Reading Wrapup: April 2017 Part I

24 Apr

Once again I am late with a wrapup. Are you surprised? Because I’m not. And I plan on doing 3 this month (Dewey’s 24 Hour Readathon, which I will be doing a week early, really does deserve its own). I swear I really do try to keep up with it. Yet here we are, again! So let’s just dive into the first half of April. Which was an…. okay 2 weeks of reading? Could have been better, but I am still on track with my reading goals. Kind of.

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Judas, by Amoz Oz. MBI shortlisted. Finished April 1st. This was one of the few Man Booker International nominated books that I’d actually heard about before the longlist announcement. To be honest, I hadn’t planned on reading it, because the synopsis (student in Jerusalem becomes caretaker & companion of cranky old man) screamed “cozy and heartwarming to me” which is not really my genre.

Thankfully, Judas is nothing like what I imagined. Shmuel, or main character, is indeed an (ex) student who is having a bit of a quarter-life crisis. He can’t afford his schooling anymore, his friends have essentially abandoned him, and his girlfriend ran off with another man. Lost and adrift, he answers an ad that provides room & board in exchange for spending his evenings with Gershom, the cantankerous old man from the blurb. Atalia, a woman in her 40′s, is the only other occupant in the house… and really, the only other character. There are a few others who pop in and out, or who we see in flashbacks, but there are really only 3 pieces on this chess board.

This is a deeply emotional and philosophical book. Most of it is the internal dialogue of Shmuel’s struggle to find meaning in his life. As the name of the book implies, he was working on his thesis about Judas when he left university, so we get a lot of the history of Judas & Jesus’ relationship and views on him through the ages. While it’s a religious theme, I would not classify this as a religious book. It has theology as a central theme, yes, but it’s not about religious principles. It’ about history, and how time can shift and change our perceptions of things. The idea of Judas as both traitor and savior is played with a lot, and Shmuel finds a lot of parallels in his own life.

Of course there is not a whole lot of plot. If you want your books fast-paced, this is probably not for you. It’s slow and character-driven, and relies a lot on the reader being interested in both the characters and the historical aspects discussed. But I was so in love with all of these. It’s an endearing and intelligent novel, and one I am very happy to have read.

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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Wolves of the Calla, by Stephen King. Finished April 3rd. I had heard from a lot of people that the Dark Tower series starts going downhill after Wizard & Glass, so I was a bit hesitant when I picked this up. But I shouldn’t have been, because this is my second favorite so far (with The Waste Lands being #1 in my heart).

I feel like the books are all so different tonally, it’s really hard to say that one is objectively better than the others. The Gunslinger is a weird mix of Western and post-apocalyptic fiction, The Drawing of the Three adds in urban fantasy, The Waste Lands is more of an adventure-fantasy across a scifi landscape, Wizard & Glass is epic fantasy, The Wind Through the Keyhole is a fairytale, and Wolves of the Calla is like a Western movie (quite intentionally, because it has many parallels to The Magnificent Seven) with like robots and stuff. Wolves and Waste Lands are probably the most similar both in tone and in the fact that they both have all 4 (5? does Oy count? HE DOES) main characters in action together, so it makes sense that I love them so much. Hopefully the final 2 books follow in these footsteps!

Lipstick Rating 4 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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First Love, by Gwendoline Riley. Bailey’s shortlisted. Finished April 4th. Is this the most contentious book on the Bailey’s list? I would say yes, especially after it got shortlisted over what people think are more deserving titles. And yes, I’m heartbroken that The Lonely Hearts Hotel didn’t make it on, but it’s the winner in my heart. *sob*

First Love is definitely a strange little book. It’s about Neve, a woman trapped in an abusive relationship with her much older husband. We jump around in time a lot, starting with present-day Neve and moving back and forth through her past. It is, essentially, the story of how she got to her current situation. It focuses a lot on her relationship with her eccentric and overbearing mother, along with how she met Edwyn (her husband).

The prose is sparse and, at times, very strange. It’s not overly descriptive but it’s not exactly straightforward either. About halfway through the book you get the feeling that Neve is not… entirely honest with the reader. There are a few times where she recounts an event, and when another character contradicts her she will say “well actually, maybe it didn’t happen like that…” It’s a classic unreliable narrator, though I don’t think Riley pushed it far enough. I was never really certain why Neve was unreliable. What did it add to the plot, other than some character depth? Because there are no big twists, no moments when you realize Neve has a “big lie” or anything like that. She’s just a bit deceptive.

I did enjoy this book, and I thought the scenes of Neve’s emotional and verbal abuse were particularly well done. You really hurt for her, and feel that panic rising up when Edwyn starts going after her. But it’s one of those books where I was left wondering, “why did the author write this? What is the point of this novel? What was it trying to convey?”

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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The Traitor’s Niche, by Ismail Kadare. MBI longlisted. Finished April 6th. This is probably the Man Booker International novel I was most excited about when the longlist was announced. Surreal historical fiction about the Ottoman empire, and a niche where they literally display the severed heads of traitors? Sign me the hell up!

This is, indeed, a very strange book. It’s historical-fiction-meets-magical-realism, and Kadare pulls it off beautifully. It starts out normally–or as normally as a book about severed heads can be, I guess. We follow the caretaker of the heads, who has to make sure that they remain in good condition while on display and also keeps people from defacing the niche. It’s weird, but still kind of grounded in reality. As we skip from character to character it grows increasingly strange.

We then move to Albania, where the Empire is attempting to quell an uprising. Here we learn about the Empire’s method of culture suppression, which is a series of tasks that aim to completely eradicate the base culture of a conquered nation. This is, of course, a metaphor for things that happen in real life, but it’s also where the magical realism really kicks in. Because they do mean literally destroying a culture: they have ways to eradicate a language, a society, a series of rituals, etc. It gets very strange and dark, but it’s told to us in such a matter-of-fact way. In fact, the whole book has a “so these are the facts” kind of tone. It does create a layer of separation, but I think that was entirely intentional. It’s still a choice I have a bit of trouble with, and it’s why this wasn’t rated higher.

This is such a densely layered book that I think it would benefit greatly from a re-read. It does a lot of interesting things that it’s hard to appreciate on a first read-through. For example, we flit between quite a few characters, but rarely get the resolution to plotlines in the section that they’re brought up in. We start with the man who guards the heads, and the conclusion to his plotline is mentioned in brief passing in the last chapter. If you’re not careful, you can miss some very important elements as they’re mentioned in only a sentence or two.

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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The Ballad of Black Tom, by Victor LaValle. Hugo Novella Nominee. Finished April 7th. What I need in my life is another prize list, right? Well,I had been planning on reading the Hugo novel nominees but all of them but one are sequels of some sort, some of them the 3rd or 4th book in a series. I’m just not down for that much commitment, guys. What if I hate the first book and never even get to the nominated one? I quickly decided to read the list of nominated novellas instead, because 1) there were only 6 of them 2) I had already read (and loved) 2 and 3) 2 others were on my TBR, leaving only 2 “strays” that I wouldn’t have picked up otherwise. This one was already on my TBR, because I adore Victor LaValle.

I also adore Lovecraft, aside from you know the intense racism and xenophobia. The Ballad of Black Tom is based on what is probably Lovecraft’s most egregiously racist story, The Horror at Red Hook. Which I actually re-read before tackling this, even though I had planned on skipping it as I re-read all of Lovecraft’s work (an in-progress project I hope to finish by the end of the year). I really, really recommend doing this if you read Black Tom, because it adds a lovely layer of context. This is, after all, a response piece: it’s Red Hook told from the perspective of the “bad guy.”

Some (okay, let’s be honest, many) Lovecraftian retellings fail to capture the spirit of the original work. There’s no sense of wonder and horror, no sense that the bad guys are definitely going to win and hope is pointless, no sense of cosmic dread. But, as I expected from LaValle, all of that is perfectly captured here. It’s eerie, unsettling, and tense. And not just because of the cults: our main character is a black man in 1930′s New York, so there’s that racism/cosmic horror mashup going on. I enjoyed that in Lovecraft Country, but I think it’s better executed here. If you can believe it, Black Tom actually pushes the Lovecraftian elements further than the original piece, while adding in a nice dose of real-world horror.

Lipstick Rating5 Full

 

 

 

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The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, by Kij Johnson. Hugo Novella Nominee. Finished April 8th. Like Black Tom, this is a retelling (or sequel?) to a Lovecraft story. This tackles, as you may guess from the name, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. And like Black Tom, it is also about some of the implicit biases in Lovecraft’s works. This time, it’s tackling the complete lack of female characters in his works.

Vellitt Boe is a former adventurer who now works as a professor in a women’s college. One day her star pupil goes missing, carried off to a dream world by a mysterious stranger. The twist here is that Vellitt lives in the dream world of Lovecraft’s imagining, and the world her student goes to is the waking one. For various reasons which I won’t get in to, Vellitt has to go after her student and resume her old, adventurous life. All of the Dream-Quest elements you’d expect are here: ghouls and ghasts and nightgaunts and, of course, cats!! So many cats. Still no answer on what the hell is up with the evil cats from Saturn though, sigh.

