After the jam-packed reading month that was October, it was almost a guarantee this month would be a backslide. The good news is, it wasn’t terrible. I read five books and the content was decent overall. I even managed to read two books from my TBR for the rest of the year. I also got to read an ARC. So I guess I can’t really complain. Now let’s jump right into the wrap-up:
I kicked off the month with The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang.
This book follows Fang “Rin” Runin over a five-year journey. Rin begins her journey when she passes the difficult Keja test and becomes a student at the illustrious Sinegard Academy. While fighting to keep her place at the school, Rin discovers great and terrifying shamanic powers. With a third Poppy War on the horizon, Rin must learn to master them and fight for her people. Influenced by the Second Sino-Japenese War and the Rape of Nanking, this story is visceral and raw.
I really liked this book, but I didn’t love it like I thought I would. I love the characters, especially the deeply flawed protagonist. The relationships are wonderful. My favorite is the one between Rin and Jiang. I’m a sucker for the teacher/mentor/master and student/mentee/apprentice dynamic. The magic system is unique and has real cost. Kuang is a master of world-building with a gift for imagery.
The problem with this book is the pacing. There is too much going on in this book. I think, instead, this book should’ve been three: the first two following Rin’s years as a student and the third following the war. This would’ve made the character development feel earned and made the plot less rushed. Kuang is at her best when she takes her time and I wish she could’ve seen that.
Regardless, this is a fantastic debut. It doesn’t even read like a debut, but like a fantasy epic by a seasoned author. For my more in-depth thoughts, check out my review. I would only advise you don’t read this novel if you are at all triggered or upset by extreme violence. Yes, this book takes place during a war, but some things go beyond regular warfare. I was physically shaking while I read a few scenes, I was so shocked and upset. This isn’t a strike against the book, but rather a warning to prospective readers. As for me, I will definitely be continuing with the series and gave this first volume 4.25 stars out of five.
Next I read Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.
This book follows a troupe of actors and musicians called the Travelling Symphony in a post-apocalyptic world ravaged by a devastating flu. The thread that connects the members of the Travelling Symphony and other notable survivors is, bizarrely, a famous actor named Arthur Leander. Kirsten watched him die onstage during a production of King Lear in which they both starred. Twenty years later, she travels with the Symphony looking for scraps of who Arthur had been. Arthur’s three ex-wives weave in and out of the story, as does an ex-paparazzo. But trouble is on the horizon because the devastation has given rise to the mysterious Prophet and his dangerous cult. The question of the story is how all these characters come hurtling toward each other for a conclusion bursting with answers. This literary fiction novel is part dystopian, part contemporary, part speculative fiction, and all good.
Station Eleven has been on my radar since everyone on BookTube raved about it a year and a half ago. I’m happy to say it did not disappoint. Well, not totally. This book was good, but I don’t know if I was quite satisfied enough by the ending. There are so many threads in less than 350 pages. I guess I just wish there’d been more time spent developing everything. Either way, I still really enjoyed this book. If this is literary fiction, then I think I just may like this genre. I gave this book four stars.
After that, I picked up A Spark of Light by Jodi Picoult.
This story takes place during a shooting and hostage situation at a women’s reproductive health center. It brings together people from all walks of life, a doctor who performs abortions not in spite of his faith, but because of it; a nurse who must put aside her own panic to help an injured woman; a young woman who’s come to terminate her pregnancy; a pro-life protester undercover as a patient; an elderly lesbian; and the hostage negotiator’s teenage daughter. Told in reverse, this daring story unpacks all the arguments for and against abortion and ponders the value of life.
Jodi Picoult is, hands down, my favorite contemporary writer. She always takes complex issues and looks at them from all sides, while also telling a compelling story. This novel is no different. That said, I didn’t love it as much as I’d hoped. The reverse storytelling, while an interesting literary device, added nothing to the story. In a way, it hindered the chance for character development. Most everything we know about the characters comes from flashbacks and they don’t really grow or change. It was hard to care about characters I hardly knew.
One thing I did really like was the parallel between Officer Hugh McElroy and the shooter. Both are single fathers with teenage daughters. Both had difficult childhoods. And yet they took very different paths in life, winding up at vastly different places. I also loved how some of the stories connected. All-in-all, I liked this book, but it’s not a new favorite. I gave it 3.75 stars.
Then I finally got done to business and read Wildcard by Marie Lu.
Two weeks after the events of Warcross, Emika Chen is on a race against the clock to destroy Hideo’s mind control algorithm before it goes live. She has only the Phoenix Riders as her allies, until the mysterious Zero and his crew of Blackcoats offer their assistance. But now treachery is around every corner and Emika needs to decide how far she’ll go to stop the man she loves and save the free will of the people.
Man, I wanted to love this book. Lu sent up such an interesting conflict at the end of Warcross. Unfortunately, this book chose not to explore the shades of gray and instead places Emika on a soapbox of righteousness. After all, is losing the ability to choose to commit a crime truly giving up your free will? This book took all its potential and blew it.
This came at a detriment to Emika and Hideo, whose characters were utterly destroyed by the black-and-white narrative. However, the other characters are better-rounded than the first book and there are some great new characters as well. The plot is also exciting, if disappointing in the direction it took. The ending is one of the most realistic endings I’ve ever read, especially in YA. For my more in-depth thoughts, check out my review.
Though I didn’t love Wildcard, I also didn’t hate it. As fun as it is disappointing, I gave this book three stars.
I ended the month with an ARC I got from Netgalley called A Danger to Herself and Others by Alyssa B. Sheinmel.
This book follows Hannah Gold, who has recently been institutionalized by court order. An accident with her roommate has made law enforcement suspicious. But it was just an accident. Hannah is not crazy, and soon enough the doctor and judge will figure that out and let her go. As long as she plays nice, she has nothing to worry about. And then Lucy arrives with her own baggage and may be the only person who can get Hannah to confront her games and the secrets that got her locked up in the first place.
When I saw this ARC on Netgalley, I knew I had to request it. It sounded so dark and twisted. And for the first half of the book, it was. I genuinely thought I was reading a story about a psychopath that was going to end in horror.
As it turns out, this is actually a book about mental health. This isn’t a bad thing— it’s just not what I was expecting. That said, the way Hannah’s mental illness is portrayed is fantastic. She is never demonized and Sheinmel takes great pains to normalize mental illness. The only problem is we never find out what Hannah’s diagnosis is. As I said in my review, this feels disingenuous.
However, Hannah’s character development is great and her story is beautiful. The plot is character-driven, which is always great in my book. The way Sheinmel slowly alters the mood and tone of the book perfectly reflects Hannah’s disordered thinking as it changes. Aside from the over-emphasis of the phrase “a danger to herself and others,” the writing is spectacular.
I probably would’ve rated this book five stars, if not for a few issues with world-building, Hannah’s lack of a concrete diagnosis, and the abrupt ending. Open-endings are great, but they don’t work without a suggestion of what’s to come. So, in the end, I could only give this book 3.5 stars.
Did you have a good reading month in November? What books did you read? Tell me about them in the comments!
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