Category Archives: Wrap-ups

2020 Reading Wrap-Up

In 2020 I read a total of 103 books, beating my goal of 100 in the final weeks of December successfully but without much surplus. It’s the smallest total I’ve had since 2016, but it’s also the first time since 2015 that my total has taken a dip at all from the year before instead of increasing. We all know 2020 has been… a whole year, so I don’t think I need to explain why I’ve had some significant reading slumps in 2020 unlike anything I’ve experienced in years.

I’ve addressed in this post the 2020 goals that I’ve met and failed, and my plans for 2021.

I adopted monthly 5-book TBRs in 2020, of which I managed to complete 54/60 reads.

Titles still outstanding (to be read in 2021):

  • The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel
  • The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins
  • Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge
  • Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngoze Adichie
  • An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir
  • House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

I took part in a couple of personal bookish ‘projects’ in 2020 worth mentioning:

I read the entire Women’s Prize longlist, which was incredibly disappointing but nonetheless I enjoyed chatting with friends new and old about all of the books. I still have a review of Mantel’s longlisted The Mirror and The Light forthcoming, but I did manage to complete it before the end of the year, which was an exciting victory! The Women’s Prize has been further lowered in my esteem, however, by an unfortunate ruling a few months ago that allows only ‘legal women’ to compete for the prize, thus making it even harder for gender noncomforming writers to receive prize recognition and wide readership for their work. For this reason I’m less confident about continuing to follow the prize in the future.

It was a rough round for me with the Booker Prize as well; by the end of the year I capped off my journey through the Booker longlist with 11 books read out of the ‘Booker dozen’ of 13 (again, thoughts on The Mirror and the Light are still forthcoming). This experience was even worse overall, partially because I had such lukewarm responses to most of the nominated books that I read, and partially because it was a busier time of year for me so I wasn’t able to connect with other readers as much to talk about the books, which dampened my enjoyment further.

But a group of blogging friends and I teamed up to create an alternate Women’s Prize longlist this year, the Women’s Prize Squad longlist. I managed to read all but one of our 16 books before the end of the year, had great experiences with ALL of them, and will have an update post coming later this month featuring longlist final thoughts and which way my votes will lean for our upcoming shortlist!

2020 was also the year of a new blogging project for me- I started a Spotlight series focused on genre, and by the end of the year I managed to complete 11 of my 12 planned posts (my classics spotlight is still forthcoming), which generated some great discussions about why we read what we read and how we classify books. They’re also a sort of catalog back through my own eclectic history with reading, so I know I’ll enjoy looking back on these posts after some time has passed and seeing how my reading continues to grow and change. I may also expand the series to cover more genres in the future. If you’re interested in checking out any of these posts, I’ll link here the genres/categories I’ve covered so far: science fiction, romance, historical fiction, literary fiction, fantasy, mystery, thrillers, translated literature, nonfiction, YA, and horror.

Something I started focusing on more earnestly about halfway through the year, thanks to national and world events, was to increase my purchasing, reading, and reviewing of books by Black authors. I want to seriously increase the amount of diversity in my reading going forward but decided to pay particular attention to Black-authored books for 2020, and ended up reading and reviewing 22 books to fit this goal, with additional titles bought and as yet unread that I’m excited to read going forward.

Throughout the year I read primarily but not exclusively US settings; I’d like to work more on branching out in the future, as reading a lot from my home country is typical and once again comprised around half of my reading. But I do think that this year more of my US-based reading involved criticisms of the status quo and featured marginalized characters, which I think is a more thoughtful and valuable consumption than some US-based reading I’ve done in the past. And I have been making more concerted efforts to read books by authors who’ve lived in or had some significant experience with the countries they’re writing about than I have in the past, the one exception this year being Women’s Prize longlisted Girl by Edna O’Brien, a Nigeria-set book by an Irish writer that did feel unsettlingly like an author looking in on someone else’s pain.

I read 82 books by women (including three translations, two of which were also translated by women), 19 books by men, 2 books by an author who identifies as non-binary (yes, the same author twice), and no collections, anthologies, or collaborations from multiple authors. I do want to work on increasing my trans and non-binary author reading representation, but even these 2 books in 2020 are an increase from last year’s zero, so I’m (slowly) moving in the right direction. If you know of any great trans or non-binary-authored books (especially but not limited to fiction) feel free to mention them in the comments below!

It’s typical for me to read mostly books by women, but notable that 2020’s ratio skews about 15% higher toward women authors than it did last year. (Worth noting that I’m counting each individual book, not each individual author, some of which I’ve read more than one book from in all three of these categories.)

I read 88 adult books, 12 YA books, 1 middle grade book, and 2 books appropriate for any reading age. It’s typical for me to read mostly adult books, but my YA reading has increased from last year, partially because of a few Sarah Dessen rereads- the five Dessen novels I reread this fall marked my only rereads of the year, which is more rereads than I’ve had in other recent years but it is typical for my rereads to be YA books.

I read 31 debuts this year (though they weren’t all 2020 debuts); including that number I read 74 total books from new-to-me authors. Thus, only 29 of my reads this year came from authors whose work I’d read before.

I participated in 10 buddy and/or group reads in 2020, which was a record high for me and an all-around enjoyable experience! These partnerings included John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies with Gil, Her Body and Other Parties with Donna, A Crime in the Neighborhood with the Women’s Prize Squad (or more specifically Sarah, in this case!), and a month-long trek through The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor led by Melanie, among other reads.

My ratings this year included 20 5-stars, 41 4-stars, 33 3-stars, 8 2-stars, and 1 unrated read (Stephenie Meyer’s Midnight Sun). This is a pretty typical ratio for me; I’ve rounded up my favorite and almost-favorite reads of the year from my most memorable 4- and 5- star reads, and because I didn’t get around to a ‘disappointing reads’ list this year I’ll round up my 2-star titles here in case you’re in need of a rant review to peruse:

My genre reading was, as usual, all across the board. I decided at the beginning of the year to select one (the most prominent, ideally) genre under which to mark each book I read, so the percentages here are accurate to my 103 books read, though I’ve already decided for 2021 to mark all applicable genres for each book, which I think might feel more accurate to overall genre representation- I tend to enjoy and reach for genre-benders!

My literary fiction percentage looks a bit low this year, but I think while only choosing one category for each book I’ve had to be choosier and some titles that were perhaps literary have been categorized according to their other elements (like fabulism or historical fiction, the latter of which does seem much inflated this year). Also, I’ve lumped anything that just didn’t feel accomplished enough to call literary in the contemporary column (also inflated), including some of this year’s prize nominees which did not seem to play with structure or form in a way that I would classify as literary, though other readers might. And I’ve divided my nonfiction reading into proper genres this year; true crime, history, essays, medical, memoir, and guidebook percentages below were all parts of my nonfiction reading this year, for an overall 10% of my reading, a bit higher than I was expecting.

I read largely books published this year and last, with 37 titles newly released in 2020 and 34 from 2019, making up well over half of my reading. Additionally I read 17 other books from the last decade (between 2010 and 2018), 5 books from the decade before (2000-2009), 4 books from the 90’s, 5 books from earlier in the 20th century (1900-1989), and 1 book from the 19th century. I’ve been trending toward newer books for a few years now, and this year’s stats indicate I’m reading even more recent work than last year.

As for where my books came from, I read an unprecedented amount of books from my own shelves this year, as my local library was closed for a few months and I’ve limited how often I go out for anything at all even now that it’s opened up again. Unfortunately, I also bought way more books than I should have this year; I’m not going to count up my total haul because it will just depress me as far as undoing the impressive dent I could’ve made in my own-unread TBR this year.

I read 75 books from my own shelves this year, 27 books borrowed from the library, no books borrowed from family or friends, and 1 eARC.

Of the books I read from my own shelves, just 30 were titles I owned prior to 2020, while 45 were newly purchased/acquired in 2020 (this includes a reread of a book I originally read from the library and purchased my own copy of this year). Unfortunately no, the 45 new books I read were not the only new books I bought and I’m pretty sure I haven’t actually decreased my TBR at all, in fact probably the opposite. Let’s not talk about that, it was a hard year.

And as long as we’re talking about what I’ve acquired and read (or not) this year, I want to take this opportunity to wrap up my year with Book of the Month. In case you don’t know, BOTM is a US-based subscription service (only delivering within the US for now, though they’ve made a few comments about working toward changing this in the future) from which members can choose month-by-month payments or opt for yearly renewal. I joined BOTM in 2017 and have since that time been renewing yearly (it’s slightly cheaper in the long run).

2020 started particularly rocky with BOTM because it seemed there were a lot of thrillers, romances, and the kind of book-clubbish contemporary and historical fiction titles that just doesn’t really grab me. I was having a hard time choosing from among selections that just didn’t seem to fit my reading taste. But then, three months before I ran out of credits, my yearly subscription automatically renewed. This was my first year with BOTM that renewal was manditorily automatic, and one of my biggest complaints this year was not getting any warning that their renewal policy had changed and that they were about to take a chunk of money out of my account in coordination with my last renewal instead of when I ran out of credits (I’ve been manually renewing when I run out of credits, which can take slightly more than a year if I skip a couple of boxes).

