Category Archives: Book Lists

women’s prize squad longlist wrap-up and ranking

Let me reintroduce you to my favorite reading project of 2020: the women’s prize squad longlist. Last April, when the official 2020 Women’s Prize list had proved disappointing, a group of bloggers/friends and I (the women’s prize squad, if you will) decided to follow the same eligibility rules and assemble a list of our own that looked… more exciting. (If you’re not already following these kind, thoughtful, and all around excellent humans, there’s no time like the present to discover some fantastic new content- a big thanks to Callum, Hannah, Marija, Naty [who has also wrapped up the wps longlist already!], Rachel, Sarah, and Steph for making women’s prize reading and beyond so much fun!)

We used a very scientific process in which each member of the group simply chose two books that they thought deserved a spot. But despite the lack of formality, it really worked! At least, it did for me. I genuinely enjoyed my time with each book, almost everything on the list came down to 4 or 5 stars for me with nothing at all below 3 stars, and even the 3 stars have lingered positively in my mind and convinced me to add more work from the authors to my TBR. It’s been an absolute joy spending these last several months with such strong recommendations from readers I respect, and the lack of a shortlist deadline has made it a more tranquil experience than official prize list readings generally tend to be. All in all, these have been sixteen of the best books I’ve read over the last year or so, and now that I’ve read them all it’s time for some ranking fun!

In ascending order of personal preference:

Frankissstein: A Love Story

Frankissstein by Jeannette Winterson – 5 stars / null rating. The 5 stars reflects my original rating, as I did greatly enjoy the read, but I can’t in good conscience recommend it. My appreciation for the Frankenstein homage here apparently blinded me to transphobic content- I didn’t spot the transphobia while reading, but reviewers I trust have pointed it out so at this point I have to believe it’s there; I’ll need to reread this novel at some point in order to reexamine my experience with the book and update my review to reflect its problematic content. I do think the structure of this book, the (fictionalized) glimpses into Mary Shelley’s life, and the modern expansion of the original Frankenstein themes are wonderfully done, so it’s a shame Winterson flubbed the characterization but hurtful representation is just not where it’s at. I am hoping that the fact Winterson is not trans herself means she just wasn’t aware of what went wrong (just as I, as a cis-het reader, wasn’t aware of it either), rather than writing anything with ill intent.

My Name is Monster

15. My Name is Monster by Katie Hale – 3 stars. Don’t be fooled by finding this one so near the bottom of my stack; it’s a beautifully poetic dystopian in which one woman finds herself alone (or almost alone) in a post-apocalyptic Scotland, where she ruminates on how her preference for solitude at the cost of all else has ensured her survival. My beef with this book is petty and biased- I read it right after another dystopian novel with some thematic crossover and so found it a gratingly repetitive experience, which is of course no fault of this novel. I also wished there’d been more plot; what little happens I found convenient and/or predictable, though the character work that accompanies events is strong and worth reading for in its own right.

Call Down the Hawk (Dreamer Trilogy, #1)

14. Call Down the Hawk by Maggie Stiefvater – 3 stars. This is the first book in a fantasy trilogy, though it follows another four-book series. I’d call it YA, even though the MC is 18 and has graduated high school- the writing is PG and the themes of self-discovery make it entirely appropriate for teen readers and fitting with the previous books, which were definitely YA. Even so, the characters are old enough and mature enough that Call Down the Hawk doesn’t feel out of place on this list; the Women’s Prize does not often include genre fiction and never (that I know of) includes YA, though I don’t think there’s any rule excluding it and it seems correct for YA to be represented somehow given its widespread popularity. As usual, I enjoyed Stiefvater’s imagery- and metaphor-heavy writing and convincing characterization. There’s some great diversity among the cast. For all of these reasons, it was a fun read. What I didn’t like: dreams as a learning device, and the structuring of this story as a mystery when there is clearly a character involved who knows things and withholds for the sake of plot.

