Review: Asking For It

I first saw this book on Rachel’s blog, and the things she had to say about it completely sold me. I had not heard of Louise O’Neill or her YA novel, Asking For It, but now that I’ve read this book I will never be the same.

askingforitAbout the book: Emma O’Donovan is beautiful. The most beautiful girl in Ballinatoom (small-town Ireland). Her looks allow her a certain amount of popularity and cruelty. She has many friends, although most of her socializing is for show and her own personal amusement. It turns out, despite what they say to her face, most of the people who know her don’t like Emma. So when she gets a little reckless at a party, being a little more daring than usual with drinks and drugs, she is raped and humiliated and no one seems to care. Pictures circulate on the internet. Everyone at school shuts Emma out. Her family is quick to punish, and the law is not on her side. The legal case will take years, and likely go nowhere. In the meantime, Emma’s life is destroyed as the boys blame her for the consequences they face. Everyone seems to think that Emma is the problem, for crying rape, when all along everyone knows she was asking for it.

“Skirts up to their backsides, and tops cut down to their belly buttons, and they’re all drinking too much and falling over in the streets, they’re practically asking to be attacked, and then when it happens, they start bawling crying over it. As your other man said, what do they expect?”

I have never been so close to DNFing a book. Sometimes I put a book down for ages, but never forever. If I think a book is bad, boring, or just not my taste, I soldier through. Asking For It had none of those problems. In the past I’ve been worried that I’m too callous/cynical because I can read anything without crying into my pillow at night.  But Asking For It, fiction though it is, hit me hard. Several times while reading I had to put the book down, and I didn’t know if I would ever be able to pick it back up again.

“Boys are always telling me I’m beautiful, their eyes roaming around my body hungrily, as if looking for a place to plant a flag.”

A lot of the rape stories I’ve read lately have focused on “small” incidents, with the intent of proving that every sexual assault is unacceptable. Asking For It is not one of those stories. What happens to Emma is not “small” in any way. It’s shocking and devastating to read about how uniformly her community turns against her in the aftermath– but the horrors of this book are so real and important. This is supposed to be uncomfortable. Asking For It is a novel that’s not afraid to face hard truths. Emma fails to grasp a lot of the messages that this book is imparting, but they’re clear nonetheless: no matter what Emma wore or how she behaved, what happened to her is not her fault. The consequences the boys face for what happened to her is not her fault. Trying to capitalize on her beauty in an environment that has shown her that her beauty is her entire worth is not her fault.

I also want to talk about the fact that this is a YA novel. Emma is 18, a year from graduating. There were times while I was reading that I thought, “Wow, I would not want a teenager to read this and hate the world as much as I do right now.” But in the end, I think it’s even more crucial for young readers to experience stories this dark, because these things do happen to teenagers, to girls (and sometimes boys) who are unprepared and don’t think it could ever happen to them. Rape culture is that bad.

“How is it that two eyes, a nose, and a mouth can be positioned in such varying ways that it makes one person beautiful and another person not? What if my eyes had been a fraction closer together? Or if my nose had been flatter? My lips thinner or my mouth too wide? How would my life have been different? Would that night have happened?”

Okay, I’m talking too much about what this book made me feel, and not enough about how well it is written.

Asking For It is divided into two parts, “Last Year” and “This Year.”  They are presented chronologically, and each fills about half of the novel. “Last year” starts before the rape, showing Emma with her family, friends, strangers, and acquaintances. The reader sees that she is mean, she is jealous, she is selfish. Reputation matters more to her than genuine regard, and every move she makes is calculated based on what her peers will think of it. It would be easy to hate Emma, but the novel also shows that she acts this way because she feels cornered. Ballinatoom has always put her beauty ahead of anything else, so she feels she must use it to her advantage, and that if she loses that advantage she will be left with nothing. It may be hard to like Emma at times, but she’s also got the sort of explosive personality that makes things happen and sucks the reader into the story immediately with the intensity of a ticking bomb. It’s impossible to look away.

“(I imagined Mam dying, what I would wear to the funeral, the glamour the tragedy would give me. I thought about how much easier my life would be if it were just me and Dad and Bryan.)”

The only detail I found issue with is the way Emma’s friends treat her immediately after seeing the pictures from the night of the disastrous party. They’re quick to exclude and blame her, and I just couldn’t understand how any girl (or person, for that matter) could look at pictures like that and think that what happened was voluntary. I didn’t understand how no one but a school counselor was concerned at all that Emma might not have wanted what happened. Clearly they dislike her enough to want to blame her, but I can’t imagine witnessing anything like what happens to Emma (as several of her peers do) and not thinking, “Oh my god, that girl needs help.”

