Tuesday, February 04, 2020

What I Read | January

A look back at what I read last month. #ASGbookshelf #whatIread

I started the year playing catch-up with the books I didn't finish in 2019. There were about ten of them still on the list. I'm happy to say that I checked most of them off and am patiently waiting for the last few to come up on my library hold list. January was a fantastic month for books. There were a lot of losers, but tons of winners and I had a hard time figuring out which ones I liked the most. I might have even found a new favorite author - something I am very excited about. All in all, I read twenty-four books in January and am ten books ahead in my Goodreads yearly reading challenge! Woo! Bring on February and all the reads to come.

Must Read

The Emperor's Assassin by Autumn Bardot  | ★★★★★
Locusta is the daughter of a winemaker in the Roman province of Gaul. She enjoys the indulged childhood of the elite, her concerns only about the day’s amusements. She rides gentle ponies, attends parties, reads Ovid, and learns the herbal arts from her servant. But the day after meeting her betrothed, Locusta discovers the consequences of possessing such dangerous knowledge.

Ordered to leave her pastoral life, Locusta is thrust into a world of intrigue, scandal, and murder—where treason lurks behind every corner and defying an emperor means death. Locusta’s life changes forever when a young Emperor Nero requires her herbal expertise. And commands her to be his personal poisoner. Caught in an imperial web, Locusta must embrace her profession or die. Or is there another way out? History paints her as the first female serial killer. Or is she yet another maligned woman in history? - Goodreads description

Content warning: This story does have several descriptive scenes of rape, sexual assault, and domestic violence, so if you are sensitive to these topics, please read with care. It's been a long time since I've read a book with which I've not grown impatient, always checking to see how many pages remain and how much longer I have to wait to find out what happens at the end. I've never read anything from Bardot before, but she had me so invested in this story and I couldn't put the book down. Even though the novel takes place in ancient Rome, the story reads as very modern with characters who are realistic and dialogue that is smart and interesting. I adored Locusta, our protagonist, and I was able to relate to her at various stages in her life. She is intelligent, caring, and strong in a world where women are seen as nothing more than sexual conquests or heir-bearers. I also enjoyed reading about the other characters, some of which are horrible people but meeting them in this context brought to life all those people from the history books that before, seemed fictitious. While this book is marketed as historical fiction, Bardot throws a few curveballs in with the style of her writing. There are quite a few erotic scenes (I later read that this is Bardot's specialty) and early into the book, a Biblical character is introduced, so I wasn't sure where we were going with that until she tied it all in at the end. Basically, it's Fifty Shades meets The Odyssey meets The Hunger Games, but it's done so well that it all makes sense and feels cohesive. I will note that the violent sexual scenes I mentioned in the content warning are tough to read, but they are necessary to bring context to what the women of this time were subjected to in their daily lives. If the book sounds intriguing to you but you are worried that this content would be more than you wish to read, I'd recommend that you give the book a try anyway. You can sense when these scenes are approaching and they are fairly short, so it would be easy to skim past them, knowing that gritty details are not as important as the occurrences themselves. *Advance copy provided by the publisher in exchange for my honest review.


Swallowtail by Brenna Twohy  | ★★★★★
Swallowtail: A deep dive into the dissection of popular culture, and how the brightness and horrors of it can be mirrors into the daily lived experiences of women in America. - Goodreads description

I so related to this collection of poems that dissected topics like loss and grief, pain and trauma, and what it's like to be a woman in this world. Twohy's writing is just stunning and you can almost feel the emotions that were swirling around inside her as she wrote it, even if you never had a similar experience. I loved how she used references of nature and wove them into her words. This felt like a complete and well-plotted poetry collection. *Advance copy provided by the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

Other mentions for the month of January:

How We Fight For Our Lives by Saeed Jones  | ★★★★★
I've followed Jones on Twitter for several years and am grateful that I learned who he was through another of my author crushes when they had a conversation (here) together. I was extremely interested in reading his book when I first learned that he was writing one, but was worried that I wouldn't have enough in common to relate with his story because I am not a black man, nor am I a gay man. I was so wrong. You don't have to have shared his experiences in order to feel the power of his story. He chronicles his life with a fierce honesty and I related to so much of it. Jones has such a gift with words. Reading this was an emotional journey and I am here for all of it.

Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert  | ★★★★★
There are some books that you love because they are literary masterpieces, and there are some you love because of the feeling you get when you read them. For me, this book is the latter. Gilbert is such an emotional and descriptive writer and it was fun getting to spend a year living vicariously through her as she traveled to Italy, India, and then Indonesia. The way she describes the setting in all three places builds the atmosphere and makes you feel as if you are there, eating the delicious food, and meeting all those interesting people. This book has been on my top ten list since it was published, but this month, I did a re-read with the purpose of annotating all the delicious platitudes and mind-blowing thoughts that Gilbert shares about life, love, heartache, and self-discovery. This will always be one of my favorites.

The Tenth Justice by Brad Meltzer  | ★★★★
I first read this book right after it was published - when I was in college. I adored it and was so grateful to have found this young local author, Brad Meltzer. I've read it several times since and it remains one of my all-time favorite books. After a more critical re-read and annotation of my thoughts throughout the legal thriller, I bumped it down one star-rating but still love it. I enjoyed how fast-paced the story was, and there were several parts in the book where my heart was literally pounding as I read. My only issue was with the characters. I thought they were really likable, but I wouldn't be able to pick them out of a lineup because there were almost no physical descriptions for any of them. I knew each curriculum vitae, each personality, what each did for fun, but no physical descriptions. Perhaps Meltzer wanted us to formulate our own opinions as to what these people looked like, and I certainly did, but this little detail stood out to me. It is one of his earlier novels and he's written a LOT since then, so it could also have been that he wasn't big on this aspect of character development at the time he wrote this novel. It's still a great book though.

Harvard Review (issue 54) by various  | ★★★★
This issue was full of lovely pieces, curated by the crew at Harvard. There was a lot of poetry, short and long-form, which was fun because I'm always looking for new poets to follow. I particularly enjoyed the review of Anne Carson's rewrite of Antigone ("Antigonick") by Dawn Tripp and Jenelle Clausen's piece entitled "Unfriending the Dead," which was based on a topic that I have often pondered myself. 

Handle With Care by Lore Ferguson Wilbert  | ★★★★
This is a faith-based book that discusses all aspects of touch and the importance of healthy touch in our circles today. This is a topic I've always struggled with and knew this book would help me sort through a lot of the thoughts I've wrestled with most of my life. Growing up, I went to a private religious school where it was drilled into our heads that touch was primarily sexual and should be refrained from except in the confines of marriage. If we were to sit next to someone of another gender, we had to leave enough room between our bodies that a copy of the Holy Bible could sit in that space. We were told that our physical bodies had one purpose and to use them outside of that purpose was sinful. I never believed this to be true and have always carried a lot of guilt and shame because of this, and I resonated so much with Lore's words in this book. She shares many personal stories and uses Scripture references to support the statements she makes. This book as a whole was very encouraging and helpful. It's a wonderful read for anyone who is interested in how touch can be used in Christian ministry or, like me, has struggled with some of the ideas about touch that were taught in our early years. *Advance copy provided by the publisher in exchange for my honest review as part of the official book launch team.

Slouching Toward Nirvana by Charles Bukowski  | ★★★★
I've only read Bukowski in tiny snippets, usually shared by a friend who had developed a fondness for his work. I figured it was about time I pick up one of his collections for myself.  This particular one was released posthumously, more than a decade after Bukowski passed, and most of the poems in it had not been seen before. Many of the pieces are not actually poems, per se, rather short stories that are printed in the form of poetic verse, but they are all wonderful. I read through it quickly this first time, but want to go back through it and really try to absorb it. I'll be very happy to add more Bukowski to my bookshelf.

Dig by A.S. King  | ★★★
King's books always take a little time to get into and to understand what is truly going on, but they are always worth the read. In the last book of hers that I read, I didn't catch on to the main point until about halfway through when I started to pick up a narrative pattern, as that point wasn't expressly stated at any point. Even though most of King's books are written for middle-grade children and young adults, she writes about some heavy topics. This one proved no different. It unfolded slowly and featured quirky characters that you have to sit with to understand and sometimes think are downright annoying. I enjoyed this book, but not as much as I did others that King wrote.

Star Wars: A Luke & Leia Adventure by Cavan Scott  | ★★★
I've never before read a choose-your-own-adventure book but thought it was so much fun. It was a traditional Star Wars plot with the familiar characters of Luke, Leia and R2D2, and you follow the prompts to figure out where their mission takes them. This would be a great interactive read for kids and adults alike. Cute illustrations too.

The Devil Wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger | ★★★
It's been years since I first read this book and I now remember why I enjoyed the movie so much more. While it's a fun, humorous, enjoyable story, the writing is laborious and redundant. There are only so many examples you can provide to demonstrate that Miranda Priestly is an absolute bear to work for. Three quarters into the book, I don't need to read yet another conversation she has with one of her assistants in which she berates them for not reading her mind and catering to her excessive needs. This behavior was clearly described in chapter two, but it felt like each encounter Miranda had with either Andrea or Emily needed to top the previous one in its degree of absurdity. In addition to the overall narrative arc, the film also did character development better. I liked who Andrea was in the movie more than I did the book. This is true for all the supporting characters too who didn't feel like afterthoughts in the film like they were in the book.

Israel Potter by Herman Melville  | ★★★
A fictionalized tale of a real person who fought in the Revolutionary War. The book blurb says, "a man who lived a life of very real adventure," but it didn't feel so adventuresome. In fact, I thought it was a little boring. The writing was good, but I couldn't connect with the piece as a whole.

The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien  | ★★★
This book sort of lays the groundwork for the Middle Earth world that will later produce Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings series. I loved LOTR but struggled with this one because I wanted to read it the same way, and you can't. It wasn't as enjoyable to read, mainly because of the lack of loveable characters and the epic storytelling that I'm so used to from Tolkien. I might come back to this one down the road because the book has so many rave reviews and I'd love to give it another shot and see if I would enjoy it more at another stage in my life.

Kim by Rudyard Kipling  | ★★★
I remember reading at least a portion of this book when I was in school and thinking there were some similarities with The Jungle Book and how Kim describes the world his stories take place in. I, again, felt that way during this re-read. While there are some good spots in this tale, the narration is much too slow for my enjoyment.

The Wendy by Erin Michelle Sky  | ★★★
I have always loved the story of Peter Pan and enjoy retellings of this fun classic. This book looks specifically at Wendy Darling and what she'd be doing when she grew up and ventured out into the world on her own. What would be her dream career, for instance? Why, a captain of a ship, of course, and we follow along as she tries to work her way into one of the few spots available for women in the Royal Navy. I couldn't contain my excitement for this book when I first learned of it, but that excitement quickly dwindled. The story was fun and very pro-women, but it dragged and wasn't as interesting as I hoped it would be. *Advance copy provided by the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela  | ★★★
I've always been intrigued by Nelson Mandela as a person instead of the saint he is always portrayed as. His autobiography helped bring him down to a mortal level again. It showed that he was not perfect, made some missteps, and was, in fact, human. While being interesting, it was very long, clocking in at over seven hundred pages. They are full of personal stories and memories and I thought that some of them could have been edited out to condense the book a little.

The Last Man by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley  | ★★★
When I think about apocalyptic dystopian novels, I always think of the works of modern authors. If I had to choose a 19th-century writer to create such a tale, what better than the woman who wrote Frankenstein? Although I wasn't entirely sure what was going on and why, the story did manage to hold my attention.

Sad Birds Still Sing by Faraway  | ★★★
I always see Faraway's work on Instagram, Tumblr, and Pinterest and have even saved or liked several pieces that I related to. The beauty of Faraway's writing on those platforms is that individually, there is something that feels real to all of us - love, heartache, grief, desire, pain. Although there was a common thread that ran through the book and told a story, collectively, the whole of it isn't as relatable as it is when it's pieced out. *Advance copy provided by the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

Then She Was Gone by Lisa Jewell  | ★★☆☆
So many of my bookish friends raved about this one, so of course, I picked up a copy as soon as I could get my hands on one. I was engrossed in this story for the first part. Reading about Ellie's disappearance and the aftermath was fascinating, but as soon as Ellie's parents learn of what really happened to her, the story went from sixty to zero in one second flat. I wasn't invested in these characters enough after just a tenth of the book to care what their lives looked like after Ellie. Luckily, it was a quick read so I didn't feel like I wasted much time. What a bummer of a book.

Don't Call Me Dirty by Gorou Kanbe  | ★★☆☆
This is a manga/graphic novel that I chose because the description sounded very interesting. However, when I read it, there were a few different things going on but none of it wound into a coherent story. I also struggled with the illustrations. They were done in a black and white pencil shading style and my eyes had a difficult time focusing on them. I didn't connect with this piece as a whole, but if you are into manga, you should give it a try. Someone who is into the genre might appreciate this book more. *Advance copy provided by the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

I Came From the Water by Vanita Oelschlager  | ★★☆☆
This is a children's picture book that tells the story of little Moses, an eight-year-old boy from Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Moses earned his name in infancy after being rescued from a river in the flooding that destroyed the city after a hurricane in 2004. Moses then went into an orphanage where he later shared his story with Oelschlager. To start on a positive note, I'll mention that the illustrations done by Mike Blanc were absolutely beautiful. They were colorful and the way he separated the images on his pages with river-like strokes carried the theme of the book from beginning to end. The writing was not as appealing. The story is written in first person and much of it focuses on Moses' early years and the tale of his rescue from the river. I find it difficult to believe that this child remembered these events in great detail. I think it would have been better if the title page said "as imagined by Vanita Oelschlager" rather than marketing this book as a biography. We also jump around a lot between different events in this boy's life, from the disastrous to the mundane and there isn't a good flow from one to the next. Finally, the story is highly religious, given that I assume the orphanage where Moses was as is a Catholic organization and I'm not sure if the themes of religion, natural disasters, death and Heaven (or the alternative) belong in a one children's book. *Advance copy provided by the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

The Marble Faun by Nathaniel Hawthorne  | ★★☆☆
American ex-pats spending time in Italy, making friends and looking at art. The plot sounded interesting enough, but it was an extremely tedious and boring read. Another reviewer compared Hawthorne's writing in this book to that of a high school student writing an essay and explaining everything in great detail so that he can stretch his word count as much as possible, and that is an accurate representation of what reading this felt like.

Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur  | ★★☆☆
This collection of poetry was entirely too emo for me. First of all, it didn't feel like poetry, just a bunch of random thoughts from Kaur's journal that were compiled and bound into a book, a section of which was overtly sexual. There wasn't any rhyme or reason for some of the pieces she shares and the entire thing felt forced and unbalanced. I know there are lots of people who rave about Kaur's work, but I am not a fan.

Haunting of the Blackthorne House by Bruce Knapp  | ☆☆☆
There is so much to say about everything this book is lacking. It's a horror story about a family who moves to the tiny town of Blackwater, and upon their arrival, they witness terrifying things happening. Only they aren't that terrifying because in order to stir up those kinds of emotions, you have to care about your characters and what happens to them, and in this case, I didn't. The book is only one-hundred-and-eight pages long, and that is clearly not long enough to develop a complex plot or list of major players in the story. Random people would appear in the story with no explanation of who they were or why they were there. There is no world-building and the writing was all tell and no see. This is very much a one-note read that could have been so much better if it had been expanded and developed a little more. *Advance copy provided by the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

What did you enjoy reading last month?

The post What I Read | January first appeared on A Simpler Grace. If you enjoyed this article, please feel free to share it with your friends! Don't forget to join the ASG Tribe!


  1. I always like to know what others read and get tips on a good book. I so love that you give ratings next to the title. Thank you for sharing this!!!Loved it!

  2. Wow, girl—you read so many books in January!! And I love that you revisited some old favorites, too. I’d love to do that someday with books that I’ve held in such high regard over the years. I loved Eat Pray Love so much when I read it years ago. It spoke to me, many bc here’s a woman on her second act in life, traversing the world and still trying to figure things out: it was undeniably relatable and I just loved her writing style.

    And that’s a bummer you didn’t enjoy the Lisa Jewel book! I liked that one, but it’s been a while so I don’t remember anything about it.

    Here’s to a great month of reading in February! Xoxo

  3. What a great list! I love to read, so I'll be adding some of these to my list. I really enjoyed The Devil Wears Prada.

  4. Here I was thinking I was somewhat impressive for reading 11 books - and you read 25! My goodness gracious. I feel like I really prioritize reading and put some serious time aside for it, reading 2 books at once and listening to audiobooks while working. How do you read so many? Just a quick reader? Multiples at a time? I'm incredibly curious!

  5. Oh my gosh, you read so much in one month! I cannot imagine finding the time to read this many books. Swallowtail sounds intriguing to me for something a little different than what I normally read. Thanks for sharing all of these!

  6. Elizabeth Gilbert is SO GOOD with words, isn't she?

  7. Hope you find a few books that you enjoy!

  8. Haha! 11 books is great! I read all the time, so that's the only reason I manage to get through so many books every month.

  9. I'm an introvert and single with no children, so I have LOTS of time to dedicate to reading. :)

  10. Wow you read a lot of great books! I love reading so I will have to give some of these a go...thank you for including the 5 star recommendation rating, it rly helps!

  11. So many awesome books to read! I need to add a bunch of these to my reading list!!

    cute & little

  12. Woah, you got a lot of reading done this month. Nice job! I liked Milk and Honey a bit more than you, but it still wasn't a favorite of mine. Have you read Amanda Lovelace? I really liked her book The Princess Saves Herself in this One. I need to read more of her work.


  13. Looks like a lot of awesome books to check out!!

  14. You were a tad bit more generous than I was with Then she was gone. I gave it one star and I was so disappointed.

  15. Hailey HouseholderFebruary 5, 2020 at 5:22 PM

    Holy cow, you read a lot in one month! I'm going to add a bunch of these to my reading list. I have actually been wanting to re-read Eat, Pray, Love lately too. Like you said, it's not a literary masterpiece I just like it! Maybe I will get it in the rotation this month.

  16. I was interested in that new A.S. King book! I've heard her YA stuff is really different. I actually haven't read anything by her except "Me and Marvin Gardens," a middle grade book she wrote that I used as a book discussion book at the library where I work. I thought it was well written and a good topic, if a little zany!

  17. Your ability to read so many books is so amazing! This past month I read Chasing Kites which I highly recommend. It might be because my husband & I are new to foster care but regardless, this true story about a families journey through infertility, fostering, and adoption is inspiring. I highly recommend it.

  18. I love that you are back in a groove. I read 2 fiction books this month (amidst reading Univ text). I am about 3/4 of the way done with one more and 1/4 of the way into another.
    I could not get into Eat Pray Love. It took me nearly a year, abandoned numerous times, but that was when I refused to give up on a book no matter what.
    I love that there were so many 4 or 5 star reads.

  19. Yes! I loved Amanda Lovelace and that was a wonderful poetry collection.

  20. Way to go on all that reading! I'm glad you're getting a little "you" time in. :)

  21. I've heard this from other readers as well.

  22. Still Life With Tornado is my favorite A.S. King book so far. :)

  23. Oh, that sounds like an interesting book. I'll have to add it to my list!

  24. Tobia | craftaliciousmeFebruary 19, 2020 at 4:45 PM

    Wow... Iam altas amazed how much reading you get done. I have not read a single book on this list here. My January reading month was the highest ever recorded and I am rather proud. But it will be a time until I can achieve that again.

  25. Way to go on the books you read in January! We all go through reading peaks and slumps. It's important to read when you have the time. :)