Ninth House (Alex Stern, #1)

13. Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo – 3 stars. I am eagerly awaiting the next installment of this series, which I think has great potential to become a favorite of mine as a whole. It’s an exciting fantasy tale involving secret societies at Harvard, following a sort of misfit magical guide who unearths and criticizes Harvard’s gatekeeping biases as she goes. Unfortunately this first volume suffered a bit for feeling like a whole lot of setup- it’s an intricate world with a large cast, very specific magic, and a whole lot of detail, so the plot felt mostly like a crutch for the world-building to lean on. There is also a bit of graphic content included in the book that doesn’t feel strictly necessary, so I’d recommend checking or asking for CWs if there are certain things you like to avoid, as some of the details are gratuitous and not necessarily worth reading through here.

Actress

12. Actress by Anne Enright – 4 stars. A sad and lovely Irish tale of a young woman and her infamous actress mother. This is a poignant story that delves into the complexity of a mother daughter relationship, which I might have loved more if my reading year had not been inundated with mother/daughter stories. This is another book that focuses more on character than plot, with most of the ‘action’ happening in the backstory; I love character studies in theory, but perhaps it depends on the character, because this was a perfectly fine read and smartly written, but I didn’t find myself quite as impressed as I expected to be and as others seem to be.

Bunny

11. Bunny by Mona Awad – 4 stars. I had so much fun with this wild and slightly magical romp through a fictional graduate writing program. It’s a complete caricature of grad writer types and the workshop process, and there’s a lot of very bizarre action going on at the surface level that you just know is a distraction hiding a deeper implication, but I found myself entertained enough to wait for the big reveal, which was mostly worth the payoff for me. It’s a very weird and imperfect book that won’t be for everyone, but was very much for me.

Supper Club

10. Supper Club by Lara Williams – 4 stars. An absolutely gluttonous book about feminism- a group of women hold private feasts where they eat past the point of politeness and even comfort as an artistic and directly metaphoric way of reclaiming their space and rejecting the little boxes society wants women to fit neatly into. The emphasis is much more on theme than plot here, and even though the big message is obvious going in from the premise alone, I found this to be a reading experience worth savoring. In some ways it is as grotesque as it is sumptuous, but I baked a pie and began my sourdough starter as a result of this book so I cannot deny its influence.

The Bass Rock

9. The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld – 4 stars. This feels like it’s farther down the list than it should be, but there are just so many great things here that sadly they can’t all fit at the top. If I were a half-star person, this is probably where my ratings would shift from 4 to 4.5 stars, because I was completely engrossed by this multi-perspective tale of violence against women over three centuries. It’s gothic and mysterious and slightly supernatural (ghosts!) and woven together so well, especially considering that the women at the heart of this tale are connected by the setting of their struggles and not much else. This is another book in which the theme is the focal point and fairly obvious from the start, but each of the protagonists is compelling in her own way, as well.

Girl, Woman, Other

8. Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo – 4 stars. Another very strong 4-star read for me that only missed the mark in that I found some of the characters and stories here less captivating than others and wished there had been a bit more payoff in the way the pieces connected together in the end- I think I would’ve rather had a more significant interaction between them all at the play they attend, or conversely more separation between the main characters, letting the pieces stand as unlinked stories. But I am discovering that I do quite like loosely connected short stories, and the focus of this set on the experiences of Black British women, + one non-binary character, is a beautiful way of painting a larger picture of strife without sacrificing the individuality of unique lives and stories.

The Man Who Saw Everything

7. The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy – 5 stars. Here is a slim book that encompasses quite a lot, and does it all in a very interesting way- it follows an imperfect narrator across countries, through relationships, and over a couple of decades, none of which are elements he sees clearly, nor is he quite fully aware of himself. Things are complicated when he is hit by a car on Abbey Road. This all sounds very ambiguous I’m sure, and indeed the first half of the book is rather elusive, but Levy builds this cleverly so that everything falls into place and eventually comes to make a point about perspective. For me it’s a book that I’ve appreciated more for what it accomplishes than I did for the actual experience of reading it; I found the MC somewhat unreachable, though as I’ve said, everything here has its place.