” ‘You know I’m on your side, right? I was just asking if it was, like, rape rape.’ “

Side note: this has little bearing on the actual story, except as far as Irish law is concerned regarding rape charges, but I did love the Ireland setting. I didn’t realize before this novel, but my reading life has been sadly empty of Irish literature. I loved the sound of the names, the rhythm of the dialogue, the glimpse of culture. I will have to pick up more Irish lit in the future.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. This book was emotional and incredibly difficult to read, but it does what it’s designed to do, and does it well. O’Neill has an undeniable command of language and a knack for unspoken meaning, and I will absolutely be reading more of her work. I’ll probably even buy my own copy of this book at some point– it was convenient to get it through the library this time, but I want to be able to revisit it and loan it out.

Further recommendations:

  • If you’ve read and loved Asking For It (or haven’t yet) and are looking for more lit about rape culture, you should pick up Not That Bad, a collection of essays edited by Roxane Gay. This is a compellingly readable assembly of nonfiction from 30 writers who’ve dealt first-hand with some aspect of rape culture. It is just as eye-opening and important as the concepts highlighted in Asking For It.
  • Mindy McGinnis’s The Female of the Species is another powerful YA novel about rape culture. Though this one’s dark and tragic as well (involving murder as well as rape), it’s a little more hopeful that things can change for the better.

Have you read a book that’s completely shaken you? A book that was difficult to read but you ended up glad to have experienced it?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

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Book Haul 6.18

After last month’s successful goal-reaching, I knew failure was imminent. And here it is. Despite my 2018 goal of acquiring no more than 3 books per month, I’m hauling more than 3 books… again. But I have no regrets this time, because I’ve been keeping up with reading these new books and mostly loving them.

As always, the titles are linked to my full reviews in case you’re interested in seeing what I thought about these books.

Here’s what’s new on my shelves this month:

  1. The Death of Mrs. Westaway by Ruth Ware. This book came out at the very end of May and I received my copy in the very beginning of June. I read it right away because I just can’t resist Ruth Ware’s novels, although this one turned out to be the biggest disappointment for me among her oeuvre. Despite the deliciously creepy atmosphere, the mystery was totally predictable and pretty low-stakes. I’m not ready to quit Ware’s books yet, but I’m definitely hoping for better luck next time. I rated this book 3 stars.
  2. Not That Bad ed. by Roxane Gay. This is a nonfiction collection of essays written by thirty women who have something to say about rape culture. This book has all the punch and social commentary that I loved when I read Gay’s memoir, Hunger, but it also features a wide variety of writing structures and styles that I liked a lot more than Gay’s prose. Every story in this book is unique and important, and there wasn’t a single essay I disliked, though there were a few that stood out as particularly strong. I absolutely recommend this book: for women. For men. For the world, etc. I rated this book 5 stars.
  3. The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang. Here is my Book of the Month Club selection from June. Sort of. I actually chose The Anomaly, which I will be reading in July, but I ended up swapping with my mom. I was totally fine with that, because I’ve really been in a rare romance novel mood this month, and I’d heard lots of good things about this one, which features an autistic heroine. I flew through this book and enjoyed reading it, but a few things bothered me. (Not the autism. I thought that aspect was handled very well.) I rated this book 3 stars.
  4. When I Hit You by Meena Kandasamy. The Bailey’s Women’s Fiction Prize consisted of a pretty attractive longlist this year, and even though the winner has already been announced I’m still interested in picking up some of the nominees I haven’t made time for yet. This is one of the titles from the shortlist, a novel about spousal abuse that takes place in India. I mean, I was expecting it to be good, but it’s a powerful literary masterpiece and I loved it. I rated this book 5 stars.
  5. The Hating Game by Sally Thorne. Another romance novel. The Kiss Quotient left me wanting something more, and even though these characters were less impressive than Hoang’s, this book did deliver. It’s not without it’s flaws and does require some suspension of disbelief, but it lacked the problematic details that pulled me out of The Kiss Quotient and so I ended up liking this one more. In any case, it was a quick read that helped combat a reading slump. I rated this book 4 stars.

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That’s my list. I was pretty lax on trying to stick to my 3-book goal, so I’m actually surprised this haul isn’t longer. I hate not meeting goals, but this was not a bad month. It’s the first time all year that I’ve read every book as I acquired it, so even though I bought more than I should have I still managed to shrink my TBR. I’m calling that a win. Also, even though a couple of these did not live up to my expectations, none of them were complete duds– another win. I’ve been having a pretty excellent reading month, and I’m excited to share my complete wrap-up with you soon, because I read even more than these five books this month.

What titles did you pick up in June? Have you read any of these books?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Lance

In case you missed it, I’m basically obsessed with the 2018 Penguin Modern series. It’s a set of 50 modern classic samples that run about 60 pages each, to give the reader a taste of modern classic works and authors. I’ve read 11 of them now, have 1 left to read on my shelf, and just ordered 6 more. I can’t stop. Today’s title: Vladimir Nabokov’s Lance.

lanceAbout the book: This volume contains three of Nabokov’s short stories, written over a period of 20 years. These include: “The Aurelian,” “Signs and Symbols,” and “Lance.”

What connects all three stories is a very purple and plotless writing style that manages to be simultaneously beautiful and unsettling.

“Only by a heroic effort can I make myself unscrew a bulb that has died an inexplicable death and screw in another, which will light up in my face with the hideous instancy of a dragon’s egg hatching in one’s bare hand.”

I’ve read Nabokov’s Lolita in the past and loved it– as much as one can love such a story. Though it deals with alarming subject matter, Nabokov filled Lolita with vibrant characters and train-wreck tragedies I couldn’t look away from. I mention this because I expected to find similar aspects to love in his short fiction, and was ultimately disappointed on that count. I don’t remember such elaborately ornate prose in Lolita, but that seems to be the main focus in Lance. Whole paragraphs with no discernible purpose beyond aesthetic make up the bulk of this little book. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I wish I had known to expect it when I picked up Lance because it’s not to my personal taste.

“The name of the planet, presuming it has already received one, is immaterial. At its most favored opposition, it may very well be separated from the earth by only as many miles as there are between last Friday and the rise of the Himalayas– a million times the reader’s average age.”

But let’s take a brief look at each of the stories.

“The Aurelian” features a shop-owner whose true passion is lepidoptery: the study of moths and butterflies. He sells what he needs to to make ends meet, but his heart is in his collection and his growing desire to travel and capture specimens of his own. An unexpected chance to do so leads the story to a surprisingly dark ending. This is the purplest of the stories and my least favorite of the bunch, though I appreciated seeing the intersection of Nabokov’s interests in literature and butterflies.

“Signs and Symbols” is the shortest and, in my opinion, simplest of these stories. What looks at first like an ordinary day– as ordinary as it can be, in this family– spirals to extremes through a series of large and small events revolving around a visit to the family’s son in a sanitarium where is mental health is being monitored. I thought this one would turn out to be my favorite, but….

“Lance,” the titular piece, finds the perfect balance between unsettling theme and lush prose. At first this spoof on science fiction bothered me, but for a story that condemns the very genre it follows it turned out incredibly well. This is the story I pulled all of my favorite quotes of the book from, but beyond the lyricism of the wording, “Lance” also offers some interesting insight in sci-fi, space travel, and the human condition. Though it got off to a rocky start for me, it turned out the best of the set.

“Deep in the human mind, the concept of dying is synonymous with that of leaving the earth. To escape its gravity means to transcend the grave, and a man upon finding himself on another planet has really no way of proving to himself that he is not dead– that the naive old myth has not come true.”

The whole book reads almost as prose poetry; each word is chosen so carefully, to such great effect. These stories sound wonderful read aloud, and they look beautiful on the page. Nabokov is clearly a gifted writer, and the darker sides of these stories add an extra layer of flavor and intrigue to what might otherwise be “pretty” work.

My reaction: 2 out of 5 stars. Though I can appreciate Nabokov’s skill, this book just didn’t suit me. There’s definitely an audience for it, but that’s not me. Purple prose isn’t my schtick, and though the little disturbing details saved these stories from being a total wash for me, they weren’t enough to make me truly enjoy reading this volume. I’m glad I read Lolita first, to know that I do like some of Nabokov’s work more than I liked this sample of it; maybe his novel writing is simply a better fit for me; I will definitely reach for another of his longer books before any more of his short stories.

Have you read any Nabokov? Which of his novels should I try next?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: When I Hit You

Though I read a lot of popular commercialized titles (I get major FOMO when it comes to books), it’s often the literary novels that really inspire me. And this year, the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist looks so full of incredible literary fiction that I’ve added  several of the books to my TBR. This weekend, from the shortlist, I read Meena Kandasamy’s incredible novel, When I Hit You.

whenihityouAbout the book: An Indian woman, recently heartbroken after falling in love with a politician who would not publicly acknowledge her, finds a man more suitable for marriage. At least, she thinks so. She meets him online, where they share exciting intellectual and political discussions and debates. This man, she thinks, is like her, and he can teach her something she wants to learn. Her parents approve the match. The marriage happens quickly. Within months– withing weeks– the narrator’s husband is abusing her, cutting off her contact with the outside world and mistreating her inside the confining walls of their home. He interferes in her career and her correspondence, forces new habits into her life, and he hits her. She spends most of her brief marriage wanting to fix what can’t be fixed, wanting to escape without finding the means to, and holding on to a belief in love long after her husband has failed her.

“Abstractions are easy, but my story, like every woman’s story, is something else.”

I loved the structure of this book. Usually I cannot stand a book with little or no plot, and When I Hit You contains little mystery. Our narrator opens the novel with a reflection on her escape from the abusive husband. This tactic immediately reveals a few points that might have added shock or suspension later on: the fact that the husband habitually beat the wife, and that the wife managed to leave the marriage. But When I Hit You is not the sort of book to use abuse as a plot device; taking away the mystery gives our narrator the room she needs to explore the novel’s true purpose: the how and the why.

“In place of a firing squad, I stare down the barrels of endless interrogation. Why did she not run away? Why did she not use the opportunities that she had for escape? Why did she stay if, indeed, the conditions were as bad as the claims? How much of this wasn’t really consensual?

Kandasamy shuts down every possible argument that blames the woman for her abuse. The novel shows the slow escalation of marital discord, noting at every progression of manipulation and violence the blocked exits. The power of When I Hit You comes not from dramatic displays of violence– very few instances of the beatings are shown with any elaboration on specifics– but from the narrator’s increasing desire and inability to flee.

My favorite part is the way this structure allows the narrator’s past and future to intersect. The timelines fold over each other in a way that time can only manage to do on the page, and it’s beautiful.

“And I am thinking of how I am someday going to be writing all this out and I am conscious that I am thinking about this and not about the moment, and I know that I have already escaped the present and that gives me hope, I just have to wait for this to end and I can write again, and I know that because I am going to be writing about this, I know that this is going to end.”

Speaking of beauty, the entire book reads like a sort of poetry. The chapters are broken down into sections, and those take their own forms: discussions of etymology, letters to imaginary lovers, phone calls from the narrator’s parents, stories from Indian culture and history about women, men, or marriage, and even the occasional poem makes an appearance. The chapters are introduced with excerpts from published women who’ve written about violence. There are flashbacks prior to the marriage, and sections that show its aftermath. The whole book is made of small pieces that flow seamlessly into one overarching tragedy, and if it doesn’t incite desire for social change in the reader, I doubt anything will.

“Sometimes the shame is not the beatings, not the rape. The shaming is in being asked to stand judgment.”

A few aspects of this book will haunt me for ages. For example, the fact that though the husband’s abuse is the source of the narrator’s problems, in actuality she is boxed in from all sides. No one asks if she needs help,  and the few people she might be able to turn to dismiss her concerns. Her parents, her neighbors, her doctors, her friends, her lawyer and the police, even the wording of her divorce papers… they all side with the husband. They all believe that she has done something to provoke him, that she has not tried hard enough to make the marriage work, that anyone stupid enough to marry a bad man deserves what she gets. As though any of these possibilities makes her abuse okay.

Another piece that will stick with me is the non-violent manipulation, the coercians that drive the early part of the novel forward. Before the beatings and the rapes, there is the violation of privacy in the narrator’s internet accounts, the severing of her career, the verbal spars that belittle her. I entered this book expecting to find physical abuse, but it’s the ways that the husband took over the narrator’s life and eliminated her choices that I won’t be able to forget.

But as bad as things get, as bad as things continue to be for women who have no control over their situations, there is hope for a better tomorrow. At the back of my copy, there is a short section titled “A List of People You Should Give This Book To (Annotated with Some Reasons Why);” it makes for a great conclusion to the reading experience by engaging with the purposes of the text and examining the ways such a book can create change in the world. My favorite part takes a look at the meaning of the title, which is shown in the novel to be a fragment written by the husband:

“Kandasamy creates a male character who can and does claim every special snowflake backstory– abusive childhood, state persecution, military trauma, a poet’s sensitivity. And in the end it matters not a whit because he crumbles to dust like any replaceable oppressor who made a choice to participate in dehumanising someone. It may be his words as the title of the book but it is her story and she has cut him down and out and through; appropriating his violences for her profession as a writer. The book, as they say, does what it says on the tin.”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I cannot think of a single thing that would have made this book any better, and it is absolutely a new favorite. I’ve already ordered Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie, the Women’s Fiction Prize winner, because I need more lit fic from this year’s list in my life.

Further recommendations:

  1. Throughout When I Hit You, I was strongly reminded of a past literary love, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, despite obvious subject differences. The Bell Jar follows its narrator through mental deterioration into insanity. Though both are works fiction, they reflect certain aspects of their authors’ real experiences, and both broke my heart in a similar way. If you like stories about writers coming through hardships, both of these are great contenders.
  2. If you like the way When  I Hit You informs on Indian culture, you should pick up Akwaeke Emezi’s 2018 release, Freshwater. This one reveals lesser-known aspects of Nigerian culture in a similar way; both books are intellectual, eye-opening discoveries for readers with little experience with these countries.

Have you read any prize winners or nominees lately that have especially impressed you?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: The Hating Game

Two romance novels in one month is unusual for me, but I’ve been in a bit of a slump and these only take me a day or two, so it’s a good way for me to jump-start my reading. After enjoying The Kiss Quotient last week, I thought I’d better pick up another romance novel so that it would be ready for me when the mood struck again– and it’s a good thing I did, because here we are. Yesterday I read Sally Thorne’s 2016 release, The Hating Game.

thehatinggameAbout the book: B & G is a recently-merged publishing company led by two CEOs– Lucy is assists one of them, and her nemesis, Joshua, carries the weight of the other. Every day Lucy and Josh work across from each other in a single shiny office, silently hating each other. Or so it seems. The sudden announcement of a promotion that would make one of them the boss of the other is a game-changer; the tension between them escalates as they each work on their own applications but are also forced to work together in other ongoing office projects, including a team-building retreat. In the midst of heightened emotions, the games continue: the staring game, the HR game, the word-tennis game. But the harder Lucy works to one-up Josh (or at least keep the score even) the less sure she is about the ultimate goal of the hating game, especially when she begins to realize Josh might have a different goal in mind.

“The thing about being in combat with Joshua Templeman? I never truly win. That’s what is so deceptive about it all. The moment I think I’ve won, something happens to remind me I haven’t.”

The Hating Game is narrated entirely from Lucy’s perspective, which fits the plot. Unfortunately, part of the reason this works so well is that Lucy makes so many assumptions. We all make inferences about other people from the evidence we’re given, but so much of this story rests on the reader believing Lucy about the other characters’ personalities and motives when in actuality her guess is as good as anyone’s. The fact that Josh talks about the games they play supports the fact that their dynamic isn’t entirely fabricated in Lucy’s head, but it is a pet peeve of mine when a character (or person, for that matter) decides to speak for someone else. Plot reveals later make sense of this tactic, but I think it’s a good idea to be aware going in that readers are going to get a whole lot of Lucy, and the truth comes later.

Speaking of truth, I must admit there’s a certain level of immaturity to the entire hating game. This has been going on for an entire year already at the start of the book. For two grown people in a professional workplace to thrive off a game this petty is a little ridiculous and unlikely, and it’s hard to believe the love story isn’t as obvious to the characters as it is to the reader. But putting the oddity of the game aside, Thorne does a great job of following the rules she sets in this world, keeping her characters consistent and the story addictive. It’s compulsively readable.

Trying to emulate this sort of romance would probably backfire in real life and shouldn’t be encouraged; the moral of this story should not be interpreted as: “if you want your coworker to fall in love with you, be as evil to them as possible until they can’t stand it anymore.” I was a little creeped out by the weirdly blurry line between murder impulses and lust; there are a couple of times when Lucy imagines killing Josh that seemed kind of hyperbolic and easy to overlook, but there are also a couple of times when she says Josh is looking at her with “serial killer eyes” and she’s actually afraid he’s going to hurt her. That’s not romantic. (Is this a double standard? It bothers me that I’m okay with Lucy contemplating murder just because she’s probably not physically capable of strangling Josh, but it also bothers me that anyone might see her rage as “cute.” I think this dilemma would have been solved if Lucy weren’t so tiny and Josh so large. And of course they’re both beautiful. I’m sure this combination exists in real life, but it seems too easy in fiction.)

But the hate vibes worked for me in a lot of other ways: it was easy to see how Lucy could hate Josh with as frustrated and small as many of his comments and actions made her feel. Whether he intended to make her feel that way or not, there’s a lesson to learn in taking the time to consider how others might interpret your actions, regardless of your motives. The hating game also aligned with my sense of humor pretty well. I have a weird self-deprecating sense of humor that not many people in my real life seem to get, but the hate/love balance in this book produced some nice sarcasm right on my level.

“I’m so turned on I wish I could knock myself unconscious until it passes.”

Though there’s really no diversity or anything brushing on current social issues involved in this story (and again, nothing challenging with body image), there is one small element that I found pretty refreshing: Josh is the shy/insecure party in this couple. Usually it’s the woman in fiction who worries about her appearance and doubts that the man will like her enough, etc. but here Lucy is pretty confident and it’s Josh with the anxiety. It’s nice to see that representation.

” ‘You’re not mad I rescued you? Boys don’t need rescuing.’ ‘This one did.’ “

However, there’s a downside to Josh’s character. Putting aside the wedding debacle, which was stupid of him but fits with his character’s inability to just spit out the truth, Josh is unforgivably awful to Danny; jealousy is understandable, but there are reasonable ways to deal with it, and then there’s the absolutely uncalled-for rudeness that Josh treats Danny with. I can’t stand it when fiction pits women against each other, but this was one of the worst cases of that same trope reversed– and displaying it with men instead of women didn’t make me feel any better about it.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I read this in 2 sittings and I liked it a lot once I managed to suspend my disbelief. I doubt any romance will ever be a 5-star read for me, because the inevitable predictability with the genre spoils total enjoyment. But there’s definitely something to appreciate for the fact that you get what you came for. (Also, intrigue: there’s an excerpt at the back of my copy for another book by Sally Thorne that was supposed to be “coming in summer 2017” but apparently never made it. She does seem to have another novel coming out in 2019 now, but with a different title. Anyone know if it’s the same book, or what happened to the 2017 novel? Just curious.) I’m definitely willing to try again with Sally Thorne, though I’m hoping her next book will be a bit more realistic.

Have you read any great romances lately?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

 

Mid-Year Book Freak-Out Tag (2.0)

This is a great tag for taking stock of my reading year and just sharing the bookish love. I answered the same questions for this tag last year, and I’ve been seeing it everywhere again lately so I’m picking it up for Round 2. If you’re curious for more info, all titles link back to my reviews.

The questions:

1. Best Book You’ve Read in 2018 SO FAR

notthatbad

Not That Bad ed. by Roxane Gay. I kind of can’t believe my favorite book so far this year is nonfiction, and a collection of essays at that, but this one completely gripped me in a way that nothing else has yet in 2018. Highly recommend.

2. Best Sequel You’ve Read in 2018 SO FAR

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Iron Gold by Pierce Brown. This is the fourth book in the Red Rising series, and it’s  not my favorite of Brown’s books but I haven’t read many sequels this year. This one requires some patience because it’s mainly a set-up book between the original trilogy and whatever delightful chaos I’m sure is coming next, but it does some great things with characterization.

Runner-up would be Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo, but I really liked Six of Crows better in that duology.

3. New Release You Haven’t Read Yet But Want To

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The Outsider by Stephen King. I hauled two books last month and read one of them, and it wasn’t the one I was most anticipating. I love King’s writing and I really want to read more of his books. I’ve read several of his old classics, but I want to check out his most recent work.

4. Most Anticipated Release for the Second Half of the Year

providencecover

Providence by Caroline Kepnes. Sequels/new-releases-by-fave-authors are always my most anticipated because they’re the releases I watch for months, whereas new-to-me authors I like to pick up on impulse. Providence comes out tomorrow and I’ve had my eye on it a long time. I’m still reeling from the ending of Kepnes’ last release, Hidden Bodies, and even though Providence is not a sequel in the Joe Goldberg series I just need to see what Kepnes has been writing.

Runner-up would be Pierce Brown’s Dark Age, book 5 in the Red Rising series. This is probably my actual most-anticipated upcoming release, but since I already mentioned one of Brown’s books I thought I should switch things up.

5. Biggest Disappointment

thefemalepersuasion

The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer. This is not to be confused with The Worst Book I’ve Read in 2018 So Far, which I think would go to Our Kind of Cruelty by Araminta Hall. The Female Perusasion is simply a book I expected a lot from that I didn’t feel it delivered in the end. This is exactly why I don’t usually anticipate books by new-to-me authors: my expectations end up skewed. I really hope the next Barnes and Noble Book Club selection impresses me more, but now I know not to plan for an automatic 5-star read.

6. Biggest Surprise

freshwater thedeathofmrs.westaway

A good surprise, and a bad surprise.

Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi is a book I went into a little warily, having seen some positive early reviews and then absolutely nothing. I didn’t click with it immediately, but it ended up being one of my favorite books from the first half of this year.

On the other hand, The Death of Mrs. Westaway by Ruth Ware is a new release from an author I’ve loved since her first release, In a Dark, Dark Wood. I’ve always loved her atmospheric writing, but in this newest novel the atmosphere felt like a crutch that the rest of this predictable mystery had to rest on. By far my least favorite Ware book.

7. Favorite New Author

rebecca

Daphne du Maurier. I read my first du Maurier novel this year, the Gothic classic Rebecca. I loved the story, I loved the writing, and I’ll definitely be reading more of du Maurier’s books. It seems so cliche to fall in love with a classic author’s work, but Rebecca is so exactly to my taste that I can’t believe it took me so long to pick it up.

8. Newest Fictional Crush

emma

I didn’t pick one last year and my reason stands: when I like a guy in a book, I like him with his fictional counterpart; I appreciate fictional characters for the creations they are, but generally I don’t wish to meet them or date them.

But I did really enjoy reading about Mr. Knightly and Emma though, in Jane Austen’s Emma. I thought they were a great match, and that’s the best romance I’ve read this year.

9. Newest Favorite Character

thegreatalone

Leni from Kristin Hannah’s The Great Alone. She’s strong and resilient and inspiring, and she really saved this book for me when I struggled with Hannah’s writing style.

Runner-up: Eleanor from Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. This is another book that fell a little flat for me, but I did really enjoy reading about Eleanor and she has stuck with me since January.

10. Book That Made You Cry

theglasscastle

The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls. We can’t pick our parents, right? And no matter how much we love them, sometimes they make the wrong choices. I have very little in common with Walls’ story in this memoir, but a few of the details about her parents’ failures really got to me anyway. It just sucks to depend on someone who lets you down. The whimsy of most of this story made the sad parts sadder for me, so it was an all-around success.

11. Comic Book That Made You Happy

sagavolumessevenandeight

Saga: Volume 8 by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples. This one was sad and happy, but definitely one of my favorite volumes of the series. Not to be confused with volume 7, also pictured, which was just kind of uneventful, though not particularly disappointing.

12. Favorite Book to Film Adaptation

readyplayerone

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. I may even have liked the film more than the book– I know, blasphemy. The book has a few great elements that the film doesn’t touch, but I thought the balance of plot and 80’s references was handled better in the film and it was just really well-done and fun to see brought to life.

13. Favorite Post You Have Done This Year

top25

Top 25 Favorite Books, 2018 edition. Every year I revise my list of top 25 favorite books of all time, and it’s definitely still a work in progress (how does anyone have one favorite book?), but I always love seeing how my tastes change from year to year, which titles stay, what new books make the list. It takes a lot of thought and effort and I always end up with a list of books I’ve loved, and love to look back on.

14. Most Beautiful Book You’ve Bought This Year

circecover

Circe by Madeline Miller. This is the UK cover, which I ordered. Both the UK and US covers are gorgeous, but I bought this one. I just love the floral pattern and the shiny bronze color and the texture of the art. And there’s another drool-worthy pattern stamped onto the actual hardcover, underneath the jacket. I haven’t actually read this one yet, but it’s coming up fast on my TBR.

15. A Book You Need to Read By the End of the Year

homefirecover

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie won the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction for 2018. There are a few others from the shortlist especially that I also want to check out, but I can’t not read the winner. Prizes aside, it just sounds like a great read: a modern Antigone retelling featuring two Muslim families. I’m hoping to get to it this summer.

 

If you’ve read this far, thanks, and consider yourself tagged. I love seeing the answers to these questions, so feel free to let me know in the comments if you’ve participated with this tag!

And that’s the end. Though I don’t actually have a lot of 5-star reads yet, I have been feeling great about my reading year. I feel like I’m learning and growing a lot as a reader in 2018, and branching out more with the books I’ve been picking up. Even the books I haven’t loved have taught me things that I’ve been applying (or removing) from my own writing as I’ve been focusing more heavily on that this year, as well. 2018 is going fast, but I can’t wait to see what fresh new surprises the second half has in store for my reading.

How’s your year going? Have you read any of these books?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Novel Progress 6.18

I’ve been dragging my feet about this update for days because this has been the first month all year that I can’t say I’ve finished another chapter of my manuscript. In my last update, I talked about how much work I put into (and success I had with) chapter 5, but a month later I’m still only in the middle of chapter 6.

I could list excuses: my seasonal job kept me insanely busy at the end of May, my chapters are long (10,000 words or more each, only 9 chapters total), I put so much effort into finishing chapter 5 quickly that I was in a bit of a slump in the aftermath. But the important thing is that I still made progress, even if it was slower this month. I kept trying, and I think I’ve finally pushed through to productive mode again.

When I opened chapter 6 right after my last update, there were only 2,000 words in the chapter– only 1/5th of my target number. But I did add 5,000 more words that were tucked away in a file of scenes I wrote without knowing where exactly they would fit into my manuscript. But they needed heavy revisions and editing. So that’s what I’ve been working on this month. I’m currently at 8,400 words, and I’ve revised and edited my way through 14 pages of what will probably end up being about 32 pages.

But some good, encouraging things have been happening lately. First, I read Charles Soule’s The Oracle Year, a recent sci-fi release that has almost nothing in common with my manuscript and was only a 3-star read for me but proved very helpful anyway. The Oracle Year follows a similar sort of structure as my manuscript, and it uses the same concept of  a single weird phenomenon being introduced into the real world. So it was great to see in someone else’s writing which aspects worked for me (or didn’t) as a reader, since it’s so hard to be objective about some of the technical/mechanical aspects of my own writing. I know people say you should read a lot of the genre you write in, and I don’t exactly do that. I just read a lot of anything that catches my eye. But this one was particularly educational, and I came back to my manuscript feeling like I had new ideas to apply.

Second, I cheated on my writing plan. I was supposed to be using 2018 to work through my manuscript in chronological order– my work on it in 2017 was all over the place, so even though I was close to a full draft it basically looked like Swiss cheese and the parts didn’t all mesh together. It’s been nice having a lot of the structure and plot already in place, but I was so afraid that if I looked at anything other than the chapter I was in I would get derailed again. But in my slump, I looked ahead. It turns out chapter 7 already has over 10,000 words in it, and I like the plot in there a lot. Some revising/editing will be required, and now that the first 6 chapters are (almost) completely in place I know of a few more details I’m going to want to add. But working from a starting point of 10,000 words sure beats the 2,000 I started with in chapter 6, so I feel less daunted about the last 3 chapters now. When I started struggling so much with 6, I was really afraid that 7, 8, and 9 would be just as hard, which didn’t exactly motivate me to reach them. But now I know that 7 should be easier, and more fun. I want to get there.

On a related note, one thing that often happens when I get into a slump is that I think all of my writing is bad. Writers sometimes talk about “killing their darlings,” how hard it can be having to cut out parts of the writing that they’re proud of; I have the opposite problem. Especially when I’m in a slump, I can look back at something that I thought was good, and cheerfully destroy two thirds of it. I wonder why I’m trying to write at all, when clearly I’m terrible at it and will never be able to convey what I want to in any appreciable way. (We’re hardest on ourselves, right?) But after I cheated and looked ahead at chapter 7, I cheated again and reread a lot of chapters 1-3. And surprisingly, I didn’t hate them. I really liked them, in fact. I’ve been working so hard on every individual chapter this year, going through sentence by sentence, and not moving on until every word feels right. When I was stuck in that one section of chapter 6, going over the same 2 pages again and again and still not finding the right balance of the original idea and the new information I needed to combine, it was harder to see the bigger picture. But when I went back to reread some of the scenes I knew I had really liked, I remembered why I was being so stubborn about the details– because in the end, it was paying off. There were still a few word choices I’d like to go back and change once I have a complete draft, but for the most part I’m still really pleased with the work I’ve done this year, and reminding myself of that made soldiering on through this tough spot more tolerable.

Third, I just kept opening up section 6, day after day, even when I knew I was going to get nowhere with it. I had to look at it. I had to keep it in my mind, so that I would be ready for the ideas to start flowing again at any time. And in the last few days, that persistence has been turning into progress. I finally made some sense out of that 2-page section I’ve been stuck on for weeks, and I’m excited about the next sections of the chapter. That one section went really slowly, but even the days when I had only edited a couple of sentences after hours of work added up, and I did finally make it through. Sometimes working on a scene I’m feeling uninspired about can backfire, but I was patient this time. I didn’t let myself settle for having words on the page even if they weren’t the right words.

This has been a long update already, especially for having only “completed” half a chapter this month. But you know what’s better than reading success stories? Reading about other people’s struggles. Sometimes you don’t meet your deadlines. Sometimes you have a lot of work to do and you take a nap instead. Even the writers you idolize have rejection letters and unfinished projects. Bad days (or months) are part of the process. Today, I’m feeling a little better about where I stand than I did for most of this month, but I wanted to admit that I’ve been working on the same 2 pages of my manuscript for probably 3 weeks now. My go-to slump-crushers weren’t working (taking a walk, reading something inspiring, opening a new document and writing something non-manuscript related just to get some words flowing again). But I’ve survived and the world marches on. I’m still confident that I’ll finish this project eventually, and some days I’m even pretty confident that it’s publishable. (Though that’s a whole other fear not worth going into today.)

I’m ending this update with no particular plans or expectations– I have no idea how far I will get in the next month, or how much longer it will take me to finish section 6 much less reach the end of the draft. But that’s okay. I’m still trying.

What do you do with writer’s block?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant