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Review: Ugly Love

I read Hoover’s It Ends With Us a little over a year ago. I liked what it was trying to do, but wasn’t thrilled with the ways it went about it. But it did have some good morals, was fun to read, and made me think I should try another of Colleen Hoover’s romance novels before giving up. At the very least, romance novels are occasionally a nice guilty-pleasure read for me. From her oeuvre, I chose Ugly Love.

uglyloveAbout the book: Tate moves into her brother’s apartment in Seattle because the empty room allows for a convenient commute to her nursing job. She isn’t intending to stay forever, but she gets along well with her pilot brother and a few months with him seems like a good choice. While she’s there, she meets one of her brother’s pilot friends, Miles. He’s drunk and desperate and in need of assistance. Their reintroduction in the morning when he’s sobered up a bit doesn’t go much better. But he is attractive, and she sees something in him that first night, a vulnerability that he’s extremely careful never to show when he’s in control of himself. So even when he makes it clear that he’s not interested in talking about the past or the future or love, that he’s only looking for a physical relationship, she agrees, hoping she’ll see that real, raw, deeper part of him again eventually. He’s highly motivated to make sure that doesn’t happen, which seems to doom their relationship from the start.

“I don’t see how love could get ugly enough for a person to just shut himself off from it completely.”

First, let’s look at the formatting. Many of Miles’ POV sections, which mostly focus on his traumatic past, are written with center alignment. Usually I appreciate unusual formats, but this simply had no purpose. I believe it was intended to make some of his story seem more poetic, but Miles is a pilot, not a poet. All of the books on his stuffed-full shelves are aerodynamic texts. And present-day Miles is still pretty bitter about the events unfolding in those past sections, not poetic.

What the formatting does accomplish however, is emphasis. This has more to do with spacing and sentence structure than the central alignment, and it’s especially noticeable in Tate’s POV chapters. There’s a lot of emphasis to be found in the parts that are probably supposed to be romantic. But spacing does not make up for the fact that the narration is constantly telling rather than showing in Ugly Love.

And what is it telling? A cute sentence Miles speaks is repeated in Tate’s head word. by. word. as the phrase becomes her new favorite sentence. Someone blushes and it’s mentally gushed over for an entire paragraph. “His fingertip touched my knee. OMG HE TOUCHED. MY. KNEE.” These are things that any reader can generally pick up on without being told three times in various ways that something significant is happening. An interested reader can identify a cute bit of dialogue without being told it’s there. He/she can identify a blush and recognize what it signifies. And if these cues are being given appropriately, we will be just as interested as the protagonist that the tiniest bit of the love interest’s skin is casually touching her knee. A tighter round of editing might have served better than the emphatic use of spacing, central alignment, and italics. So many italics.

“You look up there and think, I wish I was up there. But you’re not. Ugly love becomes you. Consumes you. Makes you hate it all. Makes you realize that all the beautiful parts aren’t even worth it. Without the beautiful, you’ll never risk feeling this. You’ll never risk feeling the ugly.”

But even the worst formatting, if a story has good bones, can be overlooked. And yet I could not quite bring myself to appreciate Ugly Love‘s bones. Tate is made to seem commendable for sticking with Miles while he struggles with his past. But sticking with him is pretty harmful to Tate from the start, worse as the novel wears on, and awful toward the end. There is a time she thinks “he RUINED me,” and stays with him. There is an incident when kissing is compared to killing. Miles is never physically or even intentionally abusive, but he’s constantly hurting Tate, and I didn’t think it commendable to show readers that staying in those situations is good for the person who’s constantly being hurt and coming back for more. But let’s skip to the big question of the novel: Are the ugliest parts of love worth the beautiful parts? An old question. One that’s already been answered time and time again, in better ways. Who doesn’t know “It’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all?” The romance is obvious before one even cracks open the book– but even the themes are predictable.

Where there’s predictability, there’s boredom. I didn’t need 100+ pages of proof that Miles had been in love before his romantic tragedy. That’s a no-brainer. That’s what makes his disaster disastrous. The tragedy itself has good shock value, but I believe I would’ve had the same reaction to reading it without all the backstory of how they’d gotten there. Even just hearing Miles say it in present day would’ve been as powerful as reading it directly from his past. Hoover gives point 1, dangles point 2, and then with 2 in sight she takes the reader on a scenic trip to 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, etc. There could’ve been a bit more mystery to the book, a bit more subtlety.

Instead, there’s insta-love. My problem with insta-love isn’t that I don’t agree with the possibility of love at first sight, it’s when the initial attraction never becomes more than that superficial first layer of physical attraction. And after finishing Ugly Love, I still can’t tell you what either Tate or Miles might have found lovable about the other. It’s just relentless physical attraction. Where’s the love?

