of my reviews? Let me know all of your thoughts in the comments below!


The Literary Elephant

Favorite Reads of 2019

Happy new year, all!! 🙂

I was hoping to put up two more posts before the end of the year, this one and my January TBR, but didn’t end up finding the time. However, since 2019 wasn’t a great reading year for me, I’m very glad to be starting 2020 on a positive note with some favorites, rather than jumping into my full year review. That’ll be coming soon as well, but for now I’m ringing in a new year of blogging with a look back at my top reads of 2019! I’ve even made an effort to rank them.

10. The Last by Hanna Jameson. This genre-bending book about a near-future apocalypse mixed with a murder mystery is everything that I want in a thriller. There’s action and suspense, a whodunnit guessing game, and enough social/political commentary that it’s impossible to dismiss as once-and-done entertainment.


9. The Farm by Joanne Ramos. This book has been marketed as feminist dystopian, but many of the details of Ramos’s fictional surrogacy “farm” come from reality. What stands out in this novel isn’t the plot or the characters (both of which could have been better, admittedly), but the commentary on where legality and morality disagree on what is considered acceptable treatment of women’s bodies. Ramos isn’t trying to push her own viewpoint here, but highlighting a complicated situation that’s even stickier when race and social class are introduced to the already-fraught circumstance of paying a woman to carry someone else’s child.


8. Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson. This modern ode to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is divided into two storylines- a fictionalization of Shelley’s history, and a modern romance. Though the humor doesn’t always land and there’s not much plot, I was absolutely hooked on Winterson’s writing, on the atmosphere and emotion evoked in the passages about Shelley’s life, and on the commentary about gender and what make life life. Shelley’s original themes are expanded upon beautifully in what has become one of my absolute favorite retellings of all time.


7. Severance by Ling Ma. This is the only book I’ve rated 4-stars on this list, though it’s beat several other 5-star reads for a spot here, and even rereading my review isn’t reminding me why I didn’t rate it higher to start with. This is another apocalyptic novel, this time with zombies, and plenty of memorable commentary on corporate life, millennial stereotypes, and the habits of the modern world. This was my second read of 2019, and despite the initial 4-star rating, it has stuck with me firmly all year. It’s time to bump it up to a 5.


6. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. This is a charcter-driven saga about life in Japan for a Korean family. It gave me a chance to brush up on history and culture (the MC’s family is heavily affected by Japan’s annexing of Korea and Korea’s split after WWII), but it is also an emotional, multi-perspective tale of trials and perseverance, of nuanced relationships, of injustice and prejudice. It’s long but engrossing, and for me it was worth every page.


5. A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride. This is probably the most difficult book I’ve ever read, in terms of both writing and content (all trigger warnings apply). It’s a short book, a previous Women’s Prize winner, and a real struggle, but despite the challenge it hit me harder emotionally than any other book I’ve read this year, and it even managed to sell me on the difficult style. The payoff was 100% worth the effort.


4. Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss. I’m usually partial to longer works, but found some excellent novellas in 2019, and this one is at the top of that list. It’s a tiny story that packs a big punch, following a teen girl as her family joins a class project to reenact Iron Age life in northern England. It’s a story of abuse, and of taking things too far. I loved the jaw-dropping opening, the slowly building tension, the fraught climax, and everything in between.


3. We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson. This bizarre, fairy tale-esque story about two young women living alone in the home of their murdered family had me hooked immediately, and improved with every page turn. It’s a story of outsiders and superstition, of unquestioning loyalty, and of choosing love over money. I saw the plot twist coming a mile away, but appreciated the way it affected characterization enough that for once I didn’t care about knowing in advance.


2. Know My Name by Chanel Miller. I actually drew up my favorites list (tentatively) at the end of November when I posted my 2019 almost-favorites, and was so confident about loving this nonfiction memoir about Miller’s trial experience as a rape survivor that I calculated this into my list even before reading. Fortunately, it exceeded every expectation. How rape accusations are handled in the US legal system and treated by society is as infuriating as it is important, and I don’t think any writer could have done it better. This should be required reading. (Review to come.)


1. Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann. This is a thousand-page account of an Ohio housewife’s experience in Trump’s America, told primarily through one very long stream-of-consciousness sentence. It’s a doozy, and requires plenty of patience, but the way the pieces weave into a single web in the end is a reading experience unlike any other. This is hands-down the most inventive and original book I’ve read this year, and I was surprised how captivating I found most of the story even before the individual threads started coming together. It’s full of meaningful commentary about life as an American, as a woman, as a mother, and above all, as a person. It’s not a perfect book, but I can’t shake it, I don’t want to, and I doubt I ever will.



Even though 2019 was not my best reading year, it did bring me a few fantastic books! These titles have all left a lasting impression for me, and I would recommend them all (though some to a wider audience than others). If you’ve read any of them, or are planning to, let me know your thoughts below!


