December Wrap Up

Oof. Once again, I found myself with two library books due soon that I needed to get back because there were holds on them. The challenge this time? Read one by Dec 4th and the other by Dec 5th. Not wanting to put them on hold and wait again, I decided to buckle down and knock out 600+ pages in the first few days of the month.

There was also the matter of needing to finish the Locke & Key series. I'd had it with me for over a month at this point, so I knew it was time to just block out a few hours in my day and binge the last three volumes.

Title: My Dark Vanessa
Author: Kate Elizabeth Russell
Pages: 373
Genre: Literary fiction
Date Finished: December 4, 2020

Rating: 5 out of 5.

*TRIGGER WARNINGS* Rape, pedophilia, suicide, emotional abuse, sexual grooming, substance dependency, sexual and emotional trauma, sexual assault, and alcoholism.

Opinions: I'm going to start by saying that there's no easy way to review this book. The subject matter is disturbing and uncomfortable, but that's the way it's meant to be. You're not supposed to feel good about any of the things happening in here and Russel does an amazing job of ensuring that. Secondly, I totally get the irony that I read this because my former English professor got an ARC of it. He's a Nabokov scholar, and while I didn't take his Nabokov class, I knew he thought highly of this. However, my reading this isn't just because I knew he recommended it. I did want to read it for myself because so many people on my Bookstagram were talking about how it wrecked them. So, irony aside, let's get into my thoughts.

If you don't already know the premise, it's basically a mash-up of Lolita in the modern setting with strong ties to the #MeToo movement. The main character, Vanessa, was in a long-time relationship with her high school English professor, starting when she was about 14 or 15. They begin a romantic and sexual relationship that continues for years. And when a former student accuses that same professor of molesting her, Vanessa's idea of that relationship gets challenged in the hardest ways. Yeah, that's why I mentioned the irony of why I chose to read this.

This is one of the best examples of an unlikeable character that I've ever read. Usually, with unlikeable characters, I just straight-up don't like them. But with Vanessa, I was able to muster some sympathy for the things that made her that way. I can't say that I like her in any way, but I do have a level of understanding for why she is the way she is. There were plenty of times when I wished that she would make other decisions. Her refusal to believe that her relationship with her professor was abusive and illegal was incredibly frustrating, and I hated every moment that showed them getting closer. But it's probably the most realistic representation I've ever read of someone coming to terms to extreme sexual and emotional trauma. All the things I've learned over years of fascination with crime shows and criminal psychology have taught me a lot about how hard it is to process things like this, and I think this book is one of the rawest things out there.

As a writer, Russell does a fantastic job of using two timelines to tell the story of Vanessa's trauma. It's evident even in how long the chapters in the past are, dragging as they detail the nature of the growing relationship between Vanessa and her professor. The scenes in the past are highly detailed, particularly to make you feel uncomfortable with the sexual relationship that was occurring. Russell doesn't shy away from detailing every little thing that's going on. Not because she's trying to justify the relationship or anything, but rather because she wants the reader to feel highly uncomfortable with what's happening while making sure you understand exactly why it's wrong. In the timeline of Vanessa's present, the chapters are far more succinct and clipped, even her sexual encounters with her professor and other men. It's a very skilled way of showing the differences between the teenaged girl Vanessa was and the adult that she is, especially when you're in her head and seeing how she rationalizes what happened to her.

Do I think this is a book people should read? Absolutely. It's a very raw story and it's told in a way that very few writers could manage. Being in the head of a character who went through that kind of abuse and had to figure out if it was abuse was a whole new perspective that I've never experienced before, and it juggles the nuances of being a victim of pedophilia. The conversation it prompts around the #MeToo movement and listening to victims is highly valuable and we really see the good, bad, and ugly of all the ways things could turn out.

But is this something I would recommend to people? Not really. It's a very hard book to read and I don't think you should unless you're prepared for a lot of difficult topics and situations. The graphic sex scenes turned my stomach each time, physically repulsing me. In my opinion, it takes an experienced, highly critical reader to take on something as heavy and dark as this story.

Title: Goodnight Beautiful
Author: Aimee Molloy
Pages: 293
Genre: Thriller
Date Finished: December 10, 2020

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Opinions: I'd heard good things about this from someone I follow on Bookstagram. She said that it was a thriller that took her by surprise and kept her engaged the whole time. I'm always on the lookout for a good thriller, so I decided to pick it up to see if I thought it was good too.

Unfortunately, the first part of the book totally lost me and never really got me back. Maybe I wasn't reading it properly, but I just didn't understand what was going on. It felt like one thing but it also felt like another. I was super bored and uninterested by the story, which isn't a good sign when I was less than a hundred pages in. The kind of twist was really obvious to me and I just wasn't here for it. In my opinion, this style of "do you actually know whose perspective you're reading from" is really overdone. I've seen it countless times and I'm not a big fan of it because it's rarely done well.

None of the characters really interested me either. Of all of them, the wife was the most likable and interesting. She wasn't the stereotypical female character in stories like this and I thought she deserved better. Seeing how rare it is for a female character to have agency and voice, it was refreshing to have someone who was willing to stand up for herself and call out the men on their bullshit.

The truth is that I don't have much to say about this. I'm not a fan of the reasoning behind the culprit's motives. While it was interesting social commentary, I didn't take well to how it was executed. I understand the criticism of the events that led to the culprit being who they are, but it felt like an excuse for obsessive stalking and other issues.

Title: Locke & Key Volume 4: Keys to the Kingdom
Author: Joe Hill; illustrated by Gabriel Rodriguez
Pages: 152
Genre: Horror graphic novel
Date Finished: December 12, 2020

Rating: 4 out of 5.

*TRIGGER WARNINGS* Alcoholism, murder, PTSD, abuse, gaslighting, mental torture, emotional trauma, disturbing scenes, & racism.

Opinions: The opening to this graphic novel nearly made me cry. It brought me through a whirlwind of emotions and the continuation into the rest of the story was so heartbreaking. I wish I could say more about it, but this being the 4th in a series, there's little I can say without giving away spoilers.

Naturally, with a plot as complicated as the one in this series, there are so many moving parts all the time. But I've always appreciated how the story takes the time to explore the family relationships for each of the Locke children. Having gone through that much trauma, it's a wonder that any of them are functioning as well as they do without intense therapy.

This volume is where things really start falling into place. All the little things from previous volumes start coming together here, and we really begin getting an idea of where the story is going and how things might come to an end. It's interesting that ideas of the end are already floating when the series is really only halfway through. I was surprised to see that Hill was already working his way toward the endgame and curious as to how many other keys would be revealed as the characters start learning new things.

The final chapter of this volume was both highly satisfying and immensely frustrating. It's another instance of Hill giving us information that the characters don't know yet. It resulted in me gripping the graphic novel and hoping that the characters will realize things I already know before it's too late.

Title: Locke & Key Volume 5: Clockworks
Author: Joe Hill; illustrated by Gabriel Rodriguez
Pages: 160
Genre: Horror graphic novel
Date Finished: December 12, 2020

Rating: 5 out of 5.

*TRIGGER WARNINGS* Alcoholism, murder, PTSD, abuse, gaslighting, mental torture, emotional trauma, disturbing scenes& racism.

Opinions: I enjoyed this volume a lot for the background it gave to the story. Some people might be frustrated that it took this long to get the explanation for why things are the way they are, but I think it was put exactly where it needed to be. This is the beginning of the end of things for all the characters, and I loved how this issue explored the story.

Most of this issue takes place in flashbacks to two different times, both of which do a lot to explain the keys and the villain of the series, Dodge. One of the timelines featured Mr. Locke during his teenaged years, as the magic of Lovecraft Manor only works on youth before they turn 18. It was interesting to see how much he and his son were alike when they're roughly the same age, but also a glimpse into the man he became. While I don't agree with the majority of his decisions, it was interesting to see how everything tied together.

Because of this, there's much less focus on the Locke children, who are still my favorite element of the story. And though I missed seeing them interact with each other, I appreciate how the story made up for it by exploring a lot of other family and friendship dynamics.

Again, it's hard to talk about my thoughts and feelings on this without spoiling the series. Already, I feel like I've spoiled enough just by hinting at things. All I can really say is that this was a great issue and I really enjoyed it.

Title: Locke & Key Volume 6: Alpha & Omega
Author: Joe Hill; illustrated by Gabriel Rodriguez
Pages: 192
Genre: Horror graphic novel
Date Finished: December 12, 2020

Rating: 5 out of 5.

*TRIGGER WARNINGS* Alcoholism, murder, PTSD, abuse, gaslighting, mental torture, emotional trauma, disturbing scenes& racism.

Opinions: Going into this last volume, I had little idea of how things would wrap up. Everything that led up to this point was getting worse and worse for everyone involved, so I honestly had zero guesses as to how this would all turn out. Which is pretty impressive, all things considered. I've read enough series that I usually have some idea of how things might end or at least have a theory in mind, but with this, I had no idea at all. It probably also wasn't on the forefront of my mind considering that I binged the last three volumes all in a few hours.

As far as endings go, this was a solid one. I didn't have any questions left over and everything was wrapped up really nicely. A couple of things at the end required me to re-read it again in order to fully grasp what was going on, but I blame that on me speeding through the issue so I could return it to the library.

Even though this was the longest issue out of the whole series, it didn't feel that long. I kept turning the pages for more and more of the story, excited to see what would happen next. It's not often that I find myself speeding through the end pages of a story to see how it would end. Not many stories keep my attention for that long or are exciting enough that I want to race to the end for the satisfaction of it.

My favorite thing was seeing the culmination of the Locke siblings' relationships with each other. Them being my favorite thing about the series meant that above all else, I wanted them to have a happy ending. And since the series has a track record of destroying their relationships with each other time and time again, as well as putting them through unspeaking trauma, I'm just glad that they made it out relatively unscathed, all things considered.

In the end, what made me the happiest was how everything came to an end. It was fitting that it happened that way and I don't think a more perfect ending could have come about otherwise. I can't say too much about it because it's a major spoiler, but I was really happy with the person who saved the day.

As a series, I think the hype around this has died since I first heard about it. There are things about it that I wish I knew, like how there's problematic language within the stories. It's implied to be negative, but almost never explicitly said that the characters shouldn't use that kind of language. I said once that I would like to own this series, but I'm not entirely sure of that now. Maybe if I find myself wanting to re-read them in the future, I'll consider making the purchase.

Title: The Raven Boys
Maggie Stiefvater
Date Finished:
December 19, 2020

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Opinions: I started reading this in November, but the mental effort required for NaNoWriMo left me with little brain power to read this. Halfway through the month, I decided to put it down until I had the time to focus fully on the story.

It's a good and bad thing that this book requires a lot of focus and attention. The good being that it really engages you and gives you reason to keep turning the pages. But missing something small might mean missing an important clue that will make sense later. Which is why I put it down in November. I was loving the story, but writing my own meant that my brain was too tired to take on a story as complexly woven as this.

Picking it back up during a 24-hour readathon, I found myself enjoying quite easily. It took a few chapters for me to get back into the story because it'd been a month since I read it, but once I got back into it, the rest of the story was really enjoyable and fun. I love how intricate the whole thing is, and I know that there's even more to unpack in future books. Honestly, it's impressive how much Stiefvater packed into one book. It already feels like a whole series worth in a single book, so I can't wait to see what else the sequels will bring.

I liked reading from all the different perspectives. They were distinct, which helped me figure out whose head I was in when the chapters changed. It was easiest to be in Blue's head because she was figuring things out and learning in the same way I was. Gansey was a little too frantic for my liking. It stressed me out to be in his head, but I feel like I understand some of what that's like from everything I had to juggle during my last two years of college. And there was Adam's perspective, which took some getting used to but gave me a much better understanding of his character. The fact that Stiefvater could juggle multiple unique voices and keep them separate is really impressive and a great example of her writing skills.

The story is incredibly fascinating too. I've never learned about anything related to Welsh mythology or anything of the like. And like it does with learning about any complex cultural story, this took me awhile to really grasp the pieces that were being put in place. There's so much information all at once, but that's one of my favorite things about diving into a complex story like this one. The more I read, the more I began to understand. And the more I enjoyed the story.

Of the four boys, I think Noah and Adam are my favorite right now. I really enjoy the complexity of their characters and how fun they can be. Gansey stresses me out because he's constantly stressed, and I'm not sure how I feel about Ronan at the moment. I do really like Blue, but I'm waiting for her to display a little more personality and take a bigger stand. Right now, I feel like I know some of the boys better than I know her. It's going to be a lot of fun getting to know each of them more as the story goes on, and I'm already looking forward to it.

Title: Home Before Dark
Author: Riley Sager
Pages: 416
Genre: Horror thriller
Date Finished: December 31

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Opinions: I'd read Riley Sager's first book Final Girls back in June. Since then, I knew I wanted to read more of his work. People have been raving about his books since Final Girls came out, but my not liking that book much meant that I'd have to try his other work to get a better idea of whether I like his writing or not.

From the moment this came out, several other readers I trusted said that they loved it. One of the people I trust the most, Kayla from BooksandLala, said that it was one of her favorite books of the year. And since her taste and mine tend to line up most of the time, I knew that there was a good chance of me liking this.

The story is pretty standard as far as haunted houses go. Like all the stories inspired by The Haunting of Hill House (fiction) and The Amityville Horror (non-fiction), it's based around a family that moves into a house that ends up being more than what they bargained for. Unexplainable things start happening and the family is convinced of a ghost, they run away in terror, and the dad writes a super successful book about their experiences living in a haunted house. Except that The Amityville Horror was later revealed to be a fictional novel meant to excuse the actions of a serial killer, so that changes a few things. But I digress. This story centers on Maggie, the daughter of the man who wrote the successful novel about the 22 days they spent living in a haunted house. Only, she doesn't believe that any of it was real and she's determined to prove it.

I've said it before that horror isn't my genre, and I think that's why this book worked for me. Firstly, I had no idea that it was considered more horror than thriller before I started this. Secondly, it's a mix between a horror and a thriller, especially because it's two books in one. Half of the story is what Maggie's father wrote that popularized their experience, and the other half is Maggie's life and she tries to disprove everything her father wrote about. We get two stories in one, but it all comes together really well. And since I'm not a fan of being terrified, knowing that the chapters alternated helped keep me relatively calm. Even though I did jump a few times while reading this late at night.

The second half of the book interested me more than the first half. Which is the only reason I took half a star off my rating. It's an issue of pacing that I wished panned out a little differently. Having good set-up is important, and the book did that a little slowly for my liking. The middle of the book was paced perfectly, and then the final part felt like to flew too quickly for me to fully be able to appreciate the ending. I wanted more time to see things come together in the end, rather than feeling like I was being rushed through it knowing that things would be crammed in.

I can see why people have raved about this book. As a horror story, it does unsettle you at times. I think that my knowing that The Amityville Horror was fake helped me to be less scared in general, and I also don't believe in ghosts. All that said, I was creeped out at times and my heart rate picked up during several of the more intense scenes. As a thriller, it does a wonderful job of establishing a mystery from the POV of an unreliable narrator. After all, how many of us remember all the details of our lives when we're five, much less be able to discern if it's real.

Overall, it has made me want to read more of Sager's work. I've requested The Last Time I Lied and Lock Every Door from the library, so I hope to read them either later in January or early February. Sager does have a good sense of storytelling and characters, which I can see as this is his most recent book. Now, I can go back to see how that's developed with his second and third books.

Closing out the year with seven books is pretty good. I'm really happy with what I read and almost all of them got great ratings. I was worried that I might not like Home Before Dark when I started it, but it ended up being a good book to end the year on.

I ended up exceeding my goal of 12 books by a lot. In fact, I nearly quadrupled it with 47 books read. Setting a low goal allowed me to feel good about reading way more, and that helped rebuild my love of reading. All of that has set me up well for 2021, as I go back to a "normal" goal. 2020 was full of really good reads, and I hope 2021 will continue that trend.

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  • Maggie says:

    "Gansey was a little too frantic for my liking" is the understatement of the century. I love him, but he needs to CALM DOWN.

    Really glad you enjoyed The Raven Boys though! I'm thinking of re-reading the series since I feel like I missed a lot of details the first time around. Like you said, it's a book that really rewards readers who pay close attention and... I definitely did NOT do that when I listened to the audiobooks last January. Oops.

    • Charmaine Lim says:

      Taylor Swift’s song “You Need to Calm Down” should be Gansey’s anthem ? But yes! You should reread the series so that when I text you about stuff, you can help me be less confused