Also there are a handful of details that seem to be pulled directly from Fifty Shades, which is unfortunate.

My reaction: 2 of 5 stars. Not the worst book I’ve ever read. It just wasn’t right for me, apparently. I had a lot of eye-rolling moments, but I did also laugh twice. It’s a romance, which is what Ugly Love purports to be, so it is successful in that.  I just wish there had been more focus on provocative and worthwhile content than on distracting formatting and familiar sentiments. I still feel like maybe in one of her novels Hoover will get just the right balance of unique and interesting story with the proper, powerful narration it deserves. But I’m not in a hurry to comb through the rest of her books looking for the one that will finally hit that mark.

Further recommendations:

  1. If you’re serious about picking up a Hoover book and haven’t already tried It Ends With Us, I recommend that one. While parts of It Ends With Us seemed preachy to me, there were more main characters and deeper questions, morals I wanted to hang on to longer. This one deals with spousal abuse and homelessness, and the epistolary formatting for part of the story is reasonably explained. It’s not so predictable.
  2. Although I would say Hoover’s books would be considered Adult romance, or maybe New Adult at lowest, I’m going to suggest Paper Princess by Erin Watt if you want a romance that really has the power to surprise. Paper Princess, a romance in the YA age range, was also a guilty pleasure for me, but I didn’t have nearly as many problems with it. The characters are teens, but it’s just as explicit as an adult romance. It’s gritty and weird and a little less obvious– there’s a whole family of hot boys, and it took me longer than I want to admit to figure out which one of them was the love interest. They’re interesting people, at the very least.

I’m sorry to have so many complaints about one book and I want to end on a good note: “It’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all” is indeed a beautiful sentiment.


The Literary Elephant


Review: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

I’m on a quest to eliminate my BOTM backlist, and the first one on the agenda was my December selection, Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. It’s adult literary fiction, which was all I knew going in other than that Eleanor’s social skills are nonexistent at best, and abrasive at worst.

“Did men ever look in the mirror, I wondered, and find themselves wanting in deeply fundamental ways? When they opened a newspaper or watched a film, were they presented with nothing but exceptionally handsome young men, and did this make them feel intimidated, inferior, because they were not as young, not as handsome? Did they then read newspaper articles ridiculing those same handsome men if they gained weight or wore something unflattering?”

eleanoroliphantiscompletelyfineAbout the book: Eleanor has a crush. He’s a musician, and she’s seen him on stage once. They’ve never met. Nevertheless, she decides he’s absolutely the man of her dreams, he’ll fall madly in love with her when they meet, and he’s the key to turning her life around. And so she embarks on a self-remake journey and reconnaissance mission to learn about him before making her move. In the meantime, she’s thrust into a new social circle when she aids an elderly man who had a heart attack in the street; between her experiences with them and her weekly conversations with Mummy, she reveals a dark and tragic past that has made her adult life bleak and lonely. Her difficulty understanding other people’s perspectives has always made her seem so aloof and strange, but as the musician and the elderly man (along with a few other new acquaintances) begin to turn her life upside down, she learns that she’s not as remote and untouchable as she thought.

“Although it’s good to try new things and keep an open mind, it’s also extremely important to stay true to who you are. I read that in a magazine at the hairdressers.”

Eleanor’s dark past is one of the most intriguing aspects of the novel. The reader learns almost right away that there is more to Eleanor than meets the eye, and every subsequent clue is deeper and more curious. Her personality alone is enough to captivate the reader, but she also gives frequent hints about people in her past that turned bad (or were always bad without her quite understanding), the origin of her facial scars, and certain disastrous events which led to further hardships and her current life situation.

“Life is all about taking decisive action, darling. Whatever you want to do, do it– whatever you want to take, grab it. Whatever you want to bring to an end, END IT. And live with the consequences.”

I don’t know much about Asperger’s, but I’ve seen reviews claiming that Eleanor exhibits similar symptoms from the Autism spectrum. This is not a matter directly addressed in the novel, but from what little I do know, I do believe that this could be a contributing factor in Eleanor’s unusual personality. If this is indeed the case, I want to mention that the novel handles it pretty well. First, because it’s subtle. Eleanor has been mistreated, perhaps taken advantage of because a child with a neurological disorder can be particularly vulnerable, but the story is essentially about Eleanor, it’s not a moralizing reprimand to the masses about how to (and how not to) treat persons with Asperger’s; not that those books don’t have their place, but I find a subtle approach like this more endearing and effective. But most importantly, Eleanor Oliphant also offers readers examples of kind people who persist in helpful relationships with Eleanor not because of or despite any social difficulties she might display, but because she’s a person who needs friends like any other person needs friends. I know the world needs more diverse books– better representations of genders, races, disabilities– and this is the kind of novel I like to see fulfilling that demand: it’s informative but not preachy, enlightening but still fun. Eleanor is a fantastic character.

“Was this how it worked, then, successful social integration? Was it really that simple? Wear some lipstick, go to the hairdressers and alternate the clothes you wear? Someone ought to write a book, or at least an explanatory pamphlet, and pass this information on.”

Sadly, the present-day part of the plot is fairly transparent. It takes very little observation of Eleanor’s social encounters to figure out exactly how her plans with the musician are going to end up (though I was actually a bit disappointed with how internalized that final confrontation was, I was expecting more… confrontation), and almost as little time studying Raymond’s personality to know how things will end up with him. Even Eleanor’s secrets from the past are not entirely surprising when they’re finally revealed, due to the constant hints throughout the narrative that guide the reader to the truth. A little more subtlety with these techniques would’ve made this a definite 5-star read for me, but I think it’s a testament to how well-written the rest of the novel is that I couldn’t put the book down despite predicting where it was headed.

“These days, loneliness is the new cancer– a shameful, embarrassing thing, brought upon yourself in some obscure way. A fearful, incurable thing, so horrifying that you dare not mention it; other people don’t want to hear the word spoken aloud for fear that they might too be afflicted, or that it might tempt fate into visiting a similar horror upon them.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I absolutely loved Eleanor. She may be a bit unusual in her willingness to say out loud the first thought that pops into her head, but she has some darn good points to make in some cases, and even when I could see the mistakes in her assumptions, they never failed to amuse me. Eleanor Oliphant was Honeyman’s debut novel, and you can bet that I’ll be anxiously awaiting any new works she’ll have coming out in the future.

Further recommendations:

  1. Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar is a darker classic about a young woman who becomes dangerously depressed when she goes out to find her place in the world. Unlike Eleanor, who’s tragedy lies in her past and can be pushed behind her, Esther’s catastrophes take place during the time frame of the novel, which she struggles to turn back around.
  2. A Man Called Ove by Frederick Backman is a lighter book with similar themes. Ove, an elderly Swede, has been grouchy and cantankerous (and downright unsocial) since the death of his wife– but when a new family moves in next door, he begins to see that he still has a few things worth living for. This book is as humorous as it is emotional, perfect for fans of Eleanor.

Have you read any books that surprised you lately?


The Literary Elephant


Review: The Glass Castle

If you think your parents are odd, you probably haven’t read Jeannette Walls’ memoir, The Glass Castle. One of my reading intents for 2018 is to pick up more non-fiction, and The Glass Castle gave me an easy start– it reads like a fictional coming-of-age story while further impressing readers with its ties to reality.

theglasscastleAbout the book: From an incident involving a stove fire and subsequent hospitalization at the age of three, Jeannette takes readers on a scenic trip through her eccentric childhood. Her adventurous parents are fond of the “skedaddle,” checking out of hospitals, homes, and whole states Rex Walls style– quickly and without paying the bills. Jeannette and her siblings are given a very free rein as her parents shuttle them from town to town, trying to strike it rich by finding gold or making it as an artist. Jeannette has grown up in the midst of her parents’ grand dreams, including the infamous Glass Castle, an elaborate home Rex would like to build for his family. None of them are short on dreams, but neither parent is inclined to hold a job for long and they take the ensuing years of poverty as part of the adventure– an adventure their children are fated to endure right along with them. From sleeping in cardboard boxes to using a back window as a front door and counting a yellow bucket as “indoor plumbing,” the adventure goes on and on, until it seems more like a trap to be escaped.

” ‘You can’t quit your job,’ I said. ‘We need the money.’ ‘Why do I always have to be the one who earns the money?’ Mom asked. ‘You have a job. You can earn money. Lori can earn money, too. I’ve got more important things to do.’ “

The Glass Castle is a tale of questionable parenting, but there’s no denying the love. Jeannette’s parents may make some truly awful decisions about the family’s living situations and their children’s basic needs, but they do have hearts full of love, some great advice, and open minds. In some ways they’re careless, but in other ways they’re enviably carefree. Jeannette writes it all without that sickly sweet element of sentimentality that would make the book read too much like a list of morals. She offers no reprimand to the adults that made beds for their children out of cardboard boxes or sneakily ate giant chocolate bars while their kids went hungry. Jeannette tackles these details with the adventurous spirit of the child she was, admitting that some of the hardships were actually fun and exciting. Her older, wiser self is apparent in the details she chooses to share and the pointed way she ends certain segments of her story, but she  refrains from guiding the reader too blatantly down a path of judgment and resentment.

” ‘Erma can’t let go of her misery,’ Mom said. ‘It’s all she knows.’ She added that you should never hate anyone, even your worst enemies. ‘Everyone has something good about them,’ she said. ‘You have to find the redeeming quality and love the person for that.’ ‘Oh yeah?’ I said. ‘How about Hitler? What was his redeeming quality?’ ‘Hitler loved dogs,’ Mom said without hesitation.”

The power from the story comes from two places: the first is the disillusionment concerning one’s parents. No matter how different the reader’s own past may be, growing up and learning that your parents aren’t invincible or even always good is a hard lesson. Many readers can relate to discovering that their parents have lied, that some of their plans are no more than fantasies that will never come to pass, that they’re more focused on their own lives than their children’s. There are some wonderful people in the world, and certainly some of them are parents, but even in the best of circumstances it can be difficult to suddenly see one’s parents as people, rather than solely as parents, the forces that make the world an inhabitable place and answer all of one’s questions. This shift in perspective is what The Glass Castle explores, and the juxtaposition of Jeannette’s childhood opinions with her adult writing style tackle it aptly.

“As awful as he could be, I always knew he loved me in a way no one else ever had.”

The other point of power in this story is the relationship between Jeannette and her siblings. Their parents may have had a unique way of raising children, but the four of them could always rely on each other to understand the workings of their family. Although they may not have confided every thought that entered their heads, the four siblings stand firmly together when the other schoolkids bully them about their living situation or despicable grown-ups try to take advantage of them. It’s an enviable closeness, and a remarkable example of reliability considering the poor example set by their parents, and any reader with siblings of his/her own or even close friends will recognize certain aspects of the relationship. Whether with siblings or not, it’s the sort of friendship one aspires to find in their own life, and often its the most positive point in Jeannette’s story.

“Other kids wanted to fight us because we had red hair, because Dad was a drunk, because we wore rags and didn’t take as many baths as we should have, because we lived in a falling-down house that was partly painted yellow and had a pit filled with garbage, because they’d go by our dark house at night and see that we couldn’t even afford electricity. But we always fought back, usually as a team.”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. For a while this was just a wacky story, but by the end I was feeling all the emotions and I knew I’d be thinking about this book for a long time. Despite its specificity, The Glass Castle offers lessons for readers from all walks of life; it’s not just about poverty, but about transformation. It’s about chasing one’s dreams instead of letting them die. It’s about making something out of nothing. Turning a bad fortune around. I found it very uplifting, especially in the last third of the book, and I had such a good experience reading this one that I’m encouraged to pick up more memoirs. I’ve got a couple in mind, but I’m fairly new to the genre and would appreciate suggestions!

Further recommendations:

  1. Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee is the disillusioning sequel to Lee’s classic, To Kill a Mockingbird. If you understand (or just appreciate reading about) parents who turn out to be different than one originally thought, I suggest picking this one up (after To Kill a Mockingbird. Don’t worry, they’re both relatively easy reads.)
  2. A Million Junes by Emily Henry is a YA magical realism tale about parents who aren’t what their children thought, although this one also deals with other big themes like grief and first love. It’s a great father-daughter story about making a meaningful life, even after losing someone important. This book is perfect for adults, too.

Are you reading anything outside of your normal comfort zone this year?


The Literary Elephant



Review: The Underground Railroad

I’ve seen Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad on quite a few shelves since its publication toward the end of 2016, but somehow I failed to form a definite opinion about whether or not I wanted to read it until the final two weeks of 2017, when I suddenly needed a Pulitzer Prize winning book to complete my reading challenge. As I perused the list of winners and considered the titles most readily available, The Underground Railroad was the one that jumped out at me, and I had to pick it up immediately. I’m glad I did.

theundergroundrailroadAbout the book: Cora was born on the Randall plantation in pre-Civil War Georgia. When she was ten years old, her mother ran away, leaving Cora behind. As a teenager, Cora is presented with a similar opportunity: she can leave slavery behind and escape with Caesar, who has a connection with the Underground Railroad. Once she steps foot off the Randall property, she’ll either end up free or dead. Although the outcome may sound simple, the journey is anything but. The train ride itself doesn’t take much time, but Cora spends months– years– trying to escape the “crimes” she left behind her and find the life she’s been told she can have off the plantation. “Free” never quite seems like an accurate description of Cora’s situation though, and there’s always the danger that she’ll be returned to Randall for a gruesome fate. A trail of deaths and injustices follows Cora on her search for safety as she travels through a wide range of places with all manner of people and discovers how deep prejudice can run.

“But we have all been branded even if you can’t see it, inside if not without.”

“And America, too, is a delusion, the grandest one of all. The white race believes– believes with all its heart– that it is their right to take the land. To kill Indians. Make war. Enslave their brothers. This nation shouldn’t exist, if there is any justice in the world, for its foundations are murder, theft, and cruelty. Yet here we are.”

One of the most intriguing aspects about this particular Underground Railroad story was the use of a real underground train as part of the system. This new twist is also, I think, the main reason that Whitehead’s novel does not read like any other Underground Railroad tale I’ve ever encountered. The actual traveling between states takes so much less time than traversing on foot that the focus stays firmly on the characters: their lives and choices and hardships.

“Then it comes, always– the overseer’s cry, the call to work, the shadow of the master, the reminder that she is only a human being for a tiny moment across the eternity of her servitude.”

In The Underground Railroad, Whitehead allows the story to radiate out from Cora. We see sections about Caesar (her escape-mate), Cora’s mother and her mother’s mother, and even the slave hunter who’s dedicated himself to tracking Cora down. The reader may not agree with all of these characters’ choices, but the wider view of influencers in Cora’s life humanizes characters that might otherwise have been stock heroes or villains. Whitehead shows the reader the pasts that made each of them who they are, and how those people helped form Cora’s character and life conditions. We also see through Cora’s eyes at many different stages of her life rather than solely the time frame of her escape attempt. Cora herself is easy to appreciate, but the additional perspectives give the story a wider scope and a higher feel of plausibility. Whitehead balances the nuances of the multiple views expertly.

“Somewhere, years ago, she had stepped off the path of life and could no longer find her way back to the family of people.”

“A plantation was a plantation; one might think one’s misfortunes distinct, but the true horror lay in their universality.”

The only thing I would change about this book is the way it jumps through time. Normally I appreciate stories that start in medias res; I appreciate when characters don’t waste time explaining things blatantly to the reader that they wouldn’t be explaining if they weren’t aware that they were narrating a book, things that the reader can learn as the story progresses; but each new chapter of this book, and sometimes sections within chapters, seem to start in different times and places than where it left off, and it was often confusing for several sentences, paragraphs, or even pages how we had gotten from one point to the other and where we had ended up. There are lots of smaller stories within the overall arc of The Underground Railroad, and each of them jumps right in to the important parts without going into those helpful background details like time and place, and the big event that made him/her leave point A for point B in the first place. The Underground Railroad is a book that requires constant attention, but it will get you where you’re going in the end and it’s worth the extra puzzling to discover the truths Cora has to share.

“Freedom was a community laboring for something lovely and rare.”

“The world may be mean, but people don’t have to be, not if they refuse.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This was a great read, a book with pages that practically turn themselves because of the engaging plot and sympathetic characters, but also a book that teaches. For the first time since US history lessons in elementary school, I felt like I was reading a new story about the Underground Railroad, something that connected with me emotionally and still felt like it had relevant messages about kindness and equality even in a time when slavery no longer exists in the US. I’m definitely feeling encouraged to pick up more Pulitzer Prize winners.

Further recommendations:

  1. The Color Purple by Alice Walker is indeed another Pulitzer Prize winner that I read recently and highly respected. It also focuses on racism in southern US, although this time in the early 1900s. It also challenges misogyny and other forms of oppression, in a very uplifting and exciting way. It’s not to be read lightly, as it deals with some pretty heavy subjects, including rape and abuse, but it has some great messages to share for readers willing to brave its stormy seas.

Have you read any Pulitzer Prize books that you would recommend?


The Literary Elephant

2017 Reading Challenge: Final Update

My first year with a reading challenge has now drawn to a close, but did I complete it? Drumroll, please…

I did! Sort of. I did finish my last book after midnight on the 1st, but I was so close and I’m counting it. To be fair, I won’t count that book for anything in 2018 even though technically I did finish it a few hours after 2017 ended. Maybe it’s cheating, but… I was so close. I’m counting it.

Here are the books I read for my 2017 reading challenge:

  1. A book with more than 500 pages: City of Glass by Cassandra Clare
  2. A classic romance: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  3. A book that became a movie: Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon
  4. A book published this year: A Court of Wings and Ruin by Sarah J. Maas
  5. A book with a number in the title: Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo
  6. A book written by someone under thirty: The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon
  7. A book with nonhuman characters: All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders
  8. A funny book: A Million Junes by Emily Henry
  9. A book by a female author: The Raven King by Maggie Stiefvater
  10. A mystery or thriller: Dark Matter by Blake Crouch
  11. A book with a one-word title: Caraval by Stephanie Garber
  12. A book of short stories: Because You Love to Hate Me by various, ed. Ameriie
  13. A book set in a different country: Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys
  14. A nonfiction book: We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  15. A popular author’s first book: City of Bones by Cassandra Clare
  16. A book you haven’t read before from an author you already love: Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood
  17. A book a friend recommended: Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
  18. A Pulitzer Prize-winning book: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
  19. A book based on a true story: Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
  20. A book at the bottom of your to-read list: The Color Purple by Alice Walker
  21. A book your mom loves: Vows by LaVyrle Spencer
  22. A book that scares you: Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough
  23. A book more than 100 years old: Persuasion by Jane Austen
  24. A book you picked up because of its cover: Faithful by Alice Hoffman
  25. A book you were supposed to read in school but didn’t: The Lover by Marguerite Duras
  26. A memoir: Talking as fast as I Can by Lauren Graham
  27. A book you finish in a day: Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
  28. A book with antonyms in the title: Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
  29. A book set somewhere you’ve always wanted to visit: Lies She Told
    by Cate Holahan
  30. A book that came out the year you were born: The Alienist by Caleb Carr
  31. A book with bad reviews: Lucky You by Erika Carter
  32. A trilogy: The Grisha trilogy: Shadow and Bone, Siege and Storm, and Ruin and Rising by Leigh Bardugo
  33. A book from your childhood: The Truth About Forever by Sarah Dessen
  34. A book with a love triangle: Clockwork Prince by Cassandra Clare
  35. A book set in the future: Midnight at the Electric by Jodi Lynn Anderson
  36. A book set in high school: The Female of the Species by Mindy McGinnis
  37. A book with a color in the title: Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys
  38. A book that makes you cry: All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven
  39. A book with magic: The Magicians by Lev Grossman
  40. A graphic novel: Saga by Brian K Vaughan and Fiona Staples
  41. A book by an author you’ve never read before: The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon
  42. A book you own but have never read: I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson
  43. A book that takes place in your home state: Some Luck by Jane Smiley
  44. A book that was originally written in a different language: A Man Called Ove by Frederick Backman
  45. A book set during Christmas: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
  46. A book written by an author with your same initials: The Wonder by Emma Donoghue
  47. A play: Macbeth by Shakespeare
  48. A banned book: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  49. A book based on or turned into a TV Show: City of Ashes by Cassandra Clare
  50. A book you started but never finished: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

My stats –>    Completed Categories: 50/50

My favorites from the list: Six of Crows, A Million Junes, Dark Matter, The Color Purple, Persuasion, The Truth About Forever, The Female of the Species, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Jane Eyre.

Some of these books appear on my Favorite Reads of 2017 list!

Would I attempt a reading challenge in the future? Sure! In fact, you can check out the Literary Elephant 2018 Reading Challenge now! But here’s why I’m not in a hurry to pick up another challenge like this one:

It was fun at first, fitting books from my actual TBR into the confines of the challenge. There were even some fun surprises when the challenge pushed me to expand my TBR to include some new items. But as a whole, once I hit about the 2/3 mark, my challenge felt more like a chore. My reading interests change over time– not to say they’re ever “better” or “worse,” and they do change back sometimes too– but after several months I was less interested in a chunk of the titles that I’d eagerly filled into these challenge categories earlier in the year. I think a smaller challenge, or one more personally adapted to fit me would give me better results. Near the end of this challenge, several of the categories seemed so arbitrary that I wondered why I was trying so hard to finish the challenge. The categories just weren’t pushing me in the right way to reach the sort of reading goals I was interested in by the middle/end of the year. There were some books I was glad to have read because of this challenge, and I did cross quite a few books off my TBR as well, but it was easy to stay inside my reading comfort zone with these, which did end up boring me after a while. I want to make some changes in the material that I’m reading. So as I mentioned above, I’ve set my own reading challenge for 2018, and you’re welcome to join– even if you want to change some of the categories to tailor it to your own reading tastes, like I did.

All in all, I’m proud of myself for completing my first ever reading challenge, and it did push me to get some higher numbers this year, but in 2018 I’m aiming for quality above quantity, and I want to be reaching for more books that are out of the norm. I’m glad I participated in a reading challenge for 2017, but I’m even more excited about seeing what comes next.

Did you take part in a reading challenge last year? Were you able to complete it? Did it help you find any surprising favorite books?


The Literary Elephant

December Reading Wrap-up

I had big plans for December, and even though many of them went unrealized, I think I did prioritize well so that even now I’m happy with the reading I accomplished this month, despite the books I didn’t get around to. I focused my December reading on the final titles I needed to cross off on my 2017 reading challenge, which gave me an interesting range of genres and plots and constantly surprised me. Here’s a look at the books I conquered in December:

  1. The Alienist by Caleb Carr. 3 out of 5 stars.thealienist I came across this book first through Book of the Month Club, and it intrigued me then, but seeing that it also came out in the year I was born, thus fulfilling a tricky slot in my reading challenge, I knew I had to read it. I put it off until December, but I’m glad I finally read it. Unfortunately, even though the plot was everything I expected from the intriguing premise (a murder spree of child prostitutes in Gilded Age New York, solved by Theodore Roosevelt’s team of an early behavioral psychologist, a seasoned reporter for the Times, the first female secretary of the NYPD, and various ex-criminals), the writing style dragged a bit for me. I wasn’t as impressed as I hoped to be.
  2. The Wonder by Emma Donoghue. 4 out of 5 stars. I was wary going into this one thewonderbecause of Room. I enjoyed Donoghue’s Room (although I still haven’t seen the film) but for some reason I had a hard time envisioning Donoghue’s storytelling working so effectively across such different subjects, and while I respected Room I didn’t want to read another version of it. Luckily, The Wonder proved to me that Donoghue has a great range. I was pulled into this story and these characters so much more strongly than I expected, and I closed the book more than willing to pick up another book by this author in the future. This is one of those novels that’s a delight to read even if you don’t think you have any interest in its Irish setting, in Catholic miracles, in fasting, or in nursing. If you like to learn obscure things from books that know their stuff, let me gently nudge you toward The Wonder.
  3. The Color Purple by Alice Walker. 5 out of 5 stars. thecolorpurpleThis book wins the award for my most surprising (in a good way) book of the month. It came from the very bottom of my Goodreads TBR list, which means by the time I picked it up this month I didn’t remember what it was about, or even why I had added it to my TBR in the first place. If it hadn’t won a Pulitzer Prize, those facts alone probably would’ve assured its removal from my TBR list over the years as my interest faded. But before I’d even reached page numbers in the double digits, I fell in love with this story. I’m so glad my reading challenge pushed me to pick it up this year. Even though it’s a classic and a prize-winner (which generally take a bit longer to parse and ponder), I read it so quickly and easily, and I was sad to reach the end. There’s some heavy subject matter and it’s not a book to be taken lightly, but it’s a powerful and empowering read, one of my favorites this year.
  4. Macbeth by William Shakespeare. 3 out of 5 stars. I thought Macbeth would be… macbethcrazier. More intense. More magical. It felt too brief and condensed, maybe, for all those hopes to be properly realized. There is craziness and murder and magic, of course, but for some reason none of it resonated with me like I expect a good book to do. I like the Shakespeare plays I’ve read for the most part, but generally I have higher expectations for them than end up being fulfilled, and Macbeth was no exception to that rule. But I’ll keep trying.
  5. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. 4 out of 5 stars. charlesdickensThis is a story I was already familiar with, though I’ve never actually read the classic text. For that matter, I’ve read very few Christmas stories, at the end of December or otherwise. It was a novel experience, and even though I did have a clear idea of most of the plot, I enjoyed it. I enjoyed it a lot. I especially liked Dickens’s narration style, and the humor that came through it, and I’m eager to find out what I’ll think of some of his other works. And maybe I’ll have to find something Christmas-y to read at the end of December as a rule, because it definitely boosted my holiday spirit to be reading something so seasonally appropriate.
  6. Some Luck by Jane Smiley. 4 out of 5 stars. Another surprise. I expected a book someluckabout farm life in early-to-mid 1900’s Iowa to be a bit dull at best, but again found myself more captivated than I could ever have guessed. This is the first book in a trilogy about cultural history (through fiction) in my home state, and I must go on to read the sequels. There’s so little plot, but the main family is constantly interesting and I have the somewhat unique pleasure of comparing my own personal experiences with some of the details of this saga. It’s so great to find a book with a relatively tiny target audience that I actually fit into.
  7. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. 4 out of 5 stars. My second Pulitzer Prize winner of the month! I only needed one for my reading challenge, but since The Color Purple was filling another category and I didn’t want to double up, I reached for a second. I actually received this one for Christmas, and then I was so busy by the end of the month that it was a struggle to fit it in. Technically, I did read the last few pages on the 1st of January, but I was so close to the end, and I want to start January fresh, so I’m counting it. It didn’t impress me quite as much as The Color Purple did, but I marked a lot of lines that sounded absolutely beautiful and/or really made me think. This is  fascinating subject with an equally fascinating twist, and it’s going to stick with me. Full review to come.

Honorable mention: I’m a third of the way through Homer’s The Iliad. The fall of Troy is such an intriguing story, but I don’t love the translation I’m reading. It keeps making me sleepy. I do want to finish this book in the near future, and I’ll stick with the edition I own; I’m hoping that things will be picking up now and the interesting plot will help propel me through the rest of the book at a faster pace. But also I’m picking up some new things already as January begins, so I can’t say for sure when exactly I’m expecting to reach the end of The Iliad. I do like it. But I need a breather.

Seven books, plus a little extra. Not a record, especially since several of these were short, but I stuck with my Reading Challenge (final update imminent), I was inspired to set some different reading goals for 2018 than I had previously planned, and I had fun picking up some things that I wouldn’t normally have reached for. My reading this month gave me a chance to broaden my reading horizons, and to consider how I wanted to broaden them further in 2018. So regardless of numbers, SUCCESS.

Yearly wrap-ups and 2018 changes to be posted soon.

What did you read to wrap up the year?


The Literary Elephant

2018 Reading Challenge

I’m still fighting to wrap up my 2017 challenge before the end of the year, but as I’m focusing on that, I’ve also been thinking about what sort of reading goals I want to strive for in the new year. For a number of reasons that will be listed in a review at the end of my 2017 Reading Challenge Wrap-up (coming next week), I’ve decided to construct my own reading challenge for 2018.

As with many reading challenges, some of the categories I’ve chosen are much more specific than others because there are some books and some types of books that I really want to push myself to get around to this year. But there are also other categories that I left more open so that I can pick up unexpected books throughout the year without sacrificing progress on my challenge.

If you want to join me in this challenge, please feel free! Just link back to this page or any of my updates throughout the year so I have a chance to follow your progress, too. 🙂 I tailored this one to fit me, but it’s absolutely acceptable if you want to adapt it to your own reading needs– change author names, titles, or genres from my list to best fit your own reading goals of 2018. Anything counts!

Here is the first set of challenges: individual books.

  1. A book you didn’t get around to in 2017
  2. A book with a blue cover
  3. A Stephen King book
  4. An illustrated Harry Potter book
  5. A book you’ve loved in the past
  6. A book at least 1000 pages long
  7. The last book in a series
  8. A book recommended by a friend
  9. A prize-winning book
  10. A non-fiction book
  11. A book picked up on a whim from the library
  12. A book at the bottom of your to-read list
  13. A book with a strong female lead
  14. A book from the staff recommendations display at a bookstore
  15. A book in which a beloved character dies
  16. A Shakespeare play
  17. A book that takes place in space
  18. A book by a new-to-you author
  19. A new book by an author you already love
  20. A book of short stories
  21. A memoir
  22. A true-crime book
  23. A book with a five-word title
  24. A book set in another country
  25. A book of poetry

And for the second set: the big categories. Books that count for this part of the challenge can also be counted for a category in the sets above or below.

  1. Twelve classics
  2. Twelve books within a month of their publication dates
  3. The rest of the A Song of Ice and Fire Series
  4. My backlog of Book of the Month books
  5. Nine books by Victoria/V. E. Schwab

Final set: some specific titles I definitely want to read in 2018. These can also count in the sets above.

  1. The Fellowship of the Ring by J. R. R. Tolkien
  2. Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
  3. The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah
  4. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
  5. Dracula by Bram Stoker
  6. The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
  7. Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor
  8. The Martian by Andy Weir
  9. Iron Gold by Pierce Brown
  10. Obsidio by Jay Kristoff and Amy Kaufman

That’s the Literary Elephant Reading Challenge, 2018. There are 40 categories in total, and books can be used in multiple sets though not in multiple categories within the same set. If you like the structure, feel free to change titles, authors, genres, series, or whatever you like to create your own challenge list. I wanted to set goals that fit my own reading preferences, with challenges that will help me branch out of my comfort zone and work through some unread books on my shelves. Some of the categories will require reading multiple books, but I hope that allowing books to fill multiple categories will keep that from being too overwhelming. I don’t know if I will actually be able to read all of these books within 2018, but I did intend to challenge myself and I think this list will help keep me motivated and on track with what I really want to read this year. I’ll post updates on my progress every three months.

Are you taking part in any reading challenges for 2018? Which ones?


The Literary Elephant