The Literary Elephant

2019 Books I MISSED!

Let the end-of-the-year lists continue! The theme for this one is books published in 2019, that I KNEW about before or around the time of publication, that I WANTED to read, that I think had a good chance of being 5 STAR READS for me, and for some reason I just did not pick them up. A tragic list full of books I still want to keep in mind going forward! Here are twenty of them:


Mouthful of Birds by Samanta Schweblin, translated by Megan McDowell, illustrated by Ben Newman – short horror stories that blur the line between the real and the imagined. Pub: Jan 8

Mouthful of Birds

The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls by Anissa Gray – Contemporary fiction following a shocking and disgraceful arrest in a large family, and exploring “how the relationships that sustain you can also be the ones that consume you.” Pub: Feb 19

The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls

Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Norther Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe – Nonfiction history/true crime about The Troubles in Northern Ireland. Pub: Feb 26

Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland

Shout by Laurie Halse Anderson – Poetic YA memoir from the author of Speak who shares her own experiences here and advocates for survivors of sexual assault. Pub Mar 12


My Lovely Wife by Samantha Downing – Mystery/thriller about a married couple who keep their romance alive by murdering people together. Pub: Mar 26

My Lovely Wife

Trust Exercise by Susan Choi – Literary fiction about a high school romance in a performance arts school, complicated by the interference of their acting teacher. (Winner of the National Book Award!) Pub: Apr 9

Trust Exercise

Exhalation by Ted Chiang – Science fiction short stories in which Chiang “wrestles with the oldest questions on earth- What is the nature of the universe? What does it mean to be human?- and ones that no one else has even imagined.” Pub: May 7


Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips – Literary mystery set in Russia, following the disappearance of two young girls and exploring the lives and experiences of other women in the community. Pub: May 14

Disappearing Earth

Underland by Robert McFarlane – Nonfiction examination of things that come from the ground, things people put into the ground, and what all things underworld mean to us. Pub: Jun 4


On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong – Poetic LGBTQ+ fiction written as a letter from a son to his mother, who can’t read; it chronicles his family history and progresses to explore important questions of our current cultural moment.  Pub: Jun 4

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous

Bunny by Mona Awad – Whacky horror story about a group of women in an MFA writing program in which the lines between their fictional creations and reality begin to blur. Pub: Jun 11


Very Nice by Marcy Dermansky – Contemporary fiction in which a creative writing student begins an affair with her professor, who stays at her family’s Connecticut home and begins another affair with his student’s mother. Pub: Jul 2

Very Nice

The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa, translated by Stephen Snyder – Science fiction featuring a world in which memory police are in charge of making sure unwanted things disappear completely; a novelist fearing for her career hides her editor and tries to preserve the past through literature. Pub: Aug 13

The Memory Police

The Doll Factory by Elizabeth Macneal – Gothic historical fiction set in the 1850s in which a man and woman meet unintentionally- one is asked to model, the other is asked to provide painting lessons, but the relationship between the two turns sinister… Pub: Aug 13

The Doll Factory

What Red Was by Rosie Price – Contemporary fiction about a young woman raped by the friend of a friend, the resulting trauma, and the complex friendship she must navigate afterward. Pub: Aug 27

What Red Was

The Glass Woman by Caroline Lea – Gothic historical fiction set in a remote Icelandic village where a newly married woman is isolated from the local community by her husband, who has a secret past of his own… Pub: Sep 3

The Glass Woman

Pet by Akwaeke Emezi – YA (verging on MG) LGBTQ+ fantasy in which a pair of young friends is hunting a monster in a world where monsters are no longer believed to exist. Pub: Sep 10


The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11 by Garrett M. Graff – Nonfiction history built from the voices of the people who experienced or witnessed the traumatic events of that fateful day in America. Pub: Sep 10

The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11

The Liar by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen, translated by Sondra Silverston – Literary fiction in which a teenage girl lies about an unpleasant encounter, with far-reaching and very public consequences. Pub: Sep 24

The Liar

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado – An experimental memoir that uses horror themes and experimental style to explore an abusive same-sex relationship. Pub: Nov 5

In the Dream House

I could go on, but that’s a fair sampling the top of my “missed it” list! Have you read and loved any of these, or do you see any you missed this year as well?


The Literary Elephant

Anticipated 2020 Releases

I’m still one review behind, but it’s the end of the year and that means it’s time for bookish lists! Let the fun begin!

As the title suggests, this one’s going to focus on upcoming releases for the new year that I’m most excited about! I’ll have another post coming up soon that’ll cover my 2020 reading goals (which won’t include reading every one of these books), but I’m sharing this list in the meantime because 2020 looks like it’s going to be an incredible reading year even if I don’t manage to pick up ALL of the new releases I’m looking forward to!  This isn’t a fully exhaustive list, just what’s looking good to me right now. Maybe something here will appeal to you as well. 🙂


New Books By Authors I’ve Appreciated in the Past:

The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel – Literary fiction tying together seemingly unrelated lives that are linked by experiences at a glass and cedar 5-star hotel on a British Columbian island. Pub Mar 24

The Glass Hotel

Strange Hotel by Eimear McBride – Literary fiction in which a woman returns to a hotel room she’s stayed in years ago, using the occasion to recount the hotel rooms of her life and “what it might mean to return home.” Pub: May 5

Strange Hotel

If It Bleeds by Stephen King – A collection of four horror novellas, at least one of which is a sequel to King’s 2018 The Outsider. (Sad side note: I hate everything about this cover. It’s my only anticipated 2020 release that doesn’t appeal visually.) Pub: May 5

If It Bleeds

Blue Ticket by Sophie Mackintosh – Literary fiction featuring a forced lottery for women to determine whether they will have children or careers. Pub: Jun 30

