On Literary Prizes & Reading Longlists

24 Mar

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Two years ago, I impulsively decided to read the Man Booker shortlist. The reasons why are still a bit fuzzy, to be honest. I think I just saw a lot of people talking about it and wanted to be “in on the discussion.” It ended up being one of the best decisions I’ve made in my reading life: one of the novels on it (A Little Life) is a top-ten book of mine now, and I absolutely fell in love with two others (Satin Island & The Fishermen). I read 5 out of the 6 in total, and of course the one book I skipped is the one that won, and I wasn’t crazy about the other two I picked up (A Spool of Blue Thread & The Year of the Runaways). So while I didn’t love every book I read for it, reading the shortlist was overall a very positive and motivating experience.

For 2016 I was planning to read the whole longlist, but ended up getting involved in two other prizes as well: the Man Booker International and the National Book Award. I read about a third of MBI, all but one of the NBA books, and the entire Man Booker longlist. And for each of them, I ended up reading a book on my year end favorites (Man Tiger, The Throwback Special, Hot Milk). Obviously I plan on doing that again this year, with another prize thrown into the mix (Bailey’s).

That sums up my short history with literary prizes, but what I’d like to discuss is what I find so appealing about them. I have found that most people who read prize lists tend to focus purely on literary fiction, while my reading is all over the place (to put it nicely). Some of the books on them are ones I would read anyway–two on the Bailey’s longlist were on my TBR and I’d already read another 2, for example–but generally the majority of them are not books I would pick up on my own. And I don’t tend to give them higher ratings overall. In fact, most of my Bailey’s reads are in the 3-3.5 star range, with only a few breaking through to 4-5. So why do it? Why devote so much time and effort to reading 40+ books a year just because they are on a prize list?

1. The sense of community. There is a pretty substantial group of bloggers/vloggers who read through these lists, and quite a few of my Goodreads friends do as well. Even if you are not engaging in direct conversation with people about them, there are so many reviews and discussions out there about whatever group of books is on a longlist. You can read prediction posts, watch videos of people discussing the selections, go on message boards and try to guess the winner. I engage in a lot of literary discussion both online and in real life, but nothing comes close to this because we’re all reading the same books when it comes to prizes. If you talk to someone about books in general, chances are slim that you will have a large overlap. If you’re talking about a prize list, there’s a pool of 10-20 books you will both have opinions are.

2. The motivation. The main difference between casually reading a book and reading a nominated book is the time frame. You know going into a longlist that there are dates in the future for the shortlist & the award ceremony, which means if you want to read them while it’s relevant… you need to hurry up! I know many readers hate pressure, but I thrive under it. Before going into the Bailey’s longlist in early March, I was 5 books behind schedule for my reading challenge. I am now 2 books ahead, in about half a month. I found myself devoting more time to reading, and focusing more on the books I was tackling. Each book had a sudden sense of importance: I wanted to know what made it worthy of the longlist, so perhaps more thought went into my reading than usual. Each book comes with the question of “what makes me a Bailey’s book” or “what makes me a Man Booker book.” It’s like a timed puzzle that I very much want to solve.

3. Knowing that I will find at least one amazing book. I have yet to read a longlist that didn’t end up helping me find a new favorite book, and that still holds true in 2017: I have no doubt that both Fever Dream and The Lonely Hearts Hotel will end up on my year-end favorites. I look over all the beautiful covers and wonder, “which one of you will be my new book love?” Of course I pick up every book I read hoping to love it, but my history with prize lists has taught me that I am absolutely guaranteed a winner.

4. Keeping up to date with fiction. Every book on the longlists I read is, at the very most, a year old. Of course I have a massive backlog of books I want to read, so perhaps this isn’t a fully positive aspect, but I love reading what’s on the cutting edge of fiction. I want to know what book trends are happening right now, what styles and topics are popular. For example, there are two book on the Bailey’s that focus on horses. And last year, longlists were dominated by discussions on race relations. Books with a cultural anthropology slant also seem to be trendy right now, with one nominated in 2015 and one in 2016 for the Booker. This is not exactly vital information, but I love having my finger on the pulse of modern fiction.

So, lovely readers, what is your opinion on reading longlists? Are there any prizes you follow, and would you recommend them to me?

Reading Wrapup: March 2017 Part I, Bailey’s Longlist

21 Mar

Guys! After almost 3 straight months of being behind on my reading I have finally caught up. In fact, as of today I am 2 books ahead. And it’s all thanks to the Bailey’s longlist. Last year I went through 3 different prize longlists and read as much of them as I could (or as much as I had access to), and I found it to be a really fun and motivating experience. So when the Bailey’s longlist came out on International Women’s Day, I decided it’d be my first prize of the year. But the Man Booker International was slated for a mere week after, so I had to really hop to it! And so I have. By the end of March I should have 11 out of the 16 read, though admittedly I did read two of them (D0 Not Say We Have Nothing and Hag-Seed) last year.

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Fever Dream, by Samantha Schweblin. Finished March 1st. Fever Dream is the absolute perfect name for this novella. It feels like you are in this surreal other world where nothing quite makes sense or fits together. If you read I’m Thinking Of Ending Things (or saw Get Out), the vibe is similar. Fever Dream feels like a funhouse mirror version of reality.

There is not much I can say about the plot without spoiling anything, and I think it’s best to go into this knowing as little as possible. It starts out with a woman (Amanda) in a hospital bed trying to figure out how she got there. She tells her story to a very creepy child (David) who is not her son. Why is she in the hospital? What happened to her daughter? And why is David asking her about worms?

The story is told in a very immersive fashion. The narration is very stream-of-consciousness with no quotation marks for dialogue. There are also no chapter breaks of any sort–it’s only 150 pages, which really sets it up as a one-sitting read. I think if you read this, it HAS to be done in one sitting to get the full effect. It’s a very immersive story but stepping away from it would really lose the flow and mood.

Amanda is obviously an unreliable narrator, because she is quite ill and can barely recall what happened to her. Her story is bizarre but cohesive, so the reader is left wondering how much of it is true and how much is a literal fever dream. There are elements of magical realism here, but you can never quite be sure if they happened or are just part of her imagination. Is it a coping mechanism? Or is her version of reality the truth? It’s a really thought-provoking read and exactly the type of bizarre and dark story I love. A favorite of the year so far.

Lipstick Rating5 Full

 

 

 

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Wizard & Glass, by Stephen King. Finished March 1st. Each of the books in this series are so drastically different. The first was a bizarre apocalyptic fantasy, the second managed to be both stranger but more understandable, and the third combined the elements of the first two in a perfect way while adding in a hero’s journey element. Wizard & Glass goes in the opposite direction: over 80% of it is a flashback into Roland’s past.

I know this is a divisive entry in the series: people either love it or hate it. Personally, I loved it! While the tone is very different (it’s a fairytale-like fantasy Western), I was riveted by Roland’s tale. Stephen King is, above all else, a storyteller, and that truly shines here. There are so many insights both into Roland’s character and into the plot in general. This may be hard to believe if you haven’t read the series, but this is the book where we finally learn what’s even up with the Dark Tower! It’s a driving plot force in the first three, yes, but there’s zero explanation about it until now.

Lipstick Rating 4 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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History of Wolves, by Emily Fridlund. Finished March 3rd. Another slow family drama tinged with tragedy. That seems to be my go-to this winter, though I honestly have no idea why. I mean, I picked this book up because it had Wolves in the title and I saw a bunch of my Goodreads friends adding it. I had no idea what it was about when I opened it up. I thought “oh, wolves, I like wolves!” Please note that there are no actual wolves in this book. Well, there is a dead stuffed one, so there are no living wolves.

History of Wolves is about Linda, a teenage girl in a small town with a screwy family dynamic. She grew up on a commune and now lives alone in a run-down shack with her parents. Neither of them seems particularly invested in her: her mother, in particular, treats her like a little adult. Linda has basically no idea how to act around other humans and is kind of ostracized at school. One year, a rich family moves across the lake and she ends up babysitting their kid.

There are two major plots here. The first, about the kid she is babysitting, is fantastic. We know from the first page that Paul (the young boy) dies at some point, so there is a definite sense of mystery. The reveal is slow, almost painfully so, and while this is certainly not a thriller it really ramps up the tension. Paul is a charming and precocious little kid, and it’s painful to spend so much time getting to know him when you know what is going to happen.

The second plot I thought was much less successful. Linda had a teacher who may or may not have been a pedophile and a classmate (Lily) who he may or may not have abused. Linda becomes obsessed with Lily and basically stalks her. I was never grabbed by this part of the book, and it really felt like it was just filling out pages. I think History of Wolves would have been more successful as a novella about Linda & Paul’s relationship, if I’m being honest. Just those sections were 5 stars for me.

There’s also a third kind-of plot, following Linda as an adult. Like the Lily storyline, I didn’t particularly care about this. I think it served to show how damaged Linda is, though it’s really unclear if it’s just because of her upbringing or because of the Paul situation. I don’t think it added anything to the narrative, and I could have done without these parts as well.

Despite these complaints, I still gave it 4 stars because of how great the Paul plot was. It’s a strong, gripping story that is told in a quiet and understated way. But really, this is more like a 3.75 star read for me.

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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The Sleepwalker, by Chris Bohjalian. Finished March 5th. Have you ever read a few incredibly similar books in a row without meaning to? I read History of Wolves right before this, which has a very similar mood, and before that was Swimming Lessons which has a plot so similar it’s eerie. All three involve family secrets, small towns, tragedy, and loss. All three have a young adult/teenage female protagonists (but are decidedly not YA). And The Sleepwalker & Swimming Lessons both involve a mother who goes missing and potentially walked into the water and drowned. Kind of like The Book of Speculation! But of the 3 I recently read, I think The Sleepwalker was by far the most successful.

For some reason (cough the marketing) I thought this was one of those easy breezy psychological thrillers we get so many of. But I was really surprised by how literary this is. There is a mystery at the core–the missing mother–but it’s much slower than I expected. Which is a good thing! It focuses more on family dynamics and the effects sleepwalking have not just on the person with the condition but on the people around them. I have a sleep disorder (insomnia) so I was especially intrigued by these parts.

In another similar overlap with Swimming Lessons, in between each chapter there are short diary fragments from a sleepwalker who we assume is the mother. They add a dreamy sense of unreality to the book: most of them are describing dreams and sleep in a very evocative manner. The entire story has an almost surreal feeling, even though it is very much grounded in reality. Bohjalian can certainly write: I’ve read one of his books before (Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands) and while I hated the plot I remember the language really standing out.

I didn’t realize how invested I was in this until the end. The final chapter is such a gut punch. Usually in a mystery novel, the entire plot is a vehicle to get to the reveal. Here, it’s kind of the opposite: the end is quietly delivered, and really enhances the rest of the book.

Lipstick Rating 4 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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The Taming of the Queen, Philippa Gregory. Finished March 8th. Philippa Gregory’s books are the Smarties of the book world. They’re pure sugar, and while people insist that they have different flavors we all know a white Smartie and a purple Smartie taste exactly the same. Yet I come back to them again and again. Sometimes you just really want a sugar rush, you know?

Basically if you’ve read one of her books you’ve read them all. They follow women in the War of the Roses/Tudor court of varying historical importance, from actual queens to people we know basically nothing about (cough The Queen’s Fool). The voices change, the timelines change, but they all feel the same. It’s comfort food in book form, plus you can convince yourself that you are ~learning about history~ while reading them. I mean, actually, I’ve read a lot of articles about the Tudors because of Gregory’s books. So indeed, I do learn.

This particular one is about Katherine Parr, Henry VIII’s last wife. And one of only two that made it out of marriage with him alive! Side note: why is every damn woman in this time period named Katherine, Jane, or Mary? It’s confusing is what it is. And every guy is Henry, Will, or Thomas. Dear past England, find some new names please. Thanks. It seems like Henry was about to get rid of Katherine before his death so just think, it could have been 7 wives! Potential wife number 7 was named…. wait for it… Catherine. Just why.

It’s been ages since I read one of Gregory’s books, so while everything felt familiar it wasn’t too been-there-done-that. Parr is a very interesting historical figure, because she published books and was very involved in Church scholarship. And I think she is a forgotten figure, because people tend to focus on his first 3 wives and neglect the rest. I mean, she served as regent, just like Katherine of Aragon (aka best queen)! I had no idea. I also didn’t know that Henry had a woman tortured (Anne Askew) and executed in an attempt to implicate Katherine. Ahh, history.

I don’t think this is Gregory’s best, but it is interesting and Katherine is a great narrator. I am very thankful that it ended where it did (with Henry’s death) because we all know what happened after and I reallllly didn’t want to read about Elizabeth being sexually abused by her stepfather/uncle/whatever from the POV of the woman who loved him.

Lipstick Rating 3 Full

 

 

 

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The Power, by Naomi Alderman. Finished March 9th. Bailey’s longlisted. I feel like in the past year I have had a consistent complaint about many books I’ve read. They are often too short. Is it a trend? Have people always tried to squeeze epic stories into 300 pages? Either way, I find it frustrating. So many books could be amazing with 100-300 more pages added. Like The Power!

This book tries to both tell a story huge in scope but also focus on the small details of life. All of a sudden, women all over the world gain an electrical power that allows them to defend themselves (or attack others) with a strength that far outweighs any physical advantage men have over them. We follow 4 initial perspectives: Allie (a young girl who kills her abusive stepfather and runs away to a nunnery), Roxy (a young girl in an organized crime family), Margot (a politician), and Tunde (the only male voice, a reporter who is chronicling the events of the book).

The main weakness of the book is the shifting narrators. I found only Tunde to be consistently interesting: the rest of them are terribly uneven. Allie & Margot are great at the start, but Allie’s story becomes repetitive and tedious while Margot’s “character development” made absolutely no sense. Roxy was my least-favorite at the start but towards the end her story really picked up. They are also very uneven in length: we’ll get 10 pages from Margot and then 40 from Roxy. So obviously we get a lot more of some stories than others.

The premise is obviously fascinating and gives Alderman a lot to work with, but I don’t think it lived up to its potential. This book has a worldwide scope, but it felt like the events in every country were treated exactly the same. Women rise up, no matter the cultural background, and there’s really no difference from say…. Iran to Russia. Maybe I’m spoiled by World War Z, but I wanted a more nuanced look at how each country would deal with the events of the book. I also had SO many questions that were never touched on. Like how would this effect cinema, literature, and television? People talk about going to the movies after women gain their power but obviously their content would change, right? Would we get female-led action movies all over the place? Would men have more submissive movie roles? And what about the transgender population–I feel like this event would see a huge spike in gender dysphoria. Of course in a 300 page book it’s asking too much, but it’s one of the many reasons I wanted this to be longer than it was.

The writing is at times wonderful and nuanced (especially in Tunde’s chapters), but at other times feels a bit… YA. The voice of a young girl does not need to feel more immature than the “grown-up” chapters, but it’s definitely the case here. Especially when you look at the searing content we get from Tunde’s point of view and compare it to the toned-down violence Allie and other young characters see. This feels like a bunch of different stories mashed together in a way that doesn’t totally mesh.

I feel like I am doing nothing but complaining, because I did enjoy The Power. I think it’s a (no pun intended) powerful look at gender dynamics, and it examines the idea that violence and patriarchy are innate to human society. Does absolute power corrupt absolutely? Are women really the “fairer sex?” But it needed more time to explore its ideas, and perhaps a bit more finesse in how it views world politics.

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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Little Deaths, by Emma Flint. Finished March 10th. Bailey’s longlisted. This is a book that has all the ingredients for something I’d love: it’s a literary mystery set in Queens that serves as a character study of a flawed but fascinating women. But somehow Emma Flint managed to take a great premise & opening chapter and dive bomb it right into the ground.

Ruth, the “protagonist,” is accused of murdering her children after they go missing. We know from the first chapter that she goes to jail, even though she seems totally innocent of the crime. Instead, it is essentially her personality that is put on trial: she drinks, she sleeps around, so obviously she must be a terrible woman who killed her children! This is based on a true case, and sadly this thing happens too often (though not just to women–look at Scott Peterson).

So all good so far, right? But then we meet our other protagonist, a reporter named Pete. Pete is… the worst. He’s so dull and he becomes utterly obsessed with Ruth in a way that’s just really trite and played out. Pete has WAY more POV chapters than Ruth, and the book really puts the focus on him. And I didn’t care about him at all. I don’t want 2 pages of his sexual fantasies about Ruth, I want to know if she murdered her damn children. I think Flint did this so we could have a “behind the scenes” perspective and get case details, but why not you know… have an actual detective who doesn’t suck at his job be the POV character? Or, better yet, go with 3rd person omniscient and flit between a lot of people.

I felt this way about the entire book. “Wow, this would be really great if it was just different!” I was basically dying for it to be over. Ruth starts out promising, but we get so little insight into her actions. And let’s face it, she is a shitty person. Though maybe that’s the point, she’s an awful human but that doesn’t make her a murdered. However, I was already well aware of this and didn’t need to be beaten over the head with it. We needed either 1) a more sympathetic Ruth or 2) more scenes in her head to make this a true character study (and thus actually interesting). Having such an unlikable character as the lead can certainly work, but we just didn’t get any depth here.

Lipstick Rating 2 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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The Lonely Hearts Hotel, by Heather O’Neill. Finished March 10th. Bailey’s longlisted. This is one of those books I never would have read if it wasn’t on a prize longlist. So thank you, Bailey’s, for introducing this wonderful work of fiction into my life. I think the marketing is SO misleading: this is nothing like The Night Circus. Sure, it’s a magical read, but there is no actual magical realism (why is it tagged that everywhere?). And the cover makes it look rather chic-lit-y. It’s none of these things. In fact, this is an incredibly dark book. It deals with heavy topics (rape, sexual abuse, drugs, prostitution, etc) and doesn’t gloss over trauma. This is not some airy novel where a terrible event happens and the characters are fine 10 pages later. This is a book where the characters cry themselves to sleep 10 years later because they can’t get past their trauma.

Our story follows Rose and Pierrot, two orphans in 1920′s Montreal. The thing that stands out the most is definitely the language: every page of The Lonely Hearts Hotel feels surreal and dreamy. Paragraphs are packed with descriptions and metaphors, ranging from gorgeous to utterly strange. Some of them come off as quite childish, but are followed by moving speeches or brutally true observations about life. It’s an odd combination, with dark subject matter but fantastical prose. The combination works splendidly though, mostly because it mirrors the mental state of Rose & Pierrot. They both retain a childish view of the world and a sense of wonder well into adulthood, and it really feels like the writing is how they would describe the world.

To my surprise, they actually spend a good chunk of the book separated. It isn’t until over 50% of the way in that they finally come back together, and oddly (because this is definitely a love story) I actually enjoyed the sections of their separation better. Their relationship is wonderful, but the odd mirroring of their lives when they are apart was so deftly done. Once they get back together, it becomes a bit more predictable (for a time, at least–the end section is definitely unexpected and wonderfully so). I was actually rooting more for them when they weren’t together, if that makes sense? It added a sense of conflict to even the most mundane scenes. We’d have Pierrot hanging in a club, but the reader knew that Rose had been there only the night before. My heart just ached for them.

If you want to be absolutely swept away in a story, this is the book for you.

Lipstick Rating5 Full

 

 

 

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The Essex Serpent, by Sarah Perry. Finished March 12th. Bailey’s longlisted. Ah, The Essex Serpent. I loved and hated this book, which is unfortunate because I came into it with insanely high expectations. A lot of people whose opinion I respect rated it one of their faves of 2016, and then it got longlisted for Bailey’s. So I really did expect it to be a 5-star all-time-great for me.

Most of my feelings are pretty positive. The story is cleverly done, because the ‘Essex Serpent’ doesn’t serve as a driving plot force but it does function as a way to reveal things about the characters. A small town in Essex is convinced that they are being tormented by a great beast, and everyone reacts differently. Some are afraid, some are annoyed, some are horrified, some are amazed, some are enraptured. It’s an event that really illuminates the intricacies of the cast in an amazingly creative way. It’s a perfect example of how ‘show don’t tell’ should function.

Speaking of the cast, it is (for the most part) fantastic. It’s not an insanely long book but it has a large cast and many interweaving plots that I think are handled masterfully. The characters complement each other, and even when the plots don’t directly overlap it’s clear that they serve an important purpose for the narrative.

So what were my issues? Well, I hated Cora. Yes, the main character, the ~complex and interesting~ woman that we are so obviously supposed to love. I did not love her. I found her immature, childish, pretentious, and selfish. Her relationship with her son (who as a side note is most definitely autistic and very well done) was just painful to read. And while I think some of her later actions are supposed to go along with the ~free spirit living against the gender norm doing what she loves~ bohemian vibe there was a point where I wanted to shove her off a cliff. She does something truly unforgivable, something totally against the morals she is supposed to have, and the reader is supposed to be all “aww how romantic!” Don’t get me wrong: I do not need my protagonist to be likeable. I love characters that are complex and objectively ‘bad people.’ But Cora is framed as being a really good and likeable person in the narrative and I hate being told how to feel when I read.

The Essex Serpent also relies on one of my least-favorite tropes, and I knocked it to 3.5 stars just for this. Almost every single male-female friendship in the book ends up being romantic on at least one end. It plays into the idea that men and women are “never just friends” and there is always sexual tension. The only male characters who don’t engage in this behavior are either old, uneducated, or fat and thus “off the market”/”undesirable” (which is another problem all together, let me tell you). Married men are not exempt from this (unless, of course, you are married AND fat because then you’re obviously sexless right? Eyeroll). Let’s take Martha, Cora’s companion, for example. She has 4 male friends who she regularly interacts with. One of them is the previously mentioned married fat guy. Of the others, 2 are in love with her and she sleeps with the 3rd. If an eligible man and an eligible woman in this book start talking, you can bet love is on the horizon. It’s trite and annoying and I really resent it.

So yeah, two huge negatives but many more positives. The writing is beautiful, the setting is moody and atmospheric, the plot is great, (most of) the characters are great… but it’s really hard for me to get over my issues and say it was a book I loved.

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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The Gustav Sonata, by Rose Tremaine. Finished March 13th. Bailey’s longlisted. This was 1/3rd of an amazing novel. It is, for reasons I cannot fathom, split into 3 very distinct sections. The first is amazing: it is a slow, quiet tale of two boys forming an unlikely friendship in the wake of WWII. Gustav comes from poverty, and Anton is Jewish and very wealthy. They meet in kindergarten and form an instant friendship. While ’6 year old boys hang out together’ might not sound like the most compelling plot, it’s really fantastic. Their friendship is complex and interesting, their lives are dark but hopeful, and the overall mood is so wonderfully melancholy.

I was so absorbed by this section that I practically got whiplash when we got 30% of the way in and suddenly we’re following Gustav’s parents. His mother, Emilie, is kind of a horrible person. This reveal is done in an interesting way in the childhood section: the first line of the book is about how much he loves her, and slowly he realizes that his childish ideal of the perfect mother is all wrong. But here we’re kind of beat over the head with “look at how bad she is!” She’s stupid, she’s lazy, she’s ignorant, she’s spoiled, she’s a brat. She blames other people for her own problems. She’s a terrible mother. I did like Gustav’ father (well, more ‘felt pity for’ than ‘liked’) but this section was a drag because I honestly didn’t care about their past and I feel like this was a poor delivery of the story. Why not have Gustav-as-a-kid discover a store of letters and deliver the tale that way? Would have been more compelling.

Then the third section, where Anton and Gustav are suddenly 40 years in the future. Yes, you read that right, we spend all this time getting involved in only a few months of their lives and then skip 30+ years ahead. A lot of character development obviously went on in those years and we miss all of it, so their actions seem a bit manic and disjointed in this section. Most of my reactions were ‘Anton is doing what now’ instead of the obvious sympathy card Tremaine was going for. Because the last 40 pages or so are very A Little Life (except, you know, without all the character development or emotional investment). Yes, this is yet another book where my final thoughts are “why was it so short.”

So there was potential here, but I don’t think it followed through. It felt like a really great cup of coffee that you have a few sips of and then accidentally leave out on a table. You feel obliged to finish it because the first sips were so good, but now it’s cold and unappetizing and you just want to make a new one.

Lipstick Rating 3 Full

 

 

 

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The Lesser Bohemians, by Eimear McBride. Finished March 14th. Bailey’s longlisted. My thoughts on this seem to be the opposite of most reviews: I absolutely adored the writing style, but hated the plot and main character. Eily, our protagonist, is just… not interesting. Young girl goes to college, discovers drugs & sex & alcohol, gets into trouble, is tortured and troubled and makes infinitely terrible decisions. Very been-there-done-that. I didn’t feel anything for Eily: she wasn’t sympathetic to me, but I didn’t even dislike her. She was just so bland. No personality to speak of. I can’t tell you a single thing about her other than “she made really bad decisions and sure was drunk a lot.” And I spent 300+ pages in her head.

Her lover, Stephen, is where I was hooked. There are two long sections narrated by him, and I found them both riveting. Which is odd, because what I loved about Eily’s sections was the disjointed, fragmented writing, and Stephen’s sections are much smoother and less stream of consciousness. But that style would not have fit his story at all, so it was a smart decision to alter the narrative style. And, in another clever move, Eily’s narration becomes smoother the more time she spends around Stephen.

Looking back on this, I think more of the positives (writing, Stephen’s backstory) than the negatives (which for me was… everything else). I think perhaps I’ve rated it a bit harshly, and might up it a bit if I still feel so positively in a few weeks.

Lipstick Rating 3 Full

 

 

 

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The Sport of Kings, by C. E. Morgan. Finished March 15th. Bailey’s longlisted. This is one of the two Bailey’s books that was already on my TBR list. To be honest, I can’t remember why I added it. It really doesn’t seem like a book I’d enjoy, since the cover and synopsis makes it seem like a book that focuses really heavily on horse racing… which is not exactly a huge interest of mine. But, as almost every reviewer has pointed out, the marketing is very misleading.

This is not a book about horses, or even a book about horse racing. It is an epic family saga spanning 4 generations of a Southern dynasty. It is divided into a few sections, and each focuses on a different family member or employee, though the last few have quite a bit of overlap.

The themes here are what you would expect: family, loyalty, wealth, privileged, race relations, family secrets. And while these are well-trod topics, C. E. Morgan handles them so deftly and with a lot of finesse. The writing is absolutely gorgeous, though if you dislike description-heavy storytelling this is probably not the book for you. There are a lot of asides describing the countryside, house, and of course the horses.

There are moments of violence and abuse here that would be incredibly rough reads if not for the beauty of the language. Everything feels so smooth and effortless, and while this is a long read it’s quite fast and easy to get through. The characters are also quite unlikable, even the ones you feel a lot of sympathy for. They make consistently but realistically bad decisions, and there is a sense that the family dynamic is a self-perpetuating cycle. Yet there is growth and change happening to these people, even if they have to be dragged into modernity kicking and screaming. I think this is not a book for everyone: it’s not very plot driven, no one is likeable, and the topics it covers are dark and heavy. But if you like dense literary fiction or family sagas, I highly recommend this!

Lipstick Rating 4 And 1 Half

 

 

 

Reading Challenge Goals

Books Read: 39/200

Goal Books: 36

Impulse Reads: 3

Reading Wrapup: Febraury 2017 Part II

2 Mar

And here we are, with part 2! Next month I’ll be more timely, I swear.

February was an okay reading month. Not nearly as bad as January, but not quite up to my 2016 stats of 20+ books a month. This could also be because it’s a shorter month: I finished off two books on March 1st, and any other month those would have counted. So I’m trying to look on the positive: 15 books a month isn’t bad at all, and I didn’t have any impulse reads!

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Hurt People. by Cote Smith. Finished February 13th. I picked this up impulsively from the library and let’s be real, it was because of the cover. It’s also described as a dark coming of age tale, a genre I really enjoy when done right. And hey, it fulfilled a Read Harder challenge (debut novel) so it was easy to justify.

This book is so heartbreaking. It’s about two young brothers whose parents have just been through a contentious divorce. Over one summer they are basically left to their own devices while their mother goes to work, and they end up meeting a mysterious older boy at the neighborhood pool. This doesn’t sound like the most compelling summary, but trust me, it works brilliantly. Because it’s clear something really bad is going to happen (and you know what it is fairly early on), but our story is told through the eyes of the younger brother. So the reader can see all these pieces falling into place, but his innocence keeps him blind to the danger all around him.

This is a quiet story. There’s no big action scenes, and the “shocking” event at the end is one you intentionally see coming a mile away. It’s more about people and life and the struggle to just get from one day to the next, and how small actions can have huge consequences. If slow, character-driven coming of age stories (with dark elements–go into this with a strong stomach, people) are your thing, give this underrated read a shot!

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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The Waste Lands, by Stephen King. Finished February 16th. Book 3 in the Dark Tower series, and my favorite so far. Probably will be my favorite of all of them, because I can’t imagine anything topping this. You know how I said The Gunslinger and The Drawing of The Three felt like two different books? This combines all the aspects of the previous additions to spectacular effect.

This is King at his most epic, and also his most devilish. I have a new favorite King villain (yes, Blaine has trumped even Flagg and Pennywise for me). The world is SO compelling: the more we see of it, the more I want answers. Usually with fantasy it’s the opposite, and that cloak of mystery needs to stay on or it gets dull. With this series, every piece of new information that is slowly fed to the reader just makes it better. Of course I don’t think even King knew where he was going when he wrote these, but man am I strapped in for the ride.

Lipstick Rating5 Full

 

 

 

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The Good People, by Hannah Kent. Finished February 18th. I read Burial Rites in 2015 and, like everyone else, totally loved it. It’s kind of shocking to think that was her first novel. So I was highly anticipating her follow up, even if the plot didn’t sound quite as interesting. It takes place in Ireland in 1825. Nora has lost her daughter and husband in the same year, and is left alone with land to take care of and her possibly disabled grandson. She hires a maid, and ends up going to a sort of witch-woman who can talk to fairies (the “good people”) for help.

Doesn’t sound as intriguing as “the last woman executed in Iceland” but as you’d expect from Kent, it packs a punch. It’s also based on a true case, but one that is obscure. Tip: don’t look it up before reading, because I think it’s better to not know what direction the story is going in.

Like Burial Rites, the atmosphere is the star here. You can feel the poverty and despair of the characters, the chill Irish air and the growing desperation as winter gets darker and bleaker. I don’t think the plot or characters are quite as tight as BR, but it’s an amazingly fast-paced read given that most of it is literally just women in cottages sitting and talking. There is a compulsive quality to it: you’re so desperate to know what happens, and the tension gets incredibly high. It wasn’t the book I expected, but I am not at all disappointed.

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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Marriage Games, by CD Reiss. Finished February 21st. This book pains me. I used to be a big CD Reiss fan–sure, they were almost guilty pleasure books, but she could weave a great story and her relationships were always dynamic and interesting. But ever since the last Fiona book and her attempt to do more mainstream works (ShutterGirl and Hardball) I feel like she’s lost her touch. Remember the tragedy that was Secret Sins? Shudder.

But this looked more promising. It’s not a Drazen book (which I used to love, but now I almost dread) and it’s not light and fluffy. However… I did not enjoy it. The premise sounds at least intriguing, but the hero and heroine are so obtuse and annoying. My eyes rolled so far back into my head when we found out our ~super dreamy hero~ didn’t want to do anything degrading to his wife (even if she wanted it) because it would “ruin her in his eyes.” Toxic masculinity and Madonna/whore complex like woah! But this is never addressed as being weird or anything, it’s just… how he is. And Diana? Even after her chapters she felt like a complete mystery, in a bad way. This was just a meh read but it had so much potential I might try the follow-up.

Lipstick Rating 2 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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The Familiar Vol 4 Hades, by Mark Z Danielewski. Finished February 21st. Ahh, what is there to say about this series? We’re only on book 4 (of 26) and it might already be my all-time favorite. Danielewski can do no wrong, at least in my eyes. Which might be because we share a love of both cats and intense spookiness.

There’s nothing I can say about the plot without spoiling things. These books are both incredibly complex but also very accessible for postmodern literature. We have 9 characters, each with only slightly overlapping stories (there are 3 who are part of a family, but the others are distant–both in theme and location, we go all over the world). Each character has a different color, font, and stylistic layout. Weird things happen. It’s spooky. It’s strange. It’s wonderful. Do you like cats? Maybe read this and be both excited and confused.

Lipstick Rating5 Full

 

 

 

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Swimming Lessons, by Claire Fuller. Finished February 28th. This month/year I am trying to read more from authors I recently found and loved. The majority of the books I read in 2016 were actually from new-to-me authors, but a lot that I’ve found in the past few years have put out new books. And I should read them! So that was a mini-goal for me in February, and I read both The Good People and this book, which is written by the same woman who did Our Endless Numbered Days. Which I ADORED.

Swimming Lessons is very, very different from Numbered Days. In fact, I wouldn’t have guessed they had the same author if I didn’t know that coming in. It’s about a family where the mother went missing over a decade ago. Our main perspective is Flora, the teenage daughter who still wants to believe that her mom is out there, though every other chapter is actually a letter the mother wrote before she went missing. These letters, tragically, are not read by her family because she hides them in books and no one ever thinks to look. By the end, you aren’t sure if she even wanted them to be found.

There are some thematic overlaps with The Book of Speculation (another book I love): a crumbling family dynamic, a house by the sea, a potentially tragic mother figure who loves to swim. But Swimming Lessons definitely takes a more mystery-driven route and focuses on “what happened.” However, I wouldn’t really recommend this if you’re just looking for a good mystery, because while it’s the driving force of the plot it also kind of takes a back seat to family interactions.

I have mixed feelings about this one. The atmosphere is great, and I adored the letter sections. But I found Flora insufferable. There’s a lot of good here, but I though Flora’s sections were kind of dull and honestly I wasn’t super intrigued by the mystery. The writing was lovely and it’s definitely a compelling book, but I came away thinking it was just okay when I really wanted to love it.

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

Reading Challenge Goals

Books Read: 28/200

Goal Books: 25

Impulse Reads: 3

Reading Wrapup: February 2017 Part I

1 Mar

Every month I insist to myself that I am totally going to be on top of getting my wrapup up in a timely fashion. And every month that somehow doesn’t happen. Obviously, I have only myself to blame… I was much more timely last year, when my reading was on track and I didn’t feel pangs of guilt when looking at my challenge. Yes, after my end-of-January revelation I am doing much better at hitting goals, but I am still 3 books behind! Nothing a spur of the moment 24 hour self-imposed readathon can’t fix, right? Because that might be in the stars for March.

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 A Short Stay in Hell, by Steven L. Peck. Finished February 1st. What a way to start out this month. A Short Stay in Hell is my favorite book that I’ve read so far this year, and definitely has the potential to be an all-time favorite. It’s about a Mormon man who dies and wakes up in the afterlife, only it’s not the one he was promised. Turns out a different religion got it right, so all the non-believers are doomed to hell. Oh, but it’s not an eternal hell! No, everyone has a way to escape.

Our protagonist is thrown into the Library of Babel (yes, the famous one from the story). A place where anything that could ever be written has been written. And not just actual books that make sense: any combination of words that is possible is contained here. All our protagonist has to do is find the book that tells his life story and he’s free to leave hell.

That’s just the setup, and this is a short novel so I am not going to discuss the events of the plot at all because I don’t want to ruin anything. It’s bizarre and existential, filled with dread and horror but also moments of pure hope and human intimacy. There’s something so compelling and horrifying about the setting and mood that I can’t quite put into words. If you enjoy weird fiction, postmodern literature, existential dread, or just excellent writing and storytelling I really can’t recommend this enough!

Lipstick Rating5 Full

 

 

 

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The Elephant Vanishes, by Haruki Murakami. Finished February 2nd. Murakami is one of my favorite authors, but I have mixed opinions on his short fiction. I loved most of the stories in Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman but The Elephant Vanishes just didn’t do it for me.

There were, of course, some stories here that I found very effective… but the two I liked the most were also later included in his books, so I’d already read them. The title story is also a good one, and really perfectly captures that sense of unreal that’s never quite explained in his works. I think every story in here has an open end, so if you want closure… Murakami is not your guy. I can’t say I hated or even disliked any of the stories here, but I find that only a few of them have stuck with me after reading, and I’d struggle to recall what some of them are about based on the title. I did really enjoy the few stories that I can remember in detail, so I can’t bring myself to rate it lower than 3.5.

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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Shogun, by James Clavell. Finished February 3rd. When I was in AP Literature in high school, we were assigned Dracula. However, I’d already read Dracula–3 times! I talked to my (amazing) teacher about it, and he said he’d give me a different book to read for the paper. The next day he handed me a copy of Shogun, and said it was one of his favorite books of all time. Looking back, I realize that’s a lot of trust to place in a high school student: not only did he give me a massive book twice as long as the required reading, but he trusted me with one of his favorite pieces of literature. I don’t know if I’d be willing to do that with a teenager!

Shogun dazzled me. I devoured it in only a few days, and was totally swept away in Clavell’s vision of Japan. And it also sparked something inside of me: a desire to read more about Japan, both fiction and nonfiction. As you probably realize if you read my blog frequently, I read a lot of Japanese literature, and Shogun is the reason why. It changed me so significantly as a reader that I really can’t imagine what my reading life would look like today if I’d never picked it up.

It’s been years since I last re-read this book, and 2017 seemed as good a time as any to both dive back into it and continue on with the rest of the series (which, shock, I’ve never even thought of reading!). And, thankfully, Shogun holds up over the years. It’s a tale of adventure, honor, love, tragedy, and human triumph that feels so epic in scope it might as well be fantasy.

Lipstick Rating5 Full

 

 

 

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Six Wakes, by Mur Lafferty. Finished February 5th. I really wanted to like this more than I did. The concept is so interesting: Six Wakes is basically an Agatha Christie novel in space. Six people wake up on a spaceship freshly cloned. Their previous incarnations have been murdered, and they are the only people awake on the ship. So they have to solve their own murders… knowing that it’s more than likely that one of them is a killer. Oh, and they all have criminal backgrounds, but none of them know what crimes the others have committed in the past. Plus they’re missing memories of the last 20 years of their lives.

The cast is diverse and entertaining. We get chapters from each of their perspectives, as well as their backstories. In Christie-fashion it seems like they all have means, motive, and opportunity. It’s a traditional whodunnit with a scifi twist. And the science fiction elements aren’t just set dressing: cloning in particular is vital to the plot, and there’s a lot of political drama as well. I found the discussions about the ethics of cloning and clones’ rights to be the best part of the books, and I wish there had been a little more focus on that.

I was really enjoying this until about the 60% mark, when things started to fall apart. Then again, this has mostly very positive reviews, so I think most people will not have my issues. In short: everything is too neat. It comes together so cleanly, and the reader is never given the opportunity to put the pieces together themselves. Every reveal is handed to us on a silver platter. There will be a backstory scene that hints as to motive, and then we get a character discussing what it means in length. I like a bit of a challenge in my mystery novels, and this flips from a moody mystery to a fast-paced scifi thriller about halfway through. I think it just tried to do too many things: murder mystery, character study, political and ethical discussions, intense action scenes… you need at least another 100 pages to execute all those things successfully.

If I went into this expecting a bit of a fluffy fast ride, I think I would have enjoyed it more. I was expecting more of a horror/mystery vibe (which admittedly is what the first few chapters serve up). If you don’t want deep, meaningful reveals and are okay with everything wrapped up in a big neat bow, this would probably be very enjoyable. It’s not a bad book… just a flawed one that left me feeling cold.

Lipstick Rating 3 Full

 

 

 

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The Drawing of The Three, by Stephen King. Finished February 7th. This is the second book in the Dark Tower series, and if the character names weren’t the same I don’t know if I would ever guess they were in the same world. The Drawing of The Three is so drastically different in every way: mood, tone, writing style, plot, world… obviously there’s nothing specific I can talk about without spoilers, but it just goes off in a totally different direction.

Thankfully, that change works like a charm! While The Gunslinger is a desolate feeling novel with more stories than action, TDoTT is action-packed and rapid-fire paced. We bounce around a lot in the narrative, and King really keeps you on your toes. While reading this I still had no idea what was going on in the overarching plot (and lemme tell you, you don’t get a good hint until book 4) but I loved every second of it. I’m just here for whatever crazy rollercoaster ride King has planned for his Constant Reader.

Lipstick Rating 4 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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A Perfect Crime, by A Yi. Finished February 7th. This is the story of a teenage boy who hates his life and decides to kill somebody. That’s… that’s pretty much it. He plans a murder, commits a murder, goes on the run, etc. It’s exactly what it says on the box. And, like much Asian crime fiction, this is whydunnit rather than a whodunnit–because obviously we know who did it and how it was done because our protagonist is the criminal. The core “mystery” of the novel is why he committed the crime, because he’s very vague about his intentions. We’re in his head, but it’s clear that his narration is intentionally misleading (so there is an element of the unreliable narrator).

I found something in this book severely lacking. I think there was just no soul to it. Sure, we’re in the head of a sociopath, but the narration is as bland as his personality. There’s no connection between reader and protagonist. It’s definitely possible to make a murderer relateable (or at least entertaining), but I think the goal here was to create an almost alien protagonist that was impossible to identify with. In which case… success, I guess? But it doesn’t make for a very engaging read.

The writing was decent and it was paced well, so I don’t want to knock it down below 3 stars. And I didn’t hate reading it… but I didn’t enjoy it either. It was an entirely neutral reading experience. I do think the final “why I did it” reveal was well done, but it also lacked any element of surprise. While our narrator is trying to hide his motives for the “big reveal” any intuitive reader will guess why long before he decides to tell us. So there’s no wow moment, just another “that was well written but I don’t care at all” type of scene.

Lipstick Rating 3 Full

 

 

 

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The Kingdom, by Fuminori Nakamura. Finished February 8th. I really love Asian crime fiction, so I was very disappointed to read 2 bland books in a row from the genre. I didn’t love A Perfect Crime, and I actually had very similar issues with this novel. Which is funny, since I read them back-to-back.

The plot here is definitely very engaging. Our main character Yurika works as a fake prostitute: she picks specific Johns, then drugs them and takes incriminating photos/video for blackmail. Her boss never gives her any details, so she is completely in the dark about why these people are targeted… or what her employer is doing with the photos she produces. It’s a pretty interesting twist on the traditional mystery genre: there’s definitely a mystery, but the criminal activity itself is part of the mystery rather than the reason for it.

But like with A Perfect Crime, I found our narrator totally bland. Yurika is a criminal so she should be pretty interesting, but her personality is so very blah. I felt like I knew nothing about her after reading the entire book. Even when you find out about her past, she never seems like a fleshed-out character. She’s just the vehicle for the story. And we don’t even get any real answers! So basically it’s an unsatisfying mystery with a boring main character. At one point, our villain says, “this was all meaningless” and I was like yeah dude, it totally was.

Why 3.5 stars then? Because the writing was very good. Especially the weird, almost nonsensical speeches our villain gives: they often revolve around obscure religious details, and they’re kind of fascinating. I really wish we had been in his head the whole time! I think a book of him hunting & manipulating our heroine would have been way more interesting. While I found this book to be disappointing, I would definitely read another book by Nakamura (and indeed, I have another queued up on my Kindle!).

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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Universal Harvester, by John Darnielle. Finished February 10th. It kind of kills me to give this book less than 5 stars. I was anticipating it so much, I loved Wolf in White Van, and for like 75% this was hands-down the best book I’ve read this year. But alas, it didn’t follow through until the end.

Let’s start with the good: the writing. WiWV is a well-written book, but this manages to amp that up to 11. There’s a lot more finesse here. Which is good, because it’s a very rambling book. We flit from character to character, shifting through time and sometimes taking very random-seeming detours. But because of the wonderful writing, I was totally along for the ride. 4-paragraph description of a farmhouse that ends with philosophical musings about what it means to be a farmhouse? Yes please. Description of a cornfield that ends with all the things said cornfield has heard inside of it (this one gets dark)? Why not! Random details about recording on VCR tape? Sign me up! Really, this book could have been almost entirely strange descriptions and I would have been happy.

I think the flaw here is that it’s both too plot driven but at the same time not plot-heavy enough. The core concept, of videos at a late-90′s movie store showing up with weird, creepy home movies cut into them, is great. And for the first half or so we’re really centered around Jeremy the cashier as he tries to unravel the mystery. It’s compelling, and all of the asides the narration wanders into fit well. That long, rambling description of a farmhouse I mentioned before? Turns out the actual building is on one of the tapes! It all seems to come together neatly. But about 70% of the way in we go in a totally different direction. And it’s not one I was very happy about. I was so invested in the plot that this felt like a betrayal. The plot is totally lost, and it really only feels loosely connected. Plus I found the ending lackluster. There was a definite answer, but it didn’t live up to the promise of the premise. Honestly, I would rather have had it be more open-ended. It felt like I was eating an amazing cake, and when I got to the center it was suddenly a steak & potatoes dinner. Steak is great… if you’re in the mood for it and don’t think you are eating cake when you take a bite.

Of course I still gave this 4 stars, even if the ending was incredibly disappointing. This is because of the writing, of course, and also the fantastic atmosphere. This book is so creepy, so unsettling and spine-tingling. Even when nothing much was happening I found myself very nervous. If you liked Wolf in White Van I would still definitely recommend giving this a shot. I hope that Darnielle’s next book combines the tight plot of WiWV with the next-level writing of UH: they might just combine to make a perfect novel.

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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Miranda and Caliban, by Jacqueline Carey*. Finished February 13th. It was almost Valentine’s Day, the day of love, when I read this! And what better way to celebrate that than by reading a Shakespearean tragedy? It’s a perfect fit. Especially if you are a fan of The Tempest. It’s my favorite Shakespeare play, and man is it a good time to be a fan of it. First Hag-Seed and now this? What a time to be alive.

This is kind of a prequel to The Tempest. The majority of it takes place before the events of the play, and we follow both Miranda and Caliban from their first meeting as children to their last moments on the island. And it is, in many ways, a doomed love story. We know that Miranda is beautiful and pure and her father wants her wed to royalty, and we know that Caliban is bent and misshapen and painted as a villain. It can’t have a happy ending. And yet you root for them so hard!

As you’d expect from Jacqueline Carey, the writing is lush and descriptive. The fantasy elements of TT are really brought to the forefront, so this reads like historical fantasy/romance more than a straight retelling of the original work. She’s really brought the unnamed island to life, along with its small group of inhabitants. It is, to be trite, quite magical.

I’ve noticed some comments about the liberties she took with the characters, but let’s be real: Prospero is totally an asshole in the play. Sure, he got dethroned and abandoned on an island, but he literally takes a human (and a fairy!) as prisoner just so they can do shit for him, and he treats his daughter like a piece on a chessboard. Does Miranda WANT to marry Ferdinand? Prospero doesn’t care. He’s just looking out for himself. So while the version of him portrayed here is perhaps more maniacal and evil than in the play, it’s not far off the beaten track. Caliban, too, is not as bad as Prospero would have you think in the play: I mean, he grew up as a wild boy and then was forced into slavery. Poor kid. So I feel like while this is a romanticized view of him, it’s certainly one I can get behind.

I was so transported by Miranda & Caliban’s friendship-turning-to-love that I really wanted more from this book. It was beautiful and bittersweet, don’t get me wrong, but I think their adult section is rushed… as is the last 80%, which is when we finally get to the events of The Tempest. I think Carey does best in epically long books, and this certainly could have been 500+ pages. The rushed nature of the last half is really the only “flaw” (and I did dock a full star for it) but I totally adored this. Not quite as good a retelling as Hag-Seed, but given the different genres they were aiming for it feels almost unfair to compare them.

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

Reading Challenge Goals

Books Read: 21/200

Goal Books: 18

Impulse Reads: 3

[Books marked with a * were provided by Netgalley in exchange for an honest review, all opinions are my own]

Reading Wrapup: January 2017

13 Feb

My reading got off to a rough start this year. I read less books in January of 2017 than I had in years! It was back in early 2015 that I had such a slow reading month… and back then, it was probably just my reading speed at the time. It was really a combination of things: winter blues, picking up some real chunkers (that I didn’t even finish in January!), and generally feeling like I wasn’t hitting my goals. I couldn’t settle on any one book, I was reading 5 at a time… it was a mess.

I decided in February to combat this by tracking my books not just by numbers and statistics, but by how meaningful they are for my challenges. And I realized that between my TBR, getting through ARCs and owned books, series challenges, and Read Harder, I was doing great! It made me feel so much better about my slow reading, and I’m almost back on track numbers wise. So for this year, I’ll be counting books by whether or not they fit a challenge at the end of these wrapups (unlike 2016, where I detailed each challenge individually).

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Watership Down, by Richard Adams. Finished January 6th. Watership Down is one of those books I read over and over again as a kid and young teen. It’s one of my all-time favorites, and I have immensely fond memories of it. I wanted to start 2017′s reading off on a good note (plus, let’s be honest, I needed a re-read for the Read Harder challenge) and the timing just seemed perfect. There’s that BBC adaptation coming out this year, and it also felt like a fitting homage to the late Richard Adams to start my year off with him. I was a bit hesitant that it wouldn’t live up to my memories, though.

I shouldn’t have been! It’s a classic for a reason, and I definitely had a different experience reading it now as an adult. All of those folktales the rabbits tell to each other? SO much foreshadowing packed in there. As a kid I thought they were just cute/creepy stories, but it’s amazing how much meaning is shoved into those few pages. It felt so familiar to read but also fresh and new because I was picking up on all these nuances I’d missed previously.

Lipstick Rating5 Full

 

 

 

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The Transmigration of Bodies, by Yuri Herrera. Finished January 7th. This slim volume is absolutely packed with amazing elements. It’s a noir-inspired novel (novella?) about a go-between for two rival gangs. There are elements of Romeo & Juliet, and it’s set in Mexico during what seems to be a plague. It’s a violent, almost apocalyptic tale about family, grief, and loyalty.

The writing is fantastic. There are no quotation marks for speech, so you get sucked into the world immediately. It’s a brutal book, but also a hilarious one: our narrator is quite funny, and comes up with amazing nicknames for all the characters. It’s very clever, because the author can skip physical descriptions but you can instantly picture the person. For example, one of his neighbors is Three Times Blonde. You can picture that woman in your head immediately, right? It’s kind of brilliant.

Yet for some reason, all these fantastic elements added up to a “just okay” book for me. It’s really a case of “it’s not you, it’s me” because I have no idea why I didn’t love this. I think the length was perfect, the writing was amazing, the ideas were so cleverly executed, and it had moments of really deep contemplation. Why didn’t I adore it?! No clue, really. If it sounds like something you’re interested in I really would recommend this, I just didn’t find it entirely engaging.

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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Multiple Choice, by Alejandro Zambra. Finished January 9th. I love poetry, and I tend to be drawn to the weirder, quirkier side of the genre. Do most reviews go “this is really weird?” Then it’s for me! And what’s stranger than this, a book of poetry formatted like a multiple-choice test.

It’s an interesting choice of format, because it allows Zambra to do a lot in a slim volume. Because each ‘poem’ is multiple choice, the reader is given different ways to read it: sometimes as few as 1, sometimes as many as 10. So the same poem means a lot of different things depending on your choice. It also stirs up some nostalgia, because I think 99% of readers will have taken one of those annoying state-sponsored tests before. So it’s a familiar format, but the content is so fresh and innovative.

Of course none of that would matter if the writing itself sucked. But obviously it doesn’t! There are actual storylines and themes, which I’ll be honest–I wasn’t expecting. I thought it was just going to be a cute format with maybe not so much substance, but these poems pack an emotional punch. Some of them are political, but many are personal… and a real punch to the gut. Highly recommended for anyone who likes poetry–I also think this might be a good jumping-in point if you want to read poetry, because it’s really interactive and easily keeps your attention.

Lipstick Rating 4 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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Six Four, by Hideo Yokohama*. Finished January 10th. This is the slowest of slow-burn mystery novels. In a way, it’s barely even about a mystery. Sure, we focus in on the Six Four kidnapping, a 14-year-old case that has never been solved. But our protagonist, Mikami, is not a detective: he works in Administrative Affairs dealing with the press. As such, there’s a lot about media relations and the day-to-day tedium of his work. Oh, and Mikami also has a missing child who has been classified as a runaway, and he worked on the Six Four case when it happened.

There are a lot of overlapping threads here, but for most of the book the central mystery is on the backburner. 80% of the chapters are about his job, and how much he misses being a detective. I’m going to be brutally honest: I think this book should have been 300 pages shorter. The middle is a real struggle to get through. I absolutely did not care about Mikami’s job and whether or not they were going to release the name of a pregnant woman whose crime is totally irrelevant to our actual mystery. It could have been covered in 2 chapters, instead we get 400 pages of waffling over it and all the ensuing drama.

I almost gave up on this book several times. It felt like a real slog for the first 450 or so pages: just chapter after chapter of police drivel about things I didn’t care about. His missing daughter is barely mentioned. Politics seem more important than solving the case. And almost every character has a name that starts with M, which gets hella confusing! Thankfully, there is a reason for that last part (and it’s really cool).

So far I have just been complaining, but I did give this book a decent score. That’s because the ending is totally amazing. About 80% of the way in a really big event happens and the book picks up tremendously. I was amazed at how so many of the threads came together: it was artfully done. It was also a really satisfying ending, one where you’re shocked but it doesn’t feel like the author did it just for the shock factor. It’s so carefully crafted. But still… this book is way too long and tedious, I feel like most readers won’t have the dedication to tough out the beginning/middle for the amazing end. Worth it if you’re into really slow-burn crime fiction and are willing to make the journey.

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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Shelter, by Jung Yun. Finished January 10th. I have seen Shelter described as many things: a crime novel, a mystery, even as a thriller. I think those descriptions do a disservice to the book, though. Sure, it centers around a crime, but there is very little mystery (we find out what happened & who did it very early on) and zero thriller elements. This is, at its core, a family drama about trauma, grief, loyalty, and honor. It centers around our very flawed protagonist Kyung, who had a rough childhood and is very distanced from his parents. One day he finds his mother bloody and naked in his backyard, and is drawn back into their tangled life.

No one in this book is particularly likeable, even the victims. They all make bad (but realistic) decisions: like Kyung and his wife Gillian, who are almost half a million in debt on their house but go on small vacations they can’t afford every year anyway. Kyung in particular seems hell-bent on driving his life into the ground, and reading through his eyes is a frustrating experience. You just want to slap him and stop him from making a series of increasingly terrible decisions. But as in life, you just have to watch the trainwreck go by.

This book deals with some heavy topics (if you are sensitive to rape/domestic abuse I’d be cautious about reading this), but it handles them artfully and with sensitivity. And for a novel with no real mystery or plot drive (we’re basically just dealing with the aftermath of an attack) it’s such a page turner. I do think some of the turns it took near the end were a bit unrealistic/unexplained so I docked a star for that, but it’s a wonderful and sobering read.

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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The Gunslinger, by Stephen King. Finished January 10th. For years I’ve wanted to read the Dark Tower series. I mean, I love Stephen King and have read about a third of his books (considering how many he has, this is an accomplishment), but why have I never touched this series? It’s hella intimidating, that’s why! 8 (7?) books growing larger and larger in length and everyone talks about how weird and complicated the world is.

Well, that’s true. It’s a very strange, very surreal world. And I’ll be honest, after this first book (and the next few haha) I have nooooo idea what the greater plot is or how the world functions. What even is the Tower? Who knows! But in a surprising twist, I don’t mind feeling like this. King is an amazing storyteller, and he lays the main plot of The Gunslinger out perfectly. Even when you have no clue why things are happening, you know exactly what is happening. It’s a fine line to walk, and I think a lot of fantasy authors that go for “big complicated world we throw the reader into” fall flat on their faces. The Gunslinger is complex and confusing, but at the same time the main plot is simple and easy to digest. Weird, right? And I have a feeling things are just going to keep getting weirder…

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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Wild, by Cheryl Strayed. Finished January 12th. Like everyone else who has read this book, once I finished it I immediately wanted to go hike the Pacific Crest Trail. Thankfully, about 2 hours later I realized it was a terrible idea because I’m kind of fond of my toenails and I enjoy having more than one pair of underwear.

This is the story of a very flawed woman who does something truly insane to find herself. A lot of the complaints about Wild seem to be about Cheryl herself: so if you don’t like flawed protagonists, people who make stupid mistakes and consistently do the wrong thing, this is not for you. If you want a morally straight heroine to root for? Not for you. This is, of course, strengthened by the fact that Cheryl is real. The mistakes, the drugs, the sex, it’s all real. This is a real woman who made some insane decisions, and the reader is just along for the ride. But if you want adventure, that sense of wide-eyed wonder, the cleanliness of a fresh start? It’s a wonderful book.

I don’t usually enjoy memoirs because let’s be honest: the writing is often very middle-of-the-road. Thankfully, Wild is immersive and beautifully written. Cheryl Strayed’s descriptions of the trail are breathtaking, and she is very frank and honest about her life decisions. Some of the scenes here (especially the horse-shooting one) will stick with me for a very long time. I was so involved in the story I didn’t want to do anything but read this book!

It’s certainly not a perfect memoir: there was a little too much off-the-trail content and I do wish it was a little longer, but it was absolutely one of the best I’ve ever read in the genre. If you like survival-themed stories and don’t usually read nonfiction, I think this is a great jumping-in point for the genre.

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

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The Twilight Wife, by A.J. Banner. Finished January 14th. This is a stupid book and I feel stupid for reading the whole thing. Have you read Before I Go to Sleep? Then you’ve read this book too. The plot is a weak copy-cat of a book I didn’t even like to start with!

Actually, this book does one thing better than BIGtS: the atmosphere is really great. Our main character is a marine biologist and it takes place on a remote island in the Pacific Northwest. Lots of foggy, rainy beach scenes and some interesting tidbits about marine life. It was moody and dreary and evocative.

Everything else? Terrible. Plot: woman with amnesia has a husband she ~doesn’t trust~ oooh original! Oh, and it’s both retrograde and anterograde amnesia, which… is impossible. I mean, it’s a bit more believable than the “I only remember 24 hours” of BIGtS, but it’s just so been there done that. Suspicious lack of memories of her husband? Romantic memories of a man who isn’t her husband? Strange doctor visits? A suspicious therapist? The ability to recall memories at a convenient point in the plot? False suspense based on constant memory loss? Friends who won’t be truthful? Yeah… you’ve probably read this book before.

Lipstick Rating 2 Full

 

 

 

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Five Stories High, edited by Jonathan Oliver. Finished January 16th. This year, I’m trying to stop all of the impulse-reading I do. Sticking only to my owned but not read/tbr books. Because usually impulse reads are shit (see: The Twilight Wife). But this… this was an amazing impulse read. When I read the synopsis I knew it was basically meant for me. 5 novellas by 5 authors about a house reminiscent of House of Leaves? Yes please.

I really loved this book. It’s a representation of the best that modern weird fiction can do. There’s a sense of unease that isn’t just from the individual stories: it’s truly the cohesive whole that makes this great. Because the stories don’t all fit together. They all take place in Irongrove Lodge, yes, but the timelines and layout of the house directly contradict each other. Yet we have in-between sections cataloguing the history of the house and our narrator assures us they are all true. Somehow, this house is in different places and different times in different shapes. As I said, very HoL!

Not all of the stories worked for me, which is the only reason this didn’t get 5 stars. I am absolutely obsessed with 3 of them (“Maggots,” “Gnaw,” & “Skin Deep”), and I enjoyed the bizarro-style “The Best Story I Could Manage Under The Circumstances.” But I felt like “Priest’s Hole” wasn’t as strong either thematically or writing-wise to stand up to the other 4. It was honestly pretty forgettable, while the other stories are so memorable (though in different ways). But really, that’s my only complaint! And “Priest’s Hole” isn’t a bad story by any means, it’s just not quite on the level of the others.

Lipstick Rating 4 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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The Devil of Nanking, by Mo Hayder. Finished January 18th. This book was a pleasant surprise. I think I was expecting more shock-horror based on the summary (which I’m not a huge fan of), but I’d seen so many positive reviews (and I can’t resist thrillers set in Japan) so I decided to give it a go. Well, friends, this is not at all shock-horror, so if a book about Nanking freaks you out don’t fear: there’s no gratuitous violence. In fact, there’s little violence at all… though when it does happen, it’s very effective.

This is a dual-narrative thriller/horror about a young woman obsessed with a video shot during the Rape of Nanking. The other timeline follows the past of man who has the video, but doesn’t want to give it up. While the violence in Nanking is obviously the theme that ties these two together, there’s a lot going on: hostess bars, a possibly haunted and decaying mansion in Tokyo, the yakuza, and a potential immortality potion. Our main character has a strange and traumatic past, there’s a psychotic murderous nurse… good stuff all around. It may seem like a lot to shove into a book just over 300 pages long, but it works so effectively. Mo Hayder is a very skilled storyteller: the themes in both narratives fit together perfectly, and the pacing was fantastic.

My main complaint probably seems very strange, and possibly callous: I was expecting the final reveal of what’s on the tape/what happened to be WAY worse than it was. This is potentially because I’ve read a lot about real-world tragedies, so I was kind of expecting it to be the most horrible thing that had ever happened in human history or some nonsense like that. I mean, it is terrible (and based on something that actually happened in Nanking) and shocking but… maybe I’m just immune to how terrible humans are. I spent the whole book kind of tensing up in preparation for the ending, but I think there were scenes in the “main” present-day narrative that were far worse? Or at least more effective horror: it’s definitely a scary book.

If you like psychological thrillers but are tired of the endless copy-paste “woman in danger” narrative that is tossed around in today’s publishing world, this might be a book for you. It’s very fresh-feeling. Or if you like wartime historical fiction, books set in China/Japan, slow creeping horror… really, it’s a novel with broad appeal.

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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Black Feathers, edited by Ellen Datlow*. Finished January 25th. From a young age, I’ve been obsessed with corvids, especially crows and blue jays. I am especially fond of fictional birds and stories that revolve around them, so I was sold on this book as soon as I saw the cover. Creepy crows, plague masks, and edited by the always-wonderful Ellen Datlow? Yes please.

As you would expect in a horror collection about birds, this is a slow and moody read. The stories really get under your skin: even when there are no wow-horror moments, they are all very unsettling and unnerving. You just feel uneasy reading them. Don’t come into this expecting the horror to be spoon-fed to you: most stories have very open endings, and there are very few actual ‘explanations’ for the strange events and creatures we encounter. It’s a style I really love, but I don’t think it will be for everyone. If you want answers and monsters shoved into the light, look elsewhere.

The stories I loved the most were all by authors I know and adore already: Paul Tremblay, Seanan McGuire, Jeffrey Ford, Stephen Graham Jones, Livia Llewellyn. It’s a great whose-who of modern weird fiction. There were, of course, stories I didn’t love: this will be true in almost any collection, though! I’m sure the ones I would cut out of the collection are ones another reader will adore. And I think there’s a little something for every type of horror reader here: historical horror, weird fiction, gothic fantasy, etc. I do recommend reading them spaced out (1-2 a day) because the theme can make them feel a bit same-y if you speed read through it.

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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Silence, by Shūsaku Endō. Finished January 27th. This is a classic piece of Japanese fiction that I’ve been meaning to get to for a long time. I’ve owned a copy for probably 10 years, but for some reason I never picked it up. Even though everything about it seems like something I’d love: Japanese literature set during one of my favorite time periods and featuring Jesuit priests. Yet I was intimidated: it’s that “classics” tag, I think. I view classics as these huge, imposing works that I have to love or else. Which is stupid, because then I just end up making them too big in my head and end up never reading them or finding them disappointing.

And, kind of sadly, Silence didn’t totally live up to my expectations. I still enjoyed it, but I think taking 6+ days to read it (I was doing about a chapter a day) made the reading experience suffer. Because this is a slow book: it’s slim, but there’s little action and the majority is discussions between the very small cast. Or traveling across Japan all alone. Of course, the core of the book is in these slow, sad moments. It’s about religion, obviously, but it also touches on other themes like our purpose in life and losing a sense of hope and optimism. So it’s both slow and very depressing. I like to inhale books like that in one or two sittings, so maybe it’s my own fault that I didn’t love this.

There were many things I did love, of course. Certain moments felt so true and real and raw. Some of the revelations were touching. And I don’t think you have to be at all religious to enjoy this (I’m certainly not!): though it’s a core theme, nothing is ever preachy, and it’s as much about culture clash and persecution as it is about any specific religious concept.

I think the first section and the ending parts are the strongest. The middle drags a little and many of the scenes feel very same-y. I wanted a little more character development from our side people, and maybe a little less introspection from the main priest.

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

Reading Challenge Goals

Books Read: 12/200

Goal Books: 9

Impulse Reads: 3

[Books marked with a * were provided by Netgalley in exchange for an honest review, all opinions are my own]

Favorite Books of 2016: Standalones

30 Jan

Picking my favorite books of the year is always a difficult task. Narrowing down 250+ books to just a handful? I keep a running shelf of my favorite books of the year on Goodreads, but it was sitting at 47 for 2016 so even that wasn’t entirely helpful. I went into this with no set number in mind, and ended up with 13 books. The mix is surprising: there’s one book each from the 3 prize longlists I read through (Man Booker, Man Booker International, and National Book Award), 2 collections of poetry, and a very interesting mix of genres. Some of my favorite authors made the cut, but most of them were new-to-me reads. I certainly could have added more books to the list since 13 was an arbitrary number, but I think this list really captures how diverse and exciting my reading year was.

[...]

Favorite Books of 2016: Series

10 Jan

I read a lot of books this year, so narrowing it down to favorites is so hard. I’m always impressed by those people who manage to pick 5 or 10 books that they loved the most in a calendar year. For me, that’s pretty much impossible! To make it a little more manageable, I’m going to split my favorites into two posts. The first will be my favorite books I read that are part of a series, and the second will be stand-alone along with some honorable poetry mentions. Let’s get to it!

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2016 In Review & 2017 Reading Goals

5 Jan

Last year I set quite a few reading goals for myself. Enough to structure my reading year and make me feel accomplished, but not enough to be suffocating. I’m really a mood-reader, and I like my goals to reflect that! And it worked, because 2016 was absolutely my best reading year of all time. Which is nice, because it was kind of terrible in almost every other respect. So let’s look at how I did, and set some 2017 goals!

For 2016 I wanted to read 175 books. I ended up with 268 read, so I definitely accomplished that one! I tend to keep my book number goal low because I end up feeling pressured if it’s close to what I read last year. So for 2017, I am aiming to read 200 books.

Like the previous year I did a series challenge, but I mixed it up a little. Instead of trilogies I wanted to tackle some big ones. Initially I had it at 3 series, but I ended up altering my goals pretty early on and read the entire Culture series and Realm of the Elderlings, along with the new Peter Hamilton duology. I am going to do a series challenge again, and right now I plan on reading the Dark Tower series, the Asian Saga, and possibly Kushiel’s Legacy.

My TBR Challenge went much better than what I expected! I set it at 50 books and reached an even 70, so for 2017 I am bumping it up to 75 from my TBR and 25 physical owned books I haven’t read. My Goodreads TBR is massive (over 300 books!!), so I should have no issue picking mainly from it. I’d really like to cut down on impulse reading this year and stick mainly to owned, TBR, and Netgalley books.

In 2015 I attempted a Big Book Challenge, and I failed. I attempted in 2016 and did… a little better? I mean, I got over 200 pages into Infinite Jest, so that’s something. I was supposed to read that along with Gravity’s Rainbow and Ulysses, though. After 2 years of getting nothing done I need to admit that this particular challenge is not working for me. I get intimidated when I feel forced into reading massive classics: I still want to get to them, but I think setting them as a goal made me less likely to pick them up.

I also did an Around the World Challenge, which entailed reading books from authors from 15 different countries. This was both easier and harder than it thought it would be. It was easy to hit 15, but I found that I don’t read as widely as I thought. I got to 27 countries which is good, but not as good as it could be. For 2017 I will not be setting a specific goal or challenge, but I will still track where I read from.

In the middle of the year, I also impulsively picked up Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge, because I realized I’d already accomplished about 2/3rds of it without trying. I finished it, and you can find my full list in the gallery below the jump! I had a lot of fun going out of my reading comfort zone with some of these, so I will be doing the 2017 version of the challenge as well.

And that’s it! It may seem like a lot, but for the most part I’m just trying to structure my reading around things I know I’ll enjoy. Looking back on this year, a lot of my lowest-rated books were ones I picked up because I read one good review or saw it mentioned in a video. Picking things mainly off my TBR or to-read piles makes a lot more sense!

[...]

December Reading Wrapup: Part II

4 Jan

In terms of raw numbers, the first half of December was much better than the second in terms of reading. The holidays are always a rough time for hobbies: there’s so much traveling, so many things to do, so much cooking… and no time for my usual before-bed reading. I got a little bit done, but not as much as I had hoped. Though I wrapped up almost all of my challenges on time, so that’s something to be happy about!

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The River at Night, by Erica Ferencik*. Finished December 16th. There are a few things that will get me to pick up a book no matter the reviews or author. If it has survival elements or spooky woods (and The River at Night has both), I generally don’t even bother to look up information on it. I just read that sucker. This has led me astray many times: according to my shelves, I’ve read 22 unsuccessful spooky woods books and only 10 I actually enjoyed. Thankfully, this is the latter category!

The premise is a wonderful combination of The Descent and The Ritual (which are both about as good as it gets when it comes to survival horror). Four women have been friends for decades, but they only see each other once a year on epic vacations. Beach getaways, skydiving, that sort of thing. This year they’re going white water rafting in an uninhabited part of Maine. No, none of them have ever rafted before, but these girls are desperate for adventure. Or at least their leader, Pia, is.

Most of the first half of the novel is spent setting up the characters. Sure, things happen (the adventure starts!) but it’s mostly building up all 4 women as complex and realistic figures. Their interactions, histories, and personalities feel very fleshed out and realistic. They all have obvious flaws (the divorcee, the adventure addict, the recovered alcoholic, the abused wife) but none fall into trope territory. They feel like real, average humans. Like women you went to school with or talk to at a book club. It’s a nice writing trick: they’re complex enough to hold your interest, but not over-the-top enough to take you out of the mood.

And the mood is fantastic! While this is not technically a horror novel, it has a very moody atmosphere and moments of extreme tension. After all, you know from the blurb (and tone) that the trip does not go well. This is a survival novel, after all. And there’s a lot of surviving going on. There are also some old-fashioned creepy-people-in-the-woods element as well. Stranded in an unexplored forest with potentially Deliverance-level crazies? It makes for some excellent horror moments.

Though the build to the meat of the plot is slow, it never feels like a chore getting there. The pacing is great, and you are carried along the river of these women’s relationship at the exact pace the author intends. Sure, there are some unrealistic elements in play towards the end, but that’s almost always true in survival stories (because if they were realistic, 99% of the time they’d end in “and then they all died of exposure”). But this is an immersive piece of horror masquerading as literary fiction. If you like survival horror, I’d definitely give it a shot.

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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Breaking Wild, by Diane Les Becquets. Finished December 16th. After reading The River at Night I immediately wanted more survival-themed books. Maybe I should have resisted that impulse, because it’s no surprise that Breaking Wild suffered from the comparison. Then again, based on other reviews I might feel just as neutral if I’d waited.

Breaking Wild has a lot of elements I love, aside from survival. There’s a hint of grit lit (without the over-the-top sexually violent tones that plague that genre), strong female characters, and that Gone Girl “is she really who she says she is?” element to the missing woman Amy Raye. Then again, that last one might be a little too on-the-nose for me (I mean, she has the same name–Amy. Kind of trite). We also have lots of animal-based scenes, both friend and foe. Dogs and coyotes and cougars and bears and elk, oh my!

But I felt a huge distance in the narrative. Even when we are with Amy on her survival journey, watching her on the brink of death, I didn’t feel that emotional pull I want. I like being close to characters, getting in their skin and feeling their pain along with them. And I don’t mind the “unlikeable” type that Amy Raye obviously falls into: as long as I understand a character, there’s the potential to like them. But with Amy? Even after her full backstory reveal I didn’t “get” her. And the woman looking for her, Pru, felt like an unnecessary add-in at times. Her home life and backstory was a bit dull next to the excitement and shine of Amy. That might have been an intentional contrast, but that doesn’t make it a good story decision.

There’s one thing this book does amazingly well: build tension. We have alternating chapters from Amy (missing woman) and Pru (looking for missing woman), but the timelines don’t sync up. Amy’s is at a much slower pace: it takes half a dozen chapters to even get to when she goes missing. Pru is way in the future by that point, and desperately looking for Amy. And while Pru’s chapters are in the 1st person, Amy’s are in the 3rd. These combine to create a big sense of unease, because we have no clue if Amy survived or not. And her chances seem quite grim as the book goes on. It’s cleverly executed and is a nice twist to the missing woman genre.

There are definitely highs and lows here. I loved the tone and the pacing, didn’t love the characters or side plots (I don’t care about Pru’s love life or kid, author. I want to know what happens with the cougar!!). I don’t regret reading it, but it’s not a book I will think back fondly on. If you don’t mind distanced narratives, though, and like survival thrillers, this might be right up your alley.

Lipstick Rating 3 Full

 

 

 

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Bodies of Water, by V. H. Leslie. Finished December 17th. This is one of those books I finished and immediately had almost no opinion on: I didn’t hate it, I didn’t love it. I feel decidedly lukewarm on pretty much every aspect. Which is odd, because the themes (intense female friendship, bizarre antiquated cures for madness, mythology/magical realism elements, alternating past-and-present storylines, cats!!) are things I almost always love or at least can easily get involved with.

But Bodies of Water was decidedly bland. The writing was decent and had some sparks of beauty, but mostly came across as just adequate. The characters are quite flat. They have interesting backgrounds, but everything we see from their perspective makes them seem dreadfully dull. They also act in a way that drives the plot forward but makes no real-world sense. If you moved into a brand-new apartment and the ceiling started leaking, would you 1) visit your upstairs neighbor to ~investigate~ and then forget about it or 2) call the fucking super to fix it asap because it’s DRIPPING ALL OVER YOUR BED. Our girl Kirsten takes #1 because yeah, that’s logical. Their motivations don’t line up with their actions at all, and it’s a consistent issue.

I think one of the main problems was the length. It’s so short but covers two stories with deep backgrounds. There’s a LOT going on, and each story could have easily been 100+ pages. It wouldn’t fix the other issues but it would make it easier to get invested. With this novella format, by the time I finally gave a damn about the plots it was over. Something interesting happened (there’s honestly only one real ‘event’ in the book) and 10 pages later it’s the end of the book? The pacing is quite poor.

I know this was going for a traditional Gothic atmosphere, and it had a great base to work with. The plot sounds so interesting on paper, and issues of mental illness and sexuality are just begging to play out on a weird Gothic water therapy stage. Yet this was just okay in almost every way. Super forgettable.

Lipstick Rating 2 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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In Pinelight, by Thomas Rayfield. Finished December 17th. This is, without a hint of exaggeration, one of the best pieces of literary fiction I’ve ever read. Yet it has 4, count em FOUR, reviews on Goodreads! I only stumbled upon it because the spine looked intriguing while I was at the library. I am a constant whore for books that take place in spooky woods, and how spooky does that cover look? Very spooky. But misleading, because there’s no horror here and very little woods. But quite a few pine trees, thus the name.

This is a book uniquely told. The plot may seem been-there-done-that: it’s an old man telling his life story to an unnamed interviewer. His life took place entirely in a small rural town and one of the main themes is past vs present, new vs old, progress vs tradition. No new ground there, but it’s dealt with in a very interesting way. The old man’s story is told in stream-of-consciousness. And not in a neat, easy to digest format. It includes all the mess of human speech: repetition, mistakes, grammatical errors and memory flaws. He’s definitely an unreliable narrator, though it is unclear if it’s because of age or intentional deception. At first it’s hard to get more than a paragraph into it without feeling a bit mentally exhausted. But once you get into the meat of the story, the narrative flows like water. It’s so intimate, like you are right in the room with our narrator. Or even better, right in his head. The interviewer actually doesn’t get any lines, so you kind of have to guess from the context what the questions are.

While at first this seems like a simple life story with no drama, the themes and characters get more and more complex and entangled as it goes on. His wife, sister, daughter, and best friend feature prominently, but it’s not told in sequential order. You’ll hear about his wife’s death, and then go back to when he first bought his horses (another important set of characters), then go all the way back to his childhood before snapping back to another memory of his wife. You’re in the stream of his life, and it’s absolutely mesmerizing. If you told me before I read this that I’d be captivated by the life of a guy who drove a horse-and-cart delivery I’d probably have laughed in your face, but In Pinelight is pure magic.

There are some big questions lurking in the background (what happened to his missing sister, what was going on at the weird medical institute in town, who is the interviewer, why is he being questioned, what secret was his friend hiding) that peek up occasionally but generally lurk in the background. They act as ties that bind everything together, but this is in no way a mystery. The joy of reading it is in the telling, not in the answers or cohesion. And while we do get answers (in a way–it’s left up to the reader to put together the pieces), they’re not at all what makes this book shine. It’s the carefully crafted narrative that make it so amazing. If you like literary fiction, please give this a shot. It’s criminally underrated.

Lipstick Rating5 Full

 

 

 

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Some Will Not Sleep, by Adam Nevill. Finished December 19th. I have a fraught relationship with Adam Nevill. You know how Stephen King often can’t write a good ending? Nevill is like that, only it’s the entire second half of his books. When I say that The Ritual is one of my favorite horror novels, what I mean is “the first half of The Ritual is one of my favorite horror novels and I generally pretend the second half doesn’t exist.” Same for Last Days. I felt more positive about diving into a collection of shorts because hey, they aren’t long enough to have a different first and second half, right?

Well, that’s true. But somehow I ended up with the same problem of only liking 50% of the content! Except it was whole stories I liked or hated this time, which is an improvement I guess? Some of them I absolutely adored. “The Original Occupant” is basically a prequel to The Ritual, and takes place in that amazingly creepy forest. “Mother’s Milk” is gross-out body horror at its best. “Yellow Teeth” was so unsettling. “To Forget and be Forgotten” was possibly my favorite, and had me checking behind the shower curtain late at night. “The Ancestors” is a great take on Japanese horror.

But about half of the others were huge flops for me. “Pig Thing” was overly short and predictable. “Doll Hands” seemed to be bizarre just for the sake of being bizarre. “What God Hath Wrought?” had potential but ended up being overly long and about 80% exposition. “The Age of Entitlement” was just dull. “Florrie” was boring and uneventful.

I did enjoy the end section, which had the history of all the stories (both the writing of them and the ideas themselves). Very Stephen King. But at the end of the day, I’m just so confused by Nevill. I can’t believe the same author wrote all of these stories, much like I can’t believe the same author wrote the first half and second half of The Ritual.

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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The Scent of Winter, by Tiffany Reisz. Finished December 20th. MY HEART

“It happens to me sometimes. Something comes on me that’s more animal than human. I wish there was a word for it. The only word that comes close is ‘bloodlust.’ I’d felt it that night in the woods, the first time with you.”
“When you chased me and ran me down.”
“I wasn’t chasing you, Kingsley. I was hunting you.”

This may seem sacrilegious to other Original Sinners fans, but I’ve never been a huge fan of Kingsley. I don’t hate him, but I just don’t like him as much as the other two members of the Unholy Trinity. The books that focus on him tend to be my least favorites. I mean, I still enjoy him, but I never considered myself a real fan. Until this novella. It tugged on my heartstrings, and for the first time I felt totally sold on Soren/Kingsley. The rawness of their relationship here is so authentic and bittersweet.

“Why would I think I could fall in love with a wolf and never get bitten?”

This is probably my favorite of the Christmas novellas. And while at first it doesn’t seem overtly Christmas-themed, it’s perfectly seasonal!

Lipstick Rating5 Full

 

 

 

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Innocents, by Cathy Coote. Finished December 21st. I have this morbid fascination with all those “it’s like Lolita!” type of novels. Lamb, The End of Alice, Tampa, et cetera. This already backfired on me once this year with All The Ugly & Wonderful Things (which romanticizes pedophilia, why) so I was a little hesitant to pick this up. The premise is a play on all those “Lolita was a seductress!” morons (I almost apologized for that but if you think Lo was anything but a victim please get out immediately). Our 16-year-old heroine, who remains unnamed, is… kind of a sociopath. And by “kind of” I mean “she fantasizes about beating and torturing her classmates.”

One day she decides that seducing her teacher is a great idea. The plot summary makes it sound like she is the hunter and he is the hunted, and indeed that seems like the direction it’s going in. But of course, it’s much more complicated than that. The title, Innocents, could apply to both of them. The teacher thinks his student is innocent, and she thinks he is innocent. There is a very strange predator/prey dynamic here where they both think they are “in charge” of the relationship and manipulating the other one.

There is no question that our heroine is very messed up. She is no innocent, abused girl… but at the same time, she is very young and unable to understand adult relationships. The things about herself that she plays up (childish appearance, carefree demeanor, sexual reluctance, innocence and naivete) are not the things a mentally well adult man are interested in that, but she is totally blind to how creepy he is. She thinks she is totally in control and so clever, but she’s set a trap for a pedophile… and nabbed one. The question becomes, which of them will get hurt first? And how badly?

This is a dark, twisty book. You should have a strong stomach if you’re going into it, and a taste for moral ambiguity. It’s certainly not as upsetting as some of the other books in this “genre” (especially because it’s set in Australia, where 16 is the age of consent… if it’s not with a teacher) but there are many stomach-churning scenes. I hope this is not Coote’s last book, because I’d love to see what she does next.

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, by J.K. Rowling. Finished December 25th. Sometimes you just have to go where your heart takes you. Towards the end of the month, I just really felt like reading Harry Potter. I knew I had one book to get through before the year ended but hey… sometimes you need comfort food, but in book form. Which is what this is. Not really a lot I could possibly say that’d be new: it’s one of my favorite in the series, and I loved it.

Lipstick Rating5 Full

 

 

 

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The Hydrogen Sonata, by Iain M. Banks. Finished December 31st. It seemed fitting to have this be my last book of the year. I started the Culture series in January of 2016, and have devoured the 10 books in it over the course of 2016. Sadly, Banks passed away a few years ago so this is the last Culture book we’ll ever get. And since it’s an open world (no books follow the same characters or plot), it had pretty much endless potential.

This is very much the swan song of the Culture world. It’s about a society at the end of its life-cycle: they are done with reality, and about to go post-physical into the Sublime. The Hydrogen Sonata seems like a goodbye letter, both to the Culture world and (tragically) to life. One of the main themes is the life-tasks people in this society give themselves. It can be anything (playing a particularly difficult piece of music, traveling to a far-away place, covering your body in a specific set of tattoos), but the goal is to accomplish a difficult or obscure task before death. Since the civilization is about to leave the Real, many people are rushing to finish their life-tasks. Like oh, you know… writing a book series. Yeah, it’s a little too close to home.

While this wasn’t the most compelling book in the series or the most emotional, it was beautifully crafted. It felt much more somber than anything else in the Culture world, and a little forlorn. It was also a rough read emotionally, not necessarily because of the content (though it’s quite sad) but because of the real-world parallels to Banks’ life. Plus, you know, last book of such a terrible and tragic year.

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

Reading Challenge Goals

268/175 Books

28/28 Series Books

70/50 TBR Books

27/15 Different Countries

[Books marked with a * are provided by Netgalley in exchange for an honest review, all opinions are my own]

December Reading Wrapup: Part I

3 Jan

I find the last month of the year to be the most difficult in terms of reading. I’m already looking ahead to my 2017 goals, or looking back on my favorite books of the year. By mid-December I kind of think of the year as “over” already. But despite that, I still had a pretty good reading month! I finished off my series challenge and got quite a few off my TBR read.

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A Gambler’s Anatomy, by Jonathan Lethem*. Finished December 1st. Jonathan Lethem is one of my favorite authors, but for some reason I only gravitate towards his weirder, lesser-known books like As She Climbed across the Table, Amnesia Moon, and Girl in Landscape. Though let’s be honest, I don’t think you could classify any of his books as normal. I haven’t read any of his “big” works like Motherless Brooklyn, The Fortress of Solitude, etc–I guess I will eventually, but I have no real drive to. Which is weird, because the books I’ve read of his I adore!

I think A Gambler’s Anatomy falls rather uncomfortably between his odd, quirky books and his more mainstream ones. There are a few elements of magical realism (our main character is psychic, for example) but they don’t add much to the book either in terms of plot or metaphor. It would be basically the exact same book if the mind-reading element was removed. Which is odd–why was it included? It adds an extra layer to the final chapter but that’s about it. I think it would have been a much more interesting book if 1) the magical realism was just removed or 2) it was amped up and more integral to the plot/characters.

My main issues with the book are all the elements that seem neither here nor there. A lot of plot points seem randomly jumbled together, and there’s not enough of any one to make a cohesive whole. It’s hard to even pinpoint what the book is about (and not in a “so many interesting elements!”) kind of way. Is it about gambling? Yes and no. Is it about backgammon? Yes and no. Is it about severe illness? Yes and no. Is it about communist revolutions? Yes and no. Is it about the negative effects of capitalism? Yes and no. Is it about addiction? Yes and no. All of these elements are fascinating on their own, but somehow putting it all in the same plot dilutes all of the oomph.

The writing is, of course, beautiful and it is a compelling read. Even when I wasn’t very interested in what was going on I wanted to keep going, which is an impressive feat. And all of the side characters were great! Our main character? Not so much. He’s supposed to be stoic and boring and his perspective comes off as… stoic and boring. I really dislike “boring, blank-slate” narrators that kind of serve as a widow to the action more than a direct player in it. So while there are lots of redeeming features here, and it was far from a bad book, nothing drew me in. A disappointment, to say the least, though I certainly don’t regret reading it.

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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The Devotion of Suspect X, by Keigo Higashino. Finished December 2nd. Other than my love affair with Tana French, I find myself continually disappointed by Western crime fiction. I’m just never that interested in whodunnits, so often I feel that any side plots or forced character “development” are just standing in the way of getting the reader to the solution. So it’s no surprise that I adore Eastern crime fiction: in almost all the ones I’ve read (Malice, The Investigation, Confessions) you find out who the killer is fairly early on, and it’s more about the characters and motives. The Devotion of Suspect X takes this to new heights: it’s not a whodunnit, because it starts from the POV of the killers. It’s not even a whydunnit, because the murder takes place very early on and the motives are crystal clear. It is the rarest of things in crime fiction: a howdunnit.

Yasuko is being stalked by her ex-husband. When he goes after her teenage daughter, she kills him in a fit of fear and protectiveness. Her neighbor, the unassuming math teacher Ishigami, helps them cover it up. But it cuts from the murder to days later, when Yasuko comes under suspicion. The mystery here is how Ishigami covered it up. Every angle of the murder is examined, and he seems to have covered it all. But how? It seems like the perfect crime.

Ingeniously, because the book starts out from Yasuko’s POV you are 100% on her side (and thus, on the side of the criminals). I was dying to know how Ishigami managed the coverup, but I wanted even more for them both to get off scott free and for the cops to remain in the dark. This is a riveting novel, a real page-turner but without the fake “cliffanger every chapter” that so many books in the genre rely on. This is my second Higashino book, and I doubt it will be my last. If only more of his work was translated!

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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The Inheritance, by Robin Hobb. Finished December 3rd. This is, technically, the last Realm of the Elderlings book I have to read. I say technically because it’s a collection of short stories, and only the last section is set in that world. The other half is by Robin Hobb’s other pen name, and take place more in the real world (though they have many elements of magical realism and fantasy in them).

I was kind of expecting to skim through the first half in an effort to get to Hobb’s section, but I found them surprisingly enjoyable. I don’t know if it’s a writing style I would seek out on its own, but the stories were quite memorable. A few fell flat, but for the most part-success! But, of course, I came for the Hobb and that’s where this book shined for me.

There are only 3 Hobb stories because as you’d suspect, they are very long. They’re all wonderful, though the first (which is about the settling of the Rainwilds) and the last (which has a cat perspective) were particularly amazing. I don’t think I will ever get enough of this series, so let’s hope that the new one coming out in spring isn’t the last!

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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Into The Forest, by Jean Hegland. Finished December 4th. What a mixed bag of a book this was. I love survival stories and I love post-apocalyptic fiction so theoretically, I should have loved this. And I will freely admit that those aspects were fantastic. There’s a large amount of day-to-day survival stuff: growing a garden, canning and drying food for winter, figuring out how to hunt, etc. Given my love for survival classics like Robinson Crusoe and The Swiss Family Robinson I am a total sucker for “here’s 20 pages that list all the different plants here and what they do!” type of things, which this book has in droves. And the apocalypse itself is very interesting: it’s not one big event, but the culmination of many. Climate change, unstable currency, political strife, a failing economy… sounds eerily familiar.

If the novel had stuck with the survival aspects as the main focus and given us more character development between sisters Nell and Eva, it would have easily been 4 stars. I was so involved for the first 100 pages or so, even though a few of the elements (the forced romance for Nell, the constant flashbacks to her parents) were almost too young-adult-y for my taste. But then, sigh, it takes a very sharp nosedive.

For some reason, the main message of this book seems to be that men are bad and women are victims. I hate hate HATE when fiction frames sexual interaction with men as only negative. If it’s consensual, watch out, you’ll get pregnant and be a single mom! And then, of course, we have to threaten the girls with rape because an apocalypse and having your parents die and almost starving to death just isn’t spooky enough. Sigh. It’s so unfair to both genders. Not all men are evil, obviously, and the “it’s the apocalypse so men revert to being horrible rapists” thing is truly baffling as a trope. And women are not victims! A girl can insist on birth control. A girl can consent to sex and not have any negative consequences, emotional or physical. A girl can, gasp, enjoy sex without somehow getting in trouble for it.

Weird 60′s feminist themes aside, this book really suffers in the last 100 pages or so. There are some truly baffling scenes that serve no purpose besides making the reader uncomfortable (sudden incest like woah) and the book seems to go from reality to magical realism very quickly and suddenly. Things that aren’t physically possible happen with no discussion. And tonally it’s weird. I think the end is meant to be read as inspiring or empowering which is… weird, because it seems more like the girls went totally insane. But rah rah women living together in the forest female power?

If you’d like to read a book about survival in the forest and a (kind of) apocalypse, I’d really recommend Our Endless Numbered Days. It deals with many of the same themes in a far more mature and coherent way (and manages to be much darker without the “men are out to get us!” bullshit).

Lipstick Rating 2 Full

 

 

 

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World War Z, by Max Brooks. Finished December 6th. I read this years ago and loved it, and while I’ve heard many people raving about the audiobook I was never really interested. Audiobooks just aren’t my thing. But then I heard that it was what everyone wanted from the movie (an abomination we shall not speak of), plus I needed to read an award-winning audiobook for the Read Harder challenge. So WWZ audiobook it was!

This is just amazing. So immersive, and it really feels like the way the book is meant to be “read.” It is really more like a radio play than a regular audiobook. Fully voice acted, with a consistent narrator. Definitely get the full edition though: many of my favorite stories were left out of the original release.

Lipstick Rating5 Full

 

 

 

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The Crow Girl, by Erik Axl Sund. Finished December 9th. This is a dark, dark book. Before you consider reading it, I’d add heavy trigger warnings for child abuse, rape, and incest. If any of these are upsetting topics for you I’d definitely proceed with caution. While none of the violence is gratuitous and most of it happens either in memory or off-screen, a lot of the details are hard to get through even if you have a strong stomach. Though this does work against the book in some ways: by the time you get to the end and the final reveal of the horrors the murderer has created, it seems almost blase. I feel like this is a danger with any long, dark book: eventually the reader is immune to the shocks. But that doesn’t negate how grim and effective 90% of it is.

The Crow Girl neatly toes the line between police procedural and psychological thriller. We have a ton of POVs: everything from the cops working on the case to the killer. Quite a few seem unrelated and really only come together at the end, and there’s a ton of misdirection and potentially unreliable narrators. It’s one of those “who am I supposed to trust?” type of novels, which I always enjoy. Every time I was sure I knew what was going on another twist and turn was revealed. It’s not a wham-twist type of novel like Gone Girl: sure, there’s a lot going on, but it’s hard to say that there is “one big reveal.” It’s more a series of smaller (but still effective) surprises.

The most interesting aspect of the book is the discussions of mental health. It’s both my favorite and least-favorite thing about The Crow Girl. I loved how complex all the characters were, and how intensely it looks at trauma, memory, and mental health. There are some wonderful moments of insight and really interesting discussions.

However, every mentally ill character in the book (and there are quite a few) is either an abuser or a victim. It’s absolutely a myth that the mentally ill are more likely to commit violent crimes: in fact, there’s no proven link between mental illness and criminal behavior. However, the mentally ill are far more likely to be the victim of a crime. For all its interesting discussions, The Crow Girl still uses mental illness as a plot point. It’s supposed to be a revealing look at the cycle of abuse but it kind of comes off as “wow mentally ill people sure are crazy, look at the stuff they do!” It’s a sore subject for me and I didn’t appreciate how black and white the issue was. You also really need to suspend belief for some of the bigger twists, or know nothing about mental illness.

To end on a positive note, this is an incredibly compulsive read. The chapters are quite short (2-5 pages) and the POV/time period changes constantly, making it feel insanely fast paced even though it takes place over the course of a few months. I never felt bored by the length or wanted things to happen faster. In fact, I think it could have been a bit longer: the end is slightly rushed!

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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Memories of my Melancholy Whores, by Gabriel García Márquez. Finished December 10th. This is my first Marquez, and I think it was a poor choice on my part. I picked it out because I saw it hanging out at the library, and let’s be honest… it’s really short. I don’t read a ton of physical books (almost all of my reading is done late at night on my Kindle, with the lights off), so when I pick one up from the library I don’t want it to be a chunker.

But this book is about age and the path our lives take: it’s an old man hitting 90 reflecting on his life. I just can’t connect with the themes, which is obviously on me and not the book. The writing is beautiful and I think the plot fits the themes perfectly, but I just felt really distanced. It’s hard for me to rate, and I’d love to go back to it in a few decades when the “I’m old and I feel like I’ve wasted my life” is something that I can connect with.

Lipstick Rating 3 Full

 

 

 

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Difficult Women, by Roxane Gay*. Finished December 10th. I came into this book with low expectations. I know Roxane Gay only from her nonfiction work, so I was expecting a collection of stories with interesting ideas and feminist themes, but perhaps not the most elegant writing. And I was pleasantly very wrong: this book absolutely blew me away.

It is, as the title states, a book about difficult women. Women who strike out on their own path and refuse to follow traditional gender roles. Women who do anything it takes to survive. Women in bad situations, or women in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s easy to classify them all as ‘difficult’ but it’s also a bit depressing to realize that a women can be difficult for something as simple as not listening to a man. As you’d expect from Gay, these stories have a strong feminist vibe and sell the message very well. It never feels forced or preachy: in fact, it’s a depressingly realistic realization that all women are ‘difficult women.’

The writing here is lush and varied. We go from stories totally grounded in reality to hints of magical realism to full-out fantasy to a terrifying dystopian future. The mood changes: we get more upbeat love-themed tales, heartbreaking life stories, little slice of life pieces that are nearly flash fiction, epic-in-scope fantasy… I was wowed by how easily she shifted genre, mood, and tone while still giving them all a cohesive vibe.

Every story felt like it belonged here. Some were so depressing I almost hated them because of how they made me feel, others so short and brief they don’t seem to fit at first. There are stories that end at the worst possible moment, ones that start after the action. And yet they mesh together perfectly by the end. Difficult women are not just difficult in the way they live their lives, but in how their stories are told. They’re not easy to digest: some are challenging thematically, some emotionally. One made me cry. But they all touched me in different ways, and for once I feel like I’ve read a short story collection where I wouldn’t remove a single one

Lipstick Rating 4 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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Mongrels, by Stephen Graham Jones. Finished December 11th. Earlier this year I read Stephen Graham Jones’ Demon Theory, and it’s absolutely one of my favorite books of 2016. I really wanted to read more of him but he has a LOT of books out. An intimidating amount, to be honest, and I didn’t know where to start. Mongrels is actually a brand-new release and seems to be getting a lot of hype, plus it’s a modern werewolf tale which is usually something I really enjoy. So it seemed like as good a place as any to dive into his body of work!

Mongrels is about a young boy who is convinced his family is full of werewolves. His mother died in childbirth, and he lives with his aunt and uncle. They are a family of vagabonds, moving from place to place and picking up whatever odd jobs are available along the way. So while this is, on the surface, a story about monsters, it’s much more a book about humanity. It’s about how we all have something monstrous inside of us, and how it can shape our lives in ways we never expected.

Mongrels deals with poverty and classism/racism in America as much as it deals with howling at the moon and eating people. Like all good monster novels, the fantastic elements serve as a metaphor for real-world issues… though it also tackles these themes head-on in a more literal sense. It’s a very fast-paced book but it’s surprisingly deep, and cleverly skirts the line between adult fiction and YA. It’s totally, completely different from Demon Theory and I’m now even more intrigued to read more of Jones’ books.

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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Rules for Werewolves, by Kirk Lynn. Finished December 13th. I had two werewolf books on my TBR and thought to myself, “why not read them in a row?!” So here we are, with a very wolfish December. Rules for Werewolves is compared to Sharp Teeth in the blurb and that happens to be one of my favorite books so how can I resist?

RfW is told almost entirely in dialogue, but with no speech tags. So there are no descriptions of the action, or even clear ways to know who is talking at any point in time. It reads very much like poetry (thus the Sharp Teeth comparison) and obviously can be intensely confusing at times. The plot itself is simple enough: a group of homeless young people are moving from abandoned house to abandoned house… oh, and their (possibly insane) leader is convinced they are werewolves.

Unlike Mongrels (and Sharp Teeth) this is not an overt “werewolf book.” It’s incredibly unclear if this is a cult-type situation or if they are actual werewolves. This is a difficult book: the plot is messy, there are so many characters it’s almost impossible to keep them straight, and most of the time the reader is a bit unclear on what is going on. But I loved it! It’s so lyrical and interesting, and raises some very interesting questions about how we live our lives. If you like challenging books and possibly-magical-realism with a dark turn, I really recommend this.

Lipstick Rating 4 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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The Driver’s Seat, by Muriel Sparks. Finished December 14th. Sometimes I let myself get swayed by hype. I read a bunch of glowing reviews, see it’s a short novel, and pick it up. Though to be honest, this has been sitting on my Kindle for about a year–back when I first read those rave reviews. Even the mid-tier ones mentioned the amazing twists of this little mystery/thriller/whatever it is. I stumbled upon it recently while trying to give some order to the 1,800+ books on my device and off we went.

Sadly, it didn’t live up to the hype. I almost want to give this 2 stars because it was such a disappointment, but the writing was clever and well-crafted. I just… I was SO BORED. The plot sounds so interesting: Lise, a woman who has lived an ordinary life and seems ordinary in every respect, goes on a self-destructive adventure into the long-hidden dark side of her personality. It’s short, witty, and to the point. But I just. Didn’t. Care.

It has a manic energy but manages to be very pedestrian at the same time. Lise acts completely insane: flitting from person to person, topic to topic, changing her personality or aims on a whim. Yet it’s not very interesting to read about because Lise is just a dull person. Even when trying her hardest to get into trouble, the height of her craziness seems to be bold miss-matched prints and stealing car keys. Ooh, scandalous.

Sure, the ending is good. But it wasn’t a twist–you see it coming from a mile away–and you don’t even get any insight into why she chooses that path. Crazy woman does a crazy thing, the book. I prefer more depth and meat to my stories, but maybe I just missed something because this has generally great reviews.

Lipstick Rating 3 Full

 

 

 

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Hag-Seed, by Margaret Atwood*. Finished December 14th. Until now, I have not been wowed by the Hogarth Shakespeare line. The ones I have read are, admittedly, exactly as advertised: retellings of Shakespearean stories. But I have always wanted more from these books: more attention to detail, more commentary on society, more meta narratives. Thankfully, Hag-Seed is what I’ve been searching for all along. Which is particularly fitting since The Tempest is my favorite Shakespeare play!

Like many of Shakespeare’s works, Hag-Seed is a play within a play. The main character, Felix, is putting on The Tempest in a prison, but his actual life mirrors the play. He was deposed from a position of power, is essentially in exile, and is using his in-prison play to get revenge on those who wronged him. His daughter is even named Miranda! So for most characters you have both the in-book counterparts and their in-prison-play counterparts. Felix is, of course, both the in-book Prospero along with playing him in his own play. I’m making this sound way more confusing than it is probably, but basically the book has a play in it and both mirror The Tempest both literally and thematically.

Much like how TT is aware that it is a play, HS seems to be aware that it is a book. Felix’s inner monologue often comes off as a speech to an audience, and many of the book allusions come off as very wink-wink-nudge-nudge to the reader. There’s not a lot of overt 4th-wall breaking, but it’s clear that we are a layer of the book: there’s Felix, then his play, then the audience in the book, and then finally, the reader. Or perhaps we’re the “top” layer of the pile. The question is, are we being played by Felix too or are we in on his shenanigans? This is a book that I already want to re-read because I know there are probably dozens of important things I missed.

Lipstick Rating5 Full

 

 

 

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Good As Gone, by Amy Gentry. Finished December 15th. I keep picking up these popular thrillers expecting something amazing and getting, surprise surprise, canned mediocrity. If this book had any other premise I would have skipped it: I’ve really trained myself not to pick up those “thriller of the month everyone’s bookclub pick IT’S THE NEXT GONE GIRL” type of things. But I am borderline obsessed with the documentary The Imposter (go watch it, seriously) and this plot seems ripped right from that with the genders reversed.

When she is 13 years old, Julie is kidnapped right out of her bedroom. There are no leads, there’s no evidence, and the case is basically abandoned. She returns many years later and while her parents are thrilled to see her, her mother (Anna) becomes suspicious. Is it really her daughter who has come back, or an imposter?

It’s a really fast read, with chapters that alternate between Anna in the present day and “possibly Julie”‘s past. So you’re going both forward in time and back, which is a nice aspect. It’s smoothy written for the most part, though nothing really stands out and there are some clunky sentences. The pacing is great: very tight, chapter breaks at just the right moments, not a lot of down time or unnecessary content. Every conversation seems packed with meaning, every scene full of clues. If you’re a thriller junkie I think this is probably a great read.

However, I found it really lacking substance. The characters were flat, and the mystery felt very thin (especially because many details were pulled from The Imposter and JonBenet’s case, making it feel overly familiar). The last quarter of the book saved this from being terrible: the reveals are great, and while not totally unexpected they did catch me by surprise.

Lipstick Rating 2 And 1 Half

 

 

 

 

Reading Challenge Goals

259/175 Books

27/28 Series Books

68/50 TBR Books

27/15 Different Countries

[Books marked with a * were provided by Netgalley in exchange for an honest review, all opinions are my own]