I really enjoyed this, but I do think reading Black Tom and Vellitt Boe back to back was a bit of a mistake because they suffer a bit in comparison. I just loved Black Tom so much and this novella didn’t have quite the emotional impact. And I read the original Dream-Quest before this as a refresher, and they are VERY similar since, well, they traverse the same terrain (literally). It does deal with elements of sexism and feminism, but I wanted a bit more of that than what we ended up with. By far the most interesting part (to me) was the whole waking world versus dream world, and I think the ending handled that so beautifully and in a really unexpected way that mirrored Kadath‘s end perfectly. What makes a home a home? How do you deal with wanderlust? Is it worth traveling when you don’t even know what it is you seek? I wish this had been explored a tiny bit more, but overall a very solid novella that I loved.

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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Assassin’s Fate, by Robin Hobb*.  Finished April 14th. Will my heart ever recover from this book? Probably not, let’s be honest.

Since this is the 16th book in a series (17th, if you count The Inheritance), there is almost nothing I can say about the plot without spoilers. Heck, I can’t even discuss what characters are and aren’t alive at this point! Though I will say this: if you have been reading just the Fitz books and skipped the middle series (Liveship Traders and Rain Wilds), you need to go back and read them before tackling this! All of the threads from Hobb’s narratives come together at last, and we get characters from every trilogy here. Sure, you could read it on its own, but you would lose all the emotional impact of the story.

Since I can’t talk specifics, I’ll just discuss what I love about the series in general. The world is, of course, amazing. It’s a nuanced, subtle fantasy word. While there are many kinds of magic (and dragons!) it is never over the top and we don’t get wizard battles or any of that. The magic is completely woven into the story. The world itself feels deep and full of history. Even after 17 books, I don’t feel like I fully know all the nooks and crannies, and much of its backstory is still a secret to the reader. Hey Hobb, if you want to write a history of this world textbook-style, I would gladly read it!

But of course, the characters are where Realm of the Elderlings really shines. I have never encountered a fantasy with such deep, nuanced characters before. Everyone feels completely fleshed out and real. In fact, I think that’s why the Rain Wilds isn’t quite as popular: still good characters, but they aren’t quite as deep as what you’d expect from Hobb. And I have to say, I realized in this book that it’s not just the characters themselves that make these books strong, it’s their relationships to each other. Each connected character has a complex relationship. It’s never black and white: we never have just friends or just foes, there are no simple father/son bonds, no trite love stories. Literally every single character interaction is fraught with history and depth. Fitz and the Fool are obviously the main stars here and I can’t even begin to describe the layers of their relationship!

If you like character-driven fantasy, interesting Medieval settings, complex worlds and magic, and (of course) dragons, I really recommend going and starting with the very first book in this series, Assassin’s Apprentice. And prepare for a journey of extreme emotion, I’ve cried more times than I’d like to admit reading these.

Lipstick Rating5 Full

 

 

 

So, that was the first half of April! 5 award books, 2 series books. The award lists have kind of taken over my reading life and I’ve fallen a bit behind on the number of TBR books I’d like to tackle this year, but that’s okay! I’m trying to be a bit looser with specific goals this year. As long as a book falls into one of the very generous categories I’ve constructed (on my TBR, on my Kindle, physically owned but not read, a series book, a Read Harder challenge book, or a prize book) it’s a “good” decision. And only 4 haven’t met that criteria so far, so I will focus on the positive!

Reading Challenge Goals

Books Read: 56/200

Goal Books: 52

Impulse Reads: 4

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

Reading Wrapup: March 2017 Part II

20 Apr

March started out as an excellent book month for me, and definitely finished off strong. Almost half of my year’s reading so far was this month, to put it in perspective. Crazy, right? I’m glad my insane slumpy-ness of January and February is behind me. It is thanks to, as I’ve mentioned already, a few prize longlists. I started out the second half of March with the Bailey’s and Man Booker International. But after a few books I really needed a break: I can’t read nothing but literary fiction or I get really burnt out. So I took a break to read some ARCs and a few fluffy thrillers, along with continuing my Dark Tower readthrough. I no longer absolutely need the prize lists to motivate my reading, which is a great feeling!

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Behind Her Eyes, Sarah Pinborough. Finished March 16th. After reading a good chunk of the Bailey’s longlist in March, I needed a quick break before diving into the Man Booker. And there’s nothing that screams “brain candy” to me more than a fast-paced thriller. It’s fluffy, it’s light, it’s enjoyable… but it probably won’t stay with you for long. However, I do think Behind Her Eyes is a lot more successful than the “domestic thrillers” we’ve been getting recently.

Behind Her Eyes features two female protagonists: Louise, who kisses her boss David in a bar and Adele, David’s wife. Louise struggles to balance a friendship with Adele and a professional/maybe-more relationship with David while keeping them both a secret from each other. But this is a thriller, so obviously we’ve got secrets and intrigue and potential crime and all sorts of mischief. The best part of this book is by far the ending: it’s truly shocking, and indeed a twist you “won’t see coming.” I am pretty good at guessing twists early on but BHE makes this nearly impossible.

While the first 90% of this is a pretty cut-and-paste thriller, the characters are much stronger than what we usually get. Louise in particular is great: she is a good person who makes bad decisions, like most of us are. Usually we get “pure of heart heroine” and “villainous to the core bad girl” but everyone here is complex and deep. If you’re looking for a good, fast read that won’t make you think too hard and doesn’t have an incredibly obvious twist or paper cutout characters, this might just be the book for you.

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

 

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A Horse Walks Into A Bar, David Grossman. Finished March 17th. MBI longlisted. I am ashamed to say that this is my first Grossman book. I actually do own one more (Lion’s Honey) but I obviously haven’t read it. I know this is much different than his previous works, so perhaps it’s not the best place to start because I absolutely adored it but now I know his other books are not nearly as strange or irreverent.

A Horse Walks Into A Bar is a slim volume that takes place over a mere 2 hours. As the joke-themed name implies, the entire books is a comedy routine. Dovaleh is an aging comedian who performs a very special night of stand-up for his audience (which includes us, the readers). However, this is not a funny book or a comedy in any way…. except for perhaps a comedy of errors.

Dovaleh’s “act” is very personal. He talks a lot about his own history growing up in Israel, and it turns out that several of his childhood acquaintances are in the audience. What part do they have to play in Dov’s story, and what is his goal in telling it to us? Those are the driving questions of the book, but it’s about the journey and not the destination. The final “reveal” is heartbreaking but not at all unexpected.

Dov’s narrative is very stream-of-consciousness. He switches from sweet personal anecdotes to vulgar jokes to insulting the audience directly. It’s certainly a crass book, and you can feel the rawness seeping off of Dov. The trick in the narrative is that you want the end of the book to come as much as you want it to never be over. There is so much stress and tension in the narrative that, like the worn-down audience, you want Dov to just be done and tell his story. But you also know that it is going to be tragic and there was a part of me that absolutely did not want that peek into his past. It’s amazing because Dov’s narrative is so rough but it’s an incredibly polished story despite (or because?) of this. It really reads like you are watching some fancy sleight of hand trick: Grossman keeps his cards hidden until the very last page, and you never really figure out how he pulled it off.

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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Stay With Me, Ayobami Adebayo. Finished March 17th. Bailey’s shortlisted. This is a book I fully expected to hate. When I saw it on the Bailey’s longlist, I had no intention to even pick it up (I had the same feelings about The Woman Next Door, but that hasn’t changed at all). But I saw so many people I respect saying they were excited to pick it up, that it was the first book on the longlist they were going to read, etc. And here we are now, with me having read this book… and not hating it!

I was expecting this to be a standard family drama about a husband & wife who can’t get pregnant. It definitely starts out that way, but it’s more about interpersonal relationships and family. In Nigeria, which is a society I don’t know a ton about. Honestly, if this book was set in the US/Britain/any other country I read about frequently, I don’t know if I would have finished it. I absolutely adore learning about other cultures, whether it’s in nonfiction or fiction format (thus why I studied cultural anthropology in college, haha).

For example, very early on (so this is not a spoiler, it’s like page 30) Yejide’s husband Akin takes a second wife. Definitely not the direction I thought the story was going! While infertility sets the story in motion, it never feels like a tedious or overdone plot point. There’s a lot going on here, but not too much: I felt like it was perfect in terms of both length and story tightness.

While it’s a rather tragic story and hard to call an “enjoyable read” I did have a good time reading it. Though I did not feel particularly connected to the main characters oddly enough: Yejide and Akin are sympathetic at first, but the events are a bit over the top and their reactions a bit too extreme for them to ever feel like people I really knew. But I did really enjoy the ride, even if I found the ending events to be ridiculously unrealistic… almost laughably so. Actually, a lot of the things that happen in this book don’t really make sense. It’s honestly kind of like a thriller in that way, and if you can accept the bizarre logic of Stay With Me it’s a great read.

Lipstick Rating 3 Full

 

 

 

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War and Turpentine, Stefan Hertmans. Finished March 19th. MBI longlisted. This book suffers from what I now think of as ‘Gustav Sonata syndrome.’ It is split into three parts, and while the first really worked for me… it was the only section that really worked for me. Which is unfortunate, because like The Gustav Sonata I was enthralled by that first section.

War and Turpentine is a weird fact/fiction mashup. It’s unclear how much of this is true: our main character (who for all intents and purposes is the author) was given his grandfather’s memoirs after he died, and took 30 years to finally read them. It’s marketed both as a memoir and fiction, so what is real? It was a nagging question at the back of my mind, but I think the lesson here is that we all see reality in a different way. What version of a story is the real version, and does it matter? For example: Hertmans’ great grandfather spent months in England painting a mural. No one in his family was ever able to find the mural, or even proof that he had worked somewhere painting it. Except for one time, when his grandfather stumbled upon it and found himself painted as one of the characters. Yet he was never able to find it again. It sounds like the kind of dreamy story you would find in a novel, yet it is based on fact-right?

The first section interweaves his grandfather’s early life in poverty and Hertmans’ own memories of childhood. The two are superimposed, and we even get scenes with Hertmans’ son that link the generations together. I thought this part was beautifully done. It spins back from past to present effortlessly, and there is such a sense of deep history. It’s clear that the life you live will have a lasting impact on your children, and your children’s children, no matter how you try to keep it from them.

But after that, things fell apart. The second section is just from the memoir, with no narration from Hertmans. And it’s about WWI. Let me tell you, I hate war books (with a few notable exceptions like All Quiet On The Western Front). I find books that take place during European or (early) American wars so dull and lifeless. It’s just not a genre that interests me, and I avoid war fiction at all costs. And this is like 100 pages of life in the trenches. The funny thing is, the best parts of the story were already relayed to us in the first section, so it wasn’t just reading a war story: it was reading a war story when we already knew the key pieces.

The third goes back to the structure of the first, but focuses on his grandfather’s after-war life and his relationship with his wife. For some reason, the magic was kind of lost on me here. I didn’t find it as compelling as the childhood sections, and I didn’t care very much about the love story. It was sad and moving, yes, but the middle section had really put a damper on how invested I was. This was a book with a lot of potential, and while I did overall enjoy it, it’s sad to see a book that started out as 5 stars fall down so hard.

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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The Mare, Mary Gaitskill. Finished March 20th. Bailey’s longlisted. This is a book that I read purely because it was on the Bailey’s longlist, and it’s also one of the easiest for me to get. Still hunting through my libraries and bookstores for copies of Midwinter and The Dark Circle, sigh. But The Mare is not a book I would ever pick up on my own: it’s about 11-year-old Velvet, a Dominican girl from NYC who is signed up for the Fresh Air program. Basically, she spends 2 weeks during the summer with a wealthy couple as a sort of exchange program. The couple who Velvet stays with, Ginger and Paul, are unable to have children and are also both recovered alcoholics.

Sounds kind of trite and sappy, no? Well, it’s certainly a book that tugs on your heartstrings. The bond between Velvet and Ginger is so real and raw that I definitely got emotional about it quite a few times, especially in the first half of the novel. Ginger’s longing for her own child becomes a longing for Velvet, and it gets all mixed up with her addictive tendencies. Velvet comes from a horrible background and doesn’t know how to deal with so much extra attention without upsetting her unstable and abusive mother. It’s a recipe for tragedy.

While family, race, addiction, loyalty, and love are all major themes here the horses really take center stage. I’ve never been a horse person but Gaitskill’s simple yet effective writing made me want to bound on over to a stable and start learning to ride. Velvet forms a connection with horses in general but one abused horse in particular, and their stories really mirror each other. Velvet feels like she’s found a kindred spirit and I think the titular mare is really the first thing she ever truly connects with.

But I only gave this three stars (maybe 3.5 if I’m feeling generous), so something obviously goes a little wrong. I though that The Mare gets a little repetitive after the halfway mark: Velvet gets in trouble at school, Ginger tries to help, Ginger makes it worse, Velvet gets mad and pushes away, Velvet comes back up to see the horses, Velvet & Ginger reconnect, rinse and repeat. It happens 4 or 5 times in that exact pattern. I wish there was more of how Paul & Ginger played out their addictive behavior in the present day (they both have side plots focused on this, but I wish there was more detail & depth). It’s both too long (too much repetitive Velvet content) and too short (there were several side plots I felt like never got fully off the ground).

It also had an ending that left me incredibly unsatisfied. At almost 450 pages, this is a decent length novel and you get invested in the situation and how it’s going to play out. It builds up to…. nothing much, and the end kind of fizzles out. There’s no conclusion, no resolution. Perhaps that was intentional because life doesn’t have a resolution, but I didn’t want a happy ending. I just wanted an ending.

I think the writing style will also be divisive, because it is quite simplistic at times. There’s no flowery language, even in the lengthy description of the horses. Sentences are short & sweet. Usually I favor the more dense writing, but I feel like it fit the story perfectly here.

Lipstick Rating 3 Full

 

 

 

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The Wind Through the Keyhole, Stephen King. Finished March 21st. While this is the last Dark Tower book that King wrote, I’m reading them in chronological order instead of publication. After all, this is meant to fill in some gaps between Wizard & Glass and Wolves of the Calla, so why not read it as it is intended? And I am very glad I did so, because this does add a lot of worldbuilding and backstory even if it doesn’t drive the plot forward.