Blue Ticket

Home Before Dark by Riley Sager – Thriller set in a possibly haunted house years after the MC’s father wrote a sensational horror memoir about it. Pub: Jul 7

Home Before Dark

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi – Fiction about a Ghanaian woman studying neuroscience at Standford in the wake of her brother’s overdose, and grappling for the answers to her family’s grief between science and religion. Pub: Jul 14

Transcendent Kingdom

The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi -Nigerian-set fiction that moves backward in time from the MC’s death. Pub: Aug 4


Sisters by Daisy Johnson – Literary fiction revolving around the darkening relationship between two teen sisters after they move to an isolated family home with their mother following a bullying incident. Pub: Aug 25


A Day Like Today by Sarah Moss – “A multi-voice narrative set in a Scottish holiday park over the course of one fateful rainy summer’s day.” This single sentence is all that has been posted about the synopsis so far, and there’s no cover or pub date yet, though it’s listed for 2020.

I’m also keeping an eye on Ruth Ware and Paula Hawkins, both of whom are up for 2020 thrillers that don’t have any posted info up yet. These are less crucial to me at the moment, but I’ve read all of their previous books so the odds are good that I’ll end up reading both.


New-To-Me Authors That Have Caught My Eye:

The Seep by Chana Porter – LGBTQ+ science fiction about life after an alien invasion, mainly focusing on a pair of married women, one of whom finds a way to be reborn as an infant and the other of whom finds a lost boy and a surprising quest. Pub: Jan 21

The Seep

Recipe for a Perfect Wife by Karma Brown – Feminist fiction with a historical element, in which a modern woman finds notes in a cookbook left by the house’s previous owner from the 1950s that are surprisingly resonant to her. Pub: Jan 21

Recipe for a Perfect Wife

Follow Me to Ground by Sue Rainsford – Magical realism in which a young woman and her father possess healing powers that they use to cure sick villagers by temporarily burying them. Pub: Jan 21

Follow Me to Ground

The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave – Feminist historical fiction inspired by a powerful Norwegian storm and the 1620 witch trials. Pub: Feb 11

The Mercies

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell – Contemporary fiction with a modern take on Nabokov’s Lolita, in which a young woman must determine whether a relationship in her teens with a much older teacher was consensual or not. Pub: Mar 10

My Dark Vanessa

The Deep by Alma Katsu – Historical horror set partially on the Titanic and years later on the Britannic as supernatural forces combine with naval disaster to terrorize passengers. Pub Mar 10

The Deep

The Keeper by Jessica Moor – Literary thriller about a death that looks like a suicide, though the women at the domestic violence shelter where the dead woman worked suspect that something (or someone) she was running from caught up with her. Pub Mar 19

The Keeper

Look by Zan Romanoff – LGBTQ+ fiction about a young woman coming of age between the end of one romance and the start of another, in the midst of social media drama. Pub Mar 31


All My Mother’s Lovers by Ilana Masad – LGBTQ+ fiction about a woman who returns home after her mother’s death to find her remaining family upset by letters left with her mother’s will, addressed to men they’ve never heard of. Pub: May 26

All My Mother's Lovers

Betty by Tiffany McDaniel – Historical coming-of-age fiction in which 8 children in a mixed-race family live in a “cursed house” in Appalachia, where they face poverty, racism, abuse, and violence- but Betty might be the first of her family to escape. Pub: Jul 14


The Island Child by Molly Aitken – Magical realism featuring two timelines of one woman’s life that weave together to tell a tale of motherhood and identity, rich in Irish folklore. Pub: Jan 30 (I believe this is the UK info and cover, the US release is possibly in July but I’m unclear.)

The Island Child


Some Nonfiction (a woefully small selection, I know):

The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family and Defiance During the Blitz by Erik Larson – History and biography about Churchill and “London’s darkest year,” a political story and domestic drama combined. Pub: Feb 25

The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz

Constellations: Reflections From Life by Sinead Gleeson – A collection of memoir-style essays about pain, illness, and women’s bodies. Pub: Mar 24

Constellations: Reflections from Life

Notes From An Apocalypse: A Personal Journey to the End of the World and Back by Mark O’Connell – A humorous environmental travelogue that investigates the ways people around the world are reacting to what currently looks like a grim future for Earth. Pub: Apr 14

Notes from an Apocalypse: A Personal Journey to the End of the World and Back


Those are just some of the 2020 releases I’m looking forward to getting my hands on! As I mentioned above, it’s not an exhaustive list (it’s gone on plenty long enough already, hasn’t it?). Since I tried to cap off this list at a reasonable limit before I even finished investigating new releases in some categories (there’s not much for genre fiction here, hardly any nonfic, and no YA!), I am planning to add a section to my monthly TBRs in which I mention new releases on my radar each month. This way I can mention anything I might have missed here, or which comes to my attention later.

What’s THE 2020 release you absolutely won’t let pass you by?


The Literary Elephant

2019 Almost-Favorites

Last year I started a new bookish Thanksgiving tradition: looking back at some of the books that aren’t quite going to make my favorites list for the year and exploring why I’m still thankful to have read them! (Here’s the link to my 2018 almost-favorites if you’re curious.)

