I swear I’ll use this blog for something other than to log my reading at some point. But it was a busy month of writing for work and so I wasn’t really in the mood to write for fun either (the biggest downside to having a job that involves a blog as well). It was a good month for books though, with two absolute standouts and several other good reads as well. I’m starting a massive House of Leaves reread this month, so I expect my reading numbers will be lower for February (totally fine! reading’s not a quantity game!) but in the meantime, here’s what I read in January:
Once There Were Wolves by Charlotte McConaghy
Once There Were Wolves is a novel about a biologist leading a team to rewild Scotland with the reintroduction of wolves, while also dealing with her and her twin sister’s traumatic pasts, and the fallout of both past events and things that happen with the wolves and the local farmers.
I very much like books with environmental themes and I loved both the lush descriptions of nature in this and also the nuanced perspectives on the idea of rewilding — the protagonist, Inti, is obviously in favour of the wolf reintroduction, but she is also forced to reckon with the other viewpoints in a way that doesn’t paint them as blatantly wrong or unfounded. While it’s easy to dismiss the anti-environmentalist viewpoints of big oil companies and the like, the locals affected are a different matter, and the novel treats this thoughtfully and similarly, they mostly come to find respect for Inti and her project.
I thought it was maybe a bit full in some places in terms of the number of storylines/genres it tried to blend in its subplots — thriller, murder mystery, love story — but the themes it covers of trauma and love, human darkness and hope, and the parallels it draws between the wolf packs and the humans who cohabitate the region are fascinating and beautifully drawn.
My Heart is a Chainsaw by Stephen Graham-Jones
I am often a bit leery of male authors writing novels, especially horror novels, with teenage female protagonists. This is obviously not to say it can’t be done, but there’s just a lot of room for error, a lot of room for falling into certain tropes, a lot of room for coming out with a portrait of a teenage girl by someone who appears to have never actually met a teenage girl.
This is not one of those novels.
Jade Daniels is a brilliant protagonist, a diehard slasher-movie enthusiast whose extensive knowledge of and references to horror films well-known and obscure guides us on a journey that builds in the slowest of burns to the goriest of climaxes. Jade is a prickly and not always likable character that you grow to love and understand over the course of the book — you may find yourself frustrated with the pacing and with her meandering inner monologue, but it makes the payoff that much better and more intense.
This is a homage that doesn’t just retread classic horror beats or the traditional “final girl” trope, but transcends them to create something bold and genius in the genre.
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
I was the first to tap out on New Year’s Eve, which meant I was up several hours before anyone else on New Year’s Day, so I decided to start the year by reading a short novel that I’ve always meant to get around to. There’s such a purity to Steinback’s writing, and such a clarity to the knowledge that this is a story of an American dream that will never be realised. The way this short but impactful story builds to its climax feels inevitable, but that inevitability doesn’t take away from the punch it packs.
Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi
I had mixed feelings about this one. I enjoy an unlikeable narrator/protagonist, so I liked how prickly Antara was, and I liked the preciseness of the language, how sharp the writing was (I believe one of the blurbs called it “surgical,” which I felt was apt). I also found the depictions of Antara as her mother’s caretaker and her daughter’s caregiver thoughtful — the mixed emotions, responsibilities, and thoughts surrounding both, positive and negative, gratefulness and ambivalence.
On the other hand, as incisive as the writing is, the plot is bloated with too many themes, leading the story to jump from one to another with too little in the way of transition or blending. The pacing also drags frequently, especially as the novel goes along. Despite its insightfulness on particular topics, I found it to lack focus as whole.
The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris
This is a four-star book with a two-star twist. Honestly, I didn’t really feel as though it needed the thriller element at all — Nella’s experience as one of the few Black women in a predominantly white industry, the microaggressions she faces from her coworkers, the racial element of the office politics she is forced to play as a young assistant looking for upward mobility in her job, the excitement and then imposter syndrome she feels when she finally gets another Black coworker who then immediately catches the ear of her bosses, etc. — was all interesting enough before the book, described as “The Devil Wears Prada meets Get Out” shifts from the former to the latter. I also didn’t feel that the few chapters with outside POVs rather than Nella’s added much to the book besides exposition. Finally, for a book set in the publishing industry, I felt it ironically could’ve used a better editor. That said, even if the thriller side of the book didn’t really ‘work’ for me, it did keep me enthralled enough to tear through this novel in a day so at the same time I guess it did work for me.
Ghost Story by Peter Straub
Alright, this is what I get for bragging recently that I am so in-tune with my personal tastes that I rarely read a book I don’t enjoy. This is, by all accounts, a book I should have enjoyed. And parts of it, I did — and regardless of my enjoyment or non-enjoyment, the book certainly does what it sets out to do, creating a literary horror in homage to classic tales and tropes. Unfortunately, overall I found it to be a bit of a slog. While the narration is precise, the dialogue often fell flat, and the slow pacing styled in the manner of a classic gothic or Victorian horror led to it feeling over-padded and tedious at several points. It’s a book I’m glad I’m read due to how many other horror novelists cite it as a favourite or an influence, but not a book I can say I particularly enjoyed.
Some Things I Still Can’t Tell You by Misha Collins
One thing that I always think when reading a book by someone who is famous for something other than what they wrote the book for is “Would this be published if the person wasn’t already known.” And of course I know that publishing is an industry where your “pull” can make a big difference in whether your book makes it into the world (and the number of reviews here indicating that the reader only picked it up because of who the author is makes that evident — and hell, I wouldn’t necessarily be in the habit of picking up random debut poetry collections myself so that’s true for me as well), but looking at it quality-wise, some of these poems I think would have made it into the world regardless, and would deserve to. Some, perhaps not. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; potential is important also, and there is potential in even the poems that are less successful.
I think sometimes it’s best if you don’t know too much about an author’s personal life when reading their book because inevitably you start trying to figure out what about it (if anything) is inspired by life and what is embellished and so on. This is a real slice of life sort of poetry book so I assume it’s mainly true to life, sometimes giving a poem a lovely authentic feel, sometimes to the extent that I felt like it wasn’t for an audience to read.
Overall, a flawed but interesting debut collection.
Yearbook by Seth Rogen
I read this last year but I had an inkling it would be even funnier in audiobook form so I re”read” it this year as an audiobook. I was right, even funnier
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
One day I’ll write a proper review of this book that means so much to me. For now I’ll say this is at least the fourth time I’ve re-read it since the first time I picked it up over a decade ago, and it’s more and more perfect every time.