Wednesday, February 26, 2020

What I've Been Reading: January roundup

I love reading. When I was less employed I read two or three books a week, and I still try for one a week even with my day job, side hustle, and children to raise.

I think in narrative, which I guess makes sense for a writer, and if I'm not getting enough story in my life (both writing them and consuming them in books, movies, and programs) I'm a hot mess. I also LOVE talking with others about books, which is why I'm a bit of a book club junkie.  (The links in each will take you to my Goodreads reviews, something I reference, or to related blog posts on this blog).

So, here's what I read in January 2020. I'd love to hear from anyone else who read this books or wants to suggest other reads:

I started 2020 by finishing a book I started right as 2019 ended: Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff. It's a book I'd heard good things about from some friends whose opinions I respect, and that I'd also seen receive criticism because it's a book written by a white man about black people.

Working from the premise that the Lovecraftian mythos is real, Ruff wrote a book that is as much about the horrors humans inflict on one another as it is about the Old Ones and mysticism and madness.

The story centers around an African American man and his friends and family in the Jim Crow United States of the 1950s and does not shy away from presenting the subtle and overt hatreds flung at the Turners. Using Lovecraft, an infamously racist writer, as the plot in such a book struck me as rather brilliant and I thought it well executed, but I'd love to hear from others who've read it.

Next up was Burial Rites by Hannah Kent. This was a neighborhood book club pick, and not one that I knew much about when I started reading. My friend Shannon Turlington suggested it. She's a very well read woman and has an eye for unusual and interesting stories, so I'm usually glad when I take her reading suggestions.

That was true this time, too. The story is set in the early 1800s in Iceland--talk about two things I know nothing about! The plot centers around Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last person to be executed for a crime in Iceland. As her story unfolds and more details are revealed, the tension grows. Bleak and beautiful.

Well worth the read for the view into rural Icelandic life and the effects the landscape and rough conditions had on her people as well as for the fascinating imaginings of what the woman at the center of the case might have been like.

From there, I picked up The Turn of the Key, another book I'd heard quite a bit about. I'm a big fan of re-imaginings of beloved stories, the kinds of books I call "back door" or "side door" stories. The best of them do more than just change the setting--they affect how you view the original work.

This one is playing in Henry James's yard, bringing The Turn of the Screw into a more contemporary setting and bringing in some shades of Ray Bradbury with a smart house used to creepy effect.

I'm currently writing a gothic romance myself, so I'm steeping myself in works in the genre. This one does a great job utilizing the tension and possibly unreliable narrator I loved in James's book, while making it something new with the change of setting and new motivations for some characters. Quite good!

My next read was passed to me by my twelve-year-old daughter, a huge fan of graphic novels, especially those with LGBTTQQIAAP themes.

The Witch Boy by Molly Ostertag is set in a magical world that is highly gendered in societal roles--more so even than the world I actually live in, which still strikes me as heavily gendered in a lot of ways.

Aster is drawn to witchcraft, but males in his society are shifters and magic is for females only.

The story is very direct in its allegory, which made it feel a little preachy and lacking in subtlety to me, but my daughter, who is younger and less jaded, adored it. I wished the book had been longer, allowing the author space to stretch out some relationship building.

I met Daniel José Older at Illogicon in 2017. We were on a panel together recommending reading, and as you might expect from a panel featuring him (or me for that matter), we were looking for diverse reads. I added Older to my authors-to-check-out that day, and he finally made it to the top of my TBR.

I very much enjoyed the premise of Shadowshaper which involved a sort of magic that enabled an artist to imbue their work with spirit, quite literally. And for diversity points? Top marks.

Sierra Santiago is a great main character, realistically a teenager making some unwise decisions while she struggles to deal with the secrets and dangers that have newly come her way.

Sometimes the book felt a little on-the-nose to me, but it *is* a young adult novel, so too much subtlety may not be audience appropriate. The bad guy felt a little one-note and flat to me, but his minions were scary! I appreciated that Sierra still had her family around her, extended family even. I do get tired of the no-family trope in YA books, and this one had a message of reconnecting to your roots rather than escaping them that I could definitely read more of. 

So that was my January in books. What did you read? Have you read any of the books or authors I mentioned here? I'd love to hear you thoughts!


  1. I haven't read any of these but I thoroughly enjoyed your perceptive yet kind reviews. I'm immersed in non fiction at the moment but I think I need some fiction to ease my mind and make things a bit smoother around the edges. Thank you for that reminder!
    be well

  2. I've read Shadowshaper and Lovecraft Country. They're both solid books and worth reading.