After a roller coaster of a year in 2020, 2021 has kicked off. It is still full of uncertainties as the pandemic still loom large and lurk in every corner of our lives. Nevertheless, 2021 ushered in a year of hope. Spirits are soaring as each country race to vaccinate their denizens. There is still no much that is murky but the future is slowly taking shape.

Reading-wise, January was a good one. Even though I spent most of my time setting goals, I for the new year, I still managed to complete a decent number of books. In January, I finished eight contemporary books, published between 2011 to 2020. Essentially, it was an extension of my November and December reading months. It also bodes well for the year because despite the tedious month, I read a fairly decent number. I hope. I get to sustain this momentum with the advent of the love month. Without more ado, here are the magnificent reads I had in January.

How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee

I first came across Jing-Jing Lee’s How We Disappeared after a fellow book blogger recommended it. The discussion was on her insights into the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction winner. How We Disappeared, unfortunately, did not win or even make it past the longlist. Nevertheless, I looked forward to what it has in store. Set mostly in Singapore, this historical novel charts the story of Wang Di during the height of the Japanese invasion in the Second World War. It is about the story of “comfort women”, young women who were forced out of their homes by Japanese soldiers to serve as sex slaves. It is a heart-rending tale of what women went through during the Second World War. Although I felt like the novel was scratching the surface, I still find it an eye-opening literary piece. The novel hits home as stories of comfort women are also abound here in the Philippines.

Utolpia Avenue by David Mitchell

David Mitchell’s Utopia Avenue is a catchup read for I was not able to complete it last year. After reading Cloud Atlas and losing myself in its eccentric and complex structure, Mitchell earned a new fan in me. My fascination with his works was further underline in the madcap novel, The Bone Clocks. Surprisingly, I only included Utopia Avenue after seeing it listed as one of the best reads of 2020. To some degree, Utopia Avenue is a good read. It is the story of a band that was formed during the late 1960s in London. It doesn’t, however, reduce itself into a story of the band but more of an exploration into the characters who made up the band. As their stories merge, the novel explored subjects such as mental health, fatherhood, and identity. It didn’t live up to the eccentricities of my first two Mitchell novels but it was still an interesting read.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

I am on a roll. My January journey transported me back in time and into Moscow, Russia. It was the post-Romanov era and the Bolsheviks were conducting inquiries to ensure loyalty to their cause. The story’s main protagonist, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, barely missed being executed. A poem that inspires loyalty to the party, found in his person, saved him and was just relegated to a perpetual house arrest in Moscow’s luxurious Hotel Metropol. Thrown into a new environment bereft of the opulence of his former life, he initially floundered. But the longer he stayed, the more he became engrossed by the domesticity of his new life. It was fascinating to witness how he absorbed his new environment. It was an evocative and thought-provoking read.

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

From one historical fiction to another one. I used to avoid contemporary novels incorporating elements of Greek mythology. It was one of the reasons why I was apprehensive about buying and reading Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles even though I kept encountering it in the bookstore. It took another Miller novel, Circe, to change my mind. The Song of Achilles is the story of the famed Greek hero, Achilles. However, it was told through the perspective of his friend, Patroclus. It charts the story of how their relationship molded one of the greatest heroes in mythology. Compared to Circe, I found the narrative in The Song of Achilles a little raw but, nevertheless, equally riveting.

The Librarian of Auschwitz by Antonio Iturbe

My fifth book for the year transported me again in time, to a familiar place. Over the past few years, I have read several novels about the Holocaust and some were even set in Auschwitz. Auschwitz-Birkenau is perhaps the most popular of the concentration camps Adolf Hitler masterminded to slowly eradicate the Jew population. The titular librarian of Auschwitz is Dita Kraus, who at the age of fourteen was shipped to Auschwitz together with her family. They stayed in a special black called the family camp where the young Dita was entrusted with the task of taking care of a small set of books. The ownership of books, especially banned books, is subject to persecution but Dita took on the challenge and guarded the books as though they were treasures. In a way, they were treasures. It wasn’t totally perfect but it was still a powerful read brimming with hope.

Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler

It has been nearly a decade since I last read a work by Anne Tyler. I’ve always enjoyed how she painted domestic life and how she explored the beauty of simple spaces. When I learned that she published a new work, Redhead by the Side of the Road, and that it made the longlist of the 2020 Man Booker Prize, I added the book to my reading list. Redhead by the Side of the Road is the story of Micah Mortimer, an eccentric 44-year-old man who resigned from his former company and put up his own company because he can’t tolerate working for someone else. He enjoys the routine of his life but he found himself flustered when a young man turned up on his doors claiming to be his son. It was an interesting and heartwarming story but it was too short.

The Sellout by Paul Beatty

From a Man Booker longlisted book to a book that actually won the award. Paul Beatty’s The Sellout was declared the winner of 2016 Man Booker Prize, the primary reason I bought the book even though I barely had any idea on what the novel was about. Narrated on a first person perspective, it is the story of an anonymous man nicknamed “BonBon” and “The Sellout”. He dreamt of reestablishing a city named Dickens that was swallowed by the communities around it. The novel was supposed to be a satire as it explored the subject of racism through the eyes of a black man who thought of reintroducing segregation and slavery. It had its brilliant and humorous spots but I the novel relies on repetitions which undermined the story’s message.

Beauty is a Wound by Eka Kurniawan

I started my reading month with a historical fiction and it was only fitting to close it out with another historical fiction. Eka Kurniawan’s Beauty is a Wound is my first venture into the world of Indonesian literature. I have been looking forward to immersing into Kurniawan’s works every since I first encountered him and his works mid of 2020. Dewi Ayu is Halimunda’s most famous prostitute because of her beauty. She mothered four children, three of whom are as beautiful as she is while the last one was ugly because she asked it to be. After being buried for 21 years, she rose from the dead to put an end into a curse that has been trailing her family. Beauty is a Wound is a vivid depiction of Indonesia and its modern history. Parts-historical, parts-magical realism, parts-family saga, Beauty is a Wound is a memorable read.

Reading Challenge Recaps
  1. My 2021 Top 21 Reading List3/21
  2. 2021 Beat The Backlist: 0/12
  3. My 2021 Books I Look Forward To List0/11
  4. Gooodreads 2021 Reading Challenge: 8/60 
  5. 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die: 0/20
Book Reviews Published in January
  1. Book Review # 224: The Grapes of Wrath
  2. Book Review # 225: Absalom, Absalom!
  3. Book Review # 226: Utopia Avenue
  4. Book Review # 227: Shine
  5. Book Review # 228: Gravity’s Rainbow
  6. Book Review # 229: The Song of Achilles
  7. Book Review # 230: The Librarian of Auschwitz
  8. Book Review # 231: The Starless Sea

I had a strong start in January. It was an explosive beginning to my 2021 reading year. I also managed to cross out some of my pending book reviews from 2020. I read eight books and published eight book reviews. I am looking forward to sustaining this momentum into February 2021.

As I have started with Man Booker Prize longlisted, shortlisted, and winning books, I have decided to dedicate February to read books from these lists. I have so far read the 2020 winner, Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain and one of the shortlisted works, Brandon Taylor’s Real Life. I am looking forward to reading another winning work, Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s List/Ark. I am also aiming to publish eight more book review and finish all my pending reviews from July 2020 and start on my backlogs from August 2020.

How about you readers? How was your start to your 2021 reading journey? I hope you had a great journey. You can also share your experiences in the comment box.

Happy reading everyone!