Like Wizard & Glass, this is mostly a flashback. Or rather it’s a story told in a flashback: we get another small snippet of Roland’s past, but the bulk of the novel is a folktale that Roland tells a character within his own memory. And, of course, it’s bookended by chapters with Eddie/Susannah/Jake/Oy. While I am not at all sure how the folktale section will link into the greater narrative, it did a really amazing job of fleshing out the world of the Dark Tower. Not as tightly knit as the rest of the books in the series so far, but a worthy read.

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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The Fire Child, S.K. Tremayne*. Finished March 23rd. I feel like every book with even a hint of mystery is marketed as a thriller nowadays. Let’s be clear: this is not a thriller. It’s a gothic mystery that is very much in the vein of Rebecca. In fact, there are many (intentional) parallels between the two. In The Fire Child, the young and naive Rachel marries the much older and widowed David who owns a huge estate (shades of Manderley, if it was desolate and creepy). His previous wife, Nina, died on the property and her specter haunts the halls (metaphorically and, perhaps, literally?).

Sounds like Rebecca, no? But after the setup, the plots diverge strongly. The main source of anxiety for Rachel is not Nina, but David’s child Jamie. Jamie seems to be the golden stepson until Rachel moves in, and then he starts acting very strange. Predicting the future, talking to his dead mother, claiming to see ghosts. This book veers into horror very early on.

There is also a very heavy element of the unreliable narrator. We get chapters from both David and Rachel, and neither of them is totally open with the reader. They both have secrets, and their versions of events don’t exactly add up. I think this element is quite overplayed in modern fiction, but it was executed so well here. The reader is constantly guessing what was real and who they could trust, and it managed to be quite a twisty read without a ton of big overplayed ~twists~.

Like in Tremayne’s previous book The Ice Twins, atmosphere is king here. Carnhallow, the manor, is so eerie and desolate. You also learn quite a bit about the history of mining on Cornwall, something I knew nothing about. Picturing those miners in the pitch black, slowly dying as they worked in the tunnels under this luxurious mansion? Yeah, it’s incredibly unsettling. Add in a creepy child and a possibly unstable narrator, and it’s a recipe for classic gothic horror with a few twists from the modern mystery genre.

I’ve only been mentioning positives, so why 3 stars? The ending, guys. It’s just… a pile of disappointment. The final reveal actually fit the narrative quite well, but all the events after it? It’s very melodramatic and I found myself rolling my eyes at how the David-Rachel tensions played out. It was enough to knock a full point off of what was otherwise a 4-star book (and I think a great ending would have seriously made this a 4.5 for me). However, I enjoyed the first 95% of this (and the Ice Twin) so much that I will definitely read whatever Tremayne comes out with next. I do wonder if it will continue the elemental theme–maybe The Sky Sisters or The Lightning Orphan?

Lipstick Rating 3 Full

 

 

 

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Ill Will, Dan Chaon*. Finished March 24th. I think having the label ‘thriller’ slapped on this novel does it kind of a disservice. This is a character-driven, literary mystery. I suppose it has some trendy thriller elements, like a dual narrative and past/present mysteries, but this is far more experimental and interesting than any thriller I’ve ever read.

The story revolves around Dustin, whose parents were killed decades ago in a murderous rampage that his foster brother Rusty went to jail for. In the present day, Rusty is let out on DNA evidence, and Dustin reacts to this by spiraling into an obsession with a (potential) serial killer in his area. Dustin is a therapist, and this obsession comes from one of his clients. We get narratives from the past and present crimes, and both fit their era so well. Rusty’s “did he/didn’t he” crime is fueled by Satanic Panic, and the present “serial killer” is based on am internet conspiracy. Reminded me heavily of the Smiley Face Killer, right down to the method of murder.

We bounce back and forth between a number of narrators and time periods, but Dustin is at the center of it all. The narration even mimics his unusual verbal tics: he has a habit of just dropping a conversation mid-sentence and moving on to the next idea in his head, which happens frequently mid-paragraph in the book. At first I thought there was actually an error with my copy of the novel because it was so jarring, but it’s quickly apparent that it’s an intentional choice that both puts the reader in Dustin’s headspace but also really keeps you on your toes. There are dozens of little stylistic choices in the writing that make this book sparkle and shine.

While the two mysteries are interesting this book is about people, not crime. Dustin’s relationship with his family, past and present, is really the main plot. Truth, memory, and identity sit at the core of this, and those are themes I am always eager to read about. And Ill Will explores them beautifully. If you want a fast-paced thriller with constant twists and turns, this is probably not the book for you. The narrative is challenging, and things do not come together neatly. It’s more grounded in reality, yet at times incredibly surreal and strange. Ill Will took me on an emotional journey, and the second I finished it I wanted to pick up everything Chaon has ever written.

Lipstick Rating 4 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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The Goddesses, by Swan Huntley*. Finished March 26th. I feel like recently I have read a lot of sophomore books from authors where I enjoyed their debut work a lot. But, for various reasons, the second work of theirs never seems to quite live up. Universal Harvester, Swimming Lessons, The Fire Child… all books I just didn’t love quite as much as the author’s first. And, sadly, The Goddesses falls into that category. I really enjoyed Huntley’s first book, We Could Be Beautiful: it was kind of amazingly fun given the themes and content. I was hoping for more of the same here. I do wonder if it’s because authors have a lot of time to perfect and hone their first work while shopping it around, but there’s such a push to get out a second novel in 1-2 years that the sophomore work is much more rushed.

Anyway, onto the actual book in question! Nancy, our protagonist, could not be any more different from WCBB‘s Catherine. Nancy is an overweight, overworked mother of twin boys. Her husband has an affair, and they decide to move to Hawaii for a ‘fresh start.’ While there, Nancy becomes friends with her eccentric yoga teacher Ana and things kind of spiral out of control.

I do love stories about destructive female friendships, and that aspect of the book was great. Nancy and Ana have an instant connection, but the reader can tell that something is not quite right from the very beginning. Nancy is alone and vulnerable, and Ana clearly has more to her than meets the eye. Nancy’s increasingly bad decisions do make sense because Huntley takes the time to make us really know her: like in WCBB, the first-person narration is wonderfully done. Nancy is a complex, deep character. By the end of the book you really feel that you know and sympathize with her, even if she isn’t the best person in the world. Then again, who is?

My main problem here is similar to the one I had with WCBB. There’s a lot of heavy-handed foreshadowing that shit is eventually going to go down with Ana, and I felt like the character-driven parts of the book were much better than the ~what’s going to happen~ mystery elements. It went a little off the rails at the end: this is a domestic drama, and the action gets much bigger than what I expected at the climax. It almost didn’t fit the tone of the book, and I was quite disappointed at how quickly and neatly things are resolved. There’s basically this slow but huge buildup to a big event, and when it finally happens there’s like 30 pages where we get a neat wrapped-in-a-bow ending. That doesn’t mean that it has a good ending in terms of how things wrap up for the characters, but it felt very neat and this is a messy book. Messy in a good way: we’re in the middle of the mess Nancy has made of her life, and the clean conclusion was such a tonal shift.

Though the setting (Hawaii vs NYC) and main characters (image-obsessed single woman vs dowdy middle class mom) couldn’t be more different, this is indeed very similar to WCBB in a lot of ways. There’s snarky humor, a lot of character-driven drama, great first person narration, a backburner mystery, flawed characters, and a focus on the mundane details of life. If you like one, you will probably like the other, but this just isn’t as strong as Huntley’s first novel. I wasn’t as compelled by Nancy’s story, and I think the ending needed quite a bit of editing before this went to press.

Lipstick Rating 3 Full

 

 

 

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The Explosion Chronicles, Yan Lianke. Finished March 28th. This is a very difficult book to review. I think it did exactly what it set out to: this is a satire of modern China with heavy magical realism elements that add to the farcical and absurd nature of the society portrayed. I am particularly grateful for both the translator’s and author’s notes, which add a ton of really important context both culturally and linguistically. It would have been a very different experience going into this blind.

It will come as a surprise to no one that the magical realism (or mythorealism as they’re called here) elements were my favorite aspect of the novel. Much of them are nature based, with plants and animals reacting to the emotions/actions of the characters. If someone cries, flowers might bloom as their tears fall, or the grass beneath them might wilt away. It’s interesting to have the environment quite literally reflect the plot. But mythorealism is used in a lot of ways: there are moments of absolute hilarity (like when the entire city is transformed into Vietnam during the war to make the visiting American soldier comfortable), but others are beautiful and moving (for example, when the city is covered in literal shards of moonlight).

The story focuses on four brothers in the city of Explosion, who each have a part in raising the city from a provincial town to a megalopolis. The ideas of family values, tradition, and ethics breaking down in the face of rampant capitalist corruption take center stage: none of the brothers seem able to resist the allures of money, except for the youngest (who, surprisingly, also seems least important to the plot). The city’s rise to fame starts with stealing from passing trains, and it’s pretty much downhill from there. As the city’s star rises, the townspeople seem to forget everything that they used to value. It could be a heavy-handed message, but the satirical tone and constant bizarre magical elements keep it from seeming that way.

My main problem was with the tone. It’s very stiff and formal, and the reader is deliberately kept at arm’s length. And the characters are exceptionally one-sided. I think both of these choices are conscious decisions, but they did not make for the most enjoyable read. Usually the language is lush in a book with so much mythorealism, but here it seems almost… stilted. I do not think it is bad writing, but it’s simply not my preference. I do appreciate what Lianke accomplished here, even if not every element was to my taste.

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

I realize now that almost all the books I read in the second half of March were in the 3-3.5 star range. Usually that is a recipe for disaster: when I read a lot of “just okay” books in a row, I often tend to get in a slump. But even if I didn’t love all these books, I found (most of them) intellectually stimulation. They are books that I will be thinking about for a while.

Reading Challenge Goals

Books Read: 49/200

Goal Books: 45

Impulse Reads: 4

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

Top 5 Wednesday: Future Classics

29 Mar

You may have noticed that recently I have tried to expand my posting from just reviews & wrapups. Or rather, “I used to do more types of posts but stopped for a long time and now I’m back on the horse.” For some reason, I’ve just been a lot more excited to blog recently, and my reading thoughts go far beyond wrapups. I’ve always liked the Top 5 Wednesday videos & posts, so I thought that was as good a place as any to start!

Especially because I found this week’s topic particularly interesting. How do you know what books will retain their fame and acclaim down the line? Is it the ones with the most awards, the most-read books, or is there some other nebulous quality that makes something a classic? I tried to balance my list with books that I think will be classics and also books that I love. For example, I’m absolutely sure American Gods will be regarded down the line as a classic, but I found it almost unbearably boring so there’s no way it is going on my list. Unsurprisingly, this also serves as a ‘favorite authors’ list of sorts.

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5. The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro. My favorite Ishiguro novel, The Unconsoled, has about zero chance of becoming a classic. My second favorite, The Buried Giant, also seems to be pretty hated (for reasons I do not fully understand). So I’m just going to play it safe and go with the hauntingly beautiful The Remains of the Day. Is this cheating because it’s a ~modern classic~? Sometimes I am a bit fuzzy on the distinction between the two. I feel like 27 years is not old enough to be a “classic.” Classic implies an enduring work of fiction that is important many decades after it is published. And while I certainly think Remains will reach that status, it hasn’t yet.

(PS, can we all take a moment to appreciate the fact that the cover for The Remains of the Day states ‘by the author of The Remains of the Day‘ at the bottom? Thanks, I never would have guessed)

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4. Perdido Street Station, China Mieville. Mieville is my favorite author, so of course I had to include him on here! The Scar is my favorite of his books (and indeed, my all-time favorite novel) but I think it is Perdido Street Station that will be a classic. Yes, a “genre” classic (which sadly has a less prestigious connotation) but it’s no secret that this book revolutionized fantasy as a genre. New Weird really took off with PSS, and it’s clear to see Mieville’s massive influence on fantasy as a whole. I greatly prefer this weird, gritty, dirty, phantasmagorical take on the genre to traditional sword & sorcery & dragons, so this is a book with a lot of meaning for me. It’s also probably the best place to start with his work!

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3. Haruki Murakami and David Mitchell. This seems like kind of a vague answer, right? “Something from each of these two authors with similar styles!” But let’s be real, we know that each of them has already produced several classics (and who knows how many more they will write?) and I feel ill-equipped to pick which of their works will be the most remembered. I mean, Cloud Atlas and The Wind Up Bird Chronicle seem like safe choices, but who knows what will happen down the road? Maybe it will be Thousand Autumns and Norwegian Wood that future students will read in class. Or maybe the books of theirs that people will hold up as the best haven’t been written yet!

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2. House of Leaves, Mark Z. Danielewski. Another book that is considered a ‘modern classic,’ though this one is certainly more controversial among readers. Then again, controversy is part of what makes a book endure. Lolita is a beautiful book, perhaps the most beautiful book ever written, but we all know that part of the reason it is so famous is because of how absurdly controversial the subject matter is. Everyone wants to read that weird book about a pedophile. And everyone wants to read that weird book about a house.

Not that HoL can be reduced to any simple plot summary: it’s a book in a book about a documentary that doesn’t exist. Bizarre, experimental, and incredibly scary, HoL is basically the holy grail of weird postmodern fiction. When a book leaves this much of a mark on the literary community, there’s no way it won’t be remembered down the line.

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1. A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara. At only two years old, this is the newest book on my list, but also one of the ones I am most confident about. There was quite the stir in the literary community when A Little Life came out, and opinions range from “this is the best book released in a decade” to “this is exploitative torture porn trash.” It’s a love it or hate it book for sure. I tend to like dark books, the more depressing the better: I enjoy nothing more than a book that really makes me sob. Do you know how many times I cried during ALL? A lot. I stopped keeping track, actually. And at one point (the same point as everyone else, I’m pretty sure) I actually had to put this down and walk away because it was just too much.

I think a book that merits this much discussion definitely has a place in the literary cannon. Love it or hate it, it’s impossible to deny how explosively popular A Little Life got. And given its massive page count and dark subject matter, that’s pretty impressive.

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.

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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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