Monday, March 1, 2021

February 2021 Reading Reflections

Oops, this month-end reading reflections post is coming up a bit later than I originally intended! Work has suddenly gotten very stressful for me, so I'm going to need to slow down on posting here for at least a few weeks. Emotionally speaking, I'm also really hitting the pandemic wall now, noticeably worse than a few weeks ago. Now that work is getting busier, I think it's likely I'll also lose some of my recent momentum when it comes to how much I'm able to read for fun. 

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Overall, I've had extremely good luck this year so far when it comes to picking out enjoyable and engaging books to read. I think I already have strong frontrunners for my favorite nonfiction book and favorite novel of 2021. From January, Hidden Valley Road by Robert Kolker was so good that it's hard to imagine any other nonfiction book displacing it. From this month, Piranesi by Susanna Clarke and Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel are both great novels. 

Like in my book reflections post last month, I've listed this month's books in the order in which I finished reading them: 

  • Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel - I personally like Station Eleven much better than Emily St. John Mandel's newest novel, The Glass Hotel, which I read last year. Station Eleven has a bit more of a plot arc to it, while The Glass Hotel is a lot more cryptic and vague, maybe a little too much so. Based on these two novels, I really enjoy St. John Mandel's writing style and the way she ties together many loosely connected characters and story lines. I'll happily pick up and try anything else she writes. This novel begins with a deadly flu pandemic, which might put some people off given current events, but I didn't mind that. 
  • Nomadland by Jessica Bruder - This was another strong work of investigative journalism, which I enjoyed nearly as much as I did Robert Kolker's Hidden Valley Road. (That's very strong praise! Between these two books, I'd say Hidden Valley Road wins out slightly because it's so tightly focused on one family with a uniquely compelling story. It's hard for anything else to compete with that story, no matter how good the writing.) Nomadland discusses the phenomenon of "workampers," older Americans forced by the Great Recession of 2008 to live in RVs, trailers, or vans and travel across the US to look for seasonal work, including at Amazon warehouses. 
  • Weather by Jenny Offill - This was a very brief novel and a strange read. I found it easy to get through, and while it's vividly written and I felt immersed in what was happening, I had a lot of trouble following the larger plot. So I also found it a bit cryptic and vague, but in a very different way from St. John Mandel's The Glass Hotel. I probably didn't understand this novel well enough to really make a strong recommendation for or against reading it.
  • Pretty Girls by Karin Slaughter - Like I said in January, I consider Karin Slaughter a very strong and reliable author for thrillers and murder mysteries. So it wasn't a surprise that I enjoyed this book, I think it may have been the most fast-paced and absorbing of her standalone novels I've read. The story really hits the ground running from the very first chapter. In terms of comparing this novel to the rest of Slaughter's work, I think I might still recommend starting with one of her other books. My first Slaughter novel was The Good Daughter and I think that's a strong place to start. The plot and main criminal conspiracy behind Pretty Girls is a lot more "out there" and elaborate than in most of her other novels, and I think it might come across as being exaggerated and cartoonishly evil if you're not already a fan of the author. Though I also think Slaughter is a much better thriller and murder mystery author than most, she can successfully pull off a plot that could sound silly and distractingly unbelievable in the wrong hands, and I think she manages that here. Please be aware there are big content warnings on this book for sexual assault and violence. I don't think she ever writes about these acts in a gratuitous way, but this book is more graphic than is typical for the rest of her work. 
  • Piranesi by Susanna Clarke - As I couldn't help but preview for you in mid-February, Piranesi is my favorite book of the month and also a clear frontrunner for my favorite novel of the year. It's a really delightful and unique story with fantasy elements. I think some people find the first chapter or two a bit difficult to get into, Susanna Clarke's writing style in this novel is definitely quite creative and unique and it took some time for me to settle in with it, but by the third or fourth chapter I was completely hooked. I've never managed to get into Clarke's first novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, but I might be inspired to try again because Piranesi was just so good. 
  • The Searcher by Tana French - This is my fourth Tana French novel and confirms my sense that she's an extremely skilled and reliable author of police procedural and murder mystery novels, in a different - also less violent, with no sexual violence - style from Karin Slaughter. (The two are really not similar in writing style, it's just hard not to try and compare because they write in the same genres, I enjoy both authors to a similar degree, and I read both of them this month.) I generally find French's books to be a "slow burn" for me, perhaps because they feature a lot of introspection by her main characters and also because the murder mystery at the heart of each novel tends to unravel quite slowly, at least until the last third or so of each book. Out of all her novels I've read, I found The Searcher to feel somewhat more fast-paced.

In February, I picked up and then dropped two not-so-good thrillers, Camilla Lackberg's The Gilded Cage and Catherine Steadman's Mr. Nobody. Both had clunky writing and the plots were starting to seem too silly to continue with by the time I got through the first third or so. 

Over the years, I've often been sad that it's so difficult to find authors who are consistent and reliable with writing good thrillers. I love Gillian Flynn, and on the police-procedural side of things I have Karin Slaughter, Tess Gerritsen, and now Tana French (though I wouldn't really consider French's novels to be thrillers because her stories tend to move more slowly). I can't think of that many other authors worth recommending. My last good thriller from a new-to-me author was Lucy Foley's The Guest List, but I found the story and characters a little underdeveloped, so it's more a "good enough" thriller rather than an actually "good" one that makes me eager to pick up more from the same author. 

Unrelated to books and reading, I wanted to thank everyone who commented on my recent "link list" post to share their stories about navigating racial identity while growing up and looking for published stories that reflected one's lived experience, whether that experience included "lunchbox stories" or not. I'm always grateful for the opportunity to have thoughtful discussions about topics like that here at my blog! 

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