The Body Lies

6. The Body Lies by Jo Baker – 5 stars. This literary thriller starts slow, highlighting small acts of sexism and deeper layers of trauma that women experience at the hands of men. But gradually, it becomes something more, as one of the protagonist’s students begins writing her into his work in alarming ways and escalating the situation as she tries to defuse it without making an official report. I’ll admit I was somewhat bored at first, but ultimately I think that’s part of the book’s brilliance- an entirely benign life is lit on fire when a man decides that a woman’s only significance is her significance to him. The tension, by the time the climactic moment arrives, is white hot.

The Fire Starters

5. The Fire Starters by Jan Carson – 5 stars. A Troubles book that is really so much more. Set in a stifling Belfast summer, this is a tale of complicated fatherhood following two main characters: one believes his son is the mastermind behind the destructive Tall Fires ablaze throughout the city, and the other believes his infant daughter may be an actual siren with a voice more dangerous than any mortal weapon. With a push-and-pull narration we get magical children mixed with intense political unrest, and you wouldn’t think it could all come together in any believable way but I promise, it does. Carson’s writing is witty and evocative, the story both beguiling and convincing at once. It’s a book for a specific set of interests I think, but if sirens and the Troubles and parenthood appeal at all, this one’s not to be missed.

The Mercies

4. The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave – 5 stars. I think by this point we all know that accusations of witchcraft were simply the easiest way to get rid of women who didn’t fit neatly into their societies, and yet reading new stories that make this same revelation still appeal. Millwood Hargrave proves why that is the case by presenting here a sapphic tale grounded in a tragic historical moment in which the women of a small Norwegian fishing village must bury most of their men and find ways to carry on. There is, of course, religious fervor, a man with too much power, and division of opinion between the women, but at its heart this is a tale of tragedy having profound impact on an isolated community, and a group of women finding strength with each other and/or within themselves. It’s beautifully rendered, quietly tense, and pushes the witchcraft narrative to new heights.

Disappearing Earth

3. Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips – 5 stars. This is a sad but gorgeous collection of connected short stories; until the very end they seem to have little in common, all loose reactions in some way to the disappearance of two local girls in northeastern Russia. Each story follows a different perspective with some tangential link to the crime, though as a whole it is not so much a crime or mystery book as it is an examination of personal and community response to tragedy, the ripple effect of one evil act touching many lives, in a place that is largely closed off in more ways than one. It’s a soft, heartfelt, and sorrowful book that requires some patience but comes together with great skill and consideration.

My Dark Vanessa

2. My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell – 5 stars. A deeply unsettling and uncomfortable read that looks at gaslighting, manipulation, and power imbalance in sexual assault cases where one party is not in a position to say no. Russell presents with care and nuance the story of a teen girl drawn into a relationship with a teacher that she initially sees as romantic, disagreeing vehemently even into adulthood with those who tell her she’s been victimized. I had a difficult time reading this one because it’s very detailed and doesn’t shy away from unpleasant details, but the dismantling of the assumption that victims or survivors of sexual assault should react in a certain way was rewarding to watch unfold. The years that Russell spent writing this book undeniably show in the strength of the statements she’s able to make here.

Ducks, Newburyport

1. Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann – 5 stars. My favorite read of 2019 and probably one of my favorite reads of the entire decade, I suppose it’s no surprise that my top choice going in is still leading the pack for me at the end despite how many stunning reads I’ve enjoyed in the meantime. Is it perfect? Probably not (is anything?), but it’s creative, thoughtful, layered, and, I think, a literal work of genius. A thousand pages primarily comprised of stream-of-consciousness narration with very few breaks sounds daunting, I know. An Ohio housewife baking and stressing about the state of the world maybe isn’t all that appealing as a hook. I wasn’t even going to touch it at first. But I gave it a try, and it was quite possibly the best decision I made in 2019. I loved the prose, the simultaneous randomness and intricacy of the narrator’s thoughts, the gradual reveal of the plot, the underlying themes. This was both an enjoyable and impressive read for me, a completely unique experience wholly worth its length (and there is a point to that, and a method to the madness). Honestly, I would’ve read more pages. I’ll read it again. And this is the one I hope more readers will decide to take a chance on.

