April 2016 Reading Wrapup: Part II

1 May

I know I said that April would be the month of no new books (aka only reading what I already own, both physical and digital copies). But I ended up getting a lot of ARCs in the middle of the month, which are obviously top priority. So I decided to devote some time to reading them, which goes against my initial goals. But hey, what can I say, I was distracted by shiny new things. I also (finally) did Dewey’s 24 Hour Readathon on Saturday, leading to a LOT more books read than what I would usually tackle. Like, way way more–I read 6 books in that one chunk of time. So let’s get started!

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The Last One, by Alexandra Oliva. Finished April 21st. Survivor x The Hunger Games x The Stand. I am a massive Survivor fan: I started watching it with my mom as a kid, and the passion continued ever since. In fact, I started this book right after finishing that week’s episode. I also love apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction, but to combine them with my favorite reality show? Yes please. The premise is a reality show based on surviving: a group of people is stuck in the middle of the wilderness have to tough it out (mostly) alone. The only way out is to quit (with a Latin phrase that means “I surrender to the dark”), but the contestants don’t know that. They are a mix of tropes you expect on a reality show and a few characters actually seem to be based on people who have played Survivor. Then we have our main character, Zoo (not her real name, which we only find out at the end), who fits none of the traditional stereotypes, and the editors love her for it.

Of course, things don’t go as planned. Only a few days into filming a superplague sweeps the world, killing off a huge percentage of the population. Our chapters from Zoo’s perspective take her through this experience thinking it’s part of the filming, a fake plague made up by production. This gives us some truly unsettling chapters of her walking among dead bodies thinking they’re all props, and getting brief views of what happened to the world that we know are true, but she doesn’t. The third-person chapters describe the three episodes that air and give us a really great insight into real-life versus on-screen edited personalities.

I think if you like any of the individual components (real-life reality shows, fictional deadly reality shows, apocalyptic fiction) you will probably enjoy this, but if you like any 2 or 3 of them you’ll love it. It’s both a love letter to and a critique of reality television, with some really wonderfully brutal scenes of the apocalypse sprinkled in.

Lipstick Rating5 Full

 

 

 

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I’m Thinking of Ending Things, by Iain Reid. Finished April 22nd. This is a thriller that reads like a straight horror novel. In fact, I’m kind of surprised it’s not classified as a horror. It’s hard to summarize the plot without giving too much away. Basically, a girl (whose name we don’t know) and her boyfriend Jake are on a roadtrip to meet his parents. It’s snowing. Things get weird. It’s impossible to talk about any of the elements without huge spoilers, because this is a book you should really experience for yourself.

I was surprised at how nervous I felt while reading this. There’s this impending sense of dread, an unease that seeps into even the most innocuous scenes. And literally everything is a clue! It’s kind of shocking, really, how much everything fits together and makes sense at the end. All these bizarre, impossible events that seem totally random come together like an intricate puzzle. And it’s a short book, just over 200 pages, which makes it especially impressive.

It’s also clever as hell, in ways I can’t get into without totally spoiling it. When I finished it I immediately turned to the first page to read it again, because it just ties together so well. And I’ll be honest, my first instinct was to instantly re-read it just to pick up on the dozens of clues I know I missed. I can see why there’s so much hype around this: everyone who reads it is definitely going to want to talk about it after.

Lipstick Rating 4 And 1 Half

 

 

 

 

 

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Vinegar Girl, by Anne Tyler. Finished April 23rd. I love The Taming of the Shrew and Ten Things Hate About You, so while I haven’t had a ton of success with Anne Tyler books (granted, I’ve only read one) I was excited to read this. It seems a perfect fit for her style, because at its core the play is about family and the everyday lives of people.

The setting here is not drastically changed: it’s in modern times, but you have all the core elements. A sharp-tongued girl who isn’t looking for love, a father who is pressing her into marriage, a potential husband trying to woo her. But here Kate is a preschool teacher’s assistant, her father is a nutty professor, and the love interest really needs a green card. It’s set up so we don’t get the “father is forcing her into marriage because she is a lonely unwed woman” which just doesn’t work in the modern world. It’s more “damn, I need to keep my assistant in the US and I have no idea how human emotions work, so let’s marry him to my daughter!” kind of situation.

I really enjoyed Kate, our Vinegar Girl. She had an acidic but loveable personality and it was really fun being in her head. Really, all the characters here were great: her father was so bumbling and sweet, her ditzy sister Bunny was a lot of fun, and the love interest Pyotr surprisingly endearing. While the main story is quite slow, this is the type of book you read for the characters.

