It’s my last monthly wrap up for 2018! As usual, I’m late–exceptionally late this time–but while December starting off as a terrible reading month, I managed to devour quite a few books while I was in Cuba and also over Christmas, so while I didn’t quite meet my 150 reading goal, I did make it to 146, which is almost 50% more books than I read last year with significantly fewer graphic novels and picture books in the mix (although definitely way more audiobooks). Anyway in order to do my top 10 of the year, first I’ll share my December reads, because–spoiler–you just may find one of them on that upcoming list.
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I started reading A Conspiracy of Stars by Olivia A. Cole back in September, and I was really enjoying it, but I have an e-book copy and it’s just a long book to read (432 pages) to read at the computer, so when I finally stopped being lazy and put it on my e-reader, I was happy to start over and devour it while in Cuba. I don’t read a ton of science fiction, but throw botany into the mix and you have my attention, which is exactly what happened with this novel about Octavia, who is growing up as first generation on another planet, one with a lot of rules and a fragile peace between humans and the indigenous people of Faloiv. Octavia is really interested in becoming a “whiteout” and studying Faloiv, only to discover that the science and people she loves may be hiding some dark secrets.
A Conspiracy of Stars has a very slow start with a lot of world-building and development, especially if you are used to reading mystery-thrillers like me rather than sci-fi. Probably, there was a bit too much description but it does pay off once Cole gets into the story (and also, I’m sure, for later books in the series). The more I read of the story, the more intrigued I was, and I loved all the original creations and creatures that inhabited Faloiv. I also thought Cole did an excellent job showing the relationships between the characters including some strong friendships. I didn’t really find the twists surprising, but the ending was still really dramatic and intense. Overall, I really enjoyed the story and I’ll definitely be picking up book 2, An Anatomy of Beasts, when it releases in April 2019.
I’d heard really good things about The Death of Mrs. Westaway by Ruth Ware prior to picking it up, so I was definitely excited to finally get to reading it, especially since Ware is one of those mystery authors I’ve been meaning to read for the past couple years but haven’t made it to until now. Her latest novel tells the story of a young woman, Hal, who receives a letter telling her she has been left an inheritance, except she’s pretty sure they’ve got the wrong person. Still, Hal really needs the money, and as a tarot card reader she is used to coning people, so she goes to claim it in anyway.
I loved the setting of The Death of Mrs. Westaway: most of the story took place in what felt like a haunted mansion, and it basically was its own character in the story. I also had a lot of fun trying to figure out who was lying to who; I felt so close to the truth all the time, but even if you can guess the “who”, there were definitely some twists when it came to the “why” that I did not expect. I didn’t love the characters, although I definitely connected with Hal the most. I especially enjoyed the tarot card aspect and how it really connected to the whole story. Overall, The Death of Mrs. Westaway was a great first impression from Ware, and although I have heard this is might be her best book yet, I’ll still have to check out a backlist title or two, and I’m pretty excited for whatever she writes next (specifically, The Turn of the Key, which is released in September 2019).
I was definitely into reading thrillers in December, so it was finally time to pick up The Last Time I Lied by Riley Sager. This dark, atmospheric mystery novel is about a woman, Emma, who returns to the camp where three of her best friends vanished fifteen years ago and were never found. Emma is an artist now, and she hasn’t been able to paint since she stopped painting those girls, so when the camp reopens, she agrees to work as an art instructor, hoping to unblock her creativity and also, to solve the mystery that hasn’t stopped bothering her.
I really loved the setting that Sager created, the camp was just such a great atmosphere for a spooky story to unravel. I also found Sager’s writing just so easy to read, I read the e-book and I was shocked to realize this book was 370 pages–it just flew by. That said, it did feel a bit unbalanced action-wise, with most of the excitement being left for the second half of the book. I also didn’t love the switching between the past and present, it’s rarely a style that works for me. I wish I had connected with the characters, especially Emma, more. The ending gets a bit ridiculous, but I still loved that epilogue, and it was just all so fun to read. I thought the plot was excellent and the story definitely kept me doubting, with plenty of twists thrown in. Although The Last Time I Lied isn’t one of my new favourite thrillers, Sager is definitely now on my “auto-read” list, and I’ve already borrowed his first book, Final Girls, from the library.
If We Were Villains by M. L. Rio was a rough one for me. It’s the story of Oliver, who is released from jail only to meet with the Detective who put him there, and ten years later, wants to know the truth about what happened. The book focuses on a group of 7 friends at an elite high school for acting, specifically Shakespeare, and the dark secrets and rivalries between them. The story switches between short conversations between Oliver and the Detective, which I loved, and long flashbacks to Oliver’s time in high school, which I found incredibly dull. It’s unfortunate, because If We Were Villains was highly recommended by somebody whose reading tastes I generally agree with, and I just really struggled to get through it, even the audiobook (which also came recommended, and is generally the fastest way for me to read something).
I realize that pretentious, unbelievable teenagers, can be a thing in books, but maybe it’s because Oliver is telling the story as an adult, but I had no connection to any of the characters and none of them even felt like real people to me. I was definitely not a theatre kid myself, so I can’t relate to that world. Although If We Were Villains was intriguing at times, and I appreciate the dark atmosphere that Rio definitely created, I was neither shocked nor satisfied by the final twists of the book. Overall, I was pretty disappointed by this one, and it’s made me a lot less inclined to pick up The Secret History, which it is often compared to. However, if you liked that, then perhaps you will enjoy If We Were Villains, as well.
I was really intrigued by the premise of In Her Skin by Kim Savage which is a YA mystery-thriller about a homeless teenage girl, Jo, who cons her way into taking the place of Vivienne Weird, a wealthy orphan who disappeared a decade ago and hasn’t been seen since. Jo/Vivi is taken in by Vivienne’s childhood best friend, Temple, and her parents. At first, she’s just thrilled to have a bed and plenty of food to eat, but then she begins to uncover that something sinister may have happened to Vivienne, and if she’s not careful, she could be next…
I didn’t hate In Her Skin, but it just so disappointed me. I thought it was going to be a lot more thrilling and intense, but despite everyone being so dramatic and all kinds of outlandish twists, I was never really surprised or intensely turning the pages. I thought it would be somewhat like Genuine Fraud by E. Lockhart, but it’s really more of an emotional contemporary in feeling, about a girl who has had a hard life and wants better. That said, I didn’t have much connection to the characters either, for example, Jo leaves behind a boyfriend, Wolf, when she takes over Vivi’s life, and while I wanted to root for them to be together, there was so little depth to their relationship, it was hard to care much. Savage did a good job bringing Boston to life in the book, which I enjoyed, and I thought the very ending was pretty good and creepy as well, but overall, In Her Skin was an easy read but not a memorable one.
After loving Emancipation Day so much, I had pretty high hopes for Up From Freedom by Wayne Grady, which is the story of a man, Virgil Moody, who swears that unlike his father he will never own slaves. Instead he takes his father’s slave, Annie, who turns out to be pregnant, and lives with her and her son, Lucas. Most of the novel takes place during a time when Moody is searching for Lucas. This is a novel that confronts a lot of uncomfortable and difficult situations and really works to delve into the truth behind what Moody has done, even when he think he has done something good.
Although I appreciated all the historical details and writing, I found the pacing of Up From Freedom to be very slow and I didn’t have any real connection with Moody. I appreciated Grady tackling the complexity of a character like Moody, and found the connection to his own history (as revealed in the Author’s Note at the end) intriguing, but maybe it was listening to the audiobook, but I just had a hard time paying attention to the story. Overall, I definitely see the potential of Up From Freedom, but despite the excellent writing, I just didn’t feel like the book lived up to it in the same way that Emancipation Day did. This would definitely make a good book club read though because it left me with a lot to discuss!
I definitely need to read more non-fiction in 2019, because, as somebody who spends a lot of their time reading scientific writing, I’m always surprised by how nice it is to read popular non-fiction writing–especially when it’s well-done, like The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing by Merve Emre. This is the story of the most popular personality test in the world and it’s absolutely fascinating. As a scientist, I tend to consider myself pretty critical of any kind of claim, and although I never bought into personality testing, I was still pretty shocked at exactly how fake the whole thing is. This is a 2 billion dollar industry that’s completely made up!
Emre does an excellent job drawing from historical archives, interviews, etc to bring together a story that makes for an easy non-fiction read. There was a little too much dramatic foreshadowing at the beginning, which actually kinda left me thinking there would be some kind of twist–I mean, I know it’s not a mystery novel, but still–that never appeared, and in fact the book kinda slowed down, but overall I enjoyed the writing. So many people and jobs participate in some kind of personality testing and as a result, I really think The Personality Brokers would make a fascinating read to discuss during a book club. I’m definitely glad I picked up The Personality Brokers and I really hope I get to more non-fiction in 2019, especially if it is as well-written as this.
Blanca & Roja by Anna-Marie McLemore is definitely one of those books by an author you’ve been meaning to read for awhile and when you finally pick up their book, you are so blown away you really feel badly that your past self didn’t pick up one of their books sooner. If you know what I mean. I had already fallen in love with McLemore’s writing in Toil and Trouble but after picking up her most recent full length novel, she’s easily become one of my “auto-read” authors. Blanca & Roja specifically is a magical realism retelling of Snow-White and Rose-Red and Swan Lake about two sisters, one dark and one fair, one kind and one wicked, where one is promised to become a swan.
The story of Roja, who has always known it will be her that becomes the swan, and Blanca, her older sister who wants nothing more than to protect her, is intertwined with the story of two local boys who go missing. There’s a strong element of romance throughout the book, and I thought it was so beautifully handled. The writing in this story is so poetic and the description of everything–from inanimate objects to heartfelt emotion–is flawless. Yes, there is a plot, that is well-paced and kept my interest, but at its core, this breath-taking story is about being judged by others, being judged by yourself, and figuring out who you really are. I devoured Blanca & Roja in a single day and I cannot wait to read more by McLemore.
After enjoying Sharp Objects back in October, I finally picked up The Grownup by Gillian Flynn in my quest to complete her backlist (only Dark Places left to go). This novella was originally published as part of an anthology but has since been made available solo although it is only 64 pages. I actually listened to the audiobook, which is also really short and made for a quick but enjoyable listen.
The Grownup is about a manipulative young woman who survives by giving hand jobs or reading auras. When a woman comes to see her about her haunted home causing issues with her stepson, she figures it’s easy money, only to realize something more sinister might be going on. The narrator of this story is dark and twisted and thrilling to read, so basically perfect Gillian Flynn. I really enjoyed the story and the pacing, but I didn’t love the ending. The Grownup is a dark and engaging story though so certainly worth the quick read if you are a fan of Flynn’s writing.
I don’t read a lot of fantasy, but every once in awhile I’m convinced to pick one up, generally because somebody whose recommendations I trust adored it and it has an intriguing premise. That was exactly the case with Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan, a story about a world where girls belonging to the Paper caste are chosen to serve as sex slaves to an evil Demon king. When Lei, who has golden eyes, is chosen, she does the unthinkable and falls in a forbidden love.
I listened to the audiobook of Girls of Paper and Fire, which I enjoyed, but I definitely found that the story lagged and it became immediately obvious that this was the first book in a trilogy (which it is, but I hate it when books feel that way). That said, Ngan tackles several really difficult topics including rape very thoughtfully. However, the characters, world, and plot just didn’t feel that original. Lei is so special because of her eyes, she’s different than other girls, and that aspect was just a bit annoying to me. While Lei isn’t very complicated herself, the other characters have even less depth. The book had so much potential, but I just wanted more from both the writing and world building. Overall, this wasn’t a terrible book, but for me to love a fantasy it definitely has to be something really special, and I just didn’t find that Girls of Paper and Fire lived up to the hype. I don’t think I will be continuing on with this series, but I may end up getting drawn into the hype again!
(Don’t) Call Me Crazy edited by Kelly Jensen is a non-fiction anthology featuring 33 different authors on the topic of mental health. This is a thoughtfully put together collection that covers a huge spectrum of topics. It really is so important to talk about mental illness and the authors featured here do that thoughtfully and honestly. Really, the only reason I didn’t rate it harder is because it had a hard time keeping my attention, even though the passages were well-written and on important topics. I think that I’m just not a huge fan of sitting down and trying to non-stop read non-fiction anthologies. I think these kinds of books work best as resources and in that regard, I really enjoyed (Don’t) Call Me Crazy and hope it will become a staple in many classrooms.
I was sold on Bygone Badass Broads by Mackenzi Lee (with illustrations by Petra Eriksson) for three reasons 1) it’s written by an author whose previous book, The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, I loved, 2) I always love reading about important women in history, 3) the illustrations looked beautiful. Well, the illustrations are beautiful, the book covers some important women whose achievements were previously ignored, and the writing is just okay. It’s satirical at times but definitely not as funny as I expected Lee to be and there are maybe a few too many pop culture references. It felt like it was trying a bit too hard to be relevant. In addition, it was unclear how often it was Lee just theorizing and how often the theories were backed up. That said, I really appreciated the introduction to so many fascinating and powerful women and I definitely think this book would make a great gift or classroom resource. It would also be awesome to make posters of the illustrations–they really are amazing.
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Phew, I can’t believe I’m all done reviews for 2018…and already behind for 2019. Anyway, hopefully my next post will be my roundup of my favourite books from this past year, because I can’t wait to share them with you.
Did you get a chance to catch up on your reading over the holidays? What was your favourite book you read in December?