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Review: Sing, Unburied, Sing

I’m still waiting for my April Book of the Month box to arrive, but it’s taking so long that it’s throwing off my reading. Instead of spending this extra time reading more from my BOTM backlog, I’ve been checking out library copies of past BOTM selections that I don’t own. First Goodbye, Vitamin and now Jesmyn Ward’s National Book Award-winning Sing, Unburied, Sing, which was also a contender for BOTM’s 2017 book of the year.

sing,unburied,singAbout the book: Jojo, Kayla, and their mother, Leonie, live in Mississippi with Leonie’s parents. Leonie isn’t well-equipped for childcare, so Jojo takes care of his baby sister Kayla, and their grandparents make sure  both children are fed and housed and shown some kindness and attention. Leonie’s boyfriend, the father of her children, has been in jail for three years but he’s getting out now. Leonie plans to take her bad-news best friend (who also has a boyfriend in the same facility) and her reluctant children to retrieve him. Jojo doesn’t particularly like his father, Kayla has never met him, and their grandmother is very sick at home. They don’t want to make the trip. But Leonie gives them no choice, and there’s a bit of destiny involved. At the prison, they pick up an extra passenger– a ghost that only the children can see, a stuck soul with ties to their family.

“Sometimes I think it done changed. And then I sleep and wake up, and it ain’t changed none.”

I’ve read one of Ward’s works in the past: her memoir, Men We Reaped. I loved her writing style and the concepts she worked into that story, but in the end I felt like she had just scratched the surface, like she could reach the meat of the story but was trying too hard to make it elaborate and some of its potential was lost in the process. It was the sort of book that left me feeling like she maybe hadn’t quite gotten into the swing of things yet and I should check back in with a later publication. So I picked up her most recent novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing; a lot of people seem to love it and it was nominated for plenty of awards. But ultimately I had the same experience as with Men We Reaped: I loved the ideas behind the story and I’m so sure that something Ward writes will be a strong favorite for me, but Sing, Unburied, Sing wasn’t it.

“Sometimes the world don’t give you what you need, no matter how hard you look. Sometimes it withholds.”

The main plot of the book (this is premise, not spoiler territory) is Leonie (and crew)’s trip to the jail to retrieve her boyfriend. So much of the main story line takes place in the car, or on the stops they have to make during the journey. Although a few interesting things do happen during that trip, it’s the least exciting part of the book. It doesn’t give the reader much new information about the family, except for some of the backstory and ruminations that surface at that time which could have been written in other ways without that long trip.

The point of the journey, from a plotting perspective, is the encounter with Richie. Richie was a friend of Jojo’s grandfather, and is a ghost at the time of Jojo’s story. Richie’s is one of three first-person perspectives in the book (along with Jojo’s and Leonie’s), but the strongest parts of his story are the parts we see through other characters’ eyes. Richie’s backstory was the most impactful part of the book for me, but his perspective chapters also seemed the most bland and/or unbelievable. I like a supernatural twist, usually. My problem with Richie wasn’t that he was a ghost, but rather that he spent so much time trying to convey what it felt like to be a ghost though none of his description seemed new or surprising as far as ghost characters go.

The supernatural aspect was not a total wash for me, though. By the end of the book, when Jojo sees birds in a tree and is beginning to understand the lingering nature of wrongs done to African Americans, I felt all the sadness and creepiness and outrage that it seemed I was supposed to, though the otherworldly life/death/magic details near the end were stretching my suspension of disbelief to its limits. The image of the birds in the tree is strong enough on its own, in my opinion, and the points Jesmyn makes with it saved the story for me after the crossing-over chaos nearly ruined it.

Though parts of the book seemed boring or unnecessary, I was reminded right away in the first chapter why I was trying again with Ward, and why I’ll probably pick up another of her books in the future: her writing is visceral and beautiful, her insights sharp and her emotions radiant. Though very little actually happens to Jojo throughout this book, he’s extremely sympathetic and easily my favorite character. His grandparents are unique and fascinating, with a wealth of history to share. Even Leonie (and her boyfriend, though we don’t see as much of him) who we’re not meant to like, is humanized in a way that helped me understand her questionable motives even when I did not remotely agree with them. Ward has talent, especially with character.