Since I’ve not had the best reading year, putting this list together has been a great reminder that there have nevertheless been some gems in my 2019 reading! I’ll post about my actual top favorites next month, but these are books that I really liked, that I can’t let go without mentioning again! It’s not an exhaustive list of all the books I’ve enjoyed this year, not even when combined with my favorites list. I’ve narrowed it down to a reasonable length: 10 books. I’ve even made an attempt to rank them! (Titles are linked to my reviews if you’re looking for more info.)

thesilentcompanions10. The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell. This is a historical gothic/horror novel with a unique supernatural element. It stands out for its atmosphere and tension, its hint of modern feminism as a lens through which challenges in historic women’s lives are examined, and it’s pacey plot. What held me back from favorite status here is that the plot was really the main focus (evil paintings taking over a secluded house!), and plots don’t tend to stick in my memory very well. I’ll remember I loved reading this one, but the specifics (except for those evil paintings, of course) will fade away pretty quickly, I’m afraid.

mysistertheserialkiller9. My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite. Longlisted for the Women’s Prize and the Booker, this little book captured a lot of attention this year. It’s a quick-paced mystery about a woman murdering her boyfriends and the sister who helps clean up after her. The deaths and details are intriguing, but what stood out to me most were the strong women and their close bond. I had so much fun reading this one, but it’s missing from my favorites list because it didn’t leave me with much food for thought; closing the cover really is the end of the experience with this one.

thehandmaidstalegraphicnovel8. The Handmaid’s Tale: The Graphic Novel by Margaret Atwood and Renee Nault. I thoroughly appreciated Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale a few years back, and this graphic novel format of the same story reignited my interest. The standout elements were the bold colors and clean lines of the artwork, and the superb narration. Everything about this was gearing me up for 5-star favorite status (even though the original novel was only a 4 for me!), but what held me back was the ending, deviating from the classic script just enough to change the entire direction of the story, paving the way for The Testaments and marring the read for me.

womentalking7. Women Talking by Miriam Toews. This short novel, based on the true tragedy of numerous sexual assaults in a Menonite colony, stood out to me for it’s jaw-dropping details, the cleverness involved in effectively utilizing a male narrator in a story about female power and voice, and for the intricate way the characters’ actions are tied up in their religion. The only aspect that held me back was the utter lack of plot; the title is perfectly informative in describing what happens in this book, and while I loved the statements it made, I have to admit it wasn’t a story with much momentum.

nonficminireviews6. Tell Me How it Ends by Valeria Luiselli. In little more than a hundred (nonfiction) pages, Luiselli manages both to educate her readers about the children caught up in the US border crisis, and to give a sharp tug to the heartstrings. It’s a standout for its emotive prose, its bravery in speaking out against the US government, and its unique structure: framed around the 40-question form immigrating children need to fill out upon entering America. The only thing holding me back here- through no fault of Luiselli’s- is that this is an ongoing problem, which understandably means there are no answers or conclusions here.

aspellofwinter5. A Spell of Winter by Helen Dunmore. The most compulsively readable Women’s Prize winner I’ve read so far, this historical gothic-toned tragedy kept me up nights because I just had to know what would happen next. It’s darkly beautiful and absolutely haunting, which are standout details in my opinion. I adored the style and atmosphere through most of the novel, and appreciated the focus on how women have been stifled and taken advantage of through history. What held me back is a shift in tone and direction at the end, along with how incredibly sad some of the details left me.

askmeaboutmyuterus4. Ask Me About My Uterus by Abby Norman. Someone in my life talked to me about endometriosis this year, I heard about this book soon after, and was shocked to realize how big a problem it is for women not only to get diagnosed, but treated properly for this condition. What stands out most here is the way Norman uses her own diagnosis in this memoir as a springboard to explore a larger issue in medicine- unfair treatment of ailing women- both in history and modern day. Similar to my hang-up with the Luiselli piece, I’m holding back here mainly for a lack of resolution to an ongoing problem; I was left with plenty of questions, though I understand Norman couldn’t possibly have answered all of them.

driveyourplowoverthebonesofthedead3. Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. Much like with the 2019 Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Overstory, the plot didn’t entirely work for me with this one, though I appreciated basically everything else. I don’t often read (and even less often enjoy) books that focus heavily on animals, but the standout narrative voice (an old, eccentric Polish woman) hooked me immediately, and by the time I closed the novel I couldn’t look at animals the same way as before. (The narrator tries convincing her village that animals are murdering humans in revenge for their mistreatment.) What held me back was only that the structuring of this story as a mystery felt like tacking a cheap thrill onto a story that might have been a bit stronger as a straightforward exploration of a very intriguing premise.

humanacts22. Human Acts by Han Kang. This brutal little book delves into a student uprising in 1980 Korea; it’s a fictional account of the real event. The stand out element for me here was the way Kang posits that both vulnerability and abuse of power are inevitable human traits, necessarily existing side by side. It’s incredibly dark and sad, but certainly hard-hitting and effective. The only aspect that held me back was the frequent switch of perspective, not only from one character to another but also in point of view (1st, 2nd, 3rd person); these switches could be confusing at times, and did not always seem to serve any productive purpose.

marysmonster1. Mary’s Monster: Love, Madness, and How Mary Shelley Created Frankenstein by Lita Judge. Here we have a graphic fictionalized biography of Mary Shelley (author of Frankenstein); it also includes the famous monster and plays up themes found in Shelley’s novel, transposed onto the stage of her real life. Standout features are the soft gray-scale artwork, the free verse narration, and the impeccable blending of fact and fiction. What held me back from including this on my favorites list is that it took me a while to get into this one; the book opens with Shelley’s childhood, through which both the “plot” and the writing are more simplistic and just felt a bit too YA or even MG for my current taste. (It becomes much more adult later on, I would not recommend to an MG or young YA audience- perhaps 16+.)

There you have it, folks: my 2019 almost-favorites!

After writing all of those little paragraphs for each book, I’m realizing it was a bad idea to end them all on the downside I found to each of these books- the goal was to talk them up and hopefully persuade some more readers to give these titles a chance! Even though each of these stories comes with a reason it won’t be on my favorites list, these were all highly enjoyable 4- or 5-star reads for me that didn’t miss the mark by much! Some of the “flaws” I’ve mentioned are inevitable side effects of their topics (as with the ongoing-problem nonfiction pieces) or personal opinions that other readers might feel very differently about (like the ending of The Handmaid’s Tale: The Graphic Novel, which I think Testaments fans will appreciate, or Mary’s Monster feeling too young at first, which is unlikely to bother readers who pick up MG/YA more regularly than I’ve been doing).

And so, I’ll close here with a reminder that there’s more to reading than lists and numbers (even though both are present in this post…). Take a moment to look back at your reading year with me and appreciate the upsides to some of the books that you won’t be featuring on your favorites list; consider what you’ve gained even from the books you aren’t going to be gushing about at the end of the year. Sure, we all find some duds, but at the end of the day, we still love reading.

Happy Thanksgiving.


The Literary Elephant

Women’s Prize 2019: Longlist Wrap-Up & Shortlist Prediction

I didn’t post my initial reaction to this year’s Women’s Prize longlist or my plans to read it in its entirety, but I have been slowly working through it. I’ve now officially finished reading the longlist and am looking forward (with much excitement!) to Monday’s shortlist announcement. Without further ado…

The Longlist

When the Women’s Prize 2019 longlist was announced on March 4, I was shocked to discover that I had already read nine (!) of the sixteen titles. I read seven of them in 2018, up to a year prior to the announcement, and two in early 2019.

Having already read over half of the list, I decided to try finishing the longlist before the shortlist announcement. I didn’t declare this intent very loudly because I wasn’t entirely sure it would happen (the only other longlist I’ve read took me about six months to complete. I have a long-standing habit of jumping around genres and reading commitments).

Of the remaining seven, I was familiar with only two titles (Number One Chinese Restaurant and Lost Children Archive) at the time of the longlist announcement. But I was game for the rest.

At this point, I have read all sixteen books, but I have one left to review (Remembered). I wanted to prioritize this overview/prediction post as many hours as possible before the shortlist announcement.

I’ve arranged the photos above in the order that I read the longlist. Below, I’m listing each of the titles in order of my personal preference, from most to least favorite. Here’s how the longlist turned out for me (titles linked to my full reviews):

  1. Milkman by Anna Burns, 5 stars
  2. The Pisces by Melissa Broder, 5 stars
  3. Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi, 5 stars
  4. Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss, 5 stars
  5. Normal People by Sally Rooney, 4 stars
  6. My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite, 5 stars
  7. Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli, 4 stars
  8. Bottled Goods by Sophie van Llewyn, 4 stars
  9. The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker, 4 stars
  10. Remembered by Yvonne Battle-Felton, 3 stars
  11. An American Marriage by Tayari Jones, 3 stars
  12. Circe by Madeline Miller, 3 stars
  13. Ordinary People by Diana Evans, 3 stars
  14. Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott, 3 stars
  15. Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li, 2 stars
  16. Praise Song for the Butterflies by Bernice L. McFadden, 2 stars

(Yes, there’s a 4-star in the midst of the 5-stars, that’s not a mistake. Normal People felt like a 5-star book based on the literary merit I saw in it and its ability to bring out all sorts of emotions during my read, but I rate based on enjoyability and it resonated with me so deeply at one point that it made me very uncomfortable, which I acknowledged with a 4-star rating. It still has a solid place among my favorites.)

There were more extreme highs and lows for me in this longlist than in the last longlist I read, the 2018 Man Booker Prize for Fiction. Unfortunately, most of my top favorites came from the nine titles I read before the longlist announcement, and most of my least favorites came from the titles I read most recently. I’m usually a save-the-best-for-last type, so I would not have chosen to read them in this order if I’d had more control over it. But overall, I do think this is a very strong list and almost everything felt worth my while. I don’t anticipate reading the entire longlist every year, and with that in mind I do feel at the end that this was a great year for me to read every title.

One of the most interesting aspects of this particular longlist is the way that so many of the titles felt linked to others from the list. I enjoyed piecing together so many ways in which these titles seemed to be speaking to each other. Someone more savvy with graphics might have been able to map this out better, but I’m simply going to list some of the similarities I encountered:

  • Circe and The Silence of the Girls and The Pisces: retelling Greek myth elements
  • The Silence of the Girls and Circe and Swan Song: giving voice to familiar women history has regarded unfairly (perhaps)
  • Ghost Wall and Lost Children Archive: (inadvertently?) leading one’s children astray
  • Freshwater and The Pisces: challenging gender norms, examining mental health
  • Milkman and Bottled Goods: exploring the consequences of rumor in a time of governmental conflict
  • Number One Chinese Restaurant and My Sister, the Serial Killer: exploring hurtful/helpful sibling relationships
  • Normal People and Ordinary People: elevating the everyday
  • Ordinary People and Swan Song and Remembered: questioning and pushing the bounds of hauntings/ghosts
  • Ordinary People and An American Marriage: depicting black relationships in the modern world
  • Praise Song for the Butterflies and Remembered and Lost Children Archive: raising awareness of historical (and recent) societal wrongs
  • Remembered and An American Marriage: depicting racial injustice

There are probably many connections I’ve missed here, as there seem to be SO MANY thematic similarities in this list and I waited too long to start jotting them down. It’s so interesting to consider how the conversations these books seem to encourage are both related to one another and also tangential to each other. But sadly, some of these pairings seem so closely tied that I find it unlikely that both titles would pass on to the shortlist. (For instance, does anyone expect to find TWO Greek retelling books advance?) It bothers me that these similarities might limit the shortlist, but even in my own predictions I’ve taken such considerations into account.

Also taken into account: the fact that some of these titles don’t need the publicity that a win would grant them. (For instance, Milkman and Normal People have already received quite a bit of buzz, largely due to their places on the Man Booker 2018 list, which Milkman went on to win.) Then there’s the fact that this longlist is nicely balanced as far as both topics covered and countries represented, which I’m sure the judges will want to reflect in the shortlist as well. And so my six favorites from the ranks above are not actually my predicted contenders for the shortlist.

The Shortlist

The books I hope (and might more realistically expect) to see advance are as follows:

  • Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi
  • Normal People by Sally Rooney
  • Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss
  • The Pisces by Melissa Broder
  • Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli
  • The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

Some additional thoughts- I would not mind Milkman advancing to the shortlist, though I rather hope it doesn’t win for the mere fact that it is already a prize winner and there are other great contenders here. I would not mind seeing My Sister, the Serial Killer advance, though I think Ghost Wall is the stronger novella and I doubt more than one of the three novellas will advance. Based on popularity in other reviews, I would not be entirely surprised to see Swan Song, Circe, or Number One Chinese Restaurant advance, though personally I hope not to see that happen.

If shortlisted, I will probably reread: Ghost WallThe Pisces, and/or Freshwater in the lead-up to the winner announcement.

The Winner

And finally, I’m going to predict a winner. I’m actually going to predict two winners at this point, though between the shortlist and winner reveals I’ll limit myself to endorsing only one of the six possibilities. But as we’re still at sixteen contenders for the moment, I’ll say that:

  1. The title I most want to see win at this point is Freshwater
  2. But the title I think is actually most likely to win, based on its general reception and strong merit, is Lost Children Archive.

I could be completely wrong about all of these guesses. In fact, I probably am. I’ve never predicted a shortlist or prize winner before, so I feel rather unqualified though I am having a lot of fun pondering the choices!

Speaking of fun, I’ve been loving seeing so many differing opinions and reviews of these longlisted titles! Literary prizes are a great way to join in with a large group of readers who are all talking about the same books at the same time. And I’d love to talk about theories and preferences even more in the comments below, so if you’ve read any of these titles, please let me know what you thought, and what you hope will happen next!


The Literary Elephant




Favorite Reads of 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Literary Elephant


2018 Bookish Disappointments

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

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

asbrightasheavenAs Bright as Heaven by Susan Meissner. 

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

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

thepowerThe Power by Naomi Alderman.

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

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

originOrigin by Dan Brown.

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

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

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

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

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

snapSnap by Belinda Bauer.

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

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

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

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

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

crossherheartCross Her Heart by Sarah Pinborough. 

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

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

elevationElevation by Stephen King.

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

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

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

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

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

eclipseEclipse by Stephenie Meyer.

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

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

And that’s a wrap.

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

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


The Literary Elephant



2018 Almost-Favorites

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Thanksgiving!


The Literary Elephant

Top 25 Favorite Books, 2018 edition

This is a list I update every year, and every year the first question I have to answer is what I want this list to be. When I started it back in 2008 the answer to that question was closer to “my favorite books from the last year or so,” but over the years, the list has changed. If you’re looking for recent favorites, let me direct you instead to my best books of the year lists for 2017 and 2016.

For this list, I looked back at every book I can remember ever reading, and I compiled my favorites. From there, I narrowed it down to 25 books that were not only enjoyable to read, but somehow influential to me and my reading life. I have more than 25 favorites, of course, but this year, these are the books that I’m feeling the most grateful to have had in my life.

Side note: I’m not going to give 25 synopses. Instead, I’m going to talk a little about why each book is important to me, which will probably include a brief snapshot of what each book is, in a nutshell.

Also, I started trying to order these by favoritism, but I have loved these books for such different reasons and at such different times of my life that I couldn’t find a way to rank them adequately. So I’ve organized them by date read, from earliest to most recent. This list will take you on a tour of some highlights in my reading life.