To make matters worse, this was in early May or so, just before BOTM was getting a lot of backlash for their lack of diversity. I had to consider whether this was a company I still wanted to be involved with at all, and while a horde of members cancelled their subscriptions I decided to give it one more month to decide whether backing out entirely was the right move for me. In that time, they shared a great response post to the criticisms they were receiving, with actionable plans for future changes, so I remained cautiously optimistic. I posted a little about the mid-year BOTM controversy here, in case you missed that and want to read more.

In the end, I am glad I stayed with BOTM, and I’ve been happier with the company these last six months than I have been in any of my other years with this service. I have no idea how the situation with deleting comments from a Black Instagrammer turned out; I’m cautiously hoping that a genuine mistake was made, and/or a private apology was issued- all I know is that the complaints abruptly stopped, which seemed to me to indicate some sort of resolution. And BOTM has indeed been more diverse in their selections, as well as somewhat less commercial. Every month since June, their selections have included at least one (and often three or more) book(s) that I’m really excited to read and happy to be able to grab with BOTM’s cheaper pricing.

Since June, every month’s selections have included 2-4 (out of 5) BIPOC authors for the main selections, and more in ‘extras’ each month as well. A Black author won the Book of the Year title, and another made the top 5 nominees. There are still the token romances and thrillers, but even these have been less whitewashed lately.

I wouldn’t say BOTM is perfect yet, but they are looking much more like a subscription service I’m happy to support; there’s something to be said for making the effort toward positive change while being closely scrutinized and criticized. I heard of a lot of people quitting their BOTM subscriptions in May- some in protest at the lack of diversity (prior to June, BOTM tended to include only 1 BIPOC author out of 5 selections), and some (if the bookstagram comments are to be believed) who argued that BOTM would lean toward focusing on author skin color over the quality of the books. *eye roll* The quality of the selections has improved apace with the increased diversity, imo. BOTM is in a perfect position, being so commercially popular, to help introduce more marginalized authors in all genres to a wider readership, and it’s worth celebrating that they’ve headed in this direction these last few months, I think.

Additionally, it’s been fun taking part in BOTM’s inaugural reading challenge this year (in which I received two badges and missed the third by only half of a book), and I’m pleased to report they seem to have finally adopted some fancy effects (namely, gold foil) for a few of their covers! Any improvement in quality is nice to see.

For the books, here are the BOTM selections I’ve picked up throughout 2020 (mostly in the order I acquired them, except for three on the far left which were 2019 selections that I added to 2020 boxes):

And here are the BOTM selections I actually managed to read this year, some from 2020 and a few from previous years that I’d not gotten around to reading before, shown in the order that I read them:

All right, I think I’ve touched on everything bookish that I wanted to (shoutout to my New York City trip back in early March, my one non-bookish highlight of the year); this post is long enough already, so I think it’s (FINALLY) time to say au revoir to 2020!

The Literary Elephant

wrap-up 12.20 + TBR 1.21

I’m still gathering my stats and drafting my reading year wrap-up post for 2020, but in the meantime here’s a look at how the last month of the year went for me. I started with an impossible goal of catching up on 18 books from various TBRs throughout the year, and as expected, didn’t quite make it, though I’m happy with the progress I made!

This was my final monthly TBR of the year:

I had a great victory in the end, and one frustrating loss; first, with much dogged determination, I did finally finish Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy! I managed to fit both Bring Up the Bodies and The Mirror and the Light into my December reading schedule, reading a little bit of the series almost every day of the month. But my other big goal, to complete the BOTM reading challenge, I ended up missing by half of a book- I finished The Hunting Party in the new year. I didn’t realize when I was setting this goal that BOTM was actually sending free candles out as a reward to readers who completed the challenge, but now I know I missed out on that. No big deal really, but all the more irksome for the fact that I had actually read more than 12 BOTM books in 2020 (the only challenge category I missed), they just weren’t counting backlist titles toward the challenge. Fortunately they do seem to be counting backlist books toward the 2021 challenge (having already accepted The Hunting Party for me), and with my goal of catching up on my BOTM stack this year I expect I’ll complete the challenge early this next time around!

Here’s the full rundown on what I finished reading last month:

  1. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara – 5 stars. A captivating and tragic true crime narrative about the Golden State Killer. It’s been a little while since I’ve read true crime but I was quickly swept up in this one, with its careful attention to detail and thoughtful presentation of crimes in a way that doesn’t glorify the criminal. I’m eager to watch the corresponding documentary series.
  2. Girl Made of Stars by Ashley Herring Blake – 5 stars. Contemporary YA following a teenage twin whose brother has been accused by her friend / his girlfriend of rape. This is one of the most nuanced and deftly delivered YA novels I’ve ever read on this topic, or on any topic, really. It’s a very character-driven story with a heavy focus on trauma and morality, and a great read even as an adult.
  3. Everything Leads to You by Nina LaCour – 3 stars. A sapphic YA contemporary romance that’s glamorous (set in LA and focused on film-making) and sweet; I can see why readers like Nina LaCour’s writing and stories, and as a teen this might have worked better for me, but this just was not the right fit for me as an adult. I prefer my novels (especially YA) a bit more hard-hitting and gritty rather than escapist and heartwarming. *shrugs*
  4. Life and Death by Stephenie Meyer – 2 stars. This tenth-anniversary gender-swapped edition of Twilight is a total flop. My review turned out as more of a rant, and writing it was the most enjoyment I got out of this whole experience. The main problem is that Meyer changes enough behavioral details along with the character pronouns that she doesn’t escape any of the Twilight sexism she argues that this story is meant to combat.
  5. Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel – 4 stars. This second volume in Mantel’s acclaimed Cromwell trilogy is a bit shorter than Wolf Hall and more condensed: it follows just a couple of weeks of Cromwell’s life, focusing primarily on one looming event, and this degree of narrowing in really helped boost my enjoyment after a lukewarm response to the more meandering Wolf Hall. Cromwell’s struggles with morality and ambition reach some great levels of tension at last. Series review coming soon.
  6. The Butterfly Garden by Dot Hutchison – 4 stars. A horror presented as a mystery, though the driving force of the novel is not any burning question about what happened or who did it or why, but rather a long string of traumas recounted retrospectively along the way. I wasn’t entirely sold on the structure of the book or its ending, but found it a compelling read on the whole with some solid commentary on physical and psychological trauma.
  7. The Deep by Alma Katsu – 3 stars. Marketed as Titanic horror, I found this novel instead more of a YA-friendly historical fiction with mystery and supernatural elements; there’s some light ghost content, social commentary that doesn’t really go anywhere, and a monster presented with none of the lore to anchor her. My preexisting interest in Titanic helped me through; it’s not a bad book, but not dark or sharp either, and in the end I’d recommend it to an altogether different audience than the jacket copy seems to suggest.
  8. A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley – 4 stars. A short story collection that offers a very balanced look at the relationships of Black children and their fathers, and the devastating effects of that relationship being broken. That Black men are so often divided from their families for one reason or another was not an issue very high on my radar but Brinkley examines it with depth and subtlety and the lessons I’ve learned here will stick with me.
  9. Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi – 5 stars. A beautiful and heartbreaking look at a Ghanaian American family- the father driven back to his home land as a result of racism, the son dead young at the hands of addiction, the mother a victim of deep depression, and the daughter a neuroscientist just trying to make sense of the uncontrolled behaviors of her family and their tragic affects. There’s not a lot of plot to this one, but the narrative voice is exquisite and the protagonist’s interior struggles alone are worth reading for.
  10. Memorial by Bryan Washington – 4 stars. A contemporary novel following the relationship between two gay men and their respective families, as one travels back to Osaka to care for his dying father. This is a quick read highlighting the intersections of culture in modern life and the struggles of marginalized people in America. Washington is fantastic with detail and characterization.
  11. The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel – 4 stars. The finale to Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy; though this volume looses the close focus I loved in book 2, it keeps the dedicated attention to characterization as it wanders through the last few years of Cromwell’s life. It’s expansive, it’s tense in places, it’s incredibly layered and obviously well-researched, but I still found it hard to stay engaged this long and grew tired of Mantel’s tendency toward repetition. I can see why readers are calling this book a masterpiece, and I do think Mantel’s rendering of this history is worth reading, but I have some conflicted thoughts about the reading experience. Again, series review coming soon.

Not quite the best-case-scenario of 18 books that I was hoping for, but I read over 4,100 words in December, the most I’ve read in any month all year, and I’m really pleased with how much I did get through. The Mirror and the Light alone was 875 pages, and finishing it at last on the 30th was so exciting that I’m completely ready to let the rest go for now. I am using the second half of my 2020 bullet journal for 2021 so I expect I’ll still have those uncompleted TBR books lingering on my radar going forward, and I’d like to finish those last six books in the new year.

