Right - I had a stupidly good month. I read 27 books total (including a short story collection that I finished this month, but the bulk of that reading was earlier - does that count? I'm counting it because 27 is a nice number that also makes me look suitably nerdy and bookworm-y, and I'm just going to lean into that aesthetic, even though according to a friend it makes me an objectively ridiculous person and no it isn't a compliment, but what does he know anyway), and of those 27, only 2 were disappointments and only 1 was unclassifiably mediocre- of the other 23, they were mostly excellent. There is a serious drop-off in the quality of my rankings between #23 and #24. I seriously think my top of 2021 will have to expand to a top 20 for this year.
As ever, read on for my full March wrap-up; but the long and short of it is I recommend everything on this list except for the three aforementioned duds (which are well-lambasted for being bad books, trust you me).
Best book of the month: Transcendent Kingdom. A phenomenal book. I can't wait to read more of Yaa Gyasi's books, she is such a force in contemporary literature, and this is only her second book. I am so angry. This will win all of the awards - I'm calling it now.
Most enjoyable book of the month: Act Your Age, Eve Brown. Sexy, adorable, wonderful, heart-warming romance by Queen Talia Hibbert and I can't wait to read her new series (bring on 2022).
Most 'pleasant surprise' book of the month: Finlay Donovan Is Killing It. I was expecting to enjoy this book in a light, fluffy kind of way, but I was completely bowled over by how much I actually did end up enjoying it. This book is utterly bonkers, but I was entirely along for the ride, and I found myself reading it in one sitting because I could not bring myself to put it down even as I was dreading the story ending. I will religiously read the next few books in this planned series.
Most disappointing book of the month: The Lost Apothecary. Let us never speak of this again.
Worst book of the month: Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister. A bad book trying way too hard to be a good book, with all the attendant crappiness in dialogue, writing style, characters, and plot. You can safely skip this one.
The Prophets (4.5★/5), by Robert Jones Jr: Woof. This was a hard, hard book - the subject matter was relentlessly grim (forbidden love between two male slaves on a horrifically brutal cotton plantation in the American South, which, yes, I imagine was all plantations everywhere), and the writing was sometimes a bit weird: very lyrical, very metaphysical and metaphorical, sometimes to the point of being completely opaque. But when everything clicked together, my God, what an extraordinarily beautiful piece of writing. And that ending - an absolute gut punch of an ending that I'm going to be thinking about for a long, long time. Highly, highly recommend.
The Echo Wife (5★/5), by Sarah Gailey: An excellent, excellent thriller. My spoiler-laden review is here, but suffice to say, I highly, highly recommend and want everyone to read this book so I can talk about it with people.
A Net for Small Fishes (3.5★/5), by Lucy Jago: A strong, yet a bit patchy, piece of historical fiction that I enjoyed reading, and I also enjoyed discovering this author's writing. Reviewed here.
La Guerre des pauvres (4.6★/5), by Éric Vuillard: A good, punchy novella on Muntzer's rebellion in the early Reformation. A good blend of profane, religious, and gory - although the narrator shift at the end was a bit weird. Vuillard is up there with Énard for me in being one of the best writers of nouvelles currently active in French literature.
Act Your Age, Eve Brown (5★/5), by Talia Hibbert: Queen Talia strikes again - the closing book in the Brown Sisters series is just as brilliant as the first two, and I cannot wait to read her Austen retellings (first one out in 2022, if Goodreads is to be believed!). I gush about this book here.
The Manningtree Witches (4★/5), by A.K. Blakemore: A good little book that doesn't quite do what it's intending to. Reviewed here.
Transcendent Kingdom (5★/5), by Yaa Gyasi - My God, what an incredible piece of contemporary literature. Reviewed (sort of - I mostly just say how much I love it for 2 minutes) here.
Kink: Stories (3★/5), edited by R.O. Kwon and Garth Greenwell: An interesting, if patchy short story collection - some were excellent, some were forgettable, and I think the theme was broad enough that the plots and premises of some of the stories felt interchangeable. I think this collection would have benefited from either more ruthless editors or a stricter freeform prompt to the authors, as the originality of the theme starts to pale as the stories taper off in punch in the latter half of the collection, and I definitely had to drag myself through the last two. The Carmen Maria Machado story was the standout for me, as was the Brandon Taylor piece (although I do also wonder how much of that is my own bias since I'm already familiar with, and enjoy, their work). But I did really enjoy the reading habit of one short story after completing a full-length novel, and dipping in and out of different worlds and people's inner lives that way; and I'm looking forward to carrying this way of reading forward and getting to discover more short story writers that way.
The Lost Apothecary (1★/5), by Sarah Penner: Good premise, poor execution. Reviewed here.
L'Anomalie (5★/5), by Hervé le Tellier: A weird, but very fun, very clever, very thorough book. In contention for my top of 2021 list. Reviewed here.
The Pursuit of Love (4.3★/5), by Nancy Mitford: I thought this book would be fun and light and enjoyable - and it was all of those things, but dear Christ, it was also so fucking sad. Nancy Mitford writes a very short, very pithy, very scathing novella of the British aristocracy in the inter-war years, and Linda Radlett's rather sordid marital history is hilarious while also being poignant and heartbreaking. The novel's ending came out of nowhere and made me actually tear up, because I'd gotten so attached to her (the first-person narrator isn't Linda but rather Linda's childhood best friend and cousin, Fanny, who is an excellent narrator). A couple paragraphs of this book have not aged well (it was written in 1945, after all), but I still really enjoyed the experience of reading it and I was pleased to discover that there are two more books narrated by Fanny, so I will be purchasing those for when I need another light, enjoyable read that still has some emotional stakes in it.
Vinegar Girl (4.3★/5), by Anne Tyler: A fun retelling of The Taming of the Shrew that actually manages to pack in quite a few themes into a tight 245 pages: the complex dynamics of family, the demands of modern womanhood, the perils of emotional repression, animal cruelty in scientific research, and neurodivergence in a rigorously 'typical' world. The writing is light and frothy and this is a speedy read, but don't let that fool you - this book is saying a lot. I don't agree with all of it, and my God I was so angry that Kate didn't tell her father and sister and even Pyotr were exactly they could stuff it at any point in the novel, but this was an interesting read and for someone who's never read any Anne Tyler before, I can understand why she's so prolific.
Blood & Sugar (4.4★/5), by Laura Shepherd-Robinson: Compelling, pulpy, easy to read. A good way to spend a weekend. I've reviewed it in full here.
Finlay Donovan is Killing It (4.8★/5), by Elle Cosimano - A very fun, very escapist read that I enjoyed way more than I thought I would. I've reviewed it here and I'm already counting down the days till the next book in this planned series.
Moi, Tituba sorcière... (4.2★/5), by Maryse Condé: A retelling of The Crucible, from the point of view of Tituba, the Salem servant who was the first accused witch. It also brings in a telling of Tituba's life, right up to one of the first failed slave rebellions in Barbados. It was an enjoyable read, and I really liked the little clin d'œuil to The Scarlet Letter in there. I take away points because the author did gallop through the story a bit fast and I think I would have liked to take more time to really sink into each passage of Tituba's life. Still, though, a pretty good book and the mystical elements of the story are really well done. Available in an English translation here.
Blacktop Wasteland (4.5★/5), by S.A. Cosby: A very good, very gripping thriller with a heaping dose of gore. Burning people on fire! Heads getting blown off by shotguns! PEOPLE BEING MURDERED IN CAR CRUSHERS! Reviewed here.
Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister (0.5★/5), by Gregory Maguire: This was a bad book. It's basically a Cinderella retelling, with some other fairy tales thrown in there (Rapunzel immediately springs to mind), and I think an attempt at criticism of religious fanaticism and bad parenting? I don't know. Somehow, Maguire's writing existed as obscure and painfully obvious at the same time - the themes flip around wildly with no cohesion, people speak in riddles for no discernible reason and with no later explanation, and yet every piece of dialogue was a character pontificating and ending with A Quote that was obviously meant to Represent A Big Theme of the Novel. It read like a YA novel masquerading as an adult novel. And, my God, every single one of the characters is awful to each other, for no apparent reason other than to just see how bitchy they can be. Give this one a hard pass.
Shipped (1.2★/5), by Angie Hockman: A bit of a sloppy rom-com (closed-doors, so if you need sex in your romances, give this one a pass). It's an office, enemies-to-lovers romance; but we seem to skip right over the enemies part to the lovers part with not nearly enough sexy bickering banter for my taste; and I think the secondary characters felt too much like stock characters to be enjoyable. I was also fully taken out of the book when our main character threatens her sister with physical violence to get her to open up about an abusive relationship. I noped out of that world at that and was never able to get back into it. This is one of those stories that exists in a strange place of less than mediocre, but not garbage either.
False Colours (3★/5), by Georgette Heyer: Another fun, bubbly, easy historical romance, this time about twins who trade places to work out who's going to marry who. It's a bit ridiculous, but it was a fun, light, frothy read that killed a dreary Saturday morning; and considering that Georgette Heyer was writing in the 40s and 50s her historical novels have aged comparatively un-controversially (it seems to me). I look forward to reading more of her historical romances whenever I need a palate cleanser.
Culture Warlords: My Journey Into the Dark Web of White Supremacy (3.1★/5), by Talia Lavin: It was fine. The analysis was anecdotal more than statistical, and I think this book's subject suffers a bit from being such recent history that there is no room to come at it from any sort of historical perspective (we know where it fits on the timeline of history, and we can make guesses about how the pattern might repeat, but that's kind of it). And none of her insights or information is new, per se, certainly not to any woman who's made the mistake of expressing an opinion on Twitter; but it was an interesting enough read that I never regretted picking it up.
Hot Stew (4.7★/5), by Fiona Mozley: I was initially planning on reviewing this book, but once I finished it I realized that actually there wasn't very much there for me to review. That's not to say it's not a good book, because it definitely is and I definitely enjoyed reading it and am recommending it, it's just that the story is more a loosely connected set of vignettes around the expulsion of sex workers in a makeshift brothel in Soho, and we don't really get to spend enough time with each of the characters to get more than tangentially invested. It's an intellectual read rather than an emotional one. The writing is clever, and I've seen this reviewed as a twenty-first century update on Dickens (I consider it an improvement on Dickens, but that's just because Dickens can get right in the bin as far as I'm concerned), and I think that's definitely accurate - it's an academic, intellectual take on gentrification, prostitution, the homelessness crisis, the mafia (I think?) and middle-class guilt. There's a lot going on and there's even more to unpack, and I think this is a book that will stand up to a lot of re-reading, but it's also one of those books you should go into with a clean slate so you can imprint your own judgments on it. Go forth and enjoy, Reader.
Margaret the First (4.5★/5), by Danielle Dutton: A very enjoyable, very imaginative, very inventive short little novel about Margaret Cavendish, a Restoration-era author that I've somehow never heard of? There's a lot of writing technique on show in this novella, and I really enjoyed picking up on all the literary and theatre references Dutton packs in. I almost wish it had been longer, so I could have spent some more time with Margaret. Highly recommend.
The Uncommon Reader (5★/5), by Alan Bennett: A charming, silly, ludicrous fun book that is basically: What would happen if the Queen became a voracious reader? This is basically 121 pages on the power of reading and how addicting and transformative it can be to visit new worlds. On a sidenote, I think I would have a lot more respect for the monarchy if they all abdicated and attempted to become novelists. This is a great, enjoyable little book that is the perfect pick-me-up.
Daughters of Night (4.5★/5), by Laura Shepherd-Robinson: Another strong entry in what I'm really hoping will be a series, though I'm not quite sure who would be the central character in any third book (maybe Perry Child or Cassandra Willoughby?). A strong, gripping mystery with multiple threads and great characters, and I really enjoyed being in this world and in Caro's head. A strong, easy read.
The Bloody Chamber: Stories (3.8★/5), by Angela Carter: Gothic, gory retellings of a few classic fairy tales. I enjoyed this, although it was a bit too metaphysical and fantastical for me at times; I think my favorite was The Bloody Chamber (there's a lot going on here - a bit of Poe, a bit of Bronte, a lot of horror) and my least favorite was The Erl-King (when I say it was a bit too fantastical at times, this is the story I was referring to). A thoroughly enjoyable, thought-provoking collection all told though, and one I enjoyed reading and recommend to anybody who enjoys being weirded out and a bit creeped out even as they're fascinated.
J'ai perdu Albert (4★/5), by Didier van Cauwelaert: A very funny, surprisingly dark story about a medium who's inhabited by the spirit of Albert Einstein and then loses that spirit to a struggling beekeeper in Brussels. Utterly bonkers, utterly cutting, another good, gripping, funny, light read by van Cauwelaert. I'm getting more of his books because his short novellas are just excellent quick, palate-cleanser reads while still treating some pretty big subjects. He does it with a deft, funny touch that doesn't minimize or take away from the seriousness of his themes at all.
Queens of the Crusades (3★/5), by Alison Weir: A historical analysis of the Queens Consort of England from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Eleanor of Castile. A fine book, but I think Weir is trying to do too much and the amount of detail she packs in doesn't leave a lot of room for anything other than a straight transcription of historical details. Will I still read the other books she's planning to write in this vein? Yes, probably. I just love medieval history so much.
Right, that's me done - sorry for a long wrap-up this month, but I read a lot of books and I really think you ought to be more impressed by that than you currently are, Internet friends.
As always, let me know which of these books you've read, what books you virulently disagree with me on, and which ones you know want to read based on my recommendations.