January 2021 Wrap-Up

There's always a ton of pressure on the first month of the year. Or at least I feel that way. The first books I read in a year can set a good pace or they can make me feel slumpy. The first book I choose can be a huge deal or it can fall to the back of my mind. And this year, I started by having my sister pick the books I'm going to read.

Unfortunately, I did a terrible job of sticking to the TBR she gave me. Of the three books she chose, I only read one. It wasn't that she picked bad books, I just didn't really make reading a priority this month. There were times when I could have read, but chose to watch TV or scroll on my phone instead.

Normally, my reading is filled with fantasy and mystery, which isn't surprising. This month, I surprised myself by only reading one fantasy and instead venturing into two other genres I rarely reach for - contemporary and romance. It was quite an eye-opening time and I learned more about my preferences as a reader.

What surprised me most was I did start the year with four books that I rated highly, so I wouldn't say that it was entirely a misstep in my reading plans.

Title: The Girl With The Louding Voice
Author: Abi Daré
Pages: 384
Genre: Contemporary
Date Finished: Jan 10

Rating: 5 out of 5.

*TRIGGER WARNINGS* Rape, violent domestic abuse, verbal abuse, emotional abuse, attempted rape, one short torture scene, slurs against women, human trafficking, and alcoholism.

Opinions: I'd heard a ton about this before it came it and right after it was published. People were saying that the writing and the story were stunning, that the characters were strong, and that it was really wonderful for a debut. So of course I wanted to pick this up.

The story follows Adunni, a 14-year old girl from Nigeria. The thing she wants most in the world is to complete her education and become a teacher. But her father breaks this promise and arranges for her to be married off to a man significantly older than her. Stuck in an unhappy and unwanted marriage, Adunni finds her life turning upside down even more when a tragedy strikes and she has to run away. What follows is a life she never imagined for herself and a mystery that haunts her.

Right off the bat, the story reminded me a lot of A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini. They take place in entirely different countries and settings, but they both feature strong women who have been robbed of the life they deserve and a chance to be educated like they want. I spent a lot of time thinking about how much a college professor of mine would love this book, and I even went to far as to email her about it because it's exactly the kind of book she'd teach in class (she taught Hosseini's book). And if there's anything I love, it's a book about women fighting for the things they deserve.

As a protagonist, Adunni is a great person to follow. Her voice is so distinct and sure. I loved seeing things from her perspective and learning about her story. She doesn't shy away from discussing injustices she sees, even going so far as to call them out "inappropriately" because she wants the world to be a better place. Getting to know her so well is one of the reasons I enjoyed the book so much. In many ways, Adunni and I share a lack of a filter when we talk. We say things as we see it, and more often than not it gets us into trouble. But I loved that Adunni was so open about things because it made me understand her life and the story even better. Her innocent way of viewing the world never felt like immaturity or stupidity, rather, it was a reflection of the purity she had and how she saw a version of the world that many of us are too jaded to believe exists.

The book itself doesn't pull any punches with discussing heavy topics. Daré bluntly highlights the injustices of privilege, race, and sexism through Adunni's story and perspective, giving us a good look at a world we often turn a blind eye to. The way she discusses taboo subjects like infidelity, human trafficking, and sexual abuse is not only detailed but challenging. I knew I was going to learn a lot from this story and I wasn't wrong. In so many ways, Daré showed me the naïveté of my own thinking and worldview. There are few things I love more than a compelling story that challenges me as a person, and this book was just that.

There are so many things I want to discuss but will hold off on because I want you to experience the story for yourself. It's truly wonderful and I know it's going to be a favorite of the year. This book will stick with me for years to come and will find itself on all of my recommendation lists because it's really that good and I want more people to read it.

Title: One to Watch
Author: Kate Stayman-London
Pages: 432
Genre: Romance
Date Finished: Jan 20

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

*TRIGGER WARNINGS* Fat-shaming, slut-shaming, and verbal abuse.

Opinions: Romance isn't my genre of choice. In most cases, I stay as far away from it as possible. The repetitive tropes and stories do little for me and tend to make me feel like I've wasted my time. So we can both imagine my surprise when I heard about this and decided to borrow it from the library.

One to Watch takes a fun twist on the stereotypical romance reality show. Bea Schumacher is a plus-sized fashion blogger who finds herself as the newest lead of the popular reality show Main Squeeze (basically The Bachelor and The Bachelorette if they were one show and alternated between helping men and women find love). She reluctantly goes on the show to get over years of unrequited love and finds herself in the position to make a change for women who look like her to feel empowered.

The first thing I'm going to say is that I can't speak for the representation of plus-sized women. I'm the furthest thing from it and so I don't have any idea of what it's like for women like Bea. The best I can manage is what I've learned through conversations with friends who are on the "plus-sized" side of clothing sizes (really, they're just sized like normal women and the clothing industry likes to make us all feel terrible about not fitting into smaller sizes). From what I know, the representation is own-voices and so I trust it more than I would if the author had been someone sized like me. So in my opinion, the representation was great, but take my thoughts with a grain of salt.

Something I really appreciated is how honest the book is about the way we view and treat bigger people. Bea is incredibly confident in her body, but that doesn't mean she doesn't struggle with Internet trolls and people who treat her terribly because they assume that she doesn't take care of herself. I'm guilty of having viewed people negatively because of their size and my own assumptions about what that means. It's a challenging thing, I think, especially living in America where the general assumption is unhealthy living habits and not caring about making a change. That can be true, but there are also a lot of other reasons and I've learned not to make snap judgements about it.

Throughout the book, Bea wasn't afraid to stand up for herself or call people out for treating her badly. It didn't matter that she was on TV and that it was being filmed for millions to see, she was being true to herself and that mattered a lot. She was open about her insecurities and the ways she worked to move past them or accept them. It was nice to have someone be so open and honest about it because the truth is that everyone struggles with insecurities, no matter what they try to tell you. And I found that aspect of Bea's story really empowering.

While I think that the idea of finding love on a reality show is incredibly dumb, I can see why it worked in this format. Bea is opening herself up to a lot of opportunities, experiences, and suitors that she never would have met before. Whether that goes well or not is one thing, but she's pushing herself to be more open to the unexpected. The things she learned and experienced could only have happened on the show, and I'll admit that it was fun seeing what ridiculous things they came up with for dates. It also really appealed to the side of my that spent three years learning about broadcast and being in studios. I know what it takes to film a show and it was fun to see that again. Do I still think reality shows about love are dumb? Absolutely. Nothing will change my mind about that.

A downside of the book that I came across really quickly was the massive cast. It dwindles as time goes on, but I could not for the life of me remember who was who. It was comforting that Bea also couldn't remember everyone's names but come on, there was literally a group of guys with the same name. I'm generally pretty good with names and people, but this book lost me and I was still having a hard time telling them apart by the time we had dwindled down to the last four. Even then, when they were leaving, I wasn't entirely sure which guy was leaving or remember what date they had been on.

The main reason why I chose to take half a star off was the POC representation. We get a variety of ethnicities on the show when Bea first meets the guys, but that quickly dwindles and I have to admit that I forgot two of the final guys were POC. It's mentioned really briefly when we meet them that they're not white, but it's never brought up again until nearly the end. If you're going to include POC characters, the least you can do is mention it more than twice. I get that race wasn't a factor in Bea getting to know them and that it wasn't about her hitting all the diversity marks with the people she dated, but there are real challenges to dating someone outside of your race. Take it from someone who had been in an interracial relationship, the values and expectations are different and it's not just as simple as liking the person a lot. Cultural differences are a major thing to learn about if you're dating someone outside your race and that was worth exploring properly. And it was frustrating because there was a French guy among the suitors and all the characters took every chance they got to remind us that he's French. Sure, the white guy from a different country gets mentioned all the time for being French, but the people who are actually POC don't get anything more than an initial mention.

I liked the ending and there wasn't much to complain about. I knew how it was going to end because it's a romance and that's just how things work. There were some things that I wish were a little more developed, but at the length the books was already at, I think it was good that it ended where it did. Would I recommend this? Yes. It's not one I would re-read, but I think other people would have fun with this and it touches on a perspective we often neglect and shame.

Title: The Near Witch
Author: V.E. Schwab
Pages: 349
Genre: Fantasy
Date Finished: January 27, 2021

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Opinions: As a long-time fan of Schwab's work, I can't believe it's taken me this long to read her debut. I bought this exclusive edition over a year ago because it was on sale and I loved the cover. And because my sister picked it out for me, I knew it was one that I finally had to get to.

The story is simple. A town where everyone knows everyone suddenly has a stranger come through. And then children start disappearing and everyone blames the stranger. But Lexi knows there's something else going on because the town has long feared and forgotten that witches exist and that they can be very powerful.

Because it's Schwab's debut, I tried not to have any expectations. It's going to be very different from her later books because she's grown since this. And it's unfair if I expect her first book to make me feel the way her later books do. So I let the story do its thing and went along with it, trying to imagine how it would be if I haven't already read some of her more acclaimed work.

The truth is that it's not as good as her later works. It's a debut, which makes sense. There's a lot of stuff that I can see as the beginning markers of things she's known for now - simple but descriptive writing, settings that are their own characters, and characters that are lovable because they're nothing more than themselves. I liked the story and the characters, even if it wasn't as fleshed out as her more recent and popular books. It still feel like an intrinsically Schwab story and I loved it for that. I had a great time reading it and enjoyed every page thoroughly. Getting to read her debut helped me understand her journey and growth as a writer, and it also gave me some comfort in knowing that even my favorite author has grown as she has continued writing.

I thought the premise was a lot of fun and it kept my attention the entire time. I liked trying to guess what the twists and turns would be. Sometimes I would get them right, and other times I was wrong. But what mattered to me most was that I connected and had fun. There's nothing particularly special about this that makes it stand out in my mind, but it was a well-crafted story. Short as it may be, it tells a rather complete and full story for a standalone fantasy novel. Often times, fantasy does its best work being drawn out so the world and story can feel fuller, but this was very well wrapped up in just over 300 pages.

The insta-love wasn't my favorite. There was a time when I enjoyed knowing that two people were immediately attracted to and meant for each other, but I've since discovered that I much prefer watching two people grow and slowly discover that they're right for each other. The pairing in this book makes a lot of sense and it was well-developed for how short of a time frame this takes place in - I'm not just not much for insta-love anymore.

My favorite thing was watching the story come to life. That's one of my favorite things about Schwab's work in general, how she's able to vividly capture a story to make you care. Everything is carefully chosen because that's the kind of writer she is and there's no doubt that the same intentionality can be seen in this book. Backstory is a hard thing to get right and feel natural in a book, but this was done so well and I never felt like the characters were info-dumping on me. Instead, it played out the way you would expect stories in small towns to be passed on.

Oh, and my edition contained a novella of another character's life, which I thoroughly enjoyed. It was nice to have it in the same book and not have to go online to find and buy the e-book version. Plus, the interview she did about her writing and this book made it feel like I got to know her work a little better. It's honestly a perk of having special editions of books.

Title: The Roommate
Author: Rosie Danan
Pages: 325
Genre: Romance
Date Finished: January 29, 2021

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

CONTENT WARNING: Sex and...well, basically, explicit sex and explicit mentions of male and female genitalia.

Opinions: Okay yes, I read two romances this month. This is another one that I heard a lot of good things about because it tackled a taboo topic - the porn industry. And boy, this book surprised me with how much I enjoyed it.

Apparently there's a trend in my romance reading because this also features a girl and her long unrequited love. That probably says something about me and I could psychoanalyze that for a long time, but we're gonna skip over that cause that's not important here. Anyways, girl goes to live with her unrequited love and finds out that he's not actually gonna be around and that he rented his room to some guy off Craigslist. Girl is disappointed and then finds out that her new roommate is an adult move actor and adventures ensue. Oh, and there's a lot of talk about sex and genitals.

The reason I wanted to pick this up is because the book was advertised to me as being incredibly sex positive. It's something I don't see often in books, and even though romance tends to highlight the good parts about sex, it doesn't always feature men who are intentionally trying to please women. So when I heard that this was very heavily about a woman learning not to be ashamed of her sexual drive/desires and a man who actually wanted to please a woman, I knew that there was a greater chance of me liking it.

And yes, the book delivers on that. Clara, our female protagonist, goes on a journey to understand and embrace her sexual desires. It's not that she's never had sex or has wild kinks that no one understands, it's more that she's never had the chance to experience pleasure with a man. Or because of one. But meeting Josh, our male protagonist, changes all of that. I mean yes, it's because he's hot and it's literally his job to be good at this, but also because his personal goal in adult films is to highlight female pleasure and make it about them. It's a refreshing change to have a male love interest actually want to do something for the benefit of the female character without it just being a way for him to get what he wants.

