The Mid-Year Book Freakout Tag, 2020 edition

I can’t believe 2020 is halfway over. To celebrate a solid six months of reading, and the books that have helped get me through a ROUGH first half of the year, I’m participating in the Mid Year Book Freakout Tag for the first time! If you haven’t participated yet, please feel free to post your answers to this tag too!

1. Best book you’ve read in 2020 so far:

Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi. This book about a young person with a fractured sense of self was absolutely incredible. I loved the way this book blended psychological introspection with Igbo folklore, and the lyrical prose really moved me too.

2. Best sequel:

I haven’t read any sequels in 2020 yet, but I do hope to get to Vera Kelly is Not a Mystery – sequel to Who Is Vera Kelly? – by the end of the year.

3. New release you haven’t read yet but really want to:

A Burning by Megha Majumdar, Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan, How Much of These Hills is Gold by C. Pam Zhang, and Death in Her Hands by Otessa Moshfegh. I’ve heard excellent things about the first three novels, and although I haven’t heard much about Death in Her Hands yet, I love Otessa Moshfegh and have high hopes for her latest novel.

4. Most anticipated release for the second half of the year:

I have way too many, so I’m “narrowing it down” to the following six:

  1. The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi. After reading Freshwater (AKA the best book I read in 2020), I am a huge Akwaeke Emezi fan! I can’t wait to read their next novel.
  2. Memorial by Bryan Washington. I really liked Washington’s Lot, so I’m excited to read more of his work!
  3. Throwaway Girls by Andrea Contos. I don’t read very much mystery, but this one sounds really good!
  4. Luster by Raven Leilani. The Goodreads blurb has me sold. Bonus points for positive reviews that compared the Leilani’s writing to that of Gillian Flynn (although Leilani is an ownvoices Black author, and her writing likely holds its own without the comparison to white authors).
  5. The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwaab. This is another novel where the Goodreads blurb has me sold. I’ve heard so much praise for V.E. Schwaab and would love to finally read her this year.
  6. Solutions and Other Problems by Allie Brosh. I have been awaiting this book’s release for like five years now. I am so freaking excited that it’s finally happening!!

5. Biggest disappointment:

Dominicana by Angie Cruz. Part of the reason why I was so disappointed by this novel was because I had pretty high hopes going into it. Based on the Goodreads blurb, I thought that it would be one of my favorite WP longlist reads. Instead it was trope-y with underdeveloped characters.

6. Biggest Surprise:

Circe (by Madeline Miller) surprised me because I didn’t think of myself as a “mythology person” prior to this novel, but it was so compelling that now I kind of am. Red at the Bone (by Jacqueline Woodson) surprised me because I didn’t expect much from such a short (<200 page) novel, but it turned out to have more character development and commentary than some 500+ page novels I’ve read.

7. Favorite new author:

Akwaeke Emezi and Leesa Cross-Smith. Neither are 2020 debut authors, but they are both new to me and I’m looking forwarding to reading more of their works!

8. Newest favorite character:

Stubborn Archivist wasn’t a perfect read for me, but I really admired and felt for the novel’s protagonist! I’ll definitely read more of Rodrigues-Fowler’s work in the future, and her compelling characters are part of the reason why.

9. A Book that made you cry:

Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney, How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee, and My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell. There were other books that made me tear up or cry a little bit, but these three wrecked me to the point that I had to stop reading because I was getting so emotional.

10. A Book that made you happy:

So We Can Glow by Leesa Cross-Smith. Although not all the stories in this collection are happy, there is so much hope, joy, and love in this book about female obsession and desire.

11. Favorite book-to-film adaptation.

Definitely Hulu’s adaptation of Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. The show was heavy-handed with the drama at times, but I still thought it was well done. I especially appreciated that the producers/writers made Mia and Pearl black, and another one of the MC’s gay, because it added valuable commentary.

12. Most beautiful book you’ve bought or read:

Hamnet or Hex. Both of these book covers look simple at first glance, but are actually quite intricate when you take a closer look. Plus, I’m a sucker for botanical designs.

13. book you want to read by the end of the year:

THERE ARE SO MANY!!! Ideally I would get to everything that I listed for questions #3 and #4 by the end of this year, although I don’t know if that’s realistic. In addition to those ten books, I also want to read How To Be An Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi, We Want Our Bodies Back by Jessica Care Moore, One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, The Hilarious World of Depression by John Moe, and Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid.

Book Review: The Vanishing Half

Black lives matter, Black voices matter, and Black stories matter! The Vanishing Half is a multigenerational story about a pair of light-skinned Black twins, Desiree and Stella, who end up leading drastically different adult lives. Desiree marries a darker man in Washington D.C., but soon returns to her hometown in Louisiana to raise her daughter, Jude, who is also dark-skinned. Stella, on the other hand, passes as white, marries a white man, and raises a white child. The Vanishing Half shows how Desiree and Stella’s choices affect their own lives and the lives of their children.

The book: The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
Genre: Historical fiction
Rating: 4 stars out of 5

Told over the course of four decades, The Vanishing Half follows four main characters: twins Desiree and Stella, and their daughters Jude and Kennedy. I normally prefer one highly nuanced main character to multiple potentially-underdeveloped characters, but I thought this story offered a good balance between the number and depth of characters. I found Stella’s character to be the most nuanced, which makes sense given that she made the enormous decision to live the rest of her life as a white woman – there’s a lot to unpack there.

Actually, there’s a lot to unpack throughout the entire novel, as Brit Bennett critiques institutionalized racism, internalized racism within the Black community, classism, materialism, discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community, and intergenerational trauma. What struck me most about Bennett’s commentary was how relevant it still is today. Certain scenes that were set in the 1970’s and 80’s – which included white people focusing on “black-on-black” crime instead of larger systemic issues, white people centering their own feelings of guilt in their relationships with Black acquaintances, and rich white families using generous donations to get their children into elite colleges – could have been written about the year 2020. I appreciate that Bennett included examples of racism that still occur now, because they emphasize how deeply prevalent racism is in the United States.

The Vanishing Half is also full of subtle commentary in the form of sentences that seem straightforward, but actually reveal a lot about the novel’s characters. One example of this that sticks with me is when Stella’s daughter, Kennedy, compares a play that she’s starring in to Hamlet. The third-person narrator follows up on this, saying that “the play was nothing like Hamlet but she said it with such conviction that you almost believed her.” Not only does this sentence convey a lot about Kennedy’s self-assuredness, but in the context of the scene, it also reminds the reader who is afforded the privilege to be confidently wrong.

My biggest critique of The Vanishing Half is that the plot is largely driven by unrealistic coincidences (yes, coincidences, plural). But Bennett acknowledges the implausibility of key events, with sentences like: “Statistically speaking, the likelihood of encountering [redacted for spoilers] was improbable but not impossible.” Bennett follows-up that acknowledgment by moving into a passage about one of the characters becoming a statistics teacher. It’s like she is saying “yes, this coincidence is pretty implausible. Now we’re going to move on.”

NOTE: because I am cisgendered, please take my opinions in the following paragraph with a massive grain of salt, and feel free to let me know if you disagree.

One thing that I’m unsure about is the portrayal of Reese, a trans man. For the most part, I thought that Reese was characterized compassionately: he is a loving and supportive partner, he has as much depth as any other supporting character in the novel, and he is never needlessly exploited for being trans. But there is a moment where Jude claims that she understands Reese’s desire to change his outward identity, because she knows about Stella, who has chosen to pass as white. Being so tired of racial discrimination that a Black woman chooses to live the rest of their life as white is heartbreaking and complicated…but I don’t think that it’s directly comparable to the struggle of not having your personal sense of gender match your assigned gender/birth sex, and I wish that this had been addressed. Again, I am a cisgendered person, so I may be way off the mark here. If you think that I missed anything important about Reese’s characterization – positive or negative – please feel free to let me know.

Overall, I enjoyed and would recommend The Vanishing Half, especially if you like thought-provoking novels that are rich in social commentary. While this book didn’t quite live up to the hype for me, there was still a lot that I liked about it.

Notes:

  • So far I haven’t found any reviews of The Vanishing Half by trans book-bloggers. If you are a trans blogger who has read this novel and would like to share your review with me, I would love to read it!
  • If you are interested in reading and supporting more works by Black authors, please feel free to check out the following resources: my ever-growing Black lit challenge shelf on Goodreads, Fatma’s list of 2020 book releases by Black authors, this post from Emily which includes a TBR list of books by Black authors, and this extensive radical reading list.
  • MOST IMPORTANTLY! Racism is not just an ugly part of the United States’ history – it is still deeply prevalent today. Please check out this list of anti-racist resources, which includes links to various funds supporting black lives, as well as educational resources.

Book Review: Bunny

Bunny is a genre-bending novel about an MFA student, Samantha, who feels very much like an outsider to the rest of her fiction-writing cohort. The other girls in the cohort are cliquey, rich, and cutesy, and they refer to each other as “Bunny” – all of which repulses Samantha. But when the Bunnies invite Samantha to their “Smut Salon,” Samantha finds herself inexplicably drawn to their precious world. Behind the Bunnies’ charm, however, there is a sinister darkness; and as Samantha becomes increasingly involved with the Bunnies, she begins to lose herself.

The book: Bunny by Mona Awad
Genre: Contemporary fiction/satire/horror
Rating: 4 stars out of 5

The best description of Bunny that I can give is Heathers meets Alice in Wonderland meets Frankenstein meets Stephen King. It’s a very disorienting story that takes several unexpected twists and turns, with some revelations that completely reframe the entire narrative. Because the novel is intentionally disorienting, a lot of things are up to interpretation – I finished Bunny a few days ago and am still bouncing between different potential interpretations of certain scenes. This type of novel won’t be for everyone, but I personally enjoyed it.

A major reason why Bunny worked so much for me is because the writing is hilariously self-aware. My favorite example of this is a scene where one of the Bunnies criticizes her fellow classmate’s story for being too vague, exclaiming: Um, what the fuck is this please? This makes no sense. This is coy and this is willfully obscure and no one but [the author] will ever get this…TELL ME WHAT HAPPENED. TELL ME WHAT THE FUCK THIS MEANS.” This could be said of Bunny itself, and I love that Awad acknowledged that. Awad also gently makes fun of the self-importance of graduate students, the weird dynamics of female friend groups, and the way that millennials give ridiculously exaggerated compliments. I felt so seen and so hilariously called out.

I also enjoyed Bunny‘s genre-bending nature. Awad takes on horror, satire, humor, psychological explorations, and more – and she does it all with skill and self-awareness. There are moments where the prose borders on pretentious, but I thought the hints of pretentiousness were perfect for a story narrated by a grad student in a prestigious MFA program.

Bunny was infinitely weirder than I had expected, but I really enjoyed it. If you’re okay with “WTF-just-happened” stories, I highly recommend this book. And I recommend going in with as few expectations as possible, to really let the story take you on its wild ride.

Book Review: Freshwater

Black lives matter. Black voices matter. Black stories matter. Freshwater is the first book that I read for my black lit challenge, which is a lifelong commitment to listen to and amplify black voices in literature. Freshwater tells the story of a volatile Nigerian woman, Ada, who is trying to make sense of her multiple personalities. After a traumatic experience in college, two of Ada’s personalities materialize and become more dominant, leading Ada to get lost in her mind and make increasingly risky decisions.

The book: Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi
Genre: Literary fiction
Rating: 5 stars out of 5

It’s hard for me to review Freshwater because it was such a unique reading experience that nothing I say could possibly do it justice. The first part of the novel is told from the perspective of Nigerian ogbanje, or the spirits in Ada’s mind that cause her pain and grief. After Ada experiences a major trauma in college, two of these spirits materialize in Ada’s mind, and become distinct personalities that she calls Asughara and Saint Vincent. The remainder of the novel is mostly told from the perspective of Asughara. I absolutely loved this narrative style, because it resulted in a very nuanced, layered story. Every event that Ada experienced could be viewed from the perspective of Igbo folklore in which spirits manipulate the physical world, and through the lens of Western psychology in which one’s sense of self can fracture in response to trauma.

In addition to being wonderfully nuanced, Freshwater is beautifully written. Emezi’s prose is powerful, lyrical, and engrossing. It is also quite introspective, which results in Ada being portrayed in an immensely compassionate light. Sometimes it’s hard to empathize with characters who behave in startling and self-destructive ways, but Ada’s psyche is explored so deeply that it’s impossible to feel anything but compassion for her – all of her behavior makes sense in light of her complex psychological underpinnings.

This is a short review, but I don’t have much more to say about Freshwater. The combination of Igbo folklore with psychological introspection was so beautiful and fresh, resulting in one of the most striking and captivating novels I’ve ever read. I highly recommend this book, and can’t wait to read more of Emezi’s works.

Book Review: Hamnet

Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet is a historical fiction novel centered around the life of William Shakespeare’s family. Told largely from the perspective of William’s wife, Agnes, the novel covers Agnes and William’s romance, the birth of their three children, their long-distance relationship, and the grief of the Shakespeare family after the death of their son Hamnet.

The book: Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
Genre: Historical fiction
Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

Hamnet was an enjoyable read for me, but I definitely went into the novel with the wrong expectations. For some reason, I was under the impression that the book focused entirely on the death of William and Agnes’ son Hamnet, and how their grief inspired William Shakespeare to write the play Hamlet. In actuality, Hamnet is a book in two parts. The first part alternates between chapters telling William and Agnes’ love story, and chapters focusing on the days leading up to Hamnet’s death. The second part of the book, which is written as one long chapter, shows the family in their grief after Hamnet has passed. This format would have worked so much better for me if I hadn’t expected the entire novel to focus on the grieving of Hamnet’s death, but because I did have that expectation, I found myself getting pretty impatient with the first part of the book.

Although Hamnet wasn’t what I expected, I still found it compelling. Maggie O’Farrell does an excellent job of making the reader feel connected to 16th-century England by drawing upon relatable emotions and experiences, like the stigma and shame of being a social outcast, and the overwhelming burden of grief. And with the novel’s release in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the passages depicting societal anxiety surrounding the Plague were eerily familiar. But at the same time, O’Farrell juxtaposes those relatable elements against historical details that unquestionably place the novel in the 16th century. Children die frequently, mothers die frequently, cruel parenting methods are common, and medical knowledge is so limited. That balance between timeless human experiences and very specific historical details was the most striking part of the novel for me.

I also appreciated how much the novel focuses on Agnes, as opposed to her very famous husband. William Shakespeare’s works are incredible, and he is famous for good reason – but part of what allowed him to become so successful was the invisible labor of Agnes. By centering so much of the novel around Agnes and the work she put into running her household and taking care of her family, O’Farrell demonstrates that Shakespeare probably couldn’t have become so successful without major sacrifices and support from Agnes.

Hamnet is also beautifully written, and Maggie O’Farrell is the master of showing, not telling. In this scene, for example, where young William Shakespeare defends himself against his abusive father, O’Farrell writes: “The sight of the mark seemed to enrage the father further because he lifted his arm again, for a second blow, but the son reached up. He seized his father’s arm. He pushed, with all his might, against him and found, to his surprise, that his father’s body yielded under his. He could push this man, this leviathan, this monster of his childhood, back against the wall with very little effort. He did so.” O’Farrell could have just said that William hit his father back, but instead she turns a small action into an immersive scene. With that being said, there were definitely some instances where the flowery language was too much for me, and where I thought a succinct description would have been just fine.

Overall, I enjoyed and would recommend Hamnet. My expectations of the novel did affect my enjoyment of it, though, so I would recommend that other readers not go into this novel expecting it to focus entirely around one specific event.

Month in Review: May 2020

Another month has passed and I can’t wrap my head around the fact that it is already JUNE. A couple great things happened this month: spring finally came to my neck of the woods in the Northeastern U.S., and I think I’m nearing the end of my job search (fingers crossed/knock on wood/hopefully I didn’t just jinx anything). It was also a pretty good month of reading! Interestingly, I didn’t give any of the six books I read the same rating, but I enjoyed most of them – especially My Dark Vanessa, which was my first 5-star read in months!

Books read:

Books in progress/June TBR:

  • Hamnet: I’m just wrapping this one up, and will have a review up soon. The novel wasn’t quite what I expected, but once I got over that I really enjoyed it.
  • Bright Sided: Barbara Enhrenreich has been on my TBR forever, and a couple people have specifically recommended Bright Sided to me, so I’m really looking forward to it.
  • Had I Known: my plan *was* to follow up Bright Sided with this more recent essay collection from Ehrenreich, but in light of recent events in the United States, I might switch this out for Another Day in the Death of America or How To Be An Antiracist.
  • Bunny: I’ve seen so many positive reviews of this novel, and it sounds very much like my type of book, so I’m super excited for this.
  • So We Can Glow: a collection of short-stories focused around the topic of obsession, with a glowing 5-star review from Roxane Gay – seems promising!
  • Freshwater: am I a million years behind on this? Yes. Does that take away from my excitement to read this novel? No.
  • The Vanishing Half: this has been on my TBR for a while, so I was very happy to see it as a BOTM offering!
  • Wolf Hall: yup, I’m finally starting this trilogy! Wish me luck!

Some blog posts that stuck with me:

May photos: