As the seasons change (if I say that often enough, it's bound to happen) (isn't it?), one of the things I like to do . . . is wrap up my previous season's reading with a Top Five list. Looking back over the last 3 months of reading, here's my Top Five: Best of My Winter Reading 2021 list:
First up, I've got A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes. I'd been waiting a long, long time to get my hands on this book (it wasn't released in the US until late January). It was actually on the Women's Prize long list from last year (up against Hamnet) . . . and totally worth the wait. A Thousand Ships is a brilliant retelling of Homer’s The Iliad from the perspective of women - both Trojan and Greek - with a huge cast of characters (goddesses, wives, daughters, muses, Amazons, and priestesses). The writing is clever and playful, yet pulls no punches in describing the true costs of war. The story is not told in linear fashion, but rather in a highly effective series of “mini-stories” with “thematic narrative interludes” sprinkled throughout. Vivid characterization brings these women to life, and I felt connected to each of them, even though several make only brief appearances. (I found the letters from Penelope to be especially delightful. I laughed right out loud!) This is actually a great book to listen to as it is narrated by the author, a famed broadcaster and comedian. Her narration is wonderful.
Next, I've got the fabulous Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi. (This one is on the just-released Women's Prize long list for 2021, by the way.) This is one of the most powerful books I’ve read in quite a while. This novel explores the tension between science and religion, the power of familial love and loyalty, addiction, depression, shame, determination, reflection, and achievement -- all set against the backdrop of racism. The writing is exquisite, and the unfolding narrative just builds and builds through the entire novel. Not one word is wasted or out of place. Transcendent, indeed! And absolutely worth the praise and hype it's received.
Then there's Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar. Okay. I'm going to admit it. This book sounded too heavy to me, and I almost didn't read it. I really did go back and forth about it. . . read . . . don't read . . . read . . . don't read. In the end, I decided to give it a try. And I'm so glad I did -- because this book is simply brilliant. The writing is amazing. The story is poignant, raw, and absolutely compelling. (It is kinda heavy. Just sayin.) It’s fiction . . . but it's so heavily based on the author's autobiographical details that it reads like a memoir. It’s fiction . . . but it's organized like a collection of essays based on the most pressing social issues of our times. It’s fiction . . . but it includes non-fiction topics like finance, the economy, politics, and immigration. It’s fiction . . . but with a strong historical perspective. It totally defies categorization! All these genres in one book? Sounds like it could never work. But it does. Seamlessly.
Next up . . . The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi. This one . . . is an achingly beautiful, poignant story of identity, boundaries, grief, and love. The very title of the book is a give-away -- you know where you’re headed before you even open the book. But - oh! - the journey is a surprise, brilliantly executed through a series of “snapshot flashbacks” and the voices of Vivek’s family and friends -- and even Vivek himself. I especially enjoyed the back-and-forth structure of the book. It's powerful and heartbreaking. (This book just makes me . . . sigh . . . every time I think of it again.)
And finally, there's The Cold Millions by Jess Walter. This one is historical fiction -- but good historical fiction! It's a compelling and entertaining look at the free speech demonstrations of 1909 Spokane - events I was only peripherally aware of prior to this reading. Walter gives us a fabulous cast, adeptly mixing fictional and “real” characters (think E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime), while creating that perfect “outpost” feel of a gritty American Northwest in the early 20th-century. The writing is smooth and bright; Walters is just a master at weaving bits of humor through an otherwise tragic slice of history. Bottom line? This is beautifully written historical fiction; a delightful coming-of-age story about loyalty, integrity, honor, social justice, and brotherly love.
How about you?
What books would make it to your Top Five list of winter reading?
If you want to see what I'm reading now, or check out my recent reviews on Goodreads, just check out the sidebar here on my blog. You can find me here on Goodreads. And you can read my past Top Five lists by clicking the links below: