Tag Archives: fiction

Could Do Better book tag

Something juicier than reviews today- I’ve been tagged to share some covers that could be better by Marija, who is the reigning queen of Judging Books By Their Covers content! At least two of her choices in this tag were the first titles that came to mind for me as well, so be sure to check out her spot-on answers! And for more Could Do Better cover fun, you can check out this youtube video filmed by the creator herself: CJ Reads.

And as an added challenge, I’m going to try to find books for each of these prompts that I’ve read and rated highly (4 or 5 stars), because while I do believe we can get useful information about whether or not we’ll like a book based on its cover appearance, sometimes a perfectly adequate and lovable book falls victim to subpar cover art and I want to focus on a few of those books today. So without further ado, the prompts:

Say it Don’t Spray it: cover with the most offensive use of type

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak

Something that I tend to dislike in title appearance is when the words are broken up so that the reader has to assemble it. I also do not like curved titles (and these curves are not uniform- why?!) or people on book covers in general (but that’s another matter). It’s got black AND white typeface but they’re close to the same size so the eye (my eye, at least) doesn’t know where to go. This title is also using the most obnoxiously boring font imaginable (it’s ranking right up there with comic sans for me). Furthermore, why are we highlighting the eye with that title placement? If this face is supposed to represent the MC… well, she’s dead, so a staring eye makes no sense, and the fact that the eye is YELLOW is making it impossible to ignore whatever weird orange washing is going on with the photo. An artful title might have gone some way toward making this cover more palatable, but alas.

She’s Serving Reese’s Book Club: cover with the most commercial book club energy

Actress

Actress by Anne Enright

When I think of book club covers, I think of images that are pretty in perhaps too obvious a way; often they seem to have contrasting colors, sort of abstract or symbolic images, something that maybe looks nice enough but really doesn’t give any hints as to what the book’s about. So, Actress. The only image we get here is half of a head, presumably the actress in question. Her red hair provides the color contrast with the green background, her expression is maybe supposed to entice us, but ultimately it doesn’t give us anything the title isn’t doing already (and again, people on covers just don’t work for me. They interfere with whatever image I might create in my own head of the characters). And then, that nebulous green background. What is that. My best guess is blurry background trees, like in portrait mode. It’s a nice enough color, but why are blurry trees 90% of the cover image? Just for the sake of the jewel-toned cover catching the most possible eyes on the shelf.

Yes Girl, Give Us Nothing!: cover with seemingly no energy put into it

Ninth House (Alex Stern, #1)

Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo

I actually really like this monochrome color scheme and have no beef with the font. But this cover gives us… nothing. A line between the title and the author’s name, and that generic YA book snake that has starred on so many covers it really deserves a proper name at this point. It is our pet, whether we like it or not. Admittedly it’s been at least half a year since I read this, but are there even any snakes in the book? There’s so much worldbuilding going on in Ninth House, with magic and secret societies and ghosts, and the dismantling of Harvard traditions is pretty enticing in itself; the design team really missed an opportunity in putting literally ANYTHING interesting on this cover. And sadly, as the first book in a series, I suspect that there will be some attempt at matching going on with future volumes so it’s especially disappointing knowing we’re doomed to more of this nothingness in the future, as well.

A Face Only a Mother Could Love: a cover that is so hideous, but the book is so good, you can’t help but keep it around

Her Body and Other Parties

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

Perhaps a controversial opinion? This cover just does not work for me, but I want it to! It’s so close! And yet, for over a year I had this book on my shelf and could not even tell what the cover image was- I thought it was a floating red party dress, a bit disheveled, with a green snake coiled around it. What? It’s actually the musculature of a neck, with a green ribbon. I get it now. But it took me three stories beyond the green ribbon one in the book for me to figure it out! Probably I’m just dumb, but even knowing what it is, the skinniness of the green ribbon looks snakelike and repulsive to me, I’m sorry. Why is it not wider. Why is it floating. Why does the musculature just end at the collar, where are the shoulders. Why is the title divided into individual words and why is it directly on top of the only imagery we’re given. I don’t know. But I loved these stories, so it’s here to stay.

Take One Thing Off Before Leaving the House: cover that could use one less element

The Bass Rock

The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld

This is another one that I want to love. I like the color scheme a lot, and the cutouts in the black background. The face is striking, and I want to make an exception for it in my strict ‘no people on covers’ stance. Even the animals, fine. Except all together, it’s too much. The title and author hardly even seem to fit, like they’re an afterthought, and it bothers me that the background scenery is continuous in all of the cutouts but the people and animals don’t extend past individual cutouts. I get how that fits with the premise of the book, with so many lives layered on top of this one unchanging place, but it doesn’t work visually for me as well as it works thematically. I keep thinking the girl is just a head with a whale tail and the fox is growling at her and the rest of the whale (or shark? I believe there’s only a whale in the book but the image looks shark-like to me) is just flying through the air, disembodied. There’s just too much going on to really appeal.

Hypebeast: cover that is clearly going for all the trends at the same time

Mexican Gothic

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate this one. But it just screams “I want to be popular!” It’s got florals. It’s got print. It’s got a person, in that recently popular way where some part of the face is obscured or out of frame. It’s got a vintage dress. It’s got contrasting colors, managing to be simultaneously dark and bright. It’s got a blurb right on the front so you can be reassured that people are loving this one. It mentions more of the author’s work under her name, to draw you in with another title you might’ve heard of and maybe even already enjoyed. It just really doesn’t want to be overlooked! And it hasn’t been, evidenced by that “New York Times Bestseller” line stamped proudly across the middle, so clearly adhering to cover trends works. Apparently we really are that easy to please.

My Bonus: No Explanation Necessary!

Because I’ve run out of prompts before bad covers, here are a few extras I’ve disliked in the last year (including some with lower personal ratings) that I think speak for themselves, for your viewing displeasure!

Redhead by the Side of the Road
Call Down the Hawk (Dreamer Trilogy, #1)
Midnight Sun (Twilight, #5)
Mother Daughter Widow Wife
Red at the Bone
A Crime in the Neighborhood

Tagging: anyone who wants to participate! I’ve got another book tag coming up soon so I’ll leave this one open-ended, but if you decide to join in the cover-judging fun please link back to my post so I can see the covers you’ve hated!

And just a reminder that this is all in fun and completely subjective; if you’ve loved covers I’ve mentioned disliking here, it’s totally your right to do so and I’ve got no complaint against it. Let me know below if you agree or disagree about any of these covers!

The Literary Elephant

winter thrills

Something I’ve been doing more of in recent years is seasonal reading; typically summer is my favorite time of year to pick up mysteries and thrillers, which tend to be quick and entertaining, great for poolside fun or bonfire nights (yes, I will start a fire just to take out a flashlight and read beside it). But while heat waves do tend to correspond with a spike in crime rates, a snowy atmosphere can be just as conducive to bookish thrills. And so, for your viewing pleasure, I’ve rounded up a few recent popular mysteries that are great to read before the snow melts this spring!

For the puzzler who loves guessing whodunnit but hates getting it right too early: Lucy Foley’s The Hunting Party

The Hunting Party

In this mystery (the tension never quite climbed high enough to hit the thriller mark for me), nine friends have gathered for their annual New Year’s bash, this time at an exclusive Scottish lodge where a heavy snowfall means no escape as discord rises among the group. On the first morning of the new year, one woman is discovered to be missing, and is soon found murdered. Because of the bad weather, no one’s been coming and going from the estate, meaning the killer is one of the group now hunkered down with the rest of the guests to wait out the storm.

Foley pitches this premise excellently, giving a little back-and-forth between various perspectives leading up to the murder and the estate worker’s attempts in the aftermath to solve the mystery before anyone else can be hurt; the two threads overlap in the end as we catch up to the moment of the murder and the solving of it from both timelines at once. I was a little frustrated at first being spoon-fed tiny pieces of the murder discovery where information was clearly being withheld for plot and pacing purposes, but Foley’s decision to keep both the culprit and victim under wraps actually makes this mystery quite fun to guess; the clues are woven in well and yet there are so many likely possibilities that it’s challenging to pick out which bits are key.

My only caveat to recommending this one to ~everyone~ is that most of the characters are unlikable, and I know the lack of a clear character to relate to and/or root for can be a deal breaker for some readers. The estate hostess is the least alienating, but when she runs knowingly into danger, alone and seemingly willing to meet her end without even informing anyone else of what she’s discovered (why is this trope still happening), that put the kibosh on that for me. Most everyone else is also shady, abrasive, and/or rich and entitled to an annoying degree. The petty dramas between them all seems to suggest that Foley is criticizing those who are handed everything at birth, but there’s not much direct commentary. It can also be difficult to tell these characters apart; on the back cover of my copy there’s a little list that gives each character a descriptor (“the beautiful one, the quiet one, the volatile one”, etc), and to be honest even after reading the entire novel I’m not entirely sure who’s supposed to be who in that list. But the fact that they’re generally awful (though they are humanized, don’t get me wrong) does at least make for good drama, which befits the genre.

“Some people, given just the right amount of pressure, taken out of their usual, comfortable environments, don’t need much encouragement at all to become monsters.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars.

For the escapist reader looking for atmosphere and entertainment: Ruth Ware’s One by One

One by One

This is a great choice of thriller for readers who like a clever twist or two even if the bigger picture is more predictable. It’s a play on Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (and other closed-room murder mysteries), in which ten colleagues are snowed in at a French ski resort and begin to fall dead, one by one. The murderer, of course, must be one of the ten colleagues or two chalet employees. As in The Hunting Party, there’s plenty of petty drama and lines drawn between supposed friends which makes nearly everyone a suspect, though unlike The Hunting Party, these deaths happen in smaller windows of opportunity which makes eliminating possible culprits easier.

To be honest, I had pinpointed the killer in under 100 pages (the book over 350 pages long); it seemed so obvious that I had to wonder whether it was a very crafty red herring, but no, it’s that obvious. This person’s characterization is suspicious right from the start, and I didn’t fall for any of Ware’s sleight of hand in pouring other drama on top of it to make it less noticeable. But even so, I was fully entertained watching the other characters work it out, and seeing the mechanics of the mystery coming together; the way Ware presents the story is pretty amusing when you’re in the know, so for once I didn’t mind having the answer early, which is certainly to Ware’s storytelling credit.

There were a few other downsides for me though, in finding some of the killer’s moves too convenient, in finding some of the others’ reasoning through the clues too easy and assumptive, in finding the final chase a little far-fetched (there are only two characters present; if one of them ends up dead clearly the other will be implicated, right? Why even chase at that point rather than building a convincing lie?). Ultimately, not the tightest mystery or most convincing delivery, but as usual Ware excels with atmosphere and tension regardless of the rest. I thought she made good use of the startup music app that binds these characters together, and made the large cast of characters easy to differentiate in a way Foley could take note from. Not a standout for me, but it did the job well enough that I’d still recommend it as a bit of murderous snowy fun, and I’m still on board to read more of Ware’s work in the future.

“‘It’s better to get it on the table. If everyone knows the truth, great. They can’t kill all of us.’ He says it almost glibly, and a part of me finds myself wanting to laugh, hysterically. How has it come to this, that we’re discussing murder like some kind of parlor game?”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars.

For the crime aficionado who prefers thematic depth and exploration of social issues: David Heska Wanbli Weiden’s Winter Counts

Winter Counts

To be up front about it, the only thing particularly wintery about this one is the word ‘winter’ in the title, which refers to traditional Indigenous pictorial calendars; there’s also one flashback scene to a brutal winter storm that claims a tragic victim. (CW: child death. Also CWs for anti-Native racism and racial slurs, murder, physical violence, gun violence, drug use and drug trafficking, kidnapping, torture, and mentions of bullying.) As you may be able to guess now, this is less of a fun-and-games murder mystery and more of a serious exploration of issues that have real victims; the book follows a protagonist who makes his own justice with his fists when the federal agents in charge of policing crimes on the reservation choose not to act. The plot follows a particular case where the MC’s teen nephew has become entangled in a scheme to traffic heroin on the reservation, and the culprit behind the attempt proves elusive.

It took me a little while to get into this one. The prose is nothing flashy, and there’s no subtlety at all to the commentary and history lessons included in the text. The mystery is slow to unfold at first, without enough clues or information for the reader to be an active participant in piecing together what’s going on- we’re just along for the ride, and there’s plenty of difficult content to sit with right from the start.

But it’s a story worth sticking with. Weiden brings life on the Rosebud Indian Reservation to the fore with physical descriptions, history, and politics. We’re given a sense of day-to-day life but also the larger obstacles stacked against Natives (specifically Lakota in this book, who refer to themselves as Lakota Indians) by the US government. There’s a bit of adventure to the plot, so the setting isn’t confined to the reservation, covering more of South Dakota, Nebraska, and Colorado, and plains Natives more generally. If you’ve not read from many Native authors before or about this location and tribe in particular, Winter Counts would be a great place to start, and despite the heavy content the presentation isn’t too intense- very much in keeping with what’s typical for the crime/mystery genre. It’s a thematically rich story, cleverly constructed, and a very accessible read. But even for those more versed in the persecution of Native Americans, I think the plot is engaging enough in itself to keep the informed reader rapt. It certainly worked for me, and I’m eager to see what this author will do next.

“The tribal police had to refer all felonies to the federal investigators. But the feds usually declined to prosecute most of them. They’d follow through on some, usually high-profile cases or violent crimes. But standard sex assault cases, thefts, assault and battery- these crimes were usually ignored. And the bad men knew this.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars.

I picked up these three books without knowing much beyond the genres they fit into, so there were some surprises for me. The Hunting Party and One By One in particular had a lot more similarities than I was expecting, even knowing they were both snowed-in murder mysteries; avoiding spoilers, both books focused on wealthy characters, including some similar personality types and criticisms. Both included about the same size cast, with friends on a luxury trip and a couple of employees mixed in, giving the reader character perspectives from guests and hosts. I think we can call this a trend. Are there more snowy thrillers that follow the same formula?

Winter Counts of course looks like the odd one out, as the bulk of the story does not take place in winter, the violence serves a deeper purpose than entertainment alone, and while it does focus on a specific place its cast of characters is not closed off from the rest of the world in the same way. And yet, it does have some of the same elements- death, greed, isolation, time-sensitive crime. I think it, too, is an ideal mystery for this time of year; when you’ve got snow outside the window and perhaps a bit more time for contemplative reads, that’s a great time to look into a perspective you may be less familiar with or revisit the impact of social issues you may already have on your radar. Winter is, I think, a time for intellectual investigation and broadening of one’s horizons. A quick seasonal thrill is nice in between deeper reads, but in the end the snowy months are an ideal time for longer, denser, more thoughtful books, and Winter Counts is a snack-size quick-read version of that if you’re into heavier reads this time of year.

When beginning this comparison project I thought I might have one winner at the end that I would promote as “the” snowy thrill of the season, but in the end I’ve enjoyed all of these books in different ways, and I think they’re each solid recommendations in their own right, though perhaps best for slightly different audiences. Winter Counts will be the one that sticks with me best, I suspect, but The Hunting Party is going straight onto my list of top-recommended thrillers, and Ware retains her place as a must-read in not quite favorite author for me. So, which one would you read? Instead of pushing one of these on you, I’ll ask: what most appeals? What’s your ideal winter thrill? And if you’ve read anything that fits this category but doesn’t appear here, mention it below! 🙂

The Literary Elephant

women’s prize squad longlist wrap-up and ranking

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

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

In ascending order of personal preference:

Frankissstein: A Love Story

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

My Name is Monster

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

Call Down the Hawk (Dreamer Trilogy, #1)

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

Ninth House (Alex Stern, #1)

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

Actress

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

Bunny

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

Supper Club

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

The Bass Rock

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

Girl, Woman, Other

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

The Man Who Saw Everything

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

The Body Lies

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

The Fire Starters

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

The Mercies

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

Disappearing Earth

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

My Dark Vanessa

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

Ducks, Newburyport

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Literary Elephant

a lit-el forecast

(the title is here to stay for the foreseeable future, apologies to those who found it confusing, it’s what works best for me for now!)

1.23.21

It’s been a slower reading and blogging week than I had hoped; I just wasn’t in the right frame of mind for it, so my plans didn’t all pan out. Instead, I started a jigsaw puzzle in my free time last weekend which has proven to be more time-consuming than I expected. It’s only 631 pieces, but they’re all the same color so I’m going by shape. My first day’s work on the puzzle made it into my photos of the week so you can scroll down to my latest additions to The 365 if you’re curious to see what I’m dealing with. I actually don’t think this is the most challenging jigsaw I’ve ever done, but it certainly ranks right up there. Luckily, I find that fun.

While I’ve been puzzling, I’ve been watching some titles from my backlog of unwatched films; I’m not a big TV watcher and generally only put something on when I’m doing something else (like puzzling), so this week I decided mainly to look through my Netflix streaming list and chose at random whatever looked like the right length for the amount of time I could spend on it each day. The exception was:

  • The Invisible Man [2020] – a little slow/lengthy but I really liked the concept; I borrowed this one on DVD.

The rest of these are available on Netflix’s streaming service (in the US at least, I’m not sure if availability is different elsewhere). This week I watched the films:

  • Rebecca [2020] – seems to be a controversial opinion but I highly enjoyed this adaptation
  • Lady Bird [2017] – meh
  • The Platform [2019] – disturbing but I really liked this one, and
  • What’s Eating Gilbert Grape [1993] – which I loathed.

Also one mockumentary:

  • Black Mirror: Death to 2020 [2020] – I had a couple of laughs but mostly this felt too on-the-nose for my taste, just too damn depressing, and not as cleverly interesting as the Black Mirror TV series, though maybe in a few years it’ll be more intriguing to look back on.

And a couple of documentaries:

  • Athlete A [2020] – I remember hearing about the USA Gymnastics scandal in the news a couple years back but this was still shocking and infuriating, and
  • Blackfish [2013] – wow. This has been the most haunting watch of the week for me, unexpectedly. I knew it would be sad, but I suppose I was expecting that the human deaths would be the hard part here and so was horrified by how bad I felt for the captive orcas. Free Willy [1993] was a staple at the day care I attended as a kid so I knew captivity was sketchily attained and ultimately bad for the whales, but I wasn’t very aware of specifics. What’s particularly nagging at me is that I was at the Orlando SeaWorld in 2012 with my family and we saw the orca show at that time; to the best of my memory and researching ability, I think one of the whales we saw was indeed Tilikum, the main subject of this documentary. I only have one picture left from that time and I don’t think it’s him in the photo, but I recall that in the show there were a lot of smaller whales and one big one; the big one hardly featured, which I suppose makes sense in retrospect if he’d killed a person following a show just 2 years before. The thing is that I remember googling at the time and I saw that there had been *incidents* but that seemed kind of inevitable to me given that they are called “killer whales” so what caught my attention instead was that trainers were not allowed in the water with the whales during shows anymore (a recent development following Dawn Brancheau’s death, which matched what I saw) and the history of Shamu. I didn’t look into the whales we were actually seeing on that visit, and I regret now participating in something that I was ignorant about.

But the week wasn’t all doom and gloom. I got a few good snaps this week for The 365, and have realized that when I take outdoor pictures they are often two-thirds sky; that’s my favorite feature of where I live, I think. I’m in a very flat part of the Midwest and most of the “nature” around where I live is miles and miles of crops that are planted in artificially neat rows every spring and removed from the fields every fall, but the sky is huge and it’s interesting to note how different it can look from day to day.

Also, cats. Especially sleeping cats. They can really improve a day.

I haven’t been reading much, but here are a few titles worth mentioning from my week:

  • One by One by Ruth Ware – 3 stars. A seasonal thriller, the last of my January library checkouts, and an author I tend to keep up with. This latest release of Ware’s was adequately entertaining and perfectly atmospheric, great for an escapist thrill even though the mystery itself (a closed-room whodunnit) does not particularly impress. I was able to spot the killer from a mile away and had to suspend disbelief for a few of the twists and rationalizations, but did enjoy the read enough that I’m happy to have read it and will likely stick with Ware for the next one.
  • Winter Counts by David Heska Wanbli Weiden – 4 stars. Nearly 5, in fact. The writing itself did nothing for me and the social commentary here has all the subtlety of a ton of bricks, but there’s a great crime plot that works really well with the exploration of modern Indigenous life and weaves in some historical points about treatment of Native Americans as well (especially relating to Lakota of the Midwest prairie lands). I think this book would primarily be an excellent starting recommendation for anyone new to reading from Indigenous perspectives, though the quality of the plotting is strong enough to appeal to a wider audience as well so don’t necessarily count it out even if some of the educational bits (for example, the injustice that is Mount Rushmore features here) are already known to you. I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for more work from this author.

I did not really make any progress worth noting in Sarah Gailey’s The Echo Wife but hope to finish it this next week. I am also just starting Charles Yu’s Interior Chinatown, but am not far enough to have anything to say about it yet at this point.

As for posts, I shared only one this week:

But I did take some photos and draft some posts I’m excited about that I just haven’t quite finished yet, so even if I have another slow week ahead I should have no trouble putting out more (and perhaps more fun) content. So, for the coming week, I’m hoping to share as many of these as I can:

  • two book tags
  • a winter mystery/thriller comparison/recommendation post
  • my full wrap-up and ranking of the women’s prize squad longlist
  • a review of Interior Chinatown

Not necessarily in that order.

As for reading, I’m aiming to finish Interior Chinatown and then Anna North’s Outlawed, which will be all I need to wrap up with my January TBR. If I have more reading time, I’ll probably be starting Lacy Crawford’s Notes on a Silencing next, in prep for a duo review post I’ll have coming up that focuses on silencing as a topic.

How was your week? Are you having the sort of January that crawls by and feels like it last five years, or the kind that flies by and you don’t know where all of your time to start new projects for the new year has suddenly gone? I go back and forth day to day, it seems!

The Literary Elephant

femicide through the ages

Review: The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld

In the novel, a woman in the present day is set to the task of preparing for sale her late grandmother’s Scottish house. It’s an old place near the coast, and just a few miles out the little island of Bass Rock overlooks the goings-on of the mainland. It was there in the background as another woman, post-WWII, struggled through a difficult marriage. It was there too when a young woman over two centuries earlier was accused of witchcraft and fled. In the years between, more women, and more violence.

“Men do these things and then they tick on with their lives as though it’s all part and parcel.”

The Bass Rock is a literary fiction book with a gothic tone and an air of mystery. Ghosts and gaslighting help blur the lines of reality, making the already-serious subject of femicide even more tense as the reader constantly wonders what will happen to these women next, even when the threat of death seems less immediately present. It’s laid out in three perspectives, with additional small character vignettes woven in, all tied loosely to the Scottish seaside setting- though it is no secret that the dangers women have faced at the hands of men are not confined to the specific location spotlighted here. Nor is the danger confined only to the women- Wyld makes clear here that under the net of abuse the victims are many; CWs for child abuse, suggested molestation (doesn’t happen on page), and arson, as well as gaslighting, sexual assault, rape, and murder.

The permanence of the rock as the women come and go makes the violence through the years feel relentless, a force akin to the battering waves of the ocean; the methods may change with time, but the core problem, the disregard for women’s bodies and lives stands as firm as the Bass Rock. The rock’s meaning varies for different characters, but none of them are firmly attached to it in any way- it’s simply there, silent and watchful, and that tenuous connection is so much more realistic and appealing to me than any other multi-perspective narrative device I can think of where separate threads end up braiding neatly together. Instead, the story alternates between these three perspectives linked mainly by theme and small personal shifts that echo across time.

“You know how sometimes you can smell it on a man, sometimes you just know- if he got you alone, if he had a rock… you know that thing when you feel it? Like your blood knows it. I try and take note, because it’s all I have in my power, to witness it and store it away.”

It’s subtly done but the three pieces do belong together, and I found each of the narratives interesting, almost equally so. The post-war woman seems to get the most page time and the extra attention given to the development of her character and relationships shows. Her piece of the story is, I think, the most surprising and original of all the women; the witchcraft thread is fairly predictable, though the danger felt most palpable to me in that era and had no trouble holding my attention; the modern woman is an older millennial, mostly single and adrift, whose interior thoughts I found intriguing though her characterization again feels somewhat typical among the glut of difficult millennial women stories readily available in the last few years. But while none of these women alone might have convinced me to pick up The Bass Rock, the themes connecting them and the fascinating details Wyld works into their lives are effective enough that I was never sad to leave one perspective and re-enter another. The only low point for me in characterization came in the form of a secondary character, a bold, non-conforming modern-day sex worker who acts as a sort of guide on female violence to our present-day protagonist, which I simply found a bit too transparent and lazy. Otherwise I managed to stay fully engaged and interested in each protagonist and the minutiae of her life.

It’s a dark and beautiful book about what’s done to women, but also about how women can find strength within themselves and amongst each other, find ways to cope and to overcome and maybe eventually to turn the tide. I am shocked that this missed the Women’s Prize list last year- it may not be a perfect read, but it is certainly thought-provoking and masterful, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone who likes quiet plots and/or gothic literature, with feminist themes.

“Know what people mean by unfuckable? They mean disposable. They mean incineratable.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I’d forgotten the synopsis by the time I picked up this book (which is my preferred reading method tbh), so it was off to a slow start for me as I tried to figure out what was going on and where this was all heading. But even in those chapters of mild confusion, I found the prose exciting and the women’s stories very readable, and once I understood what Wyld was doing with this novel I had a hard time putting it down at all. It’s a story that’ll haunt me, in a good way, and this is an author I’ll certainly want to read more from.

The Literary Elephant

murder and magic in Mexico

Review: Hurricane Season by Fernanada Melchor, translated by Sophie Hughes

I wanted to read more translations this year, and starting out with a gutpunch like this has been both validation of that goal and further encouragement. Melchor’s first novel to appear in the English language and shortlisted for the International Booker Prize, Hurricane Season brings a whole lot to the table.

In the novel, the witch of La Matosa is dead. Evidence on the body points toward murder, prompting an investigation that reveals at every turn another layer of violence and trauma. The desperation of marginalized people in this small and unforgiving community breeds a self-perpetuating cycle of pain received and pain dealt- in this case, culminating in the untimely death of a social outcast who is, nonetheless, one of their own.

Trigger warnings are needed here for basically everything, from homophobia to bestiality to drug abuse to corporal punishment. If you can imagine it, it’s probably in this book. This is not a feel-good tale in any way, instead cloaked in horror and tragedy at every turn. But it is short- just over 200 pages- and if you can stomach the content, it’s well worth the read.

Divided into eight chapters that each bring a new perspective related in some way to the witch’s demise, the entire book is written in a sort of stream-of-consciousness style with sentences that go on and on and paragraphs that seem never to end. But the first chapter, just two pages long, gives the reader an easy introduction to the style and proves just how effectively Melchor (and Hughes) can pull the reader into this tale; it’s fast paced and sharp, the run-ons coming across not as a slog to wade through but rather as a headfirst pitch down a steep slope, a motion that once started cannot be stopped until the inevitable crash at the bottom. Here’s a passage I liked, to give you a better feel for the narrative voice than I could ever possibly articulate:

“The fucking cat didn’t move an inch when Brando raised a leg as if to kick him; it didn’t even bat an eyelid, although from its closed mouth came a vicious hiss that made Brando step back and glance over at the table for another knife. And just then the lights in the kitchen and all over the house went out, and it dawned on Brando that this furious creature, this beast hissing in the darkness was the devil himself, the devil incarnate, the devil who’d been following him all those years, the devil who had finally come to carry him to hell, and he understood too that if he didn’t run, if he didn’t escape from the house that very instant he’d be trapped with that grim beast in the darkness forever, and he leaped toward the door, pulled aside the bar, and pushed with all his might, falling flat on his face on the hard ground in the yard with the demon still growling in his ears.”

There’s an air of mystery to it all as the narrative unearths the witch’s fate a kernel at a time from each of the tangential characters, but this is not a whodunnit. Rather, the community’s tendency toward superstition (evidenced in the quote above) and the novel’s very balanced use of rumor and magic both as a cultural tradition and a mechanism for social critique is what fans the flame of mysteriousness here and drives the story forward. The village really does seem to see the witch and her plants and potions as a source of magic- it is not entirely metaphor, though the fear of the unknown and uncontrollable that typically drives such superstitions is also at the root of other issues explored here- sexism, homophobia, poverty, mental illness. It all comes together to perfect effect, the setting intricately intertwined with these characters and the plot that plays out between them.

It’s masterfully done, each character as interesting as the last and none of them what you’d first assume; Melchor has an impressive talent for laying her characters out first as others see them, then peeling back the veil of bias to provide a fuller view. The narrative circles the witch’s death by opening each new perspective in medias res, circling through their pertinent backstory before coming back to the witch. For such a clever, convoluted structure it’s shockingly easy to follow the flow, and hard to put down at any point- this is a book best read in as few sittings as possible, and because it is so layered, I imagine it would make for great rereads as well. I know I’ll certainly want to pick it up again.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. Hurricane Season felt to me simultaneously like a window to another world and a mirror through which I can glimpse a few dark truths that hit closer to home, all packed into one small package of searing prose. This is exactly how I wanted to start my reading year.

The Literary Elephant

on Mantel and Cromwell

Before 2020, the name Thomas Cromwell meant very little to me. My knowledge started and stopped with ‘advisor to Henry VIII,’ and all I knew about Henry VIII was ‘the one with all the wives and beheadings.’ I’ve not been particularly interested in the British monarchy until recently (I’ve also been watching The Crown this year) and I wasn’t following book prizes when Mantel won with the first two books in her Cromwell trilogy, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. But because I followed the prizes in 2020 and because many expected to see Mantel walk away with another win for her Cromwell finale, The Mirror and the Light, I decided to give this sweeping historical saga a go. Everyone seemed to be loving it! But alas, my own experience with these books was not quite as enthusiastic.

If you’re brand new to these books and avoiding all spoilers, you can safely read my thoughts on Wolf Hall; very mild spoilers will be included in discussions of the latter two volumes. However, this series is really more about the journey than the (well-known) historical events, so I don’t think reading all three reviews will ruin the read for anyone. Your choice though, of course! And a last note: it is best to read the books in order if you want to read them all, as they feature the same characters and build off of previous events and character dynamics.

Wolf Hall (Thomas Cromwell, #1)

In Wolf Hall, Thomas Cromwell serves Cardinal Wolsey, a powerful Catholic figure in England, a formal advisor and close friend to reigning King Henry VIII; Wolsey is in as high a position as any man other than the king could be, so long as he keeps the fickle ruler happy. Staying in the king’s good graces means bending the rules when they don’t fit Henry’s desires, though the Cardinal’s role within the church limits his ability to bend, particularly in the matter of the divorce Henry seeks from his first wife. Cromwell, Wolsey’s devoted right-hand man, is able to learn from his work with Wolsey how England’s hierarchy of power protects itself, with the help of legal trickery; this understanding makes him a prime candidate to serve the king as Wolsey falls out of favor. And hovering in the background, awaiting the king’s freedom from his marriage: Anne Boleyn.

“Beneath every history, another history.”

Wolf Hall was hard for me to get into. It’s slow, dense, and sprawling, and for someone without much idea of the specific history, the tension of the novel felt uneven to me, without a clear sense of what the threat actually was or where the narrative was headed. The cast is huge, and even Mantel acknowledges that far too many of the characters are named Thomas; instead of delivering nicknames or using distinguishing features or some other narrative trick to help readers differentiate, Mantel seems content to leave the reader to puzzle out who is who with only context to go by. There is a list of characters, but I found the accompanying definitions for each name too sparse to be of much help in remembering who’s been involved in what, and on which side. Furthermore, Mantel often elects to refer to Cromwell often simply as ‘he,’ as though he is god, perhaps; it’s an interesting characterization tactic that forces Cromwell always into the center of the tale, but I found it confusing, having spent my reading life learning that pronouns generally refer to the last person named, which does not hold true here.

“He hears her calling, Thomas, Thomas… It is a name that will bring half the house out, tumbling from their bedside prayers, from their very beds; yes, are you looking for me?”

But despite being a tedious read for me, I’d be lying to say that I found Wolf Hall unimpressive. It is intricately layered and detailed, the harshness and beauty of this world writ large. Cromwell- and most everyone else- feels well enough imagined that it seems he could walk straight out of the pages. It may be a book I appreciated more after closing the cover than while reading, but once I understood its direction and purpose I did appreciate how deftly Mantel illustrated the turning tide, the gradual shift of politics that would end lives and utterly change England. The years of this novel are a portent of what’s to come, and they are milestones in themselves, for the monarchy, for law, for Christianity.

I suppose my main complaint of this book is that Cromwell is not himself much of a key player, this story is in many ways happening to him here rather than at his own hands; these are the events that set his prosperous career with the king in motion, and yet this is largely Wolsey’s story, viewed from a distance. It is nonetheless a story worth reading.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. This is not a book I would have bestowed with a literary prize, but it is a very promising start to what is clearly a remarkable series. I can’t even imagine how much research must go into a book like this, and it has my respect for that reason even if I didn’t love the read quite as much as I expected, based on the immense hype.

Bring Up the Bodies

In Bring Up the Bodies, Henry VIII has broken with Wolsey and with the Catholic church. Rather than a cardinal at his side, Henry has instead a lawyer, one who is able to angle the law to give the king what he wants: that man is Thomas Cromwell. Unfortunately, what the king wants continues to change. He grows tired of Anne Boleyn and has his eye instead on a new prospective bride. Can Cromwell succeed where Wolsey failed, finding a way to free Henry from his second marriage to make way for a third?

“He has always rated Anne highly as a strategist. He has never believed in her as a passionate, spontaneous woman. Everything she does is calculated, like everything he does. He notes, as he has these many years, the careful deployment of her flashing eyes. He wonders what it would take to make her panic.”

This second installment was an improvement for me. Instead of spanning years, it focuses on about two weeks of Cromwell’s life, and rather than sowing slow seeds of discord it narrows in on one particular problem, which swiftly ends with a dramatic event. The cast shifts a little, but most of the prominent characters are repeated, and Cromwell’s tendency to reflect on his past makes this story easier to sink into from the start.

Furthermore, Cromwell’s characterization soars to new heights here. The entire world and cast is still impeccably detailed, but Cromwell in particular is in fine form. He’s got agency, and he’s on the rise; up and up and up the ranks he goes, and no one is closer to the king. He is crafty and quick, and he is reaping the rewards. But he is also at a moral crossroads. Cromwell is now in a position to destroy the king’s enemies; when backed into the same corner as Wolsey, Cromwell must choose whether to push ahead, damn the consequences. The events of this volume will haunt him, and yet he will gain further favor for them with the king. He is doing both the right thing and the wrong thing at once, and because Cromwell does nothing in halves, he manages to destroy a few of his own enemies along the way.

It’s a complex and horrifying story brimming with death, and perhaps the most unsettling thing about it is that it feels inevitable. It doesn’t matter whether Cromwell is a good or bad person, and indeed it is hard to tell here how black his heart really is- the position that he is in gives him no choice but to dirty his hands for the king, or lose everything. He has already seen Wolsey, his true master, lose. But Wolsey had to listen to the Pope, and Cromwell would rather see religion put into the hands of the people, with the printing of an English Bible, than continue to give Rome that authority. He is, in many ways, a perfect match for the king, though it is necessarily a difficult, delicate relationship.

“‘It was a bad moment for me. How many men can say, as I must, “I am a man whose only friend is the King of England”? I have everything, you would think. And yet take Henry away and I have nothing.'”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This sequel, while slightly shorter and more compact than its predecessor, was still somewhat too long and dense for my personal interest level in Cromwell et al; this seems like a good time to remind readers that I rate based on my own enjoyment/appreciation rather than objective merit (if such a thing can be said to exist in any art form). This is the one I would’ve happily given awards to, if that had in any way been my choice!

The Mirror & The Light (Thomas Cromwell, #3)

In The Mirror and the Light, Cromwell is reaching the end of his rope. The unfortunate demise of Henry’s beloved third wife is a blow for England, and as foreign allegiances shift against Henry and his blatant disregard for Catholicism, it puts Cromwell in the tough position of needing to find Henry a new bride that will bring allies for England. Further complicating matters, rumors against Cromwell inspire civil unrest, several prospects vie for the throne and expect Cromwell’s help to get there, and Cromwell’s own religious and political interests become entangled with his advise to the king, limiting Cromwell’s viable paths forward much as Catholicism limited Wolsey. A misstep is all it will take for everything Cromwell has built to come crumbling down.

“This is what Henry does. He uses people up. He takes all they give him and more. When he is finished with them he is noisier and fatter and they are husks or corpses.”

In case history (and Mantel’s previous work in this series) has not made it clear, even the synopsis tells the reader straight out that The Mirror and the Light will follow Cromwell through his final years- and so we know what is coming at the end of this tale, and if we know anything about Henry VIII at this point, it is that those who lose his favor do not meet pretty ends. The gradual downward slope of things gone wrong builds a wonderful hold-your-breath tension here; as in Wolf Hall I found the wider scope of years and events to be a bit too long and meandering for real cohesion, though having a better sense of what the narrative was working toward this time around did make it a better reading experience for me than Wolf Hall, even if not as tight and sharp as Bring Up the Bodies.

“‘I am in awe of myself,’ he says. ‘I never know what I will do next.'”

For prose, I would probably say that The Mirror and the Light is Mantel at her best. She is in full command here, her writing insightful, poetic, measured. We even get ‘he, Cromwell’ usage here in place of the all-confusing ‘he,’ which is a vast improvement in clarity. But she makes one particular move with language that just didn’t work for me: repetition. Even in the first book, Cromwell was in the habit of recalling his past and reflecting on changes that have come into his life, but here Mantel recounts whole scenes, interrupting the flow of the “present” to remind the reader where Cromwell stood in the past. Perhaps because I read this volume immediately after the second book rather than years after it, as more loyal fans who’ve kept up with her publications will have done, I found the continual dredging up of moments already covered to be too much padding in an overly long tome. I can see the method working better for other readers: the laying of two images side by side for stark comparison, but for me I found the constant reminders insulting to my memory of the character. No one is picking up The Mirror and the Light without having read books one and two, are they? Mantel’s working of small observances into the story that turn out later to have been clues woven subtly into the plot are far more to her credit, showcasing a mastery of detail and timing that Cromwell’s clumsier dips into memory lack. I would also exclude the memories that reveal new insight from this criticism, though I found these to be few.

There was one other choice made in the narration of this story that didn’t quite suit me: the final characterization of Cromwell, the tone that the book’s last chapters end on. What I’ve loved most about this trilogy is the moral complexity, the sense that Cromwell has simply been a cog in a machine ever rolling forward, destined to follow the dark path he is set upon by the royal figure who for all intents and purposes cannot be blamed (at least not by his contemporaries) for the wrongdoing he incites. But The Mirror and the Light, in my opinion, undoes that somewhat, asking the reader to see Cromwell as good, as sympathetic, and sadly lost in the end- drawing on his love for his wife and daughters, his devotion to keeping promises, his penchant for helping poor folk who are down on their luck. There’s an air of martyrdom infused in the way this book approaches the death of Cromwell, accused of a crime that evidence must be invented for in order to secure a conviction; while I don’t know enough about the real history of Cromwell to argue against the authenticity of this bid for pity, and of course he would have been as human as any of the rest of us, this choice of characterization just wasn’t what I was looking for from this read. I was much more drawn into the earlier painting of Cromwell as a sort of necessary villain. The martyr bit has already been done with Wolsey, and I was hoping to see Mantel take Cromwell’s peril to new heights.

“He has lived by the laws he has made and must be content to die by them. But the law is not an instrument to find out truth. It is there to create a fiction that will help us move past atrocious acts and face our future. It seems there is no mercy in this world, but a kind of haphazard justice: men pay for crimes, but not necessarily their own.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I think Mantel may have fallen victim here to a fear of leaving anything good out, at the cost of including more than necessary. But nevertheless, and in spite of my quibbles, I was rapt from cover to cover, finished the book feeling haunted by Cromwell, and am walking away far more aware of and piqued by this chapter of history than I ever have been, which I have to call a resounding win.

If you’re still with me, thank you; having read over 2,000 pages in order to write this post I’m letting myself indulge a bit (which is perhaps how Mantel felt, having obviously waded through massive amounts of research to bring us this trilogy).

Because I read The Mirror and the Light primarily in relation to the book prizes I followed this year, I’d like to wrap up with some final prize-related thoughts.

As regards the 2020 Women’s Prize: The Mirror and the Light was both longlisted and shortlisted for this year’s prize, and I stand by that. In my longlist wrap-up earlier this year, I ranked the 15 books I’d read; having now read all 16, I’d say that Mantel ranks 6th on the list for me, near the bottom of my 4-star reads from the longlist. In that spot, I don’t have any complaints about how far The Mirror and the Light went with the WP. And, though I know it’ll upset a few of my followers to hear it, I’m still happy with Hamnet taking the win over Mirror even now that I can properly compare the both- Hamnet managed to excite me more. But Mantel does have one major thing going for her with Mirror– this is the only WP nominee from the 2020 longlist that isn’t primarily focused on motherhood and family. Gold star. This year’s list was in desperate need of more variety, and Mantel should be commended for providing that.

Oh, and just for fun, my WP wrap-up included a few quotes from longlisted nominees that felt eerily timely given this year’s pandemic, and I’d like to add a snippet from Mirror to that list:

“But now there are rumors of plague and sweating sickness. It is not wise to allow crowds in the street, or pack bodies into indoor spaces.”

As regards the 2020 Booker Prize: Mirror was longlisted but not shortlisted for the Booker prize, much to everyone’s shock after Mantel’s previous Booker wins with Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. To be honest I’m also shocked this volume was excluded from this year’s shortlist; it is, in my opinion, a stronger offering than Wolf Hall, and if not quite as impressive for me as Bring Up the Bodies, Mirror did, in my opinion, deserve a spot on this year’s shortlist. It would’ve ranked 3rd on the shortlist for me, and 5th on the longlist. I found this year’s Booker winner, Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain, more immediately engaging and enjoyable to read, so I don’t begrudge Stuart his win and wouldn’t necessarily have wanted Mantel to take that slot instead, but in all fairness I’m sure Mirror will live on in my memory much longer than Shuggie, so it certainly rates right up there for me.

In conclusion, Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy was a somewhat ponderous and trying reading experience for me, but ultimately a journey I’m glad I’ve taken and would not hesitate to recommend to history buffs and anyone interested in character-driven political dramas. It’s an incredible collection of work, and Mantel’s dedication to doing the subject justice and inciting curiosity in a shady long-dead figure is plain on every page. Though the trilogy requires some patience, it is, truly, a masterpiece.

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

Favorite Reads of 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transcendent Kingdom

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

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

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

The Literary Elephant

Reviews: A Lucky Man, Transcendent Kingdom, and Memorial

My final reviews of the year! This will have me all caught up, aside from my two current reads, which I’m still hoping to finish before the new year and talk more about in January (they’re Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light and Lucy Foley’s The Hunting Party). My favorite reads of the year should be up tomorrow, or, worst case scenario, the first of January. Today I’ve got Jamel Brinkley’s 2019 National Book Award shortlistee, the short story collection A Lucky Man, as well as two recent contemporary/literary releases from authors I’ve enjoyed in the past: Yaa Gyasi’s Transcendent Kingdom and Bryan Washington’s Memorial.

A Lucky Man

In A Lucky Man, Brinkley presents a collection of short stories featuring Black sons of various ages who endure complicated or severed relationships with their fathers. The stories are not mutually exclusive but they don’t share any connections beyond exploring the generational ramifications of antiblack racism in America.

“‘I got an agitated soul,’ he said. ‘Most of us do, I think. Not from no conspiracy or nothing. Just from being black and alive.'”

Though the collection as a whole is a nuanced look at the affects of racism on the relationships of Black men and their children, this isn’t a book to turn to for punchy, quotable statements about race. The writing is accomplished and thorough, but the book’s messages are primarily apparent through character dynamics, behaviors over time, and the overall volume of Black fathers here who have been pushed out of their sons’ lives in one way or another; it’s what can be read between the lines that is most impressive about this work. It’s one of the most thoughtful and cohesive collections I’ve ever read; every piece stands strong on its own, though looking at them all together is what best brings out their meaning. There were only two stories out of nine that I personally found a little less gripping, but they all belong equally to the whole.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I can see why this collection went far with lit awards last year, and I think it deserves a wider readership than it seems to have. It’s quiet and sad, but there’s undeniable skill here that makes each piece of the set engaging in its own right. Brinkley is an author to watch.

And as a bonus, I think it’s very much to the author’s credit that I was particularly attuned to the difficult relationships between Black men and their children in my next two reads, as well; A Lucky Man clarified this particular facet of family life in America for me in a very effective way.

Transcendent Kingdom

In Transcendent Kingdom, Gifty is a neuroscientist running behavioral experiments on mice in the hopes of better understanding what has befallen her family; her brother died young in the grip of addiction, and afterward her mother succumbed to a debilitating depression that has, years later, suddenly returned.

“It’s true that for years before he died, I would look at his face and think, What a pity, what a waste. But the waste was my own, the waste was what I missed out on whenever I looked at him and saw just his addiction.”

There’s little plot here; Gifty goes back and forth between the lab where she works with the mice, and her home, where she tends to her unresponsive mother. The beauty of the novel comes through Gifty’s internal grappling with her family history and her struggle to strike a balance between her relationships with science and religion. This is another very quiet book, and it’s hard to explain the charm that comes through in Gifty’s voice, but rest assured that this is a must-read. It’s rich in social commentary but it’s also captivatingly specific; not too detailed to be alienating to those of us unscientifically-minded readers, but just detailed enough to bring another layer of texture to this story and make it feel lived-in and real.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. This is such a different reading experience from Gyasi’s historical and expansive Homegoing, but no less brilliant for the change of pace. I really hope we’re going to see this title up for a lit prize or two in 2021, but there’s no need to wait for it to appear on the lists to pick it up- you won’t regret it!

Memorial

In Memorial, Mike is flying to Osaka to aid his dying father, leaving his visiting mother to wait for his return in the apartment he shares with his boyfriend, Ben. Mike and Ben’s relationship has been a little rocky lately, but neither of them are strangers to complicated relationships and they’re all still trying to figure out how they fit together, or whether they should bother trying to fit together at all.

“And how did everything come to such a turning point between us? Quietly, I guess. The big moments are never big when they’re actually fucking happening.”

Memorial is a quick read packed with (unpunctuated) dialogue and a steady stream of brief anecdotes that drive the story forward and backward simultaneously. The narrative is not quite linear, but Washington is clear about sequences of events and the easy pace helps hold everything together and keep the story moving. Though little happens aside from personal reckonings, it’s a sharp book that digs into the ups and downs of multi-cultural life in the modern world (Ben is a Black American, Mike is Japanese American, and both are gay; they live together in Houston, Texas in a eclectic neighborhood halfway between low-income and up-and-coming).

It’s essentially a character study in two parts, a relationship study, if you will. I thought a little more could’ve been done with the men’s professions and sense of home, and I thought a few less expletives might have served the book just as well, but ultimately it’s a compelling representation of marginalized America; I’m not an own voices reader/reviewer, but I thought the depictions of gay, multi-cultural, polyamorous men were thoughtful and realistically messy. It’s the sort of book you don’t mind going on and on even whhen nothing is really happening because the characters are magnetic enough in themselves.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I enjoyed this novel more than Lot, though I do think that Washington’s story collection has strengths of its own that are maybe not as well-realized here- the broad exploration of setting/community, for example. But I am partial to longer form fiction and appreciated the greater depth of character Memorial had to offer; I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out for more of Washington’s work going forward.

Are any of these titles on your radar?

The Literary Elephant