Some stats:

Average rating – 3.9

Best of month – Transcendent Kingdom

Owned books read for the first time – 11. No library checkouts or borrowed books or eARCs at all this month. Even so, with Christmas in there, I added more books to my physical TBR than I read (this includes a box set though, and even counting each book in the set individually I really wasn’t too far off!).

Year total – 103. I met my reading goal of 100 books for the year!

Additional posts this month:

And something I want to try this year is combining my wrap-ups and TBRs into a single post each month, so I’ll end here by sharing what’s on the top of my January stack:

  1. Outlawed by Anna North – An LGBTQ+ Western in which a woman who has trouble getting pregnant joins a gang of outcasts who run heists and endeavor to carve a space for those that their society doesn’t accept. I’m aiming to catch up with as many of my BOTM titles as I can in 2021, and part of that goal means keeping up with new books I’m adding to the stack; this is one of BOTM’s January selections.
  2. Winter Counts by David Heska Wanbli Weiden – “A groundbreaking thriller about a vigilante on a Native American reservation who embarks on a dangerous mission to track down the source of a heroin influx.” A backlist BOTM title to keep the ball rolling, and it’s got winter in the title, so it feels seasonally appropriate. I’ve got a few other winter-y books on hand as well if I can find the time to fit them in!
  3. Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu – 2020’s National Book Award winner for fiction, featuring a man who views himself as generically Asian; he’s got a small role in a procedural cop show, but stumbles into his dream of becoming Kung Fu Guy, which changes his perspective. Last January I read 2019’s NBA fiction winner, and it turned out to be one of my favorite reads all year, so I’m hoping for a repeat!
  4. We Keep the Dead Close by Becky Cooper – Nonfiction true crime in which a Harvard student investigates an infamous, silenced murder in the campus’s history. I’ve heard great things, and I want to increase my nonfiction reading this year so I jumped on this one as soon as my library got a copy.
  5. Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor, translated by Sophie Hughes – In a Mexican village full of seemingly irredeemable characters, the death of the local Witch sparks an investigation through several narrators all with their own connections to violence. I’ve already started this one, as you may notice with my bookmark in the picture (sorry for the low quality photo by the way, the light was going by the time I took it so it turned out a bit dim and pinkish) and am enjoying it immensely. I want to up my intake of translated fiction this year, and was hoping to start my year off with a bang, which this title seems sure to deliver!

How’s the switch from one year to the next treating you? Any great milestones reached or big plans ahead? What are you reading in the transition? Let me know below!

The Literary Elephant

Wrap-Up 11.20

Time this year has really been a strange creature; I feel like the months have flown by faster than I could accomplish half the things I wanted to, but also that 2020 has lasted at least five years already, despite starting in March. (Things that happened pre-lockdowns feel like a whole different era already, don’t they?) There’s still plenty I’m hoping to finish before the end of the year, and I’ll have my final monthly TBR for 2020 coming up later this week, but now that we’re close to the end of this hell year it’s time to start getting excited. ‘Tis the season for all the lists and wrap-ups and anticipations- but I’ll start off with closing out November.

At the start of the month, I assigned myself this 5-book TBR:

And for the first time since February, I actually completed the entire list within the appropriate month! I started out strong, and unfortunately ended up flagging about halfway through November, but nonetheless felt very satisfied to be crossing things off lists instead of falling farther behind. Here’s the full run-down of what I read:

  1. Lock and Key by Sarah Dessen – 3 stars. I am in the midst of a Dessen reread project, though I’m trying to take it easy until the end of the year so that I can meet more pressing goals. This title was a favorite of mine when it first came out, but those were my Dessen heydays and sadly I discovered this time around that characterization, plot, and theme all felt subpar. It’s a YA story of parental abuse and neglect, but could have been handled better in several regards. Review and ranking to come.
  2. Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi – 3 stars. A Booker Prize shortlister set in India and focused on the difficult relationship between a grown woman and her ailing mother. I found this a perfectly acceptable story with interesting themes and admirable characterization, but there’s little plot and I’ve read far too many motherhood books this year to be wowed by them at this point.
  3. That Summer by Sarah Dessen – 2 stars. Dessen’s first publication, and one I remembered very little about aside from not liking it much the first time around. It’s very short though and I’ve decided to tackle the rest of Dessen’s work as close to pub order as I can, so I gave it a go one afternoon and disliked it even more as an adult. This is a YA book about a teen girl’s struggle through her parents’ divorce and her older sister moving out. I found the MC far too whiny and immature to sympathize with and everyone around her felt like a cardboard cutout. Review and ranking to come.
  4. The Fire Starters by Jan Carson – 5 stars. One of the last books I had left to read for the Alternate Women’s Prize longlist, and another highly rewarding experience. This is an Irish tale of fatherhood with a magical realism element and a hint of Greek mythology, following two men who worry that their children have the power to destroy the world- or at least Belfast. Review to come.
  5. Love and Other Thought Experiments by Sophie Ward – 3 stars. A Booker longlist title that falls somewhere between novel and short story collection. This is a philosophical thought experiment of a book, opening with a woman who believes an ant has crawled into her eye and spiraling out to include the friends and family whose love for each other may or may not have the power to save humanity. It’s wonderfully inventive and fascinating, but I found the work too emotionally cold to win me over completely.
  6. The Beauty in Breaking by Michelle Harper – 4 stars. A powerful medical memoir in which a Black woman describes her experience as an emergency department physician. She argues that the ways in which she has been broken and has seen others being broken has helped her find her own peace and purpose. It’s a bit disjointed, but the chapters read like Grey’s Anatomy episodes and Harper’s commentary on race in medicine (and America at large) is unflinching and necessary.
  7. The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi – 4 stars. Far more commercial than Emezi’s debut (Freshwater) was literary, but no less engaging. I saw through the mystery aspect straight off and found the characters a bit simplistic, but nonetheless I loved spending time with them and seeing Vivek’s path of self-discovery and -expression. That the setting is full of unaccepting folk gives Vivek’s encouraging upward trajectory a heavy counterbalance, acknowledging the real pain of people who feel they cannot be themselves in their own homes, among their own family. Review to come.
  8. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates – 5 stars. Coates’s The Water Dancer didn’t quite fit my reading taste earlier this year, but I’ve been excited about trying his nonfiction- and for good reason, it turns out! This personal account of racism in America, written from a father to his teenage son, is incredibly intelligent and emotional, and adds a unique perspective to the conversation around racial injustice. Review to come.
  9. Call Down the Hawk by Maggie Stiefvater – 3 stars. Another title from the Alternate Women’s Prize list. I read The Raven Cycle a few years back, and thought my interest had waned enough that I wouldn’t pick up this spin-off (Call Down the Hawk is the first volume in a related trilogy), but since it was on our list I decided to take the chance. And I’m glad I did! I’ve missed YA fantasy. It uses a few writing tactics I don’t like, but I was nonetheless entertained and expect to continue with the series. Review to come.

Bit of an eclectic month again, but hey, that’s typical for 2020, and especially toward the end of the year it’s normal for me to be in the middle of too many goals and lists and projects all at once. I’m just happy to be reading. 🙂

Some stats:

Average rating – 3.6

Best of month – This is lazy, but I have a hard time pitting fiction against nonfiction because they do very different things for me, so I’m calling it a tie between my two 5-stars of the month, The Fire Starters and Between the World and Me.

Owned books read for the first time – 8 out of 9, plus one library book. Even the two rereads were technically new copies on my shelf that I acquired after my initial readings, so I’m counting them.

Year total – 92 books read. I am on track to read 100 books before the end of the year. Since I’m so close I really want to hit that goal in December, and I do have more than 8 books left that I ideally want to wrap up before the end of the year (more on that in my upcoming TBR post) so I’m doubly motivated. And those days between Christmas and New Year’s are always productive for me, so I feel like I have a decent chance.

In case you missed it, I posted some thoughts and a ranking of the Booker Prize this month right before the winner announcement (congrats to Douglas Stuart with Shuggie Bain!); and a little late but relevant to the month I’ll include here also the link to my Spotlight on Nonfiction. I’m going to have a couple of spotlights to catch up on in December so I figure might as well tie at least one in here even though it did technically go up on the 1st…

And I managed a few catch-up reviews throughout the month in addition to what I’ve linked above, so I’ll add here as well my posts on Tsitsi Dangarembga’s This Mournable Body, Anne Tyler’s Redhead by the Side of the Road, Stephen King’s Different Seasons, Daisy Johnson’s Sisters and Elizabeth Acevedo’s The Poet X, and Garrett M. Graff’s The Only Plane in the Sky. Reviews for my November reads are either linked above or pending.

Have you read any of these books? Have any more Booker thoughts to share? Read some great nonfiction this month, or any of the other themes associated with November? Let me know below!

