December Reading Wrap-up

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When you hit your 100-book reading goal for the year in September, the rest of the year feels a bit like a free-for-all. I am chaos, destroyer of TBR piles everywhere! So December was basically me reading a few books here and there in between time spent decorating a Christmas tree (that then took a tumble), eating way too many pieces of peppermint bark, and losing at Catchphrase to my sister. Some of what I read were books I actually remember reading — aka what follows on this list — and some were super cheesy, egregiously and unrealistically romantic books I picked up on a whim that I forgot as soon as I put them down. (We all need to read a few of those type of books every once in a while.)

But of the books I do remember, “Bad Fruit” was so good it made its way onto my list of best books I read in 2022, which I posted on my TikTok account. And “Atlas Six” became my personality for two weeks — as I say in one of the following reviews, I’m a Nico who wants to be a Parisa — even if the sequel, “Atlas Paradox,’ didn’t live up to my expectations. Meanwhile, “Half a Soul” is just about the cutest book ever and put a giant smile on face every second I was within its pages. Overall, it wasn’t a bad month for reading, as “Assembly,” “Salvation of a Saint,” and “Ghost Forest” were all 4-star reads I thoroughly enjoyed, and even my 3-star books weren’t bad; they just weren’t quite what I hoped.

Anyway, here are my full thoughts on this month’s books, all of which were first posted on my Goodreads.

December Books:

  1. “Bad Fruit” (5)
  2. “Atlas Six” (5)
  3. “Half a Soul” (4.5)
  4. “Assembly” (4)
  5. “Salvation of a Saint” (4)
  6. “Ghost Forest” (4)
  7. “Atlas Paradox” (3.5)
  8. “Tis the Season for Revenge” (3)
  9. “Roses, in the Mouth of a Lion” (3)

“Roses, in the Mouth of a Lion” by Bushra Rehman — 3/5

I am a sucker for beautiful writing. And in this book, Bushra Rehman’s is extraordinary. She writes poetically and sees the world in a creative way, leading to some stunning lines and fascinating musings. Through her book’s main character, Razia, Rehman explores the concept of separate selves — too Western, too Pakistani; too straight, too queer; too rebellious, too obedient — in an inherently readable way.

But I gave this book three stars. 

Somehow, as lovely as the writing is, it came across a little impersonal and disconnected. It felt almost as if I were reading a series of flittering vignettes, a chain of scattered memories. I wanted more of a solid plot line running through the book to make me feel more tied to the story itself. And that means the ambiguous ending didn’t feel earned and brought the book to a screeching halt. 

I guess good writing isn’t my end-all, be-all, after all. 

Special thanks to NetGalley and Flatiron Books for providing me with an e-ARC of this book in exchange for my honest review.

“Bad Fruit” by Ella King — 5/5

This is a book largely about what we forget. But I want to remember every single word.

Lily is just a few weeks away from going to Oxford and escaping her volatile mother, her complicit father, and her “too still, too threatening house” when the chaos ramps up and Lily starts seeing visions of her mother’s memories. Or are they hallucinations? Lily isn’t so sure what’s going on. Her sister and brother have already escaped — one is at medical school, one is working at a law firm — although the scars of their childhood are plain to see. But Lily thinks she’s managed to escape mostly unscathed by being “Mama’s girl, Mama’s doll” and acquiescing to her mother’s every demand: from reorganizing her mother’s closet and picking out the lingerie she should wear; to tasting her mother’s juice for her to make sure it’s exactly as rotten as she likes it; and to wearing yellow-toned foundation to cover up her pale skin that she inherited from her white, English father, dying her brown hair black, and wearing a contact over her mismatched hazel eye to hide her “white devil” eyes away from her Singaporean Peranakan mother. 

My first comment in my notes app for this review was, “If the rest of the book is like this… damn.” Ella King’s writing is truly extraordinary; I found myself constantly telling my sister, “listen to this line.” For Lily, trying to maintain the peace at a fancy family outing is “like playing chess with traitorous pieces.” Lily is a “dying star held together by a handclasp. An explosion undetonated by a single prayer. Inside my mouth, my tongue sings.” She can “feel all [her] lacerated pieces” and finds solace in knowing she isn’t “the only person who looks out and sees burning.” She knows the “topography of her [mother’s] rage, the contours of her violence.”

