Tag Archives: nonfiction

Reviews: Beach Read and The Gifts of Reading

Here are a couple of bookish books I’ve read recently! Emily Henry’s new romance novel Beach Read was my BOTM pick for April- it’s been a popular release this spring that helped pull me out of a reading slump! Also meant to help with the slump, I’ve been saving Robert Macfarlane’s charming little personal essay, The Gifts of Reading, for a moment I needed a pick-me-up; it’s a tiny little booklet of just 34 pages, but heartwarming and inspiring in spite of its size.

beachreadEmily Henry’s Beach Read is a romance novel in which a romance novelist (January) and a literary fiction writer (Gus) meet again a few years after their college writing class days. Suddenly the two are neighbors, and after being thrown together by the town’s bookshop owner they strike up a competitive friendship and challenge each other to swap genres for the summer. Meanwhile, both are dealing with trauma from their pasts, and use their writing and each other to work through what’s bothering them- which of course brings them even closer together.

“As different as I’d thought we were, it felt a little bit like Gus and I were two aliens who’d stumbled onto each other on Earth only to discover we shared a native language.”

Romance is the only genre in which the reader generally knows exactly how the book will end as soon as the characters are properly introduced- if not before. As someone who doesn’t typically enjoy predictability in any book, what makes a romance novel work for me is a convincing emotional journey- and this is where Beach Read excels. Considerably heavier than most of the romances I’ve read, the main characters in this novel are carrying some serious baggage; there is of course comedic relief and plenty of lighter moments, but even when things are good for January and Gus their hardships are never dismissed to make way for the steamy scenes, but rather become something for the two of them to work through together.

I actually don’t always like bookish books- author name dropping and stories within stories and references to people reading need to provide something to the book beyond cuteness to feel effective; lucky for me, Henry seems to get that, and doesn’t spend a lot of page time dwelling on what her characters are reading and writing. She uses these tactics only where they add something to the plot or characterization rather than letting the focus shift away from the emotional work her characters are putting into their writing and their relationship. Beach Read does include some commentary on romance being just as worthy a genre as literary fiction, though it feels more personal than philosophical because the antagonism is presented through characters who essentially embody their respective genres.

“I know how to tell a story, Gus, and I know how to string a sentence together. If you swapped out all of my Jessicas for Johns, do you know what you’d get? Fiction. Just fiction. Ready and willing to be read by anyone, but somehow by being a woman who writes about women, I’ve eliminated half the Earth’s population from my potential readers, and you know what? I don’t feel ashamed of that. I feel pissed.”

But there were a few details that made the overall effect less effective for me, despite my enthusiasm for the broader strokes.

First, neither of these characters ever asks for consent. This is something I always look for in romance novels, and even though both main characters seemed very self-aware, very considerate, and very attuned to the other’s body language, I can’t help feeling dissatisfied when in 350 pages of romance no consent is asked or given. Bonus points for proper condom usage, but that’s not quite enough to make up for it. Consent is sexy.

Second, and this is certainly subjective, the steamy scenes did not work for me at all. There was a lot of moving around and changing positions that I found overly elaborate and a bit hard to follow, but mainly those scenes just felt a lot less emotionally charged to me than earlier angst in the smaller touches. The language used to describe their more erotic encounters just did nothing for me, which isn’t to say they won’t work better for others.

Third, a lot of Beach Read‘s emotion is driven by miscommunication and lack of communication, which is a peeve of mine. This is an enemies-to-lovers romance, in which the characters are only enemies because they’re misconstruing and making assumptions. Additionally, the MC has some intense family drama going on- a distant mother, a dead father, his all-too-present lover nearby. (None of these are spoilers, they’re all introduced very early as part of the set-up.) While it’s reasonable to misunderstand what another person is doing and to avoid uncomfortable conversations, it frustrates me as a reader when an honest chat or two would essentially solve 300 pages of tension.

Ultimately, I loved the attempt and most of the details but just wasn’t quite swept away by the whole. I liked that Henry made the effort to do something different with this romance; everything about it is a little unexpected- a “beach read” set in flyover country, a romance featuring a lot of death (and a cult!), a romance novelist writing a literary circus tragedy, etc. It should have been the perfect formula to win me over, especially as it leans slightly literary. I like Henry’s writing, and have enjoyed her work in the past as well, but both books of hers that I’ve read now have left me feeling that one of her books might end up being a favorite for me, though this just isn’t it. Maybe my ideal Emily Henry book hasn’t been written yet. I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. Don’t be fooled- I had a great time with this one and it was perfect for my mood this month. I just don’t think it will be very memorable for me long-term, even though… it could have been.

 

thegiftsofreadingNext, I picked up Robert Macfarlane’s The Gifts of Reading, which was very thoughtfully gifted to me last year! This little nonfiction piece shares some of Macfarlane’s experiences with being gifted certain books throughout his life, and books he likes to give as gifts.