The Literary Elephant

Wrap-Up 10.20

I’ve gotten through my busy work season and come out the other side! I’ve voted! I’ve spent a couple of days wallowing in election stress and have finally convinced myself that worrying about it isn’t helping anything! So now I am ready to make my return to blogging. I’ve got a lot to catch up on, so a wrap-up and some blog hopping seemed like a good way to re-immerse myself.

First off, even though I never found the time to post about it (which means I also never shared the list of new releases for October that I had my eye on, unfortnuately), I did set a five-book October TBR:

The books were: I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara, The Butterfly Garden by Dot Hutchinson, House of Leaves by Mark Z Danielewski, My Name is Monster by Katie Hale, and The Deep by Alma Katsu. I thought I’d reach for some horror in October: a 2020 release I’ve been excited about (the Katsu), a title from our alternate women’s prize list (the Hale), and several titles from my 20 in ’20 list, to help me work back toward some of my bookish goals this year. But my reading’s been pretty erratic the last few months and I had library books that I needed to return, so I ended up reading only one of these titles alongside some library Booker reads and just whatever I happened to be in the mood for. But even though I didn’t complete this TBR, I think it’s safe to say I’ve broken through the reading slump that’s been plaguing me since summer, which was the only victory I really needed, reading-wise. Here’s what I finished reading in October:

  1. The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo – 5 stars. This is a YA contemporary novel written in verse. It’s very prose-like verse, so don’t panic if you’re not typically into poetry. It’s a quick read that digs into the cultural experience of a Latina teen living with her family in the US, struggling against parental expectations while also discovering her talents as a writer and falling in love. It’s cute and heavy, and I loved the entire experience. Review to come.
  2. The New Wilderness by Diane Cook – 3 stars. A Booker shortlist title that’s technically a dystopian but really more of a (wo)man vs. nature tale. It’s much more focused on landscapes and motherhood issues than on the futuristic society that hovers at the edges, which didn’t exactly fit my taste. Nevertheless, I found it to be a fairly quick and frictionless read that’ll surely excite the right reader. I just didn’t fit that bill.
  3. This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga – 3 stars. Another Booker shortlist title, this one is the third book in a trilogy; I didn’t end up having time/energy to reread the first book this past month as intended. While this one does make sense on its own, I think a lot of the tension here is built up from the earlier books so I would recommend reading them all in order if possible. There are some great post-colonial themes continued here, and a nuanced look at chasing career success in Zimbabwe, but I found the story a bit too slow and meandering and not nearly as strong as I remember the first book in this trilogy being for me, though admittedly it’s been a few years. Review coming soon.
  4. The Body Lies by Jo Baker – 5 stars. A title from our alternate women’s prize list that featured on one of my previous 5-book TBRs. I’d call this a literary thriller, though the ‘thrill’ is a pretty slow build and it’s not until the very end of the book that the suspense really becomes palpable. There’s a bit too much explanatory exposition in the final pages for my taste, but I loved the feminist commentary running throughout the book and thought the characters were delivered so well on the page. At another time this would likely have been a 4-star read, but it was a standout for me this month.
  5. Just Listen by Sarah Dessen – 3 stars. I had to postpone my Spotlight post for September, which will focus on YA, so I thought I’d use some of the extra time to pick up more YA reads in preparation. A couple years back I reread a childhood favorite Dessen novel and it held up, so I’ve been meaning to gradually reread more of her backlist; this one was next up. It was a quick read as expected, and it is a rape story with themes of accepting victim/survivor behaviors and encouraging speaking out if possible, as I remembered. But the characters aren’t as strong as some of Dessen’s other work and this was just way too long for what it needed to do, so it’s gone down a star from my first read as a teen.
  6. Dreamland by Sarah Dessen – 3 stars. I intended to follow up Just Listen with some newer YA from my 20 in ’20 list, but that one threw me into a nostalgic mood to reread, so I picked up another favorite Dessen circa my middle school days. Although I really like the messages in this one about understanding but not accepting abusive relationships, this was one of Dessen’s first publications and it seemed to me as an adult reader now that she just hadn’t hit her stride yet, as far as crafting goes. Every character and scene just seemed utterly transparent as to what it was supposed to be making the reader think or feel, so I found it much less effective as a narrative this time around than I had at thirteen, though I still respect the concept. This one’s down two stars from my original rating.
  7. This Lullaby by Sarah Dessen – 4 stars. Clearly, I was in a mood. Here, finally, a Dessen reread that held true to my first impressions. I still take issue with some of the ‘romantic’ scenes (for example, the MC has a no-eating-in-the-car rule that the love interest expresses disagreement with by spreading french fry grease onto the interior of her car, which is ultimately condoned by the narrative, whereas I believe a polite and repeated request about the treatment of one’s own property while doing the other person a favor should be respected), but ultimately I think the main messages here about taking chances and remaining open to personalities and approaches that are very different from one’s own are still worthwhile, and the banter between these disparate characters is entertaining. Down one star from my original rating.
  8. My Name is Monster by Katie Hale – 3 stars. The alternate women’s prize title from my October TBR. I actually started reading this before the Sarah Dessen distraction, but it’s a dystopian survival story focused on motherhood that was very reminiscent of The New Wilderness for me and I struggled with reading the two of them so close together. Ultimately I really liked Hale’s prose and focus on language, and it was surreal reading about such a deadly sickness during an actual global pandemic, but I picked it up at the wrong time and the plot suffered for me because of that. Review to come.
  9. Redhead at the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler – 3 stars. This title from the Booker longlist did not make the shortlist cut, but I already had it from the library and by this point couldn’t keep it any longer. Coming in under 200 pages it seemed like as good a place as any to sample Tyler’s work, which I’d been meaning to do. In the end, I have no idea how this ended up on the Booker list at all, it’s so straightforward and I was bored through most of the read. Everything about it I found frustratingly unremarkable. Review coming soon.
  10. The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11 by Garrett M. Graff – 5 stars. I started this book on September 11 and read it in bits and pieces up through the end of October. It ended up being a bit too emotional for me to sit through while I was stressed with my work schedule this fall, which is why it took me a while even though I loved the read. It’s so detailed, and yet so broad, and all so thoughtfully put together without any gratuitous dwelling on individual pain or loss. I found it incredibly compelling, sometimes harrowing, always poignant. Review to come.

(Not pictured: The New Wilderness and This Mournable Body, library checkouts I’d already returned.)

It was yet another weird reading month, but at least I was mostly enjoying myself and finally felt like I was making a dent in some of my goals again. I still have a couple of Booker reads to finish and I’ve got library holds coming my way to close out the alternate women’s prize endeavor- I’ll do a wrap-up and ranking later this month, perhaps. I’ve also got plenty of thoughts and fodder for my YA Spotlight post, before I switch gears to catching up with October’s horror theme and November’s non-fiction. I am also tentatively planning to continue my Sarah Dessen rereads (I’ve already finished another one in November) to eventually do a full ranking of her books and put my thoughts in one place instead of subjecting you all to individual reviews. Even though I only read one book from my October TBR, two of my other reads were from previous TBRs, so I still feel hopeful of finishing all of my TBR books before the end of the year. One of the titles outstanding from my October list is nonfiction, so that would be perfect to get to this month. In order to keep myself going though, I know I’m going to lean toward mood reading over pushing through all of my arbitrary reading goals.

Some stats:

Average rating – 3.7

Best of month – The Only Plane in the Sky

Owned books read for the first time – 4 out of 10. The rest were an even split between owned rereads and library checkouts.

Year total – 83 books read. I fell behind in September but am right on track again now for my Goodreads goal of 100 books in 2020.

I don’t have any non-review posts from September to link, since I was barely here, and only one of the books I read this month is actually linked to a review in the list above- I’ve got plenty to catch up on.

Looking ahead: I’m going to continue prioritizing my Booker reviews because it’s nice to feel like I’m on top of at least one thing; I’ve got two reviews started and I’m currently reading my last shortlist title, so these will be coming up soonest, with some sort of wrap-up around the time of the winner announcement on the 19th. I’ll also post my November TBR fairly soon, I think, then work on catching up with the rest of my reviews and Spotlight posts afterward. I missed out on Nonfiction November posts last year and am out of the loop right now but might try to fit something in for that if I can work it out. I also need to catch up on about two months of blog hopping, which I’ll be starting imminently. So, you can expect to be seeing me around here a whole lot more, and I’m excited about it!

The Literary Elephant

Wrap-Up 9.20

September was a doozy. I’ve been harping on about my reading and reviewing slump long enough (and it seems mostly gone now so this will be the end of it), but concentrating was a struggle for me through most of September even when I was enjoying what I was picking up. I also got very busy with work this month, which will continue for a few more weeks before I’m able to fully catch up here. But all is well, and I’m already looking forward to the time when I’ll be back in full swing. My reading is steadily improving! But I do like to have a little record on my blog for each month, so here’s a (belated) look at my September in books, even though it’s a bit sad.

Mid-month, I set this TBR in the hopes of boosting myself out of the slump:

I started two of these books and finished none before the end of the month; I might have done better if I hadn’t started with the long nonfiction (The Only Plane in the Sky), but the date was right for it and it’s been an incredible read so far. The YA selections were supposed to be nice quick reads to ease me back in and also help me get my Spotlight post for September (focusing on YA lit) up in time, which unfortunately didn’t happen either. That will still be coming, and I have finished one of the YA titles (The Poet X) already in October. I am also planning to start this month or next focusing more earnestly on reading through all of the 5-book TBR titles I haven’t completed yet from previous months, so I do still expect to get around to reading and reviewing the rest of these books in the near future.

It was a slow and awkward month, but I did manage to finish a few things, thanks mostly to buddy reads and library due date deadlines keeping me motivated. Here’s what I did complete:

  1. Gutshot by Amelia Gray – 3 stars. This is a short collection of flash fiction stories that I read and discussed with Melanie (be sure to check out her review here!). These are excellent off-the-wall stories for those who love following a tale down whatever bizarre path it takes, otherworldly elements and all; I wished for more thematic resonance but did otherwise have a fun time reading these.
  2. Death, Desire, and Other Destinations by Tara Isabelle Zambrano – 4 stars. Another short set of flash fiction stories with an even shorter average page count (most of Zambrano’s pieces are 2-4 pages in length); these worked slightly better for me overall because I found more meaning and emotion under the surface of the stories and appreciated the lgbtq+ characters. This one’s a brand new September release.
  3. Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart – 4 stars. I had already started this Booker Prize longlist title when the time for the shortlist announcement rolled around last month; seeing it make the cut helped keep me going through this 400+ page sobfest of alcoholism in spite of my slump. I found it surprisingly immersive and compelling for how slow-paced and tragic it is.
  4. Sisters by Daisy Johnson – 5 stars. After loving Johnson’s Booker-nominated Everything Under a couple of years back I couldn’t miss this evocative sibling horror story. This might ordinarily have been a 4-star read, but it was perfect slump fare and checked a few boxes I just really love in reading. I have a penchant for literary thriller-type books a la My Sister, the Serial Killer; they’re just such a fun ride. So, maybe don’t look at my 5-star and expect an all-time favorite, but this is a perfect quick fall read and if toxic loyalty in sisterhood sounds at all appealing I recommend picking it up! Review coming soon(ish).

Yep, that’s my entire list. And I read an eARC of Death, Desire and Other Destinations and returned the two library books before I took the picture, so my stack is even more sparse visually. I threw The Only Plane in the Sky in there (backwards since I didn’t finish it) as an honorable mention, because I did read a good chunk of it before the end of the month (as you can maybe see by the tabs marking my progress).

This is my smallest monthly wrap-up in years, but I’m not upset about it. Four books isn’t bad- no amount of reading is bad. It’s important to take breaks. I always feel supportive of other bloggers or bookish social media accounts who admit to an off month or need some time away, so holding myself to an impossible standard of always increasing just doesn’t make sense. Take a breath when you need to. I will do the same.

Some stats:

Average rating – 4.0

Best of month – Sisters

Owned books read for the first time – 1 out of 4. I wasn’t sure whether to count the eARC; I actually don’t think I’ve read anything in that format since I started noting this statistic. But I suppose by ‘owned books’ I mean ‘purchased books.’

Year total – 73 books read. After months of hanging 2-3 books ahead of schedule in my Goodreads goal of 100 books for 2020, I finally fell behind. At the end of September I was one book behind schedule. I’m not really worried about it, tbh. I’m confident my reading will keep improving and at some point I’ll catch up. It’s not really about the numbers anyway, so if I end up missing this goal it wouldn’t be a crushing disappointment.

Non-review posts this month included:

  • Some thoughts on the Booker Prize shortlist, or primarily just an update on my 2020 Booker reading plans, since I fell behind on the longlist. As long as we’re on the subject, I want to mention for anyone who hasn’t seen yet that the Booker winner announcement has been pushed back to November 19 this year. I’ll continue reading and reviewing as I’m able; I have 2 pending shortlist reviews that’ll probably be my next posts (or nearly so), and I’m planning to read probably 3 additional titles from the longlist before wrapping up for the 2020 prize season.

Not a great month, but I made it through. And, interestingly, even though I’ve barely been reading and have hardly been posting or keeping up with my blog at all, September was an all-time record month for my blog stats; just a casual reminder that focusing on the numbers will only drive you mad. Hitting all-time highs when I’ve been so frustratingly absent seems completely backwards, but the likes and comments and follows really do keep me going some days when the going is tough, so here’s a huge thank you to everyone who’s taken the time to stop by and check out my reading life. You’re appreciated!

I hope your fall reading is off to a good start. Let me know in the comments something great you’ve read recently- seriously, I can’t keep up with blog hopping right now so I have no idea what you’ve all been reading and I want to know!

The Literary Elephant

Wrap-Up 8.20

First off, apologies for my absence. I’ve barely been reading, I’ve not really been blogging, I’ve been slow at answering comments and reading others’ posts. Even so, I wholeheartedly appreciate everyone who has interacted with my blog over the last two or three weeks- I haven’t had the energy to respond in a timely manner, but there have been days when the comments I get here are the only thing to put a smile on my face, and I am immensely grateful for that.

So, August. I had lofty goals, and the month started incredibly well, reading-wise. And blogging-wise. Here was my TBR for the month:

Despite my strong start, I only ended up finishing three of these books. The month took a weird turn about halfway through when a new book in an old series left me trying to reconcile my past self and my present self, and reliving all that melodramatic teenage angst. The slump hit right around that time. Working around that, here’s what I managed to finish reading in August:

  1. How to Be An Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi. 4 stars. This is a wonderful memoir/how-to guide for those looking to swap out passive (and ineffectual) non-racism for active antiracism in their lives. Kendi uses his own learning experiences (including mistakes!) to show the reader in a relatable way how to self-reflect and do better. My review also discusses target audience at more length.
  2. Home Before Dark by Riley Sager. 2 stars. There’s always something compelling about Sager’s atmospheric thrillers, but so many things bothered me about this one. The structure, the basic premise, the layout of the “haunted” house. Others are loving this dual-timeline narrative of a possible haunting and mysterious deaths in Vermont, but the details just didn’t work for me.
  3. Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid. 4 stars. This is a soapy, dramatic contemporary about a young Black woman dealing with modern racism from people in her life who claim to be trying to help her. It’s a fun, quick read that brings important topics to the casual reader. Perhaps unusual fare for the Booker Prize longlist, but I found it enjoyable nonetheless.
  4. Tender is the Flesh by Augustina Bazterrica, translated by Sarah Moses. 4 stars. The only book I managed to pick up in honor of Women in Translation month, this is a brutal doozy that uses mass cannibalism as a satirical criticism of factory farming. You need a strong stomach for the details here and I wished the plot had received the same level of attention as the impeccable world-building, but it’s a great thought experiment for those who can stand to pick it up.
  5. The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste. 3 stars. This is a Booker Prize longlisted historical fiction piece looking at the Italian invasion of Ethiopia just before the start of WWII. It’s a beautiful and informative story, though it seemed less feminist-focused than the jacket claims and would have worked better for me if narrowed in scope. Not a bad book by any means, but not what I expected and I was perhaps simply not the right reader for it.
  6. Midnight Sun by Stephenie Meyer. No rating. I thought my Twilight-loving days were well-behind me, but I had a surprising amount of fun reading this long-awaited installment. It’s the exact same story as Twilight, presented from a “new” perspective. It has the same issues as the earlier books, though fewer plot holes, and told through the lens of Edward’s self-loathing and morality crisis it becomes much more interesting than the original romance. Even so, this is clearly a wish fulfillment book meant for long-time fans. My review is a fairly thorough overview of the pros and cons here (she says humbly) if you’re curious but not interested enough to pick this book up yourself.
  7. Different Seasons by Stephen King. 2 stars. This rating feels a bit harsh for only actively hating one of the four novellas in this collection, but these stories are popular among King fans and I had high expectations that were not at all met. This was largely a ‘meh’ read, but I don’t have much positive to say about it beyond finding it ideal for a buddy read. I’ll have a review that looks at each of the four stories coming soon (hopefully).
  8. How Much of These Hills is Gold by C Pam Zhang. 4 stars. Another Booker longlister, this historical fiction of Chinese-American children who find themselves orphans in the dying days of the gold rush is beautifully told. I loved the writing, enjoyed the surprises Zhang folded into the characterization, and found the story compelling despite having to battle my slump to get it. Review coming soon (hopefully).

Some stats:

Average rating – 3.3

Best of month – How Much of These Hills is Gold

Owned books read for the first time – 5 out of 8. I’ve started using the library again, now that they’re open again with pandemic safety rules. It’s nice to be back, even though I can’t really go in and browse like normal. Interloan services are such a boon for me. And I’m still making progress with the unread books on my own shelves.

Year total – 69 books read. I’m two books ahead of schedule for my 100 books in 2020 goal.

Non-review posts included:

My belated Spotlight on Thrillers post that just missed the end of July; and in that vein, I’ll include August’s Spotlight on Translated Literature in this wrap-up as well, even though it also came a little late and went up in early September.

All in all, a decent reading month despite the slump, despite the 2-star reads and the lack of 5-star reads. All of my 4-stars were very strong contenders and even though things have been weird I’ve mostly enjoyed what I read.

I’d like to say that September will be better, that I’ll be more active here going forward, but in all honesty my slump is still in full swing and on top of that I’m about to become so busy with work that I’ll likely be taking an internet break from about mid-September to mid-November. I’ll pop in when I can; I do have a few posts to fit in within that time frame, but I’ll likely fall behind on reviews, and on blog hopping. I’m aiming to catch up on my pending posts before then, but I just can’t make guarantees right now on how many I’ll manage and when exactly they’ll appear. I’ve got two unfinished reviews from August that I’d like to wrap up (mentioned above), a September buddy read post scheduled, a sort-of solicited review scheduled, my September TBR, and an update on the Booker in regards to the upcoming shortlist announcement all on my list of hopeful posts to finish soon.

And speaking of book prizes, the Women’s Prize winner was announced today. I was planning to finish reading the Mantel trilogy beforehand and post my prediction- since it’s coming late, you may or may not believe that I was correct in predicting Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell as this year’s winner, but that’s my story and I’m sticking with it. Congrats to Hamnet! You can find my review of Hament here, and my thoughts on the shortlist here in case you missed them. Since Evaristo had already joint-won the Booker and Mantel’s trilogy already had two Booker wins and a third nomination behind it, I thought Hamnet was the only one of the obvious three top contenders for the winning spot that could belong solely to the Women’s Prize, and I thought the judges would like that. Whether my reasoning was correct or not is anybody’s guess. Hamnet was a 4-star read for me, tied with Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other, but it is the longlisted book I had the most fun reading so I’m happy with its win. It may not necessarily seem like a literary prize book and I can admit it has some flaws, but I think worse choices could have been made this year so I’ll stand by this. Since The Mirror and The Light is the only Women’s Prize book I haven’t read yet, and because it is also nominated for the 2020 Booker Prize at present, I do still intend to read that, and perhaps I will post some belated final thoughts on the 2020 Women’s Prize at that time.

In the meantime, I’m letting my mood determine what and when I read and blog, so I guess I’ll bookend this post with apologies and say I’m sorry for the state of disorganization my blog will probably be in for the rest of the fall season. I’ve got more Booker reads checked out from the library that I’m trying to get to- I’m currently reading Shuggie Bain, very slowly, but I’m also currently reading Stephenie Meyer’s Life and Death: Twilight Reimagined (the gender swapped version of Twilight) and have a lot of ranty thoughts I’d like to eventually share. But lately it seems I’m lucky if I feel up to reading the back of the cereal box. I have absolutely no idea what’s going on with my reading, and I’m not looking for pity here because I feel fine about it, but I’m so sorry that this is affecting my blogging schedule and general level of engagement.

On the plus side, I’ve been writing like crazy. If I can’t get traditionally published, perhaps I’ll serialize my novel in my little corner of the internet here. It’s really coming together, I think. A silver lining.

Enough about me. Tell me what I’ve missed. How was your end of August / beginning of September? Thoughts on the Women’s Prize winner? Noteworthy WIT reads? Favorite Booker longister? Great new releases? Let me know below!

The Literary Elephant

Wrap-Up 7.20

Summer is winding down in my corner of the world by the end of July, but it isn’t quite over yet! I’ve spent a lot of time outdoors this past month tending my garden and soaking up the sun, which meant less reading than I was hoping, but July still ended up being a pretty average reading month for me. I didn’t plan well enough to fit all of the specific titles in that I wanted to from my TBR, but I did participate in a record FOUR buddy reads, all of which I enjoyed! (Actually two of these haven’t completely concluded yet, but more on that below.)

To start off, my TBR for July looked like this:

TBR7.20

From the list, I ended up finishing two and a half titles before the end of the month. This is the aspect of my July reading goals I’m saddest about not completing, because I set my TBR full of Black-authored books that I was excited about- it was (and is) important to me to to read these, and yet I couldn’t work all of them around a surplus of additional commitments (which I do not regret either- my only regret here is double booking my schedule, to be clear!). I will still be reading the books that I didn’t get to in July, hopefully in August but definitely before the end of the year.

My completed reading for the month, by title:

  1. Mother Daughter Widow Wife by Robin Wasserman – 3 stars. A new release in July, and one I read because I received a physical ARC earlier this year. I was so excited about the premise of this one (a woman steps off a bus with no ID and no memory of her life up to that point), but the threads of this story never quite came together satisfactorily for me. Furthermore, some of the characterization seemed a bit off and detrimental to the book’s feminist themes.
  2. The Wild Unknown Tarot Guidebook by Kim Krans – 4 stars. I won’t do a full review for this one; it’s a guidebook that came with a specific tarot deck, which is something I’m just starting playing around with. I like how artistic and simple this set is, and the lack of human figures on the cards and in the book. As a total newbie I found this a fair place to start; it answered a lot of questions and helped get me going with basic understanding and simple readings. However, this set clearly reveals the artist’s take on tarot rather than impartially conveying full info; even though I think I like with this approach, I’ll need to see other perspectives to know for sure what’s going to work best for me. I’ve got a couple more guidebooks in line to check out but feel free to recommend anything you’ve found useful!
  3. Four Past Midnight by Stephen King – 3 stars. a 900+ page buddy read of four novellas. There were some ups and downs for me with these stories, but on the whole I found this a solid offering of King’s shorter works with each piece very readable and interesting. We have disappearances on a plane mid-flight, a writer with an extreme fear of plagiarism accusations, a library policeman who exacts extreme payment for late returns, and a Polaroid camera that seems to take the same picture over and over no matter where you aim it. Despite the middling rating, I think it will be hard for other collections of King’s short work to top this one for me.
  4. The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates – 3 stars. Unfortunately, another case of loving the premise but finding the execution a poor fit for my personal taste. This is a magical realism story about the Underground Railroad; I loved the use of the magic and the characterization throughout the book, but found it a bit too episodic and theatrically written, also slightly repetitive after having read Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad previously.
  5. Africa’s Tarnished Name by Chinua Achebe – 4 stars. A small essay collection that mainly focuses on how Africa and Africans are (now and historically) perceived and represented by outsiders. Africa may have its own internal struggles, but it is hobbled by the enmity placed upon it primarily by European countries that benefited from slave trade. Achebe also talks about problematic elements of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness here.
  6. Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado- 4 stars. I buddy read this collection of short stories with Donna (be sure to check out her post here)! There were more hits than misses for me in this book and I had a great time chatting about the stories with Donna, even though we didn’t always agree on favorites! This volume makes a perfect fiction/nonfiction pair with Machado’s memoir, In the Dream House.
  7. Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia – 4 stars. A buddy read with Melanie, and the first time reading Moreno-Garcia for both of us! We had a good chat about this book yesterday and should both have reviews coming up later this week. I enjoyed the read but had some small issues with writing and characterization, and talking with Melanie teased out some more, so expect a mixed review from me, and be sure to check out her post as well on Thursday!
  8. Supper Club by Lara Williams- 4 stars. A Women’s Prize Squad title that’s gotten a lot of buzz from the group lately! I had a lot of fun reading this tale of women reclaiming their space by feasting without restraint. The only downside for me was the book’s failure to explore the theme a little more deeply once it was established. I liked what was on display, but was left wishing for a bit more.
  9. Black Girl Unlimited by Echo Brown – 4 stars. This YA memoir/magical realism tale is a great place for teens to turn to read about Black childhood and adolescence in America- whether looking for something inspiring to relate to, or a bit of education on others’ experiences. There’s an empowering magical element at use here and a cool formatting trick that allows the narration to shift between scenes midsentence. This might have been a stand-out favorite for me 10 years ago but unfortunately it did feel a little too young and repetitive for me at present. Full review coming soon.

wrapup7.20

Honorable mentions:

  • My fourth buddy read of the month is ongoing; we’re making our way through another set of Stephen King novellas, this collection called Different Seasons. Two stories down, two to go. It’s too soon to say for sure but I suspect this one won’t be as successful for me as Four Past Midnight was.
  • Additionally, I’m also more than halfway through Ibram X. Kendi’s nonfiction memoir/guidebook How to Be An Antiracist; it has a great format and so many important messages (of course), but I’m not finding it quite as life-altering as I’d hoped. I knew nonfiction reading about racism was a long game, and this is cementing that truth for me. (Which is ultimately a good thing, considering how many I bought last month!)
  • I started Home Before Dark recently because I was in the mood for a thriller (and wanted to read one to prep for my Spotlight on Thrillers post which… I also forgot to finish before the end of July, so that’s still forthcoming!) but I’m prioritizing the two titles above and am only about 1/4 of the way through this one. Surprisingly for a Riley Sager read, it’s not really grabbing me yet! However, I remain hopeful, and I’m sure it’ll go fast once I get into it.

 

Some stats:

Average rating – 3.6

Best of month – Her Body and Other Parties

Owned books read for the first time – 9 out of 9. But I bought more books than I could keep up with this month, so my personal TBR stash grew. I will be cutting back on book purchases for a little while, but I will also be returning to the library this month for the first time since early March (which is exciting, but will not help my own-unread shelf). I’ll be following safety guidelines and starting off with Booker longlistees as a trial run- if any issues arise I’ll suspend library use again until it’s safer.

Year total – 61 books read. I’m just a little ahead of schedule for my 100 books in 2020 goal.

 

I’ve linked my review posts for the month to the titles above; non-review posts included:

  • a Top of the TBR list featuring some excellent books I want to read and the fantastic bloggers who’ve put them on my radar
  • a round-up of the Booker longlisted titles for 2020 and my initial thoughts/plans on reading the list

My August TBR (including new releases I’ve got my eye on and plans for Women in Translation month reading) will be coming up soon, along with that belated Spotlight post and my two pending reviews. Looks like it’ll be a busy month for blogging! Stay tuned.

 

The Literary Elephant

Wrap-Up 6.20

Black lives matter! If you haven’t yet, check out this post where I’ve rounded up and explained a number of ways to help the movement, or just go straight here to do your part.

One of the things I’m doing to try to show my support and (hopefully) affect a change is to increase the number of Black authors whose work I’m buying, reading, and promoting through my book accounts. For this reason, 66% of the books I finished in June were written by Black authors. In July I’m aiming for 50%; yes, that’s a decrease, but the goal is ultimately to read diversely from many races and countries, not to replace the Black-authored works in my reading lists with content from white Americans.

For the record, here was the June TBR I decided on before protests swept America and my reading interests for the immediate future drastically changed:

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As predicted, I didn’t read many of these books within the month, though I will be working them back into my reading schedule soon because they’re related to various reading goals and commitments I’ve made. From the chosen 5, I finished one (My Dark Vanessa) and a half (Four Past Midnight, a buddy read that a friend and I had to postpone for timing, though we’re finding ways to fit it in alongside other reading priorities and have now read 2 of the 4 novellas from the collection).

Instead of sticking to my TBR, I read:

  1. Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo. 3 stars. This was a May TBR title for me that I did read most of in May and just finished up this month. It’s an urban fantasy novel set on the Yale campus, featuring magical secret societies. I loved a lot about it but this volume felt like groundlaying for future installments; I suspect I’ll like the sequel considerably more, but this was a very solid start. This will be my next review.
  2. The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead. 5 stars. I put this on my list both because of the synopsis (historical fiction featuring a racist and abusive reformatory school in Florida, based on a real place) and also because I’d enjoyed a previous book from the author. I was even more invested in this newest release from Whitehead than the last, and am eager to keep reading from his backlist!
  3. Lot by Bryan Washington. 4 stars. I picked up this story collection following a mixed race gay man in Houston; the stories also highlight other experiences from minority groups in the area. I liked that it felt both very specific to these characters but at the same time also indicative of the treatment many people in cities across America receive. It’s perhaps not the best starting point if you’re new to fiction about racism and/or LGBTQ+ discrimination; it’s wonderfully subtle.
  4. Real Life by Brandon Taylor. 5 stars. This is a literary fiction campus novel that dissects how racism affects one man’s stint in grad school (studying biochemistry), taking place over the course of a single weekend. I loved Taylor’s writing overall (though it did feel a bit overwritten in places) and that he hones in on the MC’s distinct voice and experience rather than using him as a mouthpiece to speak for an entire group of people (though it is clear that the MC is not alone in his struggle). I suspect this one will end up on my favorites list at the end of the year!
  5. Pet by Akwaeke Emezi. 4 stars. A YA utopian/dystopian novel set in a city where justice and equality for all have finally become the norm, with peace disturbed when a creature comes out of a painting, certain that a “monster” is hiding in their midst, and working with trans teen Jam to hunt him down. This was a little young for me, but glorious nonetheless.
  6. Aries by Stella Andromeda. 4 stars. A helpful guide to get me started in astrology. I’ve always been vaguely interested, but the fact that there are a few glaring discrepancies between my personality and my sun sign has made me slow to dig deeper. Now I know there’s more to it (I’m a Gemini moon and Pisces ascendant, for those curious). The imagery is simple but pleasing, the info split pretty evenly between sign-specific insights (this volume is part of a series that includes a book for each sign of the zodiac) and broader info on astrology- how it should be used, what the other signs mean and how they interact, where to find and how to read your chart, etc. This is great for beginners, and lists further resources at the end. I may look into the Gemini and Pisces volumes at some point, but I suspect a lot of the basics will be repeated so I don’t think it’s necessary to read more than one or two of these to get the gist of how they apply to one’s personal life. I probably won’t review this book in full, as it’s pretty self-explanatory and small, so free to ask further in the comments if you have any questions!  (Sort of related, I’ve also been vaguely interested in tarot for a long time and have just started my journey on that; is anyone interested in an experience/review post for specific tarot decks and guidebooks or should I stick to the monthly wrap-ups for those as well??? Comment below if you’re interested, please!)
  7. My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell. 5 stars. This is the book I was reading (as part of the Women’s Prize Squad longlist!) that I desperately needed a break from and thus picked up Aries. Russell’s fictional account of a fifteen year old girl groomed and sexually abused by a teacher at her private school utterly broke my heart. It’s incredibly written and insightful, and makes for a very emotional and thought-provoking read. I’ll have a review coming soon.
  8. Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi. 4 stars. For a book under 200 pages, this one packed a big punch in the end for me. It took me a little while to warm up to this contemporary-with-a-fabulist-element story about modern oppression and its effects, but the final section left a big impression. It’s a great fictional story and also motivated me to do some further research, so a win-win.
  9. The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House by Audre Lorde. 5 stars. It’s rare for me to rate a very short book (this one’s around 50 pages) so highly, but Lorde’s writing is stunning and hits right at the truth. There are 5 essays collected in this little volume, some of which I found more impactful than others, but I appreciated them all and would highly recommend Lorde’s work to anyone doing nonfiction reading about racism and feminism. Not to be missed.

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Dedicating June mostly to books by Black authors has been one of the best reading decisions I’ve made all year, as I had a much higher set of ratings last month than I have for most of 2020, and I felt like I was getting a lot out of what I was reading, which is always my goal. Some of these books I’ve been sleeping on for far too long, and I’ll definitely be using this positive experience as encouragement to make my reading more diverse in the future. I’m pretty excited about my line-up for July, as a start!

 

Some Stats:

Average rating – 4.3!

Best of month – I don’t think I can choose. I would say The Master’s Tools may be overall the “best,” although My Dark Vanessa had the most emotional impact and I was most impressed with the style and impact of Real Life, but The Nickel Boys was also pretty much flawless… I think having to choose between FOUR 5-star reads in one month is unprecedented for me, but it’s a wonderful dilemma to have!

Owned books read for the first time – 9 out of 9. Two of them were new purchases this month, but 7 were pulled from my own-unread stacks from previous months. But I also acquired another 9 books in June that I haven’t read yet, so… *shrugs.* My library is in the process of reopening now but there have been a surge of covid cases in my area so the jury’s still out on whether I’ll be borrowing any physical books anytime soon.

Year total – 52 at the end of the month, which had me slightly ahead of my goal to read 100 books this year (the end of June marked the halfway point of 2020- hopefully the second half will be better than the first all around!). But I’ve also finished two more books in July already (that I had started in June but not quite finished) so I’m well on-track with my reading goal.

 

Non-review posts in June included:

 

Something good this month: I received a raspberry plant as a belated birthday gift. It arrived in the mail, looked dry but alive, and after I planted it there were several days it looked like it wasn’t going to make it. In the last few days though, it’s got several areas of new growth and is now thriving! I love raspberries but the ones available in stores are just not the same as the home-grown variety, and they don’t seem to be a common farmer’s market item where I live. I’m so excited to have some fresh berries later this summer!

Tell me something good that happened to you in June!

 

The Literary Elephant

Wrap-Up 5.20

Black lives matter! If you haven’t yet, check out this post where I’ve rounded up and explained a number of ways to help the movement, or just go straight here to do your part.

One of the things I’m doing to try to show my support and (hopefully) affect a change is to increase the number of Black authors whose work I’m buying, reading, and promoting through my book accounts. Because I want this to be a long-term and sustainable change, I’m going to start catching up on the posts I’ve been holding back, while also continuing to review Black-authored books as I read them. I’ll have a review of Akwaeke Emezi’s Pet coming soon (hopefully tomorrow), and in the meantime I’m sharing my wrap-up for May. Unfortunately, I didn’t have Black books to promote in May (part of the reason I’ve held off on posting it), but it’s time to hold myself accountable and prepare to do better going forward.

My TBR for the month of May looked like this:

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I managed to read two and a half books from this list within May, and wrapped up the third (Ninth House) in June. 3/5 is getting to be a familiar track record! But I did read a few other things over the month as well, including one lingering title from a previous 5-book TBR. Here’s a run-down of what I read in May:

  1. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. 3 stars. I read quite a bit of this Thomas Cromwell historical fiction novel in April and finally finished it up in early May. I spent nearly a full month reading this, which I think is the longest amount of time I’ve spent focusing on a single book (ie not reading other things on the side) in well over a year. I liked the story but wasn’t as excited about it as others seem to be. My hopes for the rest of the trilogy are higher though- I’ll be reviewing all three books together later this summer.
  2. Shanti by Vikram Chandra. 3 stars. The last of the Faber Stories for me, it was quite rewarding to finish this short story reading project after more than a year, even though I didn’t end it on favorite title. I needed a win and this post-WWII story-within-a-story provided. If you’re interested in this set at all, I recommend following the link in the title to my latest batch of reviews, where I rank the full collection and connect to reviews for each story.
  3. Beach Read by Emily Henry. 3 stars. I was hoping to find a little much-needed escapism in this new bookish romance, and fortunately succeeded. I had some petty personal issues with some of the writing choices, but ultimately appreciated the way Henry used a romance format to talk about deeper issues like grief and genre snobbery while still delivering a pretty great romance as well.
  4. The Gifts of Reading by Robert Macfarlane. 4 stars. One romance novel was not enough positivity, so I turned to this personal essay about the power of giving books as gifts. It’s a very specific piece that doesn’t echo much of my own experience, but it increased my optimism and served as a nice reminder that there is still some good in the world, which was much needed.
  5. The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne. 4 stars. I did a buddy read for this one with Gil, who is an incredible blogger that you should definitely check out and follow! This saga of a gay Irishman’s life did not quite live up to expectations for either of us (we were expecting a serious literary work and were a bit put off by the level of comedy involved), but it was an interesting read nonetheless and having someone to joke about the absurd bits with really made the experience for me. 🙂
  6. Bunny by Mona Awad. 4 stars. I finally tried getting into the Women’s Prize Squad list that I helped assemble with some great blogger friends, and it was a good choice. When the world gets you down, you can still trust your friends to recommend great books. This is a sort of dramatic light-fantasy account of an MFA writing program taken to extremes. Full review forthcoming.
  7. Flannery O’Connor: The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor. 4 stars. While I still can’t believe I actually managed to stick with Melanie’s read-along schedule of one story per day throughout the entire month of May, I think the structure of it was helpful for me in keeping some balance as the world went steeply downhill. That said, as much as I enjoyed following along with Melanie’s discussion posts and was impressed with O’Connor’s writing, the slurs and racism in here became increasingly painful to read alongside current news. I have lots of thoughts about the content and the timing that I’ll share in a forthcoming review.

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Two very short books, two buddy reads (and thus outside forces to hold me accountable!), one book I had a solid headstart on, and two attempts at escapism. I read from Ireland, Canada, India, the UK, and the US, but sadly this list is predominantly white. I posted this TBR for June, but have mainly been reading the Black-authored books listed in the final section of the post rather than focusing on the 5 books I had prepped into the post earlier in May. My next wrap-up will look different!

 

Some Stats:

Average rating – 3.6; once again, no 5-star reads this month.

Best of month – Bunny. 

Owned books read for the first time – 7 out of 7. Isolation still in full swing here.

Year total – 43. Goodreads said that at the end of May I was two books ahead of schedule for my goal of 100 books this year.

 

And in case you missed it, my one non-review post last month was the latest installment in my genre series: Spotlight on Fantasy. Head over to the post to talk all things fantasy with me in the comments! Coming up toward the end of June will be my Spotlight on Mystery.

 

The Literary Elephant

Wrap-Up 4.20

April is usually such a highlight for me- it’s my birthday month!- but this year it was bookended with reading slumps, brought unwelcome post-season snow, and was filled with mostly underwhelming Women’s Prize content. I’m looking forward to moving on as quickly as possible.

My TBR goal for April looked like this:

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In the end I finished three and a half  out of the five. The three books I did read were all 4-star ratings for me, and I am enjoying Wolf Hall, which is the one I’m halfway through. In fairness, I’ve read over 350 pages of it, which feels like it should count for something– it is very long. I’m still planning to read The Glass Hotel very soon. And I finished one of the books from my March TBR that I fell behind on that month. So even though I didn’t finish everything as quickly as I’d hoped, I’m not disappointed with where I’m at.

Here’s what I read this month:

  1. Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara – 4 stars. Under other circumstances, this child-narrated mystery of disappearances in an Indian slum might have been a 3-star read for me; the mystery element was a little disappointing. But the narrative voice and themes blended well, and this did turn out to be among the highlights of the Women’s Prize for me this year.
  2. Nightingale Point by Luan Goldie – 2 stars. Though the premise was very strong with this one- examining the effects of large-scale disaster on a poor community- this book neglected to follow through on any of the deeper commentary it hinted at.
  3. A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes – 3 stars. This retelling of the Trojan War through female perspectives is a solid read with some great characters, but unfortunately failed to break free of the original narrative and didn’t bring anything new to the table for me.
  4. Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell – 4 stars. My favorite read from the Women’s Prize longlist, in terms of enjoyability! Though perhaps not the most impressive on a technical level, I was nevertheless caught up by the prose and characters in this reimagining of a chapter in Shakespeare’s family life.
  5. Queenie by Candince Carty-Wiliams – 3 stars. A young Jamaican-British woman in London hits rock bottom as her love life spirals out of control, dragging everything else down with it. I thought this was a great story, but so surface-level that I’ve barely thought about it at all since turning the last page.
  6. How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee – 4 stars. A stellar WWII fiction set in Singapore. The delivery of information is a bit clunky, especially at the end, but I appreciated each of the perspectives and thought the story was done beautifully, with nuance, and didn’t pull any punches. A real win for the Women’s Prize longlist this year, and a shame it didn’t advance.
  7. Actress by Anne Enright – 4 stars. This story of a famous (fictional) British-Irish actress and her daughter didn’t have quite as much emotional effect for me as I’d hoped, and yet I loved Enright’s skill with language and the complex dynamics she created between the two main characters.
  8. The Vagina Bible by Dr. Jen Gunter – 4 stars. I’ve been reading this in bits and pieces since January; it is essentially a nonfiction medical reference work rather than something meant to be read cover to cover for fun, so I needed to take my time with it though I am glad to have seen all of the information at least once. This is an absolutely incredible resource. Review coming soon.

When I finished the Women’s Prize longlist (except for the Mantel trilogy) and the shortlist was announced, it was like hitting a reading wall for me. It wasn’t that I suddenly didn’t want to read, but that I could only manage a few pages at a time. My attention would wander. I would get tired. I would get distracted. I’m battling some sort of mild but persistent head cold which has really wiped me out. It’s been a weird time. I am happy to put this hot mess behind me and start fresh, and hopefully my immune system will do the same. I know it could be so much worse so I’ve been trying to just take a step back instead of complaining. Here’s to hoping May will be better for everyone.

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(The book turned backward in the photo is Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel; as I’ve read over half I’m giving it an honorary mention.)

Some Stats:

Average rating – 3.5  This is the same as last month, but somehow it feels worse when there are no five stars in the bunch.

Best of month – I’m calling a tie between Hamnet, my most enjoyable read of the month, and The Vagina Bible, the book whose very existence excited me most.

Owned books read for the first time – 7 out of 8. That’s great! I had one library book to finish up at the beginning of the month, but otherwise I’ve been reading off of my own shelves, and expect it’ll be the same for May. I’m not sure when my library will reopen, but my due dates are now pushed back to June so it doesn’t look promising. I think this is the first time I haven’t been to a library all month in over five years. Now if only I could hold off on buying more books in order to make an actual dent in my TBR stack in the meantime… 6 of the books I read this month were only bought in March!

Year total – 36. Goodreads says I’m three books ahead of schedule for my goal of 100 books this year. Considering the fact that I’ve barely been reading the past two weeks, I’m just relieved I haven’t fallen behind yet.

Even though there’s been plenty to complain about through April, it wasn’t all bad! The Women’s Prize longlist was largely underwhelming this year, but I still had a lot of fun reviewing the books and chatting about them with all of you! Be sure to check out my

if you missed them! Also in response to the Women’s Prize this year, don’t miss the announcement for the alternate longlist I’m participating in:

And last but not least, my Spotlight Series post of the month featured literary fiction for April, and it’s crammed full of recommendations! Be sure to check it out and weigh in if you’re interested!

I’ll have my May TBR coming up next, and hopefully will be getting back into the swing of reading and reviewing soon. If things go as planned, I should have plenty of content coming up this month and hopefully a handful of 5-star reads to review among my posts! I am determined to have a better month. Tell me about a book you’re excited to read in May!

 

The Literary Elephant