As you might expect, the sex scenes are steamy. What surprised me was how well-written they are. It's not just about the sex. Well, it is, but it's also about the experience between two people and what it means for them. Normally, sex scenes in books make me feel really awkward because they don't really feel sexy. Or it feels like I'm reading about something that I should really skip over. But the way Danan writes sex scenes in this book kind of feels like we're getting a glimpse into something far more intimate and special. In a lot of ways, we're getting to experience what Clara is learning about and we're not rushing to get to the end of it. Most of the scenes span several pages, if not the entire chapter, allowing the two characters to really take their time and also allow us to see why it's something we shouldn't be ashamed of. By drawing things out and making them intimate, Danan is showing us exactly why we need to acknowledge that female pleasure is important and why sex isn't a shameful thing.

The discussions on the porn industry are also very educational. Personally, I've seen a few documentaries and interviews with people in the sex industry. It's something I always wondered about and so I've learned about it in my own time. It's a complicated subject and it would take hours to discuss my personal feelings about it, but what I can say is that Danan did a really good job showing us what the industry is like and what the actors go through. There's a lot of things wrong with the adult film industry, mostly regarding how they treat their actors and how it still revolves around putting men in power. But learning about it means there's a chance for people to start making changes that could make the adult film industry a better and safer place for people to be in. Whether you agree with their work or not, they deserve to be treated well and to be safe. And for people who don't know much about the industry, I think this is an enlightening book and a safe way to learn about it.

Danan does a great job with the humor too. It's not what I would call raunchy, but it's definitely clever and sexy. There's a lot of funny things that can happen with a premise like this and almost all of them happened. Plus, both our protagonists are really funny without intentionally being that way, so that made things even better. I laughed out loud several times and went back over the funny scenes because they were just so good.

So why not a perfect rating? Well, I'm not a fan of authors who refer to female genitalia as their "sex." I know it's a more proper and formal way of referring to it, but it just sounds so weird. Whenever an author uses that term, it makes me feel like they're referring to the gender instead. Also, if we're using it for women, then we can use it for men too. It shouldn't be a one-sided thing. If we're going to use the terms "cock," "dick," and "penis," we can say "vagina." Otherwise, we'll go back to weird euphemisms that make you wonder if people are having sex or building a house.

And I felt the ending was too rushed. I'll be hard-pressed to say this about any other romance, but I think this could have used a few more chapters. The resolution was well-written and it was nice, but I felt like the characters deserved more time. They'd worked so hard to get to this end point, I wanted to be able to enjoy it with them. Just a few more chapters wrapping up things that I thought needed more attention and it would have been enough. It just kind of felt like the characters got the happy ending and that was it. I thought they deserved more and I wanted to see more of what it was like for them now that they got their happy ending. Maybe it's because I'm not a romance reader and prefer to have more drawn-out conclusions, but I just wasn't entirely satisfied in the end. Our protagonists definitely were, so it's a little ironic that i was the one left wanting...

Lastly, I really hope this gets a new cover once it's been out for awhile. I don't think the cover does the story justice. It makes it look like some kind of fluffy, silly read you'd pick up in an airport, but it's really a lot more than that (look at me defending a romance book). If I didn't know about the premise, I'd dismiss this just based on the cover. Wouldn't give it a second thought. But the story and the subject matter are so important and I think that should be highlighted with a cover that better represents it. Also, I'm mad because this cover makes it look like a college story but they're in their mid-to-late twenties and they also look nothing like the people on the cover. I'd love to have this on my shelves, but I can't get over how pink the cover is and how it makes the book look trivial. So if the day comes when it gets a nice re-design, I'll be running off to the store to get a copy of this for my bookshelves.

Four books is less than I was hoping to get to, but I kind of had the feeling I wouldn't be reading more than that. It was a great four books and a really strong way to start the year, so I'm not upset about that. I'd rather read fewer books and give higher ratings than more books with lower ratings.

More than anything, I'm proud of myself for reading outside of my comfort zone. I've learned that I can enjoy romance if it delves into deeper topics than just two people falling in love, and I've some great new books to recommend to other people. While I won't be running off to fill my shelves with romance novels, I won't be so adamant about ignoring them in favor of my usual mystery and fantasy stories.

There are a ton of books on my February TBR that I'm hoping to get to. It'd be great if the rest of my reads were as strong as these ones. Starting the year strong like this is a good feeling, making me want to read more. And if that helps me get through my TBR faster, I'm all for it.

What was your favorite book of January?

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