Macfarlane never quite comes out to say that we should gift books more often, but that is certainly the spirit of the piece. He effectively demonstrates that books given freely without expectation can have a profound, even life-altering effect on the reader. Most of the specific titles he mentions are books I haven’t read and don’t consider myself very interested in at this time, but I’m finding myself inspired to embrace book-gifting anew nonetheless, and perhaps to spend a little extra time with the books that others have given me over the years.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Honestly this was hard to rate, it’s so short and such a specific account of book gifting, but I did find it an enjoyable and encouraging read with an overall positive message. I have no idea who I would recommend this to- it is, perhaps, better to stumble across it without knowing too much, and simply let it take you where it will.

 

These two pieces have next to nothing in common, but both discuss books in a way that have restored some of the magic for me. I’ve been complaining about a reading slump for about a month (I swear I’ll stop now), but a little bookish reading turned out to be all I needed to kick it. What’s your favorite book about books?

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Vagina Bible

Nonfiction reviews have been rare sightings on my blog lately, but hopefully they will become a more regular presence now that I’ve concluded my four-month commitment with this book!

thevaginabibleDr. Jen Gunter’s The Vagina Bible is a medical textbook for the layperson, its focus apparent in the title. This is an incredible resource that I wish every person with a vagina would have access to, but I want to be careful about how I’m recommending it because it’s not the typical sort of narrative arc that I praise here.

The Vagina Bible is a bit like a first aid kit, in that you shouldn’t expect to use everything at once, you shouldn’t expect “having fun” to be your primary aim or response while looking through it, and yet when/if you need it, it’s invaluable to have on hand.

“I want every woman to have the power that comes with knowing how her body works and how to look for help when her body may not be working as she hoped it would. I want all women to know when there is bias and medical subterfuge, when there are lies, and when the patriarchy is just invested in keeping them frightened about their own normal (and I might add, glorious) bodily functions.”

The book is divided into chapters grouped by when you might be looking for certain information. Some of the chapters can be read at any time, and are great for general and everyday use- points on hygiene, menstrual products, contraception choices, Kegel exercises, and more. There’s plenty of myth debunking- Is white underwear better for your health? (No.) Can you prevent urinary tract infections by peeing after sex? (No.) Do you really need to worry about toxic shock syndrome? (Probably not.) Gunter also includes a section in which she reveals which products she keeps in her own medicine cabinet, and what she’d throw away immediately if she looked into yours. These are the bits that I think most people will take the most immediate interest in.

There are also more specialized sections that some people will never need, and others will only need at certain times- information on surgeries and hormone treatments for trans men and women, on the causes and effects of menopause, on what happens to the vagina during and following a pregnancy. There are whole chapters devoted to specific sexually transmitted infections and vaginal/vulvar conditions. Some of this content will likely never be applicable to you, and though some of it may be applicable throughout your lifetime it won’t all apply at once. For this reason, I don’t recommend picking up The Vagina Bible with the intent to read cover to cover, unless you’re really curious about the vagina from a medical standpoint.

But even if you don’t have that level of curiosity, I still think this is an important volume to keep on your shelf and flip through as needed. Gunter will tell you what you should expect in a visit to your local gynecologist, how to talk to her about what’s bothering you, and what you can do to advocate for your health and make sure any concerns you have are being asked and addressed. She goes over which issues can be handled over the phone, which require an exam and/or test (some of which can be done at home!), and what the next steps should entail if your provider is handling the matter appropriately- or when to look for a new provider! There’s advice on medication options (including OTC products) and general routines, information on how much you can do to take care of yourself before and when any issues arise, and statistics that make many of the infections and conditions covered feel a lot less shameful if they do happen to enter your life. It’s all handled very professionally- Gunter reserves her judgment for the patriarchy and validates your every possible feeling and reaction to whatever condition your vagina may be in.

“If you are going to have sex, you are almost certainly going to be exposed to HPV. This doesn’t make you dirty or bad or promiscuous, it just makes you human.”

“Almost everyone has one or more herpesviruses in their body.”

“In supposedly monogamous heterosexual relationships, approximately 23 percent of men and 19 percent of women admit to sexual infidelity. Whether a chlamydia infection was acquired recently, months ago, or years ago is not possible to know. How you interpret that data in the context of the infidelity statistics is up to you.”

Clearly a lot of work went into this book- Gunter mentions trying different products or practices in the name of research, and she’s looked up countless studies in order to provide the best, most accurate advice. She’s honest when she doesn’t have a firm answer and clear when she’s giving an opinion or anecdotal evidence in the absence of accepted fact (medicine doesn’t have an answer to every question, unfortunately). She’s easy to follow and uses both official and accessible terminology to provide readers with the full truth, in an understandable way. There are images and diagrams where necessary. The chapters, all laid out by subject with corresponding page numbers at the front of the book, are further subdivided with bold headers between points to guide readers directly toward specific questions they might have. When content from one chapter relates closely to matter discussed in another, Gunter tells the reader which chapter to check for more information. (This is one of the reasons Melanie’s review of the audiobook ends with the advice of picking up a physical copy instead! You’ll want to be able to go back and forth easily between different sections of the book.)

But while there’s a ton of useful and very accessible information here, I can’t pretend it’s the only medical advice you’ll ever need, even in women’s health. It is worth noting that this is a book covering vaginal and vulvar topics- it doesn’t talk much about uterine health at all, including pregnancy. If those are the subjects you’re interested in learning about, you’ll have to look elsewhere. And if you don’t have a vagina and don’t expect ever to have one, unfortunately I think you’ll find very little of personal interest here, unless you have a medical interest. There’s some information on contraceptives and STIs that may be useful even to those without a vagina, and certainly men could benefit from learning what advice not to give the women in their intimate lives, but as those aren’t this source’s primary intent I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it for those purposes, as they’re not explored fully here.

Personally, I did read The Vagina Bible cover to cover, over the course of four months, and I’m glad I did even though it’s not the method I would advocate for using with this book. I took something interesting and new-to-me out of almost every chapter, and even the ones that didn’t apply to me right now made me feel better about understanding the range of what’s “normal,” and where I can look for more information when/if I need it. This is definitely a resource I’ll be returning to over the years of my life, though I doubt I’ll ever need all of the content. It’s an empowering and informative read that was a lot more helpful than the one week my tenth grade health class spent on sex ed. I’m in good health at the moment, but even so there are pieces of advice on habits and products that I’m going to put to good use thanks to Gunter and this book. If you had a better education than I did or have a reliable source you can go to for firsthand advice, maybe you don’t need this book. But if you get an itch or a pain etc. and want to know what it is and whether you should make an appointment, The Vagina Bible is the place to turn.

“You can’t be an empowered patient and get the health outcomes you want with inaccurate information and half-truths. You also can’t be empowered when you are getting correct information but the person or source informing you is making you feel bad or is not listening to your concerns.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I rate based on enjoyability; satisfying my curiosity and increasing my knowledge on a relevant topic is something I enjoy, though it’s certainly no well-crafted fictional narrative. Based on content alone, this would be a 5-star read. I’m thrilled it exists and hope it will be a comforting guide for a lot of people who are misinformed or unsure about vaginal health. I can’t recommend it highly enough to that audience. (And if I haven’t convinced you yet, be sure to check out Ren’s incredible review, which convinced me!)

 

The Literary Elephant

Wrap-Up 4.20

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

My TBR goal for April looked like this:

tbr4.20

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

Here’s what I read this month:

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

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

wrapup4.20

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

Some Stats:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Literary Elephant

 

 

Wrap-up 3.20

Things that happened at the beginning of March already feel like they took place a year ago, so this will be interesting.

To get started, a little refresher on my TBR goal for March:

tbr3.20

As I’m doing for every month this year, I set myself a goal of five specific books to read in March. For the first time in 2020, I did not manage to read all five books. I knew when I started out that this would be a tricky month to plan ahead of time, and I did make a conscious choice about halfway through the month to set this list aside to in order to focus on the Women’s Prize longlist. I managed to finish 3/5 of these books, plus I made progress in The Vagina Bible– I passed the halfway point. I didn’t even start The Heart’s Invisible Furies. These books won’t be appearing in future TBR sets, but I do still expect to read them this year; I might be able to finish The Vagina Bible next month, and The Heart’s Invisible Furies is one of my 20 in ’20 titles, so if you’re looking for my reviews on those they will still be coming eventually. As it is, I’m satisfied with my 3 out of 5 for now.

Here’s what I have been reading:

  1. The Snow Collectors by Tina May Hall – 3 stars. A gothic murder mystery wrapped up in historical fiction, this was a fascinating read. Some of its many elements worked better for me than others and the ending didn’t quite satisfy, but overall this was a good time.
  2. Things in Jars by Jess Kidd – 4 stars. I liked everything about this historical fiction mystery set in Victorian London except its whimsical writing style, which grated considerably for me. I probably would have adored this about ten years ago, but this month 4 stars felt generous.
  3. In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado – 4 stars. An absolutely stunning memoir of abuse in same-sex relationships. It’s full of important content and incredible writing, a nearly perfect read.
  4. The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave – 5 stars. This historical fiction novel re-imagines a terrible storm and a bad case of witch trials in a small sea town of northeastern Norway. I was utterly drawn in by the characters and the author handles the subject deftly, making room for new conversations about centuries-old witch hunts.
  5. Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson – 4 stars. A short family drama following three generations in Brooklyn and the choices that set them apart and bind them together. I would’ve liked a little more from this book but overall had a nice time reading it.
  6. Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner – 4 stars. Despite a whole lot of infuriating characters, I very much admired what this book set out to do. Even though it didn’t quite come together as well as I’d hoped, I loved the writing and commentary and was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed the read.
  7. Girl by Edna O’Brien – 2 stars. I picked this one up with low expectations and it still managed to disappoint. It focuses on the kidnapping and abuse of hundreds of Nigerian schoolgirls, but the perspective and approach left its brutal content feeling sadly flat and ineffective.
  8. Dominicana by Angie Cruz – 3 stars. Featuring a young Dominican Republic girl who enters a loveless marriage in hopes of helping her family immigrate to the United States, this book failed to impress and yet was nevertheless very readable for me.
  9. The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo – 3 stars. A family saga in which four daughters aspire to find the level of perfect romance modeled by their parents; a secretly adopted son returns to the fold and shakes things up. I found this such an entertaining read, but wished it had more to offer than fun. Full review coming soon.
  10. The Dutch House by Ann Patchett – 3 stars. Another family saga, this one follows two children who were rich for a short time and lived in a fancy house, only to be turned out and faced with poverty. I loved Patchett’s writing but found myself increasingly disappointed with the book’s characters, plot, and structure. Full review coming soon.

wrapup3.20

This was actually a great reading month, if you consider that I barely read for an entire week while on vacation in early March and still managed to finish one more book than my recent average of nine. I feel on the verge of a reading slump but I’m trying to push through at least until I’ve finished with the Women’s Prize. I’m saving some of the titles I’m most looking forward to for last, so hopefully I’ll have better luck soon.

Some stats:

Average rating – 3.5

Best of month – The Mercies

Owned books read for the first time – 2 out of 10. I read so many library books this month, and I won’t even mention how many books I acquired but it’s a lot more than 2- which my own-unread TBR grew considerably this month. But I only have one library book left and am not planning to check out any more (physical copies at least) until the lockdown has ended, so I expect to spend next month (if not longer) crossing quite a few own-unread books off my list and fixing this balance.

Year total – 28. Goodreads says I’m three books ahead of schedule for my goal of 100 books this year. I’m perfectly happy with where I’m at.

 

If you noticed a lot of historical fiction in my reading list above, it’s partially because I was preparing for my Spotlight on Historical Fiction post. Feel free to check it out and weigh in with your own experience with historical fiction! I had fantasy slotted for my genre spotlight post in April, but since I’m planning to stick to the Women’s Prize list for a few more weeks and haven’t been reading a lot of fantasy lately, I’m swapping fantasy with literary fiction. Stay tuned if this is a genre you’re looking forward to chatting about! Fantasy will feature later this year.

Here’s to April being a better month than March! We need it. Stay healthy, stay informed, escape with a good book. Be well, everyone.

 

The Literary Elephant

Reviews: Things in Jars, In the Dream House, and The Mercies

Some recent non-Women’s Prize reads (the last you’ll be seeing from me for a while!):

 

One of the February releases I was eager to get my hands on was Jess Kidd’s newest novel: Things in Jars. I picked it up in early March and it took a little work, but I did enjoy this one in the end.

thingsinjarsIn the novel, an Irishwoman living in Victorian London works as a private investigator. Of course this is hardly an appropriate profession for a woman at the time, but Bridie has a medical background, a gentleman’s disguise, and a connection with a policeman that keeps her in business. Her latest case involves a missing child; the young girl and her new nurse have vanished without a trace, and her father does not want to report the kidnapping through official channels. Bridie learns that the child is suspected of being a merrow, a mythological Irish creature in danger of being “collected” and preserved in a jar, a fate befalling scientific oddities of the time. She also learns that the child is not exactly who the father claims her to be. Between the lies and the greedy anatomists, can Bridie rescue the girl in time?

“Bridie rekindles her pipe, giving it a few rapid drags. She squints at the dead man through the smoke. ‘I’m not in the market for a haunting.’ “

Things in Jars is a genre-bender: I would primarily deem it historical fiction, but it is also a mystery, dips into some science, and contains a few fantasy elements as well. There’s even a hint of romance. In addition, it presents some commentary on sexism and immorality relating to its time period, dealing in themes of scientific progress vs. morality, the divide between wealthy and poor, the truth in and power of folklore. There’s much to enjoy here, and I did actually enjoy most of it. Though it’s hardly a whodunnit, I found the layout of the mystery here particularly effective: alongside Bridie’s search, we are given chapters featuring the kidnappers and their attempt to escape with the unusual child, which means the question the reader is asking of the novel is constantly evolving. There are also flashback chapters woven in, which gradually unveil key moments of Bridie’s past that manage to feel both relevant and well-timed in the larger narrative.

The only aspect I didn’t like- and this was a big hurdle for me to overcome- was the writing style. Kidd employs a very high level of whimsy that I found almost unbearably cloying. In some ways it serves the story well- Bridie is smoking some potentially hallucinogenic drugs, leaving the reader with some uncertainty over whether her ghostly tag-along is present or imagined; the pervasive tone of, well, silliness, makes it easier to roll with some of those more absurd elements, while also softening the horror of others. Kidd isn’t romanticizing this time period, but rather presenting it warts and all to the reader. (If you’re squeamish about historical medical practices enter with caution. Pet lovers should also note that there are a couple of short but grisly scenes where misfortune/abuse to animals is unpleasantly detailed.)

Perhaps it says something about me that I would’ve preferred this book to take a more grave approach to the heavy subject matter it deals with and drop the attempt at lightheartedness, but the constant dramatics really were the only complaint I had about this book. Aside from the pets’ fates, of course.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I think Kidd is an excellent writer who clearly put a lot of research into this book and is in full command of the language. Though I did appreciate the plot, as well as the themes and commentary worked into it, I really struggled with the writing to the extent that I’m not sure I’ll ever be willing to try another of Kidd’s novels. Maybe if I give it some time.

 

Next I reached for my first non-fiction read of the year (yes, it’s been a long time coming), and one of the titles I was most sad not to have picked up in 2019: Carmen Maria Machado’s In The Dream House, a memoir of abuse in same-sex relationships.

inthedreamhouseIn the book, Machado details meeting a charming woman, becoming her girlfriend, feeling increasingly stifled and unsafe in the relationship, and eventually dealing with the aftermath of psychological and emotional abuse.

“It’s not being radical to point out that people on the fringe have to be better than people in the mainstream, that they have twice as much to prove. In trying to get people to see your humanity, you reveal just that: your humanity. Your fundamentally problematic nature. All the unique and terrible ways in which people can, and do, fail.”

Acknowledging that people of the same gender can hurt each other in romantic relationships shouldn’t seem difficult, but Machado uses this book to outline a literary (and actual) history sadly lacking in any evidence of that this is a real phenomenon. She uses inventive structure and imagery to explore the difference between what she wanted from this relationship and what she got, and the resistance she found afterward when trying to tell her story. Each chapter is presented as a facet of the “dream house,” a different side of the relationship that looked like everything the author wanted from the outside but turned out to be something quite different once she found herself stuck inside.

Machado does an incredible job of conveying the mounting sense of tension and fear pervading this particular relationship without actually describing a lot of specific, personal information. In the Dream House is not a sensationalist cry for attention or attempt to shock the reader with horrifying anecdotes- Machado uses her experiences to talk about domestic abuse and queer relationships more broadly. It’s an exploratory work, a narrative meant to open the eyes of nonbelievers and give those who have seen it firsthand a sense of solidarity.

“Dream House as Epiphany / Most types of domestic abuse are completely legal.”

This is a powerful book that I would recommend to… anyone who’s ever been or will be in a relationship, honestly. I can’t relate personally to much of Machado’s experience, but some of the situations she describes and the commentary she explores surrounding them have made me rethink all sorts of interactions I’ve had in my own life and the ways that society has taught me to view relationships generally. Having read In the Dream House, I feel both more educated about a perspective that doesn’t match mine, and also seen in ways that I didn’t expect to be. (Bonus points for the Iowa City setting,  which I always love to see after spending my own college years there. I think I only missed being there at the same time as Machado by three months!)

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Very nearly 5, and I’m not sure if I can explain why it didn’t quite hit that mark for me; I suppose I knew enough about the book going in that it lost its ability to really surprise me in the way that I tend to reserve my 5-star ratings for, which of course isn’t any fault of the book. It’s a brilliant read that I highly recommend and am unlikely to forget.

 

Last but not least, I finished reading Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s The Mercies earlier this week, and absolutely loved it!

themerciesIn the novel, the Norwegian island Vardo is hit hard by a sudden storm in the early 1600s. The storm kills most of the town’s men, who were out on the sea in their fishing boats when it struck. The women left behind must learn to survive on their own, to find their own food, light their own fires, and carry on in a world where women are not supposed to hold any power. Soon after the storm, a new commissioner is appointed to their area; he believes that such a sudden and devastating storm could not have been a natural occurrence, and makes his home in Vardo to root out the witches to blame. In a divided and changing community, the women soon learn that no one is truly safe.

” ‘You’re no witch.’ / ‘It doesn’t matter what I am, only what they believe I am.’ “

Historical fiction is a genre that doesn’t always work for me- I enjoy learning about events from the past through invented narratives, but I dislike romanticizing, sensationalizing, and sentimentalizing approaches, and so I always go in a bit wary that the tone and style just won’t be to my taste. Much to my pleasant surprise, The Mercies drew me in right away, presented zero cause for disappointment at any point, and held my attention rapt until the end. Though it centers around a famous set of witch trials in Norway at this time, the focus is mainly aimed at the distressed community on Vardo. In the wake of such an impactful storm, life has changed drastically; the women argue over what should be done and how to go about it. Old rifts are wedged wider, new rifts form out of the grief and uncertainty that now (in 1618) defines life on Vardo. Into this fraught setting enters an outsider, a man with a singular goal: to hunt witches. In 2020, of course, we know that “witches” were simply social outcasts who couldn’t prove their innocence in a system designed to fabricate guilt. The author does not attempt to surprise the reader with this familiar revelation, but rather to explore the social conditions that make this phenomenon possible.

As such, Millwood Hargrave supplies the reader with very human, very compelling characters, a setting that’s practically a character in its own right, and a tale brimming with tension and emotion. The women feel both like people of their own time and neighbors you could have today (supposing you lived on a very cold and isolated island). They are strong and flawed, just doing their best to navigate life under the rules they’ve been given (as are we all). There’s a great LGBTQ+ relationship in this story, plenty of tragedy, and village’s worth of determination. I found the writing very immersive and enjoyed every page.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. This was one of my most anticipated releases of the year, and yet even so I was not prepared to love it as much as I did. I believe this is the author’s first adult novel, but I’ll certainly be picking up more of her work in the future, including some of her YA content.

 

If you’ve read any of these books, let me know what you thought! If you haven’t, do any catch your eye?

 

The Literary Elephant

 

TBR 3.20

And so it begins again!

Every month for 2020, I’ll be setting my TBR with five of the books I expect to read throughout the month. I won’t mention extras even though I may pick up other things, and at the end of the month, finished or not, each of the five are barred from future 2020 TBR appearances.

This has been working perfectly for me so far, having completed both my January and February lists on time (monthly wrap-up coming soon!). I’m a bit more worried about March though, for two reasons: 1) the Women’s Prize longlist will be announced in just a few days, and I hope to read as much as possible from that list this coming month. Perhaps I could’ve waited to create and share my TBR, but what I read in March will be determined not only by what’s on the list, but which of those titles are most readily available; we could be halfway through the month before I have a clear idea of in what order I’m going to be reading the longlist, partially because 2) I’m also going on a trip this month! I will be in New York City for 6 days in the second week of March, which came up unexpectedly but I am very excited about it. I’ve never been and have long wanted to go, so I probably won’t be reading quite as much that week, and I expect I’ll order/library request the longlist books before I leave, which means I probably won’t know what will arrive first until I’m back. So I’m not sure a regular TBR will work this month on top of all that, but I’m going to try! If all goes well, here’s what I’d like to read in March:

  1. In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado. I have been majorly slacking on nonfiction this year (by which I mean, I haven’t read ANY yet, and I regret it!); this one’s on the list of 2019 books I wish I had read last year. It’s a very-hyped memoir about an abusive same-sex relationship, with experimental formatting. It’s the book I’m planning to take on my flight, so hopefully I’ll be able to read at least this one book while I’m gone!
  2. The Vagina Bible: The Vulva and the Vagina- Separating the Myth from the Medicine by Dr. Jen Gunter. I started this nonfiction medical book back in January, and sadly haven’t made much progress in February. I am very excited that this exists even though I get more out of some chapters than others. I had to set it aside in a busy week and always struggle to get back into a book after I’ve done that, but I know I will appreciate this one and hope the extra push will help me finish it this month!
  3. The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave. This is a library checkout, and one of my most anticipated releases of 2020 (out this February). If it’s longlisted for the Women’s Prize I’ll get to it sooner, but I’ll definitely be reading this one either way. It’s a historical fiction novel set in 1600s Norway and focusing on witch trials. My genre spotlight post for March will feature historical fiction, so I’m using the rest of this TBR to keep me on track for that as well.
  4. The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne. This is one of my own-unread “20 in ’20” books, in addition to being the right genre for my spotlight post. But it’s long, so I’m uncertain. It’s an Irish 20th century lgbtq+ saga of one gay man’s life, and I am very much looking forward to finally picking it up!
  5. Things in Jars by Jess Kidd. Another historical fiction, this one featuring kidnapping and supernatural powers in Victorian London. It’s a library checkout and a February release I was very excited about. I’m hoping to squeeze this in before my trip and before longlist copies start coming in. (This is technically eligible for nomination as well, but it’s not one of my longlist predictions!)

tbr3.20

February’s TBR didn’t bring nearly as many high ratings to my reading as January’s did, but it still helped keep me on track with various reading plans so I’m calling it a success. The real reward, honestly, was just the excitement of completing the list after I thought I wasn’t going to finish in time; I hope the prospect of doing so again will help motivate me to complete March’s list as well, even though I will probably be prioritizing the Women’s Prize longlist where I can. But anything could happen! Maybe March will be my best reading month so far this year. 🙂

Even though I don’t expect to get to many (if any) of these right away, here are the new releases this month that I’ve got my eye on! This is a list of releases on my radar that I’ll be watching out for this month in reviews and bookshops:

  • Anna K by Jenny Lee. A YA contemporary romance Anna Karenina retelling, in Gossip Girl style. Out Mar 3rd
  • The Lost Family: How DNA Testing is Uncovering Secrets, Reuniting Relatives, and Upending Who We Are by Libby Copeland. Nonfiction about the pros and cons of widespread DNA testing and its impact on families, communities, and culture. Out Mar 3rd
  • My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell. Contemporary fiction featuring a woman who looks back on a relationship she had with a teacher as a teen and looks closer at whether it was abuse. Out Mar 10th
  • The Deep by Alma Katsu. Historical fiction horror centered around the sinking of Titanic and the subsequent use of a sister ship amidst plague and war. Out Mar 10th
  • The Operator by Gretchen Berg. Historical fiction about a phone operator in a 1950s Midwestern town who hears something shocking while listening in on a private conversation. Out Mar 10th
  • The Keeper by Jessica Moor. Mystery/thriller about a woman who worked at a domestic violence shelter and has turned up dead. Out Mar 10th
  • Darling Rose Gold by Stephanie Wrobel. Thriller about a woman who was victim to Munchhausen by proxy as a child, out for revenge. (I’m on the fence about this one, having seen some comments about the way mental health is handled.) Out Mar 17th
  • The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel. Literary fiction following several lives connected to a five-star hotel in British Columbia. Out Mar 24th
  • Constellations by Sinead Gleeson. Nonfiction essays centered around female bodies and health, grounded in one Irish woman’s experiences with art, illness, grief, and more. Out Mar 24th
  • Look by Zan Romanoff. YA contemporary about a girl with a large social media following, finding the line between what she presents to the world and who she really is. Out Mar 31st
  • Days of Distraction by Alexandra Chang. Literary fiction about an Asian American woman in an interracial relationship who must choose where her career is heading and find her place in society. Out Mar 31st

There are several titles coming out in March that I’ve been looking forward to for months, and which have featured on my most anticipated releases of 2020 list. It’s a bit frustrating that I can’t pick them all up immediately, but there are so many great bookish things going on this month that I’m sure to find some quality reads no matter what I focus on! And surely I’ll be coming back to the titles I don’t manage to pick up within the month. I’m very interested to see what other readers will think about these books as they emerge into the world.

See anything on my lists that you’ve read or are looking forward to reading?

 

The Literary Elephant

Top of the TBR 2.10.20

Top of the TBR is a (now biweekly) post that showcases some of the books recently added to my Goodreads TBR, with a short explanation of why each caught my interest. Each title will be linked back to its Goodreads page for anyone interested in exploring further. Anyone who wants to take part in this series with me is absolutely welcome! Please link back to any of my Top of the TBR posts so I can see what you’re looking forward to reading! 🙂

Here are some of the books I’ve added on Goodreads recently:

49223060. sy475 Darling Rose Gold by Stephanie Wrobel (Pub: Mar 2020)

How I found it: I’ve seen a lot of anticipation for this one among thriller readers, but wasn’t really paying attention to it until I saw it on Kristen’s list of her favorite mysteries and thrillers!

Why I added it: I haven’t been reading as many thrillers the last couple of years, but I’d love to find more that can really surprise me and/or give me some commentary to sink my teeth into. I thought this one was in good company on Kristen’s list, which bodes well!

Priority: Low. This book comes out in March, but my focus at that time will be on the Women’s Prize longlist, which means this will have to wait for now!

45730892Anti-Diet: Reclaim Your Time, Money, Well-Being, and Happiness Through Intuitive Eating by Christy Harrison (Pub: Dec 2019)

How I found it: Melanie posted an excellent review of this one on her blog!

Why I added it: I don’t often (okay, ever) read self-help or health books, but I found myself so interested in the details of this book- about the history of dieting and its place in society, and modern wellness crazes as dieting. It sounds like there’s interesting info here for anyone with an eye toward body image, good or bad.

Priority: Low. It’s not currently available through my library.

47364233Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart (Pub: Feb 2020)

How I found it: I think I’ve seen other readers anticipating this one, but it was Emily May’s review on Goodreads that hooked me!

Why I added it: This is a 1980’s story of a young Scottish boy with a distracted father and alcoholic mother, whose older siblings find their own ways to escape and leave him to hold the family together. It looks like a hard-hitting story that I could love.

Priority: Middling. This one is available at my library, and I am trying to keep up with as many new releases this year as I can. But again, I’m trying to keep my reading schedule open until I can plan around the Women’s Prize.

45553633. sy475 The Truants by Kate Weinberg (Pub: Jan 2020)

How I found it: This one has been on my radar for months, but comparisons to The Secret History had me keeping a cautious distance- then I read Karissa’s wonderful review and my optimism was restored!

Why I added it: If it can live up to the Secret History comparisons, this could be absolutely brilliant. It’s a campus novel about a group of students and a teacher who becomes perhaps too involved in their lives. Of course the synopsis also promises a tragedy, a secret, a mystery…

Priority: Middling. This one is also available at my library, and a recent release that I’d love to pick up soon. Once the Women’s Prize list is announced in March I’ll have a better idea of where I can fit this into my reading schedule, and hope to bump it up to high priority as soon as possible.

42119168. sy475 Anna K by Jenny Lee (Pub: Mar 2020)

How I found it: This one’s a BOTM selection for February!

Why I added it: This is a young adult contemporary romance marketed as a Gossip Girl-esque retelling of Anna Karenina. I actually read the sample on BOTM’s website (I’d link it, but I don’t think you can see anything on the site without a membership) and hated it, and yet I’m so morbidly curious that I couldn’t walk away. This will be an interesting experience for sure, and very possibly a miss for me, but I was in the mood to give it a chance!

Priority: High. I’d like to keep up with my BOTM choices this year (as I say every year, before failing miserably), and it would also give my romance reads some more variety this month, in preparation for my romance Spotlight post coming up later in February.

826846The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham (Pub: 1951)

How I found it: Wyndham was an author I missed in my recent Spotlight on Sci-Fi post, who came up in the comments (thanks Callum)!

Why I added it: I was thrilled to add several sci-fi books to my TBR based on titles and authors that different commenters had mentioned there, but instead of turning this into a sci-fi TBR post I’m sticking to mentioning this one title I’m excited about: a post-apocalyptic classic in which plants walk about, wreaking havoc on humanity.

Priority: Low. This is available through my library, so it’s ready when I am; but I’m now realizing a downside to my spotlight series this year: it’ll be harder to pick up fresh recommendations promptly while I’m focusing on the next upcoming genre.

38599259. sy475 Black Girl Unlimited by Echo Brown (Pub: Jan 2020)

How I found it: Booksandlala has been mentioning this one on various social media!

Why I added it: Sometimes I agree with Lala’s recommendations. This looks like a fantasy/magical realism YA book about a black teen girl in New York who “travels between two worlds,” which seems both literal as a magical element but also may serve as a commentary on culture? GR calls it “heavily autiobiographical.” I don’t read a lot of YA these days, but this would be perfect for Black History Month and sounds like just the sort of story I would still enjoy from the YA age range.

Priority: Middling. My library doesn’t seem to have it, but I’d be happy to pick up a copy.

45046574You Let Me In by Camilla Bruce (Pub: Apr 2020)

How I found it: Hadeer briefly mentioned this one in her January wrap-up post! This is kind of comical actually, as she had only a sentence or so about it in her post and wasn’t finished reading it at the time, but I was attracted to the cover (not this cover) and went looking for the blurb, and was sold on the premise of a maybe-dead novelist who left behind a final manuscript full of secrets.

Why I added it: Hadeer calls it a “very creepy supernatural thriller.” Goodreads likens it works by Gillian Flynn and Neil Gaiman. What’s not to like?

48128302. sy475 The Snow Collectors by Tina May Hall (Pub: Feb 2020)

How I found it: This has been on my radar, but it wasn’t until reading Laura’s appealing description in her recent review(s) that I realized this might be a great fit for me! Even though sadly it wasn’t for Laura.

Why I added it: It looks like a gothic historical novel about a solitary woman thrown into an old mystery. GR has this to say: “Suspenseful and atmospheric, The Snow Collectors sketches the ghosts of Victorian exploration against the eerie beauty of a world on the edge of environmental collapse.” It sounds right up my alley.

Priority: High. I just put a hold on this one through my library, letting it jump the queue in my TBR because with a title like The Snow Collectors I know I won’t get to it until next winter at least if I don’t pick it up now.

1012204. sx318 Appetites: Why Women Want by Caroline Knapp (Pub: Apr 2003)

How I found it: Gil mentioned this one as a favorite in her nonfiction wrap-up for January, and for a book 17 years old it still sounds (frustratingly) timely.

Why I added it: Knapp asks (and attempts to answer, I’m sure) “How does a woman know, and then honour, what it is she wants in a culture bent on shaping, defining and controlling women and their desires?”

Priority: Low. This is available through my library, so it’s ready when I am! But again, Women’s Prize.

 

Have you read any of these books, or recognize them from your own TBR?

 

The Literary Elephant