Not pictured: Call Down the Hawk and The Man Who Saw Everything

For a longlist patchworked together on a whim I think this is an incredibly solid selection and I had a lot more fun with it than the official 2020 Women’s Prize list. It dips into England, Scotland, Norway, Russia, Ireland, and the US, includes LGBTQ+ characters and characters of color, and focuses heavily but not exclusively on feminist themes. We’ve got a lot of women pushing boundaries here, criticizing the status quo, with a few nods to notable classics as well- Frankenstein honored by both Frankissstein and My Name is Monster, direct references to Lolita in My Dark Vanessa, even a Greek myth element in The Fire Starters. We’ve got sci-fi, dystopian, fantasy, a thriller, short stories, magical realism, historical fiction, contemporary, and literary fiction. Quite a range of lengths as well, with The Man Who Saw Everything just under 200 pages and Ducks, Newburyport claiming nearly 1,000.

Favorites for me have been the books I found most emotionally impactful, but personally my shortlist votes wouldn’t just be my top 6 most emotional reads- I’ll be voting for books that I think are effective and also innovative, playing with structure, prose, or tropes in interesting and inventive ways. So, this is subject to change and reflects only my own preferences, not those of the group as a whole- I’ll likely share in a separate post the shortlist we choose together, and our winner when the time comes, but it’s always fun (at least I think so) to see what different preferences reader bring to the table. So, in alphabetical order to keep things simple (my order of preference being listed above already), before closing, my personal shortlist choices:

  • The Body Lies by Jo Baker
  • The Fire Starters by Jan Carson
  • Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann
  • Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
  • The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave
  • Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips

I’ve already changed my mind on this list twice since starting this post last week, so. There is no date or shortlist selection method chosen yet, so I can’t guarantee what I’m voting for, but this is the way I’m currently leaning. I am excited for more readers to pick up these books and to see where our list will go from here!

If you’ve read any of these books, or plan to, or have heard about them, or anything, go ahead and weigh in with your top choices below! What would you advance to the shortlist?

The Literary Elephant

Favorite Reads of 2020

What better way to cap off a dismal year than to highlight some of the best things that happened between all the rest?? 2020 left a lot to be desired, as I’m sure we all know so why dwell, but I did find some truly superb reads worth celebrating along the way and I hope that by collecting them here I might convince a few more readers to do themselves a favor and pick a great book up!

In case you missed it, I’ve already rounded up a list of almost-favorite runners-up here… and now let’s get to the main event, my top ten reads of 2020 (plus one extra honorable mention because apparently I made my list a little too early this year).

10. The Fire Starters by Jan Carson. A Belfast-set magical realism tale about two fathers who believe their children are a danger to the public, warring over their conflicting responsibilities to their children and their community. Magical realism doesn’t always work for me, but when it does it really does. The use of sirens and magical children along with the atmospheric summer heatwave and Tall Fires really bring the themes of challenging parenthood and political unrest to life. It certainly didn’t hurt that I was drawn in immediately by Carson’s impeccable prose, as well. Among the lessons to be learned here is that when Rachel tells you to pick up a book, you should listen.

9. Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado. With a a special shout out to Machado’s memoir In the Dream House as well, which didn’t quite make my lists this year but is a stellar piece on abuse on same-sex relationships that I’d also highly recommend. Her Body and Other Parties is a short story collection with horror, fantasy, and LGBTQ+ elements, and while there were a few ups and downs for me in the individual pieces the collection as a whole stands firm and has stuck with me strongly throughout the year. I’m not sure I’ve ever read a short story quite as inventive and interesting as Machado’s recapping of Law and Order SVU episodes in “Especially Heinous,” and there are several other pieces here I know I’ll be delighted to reread in the future as well.

8. The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave. This is an unassuming but tense novel that takes the familiar witch narrative to new heights. In a small 17th century Norwegian fishing village, a tragic accident leaves the local women to fend for themselves; the use of witchcraft accusations as a means of sifting difficult women from society is nothing new, but Millwood Hargrave makes this sapphic tale of female strength stand apart with beautiful attention to history, character, and interpersonal rifts. Though the witchcraft conflict remains at the center of this story, it’s not a particularly *witchy* book, instead circling around weaponized religion, community conflict, and the many traumatic aftereffects of natural disaster, as a means to furthering the feminist themes. It’s an impressively layered work, noteworthy as Millwood Hargrave’s first adult publication.

7. Trust Exercise by Susan Choi. My very first read of 2020 was a complicated one- at first I could not bring myself to care about these students and their inappropriate hero worship of a charismatic theater teacher. The writing felt, frankly, a bit full of itself. But about halfway through, there’s a narrative shift that reframes the way we look at the entire first half, and I was stunned at how effective I found that switch, how suddenly invested and enraged I was by the situation at this school and its aftermath. It’s not a perfect read- one has to be willing to embrace unlikable characters, and there’s a rather eye-roll worthy revenge plot twist toward the end that is in itself an exercise in trust, but the structure of the novel so perfectly fits its themes and conceit, and I really don’t mind a bit of silly camp- as such, this has remained a strong favorite for me from the first day of the year to the last.

6. How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee. An incredibly moving story about the Japanese occupation of Singapore during WWII and the captives forced to serve as comfort women for Japanese soldiers. There’s a secondary narrative here in which a young boy chases down his recently-deceased grandmother’s secrets, and I know this aspect of the story for some readers took away from the more immediate and powerful tale of the comfort women, but I found myself largely unbothered by the divide and completely drawn into the story as a whole, which brought to my awareness a chapter of history I’ve never looked into before. Very few books have the power to draw me back into WWII narratives these days, but this one did, and broke my heart in new ways.

5. How Much of These Hills is Gold by C Pam Zhang. One of my top Booker Prize reads this year (it is a CRIME this book did not advance to the shortlist!), How Much of These Hills is a sharp look at the American gold rush that focuses on historical immigrant experiences and captures the beauty of Indigenous traditions and values. It is as scathingly critical of America’s power hierarchy and racist attitudes as it is adventurous and heartfelt, and the author’s tendency to play on reader assumptions about character is memorable and refreshing. It can be a very dark book, but it’s to Zhang’s credit that the light shines through.

4. Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips. Here we have the story of two missing girls, told circuitously in short stories from fringe perspectives related to or affected in some way by the disappearances. This is a very quiet novel that requires patience and a willingness to follow the author through stories that seem only loosely connected at first, if at all. It’s not a book to turn to if you’re looking for a tense whodunnit mystery, instead focusing more broadly on the community response to such a tragedy in northeast Russia, a beautiful but complex place already rife with social tensions. It’s a masterful rendering of far-reaching fear and grief.

3. The Only Plane in the Sky by Garrett M. Graff. It’s rare for nonfiction to appear on my favorites list, but Graff’s carefully collected and structured oral history of 9/11 is well-deserving of a top spot; drawn from firsthand testimony of hundreds of survivors, this overview of the 2001 terrorist attack is both broad and detailed. Though it can be hard to read in places due to the severity and nature of the devastation, I was in awe of how carefully curated this work is in order to avoid any sense of gratuity or sensationalism without missing any facets of that day. It is, first and foremost, a depiction of humanity in the face of disaster- grief-stricken but resilient, rising to the occasion to survive and help those in need.

2. My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell. I don’t know what it is about rape and sexual assault literature; I am fortunate enough to have no personal connection to the subject beyond growing up as a woman and thus carrying the fear around with me as so many do, but somehow books on this topic always manage to make my soul bleed. Russell manages here with such a deft hand to dig into a case of student-teacher rape in which the student, a teenage girl at the start, does not believe she is a victim despite many people in her life telling her she is. It’s a very complicated situation that Russell expands upon with great care and subtlety, and I had to put the book down several times as it brought out such pain and rage in me. Any narrative that holds that sort of power even when I can’t directly relate to it is a standout in my book, and I know this reading experience will haunt me (an odd response to rate highly on a favorites list perhaps, but this is what works for me) for a very long time.

1. Real Life by Brandon Taylor. The one book that I’ve thought about more than any other this year, that most changed the way I look at the world, that both captivated me with its language on the page and held my attention with its implications long after I’d closed the cover: Real Life. Is it a flawless, perfect book? Maybe not, but it is an absolutely stunning debut that secured its author a spot on my favorite writers list with only the one work to go by. This is the story of a gay, Black biochemistry grad student enduring racist micro- (and macro-) aggressions from friends and fellow students over the course of one eventful weekend, as he wonders whether pursuing this academic interest is worth the pain at all. It is both dramatic and deep, entertaining on the surface with such heft to its characters and the themes beneath, in glorious Sally Rooney-esque style.

And an honorable mention: Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi. I had to draft out my favorites list a few weeks before the end of the year in order to pinpoint which titles to highlight in my almost-favorites list, so I was already at ten books that I had to mention here when I read another favorite! I’m having some difficulty placing this one in the ranking since it’s so fresh (part of what makes a favorite for me is how well it stands the test of time), and thus I’m going with an honorable mention instead of ranking everything here properly on a scale of 11.

Here we have the story of a Ghanaian American neuroscientist who runs behavioral experiments with lab mice are a direct response to the cruel hand her family has been dealt- racism, addiction, and depression have torn apart Gifty’s family of four, and as a result she grapples for a balance between religion and science, just trying to find a way to survive and understand. There’s so little plot to this story, and yet I would follow Gifty anywhere. It’s such a measured narrative, both weighty and beautiful.

Transcendent Kingdom

These are my favorite books of 2020- some new this year, some just new-to-me, but all have left their mark in one way or another. Absolutely none of these are cheery or even particularly optimistic, but they’ve helped me through a tough year, and if you’re a reader of heavy books they might appeal to you, too.

(How Much of These Hills is Gold not pictured- I read and returned a library copy.)

Here’s to hoping we’ve all got some fantastic literary gems on our horizons for 2021!

The Literary Elephant

2020 Almost-Favorites

For the third year running (though in the past I’ve made this a Thanksgiving post) I am back with my almost-favorite books of the year. That means I’m rounding up a handful of 4- and 5-star reads that have stood out to me and that I think deserve a special mention, even though for one reason or another they’ve missed the mark for my (upcoming- stay tuned!) top ten favorites of the year. I’ll give the brief gist of what I loved and what I didn’t, and link to my reviews in case anyone’s curious for more information.

On to the books!

10. Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid – A soap opera of a novel in which a young Black woman is accused of kidnapping the white child she’s babysitting. A couple of white “friends” try to help her make the most of the situation, but instead get caught up in performative allyship that causes more harm in the end. It’s a fun, drama-filled romp, but requires substantial suspension of disbelief for a few convenient coincidences. The unbelievability and general lightness of tone went a little too far toward undermining the themes for me, but the accessible messages and dramatic plot are nevertheless worthwhile.

9. The Vagina Bible by Dr. Jen Gunter – Here we have an incredible medical text that serves to inform about vaginal and vulvar care, both in personal and professional regards. It debunks popular myths, equips readers with tips for doctor visits, and provides a trouble-shooting guide for any mysterious concerns that might arise. There’s quite a lot of misinformation out in the world about vaginal care and good tips can be hard to find, so this OB/GYN-written guidebook is a godsend that belongs on the shelf of every person who’s ever had a vagina. The only reason it doesn’t rank higher for me is that it’s more of a reference work than a compelling narrative, though I did appreciate having stuck with it from cover to cover.

8. The Body Lies by Jo Baker – This one’s a suspenseful literary thriller in which an overworked writing professor begins to fear one of her students, who has written her into his work and seems to have gotten a few details about their relationship alarmingly wrong. The tension builds slowly as our narrator endures various acts of sexism which then crescendo into a frightful incident, all the while providing excellent commentary on violence against women in writing and in life. It would’ve been a perfect read for me if not for the clumsy info-dump at the end.

7. The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House by Audre Lorde – A small but powerful essay collection focused primarily on intersectional feminism but also touching on racism, poetry, and eroticism. Now decades old, these pieces are still revelatory and relevant today, and serve as a great introduction to Lorde’s work. As with any collection, a few of the pieces spoke more strongly to me than others, though all have merit and I could easily see a different reader turning out a completely different order of preference for these short, impactful essays.

6. Red, White and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston – Romances are fun but rarely have real staying power for me; this m/m story of the burgeoning relationship between a prince of Wales and a son of the American President was a strong exception. Not only is a delightfully cute love story, but a cathartic look at what it might have been like for an inspiring (though in this case fictional) woman to have won the US presidency in 2016. It is silly and somewhat predictable, but heartwarming and life-affirming in a way that’s worth remembering and revisiting.

5. All Systems Red by Martha Wells – This one’s a sci-fi novella featuring a human-weary android that calls itself Murderbot and just wants to be left alone. But when the team of scientists Murderbot is supposed to be providing security for lose contact with a neighboring mission, they’ll have to rely on Murderbot to save the day. It’s a comedic and relatable story both character-driven and action-packed, introspective and fast-paced. It is a complete story in itself, but part of a larger series, and the only thing holding me back from ranking this one among my favorites is that it felt like a chapter. There’s great potential for this series to be a favorite of mine, as a whole.

4. Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart – The Booker Prize winner for 2020, this historical novel-in-dialect about poverty and alcoholism in Scotland’s recent past may not have been my favorite from the shortlist, but I did find it compelling and memorable. It wanders a bit, focusing more on commentary than a tight plot, but the characterization and setting are so convincing that it’s all but impossible not to feel the tragedy of the tale right along with Shuggie, and the points that Douglas has to make about addiction he makes well. The subject matter may not be groundbreaking but I was pleased to see this title take the Booker win.

3. The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi – Here is the captivating story of a Nigerian death, and the struggle of family and friends to understand and accept what has happened. Populated with LGBTQ+ characters and journeys of self-discovery and grief, it’s a moving tale of love and pain. This one’s often referred to as a mystery (Vivek’s mother is chasing down the cause and reason of his death), but I found the big reveals obvious and the book’s trajectory predictable. That was only a small detriment for me though, I loved spending time in these pages and would’ve read a hundred more without complaint.

2. The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo – A wonderful YA novel told in verse, this is the story of a Dominican-American teenage twin on her way to becoming a slam poet. Her parents have other dreams for her, and her brother is preoccupied with a secret of his own, so Xiomara’s exploration of identity happens primarily through her art, to be voiced only with the poetry club and the lab partner she just might be falling in love with. It’s cute, it’s heartwrenching, it’s cultural, and the pages fly by. This was super readable for me, but poetry is just not my preferred form of writing and the form wasn’t quite put to enough use to completely win me over.

1. Tender is the Flesh by Augustina Bazterrica, translated by Sarah Moses – This is a horrifying piece of satire that uses cannibalism to critique modern factory farming. Our narrator works at one of the processing plants and is high enough up the chain of command to have an eye on every aspect of the industry. The only downside for me was that his role as a guide through this world never quite felt natural to me as a storytelling method, contrasting with the ongoing plot in which this character has unintentionally acquired a human meant to be eaten. Though the structure didn’t quite pull together satisfactorily for me, I was completely drawn in by the worldbuilding and the main conflict, and have been thinking about this book constantly ever since I read it. It can be a hard story to stomach, but it’s punchy and unforgettable in its details and themes, truly a one-of-a-kind experience.

That’s a wrap for this year’s almost-favorites! I’d highly recommend taking a chance on anything here that catches your eye, as these are all books that I’ve been unable to let go of throughout the year. They may not be *perfect* but I think there’s something admirable in each and every one of these works to deserve the recognition of a wide readership.

Have any almost-favorites you can’t quite forget about this year even if they don’t quite make your top lists?

The Literary Elephant

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.

thelast

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.

thefarm

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.

frankissstein

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.

severance2

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.

pachinko

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.

agirlisahalfformedthing

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.

ghostwall

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.

wehavealwayslivedinthecastle

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.)

knowmyname

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.

ducks,newburyport

 

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

SHOUT

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

Exhalation

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

Underland

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

Bunny

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

Pet

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

48595550

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

Sisters

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

Look

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

Betty

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.
remembered

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?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant