2018 Reading Resolutions – Update

On January 3, 2018 I posted a list of my reading goals for this year.  Let’s see how I did!  Spoiler: not great.

  1. Read at least 75 books.  Verdict: Success!
    As of December 19 I have read 128 books, so I’d say I knocked that one out of the park.  But to be fair I purposefully set my goal on the low side of what I thought I was capable of reading so I wouldn’t stress too much about the number.  I’ll probably raise my goal a bit for 2019 but still keep it manageable.  The Goodreads reading challenge is the last thing on earth I want to stress about.
  2. Read at least one book in Italian.  Verdict: Fail 😦
    I avoid books written in Italian for the same reason I avoid long books – I always think about how many shorter books I could be reading in that same amount of time.  I’m not sure this goal will publicly carry over into 2019, mainly because I’d be embarrassed to fail at it two years in a row.  But it will remain a goal in my head.
  3. Use the library more often.  Verdict: Success!
    One of my steadiest sources of books this year was my library’s Overdrive account, which has been a life-saver for audiobooks and ebooks.  But I’ve used my physical library more often as well.  This has presented me with a new challenge though – library holds coming in all at once.  So I still need to figure out a better way to balance my library holds with mood reading.
  4. Request fewer Netgalley ARCs/spend more time reading books I already own.  Verdict: Fail 😦
    The road to hell is paved with good intentions, etc etc.  What can I say – I still haven’t figured out a way to resist the pull of ARCs, even when I have plenty of books on my shelves that I’m also interested in.
  5. Read at least one classic and at least one play each month.  Verdict: Fail 😦
    I was doing SO WELL with this for the first half of the year…. and then I fell off the horse and never got back on.  I did end up reading 11 plays this year, which isn’t very good for me but still makes the one-a-month goal rather feasible, and I think that will carry into 2019.  But I learned that ‘one classic a month’ does not really work for me; I read 13 (with a bit of overlap between plays and classics), but sometimes I’m in the mood to read 3 classics in a row and sometimes I’m in the mood to read none.  As a firm believer in finding books at the right time, I don’t want to force myself to read a classic just for the sake of meeting an arbitrary goal.  So if I do this goal again I might say ‘read at least 12 classics in 2019’ or something like that, rather than one per month.

So, I succeeded at only 2/5 of my challenges, one of which wasn’t really a challenge at all but an arbitrary number I knew I’d hit easily.  But it’s good that I’ve taken the time to check in with last year’s goals before writing 2019’s.  Notes to self: (1) keep it manageable, (2) if you set goals that you know you won’t automatically meet, you need to actually make an effort.

What were some of your 2018 reading goals and how did you do?  Comment and let me know!

Favorite Book Covers of 2018

I wasn’t planning on doing a post like this but I saw Hannah and Aurora do it and it looked like such fun.  So here we go.  Favorite covers of 2018.

  1. Almost Love by Louise O’Neill (riverrun, UK): Not usually a fan of faces on covers but the muted colors are a good look.
  2. Social Creature by Tara Isabella Burton (Doubleday, US): Again, I usually hate the single eye on a cover look, but the smudged eyeliner takes this to another level.
  3. The Idiot by Elif Batuman (Penguin Press, US): Technically from 2017 but this feels more like a 2018 book so I’m including it.  This is probably my cover of the year to be completely honest.  It’s iconic, minimalist, and memorable, what more could you ask for.
  4. Self-Portrait with Boy by Rachel Lyon (Scribner, US): In contrast, this one is a bit busy, but the color scheme is great and this image fits so well with the content of the book.
  5. My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh (Penguin Press, US): Easily one of the most iconic covers of the year.
  6. Milkman by Anna Burns (Faber & Faber, UK): I just really like pink, what can I say.
  7. In Our Mad and Furious City by Guy Gunaratne (Tinder Press, UK): …… I just really like pink, what can I say.
  8. The Pisces by Melissa Broder (Hogarth, US): I don’t know if this is objectively pretty or if it’s so ugly it’s good, but either way I just adore this cover.
  9. Tin Man by Sarah Winman (GP Putnam & Sons, US): I’m easily won over by a bit of gold foil.
  10. I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell (Tinder Press, UK): Probably tied with The Idiot for my favorite: I love anatomical hearts on covers (Hannah and I have a growing collection of heart cover books that we send each other that hopefully one day we will compile into a blog post), and this one is just stunning.
  11. The Queen of Hearts by Kimmery Martin (Berkley, US): Another clear frontrunner in the anatomical heart cover category.
  12. Sight by Jessie Greengrass (John Murray, UK): This composition!
  13. Vita Nostra by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko (Harper Voyager, US): A dramatic cover befitting the drama within very nicely.

What’s your favorite cover from 2018?  Comment and let me know!

End of Year Survey 2017

Before we get to the survey, a few statistics for my reading year:

READING GOAL: 60
BOOKS READ: 106

January: 9 (favorite: East of Eden by John Steinbeck)
February: 11 (favorite: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee)
March: 10 (favorite: Bright Air Black by David Vann)
April: 8 (favorite: Exit West by Mohsin Hamid)
May: 7 (favorite: Black Swan Green by David Mitchell)
June: 7 (favorite: The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney)
July: 11 (favorite: Human Acts by Han Kang)
August: 9 (favorite: The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne)
September: 6 (favorite: All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan)
October: 7 (favorite: Bird Box by Josh Malerman)
November: 9 (favorite: The Absolutist by John Boyne)
December: 12 (favorite: Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis)

1 star: 6
2 stars: 11
3 stars: 25
4 stars: 35
5 stars: 29

Books by men: 38 (36%)
Books by women: 68 (64%)

Now here’s a survey that was created by Perpetual Page Turner, that I think is going to be a good comprehensive end of year review, so let’s do this.

2017-book-survey

2017 READING STATS

Number Of Books You Read: 106
Number of Re-Reads: 0
Genre You Read The Most From: I think I would lose my mind if I actually tried to do an official tally of this, so I’m just going to go out on a limb and say literary fiction.

BEST IN BOOKS

1. Best Book You Read In 2017?

East of Eden by John Steinbeck.  Runners up here.

2. Book You Were Excited About & Thought You Were Going To Love More But Didn’t?

Several.  Unbury Carol by Josh Malerman, All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld, Yesterday by Felicia Yap…

3. Most surprising (in a good way or bad way) book you read?

In a good way: Castle of Water by Dane Huckelbridge.  This was such a simple book that had a really strong effect on me.
In a bad way: White Fur by Jardine Libaire.  Ugh.  I’ve talked about this enough.

4. Book You “Pushed” The Most People To Read (And They Did)?

Oh god, so many.  I think The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne probably takes the cake, though…

5. Best series you started in 2017? Best Sequel of 2017? Best Series Ender of 2017?

Series I started: the Alexander the Great trilogy by Mary Renault.
Best sequel: The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin I guess, though I didn’t love it unreservedly.  I just didn’t read many sequels this year.
Best series ender (also technically a sequel): Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo.

6. Favorite new author you discovered in 2017?

John Boyne, Agatha Christie… more here.

7. Best book from a genre you don’t typically read/was out of your comfort zone? 

A Fugitive in Grass Valley by I.M. Flippy.  Before this year I would have said that I don’t read romance, ever, but then my friend wrote this book and I thought ‘okay what the heck let’s give it a go’ and I ended up loving it unreservedly.

8. Most action-packed/thrilling/unputdownable book of the year?

I’m not sure why this has such a low rating on Goodreads, but I sped through When I Am Through With You by Stephanie Kuehn – I literally could not put it down.

9. Book You Read In 2017 That You Are Most Likely To Re-Read Next Year? 

The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh.  It’s a play, not a novel, but anyway, I think I’ll reread it in the next couple of weeks.  I love it a lot.

10. Favorite cover of a book you read in 2017? 

I know how lame it is that I’m not actually including an image in this post, but for some reason my browser keeps freezing when I go to the ‘add media’ thingy, so whatever.  Human Acts by Han Kang.

11. Most memorable character of 2017? 

I can’t possibly pick one… Kaz Brekker from Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo, Tristan Sadler from The Absolutist by John Boyne, Cyril Avery from The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne, Pyrrhus from An Arrow’s Flight by Mark Merlis, Melody Shee from All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan, Edmund from King Lear, Ryan Cusack from The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney, Ava Antipova from Dead Letters by Cate Dolan-Leach, Noa from Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, Cathy Ames or Cal Trask from East of Eden by John Steinbeck…

Do you think that’s enough?!

12. Most beautifully written book read in 2017? 

East of Eden by John Steinbeck.

13. Most Thought-Provoking/ Life-Changing Book of 2017?

East of Eden by John Steinbeck.

14. Book you can’t believe you waited UNTIL 2017 to finally read?

East of Eden by John Steinbeck.  This is easy.

15. Favorite Passage/Quote From A Book You Read In 2017? 

“If you show someone something you’ve written, you give them a sharpened stake, lie down in your coffin, and say, ‘When you’re ready’.”

— David Mitchell, Black Swan Green

16. Shortest & Longest Book You Read In 2017?

Shortest: Medea by Euripides.
Longest: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy.

 17. Book That Shocked You The Most? 

I just finished Confessions by Kanae Minato, and the end of the first chapter made me yell “OH MY GOD” out loud, which I think is a new one for me.

18. OTP OF THE YEAR (you will go down with this ship!) 

Kaz/Inej from Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo or Tristan/Will from The Absolutist by John Boyne (though their ‘relationship’ was not really what I had expected).

19. Favorite Non-Romantic Relationship Of The Year? 

Maybe Oliver and Filippa from If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio.

20. Favorite Book You Read in 2017 From An Author You’ve Read Previously. 

Human Acts by Han Kang and East of Eden by John Steinbeck.

21. Best Book You Read In 2017 That You Read Based SOLELY On A Recommendation From Somebody Else/Peer Pressure.

When the Sea is Rising Red by Cat Hellisen, which was a lot of fun – thanks, Hadeer!

22. Newest fictional crush from a book you read in 2017?

Hmm.  I’m not big on book crushes, but I’ll say James from If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio.

23. Best 2017 debut you read? 

The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney.

24. Best Worldbuilding/Most Vivid Setting You Read This Year?

Six of Crows/Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo.

25. Book That Put A Smile On Your Face/Was The Most FUN To Read?

Anything by Martin McDonagh because I am a very morbid individual who only enjoys black comedy as far as humor is concerned.

26. Book That Made You Cry Or Nearly Cry in 2017?

Human Acts by Han Kang, The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne, The Absolutist also by John Boyne.

27. Hidden Gem Of The Year? 

Translations by Brian Friel.

28. Book That Crushed Your Soul?

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee.

29. Most Unique Book You Read In 2017? 

The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride, hands down.  It’s told in Joycean stream of consciousness prose, and it is… interesting to say the least.

30. Book That Made You The Most Mad (doesn’t necessarily mean you didn’t like it)?

All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood.  Explanation here.

BLOGGING/BOOKISH LIFE

1. New favorite book blog you discovered in 2017? 

This is actually the year I started blogging!  This is so difficult because I literally love all of you guys, but the two blogs that stand out to me are Steph‘s and Callum‘s.  Steph has become a good friend outside of blogging (we got to meet up in October and see depressing theatre together, friendship solidified) and her blog is wonderful; and Callum has been the source of many of my most interesting bookish conversations this year, and has provided me with nothing but excellent recs!  Go follow them both.

(For the sake of simplifying this answer for myself I’m not including people I already knew before blogging, i.e., Chelsea, Hadeer, Patrick.  All of whom have excellent blogs as well.)

2. Favorite review that you wrote in 2017? 

Don’t ask me why, but maybe my review of Dunbar by Edward St. Aubyn.

3. Best discussion/non-review post you had on your blog?

I’m very partial to my Top 5 Wednesday Fancasts post.

4. Best event that you participated in (author signings, festivals, virtual events, memes, etc.)? 

Hmm, pass, I think?!

5. Best moment of bookish/blogging life in 2017? 

Does starting my blog count?  I think it does.

6. Most challenging thing about blogging or your reading life this year? 

Pushing myself through War and Peace when I was so unenthusiastic about it.

7. Most Popular Post This Year On Your Blog (whether it be by comments or views)?

Um, apparently it’s my 3-star review of Roses of May by Dot Hutchinson.  I… have absolutely no idea why.

8. Post You Wished Got A Little More Love? 

I have no idea, but I’ll take this opportunity to say that I did work very hard on my Greek and Roman Mythology recommendations post.

9. Best bookish discovery (book related sites, book stores, etc.)? 

This bookstore in Montreal where you literally need to inch your way around overflowing towers of books was quite interesting.  I don’t actually remember what it’s called, but I remember what street it’s on so I could look it up on google maps.

10.  Did you complete any reading challenges or goals that you had set for yourself at the beginning of this year?

I only participated in the Goodreads reading challenge, and I set my goal for 60, which I think I completed as early as July!

LOOKING AHEAD

1. One Book You Didn’t Get To In 2017 But Will Be Your Number 1 Priority in 2018? 

Hadeer lent me The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander ages ago but I haven’t gotten around to it – definitely soon, though!

2. Book You Are Most Anticipating For 2018 (non-debut)? 

Circe by Madeline Miller – I loved The Song of Achilles so I can’t wait to read this!  I actually have the ARC, I just need to make time for it.

3. 2018 Debut You Are Most Anticipating?

Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi sounds excellent.

4. Series Ending/A Sequel You Are Most Anticipating in 2018?

Hmm, pass, not a big series reader… though I guess I’ll finally get around to reading The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin at some point, so let’s go with that.

5. One Thing You Hope To Accomplish Or Do In Your Reading/Blogging Life In 2018?

I’m working on a resolutions post, but one of my resolutions is to read more books I already own.  My shelves are overflowing.

6. A 2018 Release You’ve Already Read & Recommend To Everyone:

Everything Here is Beautiful by Mira T. Lee was a lovely and thoughtful book about mental illness and the toll it takes on the relationship between two Chinese-American sisters.  It comes out in January and I recommend it very highly.

Happy New Years, everyone!  I hope you all have fun tonight if you have plans, but if not, I hope everyone has a really excellent 2018!  I’m very happy that I joined this community this year and met so many absolutely wonderful people.

Best Books of 2017

I had a pretty great reading year, so narrowing this down was kind of torturous, but here we go.  Here are my favorite reads of 2017!  As with my least favorite books list, these are books that I read in 2017 – they were not necessarily published this year.

Honorable mentions: Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo, Black Swan Green by David Mitchell, Bright Air Black by David Vann, The Absolutist by John Boyne, Castle of Water by Dane Huckelbridge, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie, Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, Translations by Brian Friel, An Arrow’s Flight by Mark Merlis, Eliza and Her Monsters by Francesca Zappia, King Lear by Shakespeare… it took me a very long time to narrow this list down, as you can see.

2323003010. The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh.  I came very close to not including this, because it’s a play, not a novel, unlike everything else on this list… and yet.  The books I was considering talking about in its stead just didn’t have the same impact on me.  The Pillowman is one of the darkest and most macabre things I’ve ever read, but also one of the most stimulating and fascinating.  A writer, Katurian, living in some kind of totalitarian state, is interrogated about the content of his stories, which bear a striking resemblance to a series of child murders that have occurred recently in this society.  In his typical style of black comedy, McDonagh examines the relationship between those who create art and those who interact with it – what responsibility does an author have over how his work is received?  Grim, devastating, twisted, and mind-blowingly entertaining.

Right at this moment, I don’t care if they kill me. I don’t care. But they’re not going to kill my stories. They’re not going to kill my stories. They’re all I’ve got.

and-then-there-were-none9. And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie.  I couldn’t be happier about discovering Agatha Christie this year – so far I’ve read six of her books and I haven’t given a single one a rating lower than 4 stars.  But the standout for me was actually the first one I read, And Then There Were None, her acclaimed murder mystery set on an island off the English coast.  Ten strangers are invited to a mysterious dinner party on this island, and then one by one, begin to get picked off – and they each believe the murderer is one of their fellow guests.  Rather tragically, I’d already seen the BBC miniseries and knew the twist before I read the book, but I suppose it’s a testament to Christie’s skill that I still loved the novel so much.  It’s delightfully creepy and atmospheric, and even knowing the resolution ahead of time, it still blew me away.

In the midst of life, we are in death.

184985588. Bird Box by Josh Malerman.  This wonderfully creepy book is everything I could have hoped for in a horror novel.  Rather than trying to scare the reader through monsters and gore, Malerman takes a simple premise and taps into a primal fear – that of darkness and the unknown.  In Bird Box, there’s something outside that’s causing civilization to collapse, because when people see it, they lose their minds and commit acts of violence against themselves and against others.  Forced to stay inside in a house full of strangers, twenty-something-year-old pregnant Malorie does whatever she can to survive in this new world, and her story is tragic and harrowing and unexpectedly moving.  This is hands down the best horror novel I’ve read, and one of the scariest.

You can smell it, too. Death. Dying. Decay. The sky is falling, the sky is dying, the sky is dead.

329685587. All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan.  This is a book that crept up on me.  From the very first page I was struck by the mastery of Donal Ryan’s prose, but it wasn’t until I was pretty far into this book that I realized just how strong of an effect it was having on me.  All We Shall Know is a contemporary Irish novel about 33-year-old Melody Shee, who finds herself pregnant by a 17-year-old boy – the novel chronicles Melody’s pregnancy as well as her developing friendship with a young Traveller girl.  Seeking atonement for an event in her past, Melody is one of the best anti-heroines I’ve ever encountered, and one of the characters who’s haunted me the most from any of the books I’ve read this year.  Donal Ryan’s storytelling and insight into human nature is fiercely, unnervingly realistic, and this book is as unsettling as it is beautiful.

I could still fly to London and end this, and come back and say, Yes, Pat, I was lying, and he could persuade himself to believe me, and we could take a weekend break somewhere and be massaged together, and walk along a river hand in hand, and stand beneath a waterfall and feel the spray on our faces and laugh, and think about the cave behind the falling water, cut off from the world, and all the roaring peace to be found there, and have a drink in the bar after dinner, and go to bed, and turn to one another’s flesh for warmth, and find only a hard coldness there, and no accommodation, no forgiveness of sins; and we’d turn away again from one another, and lie apart facing upwards and send words into eternity about babies never born, and needs unmet, and prostitutes and internet sex and terrible unforgivable sins and swirling infinities of blame and hollow retribution, and we could slow to a stop as the sun crept up, and turn from each other in familiar exhaustion, and sleep until checking-out time on pillows wet with tears.

173436. Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis.  I am in complete and utter awe of this book.  Though it begins as a retelling of the Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche, C.S. Lewis instead focuses on the story of one of Psyche’s sisters, Orual, and tells an absolutely heart-wrenching story that meditates on beauty and ugliness, on a woman’s role in society, and on man’s relationship with the gods.  Orual is one of the most complex female characters from anything I’ve ever read, and this book made me realize I’d been severely underestimating C.S. Lewis ever since I disliked Narnia when I was younger.  This book is an absolute masterpiece.  I lost track of the amount of times I had to go back and re-read a passage because I found it so striking.

“When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you’ll not talk about the joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?”

294410965. The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney.  This book in set in modern day Cork, Ireland, and follows five characters – a teenage drug-dealer, his alcoholic father, a notorious gangster, his elderly mother, and a former prostitute taking refuge in religion.  This story is told with biting and irreverent humor, and I found it wickedly entertaining – but more than that, it’s an unflinching and powerful look at crime in contemporary Ireland, and the inter-generational cycle of poverty that drives it.  Despite the pervasive humor, this is a rather bleak and depressing read, culminating in a positively harrowing conclusion for at least one of the characters, but if you can stomach the bleakness and the profanity, this book is so rewarding and thought-provoking.

I hold onto her and tell her I love her and tell her I’ll do anything she wants me to do but beyond my words and her weight in my arms there’s the knowing we fucked this up. There was something beautiful here once.”

9781101906729-us4. Human Acts by Han Kang.  This is the most brutal book I have read, ever.  As in, graphic descriptions of decaying corpses type brutal.  But it’s also one of the most beautiful.  Set in South Korea during the Gwangju Uprising of 1980, Human Acts is told in a series of vignettes that center around a boy, Dong-ho, who is killed in the massacre.  In this novel Han Kang examines the question of whether it’s possible for human beings to live without violence, or whether violence is an inherent part of the human experience (a theme also present on a more microcosmic scale in The Vegetarian).  Human Acts is powerful, thoughtful, and unsparing.  I couldn’t stop thinking about this book for weeks.

Every time I recall the blood that flowed in the small hours of that night – literally flowed, gushing over the stairs in the pitch dark – it strikes me that those deaths did not belong solely to those who died. Rather, they were a substitute for the deaths of others. Many thousands of deaths, many thousands of hearts’ worth of blood.

299837113. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee.  Set against the backdrop of the Japanese annexation of Korea in the early twentieth century, Pachinko is a multi-generational family saga that follows one family from a small Korean village to Japan.  In their new home, Sunja and her family face systematic discrimination for being Korean – they’re forced to navigate their new life never fully accepted by this society in which they’re made to live.  Not only is Pachinko a gorgeous, immersive, heartbreaking story, it’s also incredibly informative – Min Jin Lee provides an unflinching look at Japanese-Korean relations, and paints a detailed portrait of the Korean immigrant experience.  But history never overpowers the narrative or these brilliant, vibrant characters who take center-stage.  Pachinko is a beautiful novel and a nuanced exploration of national and cultural identity, and even though I read this book in February, I still think about it all the time.

Living everyday in the presence of those who refuse to acknowledge your humanity takes great courage.

332532152. The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne.  A sweeping epic about the life of a gay man growing up in twentieth century Ireland, The Heart’s Invisible Furies is simultaneously hilarious and heartbreaking.  Boyne balances humor and gravitas with aplomb – I’ve never read anything else that strikes this balance so masterfully.  The novel follows the life of Cyril, adopted and raised by the wealthy Avery family but constantly reminded by his adoptive parents that he’s not a real Avery, and he happens to be in love with his only friend, Julian.  Cyril is an aggravating yet incredibly well-crafted protagonist – he makes arguably unforgivable mistakes, but never out of malice, only out of a desire to find his place in a society that refuses to accept him.  In this novel Boyne also examines the sociopolitical climate of Dublin in the twentieth century, exploring themes of religion, sexuality, the hypocrisy of the Irish Catholic church, and the way social attitudes change over time.  It’s a stunning and ambitious book, both heartening and heartbreaking.  I sobbed a grand total of three times while reading this, but even though it emotionally wrecked me, I had tears in my eyes from laughter much more often.

Maybe there were no villains in my mother’s story at all. Just men and women, trying to do their best by each other. And failing.

img1. East of Eden by John Steinbeck.  This book is a masterpiece.  I don’t even know what to say about it that hasn’t already been said – I don’t think I ever even wrote a proper review of this because I just have no idea how.  Set in Salinas Valley, California in the early 20th century, East of Eden follows two families – the Trasks and the Hamiltons, whose intertwining fates reenact the fall of Adam and Eve and the story of Cain and Abel.  Spanning across multiple generations, the scope of this novel is huge, but it’s a page-turning story that I found myself incapable of putting down, until I finished all 600 pages in less than a week.  This book is somehow both larger than life and intimately personal – these characters and their fates seem so much bigger than my own reality, but I also saw so many echoes of myself in these pages.  Though it’s undeniably a sad story from start to finish, East of Eden is ultimately about choosing to rise above darkness, and it ends up being an unexpectedly compassionate and hopeful commentary on human nature.  Intelligent, thoughtful, passionate, beautiful, and an absolute masterclass in storytelling.  Read this book.

I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one. . . . Humans are caught—in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too—in a net of good and evil. . . . There is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well—or ill?

Have you guys read any of these?  And what were your favorite books of 2017?  Please let me know!

Worst Books of 2017

Obviously I’ll also be compiling a list of my favorite books from 2017, but of the handful of books I’m reading now to finish out my year, I doubt any of them are going to make my worst of 2017 list, so I thought it was safe to go ahead and post this now.  I gave 1 star to exactly five books this year, so this list practically wrote itself.  Note: these are books that I read in 2017 – they were not necessarily published this year.

Disclaimer: these are just my opinions, you do not have to agree with me, I apologize in advance for any hurt feelings if I insult your favorite book.  If you are ready for my complaining, read on.

51o3rh1onbl-_sx331_bo1204203200_5. Gone Without a Trace by Mary Torjussen.  This is arguably the worst book I’ve ever read from a purely objective level, but the reason it doesn’t get the #1 spot is that it was at times so (unintentionally) hilarious.  It’s a thriller about a woman whose boyfriend leaves her – literally vanishes without a trace – and she has no idea why he left.  Now, I love thrillers, but I don’t exactly go into them expecting the next Great American Novel.  I wasn’t expecting that of Gone Without a Trace.  (Not least of all because it’s British.)  But I had been expecting something fun, fast-paced, creepy, and addicting… it was none of those things.  It was 300-odd pages of the main character’s insufferable whining in prose that was at about a 14-year-old’s creative writing level, and it culminated in arguably the stupidest twist in thriller history.  The last 50 pages have just about everything you could ask for if you’re trying to write the silliest and most melodramatic book of all time: characters conveniently falling into comas, ‘shocking’ (aka not shocking at all) affairs revealed, a central plotline being rendered completely inconsequential, the main character withholding information from the reader until it becomes convenient to divulge it, even though it’s written in first-person… I don’t say this a lot, because even when I hate a book I can usually find some merit in it, but how did this get published?!  Full review HERE.

51c0y8b0dtl-_sy344_bo1204203200_4. An Untamed State by Roxane Gay.  Oh boy, this is going to be a controversial one.  But I hated this book.  In Gay’s debut novel, Mireille, the daughter of one of the richest men in Haiti, is kidnapped, and repeatedly raped by her captors.  The novel is split into two halves – the first covers the kidnap in truly gruesome detail, and the second follows the aftermath.  Where do I even begin… the prose and dialogue in this book were straight out of a Lifetime movie, so corny and hackneyed it was hard to believe that they were actually in such a purportedly serious novel and not a cheesy YA romance.  Gay’s attempts to address racism, sexism, and classism, as well as relations between the U.S. and Haiti, were half-baked at best, and offered essentially no depth or nuance to an extremely complex subject.  The graphic depictions of Mireille’s sexual assault were virtually unreadable, not because they were so awful or chilling, but because they felt so voyeuristic.  I want to make this clear: I have so much respect for Roxane Gay as a woman and a feminist.  Though this is the only Roxane Gay book I’ve read, I don’t equate my dislike of it with how I view her as a person.  I just don’t think her fiction is for me.

51gy2mlxabl-_sx328_bo1204203200_3. All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood.  I don’t even know where to start with this book.  So, here’s the premise: this book is a romance between a grown man and a child – Kellen and Wavy.  Greenwood attempts to dig into grey areas (it’s okay because he’s a good guy, really!  it’s okay because she’s mature for her age!  it’s okay because he’s the only person she’s ever loved in her life!  it’s okay because he’s not actually a pedophile!  it’s okay because Wavy is WAVY, not some little girl!) (that last one is actually a quote from the book) and I just… I am all about digging into grey areas, exploring moral ambiguity – most of my favorite novels explore this theme in some way.  But I have to draw the line somewhere, and I draw it at a romantic relationship between a 20 year old man and an 8 year old girl – or 25 and 13, respectively, if we’re talking about their first sexual encounter.  Because of age and power dynamics, a child is unable to consent, ever, period, the end, I don’t care about the circumstances, I don’t care about the exceptions, the ‘what if’s, any of it.  We’re meant to see this novel as romantic, we’re meant to see Kellen as sympathetic, and we’re meant to malign the one character who constantly tries to get Wavy out of this situation, but all of it just made my skin crawl.  People also praise the writing in this book, but I was very underwhelmed by it.

325086372. See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt.  This whole maddeningly insufferable book is written like this: “I thought of Father, my stomach growled hunger and I went to the pail of water by the well, let my hands sink into the cool sip sip.”  I can’t believe I actually made it through this whole thing.  It’s also the most viscerally disgusting book I’ve ever read – graphic descriptions of vomit and rotten mutton abound.  Sarah Schmidt takes one of the most notorious unsolved crimes in American history – the Borden murders of 1892 Massachusetts – and fictionalizes this story for… some reason that I fail to understand.  I truly do not get the point of this book.  It isn’t entertaining, it isn’t informative, it renders Lizzie as downright pathetic… I don’t know what I was supposed to take away from this book, but it was probably supposed to be something other than the frustration and nausea I was left with.  Full review HERE.

51mh8qgdc4l-_sx329_bo1204203200_1. White Fur by Jardine Libaire.  And finally, the book that I loathed above all others this year.  White Fur… where do I begin.  White Fur is a sort of gritty and sultry Romeo and Juliet-esque love story about Jamey, who’s rich, and Elise, who’s poor.  Congratulations, you have now read the book.  Because there is nothing else there.  Jamey’s personality is that he is rich.  Elise’s personality is that she is poor.  At some point in this book we’re told that they’re in love with each other, which sort of took me by surprise, because until then, all we’d seen was them having a lot of really badly written sex.  There is no character development in this novel, no nuanced approach to the subject of class differences, no plot (no, seriously, there is no plot), and literally, not a single thing to make slogging through this horrible book worth my time.  The dude also compares himself to an orangutan during a threesome, so, there’s also that.  I want every memory of this book to be scrubbed out of my brain.  Full review HERE.

What were your least favorite books from 2017?  Comment and let me know!

Favorite Films of 2017

So, in addition to breaking my personal record for books read in a single year (I’m currently at 98 and fairly confident I’ll exceed 100 by the end of the year, yay!), I also watched a lot of movies in 2017.  67, to be precise.  (I have Colin Farrell to thank/blame for this, since I decided to watch his entire filmography this year.  I think I’ve seen 39, with just a few more to go… my god, have I seen some bad movies this year, you guys.  Please never watch the 2006 film adaptation of Miami Vice unless you truly hate yourself.)  Anyway, I don’t know if 67 sounds like a lot to most people, but I’ve never been a big movie person.  I’ve always preferred books and tv series, but interestingly, tv hasn’t really been doing it for me lately.  I’ll watch like 2 episodes of a show and think ‘yeah, it’s okay,’ but then I’ll lose all motivation to continue.  (Apologies to The Handmaid’s Tale, The West Wing, Black Sails… I will finish you guys ONE DAY!)

Anyway, films.  This is not about to become a film blog – feel free to follow my Letterboxd for that – but I thought I’d make a list of my top films of the year anyway, so here we go:

Films that came out earlier that I didn’t watch until 2017:

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5. It Follows (2014)
Director: David Robert Mitchell
Starring: Maika Monroe, Keir Gilchrist

I watched a lot of horror films this year, mostly really bad ones, but It Follows stands out as one of the best and most unique contributions to this genre that I’ve ever seen.  It’s an eerie and unsettling film about a group of teenagers who are being followed by this sort of demon, whose target shifts to whoever the last person it was following had sex with.  It’s such an unexpectedly thought-provoking film, and there were a couple of moments of very acute psychological horror that had me on the edge of my seat.  (And it’s not gory, which is always a plus.)

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4. Two Days, One Night {Deux jours, une nuit} (2014)
Director: Dardenne brothers
Starring: Marion Cotillard

This Belgian-French-Italian film was such a simple story that really, this film didn’t have any business being as impactful as it was.  Marion Cotillard’s character, Sandra, has been forced to take time off work, and in her absence, her boss has offered her coworkers a 1000 euro bonus if they agree to take on the extra work themselves, and not let Sandra back.  So over the course of the film, Sandra approaches each of her coworkers in turn and begs them to vote with her and turn down the bonus in order that she keep working.  It’s literally just a film where Marion Cotillard talks to people for an hour and a half.  But I thought it was such a striking and compassionate look at human nature and an individual’s role in a community – there was something so compelling and moving about this story that it remains one of my favorites that I’ve watched this year, even though I saw it right at the beginning of 2017.

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3. Lion (2016)
Director: Garth Davis
Starring: Dev Patel, Sunny Pawar, Nicole Kidman

I mean, I did see this in theatres in 2017, but I guess it technically came out in 2016 so it goes here.  I wasn’t actually expecting to like Lion very much, as stories like this tend to go under the ‘heartwarming’ category which as you guys know is not my favorite thing, and I only went to see it out of a longstanding love for Dev Patel, so I was not prepared for how genuinely emotional and harrowing this film was going to be.  Also, it has some of the most beautiful cinematography I’ve ever seen.  This film is stunning and devastating.

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2. Moon (2009)
Director: Duncan Jones
Starring: Sam Rockwell

[ok I just want to preface this by apologizing sincerely for recommending a Kevin Spacey movie but he is BARELY IN THIS and you don’t even see him he just voices a robot so let’s just ignore him ANYWAY] Moon is a British sci-fi/drama film about a man who’s spent three years on the moon without any human contact.  It starts as a character study about the effects of prolonged isolation, but then there’s a twist, and… it gets weird, but it is one of the most haunting things I have ever seen.  I genuinely believe that Sam Rockwell is the best and most underrated actor of his generation, and this is where he proves it, with one of the most nuanced and vulnerable and moving performances I’ve ever seen.  I saw this earlier this year but I still cannot stop thinking about it on a fairly regular basis.

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1. The Lobster (2015)
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Starring: Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz

I’ve watched this movie 5 times this year.  5 times – who even does that??  Do people do that??  I do not do that.  I am usually a ‘watch a film once and move on with my life’ kind of person, or, if I do see a film multiple times, it’s usually over the course of several years.  But I have watched The Lobster 5 times this year.  I don’t even know how to explain what this film means to me.  Ok, let’s start here – it’s weird.  It’s about a society where people need to marry one another, or, if they can’t find a partner, they get turned into an animal.  This film follows its own logic which is virtually unrecognizable to us, but through some of the most phenomenal world-building I’ve ever seen, everything over the course of the film begins to make sense.  You just have to kind of go along for the ride for a while there.  This isn’t so much a story film as it is a philosophy film, and I get that not everyone enjoys that, but for me, this is the most intellectually stimulating film I have ever seen, which toes the line between comedy and tragedy in a truly masterful way.

Films that came out in 2017:

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[honorable mention] Roman J. Israel, Esq.
Director: Dan Gilroy
Starring: Denzel Washington, Colin Farrell

I just wanted to quickly mention this movie – it wasn’t my favorite thing I’ve ever seen by any stretch, I only gave it 3.5 stars, but I think this is arguably Denzel’s best ever performance.  Which I know is a huge statement, but he was sensational in this.  This movie hasn’t been getting a lot of publicity or attention in the awards season predictions (though Denzel did just receive a Golden Globe and a SAG nomination, yay!) so I thought it would be worth mentioning.  If you’re someone who appreciates a great performance and wants to see something thought-provoking and nuanced (if occasionally muddled in its execution), this is really worth checking out.

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5. Get Out
Director: Jordan Peele
Starring: Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams

Get Out is easily the best horror film of the year, which is quite an accomplishment as it wasn’t even particularly scary.  (I mean, I didn’t think it was?  But I also don’t scare easily, so you may want to get someone else’s opinion if you’re not someone who usually enjoys horror.)  But anyway, Get Out is a fun and fearless film that tackles anti-black racism and racial microaggressions head on, while delivering an entertaining and weirdly comedic screenplay and some masterful performances.  I think this film still has 99% on Rotten Tomatoes, which is well deserved.

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4. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Director: Martin McDonagh
Starring: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell

This film isn’t perfect, but as someone who’s been a huge Martin McDonagh fan for years, I couldn’t help but to really enjoy delving back into Martin’s signature style.  It’s more of a drama than anything he’s ever done (he is the absolute master of black comedy, and while Three Billboards has more than its fair share of dark comedy, it’s more easily classified as a drama overall).  But the shift in tone works brilliantly, and the story is unique and the performances are superb.  I can’t wait for Sam Rockwell to finally win an Oscar for this.

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3. Lady Bird
Director: Greta Gerwig
Starring: Saoirse Ronan

I don’t like teenage coming of age movies, so there is nothing that could have convinced me to go see Lady Bird other than Saoirse Ronan, who I kind of worship.  Thank goodness I did see it, because this is not your average soppy coming of age drama.  Lady Bird is something really special – it’s genuinely moving and #relatable, but it’s also hilarious and unsettling.  It’s kind of your typical ‘you’ll laugh, you’ll cry’ movie, but not in a corny way at all.  I walked out of the theatre wanting to go right back in to watch it again.

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2. The Killing of a Sacred Deer
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Starring: Colin Farrell, Barry Keoghan, Nicole Kidman

Like The Lobster, Lanthimos’ second English language film will not work for everyone, but since I have a penchant for all things twisted and macabre, this film kind of rocked my world.  It’s about a surgeon, played by Colin Farrell in what may be his strongest performance to date, who forms a sort of friendship with a teenage boy, played by the phenomenal Barry Keoghan.  From there, things get weird, and dark, and deeply upsetting, and the whole thing plays out like a Greek tragedy – which makes sense, as it’s based on Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis.

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1. Dunkirk
Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, Harry Styles, Cillian Murphy

I don’t care that this is the most mainstream opinion of all time; I love this movie.  I saw it three times in theatres – see my above note about The Lobster, I do not do this, ever – and to be completely honest, I probably could have gone three more times after that if my more responsible friends hadn’t been like, Rachel, please stop paying to see Dunkirk again, you’re going to go bankrupt.  But anyway, I’m not someone who even particularly enjoys war films (some older ones are okay – I love Apocalypse Now but I’m not a fan of stuff like The Hurt Locker), but Dunkirk just completely transcended the war film genre, for me.  The score and the cinematography and the performances and direction and absolutely everything came together to deliver one of the most genuinely devastating and moving films I have ever seen.  I literally sobbed every time I watched this film, I just got so completely swept away by it.

(A few notable films that came out this year that I still need to see, hence their exclusion from this list: Call Me By Your Name, The Shape of Water, Mudbound, Loving Vincent, The Square, God’s Own Country, Okja… probably many others that I am forgetting.)

What were your favorite films of 2017?  Comment and let me know!

Play Recommendations

As the end of the year draws nearer and people are scrambling to finish their 2017 Goodreads challenges, I thought I’d offer my biggest tip for boosting my reading count when I’m behind: reading plays.  I love theatre, and while the experience of seeing shows live can be incomparable, not everyone has the resources and opportunities to do it regularly.  I find that reading play scripts is actually a pretty underrated way to engage with the material – it can be just as stimulating to watch these scenes unfold in your head just like you’re reading a novel.  And, a huge bonus – they’re short!  I usually read play scripts in one sitting.  So if you’re behind in your reading challenge and you need some ideas, look no further!

51-fmbtiw9l-_sx327_bo1204203200_If you’re interesting in the classics and Greek tragedies, I’d recommend: Oedipus Rex by Sophocles, which is one of my all-time favorites – even if you think you know this story, the tension and heightened tragedy in Sophocles’ play will catch you off guard – or Antigone by Sophocles, The Bacchae by Euripides, Medea by Euripides, or The Oresteia by Aeschylus.  Full list of Greek theatre that I’ve read can be found here.  I’m particularly fond of the translations by Anne Carson (especially if you’re looking for something a bit more modern and experimental) and Robert Fagles, but there are plenty of phenomenal translators out there.

847168If you’re interested in early modern to modern classics, I’d recommend: King Lear, Macbeth, and/or Hamlet by Shakespeare – I’m not a huge Shakespeare aficionado, but these are some of my favorites that I’ve read.  Fast forward a couple of centuries –  A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen is a fascinating proto-feminist reflection on a woman’s role in society and in her own home.  The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde is an absolute riot about mistaken identities in British high society.  Twelve Angry Men by Reginald Rose is a fascinating meditation on the U.S. judicial system.  Vieux Carré and The Eccentricities of a Nightingale are brilliant plays by Tennessee Williams that bring the Deep South to life.  A View from the Bridge and The Crucible by Arthur Miller deal with themes of identity and power – one takes place in 20th century Brooklyn and the other around the Salem Witch Trials.  Translations by Brian Friel is an extremely underrated Irish play about language, classics, and English colonization.

12903397If you’re interested in contemporary plays, I’d recommend: Anything by Martin McDonagh (playwright/director responsible for the films In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) if you like really twisted black humor, namely, The Pillowman, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, and The Cripple of Inishmaan.  For a reflection on gender and sexuality, try: Angels in America by Tony Kushner, Venus in Fur by David Ives, or Body Awareness by Annie Baker.  For a thrilling one-man show about the Trojan war, try An Iliad by Lisa Peterson & Denis O’Hare.  For a riveting romance-drama with a significant age gap between the protagonists, try Skylight by David Hare.

peter_and_aliceOr, if you don’t trust my opinions, try some of these that I haven’t read yet but which have come highly recommended to me: Peter and Alice or Red by John Logan, Posh by Laura Wade (which was the basis of the film adaptation The Riot Club), Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett, The Good Person of Szechwan by Bertolt Brecht, Faith Healer by Brian Friel, Faust: First Part by Goethe, In the Red and Brown Water by Tarell Alvin McCraney (who cowrote the screenplay for Moonlight), The Last Wife by Kate Hennig, Anatomy of a Suicide by Alice Birch, Trifles by Susan Glaspell, Sweat by Lynn Nottage, The Flick by Annie Baker, Indecent by Paula Vogel, Equus by Peter Scaffer, Arcadia by Tom Stoppard.

Good luck with your reading challenges, friends!  Also – what’s everyone’s favorite play?  Comment and let me know!

the best and worst of 2016

hey guys!  I’ve decided to kick off the new year (a few weeks late) by getting into the habit of book blogging.  this is a little belated, but I figured a good way to start would be to post a list of my best and worst reads of 2016.  note that these were not necessarily published in 2016, just books I read last year.  so without further ado:

THE TEN BEST:

1. everything i never told you by celeste ng.  an asian-american family crumbles in 1970s ohio after the death of their eldest daughter lydia.  (historical fiction/literary fiction/occasionally shelved as YA.)

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there’s something undeniably admirable about a book that can say so much in so few words.  though everything i never told you only adds up to about 200 pages, celeste ng leaves no stone unturned as she deftly examines the racism and sexism of 1970s america in this compelling and heartbreaking story.  i felt so thoroughly immersed in this world and this family that it was difficult to put the book down at the end, and although celeste ng said everything there was to say, i selfishly wanted more.  this is one of those books that i recommend to absolutely everyone – i think around 10 of my goodreads friends have read it and each one has given it 5 stars.  how often does that happen?  this book is really something special and i cannot recommend it highly enough.

 

2. a little life by hanya yanagihara.  a group of friends navigate post-grad life in new york city while they all deal with personal demons… the most depressing thing you will ever read.  (literary fiction.)

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on the other hand, you know how every once in a while you find a book that feels so intimately personal that you almost don’t want to share it with anyone?  that’s this book for me.  I mean, there are enough other reasons for not recommending a little life – massive trigger warnings for rape, childhood sexual assault, suicide, abuse, eating disorders, mental and physical illness… and on top of that, it’s just not for everyone!  even if you can stomach the difficult subject matter, this book really is only for a certain reader.  this is a story about extremes – there’s an almost surrealist fairytale-like quality to the pervasive darkness in this novel and you have to be willing to embrace that.  reading this book is legitimately one of the most intense experiences i went through this year and it ends up being one of those ‘you either love it or hate it’ kind of things, so if you didn’t like it, that’s fine, but i loved it.  every second of it.  even while i was suffering.

3. burial rites by hannah kent.  a woman is accused of murder and sentenced to death in 1800s iceland.  based on the true story of agnes magnusdottir, the last woman to ever receive the death penalty in iceland.  (historical/literary fiction.)

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simultaneously bleak and beautiful, burial rites is a story about losing authority of your own narrative, struggling to endure when your life is out of your hands.  it’s some seriously impressive writing for a debut, and alternates between third person past tense and first person present, a tricky format to pull off, though hannah kent does so effortlessly.  it’s one of the most impressively atmospheric things i’ve ever read – the extreme isolation of rural iceland is almost palpable.  it’s a powerful and lyrical book.  haunting and memorable.

 

 

4. the bell jar by sylvia plath.  plath’s disturbing semi-autobiographical novel about a woman grappling with mental illness.  (classics/literary fiction)

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i know there’s nothing particularly original about being a young woman who identifies with the protagonist of the bell jar but here we are.  i’m just going to leave this quote here, because this passage hit me harder than arguably anything i have ever read:

“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”

5. the vegetarian by han kang (trans. deborah smith).  a south korean woman stops eating meat as a reaction to a violent dream.  (literary fiction.)

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this isn’t a book that addresses the moral and ethical implications behind a vegetarian diet (which would have been fine with me – i’ve been a vegetarian for a decade).  instead, han kang takes a metaphorical route, and it’s hard to say what exactly this book is ‘about’.  there are a lot of layers to unravel: gender roles, sexual freedom, mental illness, the restriction of societal expectations, and the underlying question: can the violence inherent to the human experience ever be completely eradicated?  this tiny novel is comprised of three novellas which are told from three different POVs, which makes it easy to read it in one sitting, so while you may not spend too many hours with it, i think it’s impossible to come away from this book without thinking about it for weeks after the fact.  i’ve never read a book like this.  (massive trigger warnings for eating disorders, starvation, gore, violence… and it’s just one of those where you  have to be able to embrace the weirdness.  so it’s not for everyone, but it’s very rewarding for a certain type of reader.)

6. oedipus the king by sophocles (trans. robert fagles).  the king of thebes learns the truth behind a prophecy which proclaimed he would kill his father and marry his mother.  (classics/plays.)

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having already known the story of oedipus i’m not sure what i was expecting, but this play was more intense and devastating than i could have imagined.  i’ve read a lot of greek tragedies this year, and oedipus is the undisputed victor.  fast-paced and tense, this story is an incredibly compelling read, which isn’t even to mention thematic richness: fate vs free will, sight and blindness, conflict between the individual and the state, oedipus’ role as victim or tragic hero, and ultimately, how much of this story was inevitable…?   i was surprised at just how hard-hitting this was.

 

 

7. tender by belinda mckeon.  the story of two friends in 1990s dublin, whose relationship devolves into an unhealthy obsession.  (literary fiction.)

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fragmented dialogue representing a deteriorating mental state is such a hit or miss prose technique but i have never seen it done as well as it is here.  belinda mckeon is a skilled writer who makes you empathize with her characters even when you don’t want to, even when you’re hiding behind your hands cringing, because even when they do terrible things nothing is outside the realm of plausibility, and it’s nothing most people can condemn without being a bit of a hypocrite, because mckeon taps into the raw and ugly side of emotional vulnerability.  tense and frantic and brilliant.

 

8.  the song of achilles by madeline miller.  a modern retelling of the iliad, focusing on the relationship between achilles and patroclus.  (historical fiction/fantasy-mythology.)

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look, i understand why some iliad purists hate this book.  miller certainly takes a lot of liberties with characterizations, and achilles ends up fundamentally more likable than he was ever meant to be.  but despite this, i loved this book.  i can’t help it.  i thought miller’s prose was beautiful and the setting was brilliantly evocative.  this book was both wonderful and devastating escapism.  there’s a lot of hype surrounding this book, so i will just stress that you shouldn’t approach it thinking it’s going to be the best thing you’ve ever read.  just enjoy it for what it is, which is a poignant and moving story.

 

9. in cold blood by truman capote.  in a small kansas town in 1959, four members of the clutter family are murdered.  this is capote’s account of the capture and execution of the killers.  (nonfiction/true crime.)

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books 1-8 on this list always had a definite spot, but i vacillated on these last two.  in cold blood nearly didn’t make the cut, but it didn’t feel right to exclude it, as this book probably had one of the biggest impacts on me of anything i’ve read this year.  this book is disturbing.  not in the same way as a story about monsters or zombies – disturbing in that it tells a side of this story that you probably would have been more comfortable not knowing.  while the vivid and occasionally sympathetic lens through which we view the murderers is deeply unsettling, it’s a fascinating psychological study behind what drove this brutal crime.  an absolute must-read for all lovers of classic american lit and true crime books.

 

10.  more happy than not by adam silvera.  eternal sunshine of the spotless mind + gay teenagers set in the bronx in the near future.  (YA.)

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it’s no secret that i tend to dislike YA, and here’s the reason: i find the optimism (for lack of a better word) of the genre frustratingly unrealistic – as the majority of this list should tell you, i tend to veer toward the dark and depressing, and i often find YA a bit too neat and clean.  but, without giving anything away, let me just say, more happy than not is not a happy book.  adam silvera gets his hands dirty with this one, and i ended up feeling more deeply affected than i think i ever have from a contemporary YA novel.

 

 

 

because this list turned out overwhelmingly depressing, shout out to some happier books that almost made the cut: girl waits with gun by amy stewart, the price of salt by patricia highsmith, daddy long legs by jean webster.

THE FIVE WORST:

1. red rising by pierce brown.  in a dystopian future where society is built on an elaborate caste system, katniss everde – i mean, darrow – must compete against tributes from other districts – sorry, must compete against teenagers of the noble elite – in order to ultimately overthrow the corrupt governing system of panem – wait, mars.  (YA sci fi/fantasy.)

51sz0tslgal-_sx330_bo1204203200_while hunger games rip offs are a dime a dozen, this one stands head and shoulders above the rest… if the particular competition we’re entering is ‘hunger games rip offs which are offensively terrible.’  i’ve practically written a novel on this already, so i’ll keep it brief.  women are raped, tortured, and killed on just about every other page in order to further the power struggles of the men.  humankind has literally colonized mars but for some reason i’m supposed to accept that gender politics haven’t matured since the 21st century?  i’m supposed to just accept that for a book published as recently as 2014, we can’t do better than this?  there are only about two female characters with speaking roles, one of whom is killed at the offset to fuel our insufferable protagonist’s manpain, and both of whom are obviously in love with the handsome, unfailingly talented darrow.  (when i say unfailingly talented, i mean, darrow is good at everything.)  and even if we gloss over how offensive this book is, it is terribly written.  it drones on for 400 pages in an insufferable staccato rhythm, all sense of tension obliterated by the author’s insistence on using a deus ex machina twist on about thirty five separate occasions.  bottom line: misogynistic, derivative garbage.  do yourselves a favor and ignore the hype, because i am here to tell you that this drivel would never have been published if the author weren’t a conventionally attractive white guy.

2. the mirror empire by kameron hurley.  um… parallel universes… some kind of blood magic… trees that eat people…???  yeah i’m out i have no idea what this book was about.  (fantasy.)

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listen guys, i tend to consider myself a decently intelligent person.  but i have no idea what in the everloving fuck was going on for the entire 500 pages that i spent with this book.  too many characters, too many locations which weren’t adequately described to the extent that i couldn’t picture anything, not a clear enough sense of which character was in which parallel universe at any given time… this was a super cool premise but the result was a mess.  throw in a brutal matriarchy where women rape their husbands for the hell of it and some of the most juvenile writing i’ve ever encountered, and this book was downright painful to get through.  for some real feminist fantasy, go for the fifth season by n.k. jemisin.

 

3. mischling by affinity konar.   konar puts a literary spin on a holocaust story.  the result is every bit as offensive as you would imagine.  (literary fiction)

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i was so excited to receive an ARC of this book.  i tend to enjoy wwii fiction and i’ve had a morbid interest in jozef mengele since studying him in high school.  but this book was………… a mess.  poorly written, pretentious garbage.  forgive me if i don’t think the holocaust is an appropriate subject for an elaborate mfa-creative-writing exercise.

 

 

 

4. fates and furies by lauren groff. there isn’t much of a plot but there are a truly extraordinary amount of awkward sex scenes and at one point a guy’s stomach is compared to the tautness of creme brûlée.  (literary fiction.)

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one of those books that probably wouldn’t have bothered me so much if it weren’t for the hype.  but actually… yeah it probably would have bothered me anyway.  i hated – hated – the prose, i found it gaudy and annoyingly overwritten; i hated the two protagonists; i didn’t care about their marriage, i didn’t care about their friends, i didn’t care about any of it.  i don’t DNF books, but if i did, i would have put this down after about ten pages.

 

 

5. the penelopiad by margaret atwood.  tl;dr: the odyssey from penelope’s point of view, and the most misogynistic ‘feminist’ retelling you will ever encounter.  (historical/literary fiction/fantasy-mythology.)

17645i’m a classics/greek lit lover who finds the sexist limitations of classical lit frustrating, so i was thrilled by the premise of this book.  although i may be the only feminist alive who couldn’t stand the handmaid’s tale, i was ready to be wowed by the penelopiad.  no such luck.  the insidious misogyny in this book is downright shocking.  atwood exonerates penelope for her modesty and in the same breath demonizes helen for her supposed narcissism (a character who’s already been wrongfully maligned for her role in the trojan war throughout the centuries – i’d just like to point out that she was taken against her will); atwood also vilifies anticlea, clytemnestra, eurycleia – she constantly tears down other women to absolve penelope, and it’s insulting and exhausting. for a modern adaptation of greek/roman mythology from a female character’s point of view, skip this one and try lavinia by ursula k. leguin or alcestis by katharine beutner.

so, what does everyone think?  agree, disagree?  what are some of your favorites from last year?  feel free to leave a comment and let me know!