“But I knew this was her cottage, and when it all came down to it, I’m Black and she’s White, and if someone heard us tussling and decided to call the cops, I’d be the one going to jail. Not her. Best friend and all.”

And the best part is the culture she captures so vividly. There is better representation in American literature with every passing year, but Ward’s voice still stands out. She shows the significance of familiar history in new and evocative ways.

But after convincing me that the past is important, I wish she had ended Sing, Unburied, Sing with an eye toward the future, to leave me with more to think about after closing the cover on this book. I’m afraid I’m going to forget everything but the image of the birds in the tree pretty quickly, though as long as that sticks with me I’ll know I have the most important piece.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. The writing style in this book kept me engaged, even in the places where I doubted the story. I still feel that Ward has so much potential, but I think Men We Reaped has already stuck with me longer than Sing, Unburied, Sing ever will. I will probably try again with a future publication of Ward’s, assuming there will be one. I’m so sure that I’m going to love one of her books eventually, but it wasn’t this one. She has important things to say, and I can see why it’s been a popular choice, but I didn’t find as much here as I hoped for.

Further recommendations:

  1. If you’re looking for another novel from a writer of color about the current impact of a long history of racism, try Tayari Jones’ An American Marriage, which features a modern family torn by injustice and jail time minus the focus on ghosts and magic. This is a great choice for someone looking to read about social issues of race without the magical realism element.
  2. If, like me, you appreciate the messages that Sing, Unburied, Sing has to offer more than the way they’re offered, let me recommend Ward’s Men We Reaped. Although this book is a memoir, it reads as easily as fiction and its messages are emphasized by the truth behind them. This book focuses on recent deaths and despair as a result of past racism.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

 

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Reading Widely vs. Deeply

I came across a post a month or so ago that I’ve been thinking a lot about. Actually, it wasn’t even the main points of the post that kept me thinking– something about literary tropes/cliches, I believe– but a side remark about genre. I don’t remember the blogger or the post, to be honest, and I didn’t even think much of the remark at the time, but it’s been eating at me for weeks now. This blogger said, “Every reader has a preferred genre.” I think the argument was that readers are more likely to tolerate tropes in their preferred genre. But what stuck with me was that assertion of preference.

And maybe this person went on to make a few concessions, that it’s possible to prefer two genres, or that you don’t know what your genre is until you start categorizing the books you’ve been reading lately and a pattern emerges, but generally the commenters seemed to agree that they had one preferred genre. Or maybe two. Looking through other peoples’ posts on booktube, on blogs, on bookstagram, etc. it’s easier to see when readers lean toward a certain type of book than it is to see for myself. But I’ve really been trying and I can’t figure out my type. I’ve been asking around to see what my family and friends think of the things I read, and the common opinion seems to be that I have eclectic taste, that I like “weird things.” By which I assume they mean “different things than I read.”

I don’t know why it bothers me so much that I don’t have a favorite genre, but I think that’s the truth, after days and days of deliberation. I like to read everything. Everything that’s written well, anyway. If a book is well-written, it does not matter to me what its subject is. Sure, I have moods and phases, but generally I switch easily from one genre to the next, and that’s my favorite way to read. I don’t want to read 2 fantasies in a row, or 2 contemporaries, or 2 classics, or 2 YA novels, or 2 thrillers, or 2 memoirs. But I want to read all of those things, and more. So far this month I’ve read a lit fic, a contemporary, an urban fantasy, and a sci-fi novel. I’m currently reading a YA novel, and next up on deck I have a mystery, a historical fiction, and a nonfiction book. And they all feel like “my type” of book.

I think part of the reason I’m uncomfortable with having no reading specialty, shall we say, is that I always feel like I’m behind. I just can’t read a substantial number of books in every genre out there in a reasonable period of time. I’m not a speed reader, nor is reading the only thing I have to do in my life. My TBR just keeps getting larger and more out of control because I want to read all of the books that exclusively YA readers are interested in, and all of the thrillers that the adrenaline junkies have their eye on, and all the nonfiction that worldly readers enjoy. But I can’t keep up with it all. Of course, even readers with one preferred genre might be in over their heads with all the publications new and old within a single category, but in reading widely, I have to be so much more selective in what I spend my time on because I have less time to spend on each genre with the more genres I dabble in.

I want to be a reading expert, but I feel like I can’t be an expert in all areas. There’s no way to tackle all of the new releases, let alone the great books that are already out there. So here’s the big question: is it better to have a taste of everything, or to really know a certain flavor or two?

Do you read widely (across a wide range of genres/subjects) or deeply (really delving into a select genre or two that you come back to over and over for all the nuances)? Is one option better than the other?

I don’t know.

What do you think? Let me know in the comments if you have a genre preference, or why you gravitate toward the books that you do.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Novel Progress 4.18

I’m writing, I’m writing! In my last update, I felt like I had made a lot of progress and things were moving fast and I was excited. But my writing usually fluctuates, I have a week or two of great progress and then an off week or two, and then I’m back again. So this month I have less progress to report but I’m on the upswing and I’m still excited about what’s going on in my story.

I used to feel bad about the weeks when I just can’t seem to get anywhere in my manuscript– still do sometimes– but these last weeks have emphasized for me why that doesn’t help anything. In my off weeks this last writing month, I started to feel guilty about not getting anywhere and I did manage to force myself into getting words onto the page. I needed about 2,500 more words in Chapter 4 when I started out, and after editing and revising what I already had I got to the end where I knew I needed a little more content with only about 1,000 more words needed at most. That’s about where I was at during my last update in March, and I thought at the rate I was going I’d finish Chapter 4 within days of that update post.

Cue the off weeks. As I said, I forced myself to write through it and I was right up there at the 10,000 words mark after long days and then long weeks of struggling, when the writing mood finally hit hard and I realized I was going to have to rewrite a lot of the new content I had added as well as some of the revisions I had been making in the chapter at the same time. All the answers just started falling into place and I knew what needed to be said in the chapter, but I had said a lot of unnecessary things instead in those off weeks.

So I’ve spent the last week and a half redoing most of my progress. I was so into the work (finally) that I was shirking my reading (I have an overdue library book for the first time all year) and my blogging (I let a few days that I had posts planned for just go by without even looking at the drafts I had started), but when the writing fire lights I don’t want to miss the magic before it fizzles out again.

I finished Chapter 4 today, all but a final read-through that I like to do at night when it’s quiet. I’m just over 10,500 words and I feel really good about it– not just about being done with the chapter, but about having quality content in it. Even though it’s less progress to report than last month I feel just as good about it. It took more time and effort to finish Chapter 4 than Chapter 3 (8 of my 9 chapters are named but it’s easier to refer to them by number while the manuscript is in progress), but I think the end results of 4 were worth it. Did I mention I’m really excited about how it’s looking right now?

I know some writers have rules/goals about writing every day and pushing through slumps (and probably also about finishing writing before trying to edit and revise anything), but this month I learned all over again that I should listen to my instincts about what works for me, at least when it comes to my manuscript. I have plenty of side projects that I could’ve worked on and not cared if I messed up in those off weeks, but instead I created a lot of extra work for myself by trying to be more proactive than I was ready to be. In the end I probably could’ve finished Chapter 4 faster if I hadn’t put a lot of mediocre content in there when I wasn’t feeling it, but I’m so happy with where it’s at right now that I’m more interested in living and learning than resenting the lost time.

Current standing: other than a final read-through of the chapter tonight (just for small word choice edits and double-checking that everything lines up), I’m confidently finished with 4 of my 9 chapters. I have over 130 pages and over 40,000 words that feel like final draft material, but I know Chapter 5 is going to be more/different work than I’ve been doing so far. There’s a lot of content still missing from Chapter 5 so I’ll be back to writing and editing at the same time like the end of Chapter 4. (I don’t have an outline per se but I do have notes of what’s generally supposed to be happening and some pieces put in here and there in the middle.) Chapters 5 and 9 are the ones I’ve put the least time into so far so I’ve got plenty of work coming up but 5 will be exceptionally pleasing to finish– because it’ll mean a lot of work done and because it’ll put me safely past the halfway point. I think the key thing to remember going forward, after the writing month I’ve just had, will be to use the good writing days when I have them and not to worry too much about the off days when they strike.

If you haven’t checked out my previous updates and are wondering, I’m aiming for a 90,000 (up to 100,000 at most) finished product divided into 9 chapters (10,000 words each) with smaller sections inside the chapters. I have two main perspectives but also two minor perspectives that come into the story regularly, all in third person because I have an omniscient narrator. It fits best into the sci-fi genre, but primarily it’s a character-driven story about ordinary people turned superheroes with just enough science to explain what’s going on. The best age range is NA, as the characters are college-aged and figuring out life. I think it’s a pretty great read, but I’m biased.

What do you do when you hit a writing (or even reading) slump? Is it best to wait it out or do you have a trick for working through it? Tell me about it in the comments!

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: Goodbye, Vitamin

Sometimes I have more luck with the Book of the Month selections I don’t choose than the ones I do; Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong is one of the selections that I decided against last year, though it caught my eye. My library had a new copy of it this month so I finally picked it up. And I loved it!

goodbye,vitaminAbout the book: Ruth goes home for Christmas for the first time in years, and to her surprise she’s asked to stay for the year to help with her father, who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. At first her dad seems like his old self and the only proof of the dementia comes to Ruth through stories from his colleagues and students at the local college. But as time passes, she sees the change for herself. She finds reason to worry about her mother as well, and her parents’ marriage. And through it all, she’s dealing with big changes in her own life– the loss of her fiance to another woman, regret for dropping out of college, a move, uncertainty about her career. She finds unexpected help along the way, and unexpected strength within herself.

Sounds pretty straightforward, right? It is. There’s very little plot to this book, which is usually a turn-off for me. But it worked here.

Goodbye, Vitamin is narrated through journal entries. The style changes occasionally, but the voice remains the same. Interspersed are pages from a journal Ruth’s father kept for her when she was small– just a few lines here and there about what young Ruth did today. (Some of these entries are more overtly “cute” than the book needs, but many of them are just amusing.) The reader knows early on how this book will be structured: slightly rambling accounts of Ruth’s days, including all the events that may or may not seem significant later on. Some of it is fluff, certainly, but most of it is interesting. Ruth is interested in trivia so there are some weird factoids worked in, but even her commentary of daily minutiae is unique and entertaining. It’s sentimental without being overly sentimental.

“The fish are getting fatter. The fish, in fact, are obese. Today I see why: I watch Dad feed the fish, sit down, and minutes later, rise to feed them again.”

Running through it all is the Alzheimer’s. Even in the moments when Ruth’s father seems fine and remembers everything correctly and acts normally, memory remains a constant theme. Ruth learns about foods that help fight dementia, she compares what she remembers of the past to what her younger brother remembers, she writes about what is known medically about the Alzheimer’s disease, and she considers which parts of her life she would be glad to remember or wishes weren’t in her head at all.

“There is, presently, no single test or scan that can diagnose dementia with complete accuracy. It’s only after the person is dead that you can cut his or her brain open and look for tell-tale plaques and tangles. For now, it’s process of elimination. What we have are tests that rule out other possible causes of memory loss. In diagnosing Alzheimer’s, doctors can only tell you everything that it isn’t.”

I have to admit, even for a character who’s losing his mind I had a hard time believing Ruth’s father wouldn’t have seen right through the phony class she told him was real. And maybe I’m just too cynical but I had an equally hard time believing several university students would go through the time and effort of taking a fake class for no credit, as a kindness to an ailing professor. But that obvious plot device was the only complaint I had while reading the book, and I did nevertheless appreciate the additional characters it introduced to the story.

As is necessary in a book without much plot, the characters drive the story in Goodbye, Vitamin. It’s pretty clear which characters the reader is meant to like and which he/she isn’t, but each one is unique and brings something important to the table. Ruth and her family are the most ambiguous in terms of “good” and “bad,” as they should be, and each of the supporting characters filters the way we see the main ones. None of their stories are coincidental or easy, and I would not have minded reading another year’s worth of journal entries to see where they ended up next, though this story didn’t require more from them. I appreciated how Ruth’s experiences with each of the secondary characters all tied back to memory and the mind. It’s a focused ramble from the first page to the last.

“Memories are stored in collections of cells, and when we remember, we reassemble the cells like a puzzle.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. It’s entirely possible that this book worked for me because Alzheimer’s runs in my family and I’m morbidly interested in malfunctions of memory and the mind. I usually don’t like plot-less books, but I was genuinely pleased to pick this one up, for the two sittings it lasted. I did take off one star for the lack of plot and surprise, but even so this one might make an appearance on my favorites list at the end of the year. It’s not the sort of book that everyone will love, but it was the right sort of book for me.

Are there any weirdly specific topics you like to read about even if they’re never wildly popular?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Power

While I’m (still…) waiting for my April selections from Book of the Month, I decided to dip into my backlog from last year again. As glad as I am that I’ve finally read Naomi Alderman’s much-discussed novel, The Power, I really wish I had found the time to read this one back in October when it was new. From the colors and sci-fi details on the cover to the otherworldliness of this story, this would’ve been a perfect Halloween read.

thepowerAbout the book: All over the world, women begin to develop the power to conduct electricity through their hands. From a wide range of reactions– panic, discouragement, anger– emerges a new world order. Women upend religion, politics, and social norms as they take back their right to live without fear, although in relatively little time equality is not enough and the women seek to reign supreme. Men are afraid to leave their homes, to speak their minds.  As the world becomes more and more unstable in the face of such a sudden and incontrovertible shift in the power dynamic, a major war looms on the horizon, the result of which will determine who will write the laws and enforce order.

“It doesn’t matter that she shouldn’t, that she never would. What matters is that she could, if she wanted. The power to hurt is a kind of wealth.”

The Power is narrated in the third person, in chapters that follow four main characters and a few minor ones. The major perspectives are vastly different, focusing on a mayor interested in climbing the political ladder, a newly independent foster child with an abusive past and a penchant for religion, the illegitimate daughter of a gang lord, and a college student who begins reporting/documenting the change in power dynamic after a confusing sexual experience. The first three of these characters are female, and all four are from different corners of the world. The minor characters are friends/relatives of the major characters. All of the chapters are labelled by character name until their stories start to intersect at the end of the novel.

And all of that is interspersed with drawings of “artifacts” with historical descriptions that depict life “thousands of years ago,” which is actually our near future. The whole story is bookended by written correspondence between the fictional man who has  written this historical novel and Alderman, a friend and early reader.

What worked and didn’t: the character chapters are easy to follow, though occasionally the narration slips from the chapter’s titular character to someone nearby. The artifact drawings interested and amused me, especially after I read Alderman’s explanation of their realness and significance at the end of the book. They seem randomly placed and only abstractly relevant to the overall story, but I liked them. The correspondence between fictional Neil and Naomi was hit-or-miss: in the beginning it confused me, but at the end, it helped explain the story and give a framework that made certain details more significant. And it ended on a great note about publishing under a pseudonym of the opposite gender in order for your work to be “taken seriously.” I’ve never been more sure about using my own name if I get published.

“There are no shortcuts. Not to understand and not to knowledge. You can’t put anyone into a box. Listen, even a stone isn’t the same as any other stone, so I don’t know where you all think you get off labeling humans with simple words and thinking you know everything you need. But most people can’t live that way, even some of the time.”

There are several great lines about power and gender in this book. The concept of the story is fascinating. But in all honesty, I wish I had just read a 5-10 page sample with the concept outlined and the great quotes listed because I think the benefit would’ve been the same. Most of the book was a boring and even unpleasant reading experience for me.

Here are some reasons why: It’s very episodic, and the tension just isn’t there for me when the plot hops around so much. Most of the characters are pretty meh; I didn’t hate them, but I didn’t really like them either. The whole story is very political, which can feel a bit tedious when the politics are hypothetical dystopian projections of real world politics. There’s a lot of violence that I found uncomfortable to read at times, including limbs torn from bodies, multiple rapes, painful electrocutions; a lot of these things are done for the sake of cruelty and/or sadistic sexual pleasure.

“Power doesn’t care who uses it. […] It just says: Yes. Yes, I can. Yes. You’ve got this.”

The worst aspect , in my opinion, is the feminism. That sounds blasphemous. I know “feminism” means equality for all genders, not empowerment for females. And there are some great lines and points made in this book toward general gender equality. But a lot of the novel takes female empowerment to extremes; it became painful to read about how women would turn the world into a chaotic violent mess if they had the choice to do so. It didn’t feel much like a reason to advocate for more female rights in the real world. None of the main female characters in this book are selfless or gentle or particularly kind, and even when I sympathized with them the thought of making them leaders was concerning.

But the biggest problem for me with the feminism in this book is that it seems like it’s trying to tackle too much. It’s trying to show how harmful to society a dominant gender can be, no matter which gender. It’s trying to show what the world might be like if women were in charge, both in peace and wartime. But the world of The Power is not the same as our modern world, and while it was trying to show these new possibilities, it does so with an eye toward more familiar injustices by pushing (unfortunately common) cases of today’s female victimization to their opposites. And the balance of real and imagined gender issues just don’t quite match up into one coherent picture.

“One had done the thing to a boy because he asked her to: this story holds much interest for the girls. Could it be that boys like it? Is it possible they want it? Some of them have found internet forums that suggest that this is the case.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I wanted to like this book, I really did. And I did like parts of it. But in the end it was the sort of book that I liked being able to think about in the aftermath more than during the actual reading process. It’s a great concept, upending the gender power dynamic to demonstrate the need for gender equality, but The Power felt more like a thought experiment than a polished story. I can see why it’s been getting the attention it has, and it deserves the credit for the conversations about equality it starts. But I wouldn’t say I had a fun time reading it.

Further recommendations:

  1. Tom Miller’s The Philosopher’s Flight is another recent release that turns familiar gender dynamics around to put women in power. This one is also sci-fi, but it’s a lot more adventure-driven than political, and it’s a lot more fun.

Do you have any great feminist fiction reads to recommend for me?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

2018 Reading Challenge: Update 1

A quarter of the year is gone (what?! where?), and it’s time to check in. In case you missed it, I assembled my own personal reading challenge for 2018 full of goals and titles that fit my tastes and my reading aspirations for the year. I haven’t been very systematic about tackling the challenges yet, so I’ll be as surprised as you about where I stand and what my plans will be moving forward. Let’s take a look – – – >

Strikethrough font means I’ve completed the task, (parentheses) means I’ve designated a book for the task but not completed it yet.

Here is the first set of challenges: individual books.

  1. A book you didn’t get around to in 2017 = Lady Midnight by Cassandra Clare
  2. A book with a blue cover = Ugly Love by Colleen Hoover
  3. A Stephen King book
  4. An illustrated Harry Potter book = (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J. K. Rowling)
  5. A book you’ve loved in the past = Hawksong by Amelia Atwater-Rhodes
  6. A book at least 1000 pages long = It by Stephen King
  7. The last book in a series = (Obsidio by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff)
  8. A book recommended by a friend = (Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi)
  9. A prize-winning book
  10. A non-fiction book = Night by Elie Weisel
  11. A book picked up on a whim from the library = Gwendy’s Button Box by Stephen King and Richard T. Chizmar
  12. A book at the bottom of your to-read list = (Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen)
  13. A book with a strong female lead
  14. A book from the staff recommendations display at a bookstore = (Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore by Matthew J. Sullivan)
  15. A book in which a beloved character dies
  16. A Shakespeare play = (King Lear by Shakespeare)
  17. A book that takes place in space = (The Martian by Andy Weir)
  18. A book by a new-to-you author = (Vicious by V. E. Schwab)
  19. A new book by an author you already love = Iron Gold by Pierce Brown
  20. A book of short stories
  21. A memoir = The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
  22. A true-crime book = (In Cold Blood by Truman Capote)
  23. A book with a five-word title = (Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor)
  24. A book set in another country = The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
  25. A book of poetry = (Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur)

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

  1. Twelve classics
    1. Emma by Jane Austen
    2. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
    3. (The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hide by Robert Louis Stevenson)
    4. (A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens)
    5. (The Odyssey by Homer)
    6. (The Waves by Virginia Woolf)
    7. (The Beautiful and Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald)
    8. (The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas)
    9. (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle)
    10. (Dracula by Bram Stoker)
    11. (Mansfield Park by Jane Austen)
    12. (King Lear by Shakespeare)
  2. Twelve books within a month of their publication dates
    1. Iron Gold by Pierce Brown
    2. As Bright as Heaven by Susan Meissner
    3. The Philospher’s Flight by Tom Miller
    4. Rainbirds by Clarissa Goenawan
    5. Red Rising Sons of Ares by Pierce Brown, Rik Hoskin, and Eli Powell
    6. Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi
  3. The rest of the A Song of Ice and Fire Series
    1. (A Storm of Swords by George R. R. Martin)
    2. (A Feast for Crows by George R. R. Martin)
    3. (A Dance with Dragons by George R. R. Martin)
  4. All of my unread Book of the Month books
    1. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
    2. (Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich)
    3. (Artemis by Andy Weir)
    4. (The Power by Naomi Alderman)
    5. (Sleeping Beauties by Stephen and Owen King)
    6. (Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng)
    7. The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
    8. (Since We Fell by Dennis Lehane)
    9. (One Day We’ll All Be Dead And None of This Will Matter by Scaachi Koul)
    10. (All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood)
    11. (Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller)
    12. As Bright As Heaven by Susan Meissner
    13. (The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne)
    14. The Philosopher’s Flight by Tom Miller
    15. Rainbirds by Clarissa Goenawan
    16. (The Oracle Year by Charles Soule)
    17. (Our Kind of Cruelty by Araminta Hall)
    18. (The Girl Who Smiled Beads by Clemantine Wamariya)
  5. Nine books by Victoria/V. E. Schwab
    1. (The Archived)
    2. (The Unbound)
    3. (This Savage Song)
    4. (This Dark Duet)
    5. (Vicious)
    6. (Vengeful)
    7. (A Darker Shade of Magic)
    8. (A Gathering of Shadows)
    9. (A Conjuring of Light)

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

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

And that’s that. So far I have completed 23 challenge tasks, and I have at least 72 challenge tasks left. When I set this challenge for myself, I made it large because I really wanted to push myself this year, but I had no idea if I would actually be able to complete it within a year. Some of the tasks are designed to make me read more than one book, but being able to count some books more than once across the three sets might help even that out. Right now, it looks like if I keep going at the same rate I should have a chance at finishing. I haven’t been trying very hard yet to meet any of these challenges– I did well when I set these tasks because they are fitting pretty well with what I’m reaching for naturally, and even the bigger tasks (like reading all of my BOTM books) are things I want to work toward just because I feel I should, which means I’m not feeling bogged down by the restrictions of the challenge. At least not yet. I’m happy with where I’m at, I’m hopeful about my chances of completion, and I’m excited to watch my progress as the year progresses.

Are you taking part in any reading challenges this year, and if so how’s it going? Are there any tasks or specific titles on my list that you’ve read lately or are excited for me to get to?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Children of Blood and Bone

I have been reading significantly less YA this year, for no particular reason, but Tomi Adeyemi’s new YA fantasy, Children of Blood and Bone, caught my attention. An entirely non-white cast is pretty new and exciting for a big title in YA fantasy, but a great set of characters needs a great plot to back them up, and that’s what I was hoping to find in Children of Blood and Bone.

childrenofbloodandboneAbout the book: Eleven years ago, the Raid killed Zelie’s mother, hurt her father irreparably, uprooted her family, and sent a wave of grief across the entire nation of Orisha. The King, fearing the magic that hurt him once, used the Raid as the first step in eliminating not only magic from Orisha, but every maji with the potential to wield it. When his quest to end magic eventually reaches his daughter, Amari runs away from the Royal Palace, and her brother Inan runs after her with the King’s might behind him to stop her. Amari meets Zelie and begs for her help; with destruction in their wake and no way to turn back, a new quest begins: a quest to restore magic to Orisha as it was before the Raid. It’s a race against time as well as the King, and it’s likely no one will survive…

Children of Blood and Bone is narrated through three first-person perspectives: Zelie, Amari, and Inan. Though their backstories and motivations differ vastly, the narrative voice remains the same among the three of them. The book benefits from the use of multiple voices, but when they aren’t thinking about the unique details of their circumstances it can be hard to tell them apart.

“There are parts of it, parts of her, that light something inside me. But the light only lasts a moment. Then I drown inside the darkness of her pain.”

I also found it rather odd that there are four main characters and only three perspectives; those three have clearly been chosen for proximity to certain advancement points of the plot, but the imbalance kept me constantly questioning that choice. Amari’s connection to magic seems the flimsiest of all four (the maji friend she loses appears only once, through Amari’s eyes, and then only through her memories. Seeing a princess/servant friendship only through the eyes of the pampered princess weakens that link). Inan’s perspective is repetitive and confusing, but his character is such a wild card that he can’t be discounted. Zelie is obviously necessary as the lead character. But I would’ve loved seeing Tzain’s perspective, as a non-magical member of a magical family (he’s Zelie’s brother). He has so much respect for magic and majis though he isn’t one himself, and his motives are the most intriguing to me. It seems an oversight not to allow him a voice in this story.

But the real trouble with Children of Blood and Bone is that it lacks tension. There are surprises in the plot and so many of the details are captivating and unique, but (trying not to spoil anything here) I never doubted that no matter what impossibilities blocked their way, these teens would find a way to scrape by and save the day. Of course they will, that’s the point of the book, as it is with so many other books, but it’s the sort of familiar plot arc that makes it impossible to forget you’re reading fiction. Even wacky fantasies, if written well, can feel like they’re real (even if only in some distant alternate universe), but Children of Blood and Bone was always words on a page for me. When the stakes raised I sat back quietly wondering how the writer would maneuver her characters out of their current mess, never ‘will they get out of the mess?’

“My heart sinks as we continue forward. To our deaths we go.

Or not.

Zelie and her friends are “chosen by the gods” as the only people who can save magic– and thus the world– despite the fact that they’re teens distracted by their own budding loves and secret animosities. They have a deadline that’s presented as impossible when it’s two weeks away, but after unplanned stops and detours and obstacles, that deadline never slips out of reach. Some real tragedies are happening in the meantime, and the book certainly doesn’t lack emotional pull, but the plot is a bit… familiar. Convenient. Fictional.

Overlooking that, there’s no denying that the writing itself is gorgeous. Adeyemi’s words are intelligently chosen and aptly placed. She introduces new phrases rather than relying on old cliches, and the resulting sentences are a delight to read. Her characters are unique and sympathetic. And most importantly, she makes some great points about racism that are tweaked to fit the fantasy world but are largely applicable to the modern world. Check out these heart-wrenching beauties:

“They built this world for you, built it to love you. They never cursed at you in the streets, never broke down the doors of your home. They didn’t drag your mother by her neck and hang her for the whole world to see.”

“I won’t let your ignorance silence my pain.”

A warning: this book ends on a cliff-hanger. It’s the first book in an ongoing trilogy, so it doesn’t end with much resolution. And before it gets to the end, there are some graphic scenes including torture and dramatic deaths. I would say it’s heavier than it is dark, but in either case it’s not a book to pick up lightly.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Other than taking longer to read than I was expecting, I did enjoy my experience with this book. The plot wasn’t quite as strong as early reviews led me to believe, but I’m intrigued by where this one ended and I will be reading the next book with strong hopes that it’ll be onward and upward from here. Tomi Adeyemi is certainly an author to watch; but I don’t mind having to wait a year or so to check out the next book in this series.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant