Top 5 Bookish Habits

Hey guys! Sooo… Let’s just ignore the fact that I haven’t posted in a week or so, and that I’m doing a Top 5 Tuesday post on a Friday… Whoops? *coughs* This week has been CRAZY! I had a couple of deadlines for grad class and a research proposal, and on top of that I’ve been trying to hit four runs a week to prep for my 21K in April, which I squeeze in after my 9:00PM grad classes. It’s been brutal, and by the time I get home I just want to pass out for a week.

But! I’m alive now, writing this post. Better late than never, as they say.

Once again, this one’s hosted by the wonderful Shanah @ Bionic Book Worm. This was a pretty fun prompt, so I’ll get right to it!

Continue reading “Top 5 Bookish Habits”


Top 5 Books that Exceeded Expectations

I’m back for another Top 5 Tuesday post! Once again, this one’s hosted by Shanah @ Bionic Book Worm. This week’s prompt was a bit challenging because I couldn’t think of just five books, so I whittled it down by choosing the five books that exceeded expectations and the ones I loved so much that I plan to reread them. Here they are, in no particular order:

The Hating Game by Sally Thorne (2016)

The Hating Game

My bar for contemporary romance isn’t even high in the first place, but WOW did this exceed expectations I didn’t know I had! It has all the romance tropes I love – enemies to lovers, witty banter, a quirky heroine and a straight-laced hero, bed-sharing, and the game motif – and it did everything right. It made me laugh, it made me sigh, it made me giddy, and it made me believe in the contemporary romance genre again. I hold any book in the genre now to this standard.

Possession by A. S. Byatt (1990)


Whenever I read literary books, there’s a tiny part of me that still feels like I’m “obliged” to do it – obliged to be more understanding of it, more deferential, more patient with the author’s formal experiments and meandering prose – so that at the end of it all, I can feel proud that I’ve conquered another literary work, even if I hadn’t exactly enjoyed it.

Not so with Possession. Possession is one of those literary works that’s also a romance and a thriller – if you can imagine a thriller set in academia, with two scholars of two dead Romantic poets as the protagonists. Plus, this is also a book-within-a-book, where we have the main narrative alternating with the trail of letters and documents left behind by the dead poets that our protagonists follow in order to unravel the real nature of their relationship. This book was magical and transporting, compulsively readable, and intellectually rewarding to read.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt (2004)

the secret history

Yes, this is the second book on this list set in the academe, and yes, I’m nuts for books set in the academe, especially if they promise dark undercurrents. This was one of those books that just hit the right notes for me – the discussion on the classics (even if I didn’t understand any of the Greek stuff), the group of brilliant misfits, the exploration of the repercussions of good and evil. This was also a startlingly insightful character study: Tartt’s characters are unlikeable and many times unsympathetic, but I was helplessly drawn into their orbit anyway, seduced, like the narrator, by the group’s air of brilliance and exclusivity. I was morbidly fascinated and invested in these characters until the bitter end, even when all their relationships with each other turned poisonous. This was another addictive page-turner that I’d recommend to anyone who’d appreciate its darkness.

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

The signature

Like I mentioned in my review on City of GirlsI honestly wasn’t expecting a lot from Gilbert in the first place, so I was genuinely surprised by how much I loved this one. The Signature of All Things is a historical saga spanning most of the 18th and 19th centuries, and it vividly portrays American society and the world caught in a whirlwind of change. It touches on the issues of women in science and of being an unattractive and intelligent woman; it explores the wider issues of colonialism and scientific discovery. Breathtaking in scope without sacrificing intimacy of detail, reading The Signature of All Things was a transcendent experience.

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki (2013)

A Tale for the Time Being

This is a very dear book. In A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth, in present-day Vancouver, discovers a lunch box with some letters and a diary written by a certain 16-year-old Nao from Japan. I was more invested in Nao’s story, to be honest, but I remember finishing this book feeling like I had a lot to think about – especially about our existence in space and time. In the story, the author had also experimented with the notion of novelistic time by introducing the idea of parallel universes. It fell a little short in execution for me, but it’s definitely still worth the read.

Topics for Top 5 Tuesdays this February

Have you read any of these books? What books have exceeded your expectations? Let me know in the comments!

#Februwitchy Readathon TBR!

I’m late to the party, but I just stumbled on Asha’s delightful #Februwitchy Readathon and I couldn’t resist! Here are the basic mechanics of this readathon:

Read witchy books!

The aim is super simple: read books about witches for all of February. There are no prompts, but any books with ‘witch’ in the title, or where the main character is a witch, will count – and to be specific, that’s where the main character is explicitly referred to as a witch on page, not just a book with a magical heroine. Non-fiction about witches is also welcome!

I grew to love reading through fantasy and romance books, so there’s nothing that spells ‘comfort read’ to me as much as a book with both. And also, who doesn’t love witches? There’s just something about this dark and powerful female archetype that really calls to me.

Here’s my TBR for this month. I won’t be reading exclusively witchy books for the month and I might not even be able to finish everything here, but in any case, I feel like I’m really going to have fun with this.

Sea Witch by Sarah Henning

Sea Witch

This isn’t only about a witch; it’s also a fairytale retelling. I hear it’s basically a witchy retelling “The Little Mermaid”, and it sounds to be right up my alley. Also, it’s been on my TBR for awhile, so I guess it’s time to finally pick this up!

Truthwitch by Susan Dennard


Two witches on the run, a richly imagined fantasy world, and an imminent war – count me in! Among everything on my list this sounds to be the one with the most plot and adventure, so I’m hoping it’ll be a wild ride.

Serpent & Dove by Shelby Mahurin

Serpent & Dove

Okay, I have such high hopes for this one because it uses one of my favorite tropes of all time – the enemies-to-lovers trope! (Not sure about the arranged/forced marriage, though, but I like the former more than I dislike the latter.) Also, it seems to be a witch x witch-hunter sort of romance, which makes it extra delicious for me because there’s bound to be a change of heart on both ends that would lead to major Character Growth. I’m expecting a fast-paced plot with a slow burn romance replete with steamy build-up and banter, and I’m fervently hoping I won’t be disappointed.

The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman

The Rules of Magic

I haven’t read the first book, Practical Magic, but I saw this on sale and I couldn’t resist the pretty cover. Also, a family of witches coming of age in 1950s New York – what’s not to love?

That’s it for my TBR! Are any of these on yours, too? Any witchy books that you read and loved? Let me know in the comments!

Top 5 Books that Weren’t What I Expected

Hey guys! Every Tuesday this February, I’ll be doing Top 5 Tuesdays, hosted by the wonderful Shanah @ Bionic Book Worm. Today’s topic is the top 5 books that weren’t what I expected. The way I see it, this can go two ways: a book wasn’t what I expected in a good way or in a not-so-good way.

In the case of the former, I was happily misled by the synopsis through the author’s use of an ingenious plot twist; but in the case of the latter, I was misled by the synopsis in a way that made me want to demand my money back. (Luckily, there’s just one of that on this list.) Regardless, I did my best to make my write-ups as spoiler-free as possible, since the pleasure in reading these books is precisely the feeling of surprise.

Anyway, let’s get to it!

Authority (Southern Reach #2) by Jeff VanderMeer (2014)


This is the only book on this list that was unexpected in a not-so-good way, and the only book that’s a sequel. I had such high hopes going into this, too, since the first book, Annihilation, was easily a 5-star read for me. In Annihilation, an expedition is sent to the mysterious and unpeopled Area X, a geographical location that has been cut off from the world for decades. The catch? None of the previous expeditions came back alive – or if they did, they were never the same.

I can’t rave about Annihilation enough. It was page-turning, adrenaline-pumping, skin-crawling, and hallucinogenic; every single scene worked to forward the plot, and so was packed with action or suspense. The only downside to it was that it ended on a cliffhanger (understandable, I guess), so I couldn’t wait to read Authority. 

I was expecting this to pick up where Annihilation left off – as the sequels do, and as the synopsis alluded at. I expected that we’d finally know more about Area X, and what happened to the scientists who went on the expedition. But instead, Authority was basically a rehash of Annihilation from the point of view of a new character that I could really care less about. Instead, Authority consisted of people filing a ton of paperwork and making dead-end guesses. It had not a single iota of the action, suspense, and lush landscapes of the first book. Even when I finally found a semblance of plot in the last thirty or so pages, it still wasn’t worth slogging through 300 pages to get there. It was a complete letdown that discouraged me from even finishing the series.

How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell (2019)

How to Do Nothing

I’ve seen a number of people giving this two stars or less because they expected it to be a self-help book. Originally, even I was expecting it to be self-help-y – the title does place it among the ranks of Soojung-Kim Pang’s Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less or Eyal and Li’s Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life. I was expecting an informal tone, a couple of lists, and a couple of fallacious causal claims about how doing nothing can actually increase your productivity.

Turns out that this book is nothing like that. Odell’s writing here is accessible but dense – closer to a slightly dumbed-down academic essay than a blog post – and instead of advocating hacks to productivity, she actually questions the very imperative to be productive in the first place. She draws from an astonishing variety of examples and disciplines to make her points – art, psychology, ecology, and women’s and labor rights – and articulates possible modes of resistance against the current capitalist ethos by reclaiming spaces for thinking, reflecting, and ‘doing nothing’. This was a tough but ultimately rewarding read. It’s not for everyone, but if you’re looking for critique of the ‘down with capitalism’ variety, then I can’t recommend this enough.

What Was She Thinking? [Notes on a Scandal] by Zoë Heller (2004)

What Was She Thinking?

What Was She Thinking? [Notes on a Scandal] is told from the perspective of schoolteacher Barbara Covett. Barbara intends her notes to be a defense for her colleague Sheba, whose affair with an underage male student had just been uncovered by the media. The frame had led me to believe that this was a story about how Sheba’s affair had been exposed, but further into the story, I realized how it really was about Barbara’s relationship with Sheba – and how it becomes more and more insidious the more she reveals more about Sheba’s affair with the student. This was a chilling read that I couldn’t put down until the very end.

Gillespie and I by Jane Harris (2011)

Gillespie and I

Gillespie and I is told from the point of view of the elderly Harriet Baxter, who is writing a memoir about her acquaintance with the talented artist Ned Gillespie and his family. The bulk of the story is set in the late 1800s, so it has a bit of a Jane Austen feel. I can’t say more without giving too much away, but there was an unexpected twist halfway through the novel that upended everything I knew about the first half and recast all the events thus far in a new light.

This novel also hit all the right spots for me – it had both vividly-painted characters and a very tight and clever plot that made it as compulsively readable as a thriller. I usually stay up late reading, but this was one of the novels I remember reading until the sky lightened. A really fun page-turner that I’d recommend to anyone who enjoys good writing and being surprised by a story.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler (2013)

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

I saved this for last because this novel is very close to my heart. I don’t usually cry while reading but I was moved to tears while reading this one. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is told from the perspective of Rosemary, who has progressively transformed from a talkative child to a silent and reticent young adult after her sister, and then her older brother, vanish one after the other. Again, I can’t say much without giving it away, but it’s been hinted in the synopsis that there’s something special about her sister Fern, and the surprise consists in finding out what this is and what became of Rosemary’s once happy and boisterous family. This was a heart-rending novel about family and the power of love to transcend all kinds of divides.

Topics for Top 5 Tuesdays this February

Have you read any of these books? What book have you read that wasn’t what you expected? Let me know in the comments!

January 2020 Wrap-up | Part 3: Nonfiction

Part 1: Overview | ◀️ Part 2: January 2020 Fiction Wrap-up

Hi guys! Here’s my nonfiction wrap-up for this January. I read 8 nonfiction books this month:

2020-01 Nonfiction

Here’s a quick rundown of my thoughts on them.

1. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi – ★★☆☆☆ – This is a memoir by a budding neurosurgeon who was diagnosed with cancer at a young age. Sadly, while it’s beloved by a lot of people, it just didn’t resonate with me. Full review here.

2. The Now Habit: A Strategic Program for Overcoming Procrastination and Enjoying Guilt-Free Play by Neil Fiore – ★★★☆☆ Like a true procrastinator, I read this while procrastinating on something else. Surprisingly, this was way more helpful than the “just do it” advice I usually encounter, as it focuses more on the emotional regulation aspect of procrastination – on addressing negative self-talk and the fear of failure, among others. A quick and helpful read.

3. I’d Rather Be Reading: The Delights and Dilemmas of the Reading Life by Anne Bogel ★★★★☆ – This was a delightfully relatable read about joys and the dilemmas of bookworms everywhere. Read my mini-review here.

4. Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall ★★★★☆ – A fun and inspiring read with a colorful cast of characters. Born to Run tells the story of the Tarahumara, a reclusive tribe in Mexico known also as “the running people”, and the quest of a handful of adventurous Americans who wanted to pit their endurance skills against theirs. Many times while reading it, I had to fight against the urge to lace up my shoes and hit the pavement – it was that inspiring. Read my mini-review here.

5. Love’s Executioner and Other Tales of Psychotherapy by Irvin Yalom ★★★★☆ – A fascinating read from one of the greatest psychotherapists of contemporary times. Personally, as a psychologist, I found it useful for the author’s brutal honesty in describing his own feelings during the therapeutic encounter. At times it could be brutally honest, though – he describes in detail his own visceral and unexamined bias against ‘fat women’, which struck me as misogynistic – but overall still very instructive.

6. Appetites: Why Women Want by Caroline Knapp ★★★★★ – Part psychological exploration, feminist critique, and memoir, Appetites explores the way that society curbs women’s desires – whether it be for food, love, or sex – and how that manifests in particular pathologies. This was a powerful invective that nevertheless ended on the hopeful note of women accepting and claiming their desires in a healthy manner. Full review to come.

7. How Fiction Works by James Wood ★★★★★ – Here, the renowned critic James Wood turns his attention to a particular element of fiction – narrator, consciousness, metaphor, character – and, like a craftsman, breaks it down to its simplest components to make readers see why it worked (and, in a few cases, why it didn’t). A nuanced and lucidly-written analysis of fiction that transported me back to my favorite lit-crit class in college, and made me more aware of the fact that the little details do matter. Read my mini-review here.

8. How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell ★★★★★ – In this book, Odell criticizes the imperative to be productive and the ways it’s currently being addressed by tech gurus and productivity experts. She also offers a way of resisting that doesn’t pander to capitalist agenda, instead requiring widespread changes in community planning and environmental policy. A tough but ultimately rewarding read. Full review to come.

🌟 Favorite Nonfiction of the Month 🌟


What were your favourite nonfiction reads for January? I’d love to hear about it in the comments! 👇

Part 1: Overview | ◀️ Part 2: January 2020 Fiction Wrap-up

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January 2020 Wrap-up | Part 2: Fiction

◀️ Part 1: Overview | Part 3: January 2020 Nonfiction Wrap-up ▶️

Hi guys! I’m back with my fiction wrap-up for this month. I read 11 fiction books this January, and I’m pretty glad that I turned out enjoying nearly all of them. Here they are:

2020-01 Fiction

Now for a quick rundown of my thoughts on them, grouped according to genre.


1. The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware – ★★★☆☆ (2.5)A nanny receives a job offer that seems too good to be true, from a family that’s too perfect to be real. Creepy and atmospheric, this book excels in portraying the gothic and the uncanny, but fails in its execution as a thriller. Read my full review here.

2. The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie (Hercule Poirot #1) – ★★★☆☆ – Poirot and Captain Hastings investigate the poisoning of an ostensibly benevolent yet controlling family matriarch in her bedroom, and all her family members are suspect. This work is a diamond-in-the-rough, containing all of the familiar elements that we’ve come to recognize as Christie’s style, but without the polished plotting and the genre-defying twists that she’s really known for. Read my mini-review here.

3. Evil under the Sun by Agatha Christie (Hercule Poirot #24) – ★★★☆☆ – A famous actress is murdered on the seaside resort where Poirot is taking his vacation. Whereas in The Mysterious Affair at Styles everyone seemed to have motive, in Evil under the Sun, not many seem to have motive enough. This book was more bloated than usual with inconsequential characters and a gimmicky murder set-up. Read my mini-review here.

4. The A.B.C. Murders by Agatha Christie (Hercule Poirot #13) – ★★★★☆ – A serial killer sets Poirot up as his enemy and taunts him to figure out his identity before he chooses his next victim. Deservedly called one of Christie’s masterpieces, this work showcases not only Christie’s genius with mystery conventions but also her ability to capture both amusing and profound insights about human behaviour in one or two deftly-written sentences.

5. Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz (Susan Ryeland #1) – ★★★★★ (4.5) Editor Susan Ryeland thinks she’s in for another normal day at work when their most famous author’s latest manuscript for a murder mystery lands on her desk. But the deeper she gets in the story, the more she realizes that the manuscript holds the clues to a real-life murder. This was a gripping, tightly plotted book-within-a-book that pays homage to Agatha Christie while at the same time changing up the conventions of the genre. Read my mini-review here.


6. What Happened at Midnight by Courtney Milan – ★★★★☆ – I love reading Milan because she portrays her heroines as both strong, passionate, and reasonable – a combination that isn’t as common as you might think. In this novella, John hunts down his ex-fiancée who flees after her father was found to have embezzled thousands of pounds from their business. But when he finds her, he realizes that her situation is not what it seems. Short, sweet, and steamy, and great as a quick read before going to bed.

7. A Wallflower Christmas by Lisa Kleypas (Wallflowers #4.5) – ★★★★☆ – I stumbled on this courtesy of Erin’s review at The Smut Report (thanks guys!). I find that I always have reservations after I read a Kleypas novel, especially about her heroes, but at the same time I can’t seem to stop reading them. In this novella, an irreverent, nouveau-rich American rake falls for a proper yet dowry-less English miss (who, we learn from the subtext, is ‘not like other girls’). As usual, I find such setups highly implausible in real life, but then again, I’m not here for the reality. A cozy read that hit all the right notes.

8. What I Did for a Duke by Julie Ann Long (Pennyroyal Green #5) – ★★★★★ – This was a reread, and I’m happy to find that it was even better than the first time. What begins as a ploy to seduce the little sister of the man who wronged him turns into something more. I loved the banter, and I loved that the plot grew organically from the personalities of the characters rather than being tacked to get the romance moving. The result is a refreshing historical romance with real character growth, surprisingly meaningful fluff, and just the right amount of angst. One of my favorite HRs of all time.


9. [YA Fantasy] A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin (Earthsea Cycle #1) – ★★★★☆ – A talented young wizard overestimates his abilities and unleashes an evil beyond his control. Written with a cadence and rhythm more similar to lyrical ballads rather than contemporary YA, A Wizard of Earthsea was a slow immersion into a vividly imagined world where magic is both life-giving and dangerous, and each magical act ladened with a consequences commensurate to the power unleashed. Read my full review here.

10. [Classics] Gigi and The Cat by Colette – ★★★★☆ – This book consists of two novellas in one. Gigi is the story of a courtesan who defies her family’s expectations of her, and The Cat features comical a love triangle between a young man, his new wife, and his cat. Both are charming comedies of manners written in gorgeous prose that explore how women test the limits of their independence and self-expression in a society that restricts their freedom.

11. [Contemporary] Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson – ★★★★☆ – In this novel, Lillian, a woman in her mid-thirties in a dead-end career, is tasked to babysit twins who can spontaneously combust. This ostensibly gimmicky novel turns out to be nothing but: it dwells only briefly on the absurd premise before going on to explore the bonds of friendship and family between its characters and the way that love can grow between the most unlikely of people. A surprisingly heartwarming novel with an offbeat narrator and characters you grow to love, Nothing to See Here has a lot to offer, and will appeal to all kinds of readers. Full review to come.

🌟 Favorite Fiction of the Month 🌟

What were your favourite fiction reads for January? What genre, character, storyline, or even book cover did you find yourself drawn to this month, and why? I’d love to hear about it in the comments! 👇

◀️ Part 1: Overview | Part 3: January 2020 Nonfiction Wrap-up ▶️

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January 2020 Wrap-up | Part 1: Overview

I’m a bit late for this post, but better late than never! Welcome to the overview of my first monthly wrap-up. January hasn’t been great for the world, but one tiny bright spot is that personally, it’s been a great month reading-wise. This January, I was able to finish 19 books (!!!) out of my goal of 75.

yes gif

I’m going to relish this while I can, because I’ll only get to read this much again in December…

Anyway, since I tend to babble on endlessly and I don’t want to dump everything in a single post, I split my wrap-up into three parts: an overview (Part 1), fiction wrap-up (Part 2), and a nonfiction wrap-up (Part 3). For this post, I’ll talk about the patterns across all the books I’ve read this month and what I felt about my reading overall.

Here’s a snapshot of my January 2020 in reading:

Screen Shot 2020-02-01 at 11.56.49 AM
Books I’ve read this January 2020. That blank space beside The Turn of the Key REALLY bothers me, but I didn’t have time to finish the book I was currently reading, so… I gotta live with it.

Also, because I love numbers and graphs (only when it comes to my reading lol), here are a couple of pie charts summarizing my January reading.

2020-01 fiction nonfiction2020-01 fiction2020-01 nonfiction

Some impressions:

✨ I read more fiction than nonfiction. I’m happy about this since I already read a lot of academic stuff for school, so I prefer my reading life to be as different as possible to counterbalance it.

✨ I picked up a lot of mysteries and thrillers this January. I only discovered how fun mysteries and thrillers could be last year, after I read my first Christie book. Despite that, I don’t think I viscerally felt the “mystery/thriller” craving until this month, and I guess it reflects how I’m really coming to love the genre.

✨ I was able to read across a variety of genres. I was surprised to find most of my interests represented here in my January 2020 list. For the longest time, I felt insecure about my tastes because I thought it made me seem inconsistent. Aren’t people just supposed to be predominantly ‘YA’ or ‘literary’ or ‘nonfiction’? But then this month, I’ve begun to reframe ‘inconsistent’ to ‘eclectic’, and considered that this eclecticism could reflect my interest in a number of topics rather than an inherent personality flaw. This year, I want to embrace my own tastes and resist the urge to confine myself to being predominantly one kind of reader – and reject the idea that there can be one kind of reader in the first place.

✨ Overall impression: quantity over quality? I’m very much a mood reader, so I don’t consciously set reading goals and just reach for whatever I feel like at the time. I think my reading this month reflected that urge.

This has its upsides and downsides. The upside is that I get to scratch my book itches all the time. This wasn’t always the case – back in college, reading was closely tied to homework and requirements, so I faced anything with text with a diffuse sense of dread. It was so bad that I read less than ten books during my four years there. It was only after college that I began to miss reading, but I wanted my experience to be as un-college-like as possible: I wanted to have fun while reading, and to not police my tastes. So I gave myself permission to read all the genres I’d avoided because my professors didn’t deem them worthy of study – self-help, YA fantasy, YA romance, historical/paranormal/sports romance, murder mysteries, domestic thrillers, etc. – and only thing requirement I had was that I’d stop reading once the book stopped being fun to read. And it was a success! I had a lot of fun and I learned to love reading again.

But the downside to this approach is that I’ve neglected the other reason why I fell in love with reading – which is to be intellectually challenged, or to learn something new, or to see something from a different perspective. After all, there’s also pleasure to be taken from encountering an inventive novelistic form or a perfectly written sentence. To use the trite dichotomy, reading not only nourishes me emotionally but also intellectually, and I don’t think I’ve read much books recently that do the latter.

So, something I want to try this month is to be more aware of my reading moods, and to deliberately choose books that don’t necessarily satisfy my immediate book craving (YA, romance, thriller) but might be intellectually rewarding in the end. That doesn’t mean I’m going to abstain from so-called genre fiction altogether – I just want to be more conscious of creating a balance between my two reading needs.

In sum, my reading was off to a great start this January, but I think there’s still room for experimentation and improvement.

Aaaand… That’s it for this post! Tomorrow, I’ll be posting a round-up of all the fiction books I’ve read this month. Hope you stay tuned. 🙂

Up Next

Part 2: January 2020 Fiction Wrap-up

Part 3: January 2020 Nonfiction Wrap-up

What did you think of your reading this month? What were your January reading goals, and were you able to meet them? What about yourself as a reader this month that surprised you? Let me know in the comments! I’d love to hear from you 🙂

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Mini-Review Monday #1 | 3 Murder Mysteries I’ve Read This January

Hi everyone! So, I saw other bloggers doing mini-reviews, and I thought that it’s perfect for me since I have a backlog of books I want to review, but don’t have enough thoughts on to fill a full review. So my Mini-Review Mondays will be a quick lightning round of books about a particular theme or books I’ve recently read.

Without further ado, I’ll be talking about the three murder mysteries I’ve picked up just this month. It’s strange to hear, but I find a good old-fashioned whodunnit very comforting. It actually makes sense that I was in the mood for murder mysteries at the start of the year – beginnings have always been daunting for me, and immersing myself in the clean, black-and-white world of murder mysteries may have given me the reassurance I needed to face the uncertainty of the new year.

In any case, here are the three murder mysteries I’ve read so far this January, in order of date read.

1. Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz

Magpie Murders
Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz (Published by Orion in 2016)

My Rating: ★★★★★ (4.5 stars)

Magpie Murders is actually two books and two mysteries in one, but despite the length I devoured the book in the space of a few hours. It was enjoyable, gripping, and very, very clever.

At the beginning of the novel, we have our protagonist, editor (and, unbeknownst to her, future detective) Susan Ryeland, preparing to read the latest mystery by her publishing company’s most prized writer, Alan Conway. But the further along Susan gets in Magpie Murders – Conway’s manuscript – the more she realizes that it holds clues to solving a mystery that happens in real life – and that she seems to be the only one who sees it. So, with the insatiable and compulsive curiosity of a true mystery lover, Susan follows the trail of bread crumbs Conway has left for her in his novels to discover the identity of the killer.

This was a highly addictive page-turner that kept me up until early morning. Both mysteries were very tightly plotted – I can just imagine Horowitz storyboarding and sequencing everything on a large bulletin board just to keep track of all the  little clues, details, and characters that have to be in place for both mysteries to come together neatly at the end – and I was delighted that a number of the clues that involved wordplay. It was still very satisfying to watch the clues from Conway’s Magpie Murders and Horowitz’s Magpie Murders line up.

I also found Horowitz’s commentary on mystery tropes interesting. Susan, for example, talked about how the solution to cases seem to depend in part on the serendipity of stumbling on particular clues, or how real-life interrogations don’t go as smoothly as fictional interrogations. They weren’t particularly subversive, though, since Horowitz ultimately uses the same conventions to forward and wrap up the mystery in the book. Still, the meta-fictional lens was refreshing – simultaneously a reverent acknowledgement of Christie’s legacy and a sly commentary on her bag of tricks.

All in all, this was a great read, and I’d be anxious to get my hands on the next book in this series.

Read from January 3-5, 2019

2. The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie

The Mysterious Affair at Styles
The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie (Published by Agatha Christie Classics in 2018; first published in 1920)

My Rating: ★★★☆☆

I found that my appetite for cozy mysteries was really whetted after reading Magpie Murders, so I just had to pick this up – the Queen of Crime’s first novel (i.e., where the entire genre of murder mystery began). This doesn’t yet have subversiveness of her famous works (i.e., Orient Express and Roger Ackroyd), but all the familiar elements are there – Poirot’s mannerisms, the red herrings, and of course, all the clues hidden in plain sight. I kept changing my mind about the identity of the killer and couldn’t fathom how it was done until all was revealed at the last chapter.

My only complaint about this particular book was that it became too unwieldy towards the end – everyone seemed to be acting suspiciously in ways that really weren’t connected to the murder, and everyone seemed to have sufficient motive to kill. It made for very long and convoluted explanations from Poirot, which, admittedly, were too much for my ‘little gray cells’ to handle. I’m also not very good at visualizing spaces or remembering details like where X was at Y time, so it took me awhile just to comprehend the sequence of events that Poirot was laying out. (That might also be why I might never tire of murder mysteries – I’m just no good at keeping the clues straight, so I’m always surprised at the end!) Very enjoyable though, and exactly what I was in the mood to read.

Read from January 8-9, 2019

3. Evil under the Sun by Agatha Christie

Evil under the Sun
Evil under the Sun by Agatha Christie (Published by HarperCollins in 2014; first published 1941)

My Rating: ★★★☆☆

This edition is part of an Agatha Christie box set that just arrived at my doorstep this week. I bought the set as a gift to my brother, since he wants to get into mysteries, but it actually doubles nicely as a gift to myself, since his books are stashed in my shelves anyway… 😉

Evil under the Sun is the 24th book in the Hercule Poirot series, and in it, Poirot investigates the murder of a famous actress on a beautiful island where he’s vacationing. Admittedly, I wasn’t as interested in the blurb as I was in the title, which I knew to be a biblical allusion. I always find titles drawn from other works intriguing since the work is poised to be a specific take on the work of origin.

As will be explained a few pages into the book, ‘evil under the sun’ is a phrase taken from Ecclesiastes 6:

1 I have seen another evil under the sun, and it weighs heavily on mankind: God gives some people wealth, possessions and honor, so that they lack nothing their hearts desire, but God does not grant them the ability to enjoy them, and strangers enjoy them instead.

Sure enough, this is one of the themes in the book – it seems that all the main suspects are wealthy or rich in some sense (in fame, for example), but can’t seem to completely enjoy their good fortune because they’re still longing for that elusive one more thing that would make their lives complete. In fact, this longing – or this desire, which is its more urgent form – underlies the conscious motivations of each suspect for committing murder.

As such, Christie plays with this notion of evil and achieves surprise by turning the notion of ‘evil’ around. But then, how the killer went about the murder strained belief. It was just too gimmicky, and I think not even the sharpest mystery reader would have been able to guess it with all the clues lined up.

Another thing that didn’t work for me: I found the third-person omniscient perspective disorienting, especially coming from the concentrated first-person narration of Captain Hastings in The Mysterious Affair at Styles. It felt like a cheap trick for the omniscient narrator to zoom in on the characters during their most incriminating moments, only to abruptly cut the scene before further context can divest them of suspicion. It felt like an amateur writer’s sleight-of-hand rather than the more masterful manoeuvres of a respected author.

Also, compared to the three other Christie novels I’ve read, this was more bloated than usual with a cast of inconsequential characters. A number of them were introduced in the beginning, which made me think they would play an important part in the story; but despite their numerous appearances and the perplexing number of lines dedicated to their peripheral remarks, they contributed very little to the murder investigation itself.

I’m wondering if Christie used them in the story to form a composite image of the murdered actress’s character in the minds of the readers. In that sense, it’s an interesting device – after all, we don’t usually have access to the interiority of public figures; instead, we stitch it together from fragments of gossip. Christie achieves this effect by having every minor character voice their quite authoritative opinions of the dead actress, despite never having interacted with her before. Intriguing set-up, but I still wish she’d prune away some of the cast.

I sound like I’m nitpicking her work now – this always seems to happen when I sit to write a review – but really, I wasn’t thinking any of this while in the grip of the story. I always enjoy the compulsively readable nature of Christie’s works and I look forward to the next book I’ll pick up from her oeuvre.

Read from January 10-13, 2019

Mini-Review Monday:
3 Murder Mysteries I’ve Read This January

I’m still very much in the mood for murder mysteries or thrillers, so if you have any recommendations, please let me know in the comments! I’d really appreciate it. 🙂

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Top 12 Novels of 2018

2018 was a year of reading-related milestones for me. It’s the year that I joined Goodreads, first set a reading challenge for myself – which I was able to exceed, yay! – and read genres outside of my comfort zone.

But on top of that, I’ve discovered the kind of fiction I like to read. Just two years ago, while I was finishing a minor in literature, I was reading “Literary Books” that I was supposed to like if I was to be a “Serious Literature Student.” The problem was, I didn’t like half of them. Reading was a source of dread rather than enjoyment. I could have said so in my papers, but I was just too reverent of the canon and my brilliant professors to say otherwise.

Not so now. I feel that in the past two years, and especially this year, I’ve become more aware of what I really enjoy in fiction. I’m happy to say that this year, I’ve read a handful of truly wonderful books that I’ve enjoyed reading to the point of losing sleep over.

Here’s the list of my favorite novels read this year, in order of date read.

1. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

Published in 2014 by Serpents Tail (First published in 2013)

We are all completely

My Rating: ★★★★★ | We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a story about the family we’re born into and the family we make for ourselves. It’s told from the point of view of Rosemary, the youngest daughter, and the narrative shifts between past and present to unravel the story behind Rosemary’s unusual family. What I loved about this is that despite it being a heartbreaking story about an unhappy family, it’s still told with so much gentleness, affection, and hope. Through Rosemary’s voice, Fowler also provides incisive insights about the puzzling dynamics of family love and favoritism. On a larger scale, she also explores themes of science and ethics, animal rights, and activism. It’s a complex book with extremely engaging storytelling, and one I’ve been recommending to my friends since.

2. The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

Published in 2014 by Bloomsbury Publishing (First published in 2013)

The signature

My Rating: ★★★★★ | Yes, this is the very same Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat, Pray, Love, and while I have no intention of reading that one, I found The Signature of All Things an engaging, masterful novel. I found this at a booksale, and I found myself drawn in from the first sentences: “Alma Whittaker, born with the century, slid into our world on the fifth of January, 1800. Swiftly — nearly immediately — opinions began to form around her.” The rest of the novel tells the story of Alma Whittaker and her tough and brilliant explorer of a father, Henry Whittaker. It’s the story of the world in the 19th century, and of a brilliant, curious, sheltered woman with a keen scientific mind who finds her own corner of that world to explore. It’s a novel of ideas – the ideas of the time that made the industrial revolution possible, and about the scientific ideas that would change the world.

I loved this novel for its ambitious scope, its engaging storytelling, and its memorable characters. I remember staying up until 4 am to finish this, and afterwards I felt breathless because I felt like I’d seen the world and lived the entire century of Alma’s remarkable life. I recommend this with caution since there are sections about sexual exploration and spirituality and the magical that might put some readers off, but as for me, I found it to be organic to a novel as wide in scope as this. I’ll definitely be rereading this again.

3. The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Published in 2004 by Vintage (First published in 1992)

the secret history

My Rating: ★★★★★ | I loved this book, but I also understand why not many people would. The Secret History is about a group of misfits at an elite college who take a subject on Ancient Greek under a brilliant, charismatic professor. You can understand why they’re misfits: for the most part, they are pretentious, painfully self-centered, and unlikeable. Even the narrator, with a working-class background that contrasts starkly with that of his rich classmates’, is unlikeable for his spinelessness.

But here’s the thing: I like unlikeable characters – as long they’re understandable. And these characters are remarkably fleshed-out. The dynamics of these characters’ relationships with each other are fascinating to read about, especially how that dynamic changes as the line between good and evil blurs, and after they murder someone in their group. I also loved the storytelling: at the outset, we already know there’s a murder, but what the story unravels is why he was murdered, and the aftermath of that murder.

I found The Secret History is a dark, gripping story, with fascinating characters and a chilling exploration of the fine line between good and evil. The novel may not be to everyone’s liking, especially because of its pessimistic portrayal of human beings and claustrophobic atmosphere, but it did make for a great story.

4. Gillespie and I by Jane Harris

Published in 2011 by Faber & Faber

Gillespie and I

My Rating: ★★★★★ | Gillespie and I is told from the point of view of an elderly Harriet Baxter as she looks back on her relationship with the artist Gillespie in her youth. I can’t say much about the plot without giving it away, but I liked this one for its unreliable narrator and the unexpected plot twist at the middle of the story. I seem to have a weakness for unlikeable characters, because Harriet eventually becomes unlikeable herself, but I found myself eager to listen to her and believe in her until the end, which is a testament to Harris’s writing.

5. Franny and Zooey by J. D. Salinger

Published in 2001 by Back Bay Books (First published in 1961)

Franny and Zooey

My Rating: ★★★★★ | This is perhaps the shortest book on my list, and it’s not technically a novel as it is two novellas published in one book. Anyway, technicalities aside, I loved Franny and Zooey for the in-depth characterization and the frenetic, breathless dialogue between the titular characters. Like The Secret History, this is a novel about smart, good-looking, pretentious young adults. Unlike The Secret History, there’s no murder, only an existential crisis. People may be unsatisfied with the resolution of the existential crisis at the end, but the resolution didn’t matter to me as much as the acerbic, exasperating, covertly affectionate back-and-forth between the siblings and their mother. I found myself rereading the flow of the dialogue because it flowed so well to me. I read this while my mother was confined in the hospital, and it was the only book that was able to provide a much-needed reprieve from the situation, even for a little while.

6. Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

Published in 2014 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux


My Rating: ★★★★★ | Another novella, and one I’d picked up specifically because it promised to be a short read. Part sci-fi and part horror, Annihilation is a chilling novella about the mysterious Area X. Previous expedition members murdered each other, and one expedition committed mass suicide. Still, a twelfth expedition is sent to the area, ostensibly to collect samples and record observations, but what they find there is far more sinister than anything they’d imagined. What made this engaging for me was the way various deceptions were unravelled: the deception of the authorities who called for the expedition, and the deception of what Area X is. Another thing that kept me on the edge of my seat was the unknown entity at the heart of Area X. Most of the novel is driven by the fear of something unknown and the desire to finally discover what it is, and it was an extremely effective in driving the story. Not all questions were answered by the end of the novel, though, but since this is part of a trilogy, I’ll let it pass.

7. Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner

Published in 2002 by Modern Library (First published in 1987)

Crossing to Safety

My Rating: ★★★★★ | I find myself at a loss for words for Crossing to Safety. No summary can do it justice; any attempt at summary makes it sound more boring than it really is. It’s what others might disdain as a “plotless” novel, but it doesn’t need the drama and twists of plot to succeed as the story of the intertwined lives of two couples. Crossing to Safety charts how the evolution of the unlikely friendship between an rich couple and a struggling couple. It’s a portrait of human relationships in all their exasperation and affection, and character sketches of human beings with all their goodness and their flaws. Stegner’s prose is beautiful in its simplicity and its rhythm. He has a talent for capturing the qualities of a place (the characters and the story is intimately tied to the place) in words that seem to do it justice by how beautiful the sentences sound.

It took a certain mood for me to get into this—I was finally able to settle back into this in a more meditative mood, with nothing pressing to be done—but it’s worth it. I loved Crossing to Safety for the beautiful language and complex and incredibly human characters—I would say among all the novels I’ve read this year, Stegner’s prose is hands-down the best. I have a feeling this is the sort of novel I could relish on subsequent rereadings.

8. The Travelling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa, translated by Philip Gabriel

Published in 2017 by Doubleday (First published in 2012)

The Travelling Cat Chronicles

My Rating: ★★★★★ | I’ve written a full review of The Travelling Cat Chronicles here, so I’ll just paraphrase what I’ve said. The Travelling Cat Chronicles is the story of the bond between cat and owner. This book is a tender meditation on relationships and companionship, both human and non-human, and on grief and letting go. At first, the first-person voice of the proud, grouchy, snobbish cat of the title, Nana, had me chuckling and snorting; but towards the last chapter I was just crying like a leaky faucet, even when I saw the ending coming. The simple, clean prose of the book was beautiful, and gave the feeling of having space for the wonder described in the book. I’d definitely recommend this to everyone, especially cat lovers.

9. Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Published in 2017 by Viking

Eleanor Oliphant

My Rating: ★★★★☆ | Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine is a heartwarming novel about the lonely, socially awkward Eleanor with a past she carefully tries to conceal, and how she eventually finds meaning in her work and her relationships. What struck me about this novel is the positive portrayal of asking for help for one’s mental illness, and a realistic rendering of the journey of recovery from it. I gave it only four stars because Eleanor’s language didn’t feel realistic to me at times, but in the end I found it readable and charming. It’s the kind of novel I would recommend to most of my friends, because I’m sure everyone will find a little bit of Eleanor in them.

10. The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Published in 2017 by Washington Square Press

The Seven Husbands

My Rating: ★★★★☆ | Once I started reading The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, I couldn’t put it down. I think it has to do with the storytelling: The famous yet intensely private Hollywood actress Evelyn Hugo is finally ready to tell about her scandalous past with her seven husbands, and she chooses to tell it to a little-known journalist, the narrator Monique. The novel tries to answer the questions of why seven husbands, and who among them did Evelyn love best? (Hint: It’s not who you’re expecting.) It also slowly unravels the reason why Evelyn chose Monique, in particular, to reveal her story to. The subject matter – old Hollywood and an actress’s many love affairs – is already interesting, but the way the story was framed made it feel like listening to gossip, which made it addictively readable. But in the end, I gave it only 4 stars because I felt it didn’t adequately address the issues of racial and LGBTQIA+ representations that were themes in the novel. I’m also not sure about the purported feminism in the novel. Still, it’s engaging and it sparks interesting discussions, so I’d definitely recommend this to my friends.

11. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Published in 2009 by HarperCollins e-books (First published in 1937)

Their Eyes were watching

My Rating: ★★★★☆ | How could I not read a book with a title like that? And I’m glad that the prose of the novel definitely lives up to the title. I found myself highlighting and rereading long passages that had the rhythm of poetry in prose. That said, the subject matter of Their Eyes Were Watching God was not pretty. It tells the story of African-Americans during a time when most were still slaves from the eyes of a Black woman. There are mentions of violence due to racial discrimination, and there are also descriptions of domestic abuse. It was not a comfortable read, but a highly enlightening one. Hurston, I think, was ahead of her time in portraying the experience of the African-American woman, and how she eventually comes to liberate herself from the abusive men she’s been with. She’s deemed, and rightfully, one of the pioneers of Black feminist fiction.

12. The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Published in 2012 by Ecco (First published in 2011)

Song of Achilles

My Rating: ★★★★☆ | I’m a sucker for retellings, and The Song of Achilles hit all the right notes, including queering the relationship of Achilles and his best friend, Patroclus. I loved the prose and the descriptions of the setting, and even when I knew how it was going to end, I still teared up towards the last chapters. The reason why I’d only given it 3.75 stars was that the prose reminded me of slash fanfiction – there were times that it just bordered on being purple prose. Sometimes, Patroclus and Achilles also struck me as one-dimensional, and their relationship with each other and with other characters wasn’t complex either. Still, this was an enjoyable retelling, one that I’d be recommending to mythology fans everywhere.

Well, that’s it for my 2018 in novels. How did your 2018 in books look like? Here’s to hoping that 2019 will be a great year for reading, too.