Every single character in this novel is written exquisitely. There’s “Mama,” a menacing, violent figure dressed all in pink and surrounded by teddy bears whose voice trembles with excitement when she realizes one of her children has made a mistake she can pounce on and whose trauma — at the hands of her father — is the heart of the novel. She repeats that cycle of abuse with her own children. “Daddy” is a forensic pathologist who can’t seem to escape, either, not that he shows any indication that he wants to. Instead, despite seeing the horrors of others at crime scenes, he ignores and covers up the abuse that’s happening at home. And then there are Lily’s siblings, Julia and Jacob, who have their own coping mechanisms and ways of bargaining with themselves and their pasts to get what they want: Julia rages out and seeks to bring anger to others, and Jacob hides away at the first sign of too much noise or chaos. But both are cognizant of what happened to them as kids, even if they don’t think they want to do anything about it.

And then there’s Lily. Everyone tells her to be better and to be her own person — but then they leave her all by herself. She’s trying to figure out whether she can be her own person and not her mother’s carbon copy, but she’s been so lost for so long she isn’t sure where to start. Lily is her mother’s special one. She’s different. Or so she’s been told. But as her mind begins to experience her mother’s memories, she feels herself breaking in all sorts of ways as her mother’s leash on her begins to tighten, and she begins to experience the violence herself.

This is a world where “I Love You’s” are profane.

Where abuse is an inheritance.

Where one bad apple — or orange or grape — has spoiled the whole bunch.

Where love and hurt are synonymous.

As Lily remarks, “The questions carve ravines into me that I can’t cross, no matter how I try, and yet tremoring deeper, and then deeper still, is something so obscure it can’t be framed into a question because it’s not a question but a person. Mother. Child. Victim. Murderer. A woman who’s loved me and destroyed me, as I’ve loved and destroyed her.”

Yeah, I don’t want to forget anything about this book.

“Tis the Season for Revenge” by Morgan Elizabeth — 3/5

I never knew I needed to read something that’s “Legally Blonde” meets “Mean Girls,” and this book is fun and flirty with strong dialogue and well-developed characters — and lots and lots of pink. But as much as I enjoyed it a lot while reading it, after putting the book down and reflecting on it for more than two seconds, I had a long “oh, this would have been so much better if” list. I mean, Abbie and Damien are sweet together, especially in the way neither tries to change the other, and I liked both immensely. But their relationship moved a tad fast, especially because there wasn’t a ton of chemistry outside the (spicy yet gratuitous) sex scenes. Too much felt surface-level and unexplored. And, unfortunately for author Morgan Elizabeth, the book had two of my specific icks: pet names that aren’t my cup of tea (he calls her “baby,” she calls him “honey”) and “lick” in dialogue when a man is performing oral sex. But overall, this is a nice Christmassy book that takes the spirit of two of the best movies ever made and turns the combination into a quick and quirky read.

“Salvation of a Saint” by Keigo Higashino — 4/5

There’s almost nothing as satisfying as a good mystery, one that hooks you, challenges you, makes you question everyone and everything, and keeps the tension throughout every page. Keigo Higashino is a master of such books. “Salvation of a Saint” is now the third of his books I’ve read (“Malice” and “The Devotion of Suspect X” being the other two), and each one has stunned and satisfied me in completely different ways. 

“Salvation of a Saint” takes the idea of “it’s always the spouse” and pushes it: Yoshitaka is dead, and his wife, Ayane, is the most logical suspect. Except, she seems to be the only person in the world who can’t have killed him because Yoshitaka drank arsenic-laced coffee while she was a flight (or a really, really long drive) away. The book almost feels cold and sharp, but Higashino still manages to convey remarkable depth to his characters. He had me empathizing with each character (suspected murderer or not) while never overloading on the emotion and striking a balance with the logical. There’s a quiet push to this novel, as reader and detective constantly peel back layers to the crime; the solution here is intricate and, in a sense, beautiful, even though we’re talking about murder. 

Maybe the real mystery is how Higashino continues to write such wonderful books with such brilliant solutions.  

“The Atlas Six” by Olivie Blake — 5/5

Before I opened this book, I prepared my reading area (my bed) for what I’d been warned was a complicated — but tremendously good — book. As in, I got out my highlighters, pens, and tabs and prepared to take copious notes and to make flowcharts. I wasn’t a straight-A student for nothing! While close reading sometimes takes me out of a book, in this case, doing so got me absolutely hooked. 

I loved each and every one of these twisted, fiery, depressed, ambitious characters. Olivie Blake’s six main characters are vibrant and interesting; she feels like the kind of author who could tell you her characters’ Zodiac sign (sun, moon, and rising), their favorite meals, what Jane Austen character they’d be in a Buzzfeed quiz. These characters are really what holds this story together. And Blake uses the characters to create a sort of puzzle; because the book shifts perspectives, the reader is constantly sorting among what each character thinks, what all the characters think of the other characters, what’s being said, what’s not being said, etc.  

The story itself is quite promising and has potential to make for a wonderful series as it gets fleshed out in following books (time travel?? alternate universes?????). And Blake’s writing style really captures those Dark Academia vibes in a way that’s both pretentious and gritty. I had an absolute blast reading this book. 

I have the sequel sitting next to me on my bedside table, and I can’t wait to dig in. Good thing I still have all my pens and tabs and highlighters here, too. 

“The Atlas Paradox” by Olivie Blake — 3.5/5

I loved the first book in this series! I… liked this one. 

Gah, isn’t that just the worst?

I spent this whole book feeling like I was being edged. The story kept building and building, but I was never sure where the plot was heading (or even what the series’ endgame is), which you wouldn’t think would be the case in the second book in a series when things should really start to take shape. The book’s slow pacing made the stakes feel extraordinarily low, given we’re supposedly talking about the potential destruction of this world and the possible creation of another. I got all this exposition and characterization in the first book; I didn’t need it in this one, too. There’s tons and tons of talk here in this book about time and dreams and realms and science and gods, but there’s no real Big Bad yet in this series, so the whole plot never felt like it was leading anywhere, so it came across as tedious to read and without any payoff. I wanted that explosive climax! 

I will say that I was impressed with how Olivie Blake seems to have found her voice more in this story and how she continues to understand her characters extremely deeply. But in this book, the characters split more off into specific pairings or groupings rather than them all spending time together as a whole, so while that creates some really interesting dynamics, the book felt too segmented. And because the characters aren’t all talking to each other, no one — except the reader — realizes everyone and everything is connected. (The fact that the characters don’t really •do• anything in this book except talk and talk and talk — often in circles — definitely doesn’t help.) Blake’s care for her characters seems abandoned as she makes them almost stereotypes of who they were in the first book, and it came across that she seem to know quite how to develop them throughout this second book or how to have them grow.

Blake definitely has some magic in her, because, despite all my listed grievances, I still am a fan of this series. The characters are fun, especially when you want to try to classify yourself by characters (I’m probably a Nico who wants to be a Parisa) and specialties (I want Libby’s), and the air of mystery and the dark academia–type atmosphere are wonderfully created. And while I spent the majority of my time reading this book being annoyed with it because it wasn’t living up to my hopes, I still read it in less than a day.  

Second books are often hard to do, especially after such an explosive, beloved opening book, so I’m really hoping this series can right its course. There’s so much good material and even more potential here. Basically, if anything at all — and I do mean at all — happens in the next book of the series, it’ll be on the right track. 

“Ghost Forest” by Pik-Shuen Fung — 4/5

Sometimes, one of my parents will tell a story I haven’t heard before about when they were young, and it temporarily stuns me to think about how they existed in this world before they were “Mom” or “Dad” to my sister and me. This book sort of follows along those lines — although written much more beautifully than by me here — as a young woman looks back on her life in regards to her ailing father to realize it may be too late to ever understand him.

Our narrator is part of an “astronaut family,” a Hong Kong–coined term used to describe “a family with an astronaut father—flying here, flying there” as her father stayed back in Asia for work while she and her mother went to Vancouver, Canada, to live. (Where the narrator’s sister is later born.) This raises all sorts of fascinating cultural differences in the family: the father who has lived in Hong Kong his whole life and thinks his daughters are too Westernized, the mother who understands both cultures and tries to live between them, and the daughters who don’t understand their father’s strict, Eastern practices and beliefs. Everything in the book comes to a bit of a head when the narrator’s father ends up in the hospital, and she ruminates on the concept of love within her family and as she searches to know who he is — and who he has been in his life in Hong Kong when she hasn’t been there.

While this isn’t a loud book, it doesn’t need to be. It’s full of lilting, haunting vignettes as its sentimental story is told in pieces. Almost as if these are whispering threads woven together to create a beautiful tapestry on the meaning of love, life, and loss, sacrifice and forgiveness. The emotional story is set off wonderfully against Pik-Shuen Fung’s sparse prose that makes the most out of the white space in the story; this book isn’t in-your-face, it makes its home in the quiet contemplation. 

The next time one of my parents tells a story, I’ll make sure to get out a pen and jot their words down. Because they may be “Mom” and “Dad,” but they were “Kim” and “Paul” first. And I want to know all there is to know about them. 

“Half a Soul” by Olivia Atwater — 4.5/5

I think I said the word “cute” 150 times while reading this book. 

Dora? “Oh, she’s way cute, I just want to hug her.” Elias? “Look at this grumpy sorcerer — he’s too cute for words.” Dora and Elias? “Ah! They’re unbelievably cute together. They complement each other wonderfully.”  Their interactions? “Omg, how cute. I can’t get enough of them.” The magic system? “Yes, this is very, very cute. I mean, he made floating napkin swans for her!” The setting? You guessed it: “Incredibly charming and too dang cute.” 

Cute. Cute. Cute. Cute. Cute. 

Cute!

(And those 150 times don’t include other variations of the word — see: adorable, precious, darling… you get the picture.)

This book was exactly what I needed. It’s full of delightful whimsy in a light magic system with witty repartee, matchmaking mamas, interfering friends, and chaotic interactions involving a punch bowl. I laughed, I swooned, I got butterflies. Sparks and feelings flew. (As did the words from both the sharp-tongued main characters.) But that’s not to say this novel lacked depth. Dora is trying to figure out who she is and who she wants to be because she has only half a soul — the other half was stolen by a faerie. And Elias is back from war and finds himself overwhelmed trying to save England’s children from a mysterious sleeping curse. There’s a surprising amount of class-consciousness for a book like this, but none of the heavy subject matter ever felt, well, heavy. 

Once I picked this book up, I found myself firmly ensconced in it, and I don’t think there’s anything that could have compelled me to put it down (other than maybe something BTS-related, of course). 

When my sister was deciding whether to read this book and asked me how I’d describe it, I had only one answer: It’s so freaking cute.

“Assembly” by Natasha Brown — 4/5

Good writing is my weakness. And in this book, Natasha Brown has made a game out of brilliant language in a stunning, dizzying structure (112 pages in a stream-of-consciousness style). Brown’s narrator’s voice is quiet and reflective as she examines her role as a Black woman in British society and as a participant in a capitalistic structure. The narrator is a successful investment banker who is going to a party hosted by her white boyfriend’s old money parents, and her worldview is starting to crack. We’re along for the ride. While the narrator has infiltrated the world of the upper echelon of British society, she’s not so sure it’s worth it and wonders whether she has, instead, found herself as the mouthpiece of a broken, racist system. Through our narrator, Brown explores concepts such as the myth of meritocracy, always being an “other” and never bring British enough because of skin color, tokenism, and the “right” kind of diversity. 

The book almost feels claustrophobic because of Brown’s tightly constructed world full of aggressions, both micro and macro. And this heaviness is only exacerbated by the feelings of our narrator, who at one point says, “I’ve sunk too deep, pulled down further by a creeping, winding tightness around my limbs. Still, I hold my breath.” Like the narrator, too, you feel this sense of bewilderment at society, and the urgency in the pacing showcases Brown’s deft hand in building tension, especially in the final third where, when the narrator is at her boyfriend’s house, all the narrative threads really come together. 

This is an unflinching, searing little book — with, yes, lots and lots of good writing. 

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