  1. The Magician’s Nephew by C. S. Lewis. This is the first book (chronologically) in Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, which is the first fantasy series I read. This book introduced me to alternative realities. Ordinary children discover something extraordinary– a doorway to other worlds that most people aren’t aware of, don’t believe in, or maybe can’t even imagine. This book taught me about the power of perspective, and the vast possibilities in storytelling… at the ripe age of 8.
  2. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J. K. Rowling. I didn’t start reading Harry Potter until I was 10 or 11, after the 5th book had been published. I could say so much about the merits of this series, but I’ll just focus on the reason this one stood out: Hermione’s Time Turner. This is the book that introduced me to the concept that time didn’t have to be a fixed constraint in literature, and that opened doors for me. Books can have their own worlds, their own rules, and as long as they follow their own code, anything is valid.
  3. The Truth About Forever by Sarah Dessen. Sarah Dessen’s novels reminded me as a teenager that it’s okay to be whoever you are. This one in particular made me feel better about something that’s always plagued me: perfectionism. I recently reread this book, and even as an adult it made me laugh, it made me feel, it made me appreciate that made-up stories can carry real messages that can help real people.
  4. Hawksong by Amelia Atwater-Rhodes. When I first read this book, I loved it for it’s romance, the fantasy love story that’s more about friendship and trust and just appreciating another person for being themselves than about all-consuming love. But as the years pass, I still reread and adore this book for that and so much more: it’s emphasis on the importance of peace and acceptance, the characters’ willingness to sacrifice and fight for the greater good that they believe in… It’s a powerful book, all the more inspiring for being written by a teenager.
  5. Atonement by Ian McEwan. This was the first adult book that I read (other than Stephen King who’ll be making a later appearance) and I remember being afraid that I would find it boring. I didn’t, which opened up new literary avenues for me to explore. Furthermore, what I liked most about this one is that it tells a story that didn’t happen, even within its fictional bounds. It tells a what if, in my first brush with metafiction, which I loved for the same reason as Hermione’s Time Turner.
  6. Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. A friend recently told me she excluded this one from her favorites list and discourages people from reading the book because watching the movie provides basically the same experience. I think it’s not the fault of the book if the film makers did a good job, and I also think that the book gives more nuance to the characters. But primarily, this one makes the cut for me because it was the first classic that I read (as a high school freshman), and loving it enabled me to take more literary chances.
  7. The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. I’m not one of those people who hated all of their mandatory reading assignments in high school, but I was surprised to appreciate this one as much as I did. This is fiction that acknowledges it’s fictional nature in a fascinating way. It highlights the horrors of war even while outright admitting to the lie in its narration. That blend of a real issue told through creative fiction is something that has fascinated me ever since, and the classroom discussion about this book is one of the few group talks I actually enjoyed in school.
  8. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Here’s another school assignment book from the same year (high school sophomore) and the same class. This is a book that reminded me 1) that it can be fun to read about children even when I didn’t feel like one anymore (haha), 2) that there are very readable classics out there, and 3) that some books carry transferable messages despite how very different the characters’ lives may be from the reader’s own. This was the book that cemented my interest in those deeper themes and topics behind the main plot; after this book, I rarely wanted to read a book for entertainment alone.
  9. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. I read this book for a college project for which I was able to choose my book; I thought it would be too zombie-like and I would need that extra push. It turned out to be much more about morality. The commentary about correcting/accepting the choices one has made, especially choices that affect other people, is a widely applicable narrative. Feeling pity for Frankenstein’s monster changed the way that I live and read, making me more aware of other peoples’ perspectives and motives outside of my own experiences.
  10. A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin. I generally think that I don’t like politics, but I think my problem is that in the real world I feel too insignificant in that realm. A Game of Thrones helped me see that even at the level of power that operates on words and laws, it all boils down to individual motivations. What I love most about this series is that the reader can choose sides, and all sides are valid– Martin doesn’t use any stock characters, they’re all unique, morally gray, and undeniably human.
  11. Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser. I read and enjoyed quite a few mandatory books for various college classes, but this one has stuck with me the longest. It affected the way I think about money– how important it is, what’s worth doing to keep it, how it can drastically change a life if one has too much or not enough. It’s scary how much money can alter a person and their choices, and I want to be self-aware enough not to take anything I have for granted, no matter what changes I encounter in my life.
  12. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. This is a fictional novel that reflects a bit of the author’s real struggle with mental illness. It is the book that made me aware of how powerful a story can be, when it comes from an author who has experience in that area (“Own voices” was not a familiar term back in 2013). By this point I had read surprisingly few books about real issues that I could apply directly to my own life, but I found a sort of kinship in this narrator that made me feel less ashamed about being occasionally depressed or morbid or just generally feeling outside of humanity.  I think I just have a normal level of weird thoughts, but this is the book that sparked my interest in reading about psychological elements.
  13. The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. If I had known this was nonfiction when I picked it up, I probably wouldn’t have bothered. Fiction is my art form of choice. But this one covers several topics that intrigue me: the turn of the 20th century, architecture, invention, and true crime, and once it grabbed my attention it reminded me that it’s important to step outside of my reading comfort zone now and then, to take the time to give new things a chance. It also piqued my interest for learning about lesser-known moments in history.
  14. You by Caroline Kepnes. Sometimes it seems like it’s hard to find really unique stories anymore with all the books that are already out there. But then I find someone like Caroline Kepnes. Her books are weird, yes, and I don’t love everything about them, but I will say that I never know where they’re going next and I’ve never read anything like them. If you want to talk about most-anticipated sequels, I have been dying for the third book in this series for over a year and there’s still no word on when it will be released. Some cliff-hangers are truly cruel.
  15. The Secret History by Donna Tartt. I thought that knowing the ending of the story would make the journey less interesting, but that was before I read this one. I used to get so anxious about book endings that I would let myself read the last page before I got there, but I haven’t allowed myself to do that in years. I’ve really turned against any sort of spoilers. But this is the sort of narrative that emphasizes the importance of the journey, and while it does that it also examines the psyche of a killer, who seems shockingly sympathetic.
  16. Golden Son by Pierce Brown. You may have noticed we’ve gone past the books that inspired the most personal growth and change in me now. By the time I read Golden Son I was more actively on the hunt for surprising books because my personality was pretty set by this point and I had read so many books that I was occasionally falling into ruts where everything seemed repetitive. There is nothing repetitive about Golden Son. I wouldn’t say generally that I’m a big sci-fi or dystopian reader, but I will read anything Pierce Brown writes at this point. Books like this remind me never to discount an entire genre– the right author can make anything worth reading.
  17. Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood. This is the book that cemented my interest in adaptations. I’ve always been drawn to book-to-film adaptations, but more recently I’ve been interested in retellings, in old stories told in a new way. I didn’t particularly like Shakespeare’s The Tempest, but this book redeemed the original for me in a big way. It’s fascinating to see which elements carry over in adaptations, which parts from the original seem the most important to another artist. It’s a whole other way to have a conversation about art.
  18. Dark Matter by Blake Crouch. I’m back to talking about stepping outside of my genre comfort zone. I didn’t think I was particularly interest in sci-fi, so I was a bit skeptical picking up this sci-fi thriller. And it constantly surprised me. I have never met such a twisted book, and with this one, the subject matter is real enough that it also inspired an interest to learn more about the topic.
  19. The Female of the Species by Mindy McGinnis. There’s been surprisingly little YA literature on this list, and the reason for that, sadly, is that YA just doesn’t surprise and impress me much anymore. But this one is an exception. It covers tough topics (rape, abuse, alcohol) in realistic, unromanticized ways. There are some admirably strong friendships in this book, a fast and intriguing plot, and so many important messages about strong women, fighting for justice, and the importance of teen voices. I wish this one had been around when I was younger.
  20. Persuasion by Jane Austen. I do love a good classic. I have not yet read all of Austen’s novels, but this is my favorite so far from her list. I appreciate the message of making one’s own choices. There’s nothing wrong with taking input, but in the end you are the one who has to live with your decisions, and they should at least be your own.
  21. A Million Junes by Emily Henry. As with The Female of the Species, it came as a relief to discover that there are still YA books that I can appreciate. This one also deals with real topics (grief, disillusionment of one’s parents, loyalty) in unique and helpful ways. It’s also one of the only magical realism books that I’ve enjoyed, which again goes to show that even one’s least favorite genres contain some gems, when they’re approached by the right authors. This is a book that reminds me not to believe everything I hear– but that even the most outrageous stories can contain a kernel of truth.
  22. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King. I have many favorites from King’s oeuvre, but the absolute top of that list is this nonfiction volume, which reveals a bit of King’s own life and is also highly encouraging for wannabe authors. I think there are some valuable lessons in here for anyone who wants to create, but as an aspiring writer this book felt particularly tailored to my life. King is an absolute inspiration, not just as a writer but as a person who achieved his dream because he just kept chasing, even when it would’ve been so much easier to give up.
  23. Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo. Have you noticed that almost all fantasy stories are in some way advocating equality? There’s just something uniquely compelling about seeing that fight in imaginary worlds, with imaginary species and castes, even though the basic lesson is one we can (read: should) apply to our own world. I have a feeling book 2 is going to usurp this one for me, but in the meantime I love these characters and their unique backgrounds, and I love that they’re trying to do what we’re all trying to do: level the playing field without getting lost along the way.
  24. The Color Purple by Alice Walker. There is a quickly growing number of great books about racism (and misogyny) out in the world now, but this is the one that has most impressed me. It’s full of shocking grit and resilient spirit, and it felt encouraging to me on so many levels. It acknowledges where society has gone wrong (albeit southern US 1930’s society rather than modern days), but instead of lecturing from there it empowers.
  25. The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls. I don’t read a lot of nonfiction, but this is the kind I like to read: a whimsical, yet heartrending story that also encourages readers to reach for their dreams, no matter what their background. This is such a unique story, but it’s one that’s also widely applicable. I like real stories that are shocking but also uplifting. I want to be enabled. And as much as I like picking out the little nuggets of truth and wisdom from fiction, sometimes a higher dose is necessary.


If you’ve made it this far, thank you, and I’m impressed by your list-reading stamina. (Skimming is all right too, that’s why I made the titles bold.) Every year this list fluctuates because I’m not always looking for the same things from my reading life. Nevertheless, a few titles have been steady in my favorites list for several years now, and someday I might actually know what to say when people ask what my favorite book is. 🙂

What are your favorite books? Which of these books have you read?


The Literary Elephant