Thursday, December 31, 2020

Reading Reflection: 2020


Well, 2020 sure didn't go as planned, did it? I remember starting off the year with so many hopes - places I wanted to go, things I wanted to do, and books I wanted to read. Pretty much everything, except for the reading, fell through. Thank goodness for my reading goals! Being stuck inside isn't so bad when you've got a nice big stack of novels by your side. I always knew that I loved literature, but it ended up being my absolute saving grace this year. You know that old quote about reading giving you a place to go when you have to stay where you are? It has never been more true. 

Now that 2020 is finally drawing to a close, it's time to reflect on how each of my goals and challenges went. Here's the breakdown:

My Goodreads goal was to read at least 50 books in 2020. This was a conservative goal and I expected to surpass it. I ended up with a grand total of 91 novels read. I have always wanted to get to 100 novels in one year, but with the amount of ridiculously long classics I read, that probably won't be happening anytime soon. In any case, I'm quite happy with this number. You can view my year in reading here.

I needed to read at least 20 books from my Classics Club list this year to stay on track to finish, and I ended up reading 22. I'm very pleased with the amount that I got through, especially because this was the year I conquered the two series that I put on my list - The Lord of the Rings and the Little House books. Next year is the final year of this five year challenge, which leaves me just 18 to go. It's not going to be easy though, because I have quite a few long classics left. 

I did finish the Back to the Classics Challenge for the sixth year in a row. It was as fun and enriching as always. My final wrap up post is here.

I also finished my True Books 2020 challenge. I ended up reading a total of 14 nonfiction books throughout the year, smashing my previous record of 10. I really enjoyed most of them and I think it was a good thing to get out of my reading comfort zone. I don't think I will be repeating this challenge next year, as I want to focus more on mood reading in 2021, but I will still try to reach for some nonfiction from time to time. 

I did end up finishing my Then vs. Now Challenge as well. It took me all the way until December, but I made it! Each month this year, I read one of my favorite novels and compared it to a different book by the same author. My results in each match up were mixed. I really enjoyed some of the new books I read, but my two worst reads of the year (Imaginary Friend and The Last Man) came from here too. I did like getting a chance to reread a whole bunch of my favorites and I'm happy to have reviews for more of these here on the blog now.

There were a few instances where rereading a novel made me like it a little bit less. I wasn't so blind to Eleanor and Park's issues with race this time around, and I found myself cringing at some of the slurs in We Need to Talk About Kevin that I somehow glossed over before. It's interesting to me that it's so risky to reread a favorite. The first time you read a novel that you truly love is special and impossible to recreate. As we get older, we change quite a bit; who knows how the newer version of us will interpret an old favorite? This was an interesting experience and I can see myself wanting to do it again somewhere down the road.

The last challenge I took part in this year was the StoryGraph Onboarding 2020 Reading Challenge. The point of it was to test out the StoryGraph website and see if its personalized book recommendations were accurate. There were a total of 12 prompts, and I finished all of them.

Completing this challenge led me to read several novels I would not have picked up on my own, and I enjoyed most of them. I also ended up discovering that the StoryGraph recommendations are definitely superior to Goodreads. I'm excited to continue using this site in the future to find books. 

And that's it for 2020! I'm pleased with how much I accomplished this year. With the scary and monotonous atmosphere that COVID caused, reading was an invaluable escape from reality. I've always read for pleasure, but this year it felt necessary to do so. Thank goodness I had books to turn to!  I'm ready to embark on a new set of challenges in 2021.

December Wrap Up


It's hard to believe that December is already over, but here we are. This very strange year is coming to an end. This month was different from my usual Decembers - no family visit, socially distanced school, and no holiday events to attend in the community. A huge snowstorm and subsequent high winds even prevented driving around to see Christmas lights. It was still a nice holiday though because I had a lot of time to sit around and read. I made it through an impressive amount of books this month, and managed to finish both my Then Versus Now Challenge and my StoryGraph Onboarding Challenge, which I didn't think I'd have time to do. Here's the breakdown: 

I enjoyed most of these, and even the ones I didn't like so much weren't terribly bad. My favorite of the month was probably The Handmaid's Tale. It was a reread, but definitely one of my favorite dystopian novels of all time - just masterfully written. I also really enjoyed the Girl Meets Duke trio of books, which were pure guilty pleasure reading, but so much fun. 

My least favorite of the month was definitely Transformation, which was competently written, but dreadfully boring. 

Next month will be the start of my 2021 reading challenges. I have a bunch of posts lined up to explain what I am planning. For now, here's what I am hoping to read:

From the Earth to the Moon by Jules Verne
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez
Main Street by Sinclair Lewis
At least two books chosen from my owned-not-read list based on my mood

I'm really excited to read my annual Jules Verne novel and to get started on all my new reading goals. Let's hope that 2021 is a happier year than the last and is filled with good reading!

Romancing the Duke by Tessa Dare


My last read of 2020 was another guilty pleasure pick and the final book in my little romance-reading streak. Romancing the Duke is the first book in Tessa Dare's Castles Ever After series, a set of  four historical romance novels in which each of the protagonists either own, inherit, or marry into a castle. I know. It's a cheesy concept. It does appeal to my love of fairytales though, so I make no apologies for my choices.

The plot of the novel follows Izzy Goodnight, a young woman who has recently fallen on hard times. Her father, a celebrated author, passed away suddenly without leaving a current will. His money and property were passed off to the next male heir in his line, a cousin who promptly disinherited Izzy. Her only glimmer of hope is a mysterious inheritance left to her by her godfather, which she is traveling to acquire as the story begins. When she arrives to the location specified in the letter the solicitor sent to her, she is surprised to discover that the bequest isn't money, as she was expecting, but a gigantic castle. There's only one problem--there's already a duke living in it.

Ransom Vane, the Duke of Rothbury, recently returned to this castle after sustaining a serious injury that robbed him of his vision. Bitter and determined to shut the world out, he's isolated himself within the walls of what has always been his family's property. When Izzy arrives to claim ownership, he is certain that there must be some sort of mistake. He agrees to let her stay until it can be proven that he is still the rightful owner of the property. As they begin to investigate though, they uncover some suspicious financial activities in Ransom's papers that he knows nothing about. It appears that someone is embezzling money from him, and Izzy is just the partner he needs to figure out who. As they begin to work together to get to the bottom of it, they find themselves falling for each other. However, both are hurting and are hesitant to risk being vulnerable. They both must decide whether to open their hearts to the possibility of love and remain in the castle together, or solve the mystery and go their separate ways.

This was another fun bit of fluff, and I did enjoy it. It's a typical historical fiction romance, full of classic tropes and steamy love scenes. The book doesn't really do anything different with the genre, but it does the basics well and it is comforting in its familiarity. It's a safe and sexy read when you're in the mood for a romance. I liked Izzy's character and I thought the backstory about her father being a famous author was interesting. She manages to achieve a lot from being kind and helpful to others, which I always like to see in a protagonist. Ransom was fine as well, although I didn't end up liking him as much as the men from the Girl Meets Duke books. I thought his backstory was a little thin and his personality didn't stand out in my mind. Even so, he was inoffensive and didn't impact my overall enjoyment of the book.

I don't have much to say beyond that. This was a really fun read and perfect for my current mood. Overall, I enjoyed Tessa Dare's Girl Meets Duke series a bit more, but there was nothing wrong with this one. I can definitely see myself picking up more books in the Castles Ever After series next time I'm in the mood for some guilty pleasure reading.

Challenge Tally
Total Books Read in 2020: 91

Monday, December 28, 2020

The Governess Game and The Wallflower Wager by Tessa Dare

As I am still on a romance novel kick and I've had a lot of time to read lately, I managed to finish the two remaining novels in Tessa Dare's Girl Meets Duke series. As my feeling on both are pretty similar, I decided to combine my reviews. 

Book number two in the series, The Governess Game, follows a young woman named Alexandra Mountbatten. She works to support herself as a clock setter in London, but her true passion is astronomy. She hopes to work in that field one day, but first, she needs to save up for her own place and a good telescope. When she loses her chronometer in an accident one afternoon, she is forced to take a job as a governess to make ends meet. Her new employer is a dashingly handsome man named Chase Reynaud, who has recently become the guardian of two orphaned little girls from his family line. His reputation as a rake worries Alexandra, but she's desperate enough for work that she takes the position. She's facing a big challenge - her two charges are quite difficult, she has no previous experience as a governess to draw from. She's determined to do her best to help her girls, however, and make even help Chase reform some of his wild ways.

Book number three, The Wallflower Wager, follows Lady Penelope Campion. Despite having a title and big dowry to match, she hasn't had any luck in romance and tends to stay close to home. She loves animals and has quite a menagerie of rescued creatures to care for, including a two-legged dog, a goat, an otter, and a hedgehog. She lives with all her pets quite happily, but her family doesn't consider her hobbies and solitary life to be appropriate. Her older brother is threatening to move her into his home with his family and force a more traditional life onto her. Her aunt offers to help her put him off, but only if she engages more in society and finds homes for all her animals. She finds an unlikely ally in Gabriel Duke, an infamous wealthy businessman that purchases the house next to hers. He intends to renovate the house and turn a big profit on it, but Penelope's zoo and spinster-like behavior reduces the desirability of his property. He agrees to help her rehome the animals and reenter the social scene, but things become more complicated for both of them when they start developing feelings for each other.

Much like the first book in this series, these two stories were utterly charming. Once again, the writing was funny and emotional in turns, the characters were unique and well-developed, and the steamier scenes were very sexy. Everything was in good balance. The romantic elements and relationship-building took center stage, but there was enough story to make the novels feel different from each other and move at a good pace. These books aren't direct sequels, but characters from each one appear in the others, and I enjoyed seeing them pop up across the series. I was surprised how much affection I ended up developing for them - I was especially happy to see Lord Ashbury from The Duchess Deal again, as I ended up having a major soft spot for him.

These are the kind of books where you know what you're getting when you pick them up. They are full of romantic tropes, impossible attractive people, angsty misunderstandings, and happy endings. It's nice sometimes to read something that's pure junk food for your brain. There will be a fourth book in this series, but Amazon is saying that it won't be out until January of 2024, so I will have a long time to wait. Until then, I will definitely be checking out Tessa Dare's other works whenever I'm in the mood for a guilty pleasure romance.   

Challenge Tally
Total Books Read in 2020: 90

Sunday, December 27, 2020

The Duchess Deal by Tessa Dare


When I was a teenager, I used to belong to the Harlequin Romance book club. Every month, I would get four historical romance novels in the mail, and I devoured them. My high school years were basically characterized by daydreams about handsome dukes and dashing rakes. Eventually, I became more interested in other genres and started reading different things, but every once in a while I get a strong urge to pick up a romance again. Since that mood was striking me this week, I decided to give The Duchess Deal a try.

The plot of the novel follows a young woman named Emma living in Regency-era England. She is working to support herself as a seamstress after her father disowned her years ago and is barely getting by. She comes across a chance at a more comfortable life when she meets the irascible Lord Ashbury, a wealthy duke who has recently arrived home from the war. He was disfigured in the fighting and is covered in burns on half of his body. This has left him quite bitter and hurt. People react to his new appearance very negatively, which has led him to give up on the idea of ever having a normal life. He still needs to find a wife though, to ensure that he has an heir to pass his property and title onto. When he meets Emma and discovers her reduced circumstances, he immediately proposes a marriage of convenience. Believing that it would be foolish to refuse, Emma agrees.

At first, Lord Ashbury is insistent upon not growing too close to Emma. His plan is to bed her until she conceives an heir, then move her out to a house in the countryside until the child comes of age. However, he didn't anticipate how attracted he would be to his new bride. Similarly, Emma can't deny the connection she feels to her husband. She decides to try and slip past his defenses to form a real relationship, but it won't be easy to earn his trust and convince him that his injuries aren't an impediment to a happy marriage. 

This novel was pure guilty pleasure reading and it was so much fun. Tessa Dare's writing was easy to read and genuinely funny and clever. You know you aren't exactly getting high literature when you pick up a book like this, but it was an excellent offering for this genre, and exactly what I was looking for. I really enjoyed the banter between Emma and Lord Ashbury, and the angsty moments in the story were well done. It was very easy to get sucked into this novel. I was totally engaged the whole time I was reading and I finished it in just a few days.

I think you can't really review a romance novel without commenting on the steamier scenes. Without going into detail, I will say that they were numerous and extremely sexy. Things have certainly come a long way since my old Harlequin romances.

I went into my reading hoping to scratch that itch I felt to read a romance, and this was the perfect pick. This is book one in a four book series, and since they are such easy reads, I'll probably go through a few more of them with the rest of 2020. It will be a nice break before my classics reading starts up again next year. 

Challenge Tally
Total Books Read in 2020: 88

Saturday, December 26, 2020

The Woman in the Wall by Patrice Kindl


For the last book in my StoryGraph Onboarding Challenge, things took an unexpected turn. My final prompt was to read a book corresponding to my least preferred mood. According to StoryGraph, that mood is "relaxing," Honestly, that sounds about right. I like my books to be emotional or suspenseful more than relaxing. Anyway, I used StoryGraphs filters to search through my recommendations for a book tagged as relaxing. The first one mentioned was Anne of Green Gables. I want to use that for a future challenge though, so I went with the next one down - Tom's Midnight Garden. When the time came to actually sit and read it though, I made the odd discovery that the book wasn't available to download onto my Kindle and it was too close to the end of the year to order the paperback online. So, back to StoryGraph I went to find another selection. I scrolled around until I came across The Woman in the Wall, and here we are now.

This middle grades novel follows a young girl named Anna, who lives with her mother and two sisters in a sprawling Victorian mansion. Anna is extremely shy, to the point where she never leaves the house and prefers to remain out of the sight of others as much as possible. She entertains herself with many solitary hobbies like reading, sewing, and repair work around the house. She's never been to school and is terrified at the idea of doing so. When her mother starts to force the issue, she retreats into the walls.

She uses the knowledge she gained from making home repairs to create several passageways and hiding spaces within the walls of the house and begins living there. She watches her family through various peepholes and enjoys her solitude. She stays that way for several years, long enough for her family to start wondering whether she was a figment of their imagination all along. Eventually though, her quiet life is upended by the appearance of a note from a stranger stuck through a crack into one of her hiding places. Intrigued, she answers the note and receives a reply in return. Her secret correspondence soon brings her to a crossroads. She will need to decide whether to emerge from her hiding place and rejoin her family, or stay hidden and risk losing them entirely.

This was an odd little novel, and I mostly enjoyed it. The first half of the story was fantastic. As a quiet kid myself, I could strongly relate to Anna's shyness and desire to hide away within her house rather than face the outside world. Of course, her actions aren't realistic; no young child could carve out a series of passageways in a home and no mother would accept their child disappearing into the walls for several years. However, Kindl gets around this by imbuing the story with a dreamlike quality, almost like a fairy tale. Anna isn't just small and shy, she's nearly invisible. People have a hard time seeing her even when looking directly at her. Her mother and siblings have difficulty discerning her from the wallpaper sometimes. At one point, a visiting character mistakes her for a doll and puts her in her purse. There's not true magic in the story, but something about Anna feels magical, so it's easy enough to suspend your disbelief and go along with the story as she disappears into her secret rooms within the house.   

As the story goes on however, things deteriorated a bit for me. Once Anna starts communicating via the notes stuck into the wall, the dreamy qualities of the writing shift to become more realistic. Things become ordinary and move too quickly towards a rather bland ending. It's a shame, because I felt like the first part of the story was so quirky and unique. I wish the second half had held onto the magical realism it started off with. I'm sure the traditional ending was there for the book's intended middle grades audience, so I can't complain too much. It did seem like a shame that the plot concluded so conventionally though. It just didn't match up with the promising beginning.

So overall, I liked this novel well enough despite my disappointment with the conclusion. I suppose it did match its tag of being relaxing too, as it wasn't particularly challenging and was easy to read. Perhaps my dissatisfaction with parts of it were because it aligns with my least favorite mood. I was hoping for a bit more excitement I suppose. In any case, it was quirky enough that I did enjoy my experience with it, and I think other quiet, young readers will like it.

On a side note, with this novel, I am officially done with the StoryGraph Onboarding Reading Challenge! I didn't think I'd get a chance to actually finish each of the prompts, but I managed it in the end. I was pleasantly surprised by how well StoryGraph matched books to my reading preferences - they weren't all winners, but most of their recommendations were pretty good. I will definitely be continuing to use this website in the future.

Challenge Tally
StoryGraph Onboarding 2020 Challenge: 12/12 - Complete!

Total Books Read in 2020: 87

Friday, December 25, 2020

Transformation by Carol Berg

For my past few reads, I've been steadily making my way down the remaining books on my StoryGraph Onboarding Challenge list. My second-to-last book was Transformation by Carol Berg. The prompt that led me to this one was to read a book that I'd normally want to remove from my Find A Book page. I scrolled through my recommendations and when I got to this one, I knew I'd found my pick. Just look at that cover. It's got to be one of the most unappealing book covers I've ever seen. I mean, I'm sure some people think it's cool, but it's not to my taste at all. Aside from that, the plot summary revealed that it focuses on mostly male characters hunting a demon, which didn't sound all that compelling to me. I'd normally skip this one based on those factors (actually, I'd probably never pick it up due to the cover art alone), so that made it perfect for this prompt. It was actually placed pretty high on my recommendations list at number 23, so I started my reading interested to see if I would end up liking it anyway, despite my first impression.

Transformation is an adult fantasy novel. The plot follows a man named Seyonne, who is a slave in the Derzhi Empire. He used to be a powerful, magic-wielding demon hunter in his homeland, but he doesn't allow himself to think of his past at all. He survives by living in the present moment and not thinking too far into his past or future. He has gotten along this way for years and endured multiple abuses at the hands of his masters, including undergoing a process that stripped him of all his magic, leaving him in his weakened, easily subjugated state. All this changes in an instant, however, when he is assigned to work as a scribe for the young, brash Prince Aleksander. 

Aleksander is cruel, rude, and impetuous. He abuses his slaves, his advisors, and his subjects in equal measure, but as he is the heir to the Derzhi empire, no one dares to speak up against his wild ways. Seyonne serves him as best he can and tries to blend into the background as much as possible. He finds it impossible to remain silent, however, when he recognizes a demon lurking at court. Feeling compelled to warn Aleksander of the danger, he must find a way to earn the prince's trust and defeat the demon before it completely infiltrates and destroys the entire realm.

Unfortunately, my first impressions of this book held up throughout my reading. I was correct that this book was too male character-heavy for me. There was a lot of male angst, drama, and bonding throughout the story and I was often bored by it. The writing was not a problem at all; Carol Berg is clearly a gifted writer and knows how to tell a story. However, the plot of this particular tale just didn't appeal to me. This is purely a matter of taste. I personally don't enjoy novels that focus on mostly male characters. So for me, this felt very long.

I also grew tired of the brutality of Aleksander and the Derzhi Empire in general. The abuses they inflict on Seyonne and the other slaves were overly violent and unrealistic from a practical standpoint. Slaves that are continually beaten starved, burned, whipped, maimed, etc. can't work. The injuries the slaves regularly sustained were horrific. You can't run an empire this way. All the people doing the work would be dead or permanently crippled. Elements of this are realistic of course, but the degree of the violence here was incredible. It came to feel ridiculous as the story went on. It's clear that Berg was trying to stress that the Derzhi, and Aleksander, were very cruel. Mission accomplished there, but it did feel comically over the top at times.

Another element of the story that I didn't love was Aleksander's character. He was incredibly unlikable at the start of the book, and while he does change over the course of the novel, it was hard to get over that initial impression. I think Berg was a little too successful at showing him to be awful, because I could never bring myself to like him later, even once he learns the error of his ways. Seyonne was a bit better for me, although I often grew frustrated at his blandness. I understand that this was deliberate; it was his survival strategy as a slave to blend in. However, even after he shifts back into being a demon hunter, he was still pretty uninteresting. 

One thing that I kept expecting throughout the story and was actually disappointed not to see was a romantic relationship between Seyonne and Aleksander. There were so many moments of them being close, having intensely intimate conversations, seeing each other in various states of undress, and saving each other's lives that it felt like their growing friendship was something more. They become so close over the course of the story that it seemed almost weird that their interest in each other didn't go further. This isn't the direction that Berg wanted the novel to go, and that's fine, but it certainly would have made a lot of sense and made the story much more interesting (at least for me). I noticed that some other reviewers on Goodreads made this same point, so I'm not the only one that noticed some potential sparks between the two. 

There just wasn't much that grabbed me in this novel, although I fully understand that many readers will feel differently. Transformation was a well-written novel with a complex friendship and worthy themes about redemption and sacrifice at its center. I think this novel will be especially good for those who dislike romance in their fantasy, as there is very little of it here. Most of my StoryGraph suggestions throughout this challenge have been pretty successful, but this one missed the mark for me. I picked this book because I ordinarily would have passed it by, and in this instance, my instincts were right.   

Challenge Tally
StoryGraph Onboarding 2020 Challenge: 11/12

Total Books Read in 2020: 86

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

The Weight of Our Sky by Hanna Alkaf


The next prompt in the StoryGraph Onboarding Reading Challenge was to read a book that I found on their community page. I was hoping to see a book on there that I already owned, but I didn't see any of those when I looked. So instead, I scrolled down until I found something that looked interesting. I ended up with The Weight of Our Sky by Hanna Alkaf. I hadn't heard of this young adult historical fiction novel before, but I was intrigued by its setting in 1960s Malaysia. I had never read anything set in that time or place, so I decided to give it a try.

The story follows a sixteen year old Malay girl named Melati who lives in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. It is 1969 and she spends most of her days going to school, watching movies with her best friend and listening to her extensive record collection. She is hiding a secret deep inside herself however--she has OCD. She can't stop counting things in head, tapping items, and walking certain amounts of steps. She believes that there is a djinn living inside her, making her enact these rituals. If she doesn't obey, she is afraid that the djinn will kill her mother, so she does whatever counting tasks he demands. As her efforts to seek medical help for this in the past were not successful, she tries to conceal her struggles from everyone. Each day she hides a long, frantic routine of counting and worrying underneath her (mostly) cool exterior.  

However, Melati's careful balancing act is thrown into disarray when tensions between the Malays and Chinese in her city erupt into a violent race riot. Melati is away from home when the dangers strikes, and a police-enforced curfew and several downed phone lines prevent her from contacting her mother. All of her anxieties bubble up to the surface and the djinn inside her kicks into overdrive. She constantly imagines her mother dying in various horrible ways, and her counting and tapping become noticeable to others. In order to make her way back home across a city destroyed by violence and reconnect with her mom, Melati must find a way to quiet the djinn inside of her and show greater courage than she's ever had to before.

This novel's strong point was its historical setting. I had never heard of the 1969 race riots in Malaysia before now, and I appreciated how this book opened my eyes to what happened back then. I also enjoyed Alkaf's descriptions of life in Kuala Lumpur. The city really comes to life in her pages, and the destruction caused by the riots is all the more heartbreaking for it.

Melati's character was also very strong. Her struggle with OCD was explained well and felt integral to the story. By writing the disorder as a djinn, Alkaf effectively made it another person that Melati interacted with. The djinn's constant prodding to count, tap, and step in certain ways was very intrusive and did an excellent job of conveying how much Melati was suffering. I don't have any experience with OCD, so I can't tell for sure, but it felt like an accurate depiction. 

Where I thought the story was a little bit weaker was towards the last third of the book. Eventually, the whole plot just becomes Melati running from one place to another, dodging gunfire and other violence in an effort to find her mom. It started feeling repetitive, which sounds strange because these are obviously not boring events, but it was just a lot of the same type of things happening. This wasn't a big enough issue to seriously impact my overall enjoyment of the story though.  

The Weight of Our Sky was a quick and emotional read with good representation. Its exploration of mental illness and its inclusion of a piece of history many readers won't know make it unique and worth taking a look at. I didn't form a deep attachment to it, but I did learn quite a bit from it. I'm glad that StoryGraph randomly steered me in its direction. 

Challenge Tally
StoryGraph Onboarding 2020 Challenge: 10/12

Total Books Read in 2020: 85

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

The Familiars by Stacey Halls

For my next read, I decided to carry on with my StoryGraph Onboarding Challenge. My next prompt was to "read a book that you find using the filter that has two moods attached and excludes a genre." After a little consideration, I set the site's filters to find me a dark and emotional book that was not a fantasy. I had been noticing that a lot of my recommendations leaned in the fantasy direction (which makes since, given my usual preferences) and I wanted to see what else StoryGraph thought I might like. It gave me The Familiars by Stacey Hall. I'd never heard of this historical fiction novel before, but its summary sounded interesting enough to give it a try. Curious to see if this would actually be a good recommendation for me, I got started.

The novel is set in England in the year 1612. A young noblewoman named Fleetwood Shuttleworth is pregnant, and quite worried. She's had several miscarriages in the past and is desperate to bring a child to term. Her husband Richard is longing for an heir and she feels as if she's failing in her fundamental duty as a wife. To make matters worse, Fleetwood recently found a letter in her husband's papers from her doctor containing disturbing news. The doctor believes that Fleetwood won't survive another pregnancy.  Richard never chose to share this with her, leaving her hurt at the idea that her husband places producing an heir over her own safety and health. As a result, there's quite a bit of tension in the air, which is only exacerbated by recent accusations of witchcraft that have swept through her village. Claims have been made against several women and many arrests have taken place. An unsettled and spooky feeling has pervaded the town, leaving everyone on edge.

One morning, on a walk through the woods on her property, Fleetwood meets a curious young woman named Alice Grey. Alice is a midwife, and after she proves her medical skill, Fleetwood is convinced that she is the best person to help her deliver a healthy baby. She agrees to help Fleetwood, but their arrangement is thrown into disarray when Alice is later accused of witchcraft and taken away to prison. Concerned for the lives of her baby, herself, and her new friend, Fleetwood sets out to do all she can to clear Alice's name, even if that means breaking all conventions and putting herself and her marriage at risk to do so.

This story is set against the backdrop of the real Pendle Hill Witch Trials, and many of the characters are based on actual people from that time. Fleetwood and Alice are both actual names that Halls pulled from the historical record, although their words and actions in the story are entirely fictional. Records from this time period are sparse, so The Familiars takes a lot of artistic liberties. It does, however get a lot of information about witchcraft accusations and trials right. I was reminded of Stacy Schiff's The Witches, which I read back in October; while that novel was set in Salem, a lot of the details were similar. It was cool to see history blend into the fictional story. I think Halls did a good job in that respect.

Overall, I was consistently entertained while reading, although I did feel like the pacing was a bit slow at times. I also couldn't stand Fleetwood's husband Roger. His behavior throughout the story was pretty awful and I never felt like he truly got what he deserved. I found myself wishing there was more of a romantic storyline to enjoy as well. Something about reading historical fiction makes me want a strong love interest, and that wasn't part of this story. Of course, that's more of a personal preference than a criticism of the book. It is true though that I struggled to find a relationship among the characters that I truly felt invested in. Fleetwood and Alice's friendship was okay, but it was a bit rushed. Aside from those small issues though, this was a solid book and I enjoyed it. I'm finding that I don't have much to say beyond that. It was good.

As far as the StoryGraph aspect of the challenge goes, I think its filters did do a good job of giving me what I asked for. The Familiars was dark and emotional, and it wasn't a fantasy story. I will definitely be able to use the website to help me find recommendations for mood reading in the future, so I'm glad I gave this prompt a try.

Challenge Tally
StoryGraph Onboarding 2020 Challenge: 9/12

Total Books Read in 2020: 84

Friday, December 11, 2020

Back to the Classics 2021 - Sign Up Post


The Back to the Classics Challenge is back for another year! I adore this challenge and I'm so happy to be able to participate again. This will be my seventh year taking part, which sounds crazy to me. How is that even possible? I must be getting old.

Anyway, the categories are really fun this year and most of them match up with books I already planned to read for my Classics Club list anyway. Here's my plan:

1. A 19th century classic: Under the Greenwood Tree by Thomas Hardy (1872)
I went through a phase many years ago where I bought up all the Thomas Hardy books they sold at Borders (that's how long ago it was). I read some of his work before my blogging days, and I read Jude the Obscure for this challenge in 2019. I generally enjoy his writing, so I'm interested to give another of his novels a try.

2. A 20th century classic: To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (1927)
I have never read a novel by Virginia Woolf, and I know nothing at all about her writing. I feel like I need to change this!

3. A classic by a woman author: Daniel Deronda by George Eliot (1876)
I read George Eliot's Silas Marner in high school and The Mill on the Floss in college. I read Middlemarch before I started blogging. I've liked everything I've read from her so far, so I am excited to try another of her novels.

4. A classic in translation: Les Misérables by Victor Hugo (1862)
I've wanted to read this book ever since I listened to the soundtrack of the musical version in high school. I'm excited to finally get to it this year, but I'm worried about the length. My version has 1,232 pages!

I almost made a big mistake in this category - I originally picked Love in the Time of Cholera, completely overlooking that fact that it wasn't old enough to quality for this challenge. Luckily, Jennifer, another blogger, caught my mistake and was kind enough to let me know. I am so grateful for her help! Anyway, after that, I realized that I didn't have any books left on my Classics Club list that suited this category, so I did a little research and ended up with this novel, which I hadn't heard of before now. It's one of the first novels published by an African American woman, which immediately caught my interest.

6. A classic by a new-to-you author: Main Street by Sinclair Lewis (1920)
This is another book that I don't know much about, but I remember reading a very positive review for it on the Books and Chocolate blog. Hopefully I will enjoy it as much as Karen did.

7. New-to-you classic by a favorite author:  Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens (1894)
I've read a handful of books from Charles Dickens and consider him to be one of my favorite authors. I have no idea what this novel is about, but I do remember that my 19th Century British literature professor considered this to be his best work. I wonder if I will agree.

8. A classic about an animal, or with an animal in the title: The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather (1915)
I read O Pioneers! for this challenge earlier this year and I mostly enjoyed it. Since the title of this second book in Cather's Great Plains Trilogy matches the prompt so well, I figured I'd continue on with the series in 2021.

9. A children's classic: The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge (1946)
I love reading classic children's literature, but I'm starting to run out of books I haven't read in this genre. I'm trying to read from my own shelves for the most part next year, so I decided to try this book that I found at a used bookstore last year.

10. A humorous or satirical classic: Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray (1847-1848)
This is another classic that I've had on my radar forever but never got around to actually reading. Its length, much like Les Misérables, is intimidating, so I'm hoping it won't feel too monotonous.

11. A travel or adventure classic (fiction or non-fiction): From the Earth to the Moon by Jules Verne (1865)
For the past several years, I have started out my reading in January with a Jules Verne novel. This will be my pick to kick off 2021.

12. A classic play: Hamlet by William Shakespeare (c. 1600)
I have three plays by Shakespeare left on my Classics Club list that would have worked for this prompt. I decided to go with Hamlet because its probably his most famous work and I've never read it. It's finally time to give it a try.

This is probably my most ambitious lineup ever, because so many of these books are long. I don't really have a choice though, because I'm heading into my last year of the Classics Club Challenge, and most of these books are part of that list too. I'm hoping that I don't struggle too much with the longer ones - I'm confident that I can finish them - it's the boredom I'm worried about! Reading the classics is great, but there's always a certain amount of monotony that comes along with it (at least for me). I hope that I find them entertaining enough so that the reading process doesn't take too long.

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

When a sequel is released for an old, classic work, it's always a risky read. It's exciting to see more of the characters and plot points from a book you loved long ago, but there's always the chance that the newer work will lack the same magic of the original. After being dismayed by Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman last month, I was a little nervous to head into The Testaments, Margaret Atwood's sequel to The Handmaid's Tale. I really wanted to give it a shot though, so I started my reading hoping for the best.

The story takes place fifteen years after the events of the first book and is narrated from three alternating perspectives. The first is Aunt Lydia's, the tyrannical leader of the Aunts that ruled over the handmaids with an iron fist from the first book. In her sections, she describes her traumatic past during the coup in which the United States fell and her subsequent rise to leadership within the new government. She also records how she is working within that organization now, which involves a lot of schemes and deceptions. 

The next perspective is that of Agnes, a teenager who has grown up as the daughter of a Commander. She's led a privileged life in comparison to most in Gilead, but things take a turn when her mother dies and her father remarries. Her mother brings in a handmaid in order to have a child of her own, and starts the process of marrying Agnes off, in order to get her out of the house. Agnes does not want to marry a strange, adult man, no matter how high his status might be, so she pursues the only feasible avenue of escape - becoming an Aunt. 

The final perspective is Daisy, a teenager growing up in Canada. All throughout her schooling, she's learned about the terrible conditions in Gilead, and has even participated in protests against their government. While she thinks the plight of the women there is terrible, she only views it from a distance. It has nothing to do with her. However, when her parents are involved in a mysterious and deadly accident, she learns that she has more connections to Gilead than she knew. 

As the novel progresses, all three of these women are drawn together into a dangerous and terrible adventure. They have different motivations for their choices, but each has an important role to play and they must work together to further their own agendas and create a future that they believe in.

I really enjoyed this novel, and I'm surprised that I feel this way, because The Testaments is certainly very different from The Handmaids Tale. While the first book in the series is deliberately vague and mysterious, this one is more of a traditional story. A lot of detailed, specific information about Gilead is explained and the multiple narrators reveal many aspects of the plot to the reader before the characters figure them out themselves. It has a very different feel; there is more action here, it is more predictable, and a more complete story is told by the end of the novel. 

While I understand how this would be a big disappointment to some readers, I didn't mind it. I was engaged in the story the whole time I was reading and thought it was well paced, suspenseful, and exciting. I liked learning more details about Gilead, especially in regards to Aunt Lydia, who I thought was the most complex and interesting character in the book. I love a villain with a tragic backstory, so I really enjoyed her sections. The sections featuring Agnes were great too. I thought it was interesting to see the perspective of someone inside the privileged class who had grown up there. Agnes didn't have memories of a life before in America, so she believed a lot of the religious doctrine used to oppress women there. She has to struggle through those beliefs to make sense of the abuses she sees throughout the story. Daisy was the character I was probably the least interested in, just because she had less to do with Gilead, but I didn't dislike her narration. Overall, this was a good reading experience for me.

I'm sure a lot of people don't like the ending of this novel, but I appreciated it. It wasn't what I was expecting at all - it wasn't a twist ending. In fact, maybe it was the lack of one that I was surprised by. I won't spoil it here, but I did like it (probably more than I should have).

So, it turns out that I didn't have to be nervous at all. I ended up really enjoying this sequel. It definitely felt different than the first and was written in a very different way. I don't think that needs to be a fault in this case, because the resulting novel was still really entertaining for me. It didn't top the original, but it was still a good time. That being said, if you are expecting something as dark, political, and foreboding at The Handmaid's Tale, you might be disappointed here. If you can enjoy this as a different story set in the same world, then you might enjoy it like I did. 

On a side note, with this novel, I have completed all the match ups in my Then Versus Now Challenge!

Challenge Tally

Then vs. Now: 27/27 - Completed!

Total Books Read in 2020: 83

Thursday, December 10, 2020

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

I first read The Handmaid's Tale when I was in high school, and I remember being blown away by it. It was probably the darkest, most grownup book I had read up until that point and I realized that I was reading something special and important. When the sequel came out to it last year, I knew I wanted to read it, but I also knew that I would have to reread Handmaid's Tale again first - too much time had passed since my first time and I had a sneaking suspicion that my teenage brain didn't fully absorb everything Atwood was trying to say anyway. My Then Versus Now Challenge gave me the perfect reason to pick it up again.

The novel is set in a dytopian future where the birthrate has plummeted. Environmental pollution has left many completely sterile and causes many miscarriages and birth defects among those that are able to conceive. In the stress and turmoil of this situation, America was overthrown in a coup and reformed as the nation of Gilead. The new nation is intensely religious and has stripped women of all their rights. They are no longer able to have a job, or a bank account, and are not allowed to read. They are under the authority of their husbands and the punishment for disobedience is severe. 

The story follows Offred, a woman living as a handmaid in this world. She was once apprehended trying to escape from Gilead into Canada, and as punishment, she must now serve the Commander and his wife. Handmaids serve as surrogates for prominent families that are unable to conceive. Each month, the Commander attempts to impregnate Offred. If she conceives and delivers a healthy baby, that baby will belong to the Commander and his wife. Offred will then be assigned to another family and start the process all over again. She has no freedom and must follow all of the strict rules associated with her position. It's a difficult and lonely life.

After Offred has been in the household for a little while, both the Commander and his wife begin making dangerous requests of her. The Commander starts meeting alone with her in his study at night, which is strictly forbidden by law. His wife, Serena, fearing the Commander is sterile, encourages her to find another man to impregnate her, which is also illegal. Offred must try to balance their requests and keep herself out of trouble, which becomes increasingly difficult as the story progresses and the Commander and Serena become more forward with their demands. She is torn between everyone's competing desires, including her own, and must decide which path to take.

This novel is incredibly chilling, and I think it has only gotten more effective with age. It's strange to think this, but I feel like the warnings Atwood gives in The Handmaid's Tale hit harder now. One only has to read the news to see the beginnings of a decline - the use of armed force against peaceful protesters , a virus ravaging the world, and a president trying to overturn election results are just the start of the outrages happening these days. It doesn't seem impossible now for something very bad to happen within America, so reading this is extra disturbing in 2020. 

I appreciated Atwood's writing style, which was blunt and fairly simple. Offred's voice effectively conveys her despair and yearning, and she releases details at a good pace. Readers don't learn about Gilead all at once, you learn about it in bits and pieces from Offred's reflections, and each reveal is more horrifying than the last. The world-building is superb and the dark tone is just right for such a grim place. It feels weird to say that I enjoyed a book like this, because the subject matter is so dark, but I did really like it. I think this is a tremendous and important piece of literature.

I'm glad to have reread The Handmaid's Tale, and I think that I definitely got more out of it the second time around. Reading it as an adult brought its subtleties into sharper focus and made its message about the dangers of sexism clear. The horrors of Gilead and Offred's story seem extreme and impossible, but of course, a descent into this kind of world starts small, and sneaks up on you over time. Every law that is passed restricting a woman's rights to her own body and own medical decisions is one more step on a path that could lead to a version of this world. This story shows us the importance of preserving women's freedoms and reinforces the need to protect those freedoms-- to not let small things pile up into something unfathomable under the guise of religion. This is still a favorite novel for me and I'm excited to see how I feel about its sequel, The Testaments, next.

Challenge Tally

Then vs. Now: 26/27

Total Books Read in 2020: 82

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Big Brother by Lionel Shriver

I first came across Big Brother on my own while looking up books by Lionel Shriver. I was fresh off of my first read of We Need to Talk About Kevin, and I was in that kind of book hangover that makes you swear you are going to read every book a certain author has ever written. Accordingly, I added all of her novels to my Goodreads wish list that day. This one, however, really stood out in my mind as the one I wanted to try next. Of course, I didn't end up getting around to actually reading it back then, but my Then Versus Now Challenge gave me the perfect opportunity to give it a try this year. 

The plot of the novel follows Pandora, a middle aged woman who runs an quirky toy company making novelty dolls for adults. Her business is extremely successful and she enjoys quite a substantial income from it. She lives with her husband Fletcher and her two teenage stepchildren, and her life is mostly a happy one. A small amount of friction comes from Fletcher's new obsession with cycling and dieting. He has become ultra active and healthy, and refuses to eat anything he deems junk food, which is pretty much everything that's not chicken breast, fish, or vegetables. Pandora, meanwhile, loves all kinds of food and isn't nearly as strict with what she eats. In fact, she's put on a few pounds lately and is feeling a bit insecure about it, especially next to Fletcher's new dedication to fitness. 

This small annoyance turns into something altogether more serious when Pandora's brother Edison comes for a long visit. Edison is an accomplished jazz pianist and he's been working in New York and traveling the world for the past several years. Pandora hasn't seen him in four years, so she is shocked to discover when she picks him up at the airport that he's gained a significant amount of weight. He's put on at least 200 pounds and is barely recognizable to her. This is awkward for her to deal with, as she isn't sure whether to say something, to offer to help him, or to pretend that nothing has changed. When she gets him home, it becomes clear that the extra weight isn't the only issue she will have to contend with during his stay. Edison is a terrible house guest. He's messy, breaks things, and eats an incredible volume of food. He takes over the kitchen as well, cooking outrageously calorie-dense meals.  Fletcher, who has never gotten along with Edison all that well, begins to be openly hostile towards him, which Edison reflects right back to him.

Before long, it becomes clear that something is deeply troubling Edison and he is turning to food to ease his emotional pain. Pandora is unable to stand by and watch him struggle. To save his life, she devises an unorthodox plan; she decides to move into a small apartment with him and begin an intensive diet. She crunches some numbers and determines that Edison's weight has climbed so high that it will take nearly a year's worth of effort to get him down to his old weight of 163 pounds. In undertaking this mission, she is risking her marriage (Fletcher is not supportive of this at all), but she feels like this is the only way to keep Edison alive. Determined to turn her brother around, Pandora takes charge and gives it her best shot.

There were a lot of things I liked about Big Brother, but there were some elements that were troubling as well. On the positive side, I continued to enjoy Shriver's writing style, which is quite wordy and wry. I know that those qualities are exactly what some people don't like about her books, but I really appreciate the way she strings a sentence together. It's most definitely a matter of personal taste on that point. I also thought that Pandora's struggles and thoughts around weight were pretty realistic. She thinks some very harsh things about herself and her brother throughout the novel, but I do think it's an accurate portrayal of someone's inner monologue around a touchy, difficult subject. I imagine that if I was dealing with a similar situation with a relative who suddenly changed in weight so drastically, I would struggle with what to do (or not do) and say (or not say) as well.

The plot itself was not as suspenseful or exciting as what I was used to in We Need to Talk About Kevin, but I was still engaged in the story all the way through and I thought the pacing was pretty good. I was never bored and I was interested to see how the story ended. I wanted to see if Edison would actually lose all the weight or not, and that kept me powering through the pages. 

What I didn't like so much were some of the depictions of Edison. The way Shriver describes his appearance and behavior felt fatphobic to be. He's constantly shown to be struggling to fit into various bits of furniture, breaking things, and lazing around the house. He doesn't pick up after himself, eats things that aren't really food on their own (like a box of powdered sugar, for example), and in one memorable scene, he overflows the toilet to such an extent that his excrement is literally floating down the hallway. I felt like Shriver's perception of weight and calories was off as well. If Edison ate to the extent that we see in the story all the time, he wouldn't be 386 pounds - he'd be dead. Her characterizations were just over the top and hyper-focused on how gross and lazy Edison was at his new weight, and it didn't feel right.

In addition, I felt like Pandora's perception of her own weight was off as well. Throughout the story, she comments repeatedly about how she's gained a few pounds and is uncomfortable with it. She mentions looking noticeably rounder in pictures, having cellulite on her thighs, etc. From the way she went on and on about it, I assumed she was somewhere in the 190-200 zone. However, when she finally gets on a scale in the story, she weighs in around 170, which is pretty close to my own pandemic weight and is really not enough poundage to be causing the level of distress she was experiencing. It seems to me that Shriver has some pretty significant emotional issues tied to weight, stemming I'm sure from her own, real-life brother's obesity, which she wrote a piece on in The Guardian back in 2009. Her brother actually died from complications of obesity, and her attitude throughout Big Brother seems to be a reflection of her anger and hurt from this loss. While this helps me to understand why she writes the way she does about weight, it doesn't help make her portrayal of Edison and Pandora more realistic or less offensive. 

The ending of this novel was a surprise, and one that seems to leave a lot of readers torn, if the reviews on Goodreads are anything to go by. I can't elaborate without giving too much away, but I will say that after reading it and digesting it for a few days, I do like it. It adds a layer of complexity to the story that is worth thinking about afterwards. 

Overall, I enjoyed this book well enough, so I settled on giving it a 3/5. I liked the writing, was interested in the plot, and appreciated the ugly honesty of the main character. However, Shriver's unrealistic and often unkind depiction of the overweight frequently made me cringe. I do not think this was as good as We Need to Talk About Kevin was - not even close, in fact. It was still a decent read though, just not one that I can recommend to anyone who isn't skinny.

Challenge Tally

Then vs. Now: 25/27

Total Books Read in 2020: 81