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

 

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The Wolf In the Attic, by Paul Kearney. Finished April 23rd. I’m so glad that the hype made me pick this one up, because it is absolutely magical. It reminded me strongly of Among Others–not really in plot, but definitely in mood. Anna, our main character, is a little girl who just wants to escape into stories and fantasy but lives in a depressingly realistic world. Her mother died before she came over to Oxford, and her father has changed drastically since the tragedy. He’s quite cruel to her at times, so Anna is wrestling with these conflicting ideas of her past (happy family, community, culture) and present (sad family, poverty, being an outsider). It’s pretty heartbreaking.

But of course that’s not the main lure here. Anna’s life takes a fantastical turn while in Oxford. There are incidental meetings with C.S. Lewis and Tolkien, which of course add to the sense of the magical, but this is a straight-up fantasy book. I’m not going to discuss any of the actual fantasy elements because they kick in at about 50% and I don’t want to spoil this for anyone, but they’re absolutely wonderful. Unexpected but familiar feeling, this has that “The Magicians” vibe of “what would life be like if there really was magic?” It’s not all sunshine and butterflies–it’s dark woods and terror. There are both folklore and mythology elements here, along with tropes taken from traditional high fantasy, but they’re spun in a unique and clever way that feels familiar without being trite or boring.

I can see this appealing to a huge variety of people. Those who love historical fiction, high fantasy, fairy tale inspired works, magical realism, tragic turn-of-the-century tales… it’s got a little something for everyone.

Lipstick Rating 4 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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The Wolf Road, by Beth Lewis. Finished April 23rd. Imagine a version of The Shrike and Abigail from Hannibal in post-apocalyptic Canada. Sounds great, right? Though while this is technically post-apocalyptic fiction, the event that caused the end of the world (which everyone calls “the Big Stupid”) and its effects on earth are more of a backdrop than a driving force of the story. In fact, I’d classify this more as grit lit than post-apocalyptic, because it very much has a wild west feel. There’s even a gold rush!

From the very beginning we know that Elka, our main character, was raised by a serial killer (though she does not discover this until she sees his wanted poster in town). He kept her isolated with no human contact other than himself, though he treated her very well and taught her a host of survival skills. Hell, he even gave Elka her name–she can’t remember what she was called before she wound up at his cabin. So this is very much the story of Elka coming to terms with the fact that she lived with a monster, and what it even means to be a monster. Can there be true kindness hidden in the heart of a sociopath? Or was it all an act? And for what ends?

The most unusual element of The Wolf Road is the narrative style. It’s told in the first person by Elka, and her language is… unusual, to say the least. It does take a couple dozen pages to get used to but then it flows beautifully. It feels so natural an immersive, and really helps you get in Elka’s world and mindframe. While we don’t get many side characters, the few Elka meets are fantastic. The two friends the makes in particular are unique and wonderful. No one seems trope-y, which can be a big downfall in this genre. I did find certain events pretty unbelievable, and there are a LOT of coincidences, but with a little suspension of belief it fits together neatly. Especially since it takes the structure of a traditional hero’s journey, all the fantastical elements do play well together.

The best part though, by far, is the ending. I loved loved loved how everything comes together, all the little clues scattered throughout that would probably be clear as day on a re-read. This wasn’t an arc but a book I won in a Goodreads giveaway!

Lipstick Rating 4 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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Behind Closed Doors, by B.A. Paris. Finished April 23rd. I went into this expecting a typical modern thriller. You know the kind I’m talking about: main character is a woman, gets involved with something dark and murky, secrets are revealed, twists left and right, but at the end of the day it’s like consuming cotton candy: fun, but no substance.

But this book defied my expectations. This is more a horror novel than a thriller: sure, the bad guy is entirely human, but this book is terrifying. It does indeed have a main female protagonist who gets in over her head, but from the blurb I was expecting a typical “her husband is physically abusive”type plot. Without giving much away, Behind Closed Doors twists those expectations and gives us something so, so much worse. While you’re bracing yourself for the expected events, it goes off in a much darker direction that I definitely wasn’t expecting. It’s incredibly disturbing in a very subtle, understated way. The evil here is quiet and patient. It’s the kind of book that induced anxiety and you absolutely have to finish in one day: it’s a one-sitting read for sure.

The action here builds very, very slowly, tension ramping up until it’s pretty much unbearable by the end. There’s a bad thing you know is going to happen towards the end: you logically don’t want it to happen (obviously), but by the end it’s like “get it over with already, I’m dying!” You know a book has accomplished its goal when you basically want the bad thing to happen just so you don’t have to endure the tension of waiting for it. This is really what a psychological thriller should be. It doesn’t rely on cheap twists or shock factor, but on actual real-life terror.

I’d like to end with a brief tw about this book. It has a really fantastic mentally disabled character who is not at all trope-y, but if you’re particularly sensitive to disabled people in potentially bad situations I’d skip this one.

