Happy Friday, everyone, and welcome to August!
July was a whirlwind of a month for me: I had exams, had to grade loads of other people’s exams, got fully vaccinated, got to know my bed a bit better because of getting fully vaccinated, and spent a bunch of time making angry faces at my computer in an attempt to get it to do what I wanted. Which wasn’t a very useful strategy, but hey, when all else fails, you’ve got to try somehow!
Still, after this first week of August, I kind of want July back 😫 On Sunday, I had a piano recital, and if there’s anything I’m bad at, it’s playing an instrument by myself in front of people I don’t know well. Yes, I absolutely love orchestra concerts and have no issues there, but the minute I’m on stage all on my own and see the audience’s eyes turn towards me, I become a shaking earthquake of performance anxiety. And after having COVID as an extremely effective excuse for avoiding recitals for almost two years, it was particularly bad 🙈 I screwed up both my piano piece and the violin sonatina I stupidly agreed to play together with my piano teacher, so now I need to find an effective way of erasing those painful memories from my mind… Anyone got any tips?
Then, however, my introvert’s nightmare continued, because as Monday came along, I suddenly found myself having to make a whole bunch of phone calls. I’m currently trying to register to begin teaching next spring, and in typical German fashion, it has been an absolute bureaucratic disaster. I already have an irrational fear of initiating phone calls as it is, but making them when there is some unfriendly and clueless government official on the other end of the line is a whole other level of awful.
Considering what I did on Tuesday, though, I guess even the phone calls weren’t that bad. Remember how I told you we didn’t have any floods in my part of Germany? Well, it turns out you don’t even need floods if you leave your apartment to go grade linear algebra exams and return to find out you left your skylight-window open during a thunderstorm…
A bunch of sheet music that I had stored under said window is now ruined, and my carpet flooring smells interesting to say the least. I’ve basically spent the entire week scrubbing it down with towels and crawling on the floor with a hairdryer in an attempt to get it at least semi-dry again. And having to confess my stupidity to my landlady was definitely ten times worse than any of the phone calls, even though she was very nice about it and even offered to give me an extra radiator to help with the drying efforts.
So yeah, since August has been an extreme mix of awfulness so far, let’s reminisce about July instead! Despite having a ton of stuff on my plate, I actually managed to read quite a bit. And I am very happy with how many amazing books I discovered! Even though those apparently came with a price, since I also read a whole bunch of things last month that were… decidedly less great.
But before I ramble on even longer, let’s get into it! Here are the nine books I read in July!
(And I kind of have a lot of thoughts on all of them, so it’s okay if you skip ahead to the one’s that actually interest you 😉 Don’t think I don’t see you, skim-readers out there!)
Legendborn (Legendborn #1) by Tracy Deonn (4/5 Stars)
I am a HUGE King Arthur nerd, so the minute I learned that Legendborn – the first installment in an urban fantasy series based on the Arthurian legend – existed, I knew I needed it! So, being smart, I gave my sister a copy for Christmas so that I could borrow it once she was done reading 😎
Or maybe I wasn’t so smart after all… Because my evil sister took the book with her to university and never brought it back! For months, I’ve been waiting for her to return it, all to no avail 😭 Thankfully, though, it turns out you don’t always need to count on your unreliable siblings. Scribd finally came through and added Legendborn to its selection! Obviously, I immediately snatched my chance and started reading.
And I loved it! All the mythological stuff was integrated into the story in such a cool and unique way, and I also really appreciated getting a fantasy novel that takes place at university. The Magicians, Ninth House and The Name of the Wind are currently the only other books I can think of that have this type of setting, which means we definitely need more! After all, there have got to be a few more fantasy-loving university students out there than just me, right?
There was a lot more to Legendborn than just a cool concept and setting, though. The main character is also pretty epic. Smart, determined, grieving, and headstrong, Bree Matthews is someone you can’t help but root for, and her experiences growing up as a young Black woman in the American South shed a lot of light on darker aspects of the United States’ past, as well as underlying racist tensions that are still present today. As someone who spent a large part of her childhood in a formerly Confederate state and studied abroad at a Virginian university that continues to make national headlines due to its highly controversial name, I thought it was really interesting and probably long overdue to see the African American perspective on these types of places represented in fiction. We get to observe what it’s like for a Black student attending a college where the Lost Cause myth is still extremely prevalent. We see the micro-aggressions she is faced with on a daily basis. And Tracy Deonn also doesn’t shy away weaving racism and slavery into the very history of the magical world she has created. Bree’s world is a mirror of our world, and that is as evident in the fantastical as it is in the mundane.
Overall, this book has everything. Likeable characters. Secret societies. Friendships. Betrayal. A really cool magic system. Grief. Power. Darkness.
There was, however, one thing I didn’t particularly like: In my opinion, Legendborn felt rushed. Not regarding the pacing, really, but regarding the timeline. The events in Legendborn take place over the course of just a few weeks, but it really feels like it should have been months instead. Thanks to the extremely short timing, we get instalove where a slow-burn romance would have been perfectly possible, and we have the classic character-with-absolutely-no-abilities-becomes-extremely-proficient-at-fighting-and-magic-with-barely-any-training thing that is one of my most hated tropes of all time.
So yeah, Legendborn didn’t quite reach my five-star level. But it was very good, and I’m definitely stoked to read the rest of the series!
(I need more Sel in my life!!!)
XOXO by Axie Oh (2/5 Stars)
I had really high hopes for this one because the synopsis sounded awesome. A cellist crushing on a K-pop star while studying abroad in South Korea? Sign me up! This sounded like the perfect cute summer romance to help me survive exam week, and I absolutely love reading about music in books 🤗
Unfortunately though, the way classical music was portrayed also ended up being one of my biggest disappointments. While the author did seem pretty knowledgeable about K-pop, this book read like the only work she had done for fleshing out her cellist was a quick google search. Right off the bat, Jenny is quick to tell us that “[a] playlist of [her] life would include Bach, Haydn, and Yo-Yo Ma” (p. 5), which already struck me as a bit strange. Why would you list Yo-Yo Ma, a famous cellist who interprets music, in the same breath as Haydn and Bach, the composers who actually wrote the music? A playlist of hers might include Yo-Yo Ma playing Bach, but listing these people as though they played the same roles in the music industry sounds about as elegant as saying “I’m really into books. My great idols are Harry Potter, Katniss Everdeen and Charles Dickens.”
At that point, I was still willing to let things slide. But then it just became clearer and clearer that Jenny’s being a cellist was more of a tool to get her to connect to dreamy K-pop idol Jaewoo than anything else. She gets mad about a jury telling her her music lacks emotion when that obviously isn’t true since she is already “great” at pitch and dynamics. (I have yet to meet an actual musician who will tell me they have mastered pitch and dynamics and who will agree that those are the only things that play into creating emotion. Ever heard of phrasing, Jenny?) She doesn’t practice cello for a week when she arrives in Korea because she is so busy settling in. (You’re telling me a professional musician, who probably practices several hours a day and should be used to going on tours, hasn’t practiced in a week when even I, a notoriously lazy violin and piano neglectress, have rarely gone a full week without practicing?) The piece she botched during her cello competition was Camille Saint-Saëns’s The Swan, which is like the only cello piece non-classical musicians have ever heard of and not even that technically difficult? Forced-love-triangle-boy-#2, the only other classical musician we ever really get to meet, turns out to be a total douche and snob? Jenny is really surprised when she is not lynched by other classical music fans for saying she’s going to a K-pop concert? (In my experience, musicians are always extremely supportive of other musicians, no matter what style of music they play!) We barely ever get to see her practice? And when she does, she plays “an A note” (p. 299) to tune? (Have you ever heard anyone say they tune to “an A note”, rather than just “to an A”? But Jenny plays lots of A notes and G notes throughout this book 🙄)
I’m sorry about the long rant, but all of this annoyed me to no end! At least get a cellist to proof-read for accuracy if you don’t know this stuff yourself! Classical music already gets an “uncool” enough rep as it is, and portraying it this way is not helping!
And, to be honest, the romance didn’t blow me away either. It had a pretty adorable meet-cute moment, but that was about it. Yet somehow, these two characters were immediately in love with each other without doing anything together??? Overall, I’d actually say that the relationships in general weren’t that well developed. Friendships sprang up out of nowhere, and there was a bunch of unnecessary roommate drama – I’m still not entirely sure what it was about – that was resolved in a matter of seconds so that these roommates went from bitter enemies to besties willing to die for each other in the blink of an eye.
To be perfectly frank, the only thing I liked about this book was the setting. Everything felt so vibrant and real, and I loved learning more about Korean culture and the K-pop industry. And oh my god, the food descriptions 😍😍 I was constantly salivating while reading this, and think I might have to go to South Korea someday just to try all those different local dishes. This book made me so hungry!
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (5/5 Stars)
😭😭😭😭😭😭 This book, you guys. No words have ever managed to make me cry as much as A Little Life did, and almost a month later, I am still not okay. This book is absolutely phenomenal!
A Little Life follows a group of four friends as they grow up in New York City. Although they are all very different from one another, they’ve been inseparable ever since they met in college. There’s Malcolm, who grew up rich, still lives at home, and isn’t sure whether he actually likes architecture. Struggling artist JB, who is sure his big breakthrough is just around the corner and who absolutely hates being teased about his insufficient blackness. Willem, the quietly popular son of immigrant parents who wants to become an actor. And Jude, who always wears long sleeves, is extraordinarily clever, and has never told his friends anything about his past.
As the story unfolds, we get to know these people and their pasts, their presents, their futures. We learn so much about them that it’s hard to believe they aren’t real. This book slowly reels you in, and then it cruelly, but masterfully, tears your soul apart.
Obviously, I would highly recommend it. Though just so you’re aware: This book has trigger warnings for just about everything imaginable and gets decidedly dark at times. It’s not an easy read, but it’s a very good one.
Oh, and if you’ve already read this and would like to cry over it some more, I have a full review with a deliciously spoilery section you’re more than welcome to give your opinions on here.
My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite (4/5 Stars)
I was immediately engrossed by this book, which opens with two sisters trying to get rid of a body one of them just murdered. Although Ayoola swears to Korede that it wasn’t murder, but self-defense. None of the men she killed were murdered, really, they were accidents.
However, while Korede doesn’t really buy her sister’s claims of innocence, she also knows that as Ayoola’s older sibling, it is her duty to protect her. So she helps move the body, keeps Ayoola from posting overly cheerful Instagram pictures too soon after her boyfriend’s “mysterious disappearance”, and tries her best to keep her sister from striking yet again.
This book has one of the most interesting sibling relationships I’ve ever read about. There’s so much jealousy and fear, intertwined with love and protectiveness.
With deeply satirical and politically provocative humor, this book shows us a modern-day Nigerian society and what it means to be a woman within that society. It makes us ask ourselves why we and the people we love turned out the way we are today. Or how far we would be willing to go to protect our siblings, even if they were serial killers.
Overall, I really liked this, but I also felt as though the ending lacked a bit of punch. It’s hard to explain why, exactly, but the story just went on and on, and then it was suddenly over without ever having any real climax. Not that I needed an utterly dramatic finale – but something about it was just kind of unmemorable 😅 Like I said, it’s hard to explain. But I still really enjoyed this and would recommend it!
Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir (5/5 Stars)
I LOVE THIS BOOK!!! The Betrayals excluded, it’s the best thing I’ve read in ages, and it honestly feels like it was written just for me 🥰
Following a man who wakes up from cryosleep with no clue that he is currently on an intragalactic mission to save humanity – the only thing he does know is that he has lost his memories and that the two corpses in the chamber with him are probably his crewmates – Project Hail Mary has everything I ever could have wished for in an epic sci-fi adventure. It’s funny, it’s clever, it’s action-packed, and best of all, it includes my two great loves, mathematics and languages, to create a beautifully nerdy tale of science and friendship.
Granted, maybe it had a few flaws. Like Artemis‘ Jazz Bashara, the main character is eerily similar Mark Watney, minus the latter’s tendencies to use foul language at whichever opportunity presents itself. Some things may be a bit unbelievable, like the fact that only person with access to the information needed to save humanity would be a middle school science teacher with miraculous sudden perfect pitch abilities.
But I honestly don’t care. This book is getting five stars because I say so. It’s awesome, you guys 🤩 You need to read it so that you can meet Rocky and read about all the wonderful math it has to offer!!! Honestly, I think I might love it even more than The Martian…
And, because I loved it so much, I also have a full review for this one 😁 If you’d like to learn about my spoilery Project Hail Mary thoughts, you can find them here.
Rule of Wolves (Nikolai Duology #2) by Leigh Bardugo (2.5/5 Stars)
Well… I guess it was better than I was expecting, at least 🙈 Mind you, I had extremely low expectations after King of Scars, so I was almost pleasantly surprised. If you ask me, Rule of Wolves is certainly the more interesting book in the duology.
But still, nothing really captured my attention. I found myself not caring about large parts of it, and the times I did care were mostly when we got to see characters I already knew and loved from other Grishaverse books. Like, those Nina and Matthias flashbacks? Oh my god!! 😭 But in spite of that, I was never really as emotionally invested as I had been during the original trilogy or the Six of Crows duology. Nothing the characters did in this book had me all that interested, I felt they were just there so that we would get to see some familiar faces again 🙄
When trying to boil things down, I realized part of the reason why this fell flat for me is probably because the story is not as character-driven anymore but has instead become about showing off their “grandness”. I’m not sure if I’m properly explaining this, but it feels like it’s not good enough to have ordinary people as protagonists anymore. It’s no longer enough to just be a Grisha; you have to be a Grisha general or a Grisha in position to rule the entire continent in order to matter. Suddenly, characters who showed no interest whatsoever in political careers are off seizing the Fjerdan throne or becoming legendary rulers. Somehow, we went from a story where summoning a bit of light was considered extraordinary to one where people are turning into dragons, firing missiles at one another, and flying around with mechanical wing implants. Characters’ personalities and laws of nature are being changed drastically for the sake of creating a more dramatic story, and I don’t like it one bit.
Furthermore, characters very conveniently get what they want at the end. You seriously expect me to believe the Ravkan people are just going to accept a certain decision that was reached at the end of the book? Or that that thing with Hanne happened to work just when it needed to? If you don’t let me see these characters struggle to reach their goals, I’m just not going to care very much when they do reach them.
That being said, though: I did enjoy parts of the book! I loved being back in this world and with these characters. It was fun seeing the Crows again. Genya and David had moments that genuinely touched me. I liked learning a bit more about Zoya’s past and seeing her and Nikolai open up to each other more. I didn’t mind the return of a certain someone as much as I thought I would and am actually kind of interested to see where the story will go from here.
Did I particularly like this book? Nope. But will I be reading the next one? You bet. I’m just Grisha trash, guys 😁
Deeds of Men (Onyx Court #1.5) by Marie Brennan (2/5 Stars)
I’m normally not a huge fan of novellas, and Deeds of Men was the perfect reminder why. I only picked it up in the first place because when you read a century-spanning political fantasy series following a secret faerie court beneath the streets of London, the human characters that you’ve grown to love tend to die before you reach the next century… And I needed more of these characters!
Just… not like this. Deeds of Men was so boring, it almost put me to sleep. While it did have its own separate plot, the novella was just way too short to properly flesh things out. Instead of giving us more depth to these characters, we got a very rushed murder-mystery/political intrigue/succession story with a ton of info-dumps about 17th-century Spanish-British-French relations. I went into this hoping for more backstory on Michael Deven and Lune and came out bitterly disappointed.
However, one thing I really did like about this was how it developed Antony’s character! In In Ashes Lie, Antony was about as bland as a plate of unsalted mashed potatoes, but here, we got to see a much more interesting and complex side of him! I loved seeing how he came to be Prince of the Stone, and what his relationship with his predecessor Deven was like. In that respect, Deeds of Men did add something to the overarching story, and I really appreciated it for that!
Overall, though, I’d say you can probably skip this one. It doesn’t even come close to the epicness of Midnight Never Come, or even the good-but-not-greatness of In Ashes Lie. Maybe if Marie Brennan had fleshed this out into a fully-fledged novel, I would have been sold, but this way, it just lacked the depth I was craving.
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (2.5/5 Stars)
Since I focused so heavily on British literature during my university studies, I decided at the beginning of this year that I should probably start catching up on American classics on my own. After all, how am I supposed to teach English literature if I don’t know all the amazing books that contributed to it?
I must admit, though, I was a little apprehensive about The Bell Jar because I’d heard several people compare it to one of my most hated books of all time: The Catcher in the Rye. However, since I happened to find a copy while organizing my parents’ bookshelves and was on a depressing book kick after finishing A Little Life, I thought I might as well give it a go!
And no, I didn’t think it was as awful as The Catcher in the Rye. It was actually beautifully written, and Esther’s thoughts on being in her twenties were some of the most relatable things ever. That feeling when you’ve always had these good grades and everyone expects great things from you, even though you have no idea what you’re actually doing with your life and feel like such a failure? I don’t think anyone has ever captured that as perfectly as Sylvia Plath. And I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone portray depression and suicidal thoughts this realistically, either.
The problem was that The Bell Jar was, in fact, so depressing that I felt depressed just from reading it. Esther’s life was so boring, so monotonous, and so apparently devoid of meaning that after a while, I just didn’t like being in her head anymore. Like Esther, I felt myself hoping that her life would just be over – so that I would no longer have to read about it. There were no golden moments in between, everything was just gray and depressing.
I can totally see how this is the book Sylvia Plath wrote right before she committed suicide. In extremely poetic language, it brings to our attention the things we normally look away from, the thoughts everybody probably has at one point or another but is too afraid to share. It has some very poignant commentary on growing up, on societal expectations, and on being a woman in the 20th century. It most definitely deserves its place among the classics.
But I didn’t enjoy it. In fact, reading it made me feel horrible and kind of worthless, too, like Esther. Whenever I set it down, I didn’t look forward to picking it up again, and I don’t think it added that many valuable insights to my life, either. It just made me really, really sad that people didn’t give Esther Greenwood or Sylvia Plath a hug when they most needed it.
The Fifth Season (The Broken Earth #1) by N.K. Jemisin (5/5 Stars)
I can’t believe I didn’t read this sooner! 🤩 Granted, I had heard mixed things about this series, but most people with similar reading tastes to mine all seem to rave about it. So I should have known they were onto something!
Part fantasy, part science-fiction, and part post-apocalyptic fiction, this book is unlike any novel I have ever come across. And I think that’s why I loved it so much. After seeing the same medieval-Europe-inspired court politics over and over again, this world, where people feel threatened by seismic activity on a daily basis and are deeply mistrustful of one another, felt like a breath of fresh air.
The world-building, though decidedly dark, is absolutely phenomenal. Instead of giving everything away at once, N.K. Jemisin reveals details layer by layer, weaving together a complex tapestry of cultural background information that is extraordinarily satisfying to unravel. Any seasoned fantasy reader, I think, would love this!
However, I will say that this book takes a bit of patience at first. It took me about a hundred pages to grasp what was going on, so I kind of get that people’s biggest criticism of The Fifth Season seems to be that it is confusing. You’re thrust into this world with no context at all, from three different perspectives, one of which is told in second person.
But it pays off! N.K. Jemisin has a reason for everything she does, and solving all the mysteries that this world has to offer is one of the most satisfying things ever. Also, the writing is great. So are the characters. Just trust me and go read this!
(And please, don’t read a synopsis or anything beforehand!! This is one of those books where going in blind is the best choice you could possibly make. Describing this book without spoiling anything was honestly one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do! However, can I just add that I’m insanely proud of having guessed the main plot twist? 😊)
So yeah – that was it for July! I honestly still can’t quite believe how many amazing books the past month had in store for me, because three five-star reads?? How is that even possible? If also reading all those two-star books is the price I have to pay, I’m totally fine with that!
But now it’s your turn! Have you read any of these books? Do you agree or disagree with my thoughts on them? Were your reading months as much of a mixed bag as mine was? And what was your favorite July read? I would love to know!