A pretty strong start to the year for me. Didn't quite hit my full TBR target (bit of a post-sex reading slump I hit), but I still read 14 books, and most all of them (with three pretty notable exceptions) were strong, enjoyable reads that I found compelling and well-written. Started out the year with a good mix of different writing styles, as well, and a decent mix of contemporary-set fiction and historicals, so I feel like I'm beginning the year on the right foot and am expanding my reading beyond what I automatically reach for.
There might even be an early start on my Best of 2021 list with two very strong, very capable entries and there are some books on my February TBR that I've got very high expectations for, so we shall await confirmation, but it looks like 2021 is going to be a year with a lot of amazing reads in it (I love it when my Top 1o list is difficult to make!).
As ever, read on for my full January 2021 wrap-up.
Best book of the month: Such A Fun Age. Gripping, compelling, wonderful writing, excellent characters, and a lot of soul and wit and empathy in a tight 400 pages. Highly, highly recommend.
Most 'pleasant surprise' book of the month: We'll go ahead and stick Piranesi in here - I struggle with puzzle books usually, but this one I really enjoyed and I look forward to reading Susanna Clarke's debut later this year (whenever I'm in the mood for a twisting, meandering, complicated, fantastical 1,000+ page paperback. I will be, of course, because I love big books and I cannot lie, but maybe not quite yet.).
Most enjoyable book of the month: A new category I'm trialling - this one is different than best book of the month, and will represent the book I most enjoyed reading, rather than the book I think is the 'best' (most well-written, best characters, best plot, etc.) of the month. I think this category will end up representing the romance novel I most enjoyed each month, but hey ho, it's my blog so I get to do what I want. Anyway. The most enjoyable book this month was To Have and to Hoax, a delightful Regency Romance and a new author I'm massively excited to read more books by.
Most disappointing book of the month: Leave the World Behind. This one was super hyped up by online reviews and discussions, and it just did not live up to the hype for me at all.
Worst book of the month: Ten Rules for Faking It. Repetitive, dull, anticlimactic, bad characters, no sex. Do not recommend.
The Duke and I (3.6★/5), by Julia Quinn: Right, I have some THOUGHTS. Mainly they are that the sex didn't happen nearly enough for the chemistry between Simon and Daphne; Simon's inner monologue got a bit repetitive after a while; and I don't know if I'm interested enough in the other siblings to read their books, since basically only the three older brothers got any pagetime (having said that, I have since read Books 2 and 4-7, and I am considering reading the last two after I wrap up my February historical romances). But I did swoon a few times and the wedding night scene did give me a tingle in my lady bits. Which is all I really want from a historical romance. Reputations were ruined, duels were nearly had, stays were unlaced. I wish I had someone who wanted to unlace my stays (yes I know I don't wear stays. Whatever. I would consider it purely for this endeavour). And that scene certainly was thought-provoking - was it a comment on gender and societal roles, or just a slightly cringe-worthy plot choice? I recommend the Heaving Bosoms podcast episode on this book for a more thoughtful discussion of it than I can provide.
La Formule de Dieu (1.5★/5), by J.R. dos Santos: Left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth. The dialogue wasn't great (it was insanely repetitive and clunky; too much exposition was delivered as a conversation), a lot of the characters came across as caricatures, the narrative and the descriptions was endlessly, annoyingly repetitive and the plot was simultaneously way too convoluted and slow-moving, and the final reveal ended up being so anticlimactic I retroactively felt like 500 pages of the novel could have been cut. There were moments where an understanding of the plot relied on some pretty complex quantum physics, and also moments where the supposedly intelligent characters were shockingly ignorant of some pretty common knowledge about theology, science and history. Shame - the premise had potential.
Piranesi (4.7★/5), by Susanna Clarke: A clever, engaging puzzle of a book that I very much enjoyed reading. My full review is here.
Such A Fun Age (5★/5), by Kiley Reid: A gripping, compelling, brutally clever novel about the nuances and messiness of privilege and class and trying to be an adult amongst all of that nonsense. I've (attempted) to give it a thoughtful review here.
Rivers of London (3.1★/5), by Ben Aaronovitch: I wanted to like this book. I really, really, really did. But the fantasy was just a bit too underdeveloped, there were absolutely no rules that I could discern to the magic, nobody seemed to understand anything and there were a lot of plot points that were wildly confusing and were never satisfactorily explained with anything more than a "Magic, huh?" No, Ben. NO. BAD BOY. GIVE ME SOME EXPOSITION YOU COWARD. The inner monologue and the narration did, however, make me laugh at multiple points and the premise of a crossover between gritty police procedural and urban supernatural in modern-day London was interesting and original, and had a lot of potential. I just wanted some parameters.
Ten Rules for Faking It (0.5★/5), by Sophie Sullivan: Hard pass. Hard no. This was a bad, bad romance novel. Reviewed here.
On Beauty (3★/5), by Zadie Smith: I really, really, really wanted to like this book, mostly because the writing was absolutely lovely. A lot of the sentences were so gorgeous I wanted almost to underline them, so I could easily go back and find them, or even copy them into a journal. But absolutely all of the characters were awful, and there wasn't a single one I could root for - and while I can usually enjoy a book even without characters to like, I usually need a bit of plot to tide me over in that case; and this book was entirely character with no plot to speak of. It was never made clear how all the disparate elements fit together, and the ambiguity tipped from the amount that I like into a morass of unresolvedness. Ah, well. As I said - absolutely exquisite writing, so I'll try Zadie Smith's other books and see if those are more my cup of tea.
Leave the World Behind (2★/5), by Rumaan Alam: Unpopular opinion time... I didn't like this! Reviewed here.
The City We Became (4.4★/5), by N.K. Jemisin: Good, enjoyable, not too difficult to follow fantasy. This book basically explores the idea of our universe being one of multiple, and that once a city has acquired enough of a culture, it is 'born' - one of its citizens turns into its avatar. It is New York City's turn to be born, and because it's New York City, it's got six souls. This was a fun, enjoyable, thought-provoking fantasy epic that didn't take itself too seriously but still did some excellent world-building, and I'm very much looking forward to reading the following books in the series when they get published - and learning more about this world and the rues that make it tick. This book also made me desperately want to go back to New York, which I haven't really felt since I moved to London. Well done, N.K. Well. Done. Highly recommend this for anybody who wants some not-too-serious but still excellent, fresh spins on urban fantasies (Ben Aaronovitch, YOU COULD REALLY LEARN SOMETHING FROM MS JEMISIN HERE).
To Have and to Hoax (5★/5), by Martha Waters: I adored this book and can't wait for the next one in the series. I have no notes, Martha - and that is not something I say often. I gush about your excellent book here.
Interior Chinatown (4.5★/5), by Charles Yu: A very, very, very meta take on inclusion, assimilation, immigration and ghettoization in Hollywood and the world at large. It's impossible to tell the difference between what is real and what is imaginary in this book, and it's written to read like a screenplay - but if you like books with all that ambiguous meta-ness, then this is definitely the one for you. I really adored this book, and loved the narrative flow of it (it reminded me a lot of Les roses fauves in its structure and writing style), and the final few pages were an absolute gut-punch of an emotional rollercoaster. Lots of very funny moments, as well. Highly recommend.
The Dragon Waiting (3.5★/5), by John M. Ford: A slightly uneven, but still enjoyable, alternate history fantasy that reimagines the Middle Ages with Byzantium as the dominating power in Europe instead of Christianity. Thought-provoking and fun, but feels a bit unfinished and probably should have been a series instead of a novel. Reviewed in full here (beware of spoilers).
Les désorientés (4.7★/5), by Amin Maalouf: A beautiful, evocative musing on expatriation and identity. Highly recommend. Reviewed here.
On Such A Full Sea (4.6★/5), by Chang-Rae Lee: Woof. I almost wish I'd read this book in a classroom setting, so I would have had someone pushing me to really dig into the multiple layers and the complexity of the sentences and the prose; but I'm also discovering that I'm just not the type of reader for this type of dystopia. I don't like books in which shit things happen unrelentingly, I struggle a bit with Greek-chorus like narrators, and I really don't like dystopian climate fiction. It hits too close to home and I would like my fiction to take me somewhere better, thanks. This is one of those books were objectively I could tell it was an exquisitely well-written, good piece of fiction - I just did not enjoy the reading of it at all. An awe-inspiring piece of writing , original and metaphorical and lyrical, I'm just not the reader to do it justice. That ending, though - WOOF.
So there you have it, folks - my first wrap-up of this year.
Sidenote - would anybody be interested in ranked monthly recaps? I am trialling this on Instagram this month and we will see if that takes. I'm just trying to be everyone's one-stop shop for trusted recommendations, folks.
Please let me know which, if any, of these books have sparked your interest, and if you've got any recommendations for me as well!