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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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]