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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Not So Much, Said The Cat, by Michael Swanwick. Finished April 23rd. Let’s be real: I read this book because the word cat is in the name. It’s a chronic weakness of mine. Book is about cats? I’m gonna read it. Cat on the cover? Gonna read it. Cat in the title? You know the drill. But while this was a ridiculous impulse read (I barely skimmed the description before picking it up) I fell head-over-heels in love with this collection of stories.

It’s hard to describe the overall feel of this book, because so many different genres and moods are tackled. There’s surreal, futuristic fairy tales. Hard science fiction. More traditional fantasy. Horror. A lot of the inspiration is pulled from folklore or fairy tales, but none of these feel familiar. “The Dala Horse,” for example, has some classic Red Riding Hood traits (along with, I swear, Dora the Explorer–our girl has a talking backpack and map!) but it’s so utterly bizarre and indescribable. “Of Finest Scarlet Was Her Gown,” my favorite from the collection, is about a girl’s deal with the devil while in hell, but it’s like no hell I’ve seen in literature and the deal is so interesting and novel.

Of course not every story was for me (is there ever a collection where you like 100% of the inclusions?), like “Pushkin the American” or “Libertarian Russia.” Oddly enough, those are two of the more realistic, contemporary tales. I enjoyed the more quirky, bizarre stories like “Tawny Petticoats” (about a scam artist in a weird futuristic New Orleans), “The House of Dreams” (spies vs doctors with mind-reading powers), “The Man in Grey” (all of life’s a stage, literally), and “An Empty House” (the reason why we should never make sentient homes).

Lipstick Rating5 Full

 

 

 

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The Hatching, by Ezekiel Boone. Finished April 24th. I have an intense fear of spiders. Not a normal, run-of-the-mill, screech when you see one kind of fear. I once tried to escape a moving car because a spider crawled on my arm (thankfully my brain stopped working and all I managed to do was press myself up against the door like the seat was lava). Arachnophobia level fear of spiders. So looking back, perhaps reading a book about a spiderpocalypse was not my smartest decision.

I love horror as a genre. When it comes to movies, it’s hands-down my favorite, and I scare like a little kid. When it comes to books I still love them but I really don’t scare that easily, which is a shame because I love that feeling. But I figured I was bound to be terrified of this book even if it was terrible–but thankfully, it was amazing! The plot (carnivorous spider apocalypse) screams made for tv movie, but the actual writing and plot blew me away.

Most surprisingly, this novel is incredibly diverse. We have tons of main characters with alternating chapters–it gets a while to get used to, because for the first 25% there’s almost no overlap and we just get new character after new character. There’s a gay survivalist couple, a black female marine, characters from India and Korea, heck even the president is a woman! It doesn’t feel forced at all but gives lots of great perspectives while making a potentially cheesy theme feel very modern. And the characters themselves are great, very fleshed out and real feeling. You feel like you know them after only a chapter or two in their head, which is really saying something.

So I guess I have to talk about the spiders. Guys, this book is TERRIFYING. I felt incredibly itchy while reading it, and snuck constant furtive glances at the corners of my room in case a carnivorous spider decided to show up. This is not for the faint of heart: early in the book a spider crawls out of someone’s nose, and that’s one of the least gory spider-related moments. The spiders themselves are really cool: there’s a lot of science and I loved the slow reveal of their true nature. It felt authentic, not just “oh there are killer spiders for some reason, run away!”

I should mention that while the plot wraps up decently, this is definitely not a stand-alone. There will be a follow-up, meaning more killer spiders! Not all of the character threads have come together yet and we still don’t know all there is to discover about our lil killer spider babies, and I’m really looking forward to the sequel. Something I thought I’d never in a million years say about a spider-related book.

Lipstick Rating 4 And 1 Half

 

 

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Devour, by Kurt Anderson. Finished April 25th. After reading The Hatching, I was ready for some more monster mayhem. And I will freely admit that I read this because of the cover: how could I not? Killer crocodile eating a cruise ship, what more can you want from life. Well, it’s actually not a crocodile at all but a primordial apex predator, but potato potato. Big scary reptile thing eats people.

Interestingly enough, the beast is not the main plot element here. Sure, it’s the driving force behind most of the action (and we get chapters from its perspective, a really cool twist), but a lot of the plot revolves around an illicit card game on a cruise ship. We have a wide cast of characters who all come together very neatly: our main two sections are the cruise ship passengers and a man with a bleak past who runs a small fishing vessel. The characters are quite well done, with real-feeling motives and pasts.

There’s an element of mystery, but again, it’s about the events on the ship rather than what the monster is. We do have a prerequisite scientist character to give us some little tidbits about our big bad, but the science of the beast is definitely not the main focus. I was so curious about the mystery poker game and the various players involved in it, and how that could possibly tie into a big scary monster–but it does, with all the threads tying together neatly at the end.

My one complaint is how slow this book is to start: it feels like none of the action happens until about 30% of the way in, and there’s a lot of character-related setup before that. I would have appreciated some more gory monster attacks towards the beginning, but at the end of the day this is more a book about the darkness of humanity and people struggling to survive (against the odds, against their own nature, and of course against a big sea monster) than it is about the big bad in the ocean.

Lipstick Rating 3 And 1 Half

 

 

 

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The Many Selves of Katherine North, by Emma Geen. Finished April 27th. This is the kind of book that I love: slow, literary science fiction with a focus on animals. So many animals! We’ve got foxes, polar bears, tigers, seals, snakes, eagles, octopi, even spiders (it was hard, but I read the spider chapter. So proud of myself). The premise is that at some time in the future, humanity has discovered technology that allows people to leap consciousnesses and “live” in animals for extended periods of time. Our main character, Kit, is a phenomenaut who works in animal research.

The worldbuilding here is quite clever. We get bits and pieces of information about this future world, mostly through Kit’s animal interactions. While there are some info-dump sections about the technology and Kit’s job that seems part and parcel for this kind of novel, and it never felt jargon heavy or stopped the flow of the book.

My favorite aspect here was by far all of the descriptions of what it was like to inhabit these alien animal bodies. Emma Geen did a great job of making it seem very realistic: it’s not glamorized or idealistic, and it’s often quite scary. But we get moments of pure wonder (especially the eagle and tiger jumps) that made me want to be a phenomenaut so bad. The writing is really beautiful and fluid, and if anything I could have used more descriptive animal-life sections. Especially a housecat one. I wanted more kitty action.

While I loved almost everything about The Many Selves of Katherine North, I did get hung up on one aspect. There are two kind-of-mystery elements: the true purpose and devious intentions of the company Kit works for, and the strange presence that she thinks is following her during her jumps. One of these is resolved but the other is kind of left hanging. I found the last 15% really unsatisfying compared to the rest of the book. Honestly, up until then this was a 5-star read for me. I still enjoyed it, but all the loose threads and unresolved feelings kind of got to me.

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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Marrow Island, by Alexis M. Smith. Finished April 29th. When I first started this book it reminded me heavily of The Well (which, given my experience with that book, is not entirely a good thing). It involves an isolated community living off the land, and their leader is a religious woman who finds spirituality in shall we say… odd ways. It even has a similar structure: there are dual timelines, one during the events on Marrow Island and one two years later.

Thankfully, that’s where the similarities end. I was disappointed in The Well, but this was everything I wanted. The writing is gorgeous: I got completely lost in all the descriptions of the gardens on the island. And even though you know something bad happens (though the criminal activity is not revealed until the end), you want to live there. It just sounded so magical, that kind of “escape to nature” trend that seems so appealing among our cluttered modern life. And our main character, Lucie, was great. It features an unusual but strong female friendship as well, something I always want more of in books.

The dual timelines really worked for me here. The future one is just as surreal as the past one: it’s not just our main character Lucie musing about her past. The plot builds slowly. I wasn’t really drawn in by the first few chapters, but once Marrow Island sinks its teeth in I was totally hooked. It’s really the last two chapters that made this book so special. They are disturbing, hallucinatory, and totally unexpected. The final events really creep up on you and left me feeling very uneasy. This is a truly gothic tale, and one that I thoroughly enjoyed.

Lipstick Rating 4 Full

 

 

 

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Dark Matter, by Blake Crouch. Finished April 30th. I had a pretty rocky experience with Blake Crouch’s previous book, Pines, so I was hesitant to pick this one up. Pines was absolutely amazing for 90%, but the ending and twist was just… I was not happy. At all. But hey, Stephen King often has the “what the hell was that ending” problem and I love him, so I wanted to give Crouch another shot.

And I am SO glad I did. This book was wonderful. It’s hard to talk about the plot without spoilers, and as others have said it’s best to go into this knowing as little as possible. A man with a wife and children and a teaching job wakes up and suddenly has no wife, no child, and is the head scientist at a massive company. Things escalate from there.

This is not a book about big twists, though there are many twists and turns and pretty strange sequences of event. But, unlike Pines, there’s not big reveal to be let down by. The events build gradually, and while they get progressively stranger and stranger everything fits the plot and science elements that we know. And speaking of the science, the book hinges on a really interesting idea that’s executed very effectively.

There was really only one thing that knocked this from 5 to 4.5 stars, because it was overall a total blast that I thoroughly enjoyed. The perfect blend of science fiction, thriller, and action. But there’s one plot point that I feel is not entirely resolved, and I would have liked a couple extra pages about it.

Lipstick Rating 4 And 1 Half

 

 

 

Reading Challenge Progress

109/175 Books

14/33 Series Books

39/50 TBR Books

17/15 Different Countries

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