The TBR Stack: December 2021
Wrapping Up the Year
I'm celebrating more than the holidays this December-- I made my reading goal for the year with a few weeks to spare! As 2021 comes to a close, I'm opening a book that's been on my TBR for quite a while, a newer novel, an old favorite, and a book from a genre I rarely read.
As I explored in my blog post, Reader, Know Thyself, we often think we won't like a type of book or a certain genre because we're making assumptions about those books-- and ourselves-- which may not be accurate. I've never really gotten into romance novels, but I'm giving them a new look this month with a very popular seasonal story. Royal Holiday by Jasmine Guillory is about an unexpected holiday vacation that turns into an even more unexpected love story. Vivian Forest is excited to spend the Christmas holidays taking in the magnificent British sights, but what she doesn’t expect is to become instantly attracted to a certain private secretary. This novel is one of the books I featured in my 11 Holiday Reads.
Questions about a mystery and a legacy fill the night air in The Last of the Moon Girls by Barbara Davis. This 2020 novel follows Lizzy Moon, who left the family farm cultivated by generations of gifted healers. Her grandmother's death, and the horrible accusations against the beloved matriarch, bring Lizzy back to her family roots. When she finds a journal left for her by her grandmother, Lizzy starts to face her family's past and understand her own future.
I've enjoyed the nonfiction and fiction works of Sue Monk Kidd so I've had my eye on her fourth novel, The Book of Longings, ever since it came out in April 2020. In this historical fiction, readers are introduced to Ana, Sue Monk Kidd's imagined wife of Jesus. The novel describes the early years of their marriage in first century Nazareth. Ana is intelligent, daring, curious, and a little rebellious. The novel focuses on the humanity of Jesus but centers its story on Ana's journey to discover her voice and place in the world.
My nonfiction selection for the month is a short work by beloved poet Mary Oliver. Winter Hours: Prose, Prose Poems, and Poems is a collection of essays and poems that touch on nature, the nature of writing, and Oliver's private self. Oliver explores big themes with sparing words. I've enjoyed much of her work in the past and have no doubt this collection will be any less wonderful.
Finally, a holiday favorite I read every year. I first picked up Christmas Miscellany: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Christmas by Jonathan Green on a bargain table at a bookstore some ten years ago. The book is a brief but thorough look at the origins and history of many of our holiday traditions. From the story of how mistletoe became associated with Christmas to who sent the first Christmas cards, this book is filled with holiday history and cheer.
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And now some thoughts on my November selections!
The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern is difficult to describe because of its experimental structure and epic scope. In this 2019 fantasy book, graduate student Zachary Ezra Rawlins discovers a mysterious book hidden in the library stacks. The book leads him to a secret underground world full of mystery, riddles, and symbols. The novel is divided into six "books" or sections. The chapters in each section alternate between Zachary's story and the stories within the books he finds. Slowly (so slowly), readers come to see that the stories are all connected and the same characters appear in different forms throughout. This book would be not be for everyone. It is complex, lengthy, and requires a detailed mental map as readers piece things together. I agree with some reviews I saw that the later chapters flounder a bit under the weight of the book's premise. However, Morgenstern's writing and world building are incredible. She creates a lush labyrinth and describes not just the sights, but the sounds, smells, textures, and tastes of her underground haven. Ultimately, this is a love letter written not just to books, but to the power and meaning of story in our lives. I thoroughly enjoyed my time at The Starless Sea.
Another book with an unusual premise turned out to be a surprising and very satisfying read. In A Psalm for the Wild-Built, science fiction author Becky Chambers explores questions of religion, philosophy, what it means to be human (or not human), and the quiet power of a cup of tea. Centuries earlier the robots of Panga disappeared into the wilderness, now one has emerged from seemingly nowhere with an intriguing question for the monk the robot encounters. This novella can be enjoyed quickly, but the story will likely stay with you for days or weeks afterward. A second book in this duology is expected to be released in 2022 so you can fully expect to see the sequel on my TBR list next year.
My middle grade read for the month was Front Desk by Kelly Yang. Readers follow the story of Mia Tang, a 10-year-old Chinese American immigrant with weighty secrets. One of the biggest? Her parents hide immigrants in the empty rooms of the motel where they live and work. This book may be designed for 8 to 12 year olds, but Yang respects her readers enough to deal head on with issues like racism, poverty, and bias against immigrants. The difficult circumstances facing these characters easily could have made this a depressing book, but the tone remains hopeful because of Mia's voice, dreams, and belief in community. Adults, young adults, and older children could all benefit from reading this book and having a frank conversation about the themes.
I rounded out the month with The Lost Apothecary by Sarah Penner. Despite its stunning cover art, this book is stronger in premise than execution. This historical fiction novel (with a touch of magical realism) weaves together the stories of three women in two timelines. We meet the mysterious Nella of 18th-century London who sells well-disguised poisons to women to use against the oppressive men in their lives. She befriends Eliza, a 12-year-old servant girl who comes to Nella's hidden shop on behalf of her mistress. In the present day, we follow Caroline, an American woman who stumbles across clues to what really happened centuries earlier. As is often the risk with books which follow two separate timelines, one story falls flat, and that was certainly the case here. Caroline's character arc is allegedly one of self-discovery and self-empowerment, but I could have done without her and her implausible historic finds. Still, Nella and Eliza were compelling enough that I enjoyed the book. I only wish we had spent more time with them.
Which books have you been spending time with this month? Let me know what you've been reading in the comments. Later in December, I'll share my Top 5 Books of 2021. Until then, best wishes for further reading!
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